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Counting Down

Life is all about picking yourself up over and over again.

—Lindsey Stirling

The entire BrainTrust, it seemed, turned out 24/7 for the task of getting the Heinlein ready for launch. The students on the BTU turned out full-force, producing final detailed plans for the different parts of the ship or programming the bots to implement those plans or just wrangling the bots in real-time to account for programming and planning deficiencies.

Almost all were motivated to participate to a greater or lesser extent by knowing that this project had a rendezvous with destiny. They knew they wanted to be able to tell the story. “I was there, and this is how I helped make history happen.”

But there were other motivations as well. Some of the politically enthusiastic students— the Reds and the Libertarians—loved the opportunity to poke the Blue California government in the eye. Others came because their friends had urged them to. Still others saw the girls they wanted to date (but were afraid to ask) helping, so they joined to get the chance to talk to the girls.

And of course, most were motivated to some degree by the whopping bonuses if they finished on time—in ten days.

Matt watched the expenses accumulate at an incredible rate and shook his head. He calmed himself by looking through his virtual window on the Elysian Fields, watching as his new ship practically leaped into existence at a rate he also found incredible. Werner, who didn’t care about the cost, glowed with elation as he stood in the thick of things on the Heinlein, supervising everything he could get his eyes on. Periodically Alex or Colin would go out and distract him to help the workers get their tasks done.

The professors were at least as engaged as the students, so for ten days the BTU effectively closed its doors. Even the med students turned out, because somehow, even though all the hands-on labor was being done by bots, the students and professors and even the professional ship engineers still managed to get themselves injured.

Virtually all the startup companies on the Dreams Come True ceased normal operations as well. Each of them had a mad new tech, and somehow each and every last one of their CEOs could easily explain why their latest invention was the critical new piece of gear needed for seaborne rocket launch.

Matt looked at the gaggle of tech magicians in dismay, but soon enough figured out that Dash was the perfect person to filter out the noise. She knew all the new technologies under development, and she understood the core needs of the project. She understood Matt’s greatest concern. “I understand, Mr. Toscano. It is not a problem if it is a little expensive, but it is a disaster if there is a little risk.”

At first, Matt wondered how many lifelong enemies Dash was making in the startup companies. He could see no way she could get the respect she needed from them to accept her decisions as final. He eventually concluded his concerns had been naive. The CEOs seemed a little afraid of her, while the tech leads tended to look at her in awe. He soon learned her full name. She was known on the Dreams Come True as Doctor “I believe this can be improved upon” Dash. In the end, he thanked Alex for sending her to him. She was saving his life, he explained. Alex grunted. “She does that sometimes,” was all he would say.

Housing was a problem. The Elysian Fields had nearly full booking; Matt was lucky indeed to get himself a single cabin. But the Heinlein’s launch facilities needed the expertise of Matt’s best and brightest from his launch crew, so even though Matt had brought less than half his personnel from Vandenberg, the archipelago had no place for any of them to stay. Colin and Amanda—the current Chairman of the Board for the BrainTrust—encouraged the residents of all the ships to run a variant of an Airbnb, renting out beds rather than rooms, no residents having a whole spare room due to BrainTrust policies. Naturally, in keeping with their entrepreneurial spirit, the residents charged exorbitant prices for these beds. Matt just sighed and paid.

Eight days from First Launch, the Haven showed up and cut a deal to dock off the Dreams Come True. The Haven was a purely residential ship, built by a consortium of billionaires so they could have homes larger than the single-cabin dwellings standard throughout the BrainTrust. The Haven arrived expecting to be the center of attention and much fanfare, bringing many of the rich and famous with much capital for investments in BrainTrust enterprises. No one noticed them.

When the Haven residents found out that the advent of SpaceR had completely overshadowed their own arrival, rocket fever infected them as well. They immediately set to work figuring out how they could exploit the upcoming event.

Seven nights before First Launch, at midnight, three of SpaceR’s four Autonomous SpacePort Drone Ships made port in San Pedro. SpaceR workers moving quietly, swiftly, and in near darkness, loaded each drone with four side boosters and two cores, enough for two heavy-launch rockets per drone ship. Those six rockets would be the Polar Orbit fleet for SpaceR for the next several months.

The drones had not been designed to carry so many boosters; they’d had to be modified to accomplish it. Having six boosters loaded on a platform designed for a one-booster landing was precarious at best, but in the end, SpaceR’s team had the boosters locked down and ready to sail. The drones left port again before the sun rose; before either the media or the California government learned of either the drones’ departure or their precious cargo.

Six days and counting, near noon, Dash stood by Matt on the topmost deck (the roof) of the FB Alpha watching as the rockets on their drones glided across surprisingly calm waters. Dash had invited him here to watch the drones arrive. It was one of her favorite places since most of the deck was a lush botanical garden that included plants from all over the world, including Dash’s home in Bali.

Dash frowned. “Are you sure you had to take your own rockets like a thief in the night?”

Matt replied curtly, “Don’t know, don’t want to find out. What good could come of it if the politicians found out? Think they’d apologize, tell us to keep our money, and offer us drinks on the house if we came back?”

Dash shook her head. “You know they’ll find out in a day or so. Someone involved with loading the rockets is bound to Twitter about it.”

Matt shrugged. “The later, the better.” He pointed farther to the east. “See those California Coastal Patrol ships? Above all things, I want to get those rockets docked here before they decide they’re supposed to do something.”

Time compressed. Shortcuts were taken. Only one of the two launch pads was properly outfitted with reinforced carbon. The other was temporarily covered in Portland cement, adequate to withstand the relatively small shock of the landing of a single booster but not the launch of a full heavy rocket.

With five days left, a key part of the plan had to be scratched and revamped. One of the projects Dash had cautiously recommended to Matt for funding was a prototype algae-to-methane converter for making the fuel. It would be very cheap and efficient, if the inventors could only get it to work for more than fifteen minutes before clogging up. On this fifth day, Dash told Matt it wouldn’t be ready in time, no matter what the CEO and tech lead might say.

Dash said not to worry, that she had a contingency. She had Matt contact the operators of all the ships in the BrainTrust.

The tiny fish-oil-to-diesel converters found on every isle ship, used to supply fuel for their small numbers of non-electric vehicles, could be temporarily converted—for a price—with minor modifications and a substantial loss of efficiency, to make methane instead. By the end of the day, hastily-converted robo-vans were carting loads of methane from throughout the BrainTrust to the Heinlein. The Heinlein chilled the fuel and stored it in new tanks on the lower decks.

Once that effort was in operation, Matt started calling shipping operators around the globe to find an LNG tanker he could lease and fill with methane. They would not need it for First Launch, but they would certainly need it soon.

Meanwhile, liquid oxygen generators were tested aboard the Heinlein, not to be used for real until launch day, when they would directly load the rocket’s LOX tanks. The LOX generator was powered by the Heinlein’s nuclear reactors, only one of which was currently operational. But one reactor would be enough for First Launch.

Four days remained. The Vehicle Assembler and Transporter Tower, the complex titanium skeleton Matt had first seen depicted in the renderings of the Heinlein on his first day on the BrainTrust, came together from a parts run off the 3D printers on the Argus. In the first test of the VATT’s ability to lift a booster from the drone platform onto the Heinlein, the cylinder swayed, struck the Heinlein starboard amidships, and crashed to a watery grave.

Matt’s heart skipped three beats as he watched the graceful disaster from a perch on the Argus. “I can’t… I don’t know…”

Werner crumpled beside him. “How?”

Colin visibly straightened as if preparing for gladiatorial combat. Matt was suspicious that Dash and Colin had started taking turns babysitting the top SpaceR management, i.e., Werner and him, as the days counted down and the ability of upper management to positively impact operations receded into the sunset.

But today Dash had actually returned to her office for a little while, “to get some real work done.” She’d apparently left Colin with the babysitting duty for this event.

Colin smiled. “Cheer up, folks,” he offered brightly. “Aren’t you glad that was just a mockup booster, not a real one? Do you think our people decided to use the mockup first because they were certain it would all work right the first time? Of course not. Our teams expected this.” Honesty compelled him to soften his claim. “Well, they didn’t really expect it, but they prepared for it. Contingency plans are already in motion.”

Colin held his finger up as if to point triumphantly as said plans went into effect, but hastily put his hand back down. The VATT crew was looking forlornly over the side of the ship at the hull dent, as uncertain what to do as Matt and Werner. “At the team-management level, of course. Contingency plans. In motion.”

All three of them watched, paralyzed, as nothing happened.

Then Alex ran onto the Heinlein’s deck and started shouting orders.

Matt could hear Colin exhale his held breath. “See?”

Three days left. It was the seventh day of the effort. And on the seventh day…no one rested.

However, a couple of people who thought they were akin to God rose up in righteous wrath.

The governor sat rigid in his chair, watching a disaster unfold before him on the wallscreen. He watched the scene over and over again, transfixed by horror. It was a YouTube video, very poor quality, captured with a cell phone at 2AM in the Port of Los Angeles at San Pedro. It showed three rocket-lander drone ships departing the docks with a virtual forest of skyscraper-tall rocket boosters on board.

Occasionally, the governor would break the cyclic rhythm of the replay to show a companion video taken in bright daylight of a booster being lifted up the side of a modified isle ship. The drones with the forest of boosters could be seen in the background. He held his breath every time the booster being lifted crashed back into the sea. “What were they thinking?” he half-screamed to himself. “Has the new CEO of SpaceR gone mad?”

The Attorney General was staring down at his own laptop, completely oblivious to the comings and goings of boosters on the sea. Something far more terrible had happened. “Those greedy, selfish bastards,” he muttered. “Greedy. Selfish. Bastards!”

The governor tore his eyes away from the wallscreen. “They don’t look greedy from here. They look like idiots.”

The Attorney General jerked his hand in a brush-off that wanted to be a smack-down of someone’s face. “I’m not talking about the rockets. Forget the rockets. I’m talking about the money!”

The governor blinked at him in confusion. “The money? What about the money?”

“They stole it!” The Attorney General jerked back in his seat and glared at the governor. “When we first contacted SpaceR, they promised they’d authorize the transfer of the four billion within forty-eight hours, but then they appointed the new CEO. He transferred the money to Goldman Sachs, claiming it would be easier for them to convert such large investments into cash. He explained he didn’t want us to suffer any losses from a crash in the value of the bonds.” The Attorney General spat, “From that moment on, Goldman started giving us the runaround. Oh, we need an extra day to dissolve the holdings. Oh, the transfer authentication number is incorrect. Oh, we need authorization from one of the partners. Oops, the account accidentally got sent to the Caymans. We’ll get it back. On and on.” He took a deep breath. “Now we’re locked out. No one is answering my calls. I just get an admin who keeps apologizing and promising her boss will get back to us as soon as possible.”

The governor shrugged. “So get a court order.”

The Attorney General shook his head. “They moved the money onto the BrainTrust. You know Goldman Sachs has two isle ships there, right?”

The governor’s voice fell. “The BrainTrust. Again.”

The Attorney General ran both his hands through his hair. “They’ll pay for this. We’ll punish them for it. We just have to figure out how.”

The governor watched the booster crash into the sea again. “It may be pretty simple, actually.”

Day Eight. The VATT lifted the parts of a mockup rocket, assembled them, and trundled the resulting vehicle over to the launch pad. After a few tests, the VATT then started to transport the rocket back to the side for offloading. As the machine crossed the edge of the pad, where the graphene reinforced carbon met the surrounding cement, it died.

Colin, Dash, and Matt watched from the roof deck of the Argus as the VATT shuddered to a stop. Matt groaned.

Colin shook his head. “You need more Zen in your life, Matt. Looks like it got hung up on the edge of the pad. This is just a passing glitch.”

People and machines swarmed over the structure, then as quickly ran from it. The VATT started moving again. “See,” Colin continued, “No problem. Forty bots, twenty grad students, five engineers, and a partridge in a pear tree were able to get it moving again in moments.”

Matt looked at the sky. “I think the partridge made the difference.” He nodded his head sharply. “Good enough. It may all be rickety, but it’s going to work. Time to stop playing games with the Glorious State of California. I’ll tell Keenan to tell them they aren’t getting our money, though I imagine they already suspect that.”

Dash left shortly thereafter to make a visit to her lab. She, like everyone else, was taking a ten-day break in her normal routine to support the launch effort. She hadn’t been back to the lab since Matt had arrived. Truthfully, she’d been putting off going back. She had enjoyed working with Byron so much, but it had ended so badly. Without an intern, the lab was, honestly, a little bit lonely. Still, there were things to do, and she should do some of them.

Meanwhile, on Minerva Avenue, a little girl’s father took her into their backyard and showed her his own engineering project. He had built a roof to go over the cat food dishes. He told her the roof was very strong and set her atop it to demonstrate that. She still looked doubtful, so he climbed up on the roof with her, wrapped his knuckles on the shingles, and promised no rocket could get through. This seemed to calm her.

Together they slid underneath the roof and sat by the water bowl. Her mother then came out, carrying a tiny black and white kitty, and handed it to the little girl. Mom said the kitty’s name was Fluffy, and the father demonstrated great wisdom by not pointing out that the kitten was so thin it would be better named “Skinny.” The kitty purred as the little girl stroked her ears.

On the ninth day, the VATT hoisted the first-stage boosters and the second stage and the payload onto the deck. The VATT assembled them and wheeled them onto the pad. A short firing test was conducted. Meanwhile, the isle ships of the BrainTrust disconnected their network of gangways, and all the ships moved out to form a loose ring about a mile away from the Heinlein. Matt watched the fleet evolution from the Argus, standing by the gunwales on the port side, letting the cold ocean breeze whip against his face. Dash and Colin were with him. Werner and Alex were still aboard the Heinlein, making sure everything was ready.

Matt’s anxiety level had been rising constantly as they got closer to the launch. He clenched his teeth against the chill and clenched his hands against the winds of fate. “They’re still too close,” he complained again. “We could wipe out half the BrainTrust if this goes badly.”

Dash put a reassuring hand on his forearm. “This was the agreement we reached with Werner. We didn’t have enough time to acquire the gyroscopic stabilizers for the hull, so for these first couple of launches, the ships of the BrainTrust will act as a wall around the Heinlein to dampen the wind and waves.” She blew out a frustrated breath. “I personally think it’s an unnecessary precaution. It’s not like we’re going to launch in the middle of a typhoon, and the Sea Launch Corporation was doing such launches from a repurposed offshore oil-drilling platform in 1999. But we all agreed.”

Colin added, “And you’re a little over-concerned. I think you’d find that the isle ships are reasonably robust even in the face of a catastrophic explosion.” He paused, then confessed, “Well, the older ones are. The newest ships might go up rather spectacularly if the explosion breached the titanium coatings on the superstructure and the flames lit the underlying magnesium, but that’s really unlikely.”

“Way too close,” Matt muttered. “We should at least evacuate the people.”

Colin answered, “We’ve offered ferry rides to anyone who’s interested in being farther away. I think you’d be surprised by how few people are taking us up on the offer. The launch is the talk of the whole fleet. Everybody wants to see what we’ve wrought—what they have wrought for the future of space flight.”

“Umph.” Matt turned and walked back inside the ship.

Back in California, the little girl opened her mouth several times as if to speak. The psychologist was very excited.

Dash had gotten close enough to see Bu Amanda waiting for her in her office when she heard her name shouted from down the passageway. She turned and waved. “Ben! Good to see you.”

Honestly, it was not as good as it might have been to see him. Ben had been one of her patients in her first anti-aging trials using telomere therapy. Unlike all the other patients, it had neither given him a new lease on life nor killed him outright. At the time of the trials, he had walked haltingly but unaided. Now he came toward her using a walker. He was hunched over and worn-looking. Dash was at least glad to see that when he reached her, he straightened up from the walker and breathed normally. His smile still shone brightly. “Whatever you do, don’t tell me I’m looking young for my age.”

Dash just shook her head and returned his smile. “What are you doing here? We do not have any more checkups scheduled. Is there something amiss?”

He laughed. He was always laughing; it was almost unnerving. “No, something wonderful is happening, and I came looking for you to invite you to the celebration.”

Dash responded with the topmost thing in her mind. “First Launch is tomorrow! Of course.” She paused, puzzled. “Celebration?”

Ben spread his arms wide, swaying slightly without the support of the walker. “Celebration! You know the Haven has arrived, right?”

Dash nodded.

“And I told you long ago that I had a pad on board, though I was planning to stay in my cabin on the Dreams Come True and rent out my Haven place.”

Dash nodded again.

“So, the whole Haven is turning itself into a party boat for a pre-launch party. My pad is going to be ground zero for the event.” He put his hand on her shoulder. “You’re invited. I won’t take no for an answer. You simply have to be one of my guests. You’re the talk of the ship, you know. Everyone wants to meet you.”

Dash looked away with a mild frown. “I am sorry, Ben, but I was hoping to watch the launch with friends. Other friends, that is,” she added for clarification.

“So bring them along. Just who all were you going to watch with?”

Dash shifted her head side to side. “Well, we have been so busy we have not really talked about a plan yet —”


“But I was expecting to watch the launch with Matt Toscano —”

“CEO of SpaceR?!” Ben’s eyes widened.

Dash did not notice his surprise. “Pak Colin —”

Ben chortled. “Wheeler! Why am I not surprised?”

“And probably Bu Amanda —”

“Chairman of the Board of the BrainTrust! Perfect! No wonder none of them have RSVP’d my invitations; they’re all planning to hang out with you! Girl, you have a more high-octane power-brokering party planned than I do. You must bring them to my place. I guarantee you’ll enjoy it. My place on the Haven simply must be seen to be believed.”

Dash looked skeptical. “I suppose it sounds as if I have been collecting, what would you call them, ‘movers and shakers,’ but that really wasn’t my plan.”

Ben’s laughter this time started in his chest and shook his whole body, and he wheezed as he took his next breath. “Of course not, Dash, I never thought it at all.”

“But not everyone I was hoping to share the launch with is a mover or a shaker. I was also hoping to be with my best friends, Ping and Jam. They are just peacekeepers.”

Ben blinked at her. “’Just peacekeepers.’ Is that what you think? They’re the pair who took out the loony-tune Blue who tried to kill you, right?”

Dash nodded again. “And Colin. They saved Colin, too.”

Ben started to laugh again, but a wave of pain passed over his face, and he stopped. “Ping and Jam, the two heroes of Assault Night, and you call them ‘just peacekeepers.’”

Dash stomped her foot softly. “No, I do not call them ‘just peacekeepers.’ I call them my friends.”

Ben hid his face in his hands. “Girl, they are just as famous as you are, at least here on the BrainTrust.” He put his hands down and looked at her thoughtfully. For the first time in the conversation, he did not look like he was going to laugh. “Even if they were not famous, they would still be welcome at our Haven party. Simply because they are your friends, for one thing.” He twitched his nose. “But there’s more to it than that. I’m sure at this point you’ve got the impression that my goal is to have the most prestigious party with the most powerful people around as my guests. You probably think I want ‘everybody who is anybody’ to come, right?”

Dash shrugged. “It certainly sounds like it.”

Ben shook his head. “And that is true as far as it goes. But they are the second-most-desired guests when I throw a party. There’s a group that I want to invite even more, though they are much harder to find.” He raised an eyebrow at her.

Dash rolled her eyes. “Do not make me guess, for I do not know. Who do you most wish to attend your parties?”

“The people who are not yet anybody, but who will definitely be, at some future time, somebody.” A dreamy look came to his eyes. “There’s nothing quite like having a photo, fifty years down the road, showing that ‘I knew her way back when, before she was famous.’” He looked back at Dash. “Even if Ping and Jam were not already famous, if they were just your friends, they would probably be destined for great things.”

He shook his finger at her. “You lift the people around you up. You can’t help it. Mark my words: someday Ping and Jam will be known far beyond the confines of the BrainTrust archipelago.” He paused, and a pleading note entered his voice. “Come to my party. Bring anyone you want. Please.”

Dash sighed. He was not making this easy for her. Worse, perhaps he was right. She was about to say she’d think about it when another voice came from behind her.

“Dash, he’s right. You should go,” Amanda confirmed as she came down the hall from Dash’s office. She looked at Ben. “I couldn’t help hearing. Your voice carries, you know. Sort of like a moose calling.”

Ben laughed once more.

Amanda looked back at Dash. “He really will have the movers and the shakers of the world there. You need to meet them.” She paused, clearly wishing she didn’t have to continue but driven by honesty. “You’re one of them now.”

Ben interrupted, “Us, Amanda. She’s one of us now. Do not pretend you’re not one.”

“Us,” Amanda conceded. She smiled. “It’s not everyone who’s so important that the Chief Advisor of the United States tries to kidnap them.”

More laughter from Ben. “Yes, that’s an honor most of my guests haven’t yet had.” He scrunched his face in thought. “Though from what I hear, at least the governor of California would like to kidnap Matthew at this point.” He grasped the handles of his walker and twisted about, then looked over his shoulder. “Cocktail party. Ties, no tails. Launch at noon, party starts at 9AM,” he relayed, then scooted off with surprising speed to capture his next guest.

Dash’s shoulders slumped. “He is so jovial. I am always exhausted when we finally finish speaking.”

Amanda started laughing at this, then she turned serious. “Dash, do you have a proper cocktail dress for a billionaire’s party at a billionaire’s mansion?”

Dash frowned. “I hardly think he has a mansion on the Haven. He says he has a ‘cozy pad.’”

Amanda shook her head. “Trust me. Do you have a dress?”

Dash answered doubtfully, “Yes. At least, I think so.”

“And Jam and Ping?”

Dash sighed. “Probably not.”

“Then we have a problem.”

Dash was pleased that Bu Amanda viewed it as her problem too.

Amanda, showing a touch of telepathy, explained, “You’ll all be representing the residents of the Chiron. You must not let anyone outshine you.” Her eyes gleamed momentarily. “You must outshine everyone.”

Amanda started tapping on her tablet, frowning from time to time. She growled, “I just hate it when those people make us dance to their tune.” She looked up at Dash. “We have some very fine boutiques throughout the BrainTrust, but none of them up to the standard that the Haven brought with them. You’ll all need dresses from Sea Change, which is on the Haven promenade.”

Amanda sent email to Jam and Ping, demanding, in her role as their boss, that they meet Amanda and Dash at the shop at 5PM sharp. “This is going to be an emergency rush job, just like the Heinlein. They’re going to charge us through the nose to have your dresses ready by morning.”

Dash approached the entrance to the Sea Change. The storefront seemed too narrow to house an actual boutique. The door, framed in rococo swirls of gold, was flanked by two windows just wide enough for one full-length narrow-skirted dress apiece.

Jam, Ping, and Amanda awaited her. “Sorry,” she mumbled. “Got tied up.” All three of her companions frowned. Of course, you did, their eyes said eloquently. Dash straightened her shoulders and marched forward.

A middle-aged woman with short, straight black hair hustled up to them. Dash suspected she might have been even shorter than she was, but she moved atop impossibly high platform heels. Dash suppressed a flicker of irritation. It would be nice, just once, to be at eye-level with someone besides Ping. “Good evening. I’m Daniella,” she greeted them with a gracious smile and quick, clipped words.

Amanda explained the crisis. “These three need outstanding outfits for Ben Wilson’s party tomorrow. I’m thinking, we will need Tory Burch, definitely Chanel or Prada, and of course, Versace for Ping.” She pointed at her tallest companion. “Jam will need something conservative, yet stunning.” At the moment Jam wore her peacekeeper’s uniform: black pants, a yellow shirt, and a black scarf over her head.

Daniella nodded. ”Pakistani? It will be a delight working with you. I get so few Pakistani clients here, you know.”

Jam raised an eyebrow. “I’m surprised you get any.”

Amanda pointed again. “This is Ping.” Ping had come dressed in short shorts and a tank top that showed off her tattoos. It looked a great deal like the outfit she’d worn to take down Jam’s brother-in-law, who’d come with Jam’s ex-husband to conduct an honor killing.

Daniella had apparently heard about that incident. “Ah, of course. Ping the hooker who also is a peacekeeper.” As everyone stared at her, she chuckled. “Oh, yes, we’ve heard about you. Half the residents are interested in Dr. Dash’s rejuvenation therapy, and we’re all thankful you saved her on Assault Night.” She turned back to Jam as she realized who her new Pakistani client was. “And you too.” She looked at Ping critically, running a finger lightly down the phoenix inked on her left arm. “For anyone else with tattoos I’d recommend long sleeves for a formal party, but you? Definitely strapless.”

Amanda pointed at Dash but was too late for the introduction. Daniella clasped her hands together delightedly. “And you simply must be Dr. Dash. I’m so thrilled to make your acquaintance.”

Dash wanted to shrink out the door but knew Amanda wouldn’t allow it. “Call me Dash,” she said softly, “Just Dash.”

Daniella nodded. “Dash. Amanda’s right. Tory Burch.” She paused. “You know you’ll, uh…”

Amanda completed the sentence, “Dash, ditch the lab coat. She needs to be able to see you.”

Daniella looked relieved. “Yes, exactly.”

Dash looked around the small room, bewildered. “You have no dresses here. How can we try on—”

Daniella stepped away and gestured at the walls, which responded immediately. On each wall, a different model appeared, one each of Dash, Jam, and Ping. Daniella spoke again, once to each wall, and the three likenesses of her clients acquired dresses immediately recognizable as too expensive for any sane person to purchase.

Dash swallowed. “Never mind.”

Daniella kept up a running stream of analysis as she discussed with Amanda the best choices for each of them. In those rare moments when Dash, Jam, and Ping got a word in edgewise, Amanda and Daniella acted as if they had not heard. As if the people at the center of this process were too ignorant to offer a useful opinion, which, as Dash ruefully acknowledged to herself, was probably correct.

In the end, Daniella and Amanda confessed to being fully satisfied with the outcome. For Dash, Daniella had found Tory Burch’s Evaline Cold Shoulder dress with tassels in white and a pair of Prada’s kitten heels in the pink and silver to provide a hint of color.

Jam, after an hour of soul-searching, found her virtual self in a Chanel, one of the latest ensembles by Karl Lagerfeld shown during the Chanel Ready-to-Wear Spring/Summer Show. The tweed-ink, blue, and ecru one-piece showed off her height. Danielle had paired the dress with Chanel’s classic spectators in black and white.

Ping, meanwhile, had settled upon a Versace strapless, a fully beaded thigh-length…covered in Warhol icons. Dolce & Gabbana embroidered velvet pumps and a pair of diamond chandelier earrings topped off the chic gaudiness of it all.

At which point Dash looked at Jam, who was looking longingly at the dress chosen for her, while Ping stared at her image in a way that made Dash look more closely at her to see if steam really was coming out of her ears. Dash realized she had to speak for all three of them. “Daniella, Bu Amanda, we all appreciate what you’re trying to do for us, but really, none of us can afford these dresses.”

Amanda looked at her in astonishment. “You…you can’t afford it?” She peered hard into Dash’s eyes. “What have you been spending all your bonuses on?”

Dash looked at her in puzzlement that slowly faded. “Bonuses? You mean from the successful rejuvenations?”

Amanda’s expression turned into a glare. “Yes, of course. The bonuses.”

Dash blinked. “Well, I, ah, I’ve been really busy.”

Jam tore her eyes away from the dress she could not have. “Let me guess. You’ve never looked at your bonuses. You have no idea how much money you have.”

Dash grimaced. “As project lead, my room and board are paid for automatically. I hardly need any money.” She pointed at the lab coat they had forced her to discard so the boutique’s computers could get her measurements. “Well, I bought a new lab coat. That’s about it.”

Amanda put her hand to her temples and rubbed them. “Dash, would you please look at your bonus account?”

Dash grumbled as she worked her tablet and her eyes widened. “Oh. Goodness.” She looked up at Amanda. “I guess I can afford it after all.”

Amanda gave her a smug smile. “And you’ll probably have enough left over to buy a stick of gum, too.”

Millions of sticks of gum, Dash realized. Then her heart sank as she realized, looking at Jam and Ping, that her sudden rise to riches solved only one-third of the problem. She certainly had enough money to solve the whole problem, but how? If she offered to pay for the outfits, Jam and Ping would probably refuse outright.

She looked at Amanda, who looked back mischievously and then turned to Daniella. “Could Dash and I speak with you in the back for a moment?”

Jam and Ping watched them suspiciously as they departed. They returned, having agreed to Amanda’s plan quickly—before Jam and Ping got so worried they tried eavesdropping.

Daniella clapped her hands. “I don’t normally do this, but as Dash and Amanda just pointed out to me, you two are so famous you’ll make great advertisements for my styles. I can let you rent the dresses for a day.” She named a price comparable to that of a new pair of blue jeans.

Jam gawked. “But…the dresses are useless to anyone else, right? They’re custom-tailored to our measurements, aren’t they?”

Daniella waved the question away airily. “Of course. Of course, I have to get right to work immediately to meet your schedule for tomorrow morning—9AM is the party, right?”

Jam nodded.

“Well, then, the dresses should be fine.” She gestured to the walls once more, and the images of the two peacekeepers and the medical researcher disappeared. In their stead, a set of mirrors arose. “The dresses are printing as we speak. You’ll need to come in for a final fitting at 7AM. Now, about the jewelry…”

Dash was sure she looked as shell-shocked as Jam, though Ping just scowled.

A bot rolled into the room with three cases. Daniella opened the first one. “For Dash,” she announced and wrapped an Enticelle De Cartier necklace made of white gold and diamonds around her neck. Dash put on the earrings made of platinum, emeralds, onyx, and diamonds. Daniella held up the Panthere De Cartier Brooch made of white gold, emeralds, onyx, and diamonds so Dash could see the entire suite of jewelry. The mirrors reflected the glory of the gems, and Dash gasped.

Daniella’s eyes gleamed triumphantly. “Yes, that’ll do.” She opened the next container, pulling out a Pearl necklace from Mikimoto which turned out to be two necklaces in one. The shorter one with two diamond-encrusted pendants and the longer strand all in pearls glowed with soft resplendence, falling from Jam’s shoulders.

Jam opened her mouth to object, but Dash spoke first. “Perfect. It’s perfect as a housewarming gift.”

Jam stared at her.

Dash put her hands on her hips. “You gave me a housewarming gift, you know—that beautiful rug in my office. I know it cost you everything you had. This is yours.”

Amanda also spoke before Jam could utter a word. “Jam, say thank you, and accept graciously. You really have no choice.”

Jam paused, spun to look at herself in all the mirrors, and acquiesced. “Thank you, Dash.”

Daniella reached for the third case, but Ping held up her hand. “Hold it.” She blew out a sharp breath. “I’ve got this covered.” She squeezed her hand into the taut pocket of her shorts and pulled forth a long string of diamonds.

Daniella leaned over to examine the necklace more closely and gasped. “A Vivienne.” Her eyes widened. “From the 20s. How did… Where did you…” She straightened and looked quizzically at Ping. “That will work.”

“Yeah, yeah, yeah. Long story,” Ping dodged the question everyone wanted to ask while jamming the diamonds back in her pocket with an urgency that suggested she just wanted them to disappear.

Daniella blinked. “Well, I’ll expect you all again at 7AM.” Her voice turned stern. “Don’t be late.”

They had barely escaped the boutique when Ping rounded on Dash and whispered in her ear, “If you bought those dresses for us on the sly and had Daniella go along with this little charade, I’ll…I’ll…I’ll have to squeeze you to death.” At which point she squeezed Dash, not quite to death. “But you still owe me a housewarming present. You got Jam those beautiful jewels. That’s fine, but I want something really special. I’ll let you know when I find it.”

Dash tried and failed to guess what would possibly make a good housewarming present for Ping. She had a terrible feeling she would eventually find out.

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