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Tuesday, 22 September 2105–Thursday, 24 September 2105

Autumn had officially, if just barely, come to New York. Already the morning wind down Park Avenue drove a hint of winter before it. The day would surely warm up, but at the moment, McGill Feighan needed to indulge in a small shiver.

A high, thin voice said, “If you’re cold, just think how I feel!”

Feighan looked down from his 190 centimeters at Sam, his three-year-old ward. “A good brisk walk will warm you up.”

“I’m not a mammal, McGill, and this is not a brisk walk.” Sam lashed his long tail from side to side in irritation; the knife-blade fins that marched the length of his backbone had shriveled in their attempt to conserve his body heat. Eight am light glinted dully off his mottled green scales. “My legs are shorter than yours, even if I do have four of them, so I hafta run to keep up with you, and it’s just too cold to run. This is a dumb idea, McGill.”

“It’s only four blocks. And we do need the exercise, kid.”

“You need the exercise. I don’t eat half a bag of cookies every night.”

“Only ’cause I’ve got them on a shelf you can’t reach.”

“Why I’m not getting fat isn’t the point, McGill.” They stopped at a corner for the light to change. A crowd of pedestrians clumped up around them, apparently ignoring Sam’s alienness, but keeping an extra centimeter between themselves and him nonetheless. “The point is, you’re getting fat, and I’m getting cold because of it.” He yawned; his magenta tongue curled out from his sharp-toothed mouth. “Besides, I’m sleepy.”

The light blinked to green; the swarm crossed the street. Feighan pointed to the time/temperature sign above a bank entrance. “It’s ten degrees Cee, Sam. That’s not cold.”

“It is if you’re a Rhanghan. Why can’t you Fling us? It’s quicker, it’s warmer, and nobody steps on my tail.”

“All right, all right.” He truly liked the young Rhanghan, and found it hard to deny him anything. Pitching his voice above the roar of an oncoming truck, he said, “If it’s chilly tomorrow morning, I’ll Fling you.”

“Thank you.” He drawled the words with enormous dignity.

Feighan laughed.


“Sorry, kid.” He patted Sam on the shoulder. “Listen, do you want me to pick you up this afternoon, or can you make it back to the hotel on your own?”

“I get out at two. Where are you going to be?”

“I’m not sure. I’m on from nine to one and five to nine today. I thought I might go house-hunting after lunch.”

“Are you doing that again?”

“We can’t stay at the hotel forever.”

“Why don’t we just go home?”

“Sam, I—” He caught the rebuke before it broke loose. “I don’t want to talk about it, okay?”

“Okay.” His tone made clear that he thought Feighan’s attitude was silly. “Can you be here at two o’clock?”

“I can.”

“Okay. Pick me up, please.” They had reached the steps to All Saints School; Sam put a hand on Feighan’s belt. “You don’t have to walk me to the door, McGill. This is far enough.”

“Okay.” He remembered, dimly, how it felt when his overly solicitous parents had escorted him inside. Embarrassing, as he recalled it, even if subtly reassuring at the same time. “I’ll see you at two, then.”

“But please don’t be late, okay? I hate to wait out here for you.”

McGill Feighan could understand that too. The probing stares of strangers could prickle like a rash. The energy tunic he wore—the swirling bands of multi-colored light generated by his Flinger implant—drew the eyes of the curious and the comments of the rude, and standing around vulnerable to both discomfited him enormously. He could well imagine the intensity of interest his ward drew, even in ostensibly blasé New York. He smiled gently. “I’ll be here. Promise.”

“Thanks, McGill.” Sam waved as he went up the steps. “See you at two.”

Feighan waved back, waited till Sam had disappeared through one of the revolving doors, and closed his eyes. Then he opened them again. After making Sam walk, it would hardly be fair to teleport himself back to the hotel  . . . 

Turning, he headed upstream. No longer enveloped in the protective space his ward’s rough hide and many sharp teeth had created, he ran into shoulders and elbows and parcels and umbrellas; now and then a misplaced foot thwacked him sharply in the shins.

Sam was right. Flinging did make more sense.

But then, nothing he was doing that autumn seemed to make a whole lot of sense. The hotel, for example. A thousand dollars a night for a two-bedroom suite with a kitchenette. Granted, he could afford it—if not from his salary, then at least from the income generated by his ten-million-dollar trust fund—but still, why was he paying 365,000 dollars a year for the roof over their heads? He already owned a penthouse apartment twice the suite’s size, and it sat empty.

That is to say, no one currently lived there.

Rather, no one alive lived there.

But Greystein would be there. Marion Jefferson Greystein, McGill Feighan’s roommate at the Flinger Academy and best friend ever since. He had helped Feighan scour the city for a suitable residence, had hand-wired all the electronic controls—including Oscar, the apartment computer—had argued with Feighan about carpet piles and furniture styles and the colors of the hangings on the walls. He had livened the place with his laughter and saddened it with his sorrows. His spirit had soaked so deeply into the very fabric of the apartment that the place still trembled with an echo of his essence.

Greystein had gone bad, though. Something had snapped inside him. He took to drink and degeneracy, and Feighan himself had had to put him down like a mad dog.

Surely Greystein’s ghost stalked the penthouse.

How could Feighan return to that?

By now thoroughly dismal, he reached their hotel. With a shuffling half step, he adjusted his pace to the twirl of its revolving door. The security apparatus built into the entrance arch measured him from forty different angles and compared its findings with data stored at the time he registered. Identifying him, it trained its tranquilizer guns on the next person in line and permitted him to pass unscathed.

Glitterati from a hundred worlds mingled in the lobby; he moved through them like a knife through shadow. No one acknowledged him, though a bell captain stepped out of his way as he walked up to the elevators.

Eighty-eight stories later, he moped down the corridor to their suite. The door stood open.

It should not have.

He tensed: for too many of his twenty-two years, a crime syndicate called The Organization had stalked him, hoping to wring from him the truth of his relationship to the Far Being Retzglaran. Though it was a mystery he himself had been trying to solve all his life, The Organization had never believed him. McGill Feighan had learned never to leave a house or a home or even an overpriced hotel suite without locking its doors thoroughly.

He flattened himself against the wall. His hand rested on his jewel-studded leather belt; his mind bubbled with the powers of his Talent.

Gryll, a sub-chieftain in The Organization, had called a truce after their encounter on Actu. If someone from The Organization had violated that truce by invading Feighan’s privacy, that someone would regret it for a long time to come. Slowly he peered around the edge of the doorframe, ready to strike.

And then he reddened. No one had broken into his room. A squat, wheeled maid clad in sheet mirrors was dusting the coffee table, first wiping it with a wax-impregnated cloth and then bathing it in ultraviolet light before buffing it to a sheen. The soft scent of lemon hung in the air.

The hotel promised security and delivered security. It guarded its guests against danger from the macroscopic to the microscopic. If in the process of keeping its promise it had to sterilize the environment, obliterating all traces of occupancy and restoring the room to its original state of anonymity, well, better that than a neurotic billionaire disgusted by a stray hair in the sink.

Feighan did not know if he could take it much longer. He stepped inside. “Are you about done here?”

The maid’s cleaning attachments continued to whir, but the middle segment of its three-tier turret spun around to train a camera lens on him. Behind the mirrored panels that cloaked its chips and gears, something clicked. “Mr. Feighan.” The voice evoked images of humanity but was not itself human. “I will be done in fifteen minutes and thirty-seven seconds. Or I could return later. Please specify your choice.”

“Come back later.” He crossed the room and dropped into an easy chair. “What did you do with the morning paper?”

“It is on the desk in the right-hand bedroom. At what time will it be convenient for me to return?”

“Any time after nine.”

“am or pm, Mr. Feighan?”

“am.” He checked his watch. “Forty-five minutes from now.”

“Will you be out all day, or will you be returning early, Mr. Feighan?”

“I’ll probably be back about one in the afternoon.”

“Very good, Mr. Feighan. Your room will be ready for you.” It gave the table one last whisk with the buffing cloth, then retracted its attachments and rolled to the door. “Please be certain to attach the chain lock after I leave, Mr. Feighan.”

“Sure thing.” And when he had, he retrieved the paper and carried it into the bathroom.

At two minutes to nine he dropped the paper on the floor, stood, and stretched. The phone rang.

At a snap of his fingers, an unseen microphone clicked on. He could activate the video display later, if he needed it. “Yes?”

A cool, nearly-but-not-quite feminine voice said, “Director Walking Mule’s office here, Mr. Feighan. The Director would appreciate your stopping in to see him before you report to work. May I tell him you will be here soon?”

“I’m on my way.”

“Very good, Mr. Feighan.”

He closed his eyes, the more carefully to visualize his destination: a spacious, well-proportioned reception room, with a soft grey carpet and friendly orange walls and wall-holos of the American southwest. While a portion of his mind held that image steady, another portion built up a picture of himself: a tall young man, broad-shouldered, sporting a Roman nose and tousled black hair. As he overlaid the first vision with the second, he knew, though he would never be able to verbalize his manner of knowing, how to place the second picture into the first.

Not difficult, child’s play in fact, since the two were so close and their differences so minor, just a tug here and a twist there and—


It began: the Fling, the teleporting, in a blackness deeper than blindness, a blackness that wrapped him ineluctably though he grew faster than thought till he curled fetally on the edge of infinity while simultaneously he shrank below the electronic scale and entered the worlds of charm and color and magic—

—and for one instant not of time because it was all of time, he was the entire universe yet none of it—

—and, as always, the contradiction rent him, sparking pain brighter than the greatest of supernovae as half of him went large while the other half went small and the pain would not end because it had never begun—

—and his growing met his shrinking and the two became one, puffing out the fiery candle and—


The Fling ended.

Cheery orange walls surrounded him; a soft grey rug supported him. In the holo before him, a notocactus tracked the sun’s path with dishes of blazing yellow blossoms.

Teleporting directly into Walking Mule’s office would have been quicker, but courtesy required him to materialize in the reception area.

Not that he honored all the rules of protocol. Brushing past the simulacrum at the desk, he closed the door on its perturbed squawkings. “Hi, Walking Mule, I got your message. Something up?”

A thousand pillows of a thousand colors and sizes carpeted the floor, rising into mounds where previous visitors had built themselves backrests. In the corner, cross-legged behind a Japanese-style table, sat a middle-aged Native American. He lifted his head. Long black braids framed a dark face full of warm brown eyes. “Nothing you don’t want to hear, McGill. Have a seat. But keep your shoes off the silk, will you?”

“Sorry.” As it was impossible to take another step without treading on at least one of the pillows, he tugged off his shoes and left them by the doorway. Sprawling on a stack of cushions, he laced his hands behind his head. “I am due at my booth in a minute or so, though.”

Walking Mule waved a hand. “It looks to be a slow day today, so don’t fret about falling behind. Got some good news for you: the final paperwork came back from the Hub, and you are officially cleared. All sanctions against you have been lifted—”

“I thought you lifted them three months ago, when I got back from Actu.”

The Director flashed him a glance of annoyance. “Well, I did, but you know as well as I do that those paper-pushing desk jockeys back at the Hub have their own ways of doing things. It’s taken us this long to get the paperwork cleared up.” He narrowed his eyes. “Of course, I could have wrapped things up a sight quicker if you hadn’t had this strange aversion to being recertified by PsychSection.”

Feighan squirmed. Alone of all living Flingers, he—thanks to the electronic wizardry Marion Jefferson Greystein had deployed at the Academy—had successfully escaped a program of mental indoctrination that would, he felt, have deprived him of free will. If PsychSection ever got him on their couches, they would discover this. He refused to give them a shot at his head. “I appreciate that, Walking Mule,” he said softly.

“The upshot of it all is, those reprimands my predecessor filled your file with have been removed. You are officially restored to Active Status, which means Personnel now carries you as an employee instead of as an independent contractor, and you are no longer forbidden to leave Earth.” He cocked his head. “You have stuck close to home since we got back, haven’t you?”

“Actually, yes.” He had obeyed, not to conform with the restrictions imposed by Flinger Network Control, but because he could travel almost nowhere in the Network without being reminded of one dead friend or another. “The farthest I’ve gone was to Gettysburg with Sam, last month.”

“You don’t know how good that is to hear, ’cause if you had violated the terms of your parole—”

“C’mon, Walking Mule, you know me better than that.”

“Yeah, I suppose I do  . . . ” He fussed with a pile of papers on his table, squaring their edges and placing them to one side. “Now, about this here quest of yours for the Far Being Retzglaran—”

“Since I don’t have a clue as to where I should look next—” Feighan shrugged. “And what with tutoring Sam after school and seeing Gina at night, I don’t have quite the time to dig clues up that I used to.”

Walking Mule nodded. “I can appreciate that. But what I wanted to say was, now that you are officially back in the good graces of the papermongers of the FNC, I’ve got no problem with your questing. That’s as long as you do it on your own time, hear? In fact, I’ve got a few sources of my own, and once in a while I hear stories that would probably be of more’n passing interest to you. If you like, I’d be happy to repeat them for you.”

Feighan sat up straight. “Repeat away.”

“I said ‘once in a while,’ McGill. Truth is, I haven’t heard anything since we got back from Actu. But I will keep my ears open, and that’s a promise.”

“Thank you.” He glanced down at his wristwatch. “Uh—”

“I know, you’re due at your Booth, and I won’t keep you but a few seconds longer.” He sighed. “Let me tell you something, McGill. Getting promoted has its good points, and its bad points. Used to be the two of us bumped into each other half a dozen times a day, and I truly got a kick out of jawing with you. Now they’ve got me cooped up in this office—”

“But you’re the best Director we’ve ever had!”

Walking Mule smiled appreciatively. “Even the best Director’s still a boss, McGill, and it seems folks around these parts just don’t enjoy dropping in on the boss to pass the time of day. I used to think that line about it’s being lonely at the top was a crock. I was wrong.”

Feighan had the grace to blush.

“I’m not trying to make you feel like the low-life skunk you undoubtedly are, McGill—” He grinned at his protégé. “—but I don’t want you thinking that just ’cause I’m Numero Uno around here I aim to avoid my old friends. I still care about you. Maybe even more’n I did when I saw you six times a day.”

“Thank you.” A sudden odd congestion in his throat made it difficult to say anything more.

“You’re welcome. And now that that’s settled, when are you going to have me over? Been a long time since I had any of Oscar’s alleged home cooking.”

Feighan squirmed. “Well, Walking Mule, I’m not in the penthouse anymore—”

“You sold it?”

“Well, no, it’s, ah  . . . ” He could not meet his old friend’s steady gaze. “What it is, Walking Mule, is I’m not quite ready to go back.”


Rolling back on the pillows, Feighan closed his eyes. “Yeah.” All Greystein’s stuff was still in his room. He knew he should have cleaned it out right away, but that had proved impossible. He had gone in once, intending to get it over with, but just could not touch a thing. He had turned around, closed the door, and walked out—and had not been back since. But how could he explain that to Walking Mule?

The Director steepled his fingers and looked over their tips. “You wouldn’t be punishing yourself, would you?”

“No, of course not.”

“Then I reckon you’re depriving yourself of a lot of happy memories on the grounds you might get stung by the melancholy ones.”

He shook his head. “No.” Happy memories? The storm wracked the beach, flailing him with winds and cold rain. His crazed friend loomed above him, demonic, deadly. Blood ran down Feighan’s arm, and still he held off, hoping—“No, but I do feel guilty—still—because if I hadn’t—”

“Somebody else would have, and not with love, either.” Walking Mule sighed. “McGill, what I’m trying to say here is that all the wishing and moping in the world won’t change the past a bit. If you’d stayed out of the whole thing, you’d still be torturing yourself, only you’d be saying, ‘If I’d just gone after him myself, things would have been different.’ Well, they wouldn’t have been. They’d have been just the same, no matter what. The difference is, the way things are, you know Greystein got every human consideration possible, and then some.”

Ball bearings bulleted across the sand. Greystein folded. Rain drained through the hole in his chest and gushed out the other side pink. “Did he?” he said quietly.

“McGill, you figure ol’ Greystein would have wanted you to behave like this? I recollect he did a few things he wasn’t proud of, but he just went ahead and made the best of what came next. Now, I ain’t recommending that you model your behavior after his, but I do think maybe you could learn a little something from it.”

There was nothing he could say in reply. “I suppose you’re right.”

“I am right, and you know it.”

“All right, Walking Mule, you’re right, and I know it.”

“You move back into that penthouse. It’s gonna feel mighty strange the first hour you’re there, and you might even have to indulge in a little manly weeping when you clean Greystein’s things out of his room, but I promise you, it’ll wear off, and before you know it—”

“It’ll be like Greystein never lived there?” he said bitterly.

“Oh, no.” Walking Mule’s voice went soft now. “Oh, not that, not ever. What’s going to happen is, um, your perspective will shift. Right now, you hurt because of what you don’t have any more. Someday, you’re gonna be happy because of what you did have, even if you only had it a while.”

He tried a laugh. It did not work very well. “And when will ‘someday’ be?”

Walking Mule opened his hands. “I don’t know. Sometime after you’ve stopped dodging your past and started facing up to it.”

“Thanks.” He stood. “You and Sam have said some things today that  . . .  Apparently I was doing stuff I didn’t realize I was doing. I guess sometimes it takes ah, an impartial observer—”

“Sam and I ain’t what you might call ‘impartial,’ McGill.”

“And thanks for that too.” He smiled. “Okay, an outside observer, then. But I’m inside myself, lost in the maze of my own feelings, and sometimes I need you guys to let me know that there is a way out. I do appreciate it.”

“Ain’t nothing.” He tapped his watch. “And unless you got something more pressing, you probably ought to get yourself on down to your Booth, huh?”

“Right.” He winked. “Later.”

He stepped well away from Walking Mule’s desk (because Flinging created the equivalent of a vacuum that tugged at any Flingers left behind, awakening in them a wistful, melancholy, irrational longing to follow in the departing Flinger’s wake, and it was rude to so upset another’s equilibrium), grabbed his shoes, thought, concentrated, visualized, felt, knew, and—


—materialized inside the control cubicle of Flinger Booth Twelve. He groaned. And got to work.

For all the power of his Talent, McGill Feighan earned his pay like a bus or truck driver did: he transported people and cargo from one place to another. The difference was that he stayed put.

He sat at the console and looked down through the picture window, into a large room with white walls and scuff-marked tile floors. Two pallets, six crates, and four humans—no, three humans and a dark-furred something else—cluttered the mathematical center of the room. He checked the console’s screen. Under “Destination” it read “Hub.” Under “Weight” glowed the numerals “916.9”.

He touched the microphone controls. “Hi, folks, sorry I’m late.” Now that he was here—in the driver’s seat, so to speak—he was ready to work. He needed to work. The Talent built up tension, tension that would not dissipate except through exertion of the Talent. “The scale says you have one-point-one extra kilos, if you want them.”

The alien in the group swung its cylindrical head from side to side. One of the humans said, “No, we’re fine. Thanks anyway.”

“Okay. Hold tight.” He closed his eyes, visualized the Flop Booth at the Hub, imagined the trillions of girders and panels surrounding it, the long metal corridors, the emptiness that lay outside the artificial world-city  . . .  Good, good, he had it, it was right; he froze the feeling and parted his eyes to let the image of his freight seep in and overlay the first and as he held the two in juxtaposition, he felt how the one belonged around the other, and knew how to make it so, and—


Emptiness surged through the huge white room. With frantic precision he held the two images firm in his mind, reached for additional angular momentum into the Energy Dimension, a hazy, tumultuous non-place that existed everywhere just beyond the bounds of perception, and carefully added the increment to the momentum his freight already possessed. Gently now, easily, expertly, he set the pallets and crates and beings down on a white tiled floor thirty light-years away, and he knew (though he could never say how) that they had not even bumped.

He let his breath out and made ready to do it again.

So the morning went.


And Fling again.

Twelve times an hour. All morning long. Never once leaving his chair.

The digits shifted on the clock built into his console. One pm. The readout informed him that no one waited in line for transport elsewhere. He could break now; he had four hours to himself. He had to pick Sam up at two, but until then he had plenty of time for lunch, or a nap, or  . . .  or for a quick run to the penthouse just to make sure everything’s in order  . . . 

A warm, happy voice broke into his thoughts. “Hi, McGill.”

He straightened up. “Gina!”

Gina Maccari, the NAC Staff Telepath, swept swiftly, gracefully, across the room and dropped a kiss on his upturned lips. Stocky, and a full head shorter than he, she had silken black hair and a smile that delighted him all the way to his toes. Today she wore a black suit and an ivory blouse, and wore them very well indeed. “Lunch?”

“Sure.” Plenty of time for the penthouse later . . . . “I do have to pick Sam up at two, though.”

“The three of us can have lunch together, then.”

“You don’t mind?”

“Having Sam along?” Her brown eyes widened. “Don’t be silly. Do you?”

“Ah, no  . . . ” It was not that he minded taking Sam along; it was that afterward Sam, still very much the child, would indubitably tease him. And it was not that he wanted to deny having a girlfriend. It was that he could tolerate the squeaky singsong “Muh-Gi-ill has a girlfriend, nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah nyaah” only so many times before he would begin to fantasize about how much fun he would have wrapping an entire roll of adhesive tape around his ward’s snout. “No, it sounds good to me.”

Hands on his shoulders, she peered over the top of his head to his console clock. “One-oh-five  . . .  I have some paperwork to clear up; why don’t you come by my office about five to two and pick me up?” She kissed him again, hugged him, and headed out the door.

Feighan felt adventurous. When he and Maccari materialized outside Sam’s school, he said, “What’ll it be? Chinese, Italian, Mexican—”

Maccari raised a hand. “Mexican.”

“Are we going to lunch?” said Sam.

“You got it.”

“But I ate lunch already. In the barfateria.”

To Maccari, Feighan said, “Mexican it is.”


Even as they materialized outside the cantina in Acapulco, Feighan frowned down at his ward. “Sam.”

“I know, McGill, you don’t like me to call it that, but the food is awful! You know the fat old lady who dumps the stuff on our plates?”

“How could I forget her?” Sam had been talking about “the fat old lady” since the first day of school. Apparently she was convinced that someone as far from his native world as Sam would starve to death on Earth unless someone else made sure he got enough to eat. He claimed she not only filled his plate beyond its capacity, but slipped him candy bars on the side. “What’d she do today?” Feighan led them into the restaurant.

“Well, usually she puts a spoonful on your plate and says, ‘More?’ Today she says, ‘I’m sorry,’ puts half a spoonful on the plate, and then says, ‘You can have more if you want it, but I don’t remo—’” Magenta tongue flicking in frustration, he tried again. “‘—recommend it.’”

A translucent simulacrum in a serape that swirled just on the edge of visibility escorted them to a booth. Gina said, “Was she right?”

Sam rolled his eyes. “I was the only kid at my table who took a second bite.”

“And a third and a fourth too, huh, kid?” said Feighan teasingly.

The Rhanghan child shrugged. “I was hungry.”

“So after you finished yours, how many other plates did you clean, my hollow-legged little ward?”

“Well, somebody had to! There’s this mean old man who stands by the place where you leave your trays? And if you haven’t eaten your lunch, he makes you sit down where he can watch you and finish it all. You can’t go out and play until you do.”

“All of which is to say, Gina, that young Sam here had—what, eight servings? Nine?”

“There were only six kids at my table, McGill.”

“Six servings.” He shook his head and clucked solemnly. “I’ll bet the poor boy doesn’t even have room for chocolate cake.”

Sam slapped Feighan’s shin with the tip of his tail. “I always have room for chocolate cake!”

He smiled at his ward. “Ready to order, Gina?”

She nodded, told her menu what she wanted, and slipped it into its slot in the table. Feighan followed suit, then looked from Sam to Maccari. “I, uh, have an announcement to make.”

They looked at him expectantly.

He found it difficult to meet Maccari’s eyes: she had always had a special soft spot in her heart for Greystein, and he was not sure how she would take the news. “Unless there are major objections, I figure Sam and I ought to move back into the penthouse—”

Sam whooped in delight, drawing the stares of a dozen nearby diners. Embarrassed, he slipped down in his chair. “Sorry, McGill.”

“Apology accepted—this time. Don’t do it again.”

“All right.”

“As I was saying, we need a place to live, I haven’t found anything suitable anywhere, and the penthouse is empty. So-o-o  . . . ” He took a breath, glanced at Maccari, and to his great relief found a sympathetic smile on her face. “We missed check-out time at the hotel today, so we might as well stay there one more night—but tomorrow we move back home.”

Maccari reached across the table and took his hand. “Congratulations,” she said softly.

“Congratulations?” It seemed an odd thing to say.

“On making a very tough decision. I know what you’ve been going through, and—and congratulations.”


“You’re welcome.” She leaned back in her chair with a thoughtful expression. “We’ll have to have a celebration. How long will it take to get Oscar back in harness?”

“I don’t know. A couple of minutes? I don’t see why it would take much longer than that.”

“Okay! Friday night, then.” Before he could say a word, she held up a finger. “After you get off shift.” She turned to Sam and stroked his skullplate gently. “You going to be free nine-thirty Friday night, kiddo?”

The nictitating membranes of Sam’s eyeballs slid up and down as he pushed his head against Gina’s fingers. “As long as we have lotsa cake, I’ll be there.”

Wednesday afternoon, Feighan picked Sam up at school. “Got everything?”

“You bet, McGill. Are we—”


They materialized on the marble-topped Flop Table in the corner of the living room. The apartment was spotless, with every piece of furniture in its proper position and not a speck of dust visible anywhere. The air tasted pure but exhausted, as though the cleaning machines had stolen a bit of its vigor on every cycle.

Sam hopped down off the table and raced around the living room, scrambling up over the onyx force couch and crowing with joy.

Feighan stood still for a long moment, afraid to move. Only three months had passed since he had last stood on that tabletop, but they seemed like years.

Sam dashed into the kitchen. Chair legs scraped on the floor and cupboard doors slammed. “Hey, McGill, there’s no food!”

An involuntary smile broke the set of his lips. He stepped down. “Be grateful for that, Sam. Think what the place would smell like if Oscar hadn’t cleaned everything out.”

The kitchen door swung outward and Sam appeared. “Well, are you going to order more? Huh?”

“Didn’t the fat old lady feed you today?”

Sam scuffed all four of his feet on the carpet. “Well, yeah, sure, she did, but that was a long time ago, McGill. Can I help it if I’m hungry again?”

“You keep eating this way, your underbelly’s going to be scraping the sidewalks, you know that? And you don’t have any armor there, either.”

“My legs aren’t that short!”

“Oh, yeah? Let’s just see how much clearance you have here.” He dropped to his knees by Sam’s side and pretended to measure the distance between Sam’s stomach and the rug. “A centimeter, tops. Not a millimeter more. You gain one more kilo, kid—”

“McGill! I got lots more room than that. I got more than you do!”

“Only when you suck it in. And you don’t do that unless I do this.” He threw his right arm over Sam’s back and began to tickle the child ferociously. “Hah? What do you say to that?”

“McGill! Please!” The young Rhanghan squealed in delight. “Stop! Help! Police!”

Feighan said, “Oh no—”

“The resident Sam has called for emergency assistance,” rang a metallic voice. “This computer will now summon the police.”

That was not precisely true: to enable household residents to cancel false alarms before a wave of uniformed cops poured into the living room, Greystein had programmed in a delay loop that prevented Oscar from notifying the police for ten seconds. Hastily, Feighan said, “Tell Oscar to cancel, Sam.”

The child laughed. “It would serve you right, McGill!”

Feighan glared at him.

Sam retreated a step. “Okay, okay! Oscar, cancel: Please do not call the police, I am all right, everything’s fine; do it now.”

“Very well,” said the apartment computer. “Mr. Feighan, you were due at the Flinger Building fifteen minutes ago. Do you require medical assistance?”

About to protest, Feighan remembered that Oscar was still programmed with his—and Greystein’s—old schedules. “No, I don’t need a doctor, Oscar.” He turned to Sam. “Why don’t you go amuse yourself? I have to update Oscar on our new routines, order some groceries, make sure everything’s all as it should be.”

“Can I watch the hovee?”

“Sure. But keep the volume down, huh?”

“Okay.” He scampered off to the kitchen.

Feighan crossed the room to a closed door. He leaned against its frame. You can’t keep avoiding it, he told himself. His hand shook as he turned the doorknob. Aw, geez. He stopped. Drawing himself up straight, taking a deep breath, he marched into Greystein’s old bedroom.

It hurt. Oscar should either have let the dust accumulate here, or gone all the way and packed up Greystein’s books and tools and electronic projects. As it was, the soldering laser lay next to a half-finished circuit board, the glowing screen displayed an intricate schematic, and the whole place was so damn clean that it seemed Greystein would surely be back in a few minutes.

But he would not.


Tears welled up Feighan’s eyes. He tried to blink them back, to set his jaw and wait for the emotion to subside, but everything in the room conspired to evoke memories. In the middle of Greystein’s desk, a holocube commemorated their graduation from the Academy: they stood in early summer sun, arms around each other’s shoulders, mortarboards tilted rakishly and the spinning bands of their energy tunics gleaming through their gowns. On the bookshelf, the souvenir beer mugs: they had taken a week’s vacation and partied their way through Munich’s Oktoberfest together. In the corner, an incubator: Greystein had built it to ensure the successful hatching of the egg a Rhanghan named Sahaang had given Feighan, the egg from which Sam had emerged.

Feighan sat heavily on the edge of Greystein’s bed. His lips trembled. He could not hold back any longer. Giving a giant sob, he buried his face in his hands. It’s all my fault. I’m a jinx. My parents, my best friend  . . .  Rothono and Nadia and all the rest, all dead  . . .  Everybody I touch dies! Oh, God, it’s just not fair! Nor was it true, and he knew it, but as he rocked back and forth, grieving for his lost friend, his lost innocence, he could not make himself believe it.

“Ah, Greystein, I miss you so damn much  . . . ”

He slept poorly that night. He lay tense and wakeful for what seemed like hours before he finally dropped off. And when he had, when his eyes finally closed for the last time, he began to dream.

Sheer white cliffs rose on either side of him. Two hundred meters tall, they stretched into infinity fore and aft. Below, a thin ribbon of water sparkled in the spring sun.

His chest muscles ached with fatigue. He wanted to stop, to rest on the cliff top, chew the seeds in the pouch at his waist, and work on his latest carving. He could not. He had to keep moving.

All around him wheeled clouds of oversized birds. He knew them: his father and mother at twelve o’clock high, his nestmates strung out on either side of his wingtips, the rest of the flock enclosing them all in a great feathered shell.

Those he did not know, he recognized, except for one. He could not attach a name to that beak, though it seemed as familiar as the rest. Larger than most, and golden, it banked suddenly, and soared before him. It spoke with a voice from another world. It was a human voice, a voice that once belonged to a man named Greystein. As it tacked back and forth in his path, it moaned, over and over, “Come to Rehma. I need you!”

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