Article Category Archives: Universe Annex

Content from the Universe annex

The Touch of Iron

 


Ooooops.....

Thanks for opening a story or article on the Gazette!  Sadly, that's all you get as a preview of this one.  

We're really sorry, but with few exceptions the stories and articles in the Grantville Gazette on this site are only available to paid subscribers.

Our columns and editorials are free, along with a few other items, but almost all stories are paid only.

If you want to read the entire gazette, you need to either subscribe here, or purchase a download at http://www.baenebooks.com or at Amazon.com

- The Grantville Gazette Staff

The Company Dick

 


Ooooops.....

Thanks for opening a story or article on the Gazette!  Sadly, that's all you get as a preview of this one.  

We're really sorry, but with few exceptions the stories and articles in the Grantville Gazette on this site are only available to paid subscribers.

Our columns and editorials are free, along with a few other items, but almost all stories are paid only.

If you want to read the entire gazette, you need to either subscribe here, or purchase a download at http://www.baenebooks.com or at Amazon.com

- The Grantville Gazette Staff

Time’s Angel, Part 2

 


Ooooops.....

Thanks for opening a story or article on the Gazette!  Sadly, that's all you get as a preview of this one.  

We're really sorry, but with few exceptions the stories and articles in the Grantville Gazette on this site are only available to paid subscribers.

Our columns and editorials are free, along with a few other items, but almost all stories are paid only.

If you want to read the entire gazette, you need to either subscribe here, or purchase a download at http://www.baenebooks.com or at Amazon.com

- The Grantville Gazette Staff

Time’s Angel, Part 1

 


Ooooops.....

Thanks for opening a story or article on the Gazette!  Sadly, that's all you get as a preview of this one.  

We're really sorry, but with few exceptions the stories and articles in the Grantville Gazette on this site are only available to paid subscribers.

Our columns and editorials are free, along with a few other items, but almost all stories are paid only.

If you want to read the entire gazette, you need to either subscribe here, or purchase a download at http://www.baenebooks.com or at Amazon.com

- The Grantville Gazette Staff

The Company Man

 


Ooooops.....

Thanks for opening a story or article on the Gazette!  Sadly, that's all you get as a preview of this one.  

We're really sorry, but with few exceptions the stories and articles in the Grantville Gazette on this site are only available to paid subscribers.

Our columns and editorials are free, along with a few other items, but almost all stories are paid only.

If you want to read the entire gazette, you need to either subscribe here, or purchase a download at http://www.baenebooks.com or at Amazon.com

- The Grantville Gazette Staff

Spitting Image

spitting-image-banner

The Ozumi Transfer Protocol was 64% complete when Michael Cienega blinked into consciousness like a sputtering light bulb. The sinuses of his chassis tickled with vibration from the neuroprinter. He tried to reach for the spindle jacked into the base of its skull, but its arm didn’t move. No motor function, not with only 64% of his brain transferred and printed to the chassis.

Not much personality, either. Buffer underflow on emotion. That was by design. OTP de-archived and transferred the amygdala sector of the neuroimage last so that none of the human resources panicked when they woke. Terrible for Ozumi client relations to have a half-brained Hero or General thrashing about and damaging the synflesh of his chassis.

That thought triggered a flash of corruption green from his episodic memory. Some association to his employee orientation, but the memory hadn’t yet transferred. The gap was near a cluster of memories of his tour through the Ozumi Biosupport facility, where they stored his empty body while his neuroimage was delivered to fulfill human resource orders around the globe.

Shapes and colors snapped into recognition as his visual cortex came online. Three people, a long conference table, and nighttime cityscape in a multicolored blur through floor-to-ceiling glass windows. First hint about this job: corporate clients in a major city.

That didn’t tell him much; Ozumi had corporate clients on four continents.

He focused on the view: steel and glass skyscrapers, needle-thin spires piercing here and there through a scattering of flat roofs. To the left loomed an office building with two floors lit up like an upper and lower jaw of square yellow teeth, to the right a condominium with a long column of cubicle-sized balconies. One balcony sheltered a garden of hanging plants, another a half-assembled bicycle, a third a paint easel and clutter of art supplies. Red lanterns swung in the night breeze, pinpoint flickers of light against the fluorescent glare of the office buildings.

Nearly every condo balcony had a red lantern. Chinese New Year? That meant Singapore or Hong Kong.

A free-fall sensation swept up from Michael’s toes as proprioception kicked in and his neuroimage integrated with the chassis. A dizzying shift like a camera pulling focus, and suddenly those were his fingers prickling with the sudden shock of neural input. His body, slumped in the white storage cradle. His skull, skewered on the neuroprinter spindle like a chunk of chicken satay.

The chassis had to mean Singapore. A high-quality synflesh chassis wasn’t cheap to maintain, so Ozumi clients in Hong Kong preferred to spin up their human resources in a virtual environment. Whereas Singapore was all about the full-dimensional experience, so clients were willing to pay to have an Ozumi human resource in the synflesh.

Unless that had changed since he’d last been active to fulfill an order. How long had he been in archive? He was a Geek-class resource; his rankings depended on staying up to date with the newest technology. Technology evolved quickly. So did kids growing up without their fathers.

How much time had he lost?

The question took on weight and pressure, but he still couldn’t speak to ask. Mechanically, he could flex his tongue and lick his dry lips, but words slipped past the edges of his consciousness like fluttering grey moths. Aphasia—his language center was still only partially transferred.

Movement inside his peripheral vision recalled Michael to the three people in the room.

A girl with neon pink hair sat on the edge of the conference table, swinging her combat boots impatiently. Her puffy tulle skirt looked like something she’d stolen from a five-year-old’s closet.

Next to her, a boy the same age—early twenties—lounged in a black leather chair, elbows propped on the armrests, fingers steepled. His eyebrows were comic M-shaped arches and his hair was gelled into neat spikes. Trendy haircut, trendy sports jacket.

The last man had salt-and-pepper hair, a fuzzy caterpillar mustache, and an ugly mustard-yellow tie. He was twice the age of the boy and girl, but his stiff posture and two-piece suit pegged him as an underling. By body language, the boy was the alpha in the room; the girl and the man kept checking his face.

“Somebody’s home,” the boy said, staring at Michael. “You can tell. Something about the eyes.” He spoke English fluently, without an accent—definitely Singaporean. The bilingual education policy had been in effect here since 1978.

The girl frowned. “I thought he’d look more impressive.”

Several retorts leapt to Michael’s tongue—the Broca sector must have finished transferring. He had verbal acuity and speech production now. He had to clench his teeth to keep from launching an explanation of the resource selection process. He could talk about algorithms later, once they’d briefed him.

He coughed to clear his throat, and the clients jumped. “Excuse me,” he said. “Transfer isn’t 100% yet, but could you tell me the date?”

“January 31st,” said the girl. “Two days before New Year.”

“What new year?”

“Year of the Dragon.”

Michael shook his head. “What’s that in Gregorian?”

The girl blinked. “What?”

“2060,” said the boy.

2060. Michael felt his mind retreat from the reality of the chassis for a long, rushing moment. Four years.

Just a moment ago, he’d been in east Texas in May 2056, fulfilling an order for a military base camp. Michael’s mother and Sam had driven in from Dallas and rented a hotel in the nearest town, and he’d sneaked away to visit them every night, returning to work in the morning on the wings of espresso. Sam had been five years old, all big eyes under a mop of curly hair, a miniature force of chaos and destruction.

Michael had fifteen orders in his OTP contract. He’d chosen fifteen over five or twenty-five because the fifteen-order contract optimized the balance of personal cost to benefit—years of his life against the generous family support stipend and severance package.

The military base had been his fourteenth order. Freedom had been close enough to touch with synflesh fingers—a few weeks, one month tops, until he could rejoin his family.

And now, in a blink, 2060.

Sam would be eight now. Nine in less than a month, on February 17th.

Grief hit Michael like a needle in the eye, piercing down through his chest and locking up his throat. In its wake came the froth of irrational rage. Amygdala, right on schedule.

“Why is it taking so long?” the girl whined.

Michael swallowed back his rage. The developers had improved the chassis interface since 2056; he could feel the lump in his throat as if it were his real body. His voice came out with a slight rasp. “A neuroimage is several exabytes. On fiber this would take longer than your lifetime, but OTP transfer uses Sosa-Ubunti spaces.”

The boy frowned. “Gina, did you enter the order correctly? No offense,” he added to Michael, “but we need a Hero-class resource. A Hero wouldn’t know a Sosa-Ubunti space from a French pastry. You must be a Geek.”

“The Ozumi resource selection algorithms are very sophisticated,” Michael said. “You may think you need a Hero, but resource selection takes all the factors of your problem into account and finds the best match in the Ozumi database.” The words rattled off his tongue, worn smooth from practice. Clients always wanted a dashing Hero or charismatic Rockstar. Geeks were underwhelming until they went to work.

The neuroprinter made a sudden whirring sound, and the OTP application chimed. Michael turned his head to check the transfer hub display. Checksums matched; transfer complete.

One last order to complete his contract. He could be back home in time for Sam’s ninth birthday.

He detached the spindle from his skull and climbed gingerly out of the storage cradle. The bones in his knee popped when he stepped onto the plush grey carpet.

“Right then. What seems to be the problem?”

****

“What we really need is a Hero,” Gina Ngô said for the fifth time. “Lee, we should call Anna, our client rep.”

Fingers flying across touchscreen controls on the conference table, her brother ignored her. Near his elbow, condensation slid down a forgotten glass of neon green liquid. Alex, the mustached man, had offered Michael a similar glass, but he’d declined in favor of bottled water. That, at least, was familiar; he recognized the bottled brand from his second assignment in Singapore in 2054.

Cursory introductions while they settled around the conference table had identified Lee and Gina as twins and business partners, and Alex as their personal assistant. The glassboard wall showed a flurry of pages as Lee pulled up information. “Our company is called CelebriSee. We license and distribute the SSF neuroimage—you know, for low-res streaming—of two dozen entertainment personalities.”

Michael nodded, though his heart sank. In 2056, Ozumi’s neuroimage format had been cutting-edge, far ahead of the competition. SSF, whatever that was, hadn’t existed, and low-res neuroimage would have been an oxymoron.

Like its computing counterpart the disk image, a neuroimage was a complete human brain in digital format. Unlike a disk image, OTP was a destructive transfer, leaving no data behind. The same technology that enabled OTP to transfer exabytes per hour also timed out on a non-destructive copy, due to some mathematical issue with the homotopy of Sosa-Ubunti spaces. The neuroimage could be moved but copying a neuroimage was impossible. One neuroimage per human brain, no duplicates.

Or rather, copying a neuroimage had been impossible. Four years ago.

Michael popped the catches on his OTP resource kit and examined the contents. A tablet, contact patches and lenses, and a wallet of legacy resources: credit cards and Singapore dollars. He slid the contact lenses into his eyes and powered up the tablet. A translucent overlay flickered at the corners of his vision. Default settings, but he didn’t have time to customize. He switched to keyboard mode and searched SSF.

Information flooded back like a gush of rain on the arid spaces in his brain. SSF stood for Sacks Streaming Format, a new neuroimage format that only stored certain functions. SSF image licensing was popular with public figures like politicians and celebrities, who distributed their neuroimages for marketing campaigns, charity appearances, and book signings.

How did SSF work? The OTP neuroimage had partitions, but you couldn’t transfer just the visual cortex, or just Broca’s area. Compression, maybe. If long-term memory was compressed, working memory would be sufficient to smile and shake hands. A smaller neuroimage could transfer over fiber; it wouldn’t need the speed of Sosa-Ubunti spaces.

“You know who this is?” Lee asked.

Michael cleared away his search results so he could see the glassboard. Lee had pulled up a webpage with chrome-on-black graphic design, featuring a glamour shot of a boy with spiky hair.

Face shot. Might as well be an emoticon for Michael’s purposes. His prosopagnosia, the inability to recognize faces, was a congenital neurological defect, so it came with the neuroimage.

Where was the pop-up from his Façade application? Oh, he hadn’t installed it yet. He hurriedly located and pulled it from the app store.

While the app downloaded, he studied the photo. The boy’s spiky haircut was similar to Lee’s, but Lee had the distinctive M-shaped eyebrows. Michael searched the photo for other clues. Silver earring. No tattoos. No facial hair.

The download over wireless was taking too long. He needed to say something. “I don’t believe so, but do you have video?”

Lee gave away the answer by typing Jonny Milq into the search bar. A music video for a song called “No Way Out” appeared in the results and started to autoplay, a mute whirlwind of limbs and flashing lights. Lee pushed the video out to fullscreen.

A techno beat pumped through the glassboard’s speakers. A floppy-haired boy and backup dancers swiveled and gyrated through a parking garage. Most of the lyrics were Chinese, except “no way out,” repeated in the chorus. The camera kept cutting to close-ups of the boy’s soulful gaze, so despite the leather jackets and gratuitous shots of Lexus and Mercedes grilles, Michael deduced that it was a love song.

A stray thought: what kind of music did Sam like? Was eight old enough to develop musical preferences? Definitely old enough to appreciate the luxury cars in the video, though Sam’s vehicular taste had always run to construction cranes and dump trucks.

A translucent notification scrolled across his vision: Download complete. Michael booted the Façade installer and went through set-up at record speed. A moment later, scope icons appeared and scanned the room, running the facial recognition algorithms his brain lacked.

The app tagged Lee Ngô from his Be U dating profile, Gina Ngô from her myTV channel, and Alex Gāo from a professional networking site. A fourth scope skittered about the music video, jumping off the faces of backup dancers. The camera cut to the floppy-haired boy, and the scope locked on and identified him: Jonny Milq, a Chinese pop star. Just with a different haircut.

“Jonny Milq,” Gina confirmed. Her sneer eased off, replaced by a touch of pride. “The rising star of C-Pop.”

“Is Milq really his name?” He got an incredulous look from Gina, and shrugged. “Just curious. There was a U.S. ad campaign . . .”

“Yes, the hackers dug that up.” Lee opened another video, this one a shakycam with the whites blown out.

After a moment the white-balance kicked in and darkened the image into view—three spiky-haired boys in a coffee shop. Two of them were arguing; one shoved the other and he tripped back and toppled a chair with a crash. The third came toward the camera, his face ugly with anger.

Michael’s Façade scope spun and locked. Jonny Milq, every one of them.

The third Milq spat something at the camera and his palm covered the lens, wiping the video to black. Chrome letters faded up: got Milq?

Michael frowned. “This isn’t one of Milq’s promos?”

Lee shook his head. “Those aren’t licensed SSFs,” Lee said. “We have a distribution contract for Jonny’s image, but the release date isn’t for another two weeks. He’s touring Southeast Asia and doesn’t want his own SSFs stealing his publicity.”

“They’re pirated copies.” Gina pointed at the view counter below the video. “They’ve gotten 7 million hits in two days.”

“Could it be a hoax?” Michael asked. “Are we sure this is a real scene and not CGI?”

Gina snorted. “With that white-balance?”

“Chassis with responsive faces aren’t cheap,” Michael persisted. Façade had identified Milq, so the chassis had his face. Only the high-end chassis reshaped their synflesh to mimic the facial map stored in the neuroimage.

But Gina gave a dismissive wave. “Not here in Singapore. Here they’re affordable enough to be popular.”

“We can’t assume it’s a hoax,” Lee said. “If the hackers have real SSFs and chassis to house them, then this video is just a teaser for something bigger. Jonny is threatening to sue if we don’t contain the leak.”

“You keep calling them hackers,” Michael observed. “You think a third party hacked your system to get the SSFs?”

“No, actually, I don’t.” Lee leaned back in his chair, his boyish face set into grim lines. “Jonny’s SSF is encrypted, but it can be decoded by anyone with the encryption keys.”

Encryption technology changed rapidly, but human nature didn’t. Michael added up the pieces. “You think an insider leaked Milq.”

“That’s why we need a Hero,” Gina broke in, belligerent. “We want to interview our employees, but we don’t want to scare them off. So the interviews will be behind-the-scenes pieces for a company webcast. We need someone who looks like a reporter, someone charismatic.”

“Gina.” Lee pinched the bridge of his nose. “Michael, no offense. We understand that Geek skills are optimized for technical rather than social challenges.”

He didn’t withdraw his sister’s point, Michael noticed. As twins, they would play off each other; Gina could be blunt and rude, with Lee to smooth things over.

“I understand your concerns,” Michael said, “but a technical investigation sounds like what you need. There’s a lot of information in an electronic trail.”

“Not this time,” Gina said.

Michael sighed. “Look. I can explain the resource selection algorithms, but why don’t you see for yourself?” He indicated the glassboard. “Send your order to the Ozumi database again to rerun the resource selection.”

Gina gave him a suspicious glance, but activated her touchscreen and took control of the glassboard. She booted the Ozumi user interface and choose the prompt to create a new order.

Michael folded his arms, waiting. He didn’t have any doubt that resource selection would find him again. The algorithms didn’t make mistakes. He suggested this exercise to doubtful clients because it let him see how they described their problem in the order questionnaire.

Gina used Lee’s description almost verbatim. With a triumphant stab of her finger, she submitted the order for resource selection. The Ozumi logo spun while the algorithms ran through the database.

Resource selected! a pop-up announced. A profile appeared on the screen: Thomas L. Renner, P.I., Hero class. Renner looked like he’d stepped straight out of detective noir: worn tan duster, rugged jaw shadowed with dark stubble, and cap tilted at a rakish angle.

“That’s more like it,” Gina said, with satisfaction.

Lee sat forward in his chair.

Michael stared. Resource selection should have pulled Michael’s profile again. “You must have changed something in the parameters.” The algorithms had built-in redundancy to account for small changes in initial conditions, but apparently not enough.

Gina and Lee weren’t listening; they looked mesmerized as they scrolled down through Renner’s profile. Hero charisma; Michael’s profile couldn’t compete. He was losing them.

If Ozumi recalled Michael and sent Renner instead, Michael would go back into archive. A recall didn’t count towards the fifteen assignments in his contract.

“Look.” His voice was too sharp, so he dialed it back. “You can go back to your client rep at any time, but I’m here and available. Give me security credentials to your system and I’ll do some research, have some information for you by morning.”

Lee tore his gaze away from a list of Renner’s martial arts. “That sounds fair. You can use my office. Alex, get him set up, please.”

****

Six hours later, when the first orange threads of dawn slid through the water of Marina Bay, visible in flashing glimpses from Lee’s office window, Michael had aching eyes, a throbbing head, and doubts.

CelebriSee’s digital infrastructure had prioritized budget over security. Michael had found white papers on neuroimage encryption, but soon realized he didn’t need to understand the latest technology, because CelebriSee wasn’t using it. Their encryption method wasn’t complex: if you had the encryption keys, there were no technical limitations on what you could do with the SSF.

He’d also checked on forensic watermarks as a possible avenue of investigation. Creative content providers such as film studios and music groups watermarked their delivered files with an invisible code. The watermark could later be used to identify which delivery had been pirated. Since SSF neuroimages used the same licensing and distribution principles, they should be able to use watermarks . . . but CelebriSee’s system wasn’t set up to do so.

The Ozumi algorithms didn’t make mistakes. But Gina had been correct—the electronic trail was useless. What did resource selection expect him to do?

He swiveled his chair and stared out the window. Shards of sunlight slanted off glass and steel. The avenue far below was already congested with traffic. Singapore wouldn’t be a bad place to live, except for the humidity. Good public transit. Excellent schools.

He checked the clock. 7 A.M. Japan was an hour ahead; Anna Chen would be at her desk in the client rep bullpen by now. He found her name on his tablet’s contact list.

The tablet made a bubbly ringing noise while it placed the call, then cut off as a girl’s smile appeared. She had a short, sleek bob and a tiny black mole on her cheek. Michael loved that mole—he didn’t need the Façade app to identify Anna, no matter how she changed her hair.

“Cienega!” After nine orders partnered with Michael, Anna knew how to pronounce his name correctly, emphasis on the EN. “You’re active! Been a while, huh?”

“Four years.” Michael managed a smile. It felt stiff on his face. Like a swelling undercurrent the knowledge rose: this wasn’t his face at all, only synflesh molecules polarized to respond to electrical signals from his neuroimage.

He shoved the thought back down. Only rookies deintegrated.

“Four years. Major.” Anna raised her eyebrows. “Where are you now? One of my territories?”

“Yes, Singapore. I’m at a company called CelebriSee.” Michael hesitated. “I was wondering if you could help me out with something.”

“Anything for my favorite Texican. What’s happening?”

“You know clients don’t always trust the resource selection.”

Anna rolled her eyes. “Do I ever.”

“I have them rebuild their order, to show them my selection wasn’t a fluke.”

“That’s smart.”

“Except this time, the order selected Renner.”

“Renner?” Anna frowned. “That’s strange. He’s Hero class.”

“I know. And, frankly, at this point he looks like a better fit. So why did the database pick me first?”

“Maybe Renner just got back from another order?” Anna focused away to the left. “I’ll check.” Her pupils shuttled back and forth as she accessed the database. “No, he’s been on archive for two weeks.”

Two weeks. As opposed to four years. Must be nice to be a Hero.

Anna glanced around and lowered her voice. “Do you think we need to recall you?”

“No.” Michael clenched his fingers on the arms of the office chair.

“But if Renner is the best selection—”

“No. I can do this.” The plastic creaked under Michael’s grip. “I can investigate. I’m not socially inept.”

“Of course not. But . . .” Anna bit her lip. “Your prosopagnosia.”

“I have an app for that. And it’s in my resource profile. The algorithms know about it, and chose me anyway. The first time. The algorithms don’t make mistakes.” His speech had accelerated to a rapid-fire jumble of syllables. He forced himself to slow down, to sound calm. “Could you please take another look at the order? I’d like to figure out why resource selection picked me for this job.”

Anna nodded. “I can check the order breakdown.”

“Thanks.” Michael felt some of the pressure in his skull ease. “Let me know what you find.”

****

“Lots of spreadsheets.” Zhāng Xiùlán, CelebriSee’s accountant, had a soft voice and a strong Chinese accent. “Important to . . . have good record.”

Michael guessed she meant the plural records, but didn’t correct her. He found it condescending when native speakers parroted back the words of speakers with accents. “Do you work closely with the clients, then?”

“No, no.” Xiùlán waved her hands as if embarrassed. “Only to sign contract. Other time, I work with assistant.”

“Right; I guess celebrities have no time for billing.” Michael wiped a bead of sweat from his nose and checked his notes. “So, uh, why do you enjoy working at CelebriSee?”

“CelebriSee is good benefits, good work atmosphere.” Xiùlán nodded. “Very friendly.”

“Cut,” Gina snapped.

Xiùlán jumped, and Michael felt his shoulders stiffen. He’d been trying to forget Gina was behind him with the camera, though the glare and heat from the studio lights made that difficult.

“Xiùlán, I told you not to run over the end of the question. We need clean audio. Try it again.”

The accountant blinked at Gina, confused, and Gina switched to Chinese. Michael’s translation app fired in time to caption only the last few words: bad audio.

Xiùlán had a pained expression on her face, but she obediently repeated, “CelebriSee is good benefits, good—”

“Not yet! We’re not rolling.”

Michael shoved back his chair. “Gina, can I talk to you for a moment?”

Gina’s expression darkened, but she followed him out of the conference room into the hallway.

Michael shut the door firmly behind them and kept his voice low. “Maybe video interviews aren’t the best idea for this. The camera makes people self-conscious.”

Gina’s jaw jutted out. “This is why we needed a Hero. A Hero could put them at ease.”

Michael’s irritation spiked. “Under thousand-degree lights? I don’t think so.” He scrubbed a hand across his face. “Look. Give me ten minutes, and we can restart the interview.”

Gina whirled and headed down the corridor, stomping her combat boots.

Michael took that as a yes and let himself back into the conference room. The heat wave that struck him as soon as he opened the door gave him an inspiration, and he rounded the room, switching off studio lights as he went. “We’re going to take a break to let the lights cool off.”

“Good idea.” Xiùlán helped to switch off the nearest lights. Her nails were manicured and painted a conservative pale pink. In fact, everything about her was conservative, from her sleek haircut to her black loafers. Without a singular feature to make her pop, he was going to have a hard time recognizing her.

“Gina seems to have a strong creative vision,” he said. “What is she doing with the video, do you know?”

“She puts it on her myTV channel.” Xiùlán shook her head. “Good thing interviews are English. My English is not very good, but her Chinese is very bad.”

So Gina wasn’t fluent in Mandarin, even as a Singaporean resident. Maybe Michael wasn’t at so much of a disadvantage. “Does she interview celebrities on her myTV channel?”

“Yes. Sometimes.”

“Clients?”

“After.” Xiùlán frowned in concentration. “She gets clients with the interviews.”

“Oh. So the channel is a marketing tactic for CelebriSee.” Michael hesitated. He was close to the subject of Jonny Milq, but didn’t have a cue to ask about Milq in particular. Xiùlán was his age, mid-30s, past the late-tween-to-early-20s range of Milq’s fan demographic.

Then he remembered another factoid from his night-long research binge: Milq was scheduled for a New Year’s Eve performance tonight on the Floating Platform at Marina Bay. “Is today a half-day for you for New Year?”

Xiùlán brightened. “Yes. One more hour.”

“Are you going to Marina Bay to watch the fireworks?”

“Alex, Hafizah, and I go to watch the parade near Esplanade.” Xiùlán cocked her head. “You want to come with us?”

Michael had met Hafizah from legal in an earlier interview. Have a conversation with the lawyer, the accountant, and the twins’ personal assistant without Gina hovering over their shoulders? Yes please. “I’d love to. Are you going straight from work to the Esplanade?”

“We visit Chinatown first.”

“Sounds good.”

A sharp rap sounded on the door, and Lee stuck his spiky head inside. “Ah, Michael. You’re still here.” He gave Xiùlán a glance, and the accountant muttered something about billing and scurried off. Lee held the door for her politely, then stepped inside the conference room. Gina followed right on his heels, a sulky look on her face.

Michael eyed them. Funny how twins could be so different.

“We’re a bit concerned,” Lee said. His M-eyebrows quirked in an apologetic frown. “Correct me if I’m wrong, but we’re not seeing a lot of visible progress on this case.”

“With respect,” Michael said, “I’m using your methods. This interview approach doesn’t seem to be very effective.”

“I agree,” said Lee. “I think we need to go in a new direction. I want to be upfront: we plan to contact our Ozumi client representative. To discuss our options.”

Even though this was no surprise, Michael felt a stab of panic. “That’s your prerogative,” he said. “But in an hour I’m heading out to spend time with three of your employees. No one is going to say much to their bosses’ face, but in a casual environment, during holiday celebrations?” Michael spread his hands. “They’ll let down their guard.”

Lee looked skeptical. “And if those three don’t know anything?”

“Milq is performing at the Float tonight. We’ll stop by and see what shakes loose.”

“Let’s hope something does,” Lee said, not unkindly. “Milq sent us complimentary tickets to the VIP seats. I don’t want to have to tell him that we still haven’t resolved our issue.”

Michael met Lee’s gaze squarely. He didn’t have trouble communicating with faces, only recognizing them. “It’ll be resolved.”

****

Emerging from the Chinatown MRT metro station into Pagoda Street on Hafizah’s heels, Michael’s first impression of the Chinese New Year street markets was of red. Red tasseled lanterns strung overhead between the pastel shutters of colonial-era shophouses. Red paper cuttings of lucky characters and spring greetings. Piles of red-and-gold ang bao packets for gifting new dollar bills to friends and children. Even the bright green pomelos hung in red netting from stall rafters.

Crowds packed the corridor between the stalls, moving in turbulent jerks. The smell and smoke of barbequed meat filled the air, rising from the sheets of bakkwa sizzling on stall grills. Music chimed gōng xǐ gong xǐ gōng xǐ nǐ from hidden speakers, punctuating the dull roar of human voices. Michael’s Façade scope spun wildly from face to face, flashing IDs too fast for him to read.

He tapped his fingertip against his palm to increase the latency of the scope and dial down its sensitivity. The scope readouts slowed, clearing his vision. He’d fallen behind the others, but could see Hafizah’s headscarf—white, not red, thankfully—bobbing through the crowd just ahead. He dodged past a cluster of schoolgirls and rejoined Alex, Hafizah, and Xiùlán at a display of stuffed zodiac animals.

Alex picked a shiny, spiky ball off a hook on the rack. As Michael watched, the ball uncurled. Triangular facets rotated and clicked, and the ball reformed into a tiny dragon. It crawled up over Alex’s hand to his arm and stretched fluttering wings.

“Aluminum nanopaper.” Alex brushed a finger over the dragon’s back, and it snapped at him with needle-thin teeth. “Year of the Metal Dragon.”

“The centerpiece at New Bridge and Eu Tong Sen is similar, but made of steel,” said Hafizah. To Michael she explained, “Students from SUTD design a light-up centerpiece of the zodiac animal. Their Metal Dragon is ten meters tall, made of steel nanoblocs.”

“Like the big brother of this guy.” Michael nodded to the tiny nanopaper dragon.

“Very big brother,” Xiùlán said dryly, and they all chuckled.

“You want bigger nanodragons?” The stall vendor popped her head around the display. “Come this way.” She waved them over to a plastic playpen. Inside, ten-inch long dragons prowled back and forth, their tiny claws clicking.

Michael admired the snaky undulation of the dragons’ metallic scales. Sam had gone through a dragon obsession. He wondered if the vendor offered international shipping for nanodragons. Or should he send home Sam’s zodiac animal? “What year was 2051?”

“Metal goat!” answered the vendor. “You want a goat?” With a deft twist, she snagged a nanodragon and flipped it upside down, revealing a chip on its underbelly. The dragon squirmed as the vendor pulled a laser pointer from her pocket and clicked it at the chip. The dragon disintegrated into a flurry of metal shards. The shards spun up again into a twister and reformed into a goat.

The vendor set the nanogoat into the pen. It shied back from the dragons, tossing its horns and stamping its cloven feet. “Transformer,” the vendor explained. “You can load the algorithms for any animal, any shape.”

“Any shape?” Michael pursed his lips. Sam would definitely prefer a dragon to a goat, even a metal goat. “Do you ship internationally?”

“Yes, place an order here and our online store ships.” The vendor cocked her head and studied Michael. “Rénzào rén, yes?”

Michael blinked. “Pardon?”

The vendor beckoned him. “I have LAG modules for rénzào rén.” Michael’s translation app kicked in belatedly, captioning the word as man-made man.

Seeing his frown, Xiùlán leaned in and murmured, “She recognize the chassis.” She indicated his body.

“Ah.” Michael rolled his shoulders uncomfortably. “What’s an LAG module?”

“It sounds familiar,” Hafizah said, “but I don’t remember why.”

They trailed after the vendor to a glass display case near the back of the stall. The case held thin silver rods that looked like smaller versions of a neuroprinter spindle. The vendor gestured to the far left. “Math modules, yes? Good for arithmetic.” Another section of spindles. “Reading and writing skills. This one? Speech writing. Popular with parliamentary aides. Here? Poetry. Helps with the metaphors.”

Michael fought the urge to step back. “These are neuromodules?”

The vendor bobbed her head. “Enhancements.”

“What about languages?” Hafizah asked.

The vendor shook her head. “Languages are not LAG. Not centralized, the brain architecture is different for bilingual, multilingual, secondary language. Too dangerous.”

LAG had to stand for left angular gyrus, Michael realized. The world had changed a lot in four years, if street vendors were neuroscientists now. He pointed to the spindles. “These aren’t dangerous?”

The vendor shrugged. “SSF have lots of free space.”

“I know where I heard of these.” Hafizah leaned across Michael’s shoulder. “The school board banned chassis in class because students would send in an enhanced SSF to take their tests.”

“I’m not an SSF,” Michael told the vendor. “I’m an Ozumi image.”

“Ozumi?” The vendor’s eyes widened. “Even better! Permanent enhancement!”

“Permanent brain damage, more like,” Alex muttered.

Michael agreed. He couldn’t reconcile the idea of plugging a neuroprinter bought off the street into his only brain image. But he couldn’t help wondering: if they had an angular gyrus module, could they program a fusiform gyrus module? Overwrite the abnormalities and eradicate his prosopagnosia?

A buzzing sound in his ear alerted him to an incoming call. The notification scrolled across his contact lens: Anna Chen.

“Excuse me, I should take this call.” He stepped away, leaving his three companions to argue over the LAG modules, and activated the call as voice-only. “Anna, hello.”

A pause. “Where are you, Cienega? I can barely hear you.”

“Chinatown street market. I’m hanging out with three CelebriSee employees, getting the inside scoop.” Except they’d been talking about nanodragons and neuroimages, not CelebriSee. He pushed down guilt. “Did you find out anything from the resource selection?”

“I can’t figure it out,” Anna admitted. “Renner has more matches for localization. He lived in Singapore for a few years before contracting with Ozumi, so he’s proficient in Mandarin and knows a smattering of Malay. Your technological skills far surpass his, of course, but the order generated more social engineering than technical requirements.” She hesitated. “Lee sent me an email about discussing our options.”

“Did he.” Michael felt a surge of anger. “He was on board with my plan when I talked to him.”

“I guess he had second thoughts.” Anna hesitated. “Cienega, look, I don’t want to do this to you, but we have to consider a recall.”

“I have it under control. Milq is performing here at Marina Bay tonight. Something will break.”

“And if the clients don’t want to wait that long?”

“Too bad. Make them wait.”

Anna’s silence was faintly disapproving.

Michael softened his voice. “Anna, if I’m recalled, it might be another four years before I see my kid again. Sam will be thirteen. A teenager.” His voice choked in his throat, and he coughed to clear it. “Give me a chance. Stall the Ngô twins.”

Anna sighed. “I’ll try. I can get you tonight. I can’t promise tomorrow.”

“That, no one can.” Michael ended the call. Noise from the street market rushed back in. The New Year song, on infinite loop, had returned to the chorus: Gōng xǐ gong xǐ gōng xǐ ni ya, gōng xǐ gong xǐ gōng xǐ ni.

****

            The Milq performance was scheduled after sunset on the Floating Platform. Xiùlán, Hafizah, and Alex wanted to get good spots to watch the Chingay parade, so they descended back down into the MRT to head to the waterfront. The volume of people on the MRT had doubled; Michael found himself squashed up with someone’s elbow in the small of his back, someone’s hair brushing his chin. He found himself wishing he could deintegrate brain from body at will, retreat from the physical sensation of the chassis.

When the door slid open at Promenade, Michael flushed out with the crowd onto the platform. He had a moment of vertigo when he realized he’d lost his companions. So many faces, indistinguishable, in the mass of people. He dialed up the Façade app’s sensitivity, but the scope was unhelpful, picking up the corner of an eye, the shape of a nose, pinging false positives.

“Are you okay, Michael?” Xiùlán’s voice came from the woman in front of him.

He blinked. Had she been in front of him the whole time? “Uh, yes. Just . . . a lot of people.”

“Yes, crowded. Don’t get lost.” Xiùlán linked arms with him and moved toward the exit. Gratefully, Michael fell into step.

Damp heat and the salty smell of the marina struck him when they emerged into open air. The crowd thinned slightly, enough for Alex and Hafizah to rejoin them. “Think of the business applications,” Hafizah was saying.

“We’re discussing language learning neuromodules,” Alex explained.

“Aren’t Singaporeans already bilingual?” Michael asked as they walked towards Raffles Avenue. “Don’t you know English in addition to your native language?”

“Sure,” Hafizah said. “I’m fluent in Malay and English, Alex in Mandarin and English. But that only works if you’re doing business with English-speaking countries. Xiùlán emigrated from Hong Kong and didn’t know any English till she got here.”

“Two years ago.” Xiùlán held up two fingers. “Two years I learn English.”

Michael blinked. “Wow. That’s impressive.”

The Chingay Parade barricades came in sight, dotted with clusters of spectators. They found a gap wide enough for Hafizah and Xiùlán to squeeze up against the rails and the taller Michael and Alex to hover over their shoulders. Even as they settled into place, more spectators crowded up behind them.

“What about the Ngô twins?” Michael had to raise his voice slightly over the noise of the crowd. “Not bilingual in Mandarin, I’m guessing.”

“Vietnamese and English,” Alex said. “They took Mandarin at university, but aren’t fluent.”

“Gina seems to think she is,” Michael said, and was rewarded by sudden grins from Alex and Xiùlán.

“Gina’s a character.” Alex shook his head. “She’s crazy for Chinese pop culture. Sometimes I think she only became a CelebriSee partner so she could meet the clients.”

Michael wanted to hear more, but the noise from the crowd surged suddenly as bright colors flashed into view down Raffles Avenue. The parade’s front ranks were approaching. Michael felt the crowd press harder against his back as people packed into a solid wall of flesh.

A troupe of lion dancers led the parade, their bulging green eyes fierce under fuzzy red eyebrows, their square-toothed mouths flapping open in mock roars. Under cascades of ruffles, their front and rear legs ducked and weaved in fluid sync. Close behind came the lion dancers’ drummers in red robes with gold ribbon.

Following the drummers came a float with revolving spotlights that swung across impossibly contorted human bodies in spangled gold suits. When the spotlights converged, the bodies unfolded, curling upward like a bean sprout, and twisted into a multi-sided scaffold. Chassis acrobats, their joints modified for flexibility.

That was trickier than it looked, Michael knew, to integrate your neuroimage with the proprioception of an inhuman chassis. And then to revert back to your human body afterwards. People had gone mad in the early days of OTP, until Ozumi refined the synflesh chassis to a close approximation of the human body.

Seven years since Michael had been in his real body, since his neuroimage had been uploaded and his body stashed in Biosupport. He didn’t even remember what it felt like to wear real nerves and muscle instead of synflesh.

The next float was a giant silver nanodragon prowling in slow motion on its platform, bearded head bobbing. On either side, stylized trees floated past. When they got closer, Michael saw the tree bearers were young children a few years older than Sam. No, wait—Sam was eight now, so around the same age.

A commotion stirred the crowd, and one tree abruptly flailed and toppled. Two young men scuffled out into the road, shoving and yanking at each other, trampling the fallen tree cutout. A child’s high shriek curdled the air. One of the musicians behind the float, a barrel-chested trumpet player, stepped out of line to haul the fighters apart.

While the musician bent to retrieve the tree for the child, one young man leaped back over the barricade and plunged into the crowd. The other followed in hot pursuit. They both had the same haircut, buzzed short enough to see the round grey mark of a chassis port at the base of their skulls.

“. . . one of clients.” Xiùlán said, next to him.

Michael snapped to attention. “What?”

Hafizah nodded to the retreating back of the two chassis. “Xiùlán said she thinks that’s one of our clients.”

Michael felt a chill. The chassis in the got Milq teaser had worn responsive synflesh faces like Michael’s own, the molecules polarized to mirror the neuroimage map of facial sensation and muscle memory. But Façade would have told him if . . . no, he’d dialed the sensitivity back down at some point to cope with the crowd. A sick certainty gathered in his throat. “Which client?”

“I don’t remember name.” Xiùlán’s eyebrows crinkled. “Chinese pop star? Very popular in Hong Kong.”

“Oh, right.” Hafizah snapped her fingers. “The rude one. Um, Jonathan? John?”

“Jonny?”

“That’s it. Jonny Milq. Did he rent those chassis from us?”

Michael didn’t wait to hear Xiùlán’s answer. He vaulted the parade barricade, just as a team of dancers in yellow swept up. Flaring daffodil skirts swirled in arcs around him, blocking his vision. The Façade scope flickered off the dancers’ painted faces and told him they were a brand of popular dolls.

He pushed through the dancers and fetched up against the barricade at the other side. There wasn’t an inch of space along the rail; the crushing pressure of the crowd squeezed the front rank shoulder to shoulder.

Logic kicked in, dampening his panic. He didn’t need to follow the Milqs by sight. A few blocks away at the Floating Platform, the real Milq would take the stage in thirty minutes. That couldn’t be a coincidence. The SSFs were going to crash his performance.

He turned and sprinted down Raffles Avenue, outpacing the parade. Lights and music and faces blurred past him like a time-lapse video.

As he ran, he dialed up Façade to maximum sensitivity. How could he have been so stupid? The Milqs would have walked right by him if Xiùlán hadn’t recognized them.

Scopes flickered and popped, identifying faces in the shadows, the bushes at the side of the road, the fractal shape of the Floating Platform’s petal stadium seats in the sky ahead. The petal seats rose in layered tiers, supported by lace-like nanosteel. They’d already revolved up and out into closed-petal configuration around the Float, tilting the VIP boxes forward to give them a premium view of the stage.

There had to be an access path to one side of the stage. Michael took the path left, racing down the endless outer curve of the stadium. Finally he broke into a tiny park dwarfed by the looming nanosteel structure. Two unmanned barricades blocked the stadium access route.

Michael vaulted the barricades and plunged out onto the apron of the Float, right into the blinding flash of stage lights. Instead of music, the air was filled with shouts from the spectators and stage.

The spots cleared from Michael’s vision. Four young men faced off on the stage. One screamed a long string of what had to be obscenities, because Michael’s app refused to translate. Another stalked back and forth. A third let loose a burst of sneering laughter. The last was making faces at the crowd; he planted his feet and gave thousands of people the middle finger.

The Façade scopes locked on: Jonny Milq, Milq, Milq, and Milq.

“This is my performance! Get off the stage.”

“They’re my fans, you imposter!”

“You’re both imposters; my chin doesn’t look like that!”

Michael couldn’t tell which Milq was saying what; the translation app’s captions overlapped over their heads. All four of them had buzzed hair, but he couldn’t see the chassis neuroprinter port at this distance.

“I’m going to call security!”

“You do that, they’ll throw you out on your—” The caption dropped out without punctuation, but translation was unnecessary.

Even an SSF had to maintain the integrity of his memories and self-image. All of them thought they were the real Milq. How could Michael contain this?

He looked out on the churning crowd. They were out of their seats, some with stunned expressions, others shouting in outrage. The spectators in the VIP boxes, only ten meters above, were leaning past the lip of the petals to gawk. The nearest box had three teenaged girls; their faces were full of horror and dismay.

“You’ll regret this!” a Milq howled behind Michael. The teenage girls flinched, and one started to cry.

He couldn’t contain this, Michael realized. The damage was already done to Milq’s public persona, his charismatic image shattered in the eyes of thousands of fans.

Michael saw a flash of pink hair in the next VIP box and squinted. Helpfully, Façade identified Lee and Gina Ngô. Lee’s M-eyebrows were spiky points of fury.

The fourth Milq withdrew his middle finger, turned his back to the crowd, and mooned them all.

****

Anna called Michael as he sat on the edge of the Floating Platform in the wreckage of Milq set pieces, swinging his chassis legs. “I got the message from the Ngô twins.”

Michael stared through her translucent image at the lights gleaming off the dark water. How many miles of water lay between here and the U.S. west coast, if he leaped into the bay and just kept swimming? Out into the Singapore Strait, past the islands of Indonesia and the Philippines and into the vast expanse of the Pacific Ocean.

“I asked to set up a call in half an hour to talk it over,” Anna said, “but I don’t know what else I can tell them.”

“I know.” Michael’s face felt numb. “I blew it, Anna.”

Anna bit her lip. “You’ll get another chance. Resource selection will pull you for another assignment, one where you’re perfect for the job.”

“Will it?” The words were acid-sharp on Michael’s tongue. “It pulled me for this one, and it couldn’t have been more wrong. I was the worst choice—” The words swiveled into place like a petal seat; his jumbled mental scaffolding resolved into a coherent shape. He stopped dead.

“You’re not the worst choice. It just didn’t work out. It happens.”

“No, I am.” He sat up straight. “Anna, are there any other resources in the database with congenital neurological defects?”

“Uh.” Anna looked confused, but typed a query. “We have Wei Yau, who’s dyslexic.”

“Is that a Chinese name?”

“Looks like; both Mandarin and Cantonese are in her language list.”

“Too good then.” Michael dismissed Wei with a wave. “No, on profile, I am the single worst resource for this job. That can’t be coincidence. Do me a favor; check for an RSO.”

“RSO? I’ve never heard of that before.”

“Resource Selection Override. It should be under the summary tab.”

Anna frowned. “It says yes. What does that mean?”

Michael felt laughter swell into his chest, a bubble of exuberance. “It means resource selection didn’t pick me. A human did. A human went in, overrode the algorithms’ resource selection, and purposefully picked the worst resource in the database.”

Anna’s eyes widened when she made the connection. “I’ll check the audit logs for a user.” Her fingers flew over the touchpad. “Got it. Gina Ngô.”

“Gina?” Michael’s thoughts jerked and swirled. “That doesn’t make sense. She kept trying to get me recalled.”

“Maybe you were better than she hoped?” Anna suggested. “If she needed the resource to botch the job?”

“Gina has to be the leak then. But she’s a partner. Why would she sabotage her own company?”

“Can you figure it out in half an hour?”

Michael took a breath. “I’ll try.”

“I’ll conference you into the call. Good luck.” Anna hung up.

Wrecking CelebriSee’s reputation was obviously not a business strategy, unless the twins were more devious than they’d shown. That meant a personal vendetta. Did Gina have a romantic relationship with Milq? They were about the same age. Had she known him before he became a CelebriSee client?

Gina’s myTV channel. Xiùlán said she interviewed celebrities and gave them the CelebriSee sales pitch. Was that how she’d met Jonny Milq?

Façade had linked to Gina’s myTV page when Michael first met her. He activated the UI and scrolled through recent identifications to the previous night. Gina’s pink hair popped up, and he followed the link to her myTV channel. The page skin was a pink-and-black confection of hearts and skulls. She had ninety-eight videos. Michael tried searching Milq but got nothing.

He could dig through the different videos for a clue. Or try to crack her account to access the raw footage. But that was a Geek’s method. This job needed a Hero, had needed a Hero the entire time. What would Renner do?

A door slammed behind him and a voice rose angrily. Michael twisted to look over his shoulder. Milq crossed the stage, gesticulating to the fruit stains and cracked set pieces. This was the real one—the police had taken the three chassis into custody after they dispersed the mob. Beside him, a girl with gold-streaked hair and glasses nodded and typed something furiously on a tablet.

Before he could think twice, Michael climbed to his feet.

As he approached Milq, the pop star turned snapping black eyes on him. “Another man-made man?” he asked in Chinese. “Are you associated with CelebriSee?”

Michael couldn’t tell for sure, but he thought the app had dropped a few words from Milq’s translation. Cautiously, he said in English, “Yes, I’m an investigator for CelebriSee. Do you have a moment to talk?”

Milq’s nostrils flared, and he spat something. No translation. Michael was getting annoyed by the application’s refusal to translate obscenities. If there was anything a foreigner needed translated, it was insults. If . . . when he discharged his Ozumi contract, maybe he should develop an app to translate obscenities in different languages.

Then he imagined Sam leaning over his shoulder while he compiled the database of vocabulary. Maybe not.

Milq switched over to English. “What do you want?”

Think like Renner. Renner was an old-school private investigator. And he didn’t have prosopagnosia. Michael dug the tablet out of his pocket, activated the display, and pulled up Gina’s myTV profile picture. “Do you know this girl?”

Milq pursed his lips and studied the photo. “Familiar. I don’t remember name. Reporter?”

Strike out a romantic relationship, unless they’d had a brief fling and Milq had too many women to remember. In that case, Milq’s assistant might have kept track, for legal reasons. Michael tilted the tablet so they could both see the profile picture. “Did she interview you?”

The assistant peered at the display, and nodded. “MyTV channel girl,” she said in Mandarin to Milq.

“Her?” Milq squinted at Gina’s face. “Oh, yes. She wanted to do the interview in Chinese. I couldn’t understand half of what she was saying.”

The assistant switched to English for Michael. “She kept calling to do another interview. Very persistent.”

Not a spurned lover, then, but a spurned fan. Alex had said Gina was crazy about Chinese pop culture and celebrities. Crazy enough to sabotage her own company?

“So you weren’t aware that she’s a CelebriSee partner?” Michael asked.

Milq frowned. “Lee is CelebriSee CEO.”

Michael nodded to Gina’s image. “She’s his business partner. And his twin.”

“What? Twin?” Milq blinked, stunned.

So Gina wasn’t a visible part of CelebriSee’s operations. Michael ducked his head to Milq and the assistant. “Thank you for your help; I have what I need. We’ll be in touch.”

He stepped away across the platform, turning all the pieces over in his head. Alex had said Gina was only a partner so that she could meet celebrities. In Michael’s briefing session with the twins, Lee had relayed all the information about licensing and distribution contracts. Gina had only shown enthusiasm for the viral popularity of the got milq teaser video.

The teaser video. He’d checked the CelebriSee infrastructure for technical clues like encryption and watermarking, but he’d never checked the video of the leaked SSFs.

He ran a search and located the video on the Splash video hosting site under username gotmilq. Splash offered a download option; the download counter flicked steadily upward through the upper range of five million. Michael added himself to the stream, choosing direct download of the original video file. Then he navigated back to Gina’s myTV channel and chose her About Me video. He had to circumvent the user interface to get the original video file, but soon both downloads were in progress to his tablet.

An incoming call buzzed in his ear. Anna. The conference call.

The downloads were only half finished, but he was out of time. He’d have to wing it.

“. . . unacceptable,” Lee was saying in a clipped voice when Michael joined the conference call. From the image reflected from the dark window behind the Ngô twins’ heads, they were back in Lee’s office at CelebriSee.

Anna’s video showed that she was still at her desk in the Ozumi bullpen. Her eyes gleamed with anticipation, but she kept her tone respectful. “I’m very sorry you had to experience such an unpleasant scene.”

“And he’s handicapped!” Gina broke in. “We looked at his profile. He has prosopagnosia! Face-blindness!”

“So I do,” Michael agreed mildly. “But you knew that when you selected me.”

Gina jerked back in her chair, pink hair fluttering like a panicked flamingo. A flush crept up her neck to her cheeks.

Lee looked between them, M-eyebrows crinkling in confusion. “What are you talking about? The Ozumi database selected you.”

“A resource selection override was activated for this order,” Anna explained. “During an RSO, a user can bypass the database algorithms and hand-pick a human resource.”

“User?” Lee stared at his twin. “Gina?”

“I . . . didn’t know he had prosopagnosia!” Gina burst out. “I didn’t see that part. I thought he’d be good for encryption.”

“Unfortunately,” Anna said smoothly, “an RSO voids our satisfaction guarantee. We’ll be happy to deliver Mr. Renner, but you’ll need to place a new, billable order.”

“Why didn’t you let the resource selection run itself?” Lee asked Gina, exasperated.

He didn’t see the full picture yet, Michael realized. He still didn’t suspect Gina was the leak.

What would a Hero do?

A Hero didn’t need evidence; a Hero leaped to conclusions and brazened it out.

“You needed me, but not for encryption,” Michael told Gina. “You needed me because I was the worst person for the job, but the best person to embarrass Milq, who humiliated you during your myTV interview.” He angled the tablet so that they could see past his shoulder to the distant figures of Milq and his assistant. “He said your Chinese was awful.”

Gina’s mouth dropped open. “My Chinese is excellent! He’s an obnoxious prat!” She saw Lee’s expression. “But I wouldn’t sabotage CelebriSee for some spoiled little pop star.”

Lee’s eyes flickered uncertainly between Gina and Michael. “Michael, what’s the basis of this conclusion?”

Michael gave up on trying to be a Hero. He wasn’t good at it. If he was going to win this case, he’d win it as a Geek. He checked his download status: both videos were complete.

“Gina was right on one thing,” he said. “I am good for encryption. So I’d like to show you something.” He shared his screen, so that the twins and Anna could see the two video files.

“I have here the got milq video and a video from Gina’s myTV channel.” He located the video info plugin on his tablet and scanned the two files. “This is information embedded in the two videos.” He scrolled down and found what he’d hoped to see; a surge of triumph swelled in his chest.

With effort, he kept his voice calm and pedantic. “See how they both have the same writing library? Both these videos were edited in myStudio.”

“That doesn’t mean anything,” Gina said. “Millions of people use myStudio.”

“Yes, and every one of those millions has a myStudio license with a unique watermark.”

“Watermark?” Lee squinted at the videos on Michael’s screen. “I don’t see any watermark.”

“Not a visible watermark, a forensic watermark. It’s a binary pattern in the pixels of the image.” Michael navigated to the myStudio watermarking site. The page hadn’t changed much in four years; the watermark scan was still free to use. He selected the two videos for upload.

Since both videos were under two minutes, the upload and scan didn’t take long. In less than thirty seconds, the icons for each video flashed green: myStudio watermark identified! Beside each video popped up a long alphanumeric barcode. The two were identical.

Michael let out his breath in a silent exhale of relief. “Same watermark, same myStudio license.”

He gave them a moment to let it sink in, let their brains grasp what they were seeing: Gina’s About Me video beside the got milq video of pirated Milq SSFs, flashing matching watermarks from the same copy of myStudio.

Gina had gone milk-white; her mouth bobbled like a goldfish.

“We can get a name for the license,” Michael said, “but we’ll need to buy a paid subscription to the myStudio watermarking database.”

“That won’t be necessary.” Lee’s face was like stone; he didn’t look at his twin. “Let me get back to you.” He dropped out of the call abruptly.

Michael and Anna blinked at each other. Anna began to grin. “Lee said ‘me.’ Not ‘us.’ ”

“Twin deintegration.” Michael’s head was pulsing with adrenaline; he sucked in a deep breath of air.

“You did it!” Anna laughed. “I give it half an hour before he calls back to close the order.”

We did it,” Michael corrected her. “You bought me the time I needed.”

Anna shrugged. “We’ve worked together a long time, Cienega. I knew you’d come through one last time.”

One last time. Fifteenth order. He was done. Michael couldn’t quite grasp the reality of it yet, but he felt it somewhere deep in his head, like the sky lightening from blue to gold just before sunrise.

“You might have to hang out there in Singapore for a few hours.” Anna’s eyebrows furrowed as she checked her other screen. “The OTP nodes are queued up for inbound transfers. But we’ll get you back here tonight.”

Michael grimaced. “I’m not looking forward to walking back into CelebriSee to get to the hub.”

“Worried they’ll give you trouble?” Anna shook her head. “Don’t be. We’ll sue them into bankruptcy. You’re still an Ozumi asset until you sign off on the severance paperwork.” She swiveled away toward her other screen. “That reminds me; I’ll message Biosupport to pull your body from storage.”

“Take your time,” Michael said. “I need to pick up something.”

****

“Back again, rénzào rén?” The nanodragon vendor beamed with delight. “Changed your mind about the LAG module?”

“No, I want to order a nanodragon to ship. I can buy other preloaded shapes too, right?”

“Yes, lots of animals.” The vendor picked up a tablet from behind the counter, swiped and tapped a few times, then handed it to Michael. “You choose. When you’re done I’ll take shipping information.”

Michael scrolled through the nanoshapes, watching the preview image transform from tiger to dragon to ram to snake, zodiac animals and many more.

Dragon? Of course.

Tiger? Yes, perfect. Sam had been obsessed with big cats, before dragons and after construction cranes.

Spider? Bad idea. Sam would love a spider but Michael’s mother would beat it into sub-nano pieces with her cast iron skillet. And he himself didn’t want to wake up to a nanospider walking across his face if Sam decided it would be funny to sneak it into his bed while he slept.

He chose a monkey instead, approved his selection, and handed the tablet back to the vendor.

“Ship to?”

“Sam Cienega.” Michael gave his mother’s address in Dallas. The nanodragon would arrive before he would. Biosupport had muscle massagers and nutrient management, but essentially his body had been in an induced coma for the past seven years. He had a lot of physical rehab ahead.

The vendor smiled at him. “Your son?”

“Sam? No.” A son would have been easier. Michael wasn’t looking forward to puberty and the terrible teens. But he still wouldn’t trade Sam for all the boys in the world. “Sam’s my daughter.”

In his head, the edge of the sun broke the horizon with a wash of light and heat; joy surged through his amygdala. He was going home. The smile that cracked his synflesh face felt as wide and mighty as a Hero’s. “The nanodragon is her birthday present.”

****

 

A Green Tongue

A Green Tongue Mini-Cover

The thing swayed ever so slightly in the interrogation bay. Purple streaks ran vertically up a midsection I would best describe as a thick trunk. Limbs sprouted from the trunk with flat pads at its ends that looked remarkably like leaves. On its top perched an enormous maw—closed like a flower waiting for the dawn—with faint hints of orange hiding within. It stood five feet tall, was mostly green, and sat inside a tub filled with black dirt.

“You’re kidding, right?” I said to General O’Sullivan. “It’s a plant.”

“You are a member of the Diplomatic Corps, are you not, Mr. Mann?”

“Yes, but—”

The general raised a hand, stopping me in mid-sentence. “This specimen has been determined to be the sentient species of this planet. According to the Confederation Articles of Galactic Expansion, contact must be established with the dominant native species before any commerce, military, or scientific outpost is made permanent—”

“If the dominant species shows signs of intelligence,” I finished for him. I looked at it again. It had nothing like a hand, lacked any receptors that would be useful for communication—like speech or sight—and was permanently affixed to one space. “But it’s a plant,” I whined. “How in the hell am I supposed to talk to a plant?”

“You managed to talk to a fish, didn’t you?”

I grimaced at the general. I received plenty of admiration from the Confederation when I established contact with the Tunish, but cute pranks still plagued me every time I was reassigned. Usually, a goldfish in a fishbowl—or the native equivalent—would be waiting to greet me in my new office with a pasted note begging “take me to your leader,” or something equally as lame, stuck to its side. My first thought was this was a cleverer version of that running joke, but General O’Sullivan struck me as man who wouldn’t tolerate such nonsense.

“The Tunish already had a means of communication,” I said. “They had a sophisticated form of body language with vocal signals that complemented it. Piecing it together was hard but they were cooperative once they realized what we were up to.” I swept an arm at the monstrous pansy. “This thing, is a plant; a term that’s universally accepted as a euphemism for an unresponsive life form. Just look at it.” I stared at it for a moment, almost hoping the thing would prove me wrong by waving a branch at me or something, but it didn’t move so much as a stem. “It’s . . . primitive building material . . . an oxygen cleanser . . . shade for a rodent . . . cow food . . . a plant!”

O’Sullivan grasped his hands behind his back and stared down the bridge of his nose at me. “Are you telling me that I, my leading scientist, and everyone who has been on this station more than a day, are wrong, Mr. Mann?”

I buried my face in my hands. He’s serious. I shook my head and cursed the Sub-Secretary of Alien Affairs for tricking me into accepting this assignment. I drew in a deep breath and tried something that never worked before—talking sense to a general.

“Sir,” I started. “There are forty-seven known planets where multi-celled life exists, each one evolving its own form of chlorophyll-based life—plants. But plants can’t communicate and aren’t capable of forming an intelligence, despite having a billion-year evolutionary head start on every planet where they’re found. Plants aren’t built for intelligence; they’re plants.”

“I don’t care what you know, what you’ve learned, and any other preconceived notions you had before,” said the general. “This species is different. Alien intelligence is supposed to be your expertise. Do your job and open up a dialogue with it, so we can do ours.”

I glared at the thing, sitting in its tub of dirt while it soaked in the bay’s artificial light. If the flower was capable of experiencing any feelings at all, this one had to be full of contempt. I grimaced. How in the hell am I supposed to communicate with a plant?

“What makes you so sure it is sentient?” I asked.

“By demonstrating an ability to defend itself, assess a threat, and adapt.”

I arched an eyebrow at the general then looked at the alien flower. “Go on.”

“There have been six attempts to establish a base on Darvolock. Every structure has been destroyed. Eighty-seven people have set foot on the planet. Over half have been confirmed as dead or lost.”

I turned to study him, not sure if I heard him correctly. “What do you mean by lost? I thought everyone assigned to expeditions had to have a nanite locator.”

“They are. All traces of the first two expeditions are completely gone. All the equipment, clothing, and organic matter were completely absorbed by the jungle, right down to their microscopic tags.”

“Absorbed as in overgrown?”

The general led me to a viewer. “This is the third expedition viewed from orbit shortly after it landed.”

The ship looked like a troop lander, minus all the intimidating weaponry. The round vessel landed in a clearing surrounded by trees covered with vines and plants similar to ferns, the landscape looking very much like how the Amazon must have appeared centuries ago.

“The hull is an iron-based flexible-carbide composite, common material for spaceships. Tough stuff with all types of alloys and proto-polymer material woven into its fabric, resistant to almost everything. Here is a time-lapse archive.”

Flowers, like the prisoner in the interrogation bay, turned their maws toward the landing vessel. Vines wormed out of the ground and slithered like snakes over the ship, constricting around the landing pads. I saw men—sped up at ridiculous speeds—exit the ship, working to free it from the vines. They must have used lasers because the vines momentarily began to pile up. Then new vines from the flowers went after the men. A battle commenced. Fallen men were dragged back into the ship.

Two minutes into the show—two hours in real time—the first landing pad was sawed free. Men again exited the ship with what looked like flamethrowers. Flowers fell, as did men when silverish plants sprang up that resisted the fire. Again the men retreated. A minute later into the film, a rescue vessel landed and took off seconds later with the crew.

“Here is what happened to the lander, one day at a time.”

Vines swarmed the vessel. Like butter left in the sun on a warm day, the vessel shrunk with each frame. It took ten frames for the ship to disappear.

“They dissolved it?”

General O’Sullivan nodded.

“There must be a pool of metal under all that vegetation.”

“You would think so but no. Spectral analyses and scans confirm not a trace of it is left. You could burn the jungle down and you wouldn’t find a rivet.”

I looked at the prisoner plant behind the glass window with a new measure of respect. Deceptive bastard, aren’t you?

“So why land in the jungle? Planets are big. Go where they don’t grow.”

“Have you had a chance to view Darvolock yet?”

The station orbited the planet but I hadn’t the time to sightsee. My orders explicitly said to report to the general when I arrived.

“No sir.”

The general led me to a port window. The greenest planet I’d ever seen filled the frame. Behind it loomed Darvolock’s sister planet, a blue methane world whose name I had yet to learn.

“This species covers every inch of this world. You’ll find only a limited number of insects and plants coexisting with them. No ice fields, deserts, or rolling prairies, only jungle. Just one big planet-wide tropical forest.”

I tilted my head and narrowed my eyes at the green world. “No oceans? What about the poles? Shouldn’t it be colder and dryer there?”

“The oceans are covered with pond scum twenty feet thick, a very fertile surface for them. As far as the poles, this world maintains a consistent temperature. You won’t find a rain cloud anywhere. Fog in the morning, but that’s it. The theory is the plants have irrigated all the water. A really humid place with one season—sticky.”

I was astounded, a single species covering every square inch of a space. The surface might as well be an ocean of acid. “So the native life doesn’t want to share their world. Why not let them keep it?”

“Multi-dimensional cartology isn’t your strong suit, is it?”

I shook my head while feeling my face flush.

“Noticed the lopsided barbell-shaped blue sun? That’s Spica A and B, 16 AUs away. B is four times larger than Sol. A is twice its size. They circle so close both stars are distorted. They kick out enough solar activity to sterilize Earth, even at this distance. Darvolock has a magnetic field three times stronger than ours, and its Neptune-sized partner makes for the third counter-gravity well. A big battery with a big partner to help offset time-and-space.”

It took me second to piece it together. “Wormhole generation?”

“Several,” he said. “As in fourteen, most going to unexplored systems.”

I shook my head in disbelief. Multiple wormholes were rare. Five was the most discovered in one system.

“And one leads back to Alpha Centauri,” added the general.

Two jumps to Earth. I almost doubled the number of jumps I ever made to get to this wormhole dead end.  Darvolock was more than a life-sustaining world. It represented the Panama Canal of space.

I looked back at the flowery monstrosity. “You try herbicides yet?”

“I’m surprised at you, Mr. Mann. What you’re suggesting is xenocide.”

I glared at the general. The Confederation’s policy may appear progressive to the public, but I knew the military employed an aggressive speak softly and big stick approach in dealing with new worlds: Hit it with the big stick first then try speaking softly to it second; an effective Machiavellian tactic.

“Yes, we tried it already,” he admitted. “Three times. They’ve adapted and managed to counteract the poisons each time.”

Can’t beat em and the planet is too important to ignore.

I sighed. This was going to be a long assignment.

“Where would I find the bar?”

****

I signaled to the bartender for another shot of whiskey, my third, cursing my immediate superior for tricking me into accepting this assignment. He promised he would submit me for an Earth position if I could establish contact. He was eager to get rid of me. I was cocky, and I had a problem with keeping my mouth shut. At my honoring party for my part in making a treaty with the Tunish, I got drunk and boasted the Corps would be nowhere without me, promising I would be ‘running the dump’ in a month—not very wise when most of the people at the party were my superiors. Since then, the Corps utilized my talents by transferring me to every backwater post it had. News of my idiotic display, and success as a ‘fish talker’, preceded me everywhere I went. Darvolock was supposed to be my ticket out of my self-made purgatory. I had to hand it to my boss for finding an impossible task for me to complete.

I downed the shot and went back to nursing my fourth beer when a man with a metal arm sat next to me.

“Mr. Mann?” he said while offering his good hand for a greeting. “I was told I’d find you here. I’m the stations xeno-ethnobotanist, Daniel Smyth.”

“Plez-sure,” I slurred. “What happened?  Got too close when feeding the fern?”

“In fact I did. One of the plants wrapped a vine around my forearm. I lost a pint of blood and my ulna and radius disintegrated before I freed myself.”

I sat up, embarrassment spurring momentary sobriety. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean . . . ”

“Don’t mention it,” he said while he signaled the bartender. “But take my arm as a warning. Don’t trust the Tulips. They bite.”

I dug into my pocket and popped a sobriety tab. Saying stupid things while I was drunk was my trademark, and the last thing I needed was to collect a fresh batch of enemies the first day on the job. The tabs had an effective lifespan of ten minutes, so I knew I’d be swaying again very soon.

“Did I hear you right?” I asked when he scooped up the shot of golden liquid the bartender set before him. “It ate your bones inside your body?”

Smyth nodded, then downed his drink. “They like calcium, and iron, and a lot of other chemical compounds Earth plants wouldn’t touch. Damnedest species I ever came across. Like locusts except they do eat everything.”

Visions of a melting lander danced in my head. A chemical compound predator. The galaxy had no shortage of species that would subsist on metals and acids, but never had I come across one that could absorb anything. I was sure chemical engineers and xeno-biologists would be curious to know how, but the how wasn’t going to help me.

“Why would plants eat metal?”

Smyth shrugged and reached for the beer the bartender slid down the counter his way. “A topographical survey confirms the planet’s surface doesn’t have much in higher elements, so the Tulips hoard it when they find it. Don’t know why, it’s not like they’re hiding plant cities underground. The best theory we’ve come up with is it’s an evolutionary redundancy. An autopilot reaction they haven’t kicked, yet.”

I sipped my beer and looked at the impossibly green world in the lounge’s observation window and frowned. How ironic that the most valuable piece of real estate in the galaxy was off-limits because of a weed.

“Why would the plants be hoarding iron?” I asked. “This planet is supposed to have a strong magnetic field. Shouldn’t it be loaded with iron?”

Smyth nodded. “Tons of it, all of it at its core. Scans of the surface show it’s covered in peat moss, bogs, plants, but hardly any metals.”

“No volcanic activity?”

“Oh yeah. It has three active ones. The only spots on the planet that aren’t green.”

I sipped my beer and gazed at the green world below. A planet without metal covered by a species that can’t get enough of it. It didn’t make any sense.

****

I set up shop with a view of the prisoner and spent the next three weeks pawing over bales of reports. Darvolock proved to be an enigma of a planet. Dan was right. Despite its strong magnetic field, the surface appeared to be almost devoid of metals. It had continents but not much for mountains. The surface was caked in decaying vegetation hundreds of meters thick. If O’Sullivan’s men could ever establish the twin bases on opposite sides of the planet, they would have to scrape away all the swamp scum and import the material needed to build the power pyramids for wormhole generation. But first an understanding needed to be reached with the natives, and I wasn’t having much luck.

Plants were not my thing. An old live-in girlfriend once bought a bunch of them to liven up my apartment. They all died a week after she left; a fitting metaphor for our relationship. The Tulips (I had gotten used to using their slang name) proved to be tougher to figure out than I hoped. I attempted a dozen tactics to reach our prisoner—negative stimuli, positive stimuli, sound vibrations—it reacted the same way every plant I ever knew reacted, by sitting in its dirt and soaking up all the artificial sunlight it could.

Their anatomy showed they were nothing more than an ordinary plant. They lacked crucial organs—like a brain—higher life forms needed, but their actions proved they were as dangerous as any predator discovered. It was their strategic capability that concerned O’Sullivan the most.

I watched recordings of previous expeditions. O’Sullivan’s men would try a new tactic with each attempt. Early success would turn to complete failure every time. The Tulips would be waiting when they landed—acting like innocent sunflowers bathing in the blue rays of Spica—then all hell would break loose. While replaying one disastrous battle, I noticed a small red flower bloom from a leaf of a Tulip.

I called Dan. He shrugged when I showed him it. “Pollinating. You see the dragonfly thing? They’re attracted to the red variety. The Tulips have been known to bud up to five different types of flowers. Each one attracts a different insect species.”

“Is that common?”

“No, but I wouldn’t read too much into it. The different flowers could be their way of cross-pollinating so they don’t interbreed.”

I replayed the film, grimacing as I weighed Dan’s conclusion.

“Not buying it?” asked Dan.

“I know of a dozen emerging intelligences that rely on other species to help them breed, feed, and defecate. The galaxy has no shortage of species that will exploit the labors of a lower intelligence for their own benefit.”

“Like man and horse?”

I pointed at him and smiled. “Good example, but there are better ones. There is a feline/marsupial race on Altair Five that exploits an herbivore to build their shelters for the brutal winters. I’m wondering if we’re viewing the works of a puppet master species, one hiding in the shadows.”

Dan frowned then shook his head. “I doubt it. If you don’t count the Tulips, those insects represent the highest form of life on Darvolock.”

“I can’t count the Tulips.”

“Why not?”

I leaned back into my chair and retrieved a holographic-anatomical schematic of our prisoner.

“They don’t have the wiring for a higher intelligence. They lack a nervous system. Nothing in them can carry the electrical impulses required for higher thought.”

Dan looked at the plant then narrowed his eyes at me. “I’m not sure I can agree. The Yuplin is a species that have nothing like our brains, yet they’re considered intelligent.”

I punched up a schematic of a Yuplin. A hairy and squat creature without a neck replaced the Tulip. It had long arms they used for yanking out grass and pulling down leafy branches for it to feed. Short, thick legs were needed to support its bulky body. The creatures lived under an orange sun and lumbered about with all the enthusiasm of a grazing cow. If it wasn’t for the duck-billed mouth, you’d have a hard time identifying its head.

“True, the Yulpin don’t have a central processing unit like ours.” I pointed at the glowing lines of bio-electrical energy intersecting throughout its body. “But they do have a network of nerves to carry electrical impulses. Their nervous system doubles as their brain. The Tulips have nothing, so aren’t capable of intelligence. They’re plants.”

“My specialty may be in plants but I know a nervous system doesn’t define the intelligence of a species,” said Dan. “There are plenty of creatures that have a complex nervous system that aren’t much brighter than an earthworm.”

I shook my head. “The nervous system isn’t what makes the intelligence, but it is the requirement for intelligence. It’s like the old electrical grids of Earth when power plants generated electricity for civilization. The electricity traveled along power lines.  It’s the lines that the Tulips . . . ”

I stopped.

The lines. Long strands of copper; metal.

I dug for a geological survey. “Anyone else find it odd how a planet with a strong magnetic field has practically no metal on its surface?”

Dan pursed his lips and shook his head. “It wouldn’t be the only one. Could be the way it was formed. More than a few cooled with all the heavier elements pooling at the core.”

“Not when they have active volcanoes and continents that drift.” I showed him the topographical survey. “Look. No mountains. I recall reading a chemical analysis of several Tulips, they all had trace elements of metals in their anatomy.”

Dan shrugged. “So? That wouldn’t make them unusual. We have trace elements of metals in us. Our blood is loaded with iron.”

I arched an eyebrow at him. “And your bones have calcium.”

He looked at his metal arm. I punched up a recording of a particular disastrous expedition. The soldiers wore heavy-G suits, ripping Tulips out from the roots as they attempted to swarm them. As always, what looked like a promising strategy turned into catastrophe. Water began to seep from the ground and pool around the heavy-G-suited men’s feet. They started to sink. Vines crept around their shoulders and pulled them in. A man drew a cutting laser. The shades of silver formed over vines that were targeted, slowing the effect of the laser. I froze the frame and zoomed in.

“Look closely,” I said and advanced the recording, extra slow. Silver leaked from the skin of the vine, crinkling like aluminum foil. “When I saw this, I couldn’t help but think how this looked like the lining of a spacesuit. Now watch what happens when the laser strikes it.”

A white flame burst from the silver skin. It changed color. Green, then a brick red, a bright orange that was followed by a hot blue.

Dan leaned in, a puzzled expression was on his face. “That’s odd. What does it mean?”

“I’m not anything close to an expert but I believe laser cutters cut at a constant temperature. Those flames reminded me of an experiment a chemistry teacher of mine performed long ago.” I rewound it back to the orange flame. “That’s what the flame looked like when he put fire to calcium.”

Dan manipulated the vid for a moment, studying the flames.

“Assuming you’re right,” he said. “Calcium is a poor flame retardant. Why would the Tulips use it?”

“Trial and error,” I said, as I took note of all the insects flying within the battle zone in the recording. “It’s how evolution operates.”

“Not that quickly it doesn’t,” countered Dan. “But intelligence can. Trial and error solutions are a mark of sentience.”

I nodded. “Yes it can be, but I’m not convinced who is performing the trial and error experiments. I have a hunch on how to find out. Does this station have a device that can detect weak magnetic fields?”

“I don’t know. I’m sure the engineers can make a scanner that can do the job. What are you hoping to find with it?”

I stood and stared at the prisoner plant in the next room. “A nervous system.”

****

The Chief Engineer was skeptical when I explained what I needed. He was quick with excuses, complaining about how busy they were while promising to get on it as soon as he could. I thanked him then marched to General O’Sullivan’s office. A working low-yield magnetic field scanner was delivered to my doorstep in six hours. Just for the fun of it, I sent it back with instructions to increase its range. Two hours later, a technician came back with an improved model. I asked if he could stay behind to operate it. Before he could protest, I called the general and Dan to let them know the experiment was ready.

The tech linked the scanner to the station’s holographic mainframe. A 3D representation of our prisoner rotated in my office. Glowing lines intersected and ran all through the Tulip.

“What are we looking at?” asked the general.

“A nervous system,” I said.

Dan kneeled, tracing the paths of the brightest pathways with a metal finger. “How could we have missed this?”

“You didn’t,” I said. “You said you found traces of metal in them, you just mistook it as part of their basic chemistry.”

“This is how they use iron?” asked the general. “To create nerves?”

“Some of it is iron.” I pointed at a bright pathway Dan had become enamored with. “This I suspect is copper or maybe gold. They make a better conduit than iron. Think of this as an electrical grid that runs on bio-electrical energy, a substitute for an organic nervous system.”

“So you’re saying this is what happened to our ships?” asked O’Sullivan. “To create a network of nerves?”

“Oh no. There may be a little bit of our material in our friend, but I’m sure what we’re seeing here came from Darvolock itself.”

Dan stared up at me. General O’Sullivan looked just as baffled as he did. He turned to face the xeno-ethnobotanist.

“I thought this planet had no metal.”

“Not now it doesn’t,” I interjected. “It’s been mined out.”

I walked to the port window and tapped on its glass, pointing at the green world below. “Look at it, sir. The entire planet, every square inch, is covered by a single species. It’s changed the weather, eliminated seasons, exterminated all its rivals; did it all over an entire world. Now, imagine if every Tulip had as much metal as our friend here. They picked this world clean.”

The general turned from the window and studied the hologram. “How the hell could a plant know it could use metal as a nervous system?”

“Evolution.” Dan’s eyes were wide.

I could see the realization of my proposal hitting all at once.

“A distant ancestor likely absorbed chemical compounds that were toxic to an herbivore. Over time, that ability adapted and turned them into master chemical engineers and the dominant species of the planet.” Dan turned to look at the Tulip in the next room. “And it’s going to be their downfall.”

It was my turn to be stunned. “How so? They reached the pinnacle of evolution. Their actions proved they’re capable of adapting to anything thrown their way.”

Dan shook his head. “Their actions proved that they’re starving for essential minerals. This world is overpopulated, way overpopulated. They probably haven’t the ability to control their numbers and they won’t be able to sustain their levels much longer. This world is on the verge of an apocalypse never seen before.”

I saw a glimmer of hope in O’Sullivan’s eyes. “When?”

“It won’t be tomorrow,” said Dan. “Or in a year. The soonest? A few decades. Maybe ten thousand years on the outside, but collapse it will.”

The general pointed at the base of the holographic Tulip. “What’s going on down there?”

The Tulip’s roots glowed with activity. The magnetic field detector showed it to be alive with electricity.

“That must be its brain,” said Dan.

“I’m not so sure,” I said. “Wasn’t it part of a larger root system? I recall in a report that they had to cut it away from one.”

“I believe they did,” said the general. “What are you thinking?”

I turned and smiled at the technician who had been standing behind us quietly, listening to us the entire time. “I’m thinking engineering needs to build us another scanner.”

****

We watched from the safety of the station as a scanner-equipped lander hovered meters above Darvolock’s surface. The floor of the jungle, through the enhanced image, looked like the jumbled mess of wires you would find in an ancient electronic machine.

“It looks like one big brain,” said Dan.

“Is that what we’re dealing with?” asked O’Sullivan. “A single entity?”

“Looks like that is the case, sir,” said Dan.

“Not so fast,” I said. “You see all the insect activity? I noticed in other vids how they swarm whenever a ship of ours is on the scene. From orbit, they’re nowhere near as thick.”

“So?” countered Dan. “Just look at all the electrical impulses below the surface. Tell me that isn’t complex thought we’re seeing. All the Tulips are connected. It’s a collective mind. I’d bet my salary on it.”

“If the Tulips are all connected then why would they need insects for pollination?”

Dan opened his mouth then closed it, apparently thinking about what I said.

“There is an emerging species on Hatrac 4,” I continued. “They have a high percentage of conjoined births—one in five. Some of their children are joined at the brain yet each half has their own independent thoughts. To communicate, they have to talk to each other.”

General O’Sullivan waved a finger at the holographic jungle floor. “Then what is all this?”

“I am only guessing, but if Dan is correct about the Tulip’s mineral shortage, this could be part of a highway for essentials. Chemical compounds relocated to where they’re needed. To move so much material would require energy. I’m betting this is the power supply for a complex conveyor belt.”

That sparked an argument between Dan and me. The general listened to us spar for a full minute before he decided he had enough.

“I just want to know one thing,” he shouted above our raising voices. “Can you talk to it?”

I pursed my lips together and thought for a second. “I don’t know, but I have a theory. I need bugs.”

****

O’Sullivan wasn’t happy about sending men to the surface for bug collecting. The scout ship that was sent down grabbed a dozen specimens, and managed to come back intact. Dan’s expertise was the closest thing the station had to an entomologist. He analyzed the pollinated fluid the insects stored in a sac while I watched over his shoulder.

“What’s the verdict?”  I asked.

“It’s alien nectar, with one small difference. Each insect has a trace element of metal compounds in it. The dragonfly has iron. The green butterfly, copper. Each species carries something different.”

“Any other differences?”

“None that I can see, but this may be outside my field of expertise.” He motioned at the magnified display of the nectar.

I leaned toward the screen and frowned. The superimposed red fluid had a hexagonal block structure. Slivers of silver were skewered into some of the blocks.

“Find anything I should be made aware of?” Dan asked.

“If you were an alien species that came across a book and you broke down its molecular structure in hopes of finding an answer to its purpose, what would you find?”

He leaned back into his chair and rubbed his chin. “Organic cells from the paper with traces of chemical compounds used to make the ink.”

“Exactly.”

“You’re still going with your theory that the Tulips are individual entities?”

“I’m still not convinced they’re intelligent but I’m sure we’re not dealing with a single mind.”

Dan threw up his hands then punched up a vid of the scan of the jungle floor. “Look at all the activity. You could power a twenty-first-century city with what we’re seeing here. If this isn’t a brain at work, what is it?”

“If you did a similar scan of Earth a thousand years ago, you might conclude the same thing from its electrical grid.”

“But it’d be obvious that you were seeing an advanced society at work.”

I pointed at the Tulip in the other room. “Not to everyone and likely not to this species. I’ve learned over the years that our point of perception is unique in the universe. The same goes for all the rest of the intelligences we’ve come across. This life form is the most alien I’ve ever dealt with. I’ve been studying them for almost a month and still not sure how they sense the world around them, but I am sure they do sense it.”

Dan crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow. “I agree. They’re the most alien creatures I’ve ever come across myself. Doesn’t mean they aren’t able to see us as intelligent counterparts. They’ve adapted to every tactic we tried against them, and did it on the fly. That alone supports my contention that they’re a single mind. They’ve identified us as a threat. Intelligent beings do that, and an intelligent being would recognize intelligence when it sees it.”

“They’re plants,” I countered. “That makes them unique. All through the galaxy plants are used as raw material. From their perspective, we’re the raw material. I can’t even fathom what they would consider to be a society, or even guess if they could grasp the concept of a society. They probably have no idea what we are, but are hoping we keep coming back. We are what they need.”

Dan frowned. “Well, in the words of the general, ‘can you talk to it?'”

I grinned thinly at him. “Rule one for First Contact Diplomats: All sentient species love to gossip. Eavesdropping is what we specialize in. All it takes is finding the right type of cup and a thin wall to press it against. If they’re individuals, they gossip. I just got to find out how.” I walked over to a jar holding a red dragonfly. “Let’s see what happens when we release this guy into the next room.”

I opened the jar and ushered the dragonfly into the interrogation bay. The Tulip immediately reacted. Its enormous maw turned toward the insect. It lifted a limb. A red flower bloomed in the crux of a leaf. The dragonfly landed and fed. Twenty seconds later, it took flight again. The red flower retreated into the Tulip’s limb.

Figuring out how to retrieve the dragonfly proved to be our biggest problem. No one wanted to go into the interrogation bay to get it. When it flew near the quarantined access door, a lowly aide was sent in with a net.

What we found in its fluid caught us all by surprise. Traces of a dozen different elements, all of which were found inside the interrogation bay. A scanned inspection was made of the bay. Fine scarring was found on every panel, surface, and crevice. The Tulip left its mark on anything it could reach, even the pot in which it was planted.

“Looking for an escape?” Dan joked.

I shook my head. “I think it was tasting its surroundings.”

“Now what?” he asked.

I set my hand in my chin. I really didn’t know. Then it hit me.

“We take the dragonfly back to the surface and deliver its message.”

****

General O’Sullivan was not thrilled with the idea. The way he saw it, we were hand-delivering secret documents directly to the enemy.

“What’s it going to tell ’em?” I asked. “Help. I’m being held captive aboard a spaceship?”

The scout ship released the dragonfly near a cluster of Tulips while we watched from orbit. One immediately opened a red flower. It sat and swayed, as if contemplating what it absorbed. A moment later, it lashed out a vine and captured the dragonfly.

“That was new,” remarked Dan.

The Tulip then opened a half-dozen flowers. Insects swarmed them. They flew to other Tulips. They repeated the original Tulip’s blooming. Clouds of insects fanned out, as if they were spreading the word. The first Tulip reopened its red flower. Our dragonfly flew from the Tulip’s grip and fed off it. It then launched.

“Don’t let that get away!” I screamed at the pilot of the scout ship. The dragonfly darted. The cluster of Tulips all closed their flowers. It took a few minutes, but our men finally managed to recapture it. I couldn’t wait until they brought it back up it to the station.

****

General O’Sullivan wanted us to dissect the dragonfly. I preferred to leave it be. We struck a compromise and extracted the fluid. It had traces of iron salts in it but appeared to be no different than the previous sample.

“What’s it say?” the general asked.

“Gibberish, now that we disturbed it. We shouldn’t have messed with it.”

He glared at me. “Then put it back in the bug.”

“It’s alphabet soup now.” I swished the fluid in the test tube. I was so close to breaking this enigma but worried I wouldn’t get any closer than this. I already considered re-injecting the nectar back into the fly but knew whatever message it held was likely lost. Confusion would likely be the result when our Tulip extracted it. That gave me an idea.

I set the tube on its perch and placed it on the floor of the buffered quarantined connector. I closed our side and opened the door into the bay. The Tulip lifted its maw and turned it toward the tube. It snaked a vine across the floor, found the tube and dipped its tip into the nectar. Its maw opened wide, revealing orange overlapping petals within. It pulled the tube in and sucked up the nectar. It closed its maw tight and whipped its vine, smashing the tube on the far wall.

“That didn’t go well,” said Dan.

“Oh, it went better than I hoped,” I replied. “Our friend recognized something was out of the norm. I am convinced it is more than a simple flower now.”

“Intelligent?” asked Dan.

I shrugged but added, “I am leaning that way.”

“But can you talk to it?” asked the General.

I shook my head. “I still don’t know, but I know how I might find out.”

****

My request for man-shaped figurines of carbon, filled with proportional amounts of the basic compounds found in all of us, did not go over well with the engineering department.

“He wants us to make dolls for him now?” I overheard the chief engineer yell while walking by his department. “What does he think we are? An arts and crafts store?”

I detoured to the general’s office to impress upon him the importance of the figurines. He assured me that they would be a top priority, promising a dozen would be at my office in an hour. A box of a dozen was delivered at my doorstep fifty-eight minutes later.

Dan took one of the six-inch-tall men out and examined it. “Bearing gifts?” he said.

“You betcha.”

I set one of the men in the quarantined connector and opened the buffer once I was safely outside. The Tulip slithered a vine out, finding the figurine. It ran its tip over it and swayed.

“Curious,” Dan said. “Now what?”

I answered by putting on a spacesuit. Dan eyed me as if I had lost it.

“You can’t be serious.”

I grabbed a figurine and jammed a sliver of copper in one of its hands.

“About time I earned my pay.”

I stepped into the connector and took a deep breath, reminding myself that I did dumber things in the past.

Yes, but you were drunk, myself answered back.

I waited for the doors to do their job and stepped into the bay. I set the figurine before the Tulip and took a step back.

The Tulip was aware of my presence. It turned its maw to face me, slithering a vine cautiously toward the figurine on the floor.

“Careful,” said Dan in my headset. “They’re quick. Your suit will protect you, for a while. And remember, I’m the only one in here and it might take a few minutes before help will arrive to get you out.”

I watched as a second and third vine sprouted from opposite branches, hating Dan for reminding me that I was completely on my own if the worst happened. The Tulip’s vines unfurled as they touched the floor, coiling next to its pot. I eyed them as if they were vipers ready to strike.

“I’ll be okay,” I said, wishing my voice didn’t crack with fear.

Sweat rolled off my brow and down the ridge of my nose as the probing vine crawled over the figurine. The Tulip went rigid when it touched the sliver of copper. The vine curled around the figurine. I reached down and snatched the doll. It coiled around the figurine tighter and tugged but I refused to let go.

“Not so fast, big boy,” I said to it as I pulled the figurine toward me.

“Look out!” Dan’s voice shouted in my helmet.

The other two vines unfurled and rushed toward me at my flanks. I stomped on the one on my right, pinning it to the floor under my heavy boot. The other vine grasped my wrist and constricted.

“Help is on the way,” said Dan.

“Good,” I replied. I grabbed the vine holding the figurine and yanked. The lower half of the figurine broke and shattered on the floor. I still held the end with the copper. “But tell them to stay out there until I get this worked out.”

The vine under my foot thrashed. I leaned more weight on it. With my free hand I grabbed the vine that held my wrist and snapped it. I jumped back as the third vine lashed out at me. I retreated toward the wall where the smashed test tube rested.

“Mann, what the hell do you think you’re doing?”

I glanced at the window to my office. General O’Sullivan glared at me from the other side of the glass with four soldiers standing behind him.

“Reaching an understanding with our friend.”

The Tulip’s maw was partially opened and faced me. Pointing at me like a radar tower tracking its target. Vines swept the floor, searching for my feet. I backed away, carefully, lifting a foot to avoid a probing vine.

I reached the wall. I crouched and felt on the ground, keeping an eye on the vines while searching for the busted tube. I found it just as vine touched the tip of my boot. The three vines converged. I held out the broken tube, touching its smooth side to a vine.

A vine wrapped around my arm while the other probed at the tube. The maw to the Tulip opened wide when it tasted the traces of nectar inside.

“Come on,” I said as I shook the tube. “Prove to me you can reason.”

The Tulip swayed. Its maw opened and closed. It still held my arm in an iron grip but kept itself at bay.

“Hold on,” said General O’Sullivan. “We’re coming in.”

“Don’t,” I said, not believing my own ears when I did. “Just give it one more minute.”

I froze. Sweat clouded my vision. If the Tulip could feel my heartbeat, it would likely know that I was filled with panic. It wrapped another loop around my arm with its vine, then withdrew the other two back into its branches. A moment later, a red flower bloomed from one of the branches.

“Get a dragonfly,” I whispered through clenched teeth into my headset.

It took half a minute for the crew to release an insect into the room. It found the flower and fed. The dragonfly launched and fluttered into the connector, disappearing out of my field of vision. Two minutes felt like an hour. Finally, Dan’s voice announced the results into my headset.

“It has copper in it.”

I touched the vine gripping my arm with the sliver of copper. The vine unraveled from my arm and snatched it away. I watched it melt into the vines fabric. Then the Tulip opened another flower, this one a vibrant blue.

“That one attracts a green bee,” said Dan. “Give me a second.”

I edged along the wall. The Tulip’s maw tracked me but held its vine at bay. I entered the connector just as Dan set a bee free. He handed me a net and shut the door. I watched the bee land on the flower. It took longer to feed than the dragonfly. It launched in flight. I snatched it out of the air as it flew near the door. I punched the button closing the door to the bay. The door behind me opened. I stepped out and handed the net to Dan.

I peeled out of the suit. General O’Sullivan stood opposite of me with his arms crossed, glaring at me with his hard eyes.

“That was the most foolish thing I have ever witnessed. Do you have any idea what would have happened if that thing got inside your suit?”

“Yes, sir,” I said. “You would have gotten your answer on whether I could talk to it or not.”

Dan waved me over. He had the fluid extracted from the bee and fed it into the analyzer. He leaned toward the screen and turned it to show me.

“It’s tin.”

I turned to General O’Sullivan and smiled. I was relieved and filled with pride. “We have made contact.”

****

I downed my third shot and went back to nursing my fourth beer when a man who once had a metal arm sat next to me.

“You’re back,” I said to Dan. “Your arm looks great. How was Altair?”

He flexed his cloned arm for me. “It was wonderful. I feel like a new man. How are the negotiations coming along?”

I lifted my beer. “Been a tough two months but we finally have an agreement. The Tulips are clearing two areas on opposite sides of the planet for us. Costing us a bundle in metal but fortunately this system is loaded with asteroids rich in it.”

The bartender set a beer in front of Dan. Dan raised it in a toast.

“Congratulations. You’ve made big news back there. I even ran into friends of yours in the Corps. They say Earth has plans for you.”

I sat up. The bureaucrats rarely acknowledged anything outside Earth’s atmosphere.

“Your friends sent their congratulations,” said Dan. “And wanted me to give you a gift. I left it on your desk.”

I sat my beer down and made a beeline to my office, my buzzed brain imagining my wish of a reassignment to Earth was about to be granted.

I opened my door and saw an Earth tulip in a vase on my desk. A gold necklace with a locket was draped around its stem. I opened the locket and cringed when I read what my ‘friends’ from my old office had inscribed in it.

NEED MORE BLING.

****

 

 

The Flood

Ash figured thirteen was much too young for a human to survive on her own. It wouldn't be long before Jaelyn would need to do just that, though. The least Ash could do was prepare her for the inevitable.

The monsoon season on Buncombe's northern hemisphere was winding down when he took her on her first hunting trip. They had supplies packed away in their shelter, but fresh meat would be a welcome change. She celebrated the occasion by painting bars and blotches on her forehead—a crude replica of Ash's own tattoo.

He wasn't sure how to feel about that.

He winced while she hopped from wet rock to wet rock, his old plasma rifle banging against her side. His one-time drill sergeant would have gone berserk at the sight of a weapon treated so carelessly, but the rifle—a souvenir of the war between Buncombe and the Collari Union's GenMod soldiers—would not discharge accidentally, so Ash said nothing.

They reached one hill's wooded crest, and Jaelyn pointed to an abandoned building down by the river. "Look," she shouted, barely audible over the rain. "Behind the old Arden place."

He followed her gaze to the homestead, abandoned since before the war. Weeks of precipitation had uncovered a cellar door neither of them had seen before.

"Do you think it's a bunker? Maybe the Ardens are hiding in there. Maybe they don't know the Jimmies are gone."

"They're not in there."

The Jimmies had been bred by the Collari to be faster, stronger, and more perceptive than ordinary humans. Once the cloned soldiers dropped on Buncombe's surface, the colonists never stood a chance.

"Well then there might be food inside." She ran down the hill without waiting for his reply. Halfway down she slipped on a muddy patch.

"Dammit!"

She climbed to her feet and walked carefully the rest of the way to the cellar. They didn't bother with the house itself—they'd picked it clean long ago.

It was a bunker, and inside they found a stockpile of canned food, along with other household goods. Ash loaded his pack with cans by the gray half-light spilling in through the opening overhead, while Jaelyn fiddled with a sealed door in the back. Minutes later, a whoosh of air signaled her success.

Her squeak of surprise made him pause with a can half in his pack.

"Um, Ash? Tell me again about the war."

He sighed. She'd been fascinated with the Jimmies ever since she learned they were responsible for killing her parents. "What do you want to know?"

"You fought in it."

Ash detected an unaccustomed tremble in her voice. He crossed to the door, which led to an airtight storage compartment. Jaelyn stood with her back to him, silhouetted in the glow of a long-dormant emergency light, her coat dripping rainwater onto the stone floor.

"You know I did," he said.

She stepped aside, and Ash's gaze caught on a shape on the compartment's floor. A perfectly preserved body, mirroring his own, right down to the identification tattoo on his temple.

"Which side were you on?"

"Jaelyn—"

She bolted from the cellar before he could frame an explanation. He followed her out of the cellar, but she was out of sight by the time he climbed to the surface. He closed his eyes and listened, and heard her quiet sobs from the other side of the house. He circled around and found her, beside the engorged river, scrubbing the makeshift tattoo off her face while the water raced past.

She grabbed the plasma rife when she noticed him. He held his hands out in what he hoped was a non-threatening gesture.

"You left out the part where you were a Jimmie," she said.

"The war's over. There are no more Jimmies. No more colonists either. Only stragglers like us."

"Did you kill my parents?"

He eyed the barrel of the plasma rifle and swallowed. "Probably not."

"You don't know."

He shook his head.

She lined him up in the rifle's sight. A small part of him was pleased to note that her form was perfect.

"If you want me dead, you just have to wait," he said. "GenMod soldiers don't live beyond a couple decades. It won't be long now. In the meantime, why don't you let me keep helping you."

"Why? What do you want?"

 


Ooooops.....

Thanks for opening a story or article on the Gazette!  Sadly, that's all you get as a preview of this one.  

We're really sorry, but with few exceptions the stories and articles in the Grantville Gazette on this site are only available to paid subscribers.

Our columns and editorials are free, along with a few other items, but almost all stories are paid only.

If you want to read the entire gazette, you need to either subscribe here, or purchase a download at http://www.baenebooks.com or at Amazon.com

- The Grantville Gazette Staff

Night of the Fireflies

Night-of-the-Fireflies-Mini-Cover

Grandma Lucy sat in her favorite chair on the back porch, enjoying the cool fall night. The sounds of the swamp were a sweet symphony to her ears, one of the small joys in her life.

Then, between one moment and the next, the ambiance of the night changed. Even the insects had stopped their nocturnal song. She grabbed the onyx pendant that hung around her neck and mouthed a few words, and the sounds of the swamp slowly started to come back. She gathered up her cup and book and went back into the house, touching the ward carved into the doorframe.

The next morning, Lucy was in the kitchen placing the last plate of food on the table when she heard Tim and Billy Tibedaux let themselves in the front door.

“Granny Lucy, we’re here,” Tim called out.

“In the kitchen boys. Breakfast is ready.”

The twins walked to the kitchen and gave Lucy a hug before sitting at the table. Plates filled with crisp bacon, andouille sausage, grits, scrambled eggs, and fresh-baked biscuits lay on the table. Lucy poured each of them a glass of fresh squeezed orange juice and sat down.

Lucy smiled at the boys. “Dig in. I know young boys have a strong appetite and Grandma Lucy’s breakfast is always the best.”

The boys piled their plates with food. They ate with all the vigor of twelve-year-olds, as though this could be their last meal.

“Did you hear that Katie Miller went missing?” Billy asked between mouthfuls.

“How do you know that?” Lucy asked.

“We heard mom talking to Mrs. Miller on the phone this morning before we came over,” Tim said. “She told her that Dad would help look when he got back from the hardware store.”

Lucy leaned back in her chair and sipped her coffee, her eyes focused on a black and white picture hanging near the back door. The photo was of her mother, grandmother and herself. The day it was taken was one of the last happy memories she had of her parents. The boys finished up, cleared the table, placed their dishes in the sink and headed outside, eager to get to work. She smiled at the enthusiasm of the two. Though sometimes they could be real troublemakers, the boys knew how to put in a good day’s work.

The boys had the fence fixed by lunch time, and she treated them to some cold fried chicken, fresh baked biscuits dripping with cream butter, fresh vegetables from her garden, and large glasses of iced sweet tea. Lucy held the onyx pendant hanging around her neck, watching the boys eat, her mind thinking about the missing girl. The odd moment last night when the night went quiet troubled her, and she couldn’t shake the feeling that they were connected.

“I’ve got something for you boys before you leave.” She stood up and walked into the living room. She opened a box on the mantle and removed two necklaces with a silver pendant formed in the shape of a winged creature brandishing a flaming sword. Returning to the kitchen, she handed one to each of the boys.

“I want y’all to have these and wear them,” she told them. “My granny would always tell me, ‘Limyè a Pwoteje‘ which means ‘the Light Protects.’ They will protect you from anything that would try to hurt you. Promise me you won’t take them off.”

“Are they magic, Granny Lucy?” the boys asked in unison.

“Serious magic, boys,” Lucy said with a smile. “You promise me you won’t take them off.”

“We promise,” the boys said at the same time.

Grandma Lucy knew that if she told the boys to do something, they did it.

“Now run off home and don’t be playing in the woods at night,” she told them. Lucy gave each boy a hug and stood on the porch and watched them while they raced away down the dirt road on their bikes.

She walked into her bedroom, changed into her hiking shoes, grabbed her knapsack and walking stick, and exited through the back door. She donned a boonie hat to keep the sun out of her eyes and walked into the woods. Something had to have scared everything into silence last night and she was going to find out what it was. Everything left a trace, a scent, a mark on the earth when it passed—it was just a matter of recognizing it.

About a half mile into the woods, she noticed that the insect sounds had almost ceased. She gripped her walking stick a bit tighter and moved deeper into the trees. She walked into a small clearing, with a small pond on one side, and almost dropped her stick. A child’s body was sprawled face down on the water’s edge. Tears rolled down Lucy’s face when she walked closer to the body, which she discovered to be a young girl, maybe nine or ten years old.

She knelt down next to her and gently turned her over. Katy Miller’s face was frozen in a rictus of fear, her mouth open as though she died screaming. Lucy cried over the body of the child for a moment while the anger built within her. She opened her knapsack and removed a small vial of blue powder, a cloudy yellow crystal carved to look like an owl, and a handful of dried herbs. She said a prayer over the body and sprinkled the herbs around the girl.

She stood back up, opened the vial, poured the blue powder into a hand and threw it into the air. She gripped the crystal in her left hand and closed her eyes.

“Brisé, montre sa ki te konsa yo sou domèn ou,” she said.

She opened her eyes, and the clearing took on a different aspect. She could see the violence of the girl’s death and the mark of the creature that did it.

She saw where they both entered the clearing, the fear of the girl and the hunger of the creature that chased her. She walked over to the spot where the first attack happened, where the creature first tasted the fear of the girl. Something caught her eye on the ground and she knelt down to get a closer look. Two dead fireflies lay there, but these fireflies were bigger than any she had ever seen.

She placed the fireflies in an empty Mason jar that she pulled from her bag, then put the jar back. She stood up and looked around the clearing again and then at the body of the girl. While she walked back to her house to call the sheriff, she thought that perhaps it might be time for her to get one of those cellphones that seemed to be so popular.

****

“Thanks for the breakfast, Lucy,” Sheriff James Walters said while she refilled his coffee cup.

“Jim, it is always a pleasure to visit with old friends,” she said. “You want to talk about Katy Miller, don’t you?”

“The coroner examined her body last night. They couldn’t find any marks on her besides a few bug bites.” He sat up straighter in the chair and looked Lucy in the eyes. “They are going to say that the cause of death was heart attack. She was ten years old, but they can’t find any other cause.”

“What do you want me say, Jim?” Lucy asked. “She didn’t die from natural causes.”

Lucy raised her hand, cutting off the question Jim was about to ask. “And no, I don’t know what killed her yet, but I do have an idea.”

“It’s been quiet for so long, why now?” he asked.

“I don’t know, but whatever it is, I will stop it.” She reached out and took his hand in hers. “I promise you that.”

“Be careful, damn it. Don’t go getting yourself killed.”

They stood up, and he hugged her before leaving.

She watched him as he drove away, her mind back on the fireflies she found. There was that familiar feeling at the back of her mind, like a word that you know that’s on the tip of your tongue but it eludes you. She made her way into her workroom.

Bookshelves covered three walls from floor to ceiling, full of books of every size and thickness. A table sat in the middle, covered with a red cloth, an open book and a pile of dried herbs lay on it. Various plants hung drying from racks, a work table on the only open wall was full of labeled containers of powders, liquids and in some cases, dried carcasses of insects and animals.

She removed a slim, leather bound book from the bookcase and laid it on top of the open book on the table. She grabbed the Mason jar with the fireflies off the work table behind her and placed it on the table next to the book. She let out a sigh when she found what she was looking for. The picture of a female with long hair, fingers like claws and an unearthly perfect face was drawn on one side of the page. The image of a group of fireflies was drawn next to the female.

That night, she sat on her back porch, waiting to see if the creature would make another appearance. After having fed, it was probably content to stay hidden in whatever lair it had made for itself, but still she waited until the ancient grandfather clock in her living room chimed midnight. She would have to go back to the clearing and see if she could pick up its trail, follow it to wherever it had hidden itself and deal with it.

The next morning she was up early as she always was, making coffee when Sheriff Walters arrived. He knocked on the back screen door before coming in. He removed his hat and stood there for a moment, almost at a loss for words.

“Another child went missing sometime last night.” He took the cup of coffee that she offered him. “The Boudreaux family down on Canal Street discovered that their son, Walter, wasn’t in bed this morning.”

“You think it’s connected to Katy Miller?” Lucy asked him.

“I don’t know Lucy, but considering that what killed Katy is something not human and another child goes missing . . . yeah, I think it may be related.”

“Well, I found out what it is that did it,” she told him. “It’s called the Adze.”

“What the hell is an Adze?” Jim asked.

“It’s a vampire-type creature that originated in Africa and it can shape shift into a swarm of fireflies to lure its prey.” She went into her workroom and returned with the Mason jar with the fireflies and set it on the table.

“That must be how it got the kids to leave the house at night.” He picked up the jar and looked at them. “A big swarm of these flying around, begging to be caught.”

“Well, according to what I’ve read, you can’t kill it exactly, but I should be able to banish it.”

“Banish it? Banish it where? Should?” Sheriff Walters asked her.

“Hell . . . Africa . . . some alternate dimension,” Lucy said. “I don’t know, Jim. Yeah, should. I’m pretty sure it’s possible but you know how that goes.”

“Do you need my help with anything?” Sheriff Walters asked her. “You know I’m still a deadeye with my pistol.”

“Firearms won’t hurt it much, probably just piss it off and I don’t want to worry about your skinny white ass while I’m trying to banish it,” she told him with a smile.

The sheriff returned her smile. “You used to like this skinny white ass, Miss Deveraux.”

“That was long ago and we were both a lot younger,” she said. “Seriously though, Jim, I’ll be fine. I may be older but I’m still strong. I have what I need, and I know what needs to be done. Don’t worry about it.”

“Well, if you need anything, and you know I mean anything, you call me,” he told her as he stood up. He gave Lucy a hug and walked out the backdoor.

She watched him get in his car and waved to him as he drove away. She picked up the jar and took it back to her workroom.

****

The ringing phone woke Lucy from her troubled slumber. She glanced at the clock on her nightstand and wondered who would be calling her at this ungodly hour. She shuffled into the living room and picked up the phone.

“Hello?” she answered.

“Ms. Lucy? It’s Mary Tibedaux.”

“Mary, what’s wrong honey?”

“It’s the boys.” Mary’s words rushed out. “John checked on them when he went to the restroom and they weren’t in their beds and their window was open. I was hoping maybe they had come up to see you for some reason.”

“I haven’t seen them, sweetie.” Lucy’s heart started to race. “I want you to get off the phone with me and call the sheriff and tell him what happened.”

“It’s not like them to do something like this,” Mary said.

“Mary, listen to me. Calm down and call the sheriff,” Lucy told her. “I don’t want you and John to go charging off into those woods either. If the boys come home, mom and dad need to be there.”

“I’m scared Ms. Lucy,” Mary said, her voice breaking. “I don’t want them to end up like those other two kids.”

“Mary, you don’t worry about that. The boys will be fine, I promise you,” Lucy said. “Now hang up the phone, call the sheriff and try to stay calm.”

Lucy said her goodbyes and hung up the phone. She got dressed, grabbed her walking staff and a flashlight, then walked out the back door, headed toward the woods. If the boys had worn the pendants she gave them, the vampire could not touch them, but that didn’t mean it couldn’t hurt them.

The woods were oddly quiet and that put Lucy on edge. All the denizens of the night were silent, hiding from the unholy predator that stalked the woods beneath the light of the half moon.

Up ahead, she saw small lights flickering in between the trees, so she quickened her pace.

She broke through the trees into a clearing just as the fireflies came together into the human form of the vampire. Tim and Billy were sitting on the ground, hugging one another and crying, their eyes shut. Lucy raised her walking staff above her head in both hands and brought it down, striking the ground. A bright flash of light flared from its top.

The Adze screamed in pain and exploded into its firefly form. They flew around the boys and Lucy before dispersing into the trees.

Lucy walked over to the boys and knelt down next to them. They let go of each other long enough to grab onto her and clutch her tightly.

****

Lucy refilled the sheriff’s coffee cup and set the pot back on the stove. The Tibedaux boys had left five minutes earlier with their overjoyed parents. Lucy had brewed a special pot of tea for the boys to calm them down when they had returned to her house. When the boy’s parents finally showed up, it was a happy reunion and they weren’t angry; they were just happy to have their boys back.

“It was the vampire, wasn’t it?” the sheriff asked Lucy.

“Yeah,” she said with a sigh, “thankfully, the boys were wearing the pendants I gave them. It didn’t stop them from getting hypnotized but she couldn’t hurt them.”

“I hate feeling so incompetent and not being able to protect my citizens,” Sheriff Walters said.

“I know, Jim, but you know that just having you to lean on helps me do what I have to,” Lucy said.

“When are you going to be ready to deal with it?” he asked.

“I have everything I need. I just have to set a few things up and I’ll be ready,” she told him. “After last night, she is probably also going to be pretty pissed at me.”

“Well, you better be careful, damn it,” he said, “I don’t want you getting hurt.”

“Jim, when have I ever gotten hurt?” she asked him, smiling.

“You aren’t as young as you used to be.” He laid a hand over hers. “I don’t want to lose one of my dearest and oldest friends just yet.”

****

She laid out the ingredients and the necessary tools for the banishment on the table in the middle of her workroom. She stood in front of the table and ran over the process in her head, reading each step multiple times until she could recite it from memory. It was noon when she finished and the rumble of thunder in the distance confirmed why her leg was hurting. The hunt for the Adze would have to wait until the next day when her leg wasn’t aching so badly.

That night, she was once again sitting on her back porch enjoying the cool night air. While she was remembering another night like this when she was nineteen, the silence of the night intruded upon her thoughts. She focused on the tree line behind her house and noticed a twinkling of lights moving through the trees. She stood up when she noticed it was moving closer to her house.

A swarm of fireflies moved out of the trees and toward her home.

Lucy smiled when the fireflies stopped about twenty-five feet from her back porch, some falling to the ground dead.

In the blink of an eye, they coalesced into the nude form of a young ebony skinned woman. Her body was perfect, the ultimate image of sensuality. Long dark hair spilled down her back and framed a face of unearthly beauty.

“Old woman,” the creature hissed, “you tread upon dangerous ground. Leave me be and I will not drain you of your power.”

“Silence!” Lucy shouted. “Leave this place or I swear by the gods of the Light that I will send you back to whatever Hell you crawled out of.”

The creature laughed at Lucy and walked back and forth, testing the strength of the ward guarding the house.

Lucy gripped the onyx pendant around her neck and stood straighter while she raised her right hand. “You are not welcome here. In the name of Anyawu, leave this place.” Her hand started to glow, and grew even brighter when she repeated herself.

The creature emitted a cry and turned for the woods, transforming once again into the swarm of fireflies and disappeared.

Lucy stopped the chant and sat down heavily into her seat, breathing hard. “Now I have your scent. And I will find you in whatever hole you’ve hidden yourself.”

****

When the sheriff stopped in to check on her the next morning, she didn’t tell him about her encounter with the creature.

After he left, she changed into her hiking gear and walked to the spot in her back yard where the creature had stood the night before. She pulled a dark blue crystal from a pocket, closed her eyes and mumbled a few words in Creole. She opened her eyes and the aura of the creature stood out in stark relief against everything else. The pure, unadulterated evil of the creature was a dark red scar running through the yard and into the woods.

She walked it into the woods, following the trail for a couple of miles deeper into the swamp. Eventually, it led her to an area that seemed barren of all life—she didn’t see or hear insects, birds or animals in the area. She knew that this was where the creature slept during the day. Considering that there could be no cave for it to hide in, it had to be in its firefly form, spread out over the area.

Lucy set her bag down and stood there for a moment, taking in the surroundings and forming a plan in her mind. She opened the bag and removed a small dagger, the image of a sun carved into the polished bone hilt. She opened her left palm and sliced across it, wincing at the sting of the sharp blade. She cleaned her blood from it, placed it back in its sheath and dropped it into the bag. She pressed her hand against the tree, her blood smeared into the bark. She then pressed the fingers of her right hand into her left palm and drew the same sun image around the smear of blood.

“By the goddess Hepa, come and get me,” Lucy said with a cold smile. She took one more look around and started her trek back to her house to prepare.

****

Night arrived with the rumble of thunder and lightning tearing through the sky. Lucy sat on her back porch watching the show and waiting, a fresh cup of coffee on the table next to her. She took a sip of the coffee and tried to calm herself. It had been a while since she had faced off with anything this strong and while she was older, she wasn’t worried about dying. It was the idea of failure that frightened her—had always frightened her.

“Lord, I know I don’t talk to you often these days,” Lucy prayed, ” but if it is my time, I’m ready. If not, let me kick this unclean beast back to wherever it crawled out of.”

It was close to midnight when Lucy noticed the first of the fireflies drifting through the trees. She set her cup down and slowly stood up, her left hand reaching up to touch the pendant around her neck. The fireflies grew in number and moved from the trees but stopped short before it ran into the barrier her wards created. The fireflies continued to gather until they were a swarm of blinking lights. They seemed to melt into one another and the creature stood there in her unearthly beauty once again.

“You summoned me, witch,” the creature said. “Do you wish to sacrifice your life to me?”

“Sacrifice my life?” Lucy asked. “I’m going to send you back to wherever you pulled yourself out of. So why don’t you come join me on my porch and we can get this over with?”

The creature reached out a hand to where the ward barrier should be but met no resistance. A very cold smile spread across her face while she slowly walked toward Lucy.

Lucy returned her smile, and when the creature crossed the boundary of her wards, she brought her hands together. A cascade of light rippled across the yard as the ward barrier came up behind the vampire.

The vampire screamed in rage and slammed a fist into the invisible boundary. It winced in pain and turned toward Lucy. “You will suffer for this insolence, witch. Your pain will feed me for a very long time.”

The monster surged forward, her form splitting apart into the hundreds of fireflies that comprised it. They swarmed toward Lucy, emitting a high-pitched whine. Lucy threw her hands up to cover her face as they hit her. She stood firm as they broke around and battered themselves against her, flinching when they cut into her skin.

They continued to fly around Lucy, pushing her to her knees. She reached into her pocket, removed a vial and threw it to the ground. It broke open, emitting a bright flash of light. The fireflies fled from her, a number of them falling onto the porch dead.

She wiped the blood from a cut on her cheek and stepped down into the grass. The fireflies were gathered together again and the creature stood before Lucy.

The creature was no longer the unearthly beauty as before; her face was something from a nightmare. Large eyes that gleamed red, a long mouth full of razor teeth, lean muscular arms ending in hands with claw like fingers. Her hair poured off her head in a tangled mess, hanging over her shriveled chest.

Lucy took a step back, full of revulsion for the fiend standing before her.

It hissed and lunged for her, a hand shooting out to try and rip into her.

This time Lucy was ready and raised her hands, a protective barrier surrounding her.

The creature’s hand impacted upon the barrier and ignited in flame. The beast cried out in pain and stumbled backward, clutching the smoking hand.

Lucy took a step forward, her hands dipping into her pockets, removing a few more of the vials. She tossed them in the direction of the creature, and when they broke upon the ground, they each emitted a burst of light as bright as the noon day sun.

The vampire cried out in pain with each burst of light and continued to back away.

Lucy continued to toss the vials, driving the creature backward.

The creature stumbled against the ward barrier and screamed in rage. Its form wavered, fireflies bursting into flame, falling to the ground.

Lucy brought her hands together again and the barrier surrounded the creature.

The vampire beat against it enraged.

Lucy flinched with each blow it landed.

The monster continued to beat against it and Lucy stumbled, going to a knee. The barrier wavered for a moment and the vampire cried out in joy but Lucy raised her head and pushed herself to her feet.

Lucy stood there silent for moment, watching it fight against the weakened barrier. Slowly, she went to her knees and drew symbols in the grass with her silver dagger.

The creature noticed the symbols and fought harder against the barrier, howling in rage.

Lucy grunted in pain, each blow from the hell spawn weakened the barrier further and sent a jolt of pain through her head. “In the name of Hepa, goddess of the Sun, and by Surya’s holy chariot, be gone from this world.” Lucy stabbed the dagger into the center of the sun image she had drawn into the ground.

The creature roared, and Lucy staggered under the strain of holding the barrier up against the attack. Then the barrier started to flicker and failed.

Lucy stumbled back.

The vampire surged forward, reaching for her. Its claws dug deep into her left arm, tearing her flesh.

Lucy screamed in pain, almost passing out.

The monster cackled with glee, then grabbed Lucy and threw her to the ground. “The old magic is not as powerful as it used to be, old woman.” The vampire brought her bloody hand to her face and licked the blood from her fingers. “You may not be young, but you are powerful. I haven’t tasted such richness in a very long time.”

Lucy pushed herself to her knees, her mind racing, grasping for some way to fight the creature. Blood soaked her left side and if she didn’t stop the bleeding soon, she would pass out.

Lightning ripped across the sky followed closely by thunder.

The vampire looked up into the sky as it started to rain, a cold laugh coming from her. She looked down at Lucy who clutched her bleeding arm. “Are you ready to meet your God, witch?”

Lucy pushed herself to her feet, while pain flooded her body. She stood there in the rain, a smile on her face as the creature advanced on her.

The Adze raised its hand preparing to strike her down when a shot rang out. It cried out in pain, flinching backward from Lucy.

Three more shots rang out and the creature’s form flickered.

Lucy turned and saw Sheriff Walters slowly walking toward her, a shotgun at his shoulder. He fired again.

The vampire screamed in pain and exploded into its firefly form, retreating into the woods.

The sheriff was barely able to catch Lucy when she collapsed.

****

Lucy woke in a hospital bed, her left arm immobilized, wrapped in gauze and bandages. She looked around the room and noticed Sheriff Walters asleep in a chair in the corner. She smiled at him and said a prayer of thanks that he arrived when he did.

She shifted in bed, trying to sit up.

Sheriff Walters woke up and rose to his feet. “Well, you are finally awake.” He walked over and took her right hand in his.

“Thank you, Jim,” Lucy said, her voice breaking. “How long have I been here?”

“Two days,” he told her. “You lost a lot of blood, Lucy. It was a near thing.”

She pushed the blanket covering her aside. “Now, are you going to help me get out of this bed?”

“Lucy, I don’t think that is a good idea.”

“Jim, either you can help me, or am I going to have to do it all myself.”

Jim sighed in resignation and helped Lucy get out of bed and get dressed. A nurse entered the room after Lucy removed the monitoring leads attached to her. A few stern words from Lucy and the nurse left to call her doctor.

“Well, let’s go,” Lucy said. “That monster isn’t going to kill itself.”

****

Lucy and Jim sat at the kitchen table while a pot of coffee percolated on the stove.

“So what’s the plan?” Jim asked her.

“The plan is I’m going to kill that creature before it can hurt any more children,” Lucy said. “Don’t try to talk me out of it either, Jim.”

Jim shut his mouth and looked at her. He stood up and poured them both a cup of coffee, setting hers on the table by her.

“How are you going to do it?” he asked. “Your magic didn’t stop it.”

“No, it didn’t stop it for long, but it was hurt by the magic,” Lucy replied. “It’s out there, recovering, weak, and I’m going to finish it before it gets too strong.”

“You aren’t doing it by yourself,” Jim told her. “I don’t care what you say, I’m going with you.”

“If you’re going with me, I need you to get something for me first.” Lucy pulled a pencil and pad of paper over. “A few things I’m going to need.”

She wrote for a moment, tore off the piece of paper and handed it to Jim.

He looked at it, started to smile, and then laughed. “Damn, Lucy, you always surprise me. Give me about two hours and I’ll be back.”

“Take your time, Jim,” she told him, “I have a few things to get ready myself.”

****

It was mid-afternoon when the sheriff returned to Lucy’s home. He grabbed a box from the bed of his pickup truck and brought it inside, setting it on the kitchen table.

“Lucy,” he called, “I’m back with what you wanted.”

“I’m in the workshop,” Lucy hollered. “Bring them back here, please.”

Jim picked up the box and walked into Lucy’s workroom, placing it on the only clear spot the massive oak table had on it. He noticed a black leather-bound book laying open on the table with writing on the pages that made his eyes hurt.

“What is this?” Jim asked, pointing at the book.

“That is a very powerful, very old grimnoir,” Lucy said. “One that I haven’t used in a very long time. Old magic. Powerful magic.”

“If it’s so powerful, why didn’t you use it before?” he asked her.

“I didn’t think I’d need it,” she said. “Besides, it’s dangerous.”

“Dangerous? . . . How dangerous?”

“Jim, you’re going to have to trust me.” She started to unload the box of bug spray.

“You didn’t answer my question, Lucy.” He placed a hand on hers, stopping her from unloading the box. “How dangerous is it?”

“It’s some of the darkest magic that’s ever been written down.” She placed a hand on the book. “In the hands of someone who didn’t know what they were doing, they could die or worse.”

“What could be worse than dying?”

“Having some hell beast ride around in your flesh,” Lucy said. “Now, are you going to help me or are you going to keep distracting me?”

****

Two hours later, they had the weapons ready and packed in a bag. Jim slung it across his back, his shotgun carried on a sling, hanging across his chest, ready to be used. Lucy carried another pack on her back and the silver dagger on her hip.

The sun was low on the horizon and thunder rumbled in the distance.

“Well, looks like we may get wet, but we should reach its lair before the sun goes down,” she said. “It won’t give us much time, but we can do this.”

“I know,” Jim said. “Lead the way.”

Lucy walked across her backyard and into the woods, with Jim behind her, his hands resting on the shotgun. It took them much less time to reach the creature’s hiding spot, since Lucy didn’t have to search for it.

When they neared the creature’s lair, the woods grew silent.

Lucy stopped and motioned for James to hand her the bag of bug bombs. She reached into the bag and withdrew one. “Well, let’s see if it is awake yet.” She tossed the bug bomb ahead of her.

The bug bomb exploded when it impacted the ground, the smoke traveling along the ground, up trees, into bushes as if it was alive.

Fireflies began to fall dead to the ground where the smoke traveled.

The rustling of hundreds of insects taking flight filled the woods.

Jim brought the shotgun up to his shoulder, stepping to one side of Lucy so she would be out of his line of fire.

The creature coalesced in front of them. It lacked any of the beauty it had from the night before, its glamour gone. What stood before them was the creature in all of its hideous appearance. It hissed and stretched its sinewy arms toward them.

“I told you that I would kill you, Adze,” Lucy said.

“You and the other will suffer for this, witch,” it said. “I can still taste your blood.”

Lucy reached into the bag and pulled out another bug bomb and tossed it at the creature.

James opened up with his shotgun, buckshot tearing into the upper torso of the vampire. It screamed in pain and lunged toward him.

The bug bomb impacted the ground, exploding, the smoke seeking it out, flowing across the ground and up the creature’s legs. When the smoke touched its skin, the areas turned black and dead fireflies fell from it.

James shot it again in the chest, and the vampire staggered back.

Lucy tossed two more bug bombs at its feet. They exploded, the smoke curled around its legs, moving up its body.

The vampire screamed in agony; its legs were being eaten away. It launched itself at James, knocking him to the ground.

Lucy screamed, kicking it in the face.

When the vampire reared back from the kick, James pushed the shotgun into its abdomen and pulled the trigger.

The creature doubled over, falling off of Jim.

Jim pushed himself to his feet and backed away while Lucy dropped more bug bombs around it. The smoke they emitted quickly moved to the creature, surrounding it in the magical smoke of the bug bombs. It shrieked out its last scream while its flesh fell away.

Lucy stepped back, threw the last bug bomb, and fell to her knees. She groaned as her injured arm began to shrink and turn to ash before her eyes.

Jim ran over to her grabbing her. “What’s wrong?”

“The price I must pay for using the magic,” Lucy whispered to him.

When the smoke cleared away, a pile of dead fireflies littered the ground. Lucy pulled herself to her feet with the help of Jim. She reached into her bag and removed a bottle of oil. She slowly walked over to the pile of fireflies and poured it over them in an intricate pattern. She stepped back, pulling a box of matches out, lighting one and tossing it onto the pile. Fire blossomed up, forming the sun image she had carved into the ground before.

“Time to go home, Sheriff,” she said, leaning against Jim. “Maybe we will beat the rain back.”

****

 

Bumped

Bump-Mini-Cover

 

Doug Collins tried to calm his hammering heart while Melissa checked out the string trick, but as the seconds built up without remark, he realized he was pretty much screwed. A first date had only one objective: impress the girl enough to earn a second date. And Doug had chosen to impress her with a weighted string dangling unsupported at a forty-five degree angle.

Idiot, he thought.

Melissa Reynolds stood up straight from her close inspection of Doug’s portable demonstration rig and smiled at him. “This is the promised mad science?”

He spread his hands and shrugged, placating. “I don’t quite recall promising to show you ‘mad’ science.”

She came close and took one of his hands in her own. “You didn’t need to promise me mad science, but you did make that promise. It was cute, only I never imagined you actually were working on something like . . . all this.” Melissa waved her other hand at the shutdown lab and the shielded test chamber Doug had brought them to. Then she nodded to the gadget and its jiggling, askew string. “Why doesn’t it hang straight down? Magic? Illusion?”

Doug hazarded a relieved grin of his own. “Way better: impossible physics! I know it doesn’t look like much, but forcing the string to hang at an angle like that changes everything.”

He moved as close to her as he could, trying to figure out how to somehow spin the details of his experiment into a prelude for a kiss. But the opportunity was snatched from him when the lights in the lab outside the test chamber came on. Doug and Melissa looked up when four figures entered the outer lab.

In the lead was Neal Lafleur, one of the lab’s many VPs.

Doug felt an embarrassed heat rise in his cheeks, caught by management showing off to a date while the lab was on official shutdown.

The other three men with Lafleur were a mystery, though: a tall, refined gentleman, a tech-geek, and an immense man who looked to have been hewn from granite.

Doug sensed Melissa stiffen at his side and grip his arm tightly when the four interlopers saw them and came to an abrupt halt. Lafleur’s face colored and, if anything, he appeared even more guilty and shocked than Doug felt.

Melissa spoke low, her voice leaden with worry and warning, “Doug . . .”

The unknown gentleman’s eyes narrowed. “So much for a clean operation. Augustus, would you mind dealing with this little hiccup?”

“On it, Boss.” The massive man’s voice rumbled like crunching gravel, but he moved swiftly enough. He stepped forward, reached into his ill-fitted jacket, and pulled a pistol.

Melissa shouted, “Down!” in an authoritative tone Doug did not know she possessed, but he complied.

They both dropped while two shots rang out, peppering the perforated-steel wall behind them. Doug and Melissa cried out, but they did not freeze. Melissa dove to hide behind the solid isolation table holding Doug’s gadget. Doug himself slid forward, staying low, and hit the emergency secure button right outside the test chamber’s entrance.

Two more shots spaanged off the stainless steel doorframe next to him.

Doug leapt back inside before the door slid shut on smooth hydraulics and, for a brief instant, he locked eyes with the deep cold gaze of the gentleman who had just ordered them killed.

Those eyes lacked even a hint of mercy or compassion.

****

The gentleman—known only by the alias “Octavius”—glared at the shut test chamber door barring him from his objective and ground his teeth in frustration. I am surrounded by fools, he thought. He snapped his fingers and pointed at a keypad next to the armored door. “Julius, open please.”

The tech geek waddled forward and popped the keypad off with deft, quiet moves without saying a thing.

Satisfied someone knew what they were doing, Octavius turned a basilisk glare upon his equivalently aliased subordinate Augustus. “What part of ‘Take care of this hiccup’ implies I want you to start shooting from across the lab?”

“You always give me crap for going kinetic, until it turns out going kinetic first really was the best choice.” Augustus returned his pistol to its shoulder holster and shrugged his jacket back into place.

Octavius shook his head. “At the very least, get closer before you start blasting away. You might have hit the prototype. You certainly didn’t hit them.”

Augustus ignored the jab, so Octavius turned his attention to Lafleur. “Well?”

Lafleur’s eyes were wide and beads of sweat stippled his brow. “I closed the lab myself! No one was supposed to be here this late at night, least of all Collins and some bimbo. I mean, he’s just a junior researcher. He’s never displayed much initiative or been found anywhere he wasn’t supposed to be. Believe me, his being here is totally random. Octavius, you can’t blame me for this!”

“Yes, I can. You were paid for three things: all the research, the drive itself, and discretion. We currently lack two-thirds of those, and I blame you entirely.”

“I can fix this. I’ll talk them out!”

“You can try. Are we exposed, though? Can they call out from within there?”

Lafleur shook his head. “No. It’s a Faraday cage, with only an intercom to the outer lab. There is an external network connection, but it only ties into phase two’s live traffic and shipping database—there’s no way to contact anyone over that.”

Octavius nodded and turned to Julius. The taciturn techie looked up from the multimeter buried in the keypad’s wires, frowned, and shrugged, silent as always.

Augustus grunted and said, “‘Our little friend in there must have disabled it from his side already. Unless he reconnects it, we’re gonna have to burn through this mother.”

“Fine,” Octavius answered. “You and Julius get started on that. Mr. Lafleur and I will try our hands at diplomacy.”

****

Doug stepped back from the mess he had made of the door mechanism’s wires, still breathing heavily. Only then did he notice the line of fiery pain that streaked across his left shoulder. “Ow . . .”

Melissa peeked out from behind the isolation table supporting the gadget. The muted shock and wary appraisal that showed on her face disappeared behind a mask of professional concern. She rose and went to Doug’s side, inspecting the wound he had earned. “You’re not bleeding too badly. Looks like a bullet just grazed you. Do you have a first aid kit?”

“Of course . . . uh . . . oh, it’s right on the other side of that door.”

She gave him a tight smile. “That figures. We’ll just have to make do, shall we?” Melissa unwrapped the scarf from around her neck and fashioned it into a makeshift bandage.

Doug winced when she secured it over the fresh wound the bullet had made along his shoulder. “Must be my lucky day. I happen to bring an ER nurse to the lab on the one night shooting breaks out.” He started to shake.

“Your lucky day? What about me?” Melissa’s smile softened, becoming less the upbeat mask of a professional nurse treating a patient and more the sly expression a girl reserves for her guy. “Most fellas just try to get me drunk as fast as possible. You offer up super-science and deadly peril. This is way better than drinks and a movie.”

He shook his head. “You seem to be handling all of this very well. Better than me at least.”

She shrugged. “I think you’re doing fine. Anyway, it’s not the first time I’ve been shot at.”

“Really?”

“I worked as a paramedic while putting myself through nursing school. Not everybody is happy when sirens and flashing lights show up, even if they’re attached to an ambulance.” She finished with the bandage, patted him on the arm, then fished out her phone and dialed 911.

Doug smiled in apology. “Yeah, sorry. This place is shielded against all signals. There’s no way for us to call out other than the intercom.”

As if on cue, the intercom crackled to life. Neal Lafleur’s voice sounded out in the test chamber. “Collins? You need to open the door. We can work this whole thing out to everybody’s benefit if you’ll just cooperate.”

Doug felt a new, different heat rising in his face and sudden anger displaced his fear. His shakes forgotten, he crossed the test chamber and jabbed a savage thumb on his own intercom button. “Neal, you weasel, I can’t believe you’re helping to steal one of your own projects!”

A new voice sounded from the speakers. “Mr. Collins . . . Doug, my name is Octavius, and I’m the leader of the men outside. Mr. Lafleur is telling the truth. We can all profit if you’ll only open the door and give us the prototype for the reactionless drive.”

Doug turned to Melissa and mouthed Octavius with a question in his eyes. She shrugged and shook her head.

He keyed the mike again. “Well, Octagon, only an ass like Neal would call the gadget a reactionless drive. It makes me wonder what other lies he’s fed you. How about you guys just take off, get your stories straight, and we’ll wait here for the police to arrive.”

“The only one lying is you, Mr. Collins. We both know the police aren’t coming. The only way out of there is through us, and if we have to cut our way in, you’ll find me in a very uncooperative mood.”

Doug turned to Melissa again, who came close. He tried to smile, but it failed. “I’m really sorry. I just wanted to give you a memorable evening.”

She grinned back. “Oh, you’ve got memorable covered. The funny thing is, you didn’t need to do any of this. . . . I’ve been waiting for you to ask me out ever since I moved into your building. . . . You’re a good guy, Doug. The way you leapt up to shut that door, with no fear and no second-guessing, that just proved it to me. You should have more confidence in yourself.”

His smile became a bit more authentic, if melancholy. “Great.” He gestured to the intercom. “I can’t make this decision for both of us. What do you think?”

Her eyes widened. “I think we’re both dead without that door, whether we open it or they do. I’ve seen the results from his type of ‘cooperation,’ both in the field and the ER. They aren’t pretty.”

Doug nodded and keyed the intercom.

****

“Screw you, Ocho.”

Octavius’ teeth ground when Doug’s contemptible voice sounded in the lab. He stepped away from the intercom and gestured past Lafleur to Julius and Augustus, who were busy setting up the gas rig for an exothermic burning bar next to the chamber door. Both men looked up.

Octavius growled. “Start cutting your way in. And when you get done with the door, cut down that pair as well.”

“On it, Boss.” Augustus nodded and twisted the valve on the gas bottle while the ever-silent Julius hit the striker to light the bar.

Octavius smiled at the growing horror upon Lafleur’s face.

****

Melissa turned to Doug when they heard the hiss of a torch beyond the protective door. “Damn it, I don’t even know why they’re trying to kill us. What is this gadget?”

Doug forced himself to turn away from a spot which had just begun to glow red on the wall. He led her back to the string trick. “This is a portable demonstrator rig to show off mediated momentum transfer, the non-localized transfer of momentum through a virtual 4D collision.”

“That went right over me.”

He nodded in apology. “Sorry. Do you remember any of Newton’s Laws of Motion?”

She squinted, an unsure expression on her face. “For every action, there’s an equal and opposite reaction?”

Doug smiled. “That’s the one. I knew I liked you. Now, do you know what a wormhole is?”

She nodded. “That’s easy. It’s a shortcut through space and time, connecting two places that are normally far apart.”

He blinked. “Unshakeable medic, hot nurse, and closeted sci-fi fan. I . . . I think I may be in love.” Doug grinned wider.

Melissa smiled and squeezed his hand upon the table. “Focus, physicist!”

“Right! Well, that’s what this is, momentum transfer through sort of a virtual wormhole. Normally, to change something’s motion, it has to interact with the environment. Billiard balls don’t move until something collides with them, and rockets don’t move unless they’re shoving mass really fast out their back end as thrust. That’s Conservation of Momentum and it’s the Law. Problem is that law makes for inefficient rockets. You have to carry around all that reaction mass to shove out the back end, making your rocket 99 percent fuel and 1 percent payload, limiting how long you can accelerate. But if you could create something like a reaction-less drive that didn’t violate conservation of momentum, you’d pretty much change everything.”

Doug pointed to the jiggling string, hanging down at a taut forty-five degrees to the vertical. “Which brings us to the string trick. This weighted string is pushed off from the vertical by an unbalanced force with no apparent origin. It jiggles there, against the constant pull of gravity, without anything pushing or pulling on it and without expending any jets of material. It looks reactionless, but it’s really not.”

Melinda nodded slowly. “Because . . . wormholes?”

Doug picked up a fat object like a large remote control with too many buttons. He gestured to a pair of spinning flyweights on the table that shook in time to the jiggling of the string. Pressing a button on the controller, the string swung down and swayed to a normal vertical hang, and the spinning flyweights smoothed out. “Right. We call them congruence points: similar to wormholes in that they connect two separated points in spacetime, but nothing physical can pass through them. Instead, they put two things that aren’t touching into brief contact with one another, setting up a virtual collision.”

He aimed the controller at the weight on the end of the hanging string and hit a button. A red laser dot lit upon the weight. “First we designate a target. Then we designate a momentum source.” He turned the controller on the spinning flyweights, where a laser illuminated one of the weights while it spun around. Instantly, the flyweights jostled and the weighted string jumped to one side as if struck, even though they were not touching. Each time the flyweights swung past that spot, the string reacted, until it once more swung to a jostling forty-five degree angle to the vertical.

Doug continued. “It’s not truly reactionless, because there is a collision, but it’s non-local, with the momentum transfer mediated through the congruence point instead of an actual contact. Either way, attach a similar rig to a vehicle and you’ll have what is, for all intents and purposes, a reactionless drive. It’s a definite game changer.”

His lecture done, their situation reasserted itself. Sparks exploded from the wall above the door, chopping through one of the bars locking the door into place. Melissa split her frantic attention between the wild sparks and the table in front of her. “Okay, time’s up. We have to make this thing work for us instead of just getting us killed. We can’t jump through one of these wormhole congruence points?”

“No, they’re like a four-dimensional virtual solid, contact but no passage.”

“Can we . . . momentum us a new way out of here?”

“No! The only sources we have are these flyweights and they’re way too small.” Doug thought for a moment, and then pounded his hand on the isolation table. “But there is the momentum net!”

He dropped the controller and ran from the table, going to a desktop workstation on the other side of the chamber.

Melissa followed asking, “The what net?”

Doug uncoiled a long USB cable from the back of the workstation and stretched the cable over to connect with the controller. “The momentum net is for phase two, when we get away from strings and start moving larger masses. It’s a live database maintained by the Department of Transportation showing the position and instantaneous momentum of every freight train, ship, plane, and long-haul trucker in the US.”

He picked up the controller and pushed a button. The string fell again and the flyweights smoothed out. Then he aimed the controller at the center of the wall opposite the door, which he was fairly certain was an exterior wall. A laser dot flashed upon it. “First, we designate a target.”

He put down the controller and crossed back over to the workstation. Melissa followed and saw him scrolling through a list of vehicles, with their positions, velocities, and registered weights. Doug smiled. “Then we designate a momentum source.” He clicked on one vehicle and turned to Melissa. “How do you feel about catching a train? Watch out. There might be a slight bump.”

****

The conductor of the northbound CSX freight train out of Syracuse, New York dozed in his seat while his trainee monitored the engine with one eye and looked over his certification course with the other, all by the light of the full moon overhead. Then the train lurched back, throwing them both forward. Each man, now awake, looked around wildly. Everything seemed fine.

“What the hell was that?”

****

Octavius and Lafleur picked themselves off the floor where they had fallen when the building shook. Octavius looked at the two men cutting with the bright actinic burning bar. They had both kept their footing, but Julius’ aim-point with the torch had skittered off and almost burned through Augustus’ hand. Now they just glared at one another through their welding goggles.

Their boss growled. “Keep cutting and get that door open!” Octavius turned on Lafleur and demanded, “What the hell was that?”

Lafleur’s wild gaze darted about the room. “How should I know?” Understanding seemed to dawn on him, and he turned fearful eyes on Octavius. “Collins has jumped to phase two. He’s using large momentum sources to bust out of the test chamber.”

Octavius yelled in frustration. He reached into his own jacket and pulled out a pistol. “This was supposed to have been a simple operation.” He gestured with the pistol from Lafleur to Julius and Augustus. “Make sure they stay on task!” Octavius stalked toward the lab’s doorway.

“Where are you going?” Lafleur cried, following him halfway out of the lab.

“To the other side, in case they make it out!”

****

Doug and Melissa stared agog at the wall of the chamber. The sheet metal was punched inward several inches in a wide circle, with popped rivets revealing insulation, wiring, and cinder blocks from the exterior wall. Plaster dust filled the chamber. Had the force of the train punched through completely, the room would have been filled with a deadly shower of debris.

Melissa gestured to the bulging wall. “That was a small bump?!”

He gave her a shrug. “In hindsight, picking a northbound train was a bad idea. I’ll definitely go southbound next time.” He began to set up the next congruence point.

She remained quiet while he worked, but then she looked to the door, where the sparking had punched through another locking bar. Only one barrier was left. “Doug, even if we knock out the wall and get outside, won’t they just go outside and chase us down? We need to think about stopping them first. And preferably soon.”

He stopped and twisted in his seat to look at her, unsure whether to be frightened or impressed. “What did you have in mind?”

Melissa’s eyes narrowed and she gave the door a hard glare. “How about that same northbound train and whatever’s on the opposite of our door?”

Doug smiled.

****

Satisfied at last with the condition of his engine and its cargo, the conductor put on a good front for his young protégé. He tried to blow off the whole incident. “This is the sorta stuff that happens when ya drive the rails, kid. All sortsa mysteries out here in the night. Why, I remem—”

The train lurched again.

“What the hell?!”

****

Doug had aimed the controller at the door and then modified the target to be one foot beyond that. The invisible congruency plane thus flashed into being and collided the exothermic rig, a wide circle of acoustic ceiling tile, wall plaster, and non-slip flooring, and the bodies of Augustus and Julius with the full force of the CSX train’s lead engine. Struck literally by a freight train, everything outside the door was cast northward, sending men and debris hurtling into the lab. The oxygen tank ruptured and exploded, throwing fire and shrapnel throughout the enclosed space.

Lafleur stood just outside the lab’s doors, unsure whether he should stay or go. The blast erupted from the lab and blew him along the passageway like an autumn leaf in a cyclone. A brief gout of flames curled along the halls to either side of the doorway.

Dazed and bloody, Lafleur picked himself up again, shook off the ringing in his ears, and stumbled back to the lab. What he saw inside was a mess no one could have survived. With only a glance at the test chamber door and the circle of damage from which the blast had originated, he knew exactly what had happened.

He ran to find Octavius.

****

The test chamber door was now warped in its track by the blast, never to open again. Some modest tongues of flame had jetted through the cuts already made, but the test chamber was none the worse for wear. Melissa stared at the damage her suggestion had wrought, looking grim. “Do you think any of them survived that?”

Doug came to her and took her in an embrace, their first. She rested her head on his shoulder and he could feel her warmth and the rapid beat of her heart. “I don’t know,” he told her, “but you didn’t bring this on them. This was their fault and they left us no real choice. Okay?”

She nodded and lifted up her head. Her eyes were red but dry. “Okay.”

He tried to give off a reassuring air. “Just in case they weren’t . . . incapacitated by that, we should stick to the original plan and go out the back, taking the gadget with us.” Doug used the controller and re-designated the already damaged back wall, then went to find a southbound train.

Melissa ducked down behind the isolation table. “I hope you aren’t parked in that south lot.”

****

Octavius stood in the south parking lot and glared at the circular indentation in the building’s wall, starkly illuminated by bright moonlight. He held his pistol tightly, ready to kill as soon as they finished collapsing the wall and showed their faces. He almost wished Julius and Augustus would fail, so the pleasure of putting down these two meddlesome idiots would be his and his alone.

A different idiot ran out of the building. Lafleur looked odd, however, covered in dust and bleeding from the nostrils. Octavius’ heart raced in alarm. “What now?”

Lafleur held up a hand to pause him, took a deep breath, and said, “Your men are both dead and the other entrance is wrecked. Forget the prototype and let’s get out of here.”

“Forget? Explain yourself!”

“I mean that your boys just went from Caesars to Caesar salad with the help of that gadget! Collins is on the offensive and you’re just standing here in front of the blast zone. Let’s go!”

“The wall’s collapsing to the interior. This is the best position to go in and grab them.”

“Momentum sources go both ways, you idiot!”

Octavius did not wait for Lafleur to finish insulting him. He jumped to the side, past the other man, just as the test chamber wall exploded outward. Cinder blocks, sheet metal, insulation, dust and debris blasted out to engulf the southern lot.

****

The test chamber wall exploded outward at seventy-two miles per hour, the exact speed of the Union Pacific freight train out of Billings, Montana. A cloud of dust, cold air, and bright moonlight rushed in through the wide opening to the outside. Ignoring the dust, Doug and Melissa went over to the prototype and began disconnecting it. She looked down at all the monitoring and network cables in her hand. “Hey, this isn’t going to blow up in my face, is it?”

Doug raised his hands uncertainly. “Probably not? It’s got a battery back-up.” He pulled the device up by the straps, straining to get them over his shoulders. “A very heavy battery back-up.”

They proceeded with care out of the lab. Melissa carried the controller and picked a route through the rubble, while Doug heaved the gadget itself. When they exited, Melissa saw Lafleur, lying amongst the chunks of cinder blocks, logy, bleeding, and mostly unconscious. She pointed him out to Doug, but he just kept walking. Doug would have kicked the traitor, but he could not spare the footing with his heavy load. They continued out into the lot.

“Stop!”

They both halted and shuffled around to face their adversary. Octavius stood at the edge of the debris field, a bleeding gash on his forehead and blood running down his right arm. He did not appear to be armed, but he still looked enraged and dangerous. Doug lowered the gadget carefully to the debris-strewn ground and tried a defiant smile. “Ocho! Glad to see you made it out okay. Now if you’ll just turn around and run off the other way, we won’t have to do to you what we did to your crew.”

Octavius shuffled forward, but his steps became surer as he continued on. “My name is Octavius, and I will have what I came for. I’ll take it and then I’ll end you both.”

Doug stood in front of Melissa. “Going to be kinda hard to end both of us without your goons, right?”

Octavius sneered and stalked toward them, his hands clenched. “I don’t need any help to kill the likes of you.”

Doug swallowed hard. Yesterday, he had been a man who never upset the status quo, who took months to ask a woman out, and only after creating an elaborate plan to impress her. Yesterday, he had been a lesser man, but this situation had changed him. Today, he had defended his date, his work, and his ideals, no matter the odds. Today he had the courage to face one such as Octavius, no matter the likely outcome. Doug squared off, spread his stance, and raised his fists to face the other, more imposing man.

But while he had gained courage, Melissa seemed to have gleaned knowledge about his work. She peeked out from behind Doug, aimed the controller in her hand, and pressed a button. A laser dot briefly lit up Octavius’ chest.

The thief stopped and looked down, then gave them a short, dismissive laugh. “I am continually surrounded by fools. I seem to understand that device better than you do. See, you have to designate a target AND a momentum source. The device is just a stand-alone box now. You have no momentum net. You have no momentum source. Pathetic.” He started forward again.

Thinking furiously, Doug dropped his fists and reached over. He grabbed the controller, aimed it into the sky, and pressed a button.

Octavius laughed again and looked up. “What do you expec—”

Approximately 2.6 seconds after designating his momentum source, a peal of thunder cracked and Octavius flashed into a red mist headed easterly at almost 1400 miles per hour.

Doug stood up straight, looking at the spot where Octavius had stood. Melissa stood close to him, and they sought each other’s hand to hold without thinking about it. Melissa looked up at the sky and the source of silvery light hanging there. “Did you just hit him with the moon?”

“Yes.”

“Oh.” She squeezed his hand. “Thanks for a lovely evening.”

Doug smiled and turned to face her. He gathered her into his arms. “Should I show you the other mad science experiments we’ve been working on?”

“Just shut up, Professor.”

They kissed under the light of the full moon.

****