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Content from the Universe annex

The Company Dick

In a drug-induced fog, my head pounding, I woke flat on my back in an unfamiliar, windowless place. With a herculean effort, I managed to lift my head. The room was without furniture except for the mildewy, armless, too-short sofa across which I had been dumped, and off an end of which, like dead weights, my calves and feet hung. The walls were dirty white; the floor much scuffed, of pale wood of some kind; the ceiling, aside from its single dim light panel, was dingy and water-stained beige acoustic tiles. A hard rubber wastebasket sat in a corner. From the ceiling-mounted camera, slowly panning from side to side, a red LED glowed balefully. A storeroom, by the look of things, and I being stored.

I went to sit up—and failed. Miserably. The fuel cell had been removed from my exoskeleton and its little reserve battery had run out. Between my own ridiculous Earth weight and that of the inert exoskeleton, I was restrained as effectively as if by the sturdiest of chains. Helpless as a bug pinned to a display board.

Exhausted, I let my head flop back onto the sofa. As I struggled to reconstruct what and why had brought me here—wherever here was—two words echoed and reechoed in my brain.

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

****

Two dead.

I had reminded myself of the toll—never mind how close I had been to becoming the third—so often that the words had become a mantra. I dare not forget that this business was serious. Deadly serious.

The pudgy guy ahead of me in line took a step forward. I plodded after. We’d been at this for a while and, best guess, I had at least an hour to go until the Security checkpoint. All passengers are screened before boarding, of course. But who knows? I might have printed a gun or knife or nunchucks during the flight. As I waited, interspersed with my subvocalized mantra, I gave silent thanks to whoever had designed the mobility exoskeleton I wore over my clothes. Earth was the gravitational hellhole of human space.

Interplanetary Arrivals was too damn big, a harbinger of all that I dreaded about Earth. Floor-to-ceiling wall displays cycled among agoraphobia-inducing panoramas: dizzyingly deep canyons; rank upon rank of snow-capped mountains, each ridgeline taller than the last; undulating plains stretching to an impossibly distant horizon; seascapes manic with crashing waves. The hall echoed with the footsteps and chatter of several hundred people. Ceres at present being near opposition to Earth, the ticket prices had been, well, astronomical, and I’d shared my flight with fewer than a dozen. I took encouragement in having disembarked during peak hours, no matter that, even with the exoskeleton, standing in queue had within minutes become torture. The less attention came my way, the better.

Even with the exoskeleton I struggled to stay upright, lurching with each step, learning to hate the hardware. The feeble twitching of Belter muscles sometimes conveyed my intentions to the exoskeleton, but as often miscommunicated. Then a leg would kick out to the side, or a knee would lock, or a foot would stomp, or something. After half an hour in the Security line and not even five meters of progress, admitting defeat, I tapped a command (and this task, too, was a struggle) into the tiny virtual keypad of the exoskeleton’s back-of-the-left-forearm control panel. Thereafter, lurching like Frankenstein’s monster, the hardware marched me forward one step with each tap of the virtual star key. The lone remaining shred of my dignity was that I hadn’t—yet—been tempted to slap the big, red, physical, “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” Panic button.

It did not improve my mood that two lines to the left, another passenger from my ship glided along in her exoskeleton. Similar grace could have been mine—if I’d agreed before this trip to surgery. An implanted neural controller might even have been the wise choice, but I’m particular about having holes drilled in my head.

At long last, dripping sweat from stress and exertion, I reached the checkpoint. The exoskeleton caught the screeners’ eyes, of course. I was prepared for the wanding and the pat-down that inevitably followed. But not the demand that I surrender the exoskeleton’s fuel cell for inspection.

“Without power, I can’t stand.” That was maybe an exaggeration, because sans motorized assistance I could remain in place with the exolegs mechanically locked. Unless someone bumped into me. Then, I’d go over like a sack of potatoes. Surface gravity on Ceres is under three percent of standard.

“We need to check it,” one of the Security screeners insisted.

“Then I need to sit.”

While in the serpentine line behind me other weary travelers fumed, one of the screeners retrieved a chair. I sat. By the time they returned my fuel cell (Shocker! It wasn’t a bomb) I had become a statue. The exoskeleton’s power reserve—the tiny, built-in, rechargeable battery sized only to runs things during a quick, old-for-new, fuel-cell swap—had fully drained. Looking disgusted at my helplessness, a screener snapped the fuel cell back into its socket on the exoskeleton’s left thigh. Then it was on to Baggage, and then to another line. Finally, I reached the Customs counter.

“Welcome to the USNA,” the Customs officer offered in a bored monotone. The badge pinned to her blouse read Carruthers. Even by Earther standards, she was petite. With her neck craned and head tipped up to meet my gaze, she evoked an image I’d once seen of a baby robin anticipating a juicy worm. I took a passport chip from its shielded sleeve and handed it over. “Mr. . . .”

For an instant, I froze. As secretive as the company was, being one of the Belt’s major employers meant it could not hide the identities of all its employees. So, if I were to have any hope of success, I had to be someone other than myself. “Donovan,” I completed, recalling my current alias.

Carruthers busied herself for a while with mating the passport chip to an authenticator, giving the counter’s sensor pad only the most perfunctory of swipes with a sanitizing tissue. Inwardly, I shrugged. State-of-the-art med nanites had been the least of my preparations. I pressed my thumb against the sensor pad until the device bleated its constipated approval. (As expected: the company had plenty of pull with the Ceres government. The ID chip I’d given her should be good. So should the extra ID chips nestled in dummy sockets of my exoskeleton. Bogus Cerian IDs were not exactly illegal—at least not on this world—but I didn’t care to think about the questions their discovery would raise.)

“What brings you to Earth, Mr. Donovan?”

“Business,” I said. Preventing economic ruin across the Belt must surely qualify as business, and her voice-stress analyzer shone a steady green. That I also hoped to rescue the kidnapped son of a company employee? That was a complication best not contemplated anywhere near a voice-stress analyzer. “Well, not just business. I’ve never been to Earth before. I’m taking time while I’m here to look around.”

“Your computer, please. Logged in.”

Since landing, I had struggled merely to stumble about in my exoskeleton. I had had no opportunity to practice fine-motor control. The tremor in my hands (damned gravity!) as I typed my pass code confounded the keystroke-dynamics recognition. Four times, to Carruthers’s annoyance. Finally, the biometrics module authenticated me. I handed over the comp.

While reading out the balance from my digital wallet, an invasion of privacy the USNA somehow justified as an impediment to money laundering, she added absently, “What sort of business are you in, Mr. Donovan?”

“Management consulting.” That was vague enough to encompass, well, almost anything. If there were follow-up questions, I was prepared to discuss forensic accounting for as long as necessary. In the event, she didn’t ask and the LED remained green.

“Business must be good.”

“You have no idea,” I said, defying the lie detector to object.

With furrowed brow, Carruthers studied my face, comparing it to the holo projected from my passport by her chip reader. “See what?”

“Pardon me?”

“What kind of sightseeing do you have in mind?”

“I’ve heard about some interesting museums. Historical sites. Natural wonders.”

“Yeah, we’ve got those.” An icon began flashing on her screen, and she frowned. “This chip doesn’t encode your DNA.”

I nodded. “Not done on Ceres. As far as I know, not anywhere in the Belt.”

“Yeah, well, that’s there. I’ll need a sample.”

“But visitors to Earth aren’t legally required to—”

“Earth? Maybe so. Maybe you could enter that way at, say, Timbuktu. You want to enter the USNA? Then you will authorize me to update your passport and file a DNA sample. Or . . .”

“Or?” I prompted hopefully.

“Or you can turn around and fly back to whatever rock you came from.”

Had I taken as much umbrage as any upright Belter citizen? Not yet griped enough to invite a deep dive through my every digital gadget? It was a balancing act, because I really did not want to invite any extra scrutiny.

I shrugged. “Sample away.”

“Already done.” She pointed at the sensor pad. “Everyone’s DNA is collected at entry and compared against a terrorism database. You only needed to authorize filing today’s sample.”

Crushing gravity and fastidious fascism. I couldn’t finish my business here soon enough. “Will there be anything else?”

She keyed away at her terminal. Finally, it chirped. She removed and handed back the passport chip, then my comp. “Enjoy your visit, Mr. Donovan.”

“Thank you,” I answered. Because I will was a lie I could never have slipped past the voice-stress analyzer.

****

Exhausted well before I had cleared Customs, I ubered to a midtown Manhattan hotel. No matter that by local time I had landed in the early afternoon; according to ship and body clocks, it had been the middle of the night. Then, fortified with twelve hours of sleep and an epic, room-service breakfast, I got down to business.

I spent three days ostensibly enjoying some of the many famous museums, landmarks, and eateries in Manhattan. (As for the restaurants, well, strike ostensibly. In the Belt, synthed food was all I ever ate. Was all anyone—apart from senior partners of the company, or the few folks equally rich—could afford. I could get used to natural ingredients and actual cooking.) After unfashionably early dinners I returned to my hotel suite, bone-weary, to rest and to take in Earther news feeds: a litany of border wars, refugee swarms, climate disasters, health crises, anti-Spacer rage (apparently, as some would have it, we were despoiling a pristine Solar System), and spiraling crime and civil violence. In the abstract, I’d always known the mother world was a mess. Long hours immersed in that madness made it real.

And in truth? Those days were all work and no play. I mastered walking in my exoskeleton—and, “thanks” to all its metal, also stoic acceptance of a security pat-down at damn near every building I chose to enter. Internalized, after several painful conks, that I had to duck to get through almost every doorway. Came to terms with there being more people here in a single city block than the population of entire Belter cities. Proved to myself that I could survive modest exertion, that five liters of synthetic corpuscles and their super-efficient artificial hemoglobin took up the slack for my Spacer-flabby heart. Shuffled around Central Park, away from the worst signal reflections off the zillion nearby skyscrapers, until my comp obtained enough satellite ephemeris data for the GPS chip to locate me. (Freaked out my entire time in the park, I might add, by wind. What a weird phenomenon! Wished I had the time and the agility to try kite-flying. To judge by the many gleefully shrieking kids, kites must be great fun.)

I spent an entire evening in battle with downloads from the exoskeleton manufacturer’s website. Almost before the ship landed, the Updates Waiting LED on the control panel had blazed red to herald a discouragingly large number of critical patches, all new since I’d departed Ceres. Half those updates took it upon themselves to re-enable a factory default setting of “Help us improve by sharing your experience.” With growing impatience, I kept re-disabling that. Two updates simply hung, grinding away mid-installation, till I found the obscure operating-system setting that needed tweaking. One update activated the “I’ve fallen and I can’t get up” feature, never asking if I wanted to accept the first-month free trial offer; I undid that, too. When the patch-notification feature proved to have no Off switch, I disabled the comm entirely. There was no telling what, if anything, the manufacturer’s servers recorded from such communications with the exo—and I did not plan to leave behind a trail of digital breadcrumbs. That was the night I found a way (plenty of French wine!) to sleep through the recurring nightmare of falling splat.

What else? Practiced dining with a knife, fork, and spoon, and not slopping liquids from an open cup or glass. Acquired a small wardrobe of Earther style: men’s shirts and trousers were as ubiquitous in the USNA as in the Belt, and likewise of programmable fabrics, but the cuts differed. Here, pant cuffs and long, pointy shirt collars had come back. I couldn’t disguise my height or exoskeleton, but I didn’t need to appear fresh off the ship. And so, I prided myself, I didn’t—

As long as I remembered never to look up.

The vast blueness wasn’t my problem. An infinite sky is the birthright of every Spacer. Buildings, per se, were not the issue, either. Space settlements, by their nature, are large, complex structures. But office towers of five hundred meters and more looming overhead? In this gravity? And no matter that I knew clouds to be mere aerosol accumulations, every glimpse of one, even of the white-and-fluffy variety, sent my reflexes into panic and set my overtaxed heart racing.

After three exhausting days—still less than prepared, but with the foreboding sense of time running out—I took the next step on my mission.

****

I had practiced one additional skill in New York and again at every stop along my superficially sightseeing excursion down the East Coast: picking up women. Had my repartee, as the conversational rust wore off, led anywhere, I hadn’t the inclination, much less the stamina in this gravitational hellhole, to act on it. Still, no matter that I had yet to notice a tail, I did not dare risk that I didn’t have one. Flirting as I went was part of the show—because as of lunchtime on my second day in Washington, DC, the flirting became my cover.

I had lied to my wife, and then argued with her, about my short-notice trip. A once-in-a-lifetime training opportunity in advanced forensic accounting? That was less than compelling, especially on the heels of a long company assignment away from home. Oh, I trusted Bea not to blab—but not not to worry. Any scrap of the truth about why the company was sending me to Earth, of all godforsaken places, would have terrified her.

And the hazardous-duty pay I’d extracted? The reward, whether or not I made it home? The company was welcome to send someone else to investigate, I’d said. Of course they wouldn’t: the fewer people they brought into this mess, the less likely their vulnerability was to leak out. As for involving the authorities, it was out of the question. Any proper investigation must entail a visit to the crime scene—and that (even had it been physically possible) the company would never allow. I kept all that, too, to myself. Bea’s uninformed, misdirected anxiety weighed heavily enough.

Lying. Keeping secrets. Hitting on other women. It all made me feel like a dick, and not the investigative sort that circumstances so desperately called for.

Eyes cast downward, I made my way, as the appointed hour approached, to the designated bistro just off the National Mall. I folded myself into the revolving door. Beyond that rotary torture chamber, I encountered dim lighting, tinkling jazz piano, and tiny tables. Maybe half the tables were occupied.

I plodded to the brass-and-stained-wood bar. Only a few of the stools were occupied. From one of those, the blonde in a thigh-high pink dress avoided my gaze. Courtesy of the antiqued mirror wall behind the bar, I took in her tanned oval face, pouty lips, and flowing blond hair. By Earther standards, she was an Amazon and a knockout. Give her another half meter and get those breasts out of this cruel gravity, and she would have been my type.

“Hey there,” I began.

Glancing my way, she said, “Not interested, sailor.”

Her voice was low and throaty. Sexy as hell. To my tabulation of her attributes I added come-hither eyes. I went thither. “Spacer.”

“Same thing. The type with a girl in every port.”

“I happen to have an opening for this port.” She ignored me, but I persisted. “Nice place. I’m surprised it’s not more crowded.”

“Clearly, you haven’t eaten here.”

“How are the buffalo wings?” Notwithstanding recent utensil practice, I preferred finger food, though that wasn’t why I asked.

“Greasier than, and almost as insipid as, the egg rolls.” Finally turning my way, she saluted with her glass. “I recommend sticking with these.”

I caught the bartender’s eye. “Two more of what the beautiful lady is having.”

“Two double scotch rocks,” he acknowledged. “Single malt.”

“You’re pretty cocky,” she told me.

I waggled an eyebrow. “You don’t know the half of it.”

A few more lines exchanged from the cheesy script, her eye-popping outfit, and my mismatched socks, and we had established each other’s bona fides. Drinks in hand, we reconvened at a nearby table. With a deft pat of the hand, my lovely companion set the privacy screen shimmering. White noise hissed all around us.

“Maureen Rogers,” she said, suddenly all business.

“Bernie Fredericks.” Not that it mattered, I wondered if her name were any more real than mine. “You’re with the company?”

She shook her head. “PI. I sometimes do work for one of their law firms.”

While I savored my scotch (unbelievably smooth: the distilled, aged in oaken barrel kind, and nothing like the synthed stuff I got in the Belt), she found a contact-lens case in her capacious purse. “These are for you.” She tipped her head questioningly.

As in: why hadn’t I just brought my own? Or printed my own once I’d disembarked?

Because getting caught at the border with fake IDs was one thing. A common criminal might arrive with those; if caught, I could hope merely to be shipped back home. But if I’d been caught at Customs with spy gear, or the digital recipe for same? No way was that going to end well.

Maybe she just wondered what I was up to.

Whatever the nature of her curiosity, the company expected me not to share. “Who knows about this meeting?”

“On my side, as far as I know, only one of the law firm’s senior partners. I don’t ordinarily do anything for him.”

Meaning, I took it, he did work for the company, and that he had picked her because she didn’t. I palmed the lens case. “Good. And who knows about these?”

“Just me. It’s my spare set. The thing is, I work mostly divorce cases.”

Honey trap, did they call it? “And no one will know I have them?”

“I’ll report them lost and expense a replacement pair. Not to worry.”

When accountants play detective, they had better worry. “How do these work?”

“Slip them on.” As the lenses molded themselves to my eyes, Maureen took a comp from her purse. “And I’ll need your comp.”

I authenticated, and she mated the smart lenses to my comp. She taught me the blink sequences that started and stopped scene capture. Once I’d mastered those, I practiced the squint that downloaded imagery from the lenses to my comp. Then we established and tested a direct link between our comps. Between quantum crypto and routing over the dark web, the connection was as secure as either of us knew to make it.

For good measure, she threw in several apps (“Tools of the trade,” she called them. “More dark-web goodies.”) I had no reason to believe I had any use for. That those came encrypted and disguised as parts of unallocated spare memory (“Not anything you would want to be found carrying”) made me more than a little queasy. Or maybe it was the buffalo wings on which, despite her warning, I’d been chowing down.

She tried again, dispensing with subtlety. “I could be of more help if I knew what you were after …”

Eventually, she shrugged. “What more do you need?”

“Working capital. I believe an amount has been arranged?”

Maureen transferred a large, untraceable wad of cryptocash to my comp. Unlike the money I had had to disclose at spaceport Customs, this was not anything government could tax or trace. Merely confiscate, if they found it. “Anything else?”

Good luck? Given the woman’s usual line of work, being lucky could be taken the wrong way. And had the company been willing to inform anyone on Earth of their dilemma, I continued to believe, I wouldn’t even be here.

I said, “Dialing down the gravity would be appreciated.”

****

Had Maureen worn another pair of super-spy contacts to the meet? Back in my hotel room, studying my reflection, I couldn’t make out the pair still in my eyes until (having to crouch to do so) I’d brought my face to within scant centimeters of the bathroom mirror. So, I had to assume, yes.

I could envision lens imagery capturing my pass code and the nuances of my typing it, then bypassing the keyboard via a thumb-drive port. I was pretty sure I could code that hack myself. The possibility would seem academic while the comp remained in my possession, but I don’t roll that way. (Two dead. Two dead.) Once I’d ascertained that the (supposedly) inert-till-I-decrypted-them apps didn’t include a hidden keystroke logger, I began the switchover to a new authentication sequence. I entered a new pass code, over and over, until keystroke-dynamics recognition trilled completion.

No key logger (that I’d found, anyway) did not mean the unsolicited gifts were otherwise innocuous. After disabling a concealed tracker, I changed names and hotels. Had Maureen not tried to tail a secretive company agent, not tried to discover something exploitable, I’d have been disappointed. Who didn’t hunt for some advantage over the company? I had, although my ink-not-yet-dry status as a very junior partner wasn’t the sole reason for me being here.

I played around for an hour with Maureen’s toys; the wireless skeleton key for electronic locks seeming the most handy. I tweaked the code of several of her apps. Remembering her offhanded Not anything you would want to be found carrying, I downloaded two backup sets of everything into spare memory in the exoskeleton controller and deleted the originals from my comp.

Then, bone-weary, I ordered room service and went to bed early.

****

I spent another two days in Washington—watching for, but not noticing, any surveillance—while I mastered the art of blink/snapping pictures. The museums were diverting, the monuments inspirational. Even the National Mall, as long as I kept my eyes downcast, was pleasant enough. But once darkness fell? Even after, never mind expense-account wine, a healthy three-fingers slug of scotch?

Horror.

It began with the scariest sound in space: the warbling wail of a decompression siren. The roar of escaping atmosphere punctuated the klaxon’s periodic lulls. Papers and pens, drink bulbs and food wrappers, hand tools and clipboards, everything not secured was sucked up into a maelstrom. My ears popped. My flesh bloated.

As quickly as humanly possible I slapped up emergency patches. So did everyone around me. People I knew. People I loved.

Fresh wall cracks gaped even faster.

With air pressure plummeting, as the keening of alarms eerily trailed off, I was in agony. My gut distended from end to end as trapped gases expanded and expanded and expanded, spewing puke and shit. I screamed, silently, into the near vacuum—when I could, when the puking eased up—to squeeze out air before the pressure differential destroyed my lungs. Ankles, knees, shoulders, knuckles … every joint was aflame. My eardrums burst. The world turned red as the blood from ruptured vessels seeped into my eyes and as hypoxia took hold.

I could feel my eyeballs bulge.

In nightmarish slo-mo, frenetic commotion became the yet more ominous absence of activity. People slumping to the floor. Others adrift, launched by involuntary spasms or tugged by the final wisps of escaping air. A floating body nudged me. Long, chestnut-brown hair: a woman. Slowly, she turned. A delicate ear came into sight. The graceful curve of a cheek. The cupid’s-bow shape of her lips.

Bea!

I’d jerk awake, gasping for breath, sodden with sweat, trembling. And repeat.

The third morning, done in—but as acclimated as I would ever be—I moved on.

****

Chicago’s main museum complex sat alongside a freakily huge lake. There, on Day One, I observed (admired would have been an overstatement; these things had all begun to look alike) yet more artwork and fossils. Traveling inland, I whiled away Day Two gawking at wondrous beasts at the Brookfield Zoo. I wasted far too much time both evenings streaming local news feeds and surfing Earther social media, incredulous that anyone could believe the overpopulated home world would be better off without lunar He-3 or Belt rare earths and precious metals—and somehow unable to look away.

And louder than ever, the words echoed in my brain—

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

On my third day in Chicago the tourism act ended. Either no one was surveilling me, or I lacked the skill to notice them. Regardless, the clock was ticking.

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

I began with the last address I had for Darin Hodges: a name conspicuously absent from the collection of lobby buzzers. “I’m a friend of Darin’s father,” I told the apartment manager, a glum, elderly fellow with the droopy jowls of a St. Bernard. “I promised the old man I’d take Darin out to dinner.”

Only Darin hadn’t lived there in months. Skipped out owing rent, the manager said, chatty after I paid the young man’s arrears. Everything Darin had left behind—no inventory had been taken, of course—had long since been disposed of through a consignment shop (which kept no records of its customers) or recycled.

No clues to be had then, from his possessions, to the young man’s whereabouts.

The University of Chicago online directory did not list Darin Hodges, but a snapshot of that directory from the Wayback Machine confirmed that, in the previous semester, he had been a student. I roamed the echoing corridors of Watson and Crick Hall, asking about him, until a young woman with blue-and-mahogany-striped hair and gold hoop earrings pointed me to what had been Darin’s office as a research assistant. Former officemates there and, once I tracked down the professor, Darin’s erstwhile dissertation adviser, claimed they hadn’t been surprised at Darin’s dropping out. He had been distracted for months, they said, doing more coffeehouse BSing than research. BSing about what? Economics. Or politics. Maybe tree-hugging. Labeling his hobby horse didn’t seem worth the effort. More discouraging, no two of them agreed when they had last seen him.

If anyone as much as suspected Darin had been abducted, they kept it to themselves. Clearly, no missing person report had been filed. Chicago PD would have found these same acquaintances as readily as had I.

Mentions of coffee were, if not productive, at least timely. I got a recommendation for a nearby coffee bar where, over a double espresso, battling exhaustion, for the umpteenth time I considered more technological methods of investigation. If I hadn’t had the skill set, I’d never have gotten into Les Hodges’s computer. I wouldn’t even be on this quest. I wouldn’t be achy and bruised inside the damned exoskeleton, without which I could not as much as get out of bed on this damned planet.

If I accessed the younger Hodges’s financial accounts, I’d have a better idea when he had been snatched. The latest transaction might even suggest where he had been snatched. Then, by hacking the city’s archive of public-safety surveillance, with facial rec I might spot the actual kidnapping. Maybe, even, the kidnappers. But the prospect, however unlikely, of getting caught and serving years in this barbarous gravity once again deterred me.

We’d call hacking Plan B.

Darin’s father was in biotech, the professor had offered confidentially. Was I aware of that? (Yes.) Perhaps an advanced degree in biotech had never been Darin’s idea. He certainly had some kind of issue with his father. (Okay, I hadn’t known that. Not for certain. To be sure, the paucity of messages from Darin on his father’s computer had implied as much.)

And maybe the young man’s adviser was onto something. Somewhere along the way I heard that Darin had volunteered as a docent at the nearby Oriental Institute. Showing ancient Middle Eastern artifacts? That was not exactly a typical hobby for a budding biotech engineer. I plodded the few blocks to the museum, passing a line of posters on utility poles proclaiming a week-earlier protest over Spacer imperialism. All that the arduous trek got me was three more sorry-haven’t-seen-hims.

Outside the museum, with evening falling, a car with heavily tinted windows pulled up. The Uber to return me to my hotel, I thought, till the rear curbside window slid down a few centimeters. From within the vehicle, a decidedly non-synthesized voice said, “I hear you’ve been asking about me.”

****

I struggled to contain my shock.

“Darin Hodges?” I said. This was, without a doubt, the “missing” son. It wasn’t just that he took after his old man, with the same slot face, cleft chin, and close-set blue eyes. More times than I cared to remember, I had watched Darin in the vid from his father’s hacked comp. I saw the same thin lips, the same slight leftward bend to the nose, and the same curly black hair.

“Yes.” I heard the click-thunk of a door unlocking. “Get in, please.”

I did. And as the car sat at the curb, my mind raced.

The terrified young man in the vid, handcuffed to a metal-frame chair, pleading for his father’s help, had had a black eye and a split lip. Had cringed from a ski-masked, voice-disguised someone threatening his slow death unless the elder Hodges did as directed. The passage of time might explain the fading of bruises, but not the young man’s freedom—much less why, to protect his son, Les Hodges had . . . done what he had. Apart from a few people within the company, no one knew that.

I hadn’t anticipated Darin finding me. That left me winging it. I temporized, “How did you know it was me asking around?”

“We don’t see a lot of middle-aged Spacers around here.”

“Your father is a middle-aged Spacer,” I reminded. (Earthborn, and so a shorter-than-two-meter pipsqueak, but a Spacer nonetheless. Belters crazy or driven enough to visit must be in short supply, though. I sure as hell looked forward to going home.)

“Uh-huh. And how often do I ever see him?”

“Let’s start over.” I introduced myself, my spiel basically what I’d used with the apartment manager. I concluded, “When your dad heard I’d be in Chicago, he made me promise to take you to dinner.”

Sarcastically: “So how is dear old Dad?”

“Fine, the last I saw him,” I lied. “So, dinner?”

“Why not? A man’s gotta eat.”

The address Darin told the car turned out to be for a just-off-campus hole-in-the-wall. It struck me as unbusy, even for not quite six on a Thursday evening. Then again, what did I know of Earth collegian dining habits? The hostess, an Earth-tall, perky brunette whom Darin seemed to know—I speculated that she, not the food here, was the main draw—escorted us to a booth in the rear. Her perfume, a floral scent I recognized but could not have named, started my nose running.

Serapes, piñatas, and mariachi music announced that dinner would be Mexican. When the stoop-shouldered waiter brought chips and menus to the table, I ordered margaritas and nachos, exhausting my knowledge of the cuisine. The menu covers proclaimed Proudly Vegan, and my expectations for the meal ebbed further—not that my dining experience was what mattered.

“Make them frozen,” Darin appended. The waiter nodded.

“So,” I began.

“So,” Darin repeated. “Tell me. Are there many hu . . . Earthers in the Belt, or is it just my father?”

Humans? Implying I was not? “Quite a few, as it happens. Lots of opportunity out there. The pay is good. That’s why your dad went. To provide for his family.”

“To abandon his family, you mean.” Darin peeled the adhesive paper strip from his paper-napkin-wrapped silverware. Rolled the strip into a tight cylinder. Unrolled it. Coiled the band again, even tighter.

Even I could read that body language. How deep did the resentment go? Changing the subject, I tapped my menu. “So, vegan?”

“Do you know what three animals are the top contributors to Earth’s biomass? Do you?”

“No idea.”

“Guess.”

“Elephants? Then whales?” I’d started us down this rabbit hole by commenting on the meatless menu. “And cattle.”

“Cattle first, then humans. And a very distant third? Every other kind of animal on the planet, combined. Elephants are massive individually, but together they still comprise only a fraction of one percent of the biomass of just cattle. That’s how few elephants remain. And how many cattle we keep. And what a blight humanity has made of itself.”

“Oh,” I offered quietly. It did not placate him.

“And do you know why so many cattle?”

Because, as I’d been learning, there was nothing like a good steak. Synthed meat—synthed any food—was a poor imitation of the real thing. “No, why?”

“Because there are so many people. And do you know why?”

From doing what came naturally? “No, why?”

“Spacers,” he snapped. “For a while, it looked like humanity, finally, had come to its collective senses. Had realized our world has its limits. Had realized that too many of us can only mean too little of everything else in nature. There was hope, at the brink of the precipice, that the human population would stabilize. Then the goodies began arriving from off-world, and people—the fools—forgot all about restraint. It doesn’t matter if we tell ourselves the sky’s the limit. The planet knows better.”

In other words, more anger at his father. Shrinks had a term for that kind of misdirected emotion. Displacement, was it? I preferred his officemates’ description: coffeehouse BS.

By any label, Darin had no idea the sacrifice his father had made. For him. “Les was very proud of you. You know that, don’t you?”

“Was?”

Oops! “Was and is. I haven’t seen him in months. I’m sure he’s still proud of you.”

“Not proud enough ever to show up at a Little League game. Or attend an award ceremony. Not proud enough to come to my graduation.” Darin plowed, scowling, through a litany of grievances. Les footing the tuition bill at an Ivy League college, and then for three years of grad school, did not merit a mention. Nor did pleading for his father to save his life enter into the diatribe. Finally, the young man shook it off. “How is it you know Dad, anyway?”

“I’m his accountant.” I wasn’t, of course, but access to Les’s company HR file let me improvise. “He talked about you a lot. And about your mother, of course. He misses her.” It seemed like a safe bet. Sally Hodges had passed away two years earlier. A half-billion kilometers away at the time, Les had missed the funeral. Doubtless his absence was another black mark. “Anyway, Les made me promise to look you up if I made it to Chicago.”

“So you said.”

Did he look skeptical? I couldn’t decide. Then again, I hadn’t gone into accounting for my people skills. I mean, does anyone?

The waiter finally returned with our drinks.

Darin downed a healthy swig. “Miners need accountants?”

“Everyone needs an accountant.”

“That’s what’s wrong with the world. No offense.”

I sampled my own margarita, and found salt crystals along the glass rim off-putting. Where I come from, we mix in a pinch of salt, because drink bulbs don’t have rims. And a Belt margarita never came slushy, because ice chips would clog the nipple. Also, maybe there was too much Triple Sec? All in all, a disappointment. “No, what’s wrong with the world is that everyone needs a lawyer.”

Darin managed a laugh. “I’m sorry to hear that that pestilence has even gotten to the Belt. What’s it like out there?”

Here, at last, was a topic about which I could discourse on autopilot. I kept looking for a segue, but what is the proper transition to, “How did you get away from your captors?”

Because, by rights, the kidnappers should not have let him go. Not yet.

****

I used to say that I work for evil geniuses.

That doesn’t mean that I much like the company. I do respect the hell out of them. No one becomes the richest outfit in the Belt, or comes to dominate the Solar System market for precious metals, by accident. Bottom line: the company controls many of the most valuable commodities in the Belt. It decides if and when any of its scarce resources get offered for sale—and so, it keeps those metals pricey.

Suppose you somehow find a way to raise enough money to go asteroid hunting on your own. Suppose that, against daunting odds, you discover the mother lode. Do you try somehow to develop it on your own, market the ores on your own, compete against the wealthiest, savviest, most hard-nosed bunch around? Or do you exchange what you’ve found for a stake in the company? I’ll give you one guess which usually happens.

The Belt is way too vast for any law—except the law of the jungle—to apply to rocks that again and again wander millions of kilometers from civilization. The company can sustain its wealth for only as long as no one else knows the orbital parameters of the celestial bodies it mines. That only works using the strictest of security measures.

Over the years I’ve performed audits on many company rocks, mother lodes of platinum, iridium, and other precious metals—and I still haven’t a clue to the location of even one of them, any more than do the miners. On every trip, the autopilot had complete control of my ship, while I hadn’t as much as a porthole by which to guess at my route. And once on site? The smartglass of company-provided pressure-suit helmet visors allowed no star, moon, or even planet to be seen. Oh, and the printers aboard company ships and in company mining bases would self-destruct if I tried to make lenses for a telescope, or hi-res optical sensors, or parts for any other prohibited gear.

Also high on the taboo list? Anything that someone might employ to build a radio transmitter of any higher wattage than what a spacesuit helmet uses, or a laser of any nontrivial output level. Once on a company rock, I couldn’t signal my location, any more than could the miners. Between drop-ins by someone like me, bringing whatever messages had accumulated at company headquarters, a mining crew was out of touch for the duration of their standard-year-long duty tour. Which meant, ironically, a company auditor had, all unknowingly, hand-delivered the ransom file (encrypted, of course) to Les Hodges.

How about narrowing down the search with math and pure logic? Deducing, or at least approximating, a rock’s orbital characteristics from the known parameters of my departure point, flight duration, and acceleration? The company had me there, too. Each flight vectors away from its starting point in a random direction. Each flight somehow involves a half dozen or more midcourse corrections. Much of that travel/meandering (inside a little, windowless can, remember, locked out of all ship’s sensors) has to be idle time to defeat attempts at dead reckoning. Bottom line? Corrupt or coerce a company miner—or an auditor—all you want: they still can’t betray the location of a mine.

So, did I work for geniuses? Hell, yes. But I hadn’t encountered true malevolence till my last Belt outing, and it wasn’t the company’s evil.

****

“All very nice,” Darin said, back to questioning my seeking him out. He leaned across the table, studying me. “But oddly persistent, considering. I mean, how often can you get to Earth? You could’ve just explained that I’d left the university and you couldn’t find me, then spent the day sightseeing.”

“When I make a promise, I—”

“You’ve let your ice melt,” he interrupted. “We can’t have that.” Our waiter was nowhere in sight, and Darin called out to the hostess. “Another round. Especial, por favor.

“Special, how?” I asked.

Darin grinned. “You’ll see.”

I took a new tack. “Why did you drop out of school?”

“Not important.”

Waiting him out led only to an awkward silence. “What are you doing now instead?”

The hostess bustled up to our table with fresh margaritas. The especial variety added paper cocktail umbrellas. I got the glass with the tiny red parasol. Darin’s was blue. She said, “Enjoy.”

“Well, Darin, what have you been up to?” I tried again.

He raised his glass, waiting till I did the same. “Bottoms up.”

I took a healthy swallow, then waited.

“You know,” he drawled, “someone else came around, a couple months back, likewise curious about me.”

“Oh?”

“A bill collector, or so he asserted. He also put a disproportionate amount of effort into finding me.”

“To collect the rent you had, well, forgotten to tend to before moving on?”

“Drink up, Dad’s friend.” Darin downed more of his margarita, then waited till I followed suit. “For my back rent? That’s a good one. No, the guy worked for the company.”

“What company?” I asked, with the sinking feeling that I knew. The company. Two months ago, I had returned to Ceres. Two months ago, my employers first saw the coercive vid on Les’s hacked computer.

If the company had hired an investigator Dirtside, why hadn’t they said so? And what else hadn’t they told me?

Toppling onto the table, spilling what remained of the drugged margarita, as awareness faded, I intuited an explanation. Or maybe it was Darin’s smirk that suggested the answer.

That first investigator had never reported back.

****

Two dead. Two dead. Two dead . . .

Coming out of my drug-induced fog, I took solace from not having become number three. Yet. Or perhaps the bullet I’d dodged was becoming number four, the fate of the Earther “bill collector” remaining ambiguous. Either way, I silently chewed myself out for having so thoroughly scrubbed my comp of Maureen’s spyware. Damn my obsessive-compulsive thoroughness anyway! Never mind the company’s penchant for secrecy, right about then I could have used a competent someone tracking me. Not that I had any idea where my comp was, other than gone from my pocket. Ditto, the passport sleeve for my current ID. I would have felt their lumps under my ass.

I’d awakened at least once before into this dismal, windowless storeroom. Apart from a clearer—if still throbbing—head, nothing had changed. I remained immobile, helpless. The cyclopean red eye of a camera still guarded me.

Just maybe I remembered Darin and the pretty hostess maneuvering me from the booth. Either way, I’d lost consciousness before exiting the vegan restaurant. At least I assumed we had left. The indistinct murmurs that penetrated the walls and closed door did nothing to suggest I was in the back room of a restaurant.

Unable to move, I ransacked my memories. Speculated. Analyzed. Cursed myself out. Regretted. Cursed myself out some more.

My chief regret? How blind I had been. I had never considered the possibility—at this point, the near certainty—that Darin was a co-conspirator. The one ambiguity remaining was whether he had conspired all along, or begun as a victim and been turned. I thought I remembered some famous case involving an abducted Hearst family heiress become a terrorist. The Stockholm syndrome, was that called? Whatever Stockholm was.

Unable to kick myself except figuratively, it was just as well that, soon after my second(?) awakening, the door to my cell opened with a soft squeak. Letting gravity do most of the work, I turned my head. I caught a glimpse of knapsacks, flight bags, and other satchels, all piled against the far wall in the next room. A poster with a woodland scene hung above the luggage. I heard snippets of conversation about . . . birthrates? . . . and laughter. Darin walked in, carrying a folding chair.

There popped into my mind an ancient cartoon of two filthy, bedraggled prisoners dangling by wrist manacles from a dungeon wall. Now, here’s my plan . . ., one of them was saying. Blinking, I snapped an image of the other room before Darin closed the door behind himself. The hinges protested in this direction, too.

I said, “I still owe you dinner. Or you can treat.”

“I’m good,” he said. “But you, funny man? You might want to take matters seriously.”

“I am. In hindsight, I should never have paid your back rent.” Was that a ghost of a smile? Or an expression more predatory? The look, whatever it signified, vanished before I could decide. “So, what did happen to that bill collector you mentioned?” And am I going to end up like him?

Darin unfolded the chair and set it facing the sofa. He sat, glaring down on me. “Do you even know my father?”

“I told you. I’m his accountant.”

“Uh-huh.”

Okay, that had sounded dubious, even to me. “But personal accounting isn’t why I’m here. I came to network. Representing Earther companies in the Belt will be a big career step.”

“Not with the company? Then”—intoned ominously—”you’re of no use to me.”

Sharing or stonewalling? Which offered the better chance of keeping me alive? I wouldn’t get a do-over. “Okay, you got me. I’m a lowly accountant for the company. They send me from rock to rock, my job being to audit physical stockpiles and onsite records for evidence of any pilfering. Your dad was among the miners at the most recent rock I visited.” When Darin didn’t comment, I added, “And I know why you’ve been in hiding.”

“Uh-huh. Why is that?”

“Because as soon as Les got back to civilization and long-range comm, he was certain to try to contact you. It wouldn’t have fit the storyline for you to be reachable. You had to have disappeared months ago, when you were kidnapped, and still be gone.”

“Do tell,” Darin smirked.

“The thing is, your abductors”—and not that I could lift my arms, I wondered if that last word deserved air quotes—”wouldn’t have let you go till they knew whether Les had complied. Whether, as per your heartfelt plea, your father had constructed and deployed an aerosol-dispersing device at the mining base. Oh, he might have reported that he’d done so, but no one would know for many months. Not till the relief ship with your dad’s crew returned for their next tour of duty. And that shouldn’t happen till months from now.”

The smirk had not quite vanished, but I had the young man’s attention. Darin said, “He showed you the vid, then. While you were onsite auditing. Why?”

“No, I came upon the vid after. The thing is, Darin . . .” Almost despite himself, he leaned closer. It made no difference that he had put himself within arm’s length of me, because my arms were also dead weights. “Your father is dead.”

“Bullshit.”

“No, really. Haven’t you wondered why he hasn’t tried to make contact? Even in hiding, you’d have gotten an email.”

Darin shrugged. “Everyone in his crew went straight from the rock to company jail, whatever the euphemism the company uses for detention. I guess the strip searches to discourage smuggling of platinum scraps weren’t invasive enough.”

The crew—what remained of it, anyway—was in confinement. But not over any mundane pilferage. Not directly. The company cover story was holding. (Two dead. Two dead . . .) I shook off my guilt with outrage at Darin’s hypocrisy. It’s not like I was his guest here.

“He built and hid the device, just as your people ordered.” The young man ignored your people, reinforcing my suspicions. “It wasn’t his fault another miner found it tucked into a ventilation duct. You can imagine the concerns that discovery raised. And the questions . . .”

“Then what happened?”

“I think Les was terrified at what might happen to you if he gave out any information. Because he believed the vid, you know? He believed you’d been kidnapped and abused. He believed that, to save your life, he had to do exactly as ordered. As much as possible, he had. When the device was discovered, he was desperate to show your captors he had done everything he could to cooperate. Protecting you was more important to him than . . . anything.”

“You can’t know that.”

“You tell me.” I stared at him. “Besides whatever nasty stuff the device was meant to disperse, your father also synthed a cyanide pill.”

The blood drained from Darin’s face. Too little. Too late. “Dad took cyanide? But he wasn’t supposed to . . .”

Les was not supposed to die. The vid had directed him to set the timer for two days after his crew was scheduled to rotate out. As for the men and women of the alternating crew, they were expendable. And while I had my suspicions, I had no actual clue as to why they were to have been expended.

Words, if I could find the right ones, were the only tools available. “Yes, your dad took cyanide. In front of his crew. In front of his friends. Because once that device had been found—and no one, of course, admitted to any knowledge of it—everyone was made to turn over their personal comps as possible evidence. Your dad must’ve figured that if he weren’t forced to unlock his comp, the encrypted coercive message to him might go unseen. That protecting those secrets with his life might mollify your abductors.

“Of course, an expert at the company did unlock everything.” That expert being me, a fact whose disclosure I doubted would improve my situation. “We saw the vid. We saw how Les had been put into an impossible situation, how he had been forced to build that device.”

I strained to lift my head, the better to stare at my captor. “And the people who coerced your father? They are responsible for his death.”

Exhausted, closing my eyes and letting my head flop back onto the sofa, I hoped Darin would chew on that.

****

With no timepiece beyond a growing thirst, unsure even if I had nodded off, I had no idea how much time had passed before Darin reappeared. Behind him, past the open door, a woman in dark slacks and a tan sweater strode by. Her head was turned, but though I saw only the back of her head I blink-snapped an image anyway. This wasn’t the hostess from the Mexican restaurant. She had been taller, her hair straighter and darker. But, I suspected, my co-abductor was in the next room. The whiff of her perfume, and the start of my nose dripping, were unmistakable.

“Time to continue our chat,” Darin announced.

Chat had not come out sounding friendly. Perhaps it didn’t matter, but I wondered whether he’d already come to terms with his father’s death—plainly, they had had issues—or if he had convinced himself I had lied about it to rattle him.

“Unless you like things messy,” I countered, “first you’ll return my fuel cell and point me to a bathroom.”

He pointed, instead, at the wastebasket in the corner.

“I can’t stand without power for the exoskeleton, much less walk.”

He canted his head, considering, then turned toward the door. “Back in a minute.”

“I’ll be here,” I called after him. I snapped more images through the doorway as he exited, and again when he returned with a brown paper sack.

With a roll of duct tape from the bag, he bound my ankles. Around and around he wound the tape, a good ten times. “Hands together now.” I couldn’t lift my arms and so, grumbling, he maneuvered them together and bound my wrists just as securely. Then, he snapped a fuel cell taken from his bag into the exoskeleton. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.”

“I’ll need at least five. And will the camera be turned off?”

He left, not deigning to answer.

It took me more or less forever to maneuver bound legs off the sofa and to sit up. (Seated, I saw that the Panic button had gone missing from the exoskeleton’s forearm control panel. Two of the chips visible through the ragged hole bore sooty scorch marks. I pictured the flat blade of a screwdriver prying out the button, in the process shorting the chips immediately beneath. The joke was on them: I hadn’t enrolled in the service.) It took me as long to stand, to the accompaniment through the wall of faint sniggers. It took longer—toppling twice, struggling laboriously back to my feet—to shuffle to and from the chamber pot. It’s not as if I’d had reason to train the exoskeleton to interpret muscles twitches made while restrained hand and foot. Some hopefully discreet experimental flexing as I shuffled convinced me that even at full exertion, the hardware could not snap my bonds. As for unzipping myself? Doing my business with bound wrists? Those were about as much fun.

Finally, gasping for breath, I plopped onto the sofa, but sitting. I hoped the voyeurs watching through the webcam had found the exhibition compelling.

When Darin returned, he had a clear bottle in his hand. Just to see condensation beads dotting the glass, a few drops running down the bottle and onto his hand, made me realize how thirsty I was. He held out the bottle to me.

I raised my arms, wrists still bound. “Uncap it, please?”

He did, and handed it over. As I drank, clumsily, sloshing some of the water onto my shirt, he asked, “What was that?”

On my left forearm, in a corner of the control panel, the Charging LED glowed yellow. Accepting the water might already have sunk my plan. Such as it was. “What’s what?”

He pointed. “That lamp.”

“Status indicator of some kind? Not happy with having a button pried out?” As he extended an arm to reclaim my fuel cell, I dipped my head to indicate the bottle. “Let me finish this first. I can’t lift my arms without power.”

“Be quick about it.”

I chugged the bottle, and he plucked it empty from my hands. I had barely rested my arms in my lap when he popped out the fuel cell. The charging LED went dark.

Darin settled into his chair. “You’ve had your fluid-adjustment break. Now, we talk.”

I talked, he meant.

He had sought me out. Why? I assumed, to stop me from continuing to look for him. To stop me drawing attention to him. Had my explanation for the search been credible, I imagined we’d have had dinner and gone our separate ways.

Then there was the so-called bill collector. However expendable the company considered me, they wanted—no, they needed—to get to the bottom of things. If they had retained, and then lost contact with, an Earther investigator, almost certainly they would have told me, if only to tip the odds for my success. By that line of reasoning the bill collector was a fiction invented to rattle me, his indeterminate fate intended to encourage my cooperation.

Almost certainly.

Like a particularly dimwitted rat in a maze, my thoughts thereafter darted every which way and ended up getting nowhere. I’d been drugged, kidnapped, and imprisoned. If I lived to implicate Darin, he could implicate everyone in the cabal. Short of rescue or escape, was there any way back from that?

Two dead. Two dead. I very much wanted not to be number three.

I licked my lips. “Tell me what you want to know.” Not that I cared, beyond construing from his answer which lies I could get away with while still earning his trust.

“Why are you here?”

“Because you drugged me and brought me here,” I blurted out.

While that crack imparted nothing he didn’t already know, what could needless antagonism accomplish? What was wrong with me?

He seemed not to take offense. “Understood. But why did you come to Earth?”

Company business. This time, I caught myself before volunteering more needless truth. What was it Mark Twain had said? If you tell the truth, you don’t have to remember anything. Maybe the epigram applied as well to selective truths. “To find you. I told you so upfront.”

“To buy me a dinner, as you promised my father. Only you also told me he’s dead. Which is it?”

“Both, except for the promise part.”

Darin frowned. “So Dad is dead? How?”

“I told you earlier. He took cyanide.”

“Tell me about this device you say he made and what happened with it.”

I saw no harm in answering. Darin and his associates knew what they had ordered built. “A clear glass bottle. An electronics module of some sort, lots of wires, and a slab of stuff like clay. Stuck into the clay was a metal tube that one of the miners told me was a blasting cap. Everyone was afraid to touch the thing.”

“Sounds like a bomb,” Darin suggested.

“It looked like a bomb,” I agreed. “Apart from the glass bottle part. Logically, that held a gas or chemical or something.”

“Logically. Did you or anyone see anything in the bottle?”

Had I? I thought back. “Dust speckles on the bottom of the container.”

My mention of dust made him smile. “What else? What did you think about the bottle?”

“That the explosion or a control valve would release whatever . . .”

I froze mid-sentence. What the hell was I doing, rattling on this way? I did a quick mental rewind and replay of the past few exchanges. It was as if I’d forgotten the danger. It was as if I wanted my answers to please.

What the hell was in the water I’d chugged?

“You were saying?” Darin urged.

The Belt is big. Flying from rock to rock on company business, I read a lot. I watched vid after vid. I’d done plenty more of both during the long flight to Earth, mostly detective and spy stories: my homework. Several plots had involved someone compelled to talk under truth serum. And before dropping out, Darin had been a graduate student in biotech. How hard would it have been for him to have synthed a drug? Make that two drugs. He had likely also synthed whatever had knocked me out at the restaurant.

“Umm,” I continued, mumbling, “something would release whatever was in the bottle.”

But truth serum, like lie detector, was a misnomer. Wasn’t it? At least, what I recalled from police-procedural stories was that sodium pentothal and its ilk were basically anti-anxiety meds. They lowered inhibitions. Reduced or eliminated fears. Suppressed higher cortical functions, in theory making it harder to sustain a lie. (Good one, Mr. Twain.) They could be disorienting. They did not so much force truth-telling as make a person want to please. At one time, psychiatrists had used the meds to treat PTSD and the like. Under the guidance of a skilled practitioner, a drugged subject would confirm what the questioner already knew.

And when the questioner didn’t know the truth? Drugged subjects in the main still answered with whatever a questioner signaled, intentionally or not, he expected. And so, shrinks wielding sodium pentothal, persistently probing and hinting about abuse to otherwise traumatized child patients, had once gotten a bunch of innocent parents and daycare workers thrown into prison as abusers.

Good thing I didn’t read only fiction.

“What was in the glass bottle?” Darin asked.

“The bottle with the bomb? I don’t know.”

“Why a bomb and a bottle?”

Were my arms not impossibly heavy, I’d have shrugged. “My guess? The explosives were to discourage any attempt, if the thing were found, to move or disable it. If so, the plan worked.”

“And the company? Do they know what was in the bottle?”

“I don’t see how. The device hadn’t gone off when the crew-rotation ship arrived. Everyone abandoned the base.”

That was truthful—as far as it went. But auditors flew from rock to rock in single-person ships. I had remained behind in my ship after the miners evacuated, remotely monitoring the deserted base through cameras left inside. Within a few days of the device going off, every sort of plastic, rubber, and synthetic fiber . . . dissolved. Including the nylon layer of backup pressure suits that had been left behind. The base itself retained atmosphere—the airlock was gasket-free, its shaped-metal hatches pressing like springs against the metal frame—but anyone who had stayed behind, or who entered the base afterward, would have been trapped.

Bottom line (and that’s what we accountants deal in), I knew what the stuff dispersed by the bomb did. But was it a potent, if selective, corrosive gas? Plastic-loving, fast-reproducing bacteria? Plastic-hating, self-replicating nanites? Did anyone know what, precisely (beyond, perhaps, more of Darin’s biotech handiwork), it was? No.

What I did know was that determining what had been set loose was impossible absent venturing inside the stricken base—and that, no simple undertaking. During the hasty preparations for my trip to Earth I’d overheard talk at company headquarters about how they hoped, someday, to regain use of the mine. The thinking had yet to advance beyond generalities, involving a custom-built robot cum mobile laboratory and a hermetic barrier to encase both bot and the mine’s airlock. Remotely operated by techies—outside the barrier on the asteroid’s barren surface—the robot would enter the base. Unless and until testing identified the contagion and someone crafted a way to neutralize it, that robot would stay sealed within. And short of constructing a new base from scratch, all the precious platinum on that rock would remain in the ground.

“I don’t see how,” I repeated.

Darin shook his head. “If the company had Dad’s computer, they must know what was in the bottle.”

For once in this interrogation, I got to speak the unvarnished truth. “The vid ordered Les to digitally shred everything after he’d deployed the device. He did destroy the recipe files used to print it and whatever was in it. I suppose he couldn’t bring himself to delete the vid, because that might have been the last he ever saw of you.” As, in fact, it had been.

“You must have a theory,” Darin pressed.

Drugs and lowered inhibitions be damned, I had to out-and-out lie. “Knockout gas of some kind?”

“And you say there was something like dust at the bottom of the jar?”

My confirmation again pleased him. That dust, somehow, was a clue. Though its meaning eluded me, I knew I needed to get the information out to the company.

“So, what’s the company’s reaction to all this? I mean, beyond so recklessly sending you to nose about?”

“They’re pissed.”

Darin laughed. “Why was the device put there to begin with?”

“You must already know.”

“Why do you think the device was put there? Why does the company?”

“Well . . .” With the exoskeleton inert I couldn’t even squirm. “Do my uninformed speculations matter?”

“You must have some theory,” he coaxed.

“Extortion.” Suppressed inhibitions be damned, I had to choose my next words with special care. At least if I hoped to get out of here alive. “The company is incredibly, obscenely rich. I understand wanting a piece of that. Honest, I do. After tax evasion, the Belter national pastime is trying to put one over on the company.

“Knocking a platinum mine out of production blew a huge gaping hole in their forecasted cash flow. I’m an accountant. I know how that hurts them. I assume the plan was to incapacitate the miners on the one rock, demonstrating that something worse could have been done. And having shown it could be done once? Then other crew members, on other asteroids, could likely be coerced to take down even more production. I expect your people will demand a payoff to ensure that doesn’t happen on any company rock.”

He sat silently for a while, smugly stroking his chin.

The extortion part? That I believed, one hundred percent. What I didn’t get was why the conspirators had been so cold-blooded. Knockout gas would have made their point. But the vile stuff that had been released? If the device had gone undiscovered until it went off, the men and women of the relief crew would have been trapped. For the short term, perhaps, they would have been fine (Les’s gerbil in its cage had seemed unaffected—at least till its water bottle dissolved). But they could forget about the long term. Once the contagion found its way into the synthesizers, dissolving an internal gasket or two, food production would have ceased.

“That’s why . . .” I trailed off, mid-blurt. Damn whatever inhibition-lowering drug he had given me.

His eyes narrowed. “Why what?”

Why he was so interested in the dust settled to the bottom of the bomb bottle? Until Darin had asked, the dust had made zero impression on me. I’d never mentioned it to company debriefers. Anyway, dust was my term. Darin had said, “something like dust.”

How had the rubber-eating stuff been synthed? Or, rather, how had it been synthed without revealing itself by eating gaskets inside one of the base printers? Before I’d headed Earthward, these questions had been driving company engineers nuts.

For lack of any answer, a witch-hunt had been ongoing as I left. Never mind that smuggling contraband aboard a company ship would have involved bypassing two independent automated surveillance systems and corrupting an entire four-person team hand-inspecting everything. No matter that company Security in the main looked for disassembled radio transmitters, a seemingly empty but sealed glass bottle would surely have triggered a closer look.

And if inspectors had opened a plague bottle on Ceres? I shuddered, just to think of the devastation . . .

“Why what?” Darin repeated.

“I don’t know,” I answered shakily. “You know how an idea will just pop into your head? And be gone even before you can grasp it?”

“We’ll just have to bring that thought back, won’t we?” He took a deep breath. “Once more then, from the top . . .”

****

Slumped against the sofa back, struggling for breath, I wheezed, “I’ve got to have a break.”

“No, you don’t,” Darin said. “You’re just sitting there.”

Conveying exhaustion took no great acting skill. Or any. “I weigh like thirty times what I’m used to, jaw included. Talking is hard. Just breathing is wearing me out.”

From astride his chair, its back still toward me, he watched my chest heave. “I suppose we could take five.”

“No,” I insisted, panting. “Not ‘take five.’ I need another bathroom break. I need something to eat”—about then, even soy-cheese nachos would do—”and more to drink. And I need sleep.”

“And if I say no?”

Beats me, I almost said, but a beating wasn’t the notion to put into his head. I let my eyes fall shut, my head tip forward.

“Fine,” Darin said.

“Steak, medium rare, and a loaded baked potato would be nice.”

“Beef?” he barked. “You want beef?”

I couldn’t stop myself flinching. “Just trying to lighten the mood. Except the part about needing something to eat.”

“Fine.” He stood and strode from the room. In the short while he left the door ajar, I heard the pretentious tones of a 3V talking head—and a man with a nasal voice yelling back at it. Who gets worked up over some local zoning board approving a high-rise complex? The man was still ranting (“Packing them in like cattle!”) when Darin returned with a couple sandwiches on a cardboard plate, a bag of whole-grain chips, another water bottle—and my fuel cell.

Pathetic weakness, or perhaps it was the PBJ mess my first clumsy bite squeezed onto my shirt, got the tape around my wrists snipped and a rickety folding table to support the snack. Carrying in the table (was that bamboo?) required both hands, and Darin didn’t close the door behind him. After he sat, I got my first unobstructed pictures of the room beyond, in which the luggage pile seemed to have grown, and, twice, profile shots of bearded men walking past the doorway. Good data about my captors. A bad omen for my prospects. After maybe two minutes, responding to a complaint from that next room, Darin closed the door.

Mid-meal, I dropped my left hand into my lap, below the tabletop. Soon after, the Charging LED flipped from yellow to green: I had approximated the reserve-battery charging time about right. Beneath the table, the tiny lamp was not in sight of Darin or the unblinking webcam, but the table might not be staying. I turned that arm to palm up, control panel and its status LEDs down.

Either my yawning was contagious, or Darin was also tired. He stood, mouth briefly agape. “Get settled. I’ll be back soon to unplug you. We’ll finish this in the morning.”

I did not much care for the sound of finish. “How about some kind of blanket?”

He paused by the exit, a hand on the knob. The camera, in its motorized mount above the door, continued to sweep from side to side. “What else, Princess? Silk jammies? Hot cocoa? Shall I send for a masseuse?”

“The blanket is to put over my head, so I can get some sleep. Unless you care to turn off the lights?”

“Or, you could close your eyes.”

By the time he returned with a blanket, I had maneuvered myself into a sleeping position: lying on my left side, knees raised until the short sofa supported my feet. My left arm rested palm-side up—putting the exoskeleton control panel, with its glowing LEDs, down. My face was to the back of the sofa, and my back to the ceiling camera. Darin dropped the folded blanket, stinking of mothballs and stale sweat, on my head and shoulder. As he groped for and removed the fuel cell on my exoleg, I managed to tug an edge of the blanket down to waist level.

I heard the soft pad of Darin striding away, hinges squeaking, the click of a door latch, and the thud of a deadbolt slamming into place. I heard a man with a gravelly voice greet Darin, and then, at an almost imperceptible level, indistinguishable conversation. The occasional word or phrase I might have made out—midway, pizza, socks, plastic, carrying capacity, starve the beast—told me nothing. Unless that had been Sox, not socks, which could mean I remained on the south side of Chicago. Somehow, I promised myself, I’d live to make it to a ballgame. And have pizza.

I rotated my left arm to palm down. Cautiously, so as not to dislodge the tented blanket, I slid my right hand to the control panel. I had scarcely roused the virtual keypad when the Charging LED reverted to yellow. Type fast, I told myself. But lest I run out of time, I used a few precious seconds of panel glow to smear the status LEDs with PBJ drippings scraped from my shirtfront.

Plan A was to reactivate comm and then activate the “I’m fallen and I can’t get up” service. Once an operator came online, he, she, or it could connect me to 911. In theory, Plan A was easy to put into effect. No matter that the Panic button itself had been ripped out, whatever software the button invoked should still be available. Tapping feverishly, working by the soft glow of the control panel, I enrolled in the service—and found I still couldn’t trigger a distress call. Those scorches I’d noticed? A critical chip or two had indeed fried.

On to Plan B, and the tracking software Maureen Rogers had tried to plant on me. I’d deleted it and all her other shady software from my comp—not that I had my comp anymore. But I did have the disabled copies I’d saved, just in case, in spare memory of the exoskeleton controller. With a few hurried taps I installed the tracker, spliced Help! Prisoner! into the app’s output format, and linked the program to the exo’s wireless capability.

Alas, the restored app would not give Maureen much to go on—even assuming she hadn’t given up on tracking me. Disabling the “I’ve fallen” service had also disabled its underlying GPS service. Without GPS, the spyware could only locate me to the vicinity of the nearest cell tower. That wasn’t nothing. It should suffice to get Maureen on her way here from DC. Better yet, it might get her to start some associate or hireling already in Chicago to hunting for me.

If she hadn’t given up.

Poking around deep within the menu system, in a race against the rapidly draining battery, I found and enabled the exo’s embedded GPS service. It, of course, had no idea where I was. Yet.

Back in Manhattan, meandering about Central Park, my comp had taken about twenty minutes to find enough satellites and download enough detailed orbital data to initialize its own GPS service. The little reserve battery was only sized for five, and I guesstimated I’d already burned through at least three of those. I might eke out a few extra seconds by lying still—the motors must draw more power than did the electronics—and maybe I’d be lucky. Maybe, before the battery ran dry, I’d get a precise lat-long readout. Then, so would Maureen’s spyware.

It was a nice idea, anyway. The exoskeleton’s GPS chip was still initializing when, beneath the blanket, everything went dark. My right forearm and hand flopped to the sofa, dragging my elbow from my side.

Eventually, somehow, I drifted off to sleep . . . .

****

Somewhere among the impaling stakes, torture racks, thumbscrews, red-hot pincers, and trays of glittering surgical instruments, in one of the rare moments when I wasn’t plummeting, or suffocating beneath my own gargantuan weight, or wilting beneath the penetrating gaze of dead miners, my wife came to me.

Bea starring in my dreams was in no way unusual, especially when I was far from home. Black attire was common enough, too—but of the peek-a-boo, lacy variety. Not in black from head to toe. Not veiled. Not (when she lifted the veil) with tear-stained cheeks. Not, once she met my eyes, so angry.

“You went away for the damned company,” she said. “For the crumbs they condescended to throw your way. So, you got them to name you a junior assistant deputy associate minion. What good will that stake do you now?”

“Do us,” I corrected. “Worst case, do you. However this turns out.”

“Did you honestly think I’d want their damned blood money?”

“It’s not like that.” My voice trailed off even as Bea’s image morphed into . . . an iron maiden. Forever, side by side, it and I fell. As it faded away, I came down, splat, in a deep oubliette. The walls began to dissolve, and I realized they weren’t stone and mortar, but plastic. The floor gave way beneath me—

Once more, I was falling . . .

****

I shuddered awake, blinking at the sudden bright light, as the blanket went flying.

“Rise and shine, Princess.” I couldn’t see Darin, but I knew the voice. Grabbing my shoulder, he rolled me onto my back, then slapped a fuel cell into its socket on the exoskeleton’s left thigh.

That was the moment, as he crouched over my legs, to knee him in the head. To make a run for it. For a nanosecond, I even considered it. The three, maybe four, loud voices in the next room (did these people ever not argue?) dissuaded me. They would have been upon me faster than I could unbind my ankles or hobble to the door.

Darin stood. The opportunity, such as it was, had passed. “Hands,” he commanded. I raised them, and he wrapped my wrists with layer upon layer of fresh tape. I was glad to see a peanut-butter smear still masked the controller LEDs. “Five minutes for your morning ablutions.”

I took my time. With power restored, the exo’s GPS would be trying to initialize.

Eventually, I was back on the sofa, behind the restored rickety table, gnawing on a gravel-and-twigs energy bar. Maybe my morning water bottle was also drugged; I was too parched to leave it untouched and too keyed up to judge. We went through everything again. My arrival at the rock where his father worked. Discovery of the device. Evacuation. What the company thought, and I thought, of all this. The rehash took more than enough time for GPS to have initialized. To have localized me. More than long enough for my reserve battery to have finished recharging.

No sign yet of the cavalry.

Through the closed door, I heard a flurry of footsteps. Thumping. Rustling. “Time to wrap it up,” a woman called out.

I can’t say I cared for the sound of that.

“I’ll be right along,” Darin yelled back.

“Hurry it up,” the same woman shouted.

“In a minute.” In a lower voice, Darin continued, “And Dad dead.”

“Two dead.” I’d gotten careless, or worn down, or there had been drugs in the latest water, and I’d succumbed to them. Maybe all three. Whatever the reason, the words just popped out.

Two people took cyanide?”

I hadn’t killed anyone, but there was no disguising my guilty shiver. “If I could identify the bomber, or so I reasoned back there on the rock, I could get him or her to disarm the device. Auditing gave me an excuse to interview everyone—not asking about the bomb, of course, but in general. What I did uncover was an inventory discrepancy, somebody having diverted several kilos of platinum. More likely two somebodies, one distrusting the other to keep quiet. Soon after I’d begun poking around, one of the crew vanished.” Pretty little Anisha Chatterjee, turned to . . .

“The morning after her disappearance, I spotted an unexplained spike in organic feedstock for the printers.” Also, after I’d synthed and eaten breakfast. My gorge rising, I forced myself to continue. “An increase that came to about her body mass.”

Darin chewed on his lower lip. “You don’t suppose Dad . . .?”

More thumping and stomping noises from the next room. Doors, each fainter than the last, slamming. And then, silence. If the unseen among my captors had left, what did that bode for me?

Nothing good, especially if I didn’t keep my wits about me.

I said, “Les didn’t seem like the homicidal type. Anyway, what with the vid of you, he had plenty else on his mind.” Then more truth slipped out. “But if I hadn’t gone digging, hadn’t been trying to identify the bomber, I wouldn’t have rattled whoever did kill Anisha. Who gives a good goddamn if she planned to rip off the company a little?”

“Who gives a good goddamn if someone rips off the company for a lot?” Glancing at his wrist-clock tattoo, then at me, Darin stood. He managed to look apologetic. “The thing is . . .”

The thing was, he and his cronies had planned to trap and kill off a crew of five. Why would he balk at eliminating the witness already bound hand and foot? The extent just then of my offensive potential was leaping to my feet—while somehow not falling—and lunging across the table to head-butt him. After which, without doubt, I would crash to the floor.

What good is money to you now? Bea chided. Of course, she wasn’t here. Besides, I’d never shared with her my deal with the company. If this was guilt, well, then fair enough. But maybe it was my subconscious making a suggestion . . . .

“You know,” I whispered, leaning over the table, “you can get a bit extra out of the company. And in return, I get to walk out of here. What do you say?”

“Go on.”

I dropped my hands into my lap. “The company set me up with a slush fund. For expenses.”

“How much are we talking about?”

What I had left wasn’t bribe-worthy. I lied.

He whistled.

“Do we have a deal?” I pressed.

He laughed unpleasantly. “So you can use a duress code, or so the funds you transfer can be traced? I don’t think so.”

“No. Cryptocash. Anonymous. Untraceable. Untaxable.” Also, for those reasons, beloved of organized crime and money launderers. Illegal for decades in the USNA, of course, and most other Earther jurisdictions. Kidnappers and extortionists would not quibble over that detail.

Darin was silent, but clearly tempted.

I said, “The funds are in a standard wallet on my comp. I’ll transfer it all. Just promise you’ll let me go.”

“Uh-huh. I power up your comp, and it broadcasts your location. Oh, I’d still walk away before anyone got here, but I don’t need anyone to come looking for me. Pass.”

He wasn’t wrong. To make a transfer required being online. A cryptocash transaction was a bookkeeping entry, no more and no less, in a digital ledger distributed, and replicated, on computers across the planet. That had been the basic architecture going back to the mother of all cryptocurrencies, bitcoin. No communication with that ledger? No transfer. For this to work, my comp had to go onto the net.

“Hear me out,” I said. “Open up my comp. Pull the GPS chip before turning it on. It can’t reveal where I am when it doesn’t know.” I didn’t volunteer the presence of an active GPS chip in my exoskeleton.

He mulled it over. Went into the next room, returning with what looked like my comp. (Also with a bulge in his pants, and I doubted he had become happy to see me.) Sat. Unfolded the comp face down on the table, and exposed the guts of it. Surfed awhile on his own comp, I presumed to identify the GPS chip used in mine. Finally, he pried loose a chip, closed my comp, turned it over, powered it up, and slid it toward me across the wobbly table. “Do it.”

I rested my hands, still taped together, on the comp. “Can’t, not this way. Keystroke-dynamics recognition.”

He swore, demanded I try authenticating anyway. Authentication failed twice.

I raised my hands. “Remove the tape. It’s the only way this will work.”

He did. I shook my hands, flapped my fingers all about. “Give me a couple of minutes. I won’t type normally till the hands get circulation back in them and they wake up.” I rubbed one wrist, then the other. I dropped the hands back into my lap, still massaging.

Just maybe, I heard a soft scuffing noise from beyond the door.

“Get to it,” Darin said.

I interlaced my fingers, turned my palms toward him. I straightened my arms, flexing fingers till the knuckles cracked. “Almost there,” I announced.

The gun came out of his pocket, though not yet pointed at me. “Hurry up. I have things to do.”

“Really?” Somehow, I held my voice steady. “You would shoot me?”

“I have my father’s death on my conscience. What do I care about you? So quit stalling and type.”

Indeed, I was stalling. I typed. Mistyped. “Umm, a gun in my face does nothing to steady my hands.”

“I’m losing my patience,” he snapped.

Ever so cautiously, the door behind Darin opened a crack. Sans squeak: as though the hinges had been oiled. Something (I could not make out quite what. A small mirror, perhaps?) peeked into the room.

I logged onto the comp and opened my wallet app. “Almost there,” I declared. “No need to shoot.”

I’d intended that suggestion for the cavalry, evidently preparing to breach. Darin must have grokked it, too, or heard a suspicious noise behind him, or seen an unexpected shadow or a reflection from the mirror. However, he intuited the danger, whatever he thought was going on—he raised his gun.

And all hell broke loose—too many things, too quickly, to process, much less for their order to register:

—I hurled myself down and to the side, off the sofa.

—Shouted orders to “Drop the gun.”

—Maureen burst into the room.

—Shots rang out.

—Sadness at everything I was leaving behind, Bea most of all. Sadness and guilt for the children Bea and I had always wanted, but for whom I had never quite been ready.

—With eyes wide, and a bright red splotch spreading across his shirtfront, Darin crumpled to the floor.

—And excruciating pain, burning, in my shoulder . . ..

****

The next several . . . minutes? . . . were a blur. Pressure—and agony!—on/in/throughout my shoulder. Ululating sirens. Urgent ministrations of the EMTs. Racing from my cell, with feet dangling off the end of an Earther-sized gurney. In the next room, where I’d seen bags and knapsacks piled, one lonely tote remained: Darin’s, I assumed. The gurney jolting over an uneven surface, and me gasping with each bump. Cops swarming. An interminable ambulance ride, with Maureen at my side, squeezing my hand. The ambulance drove with its siren off; apparently, I was stable.

“It’s okay, Bernie,” she said. “Try to relax, Bernie.”

Parsing Bernie took a second. That was me, as far as Maureen knew. Smart cookie that she was, she figured I was apt to be using aliases. Hence, she was reminding me of the name she had given to the authorities. Because she would’ve known some moniker for me, even if I were the kind of jerk who gave out fake names to women in bars. (Which the cops would decide, because I had been using a different name in Chicago. Likewise fake.) Just happening to be in the neighborhood from Washington to rescue a total stranger from his kidnapper would never pass the smell test. Especially not with a dead body involved.

I had just about finished puzzling through all that when she leaned close, brushing the hair from my eyes. To kiss my forehead, I supposed. For show. I didn’t see why she would bother when the EMTs were ignoring us, one tapping notes into her comp, the other poking around inside an ambulance supplies cabinet: inattention I chose to take as further confirmation I’d pull through. The next thing I knew, Maureen had a finger in my eye, removing one of my spyware lenses. She whispered urgently into my ear, “Where are you staying? Under what name?”

I answered, wondering why she’d asked.

An EMT glanced our way.

“A little privacy, please,” Maureen snapped, and the EMT’s head whipped back around to her supplies cabinet. Maureen continued, in a yet softer whisper, “Keep your voice down. I’m guessing the snatch involved company business, and you want as many details as possible kept close.”

I nodded.

“Here’s our story. We met in a DC bar. We planned to hook up again when I came to Chicago on my own business. I’ll refuse to identify the client. That bit of noncooperation may cause me some grief till my lawyer arrives, but no big deal. Before you and I could meet up, you were grabbed, told it was for ransom from the company. But you managed to get out a quick note to me, just ‘help.’ How I found you is my problem to explain. Do not mention the tracker. And from the moment I came through the door, tell everything just as it happened. Okay?”

I whispered back. “They’ll want to confirm my note, won’t they?”

“You’re married, so we were using self-destructing messaging. Um, Snapchat. No record anywhere. Okay?”

As one more tiny bit of misdirection, my wedding band had been in a suitcase since Ceres, but she had read me right. Whatever the EMTs had put into my IV finally began kicking in and, my mind beginning to wander, I wondered what being able to understand people would be like.

“Okay?” she prompted.

Was it? “Maybe not. GPS on my comp is disabled.”

“Then how did . . . no, that can wait. I grabbed two comps from that room before the cops got there. Was one of those yours?”

I managed to nod.

“If it comes up, your captors took your comp. You have no idea where it is.”

“Okay.” But through the ever-thickening drug stupor, yet another complication tried to assert itself. The cops would discover soon enough that I’d been asking around for Darin Hodges. I’d lost track of time, but that could not have been longer than a day or two ago. As I struggled to put my apprehension into words, the meds took over. Everything faded away . . ..

****

“Dear Bea, I am so sorry that . . .” I stopped recording. Hit erase. Such an overwrought apology was no way to begin. Reconfirmed that I was in a tight close-up, that the odd position at which the exoskeleton held my arm immobilized was outside the camera’s view, that no hint of wound dressing peeked through the fabric of my shirt. Switched mindsets to banter. “Hey, kiddo. It’s yours truly, from the Land of Too Damned Heavy. I miss you bunches.” Hit pause while I considered that opening. Good enough, I decided. “You have no idea how much I miss you, beyond even how abstinence makes the heart grow fonder. But the class is good. The food here is terrific. We”—while I lied through my teeth, what did some of the Royal We matter?— “even had the opportunity to play tourist. And check out the accommodations they gave us.”

I could feel my composure slipping. Panning the camera across the sitting area of the hotel suite, then showing the vertiginous view from the glassed-in balcony, got my face off the vid. “Here’s the thing, hon. There was a bit of a mishap on a sightseeing excursion. Kids out joyriding, which means, I discovered, disabling automatics and controlling a ground vehicle manually. Primitive, right? Anyway, it was a minor accident, what folks here call a fender-bender.” I finished panning, put on my best sincere face, and put that face back onto the camera. “The thing is, in the collision my safety harness did a number on my arm and shoulder. Belter bones, ya know? Not the sturdiest.

“So, hon, as much as I hate to say this, I’ll be staying awhile after the class ends. Being on Earth is tough enough. Launching from here before those bones fully knit, before PT? I could ruin that arm for good, or so the docs tell me.”

That prognosis, at least, was honest. The bullet that inbound had so inconsiderately missed my exoskeleton had struck metal when trying to exit my shoulder. Titanium is a lot harder than lead; ricocheting bullet fragments made mincemeat of muscle and bone.

No matter my happy pills, I wasn’t.

I was feeling sorry for myself, again, knew I had to wrap things up before the self-pity slipped out. “So keep the home fires burning. I’ll let you know when I know more. Love you.”

Off the recording went before I could add anything mawkish. I was again feeling like the wrong type of dick. Also, trapped, and not just by stern doctors and my duty. The Chicago PD expected me to hang around while they cleared up “a few details.” After the surgery on my shoulder, that had meant questioning most every day. And if the cops decided to run my DNA against the Customs database? That would add another alias to those the police knew, and bring on unwanted attention from the feds.

“Done,” I called out.

With only one possible shooter, the cops had taken Maureen into custody. Once the cops released her, she had shown up at my door. By then I understood: the cover story required that we seem hooked up. And it explained her questions in the ambulance about my latest name and hotel. I used the waterbed; she took the couch.

“She’s a lucky woman.” Maureen emerged from the kitchenette with steaming mugs of coffee. She handed me a mug, then settled with the other into one of the overstuffed chairs overlooking the balcony. “Let’s see about getting you home to her.”

Home, like clarity, seemed remote. Okay, I had survived. That mattered to me, but it didn’t rise to the level of success. My one lead, my only reason for coming to this hellhole, had been Darin Hodges—and he was dead. “That will take actually accomplishing something.”

“Haven’t you?” she asked. Because by then I’d shared some of what I’d been through, some of what this mess was all about. She had earned it, not to mention that I needed the help.

“Precious little.”

Oh, I’d concluded Darin had been in on the conspiracy all along, never—till he forced Maureen’s hand—its victim. If coercing his father to plant the bomb wasn’t his idea, he had gone along, starred in the vid to make it all happen. He had, almost certainly, designed the whatever-it-was plague, and I’d messaged the company that the dust in the bottle was somehow relevant. We knew Darin had had accomplices and, courtesy of the nifty spy lenses, I even had some pictures—but not a full face shot of any of them. My snaps of the gear pile— “go bags,” Maureen called them—turned out to be just as useless: the single luggage tag in view had been edgewise to my line of sight. From an address and menu I could remember only in part, Maureen had even identified the vegan restaurant. Which she had pursued into yet another dead end. The hostess—who had not shown up at her job since my abortive dinner—worked off the books and, it turned out, under a false name. For whatever it was worth, I spotted her in Maureen’s picture of a staff-picnic picture found decorating a restaurant wall.

“It was never about extorting money from the company, was it?” Maureen continued. Prompted? Goaded? Insinuated? Intuited?

Because it turned out that detectives, like accountants, tend to follow the money. Go figure. And there had been no ransom demand for me.

“I can’t yet say that.” From the start, I’d expected a demand for a payoff in return for some method to decontaminate the base. Within the company, everyone aware of the true situation did. But not for a while. “Remember that, apart from low-power helmet comms, company rocks don’t have radio transmitters. Darin and friends hadn’t expected the release of their nasty stuff to be discovered till the next crew rotation. That’s months from now.”

Sun was streaming through the glass doors that opened onto the balcony. Maureen got up and drew the sheers. “Okay, maybe that was the original plan. But you told Darin, and he must have told his accomplices, that the company already knows about the device. That his father’s crew, what remains of it, evacuated with the incoming crew. The bad guys gain nothing by waiting. So why haven’t they made their demands?”

I shook my head. First thing after my release from the hospital, I’d checked back in with a managing partner at the home office, the messages encrypted both coming and going. Still no demands.

Maureen frowned. “So what are Darin’s friends up to? What’s their endgame?”

“You’re asking me?” Because I was a clear failure as a detective.

“Well, you’re who’s here,” she drawled. “Also, I don’t accept for a moment that the cops have lost interest in me. So, yeah, there will be questions.”

Did she suppose I wasn’t already asking myself these things? Not already driving myself crazy with them?

Being privately owned, the company was not subject to securities law. They were not required to disclose disasters like the loss of the mine. The partners could hope to sustain the secret awhile, but their (and in the tiniest sliver, also my) stockpile of platinum had its bounds. Absent new production, there would be market turmoil and industrial disruptions. In habitats large and small, and on every settled off-Earth world, platinum was the essential catalyst for the production of nitric acid for fertilizer. When prices spiked at the prospect of shortages—and more so once actual shortages started to bite—entire ecologies would be endangered. I figured the company had maybe two years to reclaim or replace the abandoned mine before the sky fell.

So okay, metaphor isn’t my thing. Perhaps not irony, either. Or detecting. Maybe I should stick with accounting.

“You all right?” Maureen asked. “You zoned out there.”

“Just tired.”

“I know you don’t want to hear it, but we have work to do. So whenever you’re ready for a few questions . . . .”

That morning, a Chicago PD homicide detective had grilled me—again—for three solid hours. Disclosing much of the truth would’ve rocket-propelled us down the Teflon-coated slope to vile stuff in bottles, company secrets, and bringing chaos to commodity markets throughout the Solar System. I didn’t want to go there, and “couldn’t remember” much. In any event, the only captor I’d seen was Darin.

To get ahead of the inevitable discovery, I had volunteered even before my discharge from the hospital that I’d been looking for Darin, explained it with the same promised-his-father-I’d-look-him-up spiel I’d told so many others. It wasn’t as if Les could contradict me. (Not that the detective hadn’t tried for corroboration. The company responded that Les was away on company business and would be unreachable for months. For once their legendary security measures came in handy. With a shrug, my inquisitor had accepted that any contact with Les would be a long time coming.) How was I to know, I had whined yet again that morning, that doing a simple favor would make me a target of larcenous opportunity? Not to speak ill of the deceased, but the young man had major abandonment issues. I had to assume Darin had chosen to take out his resentments on the company.

Bottom line (and I was losing confidence in my ability even with those), I was well and truly drained before Maureen set out to reanalyze every word I’d exchanged with Darin, every sound that might have penetrated the walls of my cell, every pixel of every image I’d blinked. And beyond enervated, I was drowning in cognitive dissonance. What could I tell whom? What had I told whom? What, even, did I want to tell anyone? (Uh-huh, Mark Twain. I hear you. You weren’t full of pain meds.)

The nth time she started in again as to what I knew, inferred, or suspected about Darin’s vanished accomplices, I snapped. “They’re off to join the circus.”

She hummed a few bars of a tune I did not recognize. “If you’re done yanking my chain, we’ll continue.”

“I’m sure I heard one of them mention the midway. That’s part of a circus, right? Where the sideshows are? Unless you think they took time out from their crime spree to discuss”—and here my memory of Earther history failed me utterly— “obscure naval battles.”

The midway,” she repeated, frowning.

“Midway? Absolutely, I heard that word. You can’t expect me to remember every ‘the.’ ”

“Well,” Maureen said, “Tracking down Darin’s accomplices, once we figure out who to look for, just got harder. Midway is Chicago’s second airport.”

We continued losing ground until I demanded a halt. “That’s enough for a while. I’m ready for a big honking steak.”

“Geese honk, my friend. Cattle moo. Steers moo in soprano.”

“They can tap-dance while whistling Dixie, for all I care, as long as the meat is fresh. Just in case cattle are the beast they propose to starve . . . .”

The penny had finally dropped.

That there were no pennies.

 

****

 

The looming disaster was bigger than the company, which even they conceded. Bigger than the Belt. This affected everyone

With me, incongruously, at the epicenter. No wonder I felt wrung out.

“You did good,” Andy Singh declared. He was Bollywood handsome, tanned, and self-assured. Short, even by Earther standards, and barrel-chested. Side by side, we were like a fireplug and a lamppost. Andy had hired Maureen—her true name, I was now to believe, being Jaime Olafson—to support me. It was only fair that he had posted bail for her.

Andy was a senior partner at the white-shoe Washington law firm representing company interests on Earth. (What did the color of his shoes matter? I didn’t get that, and anyway, those were black, not white. He had only smiled at the question.) By extension, he was the company’s chief lobbyist and fixer on the home world. I guess I should not have been surprised when Ceres informed me Andy was also, sub rosa, a managing partner of the company—and I should do as he said.

Being in the presence of Belter near-royalty impressed me less than the connections he had on Earth: the influence that had made possible the summit from which—with me used up, as limp as a dishrag—we had finally taken our leave. And also the clout to get the Chicago police to allow Maureen (I was doing my best to ignore any other name, lest it pop out at an inopportune moment) and me to fly to Washington for that meeting.

The three of us were riding in Andy’s car. His as in he owned it, not that he had been the person to summon it. His as in no one could possibly eavesdrop through the vehicle’s voice-activated navigation system. His as in I could not shake the fear that, fatigue taking over, I’d drool on the soft-as-butter, cream-colored leather of its seats.

“You did good,” Andy repeated.

I grunted acknowledgment. If he knew I’d heard him, maybe he would let me rest.

What I’d done was hold myself together through a tag-team interrogation by a dozen agencies’ experts at the United Worlds counterterrorism center. Because that’s what we were embroiled in: terrorism. There had been no ransom note—for me, much less the quarantined asteroid—because we were dealing with extremists. They didn’t care about money. They worshipped Earth.

Their issue was with humanity and, more broadly, the billions of people (and their cattle) overloading the planet. It took Spacer-developed resources to make the current population supportable. On that single point, Darin and I would have agreed. Grant that dependency, and how do you fix the “problem?” By starving the beast. By cutting off Earth from those resources. By making humanity live within the planet’s carrying capacity. I had not forgotten Darin’s slip of the tongue. Spacers weren’t human? Then we, doubtless, were expendable. Unlike the nonhuman, non-cattle fauna who did matter, that distant third of all other terrestrial animal biomass.

Where were Darin’s cronies? Possibly in hiding, as the Chicago PD still assumed. My personal belief/conclusion/dread? They had scattered, en route to off-world destinations, there to build and deploy devices like the one they had forced Les Hodges to beta test. The field trial had been a success: built with readily available supplies and equipment under microgee conditions, then functioning just as intended. As I knew from firsthand experience . . ..

The spooks, if not one hundred percent convinced, had at least conceded the possibility. And so, resources beyond the company, beyond metropolitan police, beyond the minimalist government favored by off-world settlements, would be assigned to tracking down the cabal—before, I sincerely hoped, Darin’s plague shut down space travel. At national labs, scientists would tackle the problem of determining what the plague was, how to counteract it, what code updates to the Solar System’s myriads of printers and synthesizers might impede its production.

All in a race against time . . ..

Oblivious to my angst, Andy asked, “So, ready for dinner? You’ve earned it. I know a great sushi place.”

“Another time,” I said. But while I was too tired to eat, sleep beckoned.

And more than either, I needed to come to grips with my fears. If the contagion were ever set loose on Ceres . . ..

“Car, how long to the hotel?” I asked.

“Ten minutes,” it answered.

I didn’t make it that long without dozing off.

“We’re here,” Andy announced. Still out of it, I did not respond till he gave my shoulder (the uninjured one) a nudge. We had pulled up to the curb outside the hotel entrance. “Can I give you a hand up to your room?”

“I’ve got it,” Maureen said. “I’ll get him tucked in.”

If only there were time to sleep. “Have a few minutes for a drink, Andy?”

“Sure,” Andy said. His comp rang as I began climbing out of the car. “You two go ahead. I’ll be right up.”

I let the exo march me across the lobby to the elevator. Ineffably weary, unspeakably worried, the exo got me down the long corridor to our room. As I decanted whiskey from the minibar into three glasses, Maureen scanned all about our suite with a gadget from her purse.

“We’re clear,” she said. “What’s going on?”

“Let’s wait for Andy.”

When he arrived, he arched an eyebrow at Maureen.

“You, too?” she said. “I just swept for bugs. We’re fine.”

“Ready for some good news?” he said. “That call downstairs was from one of the folks we just met with. Their facial rec has already tracked down your vegan buddy. She’d been to Midway, all right. She flew to Mojave Spaceport, and from there to an O’Neill habitat at L5. They spotted her about to board a shuttle for the return flight.”

“Is she in custody?” My spirits rose—

And were as soon dashed, as Andy shook his head. “Habitat law enforcement thought they had her cornered. She went out an airlock. No suit.”

Spaced herself! Even as my gut lurched, a part of me took grim satisfaction in that gruesome death. A part of me wanted all those fanatical bastards pitched out of an airlock. If they had their way? If their plague ever got loose, destroying suits, eating vacuum seals? Hundreds, thousands, of innocent Spacers would be the ones dying of explosive decompression. My wife, family, and friends all too possibly among them.

“But they’ll recover her comp,” Maureen said. “That’s all we need. Right? To get the recipe?”

“The comp wasn’t on her,” Andy said. “They’re reconstructing her movements through the habitat, to find where she stashed it. No joy just yet.”

Except they wouldn’t find her comp, and not only because having the recipe in hand would be too easy. “You said she was ready to board her return flight. Then she’d already made and deployed her device. As a security measure, I’ll bet she tossed the comp into a recycling bin.”

Like Anisha Chatterjee, reduced to organic feedstock on a distant, contaminated rock. I shuddered.

“The locals will keep looking,” Andy said. “And they’ll hunt for devices like what those miners found. A bomb squad is being dispatched to L5 as we speak.”

“If anyone finds a bomb,” I predicted, “it’ll be set with a long delay. For maximum impact, and to give minimum warning, they’ll aim to strike everywhere at once.”

“Scary,” Andy said, “but logical. And a silver lining, too, if correct. It’d mean we have time. Anyone in the cabal going to the Belt will be awhile yet in transit. Before they get there, maybe we’ll have another face or three to search for. The intel types are tracking down Darin’s known associates, and the neighborhood tree huggers, and recent university dropouts to see who among them also dropped off the grid.”

Maureen came over to sit beside me on the sofa. “That was Andy’s news. There was something you wanted to bring up.”

“I know I can trust you both.” Her, for saving my life. Him, for introducing me to the highest levels of counterterrorism. To not rescue me, or to not make those introductions, would have been simple enough.

“But you trust no one else,” Andy completed. “Yes, this has been hard. Yes, we’re not out of the woods. But you can let down a bit. I’ll grant you the L5 action wasn’t a complete success, but it’s progress. The rest of the terrorists are doubtless flying a lot farther. The spooks have time to find any device at L5, to identify Darin’s accomplices, to sort out this whole mess.”

I downed my shot, and raised the empty glass for a refill. Andy delivered it, and I downed that, too. “And who will sort out matters within the company?”

“What do you mean?’ Maureen asked.

Andy’s eyes just narrowed.

I said, “Darin knew that his father’s crew was in detention, incommunicado. And he wasn’t surprised when I said that rock had been evacuated.”

Andy stiffened. “No. You can’t believe that.”

“I can,” I said. “I do. There is a leak. Someone inside the company is involved in this mess. Somebody well-placed, high up, because no one else would have known those things.”

“On Ceres?” Maureen asked.

I shook my head. “Here on Earth, I have to believe. No need to coerce Les Hodges to do their field trial if they had had a collaborator on Ceres. Or anywhere else in space.”

“Then what . . .?” Andy trailed off, his face ashen.

“What do we do?” I said. “We three get back to work. We have our own private investigation to run. And we dare not fail.”

Because if we did, the toll would be a lot higher than two dead.

****

 

 

 

Time’s Angel, Part 2

Van Meer rose from the ground like a ghost from a tomb. It was not yet dawn, cold and black beneath the trees. Frost was thin this deep in the forest, but there was a snap to the air and Van Meer’s breath condensed on his mustache and beard. He walked among his stacked stones and hunkered down next to the three-day-old fire pit. He had no trouble finding his way. He wrapped his arms about his knees and waited for the dispersal of the dark. He would have preferred to stay in his cozy grave but he felt the pressure, the push at his back, and knew better than to struggle against it. When light began to find its way beneath the trees he stood up and looked about.

They had desecrated his work, taken away his best stones and moved others to make the fire pit and spit. The stones were not ordered or tidy or configured correctly. It made his palms itch and he rubbed them on the worn wool of his pants, to no satisfaction. The campers had scuffled through the patterns Van Meer had made with thumb-size pebbles. They stamped all unknowing over his sand circles and gravel collections, spoiling everything. Van Meer looked about and wept. For three mornings in a row he had looked and wept.

He needed his rock collection to make a cover over his sleeping hole; something big enough to sit up in that could be heated by a banked fire, to keep him from the deadly cold to come. But he could not touch the stones again, dirtied as they were by other hands. He would have to find another place before the first snow.

He thought often about that second option. He longed to sit quietly at the edge of the woods and watch large soft snowflakes cover the world with something new and pure and untouched. To slip away at such a moment seemed as perfect an oblivion as possible and there was comfort in the thought. But the tragedy of his despoiled stones disturbed him deeply and the pressure at his back was unceasing. It was time to leave.

He went to collect his things, mourning quietly for the ruined symmetry of his work. He put the strap of his oilskin bag over his shoulder and checked the contents; his Comfort, his pens, the little cross and chain. He tied the leather pouch of oats to a belt loop on his pants, put the leftover deer meat in his one spare sock, looked about one last time at the discordance of stones and left, weeping.

Walking soothed him. His feet were healed; he wore boots and felt no discomfort. His memory was dotted with holes and soon there would be another. A fragility to the day, a melancholy in the air, said snow was on the way. Van Meer walked slowly, stopping often to record some small beauty on a corner of his dwindling paper supply: branches that shaped the sky, knots of wood with sensuous lines, dry leaves still on trees in dying profusion. In a while he was beyond himself and content.

Van Meer’s bending path brought him to a glade in the woods recently cleared of trees. Stumps stuck out of the mud and trampled grass like shattered bones. Sprays of sawdust and wood chips mixed with churned black earth. Leaves and broken branches littered the ground or humped up in gathered piles like rabbit warrens. Across the wasted field a rough log cabin sat, unchinked and without a door. A stone chimney at one end promised a fireplace within, though the whole building couldn’t be but four strides long. Van Meer watched entranced as snow began to fall and the world turned white. The glade transformed; one moment exhibiting a tragic destruction, the next, a courageous chin-up beauty. Van Meer watched, feeling God’s presence, knowing he could never paint such an ephemeral moment but could only keep such a treasure in memory. Maybe. He crossed the field to the cabin. Inside he found a profound surprise, his own work, a lost page from his Comfort framed and glassed and hanging on the wall.

He was going to explore further, start a fire, and try to understand, but without transition he found himself walking among the trees parallel to a road. Fifteen or twenty minutes without conscious memory might have passed, but such was a frequent experience for Van Meer.

Up ahead he sensed worry and fear. The whole area teemed with frantic people. Apprehensive, he turned to leave but as soon as he lost focus his steps circled back. God’s path was once again taking unexpected turns. Van Meer resigned himself. At least he was wearing pants.

From a roadside ditch, he watched the bright light that was Ella. She stood in the road with her arms folded around her for warmth. Her worried spirit jangled harshly against Van Meer’s nerves but he could not turn from her. Thoughts of her bowman stirred a morass of emotion within him but he could not recall why.

The snow’s texture changed to a drier steady fall that would pile up fast. Ella walked from side to side on the road, looking into the ditches and calling. People near and far were searching. Voices rose in panic. It took very little understanding to grasp the situation. Someone was lost.

Ella spotted Van Meer. She stopped, surprised by the sight of him. She turned to look up and down the road. Van Meer looked too, he did not wish to be taken by his compulsion. But no one was too near. Ella did not approach him. She tried to smile. “Van Meer! You have your coat! Fritz will be pleased.” She rubbed her face in apparent anguish. “There are twenty people searching and I’m still praying for help. Would you? I—we have a situation. A child has wandered off, and the weather’s turned brutal. Time is crucial. Can you help us look? Please? Her name is Leisl.” Her expression firmed. “I know you have at least one God-given talent. Perhaps you have another.” Van Meer wanted to turn away but Ella’s distraught spirit called to him, a simple, wordless help.

She had saved his life. He was grateful for the coat he wore and the boots on his feet, and for paper. A bright slip of intuition told him the tiny cabin with the picture on the wall was also her doing. He nodded assent. Ella nodded back in response and turned to answer someone’s call.

Van Meer backed beneath the trees and wandered about, not knowing how to proceed. He knew only to avoid the other searchers. His undirected legs took the path of least resistance, down slope as might the legs of a lost child. In a short while he fell into a steep gully, erosion hidden by border shrubs and filled with dead brown leaves. Further downhill the gully softened and widened, but here at its source it was a sharp gouge in the land. He jarred his hip in the unexpected fall and lay quietly to recover.

He heard a stirring and saw a dog lift its head. Its tail thrashed the leaves. The dog lay next to a small unmoving body, providing warmth. Van Meer must have picked up some of the emotions of the extant people all about for he was overwhelmed with intense relief and an equal measure of fear. The little body did not move. Van Meer struggled to his feet. The dog’s tail thrashed harder.

Barely breathing, Van Meer bent over the tiny form. She was still alive. A bruise marred her temple. Her lips were blue. Snowmelt on her cheeks glistened, feigning teardrops. She was dressed in a quilted jacket and pants. The dog looked trustingly up at Van Meer. He took off his coat, wrapped the small form in it and picked her up. He worked his way down the gully until it was no longer steep and he could scramble up the side. The dog followed. Snow sifted through the trees. He was nearly back to the roadside when a voice behind him called out. “Hey! Hey you! Do I know you? What’s your name? What have you got? Wait there, ’til I catch up!”

Van Meer sprang away like a startled squirrel. He clutched the child to him, hiked his knees high and sprinted for the road. The arms of the coat flapped out behind him. The man followed, shouting. Van Meer gained the road not far from Ella, his legs churning like a yearling elk and a look of pure terror in his eyes. He braked to a stop in front of Ella, pushed the coat-wrapped bundle at the startled woman, turned sharply left and took off, knees and elbows flapping. His oilskin pouch bounced wildly at his hip. The ragged cuffs of his shirt fluttered. Ella stared after him until he was hidden by falling snow.

Ella felt the child stirring in her arms. She could have made mulligan with the wild mix of her emotions. She was turning back to the house when one of the searchers came puffing by. He was followed by Ella’s dog, Rex. “It’s okay,” Ella said. She was having trouble getting words past her constricted throat. “You don’t have to chase after him! Look! I’ve got little Leisl. She’s found! Call them in, let everybody know. Ring the bell by the gate.”

Through the thickening snow and across the woods and fields the sound of the bell pealed, thanking God for little miracles.

Van Meer’s panicked gallop through the storm left him overheated. He sat in a protected corner of the cabin, cold and wet, positioning himself so he could watch the weather through the open doorway of the shelter. He pulled up his knees and wrapped his arms around them. He had a blanket somewhere. An unlit fire lay ready in the fireplace and he had oatmeal in a small leather bag on his belt loop. He could make gruel if he could start a fire but he lacked the means. It didn’t matter now. Lethargy settled like a sandbag across his shoulders. He reached for his oilskin to draw out his Comfort and stopped short to look up at the picture on the wall. Smiling, he trapped the bag between his knees and wrapped his arms about them. Eventually his head fell to rest on his knees and he slipped into dreams, shivering in the night.

 

Chapter Four

 

“Time is a property of distance. Observed time is a property of waiting. Every sensible person understands this.”–John Roberts

“Fritz!” Ella banged into the kitchen blowing on her hands and stomping her feet to warm them. She nodded a greeting to Bru, turned back to yell out the door, and squashed her nose on Fritz coming in. She shoved him in mock annoyance. “Found. Baby Leisl’s found and by our broken man, our own lost soul!” Her mood shifted abruptly to worry. “He doesn’t have his coat, Fritz. He left it with the baby.”

Fritz nodded understanding. He tapped his thumb on his chest and made a sweeping motion as if petting a dog, meaning; “I’ll look. Me and Rex.”

“Yes. Rex can help. And you found him once before.” She paused, remembering. “God’s hairy knuckles, be careful!”

Fritz gave her a comic leer and clutched his crotch, saying, “You mean God’s hairy balls.” Ella shoved him again, grinning.

Bru placed an ugly mustard yellow mug on the table. “Drink, Fritz. Tomato soup. Won’t take a minute. If you’re going out in that weather you’ll need something hot in your belly.”

Ella blinked. John’s favorite mug. How often had she seen him sitting there with his big work-scarred hands wrapped around it, holding forth on his favorite subject? No, not just holding forth. Lecturing. Teaching. The one thing John really missed was his students. “The Now is all pervasive, like an ocean to a fish. It’s always the same time; always high noon in the ever-present now, though there’s a growing faction of scientists who claim it’s always five o’clock. Don’t let this concept of an eternal Now confuse you. It does not negate past and future, it encompasses them. However. Given the eternal Now, space/time can be defined as; space is the distance between objects, time is the distance between events. Certainly a subtle distinction, but vital to understand.”

Ella reached for the mug, took a commemorative sip and handed it back, feeling a fragile comfort. If only distance separates us I will come to you when I find the right direction. She knew what John would say: “To leave this timeline you have to be leaving anyway.” She poked surreptitiously at the lump under her breast. You may not have long to wait, love.

John was still in her head. “My theories are just meaningless equations if based on a false premise. I need proof I can point to. But how can I say so-and-so’s from cross-time? A time refugee looks like any other undocumented alien.” He paused to sip from his infamous cup. “Ella, the right conditions for cross-time travel here are temporary. As conditions change there will be a kind of hiccup, a balancing of forces characterized by a bio-mass transfer, a balancing across a cluster of timelines. It falls between different parameters than human refugees, and it will manifest differently. Fish falling from the sky, manna from heaven, swarms of locusts, lemmings falling off a cliff not into the sea but onto some far shore. Something. Maybe it’ll rain toads. Sounds almost biblical, doesn’t it? But whatever it is we must watch for it. It’s my proof, my prediction come true. Or I’m a temporal theorist who’s full of shit.” An idiot smile lit his face.

Sky toads splatting on the road would be the most important moment of John’s life, the culmination and vindication of his work. But Ella needed to get his predictions on record before the event, whatever it was, happened. To that end she was taking John’s work books and journals to his physicist colleagues in the city. She’d also made appointments at the medical center for herself and Fritz. The doctors hoped to give him a tongue. And she had, well, whatever she had.

She desperately wanted to stand in for John, to see his triumph and celebrate for him, but she couldn’t wait for it, she didn’t know when it was. She sighed. Someone would surely notice if it rained snakes or pterodactyls appeared in the sky. She went to help Bru with supper, and together they waited on word from Fritz.

****

Van Meer felt warm. He curled in fetal position on something soft and itchy, a wool blanket. Another blanket covered him, and his coat on that. He peeked out past eyelids crusted nearly shut. Heat radiated from the fireplace. Sharp blades of light edged around an old horse blanket covering the doorway. He rolled to his knees, every movement dragging out like a bad dream. His muscles resisted, his head pounded, his throat was so dry he could not swallow. Mere exhaustion would be an improvement.

Mint tea steeped in a pan by the fire. Two cups and a honey pot waited alongside. He filled one and added honey, wondering who belonged to the other cup. The ever-present background susurrus of noise in his head was quiescent. He was sitting with his back against the wall and a cup warming his hands when a dog pushed past the hanging blanket like he’d been invited. He lowered his head, gave Van Meer an apologetic look and shook vigorously to remove the snow on his back. Cold wet dollops splattered. Van Meer laughed. The dog cheered him immensely. When it came close he wrapped his arms around it and did not mind the damp smell. It wagged its soggy tail and did its best to return affection. Van Meer looked for the old piece of deer meat in his sock. Maybe he’d eat some himself.

A voice called from outside, “Van Meer? It’s me, Ella Roberts. Remember me?

Slow minutes followed. “Yes,” Van Meer finally managed, peeking past the blanket. Ella stood there, looking sodden and determined. “Baby Leisl is fine. A bad bruise on her head, exposure and hypothermia, but she’s fine. We have you to thank. You saved her life.”

“The dog kept her warm.” Heavy snow still fell through a grey dawn. Ella’s bowman in coat and hat lounged in a camp chair, his hands behind his head like he was basking in the bright rays of summer. Van Meer’s fingers began to itch and clutch.

“This is Fritz. He wants to thank you for saving his life. He’s the one who found you last night. No wait, it was Rex who found you. He’s a good old dog. But anyway, he won’t hurt you. Fritz, I mean. No one will. Do you understand? You’re safe here; no one will drive you off or try to take you away. No one will bother you. This cabin is yours.”

“I saved Fritz’s life?” He wasn’t going to think about that. The rest of what Ella said slowly penetrated. “I didn’t build this, did I?”

“No. I had a couple of local boys do it. Clever lads. Van Meer, can you tell me how you found Leisl?”

“I followed my feet. I walk God’s path. Sometimes without pants.” He looked down, just to check.

“We brought you some things. Food and clothes and a soldier’s cot. They’re homecoming gifts. Welcome home.” She stepped up to the entrance of the shelter. Van Meer found his Comfort, sat down in a corner and did not look up again. Ella stepped inside.

****

Winter settled over the forest. In a dirt floor cabin on a snow-lost meadow Van Meer embraced isolation. Nights when the cold was a viscous thing seeping through the walls he sat by the fire in constant attendance. On milder nights he edged back and forth between the too-cold wall and the too-warm fire. Life became routine, but memories seared from his waking mind found their way back in dreams. Van Meer would wake panicked and screaming, clutching his Comfort and backed into a corner. Once he woke shouting obscenities and found himself barefoot in two feet of snow. He hobbled inside to a dying fire. Blood circulation returning to his feet was brought by thousands of fire needles.

When he got snowed in it did not matter. His only real chore was gathering wood and melting snow for tea. He sat by the fire hidden from the world, a fox in a hole, a bear in a den, a tree in a thicket. He drew Ella’s bowman often, standing over a corpse with a stick in its eye, warding off a slashing blow or viciously stabbing with a knife. He drew him baptized in blood and in every drawing the bowman’s spirit was a vengeful shout. Van Meer fed each drawing to the fire, watching in fascination as ink and paper, blood and vengeance, turned to flame.

By the road an arrow’s flight away sat a large box with a lid and latch; a post with a bell hung by it. Twice a week someone would leave supplies and ring the bell and Van Meer would bundle up to force his way out to the road, trying desperately to get the number of steps to come out to exactly six hundred and eleven, the same as the first time he’d counted.

One brittle ache-tooth morning after a deep snow he reached six hundred and eleven well before he reached the road and was forced to stop, frozen not by the marrow-sucking cold but by compulsive insistence. He stood unmoving, distraught and undecided, until the sun topped the trees and his face went numb. He returned to the cabin without reaching the road, feeling nameless unease. His cheeks and the tip of his nose turned black. Dead skin sloughed from his face and the pain stayed with him for days, but Van Meer’s urgent need to count steps went away. He counted it a fair trade.

In return for food; butter, eggs, bread, tea and tins and casserole dishes he could reheat, Van Meer left drawings given in gratitude and guilt; gratitude that they fed him, guilt that they asked nothing in return. He left geese paddling in circles to keep water free of ice. He left cranes hunting fish among cattails, startled deer in the moment before they flee, climbing vines, flowers in shadow cut by sunshine when leaves first start to fall.

Early one morning when the day was won from the night but still catching its breath, Van Meer walked bareheaded in the meadow and felt the regard of his Maker upon him, as any pious man in a quiet moment might. He feared to look up and fell to his knees where he remained until the feeling passed. The wind picked up, and hard pellets of ice punished the trees. But a pleasing negative space between ice-covered branches caught his eye and he sought pen and paper from his Comfort. Only later did he realize his old travelling companions, the constant pressures in his head and at his back, were gone.

He sketched, painted with watercolors and wished for oils. He grew strong. He began to fret.

 

Chapter Five

 

“Time is not an arrow. Space and time curve. Time stretches, compresses, bends. It’ll likely come full circle and bite us in the ass.”–John Roberts

 

“Ella! Ella Roberts! Come in, come in! What an unexpected pleasure, haven’t seen you since–well, since the funeral.”

The warmth and brightness of the room was a welcome contrast to a cold overcast day.

“Hello, Charles. It’s been three years and a bit.”

“Yes. John’s passing was a great loss to us all, a great loss to science.”

“Not that science much noticed,” grumped Charles’ partner and colleague Alex Gillens.

“We lost him earlier than that, when he tossed everything away and moved to the farm.” Despite his words, he came over to give Ella a warm hug, nearly lifting her off her feet.

Charles glared at Alex for his lack of tact. “We dearly miss John’s insight, although I can’t blame him. The University’s treatment of him was appalling.”

Ella looked around the office suite, better described as a physics lab, sporting a dozen monitors and several computer stacks. A piled-up mix of books, notebooks, stapled-paper piles, mechanical gadgets, measuring devices, tools, tubes and space-age toys covered every horizontal surface. “They’re not toys,” she could hear John say with his distinctive inflection, “they’re interactive constructs illustrating convolutions in time and space.” The only window framed a pallid sky. The only chalkboard was mounted high on the wall, encased in glass. She recognized the scrawling hand, if not the meaning of the equations “Is that—?”

“Our little memento. I wish he’d stayed in touch. John refused to put anything in the ether, he never did trust computer security. But he could have trusted us. Should have.”

“As to that . . .” Ella’s throat constricted. She swallowed back tears and tried again. “As to that, I’ve brought you something.” She placed her valise on the floor—there was not two square feet of clear space anywhere else–and popped it open. “I’ve brought all of John’s work: his notebooks, his journals, and these.” She held up a handful of computer disks. “This one in particular, his latest–I mean last–they’re three years old now.” She hadn’t expected this to be difficult. “John’s last mathematical proofs and his predictions. I want them on record as soon as possible, before the occurrence of a predicted event. In short, publish or perish. Put it in the ether, gentlemen, and the science journals.” Charles’ eyes grew large with voracious delight. Alex took the disks, handling them like holy relics.

Ella snapped her valise shut, feeling satisfied. John Roberts would get recognition for his accomplishments. She could not doubt his theories were correct; she lived daily with the proof. But she had to wonder what he meant by “hiccup.” John had a genius for understatement that made Ella uneasy. “I have a friend, Fritz, taking treatment at the University Med Center. We’ll be here for a few days.” She did not mention the important paper-signing legalities she and Fritz would face in a few hours.

“Perhaps you could join us for dinner?” Charles offered, “Alex is a very fine chef. I only married him for his cooking.”

“I thought you married me for my money?” Alex grumbled.

“Yes, and what a disappointment!” They traded smiles, and Ella smiled, too. Because of her grief, she’d limited communication with John’s fellow physicists, but her heart warmed to them anew. “Thank you, but it’ll have to wait. I’m staying at the Med Center, in fact I need to get right back.” She let them think it was for Fritz’s sake.

Fritz was amazing. The little farming retro-community of Haven still had roots in Amish history, where passive technology was appreciated but cars and the frenzied pace of city life were frowned upon. It seemed hectic and crowded to Fritz when he first arrived. Ella thought his initial city visit would be overwhelming, alienating, and the tense environment of a teaching/research hospital especially so. Fritz, damn his hide after all her worrying, took it all in with unfazed delight. He asked endless questions, examined everything, and stared slack-jawed and helpless at nurses, interns, and coeds until Ella rapped his head with her thimble. She’d brought it for that very purpose; it was in her pocket now. She slipped it onto her thumb. “I’ll drop by again before we leave.”

****

Ella and Fritz held on to each other down a treacherous sidewalk of refrozen slush, half-melted footprints, and slick puddles of ice. A cold wind blew, stinging exposed skin, making balance tricky and progress slow toward the science building just off the quad. They were both in a state of glassy-eyed crogglement. Never had Ella been more certain of the word.

She’d met John here more than forty-seven years ago. She’d laughed out loud when a long-haired geek hurrying head down across campus surprised himself by walking into a tree. She had to introduce herself so she could apologize for laughing. He should have been the embarrassed one. The memory washed over her. Sweet and wonderful as it was, she did not want to be here. She belonged elsewhere now.

The last time she’d entered the lab, it exuded a sense of cluttered purpose. Now it reeked of disarray. Ella stopped and stared. It looked like the aftermath of a science geek frat-house party.

Reference books were scattered about. Neon post-it notes were stuck in the damnedest places. Abandoned coffee cups, fast food containers, and several empty beer bottles littered the place. Alex slept precariously in an office chair, his hands behind his head and his shoeless feet crossed on the desk. His toes twitched. A discarded pizza box poked out of a nearby trash can. All the monitors were scrolling numbers or displaying charts. One showed animation of a stretched rope of colored strands turning hypnotically like a barber’s pole, a visual aid Ella had seen before. Broken strands of the rope would unravel and spin out like spokes of a wheel until they stopped unraveling and twirled back up again.

From a speaker, a calm voice murmured a soft countdown, an audio counterweight to the visual chaos. Charles was standing with his back to Ella bending to speak quietly in the ear of a woman sitting at a keyboard and monitor. “Charles?”

Charles turned blood-shot eyes to her. His tie was missing, his unruly hair needed taming, his shirt hung half out. “Ella. Yes, just the person,” he rubbed his eyes like someone had just shaken him awake. “Em, what was the last thing John said to you?”

Ella’s lips tightened. “I’m not going to share that.” She gave it more force than she’d intended. Charles had the good taste to redden until she added contritely, “I’m sorry. I’m afraid I’m a bit out of sorts. I’ve had a difficult day. I’m sure you meant John’s work.”

Charles nodded dumbly. The normally fastidious man looked completely frazzled. “Yes. We have a situation.”

“Oh?”

Alex stumbled to his feet. “We’re all a little concerned.” He massaged his neck, grimacing. “John’s got us all stirred up. Lucky it’s spring break around here. Bette!” The girl in the chair punched a key and turned from her monitor. “Bette, meet Mrs. John Roberts. Ella, meet our resident temporal specialist and the Latest Big Thing in physics theory. Her public endorsement of John’s work got it immediate attention.” He waggled a thumb to indicate himself and Alex. “We’re both physicists, but I’m a cosmologist and Alex specializes in geometry. So we called Bette back from vacation.”

“I was on a beach chasing blonde surfer boys twice my age. But this is way better.” Bette looked to be about nineteen, if she stretched a bit. Her hair, which Ella first thought was black, had a deep purple shimmer. When she rose to shake hands, she was shorter than Ella. “Honored to meet you. I am your husband’s biggest fan. Pun intended.” She shook hands enthusiastically, until Ella pulled away.

“He has fans?”

Alex interrupted. “John was the bad boy of physics for years. Of course he had fans. But right now, we need to know about his hiccup. Bette’s been running projections for the past—what time is it?” He turned in a slow circle, looking a bit bewildered. “Your lovely husband had the luxury of four years to consider the matter. You gave us three days.” He added after a moment’s reflection, “Well, no. I guess he didn’t.”

Charles gave him an exasperated look. “We think the event or events are imminent. As in any minute. And we think they might be dangerous, even fatal.”

“Several projections suggest disaster on a massive scale.”

“Quantum time flux makes it uncertain by definition.”

“It’s a saturated state.”

“Like superstate electrons.”

“Newtonian physics, quantum mechanics, and now this.”

“Toss ‘em in the air and–”

“Down comes–” They both reached for pen and paper.

“Boys!” Bette interrupted, “Do I have to knock your heads together again?” That seemed improbable in the extreme since Charles was tall and Alex was large, muscular, and well-padded. But the two physicists stopped in mid-track. Bette folded her arms. “Thank you. We have a guest! Two guests,” she added, noticing Fritz for the first time. He was still standing by the door. Ella introduced him. “Fritz doesn’t say much, but he’s a dear boy.”

Bette held his hand a bit too long, looking up through her eyelashes at him, but she turned briskly back to business. “Prevailing accepted theory is, time is divergent. But Dr. Roberts claims time is convergent. Seems obvious now. Divergent time lines could only be similar if they had constant interaction and adjustment. That’s key! Divergent lines spin off but fall back to be re-absorbed by the core timeline. That’s huge! Totally radical! He’ll make the cover of Physics Quarterly again. He’s got me running in circles, given me so much to explore. I’ve already got a handle on the next–”

“Not now Bette,” Charles interrupted. “Ella, we need to know about John’s time refugees. Have any turned up? Did they survive? Have you met any? Do you know where they are? We need to warn them.”

“And anyone around them.”

“They’re a target.”

“A lightning rod.”

“The tip of the spear.”

“The rent in the fabric.”

“The first drop, with a deluge to follow.”

“Aaaargh!” Bette put her hands over her ears. “I’ve been putting up with this for more than a year! The event, when it occurs, will occur in the vicinity of these time refugees. That’s the point. If you’re standing next to a surviving refugee you are standing on a target.”

Ella’s head rocked back. “What?’ She had no idea there was a danger, or she would have delivered John’s work much sooner. She exchanged a glance with Fritz and started to speak.

There was no transition. No moment between then and now. A boiling frothing maelstrom, a screeching thundering chaos, a discordant tortured storm of panicked birds packed the room. Furious wings pummeled her head. Before she could draw breath to scream Alex pulled her against his chest, wrapped his big arms about her head and leaned protectively over her. The crash of falling computers and the sound of breaking glass cut through the basso thrumming. She could hear shouting. The event was upon them.

The bedlam of birds lessened and she dared to push away from Alex. A snowstorm of flashing gray and white dwindled to a few birds as they escaped out the broken window or into the hallway. Feathers, guano, blood, fluttering papers, torn books, damaged equipment, and broken toys littered the room. Dead birds lay inert on the floor. Injured birds flopped about. Dazed birds perched here and there, catatonically still. Pigeons! They were all big, long-necked pigeons! Bette and Fritz were standing by the broken window shooing them out and grinning at each other like adrenaline junkies. They were both battered, scratched, and bleeding.

“Passenger pigeons!” Charles exclaimed. He stood by the shattered door which he’d apparently kicked open. His face was undamaged where he’d covered it with his hands, but his arms and the back of his neck sported dozens of minor scratches. Grey and white guano decorated the tip of his ear. “They’re extinct! Or they were! I conclude that your dear boy Fritz is a time refugee.” He looked about at his destroyed lab and grinned maniacally. “Now that was an event!”

Ella began to cry.

Fritz broke jagged glass remnants from the window’s edge so he could lean out and look directly up. Bette leaned out too, pressing against him to get room and putting one arm across his back for balance. They looked out at thousands of passenger pigeons wheeling beneath the slate grey sky or settling into the leafless trees. People were spilling out of buildings pointing in amazement. Bette turned to Fritz, her large dark eyes intent. “What’s it like where you’re from? What was the transition like? Sudden, instant, like the birds? Please! Tell me everything!”

Fritz shook his head. He withdrew from the window and from her touch.

Ella snuffled back her tears and slapped Alex’s hand away as he reached to poke at a nasty rip at the corner of his eye. “Don’t touch that! You’ll make it worse!” He’d received the injury protecting her. “Where’s the first aid kit?”

Charles already had it. “Sit, Alex. Let me see. You okay, Ella?”

“I’m fine, just reflexive tears. But my newly adopted son Fritz Roberts and I are going home. Now. Please do not mention Fritz. Life is crazy enough without the attention of–” She left the sentence dangling, hugged both men, shook hands again with Bette, and left. To hell with the aftermath they left behind and the questions that chased them out the door.

They argued all the way home. That is, Fritz argued. Ella held her tongue, and wasn’t that an ironic turn of phrase. But she was deathly tired. The work, persistence, finagling, money, bullshit interviews, and hoop jumping necessary to adopt Fritz had taken its toll, but had been necessary to get him admitted for treatment.

Growing a new tongue, they had learned, is done by initializing the dormant DNA sequences responsible for growing the original tongue then supporting the process with enzymes, hormones, and tailored drugs. They drained Fritz of blood, tailored it to fit and pumped it back in. “You’ll be surprised at how fast it’ll happen,” The doctor told them. The rest could be done at home, “but irritability, irrational feelings, and heat flashes are likely.”

Ella had given her share of blood, too, and listened to more than her share of advice, options, and optimistic lectures. Removal of the malignant tumor under her breast and follow-up treatment could extend her life.

 

Chapter Six

 

“I refuse to believe everything is possible; it screws up the physicists. But everything possible is probable. In an infinite universe it’s a statistical certainty. The Hubble discoveries made this understanding a punch in the gut.”–John Roberts

 

Bru sucked exasperation through her teeth. Twice she’d gone down to ring the bell but Van Meer never showed. Of course not. Only Ella ever saw him. Or Fritz. “Lot of nonsense the way they coddle him,” she murmured, removing her apron. “Needs a proper talking to, he does.” And what business of hers to walk out on a day like this? But here she was for the third time since Ella and Fritz had left, trying to deliver painting supplies to Van Meer. “An investment,” Ella called them: tube paints, linseed oil, gesso, pen nibs, and a little glass bottle of ink. Bru couldn’t leave the supplies to the mercy of the brutal cold. She had to hand them directly to Van Meer. Night arrived suddenly this time of year, but she still had time if she hurried.

Bru hardened her heart to life long ago. She’d raised three strong sons, kissed them goodbye, and lost them to war. At the news, her husband Henri withered up and died like season’s end. The war reached the farm, destroying everything, and Bru became a refugee ranting and railing against man and God, but she soon stopped. Survival demanded all her attention. Her heart crusted over, and she became resigned to the brutal truth: God is uncaring, life is what it is, keep moving till it’s over. Life got even harder.

At death’s door she somehow took a left turn, and Ella Roberts found her and nursed her back to health. Now she had a safe berth as Missus Ella’s cook and took her satisfaction in keeping a well-run kitchen. She did not end her day till all was impeccable, went to bed tired every night, and never dared to dream.

When she reached the head of the path she rang the bell and sat impatiently upon the box to wait, fidgeting in the cold. She rang again and soon after started down the trail. In her annoyance, she did not notice the gathering dark.

****

Van Meer’s axe had twisted on a hidden knot, bounced off, and met up with his foot, slicing neatly through the toe of his boot. He removed the axe with shaking hands and hobbled into the cabin. The shock of the blow numbed the pain but it blossomed when he took off his boot. The blade had cleaved into the meat between the ring toe and his little toe, breaking the little toe. A massive purpling bruise was already forming. Van Meer pursed his lips and made no sound. Blood still flowed. He stoppered it with the sock.

He piled his blankets on the end of his cot and put a frying pan filled with snow on top, hopped back to the door for another double handful and finally stretched out on the cot with his foot in the frying pan, elevated and numbing in snow. When the bell pealed, he did not respond. It was hardly a wonder he did not sense someone approach. “Hello the hut!” a voice called from just beyond the door. “Van Meer! Are you in there?”

He bounded to his feet in reflexive action, exactly the wrong thing to do. His foot was inspired to new and greater excruciation. He mewed and fell back on the cot, which collapsed. He slammed to the ground. The pan doused him with melt water cold as a salamander’s heart. Van Meer yelped like a kicked puppy. A rapid knocking shook the door. “Van Meer? You okay? Are you alright? I work for Missus Ella. I’ve got your ink and paint stuff.”

Ella. Ella had been a frequent visitor, at first. She brought books, and together they sat reading and drawing, quiet companions. Van Meer soon knew she was ill. It made the hours and days dreary for him until he realized there are miracles everywhere. He wondered if she, too, walked a bent path. The voice at the door called again. “Hello? I’ve got your painting supplies. I can’t just leave them in the snow.” The door creaked open. With his current concern Van Meer had failed to latch it.

Bru poked her head cautiously into the gloom. When her eyes adjusted, she saw Van Meer on the dirt floor, bleeding, wet, and tangled with blanket and cot. He had a frying pan in his lap. She pushed the door fully open, took a breath to gather her courage and stepped inside to help. Van Meer rather meekly let her and it was a measure of how far he had come and how much he had healed. Together they got him untangled, righted the campaign cot and ensconced him properly upon it, leg elevated, with fresh snow to help the swelling and the frying pan to catch the melt. The mix of blood and snow made for a lovely delicate pink that did not disturb either of them much. The only conflict was momentary when she started to remove his soaked pants. He declined the offer and wore them wet.

When all was finally settled, they looked at each other. Van Meer looked quickly away and reached for his Comfort, his oilskin collection of overdrawn pages. In his current predicament, it was a bit beyond his stretch. Bru reached to help. Van Meer nearly panicked. “No!” he said, the first word he’d spoken in days. It seemed very loud in the tiny space of the cabin.

Bru retreated, and remembering Ella’s instructions, turned her face to the wall. “I’ve got things for you. Paint and ink.” She felt stupid showing a jar of ink to the wall so she turned again to face Van Meer. He was struggling to his feet, overturning the cot again. Bru felt a rush of fear. Her knees weakened, and she plunked down upon a debarked stump, Van Meer’s stool. She looked at her trembling hands, still holding the bottle out for inspection.

Van Meer lurched past Bru, ignoring the jumble behind him and the blood and pain that trailed him. He busied himself at a rickety shelf while Bru sat, entirely unsure about the situation. But Van Meer finished his preparations, picked up paper, and reached for the ink bottle Bru still held out. Only then did he remember his injured foot. A heavy grunt forced its way out of him. He looked at Bru as if he’d been caught with his hands in his pants. His face went gray and drained to white. More blood seeped onto the floor. Van Meer’s eyes rolled back and he slumped to the ground.

Bru helped him back to the cot. They repeated their earlier exercise, including the remove-the-wet-pants one. Again, Van Meer declined. Bru held her tongue and helped position him so he could draw with his foot elevated. Only then did she tend to the wound.

She brought wood in, stoked the fire, and prepared to leave. “I’ll be back in the morning. You stay abed and off that foot. You’ll not give me trouble and do what you’re told.” Her fear of Van Meer had ebbed, replaced by a fear for him. “You’ll come up to the house. You can’t be left alone like this.”

But Van Meer was busy drawing and never heard a word. When she opened the door to leave he did not look up but said, “Wait. For the moon.”

Bru considered, closed the door, and sat by the fire. She looked about for something to straighten up, but knew from Ella what a bad idea that was. She was gazing at the fire in one of those timeless moments that open flames inspire when Van Meer said, “Now.” Bru shook herself and stood to re-button her coat. Van Meer removed a page from the drawing pad. “Peek out the door.” She looked frankly at him, puzzled, but Van Meer offered no clue. He still did not look up.

Bru opened the door. A glorious full moon was well up, tree shadows on the snow sharp and strong. The air, smelling as if just arrived from paradise, cleared her clouded mind. The shadows were a deep inviting purple and the snow on the meadow a translucent blue, as luminescent as nothing else but moonlit snow can be. The world’s breath was caught by the moon, her own breath caught in her throat. Everything was perfectly still. A moment later all across the meadow, darting from shadow to light out into the middle of the clearing where the moon’s mistress could clearly see, rabbits hopped. They leaped in abandon and aimless, helpless joy. Everywhere across the meadow, rabbits danced.

Bru watched, still as a sane rabbit, as mad ones in multitude threw themselves at the moon with unreasoning passion. Rabbits flooded the meadow with a tide of tumbling, twisting inspired celebration. Then it was over. It was impossible to say which rabbit left first and which was the last, leaving only trampled snow as testament. They were gone. Bru, the meadow, the moon and the night all once more began to breathe.

Bru slipped the paper Van Meer gave her beneath her coat. She did not think to look at it and did not want to look at him. She left with admonitions to Van Meer about keeping his foot up and walked home alone in the surreal, ephemeral moonlight. As she moved through the trees light and shadow made a flickering strobe that confused her senses and haunted her waking mind even more than the sight of rabbits worshipping the moon.

Back in the kitchen Bru placed the drawing on the table and turned to hang up her coat but turned back to stare at the picture. She saw herself peering out Van Meer’s cabin door, the reflection of magic in her eyes. About her feet rabbits danced. It was a wondrous illustration, illustrating wonder. She left the picture on the kitchen table and hurried away to bed. That night she slept the deep sleep of a child and her dreams were all enchanted. She could not recall, in the glow of a brand-new morning, if there were rabbits involved.

 

Chapter Seven

 

“Of course I believe in God. The evidence is everywhere. I’m a physicist, I study miracles. Inconsequential miracles are rampant. Don’t you play golf?”–John Roberts

 

It was impossible for Van Meer to keep his foot above his head in a frying pan. There were biological imperatives for one thing and he needed to empty the melt water and refill the pan. And there were the paint supplies. So some time after Bru’s departure Van Meer got up, slowly, carefully, with a hand and eye on the frying pan. Blood rushed to his foot but did not leak out. The pain was bearable for a short time. He set his teeth and hobbled outside to do what was necessary with heroic determination, until he was once more supine, his foot elevated and the little bottle of oil in his hand. With curious pleasure, he unscrewed the top and raised it to his nose. The scent of linseed oil went directly to his memory lobes.

He was a toddler crawling on a cool tile floor. Someone yelled, anger and concern in his voice, but Van Meer could not make out the words. He was immersed in a world of smell and color. Across the black and white squares of the floor ran ocher and umber, yellow and blue mixing into green, spreading into red and becoming rich brown and purple, a source of circus wonder. The smells mixed; oil paint, gum Arabic, pine tree turpentine and linseed oil. He lifted sticky wet hands to his face to breath deep of this wonder too. A large dark mass rushed towards him.

Someone washed his face with a rough wet cloth. He struggled against it, still a toddler until life in the present came stuttering back. Rex the dog licked his face. Van Meer pushed him away.

Daylight speared his eyes. He was crawling up the road to the farmhouse, his bare hands and wrists swollen and red and burning with cold. He punched them down through snow to firm footing, and the pun made him laugh as he crawled. Or he would have laughed, but his teeth were shaking in his jaw. Behind him trailed the spotted crimson evidence of his passing.

The last thing Van Meer remembered before God took him was the little bottle of linseed oil. He could still smell it; the front of his shirt was stiff with oil though he could not remember spilling it or crawling out to the road. He dropped flat, face first into a bed of soft, thick, enveloping white. In a bit, he began to feel warmer and pain receded. He grinned through chattering teeth into the snow and a light in his skull grew brilliant. The wonder of his existence struck deeply and profoundly at every part of him. God’s path is full of glory, he had heard them say. But they had no idea, no idea at all. Rex began to bark.

****

The south wall of Ella’s sun room sported glass from end to end, knee-high to ceiling. The wan light of a grey day struggled through the windows to pattern the floor. The room had the comfortable aspect of an old pair of jeans. A faded couch did its part to strengthen that impression. Four red bricks elevated one end. The low end had a deep concavity formed over time by a number of dogs in serial possession of the best bed anywhere.

Van Meer slept. Several blankets and a quilt covered him; hot bottles of water warmed his arm pits. Bru waited on a wooden chair next to the couch, her back as firm and rigid as the chair. A puddle on the floor beneath her boots went unnoticed. An open letter perched on her lap. Bru could not read but she knew its contents.

Rex curled on the couch with his big block head resting on Van Meer’s shins. Every now and again he lifted his head and blew a long slow sigh through his nose. Homely described Rex well but he had large intelligent eyes that could charm the beans off an old man’s plate and the crust from around his heart. It made him a great therapy dog. He, too, was waiting.

Draped across a jury-rigged drying rack Van Meer’s clothes dripped water to the floor. Steam rose. Van Meer stirred, drew in a sharp breath and opened his eyes. Bru pursed her lips. “About time. You’d think I had not another thing to do.”

Van Meer blinked. He felt the heat beneath his arms and the weight of blankets upon him. He looked at the sunlight streaming through the big windows. He spotted his pants drying on the rack, looked sideways at Bru and lifted the covers to look beneath. He wore something soft and seamless and dark blue, with a drawstring. His upper body was covered too, in soft, buttonless blue. He dropped the covers.

“I–my Comfort, my bag.” His toes stung. His fingers itched. “My bag.”

“You’ll be fine,” Bru said, “No white dead patches, no frostbite. Rex found you in time. Again,” she added, with evident disapproval of Van Meer’s penchant for predicament. Rex flicked his ears and rolled his eyes in her direction but did not lift his head from Van Meer’s legs.

“You crawled nearly all the way here. What were you thinking? I cleaned that nasty gash again but it’s going to be bad for a while. Your knees, you’ll lose some skin. I’ve got hot tea with honey, just the thing, and you’ll drink it. Soup’s simmering, when you’re ready.”

Van Meer struggled to get up, frustrated by weakness and the weight of the dog.

“Now don’t you get to fussing ’till I’ve had my say. Your shirt was stiff with that linseed, it needs cleaning. There’s that. You won’t be going anywhere for a while, so there’s that. I’ve sent someone for your things. There’s people about the house, but they won’t bother you. I said you’re a dangerous man, and it might be true.” She stood up, the letter in her fist, looked down and noticed the water at her feet. “The Missus wrote to me. To me.” She brandished the letter, sounding a little awed. “I’m not to give you the little bottle. But I already did and you spilled it on your shirt.”

The letter said; “There is a bottle of linseed oil with the paint supplies, used for thinning paint. Do not give the bottle to Van Meer. Smell is linked to memory. Linseed oil is distinct and must be familiar to him. I don’t want Van Meer hurt by bad memories and my stupidity. Don’t give Van Meer the linseed until I get home. Please.”

Bru leaned toward Van Meer and whispered, “Can I have the little bottle back?” She looked worried and a little ashamed. Van Meer did not try to pull away. He had only a vague recollection, but he nodded assent. Bru looked relieved. “I’ll bring your things in when they get here.” She sat back down and smiled, something she might not have done in years. “You ready for tea?”

The door eased open and a little voice whispered “Rex? Are you here?” Rex stirred and lifted his head to look over the end of the couch. Van Meer also looked, dreading. He had no paper. Frosty entered, whispering theatrically. “Rex? Oh. There you are!” Frosty won her new name when Rex saved her from death by exposure. She wiggled her fingers at Van Meer. “Hi. Rex likes you.” Van Meer lifted a handful of pins and needles fingers and waggled back. Here was a soul undented by life’s hard knocks. Relief blurred his vision. Perhaps he could paint portraits again, starting with one, untroubled by God’s agenda.

Frosty grinned like the sun and the moon, and two smiles answered. Bru’s heart, which thought itself immune, melted under the radiance of that smile though she gave no outward sign. The clouds parted, brushed by God’s hand. Sunbeams speared through the windows. The room turned golden.

 

Chapter Eight

 

“Life is short. Dame Evolution is brutal,”–John Roberts

 

They arrived home after dark a day later than intended, delayed by fussy medical technicians and doctors. Fritz felt the welcoming shores of home keenly. An iceberg of emotion drew him floundering in its wake; bittersweet torture barely touched the tip of it. To gain a mother and lose her so soon wasn’t fair! He wanted to stamp his foot like a five-year-old. “You’ve got to go back!” They’d whittled the argument down to a few words.

“No.”

“But—”

“I’ve had my life. I refuse to die in a hospital.”

Fritz bit his lip. Maybe the concoction of drugs and hormones were having an undue early influence. Ella stopped at the kitchen door and turned to face him. “I’ll have no talk of this around others. I don’t want to spend my last few months saying good-bye.” Before Fritz could marshal a response, she added with considerable aggravation, “Do like I tell you! I know what’s best! I’m your mother!” Trite and true and ridiculously cliché. “I’ve always wanted to say that!” Ella put a hand to her mouth to hide an embarrassed smile. But the remark shattered Fritz’s iceberg, chunks calved off to float away in every direction, leaving him buoyant, freeing him from overwhelming inertia. He snickered. So did Ella.

They embraced fiercely, laughing and crying together, awash in raw emotion. But such a moment cannot be sustained. It peaked and settled, and the argument settled with them, seemingly resolved. They pulled apart, pulled themselves together, and by unvoiced consent turned to their other great worry, the one the argument distracted them from. Did Bru and Van Meer get pigeoned, or did something else happen? Were they safe and unharmed? Fritz opened the door.

Bette sat at the kitchen table. Ella’s lips thinned in anger. “What are you doing here?”

“I got here yesterday, just in time to help haul Van Meer inside.”

“Van Meer? Here? Is he alright?”

“An accident with an axe. Bru says, “He’ll do if he minds.” She mimicked Bru’s matter-of-fact speech perfectly. “He’s in the sunroom with Bru. A very capable woman. Charming. And such a lovely smile.”

“Bru? Smiling? Our Bru?” Ella exchanged an amazed glance with Fritz.

“I’ve become acquainted with Frosty and Rex too. Mrs. Roberts, you surround yourself with the most remarkable people.” She looked at Fritz again who stood there lamely, clearly poleaxed.

“Frosty? Little Leisl? She’s here, too?” Ella sat down, absorbing the fact that Rex was included as people. It eased her anger at Bette’s intrusion. “What’s Frosty doing here?”

“She’s probably peeking through the door at Van Meer. An incurably curious child. Bru is babysitting. Her parents have a crisis at home. Toads, I’m told. Lots and lots of toads.”

Sky toads. Ella’s thought’s jinked sideways. She gathered them up again. “Why are you here?” she pressed.

“I came looking for clues, and to help. To forewarn. I think passenger pigeons are a precursor. The main biomass transfer event is yet to come.”

“Oh.” Ella settled heavily onto a chair.

“Have you seen these?” Bette pushed a collection of Van Meer’s drawings across the table to Ella. Fritz looked over her shoulder. There was Bru, surrounded by rabbits. The second portrayed two passenger pigeons. The third showed a flight of pigeons much like Fritz and Bette had seen from the window of the lab. Ella swallowed back tears when she saw the next; a double portrait, herself holding hands with John, and him with that idiot smile on his face. “Impossible. By what miracle does he know John’s likeness?”

“Miracles are by definition impossible, something beyond the laws of physics,” Bette answered softly, “I’m a scientist, but I have the heart of a little girl. I believe God sends angels to guide us, especially in times of crisis. Your Van Meer is evidentially such a one. An avatar. An angel.”

A map of an island, with illuminated letters and fanciful drawings, decorated the last piece of paper. Ella did not recognize the island and could not place the language.

“I know two things,” Bette spoke with an intensity that made both Ella and Fritz lean in. ” You need me to help with the timing of Van Meer’s predictions. And—” She sent Fritz a look that wobbled his knees. “—I believe in love at first sight.”

Oh hell, Ella thought, studying the two. Moon-eyed love-struck puppies. Looks like I’m going back to the hospital. Ella was terrified of surgery, mortally terrified; she’d rather die than go under the knife. But she’d return to the hospital. These two youngsters were going to need her. And who knows? She always wanted grandchildren. She took off her coat and asked for tea.

Bru entered the kitchen trailed by Frosty and Rex. Ella’s weariness, the result of her illness and probably the source of her fatalism, was overcome by inexpressible happiness. She spoke the words she had been unwilling to share with Charles, John’s epilogue, said out loud for the pleasure of hearing it, for the wisdom of the next generation, and to create new memories from old. After the words of endearment, after the final words of hope and regret, John said; “Life is short. Dame evolution is ruthless. Hazard the pain, my heart. In other words, get your thumb out your butt and get happy!” Ella smiled, saying it, and was surrounded by smiles. She glanced at the map. “Oh, no. Oh dear God.” She pushed the drawing across to Bette. “That is not an island. That is the supercontinent Pangaea. What do you think the words in that blank area say?”

“Traditionally an unexplored region would be marked with the expression of—oh, no. Surely not. They’re mythological!”

“So I always thought. Fantasy.”

“What?”

Every pair of eyes turned to Ella. “So far, Van Meer’s predictions have been perfect. His portraits too, and nature sketches, I’d have to call miraculous in every sense of the word. Now he’s given us a map. And right there,” she said, stabbing a finger at the paper, “It says, ‘Here there be dragons.’ ”

Ella looked about the warm cozy kitchen at the people she loved, thinking of John’s wisdom. “Memories are all you ever make.” Bru and Fritz, Bette, who Ella barely knew and already loved, and Frosty and Rex and Van Meer. They represented all the people through all the years that made up Ella’s life, condensed in memory and crammed into this little kitchen. Ella’s eyes welled with what her heart could not contain. Whatever happened next, they were in it together. Here there be dragons indeed.

Ella stood up. “I think,” she said, “It’s time to take Van Meer some paper.”

****

 

Time’s Angel, Part 1

Chapter One

 

“There are eddies in the slipstream of time and refugees among us, borne on desperate currents.” –John Roberts

 

Van Meer stood still, staring at a strand of wire stretched hip-high across his path. He stared intently for a long while. Morning dew settled on his shirt and chilled his shoulders, gathered in his beard and sparkled like jewels in the sun’s first rays. He stared, as thoroughly unmoving as a yam. There was something about that wire.

His thin shirt gave little protection; he couldn’t remember the last time he’d taken it off. His woolen pants were stiff with filth and old blood. He’d taken them from a corpse weeks ago. He could have taken more; there had been several corpses. But his mind shied away from the carnage; he lost conscious awareness, and when next he found himself he was fishing, stretched by a stream where water ran clear and shallow across a sand bar. His hand and forearm were numb with cold but a fish investigated his slow-moving fingers. When its fins touched his palm he scooped it out with a practiced flip. He had a knife, but he’d lost flint and tinder, so he ate the fish raw. God provides.

Now, his last meal was so long forgotten, hunger ceased to concern him. His belly was flat against his spine. His bare feet were purple, swollen with bruises and cold. Raw scratches festered on his arms. He had a stout stick and carried a large oilskin pouch on a strap across his shoulder. He was shivering but knew the day would warm. It would be winter soon. He would not survive another winter.

None of these petty concerns tarnished the exalted miracle of existence for Van Meer. He was weightless as a breeze, bright as polished bronze. He floated, he beamed, he glowed. He stared, motionless, stretched as taut as the wire. Morning dew made it precious. He reached out to touch it. A shock of pain and surprise jolted him all the way to his shoulder and completely out of his transcendent state. He was again just a man dying from starvation and exposure. His feet were agony, his knees cracked when he bent them, his teeth began to chatter. Was it the wire or some trick of his mind? He reached out again to touch.

The electric jolt was immediate and relentless. How it was possible he had no idea. But then, how anything was possible he had no idea. There were impossible miracles everywhere. His mind turned abruptly clear. Around him the world bared itself in sharp precise detail, distinct and guileless. Every truth and secret of nature seemed revealed in an apogee of wonder. He ascended once more to the state of grace brought on by privation. Starvation was a saint’s gambit, but Van Meer was not a saint. He was an angel. He folded to the ground to wait patiently for the sun, for warmth, for death.

He reached into his oilskin pouch and pulled out his Comfort, a tattered collection of papers that had once made a drawing pad. He shuffled complacently through them. They were nearly all black with ink sketches done on top of ink sketches. Later he’d used berry juice; raspberry and currant and some kind of red berry that birds could eat but people couldn’t. He used little split sticks or sometimes crows’ quills. The layers of drawings filled in every notch and corner and left no sign of paper white. They overlapped and ran together, threaded through each other in a wild profuse tangle that made it impossible to separate one image from another but it didn’t matter, he could see them all, separate and perfect. He touched them lovingly with his fingertips one by one and was content. His shivering eased.

He must have dozed. The sun was striking bright bold lances through shadowed trees when a woman found him. He opened his eyes, uncurled slowly, and sat up. Yes, there was an old woman on the other side of the shocking wire, saying something. It had been a long time since he’d heard a voice. The responding words in his head were thick and slow. He looked away, glanced sidewise at her, and looked determinedly away again. She was too painfully bright, shining with the white light of purpose stronger by far than any he’d seen. It swelled and pulsed around her head and shoulders. Angry flashes of red intermittently occluded the white around her hips and knees. He could sense too, hiding beneath the light, a deep and abiding sorrow.

He did not wish to see but it was too late. His fingers twitched and trembled and he mourned for one small scrap of virgin paper. He did not look at her again.

“Are you all right?” the woman asked. The words approached him slowly then sped up and fled on by. “Can I help you? Can you get up? I can call for help.”

Van Meer tried to duck into himself. He understood the words; he just wasn’t sure what to do with them. The solid sure presence of the woman pressed against him. It was like standing with his hand on the dikes feeling the pressure of the sea beyond. He swayed back. He squeezed his eyes, blocked his face with his forearm. “Please. Not so close. Please.”

The woman stepped back two paces and did something unexpected. Nothing. She did nothing. She even tamped down her aura and the considerable force of her personality. She was still too bright but she waited. Always before, people were impatient with him. They became louder, closer, more insistent. “Listen to me! Look at me! Answer me!” And the wounds in their souls would torture him. He longed to curl up again but it was too late, and his compulsion was upon him. He heard a strange voice, his own shaky voice say, “Please, could you find me a bit of paper? I seem to have run out.”

****

Ella Roberts recognized the signs right away; the unwillingness to look directly at her, the precise, meticulous, somehow loving way he gathered up and arranged his pile of blackened papers, the oblique timeless way he had of speaking and responding. Of course starvation might do that to any rational man so she couldn’t be sure. But it was plain he could be easily spooked.

He may be autistic. He might have post-traumatic stress disorder, PTSD. He might have some kind of physical trauma or be mentally ill, but he may not be stupid. None of that means he’s stupid. Ella lowered her aching hips to the ground and spoke gently. I can bring you paper. But if you come with me you can get warm, get something to eat. You can get clean. Can you stand up? What are you doing here? Oh! My name is Ella.” She let the unasked question hang between them for a time and finally he responded.

“Van Meer. My name is Van Meer. I’m an angel.” I walk the straight and narrow on God’s bent path, he thought but did not say. He pulled his knees up and hugged them and his Comfort tightly to his chest. “I like to draw.” He began to rock just a tiny bit. “There are people up there, I can feel them.” He jerked his chin in the direction of the house. “They’re all damaged. I’ll have to draw them all. Could I please have paper?”

****

The cool fall morning became bright clear and brisk, the kind of day that swells your heart with delight, the kind of day that no mere memory can fully contain. Children unable to prevent themselves did cartwheels in celebration. Cooks and housewives stepped to the back door to breathe sweet air. Carpenters and masons downed their tools and lifted their heads. Men strolled on their way to work, swinging lunch pails and whistling. Farmers in the fields laughed and sang. Ella hurried across the yard as fast as her old bones would let her. Both the fine fall day and the pain in her joints were eclipsed by her need to make a difference. “God’s hairy knuckles,” she grumbled to herself and snorted back a laugh. She’d adopted the expression from one of her boarders.

Ella was a widow. The death of her husband John Roberts marked a pivotal moment in her life. She still carried his memory like a cactus plant on a saucer. The wasted tread-water years of her life without John seemed a pale thing, a purposeless time, but she had a new life now and a new job rehabilitating time refugees because John had been right! John Roberts, her heart, her gentleman farmer, her extraordinary temporal theorist, had been absolutely right! Together they had bought the property where he’d calculated his ‘time refugees’ would wash up.

Ella remembered asking, “Why do you call them refugees?”

“Because,” John had answered, “The only way you can leave your timeline is if you’re leaving anyway.”

“What?”

“Leaving. About to die unremarked and unremembered, having no more influence or effect in the world. If the right rare circumstances occur they may fall cross-time, into another timeline. Ours, hopefully, where historians and scientists ought to find them fascinating.” He smiled the idiot lopsided grin that had first attracted Ella so many years ago. John’s theories were scorned as nonsense by all but a few theoretical physicists. Lord, how she missed that grin. The memory singed her heart, and she shoved it away.

Ella had adoptive family and friends now—and resources, skills, and uppity notions. She was a force of nature is what she was. John had told her so. She’d simply forgotten for a while. She had work and purpose but especially purpose. The time refugees had changed her; changed everything. She intended that change for the better if she had to do it one refugee at a time. But first she had to save them, if she did that one at a time. And now there was another kitten on her doorstep. Okay. Ragged old tom. She hurried.

She burst into the kitchen at a near-gallop. Bru stood by the stove spicing a large pot of ham and beans. Fritz sat at the kitchen table with a cup of hot tea, the dust of the day’s labor already upon him. They both stared in surprise.

Bru was the first refugee Ella had taken into her home and she’d become an integral part of the family. Life had been difficult for Bru. She knew what survival took. “Trouble, Missus?” The large cast-iron spoon in her hand was suddenly a weapon.

“No. Fritz, say goodbye to your old boots and give them to me. Your socks, too, then run and get me your winter coat. Move!”

Fritz, bless his heart, bit his figurative tongue and hopped to it. Ella called after him. “Bring extra socks! And a hat! Hell.” She turned to Bru. “I want some of that,” she said, pointing at the pot on the stove, “and some loaves of your bread. Find something for me to carry it in but do it quick!” She tore from the room. A minute later she was back carrying a sketchbook, a six-dollar tin box of unused watercolors and several brushes, pens and pencils. Bru gave her a rueful knowing smile. She’d stand shoulder to shoulder with Ella no matter what but she had a more practical point of view.

“You can’t save them all, Missus.” She nodded at a lunch pail on the table. “Ham and beans in there. Beans need more time.” She laid two loaves of homemade bread on top. “I should maybe go with you? Just in case.” Refugees could be dangerous. Bru paused, unable to stop herself entirely, and blurted, “Going to draw a picture?”

“I think this is a solo mission, Bru. I’ll be careful. In fact, get somebody to spread the word. No one is to go near the south end of the farm today.” She added her art supplies to the pail and turned to Bru. “No, we can’t save them all, but we’ve got to keep walking in the right direction. And I won’t let anyone starve on my doorstep!” She nearly growled that last part. She didn’t explain the sketchbook.

Fritz entered carrying his winter coat. He’d stuffed socks and a stocking hat into the pockets. He placed them on the table next to the pail and added his best boots. In the surprise and activity of the moment his usually lurid wit apparently failed him. He flogged his brain for an appropriate dirty remark. “Did your lover get cold feet?” he signed lamely.

Ella laughed. “Is that the best you’ve got? You had nearly two minutes to invent something really clever.” She laughed again. All those years, she’d never noticed how seldom she laughed. Bru helped her into the coat, it was easier than carrying it. She nodded at the lunch pail and tried again, “I could carry that for you, Missus, or Fritz could.”

Ella picked it up and stuffed the sketch book beneath her arm. “Stop worrying. I’ll be fine.” She turned to Fritz, who had given up his boots and his coat without question or complaint. At this moment she was terribly, terribly proud of the young man. She reached a long way up and patted his cheek. “You’re too young for me to marry. Maybe I’ll just bed you for the winter.” She winked at him, picked up the boots and turned to leave.

Even with no tongue, it was the first time Fritz had ever been truly speechless. Ella banged out the door. From outside they heard her call back, “And turn off the blasted fence.” Fritz was another of Ella’s projects. How he’d lost his tongue was a story he’d yet to tell but desperation seemed a necessary component for time travel. So John had theorized. “If they are about to die there, they’ll be desperate here. We need to be ready to help.” Again he was right. The only part he got wrong was the timing. He was gone before their first rescue. The irony of a temporal theorist with bad timing would have made him grin.

How Fritz thrived under Ella’s wing was a story of a different sort. Ella taught him American Sign Language and proceeded to teach every able mind within range of her influence so he’d have people to sign with. For that alone Fritz could have loved her. That he’d lost his own Mam early on had nothing to do with it.

Bru guffawed out loud to see him at a loss for words. She gestured with the spoon, “Follow her. Don’t let her see you but keep her safe!” Fritz nodded. Security was just one of the many hats he wore on Ella’s behalf. He took his crossbow from its station above the kitchen door and slipped out. His feet were bare. He was still speechless.

****

Ella dearly wished she’d been able to coax the broken man back to civilization and comfort. This hurried return trip to their serendipitous meeting place could have been avoided. She hustled through the thinning trees bitching about her hips, her knees, the unfairness of life, and barbarous, uncivilized, brutal, empathically bankrupt people that left a stricken soul like Van Meer lost in the woods. She prayed he would still be there.

He was not. She placed the ham and beans and bread on the ground next to the boots, placed the sketchbook and supplies on top of that and covered everything with the coat. She thought to search for him or call out but she did not. After a bit, she withdrew altogether.

****

Van Meer was blessed with a memory that could fail, or perhaps he just refused to recall. So it was that the horrors of his own life were spared him. But things that tormented the souls and spirits of other people were his to see and remember. If every soul you see is a tortured soul are you not in hell? Van Meer had been in such a place, a private hell full of dented, twisted souls, a place that smelled of piss and shit and rotting, still-living bodies. He would draw them, had to draw them, and would always see them. The portraits he created then were nothing like the nature sketches, landscapes, and flower details in his Comfort. Instead of beautiful, soothing pictures the portraits were always true. Sometimes they upset people, made them angry and afraid. And frightened people are dangerous. He could not return to that past world, though his thoughts nagged. Hell needs angels, if any place does. Perhaps the shining woman would return with paper. He retreated into the woods where he waited and watched. She did return but not entirely alone. A man with a crossbow concealed himself nearby.

Van Meer sat unnaturally still, still as a fawn by the meadow’s edge, still as a rabbit in the shadow of an owl. But his earlier exalted weightless state had extracted a penalty. Heavy lethargy threatened to overwhelm him. He could not succumb. He needed to trip the trap, steal the bait, and find a way to survive. He laughed gently at himself for being afraid of an arrow but his disappointment was profound. He’d been an angel already free of earthly constraints. He tried hard to remember how to fly.

What does it take to lure an angel from heaven? Nothing more than a little hope. Ella had offered him food, and Van Meer found he desperately wanted to live. So he waited unmoving and invisible, starving, cold, and hidden. With his Comfort clutched tightly to his side he endured. Eventually Ella left, trailed by her bowman protector.

Van Meer had to quiet his mind to know if anyone was near, to sense their presence as would a wild creature, though his mind was never completely quiet. Background noise pulsated like a crowd in the distance. Every now and again a voice would rise up, and be clearly heard like a gull’s cry above the sound of the rushing tide; but not now. He let his senses roam.

When the woods were empty he approached the little pile Ella left. He used his staff to lift the coat free and behold she had left succor and relief and passion. Virgin paper, untouched, a trove of them together in a book, and pens that were a wonder of clean efficient usefulness, that required no quill, no well, no ink cake, no crushed berries. Again he did not understand. This was more than bait. This was life. He put on the coat and enveloping warmth and separation from the elements occupied him for a time. He found again the hat, the socks, and the food. Bread, real bread, and beans congealed in fat. Cubes of meat. Ham. Tears wet his cheeks. God provides. Ella helps. He dug his fingers in and ate the beans slowly one at a time. He broke off little bits of bread and relished each crumb, eating only a little. He resisted exploring the rest of the objects as long as he could but as soon as his hands touched a pen his compulsion could no longer be held at bay. He licked his fingers clean, sat down with his back to a tree, rested the sketch pad on his knees and began. He forgot about food or comfort or danger. It was too dark to see when he stopped. His feet were warm, and he did not think that had happened in a while. He curled up in his new coat and when the damp of night descended, he was oblivious.

****

Through a wet blanket morning of rising fog and frost on dying grass Ella returned. She’d had a bad night. Bleary-eyed, sore-headed, and stiff beyond belief she let her worry for Van Meer drive her through the damp to the fenceline. Relief and disappointment met her there. The supplies were gone. In their place she found a single piece of paper carefully removed from the sketch book and kept from any stray breeze by a clod of dirt. She picked the paper up and shook off dirt and frost. The ink on the paper was undamaged, a drawing of her; exact and precise and exquisitely rendered by a master hand. Her own image looked out at her and in the eyes she saw the hope of joy and the sorrow of loss. Her heart stumbled and fell and that old, old pain poured out to mingle with fresh injustice. It was some time before she could call herself whole again.

Truly made whole, for she was baptized in the waters of catharsis. She stopped trying to betray her husband by letting his memory ebb and her sorrow ease. Instead she clutched the pain to her heart and embraced it as a treasure, the price paid for precious memories, for memories are all you ever make. John said that. She laughed, dried her eyes, and looked again at the paper. On the reverse side was another drawing. A mischievous imp peered out from a hidden place in the woods. He was holding a crossbow, and the likeness was absolutely spot on.

Ella went home renewed. She placed the paper in a safe place with other things she loved and did not look at it again. She never mentioned it to Fritz. Despite her arthritic hips she took to walking in the woods in the morning. Sometimes she would leave things there.

 

Chapter Two

 

“Going back in time to change the past is a comic book concept.” –John Roberts

 

Fall granted summer a reprieve. A chill night yielded to a windless day and a warming sun. Butter yellow light gilded the trees, and deep purple shadows pooled beneath. An infinite blue sky graced the day like a benediction. Van Meer dug rocks from a shallow stream. He’d gleaned a meal from a nearby field and reasonably believed other creatures would do the same. A few deadfalls along the field’s edge seemed a good idea.

Eventually his pants got soaked, and he took them off to clean them of filth and grime. He spent a deal of time at this chore, long enough to lose himself thoroughly. Next he knew it was mid-afternoon, and he was following his nose, walking barefoot and bare-assed through the woods. The cuffs of his coat were wet, but at least he still had a coat. He took it off and tied it around his waist to warm his behind. He hoped his pants and boots were safe. He did carry the oilskin pouch holding his Comfort though he did not remember picking it up. It would help a lot, he thought, if God would inform me of His plans ahead of time. After a while he realized his nose was tracking the scent of hot sausage.

He came through thick woods to a scrub-choked fenceline. Beyond, a manicured field of dying grass held a sparse scattering of people with numbers on their backs. Across the field tiered benches held a crowd. More people stood along the field’s edge. A striped canvas pavilion shaded tables of food. The smell of sausage was intoxicating; he could almost see the breeze carry it to him. Van Meer stopped cold. So many. Even from across the field the energy of all those people shredded his nerves. But there was no denying. Whether he was driven by God or his stomach did not matter. Maybe there was no difference. Because he still had some dignity, he removed all his clothes. He carefully hid his coat and shirt and settled his pouch back over his shoulder. Naked as a day-old crow, he circled the field to get behind his quarry.

Something happened on the field to arrest everyone’s attention. The crowd roared. Van Meer recognized God’s impeccable timing. He cleared his mind and with head up and shoulders back strolled across an open stretch of ground and in under the canopy where he found a long table holding an embarrassment of wealth: sausages and cornbread, corn on the cob, pickles, bread, biscuits, pretzel twists, and plates, cups, bottles, and pitchers of beer. A beer keg on a wooden rack stood by the table. Two people on Van Meer’s side of the table and five on the far all had their backs to him and their attention on the game. None turned his way. If he was not invisible he was at least unnoticed; that was often the same thing.

He stepped up beside a large man with a white apron tied around waist and stopped nearly elbow to elbow, Van Meer’s eyes level with his biceps. Just like everyone else the man’s attention was riveted on the game. Van Meer picked up four sausages, placed them in the half-filled pitcher the man was distracted from filling, took it from beneath his hand, put a page from his Comfort down in payment, whispered “Thank you,” up at his ear, and turned away feeling invisible to all the world. Behind him he heard a vacant voice say “Yeah, sure,” and another roar went up from the crowd.

Halfway back to his clothes and hidden by the trees when he began to think again Van Meer trembled. Later, he knew, he would mourn the loss of his sketch page. It was a sacrifice he had not wished to make. He had taken a damp freshly washed sock along hoping it would do but had not been given a choice. Really, a sock didn’t feel right to him either. He had hoped.

He was giddy with elation and beer when he made the far corner of the field and started along the back line to his coat and boots. There he stopped still as cold mutton. He remained unmoving for several minutes while the sweat on his back and thighs cooled in the light breeze. Three men crouched in the fence row and watched the field. Van Meer couldn’t see them but he knew they were there. Eventually one of them spoke softly and Van Meer backed up, planning to disappear altogether, but his compulsion stopped him. He took out pen and pad, moved up behind them and began to draw, sure and quick. He knew they would not look about.

He finished with a final flourish, withdrew into the woods, and settled down on his back to study his drawing. He had not seen their faces but there was a familiar malevolence in their tense backs and hunched shoulders. A shudder of fear took Van Meer’s breath away. He knew these men, had seen them on the killing field where he’d lain like a corpse until they’d gone and the crows had gathered, brutal desperate men avoiding mortal fate by feeding Death the souls of innocents. They slipped away from the field back into the forest. One had a war axe on his belt. Van Meer sat up and sipped a little beer, trembling. It was a miracle they had not smelled the sausage. He stood up and brushed leaves and tiny sticks from his bare hide. That was when he saw the bowman climbing over the fence. He didn’t have his crossbow. Van Meer could have wished otherwise.

****

There had to be a dozen set of lips between Ella and the source of the story she had just heard. She hurried to the beer tent to see for herself. The ‘tender, Sam, told her how the beer pitcher in his hand had turned into “this” and showed her the paper. “I swear. I was filling a pitcher just when Harry got caught between third and home and I heard the crowd and I turned to see and when I turned back to the keg I had this paper in my hand. I tried to fill it with beer. It was like magic and you know me, I don’t believe in magic. But I had the pitcher and then I had this!” He was ready to say it all again. “Look! It’s got scratchy little pictures all over it. Flowers and little birds and what is that? Is that ink or blood? Here, take it,” he said, handing the ten-by-ten-inch piece of stiff paper to Ella. “Keep it. It’s probably some kind of witchery if you ask me. Don’t be surprised if it turns into a beer or something when the moon is full.” It was half-soaked with beer now. Where it was wet the ink began to run.

Ella recognized it right away from her earlier encounter with the broken man. She chided herself for referring to him in that manner even to herself. He’s been damaged somehow. No need to insult him. She hurried back to Bru and Fritz muttering to herself and berating her hips for having the nerve to be anything other than healthy. Don’t know why I was worried. He seems to be doing quite well for himself, as far as I can tell. He didn’t steal that beer, either, he paid for it! But she was worried. Van Meer needed help, of that she was sure. She hurried on, wishing she’d brought her staff, or at least a cane. A cane! Oh Lord. “Fritz!” she called into the stands, “Could I bother you for a minute?”

****

Fritz saw her coming. She was walking that “Could you do something for me” walk. Fritz had been acting as Ella’s foreman for two years. That something had come up did not surprise him and he was proud to be her ‘go to’ man. He’d do anything for that old lady despite his irreverent attitude. Anyway, baseball was okay, but what he really enjoyed was mugging for the crowd. He’d become an unofficial team mascot. There was even talk of making him a costume. He walked down the benches to Ella. “No beer?” he signed.

Ella gave him a half smile. “No. But I’ll buy you a gallon if you do this right, and you can go off and get rip-roaring. Remember Van Meer, the starving man I was telling you about?” She had never shown Fritz the drawings she’d found. Van Meer had caught more than just Fritz’s likeness. He had caught Fritz’s personality and spirit, too. Ella did not know why she hid it away.

“You mean the wild man you found?” Fritz signed, “I never saw him. But I’ll probably recognize him. He’ll be wearing my coat!” He rolled his eyes in exaggeration. Signing involved a lot of exaggeration and pantomime, which seemed to suit Fritz just fine. He didn’t miss his tongue. Much.

“Apparently he walked into the beer tent from the back, purchased a beer, and left the same way.” Ella waved the paper about. “He paid with this!”

“Was he wearing my coat?” Fritz was relentless in pursuit of a laugh.

“Nobody even saw him. Fritz, do you think you can find him? He needs help. He may be autistic. He probably doesn’t have a place to stay, and it’s going to be a hard winter.”

“Find him? How? Which way do they think he went? Are you sure he needs help? At least he’s got beer!” Ella slapped his shoulder, smiling through her concern.

Fritz figured downwind was the most likely place to start looking, opposite from where Van Meer had entered the scene. At least that’s what he would do, and directly across the field was the quickest way to get there. He waited only a few minutes and crossed the playing field during the seventh inning stretch. As he climbed over the far fence and pushed through the overgrowth he didn’t think his chances were good, but he spotted Ella’s broken man only moments later.

No wonder she was worried. Van Meer was naked, incredibly hairy and the skinniest man Fritz had ever seen. A pouch on a strap across his chest hid nothing. He clutched a pen in one hand. If a sparrow, an underfed baby of a sparrow should happen to blunder into him it would likely knock him down. Fritz looked at him and grinned. Where the hell is my coat?

Van Meer’s eyes went wide. He looked abruptly away and did not look up again but stretched out an arm to give Fritz a sheet of paper. As Fritz moved to take the offered paper he heard Van Meer whisper, “You are the Bright Lady’s man.” Fritz made an inarticulate grunt. If the man wouldn’t look at him, he couldn’t even nod his head. How do I get into these messes?

The paper held an astonishingly detailed drawing of three men in hiding watching the baseball game. Fritz recognized the players on the field. The three foreground figures crouching along the fence exuded menace even though he could only see their backs. Fritz was suddenly very nervous. His hand went to the knife at his waist too late. Cold steel shifted and glinted in the dappled light and three men with wicked bright blades closed on them. To try escaping through the choked fence row meant sure death. Shouting would be pointless. They were trapped. Fritz backed between two small tree trunks for their meager protection. Ella, he thought inanely, isn’t going to like this.

The bandits surrounded them. The one nearest Van Meer lowered his sword, laughing. “What’s this? Where are your clothes, hairy man? Were you expecting someone?” He reached out with his free hand to grab Van Meer by the elbow, expecting no resistance. To expect resistance from such obvious frailness was to expect danger from a celery stalk. The man couldn’t even look at him.

It was a stupid mistake. The moment the swordsman touched him Van Meer shrieked and turned, swinging his fist in a wide arc. He drove his pen deep into the bandit’s right eye. The man dropped his sword and fell to his knees screaming, groping at his face. Van Meer scrunched his eyes closed and put his hands over his ears.

When Fritz’s opponent turned his head in reaction to the shrieks, Fritz took a short step and kicked forward in precisely the way his instructor had made him practice the past eighteen months. He crushed the bandit’s testicles and broke his jaw with a second savage kick as he went down.

It was now two against one, a fact the lone standing man seemed to understand. He turned and ran but didn’t make thirty feet before Fritz caught up with him. He turned at the last second and took Fritz’s knife low in his ribs. He swung his sword about in a high sweep and Fritz’s left arm, ignoring anything sensible Fritz might have suggested, came up and forearmed the flat of the sword. In a killing rage Fritz plunged his knife in again and again and did not stop until the body fell.

His arm felt as if someone had walloped him with a bat and followed up with a white-hot poker. A flap of skin and muscle made his hands tremble when he pressed it back into place. He threw up, waited till his shakes diminished, picked up the dead man’s sword and retraced his steps, panting with adrenaline and fear. This was his need, his desperate fantasy, his anger unleashed. How many times had he wished he could go back and change things? If only he had kept his big mouth shut. If only he had run away. If only his brother Michael had not come to his rescue. Fritz would still have a tongue and Michael would still be alive. These were not the same men but the same kind of men, and Fritz in his murderous frenzy just did not give a damn. He killed the man with the broken jaw without remorse. The other swordsman was curled up, already dead. Van Meer’s pen must have penetrated through the eyeball into the brain. Fritz wondered if Van Meer knew. He had completely disappeared, which given the circumstances seemed entirely reasonable. What’s he done with my coat? Missus is going to be pissed.

He gathered up the weapons and the blood-spattered drawing and returned to the baseball field carrying the swords of his foes. In hindsight, he should have gone around. He pushed through the fence scrub and climbed back over the fence, throwing the blades over ahead of him along with an axe. The clash of metal on metal drew the attention of the middle fielder, who was nearly brained by a long fly ball.

Fritz’s energy drained away with the adrenaline and his shakes began again. He stumbled onto the playing field, and all hell ensued. The players reacted first, running towards him. Then the fans reacted. Some thought he was deliberately disrupting the game and complained, booing loudly. Some laughed, figuring it was another of his dumb stunts. But blood is never funny. Deep crimson soaked his shirt. He could feel the weight of it.

As the true situation became clear the stands emptied and people ran onto the field. Fritz looked up to see Ella standing on a bench seat halfway up the stands, at this distance looking old and alone.

People pressed around trying to get the story but only a few knew sign. Fritz signed to a kid who did a credible job of passing his report on verbally. Joey. Joe. Good lad. I’ll have to tell Ella. Several hotheads started towards the fence. Some people apparently thought panicking would help and proceeded to do that; more got in each other’s way trying to help Fritz. He let one of them tighten a strip of cloth about his arm. Someone with a parade ground voice began to straighten things out. Men were dispatched to deal with the bodies and search for more outlaws. Complaints were made. A growing faction wanted to finish the game.

Fritz pressed through the crowd towards the bleachers. He signed to Missus Ella, “I’m okay.” She stood above the crowd looking now like a commander surveying the troops. People kept walking over to speak to her. Men called up to her from the ground. Two people signed. She nodded or shook her head, folded her arms and waited for Fritz. He was not looking forward to giving his report to her. Amazing. He’d just killed two men and here he was afraid to talk to a little old lady. He shook his head and marched bravely on.

Ella was standing on the first riser when he reached her which placed the top of her head about equal with his nose. She put her hands on her hips and looked up. Her lips thinned. “You just scared a year out of me! I haven’t got that many to spare!” Her eyes were bleak and red. She threw her arms about him regardless of the blood. “You big lug!” she said, and sobbed into his neck. Fritz was astounded. He knew Ella loved him, loved every one of her extended family. He just didn’t realize she took it so personally. He held her and patted her back, surprised at how frail she felt in his arms. He tried to say for the second or third time, despite his missing tongue, “I’m fine, Missus, I’m fine. I’m just fine.”

Ella pulled back and her face cleared. “Oh,” she said as if in surprise or enlightenment. She gave him a look that penetrated all the way to his boots. “You never said, and I never realized. Someone died, didn’t they, trying to protect you?”

Fritz nodded dumbly. Ella pulled him close again to whisper in his ear. “You don’t have to feel guilty. It’s not your fault.” Fritz’s heart twisted in his chest. Tears blurred his vision. But Ella’s eyes shone clear with the light of revelation. “When we get home,” she said, “I have a drawing you need to see.” Fritz nodded again, unable to do anything else. He hadn’t mentioned Van Meer. He hoped the poor lost soul had a rabbit hole.

****

Van Meer walked beneath large calm fall-colored trees. Light and shade made intricate lace patterns on the ground, stirred by a sweet breeze. He wore only a shirt and coat. His Comfort in its pouch bounced at his hip and he carried a pitcher holding two beer-soaked sausages. He had no idea how he’d come by two beer soaked sausages. God provides. He fished a sausage out of the pitcher. Ella helps. He remembered that.

His hairy shanks were bare but Van Meer couldn’t be concerned. It was going to be a mild night, a soft lovely night with an oversized moon, a night meant for contemplating miracles. He was happy. And he thought he might know where his pants were. They were probably dry by now.

 

Chapter Three

 

“All creation is a mystery. Life is too short to learn much. But what the hell. Learn to enjoy the quality of mystery.” –John Roberts

 

Van Meer lay on his back quiet as a corpse, his arms folded over his chest, listening. Sometimes his head would empty out and he’d listen that way. When air moved across his face he inhaled deeply searching for clues. Only his head was above ground. There were men in the forest searching every foot.

Van Meer’s rabbit hole, more likely a groundhog’s abandoned burrow, ran horizontally into a sharp slope beneath a pine tree different than those in the world Van Meer knew, sparser in branch and needle. The hole was too far from an open field to do a groundhog much good but it fitted Van Meer’s needs. He had spent considerable time enlarging the burrow. Clay was easy, rock and coarse soil tougher, stubborn roots were the most difficult. He placed his coat on the brown needle pack and piled hacked roots and clay onto it to be carried to a creek bed and dispersed, leaving no sign. Time and labor were not a problem for Van Meer. When he focused on a task time did not exist.

To make his bed wide and deep enough, Van Meer had to go into the hole head first. At the last he measured his full length in the narrow tunnel and the back of his neck brushed the tunnel’s roof. All he could do was back out on his elbows dragging a shirt full of dirt and rock with him. But he did not fear cave-ins, he was not claustrophobic, he felt safe in tight dark until he was driven out to face what demons there were.

He stuffed the far end of the hole with pine needles and lined the rest with dry grasses. He pulled on his coat and wormed feet first into his nest, warm and safe. Only his face was exposed to the elements and concealment involved nothing more than pulling a pine branch over his head. Even without that precaution he was beneath living tree branches and impossible to spot. But there was something to give him away.

Rocks in the creek bed sheared easily in thick smooth flakes that exposed odd shapes pressed into the stone. He found a leaf carved in perfect detail. He found little round shapes and stem stalks and a segmented worm carved in the soft rock. Sometimes they were all mashed together, pressed on top of each other in bewildering proliferation like the intertwining drawings of his Comfort.

Not a hundred feet from his hidey-hole he placed dozens of the stones organized by size and content. Some he laid out in patterns. Some he piled into shapes and figures. He had intended to use them to back a fire pit that would bank heat into his shelter but had been compelled to stack and order them first.

Men methodically combing the woods for swordsmen found his collection. Van Meer heard them clearly. “Look at this! What is this? It must be a gathering place for a witch’s coven or something.”

“Ahh, you’re always going off the deep end with that stuff,” said a second voice. “Probably just another ambitious squatter. Okay, an inhumanly organized, tightly squeezed, madly drunk squatter. Lord, look at this. This is amazing!”

“What would be amazing is getting out of here before dark. Isn’t Ella Robert’s farm over that way? If we can get lost in here how can bandits who don’t know the territory find their way?”

“Maybe bandits are just brighter than you two,” said a third voice.

A sharp concussion of sound jolted the entire length of Van Meer’s body. Somebody let loose a rebel yell. “I’ll be damned! Completely, totally, eternally damned! I’ve never seen anything like it. Did you see that? That deer jumped right out into the middle of that circle. This is all for a trap, some kind of crazy hunter’s trap! I will be damned!”

“If you’re gonna’ keep wishing for damnation, do it somewhere else. I’ve got other plans.” That was the third voice. “I say it’s luck or God’s grace. We’ve spooked every animal out here today. No wonder they’re jumping all over. But either way we’ve got a campsite with an easily-made fire pit and spit and fresh meat handed to us. And I don’t want to get caught wandering about out here in pitch black. So drag that buck to water and butcher it. I’ll make a fire. We’ll camp here tonight.”

Van Meer, hidden safe and warm, thought Yes, God’s grace, and went gently to sleep. He woke up drooling in the black of night. He could see stars through the branches but they cast no light down here. He turned his head and saw a deep red glow above the hot coals of a dying fire. He smelled roast meat and heard the occasional drop of grease hissing on coals.

Joy ascended. God’s glory cast its cloak upon him. His spirit rose to dance. In total rapture he slid from his burrow. In glee and fearless delight he approached the fire. Moving like mist he floated across the campsite, the ground itself could not feel the press of his feet. He spirited over to the first of the sleeping men and trying not to giggle removed a spoon and a small pouch of oats from the man’s kit. In patient wonder Van Meer removed a tiny cross on a delicate silver chain from around the sleeper’s neck. He did not question how he knew it was there.

One man still sat by the fire occasionally lifting a hand to turn the spit, an act no longer necessary. His head rested on his knees. Van Meer took his blanket. He slid the entire loin of deer from the spit, replaced the spit and tip-toed away like a naughty four-year-old with a stolen cookie. He pressed his lips together to keep from guffawing at the sheer thrill of it all.

Van Meer slid the hot meat into his hole and pushed it all the way back with his feet. He wormed in until his head was fully underground and finally giggling out loud pulled two dead branches over the entrance. God provides. In strange, unfathomable ways, God provides. His feet were toasty warm. He slept smiling and undisturbed deep into the afternoon never knowing the rippling pebble-in-a-pond effect his actions engendered and the stories to be told, meant to color the world.

****

To Be Continued . . .

 

The Company Man

Working for paranoids isn’t the easiest or the safest way to make a living, but it paid well. It even appeared that I had survived another assignment, and I looked forward to enjoying my hard-earned gains.

Afloat in the windowless tin-can cabin of my vessel, three rocks visited as planned, bound for home, I fantasized about air and water not endlessly recycled, food that had been grown, not printed, and gymnastic marathon sex with my wife. Not necessarily in that order.

Till I reached Ceres, my plans consisted of more of the same. There was nothing to do, not even if I wanted. Company vessel 724 (or as I preferred to think of her, the Bounty, though whether I channeled Captain Bligh or Mister Christian varied with my frame of mind) flew itself. Only the bridge computer knew where we were or when we’d arrive, and it wasn’t telling. Without instruments, without windows, I couldn’t as much as guess.

To be fair, the company had come honestly by its paranoia. Registering a mining claim to a rock meant less than squat when the rock regularly wandered millions of kilometers from civilization—and law enforcement. And when the wealth that rock had to offer was more than enough to corrupt anyone. And when to register the claim would have meant disclosing the orbital parameters. How many such rocks did the company exploit? What were their orbits? Outside the C-suite, I doubt anyone knew.

On my inaugural jaunt for the company, cocky about my own brilliance, I’d suited up en route to my first rock to do some naked-eye astronomy. Only the paranoids had anticipated that ploy: looking outward from within the airlock, even after allowing ten minutes for my eyes to adjust to the dark, I had seen . . . nada. An arm extended through the open outer hatch caught zero sunlight, meaning autopilot had me oriented away from the Sun—and that the patch of sky before me must have been filled with unseen stars.

I’d had to resist the urge to smack myself upside the helmet. Of course my employers had insisted upon furnishing my vacuum gear for the flight. Of course company ships stocked extra helmets, and never a printer capacious enough to make spares as needed. Clearly, the smartglass visor in my company-provided helmet filtered stars from a black sky. Had I been facing in a suitable direction, doubtless it would have filtered out planets, too. Otherwise every miner with a gram of astronomy sense—not to mention ringers recruited as miners—would try the same exercise I was undertaking. With a sigh, I’d taken the hint, closed the outer hatch, and returned inside. Foiled.

The anticipation of marathon sex was far more pleasant than memories of my past naiveté. It couldn’t be long now . . .

A bridge console chimed: incoming message. I pulled myself into my acceleration couch and tapped to acknowledge. A display lit up and I read: ACCELERATION IN TWO MINUTES.  MINE EMERGENCY.  RENDER ALL POSSIBLE ASSISTANCE.

Meaning, company commitments notwithstanding, I wasn’t going home. Meaning also that, beyond not knowing to where I’d been rerouted, I knew nothing about the emergency. Because the company didn’t know? Mining stations, like ships, had no transmission capability. “For security.” So how the hell did the company know about an emergency?

All good questions, I thought. And they were all going to go without answers, at least until I got . . . wherever.

“Columbus managed without a radio,” the bored company recruiter had once explained. “And Magellan. And Cook and Drake and pick your explorer.”

Not that Magellan or Cook had made it home alive. Was I supposed to like those odds? “Which of them were in vacuum, millions of klicks from help?”

“Hence the hazardous-duty pay,” I’d been told. “And most likely, you’ll live.”

And indeed, so far, I had. But with this undefined emergency, I had to wonder if my luck had run out.

 

****

 

Waiting in a hallway, my gaze wandered about the tiny, claustrophobic room to which, almost sooner than I had struggled out of my vacuum gear, I had been delivered by a pair of taciturn miners. (Emphasis on almost. The men took the time to give me a full pat-down, an ultrasound scan, and to paw through my utility belt and valise. I didn’t have any contraband with me, but protocol must be followed—and to the pickiest detail, given that I’d had the temerity, this being an unscheduled stop, to have arrived without a mail bag.) Both men had been edgy, but that was only to be expected. No one’s ever pleased with a company auditor showing up. I wasn’t too happy myself.

My escorts, without a word, left me. Beyond the hatch, studiously (contrivedly?) ignoring me, my host frowned at his desktop. From time to time he took a sip from a drink bulb. I cleared my throat. Without looking up, he raised a finger. As in the universal annoying gesture for wait a minute. Some emergency.

It could have been the control room of any asteroid mining station anywhere, and I’d visited plenty enough to know. Wall displays cycled from camera to camera to camera, most offering dreary, near-ground-level views of pockmarked, much-churned terrain. Little interrupted the desolation but boot prints, the crablike sidling of many-tentacled mining bots, and a pressure-suited figure gliding hand over hand along a staked-down guide wire to or from some chore. Sun glinted off the occasional solar reflector chancing to appear over the freakishly close horizon; once I spotted the eldritch blue glow of an ion thruster adjusting a mirror’s hover. Other displays offered more panoramic—if no less bleak—vistas: look-downs from the hovering reflectors. As overhead pics flashed past, I twice caught sight of the Bounty as it lay tethered to the barren surface and once of the base airlock. The final few wall displays offered interior shots of this underground station: corridors, common areas, the vault (sealed; stacked with lustrous ingots), the arms locker (sealed), even air ducts and cable conduits.

All cartoonish glimpses, of course. Still and vid cameras at company stations were purposefully insensitive and low-res, hence unable to capture any astronomical object other than the Sun. Try as you might, you couldn’t repurpose these cams for clandestine astronomy projects. I worked for evil geniuses.

Where display screens didn’t cover the wall, magnets pinned paper lists, production schedules, hand-scrawled notes, and cartoons to steel panels. What little of the actual wall I could see glowed in a particularly bilious shade of green. In fine sprinklings, gauzy films, and great, sooty smudges, the ubiquitous dust—you couldn’t work an asteroid without tracking more of the stuff inside from every surface foray—tainted everything. In the minutes since I had entered the station, my jumpsuit, clean upon arrival, already gave hints of mimicking a leopard.

The used-gunpowder odor of the dust tickled my nose. I’d get used to that, I knew, and to the bouquet of hardworking men and women in tight quarters, but such olfactory adjustments always took time. To my left, from the room’s air duct, came the whirr of a fan. Ventilation and filtration somehow distributed the dust and stench more than removed it.

Finally done with whatever task I was to believe demanded his urgent attention, the station chief glanced up from his desktop. “Welcome to the Rock.” Because the smaller asteroids, no matter their official designations, went by either of two more meaningful names: the Rock or (for rubble jumbles loosely held together by their feeble mutual gravity) the Pile. He emerged from behind the desk, shoes zip-zipping on a filthy gripper rug the same sickly hue, beneath ground-in dirt, as the walls, with his right hand extended. “Baxter. Simon Baxter.”

I introduced myself. Shaking hands, I felt . . . paper. A bribe, already? Really? And for the paltry sum a person could palm? I pondered whether to be more amused or insulted—but a momentary narrowing of his eyes and the flicker of a downward glance didn’t fit a bribery scenario. Neither did the emergency summons. I found myself closely studying the station chief.

Baxter was a wiry black man, about forty-five, his head clean-shaven and wax-shiny. He had an open, honest face of the sort I associated with saints and con men—and I’ve never met a saint. Typically enough, Baxter wore a standard company blue jumpsuit, splotched and smudged. He was native-Earth tall, meaning I towered over him. I had studied his HR jacket, of course, along with those of everyone assigned to this ass-end-of-nowhere hunk of metal and stone (those files, if not any explanation of the so-called emergency, having accompanied my detour orders), but the hint of a Scottish burr still came as a surprise.

“Come in.” Baxter shut the hatch behind me, then gestured at the jump seat affixed to the room’s back wall. No matter the hearty greeting, he seemed twitchy. “Take a load off.”

“No thanks.”

“This may take a while. Sit.”

“I’m fine.” Because in—what? Well under one percent of a gee? Nothing perceptible, in any event—why would I need to sit?

Baxter swallowed. “Suit yourself.” Returning behind the desk, he sat. It made the difference between eye levels that much more awkward. He took a fat pen from his pocket and began twirling it end over end.

“Suppose you tell me why—”

“Coffee? Tea? A bite to eat?” Baxter’s gaze, as he spoke, flicked toward my right hand. Swallowing a second time, still fidgeting with the pen, he glanced up over my shoulder at the room’s lone air vent.

Keeping my hand down by my side, I snuck a peek. I didn’t find money; the folded scrap of paper looked torn from a ruled notepad. If I were to park myself in the indicated chair, I would be well below the air duct—and it wouldn’t have a line of sight to me. Unfolding the curved arm rests that would keep me from drifting from the chair at the least little motion, I sat.

If there’s anything auditors are taught, it’s to put two and two together.

Wondering what was inside the duct, I unfolded the paper. In blocky printing, the hand-written note I found read: ROOM MIGHT BE BUGGED.  AFTER I TRIPLE-CLICK MY PEN, WE CAN TALK.

I nodded my understanding. “Nothing for me now, thanks. Maybe some coffee later.”

Click-click-click. Baxter slumped in his seat, open-and-honest morphing in an instant to honestly panicked. “Thank God you got here.”

I didn’t suppose He had much to do with it. “Evidently that pen is a bug jammer of some kind.” Not that any such item appeared anywhere on the company’s List of Equipment Approved for Use in Mining Facilities. If something helpful could be printed, it was—and then broken down to feedstock before returning to civilization. Or when an auditor popped by: even as we spoke, the station recyclers were surely molecularizing contraband. “If you actually feel the need for a jammer, didn’t turning that on tip off whoever might be listening?”

Baxter managed a wan smile. “I expect that person, or persons, will conclude you brought the jammer, the better to negotiate an acceptable cut of whatever goodies I might hope with your help to spirit away. I haven’t dared to look, but if there is a fiber-optic cable inside that duct above your head, not jammable, they can’t see what you did, or didn’t, just switch on.”

My opinion of the man bumped up a notch. I still didn’t know what had him so anxious, but I could venture a guess. When the product is platinum, some pilferage is unavoidable. Beyond that metal’s many traditional markets, every settled off-Earth world and habitat—where platinum was a key catalyst for the production of nitric acid, needed to make fertilizer—represented a voracious new demand. The good news was, that kept me in a job—but pilferage didn’t add up to an emergency. “Your inventory getting too far out of whack?”

“Nothing so simple.” Baxter shivered. “I found a bomb.”

A bomb? Who the hell would bomb a mining station? Someone planning to make off with a boatload of platinum, that’s who. Someone intending to eliminate any witnesses . . . .

I’ve never claimed nerves of steel—and just then, nerves of wet tissue seemed more descriptive—but focus can be a reasonable substitute. I wondered how long I could sustain it. “You said, ‘Thank God you got here.’ As if you were expecting me.”

Because that was impossible. Okay, evidently not impossible, but mysterious all the same. As mysterious as, apart from somewhere deep within the Belt, here was. But by the same token, neither I nor any miner on shore leave could be bribed or coerced into betraying the Rock’s location—the mind boggled at how much money that treachery could fetch—because the only radios permitted on company rocks were short-range: pressure-suit helmet comms, a scarcely higher wattage nav beacon, and the like. It was the beacon that had guided me in once autopilot had gotten me close, and after I’d pulsed out the company authentication code of the month by flashing my ship’s attitude thrusters.

Baxter managed a weak smile. “Your confusion is a marvel to behold. It’s also a distraction. We need to move past it.”

“But you did ask for me to be sent here.”

“Not you personally. Anyone who could help.” Baxter leaned forward, looking hopeful. “You can help, right? Company auditors all have law-enforcement experience?”

For a few years, I’d done computer forensics at the Ceres City PD. As a civilian contractor. I grunted noncommittally. Nothing like the bomb squad. That train of thought brought me back to wondering what the hell I was doing here. “How, exactly, did you call for help?”

“Hello? Bomb?”

Baxter hadn’t signaled for a ship large enough to evac everyone. Detonation of the bomb couldn’t be too imminent. I waited.

How is something known only to station chiefs. For emergencies.”

I waited.

He sighed. “There’s a stealthed and silent buoy free-flying somewhere nearby. I don’t know where. If I don’t reposition a particular retroreflector on the surface at least every second day, the buoy beams a Mayday message to headquarters.”

“And the company sent me?” Because bomb disposal isn’t in the job description of a forensic accountant.

Baxter looked away. “Not a lot of information gets conveyed by the repositioning, or not, of the retroreflector. All I could signal was that I needed help.”

“So I was on the nearest company ship?” Lucky me.

He shrugged. “That’s my guess.”

Then we’re well and truly screwed, I thought. But all I said was, “Maybe begin at the beginning.”

 

****

 

Seeing is believing. Really seeing, that is. Not the blurry download images from Baxter’s pocket comp. And so, now, I believed.

Okay, to the best of my knowledge I had never before seen a bomb. Perhaps I shouldn’t have jumped to conclusions from spy and crime vids. But with my head peering gopherlike into the storeroom ceiling duct from which I had carefully removed the grill, what stared back at me at arm’s length sure as hell looked like a bomb. Whereas what I’d been shown in Baxter’s office, in supposed real-time imagery from a maintenance cam and in many weeks’ worth of logged still images alike, was an unobstructed duct.

“Damned storeroom was, is, just too damned musty,” the station chief said. His jammer/pen, once again clipped to his pocket, was still active. He had accompanied me to the storage area, latching the hatch behind us. “I would come in here looking for a crate of whatever, and the air in the room always felt, you know, close. Stagnant. Finally, I didn’t care what the computers had to say. I checked the duct myself.”

I imagined Baxter had seen what I saw: a clear-walled bottle (ordinary glass, by the way a penlight beam glinted from it) with hints of dust on the bottom; an off-white, claylike glob (plastique, I inferred); a skinny metallic tube jabbed into the glob (if I were right about plastique, the tube was a blasting cap); and an electronics module with a keypad. Behind and sticking above the rest were batteries. Everywhere, wires. The full assemblage, taped into place, all but blocked the duct. The readout chip on that electronics module was decrementing, its least significant digits changing at the same pace as, I confirmed with a quick downward glance, the seconds on my wrist-clock tattoo. It appeared we had five days till the shit hit the fan—and staring at the bottle, I wondered exactly what that shit was. A neurotoxin? A bioagent?

I asked, “And this is the only bomb?”

“Believe me, I’ve looked. When people have been on the surface, I’ve searched their rooms and lockers. This is the only device I found.”

Five days till boom. Three days, according to Baxter, till a ship was due at the Rock to rotate crews. Two crews alternated here, suggesting the bomb had been planted by someone from the current group. Then again, why deploy the bomb any earlier than, say, a few hours before shift turnover? The longer the bomb sat in the duct, the greater the chances of discovery. As, in fact, it had been discovered . . . .

I cogitated some more. Maybe the bomb had been deployed just before the other crew had rotated out. It would make a kind of sense, if the bomber wouldn’t be coming back and the target were someone in the returning crew. It made yet more sense if the target were the entire remainder of that crew. Had someone recently left that crew, I wondered?

Explosives and blasting caps were common enough in a mining camp, but not bottles of poison. Surely those didn’t get past inspection onto a crew ship. So one thing seemed certain: the bottled stuff had been made onsite. Clearing all traces of the bomb from the station computer records, even for someone with sysadmin privileges, had taken serious smarts. I could have done it. Happily, I’d been elsewhere when Baxter made his discovery, so I could eliminate myself as a suspect.

Ergo: computer smarts was a clue. It was a place to start, anyway, and I was glad to have one, because about the only other datum I had to go on was a looming deadline. And deadline looked to be literal.

But what if the time displayed were padded, to lull anyone discovering the device into the false belief they could safely wait for the crew ship rather than attempt to disarm the thing? What if my files about this crew and the incoming crew were disinformation provided by an accomplice at headquarters? What if—?

Stepping off the crate of emergency rations I had set beneath the duct, I shuddered.

“You did see it?” Baxter asked anxiously.

“Afraid so.”

“Silver lining.” Baxter managed a faint smile. “I’m not crazy.”

“Silver foil, at best.”

“I suppose.” With a sigh, he leaned back against the room’s closed hatch. “Okay. You can disarm it, right?”

“It’s likely booby-trapped.”

As if I would know. Still, the blasting cap alone would shatter the glass, or, far more discreetly, the control module might simply open a valve that hadn’t been visible to me. What purpose did the explosives serve if not acting as a deterrent? That wasn’t a hard question: the plastique would burst walls all around if the device were discovered, and hatch and duct sealed to contain the mystery gas. Bottom line—and bottom lines were sort of thing I was paid to be good with—amateur bomb disposal was a Certified Bad Idea.

It all seemed carefully calibrated. A bomb large enough to spread the . . . whatever across the station. Bomb placement deep enough underground to not compromise the overall integrity of the station, where a bomb near the airlock would plunge everyone, almost instantly, into hard vacuum. Someone had given this a lot of thought.

Baxter grimaced. “I was afraid you’d say that.”

“Maybe we can ease it out of the duct, then take it outside before it goes off.”

“Did you see a squat tube, about two centimeters long, mounted on the electronics module? Parts code X27C82?”

Maybe I’d seen something like that, but I had no idea about part numbers. I stepped back onto the crate. There was such a tube, but the text was far too tiny for me to read. “What is it?”

“An accelerometer. They’re in most of our robots. It’s like the part of your pocket comp that knows when you’ve changed its orientation—only a lot more sensitive.”

Just great. Floor vibrations from climbing on and off my crate apparently weren’t enough to trigger the device—I was still here, wasn’t I?—but this time I alit, gingerly, on tiptoe.

“So can you disarm it?” he tried again.

“No. I wouldn’t have a clue where even to start.”

“Well, that’s unfortunate.” He paused. “Okay, we have four suspects. Where do you want to begin?”

Uh-uh, I thought. Five suspects from the other crew. And five from this crew, as well, because how better to deflect suspicion than being the person who called in the bomb threat? If appearances were why I had been summoned here, what did that suggest about my odds of getting away alive?

Bottom line: for all I knew, anyone among those ten might aspire to seize the crew ship, disable the autopilot, and fly away (never mind that I’d never figured out how to do it) with a heap of stolen platinum. Leaving behind lots of dead bodies . . . .

Holding in another shudder, I said, “Let me get back to you on that.”

 

****

 

My plan, if an idea this simple could be so dignified, was straightforward enough: run a normal audit. Merely doing my job—as every miner knew and resented—authorized me to snoop and pry. How else was I going to ferret out the identity of the bomber? Once we knew who he, she, or they were, we ought to be able to convince or coerce them into disarming it. Making them stay onto the next shift, with the bomb due to go off, seemed like incentive enough . . . . It wasn’t much of a plan, but try as I might, I hadn’t come up with anything better.

Okay, that wasn’t exactly true. I could climb back aboard the good ship Bounty, of passenger capacity one, and its autopilot would take me home. It’d be safe and smart, no matter that (“RENDER ALL POSSIBLE ASSISTANCE”) fleeing might get me fired. And perhaps futile: Baxter, through the minimal effort of not shifting something on the Rock’s surface, could get my ship turned right around. Also, who was to say that whoever had set the known bomb wouldn’t—or hadn’t already—put another example of his handiwork aboard my ship? All that practicality aside, a part of me knew that to abandon these men and women would be wrong.

Cutting out could be Plan B. It would wait a few days.

So: On Day One, I tallied records of ore collected, assayed, and processed; ingots printed; ingots delivered through the one-way valve into the vault; ingots reported stacked and tied down by the robotic arm inside; and an eyeball inspection through the vault’s thick Lucite view ports. Just barely within the unofficial bounds of acceptable pilferage, almost a kilo unaccounted for, the data matched. I randomly searched cabinets, bins, equipment consoles, and suchlike for contraband—everywhere but in the air ducts. I spot-checked gear and personal belongings that the departing crew might intend to carry aboard the crew ship. That I saw, no oh-two tanks had, since departing Ceres, magically transmuted from base metals into platinum. Anything that blatant I would have had to deal with. I noticed and ignored some pens and a class ring that were almost surely platinum. Had I cared to check, I doubtless would have found many small items miraculously platinum beneath thin veneers, in everything from jewelry to work-shoe toecaps to jumpsuit zippers. Part of the company’s evil genius was letting petty theft succeed. Anyone focused on the penny-ante smuggling had less time to spend, and less inclination to spend it, plotting a grand heist. And I went over security logs. In the process, I spotted the vid loop in digital surveillance feed by which a maintenance cam failed to show the bomb. I didn’t immediately find digital fingerprints to reveal how, or by whom, the hack had been pulled off.

All that activity was simply me doing a familiar job, laying the groundwork for my Day Two “interviews.” That way the coming questioning would seem like the routine/follow-up prying of an auditor. I tried to believe I’d put on a more compelling performance than Baxter’s feigned preoccupation with his desktop when I had first arrived.

Going through the motions while I did nothing to identify our mad bomber was at once exhausting and nerve-racking, and I looked forward to a few hours of unconscious respite. In damned near no gravity, the hardest floor is comfier than the softest mattress on Earth. In theory, I could have slept just fine in the wiring-closet/storeroom I’d been given as temporary quarters.

So much for theory. My mind never stopped churning, fixated on the bomb in the ceiling of the very next room. I couldn’t as much as pace for fear a clumsy footfall would trigger the bomb. But I did come up, at about oh-dark thirty, with an idea that sent me scurrying to the station chief. I rapped impatiently on his hatch.

“Just a minute.” He sounded groggy, as if I’d awakened him. As if dumping the problem on me had lifted all the (nonexistent in this gravity) weight from his shoulders. Must be nice.

“It won’t wait,” I said, overriding the lock and letting myself in. Auditors had prerogatives.

Baxter was with a friend. From Mariana Kwan’s file I knew she was thirty-two and Macau-born. Olive-complected, with a loose halo of wavy black hair and only the merest hint of eyefolds, she looked more Portuguese than Chinese. A mining engineer. As the newbie in a crew that had otherwise labored together for eight years or more, she defaulted to being my chief suspect. And seeing these two together? It recalled my instinct that Baxter “finding” the bomb was an obvious way to deflect suspicion.

Kwan had raised a sheet almost high enough to be not quite decent. She wasn’t in the slightest embarrassed by my entrance. I was. And from the way Baxter wouldn’t meet my eye, he was. She said, “I’m curious, now. What can’t wait?”

Baxter cleared his throat. “Give us that minute, please?”

I backed out, closing the hatch behind me.

Kwan emerged soon after, jumpsuit draped over one arm, wearing nothing but grip slippers and a loosely wrapped sheet. Maybe she made it to 155 centimeters tall, the top of her head scarcely reaching my waist. It wasn’t the top of her head that drew my eyes.

“Done a full enough audit yet?” Head canted, one bare leg thrust forward, she struck a pose. “Or will you be making a closer examination?”

“I’ll get back to you,” I mumbled, my face hot. I let myself back into Baxter’s quarters.

He had gotten dressed. “It’s not what you think.”

What did Baxter suppose I thought? That his file showed a wife and three teenaged kids. That boinking an employee he supervised was a firing offense under the best of circumstances—which these weren’t. I did think all that, and also how I’d been away from hearth, home, and humping—er, honey—for way too fricking long before getting dragged here to save this guy’s fornicating bacon. But maybe none of that mattered. Not if the brainstorm I had had paid off . . . .

“About Mariana.” Baxter swallowed, hesitated, then swallowed again. “The thing is—”

“Skip it.” We had bigger fish to fry. And what passed in me for people skills said the bump-and-grind had been at Mariana’s instigation. “You and I need to talk ASAP to someone who understands bombs. The comm buoy you visually signaled to get me summoned? It has a long-range radio or, more likely, a high-power laser for the tight beam. Right? Of course, right. You couldn’t access that transmitter, because you don’t have a ship. But I do. If I can—”

“You can’t—”

“The hell I can’t,” I interrupted right back. “I figure the company would’ve made the buoy physically small and unobtrusive, without any big honking telescope. That means it’s got to be fairly close to monitor the exact position of your retroreflector. So: we print some IR sensors, do a sky search.”

And also vid cameras and lidar to bond to the hull of my windowless ship, because the Bounty‘s own nav sensors—and its nav computer—were inaccessible. (It was much debated among my peers how, before departing Ceres, mission data made their way into that sealed computer. From the mid-flight update that had rerouted me, the process involved the ship’s likewise hidden and unreachable radio receiver. If I made it home, that breakthrough should get me a free drink or three.) Try to access the built-in sensors or the computer anywhere but in a company dry dock, and protective circuitry would fry them with a power surge.

The rumor mill had it that, early in the company’s history, a pilot took a can opener to his sealed console—and zap. He was adrift for months (no transmitter aboard but a helmet radio, remember?) before he failed to show up as expected and anyone knew to go looking. The derelict was eventually recovered, still coasting along one of its preprogrammed trajectories—its pilot having long since starved to death. Was that story a company plant, just to discourage clever people like me? If so, it worked.

Anyway, assuming I could print my own sensors, low-res crap that they’d be, I had yet to decide how best to get their readouts onto the bridge. Not wireless comm: that wouldn’t penetrate the metal hull. Most likely, I’d run cables through the closed airlock. I’d stay in a pressure suit, because the cables would keep the hatches from seating properly. Even making liberal use of anti-leak patches, chances are the ship would be losing air.

None of which factors constituted a selling point.

Shaking my head, clearing the cobwebs, I continued. “Like any rock, the buoy will soak up sunlight. We spot the buoy by its reradiated IR, work out its orbit. I seat-of-the-pants fly my ship to it”—because, Baxter knew as well as I, autopilot wouldn’t do a thing but fly to a company-specified destination—”and then I—”

“No!” He wrung his hands. “Okay, here’s another thing you’re not supposed to know. The buoy carries a comm laser, all right. The onboard computer has orbital parameters for the Rock, to track us, and orbital parameters for more distant relay buoys that in turn hold orbital parameters for other buoys, some shadowing other valuable rocks. To safeguard that data, each buoy in the network also carries a bomb and proximity sensors.”

Huh. I’d convinced myself a small buoy would be battery-limited. It couldn’t, I had then extrapolated, store enough solar energy for its laser to damage an inbound ship that was bobbing and weaving and spinning. Once again, damn it, the company had me outwitted. An onboard bomb triggered by a magnetometer was simpler and more reliable.

I said, “If I get close, it blows?”

He nodded glumly.

“Hold on,” I said, “I have a better idea. I hack a printer, override its blacklist so I can make a transmitter. Under the circumstances, the company can’t get too mad. We broadcast”—in every damned direction, since we couldn’t see anything to aim at—”on a public emergency channel. We explain our situation and ask for guidance.” I thought some more. “My bosses know they sent me here. I’ll encrypt with my private key, and they’ll be able to decrypt with my public key. No one overhearing will know this is a company asset.”

“You think you’re the first person ever to imagine bootlegging a transmitter?” Baxter sighed. “It’s been tried. If a printer sees it’s being hacked, it fries itself. I’ve seen it happen. Same thing if you try to print lenses or magnifying mirrors—or IR sensors—anything that might contribute to making an astronomical instrument.”

Surely the hack was an acceptable risk. If we didn’t defuse the bomb in the next few days, we’d evacuate on the inbound ship. Suppose every printer in the station were to go pfft. So what? My temporary quarters alone held enough emergency rations to last everyone here for weeks. “For sake of argument, suppose I succeed.”

“Won’t matter. Remember that buoy shadowing us? The comm laser?”

I nodded.

“A long-range comm laser is a short-range weapon, at least against stationary targets. If the buoy hears us broadcasting, it’ll take out any antenna we put up.”

“Well, shit,” I said, and let myself out.

 

****

 

After a sleepless night contemplating bombs, mystery toxins, and Mariana Kwan’s sheet wafting to the floor in micro-gee, Dance of the Seven Veils, slo-mo, I followed the scents of coffee, vanilla, and cinnamon toward breakfast. From the direction of the station mess came the sounds of conversation. The zip-zip of my grip slippers and the rumble of a corridor ventilation fan rendered their voices unintelligible, but tone of voice, if I was any kind of judge, suggested argument.

As I entered, the two miners in the room fell silent. Stony-faced, drink bulbs in hand, they stood between me and the nearest printer.

“Morning,” I offered in passing.

The woman nodded. The man grunted.

Plugging a memory stick into another printer, I ordered a large pancake rollup and a larger coffee bulb.

“Old family recipe,” I explained.

Because I hadn’t ordered straight from the printer’s menu. Because someone on the Rock had synthed, quite possibly on this very printer, whatever poison the hidden bomb was days from dispersing. I couldn’t prove that, of course. What purpose could there have been for logging what people synthed to eat? If I got off the Rock in one piece, I’d recommend changing that policy.

My unsolicited explanation didn’t rate a grunt.

“Mind if I join you?” I ventured.

Anisha Chatterjee made a desultory, one-handed motion that I chose to take as yes. She was slender and graceful, with dark skin, jet-black hair, and soulful eyes: a classic Indian beauty. Thirty, her file said. Electrical engineer and robot wrangler. Born in Mumbai, but her family had emigrated to the Moon before she turned six. Twice as smart as everyone, Baxter had told me, and apt to let it be known. Charming enough, also per Baxter, that people seldom took offense.

I was still waiting for the charm. “Ready to head back to Ceres?” I asked her.

“Sure.” With the uptick of an eyebrow, she silently added, “That’s a stupid question.”

I tried again, gesturing with the hand that gripped a rollup. “What’s it like, eating flat pancakes? With syrup and butter dripping off the stack? Using a knife and fork?”

It was her companion who answered. Ramon “Buck” Buranek was a Vestan, as spindly, and about as tall, as me. Pallid like me, too. Life-support engineer and medic. A dragon tattoo twined about his right forearm, the beast’s head evidently hiding inside his short sleeve. His HR file offered useless speculation about if or how a buck and a dragon related to one another. Personally, I guessed they didn’t, and that no explanation for the ink was necessary beyond too much booze or pot or whatever. He said, “It’s too early for small talk.”

“It’s too early for anything but.” I took a bite of pancake and made a face. The printer could use a recalibration.

“So much for being subtle.” Buck glowered. “A pre-departure audit doesn’t make anyone here feel chatty. And maybe you’re the genius who decided the strip search when we reach Ceres is inadequate.”

Strip search was a bit of an exaggeration. Noninvasive ultrasound scans more than sufficed. And the scans were kabuki theater, in any event, letting miners—and roving auditors—feel good about sneaking little items through. “I go where the company sends me, same as you.”

This comment didn’t merit even a shrug.

After awhile, Anisha cleared her throat. ” ‘Breaking the awkward silence,’ she also says with subtlety, ‘pancakes and maple syrup are not Indian cuisine.’ ”

True enough, but flapjacks had to be common enough around the UCLA campus where she had gotten her masters. That knowledge was one more item to keep to myself. Her height, or lack of it, showed she was an Earther. Admitting that auditors had access to HR files wouldn’t make us any better loved. “Then egg rolls with the mustard sauce on the outside? Vichyssoise that doesn’t clot in and clog the nipple of a drink bulb? A French dip sandwich that a person gets to, you know, actually dip?”

She laughed. “Now you’re just teasing me. And yes, I—”

“Buck,” the PA speaker in the ceiling called out. I recognized Baxter’s voice. “Can you come to the control room?”

The control room was next door, apparently too close to bother responding over the intercom. I called out after Buck as he zipped/stalked to the exit, “We’ll talk later.” Because who was more likely than the crew medic to gin up and handle whatever evil brew lurked in the duct?

Turning into the hall, maybe he grunted.

“So,” Anisha said, “are you ready to explain why you’re actually here?”

“What do you mean?”

“Please. There’s no logic to an audit days before we rotate out, much less scarcely a month after the last auditor passed through. If someone here has come up with anything clever, smuggling-wise, what are the odds you’ll spot it before we go? And if we try the usual tricks—of which, of course, I plead complete ignorance—well, those are surely covered by customary inspections when we get home.”

I had to give Baxter credit on the topic of this woman’s charm. “Then why do you imagine I’m here?”

She canted her head thoughtfully. “Maybe you found a way to defeat the system. You and the boss are all buddy-buddy.”

I shook my head. “The system is foolproof.”

“Do you know Robb’s law?”

I shook my head again.

“For every foolproof system devised, a new and improved fool will arise to overcome it.”

Long, sleepless night notwithstanding, I had yet to find a line of questioning that wouldn’t suggest my awareness of the hidden device. I did have plenty of ideas where not to start. Top of my do-not-ask list was: are you, by any chance, the mad bomber?

I took another bite of pancake rollup, chewing slowly, making it last. “You know, I can’t decide. Which of us are you insulting?”

“You can choose.” She deposited her drink bulb in a recycle bin. “It’s off to work I go.”

“I came across some interesting anomalies in some of the more obscure system logs.” I hadn’t, but I wanted to see her reaction. Computer smarts remained the closest I came to having a clue to the bomber.

“And sleuth that you are, you know I’m the sysadmin here.” She smiled. “You also ought to know I’m good at my job. Trust me, if I’d done anything inappropriate, I wouldn’t have left tracks for you to find. And I’d have seen anyone else’s ‘anomalies’ if they existed to be found. Hence: you’re fishing. For what, I wonder.”

“Maybe you don’t want to see what I’m seeing?”

“Still fishing,” she said, starting for the hatch.

“So,” I said. She stopped and turned. “Are you friends with the other crew?”

Her eyes narrowed. “Why ask that?”

Because I wonder if you’re planning to kill them off. “Idle curiosity.”

“I don’t know about friends. There’s some friendly rivalry, sure.”

Because the company pitted crews against each other, basing bonuses on which team brought back the most ingots. Demonstrably the competition was motivational, but—and it was a rare instance of the company being too smart by half—that incentive sometimes led to sabotage. Like the background level of theft, this pattern was inferred more than proven, but—to an auditor, in any event—statistics don’t lie. Productivity dipped right before crew changeover, and bumped back up soon after the same crew returned. It was just as if end-of-shift effort were being diverted into hiding the richest ore veins. To obscure that sort of subversion took serious computer legerdemain, too.

I asked, “And how does that rivalry play out?”

“Side bets and testosterone displays,” she said. “Are we done here?” Once more she headed out.

“What were you and Buck arguing about?”

“Worlds affairs,” she called over her shoulder. And then she was gone.

 

****

 

Cornering Buck near the airlock as he suited up, we had a short chat to which his contributions were monosyllabic. Or nonsyllabic, when I included the scowls, shrugs, and squinty-eyed stares most often elicited by my conversational gambits. As for fresh insight into our present situation, that amounted to squat until my final question. “So, you and Anisha. What were you arguing about?”

“Sports,” he bit out while sealing his helmet. Then, magnetic boots clunking, he stomped into the airlock and started it cycling.

One of them—at least—was lying. Because they were involved with the bomb? Or garden-variety theft? Maybe I just pissed them off. That last, for sure, could be problematical, because the reason for having humans here in the first place wasn’t to do mining. Robots alone did an acceptable job of that, with none of the larceny hazards inherent with any human crew. But absent autonomous missile batteries and military-grade warbots, both thankfully difficult to come by, automation couldn’t protect against a failure in the company’s secrecy measures—a lesson the company had learned the hard way. Hence, just in case, the onsite armory. Hence, everyone in the crew, petite Mariana Kwan included, was a combat vet. Any one of them was more than capable of snapping me like a twig. (But none of them had had any special training with explosives. I’d checked their files.)

I set aside for later consideration Buck and Anisha’s inconsistent stories, then went looking for another member of the crew. Les Hodges was a biotech/nanotech engineer; in terms of capability for poison-crafting, he was as plausible as anyone here. (The situation was getting as muddled as any Brit cozy mystery, Agatha Christie and such, wherein everyone is a suspect.)

I found Hodges—his hands inside a glove box, brow furrowed in concentration—in the station’s tiny machine shop, reassembling a battered prospecting bot. A few shiny pieces inside the box looked fresh from a printer. (Among those parts I spotted a squat tube. I told myself Baxter said accelerometers were standard in their bots. I told myself a lot of things.) At the least nudge, parts went airborne. He hummed along with something orchestral and baroque-sounding playing softly in the background. With only the briefest of glances away from his work as I entered, he ordered, “Gimme a minute.”

I spent that minute, and the next several, considering the man. He was another Earther, and fairly tall as that breed went. Balding, pale (or was sallow the more accurate term?), with a slot face, cleft chin, and close-set eyes of cloudy blue. Two years a widower; one son at university back on Earth. Maybe it was the stooped shoulders that gave a weary impression of age, or the hang-dog expression, but he struck me as older than the fifty-four years shown in his HR file. I didn’t foresee a lot more mining tours in his future—and that might be another reason to suspect him. After awhile, I switched my focus to someone’s pet hamster, caroming and somersaulting about its cage. Short of gluing zip strips to the little guy’s feet, I guess an exercise wheel was out of the question.

“Done.” With an efficiency doubtless acquired from long practice, he extracted his hands from the elbow-length gloves, opened the box, and removed the reassembled bot. He turned, finally, to face me. “Whatever it is, I didn’t do it. Is there anything else?”

“Well, as long as you didn’t do it.” I smiled. “Ready for the crew rotation?”

“Anyone ever not?”

“Good point.” I tried the tack that had set Anisha on edge. “Do you have friends among the other crew?”

A long pause and an odd look preceded the one-word answer. “No.”

After a bit more such snappy repartee I wandered off, none the wiser, to speak with the delectable Mariana Kwan. Apart from the flirting, that session, too, proved equally useless. I was out of ideas, even as the clock kept ticking.

 

****

 

Like the proverbial drunk hunting for his keys near where the light is best and not where he’d last seen them, I fell back upon routine. Auditing was something to do while—I had to hope—my subconscious exhumed an idea more useful than fleeing like a bat out of hell. Because only a day remained till the crew ship was due, and only three till the bomb released . . . whatever.

Long story short, someone, and I took Anisha Chatterjee at her word, was good at what she did.

But so am I, and routine offered an excuse for putting my skills to work.

No significant piece of software, never mind how extensively tested, is ever one hundred percent bug-free. That’s why, every few weeks, vendors distribute updates. Company rocks, being off the net, don’t get updates except at crew rotation or when someone like me passes through. And on a mass spectrometer that in every other way seemed copasetic, an update I’d had with me refused to install into the instrument’s embedded software.

Intrusion-detection software and device diagnostics alike compare a stored checksum for any given app against a checksum value newly calculated for the same app. For the mass spec, old and new checksums matched. But the app’s update installer made its own check for the integrity of the software it would patch—and that test failed. I’d installed this update on my three planned stops this trip, suggesting the glitch was somehow specific to this particular mass spec.

And with some digging, I discovered the root cause. Device diagnostics and intrusion-detection software alike examine the memory allocated to each app. The update software made a slightly more expansive check, extending its scope over the unallocated memory the as-yet uninstalled patch would occupy. I found a program in what should have been such unallocated memory. Then, doing a painful, line-by-line comparison, I found the small modification to the app that accessed the unauthorized patch. Ordinarily, overwriting an executable with a jump to patch space alters the calculated checksum. This overwrite included a weird embedded constant that, I proved to myself, hid the change as far as the routine checksum calculations were concerned.

Still, I didn’t yet see how intrusion detection had been bypassed to make the unauthorized changes, or to keep that activity out of the security log. Those were brain teasers best left for another day. Assuming I got one.

The unauthorized patch itself was simple enough to reverse-engineer. It underreported by a tenth of a percent the concentration of platinum within an ore sample. That didn’t sound like much, but doing the math, and depending on when the hack had been made, the inventory discrepancy could reach ten kilos of ultra-refined platinum. In round numbers, a quarter-million Belt bucks.

Someday, maybe, I’d figure out how the crook(s) expected to sneak that much platinum off the Rock. Right then more important matters held my interest. Someone, and I still assumed Anisha, was damned good at covering her digital tracks. That someone, and anyone working with her, wouldn’t be involved with the bomb. Why work this hard at stealing a few kilos when the bomber, I had to believe, had the entire inventory in their sights? Once more dealing in round numbers, the vault presently held ten tonnes of ingots. My second realization—entirely unrelated, apart from any scrap of progress being inspirational—was that, at last, I understood how to proceed.

 

****

 

My brilliant idea, with sleuthing having gotten me nowhere, was entrapment. Baxter let it be known that the scheduled crew rotation had been postponed by at least a week—breaking bad news that he, of course, attributed to me. The announcement didn’t make me any more popular, but it did give whoever had placed the bomb, now due to go boom in three short days, the motivation to reset the timer. Or so, anyway, I hoped.

While Baxter kept his crew outside for various tasks, I borrowed a drill from the machine shop to make a peephole in the wall between my quarters and the bomb room. I disconnected power from the actuator of a nearby HVAC damper; the automated controls could no longer reposition the damper and no robot creeping through the duct could get past the damper to the bomb.

Hours later, in the face of crew hostility, I retired early to my room with a covered dinner tray and waited. And waited. And waited. Thanks to chemical assistance, I waited the entire night shift awake and alert—and no one showed up.

That’s not to say the time had been uneventful.

The next morning, Anisha was nowhere to be found.

 

****

 

Her room looked stirred. For all I knew she liked it that way, but everyone assured me she was a neatnik (indeed, the walls were comparatively free of the ubiquitous dust), and also that several small personal items were missing. Likewise gone, from its locker near the airlock: her pressure suit. No one said this looked exactly like Anisha had sneaked out by dark of night shift. No one had to. And if such stealing away seemed odd, well, neither could I understand why anyone able to arrange for a ship to retrieve her from a clandestine platinum mine would settle for a mere ten-kilo heist.

Baxter sent Buck, Mariana, and Les outside to scour the surface for any sign of Anisha, while he and I did a more thorough inside sweep. We didn’t find her, of course. We fast-forwarded through surveillance vids for the preceding twelve hours. Once people went into their rooms for the night—personal spaces didn’t have cameras—we had nada. Well, I’d seen surveillance feeds hacked before.

The outside search was still underway when the crew ship came within range to flash out the month’s authentication code, and Baxter summoned his crewmates back inside.

 

****

 

The new crew crowded into the station, likely anticipating the customary changeover festivities. Neither incoming nor outgoing crew can expect to see any new faces for a while; rivalries notwithstanding, rotation was ordinarily the occasion for a party. But not this trip.

Mustafa Gilfoyle, station chief of the new crew, was the first to shed his vacuum gear and emerge into the Rock’s main corridor. He was a second-generation Loonie; an easy-going guy I knew slightly from years ago on another company rock. In seconds he processed the glum faces and the peculiarity of an auditor onsite at shift rotation. “What’s the problem here?”

“Let’s wait for the rest of your team,” Baxter said. Four more joined us, and he turned to me. “Okay. Your show.”

I caught Mustafa’s eye. “Let’s you, Baxter, and me go for a walk.” I led them into the side corridor that held crew quarters, detouring to the mess to dispense a special recipe into a drink bulb. If either man noticed that this bulb had a misting attachment, what spacers use to water potted plants, he didn’t comment. Still, the stopover earned me quizzical looks. We paused outside Anisha’s room.

“I’ll ask again,” Mustafa said. “What’s going on?”

Baxter cleared his throat. “One of my crew . . . disappeared this morning. She and her pressure suit are gone.”

“More specifically,” I corrected, “she was murdered this morning.”

Baxter twitched. “Why would you say that?”

“To start, the too-clean walls in her room.” I raised the drink bulb. “This is luminol.”

Evidently I wasn’t the only one here who watched crime vids. Mustafa said, “The forensic stuff. Right?”

I nodded. “We three will go into the room, shut the hatch, and I’ll turn out the lights. Then I’ll prove what I already know.”

“It’s pretty snug quarters for three,” Baxter said.

“Uh-huh,” I said. “You’re welcome to wait out here.”

All “night” I’d expected Baxter to come after me while my attention, or so I’d intended him to believe, remained fixed on the peephole. (I’d delegated that task to my comp, its webcam taped against the opening.) Only nothing had transpired in either room.

My thinking had been this: Baxter or an accomplice deployed the bomb with its load of mystery toxins to take out Mustafa’s crew. Dead station chiefs move no retroreflectors. The ship with Baxter’s crew, having just departed the Rock for Ceres, would still be nearby when the failsafe “uh-oh, no one moved the retroreflector” Mayday message was received on Ceres.

So: the ship would automagically return to the Rock. Baxter (and his cuddly new friend?) would send the unsuspecting, non-accomplice members of his crew into the station for a look-see, at which point the toxin would take them out. He’d have bots dispose of the bodies, leaving behind blood spatters from everyone in both crews—a few cc’s of his own blood being a small sacrifice. The conspirators would fly away leaving the company to infer pirates (a) killed Mustafa’s crew and then (b) killed Baxter and crew, when they returned, and finally (c) took away the crew ship and its cargo.

Where did I fit in? Before Baxter pulled the trigger (as it were) on his scheme, he would have needed to confirm what he’d been told about the retroreflector and Mayday signaling. That might have been pure company BS, a tall tale to mollify station chiefs putting up a fuss about their lack of comms. Unless someone—in this case, lucky me—showed up, I figured Baxter would have called off the caper. He likely had been on the verge of aborting when, finally, I did arrive. My eleven-day detour had delivered me to the Rock a mere three days before the scheduled crew rotation. But that long, surely nerve-racking, wait would also have meant very good odds Baxter would be in the closest ship when the next “emergency” was inferred.

Once someone like me was onsite, Baxter would need to explain the summons. The partial truth, “There’s a bomb here,” served perfectly well—as long no one else was told—and with everyone a suspect, naturally I hadn’t breathed a word. I also couldn’t be allowed to warn Mustafa’s crew about the bomb and their need to evacuate. Hence, in this twisted conspiracy I had so tortuously concocted, Baxter would come after me during the night. He’d disappear my body and the Bounty. A bot placed aboard could easily be made to boost the Bounty off the Rock, using only attitude jets, the autopilot disengaged. Odds were the ship would never be seen again. His crew would be told I’d slinked away in the night shift, avoiding more of their disdain.

That was the theory. Instead, after an interminable night spent with my back pressed against the wall beside the hatch, ready to brain Baxter with a wrench when he skulked in . . . he hadn’t.

It had bugged me no end that someone might have found a way to hijack a company ship. I considered myself pretty savvy, and I hadn’t figured out a way. Injured pride, to be honest, is why, more than anything, I hadn’t—entirely—bought into any of this.

Had I mentioned two nights without sleep, the second on uppers and in fear for my life?

“You want me to wait here in the hallway?” With furrowed brow, Baxter studied me. Incredulous, or posing as such? “Because I might have killed Anisha. If anything like that happened, that is.”

“It happened,” I assured him. And innocent of setting the bomb—for which, once again, I was without suspects—wasn’t nearly the same as innocent.

Anisha could have been behind the excess pilferage I’d noticed. If so an accomplice, who might be anyone among her crew, could’ve gotten greedy. But maybe—and part of me wanted dearly to believe this, because, damn it, the woman was charming—she had just been doing her job. She’d seen something amiss, brought her suspicions to someone’s attention, and that had gotten her killed. The most likely someone for her to have approached being her boss . . . .

“Perhaps so,” Baxter said, “but I had nothing to do with it.”

Mustafa opened the hatch and stepped into Anisha’s room.

Baxter and I followed. I oriented us toward the cleanest wall, wondering if I smelled chlorine beneath the pervasive used-gunpowder stench, or if that was my imagination. With bulb firmly grasped in one hand, I flicked off the lights. I spritzed the wall, and glowing blotches appeared.

“Oh, shit,” Mustafa said. “Blood spatter.”

I spritzed all around that first, lucky hit. Lots more spatter. When I’d read from the wiki in my pocket comp that the fluorescence lasted only about thirty seconds, it had seemed worrisomely short. Just then, by the damning blue glow, a half minute felt interminable. That turned out to be fortunate, because I almost forgot to take pictures. As darkness finally returned, I flicked on the overhead lights.

“And the body?” Mustafa asked. “Chucked off-world?”

In the hunt for Anisha, no one had admitted to hearing the airlock cycle since before dinner. I certainly hadn’t, and I’d been keyed up even aside from the amphetamines. (As for the station airlock controls, those gave no indication of having been operated during the recent sleep shift—but I trusted its records about as much as I did the surveillance feeds.) Not to mention it would have taken nerves of steel to tote a dead body through the halls. Sleep shift, and everyone asleep, are quite different concepts. Not to mention that, plastered against the wall for hours, interminably waiting, I’d given considerable thought to how I would dispose of a body.

I said, “I’m pretty sure not. Come with me, and I’ll show you.”

Our next stop was the main printing/recycling room. Digital readouts showed more or less middling levels of everything. Eyeball the physical reservoirs, however, and the picture changed. Metals and plastics—pressure suit (and murder weapon?) materials—had both jumped. Most stood noticeably above the time-stamped inventory I’d printed the day previous. (No foresight or intuition involved: auditors routinely monitor stocks of metal and plastic. Feedstock increases in either category often suggest mundane personal items getting remade in platinum.) At my level of engineering sophistication, nanotech was indistinguishable from magic, but even I knew that disassembling physical objects into chemical feedstock consumed lots of energy. It was more than a little suggestive that the main battery bank—as characterized from a voltmeter measurement, not by its computerized readout—had all but drained overnight. And the stomach-turning clincher: the organics supply was nearly sixty kilos increased from the day before. About what Anisha must have massed.

“Luminol showed blood spatter in this room, too,” I offered to break the silence.

Mustafa muttered under his breath. Curse? Prayer? It hardly mattered. He turned to Baxter. “Someone in your crew is a murderer.”

“The news gets worse.” Baxter gestured toward the hatch. With a quick visit to a certain nearby storeroom he made his case.

 

****

 

Shocker: no one admitted to having a disarm code for the bomb.

That left no options but evacuation. In the best of circumstances, shoehorning two crews onto a one-crew ship would be unpleasant. But with an unidentified murderer aboard? That I wouldn’t be along for the ride almost reconciled me to my immediate future. I’d be staying to observe events two days hence, and what, if anything, remained afterward of the station.

With two crews loudly venting about the situation, I cleared my throat. No one heard, and I resorted to a piercing whistle. “Another thing, people. I’ll be collecting everyone’s computers. Preserving evidence for the authorities.”

“The hell you will,” a newcomer snapped.

“From Baxter’s crew? Damn straight,” another said. “One of them is a killer.”

“From everyone,” Mustafa said firmly. “We don’t know how long the bomb’s been here, or if for some reason one of us is the target.” Shaken, his crew confronted the possibility of a would-be murderer among their number. “Cough ’em up, people.”

Baxter handed over his pocket comp for me to bag and tag. “Now the rest of you,” he told his folks. Most, grumbling, complied. “C’mon, Les. Give it up.”

Hodges’s eyes darted about nervously. Everyone had good cause to be agitated, and I didn’t read anything into his reticence. Personal comps are personal; experts can glean our most private secrets and embarrassing moments from the devices.

“Back on Ceres, the cops will need it,” Baxter said.

Still, Les hesitated.

“It’s not a request,” Baxter barked. Like a ship’s captain, at sea or in space, a station chief’s word was law.

“The authentication and encryption are biometric,” I reminded. Of course, forensic accountants, like cops, had ways to crack open locked comps. There was nothing to be gained in volunteering that little detail.

But maybe Les knew or, at the least, suspected as much. Maybe he was racked with guilt, about the bomb, or Anisha, or both. Maybe he was plain crazy. Whatever his reason, with no more explanation than a soft-spoken “Sorry,” he collapsed, convulsing. Seconds later, his mouth giving off the faint smell of bitter almonds, Lester Hodges was dead.

 

****

 

Every crew ship arrived carrying an empty modular vault. The departing crew used a crane to hoist the vault they had spent months filling, replace it with the empty, then lift the filled vault aboard the ship. Not even a vault full of platinum had much weight on the Rock—but full or empty, that sucker had plenty of mass and inertia.

Ticking time bomb notwithstanding, no one even considered abandoning ten tonnes of platinum ingots. I spared a moment from my preparations to watch, channeling a toon from my youth of dancing hippos in tutus. Ponderous vault or lumbering hippo: you wouldn’t want either bumping into you.

Minutes later, with not quite thirty-six hours remaining on the bomb’s clock, the ship launched. Who, I wondered, would still be alive when she got to Ceres?

I glued cameras, chemical sensors, and pressure gauges to walls, floors, ceilings, and air ducts throughout the station. The printer catalog included wireless versions (radiating, of course, at very low power levels), any subset within radio range of one another able to self-organize into ad hoc networks. I couldn’t begin to guess what havoc an explosion or pressure breach might wreak on cabling or even wireless routers, so fault-tolerant and reconfigurable networking seemed the way to go.

The hamster I’d seen had been Les’s, and no one objected to my claiming it. Mustafa had had to order his people to leave behind their pets, a ferret and a parakeet. I didn’t expect to return them. I positioned the animals in their respective cages, with plenty of food and water, in three widely separated rooms.

I sent a recall to the smaller mining bots, lashed magnets to tentacle tips on some of them, and shuttled two dozen bots inside. I tested and retested the low-wattage primary and backup transmitters, and the fiber-optic cables linking those surface transmitters with the underground station, confirming I had end-to-end connectivity to everything through my helmet radio. Remaining suited up, I took a final pass through the station, harvesting data backups from every automated system capable of dumping its files into portable storage. I printed and then scattered yet more wireless sensors, this time on the surface directly above the underground station, half-expecting the coming shockwave would send them careening clear off this tiny world.

With not quite seven hours to go, I retreated to my ship—surely I’d be safe there, a quarter klick from the station—setting an alarm for thirty minutes until boom. Apart from popping my helmet, I remained prepped for vacuum.

Then, for the first time in days, I slept. Fitfully.

 

****

 

The explosion came right on time.

I didn’t feel a thing. Monitored from the safety of the Bounty, events were strangely anticlimactic. The duct with the bomb ruptured, of course. The nearby damper I’d positioned to keep out robots impaled itself in a nearby wall, itself buckled. The storeroom hatch came off its hinges, shredding the gasket. A pressure wave propagated back and forth several times through the station, in the process bursting open a few more interior hatches and generally making a mess—but never compromising the integrity of the overall facility. Enough of the ventilation system survived to quickly clear the smoke and dust.

The parakeet happened to be airborne when the blast wave hit; the poor critter was thrown across its cage and clearly broke something. Ferret and hamster, as best I could tell, came through spitting mad but unscathed.

An hour later, the animals were still okay; even the bird had somewhat perked up. Had the glass bottle, somehow, not broken?

The blast had taken out the camera I’d set into the duct. To walk a mining bot up the wall on magneted tentacles took finesse and patience, neither of which I possessed just then, but finally I got a bot to where it could peer into the burst ceiling duct. What little of the bomb’s bottle remained had been reduced to grit and slivers. The bottle’s content, whatever that might have been, was well and truly dispersed. My sensors hadn’t reported anything scary, which likely only meant the catalog for the station’s printers hadn’t anticipated exotic chemical attacks. Why would it?

For fifty-five hours straight, apart from nodding off once or twice, I cycled among cameras across the station. I directed robots into remote corners for yet more views. I pored over sensor readouts. I monitored the nearby surface for anything out of the ordinary. Nothing. Except for bots and the three animals in their cages, nothing stirred. I was seriously considering a trip inside for a more personal examination when, inside the hamster cage, the plastic water bottle . . . dissolved.

 

****

 

Over the next two days, in more and more of the station, things crumbled. Furniture. The wrappers on emergency rations. Drink bulbs. All manner of everyday items, large and small. Interior hatch seals, and the gaskets inside equipment I hadn’t even realized used gaskets. Scariest of all: spare vacuum gear as they hung in their lockers.

It did my mood no damned good to have only crappy views of this slo-mo nightmare. Company printers just wouldn’t make sensors with decent resolution or light sensitivity—I might as well have watched through layers of gauze. The webcams on company-approved comps were no better. This was another of those rare instances when, in hindsight, the genius paranoia was too clever by half.

While I didn’t know what the bomb had dispersed, it was all too clear what that crap did. It attacked things composed of rubber, plastic, or synthetic fibers. As the damage spread, I speculated it had to involve a bacterium or virus or nanite. Something that replicated and spread. Something nasty. I didn’t dare go inside for a sample lest the stuff attack my suit. I didn’t dare have a robot carry out a sample, for the same fear of contamination.

Throughout, the station maintained atmosphere. I’d never given much thought to types of airlock hatch seals, but a dive into station schematics revealed an all-metal hatch design. Like springs, properly shaped metal surfaces would press together. That technology, it appeared, was maintaining the station’s airtight seal. But many off-Earth facilities—including ships—used rubber gaskets in their hatches. The ship in which I huddled, for one.

Through it all, the animals were fine. They might stay fine for as long as robots could keep delivering food and water—and while recyclers, printers, and life support still ran. I had no idea how long that might be. And I had the greater good to consider.

From the presumed (whistling through the graveyard?) safety of the Bounty, I remotely experimented. I doused the station’s lights for twenty-four hours. With the lights restored, I could discern little effect upon the pace of destruction. I switched off the heat and let the temperature plummet as low as I dared. I didn’t relent for the animals’ sake, although I would have regretted their deaths—and, indeed, the parakeet didn’t make it. Sustained temperatures below freezing would destroy both hydroponic crops and the bacterial mats in main life support; I had my doubts how accepting the company would have been of that. For what it was worth, lowered temps did slow the . . . whatever, if only by a little.

Might truly deep and prolonged cold—the interior temperature on Belt rocks averages about -70o C—stop the mystery plague? I had no idea, nor dare I remain, incommunicado, for long enough to find out. There was likely a murderer, or a mad bomber, or both on the crew ship I’d recently seen off, and I held key evidence. And anyway, if I were to undertake such an experiment, how long would I stay? Bacteria have been revived from dormancy after millennia frozen in ice.

Would vacuum kill the stuff? I saw no way to do that test without spurting contagion right out of the station. The crud might contaminate the surface, or my ship, or even get blown clean off this tiny world to drift to others. So: no. Make that: hell, no.

I’d been using a mining bot every day to shift the hush-hush retroflector, lest the unseen Mayday buoy signal Ceres to send out another ship. In preparation for leaving, I reprogrammed the bot to continue those moves in my absence. The last thing anyone needed was another ship and its unsuspecting crew diverted here before I got back to Ceres to explain the situation. For good measure, along with a warning note duct-taped to the outer airlock hatch, I stomped skull and crossbones into the dust.

With that, there was nothing more here for me to do. I untethered the Bounty, then eased her away from the Rock with the gentlest possible puffs from her attitude jets. I did not activate autopilot until we were way too distant for the main drive’s exhaust to stir up any contaminated dust.

 

****

 

It would’ve been nice to have an inkling when I’d get back home. How long would I be left obsessing about sabotage, murder, and pressure-suit-chomping bacteria? Days? Weeks? Months? As days ceased to be a possibility, I thought about home and hearth. I listened to my music library, watched vids from that library, read, did what little in the way of exercise was possible in the Bounty‘s tiny cabin. All the while, trying to ignore the siren song of the bagged personal comps . . . .

The longer I stewed in my own juices, the more confused I became. Among the miners were a thief, a murderer, and a bomber. Just possibly, someone took on more than one of those roles. The simplest theory now consistent with what I (thought I) knew: Anisha and a confederate had diverted several kilos of platinum. The confederate killed her, whether from greed or for fear she would confess to me. Someone else made and set the bomb. Les Hodges was guilty of something, but I couldn’t decide of what.

The interminable flight had given me ample time to imagine other scenarios. Maybe Anisha, rather than being a thief, had discovered the thief, tried to blackmail him or her, and gotten killed for her trouble. Maybe Anisha found something suspicious that led to her asking the wrong questions of the bomber, and that got her killed. Maybe—

Enough navel-gazing! Okay, I’d never seen an elephant, but I understood metaphor. I’d been ignoring the giant pachyderm in the cabin. For any merely vindictive or larcenous purpose, simple explosives would have sufficed. Massive, without-warning decompression would, comparatively speaking, have killed everyone at the station quickly. Setting loose that weird contagion within the station? Trapping everyone inside, and making their rescue perilous at best and impossible at worst? That had to be someone sending a message. The nasty truth I had been loath to confront was this: the Rock had been targeted by terrorists—or nut jobs.

“Screw it,” I declared to untold kiloklicks of vacuum all around. “I know Les was up to something. Let’s see what’s on his comp.”

 

****

 

Biometric authentication and encryption algorithms are no more secure than the software that realizes them—or any other software on which those algorithms rely. I had a half-dozen patches for operating-system bugs found after Baxter and his crew set out for the Rock. I had only to connect a comp of mine into the PC I’d taken from Les’s pocket and exploit any of the unpatched vulnerabilities. Simple.

It wasn’t.

I hadn’t offered PC updates to anyone on the Rock, and yet, it turned out, Les’s comp had all the patches I’d brought. But hadn’t Anisha mentioned another auditor had been at the Rock shortly before me? Yes, she had. He must have had with him at least some of the patches I had.

But I also had, still unused, a copy of the latest patch set Mustafa’s crew had brought directly from Ceres. That patch set was newer than mine—and, I found, included a fix for a very recently discovered operating-system bug. Reverse-engineering that patch, I characterized the underlying bug and found my way into Les’s comp—

Wherein a couple terabytes of personal stuff needed wading through.

 

****

 

The company didn’t give miners—or auditors—much in the way of personal space. No strip searches, Buck Buranek’s complaints notwithstanding, but to call the company’s security measures intrusive remained industrial-strength understatement. The encrypted data on your personal comp and a camera-free room were pretty much the extent of any privacy. And, because the law required the company to respect the confidentiality of medical records, and hence, of people’s pharmaceutical needs, printers accepted personalized inputs for pretty much anything organic. That’s how I’d been able to fill a bulb with C8H7N3O2: luminol.

Food printers also made intact cells, everything from live-culture yogurt to yeast for fresh breads (and beer) to bleu cheese and steak tartare. That’s how I got my sushi. And that, almost certainly, was how Les concocted the plague I’d seen digesting everything plastic on the Rock.

Computer code, I could reverse-engineer with the best of them. Genomes, not even close. I homed in on a particular recipe file only because it turned out to match one of two large attachments to an email date-stamped about three months earlier: it had to have been from a hand-carried message-cube delivery when the last auditor stopped by the Rock. That message’s second large attachment was a vid.

“Dad, I’m in trouble,” a frightened and bedraggled young man, maybe twenty-five, began without preamble. He had a black eye, a split lip, and had been handcuffed to a sturdy chair. No matter the bruising, I needn’t have seen the holo in Les’s room; the family resemblance was unmistakable. “They’ve got me. If you don’t do as th-they say, they’ll k-kill me.”

Who they might be wasn’t clear, apart from someone in a ski mask who strode into view to slap duct tape across the kid’s mouth. (The few, non-bouncy steps suggested the vid had been shot on Earth. In standard gravity, for sure, and nothing in the background looked like a spacecraft.) “A slow death, I might add, unless you do as we say. We’ll know in due time whether you’ve cooperated. And we’re very serious.”

Most of the vid, with Les’s son quavering in the background, consisted of an admonition to tell no one, a bomb-building lesson, a timetable, and instructions on deploying the final attachment: a trojan. Among its tricks, that malware could splice loops into camera feeds, exactly as I’d encountered on the Rock.

The vid attachment ended on a close-up of the young man’s terrified eyes. I wondered how many times Les had watched it.

 

****

 

“There you have it. You now know what I do.”

With nothing more to add, I stopped recording. The vid was for insurance, for the record. For—were anything even remotely akin to the plague on the Rock also loose on Ceres—the possibility I won’t get to report personally on all I’d encountered. Pressure suit, ground vehicles, airlocks . . . even after I touch down, there’ll be a plastic-and-rubber gauntlet to be run.

I’d never been as relieved as a few hours ago, when a console LED lit to report Ceres had come into range. Autopilot put me into a parking orbit, from which a short-range company tug—with, you know, radar, lidar, and two-way radio with traffic control—will deliver me for inspection to a company facility. And then I’d never been as relieved as when the bored-sounding human pilot aboard the approaching tug drawled, “Folks kinda wondered when you’d get here.” Her complacency meant Ceres was safe. My honey was safe. I was safe.

Caveat to those rosy sentiments: safe for now. The overcrowded crew ship left the Rock a few days ahead of me; that hamster’s plastic water bottle took a few days to dissolve.

I’m trying my best, with limited success, to focus on a joyous homecoming. The company has suffered one employee killed and another driven to suicide. They’ve had an epic security breach and a platinum mine taken indefinitely out of commission. Just to be clear, that’s my priority order, not theirs.

Whether or not, in a moment of humane weakness, the company will care that the son of an employee remains kidnapped and imperiled, the clues to this disaster all appear to be on Earth. Clues that someone will follow up: it surely must be untenable not knowing who drove Hodges to set the bomb, and why, and if they plan to attack again somewhere else. Perhaps they already have! And when the company does investigate, they’ll want to disclose as little about the fiasco (including the crime scene!) as possible, and to as few people as possible.

I foresee my joyous homecoming being cut short by a trip Earthward.

****

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?"

 


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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.

****

 

Capturing the Light

Capturing the Light Mini Cover

My father, a U.S. Navy pilot, flew F-4’s at the tail end of Vietnam and then retired. He didn’t talk about it much. It was a thing he did, and did well, and when the time came to stop he moved on to other things, like picture-taking and cabinet-making. He built hideously expensive bookcases for clients for whom books were a household accessory. He said they were cathedrals to house unread books and it made him feel sad. He never lacked for work and our cottage was a testament to his craft as a cabinetmaker. Secret compartments were woven through the cabinetry he made from mahogany left over from his paying jobs. Strangers could move in for generations, and they would never find all of them. The first days of any cottage vacation were always hunts for the secret compartment that he claimed to have built and that we had never found. He said the treasures inside were dark and dangerous, and it was a good thing he hid them so well.

We believed him, of course. The dark and dangerous part added to the flavor, but like most children, we were not known for our perseverance. The imperatives of summer were too powerful to keep us looking for very long. There was always next time. Year after year, at the beginning of each vacation, we looked, and even as adults, we would push and prod wood panels feeling for some small tell-tale give.

Finding none, we quit, convincing ourselves that there was nothing to find.

But then, while sitting on the window seat, I shifted my weight and felt a little give in the board, nearly imperceptible. Too easy, I thought. Dad would never go for something obvious like storage under the window seat. It was beneath him. I slid off the seat and grabbed the lip and tugged. Magnets released their hold and the lid lifted. The storage area sighed with the scent of cedar. A heavy-duty, vinyl-coated cardboard box, the kind used to store photographic prints, and a camera lens lay concealed. An envelope rested on top of the box. I opened the envelope and read the letter.

Martin,

I knew you would find this. It is yours, but be very careful. As you will find out, the lens is dangerous. I bought it in the Philippines while on deployment. I don’t know who made it. I don’t know how it works.

Love,

Dad

I took the unmarked lens out, feeling the solid heft of a well-made piece of equipment. I popped the protective caps off and inspected the glass elements and mount. The focus ring glided smoothly, extending and retracting the barrel. It was an F-mount lens meant to fit on Nikon equipment, like my own. I couldn’t recall ever seeing this particular lens on any of his cameras, but that didn’t mean anything.

I refit the caps and set the lens aside on a convenient shelf. I placed the cardboard box on the floor. There was nothing else in the storage space. I closed the lid, picked up the box, and sat down on the window seat to investigate. The top of the box slid free. Protective acid-free tissue paper fogged the first photograph. I took out the paper and set it inside the upturned lid.

The photograph was of my sister, Maria.

She stands ankle deep in the sandy-bottomed creek behind the cottage. The water, stained translucent brown with the tannin of millions of oak leaves and pine needles, ribbons away through a manicured forest. Morning light streams through the trees like golden spears. Reflective darts scintillate across the slow water. She wears a white cotton dress and the bottom of it wicks up the creek water. She looks seventeen, and the backlighting makes the dress look gauzy and ephemeral. Her body is silhouetted in the bright light, hinting at the curves of a beautiful woman. In her right hand she holds a snake. The elegant reptile bracelets her wrist in two slender wraps. Its tail dangles, and the tiny head sits on top of a gentle S-curved neck. She holds the snake up so each is staring into the other’s eyes. The delicate animal is striped the red, yellow, and black of a coral snake and not the red, black, and yellow of a scarlet king snake.

It was an impossibly perfect photograph, capturing my sister frozen between childhood and womanhood in a fantasy scene. Her dress, I remember, was her favorite when she was eleven years old, and she wore it so often that it only lasted that one summer. But she was not eleven years old in the picture. In the photograph she was at least seventeen, on the cusp of womanhood. The light slanted through the trees from the wrong direction. The creek curved a different way, and there was an outcropping of gray boulders in the background. There are no gray ice age boulders in Florida. And what kind of father takes a picture of his daughter nose-to-nose with a poisonous snake? The picture was hypnotic in its composition and beauty. The only thing wrong was that it could never be, but the more I looked at it, the more I felt like it should be, like it was.

I placed the picture in the upturned lid and removed another layer of tissue to see the next photograph.

My sister Olivia runs toward our father. She is breaking free from a crowd that is toeing a yellow line painted over cracked concrete. A wooden barricade fences the crowd to keep them away from the thundering F-4 Phantoms. My sister is a golden-haired child, six, almost seven, years old. The crowd holds welcome home signs aloft and waves American flags. She ducks under the barrier set to keep dependents from the flight line where the returning jets are taxiing into position. There she is, running toward our father, holding a sign that says, “I love you, bad!” The sign is slipping from her hands to fly away. My mother, my two sisters, myself, and my brother, Will, are in the background slightly out of focus. My mother wears over-sized sunglasses and reflected in the lenses is my father’s perfect miniscule reflection. His arms reach to catch his daughter. She is smiling and her hair is flying away in a blond waving mass, and she is just a few steps shy from her father defying anyone to stop her.

Somehow it was exactly as it happened or how it should have happened, but who could have taken the picture? My entire family was framed in the shot. I remembered the moment as clear as if it was, but it wasn’t. It couldn’t be. I remembered my mother scooping her back up. I looked away from the photograph to clear my head. My sister could not even have run. She wore braces on her legs until she was ten years old. I felt an ancient burn of shame. In addition to the hated metal bars that wrapped her lower legs, torqueing them straight with hard-soled patent leather shoes, she suffered with terrible dyslexia. In a pique of adolescent righteousness, I remembered mocking her hand-lettered sign. I tried to make her change the “b” to the “d” she intended but my mother caught me with a fierce glance and shook her head.

“I love you, bad” was the title of her Caldecott-medal-winning children’s book.

The next picture was of my mother and brother.

She lies next to William, my brother, her eldest son. Will is moments away from dying from leukemia. Slats of light from the window’s shades fall across both of them. She is so fatigued and sad that she has come full circle back to beautiful. His head is on her breast. His eyes are closed and he is inexplicably full-faced and sleeping, but his eyes will never open again. He is at peace in his mother’s arms; both comfort each other in their last moments together. Next to the bed, a pole-mounted machine displays the flickering parameters of William’s life. The electronic trace of his last heartbeat sketches across the display in a thin red line.

I remembered Will shriveled and sunken into the vastness of the hospital bed. I remembered feeling he was taking part of me with him. My heart raced and the picture blurred. I couldn’t remember the last time I really thought of him. I felt heavier, weighted down with something that the word sadness can barely describe. I traced my brother’s face with the tips of my fingers, and I remembered how much I miss him. Time had raced onward stealing his presence and taking away all the color of those moments.

This picture was exactly as it should be, and I had almost surrendered to the memory even though I was never there and there was no way Dad would take a picture of his dying son. What strange reason would compel someone to want to remember that?

But there it was. This was how it happened.

I put the photo down, covered it with the tissue, and caught my breath. What really happened bled back through. My mother left William’s side once in the last two weeks of his life. My father stayed while she went home to sleep and in that short span of time, William died. On the way back to the hospital she picked me up from school. I saw her face through the mesh classroom window and I knew what had happened.

For the longest time, Mom was inhabited by a quiet kind of sadness that she could not escape. The winter after Will died was the most painful time in our family’s history. All of us worked our way out, but Mom couldn’t follow . . . until one day she did. Although sad and angry over Will’s death the mention of his name would no longer cause her to break down. She would smile just a little bit and turn away as if she was remembering something.

Something different.

William’s photograph drained me and left me tired. My head ached as if there were too many things inside trying to get out. I wondered if my father had shown it to my mother? I wondered if it had anything to do with when she became more of herself again after William’s death? More pictures dared me to view them. I thumbed through them, not wanting to linger.

My sister, Maria, holds her son, my father’s first grandchild, on a beach swept with moonlight. Silvered waves march to shore to break upon the rocks.

Except, I recall, my sister never could get pregnant. She had tried for three years and then surrendered to the inevitable and adopted a daughter from India with my wife’s help.

My wife looks at me with the kind of love that can’t be explained, her hair laced with baby’s breath, her dress, golden with evening light. Behind her, the ground is carpeted in emerald grass and peppered with wildflowers of gold and blue and purple.

I remembered it perfectly, exactly as it was. Except it wasn’t. A wildfire destroyed the spot two weeks before our wedding. And when we revisited our spot, the ground was ashen and the tree trunks were burned black.

My mother, a young woman, stands on a twilight beach and the sea is lathered up in a foamy rage and her hair is flying and she is young and beautiful. She is pregnant with William, my brother. In the distance an illuminated aircraft carrier sails to the far horizon beneath two thumbnail crescent moons.

I closed the box of photographs. I couldn’t look at anymore. I stood up and blood rushed from my head. I fell to my knees and took deep slow breaths. I felt like I was positioned sideways to reality, not much, just a small angle, and I needed a moment to straighten up. I put the box of photos back in the storage area under the seat. I pressed down until the magnets grabbed. The clock indicated that two hours passed. Where did the time go?

I went outside to sit and think and wait for my sisters.

****

I closed my eyes and rocked, and in the quiet distance, I heard the staccato rattle of the big red-headed woody woodpeckers echoing in the forest. I realized that time travel is possible; we do it naturally by anticipating the future and regretting the past. But as I sat in the front porch rocker that my father sat in, waiting for my sisters to arrive, bathed in halcyon morning light, I was no longer a time traveler. I was still, frozen in amber. Beyond me, the world accelerated away at the rate of one second per second and I was content to let it go.

After my mother died, my father moved to the cottage. The land sloped gently to Coldwater Creek, a shallow, sandy-bottomed creek that flowed through northwest Florida pine forests. As children, in the still morning, my brothers and sisters and I would walk down the slope and wade across the water to a vast hump-backed sandbar to collect beer and soda cans to trade for paper bags of penny candy and thick green bottles of soda from the general store. Before the creek filled with raucous teenagers trying their first beers, or sun-burned, beer-bellied men and their loud-mouthed, tattooed wives, my father would go down to the creek and sit, waiting for a like-minded stranger to come by, so he could share a word or two. If no one came he would sink into the quiet, hypnotized by the layers of light reflected in the water, and watch the silver-scaled fish flash brightly and dark turtles scull with reptile grace.

****

My father loved photography. He called it capturing the light. An impressive array of cameras, both film and digital, lined the upper reaches of the built-in shelves. He never did it for money. He said money would spoil it. He entered a few art shows when he found the time. He took all of our senior portraits. He developed quite the reputation in the local photography circles in our city, but he refused to cultivate his reputation. He was a master and his photographs are why I became a conflict photographer. I asked him how his pictures were always so beautiful and he replied that to take beautiful pictures, only photograph beautiful things. I didn’t believe him, because I saw things that he had photographed that were not beautiful in the real world. When I asked him about it, he said that everything is beautiful if captured at the right moment. Context is everything.

At the time, I thought his answer was touchy-feely nonsense. As an adult, I traveled to conflict zones and other exotic locales trying to capture their light and one day, quite by accident, I did, and won a Pulitzer prize for photo-journalism. My father framed the photograph and hung it over the cottage’s fireplace.

It was taken in India at a ship-breaking yard.

A young woman is in labor at their encampment on the flats. Other women are holding and comforting her. Her husband is behind and off to the side. She is in the agony of childbirth and he is in the agony of despair. Another mouth is coming into the world and he cannot provide for the ones he has. Yellow firelight, pinprick reflected in their eyes, illuminates the gathered ship breakers. The careening flats stretch away and the wind carries the women’s bright saris and gauzy scarves in undulating waves. Oily rainbows cut trails across the liquid-gray sand. Dark hulks of broken ships lay at crooked angles in the background. Sporadic fires dot the flats and from one ship a brilliant cascade of sparks from a cutting torch rains down. The sun has just set and a sliver of red defines the horizon. A few high altitude clouds reflect the dying light and above, the great sweep of the Milky Way arcs over all in a vast embrace.

The colors were rich and vibrant. The composition was so perfect that it could not be anything more than a fortuitous accident. It told a truth, said my father. I agreed in principle, that it told a story, and he insisted that it told a truth, something altogether different. He pointed to the elements of the photograph, the people, the sky, the broken ships, and said that this photograph captured the light in all of its layers. You could live your whole life, snap a million photographs and never do it again. It was a good thing, he said, that such photographs are so rare. They can change reality. He stepped close to the picture and leaned in. He said one could smell the salt and pollution, taste the oil and hot metal in the air, hear the grind of wind and machine, and feel it in your heart and bones. It becomes true, he said. Such photographs can start wars or make you fall in love.

He was right.

Ellen, a pale blond woman, centered amongst the dark-haired, dark-skinned Indians, kneels between the mother’s legs. She helps deliver the baby and turns to look at the fool with the camera. In her face is all the frustration and sadness of someone who wants to save the entire world, but knows that she cannot.

As I peered through a viewfinder disengaged from the world, my life was right in front of me. I booked a flight back that evening to find her and bring her home. She thought it strange and romantic and a little bit scary just as all new love is. It took convincing, a year’s worth of convincing, the kind that dips perilously close to groveling, but eventually she married me.

****

I heard the distant engine of a car and the creak of springs and I knew it was my sisters. The car drew closer and stopped. Doors opened and closed. I waited. They knew where to find me.

“Hey, big brother, did you get it all done?” asked Maria.

“Yeah, I found the secret compartment stashed with the family jewels so there is nothing left to do.”

She hugged me and kissed my cheek. My other sister, Olivia, climbed up on the porch and did the same.

“I hope you made coffee for all of us,” said Olivia.

“Of course.”

“Well, don’t be rude, get your baby sisters a cup,” said Maria.

“Yes, ma’am.”

They sat in the rocking chairs our father had made. The wood was cypress, silvered and checked with time. They were diabolically comfortable despite never having a cushion on them. My mother called them time sponges because once you sat in one they absorbed time and worry until the day was over. I went inside and fixed them coffee.

I rejoined them, their rocking in progress, and handed them their coffees. I sat myself and we propped our feet up on the rail and pushed off with our toes. The morning warmed. Time fled.

Olivia was the first one to break the moment.

“We need to get to it.”

“Yeah,” I agreed. “In a minute.”

“So, go get the cleaning supplies in the trunk,” said Maria.

“You go get’em.”

“I’m a girl.”

“That only worked with Dad.”

I relented. They were always good at waiting me out.

“Works with you too,” she said.

Back inside, I dropped the cleaning supplies on a kitchen counter. My sisters surveyed the scene. Dad was organized. Everything had its place, but he was not one for the deep cleaning that Mom specialized in. Neither was I. Dust bunnies overpopulated the underplaces and threatened to become an invasive species. My idea of cleaning the toilet was lowering the lid.

“Oh my,” said Maria.

Olivia slapped me in the back of the head.

Maria took charge, issuing directions and instructions, which we both promptly ignored. We drifted off to the area in the cottage that needed our respective attentions the most, Olivia to the back bedroom where she used to play with William, Maria to my parent’s bedroom where she would curl in bed between Mom and Dad, and me back to the window seat, grown small with time.

I thought about showing them the pictures but then decided against it. I picked up the lens and felt the smooth, effortless glide of the focus ring. I thought of those wonderful, beautiful, disturbing pictures and wonder how many layers of light the lens dove through to capture them.

I put the lens down and puttered around, moving dust from place to place, lemon pledging the woodwork more for the smell than anything else.

I came back to the lens.

****

I knew I shouldn’t, but I did. I walked to my car and retrieved my camera, a Nikon D4, from the trunk. I affixed the lens and it clicked into place. The wind blew through the pines and I heard the scratching sounds of something small and furry in a clump of holly. I thought about what I was going to do and tried to talk myself out of it. Maybe there was a reason why I never saw the lens on any of my father’s cameras, maybe he knew better, but why leave it for me to find? I looked through the viewfinder not knowing what to expect. The world appeared the same and I was confused. I panned around, surveying the world through the lens, and thought that things should be different, like they were in my father’s photographs. When did it capture the light of other days, or days that we have no names for, in places that are just a little bit skewed from where we are, maybe in the act of creation, when a decision was made, and the shutter was released? I walked back to the cottage and my sisters were at the picnic table. A plate of ham sandwiches and a pitcher of ice tea were on the table.

“Not that you deserve any because you’ve been goofing off all morning,” said Olivia.

I raised the camera to my eye and both of them thrust their hands up to protect their faces from incrimination. It’s a false vanity. Both my sisters have inherited a natural beauty from my mother.

“Put your hands down.”

“Martin, please,” said Maria. “I’m filthy.”

“Come on,” chimed Olivia.

“Just one shot.”

“Just one.” agreed Maria.

“Only because you are so good,” said Olivia. “Do that Photoshop thing on my freckles.”

I crouched down to take a low angle shot. I focused the lens manually, my sister’s faces blurred in and out. I set the aperture to a shallow depth of field and composed them in the right one third of the frame. I focused on their eyes and released the shutter.

The picture popped up in the LCD window and then flashed away into storage.

“Let’s see,” said Maria.

“Hold on,” I replied.

I rolled the control button to bring the image up. I kept my face neutral. Did the lens give you what you what you want, or did it give you what you need?

“It didn’t come out,” I lied. “I just wanted to try one of Dad’s lenses he had in the bookcase. I don’t think it works with my camera.”

“Too bad,” said Olivia. “Eat a sandwich and get back to work.”

****

The cottage gleamed. The whole place smelled like oil soap and the scent drifted on the night air. Constellations of fireflies blinked in the dark. My sisters sat inside the cottage and I heard them talking about simple, innocent things. After finishing my bottle of wine, they decided to stay the night. I picked up my camera from the side table and dialed up the picture I took with my father’s lens.

I thought my sisters’ eyes were blue, but I saw that they are deep green. Olivia was on the left and Maria was on the right, but I would have sworn that it was the other way around when I took the picture. The ice tea glasses are gone, replaced by wine glasses. William’s arms are draped around both of them. He has a broad grin that crushed the ladies in high school. My heart pounded and the world seemed liquid and diffuse, like I had opened my eyes underwater. The depth of field is shallow so their faces are the only things in sharp focus, but in the blurred background I saw William’s wife, Candace, walking spread-legged with their third son, only thirteen months old. The boy was reaching up to hold her hands for support. I sank into the photo. It was exactly how I remembered taking it. It was exactly what I wanted to remember, but something else I wanted to remember was faded, almost gone. The noise in the cottage increased three fold.

Someone screamed, “No fair.” My daughter and my nieces and nephews played UNO at the kitchen table. My sisters, their husbands, and Candace laughed at some comment I didn’t hear. The screen door opened and slammed shut.

“Yeah buddy, you got the right idea hiding out here,” said William. He sat down in the chair next to me. “She’s doing all right, isn’t she?

“Yeah, she is.” Sara, my daughter had a difficult time, almost as bad as me, when her mother and baby brother died in the car accident ten months ago.

“That’s good. I’m glad. Beer?”

“Yeah, sure.” He handed me an ice cold Amberbock from the cooler in his hand and sat in the rocking chair next to me.

I held both existences in my mind at the same time, one growing stronger the other weaker. I wondered if I shifted a little left of reality or did they? I wondered what happened if I looked away from the viewfinder? Do I go back? Does reality compress to what was? I hoped so. I hoped it wasn’t too late. I wanted both to be true, to have my brother and my wife and son in the same place at the same time. Maybe that was the terrible power of the lens. You have to choose, but when did your choice become irrevocable? I didn’t know. How many times did my father use the camera to change what was? How many times did he use it to get back what he had? It explained why he never destroyed it. Maybe he hoped I would do better.

Details of things that never happened populated the empty spaces in my mind. I filled up with a life never lived. It was not a bad one, but still . . . am I who I am supposed to be? A warm flush of fear filled me and I wondered how many times I was undone or redone. How many times were we all undone or redone?

I selected the photograph from memory and pushed the delete button twice and the camera LCD faded to black. I tipped the bottle of beer in his direction. I wanted both, but if I couldn’t have both I wanted back what I had before I released the shutter.

I remembered being the best man at my brother’s wedding. I remembered telling my daughter that Mom and Christopher were not coming home. I remembered kissing my wife goodbye before I left for the cottage this morning. I could feel the layers of infinite light vibrating inside me.

My brother tapped the neck of my bottle with his own and I stared waiting for one of us to fade away.

“Dude, you’re creeping me out,” said Will.

“Cheater, you’re cheating,” shrieked one of the kids.

“Did not.”

“Did.”

“Sore loser.”

“Baby.”

“Hey, knock it off,” said Maria. “Or you’re all going to bed.” Voices carried through the screen window and disappeared in the susurration of the pines.

The kids quieted.

“Where’s Dad?” asked my godson. He was named after me.

“Outside,” said Candace. “Go play with your cousins.”

My heart slowed. Things became as they are . . . firm.

“I’m glad you decided to come up,” I said to Will.

“Me too. I almost didn’t make it.”

“I know.”

The kitchen table crowd exploded into another shouting match.

“Making memories,” said my brother. “Do you think we need to go in?”

I turned and looked through the window and saw a cloud of UNO cards settling to the floor. Our sisters and in-laws were unaffected by the outburst.

“Nope, we’re good.”

I took a long pull of beer and set the empty down next to my chair.

“Another?”

“Why not?”

He reached into the cooler beside the chair and handed me another Amberbock. Two full moons rose in the sky, one larger than another. The creek bent the wrong way and fireflies flashed love calls, releasing their own captured light. I held to the memory of my other life.

I will take more pictures. I have to.

****