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Colliding Galaxies

Colliding Galaxies

Published by Philip Bosshardt at Shakespir

Copyright 2017 Philip Bosshardt

Shakespir Edition, License Notes

 

This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was purchased for your use only, then please return to Shakespir.com and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

Introduction

 

When galaxies collide in outer space, nothing much happens for a very long time. Surely, when the Milky Way and Andromeda galaxies merge in about four billion years, as astronomers insist they will, it will be one of the most epochal events in our cosmos. Yet you’d probably fall asleep watching it, if you could live long enough to witness the whole event.

That’s because galaxies are mostly empty space.

Yet when galaxies collide, and dust gets stirred up, strange and violent things do occur, given enough time. Dust clouds collapse. Gravity builds up. Matter gets compressed. Before you know it, the thing ignites. A star is born. And it burns hot and bright for billions of years.

Words are like that too…whether on a piece of paper or arrayed as bits on a disk. When put together the right way, words get compressed. They ignite. Light and heat follow. Readers exposed to all this find new ideas, like new elements, bubbling to the surface. Illumination follows, if the writer did his job and pushed the words together the right way.

My hope is that something like this will happen while you’re reading the stories gathered in this collection. Something sparks. Boom! A new idea…something you never thought of before pops into your head. I’m not content just to entertain or divert you from your troubles for a few hours, though there’s nothing wrong with that. I want to start a fire in your head. I want to slam atoms together, compress them and create something new…a whole new world.

I’m leery of themes in story collections. If there’s any theme in Colliding Galaxies, it’s that they were all written by the same writer. Here, you’ll find a strange bunch of people, ostensibly normal in their backgrounds: an architect, a detective, a kid with a life-threatening disease, a physicist and a group of nursing home residents—but all of them eventually get smashed into new realities like planets pulled into a black hole. Here, you’ll find angels, aquadapts, atomgrabbers and archeologists, each drawn to their own personal event horizons, some wide-eyed and eager, some fighting all the way.

What I’m trying to say is that free will ain’t what it used to be.

These stories, as originally written, span nearly thirty years of my literary life, from fresh out of college (Georgia Tech, class of ’75. Industrial Engineering, thank you very much) to as recently as a year ago. That’s a span that encompasses Richard Nixon and Watergate and the arrival of Donald Trump in the Oval Office. In this time frame, we’ve landed on the Moon, created Lady Gaga and sold a few billion I-phones around the world.

Many of these stories started out one way and changed dramatically in the writing. That happens to a lot of writers. Sometimes, the author is the most surprised one of all. Many of the characters in these stories, like Detective Lieutenant Stan Benecky of ‘The Cold, Hard Facts,’ are explorers and discoverers. Most of them discover things about themselves too. And what they discover is not always what they wanted to learn.

Recently, in my blog The Word Shed, I wrote about research into why we love stories so much…neurological research that’s taking advantage of new neuro-imaging techniques, along with some pretty cleverly designed experiments.

In October 2014, neurobiologist Paul Zak wrote these words in a journal devoted to brain research:

“As social creatures, we depend on others for our survival and happiness. A decade ago, my lab discovered that a neurochemical called oxytocin is a key “it’s safe to approach others” signal in the brain. Oxytocin is produced when we are trusted or shown a kindness, and it motivates cooperation with others. It does this by enhancing the sense of empathy, our ability to experience others’ emotions. Empathy is important for social creatures because it allows us to understand how others are likely to react to a situation, including those with whom we work.”

The truth is that oxytocin is one key reason for why humans are hard-wired to love and respond to stories. Much of what Dr. Zak has found in his lab supports what writers and editors and readers have known for generations. Tell a rip-roaring story full of action, involving sympathetic and believable characters and you’ll hook your audience for the duration.

Dr. Zak goes to report on neurobiological evidence that supports what we’ve all know about telling good stories….

More recently my lab wondered if we could “hack” the oxytocin system to motivate people to engage in cooperative behaviors. To do this, we tested if narratives shot on video, rather than face-to-face interactions, would cause the brain to make oxytocin. By taking blood draws before and after the narrative, we found that [_ character-driven stories do consistently cause oxytocin synthesis.] [_Further, the amount of oxytocin released by the brain predicted how much people were willing to help others; for example, donating money to a charity associated with the narrative.]

In subsequent studies we have been able to deepen our understanding of why stories motivate voluntary cooperation. (This research was given a boost when, with funding from the U.S. Department of Defense, we developed ways to measure oxytocin release noninvasively at up to one thousand times per second.) We discovered that, in order to motivate a desire to help others, a story must first sustain attention – a scarce resource in the brain – by developing tension during the narrative. If the story is able to create that tension then it is likely that attentive viewers/listeners will come to share the emotions of the characters in it, and after it ends, likely to continue mimicking the feelings and behaviors of those characters. This explains the feeling of dominance you have after James Bond saves the world, and your motivation to work out after watching the Spartans fight in (the movie) 300.”

Why does our brain love stories so much? In an article from the Greater Good Science Center (University of California, Berkeley) in December 2013, Zak says this: The first part of the answer is that as social creatures who regularly affiliate with strangers, stories are an effective way to transmit important information and values from one individual or community to the next. Stories that are personal and emotionally compelling engage more of the brain, and thus are better remembered, than simply stating a set of facts. Think of this as the “car accident effect.” You don’t really want to see injured people, but you just have to sneak a peek as you drive by. Brain mechanisms engage saying there might be something valuable for you to learn, since car accidents are rarely seen by most of us but involve an activity we do daily. That is why you feel compelled to rubberneck. To understand how this works in the brain, we have intensively studied brain response that watching (compelling video) produces. We have used this to build a predictive model that explains why after watching the video, about half of viewers donate to a charity. We want to know why some people respond to a story while others do not, and how to create highly engaging stories. We discovered that there are two key aspects to an effective story. First, it must capture and hold our attention. The second thing an effective story does is “transport” us into the characters’ world.”

Grabbing and maintaining attention and building empathy for your characters are thus two critically important jobs that any storyteller has to complete. There is now strong neural evidence to support this.

 

I said before that I wasn’t a big fan of big themes but it is a fact that there is some subject commonality among these stories. Two of them deal with time travel (‘Star-Crossed in Voidtime’ and ‘The Time Garden’). Four of them deal with the ramifications of a technology that has long fascinated me…the advent of nanoscale robotic assemblers with the ability to mass and swarm into all sorts of interesting formations. The stories dealing with this technology are ‘Homo Roboticus’, ‘Atomgrabbers’, ‘The Cold, Hard Facts’, and ‘The Better Angels.’ The onset of this technology, which we may well see in our lifetimes, is something I would rank with human-level AI…something so fraught with consequences and so potentially horrific that I have found myself lying awake at night just trying to put the demons to bed when I consider all the uses this technology might be put to.

In any case, I hope you’ll find the stories herein both enjoyable and thought-provoking….more of the latter.

Read on, my friend. And do keep the lights burning tonight….

 

Philip Bosshardt

Atlanta, Georgia

February 2017

 

 

 

 

 

Designs

 

Introduction

 

I first wrote this story in 1979. I had long been fascinated by how the job of an architect might translate into space…instead of designing buildings, an architect of the future might design planets…or at least planetoids. Thinking that, I realized designing whole worlds or worldlets would likely bring its own challenges. What effects would new worlds have on gravity around the solar system? If architects built dozens or hundreds of new places in space—think back to the days of L5 and Gerard O’Neill’s colony structures—how might they be organized? By ethnic group? By location…that could be easily enough changed? By economic model? Culture? Fashion or fads? I began to believe that terrestas—-the name I gave to these worldlets—would explode like mushrooms after a summer rain. And they’d be organized in as many different ways as the people who built them could imagine.

The main character in this story, Phillipe Dugay, is tired. Tired of success and adoration, tired of fighting bureaucracies, tired of running from a scandal, just tired of life. Yet he gets a second wind when he runs into a long-lost love named Kate Lind and takes on the challenge of building the one thing he’s never had in his life…an enduring relationship with a strong woman. Maybe it’s the challenge of the idea. Maybe it’s the way she taunts him, telling him how he’s washed up. Like the mythical phoenix, Dugay can’t stop trying to rise from the ashes of a once-illustrious but now stunted career. Professional athletes and entertainers face the same question: when is it time to quit? For some, it’s never. For others, like Dugay, it’s when you finally achieve a goal you never knew you had.

Read on and find out how this happens….

 

1.

 

He brought the palomino to a skidding halt on the stone of the Mansion’s courtyard and left it in the hands of a faceless CyberMate. The gallop across the plains of his estate had left him exhilarated and breathless. Philippe Dugay enjoyed the classes he taught at the Institute (my Institute, he told himself—they come from all over the System) and sometimes wondered how things would have turned out had he taken such training. Pointless fantasy; his glory days were behind him and he knew it.

Dugay wandered inside, through the rotunda of the house. He’d modeled it on a Florentine palazzo, with apologies to Brunelleschi. A marvelous copy, too, but he’d come to despise it. He despised a lot these days; ten years’ time had dulled him to the beauty of the place. If he had another chance—but what was the point? Architects were born to create and for the last decade, he had managed to create only misery for himself.

A female cyberMate popped out of nowhere and handed him his usual stiff of gin. He started to tipple, then stopped. The Mate hadn’t droned off on another chore, like she was programmed to. A raised eyebrow got him an answer.

“You have a visitor, Monsieur Dugay,” she said, in an overly lush, recorded Parisian lilt.

“Where, dear?”

“Your penthouse study. That’s where you always go after your bath and rubdown.”

Was that a smirk he detected? “I’ll pass on the lust and depravity for now. Who is it?”

The cyberMate replied coldly, “His name is Lorenzo Jenkins.”

Dugay was already half into the lift when the name stopped him. “Lorenzo Jenkins? The Jenkins? Hmmm.” He waved the Mate off and took the lift up to his study.

It was Lorenzo all right, never a doubt about that. Jenkins ran the asteroid metropolis of Big-Venice-in-the Belt, the most popular vegas in the entire System, with every diversion and sin an ore driver or scoop pilot could want. The bald orb had already made himself comfortable, so Dugay dispensed with formalities.

“Enjoying yourself?”

“Wickedly,” Jenkins replied. He cocked his head and squinted as Dugay found a seat behind his desk. “Quite a cottage you’ve got here. They don’t make terretas like this anymore.”

“Never did,” said Dugay. “It’s an original.”

“Along with a few thousand others. How’d you happen on the name terreta anyway?”

“’Small Earth.’ We light up the night with orbiting mirrors and they call those solettas or lunettas. So—terretas. A city in a bottle. Clever, no?”

“Clever, yes. Terretas made the Inner Ring possible. Civilization in space without them? Fah, who could imagine it? No room for luxuries in a makeshift fuel tank, which is what my great-grandfather called home out there. You opened space to the masses, Dugay. Every time they turn out another terreta, it’s got your name on it.”

“Along with Shepard and Kangyo’s. So how’s business?”

Jenkins smiled as Dugay polished off the drink and poured them both another. “Booming. You ought to pay a visit. I hear you never leave this place anymore?”

Dugay handed him a goblet. You had to be wary of Jenkins. The man was wired like a machine and spent hours plugged into Big Venice through implanted tabs. The tales had it that he was so sensitive to the subtle electrical fields of that city that he could pick up the micro-currents of another man’s nervous system and decipher his impulses before they ever reached his brain.

“I live in the past,” he admitted. “I’ve done enough for one man. Besides, there’s the Institute. The kids’ll take terraforming farther than ever.” He hoped that sounded sincere enough.

“They’ll have to go some to beat your act. Giving the moon an atmosphere was quite a stunt.”

“It was no stunt,” said Dugay. “Within a year after I’d crossed Tranquility in a sailboat, Selenopolis had doubled in population and the Amber Shores resort was almost finished. I turned the Moon into real estate.”

Jenkins tried to smother a smile at the success of his own tactic. “And Venus. Mars. Delambre too. All the terretas. Any one of them would make you a name to reckon with in this pantheon of greats, right up there with Wren, Sullivan, Wright, Le Corbusier.”

“All right, so I like to be flattered.”

Jenkins turned serious for a moment. “I can do more than that, Philippe. I need you and I’m offering the biggest commission you’ve ever heard of.”

“A commission? Now?” Dugay forced a laugh that wasn’t as contemptuous as he intended. “I’ve been out of circulation for ten years. Techniques have changed. Styles are different.”

“You run an academy for the terraforming arts. And who says genius is ever obsolete? Your name and reputation are powerful magic anywhere in the System. Just listen for a minute.”

“I’m all ears.”

“I’m a Belt man, pure and simple. My business is ninety per cent scoopers and ore drivers and their families. With the Inner Ring and the Belt states competing against each other, it won’t be long before all the asteroids are picked clean. We’re running into limits but there’s still a lot of momentum behind our expansion. That kind of squeeze makes things expensive, so we have to look outward.”

“The gas giants.”

“Exactly. The biggest terraforming project there is. I’ve got the backing of a lot of investors from Canto del Aria to Rock City. We’re going after the big worlds. And we want you in charge.”

“What have you got in mind?”

Jenkins didn’t blink. “Dismantling Jupiter.”

“And?”

“And constructing another Ring of terretas, just beyond the Belt. An Outer Ring, financed by this consortium I’ve put together. With ready-made worlds of your design, the Belt would attract hordes of new settlers.”

Dugay took a deep breath. “You got any idea how long it would take to dismantle Jupiter?”

“Eight years, one hundred and ten days and a handful of hours, by my calculations. Wrap the planet in a spool of electric cable, pump current into it and speed up the rotation to once an hour. The King of Planets would unravel at the equator like a ball of thread.”

“It’s an intriguing plan,” said Dugay. “I’m highly impressed. I’m also old and tired, with too many responsibilities.” He flinched reaching for his gin. “I can’t even go a day without a massage. What about my students?”

“Bring ‘em with you. They couldn’t have a better education.”

“I don’t know—“

“Think of it this way: everywhere you go in the Inner Ring, Philippe, you see nothing but structures you’ve designed and built. Monuments with your name on them. Isn’t that discouraging? Out beyond the Belt is virgin space, unbuilt, just waiting for the distinctive imprint of a genius. You could be that genius. Unless you’re afraid of the challenge.”

Dugay stiffened at that. “I’m not in the habit of refusing commissions. What if I asked for enough material to construct a small planet of my own, purely for aesthetic purposes?”

“Done,” said Jenkins. “Whatever you want. I was able to attract so many investors because I offered them Philippe Dugay. Don’t make me swallow my promises. Do we have an agreement?”

There was a brief knock on the door and it burst open before Dugay could open his mouth. Jean Dugay walked in, heedless of his father’s privacy and, seeing Jenkins, introduced himself. He was a lanky fellow, like his mother Alix, poor dear, with a shock of dark brown hair and the haughty face of a Dugay. My prize pupil, Dugay thought. But no favorites in the classroom, not in the Dugay Institute for Terraforming Arts. A steady hand molds the talent.

“Jean, we were having a conversation.”

“I know, Father, but there’s news you should hear. Kate Lind is making another tour of the Inner Ring and she’s stopping here at Patagonia tomorrow. I thought you’d like to know.”

“Kate? Coming here?” Dugay glanced at Jenkins, who wore a frown. How many years had it been?

“It’s wonderful, isn’t it?” Jean asked. “She’s making a special trip.”

Jenkins snorted. “I’m thrilled to death. That woman’s got more tentacles than a jellyfish. And a sting to match.”

“She’s not coming to see you,” Jean said.

“Just as—“

“Never mind that,” Dugay interrupted. He lurched up out of his seat and draped an arm around Jean’s shoulder. “Go down to the commissary and tell Helga to think up something original. Kate likes seafood, as I recall; maybe a sole Venus.”

Jean left and Jenkins muttered, “The Linds aren’t worth flattering. Give her a fillet of barnacle.”

“The Dugays and the Linds go back two hundred years,” said Dugay. “We have this little sport of trying to outdo each other. Harmless displays of extravagance.”

“The arrogance of power. You know Katerine Lind well?”

Dugay nodded ruefully. “A little too well. I still remember the silly games we played at Balmoral. She always chased me at jet-tag. I guess nothing ever changes.”

“This commission is yours,” said Jenkins. “We won’t consider anyone else.”

Dugay stopped beside the desk and picked up a scale model of Patagonia. He turned the cylinder end for end, admiring the proportions. “Kate’s coming back,” he said, almost to himself. And one love is enough. He thought of the Institute and what it meant to him. Fifty years of work, reshaping the Solar System and now a brood of bright-eyed kids, absorbing every word like a biblical truth. Lord, don’t the memories cling? She still had the power to shatter a lifetime of atonement. How else do you bury the faces a terraformer’s mistake can conjure? “No,” he said, a little more forcefully than he wanted. “I’ll make a decision in a few days.”

Jenkins didn’t like it. He’d seen what Jean’s words had done. “Influence like that is a poison. You won’t reconsider and say yes now?”

Dugay shook his head. “I need time.”

Jenkins rose to leave. “Brother, you need more than that. Take a trip to the Belt, if you like. Ask around. Get away from that all-seeing eye of the Linds. You’re welcome to anything Big Venice has to offer.”

“Thanks.” They shook hands and Dugay escorted Jenkins down to the front terrace of the Mansion. “I may do that. If I can.”

“You can,” said Jenkins. “And my offer stands. You’re needed out there, Philippe. Your vision’s worth all the ore in the Belt any day. Don’t live in the past. You’ve still got some genius left in that old body and you’re the only custodian that matters. Save the goods for the right customer and give me a call when you’re ready, okay?”

“Promise,” said Dugay. He thanked Jenkins for a few kind lies and saw him away in the flyer. The machine sped for Patagonia’s port and was only a black dot when he went back inside.

Maybe it was time to make a little call. Dugay went to his office.

 

2.

 

The trouble was that everything had been done. For ten years, Dugay had lived in seclusion at Patagonia, content to believe his reputation was secure, hoping that History would judge his errors kindly. What the public didn’t know was that his own conscience wasn’t so sympathetic.

Strict ordinances forbade new buildings on Earth. With the advent of biological architecture, cultivating structures like plants, new buildings were not only unnecessary, they were a menace. There were no architects on Earth anymore, only gardeners.

The inner planets had long since been terraformed into habitable worlds for Man and already the settlements there had passed immigration laws, less than half a century after the first real estate agents had swooped in and made teeming suburbs out of his work.

Even the Moon was settled now and Dugay took great pride in that achievement. It was so simple an idea that people laughed when it was explained to them, even today. Bake out the oxygen in the soil for a few years with a couple dozen solar concentrators to get the atmosphere and then slam a few iceberg asteroids into it to provide some volatiles—carbon, nitrogen, water and the like. The design was easy. The execution wasn’t but then you never could get decent help. He had managed anyway and then sailed the lunar seas for promotion.

Even that had grown old after a while. Living space was soon at a premium so he had collaborated with several other designers—Kurt Klamath being the most notable-- to create a mass-producible artificial habitat, the most ubiquitous architectural form of the modern era. Terretas they were called—a stunning example of simple utility that rivaled the Pyramids, the cathedrals and the skyscrapers in the impact it had. For a while, that took the pressure off, as Man’s numbers swelled to fill the new worlds.

Expanding population, competition for the rich lodes of the Asteroid Belt, shipping monopolies, it all added up to one thing, one inevitable result where men were concerned. Dugay’s father had gained fame as a diplomat in the Ice Wars and maybe he should be thankful for that. Fame was a sort of power. Yet the resulting cleavage of the inhabited System into two grand bickering alliances, plus a few score stragglers, was not something to be proud of. Dugay knew his father had dreamed of uniting all solar space someday but it was only a dream. The Dugays were good at that.

Now there were two, the Inner Ring and the Belt. For his efforts, the elder Dugay had been awarded a high position in the government of the Ring and money sufficient to build the family estate, the terreta Patagonia. Here, he had raised Philippe and taught him the value of ambition. His mother, Janice Holberg, dead now almost sixty years from the time of the sabotage-disaster of the Olympian Empress, had taught him the value of beauty. Ever since, he had fought skirmishes with his own nature, split as it was between the ancient Gallic arrogance of his father and the pragmatism of his mother. All his life, Philippe had served three masters: France, America and himself.

After the lunar atmosphere and the terretas, came the grandest project at all, the chance every architect dreamed of.

The Inner Ring needed a capital city. They were in competition with the cities of the Belt, not only for resources but for prestige. At stake were the outer planets—Jupiter to Pluto—and the iceballs further out, and the infinity of wealth each of these giants represented. Hydrogen, helium, carbon, silicon and aluminum, enough to power civilization for centuries.

It was to be a grand city, worthy of the magnificent capitals of the past. Money was no object and time was plentiful. What was lacking was imagination, the inspiration to do something never done before. They called on Philippe Dugay.

It was finished in twenty-two years and was known as Delambre. It was almost beyond description, not because it was beautiful—some called it an abomination—but because of its scale. A small planetary core was fused from fragments scooped in the Belt. The worldlet supported a grid of smaller fused cores, connected by cylinders, sprouting globes, spinning wheels and cones, every imaginable geometric shape was employed at least once and the eye could not encompass it all, even at a considerable distance. It stretched five thousand kilometers in any direction and was home to thirty million people. At a quarter million kilometers away, it resembled an unearthly spider web.

The acclaim that followed hadn’t been seen in generations. Not since Wren had rebuilt London after the Great Fire of 1666 and Sullivan had transformed Chicago with the first skyscraper, had one man put his imprint so firmly on a single city.

The name Dugay came to rival that of Lind, the solar-power family who had dominated inner System commerce for two centuries. The two words were spoken with equal reverence in the Chamber of Deputies at Delambre. Philippe was granted privileges of council, even though he was not a member. And his private terreta, Patagonia, was redone into the kind of home from which legends were made.

But it was not enough. No one had granted him the ability to forget. All the acclaim in the System couldn’t erase the memory of his very first commission and Kate Lind knew that. It was a memory called Athalonia.

Arthur Lind had given him the idea and the money. It was the sort of plan men of great wealth thought up—bold, extravagant, symbolic, foolish and a hundred other things. Nothing like it had ever been done or even attempted before. But he’d accepted because you didn’t refuse a man like Lind. Not when you were fresh out of design school and eager for a place in the history of man usually reserved for saints, saviors and empire-builders.

Lind invited him to the family estate in the terreta Balmoral and showed him a map of Earth. He pointed to the Atlantic Ocean.

“See that gap there between Europe and the Americas?” he asked. “That’s where Plato put Atlantis. The trouble with Earth is that every continent’s already accounted for, politically affiliated. They need a new continent down there, a place where misfits and malcontents can roam without laws. A place like no other—tropical, prairie, mountains, everything a pioneer could want. I want to make a gift to the groundlanders, for letting me sell them the Sun.” He took Dugay by the shoulder. “Your father Raymonde’s a good man, so I know you can do it, Philippe. Build me a new continent, right there in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.”

Why not?

How it came to be called Athalonia, Dugay could not recall. Every other continent save one began with an A. But no matter. He had a chance to make his mark and, with Lind backing, quite a mark it would be. A passport to history.

All you had to do was juice up the mid-Atlantic rift. The open seam that split the ocean basin was always bubbling up new matter from deep inside the Earth’s crust. Ready-made building materials. He studied tectonics, volcanology and geomorphology and went to work.

But the problem was that no one really understood how the rift worked. The floor of the ocean kept spreading apart but the mechanism wasn’t fully understood. This didn’t overly bother Dugay; it was enough that it worked at all.

Then disaster struck. Athalonia was an intruder, built up too quickly for the ocean to compensate. By the time the first scattered island peaks had emerged south of the Azores, floods and tidal waves had wrecked America’s East Coast, from Maine to Miami. For months, hundreds, then thousands died as a new archipelago appeared where once the Sargasso Sea had been. Havoc spread around the Atlantic basin. London and Lisbon, Rio and Lagos, every coastal city was hit and devastated. Governments fell and anger swelled. Commissions were formed to investigate and when it was learned that Arthur Lind was behind the idea, the fury couldn’t be contained. How, the people asked, could something like this be permitted, when no one knew just how the rift worked? They screamed for a scapegoat.

That’s when Philippe Dugay left Earth for good, disguised as a French immigrant to the Inner Ring.

Arthur Lind wasn’t a vindictive man, just puzzled. People were such ingrates; they never understood why men of wealth gave gifts. He was magnanimous too, sympathetic to Dugay’s plight.

“Not to worry, old chum. You’ll be safe from the mobs. I’ve seen to it that another man, a fellow named Preston Sawyer, takes the blame. No one will ever know you were associated with Athalonia.”

Dugay was both relieved and ashamed. “That isn’t really fair. I just want to explain some things—“

“Tut, tut. I’ll hear no more of it. We can’t have Dugays locked up like criminals, now can we? What would your father think of me? No, Arthur Lind is a generous man. We’ll save your reputation for something else. You’re young, plenty of time to make your own blunders.”

He met Katerine shortly thereafter.

It took years for the furor over Athalonia to die down. Dugay spent them hiding at Balmoral, brooding. Long walks through the estate’s re-created historical scenes could not take his mind off the disaster. Even a few days spent as Lord Wellington in the Waterloo memory drama didn’t help. He made occasional trips back to Patagonia, once for the sad duty of burying his father. But for the most part, he thought it wiser to conceal himself in the vast bosom of the Lind empire, at least until he was sure it was safe.

Katerine was a small woman, of alabaster skin, almost delicate, with remarkable bearing for her young age. She seemed frail and vulnerable at times, but Dugay soon found out differently. She was outwardly a woman and, though she would take it as a compliment, she was that in name only. As a child of the Lind name, she was purely a creature of power, naturally at ease in the center of the webs of intrigue her family had been spinning since the first sunsat beamed its microwaves at the Earth two centuries ago.

Kate wasn’t a spoiled child, not in the usual sense of too much love or attention. Dugay learned quickly enough the kind of upbringing she would have: exhausting years at the family college, Lindhall, at Balmoral; long years as the manager of a lonely solsat inside Mercury’s orbit, when the Inner Grid was being established. She had learned about men there. When she returned to Balmoral after Arthur Lind’s fatal airpolo accident, she wasn’t the same person Dugay had first known. She was hardened, toughened, cynical and ruthless. Very much in the Lind tradition. She had clawed her way to the Delambrian Plutarchy in no time.

She developed an intense fascination for Dugay. She admired ambition and because he was built of ambition and pride and a thirst for adventure, she indulged him. By the time of her own mother’s death, Kate had been effectively running Balmoral for years. The huge Lind combine was her toy and she used it to finance every dream Philippe could think of. She enjoyed his success and as the Dugay star climbed in the firmament, she basked in the light of his fame.

 

At first, Dugay was cautious in her company. She was the oldest of the surviving Linds and she alone knew the truth about Athalonia. He was careful to avoid the subject, though guilt wracked him relentlessly, and Kate seldom brought it up. She was by turns affectionate and cunning, sensitive and cold. He respected her at first, wary of the power she had over him, the weapon she wielded by her knowledge. But she did nothing, seemingly content to nourish his career with transfusions of Lind money.

Making up for Athalonia became the most important thing in his life. He accepted her designs on him because the commissions she offered made it possible. Each project was grander than the last, another brick in the wall he tried to build around his own memory. He founded an institute of terraforming arts, to give back what he’d learned and ensure that the professions would be free of charlatans; mistakes were too costly with whole worlds at stake. The institute became a passion as Dugay labored to perfect the field he had nearly destroyed.

He and Kate lived together at Balmoral until Delambre was finished. By normal standards, it wasn’t love that kept them together. It started as respect, then slowly graduated to fond courtesy, with occasional excursions into admiration and sympathy and once, fleetingly, a frightening descent into tenderness. But never love.

They sometimes shared a bed but it was more common for them to live apart, sometimes in different mansions, since Balmoral had seven. Kate insisted on it, saying that she liked to imagine she was seeing him for the first time, every morning, when they often strolled through the lush foliage of the terreta’s garden districts. When the demands of the Plutarchy became too great and required her to spend weeks on end away from Balmoral, he began to miss her and felt silly when he realized it.

Feeling neglected, he eventually returned to Patagonia.

Years passed before she paid a visit and even then, it was some official excursion through the Ring that brought her. They never kissed at these infrequent reunions. Just a smile, a cocked head, a few words. The intimacy of conspirators, Dugay imagined it. When she was away and silent, he drifted on a sea of anxiety, never knowing for sure what she was up to. When she was around Patagonia, it was different, the weapon was sheathed. He never knew whether he had liked her because he had to or because he wanted to.

But time has a way of wasting people and distance wore thin the feelings that once existed. Dugay knew that he had been used by the Linds. A simple rule had governed his career: work for the Linds, build whatever they ask and in return, get lifelong immunity from the jaws of Athalonia. A fair exchange, Kate had termed it. Your talent for our silence. Quid pro quo. In the comfortable and familiar luxuries of Patagonia, he had learned to hate himself.

The liaison with Kate had finally lapsed into dust and Dugay spent a decade in seclusion, steeped in all the honor and adulation an amazed solar system would bestow. The name was legend and eager students flocked to DITA to stare agog and soak up the wisdom of the man who had suburbanized space. He married, had a son, lost a wife, and almost managed to forget that out there beyond Patagonia’s well-tended fields of wheat and grass and poppies, lurked another name.

Almost.

 

3.

 

Patagonia’s sunward endcap was a miniature paradise. Dugay had redesigned it in the years he had spent tending the estate. Foaming cataracts drifted lazily in the low gravity, a scaled down replica of Victoria Falls. Clouds of spray swirled in precisely calculated patterns, encouraging the exuberant growth of tropical flora. Wiry pandanus swayed on thin stilt-like trunks; palm trees coiled in bizarre helicals and thick bush matted the floor of the forest preserve. Low-g did that to plants.

Kate splashed across the pool to the rock wall and hoisted herself up on her elbows, half out of the water.

“Are you going to tell me or do I have to torture it out of you? That was Lorenzo Jenkins’ ship I saw docked here, wasn’t it?”

“You’ve got awfully big eyes,” Dugay replied. He lay on his back on a marble bench, a few meters away, staring up at the mirrored blaze of the Sun.

“Ears too. I hear rumors.”

“Like what?”

“Like Philippe Dugay may be coming out of seclusion.”

Dugay sat up abruptly. “Who told you that?”

Kate smiled. “Come off it, Philippe. There’s not a treaty signed or a bribe taken that I don’t know about. My father once told me that Dugays are like old stars dying, going nova. Expanding, heating up everything around them, blowing off tremendous energy until they trigger themselves to flash.” She paused long enough to force his curiosity. “Then, they detonate, destroying everything nearby.”

Dugay forced a wan smile. “Arthur Lind never could speak metaphorically.”

“But it’s true, isn’t it? I can feel it. You’ve been quiet for ten years and something’s got you agitated now. You haven’t stared at the sky like that in ages.”

Dugay slipped into the pool and cupped some water over his face. “Lorenzo offered me a commission. A big one.” He let the admission lay there.

“Come on,” Kate chided, kicking him. “Tell me before you wet your pants.”

“Since you’re so interested, I will. He’s setting up a project to dismantle Jupiter and use the material to build an Outer Ring, beyond the Belt. I’m supposed to design the technique and supervise it. Not only that—he’s giving me full control of the results. I can create anything I want: terretas, small planetoids, whatever.”

Kate made an affecting moue of her face. “You sound convinced. What did you say?”

Dugay glided across the pool on his back. “I said I’d think on it. The whole project would take years, maybe decades. Who knows? I might not even live to see the end of it.”

“You’ll live, if it means that much to you. But what about me?”

He hadn’t heard her. Dugay stood up and let the falls sluice over his head, shaking himself like a dog as the water thundered down from a rock ledge. Kate watched him. He was a puzzle and she’d never found the pattern. Too much thinking gives Kate a big head. Did he even suspect how much she needed him now? Life as a Lind—now there was a puzzle. The family phobia, right? Don’t you dare die without doing something to credit your name. No wonder he’d finally left for Patagonia.

Kate sloshed through the water and joined him. She had to yell.

“I won’t let go of you that easily, mister!”

They left the pool and dried off under a tree that breathed warm, scented air over them. Jean appeared, leading a parade of cyberMates. The three of them dined on sole Venus and Soleil de Rothschilde ’21, under a shady bower.

She could see how much Jean meant to him. You lost your big chance, sweetie, when Alix came along. They were alike in so many ways—the same aquiline nose, the same slice of mouth. She figured she’d done a fine job hiding the jealousy. But seeing Jean, that was a slap in the face. Jean was a symptom of what had gone wrong between them and the perquisites of the Plutarchy could never quite compensate for the loss.

They chatted amicably enough, with Kate alert to every glance Jean stole from her. When they had finished, she lightly suggested they go mountain climbing, but Dugay nixed that. Instead, Jean whistled down a Mate and had her fetch a pair of horses, bred for low-g riding. The next hour was agony but she inwardly applauded her own graciousness. She said nothing as she glared at the two riders, cutting figure-8’s and spirals in the high grass of Patagonia’s plains.

Tired but laughing, Dugay rode back to the arbor and hoisted her up on the saddle behind him. “The grand tour,” he told her and the pinto neighed softly. “I’ve redone my Babylon again. Moved it across the river.”

“I’ll go too,” said Jean but his father had other ideas.

“You’ll go study, pal. You’ve got a dissertation coming up soon. I want to see all of you slaving away when I get back to the Mansion. Old Man Dugay runs a tight Institute, so get.”

Disappointed, Jean said good-bye and charged off into the grass, his horse leaping hills at full gallop. Dugay nudged his own mount into an easy trot across the field and they made the river in good time.

He led the pinto carefully along the rocky river bed as it splashed to the other side. An arc of slowly falling water spray followed them across.

“Why did you come back, Kate? After so long, I mean.”

She nestled her chin against his back and said, “I know this isn’t Balmoral. I know we’re not in our twenties anymore but I need you, Philippe. I had to come back.”

“Oh, come off it. I don’t con that easily anymore. Time paints things in different colors. Life was bright and sharp at Balmoral. Now it’s mostly grays. Tell me the truth.”

She choked him playfully but he shook her hands off. “I don’t want you to take that commission. It’s a mistake.”

“What’s it to you? You afraid I’m not your little play toy anymore?”

“It was never that way, Philippe.”

“Wasn’t it? I was your prisoner at Balmoral. Your father sheltered me from the Athalonia investigations. God, I was one scared guy back then. It was so horrible and I was so anxious, don’t you see? I owed him. So when his little girl developed an appetite for scared and foolish young architects, what could I do? Leave?”

“You could have left. Nobody chained you to Balmoral. Or me.”

“So I chained myself.” They vaulted up onto the opposite bank and shivered as the horse shook himself dry. “It’s—I really can’t explain it, Kate. The groundlanders had to have somebody to blame and I ran because it would have been me. I’m sorry if you think that was cowardice. Maybe it was. But I’ve had to live with that for nearly fifty years.”

“It was human,” said Kate. “And it’s over. You made up for it. No man’s done more to change the face of the solar system than you.”

Dugay shook his head bitterly. “I’m the one who needed you. To get my career out of the flames.”

Ahead of them, a full-scale replica of Babylon loomed. Dugay reined in the horse at the edge of the processional way. A huge arching gate beckoned them, glittering with glazed tiles of ceremonial bulls and dragons. Dugay had spent years reconstructing the city, right down to the Tower of Babel and the Hanging Gardens. Their steps echoed as they walked across the stone.

“Look,” said Kate, grabbing his arm. “No architect ever built anything worthwhile that didn’t have a powerful backer behind it. There’s no shame in that. I really came here to start over.”

“You came here to talk me out of this commission.”

She released him and walked a few steps away, stopping at the feet of a marble lion. “I had other reasons, Philippe, but yes. I want you to turn Lorenzo Jenkins down.”

“Nothing changes, does it? You always loved power more than anything, more than me. You still do. It’s an aphrodisiac to you. The trouble is that the System’s not just populated by Dugays. Other people don’t have to play pet the way I did.”

Kate turned on him. The soft glow of her face had hardened now, as if she were wearing a changeable mask. She was colder in this one.

“The gas giants are our future, Philippe. You know that. We can’t rely on the Belt for raw materials much longer. The supply’s giving out and the price is going up. Jupiter and the rest of the outer planets are the only source of hydrogen, carbon, water-ice and other volatiles left. If Jenkins or another Belt state gets to them first, the Inner Ring will be paying extortion prices in no time, if we can get the stuff at all. I’m not of a mind to let that happen.”

“So you thought you’d drop by and break my arm if I refused to quit.”

“I thought,” said Kate, “that I could count on your memory to help me. Everything you’ve done in your career was commissioned by my family. Ever hear of loyalty?”

“I spell it a different way, Kate. This one is too big to pass up.”

“I thought you were through playing Mr. Famous Architect but if it’s a challenging assignment you want, allow me to open up the family bank vaults. I’m sure I could bribe the Chamber into funding an expedition to Jupiter. Or would it gall you to work for me again?”

“You’re getting very warm.”

“Philippe, look,” she was trying on another mask, “I came here for two reasons. One, political and one, personal. Forget the politics for a moment.”

“I will if you will.”

“Please,” she glared at him, “just listen. I know what it’s been like for you. I’m not stupid. I can see.” She let her hands drop to her side, then sat on the front paws of the lion. “I’m not some ogre, you know, despite what you think. I’m a Lind and that means I have to do things, I’m expected to do big, important things. Each of us has to earn the name, every generation, over and over again, by doing something noteworthy, something that eclipses what past Linds have done. You can’t imagine what it’s like, the weight of all that tradition. I feel so vulnerable; it’s like all the stars of the galaxy were the eyes of my ancestors, staring at me, waiting for me to make my mark. I haven’t yet, Philippe. I haven’t done anything.”

Dugay smothered a smile. It was rare to glimpse any feeling in her. “What utter bullshit. You’ll have to do better than that.”

She stood up. “What I’m trying to say, Philippe, is that I need you because I don’t feel so…exposed, when you’re around. It’s that simple. I guess that’s the main reason I was so anxious to finance every project you could think of. Through you, I could live up to my name. You bet your scoops I used you. And I’m not through with you yet. If I let you do work for Lorenzo Jenkins, the bond between us broken. I want history to write our names together: Kate Lind made Philippe Dugay possible. Our fates are inseparable and that’s all there is to it. If you won’t do it for my sake, do it for yours. Refuse this commission.”

“I’ve done too much for your sake already, Kate,” said Dugay. He wandered along the wall, running his hands over a menagerie of mosaic beasts. A falcon in flight caught his eye. “I am doing this for my sake. This is probably my last project and I’ll never have a better chance to prove I don’t need you. Besides that, what would Jean and my students think of me if I turned down this chance? I’m a god to them, Kate: they idolize me. I owe it to them to show what terraforming can do—how far the field as advanced and what their responsibilities are. You could come to Jupiter with me, you know.”

“Impossible. The Plutarch can’t just leave her duties like that. And you do need me, whether you know it or not. We need each other. You’ve done enough for one man, haven’t you? You mentioned students. Step aside and give them a chance. Give your swollen ego a rest.”

Dugay shook his head. “I haven’t done this. How can I pass up an opportunity like this, Kate? The outer worlds are an open frontier, just crying to be developed. Someone’s going to benefit—why shouldn’t it be me?”

“I’m really surprised you could forget so quickly. Maybe I shouldn’t be, but Christ, Philippe, ten years is nothing.” She started to approach him but Dugay turned so abruptly that she stopped dead. “I believe I understand now. You’ve gone Belt—I can’t explain it any other way. All the commissions I gave you—hell, I made you what you are!—now this. I loved you, I financed you, I covered up for you—how can you be so selfish and ungrateful? What did Jenkins offer you—a home in heaven?”

“Kate, it isn’t the end of—“

“You don’t have to say anything else,” she blurted. Her eyes were moist but her face was steel. “I understand perfectly well.” She bit her lip and tried to hide it. You haven’t lost him yet, girl. Use what you have. Fight back like a Lind. “You’re too important to give up, Philippe.” Stop shaking. “You’re a valuable resource to the Inner Ring and I can’t let you take this commission. We won’t concede any one of the gas worlds to the Belt, not a one of them.” Not you either, chum. “I see this project as a direct threat and I mean to stop it.”

“What’s cooking in that little mind of yours? Some kind of devious plot, I’ll bet.”

“Smirk if you want to but it’s rather simple, actually. If you accept the Jupiter commission, the whole System will know who was really behind Athalonia inside of a day. I’ll see to it myself.”

The threat stung despite his forced show of calm. Dugay hovered on the edge of fear, until he willed himself to react. Take it easy and think, don’t panic. She wants panic.

“This is a pretty serious threat, Kate. Better think of the repercussions first. It was Arthur Lind who conceived Athalonia.”

“Doesn’t matter. The design and execution were yours and that can be documented. How will you explain yourself to the System then—all those deaths, the flooding and everything? Groundlanders ought to find it very interesting. So will your students at the Institute, when they find out their hero is a monster.”

He was appalled and couldn’t hide it. “Kate, you aren’t serious about this.”

“I am. Quite serious. If I can’t have you, no one will.”

“I must say blackmail’s quite becoming to you. And real love is alien. But I’m a big boy now and threats like this don’t bother me.”

Her eyes blazed. “Was it ever love?”

Dugay shrugged and unhitched the horse from the gate. “I’d call it calculated charm. We loved using each other. But those days are gone, Kate. You can’t grow roses in a bed of ashes.”

She stiffened but her eyes betrayed a flare of hope. She wanted to say something but thought better of it. Pride, Dugay thought. She’s drowning in it. When she blinked again, it was gone. Extinguished by a tear.

“There’s nothing more to say, Philippe.” She flinched at the thought. “I’m sorry it had to come to this.”

“Me too.” There was a tactful pause. “Need a ride back?”

“I’ll walk.” And before another tear could fall, she clattered across the marble plaza and ran through the gate.

Dugay steadied the pinto and hauled himself up. It was a long ride back to the Mansion and he played with the idea of calling a flyer. No, better take the long way. Give her a chance to leave gracefully. What did she think I would do, after all these years—jump into her arms? He kicked the horse to a gallop.

And what if I had?

 

4.

 

For several days, the Brasilia drifted through the urban clutter of the Inner Ring. Dugay had arranged this little field trip for the benefit of his students: his private cruiser served admirably as a traveling classroom. There was no better way to display what terraforming could achieve than by showing them at close range what he had spent his life doing.

He assembled them on the ship’s observation deck and gave them some background. Jean was there, along with a cute blond waif he hadn’t noticed before. Probably new, he thought.

“We’ll start with the Moon. That was the first major terraforming project.”

The waif had a voice and used it. “Mr. Dugay, weren’t there experiments done on Earth before that?’ She seemed harmless enough but the question rattled him.

Dugay replied, “True but they were small-scale, proving out basic theories on tectonic control. Not really useful on inert worlds like the Moon.” She seemed satisfied but he wondered and kept an eye on her throughout the lecture.

The Brasilia assumed a low orbit about the Moon and the students watched silently as the hazy blue of the lunar atmosphere slid under them. The little devils are flabbergasted, Dugay told himself. But you needn’t gloat so—they’re all young and impressionable. Except for her.

Dugay pointed through a porthole to a figure-8 shaped ocean partly hidden under a bank of gray clouds.

“The far shore, to the right. See that island there?” He waited until the others acknowledged. “That’s Mitika Peak, nearly five thousand meters from the floor of the sea.”

“What’s that wake behind it?” someone asked. “Some kind of current?”

“It’s called the Swirl. That’s my name. When I sailed from Vitruvius to the Rocks of Apollo, I nearly sank in those waters. Perpetual whirlpool, caused by gas venting on the floor of the mare basin.”

They seemed properly impressed. All but the waif, that is. She was watching him, not the Moon.

“I liked it better when it was an airless desert. Now it’s not so bright, what with all that air and forest land. Pretty dull place, like most worlds made habitable by Man.”

And that was well before your time, dear. Who is this girl anyway?

They were crossing the barren hills of the Apennines, now an archipelago of dome-like islands, with scores of cottages and bungalows shining brightly in the dusklight.

“The weather was better back then, too,” someone cracked. Forced laughter filled the deck.

Dugay smiled and resumed the lecture, as the dark gray-blue of the Sea of Rains filled the view. They soon passed around the Moon and admired the rugged terrain of Farside, even spotting a few skiers from their faint trails in the powder and a hikers’ camp from its campfire. Dugay talked until the balmy shores of the Sea of Crises came up on them, then fell silent as the ship moved on to other sights.

The field trip took them by each of the inner planets, for a short course in planetary engineering. The rings of Mercury were in view when he listed the standard techniques terraforming had perfected over the years, in its search for the lever by which a world could be altered.

You could change a planet with biology, he told them. The right kind of fast-growing, specially-engineered organisms could affect a planet’s atmosphere and break down harmful components.

You could introduce needed lighter elements by diverting ice asteroids or water comets onto the surface. If the mass were great enough, you could change a planet’s length of day, as he had done with Venus, when he’d bought a few score asteroids from the Belt and crashed them onto the Venusian surface. That gave the planet a lower temperature and more water as well as an Earth-like day.

You could manipulate planetary climates, with oil slicks to control ocean evaporation or with huge mats of minute particles to control dust storms, as he’d tried with Mars. Dugay briefly described how he’d managed to darken the Martian ice caps with material mined from Phobos, thus trapping more sunlight and tilting the Red Planet into a warmer, rainier cycle. The process had been aided by triggering the volcanoes that covered much of the surface, releasing more water and volatile gases than the poles themselves contained.

Or you could take Mercury. They skirted the rings just close enough for everyone to see that they consisted of trillions of overlapping chunks of rock, a sort of parasol in the sky that had been necessary to shield the surface from the searing breath of the Sun. “Once we had the cycle broken,” Dugay explained, “it was a simple matter of adding the right elements from ice asteroids. The first hotels came a decade later. Notice that because the rings overlap, fully half of Mercury’s surface is always in shadow. Anyone for Sun sailing?”

He let them gape for a while and fielded a few questions. Occasionally, he challenged them to think of alternatives to his own methods. He was surprised by the answers; it was a bright group. But he couldn’t help beaming whenever Jean responded. No doubt about it—his own son was the class celebrity.

Patagonia was several days away, so Dugay took them on an extensive tour of the Inner Ring. Though he had seen and visited virtually every city around the Ring, and indeed, had designed and built many of them, Dugay couldn’t pass by without scrutinizing them as only an architect could. He’d been proud of his accomplishments here once, a long time ago. He smiled inwardly, thinking perhaps Lorenzo Jenkins was right after all. The Inner Ring was indelibly stamped with his own personality. Dugay was written everywhere—in the spider web grids of Delambre, in the flowery pod structures of Gloriana, in the severe but always expanding Bauhaus cubes of Hochstadt, one kilometer after another of terretas of every imaginable shape: cylinders, horns, spheres, wheels, shapes based on obscure mathematical equations; even the ubiquitous ball-and-beam construction of the Ring’s dismal factory belts. All of them signatures in steel and synthalloy of Philippe Dugay.

To pass the time, he posed hypothetical questions for the class.

“You’re a terraforming engineer and you’re dissatisfied with the look of the solar system. All those terretas littering up space—you want to change the arrangement a bit, give the System more variety. Let’s play God and say you want to build an entirely new planet, just because some people like natural surfaces, mountains, oceans and whatnot. How do you go about it?”

They rose to the occasion and peppered him with suggestions. Scoop up all the asteroids and allow their common gravity to bring them together.

“Not enough material left to make a good-sized moon,” Dugay answered.

Melt Ganymede or some other Jovian satellite by moving it sunward, then apply an atmosphere and let the weather re-sculpt the surface. That was the waif’s idea.

Dugay shook his finger at her. “Ah, you’re a clever one, but that’s cheating. Has to be from scratch.”

Disintegrate one of the gas worlds and use the heavier elements for building blocks. His own son smiled at him.

“You’re getting warm, Jean.” You’re also a showoff, since you know about Jenkins’ idea. But I’ll make it tougher. “Give me specifics.”

Jean bushed hair from his eyes and frowned. “Jupiter’s the best choice. It’s got enough material in elemental form for forty earths. Twelve percent of its mass is oxygen, nitrogen, carbon, silicon and aluminum, with sizeable amounts of iron and other heavy elements in the form of rocks and ices.”

Good boy—that’s why I make you do your homework. “And how would you get at this material?”

“You could speed up its rotation. Centrifugal effects would throw off material from the equator, if it was moving fast enough.”

“How?”

That one stumped them. Dugay let the arguments fly for a few minutes, then solved the problem for them.

“What I would do is wrap the planet with metallic, current-carrying grids—you could power them with orbiting solsats. If we choose the right latitude, we could make Jupiter like an armature in an electric motor. Most of the planet is liquid, by the way, with a small core of solid hydrogen and several thousand kilometers of atmosphere. Part of that liquid is in a metal phase and it’s a highly conducting fluid. Pump that stuff full of energy and electrical stresses would start it moving faster and faster, until the planet began throwing off matter from its equator, like a spool of thread unwinding.”

They liked the idea and Dugay soaked up the admiration for a few minutes, until the inevitable joker with a question spoke up. One of Jean’s friends.

“You’d have to collect it somehow, wouldn’t you? Volatiles like hydrogen would never survive a trip sunward in their elemental state.”

Dugay sighed, then shot back, “Exactly right. Good for you. How could that problem be solved?”

He spied the waif just in time. She was all smirk.

“I’m sure you’ll enlighten us.”

Damn right I will, lady. Dugay examined several concepts and traded them back and forth with the class. He enjoyed the exchange immensely, thinking here was the future of the profession and he’d better make them see what powers they would be commanding. To them, every word was law, every sentence a commandment. God, I’d do anything for this bunch.

“Suppose we had a special vehicle, a scoopship to collect the matter as it comes off. The ship would have a bank of fusion reactors to transmute the hydrogen and helium and other lighter elements to heavier ones, like iron and nickel, then compact it into balls about ten meters in diameter. Once compacted, the ship could fire these ironballs anywhere in the Solar System, in a long continuous chain, to be picked up by mass catchers and assembled wherever we need them. A nice, busy little pipeline.”

Even the waif had to approve and in spite of himself, Dugay was excited by the idea. The scale of it appealed to him, and he was sure Jenkins knew that. That was his signature, after all—the big job no one else would tackle. Kate must be out of her mind to think I could ignore this.

He’d almost talked himself into accepting the commission when his reverie was punctured by a verbal dart. The waif was the culprit. She stared at him in the oddest way, screwing up her face as though she were trying to remember something.

“Would you mind repeating your name?” Dugay asked her. A knot of students were mumbling at something in the porthole and Dugay went over to inspect the sight.

“Maris Leigh-Sawyer,” she replied.

The name meant nothing to him until he took a look at the object of curiosity. It was Earth herself, gliding by. The fat blue slash of the Atlantic faced them and, underneath a few ribbons of cloud, the craggy remnants of the Athalonian chain were barely visible.

Maris Leigh-Sawyer?

She was there beside him and supplied an explanation.

“My father died for that. Suicide, you see. I was saying isn’t it odd how one terraforming project can be such a big success, like the Moon, and yet another one can be such a catastrophic failure, like Athalonia? I find that strange. Maybe terraforming’s gotten too bold.”

Dugay’s face went pale and he fought back a hard swallow. She was looking at him so—but it couldn’t be. Coincidence at best. The Linds had kept the lid on too tight for any other answer.

“Men use the tools available to them,” he replied. “You know about Athalonia?”

She nodded. “More than you’ve said in class. My father was Preston Sawyer. He was part of the design staff for the project. He wasn’t the chief architect, just one of many that filled in all the details. After the floods, though, the chief architect vanished and his staff had to take the blame. He was never heard from again.”

“You’d make a great historian.”

Maris shrugged. “It’s not hard when it’s personal.” She studied him for a second and Dugay was conscious of a slight tremble in his hands. “The media tried and convicted them all. My father could never get any work after that; he became so depressed, he shot himself out of orbit around Mars. They found the wreckage on the slopes of Olympus Mons.”

Dugay was afraid to breathe. “Did he ever say who the chief architect was?”

Maris shook her head. “He wanted to. He knew who it was but he was afraid. He never said exactly but I think the Linds threatened him. He and the other designers. They refused to say anything about it.” She clenched her fists bitterly. “Arthur Lind was a ruthless tyrant.”

Thank God for tyrants, thought Dugay. She accused him with silence and he hated himself all over again. If he took on the Jupiter commission, would Kate spill the news? If she did, could he face Maris with the truth? If he didn’t take the job, could he make Jean understand? Dugay added up the ifs and didn’t like the answer.

“Why’d you choose this profession?” he asked her. “If you’ve got so many doubts about it.”

“I don’t know,” she answered. “I guess to finish what my father started.”

“In that case, you’d better remember one thing.”

“What’s that?”

“This business isn’t for the weak of heart or the dim of brain. We’re dealing with whole worlds here, entire climates and sometimes ecologies. Mistakes happen because we’re human, not machines. But they can be overcome, believe me. You don’t throw away the hammer just because you hit your thumb with it.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, Mr. Dugay. When I meet the man who should have taken the blame, I’ll certainly need that hammer.”

They said no more but Dugay felt ill. He’d almost managed to bury the doubts, almost sealed off that part of his memory. Until Lorenzo Jenkins. Now the whole thing was unraveling and he knew what would be coming. Sleepless nights full of voices, the funeral dirge he knew by heart, the buzzard eating away inside. Months, maybe years, of wondering; had he fed the maws of guilt enough? And all of it for a pointless project he didn’t need. Damn it, I shouldn’t feel this way. I’ve made up for it, haven’t I? He wanted to ask Maris that question but he couldn’t. He was afraid of the answer.

No more lectures for today. Dugay ordered the ship back to Patagonia. He needed time to think.

 

He spent the next day sailing in the weightless regions of the estate. Along the axis of the cylinder, the centrifugal forces were effectively zero and the gentlest breeze could propel him for hours. He floated serenely for nearly a day, in and out of cloud patches, while the world turned around him. Only a message from Jean ruined the idyll.

Lorenzo Jenkins had called.

Dugay bled off some altitude for a little speed and banked the flyer left, catching a weak thermal. He looked down and saw a low range of hills, snow-covered and winding between a pair of glassy lakes on one side and a thickly forested plateau on the other. A thin stream meandered along through the forest, glinting occasionally from reflected sunlight, which poured in from above through long, mirrored panels. It was a peaceful panorama, with a few wisps of clouds obscuring part of the landscape. He followed a slow, descending spiral and headed for a cluster of buildings on a low ridge a few kilometers away. A plume of smoke twisting lazily in the air identified the Mansion.

Jenkins was impatient. He’d asked Jean to press his father for a decision. It was urgent, Jenkins had told him, that the project get underway as soon as possible. Billions were tied up in the undertaking; every day’s delay was costly.

A cyberMate brought them whiskey and cake. Jean chewed thoughtfully, watching his father down the drink.

“You are going to accept Jenkins’ offer, aren’t you, Father? You know you want to—you don’t hide it well at all. What’s stopping you from putting a call to Big Venice right now?”

“What’s stopping me?” Dugay waved for another drink, then grabbed the bottle away from the Mate and dismissed her abruptly. “Too much thinking, that’s what.”

“I don’t understand,”

Be glad you don’t. He tilted the bottle up and let the fire scorch his tongue. “Kate would be hurt…if I accepted. I’ve been toying with no for an answer.”

“You’re not serious, Father. You can’t mean it. This is a great opportunity for you. You’ve been doing nothing for ten years, wishing there was something you could do. This is exactly what you need.”

Dugay closed his eyes. He wanted to say it, tell Jean everything, all about Athalonia, the lies, the hiding, everything. But it would crush him, the truth. What would he think? All my life, I’ve tried to be a model to him. It’s better he doesn’t know. Or is the truth that I want to escape the past by going to Jupiter?

Jean’s face was a mosaic of looks. “How can you hesitate? I’d have climbed the first—“

“Jean, that’s enough. Stop telling me what I need.” He got up and went looking for a Mate. A moment later, Jean followed and found him in his study, stretched out for rubdown. The Mate kneaded the taut cords of his neck gently.

“Kate would understand, Father. I know she would.”

“Kate doesn’t understand. She’s a lonely, cantankerous old woman. I should stay here to be with her.”

“You always said architects were born to create. That’s what you tell the class too—that Man’s a builder by nature. You’re saying that’s wrong?”

Dugay wanted to strangle him but he was too comfortable. The boy had a talent for turning your own words against you. “What do you want me to say, son?”

“That you’ll do it.”

“Naturally.” Yet he was right, in a way. He’d be a better example to the kids by showing them how it was done. It was easy to teach by talking—all you needed was a mouth. Terraforming demanded more than that. It might be fun showing them that Philippe Dugay still had the flair. But how could he face Maris knowing he was responsible for her father’s blame? How could be face Jean with the truth? How could he face any of them? They all saw terraforming as a way of improving lives, not taking them. He’d told Maris that mistakes could be overcome but he wasn’t sure he believed that. All their idealism and visions about the field would crumble when they found out what he was.

“Well?”

“Impertinent little scold, aren’t you? Just like Kate. Honestly, Jean, I just don’t know. There are some risks here?”

“Father, you love risks.”

“But I’m old, in case you hadn’t noticed. I’ve got people to look out for.”

“You’re not feeble. Look, you want to do this, don’t you?”

“Yes.” It slipped out before he could catch it.

“And you’re not sure if you can handle Jupiter and Kate at the same time, right?”

“Yes.” Precocious twerp. At least, he got it from me.

“Then, think of it like this: relationships between people are like buildings, like terretas or any structure. They have to be built up, worked on, added to and repaired. You didn’t put up Delambre in a day. What makes you think you can know Kate Lind in a day? It takes time and patience.”

Dugay raised up and brushed the cyberMate away. He stared at his son.

“Did you see that on a vid, by any chance?”

Jean looked confused. “No, Father. I thought it was obvious.”

Well it was, but it took a skinny, silk-faced adolescent to realize it. Dugay didn’t know whether to laugh or cry or both. Jean could handle Kate better than he could. He was plenty strong enough to weather any bad news. Dugay knew he would sooner die than give Jean a reason to think less of him.

He placed a call to Lorenzo Jenkins and quickly accepted the commission.

 

5.

 

Six months, eight days and a handful of hours later, Lorenzo Jenkins was standing on the observation deck of the Brasilia. They were well beyond the Outer Fringe of the Belt now, in trans-Jovian space, and Jupiter itself lay directly ahead, swollen to a readily discernible disk.

It was a salmon-hued world, mottled and banded with oranges, reds, browns and ambers, a cauldron of clouds, storms and majestic seething turbulence. Alternating strips of light and dark wrapped the planet in a calico shroud and several small red spots boiled away in the north tropical zone, companions to the Great Red Spot in the south, a centuries-old hurricane churning since the time of Cromwell and King Charles.

For several days, Brasilia and her brood of scoopships, cableships, jumpships and tenders coursed through the Jovian skies in a steeply inclined orbit, skirting the shoals and reefs of her radiation belts, until at last they found the first of several holes in the sheath of charged particles. Dugay passed the word to the other ships and then Brasilia dropped to a lower orbit through the first of these holes, like navigating a minefield in a wartime harbor.

The entire fleet settled into orbit half a million kilometers above the cloud tops. By now, the planet filled nearly a third of the sky and hundreds of frothing spicules and cells of gas swept by beneath them. The speed of its rotation flattened Jupiter at the poles and widened it to a bulge at the equator. Ferocious winds resulted and they smeared the columns of gas into all sorts of grotesque and beautiful shapes. Several of the crew came by the crew’s mess, watching the scenery below for hours at a time. Evan Metcalf found himself transfixed by the ever-shifting palette of colors and shapes. He could well imagine the planet’s visible face as a giant’s palette, where Nature worked as the artist to create an ever-changing panorama of colors, forms and brush strokes.

The cableships set to work laying down the grid that would feed current directly into the conducting layers of the atmosphere. With their billowing shroud lines and enormous dirigible bags full of heated hydrogen, they were ungainly craft. Cablers were not without propulsion, but engines were almost worthless in the maelstroms of Jupiter. Each one had a crush depth of five thousand kilometers below the topmost cloud layers and the tension in Brasilia’s command center increased to an unbearable silence as the ships found and settled into their cruising altitudes.

Jenkins rubbed his bald head and muttered, “This is going to be tricky. Any lower and those ships’ll crumple like paper.”

“I just hope the winds don’t stress the pressure skin too greatly,” Dugay replied. They looked at each other, saying nothing. Dugay studied the monitors from each ship, finding the views much the same. He picked one and switched it to the big viewer behind them.

The cabler had reached its operating altitude and for the moment was cruising in the clear. Resolution wasn’t sharp at this depth; instead of everything being bathed in a pale yellow-white, the dominant colors tended toward a deeper reddish-brown. There were no lazy twisting columns of gas here either. Winds were stronger, more directional. For several hours, they drifted through cataracts of blood-red, until the ship found its position.

Abruptly, the scene shifted to another view, looking aft. At first, nothing seemed different. The same sinuous filaments of clouds streamed behind, undulating tubes of red, brown, orange and scarlet. An occasional wispy patch floated by the imager. Then, something foreign inched its way into the picture, staring at the bottom.

It was the cable. Long, thin, copper-gold in the dim light, it snaked its way from the bottom of the picture slowly toward the center, whipping leisurely from one side to the other as it receded into the distance and was soon lost. To a casual observer, it seemed as though the imager had grown a tail and was dragging it across the cloudscape. The winds twisted the cable about and set up standing waves. Dugay watched the oscillations carefully.

 

By the end of the third month, the operation was substantially complete. Minor mishaps had occurred, such as when a cabler had veered too close to a small red spot and had been sucked into the vortex before the cable could be severed. The boiling oval of wind and ammonia rain had given the crew quite a thrilling ride before they managed to pull loose. Beyond that, the expedition had been fortunate. The trickiest part was over and no lives had been lost.

Dugay found the work immensely satisfying. He’d nearly atrophied at Patagonia since the days of Delambre and it felt great to be out among the planets again, making things happen. He was rejuvenated and happy, itching to shape a world with his own hands.

He remembered how it had been with Delambre—that seemed ages ago now. Hordes of spectators and tourists had flitted by in their private jumpships, marveling at the spectacle, sometimes orbiting for days on end. It had been the same when Mars was awakened and Venus too. He needed that admiration; it was food to him and he thrived on it.

People liked to see things grow. Whether a plant or a flower, a city or an atmosphere for the Moon, a new planet or even a failed continent like Athalonia, people were always thrilled at the sight of something new being built. Man the toolmaker triumphs again, bringing order and beauty to an ignorant cosmos. It was a spiritual thing, this feeling, a sense of pride that men could still mold the elements to their wills. They felt it when fire was tamed, when the first huts were strung up—it was sheer ego. Men were vain. What they built with their tools were reflections of themselves. Tools were simply different kinds of arms, only now they were more powerful, now they could shape worlds. And there would come a time when they would make stars too.

There was only one flaw in his happiness. He tried to lose himself in his work but always the gnawing fear of what Kate Lind would do plagued him. He knew she could ruin everything with a few simple words.

Dugay called her occasionally and begged her to stay silent, or at least, wait until the project was through before speaking out. Better yet, he told her, why don’t you come out here and be with me? He tried to make his voice as alluring as he could—he even promised to build a small world for them to retire to. He gave the idea a great deal of attention, describing it in lavish detail for her. Just a pocket-sized planet, he admitted, and was soon buried in the design.

Shaping the basic landforms was the key. He’d have to keep an eye on the tiniest of features. “It’s a study in gravitational physics, Kate. I’ll explain it to you someday.” He’d studied the topography of Earth for years and concluded it was simply an aesthetic disaster. Too unbalanced. All the continents up there in the northern hemisphere, all the oceans in the southern. “Our world will be a lot more pleasing to the eye.” With the right touch at the right time, he could evolve continents shaped like necklaces—long, sinuous arcs of islands girding the equator. A few larger islands in the temperate zones and they’d have any kind of terrain and climate they could want. “Honestly, you’ll love it, Kate. I know you will. But give me a chance, okay? My reputation’s still important to me—it’s all I’ve got now. Please don’t take that away from me.”

Each time, her reply was noncommittal. Dugay thought he could detect a steady weakening of her resolve. She said less with each transmission. The time delay bothered him too; the half hour or so it took for signals to cross space between the Brasilia and Delambre made him wonder. Was he imagining the feeling? Like any Lind, loyalty was important to her and he knew she wouldn’t leave the Plutarchy easily. What would she do?

He was annoyed that he couldn’t answer that question. He didn’t know Kate well enough to be sure. Years of separation had dulled his judgment and guessing wasn’t good enough. He liked precision .

So he tried to concentrate on the job of taking Jupiter apart.

For the first few months or so, little change could be detected in the planet’s appearance. The same girdle of bands and stripes twisted their way across the Jovian cloudscape, dotted with the same red blotches and yellow-white loops.

But soon after that, there appeared a barely discernible ripple along the equator, as the grid pumped electrical current into the atmosphere. Vivid white veins of lightning crackled back and forth. The first faint, nearly invisible streamers of gas had already spun away from Jupiter’s grasp and the fleet of scoops went to work immediately taking them up. A short while later, the first balls of transmuted matter were streaking toward factory terretas in the Outer Fringe.

By the end of the year, Jupiter had grown a long, luminous thread, unwinding at the equator. The filament was nearly eight thousand kilometers long at the scoop end and the ships flew countless sorties into the stuff every day. From gas to solid, Jupiter’s innards were being transmuted into compact balls of iron and nickel. She was a lode of fabulous wealth; everything was mined and used—hydrogen, helium, oxygen. For a single terreta, Dugay wouldn’t need much but the volatiles they were scooping were so scarce in the Inner Ring that billions could be made in the export trade just on the scraps alone.

Brasilia cruised the Jovian system for months at a time, while Dugay supervised the operation. He made occasional forays to Big Venice-in-the Belt to fill Jenkins in on their progress. But he preferred to stay away from the populated areas. News of Jupiter’s demise had flooded the System for quite a while and there wasn’t much point in adding to the wound. He was well aware of the consternation the project had caused in the Chamber. In a way, he felt sorry for Kate; the job of explaining it would fall to her. She could more than hold her own there—what delegate wouldn’t think twice before attacking a Lind by name?—and he was sure she would have her hands full with excuses, but all the same, the Inner Ring had been desperate for a shot at the resources of the gas worlds. With the proven success of his centrifugal method for breaking down a planet, the Belt would have a big head start in the race.

There was nothing to do but wait—and hope. He knew he hadn’t spent the years wisely. There were certain traditions between the Linds and the Dugays, traditions going back to the days of the first human settlements in space. He’d always been expected to use his talents in the service of the ancient alliance, to cement the concordance and friendship of the families. But he had ignored that duty. He’d saved his art and imagination for other things and now he regretted it. What difference did it make that he could build worlds and destroy them when the art of loving someone took years to master.

That was the most sublime and complex design of all.

 

6.

 

A full year passed before Dugay was satisfied that enough matter had been extracted to make a good start with the new Ring. Jupiter would keep spinning for a few more years but already the title of King of the Planets had fallen to Saturn. The planet would slough off matter for a while longer, then turn colder and more inert than she had ever been before. But that wouldn’t last long. He had proven the feasibility of extracting building materials by pumping a world full of current. Other expeditions would follow and he had little doubt Jupiter would be picked clean in half a century at most.

He’d found the work stimulating, after a decade’s hiatus, though not in the ways he imagined. Scores of new terretas had been built and many were already being towed to new orbits beyond the Belt. Civilization in space expanded by concentric rings like a tree, and Dugay had already visited the System’s newest vegas, a dingy realm of casinos, cathouses and tinglerooms called Lustre-of-Gold. Even a few Delambrian Chamber deputies had secretly made trips there.

He’d even taken on a few commissions from wealthy Belt traders for small private planets. Nothing elaborate—Moon-sized worlds were popular and tropical paradises were all the rage. But Dugay knew that fashions changed and in his spare time, he worked up plans for desert planets, ocean planets (really a big drop of water, several thousand kilometers wide), jungle planets and any other design for which there seemed to a demand. It kept him busy for a while but not busy enough to wonder.

There had been no news from Delambre for over a year, since his last talk with Kate. The silence made him anxious and he invented things to worry about. He realized that he missed Kate—he missed her needling and heckling. He felt numb without it. It just wasn’t like her to remain quiet and do nothing for so long.

He toured the new Ring, watching from Brasilia as terretas were spun out of spider webs of beams, ironballs were smelted and fused into planetoids. Construction was feverish and, like any frontier, fortunes could be made or lost in a single day. He should have been gratified that he had made it all possible but he wasn’t. He was still unsatisfied. Something was missing.

He cared about Kate and he couldn’t hide it any longer. She wouldn’t have come to Patagonia if she hadn’t felt the same way. He understood the mechanics of stress and why terretas were so pleasing to the eye. He understood aesthetic proportions and how to build a planet from scratch. He knew how to mine gas worlds and change climates. But people eluded him. People and their feelings—that was the one challenge he’d failed to master.

He was brooding in Brasilia’s stateroom when Lorenzo Jenkins called.

“Don’t be such a recluse, Dugay. Come to Big Venice and join the human race. I’m hosting a party—nothing much but every Belt merchant worth his name will be there. You’re the guest of honor.”

Dugay was staring blankly at a vid on his desktop, idly putting his private planet through cycles of continent formation, glaciation, and a dozen other hypothetical processes. He mumbled his reply.

“It’s all for nothing. You know that, Jenkins? Nothing. I thought this was what I was restless for but it wasn’t. Ten years I spent in splendid seclusion, planning my big return. This was going to be it.” He frowned, switched off the vid. “But it isn’t. It’s still not enough. I’m rich beyond measure and famous beyond belief. I’ve got powers and privileges most men can’t even dream of. Yet I’m still not satisfied. What’s wrong with me?”

“You’re a congenital overachiever.”

“It’s more than that. It’s my punishment for Athalonia.”

Jenkins was perplexed. “Athalonia? What are you talking about? That was before your time.”

“You’re a generous man.”

“Look,” said Jenkins, “if it’s work you want, it’s work you’ll get. I’ve got another project in mind. Saturn, this time. Ring-mining will be feasible before you know it and I want to be the first.”

Dugay shook his head. “Saturn’s one of the greatest pleasures in the System. Why tinker with it? Some things should be left alone.”

Jenkins squinted into the screen. “Your last transmission was garbled, Philippe. I thought you said some things should be left alone.”

“I did.”

“I was afraid of that.” He held his stomach. “Let me digest this for a minute. What if I commissioned you to do another Saturn, only better? Say a halo of ringed worlds all around the Sun. Hell, we could even have another Sun, make the Solar System a binary arrangement. Fusion techniques have come a long way, you know.”

“It’s no good,” Dugay replied. “Let other architects do it. Terraforming’s a stunt and I’m through performing. There’s something else I want to do.”

“What could be more momentous than redesigning the Solar System?”

“Learning how to love.”

“Sentimental tripe. That’s nothing to what I’m offering.”

“It’s everything,” Dugay said. “Terraforming’s a science now. The techniques don’t change that much from one planet to the next. But love is different. It’s an art and a hard one, with no rules to follow. Look at me, Jenkins—what do you see?”

“I see the most famous and successful terraforming architect in the history of the Universe, that’s what. A living, breathing monument.”

“Exactly. But I don’t want to be a monument. I just want to be needed. I may be the most highly skilled, thoroughly trained, brilliantly inspired artist in history when it comes to terraforming. But where people are concerned, I know less than my students. Less even than my own son. I can’t explain that but it’s true.”

Jenkins sighed. “This sounds serious. Sure you haven’t been baked silly by solar wind?”

“I’m quitting the project, Jenkins. I don’t need it anymore. I’m going back to the Inner Ring to see Kate Lind.”

“Then you’d better stop by Big Venice on your way. I’ve just agreed to a council with the Plutarch of Delambre. She’s coming to Big Venice the day after tomorrow.”

“Kate’s coming there? Why—how?”

Jenkins chuckled. “Slow down. It’s a parley, between the Inner Ring and the Belt states. Commercial agreements are the main agenda. They want our volatiles and they think it’s about time to talk terms. Why don’t you drop in and we’ll talk about this quitting of yours?”

“I’m on my way right now,” Dugay said.

 

Brasilia detached herself from the fleet, leaving a man Farumah in charge and took a high-risk path through the crowded Jewelpack region of the Belt. Big Venice lay near the center of the Outer Fringe, a week’s journey by the normal routes of the ore drive. But Dugay ignored standard procedure and plunged through the course of a major ironball stream, to make Big Venice in a few days. It was like drifting through a shooting gallery.

He roamed the ship impatiently, thinking about Kate. A convocation at Big Venice? Commercial treaties? Not Kate, he laughed. She doesn’t give up that easily. That’s one persistent woman.

But why the silence on Athalonia? He stuck a nemocap on his head and extracted the memory, replaying it over and over again. No doubt about it—she had been serious about the threat. But something had happened in the last year. He found the memory painfully fresh and put it aside. I’ve changed too. That was another being back there, bitching about roses. Funny how time makes puppets out of people.

Brasilia made rendezvous in record time.

Big Venice-in-the-Belt was an architect’s nightmare. The settlement (you could hardly call it a city) clung to a small potato of an asteroid like an ugly parasite. From just above the landing fields, buried in a crater basin at the “south pole,” Dugay could take in the surface layout of the complex, which wasn’t much. Most of the fun lay burrowed deep inside, as much as three kilometers underground, indeed all the way to the core. Underneath the dusty gray badlands, Big Venice had been tunneled out until it looked like a rat’s maze to the novice visitor. Up on top, cargo tubes sneaked up from the south, looking a great deal like some silvery-white moss had taken root and spread its stems around the asteroid.

Inside though, Big Venice was a scooper’s heaven. The place was laid out so that a casual stroll was impossible. The unwary visitor was bedeviled at every turn in the plunging, vertiginous corridors of the asteroid. There were cathouses and tinglerooms, bars and saloons, dingy holes and well-lighted pubs. Games and chases and fights spilled out into the passageways and time after time, Dugay was dragged into dark caverns which could change in an instant from cabarets to stadiums to brothels and back again. He made tedious progress toward the center of the world, sucked along by a tide of revelry that wouldn’t quit.

The heart was the casino, an eerie, half-lit realm of low-gravity where hordes of leaden-eyed bettors followed the trajectories of slowly spinning dice from one cyber-croupier to the next. Dugay squeezed through a miasma of foul breath and hallucinogenic smoke and wandered back and forth, looking for Jenkins. The click of dice and the slow pirouette of roulette balls in their three-dimensional tumble cubes were all that animated the room. Everything else seemed hypnotized, or dead.

An arm reached out and held him fast. He turned and saw a cyber-guard, its synthflesh face smeared into a permanent half-smile. With painful force, the unit directed him toward a room above the ceiling, behind a row of TRICKSTER panels. An oval of dim red light shown down from above. At the guard’s urging, Dugay pulled himself up a pole.

He poked through the oval and found himself in a chamber full of floating spheres. The room itself was round and quite large, though deceptive. Other globes studded the walls and ceiling, some drifting freely, each one a telemonitor showing several perspectives of every niche and hole in the city. In among the scenes of vice and corruption was yet another globe, this one the smiling, now laughing form of Lorenzo Jenkins, drifting like a weightless Buddha.

“Come in, come in, welcome to my office. Sit anywhere.” He swept his arms in a wide circle. “A drink, perhaps? No? Ah, well, then perhaps we can chat. Excuse me.” Jenkins’ eye shifted quickly to a globe on his right, where a white dot was flashing in the lower left-hand corner. Jenkins stared for a moment and the light blipped out. “A customer who thought he could beat the house. No problem. I jammed his gizmo for good. Now, let’s talk about bribing you to stay on.”

“I’m nearly incorruptible,” Dugay told him. “Has Kate arrived yet?”

“You’re the first,” Jenkins replied. “She’s on her way, I’m told. There was a little delay. Care to meet some Belt-side delegates?”

“Who’s represented?”

“Anybody with money. Lustre-of-Gold, Corsica, Eden Gardens, Pittsburgh, you name it, they’re here. I could score a lot of points by showing you off.”

“Maybe so but your number one prize thoroughbred genius is tired. Kindly have one of your lovely cyber-Mates escort me to my suite. And send up a cyber-masseur while you’re at it. My back needs major surgery.”

 

Jenkins put up his guest in the Plutarch’s Suite, on the house. He had a fine view of the landing fields, where he hoped to spy on the arrival of the Delambrian ship, but the rubdown made him drowsy and the wine and soy-veal put him to sleep. He had vague recollections of nude dancers in the room and an embarrassing dream about taking part in estredo, a fertility ballet for which Big Venice was famous. But no ships came and the dream soon vanished into oblivion.

 

Dugay was still groggy when the trilling of the message alarm aroused him. He groaned and punched it on, blinking furiously at the round shape on the screen.

Jenkins’ voice cut through the fog. “There’s been an accident, Philippe. The Delambrian ship’s in trouble. We picked up an auto-distress signal a few minutes ago.”

“Auto-distress…” Dugay mumbled, wiping sleep crystals from his eyes. “Kate—is she…okay…?”

“I don’t know. Evidently, there was an explosion on board. We’re scanning a cloud of debris about twenty million klicks from here now. Could be an ore driver’s slag dump; we’ll know for sure in a few hours. Our orbit’ll take us within ten million klicks.”

Dugay was fully awake and frowning. “Do you have the ship at all? What kind of vehicle was it?”

“Scan shows nothing but debris, however that’s not necessarily bad news. There are several rockbodies in the vicinity they could have gotten to. It was a Nomad II, New Texas make, registered to the Delambrian Chamber of Deputies, according to the signal we received. Bearing an official delegation too—parts of the message were encoded. I’m afraid it’s them all right.”

Dugay felt hollow. I shouldn’t have left Patagonia. It’s my fault. “We have to do something, Jenkins. You said there were rockbodies in the vicinity.”

“A few dozen. Mostly garbage dumps, or mined-out asteroids. None over ten klicks in diameter.” Jenkins weighed his next words carefully. “We’ve only got one certified recovery ship and it’s over at Sierra being renovated.” He shrugged sheepishly. “We don’t invest much in ships around here. No point in it with so many ore drivers and shippers around.”

Dugay was already pulling on some clothes. “Any scoopers or trucks nearby?”

Jenkins shook his head. “We’re off track for the next few weeks. Tycho Industries is working an iceberg with a whole fleet of scoops though.”

“How close?”

“Two weeks behind us, I’m afraid. There’s nobody else.”

“Then it’s got to be us.”

“With what? We’re still ten days from closet approach. If anybody’s made it to those rockbodies, they’d be dead by the time we got there.”

“You’re a fountain of optimism, Jenkins. If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my life, anything is possible when you’re determined enough. You got jumpships?”

“Three but you’ll never—“

“Never say never. Meet me up top, at the landing field. Better yet, send a cyberMate to show me the way. A body could get lost around here.”

He made it to the port of Big Venice by stuffing himself inside a supply pod and shooting through the cargo tubes, avoiding the gauntlet of diversions the Mate was programmed to steer him toward. Jenkins was already there, fidgeting like a puppy. They spent three hours rigging a jumpship with supplies and extra gas.

“It only holds two people,” Jenkins said. “What if you do find someone alive?”

“Those supply pods are pressurized, aren’t they? They’d have to be since the transit tubes are open to space. We’ll fill a few of them with food and water and tow ‘em along behind us. They’ll do very nicely as rescue spheres.”

“I shouldn’t have asked.”

The jumpship was pretty much a big metal egg, with a wraparound canopy on top, a couple of body slings inside in place of seats and a small rocket at the bottom. Manipulator arms were tucked against the side like a bird’s wings; jumpers were little more than tugs, sometimes used to help a scooper nestle his craft safely into Big Venice’s cradles.

Dugay stowed emergency supplies inside, made sure the supply/rescue pods were securely lashed to the davits and suited up.

“Come on, Jenkins. The fresh air will do you good.”

Jenkins eyed him dubiously. “Me in that thing? You have a marvelous sense of humor. I’m bigger than it is.”

Dugay picked a suit size labeled XXX-LARGE off the rack and threw it at him. “Wiggle into that. You won’t weigh a thing once we leave.”

The Plutarch swore but didn’t resist as a trio of Mates stretched the garment over him. He snorted impatiently until he was packed inside nice and snug.

“I can’t breathe in this straitjacket.”

Dugay helped him in through the hatch. “We have oxygen on board. You can breathe later.”

They settled into the cramped cockpit and settled down. Jumpships were spring-launched since the asteroid had a low escape velocity. The coils gave them a strong kick and soon afterward, Big Venice was no more than a medium-sized gray boulder, dwindling rapidly behind. A few hours later, it was a mere dust mote, nearly invisible against the star field.

For a day, they tracked the auto-distress signal and passed the time taking turns trying to spot the source. It was emanating from somewhere among a batch of oblong rockbodies; the enhanced view showed hundreds of separate fragments, all of them potentially big enough to shelter survivors. Dugay used the motor sparingly. He knew he would have to conserve enough fuel to make a good search and save some for the return trip.

The supply pods dangled behind them like balloons. They could only hope that they’d brought enough food, water and oxygen to go around. The pods could hold one person comfortably, two in a pinch. But if there were more than four or five survivors, it could be nasty.

After a two-day ride that seemed like a year, the jumper passed the first of the smaller asteroids and, as they had suspected, it was a dump. Even without the scopes, they could see the low hills of slag and junked equipment, glittering like a gold vein in the sunlight. Someday, Dugay thought, archaeologists will fight each other over the right to sift through all that trash. They’ll write learned dissertations on the meaning of it all.

They drifted through a small constellation of half-lit rock clumps, too small to worry about. They were tumbling rapidly, probably the ejections of some ore truck’s slag jet. The signal weakened during the passage, scattered by the debris, so Dugay nudged them above it and resumed tracking.

They found the first piece of wreckage drifting silently behind a larger asteroid, a blackened, fused orb of twisted metal that still scanned hot.

“Looks like an explosion of some kind,” said Dugay. His heart sank at the thought. The chances for survivors were narrowing. “That’s an engine thrust chamber, by the shape of it.”

More wreckage followed: sheared-off beams, a portion of a dish antenna, a chair still intact, a mangled mess of tubing, a ruptured spherical vessel. The scraps were too closely bunched to be anything but a recent catastrophe.

“Let’s plot the trajectories of the biggest pieces and get an average. Maybe we can extrapolate where it happened.”

Dugay fed the computer what it wanted and it soon gave them a course to follow. He put the jumper into an intersecting orbit and dreaded what they would find.

Kate—I love you wherever you are. He tried the words out in his mind. It wasn’t fair, not having the chance to use them. She’s a tough old bitch—she just can’t be gone now. Not now.

“There it is!” Jenkins cried out. He grunted trying to maneuver himself for a better view. “Allah be damned—will you look at that.”

Dugay did and it was sickening. Nomad class cruisers were supposed to look like big bread loaves, tapered at both ends with a girdle of radiation panels amidships to bleed heat into space from the pulse engines. The Delambrian vessel looked like a celery stick.

The engine pods had been wracked by a terrific explosion. That end of the cruiser looked like a giant hand had squeezed it too hard. It was crumpled, bunched and twisted, and still surrounded by a hail of spinning junk. There should have been an intense sheath of radiation in the area but measurements proved otherwise. Dugay was puzzled.

“It’s almost like it imploded. The radiation is confined very neatly to a small band around the back of the ship. It looks deliberate.”

“Sabotage?”

“I don’t know. But I don’t see how anyone could have survived that. What’s happened to the signal?”

“It was stronger than ever until we closed with the cruiser. Then it just stopped.”

“What? Are you sure?”

“See for yourself.”

It was true. Dugay backed off and the signal resumed. It had to be nearby. The auto-distress transmitter was contained in a little capsule that could either be ejected from a ship in trouble or taken off by the crew to mark their location. A steady pulse filled the cockpit.

“It’s coming from that rock over there,” said Jenkins. “The big one.”

Dugay approached the asteroid—it looked like a barbell, tumbling slowly about its long axis. He ventured as close as he dared, while Jenkins trained the scope on it. The crust was fissured at several points and peppered with craters of all sizes. Plenty of places to ride out an emergency.

“Anything?” Dugay asked.

“I don’t believe it.”

“What—“

“Take a look.”

Dugay grabbed the instrument and swung it into position. He peered in.

The terrain was a forbidding chaos of cracks, craters and caves. A fine patina of gray-brown dust dulled what little light there was. He panned the scope a bit and saw it: a blinking light…red/white, red/white. The computer confirmed it. The light was the source of the signal.

Dugay let out a whoop of joy, then told the computer to amplify the ambient light, filtering out the beacon. He wanted a better look at the camp.

The scene was incredible. Three parallel rows of portahuts lay off to one side of the beacon. The camp had been set up with obvious care and lacked any resemblance to emergency shelter at all. A solar cell array had been erected on a hill above the plateau where the huts were situated. It could have been a prospectors’ camp, hunting for valuable ores, except for the wreckage of the cruiser above them. Dugay didn’t know what to make of it.

He knew they were being baited but he moved the jumper as near to the asteroid as he could. Its gravity was weak but measurable, so he had to settle for an orbit about two kilometers above the surface. Too far to jump.

“How are you going to get down there?” Jenkins asked. “We didn’t bring any scooter packs.”

Dugay thought for a moment. “Maybe I can ride one of those supply pods down. Those tow lines are about a kilometer long, aren’t they?”

“About that, yes.”

“Suppose we do this: I button up my suit and hang onto the pod, while you give us just enough thrust to approach the rock at a steady rate. When you get about a kilometer or so from the surface, stop thrusting and hold where you are. If I’m right, inertia will rotate the pod right on down to the ground, or at least close enough for me to jump.”

“That’s the craziest stunt I ever heard of.”

“At least I’m resourceful. Just make sure you don’t go any closer than a kilometer. I don’t want to be smashed by the pod when I hit the ground.”

“I hope you know what you’re doing.”

“I don’t but that never stopped me before. Did I ever tell you that Athalonia was all my fault?”

“No and I don’t want to hear about it. Take it easy out there.”

Dugay exited the cabin and pulled himself hand over hand to the end of the tow line. He found a good purchase on top of the pod, where the line fastened to a ring. Jenkins started his descent.

It worked so well that Dugay almost laughed out loud. When the jumper halted and stabilized itself a kilometer above a deep canyon, Dugay got himself ready to fly. For a terrifying moment, he was certain that the arc of the pod’s swing would throw him right into the far wall of the canyon. But Jenkins saw the problem in time and lifted the jumper a few hundred meters with a brief spurt on the rockets. He cleared the gorge and saw a patch of open plain.

Then, he jumped.

The free fall took several minutes so he had plenty of time to gauge his point of impact. The craters made for pleasant scenery but Dugay had other ideas. That little wedge of ground between them would do very nicely.

He was surprised at the give of the rock. It was porous and crumbled easily when he struck the ground and bounced up a few meters from the squat. That explained why the asteroid had been passed by. No minerals here—just a big dirt clod.

The bright and regular flash of the beacon showed him the way to go. Dugay took off, loping like a kangaroo over hill and crater, sometimes thirty meters to a bound. He leaped to the plateau in a single motion and stopped.

This is quite a little settlement, he realized. Somebody came prepared for a long stay. It seemed like a silly place for a resort, unless Jenkins had expansion plans of some kind. Dugay studied the huts for a moment. Each one was a short, fat hexagon, rounded on top to deflect meteoric dust. Very much like the shacks he’d used on the Moon in the latter stages of the atmosphere project. Almost a bungalow. He and Kate had stayed in one at Tranquility Beach once.

He was mystified and searched out the entrance hatch. It was right where it should be and he covered the distance in two giant strides.

He rapped on the metal and it opened a few minutes later. A suited figure with a dark helmet visor greeted him. Dugay hand signaled his radio frequency but got no response. Instead, his host closed the hatch behind them and pressurized the airlock. There was something familiar about the way he was standing.

An audible hiss told them it was safe. Dugay hurriedly removed his helmet and waited for his host to do likewise. But he didn’t. He shoved open the door and motioned Dugay to step through.

A half a dozen people were inside the hut, lounging around tables and sofas, all quite comfortable. The furnishings were Delambrian without a doubt—right down to the glitterglobes hovering in mid-air. Several women watched him with scarcely concealed grins. In spite of himself, Dugay smiled back at them; it seemed like the thing to do. They were the strangest bunch of castaways he’d ever encountered.

His host started to remove his own helmet but had trouble with a latch. Dugay turned around and offered to help but he backed away, insisting on doing it himself. With a clumsy yank and a loud oath, the helmet came off.

Dugay’s mouth dropped open.

It was Kate Lind. And it wasn’t Kate Lind. It was—Dugay blinked and stared and squinted all at once. It was Kate Lind. Only she’d changed her appearance.

“What in the name of Odin happened to you?” He grabbed her shoulders and hugged her, then stepped back for a better look. “What have you done?”

Kate laughed and handed him the balky helmet. She whirled around for him. “Do you like it? I’m surprised you even recognized me. The doctors worked for months on the alteration.”

Dugay gaped at the changes. She’d lost thirty years in her face. Her eyes were larger, further apart, giving her a less mischievous, less elfin look. Her nose was flatter, cheeks higher, making her face an oval with a keen edge for a chin. She seemed taller, even stronger. No more the sly pretense of vulnerability. She’d have to wear her new bearing with more dignity.

“I don’t understand,” Dugay said.

“That doesn’t surprise me,” Kate scolded him. She wriggled out of her suit and Dugay saw even more changes. Her entire body was new—leaner, firmer. She was naked and he approved. She let herself be held and he realized her skin was more supple and textured than ever, it was a tight, glistening new coat, darker than before. He questioned her with his eyebrows. “It’s called regenerative surgery. The best possible disguise.”

“Disguise? Why?”

She poked him in the ribs. “To be with you, stupid.” She took him by the arm and led him through a hatch and into another chamber. There was a hammock suspended from the ceiling. The bed swayed with the air currents. “You don’t think I could get away with abdicating otherwise, do you?”

“Abdicating? You?”

She started undressing him. “Sure. Oh, Philippe, I couldn’t. I mean—“ She helped him out of the suit and tossed the undergarments to a girl by the hatch. “—I would have. You hurt me, you know. Badly. I wanted to kill you for the things you said at Patagonia that day. I couldn’t make you see at all. You can’t know what it’s like at Delambre. It’s a prison—I’m expected to be strong and impartial and resolute, because of my name. But I’m not.” She fastened his arms around her waist. “I can’t be my father anymore. I need to be held, like a woman. Both of us are victims, in a way. We’ve both got to shed our old skins and live as different people now.”

The girl at the hatch coughed quietly and said, “Anything else, ma’am?”

Kate said, “No, Deela. That’s all for now. Oh, would you turn off the beacon and the distress signal? We don’t need it anymore.” She grinned at him, as Deela pulled the door to.

“A trick?”

Her grin broadened. “Sort of. Don’t you get it? I could never appear to abdicate the Plutarchy. That would never do for a Lind; there would have been chaos. My brothers and sisters would have been murdered in a week. If I’d just quit the job and left, we’d have Ice Wars all over again, with each state trying to command the volatiles trade in the Inner Ring. Nobody could control that bunch of hotheads.”

“So you staged an accident.”

“You’re so clever, Philippe. The Chamber has procedures to deal with the death of the Plutarch. Grief guarantees a fairly orderly transition. My sister Kinelly will succeed me, in all likelihood, and she can use my ‘tragic demise’ as a test of loyalty. So far as they know, Kate Lind and her entire court perished in a cruiser explosion in the Belt. My ties are cut and, for the first time in my life, I’m free.”

“That explains the surgery.”

“And the silence. I was all ready to tell the System about you, Philippe. Our little secret would have turned Delambre inside out.” She pulled out of his arms and went to the hatch, where she brushed aside a curtain over the porthole. She watched Deela and the others for a moment. “But I couldn’t, damn it. I just couldn’t. I needed you too much.”

“Kate, you—“

“No,” she said. “I want to say this. I have to say it. I went through all this subterfuge because I’m selfish. I can’t help what I am. I wanted to preserve my family’s name and influence in the Chamber but I wanted to have you too. That’s why I came back to Patagonia after all those years—to try again. I’m not sure why—I just had to. I think the Linds and the Dugays are just meant for each other. Fate and history binds us together.”

Dugay came over and kissed her lightly on the forehead. They didn’t touch.

“I’ve forgotten how to love, Kate. If I ever knew. I was afraid of you when I lived at Balmoral, afraid of what you knew and what you could do. And when you came to Patagonia and threatened me with—well, hell, I was just plain scared. All I’d done, you could have undone.”

“Yet you went ahead?”

Dugay nodded and coaxed her back into his arms. “Like you, I had to. I had to see if I still had the touch. I needed to know, Kate—it was important for me to get away and see just once if I could do something without you supporting me.”

“Male pride…did you learn what you wanted?”

“More than I wanted,” he admitted. “I was restive and impatient at Patagonia those years I did no work. I thought it was because the gas worlds were still undeveloped. But it wasn’t. There was something else I hadn’t done.”

They surveyed each other for a second, then tumbled lazily down to the floor in each other’s arms, laughing. Kate mussed his hair.

“You’re impossible. Really. I don’t know if I believe a word you say.”

Dugay clasped her tightly, scratching her back. “You jealous witch. Why should I care what happens to you?”

She slapped him playfully and the impact sent him sprawling through the air. “Because you love me, you dolt. Now get into that bed.”

Dugay sprang up. “Wait a minute. I forgot about Jenkins. He’s out there in a jumpship full of emergency supplies.” There was an exterior porthole just above the bed and Dugay bounded up to it. He looked out. “Kate, come here. You should see this.”

She leaped into the hammock and joined him, kneeling on the edge. Dugay moved aside and pushed her up to the glass.

Outside, a glittering river of lights sparkled by the asteroid, speeding by overhead and then disappearing below the hills behind the camp. Each droplet seemed to shimmer like a meteor.

“What are they?”

“Ironballs from Jupiter,” Dugay told her. “Heading for factory terretas in the Belt. Sunlight makes them glint like that.”

“They’re beautiful,” Kate murmured. “Let’s make a wish.”

“All right, but you asked for it.” He thought for a moment. “What about this: I wish I knew the design for the most perfect love there is.”

Kate beamed at him and pulled the shade down over the porthole. “Now there’s a wish I think I can grant.”

 

END

 

 

Homo Roboticus

 

Introduction

 

This story began as something I had to write. Full disclosure: my own mother died in 1999 of pancreatic cancer. By the time it was discovered, it was too late and inoperable. She went through chemo anyway and she died two months later. I’ve often wondered what might have happened if ANAD technology, as portrayed in this story might have helped. But, as we know, technology is always double-edged.

I hope the technology I have portrayed in this story never comes to pass but I fear the worst. Mankind has a way of developing something and putting it to use without ever really understanding the consequences of what he’s doing. No doubt, the ones who invented fire got burned by fire along the way. But nobody stopped to ask whether fire was a good thing.

We often speculate on what it would be like to meet aliens from another world. In Homo Roboticus, we learn that we are the aliens….

 

***

 

“Of all things the measure is Man, of the things that are, that they are, and of the things that are not, that they are not.”

Protageras

 

A zebra takes its stripes wherever it goes.”

Maasai saying

 

1.

 

“Okay, Herr Volk,” the technician patted down the incision she had just made in the side of Greta Volk’s skull. “Subject’s prepped and ready.”

Dr. Irwin Frost handed Oskar Volk the injector tube, attached by hose to the containment chamber. “Steady even suction, Oskar. ANAD ready to fly?”

The technician, Doris Kraft, came back, “Ready in all respects, Doctor.”

“Vascular grid?”

“Tracking now. We’ll be able to follow the master just fine. You can replicate once you’re through the blood-brain barrier.”

“Watch for capillary flow,” Dr. Frost said. “When her capillaries narrow, your speed will increase. And viscosity will stay up.”

“Like slogging through molasses. ANAD’s inerted and stable…ready for insertion.”

The insertion went smoothly enough. A slug of plasma forced the master nanobot into Greta’s capillary network at high pressure. Volk tried to forget that this was his own mother he was working on. He got an acoustic pulse seconds later and selected Fly-by-Stick to navigate the system. A few minutes’ run on its propulsors brought the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler to a dense fibrous mat of capillary tissues. The image soon appeared on Volk’s panel.

“Ready for transit,” he told Frost. “Cytometric probing now. I can force these cell membranes open any time.”

Volk steered ANAD into the vascular cleft of the membrane. He twisted his right hand controller, pulsing a carbene grabber to twist the cleft molecules just so, then released the membrane lipids and slingshot himself forward. Seconds later, ANAD was floating in a plasma bath, dark, viny shapes barely visible off in the distance. The plasma was a heavy viscous fluid. Volk tweaked up the propulsor to a higher power setting and took a navigation hack off the vascular grid.

ANAD’s handling real well, Doctor…handling like a dream today. Ventral tegmentum coming up. Just past the mesoencephalic nucleus. Looks like we’re in.”

Volk navigated ANAD through the interstices of his mother’s brain for the better part of an hour, searching for the tumor mass he knew was there. The oligodendroglioma had been growing and metastasizing in her brain for months. He had programmed the assembler to send an alarm when it encountered any kind of unnatural activity…the hospital’s oncologist Dr. Miriam Sinoglu was studying the acoustic returns carefully, offering Volk navigation instructions.

“Hopefully, the last treatment with contrast agent will show us the way,” she told them. “Imagery shows a pretty serious peritumoral edema in the same region….” She was still pinching herself at what they were doing, probing Greta Volk’s brain in real time with a small robotic device. With any luck, ANAD would locate the tumor and began disassembling it in a few minutes.

At 1824 hours, ANAD sent the alarm.

“That’s our target,” Dr. Sinoglu told them.

The imager screen was at first murky, crowded with the spikes and cubes of dissolved molecules. Lumpy, multi-lobed sodium molecules darted across their view like shadowy ping-pong balls. Volk and Frost studied readouts from ANAD’s sounder…something was there, hidden in the data traces on the scope. Volk fiddled with the gain on the imager, tweaking it, subtracting foreground clutter.

Above and behind the operating theater, behind the glass windows of the viewing gallery, Dr. Rudolf Volk watched the operation with scarcely a breath. His own wife was down there—he and Greta had been married for forty-one years last month—down there anesthetized with a cocktail of propolol, fentanyl, midazolam and sevoflurane—stricken now for eight months with a growing mass in her forebrain.

Dr. Sinoglu—all the neurologists and oncologists, really—had told them it was inoperable. Surgery was out. Radiation had been ineffective. Chemo wasn’t working. When Volk had asked his son Oskar about a medbot insertion—running the prototype ANAD medical nano-robot inside her brain and trying to destroy the tumor that way—Oskar just shook his head.

“It’s still in prototype. We’re having control issues. We’re having communication and programming issues. ANAD’s not ready for a live subject yet. It’s just too dangerous.”

“Oskar, this is your own mother. She’s dying anyway. What is there to lose? Can’t we just try it?”

That was just before the big discovery came from the Engebbe dig site in Kenya.

 

SOLNET Special Report:

 

“Ancient Robots”

 

The Max Planck Institute of Evolutionary Anthropology in Leipzig, Germany is a pretty staid and stuffy lab for studying the beginnings of Man and the fossil and genetic evidence of our beginnings tens of thousands of years ago. Pretty staid and stuffy….that is, until today.

The Institute is housed in a complex of modern research facilities set in a wooded estate. From the outside, there’s nothing about the Institute that would indicate what really goes on inside or what kind of bombshells occasionally erupt from this secluded, almost pastoral setting.

Today, just such a bombshell landed, right in the laps of the Board of Directors of the Institute’s Department of Human Evolution. The bomb thrower, Dr. Rudolf Volk, made a presentation at this month’s Board meeting, a presentation about new finds at the Engebbe, Kenya dig site, new finds which, if confirmed, will radically and forever overturn what we know about Man’s ancestors and our origins.

 

SOLNET reporter Anna Kolchinova was there and files this report:

 

“The essence of Dr. Volk’s presentation is that we now have incontrovertible proof, physical evidence, that Man didn’t develop and evolve on this planet alone or unaided. Recent finds of fossilized micro robotic remains among ancient Homo Erectus bones at the Engebbe dig site have swept the world of archaeology and anthropology like a hurricane. Volk is a researcher in the Institute’s Department of Human Evolution and was here in Leipzig to present the details of his findings to the Institute’s Board of Directors.

“According to Dr. Volk, the robotic remains have been conclusively dated to be synchronous in time with the bone remains. The techniques used were a relatively new, more advanced form of radiocarbon dating, a method called quantum state spectrometry. According to Dr. Volk, the tests have been performed multiple times, by multiple researchers right here at the Institute and the results are consistent across all experiments and experimenters.

“It seems, to quote Dr. Marta Siebeck, an archaeologist on the Board here, that ‘we may be descended from ancient robotic creatures.’”

 

(Append Video Post 227):

 

How is this even possible?” asked Dr. Max Schneer (NOTE: Dr. Schneer is current Chairman of the Board of Directors…AnnaK). “I’ve seen the dating charts, I’ve seen all the spectrographs…but that’s not my question, Dr. Volk. I’m asking you to take a larger view here, understand what you are suggesting with all this data: that somehow, flesh and blood creatures like you and me, formed of tissue and bone and blood, are somehow evolved from something that was made, a machine, a robot? Surely you understand the implications of this, even if it were proven true?”

Dr. Volk shifted uneasily in his seat, focusing on the tablet screen in front of him. Lines and spectra from the dating tests filled the screen. “Dr. Schneer, the implications, as you call it, of these spectra, are for other people to decide. I’m a scientist. All I can do is perform the science and make sure my methods are repeatable and above reproach and my data is clean. The test results you see were performed seven times by five different people in three different labs, separated by thousands of kilometers and several weeks in time. No one seriously questions the data anymore. What we all make of this data, how we interpret the data…ah, now that is another question altogether.”

Dr. Uwe Holweg, a physical anthropologist, glared back at Volk like a disappointed parent at a child. “Rudi, you have to see what the data are suggesting. If any of this is true, it means the end of evolution by natural selection. It means what we are today is not the product of random mutations and selection pressures. It means you and I are programmed in some fashion. It means you and I are part robot ourselves, even if we are tissue and blood and bone. What does that do to Darwin? The old man must be spinning in his grave today.”

I think that’s a fair statement to make,” Volk agreed. “It appears that Evolution is not so much by natural selection but by programming.”

Yes, exactly…”Holweg went on, warming to the idea. “But what is the end state of this program? Who wrote the program?”

And can we understand this program, like we understand Evolution,” added Siebeck. “Can it be altered? What would it take to do that?”

Volk really didn’t want to play speculative games with the Board. He wanted to present the facts and let the philosophers deal with the fallout. But the Board was off and running.

Holweg chewed on an idea, then stabbed the air with a finger. “The biggest question is who did the code that operated these robots?”

Volk just wanted to get back to the facts. “I have more data on specific fossil pieces from the dig…if you’d like to—“

But the Board had dropped Science for the moment and preferred to spin theories.

Just think what this means for the great religions,” Holweg went on. He rubbed his hands like a child in a candy store, trying out theories like so many chocolates. “We’ve all seen the stories…SOLNET, WorldBeat and the others. And the two big theories—‘The Aliens Landed’ theory and the ‘Really Smart Homo Variant’ theory. Can either be proved? Is there a shred of evidence for either theory?”

“It’s clear,” intoned Schneer, facing the SOLNET cameras, his voice deepening into authoritative mode, “that the whole story of human origins has been upended. What Dr. Volk has given us is physical evidence that our understanding of our origins and how we came to be is a mistake. Indeed, if some media pundits are to be believed, Man himself is a mistake.”

Volk tried to interject some facts. “The fossils from Engebbe have been categorized into three main classes, as you can see…we have pieces that seem to be some kind of effector, perhaps with graspers….” He pressed buttons on his display controls and a 3-D image of the find danced in the air before the Board. “The second category we’ve called Sensor Devices—“

But Schneer wasn’t listening. “Maybe we anthropologists should be talking with the cosmologists. Surely the study of Life’s origins should include a study of current xenological theories and how Little Green Men may have come to Earth and seeded the environment.”

Of course, that’s all speculation at this point,” Siebeck noted. “Dr. Volk, when can you go back to Engebbe? We need more evidence…this really is extraordinary…fossil evidence, geological evidence, even genetic evidence…you have some chemical and materials properties results for us?”

Volk took a breath, tried to collect his wits. The whole meeting was spinning out of control and Schneer, who was supposed to be in charge, was leading the revolt. “I do, Dr. Siebeck. We’ve done recent assays on some of the pieces. We’re finding octahedral and dodecahedral lattices of iron, silicon, germanium and some unusual elements that don’t even appear on our periodic table…we don’t know what to make of them.”

Volk manipulated the 3-D images and atomic structures rotated in space in front of the Board.

We’ve got to have more evidence,” Schneer decided. “The Board will authorize funds for more trips to Engebbe. Dr. Volk, you mentioned some kind of crystal—“

Ah, yes—“ Volk changed the display to show a new set of images. The lattices flickered out and were replaced by new structures, crystalline shards magnified millions of times. “We think these crystals may have been part of a processor core…this is controversial, but there are holes and pits suggesting some kind of electron transport mechanism…perhaps even a memory array of some kind. We need more evidence—“

 

Anna Kolchinova’s face popped into a small window on the side of the broadcast. “The Board met for most of two days at the Institute. It was one of the more chaotic and tumultuous briefings this reporter has ever covered. And in hours, most of the science world was in an uproar over the news. Headlines rocketed around the world—“ Here Kolchinova appended spinning, flashing images of headlines and captions—ANCIENT ROBOTS FROM AFRICAN DIG…BOTS DISPLACE APES AS MANKIND’S FOREFATHERS…PREHISTORIC BOTS MAY HAVE CREATED MAN

Kolchinova went on, summing up the report from Leipzig. “It’s hard to tell where this story will go now. There are so many substories here…the science itself and the still unknown physical nature of the find and its relationship to Man today… increasing dependence on ANAD technology and the speed at which this technology evolves and takes over more and more of our lives….

“The Board has determined that more evidence is needed to support and extend Dr. Volk’s findings. More expeditions to Engebbe are planned but it should be noted that the dig site is also the location of some intense rebel activity and some ticklish and sensitive diplomatic negotiations may be needed.”

Kolchinova’s face hardened. “There are some who view these finds as an abomination, an affront to human dignity. There are others who consider these finds as the opening chapter of a great new adventure, an adventure leading to a better understanding of how Man came to be. Whatever your point of view, it can’t be denied that Man is no longer alone, here on Earth and elsewhere. Indeed, if Dr. Volk’s evidence can be corroborated, it’s clear that Man was never alone and that there is a direct connection between life on this planet and life elsewhere.

“That discovery, if it turns out to be true, can’t help but have the most profound effects on every aspect of what Man is about, even his own conception of himself and his place in the Universe. This is Anna Kolchinova, reporting for SOLNET, from the Max Planck Institute in Leipzig, Germany, saying good-bye…until next time—“

 

Solnet Report Ends

 

“That seems to be all of it,” Oskar Volk reported. He studied the imager with Dr. Sinoglu. “ANAD’s not sensing any more tumor cells in the area.”

Sinoglu hmm’ed and tried different resolutions on the imager. “I’d have to agree. Of course, we’ll have to do more scans, take some samples, make sure the tumor cells haven’t metastasized. But, for the moment, I’d agree. Your device seems to have removed the entire tumor mass…no more evidence of edema, no more anaplasia…this really is extraordinary what you’ve done—“

The door to the OR opened and Dr. Rudolf Volk came in, dressed in mask and scrubs. He’d begged and pleaded and the nurses had finally relented. “I have to see Greta, please, you have to let me be with her—“

“Dr. Volk, please—“

Oskar Volk wasn’t surprised his father had connived his way into the OR. He was like that. “ANAD handled like a dream…no more control and stability issues. Maybe it was that new code after all—“

Rudolf Volk cradled his wife’s face and kissed her gently on the forehead, difficult enough to do with all the tubes and braces supporting her head. “I guess we should call it old code, Oskar. Millions of years old. Dr. Sinoglu—?”

Miriam Sinoglu was short, dark-haired, daughter of Turkish immigrants. “It looks good so far, Rudi. The ANAD device seems to have gotten the tumor, physically eliminated it. But metastasis is always possible. Greta needs more scans and samples to be sure. And she’s got a long recovery ahead of her—rehab, more tests, it won’t be easy for her. We’ll have to watch the swelling for the next few days. There may be emotional or cognitive impairment. Aphasia. Ataxia. Facial paralysis. It’s too soon to tell—

“I don’t care,” Rudi Volk cradled her head softly. “At least she has a chance. And you’re here, Oskar…maybe if she does well over the next few weeks, I can get back to Engebbe…there’s still a lot of work to be done.”

Oskar Volk was concentrating on navigating ANAD back to its injection point. “I just replicated a few copies of ANAD to leave behind, check for any stray tumor cells. Just think: a prototype medbot removes a brain tumor with help from operating code taken from a million-year old fossil. The old and the new, joining forces. That Solnet reporter will never believe this.”

 

2.

Greta Volk’s recovery proceeded well over the next few days. Dr. Sinoglu ran numerous tests and scans, looking for peritumoral edema, any headaches, intracranial pressure, hemiparesis, tremors. Every test turned up better than expected.

“I don’t see any evidence of tumor mass, either in our scans, in her cerebrospinal fluids, anywhere,” Sinoglu told the Volks one evening, gathered outside Greta’s room on the fourth floor of the Katholisches Krankenhaus. “Your new techniques, the new medbots, seemed to have worked wonders.”

Oskar Volk beamed at his father Rudi. “ANAD worked like a charm. That new code did something I didn’t think we could do for months. Almost like it was made for ANAD…once that was operating…no more stability problems, no more effectors sticking. It was a beautiful thing.”

Rudolf Volk agreed. “Think what this means for medicine. Now we can directly attack tumors, viruses, bacteria. No more shotgun approach. We go after the buggers like an American sheriff goes after the bad guys.”

They went into Greta’s room. Frau Volk was propped up with some pillows, reading a novel on her slate. A TV set flickered from a pedestal on the wall, but the sound was muted. Some kind of movie.

Rudi Volk went to his wife. “How do you feel, Liebchen? You’re looking well this evening.”

Greta put down her slate and patted the bun of her hair. “As well as I ever look. I’m tired. I don’t sleep well.”

Sinoglu was studying her monitors, making adjustments on the IV drips, recording the changes. “I can give you something for that, Frau Volk. Do you wake up a lot during the night?”

Greta shook her head. “Bad dreams, I guess. One in particular…it’s like I’m walking through a wood…it’s foggy…the fog is whispering to me…or maybe it’s the trees. I hear whispers all the time…even when I’m awake.”

Sinoglu was pecking away at her own slate, writing down what Greta reported. “You may have some residual cell necrosis in the auditory cortex…” she turned to Oskar Volk. “Can your ANAD device investigate that for us? Can it be steered to that area, get us some imagery?”

“I’ll get right on it,” Oskar said.

Outwardly, Greta’s recovery proceeded ahead of schedule. Rehab started right away…balance tests, locomotion tests, hearing and vision tests. Oskar Volk and his father Rudi visited daily. Sinoglu recorded and tracked the results, pronounced herself satisfied, even amazed, at the speed of her return to health.

Rudi Volk made tentative plans to return to Engebbe, Kenya. He told his son that there was still a lot of work to be done at the dig site.

“We’ve just scratched the surface of the find, Oskar. I’m sure there are more remains down there…we just have to find them. And the Institute’s still calling in more experts to look at what we’ve already got: geologists, chemists, physicists, engineers. Nobody can believe it. You should see them, Oskar: their eyes light up when they first encounter the remains…visions of papers and Nobel Prizes dance in their heads. Plus, I’ve got my own papers to write. But Leonard and the others at Engebbe keep sending me new things they’ve found every day. I feel like a child in a candy store.”

Then Dr. Sinoglu called both of them in one morning for a consultation.

“Greta has had some difficult nights lately,” she reported. She offered both of them either coffee or tea. Rudi preferred tea. Oskar declined everything. “I’ve got the nurses’ reports for the last week. I’m afraid there may be some tissue damage after all or neoplasia we didn’t suspect at first.”

Rudolf Volk asked to study the nurses’ reports. He read silently for a few moments. “It says here that her speech is slurred…she stutters, speaks in nonsense phrases…sounds like another language? What is this?”

Sinoglu took back the report. “I’ll ask the duty nurse from last night to come in…I think Renata’s still on the hall.” She pecked at a keyboard, sending the call. Moments later, a heavy set woman in blue scrubs came in. Renata Schneier was the 3rd shift ICU nurse for the north wing.

“Renata, sit for a moment.” Sinoglu pointed to a chair by the window. It squeaked under Renata’s weight when she sat down. “Tell the Volks what you saw and heard last night…Frau Volk’s words—“

Renata rubbed her hands nervously. “Himmel , it was so strange…I was re-setting the bed controls for her…just before midnight…she seemed possessed. Very agitated. I checked all her medicines, increased the diazepam two points --it’s all in my report.” She pleaded with her eyes.

“Yes, yes,” Sinoglu said. “Go on, Renata. Go on—“

Renata seemed to shudder with the recollection. “Mein Gott…I thought she was possessed. Frau Volk started speaking in a very loud voice…very clearly…a language I have never heard. I thought she was having a nightmare, so I tried to comfort her…she pushed me away…inhuman strength, that woman. I have the bruises here—“ Renata rolled back her sleeves, showing off several purplish spots on her forearms.

“Renata—“ Dr. Sinoglu tried to be comforting to her nurse. “Renata, what else—?”

“The way it came out, she was talking, almost yelling, about the Old Ones. Some kind of Old Ones, whatever that is. I’m sure it was a dream or a nightmare. She kept saying: ‘Ngai…Ngai…Ngai…they’re coming back’—. I asked her who Ngai was and she kept saying they’re coming…coming from the sky—“

Rudi Volk coughed. “I’ve heard that word before, Dr. Sinoglu. Ngai is Maasai…it’s a Maasai word. It means God. Lifegiver. Provider of all Things. I’m sure Greta heard me mention it somewhere in the past. Most of the diggers and workers around Engebbe, the people we employ for hard jobs, are Maasai. Or Kikuyu.” He shrugged. “I’ve picked up a few words and phrases. Greta must have heard me using them somewhere. Maybe she’s just grateful for being saved…she’s very spiritual, you know. Kirche every week, even during the week.”

Sinoglu studied Renata’s report. She turned to Oskar Volk. “You replicated copies of your ANAD device when you were inside Greta, didn’t you?”

Oskar nodded. “Normal practice in medbot procedures. Leaving a few bots behind gives us a chance to respond to problems, react quickly to emergencies if we have to. Maybe a few thousand devices at most. I left them in Sense mode. They can’t do anything unless commanded.”

“That may be so, but I’m putting Greta back in the OR tomorrow morning. I want you to remove all ANAD devices.”

Oskar and Rudi both looked pained. Oskar spoke: “Is that wise? There could be residual tumor cells…we’ll have a better picture of what’s going on if we—“

Sinoglu held up a hand. “I know all that. I just want a clean slate. Greta needs another scan series. I don’t want the results contaminated by anything foreign to her body.”

Oskar really couldn’t argue. “I’ll have my gear ready first thing tomorrow, if you think it’s best.”

 

Outside the hospital, the two Volks, father and son, talked as they headed for separate cars.

Rudolf Volk was saying, “I’ve got a flight back to Nairobi tomorrow night. I’m sure this is just part of her recovery. Dr. Sinoglu’s being cautious. Greta’s been doing so well.”

“Too cautious,” Oskar thought. “Mother needs ANAD inside…we can do so much with this new capability. It’s a risk to remove ANAD now.”

“Do what the doctor says,” Rudi Volk laid a firm hand on Oskar’s shoulder. “I’ll be at the dig site for the next few weeks. I’m counting on you to look after your mother…keep me informed. I feel bad leaving, but it’s necessary. More digging, more finds, more analysis, Oskar…Engebbe’s just an incredible place. So much analysis to be done. I wouldn’t leave if I didn’t think she wasn’t well on her way to recovery. This is just a setback.” He wanted that to be true. It had to be true. Sinoglu had said that just the other day.

They shook hands, hugged briefly the way men do, and parted. “I’ll keep you informed,” Oskar called after him. “I want to do a little post-mortem on ANAD anyway…after all this time in vivo, there might be some maintenance needed.”

Rudolf Volk took the train to the Berlin airport that afternoon and, as the late afternoon sun was glinting off the River Spree, his flight to Nairobi was in the air, headed south toward Africa and the Engebbe dig site.

 

3.

 

(Eight weeks earlier….)

The diagnosis came as a shock to everyone. The doctors’ words still haunted Rudolf Volk: oligodendroglioma…advanced necrosis…ataxia…hemiplegia…six months, maybe more…we’ll do everything we can….

Greta Volk had always been a robust, big-hearted woman. How could this happen? How could this happen at the greatest moment of his career, on the verge of this great discovery? It wasn’t fair.

“What about the medbots?” Volk asked. “The oncobots…I’ve read a lot about them…my son Oskar is working on these things right now, at the Institute. They’re making a lot of progress—“

Dr. Miriam Sinoglu was the principal oncologist at the Katholisches Krankenhaus. She had short dark hair, black glasses, an understanding face, lines of concern around her full lips. “I know how you must feel, Dr. Volk. Believe me, the hospital’s planning an aggressive treatment protocol…chemo, radiation, I’m afraid surgery’s out…the location of the tumor makes that difficult. You asked about medbots…yes, it’s true. We are working with prototypes even now. But they’re just that: prototypes. Experimental. Not proven. Too hard to control…too risky. We’ll schedule Greta for her first chemo next week.”

Rudolf Volk went to see his son Oskar, an engineer at the Max Planck Institute for Medical Nanorobotics. It was two buildings over, almost lost in thick linden trees. He asked Oskar how the ANAD project was coming along.

Oskar had a high forehead, wiry dark brown hair, data specs that made him look like a History professor. “She’s right, you know. It’s all in the algorithms. ANAD has all kinds of effectors…carbene grabbers, pyridine probes, electron abstractors, bond disrupters. But the blasted things are damnably hard to control. ANAD can grab a molecule but he can’t manipulate it…atoms are like that. Fine motor control is a big problem when you’re dealing with van der Waals forces, Brownian motion. Atoms clump together like wet sand. Or they fly off when you come nearby…we need a better algorithm that smooths out ANAD’s movements…gives us more sensitive touch. Perhaps your ancient robot builders had some ideas—“

They met at the IMNR cafeteria, overlooking a snowy field that fronted a pair of kidney bean-shaped lakes, now frozen over.

“It’s frustrating,” Rudolf admitted. They discussed Oskar’s problem and the balky medbots and wondered out loud why more couldn’t be done to help Greta out.

“But those control and stability problems are the key to everything,” Oskar said. “We’re working night and day as it is, modifying the algorithms, modifying the effectors, trying everything we can think of, testing everything. We’re so close, Papa…so close.”

Rudolf sipped at his tea, stared unconvinced at his plate of wurst and sauerkraut. “Engebbe’s caused such an uproar. Everything’s turned upside down now. I get twenty phone calls a day…reporters, archaeologists, paleontologists, chemists and geologists, even ministers and pastors. My neighbors won’t speak to me…one of their children…little Dirk, I think it was…ran off when I tried to help him back onto his bicycle. He was crying all the way back to their house, like he’d seen a ghost.”

“It’s a fabulous discovery,” Oskar decided. “People can’t agree on what it all means. I just wish we could have the same breakthrough with ANAD.”

Rudolf closed his eyes, raised the steaming tea to his face and inhaled the aroma. “You’ve got good people working on it, Oskar…the answers are there somewhere. We have the same problems around the dig site…everyone has his own opinion of what all of this means.” Rudolf smiled at something he’d just remembered. “There’s a Maasai man…his name is Lekati Leaduma…he oversees all our diggers. But he’s also a shaman, a faith healer. The Maasai call him a laibon. It means diviner. He thinks the remains we found are a curse on the dig, put there by another sorcerer…just the other day, right after sundown, he was out there beside the excavation with his cattle-horn gourd and his trinkets, casting rocks, trying to read what they all meant. I guess everybody reacts to this a different way.”

Oskar nodded, played with the beans on his plate, pushing them around with a fork into different formations, making faces. “Your dating techniques are sound? The remains are coincident in time with the other fossil remains in the strata?”

Rudolf said they were. “Nobody has done a test that proves otherwise. I’ve tried to not make any conclusions so far, just deal with the data. But it’s hard not to speculate, Oskar. Are we descended from these robots? Were they put there by someone? That’s my thinking…we’ve been visited in the past. The ‘Aliens Have Landed’ theory, that’s what the press is calling it. Maybe Leaduma is right…maybe someone did put them there.”

Oskar sighed, finished off his beer. “I wish some of your success would rub off on us. To be honest, the team is stuck. We’ve run out of ideas on how to make these damned algorithms work. Unless we can get ANAD to grab molecules and hold them, all we’ve got is a museum curiosity. And Mother’s stuck with chemo and radiation…that’s like using a howitzer to kill a fly. We can do better than that…we have to do better.”

The next morning, Rudolf Volk got a long-distance call from his engineer at the Engebbe dig site, Sanders Leonard. It was a call that would change everything.

 

4.

 

Rudolf Volk had never seen Sanders Leonard so agitated, so excited. The words tumbled out of his mouth faster than the vid screen could track his lips; there was a disconnect between the sound and the image. Leonard was in the dig site headquarters tent, candles burning all around. Night outside, Volk decided.

“Dr. Volk, I don’t believe it myself…I’ll send you the files and the images…we were examining some of the flat pieces very closely…six hundred mag, you know we’ve got that new ultrascope down here…we can see individual atoms—“

Volk knew how excitable Leonard could be. “Sanders, calm down…calm down…what have you found?”

“All of us think it can’t be anything else…given the physics involved. Memory arrays, Dr. Volk. Or at least, fragments of memory arrays. There are holes and pits and bumps, like we saw before. Widmer thinks it’s some kind of electron transport mechanism…Rudi, the answer’s staring us right in the face. The device has a memory and we’re looking at part of it.”

Volk was cautious, mindful of how this would look to the Institute’s Board of Directors. “We need lots of evidence, Sandy. Lots. Why don’t you—“

“Rudi, you don’t understand…there’s more. We ran tests.”

“What kind of tests?”

Leonard’s face looked like it was about to explode. “Widmer and I found what we thought had to be some kind of power connection…we hooked it up to a voltage source, finagled with it some…Rudi, it’s some kind of operating system. We were actually able to operate, maybe ‘animate’ is a better word, some of the effectors. There are things inside—we don’t really know what they are—but they’re turning, extending and retracting, stopping and starting. Somehow, we’ve turned the damned thing on…now we can’t seem to stop it. But it’s well contained, don’t worry about that. We’ve got it well contained.”

Volk wasn’t even listening anymore. Sanders Leonard’s mouth was moving, his arms were waving about on the vid, he was shoving one item after another in front of the camera, but Volk was scribbling notes elsewhere, paying no attention.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. Volk knew someone had said that once.

Micro robotic fragments in a fossil dig. Things spinning and extending. Stopping and starting. There had to be some kind of control system. More tests were needed. Careful measurements made. What caused what to happen? If they applied power or somehow activated this gizmo, what happened? It all had to be documented meticulously. Volk wished he could be there; he needed to be there. But Greta was still undergoing her own tests. He couldn’t leave Greta, not even for the ‘find of the century’, as some reporters were calling Engebbe. Dr. Sinoglu called Greta’s condition a “kind of glioblastoma.” More scans were needed to pinpoint the location. MRI, CT, T-1 weighted scans, histological samples…nothing would be known for days.

If only Oskar could get his ANAD device working…they could insert the bot, probe around and locate the exact position and nature of the tumor, take samples, maybe even zap the thing on site. That was the future of medicine. Go inside the body and deal with the problem directly. No more biopsies. No more scans. No more guesswork.

The idea slammed him like the winds that often threatened to overturn his little single-master out on Lake Thurin…fetching up quickly, knocking the little boat sideways, nearly capsizing her. You had to react fast when the winds came up.

Sanders Leonard was still on vid, explaining something, showing something on the camera, slides, graphics they had made of the memory arrays.

“Sandy, shut up for once, will you? Listen to me…I want to try something.”

Leonard paused in mid-sentence, his mouth made a perfect “O.” “What is it?”

“I’m just thinking out loud here, follow along with me…these fragments, these memory arrays…do you or Widmer think you can read them? Can you understand the underlying code? Patterns, relationships, configurations, that sort of thing.”

Here, Leonard broke into a faint smirk. “We’re already ahead of you, Rudi. Last night, we extracted what we think are some basic algorithms from the array pattern…literally the patterns of holes, bumps and pits. It’s got to be tested, of course, but if Luke’s theory holds, we should be able to apply one of these—let’s call them quasi-algorithms—patterns to our actuators and effectors and cause something to happen. We’re just taking baby steps—statistical analysis of the pits-- here but Luke and I are both optimistic—we think, given enough time, we can develop a basic understanding of how these devices work…and maybe even control them in some rudimentary fashion.”

 

It was just what Rudolf Volk wanted to hear. “I can’t leave Greta right now, Sandy. The doctors are running tests, doing scans…it’s pretty serious. Glioblastoma and it’s inoperable. She’s facing chemo and radiation, at best. Recovery will take months, so I’m stuck here. But as soon as you have something, send it to me.”

Leonard signed off. “You know I will. And we’re praying for you and your wife down here. Our thoughts are with you.”

A week later, the first copies of the Engebbe algorithms came to Volk’s office at the Institute…a set of disks with dozens of files, all of them verbal code describing what functions and actions each subset of pits and bumps on the fragments performed.

Luke Widmer and Sanders Leonard had exceeded even their own expectations. Not only did the disks contain verbal descriptions of what the memory arrays seem to control, but Widmer—the geek of all geeks—had somehow managed to compile the array patterns into a rudimentary form of machine language.

Which meant Volk could run the same logic, the same algorithms, on computers at the Institute. Or at least, he could try.

The same operating system logic that had been proven to animate fossilized fragments of ancient robotic devices dug from the ground at Engebbe could now be tested on modern computers right here in Leipzig.

Rudolf Volk didn’t waste any time calling up his son Oskar at IMNR.

 

Dr. Irwin Frost, Oskar’s boss at IMNR, was skeptical, to say the least. “We have to be cautious about running this stuff. Just because this code runs your fossils doesn’t mean it’ll run ANAD. We have to test and evaluate what it does.”

Dr. Rudolf Volk watched the tiny bot hanging from a scaffolding inside the containment tank. It looked like a bunch of grapes hanging from a trellis. Ever since Greta had been diagnosed, all he had heard was tests and tests and more tests. It was time to stop testing and start doing. Glioblastomas didn’t wait for tests.

“Oskar, you tell him—“

Oskar Volk was at the console, joystick in hand, ready to ‘drive’ ANAD with the new software. “You understand our concerns, Dr. Frost. Mother’s in a critical situation…the chemo’s not that effective, she gets really sick for days afterward. The radiation is like blasting ants with a machine gun. ANAD will work…I know it will. We’re so close…anything we can do to speed up the process….this code may be just what we need.”

Frost was unconvinced. “I know how frustrating it must be, but ANAD is a delicate mechanism. When we put ANAD inside a patient, we have to be sure of what we’re doing. I don’t want ANAD running off, replicating like a cancer, eating good tissue, whole organs. I want to understand what this code does…in every situation.”

So they tested. The testing went on for a week.

The fragments of code sent up from Engebbe had to be massaged by Oskar and Dr. Frost to work properly with the bot. More code had to be added. Code had to be debugged. Code had to be shifted around, deleted, re-compiled, tweaked. After a week, ANAD showed some signs of good response.

“At least, he can grab and hold molecules now,” Oskar told his father one day. “That’s progress. Now, if we can just smooth out the motions of the other effectors, crank up his propulsors, maybe re-design his outer casing to cleave better, so replication is more efficient.”

And each day, Rudi Volk came back from the hospital more and more depressed. Greta was dying. Nothing was working. ANAD, in whatever form they could make it work, seemed the only hope. But Frost was still cautious.

“We’ve been able demonstrate ANAD attaching to selected cells, disassembling cells or zapping them with his bond disrupters, Dr. Volk. That’s real progress. I can make ANAD assemble cells as well, as long as the right feedstock’s around. That’s more progress. We’re very close now to having a workable bot, but ANAD’s still showing responses we don’t understand. Your fossil code has some sections that cause ANAD to act in ways we don’t understand. We have to research that, test it, prove it’s controllable. You understand?”

Volk sat down heavily in a chair beside the containment tank. Frost was joysticking ANAD through its paces: basic replication, basic maneuvers. “I understand that time is running out for my wife. You’re dealing with a device, Dr. Frost. I’m dealing with a human being. The testing has to come to an end, for both of them. We have to act, do something now—“

Frost tried to be sympathetic. “I’ll talk with Dr. Sinoglu tomorrow morning. Maybe we can work something out…limit ANAD’s responses enough so it won’t be a danger to your wife…I know of some ways to do that.”

Volk shook his head. “Dangers? What dangers? Greta’s dying of a brain tumor. She’s being tested right into her grave. Can’t you do an insert right now? Call it a test, I don’t care. Just do something.”

“But the code, Dr. Volk…we still don’t understand all it does…this takes time—“

“So does the dig…we don’t understand everything we’re digging up at Engebbe. But we still dig…we sort it out later. Look, any time fossils are uncovered, the clock starts ticking. We have to preserve context to interpret the dig but conditions work against us. Weather, grave robbers, bureaucrats, animals…it all puts a time limit on what we’re doing. If we waited for perfect conditions, we’d never dig. If you wait for perfect understanding of this code and how ANAD responds, the blasted thing will never leave containment. And Greta—“ Volk took off his glasses…he didn’t want tears dribbling onto the lenses.

Frost was grave. “I’ll see if we can set up something with Dr. Sinoglu, Rudi. Tomorrow.”

The next morning, Frost and Oskar Volk brought their gear to the Katholisches Krankenhaus and made ANAD ready for insertion into the brain of Greta Volk.

 

5.

 

Engebbe, Kenya

The lifters crossed the Great Rift Valley, and began their descent across vast acacia woodlands and open grassland, thick with galloping herds of wildebeest and zebra. Through light chop surrounding the twin summits of Mawenzi and Kibo, the formation settled onto a dusty plateau rimmed with massive outcrops of rock, hillocks of lava known as kopjes, in the local dialect. As the lifters touched down, a few hyrax and a solitary leopard scuttled away into the grass.

“Welcome back to Engebbe Valley, Dr. Volk,” said Major Dikesi. The Kenyan officer ordered his detail of soldiers to dismount and form up a perimeter around the dig site. “The birthplace of Man—” the Major proudly announced.

Engebbe was a dry, sere wasteland of ash fall and rock, desiccated as the bones that often turned up on its pockmarked ground. The Valley itself was little more than a wide spot in the meandering streambed of the Engebbe River, a waterway in name only for most of the year. As Volk stepped out onto the hardpan of the ravine, he saw only a sinuous ribbon of slightly damp soil marking the outlines of the river’s course.

The dig site itself was situated on a sloping shelf of rock and solidified ash north of the riverbed, surrounded by rugged slopes of rock and crushed ash heaps. Roughly trapezoidal in layout, the dig site was a series of concentric trenches circling the outer, surface-level perimeter of a vast pit. Each trench was meticulously laid with grid lines of laser lights and rows of mobile mirrors and flood lamps arrayed in and among the grid lines. The entire pit bottomed out some sixty five feet below the top surface of the ledge.

Just upstream of the dig, a small gathering of huts and trailers had grown up, given the name of Camp Matterhorn. Above the camp, a sheer cliff rose in a near vertical escarpment to a patch of level ground overhanging the valley. In the middle of this ground, the ruins of an old Arab trading fort, known locally as El Mareb, lay in piles of stone and broken wall. The riverbed coursed and undulated downstream to the southeast. Some miles away, a turnoff from the Nairobi Highway led to a small village called Longido, the closest thing resembling a town. The border with Tanzania was less than four miles north of the dig itself.

While the lifters were being unloaded and a secure post set up a few hundred meters from Camp Matterhorn, Dikesi and Volk picked their way along the streambed toward the edge of the dig. Sanders Leonard came up to greet them.

“Come right away to the tent, Rudi…you’ve got to see this. We found more pieces yesterday afternoon…one of Leaduma’s people found them…just the most amazing pieces—”

Volk went immediately to the dig site tent. Looking under the ultrascope, both archeologists threw out theories and ideas…more robotic elements…that could be another effector…this could be some kind of propulsor, maybe a piece of limb…what could this be?

Both spent hours poring over the new finds, ignoring the calls to dinner and huddling over the latest discoveries well into the night. By the time Volk pronounced himself satisfied, they had categorized the pieces and examined them fully, so the two men called a halt to the evening.

“I’m exhausted,” Leonard admitted. He was a short, stocky red-haired Englishman, with sunburned cheeks and freckles. “Why don’t we grab a bite from the mess tent…maybe Ndaba’s left a few scraps for us.”

Volk demurred. “I’ll be along. I want to go back down to the pit. Just to check the layout…there’s something I’m missing, some piece of context. Maybe it’ll come to me.”

Leonard was already headed out. “Suit yourself. Me… I’m famished. See you later for drinks by the river.” That was a standing joke, to call Engebbe’s pitiful little streambed a mighty river. He disappeared through the tent flaps and was gone, heading across the open ground to the mess tent on the other side of the compound.

Volk lit up a pipe and wandered out to the excavation pit. It was a short ten minute walk, through scraggly acacia bushes to the sloping edge of the dig. The sun had gone down hours ago, but a twilight glow still permeated the site, refracted through a haze of ever-present dust from the pit. Volk stopped at one corner of the trapezoid, checking the alignment of the laser grid. It seemed okay. Then he spotted a man crouching on the opposite slope, right on the edge of the pit.

It was Lekati Leaduma, their dig leader. The Maasai laibon had laid out a blue cloth on the dirt, and surrounded himself with a variety of paraphernalia.

Volk hung back by a light pole, in the shadows. Leaduma was focused on his work, unaware that Volk hovered a few meters away.

“Tell me truths, not lies…” Leaduma was mumbling. He cast stones from his nkidong gourd, thirty two in all, tumbling out onto the blue cloth.

“—tell me what is to happen…truth, not lies….” He threw nine stones, then re-adjusted a tying amulet around the tumbled stones. The amulet consisted of two cowry shells with assorted black and white rocks, forming semi-circles around the edges of the blue cloth.

“Is this ground cursed…I ask you this now….” Leaduma shook the gourd vigorously, then let it spill more items, a bullet, a hyena’s tooth, some clear crystals.

Volk was about to step into the light, when something over the center of the pit caught his eye. The dust haze had grown thicker as the sunlight failed. There was a reddish tint to the haze and it coiled and boiled like a miniature thunderstorm. Pinpricks of light shot through the haze…what was this?

Volk stared at the gathering cloud. It crept toward them like a silent thunderstorm, backlit from within by flashes and speckles of light. Even as he watched, the cloud had swollen and spilled up out of the pit, advancing on their position, a flickering ground fog with faint whispers on the breeze, hushed voices barely audible. Leaduma shifted uneasily. Volk stayed where he was.

“Who did this thing…tell the truth, no lies—“ Leaduma was crouching, gathering items from a necklace of leather amulets hung from his neck. He threw five stones.

The fog thickened and billowed, but Leaduma didn’t move, though he was visibly shaken. Volk stepped back deeper into the shadows, letting the fog curl around his feet and legs. There was a definite pressure there, and a high keening buzz.

Locusts, Volk decided. Flies. He backed away.

Leaduma was now completely enveloped in the fog. Only the shadow of his form could be seen, backlit from the light poles blazing down into the excavation.

“I am protecting this ground…you see that, don’t you? You can’t hurt this ground…go back…go back where you came from and hurt others—“ He poured out the contents of another amulet, a piece of lion’s skin, more black and white stones, tiger cowry shells sealed with tree gum.

Volk decided it would be best if they both retreated into the tents, where netting could protect them from the locusts. But he couldn’t move his legs. He was stuck…as if anchored to the dirt. He squatted down, stuck his hand in the swirling fog and immediately yanked it out…something had stung him. Now, his feet hurt…he was losing his balance…he saw Leaduma leaning, wobbling, keeling over onto the ground…Volk dropped to a knee and was pulled, sucked down to the dirt and was on his side, flailing…swatting…lashing out…trying to fight it off…but he couldn’t breathe…the red haze…like a cloak smothering him…couldn’t…get a…couldn’t…and then …and then it came. A snap flash, like a camera going off. An image of geometric forms—icosahedrons, polygons, trapezoids—all compressed into a tunnel, a long curving corridor and he found himself hurtling at breakneck speed down this corridor, until—

With a hard bump, his whole body jarred from the impact and when he opened his eyes, caught his breath and came to his senses, he was …where?

An image unfolded before his eyes and he felt he was in a place he recognized …a world of blues and greens, a world of great oceans and steaming continents. He was airborne somehow, drifting down like dust, descending through thick carbon dioxide-rich air and purple, lightning-racked clouds to a hover over what looked like a primordial swamp.

It was Earth. Earth from millions of years ago.

From within what seemed like a great swarm of flies hovering over the landscape, Rudi Volk saw a smaller swarm emerge and descend to the ground. The swarm had no discernible shape, resembling only an amorphous twinkling fog, a whispering fog, nearly lost in the mist of the swamp. Only the twinkle of light from within made it distinguishable.

The swarm settled onto a rock outcrop at the edge of the swamp. As the mists cleared, Volk could see that the rock was covered in some kind of mossy growth, a gray-green mat darkening the rock up and down the edge of a sluggish pool.

The swarm formed some kind of instrument and hovered directly over the moss. Squinting to see through the mist, Volk realized that the swarm was injecting something directly into the mat.

Volk wondered. Was this how life got jumpstarted on Earth? A cloud of mechs from space came down and injected something into a patch of moss? Maybe this was the original creation. Maybe this was the Engebbe dig site or what it looked like a few billion years ago.

All along the patch of moss that darkened the wet slopes of the rock, the detached swarm translated and shifted like a maneuvering hypodermic needle, moving along, writing new code inside the cells of the moss. Volk wondered how long the process would last. Would the injecting swarm suddenly retract itself back into the main swarm?

In the days that followed, the swarm would be called ‘Ngai.

The power of life and death came from Ngai, who lived on a mountain called Kirinyaga, overlooking a swamp.

‘In the beginning, Ngai who is the God and divider of the Universe, called Gikuyu the father of the tribe. Ngai gave Gikuyu a share of his land with rivers, valleys, forests rich with fruits and animals of all types. Then Ngai went to live on Kirinyaga.

‘Now Ngai used to go round inspecting and admiring the beautiful earth. One day he took Gikuyu to the top of Kirinyaga. It was at the highest point of the mountain. He showed Gikuyu a spot in the center of the country where there were many mugumo trees, which means wild fig trees. Gikuyu saw that the land was very beautiful. And Ngai said to Gikuyu, ‘Go. Build your homestead on the spot with the mugumo trees,’ and he called the selected place where the mugumo trees grew Mukurwe wa Gathanga.

‘Then Ngai said, ‘You will at times need my help…when the time comes, slaughter a goat for sacrifice, then raise your hands towards Kirinyaga and Ngai will come to your help.’ Gikuyu went to the chosen spot. Here he found a beautiful woman whom he took as a wife. He named her Mumbi, which means molder or creator. They had nine daughters—they did not have any sons. Now Gikuyu went to Ngai and said that he wanted sons to marry his daughters. Ngai said: ‘Go, take a lamb and a kid. Sacrifice these under the big mugumo tree near the homestead and the blood and the fat, pour onto the trunk of the tree. Make a big fire under the tree. The meat will burn as a sacrifice to Ngai. After you take your wife and daughters home, go back alone to the mugumo tree. There you will find nine handsome men who will marry your daughters. Your people will increase and multiply and fill all the land.’

The Maasai word for sleep is injio. The Maasai word for dream is a-idetidet.

After this, Rudi Volk woke up.

 

6.

 

Volk rubbed sleep from his eyes; his vision was blurred. A form moved in his field of vision. As his eyes cleared, he realized it was Sanders Leonard. It was dawn. Orange light stained the horizon…the sun would be up soon.

Leonard was heading for the mess tent. Volk struggled to his feet and went after him. His head felt like it was stuffed with cotton.

Leonard grabbed some breakfast and spied Volk. They sat down together at a table in the corner of the tent. Volk nursed a mug of coffee. He was dirty, disheveled.

He told Leonard what had happened overnight. When he was done, Leonard hadn’t touched his eggs. His muffin was half-eaten. He stared at Volk like he had just landed from another planet.

“You’d better go see the medic…you must have fallen, Rudi…hit your head. We did have locusts the last few days, usually early evening or early morning. That’s what you saw.”

Volk didn’t know how to make Sanders Leonard understand. “Sandy, we’ve known each other a long time. You know me…have I ever done or said anything you couldn’t put your money on? Have I ever fabricated evidence at a dig?”

Sanders sipped at his rapidly cooling coffee. “No. But Rudi…what you’re telling me sounds—“

“—crazy. I know it does.”

Leonard ticked off the points Rudi had made. “If I’m to believe what you’re telling me: there are tiny micron or nanoscale robots still buried out there. Functioning bots. And they rose up from the dig last night like a cloud—a ‘swarm’, I believe you called it. They’re actually survivors of some extraterrestrial race of robots that seeded life here on Earth…they kick-started life itself. Only their plan for evolution went off track…am I getting this right?”

Volk snatched a piece of Leonard’s muffin and wolfed it down. “I know it sounds incredible but—“

“Hold on, let me finish….so something stirred these surviving bots into action…maybe we did something during the dig. Now they’re mad. They’re coming back to fix evolution, which isn’t working right. And they’re called the Old Folks, or Old Ones or something like that? According to their plan, something like an evolved, intelligent virus, still a bot, mind you, but like a virus was supposed to have become the dominant life form on Earth. So Man is a mistake, an evolutionary fluke and they mean to get rid of us and start over? Have I got the gist of it?”

Volk just shook his head. “I know what you’re thinking, Sandy. It’s the stress. It’s Greta…her situation. It’s all the politics here at Engebbe…Dr. Akamba, the Ministry of Antiquities, the press, the media. But it’s all true…I swear on my poor old mother’s grave. Look, if you don’t believe me, ask Leaduma…he was there. He saw it all.”

Leonard’s face darkened. “Leaduma’s dead, Rudi.”

Volk was truly stunned at the news. “What? What the hell…he was there with me—“

Volk turned in his seat and looked out a side flap at the bare ground outside, the ever-present dust now stirred by breezes as the sun rose higher over the valley. “It must have been a lion. Maybe a pack of them, overnight. Diggers and guards found his body at the bottom of the pit this morning. The body was half-eaten, consumed by something. His face was covered with some kind of yellow powder.”

“The powder is one of his conjuring potions, I’m pretty sure. Ntasim, he calls them. Carries them in those amulets around his neck. He was conjuring and divining like crazy last night…you know how he is with that stuff.”

“Yes, well now the diggers are pretty spooked. Major Dikesi has his soldiers out scouting around the valley and surrounding grounds now…trying to find the beasts.”

“Leaduma…he ran the diggers…we’ll have to—“

Leonard finished off his coffee with conviction. He set the cup down with a rattle on the table. “Rudi, you had a dream, that’s all. You fell, hit your head, you had nightmares. We’ve all been under a lot of stress lately…the dig, all the pieces, the discoveries and having to control and document everything so we don’t look like fools. Stay out of the pit today, why don’t you? Rest up. I need help in the lab, getting these pieces catalogued….”

But Volk was already pushing back from the table, getting up. “Where’s Akamba? I’ve got to talk with Akamba.”

“Probably still in his tent…he doesn’t get up with the hyenas like we do…why?”

Volk had a determined set to his face. “Sandy, we’ve got to shut down the dig. Don’t look at me like that…I’m serious. Close it all down. Fill in the pit. Destroy everything—“ He slapped a tent flap out of the way and disappeared into a dust devil, heading across the compound for Julius Akamba’s tent. Akamba was from Nairobi, from the Ministry.

Rudi Volk knew they didn’t have much time. And there was Greta…the blasted things were still inside her too.

After rousting Akamba out of his bed, Rudi Volk knew he’d better give Oskar a call.

 

7.

 

“She was just released from the hospital yesterday,” Oskar’s voice and image came over Rudi’s wristpad, as the archeologist made his way around the edge of the excavation, heading for his tent, ticking off items to be packed in his mind. Diggers, porters and a few science team people were already gathering by the pit, ready for a day’s work.

“She’s home…how’s she doing? How is she feeling?”

Oskar smiled. “A little weak, but otherwise pretty good. She sleeps a lot. Dr. Sinoglu says she can’t find any evidence of the glioblastoma or any tumor cells. ANAD zapped them all.”

Rudi slipped into his own tent and was already pulling out clothes, tossing them into his bags. “Oskar, I’m coming back to Leipzig…we’re shutting down the dig. There’s been a problem. I’ve got to see Akamba in a few minutes.”

“Shutting down—-what the hell’s going on? You’re all over the news, all over the Net—just the other day, Solnet—“

“Look, Oskar, believe me…we have to do it. It’s a long story. I’m trying to get a flight out of Nairobi tomorrow morning.”

Oskar’s face was a moue of concern. His forehead was all wrinkles; he did that when he was worried. “Father, this is insane…it’s the greatest archeological discovery since…since ever. What’s happened?”

Rudi Volk told him what had happened…the fog, the laebon Lecati Leaduma, the dream or trance or hallucination or whatever the hell it was. The Old Ones. The swarm of bots. Ngai.

“Greta talked about these very things a few weeks ago, Oskar. Remember.”

“She was delirious. She was dreaming.”

Rudi Volk waved his son off. “Those replicated bots you left inside her brain, the ANAD replicants…they’re still there?”

“I haven’t removed anything.”

Rudi Volk sucked in a deep breath. “ANAD has the same malignant code, the same algorithms that drove this swarm I saw last night. It was a cloud of bots, Oskar. Came right up out of the dig. They…it…killed Leaduma. The authorities are trying to pass it off as a lion attack but I saw what happened. I was there—“

“Father, you’re imagining things. You’ve been listening to too many Maasai fairy tales. The medbots inside Mother’s brain are working fine. I just scanned them yesterday…they’re buzzing around doing just what they’re supposed to be doing, hunting down tumor cells and disassembling them. Maybe you need a few days off.”

Rudi Volk knew then what he had to do. It was a terrible duty but there wasn’t any way to avoid it. And he knew he couldn’t have this discussion with Oskar, not over his wristpad.

He had to get back to Germany. Fast.

 

8.

 

Leipzig, Germany

As Rudi Volk rode the Leipziger Verkehrsbetriebe from the train station to their apartment, he told himself they could never be allowed to gain a foothold on Earth. That much was clear. Ngai could not be allowed to come down from Kirinyaga again and make mischief. Leaduma had been right. The Maasai diviner knew the truth.

Oskar was with Greta at their apartment when Rudi arrived. He kissed her on the forehead. “How do you feel, Liebchen?”

Greta Volk had a broad face with an easy smile. Today, she wasn’t smiling. Her hair was blond, tending to gray along the temples. It was tied back in a bun as she puttered about the kitchen, trying to pull a strudel together. “Like hell, if you really want to know. I’ve got a headache, my ears are buzzing and I’m tired. You want more?”

In the kitchen, Greta was in charge. She wore a print dress and a blue apron. Her hands were covered with flour. She bustled about from counter to pantry and back.

Oskar got out of her way. “Dr. Sinoglu released her two days ago. Just amazing. The latest scans showed nothing, no mass, no indication of glioblastoma at all. She’s got more scans tomorrow—“

“Enough with the scans,” Greta decided. “There’s work to be done…how can I get anything done when I’m always at the hospital?”

“Well, you sound as grumpy as usual,” Rudi decided. He watched her for a moment, then waved Oskar to follow him into the family room, to a wine cupboard. He poured them both a finger of Riesling. The two of them stared out the window, where light snow was falling on the trolley tracks and pedestrians were bundled against a biting wind, as they crossed the ancient cobblestones of the Augustenplatz.

“She sounds normal,” Rudi told his son. “How has she been acting…anything unusual?”

Oskar sipped. Then he shrugged. “She acts like Mother. I know what you’re thinking…that those ANAD bots still inside may fail or deteriorate in some way. That can’t happen. The devices have inhibits programmed in. They’ll self-destruct before anything can happen…we made sure of that in testing.”

Rudi looked Oskar right in the eye. “You didn’t see what I saw at Engebbe. There are remains we haven’t uncovered yet at the dig site. And they’re active. They’re operating. They replicate just like your ANAD and they swarm…fast. I’m concerned about your Mother, Oskar…she’s got ANAD inside her, with some of the same code that’s driving these bots at Engebbe.”

“There are no obvious or measurable side effects. The scans show nothing unusual. When I communicate with ANAD, it performs normally…it reports normally. Effectors, propulsors, everything seems normal. You’re imagining things that aren’t there…that can’t happen.” Oskar put a hand on his father’s shoulder. “Look, I know it’s been stressful for all of us the last few months… all the pressure of getting the dig organized, documenting everything, the media and the press conferences… I know you’re exhausted. Mother’s medbots are working fine. You don’t have to worry about ANAD. The real miracle is that ANAD did what we wanted it to do…thanks to some help from your fossil code. That is amazing, when you think about it.”

Rudi wasn’t convinced. “These algorithms you developed…the ones that used patterns from the fossils…have you explored them fully? Tested them fully?”

“We’re testing now. There are some things we don’t understand…I won’t deny that. Sanders Leonard has sent all his work too. You must have talked with him. But I’m confident we understand what we’ve done with ANAD. It was just a small bit of code. But it was what we needed to help us through some problems. I’d say your Old Ones, or whoever put the Engebbe devices there had a good handle on how to operate nanoscale robots. We had to massage the code a bit, write some new sections, but the underlying algorithm was just what ANAD needed. Dr. Frost thinks we’ve uncovered some kind of fundamental control principle that may be common across different types of developers…even other cultures. We’re looking into that now.”

Rudi stared out at the pedestrians slogging across the Augustenplatz. “There’s more than you know in those fossils, Oskar. More than Sanders Leonard or anyone knows. I’ve told the Kenyans—Dr. Akamba—that we’re shutting down the dig, pulling out. We have to. It’s too dangerous.”

Oskar sighed. “I don’t understand you, Father. It’s the find of the millennium. How can you just shut it down? It’s an affront to scientific inquiry and truth. It’s like the Church trying to muzzle Galileo. Or burning witches. New knowledge may make us uncomfortable. But it shouldn’t frighten us. New knowledge gets us closer to the truth.”

“Spoken like a true classroom professor, Oskar. But we don’t live in a classroom. There are some things we shouldn’t know. “

Oskar looked oddly at his father. “That’s not what you taught me as a boy…what’s got you spooked? What did you see in that pit?”

Rudi knew Oskar would never believe him. “Something that needs to stay in that pit. We should never have uncovered it. Now it’s out. It’s free.” And it’s inside Greta, he didn’t add. He knew now he could never discuss this with Oskar. What he had to do, Rudi knew he would have to do alone.

Greta and Rudi said goodbye to Oskar after dinner. “I’ll be there at the clinic tomorrow,” Oskar told them. “Dr. Sinoglu wants to do some follow-up exams.”

“More exams…I feel fine,” Greta assured him. “I just need more sleep. And keep that coat buttoned up…I don’t want you getting chilled out there.”

“Yes, Mother.” Oskar headed off toward the tram station.

After cleaning up the kitchen, Greta announced, “I’m tired, Rudi. I should go on to bed. Could you fetch some tea for me…maybe a little milk with it? I have medicines to take.”

“Surely, Liebchen. Go on to bed. I’ll bring them up.” She disappeared up the stairs. That’s when Rudi Volk went looking in the pantry.

He had already decided on poison…the question was how to do it. He rummaged through the pantry and another storage closet before settling on a box of rat poison they kept in the closet beside the door. He examined the box carefully: prothombin, 4-hydroxythiacoumarin, warfarin. He read the side effects, the precaution and hazard statements. Perhaps a few scoops in her tea, along with some milk and sugar.

It was sad, what he had to do. Hell, it was tragic. Who would do such a thing? Oskar would never understand. He didn’t understand it himself. This was either murder or assisted suicide, whichever you preferred. Rudi tried out several answers, then decided he would call it ‘saving Mankind from extinction.’ He wondered if the authorities would understand that.

Of course, any cursory examination of Greta after she had died would turn up trace evidence of poison. That’s when all the suspicions would fall on him. He could explain that he had done it to keep the contaminated ANAD medbots inside her from going berserk, from carrying out the plan he had witnessed in the fog one night at Engebbe. Just verbalizing the explanation made him realize how lame it sounded. He would have to think of something else.

Nobody would ever believe it. He wasn’t sure he believed it himself.

And yet, Rudi Volk was as sure as he could be that the Old Ones were real, that the bots rising up out of the dig site were part of a larger menace and that the bots inside Greta were made of the same stuff, had the same programming and would soon be a threat to everyone.

As Lekati Leaduma often said, ‘the zebra takes his stripes wherever he goes.’

Volk took the rat poison and, after the tea was made, dropped a few spoonfuls into the cup. He poured in some tea, stirred it carefully, added sugar cubes and a small teaspoon of milk to the tray and went upstairs.

Greta was already in bed, propped up with some pillows, reading lamp on and a copy of Allgemeiner Zeitung balanced on her knees. She studied her husband as he placed the tray on the nightstand.

“Rudi, you look like you’ve seen a ghost. I’m not that bad, am I? Maybe a little pale—”

Volk fussed with her covers and handed her the steaming cup. “Of course not, Liebchen. I’m just fatigued, that’s all. The flight and all…you know how it is. It’s a long way from Nairobi to Leipzig. Want anything else?”

“How about a good night kiss from my husband?” Her lips were already puckered and ready to be smacked.

Rudi bent down and gave her a peck.

“You can do better than that. When we were dating, I couldn’t tear you away my lips. Cancer’s not contagious, you know. I am getting better.”

Rudi tried a smile, figured it looked more like a grimace, and sat down on the side of the bed. “I know that. It’s just that—“

“It’s all these gizmos in my head, isn’t it? You’re thinking I’ll become a robot, run amok and destroy the world, like the cartoons Oskar used to watch when he was young.”

Rudi swallowed hard. That was too close. Have I got it written all over me? “No, that’s not it. I just want you to be better, that’s all. We all want that. How do you feel tonight? Any side effects?”

She shrugged. “Just tired. I want to sleep a lot.”

“Any more dreams…nightmares…voices, like you had before?”

She shook her head, then pointed to her skull. “All quiet on this front. Even my headaches are pretty much gone.”

“Have some tea,” Rudi told her. He handed her the cup. “I’ll check the doors, turn out the lights downstairs. I may stay up for awhile and read.”

She sipped at the tea, made a slight face—did she suspect?—and then closed her eyes and sipped more. “I’ll try to keep my tentacles under control tonight—“ her eyes sparkled at her own little joke.

“Very funny…get some sleep.” Rudi left the room and went downstairs. He figured he would give the poison an hour, then check up on her after that.

It was the longest hour of his life.

He told himself it wasn’t murder, not really, although he knew the authorities surely wouldn’t see it that way. No, this was going to happen anyway. Greta had cancer. It was inoperable. Medbots saved her, but at what cost? What was ANAD but another form of cancer, even a programmable cancer? The glioblastoma was defeated but the cure….?

Volk decided there had to be some sort of balance to this approach.

An hour passed. He went upstairs and went into the darkened bedroom. He could hear her gasping.

Rudi…Ru…help me….arrrggghhh…”

Instantly, he flipped on a light by the bed. “What is it, dear…what’s the matter?”

Greta was tangled in the bed sheets. She had vomited all over the bed and floor; the bedroom reeked of it.

“…my stomach….I can’t—“ She gasped and coughed violently.

He felt her forehead…it was cool. But her eyes were wide, the pupils nearly bulging out and yellow spittle drooled from the corner of her mouth. Seizures spasmodically convulsed her and she shivered and shuddered between bouts.

“I’m calling the doctor…” Rudi decided. He picked up a nearby phone and dialed the emergency number. Even as he explained the problem, he saw his wife convulse violently one last time and lie still, athwart the bed, her pale feet sticking out on the other side. “Please, hurry…I think she’s…just hurry….”

The ambulance and paramedics were at their apartment in fifteen minutes.

Even as the medics were littering Greta downstairs to the front door, Rudi Volk knew she had died. The medics attached tubes, took measurements, cleared her throat and started cardio support, but one of them gave Rudi a knowing look: she’s not going to make it. Volk didn’t have to feign shock. It was horrific enough what Greta was going through. Maybe cancer would have been a better outcome.

He regretted ever pushing Oskar into trying the medbots on her. None of this would have happened if—

Rudi Volk rode with the ambulance to the Katholisches Krankenhaus emergency room. Greta was deathly still for the whole ride. He occupied himself following the beeps and graphs of the monitor screens; Greta was enveloped in wires and tubes and cables. Most of the graphs showed minimal activity.

Hospital attendants and medics wheeled Greta into the ER. Rudi was firmly told to wait outside. The wait lasted ten minutes, then a white-coated doctor whose name plate read Mauer came out with a grim face.

“I’m sorry, Herr Volk…we did all we could…it was cardiac arrest…she’s at peace now…you can go in for a few minutes….”

Rudi went into the ER and stood beside the bed. Greta Volk was pale, her lips clenched even in death and her eyes were still open. Even as he looked on, a nurse in blue scrubs reached over and gently rubbed her eyelids down.

“I’m sorry,” she whispered. Nurses and doctors discreetly backed away to give Volk some time with his wife.

He didn’t know quite what to expect, quite how to feel. Greta had suffered mightily the last six months; she wasn’t herself half the time. She had some paralysis in her facial muscles, some seizures, some bleeding in her skull. Glioblastoma did that.

In death, she looked like a wax figure, like something you’d see at Madame Tussaud’s. He half expected to see a fog of tiny bots issuing from her ears. But that was nonsense. This wasn’t Engebbe and Greta wasn’t an archeological site. He wondered if he had dreamed the whole thing.

He swallowed hard and something heavy and malignant sat down in the pit of his stomach. My God, what have I done?

“Would you sign here, please, Herr Volk?” Dr. Mauer handed him a clipboard with an official form on it. “It’s the death notification…I’m assigning cardiac arrest as the cause of death. We’ll do routine lab work on her to back that up, but based on the evidence at hand, her heart gave out. I know she had been fighting cancer as well…that would be a contributory cause and will be so noted.”

Volk signed the form automatically, in a daze. One of the nurses gently escorted him back to the waiting room. “Dr. Mauer will be out in a few minutes, Herr Volk. He’ll need to know all your preferred arrangements…funeral home, cemetery…those things.”

Volk nodded perfunctorily. “I’ve got to call my son…Oskar. He should be here—“ The nurse ducked out of the waiting room. Volk made the call on his wristpad.

 

Greta’s body was transported early the next morning to the Mehlkopf Funeral Home. Dr. Norbert Hume was the pathologist on staff and did the initial exam. Rudi Volk had asked to be on hand when the examination was done; this is highly unusual, said Mauer, but he shrugged it off and let Dr. Hume know of the family’s request.

Oskar and Rudi Volk sat in cold silence in the waiting room the next morning, idly thumbing through magazines and checking their wristpads while Hume performed the prep exam. The Mehlkopf staff had already informed the Volks that an autopsy had been ordered by Dr. Mauer to determine the exact cause of death, the underlying cause of Greta’s cardiac arrest.

“It’s routine,” Dr. Hume had told them that morning, “but it’s important to have the best information. Unfortunately, you’ll have to wait outside. But I or my staff will keep you informed. After the autopsy, we’ll talk about disposition of Greta’s body…your burial preferences.”

So they waited.

Ten minutes later, Hume appeared at the door to the waiting room.

“Herr Volk, could you come into the examining room for a moment?”

Rudi Volk looked up. “Both of us? What seems to be the problem?”

Hume was grim. “Just for a moment…please—“

Rudi and Oskar Volk both followed the pathologist into the cold tile and strong fluorescent lighting of the exam room. Greta Volk lay pale under a light sheet on the table.

Hume pointed to Greta’s right hand. It was twitching, moving slowly. “I’m in the process of hooking up some monitors now…in itself, autonomic reactions like this aren’t that unusual…just random muscular contractions…something has discharged. But she’s breathing as well. Herr Volk…somehow, your wife is alive. I was just about to inject the first dose of preservative—“

“What?” Rudi Volk was incredulous. “You can’t be serious. Let me see—“

He went to his wife’s side, steering clear of the slowly twitching fingers of her right hand. He bent down, felt a faint puff of breath. It smelled of formaldehyde. The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. “Oskar…it has to be—“

“—ANAD,” Oskar completed the thought. “They’re still active, still replicating. I need my interface controls…I could shut it down with the IC. Incredible—“

At that moment, Greta’s eyes fluttered open. The color had already begun returning to her cheeks and forehead. Under the harsh glare of the lights, a small bead of sweat had formed above her lips.

“This can’t be—“Rudi Volk muttered. “Greta…Liebchen…can you hear me? Can you hear what I’m saying—?”

Her lips trembled and that was when the faint sparkling fog began. Her lips parted in a low moan. At first, Rudi thought he was seeing dust particles dancing in the overhead lights. But the dust particles sparkled and grew thicker. It wasn’t dust. It was the same thing he had seen at Engebbe.

The mist grew thicker in the fluorescent beams. There was a reddish tint to the haze and it coiled and boiled like a miniature thunderstorm, hovering right above Greta’s face. Pinpricks of light shot through the haze…he knew what this was.

“The bots…they’re exiting the body…” Oskar breathed. “That can’t happen—there’s no—“

Rudi knew now that it was no dream he’d had at Engebbe. The Old Ones were here, right in front of them. Ngai na-nyokie…the Red God…the Vindictive One…the Bringer of Death…he knew Leaduma’s chant by heart. He’d heard it often enough.

“Let’s get out of here,” Volk said. “We can’t stop this…not now.”

“I’m calling the hospital,” Hume told them. He was already pecking out the number on his own wristpad. “If she’s alive—“

“She’s not alive,” Rudi Volk told them. “Not in any way we’d understand. It’s ANAD. It’s the bots. Somehow, they’ve animated her…and they’re replicating now. We’ve got to get out of here…call the police.”

Oskar stared transfixed at the apparition. “In the lab, we used electron beam injectors. And high-energy radio freq guns…in case ANAD started replicating too fast. I just can’t—”

“Too late for that now,” Rudi Volk said. He swung the door open. “Come on—“

The fog was thickening visibly by the second. Already it was spreading across the exam room, flowing like a yellowish miasma off the exam table and across the tile floor. Before Hume could finish his call, coils of mist had encircled his feet. Hume cried out and pitched to the floor. He was enveloped in seconds, swatting at the mist, flailing away, but it swarmed in an exponentially thickening haze. A shrill, keening buzz filled the room.

Oskar leapt to Hume’s defense and fell heavily to the floor himself. Rudi grabbed an extended hand and tried to pull him free but the bots were already on him and he lost his grasp on Oskar. Rudi stared in horror as the sparkling mist quickly enveloped both men, Hume and his son, coagulating into a throbbing, beating cloud, boiling like a slow-motion storm.

There was nothing he could do for them now. Greta was already half-dematerialized. The ANAD bots, or whatever the hell they had become, had already partially disassembled her body…only her legs and hands were still recognizable…all else was haze, dust, mist, swarmed into atom fluff by the bots that had erupted out of her.

Rudi Volk slid by the end of the exam table, slid by the writhing forms of Hume and Oskar still thrashing about on the floor. He ignored their muffled screams; nothing could be done for them now. He slid out of the room and slammed the door shut, then left the funeral home through the front door. Hearses were lined up outside.

It didn’t matter what you called them. ANAD. Ngai. Gikuyu. The Trickster. The Old Ones. Greta was lost to them. So too was Oskar and Hume. Rudi knew he had to alert the authorities. He stared out at the street. The Hauptstrasse was thick was traffic, horns honking, cars screeching. He stood next to a hearse, rubbing his hands in the cold air and had an idea, then ducked back inside the funeral home.

After a few minutes search, he found a rack of keys in a cupboard behind the receptionist’s desk. He went back outside and tried keys in every hearse until he found one that worked. The engine started. He backed out of the parking spot, then sped off down the circular drive, fishtailing through the snow and ice, running over bushes and flower beds as he left the grounds.

Out on the Hauptstrasse, he triggered the lights and siren, then screeched off into traffic, nearly colliding with delivery trucks, taxis and scrambling pedestrians. He had to tell someone what was happening. He had to get the word out. Maybe the police….

Rudi Volk sped off down the street in a borrowed ambulance, lights flashing and siren blaring. The nearest police station was the Zentrum-Sud precinct, fifteen minutes away, where the Antonienstrasse crossed the WeissEster canal. If he hurried, he could make it.

Rudi Volk never saw the faint sparkling mist even then coiling at his feet in the foot well of the hearse.

 

END

 

 

 

Star-Crossed in Voidtime

 

Introduction

 

This story is my take on the old adage that somehow love always triumphs. Two individuals once in love, one of them slammed through a time vortex and accelerated in evolution thousands of generations into the future and yet somehow they still recognize each other…is that even possible? And of course their love is unrequited…separated by so much time, by change, by evolution, that they can never really come back together again and that makes the circumstances all the more poignant. Is this just so much mush? Probably, yet time and evolution change some things and not others. This story is a meditation on the constancy of a powerful love, a love that can span generations of time.

The story implies that Nico (aka Kolohee, in an earlier life) is some kind of wounded warrior, a veteran of countless battles in this strange space called voidtime. In some ways, she is only a casualty, of the Time Wars alluded to, of the strange effects of voidtime, of the battles and the harsh life she led after being ‘accelerated,’ and also a casualty of the separation and loneliness that warriors always feel for their loved ones back home.

Perhaps the memory of a former love is all that casualties of war ever really feel…maybe that’s what sustains them in battle. They cling desperately to anything that feels like home and family, even if it’s a mirage…or a memory.

 

***

 

After the seamothers came, the base at Kinlok Island was nearly destroyed. The one who drove them up to the surface, the one who commanded them in the assault was called Bikloo ank kel:Om’t.

Bikloo was both warrior and outcast. He had gained a great victory over the Umans, over their infernal machines which had been devastating Seome for years with its vibrations, its whirlpools, its turbulence and noise. It was a great victory indeed, even though such a victory only doomed the world to a greater catastrophe later.

But no matter how great the triumph, it couldn’t make up for the loss of Kolohee…Kolohee, the only one Bikloo had ever loved. He had to accept the truth now…Kolohee was gone, lost in the great vortex they called Farpool…vanished forever.

Only the memory of her remained.

 

The Umans had no time to stand and marvel at the spectacle of a sea serpent who had disgorged a living symbiant when hit with suppressor fire. They left Bikloo to die in the sand, dispersing to make a feverish attempt at repairing the Time Twister. Everyone who had survived the attack of the seamothers, crippled or not, was put to work. The skimmer at the end of the dock was quickly loaded with tool packs and replacement gear for the trip out to the Twister platform. Umans piled on board and the craft sped out of the bay.

Only Nico stayed behind.

She had overcome her initial shock and was utterly fascinated with Bikloo. Leeve had taken her on several dives into the bay and there had been the time she had fallen overboard on a routine servicing trip to the Twister. She had never imagined that Storm harbored a being like this. For that was the only thing she could call it: a being. It was clearly dying and Nico sought some way to keeping its attention, partly to ease its obvious discomforts and partly to—

Why?

Nico studied her companion closely. Her eyes roved the contours of his body and stirred a fleeting memory trace.

The thick beak—the twin dorsals—yes—the armfins, webbed to ligaments in the pectoral—yes—the vertical flukes—Yes!

She grasped at a memory but it eluded her. Nico pitied the thing. If only there were some way she could maneuver it into the water. She held out her hand and lightly stroked its fins, careful not to hurt it. Somehow, she knew the fins would be sensitive to her touch. They were such large, rugged-looking fins, ominous, yet captivating, all at the same time. Immediately, she christened him Bigfin.

“Bigfin,” she said to herself, “you don’t have any idea of what you’ve done, do you? I suppose the Twister disturbed you but—“

She stopped because Bigfin had moved a bit, his gills rasping for relief, and he brushed her leg with an armfin. She flinched at the cold feel of his skin but stayed next to him and let him run his fingers around her ankle. Nico shuddered for a moment, then placed her own hand on top of his. His armfin stiffened.

For an instant, they shared a thought.

The feeling lasted for only a few seconds, and Nico wasn’t sure it had ever happened. But she bent down to cradle Bigfin’s beak in her hands and she caught a glimpse of his black, fathomless eyes. They were watching her with a kind of affection, something more than just interest. He had no fear of her, not as she had of him. Startled, Nico let go of his beak and it struck the ground hard. She stood up.

Why did she want to run? Bigfin was no different from the rest of the marine life on Storm. He couldn’t even survive outside the water. The Umans had much more reason to fear them. They’d trashed the local life for months…fish, they were called, worthless sea slime, pets for lonely hearts. Yet she couldn’t just leave him lying there. She felt things, which she had no words for—responsibility, foreboding, curiosity, a dozen others, none of them strong enough to dominate her thinking. Yet she could do no more than stand there and look at him.

A simple hunger finally won out, a longing for something that she couldn’t even express. Nico sat down slowly. “Bigfin,” she said, “you have the answer. You can tell me what I have to know.” He didn’t move and she leaned over to touch the cold skin again. No response. Only stillness.

Nico cried out and bent over, poking at him, trying to get some reaction. There was none. He was dead, impossibly dead. No breath, no writhing anymore, nothing but quiet and the lap of the waves against the shore.

Mindless, wordlessly, she stood up. She stared out beyond the sand reefs, to the bay beyond. He belonged out there. They both did. There was still a chance, if she could get him into the water quickly enough.

Nico took hold of Bigfin’s tail and lifted it. He was heavy, incredibly heavy, massive, blubbery, yet she moved him, inch by inch, toward the shoreline. She saw only him and nothing else. Slowly, gradually, inexorably, she dragged Bigfin to the edge of the sandbar, then slid into the water and pulled him after her.

He floated ponderously, apparently lifeless but she would not give up. Somehow, she found the strength to nudge him across the pool, over another sandbar and into deeper waters. She slipped on the second sandbar and splashed into the water beside Bigfin. She came up for air instinctively, and floated for a moment, studying the texture of his skin, the proportions of his body, chasing an elusive memory. Then she ducked under again. The water was murky and green but she could still see him, now a sinking hump. Only his fins and a tiny oval of skin around them showed above the surface. Underneath, even in death, he was sleek, supple, strong. It was his world. On land, he was clumsy and awkward. Down here, he was master.

Nico envied him that.

She strained for enough breath to stay under, wishing Leeve had agreed to make her an aquadapt, and toyed with the idea of lingering long enough to be with him forever. But her instincts took over and she had to go up. She heaved in huge gulps of air, disgusted with herself. Air which was life to her and death to Bigfin. It cleared her mind somewhat.

She felt something brush her legs. An instant later, Bigfin breached the surface, his tail thunking the water hard.

He was alive!

Nico reached out and took his armfins. He lifted his beak out of the water and pulsed her. He is so beautiful. He’s what I dreamed of. Even Leeve isn’t so majestic in the water as Bigfin.

Nico struggled to calm him. He tried to thrash away from her and seek deeper water but he was too weak to make it over the last of the sand reefs. He was dying and she couldn’t prevent it.

She helped Bigfin situate himself as comfortably as he could. He rolled listlessly in the waves, still alive, barely, but without interest in surviving. Nico sensed that. The last sandbar was too broad and he was too heavy for her to move again. Death would come here, when it came.

Nico hoisted herself out of the water and sat on the reef, knees drawn up to her chin. She watched Bigfin glumly.

Since emerging from voidtime, her memory had been paradoxical and inconstant. She had long been uneasy with her Uman comrades, sensing that she didn’t belong with them, that she was different in important ways. Leeve had tried to explain that it was only a normal reaction to voidtime and that it would pass. But it hadn’t. If anything, the disparity had grown, until it could no longer be explained at all.

She was a creature of this world. Storm was home. There could be no other explanation.

Nico watched Bigfin watching her. “You and I are related somehow,” she told him. He seemed to understand that. “We’re more alike than the Umans. If only I could find the key—“ She stopped when Bigfin wedged his beak into the sand beside her, glaring up at her with eyes of stone. “What is it, Bigfin? What are you trying to tell me?”

—the thought-bond can work…opuh’te is not wrong—

She watched in amazement as Bigfin nestled his beak against her thigh and closed his eyes. He wasn’t dead—she saw his armfins still twitching but he seemed to be asleep. Nico found that idea appealing and closed her eyes too. She let the fatigue of the last few days take over.

do you remember—

Nico stirred uneasily as her mind spun dreams out of the haze. “I need some rest,” she muttered to herself. “The Twister has aged all of us a hundred terrs the last few days.”

—by Tchet’onk, by the Eeskork Current, you roamed the repeater’s path for Ork’et—

“I was so tired and confused when Leeve found me on this beach, Bigfin. I felt like I had lived for ages and she said I had, in a manner of speaking. Voidtime is like that. Seconds pass like centuries, minutes like millennia. The first thing I saw was Leeve’s face—her bill was bent with worry—everything was so…wrong, somehow. I was dizzy and—“

—and I stalked you for so many days, across the Serpentines, through Pul’kel, pulsing you, enchanted by the most splendid voice ootkeeor has ever heard, until you took pity on me and—

“Gave you my food…what? Yes, I did, didn’t I? I remember now. So persistent, so lonely. I couldn’t get away from you.”

I was jeeot, ready to die, and you gave me life—

“It was what I had to do. I couldn’t help pulsing you—you weren’t like the others. You distracted me and I had to do something.”

—we roamed to Kok’t and you introduced me to Ork’et—

“They hated you. They hated me for bringing you. ‘The kel forbids’, they said. ‘He pulses too violently, too differently.’ What could I do?”

—you gave me food, and work as a repeater, to help me forget jeeot…and then you left—

“I…my memory is unclear, Bigfin. An em’kel, near Kinlok, made holdpods. Good for repeaters. I went there to buy and…there was a terrible noise, and something pulling me, I couldn’t fight it, I was drawn upward, to the surface. Terrified…I couldn’t get away. A great machine, big as Kinlok itself, captured me and I was spinning…falling…and I was cold—“

Nico started violently and woke up. She looked down at her hands. One of them had gouged its way into the sand. The other clutched Bigfin’s armfin tightly. Slowly, she released it. She examined the hand carefully.

“I must have dreamed, Bigfin. I was so tired I fell asleep and dreamed.” She watched him come awake too. “It seemed so real, like a memory almost.”

Bikloo backed off the sandbar and submerged. His body throbbed in pain and, for a moment, he wished death would take him and end the agony. I am no kek’ot, Shooki. I can’t breathe the Notwater. Look at me. I don’t even have the strength to hold good shoo’kel. What will the aliens think of me? Notwater throws everything into turmoil and the humiliation, I can no longer bear that. Even the thought-bond can’t be trusted any longer.

The whine of the skimmer brought Bikloo back to the surface. The alien had stood erect and was waving at the craft. It entered the bay and was circling to make an approach to the dock. The alien ran off to meet them and Bikloo watched the reunion as well as he could. Low pressure had already distorted his vision and pulsing was useless. He was strong enough to endure short trips into the Notwater unprotected but his margin was gone and he felt his strength ebbing. Before long, Notwater would squeeze all of his body fluids out of solution and he would suffocate. He tried to hear the Tailless speaking, just to last a little longer, but understanding their language was beyond him.

Nico helped make the skimmer fast to the moorings. She started to ask how the repair mission had gone but when Leeve climbed out onto the planking and shook her head, she didn’t have to ask.

Dringoth explained. “The whole place is in ruins. That pack of serpents or whatever they are destroyed everything, leveled the whole platform. Eighty percent of the displacement nodes are beyond any kind of repair.”

Acth:On’e agreed. He hauled a heavy satchel of gear out of the cabin and slung it angrily onto the deck. “Even if we had a full terr, we wouldn’t have long enough to make the Twister operational again. It’s hopeless.”

Leeve unloaded a box of test equipment into Nico’s arms. “Come on. We’ve got to get the jumpship loaded up.” She took off for the ship, which was parked at the far end of the beach. Nico hustled to stay up with her.

“Did you learn anything about that…thing, that came out of the serpent’s mouth?”

“Yes,” Nico said, stumbling to balance the heavy box. “It has some intelligence. We might be able to establish some kind of communication with it.”

Leeve laughed. “You expect me to believe that?” They had reached the jumpship, where Leeve punched a few buttons, then pulled Nico out of the way before the ramp landed on her feet. “That serpent probably swallowed it the day before. Bad food gets vomited up, that’s all it was.”

Nico took her by the arm. “It’s alive now.”

Leeve stared, not believing her. “You’re sure?”

“Of course, I’m sure. I’m telling you, Leeve, it’s an intelligent being.”

Leeve rubbed her bill and squinted at Nico. “How do you know that?”

Nico had no real answer. She bit her lip and said, “I know, that’s how. I feel it.”

Leeve shrugged and waddled up the ramp. She motioned for Nico to push the box up behind her. “Well, it doesn’t make any difference now, does it?”

“What are you talking about?”

“Look around, Nico. We’re getting ready to leave. We’re pulling out. Dringoth ordered an evacuation from Storm. With a fleet of Coethi starball ships headed this way, we can’t stay here. The whole place, the whole Sigma Albeth system, is as good as rubble.”

Leave Bigfin? No, she couldn’t do it, she could never do that. Bigfin has the answer, Bigfin knows the truth.

“I can’t leave.”

Leeve had managed to get the box into the hold. She turned. “What did you say?”

“Where’s Dringoth now?”

“How should I know? Probably rummaging through the ruins of the command shack. Why?”

Nico didn’t reply. Instead, she whirled and dashed off to find him. The Ultrarch-Major had to understand. They were only protecting themselves. The Time Twister disrupted the oceans and threatened their survival. They responded as any intelligent race would.

Dringoth was with Acth:On’e, combing the debris for anything intact. Piles of smashed equipment attested to the wrath of the seamothers. Nico rushed up.

“Ultrarch-Major,” she wheezed, out of breath, “Ultrarch-Major, I have a request.”

Dringoth was annoyed. “I’m busy, Nico. Can’t you see that? The Twister’s gone and we have to get the hell out of here in a hurry. I’m looking for any file-crystals that may have survived this holocaust. We can’t leave anything behind for the Coethi to study. The Twister’s the only way we can push them out of the Halo.”

“Major Dringoth, I have a request to make.”

Dringoth was kicking through each pile as he came to it. “I only hope the destruct pack wasn’t crushed. Command will have my neck if I let the Twister fall into Coethi’s little metallic hands. What is it, Nico?”

Nico spied a crystal half hidden under some broken wall partitions. She stooped down and snatched it up, handing it to Dringoth. The Ultrarch-Major turned it end of end, frowning before putting it in a bag.

“I would like to request permission to stay behind, sir.”

Dringoth halted in mid-step and wore a puzzled look as he surveyed her face. Beside him, Acth:On’e could only shake his head.

“Stay behind? Are you ill? What’s the matter with you, Nico? Of course you can’t stay behind. Go over there and search through that pile.”

“Please, Ultrarch-Major, I have a reason.”

Dringoth paid her no attention. He plowed through a mound of rubble with his boot, swearing to himself. “What a mess. Of all the luck, we have to pick a planet like this, with dragons as big as jumpships. I never did like this hellhole of a place; the base was doomed from the beginning. Now I’ll have to explain to Timejump how I let a herd of demented reptiles demolish the one operational weapon that might have stopped the Coethi expansion. Got any ideas, Acth?”

“Ultrarch-Major, please!”

Dringoth said, “All right, Nico, what is it? Why do you want to stay behind? So you can be blasted into voidtime again?”

“No, sir. I request permission to take the creature that came out of the serpent with us when we leave. If that is impossible, then I wish to stay behind.”

“And I thought you were completely recovered. Nico, we don’t have room for something that big. He’s biologically incompatible with us. You don’t have any idea of what he requires to live. And besides that, he’s dying anyway. Even Leeve understands that. We’ve got enough to worry about just getting away from Sigma Albeth before the starballs hit.”

“He’s an intelligent being, Major Dringoth. “We could learn so much from his race.”

Dringoth scoffed. “Speculation. It doesn’t matter. I didn’t make this War. Even if he does come from a race of sentients, he can’t stop a Coethi attack.”

“He can stop a Time Twister.”

That made the Ultrarch-Major scowl. “You think he was responsible for the rampage? Are you telling me he sent those serpents up to take out the Twister?”

“It was self-defense.”

“Some self-defense. They’ve probably just doomed themselves to obliteration. And maybe all the Uman races with them.”

Nico withstood Dringoth’s scrutiny. How can I explain these feelings to him? “I wish to remain on Storm, sir.” I know that I’m one of them. I’ve lived here before.

A flicker of sympathy crossed the Ultrarch-Major’s face; his eyes softened their hard gaze. “This is a serious request?”

“Yes, sir. It is.”

Dringoth took a deep breath and looked to Acth:On’e for some kind of support. “You…Nico, you understand what this means, don’t you? The Coethi, I mean—“

“I understand, sir. I’m prepared to absolve you of any official responsibility.”

Dringoth stared blankly out to sea, watching the surf pile up around the headlands that guarded the bay. “No, no, I didn’t mean that.” He reached for Nico’s hand and held it tightly. “I suppose you never did really fit in that well.” He shook his head sadly. “Casualties of war…voidtime does that to people. I lost a friend that way—an Elamoid fellow, you know how they are, half machine and half lizard. We blipped into voidtime together and both took a hit from a Coethi timecrasher. I blipped back to truetime. He never returned.” Dringoth relived the experience and sighed. “I guess you’ve gone through enough, Nico. Three hundred plus terrs in voidtime is enough sacrifice for any warrior. Timejump shouldn’t keep sending them out like that.”

“Then I can stay with Bigfin?”

Dringoth laughed in spite of himself. “Bigfin? Is that what you call him?” He scooped up some rubble and let it sift through his fingers. “How can I say no? You’ve earned the right to die with whatever dignity you can find on this sewer of a world. Where better than on good old solid ground, where the sun comes up and goes down every day and nothing ever changes? It’s the least anybody can do—to grant someone the chance to choose when and where they’ll die. But there’s just one question, Nico, that I’d like to have answered. Why?”

What could she say? “I belong here, Major Dringoth. I’m a part of all this and don’t ask me to explain. It’s something I’ve felt ever since Leeve found me. My memory is fairly clear from that time. But there have been moments when I remember other things, things that don’t quite make sense unless—“

“Yes?”

“—unless there is another explanation. I had one of those moments when you took the skimmer out to the Twister, when I was on the beach with Bigfin. I know now that I have to stay here, with Bigfin and his people. They’re my people. I’m sure of it. Maybe I’m just projecting sympathy for them, but I think that somehow, in some way, I’m one of them. I don’t completely understand it yet.”

Dringoth was watching others carry gear to the jumpship. “Neither do I. But then that’s voidtime for you. In and out, back and forth, flitting across the ages, without any thought for what it might be doing to us—it’s no wonder nothing makes sense. For all I know, you and I might be fighting different wars. We might have just crossed paths, on this world, in this time.” He stood there before Nico and held out his hand. “From the beginning, I had doubts about just how Uman you really were. Like you, I had a feeling. Now, I think it doesn’t matter so much. Even if you aren’t Uman, then whatever you are, the difference between us is small. Probably trivial. The Uman races keep on adding new peoples. One day, perhaps, you’ll be among them.”

There was an awkward silence, during which Acth:On’e stole away discreetly to help with the loading. Dringoth toed the sand for a moment, gouging a shallow trench around himself. He looked up at the gray clouds, studying their ever-shifting forms as if seeking a portent of what Time would bring them next. At last, he lowered his gaze to Nico’s face.

“The Coethi are coming,” he said. “There isn’t much time.” He turned to leave but stopped when Nico reached out and touched his face.

“Thanks,” she said. Her hands dropped away when she saw Leeve running toward them, motioning for the Ultrarch-Major to hurry. “Thanks for understanding.”

Dringoth broke into a run and met Leeve halfway. They conferred for a moment, then headed for the ramp of the jumpship. Neither of them looked back.

Nico watched them disappear into the hold. When the ramp was retracted, she went into the water and found Bigfin again, still alive, drifting helplessly in the shallows of the reefs. She rubbed his back gingerly and pushed him around to the other side of a low sand bank. It would make a good bunker to protect them from the effects of the jumpship’s launch.

For the first time, she noticed that the water seemed warmer than before. Pockets of heat swirled around them and steam vents had already blown open holes in sandbars nearby. Above, the clouds seethed under the lash of strong winds. High in the cliffs behind the beach, towering fumaroles whistled in the air. It could only mean one thing.

A Coethi starball had already been fired.

Nico wrapped her arms around Bigfin, as far as they would go, and hugged him. She could feel the hollow rasping of his gill membranes. He was struggling for life and slowly losing the battle. She silently wished that the starball would hit soon and end his agony.

She heard the low whine of the jumpship and saw it disappear momentarily in a haze of whirling sand. On the ground, rockets were the rule. Displacement engines tended to drag whole planets into voidtime if they were used too near to them. A parabolic orbit was needed first, to take advantage of Sigma Albeth’s enormous gravity well.

The jumpship rode a spear of flame into the heavens and soon vanished in the clouds. The thunder of her rockets pealed across the beach and echoed off the cliffs, resounding for several minutes afterward. Nico let the image settle in her mind.

The sea was rising in the bay and swept over the beach with scalding, hissing breakers, quickly erasing the last evidence of the Uman camp. Beyond the headlands, heavy swells boiled and dense hot mist soon blanketed everything. Nico found the water too hot to stand and climbed out onto the sand bank, itself slowly crumbling under the relentless assault of the surf. A dull red glow glinted off the rock cliffs behind her, diffusing in the mist like a false sunset.

Within the hour, she knew the starball would have reduced Storm to molten slag. Already, it outshone the sun; in a quarter of the sky from which Sigma Albeth never gleamed, a broad swath of light burned a blinding radiance. Facing it, Nico felt the heat and radiation immediately. She turned away and cupped water over her eyes, heedless of the way her skin flushed in the heat. She fanned herself dry.

—the vision of opuh’te is fulfilled—everything is exactly as it was revealed—

Bikloo watched the alien carefully. A look of intense concentration came over her and she lowered her eyes, watching him with bewilderment.

—the thought-bond still survives—do you sense it, Kolohee?—

Nico squinted at him. She had sensed something –a thought not her own. She leaned forward, tenderly easing herself into the boiling water. It was too hot for her and she clawed her way back onto the sandbar, part of which gave way. She rubbed her arms painfully.

—you are Kolohee—I know that you are—something has happened that I cannot explain but the thought-bond is still intact—

Nico seemed afraid. She huddled in a tight ball, shaking her head. “What are you, Bigfin? Who are you?”

—you are Kolohee—somehow, the wavemaker has made you over into another race, accelerated evolution so that you’re not one of us anymore—you’re more Tailless than Seomish—this is terrible to see the difference between us now—

“You’re wrong—it can’t be.” Nico stared vacantly into the blazing pool, trying to remember. She shook her head. “I don’t understand anything anymore.”

An enormous wave pitched over the little reef, knocking Nico into the water. She cried out and Bikloo grabbed her arm before the backwash could carry her out into the bay.

—you don’t belong here, Kolohee—

He rolled in such a way that she was forced to cling to his back, bracing herself for the next wave by clutching his mid-dorsal. It came, rising to a high, foaming crest, before curling over and crashing down on them. For a few moments, they were underwater. Nico lost her grip and was dragged away. Bikloo summoned the last of his strength and pulsed for her. He found her thrashing wildly at the surface, her skin badly scalded. He bumped her to let her know he was there and she gratefully climbed onto his back again, exhausted and frightened.

—is this what the Seomish people will be like someday?—she’s undergone a billion generations of change in the opuh’te, but pulse her: she’s more helpless in the sea than a glow-weed—

A strong tide was pulling them toward the mouth of the bay. He had no strength left to fight it and wasn’t sure that he wanted to.

—if this is our fate, to give up our ancient heritage, our sense of t’shoo, our vishtu, our love for the sea, in order to survive in such a harsh and brutal world, then I mourn what is to come—perhaps somehow we will learn to live in Notwater someday—perhaps, we will follow Puk’lek but not this way—the sea is home for all Seomish—Longse was right in that—it must always be so—

Bikloo found the steaming waters almost comfortable now; there was little feeling anymore, anywhere in his body. He could still pulse the bottom of the bay, enough to know that the smoldering fires of the submerged volcanoes had been awakened. Huge gouts of lava issued from fresh fissures in the seabed. Beyond the headlands, the heat of the approaching starball had whipped the ocean to a frenzy. Steam spirals danced across the bay and what remained of the rocky cliffs of Kinlok began to flow sluggishly down to the sea.

—the vision of opuh’te is fulfilled—

Bikloo closed his eyes and let the waves pull them farther out into the bay, toward the inferno beyond. He felt Kolohee’s fingers digging into his back but there was no pain.

—I don’t know what opuh’te will bring to Seome—perhaps the Tailless are the future for us, but Kolohee is lost to me and I’m to blame—the gulf is too great to overcome…there is no time, no way to follow—

Nico felt the life flow out of him and cried when it was done.

She clung tenaciously to his corpse as the tide carried them inexorably out to sea. When they were finally abreast of the molten headlands, she watched without emotion as the rock promontory collapsed and sank. The first swells rolled under them and they were quickly snatched out of the bay, riding along the rim of a whirlpool that had formed at the mouth. It cleaved the ocean all the way to the bottom, where the vortex was now gathering the remains of Kinlok Island.

The vortex was called Farpool.

Nico never let go on the way down.

 

END

 

The Cold, Hard Facts

 

Introduction

 

All Detective Lieutenant Stan Benecky ever wanted to be was a street cop. But time and technology have begun to pass him by and like a dinosaur in a land of unicorns, he stumbles around, hanging on for dear life, trying to make some sense of what has happened to his job. He can’t resign: there’s pride, a messy and probably expensive divorce, a reputation to protect. When a high profile athlete is murdered before the Big Game, Benecky tries to put up a brave front, but he’s like an ant trying to understand calculus. But Benecky does have one thing in his favor—he’s resourceful, even a little cunning. He knows how to use the latest forensic tech to invade police work—sniffing out dead victim’s dying memories—to re-live his greatest moments as a beat cop. It seems like a vicarious, even harmless addiction for an aging troglodyte, until one day, he finds the scrolling memories of a vic a little too realistic for comfort….

 

***

 

Forensic Nanopathology –the practice of using nanoscale mechanisms and techniques in postmortem investigations of sudden, unexpected death.

—excerpt from The Law Officer’s Professional Compendium of Standards and Definitions, United States Department of Justice and Rehabilitation, October 2048

Facts do not cease to exist just because they are ignored.”

Aldous Huxley

 

1.

 

“The Scene of the Crime”

 

It was hard to drop into Tootsie’s Bar after a long day watch in Forensics and have a beer and swap lies with your partner, when your partner was all of eighty-four nanometers tall. That was the problem Detective Lieutenant Stan Benecky, of Greater Atlanta PD’s ANAD Squad, had with the whole deal. In the good old days, when Benecky was a street cop working Robbery or Vice or Counter-Twist, even when he had been detailed to Cyber Crimes back in ’46, you could still hold your head up at Tootsie’s, catch some of the ribbing of the regulars and give it back just as well.

Now Stan Benecky was just a lonesome washed-up gumshoe, talking to himself over beer and peanuts, while the rest of the Department went head over heels about autonomous nanoscale assemblers and containment systems and quantum strategies. Benecky liked to get his hands on stuff—how the hell could you get your hands on a device…an organism…a mechanism…thingy that was smaller than a virus and million times more powerful?

Benecky had spent a lot of time at Tootsie’s lately, thinking. Dreaming, really. Retirement. Some rustic cottage on the beach, a nice fast boat twenty feet off the back porch, a well-stocked fridge and a few full immersion flim fantasies to plug into, when he wanted to. See, that was the problem, and Cooter, the bartender, wasn’t the only one that saw it. Stan Benecky wasn’t cut out for the new stuff. ANAD or not, quantum processors be damned, and hang all the fullerene effectors and electron bond disrupters. Benecky wanted to see the blood and feel the corpse and cuff the perps just like cops had always done.

Then came the day Rafeeq Khan died and Lieutenant Stan Benecky thought this might well be his last chance.

The call came in when Benecky was knocking down a few “walking dogs” and sodas at the Varsity. He swallowed what he could and answered the call. It was Captain Sheffield, Violent Crimes, and Captain Emmitt, Forensic Services.

Get your squad together and get up North. The Rafeeq Khan mansion in Roswell. The kid’s deader than dirt, shot up with some kind of automatic weapon, and there’s going to be a hell of a stink when the Chief and the Mayor hear this.

Rafeeq Khan, you see, was the biggest thing to hit Atlanta since Clark Gable.

Khan was a native son, born right in the projects Eastside, who’d made good in the megaball wars and become the highest paid professional athlete in the history of the universe. With megaball’s World Bowl less than two days away, and Khan the prime-time prince of the playing field for the favored L.A. Barons, about a billion fans and sports press and hangers-on had their eyes on the “Flash’ day and night, scrutinizing every little nose pick the kid attempted.

Now Rafeeq was dead, murdered the Captain said, and the Department wanted Benecky and his ANAD team on the scene immediately.

The squad had been formed a couple of years ago, long before Benecky was exiled to the unit. It ran like a machine, just fine without him. By just about anybody’s reckoning, Forensics-ANAD had worked several hundred cases by the time the Lieutenant had showed up.

Benecky wiped his mouth free of mustard and hand waved his two human assistants to the van. His mind was reeling with imaginary headlines. With Khan dead and the big game less than forty-eight hours away, everything he did was going to be under the biggest microscope the world had even seen. Microscope, hell, he muttered to himself. More like a quantum flux imager.

For the next few days, Stan Benecky figured he’d know all too well what it was like for ANAD…living life in the glare of something that could see right down into the blurry guts of atoms themselves.

For once, he might have something to share with his infinitesimal partner.

 

Khan’s place was a veritable Babylon of ostentation, with fountains and turrets and columns. The place was surrounded by cops, and the ever-present fans, sniffing something was up, had already begun to clot the driveway and roads around the mansion.

Benecky pulled into the circular drive. With him came Sergeant Marianne “Deeno” D’Nunzio, the squad’s interface controller and Sergeant Hoyt Wade, the CQE. That stood for containment and quantum engineering, sort of a glorified valet and butler to the ANAD device. Benecky was OIC, Officer in Charge. The trio went in, Sergeant Wade wheeling the mobile containment device. TinyTown, they called it.

Sheffield and Emmitt were in the media room on the top floor of Babylon. There sprawled on the tile floor in a spreading pool of blood lay the Flash himself, all two hundred and fifty pounds of him, gaping chest and stomach wounds still oozing red. A dull black TEK-12 lay next to his feet.

Crime scenes talked, if you knew how to listen, and this one screamed Violent Demise, loud and clear. The ANAD squad had shelves and shelves of records, detailing the minutiae of death in all its gruesome glory. Ever since he had come to the squad, Benecky had found a strange kind of fascination with all the ways people thought up to dismember and dispatch themselves.

Benecky watched for a moment as the forensic bots scuttled around the crime scene, documenting everything, photographing samples, measuring ballistic angles. A lattice of laser light marked off the crime scene. Data poured into Emmitt’s eyepiece, scrolling down the lens over her right eye.

She indicated the TEK-12. “Bots detected something weird. According to the first path reports, Fareeq Khan died at or around 1:00 this morning, give or take a few dozen minutes.” She tapped her eyepiece. “I’ve got hypostasis starting about that time—normal discoloration, along with normal desiccation of tissue.”

Benecky bent down to examine the corpse. A stitch of bullet wounds stretched in a line across his chest and rib cage. Rigor mortis was still evident, though Khan’s arms had begun to loosen as muscle decomposition set in. “Appears to be a distance wound, Captain. Clean margins, no fouling or stippling. I’d say an entrance wound, from the abrasion around the holes.”

“Bots agree,” said Emmitt. “But there’s a problem…with the time of death. Ballistics bots say the TEK 12 wasn’t discharged until around 3:00 this morning. Easily an hour or two after the time of death.”

Benecky looked up, nearly backing into one of the mechs as it scanned the marble floor for fiber and trace evidence, crunching its DNA matching routines on the fly.

“You’re saying he wasn’t killed by the weapon.”

“Exactly.” Emmitt indicated the ANAD squad. “Something or someone else killed Rafeeq Khan. Something that hasn’t turned up yet. That’s why you’re here. We have to do an ANAD insertion. These bots can’t find anything outside.”

Benecky nodded. “Sure thing, Captain. Sergeant—“ he called to Wade. “Prep for deploy right away.” Wade wrestled the TinyTown cylinder through the herd of bots and parked next to Khan’s head. Benecky helped D’Nunzio set up the Interface Control panel, wondering for the hundredth time about this business of in situ autopsy. The Department’s lawyers had yet to agree on the legal niceties of invading the dead with a trillion programmable replicants. Somehow, it seemed a bit improper, but that was for the big guys to sort out. Benecky had a job to do and he buckled down to it.

If Emmitt wanted a nanographic probe of Rafeeq Khan’s private parts, who was he to say no?

“While you’re prepping, here’s the case details,” said Captain Sheffield. ‘Shef’ was a dinosaur out of Violent Crimes, nearly thirty years with the force. Hibernating bears had nicer personalities.

“Witnesses say Khan came by the mansion a little after ten o’clock last night. You know how it goes…a small harem of female admirers along with him. Big game’s two days away and the Flash can’t afford to miss curfew tonight. So he’s out stirring up the honey pot, hitting every disco and club in town and decides to head home with his catch. Timeline is important here.”

“Witnesses deposed already?”

“Most of them. We got several on tape, bots did the genetics already, and they’re being treated as suspects too. Carl Cutler, for one. Agent for the Flash. He’s the one that reported the incident. Lisa LaVelle, principal squeeze for the man. She came by later, but before twelve midnight. That’s important.”

“Hell hath no fury, Captain—“

“Yeah, we thought of that. But she’s not the only suspect. Turns out the Flash also spent some time last evening with—get this: Rupert Jones.”

Benecky blinked. “Rupert Jones? The Seagulls’ coach?”

“The one. Think that might jazz up a few sports reporters tomorrow morning? Once they find out the Barons’ ace megaballer spent a few hours with the opposition coach.”

Benecky helped Wade initialize the IC panel. “Mr. Khan keeps interesting company.”

“They’re all witnesses and suspects, until we can prove otherwise. This case is deader than that corpse, until we definitively establish the cause of death.”

“ANAD’s ready in all respects, Lieutenant,” Wade said.

Benecky glanced inquiringly over at Emmitt. The Forensic Services chief nodded. “Secure all forensics for the time being,” she called to the SI techs running the scan. Then she turned back to Benecky: “Permission to launch.”

It was a whole new way of case investigation and it gave Benecky the willies, he didn’t mind telling you. They were making up tactics as they went along. Somewhere miles behind them, the Department lawyers and the DA were huffing and puffing to keep up.

It was enough to give any normal cop the creeps.

“Okay, Sergeant,” he said. Benecky patted down the incision D’Nunzio had just made in the corpse’s chest. “Subject’s prepped and ready.”

Wade handed him the injector tube, attached by hose to the containment cylinder. Inside, the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler ticked over, ready to be released.

“Steady even suction, Lieutenant,” Wade told him. He knew Benecky often got a case of the shakes about now. Why don’t you just let the pros handle this? “ANAD’s ready to fly.”

“Vascular grid?”

“Tracking now, sir. We’ll be able to follow the master just fine. I’ll replicate once we’re through the capillary walls.”

“Watch for capillary flow,” D’Nunzio warned. “When the capillaries narrow, your speed will increase. And viscosity will stay up.”

“Yeah, like slogging through molasses. ANAD’s inerted and stable…ready for insertion.”

Benecky held the injector as steady as he could. When it was done, he would be more than happy to back out and let the techs handle the matter. D’Nunzio and Wade ate this stuff up. Benecky would have been happier writing parking tickets, or maybe collaring rapists.

The insert went smoothly enough. A slug of plasma forced the replicant into Khan’s capillary network as high pressure. Deeno got an acoustic pulse seconds later and selected Fly-by-Stick to navigate the system. A few minutes’ run on its propulsors brought ANAD to a dense mat of capillary tissue. The sounder image settled down on the IC display.

“Ready for transit, Lieutenant. Cytometric probing now. I can force those cell membranes any time.”

Benecky used ANAD’s acoustic coupler to sound the tissue dam, probing for weak spots. “There, Deeno…right to starboard of those reticular lumps…that’s a lipid duct, I’d bet a hundred bucks. Try there.”

She stole a glance at Wade. The man’s learning, keep your shirt on. Deeno steered ANAD into the vascular cleft in the membrane. She twisted her right hand controller, pulsing a carbene grabber to twist the cleft molecules just so, then released the membrane lipids and slingshot herself forward. Seconds later, ANAD was floating in a plasma bath, dark, viny shapes barely visible off in the distance. She tweaked the picowatt propulsor to a higher power setting and took a navigation hack off the vascular grid.

“Aortic cavity, Lieutenant. Just past the Islet of Duchin, I’d say. Looks like we’re in. Where are we going today?”

2.

 

“Carl Cutler”

Start Fourier Transform:

Start Delacroix Transform;

Start Trace Matching….

 

Carl, baby, I’m telling you…this thing ain’t working right. You got to do something for me. Soon—“

Carl Cutler is sitting in an overstuffed divan in the media room. Rows of wall screens play great movies, sports clips, porno flicks, and visual pablum on the walls behind him. Carl is nursing a drink.

Hey, Flash…don’t sweat it, okay? Don’t get all tied up in knots. I’ll get the programmer in here in the morning.”

No…I mean like now! I’ve been having trouble breathing all night—“

Maybe that’s because you’ve got Du—De—what’s her name—?”

Duwanna.”

Whatever…you’ve had her sitting on your chest for the last half hour. Sweetie, why don’t you take a break, go to the ladies’ room, freshen up a bit—“

A statuesque ebony beauty with cornrows and a pouty mouth, slides off and stands up, stretching the full length of her six-foot frame. She slides out of the room.

Cutler puts down his drink. “So what’s ailing you, Flash? Pre-game jitters?”

Shit, no, man…it’s this…thing—in my head. PEP or whatever you call it. Wish to hell I’d never had the thing put in. Hurts like crazy.”

Cutler gets up, comes over, bends over and peers into the eyes. “Flash, baby…without the Performance Enhancement Package, you’re just a dried-up, old, run-of-the-mill megaballer. Fifth string, junior squad, on waivers before you know what hit you. Capish? Look…we spent millions on it. You got the friggin’ Rolls-Royce of PEP treatments. Had to have it all: Foreign Object Damage module, Cardiovascular Booster, Alveolar thingamabob, hyper-contractile fast twitch super-duper multiplier, the works. Even sprang for that new neural hot-key access. You got it all. So what is it, kid? What the hell’s ailing you?”

My chest…I don’t know, it’s like I get out of breath real easy.”

Duwanna’s that good, is she?”

No, man…this is for real…I suck but I can’t get no breath—“

 

(The imager blurs, shot through with streaks of light, peculiar starbursts and fragments of hazy, out-of-focus visuals all jumbled up. The speaker crackles with static.)

“Damn…we lost that trace.”

Stan Benecky glared in disgust at the IC panel. “Can you get it back, Deeno?”

Sergeant D’Nunzio shook her head. “Faded out…we didn’t have a good gradient to follow. I’ll backtrack—“

Captain Sheffield was there too, standing beside Benecky. “Eerie, isn’t it? Seeing things through a dead man’s eyes.”

“Gives me the creeps,” Benecky admitted. “But it seems to work. Couldn’t tell you the theory behind it…except that we have about ten to fifteen hours of window after death. When rigor mortis begins wearing off, brain tissue starts decomposing fast. The traces just vanish.’

Sheffield bent down over the cold, lifeless body of Rafeeq Khan. The ANAD tube was suctioned to an incision in his chest. The rest of his wounds were dry and caked with clotted blood.

“I never get over this circus trick…we can really play back memories of a dead person?”

“Not exactly,” said Sergeant Wade. He was helping D’Nunzio sniff out new traces for ANAD to follow. “We just put ANAD inside the deceased and replicate a few trillion times. Then we put the whole herd in ‘bloodhound’ mode and go hunting.”

“What exactly are you hunting for?”

“Everybody makes memories the same way. It’s called Long-term Potentiation. One of the chemical signatures of LTP is a molecule called glutamate…helps open a second voltage-gated channel inside the post-synaptic membrane—“

Benecky held up his hands. Wade was always showing off. “Let me, Sergeant. The Captain here speaks English. What it boils down to is that we can construct crude renditions of memory traces existent in the deceased’s brain, up to about ten to fifteen hours after death. Squad’s been doing it for two years now. ANAD shuttles around inside his head like a bunch of bees, sniffing out calcium sinks in every neuron, looking for equal concentrations, down to the parts per trillion. Everywhere that concentration is equal is a pathway, burned in, a memory trace. ANAD follows it, sends back data on whatever it finds—calcium levels, sodium levels, activation times, lots of stuff. We can re-construct a very crude version of what originally laid down that track. Then we put it on the imager, cobbled out of visual and auditory sensory traces, in this particular case. They’re the easiest.”

“It’s sort of like painting somebody’s portrait from their shadow,” added Captain Emmitt. She was glad Sheffield was interested. They got precious few chances to show off ANAD to the brass as it was. Trouble was they had to show off mastodons like Benecky too. “An echo of a memory, if you like.”

Sheffield watched the imager. “I do like. But we lost it. Why?”

“Unknown,” said D’Nunzio. Her fingers were flying over the keyboard, managing ANAD’s configuration, checking parameters. “Somehow, we lost the trace…just petered out. It happens. All you can do is backtrack to a known point, and start sniffing again.”

Sheffield stared from the imager display to Khan’s still body and back again. He half expected to see the Flash twitch or move a leg or something. “So where is ANAD now?”

Benecky was keen to keep the upper hand on his geeks. Wade and D’Nunzio occasionally drifted off into outer space with all their explanations. It took an old street cop to keep their feet planted on Earth. “Here’s the vascular grid, Captain—“ he fingered the IC display to the side of the imager. The grid was a 3-D iconic image of Khan’s skull. –I’d say…right about here…basal hippocampus region. Most of the herd’s about a hundred thousand microns anterior to the lateral septum.”

“We’re picking up something,” D’Nunzio muttered. As Benecky watched over her shoulder, hoping to learn something more to impress the Captain with, Deeno steered ANAD through a bog of dendritic branches. Dense forests of axon fibers clouded the imager, now slaved to ANAD’s electromagnetic sounder. “—strong trace…this one’s holding, looks like—“

“Stay with it,” Wade encouraged her. He squatted down to massage ANAD’s configuration, soup up the sensors.

“I’m altering config—“Deeno said in a low voice. “It’ll help us sort out the traffic—lots of chem crap around here—“

“First signs of decomp,” said Benecky. “We better hurry, if we’re going to get anything out of this.”

“I’m trying, Lieutenant.” Deeno glared at the imager, flexed her fingers around the hand controllers. She let ANAD finish changing config, noting that all the other trillion mechs slaved to the master had done likewise, then maneuvered the device into the sheltered lee of a dendritic ‘breakwater’—sniffing for calcium, sodium, anything it could follow, grabbing molecules left and right, until at last, Deeno cracked the barest hint of a smile. Deep inside the cold, still brain of Fareeq Khan, the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler blazed away at incredible speed, spasmodically sorting and advancing along the barest whiff of a chemical highway.

Seconds later, a green light illuminated alongside the screen. The sparky haze began to part—ANAD sent back a signal indicating readiness—

 

Start Trace Matching….

 

Ow! Hey…watch it, man…that ain’t no friggin’ TV remote you’ve got there. That’s me!”

Carl Cutler is squatting next to his face…hesitantly punching buttons and tapping keys on some kind of palm-sized remote control device. It’s the PEP controller.

Sorry, Flash…my finger slipped…I think that was the Alveolar Exchange…what the hell did you say the channel was for Cardio Boost? You know I don’t exactly do this every day, you know.”

Jitters and shudders and loud groans. Arms flail, then the room tilts and turns ninety degrees. Now the ceiling is sideways. Duwanna’s disappointed face seems to appear. It’s sideways too. She bends down.

You okay, baby? You look a little pale—“

I’m …man! It hurts like a busted knee…worse even…I can’t get any breath and…Jesus! My chest is about to open up…what the hell are you doing, man?”

Carl Cutler waves Duwanna back. In a low voice, he mutters, “Sorry, Flash…it’s just business, see. You really ought to think about that offer…you gotta branch out, man. Become a brand name.”

The room steadies for a moment, as Cutler stabilizes the PEP controller. “I ain’t got time to be promoting no hamburger stands, man. The ball game…that’s my life—“

Cutler was experimenting again, pressing buttons on the controller. Khan’s vision blurs—his hands wave in front of his face, fighting off imaginary flies—“You think you’re going to live forever? One injury, Flash…that’s all it takes. Look at what happened to all the greats, every sport: Lou Gehrig, Gamal Khaleed, Muhammad Ali, Namath…it was injury that got ‘em. Or disease. I’m just trying to look out for you, you know. Big Daddy. You invest in this hamburger chain, make a few appearances, let ‘em use your name and face…pretty soon, you’ve got more money than you know what to do with. It’s insurance, for Chrissakes. For when you can’t play anymore—“ for emphasis, he pressed one more button on the PEP remote.

Owww…shit, man. Cut that shit out…give me that thing—“ A hand swings for the unit but Cutler backs away, still trying out buttons. “You’re supposed to be helping me…my lungs…I just can’t breathe—“

 

Stan Benecky was sorry for the kid. He’d seen this kind of leech before, in a lot of cases. Watching the imager replay grainy snapshots of memory traces, he had the feeling he was watching himself, like from a great height or something. God’s eye view and all.

Flash, I know what you’re saying. He let Deeno and Wade tweak ANAD, pick up the fading chemical trail. Sniffing our glutamate sinks…that’s what they were good for.

It was eerie. Rafeeq Khan was the world’s greatest megaballer. Awards and MVP trophies and championship rings, even two World Bowl cups to his name. And he still had to deal with lowlifes like Carl Cutler.

Jesus, he’s just like Sheffield, always trying to push me into something new, something that’ll make the Department look good. Stuff he knows I can’t do.

It was true. Captain Sheffield always had some scheme going. The ANAD Squad was just the latest. Once, Shef had even tried to force fit Benecky into Cyber Crimes. Make him into some kind of hacker sleuth. It was like trying to teach a circus bear the trapeze. A street cop belonged on the street, dammit! Not in a laboratory.

Shef and Captain Emmitt were always doing things like that, Benecky reflected. Just ‘cause you had a classic ’99 Honda didn’t mean you could take it out on the drag strip and do the quarter mile in 6.1 seconds. You had to treat your people right. Benecky had never been treated right.

“—looks like we’re losing that trace,” Deeno said. “ANAD’s not picking up any more glutamate concentrations.”

Emmitt studied the vascular grid. “Can you reset for different levels? Try probing deeper in the basal hippocampus? How deep have you gone?”

“No trail has taken us through here—“she pointed to a finger-shaped slice of nerve issue in the center of the image. “Dentate gyrus…it goes through the entorhinal cortex. We can sniff around, see what comes up.”

“Do it,” Sheffield ordered. “We need the evidence. DA’s really on my tail to make a case today…before the game. All those millions of fans out there…wanting to know what happened to the kid.”

Captain Emmitt sat down at the IC panel. “Sergeant, break off a formation for reconnaissance of the wound sites. We need facts of tissue and organ damage, entrance or exit wound, time of entry, lots of facts. If the TEK-12 didn’t kill him, what the hell did?”

“And who fired the weapon anyway?” Sheffield added. “And why?”

Wade’s fingers played over the keyboard, while Deeno worked the controllers. He sent commands to the ANAD master bot, deep inside Rafeeq Khan’s brain, to begin replicating a new template. Moments later, part of the formation detached and made its way to the sternum of the corpse, sniffing out blood and lymph trails as it reconnoitered the first of seven separate impact wounds from the frangible, steel-jacketed rounds. Inside of ten minutes, ballistic data as well as nanoscopic imagery of the fragments and resulting damage were sent back to the IC, courtesy of ANAD’s pyridine probes.

Benecky felt like a dinosaur, unable to do anything useful. While Wade worked the ballistics exam, Deeno puttered with chemical traces in the kid’s lifeless brain, sniffing out more trails to follow. Sparks and sputters flashed on the screen, snatches of things they had already seen. Benecky was more and more unnerved by the whole process, though this was hardly the first time.

Playing out scratchy, grainy traces gave him the strangest sensation of seeing his own life on display. It always had. For two years, he’d been repelled and attracted at the same time. He’d watched scores of recorded traces, a spectator to every kind of ghastly death you could imagine. It made him nervous and uncomfortable, that the Squad could even do this without a warrant, let alone be so callous about it. He wondered if ANAD could sniff out such traces on a living person.

It made you think, and Stan Benecky didn’t like to think. You didn’t last twenty-two years on the Force by thinking. You beat the bad guys by reacting, being faster than they were. Sometimes you made mistakes. It went with the territory. Truth was, Stan Benecky had built up a lifetime’s worth of deceits and indiscretions and mistakes by reacting fast, on instinct and letting the facts fall out later. Twenty years ago, the Department wanted that kind of cop. Now, they wanted big brains like Deeno and Wade, weasels like Sheffield—always trying to look good for the Chief or the Commissioners. And Emmitt—Krystal Emmitt, now there was a work of art. Emmitt was the one who’d moved him into ANAD Squad in the first place. Talk about bears and trapezes. It was a setup to fail. And, after twenty-two years, that kind of failure could only lead to one place.

Kid, Benecky stared down at the deathly pale face of Rafeeq Khan, I know how you feel. You can’t trust anybody these days.

Wade waved his hands in the air. “Take a look at this, will you?” The IC imager showed jagged clumps of something, big as buildings, floating in and out of view. Tendrils of tissue made the scene look like a tropical forest flattened by a hurricane. “Tissue’s drying out…but these are TEK-12 fragments. See the mechs…behind those tissue tears?”

Wade pointed to the devices, station-keeping in formation, molecule by molecule repairing the damage, stitching a long gash in the pulpy mass closed. “Assemblers, basically. Like little ANADs.”

“What are they doing?” Benecky asked.

“I’m guessing it’s part of Khan’s PEP system. Performance Enhancement Package. Probably his foreign object damage module. See how the mechs are repairing those peptide chains? Grabbing atoms and making collagen, pretty as you please. The guy’s dead as dirt but the system’s still at work, trying to repair the damage.”

“Opinion,” asked Sheffield. He studied the image, pored over the ballistics and pathology results from ANAD’s inspection of the first wound site. “Did the kid die from TEK-12 rounds or not?”

Wade shrugged. “We don’t have all the wound sites covered. But based on what ANAD’s returned, and the fact that the kid’s damage controller is still working, I’d say no way. Mechs would have fixed up any organ or tissue damage pretty quick, within minutes. As long as his blood pressure doesn’t drop too far, or oxygen flow to the brain stays stable, my guess is he would have survived this wound for sure. We’ll have to look at the others.” Wade turned around in his seat, bent down to the floor, where several of Khan’s wounds had noticeably shriveled. “See that…the bots missed it somehow.” Wade withdrew a clean sani-stick from his pocket, lightly dipped it in the tacky residue staining the marble floor. He gave the pen to Benecky. “Lieutenant, if you would secure that in an evidence bag. Probably got trillions of mechs in it.”

“Do that,” Sheffield said. He faced Emmitt and Benecky. “If the TEK-12 didn’t kill, what did?”

“PEP failure?” Emmitt put out. “We got the last trace on record showing Carl Cutler fiddling with it.”

Sheffield glared at Benecky. “What’s your take on this, Lieutenant? This is your squad.”

Benecky figured he’d better play it safe. It was always safer to agree with Shef. Even if he was a weasel. “Street sense tells me not to overlook anything, sir. We’d better scope out the entire PEP system. The whole works. See how it functions. And what can go wrong with it—“ he asked Wade. “Who’s the resident expert on these things?”

Wade thought for a moment. “I know a little about it, Lieutenant. But Maloney down in Twist and Counter-Bio is the real genius. Big-time gene tweaker, he is. We need him up here.”

Great…another geek. “I’ll make the call,” Benecky offered. “Then—“but Deeno interrupted all of them, her hands waving them quiet.

“—hey—I got something, just like you said.” She pointed to the imager, then to the vascular grid. ANAD’s main formation had navigated deeper into Rafeeq Khan’s basal hippocampal region, probing subcortical layers of the kid’s brain. “Entorhinal cortex…it’s just a whiff, but the glutamate level’s right. Calcium sink here…and here…and here…something potentiated this path and it’s recent.”

“Match traces and follow it,” Benecky didn’t have to tell her. He felt another cold shudder as Deeno adjusted the gain and commanded ANAD to begin sniffing its way along the newest trace.

Start Trace Matching….

3.

 

“Lisa LaVelle”

 

Baby this isn’t working and we both know it. Don’t lie to me…you know I always know it when you lie to me.”

Lisa LaVelle’s pouty face shakes her head. Her arms are crossed. She stands in the doorway to the media room, her eyes shooting bullets.

Aw, c’mon baby…you know it ain’t like that. I’m your squeeze…always was, always will be. C’mon over here.” A hand pats the leather sofa, after putting down the TV remote. “We’ll talk…get reacquainted, you know?”

Lisa LaVelle walks right over and bends forward, revealing a big valley of cleavage. She reaches out and slaps him across the face. Eyes tear up and the room jostles before he reaches out and grabs her hand, recoiling for another slap.

Hey now, sugar—“

Don’t you be sugaring me…all hot and sassy…look at you! You got it written all over you…my God, ‘Feeq, you think I’m stupid?”

Nothing is said.

Huh…you think I’m just some dumb broad…I can smell her perfume all over you…what kind of crap is that anyway…smells like Wild Ice…don’t you be telling me she wasn’t here—“

The room shifts and the main screen comes clearer into view. He’s gotten up, padded over to a wet bar recessed in the paneled wall. Hands expertly mix something fruity and pink, coat the rim of the glass with salt. He hands the marguerita over, sauntering like a cat toward Lisa. Lisa stands arms folded, facing away. She doesn’t take the drink. The glass is sniffed, then set down on a table.

Feeq…this ain’t the first time…I’m getting tired of this shit. I can’t even leave the house but you got some little tramp half your age over here. You ever hear of rape? You think I don’t know what you do here when I’m gone…partying all night, boogieing with anything that moves her hips, booty-dancing while I’m at work…what kind of animal are you, anyway?”

Baby…it ain’t like that…you got to start trusting me…shit, don’t hold out on me now…big game’s two days away…coach says we have to get while we can…you know, re-laaaax like. C’mon over here to the couch…let’s talk.”

Lisa LaVelle shows him nothing but teeth, the cockeyed grin of a tiger before it pounces. “Honey child…you must have that PEP thing jazzed up to the max, big time. You don’t even think straight anymore…you’re worse than that damned dog of yours…at least he doesn’t try to hide anything…going after every bitch in the neighborhood.”

“—baby—“

Lisa turns away, snatches up her purse and starts to extract something—“—don’t baby me, jerk…I’m gonna put an end to this one way or another—“

 

“Sorry, Lieutenant,” Deeno said. Her fingers massaged the joysticks, backtracking ANAD through a dense thicket of axon fiber. Peptide and phosphate chains dangled liked beads off the processes. “—looks like we lost that one. Just petered out…I thought I could back up and find a new path.” She shook her head. “Trail’s gone cold. ANAD shows declining glutamate levels. Calcium gates are vanishing all over the place.”

Benecky nodded. “Decomp setting in. Keep trying, Deeno…we need as much as we can get.”

“Sure thing, Lieutenant.”

Benecky turned from the IC panel, eased by Captain Emmitt—she was deep in an argument with Sheffield on whether the Squad needed a warrant to go further—and stooped down beside Rafeeq Khan’s rigid body.

Sorry for you, kid. Women are like that, sometimes. Like walking through a minefield. One wrong step and ka-blam! It’s like they have ESP or something. Maybe they read minds too. You can’t hide anything from a woman.

It made him uncomfortable. Suddenly, Stan Benecky wanted to get the hell out of the Khan mansion, run as far and as fast as he could. My God, she was just like Natalie. The broad could have been Natalie.

Sixteen years of marriage, and the great ship was foundering on the rocks. The last meeting with Devon, the attorney, had been a little Hiroshima, all tears and shouting and accusations. Acrimonious, Devon called it. Irreconcilable differences, she cried through her handkerchief—she must have brought a drawer full of them. Yeah, I’m not perfect. I’ve had a few—evenings out.

Affairs.

Not affairs. A drink. Some talk. A peck on the cheek. You know how it goes. My God, woman, I work all hours of the day and night. I get tired. You’re asleep when I get home. Or out…at the theater, playing make believe with Donald Whatshisname?

I’m studying to be an actress…you know that…it’s not the same—

Yeah, sure, whatever. Late hours, being passed over for promotion, thrown onto this ANAD thing with no warning. I’m depressed, for Chrissakes! We never do anything, we never go anywhere….

You’ve always been jealous of me trying to have a career—

Yeah, while my own falls apart like stale bread.

Benecky stared down at Rafeeq Khan, then shook his head.

Sorry, kid…but it’s weird. You and Lisa, me and Natalie. I guess you could say we’re pretty bitter over things, who should have custody of what, and then there’s Shelley, all of twelve years old. We argue. Like you two. I moved out. I wasn’t getting any sleep anyway. Now…well, the Stanfield isn’t exactly Paradise Island, is it? But it’s quiet mostly. Got one room, a hot plate and the bed sags. Oh, yeah, and I got me a satellite and a flim hookup…Jesus, that cost about six months’ salary. Full-immersion shit…you ever done that around here, kid?

Suddenly, Benecky stood up. “Deeno?”

“Yes, sir?”

“Move over…I want to drive for awhile.”

D’Nunzio cocked her head at a queer angle, sort of smiled. Benecky had seen the look before. It said: dinosaurs died out already…think you can handle ANAD, Lieutenant? Think you’re up to it? You can’t even handle sixteen years of marriage…and Natalie’s a lost cause.—

But Deeno said nothing. She slid aside, let the Lieutenant take over. “I’m following that trace, sir—“ she waved at the potentials graph over the imager screen. Calcium, sodium, glutamate, serotonin levels. It was a 3-D highway through imaginary gravity wells of chemicals projected on the display. “—just steer as close to the dark green line as you can…ANAD does the rest.”

“Programmed for constant glutamate fields?”

“Exactly. Very good, sir. That’s what we’re doing.”

Benecky snarled. He wanted to drive ANAD himself, sniff out some traces on his own. Maybe the kid’s got something that’ll help me and Natalie. Of course, that was self-serving. Probably ridiculous. The traces were just re-constructed shadows of what the kid had actually seen and heard. Just artifacts. No better than the marriage therapist and his play-acting scenarios.

He wanted to try anyway. Khan was a ‘live’ subject, or had been. You just couldn’t get a bigger high than sniffing out new traces on a freshly dead corpse. He’d seen so many of the recorded ones in the stationhouse archives that he knew them all by heart, kind of like favorite movies. Benecky grasped the controllers and pulsed ANAD’s propulsors. The gravity well display showed him veering off course…nothing down that road.

“Dead end, sir,” Deeno suggested. “Try coming back the other way.”

He played ANAD pilot for awhile, entertaining himself with grainy snatches of memory traces flickering on the screen…painful hits in megaball games, the championship ceremony two years ago, the night Duwanna showed him her newest moves…nothing helpful. But he kept looking, a voyeur fascinated at the window.

“Lieutenant, I want a detachment detailed to look at those PEP sites.” Captain Sheffield had been standing behind him for what seemed like hours. “We need to focus on that as the main culprit.”

Benecky stood up straighter. He shook himself out of the daze. “Yes, sir… I’m right on it, sir.” He focused on the imager, on driving ANAD’s master bot toward points that Emmitt had highlighted on the vascular grid. “Which site first, sir?”

Sheffield was thinking. “We’ve got to consider what the evidence is telling us. PEP is a possible culprit.”

Emmitt cocked her head. “Malfunction?”

“Or something deliberate. What exactly did the kid have in his PEP suite?”

Emmitt checked her eyepiece, let the data scroll down. “Records show he had pretty much a full set: Cardio Boost, Respiratory Boost, Enhanced Triphosphate Burner, neurocontrol level 5. Like Cutler said on that trace: the Rolls Royce of PEP units.”

“That may be the key—“ Sheffield pointed at Emmitt, snapping his fingers. “What you just said—Cutler knew what he had.”

“And he was playing with the controller,” Benecky piped up.

“Ah—here’s Maloney.” Sheffield waved the Lieutenant from Twist/Counter Bio over. Maloney was an investigator in genetic crimes, tracking down rogue or illegal sequences, crooked enhancers, fly-by-night labs. He was hairy as a grizzly bear, and he smelled. “Lieutenant, got a hot one here.” Maloney waddled up beside Benecky. They exchanged glances. “Kid’s got PEP. Full suite. Just how does this crap work anyway? We think some kind of malfunction might have contributed to death.”

Maloney sucked on the ends of his fingers. Benecky couldn’t watch; no telling where those had been recently. “Performance Enhancement’s like a turbocharger. Or maybe a complete makeover would be more accurate. What’s he got?”

Emmitt showed him the forensic record. Maloney borrowed an eyepiece, whistled as the data scrolled. “Jeepers…even neuro. Plus the latest in Respiratory Boost. That’s cutting edge stuff. Just barely legal, too. We’re working a case now, garage lab down in Florida. Caught ‘em horsing around with germ line genetics, trying to sequence some kind of weird cetacean genes, gives the recipient the lung power and heart of a blue whale. Couple of deaths already…pretty gruesome stuff.”

“This genetic?”

“Not really,” Maloney said. “Mostly mechs. Pretty tame, but it takes great rocket science to engineer.” He saw the vascular grid, went over to it. “Right here—“ he fingered the dark lump of Khan’s cold dead heart. “PEP puts a few zillion programmable nanobots inside the myocardium. They work just like a construction crew—fighting off the free radicals, beefing up heart muscle tissue, clearing veins and arteries of plaque, zapping occlusions and thrombus blobs all over the place. Neat stuff…but pricey.”

Sheffield was intrigued. “We found some traces in the kid’s memory. He complained in his last few hours of difficulty in breathing.”

“Really?” Maloney went back to the forensic record the path bots had worked up. “Says here the kid’s got Respiratory Boost too. Normally that means alveolar pumping. Mechs are inserted with a program to boost the efficiency and capacity of the oxygen-carbon dioxide exchange…the alveolar sacs. When it’s done right, you get a sizeable increase in anaerobic range…and the stamina of a racehorse.”

Benecky was already guiding ANAD through the corpse’s capillary network to the trachea and diaphragm. A tiny dotted red line highlighted his progress on the grid.

Deeno found herself smiling at Benecky’s lack of skill. He kept getting the master bot stuck in dead end capillaries and had to backtrack. She stifled a few snickers.

Sheffield was growing impatient. “Benecky, do you know anything? Put us here—“ he fingered the outline of Khan’s main alveolar duct, at the tip of a large bronchiole.

Deeno slid in beside him. “Let me help, sir.” Her fingers took the hand controllers, deftly navigated the body’s chest wall network and motored upstream against a viscous flow to the first of the alveolar sacs. “Picking up debris , all around…” she increased sounder resolution. Now, ANAD’s view resembled flying in a sleet storm. “Must be muscle decomp—“

Maloney bent to the imager. “Maybe…definitely tissue cells.”

“Lieutenant,” Sheffield cleared his throat. “We’re looking for evidence of foul play…malfunction…deliberate sabotage.”

The imager skewed, buffeted by the heavy flow. Maloney sucked loudly on his fingers, as he focused. Benecky decided to give the man some room and slid out from the IC panel.

“I’ll be damned…that is alveolar tissue…I recognize the phosphate chains…but they’re all unzipped…not bacterial at all. This isn’t normal decomp at all.”

“No,” agreed Deeno. “Damned weird, if you ask me…all the molecules are cleaved in the same place, right at the phosphates.”

Maloney was muttering under his breath. “Could be a malf…I’d have to see the specs on this booster…see what it’s supposed to do.”

“Question for all of you,” Sheffield asked. “Is this accidental? Or deliberate?”

Benecky had an idea. “We could replay that trace from earlier…where Cutler’s screwing around with the PEP controller. Maybe we missed something.”

“Or maybe we can scare up another scent of a trace,” Deeno surmised. “But we’ll have to reconfigure ANAD. Glutamate levels are declining fast.”

“Do it,” Sheffield ordered. “This PEP system could be the key to the whole case.”

Ten minutes later, Benecky and Deeno had coded a new template for ANAD and sent the commands to the device. Inside of a few minutes, the entire formation had rebuilt its pyridine probes to sniff ever fainter trails of glutamate molecules. Benecky insisted on piloting the device, tweaking its propulsors to follow the path. He had to steer carefully, to keep ANAD from disturbing the faint trails. Finally, he caught the barest whiff of a path, a ghostly outline of a nearly vanished memory.

Start Trace Matching….

4.

 

“Rupert Jones”

The Cobalt Club was unusually crowded for so late at night. Gawkers and groupies were thick as weeds around the front door. Hands were outstretched, pencils fluttering, arms, menus, anything not bolted down, and some things he really didn’t want to see. He signs autographs, pushes his way steadily against the resistance of the crowd, finally bursts into the clear.

They’re in the back, just like Duwanna had said. He sees them, huddling in a booth in the corner, faces strobed with flickering lights from the dance floor. He decides he wants to surprise them. He accepts a drink from a flirtatious well-wisher, gives the waitress a peck on the cheek, grinning his biggest grin at her tight pants, and moves like a stalking cat through writhing bodies on the perimeter of the dance floor. They don’t see him.

He wonders as he slices through the crowd, a bow wave of admirers rippling out from him, what Carl Cutler’s doing at the Cobalt Club. Rupert Jones is in his face; they’re having the usual animated conversation. Free agency, maybe? A big new offer. He’s got to know.

Nearer the booth, he tweaks his hearing, shaking his head just so, to get the audio booster on, sniffing out their voices like a Big Ear satellite, processing and listening, mostly listening. He’s juiced with liquor, hands forever reaching out for autographs, to shake his hand, just to touch him, but he ignores them, fends them off and just listens.

“—to do it soon,” Rupert Jones is saying. Jones is General Manager of the Orlando Seagulls, fierce and implacable opponents of the Barons. They will meet in three days, on the playing field. Megaball war…a bloodbath, the sports press has already decided. No prisoners taken. “—tonight if you can, Carl. I’m paying you enough.”

Okay, okay—“Cutler holds up his hands. “The money’s fine…I’ve just got to find the right moment…you know how Flash is…always got the ladies around and about a million other groupies.”

Jones’ face is grim. He blinks nervously, the effect enhanced by the dance floor strobes, a jerky stop-action movie. “Will it work? I mean…so he won’t suspect anything?”

Cutler waves him off. “No sweat…I’m the one who convinced him to get Pepped anyway. It’s a snap…just a matter of programming. Truth is—Flash doesn’t know all that much about it. Me, the team trainer, Delaney—that reserve back—that’s all. Press a few buttons and zap…he’s got the stamina of a cheetah, runs all day, anaerobic capacity of a hundred men. Push a few more buttons and—“ Cutler chuckled, clearing his throat, “—the kid’ll suffocate just trying to score with Duwanna or whatever her name is. Like night and day. That’s all it takes.”

Jones looks around. “This can’t ever be traced back to me, you understand. Not ever.”

Cutler shrugged. “You want more guarantees—“ he hold his hand out, rubs his fingers together. “More dinero. It’s that simple.”

Jones gets mad. “Don’t try to shake me down, Cutler—I’ve got more than enough ways to—“

 

Stan Benecky lost the trace, just when it was getting interesting. “Damn,” he swore under his breath. He was always losing it. He pulled ANAD back along the faint glutamate highway, let the device probe for faint puffs of the molecule. Nothing. It was gone.

“It just petered out,” he said. “Vanished.”

Deeno was sympathetic. “It happens, Lieutenant. Put ANAD in sniffer mode, let him poke around in that region. You’re just in the anterior locus of the hippocampus…we haven’t tracked up the dorsal side yet—“

Sheffield was thoughtful. He looked around at the assembled team of forensic specialists. “Opinions? Have we got a new suspect here?”

The argument lasted half an hour.

Benecky shrugged at the record ANAD had made of Khan’s memory traces. “It’s reconstructed from patterns of glutamate residues.” That made Deeno wince. She started to say something but didn’t. “It’s an echo of the real thing. You can’t trust it.” Part of him wanted to believe this was true, that a person’s memories and thoughts couldn’t be violated like this. But he did spend hours at a time in the trace archives too, titillating himself with other people’s dying memories, relieving his former street life like it was yesterday.

Sergeant Wade disagreed. Benecky wasn’t surprised. “It’s well documented, Lieutenant. We know what the errors and variances are. That gets factored into the analysis. It just supplements other forensic evidence…helps us reconstruct the cause and mode of death. Legal questions are just a lot of squishy civil rights crap anyway. We need ANAD to fight crime today…it’s that simple.”

Simple for you, Benecky thought.

Captain Sheffield said, “I’m for whatever helps us get a conviction and helps the Department make its numbers. It makes us look good. It’s cutting edge. Defense attorneys have a hard time refuting visual and sensory evidence straight from the brain of the deceased. It’s still the best weapon we’ve got for solving the tough cases. The public demands it.”

Krystal Emmitt glared at Benecky. “Right. We’ve always been the poor stepchild in Violent Crimes anyway. ANAD makes us look good. Our conviction rate is higher with ANAD evidence—“

“-when the judges allow it—“Benecky threw in.

Emmitt shrugged. “The DA likes it. Magistrates and judges like it, most of them. Defense attorneys hate it. We can process more cases. Resolve things faster. It’s efficient and effective. And we don’t have to share the glory with the feds or their crime lab.” She didn’t have to add: And we can weed out Neanderthals like Benecky and make the squad a smoothly running machine, with me at the top.

Maloney was still studying the traces. “Could be a problem with PEP programming. Or a straight failure. We’ll need to sample those mechs…do further analysis.”

“The Deputy Chief wants a list of suspects by the end of the day,” Sheffield reminded them. “This looks like our best shot.”

The argument went on, pros and cons, upside and down. Benecky amused himself with replaying segments of the ‘Rupert Jones trace, running the conversation between Jones and Cutler over and over again. It hit home. Too close to home.

Benecky remembered waltzing into the Varsity a few months ago, hoping to get out of the hot sun and grab a chili dog and fries. Sheffield was there, with Emmitt; he saw them both in a corner booth, craning his neck to see over the crowds. Stan Benecky didn’t think of himself as a suspicious paranoid creep, like some of the younger squad hotshots did, but then they didn’t have Shef for a boss either.

He watched the staticky blur of Khan’s memory trace, jerking along frame by frame, as Cutler and Rupert Jones made their plans and did their conniving. More and more it came to him, Shef and Emmitt were just like that, weren’t they? He’d gotten his tray and worked his way through the crowd and found a stool at a counter nearby. Even in the din of the noontime crowd, his ears were well trained enough to pick up snatches.

“—ANAD unit—“

“—Benecky—“

“—your problem—“

Not long after the chance encounter, he’d found himself yanked off the street after all those years in Violent Crimes and stuck with a bunch of teenagers in something called the ANAD Unit. No longer a street cop, he found the assignment something like being in school…on final exam day. A whole new language. New procedures. New rules to follow…don’t do this, don’t touch that, load this template, replicate, park on that protein…it was like he’d landed on another planet and Sergeants Wade and D’Nunzio were aliens.

Benecky resented the change. It was nothing but punishment. He resented having to forget everything twenty years on the Street had taught him.

Shef was the real culprit. He was worse than what the Flash had gone through, worse than all the sycophants and groupies and slimeball agents and promoters.

Captain Dwayne Sheffield had no use for anyone who couldn’t help him move up in the Department. He’d never made any bones about his aspirations to be Chief of Police. Benecky had long thought of Shef as little more than a well-dressed ‘snake’, with the morals of a weasel. Anybody who made the ‘snake’ look bad or got in his way was lower than dirt to the Captain. And Stan Benecky was just the kind of opinionated dinosaur that was always getting the Department in trouble. When Shef took over Violent Crimes and found out that Benecky wouldn’t grovel like a wet dog, Benecky was out of Violent Crimes faster than he could say bingo. He was re-assigned to SI Forensic Services instead and became Captain Emmitt’s problem.

The argument was still going on behind his back, so Benecky stepped back through some of the memory traces ANAD had recorded. He paused the grainy images of Duwanna…whatever her name was…and checked out the tight, strapless clingy kind of nothing she was almost wearing. Kid, he muttered to himself, this girl’s nothing but trouble…but I guess you know that already. What was it Sergeant Wade had said the other day? ‘If only we could plug ANAD into the limbic circuits too…sniff out a few emotional traces. Be just like feeling what the suspect felt—“

Leave it to Wade to think up creepy stuff like that.

So, for being too good at his job and not groveling enough to the new boss, he got dumped in Captain Emmitt’s lap. Krystal Emmitt…the very words made him cringe. Emmitt had always thought of Benecky as little more than some kind of weird contagious disease, something to be shunned and kept out of sight until it died. She put him in charge of the ANAD squad, not because he was qualified, but because she knew that if he failed spectacularly enough, she could dump him without the usual departmental repercussions.

It was like dropping an old dog in a litter of puppies. Puppies with big teeth.

Oh, it was true enough…the ANAD squad had good people. It could practically run itself. Emmitt made sure Benecky was pretty much a figurehead, bypassing him every chance she got and dealing directly with Deeno and Wade. And to be sure, Benecky more than reciprocated the disgust. To get back at her, and Shef, he managed to insinuate himself into every little detail of the squad’s operation. He learned all about managing configurations, and hot-dogging pyridine probes on balky molecules and safing the beast inside its containment cylinder and a hundred other things. And to Emmitt’s surprise, Benecky had done okay as a squad leader. But she was persistent, Benecky knew. You could tell by the way she looked at you, one eyebrow arched higher than the other. If she kept sandbagging him with impossible demands on high-profile cases, one day he’d trip up and then she could use him as a sacrificial lamb. That’s what Benecky expected too.

That’s why Emmitt had called him to work the Rafeeq Khan case.

Benecky had sympathy for the kid. You and me, pal. We’re in this together. One way or another, we’ve got a lot to teach each other.

Yeah, he thought. You’re dead. And I will be.

Ever since he’d been exiled to the ANAD squad, he’d found a small measure of comfort down in the squad’s archives, reviewing and re-reviewing old disks of ANAD traces from past crimes. It was a pastime of sort, maybe a hobby even, though Emmitt muttered it was something more than that.

In the two years he’d been with the squad, he’d found a few favorites. Sheila and her wacko husband Rick, the one with the industrial meat cleaver. Sheila’d never gotten an iota of respect from the jerk. There were others too.

The Coastal Pacific derailment…there was a whole shelf of nothing but that. The squad had rolled through the dead like farmers harvesting tomatoes on that case. Lots of soap-opera stuff there.

And, of course, Susan Longley and the mystery assailant. Lurid details all over the newspapers for weeks and they didn’t know the half of it. Late at night…coming home from a modeling engagement. Dark as sin. The frantic blows…and there were worse than that.

It was cathartic for Benecky. He could be a street cop again. The vice-roy of Violent Crimes. Avenger of victims. It was always a breath of fresh air to see and smell real people, real feelings, real death and set off to hunt down the perps like the wild beasts they were. That’s why Stan Benecky had a badge. Now…they’d practically neutered him, stuck in some Frankenstein’s lab with a pair of big-brained weenies who couldn’t collar a crook if their lives depended on it.

Then, like a lightning bolt, the connection hit him. He watched as Sheffield and Emmitt spun out their scenarios, throwing out motives and methods, hoping something would stick, that somehow the forensic facts would fit the theories.

To Stan Benecky, though, watching replays of Rafeeq Khan’s dying memory traces, the truth was suddenly quite clear. And it was clear because he had lived through the same thing.

Rafeeq “The Flash” Khan was a young and extraordinarily gifted athlete, the world’s greatest megaballer by far. He was also a young man under a lot of pressure, the pressure of fame and fortune, and the pressure Carl Cutler and Lisa LaVelle and Rupert Jones put on him. A different kind of pressure. Pressure to branch out, extend the brand name of Rafeeq “The Flash” Khan to wider and wider audiences. Pressure to lend his name and image to more and more crap, sleazy half-baked ideas, jeans and shoes and hamburgers and sportswear and cars and vacation resorts and orbiting casinos and so on and on, until it seemed at times that Khan’s high-cheeked, doe-eyed face was everywhere, as common as air.

But to Stan Benecky reviewing the traces, it was clear that Rafeeq Khan wanted only to play the game. The kid lived for megaball. Sure he had the mansions and the limos and the private jets. Hell, he even owned some unpronounceable island in the South Pacific. But when he really studied the kid, he was just an athlete, an athlete who’d somehow become an industry to himself. It was Cutler and all the others who wanted to make him something he wasn’t. Something he couldn’t be.

Jesus, Benecky thought. It’s just like me. I was happy in Violent Crimes. I was good at my job. I made cases. I got convictions. But Shef wanted more. Rafeeq Khan was mutated into something he didn’t want to be. Stan Benecky was yanked out of Violent Crimes and fired off to another planet called ANAD. Khan was happy just playing megaball every weekend. Stan Benecky was happy as a foot cop, cleaning up downtown and the convention district every day. So like Sheffield and Emmitt putting the squeeze on Benecky to make the ANAD squad, Cutler and his cronies had put the squeeze on Khan.

Only, somehow, it had backfired.

Sheffield was still holding court. “Work with me, people. Just a scenario.” He went over to Khan’s pale, lifeless body. “Cutler wants Khan to agree to some endorsements. The kid doesn’t want to. Too much distraction. It’s business. It’s money. Big money. Along comes Rupert Jones, general manager of the Orlando Seagulls.”

“With even bigger money,” Emmitt theorized.

“Exactly. And Jones makes an offer. Do something…de-tune Khan’s PEP system if you have to—so the kid isn’t up to speed in the big game. Give my Seagulls a chance. Here’s the offer. And Cutler’s eyes get as big as pizzas. So he agrees—“Sheffield turned to Maloney. “We’ll have to see if ANAD’s evidence support this, but I think it will—“

You ought to know, Benecky thought.

“—so Cutler gets Khan alone, half drunk, juiced up from a few hours with some tart named Duwanna. And he tries to program the kid’s PEP suite, just a tweak, mind you. De-tune the kid a little. But something goes wrong. Cutler makes some mistakes. He winds up killing the kid.” Sheffield was warming to his story. “’Oh, shit,’ he thinks…’now what have I done.’ He’s killed the golden goose, that’s what he’s done. So he panics. He tries to make it look like a conventional murder.” Sheffield retrieves the bagged TEK-12, brandishes it around. “Uses this to blow holes in the kid for good measure…like some burglar broke in and offed the kid. Then he calls in the report.”

Emmitt nodded. “I like it. We’ve got memory traces of Cutler playing around with the PEP controller.”

“And Khan listening in on some kind of talk between Cutler and Jones,” Benecky put in.

“Exactly. Maloney—?”

The Lieutenant from Twist/Counter-Bio was hunched over the interface control panel. “We’ve got ANAD’s quantum flux imager booted up. Wade here showed me how. Look at this—“ He pointed to graphs of data from the nanoscale device, now systematically probing the deteriorating alveolum of Khan’s bloody chest cavity.

The image was blurry, like a snapshot of a sunken freighter taken underwater.

“Looks like a junkyard,” Sheffield commented.

“In a way, it is, Captain. You’re looking at sorting rotors, devices the PEP mechs assembled when the suite was first installed. Tiny little nanoscale pumps. They push oxygen and carbon dioxide molecules across this membrane here. Only the sorting rotors are like turbochargers. They increase the efficiency of the exchange…a few million times. This is what gives the kid his stamina.”

“Why do they look like that?” Emmitt asked.

Maloney smiled a devilish grin. “Because they replicated wrong. Instead of pumping molecules across the membrane, they’ve been built to different recipe…programmed opposite to what they’re supposed to do.”

“Meaning—“

“Meaning instead of acting like pumps, these babies were programmed and replicated to work like caps. Blocking the exchange. They’re so efficient, they could easily suffocate a man in minutes.” Maloney looked up from the imager. “The kid suffocated to death. Acute oxygen deficiency here—inside the alveolum. There’s your smoking gun.”

“Then he didn’t need the TEK-12,” Sheffield said. “Why bother? That’s what I don’t understand.”

“To cover it all up, Captain,” Benecky volunteered his insight. “He made a mistake. Rupert Jones paid him to ‘de-tune’ the kid, make him a bit more human, if there is such a thing. Cutler tried to do it. But he made a mistake with the PEP controller. Then he panicked, tried to cover it up and make it look like a conventional murder. Using the TEK-12.”

Emmitt was reviewing the forensics on DNA type. “Bots are agreeing, Captain. We’ve got high probability match with fiber evidence on the weapon itself. We’ll need to do the same thing with the PEP controller. My guess is Benecky’s right.” She glared at him, her eyes saying lucky guess, Lieutenant.

Sheffield ticked off what they had on his fingers. “Okay, let’s wrap up the crime scene. We’ve got memory trace evidence and probable DNA evidence that Cutler tampered with Khan’s PEP controller. We’ve got memory trace evidence of a motive for Carl Cutler and Rupert Jones. We’ve got a DNA match on fiber evidence from the gun. Maloney—you got anything else?”

The twist investigator was already downloading files from ANAD’s probing. “No anomalies in Cardio Boost, Captain. That area’s clean. Same for Neuro Control and the other modules. Looks like the problem’s in Respiratory Boost.”

Sheffield seemed convinced. Emmitt too. “Then Cutler’s our man.”

“With Rupert Jones as an accessory,” Benecky threw in.

“Right. I’ll get the VM booted up…see if we can get an arrest warrant.”

The Captain went off to his squad car, firing up the Virtual Magistrate. Maloney tagged along, to download evidence files to the server downtown. Inside of five minutes, the VM had crunched all the data and spit out the necessary paperwork.

Sheffield tore off the warrant and held it up to the brightening morning sky like a work of art. “Perfect. I’ll notify all units. We should be able to locate Mr. Carl Cutler pretty quickly. After all, the big game’s less than two days away.”

 

5.

 

Lieutenant Stan Benecky helped Deeno and Wade pack up the IC panel and safe the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler. The extraction and safing took five minutes. After ANAD was safed and inserted back inside TinyTown, Benecky had a question for his comrades.

“This memory trace matching gives me the creeps. Any chance this technique could be used on somebody alive…without them knowing about it?”

Deeno was storing gear inside TinyTown’s compartments. She shook her head. “No chance, Lieutenant. Absolutely not. We’d have to re-tune ANAD, teach him a whole new bag of tricks.”

“Plus, you’d need to render the perpetrator unconscious, do the injection. ANAD’s sounder doesn’t have that great a range. You couldn’t control him, unless you had all this gear with you. The perp would know something was up. You’d have to keep him out.”

Deeno was certain. “Just wouldn’t work, Lieutenant. But maybe we can miniaturize this stuff, put it in some kind of palm-sized remote. Then you’d be in business.”

On the ride back to the precinct house, Stan Benecky thought. Wade and Deeno had both been emphatic. ANAD would never work on a living person, at least not the memory tracing function. A little too emphatic, he figured.

Now he really was suspicious.

They got back to the precinct station and logged in the gear. Benecky completed the reports and then waved the techs off.

“I’m headed for Tootsie’s. Want to come along?”

“No, thanks,” said Wade. “We’re going to troubleshoot some glitches I saw with ANAD’s replication program. Looks like the config manager’s acting up again.”

Benecky wasn’t surprised. The techs practically slept with the damned thing.

He sat alone at the bar, nursing a stiff gin, oblivious to the happy hour crowd. Benecky pulled out the flim eyepiece and put it on, watching a replay of a wrestling match he’d seen a million times: Ace Awesome versus The Volcano. Bodies slamming all over the place. Like old time police work…he missed the stuff. ANAD Unit just wasn’t the same. You couldn’t see anything…except through the imager.

ANAD was the key. As he sipped at the gin and watched Ace Awesome do the flying leg slam one more time, he was sure of one thing. Somehow Emmitt and Sheffield had used ANAD to sniff out things about Benecky that he’d just as soon keep under wraps. Indiscretions. Poor judgments. Mistakes. Stuff that every cop worth his badge had done…nothing big, mind you, but fallout that had built up like a coating of dust. Money taken under the table for ignoring offenses…carousing with a few local tarts…shaking down informants…the kind of stuff that was understood to be part of the job.

It was a shakedown, anyway you sliced it, and Stan Benecky had decided it was time to fight back. He’d seen something today, a sort of revelation that ANAD had shown them. Rafeeq Khan had been shaken down too. The kid never had a chance.

But I know how to put the squeeze on Mr. ANAD, he told himself. So right then and there, at Tootsie’s, with his gin and wrestling flim, Benecky made the decision. Natalie would have been amazed. “So you finally decided to get off your fat ass…make something of yourself, huh?”

Yes, indeed.

 

That night, when the graveyard shift was drowsing through some late night movie and the night duty sergeant at the desk was half asleep, Benecky slipped into the stationhouse and made his way to the Containment chamber in the basement.

He used his flashlight to find the TinyTown cylinder. Inside, the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler ticked over, content within stable pressure and temperature and nutrient limits.

Not for long, pal. Benecky deftly navigated the containment cylinder’s systems, shutting down nutrient flow, power, monitoring systems—always one step ahead of the unit’s self-protection circuitry just like Wade had shown him, until finally, the cylinder was dead and inert. The thing was like a programmable virus anyway—half mechanism, half organism, as Wade called it. ANAD would die a quick and painless death, severed from its umbilical cords.

In less than five minutes, it was all over. He stood there fidgeting with his hands, wondering if he ought to mourn, say a few kind words to the damn thing. He decided not to.

Leaving containment, he couldn’t help wondering if he’d done the right thing. All Stan Benecky ever wanted to be was a cop. A decent cop, helping others with their lives. Maybe that’s why mine is so messed up, he thought. Some kind of weird equivalence principle. My life for others. He headed up from the basement, bantered briefly with the duty sergeant in Motor Pool, then emerged into a humid, sultry, smothering night in the middle of the city. Lights from towers blazed away in all directions. Horns honked. People laughed.

Benecky walked the streets, just like he used to do. It felt good but a nagging thought gnawed at him.

Had he just destroyed his best chance to stay with the Force? Was ANAD the ticket? But which way would the ticket have taken him: in the door or out the door? Stan Benecky finally decided he didn’t care. He just walked on.

Maybe it was just paranoia. Occupational disease of the law enforcement world. Whatever it was, he couldn’t rest, couldn’t find peace, even in a brisk stroll through the downtown convention district, passing knots of drunken tourists careening all over the sidewalks.

He went back to the stationhouse, more determined than ever. He had always been a bit squeamish every time the Unit processed a case and ran the memory tracing, re-creating the deceased’s last hours like some old newsreel footage. It gave him the willies.

But the truth was he learned a bit more about himself every time he did it. Maybe that was part of the same equivalence principle. Your life for mine. It was like being a voyeur at an X-rated movie theater, like when you were a kid and you sneaked in to the flim palaces and squeezed three at a time into one of the cocoons for an afternoon’s full-immersion fantasy.

Back at the stationhouse, he found the duty sergeant completely asleep, snoring loudly over a spread of funnies on his desk. He let himself into the basement, returned to the Containment chamber.

ANAD was dead and gone, that much he was sure of. He’d also probably pulled the plug on any real chance to work the street again. That was simply a cold, hard fact you couldn’t get away from. But the records were still there. Rafeeq Khan was just the latest. Benecky found the interface control panel neatly stashed away on a shelf and pulled it down, booting up the device. Then he located the disks; there were scores of them. Recorded memories from murders and assassinations and drug deals gone bad and traffic accidents and jealous husbands and kidnappings and fires and bombings and rabid dogs and suicides.

A whole library of last moments, just waiting for him to browse and fast forward and replay and think. Mainly to think.

He’d spent most of his free time lately, reviewing old memory trace disks, vicariously living the life of a street cop again. But he’d killed ANAD dead and for good…he had to. Sheffield and Emmitt were bound to use it to bust him, given half a chance.

It’s here somewhere, Benecky told himself, as he fired up the first disk. The IC imager sparked to life, a hearth of light in an otherwise darkened room. Grainy, jerky images filled the screen. He read the disk cover label, not really caring whose life had been snuffed out on this one. Not by chance, it was a familiar one.

Longley, S.P. / 31 March 2055 / White Female, Apx 35 yrs / Cause of Death: Blunt Force Trauma to Cranium (PathBot)/

Benecky settled back to watch. He was thirsty and wished he’d kept the last dregs of the gin he’d left at Tootsie’s.

The answer was here, somewhere in these records. He was sure of it.

Your life for mine, went the tired old police refrain. To protect and to serve.

Deep in the basement of the Tenth Precinct stationhouse, by the light of a flickering monitor, Lieutenant Stan Benecky was finally a young badge once again, completely engrossed in a desperate fight against the bad guys. Drug dealer or enraged boyfriend, it didn’t really matter what happened. Or to who.

All that mattered was that it happened. And Benecky would once more be a real public servant, over and over and over again.

 

END

The Mullinex Particle

 

Introduction

 

Dr. Richard Mullinex is a researcher with a mission. He’s searching for something that may or may not exist, except in his mind. If he finds the object of his search, the discovery may upend Science forever. If he doesn’t find it, the failure may upend Dr. Mullinex. Sometimes, scientists strive so hard to make a career-changing discovery that they can almost “will” the discovery into existence. To some, this is a form of falsifying the data…and, of course, that does happen. But as Heisenberg noted in his Uncertainty Principle, when we’re dealing with entities at the level of quarks and subatomic particles, what’s real and what isn’t may be as much a matter of opinion as anything.

Dr. Mullinex finds at the end of the story that he himself was the real object of his experiments.

Or as Enrico Fermi once said, “There are two possible outcomes. If the result confirms the hypothesis, you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.”

***

God does not play dice with the Universe.”

Albert Einstein

1.

 

Dr. Richard Mullinex studied the image closely. The Quantum Flux Imager filled three rooms on the fourth floor of the Sheffield Center. Three rooms crammed with gear, to focus on things so small…insubstantial things, wisps of reality, winking in and out of existence.

“Anything yet?” Dr. Angela Kunz tapped out a few keys, tightening up the beam a hundredfold.

“A few specks…there…see? Right on schedule.”

Kunz ran fingers through short red hair, fiddled with her glasses. “Vivions…” she muttered. “Sounds like somebody’s secretary.”

“Couldn’t think of a better name,” Mullinex told her. “Vivo…that means life, doesn’t it? Quanta of life force.”

“Yeah, right…I’m sure the Physics Journal will buy that.”

Grad student Huang Li was making screen captures of the images as the particles speckled across the screen, dragging the captured images to a growing file on his laptop. “Seems like the buggers are more active tonight, Dr. Mullinex.”

Mullinex was tall, lanky, steel gray hair. He scribbled written notes on a smartpad. “Sample’s more advanced…I got it from Oncology this morning. This one’s Level Four, late-stage melanoma. Cancer’s just about strangled the last of the living cells.”

Kunz hmmpphhed. “That’s why we’re seeing more—“

“—exactly…stress on the cells. Vivionic flux increases with increasing stress on a living system. This sample’s almost ninety percent cancerous cells.”

“Huang…I hope you’re getting all this. Nobody else will believe it if we don’t document the hell out of it.”

Huang finished storing images. “I’ve got spectrograms going, deflection angle, color charge fraction, everything. We’re measuring something…data’s coming in now.”

Kunz watched the imager screen crackle with fleeting points of light. “Picometer scale…in my wildest dreams, I never would have believed it. Sub-quark scale. Standard theory always maintained that quarks were the most fundamental particles of all. Now…this—“

Mullinex tweaked the imager controls, trying to focus on a smaller patch of the tissue. In the back of his mind, the opening paragraph of the journal piece he and Angela were co-writing floated like a nagging mother.

Vivions are sub-quark particles or entities with quantum properties that are theorized to be emergent phenomena associated with living matter and how it associates with the environment at a quantum level. Vivions are thought by some to be actual quanta of life force itself. (“Not by me,” Angela Kunz always retorted, when that phrase came up).

Vivions were first observed in images produced by the Quantum Flux Imager at Emory University’s Sheffield Center for Nanomedicine. Co-discoverers were Dr. Richard Mullinex, Dr. Angela Kunz and Huang Li. Informally, they have been called ‘Mullinex particles’ as Dr. Mullinex was the first to correctly interpret the images and characterize the phenomena.

The first instance of vivionic charge or flux was seen in QFI images of subnuclear “clouding” in biological cell samples from Emory University Hospital—

Mullinex snapped back to the here and now. “Huang…is the vivion pump ready yet?”

Huang checked a side panel of instruments, mounted on a cart they had wheeled into the control room an hour earlier. “On line, Dr. Mullinex. Power, charge, and focus all in the green.”

Kunz snorted. “If there’s anything in there. What makes you think you’ve got anything more than a wad of dead tissue?”

“Data, my dear Angela. Measurements. I irradiated that sample less than an hour ago. You saw the results. Radiation caused a spike in vivion flow—we’ve got it all captured and stored. All I have to do now is pulse the sample in that ‘pump’ with gamma rays and grab the vivions it puts out.”

“And you really expect to collimate that flow into a beam and inject it into the sample?”

Mullinex shrugged. “It’s called an experiment, Angela.”

Kunz shook her head, pulled her jersey a little tighter. It was always cool around the QFI…the detector core was nearly at absolute zero. “Waste of time, if you ask me. We don’t even know if this crap’s real—hell, is anything real at the quantum level? These things are just probability functions. It’s not like you can herd them around like cows. And you want me to co-author a paper on how we used these vivions to reverse cell death?”

“No, I just want you to help Huang keep track of what happens. If I’m right, we’ll see a brief spike in vivion flux in the target sample, then it should decline. And if we can measure that inflection, we’ll have one data point.”

“Exactly. But the paper you’re writing claims cancer is cured.”

“You have a better explanation for what we’re dealing with?”

“I have an open mind, Richard. Temporary spikes and fluxes in something so immaterial as these—vivions…whatever the hell they are—don’t prove anything. Like you said, it’s a data point. And it’s a pretty damn big leap from one data point to saying vivions are quantized forms of life force, for God’s sake. That’s nothing but voodoo. Witch doctor talk. The Journal peers will eat us alive.”

“And what if I can demonstrate remission of the melanoma? What if I can grab vivions from one bio-sample and inject them into this diseased tissue? What if vivions are some kind of property of living matter, something we’ve never seen before, and I can increase the quantity of them in diseased tissue? What if the melanoma disappears? Is that black magic?”

Kunz smirked. “Academic, my nutty professor. It’s all hypothetical…because you can’t.”

“Not yet,” Mullinex said. He ran up the resolution on the imager to maximum. “That’s the difference between you and me, Angela. Remember the guy who said doing science was like building a cathedral?”

“Vaguely.”

“You’re into decorating the cathedral, prettying it up by putting nice finishing touches on the walls. Me…I want to blow the whole thing down and rebuild.”

Kunz frowned as she watched the QFI image shift. Speckles of light quickened, becoming a flashing strobe effect. “Where I come from…that’s not called science.”

The three of them had been at the experiment for most of the evening. It had been Mullinex’s idea, hatched in the back corner booth of Everybody’s Pizza a few nights ago. Mullinex wanted to manipulate the newly discovered particles, or entities, or doodads…they still hadn’t settled on a name yet.

If I’m right, he told them with pepperoni and cheese dribbling down his lips, we can take living tissue that’s stressed the right way and pump it for vivion flow. Then all we have to do is capture that flow and re-direct it into a different cell sample. Say a cancerous lump of tissue. I want to watch what happens. If I’ve got this process figured out—if I’m right—we can effect vivionic flux in the cancerous tissue, like giving it a jolt and put the tumor in remission, just by affecting things at this subquark level.

So when, Angela wondered, are you not right?

 

With visions of Nobel Prizes in his head, Richard Mullinex had set to work two days ago, building his vivionic pump. “I don’t care what we call it—life force, bio-aura, chi, prana, spirit, breath of life—whatever, vivions mediate it, just like photons mediate electromagnetic energy. They’re as real as the cut on Huang’s finger.” Grad student Huang Li had nicked his finger shaping a run of ductwork for the pump a few hours before. “With this experiment, I’ll show I can create net vivionic flow and I can control where that flow goes. And once I show that, I’ll prove I can use that flow to affect living cells.”

“You’re going at this all wrong, Richard,” Angela had insisted on the way back across the quadrangle to the Center. “You’re cutting too many corners. We don’t know enough about vivions to make your pump work. Suppose it does? Can you do it again? We don’t even know yet what it means for an object to have a net vivionic charge.”

But there was no stopping a speeding train. Building the pump and testing it over the next few days gave Angela time to think. Richard Mullinex wasn’t a scientist at all. He was a tornado in the shape of a man, speeding out of control, wrecking everything in his path. Science didn’t advance by smashing the bejeezus out of everything in its path. You studied hard to understand what had been done before, contributed an original idea or two, got the acceptance of your work from peers and generally behaved and tried not to knock over too much furniture in the cathedral.

Except sometimes, she reflected, it didn’t work that way at all.

 

Going on near midnight in the shadowy corner of the Imaging Lab, Angela Kunz polished off a snack of peanut butter crackers and a soft drink and stared at the notes Richard and the others had scribbled on a whiteboard in the back, a sort of running dialogue with themselves about vivions and how to understand them:

 

Vivionic charge seems to be conserved in a closed system. Vivionic charge seems to be a basic property of matter, heretofore unobserved.

All living matter possesses some measurable quantity of vivionic charge. This charge is at a maximum (at the biological cellular level) when cells are dividing (DNA replication and transcription). Vivionic charge is at a minimum (though still detectable) when cells are biologically inert and dead. Vivionic charge seems to have a positive correlation with increases in the basic properties of life: replication, digestion, movement, excretion, etc.

One theory (Huang) as to why vivions exist is that they are a sort of bookkeeping entry, in effect, the Universe’s way of keeping straight what is living and what is not.

The theory (Richard) that vivions are quantized life force is controversial and unproven, though attractive.

 

Angela snorted. That was an understatement.

 

“We’re just about ready here,” Richard announced. He was up to his armpits in flexible tubing, trying to precisely position the last of the particle traps. It had been Huang’s idea to use strips of living tissue as guides and traps for the vivion flow. The damn things seemed to have an affinity for living tissue. So they had lined tubing with bio-matter taken from the bio-waste bins. “Pretty it isn’t,” Mullinex added. “But it seems to work.”

“All we need,” Huang added, “is some way to deflect the flow into the traps and toward the injectors.” He tweaked the particle injectors, sizing up the lens array he had cobbled together in the machine shop that afternoon. With any luck, the array would receive a blizzard of vivions from the source and focus them into a tight beam to douse the target sample.

And at the focal plane of the Quantum Flux Imager was a small semi-spherical container of late-stage melanoma-infested tissue.

“Power up the imager,” Mullinex ordered. In minutes, the instrument was humming. Huang monitored parameters on the display, tweaking here, priming the quark source and letting the color charge settle down to a steady state. “How’s our source doing?”

Angela hovered over the tank. Inside, a lump of tissue was prepped to be irradiated by a strong gamma-ray beam, shredding cells inside, ripping DNA chains apart. If Richard was right, stressing the source tissue would produce a storm of vivions that they hoped to port off and focus on the target.

“Source is ready. Emitter’s on line and targeted in.”

Richard Mullinex took a deep breath and checked the QFI targeting. Right on the button, quivering ever so slightly with blurry waves of indeterminacy.

“Let ‘er rip!”

 

The entire experiment lasted less than ten seconds. In that interval, according to Mullinex, the target was hosed with a massive vivionic flux, more than enough, according to calculations, to create a measurable effect.

The QFI display dazzled the darkened room with a sleet storm of light, a meteor shower of flickering, strobing pulses as the sample chamber was flooded with vivions from the source. It was over just as their eyes were adjusting to the luminescent fireworks.

“I’m shutting QFI down,” Mullinex announced. He powered down the equipment. “Make sure the source is isolated. I don’t want the results contaminated with leakage.”

“Gamma’s dead.” Angela toggled some valves closed and the source chamber was sealed. “Good containment…I’m not registering any flux at all.”

“Same here,” Huang spoke up. He was monitoring the tangle of tubing and particle traps. “No detectable flux.”

“That’s it then. It’s a wrap.” Mullinex finished the powerdown, then carefully extracted the target sample container with the waldoes and placed it in a Sharps bin on a dolly. “Let’s get this over to Oncology and see what we’ve got.”

Analysis took the rest of the night and the better part of the next day. When it was over, Richard Mullinex was all smiles, his eyes puffy from lack of sleep. He sprinted through a gray, blustery fall, through swirling leaves and a raw, stiff wind, sprinted from Oncology across the quadrangle back to the Sheffield Center, his attaché case crammed with printouts and disks slapping against his hips.

Huang was dozing in an office converted from a utility closet at the end of the hall. Angela was at a workstation, running statistical routines on some of the data. She heard Richard clumping down the hall the moment he banged in through the main doors.

“Pizza at Everybody’s!” he announced. His hair was disheveled, his eyes dark and intense, his jacket half off his shoulders. “My treat…I just got the final data from Mizener…his crew worked all day on it. Here—!” He thrust a handful of disks onto Angela’s workstation. “No detectable cancer cells. It’s all right there. No detectable HE-1 proteins. No metastatic melanoma cells. Antigens normal, melanocytes normal, evidence of ligand repair in the cells…it’s a beautiful day, Angela. A beautiful day for all of us.”

That night, Richard sprung for the Mega-Supreme Special, 16-inch and three pitchers of beer.

“It doesn’t prove your theory,” Angela was saying. “It proves the Quantum Flux Imager had some detectable effect on the sample…that’s all. Did that effect come from vivion flow? It’s way too early to tell.”

“You’re wrong,” Richard said. “You just don’t want to admit it. Somehow, there’s a causal connection between these particles and cell death. Cessation of life is the key. There’s a causal connection at the most fundamental, quark-scale, quantum scale of life. Every scrap of imagery from QFI has shown an increased outflux of particles at cell death. An influx at cell division. Somehow, the activity of these vivions is related to life itself.”

“You’re confusing cause with effect. We’ve got to do more experiments, Richard. If we put out a paper now, we’ll be laughed out of Science for good. Where are the controls, the measurement analysis, the error bars on the chart? We haven’t got any. You’re in such a damned rush to get this published, you’re ignoring basic scientific procedure.”

Richard was listening, but he wasn’t hearing. “The trouble with you, Angela, is you wouldn’t know a paradigm shift if it ran over you in the middle of the street. That’s what we’ve got here. We have to think in new ways about what the Universe is telling us.”

Angela finished off her beer and stood up to pull on her jacket. “I think the Universe has a whole lot more sense that any of us. Tell you what—“ she leaned over and patted Mullinex sweetly on the cheek. “Be a good boy , won’t you, and take a shower and get some sleep? You stink. We’ll go over the data in detail tomorrow and see if Science As We Know It is safe.”

Mullinex chewed on a slice of pizza with a disgusted shake of his head. Angela disappeared out the door. Huang nursed a beer, smiling sympathetically.

“She’s tired, Dr. Mullinex. That’s all. It’s been a frazzle for all of us. What do you say…call it a night?”

“I suppose.” Mullinex was staring off into space, his glasses having slid down to the end of his nose. “Huang, I’m sure I’m right about this. Vivions are big. Nature’s given us a peek at something extraordinary here. What do you think about all this?”

The grad student shut his eyes and let the beer gurgle in his stomach. A faint smile creased his face. “My ancestors came from Guangzhou. It’s a big city in southeast China, near Hong Kong. My aunt was a spiritual healer. She often talked about chi, the life force we all have. How to manipulate it, how to add or subtract it, how to break the body’s natural blockages, so chi flows freely.” Huang shrugged. “Maybe that’s what we’re dealing with here. The same invisible bio-energy that keeps the body alive and maintains health.”

Mullinex sniffed. “Pranic healing. I’ve seen the Sanskrit texts. Did some myself, when I was in grad school. Interesting stuff. But I don’t buy it. Vivionic charge is something different, something real. We can measure it, increase or decrease it, direct it. Did your aunt have any way to measure this chi?”

“She was her own instrument. It was all traditional stuff. She wouldn’t have needed a quantum flux imager.”

Mullinex stretched and yawned. “Late night metaphysics. Maybe Angela’s right. I’ve got to clear my head.”

“Me too.” Huang got up, offered to help with the bill, but Mullinex waved him off.

“Get out of here.”

“What about you?”

Mullinex slapped a fistful of bills on the table. They left and walked back up a low hill to the quadrangle, now moonlit and littered with blowing leaves. “I’ve got another duty to perform.”

Huang Li climbed into his car. “Not back to the Lab.”

“No.” Mullinex shrugged his parka tighter against the raw wind. “A visit. Mother’s back at the hospital. It’s just a short walk. Cold air’ll do me good. I didn’t drop by today anyway. It’s after visiting hours, but what the hell. I’ll peek in on her. If I’m lucky, she’ll be asleep.”

 

2.

 

No experimental evidence exists of any living object (whether cell or larger organism) having a state of zero vivionic charge. There is experimental evidence (not yet corroborated) of minimal levels of vivionic charge even in inanimate objects such a soil samples, rock, etc. There appears to be a threshold value of vivionic charge, above which we would consider an entity to exhibit lifelike characteristics. A lump of dirt would normally be below this threshold value. A virus might be right at or around the threshold value. A dog or a human might be well above….

Richard Mullinex was barely listening. The oncologist ticked off progressive symptoms on her fingers.

“It’s adenocarcinoma of the pancreas. The surgeon found the tumor well involved with the pancreas. It’s not operable. In most cases, by the time we can detect pancreatic cancer, it’s already spread to other areas, metastasized to other tissues. Already, there’s MRI evidence of involvement with the liver and gall bladder.” Dr. Jean Remple had short dark hair, black-framed glasses. She took off her glasses and wiped the lenses down. “I’m sorry….”

“Is she comfortable?”

“Sedated. Morphine drip. Plus glucose and a few other things. She’s drifted in and out of consciousness all day. I didn’t know if you were coming.”

Mullinex shrugged. “Work. You know how it is.” He went into the room. Remple hung back at the door.

“Mother—?” He bent over, stroked her black hair, matted to her forehead, which was pale and dry. Incredibly, she still had jet black hair. “It’s Richard. It’s me…I came to see you—“ He looked questioningly up at Dr. Remple. The oncologist had an owl’s face, large glasses and a long nose. She smiled faintly, nodding then gently shut the door behind her.

“Mother…sorry I couldn’t come earlier—“What was there to say? The experiment was at a critical point. He’d only been allotted twenty hours on the Quantum Flux Imager this month. “—I just talked with Dr. Remple. Are you comfortable…need anything?”

Peggy Mullinex’s crystalline lips moved and she mumbled. Her throat was dry.

“Here…” he lifted a small cup of crushed ice to her cracked lips. She let the ice run into her throat and melt. Presently, her eyes fluttered half open.

“It’s…cancer….”

“I know, Mother. I know.”

Peggy moistened her lips again, shifted around. Her IV tubes clanked. “That paper…you did that paper?”

Richard sat down in the seat beside the bed. The bed whirred. Motors stirring the patient, massaging her body to prevent bedsores. “I’m working on it. Is there anything I can get for you?”

“Mmm-hmmm. You get yourself…published. Like we talked about. I didn’t raise a nobody. Your Dad was a nobody.”

It was an old exchange. Richard screwed his eyes shut. Keep that box closed, old boy. Keep the lid on that one. The truth was he’d always had a hard time talking with Peggy Mullinex. Only after she’d complained about her belly aching and nearly died from gastroenteritis had he arranged for her to move back to Atlanta. Natalie didn’t make things any easier, always nagging him to treat his Mother better. Spend time with her, Richard. Talk with her. That’s what she wants. She’d lived in Jupiter, Florida for ten years after Dad died, proud and independent-minded, ornery as an old cat.

Now the end was near and Richard had important decisions to make. Natalie was putting pressure on him to make up his mind: long-term care, more chemo, or a hospice.

Nobody had ever made decisions for Peggy Mullinex before. It was uncharted territory and Richard was a reluctant explorer. He wanted to do what was right. Natalie was insistent: spend time with her. Stop being so insensitive. Don’t treat your Mother like you treat me.

“We got a lot of data from the experiment last night,” he told her. “Learned some new things.”

“You’re…a great…scientist, Richard.” Her breath was labored, weak. “Always said so. Jonas Salk…now, he was a great one too. Don’t let them stop you.”

“No one’s stopping me, Mother. Science takes time. We’re still—“ but he stopped in mid-sentence. Peggy Mullinex had closed her eyes. Was that a snore? She’d drifted off to sleep. “Codeine and a few other things,” Dr. Remple had warned him. “She drifts in and out—“

He was determined that now, despite all of the tension between them, the long silences on the phone, the awkward looks on the seaside veranda of her condo, that he would treat her with the dignity she never gave him. She deserved at least that. Natalie was right. Natalie was always right.

“—remember when it was so sunny, so hot—that day—?”

Her voice startled him, abruptly clear and strong, as if she were no longer seventy one and wracked with cancer. It was a popular memory she replayed, like a favorite song, over and over again: graduation day at Baton Rouge. “My son has a PhD. Microbiology, you know. He’s going to be a great scientist, like Salk or that Watson fellow, maybe even Einstein.”

“I remember, Mother. How could I ever forget?” You won’t let me.

“This paper…it’s done?”

“No, not yet. I’ve still got more work to do. More experiments.” Maybe Huang Li was right. He was a devout Buddhist, wasn’t he? For days, he’d been insisting that vivions (he hated the term Mullinex particles) might be some kind of detectable manifestation of soul, or God, or life force. Angela Kunz threw up her hand when that came up. Mullinex wasn’t sure whether he could buy that idea or not. But increasingly, Huang’s philosophical approach intrigued him.

“I used to make peanut butter sandwiches for you, Richard—”

“I know, with tomato soup…after school. When it rained.” Mullinex hadn’t thought about that in decades. “You always liked to experiment, didn’t you…try different things out on me….”

A faint smile. “Ex…per…i…ments….? Peggy Mullinex tried the word out, drawing each syllable out, tasting it. “Are they…giving you a… hard time, Richard?”

“No, Mother, nobody’s giving me a hard time. Science just takes time, that’s all.”

Peggy Mullinex attempted another smile. “Richard, I don’t have much time.”

“I know that. That’s why I’m here.”

The next step, he knew, and Huang and Angela Kunz were in agreement, was to induce vivionic flow and see whether the flow could be channeled, directed and controlled. Quantum effects would be tricky, but there were ways to make Nature work for you. The QFI could detect phenomena at quark scales. If they could move and re-position and clump and de-clump vivions and cause the particles to remain stable long enough to be characterized, that would be science anybody could agree on. ‘Fixing’ vivions in a measurable state, even for a few picoseconds, would be a victory they could finish the paper with.

“Mother, I just stopped by to see how you’re doing.”

Peggy Mullinex had closed her eyes again, but a bemused smile hung on her lips, as if she knew a great secret. “I’m doing.”

“I’m leaving now. I’ll be back tomorrow, during the day. Rest up. We’ll have another nice talk.”

He left the hospital worn out, confused about what to do with his mother. For nearly ten minutes, he couldn’t even find the car. It was right where he had left it that morning. And a cold rain had set in.

Driving home, Richard Mullinex forced himself to concentrate on the road. Rain pelted down in sheets, making crazy reflection off the asphalt. Light beams made him dizzy and he had to slow down.

It was crazy. He nearly had an accident, thinking. Somehow, he had to get Natalie off his back. You need to make a decision, Richard. Now…tonight. Make a decision….

Turning up the winding gravel drive to their hilltop bungalow, Richard realized the full import of what was gnawing at the back of his mind. A crazy idea. Ridiculous. But that’s how Science worked. He waited impatiently as the garage door rolled up, running through the details in his mind. A variation on their next experiment. It just might work.

If he was right, and Huang Li and Angela Kunz agreed, a little variation on their next experiment could give them the kind of data no one could refute.

Maybe there was something he could do for Mother after all. But he’d need her permission. And Dr. Remple’s too.

 

3.

 

Do computers, robots, agents and other artificially intelligent entities possess vivionic charge? Experimental evidence to date indicates that such devices do possess residual vivionic charge inherent in the structural materials of which they are composed. No increased value of vivionic charge has yet been detected above this residual value. The philosophical implications of this are still being debated. Does this that mean Life and Intelligence are separate phenomena?

 

Richard got home late, after midnight. He wanted to fix a quick Scotch in the kitchen but Natalie was still up, clad in her snuggies and robe, curled up on the sofa with the lights down low. Her eyes followed him as he sank into the recliner, fiddled with the paper.

“You saw your Mother?”

“Just came from the hospital. She’s resting now.”

“You talked?”

“A little.”

Natalie stirred. “Richard, you’ve got to make a decision soon. Tonight. Your mother needs your help. Chemo, hospice, whatever…did you talk with her about this?”

Richard swirled the Scotch in the glass. “Actually, no. We talked about other things.”

“The experiment, I suppose.” Like it was a dirty subject. Richard shrugged. “I’m at a critical stage now. We’ve finally been able to prove the vivionic pump works. Yesterday, Oncology gave us the results. I actually took living tissue, dosed it with a burst of gamma radiation and captured a flow of vivions. Huang’s ‘lens’ worked like a charm, Natalie…it was a thing of beauty. You should have seen it. Pulled vivions out of blastocyst cells from a rat embryo and focused them on a lump of melanoma tumor cells.”

“Richard—“

“No, really, the target cells displayed detectable increases in vivionic charge. We got measurable increases in positive vivionic flow. You know what that means?”

“It means you didn’t tell your mother the truth.”

“Truth? Natalie…don’t be ridiculous. Nature’s waving neon signs right in front of our eyes. For God’s sake, I’m on the verge of a tremendous discovery…this is big, like the major leagues. A few more experiments and I’ll be able to show we can control this effect—generate and control vivion flow. Natalie, don’t you see? Don’t you realize what this means? We’ve got the ability to regulate cell life and death, right here—“ he held out the palm of his hands. “No one’s ever done that before. Vivions are how Nature animates matter with life force. Oh, Angela doesn’t buy that…but even she’s not sure. I am. Huang Li even thinks we’re seeing some sort of vital essence. Who knows…maybe vivions are the first detectable manifestation of soul.”

Natalie got up and made herself some coffee in the kitchen, padding back to the den in her slippers. “Very poetic. Richard, the experiment can wait. Your own mother’s dying right in front of your eyes. What the hell’s the matter with you? She needs help, she needs you, Richard. You’re the only family she’s got left. She’s not a lab rat. She’s not an experiment. Can you forget this damned experiment for a few minutes? Focus on what’s important. Life and death, Richard…that’s what you’ve got to decide here. What kind of life is your mother going to have?”

Richard stared down at Missy, the black and white tabby, purring and rubbing her ears on the side of his leg. “It’s hard…hard to decide what’s right. Mother doesn’t exactly help, you know.”

“How about Dr. Remple?”

Richard shrugged, scratched Missy behind the ears. The cat leaped into his lap and dug herself a warm nest, settling down with a contented sigh. “It’s advanced adenocarcinoma. Inoperable.”

“Chemo can help.” Natalie picked up a handful of pamphlets from the coffee table. “Have you read any of these? There’s something called Gemzar. It’s had good clinical results…patients are living.”

“—a few more months,” Richard closed his eyes. “I already know about it. Mizener in Oncology told me about it.”

“Well…it’s something…it’s life. What does your mother say?”

“She wants me to get this paper published.”

“Oh, Richard, don’t bullshit me. You’re not even very good at it. If you don’t think chemo’s the answer, then ask the hospital about their hospice program. Ask your mother.”

“Natalie, I don’t want to talk about this right now.”

“For God’s sake…for your mother’s sake, we have to talk about it.” Natalie sat up and glared at him. “Can’t you stop playing scientist even for a minute and think about real life? What do I have to do to shake some sense into you?”

“I need time.” He swung his feet around, inadvertently knocking Missy off, with a loud meeorrk. The tabby skulked off, glaring back at him suspiciously. “I just need to think.”

Natalie was in tears. She sank back in the corner of the sofa, her arms firmly crossed. “Richard, you’re not even human anymore. You’re just a robot. Maybe you can get away with treating me like some kind of lab rat, but to ignore your own Mother, in her dying days…” she shook her head. “It’s criminal. I hope you can live with this…I can’t.”

 

Richard grabbed a raincoat from the hall closet and stalked out of the house. Outside, the wind was cutting, a raw, bone-chilling westerly that slung stinging sheets across the street. Leaves and wind, rain and cold air, slapped him in the face. He barged out to the street and jammed his hands in his pockets, began heading up the twisting hilltop road toward the summit a mile away. Through bare trees, the night’s fog had thickened and the lights of the city were lost in the gloom.

There it was, staring him in the face. In the last week, he was sure that Nature had allowed them an extraordinary peek at one of her most closely held secrets. Vivions were as real as anything, despite Angela’s misgivings. The measurements were there, the data were there, the analysis was there. Sure, there were differences in interpretation. That was to be expected.

The paper was what mattered now. Getting unimpeachable data, with ironclad reasoning and getting it published and peer-reviewed…before somebody else staked a claim to their turf. Science at this level was a gold rush and the prospectors with the best claim got the glory.

I didn’t raise a nobody. Your Dad was a nobody.

It was all quite clear to him now. The next experiment would be the one. The breakthrough.

Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. The author of that little missive was lost to him but the truth of it wasn’t.

For the next hour, as a cold fog settled around the hill and worked its way into his bones, Richard Mullinex trudged upward along the side of the street, shuffling through puddles of rain and piles of wet leaves, working out the design of the next experiment.

Dealing with Natalie was at times very tiresome. Richard loved her very much but when she was particularly emotional, he tried to treat her like a sensitive experiment. Don’t disturb things…let nature take its course…let things settle back down. Really, she was worse than the vivions that speckled the screens of the Quantum Flux Imager. His own wife was a perfect example of quantum effects in action: able to assume multiple states at the same time, indeterminate in nature, action at a distance.

Vivionic flux increases when stress is placed on a living system. Maximum vivionic flux occurs in the days, hours and minutes before cell death.

Natalie was right, only not in the way she thought. Seeing his mother in the hospital had re-opened a lot of old wounds. Of course, he loved Peggy Mullinex. He wanted to do the right thing. He didn’t wish her dead, like Natalie had shouted at him that very morning. But Peggy had been a smothering influence on him all his life and he needed the distance that time and maturity had given him, needed the perspective that could only come with age and achieving things for himself. It had taken Peggy a hell of a long time to see that.

Now she was dying. Peggy Mullinex had given life itself to her son Richard fifty two years ago last month. Richard both needed her and resented needing her.

Natalie, you just don’t see it, do you? It had taken fifty-two years and a lifetime’s struggle just to become Dr. Richard Mullinex, director of the Sheffield Center for Nanomedicine. He’d always tried to keep some emotional distance between himself and Peggy Mullinex. To Natalie, that was indifference, but it wasn’t that at all. It was life itself.

But was it? What was life anyway? Net positive vivionic charge? Fifty two years of trying to be yourself, a separate individual with separate wants, needs and desires? The biologists said life was simply locomotion, digestion, reproduction. Anything that did those things, self-directed as it were, was life by definition.

Richard was getting colder as he approached the dead end of the winding street, the top of the hill. Trees were shorter, limbs scrawnier. The fog was thinner and through the mists, he caught fleeting glimpses of the city beyond. Rivers of light coursed through darkened continents. Highways and other neighborhoods.

The truth was that life without Peggy Mullinex was a frightening thing. A lifetime’s emotional gap would become an emotional void, with no counterpoint or resistance for Richard to push against. Could a quark be a quark inside the nucleus of an atom without other quarks? Physics said no. Solitary quarks weren’t possible….

Richard paused at the end of the street, at the fence surrounding the thicket that ringed the summit of the hill. He sucked in cold air and watched the tendrils of steamy breath float away.

Because of the very real possibility that Peggy Mullinex would soon cease to exist in any physical form, he was all the more obsessed with learning the true nature of vivions. Natalie couldn’t see that. If they were true quanta of life force, as he and Huang Li suspected, and if they were somehow conserved in Nature, perhaps there was something like an essence of a living system, an essence that was never lost. Perhaps, even the vital essence of Peggy Mullinex would also be conserved, through this seemed to fly in the face of entropy and the Second Law of Thermodynamics.

It was time now to get to work, setting up the next experiment. Whether this was cheating death by altering the accounting books was a thought that Richard felt was best left to the philosophers.

He hurried back down the winding road to the house.

 

4.

 

There appear to be no detectable upper limits on the maximum value of vivionic charge. The value appears to correlate positively with system complexity.

Back at Emory University the next morning, Richard Mullinex hunted down Dr. Jean Remple. He found the oncologist in her tiny closet of an office, drowning in paperwork.

Remple squinted up at Mullinex. “You’re Mom’s resting comfortably this morning. Overnight, we adjusted the medicine, tweaked the glucose levels a little.” She reached over to clear some textbooks off the side chair. “Sit. I’ll get us some coffee…there’s a fresh pot in the staff lounge…only be a sec…we’ve got a lot to discuss, you and me.”

“Dr. Remple…listen—“ Mullinex cleared his throat. “I’ve been thinking—“

“That’s good.” Her face was expressionless. “You know we’re dealing with a terminal situation here, with your mother?”

Mullinex nodded. He changed the subject abruptly, briefly describing the work he had been doing at the Sheffield center, what they had learned about vivionic effects. And the paper he was trying to write.

Remple’s expression never changed.

“There’s another experiment we need to do.”

Remple cleared her throat, sipped coffee and regarded Mullinex with suspicious eyes beneath a wreath of steam from her cup. “An experiment. I’m not sure I see the connection with your mother—“

Richard looked down at his hands, like they were alien appendages, unsure what to do with them. Finally, he sat on them. “Look, I’ll be direct. We’re both researchers, in our fields. I want to take a biopsy sample. A sample of Mother’s pancreatic tumor cells. See if I can induce vivion clusters to form. This experiment will demonstrate fixation and control of multi-dimensional clusters of vivions for the first time. I—“

Remple pursed her lips. “Yes, Dr. Mullinex—“

“I want to see if, by injecting vivions from a separate source, I can reverse cellular deterioration, even reverse cell death. Put the tumor into remission. Or if not complete remission, maybe control or stabilize it. Already we’ve got data showing improved cellular function in melanoma tumor cells…there’s evidence of ligand repair, normal protein fabrication, fewer errors in transcription from cell DNA, all kinds of measurable changes…just from increasing net positive vivionic flow into the tissue. It’s really quite remarkable.”

Remple was dubious. “Yes, I’m sure it is. Now let me ask you a question, Dr. Mullinex. Based on what you’ve seen, do you truly believe you can have any lasting effect on tumor cell morphology with these…what are they called—?”

“Vivions…and the answer is yes. In recent experiments, we’ve seen evidence that vivions are associated with living systems—biomatter—in some fundamental way.”

Remple was skeptical, to say the least. “I’m no physicist, Dr. Mullinex, but that seems a long way from being able to put a tumor into remission. In chemotherapy, we’re just helping the body’s own immune system, by making it harder for the tumor cells to replicate, or harder to absorb nutrients from the blood. Depends on the agent we use. But what you’re saying is—“

“Admittedly hard to swallow. But we’ve got imagery files that can’t be easily explained any other way.” Mullinex described the Quantum Flux Imager and how it worked. “Every time we stress a sample of living cells, we get the same result. A big spike in vivion flux. Two days ago, I tried to capture these—particles, entities—whatever they are and focus them into a beam, to inject them into a separate target of cells. A vivionic pump, if you will. It worked…you can check with Mizener on the results.”

Remple finished her coffee and shook her head, re-arranging papers on the desk. “So what are these things—these vivions—anyway?”

Mullinex snorted. “We have three researchers on the team and at least ten theories every day. Basically, my feeling is that vivions are some kind of emergent property of matter, a basic property that is particularly strong in living matter. Vivionic charge determines how ‘alive’ a lump of matter is. In fact, from what we’ve seen, there’s evidence that vivionic flow has an extraordinary effect: somehow, in some way we haven’t yet worked out, vivions exercise some kind of control over a cell’s transition from non-living to living and back to nonliving…that is, from life to death. All the things we were taught about living systems…their characteristics of movement and reproduction and so forth are in fact controlled by the presence or absence of vivions. By a thing’s ‘net vivionic charge.’”

“What causes vivions to flow then?”

Mullinex shrugged. “Unknown. My grad student thinks vivions should be treated the same way physicists used to treat quarks, as a kind of bookkeeping entry. Somehow, the particles are Nature’s way of keeping straight on what’s living and what’s not.”

“If that’s all true,” Remple surmised, “then maybe you’ve got a hold of some kind of elementary ‘fountain of youth.’”

Mullinex forced a wry smile. “Hardly. We’re just beginning to understand basic properties.”

“But you said you could control this vivion flow.”

“To a degree.”

Remple was thoughtful. “You really think you can stimulate a lump of cancerous tissue into repairing itself? Just by pumping it full of vivions?”

“Already demonstrated,” Mullinex said. “But we’re not sure of the long-range effects. The melanoma sample was just a few cells. Larger quantities—“ he shrugged, spread his hands—“who knows?”

Remple looked Mullinex squarely in the face. “Richard, your mother deserves her dignity. You really want to make her an experiment, in her last days? Why don’t you let her go in peace? Be with her. Comfort her.”

“You don’t believe a word of what I’ve been telling you.”

“Let’s just say I need more proof. As to your mother’s condition, well, that’s pretty much a foregone conclusion. I’m just saying, Richard…” Remple stood up and faced out through a corner of her window, through stacks of papers at the lead gray skies of a fall afternoon—“that death and life are intertwined. We all know that. Whatever the purpose of these vivions of yours, I’m sure of one thing. To live means to die, to be mortal. It’s been part of evolution for billions of years. If you’re right, and you’ve somehow learned how to affect that process at the most fundamental level, then how do you decide what lives and what dies? Are you God? Are you nature or three billion years of evolutionary wisdom? What if this pump of yours malfunctions or goes berserk and doses everything in sight with excess particles? Does everything come alive…cars and roads and buildings as well as trees and dogs and houseflies? Is that good? Does anybody know?”

Mullinex was growing impatient. “Dr. Remple, all I’m asking is your support and assistance. To help Mother. I want to do what’s right—God knows, I haven’t done that very well the last thirty years. The vivion pump may just be able to arrest the cancer in her pancreas. Even if it can’t—and I realize this is an experiment—maybe I can do enough to ease her suffering in her final days. That’s worth something, isn’t it?”

“There’s always morphine, Richard. She doesn’t have to be a guinea pig.”

“Suppose we just ask her.”

“I agree we need to discuss this, fully, with your family. I’m sorry, Richard—“ the oncologist went back to her paperwork. “I just can’t sanction what you’re asking. I can’t approve experimenting on a dying woman. But I won’t oppose it, as long as your family is in favor. And the hospital Surgical Board.”

Mullinex stood for a minute, hands clasped behind his back, staring at the diminutive doctor. Remple busied herself with the computer, not returning his stare. He turned and left her office, stalking off down the hall.

He didn’t need the hospital’s permission anyway.

 

5.

 

As subquark phenomena, vivions exhibit a wealth of observable effects: indeterminacy of position and momentum, superposition, effects at a distance, instantaneous and simultaneous manifestation in multiple locations, wave-particle duality and others….

 

In Room 418, Richard Mullinex and Jean Remple found that Peggy Mullinex was too far gone to be fully conscious.

The CCU nurse had already changed out her IV bags when Mullinex arrived. The nurse ticked off the changes to Remple. “I bumped up glucose five points and added more saline.”

“Morphine?”

“The same. Should I bump that up too?”

Remple glanced over at Richard Mullinex, who was bent close to his mother’s face, smoothing back her black hair. She nodded. “Three units per hour.”

The nurse adjusted a control knob and recorded the change on the touchscreen.

“Mother…it’s me, Richard.” Mullinex listened intently, pressing his face and ear close to her mouth, but Peggy Mullinex was asleep. Natalie stood in one corner, dressed in a severe black pantsuit. Dr. Remple was next to her.

“Mother…I want to tell you something.” Richard went on anyway. “We’re going to try a new procedure. It’s a bit experimental, but we’ve seen good success with it recently, on different types of cancers. Mother, it’s related to what we talked about last night. The paper…the research.”

Natalie rolled her eyes. “Richard, she can’t hear you.”

“She knows what I’m saying. Mother, they’re going to take another biopsy. You’ve already got the surgical incision. We’re going to try this treatment on the biopsy sample. If it works like we expect, we’ll start you on controlled doses.”

Remple knew Mrs. Mullinex was semi-comatose. But she couldn’t let Richard’s words go unchallenged. Even comatose patients maintained residual hearing.

“Mrs. Mullinex…Peggy…there is a downside to this procedure. It’s highly—“ she refused to look at Richard’s accusing face—“er, highly experimental. There’s not a lot of data. We don’t know what affect it’ll have…maybe very little. What Richard’s not saying is—“

“Dr. Remple—“ Mullinex was sharp. “Please…let me do this.”

Natalie couldn’t keep quiet. “Richard…you can’t be serious about this.”

“Mother…don’t listen to them. We had an understanding—you and me—yesterday. Remember? About the paper. About the research. I’m just trying to help.”

The arguments flared for a few more minutes. The upside, the downside. The risks, the potential. The data. The lack of data.

Nora Gutierrez, the CCU nurse, was by turns appalled and amused at the whole episode. The spectacle of the Mullinex family and their oncologist arguing over treatment protocols in front of a dying old woman who probably couldn’t even hear them left her feeling uneasy, even violated. Why couldn’t they just respect the old woman’s privacy? Give her the dignity she deserved?

An hour later, the section supervisor gave her the order to prep Mrs. Mullinex for the procedure.

 

6.

 

Vivionic charge seems to be conserved (in a closed system). Vivionic charge seems to be a basic property of matter in the universe, like electric charge or nuclear spin, heretofore unobserved. Factors that cause vivionic flow are presently undetermined. Whether the Universe operates to make vivionic charge locally in equilibrium or whether some other principle inducing vivionic flow is operating is also undetermined.

 

The biopsy was taken the next morning and the sample placed inside the Quantum Flux Imager later the same day.

The tissue sample was crawling with swollen adenocarcinoma cells, mostly malignant exocrine tissue cells like beta and alpha cells. The tumor infesting Peggy Mullinex’s pancreas and surrounding tissues was extraordinarily active and aggressive.

“Power up,” Richard Mullinex ordered. He tweaked the gain on the imager, and watched as the instrument’s resolution sharpened from an early image of microvesicles and connective tissue filling the screen with a throbbing grid of dark red. Stage by stage, he adjusted the QFI to deeper and deeper resolution, passing through individual islet cells to their striated and swollen nuclei, through the twisted helices of deoxyribonucleic acids, through the polygons of individual atoms of carbon and nitrogen and phosphorus, on into the blurry pulsations of atomic nuclei, then finally, through the looking glass into the interstices of the nuclei themselves, where ghostly glimmers of shadowy quarks flitted like moths in the glare of the flux beam.

And then, as before, he made one final adjustment, bringing the flux beam to its maximum resolution. As though a veil of murk had finally lifted, the dimly lit silhouettes of pinpricks of light flashed like distant galaxies at the edge of the universe, winking in and out of existence, there and not there, an enchanted loom of light, leaving only fading traces on the retinas of their human observers.

“We’ve got ‘em!” exulted Huang Li, poring over Richard’s shoulder at the spectacle on the screen. “Vivions galore. Look at them!”

Even Angela Kunz was impressed. “I’ve never seen such a level of activity. It’s like a cloud of fireflies at a feeding frenzy.”

“You may be more right than you know,” Richard said. “Look closely, guys, and be humble before one of the greatest miracles of Nature. It’s a great big ledger of Life. A big accounting office, as Huang said, orchestrating all the cells of this sample, shuttling life force…chi…vital essence…whatever… back and forth, getting ready to transition this lump of matter from living to nonliving.”

Kunz shook her head, curling her red hair behind her ears. “What does it mean?”

Richard was more sure. “It’s record-keeping, at the most fundamental level of matter. Cellular, even atomic functions, are being recorded and then shut down in some kind of systematic way. Genetic patterns are being encoded and stored for safekeeping—somewhere. Incredible,” he mumbled. “The entire process of cell death is somehow being managed, right before our eyes.”

Huang remembered something he had read recently. “I saw it in a journal on forensic neurophysiology, something like that. ‘Death as we know it, aims at disincarnation, dissolution of the body by enzymatic and microbial forces released from within the body.’ But this—“ he just shook his head sadly. “—this is so—“

“Beautiful,” Richard completed the thought. “Death is dissolution of the body. Yet something lives on. Recorded in a matrix of vivionic charge.”

“A self?” Angela asked. “A soul, maybe?”

Richard shrugged. “Too early to tell. But that’s our next avenue of attack…learning how to read these patterns. Extract the information in that matrix.” He glanced at the clock. “This sample is nearly gone. We don’t have much time. Let’s get to work.”

Huang brought the gamma ray emitter online while Mullinex finagled with the vivion pump. The vivion source for this run was another lump of rat embryo cells, a blastocyst clump rapidly dividing in its nutrient bath in a sealed container. “Thick as stew with vivions,” Mullinex exclaimed, when the Quantum Flux Imager was first registered and tuned. “Look at them—gives me goose bumps, just watching them. We’re like a gang of bank robbers and that’s the bank, just waiting to be hit.”

Wonder what Mother would say if she knew her vivion supply was a baby lab rat.

“Source is ready,” Mullinex told them. “Huang—?”

“On line and targeted in.”

Angela pressed a few buttons, opening particle traps and tweaking the injectors. “Lens looks good. Focusing now, dropping down to sub-picometer scale. Give me some flow, Richard.”

Mullinex watched the imager screen, strobing with speckles and streaks of light. The bursts were artifacts of the quantum flux beam, part of the imaging process, there…yet not there, almost too quick for the eye to discern.

“Hang on to your panties, it’s getting there.” He watched a counter register higher and higher numbers, slowly adjusting their bio-lens, a focusing element lined with living tissue that they got from the veterinary labs. The tissue strip helped channel the flow of vivions from the source chamber, so the theory went. The truth was rather simpler: in the press of time and experimenting, no one had any idea why it worked.

“Here they come!” Mullinex dropped the lens into final position, and the QFI screen exploded with light. In picoseconds, the target container was flooded with a vivionic tidal wave.

 

Data reduction dragged on for hours, as Mullinex and Angela Kunz and Huang Li hung around Ted Mizener’s Oncology Lab in the hospital’s south wing. Angela frowned a lot and slipped out onto a fire escape every few minutes—actually an old veranda from the hospital’s days as a turn-of-the-century mineral bath and health spa—to chain-smoke. Huang occupied himself with arcane math puzzles. Mullinex dozed.

Mullinex found Angela nervously pacing the veranda. The rain had started again. A damp chill breeze swept up through bare tree limbs onto the landing.

“The thing that bothers me, Richard, is this… what if all these vivions aren’t real? I mean actual physical things. What if vivions are just some side effect of the quantum flux imager? We haven’t done the studies right, you know. There’s no control for instrument effects. There are no persistence studies…how do we know the changes Mizener saw in the last sample—all the cellular and nuclear changes…the DNA repairs, the protein synthesis, all that, will last? That it’s a real effect and that these vivions cause them.”

Mullinex leaned over the ornate iron railing and watched leaves swirl in a tiny tornado in the grassy quadrangle below them. “Schrodinger’s cat, huh?”

Angela drew her jersey and overcoat collar up tighter. “Heisenberg says we can’t measure the position and momentum of a particle at the same time. One affects the other. The observer affects the observation. Vivions could be the same. They might be nothing more than artifacts of the quantum flux imager. Take your sample out of the imager and poof!…no vivions. And Schrodinger’s cat’s even worse. Is the thing alive or dead? Or is it in some intermediate state until we try to observe it? Are vivions there or not? If your theory is right, and these buggers mediate something we call ‘life force,’ then being alive—Life itself—is just a matter of degree. That tree over there is no more or less alive than this railing.”

“Actually it’s a matter of net vivionic charge.”

Angela shivered. “It’s too squishy for me. Too nebulous—“ she waggled her hands. “Too imprecise…undefined…too…I don’t know what.” Mullinex didn’t allow himself the same misgivings. “Mizener’s team is the key to making all this real. If the cellular changes are real, then the effect is there. Something’s causing them.”

Huang Li stuck his head out of the doorway. “They’re ready for us, Dr. Mullinex. Data’s done and plotted. Mizener’s office.”

 

The Oncology Lab was two floors up and on another wing. Ted Mizener looked like an aging Santa Claus, with a gray white beard, ruddy cheeks and a barrel for a body.

“Pretty impressive, Richard,” he told them. A computer projector threw microsections of the biopsied tissue on a screen. Mizener pointed out the changes. “See here? This slice is from near the pancreatic duct, just anterior to the duodenum. Exocrine tissue…chock full of alpha and beta cells. Now, if I zoom in—“ he sharpened the resolution considerably—“we take a closer look at some of these cells. Look at those suckers. In the pink of health…in fact, here’s one we caught in the middle of putting out some insulin…that’s the protein with the two disulfide bridges, right there.” He tapped the screen to point out the view.

Mullinex studied the images with growing excitement. “So you’re saying—“

“I’m saying that what you’re looking at is normal biliary tissue, pancreatic tissue. Cells look normal, they’re doing normal cell things, just grabbing blood and sugars and pumping our insulin pretty as you please.” Mizener took off tiny tinted spectacles. His eyes were weak and watery. “No evidence whatsoever of any tumor or malignant cells. You’re sure this is tumor tissue?”

Mullinex smiled. “I can vouch for the source, Ted.”

 

On the walk back to the Imaging Lab, Richard Mullinex barely touched the ground. “Normal cellular function, Angela. You saw it…same as I did! And with tissue that was bursting with malignant cells. You don’t get any realer than that. That’s no artifact.”

“Maybe so,” she conceded. But something gnawed at the back of her mind. Back in the Imaging Lab, it surfaced. They needed to run a vivionic scan of the target tissue again. Just to see if the changes held up. Something just wasn’t right. Maybe the vivionic pump was just interfering with a natural process. How much did they know really? Schrodinger’s cat again? Quantum phenomena were slippery. Observations and measurements weren’t always black and white. She couldn’t say precisely what was bothering her. But time and again, Nature had played tricks on them.

She watched through a doorway as Mullinex and Huang Li threw ideas around, batting conclusions back and forth like tennis balls, scribbling phrases for The Paper on a whiteboard. Fragments and scraps of thoughts were visible on the board….

Holding a constant vivionic charge…

Reversing cell death…

Short-circuiting telomere excision…anti-aging?

 

Incredibly, or so Mullinex thought, the biopsied sample from Peggy Mullinex’s pancreas had responded to vivionic infusion. Pumped full of life-force particles, the swollen cells of the cancer had been rejuvenated and returned to health.

Later that afternoon, Angela cautioned both of them against drawing too many conclusions. In a rush to rough out the barebones of a paper, they had skipped lunch and huddled around a workstation and a whiteboard for hours. In the white-hot heat of theoretical frenzy, Angela’s cautious objections were ignored.

At first, nobody heard the phone ring in the main office. Only when Angela had ventured outside the lab for a smoke break, did she hear the ring. She answered irritably.

“Dr. Kunz, it’s Natalie Mullinex. Is Richard there?”

“He’s in the Lab, Mrs. Mullinex…with Huang. They’re going over the results of a run.”

“Thank God…the hospital’s been trying to reach him all afternoon. CCU’s called here several times, trying to track him down.”

“I’ll get him, Mrs. Mullinex. What is it?”

“Richard’s mother—Peggy—has gone into a coma. They want the family there right away.”

 

7.

 

Before a certain moment in the history of living things, death did not exist. And then, it arrived on the biological stage, as an invention of life, to give meaning to life.

Robert Ardrey

 

“She may have only a few hours left,” Dr. Jean Remple told him. Outside Room 418, Critical Care Unit, Richard Mullinex had gathered with Natalie and the hospital chaplain, Reverend Walter Billings. Huang Li and Angela Kunz were there too.

“How is she now?”

Remple shrugged. “Technically, she’s Level Three comatose, non-responsive verbally with no signs of consciousness. Her kidneys have already failed and we’re running dialysis now. As you can see, she’s struggling to breathe; we’re ventilating mechanically to help her at the moment. Once or twice an hour, she has a slight seizure. Her blood is filled with toxins the kidneys and liver can’t get rid of.” Remple’s face softened. “I’m sorry. There’s not much more we can do to make her comfortable.”

“I understand.” Mullinex nodded silently to Natalie, who encouraged him.

“Does the family have any specific wishes?” Remple asked. The duty nurse came out to meet them. It was Nora Gutierrez, clad in powder blue scrubs. She had just finished bathing Peggy’s face. Nora pulled off her latex gloves, stuffed them in her pocket.

“I guess—“ Mullinex glanced at Natalie, “—just that she be made as comfortable as possible.”

Remple nodded. “Do you want us to discontinue life support now?”

Mullinex swallowed hard. He felt a firm hand on his shoulder. It was Reverend Billings.

“God will comfort you, son,” he murmured.

“Actually—“ Mullinex seemed to make up his mind. “I’d like to move her. Take her to the Imaging Lab at our Center.”

Richard—“ Natalie was incredulous, practically in tears. “—you can’t be serious. Go in there…talk with your mother.”

“Look…there’s just a chance something can be done. The Imager’s just big enough for her—“

Remple was skeptical, though she tried to be solicitous of the family’s concerns. “Peggy’s time is near. She needs to have a dignified release from her suffering.”

Mullinex turned to Angela for support. To Huang Li. “I want to try it. It can’t hurt. It may help. We’ve made extraordinary progress the last few days. Ask Ted Mizener. Ask anybody in Oncology.”

“It’s not proven,” Angela reminded him. “It’s experimental.”

Natalie was growing more and more agitated. “Richard…this is insane. Your own mother. To subject her to this kind of—“

Mullinex held up a hand. “I hear all your objections. But the truth is, Mother and I discussed it last night.” Which wasn’t entirely true. “Believe me, she understands.” He pushed through the door and went into the room.

Peggy Mullinex was on her side, curled into a ball. Respirator tubes and IV drips coiled over her body. She struggled for breath, heaving, gasping spasmodically like a fish out of water. Richard watched for a few moments. Peggy shuddered with a slight convulsion, tensed, then seemed to relax. It was a cycle, repeated over and over every few minutes. Gasp, shudder, tense and relax…gasp, shudder, tense and relax.

He felt a presence behind him. It was Nora.

“Can she hear me?”

Nora shrugged. “We’re not sure. Comatose patients retain autonomic functions. She can probably hear fine. Whether she’s conscious enough to understand—“ Nora smiled, a quick snuff of a smile—“it’s hard to say.”

Richard bent over. He patted down Peggy’s hair. It was dry, crusty, the texture of old wheat. Her skin was cool. “Mother…it’s Richard. Mother…you remember what we talked about. The paper. The experiment. Mother—I’m going to have you moved. Over to the Sheffield center. You’ll be inside a big machine…called a quantum flux imager. I don’t want you to be afraid. It’s like an MRI. Only different. We’re going to try a new procedure. It’s risky…I won’t lie to you—I never could anyway—but there’s a chance, I think a good chance, it’ll help. I don’t want you to suffer anymore.”

Nora cleared her throat, getting Mullinex’s attention. Dr. Remple wanted to see him outside the room.

The debate went on for ten minutes.

Angela Kunz and Huang Li were anxious, like Mullinex, to try the vivion pump on a live subject. But Angela was sensitive to the family’s needs and wishes. She watched Natalie closely, saw how she responded to Richard Mullinex.

“We don’t need to do this, Richard,” Angela said. “It’s an awfully big step. Too big. We’ve only used the vivion pump on undifferentiated cells so far. To take an entire organism—a human—“ she swallowed. “I’m sorry…it’s just that, I mean—your Mother—”

Natalie was adamant. “She deserves her dignity. And you’re going to deprive her of even that, in her final hours. Richard…Richard, how could you? Don’t you have even a shred of decency in that head of yours? You’ve always treated her like a thing. Me too. Experimental subjects. Lab rats. We’re people…for God’s sake! We should be treated like people.”

Reverend Billings squeezed Mullinex on the shoulder. “All of us should remember this: that death is part of life and Peggy’s passing is part of God’s plan. Richard, I don’t think I can go along with this. This procedure sounds too…inhuman. What chances, really, does she have?”

Mullinex had heard enough. “I’m surprised. At all of you. We have a procedure proven to reverse tumor growth, proven to reverse cell deterioration, in some cases, even reverse cell death. Sure, it’s never been tried on a whole organism, but that’s because it’s so new. What is an organism anyway, but a collection of cells, organized by function, all interconnected? There’s no reason to think this won’t work on a larger group of cells. Okay, so there’s six trillion in this group, but they’re still cells. And we’ve got a reliable, repeatable procedure, a technique for pumping vivions into living matter and regaining normal function.” He looked to Angela and Huang for support. “We’ve already done it half a dozen times.”

Natalie couldn’t stand it any longer. “Richard, you’ve just proven my whole point.” She stalked off toward the CCU waiting room, unwilling to listen any more.

A compromise decision was hammered out. Peggy Mullinex would be moved, still on life support, from the hospital CCU wing to the Sheffield Center, and placed on a gurney inside the Quantum Flux Imager. One run with the vivion pump would be made. The source would be living cell tissue from the Veterinary Lab down the street. Mullinex would need about two hours to prep the equipment and set up the particle traps and the injectors.

One run would be made. Dr. Jean Remple and Reverend Billings would be in attendance. After the run, a quick biopsy would be taken from inside the imager, then Peggy would be transferred to an MRI unit on the ground floor of the Center, for a quick scan.

If there were no discernible, measurable effects, Peggy would then be moved to a hospice wing on the top floor of the hospital and all life support would be removed, save for morphine and other medications to ease the pain of her final hours. The family would let Nature take its course.

Richard Mullinex made a mild protest at this phrase. “But Nature’s trying her damnedest to tell us something, something important, with these vivions—“ but the agreement had already been made.

Determined, he left CCU with Huang Li and Angela Kunz in tow and headed back to the Center. They have a lot of work to do and not much time.

 

Nora Gutierrez turned Peggy slightly in her bed and readjusted her respirator tube, the swabbed the inside of her mouth and cheeks with an ointment to moisten the skin. Fingertip by fingertip, she fed crushed ice to Peggy, letting the ice melt on her dry unmoving lips, all the while humming a gentle child’s tune she had learned in the girls’ escuela in San Juan many years ago.

Senora, do you her Him yet, I wonder? El Nino calls for you. You are going on a great journey…soon. Senora…it won’t be long for you now—“

 

8.

 

Dost thou ask some boon, O Kunti’s Son,

I will grant it.

Except immortality alone, tell me

As to the desire that is in thy heart.

Lord Krishna, from the Mahabharata

 

The gurney was a tight fit for the imager chamber. Mullinex and Jean Remple worked the IV tube stand and the rest of the equipment into a void beside the gurney. Remple made sure Peggy Mullinex was as comfortable as possible. Her pale face shone with a translucent glow, thin as rice paper, in the harsh lighting. Her heaving gasps had grown worse, contorting and twisting her body with each inhalation. Remple was afraid she might fall from the gurney, so she was gently strapped down.

“This is truly unprecedented,” Remple muttered, as she worked her way out of the chamber, backwards. Richard helped her down. “And probably in violation of just about every ethical and moral principle I’ve ever known. I’m glad you signed that release.” She eyed the girth of the injectors and shielding dubiously. “The hospital will have my head if anything goes wrong.”

“It won’t,” Mullinex promised her. He secured the door to the chamber and found his seat by the control panel. “Huang—?”

“Gamma emitter on line, Dr. Mullinex. It’s humming away.”

“What about the source, Angela?”

Kunz toggled a switch and the autotable with the container of living dog tissue slid into place, clamps securing the plate as Huang aligned the emitter. Mullinex watched the process. He had told no one that canine liver and digestive tract tissue wasn’t the only sample inside the container. Earlier that morning, he had taken a sterile scraping of his own skin cells, polymerized them in a micro-array to a visible cluster of melanocyte cells and mixed them with samples from the Vet Lab.

Maybe it’ll help, Mother. Maybe it won’t. But I wanted a part of me in there fighting for you, too.

“I’m powering up the flux beam now,” he announced. He flipped a few switches, and let the imager screen focus on a patch of Peggy Mullinex’s abdomen; Remple had left her slightly turned so as to expose a swatch of skin directly below her rib cage and sternum. “—and we have the anterior pericardium coming into view, right about…now—“

The image flickered with residual pops and crackles of light, as the quantum flux beam narrowed focus, centering first on a dim, blurry wavering of atoms, then sliding inside the winking quantum barrier of electron clouds to the shimmering pulsations stitching through the nucleus.

“—Picometer barrier—‘ Angela announced. “Proton shell clouds, right there—“ she pointed to quivering “cotton balls”, as Huang called them, the probability space of the nucleus, home to a trembling bath of neutrons and protons. “Going subquark—“ she said out loud.

Jean Remple watched as ‘fireflies’ lit up the screen, at first an isolated speckle of light, then growing into a pulsing strobe of uncountable winks and flashes and traces, an infinite spider’s web of light.

“Wow…” Huang said. “Look at ‘em. We’ve never seen vivion flow like that before.”

“No,” Mullinex adjusted the gain to compensate. These cells are right on the edge of death. “Hell of a big exchange going on now. What you’re seeing, Dr. Remple, if I’m right, is the cessation if life itself, right down at the subquark level. Vivion flow, in this case outward, from the nuclei of atoms we’re imaging.”

Remple was thunderstruck by the view. Reverend Billings stood beside her, shaking his head in wonder. “Lo, I am with you always…unto the end of time,” he muttered.

“Huang, is the emitter ready?”

“Zeroed in, Dr. Mullinex.”

“Fire away!”

 

At first, there seemed to be little effect. The imager screen flashed and popped with specks of lights, then throbbed with pulsations of a pearly white iridescence. The particle traps fed the injectors which beamed a tidal wave of vivions into the target chamber. Dr. Remple peered through the porthole at the nearly lifeless body of Peggy Mullinex. She lay on her side, still draped with tubing, her abdomen exposed to the injector array, still spasmodically heaving in great gasps of air.

“Full rate—“ Huang told them. A trace counter beside the screen was pegging its stops crazily, swinging back and forth. “Dr. Mullinex…maximum flow.”

“I see it—“ Mullinex stared at the imager screen, silently timing the interval of the light pulses. One thousand one, one thousand two, one thousand three—he hardly dared breathe. The injector was flooding the chamber with vivions—particles of life itself, he told himself. The question was: would it have any effect? Was it too late?

“Looks like a bunch of grapes,” Angela Kunz observed.

“We’ve seen that clustering before,” Mullinex said. “Somehow—vivions clump together. There’s a natural affinity…a certain minimum charge that has to build up before we see any effects. That’s normal.”

Angela wasn’t so sure. “I don’t know, Richard. This looks different somehow. We haven’t seen that much before. Just watch those specks…if you time them, they’re not so random anymore. Probability waves collapsing?”

“Maybe but it could just be an effect of the quantum flux too—“

“Look there—“ Angela waved her hand in synchronization with the light patterns on the screen. “Like a vortex…a swirling pattern.”

“Some kind of attractor,” Huang offered. “Chaotic degeneracy, maybe?”

“Could be…I see it now too.”

And indeed, a marked flow to the specks of light had developed. Now, as if backlit from above, a whirlpool of flashes had begun orbiting a black void on the imager screen, a pronounced swirl to the lights as if a great drain hole had been opened up.

“Huang…what’s our rate now?”

Huang Li checked his injector panel. “Gamma still at twenty-two mega-rads. I’m zapping the source with everything I’ve got.”

“Then we should be getting maximum flow,” Mullinex decided. “I don’t know what that swirling pattern is.”

“Can we look at the tissue cells?” Dr. Remple asked.

Mullinex nodded. “Re-focus the imager, Angela…back out to micron scale. We’ll take a look at the tumor cells.”

Angela’s hands played over the QFI controls and the screen view went dark for a few moments, as the instrument’s perspective shifted. When it settled back down again, fuzzy striations filled the screen. Dr. Remple studied the view for a moment, then nodded her head.

“Hepatic duct, near the pancreatic crease…that’s the area that was biopsied.”

Clumps of oblong cells drifted by, bumping each other, jostling through a viscous plasma.

“What are we looking at, Doctor?” Mullinex asked.

Remple shook her head. “I’m not sure—normal endocrine cells. See that?” She pointed to a pair of finger-shaped structures. “Islet cells…and that is insulin, right there—“ She pointed to a twisted tetrahedral string, floating nearby. “Just synthesized. But there’s no tumor cells…all I see are normal endocrine cells. Can you pan around? Change the view?”

Angela Kunz obliged. Several times, the Quantum Flux Imager shifted views, focusing in on similar scenes. They tried sub-micron scale, then pulled back out to a wider view. The result was the same.

“No evidence of any carcinoma cells. I don’t understand it…at all—MRI scans were right in this area. I saw the images. Even the surgeon said—“ She bit her lip. “It doesn’t make any sense.”

“It does make sense…it’s called a miracle,” Reverend Billings muttered. He prayed softly in the background.

Richard Mullinex had to remind himself to breathe. The dawn of a new age…a new chapter in our understanding of the Universe…the true mystery of life revealed…the headlines swirled in his head. The paper they had struggled for so long to complete…now it was clear. Nature was writing her own paper, right before their very eyes.

“Angela, take us back subquark…I want to look at that pattern again.”

The frantic light cascade had changed again. Now, the swirl of light had tightened to a narrower funnel. Some strange force was grabbing vivions from beyond the screen and dragging them into a pulsing disk, a black hole of life energy, relentlessly swallowing everything the injector provided. The perimeter of the screen was dark as the swirl of strobing lights constricted steadily down to a shorter and shorter radius.

“I don’t like the looks of that…Huang? Can you bump up the flow a bit?”

The grad student shook his head. “Gamma’s maxed out, Doctor. Looks like vivion flow’s dropping off no matter what I do.”

“Check the traps…check the lens—“ Mullinex realized, too late, what was happening. Right before their eyes, something was going wrong. Pinching off the flow of life-giving vivions.

It couldn’t be happening. The setup was exactly the same. The experiment was the same. Same lens. Same source. Gamma dose was the same.

What the hell was going on? Probability waves collapsing….

Dr. Remple shifted over to the CCU monitor, still reading Peggy’s vital signs.

“Heart rate is erratic. Blood pressure’s down to ninety over fifty. Still dropping.” She looked over at Mullinex. “I’m calling Nora…open up the chamber, please—“

“No way,” Mullinex said. He studied the panel frantically. “Quantum flux’s too high.”

“She’s dying, Richard,” Angela said. She’d seen the same swirling pattern, wondered the same things. Now it came to her.

“She’s not dying.”

“We haven’t seen this effect before. Face it. We don’t know what’s going on.”

Mullinex tried to ignore her. “Huang—“ he came over to the small panel. “Let’s cycle power to the gamma beam…maybe we can strip off more vivions, collimate—“

Richard!” Angela’s voice was sharp, cutting through the hum of the imager. “Look at the screen, for God’s sake! Look at the flow.”

The funnel had narrowed down to a still smaller radius. It was as if a great hole had been opened up and all the vivions Huang could give them were being sucked away.

“It’s quantum effects,” he told them. “That’s all it is. The imager’s hiding them. See the edges…see the shimmering? Probability collapse. We’re running the quantum flux beam at higher setting…it’s forcing a collapse. Vivions aren’t particles anyway. You know that…they’re just probability functions.”

Remple was already on the phone to CCU. “Nora…it’s Jean Remple. Get over here right away. And bring the cart—“

“Richard—“ Angela was pleading now. “Richard, look with your eyes, damn it! It’s out of control. You’re having no effect on the target at all.”

“It’s possible—“ Huang theorized, to no one in particular. “—possible that this kind of clustering is a necessary stage in the transition to a non-living state.”

“Son,” said Reverend Billings, “death has always been part of God’s plan. Like it says in Ezekiel—“

“Richard, we’ve got no control over this process at all. Huang’s raised and lowered emitter power several times. We checked the traps, cycled the injectors, tried everything we can think of. Look at it.”

The speckles of light on the screen had dimmed considerably now and the radius of the swirl had shrunk to a fraction of the view, and was shrinking even as they watched.

For the last three days, Richard Mullinex was certain he had the key to generating and controlling vivion flow. Certain he had his fingers on one of the greatest discoveries in the history of Science. Now they seemed stubbornly beyond control, exhibiting the full effects of their quantum nature, continuing to clump and swirl and drain away, deleting structure right in front of their eyes, recording data and systematically shutting down first atomic, then cellular functions, then entire organ systems throughout Peggy’s body.

In the end, Peggy Mullinex died inside the QFI chamber.

 

Moments later, Nora Gutierrez and two CCU technicians wheeled the crash cart into the control room. At Angela’s pleading, Richard began shutting down the vivion pump, powering down the Quantum Flux Imager. The entire process would take several minutes. Before it was completely safed, no one could enter the beam chamber.

As Natalie and Dr. Remple looked on helplessly through the porthole, counting down the seconds until they could cycle open the door, the earthly remains of Peggy Mullinex seemed to disintegrate before their very eyes.

Natalie covered her mouth with her hands in horror.

“Oh, my God—“

Dr. Remple swallowed hard as she watched Peggy disintegrate in a series of blurry, shimmering waves. Before they could get the door swung open, the waves pulsed back and forth across the top of the gurney as the last remnants of light specks died away from the imager screen.

All that had been Peggy Mullinex—prana, chi, aura, life force, bio-energy, and a thousand other names besides—had vanished, written into a form no mortal could ever decipher, somehow interwoven into the very structure of spacetime itself.

All that was left, when Nora and Dr. Remple scrambled inside the chamber, was a gurney full of powdery residue.

Peggy Mullinex, age seventy-one, had undergone an aborted vivionic collapse, essentially de-materializing in wave after wave of quantum indeterminacy.

And Richard Mullinex was left standing over the control panel, with the sickening feeling that he had not only hastened his mother’s death, but also made it more painful and ghastly than Nature alone would have done.

Natalie wailed in horror. Her wails were broken only by great wracking sobs from Richard himself, as he slumped over the control panel.

 

9.

 

There are two possible outcomes. If the result confirms the hypothesis, you’ve made a measurement. If the result is contrary to the hypothesis, then you’ve made a discovery.

Enrico Fermi

 

Two days after the funeral, the family gathered one last time in the tiny woodframe house that Richard had bought for his mother whenever she came up from Florida. It was little more than a cottage, at the end of a dirt road a few miles from the old neighborhood.

Natalie was there, with Richard. Reverend Billings and Dr. Remple had also come from the cemetery. Richard went through Peggy’s clothes and closets, chests and suitcases, sorting through all her effects. Natalie made sandwiches and iced tea in the kitchen.

Over lunch, they discussed what had happened. Each had a different take on the meaning of what they had witnessed.

Reverend Billings slurped his tea. “It was the Lord’s hand that took Peggy away from that machine. He was trying to preserve the dignity of her immortal soul in such an inhuman place.”

Jean Remple wore a dark blue skirt and matching blouse. She picked at crumbs on her paper plate. “It was some kind of latent viral attack, undetected somehow. Stimulated by the quantum flux imager, I’m sure. I talked about it with Ted Mizener all yesterday. Somehow, the flux beam triggered this virus and it explosively broke down the remaining tissue in Peggy’s body. That’s what turned her remains into powder like that. Ebola…Marburg…the literature’s full of examples of breakdowns like that.”

Natalie wasn’t so sure. She seemed withdrawn, spent. “It was the Devil’s own revenge…that’s what it was. For all that Richard did to his mother over the years. The way he treated her. It was criminal—“ she didn’t have to add: “and to me too.”

Richard Mullinex was thoughtful, munching on his sandwich. “I don’t know what it was. Maybe Angela was right. An experiment that failed. An experiment on my own mother. I guess I experimented too far beyond my level of knowledge…all I wanted to do was right by her, make her well if I could, make her comfortable if I couldn’t.”

Natalie just shook her head. “On your own mother—I’ll never understand that, Richard. How could you—?”

Richard shrugged. “Too many variables, too many things to control. I don’t know. I just wanted to change how I related to her, somehow. I wanted to try something new, different. Not only with vivions and the Quantum Flux Imager, but with Mother too. With how we talked and got along. Mostly we didn’t. With the way we laughed and related and swapped stories. It’s funny. We talked more in the hospital than we had in years. It was really kind of an experiment for me to do all that…after all those years, we didn’t talk to each other.”

“And even in that part of my experiment…I failed. I just hope she understood what I was trying to do.”

Reverend Billings was sympathetic. “Son, I think Peggy Mullinex would think your experiment succeeded. You wanted to change things. Now look at you…sharing your feelings with all of us like this. You were as much the subject of this experiment, Richard, as anything. And it looks to me like you’ve changed a lot these last few days. I don’t think Peggy would say your experiment failed at all. I think it was a big success.”

An hour later, Billings and Remple left. Natalie cleaned up the kitchen, then finished taking clothes out to the car. Richard was momentarily left alone in his mother’s vacant bedroom. The bed was stripped and the closet was mostly empty. It was mid-afternoon and he was still hungry. He took boxes out to the car and told Natalie he was going back inside to turn out all the lights and lock up. The house was due to be put up for sale next week.

But inside the house, he smelled something odd, something odd but familiar. It was a delicious odor coming from the kitchen. Had Natalie left something on the stove? Intrigued, he checked it out.

In the kitchen, he was stunned to find a steaming bowl of tomato soup and a plate of peanut butter sandwiches, freshly made, on the kitchen table.

What the hell?

“Either Natalie’s playing games or—“ Or what? Was he imagining it? Or had vivionic flow somehow reversed itself, just long enough to enable an invisible entity once known as Peggy Mullinex to do a mother’s duty one last time?

Richard got his breath back. His heart was pounding. He touched the food…it seemed real enough. Had Natalie done this, as a finishing touch? A farewell flourish?

Or had someone else?

He decided he didn’t really want to know. He wanted to feel that somehow Peggy Mullinex had come back, at least for a few minutes. He smiled, through teary eyes, and turned out the lights.

In the car, Natalie sensed something wrong. She asked, but Richard just smiled, shaking his head.

“I was just remembering something, honey…that’s all. Something from a long, long time ago.”

They drove home, with Natalie nestled up next to her husband, in the front seat.

Maybe the experiment had been a success after all.

 

END

The Better Angels

 

Introduction

 

The greatest battles we face are often the battles we have with ourselves. In this story, young Jake Mizener suffers from leukemia but because he’s a young boy, he has a special toy that involves nanoscale robots that can be used to fab just about anything. Jake is being treated with medbots but unlike his Atomgrabbers game, the good guys don’t always win and the medbots struggle against his leukemia. Enter a robotic rock star named Symborg, in town for a show, who brings a whole new approach to Jake’s Atomgrabbers game.

Real life is never as clearcut as a game. Games are supposed to be capsule versions of real life. But sometimes games offer things we can’t find in real life: actual winners and losers, clear goals, satisfying victories and crushing defeats. We live life vicariously through our games, as we do in stories. And when the line blurs between the two, what does that say about vicarious entertainment? So much of our life is virtual and online today, mediated by and through screens. With Virtual Reality devices like Oculus Rift and now, nanobot games like Atomgrabbers, we’ve completely blown away all barriers between games and life.

Maybe the question of what is real and what isn’t no longer has any meaning….

 

It is by suffering that human beings become angels.”

Victor Hugo

 

1.

 

Jake Mizener loved playing Atomgrabbers. It didn’t matter whether it was morning, afternoon or evening. Jake could always be found in the corner of the living room, where his Mom Angela and his Dad Thomas had set up the TinyTown cylinder for Jake to play with. The thing was about the size of a suitcase, perched on squat legs, with thick ganglia of tubes and wires, for supplying power and feedstock.

Small is all!” Jake liked to yell, whenever he turned the thing on and began joysticking his bot army against enemies the size of atoms and molecules. TinyTown was a containment device for the uncountable gazillions of nanoscale bots that inhabited it. They were all ANAD clones, robotic devices the size of atoms that could replicate and maneuver, just like any swarm could. They could even form angels of a sort, lifelike simulations of real people, although inside TinyTown, the angels would necessarily be reduced in size.

Jake just liked to maneuver his miniscule bots in unceasing wars and attacks against any enemies the TinyTown controller could conjure up. He often invited friends over to help out, especially his next-door neighbor Devon Hilliard. Jake and Devon spent hours and hours happily battling bots inside their TinyTown cylinder, punching the air with their fists when they won a battle, yelling, laughing, slapping each other on the back.

Jake was six years old and had leukemia. It had metastasized and it was getting worse. The medbots inside him couldn’t keep up. The doctors said Maybe a year, maybe longer.

Angela Mizener leaned against the door jamb to the kitchen and watched Jake and Devon fight off wave after wave of Berserkoids, the latest adversary the controller algorithms had come up with.

“Get your disrupters out, Devon…!”

“My grabbers are stuck…it says ‘effector failure.’ Cover me—!”

“Okay…here goes…propulsors to the max—!”

Angela knew it was time for another injection. She hated to interrupt such a cataclysmic combat scene, but the doctors had said regular injections were essential. The acute lymphoblastic leukemia that Jake suffered from had become particularly aggressive in the last year. The medbot injections helped, but the cancer was overwhelming the bots and the outlook wasn’t good.

It wasn’t lost on Angela that while Jake and Devon were battling bots from outer space inside their TinyTown, medbots were also in combat inside Jake himself, trying their damnedest to fight off a tidal wave of malignant white blood cells that made mashed potatoes of his immune system and blood platelets.

For now, regular injections seemed to do best, with more chemo and radiation likely in the near future.

“Okay, boys, time out. Tell the Berserkoids you need a truce.”

Jake pouted. “Mom, we’ve got ‘em on the run….just a few more minutes, please? Devon’s about to slam a whole swarm!”

“No deal, Jake. Get over to the sofa…it’s injection time.” She trotted out the injector and brandished it like a weapon…putting on her scariest Berserkoid face, even baring her teeth.

Okaaayyy…Devon, watch those oxygens…you can hide behind ‘em, use ‘em for cover—“ Jake went to the sofa and lay down, sticking his arm out.

Angela primed the injector as she‘d been shown at the clinic and pressed the needle into Jake’s biceps. Soon enough, a flood of medbots would be coursing through his veins and capillaries, going into battle against the raging armies of broken, misshapen blood cells that were eating him up. She tried not to think about it, but Jake liked to imagine the medbots as fighting off his own personal army of Berserkoids. Sometimes, he liked to make exploding sounds when he felt the bots going in.

“Mom, you look pale…are you sick or something?” Jake frowned.

“What…oh…, me…no, Jake…just a little tired…you’ve been at that game for hours now. Why don’t you and Devon take a break…I could fab some cookies…you guys like saucers, don’t you? Only take a minute—“

“Okay, Mom…but don’t fab ‘em with those fins…they get stuck in your teeth, okay?”

The fab could print a batch in less than thirty seconds…warm, moist, chewy and shaped like flying saucers. That was Jake’s favorite.

“I’ll be back in one minute, tops. You and Devon set the table.”

“Deal. Hey, Mom—?”

She ruffled his hair as he got up from the sofa. “What, soldier?”

“Mom, can me and Devon go see Symborg? He’s got a show, you know. This weekend. He’s coming right here, to our town.”

“Symborg? Coming here…honey, you’re too young for that kind of thing.”

Jake’s face fell. “Aw, Mom…I’m almost seven…”

Symborg was a robotic pop star, the latest craze. He was also an angel and self-proclaimed messiah, head of a religious order called Sons of Assimilation. Like any angel, he was actually just a swarm of bots configured to look like a human being. Of course, angels could be anything. One minute, Symborg was a rock star. The next minute he could be an army tank or a redwood tree or your next-door neighbor. It was creepy. But there was no denying Symborg’s popularity. His shows and gatherings and concerts were epic happenings.

The name Symborg stood for Symbiotic Organism.

“Sweetie, you’re way too young to be going to things like that. First of all, there’s a lot of people. They get kind of wild and sometimes people get hurt.”

Jake’s face was a picture of pitiful sadness, a look he had learned from Kelsey, their dog. Kelsey liked to prop his snout on your leg at the dinner table, and plead for scraps with his big brown eyes. Jake looked like that and when he did, Angela’s heart just melted.

“Devon’s going to the rally. He told me.”

Devon was still engrossed with battling Berserkoids inside TinyTown. He nodded, both hands working joysticks furiously, slamming atoms and bots in a big bang battle inside the containment cylinder. “I am. Uncle Henry’s taking me Friday. It’ll be fab….all the Atomgrabbers’ll be there.”

Angela knew that Symborg was a driving force behind the Atomgrabbers. They made games and bots and held rallies and gatherings, called awakenings by their Assimilationist followers. Symborg also worked with children facing life-threatening medical conditions. Jake’s face just melted her heart sometimes. How could say no to that face?

“I’ll have to talk with your Dad, Jake. You’re not going to that thing by yourself. Devon, who else is going to the show?”

“Everybody, Mrs. Mizener. Practically everybody—!”

So they discussed the details. The Symborg show was scheduled for Friday night, in town at the Orpheum outdoor stage. The weather was forecast to be cool and clear, a perfect early fall evening. Crowds would be huge. Estimates ran into the tens of thousands. Already, police were closing off certain streets and putting up fences and barricades. Patrol bots and drones would keep things under control.

It was Jake’s Dad, Thomas Mizener, who laid down the rules at dinner that night.

“Jake, you’re way too young to be going to shows like that. And neither your mother nor I have time. I’ve got this project—“

“Devon’s going,” Jake whined. “He told me this morning.”

“By himself?”

“No…his Uncle Henry’s taking him. Couldn’t I go with them?”

Thomas and Angela looked at each other. Jake watched his Dad chewing the meat loaf thoughtfully, wheels turning in his head. “Didn’t somebody say Henry was an angel? I thought I heard that somewhere…a neighbor, maybe.”

Angela just wanted her son to have a chance to fulfill a dream. “Tom, I think it’s all right, don’t you? Angels are everywhere. Henry’s responsible. I’ve seen him with Devon and other kids. He’ll look after them.” She winced slightly; maybe it was that fruit she had eaten at lunch.

Thomas gave it some thought. Jake knew his Dad didn’t approve of angels. Haloheads, he called them, and other things too, words Jake knew he couldn’t use. They’re different, Jake. They’re not like us. Hell, they’re not even human.

Once, Jake saw an interview on Worldnet, where the reporter was talking to some people who thought like his Dad. They didn’t like angels either. He tapped his glasses, watched a snatch of the vid. He’d seen it just the other day….the reporter was interviewing somebody named Barnes….it was in Tennessee….

Barnes’ face takes on a pained look, like something he had eaten didn’t agree with him. “Those pointy-head bureaucrats at the UN won’t enforce the danged Sanctuary Laws. You know, all the Containment Laws. Hell, we already fought wars over that, didn’t we? All the friggin’ haloheads and asses are taking over.”

Mr. Barnes, I am assuming you are referring to angels and Assimilationists?”

Darn right, sweetie. Angels and asses. They should be quarantined, like the scum they are. We need to stick the lot of ‘em into camps, like we did to the Japs back in the 20th century…you know: enemy aliens.”

(DRONECAM IMAGE FILE 223.832: Placards and signs wave in vigorous agreement with Barnes. Other members of the rally close in around the speaker. There is some good-natured shoving and shouts of “Damn right!” “Give it to ‘em straight, Barnes!) (AR ).

Mr. Barnes, angels are just machines. Swarm configurations of nanobots configured to resemble human beings…surely you don’t think of these machines as enemy aliens?”

They’re bugs, all of them. I don’t think of dangerous viruses as enemy aliens either…but I don’t want ‘em around. All these bugs are eating our food, drinking our water, mating with our women…they need to be in camps.”

Excuse me, Mr. Barnes…did you say mating with our women? I’m not aware of any angels accused of sexual engagements with actual humans.”

Oh, Missy, you don’t know the half of it.” A middle-aged woman with short-cropped black hair squeezes out of the crowd and stands before Anika. The reporter whispers into her lip mike DRONECAMget a close-up of this—“These bugs have been defiling our daughters and sisters for years. I know it’s supposed to be illegal, but you know it goes on. What kind of offspring could possibly come from such infernal liaisons…monsters, half-bred freaks, that’s what.”

Barnes cuts in. “We’re rallying today to get the Town Council of Freeburg to take a stand. Here…get your friggin’ bird-camera down here and I’ll show you—“

Radovich sent the command and the dronecam wheeled about and descended slowly on its whirring quadrotors, hovering just over their heads. Its multiplex cameras zoomed in and Radovich adjusted the view she was getting on her SuperQuark glasses, pecking at a small wristpad. DRONECAMhold there

You’re holding up a sign, Mr. Barnes. Would you mind reading out loud and then explaining what it’s about.”

Surely.” Barnes held the placard so the dronecam would get a clear closeup. “It says MAKE CHASTAIN HILL A BUG CAMP! “We want the Town Council to designate the whole Chastain Hill area as a sort of re-settlement camp for haloheads…er, I mean angels. Keep ‘em separate from the rest of us, so they won’t contaminate everything in sight.”

Just enforce the damned Containment Laws!” came a voice from the back of the crowd.

There was a chorus of “Yeahs!” and a sea of fists waving and pumping up and down.

Jake snapped off the vid. His Dad was saying something—

“Okay, son…I guess it will be all right. It’s against my better judgment. But if Devon’s going with his Uncle Henry, you can go along. As long as the Hilliards don’t mind and as long as Henry gets you back here before eleven. Understood?”

Jake saluted, the way an Atomgrabber would salute. “Yes, sir. Small is all!”

So it was decided: Jake would accompany Devon Hilliard with his Uncle Henry to the Symborg show at the Orpheum stage the following night.

 

2.

 

Symborg hailed originally from Kenya and he liked to dress up his shows with scenes and music from east Africa. For Jake Mizener and Devon Hilliard, it might as well have been the far side of Neptune.

There were numerous stages spotted around the open-air plaza outside the Orpheum but there was one stage in the back that seemed to attract more audience than all the others. The performer was a handsome, slightly swarthy young man, a strange sort of magician doing seemingly magical things for an audience of shoppers, visitors and tourists. It was clear he was an angel, a nanobotic swarm in the likeness of a human, but the crowd didn’t seem to mind. Children pressed in to get a peek, as the magician conjured up all sorts of toys and doodads.

His name was Symborg.

From the stage, the magician ran a demo in front of the crowd. He was a small man, with fierce, unblinking eyes, as his fingers flew over the table of tricks and props. Presently, he stopped and noticed a very young child, a small girl, standing shyly a few meters away from the stage, playing hide and seek in the folds of her mother’s loose jacket.

The magician, who sported a thick black moustache, beckoned repeatedly to the young girl. After a few minutes, her mother relented and let her child go. The girl inched her way into the clearing and stood in front of the magician’s table, to applause and approving shouts and chants from the crowd.

Symborg reached into a canvas bag and pulled out a trinket for the young girl. He handed it to her and she took it, shyly, turning the small cylinder over and over in her hand.

“You have a djinn in that cylinder, little one,” Symborg announced, loudly enough for all to hear. “A very powerful spirit. He can grant you any wish you want. Make a wish, child, and the djinn will bring it to you, right here—“

The girl’s name was Erika and she had huge brown eyes. Sad eyes, thought Symborg.

Erika twirled the cylinder as the magician had shown her and squeezed her eyes tightly shut. When she stopped twirling the cylinder, she felt it vibrate and was so startled, she dropped the cylinder to the dirt.

Instantly, the device was enveloped in a fine mist, a sparkling mist that billowed out and upward, swirling about the clearing in front of Symborg and his tables like a miniature cyclone. Gasps and shouts erupted from the crowd, and the spectators shoved back against each other, to give this growing apparition greater distance. On the stage, the angel gave a showman’s flourish to the spectacle.

Now see what the young child has conjured for us—“

The mist gradually materialized into the faint outline of a man’s upper body, with a recognizable face, shoulders and arms crossed in front.

The ‘djinn’ then spoke out loud. “Little one, I have come from the clouds above to grant you a great wish. Make your wish now—“ The djinn’s voice was a deep basso profundo, so deep it rattled the beaded curtains that covered Symborg’s merchant tent behind them.

Erika stared wide-eyed, mouth open, at the apparition. She was speechless.

“Go ahead, child,” urged Symborg. “The djinn wishes you to make a wish.”

Shouts of encouragement and support came from the crowd. Gradually, Erika worked up enough nerve. Shy, haltingly, she asked for a new car for her father.

“His taxi is broken down, Great One,” she murmured. “It’s the tires. They are bad. The taxi is our livelihood. Father needs a new taxi to carry the tourists.”

The deep voice rumbled again, a little reverberation adding to the sense of barely contained powers.

“As you have spoken, child…so shall it be—“

At that moment, the swirling, twinkling apparition of the djinn dissolved into a maelstrom of churning, roiling clouds, streaked with flashes of light. It was like watching a thunderstorm in miniature, from the inside.

The crowd murmured and moved back uneasily.

When the storm began to subside, the barest outlines of a structure could be seen enveloped in the thick fog. The fog dissolved, slowly at first, then with speed, to reveal the front hood and doors of a new minibus. Its wheels dripped with moisture and sunlight shone from the supple leather seats inside.

The crowd was silent for a moment, then erupted into cheers and gasps. Erika stared wide-eyed at the new vehicle, inching her way forward to tentatively put a finger along the fender, tracing the smooth curve of the metal.

For fun, Symborg reached inside the driver’s side window and honked the horn a few times, startling everyone. The crowd laughed.

“You see what a gift the great djinn has brought you, little one. The djinn I have in my possession can do the same for every one of you.” Symborg pointedly stared at each face in the front row of the circle of onlookers. “Such a powerful djinn, such a powerful servant is available to you, today, right now, for a very special price. You will not believe the deal I can make for you. My friends, you cannot leave this bazaar without experiencing what this amazing servant can do for you—the Assimilationists have brought this wonder to the bazaar just for today—“

The crowd surged forward, feeling the doors, the hood and side panels of the new minibus, pressing in on all sides of the stage. Symborg the magician basked in the admiration and proudly pointed out details on the newly conjured vehicle. Murmurs and laughter erupted. The audience was appreciative, adoring the magician. More shoppers came from the street to see what was going on.

Jake and Devon looked on with Uncle Henry.

Jake’s eyes were wide. “Cool! Look, there are the booths…over there—“

Devon saw what he was pointing at. A line of assimilator booths were deployed along one side of the stage. People were already queuing up to be assimilated.

Devon tugged at Uncle Henry’s coat sleeve. “Can we go over? Huh? Can we go watch?”

Henry was a slightly built older man with a fringe of white hair around the back of his head, as least the angel showed that kind of configuration. But his config could be changed just by pressing a few buttons on the control pack. Devon’s dad kept the pack with him. “When you’re older,” Mr. Hilliard would always say. “It’s not a toy. You have to be responsible. Maybe when you’re ten.” Devon couldn’t wait.

They went over to the booths. The nearest booth had the longest line. A young black woman was at the head of the line, answering some questions.

“…name is, ma’am?” The assimilator tech wore a light blue uniform. His nameplate read Gavin.

Her name was Anna Ngombe. She was tall, maybe with a bit of Masai in her family, proud, a bit fluttery and nervous. She grinned sheepishly as one of Gavin’s men helped her into the assimilator booth.

“A great day,” she muttered. “Great day…so proud.”

Gavin sat at a console just outside the booth, while another tech helped Anna inside and made her comfortable on the seat. The tech shut and latched the door, pressing a button to begin the seal and containment process. In seconds, a tight bot-proof seal had been formed around the interior of the booth, a barrier formed of electron injectors and a dedicated botscreen.

“Let’s do it,” the tech told Gavin. Gavin pressed buttons.

Inside the booth, a fog had formed…that was the first layer of nanobots released into the compartment. Anna disappeared into the fog, only a leg and a shoulder could be seen.

The fog thickened. A faint buzz could be heard from inside the booth. A nearby dronecam swooped in closer, hovering only a few feet over the scene, like a giant gnat, watching as the cloud of bots inside the booth thickened. More and more bots were released and replicated, swelling to fill every cubic millimeter of the booth. The image was displayed on giant screens all around the stage.

Anna didn’t move. At first, she was unchanged, a smooth black leg with a section of her print dress showing, hitched up just above her knee. But even as Devon and Jake watched, the black of her skin had begun to fade. In moments, it was almost gray, like the fog itself, oscillating between darker and lighter, but still gray. Then the gray became a translucent shimmer, almost like a ghost, flickering slightly, but growing ever dimmer. Her shoulder was the same.

Anna Ngombe was slowly but steadily being disassembled. She was being steadily broken down into a pattern, a pattern of atoms and molecules.

The end came softly, almost as if the woman were walking away in a light rain. Her body, the physical Anna Ngombe, began to fade inside the booth. At first, it had been barely perceptible, just a faint blurring of her skin, her extremities, a smearing of her legs and shoulders, as if a photo had lost contrast.

In time, and the time was less than five minutes, Anna Ngombe had devolved—that was the commonly accepted word now—into a nearly translucent shadow, still recognizable in form, but without substance. You could see right through the form and the shadow to the other side of the booth.

And then she was gone.

The woman known as Anna Ngombe had just let herself be disassembled into atom fluff. And behind her, people were jostling in line to be next.

Jake and Devon were mesmerized by the whole scene. Devon turned to Uncle Henry.

“I want to try it. Can I try that, Uncle Henry? That looks so cool!”

“Yeah,” said Jake. “You could be a real atomgrabber, right down there with the real atoms.”

Henry’s face was a mixture of looks. “I can’t let you go over there, boys. Devon, your parents would have my head. Or make me go back into containment.”

“Aw, c’mon, Uncle Henry…can’t we just go look?”

But Henry was adamant. “Let’s check out the souvenirs.” After the show was over, he led them both along the perimeter of the stage, where a long line of tents, tables and booths had been set up, hawking T-shirts, games, small toys fabbed by the djinn and other merchandise.

Jake was curious. “Uncle Henry, what’s it like being an angel? Does it hurt?”

Henry shuffled along, picking up knickknacks and examining them. “That’s a hard question to answer, Jake. Why do you want to know?”

Jake shrugged. “I want to be an atomgrabber. My bots aren’t working so well. Maybe I can help them. And other kids too.”

“Well…” Henry rubbed his chin. Both boys noticed the edge effects. Angels’ extremities sometimes didn’t track accurately with the rests of their ‘bodies.’ Things could get blurry, fuzzy. At times, Henry’s hands were like that. He usually kept them jammed in his coat pocket. “Well…that’s not so easy to answer, like I said.” Henry tried to put into words something that couldn’t be put into words. “It’s like being in bed on a Saturday morning, all close and warm and snuggly…you know, when it’s freezing cold and dark outside and you’re under all the covers. There’s love, affection, you know you’re in a big family, you’ve got that sense of belonging, a cocooning, in a way or at a level which you never experience as Normals. And you can be anything…anything you want. Normals can’t do that. You’ve got one body, one life. Angels can fly, really fly. They can be anything their imaginations dream up.”

Jake nodded like he understood, but he didn’t really. “We’re the Normals?”

“That’s right. I shouldn’t say it that way. But we are different, you and me.”

“Uncle Henry?” Jake asked, eyeing the line of volunteers still queued up at the assimilator booths. Symborg ambled among them, hugging some, signing autographs, posing for photos. “Would you help me be an angel?”

Henry looked down at Jake. “Son, I’ll do what I can. Maybe I can put you in touch with Symborg himself.”

Jake’s eyes lit up. “If angels can fly, that’s what I want to do.”

The three of them went home together.

 

3.

 

Uncle Henry knew the Mizeners didn’t approve of angels, so he dropped Jake off without coming to the door. Jake said good-bye to Devon, went inside and headed for the kitchen. He was kind of tired and wanted a soda to drink. Mom and Dad were in the kitchen too. Angela made up a plate of cookies and the three of them munched for a few minutes.

Jake described the show. His Dad was appalled. “Those angels will be the death of this country yet.” He wiped crumbs off his mouth with his hands. “Angels…haloheads…they’re just machines. They’re a cloud of bugs.”

“Uncle Henry said angels could fly, Dad.”

“Yeah, son, any insects can fly. You want to be a swarm of insects? I don’t want you hanging around with that Henry any more. Maybe we shouldn’t have gotten you that Atomgrabbers game either.”

“Tom—“ Angela was more sympathetic. “It’s been his dream for a long time. Maybe there’s something we can—“

But Thomas Mizener didn’t want to hear about it. “They’re nothing but trouble. Jeez, Angela, have you seen what they do? It’s mass suicide. It’s just barely legal. Symborg’s selling snake oil, that’s what he’s doing. Preying on kids and the gullible and the desperate. It’s criminal.”

“Is it criminal to want the best for your son. Especially, since…since.…” Tears started welling up in her eyes. “You know…there’s only—“

Thomas stood up abruptly. He hated it when Angela got like this. “Jake, isn’t it time for your injection?”

Jake nodded glumly. “Yes, sir.”

“Go lie down on the sofa. I’ll get the stuff.” Jake hated it when his Dad did the injections. It hurt like hell and he knew his Dad didn’t really like doing it. Normals, Uncle Henry had called them. What was Normal about having a needle jabbed into your neck by someone who was always mad?

While his Dad was administering the injection, muttering under his breath the whole time angels, my ass, they should all be sprayed or swatted like houseflies, Jake dreamed of what it would be like to be an Atomgrabber, or an angel like Uncle Henry. As he lay on the couch, he saw his Mom standing at the door to the kitchen, watching, her eyes droopy and teary, a napkin to her mouth. Somehow, though she said nothing, Jake knew she was about to do something Dad wouldn’t like, something she couldn’t put into words.

He just hoped she didn’t wait too long.

 

The next morning, after Jake had gone off to school, Angela was supervising Howie the housebot with the dishes when she noticed Uncle Henry in the Dilliards’ backyard, raking leaves. She had an idea.

Angela went out back and leaned over the fence, calling to Henry. He came over.

“Henry, I just wanted to thank you for letting my Jake come along to the Symborg show. He really idolizes Symborg…you know, atomgrabbers and all.”

Henry plucked at some errant leaves. He was dressed in an old flannel shirt and jeans, with a beat-up baseball cap on his head. Of course, Angela knew he was angel, not a Normal, but she didn’t find it hard to believe he was real. He wore gloves, maybe to hide the edge effects that angels sometimes exhibited.

“Oh, it was my pleasure, Mrs. Mizener. The boys had a great time. Got them some T-shirts and things.”

“Henry, I’m not trying to be unneighborly, but what’s it really like for you…being an angel, I mean?”

Henry stopped raking, thrust the ball cap back on his head. “You know, Mrs. Mizener, I could ask you the same thing: what’s it like being a Normal? How do you answer that?”

“Well, you know…what I meant…I mean, you and I are different. I was just wondering—“

“If I have feelings like a Normal? Do I bleed? Or cry?”

“Something like that. Aren’t you and Symborg, you know…kind of like the same?”

Henry smiled. He even had a gap in his teeth…who had thought up that little detail for the configuration? “It is true, Mrs. Mizener, that Symborg and I both share a common makeup. I’m a collection of bots, put together to resemble a human being. I’m a swarm. Sometimes we’re called clouds of bugs, funny-looking fog droplets, there’s a million things we’re called. You are a collection too, Mrs. Mizener. A collection of cells, some bacteria, some microbes. It’s all in how you look at it.”

“But how does it feel?”

Henry smiled again. “It feels fine. How does it feel to be you?”

Angela chuckled. “I see your point. Listen, I came out here to ask you a question…maybe even a favor.”

“Surely, Mrs. Mizener.”

Angela didn’t quite know how to put this, so she decided to just plow ahead. “You know my Jake has a pretty serious illness. And he just adores Symborg and all that atomgrabber stuff.”

“I did know about his leukemia, Mrs. Mizener. I hope his treatments are going well.”

Angela ran a hand through her hair. It was a mess, made worse by the stiff breezes blowing across the lawns, stirring up the pile of leaves Henry had just made. “Actually they’re not. Look, I…I was wondering, since Jake adores Symborg, if you know any way I could get Symborg to come here, maybe to the pavilion down the street, do a little personal show for the neighborhood. I know Jake and Devon both would love that. It would mean a lot of Jake…actually—“ she wiped a tear from the corner of her eye “—it might even help Jake a little. The doctors say…you know they try to be hopeful—“

Henry frowned. “Mrs. Mizener, are you okay? You look a little pale—“

She nodded more vigorously than she felt. “Oh, I’m okay…just a little bug I’ve caught.” She did have persistent pains in her stomach area…had for days now. “Could you just talk with Symborg…or maybe his people. I mean…you’re—“

“Like them,” Henry finished. He smiled at Angela’s discomfiture. “It’s okay…I know what you’re saying.” He gave it some thought. “You want me to talk to Symborg…see if he’ll do a show down at the lake, at the pavilion?”

Angela was grateful, even a little embarrassed, she didn’t have to explain anymore. “Could you? Jake has dreamed of being an atomgrabber for as long as I can remember…it would mean so much to him. He doesn’t have—-“ she stopped, decided to change her words. “You know, I’ve heard how much Symborg likes children…how he works with all those foundations.”

Henry picked up his rake and began plowing through leaves again. “Children are the future, Mrs. Mizener. Someone once said the reason angels fly is that they take themselves so lightly. Not that I’m likely to take off any time soon…unless this wind gets worse.”

“Then you’ll help?”

“Sure. I can talk with Symborg and his people. All us angels are just alike anyway.” He chuckled at his own joke, then went back to his raking.

Angela didn’t know if she had hurt his feelings—could angels even have feelings? She went back to the house and sat down, asking Howie to bring her a fresh cup of coffee. The housebot whirred about the kitchen happily, drawing water, pouring beans, and setting the brew time to Fast. In a few minutes, the steaming hot cup was ready.

She knew perfectly well that Jake wanted to be just like Symborg, maybe even like Henry. A cloud of bugs. Thoughts and images of Jake playing with his TinyTown mixed in with Thomas’ caustic sarcasm about angels. She just wanted her son to have a little joy in his life, however long it might be. That wasn’t too much to ask, was it? So what if angels and clouds of bugs were shaking everything up, re-making the world. Their own next-door neighbors had elected to fab an angel to keep the memory of the real Uncle Henry alive. And it was a good likeness too. Was this any different from buying a new lawn mower? Or showing 3-D holograms of loved ones all day and night?

Too bad they can’t make better medbots, she told herself. Then kids like Jake would have a better chance with leukemia and cancer. This is crazy, she told herself over the rim of the coffee cup. I’m just making myself sick over this. She did feel sharper pains inside. Maybe I need to see the doctor.

Angela figured she could deal with her husband. She just wanted Jake to have a chance to live a life-long dream. If Henry could persuade Symborg to do a personal show down at the Pavilion, Jake would be floating on air.

Just like she’d seen Henry do from time to time. She watched him through the window, raking leaves, wondering. He remained reassuringly solid the whole time.

 

4.

 

Symborg readily agreed to do a show at the Crescent Lake Pavilion three days later. It would be a Sunday afternoon. The weather forecast was perfect: cool, breezy, clear skies.

Jake could hardly sleep at night, thinking about what was coming.

Sunday seemed to take forever, but it finally came. Angela and Thomas Mizener took Jake and Devon down to the pavilion at Crescent Lake. Thousands were coming. The small footbridge across the lake to the pavilion was jammed with people and music blared out across the lake from giant speakers. Newsdrones fluttered across the sky, covering the event. Police drones and bots provided security.

Jake and Devon could hardly contain themselves. Both wore their atomgrabber outfits, colorful leotards and caps, with insignia and medals and ribbons and epaulets.

As always, Symborg appeared on the stage to thunderous applause. People shrieked and fainted for Symborg. The crowd surged forward as Symborg came to the edge of the stage, to shake hands, sign autographs, perform a few tricks. He wore a full atomgrabber outfit: white clingy leotard, some kind of cape, signature hat and his chest was draped with insignia. Across his chest, the stylized circle and atom emblem blazed forth.

Hello, fellow atomgrabbers!” His voice boomed out across the lake and the pavilion grounds. A slight screech from feedback pierced the air. “Small is all!”

Jake and Devon had worked their way as close as they could, really only a few meters from the side of the stage, pushing, jostling, elbowing and squeezing up to the front. To their amazement, Symborg seemed to be signaling them, looking right at them. Stage hands cleared a path and Jake and Devon were escorted right up to the stage steps. Symborg bent down.

Jake’s heart was thudding in his chest so hard he thought it might fly through his leotard. Devon’s mouth was agape, as if he had seen a ghost.

“What’s your name, young man?”

Jake stammered, “Ja—Jake…Jake Mizener—”

Devon was introduced as well.

Symborg smiled a broad smile. “You want to be atomgrabbers…that’s what your folks tell me….”

“Yes…yessir—“

Symborg’s face seemed to morph even as he bent down to the boys, shifting subtly from a dark-skinned east African male of medium build and thin moustache to a more Midwest American farmhand kind of outdoorsy, ruddy-cheeked glow. It was a smooth, subtle shift, almost unnoticed. Symborg could do that. Angels could do anything. Symborg liked to feel a bond with his audience.

“And tell me, Jake…why do you want to be an atomgrabber?”

Jake had to concentrate on making his mouth work. “I want to help kids. Be a medbot. Go inside and fight diseases, kill microbes.”

Symborg’s smile broadened, even though that seemed impossible. “Well said, Jake…well said. You know atomgrabbers can do things nobody else can…they can do things like this—“ He balled the fist of his right hand and held it up. A newsdrone swooped down from overhead to flutter nearby, to get a better look and Symborg held his fist up high so everyone could see.

At first it was just a fist. But in seconds, the fist started shifting, morphing, changing into something else. It faded into a blur and the blur became fuzzy, like a tennis ball unraveling. Pinpricks of light surrounded the fist like a halo and soon enough, the fist was gone. Now it became an amorphous sphere of light, like he was holding a miniature sun in his hand. Then it changed again. The sun banked and faded, forming itself into some kind of shape. First, there was a cylinder, then some kind of brim. It began to darken, filling in structure, gathering atoms and more atoms until after a minute or so, it was clear what was being formed.

It was a hat, a black bowler-style hat.

When it was fully formed, the audience burst into vigorous applause. Symborg waved the hat around, took a slight bow, and popped it on his head, situating the bowler at a jaunty angle.

Now, Symborg bent down to Jake and Devon again. “To be a true atomgrabber, you have to be assimilated. You have to go into the booth. You want to try it?”

Thirty meters back, Thomas and Angela Mizener stirred uneasily. Henry Hilliard had told them this was just part of the show. Nothing to worry about.

“It will be a simulation. Just a fantasy. Like an adventure. Symborg’ll put them in a booth, run some lights and sounds, a little colored smoke, and open the door. They’ll come out and he’ll have a little ceremony and they’ll be atomgrabbers. He’s got a big medal he can pin on them…you know, the circle and atom emblem.”

“As long as it’s safe,” Angela said.

“Smoke and mirrors,” Thomas muttered. But he shrugged and relented when Angela gave him the look.

Now Jake and Devon were shown to an assimilator booth along one side of the stage. The door was open. Two technicians manned the booth.

Symborg came over. “We’ll do Jake first, then Devon. And once you’ve gone through the assimilation, I’ll formally induct you into the Atomgrabbers…already got the medal right here—“ he held up the circle and atom pin for all to see. More newsdrones gathered for close-ups, and Jake’s awed face blazed forth from large screens scattered throughout the grounds.

“Are you ready, Jake?”

Jake half saluted. “Yes, sir…I’m ready…this is really great!”

Symborg laughed and signaled to the technicians, who helped Jake inside and shut the door. They both sat at nearby consoles, pressing buttons and toggling switches.

Soon, the booth was flashing all kind of lights: red, green, yellow and blue. A thin column of smoke issued from the top. The crowd cheered.

Inside, Jake sat quietly, his heart pounding. At first, he felt nothing. Atomgrabbers do this, he told himself. He had to be brave. He closed his eyes, tried to think of something, anything, but what was happening. It was exciting, he was finally going to become an Atomgrabber.

There seemed to a slight breeze blowing through the booth. Jake opened one eye and took a look. Now he seemed to be enveloped in a fog, which was growing thicker. And something was pricking his skin, tingling, pinching. After a few moments, it actually started to hurt, but he told himself to be brave.

This is like that time in the Lake. When he was four, he had fallen into Crescent Lake, just a few hundred yards from where they were now. Slipped right off the dock leaning over to look at a fish gliding below the surface. And he didn’t know how to swim. He panicked and swallowed water and he thought he was going to die, but then strong hands and arms lifted him up and he was out of the water.

Now, there weren’t any strong hands. But he had to be tough. Like Devon always said, Atomgrabbers had to be able to take anything.

Even leukemia.

Jake soon felt kind of funny, sleepy and warm and smothered all at the same time. But it was a nice kind of smother now, like when you were in bed on a cold morning, all snuggled up and cozy. Then he went to sleep.

Outside the booth, the two technicians watched the process. Gauges and dials on their console told the story. The process was proceeding normally. They also knew that Symborg had special instructions for this job. One technician—his name plate read Stefans—looked up at Symborg, who was standing just behind them, peering through a porthole into the booth. He couldn’t see anything….assimilation was already underway. Bots were breaking down Jake, disassembling him into his constituent atoms and molecules.

“Now?” Stefans asked.

Symborg nodded. “Now. Secondary sequence.”

Stefans’ fingers played over his keyboard. Once the dematerializing was done, all that had been Jake was a loose swarm of atoms and molecules. But a pattern buffer was imposed on the swarm and a new configuration was applied. Symborg had just told Stefans to make two patterns. In effect, Jake would be re-assembled as a lifelike formation of nanobots closely resembling the original Jake. An angel, in the current way of saying things. In fact, the swarm would so closely resemble the original Jake that even on close inspection, you couldn’t tell the difference.

But there would be another formation of bots, another Jake. This version of the original pattern, with all of its atoms and bond geometries reconstructed, would become Jake, the real Atomgrabber.

Green lights on the booth and Stefans’ console signaled the end of the assimilation process. The crowd around the stage surged forward in anticipation. Newsdrones hovered overhead, swooping lower to get a better view.

With a theatrical flourish, Symborg swung open the door to the assimilator booth. Smoke and fog billowed out. Out stepped Jake Mizener, blinking in the bright lights, looking none the worse for wear.

Symborg presented Jake to the crowd and the grounds were filled with thunderous applause and cheers. Symborg then made a show of pinning the Atomgrabbers Medal of Merit on Jake’s chest. Clad in leotard and cape, with a blue mask, and the crossed circle and atom blazing out from his chest, Jake looked and felt every bit a superhero.

Only Symborg knew the truth. The Jake everyone saw was now an angel. But nobody could tell the difference. Angela and Thomas Mizener were helped up onto the stage by security guards and stage hands and ran to Jake, hugging him hard. Devon Hilliard was nearby, beaming, clapping, secretly jealous of all the attention. His turn would come next and, indeed, technicians were already shepherding him toward a nearby booth. Already lines had formed to queue up for assimilation, as spectators and fans jostled to get into position.

As Angela smothered her son with kisses and Thomas slapped Jake on the back, the Mizeners were shown off the stage and through a cordon of guards to a waiting limousine. The limo would take the family to a celebration lunch at Sal’s Pizza Palace down the street. With all the attention focused on Jake and the family, nobody noticed the small cylindrical capsule that an assimilator tech handed to Symborg. Symborg stuffed the capsule in the folds of his jacket and waved vigorously at the newest Atomgrabber as he high-fived his way through the crowd and boarded the waiting limo.

Only Symborg knew there were now two Jakes. One Jake was a five-foot one, eighty-pound angel, done up in a leotard and cape, with a huge Atomgrabber medal blazing forth from his chest. This Jake was a near-perfect likeness of the original Jake. This Jake was beaming, laughing, pumping fists and waving to thousands of fans, as he contemplated the wonders of a 16-inch pepperoni and sausage pizza with all the trimmings. This Jake would suffer no more leukemia, no more medbots, no more injections, though neither he nor his parents yet knew that.

The other Jake was inside the capsule in Symborg’s pocket.

After the show, Symborg retired to a trailer parked along a service road on the other side of the lake. The trailer was surrounded by security guards and fences. The angel known to all as Symborg morphed from the stage version of Symborg to a more relaxed human-like configuration, clad in a robe and slippers. He set the capsule down on a table, thumbed a control stud on the side and stepped back.

A fine sparkling mist began issuing from the capsule. At first, the mist flowed and thickened into a large cloud, almost a blob. But Symborg had chosen a special configuration for this swarm and soon enough, the swarm began gathering itself into a shape. First came the legs, then the arms, followed by a faint, almost translucent torso. The head and shoulders were the last to form, but like a cartoon drawing, the details began filling in. The whole process took about five minutes.

The second Jake drifted before Symborg with a slightly disoriented look on his face. Symborg smiled up at him.

“How do you feel, Jake?”

Jake had a sort of crooked smile on his face. “Kind of weird. Like a dream. I feel…like I’m floating.” He waved a hand back and forth in front of his eyes…the bots streamed off like water droplets. “Wicked…that’s really wicked….”

“Jake, you’ve been deconstructed. You know what that means?”

Jake was still fascinated with his own hands. He found he could sweep his hand right through a nearby chair. The bots that made up his “skin” parted and rejoined after each sweep.

“No. Does that mean I’m an Atomgrabber?”

“It means exactly that. You’re different now. You can go anywhere, be anything. It all depends on your configuration…we say ‘config,’ for short.”

Jake wore a big smile. “I always wanted to be an Atomgrabber. I didn’t know it would be like this? Can I see Mom? And Dad? Is Devon here?”

Now it was Symborg’s turn to smile. “In time, Jake. In time. But you know… being an Atomgrabber means you always have a mission. Remember: small is all.”

Jake looked at himself as best he could. “What happened to my clothes…my cape—“ He felt for his face, had a hard time finding something to touch. “—my mask…I can’t feel anything.”

Symborg laughed. “Don’t worry, Jake. That’ll come. It’s like when you first learned to walk. You don’t remember that, do you?”

“No.”

“You stumbled a lot. Fell on your face. Got cuts and scrapes. This is just like that.”

Now, Jake seemed even more disoriented. “I didn’t know it would be like this.”

“You’re not scared are you?”

Jake shook his head quickly. “No…well, maybe a little. It’s just so…different. I used to make fun of Uncle Henry when he described what it was like being an angel. Now I see what he meant. Kind of like being in the pool…like underwater.”

“In a way. Jake, you know that Atomgrabbers help others. That’s our mission.”

Jake was taking a few steps, trying out his legs. He found he could walk. Or maybe he was drifting…he couldn’t feel anything. “I know….”

“I have your first mission. I’m going to download a new configuration for you. Send you off to do battle with some cancer cells. They’re eating up someone who needs our help…your help.”

“I don’t know how to fight cancer. I mean, there’s leukemia…I know about that.”

Symborg shook his head. He helped Jake back to a nearby chair, where he more or less sat down. “You’ll know what to do when I download this new configuration. And there’s no leukemia anymore. That’s gone. I want you to go back into the capsule. We need to test all your parts…your effectors, your propulsors, see if you can navigate properly. Okay?”

Jake seemed a little tentative. “Okay….”

Symborg took a small control box from his jacket. He pressed two buttons. In moments, Jake began to fade, losing structure, dispersing, evaporating like smoke in a light breeze. The master bot of the swarm that was Jake sloughed off all its daughter bots and made its way back to containment. For Jake, it was like when his Dad put the car in the garage….a little bumpy and jerky at times.

Symborg then spent the next hour, communicating with Jake inside containment. All the parts that made up a nanoscale assembler were tested and checked: main memory, buffers, config translator, processor, actuator mast and propulsors, all the varied actuators and sensors like carbene grabbers and pyridine probes.

“Does this work?”

“Yes.”

“Can you flex this…all the way?”

“Yes.”

“How about this?”

“It seems to be moving. What is it?”

When all the testing was done, Symborg took the containment capsule and put it in his coat pocket. Then he called his personal driver Dirhan. The chauffeur brought his car around to the trailer and Symborg came out and climbed in. It was night time and a brisk breeze had picked up, blowing across Crescent Lake. He could hear waves lapping against nearby dock pilings, masts and spars clinking and groaning on boats gathered around the marina.

There was a courtesy call he had to make.

Symborg was about to ring the doorbell to the Mizener house again, when the door eased open. It was Thomas Mizener, in white slacks and a maroon pullover.

“Oh…uh, hello, Mr. Symborg…I didn’t expect…I thought you were on your way out of town.”

“My trailer’s just about ready to roll,” Symborg told him. For this visit, the magician had configured himself with a knee-length overcoat, although it wasn’t that cold, and hiking boots. Sunglasses perched at the end of his nose. He looked like a movie star trying to be inconspicuous, but not quite succeeding. “I wanted to see how Jake was doing and wish everyone a blessed week. And thank you for having me at your show last night…it was a special time for me, to be with all the kids.”

By this time, Jake and Angela Mizener had come to the door. Both wore coats and seemed about to leave the house.

“Not at all…the kids enjoyed every moment. I guess it’s a good thing you’re doing…you and the Atomgrabbers.”

“It’s kind of our mission…why we’re here.” Symborg and Jake exchanged knowing looks. “I’m sorry to interrupt…we’re you leaving?”

“Huh?” Tom Mizener realized Angela was right behind him, already with her purse. She looked pale and wan. “Oh…yeah, kind of. Angela here’s got a bug or something. She’s in some pain—“

Angela tried to smile back but it was forced and came out looking like a grimace. “Sorry—“ she shrugged.

“I’m taking her to the hospital. ER. She needs to be looked at.”

Symborg reached forward and took Angela’s hands in his own. “Nothing serious, I hope.” She didn’t resist.

Tom pulled the door behind them. Now everybody was on the front porch, as he locked the door. “So do we. But thanks again.”

As Symborg released Angela’s hands, he brushed against her jacket with his own coat. As he did so, the containment capsule with Jake the Atomgrabber inside fell into her jacket pocket, unobserved by anyone. The capsule settled deeper and was soon caught in the pocket.

Symborg said his goodbyes as the Mizeners went to their garage. The garage door was already rumbling open.

“I’ll keep in touch,” he promised. “I want to know how Jake is doing. Now that’s he a real Atomgrabber, we’re expecting great things.”

Symborg went back to his own car. Dirhan opened the side door and he got in. Once the door was closed, they waited until the Mizeners’ car had backed out and was heading up the street, toward Sisters of Mercy Hospital, a short fifteen-minute drive.

Then Symborg sent a command to activate the containment capsule inside Angela Mizener’s coat pocket. In seconds, he knew that Jake the Atomgrabber would be emerging and off on his first mission.

Angela didn’t know it yet but her own son Jake would soon be inside her, hunting down and vanquishing the tumor cells that were even now growing rapidly in her pancreas. A great battle was coming and Symborg knew he could count on Jake to lead the charge and win the day.

Small is all.

 

END

 

 

The Time Garden

 

Introduction

 

This story started out as a question: what would nursing home residents do with a time machine? I could imagine all sorts of things: there would surely be conflict on how to use it and who got to use it. But what if the time machine didn’t work like they thought? And what if the time machine operator died before the residents could learn how to work the machine properly?Would curiosity…and greed, take over?

Most likely, the residents would do what I have portrayed in this story…stumble forward as best they could. Any machine runs on some kind of fuel and any machine costs something to operate. The question for the residents of the Brighton Woods nursing home is this: is the price too high? In this story, every time you use the time machine, it subtracts a little from your own days.

What price would you be willing to pay to re-live days past, to pay off an old debt, to re-kindle an old love?For the residents of Brighton Woods, maybe the cost turns out to be a little too high.

***

 

So teach us to number our days, that we may gain a heart of wisdom”

Psalm 90:12

1.

Sarah Gibson was a big woman and she found the wooden pews in the chapel uncomfortable if she sat in them for more than a few minutes. She twisted around, waiting for the last strains of Here I Am, Lord to die off. From where she sat, it looked like everyone else was just as hard-fannied as she was. The whole place was squirming like a kindergarten class.

Sarah leaned over to whisper into Mildred Cunningham’s ear.

“You’d think we all had hemorrhoids, the way we’re all sliding and shifting around.”

Mildred was near eighty, delicate rice-paper face with a permanent smile pasted on between heavily rouged cheeks under a delicate feathered pink hat. “Most of them do, honey. Most of them do. Just be still awhile longer. Aren’t they beautiful…those flowers…roses and hydrangeas and all. Pete would be proud of us.”

Sarah sniffed. “Pete would gag, same as me. He wasn’t much for ceremony. Just a little whiskey and a deck of cards…that’s all he needed.” She sat back in the seat, shifted her fanny once again—God that hurt!— and stared morosely ahead. Funerals made her want to go wee-wee.

Ten minutes later, the tiny chapel at Brighton Woods East was empty, save the colorful sprays of flowers, and an old portrait of Pete from decades ago, when he was young and black-haired with a mischievous grin, before the cancer got him.

Everyone retired to the small open-air atrium that formed the courtyard of Brighton East and shuffled around wondering what to do with the rest of the morning.

Sarah sat in the warm sun, smelled the lemony odor of the pygmy magnolias dotting the courtyard and wished to God she had her Scotch in her right hand, but the bar over in B-West wasn’t open until 4 pm. Still three hours to go.

Conrad Bell sat himself down beside her on the bench.

“Yes, sir—“ Bell bellowed, for he had once been a stage actor and he tried on roles like Mildred tried on hats—“I surely will miss old Pete. Grumpy as all get-out, but he had character. Man like that ought to have had more time.” Bell chewed on his fingernails when he didn’t have anything better to do. Sarah couldn’t stand to look at them. Conrad’s fingernails resembled half-split chunks of firewood.

“You get your allotment,” Sarah muttered. “That’s all you get. You have to use it the best you can.”

Conrad was about to reply when old Joe Harper shambled over and sat himself down on the same bench, wedging himself between the two of them.

“Going to miss Pete myself, I am,” he mumbled. Joe Harper was staff. Brighton Woods employed the tall, gangling crewcutted fellow as a gardener and lawn man. He lived in a one-bed over in B-West, right on the ground floor, where he could get out at all hours to tend the flowers and things whenever it suited him. Joe was dressed up in a corduroy jacket and pants today. He had a face like an old worn-out car seat and he looked about as comfortable as a cucumber in a casserole.

He was also an employee of the Time Service and ran a time portal out back of the main wing of Brighton West, but the others didn’t know that.

“We all are,” Sarah sighed, pulling hard on the cigarette. The tip flared red and smoke blew from her nostrils. She shook her head. “Maybe it’s just me.”

“How’s that?” Joe asked. He wriggled a bit, eking out some more room between her and Conrad Bell. Bell sulked and stared off at the sky.

“Maybe I’m just being selfish. But you know what I’m going to miss most about him?”

“What’s that?”

“Playing bridge and gin rummy all hours of the day and night.” She smiled at the thought. “Whew…that man could play.” She looked down at Joe Harper’s knee, a little threadbare. God alone knew how old those pants were. “I’m not being selfish, am I? I suppose it’s a dream. I’d just like to turn the clock back a little, have one more Scotch, one more game of bridge. Is that too much to ask for?”

Conrad Bell smirked. “Curtain’s come down, honey. The show’s over. One by one, the audience is heading for the exits.” He chewed on his fingernails. “That’s the way it is around here.”

Joe Harper kicked at imaginary dirt clods on the walkway. The Time Service had given him only a few more days to find someone, maybe a week. Mandatory retirement…the gods of bureaucracy had been hurling that thunderbolt at him way too much the last year. He cocked his head slyly, “Maybe not, Sarah. Maybe not. You know that little garden I been working on, out back of the tool shed?”

Sarah nodded. “The Japanese place? I heard you were doing something new back there. What about it?”

Harper was already standing, getting his long legs into gear. He bent toward her ear, so Bell couldn’t hear them, lowered his voice. “Tonight, after dinner…when it’s just dark…met me in the garden behind the shed. Down by the Japanese pool.”

Then he was gone. Sarah looked crosswise over at Conrad Bell. He was still working a hangnail, chewing on it like a strip of beef jerky. He didn’t seem to have heard. Just as well with old Joe Harper trying to proposition me like that.

Suddenly she felt chilled, even in the rising heat of the mid-morning sun. Uneasy over what Joe had just said to her—did I imagine something?—Sarah got up and ambled off across the courtyard, toward her own unit on Brighton East’s second floor.

 

2.

 

It was muggy and stuffy in the dark woods west of the main compound, flies and mosquitoes and lightning bugs strobing the air, when Sarah Gibson stepped off the pool deck that connected the two Brightons and headed across the lawn toward the East Woods. The land was gently rolling, tending downhill toward the service road that wrapped around the western edge of the woods, and Lockhart Creek beyond. The creek had no official name but everybody called it Lockhart Creek. That was because Vic Lockhart, who lived at Brighton West, was always wading and fishing in it.

It was after nine p.m., nicely dark, and Sarah was nervous. What was it that old Joe Harper wanted to show her? She’d fooled around enough in her younger years, so she figured she’s seen just about everything a man could do, but you never knew.

Sarah stepped carefully along a dusty dirt path as she made her way down a hill toward the service road. She crossed the road and entered denser woods on the other side, the Brighton Woods. Everybody called them the Black Forest. The woods were dark and gloomy, even in daylight. Now, she had only armies of crickets and fireflies for company. She felt her way along carefully, treading a path as much from memory as feel.

It had been a long time since she had been this far.

In time, a dim, yellow glow materialized through the thorny vine ahead and Sarah made for it. The glow turned out to be the lantern on the front of Joe’s tool shed. The gardener was right where he promised, painting some fencing on a pair of old sawhorses. Behind him the shed was silvery gray, with wood siding and a slate roof. It sagged from the years, like an old horse. Joe looked up as a branch snapped, noticed Sarah and smiled.

“So you finally made it, I see. Welcome to the shed.”

Sarah was dubious. Her eyes narrowed. “Now, Joe…if you’re planning on something foolish—“

Joe looked hurt, scrunching up all the crinkly lines around his eyes and mouth as if he’d been shot. “Not at all, not at all. Just thought you’d like to see something.”

“And what would that be?”

He motioned her around the back of the shed. “My new garden. Come on—I’ll show you.”

Cautiously, she followed. A few dozen yards back of the shed, the brush opened onto a clearing, where Joe had fashioned a Japanese garden, right there in the middle of the Black Forest.

The clearing was roughly elliptical, maybe twenty yards long, ten to fifteen wide. It was dominated by an egg-shaped pool, some four to six feet deep, with a small wooden footbridge at one end. A small grotto beyond the footbridge was made of smooth, round stones, fashioned into the arc of a low wall, overlooking the deepest end of the water. A stream fed into the other end of the pool, where Joe had fashioned an earthen dam, creating the pool from the backflow out of Lockhart Creek. A gravel path filled with white stones led down to the pool, by the footbridge, and resumed climbing on the other side, toward a small pagoda mounted on a rocky rise. The pagoda was ringed with bronze lanterns—Joe called them yukidoro—and hordes of flies swarmed around the gently swaying lights. Water burbled and foamed around the bridge pilings. With the buzz of the flies and moths, only the burble and a steady drip-drip-drip from water gliding down the grotto walls filled the clearing.

Joe swept his arms around proudly. “Welcome to my garden. It’s called the Time Garden.”

Sarah took a deep breath, letting her eyes follow the natural forms and contours of the place. “Why, Joe, it is a beautiful place. So peaceful here. Why do you call it the Time Garden?”

Joe winked at her. “Back at the chapel, you said something…do you remember? You told me you wished you could turn the clock back, have one more bridge game with Pete Eldridge.”

Sarah nodded. “I say a lot of things. What do you expect from a fat old woman?”

Joe beckoned her down to the footbridge. They crossed to the middle, then stood there, leaning over the railing, peering down at the roiling, foaming water. “You don’t want anything more than any of us wants. The Time Garden can make that possible. If you do it right, you can go visit Pete Eldridge. Have that last bridge game.”

Sarah figured she had heard just about every come-on a man could come up with. “Joe Harper, that’s the biggest pile of horse manure I’ve ever heard. Pete was buried this morning. You were there, same as me. You expect me to believe this nonsense? What’ve you been drinking?”

Joe Harper was dead serious. “Trust me, Sarah, I know what I’m talking about. I’m the gardener for this place. Maybe operator is a better word. Been doing gardening and landscaping for longer than you know. The Time Garden’s special. It ain’t no ordinary garden.”

“That I can see…you’ve done wonders here. But really…let’s just leave old Pete out of this. He’s in a better place now.” She headed back across the footbridge to the bank. “If I really wanted to go back, I wouldn’t be visiting Pete Eldridge anyway.”

“Who would you visit?”

Sarah seemed to sigh, as she trudged up the dirt path. She stopped halfway, rubbed her eyes behind her big ‘fashion-frame’ glasses. “Probably Del. My husband. Never got to say good-bye to him properly. He shipped out in September ’44. First Infantry. He was in France that fall. Died at Bastogne.” She looked down, scuffed at some gravel, made a small pile with the toe of her shoe. “Bastard went and got himself killed. I never got so say goodbye…in fact, we had a fight the night before. He left mad…and never came back—“ She clenched her teeth, bit her lips and took a deep breath. “I can hear his voice right now, just like it was today—“

Joe was sympathetic. “Sarah…come down here.” He came off the footbridge, stood on a slate landing beside the bridge piling. “I want to show you something.”

Without understanding why—maybe it was his voice—Sarah obeyed, silently trudging back down the hill. She took Joe’s hand when he offered it. They stood together on top of the slate landing, watching the patterns of swirling water, watching the reflected light of the lanterns break up into crazy forms.

“The Time Garden is like a door. Kind of a gateway or portal. If you go through it, the right way—and I’ll have to show you how—it’ll send you to whenever and wherever you want to go. Back into the past. Even into the future, though that’s a bit trickier.”

Sarah cocked her head, regarded Joe Harper quizzically. “You’re serious, aren’t you? How do you know all this?”

Joe beamed. “’Cause I run the portal. I’m the operator. Best damned operator in the whole Service, too.”

Sarah glared at him for a long minute, not knowing what to say. Was this real? Was he pulling her leg, like he always liked to? Then, she dabbed at a few tears with a handkerchief. “Sorry…maybe it’s the funeral. Never had a proper one for Del…there wasn’t enough left of him. Grenade or something…Army wouldn’t really say. ‘Killed in action.’” She shuddered. “I kept his Purple Heart for a long time. Then I lost it. Just like I lost him—“

Joe cradled her shoulders with his big ropy arms. “Sarah, trust me…you can see Del again. You can say goodbye. You can say anything you want to, change anything, just the way you want it. Want to try it out?”

Sarah suddenly stood upright, steeling herself. She snuffled back the last teardrops. “What a ridiculous idea. Why are you telling me all this…baloney?”

“’Cause it’s not baloney. I been working on this garden for a long time…finally tinkered and scrounged and nurtured it along enough so that it works, at least most of the time. That’s the key to it—time. Something we don’t have a lot of around here…none of us do. We shouldn’t be wasting what we have. This garden lets you go back, re-live what you want to, change anything you’d like—“

Sarah pursed her lips, studied the gardener as if he were a specimen she’d just discovered, a strange new creature she’d stumbled over in the woods. “You really are serious…about all this—?”

“Dead serious.” Now it was Joe’s turn to show off a sort of half-cocked smile. “But there’s one little catch.”

“Of course there is. What is it?”

Joe took a deep breath. “Well, it’s like this. There’s a mandatory retirement age. The Service enforces it, no exceptions. My time has come…I have to leave. And I need a replacement, someone to take over. Run the portal. Keep her in good order…it’s a lot like gardening. You like gardening, don’t you, Sarah? I mean, plants and dirt and all.”

“Sure, I—“ but she stopped in mid-sentence. Her eyes narrowed and she regarded Joe Harper with a mixture of incredulity and sympathy. Then she nodded. “I guess the funeral affects all of us differently. It’s okay, Joe. I get it. I’ll play along.”

But Joe seemed hurt by Sarah’s reaction. “It ain’t no game, Sarah. I’m serious. Why don’t you try her out? You’ll see what I mean.”

She stifled a half-chuckle. “Why not? What have I got to lose? Like you said, none of us has that much time. May as well live a little.” She made up her mind. “Okay, Joe Harper, I don’t know what you’re selling, but I’ll buy. What do I do?”

“Well, first thing is…you get in the water.”

Sarah studied the foaming pool. “You’ve got to be kidding.”

“No, ma’am…just ease on down there—here, hold on to me, I’ll help you—“ He held her under her arm—after she’d removed her slippers—and let her sit for a moment on the slate landing. When she was ready, she pushed forward and slid in one motion right into the pool, sending a big splash all over Joe Harper. She giggled, and shivered.

“It’s not as cold as it looks…in fact, it feels real good. You want me to strip…are we going to shag, right here in the grotto?”

“Not at all.” Joe went around the bridge piling to the grotto side, calling her. “Come under the bridge to about here—“

Sarah glided through the foam. The water came up to her waist. She reached the spot Joe had indicated. “Now what?”

“See the rock wall in front of you?”

“I see it.”

“At the very base of that wall—right in the center of the curve—is an opening. It’s about the size of your head and shoulders. You can squeeze through it, even you can—“ he added, when Sarah looked skeptical. “The way the Time Garden works is…you just duck below the water, hold your breath, and find that opening in the rock wall. Stick your head through and kick off. The Time Garden will do the rest.”

Sarah glared up at him. “Joe, that’s the most cockamamie idea I ever heard. You want me to go under the water? Hold my breath and go below the surface and hope to hell I find this opening? And squeeze through it?”

Joe beamed. “That’s how she works. Tried her out myself just the other night.”

“Oh, really. And where did you go when you tried her out?”

Joe seemed to blush in the shadowy lantern light. “Rather not say, exactly…kind of personal. But it works. I came back okay. Kind of a shakedown cruise, you might say.”

Sarah was shaking her head. “This is insane. We should both be sent to our rooms for stunt like this. Joe…if I didn’t know you better, I’d-“

“Just try it. Hold your breath and go below. Hold out your hands. See that big black rock, right there?” He pointed to a fist-sized stone just above the waterline. “The opening’s right below it. Maybe four feet down. But you’ll have to hold your breath, kind of grope around to get into it.”

Sarah chuckled. “I’ll bet—“She made up her mind. “Well, why the hell not? What’s a girl got to lose? Hey…if I drown here, just tell Vic and Mildred I was stinking drunk…had ten Scotches in my room and wandered off. They’ll believe that. This…no one will believe. I don’t believe it myself.”

“Remember—put your head through. And kick. Kick hard.”

Sarah nodded, sucking in huge gulps of air. She started to feel dizzy and stopped, then, suddenly without warning, she ducked her head under with a splash and a geyser of bubbles. In seconds, her floral print blouse disappeared from view.

Joe stood silently by the side of the grotto wall, counting the seconds. Five…ten…fifteen…twenty…twenty-five…thirty—Most people didn’t stay down any longer than half a minute.

For a few anxious moments, Joe continued counting, fidgeting with some moss he’d laid in along a seam in the wall. At fifty seconds, he began to worry a bit, but just as he started to move, a great crashing wall of water erupted from the pool.

Like a surfacing whale, Sarah Gibson flung herself upright and stood swaying, shedding torrents of water, laughing like a little girl. She shook her short red hair and made motorboat sounds with her lips. Then she wrapped her arms around her shoulders and burst out laughing again.

“Joe…Joe…I was there! I don’t believe it…I was there…right there—“

Joe Harper bent down and extended a hand. “Grab hold, Sarah…let me help you out.”

At first, she wanted only to twirl and splash about, but she finally consented to Joe’s assistance. Laboriously, she waded over to the side, and Joe hoisted her up onto the slate landing. She shook like a big shaggy dog and giggled. Then she hugged Joe and kissed him wetly on the cheek.

“Fabulous…just fabulous…we were at Jimmy’s Peanut Bar. Downtown Reading, PA. It
was just like it always was…peanut shells all over the floor. Smoke in the air, booze all over the place. People talking too loud, laughing. Card games and liquor and—“ she suddenly beamed a wide smile, followed by a low, mischievous grin. “—and Del. My glorious Del, right in the middle of the biggest game of all.” Suddenly, she became aware of where she was, that she was drenched and shivering and her hair was a mess. “Joe…Joe…how long was I there? It seemed like days, maybe a week. We went to a movie…it was Bogart, I think. Had a malt afterward. Went to the Prescott Hotel for a big steak dinner, spilled champagne all over me—“

Joe was toweling her dry even as she chirped about what she had seen and done. “You were gone…maybe forty-five seconds in all. All totaled.”

“You’re kidding—that can’t be right. It was several days…I’m sure of it. And I finally got to say goodbye to my Del…the right way, the way we always did.” She nodded, that mischievous smirk again. “God, he tasted good.”

“Nope, only about forty-five seconds underwater…that’s all.”

Suddenly, Sarah frowned. “This place really works. Just like you said it would.”

“I told you it would.”

“Then it’s like…what would you call it…a time machine?”

“More of a gateway, I would think. I just call it the Time Garden.”

Sarah was thinking, her eyes narrowed. “Who else knows about this?”

“Just you and me, so far. I was hoping I could interest you in taking her over. You know, after I leave.”

“Mmm…we’ve got to keep this place quiet. How does it work anyway? Where else could I go? Could anybody use it?”

Joe laughed, holding up hands to fend off all the questions. “Wait a minute, wait a minute, one at a time.”

“Joe this is fabulous…do you see that? We could probably go back into our childhoods—“ Her face darkened, her lips tightened. “—I could get even with that damned bitch Margie Cole—she was always borrowing things, my clothes, my dolls, all my stuff—“

A pained look came across Joe Harper’s craggy face. This wasn’t working at all the way he had hoped. “Sarah, there’s a few things you ought to know about the Time Garden.”

But Sarah Gibson was already cooking up schemes. Who to tell? What to tell them? “My God, the possibilities—what did you say, Joe?”

“Only this—you have to understand some things about the Time Garden.”

“What things?”

Joe stood up and went over to the footbridge, then climbed up to the center of the span and peered down at the water. It was still foaming, even more than before. “It’s kind of fragile, for one thing. Easy to disturb things. There’s one important fact—the portal don’t last forever. None of them do. They’re just like us…they’re born, they live their allotted span, and they die. Kind of peter out. And they don’t work for free. Now, tell me: you want the job or not? I need to know.”

“Never mind the job…what exactly are you saying?”

“Just this—that every time a person uses the Garden, it takes a cut. A cut of time. It subtracts the same amount of time you spent inside the portal…er, from your life. Balances the books, sort of.”

What! What the hell are you saying—“ Sarah started to stand up, lost her footing, started to slide toward the pool and just managed to snag a rock, to hold herself out. She floundered for purchase…by the time Joe could get there, she had managed to hoist herself further up the bank. She was panting and her face was red. “What did you just say?”

Joe shrugged sheepishly. “Maybe I should have made it clearer…every time you use the Time Garden, you lose time from your life. You live an equal amount of time—less. You can go back if you want, even edit and revise things if you want. You can even go forward, although that’s a bit harder. But there’s always a price.”

Sarah frowned at the prospect. “I’m a fat old woman, Joe. I don’t have that much time left. And you’re saying…now, I have even less? How much less?”

Joe shrugged. “Hard to say. Maybe a few days. It’s kind of proportional. I’m not sure how it’s determined. Only that it happens.”

Sarah thought about that for a few moments. Then she threw up her hands. “What the hell…I guess it was worth it. Just seeing Del again—but I wish you’d told me before I went under.”

“Sorry about that.”

“Oh, well, c’est la vie…as Conrad always says. Look, Joe, we should kind of keep this under wraps…you know what I mean? Control it…so not everybody knows about it. Jesus, if this gets out…there’ll be chaos all over the place. Imagine it: a time portal at a nursing home. It’d be like dropping a planeload of chocolate into a nursery. No—“ a determined look hardened her face. “—this we have to sit on for a while. Make sure it gets used properly.”

“I completely agree with you, Sarah. Then you’ll take the job?”

“Let me think on it. I would like to tell a few people though. Like Mildred. Paxton Brewster…people like that. Is that okay?”

Joe was agreeable. “A small group, that would be fine. Remember, this place’s kind of fragile. I worked a long time to get it going, make it like it is. It’s okay by me to tell other people, but promise me you’ll be careful. Not everybody can handle this. And there’s a lot you need to know.”

Sarah was already scheming how to break the news. She got up and brushed herself off.

“You’re telling me. Look, I’ve got to get back…before the guards send the dogs after me.”

Sarah Gibson left the clearing without looking back. She had a million things on her mind.

 

3.

 

The next morning, Sarah Gibson took breakfast in the Colonial Room, and found a table near the window. It was sunny and bright out. Vic Lockhart was polishing off his scrambled eggs at the same table. He motioned her over and Sarah relented. They weren’t alone long. Inside of ten minutes, Angel Havener joined them, followed by Annie Jacobs and Conrad Bell.

Sarah decided to tell them all what had happened. She had to tell someone before she burst. She didn’t tell them that Joe Harper was retiring.

They were skeptical, to say the least.

Vic had egg juice dribbling down his mouth when he answered. “Sarah, I saw the same movie, not six months ago. Had…oh, who the hell was it?—Mel Gibson, I think. Some nuclear war destroyed the world…something like that.”

Sarah looked at him sourly. “That egg’s not the only thing that’s scrambled. I’m telling you guys…it happened. I got to see my Del, just like he was. I got to finally say goodbye to him…the right way, this time.” She took a deep breath. “I don’t care if you believe me or not.”

Angel Havener was worrying with a piece of toast. “Luv, if there was really a time machine out there in the woods, I’d be first in line. Hey, Conrad, you and me…we could go into the future. See if Last Night in Prague ever gets produced. Maybe we’ll even get on Broadway.”

Sarah picked flakes off a cream cheese bagel. “The only way you’re getting on Broadway is by taxi, fellows. Why don’t you two just grow old, like the rest of us? You’ll never be finished with that thing.”

Conrad Bell nodded. “She’s right, you know, Ang. Who wants to see another skit about Jews and Nazis? If there really was a time machine, we could just turn back the clock to 1933, get rid of Hitler right then and there. Then where would we be…no subject, no play.”

Vic was still skeptical. “I’m not even from Missouri and I still need to be shown. Where was this so-called gateway, anyway?”

“Out by Joe’s tool shed.”

“And Joe built the place, all by himself?”

Sarah nodded. “Tended it is probably a better description. He is the gardener, after all. Beautiful spot in a clearing in the Black Forest. There’s a pool and a pagoda.”

Annie Jacobs sat at the end of the table, her face wreathed in steam from a mug of hot tea. “I wouldn’t mind seeing my David again.” She had a sweet smile, a gentle half-arc of amusement between her high cheek bones. “He’d come home from patrol and give me the biggest hugs…practically crush my ribs, he would.” The smile got wider. “Then, he’d have his beer and play with Katrina and the dogs. And we’d have our supper…Lord, he did love that fried chicken and mashed potatoes.” Her smile abruptly vanished. “I’d go back to the morning he left, before he was shot. I wouldn’t let him leave…knowing about that drug deal he was investigating.”

“It doesn’t make any sense,” Vic was saying. He smoothed back tufts of sparse white hair, forever trying to make them cover an advancing forehead. “I mean…how’d you wind in that Peanut Bar, Sarah? Probably just hallucination. I bet Joe put something in that pool…turned you psycho or whatever. Like hypnosis.”

“Yeah, a regular Houdini,” said Angel.

Sarah was quiet. “I don’t know exactly how the thing works. Joe said he would explain it to me…you just stick your head in and kick off.”

“Underwater?”

“Under the pool. It wasn’t deep.”

Vic stood up. “This is silly. I’m a rational man. Old as dirt, maybe, but I still got something up here—“ he tapped his head, felt the sparse hair and smiled sheepishly. “Inside, I mean—“ He headed off.

“Where are you going?” Conrad asked. “You left half your plate—“

Vic was heading for the door to the pool deck. “Out to see Joe. He’s just pulling Sarah’s legs, that’s all. Playing on her fantasies. It’s all a scam. ‘Bilk the old farts—‘ Oldest game around. I want to see what his game is.”

“Me too.” Conrad shot up and hustled after Vic. The two of them struck out across the lawn and soon disappeared into the East Woods.

They found Joe Harper pruning vines around the edges of the English Garden. Mildred Cunningham had a small vegetable patch at one end.

“Joe—hey, Joe,” Vic called out. He ambled up to the gardener. Joe looked up from his shearing, took off his baseball cap and wiped his forehead.

“Thought I heard something. What’s up?”

Vic jammed his hands in his pocket, not sure how to begin. “So, I was talking with Sarah this morning, see, and she rattles off this tale about a time machine back in your Japanese garden. I could see she was all worked up…how she said she’d gone back to see Del, got to be with him once again, before he shipped out to Europe and all.” Vic’s face scrunched up into a look of pain. “Joe…Joe Harper, you shouldn’t be doing things like that to an old lady like Sarah. The woman’s got her memories…why don’t you just leave her be?”

Joe had a way of looking at you, like you had done something naughty and he might haul off and smack you, but his better nature would surface and then his shoulders would droop and he’s sort of cough and laugh at the same time.

“I’m sorry for any pain I caused Sarah. She was kind of down at Pete’s funeral. Heck, we all were. I was just trying to help.”

Conrad had hustled up to stand beside the men. “You really got a time machine out there? That’s what Sarah said you had.”

Joe snickered. “Ain’t no machine about it. It’s just a garden, that’s all.”

“But this garden…this portal or gateway or whatever it is…she said you could go places…other places, other times. You could kinda travel far away. See loved ones in the past.”

Joe nodded. “Future, too. ‘Course, that’s a bit harder.”

Vic stabbed a finger into Joe’s chest. “So there is a time machine. Some big government secret, I’ll bet. Who are you working for, mister?”

Joe laughed. “It’s no secret. And like I said, it’s not a machine. More or a door, like you said. I’m just the keeper, sort of the operator you could say.”

“Can we see it?”

“Sure. I’ll show you.”

 

The three of them went deeper into the woods, crossing the service road—they had to wait while a small truck filled with topsoil passed by—‘heading for the Bistro Restaurant up by the lake…they got some erosion there—‘Joe told them. Presently, they arrived at the small grotto. It was hot outside and mosquitos and flies buzzed about the clearing. The waters of the pool were calm.

Vic studied the clearing from every angle, climbing the footbridge, scrutinizing the pagoda, scuffing at dirt around the base of the rock wall. Experimentally, he tossed a few pebbles into the water, looking sideways to catch Joe’s reaction. There was none.

“Doesn’t look like much to me,” he announced. “What’s the big deal?”

Joe explained how the Time Garden worked. “There’s a catch though, just like I explained to Sarah. You don’t get something for nothing. Every time you use the Garden, it subtracts time away from your life. Balances the books, I like to say.”

Vic’s face was the picture of skepticism. “And you built this?”

“I keep it up.”

“Well, pardon me for saying so, but I just don’t buy it. Look, Joe, I’m a vet. I got shot at plenty of times by Chicoms and gooks in Korea. Even got captured. Spent time in a POW camp. Anjin, it was called. Hell on earth, if ever there was one. I believe what I see with my own eyes.”

“Why don’t you try it, then?”

Vic stuck out his chin. “All right, I will.” Then, he bit his lips, toyed with a thought for a moment. “Tell me something, Joe. How long you been at Brighton Woods?”

Joe Harper shrugged. Long enough, according to the Service, he said to himself. But he didn’t say that. “They hired me back in ’61. Started out on the maintenance staff. Fixing tractors and such.”

“That’s not really what I meant—“ Vic groped for the words. Conrad Bell was thinking the same thing.

“What he’s trying to say is—how the hell did you come up with something like this? Assuming it works. Are there blueprints or something? You see it on TV? Get some help from Santa’s little elves?”

Joe held up a hand, chuckling. “I always knew this spot had possibilities. Just look at it. Secluded. The light’s just right. Something about the materials, the lay of the land, the way the shadows fall…any gardener could see it. You just have to have a feel for this kind of thing.”

“But you’re not just any gardener…are you?”

Conrad blurted out. “Sarah said you were some kind of time gardener. What the hell is that? Maybe you could be in my play.”

Joe shrugged, swatted at some flies with his cap. “All of us in the Service, we’re basically the same. We just work with what nature gives us, same as any gardener. Move stuff around, fix it up. That’s all.”

Vic had made up his mind. “I want to try this time machine. What do I do?”

Joe suddenly turned serious. He explained the procedure. Vic and Conrad listened carefully, eyes narrowing, wondering if it weren’t all a big prank. Sarah had done things like that before. Once, back in ’48, someone had bet her that Truman would beat Dewey in the election. Always ready to take on a dare, Sarah had told the bettor that “if Truman beats Dewey, I’ll push a peanut down Pennsylvania Avenue with my nose.” When the big day came, the sidewalks had been jammed with reporters and photographers. “Quite a sight that was,” Vic admitted. “Big woman like that, kneepads and all, nudging a little peanut down the street with her big nose.”

When Joe was through explaining, he asked, “You still want to do this?”

“Hell, yes, let me at it!” Vic was already snatching off his shoes and stripping down to his underwear. “Just one question: how do I control it? How do I know how to get to a certain time?”

Joe thought about that for a moment. “It depends on how far you go through the opening. And how fast. You’ll have to experiment with it, try different tricks. It’s hard to explain.”

“I’ll bet.” Vic slid off the slate landing and shivered in the waist deep water. “Cool, isn’t it?” The waters had begun to lap and foam around the footbridge as he waded underneath and approached the grotto wall. “And I just go under?”

“All the way to the bottom.”

Vic swallowed hard, took a few deep breaths. “Well…here goes.” He squeezed his eyes shut and dropped below the surface.

 

Conrad and Joe both ran silent counts. Thirty four seconds later, Vic’s drenched head burst out of the water and he flung his arms out like an old-time preacher.

Wow! Just…wow!” he exulted. He had a big grin on his face. Conrad and Joe helped him up onto the edge of the pool. He shook off like a dog, then accepted a dry towel from Joe. “Just like you said, pal—“

“Where’d you go?” Conrad asked. “Where’d you go? What happened?”

Vic just sat there, shaking his head. “What time is it? I must’ve been gone for days.”

“Thirty-four seconds,” Joe said. “We counted it together.”

What? That can’t be right—“ Vic suddenly turned dark. “I mean I was there, right there…the whole thing happened right in front of me…just like before. Had to be two, maybe three days. A week, even.”

“What, Vic? Where were you?”

His eyes started tearing up. “Back in Korea. The day I was captured—“ he shook his head. “All of them—Charlie Company, 2nd Battalion. First Marines. Jesus, it was cold. Freezing wind, howling wind, sleet like hell. Chicoms cut us off, got behind us on the main supply road. We fought like crazed cats but there were too many of them.” Vic wiped at his eyes, embarrassed. Conrad sat down beside him on the slate landing. “We were captured, marched for several weeks north, to the Yalu River. Over the river. Shithole called Anjin. I wanted to escape…I should have tried but somehow—I couldn’t just leave my buddies, you know—“ he choked back something, straightened himself up. “Several of us—we tried to kill ourselves. But that didn’t work either—our hands were too frostbitten. That’s what I saw. All over again. And Petey, too…he was still alive—“

Conrad looked up at Joe Harper, who was busily resetting some stones in the grotto wall. “Then…it’s true…it works…just like you said.”

“I told you it would.”

All of a sudden, Conrad was excited. “This is incredible. It’s a dream. It’s science fiction. It’s nuts. My God, Vic, do you realize what this could mean? We’re sitting on a gold mine here. We could charge for this, charge admission. Build a big park…it’d be like Disney, even better.”

Vic was still shivering from the water, from the icy winds of Anjin, from re-living the most painful moment of his life, one he had long since buried in the deepest hole of his mind he could find. “I got a lot of questions, still. Like…how the hell does the thing work? And who are you, really?”

Joe Harper shrugged, placing more stones around the edge of the pool, cleaning up after Vic’s excursion into the past. “Just a simple gardener.”

“Bullshit. Either this is some kind of mass hallucination or—“

“—or a wish machine,” suggested Conrad. “Like Aladdin’s lamp. Do I get three wishes?”

“Hardly. Like I said,” Joe went on, “I’m just a gardener. I do the same things any gardener does. I prepare the soil. I plant seeds and water them in, nurture ‘em just the right way. Takes a special touch, around this garden, but it’s really not any different.”

“What about weeds? You get weeds here?”

“Sure I weed out what doesn’t belong. I prune and trim. At the end, I harvest the fruits and start the cycle all over again.”

Vic stood up, groaning and creaking. He stared Joe right in the face. “What, exactly, do you grow here?”

Joe stood up from his work too, stretched a bit and scratched his head. “Maybe ‘grow’ isn’t exactly the right word. Any garden is basically a machine to recycle stuff, isn’t it? Gardens take air, and nutrients and water and recycle them through the stuff you plant, changing them a little, but basically putting back into nature. I do the same.”

“With plants.”

“With time.”

“You recycle time?”

“That’s what I do.”

Vic wandered off, balancing himself on the edge stones of the pool, still dripping wet, his white hair plastered to his bald pate. “This doesn’t make any sense. I thought time was like a river, flowing from the past into the future.”

“A lot of people think that. Actually, this garden…the portal you just went through—is more like a defect in a set of curtains. A rip in space-time, that’s how some think of it. They’re all over the place—these tears or rips—sometimes in the most unlikely places. I just tend this one. I found it a long time ago…actually the Service told me about it. Then I just kind of helped it along, helped it grow, ‘til I felt it was ready.” Joe’s face took on a somber cast. “Now the Service tells me I got to retire. I need somebody to take over. You wouldn’t be interested, would you?”

Vic started to say something, but Conrad was growing more excited at the possibilities. “It’d be perfect for a theme park. With a big stage. Plays every night…lots of edgy stuff, fringe theater, absurdist Kafkaesque fare…that’d go great with the setting here.”

Vic stopped by the pagoda, felt along its lacquered wooden sides. “So you’re saying you need someone to take over. Like a new gardener, a new operator?”

Joe leveled an even gaze at Vic. “That’s what I’m saying. I don’t much like it, but time waits for no man.” He chuckled at his own little joke. “But we can recycle it.”

Vic was intrigued. “What exactly do you plant here?”

“Oh, I just tend the garden. I seed the portal with what it needs to grow and be sustained. The technical term is chrontronium or some such, I believe. I don’t rightly know all the details. But I do know that every portal starts out as a kind of rip and this stuff is what allows us to manage it, use the portal, kind of keep it balanced. Then I make sure nothing gets into the garden that shouldn’t be there. I weed the bad stuff out, prune and trim things so the portal is stable. Not too big, not too small. Truth is, all these buggers want to snap right shut. Nature’s funny that way. Space-time wants to be smooth and even no rips or tears or defects. In the end, I usually have to add stuff.”

“What stuff?”

“I believe we’re calling it newtime now. Some kind of displaced chrontronic matter…basically wasted time, unused time. Everybody’s got some. Think of it as kind of like seeds. Use ‘em properly, sprinkle ‘em in and water ‘em real good and you can extend the portal’s existence almost indefinitely. ‘Course, that ain’t ever happened to me. These portals always dry up.”

“Then what?”

Joe shrugged. “Then I move on. Service gives me a new assignment. They find me another one.”

“And you could teach me all this…how to prune and operate and seed and weed and all?”

Joe nodded. “Most definitely. We could start right now, if you want.”

But Conrad wouldn’t be denied. “I want to try it. Can I have a go?” When Vic and Joe looked oddly at him, he spread his hands. “What? I got the same needs as anyone. Hey, I’m not young anymore. Look, I never made a big splash on the stage or anything, but I’m okay with that. It’s just that I got a daughter. Molly. I just want to see if she makes it…she’s in Hollywood now. Had a couple of screenings, a few cameos. Nothing big. Her mother blames me for all of it. I’m the one who put the acting bug in her head. If I knew she was gonna make it, I could rest easier. Tell off her mother…that would give me a lot of pleasure to do that. A lot.”

“I don’t see any harm in it,’ Joe told him. “But I have to warn you: going into the future is different.”

“Different…in what way?”

Joe rubbed his chin. “Well, it’s harder to control. The portal isn’t as stable going that way. It’s like the future is a rubber sheet—it wants to resist you, kinda pushes you back. You can stretch it some, but the further you go, the harder it pushes back. But, by all means, try it. I’ll help you out.”

Eagerly, Conrad started pulling off his moccasins and shorts. Pretty soon, he was stripped down to his underwear, his ample belly protruding out over a well-worn elastic band. Conrad was hairy and overweight and completely at ease in the buff. He eased himself into the water, shivering as he did so, then waded below the footbridge and stood waist-deep in foam and spray before the grotto wall. He looked up at Vic and Joe.

“Well, wish me luck. Works the same way…you just go below and push through?”

“The same way,” Joe told him.

“How do I make sure I’m going into the future and not the past?”

“Just wiggle a little…you’ll see what needs to be done. The portal’s pretty sensitive lately since I tuned her up.”

Conrad nodded gravely, took a few breaths and submerged like a bottle filling with water.

Vic and Joe started a count.

At sixty seconds, Vic looked over with concern at the time gardener. “It’s been a minute, Joe. That seems like a long time. Should we be worried?”

Joe shook his head. “Not yet. Conrad’s got big lungs. He’ll know when it’s time.”

Vic sniffed. “Big lungs, my ass. He’s an old windbag, if you ask me.”

Nearly another minute went by, a total of one hundred and ten seconds. Conrad popped to the surface of the pool like a fat hairy cork, bobbing and grinning, slapping the water with exhilaration.

“It’s true…it’s true! The thing works just like you said it would!” Conrad dog-paddled to the slate landing and hauled himself up, with help from Vic and Joe. He sat heavily, out of breath, heaving in great gulps of air.

“I…made it…” he gasped. “I really…made it…saw Molly…took…awhile…but I saw…her…some small theater…place was half full, mostly men…couldn’t quite…make it out…but the film had her face…right there—“ he made a small figure of a screen with his hands—“…big as life…there…were several men…didn’t quite…catch…the story—“ he burst out laughing, slapped playfully at the water, finally getting some breath back. “—my Molly…my flesh and blood…she finally made it…in the movies—“

Vic frowned, studying the grotto with a skeptical eye. “Joe, be straight with me. You put something in the water, didn’t you? Some drug or something. Maybe this is just some kind of wish machine, rather than a time machine.”

Joe seemed hurt by the idea. Pain made waves across his face. “Vic, this is a time machine,” he said firmly. “And I most definitely did not put drugs in the water. This water’s right from Lockhart Creek…hell you ought to know…you spend enough time wading in it.”

“I had to ask that, I guess. Sorry, but…well, I just don’t get it. It’s too good to be true. And you want me to learn how to operate this thing?” Vic made a face. “How’d you get into this gardening business, anyway?”

Joe shrugged, sweeping off straw and leaves from the slate landing, straightening the place up a bit. “Oh, it’s been in my family for a long time. Just kind of took to it, I suppose. Thing is this portal’s kind of funny. It’s kind of been deteriorating lately. Don’t think she’ll last too much longer. I’m going to have to do some maintenance on her…you should stick around and learn some of that, Vic.”

Vic didn’t want to hear about deterioration. “You think we…you…can keep it going? I mean…a time machine, for God’s sake. What retirement home wouldn’t want a time machine? Maybe we ought to charge for it, like Conrad said.”

“That wouldn’t be fair. It’s open to everybody…as long as it lasts. Service policy.”

“How long do you think it’ll last?”

Joe stooped on the side of the pool, trailed his fingers through the water and tasted it. He winced a little at the taste. “Hard to say, exactly. A few days, a few months, maybe a year. Depends on a lot of things: how much it’s used, how far away in time you go, what you do there, a lot of things. No doubt about it, we got us a job keeping this one up.”

Vic dipped his own hands in the pool and tasted it. It tasted just like pool water to him. What did Joe see in it? “You mean we can kind of—wear it out?”

“Oh, sure. It’s like any machine. You can wear any machine out, if you overuse it, don’t keep it up. But don’t you fellas worry none—I’ll keep her going. I’ll teach you all the tricks you need to know.”

Vic turned to Conrad. “We got to keep this quiet. Just the few of us who already know. The rest of Brighton Woods finds out about this and there’ll be a stampede. The old folks’ll wreck this thing for good if we aren’t careful. Joe—promise me, will you? Promise me you won’t go running your mouth around the place about this.”

Joe spread his hands. “Can’t promise that, Vic. Wouldn’t be fair. I don’t advertise it a lot anyway. But if someone asks—“

“That’s okay,” Conrad told him. “Just keep doing that. We’ll take it from there.” His eyes met Vic’s in a glimmer of understanding. “Come on, old man…let’s get back to the Big House. We got some thinking and planning to do.”

So Vic Lockhart and Conrad Bell left the time garden to Joe, who told them he planned to fix a few things before he turned in. He promised he’d catch up with them at breakfast the next morning—the same place: corner table by the veranda in the Colonial Room, the one with the uneven legs.

Vic and Conrad hustled back through the darkened forest, their hearts racing, their minds filled with ideas and possibilities.

 

Later that night, Vic stole out of his room on B-West’s third floor and went downstairs. It was after midnight and he hadn’t been able to sleep. Sometimes, it helped to go outside and prowl around the grounds, chat with the staff, walk the service road into and out of East Woods, just some kind of physical activity. His mind wouldn’t let him rest. It was in overdrive, revving up a million ideas a minute.

Down in the atrium, he ran into a midnight bridge game. Sarah Gibson was there, smoking a cigarette (she hadn’t done that in years; something big was on, you could tell). Annie Jacobs was there too, with Angel Havener rounding out the trio. Annie was in her pale yellow robe and muffs, ever-present hot tea steaming on the side of the table. Angel wore red shorts, white tank top. A wide-brim golf hat and glowing pipe completed the ensemble.

“Just who we need, a fourth player,” Sarah called out. She waved Vic over.

Vic didn’t sit down. “I suppose you guys can’t sleep either.”

Angel puffed vigorously on his pipe. His head was enveloped in pungent smoke. It smelled like musty fruit. “Nonsense, my boy…we’re just here keeping the squirrels company. Dinner not agree with you again?…what was that brown crap with the gravy, anyway? I complained and Chef Cosmo told me to mind my own business.”

Vic turned a chair around and straddled it backwards, peeking over Annie’s trembling wizened brown hands to see what she had. “I’d call—“ he advised her. She swatted him on the nose.

“You’ve been to the time garden,” Sarah observed. It wasn’t a question. Vic didn’t try to deny it.

“Is it written on my face? We were just having some fun with Joe, that’s all. Cheap trick, if you ask me. Some kind of mass hypnosis. By tomorrow, it’ll all vanish.”

“It’s already tomorrow,” Sarah said tartly. “And I don’t think it’s a trick. Do you?”

Vic turned serious, decided his usual wisecracking wouldn’t work. “No…hell, I don’t know. You went through…what do you think?”

Sarah sat back, sipped at a milk, most likely laced with something. You could check just about any pocket in her blue robe and you’d find a flask of something. “It’s either the biggest scam I’ve ever seen or—“ she bit her lip, remembering how Del’s lips had tasted on hers, that last night at Jimmy’s Peanut Bar “—one hell of a trick ride. They can do all kinds of magic with mirrors and computers and such now. Disney does it. Look at TV, the movies. What’s real and what isn’t? Does it even matter?”

Angel huffed. “I haven’t been through it. I choose to believe you’re all a bunch of gullible old farts. No rational man believes in time travel, certainly not time travel on demand…dial up a time and go back to it. See your loved ones one last time, step right up, little lady…c’mon. Maybe Joe’s been eating the mushrooms. Maybe Chef Cosmo’s feeding them to us. Wouldn’t be the first time. I smell a scam here. A big one. And we’re the perfect marks…a captive audience wasting away our final days playing bridge and swinging to Benny Goodman and attending life enrichment courses, for God’s sake. What the hell is that?”

“You haven’t been through,” Vic said quietly. “You wouldn’t talk like that if you had. It’s real enough…question is: what do we do about it. Old Joe says he’s retiring. Nobody else knows how to operate the damn thing.”

“I haven’t tried it either,” Annie said softly. She was a frail, yet regal and proud black lady, wrinkled and small, always trembling as Parkinson’s claimed more and more of her muscles. She glared at all of them. “I haven’t been past the English garden in…goodness knows, a year or two. Maybe longer.”

“Honey,” Sarah patted her hands, “there’s mosquitos and flies out there. The ground’s marshy…you might fall, break a hip, or worse.”

“Stop patronizing her,” Vic said. “The lady just wants to have some fun…let’s help her. Annie—“ Vic bent down and patted the side of her head. “Don’t you worry…old Vic’ll help you. I’ll carry you out there myself if I have to.”

“With what—a wheelbarrow—“

“Shut up,” Vic said. “Annie, you really want to try this? You really want to go to the time garden? You’ll have to go underwater, hold your breath—“

Annie coughed violently, dribbling phlegm and mucous down her chin as her body was wracked with a wave of spasms. It went on for three minutes, the worst episode in days. Sarah looked at Angel, while Vic comforted her. It’s getting worse, her eyes told them. Annie’s face turned pale and her hands fluttered around her. Weakly, she pushed Vic away, finally regained her speech, but her voice was strained.

“If…there’s a way…” she croaked out, “…that I can see…my David…once more…stop that shooting…” she nodded, started to rise, but her hand slipped and she collapsed back down onto the chair, half into Vic’s arms, as he caught her. “—I want to go—“

“Okay…okay…” Vic promised her, helping her sit upright, urging a sip of the tea, stroking her hair, while Sarah dabbed at sweat and sputum coating the sides of her cheeks. “I’ll tell you what…how about tomorrow. It’s awful late now. You need rest. Get your strength back. If you’re okay tomorrow, I’ll take you out to the time garden. Me and Joe’ll help you. Okay?”

Annie nodded faintly, seemed satisfied. She buried her face in the cup of tea, inhaling its hot vapors.

Vic looked at Sarah and Angel. Angel was pale himself, afraid Annie would expire right there in front of them. He was funny about that. Death was an everyday event at Brighton Woods. But Angel didn’t want to talk about it. Angel always changed the subject.

Sarah’s lips were tight. She glared at Vic, eyes narrow. “You’re not going to monopolize that thing…I won’t stand for it…we all have the same rights here…nobody’s going to take my Del away from me again…not this time—“

 

4.

 

The next morning was cool and misty, with fog rising off the lawn behind Brighton West. It was Vic Lockhart who discovered that old Joe Harper, the Time Gardener, had died, killed tragically overnight in a car accident just outside the gates of Brighton Woods. Hit by a delivery truck, hit and run, the police determined. Apparently, he’d been hauling something in a wheelbarrow across the highway, right where the road bent around the entrance canopy to Brighton Woods, when the truck hit. Knocked him sixty-two feet, it was reported, hell of an impact, and landed his broken body in a culvert on the other side.

A few hours later, the incident was known all over Brighton Woods. The B-West bridge group gathered at a damp wrought iron table, in the gloom of the mid-morning fog, wrapped in robes and light jackets against the chilly air, and discussed what to do next.

“Well,” Sarah murmured, over her coffee cup, “what the hell are we going to do now?”

Angel Havener chewed thoughtfully on a bagel, cream cheese squeezing out on both sides of his mouth. “How about nothing? As in: this was all a bad dream and we imagined the whole thing. Old farts live in the past anyway…you know that.”

“We can’t just ignore it,” Vic said. He wore a dark gray pea coat and a white nautical cap with elaborate insignia on the peak. “Joe worked hard to build that garden, kept it up. It’d be wrong to let it go. We’d honor Joe, I’m sure, by taking over the job.”

“Taking over the job?” Sarah was incredulous. “Who do you think you are? We’re all inmates here—you think the Administration’s going to let us run the place? And what do you know about running a…er, time garden anyway?”

Vic forced his fists to unclench. Some days, Sarah just made him want to—“I know one thing…the garden’s deteriorating. Going away. It’s getting used up fast, Joe told me.”

“That’s because you and Conrad are hogging the thing to yourselves. Like little boys in a sandbox…this is my castle and you can’t get in.”

“Hold on, Sarah, just hold on, will you? I got a plan for that too.” Vic had spent much of the night tossing and turning in bed, half in and out of sleep, visions of time gardens mixing with snowy Korean hillsides and frozen Chicom faces fading into white-jacketed Brighton staff members. All very confusing, very troubling. He’d stayed awake half the night, watching some Gregory Peck movie on the tube, working out ideas on paper, like he always did, scribbling to think. “I got it all worked out. We’ve just got to set up some kind of system. Some kind of schedule, with passes, maybe even reservations. It’s the only way this is going to work.”

“Oh, that’s just great,” Sarah said. “There’s enough of that around here as it is…passes for the gym, passes to the theater, passes to take a crap…why don’t we just use the honor system. We are adults here, you know. At least, most of us are.”

Vic scowled. It wouldn’t take much for him to haul off and sock the woman right in the kisser. “Because,” he seethed, “some of us have no honor. Trust me…this is for the best. Now—we need to vote…somebody’s got to manage the system. Be the gatekeeper. Punch tickets and so forth.”

“You do it, Vic,” said Conrad. “And how are we going to keep the thing going now that Joe’s gone…what do we know about running a time garden?”

“Don’t get your panties in a wad…Joe showed me a few things. I think I can handle the basics.”

Sarah just rolled her eyes, but Conrad was worried. “Is there an admission price?”

“No, you dolt, there’s no admission price. This is just a way to keep everybody happy. We’ve got a finite resource out there. Everybody should have a chance to use it.”

“What about Miss Annie?”

Vic remembered his promise and checked with her. Annie Jacobs appeared a small, shrunken child, looking like some kind of mummified remains from a tomb, her petite black frame lost in the slats of the big deck chair. Her eyes were shut tight and she was breathing shallowly.

“Annie, Annie…wake up. You still want to go to the time garden today? Are you feeling okay…feeling strong enough?”

For such a wizened figure, her voice was surprisingly strong and clear. “Mmhhmm. See my David, I do.”

Vic patted her hand. “That settles that. What say we talk about this on the walk out. It’s a twenty minute hike. Conrad, you and me will have to help Annie. We’ll put her through and see if she can’t find David.”

Conrad liked the idea. Everybody was pulling for Annie. “Maybe she can find old Joe Harper too. Get us some instructions on how to keep this time garden up. I suppose he didn’t leave any operator’s manual lying around.”

 

Half an hour later, the bridge group had found their way to the garden. Vic and Conrad scouted the perimeter of the clearing, just to make sure no one else was about. Sarah and Angel helped Annie Jacobs down to the side of the pool, helped her pull her jacket off. She wanted to stay in her dress, which billowed out like a balloon as soon as she dropped into the water. She shivered uncontrollably, until Sarah eased into the water beside her and hugged her to keep her warm.

Vic explained what she was supposed to do, several times, making the frail old black lady repeat each step, until he was sure she understood.

“It’s important, Annie. You have to hold your breath and grope around underwater. You won’t have much time, so you have to find it fast.” He turned to Conrad. “Maybe one of us should go with her.”

The actor shook his head. “Not enough room, Vic. She’ll do fine. Annie’s a strong lady.”

“Right. Anyway, when you find the opening, shimmy through. You have to kick a bit and kinda tug with your hands…but once your head’s through, you’ll have light and air and then you kind of spin—“

“—only you don’t get dizzy—“Sarah added. “It feels good actually. Like your shedding old stuff, getting into a new skin—“

Conrad bent down to the pool, took Annie’s hand. “Honey…I know you’re going backward. But trust me, the future’s better. You have to twist around, really contort yourself to get there, it’s different from the past.” He smiled broadly, thinking of Molly on the big screen. “But it sure is worth it. It’s more than worth it. Anyway, good luck, sweetie—“

Annie Jacobs smiled. Like a Cheshire cat, the smile lowered itself to the water and disappeared below the surface. Only the billowing pale pink dress marked where she had been. Soon, it too was gone.

“Somebody keep the count,” Vic called. “My watch isn’t working…hasn’t been working right since I went through.”

“Fifteen seconds…so far—“ Conrad made the count. “She’ll do fine…she’s a strong lady, that one.”

At three minutes, a ripple of concern began to surface. Vic and Sarah stirred uneasily, glanced sideways at Conrad, whose eyes were fixed to his watch.

At four minutes, there was still no sign of Annie. The waters of the grotto were eerily still. Not a single ripple disturbed the pool. There were no bubbles, no foam, nothing.

At four and a half minutes, Vic moved down to the landing and bent his face closer to the water. “Anybody see her? I don’t see a thing.”

“Too dark, from here,” Angel said. He was anxious, tapping his feet on a smooth river stone embedded in the grotto wall.

At five minutes, Vic couldn’t stand it any longer. “Something’s wrong—“ he started ripping off his jacket, then his shirt. “I’m going in—“

Conrad did the same. “Me too.”

Both men eased into the pool and groped for a few moments, then at a signal, they both ducked under. After ten seconds, froth and foam churned the water and then, in an explosive geyser of water, both men erupted into the air. Vic cradled the prostrate body of Annie in his arms, Conrad helped hoist her legs up. Her face was pale, deathly blue.

“Somebody help me get her up—“Vic yelled. He waded through the water to the slate landing and, working with Conrad, passed the petite black woman up and over to dry ground. Angel and Sarah dragged her feet around and situated her head against a wad of jackets from the men. Conrad and Vic climbed out.

“Somebody go get the nurses. Get Will…he knows stuff! Call the clinic…right now!”

Angel hustled off at a trot through the forest. Vic pushed everybody away and bent to Annie’s face, feeling inside her swollen mouth, trying to make sure her airway was not blocked. Then he bent forward and started resuscitation efforts.

Sarah was shivering in spite of herself. “God…oh, God…let it not be too late…please, God, let it not be—“

 

Will Moreno, the day guard, and two nurses and one physician from the clinic arrived at the garden in about ten minutes. Dr. Broadley was the physician, slim, dark-haired, former champion swimmer—Broadley was the love object of half the females at Brighton. He glared at the assembly, barking orders.

“Get me some covers…she’s going into shock. What the hell are you people doing anyway…is this some kind of weird rite? Initiation ceremony? You’re all nuts, or worse…this woman doesn’t belong out here—“

“Can you help her, Doc?” Vic asked quietly. “Just shut up and help the lady, will you?”

Annie Jacobs pulled through, barely, and was taken to Deerfield Clinic, for observation overnight. Later that night, after being given a sedative and having her lungs and heart thoroughly checked, she was put on a respirator and left alone for a while.

Vic and Sarah came by, prevailed on the nurse at the duty station to let them at least see her. She relented, reluctantly, and they went in. Annie wasn’t asleep.

Her voice was tinny, barely audible behind the respirator mask. She was crying softly, tears rolling down her cheeks.

Sarah came over, dabbed at the tears. “What’s wrong, Sweetie? What is it? Doc Broadley says you’re going to be okay…just a little water in your lungs. Few days and you’ll be as good as new.”

“I saw him…Sarah—“ she whispered softly. “My David…I seen him…couldn’t stop him…the gun came out…” she trembled and her lips quivered so much the mask seemed in danger of sliding off. Vic fixed it back. “He got shot…I never saw before…how it went down…so horrible—“ she shook her head, made a face, “so horrible, so much blood.”

“Then you did go through?” Vic asked. “You made it?”

“Oh, yes…my Lord…I saw all of it…everything…God wanted me to see it—“ she coughed and a nurse appeared quickly in the door, a stern look on her face

“She needs rest, you two.” She motioned them out.

But Annie grabbed a hold of Sarah’s sleeve, puller her closer. “I went through the time garden, Sarah, really, I did. It was—“ she struggled for the right word “—horrible and wonderful at the same time. David got shot. I couldn’t stop it. I tried…tried to save him and protect him…” her hands clutched Sarah tighter, squeezing and trembling at the same time, “but I couldn’t. I tried to revive…bring him back, but half his head—“she choked on her words, more tears rolled down her cheeks. “I didn’t go back fur enough…something pulled me away…I have to go back again—“

“You almost died in that pool, Annie.”

“I have to go back…have to go back further…I don’t care about dying…David got shot…if I can stop it—“

“It’s past time,” the nurse insisted. “Come on out, you two…let Miss Annie get some rest.”

On his way out, Vic remembered something. “Annie…did you see Joe anywhere around? Joe Harper?”

The frail black woman was pawing at her respirator mask, wanting to pull it off, fussing with the nurse. Her voice was thick.

“No. I didn’t see no Joe Harper. Didn’t see nobody but my David—“

 

5.

 

For the next several days, the atmosphere at Brighton Woods was tense and apprehensive. Tempers were short, conversations clipped and the staff brusque and irritable. Annie Jacobs stayed in Deerfield Clinic. Dr. Broadley was insistent. “She needs to be under observation…her bronchial tissues and lungs are weak, inflamed. I want to run some tests.”

And Will Moreno, the day guard, had orders from the Administration to keep everybody away from the time garden.

Several days went by and no one was allowed to visit the garden where Annie Jacobs had nearly drowned. “Sorry,” Will, the guard, would tell them. “I got orders from the Big Man…no one goes near that place. In fact, there’s been talk of fencing it off. Maybe tearing it down completely.”

Sarah Gibson was incredulous. “What! You can’t be serious. After all the work Joe Harper put into that place…it should be a memorial to him. They can’t do that.”

Vic Lockhart was furious. “I want to talk with the Administrator. What does he think this is…some kind of POW camp? The nerve—“

Late one afternoon, in the Colonial Room over tea and cookies, the bridge group decided they couldn’t allow the Administration to tear down Joe Harper’s time garden. It was an outrage. Clearly, they would have to act.

“But what can we do?” Conrad Bell asked. He was breaking off small nubs of chocolate chip from his cookies and building a separate pile of them on his plate, making ready to have an orgy of chocolate, even soliciting others’ cookies for donation. “We could demonstrate…have a sit-in outside his office.”

“Get real,” Vic snarled. “They want to keep the old farts in line. Everything’s got to be official and approved and age-appropriate. You know how it works. Any time the inmates start having fun on their own, it’s a threat.”

“We need a new gardener,” Sarah said quietly. “Someone like Joe.”

Conrad patted Vic on the shoulder. “Here’s your man…always volunteering for the tough missions…just ask him.”

“Shut up. Since you raised the matter, Joe did show me a few things. But that garden’s failing. It’s going to break down pretty soon. Joe told me that and I can see it myself. I got to figure out how it works, how to fix it. We don’t want to lose it now.”

Angel Havener brushed imaginary lint from his corduroy jacket and sniffed. “Who else could do it? You’re perfect, Vic.”

Sarah glowered at the prospect but said nothing.

The discussion rambled on but more and more, Vic seemed the best candidate. By five o’clock, it was time for everybody to get ready for dinner—tonight was Italian night and Chef Cosmo had promised a surprise—no more rubbery spaghetti that gave everybody the runs.

“We have to decide,” Conrad was sure. “Why don’t we vote?”

“I’m not a candidate,” Vic lied. But it didn’t matter. Majority ruled and Vic was elected the new tender of Joe’s garden. The time gardener.

“You’ll do fine,” Conrad told him.

Secretly, Vic thought he probably was the best candidate. He’d studied what Joe did, asked a lot of questions, gotten a few answers. But he knew he didn’t really know any more about how the garden worked than anybody else. He looked at each of the others in turn.

“We’re all in this together, agreed?”

There was a general nodding of heads.

“And we keep this to ourselves…at least for the time being. We can’t have every old geezer in Brighton Woods diving into that pool trying to relive his favorite moments. Agreed?”

Nods again, not as certain.

“We’ve got to have a plan,” Vic decided. “If I’m the time gardener, we’re going to do this by some kind of system.”

Sarah was sour about having Vic in charge. “As long as it’s equal. Everybody gets equal time. Nobody hogs the garden.”

Vic pointed a finger right at her. “Exactly my plan, lady. Democracy in action.”

“So what is our plan?” Angel asked. “Don’t keep it a secret.”

“Well—“Vic scratched what was left of his hair, twirled a few tufts in his fingers, trying to think “—seems like we have to do several things.”

“Well, enlighten us, o’ great leader—“ Sarah muttered.

Vic ignored her. “We’ve got to convince the Administrator to leave the garden and the grotto alone…we could offer to keep it up ourselves. I know Mildred’s big into gardening. I’ve done masonry work before. We can do it…I’m sure we can. Then, since I’m no expert on how this time machine works, we’re going to have to run some experiments, see exactly how it works. Joe said it was starting to deteriorate. And we almost lost Annie, so maybe he’s right. Trouble is…I haven’t the faintest idea how to fix the damn thing.”

“Mmm—“ Conrad said. “and he didn’t leave repair instructions, did he?”

“No, he didn’t.”

Everyone was generally agreeable with Vic’s plan. Everyone except Angel. He snuffed and wheezed…he did that when he wanted attention.

“What about you, Dr. Havener? What’s eating you?”

Angel shrugged. His big shoulders moved like a mountain. “I haven’t tried it yet.”

“Look—“Vic pointed out, ticking off ideas on his fingertips, “it’s probably not safe…you saw what almost happened to Annie.”

“I don’t care—I want to make a trip. Like Conrad here…into the future. Maybe it works okay that way—we don’t know it doesn’t. Annie went back in time. Maybe forward still works.”

Vic was shaking his head. “Angel, why risk it right now? We may be able to fix the garden, make it safer.”

“And you may not fix it,” he replied. “The whole garden may go kaput and I’d be stuck right here…with nothing—“ he stopped, his face lowered and he stared at cookie crumbs on the table.

Angel had pancreatic cancer. Everybody knew that. His days were few and some days, he struggled with the certainty of his own mortality.

Vic swallowed hard. They had to stay together. If the bridge group fell to bickering and whining, the time garden was as good as lost forever.

“Why the future, Angel? None of has a future… we all know that. We have to accept things…that’s the way it is. There’s nothing in the future, for any of us.”

“You’re wrong—“ he blurted out, near tears. “I want to see what happens to gay people…see if life’s any better for them. Fifty years ago…I came out, made peace with what I was, looked myself in the mirror—“ he snuffled, pulled out a handkerchief and blew his nose with a big honk “—decided I was, you know, all right. I was all right. Now…the end’s coming…I just want to see how it turns out. Fifty years from now. Not necessarily for me, for others. It’s been a fight, the whole thing’s been a struggle, one day at a time—“

“Okay, okay—“ Vic surrendered. He hated men crying. It wasn’t right when men shed tears. “Don’t lose your marbles, Ang.”

There was an embarrassed silence around the table. Angel had been doing so well. No one offered any resistance. Vic promised Angel he could be next to use the time garden.

“But I want to check the place out first. Plus we have to get the Administrator on our side. Can’t have Will out there trying to arrest us or something. He’d probably have a heart attack trying.”

That said, the agreement was in place. The bridge group of B-West would take over running old Joe Harper’s time garden.

 

6.

 

The very next night, Vic and Conrad and Sarah were on hand, as Angel wiggled out if his size 48 trousers and jacket, shimmied down to his underpants, and stood on the side of the grotto pool, chewing the end of an unlit pipe.

“You’ll have to lose the pipe,” Vic said. “Water and flame don’t mix too well.”

“Very funny.” Angel handed it to Conrad, who gingerly carried it by his fingertips as if it were highly contaminated. He dropped it on the grass back of the footbridge.

“You understand what I explained to you?” Conrad asked.

Angel nodded. He sat on the slate landing and slipped into the water. “I duck my head under and grope around for the opening. Then kick hard, twist a little to get into the future time stream and pull myself through.”

“That’s how it worked for me,” the actor said. “I can’t explain it but it worked.”

“If it works at all,” Vic muttered. “That water ain’t foaming as much…I don’t know what that means…maybe nothing. But it always foamed like Sarah’s bathtub before.”

“What the hell do you know about my bathtub?” Sarah asked.

“Never mind…Angel…we always do a count when a person goes under. Safety precaution. I should have reacted quicker with Annie.” He reached out and put a firm hand on Angel’s massive shoulder. “If I get to three minutes and you haven’t come back up…I’m coming in after you. Understood?”

Angel nodded silently. “Here goes—“he pinched his nose and submerged in a spray of bubbles. Soon enough, the waters of the grotto were still.

“Start the count,” Vic ordered.

“Liftoff and the clock is running…” Conrad read off the dial of his watch. “Coming up on twenty seconds. Mark—“

Vic stood staring down at the tawny brown water, squinting for any sign of Angel below the surface. It was opaque and eerily still. “Wise guy. Just let me know at one minute.”

Time passed with glacial slowness, as Vic, Conrad and Sarah stared hard at the faint ripples breaking the surface of the water. No sign of Angel.

One minute passed.

Two minutes.

At exactly three minutes, Vic couldn’t stand it any longer. He ripped off his jacket and shirt and leaped feet first into the water. Ducking under, he scrambled frantically, feeling with feet and hands for something, anything…and then he bumped into it…a huge, unmoving mass. It had to be Angel.

He went down, Conrad joining him, and the two of them strained and groaned to lift the dead weight of the body up to the surface.

Angel Havener wasn’t breathing. They turned him over and steered him to the side of the grotto. Sarah was thunderstruck, horrified, her hands in her mouth.

“Help…help me…get this guy…UP!”

They rolled and pushed and heaved and dragged, the three of them, until finally they managed to get Angel up and over the slate edging and onto the grass. He rolled upright, his mouth blue, eyes wide open, a look of surprise on his face.

Vic pulled himself out of the pool and knelt down to begin resuscitation, but it was useless…they could all see that.

Angel Havener was dead.

 

“Oh…oh, God…” Sarah snuffled, wiping her eyes, hyperventilating, her hands fluttering, useless about her face. “God…what are we going to—is he…is he?”

Vic looked up, his own eyes glazed and narrow. Slowly, he nodded. “It’s no use…he’s gone—“

Sarah Gibson burst into tears.

Conrad knelt alongside Vic as he smoothed back Angel’s hair, still plastered to his forehead. “What happened—why didn’t he come up?”

Vic was already thinking fast. “I don’t know, dammit. Something went wrong. Maybe it’s the portal…maybe it malfunctioned. Joe said it needed work.”

Sarah dropped to her knees, stroking Angel’s hair. “He didn’t care if he lived or not. With that cancer—“

“You think he did this deliberately?” Conrad asked.

Vic shrugged. “The real question is: what do we do now?”

“What do you mean?”

Vic stood up, looked around. He wandered back up toward the tool shed, poked his head in the door. Then he came back.

“It’s a cinch we can’t tell anybody what happened?”

Sarah was incredulous. “We have to tell the nurses. We have to tell the guards and staff. Poor Angel deserves to be treated right.”

“Sarah, listen to me: if we tell the staff, that’ll be the end of the garden. The end of the time machine. They’ll never let anyone near here again.”

Sarah snuffled. “Maybe they shouldn’t—“

Conrad said, “—no, listen, maybe Vic’s right. If we don’t tell anybody what happened, for a few days at least, maybe we can figure out how to fix this thing. Sarah, listen to him for once…it makes sense. Joe Harper left us with an incredible gift here…it’s up to us to use it right. Do right by Joe.”

“But…what about Angel?”

Vic said, “Looks like an accident to me. Conrad, there’s room in the shed. Don’t start bawling, Sarah, now, just keep it down, will you? It’s only for a few days.”

“It isn’t right.”

But Conrad and Vic were already carrying the lifeless body of Angel Havener up the hill to the tool shed. Vic kicked the door open with his foot and they shuffled and dragged the body inside. It was pitch black but there was enough light from the bronze lanterns around the pool to provide dim illumination.

They situated Angel in a corner, propped upright and wedged between an old sawhorse and a stack of seed bags.

“He’ll be all right for a day or so,” Vic decided.

“Till the flies get him. What about the smell?”

Vic was already shutting the door behind them. “We have to fix the time machine first. Then…maybe we can put him closer to the service road or something.”

“I know…maybe down by the cart bridge…the one that goes to Deerfield Clinic. Tell ‘em Angel kind of fell off, died in a fall into the creek. Sort of a suicide.”

“Now you’re talking. Come on—“

They said no more, any of them, that night about Angel Havener. The thought that they had just committed murder, or assisted in a suicide, hung heavily in the air, but it was never voiced.

“You think the time machine’s conked out?” Conrad asked. He washed his hands in the pool, drying them on his pants, and fanning them in the cool air. “Gone kaput?”

Vic shrugged, walking around the grotto. He rubbed his chin, folded his arms, scratched the back of his head. How the hell did the thing work? In the Marines, he’d been a pretty good country mechanic. He could always get a jeep or a deuce and a quarter truck going, even in the middle of a firefight. But this thing—this time machine—

“It’s got me stumped,” Vic admitted. “Except, maybe—“

“What?”

“Well, I keep thinking back to something Joe said. He once told me the garden works on wasted time, unused time.” He stopped at the very top of the grotto wall, sat down with his legs dangling over the pool. The waters were perfectly still.

Conrad joined him. “Yeah, so—?”

“Just this. I’m thinking Angel drowned, either by accident or—maybe he wanted to. If the garden works on unused time, maybe Angel really went before his time, you know? Maybe there’s some unused time there, something we could use. Joe said it was like fuel, sort of.”

“So what do we do now?” Conrad asked.

Vic was working it out in his head. He took a deep breath. “The way I got it figured…there’s only one way to keep the portal going…if I understand Joe right. We’ve got to send one more person through. Maybe we can get one more use out of it, get back—somewhere in the past—to where we can find Joe. He said there were other time gardeners too. Then we can learn what can be done, if anything, to repair or restore the portal.”

“Hey, if you’re right, maybe we can put Angel’s body back through too,” Conrad said. “Put him back through…to a time before he died. Kind of like bringing him back—what do you think?”

Sarah was having no part of this scheme. “I think you’ve both gone off the deep end. I’m quite certain only the Lord God Almighty can raise the dead.”

“We don’t know if it’ll work or not,” Vic said. “I’m just saying it’s worth a try.”

Sarah shook her head. “I’ve changed my mind about this thing. Maybe we ought to just leave it alone. Let it go. It killed Angel. Nearly killed Annie—“

“Sarah…knock it off. Angel died because he wanted to,” Vic said. “We all knew what was going on. The man was terminal…he had a few months, if that. It wasn’t the first time he tried to knock himself off.”

“Vic Lockhart, shut your mouth. Don’t speak like that. Every minute of life is precious…Angel was just—“

“Crazy,” Conrad finished the sentence. “Suicidal…there I said it again. What are you going to do about it?”

She stuck out her tongue. “At least the man should have a dignified burial. Sticking him up there in the tool shed, like a sack of seed…really—“

“Sarah, so help me—“ Vic warned her. “If you go blabbing this to the staff, I’ll strangle you myself.”

“You wish—“

Conrad held up his hands. “Kids, really. Save the drama for later. Vic, what’s the plan?”

Vic stood up, hand on his hips. In the shadows of the grotto, he looked almost feral. Only a faint reflection from the bald spot on the back of his head spoiled the image.

Vic knew something that he could never tell them, something that had been bothering him for years. He should have died at the Anjin camp in Manchuria. He wasn’t supposed to be here. He’d been lucky. But maybe it wasn’t really luck at all.

I’ll go through again. Tomorrow night. I guess it’s sort of my responsibility now, anyway. You guys can keep this to yourselves at least that long, can’t you?”

Sullenly, they both nodded. “What about Angel? You just going to leave him up there?”

“Nope,” Vic said. “I’m taking him with me when I go through. Old Joe may be right…Angel went before his time. Maybe we can use him to re-charge the garden. Maybe there’s some things I can do too, to balance things out. It’s worth a try anyway. There’s not enough room for both of us, but somehow I’ll make it. Are we agreed then? Tomorrow night…right here…say about 9:30?”

“I may get drunk instead,” Sarah insisted. “That’s the only way any of this makes sense.”

“I’ll drag her along with me,” Conrad promised.

And so they finally, reluctantly, agreed to Vic’s idea.

 

7.

 

The next night came and it was cool and damp, a chill breeze blowing through the Black Forest. Sarah was red-eyed when Vic and Conrad collected her from her apartment in Brighton East. But her breath was clear.

“Honest, guys, I haven’t had a thing to drink.” She shambled after them. She didn’t tell them she’d been crying most of the day.

Will Moreno was curious, even suspicious, at the trip and stopped them before they went out onto the pool deck.

“I was just fixin’ to close the deck. Wood’s kind of slippery out there. Mildred almost lost her footing earlier this evening.”

“Mildred could lose her footing taking a nap,” Sarah said tartly. “We’re grown-ups, for heavens’ sake. I think we can make it out to the table on our own.”

Will fiddled with his big white moustache. “Maybe so, but you three be careful. I’m keeping my eye on you, just the same. Administration doesn’t want any unnecessary injuries.”

“As opposed to necessary injuries—“ Conrad came back. They pushed by the guard stand and exited Brighton West onto the wooden deck. It was clammy and Sarah drew her sweater tighter.

“Let’s go,” Vic decided. “No sense putting this off any longer.”

“What about Will?”

Vic didn’t have to answer. He’d already arranged for Dorothy Wright to create a little diversion. In fact, the commotion had already started behind them. They quickly made their way into the East Woods, while several staff members hustled after the naked black woman, who’s suddenly appeared in the common room and dropped her pink chiffon robe in front of everybody.

Sarah chuckled at the sight. “Dottie does have a way with men, doesn’t she? Too bad she’s too old to do her can-can routine.”

The woods were damp and dripping from the light drizzle that had fallen most of the day.

Vic and Conrad retrieved Angel’s body from the back of the tool shed. He had started to smell but the shed contained most of it. They lugged his body down to the grotto and laid it on the landing by the footbridge.

Sarah put a hand on Vic’s shoulder. “You know you don’t have to do this. I don’t want anything to happen to you.”

Vic was already stripping down to his underwear. “Spare me the speech, will you? If I’m going to be the time gardener, then I’ve got to start acting like one. See what’s messing this thing up. I’ll be okay. I’ve been through before.”

He climbed into the pool, then worked with Conrad to maneuver Angel’s body over the side. Angel had been a heavy man,, weighing well over two hundred and fifty pounds. In death, he seemed to weigh a ton. Vic struggled to keep him afloat.

“Wish me luck,” he said, after he had finally oriented Angel’s head toward the grotto wall.

“Don’t run off with any cheap sluts,” Sarah told him.

“Hey,” Vic waved at her, “there’s nothing cheap about this kid. When I was in the First Marines, they used to call me ‘hot-hands.’ Won just about every game of blackjack ever played.”

“Good luck, then,” Conrad called.

Vic shoved Angel’s head underwater and submerged with the corpse as it began to sink.

He floundered with the body for a few moments, groping for the opening he knew was there. Finally, his fingers probed along the rock wall and found the seam. It seemed smaller than he remembered, but he figured that was an illusion.

Holding his breath, he struggled with Angel, finally grasping the dead man around his ample waist, then nosing forward through the murk.

When he was sure he had found the opening to the time portal, he kicked as hard as he could, squeezing Angel’s arms tight and shot through, banging his cheek on the side of the gateway.

For the briefest instant, he was dizzy, then spinning like a ball, over and over and over again, whirling like he‘d done as a kid on the merry-go-round…you could almost make yourself sick if you leaned way back while you were spinning, and he loved to do just that—

Then he was freezing cold and tumbling and when he opened his eyes, he realized he was falling, spinning around, over and over again and he was picking up speed, as his body thrashed and crashed through snowdrifts. Finally, after his lungs were on fire and he was about to burst, he slammed into a rock at the bottom of a hill and it practically knocked him senseless.

He lay there, dazed for a moment, just trying to get his bearings, then with a dawning sense of dread, knew for sure that he had been here before.

It was an icy snowfield in Manchuria, just outside the camp gates, with a warm glow emanating from the guard towers, just over top of the snow banks. The wind howled around him and the blizzard seemed to pick up strength.

He was back in Korea. And Angel Havener was nowhere to be seen.

But something was wrong. Vic Lockhart, Private First Class of Charlie Company of the 1st Marines, United States X Corps, blinked open an eye and knew that what he was seeing had never happened.

He was outside the gates of the Anjin camp.

A couple of times after he’d been taken prisoner by the Chicoms and the gooks, he’d tried to escape. But he’d never made it. That was the lie he had lived with for so many years…that’s what he had to change now…and to hell with Angel Havener.

The truth was he’d never been outside the compound until that hot, sweltering day in July, 1953, after the armistice and the big truck with the UN crest had come by and scooped them all up from the dragon’s maw and delivered them to joyous freedom.

So what was he doing here?

Vic scrambled to his feet, squinting through stinging sleet crystals and the howling wind. He heard voices on the wind, Chicoms, and he scuttled off toward what little cover there was, a scrawny line of bushes half buried in snow in a culvert at the base of the hill. Then he stopped. More voices. They were everywhere, all around him.

He was trapped. Even as he realized it, faces materialized out of the ice fog, faces and barrels of rifles. Suddenly the culvert was crawling, alive with faces and guttural voices.

“—li fang…zhu li fang Oi!”

He got up to his knees and put his hands behind his head. It was so cold, he didn’t really care. Kill me here, red bastard, go ahead and shoot, goddamn it! Get it over with.

But they didn’t shoot. He was roughly hoisted to his feet, stumbling in the deep snow and his hands were quickly bound with rope. Before he knew it, he was marching, shuffling and slipping and sliding up and down the hills, north, always north, back toward the very mouth of Hell itself.

Just like it had been five weeks before, when the Chicoms cut Charlie Company to pieces three days after Thanksgiving.

 

As soon as Vic Lockhart and Petey and Oscar saw the watchtowers of Camp Seven, four miles northeast of the town of Anjin, they knew they had reached their final destination. The death march from the battlefield at Hill 1282 near Yudam-ni had lasted almost three weeks. Well over half the column of prisoners had fallen out, dead from frostbite and exposure, dead from Chinese bullets, dead from slipping on icy mountain passes and falling hundreds of feet into ravines.

Those remaining were dead too, Vic figured. They just didn’t know it yet.

That includes me. Vic knew he should have died on the march. But he hadn’t. Maybe if he had, the Time Garden would work better. No, don’t even think like that.

Somehow, some way, unaccountably, they had survived it all. Vic had prayed every morning, when the guards made them lie down in the scrawny bushes and packed them with snow to conceal the column from aerial reconnaissance, prayed that Death would take him and deliver him from the ordeal. But every night, after shivering in forty-mile an hour winds and swirling blizzards, he rose at bayonet point just after dusk, took his meal of watered-down gruel and stale bread, and marched on through the night, slogging up and down icy hills, across frozen rice paddies. Slogging, trudging and finally the last week limping on swollen and numb feet toward the Yalu River valley and the border.

Vic was certain as he could be that he knew what Hell was and he told himself he didn’t need any sing-song preacher from the back-woods of Alabama to explain the concept.

Camp Seven was officially known as Prisoner Re-education and Corrective Labor Camp Number Seven, administered by Unit 681 of the Fiftieth Field Army of the Chinese Peoples Volunteers. For all the grandiose administrative title, it was a spartan rectangle of huts and barracks-style wooden beam buildings, arrayed in concentric squares, surrounded by three rows of barbed-wire fence, overlooked by thirty-foot high truss work watchtowers at opposite ends of the main rectangle. There were two squares of barracks abutting each other, inside a quadrangle stockade, surrounded by the camp administration hut and guards barracks, themselves inside another perimeter of wire and icy ditches, all well open and crisscrossed with excellent fields of fire from the watchtowers.

Vic knew he had been here before. Outwardly, Camp Seven looked like it always had. But something seemed different. He couldn’t quite put his finger on it.

The next morning came, cold and gray, and a loud knocking stirred the prisoners. Three Red guards appeared in the doorway. One of them, senior in rank, shuffled through the night’s snowfall into the barracks and glared around at the newly arrived men. He shuffled some more, kicking at a few bodies, until he came to the tiny alcove where Petey and Oscar and Vic lay all entwined for warmth.

“Ka!” he barked. “Ka hu tsien…zomo, zomo!” His buddies bent down and hoisted Pfc. Vic Lockhart up by his arms. The Marine, still groggy, staggered to his feet, but the guards didn’t give him time to stand upright. They dragged him anyway, feet scrambling to keep up, out the door, into the snow, then jerked him fully upright and quick-marched him off to the inner quadrangle gate. The gate creaked open and the guards with Vic, carried along like an unwilling dog, passed through.

Goggins and Noland, the Army guys, had seen it all before. Petey dragged himself up and stood beside the doggie sergeant, bleary-eyed, shivering in the chill wind, as they peered out the flap-window.

“What the hell—-where are they taking Lockhart?”

“City Hall,” the Army man said in a low voice. “Bad news for your pal.”

“City Hall?”

“That’s what we call the camp administration building. You can just see it through the gate…that building with the chimney. Only chimney in the whole fuckin’ camp.”

Petey’s blood ran cold. “Interrogation?”

“Yep.” Noland shut the flap and went back to some whittling he had been working on, some kind of wood carving he was fashioning with a shaved-down belt buckle off someone’s uniform. “Looks like the ‘Mayor’ has taken an interest in our new visitors.”

Petey just stared at him.

 

Lieutenant Lu-Si-lingh was the strangest ‘mayor’ Private First Class Victor Lockhart had ever laid eyes on. He had a pig’s face, with an upturned nose and narrow slit eyes, and a smidgen of black moustache that looked for all the world like a grease stain. In fact, in different circumstances Vic might have even laughed at the Red lieutenant’s appearance. He looked like some kind of Three Stooges version of a Chinese laundryman, the very kind of soldier that Tenth Corps C/O General Almond had said Americans shouldn’t be running from at all, only a few weeks before.

The camp guards had dragged Vic into a small room, furnished with a stool and a table and chair arrangement. Vic stood before the table, more or less at attention, while Liu handwrote some kind of order on a piece of paper. He tore off an edge of the paper, where he had been writing, and handed it to one of the guards. Then he motioned for Vic to sit on the stool. When he didn’t budge, Liu looked up, his eyes hardening. He glowered coldly at the American, then gestured again. This time, Vic was assisted by the guards, who rammed his butt down hard onto the stool, like he was a pile driver. The stool wobbled a moment. Vic found himself sitting below the table, staring up at the Mayor of Camp Seven.

“Your name, please?” Liu spoke passable English, accented with some kind of strange twang that reminded Vic of a Kentucky mountain man.

“Lockhart, Victor LaRue. Private First Class, United States Marines. Serial number one-seven-six-three-oh—“ he grunted as a rifle butt slammed into the side of his face, knocking him off the stool and onto the hard wooden floor. The guards held his head down for a minute and Vic got a splinter up his nose.

“Don’t play games with me, Yankee soldier,” Liu hissed. He rose behind the table. “Prisoners who try to escape do not play games.”

Vic figured he had heard wrong. He didn’t remember ever escaping from Anjin…this time stream was all wrong—but now Liu was going on—

“One simple rule here…I ask, you answer. You answer exactly. You tell the truth.” He nodded to the guards, who jerked him upright and plopped him down on the stool again.

“Okay, American soldier, let us try this again. Where are you from?”

Vic just glared at the Chinaman. This was all wrong. This had never happened. After a few moments’ pause, Liu nodded ever so slightly to the guards. In the back of his mind, the Marine had already labeled them Moe and Curly. Another rifle butt to the head sent Vic flying to the floor, this time with a bloody nose.

“I asked a question, American. You do not understand the rules? It’s time for a lesson.”

At that, Moe and Curly began kicking Vic in the ribs, kicking him in the head, slamming the butts of their rifles into the small of his back. He bit his tongue to keep from screaming, but pain won out and he cried in agony, then curled into a fetal position as the kicks rained down on him. This went on for five minutes.

Liu had his goons hoist the Marine back up and plop him on the stool. He wobbled, dizzy for a moment. Moe nudged him in the back to keep him upright. Silently, Vic thanked the guard.

“Again, Private. Where are you from?”

This time, Vic mumbled, “Chicago.”

“That’s better. You are a rich American family?”

Vic stared sullenly. Somehow, he had come into the Time Garden the wrong way. Maybe it was Angel…he’d affected the passage. He remembered being tortured a few times. But he was sure he’d never been outside the camp. He was being tortured for escaping, but he knew he had never escaped. This was wrong.

Now, Liu’s moustache was twitching like a mouse. It was a signal. The blows came again, again to the head and back. The room spun around and the floorboards rushed up to his face. Vic found his eyes swollen shut; he could barely squint through tiny slits. More blows, more kicks, more rifle butts. Curly had a snarly face. Moe seemed more sympathetic. His whole body throbbed, begged him….

He was jerked upright, slouching in the guards’ grasp, and roughly situated on the stool. They had to steady him to keep him from toppling over.

“What do you think about rich people, Private Lockhart? Rich American families are leeches, sucking the life out of the working class. I know you come from a rich family. Do you know what happens to rich people in Korea?”

Vic just stared.

“Insects, Private. That’s what rich people are. We are not kind to insects here. Show him what happens to insects.”

Vic cringed and felt the blow to his head, which sent him sprawling to the floor again. Blood spurted and his face fell into a pool of it, his own blood. He groaned and writhed a little, then a boot heel came down on his face, grinding his nose and eyes into the boards further, splinters and blood and sawdust and spit scraping his face from chin to forehead.

“Insects are destroyed!” ‘Mayor’ Liu yelled. The camp commander came around from behind his desk and leaned over Vic’s fallen body, screaming in his ear. “Destroyed mercilessly!” Liu stood up, gestured for the American to be erected again. It was a struggle, as Vic went limp, barely conscious from repeated head butts.

“Your comrades have given up on you, Private Lockhart. You came through those gates into my camp. But you will never leave. Your comrades won’t wait for you.”

“Wha—?…no…they—“ The Time Garden had to work—he couldn’t be left here to die like an insect.

“Private, you are an insect. American GIs don’t like sniveling, rich bastard insects like you. That’s why President Truman sent you to Korea. To get rid of you. Eh? You don’t believe me—?”

Liu backhanded Vic in the face, a stinging, blood-flinging slap that burned his eyes. Somewhere in the dim and dark corners of his consciousness, Private Victor Lockhart realized it was the guard Moe who was keeping him upright, keeping him on the stool, occasionally wiping the blood off his face. Something about Moe—

Vic realized the pig-faced ‘Mayor’ of Camp Seven had some kind of metal studs on his gloves. He slapped the Marine again, carving up his face into neat rows of bloody gashes.

“You think Truman gives a damn about insects!” Liu screamed at him. He grabbed the Marine by the chin and jerked Vic’s face up, leering into his purplish eyes, mostly squeezed shut. “Look at me! Your precious President Truman is a liar, a wicked rat of a liar! He sent you here to murder Korean babies! You do murder babies, don’t you, Private?”

Vic mumbled something incoherent, shaking his head groggily. “Nunhhh…garden,” was all he could croak out. His tongue was cut and blood frothed in his throat. He started coughing, spitting up blood.

Liu backed off, ordering his hands to be tied. Stout cord was produced and Vic was lifted bodily off the stool, held at attention, as his hands were bound tightly behind his back. He felt a hand on his head, forcing him down, forcing him to squat and he complied. But Moe had placed a piece of 2×4 board behind his knees. He was made to squat down in a low crouch, holding the board pinned between his thighs and shins, hands tied behind him.

I thought Moe was the good guy

The guards made sure his hands were extended as far as they could go, pulling so hard, he thought his shoulder would pop out of its socket.

“Now, Private Lockhart, this is more like it,” Liu cackled. “Now you are not an insect. You are a jet airplane. The jet airplane that kills Korean babies and women. But we have jet airplanes too, you know.”

As if on cue, the two guards rammed their knees and boot heels into Vic’s ribs again, then made all kinds of bombing and strafing sounds, firing imaginary machine guns at him, as they dove and swooped like birds around the Marine. He fell over at the first blows. It didn’t matter. Moe and Curly just put him back in the same position and kept up their blows and jet sounds.

This went on for twelve hours.

 

When he came to, he was numb and frostbitten—he couldn’t even feel his toes anymore. It was dark but there was a line of light ahead of him. He knew where he was…in the freezing cold punishment cell, the little tin box out by the edge of the quadrangle, between the barbed wire fences. No-man’s land.

He couldn’t remember any more. Had he tried to escape? Had he gotten out and been caught? Had he dreamed the whole thing? Old Joe Harper was right…the Garden was getting finicky…you couldn’t trust it. It needed work. But it didn’t matter now. His body was wracked and shivering, broken and bloodied. Dried snot-cicles mixed with blood in his hair and beard. He rolled slightly and shudders of pain shinnied up and down his body, burning everything with fire.

He lolled semi-conscious for what seemed like days. Then, a creaking noise echoed through the tin box and the light suddenly exploded in his eyes. He raised a hand, saw a face.

It was one of the Red guards. Moe’s fat cheeks materialized out of the gloom, his breath frosty in the chill.

Moe smiled a toothless smile, helping him up, helping him to his knees, as he crawled out of the box. Winds scoured snow off nearby drifts, flinging sleet into his eyes and he staggered, wobbled, until Moe hoisted him up, draped an arm around his shoulder.

What the hell was going on?

Now, unaccountably, Moe spoke English, halting, but understandable.

“I have a message for you, Yankee soldier.”

Vic was dizzy, disoriented, delirious. He couldn’t feel his own feet and nearly collapsed. “Message—what message?”

“There’s something I want to show you. Come on—get up, Yankee—“

Stunned, half-delirious, Vic limped with help from Moe, out of the tin box and across the blowing snow field of the inner quadrangle. At a signal from the Red guard, the outer gates were flung open. They headed out of the camp, across a shallow ravine, across a frozen pond and toward a bleak patch of stunted, wind-blasted trees topping a rise, both leaning on each other, trudging through knee-deep snow.

Vic and Moe staggered up to the top of the rise, bent to shield themselves from the blizzard. The wind drove swirls and small cyclones of snow across the field before them. Yet, as he squinted, Vic saw what he thought was a small rectangle of light, just ahead. At Moe’s urging, he moved closer.

It was subzero, arctic, early in the morning. Beyond the rise, across a frozen rice paddy, he saw a small gathering of Manchurian peasants, bundled against the wind, wraiths in the wan orange glow of a small searchlight on a nearby tower. They were hacking with crude hoes and rakes and shovels, scratching at the hard-frozen soil, trying to make a meager garden of potatoes and radishes in the swirling snow.

Vic blinked hard, wiped moisture from his eyes and squinted again. It didn’t make any sense. Why try to plant in the middle of the winter? He was sure he was delirious, imagining things.

He raised his voice over the moan of the wind. “Just tell me one thing, will you?”

Moe watched the peasants diligently scratching and scraping. “What is that?”

“Did I actually escape the camp? Did I get out?”

Moe turned slightly so his voice could be heard. He cupped a hand over his mouth, bent closer.

“All things are possible, Yankee soldier. Anything that is planted…in the time garden…will grow.”

Vic was confused. “Do you know me, then?”

Moe nodded, ever so slightly. “And you know me.”

Vic shook his head, trying to clear out the cobwebs. His face was swollen, his back and legs weak from the beatings. That much was real. He had the bruises to show for it.

“You said you had a message. Is it from Joe…Joe Harper?”

Moe just stared at him. “I’m Joe Harper.”

Vic blinked. He tried wriggling his toes inside his shoe-pacs. He couldn’t feel them. Frostbite, most likely. He couldn’t feel any of this. Joe had died…the medical examiner—“It was an accident…that’s what it was. A tragic accident…Joe…you…you shouldn’t have been out in the road that night.”

Moe didn’t say anything.

The question formed on Vic’s lips before he knew it. “If you are Joe…I don’t know how…can you tell me what to do to fix the portal? All this…and Angel…him too—“

Moe, the Chicom guard, switched his burp gun from one shoulder to another, as if it were becoming heavy. His waist was ringed with cord, and ammo clips clinked every time he moved, every time the wind howled.

“You told me you wanted to work with the garden,” Moe said.

Vic thought about that for a moment. He had said that. He had sort of assumed Joe’s position, told Sarah and Conrad and the others he’d do it, do whatever it took to the keep the garden—the portal—working. But it wasn’t working, not any more. It had killed Angel, nearly killed Annie Jacobs. For all he knew, it might have killed—

“I guess I don’t really have a choice, do I?”

For the first time, Moe smiled faintly. He indicated the gathering of peasants with the barrel of his burp gun. “They too are gardeners.”

Vic watched them. “Looks kind of hopeless to me. Scratching at the ice and snow, trying to plant crap that’ll never grow. Hell…it probably won’t survive the night. Why do they do it? Why bother? Is that what it means to be a gardener?”

Moe raised his burp gun, pointing with the dull black barrel toward a section of dilapidated fence nearby. Vic followed the barrel, shielding his eyes against the sleet. He moved a bit closer and was stunned to see the stacked bodies of camp prisoners, piled two and three high alongside the fence. A neat pile of bodies, still clothed in camou jackets and ponchos and field gear.

With a start, he realized the peasants weren’t planting a garden at all. It was a graves detail. They were burying the dead of the camp.

“What—?”

Moe’s voice was firm, even above the keening wind. “There are the seeds, Time Gardener. You said wanted to know how to fix the garden.”

Vic could only croak out a reply. “But how—?”

“I once told you the garden works by using wasted time, unused time. Remember?”

Vic nodded, pale and nearly gagging. Moe’s English was definitely improving.

“A war zone, such as this, is the perfect place to harvest unused time. Here, people die before their ‘allotted span.’ You want to operate the portal, you want to be a time gardener, this is what you do….”

“—dig graves…?”

“Travel… to war zones. Places of conflict. Inner cities. Anywhere there is a lot of unused time. It’s a difficult job. I tried to tell you that. A somber job. Emotionally draining at times.” Now, Moe regarded him with a hard look to his face. “You still want to do this?”

Vic decided he did not. And in that moment, he took off running. Slipping and sliding across the icy hills, he made for the open gates.

No one followed him. He expected to hear the rattle of machine gun fire, see a line of tracers stitching a path across the snow, maybe right up his back.

But no one lifted a finger. He was so startled, dodging frozen bushes and falling face first in a snow drift, that he never saw the frozen pond ahead of him. It was just barely light. He streaked across the pond, quickly losing his footing, cartwheeling in the air like a child’s doll thrown away.

The ice cracked. Vic fell through, into the freezing water.

 

8.

 

The light was blindingly bright and Vic groaned, covering his face. The sleet had stopped. He was sweating, draped in sheets. A faint smell of ammonia and pine assaulted his nose. He tried to sit up, but failed.

He was in a bed, room 411, at Deerfield Clinic. A respirator mask covered his nose and mouth, taped to his cheeks. Faces and voices slowly materialized out of the void.

The nurse was a pleasant black woman, starched white gown and big teeth, and dazzling eyes. Her ample bosom massaged his face as she removed the mask, adjusting some other tubing. Vic looked down. His arms were bruised, purple and angry red, his skin intubated with glucose and other lines. From somewhere behind his head, a steady beep-beep-beep was annoying him. A cart stand clinked as the nurse—her nametag said Kendrick—moved something over his head.

“You’re looking a lot better today, Mr. Lockhart. More color in those cheeks. And your eyes are clearer. You feelin’ any better?”

Vic sat up, with effort, and the nurse—it came to him that her name was LaTreece Kendrick—puffed up several pillows for him, then told him to say ahhh and swabbed out his mouth and inside his cheeks with some kind of iodine solution. His throat was parched and burned. Nurse Kendrick had anticipated that and was ready with a cup of crushed ice before he could croak out a request.

“What—what happened—to me—?”

Another face. A man. Dr. Broadley hovered just behind the nurse’s shoulder, tapping a clipboard with a pen.

“Mr. Lockhart—Vic…you are one lucky man. I’ll say that much for you. We thought you’d left us…but here you are…getting stronger by the minute too. I’ve got to run some tests this afternoon, if you’re up to them. Neural response, pulmonary capacity…I’d say you swallowed about half that pool out there.”

“I was…in the pool—the pond—“ Vic started to remember, hazily at first, then more details began to come to him.

“It’s more truthful to say the pool was in you,” Dr. Boadley joked. He read off something on an instrument face from the cart stand, wrote it down, and made a slight moue with his lips. “Just about the whole pool, at that. You were about as drowned as a man can be when we pulled you out. Tried CPR, electroshock, just about the whole works. It was touch and go for a while.”

“I died.”

Broadley sniffed. “Not just yet, Mr. Lockhart. Not on my watch anyway. Looks like you’ll live. But I’m keeping you in the hospital for a few days. Observation and some more tests. I can’t release you until I know what caused all those bruises. One hell of a subcutaneous edema, if you ask me.”

Broadley started to go, but Vic managed to snag his hand. Broadley stopped.

“Yes, Mr. Lockhart?”

“Ummm—Angel. Mr. Havener…did you find him? He was in the pool with me.”

Broadley looked puzzled. “Mr. Havener? Why, no…no one else was in the pool with you. Who are you talking about…this Mr. Havener? Nurse—“

Vic waved it off. “Never mind.” He sank back in the pillows, a smile forming on his face. Angel made it after all. “I was just hallucinating, or something.”

Broadley left but nurse LaTreece Kendrick was stern. “You rest up, Mr. Lockhart. Don’t you be trying to get out of that bed without help. You’ve had quite a time out there…you just rest.” She took his hand, placed it on a set of buttons on a keypad on the armrest. “You need anything at all, just press this button right here. One of the nurses’ll be right in…okay?” She smiled sweetly, fluffed the pillows some more and exited the room.

Vic drifted back to sleep. Angel Havener…the old fag, he made it after all. A smile was forming on his face, even as sleep closed over him.

 

It might have been hours later, perhaps even days, when Vic woke up. He was still in the room. Everything looked the same. The cart was still beeping. It was night outside. He still had nasty bruises on his arms and neck.

Sarah Gibson came by a little later, followed by Conrad Bell and Annie Jacobs. Conrad had smuggled in a few goodies and Vic quickly hid the chocolates and the flask under his pillow before Nurse Kendrick showed up.

“So what happened?” Sarah asked. “We’ve been dying to know…but Doc Broadley wouldn’t let us in. What did you see…did you find Joe? What happened to Angel?”

“They never found Angel’s body,” Conrad insisted.

Vic half smiled. “And they never will. Angel made it somehow, made it…to—“ he shrugged. “I don’t know how to describe it…the other side, the new world, a new time, his own dream or nightmare…whatever.”

Sarah whipped out a small box and opened it up on the side of the bed. “You want to play some pinochle?”

“I’ve got a deck of cards, too,” Conrad added. He extracted his own deck from the pocket of his jacket, fanned them through the air.

Annie Jacobs had brought a small bouquet of flowers. Vic sat up, kissed her wrinkled forehead gently, took the bouquet and laid them on his lap. “Thanks, sweetie. These from the garden?”

Annie nodded. “Mildred’s garden. Those cheap things in the gift shop are all so colorless. They smell like wrapping paper.”

“I’ll treasure these…more than you know.”

“So…” Sarah interjected, “what’s the scoop? You didn’t find Joe?”

Vic thought of the Red guard Moe. “I did find Joe.”

“Did you learn anything…like how to fix the time garden? Get it running again so I can visit my Del. What did he say?”

“And my Molly too,” Conrad added.

Vic lay back on his pillow and closed his eyes. “First of all, Joe’s not coming back. He’s in another place. Another time.”

Sarah put her card deck down on the side of the bed and grabbed a chair, pulling it up next to Vic’s bed. She propped her head up on his knees. “But you’re taking over, right? You’re operating the portal, aren’t you? He gave you the instructions?”

Vic shook his head. “Sarah, I’m not taking over. I’m not going to be the Time Gardener.”

Sarah slapped at his knees, incredulous. “What! What are you saying? How the hell can I see my Del if the portal doesn’t work right? You’ve got to do it.”

Annie’s face had fallen. “And my David…I surely do look forward to being with my David.”

Vic waved them all quiet. “Look…it’s like this, okay? The garden’s kaput. It’s failing. Hell, maybe you can operate the thing, Sarah. You’ve been through it. Or you Conrad.”

“Not me,” Conrad protested. “I don’t know anything about machines—“

Sarah shrugged. “Del always said I could tune those TV rabbit ears better than anyone.”

“Running the Time Garden involves a lot…a lot of time, I guess. A lot of—“ he thought about the Manchurian peasants burying dead POWs. “—I don’t know. Joe told me some things, showed me some things. Maybe it’d be better to let the garden deteriorate and die. Close it off. I’ve seen things—“

“What things?” Sarah wanted to know.

Vic sat up abruptly, brushing Sarah’s hands off his knees. “You remember when Joe said the Time Garden recycles time. It runs on the time people waste. Time that’s not used.”

“Vaguely.”

“When I went through this last time, I went right back to Anjin…that POW camp I spent two years in. Two friggin’ years of my life. That’s where I saw Joe. You know what he told me? He said if you work as a time gardener, you spent a lot of your time in war zones, POW camps, inner cities, places where people die. Places people die suddenly, before their ‘allotted span’ is up. Sarah, that’s what the time garden runs on. That’s where there’s a lot of unused time. That’s where I would be spending most of my time.” Vic shuddered, remembering all the kicking and the rifle butts and the cursing and slapping…”Thanks, but no thanks. I don’t want any part of it. This time machine takes too much to keep up. No, sireeebob…I say let it go.”

Sarah didn’t know what to say. Her face was crestfallen. “What about my Del? Or Conrad here…or Annie? They don’t get to go back…see their loved ones again?”

“Can you make an egg from an omelet?

Sarah took a deep breath. “It’s not fair. But then who the hell ever said life was fair? At least, I did get to see my Del one last time, wish him goodbye. But it would have been nice to—“ she smiled sheepishly .”…you know. What the hell…maybe that’s just selfish. I just wanted more time with Del. But I guess he already gave it up…to the time garden, I suppose.”

Conrad shook his head slowly. Annie wiped a tear from her eyes.

“My David…that gun…I can see it now…the bullets just starting to come out…just a few more seconds…he could have—“ She wiped more tears.

“It’s for the best,” Vic told them. “Trust me…we’re all better off without this thing. It’s like driving a Rolls-Royce. Yeah, it looks great and you go around in style. But it’s also expensive as hell to run. That portal out there is the same way. Costs too much to use. We have to shut it down.” He started picking through the assortment of chocolates Conrad had brought, watching Sarah begin to deal some cards at the foot of his bed. “These time gardens are nothing but recycling plants, Sarah. That’s all they are. They recycle time. All the time you and me and Conrad and everybody else wastes. All the time we’ve lost. People who die suddenly, before they should. Like Angel. All that time doesn’t just vanish. It goes somewhere. It goes through these gardens.”

“So where does it go?” Conrad asked. He helped himself to some of the chocolates.

“To wherever it’s needed, I guess. There’s only so much time. People don’t use what they have. The excess is somehow skimmed off, recycled through the garden. It’s there for us, any of us, to use.”

“Joe said the time garden subtracts time from us too, every time we use the thing.”

“It’s a machine. It balances inputs and outputs,” Vic said. “Like any garden. Pour in the ingredients.” He shuddered at the image of the bodies of dead camp prisoners, stacked like fire wood outside the gates of Camp Seven. “Out come the flowers or the fruits.”

“All right, that’s enough,” Sarah decided. She patted Vic’s feet, still under the covers. “Let’s play…and for the record, I’ll be whipping your ass in pinochle just like I always do. Your move, Vic. And don’t keep me waiting. Time’s a-wasting.”

They all got a good laugh from that.

“Don’t go getting your panties in a wad, woman. There’s lot’s of time. I’m just planning what I’m going to do tomorrow…Doc Broadley said he might release me tomorrow morning.”

“Scotch and cigars at the Bistro?”

Vic shrugged; it was a pleasant memory. “Maybe. Maybe not. First thing in the morning, I’m heading out to that garden. I’m going to drain Joe’s pool and patch that opening with some Quikrete. Then maybe we can have a little peace around here.”

After that, he dove into the game. And for the first time in months, Vic Lockhart managed to hold his own against Sarah Gibson and Conrad Bell.

 

Good as his word, Dr. Broadley released Vic from the Clinic the very next day. Straight away, Vic collared Conrad and the two of them set to work planning how to drain the pool and patch the portal entrance.

Vic borrowed some hose and several bags of concrete and wheel-barrowed it out to the garden. Doing the hard physical work made certain muscles and joints sore and he still had bruises from his last trip through the garden, but the work brightened his thoughts. Just to be doing something physical seemed to help.

They drained the pool to the lower side of the Japanese pagoda—that took several hours—and then Vic and Conrad crawled down onto the rock and stone slabs that formed the bottom and dragged bags of concrete patch up to the entrance at the base of the grotto rock wall. Over the next few hours, they plastered and sealed the opening, grunting and sweating in the humid morning air.

When it was finished, Vic sat back, wiped sweat from his face and took a deep breath. “I’m glad that’s done. I really don’t like fiddling around with machines I don’t understand.”

Conrad’s face was covered with concrete dust and leftover mud from the pool. “You know, I will miss that thing, Vic. At least, it brought us old fogies together for a while, gave us something to work on together.”

“It was becoming a headache.”

They climbed out of the pool and that’s when Vic slipped and busted his head wide open on a slab of rock. Conrad flapped around like a drunken bird for a minute, then collected himself and raced stumbling all the way back through the East Woods to Brighton West to get some help. Inside of ten minutes, still bleeding profusely, Vic was taken back to Deerfield Clinic, head wrapped up like a mummy, being wheeled into the very same room he’d just been discharged from.

Conrad went with him. After a cursory exam, the blood was stanched, his face washed and the cut was stitched up. It took almost thirty stitches. Examinations for concussion were scheduled an hour later.

“You could have died in that fall, Vic,” Conrad told him. “You were lucky.”

Vic nodded. He did have a splitting headache and some blurred vision. “That seems to be happening a lot lately. But I guess it’s just not my time yet.”

They both looked at each other for a moment and then suddenly burst out laughing.

 

END

Atomgrabbers

Introduction

 

This story is actually the launch vehicle for my serial Nanotroopers. It introduces my main character, one cadet Johnny Winger, a young man curiously adept in the world of atoms and molecules as if he were born to it. Winger never was much one for following the book. He relies on hunches and notions and instincts. Sometimes that gets him into trouble. But many times, his instincts are right and he saves the day.

Moreover, Johnny Winger finds in his nanoscale robotic friend ANAD a sort of kindred spirit. He comes to think of the infinitesimal little bot as a sort of brother and this odd companionship serves him well in the midst of a major crisis that erupts just as he is ready to make a decision about joining Quantum Corps.

We all anthropomorphize our tools. We develop enduring relationships with our cars, planes, a favorite lawn mower, maybe even a can opener. But when the tool has the personality and intelligence of a five-year old, the relationship can get complicated….

 

***

Colorado”

 

Colorado Springs, Colorado

August 2, 2047

2:15 p.m.

 

Johnny Winger was in Net School, working with Katie Gomez on some algebra problems, when he learned his mom had been killed in a car crash. The message was from a deputy at the El Paso County Sheriff’s office…one of the worst crashes we’ve seen in years, a deputy had said on the vidpost. Car went off a cliff, rolled down an embankment, burst intoyour father’s at the hospital now—

Johnny snapped the post off. He didn’t want to hear any more. He just wanted to go. Be there. See for himself.

The school let him out without any questions. Principal Costner tried to be sympathetic. “Go on, son …get out of here. We’re praying for you—“ He swung his legs over his turbo and fired it up, gunning the engine angrily. Then he scratched off out of the parking lot and made his way screeching and sliding through several traffic lights to the autoway, heading north. Dad was alive, barely. In a hospital. Colorado Springs.

He just had to be there. And he wasn’t going to give up control of his turbo to the autoway, not today of all days. He needed to be in control, feel the road vibrations and the wind, know for sure there was something he could control. Johnny Winger steered into the manual lane and cranked his bike up to just under a hundred. Cars and trucks and road signs flashed past.

He made the Sisters of Mercy Hospital in about half an hour.

The hospital was a Greco-Roman institutional brick pile, all fake columns and turrets and gables, some architect’s wet dream gone awry. The ten-story main building poked up above a small forest of aspen and birch trees, in a hundred-acre park-like setting out along Powers Avenue. Johnny skidded his turbobike to a halt and parked in a delivery van’s spot, then hustled inside.

He found his sister Joanna in the CCU waiting room.

Joanna was an inch shorter, short blond hair with some locks hanging over her right eye. “They just brought Mom in.” She held up her wristpad. “I was just talking with the funeral home…she died quickly, Sheriff’s deputy told me. They’re taking the body over there this afternoon.”

Johnny felt a hard lump in his throat. His eyes were dry, for the moment. Joanna’s were red. He figured tears would come later.

“What about Dad?”

“Just out of surgery…skull fracture…he may have some brain trauma, the docs said. He also has a broken arm, some spinal contusions…Johnny, it’s a miracle he survived. From what that deputy said about the crash scene—“

Johnny put both hands on her shoulders. “I heard. Let’s do details later—“he stopped when the door to the waiting room opened. A nurse in blue scrubs poked her head in.

“You two can make a short visit now…very short, like five minutes. Your Dad’s semi-conscious, just coming out of sedation.” She held the door back and they went in.

The Critical Care Unit was on the fifth floor, north wing. The waiting area had been half full, with small knots of people engaged in whispered conversation, two children joysticking remote action bots along the wall, and a wraparound active display showing live scenes from Vail and Aspen and Steamboat Springs. The nurse showed Johnny and Joanna down a hall to the Active Care Unit. Through the bioshield, a sort of containment zone inside of which active nanodevices were at work, Johnny came up to the bed where Jamison Winger lay enveloped in thick ganglia of wires and hoses. Joanna hung back, her hands to her mouth.

A faint coruscating blue glow surrounded the bed, the inner containment field pulsating with active nano to protect the patient from further infection.

A swarthy Egyptian doctor, Sethi Hassan, attended a small display, with imaging views showing what the bots were seeing. Two nurses also attended.

Dr. Hassan sensed the presence of someone new, but did not at first look away from the screen. His right hand manipulated a tiny trackball and the view on the screen changed with each manipulation.

“How’s he doing, Doc?” Johnny asked.

“About as well as could be expected,” Hassan said. He had just finished some tests and scans, looking for peritumoral edema, any headaches, intracranial pressure, hemiparesis, tremors. Every test had turned up better than expected. “Frankly, Mr. Winger here’s doing a lot better than he should be. We still have some work to do, more surgery, basically repairs and reconstructive sessions. He’s suffered substantial trauma to the frontal and parietal lobes. After that, more tests…memory function, basic motor skills. You’ve got five minutes, no more.” With that Hassan retreated to a small control station by the door.

Winger bent over the bed, pressing lightly against the field. A keening buzz changed pitch and invisible forces pressed back against his fingers, forcing his hand away. Standard mobility barrier, he told himself, almost without thinking. He’d read about bots like this on the Net just the other day. He moved aside to let Joanna come closer, then drifted toward Hassan’s station.

“Doc, what do all these bots do?”

Hassan sighed, flexed his fingers around the trackball at his panel and did some more manipulations, delicately driving the medbots under his command.

“Two hours ago, we perfused his brain with a small formation of neurocytes…these neurocytes are working now. I detached a small element just an hour ago, got them into position to block a serotonin avalanche that was firing off inside his limbic system…some kind of seizure, that was. We got the convulsions mostly stopped…although there’s been some leakage into the hippocampal regions.”

Winger studied his father’s face. His eyes were screwed shut, tension lines all converging along his forehead. He was clearly still in pain. His lips trembled and a rhythmic twitch made his fingers and feet move in fits of shaking. His head was wrapped in bandages.

Mr. Winger started to convulse—his arms and hands went rigid, then spasmed fluttering off into the air, brushing against the barrier. The mechs buzzed back. Beside the bed, Hassan busied himself driving the herd of neurocytes onward, tracking down the errant discharges. Seconds later, as he swarmed the ‘cytes toward the center of the convulsion, the spasm gradually died off. Mr. Winger’s arms dropped, his fists unclenched. The doctor looked up; his eyes saying that was too close.

“We’re running the latest here at SOM…Mark III medical autonomous assemblers. AMADs. Most of the exterior trauma’s already stitched up…that went pretty well, I must say. But hunting down these spasms and figuring out the firing patterns, timing the cascades and the uptake rates…that’s taking time. I’ll get it figured out eventually…if we can keep him stable for the time being.”

Joanna leaned over the bioweb and sighed with sadness. “Brad’s flying in from Frisco tonight. One of us needs to pick him up at the airport.” Brad was the oldest of the Winger kids, now a resident at Stanford Medical.

“I just have my bike…Brad won’t want to ride that.”

“I can go,” Joanna offered. “If you’ll stay here with him…you’ll have to sign some paperwork when they bring Mom in. And Dr. Hassan may have questions about further treatment.”

That’s how it was decided. Joanna and Johnny ate a quick and tasteless meal at the commissary, consoled each other for a few moments over cake and coffee and then Joanna was off.

Johnny went back to CCU. Slouching on a beat-up vinyl couch, he googled ‘AMAD’ on his wristpad and studied the images and the reports, browsing and skipping quickly through the details. At any moment, he expected to get another five-minute visit with his Dad and he had a few questions for Hassan and the second shift surgeon, Dr. Morse. He kept one eye on the double-doors to the trauma suite and one eye on his screen….

Autonomous nanoscale assemblers…the bots sport quantum processors…unique operating parameters…surgeons need special skills to run the bots…working at the scale of atoms takes a different mindset…it’s like a carnival ride down there, with van der Waals forces and Brownian motion….’

Winger watched a small snippet of video, taken from a bot’s acoustic sounder inside a living brain. Someone was narrating….

Right now, Dr. Volk is steering AMAD into the vascular cleft of the membrane. He’s twisting his right hand controller, pulsing a carbene grabber to twist the cleft molecules just so, now releasing the membrane lipids, slingshotting himself forward. Now, AMAD seems to be floating in a plasma bath…there are dark, viny shapes barely visible off in the distance. The plasma is a heavy viscous fluid. Dr. Volk is tweaking up the propulsor to a higher power setting and taking a navigation hack off the vascular grid….”

Johnny found himself mesmerized by the scene. That would be so cool to do that, he told himself. Just a few weeks ago, he’d met with the guidance counselor at Pueblo Net School, Mr. Holley.

To say that Mr. Holley was fat was like saying Mt. Everest was tall. He squinted through folds of fat around his puffy eyes at a small tablet. “It says here on your forms that you’re interested in Engineering. Mr. Winger, I’m sure others have told you that to get into Engineering school, some place like Stanford, Cal Tech, Michigan and so forth, you’ll have to get those marks up. To be honest, Mr. Winger, most of the basketball team has higher marks than this…especially in Math…what is it with Math anyway? Don’t you like numbers? Your whole ten years at Net School, you’ve struggled.”

Well, he had only heard that about a million times. He’d developed a set litany of responses. “Numbers don’t like me, Mr. Holley.” That was Number Fourteen. He had dozens more.

Now, watching the video on his wrist, watching some surgeon whose name he couldn’t even pronounce, joystick his way through a living brain, riding heard on a platoon of nanoscale bots like really small cattle, Johnny Winger had a moment’s inspiration, a vision handed down from the future he would tell himself later, of doing the same thing. Grabbing atoms and fighting off viruses and disassembling oligodendrogliomas like the U.S. Cavalry…that he actually could see himself doing. Numbers…shmumbers…maybe this was something he ought to look into. After all, Dad had been beating on his head that he had to start thinking about his future after Net School. Maybe this….

Dr. Morse, the late-shift surgeon, cleared his throat.

Ahem…Mr. Winger….”

Johnny jumped a foot. He didn’t even realize someone had been standing next to him.

“Huh—?”

“You can visit your Dad for several minutes, if you want. He’s resting now…”

Johnny went in.

The bioweb was still up, flickering a faint white-blue. Johnny knew he couldn’t physically touch his Dad. Jamison Winger’s head was half-covered in a sort of helmet-like device. Johnny looked up questioningly.

“A docking station for medbots,” Dr. Morse explained. He stepped away from a rolling console that was positioned next to the bed. “We’ll be doing an insert in another hour, trying to hunt down and fix neural pathways that were damaged… imagery shows some pretty serious peritumoral edemas in several regions. We’re going to try and fix them tonight.”

Winger leaned over to look at Morse’s console. “I was just watching a vid about bots like this. This is pretty new stuff.”

“State of the art,” Morse told him. “We’ve been using medical nano-robots for surgeries for several months now. It’s cleaner than invasive, more accurate that endoscopic. In fact, we’re still training our staff…there’s an artificial body just down the hall…in the training suite.”

Winger looked over his Dad. His face seemed at rest. No more tension lines, no more tightened lips or strained cheeks. There was really nothing he could do at the moment anyway…but pray. And hope Morse and his staff knew what they were doing.

“You expect to be using these bots more and more.”

“Sure,” said Morse. He went back to his console. “Once we get all the kinks worked out…oh, don’t worry…we’re not doing anything unusual tonight. We’ve used bots to repair neural damage dozens of times now. In fact,” Morse kind of half smiled, “Sisters of Mercy knows more about these bots than just about anybody…and that includes Quantum Corps.”

Johnny’s eyebrows went up. “Quantum Corps…I’ve heard of them. Some kind of UN agency?”

“Exactly. They use bots all the time…in fact, that’s their mission, from what I hear. But we’ve got way more experience with this kind of stuff than they do. In fact, I just saw an ad the other day…they’re looking for applicants now.”

“Really.” Johnny stood up and went to take a closer look at Morse’s console. “Can you show me what these little buggers can do?”

Morse studied the teenager closely. “I can do better than that. There’s a training session scheduled for second shift tonight…around 2100 hours, I think. If you’re around CCU, come down to room 5125. I’ll give you a temporary password. We can do a little demo for you…show you what’s happening with your Dad later. It’s really quite extraordinary.”

Johnny looked at his Dad. Recovery would take weeks, maybe months, and that was if Morse could make his repairs. Then would come months of rehab. “I’ll be around most of the night. My sister’s picking up my older brother at the airport tonight. They’re coming straight here but it’ll be several hours.”

Morse deftly shoo’ed Johnny out of the room. “Go get something to eat. Then come to 5125. I think you’ll be impressed. Your Dad’s getting the best care we can provide…come watch. It’ll put your mind at ease.”

Johnny promised to do just that.

 

The training suite was down the hall and around the corner from CCU Critical Surgery. Johnny got through the security barriers with Morse’s temporary password with no trouble. He came into a room dominated by a large hemispherical tank, draped with thick ganglia of cables and tubes, surrounded by control panels and consoles. Overhead, a tray of strange gun-like devices hovered over one end of the tank.

“Electron beam injectors,” said a voice from behind him.

It turned out to be a white-jacketed technician. His name plate read Stefans. He was a burly and bearded fellow, clad in latex gloves and a white cap as well. He was built like a lineman, which he had once been eons ago. Now there was a substantial paunch around his belly; what had once been muscle was now sagging into middle age.

“You were wondering what that was,” Stefans went on. “Protective measures…in case the little critters get loose…and start multiplying.” Stefans stuck out his hand and formally introduced himself. “Dr. Morse told me you might show up…sorry….about your Dad, I mean. But he’s in great hands down the hall.”

Johnny looked around. “This is all for training…on these bots?”

Stefans nodded proudly. “Want to give him a test drive?”

Johnny looked over the console. “Can I? For real?”

“For real. Sit there. I’ll go over the basics.” Stefans explained that the tank was a containment structure and inside was a device called an Autonomous Medical Assembler/Disassembler. “AMAD for short. Here, I’ll show you—“

“I don’t see anything.” Johnny stared intently at the imager screen.

Stefans sat at a console next to the tank. “We call it TinyTown.” He tweaked the sensitivity controls of the quantum flux imager.

“Keep watching, son…you will, soon—”

The image on the monitor sharpened slightly. In focus in the center of the screen was a rectangular grid, wavering in the aqueous solution in which the grid was submerged. Johnny studied the image carefully.

“Deflection at the probe tip is steady,” Stefans muttered. “That’s about as close as we can get. The grid is ready. Let me check a few things…solution parameters are normal. Pressure is twenty point two bars. Temperature right on the curve. PH normal. Concentration gradient is what we expected. You ready for the ride of your life?”

Johnny nodded.

Stefans rubbed his gray moustache. “Activation instructions are coded and set for transmission. Replication factor set for the template that’s loaded. Safety systems armed.”

Stefans scanned the panel displays. Poised around the periphery of the insulated tank in which the grid was suspended, were three rows of six electron beam injectors each. At the slightest hint of trouble during operation, Stefans would quickly toggle the firing switch on the control panel. Several million electron volts of energy would flood the tank, stripping atoms from molecules, and electrons from atoms. Only a cloud of nucleus fragments would remain.

“Now we’re set…injectors are ready,” Stefans said. He pointed to a small joystick. “You drive AMAD with that.”

Johnny wrapped his fingers around the small stick. He indicated the device on the screen, clinging to a scaffolding like grapes on a trellis. “I’m driving that?”

“You will be in a moment.”

Johnny flexed his fingers. He was practically licking his lips at the prospect of playing with this thing. “You said you’ve improved a few things. What exactly do you mean?”

Stefans pointed to fuzzy projections on the screen. “Along with a new processor, AMAD has stiffer diamondoid effectors. More reactive or ‘stickier’ covalent bond ends too, basically carbenes and hydrogen radicals. That lets him grab atoms and move molecules more securely.”

“I can actually grab atoms with this thing…like sling ‘em around?”

Stefans smiled proudly. “A little trick we’ve patented. You can grab atoms and put them wherever you want. You can also replicate…make as many copies of yourself as you want. AMAD’s got new carbon group fold lines. Basically a new type of architecture more easily cleaved and collapsed. For patients like your Dad, it makes tracking down and removing damaged cells, tumor cells, whatever, much easier.”

Winger tried out the control sticks on the panel.

Stefans continued. “This guy’s a real hot rod…optimized for faster folding and unfolding. A very ingenious design, I should add…based on ribosomal proteins…nature’s own assemblers of proteins from DNA instruction. AMAD can break bonds much more rapidly, under quantum-scale control. Orders of magnitude faster than ribosomes, I’m certain. And he’s got new fullerene ‘hooks’ for more secure grasping and attaching, which makes for better accuracy.”

Johnny was anxious to get started, get a feel for this wonderbread gadget Stefans was so proud of.

“Am I powered up? How do I start this thing?”

“Fully powered. Just select a mode—here—” Stefans fingered a side panel.

Johnny settled into his seat, let his reflexes take over. Though he didn’t know it, it was a basic axiom in nanoscale work that you didn’t so much ‘fly’ the buggers as ‘feel’ them. Stefans knew that to a rookie, dodging molecules and groping van der Waals forces was like playing dodge ball with a sleet of sticky balls. It took timing and finesse, something that could only come with time.

“Layout’s pretty straight-forward,” Stefans went on. “Operation controls you have your hands on are for the propulsors. AMAD’s beefed up to sixty picowatts power. Six degrees of freedom in attitude…that’s your left hand plus translation control in your right.”

“Feels jumpy,” Johnny reported. He twisted both sticks and the imager scene careened crazily. “The slightest touch and he just takes off.”

“I’m sure you’ll get the hang of it. I’ve got the gain boosted up high. Imager is acoustic feedback. You can overlay heading, attitude and state data on the image.” Even as he spoke, Johnny already had the imager screen tiled with shifting mosaics of information.

“You seem like a natural at this,” Stefans observed. “Let’s try to dock with something,” he suggested, spying a few molecules drifting by.

Johnny tickled the imager for better resolution and clucked at the view. “There’s some kind of molecule floating by—“

“Why that looks like an old friend of ours. Mr. Acetylcholine Molecule. What say we scope him out for a parking place? Go for it, son. Give it a try. By the way, that’s a covalent bond—”

“Oh—!” Johnny grunted sheepishly. The acetylcholine’s carbon ‘fingers’ flicked AMAD away. He’d approached on a poor vector and gotten bounced by the stiff bond forces. “I’ll just try—” Johnny grimaced, trying to regain control of the device. “That’s weird—molecule just up and spun me around…what gives?”

Stefans sniffed. “Something new.” He pressed a few buttons on the keyboard. “AUTO-RESET. With something like acetylcholine, dopamine—complicated structures like that—it’s best to let AMAD do the piloting. This is fly-by-stick, electronically controlled. It seeks equilibrium and calculates resistance instantaneously. Let the computer and auto-maneuver system do the work now. AMAD knows what to look for. You sure you haven’t done this before? It’s like you’re born to this.”

Johnny frowned. “It seems easy…just twist here and it does that—“

On the imager, AMAD careened around like a beach ball.

“It’s not easy but some trainees just have a better feel for the forces involved. Frankly, what you’re doing right now is pretty amazing. And working AMAD this way saves molecules from being smashed to bits by hotshot doctors. Before, doctors would just fly in and smash and grab molecules. Bust up everything in sight. Trust me, molecules don’t like that. Now, with AMAD, docking with a molecule is essentially automated.”

“What else can this thing do?”

Stefans pressed a few more buttons to inject additional molecules into the solution. “Say you’re in an alien medium. Parameters unknown. Try a basic replication cycle.”

When Johnny looked puzzled, Stefans pointed out the right buttons and switches.

Then, with Stefans’ help, Johnny scoped out the medium with AMAD’s sensors: pH, concentration gradient, pressure. He toggled the ‘rep’ pickle on the left stick, one cycle. In the blink of an eye, the imager screen jostled slightly.

“I’m waiting…nothing seems to be happening.”

Stefans smiled. “You missed it, son.”

“What?”

AMAD’s already replicated. Check your state vector…here—” he pointed to a screen of dials and columns on the left. “See what I mean?”

Johnny was dumb-founded. “I’ll be damned—this baby’s a real hot rod. And Dr. Hassan’s using this on my Dad…?”

“As we speak…he’s more experienced than you, of course. But you’ve got talent…that much I can see right now. You seem to be a natural at working with atoms and molecules. It takes a special touch…not every doc or intern can come here and do what you’re doing right off.”

The thought had been forming in the back of Johnny’s mind for a few minutes. “You mentioned that UN agency—“

“Quantum Corps? Sure, they use the same technology. I’m not sure exactly what they use it for…we sometimes run demos and seminars for them, advise them on things we’re doing here.”

Johnny studied the little device now caroming around the imager. “I need to find out more about them.”

Stefans went over to a desk and pulled out a small disk. “Here’s a little training vid we did for them…I think there’s some contact info on it. It should run on your wristpad.”

Johnny pocketed the disk. He would definitely check this out. Maybe this Quantum Corps was the answer to all the questions that hippopotamus Mr. Holley had been throwing at him: you’ve got to make some decisions soon, son, about what you want to do with the rest of your life…Jeez. Really, Mr. Holley?

 

A month later, Jamison Winger had been discharged from Sisters of Mercy and was back home again at the North Bar Pass ranch a few miles outside Pueblo. And Johnny Winger had applied for an interview and a test at Quantum Corps.

Mr. Winger sat a bit unsteadily on a stool in the barn he had converted into a lab and workshop. The bench and surrounding tables and shelves were crammed with parts, pieces of parts, loose wiring, circuit boards, and assorted actuators, motors and things that looked like disembodied legs and arms. There were even a few robot heads stashed around, leering down at them like Halloween masks. Jamison Winger was forever a tinkerer, even when he was supposed to be in rehab.

“I want you to do whatever your heart tells you to do, son… but Quantum Corps? Really? Do you even know what they do?”

“Sure I do…they operate the same bots that the doctors used on you…the ones that fixed all your injuries.”

Mr. Winger went back to a circuit board he was soldering. “Not quite all of them…but I know you always liked bots. You realize what this means…Quantum Corps is a military outfit. You apply and get accepted and you’re committed for several years, at least. Is this what you want to do? Your Mom and I always figured you’d go to engineering school, maybe Stanford, like your brother…or Cal Tech.”

Johnny sniffed at that idea. He’d fight to do anything other than what Brad had done. They were always comparing him with Brad. “I can get my schooling with the Corps…Dad, I can go to the Academy. I’d be an officer. I’d travel around, see things. Work with bots. Grab atoms and fight off viruses, things like that. It’s way better than—“

Mr. Winger put down his soldering gun, flipped up his safety glasses—you could still see a scar where the melanocytes hadn’t quite finished their work on his face—and said, “Than what, son…than this? Working like a dog on the ranch—“

“Dad—“

But they were both interrupted by the clatter of hooves outside the barn door. Soon enough, Misty, their brown and white Arabian poked her big snout in, guided by Joanna. His sister had taken Misty out for a short ride along the lower passes.

Jamison Winger motioned his daughter over, after she had secured Misty and set her up with water and oats. He explained what Johnny wanted to do.

Joanna just rolled her eyes. “So what is this, some kind of glorified Cub Scouts? Do you run around in uniforms and play shoot-em-up with the bad guys?”

Mr. Winger held up a hand. “Jo…that’ll be enough of that. It’s what he wants to do. I just wanted to let you know…I’ll email Brad…he’s still stuck in residency at Stanford Medical. If John here wants to join Quantum Corps, hey, I think that’s great. I just want to make sure he knows what he’s getting into.”

Joanna wasn’t convinced. “Mom would never go for this.”

Johnny came back, “How do you know?”

“Kids, kids…no more, okay. The Old Man needs some peace around the barn…I’m working on a new flyer design…it’s no bigger than a fly. John, go do your application.” He turned to Joanna. “And as for you, young lady, how about finishing what I told you to do…clean up the kitchen and the living room. Then you can groom Misty and Marcy. I might even go riding with you after lunch.”

Joanna agreed with that and Johnny sprinted back to the house. An hour later, he had finished his online application to Quantum Corps and submitted it. By supper time that evening—over beef barley soup and sandwiches—Johnny reported that the Corps had responded back.

He read the reply over the dinner table. “It says ‘Report by 0800 hours on 22 June, 2048 to the Recruit Processing Center, Table Top Mountain, Idaho. Bring all applicable identicards listed below, including a current healthchip and a week’s clothes. Your contact will be Lieutenant Jeremy Wormer.’ Dad, can I take my bike, huh… what about it, huh?”

Jamison Winger sopped up some soup he’d dribbled on his chin. He crammed a square of cornbread in his mouth and chewed, thinking. You knew he was thinking when his eyebrows started canting down toward each other.

“You’ve finished all your projects for Ms. Gomez? Net School’s done?”

“All done. My certificate’s already posted on their web site. I can print it—“

Mr. Winger took another bite and sighed. “No need. I just wish your Mom were here. You know she’d give you a big hug and a kiss.”

“Yeah, a big wet kiss.”

Joanna could just imagine it. “Like Misty gives you, all tongue and teeth—“

“Okay, that’s enough. Johnny, this is serious business. You’re sure about this? You’re sure you don’t want to shovel hay the rest of your life. Or tear up all my inventions?”

Johnny knew a gotcha from his Dad when one came. There was a kind of twinkle in his eye, a slight smirky lift to his lips.

“I’m sure, Dad. I know what I’m doing.”

Jamison Winger put his spoon down and arranged the utensils just so. He’d always been a neat freak but after Ellen had died—well, it was one of a lot of things that had changed around the place. “Then, don’t forget to write, son. If they give recruits the time to do things like that.”

“I won ‘t, sir.”

The next day, Johnny cinched up a bag to the back of his turbo and sped off down the twisting gravel drive of the ranch. He picked up I-70 a few minutes later and headed north for Denver. And no autoway this time either. He wanted to be in control of something…he’d always liked to be in control of things.

Idaho was two states west, up through the Front Range and one state north. The trip would take the better part of two days. But he had his gear and he didn’t plan on sleeping any longer than necessary, just enough to rest up from the road.

Table Top Mountain, here I come. He throttled up the bike nearly to redline rpms and sped off toward the mountains, still snow-capped even in summer and silent, now beckoning him on to new and unknown places.

 

Table Top Mountain”

 

Table Top Mountain, Idaho

June 21, 2048

6:45 p.m.

 

Johnny Winger watched as the snow-capped peaks of the Sawtooth Range drew closer. Somewhere up there, past the front range, was Table Top Mountain. He thumbed a button on his wristpad and the image popped onto his visor…there it was… at least a virtual image. The mesa did look like a giant table, poking up above the surrounding countryside like a craggy high chair. His head-up map labeled nearby mountains as the Buffalo range. There was a place called Hunt Valley. Restricted Access, the map warned him. And one town, Haleyville.

Highway 21 snaked its way back and forth toward the mesa and soon he was climbing up a series of switchbacks to the summit, slightly obscured by a passing fog.

When he got to the top, he stopped at the Main Gate and two security officers came out to check credentials and sign him in.

He was ordered to follow directions displayed for him by a palm chip the guards gave him, a chip he fixed to his handle bars…the chip would display the route to the Recruit Processing Center, which turned out to be near the center of the base, part of the Officers’ Quarters compound. He passed a sign labeled Containment Center. That gave him a little chill. This is really for real, he told himself.

There was a line outside the Recruit Center. Johnny grabbed his bags and found his way, with the help of two sergeants barking out orders, to the end of the queue.

“Single file and keep your yaps shut, nogs!” That was all they knew how to say, and they said it over and over again. The orders grew louder and louder and the line grew longer and longer.

Table Top was a compact base. There was only so much room on top of the mesa so space was scarce and everything had to fit there.

The Recruit Center was in a building adjacent to the Barracks, a short walk from the PX and the commissary. Winger waited in line with several hundred others. After an hour, the doors were opened and all filed into a large assembly hall.

Winger sat between a short, loud-mouthed female applicant whose name badge said D’Nunzio and a fellow named Nathan Caden.

Winger introduced himself. Caden had owlish features and a black buzz cut. He was lanky, wiry and pretty much a sourpuss to judge from his expression. Johnny asked Caden where he was from.

Caden had a pained look on his face. “Bellevue, Washington,” he said. What Johnny couldn’t see was the halo that Caden had inside his skull. It was something Red Hammer required of all its agents. The nanobotic insert was in place to make sure Caden didn’t do anything detrimental to the cartel. The pain on his face was real, too, but Johnny didn’t know that. The halo was there to pump the neural gaps with dopamine, and suck them dry just as fast. Each cycle was just a little reminder…spasm or ecstasy, all you had to do was say the wrong thing.

A voice interrupted Johnny’s puzzlement. “Marianne D’Nunzio,” came the voice. “Everybody calls me Deeno…if they know what’s good for them.” It was the female on the other side of Winger.

“Johnny Winger…Pueblo, Colorado.”

D’Nunzio was a trash-talking New York wisecracker, a muscle gal, into kick boxing, Tai Chi, and a lot of stretching, flexing and strutting. She cracked knuckles every time her mouth opened. “Hey, Winger from Pueblo, Colorado…what gives with Constipated Cal next door? He looks like he just ate a whole hen.”

Winger shrugged. “The quiet type, I guess. Hey, look, the show’s finally getting on the road….”

A tall officer in a black and gold uniform bounded up to a mike on the stage. He said his name was Lieutenant Jeremy Wormer. The way he said it sounded like “Wormy.” Naturally, that’s what Deeno D’Nunzio called him from then on.

“Wormy” went over the day’s agenda. “After some words from General Kincade, the base C/O and Major Kraft, you’ll line up outside in the lobby, by name. That’s where you’ll draw your quarters assignments, schedules, rules and regs book and uniforms and other gear. Then you grab a bite at the commissary, stow your gear and get ready…for a full afternoon of tests, sims and checkups. Questions?”

Nobody had any. General Kincade made a few perfunctory remarks, followed by Major Jurgen Kraft. Kraft was head of 1st Nanospace Battalion. He was brusque, to the point and a voice somewhere behind Winger joked that he looked like a lion about to pounce, with his big moustache and animal glare. The recruits didn’t know it yet, but Kraft was German by birth, detached to Quantum Corps from a previous billet with UNIFORCE Security – II EuroCorps and was a strict, no-nonsense, by-the-book, expect-the-impossible-everyday kind of c/o.

Kraft didn’t speak or make an address. He growled like a lion over fresh meat.

“Recruits…there’s one rule when I’m around. Don’t waste my time. Give your all every minute…no less. Nobody free-lances and becomes an atomgrabber in my unit. If I give you a problem, work the problem. Don’t just react. Here at Table Top, you’ll hear the rally cry a lot…’small is all!’ You know what that means? It means the mission comes first, before everything, even before your life. I won’t have any atomgrabbers in my outfit telling me something can’t be done. I don’t give a damn about laws of physics or what your Mommy told you when you were six. I’m not your Mommy…forget Mommy. You come into my outfit, you will be an atomgrabber in all respects, all the time. If I kick your ass, it’s not because I love your pretty little ass…it’s because you need proper motivation. And with me, if it comes down to ass-kicking, you’re already halfway out the door. That is all.”

There was dead silence for several minutes. Then Wormy came up to the mike and said, “Fall out…to the lobby. Line up and keep your yaps shut. You’re nogs here. Nog stands for noggin…as in what I’ll be beating on if you don’t act right. Move out…!”

So they lined up, drew their gear and went on to the commissary.

Caden and D’Nunzio sat with Johnny Winger for a quick lunch of something vaguely resembling a sandwich and chips. Caden was quiet, which wasn’t a problem for D’Nunzio. The New York muscle gal could talk enough to silence a battalion.

“What’s with jarhead over there?” she mused out loud, sticking her pinky in the general direction of Caden. She wiped a dollop of mustard off her cheeks. “Still constipated?”

“It’s sticker shock,” Winger surmised. “Didn’t you tell me you came out of some geek place in the Bay Area?”

“Yeah,” Caden murmured. “Place called Cytek…I was a bot engineer.”

“Bots?” D’Nunzio said. “This place should be right up your alley then. Except these buggers are pretty small…think you can handle this?”

Caden shrugged. He wasn’t going to give the halo anything to chew on today. You had to watch it when others were around. The halo sometimes got antsy and started slurping dopamine, just to make sure everything worked right.

“We’ll see,” was all he would say. He took a big bite of the turkey and Swiss and made sure his mouth was crammed so he couldn’t say anything out of line. The shivers stayed away…for the moment.

D’Nunzio turned to Winger. “Colorado, huh? You ski?”

“I ski. What about you? What gets your motor running?”

D’Nunzio got a dreamy look on her face. “Kicking ass. I mean, seriously, I kickbox, all types. I just love burying my feet in someone’s derriere.”

Winger figured talking with D’Nunzio was like talking to one of those toy bots that always broke down…no matter what you asked it, the damn thing always spit out the same reply.

“You’ll do well around here.”

Then a bell rang. Lunch was over. It was time for physical exams and tests.

 

Major Jurgen Kraft rubbed his jaw uneasily as the simulation continued. Johnny Winger had been inside the SODS tank for better than an hour now; that was unheard of and even the sim techs stirred nervously as the rookie atomgrabber barreled on. The last time a cadet or a recruit had spent more than forty minutes navigating the tank and not crawled out a screaming lunatic had been several years ago and that poor fellow had washed out at the end of Basic.

Putting a nog into the SODS tank at this point in an atomgrabber’s training was like giving a snorkel and fins to a ten-year old and telling him to swim the Atlantic. Endurance and tenacity like this just wasn’t the norm inside the training battalion.

Kraft studied the monitor image of Winger’s determined face and wondered. Just what the hell have I got on my hands here?

The senior sim tech was a corporal named Givens, short, chunky, with an annoying rapid-fire blink to his eyes. He looked up at Kraft.

“Major, you want I should pull him out now…he’s already made it to the other side, beat through every obstacle I can throw at him. He’s done the standard course…and then some.”

“Where’s he now?”

Givens checked the grid on his display. The SODS tank was a sphere thirty feet in diameter, filled with water, and a host of infinitesimal predators and bogeymen, enough to get any unsuspecting nog’s attention when he tried to pilot an ANAD through the medium. An electronic 3-D grid pinpointed the position of the nanoscale assembler as the pilot steered it through the obstacle course.

“—I make him about two point one meters this side of the far wall…he’s slogging through the whirlpool…having some trouble keeping on course, looks like. Already transited the carbene forest.”

“Hmmpphh…” was all Kraft could say. The carbene forest was a sleet of reactive radicals and molecule clumps that usually ate up rookie atomgrabbers for lunch…it took some serious stick work and guts to slip through the torrent of molecules that were trying to tear off your effectors left and right. “Carbenes usually do a number on most pilots. What’s his trick?”

“I don’t know, sir…Cadet Winger’s just got a knack for ANAD driving, I guess. I’ve never seen anything like it. Should I let him go on…or pull the plug?”

Kraft’s eyes went from the ANAD image to Winger’s face—a tight mask of concentration…hell, the kid had his eyes closed, for God’s sake…he was driving ANAD by feel alone, tickling his joysticks and changing config by instinct. It was uncanny—

“No…let him be, Givens…let’s see what the kid can do.” A small crowd of techs and nogs had begun to gather around the control console outside the tank. Glances and murmurs were exchanged…and a few ten-notes as well.

SODS stood for Spatial Orientation and Discrimination Simulator. Cadet Johnny Winger wasn’t physically inside the sphere at all. Instead, he was in an enclosed booth on the other side of the tank, plugged into everything the ANAD master was sensing. A sleet of water molecules rushed by the assembler as it cruised on picowatt propulsors back across the water inside the tank. Once in awhile, the sim techs threw a curve at the trainee: dropped a few million bacterial spores in front of him, stirred the water into a whirlpool, discharged electron guns, zapped the tank with UV and X-rays…anything their diabolical minds and the simulation protocols could come up with. So far, Cadet Johnny Winger had fought off every predator and obstacle, even a malfunctioning horde of ANAD replicants that had materialized seemingly out of nowhere right in the middle of the tank. Winger had fought off banzai charges and flanking maneuvers and double envelopment tactics like a seasoned veteran, grappling with the herd in close combat and using his own ANAD’s bond disrupters to break the back of the enemy formation.

SODS was a prerequisite for any nog to get into the Corps, and stand for officer status in the newly forming 1st Nanospace Battalion. The whole world of nanoscale combat was so new that Kraft and the Corps general staff were making up tactics as they went along. SODS was supposed to measure a prospective atomgrabber’s ability to discriminate and manipulate objects via remote control at infinitesimal micron or even smaller scales.

From the beginning, Jurgen Kraft had to admit, one cadet stood above all the rest…Johnny Winger. He’d shown extraordinary skill at the sim, an unusually adept talent at visualizing and manipulating micron or nanometer scale objects in space. Hands down, the kid was destined to be the top code and stick man in the whole battalion. You couldn’t make raw talent like that.

If he could pass the Atomgrabbers’ Qualifying Test, that was.

And raw is what it is, Kraft kept reminding himself. Even as he and the others watched with amazement and grudging admiration, ANAD powered its way through the ‘waterfall’ obstacle that Givens had programmed in—dodging loose polypeptides and radicals with aplomb—and Winger’s eyes were still closed. The kid wasn’t even watching his readouts. He was letting the stick talk back to him, somehow feeling ANAD through the haptic feedback and driving across the course on instinct.

It’d be easier to navigate Manhattan on a tricycle blindfolded, Kraft told himself.

“Let him head for the launch point,” Kraft ordered. “I want to see what this fellow’s made of.”

“Two big ones say he’ll never make it,” a voice called from behind.

“Three says he does—“ someone countered.

“Warm beer for everyone if he splats at the ‘Wall’,” another one chimed in.

The wall was a solid chunk of metal dividing the tank in two. The trick was to config ANAD for denser medium, change his form so you could transit a world of crystalline planes and rigid lattices. All the while fighting off deranged nanobots programmed to chew up your effectors while you dived through. Most nogs would have rather run naked through a pack of lions.

But Winger managed to fend off the attack, whirling ANAD like a mad dervish, ripping the water with jolts of electron discharges, forming a protective bubble just long enough to fold himself for the denser wall. He squeezed the assembler down to barely a core and base, and slid sideways, twisting and turning, one step ahead of the bots nipping at his heels.

In the end, the race got everybody in the sim room cheering him on. A few moments later, ANAD sounded ahead and followed the acoustic returns right to the vacuum tube at the near wall of the tank, letting the containment chamber suck him up and put him to bed in his homeworld.

Kraft watched Winger’s eyes pop open on the monitor…the first time the kid had looked up since the carbene forest. Not a drop of sweat on him, Kraft observed. The barest hint of a smile crossed his young face.

“ANAD secured in containment,” Winger reported. “I’ll be ready for another run at the course as soon as he’s regenerated and stable—“

Kraft leaned forward to the mike. “Uh, that won’t be necessary, Cadet Winger. You’ve made your point. Secure the sim and extract. See you at the debrief in ten minutes.”

Winger nodded at the unseen voice. “Copy that, sir.” He started unhooking himself from the booth.

It had only been a few months after Johnny’s father, Jamison Winger, had taken the patch treatment for depression that Johnny had seen the first WorldNet stories about the Quantum Corps, only it wasn’t called that back then. United Special Operations Force or USOF was the original name of the group at the time, but it would soon evolve with a broad new mandate from the United Nations and with its new mandate, USOF gained a new name.

Winger had been looking for a way out for a long time. Quantum Corps was offering scholarships, some kickass new learning patches, even technical training for cadets who applied, qualified, got accepted and could get through basic training. Winger was intrigued; he damn well had no desire to stay on at the North Bar Pass Ranch and herd cattle for the rest of his life, even if he did get to tinker with Bailey and his dad’s other flying gizmos.

So Quantum Corps had been his ticket out of ranch work, and away from the deadening weight of family responsibility since his mother had died. In exchange for a six-year commitment, Johnny Winger had showed up at nog camp in a place called Table Top Mountain, Idaho, ready to see just what this new business of nanoscale warfare was all about.

It was late ’48 and the first medical nanobots were just hitting the news. Jamison Winger himself had tinkered in his barn-cum-shop-and-laboratory with personal nano back in the ‘40s, not very successfully Johnny remembered, but enough to be intriguing, really just some jalopy barebones matter compilers he’d put together from a kit, the kind you saw in midnight specials on the Net.

Johnny had been intrigued enough to check it out and when he found Quantum Corps looking for suitable candidates to get some schooling in nano theory and techniques, he didn’t think long before applying.

Nog camp had been an eye-opener, even for an athlete like Johnny. Discipline was tough but his outdoors orientation and caving experience made him physically fit enough and he managed to ace the physical exams and the obstacle courses in PT.

But it was inside the SODS tank, working through problems at micron scales, manipulating simple assemblers, nudging atoms around like he was driving a ‘dozer that Johnny really shined. Somehow, it was like he’d been born to it. Driving ANAD and grabbing atoms came naturally to him. It was like he could see all the pyramids and polygons and cones and spheres ping-ponging around in his mind’s eye, like he just had a feel for van der Waals forces and bond strengths; intuitively, he knew what it took to snap a carbon ring in half and boot up an autonomous assembler and go off careening around inside a speck of matter like it was some kind of disneyland or something. Some people played the piano. Some people could throw a football seventy yards on a rope. Johnny Winger was a born atomdriver.

And after a few legendary turns in the SODS tank, he had come to the attention of Major Jurgen Kraft.

Kraft was the newly appointed commanding officer of Quantum Corps’ 1st Nanospace Battalion. It was his job to take the raw talent of people like Johnny Winger and Nathan Caden and Deeno D’Nunzio and shape it into a functioning combat unit, then marry their training to the technology that ANAD brought. Originally, Kraft had been a program manager for autonomous assemblers at Northgate University, where ANAD had been born at the Autonomous Systems Lab. Kraft was an early mover in the world of nanoscale mechanisms married to autonomous-agent quantum computing. He’d done several stints at Northgate and Quantum Corps had tapped him early on for field command. He’d been instrumental after that, getting ANAD technology weaponized and tactics developed enough to be combat ready. There was some urgency to this business too, as UNIFORCE intelligence had learned in early ’48 that Balkistan and several other rogue nations as well as certain criminal groups were hard at work dealing in weaponized nano themselves.

Kraft knew it wouldn’t be long before ANAD and its new crop of nanowarriors would be put to the test.

In June 2048, Jurgen Kraft had met Johnny Winger for the first time. It was not a match made in heaven.

Cadet Winger knocked gently on the door jamb. Major Kraft was at his desk, his shiny balding head was bent to some paperwork he’d neglected. He didn’t look up, merely mumbled a raspy “Come” while he swore softly at the commandpad, trying to tidy up a report for the 1600 hours squirt to Division.

“Cadet Johnny Winger, sir…reporting as ordered.” Winger hung a salute, holding his arm stiff until Kraft responded perfunctorily.

“Cadet Winger—“ Kraft folded up the c-pad and tucked it in his shirt pocket, then leaned back in his squeaky chair. “—that was one hell of a display of ANAD-piloting this afternoon in the tank. You navigate like that all the time, son?”

Winger gave it some thought. “That was my first time, but I’ve played with nano before. Most of the time, I’m a little smoother with the insert and capture, sorry, sir….”

Kraft snorted. “Most of the time?—hell, son, most of the time, the sim operators chew up nogs and spit ‘em out for dirt. Where’d you learn to grab atoms like that?”

“Sisters of Mercy Hospital in Colorado Springs, sir.” He explained about the crash, the medical bots, the surreptitious sessions in the lab. “I guess I had a knack, sir. Kind of took to it real quick.”

Kraft was suspicious of the kid right from the start. What was Johnny Winger doing that all the rest weren’t? “Cadet Winger, it’s my job to get this outfit into shape and combat-ready. I want you to be my top sergeant in the training platoon. Assuming you pass all the other tests, of course. You work with the SODS pukes, work out some routines, tests and scenarios. I want you to teach the other code and stick men how to drive like you do. Got that?”

That was when Johnny knew he was in trouble. The truth was he couldn’t really explain the talent he had. He had no words to describe how you parked ANAD on the ‘back porch’ of a benzene ring and used its covalent bonds to swing yourself through a sleet of water molecules like Tarzan hurtling through the trees. Nobody had taught him harebrained maneuvers like that; it certainly wasn’t in Dr. Morse’s book at the hospital. You just felt it and tried it and made it work.

But he couldn’t very well say no to Major Kraft, could he?

Kraft studied Winger for a few moments. “Colorado…you say you worked on a ranch too? Like a cowboy?”

“More like slave labor, sir…we’re just barely holding on. The Corps’ my ticket out. I want to make the Corps a career.”

Kraft hmmmed at that. He rubbed the back of his bald head, then fiddled with his moustache. “There are more tests, son. And the big one at the end. Atomgrabbers Qualifying Test…AQT. Keep your nose clean and study hard. The Corps needs someone like you…badly. That’ll be all.”

“Sir…yes, sir.” Winger fired off his best salute and hightailed it out of officers’ country, finding himself outside the Ops building, fighting a stiff wind blowing across the mesa.

He pumped a fist and allowed himself a smile. This kid’s got one foot in the door . Then he headed for the Recruit Quarters, stuck down at the ass-end of the BOQ. Deeno D’Nunzio and that propeller- head Caden were never going to believe this.

 

He found Caden stuffing socks and shoes in a small bag. His bed was made, the covers cinched up tighter than a drumhead.

“Where are you going?” Winger asked. He slung his own rucksack onto his bunk. “You should be studying your brains out…we’ve still got more classes and tests, you know…” he checked his agenda, carefully pronounced the upcoming attraction at 1700 hours…Basic Maneuvers in Molecular Combat…”better read up on the text they gave us.”

Caden wasn’t real talkative. Which wasn’t unusual for him. He was acutely aware that the rest of the training battalion felt a nog’s place was with his unit. But it couldn’t be helped—he had to be on time.

“Just getting my stuff squared away. Scuttlebutt says there might be an inspection before chow tonight…I wanted to be ready.”

Winger plopped onto his bunk. “Guess where I just came from?”

Caden thought of Johnny Winger as some rube from the hills, a cowboy more at home in a haystack than a special ops outfit like the Corps. “Don’t tell me…the far side of the Moon.”

“Nope.” Winger described his test run at the SODS tank. “Major Kraft said I was a natural…it was easy. I felt like I’d been doing it all my life.”

“So you want me to kiss you or what?”

“No, I’ll settle for letting you kiss my ass…I perfumed it real good this morning…just for you.”

With that, Caden snorted and left the bunk room. He had already scoped out a small utility room just out the back door of the recruit quarters. He ducked into the utility room and, after making sure no one had seen him, pulled out the nanoderm kit.

First thing was to swallow the pill. It tasted like a piece of dirty sponge.

Though the process occurred inside him and thus was initially invisible, Caden kept remembering stretches of a text he’d read not long ago: “The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde.” He chuckled at the idea. Robert Louis Stevenson could never have imagined this.

Caden emerged from the utility room after about ten minutes. His face was different. His whole identity was different. Outwardly, he was no longer Nathan Caden. Now, he was a young Quantum Corps lieutenant named Dirk Melhkopf, complete with a spiffy new black and gold uniform, consistent right down to the atom-and-sunburst Corps emblem on his lapels and newly minted silver bars on his shoulders.

He stuffed his old cadet paraphernalia into a small bag and left it under a drain grate in the room. Then he walked quickly, purposefully, like he knew where he was going, right to the Security shack at the Main Gate, just the other side of Drexler Field.

There was a moment’s hesitation as the security guards examined his ID and checked against their records. But the guard who’d taken his ID returned it with no comment and no visible reaction that Caden could detect.

“Thank you, sir. Watch the hill…the rain this morning makes those turns pretty slick.”

“Sure,” Caden, now ‘Lieutenant Mehlkopf’, said. He held his breath and didn’t breathe until he was headed down the narrow twisting road from the mesa that led to Highway 7.

Caden realized that his relatively uneventful exit from Table Top meant that Red Hammer’s swipebot had worked perfectly, as advertised. Where the real Mehlkopf was at that moment, Caden didn’t know. Probably sacked out in his bunk wholly unaware that his whole ID right down to his fingerprints, DNA and any measurable biometric had been purloined by something the size of a virus with the morals of a bank robber. He decided he didn’t really care.

He was out, on time, and he needed now to make tracks. Nathan Caden had an important rendezvous that afternoon.

The small town of Haleyville was a short ride from Table Top Mountain and Caden would have enjoyed the afternoon jaunt on the turboscooter—the air was fresh with pine and birch and a steady breeze was flowing through the high mountain passes of Idaho’s Sawtooth Range—but the truth was he was nervous, even anxious about the meeting.

He hadn’t done exactly as the agreement called for and he knew there would be questions. He just hoped the inquiry stopped with questions. He figured he’d use the ride down to the town to come up with some answers.

Haleyville was a thirty-minute ride, out the main gate at Drexler Field—Table Top’s parade ground and drill field—down the winding road through Buffalo Valley to Highway 7. Haleyville Road itself ran a serpentine course, switching back and forth along the crest of the ridge overlooking Hunt Valley to the north, a narrow two-lane blacktop dark as a black bear, until it peeled off south toward the town itself. The north fork went up Hunt Valley Road, through a valley and tunnel complex the nogs had long ago called The Notch, to the Test and Wargaming Range several miles away, atop a bare mesa lost in wispy wreaths of cloud and mist.

Caden enjoyed the ride on his bike as best he could, cranking the scooter up to nearly a hundred and twenty, leaning left and right as he steered on through the cool afternoon air toward the outskirts of town, and the rustic hotel known as Custer Inn, where his appointment was undoubtedly waiting impatiently. He was already late and it was getting dark, save for the bowl of stars just coming out overhead, and the faint halo glow of Table Top base behind him. He was glad the road was mostly deserted.

He didn’t want to answer any more questions than necessary.

Custer Inn was a faintly shabby, log and shingle mountain lodge of a hotel, nestled in the piney brow of a small turnout valley off the main road, a mile or so before Highway 7 broadened into Main Street, which was lined with gift shops, bait and tackle joints and hiking suppliers. The pale blue glow of a parasailing shop, closed for the evening, threw enough light across the road, so he found the turnoff readily enough. He tried not to let the hologram windsailers circling over the intersection distract him.

He sped down the decline toward the parking lot, and parked the scooter in the shadows, somehow feeling comfort in a cloak of anonymity. Through the windows, the bar and restaurant shone with boozy conviviality, laughter and saloon music spilling out through the front doors.

He went in.

As instructed, he went to Registration and secured a room for the night. Number 127, the Geronimo wing and would he be needing any help with his luggage, sir, we do have bellhop service—

Caden ignored the offer and went looking for the room. He turned up and down several corridors, crossed a breezeway to another building and eventually stumbled upon Room 127. He unlocked it and went inside.

He waited, uneasily, for about half an hour.

As before, the knock, when it came, was soft, almost inaudible.

“Housekeeping—” purred an accented voice.

Caden let the woman in, shutting the door quickly behind him. The lights were low in the room, only a single lamp over the bed lit. The staff woman was Oriental. Chinese, perhaps, from the look of her.

Caden hadn’t seen her before. She was short, petite, straight black hair tied in a severe bun. Her maid’s outfit was impeccable: white skirt and apron, white shoes, black and white blouse and latex gloves.

She glared coldly at Caden. “You’re late.”

The cadet attempted a shrug, but realized it wasn’t visible in the shadows. “Couldn’t be helped…I had classes, tests, then a briefing, with the Major. I can’t stay long…there are more tests tonight.”

Her real name was Wei Ming, but Caden didn’t know this. Nor did he ask. It was understood that identities weren’t important. Only results were important. That much was understood quite well.

Wei Ming pursed her lips, paced deeper into the black of the room. She drew the shades aside, scanned outside, satisfied, she came back, partially into the light. Her face was a half moon, pale and unblemished as a ceramic figurine. “It goes well?”

Caden watched her, hoping to detect something, some inkling of where he stood with them. Maybe a twitch, a clench of her fist, but there was nothing. “Well enough. I’m doing the best I can. Some of these guys are really well qualified…there’s one fellow, named Winger…he’s a shoo-in. I’m not really sure where I stand today…I’m trying to find out where the cut-off is on applicants. I just need more time.”

“Mmm.” A question or a statement? He wasn’t sure.

Caden found the silences uncomfortable. “Really, I think the mission is on track—“

“You’ve had long enough.” Wei Ming’s face hardened. “You were supposed to have stopped them before now—”

Caden knew that was coming. It was true that he was slightly behind the agreed-on schedule. He tried to put a spin on the story, a certain inevitability, factors beyond my control, I wasn’t prepared for—but she brushed him off and went pacing again, this time more abruptly.

When she came back into the light, her face was no longer a half moon. It had morphed into a hard, impassive mask, a carnival mask, an angry clown. Was it the light…maybe nanoderm patches changing with her mood? He’d heard of the trick—

“This is no good,” she told him. The undulations on her cheeks and forehead seemed to settle down, take on a firmness. “You should have taken steps by now…it was agreed. You agreed. Now we’ll have to speed things up.”

“It will take some time—”

Now she was visibly angry. The skin kneaded itself into a hard fist, making her cheeks bulge slightly like a lioness with fresh kill in her mouth. “They’re not stupid, Caden. Don’t make that mistake. You’ve made enough already.” She was thinking, her cheeks returning to normal planes, sleek and alabaster. “Our efforts must be allowed to develop and expand globally. The Project depends on it.”

Caden had heard of The Project before. He wanted to ask, but he decided against it. But he was curious.

“Maybe if I knew more about—”

But Wei Ming wasn’t listening. She had new instructions from Red Hammer. “You’re being paid well for your services, Caden. Yet you continue to fail us.”

“I can’t work miracles.”

“Leave the miracles to us. Just do your part.” There was an unmistakable menace—had her voice changed timbre? An echo, a frequency shift, multiple tones superimposed. He shook his head. Had Red Hammer mastered that too?

She went on. “You must sabotage any more efforts to develop countermeasures. ANAD must not be allowed to interfere with the Project. This is a critical time now.”

Caden’s throat constricted. No…that was a normal reflex. He told himself that, reassured himself he still controlled his own throat muscles. “That’s not the agreement. I agreed only to provide intelligence, not perform sabotage. It’s too dangerous.”

Wei Ming was stern. Nanoderm rolled across her face, an earthquake of skin, reflecting her emotions. “Your mission is changed. You’ll be paid well for your work…if it is successful. We’ve always paid well, have we not?”

Caden nodded glumly.

She reached into her apron, withdrew a small disk. She placed it in Caden’s hand. He willed his palm to remain still.

“It is a small bug. Load it into ANAD’s kernel. It will weaken ANAD, subtly, a little at a time. This will make it harder for Quantum Corps to counter us. Install this at the right time—you will be signaled when. And keep sending intelligence back…the usual way.”

She vanished from the room almost before Caden realized she was gone, blending into the shadows. He stayed a few minutes more, breathing rhythmically, testing arms, legs, facial muscles. Making sure he still had control of himself. Red Hammer did that to people. And the halo hadn’t done anything. He was grateful for that much.

Then he left the Custer Inn and sped back to Table Top Mountain.

It was near midnight when he parked the turbo outside the Recruit barracks. He’d missed several classes. He walked through stiff breezes across the quadrangle to the Barracks, right in the center of the base. Ten minutes in the utility room and he was Nathan Caden again, right down to the uniform and the owlish face and the bushy eyebrows. Outside his quarters, he ran into Mighty Mite Barnes, having a smoke with another female he didn’t know, huddled together to shield themselves from the wind, beneath the overhang.

Barnes was contemptuous. “What happened, Caden? Hot water with the Major again? Or was this a little love trip? Bitch wouldn’t put out for you?”

Her smoking companion just snickered.

The hard drive along Highway 7 had helped Caden clear his mind. He snorted. “I left her panting…for more. She couldn’t get enough of what I had.”

“Right,” said Barnes. Whatever the hell that was.

Nathan Caden threw himself into his bunk, left the lights off and tried to close his eyes and think. After a minute of enforced stillness, he got up and stood by the parted curtains of his quarters, gazing out across the lighted quadrangle of the Ops Center. A few guards patrolled the walkways. A few techs were straggling in, reporting for day shift inside the Tank. If he stood to one side of the window, Caden could see the low floodlit dome of the Containment Facility, a few hundred meters south from the barracks compound. More security. In the distance, perched on an outcrop of the mesa that overhung Buffalo Valley, was the parade ground and Drexler Field. He checked his watch, noted the time and date. In less than two weeks, the next round of nogs—Corps cadets—would be tossing their tasseled caps into the air, finishing Basic training and feeling like prisoners let out on furlough. But Caden didn’t know that.

Caden snorted, remembering every sweaty minute of the last few weeks. Atomgrabbing 101 and all the quantum physics you could ever want. Not to mention Phys Ed and the obstacle course every afternoon. Thirty-mile hikes through the snow and sleet of the Buffalo Mountains. Survival training. Escape and evasion tactics. Molecular fencing and the Sim Tank, where malevolent instructors fitted you out with gizmos that repelled and attracted just like real-life atoms. You bounced around like a tennis ball for several hours, usually knocking yourself senseless in the process. He shook his head. Maybe it had been a big mistake after all.

Nathan Caden stood at the window, fidgeting with the frayed ends of the curtain draw. He knew he had to act. He knew he had to do something.

Disable Quantum Corps for three more days.

There was only one possibility and Caden recoiled from it. But he didn’t really have a choice. He was in tight with Red Hammer, too tight by now, and if he politely declined, he’d be terminated faster than he could say quantum.

The only sure way to bollix up Table Top Mountain for three days, maybe longer, was to get inside the Containment building and release ANAD. Config the bugger for max replication and let the swarm loose on Table Top Mountain.

The Big Bang scenario they’d simmed so many times…this time, played out in real life.

With any luck, he might not even survive the onslaught.

 

 

Cadet and applicant rankings were left to speculation for the next few days. More tests came and went. More physicals. Bizarre pokings and proddings and probings were made into every conceivable orifice, even into brains and places the cadets didn’t know they had and couldn’t name. Classes and briefings were held, on subjects ranging from Molecular Tactics to ANAD Ops to Quantum Engineering and Containment protocols, all of it designed to give instructors a feel for which cadets possessed the right stuff to be atomgrabbers and which did not.

As the days went on, Johnny Winger felt that he was somehow in a place he had always been destined for, without knowing it. Nathan Caden struggled, though no more than any other cadets. But some applicants had the knack for visualizing things nobody could see and manipulating and maneuvering things at the scale of atoms and molecules. It took a certain kind of wacky brain to do that. And Winger knew he would likely have plenty of company, what with Barnes and M’Bela and D’Nunzio and others doing almost as well as he.

Then came the announcement everybody had been expecting, dreading and waiting for. The details of the Big Test.

Major Kraft gathered all applicants in the recruits’ assembly hall and gave them the good news.

“Listen up boys and girls…I called this briefing— by the way, around the Corps, we don’t have meetings, we have briefings, so you hayseeds remember that. I called this briefing to give you a heads-up on how we end this recruiting cycle. There’s a big test coming. Tomorrow. Starts at 0700 hours. It’s called the Atomgrabbers’ Qualifying Test. It’s like a big game…a war game. You’ll all be given roles and assignments and rules of engagement. Then we turn the buggers loose. All you have to do is help our troopers fight ‘em off, contain ‘em and put them back in the bottle. If you fail, at any time, you wash out. You’re outta here. You work with your team mates, follow orders, do the job and put the critters back in containment, and I mean the right way, maybe we’ll consider your application. Questions?”

There was dead silence in the hall.

Kraft allowed himself the barest hint of a smile, peeking through his Black Forest of a moustache. “Very well. Pick up your mission and assignments disk on the way out. Units and team leaders will assemble in this room at 0600 hours tomorrow morning. Have a pleasant evening.”

Lieutenant ‘Wormy’ then bounded up onto the platform and bellowed out “Dismissed!” He sounded like a cow in heat.

Winger walked out with D’Nunzio and Oscar M’Bela, back to their quarters.

“What do you make of this qualifying test, Wings?” D’Nunzio asked. “I heard the same scuttlebutt as you. Separating the boys from the men…and the girls from the men?”

“Yeah, probably…I never heard anything about a wargame. I guess they want to see what we’ve learned, how we apply it, how we react under pressure.”

Oscar M’Bela pulled alongside the two, fondling some laibon healer trinkets in his hand. The cadets had taken to calling Oscar M’Bela ‘Witchy.’ That was because he was Congolese by birth, Hutu by tribe and really spiritual in his outlook. M’Bela found spirits in everything and Winger had long since gotten over the spectacle of Witchy talking to ANAD units in containment as if they were tribal brothers, even rubbing amulets, colored stones, and cowry shells. He had all kinds of rituals and beliefs, explaining there wasn’t much difference between the spirits of the forests and autonomous nanorobots. “You can’t see either one but you can sure make enemies of one if you don’t treat them with respect.” Nobody could argue with that.

The three of them spied Nathan Caden nearby. He wasn’t heading their way, in the direction of the barracks known as Galland Hall, the recruit barracks. Instead, he was cutting a path across the front of Barracks Row, heading for the domed Containment building, situated behind sturdy barriers to the south. Or maybe he was heading for the Infirmary…it was nearby too.

“What’s the matter, Caden? Lost your way?” D’Nunzio cackled. “You pee on the lawn over there, the bugs’ll have a feast on that little wang of yours.”

Nearby cadets chuckled at that but Caden paid them no attention.

“Just making a little delivery before turning in. Have a cold one for me, you creeps.”

He pressed on toward the shimmering barrier of the security field around the Containment center, a linked nanomesh of bots that kept out flies, mosquitos and nosy cadets with equal aplomb.

In his pocket, the disc that Wei Ming had given him felt like it weighed a ton.

 

Table Top Mountain”

 

Table Top Mountain, Idaho

June 28, 2048

7:45 a.m.

 

The day of the AQT finally came and it was a bitch. Johnny Winger continued to do well in all the tests of dexterity and skill at nanospace orientation and nanobot maneuvering tests. M’bela and D’Nunzio and Mighty Mite Barnes did well enough.

They spent time wargaming scenarios and trudging up and down windswept mountain passes out in the Hunt Valley range, fending off attacks and assaults and all kind of wicked tricks the instructors pulled out of their feverish minds, all the while hurriedly looking up procedures and rules and tactical moves in their eyepads, portable handbooks they were supposed to rely on for proper responses to enemy actions. They all knew, and they all reminded each other, that they’d be graded on that as much as cleverness and results.

Major Kraft didn’t want any freelancing in the AQT.

 

“Okay, troopers, here’s the situation.” Kraft diagrammed the wargame on a board. “A large city is threatened by an enemy force, basically held hostage to their demands. Quantum Corps gets the call and an ANAD Detachment is formed. If the enemy’s demands aren’t met, the enemy will execute a Big Bang and destroy the city and all the inhabitants. ANAD Detachment is tasked with penetrating the city, conducting recon on enemy dispositions and preventing the Big Bang from playing out.”

“What about rules of engagement, Major?” asked Johnny Winger.

“I’m getting to that. In this wargame, which is called ‘Nanowarrior,ANAD Detachment will test the new trooper-embedded ANAD system. That means launch, deployment, engagement and recovery tactics. This scenario is designed to test how well that works, what you’ve all learned the last two weeks. As far as rules of engagement go, close-quarters combat is permitted, including all swarm tactics of evasion, deception, swarming attack and so forth. But no bodily penetration is allowed.”

“Too bad,” said Deeno D’Nunzio. “I was looking forward to grabbing somebody’s gizzard and shaking it down.”

“To help the simulation, we’ve had ANAD swarms at work out at the Hunt Valley range for the last several days, assembling fake buildings and other urban infrastructure. By now, it ought to look pretty real.” With a few taps on his wrist keypad, Kraft sent the scenario details and rules of engagement to every nog’s crewnet. “There…now you’ve got the facts. Questions?”

“Just one, Major.” It was Witchy M’Bela. “Isn’t Mr. Caden supposed to be here? We’re short a trooper.”

Kraft look annoyed but figured the question had merit. “Good question, Mr. M’Bela. Now you know why we run wargames. Mr. Caden won’t be joining us today. He reported sick at the Infirmary overnight. So now you’re short a trooper. Life’s like that. Work out the requisite tactics and complete the mission.”

 

For years, Table Top Mountain had been portrayed as looking like the palm of a hand. If that were so, then the ridges of mountains radiating out from Table Top were the fingers. Following the same analogy, Hunt Valley was a narrow plateau surrounded by steep cliffs roughly between the thumb and index finger of the hand that was Table Top.

The Valley was home to the outdoor wargame and test range, where nanoscale assemblers could be let loose in the wild, under some semblance of control. Indeed, one of the advantages of having a valley as the test range was the ability to throw a simple containment shield over the grounds, in the form of electron guns and even crude but effective nanobotic barriers, able to blunt the effects of all but the worst types of accidents.

Johnny Winger led his training detachment of twelve troopers from the belly of the liftjet and hiked up a short cliff to a ledge overlooking the sim city below, affectionately known as “Valleyville.”

“DPS…” he called over to a cadet named Sheila Reaves. “We’d better do a little recon here so we know what we’re dealing with. Get Superfly up and sniffing around…perimeter of five hundred yards radius.”

“I’m on it.” Reaves and the DPS2, Cadet Chandra Singh, unloaded two of the micro air vehicles and fired them off. Moments later, the twin entomopters were airborne at altitude, cruising on picowatt power cells, their articulating wings spinning at thousands of rpm. They careened across the valley and the rooftops of Valleyville while Winger directed the rest of the deployment.

“Full hypersuits?” Cadet Al Glance didn’t relish the prospect of getting in to the heavy, boosted exo-skeletons they’d all trained with, but they did offer the best protection if things went downhill.

Winger thought. “We probably should, given the threat. But I’d like to know more about what the enemy’s up to.” Winger was like that…going on hunches, ignoring the book when the situation seemed ripe. It drove Kraft and the others crazy but more often than not, Winger’s hunches had been right. The hairs on the back of his neck were his warning system. At the moment, they were behaving. “Get the suits powered up but leave ‘em off…for now.”

“You smell something fishy, Wings?” asked Mighty Mite Barnes. Barnes was unstowing the HERF gun mounts, getting the radio-freq weapons ready to go.

“Maybe…” Winger said, scanning the terrain around Valleyville with his binocs. A faint shimmer pulsated and flickered around the nearer buildings of the fake city. “Get those HERF guns spooled up right away…and site them along axes parallel to the main streets. Oh, and Mite, put one up there, sited away from the ‘Ville.”

Away from the city?” Barnes asked. “Are you—?”

“Yeah…I’m not forgetting who the OpFor is today….if I know Dana Tallant, she’ll have 2nd Nano all bug-eyed and ready to slam us from behind before we know what’s what. That’d be just like her.” Winger had jousted with Cadet Dana Tallant repeatedly in classes and exercises during the last week.

“What about ANAD?” asked Glance. “Think we ought to wake him up, get him going?”

Winger held up a hand, for silence. The hairs on the back of his neck had begun to prickle. “Al, you and Gibby come with me…we’re going to check out something down there. I think that shield’s just for show and the enemy wants us to come that way. The rest of you stay put…and keep your eyes open. You get any kind of tickle or whiff from Superfly, blast away with HERF. That’ll buy you some time.”

“But, Wings—“ Reaves was uneasy with the maneuver. “—if we get fragged with ‘bots here, we’ve got no defense beyond HERF and some coil-gun rounds. You’ve got the, er, the ANAD master….with you.”

“I’ll only be gone a few minutes and we’ll be in contact. With ANAD right here—“ he patted the containment capsule on his web belt, “we can deploy and engage faster now. You’ll be covered, no matter what.”

Reaves looked doubtful. It was against all doctrine to split up the detachment like this. Normally, ANAD would be contained in a TinyTown pod with the detachment as it deployed, not off following some wild hunch.

“If you say so.”

Winger took a small detail and left the ledge, creeping down a rutted gully until they were flatfooted on level ground just beyond the city buildings. The shimmer of a nanobotic shield flickered like summer fireflies a scant fifty feet away….supposedly the OpFor’s barrier to any probing from this sector.

You had to think like the enemy, know your enemy and what they liked to do. In this case, the enemy was Dana Tallant’s 2nd Nanospace Training Battalion. Winger smiled as they positioned themselves to do a little more reconnoitering around the edges of the shield.

He knew Dana Tallant like a kid sister.

Valleyville was essentially a shell of a town, literally. Over the last few days, Major Kraft had seen to it that swarms of nanoscale assemblers had put together a small group of buildings and streets, enough to resemble a small town. Only the exteriors had been assembled, like a Hollywood backlot. Inside their shells, the buildings were empty space.

“Wings, we going to breach this thing…or just check the perimeter?” It was Gibby, working the interface unit.

But Winger didn’t reply. Instead, he held up a hand and the detail halted, right outside the keening whine of the nanomech barrier. Something had tickled the hairs on the back of his neck. He spoke into his helmet mike.

“DPS, you got anything from Superfly yet?”

Sheila Reaves’ voice crackled back. “Funny you asked, Wings…right when you called up, ‘Fly gave me a tickle of something…I don’t know what it is…maybe nothing—“

Winger froze. With hand signals, he ordered the small detail to about-face and head back up to the ledge.

Gibby was curious. “What is it?”

Winger was already halfway up a gully, hauling himself as fast as he could. “Just a hunch…come on, troops—“

And that’s when all hell broke loose.

The scream of Sheila Reaves was the first thing everybody heard over the crewnet.

AAAAARRRRGGGGHHHHH!…..Get the HERF gun!!!—“

Though he was still fifty feet below the level of the ledge, Johnny Winger could feel the swelling thermal bloom of a Big Bang attack long before he could see it. Overhead, sparks and crackles of phosphorescent blue and green stitched across the tops of the hills, as a swarm of nanobots descended on the detail, replicating madly, mindlessly, replicating in exponential overdrive, swelling and rolling and smothering like a slow-motion fireball of an explosion.

The sheer suffocating weight of the ‘bots as they divided and expanded made the air tingly and alive with pinpricks of flame.

“Come ON!” Winger yelled. Gibby and M’Bela and the rest of the detail scrambled after Winger as he hauled and kicked and hoisted himself across ravines and clefts, climbing furiously toward the epicenter of the attack.

At the top of the ridge, Sheila Reaves managed to get the HERF gun turned around and boresighted into the teeth of the nanomech gale, cycling the action, as she motioned the others to get down.

“Cover yourselves…I’m gonna fry these suckers!”

The rest of the detachment took cover immediately and Reaves gritted her teeth, wincing and gasping for air as the ‘bots smothered her from every direction. Jeez, this feels worse than the Tank…it’s supposed to be an exercise, isn’t it? With her last ounce of strength, she lit off the radio-freq cannon and dove headlong to the dirt. She buried her face and screamed at the top of her lungs to equalize pressure in her head, trying to ignore the stings and bites of the ‘bots on her back.

The thunderclap deafened the hillside as a pulse of rf hurtled through the air. Winger waited a second for the wave of heat to wash over him, then he heard it: the clattering of nanomechs, momentarily stunned, falling to the ground like dead leaves in a stiff wind.

“Let’s GO!” he yelled, as he bolted up the hill. He cycled the comm circuit to the ANAD master now ticking over inside the containment pod. ANAD, get yourself ready…we’re going into action ‘soon as I get to the top…prep for deploy, safe all effectors, spool up propulsors, and orient yourself for launch…

Deep inside the containment capsule on his web belt, the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler was readying itself for combat.

***deployment complete…all effectors in launch position…my processor is updating now…config state is combat-ready***

“That’s…affirmative, ANAD…” Winger grunted, as he ducked and scrambled forward. “Max rate rep…give ‘em hell, ANAD! Launch now…launch and engage!!”

The force of the launch momentarily caught Winger off balance and he stumbled and fell to his side. The sudden whoosh of the pressure drop and the sting of the torque against his waist made him wince, but it couldn’t be helped. The ANAD master rocketed out of containment and immediately set to work replicating.

Moments later, the two swarms collided head-on across the top of the ridge, in pulsating rhythms of iridescent blue, as vast, unseen armies engaged overhead.

Another drone-snap of radio frequency waves rolled across the hills as the HERF gun discharged. Winger got on the crewnet…he had to warn the DPS techs to keep the air clear for ANAD.

“Sheila! DPS1…kill the HERF! Kill the HERF! ANAD needs a free hand to fight—“:

Reaves’ voice was strained…she was being ‘consumed’ with mechs even as she burrowed ever deeper into the dirt behind the liftjet skids. They started to tickle, then burn a little. Emasculated bots but they could still bite….

Sorry…we’re being…eaten…alive…up here!!”

Winger pressed a button on his wrist keypad and instantly, soundings from ANAD filled his helmet eyepiece. The view was surreal, swirls of motion embedded in bubbles and polygons and octahedral lattices as the assemblers collided and grappled.

“Gibby, I’ve got ANAD on viewer…I’m taking command, changing config—!”

“Got it!” Gibby came back. Gibbs was fully qualified to run the interface controls and immediately dialed up the same view. But ANAD was Winger’s baby now, he figured. Better to let the two of them duke it out with the enemy ‘bots.

I sure hope they know what they’re doing, Gibby thought. He raised his head up and got a mouth full of mech debris, stinging sleet against his face. He shielded his face and squinted into his eyepiece, the same view Winger had.

Funny how combat looked when you were the size of a few atoms. Gibby remembered seeing some old vid…a movie they used to call them—of the U.S. Navy fighting in the Big War…the Second Big One. Frogmen fighting underwater. That’s what nano-combat looked like on his eyepiece viewer. Nothing but foam and bubbles, only it wasn’t bubbles he was seeing. It was stringy chains of atoms that looked like tree ornaments…bulbs on a filament whipping through space, cleaved by things that looked like spiky maces and octahedral balls and weird pyramids and every shape imaginable, all careening along as if blown by a hurricane.

Even as he watched, he heard Winger’s voice over the crewnet. “…looks just like an ANAD clone, Gibby…I’m closing in—“

“Easy…it could be a diversion.” He watched as the image steadied. Several dozen feet away, perched below the precipice of a ledge, Johnny Winger was driving ANAD toward the nearest of the enemy mechs. Even as ANAD surged forward, Gibby saw the enemy maneuvering to strike. “Look out! He’s changing position…all of ‘em, coming at us—“

“I see it!” Winger yelled. His fingers flexed but there was no need…no keyboard was needed with quantum coupling. “ANAD…move all defensive systems to attack position!”

***ANAD complying…casting off hematite shield…grabbers to attack position…electron lens primed and ready…let me at ‘em!***

Winger smiled as ANAD sped forward. Like a five-year old, heading for the playground. Over the last few training days, he’d developed a weird, almost brotherly relationship with ANAD. On the eyepiece imager, the enemy master grew and retracted appendages and surface structure with blazing speed. The outer membrane of the mech seethed with motion, as atoms and clusters of atoms twisted, bonded, twisted again, rebounded, broke apart, recombined, straightened, undulated and whirled.

The gap between them vanished and ANAD grappled with the nearest mech. Other mechs swarmed to the battlefield. The imager screen shook with the collision, then careened sideways.

After only two weeks at Table Top, combat at the scale of atoms and molecules seemed like second nature to Johnny Winger. From his first days as a nog, he’d had an uncanny ability to grab atoms and sling molecules. It was like he’d born to the world of van der Waals forces and peptide chains, like he was a natural. Now, with the quantum coupler, he no longer even needed an IC-man or keyboard to drive ANAD. He could do it by thought alone.

“ANAD…change config now…go to prime three and extend all carbenes!”

***ANAD changing config now…going to prime three…hope you know what you’re doing, Boss***

A few moments passed, as the new instructions were executed by the ANAD master and all daughter assemblers. Gibby watched the imager view as it vibrated with the ferocity of the attack. Chains of oxygen molecules, pressed into service as makeshift weapons, whipped across the screen. The air was soon choked with cellular debris. Even as Gibby hunkered down against the lee of the hillside and watched, the enemy mechs replicated several times in response, adding new molecule strings. In unison, they stripped off electrons to make an armor shield of highly reactive chlorine atoms.

Gibby had seen the tactic before…in class. In seconds, ANAD was nearly immobilized by the chlorine sheath.

***I’m losing structure…reconfiguring…shutting down peripheral systems…before it’s too late***

Hoyt Gibbs crawled on his belly along the hillside, until he had reached Winger. Over the shriek of nanomech hell, he yelled in the Winger’s ear: “Got to disengage, Wings…emergency truncation! Everything not critical…we’ve got to get ANAD out of there before we lose him!”

“I’m not giving up yet!” Winger yelled back. “ANAD…execute config change…prime five!” He was damned if he was going to let Dana Tallant and any swarm of two-bit knock-offs beat ANAD.

***trying to comply, Base…but internal bonds on main body structure are weakening…I’m losing all grappling capability***

Johnny Winger gritted his teeth and lifted his head up into the swirling maelstrom of swarming ‘bots, letting the sleet sting his face with a million razor cuts. He squinted into the teeth of the gale, shaking his fist. “Not this time, Tallant! Not this time…ANAD, I’m taking over…I’m taking command—“ He tapped a few strokes on his wrist keypad and moments later, the ANAD master was in his hands.

***I’m all yours, Base…but I’m losing it…losing it fast…now fine motor control down to half, attitude and orientation, propulsors, sensors, molecule analysis, replication…***

With ruthless efficiency, the enemy master whirred and chopped every device ANAD could generate. ANAD had tried to counter, replicating probes, inserters, jaws, cilia, pumps, blowers—but it was no use.

Gibbs couldn’t bear to watch the viewer in his eyepiece. Tiled along the edge of the swirling froth of combat, status icons were showing up red everywhere. They were losing ANAD in the face of the OpFor assault and somewhere deep inside Valleyville, Captain Dana Tallant was no doubt smirking with satisfaction.

Johnny Winger set grimly to work, now taking full command through his keypad of the master ANAD assembler. Somehow, he had to wriggle out of the encirclement and outflank the enemy formation.

Overhead, the air was electric with an impending thunderstorm, and with the shriek of nanomech combat, staticky pops and bursts danced like St Elmo’s fire across the heads of the half-buried cadets. A rolling, roaring gale of mechs swept across the ridgeline as the two armies tore at each other with ferocious momentum. Winger felt a few drops of rain on his arms. He looked up, saw low clouds scudding in from the west. Lightning flickered behind the clouds.

Dipole charges. Polarity columns. The wind was picking up. And it gave him the barest hint of an idea.

“Executing quantum collapse…NOW!” Come on baby, get small for me…get real small…

Enveloped by the swarming and smothering enemy formation, the ANAD master collapsed what was left of its structure in an explosive puff of atom fragments. Base, effectors, probes and grapplers, even the core shell surrounding its central processor, went hurtling off into the air in a big bang of spinning atom parts.

It was a desperate, drastic, last-chance maneuver. It wasn’t in the book. But he’d discussed the possibility with M’Bela one night over beers at the canteen and he figured he knew what he was doing.

Instantly, ANAD seemed to disappear. For all intents and purposes, ANAD had effectively vanished in a cloud of blurry quantum waves.

Less than three minutes later, making its way on quantum wave propulsors, ANAD straggled back toward the containment capsule, its nanoprocessor still dogging electron states to bring the nearly invisible device home.

“Not just yet, ANAD,” Winger muttered. He tapped out a few more commands on his wrist keypad. “You’re getting back into the fight…in disguise, this time.”

***ANAD to Base…there’s not much left…need a break here…need some time in containment to regroup***

“No can do, ANAD,” Winger said. Now he heard the rumble of thunder. The storm front was getting closer. He finished the command sequence and squirted it through the coupler. “ANAD, get ready to look like dust particles!”

***aw, c’mon, Boss…have a heart…I’m beat up and really hurting down here***

But Winger paid no attention. Receiving the command, ANAD executed new config changes, grabbing atoms as best he could to cloak his processor in the structure of a simple dust mote. Moments later, from Winger’s position just below the top of the ridgeline, an unearthly tornado of dust suddenly erupted into the very midst of the enemy swarm. The tornado accelerated upward, expanding outward like an inverted funnel, filtering into the swollen clouds scudding over the mountains. Inside the clouds, water droplets began to grow.

For many minutes, nothing seemed to happen. The enemy mechs continued replicating, smothering the troopers caught at the top of the hill. But gradually, the pressure of the assault seemed to lessen. A fierce driving rain soon lashed the hills.

Soaked but finally able to breathe, Mighty Mite Barnes managed to drag herself to her feet, helping Sheila Reaves do the same. They both lifted their faces to the stinging rain.

“What the hell’s going on?” Reaves asked, shielding her eyes from the downpour. “Is there a front coming through?”

‘I don’t know,” Barnes said, looking around uneasily. She closed the faceplate of her helmet to keep dry. “But I got a feeling about this…something tells me Wings is behind this.”

All along the tops of the range, the swirling squall line expanded outward, leaping amid crackles of lightning from one hilltop to another. The rainstorm soon collided with the swarm of OpFor mechs, joined moments later by a deluge from the skies. Seams of electrical discharge split the air like curtains of fire, showering sparks and pops everywhere.

One by one, the cadets of the Detachment rose up, squinted through the rain and stood dumbfounded at the scene.

Bit by bit, the OpFor swarm was enveloped and vaporized by the rolling thunder of the oncoming weather front.

And that was when Major Kraft and the referees decided to stop the wargame.

 

An after-action review was held at the Ops center at Table Top. Cadet Dana Tallant, leader of the OpFor detachment, glared across the review board, actually a holographic model of the gaming range complete with Valleyville and all the terrain features. She glared at Johnny Winger with barely disguised fury.

“It wasn’t fair, Major. It was beyond the rules of engagement. OpFor…my detachment of 2nd Nano troopers, were blindsided.”

While the troopers bickered back and forth, Kraft read dryly from the official findings of the referees:

The dust storm seeded the nearby clouds, accelerating the formation of superheavy raindrops. Electrical discharges from breaking atomic bonds among the OpFor swarm enhanced the precipitation event, due to the bipolarity of water molecules. A rain event, basically a thunderstorm, was created by the well-timed replication of ANAD assemblers, assuming the structural form of molecules of silver nitrate and oxides of silicon…basic dust from the local terrain. The precipitation event and locally intense lightning discharges destroyed the OpFor swarm in minutes.

It was, in every respect, a tactically unique response to an enemy assault.

Major Kraft put the findings down and glared at Johnny Winger. “I suppose you can explain this, Mr. Winger?”

Winger cleared his throat. He averted his eyes from Dana Tallant. She didn’t like to lose any more than he did.

“I wasn’t sure what would happen, Major. We’ve experimented, me and ANAD, a little…seeding clouds to see what would happen. I didn’t think it was out of bounds. The rules of engagement—“

“—say nothing about this…I know, I know.” Kraft sighed. “Mr. Winger, at least your solution to the Big Bang scenario has the virtue of never having been tried before. It was….how shall we put it: unique. And definitely not in the book.”

“It was a stab in the back, Major,” Tallant insisted. She glared over at Winger. “To modify the weather in the middle of a wargame is like changing the rules in the middle of the game. Begging the Major’s pardon, but this invalidates the results of the exercise.”

“On the contrary—“ said Dr. Irwin Frost, who was also in attendance, “modifying weather using swarms of assemblers is quite interesting…a solution I would never have thought of. Johnny, how did you think of this?” Frost came from Northgate University. He had fathered the original ANAD several years before.

Winger shrugged. He looked over at Dana Tallant. “I honestly didn’t know what would happen when it started raining on the OpFor mechs. I figured it was worth a try.”

Kraft made a decision. “Cadet Tallant, technically you’re right: modifying the weather during the wargame isn’t covered under the rules of engagement. The referees stopped the exercise because I ordered them to. The technique is unproven and unpredictable, it seems to me, despite the results today. But we need to explore it further. That’s why we’re here in the first place: to develop tactics and techniques to employ ANAD in our mandated missions.” He looked at Winger with something like a mixture of annoyance and admiration. “And to test cadets’ abilities to follow orders, effectively employ ANAD and demonstrate sound tactical judgment, something any atomgrabber needs. It seems that Cadet Winger, despite obvious shortcomings, has demonstrated that he can employ ANAD effectively in a combat scenario.”

Winger shook his head. After days of practice and a few late-night ‘conversations,’ he felt he knew the little assembler as well as he knew any of the nogs at Table Top. “It was strange at first, not having to drive ANAD with the control panel.” He flexed his fingers. “Me…I learned the old fashioned way…how to park an ANAD inside a benzene ring, how to snap a covalent bond…with my hands on a stick.”

Kraft cleared his throat. “Cadets, you’ve all done better than I expected on the AQT. But I’m not running a kindergarten here. This is a combat outfit and we’ve got missions to perform. If Cadet Winger does anything else to jeopardize the mission, he’ll be personally answering to me. Is that clear?”

Winger nodded quickly. “Perfectly, sir. We won’t let you down, Major.”

“We?”

Winger smiled tentatively. “Me and ANAD, sir.”

Kraft groaned and ended the briefing. “Decisions on who makes the cut and gets an invitation to nog school will be coming out tomorrow. These decisions are always hard for me. You’re a good class, if a bit over enthusiastic. Some of you will be disappointed. Don’t take it personally. You can always apply next year. For now, lifters will take you back to the Mountain. Liberty is authorized at 1800 hours tonight. It ends at 2400 hours, promptly. Assemble tomorrow at Galland Hall at 0800 hours. That’s when the announcements will be made. Dismissed.

 

Caden waited until just before 1800 hours, right at shift change for the Containment techs and the guard force, and slipped out of the Barracks. He took the nanoderm again, waited ten minutes in the john and took a quick peek in the mirror. Now, he was ‘Lieutenant Mehlkopf’ again, in all but name, right down to the ID. He walked briskly through a chill and biting afternoon breeze, noting the pale orange of the sun already rolling around the horizon like a beach ball, and made the facility in five minutes. He flashed his badge and 1st Nano ID, expecting to gain admittance easily enough but the guard noted something on his display and asked the Lieutenant to wait one, while he reset the bioscanner.

“Only take a minute, sir…probably a glitch in the system. Your ID’s been flagged for some reason….”

That’s when Caden jammed a PKR coilgun into the guard’s ribs and fired. He’d already set the weapon to 20K—enough to fry bacon at a hundred meters—and the guard flew backward like a ragdoll, landing hard on the cement walkway outside the security shack. Caden quickly pocketed the weapon, cycled the bioscanner and dragged the guard back in by his feet. He propped the poor fellow up so the retinal sensor would see his dilated eyes and popped the SCAN button. This time, the access controller read the guard’s already-permitted retinal pattern.

Behind them, the main access door hissed open. Caden dropped the guard to the floor and hustled inside, working his way methodically through more doors and hatches, following the route laid out on his eyespecs.

Caden cycled the final hatch door, using his own retinal scan as ID. Inside Containment, he no longer cared if the logs showed unauthorized entry or not.

In a few minutes, none of that will matter, he told himself. In a few minutes, the whole base will be swarming with ANAD, out of control and replicating at maximum rates.

Inside the Level 4 compartment, he burst through the final door and saw the containment unit, a squat gray cylinder about the size of a coffin, parked in the middle of the chamber on an isolation pad, tethered by thick ganglia of wires, cables, hoses and flexpiping.

He checked his watch, noting only a minute had passed since he had fried the guard outside.

The cavalry will be arriving any minute now, he muttered to himself. He figured he had about three minutes to do the job. Grimly, he set to work.

Even as he deftly navigated the cylinder’s systems, he felt fiery pinpricks all over his neck and back. Mosquitoes? Couldn’t be. He slapped and patted at the welts that were forming on his skin. What the hell was that? Felt like a bee sting. But there couldn’t be any such thing inside Level 4 containment.

Ouch, dammit!

He slapped at his neck again, as another fiery bite made his skin crawl.

One by one, he addressed the cylinder’s systems, preparing this version of ANAD for combat launch at max rep. He toggled through each stage of the prep and deploy sequence: nutrient flow, power, monitoring—always one step ahead of the unit’s self-protection circuitry until, finally, the cylinder was ready, ANAD was powered up and primed for launch, ticking over inside the chamber like a bomb ready to explode.

He scrolled through the config templates, resetting each Security delay, until he came at last to the Big Bang, the max rate replication command. Still, stinging and slapping at bites and welts—what the hell is that?—he authenticated each stage with his own ID, and drilled down to the final command.

Then, he knew what it was. More bites and stings, getting worse. Caden backed away from the cylinder controls for a moment, and ripped off his jacket and shirt, tossing them into the corner. Wei Ming had been right. Somehow, some way, he’d been tagged. Security mechs were probably crawling all over him. Most likely, they were already in the air, circulating through the Containment center like miniscule guard dogs. Now that he was inside Containment, somebody was working the swarm to stop him, trying their best to distract him from what he had to do.

It won’t work, guys. Not this time.

He sent the final command, and at the same time, released the last valve isolating ANAD inside the cylinder. There was an audible whoosh! as a slug of high-pressure air and fluid sprayed into the compartment. In seconds, a visible cloud had darkened the ceiling, as ANAD exploded in max rate replication, grabbing atoms furiously to build and replicate structure. Like its namesake, the Big Bang was an explosion of nanomech division, a runaway freight train consuming everything in its path.

Caden ducked, still slapping and clawing at the pinpricks of the Security mechs eating his skin, and scuttled back out of the compartment. He ran headlong through the locks and hatches and exited the Containment building—right into the waiting arms of the Security detail that had already been alerted.

“ Nathan Caden,” came a voice from the detail, “—you’re under arrest. Please step away from the door and keep your hands where I can see ‘em, sir. I’m just going to—”

Caden wasn’t dumb but spinning away from the detail to charge at the officers wasn’t the brightest thing he had ever done.

He lunged at the lead officer, a Major Lofton from Base Security. The officer fired back, all of them now, discharging a MOBnet ejector just as the Caden came into range. It stopped Caden cold, the linked mesh of nanomechs forcing the man steadily to the ground. He squirmed a bit, but gave up, knowing it was useless.

Major Lofton was there too and he bent down to give Caden a good once-over. The cadet was bound up nice and snug; the more he struggled, the more the mechs squeezed back. A simple command would have snapped the mechs tighter still, like a miniature clampdown.

Suffocate the slimebag, Lofton thought. He could have done it with a clear conscience too. But then a million questions would have gone unanswered.

“Look out!” a voice cried out.

Lofton looked up just in time to see the gray cloud of exponentially replicating ANAD mechs boiling out of the Containment building like a tornado. The Security detail, with its prisoner firmly in tow, scattered in all directions.

Alarms and sirens blared out across the mesa and Table Top Mountain was quickly in an uproar. Caden was immobilized and dragged off to a bunker in the basement of the Ops Center.

Lofton fled too, but diverted left along the grassy quadrangle, toward the hangars and the ordnance and mission prep complex. That’s when he saw the trio of lifters from the Hunt Valley wargame range touching down at the North Lift Pad. He changed direction, tried to wave them off.

“It’s a Big Bang!” he heaved out. “Get back…get the hell out of here!” Cadets began dismounting, confused, a little awed at the sight. They weren’t sure what was happening. Then D’Nunzio saw the boiling cloud.

“Look! Look there…mechs…it’s a bang!” They ducked and weaved and dodged others as troops streamed in every direction across the grounds. Loudspeakers thundered across the quadrangle.

All hands…this is a Code One alert, CODE ONE ALERT…all hands, man your stations. Repeat…CODE ONE ALERT!!

Johnny Winger sized up the situation. Major Kraft wasn’t with the cadets. Lieutenant ‘Wormy’ was in command of the cadets. Winger ran up. “Sir, it’s just like what we simmed at Hunt Valley…it’s a Big Bang…we know how to handle this—“

Wormy looked like he was about to cry. “You’re just cadets…get to your Barracks and stay there until further orders. We can handle this!”

“But, sir—“

Now!”

Winger and Tallant and D’Nunzio bit their tongues and started hustling toward Galland Hall.

“They need containment out here!” Winger yelled. “Mobile containment—”

“—and magpulse weapons!—” added Barnes.

Asked later to explain his motivations for disobeying Lieutenant Wormy’s orders, Johnny Winger could only fall back on that moment in Net School when the principal Mr. Costner had come into the lab to tell Johnny his parents had been in car crash. You made whatever decision the moment required, whatever decision life threw at you. He hadn’t waited for permission to leave school then. He hustled out of school without a moment’s reflection on whether it was permitted. He had to be there, at the hospital in Colorado Springs…right now. It wasn’t a conscious thought. It was gut logic. Sometimes, your gut knew more than your brain.

That was his explanation for the official inquiry.

So Johnny Winger veered off from the rest of them and took a shortcut toward the Ordnance/Mission Prep building. They’d just kitted out for the AQT test that morning at O/MP.

“Where the hell’s he going?” D’Nunzio asked. Nobody replied. But they all changed course and followed.

They raced into the mission prep hall, ignoring fleeing guards and gathered every tech they could find.

From inside the bunker, Johnny Winger watched the ANAD swarm, replicating out of control, boiling across the lifter pads of North Field, a gray fog swelling and expanding into every corner of the base complex. His stomach turned at the sight. Even as he watched, fleeing troopers were caught in the swarm and went down, engulfed and consumed like the raging wildfires that sometimes swept through the Buffalo range of southern Idaho.

If we don’t contain it soon, the swarm will spill out of the base and head off into the hills. The entire state could be at risk, parts of Canada too, he realized.

Already the thing had swelled to dimensions that no MOBnet could handle.

It was the very same nightmare scenario they’d studied and discussed and theorized in class for the last two weeks. An effective defense had never really been demonstrated. Now, it was all too real…and heading right for them.

Winger knew they’d need every defense they could devise. MOBnet and any other shielding they could find. Counter-nanoswarms, if they could be launched and programmed fast enough. Atmospheric manipulation. Magpulse weapons. All the gadgets they’d learned about at Table Top. And probably more.

Ideas flew around the mission bunker thick as dust.

“Somehow, I’ve got to get to the master,” Winger said. “If I can get a signal through that swarm, I’m sure I can counter-program…maybe stop the replication.”

“Too dangerous,” Deeno D’Nunzio said. “Swarm’s too thick, too active. You’d never get close enough. And you’re just a cadet, like Wormy said. These troopers know what to do.”

“Do they? Look at them…they’re running in every direction. You heard what the instructors said. Even Ironpants Kraft said it: the Big Bang has no effective counter. You have to stop it before it starts.”

“Yeah, that’s what the book says.”

“Hey, we can do this…we can help. You want to be atomgrabbers…now’s your chance. We know what to do…we’ve had all the classes, the exercises, the tactics and strategy workshops. Come on…put your brains together!”

“Maybe…” Cadet An Nguyen was thinking out loud, “maybe…if we stun the swarm a few times.”

“You mean with HERF?”

Nguyen was scribbling a sketch on a pad he had dredged up. “Sure…like this. Get some guns along the perimeter of the base…here, here and here—” he X’ed off proposed locations on his crude sketch. “Do it quick and pump a few billions watts of RF across the mesa. Crossfire. That should slow down the rep, and maybe, just maybe give Base Security and the troopers time to get a signal through.”

That got D’Nunzio to thinking. “You’ve got to locate the master first. It should be somewhere near the center of the swarm, but it’s in motion.” Deeno shook her head. “How the hell do you find him?”

Winger was thinking fast. “I’ve got an idea. I had to dump our ANAD’s control software back at Hunt Valley. I dumped the whole control system and piloted the master myself. That must mean this ANAD’s on autopilot right now, stuck in overdrive, with no higher functions or safeties to override the rep command,” Winger told them. “This replication’s like a mindless spasm. And what do we do with spasms?”

“Shock therapy?” D’Nunzio wondered.

“That’s where your HERF guns come in. Blast the swarm with RF, just long enough for me to find the master and dump the control system again. If I can do that, before replication starts up, I can take control of ANAD and drive him back to containment. Soon as I sever the control links to the swarm, magpulse guns can clean up the mess. At the same time, I can pilot ANAD out of the swarm and back to re-capture.”

D’Nunzio and Nguyen looked at each other, then at Winger and the other troopers who had started to gather around them in the bunker.

“Where do we get guns? They don’t give cadets like us guns.”

One of the troopers was a sandy-haired fellow, clad in ballistic vest, fresh off the firing range downstairs. “I can get guns for us…I know the codes to the Armory.”

‘What are we waiting for?” D’Nunzio asked.

“Let’s go!”

It took seven minutes for Sheila Reaves to radio her plans to Security and to the base commander. Fortunately, the HERF guns were stowed in Mission Prep; the troopers who’d taken cover there helped break out the gear. Volunteer details were formed up and five HERF units were trundled by hand to opposite ends of Table Top’s broad mesa. In the center of the mesa, the ANAD swarm continued swelling, rolling like a carnivorous mist across the grounds, filling the grassy swards between the Barracks, boiling westward toward the liftpads and lifters parked in revetments, seeping and crawling and flowing over all obstacles toward the Ops Center and Drexler Field.

The details had to hurry. If the swarm spilled off the top of the mesa and ran down the mountainside into Buffalo Valley and the ravines radiating outward from Table Top, the whole of southern Idaho would be at risk. Already, the Governor and the National Guard had been alerted to prepare to evacuate nearby towns.

In less than ten minutes, Reaves and the HERF guns were ready, powered up and humming.

Winger was in contact with General Kincade, Quantum Corps’ commander at Table Top.

“All units ready, sir. I’m inside Mission Prep, with a portable IC unit strapped on.” He didn’t mention that he was only a nog still applying to join the Corps.

Kincade’s face was grim on the vidlink. The General was with his staff, bottled up in the Emergency Action Center seventy feet below Main Ops.

“Blast ‘em, son! Blast the sonsofbitches to kingdom come!”

Winger needed no further encouragement. He checked with Reaves one last time.

“Weapons are enabled, Wings!”

“Fire!” Winger yelled. “Fire all around, all units! Full bore! Let ‘em have it!”

A series of sirens warbled across Table Top, warning everyone to take cover.

The whole mesa seemed to vibrate as the first pulse shot out, squeezing the air with a thunderclap of heat. A searing wave passed through the Mission Prep hall as the bubbles of radio waves expanded outward, pulverizing everything in their path.

The first pulse was quickly followed by several more, each discharge hammering the ground with an invisible fist of energy. Johnny Winger screamed at the top of his lungs, trying to equalize pressure inside his head. His eyes and lungs burned. His skin crawled with fire, then tingled and crackled….

NOW! NOW was the moment….

He raced out of the hall and ran a swerving, zigzagging course across the open ground between the barracks and the Ops Center. The air seemed alive, thick with mechs, and he waved his arms wildly over his head, beating through the swarm. All about him, droplets of something fell from the sky. He stumbled and nearly fell, then scrambled to his feet, plunging into the thickening mist, until alongside the road from the BOQ to East Gate, he felt he was near the center of the swarm. Mech debris clattered and fell from the sky, tickling, brushing, crawling at his skin, but he ignored it and tapped out commands on his wristpad furiously, trying to link up with ANAD.

“Come on, buddy, come on…come on…where the hell are you—”

Already, the effects of the HERF pulse were beginning to wear off. His skin crawled with living fingers, tickling, pinching, as the swarm began to recover from the blast, replicating new mechs to replace those the RF waves had shattered.

Come on…come on…in desperation, he opened voicelink.

“Hub to ANAD…Hub to ANAD….is anybody there, anybody in charge out there…where the hell are you, buddy?—”

Just then, a staticky hiss in his ears formed a recognizable word.

“—-emory register—”

ANAD…is that you?”

The whisper grew marginally louder. Sirens nearly drowned out the words. “ANAD…ANAD to Base…..it’s…this is….controls are…I’m weakened….can’t activate—”

ANAD…is that you…ANAD…this is Base…listen to me…ANAD, can you hear me?”

The whisper was weak, but there. Winger waved blindly, trying to get the sirens shut off, trying to stop the next HERF pulse. “ANAD…listen to me…command override…Excalibur alpha x-ray…command override…Excalibur alpha x-ray—” He hoped the reset command would work. He’d just told ANAD to shut down all comm links and effector controls…he hoped. And if anybody asked how he knew that, his lips were zipped. They didn’t teach cadets things like that at Table Top.

The swarm was reconstituting again, he could feel fiery pinpricks on his back and neck. Got to hurry now!

ANAD…execute omega one…full shutdown…all links, all effectors, all sensors and probes…ANAD, I’m coming to you…I’ve taking over—”

He toggled a sequence of buttons on his wristpad, snapped his eyepiece into place and, to his surprise, ANAD had responded, giving him full control of his core processor and all functions.

The nanomech voice link was weakening. “ANAD…responds….comm one and comm two down…effec—disabled…main core idling…ANAD to Base…please…hlp me—”

The eyepiece image was like driving a hundred miles an hour through a Colorado sleet storm. Polygons and spheres and snakes and cubes streamed past at high speed. For a moment, Johnny Winger was disoriented.

Where the hell am I? Can I even do this? For some reason, a vision of Misty and Marcy huffing and snorting at the barn door came to mind…that and hay. Lots and lots of hay—

No way am I going back there.

He tickled the tiny joystick on his wrist and powered up ANAD’s propulsors.

Just have to dead reckon my way back to the barn today, he mumbled to himself. At least, comm links are down. That’ll shut off the replication.

But he hadn’t counted on Reaves firing off the HERF guns again. The swarm had partially reconstituted again, and the pulse, when it came, was like being caught in a tidal wave.

The link to ANAD stayed active and Johnny Winger felt himself scattered and tumbled and jostled and swept along in a great river, surging through, vast forces tearing at his limbs, punching him in the chest, ripping his head open. His own body’s natural instincts forced him into a curled, face down position, as the thunderclap rolled across the base. But even as he was still and face buried in wet grass, the dizzying, caroming ride continued.

He was linked in with ANAD and seeing what the mech sensed as the RF wave expanded through the air above Table Top. For a few moments, he blacked out, then staggered back to semi-consciousness and stabilized himself with judicious pulses on his propulsors.

ANAD,” he muttered to himself, “let’s go home.” Momentarily, he backed out of the ANAD link and radioed back to the Mission Hall, telling Reaves to shut down the HERF guns. “I’m driving ANAD right now…and neither of us wants to go through that again!”

Gradually, the swirling, driving sleet of oxygen and hydrogen atoms slackened off and he felt he was making headway on half-propulsor power. Molecules of dust and debris thickened the air, making navigation dicey, but Winger quickly recovered his atomgrabber’s instincts and piloted ANAD through reefs and shoals and rapids of whirling, churning atoms and molecules, feeling his way through the sleet, fighting stiff currents as he hacked his way back toward the Containment building.

It was doubly disorienting, when he physically stood up, peering outside his eyepiece, stumbling through the remnants of the gray mist, tripping over half-eaten corpses in the grass, then looking back through the eyepiece at the cyclone of atoms ANAD was battling through. Two different worlds in the same view: macro and nano, humans and atoms, and the rules were different in both.

Johnny Winger wobbled and stumbled his way back to the Containment building like a drunken sailor, with troopers and technicians giving him a wide berth everywhere along the zigzag track.

He made it to the complex in half an hour, with Security and other troopers holding open doors and clearing a path all the way into the Level 4 Containment compartment.

ANAD….we’re here. You’re home,” Winger muttered. He stepped delicately over wires and cables and hoses and carefully piloted the nanomech toward the vacuum tube being held out by Moby M’Bela.

“Only a few feet more,” Moby told him.

Winger switched his vision back and forth, eyeing the position of the vacuum tube with his eyes, then peering into the eyepiece to maneuver ANAD through a maelstrom of oxygens and nitrogens swirling in every direction. He’d safed and stowed most of the mech’s effectors, so ANAD was rudely bounced and jostled with every pulse of its propulsors.

Hey…watch it,” came the plaintive voice through Winger’s earphones. “I’m not made of rubber, you know—

“Sorry.” Winger squinted at the eyepiece view, trying to match up what he was seeing with the macro view his eyes gave him. In time, a yawning chasm gaped before him, a canyon dark and turbulent with whirlpools of molecules spinning at the mouth. With a start, Winger realized it was the head of the vacuum tube. He safed ANAD for transit and let the suction of the whirlpools pull him in. The view in his eyepiece spun crazily and he rapidly became dizzy and disoriented.

“Looks like you’re just about home, little guy,” Winger said.

ANAD signing off….down the hole!” came the reply.

Winger disconnected himself from ANAD control and let Moby M’Bela do the rest.

The pressure pulse almost snapped the tube right out of his hands. In an instant, the Autonomous Nanoscale Assembler/Disassembler had transited the tube and plunged into the soothing homewaters of the Containment cylinder.

M’Bela grabbed the end of the vacuum tube out of the air and stabbed a button, sealing the tank. “Got him! Safing now…pressure coming up, temps okay, pH in the green. ANAD’s sealed and safe.”

Winger was already powering down his wristpad interface controls. “Whew…I’m glad that’s done. What about the rest of the base?”

Major Lofton was there as well, along with Dana Tallant and Gibby. Lofton was patched in to Reaves, who was still stationed at the northeast wall, manning one of the HERF guns.

“Next pulse in ten seconds, gentlemen. Get yourselves ready.”

By the time it came, Winger and the others had rolled the Containment cylinder against one bulkhead of the compartment and draped heavy tarps over it, trying to protect ANAD as much as possible from the RF wave.

The thunderclap came, rattling everything inside, breaking a few pipette racks on the wall, and knocking gear off a cart. The heat wave followed, searing the air like a hot desert wind. Winger and the others had dropped to the floor and made themselves small, covering their heads against falling debris.

Over the next ten minutes, the HERF guns fired three more times, shattering the mesa with RF waves, frying the rest of the ANAD swarm into loose atoms. Lofton took a message on his talker, and breathed an audible sigh of relief.

“All call,” he reported. “All stations reporting in. Swarm density has dropped to a tenth and falling. It’s safe to move outside now. Security details are securing all gates and checking the perimeter. Damage control parties are reporting in. General Kincade’s coming topside.”

Johnny Winger cautiously got to his feet. He looked at Dana Tallant. Her face was red and peeling.

“You look like a broiled fish.”

Tallant grinned. “I probably smell like one too. Guess we’d better find Major Kraft…and Wormy…and let ‘em know what we did.”

“Later,” Winger muttered, though it was tempting. “First, we’d better make sure ANAD’s okay. And get started helping clean up this place.”

Moby was feeling the scaly skin around his eyes. “That was too close—” he stopped, hearing the distant crackle of more magpulses, smaller pulses, clearing the air across Table Top Mountain. “They didn’t teach us anything like this in Molecular Tactics.”

Outside the Containment building, mech debris littered the grounds, along with pieces of siding and broken glass, roof shingles and twisted, charred pipe and wire. The entire base looked like a great cyclone had swept through, which in effect, had happened. The cyclone of the HERF guns had collapsed the last of the ANAD swarm and swept the debris over the side of the mountain.

For the time being, the threat had been neutralized and the swarm contained. A Big Bang runaway replication had been avoided and the town of Haleyville and the surrounding Idaho countryside had been spared the worst of the onslaught.

But it had been close. Too close.

Thankfully, casualties were light. Four fatalities had been suffered, both in the first minutes of the assault, all of the troopers caught out in the open, near the north lifter pads. The shredded remnants of their corpses had already been removed and taken to the Infirmary for identification.

Johnny Winger brushed himself off and left Containment, heading back to Galland Hall and the recruit center with Tallant and M’Bela.

“What’s going to happen to Caden?” M’Bela asked. The three of them picked their way through piles of debris being collected by sweepbots along the walkway. The bots scuttled back and forth across the grassy sward between the Ops Center and the barracks, shoving piles of metal and glass and brick into bigger piles for removal.

“I don’t know,” Winger replied. “Major Lofton said he had been taken to the stockade for now. General Kincade’s already scheduled a hearing for 1100 hours. Rumor has it CINCQUANT himself is coming in.”

“Whatever happens,” Tallant said, “he deserves it.”

Before they could make their way to Galland Hall, Winger got a call on his wristpad. It was Major Kraft. The Major’s face was grim and hollow; it had been a long night for everybody.

“Report to the Ops Center at once, Cadet Winger. There’s a pre-hearing investigation going on right now. General Kincade wants all the facts laid out before the charges against Mr. Caden are made. Security Branch needs a statement from you.”

“On my way, Major.” Winger peeled off and headed briskly across the quadrangle now humming with sweepbots and troopers collecting scrap and debris. A light curtain had been set up around a small patch of grass near the entrance. More bots crisscrossed that patch in systematic sweeps—forensic bots looking for evidence.

Johnny Winger wondered what would happen to Nathan Caden now.

He found Kraft in a makeshift office in the first floor canteen inside Ops, coordinating recovery efforts, trying to track down troopers and cadets. Talking to faces on his wristpad, comms in both hands, he waved Winger to a nearby seat. As he waited for the Major to finish, other troopers scurried about, setting up desks and tables, adjusting gear. A temporary recovery command post was being set up and Ironpants was at the center of a vortex of frantic activity.

Finally, Kraft got a minute. He glared at Winger with something like a mixture of disbelief, annoyance and wonder.

“First of all, son, I should thank you for all you’ve done here at the Mountain. Running headlong into that swarm, somehow getting control of ANAD—I guess I shouldn’t ask how you did that -- driving the master back into containment…that took guts. That was insane. You saved a lot of lives by what you did…even if no cadet in the history of the Corps ever tried a harebrained scheme like that before.”

Winger didn’t know exactly how to respond. Was he being dressed down? Congratulated? Studied like a lab specimen? All three?

“Sir, I saw a need and I knew what to do. I knew it was a risk. But given the situation—“

Kraft held up a hand, listening out of one ear to a report on his wristpad. “That was Major Lofton. They’ve got Mr. Caden MOB’ed and well secured in the brig. Lofton’s already done a little digging…it seems that Caden is not what he seems to be. He’s got connections we can trace to Red Hammer itself, right out of Hong Kong. Somehow, that didn’t come up when he applied…or maybe we’ve got security problems here.”

Winger was puzzled. “Sir, what do you mean MOB’ed?”

“Mobility Obstruction Barrier. Nanomesh enclosure. Caden’s physically secured like a fish in a net. You mean there’s something you didn’t know about what we do around here…I’m stunned.”

“Sir, I hope I didn’t step out of line. All I wanted to do was help out.” He took a deep breath. “And to join the Corps, like the ads say. ‘Get small and be a nanotrooper’.”

“Well, I could say something, son, but General Kincade himself is on his way down here right now. I think he’s got something he wants to ask you.”

 

Table Top Mountain”

 

Table Top Mountain, Idaho

June 29, 2048

8:45 a.m.

 

General Wellman Kincade had been commander in chief of Quantum Corps Western Command’s base at Table Top for nearly two years. He thought he had seen everything. But never in his illustrious career with UNIFORCE and the Corps had he ever run into anyone quite like Cadet Johnny Winger.

Kincade was tall, ruddy and vaguely British in bearing, said to have a dry sense of humor, though Johnny had no desire to test that proposition. He had a white moustache; in that, he lacked the bushy monstrosity that adorned Jurgen Kraft’s lips and chin. Kincade’s was tidy, sandy-blond with a touch of gray. Like a museum poster, Winger figured. Indeed, Kincade was the embodiment of such great ‘Limey’ commanders as Montgomery and Kitchener, men he admired and often patterned himself after.

Kincade had invited Johnny Winger and Major Kraft to his eighth floor office. Both stood at attention, while Kincade made a few remarks. They sounded prepared.

“We’ve not had a cadet quite like you at this base before, Mr. Winger. What you did, under extraordinary circumstances I might add, was remarkable. I therefore must commend Major Kraft here for recognizing such, shall we say, exemplary talents, in one of his raw recruits. The Major here tells me you would still like to join the Corps…perhaps even make it a career?”

Winger swallowed a bit of pride and said simply, “Yes, sir. I tried to act properly, consistent with our training and the qualities Major Kraft has been teaching us. I saw the problem, knew how to deal with it and I acted, sir. If I was hasty in not asking permission, or checking with the Major or Lieutenant Wormy…er, I mean Wormer, sir—“

Kincade granted a slight smirk. “It’s okay, son…everyone calls him Wormy—“

“Sir, I recognize I did not have authorization to act as I did. If I overstepped my position, I’d like to—“

Kincade waved him quiet. “Nonsense. You demonstrated resourcefulness, courage, resolve…all qualities we’re looking for here at Table Top. The same qualities that General Sir Bernard Montgomery demonstrated at El Alamein, when he smashed Rommel and the Africa Corps. Quantum Corps needs people like you. However, I must ask: do you still want to join? Do you still want to be an atomgrabber? You’ve got what it takes. But you’ll have more inquiries to go through over this incident. Then there’s nog school…it won’t be easy for you. We’re training a new breed of warrior here, Winger. There are new enemies out there—Red Hammer for one, you know about them already—new menaces, new tactics to develop. There are no experts when it comes to doing operations in the world of atoms and molecules.” Kincade leaned back in his chair, lit up a pipe. He chuckled. “We’re making this up as we go along, isn’t that right, Major?”

Kraft looked like he had indigestion. “Yes, sir.” The very idea of making up stuff in a combat outfit never sat well with his Prussian sense of military bearing. But this was the Base Commander. And Cadet Winger was…what, exactly? A boy wonder? A major pain in the ass? The best damned recruit he’d come across in two years? A natural at atomgrabbing? “Sir, we are always refining our strategy and tactics as conditions dictate.”

Kincade smirked. “Well said, Major. Well said.” He fixed an even stare at Winger. “How about it, son? You ready for all this?”

Winger took a deep breath. He thought about his mom Ellen, all the times she had yelled at him for trying to fix things about the house, things that didn’t need fixing. “That boy has glue on his fingers…he gets into everything, always wandering off with pieces and parts of things….”

He thought about his dad Jamison Winger. Recovered from the accident, but not really. There were scars there you couldn’t see. Scars that would never heal. And Johnny knew the North Bar Pass ranch wouldn’t recover either. It was only a matter of time. He just didn’t see himself running a ranch. He needed more.

He needed something like this.

“Where do I sign, sir?” he finally said.

A broad smile broke out over Kincade’s ruddy face. “Excellent, son. First, there is a little matter of this—“ he held up a leather-bound booklet, embossed with the sunburst and atom emblem of Quantum Corps. “I want you to have this—you more than deserve it.” He handed the booklet to Winger. “Go ahead… open it.”

Winger flipped the cover up. It was a medal, an award, lying curled up on a bed of black velvet. The medal gleamed in the light. It was a stylized atom, with a nucleus of black onyx and orbiting electrons of silver, whizzing around as if the thing were alive. The whole works were attached to a thin gold chain.

“Major, if you would—“

Kraft swallowed audibly. It was clear he wanted to be anywhere else but here. He took the chain in his hand and draped it solidly around Johnny Winger’s neck. The thing was heavy and Kraft fiddled with it until it hung down straight.

Kincade stood up and shook hands with Winger. “It’s called the Order of Merit…the commendation reads ‘for meritorious service above and beyond what is expected…for selfless dedication to duty and to his fellow troopers…for exemplary conduct in the face of mortal danger…’ and so on. You get the idea. We don’t give this to recruits. But Major Kraft here related what you did yesterday. I got approval from CINCQUANT himself. That’s the Commander in Chief of Quantum Corps, at UNIFORCE Headquarters in Paris. Congratulations.”

They shook hands. Kincade scowled momentarily at Kraft, and the Major offered his own hand as well.

“Thank you, sirs. Do I have to sign something now…to join up, I mean?”

Kraft said, “You do, indeed. Here—“ He pushed an official looking form into Winger’s hands. “Recruit application. The disk there will have all the other paperwork. Stick it in your wristpad and follow the instructions. Get it back to me right away.”

Winger took all the forms and disks. “I will, sir…right away.”

Kincade was more solemn now. “Once you sign your life away with all that, you’re in, son. You’re one of us.”

“Sir—” Winger looked up, pocketing all the forms. “I’m looking forward to it…this is what I need to do with my life right now. I’m proud to be a part of all this.”

Kraft said, “Good, son. Good. Sign there and welcome to Quantum Corps. Get a good night’s sleep too. Your first day of nog school is tomorrow.”

Winger swallowed hard.

He was now an atomgrabber. He rolled the words around in his mouth for a moment and decided he really did like the sound of that.

 

END

About the Author

 

Philip Bosshardt is a native of Atlanta, Georgia. He works for a large company that makes products everyone uses…just check out the drinks aisle at your grocery store. He’s been happily married for 25 years. He’s also a Georgia Tech graduate in Industrial Engineering. He loves water sports in any form and swims 3-4 miles a week in anything resembling water. He and his wife have no children. They do, however, have one terribly spoiled Keeshond dog named Kelsey.

For technical and background details on his series Tales of the Quantum Corps, visit his blog at http://qcorpstimes.blogspot.com. For details on other books, visit his website at http://philbosshardt.wix.com/philip-bosshardt or learn about other books by Philip Bosshardt by visiting www.Shakespir.com.

Download the next exciting story in the Farpool series from www.Shakespir.com. It’s called The Farpool: Marauders of Seome. Available in December 2017 at fine ebook retailers everywhere.

To get a peek at Philip Bosshardt’s upcoming work, recent reviews, excerpts and general updates on the writing life, visit his blog The Word Shed at: http://thewdshed.blogspot.com.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 


Colliding Galaxies

When galaxies collide in outer space, nothing much happens for a very long time. That’s because galaxies are mostly empty space. Yet when galaxies collide, and dust gets stirred up, strange and violent things do occur, given enough time. Dust clouds collapse. Gravity builds up. Matter gets compressed. Before you know it, the thing ignites. A star is born. And it burns hot and bright for billions of years. Words are like that too…whether on a piece of paper or arrayed as bits on a disk. When put together the right way, words get compressed. They ignite. Light and heat follow. Readers exposed to all this find new ideas, like new elements, bubbling to the surface. Illumination follows. My hope is that something like this will happen while you’re reading the stories gathered in this collection. Something sparks. Boom! A new idea…something you never thought of before pops into your head. I’m not content just to entertain or divert you from your troubles for a few hours, though there’s nothing wrong with that. I want to start a fire in your head. I want to slam atoms together, compress them and create something new…a whole new world. I’m leery of themes in story collections. If there’s any theme in Colliding Galaxies, it’s that they were all written by the same writer. Here, you’ll find a strange bunch of people, ostensibly normal in their backgrounds: an architect, a detective, a kid with a life-threatening disease, a physicist and a group of nursing home residents—but all of them eventually get smashed into new realities like planets pulled into a black hole. Here, you’ll find angels, aquadapts, atomgrabbers and archeologists, each drawn to their own personal event horizons, some wide-eyed and eager, some fighting all the way. What I’m trying to say is that free will ain’t what it used to be.

  • ISBN: 9781370355365
  • Author: Philip Bosshardt
  • Published: 2017-05-19 14:35:25
  • Words: 119215
Colliding Galaxies Colliding Galaxies