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Stones: Data (Stones #1)

 
h1=. STONES

(DATA)

BOOK ONE OF THE STONES SERIES

by

Jacob Whaler

CONTENTS

TITLE PAGE

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

CHAPTER 4

CHAPTER 5

CHAPTER 6

CHAPTER 7

CHAPTER 8

CHAPTER 9

CHAPTER 10

CHAPTER 11

CHAPTER 12

CHAPTER 13

CHAPTER 14

CHAPTER 15

CHAPTER 16

CHAPTER 17

CHAPTER 18

CHAPTER 19

CHAPTER 20

CHAPTER 21

CHAPTER 22

CHAPTER 23

CHAPTER 24

CHAPTER 25

CHAPTER 26

CHAPTER 27

CHAPTER 28

CHAPTER 29

CHAPTER 30

CHAPTER 31

CHAPTER 32

CHAPTER 33

CHAPTER 34

CHAPTER 35

CHAPTER 36

CHAPTER 37

CHAPTER 38

CHAPTER 39

CHAPTER 40

CHAPTER 41

CHAPTER 42

CHAPTER 43

CHAPTER 44

CHAPTER 45

CHAPTER 46

CHAPTER 47

CHAPTER 48

CHAPTER 49

CHAPTER 50

CHAPTER 51

CHAPTER 52

CHAPTER 53

CHAPTER 54

CHAPTER 55

CHAPTER 56

CHAPTER 57

CHAPTER 58

CHAPTER 59

CHAPTER 60

CHAPTER 61

CHAPTER 62

CHAPTER 63

CHAPTER 64

CHAPTER 65

CHAPTER 66

CHAPTER 67

CHAPTER 68

CHAPTER 69

CHAPTER 70

CHAPTER 71

CHAPTER 72

CHAPTER 73

CHAPTER 74

CHAPTER 75

CHAPTER 76

CHAPTER 77

CHAPTER 78

CHAPTER 79

CHAPTER 80

CHAPTER 81

CHAPTER 82

CHAPTER 83

CHAPTER 84

CHAPTER 85

CHAPTER 86

CHAPTER 87

CHAPTER 88

CHAPTER 89

CHAPTER 90

CHAPTER 91

CHAPTER 92

CHAPTER 93

CHAPTER 94

CHAPTER 95

CHAPTER 96

CHAPTER 97

CHAPTER 98

CHAPTER 99

CHAPTER 100

CHAPTER 101

CHAPTER 102

CHAPTER 103

CHAPTER 104

CHAPTER 105

CHAPTER 106

CHAPTER 107

CHAPTER 108

CHAPTER 109

CHAPTER 110

CHAPTER 111

CHAPTER 112

CHAPTER 113

PREVIEW

CHAPTER 1

CHAPTER 2

CHAPTER 3

COMING SOON FROM JACOB WHALER

AFTERWORD

COPYRIGHT

CHAPTER 1

The Stone.

Steal it. Master it. Use it. End suffering. Bring back Paradise. Let nothing stand in your way.

Dr. Mikal Ryzaard repeats the words in his mind, but that doesn’t make it any easier. Killing a thief or a psychopath or a coward for the Stone would be easy. But not someone like Varanasi. A good man, a holy man.

And yet killing him is the only way.

He looks down at the vintage Boker knife cradled in the palm of his hand and inhales the smell of oil and leather that rises up as he slides the blade from its sheath. His own eyes, gray and dead, stare back at him, reflected in the warm steel.

Take the Stone.

Another set of eyes, nearly identical, flashes through his mind. They belong to the Nazi soldier he killed and stripped the dagger off that night in the death camp so many years ago.

A single bead of sweat runs down his forehead, jumps off his nose and splashes onto the reflection.

He thinks about the holy man. Varanasi.

Ryzaard likes the ancient Indian guru, his melancholy eyes contrasting with a generous smile. Only hours before, Varanasi announced plans to leave at dawn on another walking tour of the Punjab to visit poor villages to bless and heal the sick.

Worst of all, the Stone will go with him.

Time is running out.

Ryzaard wipes the blade on his shirt sleeve and slides it back into the sheath. A line of moisture runs between his shoulder blades and down his spine as he stands up. Clipping the sheath to his belt, he walks from the tent through a silent grove of Kadamba trees. Their trunks rise around him like the ruined columns of an ancient Sikh temple. The smell of honey mixed with wood hangs in the air. Straight ahead through the trees, the last arc of the evening sun is just vanishing below the horizon, leaving the sky crimson.

At the edge of the grove, a dirt trail leads through a jute field to the village, and the chemical stench of fertilizer replaces the sweet aroma of the trees. The trail narrows, hemmed in on both sides by arrow-straight stalks and green leaves rising a foot over his head.

Get the Stone.

Without warning, his chest seizes up with tightness. He struggles to breathe. His skin goes clammy and cold beneath the khaki shirt. A panicked hand drops to his side and gropes for the dagger. His fingers find the black wood handle and grip it tightly. He stops, closes his eyes, inhales slowly until equilibrium is restored. And then he hurries down the path.

Emerging from the jute field, he sees Varanasi’s hut on the edge of the village. Ryzaard’s pulse quickens, blood pounding in his ears. Distant voices float up from the river where the villagers gather each evening to wash their clothes and bathe.

He and Varanasi will be alone.

A few meters from the hut’s entrance, he spies the holy man sitting in a lotus position on the dirt floor, his back to the open door. One palm opens toward heaven and the other closes, the fingers gently wrapping around a luminous white Stone in the shape of a claw.

It will soon be Ryzaard’s.

He stops a few feet from the hut and studies the motionless back of Varanasi. The Indian holy man has the power to see the future, to heal, to perform miracles of wonder. Perhaps, some say, even to stop time. The rarest of gifts, his power entitles him to unlimited riches and control over multitudes. Yet, like Ghandi, he lives in poverty and dresses only in the simple khadi cloth worn by poor villagers all over India.

Kill for the Stone.

Ryzaard waits for Varanasi to invite him in as he always does, but no words come from his mouth this time. Swallowing hard, Ryzaard steps carefully through the open door. A hand drops to his belt and silently draws the blade from its sheath. Griping the handle until his knuckles turn white, he raises the blade level with his chest. The pounding in his ears drowns out the singing of birds.

Varanasi remains motionless.

Drawing in a silent breath, Ryzaard holds the knife in both hands and stares at the side of Varanasi’s neck where he will bury it to the handle and sever the carotid artery. The blade lunges down. Just before its tip breaks skin, Ryzaard closes his eyes.

The next instant, he lurches forward, tumbling onto the dirt floor of the hut, the dagger still in both hands.

Varanasi has vanished.

CHAPTER 2

Closed. Avalanche Danger.

Matt skis past the big, red sign and taps it with his pole. Ducking and crossing under the rope, he surrenders himself to gravity as it draws him down the steep ravine on the back of Skull Pass into a hundred meters of virgin powder. Enough for a couple dozen epic turns. At the bottom, he can hike through the trees, get back in-bounds and melt into the crowd before ski patrol finds his tracks and closes in.

A simple, yet elegant, plan.

The first five turns are pure ecstasy.

And then the entire face of the slope breaks free beneath his skis, engulfing him in a churning maelstrom.

For a few seconds, he points his body downhill and manages to keep his tips up and his head above the flowing mass. Twenty meters from the bottom, he’s dragged under into darkness.

When the movement finally stops, there’s a sick feeling in the pit of his stomach from knowing that his skis are probably lost.

And the pain is excruciating.

His left elbow is pulled back behind his head. The right shoulder feels like an open wound soaking in gasoline. The heel of a ski boot jabs the small of his back. A searing pain rips through his thigh. But more than the pain, one thought dominates his mind.

Dad’s going to kill me when he hears I was skiing out of bounds.

After a futile struggle, he realizes he’s packed in the snow like a fly in amber. He might be a few inches or several meters below the surface. Maybe he’s upside down. There might be broken bones, torn ligaments. One thing is certain. He has no excuse but his own stupidity. The mountain has swallowed him up, and its cold blackness holds him in its grip like a great fist. Heat drains out of his body, sucked by the infinite icy darkness. His fingers and toes lose all feeling. The numbness snakes up his arms and legs until it takes control. He holds off the hunger for sleep until the last remnants of oxygen vanish.

The world has become silence and cold and blackness. A new realization dawns on him. His life is about to end at the tender age of sixteen.

I’m so sorry dad. You were right. Right about everything.

Sadness washes over him. Three words form in his mind, repeating over and over in an endless loop, bleeding out into the darkness.

Please help me.

Time passes, but whether it’s long or short, Matt can’t tell.

A point of light appears far above in the darkness of his closed eyes, like Venus on a clear September night.

It descends toward him.

Gradually it begins to take the shape of a Woman standing in a tube of light. Warmth envelops him as he gazes at her. When she finally stops, she’s only a meter away.

Matt looks at his own arms and legs. In a vast ocean of black, he floats freely, legs below him, arms at his side. A thin blue light clings to him, the same as the Woman.

She holds a glowing rock shaped like a large claw in her hand. Her mouth moves, and he hears the words with his whole body.

We are the Allehonen.

CHAPTER 3

Staring out the window of the tram at the slopes below, Matt’s fingertips play out words on a thin cylinder made of metal and glass and molded to the precise curl of his closed palm. Spiral lines of blue light run down its side.

Hey Jess. I’m up at the Skull. Snow’s almost gone. Just about to take my last run of the season. I’m going to end it with a bang. Fast and smooth. How was your bike race this morning? Hope your asthma didn’t kick in.

Before sending off the message, Jessica’s face floats through Matt’s mind. Long hair. Massive brown eyes. A smirk on those virgin lips that she’s never allowed him to kiss. Saving them for the right time, she always says.

More like torture, Matt thinks.

When he taps the end of the jax, the words turn into a ripple of energy shooting through the Mesh, the network uniting all devices and data on the planet. Seconds later, the jax trembles in his fingers. Jessica has read the message.

A grin plays across his face.

The tram glides to its perch high above Skull Pass. His thigh muscles tighten and relax in rhythmic motion as he lets his eyelids drop down and mentally rehearses the final run. One of his hands runs along the scarred top of a ski as his fingers read the subtle dips and gouges that tell tales of battles won and lost on the slopes. Scratches on the tops don’t matter. Only the bases matter, and his ski bases are flawless.

The jax gently buzzes in his hand. He looks down and opens his palm. A blue screen of holo letters opens in the air above his fingers.

Listen carefully. I’m only going to say this once. No injuries on your last run. That’s an order. Remember the concert tonight. I need to see you in one piece. By the way, I won the race. No asthma this time.

Matt imagines the slender fingers that tapped out the message. Her words are firm, but that’s just Jessica. Never one to beat around the bush. Knows what she wants. She must have talked to his dad. They both worry too much about him on his treks to the mountains. At some point, he just has to ignore their worrying and live his life. Jessica is more understanding than his dad, but even she had insisted he skip the last day of the season.

Not a chance.

He hopes he never has to choose between skiing and her. He’d go with her because she’s the only girl he ever met that reminds him of his mother.

But it would be close.

The inside of the tram is quiet except for the muffled sound of nano-boots and the rustle of jackets. Most of the other skiers bob their heads up and down, listening to internal music spreading from blue dots in their ears, waiting for the door to open. Matt closes his eyes, pulls his skis close to his face and inhales the sweet aroma of speed wax.

The tram coasts to a stop.

A few seconds later, the doors part like the end of a long elevator ride. Matt’s eyes float open to a cool breeze blowing across his face. He and the others flow out through the landing dock to the launch area at the summit of Skull Pass.

The jagged ridges of the Mosquito Range hold up the sky in every direction. With skis balanced on one shoulder, he walks past a group of Chinese tourists in windbreakers and short pants huddled together in front of an ancient wooden sign. As long as anyone can remember, it’s been there, a landmark from the pre-Mesh days. Most of the white paint has flaked off the letters, and the wood is cracked, but that doesn’t matter. The words were burned into his memory long ago and play effortlessly in his head like an old song.

Three generations ago, annual snowfall in the American West fell drastically from the cumulative effects of global warming. The Mosquito Range Mountains are a great aberration. Hiding in a pocket where moisture-laden air from the Pacific meets cold Arctic air flowing down from the north, winter snows come early and still lay deep on these Colorado slopes well into summer.

He raises his jax and takes a quick panoramic video from the summit, ending with a half smirk as he brings his hand up to his face.

Jessica will be so jealous when she sees this.

He remembers his dad’s incessant warnings to never send unencrypted video through the Mesh.

To hell with that.

He jaxes the video to Jess anyway.

When he finds an open spot, Matt presses the magnetic release on his skis and pulls them apart. His eyes sweep past the maximum speed setting. As he promised his dad earlier in the morning, it’s set to 62. He looks at the wide bowl opening up below him and the turquoise sky above, and then smiles to himself as he punches it up to 87. Opening his hands, the skis fall forward onto the snow with a loud slap, drawing stares from skiers on both sides.

When he steps onto the boards, his eyes automatically drop down.

An electric tingle shoots up from his soles into his legs and through his spine. The nano-boots stiffen and hug his feet. They fit like perfection. Hard where they need to be hard, soft where they need to be soft. Bindings rise out of the flat surface of each ski and clamp onto the toes and heels of his boots with a soul-satisfying click.

He digs his poles in, lets his head fall back. His eyes drift to the sky. An Indian war whoop slips from his lips.

Someone grumbles behind him.

Matt turns and stares at a pec-enhanced man wearing a Manchester United jersey. He’s got hairy arms and a girlfriend.

And he’s staring back.

“Pathetic,” Matt says loud enough for everyone to hear. It’s not worth a fight, so he lets out another war whoop and pushes off.

Despite its name, Powder Puff Basin is like an enormous cereal bowl a mile across with towering basalt cliffs forming the rim. Matt likes to climb them from late summer into the fall until the heavy snows come again. Below the rim, its slopes plunge down through a boulder field to the chair lift at the bottom.

Winter or summer, this is where he comes to escape from the suffocating world of his dad.

He tucks into a racing stance and blasts down a cat track into the Basin and around the lower edge of the rim to the opposite side, floating a hundred meters below the cliffs.

On the way, he passes a spot marked with flags, a rope and a big red sign.

It always brings a certain memory to mind.

Six years before, he was a wild sixteen-year-old who ignored the sign and crossed under the rope into a dive down the back of Skull Pass. It’s no surprise an avalanche swallowed him up. By the time ski patrol pulled him out, he had no pulse and a core temperature of less than forty degrees. Thanks to luck and the mammalian diving reflex, they revived him. The doctor said there was no permanent brain damage.

His dad always said he wasn’t so sure.

A rooster tail of loose snow shoots up and out from the back of his skis. Boulders the size of cars lay strewn above and below, islands of rock floating in a sea of white.

When he reaches the opposite side of the bowl, Matt lifts his head and contemplates the beauty of the mountains. He tries to take it all in, but discovers that it’s beyond understanding and can’t be captured in a still shot or video or even memory. The best he can do is open himself to it and let the moment flow through him.

The thin air lifts his dark hair in streams and stings the skin of his cheekbones and ears. He smiles until his lips are numb and his teeth ache from the cold.

Looking down to the left, the slope drops sharply away. He sucks in a lungful of oxygen and holds it, like a diver about to break the water’s surface.

In one fluid motion, he leans forward, tucks into his thighs and launches himself off the lip of the traverse. Ten meters down slope, his skis bite into the white velvet.

A wave of warmth passes through him, and he no longer feels connected to the earth as he carves great arcs high above the valley floor.

Near the bottom, his line is pulled to the only exposed boulder in his field of vision, a dark object protruding shin-high above the snow. Like a giant slalom course, he rides the edges of his skis on a trajectory that will take him around it. He shoots by the rock and tucks into a hard left to loop below it. Then he discovers that it extends further down slope than he thought, like the dorsal fin of a great salamander lurking just beneath the snow.

Too late to change course.

Ripped out of his trance, Matt shifts his weight to bank away from a brutal collision with the boulder. But the laws of physics are in control now, and his upper body refuses to give up its momentum. The sides of his skis make first contact with the broken surface of the rock. The impact triggers an algorithm that instantly hardens them and releases the bindings from their grip on his boots. There is the sickening thud and clatter of silicon-steel alloy bouncing off rock.

His body moves through the air and instinctively goes into a tuck. The ever-present scowl on his dad’s face flashes across the back of his eyelids. A jolt of pain stabs his shoulder as he is thrown over the top of the boulder and dumped face first in the snow on the other side. He comes out of the tuck and goes limp. Rolling onto his back, he slides headfirst on a diagonal line down the slope.

Twenty meters later, his body glides to a stop. He lays still on the snow, afraid to move and discover the extent of his injuries.

An eagle circles overhead, staring down at the black fetal shape on the snow.

Matt sits up and glares at the boulder. Fury builds within him for its attempt at spoiling his perfect day. As the anger subsides, he takes inventory of the damage, both to him and, more urgently, his equipment. There is a tear on the left shoulder of his jacket, a sprained thumb, shattered goggles. The carbon fiber pants are pristine, not a scratch. The taste of salt spreads through his mouth, and a warm rivulet snakes down his forehead and soaks into an eyebrow. Crimson dots appear in the snow.

Upon seeing the blood, his first reaction is to grab his jax for a quick video to Jessica. After a moment’s thought, he decides against it. She might get worried and forward it to his dad. He’ll immediately notice the missing helmet he set out for Matt that very morning.

It still lay on the seat of the truck down in the parking lot.

Matt squints up slope and spies his skis lying in disarray ten feet on the other side of the boulder. He climbs slowly back up, collects his poles on the way and crosses over the top of the boulder. A maze of cracks and fissures break up its dark surface.

When he gets to the other side and drops down onto the snow, rock fragments are strewn around his fallen skis. He fears the worse. Young bodies heal quickly, but good skis are expensive to replace.

He bends down and tenderly lifts each of the boards in turn like the delicate instruments of joy they are, and flexes them between his hands. Incredibly, they are unscathed other than a long dark line running the full length on the top of one ski and a series of gouges on the underside of the other. His fingers find a small metal stud on the tail of the damaged ski and press it, activating the microcaps that will fill in the gouges over the next twenty-four hours.

Scratches on top don’t matter. Let them run wild. Only scratches on the bottom matter.

He rams the tails of both skis into the snow so they are sticking straight up and sits down to rest.

There, between his feet, a strange object catches his eye.

A rock.

He picks it up and studies its shape. With a rough surface like the basalt rock around it, it is larger on one end and curved to a dull point on the other, reminding him of a fossilized T-Rex claw he played with as a child.

There’s something else it reminds him of, six years before, but he quickly discards that thought as ridiculous.

Gripping the rock in the palm of his right hand, there’s an immediate sensation of rightness, as if it were made to be there.

He isn’t sure how long he gazes at it. At some point, his eyes drift shut. Then he remembers.

Jess will kill me if I’m late.

He checks the time on his jax and only has two minutes to catch the last chair up. With effort, he lets the rock slip from his hand into a coat pocket and stands up.

He can’t wait to show it to her.

CHAPTER 4

On the 175th floor of the MX Global Corporation building in Midtown Manhattan, a young woman in a white lab coat sprints down a stainless steel corridor to a lone door at the end. The Do-Not-Disturb sign is lit in red.

She hesitates, looks down at the floor and then presses her palm against a glass plate to the side of the door.

It slides open and she enters. A silver-haired man in a tweed jacket and khaki pants sits in a lotus position on an elevated platform on the floor. His back is to the door, and he faces a window that forms an entire wall of his office from floor to ceiling.

The black shape of the old Brooklyn Bridge spans the East River in the distance. The roofs of glass skyscrapers crowd below like jewel-encrusted needles growing from an unseen pincushion.

“Jing-wei, good to see you. Come in.” The man stares out the window for a full minute, never turning to face the woman.

She stands in the middle of the office, hands clasped behind her back, catching her breath, waiting for permission to speak.

The man sweeps an arm from one side to the other. “You can see the curvature of the earth from here. It’s so obvious. But you have to be up high. Down on the ground, everything is flat, an illusion. To truly see, you have to be above it all.”

“Dr. Ryzaard.” Her voice drops to a whisper. “After all these months, we’ve finally done it.”

Ryzaard stares out the window as if transfixed by some rare philosophical insight. At last he speaks.

“Done what, Jing-wei?”

She steps forward and glances down at the top of his head. The hair is unusually thick and healthy for an older man, with no sign of thinning.

“Received a signal.”

The man’s body collapses to the side and drops from the meditation platform. He gathers himself together and stands up.

“From a newly awakened Stone?” he says.

Jing-wei smiles. “Yes.”

CHAPTER 5

Matt throws his skis and boots into the back of the ‘51 Toyota Chikara with a scattered thud. His fingers run along the crinkled metal skin of the truck as he walks to the driver’s side and pops the door open.

He thinks about the battered side of the truck. People pay a lot for that kind of worn style, whether it’s cars or jeans, and it hasn’t cost him a thing, except for the scar bisecting his right eyebrow from last summer.

The old S-curve on the canyon road is treacherous. He doesn’t plan on missing the turn again and rolling the truck down the ravine a second time.

Easing into the cab, he sinks back into the seat and exhales as he gazes up through the open door at Skull Pass and the remnants of snow that hug the shadows. He never tires of coming here. It’s the only place to get away from the stifling life forced on him by his dad. With his eyes on the car-com clock, he counts down the seconds to 4:30 in the afternoon when the ski season officially closes. The sound of a foghorn floats down from the top of the mountain.

And then it’s over.

Muffled cheers dance across the parking lot from somewhere over by the lodge.

The long wilderness of summer lies ahead. It has to be crossed each year on a journey to the promised land of winter that lies on the other side of the unbearable heat that turns the valley into a desert. The more he thinks about it, an inconsolable sadness threatens to spoil his euphoria. He fights it back with thoughts of seeing Jessica.

A tinge of pain stabs him near his left shoulder blade where his body made contact with the boulder up in Powder Puff Basin.

“Massage program seven.” He looks in the general direction of the car-com.

It lights up.

The seat hums softly as it opens and swallows his back and neck. Unseen fingers knead his muscles as mellow J-pop music floats in the background. He slips his jax into the sync slot on the car-com and uploads the new motor-tone he ripped off the Mesh on the tram ride down.

Switching the engine on, he holds his breath and listens. Sure enough, it fits the description on the Mesh-point where he found it.

Deep Shave, a collage of sound with the light buzz of an antique electric razor and the bass of low-frequency whale calls.

At least now he won’t be pulled over for silent-running his truck on the road.

It’s 4:35. He drifts out of the parking lot and back to the real world where danger lurks. It’s useless to suppress the voice of his dad in his head. Years of instruction have drilled it too deeply into his brain.

When you leave or enter a place, always scan for anyone following you.

His eyes sweep past the side windows and the rearview mirror. The only other person in the parking lot is an old man loading skis onto a roof rack. A flashing green light on the car-com catches his attention, signaling that a message from Dad has just arrived. Incredibly, it’s video, something he rarely jaxes to Matt. Over the years, his dad has drilled it into him over and over. Video is dangerous because it carries the largest data footprint and is easy to trace. They might stumble onto it, and then the jig will be up. Black heli-transports will swoop in while they sleep and kill them both.

Matt has heard the warnings a thousand times. Lately, he’s grown tired of it and lets the videos fly from his jax.

“On screen.” Matt talks in the general direction of the car-com.

The windshield of the truck lights up in transparent hi-def. There is his dad, standing in the kitchen, apron on, steam rising from a frying pan behind him on the stove. His dad grabs a ball of pink-looking paste from a bowl, wraps it in a thin white skin, seals it with a few quick pinches and drops it onto a cookie sheet full of neat rows of dumplings.

Matt slows down for the old S-curve, his eyes on his dad.

“We’re eating at 5:00.” His dad picks up another handful of the pink stuff. “We need to celebrate your safe return from the last day of skiing and talk about your trip to Japan tomorrow. I hope you have a big appetite. Don’t be late, and drive safe.”

The windshield goes clear.

Matt stares at his reflection in the rearview mirror. He lifts a hand up to his forehead and winces. He might not have to get stitches, but it will be tough to hide this one from dad. Or Jess.

Leaning into the seat, the full effect of the back massage is starting to work its magic. A content smile plays across his face thinking about his dad making gyoza. Matt’s favorite food. It’s the one thing they have in common. And there’s a reason for that.

Gyoza reminds them both of Mom. Her face floats into his mind. Whenever he thinks of her, something about her eyes reminds him of Jessica.

Matt grabs the jax out of its slot and plays its side with the fingers of his left hand, never taking his eyes off the canyon road.

Jess: Got a cool story about today.

Tapping the top with his thumb, he jaxes it off. A few second later Jess answers back, and the car-com automatically reads it out in a mildly unnatural voice-sim.

I knew it. Another crash. No helmet, right? You promised to end the tree-skiing obstacle courses. Remember?

A grin snakes across his face. He’s going to have some fun with this.

You’re right about the helmet, but no trees. Any other guesses?

He sends off the message and relaxes even more into the seat as he shoots past the truck ahead on the two-lane mountain road. The car-com reads out her reply.

Any hints?

Jess is playing along. She always does.

He thinks for a minute, holds the jax up in his left hand and takes a quick self-portrait of his smiling face, crusty blood and all. He adds a quick message.

How’s this?

After he jaxes it off, more than a minute passes with no reply. He immediately regrets sending it. He’ll be dead if it finds its way to his dad.

Finally, the car-com makes a gentle pinging sound, letting him know her reply has arrived. He swallows hard, touches the play button on the steering wheel and holds his breath.

Better than I expected. You’ll clean up just fine.

Matt breathes out slowly. After two years, Jess has finally gotten used to his scrapes. The car-com pings again. Matt touches the play button.

I guess we’re both in confession mode, so I should come clean too. Remember my bike race? I hate to admit it, but I took a little spill this morning. You’re not the only one with a tale to tell.

A transparent picture of her fills the glass windshield, but something is wrong. She has a black eye, swollen cheek, scraped-up chin and a couple of missing teeth. A dark blue sling cradles her arm.

Matt’s mouth drops open, and the color drains from his face. A knot forms in his stomach. The truck starts to glide to the right into loose gravel on the shoulder of the road. He snaps back to attention just before hitting a tree and slams on the brakes.

Another ping and another message from Jess.

Fooled you, didn’t I?

She comes up on the windshield. There’s a hint of a scratch on her chin. Everything else looks fine. The color comes back into Matt’s face.

He shoots off a message.

No way. I can read you like a book.

Near the bottom of Cutter Canyon, an old car is stopped on the shoulder of the road in front of a Japanese Shinto shrine and the large torii gate marking its entrance. The car looks ancient, one of the few antiques left that still runs on gasoline instead of electricity. Its passenger door hangs open, and a woman is holding a small child and standing near her vehicle as cars pass by without stopping. The car is leaning to one side. Probably a flat tire.

It’s clear she needs help.

Matt checks the time on the car-com and sighs. Let someone else help her. He has a busy night ahead and not a minute to spare.

But something nags at him to stop. Dad won’t be happy.

His truck drifts to a spot behind the old car. He glances again at the rearview mirror to see if he’s being followed. Then he notices a small black dot in the corner of the mirror that wasn’t there yesterday. Dad’s been at it again. He grabs the jax from the slot and plays its side as he walks to the car.

Dad: Have to stop on the way down to help a lady with an old car. Looks like a flat tire. I’ll be late. Keep the gyoza hot.

He sends off the message and then adds an afterthought.

Next time do a better job of hiding the surveillance cam. It’s too obvious on the mirror.

One point for me.

CHAPTER 6

Late, as usual.

Matt pulls into the garage at 6:00 and kills the engine-tone. Through the truck’s open window, he smells the hint of something that makes his stomach growl. With skis and poles in one hand and boots in the other, he walks to the back door. As it slides open, the pungent aroma of garlic and ginger envelops his senses. He inhales deeply, filling his lungs with the heavenly smell. After a day of nothing to eat on the snow, a sharp hunger pain stabs his side, and his stomach cries out for the gyoza. He slips quickly downstairs to his room, throws everything on the futon and turns to go.

Passing the door, he has a distinct feeling of a sudden emptiness, like something important is missing.

He runs back into his room, grabs the ski jacket off the bed and rifles through the pockets. A jolt of panic bursts through his chest. Finally, his fingers wrap around it.

The black rock from Powder Puff Basin.

Except that it’s not really black anymore. Now it’s definitely more of a dark blue. Maybe it’s just the lighting.

Chuckling to himself, he stuffs the rock into his pocket and bounds back up the stairs into the kitchen and the aroma of fried gyoza and miso soup.

Kent Newmark sits next to the window and studies the glossy surface of the slate in his hand. Like every meal, he wears the faded old black apron with the orange pumpkin made by Matt years ago when he was still in grade school. A Halloween present for Dad.

The table is already set for two.

“I saw the cut on your forehead.” Kent speaks without looking up. “Any broken bones? Need stitches?”

Matt never lies to his dad, but he needs to buy a little sympathy. He takes a deep inhale. “Smells delicious. Your cooking skills never cease to amaze, Dad.” He takes another audible whiff of garlic. “A few boulders were sticking through on Powder Puff. I did a Super G run and just shaved one a little close. No big deal.”

“And, it turns out, no helmet either, right?” Kent raises an eyebrow, scanning Matt from head to foot.

Matt knows from experience that his dad won’t miss anything. He never does. “See?” Matt points at his head. “Just a little scratch.”

Getting to his feet, Kent comes closer and gazes carefully into his son’s face, eyebrows furrowed, blue eyes behind round reading glasses, the kind that nobody wears anymore.

Matt hates it when his dad stares at him like this. It makes him feel like he’s ten years old again. Through dark bangs, he does his best to put a bland look on his face. But his dad’s blues eyes are reading him like a book.

“Let’s see,” Kent says. “Fresh blood on the chin from the edge of a ski. Looks like you bumped the maximum speed up. A jagged gash on the forehead. Must be from the boulder. An assortment of other scratches, marks and abrasions. There was a rough tumble after impact.” Kent reaches out and pinches Matt’s shoulder, and Matt winces from pain. “A bad bruise there.” A few seconds of silence pass, and Kent looks up. “Did I miss anything?”

“Right on the money.”

Kent shakes his head and ruffles his son’s hair. “I guess you’ll live. Somehow, you always do.” Putting the palms of his hands together, he looks to the ceiling with feigned piety. “Thank the Good Lord.”

“No, Dad.” Matt grins and drops down in his spot at the table. “Thank my Dynastar AI799s and superhuman reflexes. That’s what saved me. It’s always worth it to have the best equipment.”

Kent walks to the stove, picks up a skillet, brings it back to the table and puts it down between them, pausing long enough to look squarely at Matt. One eyebrow lifts for dramatic effect. Without a word, he pulls off the lid.

A white cloud of steam jumps up, carrying with it all the smells and culinary delights of millennia of Asian cooking.

Matt’s eyes widen. “Just what I need.” He stares down at the sizzling gyoza. “You load me up on garlic just before I pick up Jess. Are you trying to drive her away?” His eyes narrow with suspicion, and then he laughs, taking another long look at the steaming gyoza.

“It took all afternoon to make these.” A distant smile floats across Kent’s face. He sits down and turns to gaze out the window at the mountains, elbows on the table, chin propped up on one hand. “Besides, she won’t let you kiss her anyway.”

“You got me there, Dad. I guess I’ll risk the garlic.” Matt grabs his chopsticks and loads his plate with the dumplings in a matter of seconds. “I think Jess will understand.”

Kent seems lost in thought, still staring out the window.

Matt surveys the table like someone ticking off items on a checklist. “Let’s see, gyoza… check… sticky rice… check… miso soup… check… pickled radish… check.” He pauses, as if searching for one last item. “OK, there it is. Ketchup… check.” Stabbing one of the dumplings with a chopstick, he plunges it into the ketchup and holds it up for inspection. “Like everything else in my life, a seamless blend of Japanese and American culture.”

When he inserts the gyoza into his mouth, it slowly melts into delicious oblivion. Utter contentment spreads across his face.

Through it all, Kent is still staring out the window.

Matt follows his dad’s gaze. The upper reaches of the mountains are veined with white snow. He thinks about blazing down Powder Puff, dodging boulders, and the future stories he will tell of the Great Crash. He thinks about seeing Jessica in less than an hour, about getting on the transport tomorrow for the flight to Tokyo, about the bliss of being on his own, half a world away from his dad, for the first time in his life.

Looking down, Matt sees ripples in the miso soup. He realizes his right heel is bouncing up and down again, causing the whole table to shake. The Japanese have a funny word for this. Binbou yusuri, the poor-man shakes. Rich people are thought to be in control of their mind and body, unlike the lower classes. It’s a nervous habit that manifests itself whenever he’s on the cusp of a new adventure. With conscious effort, he presses his foot down and makes his leg stand still.

His dad is still silent. Matt knows who and what he’s thinking about.

“Hey Dad, remember how angry Mom used to get when I dipped her gyoza in ketchup instead of that special Japanese sauce?” He looks across the table at his dad, trying to pull him into the conversation.

Kent remains silent, but a smile creeps across his face. Finally, he turns from the window. His eyes go from Matt down to the gyoza on the plate. “It’s been twelve years.” Selecting one, he dips it in ketchup and stuffs it into his mouth. The smile leaves his face, and he seems to be looking at Matt without seeing him, eating without tasting.

“Mom would be proud of you, Dad. A few more years of practice and your cooking might be almost as good as hers.” Matt reaches across the table and playfully punches his dad on the shoulder. “Keep it up. I expect you to be even better when I get back.”

Kent smiles again and picks up a yellow pickled radish with the tip of his chopsticks. He chews mechanically and then stops. “It’s hard to let you go, son.” His eyes glisten. “You’re the only part of Yoshiko that’s left.”

“Now don’t get all mushy on me, Dad.” Matt slurps miso soup through a mouthful of rice. Nothing tastes better in the world. The bouncing in his leg starts up again, and he doesn’t try to stop it. “Let me be honest. I can’t wait to get to Hokkaido University. They say Professor Yamamoto is the leading authority on Japanese folk legends.” He swallows the rice. “He’s never had an American research assistant before. He said he looks forward to working with me, and he’s already got some research lined up for me to get started on. He’s even going to put my name on any papers he publishes with my assistance. It should be a great summer.”

“The professor is a good man. He helped us back when we escaped from New York and got to Japan after we lost…” Kent drops his head and stops talking. He can’t seem to get out the final word. Then he swallows and begins again. “After we lost Mom.”

Matt stops chewing. “I don’t really remember much about that.”

“Professor Yamamoto didn’t have to help us. We were refugees with no place to hide and enemies everywhere. It would have been easy for him to just turn us away. But he didn’t.” Kent starts to eat and talks between bites. The food seems to wake him up and give him new energy.

Matt’s cheeks are packed with rice and gyoza. “It’s all just a blur. I was only ten.”

“I don’t suppose there’s any point in trying to change your mind.” Kent stirs his miso soup and takes a long sip out of the cup. “There are plenty of good graduate programs in Asian history right here in Colorado.” His voice sounds hopeful.

“Not a chance, Dad.” Matt shakes his head. “We’ve been over this a million times. I’m twenty-two years old. Never lived away from home. The longest I’ve ever been gone was a week, and that was scout camp. It’s time for me to grow up and get out of here.” He stops chewing and lets out a long sigh. “It’s time for you to let me go.”

Matt can feel it starting again. The same old arguments with his dad. He knows there’s no way to stop it.

“That’s just the point, son. You don’t understand what’s out there. I’ve had to protect you from it, ever since…” Kent’s voice falters again. “Ever since they took your mother from me. From us.”

Laying down his chopsticks, Matt shakes his head. “But Dad, that was twelve years ago. Even if it wasn’t just an accident, how do you know they’re still looking for you? They’ve probably just forgotten about the whole thing by now.”

“That’s not the way it works.” Kent puts down the miso soup. “They’re still looking for me. And you. They’ll never stop. There’s too much at stake.”

Matt knows he won’t win an argument with his lawyer-dad, but he isn’t going to give up that easy. “I found that surveillance-cam you stuck on the rearview mirror of the truck.” He grabs a pickled radish with his fingers. “You’ve taught me well. I’m ready for this.”

“You don’t understand.” Kent shakes his head. “I’ve never told you the whole story.”

“Then tell me now.” Matt plays with the radish in his teeth. “I’m not a kid anymore. It’s time I heard it. All of it.”

“Are you sure you want to know?” Kent looks at him through the round glasses, making his eyes look huge.

“Positive, Dad. I want to know. I need to know.”

CHAPTER 7

Kent inhales and lets out a long exhale, dropping his eyes down to the table. “I suppose I’ve put it off long enough.” He leans back in his chair, folds his arms and looks up at the ceiling. “I was still working at Myers & Sullivan in New York. I went there right after my clerkship for Justice Hammond. You were one year old, running our life, and we loved every minute of it. Life was good and looking to get a lot better.”

Reaching for his jax, Matt plays it under the table in his left hand without taking his eyes off his dad, looking for the Myers & Sullivan Mesh-point. He stabs another gyoza with the chopsticks in his right hand.

“You remember the little white house we bought in Hawthorne up in Westchester County? The school just a block away? I’d leave for work before daylight so I could get home in time for dinner with you and Mom.” Kent smiles and shakes his head. “She was such an incredible cook—and not just gyoza. Every meal was a work of art. Her way of expressing love.” He brings the miso soup up to his lips and takes a long sip.

Matt pops a dumpling in his mouth.

“Before I knew it, nine years had flown by. Things were going well. I had just been made a partner at the firm. You were the star sweeper on your soccer team. We had a golden retriever. What was his name?”

“Champ,” Matt says.

“Right. I loved that dog.” Kent takes a mouthful of sticky rice and chases it down with miso. “I’d take the whole month of August off every year, and we’d go to Japan to visit Mom’s family. It was a good life.”

Matt remembers his dog Champ, playing fetch with him in the little park across the street, the wet licks. He remembers running home from school to a house filled with the smell of fresh baked bread and apple pie. His Japanese mom could cook American food better than anyone else in the neighborhood.

Looking down at his jax, Matt finds the Mesh-point and reads in his best deadpan voice. “For over 90 years, Myers & Sullivan has been an elite law firm for the most sophisticated international corporate transactions. William Myers and James Sullivan met while in the U.S. Army in the Gulf War and attended the Columbia University School of Law together after the war on the G.I. Bill. After a few years of practice, they started their own firm in Midtown Manhattan.”

Matt’s dad laughs and pushes another gyoza into his mouth.

“M&S was the most prestigious law firm in New York City when I went there. Still is. They had a standing offer for the top-two Columbia Law School students of every class. That’s how I got my job.”

A pickled radish goes into Matt’s mouth to chase down another dumpling. So far, he’s heard all this a hundred times before. “I can see it now. You had a plaque in your office. Kent Tiberius Newmark. Certified Genius. Come on, Dad tell me something I don’t know.”

Pausing to enjoy a mouthful of rice, Kent continues with his story. “So here I am, a newly minted partner with a bright future in the top law firm in America. I’m one of the rising stars in the high-octane world of corporate mergers and acquisitions. A new deal comes in from one of our most important clients. The firm gives it to me and tells me to run with it.”

“Cool,” Matt says. “You must have been quite a hot-shot.”

Kent puts down his chopsticks and drums his fingers on the table. “I really shouldn’t tell you this.” He shakes his head. “It’s better if you don’t know.”

“Dad, it’s too late to stop now. I’m old enough to hear what happened to Mom.”

Taking another deep breath, Kent closes his eyes. “As you wish.” His eyes float open. “So our client was a mega-corporation selling one of its subsidiaries to an investment fund backed by Chinese money.”

“Wait, Dad. What was the mega-corp’s name?” Matt holds his jax in his left hand and grabs another pickle with the chopsticks, popping it into his mouth. “Anyone I’d recognize?”

“You don’t need to know. Better if you don’t.” His dad takes in a mouthful of rice and a sip of miso soup. “Anyway, it turns out the client is selling a subsidiary that operates a huge open-pit mining operation in Northern India near a place called Devprayag. Ever heard of it? Two great rivers come together there to form the Ganges.”

Matt grabs the last gyoza, looks at it and licks his lips with relish. “What were they mining?”

“Uranium. A massive deposit was discovered a few years before, and the Indian government jumped on a new source for its expanded nuclear program. The client developed the project and operated it at huge profit for several years, and then suddenly decided to sell it.”

“To a Chinese company, XinShang, right?” Matt smiles.

“That’s the one.” Matt’s dad nods with approval. “You’re good with the jax.”

“So what’s the problem? It says here that the uranium extraction continues in operation to this day, providing India with a source of safe, clean energy and unlimited fuel for its arsenal of nukes.”

“The deal was done in a very short time frame. The buyer sent us a due diligence request list, asking us to tell them everything our client knew about the uranium mine, its operations and any environmental problems. When we reviewed the client’s files, everything checked out.” Kent drinks the last of his miso and smacks his lips.

“So what’s the problem?”

“When you’re a lawyer working on a deal, you get to know your client pretty well. These guys were sneaky. I had a gut feeling they were hiding something.”

Matt leans forward. “Hiding what?”

“Three days before the deal closed, I grabbed a young associate, only a year out of law school, and sent him to India to do some checking on the ground. He showed up unannounced at the client’s headquarters. An old lawyer’s trick.” Kent finishes his rice and ends his meal with a yellow pickled radish.

“What did he find?”

“A disturbing environmental report was buried in some electronic files. Something the client never bothered to report to us or the buyer. He sent me a copy.” Matt’s dad pushes his plate away. “It was the last I ever heard from him.”

CHAPTER 8

Alexa Gianopoulus walks down the hall to Ryzaard’s office in glove leather pants. No need to rush. The plan has been worked out over the space of months, and it’s ready for execution. And she’s in the middle of everything, just where she likes it.

She wonders what her family back in the small village in northern Greece would think of her now, if they could see her clothes and luxury apartment, complete with a well-stocked wine cellar. Images of her past move through her mind. Fields of barley and onions. Endless herds of goats. Tractors and trucks snaking along dirt roads between hills. Her father’s fingers, gnarled from the hard life of a farmer. The long dusty dress her mother always wore. The pungent smell of garlic and olives in the kitchen. Cheese at every meal.

Her parents and extended family have become utterly foreign to her.

Here she is, worlds away, and never happier to have run away from home to the City where she became a student and escaped the crushing boredom of life on the farm. And then the turning point in her life. That chance meeting with Ryzaard two years ago when he came to New York University to speak at a history symposium. She exposed his ignorance by asking a question that only someone from the Greek countryside could answer. She still remembers.

What did ancient Greek farmers put on their lips to keep them from cracking in the sun?

Ryzaard couldn’t guess, so she gave the answer.

Olive oil and beeswax.

He pulled her out of the crowd and offered her a job as his personal assistant on the spot. He later mentioned something about how she reminded him of his third grade school teacher, a secret love. Now she makes more salary in a month than her father earned from forty years of backbreaking toil.

She strides through the open door and pauses in the middle of the room.

Ryzaard stands at the window, shirtless, hands behind his back, gazing off to the right at the remnants of the setting sun across the Hudson River.

The furniture in the office is just the way Ryzaard says he likes it. Sparse, but exquisite. The wide desk came with him from Oxford. Made of antique wood and custom-built to fit his height, its dark color matches the leather on the high-backed chair behind it. Among the items strewn about its surface, Alexa’s eyes focus on the foot-high bronze statue of a naked man. To her left, there is a large crystal cube big enough to sit on with an embroidered gold cushion on top. She knows it as his meditation platform. When sitting atop it in a lotus position, it gives the illusion that he’s floating in air. On the far right, a Chinese wall-hanging of a black dragon droops down above a red sofa. The ancient paper is crinkled and yellow, and the faint smell of dust lingers around it. The old grandfather clock from Ryzaard’s ancestral home in Poland stands on the opposite wall to the left.

A line of tobacco smoke drifts up from a half-burnt cigarette balanced on the edge of the desk. Old books are stacked against the grandfather clock and go halfway up its side. Piles of documents are scattered on the desk.

There are no bluescreens for video, no holo ports, no Mesh-com interfaces. The only piece of modern tech in the office is a jax. Even Ryzaard has one of those. It lies askew on the desk at the foot of the naked man.

Alexa’s eyes run up and down Ryzaard’s familiar body. In the two years they’ve worked together, she’s become more than his assistant. For all the power he wields, he’s apparently never had a confidant, someone to open his heart to.

As his companion, she has come to fill that void. Their relationship is not one of equals, but it allows her to be more honest and open with him than anyone else in his world. He tolerates her occasional criticism without exacting revenge or striking back.

She can’t help appraising his looks.

For a man supposedly in his late 60s, he is far too fit. His height allows him to look down on just about everyone, and she knows he has a distinct dislike for anyone taller. The well-muscled back, broad shoulders and arrow-straight posture contrast with a full head of gray hair. His silver mustache and goatee add an air of mystique. He wears his usual attire, a tweed jacket and bowtie reminiscent of his days at Oxford. He hasn’t been back to England since coming to MX Global three years ago.

When she clears her throat, there is still no reaction from Ryzaard. He stares out the window in the direction of the setting sun apparently oblivious to her presence.

“Dr. Ryzaard.” Alexa gently breaks the silence. “The emergency board of directors meeting has been called for 9:00 this evening. All the directors have arrived, and a quorum will be present in person. Mr. Van Pelt will conduct the meeting. It starts in half an hour.”

Ryzaard slowly turns his body around to look at her. “Is the presentation set up and ready to go in the boardroom?” His voice is clear, a subtle mix of German and British accents.

She knows better than to ask him if he’s from Germany. He always reacts with horror when that question comes up.

“Yes, all ready to go,” Alexa says. “Will you need anything else prior to the meeting?”

“How is the progress on the location algorithm?” Ryzaard clears his throat. “I assume it’s proceeding according to the most recent simulation exercises.”

“Yes, within fifteen minutes of getting the signal from the new Stone, we initiated an HDD linkup with the beta site in Japan and pulled another XUNIL cluster system from MX Scientific to run the algorithm. It’s been working for just over two hours. We should have definitive GPS coordinates by this time tomorrow.” Alexa becomes conscious of Ryzaard’s gaze. “I feel sorry for whoever found that rock. They’ll be nothing but a corpse in a few hours.”

“That’s the idea.” Ryzaard runs the tip of his index finger back and forth along his silver mustache and closes his eyes as if in deep contemplation. “Let Scientific know we’ll require use of the cluster system for an indefinite period of time. We need the computing power. They shouldn’t expect to get it back.” Ryzaard opens his eyes. “If they object, let them know it’s being done on the authority of Van Pelt.” His eyes seem to go right through Alexa. “It won’t matter after tonight anyway. Assuming the vote goes our way—and I’m sure it will—we’ll have all of Scientific and their computing power at our disposal in a couple of hours.”

“Understood,” Alexa says. “Anything else?”

“It’s imperative that we push the location algorithm without pause. I want to find that Stone and its Holder. Everything depends on it.”

Ryzaard walks to his desk and picks up the small figure of the naked man. He turns it around in his hands, and then tosses it to Alexa. She catches it gently in her fingers.

“I recovered this from a dig at Vergina, a small town in northern Greece, your home country, over forty years ago. I’ve carried it with me ever since.” He takes a step closer to her. “Any idea who it is?”

“Of course.” Alexa squeezes her fingers around the little man’s legs. “Every schoolgirl knows it’s Zeus, the greatest of the Greek gods.”

“Very good.” The stench of tobacco on Ryzaard’s breath is overpowering. “Not much to look at, really, except for the fact that this very statue was carried around by Alexander the Great. You can see where his fingers wore it down.” He looks squarely at Alexa. “He never lost a battle. Have you ever wondered why?”

She stands in silence and looks up at Ryzaard through long eyelashes. It’s coming. Another one of his lectures on history.

“They say he had an uncanny ability to anticipate his enemy’s moves, almost like he could see the future.” Ryzaard puts his other hand in his pocket and pulls out a translucent rock, resembling the rough shape of a large claw.

Alexa has seen it many times. It’s been the focus of a massive amount of study and experimentation during the last three years.

Ryzaard grips the rock with white knuckles. “Beginning tonight, Alexa, we follow in the footsteps of Alexander the Great. Don’t ever forget that.”

“How could I? My parents named me after him.” She hands the statue back to Ryzaard. “I’m sure the board of directors will vote in favor of your proposal. Is there anything else I can do before the meeting begins?”

Ryzaard turns and drops the statue on the desk behind him. “Make sure we have the Xerxes Diviner in the room. We may find it useful to demonstrate its power in case there are any skeptics among the directors.”

She turns to leave.

“One more thing, Alexa.” A slight smile plays across Ryzaard’s lips. “Have several bottles of the ‘21 Chardonnay from the special collection brought up to my office. We’ll have much to celebrate tonight when the meeting is over.”

“Yes, of course.” Alexa walks to the door. The sound of movement behind her draws one final backward glance.

Ryzaard stares down at Zeus on his desk and leans forward, as if talking to the bronze piece.

“This is where it all begins.”

CHAPTER 9

Time to go.

Ryzaard steps down from the meditation platform and walks out of his office to the elevator in the middle of the steel corridor. In his mind, he draws a picture of the MX Global Corporation boardroom.

Located on the eighty-eighth floor, the boardroom is in the exact vertical center of the corporation’s world headquarters. Round and windowless, identical dark wood paneling covers the ceiling and floor. A circular wall of flawless black glass wraps around it, broken only by a single door to the room.

Some of the old hands at the corporation might remember how the boardroom had originally been furnished with a round table large enough for twenty directors to engage in lively discussion and debate.

But during the past year, both the round table and the directors had been replaced.

The room now resembles a university lecture hall, with the chairman of the corporation seated behind a desk at the front and the directors in theater chairs on an elevated floor. Extra chairs for visitors line the wall to the right of the chairman.

Everything has been arranged for the meeting of the directors. A bare majority, ten directors in all and just sufficient for a quorum, will be seated and waiting for the meeting to begin.

Ryzaard steps out of the elevator. Mr. Rudyard Van Pelt, chairman of the board, is waiting for him. They walk shoulder to shoulder in silence down a long hall.

Low chatter leaks out of the entrance to the boardroom at the other end.

At 9:05 in the evening, New York time, Ryzaard and Van Pelt move through the open door of the boardroom. Alexa is waiting near the entrance in a short skirt and matching suit coat, all made of the same black leather. Without so much as a glance, Van Pelt walks past her and two security guards in dark blue uniforms with the MX Global logo splashed across their chests. He goes straight to his desk.

Ryzaard can tell from Alexa’s eyes that she wants to speak with him. He pauses and bends to the side, his ear inches from her lips.

“We have some preliminary readings from the location algorithm.” She keeps her voice to a low whisper. “The Stone is in North America.”

“Excellent.” Ryzaard bows his head and suppresses the urge to grin. “Keep up the hunt.” His voice drops until it is barely audible. “I want that Stone in my hands and the Holder dead and gone by the close of business tomorrow. Understood?”

She nods.

Ryzaard enters the boardroom, his face relaxed, arms hanging loosely at his side. He takes note of the surroundings.

Already seated at the front of the room, Van Pelt is staring down at documents on his desk screen without a word or a glance at anyone. His suit is conservative corporate fashion, dark blue garnished with feather epaulets. The chair beneath him squeaks with each tiny movement of his generous proportions. The other ten directors sit comfortably on raised terraces above the main floor.

Ryzaard can tell at a glance that the directors are angry about being brought to the meeting on this spring evening with such short notice. Plans have been interrupted, busy schedules thrown into chaos.

Good, he thinks. When striking the enemy, it’s important to maintain the element of surprise.

Quietly walking to the visitor’s section Ryzaard takes a seat. Alexa follows behind. MX Global’s general counsel, a bone-thin man with protruding cheekbones, glossy black hair pasted to his scalp and a pronounced widow’s peak, is already in his chair next to her. He examines documents on his slate, swiping his finger across its surface as he turns the pages.

Two objects rest on a table in front of Alexa, a pink slate and a cylindrical device the color of gold with inlaid glass panels and vertical light strips between them.

Ryzaard exchanges a glance with Van Pelt and gives him a slight nod. The door slides shut. Van Pelt clears his throat. The MX global logo appears on the wall behind him, two black dragons in a yin-yang posture devouring each other’s tails. Words in neon red wrap around them.

MX Global Corporation: Paradise Now.

Van Pelt looks up from the desk and rises to speak in a deep baritone voice with the hint of a British accent, well-known throughout the corporation.

“Since the time my grandfather founded this company, we have prided ourselves on being nimble. Our ability to respond quickly to every opportunity is our most valuable asset. That is the purpose for this emergency meeting of the board of directors, called pursuant to the procedure described in the bylaws. We apologize for the short notice and sincerely appreciate your attendance. The extraordinary circumstances that require a meeting will be apparent as we proceed.”

A mechanical smile graces Van Pelt’s face. He wipes a thin film of sweat from his brow and steals a glance at Ryzaard, who displays no hint of emotion.

Looking back at the directors, Van Pelt drones on.

“As specified in the bylaws, we will not record the proceedings of this meeting. The only record will be a written consent signed by a majority of the directors at the conclusion. Let me note that eleven of the directors are present in person, including myself, constituting a quorum sufficient for the conduct of any business that may come before the board. Any decision rendered by six of the present directors will be the final decision of this body.”

Van Pelt’s shoulders have visibly hunched up closer to his ears, and he exhales loudly, forcing them down in a futile attempt to appear relaxed.

“I note the high security that is necessitated by the sensitive nature of the matters to be discussed tonight. For that reason, no directors are attending by video and no com-links or Mesh connections to this room will be permitted until our business is concluded and the meeting is adjourned.” Van Pelt glances up at the other directors. “I apologize for the necessity of temporarily disabling your personal communication devices.”

The last comment seems to wake up the directors. A noticeable stir ripples through the room as each of them discover, perhaps for the first time in years, that their jaxes have gone dark.

There is a palpable sense of increased isolation. The tightening of a noose.

Van Pelt clears his throat. “I can assure you that all communication devices will be restored to full functionality immediately after this meeting is adjourned. We have taken this unusual step only in the interest of the highly confidential nature of the information which we are about to discuss.” He tries his best to put a sympathetic look on his face while maintaining his business-like demeanor.

More than a few eyes focus on the jax lying on the table in front of Ryzaard and the green telltales of a working device connected to the Mesh. He makes no attempt to hide it.

Van Pelt shifts on his feet. The sound of squeaking leather shoes pierces the silence of the room. “In addition, it will be necessary for each of the directors to execute a confidentiality agreement. Copies have been sent to the bluescreens on your desks.” Van Pelt nods, directing his audience to look at the wall behind him.

The first page of a document appears in print too small to read.

“Based on the advice of Mr. Cunningham, our general counsel, we will not be able to proceed further until each of you duly sign and date this document on the last page. Light pens have been provided for that purpose at each of your desks. Mr. Cunningham assures me that the contents of the agreement are entirely customary, nothing more than simple boilerplate.”

On the other side of Alexa, Cunningham nods gravely. The glossy surface of his black hair reflects the light like polished obsidian.

There is silence in the room as each director looks down at the document appearing on their desks.

One of them raises his hand.

Van Pelt raises his eyebrows.

The director hesitates, swallows, and then speaks in a faint voice. “Mr. Van Pelt, this confidentiality agreement is over one hundred pages long.” The director looks to his right and left, encouraged by nodding among his peers. “I assume we will be given sufficient time to review it and consult with our personal counsel before we sign.”

Van Pelt narrows his eyes and trains them squarely on the director. “The urgent nature of this meeting will not permit any further delay. If you have any concerns, you are, of course, free to leave at any time.” Van Pelt motions toward the door with his hand. “In that case, we will be forced to adjourn until a quorum can be reconstituted. And, I might add, the corporation of which you are a director will suffer irreparable injury from the delay.”

Well played, Ryzaard thinks. Just enough bullying to push them all a few feet closer to the edge of the cliff.

“But how can you possibly expect us to sign a hundred-page document without adequate time to review it.” The color of the director’s face is visibly changing to a light shade of pink. His initial reluctance to speak has all but disappeared. “In any case, it’s a basic principal of corporate law that directors owe a fiduciary duty to the corporation they serve, making a confidentiality agreement unnecessary.”

It is now clear to Ryzaard that some mistake has been made in the selection of this particular director.

He makes a mental note of that fact.

“The length of the document is, unfortunately, a product of our times.” Van Pelt shoots an accusing glance at Mr. Cunningham in the visitors section. “But our general counsel has assured me that it’s a standard form whose length can be attributed to boilerplate provisions that you would find in any confidentiality agreement.”

By now, the director’s face is bright red. “I refuse to sign anything until given adequate time to review it with my personal advisor.” He stands up and walks out the door, leaving a stunned silence in his wake.

Ryzaard’s eyes narrow and follow him.

CHAPTER 10

Kent Newmark stands up from the table, moves to the kitchen sink and begins to wash the dinner dishes. The truth is, he’s not sure he can let Matt go to Japan. His mind begins searching for an excuse, any excuse, to persuade his son to stay.

Matt pops the last pickled radish into his mouth, grabs his plate and walks it to the sink. “Dad, can you just finish the story before I go?”

The words knock Kent out of his daydreaming. “Story? What were we talking about?”

“Come on, Dad. You were going to tell me what happened to Mom.” Matt eyes are squinting with a burning intensity. “I need to know now, before I leave to pick up Jessica.”

“Sit down.” Kent walks over to the table and drops into a chair, motioning for his son to sit in his usual spot on the opposite side. He takes a deep inhale, and then exhales before starting to speak. “Where were we?”

“You were talking about the uranium mines in India and that guy you sent there to search for information at the client’s offices.”

“Right.” Kent closes his eyes and picks up the thread of the story. “He sent me an old report purposefully deleted from the client’s electronic files.” His eyes flip open.

“What did it say?” Matt leans forward.

“Apparently, there was an independent study that found high levels of a toxic material called Jadugodium mixed in with the uranium deposits. It was flowing from slag heaps into the Ganges River through sub-water channels.”

“The Ganges was being poisoned?”

Kent nods. “Right. In a big way.”

“But Dad, everyone knows that the Ganges is just about the filthiest river in the world.” Matt looks at his jax as his fingers tap its side. “What difference would a few more toxins make in such a thick soup?”

Kent puts his hands on the table. “The Ganges is filthy. But Jadugodium is incredibly noxious stuff. And there was evidence in the company’s files that they knew exactly what it was.”

“What makes this stuff so nasty?” Matt’s eyes flit past his jax.

“It attacks reproductive DNA when ingested in trace amounts. The damaged DNA is passed on to the first generation of offspring with no effect. It’s the second generation that gets hit hard. Ninety-nine percent of them suffer from a rare form of dementia. It begins when they reach adulthood and turns them into violent maniacs.”

Matt starts to speak, but his dad holds up his hand.

“Hold on. There’s more. The report detailed a method for masking the Jadugodium. When mixed with biphenyl, it becomes chemically undetectable, but the toxic effect remains. And it only appears to affect humans. No other animals or plants.”

Kent pauses so that Matt can absorb the full impact of his words. He watches with pride as his son’s eyes dart back and forth, working it all out.

Matt reaches for his jax.

“No searches on the Mesh.” Kent shakes his head. “It could raise suspicions.”

“Dad, why are you so paranoid?”

“Just being cautious. You’ll understand when I’m done.”

Matt smiles and drops the jax. “So, let me see if I’ve got this. Exhibit A. The Ganges supplies drinking water for over four billion people in India, Bangladesh and Burma.”

Kent nods. “Right.”

“Exhibit B. It’s being secretly polluted with a toxic chemical that’s impossible to detect.”

“So far, so good.”

“Exhibit C. Fifty years later, ninety-nine percent of the people that drink the water will go crazy and start killing each other. Did I miss anything?” Matt smiles with satisfaction.

“You’ve got it. That’s why that young associate never made it home from India. They got his jax, traced his last message, and found out he sent the information to me.”

“So, what did you do, Dad?”

“When I showed up for work the next morning, the managing partner of the firm was waiting for me at the bottom of the elevator. I’d never even met the guy before, and here he was, white as a sheet and wanting to talk to me.” Kent breathes in slowly. “He told me that the partnership has just voted to throw me out of the firm and that my career was over. Six armed guards surrounded me and escorted me out the front door of the building. I never made it to my office.”

A knot starts to form in the pit of Matt’s stomach. He has a feeling about what is coming next.

“I was thunderstruck. All I could do was walk to my car. When I pulled out of the parking garage, a black Mercedes Benz was following me. They didn’t try to conceal themselves. They wanted me to know. I could tell they were mercenaries. Ex-military thugs hired by the corporation. I drove to Times Square, parked the car and melted into the crowd. Mom had already left the house to run errands. She didn’t answer her jax. I got scared.”

Matt stares down at his hands. He wants to tell his dad to stop talking. He wants to turn and run out of the house without hearing the rest of the story.

“I knew I had stumbled onto something big when I got the environmental report back from the kid I sent to India. I just didn’t realize how quickly it would all spin out of control.” Kent’s eyes are red and brimming with wetness. “And how ruthless they would be.”

He stands up from the table and goes over to the kitchen sink where he takes a glass out of the cupboard and fills it with water. Drinking it carefully and methodically, he looks like he’s forcing himself to be calm. When he drains the glass, his eyes drift up to the mountains.

Matt swallows hard. “What happened next?”

“I was walking around in Times Square, trying to get through to your mother. To warn her.” His voice goes silent. Tears streak down his face.

Trying to look away, Matt’s eyes are pulled back to his dad. “Did you ever hear back from Mom?” He hates himself for voicing the obvious question. He already knows the answer.

“I got a hi-def video message on my jax from an anonymous source. It showed a large transport T-boning her on the driver’s side at high speed while she waited at an intersection. It completely demolished the car in less than a second. There was nothing left but scattered debris.”

Matt feels numbness spread through his body. For the first time in his life, he wants the tears to come, to release him from the coldness and emptiness that descend upon him like a steel dome. Inside his mind, a blurred image forms of his mom inside the car. She turns to look at an oncoming wall of metal. The last thing she sees is the grill of a giant truck. Glass shatters. Broken pieces engulf her in slow motion. And then it all goes black.

He tries to talk, but the words won’t make it past the massive lump in his throat. He stares at the back of his dad’s head.

Kent takes a deep inhale and turns. There’s a look of understanding on his face, like he knows what Matt is trying to say. “She would have died instantly. No time for pain or fear.” Kent shakes his head. “It all happened too quickly.”

The numbness seems to release Matt from its grip. “And after that? What did you do?”

“There’s more, and this is the part I want you to understand,” Kent says. “Four words appeared below that video clip.”

Another long silence.

Finally, Matt speaks up. “What did it say?”

Kent’s lips move but make no sound. He takes another long drink of water.

His words finally come out, almost a whisper.

Your son is next.

He walks back to the kitchen table and sits down. There’s a look of relief in his eyes, like a great burden has been lifted from his shoulders, and he can talk calmly again.

“I called my buddy at the Hawthorne Police Department. He rushed to the school and picked you up a couple of minutes before a half dozen black Cadillacs pulled into the parking lot. A bunch of men with combat gear and pulse rifles poured out and searched the school for you.”

“Really?” Matt says. “I didn’t know.”

“My buddy saved your life. While he was bringing you to the airport, I emptied out my savings account and every other account I could access and put the cash in a suitcase. I abandoned the car in Times Square and threw away my jax. I rode the train to the airport and met you there.”

Matt’s head bobbed up and down. “I remember that. I thought it was a game. We caught a flight to Mexico City, right?”

“That’s right. False identities are cheap there, and I bought a few sets for each of us. After a month of hiding, we hopped on a flight to Japan and melted into the countryside. You know the rest. We went off-grid, found our way to Professor Yamamoto up in Hokkaido.”

“Yeah, Dad, I know the rest,” Matt says. “Always on the run. Always scared. Always worried about who or what might jump out of the shadows.”

Kent takes a glass in his hand and sips water. “I did it to protect you. I saw what they did to your mother. I couldn’t allow them to get you too.”

“But, Dad, that was twelve years ago. I can’t live like that anymore.”

“Son, you don’t understand how deep this runs.” Kent reaches out his hand to Matt, grabbing his arm, as if to pull him back from the edge of a cliff. “They won’t stop chasing me, and you, until they know we’re dead.”

“How do you even know they’re still after us?”

“Look,” Kent says. “They know I’ve still got the report on the Ganges. They know I’ve got the video of Mom.” His voice falls to a whisper. “Can you imagine what would happen if all that became public?” He stands up and looks his son in the eye. “The whole world would see the truth. It would destroy their empire, destroy their power. They aren’t going to sit by and let that happen.”

“Why don’t you just turn the evidence over to the FBI or the CIA and let them handle it. It sounds like a simple corporate criminal investigation.”

Kent shakes his head. “You still don’t get it, do you? The corporation has its own people inside the government, at every level. They want me to run to the FBI so they can find me. Then it will all be over.”

“Dad, you’ve done a great job protecting me from danger.” Matt feels a lump in his throat. “But this is my chance to move on, to get away from all this. To finally grow up.”

“You don’t know what you’ll be up against.” Kent pleads. “I won’t be there to watch out for you.” His voice drops again. “I could lose you.”

Kent is stooped over, staring down. From the sagging flesh under his eyes, he seems to have aged ten years in just a few minutes.

Pushing off from the table, Matt rises and puts his hand on his dad’s shoulder. “I love you, Dad, but I have to do this.” His hands go down on his dad’s shoulders. “I’m sorry, but I am going to Japan tomorrow.”

Kent stands up. He turns and puts his arms around Matt. “I can’t lose you, son.”

For a long time, they hold each other.

Finally letting his arms slip off, Matt takes his jax off the table. “I’ve got to go pick up Jessica. We’re already late for the concert.” He starts to walk away, and then turns back. “One more thing. What’s the name of the company that wants us dead? At least tell me that. I can’t seem to find anything about it on the Mesh.”

Kent looks at his son.

“MX Global Corporation.”

CHAPTER 11

As the disgruntled director storms out of the MX Global boardroom, the crisp clicking of his hi-carbon shoes grows fainter down the hall.

Ryzaard sits with arms folded across this chest and stares at Van Pelt without so much as lifting an eyebrow.

Beads of sweat stand out on Van Pelt’s forehead. “This meeting of the Board of Directors is hereby temporarily adjourned.” He clears his throat and reaches for a handkerchief to wipe his forehead. “I respectfully request the remaining directors to stand by in this room. I shall get back to you shortly.” He glances over at Ryzaard.

They both stand and leave the room on the heels of the director. A loud chime tells them that he’s just disappeared into an elevator.

Waiting for the next one, they say nothing as they stand shoulder to shoulder.

As soon as the doors part and they step in, Ryzaard turns to Van Pelt. “You gave me your assurance that all the directors would be compliant.” The doors slide shut, and Ryzaard swivels so that he’s towering over Van Pelt and staring down into his eyes, noses only inches apart. “There is no room for error!”

Van Pelt wipes his forehead again. “Yes, of course. That was my intent.”

“Good intentions are the domain of losers and weaklings,” Ryzaard says. “Fortunately, there’s a tried and true method used by the corporation for this type of situation. For some reason, which I can’t fathom, you’ve allowed the old ways of your father to fall into disuse in the last few years. I learned about it shortly after coming here. It seems to have been a long and honored tradition which I intend to revive.” Without taking his eyes off Van Pelt, Ryzaard pulls out his jax, traces a line on its side with a finger and raises it to his mouth.

“Who are you calling?” Van Pelt says.

“Hello, Ivan.” Ryzaard talks directly into the jax. “I need your help.” As he speaks, he continues staring into Van Pelt’s eyes. “A certain car will be leaving corporate headquarters in a few minutes heading for New Jersey, I believe. You’ll be jax’d the tracking information. Please have the car intercepted with the usual protocol.”

Ryzaard puts the jax in his pocket. “Don’t worry. Ivan is very good at what he does. He’s worked for the corporation for many years. Now go have a drink. Take a nap. I’ll call you when we are ready. Maybe you can learn a thing or two.”

When they return to the boardroom, three hours have gone by.

The directors are milling about the room, talking in loud voices, arms waving, venting frustration. When they see Ryzaard and Van Pelt enter, they quickly find their seats, but the chatter continues.

The looks of anger on their faces are unmistakable.

“We’ve received some distressing news about Mr. Johnson, the director who left earlier this evening.” Van Pelt looks out over the directors with a quivering lower jaw. His eyes sweep past Ryzaard, lingering for just a bit too long, and move through the room as he clears his throat. “His car was run over by a large transport on his way home to New Jersey.” All eyes stare at Van Pelt as he looks down in a display of emotion. “He was fatally injured.”

Ryzaard surveys the directors. Here and there, a hand goes up to a mouth. Color drains from their faces. Their eyes glance at the door.

Good, Ryzaard thinks.

An old Chinese proverb comes to mind.

Kill the chicken to scare the monkeys.

Van Pelt clears his throat. “I just spoke with Mrs. Johnson and expressed our deepest sympathies to her and her young children.” He leaves a suitable pause before moving on. “Let us observe a minute of contemplation to honor our esteemed colleague.”

A deathly quiet follows. As he bows his own head, his eyes glisten with just the right amount of moisture.

Ryzaard works hard to suppress a yawn.

Finally, the silence ends.

“It now falls to us to carry on the important work of the corporation.” Van Pelt’s head rises up. “With the untimely death of Mr. Johnson, we now have 19 remaining directors on the board, of which ten are present tonight. Accordingly, we have a quorum and will proceed with the business that is before us.”

Ryzaard looks down so that the directors can’t see the grin threatening to take over his lips.

CHAPTER 12

“Remind me again why I like Mozart so much.” Matt stretches his body in the direction of Jessica as they nestle together in a window booth of the all-night café across the street from Amazon Hall. The concert has been over for an hour, and they are enjoying pancakes topped with whipped cream and peaches.

The café is empty except for them.

“Mozart was the King of Pop in his day.” Jessica bites into the pancake and looks at Matt with white lips.

“Somehow I missed the part about the concert being a symphony.” Matt slips a succulent peach into his mouth. “I thought we were going to see the Slayers tribute band playing over at the X-Center.”

The truth is, he doesn’t care where they are going or what they are doing, as long as he’s with Jess.

“Didn’t you have something you were going to show me?” Jessica runs her fingers through Matt’s long hair. “I’m guessing it has something to do with those marks on your face and a chance meeting with a boulder up at Powder Puff.”

Matt reaches into his pocket and pulls out the rock he’s been fingering all night. As soon as he sees it, his hand jerks and knocks over a glass of milk, spoiling some perfectly good pancakes.

“What the—”

The rock is eggplant purple with a distinct faint glow in the darkness of the café. Matt turns it over and over in his hands.

“Nice crystal.” Jessica’s hand moves forward. “Let me have a closer look.”

Surprising even himself, Matt’s hand pulls the rock away from Jessica. “Hold on.” He stares down at it. “Is it possible for a rock to change color in a few hours? I swear this was jet black when I picked it up off the snow.”

“Probably just the light.” She raises an eyebrow. “Or maybe magic.” While Matt is staring down, she snatches the rock from his open palm before he can react. “Kind of looks like a large animal claw. Maybe I’ll keep it. It’ll remind me of you while you’re in Japan.” She drops it in her purse.

Matt is speechless.

“Just kidding.” She shoves it back toward him and presses the point into his chest. “Take it with you for good luck.”

His fingers come up and wrap around it. “According to my dad, I’ll need all the luck I can get.”

“He can’t stand the thought of you going, can he?” Jessica leans closer with her chin resting on her hands. Her brown eyes turn up to him.

“Nope. He’s afraid I’m in danger without him to protect me.” He downs Jessica’s glass of milk and sets it out on the edge of the table for a refill.

“What kind of danger?”

Matt scans the restaurant and lowers his voice. “We’ve had some close scrapes. Before we moved here, we lived in Santa Teresa, a New Mexico border town. We came home to our little house one night and found some commandos in tactical armor on the inside, tearing the place apart like we were terrorists, looking for jaxes and memory cubes, according to my dad. Good thing we saw them first, or we might be dead. That was just before we moved here. Seven years ago.”

“Are they still after you?”

“Nothing’s happened since then. Dad says we’re still in danger, but it’s been a long time.” Matt stretches out his legs and leans back in the seat, hands up behind his head. “I’m willing to take my chances. Sooner or later, I have to get away, on my own. I’ll go crazy otherwise. Besides, Dad’s taught me a lot. I can take care of myself.”

“Well, you are prone to accidents.” She squints out the window of the café at a billboard across the street with white letters against a blue background that says Find Peace through Shinto. “Doesn’t he see what a great opportunity this Japan trip is for you?”

“It’s complicated.” Matt slips the rock back into his pocket. “My dad’s a good man. A truth-and-justice type of guy. Just a little too paranoid for my taste. My guess is that they’ve given up looking for us. Dad’s done too good a job of keeping us out of sight and off the grid.” Matt slumps down in the seat and takes another big whiff of Jessica’s hair. Then he lets it out in a long, steady sigh. “You’re lucky. You have a normal family.”

Jessica rolls her eyes. “All my dad cares about is money. And putting his name on buildings.”

“But you have brothers and sisters, a mom and dad. Your family laughs together and goes on vacations together.” Matt grinds his teeth. “Your dad is out there in the world doing things, not afraid to attract attention. Putting his name on buildings. That sounds so cool. My dad doesn’t have that option, if he wants to stay alive.”

She puts her hand on Matt’s. “Can you tell me?”

“Tell you what?”

“Tell me why your dad is running. Who he’s running from.”

Matt feels his chest tighten. Talking about the past, especially his dad’s past, is the last thing he wants to do. “He hasn’t done anything wrong, but some very powerful people want him dead.” He decides not to tell Jessica about the threats against himself. “When I hop on that transport tomorrow, I’ll be leaving all that behind for good. That’s all I can say.”

“But Matt.” Jessica lifts a hand up to his chin and turns his head so he can’t look away. “I need to know. People are asking questions.”

“What kind of questions?” Matt’s eyes narrow.

“About you and your dad.” Jessica’s hand slips off Matt’s, and her voice trembles. “Like why your jax ID changes all the time. Most people just get one when they’re born and keep it for the rest of their life.” Her gaze drops down and away from Matt. “I really don’t care. I know who you are inside. I don’t care about your past. But—”

“It’s your dad.” Matt reaches for a fresh glass of milk, just refilled by the waiter.

Her hand goes up to her eyes, and her fingers come away wet. “He said he’s worried about me. He knows how much time we spend together.” She picks up a napkin and wipes her nose. “I think he hired someone. To do some looking. He says there are too many questions, too many unexplained gaps about you and your dad.” Jessica’s mascara is running in black streaks down her cheeks.

“I’ll tell you everything. Just not right now. Trust me.”

Her fingers are trembling. “You know I do.” Her foot slips out of her shoes and rests against Matt’s ankle. “Ever since we met, there’s a connection between us I can’t explain. But I love my dad, too.”

“Let me guess.” The muscles in his jaw flex. “He doesn’t want you to see me anymore.”

Jessica doesn’t say anything.

A giant knot forms in Matt’s stomach.

A half hour later, they’re standing together on her doorstep.

She turns off the porch light. Matt wraps his arms around her from behind as she snuggles under his chin and looks into the infinite darkness above.

“Jess, can I ask you a question?”

“Anything you want.”

He pulls her a little closer. “OK. What do you see in me? I mean, why—”

“Do I love you?”

“Yeah. Exactly.” He looks down and kisses the top of her head, taking in a deep inhale of the fresh fragrance. Roses with a hint of apple. “I mean, I’m really just a big mystery. A past I can’t tell you about. An uncertain future. With all your connections and family money, you could have any guy within a thousand miles. Why bother with me?”

“I don’t want any guy. And I certainly don’t want one that’s only interested in my family’s money. Love is strange when you think about it.” One of her hands comes up to his shoulder. “I could say it’s because of your irresistible dark hair or those mysterious Asian eyes. Or because you’re smart. Or because you’re kind and gentle. Or because you like to ski and rock climb, just like me.”

Matt waits for her to go on. His internal camera is recording everything about her in this moment so he can recall and savor it later.

She turns around and lets her eyes drift up to meet his. “All those things are true, but that’s not why I love you.”

He shakes his head, not understanding. “Then why?”

“The truth is, I don’t know. I just feel peaceful and calm when I’m with you. No particular reason. Nothing I can put my finger on. We’re just meant to be together. Chemistry, I guess.”

“But what about your dad?”

She turns back around without answering and stares up into the night sky. “So many stars. Worlds without number.” Her breath is sweet below him. “Do you really think the universe just happened by chance?”

“It doesn’t really matter,” Matt says. “The fact is that it did happen. Whether by chance or design. And somehow you and I are here together. That’s all that matters to me.”

She backs closer into him, lifts her hands up and weaves her fingers into his. “I wonder what it’s like to be God, to have cosmic power. To be able to do anything you want, but only use that power for good. To create worlds and life and people. To love them and feel their love.” She pulls away and turns to face him, looking up into his dark eyes with that piercing intensity that he worships. “What would you do if you were God? What kind of world would you create?”

Matt nibbles on his lower lip. A mischievous thought passes through his mind.

“Well,” he says. “My world will be in a far corner of the universe. Orbiting a triple-star system. There will be an ocean full of whales and dolphins.” He stops to think.

“Is that all?” Jessica says. “There’s got to be more to it than that.”

“Now the good stuff.” Matt draws in a deep breath and lets it slowly come out. “It will have one massive continent with a pristine white sand beach all the way around. A few hundred meters in, I’ll make a warm green jungle full of towering trees and gentle dinosaurs, and perhaps a few scary ones just for fun. Above the jungle will be a mountain range that spans the continent parallel to the shore. It’ll be covered in dry snow as warm as sunshine, year round. Ultra-light powder, like what they have in Utah. The best skiing in the universe.”

Matt pauses, waiting for Jessica to reply, but she is silent as her eyes scan his face.

“What do you think?” he says.

“I was just imagining what it would be like,” Jessica says. “Sounds pretty awesome, but there’s got to be more.”

“I’ll have three homes, each one Japanese style with tatami on the floor and open rooms. I’ll put one on the beach and keep one in the jungle. A mobile home will float just above the peaks with access to skiing out the front door. There will be Japanese-style hot tubs in each one and a portal so that you can move instantly between them. We’ll have sushi and gyoza every night.”

“We?”

“That’s the best part.” Matt bends down with his mouth next to Jessica’s ear and nibbles with his lips. “Just the two of us and a bunch of kids as crazy as me about you and skiing. And then I’ll put the rest of the universe on auto-pilot and just enjoy life with you and the kids. Forever.”

Jessica turns back around to look at the night sky, pulling Matt’s arms down and wrapping them around her.

“Maybe it will happen,” she says. “But not the auto-pilot part. If you were God, you’d still have to take care of the rest of the universe.”

He squeezes Jessica extra hard and nuzzles her warm neck with his lips. “Seems to me that’s exactly what God has done. Taken a long vacation and just left the world to itself.” He regrets the words as soon as they leave his mouth.

Jessica is silent for a long time.

He knows that she’s thinking, trying to figure out how to answer him in a way that will help him understand.

He wants to understand.

“I know that’s the way it looks sometimes,” she says. “Maybe even most of the time. But it’s not true. Somebody is out there. And they love us. We just have to be patient and trust in them. All things have a purpose. It will be clear soon enough, and we’ll agree that it’s been worth the suffering.”

“Wow.” Matt takes in a deep breath. “I want to believe, Jess, but I can’t. Don’t you see? You just gave me the stock answer given by people who believe in God. Just have faith, and everything will work out.” Matt feels himself getting pulled into the same old conversation, one they’ve had many times before. “Why can’t you just accept the facts without trying to explain them? The world is full of suffering. Innocent children die every day. People get cancer. There’s unspeakable injustice. If there were an all-powerful, all-loving God, he surely wouldn’t allow any of this to happen. He wouldn’t allow sadness, period. So there must not be a God.”

Matt doesn’t want the evening to end in an argument, but he also doesn’t want Jess to believe in fairytales.

Jessica stretches out her arms and points up at the stars. “There’s only one way to take away all the suffering. God would have to use force. He’d have to control our minds and choices. Turn us into slaves.” Her hands come up around Matt’s neck, pulling gently. “But he loves us too much to do that. A world without real choices would be its own version of hell. Everything might look great on the surface, but we’d all just be little robots underneath. No freedom. No growth. No joy. A nightmare.”

There’s more silence between them.

Matt decides it’s time to concede defeat, at least for now. “That’s one of the reasons I love you. You have an answer for everything.”

The porch light goes on, bathing them both in brightness and erasing the night sky.

“Yep,” Jessica says in her usual confident voice. She turns around to face Matt again. Her lips move slowly, but no sound comes out.

It’s a game she likes to play, mouthing words and letting him read her lips. She always says it will come in handy someday. And he always plays along, happy for any excuse to focus on her lips.

Now he sees them moving and knows what she’s saying.

“My dad is on the other side of the door, listening. I have to go.”

“I’m not saying goodbye.” Matt moves his lips in silence. “Things will be better when I get back from Japan in September. I’ll talk to your dad, answer his questions. Make him understand. Don’t worry.”

Strands of long brown hair rise and fall around Jessica’s face, moved by a gentle evening breeze that blows across the porch. Matt slides his arms around her one last time, holds her close and feels the warmth of her body in the cool June air. Dropping his head down, he inhales the smell of her hair one last time. Intoxicating.

A symphony of crickets plays in the darkness.

With his head still bent down, Matt touches his lips to the top of Jessica’s head. His eyelids float shut. He makes a conscious effort to burn this moment forever into his mind. It’s like turning on an internal jax to make a permanent record of every sensation flowing through his mind and body at that instant. His mother taught him to do it as a child, a way of capturing memories for later recall. He did it often up at Skull Pass, pausing at the top of a long expanse of powder before ripping through it. He adds this moment with Jessica to his collection of perfect memories so he can replay them later.

When the dark times come.

And then, with his eyes shut, Matt senses a strange urge to reach into his pocket and wrap his hand around the rock. As he lets his fingers find it, time and space fall away, leaving only him and Jessica. Her thoughts become his thoughts. Her senses become his senses. Her fears become his fears.

For a fleeting second, they are one.

When it’s over, Matt releases the rock and takes a small step back. “I’m not going to say goodbye, ever.”

“Neither am I.” Jessica puts her arms around his neck. “But I am going to give you something to remember while you’re in Japan. I’ve been saving for a long time.”

She pulls him down, and he feels the warmth of her lips against his.

CHAPTER 13

Van Pelt flashes a glance at Ryzaard and nods.

Ryzaard points to the slate on the table in front of Alexa. She checks to make sure there is a signature from every director. The confidentiality agreements themselves don’t matter. It’s all part of a carefully managed show. Ryzaard has learned from experience that if you need people to do something, just make them part of a secret, or at least make them think they are part of a secret. Offer them a chance to be in the inner circle, and they will do whatever you ask.

Van Pelt stands and walks to the front of the desk and faces the directors. The show is about to begin.

“Thank you very much for your cooperation. I’m glad to have that unpleasant bit of business behind us. I trust that all of you have heard of Dr. Mikal Ryzaard.” Van Pelt opens one palm to the directors and motions to Ryzaard with the other. “He is now serving as Vice President of Trading Research at MX Financial, having replaced the prior vice president due to a rather unfortunate hunting accident.”

As if by a magnet, the directors’ eyes are drawn to Ryzaard.

Sudden pleasure buoys him up. The joy of the predator as its jaws sink into the prey. Judging from their feeble attempts at suppressing the fear on their faces, the directors are going to give him whatever he asks for.

“Allow me to introduce him.” Van Pelt turns to Ryzaard. “He has a matter of utmost importance to share with you tonight. I suggest you give him your full attention. You’ll be glad you did.”

Ryzaard suffers a slight smile to appear on his face as he nods to the chairman.

Lights darken in the boardroom. Van Pelt stands aside as the glass screen behind him lights up with a video image of Professor Ryzaard in his signature tweed jacket and bowtie writing briskly on an ancient blackboard, teaching a classroom full of eager university students. As he turns around, his broad smile is clearly visible.

The deep bass voice of the narrator begins to speak.

“Prior to coming to MX Global, Dr. Ryzaard was a distinguished professor of archeology at Oxford University.”

The walls around the directors came alive with images of a younger man with a black mustache and fewer lines on his face, dressed in khakis, a long-sleeved shirt and a canvas hat.

“In his long and distinguished career, Dr. Ryzaard has directed archeological digs around the world.”

A revolving earth appears on the screen. Red dots emerge around the globe. In turn, the screen zooms in on each location as it flashes a name and then the familiar image of Ryzaard, always with his khaki long-sleeved shirt and a team of college kids, engaged in excavation work. Baalbek, Lebanon. Persepolis, Iran. Pazyryk, Russia. Hierakonpolis, Egypt. Baga Gazaryn Chuluu, Mongolia. Ban Non Wat, Thailand. The list goes on.

“Dr. Ryzaard is well-known for his uncanny ability to precisely locate important sites and artifacts. His greatest professional achievement was the discovery of the lost tomb of Genghis Kahn.” A video shows Ryzaard standing on a grassy plain next to a large excavated site.

The directors stare at the image.

Ryzaard wonders if they notice the Stone in his hand.

“This caused considerable excitement in the world of archeology. A short time later, Dr. Ryzaard received a MacArthur Fellowship, commonly known as the Genius Grant, to support his work in archeology and elsewhere.” A predictable video comes up on the wall to the side of the directors. It shows Ryzaard in his tweed jacket and bowtie, smiling with an oversized check for $1,000,000. “This brought him to the attention of MX Global.”

The lights in the boardroom come back on.

Van Pelt has his hands together in a gesture of genteel pride. “So, you may be wondering what all of this,” he waves his hands at the glass walls around the directors, “has to do with the work of the corporation.” Resting his chin on the tips of his fingers, he narrows his eyes, and then looks up at the directors.

Ryzaard smiles at the performance.

“I ran into Dr. Ryzaard at an international conference on mathematical prediction theory a little over three years ago.” Van Pelt struts before the directors as if he fancies himself an Oxford professor delivering a lecture on thermodynamics. “Over lunch, we discussed the use of algorithms in predicting the location of ancient artifacts, such as his discovery of the Genghis Kahn burial site.”

Van Pelt stops, cocks his head to the side and strokes his chin with an index finger and thumb. “It occurred to me that these same algorithms might have application to other phenomena, such as stock and futures trading.” He stands silent and triumphant in front of the directors, letting his words sink in. “Dr. Ryzaard was intrigued with my suggestion. Apparently, he had never thought of this approach before speaking with me.” He glances at the side of the room where Ryzaard is sitting.

Ryzaard provides the obligatory nod, happy for now to forgive this wholly fictitious and one-sided telling of their encounter. The truth is that the meeting with Van Pelt was carefully orchestrated by Ryzaard so that he would walk away with a job offer. But none of that matters. As long as the directors vote in favor of the proposals that will soon come before them, all will be well. He won’t have to endure Van Pelt’s pompous presence beyond the end of the meeting.

The voice drones on. “So we brought Dr. Ryzaard to MX Financial a little over three years ago to test this hypothesis. Based on preliminary results, I ordered a new hedge fund to be set up for proprietary trading. And, as you all know, it has been a stunning success.”

The lights dim again.

An earnings chart for the last five years of MX Financial crawls along the wall in front of the directors. As it moves past them, the horizontal line hooks sharply upward at a point starting two years prior and continues on a steep trajectory.

“As a matter of fact, the trading program has worked so well for MX Financial that we’ve been forced to spread the profits around the entire corporate family to avoid unwanted attention.”

The wall to the right of the directors shows a familiar corporate organizational chart. MX Global is at the top. Below it, numerous subsidiary corporations fan out in both directions. The two largest subsidiaries, as all the directors know, are MX Scientific and MX Financial. One by one, the screen zooms in on a five-year earnings graph for each subsidiary. All have the same pattern, hooking up sharply during the last two years.

“As you are well aware, MX Global’s stock price is now ten times what it was eighteen months ago, making the shareholders very satisfied.” Van Pelt smiles and turns to his left. “I will let Dr. Ryzaard himself take it from here.”

A reverential hush falls over the directors as Ryzaard stands up and walks to the middle of the floor.

“I thank Chairman Van Pelt for his kind words. Needless to say, I have enjoyed immensely the last three years here at MX Global.” Ryzaard smiles at the earnings charts displayed on the side wall. “I trust that my presence has been of some use to the corporation.”

His hand slips into the pocket of his jacket and fingers a heavy object.

“I know your time is valuable, and we have already taken too much of it, so I’ll be brief.” Ryzaard casts a sideways glance at Van Pelt amid some quiet laughter from the directors.

“The computational models which I pioneered while at Oxford, although complex for most archeologists, were relatively simple and involved only a few dozen variables. The basic principle was to parse all the streaming data available and, applying computational analytics, gain insights which are statistically robust while maintaining predictive value.”

Ryzaard scans the directors to make sure they think they understand him when, in fact, he’s speaking pure gibberish. Most of the directors’ eyes have already started to glaze over. Van Pelt has assured him that there aren’t any mathematicians among them. His presentation is having exactly the effect he planned.

“I have refined my methods since coming to MX Financial. Using the massive power of MX Scientific’s XUNIL super-cluster system, we are now able to weigh over 500,000 separate real-time variables, both structured and unstructured, applying the method of predictive analytics. As a result, we’ve boosted our rate of return by an order of magnitude in the last twelve months.” Predictably, most of the directors are bobbing their heads up and down with feigned understanding. A couple of them look at him as if he is speaking a foreign language.

There is one exception, a certain Ms. Chen, recently added to the board of MX Global from one of its Beijing subsidiaries. She remains motionless while surveying Ryzaard with narrow eyes.

Before losing any momentum, Ryzaard decides it is time to wake them all up and deliver the killer punch.

“Ladies and gentlemen,” he says. Silence falls over the room, increasing the dramatic effect. “Our algorithms now allow us to predict the movement of stock and derivative markets in advance with 100 percent accuracy.” He drops his hands behind his back and lets the idea sink in for a few seconds.

More than one set of eyes among the directors shoots open.

Ms. Chen clears her throat, shakes her head, and raises her hand to speak.

Ryzaard nods in her direction.

“It’s impossible to predict the stock market,” she states flatly. “You may have made some lucky guesses or have gotten some good trading advice, but don’t expect us to believe you can predict with 100 percent accuracy. That’s not only ludicrous, it’s mathematically impossible.”

Ryzaard smiles as his teeth grind together behind the lips. How could Van Pelt have missed this one? He makes a mental note to discuss Ms. Chen’s upcoming nomination for a second board term with him after the meeting.

“I understand your skepticism, and I welcome the challenge you have just thrown out. As they say, the proof is in the trading.” He fingers the Stone in his pocket. “Ms. Chen, how would you like to see a real-time demonstration of the technology? Right here, right now.”

“With all due respect, Dr. Ryzaard, I don’t think you have the guts to do that.”

Ryzaard digs deep to hide his shock at the rough tone of Ms. Chen’s words. Apparently, there is still at least one director unafraid to challenge him. He turns behind him to the visitors’ table where Alexa sits next to the corporation’s general counsel. He points at the cylindrical object, its gold exterior glinting in the light.

“Ladies and Gentlemen, may I introduce the Xerxes Diviner.”

Alexa stretches her hand toward the device on the table in front of her. She plays her fingers on its side, and green lights begin to flash.

“Which exchange shall we test it on? Can I have a suggestion?” Ryzaard holds out his hands to the nine directors spread out in the chairs above him.

“How about Shenzhen?” Ms. Chen twists a lock of hair with a mischievous look on her face. “One of the most volatile in the world.”

“Excellent choice. The more volatility, the better the profits.” Ryzaard nods at Alexa sitting at the table. Her fingers play again across the glossy surface of the slate. The lights in the room dim. “For this experiment, your mobile devices will be reactivated so you can independently verify what we are about to show you.”

Three of the directors pull out their jaxes, which suddenly glow blue in the dark room.

The wall screen behind Ryzaard lights up, and he steps to the side. The words Shenzhen Stock Exchange appear in white on a dark background.

“Any suggestions for a stock to trade?”

“Wong Dung International?” A director pipes up.

“Wong Dung. One of our competitors. A volatile stock indeed. Notoriously dangerous to trade. Many an investor has been shipwrecked on its erratic shoals.” Ryzaard walks across the front of the room with his hands behind his back and turns to face the screen. Then he signals Alexa with a finger. The words Wong Dung International appear on screen near the top. Below that, the familiar jagged green line of a stock ticker snakes its way across the wall from left to right.

“This is how the stock is trading right now in real-time,” Ryzaard points to the line above him. “We’ll now access the trading algorithm to generate the predicted movement of the stock thirteen seconds from now. You’ll see that in red.”

Sneaking a peek in his pocket, Ryzaard sees the Stone turn to a luminous purple.

A red line jumps onto the screen a foot ahead of the green line and begins to move like a snail across the wall, leaving a trail behind it. The green line follows just behind, getting closer.

The room is silent except for one director that inhales sharply as the red line spikes up, hangs for a second and falls back down, leaving a mark shaped like a mountain peak, a perfect profit-taking opportunity.

“By the way,” Ryzaard pauses for dramatic effect. “You’re all invited to join in this trade, for your own personal accounts. Please wait for the buy and sell signals.”

There is a frantic rush among the directors as they pull out their jaxes, fingers tapping the sides. The only holdout is Ms. Chen, who sits calmly without moving, arms folded in front, a smile of contempt on her face.

The seconds tick by as the directors stare at the green line giving chase to the red one.

“Prepare to trade.” A female synvoice fills the silence in the room.

There’s a palpable sense of adrenaline rising among the directors.

“Good hunting,” Ryzaard says.

Before their eyes, the green line kisses the red one and follows its path. Two directors stand up, jaxes in hand, eyes fixed on the screen. Like one snake swallowing another, the green line moves exactly behind the red.

In two seconds, the green line will touch the base of the spike in the red one.

“Buy stock,” the voice says.

The two standing directors each swipe the sides of their jax.

The green line, still showing real-time stock prices, suddenly spikes up and follows the red. Ten breathless seconds go by as it scales the mountain.

Six more directors jump to their feet and swipe their jaxes.

The green line makes the summit as eight fingers tremble over eight jaxes.

“Sell stock.”

The green line goes into a nose-dive and follows the red line down.

Two minutes and ten trades later, Ms. Chen jumps to her feet, jax in hand.

One of the directors clears his throat. “I’m dumping my entire retirement account into this.”

Mr. Van Pelt jerks his own jax out of his pocket, drops it and dives to the floor after it. He comes up with it in desperation and begins to trade.

Ryzaard stands to the side, observing the greed flow unabated.

Ten minutes later, the directors look like wax figures in some modern art display, staring ahead motionlessly at the wallscreen, fingers dancing over jaxes.

He gently clears his throat to interrupt.

“My apologies, but we’ll have to terminate the demonstration at this point. We don’t want to attract the attention of the International Securities and Exchange Commission. ISEC tends to get rather curious about creative trading activity.”

Eleven exhausted directors, including Van Pelt, sit down, and the lights come back on.

“How did we do?” Ryzaard inquires of the directors as he claps his hands together.

“I just made 500,000 IMUs,” one of the directors exclaims. “I can finally get that beach house in Fiji.”

“Very good. I trust that we have demonstrated the power of our new technology to your complete satisfaction.” Ryzaard’s hands hang earnestly behind his back. “Any questions, Ms. Chen?”

The Chinese woman bows and sits down without a word.

“You’ve seen the technology we now have. Needless to say, it is the first of its kind, ushering in a revolution in the profitability of the entire corporate enterprise.” Ryzaard pauses for effect. “But we can do better. With enough resources, we can increase the volume of our data streams and boost the power of our predictive analytics by several orders of magnitude. Instead of thirteen seconds, what if we could predict thirteen hours or thirteen days into the future? What if we could predict phenomena other than the market, say consumer preferences, or even world events, such as the recent acquisition by the Japanese of military bases in Thailand, Greece and Tonga? With a little imagination, there is no limit to our potential for profit.”

A stir rips through the directors.

Ryzaard lowers his voice to a whisper. The room goes silent. “The only constraint on our algorithms is computing power. We’ve run up against the limits of our resources. We need to invest more, much more, to exploit this to our full advantage. And we need to make changes to the corporate organization to better suit this new direction.”

Ryzaard arches an eyebrow in Van Pelt’s direction. “I give the floor back to the Chairman. I’m sure you will find his proposals interesting.”

CHAPTER 14

Matt slides through the back door into the kitchen just before midnight. His dad is sitting at the table working on a slate. “You don’t have to wait up for me, Dad.”

“I know,” Kent says. “I’ve been working on an investigation of LanGar Corporation. Seems their tuna ranch off the coast of New Guinea is leaking toxic levels of nitrogen. Another red algae bloom disaster to track.”

Moving past his dad to the kitchen sink, Matt fills a glass of water and downs it in three loud gulps. “Keep up the cyber-sleuthing. As for me, I’m going to bed. Big day tomorrow.” He disappears down the stairs into his room.

As he lies on his futon waiting for sleep to come, the silent darkness seems to enter his mind, wrap around itself and form into a knot. The tightness becomes a ball that moves down from his head into his stomach, as if it were trying to get out. Twitching fingers grab the jax next to his hand and dance along its side.

Hey Jess. Still up?

Two seconds later, the vibration tells him she is reading the message. He waits for a reply, following the usual routine for talking late at night.

What’s on your mind?

He taps the jax and switches to a sim of her real voice so he can listen to the warm tones. That’s much better than reading cold words on a holo screen, and it’s always a relaxing way to end the day. With his eyes closed, the fingers of his left hand wrap around the organic cylinder shape of the jax and play replies to her in the dark. On its own, his other hand finds the rock.

Just thinking about my mom. Did I ever tell you about the last time I saw her?

Matt hasn’t even shared this with his dad.

Nope. Tell me.

His palms feel moist as the scene replays in his mind like it has for the last twelve years, over and over, like a stuck holo. But now he isn’t sure he wants to go over it again. Moving on its own, his hand starts to play it out anyway.

The last morning I saw Mom, I was mad because she made me part my hair on the side. It was picture day, and she wanted me to look neat. I was in fifth grade, and the neat look wasn’t in style for ten-year-olds.

He sends the message and waits for Jess to reply. A few seconds later, she does.

I remember the wild hair we used to have back then. Wing jobs, Flamehawks, Curly-Qs. It’d be hard to come to school looking like a neat freak. Go on.

His hand trembles just a little.

I told my mom she was mean, unfair and stupid. I told her I could do whatever I wanted with my hair and to just leave me alone.

This time, it takes more than a few seconds for Jessica to reply.

Matt, you were just a kid. You didn’t know what you were saying. You didn’t mean it. Your mom understood.

Tears well up in the dark. A stream of wetness cascades out of the corner of his eye into an ear and onto the futon.

But I really did mean it. Do you know what the last thing I said to her was?

He senses that Jessica does.

What was it?

Matt reaches up with his right hand and wipes the moisture from his eyes. The fingers of his left hand flex and move as the words spread out through the Mesh.

I told her I hated her and I wished she were dead.

The ball of emotion in his stomach explodes, and Matt’s body convulses with pent-up sobbing. It feels so good to let it flow out, like the purging of a great filthiness. A load of guilt lifts from his shoulders.

Minutes pass in the dark. Somehow Jessica knows what he’s doing.

It’s good for you to cry. Let it come out. You need that.

Matt’s fingers seem to separate from his body, playing out a message from deep in his subconscious.

I love her so much. But I never told her, Jess. And now she’s gone. She’ll never know. How could I be such a bad son?

Her reply comes instantly. Not even Jess can play a jax that fast. She must have been waiting to send it.

She loved you then. She loves you now. She still lives, just in a different place. Tell her. Tell her that you love her. She’ll know your feelings.

Matt smiles. For a few seconds, he is enveloped in the comfort of belief. But it doesn’t last. It never does.

I wish I could be like you. You’re so sure. But it doesn’t work for me.

More seconds pass.

Someday you’ll understand. Just be patient.

He reaches up again and wipes the tears from his eyes. Then he opens them, stares up at the ceiling and silently mouths the words.

Mom, I love you.

Somehow, he feels better. His fingers fly over the jax again.

What are you doing right now, Jess?

He already knows, but wants to hear it from her.

What I always do just before sleep. Reading the Bible. Talking to God. Thinking about you.

Jessica comes from a family of Jesus-believers, a religion past its prime, long since out of style and much too demanding.

He went to church with her once, and all he saw were old people desperately holding on to an old morality, with an almost comical focus on staying chaste.

No wonder there are so few young people who believe.

But Jessica is one of them.

It’s much more stylish to not believe in anything. But if you have to believe in something, the best choice is Shinto, an ancient tradition from Japan now fashionably repackaged as the newest green religion. Or Buddhism. And, conveniently, neither of them has much in the way of commandments.

What are you reading, and what do you say to God?

Matt isn’t a believer, but he needs to hear her talk about it right now.

Funny you should ask. I’m in the Book of John. “I am the resurrection and the life; he that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall he live.”

Matt lets his mind wander.

I wish I could know it’s true. Like you. I wish I could know that Mom’s still out there, that I’ll see her again.

His eyelids drop down, and he tries to see his mother, to remember her voice, to be ten years old again and feel her gently rubbing his back as he drifts off to sleep. Or six years old, standing on the beach, hand in hand, listening to the surf.

Matt, you can believe. Just don’t fight it.

A tide of relaxation rises up and folds around him as he listens to Jessica’s voice-sim. He plays it over and over. Just before surrendering to the pull of sleep, his hand mutters out a last message.

I do believe, Jess. I believe in you.

Then the dreams begin.

He looks down at his hand and sees a faint green light growing within the Stone.

He is standing at the edge of a pool at the base of a waterfall, lush jungle on every side, safe and comfortable. A soft wall of branches, leaves and flowers protects this little sanctuary from the rest of the world. Kneeling down, he touches his lips to the water and draws in the sweet wetness. Without hesitation, he dives in and swims across to the other side, pulling himself out and lying on warm sand under a brilliant sun. Palm leaves, bamboo and ferns fill the space around him with deep pastel colors.

When he looks up, there’s a dirt path leading into the jungle. It seems to pull him to a standing position, and he follows it. Now and then he catches a glimpse of the sun cutting through the canopy overhead. Soft leaves brush his face and arms. The moist air is heavy with the sweet aroma of hanging flowers. Limes, oranges and mangoes dot the trees. Birds call from high up in the branches.

After walking for hours, Matt feels Jessica at his side. He takes her hand. They walk together.

As they move deeper into the jungle, it starts to grow dark. Snakes hang from branches. Their dry reptilian scales brush across his skin. Shadows move behind the trees. Matt hears the sound of running feet and labored breathing.

It’s coming closer, chasing him and Jessica.

With his heart beating like a piston in his chest, he breaks into a run and pulls Jessica with him. When he looks down, the path has turned into thorns and thistles. They plunge deeper and deeper into the bush, jumping over fallen trees, breaking through vines. The oppressive stench of burnt sulfur hangs in the air. The caustic smell stings his nostrils and sticks in his mouth.

Jessica’s fingers slip from his grasp. He turns around. She’s rolling on the ground with a vine wrapped around her ankle and crying for him to come back. His chest seizes with fear. Dark shapes overtake her. He does nothing, and they pull her back into the darkness of the jungle out of sight. In horror, he turns away and runs blindly through the dense undergrowth. Her shrieks fill him with terror and remorse.

The ground under his bare feet is crawling with insects and spiders. Snakes dangle from the trees and brush against his face. The sulfuric stench makes it hard to breathe. The ground is cold, wet and soft. He stumbles into deep mud and sinks rapidly past his knees. He can hear the heavy breathing come closer. In the darkness, bulging eyes gather around him. The mud sucks him still deeper. The shapes bare their teeth and hiss. He knows what they’re doing. They’re waiting for his face to disappear into the black viscous mass. It reaches his chest, and then engulfs his arms and shoulders. Soon the mud is moving past his neck. It’s seeping into his mouth, covering his nose. He can’t breathe. Only his eyes remain above the surface. All is darkness around him.

Just before going under, he looks up to a sky full of crystal stars.

One point of light grows larger and drops down.

He feels it pulling on him, lifting his head and shoulders out of the mud.

The light becomes a Woman in a sea of luminosity. As she comes closer, Matt can see that the Woman herself is the source of light. Her hands, feet, face and hair all shine as if lit from within.

There is a white Stone in her hand.

The same shape as the rock Matt found in Powder Puff Basin.

The mud and the dark shapes are gone. The jungle vanishes, and he is standing in a mountain meadow under a warm sun. The air is filled with the aroma of pine trees and huckleberries. The Woman points to someone walking toward him through the wildflowers.

His mouth forms a single word that slips effortlessly from his lips.

“Mother.”

CHAPTER 15

“That was too easy.”

Ryzaard reclines in his high-back chair and stares out the window with his feet propped up on the meditation platform. He passes the Zeus statue back and forth between his hands and traces the line of a helicopter cutting through the early dawn fog above Midtown Manhattan.

Van Pelt stands alone in front of the desk with his suit coat on, hands behind his back, like a small child in the school principal’s office. “I’d rather not discuss this with another person in the room.” He casts a nervous glance to the right where Alexa stands with her back to him, admiring the old Chinese wall scroll.

Ryzaard glances over at her and laughs. “Don’t worry about her. All my people are completely trustworthy. Isn’t that so, Alexa?”

Her eyes go first to Ryzaard and then to Van Pelt. “Do I look like a thief?”

“No, but—”

“You ran the meeting well.” Ryzaard puts the Zeus statue on the desk. “And you’ll be generously rewarded, so long as you continue to cooperate and stay out of my way. After MX Scientific and MX Financial are merged into one entity, we’ll call it MX SciFin. The worldwide resources of the merged entities will be under my sole control, and I’ll need unlimited budgetary discretion. Do I make myself clear?”

“Yes. Perfectly.” There’s a nervous twitch in Van Pelt’s nose. “I assume you will keep your agreement.”

“Agreement?” Ryzaard peers up at the chairman, the corners of his mouth turned up slightly. “What agreement?”

Van Pelt steps back, his voice cracking as he speaks. “The agreement about my recent trading activity in MX Global stock.” His hand goes into a pocket and pulls out a white handkerchief. “You promised your people wouldn’t turn the information over to ISEC.” Dark sweat stains flare out from under the arms of his suit. “You do remember, don’t you?”

Ryzaard strokes his mustache with a finger. “Ah, yes. ISEC abhors insider trading. Prison time, penalties, fines, confiscation of profits and all that.” He leans back in his chair and puts his arms behind his head in a relaxed position. “As long as you cooperate, feel free to do whatever you like with the rest of the corporation. With what’s left of it, that is. But leave SciFin to me. Now get out of my office before I change my mind.”

After an awkward silence, Van Pelt nods, turns and leaves the room.

“Tell me, Alexa, aren’t you the least bit surprised the directors bought all that gibberish about predictive analytics and real-time variables I fed them?” Ryzaard gets up from the chair, strips off his shirt and moves to the meditation platform. He takes a lotus position on the cushion and closes his eyes with the Stone in his fingers.

“I’m more surprised by the fact that you claim to be seventy years old.” Alexa walks behind him and kneels down to knead the muscular back of what looks like a much younger man.

“Seventy years old? That, of course, is a lie.” Ryzaard laughs.

Alexa suspects as much. Then she sees the small green numbers tattooed on his right forearm. Her fingers stop and dig in. There is shock in her eyes.

Ryzaard seems to sense her surprise. “I usually keep it hidden. That is why you have never seen it before. I should have removed it decades ago. It raises too many questions.”

“Did you forget I’m a history major?” Alexa bends closer to his arm and runs her fingers across the skin where the numbers are engraved.

“No, I have not forgotten. A sense of history is essential to our work.” Ryzaard begins to breathe deeply, methodically. “It’s one of the things that brought you to my attention.”

“So you were in Auschwitz? In the middle of the last century? Your bio on the Corporation Mesh-point doesn’t mention anything about that. It says you were born at the latter end of the last century in London.”

Ryzaard arches his back and flexes the muscles. “Information is easily manipulated. People believe what they find most convenient to believe.”

She begins to massage again. “Right now I don’t know what to believe. A man with the body of a forty-year-old claims to be seventy, but is actually several decades over a hundred?”

“There’s much I haven’t told you, or anyone.” Ryzaard turns his head to look into her eyes. “But it’s important that you understand now. We must trust each other.” He turns back to face out the window.

“Go on.” Alexa works on his neck and the back of his head, applying the art of shiatsu she learned from a Japanese boyfriend in college.

“It’s not a complicated story. You probably know much of it already, in the abstract.”

“Try me.”

“I grew up in Krakow, Poland. My father was a diamond merchant in the Jewish quarter of the city. We lived what you might call an idyllic life. A large house, servants, frequent travel all over Europe, boarding school in England. I had my bar mitzvah a month before the German blitzkrieg changed everything.”

Alexa’s fingers immediately stop so she can do the math.

“You were born in 1926.” she says. “That would make you—”

“The oldest person alive?” Ryzaard chuckles. “Yes, quite possibly.”

“Quite possibly? I’d say it’s more like absolutely, without a doubt.” Alexa runs her fingers slowly down Ryzaard’s spine and presses on the spaces between the vertebrae. “What’s your secret? Trips to Mexico for lipoic acid treatments?”

Ryzaard shakes his head. “Actually, I go out of my way to live an unhealthy lifestyle.” He glances over at a black pack of cigarettes and a wine bottle on the desk. “But there are certain benefits to bonding with a Stone, not the least of which is its effect on the aging process.” He looks down at his open palm with the Stone glowing light blue. He can feel Alexa’s eyes on it as well.

“I’m listening.” She picks up the wine bottle and fills two glasses halfway. One of them goes on the floor not far from Ryzaard’s hand.

Arching his back, he brings his hands together high over his head, presses the palms into each other and bends forward. Fingertips touch the floor.

“It was a clear fall morning in late September, a few weeks after the German invasion. I still remember the bright red leaves on the pear trees lining the streets.” He straightens his back, reaches for the wineglass and swirls the purple liquid. “That was the day they came. Three SS men walked into the shop and asked to see my father.” He takes a sip.

Despite Alexa’s best efforts to relax, Ryzaard’s back muscles tighten as he speaks.

“They said they had questions about my father’s business and needed clarification. They invited him to come with them and promised my mother he’d be home for supper.” He stops and lets his eyes drift out the window to the Brooklyn Bridge. “Before my father walked out the door, he took off his wedding ring and put it in my hand. He told me…” Ryzaard’s voice breaks off. A tremor runs through his body. “He kissed us, one by one, and told me to take care of my mother and older sister.”

Alexa is quiet and works on kneading out the knots in the muscles.

“My father didn’t come home that night. Or the next. Three days later, there was a large white paper pasted to our shop window. It said the entire business was now the property of the Nazi regime, confiscated to pay restitution for unspecified crimes against the German people.” Ryzaard shifts his gaze from the window to the floor in front of him.

“What happened to your father?” Alexa positions the heels of her hands above Ryzaard’s spine and presses.

“We never saw him again.” Ryzaard takes another sip of wine. “We were later informed that he died during the interrogation.”

Alexa brings a wineglass up to her lips. “How did you end up in Auschwitz?”

“By December, we were all wearing white arm-bands with a blue Star of David. Thanks to my father, we had enough hard cash and diamonds hidden at home to get us through the next several months.” Ryzaard drops his feet to the floor and stands as he drains the glass. Then he walks past the window to the sofa, examining the ancient Chinese scroll that hangs on the wall above it.

Alexa follows.

Ryzaard still holds the Stone in his hand, his fingers wrapped in a tight fist around it. “My father did his best for us. But he underestimated the ruthlessness of the Nazis until it was too late.”

Alexa reaches up to rub his back, silently encouraging him to talk.

“We made it through the winter and spring. By late summer of the following year, the Nazis forced us out of our home into the ghetto in Podgorze, south of Krakow. They removed the three thousand people that lived there and herded twenty thousand Jews like animals into the same area, and then walled it up. That was my home for the next two and a half years.”

He turns to Alexa, looking over her head and out the window. His body trembles as he speaks.

“It was difficult, but we had enough to survive for the first few months. I did my best to take care of my mother and sister, but I was just a boy. Then the food suddenly ran out. Rations were cut to less than 300 calories per day. My mother stopped eating and gave everything to me. Before she died, she made me promise to live to change the world so this could never happen again.”

Ryzaard walks to his desk and sits in the chair. Laying down the Stone, he picks up the Zeus statute and examines it as he leans back, speaking through clenched teeth.

“The SS decided to liquidate what was left of the ghetto. Several trainloads of survivors were taken away, most to the Belzec death camp. My sister and I hid and managed to survive until early 1943. Then we were finally caught and put on a train to Auschwitz. That’s where I got this. 159604.” He raises his right arm, the hand wrapped in a fist around Zeus.

Alexa walks close to the desk, gazing upon Ryzaard, saying nothing.

“My sister and I were separated at the camp. I never saw her again.” He picks the khaki shirt off the desk, stands and puts it on. His fingers slowly follow the path of the buttons up the front.

“How long were you there?” Alexa whispers.

“Two years at Auschwitz. I won’t bore you with the details of life in the camp, the arbitrary killing, the helplessness. I’m sure you’ve read about it. When I walked out the front gate at the end of the war, I had the same name, but I was no longer the same person. In the fire of that crucible, you might say that I was born again. Everything I thought I knew about life and truth was swept away. I learned that only one thing matters. It requires no explanation or justification. It became my new religion.”

“What’s that?” Alexa says.

“Isn’t it obvious?”

Alexa cocks her head to one side. “I don’t understand.”

Ryzaard smiles. “Power. The only thing in the world that matters is power.”

CHAPTER 16

Matt wakes up to the sound of his jax playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy. If not for the fragrance of his dad’s fresh pancakes wafting down into his room, he would still be asleep. It’s 9:15 in the morning, and the flight for Japan leaves at noon. The airport is two hours away, and then there is the security portal. The realization dawns on him that he should already be there waiting for his flight. If he leaves right now, he might make it, but there is no guarantee.

Throwing on a navy blue T-shirt and black cargo pants, he rushes up the stairs with a bulging backpack hanging off one shoulder.

“Is that all you’re taking for a three-month trip to Japan?” Kent sits calmly at the table, peering into the thin blue screen of his slate, and looks at his son out of the corner of his eye.

“Dad, remember the month I spent in the mountains after high school graduation? All I had was a ten-pound bag of gear and food. I always pack light.”

“The pack you took on that trip to the mountains also had a tracking device with a camera. I was watching you the whole time.”

Matt shakes his head. “I suspected that.” He makes his way past a stack of fresh pancakes on the table straight to the refrigerator, throws it open, grabs some milk and takes a long drink straight from the carton. “Anyway, most of what I need is right here.” He waves his jax.

“Sorry I didn’t wake you up. I figured the pancakes would do it for me.”

“They did, but too late,” Matt says. “I should have left for the airport two hours ago.”

“You needed the sleep,” Kent says. “I could hear you tossing and turning down there all night. Sounded like you were in a fight.”

“Come on, Dad, you were hoping I would miss my flight, right?”

Kent smiles and looks down. “Look, I made your favorite breakfast. Whole-wheat pancakes with peanut butter and maple syrup.” His eyebrows jump above his eyes.

Wiping off his milk mustache with the back of his hand, Matt grabs the whole stack of pancakes and runs past his dad to the garage. “Let’s go,” he yells back into the house. “I’m not missing my flight.” With a heave, his pack goes into the back of the Chikara. He climbs into the driver’s seat.

Kent follows him out of the house and gets in the passenger side.

Matt’s fingers come off the steering wheel. There’s an unsettled feeling in his gut, like he’s left something in the house, but he can’t put his finger on it.

“What have I forgotten?” Matt mutters to himself.

“Your passport?” His dad asks him.

“Maybe that’s it. Which one should I take?” Matt says. “I’ve got a whole stack.”

Kent rolls his eyes up to the roof of the truck. “Use James Johnson. It’s the newest and should be the safest for now. But bring the others as well. You never know what might happen.”

“Got it.” Matt jumps out of the truck and runs back into the house, flying down the stairs to his room. He pulls open the drawer on the nightstand next to his futon and rummages around until he finds a stack of passport cards bound together with mag-tape. He grabs the whole set.

Turning to leave, he steps on the rock lying next to his futon. It stops him cold. He bends down to pick it up and stares into its dark blue depths. It reminds him of the dreams that kept him stirred up most of the night. Shaking his head, he tosses the rock into the air. His fingertips move across its rough surface as it slips away and lands on the futon. There’s an instant of regret, and he feels the urge to go back and pick it up. Then he remembers he’s late for his flight. It jars him back to reality.

I don’t have time for this.

Turning, he bounds upstairs and out the back door.

He drops into the driver’s seat, but notices his dad is gone.

A couple of seconds later, his dad comes into the garage with a bag hanging from his fingers and climbs into the cab. “Forgot my water bottle and some junk food. I’ll put some in your backpack when we get to the airport.”

As soon as his dad shuts the cab door, Matt’s foot hits the accelerator, and he backs out of the garage like a laser beam on a mission.

Once they get to the freeway, traffic is light.

Kent flips on the cop scanner and nods.

Matt gets the message and pushes the accelerator to the floor. With every passing mile, the prospect of getting to the airport on time improves. After a half hour of driving, Matt eases back into the seat and lets his right hand drop off the steering wheel to rest on his thigh.

Kent is staring out the window at the Mosquito Range running arrow-straight, parallel to the freeway, north to south. The sound of breaching whales getting a close shave floats in the background.

Matt pulls in a deep breath and lets it out. “Hey Dad, what projects are you working on?”

Kent is silent, eyelids drooping half-shut.

There aren’t any cops in the rear-view mirror. The only other car is a mile in front. Matt touches the car-com and switches off the motor-tone. A bubble of silence engulfs him and his dad as they shoot down the road.

Matt tries again.

“Dad.”

The sound of Matt’s voice is clear and distinct. It seems to have the desired effect of pulling Kent back from his daydreaming.

“What?” Kent’s head slowly swivels so that he’s looking forward down the freeway.

“Working on anything interesting right now?”

“Just the usual stuff.” Kent’s voice is listless and empty.

“Come on, Dad. We’re not going to a funeral. I’ll be back in three months.”

A smile flits across Kent’s face. “Why the sudden interest in my work?” He turns to his son.

“Just trying to make conversation. We have time to talk before I go, if you want.”

“Let’s see.” Kent licks his lips. “I found a deep-encrypted package in one of my Meshboxes a month ago. No identifiable source. Couldn’t get it open even after trying my whole bag of tricks.”

“You get anonymous stuff all the time, Dad. How did you finally get it open?” Matt smiles to himself. He knows how to get his dad talking.

“Turns out I got the key in the same Meshbox a few days later.” Kent’s shoulders drop down, a sign that he’s starting to loosen up. “Some hot encryption-ware just developed at Zertek Corporation. Priority-One government stuff.”

“What did you find when you opened the secret package up?”

“A complete dossier on Jaguar Corp’s recent discovery of massive lithium deposits in the Congo. And their plans to open a new mining operation there.”

Matt nods. “Which, of course, is illegal, since lithium mining has been outlawed for the last twenty years.”

“Yep. I’ve got board of director minutes, internal discussion memos, confidential messages from management, even hi-def video of the CEO talking to the Congolese prime minister about the whole operation.” Kent becomes more animated the longer he talks. Anyone could tell he loves his work. “Now I just have to piece it all together, figure out a bullet-proof prosecution strategy and send it to the FBI on a silver plate. Fun stuff.”

“Dad, it’s always been a mystery to me how all this top-secret-planet-trashing-corporate-intel finds its way to you. I know you don’t advertise.”

“Not directly,” Kent says. “But I have my contacts and sympathizers out there. They don’t know who I am or where I live. But they know what I do and that I’m not afraid to take on the power structure. I suppose they also know I have nothing—” He looks at Matt and hesitates for a second. “—almost nothing, to lose. Anonymity is a powerful shield.”

“What about MX Global, the corporation you told me about last night. Do you still keep track of them?”

“Absolutely,” Kent’s eyes narrow as he speaks. “They’re a prime target for obvious reasons. I know more about what goes on there than most insiders.”

Matt can tell he’s touching a sensitive area.

“So you’ve got a contact on the inside?” Matt raises an eyebrow.

“Several,” Kent mutters.

“Do they know who you are?”

“Don’t think so, but you can never be sure. It doesn’t really matter.” Kent looks to his right in the direction of the mountains.

“So what’s the latest on them? I know they’ve grown huge the last few years.” Matt wonders how much his dad will tell him.

“The big story is spiking profits that defy gravity.” Kent waves his hand in front of his face in disgust. “It’s a hot stock. Everybody wants a piece.”

“Sounds like typical corporate behavior to me. What’s the problem?” Matt looks down the road and sees they are approaching what the locals call the spaghetti bowl, an intersection of several major roads and freeways. It’s also a convenient place for cops to hang out. He takes his foot off the accelerator and touches the car-com to re-engage the motor-tone. Distant whale calls drift into the cab.

“The problem is that no one knows the source of the profits. The company’s ISEC filings claim they’re making a killing from proprietary trading in stocks, futures, derivatives.”

“So?”

“Sounds fishy to me. A global industrial conglomerate making more money from trading stocks than its phosphate mines in the eastern Pyrenees? There’s something else, too.”

“What’s that?”

“All the money they’re throwing at Japanese Shinto.”

“The new green religion?”

“Yep. MX Global has been making massive charitable donations to support the building of Shinto shrines all over the world, including here.” Kent points out the window as they pass a shiny new wood shrine with the familiar torii gate, two vertical pillars capped with two horizontal beams.

“Sounds like you’ll be having fun working all this out while I’m gone.”

“No doubt.” Kent has an adventurous look in his eye. “By the time you get back, I should have the goods on MX Global. Things will be different. Count on it.”

CHAPTER 17

“Made it.” Matt stops the truck at the curb, jumps out and grabs his overstuffed backpack out of the back.

Kent moves to the sidewalk.

As Matt drops the bulky pack to the ground, he stands a few feet away and sees the moistness well up in his dad’s eyes.

“Here’s some water and snacks.” Kent opens the large flap of the backpack and stuffs a bag inside as Matt looks away and surveys the airport. “I don’t say it enough, but I hope you know your dad loves you.” Kent drops his arms to his side and looks down at his feet. There’s a hint of emotion in his voice. “Be careful. Keep your eyes open. Remember what I’ve taught you.”

“Love you too, Dad.” Matt’s voice has an obligatory tone to it.

Crossing the silent divide between them, Kent extends his arms and wraps them around his son.

Matt feels the stares of strangers on the sidewalk. Like a mannequin, he brings stiff arms up to wrap around his dad, palms not quite touching his back. As they stand together, Matt listens to the passing traffic and looks up at the time on a large digital clock.

“Got to go, Dad. My flight is about to take off. See you in September.” He pulls away, picks up his backpack and slings it over one shoulder. Turning back, he waves and walks away, knowing there’s a thousand things his dad wants to say to him right now. When he sneaks a backward glance, his dad is just standing there watching Matt disappear through the open glass doors.

Matt takes a deep inhale as he steps inside.

Finally free.

He begins to jog to the security portal.

“Matt!”

Stunned, he turns around at the sound of his name. Kent is rushing toward him.

Rolling his eyes, Matt tries hard to suppress a look of utter disgust. “What do you want, Dad?”

“Almost forgot.” Kent pulls a thin blue cylinder with green spiral grooves out of his pocket and tosses it.

Matt stretches out his arm and grabs it in mid-air. “Got it, Dad.” He looks down at the new jax with grooves for his fingers and instantly likes the feel of it in his hand.

“Make sure you pull the memory cube from your old one and destroy it,” Kent says. “Throw away the jax. Start using this one instead. You’ve had the old one for three months. Time for a change.”

“Will do, Dad. See you later.” He turns to jog to the security portal, holding his breath.

Keep walking. Freedom is just around the corner.

“Hey, Matt!” His father’s voice trails behind him.

Matt exhales and turns back.

“What?” His patience is starting to wear thin.

“One last thing.” Matt’s dad rushes to him and reaches out to his shoulder. “Be careful with the jax. No video or holo messages. They can’t be encrypted. Too easy to trace.”

“I know, Dad.” Matt gives his dad the best eye-roll he can muster. “You’ve told me a thousand times.”

“Sorry, son. It’s hard to let you go. Remember—” Kent’s voice fades off as he spoke.

“Remember what, Dad?” Matt decides it is useless to get away until his dad has said everything he needs to say.

“Remember that I love you.”

“I know.” Matt offers up a weak smile and stands for a moment looking at his dad. “For the millionth time, I love you, too.” He turns and walks away.

CHAPTER 18

There he goes.

Kent watches his son disappear around a corner. With conscious effort, he walks back to the truck at the curb, resisting the urge to rush back into the airport.

He tries to clear his mind but can’t quell a rising tide of fear. Will Matt get through customs with his fake passport? What if he ignores the warnings about sending video or holo to Jessica? Will he be vigilant in observing his surroundings? Will he be a victim of the rampant crime against foreigners in Japan?

Kent’s mind races faster and faster, out of control.

A honking horn tears him from his thoughts.

“Hey, you going to stand there staring at the sidewalk forever?” A man in a black limousine sticks his head out of the window and motions for Kent to move the truck away from the curb.

He jumps into the Chikara and eases out into the road with nothing but the quirky motor-tone to remind him of Matt. Reaching out to turn it off, he draws his hand back, finding it strangely comforting.

A random thought pops into his head.

The previous night, Matt had cried out, and it reminded Kent of the bad dreams that were a nightly ritual after they escaped to Japan. Startled at the sound, Kent had crept downstairs to check on his son. There was a new gadget on the floor next to his head. From a distance, it looked like some kind of organic-looking, non-symmetrical object that glowed light green in the dark.

It’s strange that Matt said nothing about it. Like most kids his age, he usually bragged about any new device he bought. Whatever it was, Kent curses himself for not asking his son whether he had installed an anonymity shield on it.

Then he catches himself going down the same path of fear and paralyzing worry. To counter it, he repeats a mantra as he watches the airport recede in his rear-view mirror.

Matt will remember everything. He will be smart. He will be safe.

CHAPTER 19

Ryzaard is stretched out on the red sofa lost in dreams. Violins from a Gorski opera whisper through the dark, carried on a delicate fragrance of fresh marzipan.

He is eight years old again. The sweet smell of newly mown hay hangs in the air. Gripping a bat, he swings hard at the pitch, feeling the joy of wood connecting with the ball and sending it deep into center field. Through the roar of cheering children, he hears the high-pitched tones of his mother’s voice calling him to dinner. Without running the bases, he drops the bat and jogs across the street to the family home, bursting through the open door and taking in the aroma of his mother’s pastries and the music of his father’s favorite record playing in the next room.

The grandfather clock on the opposite wall strikes 12:00 noon. A full minute passes before the blackness drains out of the windows, giving way to a brilliant summer day in Midtown Manhattan.

His eyes float open, and he sits up on the sofa.

Walking to the window, the opera music and the smell of pastries lingers in his mind like a sweet aftertaste.

The tweed jacket slips off the back of the chair and finds its way onto his shoulders. Moving past the desk, his fingers scoop up the blue Stone at the feet of Zeus. The office door glides open, and he walks into the stainless-steel corridor connecting to the lab at the opposite end. He has the immediate sense that something has changed. He stops and turns back.

A black metal plate hangs on the wall. He reads the words on its glossy surface.

Mikal Ryzaard, President and CEO, MX SciFin Corporation.

He recognizes it. The metal plate has languished at the bottom of his desk drawer for the last two years while he perfected his plans for MX Global. No doubt Alexa put it on the wall outside his office while he slept.

It is only fitting. As president and chief executive officer, he has no superiors and answers to no one.

At the far end of the corridor, the white door glides out of his way, and he walks into the lab without any break in stride through a transparent tube to the center of the floor where there is a single large mahogany table. Seven empty chairs hug its circular edge. Shaped like a sphere with ceiling and walls made of glass, the meeting area is sealed off from the chaos that rules the rest of the lab.

Ryzaard stands in the silent bubble, hands behind his back, and surveys the bustle of activity in every direction. The outer area is divided into five pie-shaped compartments, each a collection of tables, chairs, bluescreens, slates, holo projectors, cluster systems, electronic equipment and young lab assistants in ivory coats. Except for splashes of color from the screens on the walls or suspended on long arms above the desks, it’s all glass and chrome, silver and white.

The faces of five young people, one from each of the lab subsections, look up from their work in the direction of Ryzaard. Carefully selected and mentored by him for their exceptional abilities, they look like children catching a glimpse of the father they worship.

They drop their work, pick up their slates and move to the central conference room. Oblong holes slide open in the glass bubble as they enter.

Ryzaard greets the young hotshots with a smile as they take seats at the table and turn their attention to him.

After all are seated, Alexa enters from the corridor, dressed in black leather pants and a top, and stands to the right of Ryzaard.

His gaze travels the circumference of the table, locking eyes one by one with the young prodigies. Fatherly concern settles on his face as he muses about the care with which he has found, selected, nurtured and trained this team of gifted youth.

The fingers of his right hand rest on the table, wrapped around a blue object familiar to them all.

“My friends, you’ve all heard the news.” He works hard to suppress a beaming smile. “Scientific and Financial have been merged into one, and both are ours. We’re walking away with the core assets of the corporation. No more begging for spare cluster systems. No more written requests, budget applications and endless meetings with idiot bosses. And one more thing.” He looks over at Alexa. “Effective immediately, I’m making each of you an Executive Vice President of MX SciFin.”

From the looks on their faces, the six young people can barely conceal their elation.

“You’re an elite group. But never forget this is the source of everything we’ve achieved.” Ryzaard lifts his right hand off the table and drops the blue Stone. It makes an audible thud and sticks to the table like a magnet on metal.

All eyes focus down on it, and then back up to Ryzaard.

He bends forward and leans on his palms. “Most people live out their lives in utter obscurity. Their deaths pass without notice or meaning. Once in a generation, a rare person makes a difference in their community. Once in a hundred years, fate grants a lucky individual a chance to alter the course of a nation. Once in the lifetime of a planet, a precious gift is bestowed on a select few to remake the world in a new image. You are that select few, and that gift is now yours. It starts here and now.”

Ryzaard pauses to measure the impact of his words. His eyes move around the table.

The young people stand erect, working to suppress large smiles, trying to appear somber and serious.

His fingers drop to a control panel in the table. The glass sphere encircling the room fills with color until it is a sky-blue opaque wall. The surrounding lab seems to fall away and fade from view. The seven of them are alone in an intimate setting.

“I scoured the planet for each of you, poring over the Mesh, reviewing test scores, aptitude profiles, genetic algorithms, rap sheets. Some of you I pulled from abject poverty. Some of you are children of privilege. Like the fingers on a hand, you work together with seamless efficiency. I know your hearts. I know you want what I want. To bring Paradise back to the world. Together, with the power of the Stones, we will do exactly that.”

Ryzaard stops. Across the table, a Tongan boy in his late teens opens his mouth wide and yawns. His eyes are red with lack of sleep.

“You’ve worked hard for months, with only a partial knowledge of the details of this project.” Ryzaard’s fingers wrap around the Stone and hold it up to the ceiling lights as if appraising the value of a rare diamond. “This Stone is at the center of all we do, and you know bits and pieces about it. You’ve been patient with me. I know you want to know more. Today I’ll give you the full picture.”

In his mind, Ryzaard reviews the unique histories of each of the young people. Faces and names flash through his mind.

Without warning, he lobs the Stone into the air and across the table to Elsa Bergman, a Nordic woman with short blonde hair, intense blue eyes and a genius for stock trading. The daughter of a Swedish tungsten billionaire put out of business by MX Global, she is the only surviving child of her father’s plan to kill himself and take the rest of the family with him.

Bolting upright, she opens her fingers to catch the Stone. Before she can get to it, another hand shoots out from the right and snatches it away.

“Good catch, Jerek Grey,” Ryzaard says. “I’m sorry that none of you have been allowed to examine the Stone directly until now. I think it’s time you all get to know it a little better. Feel free to handle it and pass it around.”

Jerek is a lanky young man in his early twenties with straight red hair, residual acne and the honor of becoming a full professor of physics at Harvard while still in his teens. He runs his fingers over the surface of the Stone with reverential awe and then slips a tiny cone-shaped device off a chain around his neck.

“Interesting.” Jerek stares into a holo screen that jumps above the apex of the cone. “No molecular structure, no atomic signatures.” The fingers of one hand play across the cone’s surface while the other turns the Stone over and over. “It’s not made of any known material. Other-worldly, in the true sense of the word. But it’s not entirely unknowable. I see it generates a field in response to electro-magnetic stimuli.” He swivels in the chair, putting Elsa Bergman squarely to his back, and then tosses the Stone on a high arc in the general direction of her forehead.

She grabs the Stone before it makes contact and passes it back and forth between her hands as if trying to determine its weight and internal contents.

“Looks like a petrified claw from an oversized bear.” She ignores Kalani Maki, the Tongan boy, pulling on her right shoulder to get a closer look.

Kalani is a self-taught Mesh-runner from the Independent Republic of Tonga who never finished high school and bristles at the idea of wearing shoes. A long wooden club with embedded shark teeth leans against the table at his side. He likes to warn people that he was raised to be a warrior, and he always keeps a dagger or spear within easy reach.

Eleven months ago, he was caught downloading military encryption-ware from the MX Global Priority-One data matrix with nothing but a discarded slate and a homemade satellite connection. Management wanted to turn him over to INTERPOL for prosecution. Ryzaard offered him a job instead, dropping the charges and flying him to New York. He has an uncanny ability to navigate the nether regions of the Mesh just like his ancestors sailed the open ocean in outrigger canoes centuries before, finding new islands with nothing to guide them but luck and intuition.

He stares at Elsa with open hands, white palms up, waiting for her to toss it to him. Never one to pass up an opportunity to torment the island boy, she launches the Stone up to the ceiling with just enough arc to come down on his head, if he waits.

But he doesn’t.

Grabbing the club in one hand and planting a bare foot on the table, he shoots out of his chair and seizes the Stone inches away from the ceiling. He comes back down and lands softly in a crouching position, guarding his prize like it’s the last piece of meat in an army of starving zombies. His black hand brings the Stone close to his nose for a careful sniff. Then he looks up at Elsa Bergman, smiles broadly and licks it from end to end with his bright red tongue.

“Not rock, metal or plastic.” Kalani has the hint of a frown. “No taste at all.”

The boy’s manic actions cause a fit of laughing to roll over the others. Ryzaard sits down and leans back in his chair, stroking his chin and observing the reactions of his team to their first tactile encounter with the Stone.

He motions for Kalani to pass the Stone on to Li Jing-wei on his right.

With her small stature, round face, tiny nose, long black hair and huge dark eyes, the data-flow specialist born in Shanghai is the exact opposite of Elsa Bergman. Raised in London, Jing-wei is the only child of a high-ranking family descended from the legendary Mao Zedong. While still a teenager, Jing-wei’s father was killed by secret assassins from China after it was discovered that he was passing secrets to the United States from the Red Army’s hi-tech encryption labs. She escaped with her mother to New York City and poured herself into her studies.

Kalani pretends to toss the Stone high in the air as Elsa and Jerek had done, but then, kneeling and bowing deeply, he offers it up on outstretched palms to Jing-wei.

With hesitation, she pulls out a red handkerchief and accepts the Stone, still wet from Kalani’s tongue, wiping and polishing its surface. Then she reaches into the pocket of her lab coat and takes out a jeweler’s loupe to examine it as if grading a diamond.

Her lips move and mutter soft words in Chinese.

Ryzaard stands up. “Can you see anything of interest on the Stone, Jing-wei?”

Everyone turns their attention to her large eyes.

She looks up and blushes at being the focus of attention. “Incredible. It has no micro markings on its surface. It’s entirely smooth, unbroken, perfect.” Her eyes drop back down to the blue shape in her hand. “Very rare for a rock of this size and shape. It must be synthetic, manufactured.” With a subtle bow, she hands the Stone to Diego Lopez, the twenty-something mathematical prodigy from Chile with curly black hair and matching eyelashes sitting on her right.

“Yes, very perceptive, Jing-wei,” Ryzaard says. “You may be right, although I’ve never been able to discover the origin of the Stone.”

Diego holds the Stone like one would a dagger, the large end grasped in his fist and the point sticking out past his little finger. Rotating his wrist, he makes a few playful thrusting motions with it, and then deposits it into Ryzaard’s outstretched hand.

Ryzaard leans back in his chair, satisfied that the Stone has traveled full circle around the table, giving all a chance to touch and feel it. He brings it up to his eyes. “Ancient artifacts have always been a matter of intense interest to me. Especially those with sacred or magical powers.” His voice drops to almost a whisper. “All cultures have legends about holy stones. The Jews have their Urim and Thummin. Christianity has its white stone in the Book of Revelation. The Japanese have the sacred Magatama stone, said to have come from the Sun Goddess herself, and which is still rumored to pass from emperor to emperor. The list goes on.”

All of them lean in closer, listening intently.

“Many years ago, I was working on an archeological dig in Jaipur,” Ryzaard says.

Kalani tilts his head to the side like an inquisitive puppy, a look of confusion in his eyes, passing the wooden club back and forth between his hands.

“North India,” Ryzaard says.

Kalani relaxes.

“Several weeks into the dig, a local worker told me about a holy man with a mysterious white stone that helped him see the future.”

Elsa raises a corner of her mouth into a half-smile, nodding at Ryzaard’s last remark. “The ultimate tool for stock trading.”

Ryzaard takes a deep breath and slowly lets it out. “I decided to investigate. At the end of the digging season, I spent two months living in a grove of Kadamba trees near the holy man’s hut, getting to know him, gaining his trust. It wasn’t hard. Not many Europeans speak Hindi.”

Jing-wei plays her jax with nimble fingers as she listens.

“Sorry, but you won’t find anything about this on the Mesh, Jing-wei.” Ryzaard straightens his bowtie. “I had it purged long ago.”

She puts the device down on the table.

“There have always been self-proclaimed holy men in India. But this one, Varanasi, was different. He really could see the future. Not predict or foretell or guess, but see. He knew weeks or months in advance when babies would be born, who would die, how they would die, when it would rain. He could see it all in his mind, like watching images on a slate. All he had to do was sit on the dirt floor in his hut and meditate with this Stone in his hand.”

Ryzaard passes his Stone, now blue, back and forth between his fingers and stares at it, lost in a reverie of memories. The sound of breathing around the table is the only noise floating in the silence.

“Varanasi showed me a picture of himself standing next to a British officer in front of their army headquarters in Meerut, a town in Northern India.” Ryzaard stops and looked around the table for a hint of recognition in anyone’s eyes, but he doesn’t find it. “The entire town, including the army headquarters, burned to the ground in 1857 and was never rebuilt.”

Diego, the resident mathematician, jerks his eyes back and forth, like he’s adding and subtracting numbers in the air.

“Are you saying the holy man was 200 years old?” The disbelief shows in his face.

“At least.” Ryzaard leans back in his chair and lets his gaze drift up to the ceiling. “Perhaps much older. I asked him if he could see how and when he would die. He laughed and told me that the manner of one’s death was always hidden from a Stone Holder.”

“Is that true?” Elsa draws herself forward in her chair with an unusual amount of interest in the answer.

Ryzaard ignores her. “The point is, Varanasi knew the power of the Stone, but refused to exploit it. Lack of imagination and ambition is what makes the common man so… common.” His lips curl up in a derisive smile. “He could have used the Stone to change the world. Others have. Instead, he lived in a poor village and foretold the births and deaths of a few insignificant people. It was utterly wasted in his hands.”

“So you took his Stone?” Kalani grips the wooden club and brings it down in a mock killing motion.

Ryzaard closes his eyes, recalling the distant past. “Let’s just say I decided to acquire it and put it to better use.”

“But you did kill him, didn’t you?” Kalani’s fingers wrap around the handle of a dagger he pulls from under his shirt.

“I tried. And then I discovered a very important fact.” Ryzaard pauses, swiveling from side to side in his chair, and speaks slowly so that his words are clear and distinct. “It is impossible to take the Stone or kill its Holder by violence. Guns, knives, swords, spears, arrows, it doesn’t matter. You may be able to hurt, but you can’t kill. Weapons simply didn’t work.”

“What do you mean?” Kalani looks at the club in his hand.

Ryzaard’s eyes shoot open. “The Stone protects its Holder.”

Jerek spreads his arms across the table. “Then how did you get it?”

“I’ll tell you how I got it.” Ryzaard takes a pack of black Djarum cigarettes from the inside of his tweed jacket. Working one loose, he grabs it with his lips and lets it hang as he talks. “I left some well-paid contacts in a nearby village to keep an eye on Varanasi. Two years later, I got word he was deathly ill. I rushed to India and arrived a few days after the funeral. The villagers had burnt the corpse and his possessions on a pyre. No one dared go near the burial site. One night, I approached it alone and found the Stone in the ashes.”

Alexa shifts in her chair with a subtle twist appearing on her lips.

Glancing at her, Ryzaard exchanges a brief knowing look. He’s left out the part about how he paid a small fortune to a trusted friend of Varanasi in the village to contaminate the holy man’s hut with a specially prepared poison that accumulated in his body until, one day, he suddenly fell into a coma. Then Ryzaard showed up again and finished Varanasi off for good with a few dagger thrusts to the heart.

He offers the black smokes to the youngsters, knowing there will be no takers. Diego and Alexa, the ones closest to him, push their chairs back from the table.

“My sincere apologies.” He brings a lighter up to the tip of the cigarette and inhales deeply, cocking his head back and blowing the smoke up to the ceiling where it disappears into a vent installed for this very purpose. “It’s an old habit I picked up during the war.” After a moment of contemplation, he flicks his cigarette and watches the ashes drift to the floor. Then he stares squarely at Jerek, the physics whiz kid, and speaks loud enough for all to hear.

“I’ve told you how I got the Stone. Now let me tell you about the Stone itself.” Ryzaard balances it on his open palm as if displaying it to the world for the first time. “In essence, it’s a piece of incredibly advanced technology, not of this world. It gives you access to a higher level of reality, one where you can see and manipulate your natural environment in novel ways. Time, energy, matter. All of it can be shaped by the mind of the Holder.”

Jerek leans forward, mouth hanging open. “Can others use it?”

“Unfortunately, no.” Ryzaard’s fingers close into a fist around it. “I would gladly share it with you all, but it forms a bond with only one person at a time.” He looks for a negative reaction from his young audience, but they all sit like poker players, revealing nothing.

Next to Ryzaard, Alexa lifts one leg and crosses it over the other. The movement reminds Ryzaard of her subtle hints that she would like to have a Stone of her own. He wonders if the others at the table share a similar interest.

One thing is certain. Though he has never stated it openly, he has no intention of ever sharing the power of any Stone.

Elsa’s blue eyes are like darts from across the table. “What happens after it bonds with you?”

Ryzaard blows more smoke up to the ceiling. “The Stone Holder starts to have dreams. Or visions. Future events are revealed. Other worlds. Other realities. The holy man in India exploited this quality to see who would die and who would live. And, as you may have guessed, the Stone prolongs the life of the Holder. Indefinitely.” Ryzaard leans back in his chair and blows coils up to the ceiling.

“What else can the Stone do?” Jing-wei says.

“Good question. You’ve all read history.” Ryzaard avoids the temptation to glance at Kalani, whose educational background is questionable at best. “Have you ever wondered how obscure people came from out of nowhere to become kings and emperors and hold power over millions?”

“Like Genghis Kahn?” Jing-Wei says.

“Or Attila the Hun?” Elsa smiles so they all can see the ultra white teeth matching her blond hair.

“Precisely,” Ryzaard says. “If you know what you are looking for, evidence of the Stones pops up all over in history, both ancient and modern.” He strokes his mustache with the tip of an index finger.

“So there’s more than one?” Kalani has a hopeful look in his eye.

“Yes, of course.” Ryzaard blows another line of smoke, this one straight across the table where it loses momentum and begins to expand outward.

“How many in all?” Elsa asks. Her elbows go on the table.

“Another good question. I’d like to know the answer myself.” Balancing the cigarette on the edge of the table, Ryzaard brings his hands together. “The point is, the Stones give their Holders an edge. Whether you’re playing poker, fighting a war or just shopping for lettuce at the grocery store, you roll the dice with every decision. Even a slight edge helps. A significant edge turns out to be an immense advantage.” He picks up the cigarette, takes another drag and blows at the ceiling, watching the smoke disappear into the vent. “Imagine being on eve of a great battle and knowing in advance where your enemy will attack. Where they are weakest. You would be invincible.”

“Like Alexander the Great.” Diego Lopez pushes his chair back away from the growing cloud around Ryzaard.

Ryzaard drops his gaze down from the ceiling to the Stone in front of him. “Very true,” he says. “But the ancients could never exploit the full power of the Stones. For them, it was still parlor tricks, folk magic and divination. The real power of the Stones can only be unlocked by another, more modern path.” He runs a finger along the surface of the Stone. “And that’s where each of you come in. Now that we have all the resources of MX Scientific under our control, the human race is finally in a position to reap the full benefits for which the Stones are intended. We will remake the world, my young friends. It has already started.”

CHAPTER 20

Kent eases the Chikara into the garage a little after 12:30 in the afternoon. Distant whale calls fade off into silence as he kills the engine. He runs to the back door, hoping to get busy with a project before thoughts of despair break through the barrier he has built in his mind on the way home. He bounds through the door and into a wall of residual garlic and ginger smells.

He makes it to the picture window in the kitchen and slumps down into a chair, catching a glimpse of the mountains, before it hits.

When the big clock above the sink chimes 3:00, he hasn’t moved and is staring up at the Mosquito Range like a child begging for help as its head slowly sinks beneath the surface of the water.

And then, like a lifeline tossed onto the waves, a low pinging sound comes from the table.

His slate is calling.

An important news event must have just hit the Mesh. Reaching for it, the glass surface is cold as he brushes his finger across the bottom and leans back into the chair. A holo in the shape of a square rises up to form a floating blue screen.

He reads the headline.

MX Global Announces Corporate Restructure: MX Scientific and MX Financial Merge to Form MX SciFin.

Just below the headline, there is a picture of a smiling man with silver hair and a goatee in a tweed suit and bowtie. Kent reads the article.

MX Global Corporation announced today that its directors approved the merger of two major subsidiaries, MX Scientific and MX Financial. The unexpected move came after an all-night meeting of the board. Although marred by the accidental death of a director traveling home, the meeting ended late last night at which the merger was unanimously approved. Rudyard Van Pelt, President and CEO of MX Global Corporation spoke this morning at a press conference and detailed the reasons for the merger.

“In today’s competitive global economy, it is imperative that we continue to deliver the value our stockholders have come to expect. As the line between our investment and research arms continues to blur, combining the resources of both into a single entity will create greater efficiencies and opportunities for growth. We have full confidence in the new management team that will take over.”

The new management team is headed by Dr. Mikal Ryzaard, a former professor of archeology at Oxford University turned corporate visionary. Dr. Ryzaard arrived at MX Global as a consultant only three years ago from the world of academia, but enjoyed a meteoric rise through the ranks to become the new President and CEO of MX SciFin. He recently guided MX Financial through a period of eight record-breaking profitable quarters. At the press conference, he shared some insights about his new vision for SciFin.

“I look forward to the challenge of leaving my mark on this new entity and the opportunity to use our unique resources to not only increase shareholder profitability, but also play our role as a model corporate citizen in making the world a safer and happier place. We fully intend to do that. You can be assured that there will be further exciting developments as we move along this new path.”

Kent sits back in his chair, stunned.

Why the merger of Scientific and Financial?

Blurring the lines between investment and research. Delivering value. Greater efficiencies. Better shareholder return.

It’s all just corporate mumbo jumbo thrown into a blender, recycled and then spit out for public consumption. None of it makes any sense.

Little by little, worries about Matt seem to melt away as a new purpose takes form in his mind.

Who is Dr. Mikal Ryzaard? Why is a former professor of archeology heading up the management team for the new combined entity? What is MX Scifin?

It’s time to get some answers.

But getting answers isn’t easy. Over the years, since he and his son fled New York and disappeared from common society, MX Global has been a constant object of his attention, like monitoring a sleeping dragon from afar. Long ago Kent exhausted all public sources of information about this corporate monster.

The search for new data might require that he do the unthinkable.

Go back to MX Global headquarters, the source of all his woes.

CHAPTER 21

“Would you like a quick demonstration of what the Stone can do?” Ryzaard blows a cloud of smoke in the direction of the young Tongan face on the other side of the table. “To help you understand what I have been talking about.”

Kalani’s tongue droops out of his mouth in the shape of a long J and then flicks back in. “Show us.”

Ryzaard stands up and makes a fist around the Stone. “Watch carefully.”

And then he vanishes.

A gasp, half terror and half delight, rises from everyone at the table except Alexa. Diego Lopez falls backwards into his chair and crashes to the floor. Jerek Grey slaps the cone device onto the table and stares into the holo screen above it at a graph and flowing numbers. Elsa Bergman thrusts her blonde head under table. Kalani grabs his wooden club. He and Jing-wei both jump up and search the room. But it is no use.

Ryzaard is gone.

Silence is the only sound in the room as they scrutinize each other’s faces for an explanation.

The first to speak is Kalani.

“Where’s my jax?” He rifles through his pockets and gets down on hands and knees to scour the floor, the white soles of his bare feet visible as he bends over. The others discover their jaxes are gone as well, stripped from pockets or hands. A general sense of panic engulfs the room.

Alexa sits quietly with her hands in her lap, watching the scene unfold.

There is a clicking sound of footsteps coming from the corridor. Kalani fingers his club again. As the door slides open, Ryzaard walks through, wearing a dark blue jacket and bright green bowtie, as if to emphasize the fact that he’s changed his clothes.

“Please don’t be alarmed.” He raises his hands to calm the room and walks back to the table. “I believe you’re missing these.” He scatters five jaxes in the center of the table. Hungry hands reach out to snatch the devices. All of them return to their seats and stare at him.

Ryzaard remains standing.

“That was nothing more than a simple demonstration.” He looks down in an apologetic manner. “It’s an old professor’s trick. Do something completely unexpected to fix the attention of the students.” His hand opens around the Stone, glowing dark purple. “I trust it worked.”

Uneasy laugher floats through the room.

“How did you do that?” Elsa Bergman’s eyes are fixed on Ryzaard from across the table.

“Do what?” Ryzaard shoots back.

“Vanish into thin air,” Elsa says.

Kalani nods vigorously. “Take our jaxes.”

“Change into new clothes,” Jing-wei chimes in.

“First of all, I didn’t vanish into thin air.” Ryzaard strokes his mustache. “Like I said, the Stone gives its Holder a direct connection to different levels of reality. One of them is the flow of time. All I have to do is relax, reach out and grab it. The result is what you just saw. Time stopped for all of you.”

“But not for you.” Jerek lifts an eyebrow.

“Correct.” Ryzaard pauses to make sure everyone is keeping up with the conversation. “The Holder is in a kind of protective bubble. There’s no change in the flow of time for me.”

Jing-wei leans forward, hands folded on the table. “So you collected our jaxes while we sat here like statues and went to your office to change clothes.”

“And have a few drinks, a couple of smokes, look through some papers, get some work done. I enjoyed several hours of time to myself.”

“And the rest of us only got a few micro seconds.” Jerek’s eyebrows knit together and form a deep furrow. “Of course, you realize that all of this violates the laws of physics.”

Ryzaard shakes his head and chuckles. “And that is one thing you all need to understand. The Stones are not bound by the laws of physics.”

Kalani presses his club and its shark teeth into the mahogany table, scratching deep lines of white. “It’s not fair. You can stop time whenever you want. You can kill us whenever you want.”

“The Stones stand above all things, including physics and fairness. It’s a simple reality you all must accept.” Ryzaard sits down and swivels in his chair, glancing at Alexa. “But you need not worry about me using the Stone for mischief against you. Each of you has unique talents. You are part of an elite team. I need you.”

“Can we see another demonstration?” Jerek says. His interest is clearly piqued.

“There will be plenty of time for that later,” Ryzaard says. “In fact, your job will be to use all the resources of MX Scientific to unlock the Stone’s secrets and help me enhance its powers. I want all of you to think carefully about how we can put the Stone to more effective use to accomplish our purposes.”

“Which is?” Jing-wei’s eyebrows lift slightly.

“You already know. To remake the world. Change everything. Do away with suffering and waste.”

Jerek’s body tenses, as if he’s unable to contain the excitement. “When do we start?”

“We already have,” Ryzaard says.

A palpable sense of enthusiasm fills the room. The young people start talking all at once, brainstorming on the possibilities implied by such a power.

“Dr. Ryzaard.” Alexa speaks loudly enough for everyone to hear. “Perhaps you could tell us what happened after you got the Stone from the holy man. What did you do with it?”

Ryzaard nods to thank her for helping get the discussion back on track.

“Very well.” Ryzaard settles into his chair. “After extracting the Stone from the ashes of the old man, I brought it back with me to Oxford. It’s a tricky business. The Stone is controlled by the mind, but it takes training and practice. I worked with it for years, years of trial and error, luck, strange dreams, visions, mistakes. At first, it was almost as if I was dealing with…” He casts his eyes around for the right word.

“Magic?” Elsa Bergman says as she weaves her slender jax through her fingers.

“Yes. Magic.” Ryzaard drops his elbows to the table. “And that’s how the Stones have been treated throughout history. Their proper use has always required discipline and concentration. It is very sensitive to the Holder’s state of mind. That’s why it is well-suited to meditation. The kind practiced by Buddhist monks and holy men.”

“But you are neither a Buddhist monk nor a holy man, are you?” Jing-wei leans forward with a half-smirk on her face.

“No, Jing-wei, far from it, although I find meditation techniques useful.” Ryzaard’s eyes follow a thin line of smoke curling up from a cigarette still balanced on the edge of the table. He raises it to his lips and takes a long drag, exhaling a stream of light-blue smoke toward the vent in the ceiling. “Volumes of ancient lore speak of the Stones and how to unlock their powers, if you know what to look for, but I grew tired of the limits of the old ways. I began to search for a different approach to unlock their full potential. A path more suited to the modern era. Any guesses what I’m talking about?”

“Science.” The confidence in Jerek’s voice shows he’s sure where the conversation is going.

“Exactly.” Ryzaard allows a thin smile on his lips. “And what is the first step in the scientific method?”

Data.” Jerek’s eyes are wide open, both palms on the table. “Lots of data.”

“Right again.” Ryzaard takes another pull on his cigarette. “I needed hard data on the Stone. Not folktales. So I started hanging around the Physics Department at Oxford and struck up a friendship with a Dr. Harold Fishman.”

“The same Dr. Fishman who pioneered the use of high-energy beams to penetrate solids?” Jerek says.

“Yes, rather convenient wouldn’t you say?”

“Didn’t he die in his sleep several years ago?” Jerek’s eyebrows rise up. “I remember reading about it when I was an undergrad at MIT.”

“A tragic loss.” Ryzaard shakes his head, doing his best to feign sorrow. “Nonetheless, he was helpful when I needed him.”

“Did you show him the Stone?” Jerek says.

“Of course. And I asked him to analyze it.”

“Really?” Jerek moves closer to the table, resting elbows on it. “What did he think of it?”

Ryzaard leans back. “After several attempts, he still had no idea what it was or where it came from. It was like a black box. Completely impenetrable.”

“By design, no doubt,” Jerek says.

Ryzaard strokes his mustache. “The problem was that Dr. Fishman was attempting to penetrate the Stone with radiation. He thought he could force it open, like using a crowbar on a wooden box. I suggested that we focus on communicating with it. That’s when we had a breakthrough.” He presses the glowing tip of the cigarette into the table top, twisting it and letting it drop.

“How can you communicate with a rock?” Thick lines form across Kalani’s brow.

“At my suggestion, Dr. Fishman designed a mechanism that beamed a stream of information directly at the Stone and monitored any feedback. I took it back to my office and began to experiment. Radio broadcasts produced no effect. I tried prime time TV, World Cup soccer, Tibetan Buddhist chants, Mozart. Even Shakespeare and Keats. Nothing happened.” Ryzaard pauses to make sure everyone is keeping up. “Then we moved on to numbers.” He looks directly at Diego Lopez, the math whiz from Chile.

“I started out with the prime-number sequence, one number every second. No reaction. We tried speeding up the sequence to ten numbers per second. Still nothing. Then we put it on a thousand numbers per second, one number every millisecond. After twelve seconds, we detected a signal from the Stone. We tried it over and over, with different starting points and always got the same result. The Stone sent out a signal after twelve seconds.”

Kalani looks up from his slouching in the chair, sits up and leans in closer, both elbows on the table, his cheeks resting on his hands. “What kind of a signal?” Kalani says. His eyes focus intently on Ryzaard.

“At first, we didn’t know,” Ryzaard says. “Our instruments detected something, but there was no way to interpret it. So we turned it into a contest and enlisted the help of the graduate students at Oxford’s Mathematical Institute. We asked them to decode the transmission.”

“What was it? More numbers?” Diego stares into Ryzaard’s eyes.

“Very good,” Ryzaard says. “Your instincts are sound. The grad students came back to us a few weeks later with a decoding algorithm. We incorporated it into our mechanism. It turns out the Stone was broadcasting a prime-number sequence twelve seconds in the future from the stream we were beaming at it. That gave us an idea.”

“Stock quotes,” Elsa Bergman says.

“Exactly,” Ryzaard lights another cigarette and lets it hang from his lips. “It was a momentous day when I sat in my office with Dr. Fishman and beamed live streaming stock quotes into the mechanism and got live future quotes back. We knew we had something of great value.”

“The Xerxes Diviner.” Jerek and Elsa both say it at the same time.

“Yes, although it’s gone through several upgrades, it was basically the same device we’ve been using for the past two years.”

“What about Dr. Fishman? He didn’t just walk away and leave you with a goldmine of almost infinite value.” Jing-wei’s eyes narrow to tiny slits, and she tilts her head to the side.

“Dr. Fishman claimed a right to half of all future profits generated by the device. He threatened to go public with the entire matter unless I agreed.” Ryzaard took the cigarette between his fingers and stood up with his back to the table. “I tried to reason with him, to get him to understand that what we had was much more valuable than money. We still hadn’t plumbed the depths of its potential. We had a duty to use the Stone for the benefit of the entire world, not for mere money.”

Dropping his hands behind his back like a professor, Ryzaard slowly walks around the room.

“But Fishman didn’t agree, did he?” Jing-wei’s voice sounded more like a statement of fact than a question.

“No, he didn’t agree and grew more belligerent and demanding.”

“That’s when he died in his sleep?” Jerek’s eyebrows rise in anticipation.

Ryzaard’s head goes up and down. “It was unfortunate. I wish we could have worked something out. Lack of imagination is an all too common defect and a terrible waste.” He moves full circle around the table, going back to his seat and turning to face the young people. “But each of you is different from poor Dr. Fishman. You understand that profits generated by the Stone, however desirable, are not the goal. They simply provide the means to a far greater end.”

“What could be more important than money?” Elsa chuckles and tilts her head to the side.

“Power.” Ryzaard meets her eyes with a cold stare. “The power to remake the world as it should be. The power to make evil impossible. The power to do away with suffering. The power to bring Paradise.” He turns to Jing-wei. “Tell them what we’ve been working on.”

All eyes turn to her.

“Market quotes are just the beginning.” Jing-wei’s voice trembles with hesitation as she breaks the silence. “With Dr. Ryzaard’s, permission, we’ve already tried DNA sequences, baseball statistics, election results, GNP tables, population figures. The list goes on. The Stone appears to work on any phenomena reducible to a sequence of numbers.” She turns her empty palms up to the ceiling, as if to emphasize the enormity of what they have discovered.

“It’s like having a crystal ball,” Diego says.

“No, it’s better than that.” Kalani reaches out to grasp his club, bringing it close and staring at the shark teeth. “It’s like being God.”

CHAPTER 22

Matt jogs through the airport to the security portal, his backpack hanging off one shoulder. When he passes a black dot on the wall, someone’s clumsy attempt at hiding a camera, his hand drops into a side pocket, swipes the jax and engages its cloaking algorithm, a handy piece of rogue-ware his dad snagged off an underworld Mesh-site. It emits a finely calibrated data burst that blurs his image on any security video from the waist up.

Balancing the new jax in his hand, he thinks about tossing it in the garbage. He purposely left it at home, hoping his dad would forget to bring it. For most people, getting a new jax is cause for celebration, but not for Matt. For him, a new jax means a new ID. It means becoming a new person with a new name, a new history. Throwing away your old self.

And it’s the main reason he has so few friends.

With a swipe of his index finger, he activates the jax. His dad has already downloaded the new ID, and it matches the name on a passport card Matt pulled from his drawer. It’s pretty amazing how his dad is able to get new IDs every other month or so. He never says how he does it, but Matt suspects he is getting help from contacts inside the government. It isn’t legal, but it keeps them safe from the boogeyman.

Putting the two jaxes together, he does a quick data transfer and then wipes the old one clean. For good measure, he pops out the memory cube, drops it to the floor and grinds the crystal to fine dust. Then he kicks it with the tip of his shoe and creates a small white cloud. Walking into the nearest bathroom, he waits until it’s empty, and flushes the jax and his former identity into oblivion.

Just like that, he becomes a new person.

As the metallic cylinder is sucked out of sight, a tinge of sadness flashes in his mind. So many identities flushed away. So many pasts jettisoned.

When will he be allowed to hold on to who he is?

There is no time to mourn. He’s late for the flight. Running to the security portal, he needs to let Jessica know his new ID.

Just before he presses the video function, his dad’s face jumps in front of his eyes. He ignores it.

“Hey Jess.” Matt looks directly into the jax. “It’s me. Sorry for the fuzzy face, but I’m in stealth mode right now. I’m at the airport, almost to security. As near as I can tell, Dad’s not following me.” He moves the jax around in a full circle inside the airport. “Finally got away. Can’t wait to get to Japan and really be free.”

Tapping the end, he shoots off the message to give Jess his new contact info. Regret immediately pierces his chest. She hates it when he makes fun of his dad like this. According to her, he’s supposed to show more gratitude.

He jogs a few more steps and gets a video back. Looking down, he sees Jess on the freeway in her red convertible, driving to work, her brown hair blowing wildly in the wind.

“Your dad’s a good man. He raised you. He protected you. He deserves your respect.” She yells over the sound of the wind in her hair.

Matt isn’t going to argue. His hand whispers a meek reply.

Agreed.

And follows it up with a bid for sympathy.

Getting close to the security portal. Pray I’ll make it through.

For someone who has spent most of his life running from the authorities, direct contact with any part of the power structure triggers an instinctive fear. And fear can be detected. At the security portal, there are stress hormone sniffers and chemical sensors constantly pulling samples from the air. As he passes through the portal, he will be vulnerable, like an armadillo slowly uncurling and exposing its soft underbelly.

Matt slips into line.

With his backpack still hanging off one shoulder, he moves toward four white semi-circle arches spaced ten feet apart. Each one of them has a different set of detectors, and he will be required to pass through them all. One by one, people in front stride quickly through. There’s no stopping or hesitation.

Matt is determined to do the same.

With a glance, he sees the hi-res camera mounted just above the first arch and ducks his head slightly as he passes underneath, quietly holding his breath.

Nothing.

He passes through the next two arches in silence.

As he moves under the final one, its white color changes to red, and a security officer in a blue jumpsuit quickly approaches. He has the official seal of the Flight Safety Administration emblazoned on his chest.

“Sir, I’m sorry for any inconvenience, but we’ll have to check your backpack. There was a strange reading when you passed the portal.” He leads Matt over to an area with a table and chairs near the wall.

Matt thinks quickly. Maybe it was the cloaker on his jax. Dad said it was undetectable, but maybe he was wrong. Matt curses him under his breath.

“May I open it, sir?” says the FSA man, pointing to the backpack.

“Sure. Nothing but clothes, climbing equipment and study materials.” Matt wants to turn and make a run for the nearest door, but he slips off the backpack and drops down into a chair. With a white knuckle grip on the arm of the chair and conscious effort, he is just able to control his breathing and slow his racing heart.

The FSA man lays the backpack on the table and opens the flap to empty it. Matt knows all of the contents have already been quietly catalogued as he passed under the scanner. Another official with a shaved head and handlebar mustache comes over to help. He holds a portable scanning device in his hand. It takes them less than a minute to sort all the contents on the table.

Matt taps out a message to Jessica as they are finishing.

Got stopped by FSA. I think dad loaded some code on my jax that triggered the security portal. I’m dead. My only shot at getting away is gone. Forever.

Jessica answers in a few seconds.

Remember that Singapore Air jet that disintegrated over the Pacific last year. It caused them to tighten security. You’re young and have an Asian face, so you fit the profile. Just stay calm. You’ll get through.

“Sir, what’s this?”

Matt looks up from his jax. The man with the big mustache holds up a large claw the color of violet.

It’s the rock Matt left at home.

Dumbfounded, he squints his eyes and stares. How did it get here? In his mind, he clearly sees himself tossing the rock on his futon in his bedroom and turning to leave. The feel of it leaving his fingers is stuck in his memory.

Dad must have slipped it in my backpack.

Matt curses silently. It’s just like something dad would do. Always meddling. But why? And how did the rock change color?

He takes in a long, slow breath. “It’s just a rock.”

“Looks more like a crystal to me.” The man turns it over in his hand. “But there’s just one problem. It doesn’t register on my scanner. Any idea what it’s made of?”

“Granite? Basalt?” Matt lifts his hands, palms up. “I’m no geologist. Found it up in the mountains yesterday. Thought it was cool. Thought I’d take it with me.”

“Strange. I should get a reading on a rock.” The man with the mustache takes the other official aside.

As they whisper, Matt sees their quick glances coming his way.

One of the men breaks away and walks closer. “Sorry, but We’ll have to keep it for further analysis. Regulations. For all we know, it could be some kind of explosive. Can’t allow an unknown object to pass the portal. We’ll let you go without further questioning. This time.”

Matt steals a glance at his jax. The flight is already boarding. If they pull him into a side room for interrogation, it will all be over. This is no time to argue.

“Sure. Keep it. Take it home and give it to your kids. Like I said, it’s just a rock.” Matt looks at the violet object, feeling a tinge of loss.

The man with the mustache nods. “We’ll have you on your way in a few seconds.” He walks off with the rock, leaving the other official to re-stuff Matt’s backpack.

What a great way to start my trip, Matt thinks.

CHAPTER 23

“Now we come to the final point, a matter of utmost urgency that half of you already know about.” Ryzaard puts two elbows on the mahogany surface. “We’ve found another Stone.”

At the other end of the table, there is general commotion.

Kalani jumps onto his chair, hand on his shark-tooth club. “Which one of us gets it?”

“It’s mine!” Elsa Bergman grabs his long hair and pulls hard, sending him to the floor.

He rolls backward and lands like a cat on his feet. Drawing his club back, he is about to bring it down with a vengeance to crack open Elsa’s porcelain forehead.

“Stop!” A burst of blue light shoots out of the Stone and across the table. The club explodes into gray ash. Ryzaard raises his hand to silence them. “I am the only one who understands the power of the Stones, and I will decide who gets it. Now sit down and shut up.” He holds his own Stone in his hand, pointed in their direction.

They all move back to their seats.

“That’s better,” Ryzaard says.

“How did you find it?” Kalani licks blood off his lips and leans forward. Without moving his head, his eyeballs twist to the side and glance at Elsa.

“Glad you asked.” Ryzaard opens his palm. “When a Stone bonds to new Holder, it signals the other Stones, and they signal back. They all strive to be brought together, as one.” He turns to Alexa on his right and motions for her to complete the explanation.

“Based on instructions from Dr. Ryzaard, Diego devised a tracking algorithm that processes the signal sent by Dr. Ryzaard’s Stone. With our computing power limited to only one XUNIL cluster, it would take a month to pinpoint the location of the new Stone. But now with the additional computing clusters from Scientific, we can do it in a few hours. That’s why it was so urgent that the merger happen last night.”

Ryzaard stands on his feet. “The Stone has already bonded with the Holder who found it. Our first priority is to hunt the Holder down like a lion after its prey and slaughter him before he understands the Stone’s power. There is no other way.” His teeth come together and the muscles of his jaw harden. “All available resources must be focused on the search.”

“How do you know the Holder is a him?” Jing-wei says.

“Just a feeling.” Ryzaard turns to Diego. “Do we have a fix on the general location?”

Diego lays his slate on the table and calmly brings his hands together. “We’ve narrowed its location to somewhere between 105 and 110 degrees longitude in the Rocky Mountains.” He points at a map that appears on the glass wall behind Ryzaard. A fat red line runs from Canada down to Mexico. “As you can see, major cities at that longitude include Billings, Salt Lake City, Denver, Albuquerque, Phoenix. Keep in mind this is just an approximation. It could be anywhere within a hundred miles east and west of that line right now.”

“We’re incredibly lucky it’s in North America, a data rich environment we’ll be able to exploit to our advantage.” Ryzaard sounds pleased. “How long will it take to pin-point the exact location?”

“With your Stone and the other one as points of reference, we can triangulate and narrow the location down to a dot on the map in about three more hours. My assistants are working on it as we speak.”

“What a minute,” Elsa says. “What do you mean by the other one? There’s another Stone?”

Ryzaard shakes his head. “Yes, but it’s none of your concern for the moment.” He turns to Diego. “Good work. I’ll expect to hear from you in three hours. In the meantime, how large is a dot on the map?” Ryzaard says.

“A circle with a one kilometer diameter,” Diego replies.

Ryzaard’s eyes shift to Jing-wei and momentarily focus on the faint outline of a dragon’s head between her jaw and left collar bone. The body of the dragon disappears below her white blouse, but its tail can be seen running down her right thigh below her bright red skirt.

“Jing-wei,” he says. “You are our data stream expert. Tell us how we’ll find the exact location of the Stone once we have a dot on the map?” Ryzaard sits into a relaxed position with his hands behind his head.

She points at the projection on the wall. “Once we have a target, Diego will hand off the two cluster systems to me, and I’ll begin real-time analysis of all unencrypted data streams within the target area, including any jax messages sent in the last twenty-four hours. If the finder has jax’d a message about a stone or rock, we’ll quickly track them down.”

“What about encrypted data?” Ryzaard’s eyes shoot like darts back at her. “Is there a way to analyze it?”

She shakes her head. “You’re talking about decryption of a massive number of messages. Millions, if we end up in the middle of a city. We don’t have the resources to deal with it.”

Kalani bangs his club on the table. “Wait a minute. That’s not right.” He grins his lips at Jing-wei.

“Explain,” Ryzaard says.

“When we got access to the Scientific data files this morning, I started fishing around.” Kalani gets an apologetic look on his face. “You won’t believe what I found. Decryption protocols developed for US military intelligence. Powerful stuff. No commercial encryption can stand up to it.” He looks back at Jing-wei and nods. “Encrypted messages won’t be a problem.”

“Excellent work, Kalani. I knew once we got you on the inside, you’d put your tracking skills to good use. Any other data streams available from Scientific to help us hunt down the new Stone?” Ryzaard’s eyes drift in the direction of Jing-Wei, but are quickly drawn back to Kalani. He’s visibly squirming, looking like he’s about to explode. “What’s on your mind, young man?”

Kalani breathes in slowly. “There’s more,” he begins, and then breaks off.

“More what?” Ryzaard probes gently.

“More data.”

“Go on. We’re listening.”

Kalani’s eyes sweep the table. All faces turn to him.

“Once I got into the Scientific system and started looking around, I found a link to high value government Mesh-points and data vaults.”

“In other words?” Ryzaard says.

Kalani swallows. “I can access government databases, networks and communications, hospitals, airports, courts, surveillance, Pentagon files, law enforcement, finance, satellite comms, foreign relations, anything with an electronic footprint. It’s all there. Unlimited access.” Kalani looks up sheepishly at all the eyes on him.

“In other words.” Jing-wei’s head bobs up and down with sudden understanding. “Once we get the location of the new Stone, we’ll be able to plug into government data streams of all kinds and track the Holder down in minutes. If they use a jax or pass by a security camera, they won’t have any place to hide.”

Ryzaard leans back and surveys his team like a father beaming with pride at his children. The resources in this room make it a virtual certainty that they will get the Stone before its Holder has any idea what it is.

“What are you going to do to the poor guy walking around with the rock in his pocket?” Elsa says. “Ask him politely to hand it over?”

“Don’t worry.” Ryzaard lights another Djarum and takes a deep drag on the black cigarette. “When you hold all the cards, you do not have to ask. He will give it to us. Just like Varanasi.”

CHAPTER 24

Matt dodges in and out of passengers as he sprints to the boarding gate, his backpack still slung over one shoulder.

As he runs, he taps off a message to Jess on the fly.

Made it through security. That stupid rock I found up at Powder Puff triggered the alarm. I left it at home, but Dad must have put it in my pack. And it’s gotten lighter in color. Sort of violet now. Weird. Maybe it’s UV radiation from the security portal itself. Anyway, they took the rock. You’d think the security guys would have more to do than steal passenger property.

Jess comes back.

Don’t worry about the rock. Very strange, but good riddance.

Gate A-5 comes into sight. The last few passengers are just stepping onto the auto walk to the transport. There’s two or three minutes before the flight takes off. He remembers his dad put some snacks in his backpack, but Matt has a better idea. He sprints through the open doors of Sushi-To-Go, breathing heavily.

“I’ll take the Express Bento.” Matt looks over to the gate and then back to the woman behind the counter. “Make it fast. I’ve got a flight to catch.”

She grabs a box from below and slaps it on the glass in front. “Five point nine seven IMUs. No tax. Here’s the pay slot.” She points to a hole just large enough for a jax.

“Sorry, but I’ll do this the old fashioned way.” Matt reaches into his pocket and pulls out a single piece of rainbow colored paper. “Six even. Keep the change.”

The woman stares at the currency. “We only accept j-pay here, not this old stuff. Just use your jax like everyone else.”

“It’s still legal tender until December.” Matt takes the bento box and runs to the gate.

“You must be hiding from the government.” The woman yells loud enough for anyone within fifty feet to hear. “Only criminals and runaways use paper money.”

Matt doesn’t even look back as he quietly steps onto the auto walk and exhales slowly. His hand instinctively goes for his jax.

Made it. With sushi in tow.

He knows Jessica is smiling right now.

CHAPTER 25

The pinging sound goes off again.

Kent leaves the crushed garlic and olive oil in the frying pan, turns off the heat and picks up the slate, eyes on the thin blue glass. A few hours ago he sent an encrypted inquiry to a trusted contact on the inside at MX Global. The reply has come back sooner than he expected.

He begins to read.

The official corporate biography states that Mikal Ryzaard was born in Poland in 1993 and that he became a professor of archeology at Oxford in 2040, enjoying a distinguished career spanning several decades, at which point he retired and, a few years later, joined MX Financial as a consultant. Within a year of joining the corporation, he developed a highly confidential algorithm for use in MX Financial’s futures trading program. It proved to be spectacularly profitable, and he began his meteoric rise through the ranks of the corporation from staff employee to Senior VP of Financial within a short three year period, culminating in the merger of Financial and Scientific into MX SciFin with him serving as CEO, as announced today.

Curiously, there is no original record of a Mikal Ryzaard born in Poland in 1993. The original birth certificate is said to have been lost in a fire. The one that does exist was created a year prior to his entry into Oxford based on affidavits of relatives and friends in Poland. Of course, if you pay people enough, they will say anything.

Even more curious, consider this. I found a record of a Mikal Ryzaard born much earlier, in the late 1920s. He received a PhD in archeology from the University of Warsaw around 1955 and became a professor at the same institution. This Dr. Ryzaard disappeared around 1972, apparently perishing from disease while on an archeological dig in Northern India. The body was immediately cremated according to Indian records. An official death certificate was filed with the Polish government in 1973.

I have attached a picture of this earlier Dr. Ryzaard from the University of Warsaw yearbook for 1972. I have also attached a photo of our Dr. Ryzaard taken at Oxford in 2045. As you can see, the pictures bear a strong and inexplicable resemblance. Image recon protocols conclude there is a 97 percent probability that the photos are the same person at approximately the same age. Very curious indeed.

I discovered one last interesting pattern. At both Oxford and MX Global, Dr. Ryzaard’s career left a series of officially unrelated deaths and possible murders in its wake. Dr. Ryzaard has never been accused of any connection, but low-level unofficial rumors persist. Whatever the truth of the rumors, his meteoric rise was not hurt by the sudden and unfortunate passing of several colleagues that would be considered rivals.

Kent stops reading. His fingers reach out to the slate, engage the encryption and type out a reply.

So Ryzaard may or may not be who he claims to be. What’s really going on at SciFin? Why the merger? What is Ryzaard trying to do?

It doesn’t take long for a response to come back.

The whole SciFin merger has a tight lid on it, even within the organization. The party line is that it’s just business as usual. Only a few of the inner circle around Ryzaard have some idea what’s going on. And they aren’t talking. It’s rumored that Ryzaard has blackmailed Rudyard Van Pelt, the CEO of MX Global, and is calling the shots for the entire corporate enterprise. Whatever the truth is, SciFin has essentially been lifted out of the rest of the company network. It has its own dedicated cluster systems, and all access from the outside is strictly controlled, or impossible. The general feeling on the inside is that something big is about to happen. If nothing else, it’s been great for company morale.

Due to increased security concerns and the likelihood that SciFin will soon begin monitoring company correspondence, this will be my last communication. Good luck.

Kent forgets about the garlic and olive oil in the fry pan. He sits back and starts to think.

CHAPTER 26

Matt settles into his seat for the six-hour flight to Tokyo. With his heart still pounding hard, he closes his eyes, inhales and exhales slowly, counting each breath backwards from ten until he gets to zero. The old Zen meditation tricks really work. The tension of rushing to catch the flight flows out through his fingertips and toes.

His thoughts drift to Jessica.

In his mind’s eye, he sees himself coming home to her after a long day of teaching and research at some university in the Western United States. Snow-capped peaks rise up just past their living room window. They live simply in a small home. Skis, bikes and climbing equipment are neatly stacked and waiting for action in the garage. They laugh and live without fear.

To laugh and live without fear.

He realizes now that it’s all he’s ever really wanted.

In the dim light of the cabin, his eyes feel heavy. He falls into a half-dream state. Images from the past filter up through his mind.

A girl breaks away from the rich kids clumped together in the middle of the University gymnasium and walks to him. Hello, my name is Jessica, she says. Are you new, she asks. She’s wearing a blue dress with a frilly white apron. College Halloween Dance. Why does this Alice-in-Wonderland have any interest in him? Her arm slides up on his shoulder. Fingers meet and intertwine. Bodies move to the music together. His hand fits comfortably in the small of her back. The smell of fresh daisies in her hair. Time washes over him.

She is a blur of color and then gone.

The colors come together to form a dark jungle.

He trudges through it, sensing black shapes just out of sight. The smell of burnt sulfur burns his throat. He starts to run, and the shapes pick up his scent. Low growls and hisses get closer. They’re hunting him. He’s running, stumbling, tearing through vines, breaking branches, splashing puddles of dark slime underfoot. A spider web catches on his face. He lifts his hand to wipe it away. The shapes are just behind him. At the edge of the jungle, he breaks free from the dark leaves into an open field of golden grain. A lone oak tree stands in the distance, and he bends his line toward it, running for his life. Ten yards behind, a dozen dark forms burst out from the jungle wall, trailing broken branches, torn vines and leaves. He glances back at them as he runs. The dark hulks are getting closer. They appear as large anthropoid apes, covered in dark hair, running on hind feet and knuckles brushing against the ground. His heart is bursting out of his chest with every breath. Lungs on fire. It can’t last. He’ll drop from exhaustion. The oak tree is just ahead. With all the bark stripped off, it’s white and dead, like a candelabra with arms reaching to the sky. When he gets to it, he stops to catch his breath and presses his back against its smooth surface, facing the dark shapes. There are too many to count. The one in front lunges through the air toward him, white fangs bared. He looks into its eyes and, for an instant, it morphs into the face of a withered old man. Then his hands fly up as he prepares for the moment of contact and death.

Something brushes against his arm.

CHAPTER 27

“What the hell is going on?” The middle-aged co-tech shakes his head and mumbles under his breath.

Lines of laser sharp lights outline instrument panels, knobs, gauges, levers, graphs and bluescreens inside the dark cockpit of the transport.

The co-tech looks up. “Jack, I’m getting those crazy readings again. Altimeter says we’re flying high enough to orbit the moon. Any idea what’s going on?” He yawns and looks at the old man to his left. “Second time it’s happened tonight. Maybe we have a faulty battery. InterCommand says we better check it out before we get slapped with another fine. You know how the company hates those.” The co-tech shakes his head with a lazy smile.

The old man nods without looking up and slides a finger across the bluescreen in front of him. A string of numbers appear below a graph. Above it, there’s a schematic of the inside of the transport aircraft with a slice of the middle section highlighted in red.

The co-tech turns. “What does the Beta Electronic Tertiary System say?” He speaks slowly and deliberately, emphasizing each word as it rolls off his tongue.

“BETSY says it’s an EM disturbance centered in the cabin, somewhere between rows 50 and 65. She can’t identify the type of signal, just the approximate location.” The old man scratches a spot of gray hair. “Whatever it is, its power is off the charts. Definitely bigger than a jax-jammer.”

“Maybe BETSY needs to stick to flying the plane and have her memory crystals cleaned.” The co-tech reaches over and grabs half a donut off a plate and shoves it into his mouth. “It’s probably a kid up there with one of those new m-jackers.” He swallows and then belches. “I heard they can intercept messages within a hundred-meter radius. Not sure how they could get it through the security portal, but I’ve seen stranger things.”

“Better go check it out.” The old man settles comfortably in his chair. “BETSY doesn’t like it, whatever it is.”

The co-tech exhales. “Will do.” He stands up and picks a scanner the size of a shoe off the wall and walks out of the tail section into the darkness of the cabin up ahead. Hundreds of jax holoscreens glow like luminescent jellyfish in a black sea. The scanner automatically activates as he passes seat 50. He slows down, glancing carelessly from side to side as he goes.

He moves past the seat where a young man is sleeping, arm hanging out into the aisle, dark hair down to his shoulders. An overstuffed backpack sticks out between his knees.

Worthless idiot, the co-tech thinks. Get your arm out of the aisle so people can walk by.

A red light pops up on the scanner. The co-tech pauses and begins walking backward. Stopping just to the side of the sleeping young man, he stares into the scanner, eyes large with excitement. Executing a quick turn, he brushes the young man’s arm in the dark.

The arm shoots out, as if animated by a sudden jolt of electricity, startling the co-tech. The young man’s eyes open. He bolts upright and pulls his arm in.

“What the hell?” The co-tech looks up and hears the sound of his own voice in the silence of the cabin. He stands beside the young man, staring down at the scanner, and shakes it. Then he lets out an audible sigh and walks back to the cockpit at the tail of the transport.

“Good job.” says the old man as the co-tech stumbles back into his chair and drops down. “Looks like you found it. The disturbance is gone. Everything’s back to normal.”

“Yeah, it stopped all right.” The co-tech has an uneasy smile on his face. “I never did see who or what it was. The scanner blanked out just before I pinpointed the source.” He picks up a slate and begins to tap on its surface. “I’ll send in a quick report to satisfy IC.”

CHAPTER 28

Matt reaches between his knees and opens the main compartment on his backpack, feeling around for a pack of gum he put on top. His fingers brush against a hard object, freeze and then slowly wrap around it.

In utter disbelief, he brings it out of the backpack and stares at its light blue glow. A tingle creeps down his spine like a beetle.

The rock.

How did this get into my backpack? Impossible.

With a quickened pulse, he feels an urgency to breathe. Inhaling deeply, holding to the count of ten and then slowly exhaling, he closes his eyes and methodically traces his memory of the last few hours, replaying the details in his mind. He sees himself walking through the security portal and getting stopped by the officer. The officer empties out his backpack and finds the rock. They scan it. Ask him what it is. There’s a quick discussion.

The guard says he has to keep it.

Everything goes back into Matt’s backpack, and the officer hands it back as he stares down at the rock in his hand. Matt runs off to the gate.

Without the rock.

“What the hell’s going on?” Matt mutters to himself in the darkness.

He gets a wary look from the woman sitting next to him.

There is a sudden need to talk to Jess, so he pulls out the jax and balances it in his left hand. The rock rests on the palm of his right hand. With eyes jumping back and forth between them, he taps out a message to her.

Remember that magic rock the security guys took at the airport? Just found it in my backpack. Glowing a different color. Light blue. Can’t explain it. If I didn’t know better, I’d say it’s following me around. Too strange.

He decides not to say anything about the dream he just had and sends the message off. The reply comes in seconds.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that you’re not joking and you’re in full command of your faculties. Maybe the security guard just stuffed the rock in your backpack at the last minute? Did you watch him the entire time?

Matt thinks for a moment. He can see the guard holding the rock and walking away with it. Did it really happen that way? Is his mind making it up? He isn’t sure now. Maybe his gaze drifted to the other passengers while the officer put the rock back in. Maybe the officer had something else in his hand. Maybe Jess is right. His fingers play a reply.

Not sure.

A haze of confusion hangs around him, whether from finding the rock or just waking up, he can’t tell.

Two possibilities. The guard put the rock back in your backpack, or the rock is alive and following you around. Get a grip and be logical. And get some sleep. You’ll need to be sharp when you get to Japan.

Matt stares down at his jax. Jess is right. He leans back into his chair and stretches out his legs until they extend under the seat in front. His eyes slowly drop down, the rock still in his hand.

He tries to sleep.

CHAPTER 29

“So, what did you think of our first big meeting about the Stones?” Ryzaard relaxes into the chair with his feet on the desk, hands behind his head. “I tried to give out just enough information to keep them motivated. Not too much. Not too little.”

Alexa is sprawled out on the red sofa. “You had them eating out of your hand. Hanging on every word. Now that they have a better idea why they’re working so hard, I’m sure the project will move forward with new life.” She brings the glass of champagne up to her lips.

“Do you think they believed everything I told them?”

“I didn’t see a shred of doubt in their eyes. I especially liked the way you handled your story about how you got the Stone from that holy man, Varanasi. Very convincing.” Alexa closes her eyes and takes a sip. A grin sweeps across her face. “For a moment there, I thought you were actually going to tell them the truth.”

“About how a Stone Holder can be killed to get his Stone?”

“Exactly.”

Picking up the statue of Zeus, Ryzaard brings it close to his eyes. “They are all good kids, but you never know. I did not think it wise for them to get any ideas about eliminating me and taking my Stone.”

“A stroke of genius.” Alexa opens her eyes. “I just never knew you were such a good liar. You’ve gotten better since I met you.”

“It helped that it was only half a lie.” Ryzaard sets the statue down. “It is difficult to kill a Stone Holder.”

“But possible.”

“Under the right circumstances, yes. It helps if the Holder is in a physically weakened condition. Then they can be finished off with a dagger. Just like Varanasi. But one has to know what he is doing.” Ryzaard rises from the chair and looks out the window. “Of course, all of that is our little secret.”

“Don’t worry. It’s safe with me.” Standing from the sofa, Alexa drains the glass and puts it back on the desk. Her eyes drop down to her jax. “Looks like you’ve got visitors coming down the hall, and I’ve got to get back to work. You’re keeping me very busy these days.”

On the way out the door, Alexa passes Diego, Jing-wei and Kalani as they walk into Ryzaard’s office.

Ryzaard stands at the window, following the diving arc of a peregrine falcon. Four hours have passed since their morning meeting. They’re an hour late.

As the falcon drops out of sight, Ryzaard ignores the movement behind him. The smile disappears from his face. He senses trouble.

The three of them stand in the middle of the office, waiting for him to speak, watching the muscles in his bare back twitch and ripple.

“What’s going on?” Ryzaard finally says. “Three of you come to my office. Safety in numbers? No doubt there have been complications in tracking the other Stone.” He turns and drops again into his high-backed chair to face them, feet on the desk.

Diego begins. “GPS numbers generated by the tracking algorithm were coming in as expected until about an hour ago when it abruptly stopped.” Diego traces a line on the wood floor with his eyes. “We had the location of the Stone narrowed down to the middle of the western United States, probably Colorado.”

“Probably?” Ryzaard narrows his focus on Diego as his voice rises in volume. “Probabilities won’t help us.” The crescendo becomes an angry yell. “We need to know exactly where the Stone is. Anything less is useless information.” Spit bursts from his lips.

“The signal started to cut out. GPS numbers came in that didn’t make sense. Then nothing. We lost the signal.” Diego lifts his gaze up to Ryzaard, holds for a half second, and then drops it down at the floor. “The algorithm assumes the Stone is staying still at a point on the map. If the Stone suddenly jumps outside of that point, a circle roughly a kilometer across, the algorithm has to recalibrate and start over.”

“Whoever has the Stone got on a high-speed transport. A plane or a train.” Jing-wei jumps into the conversation. “They’re moving too fast to track. We have to wait until they stop and allow the algorithm to stabilize and restart.” She stares back at Ryzaard with no sign of fear or hesitation.

“What about a car?” Ryzaard says. “Perhaps they went for a morning drive.”

“Not likely. If they were moving that slowly, we’d still get faint readings on the direction of travel.” The puffiness under Diego’s eyes is clearly visible. “We have nothing right now.”

Ryzaard swivels in his chair to face the Brooklyn Bridge through the window. He needs to think. “Any suggestions?”

Kalani shifts from one leg to another and scans the room from the grandfather clock to the Chinese wall-hanging. Then he clears his throat.

“If they took a plane, that means they passed through an airport within the last couple of hours. With the high-security link I found this morning, we have access to data streams at every airport in the country. Surveillance cams, jax traffic, security portals, everything.” Kalani licks his lips, his white teeth gleaming. “All we have to do is pick a few airports and start funneling all the unencrypted stuff from the last few hours through our cluster systems. It shouldn’t be that hard. If we look for key words, maybe we’ll get lucky and find him.”

“There’s no such thing as luck. But do it anyway.” Ryzaard strokes his mustache with a stray finger. “Pick the three busiest transport hubs within five hundred miles of the last known signal. Analyze all data streams from a point starting four hours ago. Define a search for anything related to rocks or stones. Words, pictures, everything. Get as many clusters as you can on the job, but keep one of them working full-time on the tracking algorithm. Report back in two hours.”

The three young people turn and leave the room without a word.

As Ryzaard strokes his mustache, a memory comes to mind. He sees himself sitting on a tatami floor in a small wooden building. The sound of cicadas floats in the air just outside. A cherry blossom tree is visible through the window. A cup of exquisite green tea rests on a low table near his hand. On the other side of the table sits a man who is wearing the flowing white robes of a Shinto priest. They are talking about the Stones.

Ryzaard recalls the priest’s words.

There is another way to find a new Stone. But it is an old way, and you must be careful. It opens your heart, your true intentions, to the new Holder you are searching for. If there is evil in your heart, you will not be able to hide it. The new Holder will sense it. It will warn him. You must not try this unless your heart is purged of darkness.

He recalls the rest of the conversation and moves to the meditation platform where he begins to focus on his breath. Belly rising, belly falling. His eyes close.

My heart is now purged of darkness, Ryzaard thinks.

Images emerge in the black vacuum of his mind.

He sits in a lotus position on top of a stone column high above the canopy of a dark jungle. The tops of trees flow back and forth in the wind, like a huge expanse of rolling ocean below him. In the distance, the jungle ends. Beyond its edge is an open field of golden grain, ready for harvest. He stares through the thick leaves searching for any evidence of movement on the ground below.

And then he sees it.

A light blue dot, clearly visible against the black background. It’s moving below the tree canopy.

Adrenaline surges through Ryzaard’s body. Squinting his eyes, he focuses all his energy on the point of light. It resolves into a human form. He can see it gripping a Stone in its hands. An insatiable hunger rises in Ryzaard’s belly.

He must capture and kill the Holder. He must possess the Stone.

With arms outstretched, he lunges off the stone column and drops down. As he falls, intense longing for the new Stone consumes his thoughts. He thinks of running and catching the Holder, crushing his skull with powerful limbs, tearing out his throat with sharp fangs. His body morphs into a massive anthropoid ape. Crashing through the canopy, he lands on two legs not far behind. His eyes have X-ray vision. Through the trees, he can see a young man’s arms and legs pumping as he runs away in desperation.

Ryzaard must not let the Holder escape. Like a Japanese fan opening, his body duplicates itself into a massed group of identical apes. He is in each one. He sees with their eyes and breathes with their lungs. He presses his tongue against row upon row of sharp teeth set in their jaws.

He has become them.

They spread out and rush forward through the jungle in pursuit. Bloodlust rises in their throats. He can taste the Holder’s quivering flesh in his mouth as they close in.

Just ahead, the Holder bursts out of the jungle into the open field of grain. Seconds later, Ryzaard and his dark shapes follow. They see the Holder run toward a lone tree on the other side of the field, stark against the horizon. The Holder, still bathed in blue light, reaches the tree, stops, turns and presses his back against it.

Ryzaard’s neck muscles strain with effort in each of the apes as they sprint on all four limbs.

Five more meters.

He lunges forward, fangs bared, arms reaching. Only a few feet away, there is a moment of recognition. The young man stares back at him, the terror on his face clearly visible. Asian eyes.

Thunder sounds in the distance. The blue light fades into nothing. The Holder is gone.

Silence.

Ryzaard’s eyes float open as he sits on the meditation platform. Once again he hears thunder in the distance. The sound slowly resolves into a knock on his door.

“Come in,” Ryzaard says.

The door slides open to reveal the slight figure of Jing-wei.

“Dr. Ryzaard.” Her breathing is heavy from a sprint down the corridor. “Please come to the lab. It’s urgent.”

He stands up, grabs a shirt and buttons it as he follows her down the hall.

When they enter the bubble in the middle of the lab, the glass bluescreen wall around the room has transformed into a 360-degree view of a golden beach with top-heavy palm trees leaning to the ocean. Here and there a surfer rides a white line of perfectly curling waves. An orange sun is just plunging below the horizon.

“Home.” Kalani is relaxing with his feet on the table, staring at the waves, following the surfers. “Just miss it sometimes.”

Ryzaard drops into his chair. “Well?” He is waiting to hear the good news that the Holder has been found.

Jing-wei and Diego stay standing.

“We followed your instructions.” Diego drops his hands behind his back. “Focusing on the three largest airports in the area last tagged by the tracking algorithm, we started an inventory of the datasphere, looking for references to stones.”

“Stop,” Ryzaard says. “Don’t tell me what you did.” He doesn’t have the patience to listen to the whole self-serving introduction Diego is winding up to give. “I know you guys are the best. Show me what you found.”

Jing-wei jumps in. “Even with three dedicated super-clusters churning through the datasphere, we were getting too many hits.” She stops to take a breath. “It turns out the World Rockhound and Lapidary Society is having its annual convention in Denver this week. Half the city is talking about rocks and stones.”

“No more talk. Show me. Now.” Ryzaard has a steely edge to his voice.

Kalani points his jax at the spot on the bluescreen marked with an orange-red glow where the sun has just disappeared below the horizon of the ocean. The wall flashes white, except for an area in front of Ryzaard. They all hear the faint gasp that escapes his lips as he peers at a close-up photo of a blue stone shaped like a comma, large at one end and curving around to a blunt point.

Ryzaard jumps to his feet and stands in silence, focusing intently on the picture on the wall.

“You found it.” Ryzaard whispers. “A Stone.” He takes his own Stone from his pocket and holds it up. They are not identical, but no one can miss the similar design. “Where is it?”

“We gave up monitoring jax traffic,” Kalani says. “I just began hijacking data feeds at the airport, including all the security portals.” He pulls himself to a standing position with a spear that’s leaning against the table. “The picture of the rock—”

“It’s a Stone, not a rock.” Ryzaard is still staring straight ahead.

“Right,” Kalani says. “The picture of the Stone was taken by Federal Airport Safety at the Denver Airport four hours ago. They confiscated it from a male passenger. His photo, some video and an onsite analysis of the Stone were all uploaded onto the FAS Mesh-point.”

“And what were the results of the analysis?” Ryzaard already knows what they will tell him.

Kalani plays his jax again. A page of black text appears to the right of the Stone on the screen. A few words are highlighted in red.

Ryzaard scans the page, moving his lips to read the highlighted section aloud.

“No response to sensors. No matches in database. Unknown object. Possible crystalline structure. Could be Laotian explosives.” He lets a long breath slip out. “Nothing new there. Of course they can’t identify the internal structure or makeup of the Stone. We have the latest scientific instruments here, and we can’t do any better.”

“That’s must be why they confiscated it.” The voice belongs to Jerek, who has just entered the room and is standing behind Ryzaard.

“And the Stone? Where is it now?” Ryzaard says.

Jing-wei nods. “That’s the strange part of the tale. FAS no longer has it. It mysteriously disappeared from their lab a couple of hours after it was taken from the passenger.” She walks around the table closer to the screen.

“Of course.” Ryzaard sounds as if he’s talking to himself. “The Stone has bonded with the Holder, and it’s gone back to him. It always will as long as he’s alive. You can’t just take a Stone from its Holder. It’s not that easy.” Ryzaard looks at the white screen. “We just need to find the Holder. Show me his name and photograph. I’ll recognize him. He’s Asian.”

There is an extended silence. Jing-wei, Kalani and Diego all exchange nervous looks with each other.

“You do know who the passenger is, don’t you?” Ryzaard narrows his eyes. “You’ve got access to the security portal database and records.” His voice is quickly rising in volume. “You’ve already ID’d the passenger, right?”

“He’s male, but you already know that.” Jing-wei begins to back up. “And that’s about all we know.” She waves her jax in the direction of the blue Stone on the wall. Several pictures pop up in succession. Each shows the torso and legs of a lean young man, tall, muscular thighs and back, athletic build, taken from three different angles. Facing forward, from the side, from the rear.

Each picture is blurry beyond recognition from the shoulders up.

“He downloaded a cloaking protocol to his jax and engaged it as he moved through the security portal.” Jing-wei’s hands go up to her hips. “They’re illegal, but available in the nether regions of the Mesh if you know where to look. Makes it impossible for surveillance cams to capture video or stills of the target area.”

“What about his passport? They must have recorded it in the incident report. Can’t we just access that?” Ryzaard is starting to get red in the face, the muscles in his jaw flexing.

“His passport didn’t trigger any alerts in the system.” Kalani slides back into a chair and folds his arms behind his head. “But all record of it disappeared from the FAS datasite. Quietly deleted ten minutes after he passed the portal.” Kalani looks back at Ryzaard and shrugged his shoulders.

“How is that possible?” Ryzaard glares, first at Kalani, and then at Jing-wei. “You’re the best. You have unlimited resources. Find the passport!”

Kalani shakes his head, unmoved. “We can’t find what’s not there.”

They all see it. It begins with small breaths. Ryzaard clenches his jaw and begins to hyperventilate, staring down at the Stone in his hand. He turns from the bluescreen, twists and brings its tip down on the mahogany surface.

The entire table glows for less than a second and then collapses into dust at their feet. Ryzaard’s eyes draw a line across the floor to Kalani.

His spear tumbles to the floor out of his hand, and he swallows hard. “I can try to dig a little to see if there’s a trail that leads deeper into the system.”

“Don’t try. Do it. Now.” There’s a sharp edge to Ryzaard’s voice. He stares at the blurry pictures of the young man on the screen. “What other options do we have?” His eyes move to Diego and Jing-wei.

“Notice the backpack?” Jing-wei walks closer to the wall screen. “The yellow logo on the side is a Japanese symbol. It’s a mitsudomoe, three comma shapes arranged in a ying-yang fashion. We can scan any unencrypted video messages sent at the airport for that image marker. We can plug into the airport camera network as well. Every boarding gate has a security cam recording all passengers. We may get lucky and find the flight he boarded.”

“Do it.” Ryzaard turns and walks out of the room without another word.

Within an hour, he is back in the bubble room with Jing-wei, Diego and Jerek. And a new mahogany table.

“We found him.” Diego speaks in clipped sentences, glancing nervously at Ryzaard, cutting quickly to the most essential information. “His flight touches down in Tokyo in less than two hours.” He waits for Ryzaard to ask the inevitable question.

“How?” Ryzaard obliges. “How did you find him?”

“A security camera caught this.” Diego touches his jax and a hi-def video appears on screen. It’s a young man with a blurred face passing through a boarding gate. A backpack hangs off one shoulder. Diego plays his jax again and the picture zooms in on the backpack, clearly showing the yellow mitsudomoe on the side.

“Yes, it looks the same, but there could be thousands of bags with the same markings. How can you be sure we have a match?” Ryzaard stares back at Diego, one eye-brow raised.

“We also found this report in InterCommand’s data files for the same flight.” Diego points up at the screen. A few lines of text and some green graphs appear on the glass.

You got into IC’s files?”

Diego nods. “With Kalani’s help.”

“Impressive.” Ryzaard squints as he reads the text.

Inexplicable episodic interference with on-board avionics. See attached diagnostics. Unable to confirm specific source. Termination of interference confirmed. No further action taken.

Jerek clears his throat. “The interference patterns in the flight report are consistent with Stone activity observed here in the lab. It’s a 99% probability that we’ve found our target.” He pauses for Ryzaard to ask a question.

“Good work, Jerek and Diego.” Ryzaard turns to Jing-wei standing on the other side of the table. “Any progress on identification?”

“Kalani is still working on it.” Jing-wei nods toward Kalani’s section of the lab. “Last I heard, he’s not having much luck tracing the passport. Something about infinite loops and fake IDs. But we do have additional information you may find interesting.” Jing-wei’s eyes travel over to Diego, and she points her jax at the white screen. “We intercepted this unencrypted video message, sent four minutes before the target passed through security.” She folds her arms and steps back, giving Ryzaard a clear view.

A video plays on the glass.

It shows a young man with a blurred-out face walking through an airport, looking and talking directly into the screen. The yellow mitsudomoe symbol on his backpack is clearly visible.

Kalani enters through an opening in the glass wall.

“Biometrics confirm a 100 percent match to the person who passed the portal with the Stone.” Jing-wei folds her arms. “Voice and body assays conclude the target is twenty-one to twenty-three years old.”

“Steady, girl. Don’t get too excited about him.” Kalani’s voice breaks in from behind. “You still don’t know what his face looks like. Could be a real chump.”

“I ran a diagnostic on the video images. Muscle strength estimates put him in the ninth decile.” Jing-wei glares at Kalani.

“Top ten percent. So he’s athletic.” Ryzaard stands erect, shoulders thrown back, sizing up the image like a cheetah watching its quarry as the loop plays over and over on the white screen. “What else do you know about him?”

“At Diego’s suggestion, we did some layered speech analysis using one of Scientific’s own algorithms.” Jing-wei folds her arms again. “The results suggest that he’s a native speaker of Japanese and English with a deep emotional attachment to the person he sent the video message to.”

“Too bad for you, Jing-wei.” Kalani chuckles under his breath.

“He has conflicted feelings of contempt mixed with devotion towards the person he refers to as dad.” Jing-wei raises her eyebrows and allows one side of her lips to turn up as she looks at Diego. “In other words, he’s a normal guy.”

“Anything else?” Ryzaard says, motioning toward the image on screen.

“Yes.” Diego steps forward just off Ryzaard’s shoulder. “We’ve traced the jax that received this video message, which was easy since it wasn’t encrypted. It belongs to a young woman.”

“His girlfriend, no doubt. Now we’re getting somewhere. Tell me more.” Ryzaard stares at the screen. One corner of a lip curls up.

“Her name is Jessica, a twenty-two year old female living outside of Denver. Her father is a well-known businessman in the community. We’ve already started a background check and dossier, including a content analysis of all communications with her jax going back for twelve months.” Diego points his fingers at the screen and nods. “And we’ll continue to monitor all communications with her jax in real time going forward.”

“Here she is,” Jing-wei turns toward the wall. A picture of a brown-eyed woman appears on the screen.

“She’s hot,” Kalani whispers. “Tough competition.” He smiles at Jing-wei.

Ryzaard whips around. “No more jokes, Kalani. You can help by finding out everything there is to know about her.” He points at the picture of the girl on the screen. “One more thing. Send me the flight arrival data. I’m going to arrange for a proper welcoming party for the young man when he steps off the transport in Tokyo. We have friends there that are always anxious to help.”

Ryzaard leaves the room without another word.

CHAPTER 30

The transport touches down at Tsukiji International Airport at 12:13 in the morning local time. Matt steps onto the auto walk and lets the moist air kiss the skin of his face and arms. A thousand odors unleash a flood of memories of happy days with his mother when he was small. At first he resists, but then he lets the thoughts flow as he drops his backpack next to his feet, reaches deep into his pocket and jaxes a quick message off with his left hand.

Made it to Japan. The air brings back long summers with Mom when I was just a squirt. Can’t wait to dig back into this world.

He counts the passing seconds, waiting for a reply. It doesn’t take long.

Be careful. You don’t have your dad to look out for you. Things have changed in Japan in the last few years. It’s a new world there.

Matt feels a half grin form on his face. He couldn’t have said it better himself.

And then it hits him. He is fleeing to Japan just as he had twelve years earlier with his dad. Japan has become a place of escape for both of them. Maybe it’s that way for all gaijin.

The auto walk turns a corner, and he begins moving on a downward slope with other travelers through a long tube. A sign in forty languages points to the customs portal at the end of the tunnel. He hears the sound of laughter and looks up at a full color holo of men and women soaking in an outdoor hot spring with lush bamboo behind them. More holo advertisements appear on the glass panels above. Heli-transport tours to the top of Mount Fuji. All-you-can-eat poison blowfish. Kabuki theater on Ginza Drive. Cosplay parties in Akihabara. All the way to the bottom, sound and color rain down from the roof of the tunnel.

And something else has changed since his last time in Japan. The walls are plastered with Japanese kanji, Chinese characters, Korean hangul and Thai script.

But no English.

More than anything else, it’s the Japanese food in the holo-ads that catches and holds Matt’s attention. The aroma of miso and ginger pours off notices for artisan gyoza, waking up his nostrils. He can taste the Bulldog and Kyuupi sauce on the holos of okonomi-yaki, the Osaka-style pancakes made with pork, finely diced Nappa cabbage and shrimp. His soul yearns for the taste of soba in chicken broth. Delicate textures of neon sashimi scream for attention. The glistening gyudon beef and katsudon pork cause a sea to form on his tongue.

Swallowing often and inhaling deeply, he is in the land where food is an art form, a multi-sensory experience.

His mind goes back twelve years to the time he and his dad fled the United States for the safety of Japan. For a time, they live mostly on ramen, the traditional food of the underworld. Not the artificial tasting cardboard resurrected with boiling water, but the deep-flavored noodles found only in the smoky dives and back streets of Tokyo and Osaka.

Thoughts of food lead Matt to Jessica. His hand instinctively reaches for the jax.

Know any good ramenyas at the Tsukiji Airport?

Jess replies in the blink of an eye. She must be monitoring her jax.

What’s a ramenya?

Matt’s laughs. He’s already making the transition to Japanese in his mind.

Noodle boutique.

Jess doesn’t skip a beat.

Don’t waste your time on ramen. Eat sushi!

Yes. Sushi. That most holy of all foods. He sees it everywhere now, splashed across the holos in succulent pinks and oranges, reds and greens.

Sushi it is.

He notices it again. No signs in English.

You could still seen signs written in English twelve years ago, when he was a refugee in Japan with his dad, prior to the Mukden-Hiroshima Incident, as it came to be called.

It happened several months after they arrived with fake passports. A small nuclear device was inserted in the needle-shaped monument marking ground zero in Hiroshima. It was detonated on a bright August morning at exactly 8:15, one hundred and thirty years to the second after the event that originally put Hiroshima on the map. Of the one million people gathered at that very time and place to observe a minute of silence, only half survived the sixty seconds that followed.

The Incident was blamed on American fundanationalists by the Japanese media, but this was never confirmed, even after an inquiry by a neutral panel of international experts. Within days, the Japanese government imposed strict limits on Americans traveling to Japan. English ceased to be taught in public schools. Beisuboru became yakyuu overnight, just as it had been one hundred and thirty years before. Weeks later, Japan shut down the U.S. embassy in Tokyo, cancelled all agreements with the United States and signed its first joint trade and security pack with China.

At the end of the tunnel, Matt steps off the auto walk, picks up his backpack and moves a short distance to the customs portal. On the way, he passes a trash bin.

As he walks by it, he opens his right palm and stares down at the claw-shaped rock resting there. It’s black and lifeless in his hand.

Ignoring the regret that flares up, he turns his hand over and watches carefully as the rock separates and drops into the trash bin. It disappears into a sea of multicolored plastic, half-eaten fruit and assorted cheap electronics. He stops and stares down, burning this moment into his memories. And then he leaves it all behind and moves to the customs portal.

Don’t need that anymore. Too weird. Gone for good. I saw the rock leave my hand. No doubts. No questions. No mysteries. Done.

Two lines of people form, Japanese on the right, foreigners on the left. He slips the collection of passports out of a side pocket of the backpack, chooses the red one and walks to the right. Reaching for his jax, he engages the cloaker as he scans the area for telltale signs of hidden cams.

A woman in a crisp blue uniform and long black hair waves him over to her counter. He steps across a black line and moves in her direction, trying to look relaxed and confident.

Pasupo-to o negai shimasu.” The woman looks up through artificially lush eyelashes. Her eyes narrow.

Without saying a word, Matt executes a subtle bow of his forehead and lays the red card on the counter. Pulse quickening, he silently starts counting breaths.

One, two, three.

The woman inserts the passport card into a slot and stares into a bluescreen at eye level.

Four, five.

Her eyes glide right to left. The passport pops up out of the slot. Using both hands, she gently lays it back on the counter with no change in expression.

Six, seven, eight.

Dozo.” Without looking up, she motions to a white door sliding open behind her.

Arigato gozaimasu.” Matt does a shallow bow and passes through the portal. A breath slowly escapes.

Thanks for the passports, Dad.

CHAPTER 31

Sitting at the kitchen table, Kent loses track of time as he gazes out the picture window. Another hour has passed, maybe more. To the west, the setting sun casts a band of orange that cuts through the snow-veined peaks on the opposite side of the valley. Garlic chicken pasta is uneaten in the frying pan, the heavy smell like a weight on his shoulders. There will be no gyoza, no sushi, or anything else Japanese tonight.

It would be too painful to think of Matt.

His fingers lay inches from the thin bluescreen of the slate where he reads again, for the tenth time, the brief report on Mr. Mikal Ryzaard while the sun is still above the western horizon. Something in the report bothers him and still knocks around in the back of his mind, unresolved.

An archeologist works out a mathematical algorithm that helps MX Global make a killing in the stock market.

The story doesn’t make sense. But no one questions it. Not the MX directors or shareholders, not ISEC, not the media. Success and money put all doubts to rest. MX Global is the glory of the American capitalist system. As long as the money flows, everyone is happy, and no one wants to ask questions and risk losing their place within the Complex, the entire web of relationships and power that insure the rich get richer while the rest of humankind remains comfortably numb. The Complex. A word thrown around a lot on anarchist Mesh-points encapsulating everything wrong with the fabric of the world.

When Kent chose to go off-grid so many years ago, it was a choice to opt out of the Complex. And a choice to fight back.

Turning away from the window, his fingers stretch out to the slate. An idea is taking shape in his mind. He breathes in and out, letting the idea grow as he relaxes into it. The original seed was planted after the death of his wife. Over the years, details and plans accumulated in layers like a growing pearl. Kent always suppressed it so he could focus on Matt. But now Matt is gone and safely away in Japan.

The idea takes on its final form and rises to the surface of his mind. Still in his late forties, he’s young enough and fit enough for the physical demands of a sleuthing trip back to the City. Back to MX Global.

Now or never.

He looks again to make sure he has an anonymous Mesh connection with the strong encryption protocol engaged. His fingers begin to type a message to his source on the inside at MX Global.

Many thanks for the intel on Ryzaard and MX Global. It’s been over a decade since MX ripped Yoshiko away and left me alone to raise my son. They are solely responsible for her death. The time has come to reveal the truth and seek justice.

He sends off the message and gazes out the window once again up at the Mosquito Range.

There’s a ping on his slate.

Good hunting, my friend. Good hunting.

He walks upstairs and begins to pack.

CHAPTER 32

Matt strides past the elevator and descends a spiral staircase into the open luggage area below. He recognizes passengers from the flight and moves past them straight to the customs area. There is no need to stop. The pack on his back is the only piece of luggage he possesses. As he approaches the customs counter, he slips out the same red passport. With an utter lack of expression, the officer does a short bow and waves him through an archway into the main airport area. Passing under the arch, he reads the words written there, royal blue against a white background.

Yokoso Nippon e.

Welcome to Japan.” Matt mumbles to himself. “All I can say is, it’s good to be here.”

He checks a clock. There’s still two and a half hours before the flight to Sapporo. Plenty of time to eat.

Only twenty paces away, a sea of bright colors catches his eye. He walks closer and stares through a window at plates of neon sushi freshly cut from the day’s catch. Or so it seems. On closer inspection, he knows it’s all made of hand-blown glass, fashioned to look better than the real thing and lure in customers.

It works on Matt.

His eyes skim past the prices and his mind screams no. But an audible rumble bursts out of his belly, and his feet obediently take him across the threshold into the store. In a daze, he drops into a chair and lets the backpack slip free of his shoulders to the floor.

A young woman with an apron approaches and asks what he would like. His lips move. Time seems to blur. In a matter of minutes he’s looking down at a sea bream lying on a plate, fresh from the ocean. Raw and glistening, its sides have been cut into small fillets, each one a mouthful of joy. His hands grope for the chopsticks, and he gently takes up one of the translucent slices. As he dips it in soy sauce, the stain makes thick grains of flesh visible to the eye. Once safely in his mouth, there is no hint of fishiness. It’s the Platonic ideal of food. Texture and flavor join in a seamless unity. Pure Nirvana.

A soft swaying motion catches his eye. As his gaze drifts down, he sees the pink tail of the fish waving back and forth.

Now that’s fresh.

Having paid the equivalent of a week’s wages, his mind takes control as he finishes the last of the sea bream. On the way out of the restaurant, his fingers fumble for the jax.

Best. Sushi. Ever.

Instinctively, he glances around at the passersby to see if anyone has their eye on him. Then he chides himself for being paranoid.

I’m in Japan now. I’m one of them. No need to worry.

His stomach reminds him that, in spite of the costly meal, he’s still hungry. That can only mean one thing.

It’s time to fill up on noodles and soup.

He heads to the lower level where the holo-ad promised an orthodox negi miso ramen, the finest this side of Tomakomai City. His thoughts turn to long tubes of Japanese pasta floating in a savory broth of leeks and soybean paste. Swallowing frequently, he makes his way to the ramenya.

In front of the bright red noren curtain, he stops to read the word ramen written vertically in sharp black katakana. Just before he passes through into the tiny culinary boutique, he casts a backward glance to see if he’s being followed. Then he chides himself again for not letting go of his dad’s demons and ducks inside.

A single row of barstools stretches out at a low counter. The aroma of steaming broth and fried pork mingled with soy sauce and ginger carries him to the last empty seat at the far end. He leans his backpack against the wall where faint brown stains run in streaks down to the floor. A black cockroach scampers into a crack.

A sign on the wall explains that the broth used in this ramen shop was originally made over three hundred years before and has been added to, but never thrown out, since that time.

It sounds delicious beyond description.

After settling into the seat, Matt swivels to have a look around. Most of the others at the bar are exhausted sarariman in drab blue and grey business suits, going or coming from business trips. The younger patrons hunch over jaxes and slates, swimming in a world of electronic chatter, earphones maintaining a buffer of noise between them and the world. The older ones pour over ancient manga comics, as thick and yellow as old phone books. Laughter streams out of a screen in the opposite corner where a mindless game show plays quietly to provide just the right amount of background noise. They are all absorbed in the ritual of slurping the precious contents of their bowls with detached oblivion.

A bookcase stands within arm’s reach against the wall. Matt grabs a purple manga with a picture of an octopus-looking alien and begins to page through it.

A strange feeling floods over him. He is a chameleon. Thirty-six hours ago, he was at home dodging boulders on a late-season slope in the Colorado Rockies. Now, thanks to his mother’s genes, he blends perfectly into this new and exotic environment. Two diverse cultures pull at him. He is simultaneously immersed in and alienated from each.

The noodle chef works briskly behind the counter with a white hachimaki band twisted around his head. Looking up quickly, he acknowledges Matt with slight nod. Matt bobs his head in return, and then watches the man in fascination as he builds a ramen from the ground up.

First, he empties a small basket of steaming white noodles into a bowl with one hand and dips broth from a large caldron behind him with the other. He gently pours in the brown liquid. As the noodles begin to swim, the chef’s hands dance in circles, dropping in chopped green onions, a generous measure of crushed garlic, two dark slices of pork. As Matt gazes on, the chef looks up quickly and flashes a knowing smile. In a blur of movement, the chef throws oils and powders of mysterious origin into the bowl and stirs it briskly with oversized chopsticks and two flicks of his wrist. The completed masterpiece floats down in his hands to the front of a customer on Matt’s left.

The chef approaches Matt to get his order.

O-kyaku-san. Dou suru kai?

Matt notes the rough tone of speech common for ramen chefs, but answers in a more formal manner, ordering without checking the menu. “Negi miso ramen, o negai shimasu.” He knows exactly what he wants. Noodles with leeks and fermented soybean paste.

Yoshi. Wakatta.” In two words, the chef tells Matt it’s a good choice and he’s confident of his ability to deliver.

In three minutes, Matt is slurping louder than anyone else at the counter.

He remembers that he hasn’t jaxed off a safe arrival message to his dad. While still eating with chopsticks in his right hand, his left hand slips into a side pocket and taps out a quick note.

Got to Nippon in one piece. Enjoying ramen nirvana right now. No need to worry. Everything OK.

He omits any mention of the little hiccup at the airport security portal. Hopefully, it will be enough to satisfy his dad. With the ramen in front of him, everything is more than OK.

And then, out of the corner of his eye, he notices two Japanese men staring at him from across the corridor outside the door.

It must be coincidence. His attention goes back to the ramen, and he downs two more bunches of noodles and broth. Out of habit, he glances again outside the door.

The two men haven’t moved an inch, and they’re still staring at him.

One wears an off-white suit over a wide-collared red shirt unbuttoned to the middle of his chest. The other has a black suit with the same red shirt. Shoulder pads flare out under their clothing, giving their torsos an unnatural V appearance. The front half of their heads are shaved and polished. A greased ponytail lies down on top and points forward, its blunt tip coming down between dark eyebrows. Neon tattoos in the form of purple and red dragon motifs adorn ridiculously enhanced pecs under tufts of black hair.

Samurai warriors in Italian suits. He can tell with one glance they’re Yakuza. Japanese mafia.

A flash of fear causes him to catch his breath. An image forms in his mind. His mom in the car in the seconds before the transport tears it apart. Nausea wells up in his stomach. It sparks a tingle that begins at the bottom of his spine and ascends up to the base of his skull, vertebra by vertebra, raising the hair on his back as it goes.

Despite their comic appearance, Matt knows one doesn’t mess with Yakuza, self-styled keepers of bushido, the samurai spirit. As part of his preparation to come to Japan, he read about their rapid rise in popularity after the Mukden-Hiroshima Incident, a direct result of Japan pulling away from America and the West. The police rarely challenge them, and the common people often applaud as they pass on the street. They live above the law and apply their own version of vigilante justice, often selling their services to the highest bidder.

If the rumors are true, the skyscrapers of Tokyo are full of bodies dumped by the Yakuza into their newly poured concrete foundations.

Matt turns back to his ramen and tries to enjoy the last of the noodles, the flat slices of pork, the leeks, the innumerable little bits of flavor floating in the broth. After fishing out all the meat and broken noodles at the bottom, he lifts the bowl to his lips. Slowly and deliberately, he drains the contents, savoring the taste and aroma to the last. When he stands up, he pulls an old 500 yen coin from his pocket and places it on the counter.

Gochisosama deshita,” Matt says. But simply thanking the ramen man doesn’t seem sufficient. He needs to tell him how delicious it was. “Sugoku oishikatta.

Arigatosan.” The man behind the counter nods, accepting the compliment.

Matt shoulders his backpack, takes a deep breath and walks briskly through the noren curtain out into the corridor.

The two Yakuza are still there, staring, smiling. Matt’s field of vision sweeps across them. The older one with the dark suit has a thin red scar running down one side of his pock-marked jaw from ear to chin. He taps a long silver tube against the palm of his hand, lips curling in a snarl, making no attempt to avoid Matt’s eyes. Two fingers are missing from his right hand. The other man is short and younger with no visible scars.

Matt takes one more look at the multicolored dragons and demons spreading out from their chests. As he stares, he notices movement. The creatures crawl over their skin like maggots on the dead.

He’s heard the rumors of mobile tattoos, a recent innovation found only in the underground flesh markets of Tokyo. But this is the first time he’s seen them for real.

Could it be that they are looking for Matt?

There is only one way to tell. Matt walks briskly down the corridor and around several corners, making a large circuit that takes him through the restaurant section of the airport and back past the ramen shop. Five minutes later he passes the ramenya and takes a quick backward glance.

No doubt about it, they’re in pursuit, making no effort to look innocent. A knot forms in his stomach and wraps itself around a novel thought.

Maybe dad was right after all.

His left hand instinctively gropes for the jax, and he fingers a message inside his pocket.

Dad, being tailed by a couple of Yaks at the airport. Not sure what to do. I’d rather not let them know I’m flying to Sapporo so they can contact their comrades on the other end and arrange a pick-up. Any enemies in Japan you haven’t told me about?

Matt’s fingers tremble and then erase the message. Sending it won’t help. It might even bring his dad to Japan after him. Better to handle it on his own.

As Matt moves down the corridor, the crisp tap of footsteps behind him draws closer. In his mind’s eye, he can see himself, bound and gagged, driven off to an abandoned warehouse along the Arakawa River in the backseat of a black Mercedes Benz.

He makes an abrupt left turn a few feet down a crowded hallway and ducks into a men’s restroom. It’s empty. Good thing the doors on Japanese bathroom stalls go all the way to the floor and hide their inhabitants. Rushing into one, he bolts the door behind him, tears off his backpack, drops it down and waits.

Then he curses himself for walking into exactly the kind of trap the Yakuza thugs have been waiting for.

The restroom door squeals open. There is the same crisp tapping of shoes on the tile floor. Matt struggles to control his breathing as the laughing voices of two men bounce off the walls. From the rough Japanese they speak, he knows they are from Osaka, a Yakuza stronghold.

“Where did the stupid gaijin go?” The younger one speaks first. “I couldn’t tell if the scum came this way or not.”

“Don’t worry, Taka-chan.” The low voice of the older man drifts closer. “At least we had some fun with him.”

“Did you see the look on his face when he ran off?” The younger voice seems to move to the urinal against the wall.

Staring through a crack in the stall door, Matt watches as the older man leans back against the sink and lights a cigarette.

“Like a little scared dog. All Americans are the same. Worthless cowards.” He blows a thin plume of smoke up to the ceiling.

“Did you ever kill one?” The younger man still stands at the urinal relieving himself as the sound of falling water echoes in the room. It goes on for more than a minute.

“What, a dog or an American?” The older man laughs open-mouthed, exposing deeply stained teeth. “Yes, once. When I was younger, like you. You should try it sometime.” He turns and looks at himself in the mirror, adjusting his shirt collar.

“Tell me about it.”

The older man inhales sharply. “We were selling cheap Twilight fresh from China down around Shinjuku. An American student, one of our regular customers, refused to pay. He said the drugs were dirty. Called me a filthy Jap.” He pushes off the sink and starts walking slowly toward the stalls.

Matt freezes.

“What did you do?” The young man zips his fly.

“I told him I had something even better he could try for free.” His footsteps are just outside the stall. “He got in the car with me and Bobo-chan. We took him for a ride to Roppongi. Got a rope and some knives from the club. We played with him for a couple of hours before we finished him off.”

The restroom door opens and a man with two chattering children enters.

As Matt watches through the crack, the older Yakuza man takes one look at the children and heads for the door. “Let’s go. I’ll tell you the rest later.”

There’s the sound of a toilet flush and footsteps going out into the corridor. Then the sound of children’s laughter.

An hour later, Matt walks into the boarding area for the flight to Sapporo with two minutes to spare. The navy blue T-shirt and black cargo pants are gone, replaced by a windbreaker and jogging pants, both with fully adjustable color and looking white at the moment. Spiked hair and a black mustache complete the disguise.

His dad is the one who slipped the urban-camo kit into his backpack and taught him tricks to avoid detection when he was a kid.

Matt chuckles to himself as he thinks of the two Yakuza gangsters. They won’t recognize him now even if they are still at the airport.

That wasn’t so hard.

He taps out a message to his dad as he steps onto the auto-walk to board the plane for the hour flight. The backpack, covered with blue camo cloth, slips off his shoulders and goes down between his feet. With a touch of his thumb, the message goes off to his dad.

Now boarding final leg to Sapporo. No problems. Everything smooth as silk.

As the auto-walk turns a corner, he glances behind him. The two Yakuza goons are walking away, backs to him, both doing fist pumps in the air.

The older one fingers the same silver tube he had outside the ramen shop.

CHAPTER 33

Kent walks downstairs past the open door to Matt’s bedroom. The light turns on when he enters the storage room. He rummages through the shelves looking for the high-density C-cells. They always come in handy when you are going on a road trip. Equipment is piling up in the garage.

He hopes everything will fit in the bed of the Chikara.

It’s been a half dozen years since his last trip, and even that was a vacation with Matt where they did some long-distance surveillance on a low security lithium-dumping site in Idaho. He prefers to do his work in quiet anonymity using only the Mesh, military grade encryption-ware and an assortment of loyal contacts and spies. Physical location is rarely a matter of importance.

But this is different.

Pulling out his jax, he scans the packing list again. He still needs to get the monofilament jumpline and karabiners, as well as a climbing harness, a pair of carbon-stretch gloves and ball bearings. A grapple wouldn’t hurt either. You never know what you might have to deal with.

On the way back upstairs, he wanders into Matt’s room to see how much of his climbing gear he left behind. It looks like he’s taken couple of the newer nylon cords, but there are still plenty to choose from. Kent rummages around some more, runs through his list one more time and walks upstairs with cables and ropes dangling from the boxes in his arms.

Dropping into a chair at the kitchen table, he picks the slate up in his hand. This time around, intel on the Mesh is unusually scarce. The feelers sent out to contacts result in little more than public information, rumors and wild conjecture. MX Global doesn’t want the world or its own organization to know what SciFin is up to.

That’s why he has to go in person.

Kent puts the climbing gear and assorted batteries in a black cargo box and lugs it out to the garage. There is only one open slot left in the back of the Chikara, and he heaves the box into place. Once again he reviews the list while surveying the truck bed. Electronic eavesdroppers, telescopic laser nets, GPS, Torcel lights, even a crossbow. All military grade.

His days as lawyer at a white shoe Wall Street firm seem like an eternity ago.

The face of Ryzaard flashes through his mind. The man in a bowtie and tweed jacket. A former Oxford don. Now the head of the two largest divisions at MX Global. He is the logical place to start.

If there’s anything Kent knows about, it’s corporate mergers. He saw a constant stream of them while a lawyer at Sullivan & Myers. The first few weeks after a merger are always chaos. New personnel learning the ropes. Security systems getting tweaked. Datasites being reconfigured. Working out the kinks. It absorbs a lot of time and energy. The bigger the merger, the bigger the upheaval. And MX Global is right in the middle of one of the biggest mergers in history.

Now is the perfect time to strike.

Back when he had been on the run with his son, Kent remembers reading something in an old military tactics manual he pulled off a dusty shelf in a library in Billings, Montana.

The best time to exploit the enemy’s weakness is when they are on the march.

MX Global is certainly on the march now.

At exactly 2:30 in the morning, Kent completes the loading. He walks into the garage, eases open the door and walks out onto the driveway. The stars are pinpricks of light in the black dome of the night sky. A symphony of crickets plays in the bushes by the house.

He pulls out his jax.

Matt, hope all is well in Nippon. The old snake is going to shed its skin and go on a hunting trip with the Chikara. If things get tight, call Mom. She’ll know where to find me. Love you.

Kent sends off the encrypted message and waits a few seconds. His jax softly pings with the reply.

Enjoy the hunting and take care of the truck. I’m on the last leg. I’ll keep in touch with Mom. Love you too.

Kent closes his eyes and imagines his son on the flight to Sapporo. Sliding the memory crystal out of the jax, he drops it to the concrete driveway and crushes it with his boot heel, symbolically destroying the only remaining connection between him and the rest of the world. Then he carefully sweeps up the powder. He’ll throw it out the window when he crosses the bridge over the Sardox River.

If there’s an emergency, he still has a link to Matt through MOM.

Walking to the cab of the Chikara, he climbs in and drops down into the seat. An unused jax lies on the carcom. He lifts it and checks to make sure the new ID is loaded. Then he pulls out the tiny power cell from the bottom and watches the glowing jax slowly fade out in the dark, disengaging its tracking function. He’ll only turn it back on if there’s an emergency.

Until then, no electronic footprints.

The Chikara eases out of the garage and down the driveway. He drives off, leaving the sound of whales in his wake.

CHAPTER 34

Ryzaard paces back and forth in his office between his desk and the closed door, hands behind his back. His tweed jacket hangs limply over the back of the chair.

The jax flashes on the desk. A full-color holo of Alexa’s face floats above it, showing her standing on the other side of the door.

“Come in.” He shouts at the face. The door glides sideways without a sound, and she enters.

Alexa walks to the sofa and sits directly under the Chinese wall-hanging. “Any word yet?”

“None.” Ryzaard shakes his head. “It’s been two hours since he landed in Tokyo. They should have found him and reported back by now.” He brings a clenched fist up to his lips. “If we lose him now, we’ll have to restart the tracking algorithm and waste another day. He might be anywhere in Japan by then. Damn Yakuza thugs.”

“They’re not the most intellectually gifted organization, that’s for sure.” Alexa picks a small wooden statue off the floor and begins to examine it closely. “I like this totem. Where did you get it?”

“It’s Maori, and it’s priceless.” Ryzaard hates the way Alexa can sense his stress and her odd habit of making annoying remarks unrelated to the matter at hand. Maybe she does it to relax him, but it only stresses him more. If she weren’t so useful, he would have disposed of her months ago. A snarl forms on his lips, and he marches over and rips the statue from her hands. “Don’t underestimate the Yakuza. Though crude in their methods, they are one of the most dependable organizations in the world, and they always get the job done.” He’s in no mood to argue about the wisdom of involving the Japanese Mafia.

“If you pay them enough,” she says.

“Don’t worry. We already have.” Still gripping the statue, Ryzaard draws in a long breath and walks over to the massive window behind his desk, looking out into the night. Relaxation slowly returns. The streets glow red and white with Midtown Manhattan’s night traffic. “So many of them.” Ryzaard stares down and lets out a long exhale. “Their lives ruled by forces beyond their control, forces that exploit and manipulate them.”

Her hands gently slide across the tops of his shoulders. A single finger traces the line of his spine, causing his flesh to tingle at her touch. His muscles soften as he inhales the subtle scent of her lavender perfume. His anger toward her drains out.

It’s at times like these that Ryzaard is glad he hasn’t disposed of her yet.

“They don’t look unhappy. After all, this is New York City. Nightclubs, restaurants, shows, anything you could want or imagine.” Alexa’s fingers do a delicate dance between his shoulder blades. “Isn’t that happiness?”

“Being told that you’re happy and actually being happy are not the same thing.” Ryzaard’s fingers stretch out to the streets below, palms facing down, as if he can relieve their suffering through some supernatural power. “The Complex tells them they are happy as long as they have a constant barrage of sensory stimulation. Bluescreens, holos, music, drugs, food, pleasure. No time to stop and think. For now, that is all they have. Lives devoid of meaning. But we will bring the Complex crashing down. Soon.” Ryzaard turns and reaches his hands out to Alexa, drawing her close.

“Dr. Ryzaard.” She gazes up through thick eyelashes. “You are happy, aren’t you? Look at what you’ve built. It’s all going according to plan. No mistakes. Hardly a hiccup. You have the power of the gods. That must make you the happiest person on the earth.” She lays her ear against his chest.

“Have you heard about the latest freedom camp?” Ryzaard pulls away and looks down into Alexa’s eyes.

“The latest? Another one? They already dot the countryside. Hellish places.”

“There’s a new one that’s come together, a few miles outside of Las Vegas, near Lake Mead. Thousands are flocking to it, mostly the young who have rejected modern civilization.”

“Rejects, all right. They are the ones who have been rejected by modern civilization.” Alexa slips the Maori statue out of Ryzaard’s hand and starts walking back to the couch. “The homeless, the unemployed, prostitutes and street thugs. The scum of society.”

“Their leader is an old Indian chief. He’s declared himself and his people free from modern society. He says they’re going to turn the clock back a thousand years.”

“Crazy, isn’t it?”

“No, not crazy. Desperate, maybe, but not crazy. He understands something. Something important, I’m afraid.”

“What could he possibly understand?” Alexa drops onto the couch and stares into the surface of the Maori carving.

“That our entire civilization is built upon a deceit, a lie.”

“Is that so?” Alexa digs fingers into the fabric of the sofa. “And what, exactly, is the lie?”

“Simple,” Ryzaard says. “That more is always better than less. That happiness comes from the size of your house, your car, your bank account or who knows what else. That unbridled worship of the individual is the path to contentment.”

“And you will be their savior?”

“Their savior? No.”

“Then what are you?”

“Their liberator. Their guide.” Ryzaard walks to the desk and picks up the Stone. “I will free them from the crushing burdens the Complex has placed upon them. We will start over. Just like the Indian chief out in Las Vegas. Only he will fail, and I will succeed.”

There is a pleasant pinging sound. A color holo appears in the air above his jax. It’s the face of Diego Lopez, sitting in a chair next to his desk.

“Dr. Ryzaard.” Diego clears his throat. “We just received a priority-one message from Mr. Harukichi Shinoda in Tokyo. They’ve located the target and carried out your wishes. We have a link to the tracking device. I’ll put it through.”

Diego’s face fades into a satellite view of Japan. The screen zooms in on the northern island of Hokkaido. As the screen moves in closer, a red dot appears on the outskirts of Sapporo.

It’s moving closer to the University.

CHAPTER 35

“Iroiro arigato gozaimasu.” Matt bows to Dr. Hikaru Yamamoto almost deep enough to touch his toes. It is not an empty gesture. He feels deep gratitude for Professor Yamamoto, for coming to meet Matt at the airport and bringing him to the dormitory, and for taking him and his dad under his wing so many years ago when they fled to Japan as refugees.

The door to his room already has his name and home country on the nameplate, written in crisp Katakana script. Matt Newmark, America.

“See you tomorrow, Newmark-kun.” Professor Yamamoto returns a slight head bow. He turns to walk down the long, narrow hall lined with identical doors on both sides. A drab carpet the color of pink puke lines the floor.

Matt chuckles at the kun attached to his name by Professor Yamamoto. It’s a sign of affection. Only in Japan would a grown man be spoken to like a six-year-old child.

Walking through the door, Matt lets his backpack slide off his shoulders to the floor. He stretches the aching muscles of his back. Without thinking, he starts scanning the room for hidden cams, data sniffers and surveillance equipment. A bed lies against one wall. A short refrigerator stands against the opposite wall next to a desk, below a large bluescreen on the wall. All in all, it is more than he could have hoped for, especially since he has the room all to himself.

He opens the window and looks out on a line of cherry blossom trees running down the middle of a narrow courtyard between him and dorms on the other side. The music of cicada beetles rises in waves of crescendo and washes through the early evening air. A faint chorus of frogs has started in a pond just outside the dorm. He eases his long gaijin frame onto the bed, feels his calves hanging over the edge, closes his eyes and thinks of evening frolics with his mom, walking between rice paddies, catching tadpoles and watching the red sun drop behind lush green mountains.

The jax comes out of his pocket. He looks again at the message from his dad and laughs. From what he can make of it, his dad has taken off in the Chikara on a secret trip for some old-fashioned hardcore snooping, and he’s thrown away his old jax and switched to a new one. He hasn’t given Matt the new jax ID because he’s gone into deep stealth mode and doesn’t want any incoming traffic. Or maybe he just wants to give Matt some distance.

Either way, it’s a good idea.

And so, for the first time in his life, Matt is out of instant communication with his dad.

The only way for Matt to send a message is through MOM, a clandestine Mesh-point set up by the Islamic Republic of Mauritania and used by hi-tech thugs for untraceable transactions. He remembers how his dad acquired a no-name account at MOM two years ago while researching the criminal activities of the Congo drug lords. He must have liked what he found. It’s where he stores all his high-sensitivity data. The only catch is that it’s expensive, slow and cumbersome to use.

For emergencies only.

With his hands behind his head, a ripple of relaxation washes over him. The more he thinks about it, the more he likes it. Dad is out of touch. Matt is completely on his own.

Paradise.

His eyelids slowly drop down as he willingly surrenders to jet lag.

The sound of a screaming girl pierces through the curtain of sound made by cicadas and jars Matt awake. He jumps up and stumbles to the window. In the dim twilight, a group of college students are standing in the courtyard. Another girl screams and then laughs. It’s just some kids goofing off.

He looks at his jax. An hour has gone by. Time to get out and explore before his research work starts tomorrow.

Given the state of relations between Japan and America, it took a lot of courage for Professor Yamamoto to take on Matt as a research assistant. That’s especially true since the Professor knows that Matt and his dad are running from something in their past. They’ve never shared the details, and the Professor has always been kind enough not to ask. Matt is keenly aware that he owes a deep debt of gratitude. Hopefully, he can live up to the Professor’s expectations.

He walks out into the night, inhaling deeply as a wall of heat slams into him and instantly lays down a wet film on the entire surface of his skin. He passes the pond, the line of cherry blossom trees and a string of low-rise dorms before walking out the main gate and heading straight for the 7-Eleven across the street. Its neon sign is a horizontal band of red and green running the length of the roof line.

The store is like a garden of earthly delights. In this case, it isn’t fruit hanging from the trees, but a selection of exotic Japanese snack foods. He browses the aisles and notes his favorite shrimp chips and chocolate. In the end, he settles on two steaming hot buns with generous centers of shredded pork barbeque. The Japanese call them nikuman. One of them is half gone before he makes it out the front door. Both of them are entirely consumed before he walks a block.

He pulls out his jax and plays out a message.

Jess, can we go for a walk?

It is 3:00 in the morning for her. Matt doesn’t expect a reply, but he gets one anyway.

I just came out of a dream when you jax’d. Been waiting for you. Where are we going?

He looks around.

Through a bamboo grove on the edge of campus. Past a pond full of singing frogs.

The jax gently purrs in his hand.

Sounds wonderful. I’ll just close my eyes as we walk along.

Matt knows Jess is lying in bed, the jax in her right hand, playing out messages in his sim-voice.

Just downed a couple of nikuman at Seven-Eleven. Could eat a dozen of those without trying. Better than sugar-creme doughnuts.

The croaking of frogs mixes with a section of cicada to form a rich symphony.

Sounds delish, but no idea what a nikuman is. I’m game as long as it’s not raw.

Images form in his mind of the first and last time he took Jessica to a Japanese restaurant for sushi. For fun, he asked the chef to surprise them with something unusual. A plate arrived with raw sea urchin guts, split squid eyes and white chunks of pickled meat known as whale zits. Jess had to look away while Matt consumed the delicacies with gusto.

They stopped at McDonald’s on the way home for some soy burgers.

What’s a nikuman? It’s heavenly and soft on the outside with a heart of gold, or in this case, pork. Almost like you.

The reply comes swiftly.

I don’t have any pork on the inside. And I’m not soft.

Matt counters.

But you are heavenly, and I love everything about you.

Like a cherry blossom blooming in slow motion, that old feeling unfolds inside him. It usually comes when he and Jess are on a long walk or ride in the mountains. Or on the chairlift at the Skull on a deep powder day. It starts in the middle of his chest, just below the solar plexus and ripples outward, like rays of sun, cutting through flesh and bone, leaving him with a lump in this throat and moist eyes.

He wonders if Jessica feels it like he does.

Turning a corner, he walks away from the main street toward a bamboo grove a hundred meters away. Neither of them speaks for more than a minute. The moon is just rising above the canopy of the grove. A distant chorus of frogs draws him closer.

Jess, for you.

Matt points the jax in the direction of the moon and engages the video-cam and audio. He walks straight ahead, panning from side to side.

Wish you were here.

CHAPTER 36

Ryzaard relaxes in his chair in the bubble at the center of the lab. A dark cigarette hangs off the edge of the table, its blue smoke etching a thin line in the air to the ceiling. Alexa sits to his right. The others are positioned in their accustomed places around the table.

Nobody moves.

All eyes are on the video playing out in real time on the glass wall. The scene slowly moves around, showing a 360-degree view from ground level within a bamboo grove. It pans past the bright disk of a full moon above, shining through the leaves. Frogs and cicadas sing in the darkness.

And then they see it. The face of a young man looking into the video, his Asian eyes complemented by straight hair flowing down to his shoulders. A well-defined nose and cheekbones stand out in high relief. A mixture of East and West.

Ryzaard immediately recognizes the young man from the meditation-dream, his back against the old oak tree, raw terror bleeding from his eyes.

The hair on the back of Ryzaard’s neck bristles.

My opponent, he thinks. My prey.

Diego peers to his left at the face of Jing-wei. She looks intently forward, studying the eyes of the young man on the glass screen.

“We installed a ghost link on the jax belonging to the woman. Jessica.” Diego’s voice shatters the silence as he speaks in the direction of Jing-wei and then turns around to face Ryzaard. “We cloned her signal and will be able to transmit text or video or anything else using her jax ID. It will appear in every way to have come from her.”

“It was her jax that led us to him.” Jing-wei breaks in, glaring back at Diego. “She calls him Matt, but that doesn’t match the ID on the jax he’s using, which Kalani traced in the NSA records.” Jing-wei nods to her left at the Tongan boy. “It actually belongs to a twenty-five-year-old man from Argentina who immigrated two years ago and died from typhoid at Lenox Hill Hospital right here in Manhattan just last month.”

“The guy must have bought it off the Mesh.” Diego turns back to the video on the wall. “Given all the recent security upgrades, fake IDs aren’t easy or cheap to find nowadays. Very resourceful.”

“I assume you have installed a link on his jax as well.” Ryzaard speaks to Diego. “We need to monitor his messages and track his exact location at all times.”

“We tried everything we had, but his jax sheds any linkage in nanoseconds. I’ve only seen that capability in military-grade hardware. What’s a guy from Colorado doing with that?”

Kalani stirs. “It fits the pattern. Fake IDs, video surveillance scramblers, non-traceable passports. We’re dealing with a smart kid.”

“Or a criminal,” Ryzaard says.

“At any rate,” Jing-wei says. “We have a link to the girl’s jax and can monitor it around the clock. We’ll know whenever he sends her a message.” She looks back in the direction of Ryzaard, and then at Diego. “I’d like to take personal responsibility for tracking him.”

“I’m sure you would,” Diego says.

“Agreed, Jing-wei. You’re the logical choice.” Ryzaard brings the cigarette to his mouth and takes a deep drag, exhaling a plume of smoke to the center of the table. “We now have our targets.”

“So where do we go from here?” Elsa Bergman speaks up from across the table.

“Let’s review what we know,” Ryzaard says. “First, this boy, Matt, has our Stone.” Ryzaard points at the screen on the wall.

Diego chips in. “He’s got a stolen ID and a cloaking protocol on his jax.”

“And a non-traceable passport.” Kalani slams his fist down on the table.

“He’s from Colorado and loves to ski,” Elsa adds.

“He’s half Japanese and deeply in love with a girl named Jessica.” Diego turns to face Jing-wei. “And she loves him too.”

“He has knowledge and resources from the underbelly of the Mesh.” Jing-wei stares back at Diego.

“Look!” From across the table, Elsa Bergman suddenly points at the glass screen.

The video has ended, but messages are playing out across the screen.

How’s the magic rock doing?

They all freeze for the next thirty seconds waiting for the reply. Then it comes.

I tossed it in the trash at the airport. It’s probably sitting below some half-eaten curry in a landfill fifty miles outside of Tokyo.

Ryzaard narrows his eyes and jaw muscles tighten as he silently grinds his teeth together. “Best of all, he has no idea what the Stone can do or how to use it.” He stands and walks away from the table.

“Where are you going?” Kalani asks.

Ryzaard glances back at the screen with Matt’s words written on it. “To do a little meditation,” he says.

CHAPTER 37

Matt gets back to the dorm later than he planned. But he never regrets the time spent with Jess. He just hopes that she has enough sleep to get out of bed for work.

Sitting cross-legged on his bed, he looks out the window above the rooftops. Counting his breaths, he concentrates on the white disk of the moon as it moves against the black sky and lets all other thoughts drain away, like water through a sieve.

Relaxation flows over him. Easing himself down on the bed, his eyes close as his head hits the pillow. He feels the pull of sleep.

Images form in his mind. Dark shadows rush by.

The shadows resolve into trees, and he realizes he is sprinting through a pine forest, running as fast as his aching legs will carry him. It’s nighttime, and the hulks of great trees blot out any view of the stars overhead. Here and there, shards of silver light pierce through gaps in the forest canopy and dance across Matt’s forehead and chest as he passes beneath. He pumps his elbows up and down to force a little more speed out of his stiffening legs.

He can’t remember how long he has been running, or what he is running from, but he has already passed the outer limits of endurance. A burning pain rips through his thigh and calf muscles with each stride. His legs are on the verge of seizing up in a spasm of cramps.

Creatures leap through the forest in the darkness behind him, and he realizes they are chasing him. Their cries pierce the moonless night. They howl as if they have picked up his scent and are closing in for the kill.

A line of thin haze lingers among the trees a meter off the forest floor. His thighs cut through it and leave eddies of swirling gray mist in his wake. The smell of burnt wood and sulfur permeates the air, searing his throat and lungs. In spite of the pain, he draws in deeply through his mouth and exhales columns of moist steam into the frigid mountain air. The stench and haze grow thicker as he rushes forward. He senses that he is nearing its source.

His face and arms sting from the outstretched limbs of passing trees that whip at him as he pushes himself through the murky underbrush. Turning his head to the right, he passes too close to a dropping twig, and it leaves a sharp crimson line across his cheek.

Warmth trickles down the side of his face. The sound of heavy feet draws his glance backward.

An army of black forms come into view twenty meters behind him, drawing closer. He feels the rhythmic, almost mechanical, inhale and exhale of their breath. Branches crackle and snap as the creatures rush to engulf him. The slow embrace of terror crawls up his spine on its way to his brain.

At last he breaks free of the forest and leaps onto a field of thick meadow grass made bright under intense stars. The hulk of an oak tree stands a hundred meters ahead. He’s seen it before, somewhere just beyond the reach of his mind. Long since dead, its bark has fallen away to reveal smooth, white tissue beneath. It stands alone under the stars, naked and white. He feels himself drawn to it. Thick smoke boils up from behind the tree, wafted by the wind across the meadow.

Matt glances quickly behind him. A horde of dark shapes burst from the forest wall. Like an onrushing flood of demons, they spread out and flow toward him. The ground trembles with the sound of thunder from their stampeding feet. He senses their foul breath coming nearer. Digging deep for every shred of energy, his lungs and heart are bursting out of his chest.

With twenty meters to go to the lone tree, he can see that it stands on the edge of a cliff. Beyond it, the world becomes a sea of fog floating over an open chasm. Smoke boils up out of its depths, making a wall of impenetrable haze. The stench is unbearable. Just behind his back, the front line of the black horde closes in. He senses the futility of escape and imagines the feeling of the prey in the moments before death is the only means of escape.

His gaze is drawn down to his hand. It’s tightly closed around a hard object. Fingers opening slightly, and he sees the white horn shape of a Stone.

With less than five strides to go to the base of the tree, he grasps the Stone like a dagger. As he passes the tree, he brings the Stone down with all the force he can muster, ramming the point into the bare white wood. His fingers let go, leaving the Stone imbedded as he rushes by. In one fluid stride, his feet find the edge of the cliff and push off. He arches his spine and throws his head back, arms outstretched, as he leaps high and disappears into the billowing wall of smoke boiling up from the depths of the chasm.

A brilliant light flashes behind him.

A white beam, like a laser, shoots over his shoulder and pierces the smoke ahead of him. Instinctively, he grasps at the light and feels his fingers wrap around something solid and frictionless. His forward momentum sends him sliding across the smoky emptiness as he holds on to the beam.

The black shapes hurl themselves off the cliff edge after him. They rise high in the air and come down with outstretched arms, fingers ready to grasp the light. He senses their anger. They are filled with a hunger to destroy him and steal the Stone. But as they reach out to touch the beam, it cuts through them like water, severing limbs and fingers, laying open the black flesh beneath. Their flailing and twisting bodies disappear from view into the smoky depths below.

Gliding through the filthy air billowing up around him, Matt holds to the cool surface of the beam. After a hundred meters, the haze begins to thin. The other side appears, a sheer cliff wall with a matching lone tree, great roots dangling over the rocky edge. The beam terminates in a Stone imbedded in the trunk of the tree. He steps on to the edge of the cliff and walks two paces. As he reaches for the Stone, he turns and looks back across the chasm. For a moment, the air clears, and he can see dark shapes gathering on the opposite side. They prow back and forth, fixing their eyes upon him, raising their heads high in the air to vent growls and groans. He puts his back to them, gently pulls the Stone from the tree and walks past it.

The beam disappears.

A Woman stands before him, dressed in a seamless white robe from neck to ankle. Light emanates from within her brilliant body. Matt is drawn irresistibly toward her.

The Woman turns and moves away from the chasm, bidding Matt to follow.

He walks a few paces behind her as the landscape turns dark and barren. Within the circle of light surrounding the Woman, Matt feels secure and content and invincible. Dark, twisted shapes, the remains of what look to be destroyed cities, loom on the horizon, but Matt has no fear. He travels for hours at her side.

And then a mountain appears in the distance.

They move toward it.

When they get to its base, Matt sees a Shinto torii gate at the bottom of a mountain path, its two vertical red pillars standing erect and crossed by two horizontal bars, the top one curved up slightly at both ends. Moss-covered pine trees stand on either side of the gate, adorned with thick shimenawa ropes made from braided rice straw. Zigzagging pieces of white shide paper hang down like lightening.

Matt recognizes the exact spot. It’s a playground from his childhood just outside Otaru City, fifteen minutes northwest of Sapporo, where he used to spend summers as a child with his mother.

The Woman passes through the torii gate at the base of the mountain and pauses to look back before moving up the sloping path. Her face shines with a look of pure serenity. Matt is drawn with her up the path.

And then he wakes from the dream.

His heart beats calmly, but his body is covered in hot sweat. He looks down to see the rock he threw away at the airport, now an intensely white Stone, tightly grasped in his right hand.

The pink light of morning is already coming through the window.

CHAPTER 38

Kent crests the top of the hill, momentarily blinded by the first rays of the morning sun. After driving for hours through the night, the light is a welcome change.

Looking out over the valley, there is a large ring with a dark center on the eastern Colorado plain. A grey haze hangs over it.

A freedom camp.

He has heard of them, read about them, even seen documentaries on an underground Meshlog. Any official mention of them is strictly censored on all public Mesh-points. Most people just ignore them, but here is tangible proof of their existence.

And he is going to pass right through the middle of one.

As he gets closer, a tent city spreads out in a circle a kilometer in diameter with the freeway cutting through the middle. Hundreds of dark spots dot the center like bacteria in a Petri dish.

He slows the truck to a crawl, and drives on, passing through the outer rim of the circle. Like it or not, he is already inside the camp. He feels like a virus invading a living cell. Youthful faces smile and wave at him as he passes.

At the center, a transport truck is stopped on the road directly in front of him, its side panels propped open with poles, its contents strewn on both sides of the freeway. Swarms of teenagers pull large containers marked Perishable off in either direction.

He stops the Chikara half a football field from the transport.

A group of twenty youths break off and move toward him in a slow flow.

Kent stares out the right and left windows. Dozens of burned-out cars lay upside down, scattered in the sagebrush. Jagged lines of grey smoke float up from some that are still smoldering. Closer now, he can see the dark spots for what they are, blackened piles of glass, aluminum, plastic. The building blocks of industrial society, melted and fused together with fire. Bluescreens, slates, light fixtures, gaming modules, holo-projectors. There is an amalgamation of ten thousand jaxes pushed together in a high pile, doused with petrol and put to the torch.

Somebody’s idea of a bonfire.

It confirms the rumors. These people hate technology. They burn and destroy it whenever possible.

He remembers a video interview of a woman from a freedom camp in Australia. She used the same word for the capitalist system that delivers leisure and addiction to the masses in every form imaginable.

The Complex.

It might turn out to be a useful bit of knowledge.

A young man with a broad smile and missing teeth walks up to his window. A dirty stick, perhaps the remnants of a baseball bat, hangs from his hand. The others gather around the truck. Kent presses a button on the carcom and the window floats down to leave nothing but open air between him and the people of the freedom camp. He looks into the young man’s eyes. Clear and blue.

“Sir, good to see you out so early on this beautiful morning.” The youth’s deep tan and mass of blond dreads tied in a pony-tail tell the story of months in the wild. “Welcome to Camp Tranquility. I can see you’ve come here to be cleansed of Abomination. We’re always glad to help.” He points in a circle at the group surrounding the old Chikara. Their smiles reveal dust-caked teeth as they move in closer.

With his head close to Kent, the young man peers into the cab of the truck. A slate, two bottles of water and a military-grade GPS lay carelessly strewn on the seat. A jax pokes out of the upload slot on the carcom. The sound of whale calls and a buzzing shaver add to the ambience. The young man’s eyes slowly trace a line from the cab along the crinkled body panels and back to the red tarp covering the truck bed.

“Something don’t make sense here,” he says.

Kent watches the line traced by the young man’s eyes. “May I offer you some water.” He grabs a bottle and tosses it through the window to the young man.

Without taking his eyes off Kent, the young man catches it in his free hand, screws off the cap with a flick of his thumb, raises it to his cracked lips and drains it in a few audible gulps. Crushing the empty bottle in his fist, he hands it to the kid next to him.

“Thanks. That hit the spot.” He points the stick in the direction of the Chikara’s truck bed. “Just wondering. What you got here?” The young man licks his wet lips and starts walking to the back of the truck, dragging his stick along it metal side as he moves. “Mind if I take a look?”

“I’ll be happy to show you.” Kent pops the door open and walks to the tailgate. His nostrils pick up the caustic scent of burnt plastic and sweat as he moves through the crowd of dirty kids. He loosens the ties and pulls the tarp back a couple of feet to reveal a box of bottled water, a case of ramen noodles and two bags of rice.

“Where you going with this?” The young man smiles as he taps the stick on the box of ramen noodles.

“Heading East.” Kent looks down at dozens of dirty fingers moving across the noodles and rice. “To fight against The Complex.”

All eyes in the group snap back at him as the words leave his lips.

“What do you know about The Complex?” The young man steps closer to Kent, squinting up into his eyes.

“I was once part of it, lived within it. Embraced it.” Kent keeps his back to the rising sun and narrows his eyes to thin slits. “But it betrayed me, killed my wife and came after me and my son. I cast off its bonds and became free. Now I seek revenge.”

He hoped his act didn’t sound too fake. It was all true, with just a bit of bravado and drama thrown in to impress them.

“So, you claim to be a believer. We’ll see if you speak the truth.” The young man pulls a knife out of his belt and moves toward Kent.

He braces himself as the youth glides past him to the truck.

One by one, the young man cuts the ties holding the tarp in place and rips it away. Then he looks inside at cubes made of aluminum and glass covered with buttons and dials. Bluescreens. Ropes and harnesses. Plastic boxes full of battery packs and cables. Electronic sniffers. A cornucopia of technology.

The young man shakes his head. “You claim to be a believer, yet you carry the mark of Abomination with you.” His eyes meet Kent’s and look down at another jax hanging from his side pocket. “You are unclean. We will cleanse you of this Abomination. Join us and be free.” He nods at the others.

In silence, the group closes around the truck bed. Arms and hands reach in, and they begin to lift the boxes and equipment out with broad smiles still on their faces.

“Wait.” Kent raises his hands like a preacher about to deliver a sermon. “I’ve fought against The Complex for many years, from the edges. I turn its own weapons against it. I’m on my way to strike a blow at its heart. If you take my equipment and hold me back, you are friends of The Complex.”

They all stop and look to the young man with the stick in his hand.

“Leave the truck, for now.” The young man points his stick at the other kids, and they move back. “We’ll take you to Little John. He’ll know what to do.”

CHAPTER 39

Matt stares at the white Stone balanced perfectly on the palm of his right hand. He moves it to his left hand, and it feels unbalanced, awkward, as if it wants to be in the other hand. With no conscious effort, his right hand moves as if on its own and retrieves the Stone.

A clear image passes through his mind. He’s dropping the Stone into the garbage at the airport. It disappears into a pile of trash. No mistake about it.

He threw the Stone away, and now it’s returned.

His fingers close around it. Rushing to the window, he heaves it open and draws his hand back. Conflict rips at his soul. Part of him wants to get rid of it again, to throw the Stone into the pond and put its mysteries behind him. But another part yearns to learn its secrets.

He thinks back on the Woman in the dream. No matter how much he tries, he can’t get her image out of his mind. A being of surpassing beauty. An angel. Or a goddess.

And no matter how much he tries to deny or forget it, he knows it is the same Woman that came to him when he was sixteen years old under an avalanche of snow at the bottom of Skull Pass.

He wonders. Are the dreams just random hallucinations triggered by excitement or fatigue?

Or is there more to it?

The Stone itself, hard and cool in his hand, seems to scream out the answer, tangible proof of what he saw. His fingers squeeze it until the blood drains from his knuckles. Its color fades from white to sky blue.

Surprised at the calmness that permeates his soul, Matt stares down at the Stone that has magically come back. He should be running through the streets, stark raving mad. Yet it feels right and comfortable, the way things should be. He has a strong compulsion to record the dream.

But first he needs to clear his head.

Dressing in running gear, he goes outside for an early morning jog. With the Stone in his right hand and the jax in his left, he moves around campus as his fingers type out bits and pieces of what he saw. The darks shapes chasing him. The bare oak tree by the chasm. The billowing fog. Most of his dreams are forgotten within minutes of waking up, but this one is easy to recall in all of its details.

After recording what he saw, Matt stores it on his personal datasite and sends a copy to Jessica. They can discuss it later. He looks forward to her reaction.

He comes back to his room from a lukewarm shower and dresses in the usual cargo pants and T-shirt. The Stone goes into his pocket, and he heads across campus to the University cafeteria for an early breakfast. A film of sweat instantly coats his back and sticks to his shirt.

At 6:00 in the morning, the cafeteria is empty except for a group of students gathered at a table on the other side and speaking Chinese. Thanks to jet lag, he’ll be getting up early for the next week whether he wants to or not.

The rice, miso soup and pickled radish are good, but nothing special. It all has the look and feel of hospital food, and it takes more than a little courage to try the fermented soy beans called nato. Mustard and soy sauce help get it down. A single whiff of the fecal smell turns most gaijin away, but his mother used to say that you could never truly understand Japanese culture until you acquired a taste for nato. He tries to enjoy it but finds the going difficult.

After breakfast, he goes back to the dorm and empties the backpack by pouring its remaining contents, mostly clothes, out onto his bed. Then he puts a few old history books, a slate and some random climbing gear back in, hangs it off one shoulder and starts out across campus. The enormous size of his backpack stands out as he walks, but he doesn’t care. There’s no telling what he might need on his first day as Professor Yamamoto’s research assistant.

Wandering past the library, he picks up a copy of the Yomiuri Shinbun, one of the last print newspapers left in the world. There’s a soft chair near the window, and he drops his backpack on the floor and sits down to read the front page. The main article reports that Japan has sided with China in a trade dispute over rights to manufacture jax antennas. Just below that, he reads about their joint declaration to stop selling natural gas to Europe from the North China Sea. Then there is an update on the naval base on the Senkaku Islands that they operate together. His eyes scan the daily anti-American editorial that has become a fixture in the newspaper, at least the version he reads on the Mesh. He’s suddenly grateful for his Japanese looks and hopes it will save him from unnecessary harassment on campus.

At 8:30 in the morning, a clock chimes, and he realizes that Professor Yamamoto’s lecture is about to start.

He doesn’t want to be late on the first day of class.

Jumping up, he grabs the backpack, descends two flights of stairs and sprints across the open courtyard into a building on the other side, the one he looked up on his jax before he left the dorm. He enters the back of a large auditorium and sits down, out of breath.

The lecture is already in progress.

Professor Yamamoto paces back and forth at the front on a raised platform. When he sees Matt, his face breaks into a grin, and he pauses to nod.

Matt bows his head in reply and tries to pick up where the lecture is going.

Amaterasu Omikami, the sun goddess, is the daughter of Izanagi no Mikoto, the creator of the eight original Japanese islands.” Professor Yamamoto points his jax at the big bluescreen on the wall behind him. The lights dim and a colorful image of a woman with bright rays of light streaming from her face appears. “This woodcut of Amaterasu was made near the end of the Edo period by the Japanese artist Utagawa Kunisada, famous for his ukiyoe paintings.”

In the darkness of the room, Matt feels the pull of sleep. His eyelids start to slide down. Undergraduate lectures at any university are a test of patience, but this is doubly hard because it’s all in Japanese. He struggles to pay attention, knowing that it will be an irreversible breach of etiquette if he lets his head slip down.

“In the Shinto tradition, Amaterasu is thought to be the source of beauty and light, as well as the ancestor of the imperial household of Japan.” Professor Yamamoto drones on. “According to myth, she had a battle with her brother, and then hid herself in a dark cave when overcome with grief and anger. All light disappeared from the earth. Darkness reigned.”

Matt wishes he could hide in the dark and go to sleep. Jet lag is slowly exerting its control over him. He knows he is losing the battle.

“The other gods tried in vain to persuade her to come out of the cave so the world would have light again. Finally, in desperation, they lured her out by hanging the Three Sacred Treasures outside its entrance.” Professor Yamamoto pauses and scans the classroom.

As near as Matt can tell, most of the students are busy with their jaxes, bobbing their heads to internal music or just sleeping. No one looks up except for one student in the back next to him.

“Can anyone tell me what the Three Sacred Treasures are?” Professor Yamamoto clears his throat with the hint of a smile on his face. He waits patiently, in no apparent hurry to answer the question himself.

Half a minute passes before the students become aware that Professor Yamamoto has stopped talking. The silence is broken only by the nervous looks of students and some feverish jaxing under their desks.

From the back of the room, Matt raises his hand. Professor Yamamoto motions for him to stand. The other students turn their heads to focus on the unlucky victim.

Matt coughs into his hand. “The Three Sacred Treasures are a sword called the Kusanagi, a mirror called the Yata no Kagami, and a jewel called the Yasakani no Magatama.” He looks back at Professor Yamamoto and raises his eyebrows slightly, doing his best to mimic the emotionless stare of the other students. And then he sits down.

“Impressive.” Professor Yamamoto points his jax at Matt. “You know more about Japanese mythology than our homegrown students. Does anyone recall what became of the Three Sacred Treasures?”

At this point, every student is searching the Mesh, obviously fearful of becoming the next victim. Professor Yamamoto gets a grin on his face and holds up his own jax. With nimble fingers, he plays a sequence on its side, and it emits a sound like a flushing toilet. In unison, the students raise their faces with a look of surprise mixed with desperation.

All jaxes in the room have ceased to function.

“I recently received a special gift from the University. It’s very convenient, as it turns out.” He holds up his hand and shows off his old-model jax. “Some new code only available to professors. I hear it’s called a jax-jammer. I thought I would try it out today, and I’m happy to see it works.” Professor Yamamoto walks across the front of the room. “Let’s see if Matt-kun, our friend from Amerika, can answer from memory without help from anyone.”

Matt thanks Professor Yamamoto for lobbing him such an easy pitch and stands again, hands thrust deep into his pockets. “According to legend,” Matt begins, “the Three Sacred Treasures were given to the first emperor of Japan, Emperor Jimmu, in 660 B.C. They have been passed down to each emperor in the Imperial House since that time as part of their enthronement ceremony.”

The other students look up at him with equal measures of admiration and contempt.

Professor Yamamoto takes a step forward. “So the Three Treasures still exist today?”

“Yes, according to legend, they exist and are under the control of Emperor Hisahito.”

“And what exactly do they look like, this sword, mirror and jewel?”

Matt fiddles with the Stone in his pocket. “No one knows. Only the Emperor and a few Shinto high priests are allowed to see them. No photos have ever been taken. None exist on the Mesh. I’ve looked and haven’t been able to find any.” Matt waits for another question.

Professor Yamamoto nods his head and motions for Matt to sit down. “Very good, Matt-kun.” The professor points his jax at the back of the room and the lights come back on.

After the lecture, they meet for lunch in the University cafeteria and sit in the section reserved for faculty and graduate students.

“You love curry rice too, I see.” Professor Yamamoto chuckles as he looks at the generous helping on Matt’s plate. “Perhaps that is why you have grown so tall.”

Maa maa desu ne.” Matt does a short, quick bow with his head. “It’s not as good as my dad’s, but any curry is good curry.” Using the large spoon, he vigorously mixes the golden sauce on one side into the steamed rice on the other side of the plate.

“I must say you have a very interesting way of arranging your food.” Professor Yamamoto draws his spoon down the line that divides the curry from the rice on his plate. “I prefer to keep them separate and distinct.”

Matt nods.

Very Japanese, he thinks. Everything compartmentalized, packaged and neat.

“It reminds me of my mother.” Matt says. “She used to scold me for making a mess of my food.” He looks out the window at the green leaves of a sycamore tree against the sky. They flutter like butterfly wings in a gentle breeze.

“She was a good student.” Professor Yamamoto dips a large potato chunk out of his curry and balances it on his spoon. “I had her in one of my Chinese history classes when she was a freshman. So many years ago. I can see her in you.”

“My father says the same thing.” Matt shifts his gaze from the window back to his curry. “But no matter how many times I look in the mirror, I don’t see it.”

“You carry her in your heart. All that she was, all that she taught you. It’s there inside.” Professor Yamamoto raises his water glass and points it at Matt.

In spite of attempts to blink it away, Matt’s eyes mist over. “I miss her. I miss the life we had before she was taken away.” His fingers wander down into a pocket to touch the Stone.

“How is your father?” Professor Yamamoto bends forward.

“Still the same.” Matt grabs a mouthful off his spoon. “Always afraid of who or what may be watching us. Just like me.” His eyes scan the cafeteria.

“He is a good man. There has been much suffering in his life. He tries hard to protect you. It must have been hard for him to let you go.”

“It was,” Matt says. “But I needed to get away. It’s going to be great being here for the summer.” He takes a big bite of curry, hoping to change the subject. Professors and graduate students are sitting in groups on all sides, but they stay away from the table where he is eating, as if they don’t want to associate with him.

It must be because he’s an American.

Professor Yamamoto’s eyes follow Matt’s gaze. “Don’t worry. It’s not you. It’s me. They think I’m an old fool.” He dips a spoonful of the red pickled radish out of the glass container on the table between them. Bushy white eyebrows dance on top of his eyes. “After all, I do research on Japanese folk tales and mythology. That makes me an embarrassment to the University.” He laughs to himself and then takes another bite of curry.

Matt remains silent as he looks down at the leftover rice in his bowl. The curry has long since run out.

Professor Yamamoto picks up the last kernel of rice on the tip of his spoon. “Three years ago, I got funding for my research from an American corporation. That’s when I stopped publishing on more accepted topics and began focusing full-time on Japanese mythology.” He still has a large area of golden curry left over.

As they push their bowls away, they look at each other, and then down at their bowls.

Professor Yamamoto is the first to laugh. “You finish your curry before the rice. I do just the opposite. Perhaps this reveals a difference in our personalities. Ying and yang”

“For me, the rice is just filling.” Matt taps the bowl with his spoon. “The curry is the main attraction.”

“And for me, the rice is the source of sustenance. The curry is only a flavoring.” Professor Yamamoto stands. “I must say, you did very well answering the questions in class today.” A warm smile spreads across the professor’s face as they take their trays to a little conveyor belt that disappears through a hole. “But you were wrong about one thing.”

“What?” Matt says.

“The Yasakani no Magatama jewel.” Professor Yamamoto leads them out through the front door of the cafeteria. “The Emperor and the Shinto priests are not the only ones who have seen it.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have seen it myself.”

CHAPTER 40

Ryzaard paces in front of his desk with the slate in his hand. From time to time, he stops, looks down into its holographic bluescreen, reads from the report and then stares up, shaking his head. Behind him, the neon Manhattan skyline blazes against the darkness of the night.

“Too fast,” he says. “It’s happening too fast.”

“What are you talking about?” Alexa sits on the red sofa and raises a lighter to a long, thin cigarette.

“The dreams.” Ryzaard stops midstride. “He’s having the dreams. And he’s writing them down. It should have taken much longer to get to this point. It took months for me. Only days for him. He’s moving too fast.” Ryzaard holds the slate in both hands behind his back and begins pacing again. “I fear I may have triggered them.”

“What do you mean?”

“The Stones are a bridge to multiple realities for the mind of a Holder. Some of those realities are like a dream state. I engaged in a little deep meditation to see if I could find him.” Ryzaard exhales through his nose. “It might have pulled him into a dream.”

“Did you find him?”

Ryzaard’s eyes drift out the window. “Yes.” He turns to face Alexa. “I found him, and I almost had him until he got away. It was foolish of me to try. It probably made his dreams more vivid and focused his mind more on the Stone. I’m an idiot for trying.”

“But he can’t know much about it. He’s only had it a few days.” Alexa lays her head back on the red sofa and exhales a plume of pink smoke. It rises to the ceiling and breaks into fragments. “Besides, we have a bead on his girlfriend. He tells her everything. We can monitor her jax, watch their every move.”

“Yes, the marvels of modern technology.” Ryzaard casts a glance down at the slate. “Tells you everything except what matters.”

Alexa takes short puffs on the cigarette and lets the smoke roll out between her lips. “What do you mean?”

Turning, Ryzaard casts a glance at her. “He’s not telling the girl everything. We don’t know what he’s thinking, how much he really knows. Who else he may have seen in his dreams. We can’t see inside his mind.” His arm draws a long arc down and slams the slate into the hardwood floor where it shatters into plastic splinters. “He’s hiding things from her, and us.”

“Why so worried?”

“The longer we wait, the more he will learn.” Ryzaard sinks down in his chair and swivels so his back is to Alexa. “The more he’ll learn about them,” he mutters to himself.

“I think you overestimate him.” Alexa taps the cigarette. A stream of gray ash drifts to the floor. “He’s just a kid who wants to get away from his father. I think he’s more afraid of the Stone than interested in it. He tried to throw it away.”

“True. But something bothers me. Why can’t we trace him or his father. What are they hiding from?”

“Kalani’s working on that. Give him more time. He’ll figure it out.”

“Perhaps. In the meantime, what do we know about his girlfriend?” Ryzaard stands up and walks across the room to the couch. He drops down next to Alexa.

“Jessica Gibbons. Works in her father’s company during the summer. She just finished her junior year at the University of Colorado, studying for a degree in finance with a minor in photography. The oldest of six children. They have a condo in Maui and vacation there every August. Plays the violin and the ukulele.” Alexa blows a line of pink smoke in Ryzaard’s direction.

“Does she have a secure datasite?”

“It took Kalani only two passes with the decryption protocol to find it and get in.”

“Anything interesting?”

“Not exactly interesting. But strange. There’s pages and pages about how she dreams of having her own family someday. Like her parents, she wants six kids. You’d think such a privileged girl would have more ambition.” Alexa taps out more ashes onto the floor. “And of course she gushes about her love for this mysterious, accident-prone boy, if only she can persuade him.”

“Persuade him to do what?” Ryzaard says.

“Believe in God. According to her, God has a plan for everyone. Very quaint, but apparently he isn’t buying it.” Alexa rolls her eyes.

“Anything else?”

“Let’s see. Yes, there was another item of interest.” Alexa puts out her cigarette and pops a mint in her mouth. “She’s tried for two summers in a row to get an internship with Redrock Heavy Industries, one of our competitors. They have offices here in Manhattan, and she’d love to come here. It hasn’t worked out. Apparently, the recession’s gotten in the way. That’s why she still works for her dad.”

Ryzaard looks at Alexa and smiles. “Excellent idea.” He picks up his jax and walks over to the window.

“What idea?” Alexa says.

“Hello, Van Pelt? I understand you have an opening for a summer intern in your office.” Ryzaard pulls the Stone out of his pocket with his free hand and holds it in front of his eye. “You don’t? Well, you do now. Alexa will give you all the details.”

CHAPTER 41

Kent walks into a large tan tent, followed by the young man with the stick and a few other ill-kempt youth. They all reek of campfire smoke and burnt plastic.

A bald man sits in a camp chair with his back to the entrance. Kent sees the shiny head with a gray fringe around the rim. The toes of his exposed feet barely touch the ground. A large black book is open on his lap.

“What is it, Zach?” The bald man speaks without looking up.

The young man glances at Kent and takes a step forward. “This guy came up from the West just now with a small truck-load full of Abomination. A curious mix of communication and spying equipment. Hi-tech sniffers. Universal interfaces. Some other stuff I haven’t seen since my Mesh-running days. I thought you might want to meet him. Says he’s going East to fight The Complex.”

The man’s head looks up from the book as soon as the last word is spoken.

Zach stands to one side with arms folded across his chest. His eyes flit back and forth between Kent and the bald man in the chair.

“Someone with a truckload of Abomination fighting The Complex.” The voice comes from the sitting man. “Now that’s interesting, isn’t it? Doesn’t really make sense does it?”

“No, Little John.” Zach wipes his nose on a sleeve and narrows his eyes as he stares straight at Kent.

“Thanks, Zach. I’ll need some time alone here. You can go back to the road and finish unloading the offering we received today. It’s been a while since we had fresh fruit. Make sure everyone eats it before it spoils. I don’t want any of you getting scurvy.” Little John shuts the book and drops it into a box next to the chair. Then he pushes himself forward and stands up. He still has his back to Kent and the others.

“And what about the transport driver?” Zach says.

“Treat him in the usual manner.”

“Got it.” Zach turns to the other youths. “Let’s go.” They all move out of the tent, taking the odor of sweat and burnt plastic with them, leaving Kent to stand alone as he looks down at the back of Little John’s bald head.

Little John slowly turns around and stares forward, his gaze moving up Kent’s chest until their eyes meet.

It’s a struggle for Kent to keep a smirk from crawling all over his face. As soon as he heard the name Little John, he expected to meet a hulking man. In this case, it looks like the name fits perfectly. He wonders where Robin Hood is.

“So, what can I do for you today?” Kent says.

“I’m not sure, but let’s find out.” Little John walks past Kent to the entrance of the tent and pokes his bald head out. Then he pulls the flap of the tent shut and returns to his chair. “Please, sit down.” He motions toward a plastic chair opposite his.

Wedging his body into the small chair, Kent crosses his legs out in front. Little John offers him some water in a thin bottle.

“Thanks.” Kent takes it and presses the open container to his lips.

“You might say it’s one of the few luxuries we have out here.” Little John settles back and brings a hand up to his chin. “Any idea what a freedom camp is?”

“I’ve seen a few things on the Mesh. From the looks of it, you folks don’t like modern technology, so you’ve gone out into the wilderness to be free of it.” Kent eases the water bottle back again and raises it to his mouth, keeping his eyes on Little John.

“You’re almost right about Abomination, what you call modern technology. But I’m afraid it’s you who lives in the wilderness.” He puts his hands together and lets them drop to his lap. “Forced upon you and everyone else by The Complex.”

Kent nods and drains the bottle. Cool water runs down his throat.

“The time has come to destroy Abomination. We’re here to free the world from the cancer that’s infected it. Little by little, we’ll turn the tide and show the world how to walk away from technology and live without it.”

“Yes, I see that, and I see the transport out there your people are stripping.” Kent leans back as the chair strains under his weight. “I may be stupid, but destroying other people’s property doesn’t seem like the best way to make converts or friends. Aren’t you afraid the Army or the National Guard will come after you?”

Little John shakes his head. “It’s much easier for them to ignore us. Jails and prisons are overflowing as it is. Besides, a messy roundup of a few end-of-the-world freaks wouldn’t play so good on the Meshnews. It might bring us more followers. That’s the last thing The Complex wants.”

Kent crushes the empty bottle in his fist. “You and I have more in common than you think.”

“Tell me about it,” Little John says.

“Well, for starters, I went off grid over a decade ago, before there were any freedom camps. I’ve vanished as far as The Complex is concerned. They’re still looking for me, scouring every corner of the Mesh, ready to pounce if and when I pop up.”

“What do you do now?”

“I’m a gadfly. I collect evidence of their abuses, prepare the legal cases for prosecution, drop it off on a silver platter at the NFA’s doorstep. And leak it all anonymously on the public Mesh-points. You’ve probably seen some of my work.”

“Try me.”

Kent stands up and walks around the tent, gesturing with his hands. “Ever heard of the Bynar sulfur mines in the Congo? Or the scandal over Farrcore’s slave labor in the highlands of Nepal. J-Tep’s illegal extraction of silica zilithamide under the arctic tundra? Perhaps you read about SynLife’s bioengineered algae that’s overrunning the Indian Ocean.”

Little John puts down his water “You were the one that exposed them?” His eyes open wide.

“As they say, the best disinfectant is sunlight. Over fifteen corporate officers went to prison over that last scandal alone. All made possible by a careful use of technology. Fighting fire with fire.”

“Perhaps.” Little John pushes himself up out of his chair.

“I’d love to stay and chat, but I need to be on my way.” Kent stands squarely in front of Little John, looking down, hands on his hips.

“Which part of The Complex are you targeting this time?”

“Why do you need to know?” Kent says.

“Just curious. It sounds like we may be in this fight together.” Little John walks to the back of the tent and picks up a wooden box from a pile of pallets.

“Intercep Dynamics. In North Carolina.” Kent speaks slowly.

“Really? Sounds interesting. I’d love to come along for the ride, see how you do it.” Little John smiles and shows two rows of perfectly aligned white teeth.

“I always work alone. It’s safer and more effective.”

Little John sticks a key in the wooden box and opens its lid. He pulls out a jax. “For emergencies only. Don’t tell any of the kids out there about this. I know how to fight fire with fire, too.” He laughs and slides his finger along the side of the jax. A thin blue line lights up. “You’ll find my ID here, and a link to a secure datasite. It might prove useful in a bind.”

Kent fingers the jax in his pocket that he hasn’t turned on since leaving Colorado. “Very kind of you to offer.” He pulls it out and presses the power pack into place, causing it to tremble in his hand. Swiping the back, the green strip along the side lights up. It automatically captures the information from Little John’s jax. “Got it. Thanks for the contact info.” He returns the jax to his pocket and cuts the power. Two pulses shake as it goes dead.

“Let me escort you back to your vehicle and speed you on your way. I’ve found our conversation enlightening.”

Kent follows Little John outside the tent, and they walk together back to the road. A dozen dirty teenagers follow behind as they walk past black, smoking piles.

After a quick check under the tarp to make sure all the gear is there, Kent jumps into the cab and waves goodbye. His eyes move to the rearview mirror. Little John stands there, hands on hips, towering teenagers behind him, watching Kent as he and the Chikara move away.

Gliding past the stranded transport truck, Kent lets out a long exhale. The truck’s been stripped clean and looks like an empty carcass, side panels hanging open and exposing open space inside. The Chikara heads up a long hill to the rising sun. Rounding the top, Kent sees a man walking on the side of the road.

The man raises his thumb.

Kent slows the Chikara and eases the window down as he moves alongside the man.

“Mind if I hitch a ride to the next town?” The man has a smirk on his face.

“Sure, get in.” Kent pushes the slate, GPS and water bottles out of the passenger seat and on to the floor with a sweep of his arm. “Sorry for the mess. This is my mobile office.”

The man opens the door and slips in. “How’d you do it?” he says, turning to Kent.

“Do what?”

“Get past the freedom camp with all your stuff, your Abomination, intact.”

Kent shakes his head. “Told them I’m on my way to save the world.”

“I should have thought of that. My boss is going to kill me.”

CHAPTER 42

Little John watches the old pickup truck glide away into the morning sun. His eyes narrow, and an unsettled feeling descends upon him.

“Who was that?” Zach asks.

“No idea.” Little John turns back to see a crowd of a hundred youth gawking at him.

Zach moves closer and bends down. “Why’d you let him go with all that Abomination? Do you think he’s telling the truth, about fighting against The Complex?”

“Maybe. Maybe not. Sometimes you just have to trust your feelings. And I don’t need any advice from you.” Little John looks at the white boxes strewn around the truck transport. “Now stack those up in neat piles. Make sure everyone gets their fill of the fruit before it spoils. You look like you need the vitamins.” He walks through the dust and sagebrush, past smoldering piles of plastic and glass, and back to the tent.

A tall man with aviator sunglasses stands inside.

“Did you get the link attached?” Little John says.

“I tried, but it wouldn’t take. He’s got repel-ware on his jax.” The tall man sits down, pulls up the lid of a plastic box and takes out a beer, dripping with beads of water. “No way I can get past it. Must be military-grade.”

“What about the truck he was driving? I tried to give you time to check it over. Any clues?”

“Well, the car-com navcell is set for New York City.” The tall man takes a long drink from the bottle, emptying half its contents. “There’s a slate in the front, but it wouldn’t let me through the encryption lock. No doubt about it. He’s good. Real good.”

“What about the equipment in the back?”

The tall man grins. “Now that was interesting. I found a CV observation unit back there, the kind used by government types for hi-tech eavesdropping. Its memory crystal had electronic ghost prints all over. Looks like he’s already selected a target and set it up for data sniffing.”

“Who is the target?”

“MX Global Corporation.”

CHAPTER 43

After lunch, Matt spends the early afternoon registering for a Chinese Han Dynasty history class, touring the campus library and indulging in more savory delights at the 7-Eleven outside the front gate. He arrives in Professor Yamamoto’s first-floor office just before 3:00 in the afternoon and pauses at the open door.

Gomen kudasai.” He knocks on the door and pokes his head in the office.

“Please come in,” Professor Yamamoto says.

Matt walks through the open door and props his backpack against a bookshelf just inside the office. A square table with two chairs stands in the middle of the room. The unique pattern of the floor tiles, white octagons held together with blue diamonds, catches his eye. The office is square. Gray metal bookshelves line three walls from floor to ceiling. Professor Yamamoto sits at a small desk facing a window that looks out on a green courtyard crossed by sidewalks and cherry trees.

Irasshai, Matt. Good to see you again. I have been looking forward to speaking with you.”

“I know you’re busy, and I’m grateful you’d make time to see me.” In perfect Japanese form, Matt bows from the waist in the professor’s direction.

Professor Yamamoto nods his head and motions to a chair at the table in the middle of the room.

Dozo, have a seat.”

After a proper amount of hesitation, Matt walks to the table and sits in the chair facing out through the open door.

The professor turns back to his small desk and pulls a game board and a round container out of the bottom drawer. “I’ve been looking forward to working with you.” He walks to the table opposite Matt and places the items between them. “Have you ever played the Japanese game called Igo?” He drops into a chair.

“I used to play with my mom. She always beat me.” Matt touches the game board. “This is called the goban, right?”

“Very good.” Professor Yamamoto unfolds the goban board with its grid of thin black lines and places it on the table. He takes the lid off the container and carefully pours out a mound of small game pieces, half of them black and half of them white. Each one resembles a flattened sphere smaller than his thumbnail. “Igo is a good game to play while having a relaxing conversation. It helps your concentration and focus.” He begins to separate the black game pieces from the white ones, piece by piece. “I’ve been wanting to talk with you about your research this summer. I am sure there is something you must be interested in studying.” Professor Yamamoto leans back in his chair.

“Good question.” Matt helps the professor separate the rest of the games pieces into two groups. “I’ve read your work on Japanese and Chinese history. I find the myths and folk legends the most compelling.” Matt braces himself. He already knows how the professor will react.

Professor Yamamoto breathes in sharply between his teeth and cocks his head to the side, looking first at the goban board and then directly at Matt. “Matt-kun, you saw from the reaction of the students in the classroom and the other professors in the cafeteria that most people have no interest in fables and fiction any more. You should take my advice and stay with real history.” He shakes his head and stares down at his feet. “You have a bright future. It is my wish that you not do anything to kill your career before it gets off to a good start. This is especially true in light of the past that you and your father share.” The professor’s head comes up.

“What do you mean?” Matt’s eyes narrow.

Professor Yamamoto purses his lips. “What I mean is that you will draw less attention to yourself and your father if you stay away from anything too exotic. Researching folk tales and mythology is not in favor at the moment. It will only draw unwanted scrutiny. I’m sure you would rather avoid that.”

An image of the two Yakuza goons hangs in Matt’s mind. He blinks it away. “You’re right, of course.”

“That does not mean you cannot pursue your interests in private.” The professor smiles and lowers his voice. “Take my advice. Avoid publishing on ancient mythology, at least until you have tenure at a university. I will do all I can to help you find a new identity and a bright future. It’s the least I can do to honor the memory of your mother.”

Matt bows his head in genuine gratitude. “Domo arigato gozaimasu. Thank you for understanding.”

“Now, let us turn to the game.” The professor exhales, and tension flows out of the room. He pushes a pile of the small game pieces in the direction of Matt. “You will be black and go first. Put five stones on the goban board.”

“Isn’t it supposed to be one at a time?” Matt says.

“Yes, but I will give you the advantage. It would not be much fun if the game ends right away.” A mischievous grin tips up the corners of his mouth.

Stretching out his legs under the table, Matt picks up five black pieces. “I read one of your papers on the Mesh before my flight here. A Comparative Study of Ancient Mythologies and Creation Myths.” He drops the pieces randomly around the goban board.

“You play with confidence and quickly seek to dominate a wide territory.” The professor picks up a single white piece and puts it down near the edge. “You must be careful.”

Matt reaches for a black piece and studies the board. “You concluded that, when read correctly, a common thread runs through the myths of all ancient cultures and that this common thread must be based on fact.” Matt places the stone near the middle of the board.

“I published that paper twenty-five years ago.” Professor Yamamoto picks up a white piece and holds it between his thumb and index finger. “It was the subject of a formal presentation I made at the International Comparative History Institute in Vienna.” His gaze drifts outside the window to a row of cherry trees.

Wave after wave of cicada buzzing rises to a crescendo and then drops away.

“You never published again on that topic. Why? What happened to your research?”

The professor’s blinks his bloodshot eyes. “After the paper was published, my career never recovered. I learned that some questions are beyond the limits of permissible inquiry. If you transgress those limits, you’ll be punished by being ignored.” The professor lays a white piece next to the other one already on the board.

“But, Professor Yamamoto, you did continue your research, didn’t you.”

“Yes. In secret.”

“Why?” asks Matt. “If it has a negative impact on your career, why don’t you just stop?” He puts a black piece next to the professor’s white one.

“Because I’m drawn to it the same way you are.” Professor Yamamoto’s eyes widen. “When I read the fantastic stories in ancient writings, I can’t help but wonder if they contain a kernel of truth.”

“Exactly,” Matt says. “I remember reading the Mahabharata and the Ramayana, my favorite Indian epics, in college. Golden chariots flying through the air, shooting out rays of intense light.” He spreads his arms out. “Magnificent starships fueled by quicksilver flying for vast distances, going up, down or sideways through the air.” He puts down another black game piece.

“Yes, but of course all that has been dismissed as pure fantasy. Ancient science fiction.” Professor Yamamoto’s hand bats at an unseen bug in the air.

Matt leans in close to the goban board. “Have you studied the Dropa Stones?”

“I’m surprise you’ve even heard about them.” Professor Yamamoto reaches for a white piece to play.

“An article popped up on a public Meshlog last winter, but it was gone within a few minutes. I didn’t have a chance to read it all.”

“The Chinese Meshscrubs automatically remove any mention of the Dropa Stones, like they have for the last twenty years.” Professor Yamamoto pushes away from the table and walks to a bookshelf where he pulls down a thin yellow book, written in English. “Read this if you want to know more.” He drops a white piece onto the board. “Here’s a quick summary. More than a hundred years ago, 716 stone disks, each nine inches in diameter, were dug up from the floor of a cave in the Baian-Kara-Ula mountains along the old border between China and Tibet. The disks were dated to around 10,000 B.C. and were stored at Beijing University for decades. Each stone had a groove with hieroglyphic characters spiraling out from the center. They were all eventually translated, telling the story of visitors from another world.” The professor places another piece on the goban board, completely surrounding one of Matt’s black ones. “My first kill.” He does a quick bow in Matt’s direction and removes the black piece from the board. “According to the record, the visitors came from the sky and stayed with the people for a long time.”

Matt thumbs through the book as Professor Yamamoto talks.

Sugoi, na.” Matt whispers to himself. “This is incredible.”

“I think it’s probably a hoax. You have to be careful in this area of research.” Professor Yamamoto draws his gaze away from Matt and looks out the window again, running a finger along the line of his jaw. His head dips in a subtle nod, as if he had just made an important internal decision, and then he draws in a sharp breath, holds it and lets it out. “There is one ancient legend that I have pursued for years. We talked about it this morning in the lecture.”

“The Magatama Stone?” Matt looks up.

“Exactly.”

“Can you tell me about it?” Matt’s dark eyes focus on the professor.

“After you make your next move.”

Matt draws a black piece from the pile and drops it on the board.

Professor Yamamoto stands up, walks to the open door and shuts it, pushing the lock in the middle of the doorknob. Then he moves to the open window above his desk and brings it down. “We must be careful. There may be listeners. I have my office scanned for data sniffers on a regular basis, so we are safe with the doors and windows shut.” He sits down in the chair and drops his eyes to the game board. “I assume you already know what is written in the official Japanese mythologies, the Kojiki and the Nihon Shoki.”

“Yes, I studied them back at the university in Colorado.”

“There are many ancient writings about the Magatama Stone and its Holder.” Professor Yamamoto places a white piece on the goban board, entirely enclosing another one of Matt’s black pieces. He reaches out to collect the kill. “Forgive me.”

“You said you had actually seen the Magatama Stone.” Matt looks down at the board as his fingers move along the outside of his pants over the bulge in his pocket. “Can you tell me what it looked like?”

Without a word, Professor Yamamoto walks to the bookcase on the wall behind Matt. The tips of his fingers run along the spines of the old books until his hand stops. He pulls a thick tome off the shelf.

Matt turns and reads the title. The Complete Works of Shakespeare. Right next to Aristotle’s Metaphysics.

Professor Yamamoto walks back to his desk and puts the book down next to the goban board.

“You want me to read Shakespeare?”

The professor laughs. “There is something inside that might interest you. Open it.”

Matt opens the hard front cover. The smell of dust and old paper floats up, and his eyes fall on a faded color photograph that shows a man dressed in the white robes of a Shinto priest. Torn at the edges, it is something one might expect to find in a photo album from the prior century.

As the muffled music of cicadas outside rises and falls in waves, Professor Yamamoto picks up the old photo and hands it to Matt. “It’s never been published. You’re the only person to see it other than me and the Holder.”

“The Holder? What do you mean?” Matt’s eyes drop down to the picture and freeze.

For a moment, the world fades out of existence, and he sits there alone, staring at the Shinto priest’s hand. It holds a claw-shaped rock, light purple. The rest of the photo slips out of focus, and for a time all he can see is the Magatama Stone.

Impossible.

It’s nearly identical to the rock in Matt’s pocket.

CHAPTER 44

“Is something wrong?” The professor’s voice breaks through the bubble around Matt.

As the rest of the world slowly comes back into focus, Matt tries to talk, but his mouth is dry and gravelly. Finally, words come out. “Is this the actual Magatama Stone, the one that’s been handed down through the Imperial House line for thousands of years?”

“Yes. I took the photo myself with an old camera. And I handled the Stone.”

Matt stares again at the photo, thunderstruck, fighting back the urge to reach into his pocket and wrap his fingers around the hard object there.

“Why haven’t you published this?” Matt looks from the photo to Professor Yamamoto and hands it back to him with trembling fingers.

“For several reasons. It would stir up too much controversy. Most people wouldn’t believe it anyway.” Professor Yamamoto puts it back in the book. “But most importantly, the Holder has forbidden it.”

“The Holder?” Matt steals another glance at the old photo. “Doesn’t it belong to the Emperor?”

Professor Yamamoto hesitates, and then shakes his head. “Yes. I mean, no.”

“But you said—”

“I know what I said. The Emperor receives the Stone. And he does, in a manner of speaking.” He fingers a white game piece. “Over the centuries, it was deemed wise to take the Magatama Stone out of the Imperial House for safekeeping. The stone received by the Emperor is a copy of the real one, made from fine jade.”

“How did you find it?” Matt stares at Professor Yamamoto.

“You might say that it found me. Your turn, by the way.”

Matt drops a black piece on the goban board, too absorbed in the conversation to care where it lands. “It found you?”

“Yes.” Professor Yamamoto leans back in the chair, causing it to creak. “I did research on the Magatama for many years, spending most of my vacation time making the rounds of old Shinto shrines and pouring over ancient records.” He puts another white piece on the board and looks across the table at Matt. “Most of the Shinto priests cannot read the old writings anymore, so I visited the shrines and offered to translate their records.”

Matt drops a black piece in a random spot on the board. “What did you find?”

“Bits and pieces, anecdotes handed down for more than two millennia.” The professor places a white piece on the board. “Much more than is generally known. Eventually, it led me to the location of the Holder and the real Magatama Stone.”

“Where is it?” The words jump out of Matt’s mouth before he can stop them.

Professor Yamamoto jerks up, eyeing Matt for a time. Then his body relaxes. “I suppose I can tell you. I’ve never told anyone else. Northern Honshu.”

“Can you tell me more about the Magatama Stone itself?” A sudden consuming curiosity overcomes Matt, and he tries to hide it by picking up a black piece and playing it quickly on the board.

“What would you like to know?”

“Is there more than one of the Stones?”

The professor leans forward with both elbows on the table. “Interesting that you would ask. I asked the Holder the same question, and he said it would be better for me not to know. But the old records say yes. In fact, they talk about using one Stone to locate another.”

“Does it ever change colors? Does it bond itself to the Holder so it can’t be taken away?” The words tumble out of Matt’s mouth. “Or discarded?”

Professor Yamamoto reaches for another game piece, but his hand stops in mid-air and moves back slowly. “Unusually perceptive. Yes to both.” His eyes narrow slightly.

“Did the Holder say anything about dreams?” Matt does his best to keep his gaze on the goban board.

“Yes, again. Based on my research, and what the Holder himself told me, the Stone gives its Holder a certain connection.”

“To what?”

“To other levels of reality.” The professor picks up a white piece and drops it down on the goban board alone, in an area away from any of Matt’s pieces.

“Other levels of reality? I don’t understand.”

Professor Yamamoto shakes his head. “Neither do I. Perhaps it is something one must experience to truly know.”

“Sensei, forgive me, but why haven’t you published any of this? You could say it’s a collection of folk myth uncovered in ancient writings discovered at Shinto shrines.” Matt fingers a black piece and puts it on the board. “I think people would find it interesting.”

“Perhaps it’s just fatigue. I’m tired of being laughed at.” Wrinkles appear above the professor’s bushy eyebrows. “But there’s another reason. Both the Holder of the Stone and my benefactor have forbidden that I publish any of my findings.”

“Your benefactor?”

“The corporation I told you about. They’re supporting my research. A few years ago, I ran into a former professor of archeology from Oxford who said he knew of my interest in the Magatama Stone. He said he left academia to work in a large company and offered to support my research. He has been most generous.” Professor Yamamoto lays down another white piece.

“So, you’ve been sending your research to him?” Matt surveys the board and places a black piece in one of the corners.

“Some of it, yes. But not all. I have started to notice that he has an unhealthy interest in learning how to exploit the powers of the Stones. It’s unsettling. If one of the Stones were to fall into the wrong hands, it would result in terrible…” Professor Yamamoto carefully places a white game piece at the end of a line of white stones on the board.

“Terrible what?”

The professor stares down at the goban board as if in silent contemplation. Turning to look out the window, more seconds pass in silence. “Matt, I sense I can trust you to keep my research on the Magatama Stone absolutely secret. I’ll get you started on a legitimate topic, one on which you can publish. Meanwhile, you can have a look at my research on the Magatama in your spare time. Agreed?”

Honto ni, arigato gozaimasu.” Matt bows his head and feels his pulse quicken in his temples. “Thank you for indulging my selfish request.”

“Listen carefully.” Professor Yamamoto reaches for the Complete Works of Shakespeare and opens it up to the middle. A section of the pages is cut out, allowing space for a clear cube near the spine of the book. He picks up the memory jewel and holds it between his index finger and thumb. “This is where I keep all my research. There’s nothing on the Mesh. Too risky. You can look at it whenever you like, but don’t allow it to leave this office.”

“Understood.”

“In the meantime, how good is your classic Chinese?” Professor Yamamoto drops a white piece on the goban board and motions for Matt to take his turn.

“I can read well enough, but I still have trouble with place names and personal names.” Matt grabs a black piece and puts it down on the board. His hand goes into his pocket and comes out with his jax. “If I get stuck, I’ve always got this.”

“Good. There are some data files under my name at the library. They just came in from a royal burial mound discovered on the outskirts of Guilin in China. I need you to scan the files and look for this.” He hands Matt a handwritten string of Chinese characters. “Let’s hope you read Chinese better than you play Igo.” The professor lays down a white piece, closing a ring around three of Matt’s black pieces, all of which he picks off the board.

CHAPTER 45

Ryzaard’s face goes white when he hears the news. “Are you certain?” He looks down at Jing-wei with flared nostrils and fire in his eyes.

“Yes.” Jing-wei drops the slate onto her lap. “I can assure you that I’ve checked and cross-checked the data at least ten times. There’s no mistake.” She closes her eyes for a long time and waits for Ryzaard to speak.

“How could this happen?” Ryzaard paces back and forth parallel to the window. “A boy accidently finds a Stone, has no idea what it is, flies to Japan and ends up as a research assistant for the only other Stone expert in the world.”

“Yamamoto is not the only other expert.”

“He understands the history and lore better than almost anyone on the planet. He was the one that led us to the other Holder in Northern Honshu.”

“What do you suggest we do?” Jing-wei stands still while Ryzaard paces back and forth.

“There’s only one thing we can do.” Ryzaard stops and picks up the Zeus statue from the desk. “Get the boy away from Yamamoto now. By any means possible. Before the old professor starts talking about the Stones and the kid realizes what he’s found.”

Jing-wei picks up her slate. “Does that mean what I think it means?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Shall I set up a call with Mr. Shinoda?”

“Yes, and tell him it’s extremely urgent. I want his men to move on this in a matter of minutes.”

CHAPTER 46

Matt walks back to the main library lost in thought. Was the rock in his pocket one of the Magatama Stones? Who was the Holder that Professor Yamamoto spoke of? What’s a corporation doing supporting the professor’s research? What could a Holder do with the Stone? He looks forward to pouring over the professor’s research. As a mass of thoughts flow through his mind, he notices his right hand has already slipped into the side pocket as if on its own. The fingers wrap around the Stone, falling into what feels like their default position.

He realizes he hasn’t sent a message to Jessica since the previous night, so he pulls out his jax.

Jess. Remember the magic rock I threw away at the airport? I found it this morning, in my hand when I woke up from that dream I told you about. Only one word for this. Creepy. Can’t seem to get rid of it.

It’s late in Colorado, but he promised Jess he will keep in touch. He jaxes off the message. The reply comes in seconds.

You’re joking, right? Nothing is ever normal with you. I saw what you wrote about the dream. Since when did you start keeping a dream journal? Take my advice. Just keep this between you and me. Don’t tell anyone else, especially not your professor. You must be under a lot of stress.

His laughs to himself and then, after walking a few more steps, realizes that she is absolutely right. Nothing is ever normal with him. His fingers instinctively move across the jax.

I’m not normal, and I’m not joking. But it’s a secret only you and I will share. If I can’t get rid of the rock, I’ll just keep it. Maybe it wants me.

A few seconds pass.

You are crazy. That much is clear. Sounds like we need to have a long conversation, but I have to sleep now. Tomorrow is a big day, an interview for a new job in New York City. It may be my lucky break.

A big grin floats across Matt’s face as he thinks of Jess floating off to sleep.

On the third floor of the library, he pours over Professor Yamamoto’s files on a slate at a table next to the wall just off the central open area. A large window behind him looks out over the entrance to the library. He has a good view of the inside and outside.

It’s an another old habit he got from his dad. When in public, avoid closed spaces. Leave yourself an escape route. Pick a location that gives you a clear view. By now, it’s become second nature to scan every space he’s in and select the spot that provides the best means of escape in case someone comes after him.

By early evening, he has poured over the files for three hours without finding the string of Chinese characters in any of the photos. Deciding it is time to take a short break, he stares out the window into the distance to give his eyes a rest. Something catches his attention. A man in a dark suit is coming toward the library from the other side of the lawn. He is cutting across the grass rather than staying on the sidewalk, something no typical Japanese would do. His clothes, his shoes, even his swaggering gait shout out a single word.

Yakuza.

Matt snorts a laugh to himself at the comical sight. A Yakuza gangster in an Italian suit stomping across the grass on a university campus. The guy probably hasn’t even completed junior high or read anything other than manga books. Why is he walking into the library?

And then something else catches his eye.

There’s a thin red scar running from the guy’s chin to ear. He has a black ponytail lying forward on top of his head.

Exactly like one of the gangsters that tailed him in the airport. Can it be?

Matt freezes and stares in terrified fascination as the man bounds up the library steps and disappears into the entrance on the ground level thirty meters below where Matt is sitting. The drumbeat of his own pulse snaps him back into reality. His fingers drop to the slate and close the files. Without thinking, he jumps to his feet and runs from the open area.

The next two hours are agony as he shifts among the book stacks and desks in the library, always keeping the central space in full view, expecting the Yakuza thug to charge in on a rampage, gun in hand, looking for him.

The sun dips below the horizon, and the windows slowly turn into dark mirrors.

But the Yakuza man never comes.

Just before the library closes, Matt makes his way down the stairs from the fifth floor with a random group of students. Imagining a dark shape and peeping eyes behind every corner, he exits the building from a side entrance and moves quickly across the lawn under a full moon to the edge of campus. Just outside the gate, he drops into the first subway stop without a reason or destination. For some reason, he feels a compulsion to get away from the University. As he stands alone in the shadows on the platform, the hollow whistle of a train approaches. He finds himself slipping inside the train car just as the doors shut behind him. In a few minutes, he arrives at the main station in downtown Sapporo.

Was it really the same man? The more he thinks about it, the less sure he is. Lots of Yakuza have scars and topknots on their heads. They tend to like the same Italian suits. From a distance, they all look the same. But maybe it was him. Maybe he’s tracking Matt, waiting for a chance to catch him alone and make him suffer.

A vague image takes shape in his imagination. His mom in the seconds before the truck transport slammed into her car. A shudder passes through his body.

Perhaps his dad was right. Maybe MX Global has been tracking Matt all this time. Maybe they hired some thugs to murder him now that he’s on his own. Yakuza are just the type to do the job. He imagines his dad opening a message on his jax and getting a video of Matt’s mutilated body lying on the grass. Words appear beneath it, like they did when his mother was killed.

First your wife. Now your son.

Chills rip up his spine. Sweat drips down the inside of his arms.

With his mind stuck in a rut and spiraling down into ever tighter circles of fear, he casts around for a distraction to jar it loose. Then he remembers the dream of the previous night, the one where he saw the park he played in as a child with his mom. The luminous Woman walking through the torii gate and ascending the trail up into the mountain.

An irresistible urge overcomes him. He must visit the spot and follow the trail himself.

On the opposite side of the platform, a train pulls in. A quick glance tells him it’s going in the direction of Otaru, a small town on the coast just twenty minutes away.

There is a spark of light in his mind. The park in his dreams is only a few minute’s walk from the train station in Otaru.

Without further thought, he turns and runs through the open doors of the train. Inside, the car is deserted except for a trio of high school boys in their black gakuran uniforms with the high collars and brass buttons.

He finds an empty bench and rides in silence, watching buildings and roads flow by as if he were standing still.

And then the train slows and stops. He glances up at a bluescreen. It says Otaru Station. The doors open, and he steps onto the platform to get his bearings in this little town sandwiched between the mountains and the sea.

Sensing movement behind him, he jerks around to see a lone hunchback man in a blue uniform sweeping the platform a few meters away. He walks through the station and out the front door into the cool night air. A mountain covered in a carpet of trees rises up like a dark mound half a kilometer away. The little park is at its base. He jogs across the narrow street and heads straight for it.

He can’t shake the sense that he’s being followed. Every few seconds, his eyes dart to the sides and behind, searching the dark corners and alleys. But nothing other than an occasional cat is moving at this time of night. It’s probably just nerves.

The narrow streets and alleys bring back a flood of memories. He pauses in front of the old kakigori shop he and his grandfather visited during hot summer days and can almost taste the bowls of creamy shaved ice they used to eat there. He runs his fingers along the plywood storefront. Its bright red and yellow colors are faded and peel away in the moonlight. He moves past it and puts his nose up against the glass of the bookstore where he used to browse children’s manga for hours on rainy summer days when he was a kid.

Then he looks across the street and finds the park.

It still has the old metal swings he and his mom played on during their summers in Japan. She always wanted to push him, but it was more fun to push her and hear her laughter and screams. His ears catch a familiar sound, and he strains as if to hear her gentle voice in the shadows, but it’s only the wind blowing the swings, metal chains tapping against one of the posts.

He stops and lets his eyes sweep over the park from end to end. Everything is exactly as he remembers it. Exactly as in the dream. Nothing has changed.

Off to the right, there’s a string of low ojizosama child Buddha statues with faded red aprons over their bellies lining the narrow street at the base of the mountain. Two ancient and massive cedar trees, the only ones on a mountain of common pines as he recalls, stand with their trunks covered in moss. Sacred shimenawa ropes of twisted rice straw drape across their middle a couple of meters off the ground like the belts worn by sumo wrestlers. White shide papers dangle down with a zigzag shape symbolic of lightning. Behind the trees, the two red pillars of the torii gate rise out of the ground. And beyond it, a path snakes through the pine forest into the upper reaches of the mountain.

The same path the Woman took in Matt’s dream.

With a trembling hand, he pulls the Stone out of his pocket and holds it on his open palm at eye level. The light blue glow is unmistakable in the darkness.

Recalling that a torii gate marks the entrance to a sacred place, he holds his breath and his eyes drop to his Stone as he passes its red pillars, not sure what to expect. There’s no change, and he exhales. With a final backward glance, the only movement he can see is a swarm of insects swimming in the light of the street lamp. He starts up the deep dirt path to the Shinto shrine at the top. It will take half an hour to reach it. As he ascends, the buzz of cicadas grows softer and distant behind him.

The path rises on long switchbacks past old trees with roots exposed in the dirt like dead snakes strewn at random in the moonlight. Matt isn’t sure what he expects to find at the top. A compelling desire to go and see drives him higher.

Halfway up the mountain, the evening air is disturbed by the snap of a broken twig on the trail below. He strains to see in the shadows, but there’s no movement.

At the top, he walks to the shrine, a simple square building of wood. Like most traditional buildings in Japan, his eyes are immediately drawn up to the roof where the interesting design details are to be found. Resembling a gorgeously curved hat, it is high and steep in the middle with each corner rising to a gentle peak. It might have come down from heaven to rest on the four simple walls of the structure. Stone steps lead up to the entrance. Each one is worn smooth and round from centuries of faithful pilgrimages. Halfway up the steps, he passes two lion-like komainu statues, sitting on their haunches like silent sentinels, the one on the right with its mouth open, and the one on the left with its mouth closed, as if engaged in conversation. He sits on the steps between the komainu and looks down slope at the lights of the town below. The moon burns in the night sky behind him.

He tries to imagine what the mountain would look like covered in snow and transformed into a ski run.

Again, there is the sound of a broken twig below him on the path.

Jumping to his feet, he runs to the side of the shrine where the ground is bathed in shadow. As he waits and watches the path, the beating of his heart makes it hard to breathe. The smell of moldy wood plays in his nostrils. Minutes pass in silence.

And then he realizes the absurdity of the situation. He’s come all the way to this mountain shrine for no better reason than the dream of the night before. What did he expect to find? Who or what does he expect to see? Questions he can’t answer.

But he can talk to Jessica and share a bit of humor with her at his own expense. The jax comes out of his pocket. As his back presses into the side of the shrine, his fingers play out a message.

Here I am, sitting on the side of a Shinto shrine on the top of a mountain after dark in the obscure little town of Otaru on the outskirts of Sapporo. No idea why I’ve come here. Just had an urge and followed it. Am I crazy or what?

He jaxes it off and checks the time. It’s close to 7:30 in the morning in Colorado.

Not doing some free solo rock climbing at midnight again are you? You know what happened the last time you tried that.

Jessica’s response makes him laugh out loud. His muscles relax, and he slides down the wall into a sitting position where he taps out a new message.

I remember. Slipped and broke my arm up at Powder Puff Basin. It was a full moon, just like tonight. But don’t worry, My crazy night adventure ends here. I’m heading back to the dorm now. Over and out.

Just exchanging a few words with Jessica calms him down. It’s time to put the craziness of the day forever behind him and return to reality. The whole Yakuza thing is just his imagination. He stands up and walks to the front of the shrine, down the stone steps past the komainu statues. After giving each one a pat on the head, he heads down the path.

As he makes his way, he hears the sound, more clearly this time, off to the right. There is movement behind a tree. His hand digs into a side pocket, pulls out his jax and activates the built-in light beam. He points it in the direction of the noise. It lights up a small clearing in the trees off the trail.

Wading through a mass of knee-high weeds, he reaches the spot where the trees open up. In the middle, there’s a boulder with a flat top the size of a small car. He doesn’t remember seeing it here before. In fact, he doesn’t remember seeing any outcroppings of rock on the mountain. But then again, childhood memories can be slippery.

He looks around for the source of the sound that drew him off the trail, but there’s nothing but a swarm of insects drawn to the beam of his flashlight.

On a whim, he grips the boulder’s rough surface like a rock climber and pulls himself to the top. Then he sits in a lotus position under the stars and moon. His eyes drop down. The Stone feels heavy in the open palm of his right hand.

When did he pull the Stone out of his pocket?

He can’t remember for sure, but jet lag has numbed his mind. And even when he isn’t tired, he often does things by instinct. No planning, no thinking. They just happen.

Out of habit, he begins to count breaths, going from one to ten and back to one, focusing on the rise and fall of his belly. The air moving in, and the air moving out. A wave of relaxation washes through his mind and pulls him away from shore, out into a great sea of calm.

The weight seems to drain out of the Stone on his open palm. There is a sudden absence of sound except for the internal beat of his heart every few seconds. The world is completely silent.

A delicate breeze of air plays across his face, and he slowly opens his eyes to see a tiny gnat hovering in mid-flight inches from his eyes. As its wings move up and down in slow motion, they make a rhythmic drumming sound, like ripples of water on a lakeshore. Their delicate vein structure stands out in precise detail in the moonlight. His vision sweeps across the jewel-like eyes of the insect, the rod-like antennae and hairy legs. All the structures are visible in exquisite clarity. The longer he stares at the gnat, the more he sees.

A universe of infinite design.

A profound sense of warmth and wonder fills his brain.

Pulling his gaze back, Matt watches as the gnat slips away. He casts his eyes from side to side and gazes upon more tiny insects hanging like motionless works of art in the clear night air.

A carpet of dokudami plants spreads on the forest floor around the boulder with their unique odor that hints of fish. With a glance, his eyes take in the pastel colors of their green leaves and white flowers. The more he stares, the deeper his eyes pierce into their surface to the intricate cellular architecture below.

In every direction, deep colors and delicate structures pour into his mind through his eyes, as if it is all under a microscope and open to view. It all seems ordinary and right, though some part of him thrills at the raw beauty cascading down upon his senses. The rich aroma of cedar wood drifts by, coming from the two giant trees at the base of the trail, at least two kilometers away. Breathing in, he distinguishes the fragrance of pine needles and tree sap, fresh dirt and the worms burrowing through it. Burnt incense from a Buddhist temple in the town below.

He opens his body to the flood of sensory stimulation. The scratching of a ladybug’s delicate legs across the rock on which he sits. A flower opening its petals to the moonlight. The heart beating in the chest of a squirrel looking at Matt from an adjacent tree. The delicate movement of insect wings all around him, each with its own rhythmic melody.

With sensory organs amplified and refined by multiple orders of magnitude, he focuses on the images, smells, sounds and tastes simultaneously, holding it all in his thoughts with a completeness and calmness entirely new. His mind and body are melded together into an exquisite instrument for perceiving the world. There is no need to analyze, to question, to resist the flow of truth. It moves through him without effort.

He wonders if he has achieved satori, a sudden flash of awareness sought after by followers of the Zen Buddhist tradition.

Matt dwells on the wonders that lay open to his senses. As if on cue, the flowers in the clearing simultaneously open their petals to the night air.

An intense light floods down from above.

He looks up to see a pair of lustrous bronze feet.

The Woman stands above him, the same luminous being he saw in his dream. The Woman that led him through the dark wasteland. The Woman that rescued him from the howling demons hungry for the kill. The Woman he saw as a sixteen-year-old buried alive by an avalanche of snow at the bottom of Skull Pass.

She is all of these things.

A churning white fire engulfs her from head to foot. Licks and tongues of flame extend outward from her body, like the surface of the sun. For a time, fear saturates Matt’s mind. Fear of this fiery being, fear that the trees and flowers will catch the flames, fear that his own body will be consumed by the heat and light. But his fear quickly turns to simple fascination. The green leaves of the trees, the multicolored petals of the flowers, and his skin are all unscathed. A gnat hovers in front of Matt’s eyes beating its delicately veined wings in slow motion in the midst of the flames.

He looks down to see that he has risen from the boulder and stands a meter above it, face to face with the Woman.

Their eyes meet.

She is silent as a statue. A loose garment of alabaster cloth covers her body, open at the neck. Her hands and feet are naked. Dark hair drops down to her shoulders. He tries to determine her race, but it is indistinct. With a broad forehead, chiseled nose, full lips, almond eyes, and deep bronze skin, she might be African, Asian or European. It doesn’t seem to matter.

A thin blue light clings to the outside of her body.

Matt can’t take his eyes off the brown pupils that look back at him and through him. The Woman gazes in quiet dignity with the hint of a smile. It’s clear she knows Matt is studying every detail of her face. She seems in no hurry to speak. Her eyes drop down to her hand, taking Matt’s gaze with them.

A brilliant white Stone, with the familiar rough shape of a large claw, rests in the Woman’s palm. When the Woman looks back at Matt, their eyes meet again.

With effort, Matt looks away from her face to stare at his own hands, feet and torso, all of them glowing with an internal brilliance. But no matter how hard he tries to look elsewhere, his gaze is drawn back like a magnet to the gentle intensity of her eyes.

They watch each other for a time. No hurry. No awkwardness. Matt feels only harmony, comfort, clarity and affection. He ventures a look at the Stone that lies, cool and weightless, in his own hand. Like the Woman, it is ablaze with white light.

She moves closer and reaches out to touch Matt’s Stone. Warmth surges through his body, and his gaze is drawn to his own arms and legs.

He is enveloped in the same boiling white flames.

Movement within his Stone catches his eye. Its light stirs into shifting clouds. It seems to grow larger and larger until it consumes his entire view.

For an instant, all is blindingly brilliant, and then he sees patches of dark space as a cluster of immense white spheres moves by and recedes beyond him. His senses tell him that he is traveling many orders of magnitude faster than the speed of light into the vast depth of space. Galaxies appear as faint spots in the distance, draw closer and then shoot past, falling away into faint smudges of light before fading completely. He has a simultaneous view of every direction, front and rear, up and down, like riding on a transparent bullet train through the heart of Tokyo at high speed.

The whole concept of time is strangely out of place.

As the galaxies thin out, his movement slows down, and a spiral form comes into view. Clouds of glowing light resolve into clusters of star-like blue as he enters an outer arm of the spiral. Slowing further, individual stars fly by until he stops in front of an immense dark cloud of dust floating against a backdrop of white pin pricks in the emptiness of space.

A vaguely round shape grows within the cloud. Matt hears a voice as the shape takes on a fiery glow in the midst of the dark cloud. He doesn’t understand the words, but the meaning is clear. It is the birth of a star. Other spheres resolve and form into planets within the cloud near the newborn star. The remaining dust dissipates until it is gone.

One fiery planet stands out against the blackness, its face cracked with fissures of light. It draws him in.

Dark forms harden and float across its surface as it cools. Gases flow out of the soft interior, the beginnings of an atmosphere. Steam turns to water, oceans form. Clouds swirl. Continents emerge and collide. His vision drops down closer, and he sees great land masses cut through with young mountain ranges and rivers.

He is skimming above the rocky surface. A palpable sense of joy rises up from the desolate landscape. Soft voices play in the darkness around him. Life fills the oceans and spills onto the land. The empty continents take on a green hue. There is an endless variety of grasses and flowers. The first trees appear. The oceans fill with microbes, invertebrates and fish. Insects, birds and animals roam the land. Life extends its reach to fill all empty spaces.

Last of all, Matt sees people like himself. Their faces appear and fade before his eyes. Billions upon billions.

It all happens in an instant, as if time no longer held any meaning. He sees it all and comprehends it all in his mind with effortless simplicity and clarity.

Then the planet and its galaxy, the entire universe around them, all recede to a spot within the white Stone in his own hand.

He looks up at the Woman standing in the air beside him.

“Who are you?” The words tumble from his lips without thought or effort. “What is your name?”

There is an audible voice from the Woman. Matt hears it, not through his ears, but with his entire body. It reminds him of the time that he and his mom and dad went to Niagara Falls the summer after third grade. He remembers standing on the observation deck at the base of the falls, closing his eyes and absorbing the incredible power of the falling water.

The words of the Woman are spoken with the same power.

“We are the Allehonen.”

CHAPTER 47

He is bathed in peace.

The sounds of singing birds and wailing cicadas hang in the air. Something bright and hot bores through Matt’s closed eyelids. They slide open, and he looks up, gazing in contemplation directly at the sun on a cloudless morning. Its outer skin is a collection of tiny explosions and flowing plasma. Seconds or minutes go by. It’s like staring at an orange. No need to squint or look away. Suddenly, Matt becomes conscious of what he is doing, and his hand shoots up to shade his eyes from the burning rays. And then, curious, he moves his hand slightly and looks again directly into the sun.

What the hell?

Eyes flip shut. No retinal afterimage.

He sits up and scans the clearing. Green leaves and white flowers of dokudami flutter delicately in a light breeze all around him on the ground. The needles of pine trees pierce the air with more vivid green than he remembers ever seeing. A ladybug floats by his nose, and he studies, mid-flight, the deep hues of the black dots on the orange back.

Struggling to stand on shaky legs, he raises his upper body and leans back on the side of the boulder, his chest moving in and out with the effort. His body is like a limp dishrag, drained of energy. The palm of his left hand runs along the smooth surface of the massive rock behind his head.

Strange. Hadn’t the boulder had a rough surface last night so that he could easily climb to the top?

The fingers of his other hand are wrapped tightly around the Stone.

Weakness overwhelms him, as if the strength in his muscles has been sucked out by an invisible hypodermic needle. Pangs of hunger pierce through his stomach. But even more than hunger, he has a deep thirst for water. His mind feels unusually clear, capable, it seems, of following two or three strains of thought simultaneously. He thinks of Jessica back in Colorado, Professor Yamamoto at the University, his dad on the road and the fiery Woman who came down from the sky during the night.

Her last and only words flood into his mind.

We are the Allehonen.

Against his own will, Matt must face the fact of what he saw during the night. And the change it forces upon his life and his belief system so long a part of who he is.

Maybe he’s no longer a perfect atheist. Not that he ever really was one. To be honest, he always longed to believe like Jessica, but just couldn’t make the leap of faith.

The obvious question comes to mind. Who is the Woman that came to him? Is she God? He can’t be sure, but recalls that she used the term we. Does that mean there is more than one? She made no mention of religion. Perhaps the Woman is an angel or a seraph from the Bible. Or a Buddhist bodhisattva. Or a malak in Islam. Or any number of otherworldly beings recognized by religions and non-religions around the world.

Maybe they are all the same thing.

Whoever or whatever she is, at least part of the message is clear. The Woman has the power to make stars and planets, and she does it with a Stone exactly like Matt’s.

The sound of a woodpecker in the clear morning air reminds him that he needs to get moving. Time to get back to the University. Time to get some water. Time to find out as much as he can about the Stone in his hand.

The Stone.

He uncurls the fingers of his right hand and looks into its purple surface. His eyes instinctively close as he begins to count backwards from ten.

An image opens in his mind. A small boy with a yellow cap and a bright red backpack runs slowly away. The boy glances back and smiles at Matt as he rushes into the street in front of a convenience store. It has a banner with white kanji characters on a blue background draped across its front. The letters float and shimmer, making it hard to read them. From the looks of it, it’s the 7 Eleven at the bottom of the mountain across the street from the park.

Somewhere behind him, a woman screams. At that instant, a black Mercedes Benz shoots silently in front of Matt, moving right to left, and slams into the child, sucking him under its front fender. The child disappears beneath the car. A group of teenage schoolgirls in their sailor uniforms stand in front of the convenience store, and they raise their hands to their mouths, screaming as they look at the little body lying crumpled on the street like a discarded rag.

The image fades.

Matt looks up from the Stone, blinks his eyes and shakes his head, trying to clear the picture from his mind.

Feeling the strength to stand, he finds his way through the brush and back to the deep path he came up just hours ago. He starts down the mountain and lets gravity pull him into a gentle jog. The gigantic appetite and thirst in his belly cry out for a quick breakfast, maybe a liter of water and three or four fresh onigiri rice balls wrapped in seaweed with a bright red pickled plumb at the center.

Thirty meters down, a dark blue suit jacket lies crumpled on the side of the path. Something about it is oddly familiar. There’s a necktie hanging in a zigzag fashion on a bush a few meters away.

Matt stops. Just off the trail, a ripped shirt is strewn on the ground. A line of broken branches and trampled weeds lead in the same direction through the underbrush. Matt follows the tracks off the trail. A white T-shirt hangs from a tree branch above him, as if it was torn off in haste and thrown there. He walks past pants, shoes and socks, all discarded haphazardly.

A flash of light in the weeds catches his attention. He picks up a thin silver tube shaped like a long straw. He knows he has seen something like it before, and then he remembers. In his mind’s eye, he sees the Yakuza man in the airport tapping a similar tube against the palm of his hand.

What could it possibly be for?

There’s a mumbling sound in the weeds straight ahead.

Matt finds its source. A man lays in a fetal position on the ground, motionless, eyes open, staring straight ahead. He has nothing on but a traditional Japanese fundoshi loincloth. A dagger is strapped to his lower leg. Matt recalls reading something in a local newspaper about the comeback of the ancient loincloth, especially among the Yakuza and other gangs. The man’s skin has an unnatural red hue that almost hides the menagerie of dragon, carp and snake tattoos that crawl over his body like a collection from an exotic zoo. The skin color makes Matt think of a cadaver he once dissected in a college anatomy class. There’s something familiar about the man and his massive enhanced pec muscles.

He moves closer for a better look.

The eye twitches. Matt moves away too slowly as the man jumps to his feet and lunges at him, arms outstretched as if groping for a lifeline.

“It’s you, isn’t it?” The man speaks roughly as he snags Matt’s shirt in his fingers, gets a grip and pulls Matt down close to his face.

A long black ponytail runs down the man’s back. There’s a thin red scar stretching from chin to ear.

Silence passes as the man holds Matt’s shirt and tries to look into his face, opening and closing his eyes, squinting, struggling to see. Matt stands for a moment looking down at the gangster and the thin white film covering his eyes. The beat of his own heart jars him back to reality, and he thrusts the naked man away with a violent push of his palms, sending him tumbling down the hill, chest heaving.

Matt stumbles backwards against the trunk of a pine tree.

The man stops rolling and struggles to his feet. As he stares uphill, he seems to lose Matt’s direction and turns his body several times with outstretched arms, his eyes sweeping and scanning. When he stops, he’s looking off at an angle.

Matt freezes, afraid that the man might hear his heartbeat or breathing.

“I know it’s you.” The man looks into empty space. “I saw you last night, up on the mountain. I followed you there from the University.”

Matt crouches down, says nothing and pulls in shallow breaths.

“You climbed up on the rock. Flames poured down from the sky. I saw it swallow you, the rock, the trees, the flowers. The whole world was on fire.” He falls to his knees and runs his hands over his face and chest. “Eyes, skin, arms, legs. Everything hot. Everything burning.” His hand moves down his lower leg and slides one of the daggers from its sheath.

Matt remains motionless, barely breathing through his nose.

“Someone very important wants you. I heard it from the boss himself. I don’t know who you are or what you’ve done, but they’ll come to find you. Everything you have, everyone you love, they’ll take it all away. Layer by layer, like peeling an onion.” The man pauses, looks around, straining to listen.

“Who?” Matt opens his mouth and whispers the sound before realizing that he’s given himself away.

The naked man turns to Matt with a smile and flicks the dagger from his hand.

CHAPTER 48

Kent drives through mile after mile of cornfields, just as he remembers it as a small boy going cross-country with his dad in the old Ford Phantom. He’s taking his time, in no hurry to his final destination. It doesn’t make sense to get too tired on the trip. All his strength and wits need to be intact and ready to go when he arrives.

It’s difficult to keep Matt out of his thoughts as he moves down the endless interstate. He tries, but it’s like turning away a persistent unwanted guest that keeps coming back to knock on your door. At last, he grabs the jax out of its slot on the car-com and checks the MOM data-site again for the second time in fifteen minutes. Empty. Everything is fine. No need to worry.

Now that he’s in corn country, he doesn’t expect to run into any more freedom camps. But to his amazement, there’s one up ahead, marked by a line of cars and transports stopped on the freeway and pillars of black smoke rising above the green sea around him.

He wonders if he’ll get stopped and searched again, just like last time.

Several dozen youths, many the age of Matt, step out of the long cornrows onto the shoulder of the road. Others disappear back into the green mass of the field, their arms full of offerings.

Kent slows down behind the last car in line. Five young people, two of them teenage girls, walk toward his pickup. One of the girls approaches, a half smile on her face.

He rolls the window down and sticks out his elbow.

Her gaze sweeps past the beat-up pickup from end to end as if looking for certain identifying marks. Then she waves it on with a smile. No searches. No questions. No demands.

And then it all makes sense. She must have gotten the word from Little John. In spite of their display of hatred for technology, the freedom camps have a communication network.

Kent nods and pulls to the left out of the line and glides down the freeway past the cars and truck transports stopped on the right. Everyone stands back to let him go. All of them smile, some of them wave. He waves back.

It’s convenient, but eerie. A thought crosses his mind.

Is Little John tracing his journey?

Hard to say, but it makes sense if the freedom camps really do have a communication network, even a primitive one. Kent’s been careful to make sure no one is following him on the road, but maybe the freedom camps he’s passing on the way to New York City are accomplishing the same thing. Maybe Little John will find out that Kent’s true destination isn’t North Carolina. What will happen then?

Kent dismisses the thought. He’s not going to let that fat little man rattle his confidence.

As he travels, Kent’s been doing Mesh research on the origin and spread of the freedom camps. From what he’s learned, it all started with a mythic leader from decades ago, a man whose name was never mentioned, but that claimed to have seen visions of the future. A modern-day prophet. In spite of the common origin, the camps aren’t run under a single authority. It’s more like a loose alliance. Each camp has its own flavor. Some attract young people, like the one run by Little John. Others attract families with small children. Hundreds of them have sprung up spontaneously all over the world. Some of the members are highly educated. Former doctors, lawyers, engineers or businessmen. Most are just ordinary people that have grown weary of civilization.

One common thread runs through all the camps. A belief that Abomination, in the form of modern technology, will bring about the enslavement of the human race and must be avoided at all cost.

It’s the destiny of the camps to serve as a refuge from Abomination, to preserve islands of humanity where freedom and self-reliance are nurtured and from which leaders will emerge to guide the world through a time of great danger and suffering.

The more Kent thinks about it, the more it all sounds like a typical end-of-the-world cult, an escape for people who can’t handle reality. Rejects and outcasts.

Just like Kent.

CHAPTER 49

Alexa watches him in silence.

Ryzaard looks out the window of the corporate jet into the night covering the continent below. The lights of the great city of Los Angeles dot the California coast, and then all becomes dark as the jet plunges into blackness over the Pacific.

“Sure this is a good idea?” Alexa crosses her legs and looks at Ryzaard over a pair of red-stained wine glasses and a half-empty bottle of 1811 Chateau d’Yquem. “The shareholders won’t be happy when they hear we’ve suspended the trading program for technical maintenance. They’ve grown used to a steady stream of profits.” She reaches for the bottle and replenishes her glass. “Elsa’s not happy about this either.”

“It is unfortunate the trading algorithm cannot access the Stone from a distance, but that will come in time. Jerek assured me he’s working on it.” Ryzaard turns back from the window and reaches for his own wine glass as Alexa fills it. Then he brings it close and takes a sip. “It is regrettable that I have to personally direct an operation like this, but the boy does have a Stone. He may have learned a thing or two about using it, which makes him dangerous until he’s safely dead. That shouldn’t take long.” He leans back in his chair and looks up at the ceiling, savoring the taste.

Alexa holds her glass with both hands. “What will you do with a second Stone?” There’s a sense of hopefulness in the tone of her voice.

“It will make the work much easier.”

“The work?”

“The task I have to perform for humankind. To free them from their chains.”

“Do we have to have this conversation again?” Alexa rolls her eyes and looks out the window at the black void.

“It’s important that you understand.”

“I doubt I ever will. Isn’t this enough?” Alexa motions around her at the plush interior of the jet. “You’re the CEO of the most profitable corporation in the world. You can have anything you want, go anywhere you want, do anything you want.” She points to the Stone lying on the table. “And if that weren’t enough, you have a magic Stone that makes you invincible. No one can touch you. Isn’t that enough?”

The second the words leave her lips, she visibly regrets it.

Ryzaard explodes.

“No, it’s not enough! It’s never enough!” He jumps up, grabs the Stone off the table and knocks over the wine bottle, spilling its contents in a long red tongue that licks its way toward Alexa. “Don’t you understand? After all we’ve been through, after all we’ve done, you still don’t understand?”

“I’m sorry.” In the two years they’ve worked together, Alexa has never seen Ryzaard react like this. He’s always so calm, so sure of himself. A sliver of fear shoots through her spine.

Ryzaard takes a step back to the table and spins the slate around so Alexa can see it.

“The company is making more money than anyone imagined. An unlimited supply of wealth for our shareholders to feast on.” Ryzaard looks down at her with lips curling in a grimace. His hands curl into fists. “But you know what I see when I look at this?” He points at the slate.

“Tell me.” Alexa tries her best to speak in a calming voice.

Ryzaard drops back into his leather chair. “I see my father taken away by the Gestapo, the look of helplessness and terror on his face. I see my mother lying on a bed, arms and legs like pretzels, her backbone sticking out like a string of pearls. Her eyes are dark little pools of water at the bottom of a deep well. Reduced to nothing by starvation.”

He closes his eyes and brings the Stone close to his forehead. His body trembles as he breathes in and out.

“I was there when she spoke her last words.” A tear traces a line down his cheek. “She said she had a vision while in a delirium. An angel came to her and told her things. That I would survive the war. That I would have power over evil. That I would be the one to bring Paradise. She made me promise that I would do it.”

“She loved you very much.” Alexa speaks the words softly, gently as Ryzaard sits still with his eyes closed.

“I have carried those words with me ever since. It’s what got me through Auschwitz.” Ryzaard speaks in a low voice. “I don’t care about the money. I don’t care about the profits. I don’t care about the corporation.” He opens his eyes and gazes at Alexa. “All of that is nothing more than a vehicle, a means to an end.”

“What end?” Alexa leans forward and puts her hand on top of Ryzaard’s.

“The end of chaos. The end of suffering. The end of freedom. The beginning of order.”

CHAPTER 50

Matt watches as the fingertips release the dagger. He can see the strain in the muscles of the forearms, the hatred mixed with fear in the man’s film-covered eyes.

A cry of terror rises in Matt’s throat. His body goes taut and his eyes close, bracing for the impact, unable to move. He waits. Nothing.

The birds and cicadas, everything around him, goes strangely quiet. But not quite silent. He hears the sound of the ocean, remembered from his happiest memory. A day on the beach with his mom and dad on his seventh birthday. He opens his eyes slowly and carefully, half expecting to find her standing there beside him and feel the sand warm under his feet. He no longer feels an intense need for food and water. He’s engulfed in peace and calm.

The naked man stands a few yards down the hill in exactly the same position as when he threw the dagger. At first, Matt thinks the man is playing a trick, standing as still as a statue, but then Matt can see a dark object suspended in mid-air between them.

The dagger.

Matt cocks his head from side to side and examines the weeds, the flowers, the bushes. Nothing moves, as if the world is cast in glass. Off to his right, a butterfly poses silently in mid-air, its wings open and frozen in graceful flight.

Matt walks forward through silence to the man, passing a swarm of mosquitoes as still as stars in the night sky. On impulse, he pulls the jax out of his side pocket and checks the time, recorded in hours, minutes and seconds on its blue screen. To his amazement, the seconds stand still.

Matt realizes he is frozen in time. Or more correctly, everything but him is frozen in time.

Heart still beating, he breathes and swallows and sweats. The whole world looks stuck, motionless. He moves back to the dagger, still hanging in mid-air at chest level. Reaching out, he touches it with trembling fingers. At the moment of contact, it falls to the ground. He picks it up and takes a closer look at the custom-carved jade handle and titanium blade, both attesting to the owner’s affection for weapons. It’s a prize piece.

With a shallow bow to the Yakuza thug, he grips it like a dagger and brings it close to the man’s naked chest. The thug’s eyes stare forward. Matt reads the intent behind the eyes and sees what he already knew. The thug means to murder him. He’s a professional killer. If Matt lets him live, the consequences will almost certainly be catastrophic. It isn’t much better if he kills him. After quickly parsing his options, Matt decides it’s too complicated. He slides the blade back into the sheath hanging from the man’s ankle, and then, raising an eyebrow, removes the sheath and drops it into a side pocket on his pants.

It’s not every day that you acquire a Yakuza dagger.

On a hunch, Matt lifts the Stone out of his pocket and cradles it in his fingers. It’s light blue, matching the color of the sky.

The sound of the ocean plays again in his ears, and he retraces his steps back the way he came, passing the man’s discarded clothing on the way.

As he reaches the trail, exhaustion overtakes him. The muscles in his chest tighten and he struggles to breathe. He drops down to rest, making a conscious effort to relax his body and mind, and the ocean fades away. As his mind lets go of the scene with the Yakuza, there is a moment of utter silence. And then an onslaught of sound and motion hits him with the intensity of a hurricane.

It knocks him off his feet, and he drops to his knees. After a quick moment of adjustment, he’s back on his feet, back in real time and moving quickly down the trail.

As he pulls away, a voice yells off in the trees.

“You can’t run forever. Someday we’ll find you. Then we’ll kill you very slowly, carefully, little by little. You’ll beg us in the end.”

Matt thinks again about the dagger in the backpack. Maybe he was wrong to leave the Yakuza alive. It would be easy to sneak back and end his miserable life. Just stop time, walk up to him and slip the blade into his heart. Matt wouldn’t even have to look him in the eyes.

It’s a simple matter of self-defense. A neat solution.

He reaches around to the side pocket and carefully pulls out the sheath with the knife.

Turning back up the trail, Matt takes a deep breath and braces himself. He’s never killed a man before, not even in his dreams. The fragrance of decaying wood mixed with pine floats past him on a cool breeze. A tiny black bird with a flaming red beak perches above and emits a high-pitched cry that reminds him of a certain female singer that’s popular on the Mesh. As he listens, the chattering goes up an octave.

His eyes drop down, and he searches his mind for the image of that day on the beach with his mom. The sound of birds fades away, replaced by a gentle surf on a beach. He can feel his mom’s warm hand wrapped around his. Sand between his toes.

When he opens his eyes again, the world has stopped. He makes his way through the bushes to the Yakuza thug, gripping the dagger, forcing his mind to discard any thoughts of turning back.

When he gets back to the spot, the naked man is sitting in a ball, burnt and red, still as a rock, arms wrapped around his knees. A single drop of moisture glistens from the corner of his blind eye. He seems to be staring down. A massive vein bulges along the side of his neck. One swift cut, and the man will bleed out in seconds.

He tried to kill me, Matt thinks. He won’t stop until I’m dead.

Self defense.

Nodding to himself, Matt pushes back the doubts that rise in his mind. He holds the dagger, bends down and brings the blade close to the man’s charred skin.

And then he sees his reflection in the hot steel. Two dark eyes stare back at him. His pulse quickens until it’s pounding in his ears, drowning out the sound of the surf. His hands begin to tremble, so he grips the handle tighter, draining the blood from his fingers. Sweat drips from his forehead, but he feels cold. A shiver runs through his body. As his eyelids drop down, he sees his mother’s face, a gentle smile on her lips. And it all becomes clear.

He can’t kill the man.

His minds screams back at him. Killing the man is the logical thing to do. He’s crazy not to.

But Matt can’t do it. Not like this.

Quickly standing, he sprints away from the scene back to the trail and jogs down the slope, never stopping until he gets to the park at the bottom.

Out of habit, he scans the street and sidewalk. Cars are lined up and standing still. People on the sidewalk are frozen in mid-stride. For an instant, Matt thinks he’s in some kind of dream, but then he remembers that he’s still holding onto time. He slips behind one of the big cedar trees and lets go of everything, relaxing back into the present. Sound and motion rain down upon him, but this time he’s ready.

The burning thirst and hunger come back, more intense than before. He pushes it away. Before he eats, before he drinks, he needs to think, to wrap his mind around the last few hours. So much has happened. There’s a bench in the park. He moves through the torii gate, mentally crossing from the world of the sacred to the world of the profane, walks across the grass and sits down.

It’s time to take stock.

The inside of his mind is a sea of swirling fog. With a deep inhale, he lets his shoulders relax down. The tension drains out of his muscles. After a few more breaths, he’s ready to go over what he knows.

He starts with the Woman, and the fog begins to lift.

She came to him, not just in a dream, but in the real world. Fire descended with her and burnt the Yakuza man, but left Matt and his surroundings unscathed. There was a vision of travel through the universe, moving faster than light. He saw the birth of a star and its planets. Life filled one of the worlds, one that looked like Earth. Perhaps he saw the Creation.

He has the power to see into objects.

And he can stop time.

All of it is connected to the Stone. The Woman had one in her hand just like Matt. The conclusion is inescapable.

The Stones are a source of great power.

And then he moves on to the rest. The Yakuza are tracking him with the intent to kill. They’ve been on his tail since he arrived in Tokyo. According to the man up on the mountain, they won’t stop until he’s dead.

Dad was right. Matt should have been more careful.

With that thought, his pulse rises in his ears until he can no longer hear the birds and passing traffic. Tightness spreads through his chest, and his breath comes in short gasps. The fog begins to swirl again inside his mind. A sudden dizziness settles into the space behind his eyes. Both hands go down to the side of the bench and grab on as his world rocks like a tiny ship caught in a typhoon.

Taking in a deep breath, he tries to steady his mind so he can work it all out. What’s the worst case scenario? And then it hits. If the Yakuza have been following all his movements, then they’ll know he’s been to Professor Yamamoto’s office.

A frantic hand drops into a side pocket and fishes out the jax. He does a rare thing and makes a voice call.

“Professor Yamamoto? This is Matt.”

There’s a short pause on the other end. “Yes, Matt. Is there something I can help you with?”

The Professor is alive. A bit of the tension loosens.

“Is everything all right?” Matt says.

There’s an awkward silence. “What do you mean?”

“Just wondering if you’re OK.” Matt winces as he hears the sound of his own voice.

“I’m fine.” The Professor clears his throat. “But I didn’t see you in class this morning. Are you feeling well?”

Matt looks for a quick escape. “The jet lag. Still trying to get over it. I’ll come by your office this afternoon, if that’s all right.”

“Get some rest. Don’t push yourself too hard. I’ll look for you tomorrow in class.” The Professor terminates the call.

The heaviness lifts from Matt’s chest. He takes in another deep inhale and forces his arms and legs to relax with the exhale. The Yakuza haven’t found Professor Yamamoto. They probably don’t even know about him. Maybe the thug up on the mountain was the only one tracking Matt. With the severe burns the Yakuza suffered, there’s a good chance he’ll die. Matt has time to go back to the University, take a rest and speak with the Professor in the afternoon. Together, they’ll figure something out.

Everything will be alright.

As his pulse settles down, his hunger and thirst come back. After a quick visit to the convenience store across the street, he sits down on the bench. In a few minutes, a half dozen onigiri rice ball wrappers lay at his feet next to three empty bottles of water. Trying not to think about the man up on the mountain, he relaxes on the bench and pulls out his jax.

It’s got repelware on it, so the Yakuza won’t be able to trace the call.

Jess, what are you doing this exact moment?

He smiles and waits for the reply that always comes a few seconds later. It has always been a mystery how she can reply so quickly, so he asked her once what her secret was. Jessica told him there was an invisible link between them, and she always knew when he was thinking of her. A few seconds before he jaxed a message, she would get a peculiar feeling. When the message came, she already knew what to say and could reply with lightning speed. Sometimes she already had a reply ready to go.

A full minute passes, and there is still no reply.

Hey Jessica, are you there?

He sits back, dips his head first to the right shoulder and then to the left shoulder, enjoying the popping sounds at the base of his neck, and waits for the reply. Another full minute passes.

I’m here. Just listening to some random Meshtones.

Matt hesitates. That sounds like something he would do, but Jess never wasted her time like that. Unless she was really tired. His fingers fly on the side of the jax.

Sounds like you’re wiped out from a hard day at work.

She always pushes herself too hard.

Dad had me going all day on an impossible project. I’m bushed. Ready to call it a day.

Matt has a picture of her in his mind, slouched over a slate, crunching numbers, reviewing mountains of data, talking to people.

What about that new job?

There is a long pause. Matt feels tension on Jessica’s end of the conversation.

I don’t think it worked out. Bummer. What are you doing this very moment?

That sounds like Jess. Shake off everything negative and just move on. If it were Matt, he’d be brooding for days after a setback like that. Not Jessica.

I’m sitting on a park bench eating lunch and soaking up the sun.

Her reply is swift.

Sounds so relaxing.

Matt’s fingers are itching to tap the jax. He wants to tell her about the Woman with the glowing bronze skin and the vision of creation and how the Stone can stop time. That’s a lot of stuff, and he’s not sure where to start. He shrugs his shoulders and lets his fingers handle it as they think best. They slide and tap over the jax.

Jess, I’ve had some of the craziest stuff happen last night and today.

Matt knows that will hook her. It seems to work, and she displays her jaw-dropping intuition.

More dreams with the magic rock?

He takes in a deep breath and lets it leak out through his nostrils.

Jessica, don’t get too excited, but I think I had a vision, like Moses up on the mountain. Seriously. I saw something incredible. An angel. Maybe it was God. She showed me the whole universe and the creation of a world. It’s hard to explain. Still trying to wrap my head around it all.

There is another long pause. He already regrets pulling Jessica into the middle of it all without any warning, and he knows he’ll have a lot of explaining to do. And the worst part is that she believes in all that stuff already, and he doesn’t. At least he didn’t a few days ago. Now he’s not so sure. But the more he thinks about it, the reality of what he saw, what he thinks he saw, may be already starting to slip away.

Her reaction is non-ecstatic.

Matt, you feeling OK? Eat anything strange? Still a little jet lagged? You should go back to your dorm and get some rest. Then we can talk about it.

It catches him off-balance. It’s not what he expected from her. Almost like someone else is using her jax. He looks again at the message he sent and the one he got back. For an instant, he sees it from her point of view, and it’s no wonder she’s less than effusive. He wonders what she’s really thinking. It’s hard to tell from the bare words, but it’s either mild skepticism, amusement or complete lack of interest. He doesn’t sense any empathy. Heat rushes into his ears and cheeks. Maybe she thinks he’s going crazy.

Maybe she’s right.

Without thinking, his right hand finds the Stone in his pocket and wraps around it. The fingers of his left hand grip the jax and play out a message on their own.

Think I’ll take your advice and head back to the dorm now. Jax me later when you have time for a long conversation. I’ll tell you all about it after you’ve had time to rest. For now, just sleep.

She’ll have one more reply before dropping off the line. It’s the way Jessica always signs off.

But her final reply never comes. Just one more strange event in a series of strange events.

He thinks about the dream and the events of the night on the mountain. No matter how real the vision felt, he can’t dismiss the possibility that it’s all a creation of his mind, a product of sleep deprivation, excitement and fear. It’s harder to dismiss the reality of the Yakuza thug naked on the mountain with a burnt body and blinded eyes.

But if he needs tangible, physical proof of it all, perhaps it’s in his backpack.

He bends down and slips his hand into one of the pockets, half-expecting to find nothing, but coming out with the Yakuza dagger and sheath. He turns it over in his hand. Isn’t it proof that time really stopped, at least for a few minutes? The man would never have given up such a prized possession willingly. As much as he tries, he finds it hard to escape the conclusion that the events on the mountain were real.

The irony of it all doesn’t escape him. He came to Japan to simplify a life that had become too restricted, too complicated. Now, after only three days, he’s on the brink of losing any chance at being normal.

And then there is a brief flash of clarity.

His whole life since losing his mom, he’s really only wanted one thing. To be normal, happy, free. Like everyone else.

As he muses over the dagger, a small child on his way to school runs past the bench, a yellow hat on his head and a bright red backpack on his back. As the boy passes, he sees Matt holding the dagger and stops. His little head cocks to one side and his eyebrows rise a bit.

A shiny blade is a universal magnet.

Matt smiles and slips the dagger back into its sheath. There’s a strange feeling that he’s seen the boy before, perhaps on the train. He follows the boy’s backpack as he turns and runs across the street.

A woman screams somewhere behind the park bench, jolting Matt to attention.

As he jerks his head to the right, he sees a dark blur of movement enter his field of vision twenty meters from the boy. It’s a large black Mercedes, shooting like a missile down the street in total silence. No motor-tone.

The muscles in his chest instantly contract as his eyes focus on the little boy.

Quietness sweeps over him, broken only by the faint sound of waves breaking on a far shore.

Lurching forward, Matt grabs his backpack and sprints into the street where he scoops up the boy, cradles him in one arm, and dives for the sidewalk while bracing for impact with the car. In mid-air he turns to look for it and sees the front grill of the Mercedes hovering a meter away, like a chrome salamander with a wide open mouth, completely still, the driver’s eyes hidden behind wrap-around sunglasses. The sound of the ocean envelops Matt as he rolls with the boy in his arms and lands hard on the backpack. He relaxes and feels the hulk of the car fly by a couple of body lengths away. In its wake, a rush of wind blows across his face.

A group of schoolgirls in their sailor uniforms stare down, hands over their mouths. From the looks on their faces, he gathers that his appearance on the sidewalk is extraordinarily strange. With the young boy still on top, he smiles up at them and gives an awkward wave of his hand.

The child’s eyes find Matt and burst into tears.

He sets the boy on his feet, the rigid backpack still on the tiny shoulders, pats him on the head, and stands up. “Make sure you look both ways before crossing the street next time.”

Big watery eyes stare up at him, nodding in agreement.

As they talk, a crowd gathers. Jaxes slip out of dozens of pockets and begin taking video of him. A policeman approaches.

As the man in uniform gets within a couple of body lengths, Matt’s fear of public authority figures kicks in. Jumping to his feet, he wades through the tangle of bodies. Hands reach out to touch his shirt. A woman asks him to stop.

When he breaks free from the crowd, he shifts into flight mode and sprints around the corner down a side street. After a few strides, he cuts to the right down another narrow street and continues in a zig-zag fashion to the train station, trying to avoid attention and leaving behind the few stragglers following him. Five minutes later, he slips through the front entrance to find it empty except for a bent old man with a hunchback sweeping the floor. There’s a lone plastic seat in the far corner close to the platform. He drops the backpack and falls into the chair to catch his breath.

The little boy and the black Mercedes wander back into his mind, and he can’t escape the conclusion that he saw them in the vision on the mountain an hour before the incident.

Matt fishes the Stone out of his side pocket and holds it up level with his eye. It had shown him the future, a possible future, in which the little boy was killed. But that future had been avoided when Matt intervened and snatched him away from the speeding Mercedes.

Something else happened up on the mountain and down on the street. There was the dagger flying at him through the air and the car only meters away from killing a small child. Both of them stopped when the sense of imminent danger triggered a strong reaction within him. It was as if time slowed down when his emotions reached out for it.

It must have been the Stone. Perhaps he could test it.

With the Stone weighing heavy in his right hand, he contemplates what to do. Closing his eyes in concentration, he takes the jax out of a pocket on his left thigh and tosses it toward the ceiling. Then he tightens his chest and holds his breath. The jax arcs up into the air. For a few seconds, it is utterly quiet inside the station.

A piercing series of rings echoes through the station as the jax clatters to the ground like a jewel dropped from the sky. It comes to rest a few meters from Matt’s feet.

He looks up and sees the old man starring at him, slack-jawed. The watery eyes drift up to the bluescreen on the opposite wall and back to Matt.

Following the old man’s eyes, Matt notices the news playing on the bluescreen. It shows Matt lying on a sidewalk with a small child balanced on his chest. People, mostly schoolgirls, are gathered around, hands up to their mouths, staring down at the young man and the boy. Some of them are crying. A caption scrolls by at the bottom of the screen.

Man Mysteriously Saves a Child from Being Hit by a Car and then Disappears.

A video of the entire event, complete with a screenshot of his face, clothing and backpack, is already on the Mesh.

The train going back to Sapporo pulls into the station and stops. There’s a brief announcement. Matt stands up and walks to the platform, picking his jax off the floor on the way. He smiles and winks at the old man as he walks by.

As soon as he boards the train, Matt slips into a restroom and turns his shirt inside out. His shirts, like all the rest of his wardrobe, are fully reversible. It’s a double blessing. He needs fewer clothes, and it comes in handy when trying to quickly change his appearance to avoid detection. He bunches his hair up on the top of his head, securing it with a miniature bungee cord for a crazy gaijin look. When he exits the restroom, he walks through the train cars until he finds one with only a few passengers. Then he finds a window seat near the door.

As he gazes out at the ocean, that day on the beach with his mom and dad comes back to mind. He feels the wind on his cheeks and the warm sand between his toes just as his mother’s hand slips into his.

The jax trembles next to his leg with an urgent message. Reaching into his pocket, it falls comfortably into his hand, and he pulls it out to look at the small bluescreen.

It’s a download of ten terabytes of data from Professor Yamamoto. The message is marked urgent.

Matt, here is all my research on the Magatama Stone. Keep it safe. Original memory crystal destroyed.

Strange. Why is Professor Yamamoto giving Matt all of the research? It’s great to have already earned his trust. Matt can’t wait to get back to his dorm room and start digging into it.

By the time he steps off the train at the University stop, video of the child’s rescue by the mysterious stranger has gone viral on the Mesh. Someone has uploaded the entire sequence as captured by a security camera outside the convenience store, but the grainy footage has been run through an enhancement algorithm that gives it nearly HD quality.

Matt stops and stares down at the holo screen above his jax.

A speeding car shoots into the frame just a few meters from the child. As he watches, a blue blur flies into the street, envelops the child and exits just before the Mercedes powers by and leaves the frame. The video backs up and replays with subtitles and analysis provided by an amateur French cinematographer who just posted it to the Mesh. It shows the video slowed down to 750 frames per second, and the results are clear. Matt runs into the street, scoops up the child and dives for the other side as the car stands still. There’s no jerkiness or blurring.

There’s a clear shot of Matt’s face. Anyone who knows Matt and sees the video will be able to identify him.

As he walks along, he accesses other videos that have surfaced in the last few minutes. There’s a bio-physics professor in Australia saying it’s all been faked because it’s not humanly possible to cross a street and grab a child in such a short span of time. The only other explanation, the professor says, would be a supernatural one.

Eyewitness accounts attest that it really happened, just as shown on the Mesh. No tricks.

By the time Matt steps onto the campus, the police have identified the driver of the black Mercedes and arrested him for reckless endangerment. His only excuse is that he was in the middle of heated negotiations with a Chinese manufacturer for the purchase of custom power converters and was closing the deal just as he shot past the 7-Eleven and almost killed the boy.

The police have already put out a public notice on the Mesh that they’re looking for the mysterious stranger that saved the child. It is all part of their investigation.

No good deed ever goes unpunished.

Matt holds a hand up to his face as he walks briskly back to his dorm room. His disguise may work for now, but it is only a matter of time before someone tells the police that the mysterious stranger is a graduate student at Hokkaido University.

For an instant, he thinks about the Yakuza man back on the mountain and remembers that the man came to the University library. And where there is one, there may be more. Matt will need to be careful walking on campus and keep an eye out for Italian suits and sunglasses. Right now he just needs to get back to his room as soon as he can.

The hot afternoon air has already painted a film of sticky sweat on his forehead and neck. By the time Matt gets to the dorm building, his back is soaked. It’s already close to 3:00 in the afternoon, nearing the hottest part of the day.

Walking through the courtyard in front of the dorm, he passes under a row of cherry trees and breathes in deeply to taste their sweet fragrance. A thought jumps into his mind, and he lifts his face up to the sun and slowly opens his eyelids to find there’s no need to flinch or blink even though he’s staring directly at the fiery orb. He stands for a full minute and admires its shape and beauty, letting calmness pass through him.

As his eyelids drop down, he seems to slam into a wall of intense fatigue. By the time he walks into the dorm and down the long hall, all he can think of is getting back to his room, downing a drink of cool water and catching a short nap before going to Professor Yamamoto’s office.

Curiously, there’s a strange resistance in his body as he walks through the dark hallway to his door, as if the air is growing thicker and invisible rubber bands are holding him back. But he pushes forward like a fish swimming upstream, propelled by fatigue and thirst. There’s a subtle ringing sound in his ears, and the odor of sulfur hangs in the air. He wonders if someone was doing chemistry experiments in the dorm. Too tired to care, all he can think of is water and rest.

He reaches the door, ignoring the raging storm in his head, and presses the identity pad with his palm. The door swings open and he stumbles inside, eyes almost closed, letting it slam shut behind him. The backpack slips off his shoulders and thuds to the floor.

Two men in dark suits stand shoulder to shoulder next to the window with the shades drawn. The short one meets him with a cold stare, a thick cigar hanging limply from his lips. The other one keeps his arms crossed and says nothing. He senses movement from behind, but before he can react, something hard comes down on his head, and the room goes blurry.

He slips to the floor.

CHAPTER 51

“What happened to Yoshi?”

Matt looks up from the chair and recognizes the face of the short man yelling at him in guttural Japanese as one of the two men who stalked him at the airport in Tokyo. There’s another one standing just behind him with breath that reeks of cheap sake. He’s taller than Matt and must be the one who hit him.

A typical Yakuza ambush.

How could he be so stupid? Matt curses himself for coming straight back to his dorm room. He should have assumed there would be a welcoming party.

Yakuza always hunt in packs.

As he falls into survival mode, he sweeps the room with his eyes. There are three of them. The short, skinny one near the window, who first spoke to Matt and looks to be in charge. Another one with thick biceps and protruding pecs, standing like a Buddha statue, arms crossed over his chest. And the tall silent one behind Matt with alcohol breath. Sunglasses cover their eyes even though the lights aren’t on.

The short man at the window makes a half smile and opens his suit coat to reveal a black leather shoulder holster. “I’ll ask one more time. What did you do to Yoshi?” He raises his voice and stares into Matt’s eyes.

“Yoshi?” Matt stares back. “I don’t know any Yoshi.” His head still throbs from the blow from behind.

“Then you won’t mind if we check you.” The small man looks up and past Matt to the tall one behind him and moves his chin downward. “We keep Aki-chan drunk. You wouldn’t like him when he’s sober.”

A hand thrusts into Matt’s right side pocket. Foul breath rains down, causing him to wince. He feels the Stone being pulled out.

The large man moves forward and stands next to Matt, looking at the Stone in his hand. Then he lobs it to the skinny guy by the window who catches it in one hand.

The thin lips move. “What’s this?”

“Just a rock.” Matt feels a sudden and deep sense of loss as the skinny man tosses the Stone loosely up and down in his hand. Matt tries to focus his mind and concentrate, replaying the scene on the mountain. He slowed time before. He needs to do it again.

The man behind Matt moves to his left and plunges his hand into Matt’s left pocket. He shrieks with pain and jerks his hand out, bringing it up to his eyes. A thin line breaks through the skin of his palm and starts to flow with red. The big man licks the blood off and shoots a menacing glance down.

Matt slowly swallows, steeling his body for another blow.

The small man jumps forward, letting the cigar slip out of his mouth, and stops a foot from Matt’s face.

“American scum. Look, you’ve cut Aki-chan. What’s in your pocket?”

“Just a knife.”

The thin Yakuza goon looks at the big man standing next to Matt and motions down at the pocket with his eyes. Silently and carefully, the man sticks his bleeding hand back into Matt’s pants and takes out the dagger, dangling it by the tip of the blade between two fingers for the little man in front of Matt to see.

There is immediate recognition in the little man’s eyes. He tosses the Stone onto the bed, lunges forward and grabs Matt with both hands on the front of his shirt, jerking him up roughly and staring down.

“That’s Yoshi’s dagger. What did you do to him?” The short man roars and grits his teeth as his knuckles bit into Matt’s chest.

Matt breathes in the stinking breath. Drops of spit land on his face. “Like I said, I don’t know anyone named Yoshi.”

The short man releases his grip, takes a deep breath and closes his eyes. Then he explodes, grabbing the handle of the knife, pulling it out of the other man’s hand, gripping Matt’s shirt again and pressing the point of the dagger up against Matt’s throat.

A warm trickle of blood snakes down Matt’s neck.

“Yoshi’s dagger. He always carries it with him. Where did you get it?” The little man has the look of fire in his eyes.

“I found it up in the mountains.” Matt has difficulty speaking with the point pressing into his skin. “Outside of Otaru.”

The little man shakes his head. “You’d have to kill Yoshi to get this from him.” A wave of rage rises up in his voice. “He followed you to the mountain. Watched you. He’s the best at tailing people, the most quiet, almost invisible. Never gets caught. He was closing in, getting ready to bring you to us. Then we got a message from his jax.” The man’s bloodshot eyes look into Matt’s face.

With slow, deliberate movements, the short man withdraws the dagger from Matt’s throat and steps back. As his eyes move to the bed, he motions to it with his chin. The tall thug behind Matt grabs his arms and forces him onto the bed where the Stone is lying. As if previously choreographed, the more muscular one near the window, already named Big Buddha inside Matt’s head, springs forward and holds down Matt’s legs. He feels the Stone jabbing him between his shoulder blades.

The ringleader pulls a jax out of his suit pocket and stands over Matt. “Look.” He commands. “This is what you did to Yoshi.”

A holo bluescreen jumps above the jax and unfolds in the air into a circle. As video begins to play, Matt stares at a view of the clearing up on the mountain where he had the vision. Through tree trunks and weeds, he watches himself sitting in a lotus position, on top of a boulder.

The heavy voice of a narrator, mumbling in gutter Japanese, begins to speak in the background.

“What is this idiot American doing?” The voice chuckles. “I’ll jump him when he comes down from the rock. He looks like a real wimp, no match for my blade. When I have him, I’ll send you a message. Meet me at the bottom with the car.”

There’s the sound of blowing wind. The video image becomes unstable, moving back and forth past Matt.

Kuso,” the voice curses. “The ground is shaking. Strange time for an earthquake.”

With the video image focused on Matt, a small point of white light appears two meters over his head. It lengthens into a bright, vertical line and then widens into a cylinder.

“What the…”

From the bed, Matt looks up into the holo of the jax, transfixed by the unfolding scene. It brings back the experience with the Woman in all its mystery.

The cylinder grows more intensely white.

“Too bright. Light everywhere. Can’t see.”

The next instant, the cylinder explodes with consuming luminosity.

There is silence for a full half minute. The video screen looks as if it’s been thrown into the sun.

“My eyes. My face. Burning. Stop the burning. Help. Please help.” The voice screams.

The holo screen goes black. The video function no longer works, but sound is still coming through. There’s a rush of movement through weeds and tree branches, the sound of snapping twigs and shoes stumbling down a dirt trail. Ripping clothing. Over and over, the voice screams the same words.

“Burning. Burning. Stop the burning.”

Matt hears a thud, as if the jax has been dropped to the ground. The moaning and sound of broken branches moves off into the distance. Then silence.

“I’m going to ask you one more time. What did you do to Yoshi?” The little man standing over Matt looks down with a mixture of torment and rage on his face. “He was my senpai, my friend. He taught me everything I know. Like a father.” He reaches his hand into the suit coat and takes out a small black pistol.

Matt does not respond. His mind is a raging storm as he struggles to find the same mental location that allowed him to stop time on the mountain, the place he found again on the street when he rushed in front of the car to save the child. He feels himself getting closer.

And then he is on the beach, standing next to his mother, the ocean surf in his ears.

The little Yakuza man stands over Matt and presses the warm steel of the barrel against Matt’s forehead. “You’re lucky, gaijin scum. They forbid us to kill you.” He pulls a long black cylinder out of the other side of his suit jacket and slowly screws it into the tip of the barrel. “But they didn’t say anything about hurting you.” The point goes deep into Matt’s cheek. Then the man scrapes it down Matt’s chin, along his neck and onto his chest, leaving a path of red on Matt’s skin. Beads of blood pop up here and there, like a perforated line.

“I didn’t do anything to Yoshi.” Matt looks up, trying to buy time until his mind can figure out how to use the Stone.

“Then what happened on the mountain?”

“I’m not sure.”

The little man manually cocks the pistol. “You used a bomb, didn’t you? Some kind of phosphorus explosive.” He presses the tip against Matt’s chest hard enough to leave a bruise. “You burned him real bad before he died.”

Matt shakes his head. “He’s not dead! I saw him before I left. That’s when I got the dagger.” He has almost found the spot in his mind, like before.

Letting up on the pistol, the man nods. “So that’s when you killed him?” The tip comes down hard on Matt’s sternum.

“Please stop.”

“Funny. Those were Yoshi’s last words, too.” The man works his way down Matt’s body with the point of the barrel. He comes to Matt’s belly and hesitates for a moment. Then he moves straight down a few more inches. “I’ve always wanted to do this.” He raises his eyebrows as if talking to himself.

The man holding down Matt’s legs shifts his weight. “Boss won’t like it. Too messy.”

“You’re right.” With a frown, the little man moves the barrel of the gun lower onto Matt’s right thigh, twists the corner of his mouth. “No, that would be too easy.”

Letting his eyes drop down, Matt begins to silently count breaths backward from ten. He feels the sensation of the tip of the barrel slide down his leg, like a viper deciding where to take the first bit, until it goes over and past his kneecap to the top of his shins. It stops and comes back to the kneecap.

“Perfect,” the voice above him grunts. “Make him hurt. For Yoshi.”

The hands holding his ankles and shoulders tighten their grip. His eyes flip open. “Don’t.”

Two faces smile at him, relaxed and content. The sound of quiet surf grows louder in his ears. A muffled pop, like slipping the cork off a champagne bottle, causes the pistol to jump up.

An electric jolt shoots through Matt’s leg, awakening every nerve in his body. The barrel of the gun is still pointed at his knee, and a wisp of smoke curls out of the tip. As the jolt dissipates, warmth spreads through his leg followed by a dull and growing storm of pain, a wave rising up out of blackness.

The two men release their grip on his wrists and ankles and stand back.

A wave of agony crashes down on Matt. He takes a gulp of air and tries to push it back, but it rolls over him and consumes his body. An involuntary yell rips through his throat. His injured leg descends into a hell of spasms and cramps while the muscles in the rest of his body twitch and jerk. Struggling to breathe, he looks up.

All three of the Yakuza thugs bellow out in laughter.

“He won’t go anywhere now.” The pygmy Yakuza screws off the silencer and slips the gun back into his shoulder holster. He points to the tall man. “Come with me. We need to go see the boss.” As he moves past Matt, he stops and turns to face the one Matt mentally calls Big Buddha. “Tomo-chan, you stay here and make sure he doesn’t try to go anywhere. We’ll be back with the others in a minute.” They walk out the door and slam it shut, leaving Matt alone with the Buddha.

The pain in Matt’s leg transforms from a chaotic storm into something sharp, vicious, biting. He tries to sit up and get a better view of his knee but Big Buddha lands a kick on his side. Reaching a hand down his leg, there is warm wetness everywhere. When he pulls it back, his fingers are covered with blood.

Sweat beads up on his forehead and drips into his eyes.

As his mind shifts into panic mode, Matt feels reality begin to fade, like fingers slowly losing their grip on a trapeze bar high above the ground. Thoughts become a blur. Confusion and despair start to nibble around the edges. It’s impossible to concentrate on a single idea or emotion, like trying to focus on a single spoke of a spinning wheel. He is sliding down an icy slope, fighting for a hand hold, fighting for a single point of reference to grasp and steady his mind. And then it comes.

Dad, you were right. Right about everything.

Thoughts of his father turn to his mother. He closes his eyes, slows his breathing and concentrates on that day at the beach. He imagines himself standing next to her, holding her hand, watching the waves wash in, looking up into her face. He can feel the warm sand between his toes. The perfection of the world. All things at rest. Nothing wanting. Vibrant clarity and joy.

Warmth spreads between his shoulder blades where the Stone lays. The sharp pain in his leg passes through him and trails off as the distant sound of a beating surf plays louder and louder in his ears.

Matt opens his eyes and sees Big Buddha standing over him, unmoving, still as a rock. Time has slowed down. Keeping his mind focused on the image of his mother and the beach, he pulls himself up to a sitting position, and then reaches back and grabs the Stone with his right hand. A large bloodstain is already forming on the bed beneath his knee. Lifting up his cargo pants to get a clearer view of the damage, the open wound is swimming in blood and tissue. Little white flecks float around in it, and he takes that to be part of the shattered bone. He probes gently around the wound with the tip of a finger. There is no hint of pain or discomfort.

For a long time, he stares at the wound, contemplating what to do. With no pain and no passage of time, all sense of urgency and panic melt away, washed clean by the sound of an invisible ocean. He bends the knee and finds that it moves, but with an unsettling sound of bone grinding on bone. For now there’s no pain, but that may be because time has slowed down. He’ll have to face a fresh onslaught when he returns to normal time.

The Stone in his right hand starts to turn milky white and triggers another thought in his mind.

If the Yakuza thugs found him, they might also have found Professor Yamamoto. Perhaps that’s why he sent Matt a full copy of his research notes on the Stones.

A sense of urgency to get back to the professor’s office weighs on his mind. For a moment, the image of that day at the beach with his mother slips away, and the low sound of buzzing cicadas just outside the window creeps back into his ears.

Big Buddha starts to move sluggishly, like a monster unthawed from the Arctic ice. He looks down at Matt and raises his eyebrows in slow motion. There’s surprise and a hint of confusion in his eyes when he sees Matt sitting up on the bed. The foot rises to kick him again.

Letting his eyelids drop down, Matt focuses and finds the image of his mother on the beach. The stillness comes back, and Big Buddha’s movements grind to a halt.

He seems to be getting better at controlling the Stone.

While maintaining his mother’s image in his mind, Matt turns his attention back to the wounded knee. As he stares at it, he recalls a college anatomy class. The knee is a complicated collection of bones, muscles, ligaments, cartilage and blood vessels. Doctors spend years understanding its nuances and perfecting their ability to heal it.

Matt doesn’t have years.

Pushing back the rising fear, he lets his feelings of helplessness go and examines the knee again out of sheer curiosity, opening his mind, waiting for clarity. It’s like teasing out a knot, strand by strand. At first, there’s no progress.

Then, in a burst of understanding, he sees the knee, not as a mechanical system of separate parts, each broken down into smaller and smaller sub-components, but as an organic whole, comprehending its entirety from the top, bottom and sides simultaneously. A gasp rises in his throat as the beauty and simplicity of its structure becomes clear. The exact nature of the wound is laid open before him.

And something else becomes clear. He can fix it.

He puts the white Stone down on the bed and stretches both hands out to the knee, covering it with his palms. In his mind, he reorganizes the image of the knee into a perfect whole until it feels right and complete. Then he pulls his hands away and looks at it again. The wound is gone. He opens the palm of his right hand and gazes down at the bullet.

Carefully, gingerly, he stands on his feet, bending and straightening both knees. They work to perfection. He grabs his backpack, slips the jax and the Stone into his pockets and rushes out the door, still holding on to the image of his mother on the beach and the sound of the surf.

All he can think about is getting to Professor Yamamoto’s office as soon as possible.

When he stands a few feet from the closed office door, time is still stopped. Not wanting to alarm the professor by suddenly appearing, he relaxes his mind and completely lets go of the image of his mother. As if descending suddenly from the sky, the sound of crying cicadas jumps back into his ears.

He knocks on the door. A long moment passes.

“Come in.” It’s the familiar voice of Professor Yamamoto. Yet something feels different. Matt puts his hand on the door and steps in as it opens.

There is the stench of burning sulfur. An immediate sense of danger floods his chest.

The office is full of people.

Before he can react, out of the corner of his eye, a tiny yellow dot flies at him like a swift moving mosquito and stings his neck. A wave of relaxation surges through his body. He struggles to find the image of his mother on the beach again, but it’s like swimming through honey. His arms and legs go limp and his eyes trace a line from floor to ceiling as he twists and falls.

On the way down, his vision sweeps past a woman sitting in a chair by the window. For an instant, her eyes lock with his before he hears the sound of his head hitting the floor. There is a look of horror mixed with confusion in her eyes. A fleeting thought crosses his mind before blackness flows in and overwhelms it.

Jessica.

CHAPTER 52

The half-lit neon sign out front tells Kent everything he needs to know. He has found a no-name motel in a no-name town in rural Indiana, just the sort of place where you can stay the night without attracting attention. He is glad there are still a few places like this left in America.

Small-town people, small-town values.

Guiding the Chikara into the parking lot, he passes the office where a pudgy night attendant with sandy hair is hunkered down behind the counter, a can of beer tilted to his lips. He puts the can down, walks to the glass door and stares at the old truck as Kent smiles and glides past.

It isn’t hard to find an empty slot to park.

“Haven’t seen one of those old trucks for a long time.” The night attendant smirks as Kent pulls open the door. A little cowbell clanks against the glass.

Kent slaps a piece of colorful currency on the counter.

The night attendant holds the green and blue paper up to the light to see the watermark and stares into the face of Benjamin Franklin. “No one pays with paper anymore.” Trickles of sweat run down his neck past a thin gold chain onto a damp wife beater.

“Just criminals and runaways, right?” Kent shoots back a steely smile. “Don’t worry. You can take it to the bank. It’s still legal tender, for a little while longer.” He notices the wrinkle-free hands and guesses the young man to be about twenty-two years old. About the same age as Matt. Something strikes him as odd. Where is the ubiquitous jax and holo screen a twenty-two year old would normally have glued to his hand?

“For three more months, to be exact.” The attendant lays a keycard on the counter. “I don’t have any change. But I do have this.” He reaches behind into a small refrigerator, pulls out a can of Coors beer and puts it up on the counter next to the keycard. “Where you headed?”

“East. Trying to stay out of trouble.” Kent scoops up the keycard and motions toward the beer can. “I appreciate the offer, but I’ll pass. Been sober too long to go back.” He grins and walks out the glass door as the cowbell clanks again.

The lukewarm shower and the smell of cheap motel soap bring back memories of that cross-country trip he took with his dad when he was a kid. Back when the world was simple, stable, predictable. He lingers until the heat slowly drains out of the water and it turns room temperature. Eyes closed, he relishes the rush of nostalgia and hears his dad’s gruff voice play in his mind like an old phonograph.

They make the soap smell like this so you won’t use it.

Kent laughs to himself, and it sounds just like his dad. He wonders if Matt has any memories that play in his mind the same way. He hopes the answer is yes, but he’s not sure.

After the shower, he sits on the edge of the bed in his underwear, still running that old cross-country trip through his mind and emotions. He is ready to slip under the covers for a good, long sleep.

There is a soft knock at the door.

He glances quickly at the slate lying out on the table and wishes he had put it away. Easing onto his feet, he stands up and walks to the peep-hole in the door. It’s the night attendant he met at check-in. The guy is standing there with another Coors in his hand.

Kent quickly pulls on some pants and opens the door. “Is there a problem?”

The young man looks up at Kent. “Sorry to bother you, sir, but you’ve come from the freedom camps, haven’t you?”

Kent quickly scans the man for weapons. It would be hard to hide anything under that thin shirt. The pants aren’t much thicker, and he doesn’t look like the violent type anyway. But you never know.

“Why do you ask?”

“Well, I couldn’t help but notice when you pulled into the parking lot.”

“Notice what?”

“Your truck, the Chikara. Nice. My dad had one just like it when I was a kid.”

“What about it?” Kent was thinking about that long sleep waiting for him just a few feet away.

“Well, it has the sign.” The young man scratches his back and looks up at Kent.

“Sign?” Kent wrinkles his forehead. “What sign?”

The young man motions back to Kent’s truck in the parking lot with his chin. “You know, the sign of the freedom camps.”

“I drove through a couple of them, but I don’t think there’s anything on the truck.”

“Well, it’s not exactly on the truck. More like coming from the truck.”

Another few seconds of this and Kent is going to slam the door shut.

“My young friend,” he says. “It’s late, and I’m tired. What are you trying to tell me?

“Your motor-tone.” The young man took a drink from the can. “It’s got a freedom camp theme. Somebody must have downloaded it onto your car-com.”

Kent cranes his neck to look at the Chikara. “Funny, I didn’t notice anything different about the motor-tone. Whale calls and electric shavers. Nice mix.” He yawns and looks back at the bed waiting for him.

“Yeah, but it’s also got an old American Indian chant on a sub-channel. Some sort of high-frequency ultra-sonic stuff. I noticed it half a minute before you pulled in. I guess old guys can’t hear it.” The young man takes a drink of beer, brings his arm up and wipes his mouth with a hairy bicep. “No offense.”

“Interesting,” Kent mutters to himself.

“So, I got to ask you. Are you the one they’re talking about?” The young man leans forward and looks up into Kent’s eyes. “The one who’s going to pick a fight with The Complex?”

CHAPTER 53

Matt slowly opens his eyes to see a blurred pattern of white octagons and blue diamonds.

Professor Yamamoto’s office.

With effort, he raises his gaze from the floor to look up. There is a pool of warm saliva that has run out of his mouth. Painful little prickles, like bee-stings, stab him from the inside in a thousand places on his neck, face and eyes. He tries to bring his hands up and push himself over, but discovers neither of his arms will move. They feel like heavy slabs of concrete running down his sides. The legs are the same, with no feeling in either one of them.

He’s lying on the floor like a beached whale.

“Your muscles are taking a bit of a rest. Tetrodotoxin.” A male voice behind him speaks. “Extracted from the blue-ringed octopus. Nasty little creatures. Fortunately, they only fight back when provoked.”

Matt remembers that he saw Jessica. “Where is she?” He yells between clenched teeth. With his head balanced precariously above the floor, he struggles to focus his eyes forward trying to get a fix on his position. Multiple-colored rectangles hang in the air. After several seconds of staring, he realizes it’s the bookshelf at the far end of Yamamoto’s office, and he’s facing it with his back to the door. The spine of the book directly in front of his eyes slowing resolves itself. Aristotle’s Metaphysics. There is a gap next to it where The Complete Works of Shakespeare should be.

“Are you referring to Jessica?”

It’s the same voice, one with a vaguely European accent, difficult to place.

“Who are you?” Anger mixes with panic, and the anger is quickly taking over. “What do you want?” He yells through a clenched jaw.

“So many questions, my young friend. You need to slow down and focus on what is going on around you.”

Footsteps approach him from behind and foul breath rains down. Two strong hands grab his shoulders, pull him off the floor and stuff him into a chair. Another set of hands throws a strap around his midsection and lashes him into place. He senses his ankles are being tied to the legs of the chair. Together, they swing him and the chair around so he’s facing the door. Sitting upright.

The jarring movements feel like someone is twisting his optic nerves into a knot. Sharp prickles stab the inside of his eyeball without mercy as he tries to focus his vision.

The game of Igo lies in disarray on the table with black and white pieces scattered on the floor. Matt’s jax is next to the goban board. The same two Yakuza thugs from his dorm room stand by the door, their faces made of stone and arms folded across their chests.

A tall man with silver hair in a tweed jacket and bowtie stands in the center of the room next to the table, a sympathetic smile on his face.

That face.

Matt stares in disbelief. He recognizes the features.

And then it hits him. His mind goes back to the dream.

Massive dark apes chase him through the jungle and across the wheat field. His back is against the dead trunk of the oak tree. The leading ape lunges and bares its fangs. Their eyes meet just before the dream ends.

The same face is now peering down at him, only younger, less wrinkled and hideous.

“Let me begin by answering your first question.” The man in the tweed jacket points in the direction of the window.

Matt moves his eyes to the right toward the light.

It’s Jessica, sitting limply, tied to a chair, her chin on her chest, face looking down at the floor, expressionless. Matt squints hard to see more clearly. Her eyes are closed.

He grits his teeth and strains against the cords, but his body feels like a dead sack of rocks. “What the hell have you done to her?” His chest heaves up and down as he struggles in vain to move. Arms and legs are useless.

As his eyes drift down, Matt can see a man in a blue suit, crumpled on the floor at Jessica’s feet, arms tied behind his back, eyes closed, a puffy red cheek flat against the blue and white tiles. There’s a bloody pool on the floor around his mouth. Professor Yamamoto’s black-rimmed glasses lay shattered next to his face.

“The real question, my friend, is not what I have done to her, but what are you going to do for her.” The tall man with the silver hair takes a drag on a black cigarette and walks closer.

Matt stares up. “What do you want?” He tries to calm himself by focusing on his breath, pulling it in, holding it, pushing it out, ignoring the stings and stabs that fight for attention, searching his mind for the image of his mother at the beach. With effort, he finds a hazy version of her face looking down at him, the sound of waves in the background. The image starts to fade. He pulls it back, fighting to enhance it, eyes closed to shut out all the distractions. The irritating pain is receding.

The man leans closer and whispers. “You have something that belongs to me.”

“Why is she here? She’s done nothing.” The words jump out of Matt’s mouth, erasing the image of his mother. Splinters of pain renew their attack, stronger than before. He turns to look at Jessica, yearning to reach out, embrace her, hold her close, protect her.

“You are right. She has done nothing. And I know how important she is to you. You will be able to help her by listening to me.” Ryzaard stops in front of Matt. Pity fills his eyes. “First, let me help you.” He reaches into his pocket, pulls out a small silver tube and presses one end with his thumb. There’s a metallic click, and then the sound of releasing pressure followed by a long thick needle sliding out the other end of the tube. “I apologize for the effects of the tetrodotoxin.” The man motions with his eyes to the Yakuza thugs standing by the door. “They play too rough. I don’t always agree with their methods.” He puts a warm hand on Matt’s cheek and brings his other hand close in to Matt’s neck. “This will help.”

As the needle slides under his skin, Matt hears a hissing sound, feels a painful pressure, and then tastes vinegar in his mouth. Slowly, the piercing nodes of pain begin to soften their grip.

Matt looks down. “What about my arms and legs?”

“The anti-toxin will take a few minutes to work.” Ryzaard takes a step back, as if appraising a painting. “Just relax and let it do its job.”

“Tell me what’s going on.” As Matt speaks, his chest begins to tighten, as if it is about to explode. “What do you want from us?” He wants to lash out at Ryzaard, but instead he slows his breaths and fights to tamp down the emotion. If he’s going to unleash it, now is not the right time, not when he’s under the control of a madman.

The voice of his dad plays in his mind.

When in a hostage situation, be calm, think clearly, wait for the right moment. Then act without hesitation.

“No need to worry about Jessica. I gave her something to help her relax. She’s sleeping now and won’t remember a thing when she wakes up.” The man in the tweed suit turns his back on Matt and walks a few paces toward the door.

Matt’s eyes narrow as he studies his captor. Pinpointing his age is no easy task. The mustache has flecks of gray, and the hands are wrinkled with veins and brown spots. But the muscular stature throws him off. His straight back and athletic gait indicate a younger, stronger man.

“What have you done to Professor Yamamoto?”

The man stops, turns to Matt and looks down at the professor on the floor. “Yes,” he says. “My old friend. A truly gentle man, and a good researcher. Regrettable.” He again motions with his eyes to the men standing at the door. “They got here first. Delicate interrogation methods aren’t their specialty. You will have to accept my sincere apologies. But don’t worry. With your cooperation, he will be fine. Just like your Jessica.”

With effort, Matt wiggles his toes inside his shoes and lifts the heel of his foot off the floor a few millimeters. His fingers tingle and burn, but he can feel the sense of touch returning. He manages to bend his arm slightly at the elbow. Slowly, his body is coming together.

“Could you please tell me what’s going on, what this is all about? I’m sure it’s just some misunderstanding.” It takes all the restraint Matt can muster to keep his tone polite and arms at his side, to resist the urge to make a fist. The air comes deeply and silently into his lungs as he breathes in. A mantra runs through his mind over and over with each rise of the chest.

Focus on the breath. Stay calm.

“I see you are smart. In control of your emotions. That’s a rare gift among today’s youth.” The man runs his hands down the tweed lapels. “And you certainly have a right to know what you have done and why we are all here.” He stands squarely in front of Matt and brings a hand up to gently stroke his mustache. “Rest assured, you have done nothing wrong. Yet. In fact, I will go so far as to say you have performed a great service for the world.”

All spots of pain in Matt’s head have faded to dull throbs, and he can think clearly. The arms and legs are coming back to life. He just needs a little more time. His dad’s voice rolls again in the back of his mind.

Keep him talking.

“I’m still lost.” Matt says. “Help me understand what’s going on.”

The man laughs. “You are a clever young man. It’s not every day I get to meet someone who officially does not exist.” He paces back and forth, hands behind his back, like a university professor with a rare specimen of dinosaur, about to deliver a lecture to a hall full of students.

“Who are you talking about?” Matt raises an eyebrow and forces out a chuckle, laughing along with the man. “I’m still not getting it.”

“You. You don’t exist. Quite an achievement, really.”

“What do you mean?”

“I have the full resources of a multinational corporation. Access to the entire United States military and espionage apparatus, real-time search rights for every private or government data-site, and a room full of the best Mesh techies working 24/7. I can order a dossier on the entire life history and quirks of any person on the planet and have it in my hands within minutes. Like her.” He stops in mid-gait and motions to Jessica, still slumped silently in the chair, her head down, eyes closed, breathing gently. “Except you. No Mesh-prints, multiple fake passports leading nowhere, hi-tech surveillance-proof protocols on your jax. Untraceable.” The man looks out the window at the outstretched branches of the cherry blossom tree. For a moment, there’s silence in the room, and Matt can hear the peaceful symphony of birds and cicadas.

Keep him talking.

“But you found me. How?” Matt thinks it wise to play along. He just needs a little more time.

“Good old-fashioned legwork. Their specialty.” The man turns toward the two blue suits at the door, arms folded over their chests. “With a little help from this.” He walks to Matt’s backpack, leaning against a bookshelf just inside the door, and stoops down to pluck a yellow speck off its side. He holds it up proudly between index finger and thumb in front of the Yakuza thugs. The short one smiles broadly and reaches into his suit coat to pull out a silver tube twelve inches long, the same tube the man on the mountain had. He lifts it to his mouth and puffs into one end.

A simple blowgun.

The man turns his back to Matt, walks to the office door and whispers something to the little Yakuza guy. He allows a slight smile and nods in return.

When being chased on foot, never give your back to your pursuers.

Matt tries, but can’t keep the voice of his dad from blasting through his mind.

He is sure of one thing.

I should have listened.

With his chest rising and falling in measured breaths, he closes his eyes and searches again for the image of his mom on the beach and the sound of the surf.

It isn’t hard to find.

There they are, standing together at the beach, watching the long line of waves rush in, stretch out its fingers onto the sand, and then flow back out. A warm breeze plays with his mom’s hair as he looks up into her angelic face. He breathes in the organic smell of salt and seaweed in the air. The great orange ball of the sun is suspended just above the horizon.

The sound of cicadas outside the window fades away, and the surf is all that remains in his ears as he opens his eyes to see that all the bodies in the room have become as still as a wax museum.

CHAPTER 54

A luminous pincushion of spikes rises up out of the horizon. As Kent speeds forward, the spikes resolve into impossibly tall skyscrapers.

The City.

At the same time, a jolt of energy wakes him out of his stupor and shoots down his spine, through his legs, dissipating into his feet. It’s a feeling he hasn’t felt for a long time.

It’s been twelve years, but Kent is finally back.

He enters the City from the north and immediately senses a difference from the last time he was there. It isn’t the skyscrapers growing up out of sight into the night sky. It isn’t the blaring colors of laser-glass embedded in the buildings, walkways and streets like giant skin grafts. It isn’t that every surface, flat or round, has become a hi-res screen for 3D images of sports cars and game trailers. It isn’t the bumper-to-bumper traffic and the omnipresent hiss in his ears from a chorus of ten thousand motor-tones.

And then he sees it.

It’s the sidewalks. Clean, pristine, spotless. And almost empty of foot traffic except for the aged and gray.

He remembers reading about this phenomenon on the Mesh. Young people in the city, those under thirty, don’t go outside into the open air much anymore. The cafes and restaurants have all moved into the upper reaches of buildings or deep below ground. You could live for months indoors, moving between work and home in the glowing skywalk tubes that join building to building, or on subway lines that snake below the City, or in gleaming airtight cars jamming the surface streets. The reason is simple. Going outside might require a break from the omnipresent bluescreens and plasma arrays that provide wall-to-wall nonstop sensory stimulation.

Going outside to breathe the air is for the older generation.

You can still carry your jax to stay connected. But for many in the city, that tenuous link is no longer enough.

The new bio-mech implant technology promises to change all that, making it possible to carry the entire apparatus of info-stimuli inside your head and on your body. But it’s still a few years, if not decades, away.

Kent can’t help thinking that the people in the freedom camps have fled the city precisely to get away from this.

Abomination in its purest form.

In spite of the traffic, once inside Manhattan, it takes less than half an hour to find his destination on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 50th Street. He catches the chuckles of the parking attendant out of the corner of his eye as the old Chikara glides through the underground parking garage to his slot.

Two hours later, he has the equipment moved into the empty office suite on the 176th floor. It’s cramped, but all he needs for a bedroom is an air mattress and sleeping bag in the corner. If he has time and wants to run the danger of detection, he can shower and work out in any one of a dozen gyms in the building. For now, he sits back in a plastic chair near the window and gazes out. It’s unfortunate the building across the street blocks the view of the Brooklyn Bridge, but he hasn’t come all the way to New York City for that anyway.

Kent thinks of his son, out on his first real adventure and completely and utterly away from him. Matt must be exulting in his freedom. Five days now and counting, it’s the longest father and son have ever been out of contact. His hand wanders over to the table and picks up a jax to make a quick call to Matt. Just to say hello.

When he realizes what his fingers are doing, his other hand grabs the jax and terminates the call before it goes through. Much too risky. He has to stay in deep stealth mode for now.

Matt will be fine on his own.

Wandering over to the window in the dark room, he stares out at the target, almost close enough to reach out and touch. But it’s late and time for bed.

The real fun starts tomorrow.

He turns from the window, finds his way past stacks of boxes to the air mattress and lays down on top of the sleeping bag, eyes dropping shut. The excitement of being back in the city is hard to suppress.

He lays awake for a long time, smiling at the ceiling.

CHAPTER 55

It worked.

Matt looks around the room. Except for the sound of a gentle surf in his ears, all is silence and stillness, including the man in the tweed suit who stands motionless on the other side of the office, back to Matt.

Maybe it’s just a matter of practice, but it seems to be getting easier to find null-time.

Moving his arms and legs, everything works. The fingers are still a bit clumsy, but he can eventually cut or untie the cords on his ankle and get the strap off his chest that binds him to the chair. He reaches into a side pocket for the Stone, but comes up empty.

It’s gone.

A rush of adrenaline pumps through his chest and out into his arms and legs. Before he knows what’s happening, he’s trying to stand up in the chair, almost falling over.

A soft chuckle comes from the other side of the room.

“Not to worry. I have it right here.”

Matt’s legs tremble and his heart beats so hard it hurts. Swallowing a huge lump, he eases back into the chair and sits down, feeling lightheaded and gasping for air.

The man in the tweed jacket slowly turns and opens one hand to reveal a Stone. “This is yours.” He uncurls the fingers of his other hand. “And this is mine.” Bringing the two Stones up to his face, one in the palm of each hand, he looks as if he is offering them to some unseen deity hovering above him. They are similar, but not quite identical. They appear to be rough mirror images of each other.

Matt’s Stone glows with a golden hue. The other is brilliantly white, like a piece of the sun.

The man walks to the table and turns both hands over so they are facing down. The Stones drop, making loud thuds as they hit the table and stick.

He reaches out for an empty chair nearby.

“Stopping time was a good idea,” he says. “It’s better for us to talk this way. No rush.” He moves closer to Matt, dragging the chair with him, and sits only a couple of meters away. “So, you have discovered one of the powers of the Stone. Your progress in five short days is impressive. For me, it took much longer.” The man lifts his arms up and cast a glance around the room. “What do you call this?”

“Call what?” Matt’s pulse has moderated enough for him to speak.

“Slowing down time like this. I’m sure you’ve come up with a word for it. Everyone does. What do you call it?”

Null-time,” Matt says.

“Ah, yes,” the man says. “Descriptive, to be sure, but not quite accurate.” He reaches into his suit coat and brings out a small black box with a lacquered finish. “Would you like to know what Alexander the Great called it? Or perhaps Genghis Kahn?”

Matt stars into the man’s eyes and says nothing.

“Dead time.” He opens the box and grasps a cigarette from inside with his lips as he talks. “It’s interesting. They both came up with the same word, independently. I suppose it’s because their main concern was killing the enemy. It’s something I learned from our good Professor Yamamoto’s research.” He turns his face back in the direction of the heap lying on the floor near the pool of blood. “By the way, you wouldn’t happen to know what happened to the rest of his research, would you?” The man reaches down and picks up a piece of shattered memory cube that lies on the floor next to a hammer.

Keep him talking.

“No idea.” Matt tries to lick his lips but finds that his tongue and the rest of his mouth are incredibly dry. “What sort of research did he have?”

The man looks squarely at Matt for a few seconds, a half grin not quite forming. “No matter. I’m sure we will find it around here somewhere. From the chatter on the Mesh, it looks like you’ve become quite proficient at the time-freeze.” Reaching over to the table, the man grabs Matt’s jax and brushes its side with a finger. They both hear a news broadcast playing out in English.

For tonight’s latest weird news, we turn to Japan where security video cameras caught an incident in a small town on the northern island of Hokkaido that has the experts scratching their heads.

The man shakes his head back and forth, and then lets out a long sigh. “You should try to be a little more discreet. Drawing attention from the authorities isn’t the best idea for someone living off-grid. Wouldn’t you agree, Matt?”

At the sound of his name, he leans forward in his chair, feeling his fingers curl into fists. “How do you know my name? Who are you? What do you want?”

The man lights a cigarette with a match and leans back into the chair. “As for your name.” He chuckles and shakes his head. “It’s all over the stream of unencrypted video and text you constantly send to Jessica.” He put his lips to the cigarette, inhales deeply and sends a stream of blue smoke up to the ceiling. “As for my name, it’s Mikal Ryzaard. Dr. Mikal Ryzaard.”

“Ryzaard,” Matt says. “Rhymes with lizard.”

Ryzaard’s eyes narrow. “I prefer wizard.” The cigarette comes back to his lips. “As for what I want, that’s a very deep philosophical question which would take hours to cover.” The end of the cigarette glows red as he breathes in. “What I want most right now is for you to listen carefully. I can assure you it’s a matter of life and death. Yours.”

Keep him talking.

Matt relaxes his hands and leans back into the chair. “I’m listening.” He still holds the image of his mother in his mind and can hear the sound of the ocean.

“Good. Very good.” Ryzaard blows another stream of blue smoke to the ceiling. “You are a smart young man. And extremely lucky. Do you have any idea what you have found?” Ryzaard motions with his eyes toward the two Stones on the table behind him.

“A rock.”

“Yes, but not just any rock.”

“Tell me about it.” Matt curls and uncurls his fingers, trying to make sense of Ryzaard’s gentle demeanor and the power he holds over all of them.

As Ryzaard squints his eyes, deep lines burst out from their corners. “Curious, aren’t you? I was too.” He takes another deep drag on the cigarette, turning his head to the side and expelling the smoke. “Let’s start with what you already know.”

Matt holds his breath, afraid to breathe, suppressing the urge to cough. He has seen people smoking in old movies, but never up close in real life.

Ryzaard looks at Matt, and then at the black cigarette. “My apologies. It truly is a filthy habit, but one I relish. Picked it up as a young man after the war and never stopped. These little instruments of pleasure are hard to find nowadays. But I assure you, it’s very relaxing. Conducive to deep thought and reflection.” The cigarette slips from his fingers to the floor where he tamps it out with the sole of his shoe.

“I prefer to do my thinking without a crutch.”

“I like that. An independent spirit. But let us speak of the Stones.” Ryzaard clears his throat, leans back and crosses his legs. “By now you understand that the Stone has bonded to you. You cannot lose it. It cannot be taken from you. As long as your heart continues to beat, it is part of you.”

Matt can’t keep his dad’s voice out of his mind.

In a dangerous situation, study your opponent.

He starts with Ryzaard’s hands. Long fingers. Nails trimmed to perfection. Slightly weathered appearance. Veins clearly visible on the back. The hands of a mature man of experience, used to getting what he wants.

Matt’s eyes drift up. “If my Stone is all you want, and if you can only take it by killing me, then the solution is obvious.”

Ryzaard’s fingers wander over to the table and pick a black game piece off the board. “I will be honest, my young friend. That was my original intent. Kill you and take the Stone. It would be easy. But now that I have seen you, I have had a change of heart.” Ryzaard tosses the game piece into a garbage basket in the far corner. Then he stands on his feet and scoops up the two Stones in one hand. “I think we can work together.”

“Work together?” Matt says. “What do you mean?”

“I know you have questions. Let’s talk about your dreams.” Ryzaard begins to pace across the room, hands behind his back. “They’ve already begun, haven’t they?”

“I’ve always had vivid dreams, ever since I was a kid.” Matt moves his gaze up Ryzaard’s arm past the shoulder and the bow tie, settling on the neck, too thickly muscled for an old man. “Nothing special about that.”

“But be honest. Your dreams since finding the Stone are different.”

“How do you know?”

“Because I’ve had them. They feel more real. You never forget them. And you feel an urge to write them down, to record them.”

Matt says nothing, but he knows the silence tells Ryzaard everything he wants to know.

Stay calm. He wants to talk. Keep it going.

It should not be too hard. Ryzaard looks like the sort of man that enjoys hearing the sound of his own voice. It’s a trait of men that are used to giving orders and being obeyed.

Ryzaard slips a jax out from his pocket. “But these are more than just dreams. You’ve had visions. There’s really no other word for it. Glimpses of other worlds, other beings, other realities. It is how all the major religions got started. Men and women with Stones, just like you.” He brushes the side of the jax with an index finger, turning the volume up loud enough for Matt to hear the voice.

“Burning. Burning. Please, stop the burning.”

Ryzaard turns his face to Matt. “That’s Yoshi, if I’m not mistaken. He followed you to the mountain. You saw them, didn’t you?”

“Them?”

“The Allehonen.” Ryzaard grimaces, as if the word has brought a bad taste to his mouth.

Matt studies a bulging vein in Ryzaard neck. “I still don’t know what I saw.”

Ryzaard sits down again in the chair across from Matt and speaks in a low voice. “No need to hide it from me. I have seen them myself. I have talked to them, listened to their words. They always come to a new Stone Holder. Beautiful, aren’t they?” He gazes for a moment at a bird hanging motionlessly in mid-air just outside the window, its wings spread out so that each individual feather is clearly visible. “But you need to know the truth. They are very seductive. What they offer is a lie. Do not be deceived.” Then he looks back at Matt. “There is much more I want to share with you. Things that only you, a Holder of a Stone, would understand. That’s why I’ve come.” He reaches a hand out and places it on Matt’s knee. “I need you to trust me.”

When the right moment arrives, act without hesitation.

Matt wiggles his fingers and toes. They feel mostly normal. Now is the chance he’s been waiting for. He reaches down into the reservoir of rage inside his chest and opens the floodgates. In less than a microsecond, it explodes like a match touched to a pile of gunpowder.

“Trust you?” His hands come up and curl into fists. He lunges at Ryzaard.

But Ryzaard simply moves out of the chair to the side, as if he were expecting the outburst.

Matt passes by him, crashes into the empty chair and tumbles to the floor on his side with his own chair still lashed to his back and ankles. “How can I trust you? Look what you’ve done to them!” Matt stares up from the floor at Jessica and Yamamoto.

For a moment, the sound of birds and cicadas comes back into his ears. He closes his eyes and frantically searches for the familiar image of his mother. With effort, he finds it, holds it, and brings it back. All goes silent again except for the far off surf.

Ryzaard reaches down and grabs Matt’s shoulders. In one smooth motion, he pulls him upright in the chair. “As for your friends, I already told you they have not been harmed, and they will not be harmed as long as you hear me out. After that, what happens will be up to you.”

“All right,” Matt says. “I’m all ears.”

Wait for another opening.

“Good.” Ryzaard hands him the Stone, still golden yellow. He sits down and leans back. “Where to start? There’s so much to tell you.”

CHAPTER 56

Alexa hears the pinging and looks for her jax. With one sweep of her arm, she knocks all the wine bottles off the table. As they crash to the floor and shatter, she finds the jax and scoops it up in her fingers.

An unusually long message from Ryzaard scrolls on the holo screen in front of her eyes.

The boy is lying on the floor unconscious for the moment. It should have been easy to overpower a novice like him, but it took intense exertion to counteract his natural defenses. Incredibly strong, he is completely oblivious to his strength. He is already channeling the Stone’s higher functions though he scarcely comprehends it. Utterly astonishing. In all my years of working with a Stone, I have never seen anything like it. Exhilarating and frightening.

Killing him would be a colossal waste. Much better to persuade him to join me and take his power under my control. Voluntarily, if possible. By force, if necessary. Luckily, we brought the girl along in case he needs persuading.

It is a shame we did not take him before his first contact with the Allehonen. Who could have predicted his progress would be so rapid?

Through a haze of wine, Alexa reads and rereads the message, getting a sense of Ryzaard’s euphoria. At some point, the jax goes out of focus and she feels it slip through her fingers and clatter to the hardwood floors of her personal suite on the MX Global air transport.

One thing is clear.

Ryzaard is changing the plan.

She stares out the window at a perfectly framed picture of green and blue. The lush mountains of Sapporo reach up to a turquoise sky. The view should be peaceful and serene, but her teeth are clenched tightly together beneath her lips. It takes effort and concentration to relax her jaw.

When she has composed herself, she reaches down to the floor, picks up the jax, and looks out the window again as she takes in a deep breath, holds it and exhales. With trembling fingers, she plays a message back to Ryzaard.

All the more reason to eliminate the boy and take the Stone now while we can, before he gets too strong.

The very thing Alexa fears is about to happen.

Ryzaard had insisted that they hire the girl with an offer to work in New York City for the summer. That was the first hint that he might change the plan. He knew she would be only too eager to go. Alexa tried to talk him out of it and still remembered his words.

We need a weapon that will work against the boy, and she is the most powerful one we have.

Then he insisted that they bring the girl with them to Japan.

The final hint came when Ryzaard asked Alexa to stay aboard the transport while he went to find the boy with the Stone. He took the girl with him and left her behind.

It’s all becoming very clear.

Ryzaard intends to keep the boy alive and use the girl as leverage to force him to do as Ryzaard says. As long as the boy lives, the Stone will remain bonded to him.

And Alexa will never get it.

Ryzaard’s words play in her mind.

When we find the first Holder, I will kill him at my first opportunity. Alexa, how would you like to be the first to take his Stone into your hands, the first to bond with it? I’ll teach you how to use it. We’ll work together. Be invincible.

How easily Ryzaard made promises and then forgot them.

Her jax gently vibrates in her fingers. Another message from Ryzaard.

If he can be controlled, he is worth much more to us alive than dead. I am going to take him on a little trip to convince him of the power of the Stones. Unless he is a phenomenal idiot, it should work.

She views the reply from Ryzaard and knows no one can change his mind.

Now is not the time to resist him. Ryzaard has an uncanny sense about people. It may be the Stone that gives him insight into the thoughts and feelings of others, but whatever it is, he can tell when they are lying, when they are trying to hide information from him. If she isn’t careful, he will begin to sense her feelings of resentment and stop trusting her. And then it will all end. He has no toleration for anything other than strict, unquestioning loyalty.

She remembers what happened to the others that came before her. All of them are dead now, victims of Ryzaard’s wrath, punished for questioning his genius.

Reaching for another wine bottle, she tries to clear her mind.

He’s a good man. He knows what he’s doing. He has a plan. A glorious plan for a new world, to end the suffering of all humanity. I trust him without question.

She repeats it over and over as the warm liquid burns her throat.

CHAPTER 57

There is burning in his eyes, and Kent bolts upright. The morning sun stretches along the floor from the window to his bed. As usual, he did not set his jax alarm and slept longer than planned. And as usual, he reminds himself that it is worth the price of being late to face the day with a well-rested mind and body.

He’s out the door in exercise pants and drops down fifty floors to pay a visit to a hot yoga studio he saw the previous night. Two hours later, he is back in the rented space with a light sweat on his brow and some groceries.

He sits down for a quick bowl of fruit.

Now that he’s taken care of his body and mind, the next priority is to secure his office from outside electromagnetic snooping, especially the routine robotic sweeps conducted by law enforcement that move through all buildings in Manhattan. He is a lawyer, not an anti-intel expert, but he has picked up a few tricks during the last twelve years. All he needs is an absorption field to soak up incoming signals, coupled with a ghost generator to spit out fake data. Any attempt to pierce the electronic perimeter will be repelled, and the snooper will get readings for a generic business office.

The message will be simple, but effective.

Nothing interesting here, move on.

Kent pulls out the Chinese Long Dun units, twelve slender tubes of white plastic, from one of the packing crates on the floor. With the latest downloads, they should be impregnable, at least for local law enforcement. He spends the rest of the morning and the early afternoon calibrating and placing them in a precise geometric pattern around the floor, walls and ceiling of his office. To anyone on the outside looking in, he’s a simple one-man law firm with a specialty in overdue account collections. Just another blood-sucking lawyer in a town full of them.

That is the easy part.

The hard part is dealing with MX Global. Like all large corporations, it has a complex of defenses to protect its own data and communications. How can one man penetrate those defenses for data harvesting? The answer is technology. Find a robust tech-solution only available to the government or the military. Get the most recent upgrades. Learn to use it. Improve it. Repeat.

But the problem is obvious. Kent’s target is in the tech warfare business already. If he’s right, it has hundreds, maybe thousands, of employees dedicated to spying on other corporations and governments. It has ample access to the latest anti-snoopware, some of it developed in-house and unknown on the outside. As one of the most profitable multinational corporations, it has a lot to protect and the will and means to protect it.

It would be difficult or impossible to win a war of technology versus technology against such an adversary.

The solution? Asymmetrical technology, something so far off the beaten path that it will be completely unexpected. A way into the core that will go undetected.

At mid-afternoon, he finds himself standing at the window and looking across a void 750 meters high and 60 meters wide separating him from the skyscraper that is the home of MX Global world headquarters. He admires its surface, a single unbroken pane of opaque glass that moves through the full-color spectrum every twenty-four hours. All his information tells him that MX SciFin has its offices on the 175th floor. To spy on it, he needs a good idea of the layout of the entire floor, but the outside skin of the building betrays no hints. A thorough search of the Mesh reveals no internal plans.

His only choice is to penetrate the building’s outer skin and construct his own interior map.

It takes the rest of the afternoon to fine-tune the thermal-imaging apparatus, a decades-old technology that few people care about anymore. He picked most of it up in Mexico from an old drug lord turned vigilante who spied on the cops who were spying on him. There are three deep-field scanners, each calibrated to read a different heat spectrum, each with upgraded stereo lenses. They sit near the window on tripods six feet apart and slowly sweep back and forth across the 175th floor of the MX Global building, providing a constant data feed to a single Turing Box processing unit. The hi-res scans will take forty-eight hours and should yield a detailed view of the interior.

It is time to work on the delivery device.

CHAPTER 58

Ryzaard leans back in his chair. “So, you see, the Stones play a key role in moving history along. That seems to be their purpose, to be a catalyst. Providing a crucial advantage here and there to a lucky few, resulting in the rise and fall of empires and dynasties. Preventing stagnation.”

Keep him talking, Matt thinks. Wait for another opportunity.

“And causing an incredible amount of human misery and death along the way.” Matt toys with the Stone in his hand, holding it up to the light, peering into its translucent interior.

“Yes,” Ryzaard says. “But you get the idea. A handful of Stones are scattered through a world. Centers of power rise here and there, endure for a time, and then fall. History progresses to the next level. Or not. Two steps forward, one step back. Sometimes three steps back. A rather messy business.”

“But isn’t that exactly what you’re doing? Gathering power. Building an empire.” He looks down at the floor and lets his voice drop to a whisper. “More misery and death.”

For a time, Ryzaard says nothing. Silence floats between them.

“You’re right,” Ryzaard picks up his own Stone. “If they’re used the same way, the same result will follow, over and over.”

Lines spread across Matt’s forehead. “Is that what you want?” He turns and glances at the motionless figures of Jessica and Professor Yamamoto and then back to Ryzaard.

“Of course not. And it’s not what I intend to do.” He stands, takes off his jacket and starts to roll up the sleeve of his right forearm. “It may come as a surprise to you, but I have personal experience with suffering and death. More than you might imagine.” When the sleeve is rolled up to the elbow, he shows the tattoo to Matt. “I take it you have studied history. Perhaps you know where I got this.”

Six numbers in faded green ink. 159604.

Matt’s eyes open wide. “You’re a death camp survivor? Over a hundred and fifty years old? And a smoker too. Impossible.”

“It is true. Auschwitz. As for my age, the Stone keeps me strong.” Ryzaard rolls down his sleeve. “I know suffering and death. It has made me who I am.”

“Then why are you doing this?” Matt senses the anger rising in his throat again.

“To put an end to it!” As Ryzaard jumps to his feet, his voice explodes to fill the office. His eyes are bloodshot, and the same vein bulges in his neck. “To free mankind from the endless cycle of misery. To finally bring peace to the world.” His face blazes red, and his hands form into shaking fists. “Don’t you understand? That is what we can do, you and I.”

Matt looks up at the man standing before him. “Sorry. You’ve lost me.”

Ryzaard drops back into the chair. “There’s so much you don’t know. You’ve tasted only a small fraction of the power.” He leans forward, reaches out a hand and lays it on Matt’s shoulder, pulling him in closer, looking him in the eye. His voice drops to a whisper. “The Stones are most powerful when they are bound together, when the Stone Holders work as one, toward a common goal. An incredible synergy takes place. They become orders of magnitude stronger.”

Keep him talking.

“You want me to join you?” Matt says. “With all due respect, how I can trust you? How do I know this isn’t some sort of trick?” He pulls back.

“Because I’ve seen it,” Ryzaard says.

“Seen what?”

“The future. They came to me, showed it to me.”

“Who came to you?” Matt stares at Ryzaard. “The Allehonen?”

Ryzaard sits back and laughs. “No, not them.” His hand slides into the suit and pulls out the black box. “I saw them, in the beginning, just like you. But not anymore. They’ve stopped bothering me since I started seeing through their tricks and deception.” He puts his lips to the box and pulls out a cigarette. “No, I’m talking about the Others, not part of the Allehonen. The Others opened my eyes, showed me what can be achieved with the Stones.” The cigarette dances in his lips.

“What do you want me to do?”

Ryzaard relaxes back into his chair and surveys the cherry tree on the other side of the window. He seems to be aware for the first time that he has a cigarette between his lips and pulls it out to lay it on the table, unlit. “Come with me. I’ll show you what I’ve seen. Then you can decide.”

“Where?”

Ryzaard stands up and takes a step closer to Matt. “To the future.”

CHAPTER 59

“Are you sure that’s where he is?” Little John looks up from his camp chair inside the tent.

“Yes, according to the Children. They’ve been tracking him since he left.” The tall man with the aviator sunglasses stares down through mirrors.

“It looks like you were right. He’s directly across the street from MX Global’s mother ship. Maybe he really does think he can fight against the Complex. Crazy.” Little John leans into his chair and listens to the aluminum frame and cloth webbing strain against his weight, stroking his chin with his hand. “Any idea who exactly his target is?”

“Hard to say. He’s got an office suite on the 176th floor.”

Little John brings a hand up to his ample chin. “Interesting. He doesn’t seem like the type to select a floor at random. Any idea what might be in the upper reaches of the MX Global building just across the street?”

“Of course. It’s all right here in the Children’s Book.” The tall man fingers his jax. “Floors 100 through 141 are the old MX Financial offices, and from there on up to the 175th floor is the old MX Scientific subsidiary.” He looks up from the jax. “Of course both subs were merged into one entity, MX SciFin.”

“I know. The Mesh was ablaze with the news. Happened just a few days ago, right? Maybe that’s why our friend decided to make a move. Catch MX Global in the middle of a transition.”

“Could be.” The man takes off his sunglasses and rubs the open sockets where his eyes should be. “The new company has a new president.”

“I must have missed that. Who?”

“A man by the name of Dr. Mikal Ryzaard. Previously at Oxford. Archeology, I believe.”

“What is a professor of archeology doing as CEO of one of the largest multinational corporations in the world?” Little John reaches for a bottle of water, and then stops. “I think I need something stronger.” He turns around, opens a nearby mini-fridge and pulls out a Coors. Beads of water drop from the can, and he pulls the tab. “Where’s his office located?”

“On the 175th floor, directly across the street.”

Little John brings the can up to his lips and drains it. “Interesting. Could be useful information. Make sure the Children keep an eye on our man fighting the Complex.”

CHAPTER 60

“You must see this.” Ryzaard draws his chair closer to Matt. “Then you’ll understand. Now do as I say. Put your Stone away and hold on to my shoulder.” Ryzaard holds his Stone in his right hand. “I’m going to make a jump.”

“What’s a jump?”

“The Stones allow you to go places. I can take you with me. No matter what happens, stay with me. I am your connection, your only way there and your only way back.”

Matt nods, but his thoughts move in another direction.

Wait for an opening.

Steely cold travels down his spine and settles in his belly. “What about Jessica?”

“She won’t be harmed.”

“And the professor?”

“Likewise.”

“Is this a trick?” Matt lifts an eyebrow.

“Relax,” Ryzaard says. “Remember, stay with me. When it is finished, we’ll return to this moment. Only a few seconds will have passed here. Close your eyes and trust me.”

In an instant, a plan forms in Matt’s mind. He’ll take hold of Ryzaard’s shoulder, wait for the right moment, pull him down, find his neck with both hands, overpower him, incapacitate him. He can do it all while still in null-time. Then he can free Jessica and Professor Yamamoto and get them away to safety. Somehow it will work out. His pounding heart makes it hard to breathe, and the coldness in his belly grows and spreads.

He stands, licks his lips, closes his eyes, and reaches his hand out to Ryzaard so it can rest on the thickly muscled shoulder. Spreading his feet on the floor for maximum leverage, he leans back, takes in a deep breath and holds it. Now he’s ready to take down Ryzaard.

The sound of gentle waves on the sand fades away, replaced by the low rumble of thunder in the distance. The floor trembles under his feet.

Time to do or die.

But his resolve is interrupted by a flash of silent lightning that reveals the delicate web of capillaries in his eyelids. Cold silence slams down over him like an iron cup, cutting him off from all sensation except for the feel of falling helplessly into nothing, as if the floor and ground have suddenly vanished, leaving him to plunge into blackness.

Panic descends upon him. He makes an effort to open his eyes and pull away from Ryzaard, but his body is glued in place, held by an invisible force. Fighting for breath, he finds there is nothing to breathe.

For an instant, he’s sixteen years old again, lying at the bottom of the ravine on the back side of Skull Pass, entombed in cold darkness, feeling the last remnants of warmth sucked out by the empty blackness. He opens his mouth to scream, but nothing comes out. Instead, two words flash through his mind.

Dad! Jess!

The odor of burning sulfur drifts again into his nostrils. He opens his mouth and sucks in deeply.

“Open your eyes.” The voice of a man comes from above him, and he realizes it’s Ryzaard.

Matt half expects to see bright red flames shooting out of an active volcano in the distance. But instead, he’s standing in a green forest of dark fir trees. Thin light pierces through a latticework of branches above, casting long shadows on the spongy floor under his feet.

Ryzaard is a couple of yards away, a wide smile on his face as he looks around. “I am glad to see you made it. The first time is always a bit rough.”

Looking at his arms and legs, Matt’s wearing the purple cargo pants and neon orange T-shirt he once wore to a Slayers concert as a sixteen-year-old, a few weeks after the avalanche incident.

Ryzaard is dressed in short khaki pants and a crisp white shirt complete with bowtie. Looking at his own clothes, he chuckles as if to say not again, and then looks over at Matt. “I always seem to come through this way in this world. It’s from my first dig in Egypt as a graduate student back in the sixties, the 1960s, that is. I suppose it was the happiest time of my life.”

Matt takes the Stone out of his pocket. It’s glowing light purple. “Where are we?”

Ryzaard starts walking down a path that winds away through the trees. “In a world of my creation. Everything here has come from my mind to become reality. I have been experimenting with my view of the future, using this world as a laboratory, so to speak, and now I finally have someone to show it to. Do not worry about understanding it all right now. That will come in time. Just follow me and stay close.”

They walk together through the forest for what feels like an hour or more, but Matt is unsure of the passing time. There’s no visible sun, and the light grows neither stronger nor weaker.

Something is lacking, but Matt can’t put his finger on it. It’s all real and tangible, but somehow dull and flat. Not rich in detail like you would expect a forest to be.

And then Matt notices that all the trees are identical down to the repeating design of the outer bark and the tiny branches that jut out from the lower trunk. So are the small bushes scattered on the forest floor. It has the feel of an Escher painting, mathematical and abstract.

The path dips down into a narrow gorge with high walls of bare basalt on each side. The top of the gorge is bare except for a few lone pine trees that stand out against the grey sky.

The sound of rushing water rises up to meet them as they descend the trail. At the bottom, there’s a narrow river with a small rowboat floating near the bank, tied to a single tree.

“This is our ride.” Ryzaard says. “Please get in.”

Matt eyes narrow. “Where are we going?”

“To a city I’ve built, especially for you.”

“Can’t we just jump there?” Matt twists his toe into the moist soil.

“It won’t take long,” Ryzaard says. “Get in.”

Matt follows steps into the boat and sits on a bench, facing forward behind Ryzaard. They cast off and are swept out into the middle of the black current, pulled along with a speed that increases as they move through the gorge. Matt stares up at the narrow strip of grey sky that floats between the rock walls overhead.

Out of the corner of his eye, Matt detects a large bullet shape gliding under the surface as the top of a fin rises inches out of the water and then dives, leaving a V-shaped ripple. But there’s nothing as he stares into the dark depths. A dozen yards off to the right, a lizard head shoots up out of the water on a slender neck. Two eyes stare back at him, and then it’s gone. Maybe it’s a reflection from something high up on the walls. He isn’t sure.

He takes out the Stone and notices its purple color has grown darker since the last time he looked.

The river turns sharply to the right and flows out of the gorge into a wide, open plain. Like his Stone, the sky feels darker. The lights of a city are visible a couple of kilometers away.

“There it is,” Ryzaard says. “The city of the future.”

Matt is too busy studying this strange world to ask any questions.

As they draw nearer, buildings loom taller and increase in number. Their small boat sweeps past the first outlying towers, and they enter the sprawling metropolis.

The structures are all absurdly huge and consist of simple, but massive, geometric shapes. There are cylinders standing on end and impossibly high rectangles, pyramids with spheres balanced on their tips. Matt’s eyes are drawn to a square of dark glass a kilometer on each side. As they float past it, Matt observes that it’s only five meters thick, like a gigantic bluescreen.

“What do you think?” Ryzaard nods at the architecture around him.

Matt sits in silence, gazing upward in all directions, mouth gaping open. The structures are massive, but lack the variety and organic feel of a real city. “It seems kind of dead and boring, to tell the truth.”

Ryzaard’s jaw muscles tighten, and his chin rises as he scans the city from right to left. “Orderly and neat, is the way I would put it. Exactly the way I like it. Organized, logical, predictable. No surprises. Not messy and chaotic like the architecture you find in Tokyo or Shanghai. Even New York City is too strange for my taste.”

Words rise in Matt’s throat, but he closes his lips before they can escape.

Serious lack of imagination, he thinks. But just play along.

They drift past a building that draws Matt’s attention up a series of ever-expanding terraces that fan out from a point three meters above street level. From the tip, a single thin column of translucent material, less than a meter in diameter, extends down to penetrate the ground. It’s a pyramid standing on its point supported by a straw.

The construction of the city defies both logic and, from all appearances, the laws of physics.

On further inspection, Matt makes a discovery. Each massive structure stands on a single glass column. The entire city floats above the streets that pass underneath.

“Impossible,” Matt says under his breath.

“No.” Ryzaard shakes his head. “Not impossible. Not if you understand how to use the Stones.”

Matt looks ahead to where the river abruptly ends at a platform less than a hundred meters away. The boat gently floats to the clean metal edge where the water simply stops flowing. Staring down at it, Matt tries to figure out where the water is going.

“Don’t waste your time,” Ryzaard says with a wink. “The usual laws of physics don’t apply here. Now come with me. I’ve got a little surprise waiting.” He steps out of the boat onto the platform of polished steel. “Brace yourself. This is going to be very enlightening.” He walks to an open archway perfectly centered over the platform.

Following a few paces behind, Matt grips his Stone in his hand. As his eyes adjust to the darkness, he notices masses of people walking along the streets in neatly formed lines fifty meters away on both sides. They all move together in lockstep and wear the same robes of purple.

“What are those people doing?” Matt says. “Why do they all look the same?”

“No questions.”

They move under and through the archway onto a narrow strip of metallic glass, hard and polished, like every other surface around them. Their feet make no sound in the dull light that engulfs them. Matt stares directly above his head at the bottom of a building three meters up with a grid pattern of squares etched into its undersurface.

The metallic strip leads to a single glass column supporting the building. The column lights up with a purple tinge when they are still a few paces away, as if waiting for their approach. Its color matches Ryzaard’s Stone.

As Ryzaard reaches out to touch it, a door opens in the column.

Ryzaard steps inside. “I’ll go first. You grab the next one up.” He walks through the opening, and it closes after him. He rises up through the bottom of the building and disappears.

As he waits, Matt stares at the people marching by. Each of them turn their heads and stare back with gentle smiles on their faces. He suppresses the impulse to join them and learn more about this strange world of Ryzaard’s.

For the first time since coming to this place, Matt is alone, free of Ryzaard. Should he run? Try to get back to the boat? Take off under the city and out on the plain? Where would he go after that? Where, exactly, is he?

He grips the Stone tighter and holds it like a dagger, with the point protruding out the bottom of his fist past his little finger. An opening appears in the column of glass, and he steps in. The hairs on his head rise a few inches, and a feeling of lightness passes through his body. He floats up like water being drawn through a straw.

CHAPTER 61

After the initial rush of setting up surveillance equipment, Kent has time to think, maybe even relax. The thermal-image scan of the building across the street won’t be ready for a couple of days, and the data analysis could take even longer. The results of that analysis will tell him where the human targets are and where to place his feelers, the actual devices that will eavesdrop on MX Global and start generating data. He still needs to work out a delivery device to secure them to the outside of the building across the street.

In the face of an overwhelming technical advantage on the part of the target, he opts for a low-tech solution to the problem.

Picking up his jax, he speaks into it. “Find a sports store close to Fifth Avenue and 50th street.” A small holo of a bluescreen jumps above the jax and shows an aerial view of the local neighborhood, with a red line showing the path to the store, seven blocks away. It leads through several towers and skywalks so he can get there without ever going down to street level. He puts on his hi-top Dexter-Malloys and walks out the door.

Twenty feet down the hall, he has a feeling he should double-check the bio-lock system. He walks back to the door of his office suite and inserts his left ring-finger into the small hole in a translucent blue cube attached to the door at waist level. A tingling sensation runs up his hand as the cube conducts a bioassay of the skin, bones and blood in the finger to insure proper identity. The cube glows green, and the door lock opens. Everything checks out.

When he gets down to street level, Kent consults his jax again to figure out the way to the sports store. It recalculates and comes up with a new path. It’s the first time he’s been outside since getting there, and he’s looking forward to feeling the old energy and vibe of the city on a summer afternoon.

But it’s gone.

Everything is different, and he has the strange feeling of walking through a ghost-town left with nothing but the memory of the crowds that used to move through its streets. He passes by a few other middle-aged walkers. Just as he noticed when entering the city, there are few young people outside. He seems to have left them all behind on the inside.

Out of habit, he catalogues his surroundings as he walks, noting the location of police cameras and data-sniffers, mentally calling out the models and makes of cars on the road, memorizing the faces of passersby. After three blocks he notices a tall kid with a bright yellow jersey walking fifty meters behind him, the first youth he’s seen at street level. He looks to be barely out of his teens.

Maybe he’s the rare exception that proves the rule.

Kent purposely takes a zig-zag route to his destination and turns down a narrow side street running past a Japanese restaurant. The name Oishii is painted on the window and feels oddly familiar. Perhaps he’s been here before on a lunch break when he worked in the city. He hurries past garbage piled on the sidewalk waiting for the late-night pickup.

When he gets to the end of the side street, old habits take over. He makes a sharp left turn and steals a quick backward glance.

The yellow jersey jumps out of the corner of his eye.

It was probably coincidence, but the thought of someone tailing him is unsettling enough to demand further investigation. He makes a left turn at the next side street and circles back to the main street he just left. A quick right turn and a backward glance confirm his suspicion. The yellow jersey is still behind him.

Kent keeps up a zig-zag path to a sports store and quickly enters before anyone with a yellow jersey appears. He finds an elevator and rides it to the seventy-fifth floor where the store is located.

Once inside, he syncs his jax with the local Mesh AI, confirms engagement, and then plays out a message on his jax.

Looking for fishing line.

The reply comes back instantly.

Our selection of fishing line starts at aisle P-17. Let me know if you have any questions.

Kent walks past the aisles in alphabetical order until he finds P. He turns and walks past white numbers until he comes to 17. Bingo. Finding stuff is easy in these AI-enabled stores. He browses past a hundred brands of fishing line displayed behind a clear glass cover until he finds what he is looking for. It’s called Spysyn, fishing line made from synthetic spider silk and treated with a nano-coating that makes it nearly invisible to the human eye. Low-tech stuff that’s been around a long time.

Touching a corner of his jax to the Purchase Here logo on the glass cover, there’s an audible click confirming the sale. He walks to the front of the store to a long counter under a Check-Out sign. It has a row of twelve-inch bluescreens that run its full length. He moves to one of them, waves his jax in front of it and waits.

“Just a moment.” It’s a pleasant sim-voice from behind the counter.

Ten seconds later, a small package rises on a platform through an opening in the counter. Mission accomplished. Kent picks up the package, neatly wrapped in blue with the store logo, and walks out the front of the store to the elevator.

No need to interact with any human. Technology selling technology. It would all be pure Abomination to the freedom campers. But it sure works great.

Kent decides to avoid the streets and find his way back through the buildings and skywalks that connect them. Here he finds the younger segment of the population, large herds of them, all surprisingly well-tanned for never setting foot outside, filling the malls, gaming arenas and bio-sculpt salons. Older members of the population are absent, and he realizes that a segregation, not of race or gender, but of age, is taking place before his eyes. Youth on the inside. Elders on the outside. Feeling out of place, he seems to pass through the crowds barely noticed. Most eyes stay fixed on bluescreens and holos, large and small, handheld, free floating and hanging from walls or ceilings. He marvels at the throngs of young people and the utter lack of social interaction among them.

The dark side of technology. Abomination.

Halfway home, Kent slips into a corner to check out his surroundings. His eye catches a yellow jersey just as it’s lurching out of view.

He waits in the corner for a long time before moving.

CHAPTER 62

Matt rises higher and higher in the column, going deeper into darkness and silence. He’s ridden a lot of elevators, but nothing with such a strong, almost violent, sense of upward motion. Gravity pulls hard on his legs and feet. To mark the time and slow down his heart rate, he closes his eyes and counts breaths. When he gets to twenty, the blackness in the column merges into purple, and then blue and finally green. A point of light appears at his waist. It lengthens out into a neat vertical slit and opens up into a square room with walls and floor painted the color of gold.

A sweet fragrance hangs in the air, not overpowering, like the scent of expensive cologne. When he inhales, he can still detect an underlying odor of burnt sulfur. Ryzaard must be trying to mask it.

Matt wonders why that smell always seems to hang around the old man.

He steps through the opening.

“Quite a ride, isn’t it?” Ryzaard smiles from a few feet away. “I could slow it down, but I find the motion exhilarating.”

Without a word, Matt surveys the polished marble pillars rising out of the floor up to a sparkling ceiling. His fingers reach out to the one nearest him and run along its cold, flawless surface. His eyes narrow.

“I know what you’re thinking.” Ryzaard steps to the pillar and presses his palm to its side. “You’re wondering if all this is real, or just some kind of clever trick I’m playing on your mind.”

“How did you know?”

Ryzaard’s lips fall into a smile, and he motions around the room. “Like I told you, this is my world, my creation. One of its features is that I can sense the thoughts of anyone here.”

“You can read my mind?” Matt takes a step back. “Isn’t that an invasion of privacy?”

“The only people who need privacy are those with secrets to hide. In a perfect world, my world, there is no need for secrets. Everything is open, honest and equal.”

Matt nods and strokes his chin. “So I should be able to read your thoughts as well. But for some reason I can’t, can I? I guess in your perfect world, some people are more equal than others.” The words drip with a sarcasm that he regrets as soon as they leave his mouth.

Ryzaard’s jaw muscles flex like steel cables. He closes his eyes and takes in a deep breath. “I will forgive you this once for intentionally misunderstanding me. But you’ll find that it’s dangerous to push back too hard. I’ve had decades to think and plan. And I’ve put that planning to actual effect on this world. Everything you see is made with the power of the Stones. This is a real planet somewhere in the universe, far from Earth. I don’t know the location. It doesn’t matter.” He knocks against the pillar with his knuckles. “This isn’t a mind game. It’s all real. Actual matter. Molecules and atoms.”

“And you’re the creator?”

“I am.” Ryzaard turns and leans his back against the pillar. “And I brought you here to begin teaching you about the Stones. So, the first thing you need to learn is that each Stone is connected to a unique world that belongs to its Holder. This one is mine. A creator’s paradise. Whatever I think becomes actual, physical reality.”

“Not just your Stone, right?” Matt walks to a window and looks out at the vast city. “There’s a planet out there connected to my Stone?”

“Waiting for you to find it,” Ryzaard says. “All you need is a little more training and experience. Now come this way.”

Matt follows behind Ryzaard. “It’s so quiet. Where are the people?”

“Come with me. Make sure you have your Stone. You’re going to find this most interesting, perhaps even entertaining.” He moves briskly to a wall. An instant before he hits it, an eight-foot vertical cut opens up to an ornate balcony on the outside of the building, as if the entire structure is made of living tissue that anticipates and responds to his mind. Ryzaard stands with his hands on the railing and looks up into the night sky.

It’s strangely devoid of stars.

With a glance down, Matt estimates they are five hundred meters above street level. A faintly bitter smell hangs in the night air reminding Matt of baker’s chocolate. The sound of flowing water drifts up from far below. A golden glow comes through the myriad of windows in the towers that surround them. Matt expects to see people moving behind the windows, but there are none.

Ryzaard lifts up his Stone. It glows bright purple against the dark backdrop of the night. “Watch carefully.”

Pulses of light jump out of the tip of the Stone like a finely dotted line. Ryzaard moves the line across the massive rectangular structure in front of them, left to right, up and down, over and over, as if he is spraying a garden hose. The light cuts neatly through the building like a laser might cut through onion paper, opening up huge gashes, exposing its exquisite golden interior, bisecting it vertically and horizontally again and again in a sea of sparks and fire until it collapses to the ground, a mass of twisted steel and shattered glass.

Matt stumbles backward and almost falls down as the smell of burning metal drifts up to the balcony.

“Easy enough. Now it’s your turn.” Ryzaard points to the right at a large pyramid structure with a round sphere balanced delicately on its point. “I saved it for you.”

Getting to his feet, Matt points in disbelief. “You want me to destroy it?”

“That’s the idea.”

“Why?”

“So you will understand the power of the Stones.”

“How?” Matt looks down into his open palm where his Stone is glowing the same bright purple.

“Simple. You see in your mind what you want the Stone to do, and it will.”

Swallowing hard, Matt balances the Stone in his right hand with the blunt end pointing out into the darkness. The fingers of his other hand reach for the railing and wrap around its cool surface. Closing his eyes, he tries to form an image in his mind of a beam of light shooting out of the Stone’s glossy interior. A bead of sweat rolls between his shoulder blades. Nothing happens.

After a couple of minutes, Matt steps back from the railing. “I can’t get it to work.” His hand drops to his side and his gaze goes down to his shoes.

Ryzaard strokes his mustache with an index finger. “I’ll give you a hint. The Stone connects to your emotions. I assume you have some. I find that anger works best for me.”

In this new world of Ryzaard’s, Matt feels like a dry well. The only emotion he can seem to conjure is the desire to escape as soon as possible and get back to Jessica and Professor Yamamoto. He shrugs his shoulders.

“Let me see if I can help. Has the world ever taken something from you, something so irreplaceable, so infinitely valuable, that it will never be able to make it up to you?”

With his head cocked to the side, Matt looks up. “What does that have to do with anything?”

“Answer the question.”

Matt stares at the Stone in his hand and thinks. A full minute passes in silence. “Yes.” He looks up into the night sky, his voice barely audible.

“What was it?”

Matt turns. “Why do you want to know?”

“So I can help you. Trust me.” With his hands behind his back, Ryzaard looks vaguely paternal. “What did they take from you?”

Matt squints his eyes and scrutinizes the city. Its collection of structures look like a graveyard of tombstones.

“Tell me,” Ryzaard’s voice lowers to a whisper. “I know it can be hard to bring back the memories.”

Matt whirls around to face Ryzaard full on. “My mother!” His voice booms in the darkness of the balcony, bounces off the walls and is sucked out into the city. “They killed my mother.”

“How old were you?”

“Barely ten.” Matt’s voice trails off.

“It must have been hard.”

“You wouldn’t understand.”

“You would be surprised. I had a mother myself. And a father. Both killed by the Nazis.” For an instant, the skin seems to stretch tight across Ryzaard’s face. “Do you miss her?”

Matt glares at Ryzaard. “Do I miss her? What kind of a question is that?” He feels his own face flush with sudden heat. “She was everything to me.”

“Perfect.” Ryzaard licks his lips and takes a step forward, like a lion about to dig into a feast of raw meat. “Now think of all the years you have been without her, of everything you have lost that can never be repaid. Think of the pain they have caused you. Think of the injustice. Think of all the people in the world who have their mothers but could not care less. Nurture your outrage. Let it build and grow. Focus all of it on the Stone. Embrace its power. Hunger for it. Become it.”

Matt’s hands are shaking. He has a sudden urge to kill Ryzaard. Fighting it back, he swallows again, closes his eyes. Abdominal muscles grow taunt as his chest lifts up and his hips move forward. Slowly at first, and then more deeply, a knot of emotion gathers strength inside him, like a cobra coiling itself, preparing to spring and strike, feeling the need to explode. The image of a smooth laser beam shooting out of the Stone forms on the back of his eyelids.

“Feel it. Grasp it with your mind. Hold on to it. Now let it go.”

The tension builds in Matt’s chest until he can hold it no longer. The next instant, a tightly wound ball of emotion explodes out of his hand and the sound of a howling wolf drifts into his ears. It feels as though a dam has broken and years of frustration are flowing out into the night. And then he realizes he’s standing, head thrown back, mouth gaping open, the sound bursting out of his own throat. Eyes snap open. A jagged blue beam is shooting out of the Stone like lightning. He is slashing across the horizon from end to end, incredible pleasure welling up to replace the raw anger flowing out. He draws the beam back and forth, over and over, without mercy, finding full expression for all the built-up rage inside, feeding off the fire and devastation playing out in front of him.

He vents his rage until there is nothing left to destroy. As far as he can see, the city lies in smoldering ruins beneath him and Ryzaard.

The beam fades. Matt steps back from the railing with his shirt drenched in sweat. He is breathing in sync with the drumbeat of his heart.

“Magnificent.” Ryzaard turns to face him. “Tell me how it felt.”

“Power.” Matt’s words come between gasps as his chest heaves in and out. “I’ve never felt such pure power.”

CHAPTER 63

“Exhilarating, isn’t it?” Ryzaard folds his arms across his chest. “Now you understand a small part of what I have been talking about.”

Matt has a worried look on his face. “There weren’t any people in those buildings, were there?”

Ryzaard turns and walks back through the door behind them. “Does it really matter?”

Matt follows Ryzaard into the square room, afraid to pursue the question further, still gripping the Stone in his right hand and breathing heavily.

They move across the gilded floor to a pair of double doors hanging open on the opposite side of the room and pass through into a much larger enclosure. Impossibly large. Matt estimates each of the room’s four sides are a kilometer long. The walls and ceiling have the same look of inlaid gold encrusted with multi-colored jewels. He sees brilliant chandeliers the size of houses hanging from the ceiling. They stand together on a raised platform above the main floor of the room.

Ryzaard walks to the edge.

Matt stops, still stunned by the destruction that flowed from his Stone on the balcony, unsure of whether to follow, unsure of what he may become.

When Ryzaard gets to the edge of the platform, he turns and motions with his hand for Matt to move closer. “Come. There’s someone here to meet you.”

Hesitating, Matt is afraid of what he may see, but the force of his curiosity pulls him closer. As the main floor comes into view, a deafening chorus of cheers and applause rise up out of a sea of purple.

Matt swings back around at the door he and Ryzaard just passed through, but it’s gone. The wall they came through seems to have disappeared.

“What happened to the—”

“No need to worry about such details,” Ryzaard says. “Just have a look around.”

Matt scans in a quick full circle. They’re standing on a round dish of a platform hovering in the center of the massive chamber, a hundred meters above the main level. The room now feels much larger than he first thought.

Together with Ryzaard, Matt walks the circumference of the platform only inches from the edge. Ryzaard clasps his hands behind him, and it reminds Matt of a dictator doing a triumphal review of his troops. Choruses of adulation swell up from the floor to meet them.

“I don’t understand,” Matt says. “Who are these people, and what’s going on?”

“As I told you before, this is a window into the future.” Ryzaard strokes his mustache and returns the hand to his back. “The future you and I will create with the power of the Stones. Take a look. Tell me what you see.”

Matt stares at the throng below, each of them, male and female, dressed in identical purple robes. “They look happy.”

“More than just happy. Deeply content.” Ryzaard’s glance floats over them like a god. “In the future, the future I will create, pain no longer exists. No suffering, no sorrow, no misery.” He turns to face Matt. “Think of it. No more wars. No more holocausts. No more evil. The world will be free of all that.”

“A world without pain. I wish I could believe—”

“Believe in the power you felt on the balcony. That was real. Power like that can do more than destroy. It can also build a world like this. Just be patient. In time you will understand.”

A hundred thousand faces turn up to Matt, each brimming with joy.

“It’s as if they worship us.”

“Yes, of course, that is the way it will be. Nothing will rival our power. And we will use it only for good. We ought to be worshiped. It’s our right.”

Matt shakes his head. “You talk as if it’s already happened.”

“In my mind, and on this world, it has.”

The crowd below begins to chant, reaching a crescendo of sound that rocks the platform.

Matthew. Matthew. Matthew.

“Who are they? How do they know me?” Matt says.

Ryzaard puts his hand on Matt’s shoulder. “Perhaps you ought to talk with them, let them speak for themselves. Let’s go down to meet them.”

The platform begins to sink to the floor. It takes a full minute.

Leaving Matt, Ryzaard steps onto the main floor first, and the crowd draws back to allow him a worshipful distance. He raises his hands like a benevolent grandfather, a picture of love and concern. The room falls into immediate silence.

“My friends, my children.” Ryzaard speaks softly, yet as far as Matt can see, everyone in the massive space seems to be able to hear him as if he were standing only a few feet away. “As you can see, I’ve brought Matthew, the one who, with me, took evil from the earth so that you can live in peace.” Ryzaard turns back to Matt and motions for him to step down. “Talk to them.”

He descends onto the main floor with no idea what to expect and a burning suspicion of Ryzaard and the show he’s putting on. The floor gently slopes away so that he and Ryzaard stand at the pinnacle and look out across the tops of thousands of heads. With the Stone heavy in his hand, he grips it tightly and walks toward a woman standing on the edge of the congregation.

She has a look of wonder in her eyes that draws his closer. He beckons her to come forward with his hand, and she beams with gratitude at being the one chosen. Moving away from the fringe toward Matt, she stops a few meters from him and looks up into his eyes, raising her eyebrows slightly, waiting for him to speak.

Matt isn’t sure what to say and looks around the room awkwardly, his eyes sweeping past Ryzaard.

“Go ahead,” Ryzaard says. “Ask her anything. I know you’re full of questions. She will answer truthfully.”

Matt swallows and turns back toward the woman. “Tell me your name.”

“Nahal,” the woman says. Her dark eyes and olive skin defy easy classification.

“Are you happy?” Matt says.

The answer is obvious.

“Oh, yes, incredibly happy.” The woman smiles widely, showing perfect white teeth.

“Why?”

For a moment, the woman’s eyes drift through the room, as if searching for the right words. “Everything here makes me happy. It’s so much better than before.”

“Before?”

“Yes, before I came here. I grew up in Spain during the Holocaust, part of the resistance. They captured me, did terrible things to me and the others before…” She looked down at the ground as her voice trailed off.

“Before what?”

“I think I died, but then I woke up. Here.”

Matt spins around and faces Ryzaard. For a moment he can’t find the words to speak. Then they come. “You can bring people back from the dead?

Ryzaard walks toward Matt. “Like I told you. This is only an indication of what we can do, you and me together, in the future. As our knowledge of the Stones grows, there will be no theoretical limits.” He opens his arms up, as if encompassing the world. “We can build paradise. We can right all wrongs. Bring back everything that’s been lost.” Ryzaard stares directly into Matt’s eyes. “Isn’t that what you really want?”

Matt’s body begins to tremble. “Can you, can we, bring anyone back. From the dead?”

Ryzaard nods his head. “Of course. Anyone.” He moves toward Matt. “In fact, there’s someone else I want you to meet.” He walks ten paces into the mass of people until he comes to a small woman standing in silence.

The long black hair and the willowy figure cause a whisper to slip off Matt’s tongue.

“Mom.”

CHAPTER 64

Tears stream down Matt’s face. His breathing is suddenly ragged and can’t keep up with his surging pulse.

He stumbles through the mass of people to Ryzaard and the small woman with long black hair. Moving back a few steps, Ryzaard pulls away as Matt comes closer, making room for him to move by.

He stops an arm’s length from the woman, seeing just the top of her delicate eyelashes as she looks down. No matter how hard he tries, his trembling legs and arms can’t be stilled. He fights back the urge to rush forward and engulf her in his arms, afraid that if he touches her, she will disintegrate in his hands like an ancient silk garment or finely spun glass, just like the dreams he’s had since he was a child.

With his pulse still racing, Matt’s runs his shaking fingers over his own chest and thighs to confirm he’s really here, never taking his eyes off the woman, afraid to blink. The subtle scent of freshly peeled mandarin oranges lingers in the air. He pulls in a deep breath. It all feels real, not like a dream.

His arms move forward to touch her, but then he pulls back. The lump in his throat makes it hard to swallow. He licks his lips, and they feel like sandpaper.

“Mom.” Matt struggles to get his voice to make a sound. “Mom, is it really you?”

The small woman raises her face and opens her eyes, like a flower blooming in the morning sun. She is exactly as he remembers her, long black hair with a hint of a wave and those large eyes, mostly brown, with tiny flecks of green. There’s the dimple at the corner of her mouth, the one he always reached up and felt with his finger as a child when she smiled.

She studies his face. “You’ve grown so tall, Matthew-sama.”

The sound of her voice triggers a flood of images and sensations. His mom is standing in the kitchen, apron on, long chopsticks in hand, making dinner. The aroma of fresh gyoza and shrimp tempura floats around her.

Another image comes, and he tries to push it away, but it plays in his mind, stuck in a deep groove, forever burnt into his consciousness. He’s ten years old, running away from the front porch. Glancing back, his mom opens her arms and calls out to him. Tears stream from his eyes as he shouts how much he hates her. He keeps running and never looks back again.

The last time he saw her.

Until now.

He can’t hold himself back any longer and rushes forward. Doubts and fears fall away as he leans down and wraps his arms around her small shoulders. The top of her head fits snuggly beneath his chin. His arms extend around her, slowly and carefully at first, and then hold her in a tight embrace.

The words come in short bursts. “Mom. So hard. Without you.” Tears drip onto her shoulders, the floodgates from years of longing suddenly opened and released. “Miss you so much.” With no more strength or reason to hold it all back, his whole body trembles and convulses. “Such a long time.”

She wraps her thin arms around him. “Don’t worry. I’m here now. I will always be here for you.”

Matt closes his eyes for a long time, not wanting to move or change anything, hoping it will never end.

After what might have been several minutes—Matt doesn’t know or care—he pulls back and smiles down at the woman, not saying anything. Turning his head to face Ryzaard, he keeps one arm wrapped around her. “I don’t know how you did it, but thank you, thank you so much.”

“We can do it together,” Ryzaard says. “You and I.”

Euphoria surges through Matt. “This city. The power of the Stones. All these people. They look so happy. And my mother. It’s incredible.”

Ryzaard laughs. “So, you will join me on this project, to change the world?”

“Yeah. I mean, I don’t really understand, but, yes, if I can have my mom back, I’ll do anything.” Matt looks down at the woman and wipes the tears from his eyes with his free hand, the one gripping the Stone.

“You won’t regret this,” Ryzaard says. “You’re much wiser than I gave you credit.”

Matt feels intoxicated, almost to the point of giddiness. He looks down at the woman again. “Mom, it’s so good to see you. I can’t believe this. I have so much to tell you. So much has happened.”

“I want to hear all of it,” the woman says. She returns his gaze, beaming with what looks like pure elation.

With his hands clasped behind him, Ryzaard comes closer. “You will have plenty of time with her later. For now, we need to get back and begin our work. Always remember this world and what you saw here, as an inspiration for all that we will do. That’s why I brought you here.”

Matt nods his head. “Understood. Is there any way to take my mom back with me? We can be a family again. My dad would love to see—”

“I’m sorry, but we can’t do that.” Ryzaard raises a hand to Matt’s shoulder. “She’ll have to stay here.”

“But why?” Matt looks up through the mist and fog over his eyes. “She’s real, isn’t she?”

“We have to go now.”

The elation begins to drain out of Matt’s chest. “You didn’t answer my question. His eyes drop down to the woman’s face. “She’s real, isn’t she?”

“You must understand.” Ryzaard’s fingers tighten on Matt’s shoulder. “I brought you here to show you what’s possible. In the future. All of this is only an indication of what will be real. You can return to this world and visit later.” Ryzaard’s hand drops from Matt’s shoulder, and he turns and starts walking to back the platform.

Releasing the woman from his embrace, Matt looks down into her face and turns on the internal recorder, trying to memorize every feature so that he can recall it later.

Words come into his mind, but part of him is afraid to say them aloud, afraid to destroy the elation that he’s felt for the last few minutes. But the words gush out. “You are my mother, aren’t you?”

The woman’s eyes drop down to the floor. “I will be anything you want me to be, as long as it makes you happy.”

Matt smiles one more time at the woman, sniffles and wipes away his tears with the back of his hand. As he turns to follow Ryzaard to the platform, he casts one more backward glance at her.

Not my mom.

His chest tightens, and his teeth come together. The skin of his face feels suddenly hot. Walking through the crowd, his eye catches on something. It seems the wrong color and strangely out of place.

He stops to take a closer look.

A brilliant jewel, two centimeters long, deep purple and the same claw shape as his Stone, is imbedded in the skin behind a man’s right ear. Matt reaches out to touch it.

He immediately pulls back. The jewel is as cold as ice.

Going from person to person in the crowd, Matt looks behind each right ear. They all have the identical implant.

With a sidelong glance at Ryzaard, his eyes narrow and he runs back to the woman. She’s still standing where he left her, looking into his eyes with an expression of love that is exactly the same as before. He gently turns her head and gazes behind her right ear.

And sees the jewel.

Just like the others. He reaches a finger out and touches its cold surface, pulling back as if he’s been bitten by a snake.

“What is this?” Matt says.

“It tells me what to do. What to think. It makes me happy all the time.” She stares into Matt’s right hand and raises a finger, pointing to the Stone in his hand. “Just like yours.”

Matt follows her eyes down to his right hand and sees his Stone, a purple glow coming from within. He releases his grip on her and holds the Stone in the upturned palm of his hand. For several seconds, he stares into it.

And then looks back to in the direction of Ryzaard.

One by one, his fingers curl around the fat end of the Stone, and he holds it like a dagger with the point facing down. He tries to hold back the word that has already formed on his tongue. With an uplifted head, he turns away from Ryzaard and looks out on the multitude. The word explodes from his mouth.

“Kneel!”

A tremor passes through the Stone.

The entire multitude sinks to their knees in unison. He slowly turns around full circle to survey the crowd. Tens of thousands of heads bow in reverence. Hanging on his words.

Ryzaard’s footsteps approach from behind.

“She’s not my mother, is she?” Matt speaks without turning around.

“She is a human, fully alive, a representation of everything your mother was. Everything she can be again. Drawn from your own memories. If only you are willing to join me.”

“I don’t want a representation. I want my mother.” All Matt’s emotions turn to rage. He takes a step back.

“Don’t do this Matt.”

“What are the implants behind their ears?”

“I sense your frustration and anger. You must be patient. There’s so much we can do together.”

Matt whips around. “You never answer my questions! Why do they all have implants?”

“The purple jewels are a direct connection to the Stones. It will help in our work.”

“You said we could take evil and suffering from the world. You said it would be Paradise.” Matt’s jaw is clenching shut, and he can’t seem to loosen it. His words flow through and around his gritted teeth. “Tell me. Is this how you do it? With mind control?”

“Evil will have no place in the world you and I will remake. We will shut it out.” Ryzaard’s eyes narrow slightly as he looks at Matt. “Peace and harmony reign. Happy thoughts. Happy actions. Everyone is content. No suffering. No misery. It’s the only way.”

Matt’s gaze goes to the Stone in his hand, the same color as the robes worn by the masses around them. The same color as the jewel implants. “But are they free?” He takes another step back and tries to tamp down the rising eruption in his chest.

“Yes.” Ryzaard smacks his lips, and the sound seems to echo in the massive chamber. “Free to choose good.”

“But not free to choose evil, or what you decide is evil. They can only choose what you allow them to choose.”

“Evil starts in the mind.” Ryzaard says. “Ideas take root there, and then they blossom and grow. The only way to defeat evil is to start at its source. To stop it at the point of conception. I know this isn’t easy, but you must try to understand.” His voice rises with a tinge of anger.

Matt grips his Stone in his hand and looks away from Ryzaard at the kneeling people. “Stand,” he says. In every direction, countless thousands come to their feet, nothing but serenity in their faces. “They don’t look free to me. Robots. Puppets, maybe. But not free. Not real.”

A long sigh escapes from Ryzaard’s lips. “You don’t understand. You are young. Freedom is a difficult concept to grasp. Some people think it means the right to do whatever you want. Freedom to kill. Freedom to destroy. That kind of freedom always leads to suffering. But there is another way, if you will only believe me and use the gift you have been given.”

The anger is pressing against Matt’s chest, ready to explode. “Kneel!” he says. In unison, everyone except him and Ryzaard drops to their knees. “They fear me.” He sees the woman next to him, the one he called mom, kneeling at his feet, eyes to the floor. “Even she fears me.”

“But she is happy.”

Holding his Stone between finger and thumb, Matt raises it to eye level, as if trying to look through it. “Stand,” he says. A hundred thousand bodies rise to their feet, looking in his direction. “Kneel!” The ocean of purple drops to the floor, heads bowed in an attitude of reverence. Matt stares back at Ryzaard with narrow slits of eyes. “You call this happiness? It’s more like slavery.”

The smile disappears from Ryzaard’s face. “Matt. Consider carefully what I offer you. Mankind has dreamed of Paradise for millennia. It is within our grasp to make it a reality if we work together. The chance to remake the world in our own image. No more pain and suffering. No more wars. No more mistakes. No more tears.”

Matt reaches down to the shoulder of the woman kneeling beside him. His arms ache to hold her again, to look into her eyes. He gently pulls her chin up, and she smiles before her eyes drift back to the floor. He reaches down and gently raises up the woman’s chin again. Gazing at her, he stares into her eyes for long seconds, paying no attention to the tears falling again from his own face. Then he bends close and kisses her on the cheek as a tremble runs through her body.

“Whoever you are, I love you,” he says in a barely audible voice. His fingers reach up and brush the cold implant behind her ear. Without a backward glance at Ryzaard, Matt stands and starts walking away through the crowd of people.

“The future of our world, and other worlds, awaits us, Matt.”

“OK, so now I’ve seen your future.” Matt’s eyes move around the vast throng in the room. His eyes focus again on the purple jewels behind everyone’s ears. “It’s a future built on force and deception. And I’m not going to have anything to do with it.”

For a moment, the corners of Ryzaard’s eyes and mouth sag on his face as if pulled down by gravity. His gaze drops to the floor, but then he shakes his head. The mouth hardens into a snarl. “You tasted the power of the Stones out there on the balcony. That’s just the beginning. And your mother, we can bring her back or recreate her, if we work together. Surely you won’t throw all this away?” Ryzaard has a white-knuckle grip on his Stone.

Matt looks down at Ryzaard’s hands. “You’re wrong. These people aren’t free. Their happiness is an illusion. They fear you.” His eyes move to the woman at his side. “They fear me. I could never live like this.”

The throng of people gathers closer as the two men talk.

“I see peace and contentment.” Ryzaard sweeps his arm over the multitude of purple robes. “Safety. Love. The hopes and dreams burning in the hearts of men and women for thousands of years, fulfilled.” Ryzaard’s voice rises at the end. “Join me for their sake.” He points a finger at the woman at Matt’s side. “For her sake.”

A thought crosses Matt’s mind. He lifts his hand up to the skin behind his ear. His fingers brush the smooth surface of an embedded jewel, cold to the touch. “Am I to be one of your slaves, too?”

“Like everything else you see here, it’s an experiment, a product of this world I’ve built to test my plans for the future of the human race. The implant simply links us together so we can use the power of the Stones as one.”

Matt turns away from Ryzaard and looks out over the multitude, all of them still kneeling. Over the sea of heads, at the far end of the hall, he can see a door open to the darkness outside. “Rise to your feet,” he says, and tens of thousands stand up. He starts walking away from Ryzaard, through the crowd of people, to the open door. “Let me pass,” he whispers. The crowd parts to the right and left as he walks through it.

“Do not try to leave, Matt.” The voice behind him is firm and commanding. “This is my world. I created it and everything in it. You need me to get back home.”

Matt keeps walking, and then starts to jog. In a few seconds, he breaks into a full sprint, heading for the open door on the other side of the room, hundreds of meters away.

“Stop him!” The voice of Ryzaard booms behind Matt. The path that had opened up before him begins to close. Hands reach out and touch him as he rushes by. It isn’t long before they are trying to grab him.

“Stand back. Let me pass,” Matt says. He raises the Stone clenched tightly in his hand. There seems to be confusion among the crowd. Most of them pull back and watch him run by.

As he runs, pain stabs from behind his ear where the jewel is embedded, and an audible voice plays inside his head.

“The choice is yours. But choose wisely. You and everything you love will be destroyed if you refuse my offer. And when you are dead, your Stone will be mine.”

Matt keeps running and is halfway to the door when he looks down at his Stone and sees that its color is growing lighter.

So that’s your theory of freedom and choice, he thinks. Follow me or die. So cliché. That’s not a world I choose to live in.

“Matt, we would have made a good team, you and I. I’m sorry it has to be this way.”

The pain around Matt’s ear shoots down his neck into his spine and radiates out in every direction. His legs go limp and he falls to the ground. A burning fire starts to consume his bones. There’s a jagged edge to his breathing. Needles pierce through his eyes from the inside. The taste of metal permeates his tongue. He forces an eye open and can see that the crowd is pulling back from him, watching him in hushed silence from the distance of several meters.

Far off through the opening in the crowd, he can hear the crisp tap-tap of shoes on the marble floor. Ryzaard is walking closer.

CHAPTER 65

Help me.

A chandelier hangs directly above Matt. He stares at it, a golden glow radiating out from its branches. Some force closes his eyes against his will. In the darkness of his mind, he sees the Woman who showed him the creation of a world, the Woman who saved his life.

Like you did when I was a kid at the bottom of Skull Pass.

The pain grows more intense. Panic seeps into his breath. Muscles refuse to move. His whole body is shutting down against his will.

Let the mind control the flesh.

As the words of his dad flow through his brain, he begins to slow the exhales and inhales.

Little by little, his breathing settles down, and the Stone grows less heavy in his hand. Willing his eyes to open, he looks again at the chandelier, using it as a point of focus to concentrate and release the pain. His muscles relax with each rise and fall of his chest.

As he grips the Stone, the pain in his body passes out through his fingertips and toes to where it’s no longer connected to him. Matt rises to his feet, opens his hand and stares into the Stone’s brilliant white interior.

Still fifty feet away, Ryzaard moves closer, but seems to be in no hurry.

Free of pain, Matt runs his fingers back through his black hair, and casts a quick glance at Ryzaard. He turns and runs to the opening to the outside.

“Where are you going?” The voice sounds again inside his mind.

Matt doesn’t answer. He keeps running. People try to approach him on his way to the opening, but he waves his arms and they move back.

“Stop and make it easy on yourself.” Ryzaard’s voice booms inside Matt’s mind, much louder now. “Reconsider what you’re doing. You cannot make it back on your own.”

Matt sprints through the open door to the outside into the darkness and finds himself on a balcony, hundreds of meters above the black plain. There’s a mass of large trees below him, the edge of a forest. But how to get down? There aren’t any magic columns for the descent.

The crisp footsteps of Ryzaard echo behind him.

His eyes fall on the white Stone in his hand. He remembers a scene from a dream. Lifting the Stone high in the air, he brings it down hard, point first, into a marble pillar that stands beside him.

The Stone sticks fast in the marble like soft clay. A beam shoots out from its brilliant white surface on a downward diagonal that ends in the trunk of a massive tree on the edge of the forest below.

It worked in the dream. Maybe it will work in this world created by Ryzaard.

There’s the sound of running footsteps behind him. He turns back to see a herd of dark shapes. Thousands of them. Somehow, the people have morphed into anthropoid apes. They rush toward him, a black flood, rage burning in their eyes.

Matt jumps onto the railing of the balcony and looks out at the vast darkness below him. A wave of beasts launch themselves in the air, lunging for his body, claws and fangs focused on his neck.

He leaps out into the night sky with outstretched hands, fingers wide apart.

Time slows down.

The white beam rises up to meet him as he falls into the darkness. His hands find it, solid, warm and smooth, like a steel rod. Cool winds brush his face and lift his dark hair as he slides to the ground.

Just like the zip-line from the top of Jasper Peak.

Twisting bodies rain down around him.

He seems to recognize one as it moves past, turning its face up to stare at him. The fangs and claws pull back. The black hair fades. The arms and legs straighten. The body becomes small, petite, human again. For an instant he sees the face of his mother, falling into the darkness below, reaching out for him.

And then she is gone.

Reigning in his emotions, he starts counting and reaches thirty as his feet touch down. The white beam buries itself into the tree trunk in front of him and resolves into the Stone. Matt pulls it out of the wood with little effort and looks back up behind him in the direction of the balcony. High above, the dark shape of Ryzaard’s silhouette stands out against the open door, hands forward on the balcony rail.

The ground is littered with broken bodies.

“Matt, don’t force me to kill you. It’s not too late to stop.” The voice grates inside his head like a bad song.

He reaches his hand up and feels the jewel imbedded in the skin behind his right ear. His fingernails dig and claw at it. Beads of blood roll down his neck. It seems to repel all attempts to tear it out. Then he raises the tip of the Stone and puts it in position just behind his ear. A sharp pain shoots down his neck as he digs it in and pushes it against the edge of the jewel. There is a pop and hiss, and then the pain instantly vanishes. Bringing the Stone down and staring at its tip, the jewel is smashed against it like a purple beetle covered in blood. A long filament of red and black fibers trails from it like a tail. Matt casts it to the ground and touches behind his ear.

Strangely, there’s no blood or trace of where the jewel has been. The skin is smooth, painless, completely healed.

Are you there? Can you hear me, old man?

No response.

At least Ryzaard is no longer inside his mind. Matt looks up once again at the building he just jumped from, towering over his head, balanced on a thin column of glass. The balcony is crowded with people, hundreds of them, standing close to the railing, looking down at him, as if they are spectators gathered at a public execution.

The sound of rushing feet draws Matt’s eyes back to ground level, and he sees shapes darting here and there under the building. He stares for a moment, until the realization that the shadows are coming closer brings him out of his reverie.

Turning his gaze to the darkness in the trees, he remembers the dreams, the black forms chasing him, hungry for the kill. It’s not just a dream anymore. Nausea touches his stomach. More footsteps sound behind him under the building. After a moment’s hesitation, he plunges past the first trees deeper into the depths of the forest.

CHAPTER 66

Kent inserts his finger into the bio-lock and feels a tingling sensation as it scans his skin and blood. It glows a pleasant shade of green, and the latch on the door opens. He enters the room, walks past boxes of electronics and climbing equipment and goes straight to his desk to open the package of Spysyn. Pulling a length of it from the spool, he stretches it between his hands and holds it up to the light. Stronger than steel and almost invisible. Great for fishing. Even better for snooping.

The whole idea came from that drug smuggler-turned-vigilante in Mexico who had befriended them so many years ago when they were on the run. With enough money to set up his own research lab, the drug lord invested in finding low-tech solutions to hi-tech problems. One of his greatest successes was devising a way to eavesdrop on police and rivals without electronics or data sniffers. The solution still brings a tingle to Kent’s spine when he thinks of it. And now he is actually going to use it for the first time.

He finds the red plastic crate and rummages through it for the miniature compressed air tank. Then he needs to figure out the right amount of zirconium oxide resin for the tip of the line that the carrying device will ferry across the open space and stick to the outside glass of the MX Global building. Too much resin and the subtle vibrations in the line will be too dampened to get a good reading. Too little and the tip will not stick. Wind and humidity also play into it. Taking a deep breath, he lets all the variables and potential problems float away and simply focuses on the task at hand. It may take a few tries to get it right, but it will work out. He’s already practiced on the neighbors at home. This will be the same, just on a bigger scale. The thermal imaging will tell him exactly where to target the carrying device, but it won’t be done for several hours.

He has all the time in the world to do it right.

First, Kent has to make a hole in the window. Using a carbon-tipped cutter, he works for more than an hour. At last, he eases the round plug of glass out and holds his breath, half expecting an alarm to ring and police to burst through the door behind him. But nothing happens. He turns the extracted piece over in his hands and marvels at its structural strength, much thinner than he expected.

“DSM ceramics,” he mutters to himself. “Harder than tungsten.”

With his face close to the hole, the damp outside air rushes in, bringing the smells and sounds of the city. He jumps to his feet and walks around the office to dip into multiple boxes for the hardened plastic parts he scattered and hid before leaving Colorado. He lays them out on a small open space on the floor. Within a few minutes the assembled crossbow is on the table by the window. Only twenty-seven inches long, he decides it will do just fine.

Now for the payload. He reaches for the Spysyn fish line and unwinds a small length. The acrylic sensor, barely the size of a snowflake, is easy to attach to the end of the line with a jeweler’s loop and some liquid silk. He applies a tiny drop of zirconium oxide resin to the sensor’s surface. The target is exactly fifty-one meters away, so he calibrates the carrying device on the crossbow to fifty meters and puts the sensor in a tiny cup on the end. He unwinds fifty-three meters of fish line, barely feeling it in his fingers and feeds it through the hole in the window, allowing the invisible line to hang loosely down the side of the building. Then he carefully positions the crossbow on its tripod and engages the launch mechanism. In less than five minutes he is ready to slide the nose of the crossbow through the hole in the window.

Time for a test firing.

The results of the thermal imaging will tell him exactly where the areas of greatest activity are inside the 175th floor of the MX Global building. Then he can target those areas with the listening device. But the results are still hours away, so he picks a random spot near the middle of the floor for a test run.

After peering through the scope and tweaking the angle slightly, he releases the electronic safety, sights down the crossbow again, inhales a breath and holds it.

His index finger taps the trigger.

The sound of compressed air explodes out of the back of the crossbow. The carrying device disappears and shoots across the chasm between the two buildings with the sensor balanced on its tip. One meter from the outer skin of the MX Global building, the carrying device reaches the end and snaps back, releasing the sensor on the end of the fishing line to travel the final meter through the air. It attaches itself to the glass-like surface. Or so Kent hopes.

With the weightless fishing line in his hands, he pulls gently on it, confirming that the sensor is in place. It will stay attached for several days or until he triggers the sonic wave that will cause it to disintegrate, whichever comes first.

Now for the fun part.

He runs the line into the Turing Box and turns on the voice recognition algorithm. It takes a minute to self-calibrate and filter out all mechanical vibrations and distortion coming from the ventilation system and elevators, the music playing from jaxes throughout the building, the beeps and rings of slates on every desk, the breeze blowing across the line. From the readings on the box, it’s clear this level of the building, the 175th floor, holds an unusually high density of mechanical and digital equipment. It takes several minutes, but the box is able to find the human voices, and then clarify and amplify them.

According to the readout, there are four people speaking. Kent turns up the volume and feeds the sound into his earplugs so he can hear the voices as clearly as if he were in the same room. At first, it’s a confusion of multiple speakers, but by trial and error, he identifies a specific conversation and eliminates the unrelated voices.

“Any word from Ryzaard?” The blue screen on the box does an automatic voiceprint assay and says the speaker is a male, late teens, with a high probability that he’s from the South Pacific islands.

“Not yet.” This is a female voice, mid twenties, with a tone that registers Chinese ancestry. “He’s only been gone five hours. He’s good, but don’t expect him to get it done that quickly.”

“What if he doesn’t find the kid?”

“Don’t worry.” It’s the Chinese female again. “He will. You’ve seen how he operates. Everything planned to the Nth degree with multiple backups and contingencies.” She’s clearly in charge. “Have you seen him fail at anything yet?”

“Do you think Ryzaard will kill him? With his own hands?” The male voice laughs.

The female voice clears her throat. “That’s the plan. Without hesitation. He’s done it before. Unless there’s been a change.”

“What about the girl?”

“If he has to kill the boy, I’m sure she’ll be next.” The Chinese female doesn’t sound too upset about the prospect.

“Too bad. I thought she was cute, for a white girl.”

“I’d drop any ideas you might have. She’s totally out of your league. If the two of them don’t cooperate, they’ll end up in the concrete foundation of a new building down around Battery Street. Now get back to work and stop bothering me. Last I checked, you have a first name for the boy and a lead on his father. You better find out exactly who they are and everything about them before Ryzaard gets back.”

The hair rises on the back of Kent’s neck. He listens for another five minutes, but the human voices have gone silent.

The short conversation confirms his suspicions about corporate intrigue. Ryzaard, the new President and CEO of MX SciFin, is already plotting murder.

Kent smiles to himself. He’s struck gold on the first try.

CHAPTER 67

After an hour of running, Matt’s tired and dirty and sweaty. Ten or fifteen meters behind, he hears the constant sound of breaking branches and heavy breathing. Glancing backward, multiple pairs of yellow eyes burn in the darkness. The air feels moist, dead, heavy.

And then all goes still.

Up ahead, the forest seems to finally end. When he gets to the edge and breaks free of the trees, the same monolithic building he escaped from rises up before him, just as he left it, except for one thing. No sounds, no people.

Somehow, Matt has run in a circle and come back to where he started.

“Ryzaard!” he shouts up at the balcony. “I’m here.”

Silence.

Matt runs to the glass column under the building and stands beside it, not knowing what to do. It lights up and opens, just like before, and he enters. Closing around him, the column pushes him up into its interior as the color inside changes from dark blue to violet to pink. When the glass opens, he steps out into the same square room with a golden floor and walls. He runs to the open double doors and out onto the platform.

A single chandelier is lit up directly over his head. The great ballroom is empty, filled only with dim light and cold.

“Where are you?” he shouts into the emptiness.

No answer.

A sparkle of purple catches his eye. He looks closer and sees the ear implant, the one he cast away, lying on the floor a few paces away, misshapen and flat, like a crushed termite. A long red tendril, soaked in blood, is still attached. His fingers reach down to pick it up.

At the instant of contact, there’s a flash of light that leaves a green afterimage.

Matt tries to open his eyes, but he’s overcome by rolling waves of nausea broken up by explosions of pain into his back and up his vertebrae. It feels as if an unseen stranger is ramming a white-hot wire through his spinal cord, burning and tearing all the way from his coccyx to the base of his skull. He tries to reach around to feel the lower lumbar region, thinking that perhaps he’s been stabbed by a knife or shot, but his hand will not move. Finally, he figures out that he is sitting in a chair, strapped to it by his wrists and ankles.

His first instinct is to fight back the pain with controlled breathing, like he did before, but all he can do is wheeze and gasp for air. Summoning all his strength and focus, he manages to open one eye for a few seconds before it snaps shut.

It is enough to confirm the location. He is back in Professor Yamamoto’s office.

The muffled sound of surf beats on a distant beach. The sound becomes a lifeline, and he holds on to it like a sailor thrown overboard in a violent hurricane. After another long struggle, he manages to open a slit in his eye.

“Welcome back,” Ryzaard says, standing a few paces away in the middle of the office. The same Yakuza goons are at the door behind him, looking like wax figures. “You were gone a long time. It gave me a chance to tidy up a bit. There are just a couple of loose ends to take care of, and I’ll be on my way.” Ryzaard walks to the window where Professor Yamamoto sits motionless in a chair.

With every heartbeat, the pain pulses down Matt’s back in great surges of agony, leaving him unable to hold his head up for long. The nausea in his stomach reaches the breaking point, and he retches a pool of green liquid onto his lap. Rivers of stinging bile flow back down his throat. The raw intensity of it makes it impossible to string together coherent thoughts. His mind is mired down in a swamp of quicksand, unable to move.

One word manages to escape and floats somewhere in his brain.

Jessica…

He struggles to open his mouth and speak her name, but it’s as if an iron vice has been slapped on his jaw and holds it shut.

Matt feels the presence of Ryzaard coming close and standing over him, but he is unable to lift his head to look Ryzaard in the eye.

“Don’t worry about her,” Ryzaard says. “She’ll be coming with me. I’ll take good care of her.”

Ryzaard stops talking. Matt can hear him breathe.

And then Ryzaard’s knuckles smash against the side of Matt’s head.

But he hardly feels the blow.

More than that, he fears what Ryzaard said about Jessica. His back arches and strains against the tape around his wrists and ankles, knowing there’s no chance that he will break free. Explosions rake against the inside of his skull.

Ryzaard turns his back to Matt. “Your girl may still prove useful, don’t you think?” He chuckles. “Perhaps she can introduce me to your father.”

At the mention of his dad, Matt fights to get words out into the air. After sustained effort, he manages to force his lips and tongue to move enough to utter one word.

“Dead,” Matt says. One eye opens to see if Ryzaard bought the lie.

The sound of the surf is growing more distant.

“Good try. But I already know about Kent Tiberius Newmark.” Ryzaard pulls a jax out of a pocket and scans the bluescreen. “Graduated from Columbia Law School in the top five of his class. Went to work at Myers & Sullivan in Midtown Manhattan. Made partner in record time. Disappeared twelve years ago on the same day your mother died a most gruesome death. It seems her car was flattened by a large transport. Such a tragedy. His ten-year-old son disappeared with him. They traveled the world, went off-grid.” He looks deep into Matt’s face. “Sound familiar?”

Matt’s eyes drop to the floor, exhausted by his attempts to talk and unable to speak anymore.

Reaching into his tweed jacket, Ryzaard comes out with a pair of thin white surgeon’s gloves. With a snap, he pulls them on. “It doesn’t really matter. I just thought you’d like to know who I’ll be looking for next.” He fishes around in his pocket and draws out an old leather sheath and dagger, holding it up to show Matt. “I always carry it with me, for good luck.”

The smell of oil and wood floats faintly into Matt’s nostrils. He sees the weapon and tries to move his arms, but it’s no use. They feel like wooden bats hanging from his shoulders.

Ryzaard grasps the handle of the knife and slides it away from the leather, admiring the blade as it catches the sunlight from the window. Like a mirror, it reflects the glare into Matt’s eyes and sets off new cloudbursts of pain in his head. “I got it as a young man on the day my luck changed permanently for the better.” He walks toward Matt. “I’ve carried it with me ever since.”

Trying to shut out all that is external so he can focus on the storm of pain in his spine and skull, Matt thinks only about breathing. A desperate need to use the Stone consumes his thoughts. It’s his only chance.

Ryzaard seems to understand what Matt is thinking. “Too late for that, Matt. The drugs I injected into your body a few minutes ago will make it impossible to use the Stone. You need a clear head for that. It’s an old trick I learned many years ago. Anyway, it shouldn’t matter. You decided you don’t want the power I offered you. Remember?” He stands over Matt with his hands on his hips. “Now you’ll have to live, and die, with your decision.” Ryzaard shakes his head from side to side and stares out the window at the nearby tree.

He has the look of a man working hard to suppress a rising urge to kill.

It doesn’t work.

Ryzaard’s hand jumps forward and grasps Matt’s hair, pulling it back viciously and exposing his neck. The other hand raises the dagger to his skin and presses the tip of the naked blade into the soft tissue.

Matt feels the crimson line trickle down from the wound.

Ryzaard speaks through clenched teeth. “It really is a mystery. How could you turn down everything I offered you?”

Throwing the question out seems to calm him, and he waits patiently for Matt to find words.

As his head shakes uncontrollably, Matt feels the biting pain of his teeth cutting into his tongue. He fights to speak and finally manages to whisper. “Changed my mind. Join you.”

Ryzaard grins. “Too late for that.” He presses the blade a millimeter deeper into Matt’s neck. “I made the offer, promised you everything. You rejected it, rejected me. Even if you accept the offer now, how could I ever trust you?” He pulls the dagger back from Matt’s neck and raises the blade up, rubbing his thumb back and forth on the handle.

Matt inhales and holds his breath. He thinks of the Woman he saw up on the mountain.

Please… help.

Ryzaard exhales slowly, lets go of Matt and turns to walk back in the direction of Professor Yamamoto. “He was a good man, the professor. But you see, that’s just the problem. The world is full of good men who make no difference. It’s something I had hoped to teach you. It’s not enough to be good. Goodness alone is mediocre and weak. It produces nothing. To really make a difference in the world, you need power and the will to use it, no matter the cost.”

Ryzaard bends down to the floor and picks up the shattered bits of the memory crystal. “I’m sure you know what this is. Our good professor destroyed it before I could review the full contents of his work, the research I paid for.” With both hands, he grabs the lapels of Yamamoto’s suit coat and with ease lifts his body like a ragdoll up from the chair and drops him back down. Professor Yamamoto’s head and arms hang back, utterly devoid of movement.

With his dagger poised just a couple of feet from the professor’s chest, Ryzaard looks down and nods. “He showed me where his loyalties lie when he destroyed the memory cube. Just as you did when you refused to join me.” Ryzaard leans down and puts his mouth to the professor’s ear. “Sorry old friend, but you deserve this.” His words are loud enough for Matt to hear.

Matt senses what Ryzaard is about to do. “Don’t…” He fights to throw out the word, helplessness overwhelming him.

Taking one look at Matt, Ryzaard raises an eyebrow and thrusts the blade deep into the left side of Yamamoto’s chest. There’s a sound like a ripping watermelon. He pulls it out slowly and plunges the blade into the professor’s chest three more times.

Through the pain, Matt raises his head and turns to look squarely at Ryzaard. The professor has four gaping slits in his white shirt. Inside each one, there are glimpses of bright red flesh, but not a drop of blood.

“He won’t feel much pain. When we return to real-time, the heart muscle will be too damaged to move. Death will follow quickly. Quite merciful, don’t you think?”

Jessica’s body is draped over a chair next to the professor. The tip of Ryzaard’s dagger is poised a couple of feet away.

With every ounce of remaining energy, Matt’s thoughts cry out to the Woman he saw on the hilltop.

Please, don’t let him kill her.

Ryzaard turns away from Jessica. He picks Matt’s jax off the table and walks to the office door, stopping in front of the two Yakuza men guarding the entrance. “They’ve seen too much.” Without another word, he stabs them both in the chest as they stand like oil paintings in a museum. Without cleaning the blade of its bright stain, he carefully puts the dagger back in its sheath and slips it into his pocket. As he opens the door, he turns to Matt. “Feel free to keep them all in null-time as long as you want. Technically, they’re still alive and well. I guess that makes you at least partly responsible for their deaths.” He walks out the open door, and then turns back. “Sorry. I almost forgot the best part.”

Matt struggles through jagged surges of pain to hear the sound of the surf. It’s farther away than before, but he still manages to hold on with a thin thread of consciousness. His drooping eyelids lift, and he looks at Ryzaard standing in the doorway, smiling. “Why?” says Matt.

Ryzaard puts both hands into his suit pockets and pulls them out. In his left hand he holds the pen-like device he pressed against Matt’s neck earlier. In his right hand he holds Matt’s Stone. “I’ll put it to good use.” He points the pen squarely at Matt and presses his thumb on a small raised stub, pushing it down with a satisfying click.

At the same instant, something moves inside Matt’s neck near a main artery.

“You have five minutes of life before that tiny capsule I implanted empties its contents into your bloodstream.” Ryzaard bends his lips into a half smile. “Try to enjoy it.” With that, Ryzaard turns and walks out the door.

A split second later, a new and distinct stab of pain shoots through a nerve along the length of his neck and through his spine. It feels like an electric shock is branching off into every corner and cell of his body.

The connection to the thin thread of sound made by the surf on a distant beach is severed, slipping from his mind like water through a sieve. A wave of cicada buzzing pierces through the window.

Matt is back in real time.

Through blurred vision, he sees the two Yakuza thugs clutch their chests and pull away with hands stained crimson. Seconds later, they collapse to the floor. Professor Yamamoto’s head drops down loosely and blood pours out a few inches below his chin, soaking the lower half of his white shirt on its way to a puddle on the floor.

Matt arches his back, raises his eyes to the ceiling and opens his mouth wide. His body strains against the tape holding his wrists until it cuts into his skin. As his thoughts turn to Jessica, air rushes out of his lungs with the sound of a thousand dying dreams.

CHAPTER 68

Ryzaard steps outside the professor’s office, shuts the door and walks down the hall to the restroom. He enters quickly and, finding it empty, locks the door behind him. After the flight over and the events of the afternoon, he has a sudden hunger for miso and garlic. There is a ramen restaurant just a block away from the university main gate with its promise of long noodles basking in salty broth, crispy fried garlic gyoza resting on the side. While Matt’s life drains out, Ryzaard can rest at the restaurant and then jump back to the airport for the flight home. His fingers swim into his pocket and caress the rough surface of Matt’s Stone.

Two Stones. Just the beginning.

With a smile, he closes his eyes so he can see the bookstore next door to the ramen shop. His mind moves through the floor plan, searching for a quiet, empty space. He wills himself there. For half a second, the world falls away and he feels the familiar sensation of motion.

As the motion stops, he opens his eyes and is standing in front of the mirror in the bookstore restroom. After relieving himself, he walks out into the store, through the aisles crowded with college age youth and out the front door. The aroma of garlic and ginger pull him ten meters down the sidewalk and through the red noren curtain that hangs across the entrance.

By the time he sits down at the counter and puts in his order, his appetite is raging to the point of frenzy. There is a long two-minute wait, and then steady hands place a steaming bowl under his nose. He hunkers down with chopsticks in hand to devour the contents. When the plate of gyoza arrives, he dumps them all into the bowl with a splash.

Judging from their stares, the university students in the ramen shop are marveling at the skill of the old gaijin in the art of slurp and burp.

He drains the last of the broth and puts the bowl down with the chopsticks lying across the top. With a full belly, an exhale of satisfaction flows out between his lips. A glance at the digital clock on the wall tells him that the capsule implanted in Matt’s neck has burrowed its way into his carotid artery and injected twenty cc’s of pure distilled water, killing him in seconds and leaving no trace in his bloodstream for the police lab technicians to find.

With the former holder of the Stone now dead, it’s time for him to bond with it and forge a link that will remain until Ryzaard’s mortality reaches its end. Luckily for him, the accumulation of Stones will make it possible to put that time off to the far future, perhaps indefinitely. With a half grin on his face, he decides it would be fitting to bond with the Stone in the ramen shop on a full stomach. But there is a sudden lightness in the pocket of his tweed jacket. He reaches into the familiar space.

The Stone is gone.

Abruptly standing up from the counter, Ryzaard scatters the chopsticks and knocks the empty ramen bowl onto the floor where it shatters and attracts the eyes of the other patrons. He rushes to the exit without stopping to pay.

Not dead. Not dead. Not dead.

Like a mantra, he repeats the words over and over, as if trying to drive away an evil spirit.

Once outside, he hurries to the crowded book store next door, elbows his way through a thick crowd of young people staring up at bluescreens on the ceiling. When he is in the restroom in the back, he chooses the middle of three empty stalls.

After taking a moment to catch his breath, he clears his mind, closes his eyes and focuses on the image of Professor Yamamoto’s office. With practiced skill, he wills himself there. All around him goes black for an instant, and then he disappears from the bathroom stall in a flash of light and reappears standing next to the table in the professor’s office. It takes a few seconds for his eyes to adjust to the new surroundings, and he turns to the chair where he left the boy less than ten minutes ago.

Then he drops slowly to his knees.

Matt is gone. The tape that was on his wrists and ankles still hangs idly in place on the chair.

CHAPTER 69

The gentle buzzing of the Turing Box forces Kent’s eyes to open. The thermal image scan is complete. He rolls off the mattress onto the floor and rubs his eyes. It has taken longer than planned, but the results will give him a good idea of the human and mechanical activity on the 175th floor of the MX Global building, enough at least to know where to start listening.

He puts the Turing Box on the desk. Brushing its bluescreen, he observes the TurBo passing through the colors of the spectrum, starting with deep red and moving through pink, yellow, green and blue, ending with purple. As he stares at the screen, the colors mix until shapes that vaguely resemble the layout of an office building floor begin to form. He taps fingers on the bluescreen, confirming that all the data overlays are complete.

The TurBo is good at collecting raw data from the thermal scan, but now he needs customized algorithms to analyze and organize what he’s picked up, algorithms that do not come installed on the TurBo.

He taps the screen and sprays the unscrubbed data to his slate for further analysis.

But where is the slate?

Sleep is still hanging heavy on his eyes, and his frantic search for the slate takes a full minute as a terror-induced sweat drenches his T-shirt. Just when he’s sure that he accidently left it outside his office during one of his excursions and that someone will pick it up and link all the data to him, he finds it under a large plastic carton of Chinese take-out.

The data analysis is a slow process, but by late afternoon he has a fairly complete picture of the 175th floor across the street.

And it looks like he hit the jackpot.

He leans back and studies the final product on the slate’s bluescreen, a diagram of the floor with a line drawn neatly down the middle at the point where the elevators open, dividing it into two equal sections, an east wing and a west wing. The west wing is filled with work stations arranged in a circle around a central meeting room in typical retro-corporate style. Based on heat signatures, it’s got an unusual concentration of bluescreens and electronic equipment, more indicative of a research lab than a business office.

The east side of the building tells a different story. It’s entirely devoid of the telltale signs of high energy consumption and the heat output of electronics. In fact, it consists mostly of empty space, with only one long office on its outside edge looking out to the old Brooklyn Bridge. A long corridor connects that lone office to the work area on the west side.

It is clear from the layout that whoever occupies the lone office wants privacy and isolation and is in a position to demand it, in spite of the high price of office space in Midtown Manhattan. And they are not keen on surrounding themselves with wall-to-wall hi-tech gadgetry. Put those facts together, and it points to only one conclusion: the head of the organization, an old man, occupies that office.

Kent smiles with the knowledge that he has finally found the office of the new President and CEO of MX SciFin, Dr. Mikal Ryzaard.

CHAPTER 70

Matt knows he is dreaming.

He can tell by the murky fog that hangs all around and the muffled sound of a man’s voice that floats loosely through his consciousness, never quite taking hold. It has a general quality of urgency as it rises and falls in spikes that jolt him halfway out of relaxation, only to let him fall back into that contented place from which he does not want to move.

The fog thins out, and the head of a massive snake floats into the corner of his eye. It must be part of the dream. Nothing to be afraid of. Large fangs glisten near his neck, which is resting comfortably on a white pillow. There is only a slight pricking sensation as the fangs sink into his moist flesh. Bliss and repose take over. He gives himself up to the overpowering need for sleep within the dream.

But sleep does not come.

Through closed eyes, his sight is drawn inside his body. A black sphere moves slowly across his line of vision from left to right against a white background. He knows the sphere has entered his body from the outside, and it’s trying to get to a large blood vessel on the far right that resembles a tree with multiple branches. If the sphere makes contact with the blood vessel, the sphere will open and release a poison that will flow through his body and instantly kill him.

The black sphere was put there by Ryzaard.

But Matt is not afraid. Dying means rest, and he is utterly exhausted and tired of fighting, tired of living, tired of trying. Relaxation takes over as he gives himself up to the inevitable end of life.

Then there is a bone-jarring flash. Lightning seems to strike only a few inches away and startles him.

Okiro! Okiro!

Someone is yelling at him to wake up, shouting in Japanese. It’s a man’s voice, the same one he heard earlier in the dream. He tries to ignore it, to block it out. It fades for a time, and then comes back, this time louder and more insistent.

Omae, Okiro!

The black sphere is only a hair’s breadth from touching its target. Matt looks at its round shape and wants to separate himself from it, to look away, to ignore it. But he can’t. He reaches out just before the sphere kisses the thin wall of the blood vessel and finds that he can move it back. But it takes great effort, and it is easier to ignore the whole thing and just let it go.

Okiro!

The voice tries to wake him. It does not want the sphere to finish its work. The voice is telling him to pull the sphere back so it never reaches its goal.

Matt trusts the voice. He decides to help it.

Mustering as much strength as he can in the dream fog that envelops him, he reaches out and pushes the sphere away. His hands feel heavy, and the effort saps his strength, leaving him drained and empty. A part of him wants to cease the struggle, to find rest.

But he makes a choice.

He ignores the part of him that wants to give up. He chooses to focus on the voice that wants him to live. With all his effort, he follows the voice and moves the sphere back until it has gone far to the left out of his line of vision. When he sees it no more, he collapses back in on himself, unsure of whether he has succeeded.

He feels like a rocket that has exhausted its fuel and, failing to reach escape velocity, rests in momentary motionlessness before the long descent back to earth. His head is heavy, and he relaxes his shoulders and neck, allowing gravity to pull on him, giving him a sense of falling, of letting go. But there is no fear in the falling. A lush green meadow stretches out below him, drawing him down. In his dream state, he turns to face it and opens his arms wide to receive the impact. When it comes, there is no pain, only intense white light. On the edge of his field of vision, colors emerge and sounds are born out of the silence. There are birds chirping, insects buzzing, the wind dancing with leaves in the trees. It all begins as something far away and then, with gathering intensity, draws close until he finds himself at its center. The fragrance of cedar wood and wild flowers fills his nostrils.

Matt breathes in and opens his eyes.

A blue circle of sky opens through the trees above him. Wisps of clouds float across the expanse. He lies still for a long time savoring the feeling. No pain, no struggle, no need to think. Rest at last. His eyes drop down. The only motion comes from the rise and fall of his chest.

But the presence of another wakes him, and his eyelids float open.

An old man stands over him, wearing a stiff white robe down to his ankles, with generous sleeves that drape almost to his knees.

Matt studies the man, the wide furrows on his forehead, the thin mustache drifting down over full lips that end in a mischievous twist at each end. Thick eyebrows of gray hang over large brown eyes that tapper out to the edges. There is a look of profound concern on the face. It reminds him of the look on his Japanese grandfather’s face when Matt was seven and blacked out after jumping out of a tree and slamming his head into the ground.

Daijoubu kai?” As the old man speaks and leans closer to Matt’s face, the folds of his robes brush Matt’s chest. “Are you all right?”

Matt opens his mouth to speak, but his throat feels like he has swallowed a cup of fine, white flour, and no sound comes out. An enormous hand slips under his neck and raises his head. Another hand brings a clear tube of blue liquid to his lips. As the end goes into his mouth, it floods his tongue with the sugary taste of shaved ice he remembers from the long, hot summers of his childhood spent in Japan.

He pauses for a moment as the refreshing liquid runs down his throat. “Arigato.” Matt sits up and stares around the mountain clearing.

“My favorite drink,” says the old man. “It still gets me up in the morning.” Matt detects a northern accent in the man’s rough Japanese.

The clearing looks familiar. Cedar trees mixed with pine, white dokudami flowers carpeting the ground, their petals open to the sky, and a large boulder with a flat top squarely in the middle. Matt’s eyes narrow. “How did I get here?” He gazes up into the dark eyes peering down at him.

“No time to talk,” the old man says.

There’s an aching soreness in Matt’s wrists and ankles. Trembling fingers run back and forth over the chaffed skin as he struggles to remember how the marks got there. His mind is like an empty bucket, shot through with holes, water draining out the bottom and sides. As if acting on its own, his right hand drops into a side pocket, and the fingers wrap comfortably around a hard object. He pulls out the Stone and opens his palm.

As soon as Matt sees it, something stirs within his mind. A cascade of memories pour in. In an instant, he sees Professor Yamamoto’s office, Ryzaard standing over the professor in triumph, the dagger plunging into his chest four times, the white shirt stained crimson, Jessica slumped over in her chair, out of Matt’s reach. He shoots a glance at the old man and falls back out of fear until he bumps against the boulder, unable to move further away. Holding the Stone at arm’s length, he grips it like the hilt of a long sword, pointing the tip at the old man.

“Who are you?” Matt’s voice trembles.

“No need to fear, my young Holder of a Stone.” The old man smiles and takes two quick steps in Matt’s direction. “But this must be concealed for now.” In a flash, a long staff appears from out of the thick folds of the man’s robe and sweeps past Matt as a puff of hot air brushes his face.

Matt looks down at his hand and sees that it is empty. “My Stone,” he says. “Give it back!” He lunges forward, hands outstretched.

The mysterious man steps to the side and deftly works his staff into the middle of Matt’s ankles and knees, sending him sprawling to the ground, a confused tangle of arms and legs. Matt lands softly in a mass of vegetation and rolls until his movement is stopped by the trunk of a pine tree.

“He killed Professor Yamamoto. He still has Jessica!” Matt’s eyes open wide. The full realization of what Ryzaard might do to her hits him with the force of a baseball bat between his eyes. “I have to go—”

“No time for that. As long as you are alive, he will not harm her.” The man in the robe turns and walks out of the clearing back to the main trial. “Now get up and follow me.”

CHAPTER 71

Ryzaard stands on his feet, still staring at the empty chair.

Impossible.

There’s no way the boy could have jumped himself out of the office, not in the condition he was in. It had taken Ryzaard years of practice to hone his jumping ability, and even now it required careful concentration and mental exertion. He had injected Matt with enough hydrizal to keep every neuron in his nervous system firing for the next three days. And the assassin’s bullet in Matt’s neck should have released its payload and killed him within minutes even if he was able to manage a jump.

For the first time in many years, Ryzaard feels his age. He walks to the door with slow steps, noticing on the way that his shoulders are stooping forward. It’s an old habit he picked up back in the death camps as a teenager, and he finds himself reverting back to it whenever defeat and frustration threaten to overtake him. With visible effort, he straightens his spine, thrusts his chest out and pulls his shoulders back.

His fingers find the Stone, and he jumps into the shadows of an empty hangar at the Sapporo Airport.

Walking out of the hangar, he moves into the fading evening light to the MX SciFin transport still idling its engines on the tarmac.

Through the window, Alexa sees him coming and reads the failure in his gait. She steels herself for his arrival.

He enters the cabin, moves down the aisle and drops into a seat across from her, looking blankly out the window and exhaling audibly.

Alexa knows that Ryzaard is used to winning, so she doesn’t dare ask about the details of the last few hours. It pains her to see him slumping in his chair like an agglomeration of mud and rocks balanced precariously on the side of a mountain, waiting for the slightest disturbance to send it into a headlong plunge to the valley below.

Pulling himself up in his chair, Ryzaard finally breaks the silence. “I’ve never seen anything like him. Either I have severely underestimated his abilities, or he has someone helping him.”

Alexa waits for a few seconds. “Where is he now?”

“I have no idea. He just vanished, along with the Stone.”

“He already knows how to leap?” Alexa knows she is treading on thin ice by asking questions.

“Jump. It’s called jumping. It would appear so. Either that, or someone else is jumping him.”

“The Allehonen, perhaps?”

Ryzaard’s eyes narrow to slits. “I don’t want to hear that word from your lips again. Do you understand me?”

Alexa’s face goes crimson. “Sorry.” It wasn’t her intent to make him made. They way he looks at her, anything she says will enrage him.

She resolves to remain silent.

As if regretting his outburst, Ryzaard speaks more softly this time. “They don’t work that way, my dear. They rarely interfere directly in our world. It does not serve their twisted purposes. They prefer to sit back and watch us suffer. That is why I hate them.”

“Another Holder perhaps?” Alexa ventures a bold guess. “Someone we don’t know about. A potential rival.” She winces, regretting her words again, knowing that even the suggestion of such a thing risks sparking Ryzaard’s rage.

“Unlikely but not impossible. Intriguing thought.” Ryzaard’s gaze moves outside through the window.

“We continue the hunt, I assume.”

“Absolutely. There are only two possible paths. Track him down. Or force him to come to us. We will pursue both strategies simultaneously and see which works first.” Ryzaard looks out the window as the jet transport lifts off the ground. “Call Diego Lopez and have him restart the tracking algorithm, focusing first on an area within 1,000 klicks of here. If that doesn’t work, widen the search area.” He stands and places an organic-looking cylindrical object on the table. “This is the boy’s jax. Give it to Kalani as soon as we get back. I want him to strip it clean of data. We may pick up some leads.” Ryzaard stretches his back and arms. “I’ll be in my personal quarters until we get back to the City. Don’t disturb me. I need to rest.” He walks to the front of the plane and then stops to turn back and face Alexa. “The girl will be arriving shortly on a delivery from our Yakuza friends. They won’t be happy about the loss of a couple of their comrades, but pay no attention. It’s all being blamed on Matt. As for the girl, she’s still under heavy sedation. I’m placing her under your fulltime personal care.”

Alexa nods. “I’ll make sure she gets another round of Sleepmax. It’ll help her forget the last twenty-four hours.”

“Good idea.” He turns and walks away. “We’ll need her later.”

CHAPTER 72

Who is this guy?

Just in front of Matt, the enigmatic old man flows effortlessly down the trail in his white robes, staff in hand, as if his feet are barely touching the ground. Halfway down the mountain, Matt’s head begins to clear, and he realizes the old man is wearing the stylized garb of a Shinto priest.

Each time he attempts to speak to the man, Matt is answered with only the wave of a hand, a few grunts and a stony silence.

At the bottom of the trail, Matt is utterly exhausted, but the man is barely winded. They walk through the grass and pass under the large torii gate, where the priest abruptly halts and holds up his hand. Within seconds, a black car with dark windows pulls up to the curb, and the rear door pops open.

To Matt, the vehicle bears an uncanny resemblance to a tricked-out Yakuza car. As he turns to run away, a powerful hand grabs his shoulders.

Isshou ni norinasai.

Hearing the command to get in, Matt feels himself being pushed headlong into the dark interior of the backseat, and the old man gets in behind him. The rear door seals shut, and Matt’s ears pop at the sudden increase in pressure. The car floats down the road to the sound of a low frequency motor-tone. It seeps up through the seats and settles in his chest. He sits up to look around. An opaque sheet of glass separates the back seat from the front, and all he can do is make out the vague figure of a driver. The car turns left and heads to the main road.

“I have to go back.” Matt glares at his captor as rage flares in his chest. “He killed Professor Yamamoto, and he’s going to kill Jessica. I have to go after her.” He thinks again of Ryzaard plunging the dagger into the professor’s chest, and nausea pools in his belly.

The old man shakes his head. “The professor was a good man, an old acquaintance. I take partial responsibility for his death. I should have acted sooner to protect him. Ryzaard moved more quickly than I expected. But it’s too late now and can’t be helped.” His head goes back against the seat, and his eyes drop down. “You must stay with me. Ryzaard has gone back to New York City with this girl you call Jessica. As long as you are alive and away from him, he will not harm her. She is the bait to lure you into a trap. If you go to Ryzaard now, he will kill you and her. The only way to keep her alive is to stay away.”

“Why should I believe you?” Matt’s mind is racing to comprehend all that has happened in the past hour, all that he has lost. “Where are you taking me?”

The old man goes suddenly silent. He calmly faces forward with a stony expression, as if he knows nothing about dragging Matt down from the mountain and throwing him into the backseat of an ominous black car.

Matt’s hands slowly curl into fists. “Who are you?”

Ochitsukinasai. Relax.” The man speaks in a strong Northern Japanese accent and has as much expression as a stone statue on Easter Island. “I am taking you back to the shrine with me for your safety. Unless you would rather have Rzyaard kill you now.”

“My Stone.” Matt stares at the old man, studying the gray fringe around a balding head, the unblemished skin and the dark eyes more clearly now. “Where is it?”

The man’s hand disappears into the folds of his robe and reappears with a small box on an open palm. It has a dull gray surface that reminds Matt of the color and texture of the giant granite boulders he often climbed in Powder Puff Basin.

“As long as it stays inside this box, your Stone will be hidden from Ryzaard.” He places the box back into the deep folds of his rob, and then stretches out a large hand and places it on Matt’s knee. “You must trust me, Matthew Newmark. Ryzaard intends to kill you. He almost succeeded. This was extracted from your neck just in time.” The old man opens the palm of his other hand and reveals a black capsule with small flecks of red on it. With his thumb and index finger, he pinches the capsule until it bursts, spraying a clear liquid around the inside of the car.

Matt touches his neck and feels a stab of pain as he brushes past a tender spot. “In Professor Yamamoto’s office, Ryzaard said I only had five minutes to live. I felt it moving deeper, toward the artery.” A shudder runs through his body as he recalls the events of the past hour. “You pulled me out of the professor’s office. Brought me to the mountaintop. Extracted the capsule before I died.” Matt looks down at his knees.

“We did all that together. I helped a little, but you did most of the work keeping the capsule away from the artery, in spite of the pain Ryzaard inflicted. Magnificent.” The old man’s rigid face cracks into a smile. “You are stronger than you think. I can help you learn more about the Stone. You will need it.”

Matt looks up. “How do you know about the Stone?”

“I have some experience.” The old man opens the palm of his hand and stares into Matt’s eyes.

There, in the old man’s hand, is a claw-shaped rock, mostly dark purple with a distinct shape.

“The Yasakani no Magatama.” Matt whispers the words to himself.

The old man’s eyebrows lift. “You know of the Magatama Jewel?”

“I saw a picture of it in Professor Yamamoto’s office.”

“Ah, yes. The only photograph ever taken.” The old man’s eyes drop down, and he puts the Stone back into the recesses of his robe.

“You’re the one who holds the Magatama for the Emperor?”

“Yes.” The old man grins. “The professor must have told you.”

“Why do you have it?”

“To keep it safe. The way it has been for more than two thousand years.” The old man rests his head on the back seat and exhales a long, deep breath. “No more questions. We have many hours to travel, and you need rest. Close your eyes. Sleep.”

Matt fumbles in his pocket for his jax so he can leave an emergency message with MOM for his dad. Then he realizes that he left it in Professor Yamamoto’s office. No doubt Ryzaard has it now.

The lights dim inside the car. Matt leans back and tries to relax, and then turns to the old man. “One more question. Tell me your name.”

“Naganuma Ryunosuke, the 100th Holder of the Magatama.”

CHAPTER 73

Matt pushes off the rocky edge of the chasm with the ball of his foot and arches his back, stretching out arms and fingers for a handhold on the laser-bright line shooting across to the opposite side. The warmth of the laser kisses his fingers as he tries to grab it, but his hands slip through. Jagged rock walls rush up and away from him as he falls into darkness.

The sense of falling brings him out of the nightmare.

His eyes flip open to a dawn sky, pink against blue mountains on the other side of the valley. As he pulls himself up, the door behind him opens, and he rolls out onto a gravel surface. The door slams shut, and the car speeds away, spitting sand and pebbles in his face.

Naganuma stands a few paces away on the other side of where the car had been, leaning on his staff and smiling down at Matt. “Ohayou gozaimasu, my young friend. It’s a beautiful morning. I hope you got some rest. Welcome to my Shinto shrine.”

Naganuma’s sandals crunch on the gravel as he turns and walks to the main torii gate of the shrine, the symbolic boundary like between the unclean outside world and the sacred temple grounds. Fifteen meters high, the two vertical pillars of the torii gate are a meter in diameter, made of smooth wood and painted vermillion red. Near the top, there are two horizontal cross beams. The lower one is the same vermillion color, and the upper half of the beam on top is painted jet black. Its ends curve upward.

“Where are we going?” Matt says.

“I am hungry,” Naganuma grunts. “And so are you. It’s not good to talk on an empty stomach. No questions now. Eat first, talk later.”

Matt stands and walks behind Naganuma through the torii gate to the bottom of broad stone steps leading up to the main temple. Each step is a foot high and worn round from centuries of traffic. Ascending in silence, Naganuma gazes upward as he climbs, and Matt follows a few meters behind. At the top, the Shinto priest turns to face the open valley behind them.

Matt mounts the top step, the hundred seventy-fifth one he has counted on the way up, and breathes heavily after the brisk climb. He turns to face the same direction as the priest.

“I came here forty years ago, just before the 99th Holder died.” Naganuma stands with his hands on his hips over the white robes of a Shinto priest. “It was my first trip to Northern Japan. Very different from Kyoto.”

Matt gazes across the valley at the pink-blue sky where the sun will soon rise. The only road to the base of the stone stairs winds like a thin ribbon through the lush carpet of Japanese cedars that covers the undulating hills. To his left and right, mountain ridges stretch in ever fainter rows to the horizon. Behind him, a peak rises like a great pyramid, covered from top to bottom in abundant green vegetation. The temple grounds are a flat area carved into the mountainside. It feels as if they are standing on an island floating in a sea of green, a massive wave rising high to their backs, ready to crash down and crush them.

“So we’re in Northern Japan? Where, exactly?” Matt keeps his eyes on the valley below. After several seconds, he hears no response from Naganuma and turns to face him, but the priest is gone. Whipping around, he searches in vain, and then hears the sound of wood sliding on wood. With his back to the sunrise, he turns in the direction of the sound. A stone walkway leads to the main shrine where visitors worship the Kami, the enshrined deity.

A hundred meters away, Naganuma stands at the entrance to a smaller building to the right of the main shrine, laughing as he waves. He puts both hands to his mouth to shout. “No time to enjoy the scenery. Come now. We eat.” He turns and enters the building under its triangle-shaped roof, leaving the sliding door open.

Jogging up the walkway, Matt moves past two massive komainu lion-dog statues standing on either side, guarding the entrance to the shrine. Just like the ones he saw on the mountaintop outside of Sapporo, the one on the right seems to be saying ahh with its open mouth and the one on the left is saying umm with its mouth closed in the traditional ahh-umm style, the first and last letters in the old Sanskrit alphabet. Alpha and omega.

When he reaches the sliding doors, the smell of fried bacon and eggs instantly triggers hunger pains, and he remembers he has not eaten since the previous day. The aroma pulls him irresistibly through the doorway. He turns and slides the door shut behind him.

“Come in,” Naganuma says in the lowest form of Japanese, as if he were speaking to his dog. “Sit down.”

Matt slips silently out of his shoes and steps up onto the main floor. He has heard stories about the resurgence of militant Shinto in some parts of Japan, the same religion that fueled its disastrous entry into World War II during the last century. He remembers that much of Japan’s culture has sprung out of its Shinto roots, and that it’s the only home-grown religion on the Japanese islands. He expects to see the walls covered with gold-framed tributes to past emperors, expensive wall hangings, decorative calligraphy of the highest order, maybe even the old rising-sun war flag of the Japanese Imperial Army.

But the actual surroundings surprise him.

To his right, against one wall, there are two six-foot high bookcases with row upon row of old paperback novels, all in English, all of them science fiction. There is a bluescreen mounted on the opposite wall to his left with Mesh access buttons on the side. And there is the obligatory wall-hanging, this one displaying a single Japanese kanji.

It’s the character for the word see.

Beneath it, there is small scribbling in an archaic cursive style that Matt can’t read.

The black and white posters are the final surprise. James Dean, Elvis Presley and Marilyn Monroe decorate the walls. At the back of the room in a small kitchen area, Naganuma leans over a frying pan and puts the finishing touches on breakfast. To his right, just a few feet from his elbow, stands a vintage fat-tire motorcycle with a prominent Harley-Davidson logo and polished chrome, leaning on its kickstand. There’s no dust on the black leather seat.

Naganuma turns around as Matt’s eyes are sweeping the room. “The prior Holder had a fascination with American cultural icons, like most Japanese of his generation. You would have liked him.” He walks a few paces to the low table at the center of the room and motions for Matt to sit on the tatami floor with his back to the bookcases. Sweeping his arm across the table, Naganuma clears away a dozen books and stray sheets of paper, making room for the fry pan with its sizzling bacon and steaming eggs.

Matt drops down with his legs folded beneath him in traditional Japanese style while the aroma drifts around him and triggers an overpowering urge to eat.

Naganuma sits cross-legged on the tatami floor on the opposite side of the table. He reaches to a small cabinet behind him and slides the glass window back to grab two plates and a chopstick holder. He drops them on the table and motions for Matt to take a plate. Matt picks it up and blows off the dust.

“Sorry for the lack of formalities and clean dishes,” Naganuma says. With chopsticks in hand, he picks several fried eggs and strips of bacon out of the fry pan and places them on the small plate in front of him. “I don’t have guests often.” He raises the plate to his mouth and finds an egg with his lips. It quickly disappears between his teeth with a slurp. Next, he bites into a slab of bacon and pulls it off the plate, dripping grease. Whipping his head back in a smooth motion, the bacon disappears between his lips.

Itadakimasu.” Matt reaches for the chopsticks and bows his head in a show of gratitude. Patiently waiting until the Shinto priest is done, Matt picks out an egg and two pieces of bacon and places them on his plate.

Definitely not a vegetarian, Matt thinks.

As they eat in silence, Matt feels Naganuma’s eyes on him and tries to look away, pretending to admire the books and posters.

“I can’t stand miso soup and rice for breakfast. Never did agree with me.” Naganuma finishes quickly and wipes the grease from his face with a sleeve. “Eat the rest.” He picks up the handle of the fry pan and dumps its contents onto Matt’s plate. Then he licks off his chopsticks and drops them back into the holder in the center of the table.

Matt gazes at Naganuma and then looks down at the chopsticks in his own hand.

With the fry pan and plate, Naganuma walks to the stainless steel sink at the rear of the room and drops them in. When he comes back to the table, he reaches into the folds of his robe and pulls out the small gray stone box Matt saw earlier and places it on the table between them. He turns and walks to the rear of the room, stopping to put a hand on the handlebars of the Harley and casting a backward glance at Matt.

“I’ll be gone to the shrine for a few minutes. Wait until I come back. Then we will talk.” Naganuma disappears behind the motorcycle down a dark hallway Matt had not noticed until now.

His eyes fall down to the gray box on the table.

CHAPTER 74

The ultra low-frequency alarm pierces the darkness and pours over Kent’s consciousness like a slow-motion mudslide, first touching the skin of his toes and fingers with its vibrations, and then consuming his body in a crescendo of intensity.

He bolts upright, jumping almost to his feet. Motion sensors in the room pick up his sudden movement and kill the alarm. With eyes still closed, he gropes his way on all fours through the darkness to the Turing Box under the window. In his wake, storage boxes, metal tubes, tripods and food containers lie scattered across the floor. It occurs to him that it might make sense to clear a path to the window the next time he sets the alarm before going to sleep.

Earlier in the day, he shot multiple threads of Spysyn across the void between him and the 175th floor of MX Global. Now the invisible threads hang taut across the chasm like the anchor lines of a great spider web. The most careful attention went into the two stereo lines bonded to the outside window of Ryzaard’s office, or at least the one he thinks belongs to Ryzaard. Before retiring to bed, he rigged the two lines to sound sensors on the TurBo and set it up to trigger the alarm if there were any movements inside the office. Someone must have just entered and set off the alarm. He hopes it is more than just the night cleaners.

The screen of the TurBo lights up at his finger’s touch, and he adjusts the volume controls before pressing earplugs into both ears. Voices come through, distinct and clear.

“It’s good to finally be back,” says a male voice, possibly that of Ryzaard. “Feels like we have been gone for a week.”

“Just under fourteen hours.” It’s a female voice, much younger.

Kent reaches to his right and nudges the slate on the table, waking it up. Its screen fills with blue-green light, throwing an eerie glow on his face in the darkness. He brushes the screen with a finger and engages the voice assay protocol. A rolling sound wave anigraph emerges onscreen, and the protocol begins to compare the male voice to a sample of Ryzaard’s words pulled from a recent Mesh-cast, the one that caught Kent’s attention with the announcement about the creation of MX SciFin.

Is it really Ryzaard talking? Kent will have the answer shortly.

Kent stands up, stretches his arms to the ceiling, brings his palms together, lets his head relax backwards and arches his spine. Breathing in deeply, he fills his lungs with air. After standing in that position for thirty seconds, he rights himself and sinks into the camp chair next to the window, looking out across the night to an imaginary space where unseen voices in an unseen room converse. With the stereo lines attached to the target’s window, he can hear every sound with spatial clarity as if he is standing in the center of the same room. It gives him a sense of intimacy that has an uncomfortable, awkward edge to it. But he soon relaxes, closes his eyes and puts himself firmly into the room, hovering between the man and the woman, a ghost in their midst.

The man lets out a sigh and walks to the right, slumping down into a chair that must be made of wood because it creaks with his weight. The woman moves to the left and reclines on what sounds like a leather sofa. Silence floats between them.

Kent turns up the volume and can hear them breathing.

The woman’s voice breaks in. “What should I do with the girl? She’s still heavily sedated.”

“Can you wake her in the morning?”

“No problem. She won’t even remember getting on the transport.”

“Put her to work in Van Pelt’s department,” the man says. “Give her interesting projects, something to keep her busy and happy and as far away from us as possible. But do not let anything take her away from the City. If and when we find the boy, we will need immediate access to her.”

“I’ll put her with another group of summer interns.” The woman yawns as she speaks. “They’re working on public relations for our charitable work in Africa.”

“Good idea. Give her a generous salary. And have her stay in one of the corporation’s luxury condos down on 42nd Street. Kick anyone out you need to. I don’t care if it’s Van Pelt himself.” The man chuckles.

“Understood. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled.”

“Remember, under no circumstances is she to leave the City. I will let you know when I need her. It should only be a few days.”

“Of course.”

“One more thing. A small favor.”

“Yes?” The woman pauses, and Kent senses the anticipation in her voice. “What would you like me to do?”

“I’m in need of a soundproof, bulletproof room in the empty space next door.” The man stands and begins to walk.

Kent hears him coming closer to the spot in the room where his listening is centered. As the man seems to brush past, Kent feels the hair on his spine rise, and he nearly falls out of his chair.

The man moves by and stops a meter away. “I want only one entrance to this new room, from my office. No other doors. Have the entire room reinforced with high-impact armor from the R&D department, the best they have. It needs to be strong enough to contain a nuclear blast. Assume it will be used to hold someone or something extraordinarily dangerous. Black out the windows. I don’t care how much it costs.”

“Sounds interesting,” the woman says. “But people might get suspicious. What if someone asks me why I’m building a high-security holding cell on the 175th floor of the MX Global building?”

Kent hears her shift positions on the leather sofa.

“Ignore them. If they persist, tell them we need a high-tech workout room for all the youngsters we have put to work up here. And let me know who asks.”

There’s movement on the slate’s bluescreen beside Kent. Glancing at it, he sees that the voice assay anigraph has stopped. In its place there are two words in bright green.

Match confirmed.

No doubt about it. He’s listening to Ryzaard.

Ryzaard walks back across the room and drops into the wooden chair. Kent hears a scraping sound like the opening of a drawer in a desk. Fingers fumble with cellophane packaging. A match is struck, and it ignites with an audible burst of flame, a sound Kent hasn’t heard for twenty years. Someone takes a deep drag on a cigarette and exhales. Kent can almost smell the smoke.

He imagines Ryzaard throwing his head back and blowing a long stream of blue-white up to the ceiling, just like his grandpa when Kent was a child.

Ryzaard turns in his chair, as if he is talking directly to Kent, jolting him out of his reverie.

“That boy is going to be a problem. He knows we want the Stone. He knows we are trying to find him and kill him. He will be expecting us to come after him.”

“So what do we do?” says the woman.

Another long drag on the cigarette, and then a relaxing exhale.

“I have been thinking about it. Perhaps I have been in too much of a hurry. Perhaps we should just let him sit and stew for a few days.” Ryzaard speaks evenly and clearly. “We have his girlfriend and his jax. We will restart the tracking protocol, and find out where he is hiding. Then we will set the trap, and the next time, there will not be any mistakes.”

“Yes, the next time,” says the woman, laughing softly.

Kent hears the sound of a cork coming out of a bottle, and the gentle pouring of liquid into a two glasses. The wooden chair creaks as Ryzaard stands. Kent can hear Ryzaard walk across the room as the sound of footsteps passes from Kent’s left ear to his right ear. The woman moves on the couch, and Ryzaard sits down.

Kent hears the crystal chime of two glasses touching together in a toast.

“To the next time,” Ryzaard says.

CHAPTER 75

Matt finishes off the eggs and bacon, picks up his plate and walks it over to the sink. It is already full of layers of dirty dishes, cups and a frying pan.

In the silence of the room, Matt can’t hold back thoughts of Professor Yamamoto. Nausea builds in his stomach as he again sees Ryzaard thrusting the dagger into the professor’s chest, making a dry scraping sound. For an instant, he closes his eyes and brings his hands up to his ears, a useless attempt to shut out the haunting memory. He can’t hold back the obvious conclusion that distills into words in his mind.

It’s my fault the professor is dead. Ryzaard followed me to his office.

In the silence of the room, thoughts of Jessica rush into his mind like a pack of lions swarming a wounded elephant. Panic spreads through his gut. In his mind’s eye, he sees her slumped limply in the chair, head hanging down, eyes closed. Ryzaard is standing over her with a dagger in his hand, making ominous threats. It is all fresh in his memory, an open wound.

He sees the truth. She’s been pulled into this nightmare because of Matt. His reckless use of the jax led them to her.

If only I had listened to Dad, he thinks.

That triggers another thought. Has Ryzaard been able to trace any messages that might lead his men to Matt’s dad? Probably not, since his dad left, tossed his jax and cut all direct communication between them. But how can he be sure?

And the answer is simple. He can’t.

No matter what, Matt has to find and protect the woman he loves. His thoughts go to the Stone.

As if drawn by a magnet, his eyes drop to the small gray box on the table. He tries to look away, but it pulls on his gaze like open water to a man dying of thirst. An urge to grab it and run surges through his arms and legs. His heart beats faster. Naganuma’s words float through his mind, something about the box keeping the Stone hidden from Ryzaard.

Matt feels warmth on his face and turns away from the table to the first rays of the rising sun framed in the glass of the sliding door. Walking forward to see the sunrise, he stands at the entrance and gazes into the bright orange orb emerging above the distant mountain ranges.

It slows his breathing, at least for a few seconds.

But thoughts of Jessica muscle their way back into his mind. They dance around the edges at first, and then he embraces them wholly.

Ryzaard intends to kill her. Matt saw it in his eyes. He will do it without remorse or mercy.

An explosion of panic rises up and displaces all other emotions. His chest tightens and makes it hard to breathe. Before he knows what he is doing, he spins around and grabs the stone box off the table. It is incredibly light, and the lack of weight throws him off. Maybe it’s empty. He shakes it hard, straining to hear the sound of stone knocking against stone.

But it’s silent inside.

The lid opens easily on tiny hinges. He stares into the depths and sees the Stone, his Stone, lying snuggly inside, black as obsidian, the same as when he found it. It falls out when he tips the box upside down and drops into his other hand, heavy and solid in his grip. It feels good. Comfortable. Natural.

Stepping down from the main floor, he slips into his shoes and slides the front door open to gaze out at the shrine grounds. The world is bathed in pristine silence except for a single chirping bird. With the sun now above the horizon, he observes the mist hanging over the lush emerald valley below. As far as he can see, the trees line up in neat rows as if straightened by a giant comb, a testament to the Japanese penchant for meticulous simplicity, even in nature.

Half expecting to see Naganuma appear and rail at him for taking the Stone, Matt steps onto the ground and runs out to the main walkway. There’s the distinct sound behind him of wood scraping on wood. He spins around to see the figure of the old priest, standing in front of the open door of the main shrine fifty meters away, staring in his direction. Matt waves and pretends to be outside enjoying the scenery and waiting for Naganuma to return. The priest disappears back into the main shrine, apparently not concerned.

Matt thinks about what he is doing. How far can he get on foot? How far away is Jessica? How long will it take to get to her? Judging from the dirt road winding down into the valley, the nearest town must be hours away. It could take days to hike to the nearest train station, even if he knew the way. He needs something faster. A wild thought enters his mind, only to be discarded. Then it creeps back in and refuses to leave.

He runs back to the small building where he had breakfast with Naganuma.

One minute later, he shoots out the open front door astride the Harley, full throttle, clearing the front steps and ten feet of ground beyond them, light-blue smoke trailing in his path.

The previous summer he had tried out a motorcycle. It was love at first sight. He would have bought it on sight if not for his dad, who insisted that motorcycle riders get too much attention from the cops. No doubt his dad was right, but the sense of freedom that surges through him now is impossible to resist. Naganuma will get the bike back. Matt only intends to borrow it for a few hours, long enough to get to the nearest train station and back to Jessica.

Pausing at the top of the stone steps, Matt surveys the torii gate far below and guns the engine. He is sure Naganuma has heard him by now and is running down the walkway, mad as an old badger. No matter. He is going to find Jessica. The sun is well above the horizon, and he surveys the shrine grounds for an alternate path to the road at the bottom. But there is none, so he throttles the engine, points the motorcycle down the stone steps and lets the bike jump forward.

He takes a beating all the way down.

When he finally reaches the bottom and passes under the torii gate after what seems like hours, a feeling of nausea sweeps over him, and he leans over and spills the remnants of the bacon and eggs onto the ground. Wiping his mouth with his sleeve, he guns the throttle again and flies off down the winding dirt road, shifting quickly up through the gears, leaning into turns and feeling the back tire slide over gravel and grit.

As he relaxes into the speed, the nausea drains away, and his attention is drawn to regulating his breathe. His shoulders drop down and his head comes up to let the wind flow through his long black hair.

After ten minutes of riding, Matt looks down at the tank gauge and confirms what he suspected. It’s full. Naganuma will be livid by now. The thought of the old priest on the Harley, riding at full speed through the mountains with white robes flapping behind him, causes a smile to creep across Matt’s face. That would be quite a sight.

Plans come together in his head. Follow this road until it merges into a paved highway, find the nearest town, ask for directions to a train station. From there, he can find a Mesh-point and send an emergency link to MOM, his dad’s secure datasite. After some explaining, his dad will send him the money to get out of Japan. Then, with dad’s help, he will go after Ryzaard and find Jessica.

It will be a great bonding experience. Father and son, fighting together.

But it feels wrong. Dad has taken care of him, watched over him, made decisions for him, controlled him, smothered him, held him back. Matt remembers the look on his dad’s face when he heard about Matt’s plans to come to Japan. But Matt stood firm and finally got away on his own for the first time in his life. After all that, how can he go back to his dad and confirm all his fears, like a little boy running home after losing a fight?

He would almost rather die.

Reaching down the side of his right thigh, he feels the hard shape of the Stone through the fabric of his pants. He stopped time with it. He healed himself with it. He is not so sure about the jump from the professor’s office to the top of the mountain. Naganuma might have helped with that, but with practice, Matt could learn more and go after Ryzaard without any help from his dad.

Yes, that feels good. That is what he will do.

The road drops down into a small valley and levels off for half a kilometer with trees on both sides forming a canopy overhead. The smell of cedar is heavy in the moist morning air. The road turns slightly to the left and enters a tunnel in the side of a steep green hill. Matt eases off the throttle as the cycle plunges into darkness. Strangely, there are no overhead lights, but he can see a round white circle at the far end. At first, his instinct is to shift down and cut his speed in case there are any slow cars or other obstacles in the tunnel, but then, in a show of defiance against the world and all it has done to him, he opens the throttle and lets the Harley run free, exulting in the high pitched whine of the engine and the cool dark wind in his hair.

The white circle at the far end grows larger and brighter. He squints, but can’t make out the road beyond the tunnel or see the lush green foliage that surely grows on the outside. It does not matter. His eyes have adjusted to the dark. Light appears as a glare. He increases the speed for good measure and shoots toward the exit.

Seconds before he hits the light, he sees a man standing squarely in the middle of the road just outside the tunnel. He wears the white robes of a Shinto priest.

Naganuma.

Matt brakes hard with his right hand and foot and swerves to miss the old priest. The motorcycle goes down on its side in a shower of sparks and bursts out of the darkness into a blinding white light. The road vanishes beneath his feet, turning to dirt and loose gravel. A grove of massive trees rises directly in front, only a dozen meters away. The back tire of the Harley goes into a power slide. Matt’s eyes drop shut, and he has a final thought of Jessica in a blue summer dress walking through an aspen forest. His fingers let go of the handlebars, and arms instinctively come up to shield his head, waiting for the bone crunching crash that will end his short life.

But it never comes.

He finds himself lying in soft grass, the same trees towering overhead, a pleasant breeze blowing across his face, the smell of pine mixed with sweet incense in the air.

“Glad you could finally make it. Shall we begin?”

It’s the voice of Naganuma.

CHAPTER 76

Ryzaard stands by the window, admiring the sunrise, hands clasped behind his back. The door to his office slides open.

“Come in,” he says. “How did you sleep?” His eyes follow the long arc of a helicopter as it levitates off a rooftop below.

“Incredibly well.” Alexa stretches up to the ceiling. “Did you put something in my drink last night?”

Ryzaard turns to face her. “The same thing I put in my drink. I thought you would appreciate a good rest. You have a lot to do today.”

“Thanks for thinking of me. I’m sure I’ll manage just fine. What was it you needed?”

“I need Kalani to hack into the Sapporo Police Department Mesh-files first thing today. I need to know how their investigation is going.”

“Investigation?” Alexa raises her eyebrows.

“The bodies of a certain professor and two Yakuza goons have, no doubt, been discovered by now.” Ryzaard chuckles. “The police will want to know who killed them. I doubt they have a suspect.”

“I’ll get Kalani working on it right away,” Alexa says. She begins to leave, and then stops. “Any chance they can trace it back to you?”

Ryzaard turns away and stares out the window. “Impossible. I jumped directly from the jet to the professor’s office and never set a foot on campus. I was careful not to leave any evidence pointing to me.”

“What about the boy?”

“He would come in rather convenient at this point, wouldn’t he?” Ryzaard walks the length of the window and stares down at the streets, his hands behind his back. “Any ideas?”

“How about this.” Alexa moves to the wood desk, opens a small cabinet door and reaches in for a bottle of champagne. “An American graduate student goes to Japan to do research under the guidance of a professor. The student is a rabid nationalist with an intense hatred of all things Japanese. Witnesses observe them engaging in heated arguments. A few days later, the professor turns up dead, along with some ultra right-wing Yakuza gangsters who happen to be the professor’s unofficial bodyguards. As it turns out, the American student has a fascination with knives and was last seen walking across campus to the professor’s office. After the murders, he mysteriously disappears.”

“Sounds good so far. Keep going.”

Alexa pours herself a drink. “This hypothetical American graduate student has a history of mental instability, ever since his mother died in a tragic accident caused by a Japanese transport company. He’s been living off-grid for some time, nurturing a hatred of Japan, writing on the Mesh-logs about his plans to go there and kill as many as he can, hoping to die a martyr. In short, he’s your typical xenophobic American nut-job.” She takes a long drink of champagne while looking at Ryzaard for approval.

He thinks for a moment. “I like it. Sounds exactly like the sort of plot an anti-American Japanese public would be happy to believe.”

“Of course, all of this comes out after the local police receive an anonymous tip about the American student’s background and Mesh-logs laying out his plans in detail.”

“Even better.” Ryzaard walks back to his chair. “You and Kalani come up with a Mesh-log. Have his girlfriend help out with research on the latest developments on the anti-Asian fringe here in the United States, sort of keeping it all in the family, so to speak. Then just find a subtle way to plant it all in front of the proper authorities in Japan. Should be quite fun, I would think.”

“It will be a pleasure.”

CHAPTER 77

“Please come inside. I am waiting for you.”

Matt sits up and looks in the direction of voice. It comes from a house nestled beneath the trees not far away. The building itself is a simple one-story structure in the shape of a square constructed entirely of wood in classic Japanese style, with a gently sloping roof turning up at each corner, and an open deck circling the outer wall. The shape reminds him of a teahouse he once saw in the garden of a wealthy family in Tokyo, only this one is much larger. Elegant steps stretch up to the deck from ground level not far where Matt sits in the grass.

He rises and walks to the base of the steps and notices that the bottom of the house is a meter off the ground. At first, he assumes it’s built on blocks or stilts, but a quick check under the base reveals the strange truth. It’s floating in the air just over the top of the soft blades of grass that ripple back and forth in a light breeze.

Slipping out of his shoes, he ascends up the steps to the deck. Its surface is devoid of dirt or sand and feels slightly damp, as if it’s been recently wiped clean. He moves to the left, studying the underside of the roof and running the palm of his hand along the outer wall, stopping to touch the square columns that drop down at each corner. The surfaces and planes of the structure all have a perfection that can only be described as mathematical in precision. Everywhere, there are clean lines with no superfluous detail or blemishes.

All of it is very strange. The motorcycle. The tunnel. The house. Naganuma.

Matt leans on the railing to survey the grove, but there’s no trace of the Harley or the tunnel. Nothing but giant cedar trees and soft grass cover the ground for a hundred meters around the cottage. He wonders if he has crashed the motorcycle and fallen into a coma from which he will wake and find himself in a hospital bed attached to tubes and pumps.

Perhaps he’s already dead.

“No need to worry. You are still very much alive.”

The voice of Naganuma pulls him around the last corner where there’s an open sliding door. Coming closer, he sees the figure of a standing man with grey hair, bent over a low table, his back to the opening.

“You made it through the tunnel. Good.” It’s the voice of Naganuma, but instead of the crude Japanese he spoke before, he’s now speaking an elegant form of the language and wears a white garment exuding light even in the daytime. “What do you think of my garden?”

Matt steps over the threshold of the door onto the pristine tatami floor. It feels pleasantly cool under his feet.

Naganuma drops down onto a red zabuton sitting mat. He dips a thick brush into black ink, leans over and makes slow, graceful movements on a long sheet of rice paper.

It is the Japanese art of shodo calligraphy, and Matt has never seen it mastered to such a degree.

On the other side of the room there are two sliding shoji doors, each consisting of translucent white paper stretched across a latticework of bamboo. The doors are open to a view of an immaculate Japanese garden. Two ornamental plum trees in full bloom stand to the left, their purple blossoms perfectly balanced by the white flowers of a single cherry tree on the right.

Matt notes to himself that when he walked around the outside of the entire structure, there were no shoji doors, no plum trees, no cherry tree, no garden.

“The normal laws of physics do not apply here.” Naganuma’s gaze drifts out past the open doors to the garden. “There are limits to the perfection one can achieve in an imperfect world. No such limits apply here.”

“Sorry about the motorcycle.” Matt swallows hard and drops his gaze to the tatami floor. He fully expects Naganuma to berate him for stealing the bike.

But Naganuma only laughs. “No need to apologize. I enjoy riding through the mountains myself. You passed the first test by making it here. Now, come see what I have been working on.”

Matt moves closer and looks over Naganuma’s shoulder at the black calligraphy on white paper.

He is stunned.

Two columns of Japanese kanji float on the paper’s surface. As Matt stares at them, they move and shimmer as if written on water, each brushstroke altering and distorting the paper around it, sending out ripples in a field of gentle chaos.

“What do you think?” Naganuma’s head turns, and his eyes rise up to Matt. “It’s an original tanka poem about the choices we make. Each flows into the others, like a pebble dropping into a pond.”

“It’s incredible. How…” Matt is at a loss for words.

“The same way this house floats on grass.” Naganuma motions to the open shoji doors. “The same way the garden is here, but not here.” He points to the tatami at his side with an open palm. “Please, sit down.”

Matt’s knees drop to a blue zabuton mat, and the rest of his body sinks down Japanese style, kitty-corner around the low table from Naganuma. “Where are we?”

“Ah, that is a good question.” Naganuma lays the brush down onto its holder and picks up the rice paper by its top corners. He stands, walks to his left and gently presses it to the wall where it sticks without a wrinkle. The ripples on its surface fade and become still. “I’ve often wondered myself exactly where this is, but I’m not sure. I doubt it’s the same galaxy. Perhaps not even the same universe. But I must confess I really don’t know.”

Matt reaches into his pocket, pulls out the Stone and puts it on the table. He looks up at Naganuma. “It’s because of the Stone, right? That’s how I got here.”

“Yes, of course.” Naganuma moves just to the left of the hanging paper where he opens a small cabinet and takes out a teapot and two cups. “Everything here is possible because of the Stones.” He comes back to his spot at the table, sits down, and pours tea for Matt and himself.

Arigato gozaimasu.” Matt lifts the cup to his lips and draws in a generous amount. “It’s very good.”

Naganuma takes a sip and puts the cup down, looking straight ahead through the open doors at the garden scene. “Sencha tea from Shizuoka.” He takes another sip. “Still the best in Japan.” The cup goes back down to the table. “You have questions about many things. I’ve brought you here so we can have time to talk.” He points down at the Stone in front of Matt. “I am still learning myself, but I may have answers to some of your questions.”

Matt’s eyes drop onto the Stone, and then rise back up to Naganuma. “Tell me everything. I need to know before I go.”

“Go where?” Naganuma says. Then a look of understanding flashes in his eyes. “Ah, yes. You are very worried about her. Your beloved. Put your mind at ease.”

Matt’s eyes open wide. “Tell me where she is and what they have done to her.”

“I know they have taken her to New York, back to company headquarters, and given her a job. For the moment, she is safe, content and remembers nothing about the events of yesterday. All that will change if you go to see her.”

“How do you know?” Matt’s eyes focus squarely on Naganuma. “Please tell me how you know.”

“I know because I see.”

“You see things with your Stone, the Magatama, right?”

“Yes.” Naganuma’s head drops down. “That which I need to see or want to see. But not everything and not all the time. Even for me, much remains hidden from view.” His gaze drops into the contents of the teacup. He swirls it around and drinks a small amount with great relish.

Trying hard to be patient, Matt is getting tired of the slow pace of conversation with Naganuma, who seems to be intentionally speaking in riddles. There isn’t time to sip tea in a magic house talking in circles with an old priest feigning deep wisdom and hiding the truth. Matt needs information. He needs real answers. And he needs it now. He decides to accelerate the conversation.

“Who are the Allehonen?”

Naganuma stops drinking and puts the cup down, rather loudly. “What do you know of them?”

“I saw a Woman in a white robe, on the top of the mountain yesterday where you found me. She came and showed me incredible things. The formation of a planet and its biological life. She had a Stone just like mine and yours.”

“I see. Impressive.” Naganuma’s gaze drifts up to the rice paper hanging on the wall, where the kanji starts to ripple gently back and forth. “I’ve never heard of it starting so quickly,” he mutters.

“Who are they? What’s their connection to the Stone?” Matt’s eyes fall down on the table. “Can they help me get Jessica back?”

Naganuma lets out a long sigh. “I’ve spent most of my life studying the Stones, seeking answers. It was years before I knew of the Allehonen. It’s supposed to take a long time, to be a slow process of searching, learning, growing, testing.”

“I don’t have a long time.” Matt’s fingers stretch toward the Stone. “It’s my fault she’s in this mess. I have to find her before Ryzaard hurts her. Before he—”

“Kills her?”

Matt nods. “I know he can do it. He will do it. I saw him murder Professor Yamamoto.” His eyes close, and the images move like shadows on the back of his eyelids. The dry scraping sound of the knife going in. The open holes of raw flesh. “It’s my fault he’s dead. I brought Ryzaard to him.” His face drops into his hands.

“Yes. You did bring Ryzaard to him. For that, I am sorry.” Naganuma lets out a long sigh. “But you are innocent. The blame falls on me, not you. I encouraged him in his studies of the Stones and then failed to protect him. Yamamoto-kun was an old friend. He sent me an emergency message yesterday.” Naganuma reaches inside his robe, brings out a jax and places it on the table. “It had all his research on the Stones. He said Ryzaard had suddenly come and was angry, accusing him of holding things back, demanding a full copy of everything. I told him to give Ryzaard whatever he asked for. But the old fool refused.”

“He sent it to me too. But Ryzaard took my jax.” Matt makes a fist around the Stone and clenches his jaw.

“Ryzaard is a dangerous man with a powerful Stone. And he will only get more powerful.” Naganuma looks directly into Matt’s eyes. “You must stay hidden from him, and keep your Stone hidden as well. You are not strong enough to fight him.”

“But he has Jessica!” Matt slams his fist down on the table. “He’s evil. Pure evil.”

A brooding silence overtakes Naganuma, and he stares out on the garden scene, eyes slightly narrowing as if squinting at the glory of its perfect beauty. Bringing the teacup up to his lips, he takes one sip and then throws his head back and drains it like a shot glass. “I can help you learn more of the Stone, but what you do with Ryzaard will be done on your own. I cannot do it for you.” He puts the cup down and slowly stands. “Come with me.”

Matt’s eyes follow him across the tatami floor. “Where are you going?”

“For a walk. Bring the Stone with you.”

Matt grabs the Stone and walks behind Naganuma past the open shoji doors and down the steps out into the dreamy landscape garden. At the bottom of the steps, they each slip into wooden geta sandals and walk past a granite lantern as tall as Matt. He follows slightly behind Naganuma on his right. They make it out past the cherry blossom tree before Naganuma makes a sound.

“You mentioned the Allehonen. The Stones are older than the Allehonen. They found them already part of the fabric of the universe.”

“Teach me to use mine against Ryzaard.”

Naganuma shakes his head. “Relax your monkey mind. To use the Stones, you must first understand them.” He beings to walk through the trees. “Come with me. The ocean is not far away. The water will help calm your fears. Only a mind without fear can understand the meaning of all things.”

CHAPTER 78

“We tracked him to a store a few blocks away from his office.” The tall man stares up into the night sky. “All he bought was fishing line.”

Little John drops his eyes down from the stars and shakes his head. “Fishing line? Why would he need that in downtown Manhattan?”

“No idea. 1,000-pound test monofilament Spysyn. Just generic stuff. Nothing special.” The tall man puts his sunglasses back on and strokes his chin with an index finger.

Little John rubs his forehead. “What would he be doing with fishing line?”

“Hard to say. Maybe he plans to go fishing.”

“I doubt it. He’s got something else up his sleeve.” Little John lifts a cold beer to his lips. “Did he go anywhere else?”

“They lost him on the way home, but they confirmed he made it back to his office. The Children say he was hard to track.”

“Did he know he was being followed.”

“Nope.” The tall man shakes his head. “No sign of that. The Children are good at what they do.”

Little John takes another drink from the can. “Any idea what he’s doing in his little office?”

“The Children are setting up monitoring equipment next door. They should have some idea in a day or two.”

“Tell them to hurry,” Little John says. “We may not have a day or two. And make sure they don’t get caught. We need to know whether this guy is a player or not. It may come in handy later, when it’s time to move. Any idea what he’s been doing in his office?”

“Sending out demand letters and notices of default, that sort of stuff.” The tall man looks back at his slate. “As much a part of the Complex as anyone else. Maybe he lied to us.”

Little John runs an index finger back and forth across his lower lip. “Or maybe that’s just camouflage. I don’t think he drove all the way across the country with a truck loaded full of high-end surveillance equipment to collect a few bills.”

“Of course not.” The tall man’s face wrinkles behind the sunglasses. “He’s spying on the building across the street. MX Global world headquarters.”

“So how’s he doing the spying? And why MX Global?”

The tall man shifts back and forth on his feet. “No idea.”

“Men like him are dangerous to the established order.” Little John brings the beer up to his mouth and takes a long draw. “He may be just what we’ve been waiting for. Keep an eye on him.”

“The Children are watching him around the clock.” The tall man turns to leave the tent. “If he steps out of the office, we’ll be right on his tail.”

CHAPTER 79

The two of them emerge from the cedar forest and stand on the edge of a sea, the water as still as glass.

Matt breaks the silence. “So, this is your world, uniquely connected to your Stone. You come here to create. And you have achieved perfection.”

“Who told you of this connection?” Naganuma’s eyebrows lift.

“Ryzaard. He showed me his world. Very different from this one.”

“Each world is a reflection of its Holder.”

“No doubt.” Matt recalls images of Ryzaard’s dark world with its city of neat geometric shapes and the people controlled by the implants. He pushes away memories of the woman made to look like his mom. “I wonder where my perfect world is.”

“You will find it. If you live long enough.”

There is no trace of irony or humor in Naganuma’s voice.

“You said you can see the future.” Matt’s pulse quickens. “Will Ryzaard kill me? Will he kill Jessica? Like the professor.” He turns to face Naganuma. “Tell me what you see. Please.”

“I see some things. Not all.” Naganuma’s eyes drop to the water. “And only if I choose to look. In your case, I choose not to look.”

Thinking of Jessica, Matt feels a lump in his throat. He sees and hears the dagger slide into the professor’s chest, a sound that Matt can never seem to get out of his mind. His breath grows labored, and his eyes dart behind him. “I need to get back to her. Are you sure we have time to—”

“You must control your fear, or you will never have the power to help her.” Bending down, Naganuma tosses a small pebble into the water. The ripples radiate out and distort the mirror surface of the sea. “Now ask me.”

“Ask you what?”

“You have questions about the Stone. Ask them.”

Swallowing hard, Matt takes in a deep breath and feels it absorb the fear. It flows out with the exhale. “How do you create?”

“I think it, and it becomes reality. Would you like to see?”

“Yes.”

“Watch. And learn.”

Matt slowly nods his head, not sure what to expect.

Staring out across the water, Naganuma’s eyes are as still as the sea’s mirror-like surface. As his eyelids drop down, the water begins to ripple and move. Far out to sea, perhaps ten kilometers away, a brown cone of rock rises up, an exact copy of Mount Fuji.

As it rises to the sky, a thick layer of water clings to its sides in defiance of gravity. The shoreline draws away from Matt and Naganuma to leave behind a seabed carpet of smooth rocks and algae. But when the mountain comes to a stop, gravity reasserts its pull, and the clinging skin of water cascades down from its sides in a boiling flow of white foam. At the base of the new mountain, the sea bulges and shifts to become a massive wave.

It turns into an expanding ring surging outward.

Like an embodiment of the fear and anger churning inside of Matt, the mountain of foam rushes closer, growing as it approaches until the sky begins to darken. Matt takes an involuntary step backward and glances at Naganuma.

“All of life is a tsunami. Do not fear it.” Naganuma widens his stance and gazes forward.

A wall of water rises up and begins to resemble Hokusai’s famous painting of The Great Wave. Its top starts to collapse under its own weight. Tendrils of water crash down upon them.

And then it stops, frozen in time.

Raising the Stone in his hand, Naganuma glances up. “In this world, I am the builder, the creator. When I command matter, it listens. It wants to do exactly as I say.” His eyes focus on the water above him, and his voice becomes a whisper. “Go back to the sea.”

The sharp edges of the wave melt and become a mound that settles into the ocean.

Naganuma turns to Matt. “The Stone gives its Holder the power to do many things. The most obvious is the power to manipulate matter.”

“And energy.” Matt recalls how he destroyed an entire city on Ryzaard’s world with a jagged laser beam.

“That is true. But you must be careful. Destructive power is a constant temptation for any Holder. You will find that using the Stone as a weapon is easy, requiring little training or practice. You will find that the urge to kill comes most naturally.” Naganuma turns his back to the sea and walks a short distance. “But it would be well for you to cultivate the more refined uses of the Stone.”

“What sort of uses are you talking about?”

“There are many such uses. One that I find most interesting is the power to see, to see things as they really are. It is a great gift.”

Matt turns away from the water. “I remember yesterday on the mountaintop, when the Allehonen came to me. I could see into the leaves and flowers in the grove.” He walks to the side of Naganuma.

“You can do it here as well, only you can go much deeper. In this world, there are fewer barriers to overcome. It would be good training.” Naganuma’s eyes light up. “Would you like to try?”

“Right now?”

“Sit down.” Naganuma points to a large flat rock. “Close your eyes and go into meditation mode as quickly as you can. You do know how to meditate, don’t you?”

Matt finds his way to the rock and sits facing the water in a lotus position. “My dad does yoga. He taught me how to focus on the breath, to find the stillness, if that’s what you mean.” Matt begins to breathe in deeply and exhale slowly.

“Classic meditation. Developed by the Vedic priests in India and inherited by Siddhartha Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, and his disciples. He found that the old meditation techniques worked well with his Stone.” Naganuma smiles with approval. “Find a state of deep relaxation. Like you did when you saw the Allehonen.”

“Got it.” Matt closes his eyes.

“One last thing,” Naganuma says. “What did you study in college?”

Matt furrows his brow, opens his eyes and turns at Naganuma. “Does it matter?”

“Just tell me.”

“Asian history,” Matt says. “With some philosophy thrown in.”

“Good.”

“Why?”

“I wanted to know if you have studied physics. It shapes the way you see the world, gives you preconceived ideas about what matter ought to look like. Molecules and atoms, quantum theory and all that. It can blind you to what is actually there. When you see the reality of matter, it is messier and more beautiful than you could possibly imagine.”

Matt’s eyes drop shut. “Right.” He straightens his spine, lets his hips move forward an inch or two. Then he begins to count, six seconds for each inhale, six seconds for each exhale. His Stone lies on the palm of his right hand.

Two minutes pass.

“Good.” Naganuma places a white pebble in the palm of Matt’s left hand. “Now, open your eyes. Allow your mind to enter this rock, to know it as it really is. No expectations. No presumptions. Just open yourself to it and observe what happens.”

Matt’s eyes slowly move open. He detects the weight draining out of the Stone in his right hand.

As he stares down at it, the rock in his left hand becomes an all-consuming grey blur, and he feels himself floating above it, like a parachute jumper falling through a silent atmosphere over a mountain range. Falling closer, ridges, peaks and valleys rush up to meet him. He senses that impact will come in a few seconds. His breaths turn into short gasps. Panic spreads through his chest.

The voice of Naganuma drops down from above. “Don’t be frightened. Embrace it.”

A sharp peak rushes up and past him on the right and disappears from his peripheral vision. His eyes snap shut just before slamming into its side. To his surprise, there’s no pain. In fact, he feels nothing. The panic drains away, replaced by calmness and clarity. Looking around, he is dropping through successive layers of a light blue crystal structure.

Massive octagonal columns rise up below him, and he passes through one into a warm sea of viscous amber liquid, like soft honey. Shapes float, some free, and some connected in long chains. There are elegant geometric cubes, pyramids, and spheres, but most of the shapes have an organic form, like a fungus in a Petri dish under a microscope. Long sinuous tendrils appear, followed by round globs with protruding spikes, sponges and tubes. Each has a rich color, like plankton floating in the sea. A general humming sound resonates in his chest. A pleasant smell, like almonds mixed with lavender, floats around him.

“Go deeper,” the voice of Naganuma booms, engulfing him.

The amber liquid turns to fine sand, and then the grains of sand grow to the size of boulders. Matt touches the surface of one. It’s soft and warm, and he feels the humming with his whole body. Making an opening with his hands, he slips inside into a sea of light, with soft fibrous threads running through it, like long strands of a kelp forest growing up from the ocean floor.

Matt hears the voice of Naganuma, no longer as an external sound, but as simple words in his head.

Raw energy.

Waiving his hands in a circular motion, Matt gathers a fistful of the light fibers. They break off easily and form a ball in his hand, like soft snow, and the broken ends immediately join with other threads. He throws the ball and watches it travel away from him at a constant speed until it’s out of sight.

No entropy here, he thinks to himself.

The strands increase in size until they are as large as redwoods. Matt wonders if he should venture inside.

Do not fear, the voice says.

Reaching out with both hands, he parts the brilliant white surface of one of the tubes like a curtain and enters.

There is nothing but blackness pierced with pinpoints of light, like floating in deep space. The points of light draw him closer. He moves to touch them, to pass through them.

It is forbidden. Go no further. You must return.

“How?” The words come out of Matt’s mouth, but there is no sound.

You are in full control. Think of ascending up from the bottom of the ocean to the surface.

Matt visualizes an ascent to the surface, like a diver rising from the floor of the sea, and finds himself sitting next to Naganuma looking down into the rock.

“What do you think?” Naganuma turns to him with a grin and a childlike look of wonder in his eyes.

“Incredible.” Exhaustion flows over Matt, making his body feel heavy. “What did I just see?”

Naganuma looks out across the water and nods. “What you saw is the true nature of matter. Levels within levels. If you have a Stone, it is easy to move through them in this world. Back on earth, it is much more difficult. But with practice, you can learn to do it.”

After a few seconds, the feeling of utter fatigue falls away, and Matt sits up. “You were right. No molecules, no neat arrays of atomic nuclei with protons and neutrons and orbiting electron clouds.” Matt scratched his head. “Why? Isn’t that what matter is made of?”

“With the Stone, you see the true reality of nature.”

“The true reality of nature.” Matt repeats Naganuma’s words to himself, trying to tease out their meaning. “Maybe I’m just stupid, but I’m still not sure I understand.”

“Give it time.” Naganuma sighs, and then begins walking briskly along the shoreline, a few feet from the water’s edge. “There is a river not far from here. Follow me.”

Matt hurries to catch up, and moves to the right of Naganuma, half a pace behind him.

After ten minutes of silence, they reach a large stream at the point where it flows into the sea. Matt stops at the edge of the bank, but Naganuma walks on without hesitation, stepping down the shallow embankment into the river. “Come down and join me in the water. Then you will understand.”

“What are you going to show me?” Matt takes a tentative step into the water.

“There is nothing to fear. Calm yourself. Now look down. See the river, not the water.”

Gripping the Stone in his right hand, Matt feels its weight drain away. There is a blur, and he’s floating above the surface of the river like a microscopic particle of dust.

Another out-of-body experience.

He has the same sensation of falling toward the water like a parachute jumper without a parachute. Just before he penetrates its surface, he remembers what Naganuma said about focusing on the river, not the water. A surge of energy and clarity passes through him, and he becomes the river, aware of every tributary and stream flowing into it as one might be aware of his toes or fingertips. His awareness reaches into the valleys and glens of distant mountains, and he carries the vast flow of water within himself, channeling it all down to the sea’s edge. There is a connection with the ocean, and he recognizes it as a separate entity, but one that might be known in the same way he knows and understands the river right now.

It occurs to Matt that changing the flow of the river would be like flexing his arm muscles or moving his legs. He wills the river to move.

“Very good.” The voice of Naganuma plays in the background, like a distant radio. “Come, see what you have done.”

Matt thinks about standing next to Naganuma, and instantly finds himself there. He looks down at his own bare feet, resting in dry sand. The river is gone. The empty riverbed snakes away from him toward the mountains.

“Over there.” Naganuma points off to the right, a smile of satisfaction on his face. “You learn quickly.”

The main channel of the river is ten meters away, flowing strong, moved out of its old course.

“It was indescribable.” Matt looks at Naganuma in astonishment. “Every part of it was in my awareness. I was the river.”

“Yes, to truly know an object is, in some sense, to become it, to see it from the inside out. With time, you will be able to use the Stone to do this in the outside world.” Naganuma turns to walk up out of the empty riverbed back the way they had come. “If you wish to defeat Ryzaard, you must learn to see reality as it truly exists. But beware.”

“Of what?”

“When you know something in this way, you cannot always predict what you will feel. There can be pain, and it can be overwhelming. You must be careful.”

“I’ll try to remember,” Matt says, still in the flush of excitement.

“Now do you understand why you did not see molecules and atoms when you looked into the rock?”

Matt remembers being in his dorm room with the Yakuza gangsters, how he healed his leg after a bullet shattered his kneecap. With the help of the Stone, he saw the entire knee and all of its complex systems as one. There was an intuitive understanding that something was wrong with it, and he made it right by putting it back together in a way that felt right. With the Stone, he had the power to see a complex system as a simple, integrated whole.

“I think I understand,” Matt says.

“Tell me.”

“I’ll try.” He follows Naganuma back in the direction of the cedar grove from which they emerged. “The Stone gives you a view of something in its entirety, not just the separate parts that make it up. Right?”

“Yes, you are getting there.” Naganuma leans forward with hands behind his back. “The Stone shows you reality, not in pieces, but in its wholeness. It is much more than looking through a microscope. You see everything.” Naganuma shakes his head and doesn’t look satisfied with his own attempt at an explanation. “It is too difficult to describe in words.”

“That’s what I was seeing when I looked into the rock.”

“Exactly.”

As Matt savors this new insight, an image crowds its way back into his head. Jessica slumped over in the chair, Ryzaard towering over her. The scraping sound of the dagger sliding into the professor’s chest. Closing his eyes, Matt tries to shake the demons loose, but it doesn’t work. His legs begin to shake.

“You’ve taught me much,” Matt says. “For that I am grateful. But I can’t stay here any longer. I have to leave and find Ryzaard.”

“And when you find him, what will you do?”

Pulling in a deep breath, Matt lets it fill his lungs and clear his mind. “Kill him.”

Naganuma purses his lips and scratches his beard. “You are young. You overestimate your own power, and underestimate his. A classic mistake made by many Stone Holders.”

“I can do it.”

“It would be difficult to kill him, even if you had the power. Which you don’t.”

“Then I will find another way.”

“If you try to kill him, there will be no other way. He will have no choice but to destroy you. And then the girl.”

Matt stares down at the Stone in his hand. “But I do have the pow—”

“No more talk of leaving today. For now, we eat.” Naganuma walks back in the direction of the cedar forest past the first massive trunk. “Ready or not, you go back to the real world tomorrow.”

CHAPTER 80

Ryzaard sits back in his chair and blows a long, thin line of smoke to the center of the conference table, studying the chaotic eddies and curls as it breaks up in the air. The team leaders are all seated in their usual seats in the middle of the glass bubble separating them from the surrounding lab. The glass is translucent blue, and Ryzaard can faintly see the movement of people at their work stations on the outside.

“One more thing,” he says, turning to his right in the direction of Jerek Gray, the hotshot physicist. “We’ll need to run cables into the empty office to power up the disruptor cube you have been working on.”

Jerek’s face exudes confidence. “I’ll contact Facilities Management and get them working on it this afternoon. They may ask why we have a sudden need for enough power in that room to run a small city. What should I tell them?”

Ryzaard dismisses it with a flick of his hand. “Keep it vague. Tell them we are expanding the lab, working on cold fusion or laser arrays or some other energy-intense experiment. Let me know if you have any trouble.” He looks across the table to Kalani. “Any progress hacking that jax I brought you?

Kalani gazes up between the white soles of his bare feet resting on the table and puts down the wooden club he’s been passing back and forth between his hands.

“It’s unreal,” he says. “A kid like that with military-grade encryption on his device? It’s locked down like a frozen clam. There must be a lot hiding on that thing. Give me more time. I’ll eventually crack it.”

“I need every last bit of data from it.” Ryzaard raises an index finger and points it at Kalani for emphasis. “Right now it is our only direct link to the target.”

“Got it.” Kalani scratches his bare chest. “In the meantime, I’m monitoring all incoming data. Traffic has been light, mostly just his girlfriend checking in.”

“And you are responding to her messages appropriately?” Ryzaard narrows his eyes.

“I’m all over it.” Kalani flashes a white smile. “A girl is much easier to hack than a jax.” He throws his head back and laughs.

The rest of the room remains tensely silent.

Sitting just to the right of Ryzaard, Alexa rolls her eyes and turns to face him. “Don’t worry, I’m screening all her messages and telling him how to reply.” She shoots a sharp glance across the table to Kalani. “We’re keeping it all low-key. We don’t want to tip her off.”

“Very good.” Ryzaard nods his head and looks across the table again to Kalani. “We still need to find the boy’s father. I’m not much worried about him, but it would give us additional leverage to have him under our control. Alert me immediately if you receive any messages from him, no matter how trivial.”

“Will do,” Kalani says.

Ryzaard turns to Diego Lopez sitting on his left. “How’s the tracking algorithm going?”

Diego appears to be studying the floor, avoiding direct eye contact with anyone. “We re-engaged the protocol shortly before your return, but had no signal for several hours. Then we detected a sudden surge in signal strength indicating the Stone was still in the same quadrant. It lasted for less than twenty minutes, not long enough to get a precise reading.”

“What’s the current status?” There’s an edge to Ryzaard’s voice that draws everyone to attention.

“No signal whatsoever. Nothing.” Diego rubs his eyes. Apparently he hasn’t gotten much sleep in the last three days. “The Stone has gone completely dark. I don’t understand.”

Ryzaard looks squarely at him with a laser-like focus. “Have you run diagnostics on the algorithm and checked all the power settings?”

“I’ve checked and rechecked everything. Multiple times. There’s no problem with the algorithm or the equipment.” Diego looks up to face Ryzaard. “It’s like the Stone has gone dark.”

“Stones do not go missing once they are activated,” Ryzaard says. “Only people do that.”

Diego swallows hard. “We’ll find it.”

“Good.” Ryzaard blows another line of smoke out into the middle of the table and shifts his gaze to Elsa Bergman, directly across. “Now there’s a bright spot. Elsa, tell us how our trading program is going.”

She sits squarely at the table with both hands on it, palms down, like a cat ready to pounce. “For the moment, even with all the creative accounting we’ve been doing to spread the profits around the company, we’re still struggling to limit the daily percentage growth of profits to single digits. It’s beginning to draw attention from the authorities. The last thing we want is for the International Securities and Exchange Commission to initiate some sort of inquiry.”

Ryzaard takes the cigarette out of his mouth. “I understand that the chairman of ISEC just found out he is the proud owner of a brand new villa and matching yacht in the Dodecanese Islands.” He stares at the long ash formed on the tip of the black Djarum. “That should take his mind off our little operation here, at least for a while. Let me know if you sense any more trouble.” With a flick of his thumb, the ash collapses and crumbles to the floor.

“That helps.” Elsa flicks her thin wrist as if shooing away a fly. “But not everyone can be bought off.”

“Soon we will not have to buy anyone off.” The end of Ryzaard’s cigarette glows bright red as he inhales deeply. “We will own ISEC and every other regulatory agency outright. In the meantime, please continue. We all admire your work. It makes all that we do possible.” He drops his head back and blows a column of smoke up to the ceiling.

Li Jing-wei sits on the left side of the table, directly across from Jerek, her hands clasped together with raised index fingers like the steeple on a church. Her chin rests on the tips of the fingers, and she stares down. After a long silence, she looks up at Ryzaard.

“Something bothers me,” she says.

“Something always bothers you.” Kalani is sitting behind her, staring at the ceiling, bare feet still up on the table.

Ryzaard raises the black cigarette to his lips and leans back, noticing that Jing-wei has a small diamond earring in each ear. “Tell us what’s on your mind.”

Her eyes narrow as they draw a circle around the table. “I’m just thinking about the kid with the Stone. From what you said, he’s learning fast how to use it. Faster than we expected. That makes him dangerous. He knows you have his girlfriend, and that you’re trying to kill him.” Jing-wei’s gaze drifts back to her fingers. “Doesn’t that worry you? What are we going to do if he suddenly pops up here in the lab with his magic rock?”

Ryzaard blows out a long, thin trail of smoke and presses the lit end of his cigarette into an ashtray. “I appreciate your concern, but it is misplaced.”

“What do you mean?” Jing-wei says.

“I have seen it. By this time tomorrow, the boy will be in one of the chairs in our special room.”

CHAPTER 81

When they get back to the house, Matt can smell the food.

On the low table, there is a simple meal of miso soup, ramen, white rice, pickled eggplant, grilled mackerel and two bowls of ice cream topped with chocolate.

They sit at opposite ends of the table.

Bowing his head in a traditional display of gratitude for the food, Naganuma makes a shallow bow. “Itadakimasu,” he says and reaches for the ice cream first.

Matt does the same, consumes the desert, and moves on to the miso soup. Its salty warmth is especially good after the cold sweetness of the ice cream. “The food is excellent. Where did it come from?”

Naganuma is already working his way through the ramen and slurps loud enough to drown out the birdsong coming through the walls of the house. “I am the creator of this world. My thoughts become reality. Now let me enjoy my food, and I will let you do the same.”

Matt says no more and immerses himself in the flavors of the meal. Near the end, he picks out the last remaining grains of rice in his bowl with the tips of his chopsticks, and puts them in his mouth. When there is nothing more to pick at on his side of the table, he puts the bowl down and stares out the open doors at the Japanese garden.

The silence becomes awkward.

“There’s something I need to ask you,” Matt says.

“You eat too quickly.” Naganuma brings a final piece of roasted mackerel to his mouth without looking up. His empty rice bowl goes down with the chopsticks across the top. “What would you like to know?”

“How did I get from the professor’s office to the mountaintop where you found me?”

“Come with me.” Naganuma stands and walks to the sliding shoji doors open to the garden, hands behind his back. It’s early evening outside. “It is possible to move through space with the Stones, but it requires concentration and practice.”

“Ryzaard called it jumping,” Matt says. “But he injected me with a drug that made it impossible to concentrate.”

“I could see that.”

“You knew?” Matt eyebrows float up. “How?”

“I already told you. I can see things.”

“One Stone Holder can watch another Stone Holder?” Matt’s heart begins to race. “What is Ryzaard doing right now?”

Naganuma shakes his head. “He has cloaked himself in a veil of secrecy that I cannot penetrate. But with you, it was easy. You were so reckless with the Stone after you got to Japan, it attracted my attention. I started watching.”

“I guess I didn’t understand what I had. I didn’t know—”

Naganuma raises his hand to cut Matt off. “Typical of a novice. And very dangerous. That’s why it was so important to get your Stone inside the box. So it couldn’t be tracked.”

“What about now?” Matt slips his Stone out of his pocket and holds it out, palm up. “Can Ryzaard track it now? It’s not in the box.” His voice carries a trace of fear.

Naganuma shakes his head. “The Stones are invisible to him as long as we are here. I designed this world with that in mind.”

Matt lets out a long sigh. “Good. So, back to the question. How did I get out of the professor’s office? One second I was there, the next I was gone. Did I do that, or did you?”

Naganuma’s hand goes inside his robe, and he closes his eyes.

Matt watches him closely, expecting Naganuma to take out a hidden object. Instead, the space around them turns blindingly white, snuffing out the sound of cicadas and birds. His eyes flip shut. A light breeze blows the taste of salt past his face.

“You can open your eyes now,” Naganuma says.

They stand side by side on the seashore, a different seashore from the one earlier in the day.

“Does that answer your question?” Naganuma says, taking his hand out of his robe.

“So you were the one that pulled me out of the professor’s office?”

“I helped. All it took was a little push.” Naganuma stares at the setting sun, a giant orange orb sinking into the sea. “Now it’s your turn. Take us back to the house.”

“How?”

“Think of where you want to go. Imagine yourself there. Reach out for it. Hold the Stone in your hand. It is not necessary, but it helps focus the body and mind.” Naganuma’s hand reaches for Matt’s shoulder.

Matt finds the Stone in his pocket and his fingers curl around it. Then he closes his eyes and sees the tatami room, the low table, the wall hanging made by Naganuma. He imagines that he’s standing at the door taking a step into the room. He wills himself to be there.

There is the same flash of light followed by silence. The smell of broiled fish and miso hangs in the air. He opens his eyes, and they are in the room, sitting at the table.

Naganuma smiles, eats one last bit of pickled radish and belches. “Now follow me.” He rises and walks out the front door of the house.

They move around the wide deck on the outside.

Naganuma is bent forward with his arms behind his back. “There is more I must tell you before you go back. Someday, if you live long enough, you will have to choose.”

“Choose what?”

“Choose who you will follow. The Allehonen, or the Others.”

“The Others?” Matt stops and looks at Naganuma’s face in profile. “Who are they?”

Naganuma keeps walking on the deck, looking at the massive cedar trees in the grove that stand like silent guardians. “The Allehonen have given you an invitation to join them.”

“What invitation?” Matt tries to recall what the Woman showed him on the mountaintop. He doesn’t remember an invitation of any kind.

“The vision they showed you. Traveling through galaxies, the formation of stars and planets.” Naganuma disappears around a corner of the house.

Deep furrows appear in Matt’s forehead, and he races to catch up. “How do you know about that?”

“Because I have seen the same vision. Eventually, all who hold a Stone receive this vision, or some version of it.” Naganuma smiles. “It’s an overwhelming experience. Many religions start in this way. It is their way of asking you to join them.”

Matt inhales the soothing aroma of cedar coming off the bark of the trees. “To do what?”

“To do what you saw in the vision. They are builders of galaxies and star systems. Wherever they find chaos, they change it to order, leaving planets and life in their wake. They fight against entropy. It is the way the Earth was made. That is their goal. The spread of life throughout the universes.”

“Universes?”

“Another discussion for another time, if you survive.” Naganuma steps onto a narrow path through the trees. “Tell me. Why do you think the Allehonen build? What is their motivation?”

“To get more power.” Matt shrugs his shoulders. “Enlarge their empire. More is always better than less.”

Naganuma shakes his head and moves around the last corner to descend the wooden steps to ground level. “Come with me. I will try to help you understand. You must know this before you face Ryzaard tomorrow.”

Together they walk through the tall grass that carpets the grove to one of the trees. A shimenawa rope made from thousands of twisted strands of rice straw drapes around the mighty tree like a massive belt. White shide papers zigzag down from the rope, a symbol of lightning. Matt knows Naganuma has put the decorations on the tree. It must be sacred to him.

With trembling fingers, Naganuma reaches out to the rough, moldy bark. “Do as I do.” He closes his eyes. “Do not try to see. Only feel.”

Standing next to Naganuma, Matt puts his palms on the tree. His eyelids float down, and he becomes one with his breath. For a time, his only sensations are darkness and the damp surface of the bark under his fingertips. Tension flows out of his body. His shoulders drop down with relaxation. Almost immediately, there is a change inside the tree, a softness not there before. The border between his hands and the rough bark blurs, and his fingers seem to move through its pliable surface.

He fights the urge to open his eyes.

There is the same falling sensation again, only this time he is falling into the tree, becoming part of it, one with it. His legs become impossibly long and stretch down into the soil, feet and toes drawing up nutrients and moisture. Fingers and arms lengthen upward to the sky to bask in the warmth of the setting sun. Awareness pours in from every branch and leaf of the tree, finding its place in him.

“I am in the tree,” he says in a whisper.

Naganuma’s voice speaks softly at his side. “Embrace it. Do not be afraid.”

Sensing a presence in the distance, Matt feels it grow in intensity and flow toward him like a massive tsunami wave on the horizon. His arms reach out to it, fingers open to receive it, yearning for it, hungering for it. All sound fades into silence as the wave rushes closer, and then it crashes down, surging over and through him. It’s as if he is standing alone in a dark room when the lights suddenly come on, bathing him in intense color and the sound of a full symphony. He wants it to last forever. As the music soaks through him, he imagines it intertwining with the very DNA of his cells.

I am the tree.

Eventually the flow of sound and color slows and fades. Matt opens his eyes and pulls his hands away from the tree. The sun has set and the sky is dark. He realizes that he’s been with the tree for hours. He turns to find the priest.

Naganuma rests on the ground behind him, his back against a moss-covered trunk with his eyes closed, sleeping peacefully. As Matt walks toward him, his eyes open. “Now do you know why the Allehonen build worlds and spread life throughout the universes?” He waits for an answer.

Matt is still in a daze and struggles to find the right word. “To feel what I just felt. Euphoria, ecstasy.”

Nodding his head, Naganuma rises to his feet, arms out, body balanced evenly on two feet. “The closest English word I have found is joy, but the meaning is the same. With the Stones, the Allehonen organize cold matter into living organisms, just like that tree. They create life, and in return, the life they create generates joy for them. The Allehonen seek to increase this joy, to fill the emptiness of space with it.”

“Life generates joy?” Matt wonders about the darkness and fear that seem to have been his companion since the loss of his mom.

“From the lowliest fungi to the mighty blue whale, it is the same.” Naganuma begins to walk in the semi-darkness. “All of their creations sing to them.”

Matt moves in silence with the priest past the trees, savoring what he has just felt. The cry of a hawk in the distance brings him back to the present.

“Tell me about the Others.”

At the mention of the word, furrows appear in Naganuma’s brow. He breathes in crisply, holds the breath, and then allows it to slowly escape his lips. “They are not builders.”

“What do they do?”

Naganuma seems to struggle for words, but then speaks. “The Allehonen create life, and let it grow, without restriction, without control.”

“Freedom,” Matt says. “It must be a core principle of the Allehonen.”

The old man nods his head gravely as they walk. “The Others oppose unbridled freedom and the disorder it inevitably brings. They value power and control, the mastery of the strong over the weak.”

“Well, freedom is messy. It leads to suffering, injustice, pain and misery,” Matt says. It all begins to remind him of a prior conversation. “That’s what Ryzaard is after. He said the power of the Stones would rid the world of suffering and bring true freedom.”

“He has rejected the Allehonen and chosen the path of the Others.” Naganuma brings his hands together as he walks. “Many have chosen the path to power. It is the easiest way.”

“He showed me the power. I felt it. It was…” Matt’s stops walking and stares down.

Naganuma’s eyes grow large with intensity, and he looks deep into Matt’s face, drawing his gaze like a magnet. “It was what?”

“Intensely satisfying,” Matt says, with a hint of embarrassment. He looks away from Naganuma, and then up at the first stars shining through the tree canopy above them. “A feeling of total control and domination. Intoxicating. Probably addictive.”

“Then you will follow the Others?”

“No, not if it means I follow Ryzaard.” His hand instinctively reaches up to touch the skin behind his ear. Images of the jewel implant rise in his mind. “He wants to bring Paradise through force.”

Naganuma begins to walk again, and Matt follows. “That is the way of the Others. And so you must choose. Power or freedom.” Naganuma bends down to look at a flower blooming in the starlight, its delicate white petals stretch out in a perfect ring around a yellow center. “It is a choice all of us must make. One or the other. You cannot have both.”

Matt senses a hint of fatigue in Naganuma’s voice. “What path have you chosen?”

“What I have chosen, and whether I have chosen, is my own business.” Naganuma abruptly stands and walks back the way they had come, leaving Matt standing alone.

Touchy fellow, Matt thinks.

He stays behind in the grove and walks alone through the tall grass, looking up at the night sky. A giant tree stands a few paces away, and he approaches it with outstretched fingers. It happens more quickly this time. From the capillary-like root hairs deep in the soil to the solid core at its heart to the far reaches of the top leaves facing up to the stars, each part finds a place in his awareness. He listens to a symphony of colors, noting how the song is different from the other tree.

As he passes the last tree on the edge of the grove, Matt brushes his fingers against it and feels the music again. Different, but similar.

Back at the house, Naganuma is gone. The dinner dishes have been cleaned up, and beside the low table, a simple futon is spread out on the tatami. Matt is overcome with weariness, so he removes his outer clothing and lies down on the bottom mat, throwing the top over him.

Sleep comes quickly.

CHAPTER 82

Ryzaard inspects the special room next to this office, hands behind his back in his usual professorial mode. Two thick power cables enter through separate holes near the floor in each wall and snake into a stainless steel cube two feet high in the center of the room. From above, it looks like a giant, eight-legged spider perfectly positioned in the center of a blue shag rug that extends three meters out from the cube all the way around. Two chairs that look like they came from a dental office are positioned on the shag rug with multiple pairs of steel shackles lying on the floor at their base.

The entire room has a carefully scrubbed, clinical feel.

“What do you think?” Jerek’s tall frame is stooped near the cube, looking sideways at Ryzaard as he walks around the room close to the walls.

“What about the titanium plating for the walls?” Ryzaard says.

“It’s coming.” Jerek bends down and pulls at a power cable running into the cube. “Installation is scheduled for this afternoon, as per your instructions.”

“All four walls, floor and ceiling, right?”

“Absolutely. Just as you ordered.”

“What about temperature control?” Ryzaard stops and stares past Jerek at the cube.

“The units have been shipped. We should have them this evening.”

“Did you get any trouble from NASA?”

“They weren’t happy that we bumped their order,” Jerek says. “But they didn’t push back when I mentioned that we were from MX Global.”

“Good. Everything seems to be moving along.” Ryzaard folds his arms.

“Oh, and here’s the control unit for the cube.” Jerek digs into his pocket and pulls out a thin gold card, handing it to Ryzaard. “It’s a simple toggle, on and off. I’ve already tested it, and it works like a charm. You might want to stand back when you turn it on. Twenty terajoules generates a significant EMG field. Probably not a good idea to stand too close.”

Ryzaard smiles. “I’ll stay here for a while and meet you later in the lab.”

“Let me know if you need anything else.” Jerek walks out the door, shutting it behind him.

Ryzaard moves around the full circumference of the room one more time, staying off the blue shag rug. Taking an old silver dollar out of his pocket, he flicks it high in the air and listens to the tinny ring as the coin turns into a rising blur. His eyes follow its arc up and then narrow slightly with concentration. The next instant, it hangs still in mid-air. When he relaxes his eyes, the coin falls back into his open palm.

Taking out the thin gold card he got from Jerek, Ryzaard touches the red dot in its center. A low hum fills the room, emanating from the cube. A tingling sensation stirs on his skin, and the hair rises slightly on the back of his neck.

He steps onto the blue shag rug extending three meters out from the cube, close to one of the dental chairs placed next to it. He flicks the silver dollar into the air again, following its rise. Just like before, his eyes narrow with concentration.

But the coin falls to the wood floor, its loud clang reverberating off the walls.

No matter how hard he tries, the Stone does not work inside the square, near the cube.

Perfect, thinks Ryzaard.

CHAPTER 83

Matt wakes with a start. He has the eerie sense that someone is watching. The aroma of bacon and eggs descends upon him.

Naganuma sits at the low table a few meters away, his face close to a plate about to take a bite.

Ohayou gozaimasu,” he says. “I trust you slept well?”

“Like a baby.”

“Have breakfast. And then you will leave. Back to the shrine.”

Matt rubs the sleep out of his eyes and quickly sits down at the table. “Is that where you were last night?”

Naganuma keeps eating and doesn’t answer.

Reaching for his chopsticks, Matt suddenly feels acute hunger pains. “How do we get there?”

“The same way we got here.” Naganuma’s voice is even more irritable than usual. He finishes breakfast, stands up and begins to pace back and forth in the room as Matt eats.

“Is there anything else you need to tell me about the Stones before—”

“Before what?” Naganuma stops and stares down at Matt.

“Before I go after Jessica.”

“You mean Ryzaard?” Naganuma puts his hands on his hips and towers over Matt, his voice rising in volume until he is almost shouting. “You still do not understand. But you will soon.” Naganuma walks to the front door and slides it open, allowing bright sunlight to stream onto the table. “I will be waiting for you outside.”

Matt emerges onto the deck a minute later, his mouth still full of rice and pickled plum, and walks around two corners to the opposite side of the house. Naganuma stands in the grass with his back to Matt, not far from the foot of the steps. At the bottom, Matt’s shoes are neatly arranged, and he slips into them.

Walking through the grove past the giant trunks, Naganuma stays slightly ahead of Matt. Less than a hundred meters from the house, they encounter a heavy mist hanging like curtains between the trees. Neither of them speak for a time. An oblong object, round at each end and about three feet high, begins to take shape in the mist.

After a few more steps in silence, Matt recognizes the shape as the Harley-Davidson motorcycle, parked neatly next to a tree. Naganuma walks briskly to it and runs his hand along the leather seat and chrome handlebars. He looks up at Matt with bloodshot eyes, and then looks away.

“Get on. It will take you back.”

“What about—”

“No questions,” Naganuma says. “I’ll see you back at the shrine.” He backs away and makes room for Matt to mount the bike.

Without thinking, Matt feels for the Stone through the outside of his pocket, and then reaches out with his left hand to touch the black handle grip on the motorcycle.

The instant his fingers touch the grip, the air flashes white, forcing his eyes to slam shut, and all sound is sucked away.

When he opens his eyes, there’s a tatami floor under the soles of his shoes, and he is standing face to face with an Elvis Presley poster hanging on a wall.

Back at the shrine.

Off to the right, there’s movement in his peripheral vision. He turns and stares in disbelief.

“Hello, Matt. How have you been?” Ryzaard says.

CHAPTER 84

This is good. Really good.

Kent stares into the screen of his slate, reading the transcripts from MX Global over and over, finding the words hard to believe. He’s even more sure now that he’s hit the jackpot.

Only a day and a half have passed since he started eavesdropping on the 175th floor of the MX Global building. It’s like walking into a theater near the end of a three hour movie. He doesn’t know all the details of the plot or all of the characters, but the ending is clear enough.

Ryzaard has a team of hotshot youngsters working on a complex project. They have nearly unlimited money and all the technology and intelligence resources of the MX Global corporate machine. And they aren’t concerned about breaking the law. MX Global has the power to make the law be whatever it wants the law to be.

The target of all this activity is an unfortunate young man they have never named, but who has some object, perhaps a rock, of such great value that Ryzaard is taking extraordinary steps to get it. Kent finds it hard to believe that any rock is worth the attention being lavished on this one, but that appears to be the upshot of all the conversations, and he has no idea why. Perhaps the young man has a rare type of crystal or diamond with industrial applications that MX Global can exploit.

But somehow that doesn’t fully make sense.

Whatever the reason, Ryzaard wants the young man captured. A special room has been prepared for the interrogation, which almost certainly includes torture. They have his girlfriend in custody, though she apparently knows nothing about the plot. Based on the transcripts, both of them are likely to be killed in the process. Ryzaard and his helpers don’t seem to care.

Kent closes his eyes and sees the image of his wife’s car, crushed beyond recognition, forever burnt into his mind.

Murder perpetrated in the name of corporate greed. MX Global is going to do it again.

He asks himself a question.

What are you going to do about it?

He could just stay in his rented office, continue the eavesdropping campaign and collect as much incriminating evidence as possible. In time, he could write it all up and publish it anonymously on the Mesh, including the actual voice recordings to make it authentic.

By then, the two young people might already be dead.

And would it be enough to bring Ryzaard and the MX Global corporate murder machine down? Not likely.

Kent could give it to the FBI or the CIA, but if the conversations he’s been listening to are real, it sounds like Ryzaard may already have them in his back pocket. And even if Kent manages to make the information public, MX Global has the resources to make it all appear as nothing more than a clever fabrication, just another conspiracy theory constructed along a worn-out theme, corporate power run amok. Kent has the feeling that anything he posts to the Mesh will be erased as fast as he can upload it, certainly before it attracts much attention. Even if the posted information does manage to survive, it will be banished to the Mesh’s lunatic fringe.

It’s time to take stock of his situation.

What can he really do? Call the police? Walk into the building and confront Dr. Ryzaard directly? Demand that he stop his evil plans? Not a chance. For starters, he’d have to pass through multiple high security barriers to get access to the 175th floor. But even then, what could he do?

He decides to go for a walk outside and think about it.

After a quick elevator ride, he gets to the front doors, puts on his sunglasses and steps out of the shade into the sun.

A young man in a red T-shirt lingers behind him in the lobby, the same lanky figure who tailed him two days ago on a trip to the store for fishing line. As soon as he hits the sidewalk, he makes a hard turn to the right and walks away from the MX Global building.

Three blocks and five minutes later, the aroma of Chinese food triggers irresistible hunger pains, and Kent remembers he hasn’t eaten since lunch the previous day. The smell drags him to a narrow opening on the bottom floor of a building just off the sidewalk. The restaurant has the appearance of a long dark cave with only enough room for one row of bar stools at a narrow counter. The clientele is all old folks, people that have probably been coming here for years.

He takes a step through the entrance and moves into the darkness until he comes to an empty seat at the counter. He turns to look outside just in time to see the young man in the red T-shirt walk by.

The steamed dumplings aren’t the best he’s ever had, but they are better than he expected. He takes his time to savor them and doesn’t mind making the kid in the red T-shirt wait outside.

When Kent returns to the sidewalk, the kid is standing inside the large window of a bookstore across the street. Kent decides that it’s time to get some exercise and take that young man on a wild-goose chase. He shifts into fast walking mode and goes for a hike. After an hour, he’s passed and doubled back through half a dozen high-rise malls.

The young man in the red T-shirt is still there, but this time it’s Kent tailing him, all the way back to the office building across the street from MX Global.

Once the young man disappears into the elevator in the lobby, Kent moves on to his next target, the one across the street.

He needs hard data to come up with a plan of attack.

It wouldn’t be easy to penetrate the MX Global building. The entrance at street level is crawling with private security forces, athletic-looking men and women in crisply pressed dark blue uniforms with the corporate logo prominently displayed. On the outside walls of the first ten stories of the building, there’s a prominent display of chemical and optical sensors, all on active duty. None of this is of much concern to Kent since it’s mostly for show. The intent is simple. Impress investors and project MX Global’s bulletproof image.

After a quick survey, Kent decides there are only three ways to break into the building. First, go in Hollywood style and drop onto the roof using a fixed-wing or heli-glider. He would need an advanced protocol on his slate to remotely subdue motion detectors and avoid detection by an army of surveillance cameras and sensors on top of the building. The entire maneuver is best performed at noon when the sun is straight up. And that’s just to get on the roof.

Getting down into the building is even harder. After the Chilean suicide attacks of 2035, most modern skyscrapers have more security personnel in the top floors than at street level. For a lone wolf like Kent, getting inside from the roof requires an amount of force that makes it not much of an option.

Another approach is to take the most direct and least expected route and simply walk in the front door. With the right security implants, he can get access to any floor in the building. But the codes are randomly updated and shuffled via Mesh downloads, making this a difficult option to execute without inside help.

That leaves one other option. Sneak in from the bottom, below street level. Most of the buildings in the City have deep roots, going down twenty or more floors. MX Global is no exception and even has its own subway stop. And security is notoriously lax at the lower levels, especially in the mornings and evenings during rush hour when thousands of office workers are coming and going at the same time. Even then, everyone has to walk single-file through a security portal equipped with scanners and sniffers designed for the military by a subsidiary of MX Global itself. Weapons, explosives or anything else with a suspicious chemical signature will be quickly detected.

Unless you have a burst jammer on your jax and a secret way in.

CHAPTER 85

Little John paces back and forth inside the tent. It’s already dark outside. “I knew it was just a cover. No one drives all the way to New York to set up an office for a temporary collections business.”

The tall man in the sunglasses nods. “Yes, no doubt about it. He’s carrying out surveillance on MX Global and Dr. Ryzaard.”

“How did you finally get into his office?”

“It wasn’t easy. He had a CVAC unit installed on the door with a bio-code that we couldn’t disable from the outside. So we did it from the inside.”

“Really? How?”

“We bored a micro-hole through the wall from the office next door with a hand laser and inserted an infra-red signal booster.” The man smiles. “It’s much easier to trip the lock from the inside. We would have done it sooner, but he wouldn’t leave the office. He finally did today.”

“Any idea where he went?”

“The Children lost him on a walk out in the City, but he was gone long enough to give us time to look around.”

Little John tries to sit down, but stands back up, overcome by nervous tension. “What did you find?”

“Transcripts of conversations. Tons of them. He’s been plugged in for a couple of days.” The tall man tosses a jax in the direction of Little John. “Here’s a download of everything he’s gotten so far. Interesting reading.”

The short fat man stares into the holo screen floating above the jax as he moves across the floor to the small refrigerator and pulls out a beer. He opens the can with the practiced motion of his left hand.

“Incredible.” With the beer in his hand, Little John is finally able to take a seat. “How did he get all this?”

“You won’t believe it, but he’s got a dozen lines of filament attached to windows on the MX Global building with a listening device in his office.”

“Fishing line?”

“Yep.”

Little John tips his head back and empties the can in one long drink. “Ryzaard has no idea, does he?”

“It doesn’t look like it.”

There’s silence in the tent as the sound of crickets rises to a crescendo outside, and then dies back down. The tall man walks to the front flap and opens it, looking up into the night sky. Points of crystal light stand out in the dark dome above him. He turns and shoots a backward glance at Little John. “Should we tell him?”

Little John looks up. “Who?”

“Ryzaard.” The tall man turns back to the stars. “It’s information he might be willing to pay for. It could buy us a lot of goodwill. He has money and power, enough to take the government and all the corporate hecklers off our backs. Enough to give us a complete image makeover. He might be willing to make a deal. It could help the cause.”

“It would destroy the cause.” Little John reaches for another beer. “Men like him are at the center of the Complex, the center of all we’re fighting against. We’re strong precisely because we don’t need his money or his power.”

“Just wanted to make sure you had thought it through.”

“That’s what I like about you.” Little John takes another drink, and the camp chair creaks as he adjusts his position. “Always thinking about our options. Always coming up with some new hare-brained idea.”

The tall man pushes his aviator sunglasses up on his nose. “Then what do we do about our man in the City who is planning on single-handedly taking down the MX Global machine?”

“Have the Children keep an eye on him. Once he makes his move, I want someone on his tail, right behind him. I have a feeling he’s planning on breaking in.”

“Your sixth sense?”

“Maybe. If he does, he’ll never get out alive without our help. It would be a shame to see a guy with this much moxie get cut down by the Complex. He deserves a fighting chance.” Little John looked down at the jax in his hand, his eyes scanning the holo screen. “And keep this stuff coming. I want to know his every move.”

CHAPTER 86

Why hasn’t Ryzaard killed me already?

That’s the only thought that crosses Matt’s mind before two large shapes rush him from each side and drop him hard on the tatami floor face down. With practiced efficiency, they pull his hands behind his back and slap metal bands around his wrists and ankles, and then set him upright against the wall, sitting on the floor.

Ryzaard stands a few meters off to the left in his tweed jacket and bow tie, silently nodding his head up and down with a black cigarette hanging limp from his lips.

This time, there are no surprise injections of pain-inducing hallucinogens, no physical violence other than the metal bands, not even any attempts to take away his Stone. Ryzaard must know Matt can access it without his hands. It doesn’t make sense, but Matt doesn’t waste time trying to figure it out. If Ryzaard is going to allow him to use the Stone, there’s no time to waste. As soon as he’s sitting upright, he quiets his breathing and goes to the familiar place in his memory where he’s standing on the beach with his mom, and they’re watching the surf flow in and out.

Just a few more seconds, and he’ll be able to stop time, maybe even jump away. He relaxes and closes his eyes, doing what he’s done many times.

But nothing happens. Time flows on.

He tries another approach. In his mind, he sees the mountaintop where the Woman appeared and wills himself there.

No flash of light, no emptying of sound around him. Nothing.

In desperation, Matt stares at the tatami floor under him, trying to go deep into its structure, just as he had with the white pebble Naganuma showed him on the seashore.

“Rather frustrating, isn’t it?” Ryzaard stands in the corner and reaches into his jacket to bring out his own Stone for Matt to see. Then he disappears and appears again at the opposite corner of the room. He bounces back and forth between the two locations, a smile on his face. “That’s funny. Seems to work just fine for me.” The other two men in the room stare forward, uninterested in Ryzaard’s antics.

And then a reflection of light catches his eye. Turning his head to squint, he looks for the source. It’s next to the table, a shiny metal surface mirroring the sunlight coming through the open front door. On closer inspection, Matt sees that it’s a large stainless steel cube with protruding cables that snake across the tatami and out the back door of the room. He hears and feels its gentle hum.

He tries his Stone again, but it’s black and dead.

Moving around the edge of the room, Ryzaard keeps a distance of several meters between him and Matt. “You’re very lucky,” he says.

“Really?” Matt stares with cold eyes to hide the fear, not for himself, but for Jessica, that’s starting to gnaw at his stomach.

“Oh yes. Very.” Ryzaard takes the cigarette from his lips and taps the end, releasing a stream of ashes to float to the floor. “Mr. Naganuma made me promise not to kill you. And I always keep my promises. He’s the only reason you’re alive right now.”

“And the only reason you found me.”

“He did help.” Ryzaard takes a deep drag and blows the smoke directly at Matt. “The Stones are a tricky business, my young friend. Better not to trust anyone.”

They both turn to look out the front door at the sound of an approaching motorcycle.

Ryzaard motions with his cigarette at one of the large men standing next to Matt. The man bends down and forces a hand into Matt’s side pocket, bringing out his Stone. He walks it over to Ryzaard and drops it into a small box Ryzaard has taken from inside his jacket. It looks like the same stone box that Naganuma showed to Matt before. Ryzaard immediately snaps the lid shut and puts it back into his suit coat.

The sound of the motorcycle grows louder until it’s just outside the building. Then the engine cuts out, and they hear footsteps crunching across the gravel.

Naganuma comes up the wooden steps and walks through the front door, stopping in the small area below the main floor to take off his shoes.

At the sound of his entrance, Matt looks up with questioning eyes.

Naganuma seems not to notice him and stares straight across the room over Matt’s head into the eyes of Ryzaard. “I see you have kept your side of the bargain, so far.”

“Of course,” Ryzaard says. “What did you expect?”

The priest nods his head. “Is it functional?” His gaze drops past Matt to the cube on the floor.

“It appears to be working quite well. Thank you for allowing us to use the box. With some reverse engineering, we were able to come up with a system that duplicates its neutralizing effects on a Stone, at least within a limited area.” Ryzaard points at Matt. “Our young friend is tangible proof. He has found his Stone to be quite useless.”

They all hear the thump-thump of a helicopter transport descending from above. It drops onto the white pebble sea of the shrine grounds not far away.

Naganuma takes another look at the cube under the table. “I expect you to keep your bargain to the end.” His eyes brush past Matt, hanging on him for a split-second, and move to the transport outside.

“And I trust that you will keep yours.” Ryzaard nods to the two burly men standing at attention. They pick Matt up and hold him a foot off the floor. “Shall we go, my young friend?”

“Do I have a choice?”

“It would be in your best interest to cooperate.” Ryzaard allows a smile to bend at the corner of his lips.

They all walk out the front door, down the steps, to the waiting helicopter.

Matt settles into his seat between the two broad-shouldered men, his wrists and ankles still shackled and connected by a thin chain of extremely hard metal. The two men hold onto its loose ends and stoically stare forward.

The silver cube is slid into place between Matt’s feet.

In the faint darkness of the transport, there’s a light prick on his neck, and something powerful pulls him into a dreamless sleep.

When he wakes, he’s engulfed in the same thump thump sound that was the last thing he remembers after boarding the transport in Japan. The entire aircraft banks sharply to the right and down while flying over a city that he immediately recognizes.

Ryzaard and Naganuma sit across from him, an empty space separating them.

The helicopter transport levels out and slows into a descent as they settle down on to the roof of a building in the heart of Manhattan. The doors slide open. Twenty big men in black battle armor surround the helicopter and back up a couple of paces with their fingers resting easy on the triggers of pulse rifles.

“Shall we proceed?” Ryzaard stands and walks down the metal steps to the roof level, followed by Naganuma, still avoiding Matt’s eyes. The two men on each side of Matt stand, pulling him up like a puppet on a string. He takes a step to the door and stumbles forward, his head protruding into the open air before strong arms pull him back by his wrists and keep him from tumbling down the steps.

Ryzaard looks back and up at Matt. “Baby steps.” He smiles warmly.

The two men grab Matt’s shoulders and carry him down to the level of the roof. At the bottom, he’s surrounded by soldiers. They come together and form a tight circle with him in the center as they escort him to a silver ring marked on the roof. When Matt is inside the ring, the soldiers pull back two paces, weapons drawn, fingers on triggers.

They seem to grow taller.

Matt realizes he is dropping down into the building through a metal tube. The sky above him shrinks to a tiny point and disappears entirely as the aperture closes. He tries over and over to jump away, but the connection to his Stone feels broken. Footlights come on, and he rides down in silence, counting to thirty before the motion stops. The side of the tube opens up into a door. He passes through it into a long steel corridor where Ryzaard and Naganuma are waiting.

He falls in behind them, dragging the chains attached to shackles, and is followed by two guards. There is the distinct odor of burnt ozone in the air, like the smell of an electronics laboratory. When they come to a door at the end of the corridor, Ryzaard waves his hand over a glass panel, and the door slides open without a sound.

They walk into an office.

Matt throws around a few quick glances and takes it all in. One entire wall is a window that looks out over the City. There’s a large wooden desk and chair in the middle that reminds Matt of an old movie. A red sofa sits under a Chinese wall hanging to the right, and a grandfather clock stands on the far left. The smell of tobacco hangs in the air. But the dominant feature is the breathtaking view of the City through the enormous window.

“Welcome to my office,” Ryzaard says.

Walking along the wall to the right, he places his hands on a black dot. A section slides away to reveal a square opening, and they all follow him through into another room.

“And this is your office.” Ryzaard waves his hands around and turns to look at Matt. “I trust you will find it comfortable.”

The opening closes behind them and seals shut with a sucking sound. Matt feels the subtle increase in air pressure.

It all has the look of a rich kid’s loft apartment, except there are no windows. Sweeping it with his eyes, Matt makes a quick mental inventory. It’s a circular space, about ten meters across. A shag rug covers the center of the floor like a huge blue dot, leaving a three meter space between it and the walls. There are a couple of white leather sofas long enough for Matt to sleep on, arranged in the shape of the letter L. A low table floats on a slender column in the middle. A small silver refrigerator stands next to the sofa. The entire room is encased in a floor-to-ceiling blue screen displaying a 360 degree view of a white sand beach somewhere in the Pacific.

It’s all sparsely furnished, just the way Matt likes it, and the overall impression is one of style and comfort, except for three foreign objects. A stainless steel cube positioned in the exact center of the blue rug, and two ominous looking dental chairs lined up next to the cube, side by side.

Matt flops down on a sofa. “So this is my holding cell?”

“You catch on fast,” Ryzaard says. “Make yourself comfortable and get some rest. You’ll need it in a few hours.”

“Can’t wait.”

Walking back to the door, Ryzaard is followed by Naganuma and the two guards. When they reach the door, it automatically opens. Ryzaard stops and turns back to Matt.

“You’re very lucky to be alive. Let’s hope you have the sense to cooperate.”

“What about Mr. Naganuma?” Matt stretches out on the sofa. “What’s his role in all of this?”

Ryzaard turns to walk out the door. “Be careful in your judgment of him. He’s the only reason you’re not with your mother right now.” They all walk out the door, and it seals shut behind them.

The shackles on Matt’s wrists and ankles fall off and rattle to the floor.

He looks around for a surveillance camera. After a few minutes of fruitless searching, he walks to the door. It has an air-tight seal that makes it flush with the wall when shut. He runs his fingernails across the hair-like seam, but they don’t catch. Taking a long walk around the perimeter of the room, he studies the wall for any sign of another opening, but it’s just one continuous glass bluescreen, like a millionaire’s idea of the perfect entertainment room.

Hunger draws him to the refrigerator.

Two multi-colored plates of thin-cut sashimi catch his eye. The raw fish looks and smells fresh. He grabs one of the plates, thinking he will save the other for later.

It’s first rate, maybe the best ever.

In five minutes, he’s worked through the whole plate. Tuna, salmon, squid, even some bright orange sea urchin. All of it delicious and fresh, as good as anything you could get at the Tsukiji fish markets. When the last piece goes into his mouth, his head falls back onto the sofa and eyes drop shut.

“I trust you find it to your liking?”

Matt’s eyes shoot open. A larger-than-life-size view of a woman’s face flashes on the bluescreen directly in front of him.

“So you’re watching me,” Matt says with a mouth full of blue fin. “I should have guessed.”

“Just checking,” the woman says. “My name is Alexa. I work with Dr. Ryzaard. It’s my job to make sure you are comfortable during your stay with us.”

Matt’s eyes narrowed. “I’m feeling a little cooped up in here. A walk outside in the fresh air would do me some good. Can you arrange that?”

“I’ll see what I can do,” Alexa says. “Let me know if you need anything else.”

“How?”

“Just say it. Someone is listening and watching. All the time.”

The image of Alexa fades back into the Pacific island scene.

Matt relaxes his body, lets his head rest on the sofa, closes his eyes again, and starts counting breaths, forcing his fists to uncurl.

CHAPTER 87

Kent needs the architectural plans to the MX Global building. He spends a few hours lurking in the more seedy corridors of the Mesh, but comes up empty. If they ever existed, they’ve been scrubbed away.

And then he remembers.

Twenty years ago, when he was a young associate at Myers & Sullivan, one of the partners put him on a fast-track real estate deal, and he found himself doing mind-numbing due diligence at 3:00 in the morning on a hundred gigabytes of top-secret client files. There were pages and pages of architectural drawings for the buildings in the area of Manhattan around MX Global. Reaching the point of utter exhaustion, he ignored firm policy and copied the files to his jax to complete the work at home. Over the years, each subsequent jax was cloned to the prior one until he forgot about the data. On that day when he bolted from the firm and hit the road with Matt, he dumped the contents of his jax onto a secure Mesh-point before throwing the device away.

Accessing the same old Mesh-point, he finds the files intact and spends the rest of the evening blowing through them again, just like twenty years before. Among them is a set of old architectural drawings for the lower ten stories of MX Global corporate headquarters from a time when another company occupied the premises. They had been there all this time.

He studies the 3D layout on his slate, and it’s all there. Major structural design, mechanical systems, elevator shafts, plumbing, electrical. There’s no guarantee that it’s still the same after two or three decades. All of it may have changed over the years.

Hopefully, it’s close enough.

The building pulls electricity from an independent set of on-site power generators located a few floors above ground level. Staggered elevators run the length of the building, making it necessary to change at least three times on a trip from bottom to top.

After a couple of hours, Kent takes a break from studying the plans and pulls up a detailed layout of the 175th floor generated by a slate-based algorithm using the latest sound readings from the Turing Box. He can see the round space next to Ryzaard’s office. Soundings taken from just two days prior had shown this spot to contain random lines spread out evenly, like the static on antique televisions, the telltale sign of dead space. This time around, there are no such lines, nothing at all. Kent runs the algorithm again and gets the same result. The white space means there’s no sound, no vibrations of any kind traveling through that particular space.

In other words, it’s become a sound-proof room.

Kent checks internal conversations he captured from inside Ryzaard’s office again, and it becomes clear.

It’s the room where Ryzaard plans to hold his prisoner, the young man with the rare rock. Detailed instructions for its construction are neatly laid out in the voice transcripts. Heavy lines lead to the room, and then disappear into empty space. It’s hard to say what they are, but they have the look of power cables.

Why would Ryzaard need to feed so much power in a sound-proof room?

Kent checks the most recent voice transcripts, downloading them from the Turing Box and hunching over the bluescreen of the slate, looking for the voice of Ryzaard, who seems to have been gone for several hours.

Then he finds what he’s looking for. The voiceprint protocol identifies Ryzaard in his office. Kent backs up to the point where Ryzaard enters his office and plugs in the earphones and listens.

Sets of feet enter into the sound space.

“This is my office,” Ryzaard says.

The feet shuffle through the space. The sound analysis indicates a high probability that it’s five people walking. Another door opens, and the entire group enters into the round space. The door seals shut behind them with a sucking sound.

Then there’s nothing but silence.

Kent listens intently for several minutes. Just as he reaches his hand out to turn off the earphones, he hears the door unseal itself and open up.

“You’re very lucky to be alive. Let’s hope you have the sense to cooperate.”

It’s the voice of Ryzaard.

The door seals shut again, and footsteps move into the interior of Ryzaard’s office.

Kent pulls up the sound analysis. It says there are four people walking, one less than the number that entered the round room a minute ago. One stayed behind, or had been left behind, in the soundproof room. The one who Ryzaard said was lucky to be alive.

The young man with the rock.

Kent closes his eyes and listens to the conversation taking place in Ryzaard’s office.

CHAPTER 88

The two guards walk out into the corridor, leaving Ryzaard in his office with Naganuma. There’s a long silence between them. Naganuma stands in place near the sofa, and Ryzaard moves close to the window, looking out on the city.

“I still have my doubts about this.” Ryzaard raises his chin in a subtle show of defiance as his arms drop to his side. “You had better be right.”

Naganuma leans close to the Chinese painting above the sofa, studying its exquisite details. “We have an agreement. I promised to bring the boy and his Stone to you. You promised not to kill him.” He speaks calmly, staring forward.

“Yes.” Ryzaard turns and drops down into the high back chair behind the desk. “We have an agreement. If the boy cooperates.”

Moving his hands along the painting, Naganuma looks as if he’s reading the impressions of the ink on the yellowed paper with the tips of his fingers. “I would advise you not to attempt to change the terms.”

“Let me make myself perfectly clear.” As he swivels in the chair, Ryzaard eyes the Zeus statue on the desk. “If the boy refuses to cooperate, I will torture him until he agrees. If he doesn’t agree, I will kill him. Simple as that.” He reaches into a drawer for a cigarette. “You are more of a fool than even I thought if you expected anything less of me.”

Naganuma’s eyes narrow to thin dark strips, and his fingers snap shut like a vise into a large fist, crumpling the ancient paper of the Chinese painting in his hand and ripping half of it from the wall. He turns, stares at Ryzaard and drops the torn fragment to the floor.

And then he vanishes.

Seconds later he reappears at the side of Ryzaard, staring down into his upturned face. “Fool!” Naganuma says. “Your answer to everything is always the same. Death and killing.” He towers over Ryzaard and speaks through gritted teeth, spittle flying out of his mouth. “You judge the boy too quickly. Push him too hard. Scare him off. No wonder he refuses you. Have you not seen the power he wields for one so young? Has there ever been another that learned so quickly, that was so prepared to take up a Stone?”

Ryzaard’s fingers curl until his nails bite into the palms of his hands. He slowly turns in the swivel chair, stares out the window and puts his back to Naganuma, letting silence fill the space between them. The next instant, his sitting form dissolves from the chair, and he’s suddenly standing face to face with Naganuma, holding the old Boker dagger in his hand under Naganuma’s chin, its point millimeters from drawing blood.

Naganuma is unflinching and looks through Ryzaard’s eyes as if there’s nothing there. “Try it.” he says. “You know you will fail.”

Gripping the handle of the knife, Ryzaard’s fingers are white against the black wood. “No one calls me a fool.” His voice is calm and steady. “And no one tells me what to do.” Lowering the dagger, a long exhale flows out like a valve releasing pressure. “I have kept my part of the bargain. I have kept all my bargains with you. Since you made contact with me, I have helped you build hundreds of Shinto shrines around the world. Your religion is finally beginning to break out of Japan. All thanks to MX Global funding.”

“And where would you be now if it were not for me and everything I have taught you?” Naganuma takes a step back and turns to look out the window over Ryzaard’s shoulder. “Still an unknown professor at some forgotten university in Europe, playing parlor tricks with the Stone. Without me, you would have never made it to Oxford or this company.”

A visible wave of relaxation moves over Ryzaard. He drops the knife and turns to stand, shoulder to shoulder with Naganuma, at the window. “Our partnership has been mutually beneficial for many years. For that I thank you. But you will not interfere with my plans for the boy. There is too much at stake. I will not allow anything or anyone to stop me from bringing Paradise to the earth. The future of the human race depends on it.”

Naganuma’s body tenses. “The boy has great strength. I have tested him and seen it myself.”

“I see. You took him to your little shack in the woods, showed him the wonders of the Stones, taught him many things, opened his eyes so that he can see as you do.”

“Just as I did for you many years ago.”

“You are a foolish old man, too generous with what you know, too willing to trust, to take risks.” Ryzaard’s lower lip shoots out, and the top one joins it in a snarl. “The higher knowledge of the Stones must remain ours, and ours alone. To do otherwise is suicidal.”

“You judge him too harshly.” Naganuma shakes his head. “Your desire to keep all things to yourself, your thirst for power, it has blinded you so that you no longer see.”

“You are wrong,” says Ryzaard. “I see only too clearly what must be done to save this world.”

Naganuma breathes in and out with focused attention. “Do you still see the white lights in your dreams?”

“The white lights.” The snarl on Ryzaard’s face fades into a half smile as he repeats the words to himself. “I saw the Allehonen often when I was a younger man. Their promises of love and peace and the joy of creation are nothing more than a seductive lie. They require too much. Surrender of the self. Submission of the will. It is the path of weakness and leads only to suffering. My eyes have been opened to a better path.”

“You speak of the Others.”

“I speak of my own path.”

Naganuma turns and walks away from the window, back to the sofa. He bends down and picks up the crumpled wall hanging in his hands. “Are you not afraid?”

“What is there to fear?”

“You have seen the Others, as have I. Their path is a dark and cold one.” Naganuma unfolds the old yellow paper, smoothing it out with his hands. “You want to become as they are?”

Ryzaard chuckles. “You don’t understand, do you? I will become better than they are. I will have power and control beyond anything that can be imagined. Power over suffering, power over death. The power to bring Paradise to the world at last, fulfilling the dreams of mankind. I will follow my own path and rule over both the Allehonen and the Others.”

The white robes hanging from Naganuma shuffle in silence. He stands and presses the wrinkled paper back onto the wall so that it fits neatly under the fragment from which it was ripped away. His eyes close and he draws in a deep breath. The two pieces of ancient paper join seamlessly together, and the entire length of the painting seems to relax as the wrinkles flow out until it is whole again, restored to its original condition.

Naganuma turns back to Ryzaard. “I tried to teach you, but I fear I have lost you.”

“Trust me,” Ryzaard says. “You certainly have not lost me. I am perfectly aware of what I am doing. In time, you will understand. And then you will thank me for being the one to see clearly.” He picks up his jax and brings it close to his mouth. “Alexa, please come show my good friend, Mr. Naganuma, to his quarters. He is very tired and needs to rest before we begin the procedure on our new guest.”

“You’re talking about Matt Newmark?” Alexa says. “Or his girlfriend, Jessica?”

“Both, of course.” Ryzaard clears his throat and scans the room. “And never mention their names aloud again. I refuse to dignify anyone opposed to me with the use of their name. They are to be stripped of their humanity and obliterated from memory.” His eyes float over and lock onto Naganuma.

“My apologies,” Alexa says. “I’ll be more careful in the future.”

A minute later, the door opens, and Alexa enters. Smiling at Naganuma, she gestures for him to follow her.

He says nothing and walks out of the room, casting one last glaring glance at Ryzaard.

CHAPTER 89

“So, are you going to kill him, too?” Alexa flops down on the sofa.

Ryzaard swivels in his chair so that he’s facing her. There’s a cigarette between his fingers, and he blows smoke up to the ceiling. “Who? Naganuma, the old priest?” He takes a long drag, holds it, and lets the gray fog curl out of his nose and mouth. “It may come to that, but I hope not. He knows so much and could be very useful. I would hate to lose him.”

“Two more Stones, all your own. You could have them if you wanted. No cooperation required. Just kill them both. That’s got to be tempting.”

“It is, believe me. But the unfortunate truth is that the Stones are much more powerful when the Holders cooperate. Magnitudes more powerful. Naganuma is right about that.” Ryzaard takes another drag on the cigarette. “How is he doing in there?” Ryzaard pointed at the door leading to the room with Matt.

“Fine, for the moment,” Alexa says.

“Tell me, what do you think of him?”

“What do I think?” Alexa lies back on the sofa and looks up at the ceiling. “Just seems like a good kid caught in the middle of something way beyond his control.”

“What would you do if you were him?”

“Use the Stone to find a way out, or a way to kill you.”

“Precisely,” Ryzaard says. “But as long as he is on the blue rug next to the Cube, his Stone is useless. Quite an elegant solution.”

“When are you going to start?”

“Funny you should ask.” Ryzaard stands and drops the cigarette, still burning, into an ashtray on the desk. “Right now.” He walks to the door leading to the adjacent room, and then stops and faces Alexa. “Is everything ready?”

“Yes, the power is on, both chairs have been wired. The recalibration of the trading algorithm is complete. Elsa will be waiting to test it out with the new Stone. Same for Diego and his location protocol. We are all very anxious to see how the addition of the boy’s Stone boosts performance. We’ll be in the lab. Patch us in when you’re ready.”

Ryzaard moves closer to the door. “Where’s the girl?”

Alexa pushes herself off the sofa to her feet. “She’s working in the building today, a few floors down. I can have her here in minutes. Just ask.”

“Excellent.”

Reaching for the cigarette in the ashtray, Alexa brings it to her lips. “Aren’t you going to have Naganuma join you in the experiment? I think he was expecting to be there.” She takes a deep drag and blows smoke into the middle of the room.

“No, not the first time. I’m going in alone.”

“Be careful.” She moves across the floor to the corridor. “Anything could happen.”

CHAPTER 90

Matt Newmark.

Kent hears the words, but doesn’t comprehend their meaning, as if they are a foreign language. He backs up the recording and listens to them over and over. Arctic cold descends upon him. The slate slips from his fingers and clatters to the floor.

He finds himself in a black bubble as sound and color drain out of the world, leaving him alone. With trembling fingers, he gropes for a half-empty bottle of water and drains it, takes a deep breath and forces himself to face reality.

Matt is the boy in the room. Ryzaard is going to torture him. The result will be death if Matt doesn’t cooperate. They’ve got Jessica too.

It’s all going to start in a few minutes in a soundproof room. Kent won’t be able to listen in. He’ll have no idea what’s going on.

MX Global’s corporate machine is going to grind up and murder another member of his family.

He has no choice.

Rescue Matt and Jessica, or die trying.

It takes less than five minutes to fill the backpack. On his way out the door, he stuffs a soft diode into his ear. It’s got a wireless link to his slate so that he’ll be able to hear anything said in Ryzaard’s office outside of the round room.

The plan of attack, still half-baked, races through his mind as he rides the elevator down to the lobby. At the bottom, the glass door slides open, and Kent passes out into the sunlight where the afternoon sun is moving down the western sky somewhere on the other side of the Hudson River. The sidewalks of midtown Manhattan are still hot and muggy.

He heads straight across the street to the front of the MX Global building.

Half a dozen guards in black uniforms stand in his way. With his pulse pounding in his temples, Kent tries to smile beneath his sunglasses and strides past them to stop just short of the massive glass doors at the entrance. Like a tourist, he cranes his neck up to marvel at the 175 floors that rise almost half a mile into the sky above him. At the same time, his fingers drop down to his side and release a soft, grey lump the size of a marble into a joint in the concrete. He presses it in with the sole of his shoe. Then he turns and walks away from the building past the guards.

Just another sightseer out for a walk through the City.

A block down the street, he ducks into a small bookstore to make sure no one is tailing him. From there, he plans a walk going north and arcing to the west. It should take about half an hour and give him a chance to refine his plans, clear his head and have at least a fighting chance at success. Then he’ll slip down into the subway and double back to the MX Global stop.

Hopefully Matt will still be alive an hour from now.

Like all companies in the city with worldwide operations, MX Global keeps a full working staff around the clock. Kent will arrive on the premises just after 5:00 in the evening. The guards will be busy monitoring workers passing in and out through the security portals. Kent has a little surprise waiting for them. At the height of the chaos, he’ll pull the trigger. If all goes well, he’ll be in the building three floors below ground level with the first stage of his plan accomplished and over.

With a small backpack swung over one shoulder, he wears a sky blue T-shirt and full-length utility pants, both woven from nano-treated Titanite fibers. There’s a matching beanie and gloves in his side pocket. The Titanite emits randomized white-noise light when stimulated by a modulating magnetic field. He can generate one of those with his jax. If he’s caught on a video surveillance camera, he’ll appear like a fuzzy blob. A crude way of hiding his identity, but the best he can do.

Under normal conditions, an operation like this would require an entire team, with separate specialists for penetration, demolition, retrieval and exit. But Kent works alone. Always has. Always will. With no time to work out an elaborate plan and only the equipment he can carry on his back, he’ll have to hope for the best.

Small enough to hide in a closed fist, the bright red Magnetic Explosive Pulsed Power units are the most delicate cargo in his backpack. The MEPP’s super-magnetic neodymium cores are packed with shaped charges. Trigger it, and a focused shockwave travels inward, compressing the core and releasing a pulse of high energy vibrations. One unit carries the same destructive power of a hundred pounds of old-fashioned C-4.

Thanks to shaky Chinese design, the MEPPs are notoriously sensitive to sudden jarring movements. Drop one on the ground from four feet and there won’t be enough of you left for a laboratory slide.

The technology is new enough that neither the US military nor law enforcement has it, as far as Kent’s research has revealed. Contacts in the underworld provided him with a few samples. He’s glad he brought them along.

In addition to the MEPPs, he has his slate with its universal decryption protocols and other electronic goodies, night vision goggles, two hundred feet of double weave carbon fiber rope and an assortment of climbers and scalers.

And, of course, the crossbow.

CHAPTER 91

Ryzaard stands silently before the door. He looks down at the holo screen of his jax to see Matt sitting on the sofa inside the high-security room. He pulls in a deep breath and walks to the door. It slides open with not so much as a whisper.

“I’m back.” Ryzaard moves carefully around the outer edge of the room and stops behind Matt.

“Where’s Naganuma?” Matt says, without looking up.

“He could not make it for our first round, but he is still here. I am sure we will see him later.”

Slouching on the sofa, Matt makes a studied effort to avoid looking up at Ryzaard. “Why haven’t you tied me up?”

“No need to use those barbaric methods anymore.” Ryzaard drops his hand into the outer pocket of his tweed jacket and takes out the small stone box. He flips up the lid, turns it upside down, and lets the Stone fall out into his other hand. Then he casually tosses it to Matt.

Matt shoots off the couch like a coiled spring, his arm outstretched to its full length for the Stone, the toe of his right shoe on track to kick Ryzaard in the groin.

With the ease of a ballet dancer, Ryzaard takes a small step back, focusing his mind. Matt hangs in the air, motionless, his hand inches from the Stone.

I should kill him now, thinks Ryzaard. It would be so easy.

Instead, he wraps his fingers around the Stone floating close to Matt and lands a foot hard into Matt’s belly. When he’s done, he calmly walks to the other side of the room and drops Matt’s Stone back into the little box. Turning to face him, Ryzaard relaxes and allows time to flow again, standing still to observe the scene.

Matt’s fist closes on empty air, and he crashes down onto the floor, biting into his tongue and curling up in a fetal position around his bruised belly, looking confused and hurt.

“Surely we don’t have to play these games again, do we?” Ryzaard says.

Matt lifts his head in the direction of the voice. Blood flows out the corner of his mouth onto the floor. “Go to hell,” he says, forcing the words out slowly between gasps and swallows.

“No reason to become angry.” Ryzaard walks back to Matt, his shoes making crisp tapping sounds on the hard floor with each step. He stops and looks down on the curled figure on the floor.

Matt swallows hard and seems to brace for another blow, making a visible effort to slow his breathing. “Not fair,” he says in a whisper.

Ryzaard bends down near Matt’s face and begins to whisper. “Nothing is fair. That is the essence of power. Either you have it or you don’t. And right now, I have it, and you don’t. A simple truth, but an important one for you to grasp if you would like to preserve your life. You need to have a clear understanding of reality. To see reality as it truly exists, to quote your friend, Mr. Naganuma.”

Matt’s eyes close, “He’s no friend of mine.” A pool of blood forms beside his lips.

Ryzaard smiles. “He saved your life.”

“He betrayed me.”

“That may be true from your perspective. But he really had no choice. You see, both of us want the same thing. We may disagree over details, but it is only details.”

“I hate you all.” Matt’s foot jumps up to the back of Ryzaard’s knee, just brushing it before stopping, frozen in time.

Ryzaard stands over Matt. A stream of red stretches from his mouth to the floor, bloodshot eyes stare forward with a look of cold concentration.

Incredible persistence. Naganuma was right.

Ryzaard abruptly leaves Matt and walks out of the room back into his office and over to the desk. Pulling open the bottom drawer, he finds an old book, thick as a couple of bricks, with yellowed pages.

The Complete Works of Plato.

He smiles and goes back into the room where Matt still lies motionless on the floor. Gently placing the book under the middle of Matt’s right thigh, he adjusts it slightly, and then stands back to appraise its position.

It should work.

Ryzaard jumps up and comes down with both feet on top of Matt’s thigh. There’s an audible snap, like the breaking of a tree branch in the forest.

Satisfied, Ryzaard moves back a couple of steps, folds his arms and relaxes into the flow of time.

Matt’s raised leg finishes its movement through the air toward the back of Ryzaard’s knee, but Ryzaard and his knee are no longer there. Instead, pain visibly explodes in his broken thigh bone. Involuntary screams of agony escape from his mouth as his neck and spine arch back.

Ryzaard waits patiently with folded arms until the screams die down into quiet whimpers.

“Perhaps you’ll listen to me, now that I have your attention.” He starts pacing back and forth past Matt, still writhing in pain on the floor. It’s as if Ryzaard is a professor again, delivering a lecture at Oxford, hands clasped behind his back.

“Three words, Matt, three words.” The silence is broken only by the sound of shoes on the hard floor. “Life is suffering. That is the fundamental flaw in the design of this world. And, believe me, it has been designed. Evil has free reign. The powerful prey upon the weak. The weak suffer. Sickness, disease, poverty, death, manipulation, fear, capitulation. Human potential is ravaged and squandered in the Darwinian jungle we all inhabit.”

Matt opens his eyes and looks up at Ryzaard. “Why?” he says, the word barely escaping his bloody lips.

“Why? Why is the world like this? The answer and the responsibility lies squarely with those who made it, those who rampage through the universe building worlds with abandon, each flawed and filled with suffering. You know who I am talking about. You have seen them.”

Matt groans. “The Allehonen.”

“Yes! They have the power to stamp out evil, and yet they refuse to use it. They build a planet, set everything in motion and then simply walk away, turning their backs on the those whom they profess to love, abandoning them to wasted lives of suffering and pain.”

Matt lies on his back. His eyes slowly open and close. The ebb and flow of his breath, the rise and fall of his belly, begins to take on a rhythm, a steadiness.

“The Allehonen,” he whispers. “They’ve shown me things. They will help if we trust them.”

Ryzaard walks by and roughly kicks the book out from under Matt’s thigh.

A silent scream passes through his throat, but he closes his mouth before it can escape.

“You’re wrong,” Ryzaard says. “They won’t help. That would violate one of their fundamental principles. Their prime directive. Non-intervention. But there is an answer to all of this. It’s an answer given to the world over two thousand years ago.” Ryzaard bends down and picks up The Complete Works of Plato and begins to thumb the wrinkled and yellowed pages. “No doubt you’ve read this before, in your freshman Western Civilization class.” He licks a finger and turns a few pages, stops and runs his eyes down the lines of the paper. “I’ll quote from Plato’s Republic. Listen carefully. Four simple words. Philosophers must become kings. That is the answer. The Philosopher King. Power concentrated in the hands of wise rulers, people like you and I and Naganuma, who can protect the weak and eradicate suffering.”

Matt shakes his head slowly from side to side. His mouth opens. “Dictatorship, totalitarianism, Hitler, Stalin, Mao, Tenzing.” He spits out a mouthful of blood and swallows. “It’s been tried. Always fails. Always turns into a nightmare. More suffering than before.”

Ryzaard lowers his voice to a whisper. “You’re right. But this time it will be different.”

“Absolute power corrupts…”

Letting his eyes drop down, Ryzaard holds his breath and stops the flow of time. He stoops down and stares into Matt’s face, seeing the lips parted as if in the middle of a sentence, frozen in pain. Ryzaard’s eyes become shiny with liquid.

A tear drops down onto Matt’s face. An old word of scripture from the Christian Bible floats through his mind.

Blessed are the merciful…

With a gentle movement, he kneels on the floor and puts his hand on Matt’s abdomen. In an instant, he sees the ruptured spleen and, with minimal effort, heals the wound. Then he reaches up to Matt’s mouth and closes the cut in his tongue. Pressing fingers into Matt’s thigh, the bones come together, fusing back into perfection.

With ease, Ryzaard puts one hand under Matt’s back and another under his legs, lifts him up and walks to the closest dental chair, staring down at Matt as a father might look at his son.

The son Ryzaard never had.

And never will. He drops Matt into the chair and pulls a thin gold card out of his shirt pocket.

He steps back and relaxes, restoring the flow of time. At the same instant, he swipes his thumb on the card. Metal binders at Matt’s ankles and wrists light up and close around him.

“Perhaps now you are ready to cooperate,” Ryzaard says.

Matt looks around in surprise at being in the chair and out of pain.

Ryzaard pulls out his jax and brings it close to his mouth. “Alexa,” he says. “Bring the girl in.”

CHAPTER 92

“Are you sure?”

“Yes, they confirmed it. They’re in his office right now.” The tall man adjusts his sunglasses in the late afternoon sun. “He’s gone. He took his backpack with him, along with bottles of water, protein bars, climbing equipment and his slate.”

“Climbing equipment?” Little John drops back in his camp chair in the shade of the tent, looking out through the open flap at the highway where two large trucks are lined up, bumper to bumper. Several dozen youths are unloading pallets of canned food and water. “Sounds like he’s going somewhere for a while. Any idea where?”

“They found this in his office.” The man hands a jax to Little John.

He looks at the holo screen, a jumble of dark lines, circles, and boxes. “What is it?”

The tall man takes a step forward. “Design plans for MX Global world headquarters. The bottom ten floors. They also found one of these.”

Little John looks again at the image on the holo screen. It’s a small red cylinder-shaped object. “What is it?”

“The Children did a materials analysis and some quick research on the Mesh. It’s new, not yet available on the market. But it’s got a magnetic core tightly packed with shaped-charges, the kind used in demolitions and mining.”

Little John shakes his head. “I don’t believe it. He’s really going to do try to take them down.” His gaze goes back up to the tall man. “Do we have someone on his tail?”

“Yes. One of the best. Right behind him.”

CHAPTER 93

Kent steps off the subway at exactly 5:07 in the afternoon.

For a split second, his gaze is drawn up to the ceiling of the station through hundreds of meters of concrete, glass and steel as his mind reaches out to Matt.

Stay alive until I can get to you.

He listens for an answer, but doesn’t feel anything as he’s swept into a flow of human bodies moving onto the platform and heading for the escalators up. Pushing gently through the mass of flesh, he works his way to the right. As he nears the edge, he slips out of the main current and drifts off down a dark hallway, past a bathroom and around a corner.

If the building plans are still correct, there will be a utility entrance down this hall. If the door is still there, it will be unguarded, maybe forgotten.

Kent swipes a finger down the side of his jax and studies the drawings displayed on the holo screen. It casts a green glow on his face in the dark.

Audible footsteps and voices come down the hall behind him.

His heart takes a long rest before it begins to beat again. The game could be up if someone is tailing him. In desperation, he moves further into the darkness until he bumps up against an abrupt wall. The hallway simply terminates in a dead end. Sounds drift closer. Kent tries to flatten himself against the wall, but the daypack is still on his back, making him stick out.

A young man sporting sunglasses, probably in his early twenties, walks around the corner just fifteen meters away. He looks straight ahead, directly at Kent, and keeps walking closer, his hands making karate chop motions in front of him.

Kent holds his breath.

A loud voice penetrates the silence. “Hey Demetrius, where you going?”

The young man stops and spins around.

“The bathroom’s back here,” the voice says. “You walked right past it.”

“Sorry, man. Guess I just got too much into this movie I’m watching. I love these CineViews. Feels like I’m really there, part of the action.” The young man disappears back around the corner.

As the voices draw farther away, Kent’s pulse feels like a Japanese taiko drum. He exhales and slows the beating. When the voices fade to nothing and he’s again bathed in silence, his fingers go down to his side and find a raised line on the wall behind him. Turning around, he steps back and follows the metal seam with his hand. It runs from floor to ceiling where the utility door has been welded shut.

“Bingo,” he says to himself. “Found it.”

With his backpack on the floor, he reaches in and finds the tube of Corrizol. He squeezes out a fine bead of it on the welded seam, drawing a large rectangle on the wall. With his eyes now adjusted to the darkness, he steps back and inspects his work to make sure he’s covered the old weld.

It will take a few minutes to work its magic.

In the silent darkness, images of Matt fill his mind. He’s six years old and making sand castles with his mother at the beach. Then he’s in fourth grade, legs running hard, the fastest little sweeper on the Hawthorne soccer team. Kent can see the look of confusion in Matt’s eyes as they sprint through the JFK Airport on their way to a flight that will take them away from the only home the little boy has ever known. He keeps asking where mom is, and all Kent can say is that she won’t be able to come on this flight.

And then he sees Matt with his overstuffed backpack disappearing around a corner at the Denver Airport only a few days ago on his way to Japan. Sweat runs into his eyes. Nausea builds in his belly.

He sees Ryzaard with his silver goatee standing over Matt with a long thin blade in his hand.

Violence stirs in his stomach, and he twists to the right and empties its contents onto the concrete floor, leaving a vile taste on his tongue.

It was a mistake to let Matt go.

He moves a meter away from the smell of his own puke and drops down with his back to the wall, glancing at the time on his jax.

And waits.

CHAPTER 94

The door opens.

There’s an immediate drop in air pressure that registers in Matt’s ears. His eyes look up. One of the burly guards walks in.

Alexa follows with a perky smile on her face. “Right this way.” She looks behind her at someone standing outside the entrance and motions for them to come into the room. Her artificially high-pitched voice tells Matt that she’s playing some sort of deception.

“Jessica!” he yells. “It’s a trap!”

The next instant, Jessica stumbles into the room with another guard pushing her from behind, a look of confusion on her face.

The door slides noiselessly shut behind her.

“What’s going—” Jessica begins to speak, but stops when she sees Matt sitting in the dental chair.

“Glad you could join us,” Ryzaard says. “Please come in. There is someone here for you to meet.”

Their eyes find each other, and Jessica runs to Matt. Then her eyes drop to the binders on his wrists and ankles. She stops. “Matt, what’s going on? You just sent me a message a few minutes ago. I thought you were in Jap—” The guard pushes her again from behind. “Is this some kind of joke?” she says.

“Jess, it’s a trap. They’ve been using my jax to talk to you.” Matt’s stomach turns at the thought of what Ryzaard might do to her. “I’m sorry.”

Ryzaard speaks up. “Please, come over here and have a seat.”

Standing where she is, Jessica refuses to move. The two guards behind her each grab an arm and a leg, and lift her squirming body vertically off the floor, placing her firmly and roughly in the chair next to Matt.

“Thank you,” says Ryzaard. He touches a finger to the gold card, and the metal binders light up, closing on Jessica’s ankles and wrists.

Matt looks over and sees Jessica’s hand close to his. Clasping it tightly, he feels her return the grip. The warmth of her skin and the strength of her hand allow him to relax a little.

As his eyes dart around the room, his mind races to find a way to fight back, a way to protect Jessica. He wishes he could explain it all to her now, about the Stones and the Allehonen. But there isn’t time. She’s here because of him, and now it’s up to him to find a way out.

Her eyes find his, and her lips start moving in silence.

What’s going on? Who are they?

Staring back at Jess, Matt answers in the same way.

Can’t explain. They want me to do something I can’t. Trust me.

There’s a brief smile on her face that kills Matt. He wonders if she knows he has no idea what’s going to happen or what to do.

Twisting her body in the chair, Jessica looks squarely at Ryzaard. “You can’t do this to us.” She tries to work her wrists and ankles loose, and then flashes defiant eyes at everyone in the room but Matt.

Ryzaard smiles, walks close to her and slaps her face, leaving a red mark. “You’ve probably heard that MX Global is building a new office tower on the other side of the Hudson. They just started pouring concrete. It would be a pity to end up as part of the foundation, don’t you think?”

Blood trickles down the corner of her mouth. She licks it and glares up at her tormentor, saying nothing.

Arching his back off the chair, Matt tries to move, tries to get free, tries to do something. He settles back down in frustration. “Jess, don’t resist. Just do what he says. It’ll be all right.”

Ryzaard grins at Matt. “Good advice, my young friend. And entirely correct.” He turns to the two guards. “Please follow me out.” He walks past Alexa to the other side of the room, trailed by the two men and the eyes of Matt and Jessica.

A smirk snakes across Alexa’s face.

Just before they get to the door, Ryzaard’s body turns into a blur of movement. When he steps a few paces back, the two guards drop to the floor clutching their chests. Bloody wounds cause a scarlet stain to spread on their shirts.

Ryzaard bends down and wipes the blade of the dagger on the sleeve of one of the fallen men. “My apologies. Alexa, please see that this mess is cleaned up.” He begins to walk back in the direction of Matt and Jessica.

Alexa nods and steps out of the way onto the blue rug. Ryzaard passes by on the outer edge of the room.

He stops in front of the two dental chairs. “Now that we are all here, let me explain how this is going to work.” Ryzaard looks down at his feet and steps away from the blue rug. Then he pulls a thin gold card out of his pocket and touches a red spot painted on its surface.

The stainless steel cube near the base of Matt’s chair begins to purr softly. The corners of Ryzaard’s lips turn up slightly. He takes the little stone box out of another pocket, flips open the lid on its tiny hinges, tips it upside down and catches the Stone as it rolls out. The lid snaps shut. He lets the box drop to the floor.

The next instant, Matt reaches out to his Stone and strains for the connection. There is only the slightest of links, a thin strand of spider silk compared to what should be a steel cable.

One eyebrow rises as Ryzaard makes eye contact with Matt.

Ryzaard pulls out his own Stone and stands there with one in each hand, looking back and forth, admiring them.

His eyes move to Jessica. “This is power.” A grin of child-like wonder flickers across his face. “Watch carefully.”

He appears and vanishes in several places, bouncing around the room, like an ancient movie reel, skipping frames.

Alexa rolls her eyes.

When Ryzaard is done, he jumps into view from nowhere, standing directly in front of Matt and Jessica.

A strange wheezing sound floats into Matt’s ears, and he turns to see Jessica in the chair next to him, struggling for breath as her chest heaves up and down. Matt remembers her asthma. It must have been triggered by the shock of being thrown into the dental chair next to Matt, compounded by the sight of Ryzaard flitting around the room.

As Matt squeezes her hand, she grips him back hard, and then slowly releases.

“She’s fading. It’s asthma,” he yells. Taking in a deep breath to calm himself, he tries to reach out to the Stone and somehow use it to heal her. But there’s not enough of a connection. Its power is useless to him.

Ryzaard calmly turns his back to Jessica. “Jing-wei.”

A few meters in front of them, the enlarged face of a Chinese woman flashes on the bluescreen that forms the wall. “Yes, Dr. Ryzaard?”

“We’re having a little problem here. Asthma, I believe. Can you help?”

Jing-wei looks down from the bluescreen. Jessica’s face is a distinctly gray color, and her chest is no longer moving up and down.

“Just a few more seconds.” Jing-wei’s fingers move across a slate, eyes sweeping back and forth, up and down, scanning for information. “Here it is.” She turns and presses a finger to the slate.

A buzzing sound, almost like a bee, comes out of the arm of the dental chair where Jessica lies. A small compartment opens, and a stainless steel tube emerges to press against the skin of Jessica’s bicep. There is a quick burst of compressed air, and the tube withdraws into the arm of the chair.

Jessica’s chest relaxes, and she draws in several deep breaths. At first, her breathing is rough, but it slows over time.

“I hope you’re feeling better.” Ryzaard looks at Jessica with what appears to be genuine concern in his eyes. “Now let’s continue with the exercise.” He turns back to Jing-wei’s face on the wall. “Elsa, are you there?”

Elsa Bergman’s upper body comes onto the bluescreen, framed in a square next to Jing-wei’s. “Yes, Professor Ryzaard, I’m here. Ready to go.”

“Good.” Ryzaard turns to Matt and lobs his Stone to him.

It falls squarely into Matt’s right hand, and his fingers instinctively snap shut around it. A sense of warmth and comfort spreads out from his hand, and his heart rate and breathing begin to slow. This time he feels the Stone, alive and connected. Why would Ryzaard just give it to him? Perhaps it’s some kind of trick.

All eyes in the room turn to Matt.

“Don’t be afraid, it’s not a trap. I want you to use it.” Ryzaard stands there, staring down at Matt with a look of expectation.

His eyelids float softly down, and Matt finds the place on the beach, next to his mother. The surf is coming in and out, and a feeling of harmony and balance soaks through his body. It’s been a long time since he felt this content. Reaching out with his mind, he grabs on to the tension around him and holds it.

When his eyes open, Jessica is motionless, as still as a picture. So is Alexa.

But not Ryzaard. He moves along the wall. “Feels good, doesn’t it, Matt? To have the Stone again. To feel the power again. It feels right.”

Matt doesn’t answer. Holding on to the sound of the surf, he thinks of the boulder on the mountaintop in Japan where he saw the Allehonen. His fingers close tightly around Jessica’s hand. There’s no response. She’s still in time-freeze.

I hope I can take her with me when I jump.

He takes in another breath and, in his mind’s eye, sees himself standing on the top of the bounder with Jess. Willing himself to go there, he braces himself.

But nothing happens.

Maybe it’s too far away.

He remembers the long hallway outside of Ryzaard’s office, the one he came through a few hours ago after getting off the transport. If they could make it there and find the elevators, maybe they could get out. Taking more time, he can see the corridor and its stainless steel walls in his mind. Once again he relaxes into the image of him and Jessica standing between the walls, walking out.

Nothing.

Ryzaard turns his back to Matt. “The Stone doesn’t quite work as it did before. You can stop time, a rather simple matter, but not perform the higher functions, like jumping.” He walks back and forth in front of Matt like a professor delivering a lecture. “You have Naganuma to thank for that. He supplied me with one of those little boxes that shield the Stone. With the help of my science team, we began to collect data on the Stone and the little box. A few days ago, we had a breakthrough.” Ryzaard points to the silver cube in the middle of the rug. “You’ve seen one of these before. It imitates the effect of the box, if you have a strong enough power source. We can disable the Stone completely, or modulate the effect so that only limited use of the Stone is possible. I won’t bore you with the details.”

Matt lets go of the image of the beach. As he does, Jessica’s body moves again, and there’s a startled look on her face. He must have moved slightly, and she no doubt saw it as a sudden jerk, as if a movie skipped multiple frames.

“Matt, how did you—”

“He has a Stone just like mine,” Ryzaard interrupts. “Would you like to see him use it? We’ll have a demonstration right now.” Ryzaard turns to the image of Elsa Bergman on the wall behind him. “Elsa, everything ready?”

“Ready, Professor.”

“Good. Please put the trading algorithm on our screen and take us through.”

Next to Elsa’s face on the wall, a box appears with streaming data, numbers and charts. Matt recognizes the stock symbols and real-time quotes.

Clearing her throat, Elsa begins to speak. “Dr. Ryzaard’s Stone has certain unique properties that allow us to predict stock price fluctuations with a high degree of accuracy.” Her voice comes in short spurts, like a pressure valve releasing steam, with a trace of a Scandinavian accent. “We beam a data stream of stock quotes into the Stone.” Her thin eyebrows jump up a notch. “It responds with its own data stream, corresponding to future movements of the stock. The results will be on-screen.”

All eyes turn to the wall.

Elsa clears her throat. “For this demonstration, we have selected Red Hill Dynamics, a stock with unusually high volume and volatility. Here are the real-time stock price movements on the French Bourse as we speak.” A green line snakes across the bottom of the bluescreen. “Future stock prices as predicted by the Stone are shown in red.” A red line shoots out to the right. As they watch, the green line catches up to the red one and follows the jagged red path precisely, like one snake swallowing another. There is silence for almost a minute as all eyes track what is happening on the screen.

“As you see, we can accurately predict stock movement approximately thirteen seconds in advance.”

Holding the gold card in his hand, Ryzaard’s finger slides along its surface.

There is a subtle shift in Matt’s connection to the Stone. Wrapping his fingers more tightly around it, he lets his eyelids drop down and relaxes into the familiar state of mind to stop time, but this time it doesn’t work.

“Very impressive, as always, Elsa,” Ryzaard turns back to face Matt. “Now let us see what happens when we add another Stone to the mix. After all, that is why you are still alive.”

“Just a minute while we recalibrate the settings.” Elsa taps a slate with one hand. “The second Stone has been detected. We will proceed with the trading algorithm.”

Matt looks at Jessica and smiles, mouthing the words trust me, and then stares straight ahead at the bluescreen. In his mind, he imagines a protective barrier around his Stone.

A green line appears showing the real time stock movements, and, to the right, a red line, the same as before.

“Just a minute,” Elsa says. “Let me make a few adjustments.” She picks up the slate and sits back, eyes sweeping rapidly left to right. A tense silence fills the room.

“What seems to be the problem?” Ryzaard says.

On the wall screen, Elsa looks up. “I don’t understand. The algorithm detects the second Stone, but it doesn’t seem to be responding.”

Ryzaard slowly turns to face Matt.

Matt cocks one eyebrow and grins. “Is there a problem, Dr. Ryzaard?” Sarcasm drips from his voice.

“Jing-wei,” Ryzaard says, without taking his eyes off Matt.

“Yes, Dr. Ryzaard?”

“Please prepare the injection.”

The Chinese girl hesitates. “Are you sure, Dr. Ryzaard?” A look of concern flashes across her face.

“Just do it. Now.”

“Got it.” She turns around in her chair and bends down, going out of view for a few seconds, and then pops back up. “All ready to go.”

A low humming sound drifts into Matt’s ears to his left, and he realizes that it’s coming from close to Jessica. A compartment opens along the arm of her chair. She tries to pull away, but the binders on her wrist don’t allow any movement. In a blur, a slender needle slides out and into Jessica’s forearm. As it withdraws back into the chair, a tiny spot of blood beads up on her skin.

“No. Don’t.” she says. It only takes seconds for her to start gasping for air. Her eyes drift over to Matt, pleading for help.

“What’s going on?” Matt yells, speaking to Ryzaard’s back. “What have you put in her.”

Ryzaard stands unmoving. “A simple injection of highly concentrated arachis oil.”

“What do you mean?” Matt looks at Jessica struggling for breath.

“Peanuts,” Jessica gasps. Her lips move as she tries to say more, but can’t.

“Let’s see,” Ryzaard says. “She will lose consciousness and stop breathing within a minute and a half. It will take four or five more for oxygen deprivation to cause irreversible brain damage. Peanut allergies are a terrible thing.” Ryzaard speaks in a clinical monotone voice and looks directly into Matt’s eyes. “I’ll be in my office if you’d like to discuss this further.” Ryzaard turns to Alexa. “Come with me. Let’s give them the privacy they need to think this over.”

The two of them walk out the door, and it seals shut behind them.

CHAPTER 95

The sound of distant voices plays in the diode in Kent’s ear.

“Are you really going to kill the girl?” a woman says.

“Without hesitation, if that’s what it takes to get the boy to cooperate.” Ryzaard speaks evenly and clearly. “The value of her life quickly goes to zero as he hinders our work.”

The woman speaks again, this time with a sense of urgency. “Better turn the holo on so we can hear what he has to say.” There’s the sound of something metallic dropping onto a wooden surface like a desk.

The water bottle in Kent’s hand slips out of his fingers to the floor. He’s frozen in a sitting position, unable to move, concentrating every faculty on the sound in his ear.

Ryzaard clears his throat. “There is no need for urgency when you hold all the cards. That is one of the advantages of power.”

“She’s dying!” Matt’s voice breaks through, a mixture of screams and sobs. “Please come back. I’ll do whatever you want. Just don’t let her die.”

“Sounds like the young man has come to his senses,” Ryzaard says.

The sound of crisp footsteps echoes across a floor, followed by the faint swishing of a door opening.

The voices fade into silence.

Rage builds inside Kent and pushes to get out. His lungs feel like they are bursting. He wants to vent his feelings by yelling loud enough for Ryzaard to hear, but he knows that will only draw unwanted attention. Pressing his teeth together and flexing his jaw muscles, he fumbles in the dark for the water bottle and stands up. With labored breathing and a wild pulse, he rummages through the backpack, finds the black suction holders, and presses them against the old door.

The Corrizol should have weakened the weld seam by now. He pushes the suction holders against the wall and pulls hard.

The metal gives slightly around the edges.

Taking in a deep breath, Kent rocks the metal sheeting using his body weight. In a few seconds, he works it free and moves it to the side, revealing a dark interior space. He offers silent thanks that he hasn’t opened up into a conference room full of live people. For now, he prefers to stay well hidden. Slipping a shaky hand into his pocket, he takes out a small infrared diode and presses it to his forehead. With a single tap, it turns on, and he slips IR goggles from the backpack over his eyes. As he moves into the darkness, his head sweeps back and forth to survey the room.

He doesn’t like what he sees.

According to the old design plans, it should be a utility closet full of pipes and wiring. But it’s not. Instead, he sees a large empty space with a thick layer of dust on everything. In the darkness with only his IR goggles to see through, it’s like walking around on the bottom of the ocean floor.

He walks into the stifling heat of the room. The walls are bare except for a row of broken and cracked mirrors on his right. A line of fist-sized holes are punched at waist level. The utility closet must have been widened and turned into a restroom at some point in the last thirty years. He tries to let his shoulders relax down as he walks deeper into the room, searching for an entrance on the opposite wall.

Then he finds it, an old metal door complete with a doorknob.

Smiling to himself, he wipes the sweat from his eyes and moves quickly across the open floor. On the way, he reaches for the water bottle, but it’s gone. He must have left it back at the entrance.

He turns to walk back and instantly freezes. The black outline of a security guard stands in the opening, a pistol in one hand and Kent’s water bottle in the other. As Kent becomes a statue in the middle of the floor and stares, the security guard reaches into his pocket. With eyes squinting in the dark, it’s clear he’s about to pull out a flashlight.

It’s now or never.

Kent grabs his jax and swipes his thumb across the top.

The security guard finds his flashlight and turns it on.

Kent’s heart stops as a sharp beam of light penetrates into the room and slowly sweeps along the wall five meters to his right.

A jax crackles with static.

“Jack, where are you?” It’s a voice of desperation yelling, clearly audible in the silence.

The guard lets the beam of his flashlight drop to the floor. “I’m down at base level five. It looks like—”

“We need you back up here, Jack, right now. All hell’s breaking loose.”

“What?” As the guard turns around, he swings the flashlight and the beam cuts through Kent’s eyes. “What’s going on, man?” He steps back out through the entrance.

“The security portal’s going crazy. None of the badges are working. Everyone is triggering class D alerts, even the guards, like they’re all carrying explosives and trying to blow up the building. It’s rush hour, man. We have to process each one manually until the system’s back up. It could take hours. We need you now!”

“But I thought I saw—”

“I said now! Get your butt up here.”

“Copy that.” The security guard turns and moves out of view. “I’m on my way.”

The footsteps echo down the corridor and then go silent.

The interruption has caused a sudden change of plans. That little grey lump Kent dropped on the sidewalk at the entrance to the building is doing its job right now. But he set it off sooner than planned.

There’s less than ten minutes to get to the power generators.

Kent runs across the floor to the doorknob he saw earlier and twists it hard.

CHAPTER 96

Matt grips Jessica’s limp hand and faces Ryzaard. “What do you want me to do?”

“Cooperate.”

Jessica’s eyelids drop shut, and her fingers slowly uncurl from Matt’s hand.

“How?” Matt screams.

Ryzaard speaks slowly and carefully. “Open your Stone to me. Stop resisting. Trust me.”

“How can I trust you?” Nausea washes over Matt. The room feels like it’s shifting around him.

“You need to find a way. The choice is yours.” Ryzaard looks down on Jessica. “A pity to see her die so young.”

Jessica’s arm drops down and bangs against the side of the bed. Her head falls back and rolls to one side, facing Matt. A clear liquid runs out of the corner of her mouth.

The Stone feels heavy. Matt relaxes his grip on it and closes his eyes, trying to imagine himself walking up to Ryzaard, dropping on one knee, and opening his palms as he lifts the Stone up in both hands. He bows before Ryzaard and offers the Stone to him, opening his whole soul to him.

Take it.

“I’m picking up a second signal.” Elsa Bergman’s blond head appears on the bluescreen. “It’s coming in weakly, but getting stronger. Patching into the trading algorithm.”

The red line at the bottom of the screen shoots out to the right by more than a meter.

Elsa clears her throat. “Increased power confirmed. The predictive algorithm now extends out in excess of two minutes.”

“Very good.” Ryzaard turns to Jing-wei’s face on the wall. “Do the epinephrine injection.”

“Got it.” Without waiting, Jing-wei’s fingers brush a slate on her lap, as if she’s been waiting to do it.

They hear the whirring noise again. A steel tube with a needle on the end jumps out of the chair near Jessica’s leg and presses against it, followed by a hissing sound. Her eyes remained closed, but her mouth opens and gasps for air. In a few seconds, her chest is heaving up and down, breathing deeply.

With his hands together, Ryzaard turns to Matt. “Very good, my young friend. You learn quickly.” He glances back at the screen where the red line is running far out along the bottom. “The old manuscripts are true. With two Stones, you get a tenfold increase in power. A full magnitude. Amazing.”

Suddenly, Matt understands how Ryzaard is going to play this game. “So, you’re using Jessica to force me.”

Ryzaard faces the bluescreen. “If necessary, yes. But in time I hope you will come to see things as I do and want to play a more active role. But either way, Naganuma was right. The Stones are much more powerful this way. He was right to not kill you. Shall we try something else?”

“How about the location algorithm?” The face of Diego Lopez appears on the wall next to Jing-wei. “With ten times the power, I’ll bet we can locate other unprotected Stones in minutes instead of hours.”

“I was thinking the same thing. It will make the collecting of the remainder of the Stones much easier.” Ryzaard looks down and steps off the rug. “But let’s work on that a bit later. There’s something else I want to try.” He turns his gaze to Elsa. “Please continue with the upgraded trading program. See if the additional Stone allows us to increase the number of stocks and derivatives that can be traded simultaneously. I expect it will.”

“I’ll jump on it right now.” Elsa’s face fades from the bluescreen.

Diego’s face appears on the wall screen in profile. He’s turning his head to look at a large slate on his desk, a deep furrow between his eyebrows. “Dr. Ryzaard, an alert just got issued for the entire building. Looks like some sort of interruption at the security portal in the lobby. They’re telling us to—”

“Deal with it. I don’t want to hear about it,” Ryzaard waves a hand in front of his face. “I’m in the middle of a breakthrough here.”

“OK, but—”

“I said deal with it.” Ryzaard slips the gold card out of his pocket and touches it.

“But Dr. Ryzaard—” Jing-wei says.

The bluescreen goes white and silent as she and Diego vanish.

Pacing back and forth with nervous energy, Ryzaard stops squarely in front of Matt. “Now then, there is a little experiment I’ve been wanting to try for some time. It could change everything, and I think it might work.” He shifts his gaze to Jessica, who is breathing normally with her eyes still closed. “I assume that I will have your full cooperation.”

Matt feels a shift around him, and the room goes silent. He glances at Jessica. Her chest is no longer rising and falling with the rhythm of breath. For an instant, he fears she has died, but then he notices that Alexa is also standing still. Ryzaard has stopped time. He and Matt are the only things moving in the room.

“Ever heard of Marcus Tullius Cicero?” Ryzaard says.

“Cicero? Of course.”

“They say he was one of the greatest orators in the history of the Roman Empire, perhaps the world.” Ryzaard puts his hand in his pockets, steps back off the rug and walks back and forth between Matt and the bluescreen. “Ever read any of his speeches?”

Matt wonders why Ryzaard is talking about Cicero, of all people. But he thinks it best to play along and wait for an opening, a way to escape.

“I must have studied him back in my freshman Western Civilization class,” Matt says.

“Can you remember any of the speeches or tell me anything about even one of them?”

“Is this a test?”

“No.” Ryzaard stops and turns. “The point is that his speeches are a complete bore. I’ve read them all. Historians like to talk about his meteoric rise from humble origins to consul of the Roman Empire, holding each position along the way at the youngest age allowed. Of course, they all give the credit to his phenomenal speaking ability. But I don’t buy it.”

Ryzaard’s voice becomes background noise. Matt relaxes into his breath. In his mind, he sees the hilltop where the Allehonen came to him. Gripping Jessica’s cold hand tightly, he wills himself to jump there, just as he jumped from the sea to the little house on Naganuma’s world. He can feel the Stone, almost like it’s alive.

But nothing happens.

It’s like reaching a hand into a river and trying to grab it. He can feel the wetness of the current rushing through his fingers, but can’t get a grip on it.

A hand strikes him across the face. “Stop trying to leave. It won’t work.” Ryzaard towers over him.

Matt raises his eyebrows in feigned innocence. “So how did Cicero do it?” he says.

“Let me show you. I’ll need your help.”

Matt notices that Ryzaard steps on the dark blue area of the rug and then immediately draws back. “What do you want me to do?”

“An ancient Egyptian manuscript speaks of a man who rose to become Pharaoh over all the land, whose words had such an overpowering effect on listeners, that it was impossible for them to disagree with him.”

Matt nods his head. “He had a Stone?”

“No, he had two of them. Or rather, I suspect he had one and his son had one.”

Now Matt understands what Ryzaard is driving at. “So you want to try it out?”

“Precisely.”

“How?”

Ryzaard walks around the outer edge of the room to the side of Jessica and Matt. After a moment’s hesitation, he steps quickly onto the blue part of the rug. The sounds in the room come back for a few seconds, like someone is turning the volume back up. Ryzaard goes to the front of the refrigerator and peeks inside. He quickly shuts the door and steps off the rug.

The room is silent again.

Ryzaard glances at Alexa, standing near the door. “She hates anything raw. Especially fish. Always orders her steaks well done. Won’t even eat an apple or carrot unless it’s cooked.” He laughs. “She told me that she once bit into some rotten Albacore tuna as a child and has not been able to stomach the stuff ever since.”

“What are you going to do? Make her eat the sushi?”

“Better than that.” Ryzaard starts walking to her. “I am going to make her like it.”

“How?”

“Easy. You concentrate on her eating the sushi and loving it. See it in your mind. Create it in your mind. According to Naganuma, you are especially good at that. I will do the same. You won’t have to say a thing. Just concentrate and watch.”

Jessica begins to stir in the chair next to him. He turns his head to the opposite end of the room to look at Alexa. She has her back to them and is fidgeting with her hair.

Matt closes his eyes and images Alexa craving raw fish. He sees her shoving great handfuls into her mouth, ravenous for more.

“Alexa,” Ryzaard says. “Are you hungry?”

She turns around. “No thanks, I had a snack before I came.”

“Eat too many protein bars and you will get nothing but gas.” Ryzaard raises an eyebrow. “Why don’t you have something fresh from the fridge over there? It should be well-stocked.”

Matt cracks his eyes open to sneak a look at Alexa and quickly shuts them. He goes back to the image in his mind of her devouring the sushi.

“Maybe I will have something. I suddenly feel hungry.” She walks across the rug to the refrigerator a few steps from Matt’s chair. The door comes open. “This raw fish looks great.” She grabs the plate and sits down on the sofa. Without hesitation, she picks up a large pink piece of yellow tail, immerses it in soy sauce, and pops the whole thing in her mouth. “Delicious,” she says with her mouth full.

After one minute of listening to her eat, Ryzaard clears his throat. Matt opens his eyes to see Ryzaard draw a hand quickly across his throat.

It’s his signal for Matt to stop. The image of Alexa fades from his mind.

The next instant, a gagging noise comes from the sofa. Alexa drops the plate and its contents on the rug and runs from the room, holding her mouth.

A look of triumph flashes across Ryzaard’s face.

“Jing-wei,” he says.

Her image materializes on the wall screen. “Yes, Dr. Ryzaard.”

“Get the President of the United States on the line. I’d like to have a chat with him.”

CHAPTER 97

Please don’t let him die.

Kent pulls hard on the knob, and the door swings open on screaming hinges. Taking a step forward, he stops in the utter darkness of a long corridor and leans against a dusty wall to catch his breath. With no ventilation, the air has the taste of an old crypt. Seeing only by the light of the diode on his forehead and the IR goggles, he moves through murky green space, like an astronaut on some alien world. It’s all in sharp focus out to a distance of two or three meters, but beyond that, everything fades into an oblivion of mist. A rat the size of a cat runs through the corridor and bursts out of the haze to brush against his leg. He nearly falls back and hits the ground, catching his breath and thinking about the MEPP explosives in his backpack.

They’ll become very angry if there are any jarring movements.

If his calculations are correct, the chaos in the lobby is now consuming all available security personnel. It won’t last long. In time, a guard with a scanner will locate the source of the disturbance in the concrete outside the front door. And it will all be shut down.

At the end of the hall, the corridor turns left and runs for a short distance before it terminates in a dead end. He gently places his backpack on the ground and takes out two ultrasound sensors, each the color and shape of hockey pucks. Both of them go on the wall two feet apart. Then he pulls a slate out of the backpack, activates the interface and stares at the screen, hoping against hope that the building plans were correct.

There it is on the slate, a view of what’s hiding behind the wall. The entrance to the original elevator shaft.

The only open space in the building running in an unbroken line from bottom to top.

Back in ‘35, Tibetan monks placed tanks of liquid hydrogen in the elevator shafts of hi-rise buildings in every major capitol, flooding them with ultra flammable gas. At the same instant, as they silently meditated on skyscraper roofs around the world and ignited the explosions, the buildings emptied their guts from the inside out.

The massacre triggered a massive response. New laws, new government regulations. New architecture. Elevator design changed. Shafts no longer ran in straight lines through building cores, but were disconnected, staggered. Old elevators were dismantled, the shafts filled in.

MX Global’s lawyers quietly lobbied and obtained exemptions to avoid the enormous cost of removing the old shaft in its corporate headquarters. Kent had heard the story before.

And the shaft is still there, behind the wall.

Kent repositions the hockey pucks and engages the resonance protocol on the slate. A deep rumble moves out from the pucks and penetrates the wall. He steps back with eyes focused ahead. An oblong area of cinder blocks peels away and crumbles to the floor. When the dust clears, it reveals a decades old elevator door with a seam running down the middle.

With winch separators from his backpack, Kent inserts their tips into the seam and watches as the doors slowly move apart. Stepping through, he balances on the massive steel coils at the bottom of the shaft and gingerly inhales. The air is even more stale and dead than in the corridor. There’s a distinct smell of oil mixed with the odor of decaying rats and ancient dust. He stares up into the stretch of darkness above him and runs his hand along the steel wall of the shaft. It’s surprisingly warm.

Just a foot above his head, he touches the end of a horizontal steel bar, the bottom rung of the access ladder that runs the entire length of the shaft.

He presses a soft motion sensor the size of a marble on the inside wall of the shaft at ankle level. A dot pulses green on its tiny surface. If someone tries to follow him, it will trigger an alarm in his ear.

Then he pulls himself up past the first rung, grabs the second and begins to climb.

CHAPTER 98

“I’ll have the order prepared and sign it immediately. Good to speak with you, Dr. Ryzaard.” The President of the United States leans back in the chair behind his desk.

“The pleasure is all mine. I hope to drop by the next time I’m in Washington,” Ryzaard says.

“I look forward to it.”

The image fades from the wall screen, and Ryzaard walks back to Matt from the other end of the room. “Very good,” he says, patting Matt on the shoulder. “We can accomplish much when we work together.”

Matt can hardly believe it. Ryzaard just convinced the President of the United States to allow MX Global and its affiliates to have Level 5 access to the NSA’s secure Mesh-point.

“Kalani,” Ryzaard says.

A young man with a Polynesian face appears on the bluescreen with his bare feet propped up on the desk. “I’m here. Heard everything. Level 5 access. Don’t know how you did it, but I think we just hit the jackpot.”

“It’s just the first of many jackpots, Kalani,” Ryzaard says. “I want to exploit this to its full potential. Spend some time on the Mesh-point, dig around. Find out how this expands our reach.”

Kalani’s face breaks into a wide smile. With the slate in hand, his fingers fly over it like a concert pianist. “Just got on the Mesh-point. Let’s see, we have confidential dossiers on every member of Congress. Classified access to foreign government surveillance operations. Spy satellite database. Even something on Area 51.”

“See what you can find on the current status of talks between Japan and China. Let’s see if the government knows more than I do.” Ryzaard rubs his hands together and puts fingertips to his lips, closing his eyes in contemplation. “There’s so much to do,” he says. “So much that can be done. It’s difficult to decide where to start.”

“Looks like you already have,” Matt says.

At the sound of his voice, Jessica opens her eyes. She’s breathing easy again.

Ryzaard walks back to Matt with his back to the wall screen and looks down, unable to suppress the excitement and exuberance in his face. “I’d like to give you one more chance, to join me. Voluntarily. Let us forget about all these unnecessary restrictions.” He points at Matt’s wrists and the cube in the middle of the room. “You can become part of the inner team. The most important member of the team.”

Matt’s eyes drop to the blue rug. He says nothing.

“What’s he talking about?” Jessica grips Matt’s hand. The firm softness of her fingers causes an instant reaction.

“He wants to take over the world, make everyone his slave. And he wants me to help, to be part of his team.”

Jessica swallows. “What do you mean?”

He turns to look into her eyes, pleading for her understanding. “Listen carefully.” Knowing that she can read his lips, his voice drops down to a bare whisper. “Remember that magic rock of mine? I know this doesn’t make sense, but it gives me power to do things. Incredible things, like stop time, move instantaneously to far away places, see the future, heal myself, see inside atoms, and other stuff I still don’t even know about. He’s got one, too.” Matt glances up at Ryzaard, and then back at Jessica. “If he and I work together, the Stones are even stronger. Unstoppable.”

“You can both have anything you want.” Ryzaard speaks after watching them in silence. His hands spread apart, palms up, like a lawyer making his case to the jury, eyes going first to Matt and then to Jessica. “What it is you want to do? Save all the starving children in Europe? Done. Stop the wars in South America? Done. Find a cure for DNA viruses? Done. With our Stones working together, we can see the future. As we get more Stones and more power, we will control the future, we will make the future, all for the good of humankind.” Ryzaard turns to Jessica. “Isn’t that what you want?”

“Yes, but…” Jessica’s voices falters. “I just saw you kill two men. You’ve hurt Matt. You almost killed me. Why?”

Ryzaard shakes his head. “None of that matters. My only desire is to help Matt focus on the infinite possibilities that lie before him, before both of you. To get you, for just one minute, to really think about what I am offering you, what I am offering the world.”

“And you will force Matt to help you, if he won’t do it on his own?” As Jessica looks at Ryzaard, her eyes seem to go through him.

“Yes, if he leaves me no other choice. But he would be a fool to refuse me.”

Jessica keeps her eyes on Ryzaard for a long time, and then draws them back to Matt as they cloud over with moisture. Her lips begin to move silently, mouthing the words that only Matt can understand.

“Remember the world you wanted to create someday, with the ocean and the beach and the jungle and the mountains covered with snow?”

He silently answers, tears streaking his face. “Yes, Jess, I remember.” From the look in her eyes, he knows what she’s going to say.

“It’s true. It will happen. We will be together. Don’t be afraid. Don’t let him make you afraid. He has no power over us. The most he can do is take away our lives on this Earth. After that, we’ll be together again.”

“I don’t care what happens to me, as long as you are OK.” Matt says. “I just don’t want him to hurt you anymore.”

“He wants to be God.” Glistening lines run down her cheeks as she speaks the silent words. “He’s a monster. He wants to turn you into a monster too. We’ve both seen what he’s capable of. How he works.” Her eyes drop down to the binders on her wrists. “Imagine what he’ll do if he’s in charge of everything. We can’t let that happen. You can’t let that happen.” She squeezes Matt’s hand hard. “Do what you have to do to stop him. No matter what, remember that I love you. Only you.”

Matt feels a huge lump in his throat. “But what about you?”

“Don’t worry about me. Do what you know is right.” Jessica smiles and nods. “I’m ready.”

Ryzaard stands expectantly in front of Matt and Jessica, a look of gentle anticipation on his face.

Turning away from Jessica, Matt looks up at Ryzaard.

“I hope you have finally seen the light with the help of this girl?” Ryzaard says.

“Yes, I have,” Matt flexes his fingers and pulls them into fists. “And I have three words for you.”

Confusion flashes across Ryzaard’s face. “Three words?”

“Go to hell.”

CHAPTER 99

Kent climbs higher on the ladder.

Keep them alive. Help me get there in time.

A huge 40 is painted on the wall in front of him. The quick ascent of floors causes momentary lightheadedness. He hooks an elbow through the rungs and looks 420 feet below at the faint light bleeding into the dark from the fifth floor.

That’s where he cut a hole into the main generator room next to the elevator shaft and placed a cache of MEPPs explosives.

Reaching around into an outside pocket of the backpack, his fingers find the small detonator and bring it in front of his eyes where he can see it clearly.

The timer on the device tells him that he’s ten minutes late. With deep breaths of foul air, he fights back the panic that threatens to spread through his chest.

His finger goes onto the red button, and he pauses to think.

What if they’ve already killed Matt and Jessica? What if he gets to the top and finds an army waiting for him? There’ll be no one left to tell the story to the world. No one left to fight the voracious corporate machine that is consuming his whole family.

If he pushes the button, there will be no turning back.

He takes in a deep breath, and his eyes close. He can see himself, Matt and Yoshiko at the beach. Matt is five or six. They’re walking on the sand at sunset, parallel to the surf, Matt between them, holding both their hands. Kent and Yoshiko each take a big step, and then lift Matt up and swing him forward. He laughs and giggles at the fun of being thrown like a catapult.

It’s a moment that’s been burned into his memory, something he can never forget. If only he had known how happy he was. He didn’t find out until later.

And now it’s too late.

Suddenly, his reverie is interrupted by a rhythmic ringing in his ears. His hand goes up to the side of his face and feels the earphone. A confused panic surges through him until he realizes that it’s the motion alarm at the bottom of the shaft.

It’s been triggered. Someone or something is coming up behind him.

More by instinct than by intention, he presses the red button on the detonator. The timer begins counting backward, and Kent forces himself to climb higher.

In a few minutes, he passes the number 80 printed in blue on the wall of the elevator shaft. A little over halfway. Breathing hard from the quick ascent, the stale air is bitter in his throat and feels almost devoid of oxygen.

Kent’s eyes go down to the red numbers counting backward on his wrist. Only ten minutes to make the climb to the top. He hopes to time the explosion to go off just as he is about to reach the 175th floor. When it happens, the MEPPs will send a shockwave rippling up through the building like a freight train heading for the roof.

And hopefully it will all go dark.

CHAPTER 100

Matt closes his eyes and sees himself mentally turning his back to Ryzaard and walking away, his fingers tightly grasping the Stone.

A moment of silence passes.

“Dr. Ryzaard.” The voice of Elsa Bergman penetrates the silence and her face appears on the bluescreen on the wall. “I’ve lost contact with the second Stone. It isn’t responding any more. The trading algorithm has dropped back to a suboptimal level of prediction. We’re losing millions of IMUs every second.”

A shift moves across Ryzaard’s face, and his smile disappears. “So be it.” He glares down at Matt. “I regret your decision. You will too, but you won’t get another chance.” He turns and faces the wall screen. “Jing-wei, the implant is in place, correct?”

“Yes, Dr. Ryzaard, it was inserted yesterday, while she slept. Right behind the ear.”

“Good. Please shift control to my G-chip.” Ryzaard pulls the thin gold card out of his pocket and holds it in front of him, like a rare specimen of butterfly. He turns to Matt. “I know what you are thinking. You think I am going to kill her, and then you, and then it will all be over. You will both make a noble sacrifice. But that would be too easy.” Ryzaard turns back to the bluescreen on the wall. “Elsa, the trading protocol will resume momentarily. Please stand by.”

Ryzaard places his thumb on the gold card and moves it in a slow, circular motion.

Almost immediately, Jessica throws her head back with unblinking eyes, forcing her lips together as a scream fights to get out.

“The implant will not kill her,” Ryzaard says. “In fact, it is designed to do the opposite. Its sole purpose is to cause pain. I am told it is like a laser beam cutting through brain tissue from a point inside the head.” He takes a minute to study Jessica’s face as a line of saliva trails down from each corner of her trembling lips. “Of course, the drugs will keep her from blacking out and intensify the sensations. Eventually, the pain spreads down the spine and follows nerve pathways out to every part of the body.”

Matt grips Jessica’s hand tightly, trying to give her strength. She shifts her head to look at him, trying to say something, but failing.

In his mind, Matt sees the boulder on top of the hill. He imagines himself and Jessica standing on it, free from Ryzaard’s nightmare. If only he can find an opportunity to make the jump.

“Dr. Ryzaard.” The face of Jing-wei appears on the bluescreen.

“Yes, what is it?”

“Her blood pressure is rising more quickly than projected. There is a danger of irreversible brain damage.” A look of concern spreads across Jing-wei’s face.

“Don’t bother me with such trivialities. Keep her body alive and sensitive to the pain. That is all that matters. I do not care what happens to her brain.” Ryzaard smiles at Matt. “You know how to play this game. As long as you cooperate, she will not be harmed. You have my word. But continue to resist, and everything you love about her will be stripped away, piece by piece, layer by layer, until there is nothing left of the person you once knew. As always, the choice is yours.”

Ryzaard moves his thumb on the gold card, and Jessica’s body seems to relax ever so slightly.

“Matt,” she says.

He stares at her. “Jessica. I’m so sorry.”

She struggles to make sounds come out of her mouth. “Don’t…”

Not waiting for her to finish her sentence, Ryzaard brushes his thumb over the gold card from top to bottom. Jessica’s body slams backward, her belly lifting and spine arching. Matt feels the joints of his fingers cracking as her hand squeezes his like a vise.

“Just a little cooperation. That’s all it will take. Then you can sweep all of her pain away.” Ryzaard reaches into his shirt pocket and pulls out a black pack of cigarettes. He looks relaxed and confident as he withdraws one with his lips. The pack goes back into his pocket.

Alexa approaches slowly with a lighter, flicks it and brings the flame under the tip. As it glows bright red, Ryzaard inhales and blows smoke up to the ceiling. An easy smile passes between him and Alexa.

“Naganuma was right about one thing,” Ryzaard says. “You are strong. You have a natural ability with your Stone, as if you were born to have one. But you are either with me or against me. There is no middle ground.” Ryzaard’s thumb wanders back to the gold card in his hand and swipes down its full length.

A split second later, Jessica’s mouth opens wide, and the shriek of a thousand nightmares gushes out to fill the silence in the room. Her hand lets go of Matt’s and flails in the empty air.

The picture of the hilltop fades from Matt’s mind, replaced by the image of Ryzaard looking down upon him from behind. Matt feels a gentle hand on his shoulder, slowly turning Matt around in the chair.

An instant before their eyes meet, a tremor passes through the floor and walls like a ripple or a heartbeat.

The lights in the room flicker and go black. For the first time, Matt becomes aware of a deep humming sound in the room that has suddenly gone silent, leaving an eerie emptiness in its wake. The binders on his hands and ankles open and fall away in the darkness. A sudden energy surges through him, and he fumbles for half a second to find Jessica’s limp hand. Wrapping his fingers tightly around it, he sees again the boulder on the hilltop in his mind and yearns to go there.

The blackness falls away, and he is enveloped in white.

CHAPTER 101

Something hard is digging into Matt’s back. He shifts positions and notices the sun is warm on his face. The sound of songbirds and cicadas fills his ears. The faint smell of cedar bark wafts by under his nose. The air all around is heavy and moist. He slowly becomes aware that he’s holding something warm and soft in his left hand. The fingers on his other hand grasp the Stone.

It must be a dream, he thinks.

A sense of deep relaxation soaks through him.

And then he remembers. Ryzaard. The room. The chair. Jessica. Blackness.

His eyes shoot open and he looks directly into the sun overhead. A sound on his left causes him to glance over and see Jessica, her hand clasped in his. She’s lying on her back beside him, moaning. They’re both on top of the boulder in the clearing where he saw the Allehonen. A gentle breeze blows through the grove, making Jessica’s hair float around her face.

“My head is killing me.” She touches her forehead and opens her eyes.

Matt leans over and looks down. “Are you OK?”

“Are we dead? Is this a dream?”

Matt caresses her cheeks and, without a word, presses his lips against hers, feeling their softness and warmth. After a long interlude, he pulls away. “We’re not dead. Somehow we made it out of the room and jumped here. I think we’re in Japan. A place I know.”

Her eyes open wide. “Japan? How?” She pulls herself up to a sitting position.

“It’s the Stone. There’s so much to explain, but no time. You have to trust me.”

She dips into his right hand and empties its contents. “So this is the Stone. How does it work?”

Matt leans back. “It’s an ancient artifact, a piece of super technology with the power to manipulate time, space, energy, matter. I don’t really understand it myself.”

“But you know how to use it?” Jessica says.

“A little. I think that’s how we got here.”

Jessica raises her eyebrows and stares at the trees in the grove, and then her eyes open wide with realization. “He has a Stone too. He’ll come after us to kill you.”

“Probably.” Matt stands on his feet and pulls Jessica up. He gently slips the Stone out of her hand. “He may know where we are. Maybe he can follow us. I’m not sure. We have to get away.”

The next instant is a blur.

Matt’s muscles go tense and he hears a faint crackle, like the sound of electricity jumping between wires. There’s the sudden odor of sulfur, and then a man steps out of a bright flash in the air. Before Jessica can move away, the man grabs her hand and jumps off the top of the boulder, pulling her with him. Matt reaches out to her and brushes against her leg as she falls away.

There’s another flash of light that engulfs the man and Jessica, and they both vanish.

In that instant, Matt feels a pull toward the flash, like standing only centimeters from a speeding train as it shoots past. Without thinking, he closes his eyes and relaxes into the pulling sensation, willing himself to go with it, releasing control over his body. Silence falls around him.

He opens his eyes in darkness and smells the odor of sulfur again. A cold rain is falling, and the ground is spongy and unstable. Straining his eyes to see, large dark shapes loom high in the distance.

After a few more seconds, it all comes into focus.

Ryzaard is twenty meters away, running across a field toward the base of a huge building that rises up like a monolithic tombstone thousands of feet into the dark air.

He’s pulling Jessica behind him.

Dozens of structures on all sides tower over Matt in neat geometric shapes of spheres, cylinders, squares, triangles, each one held up by a thin column of glass. The empty field is an open area in the middle of a dark city lined with trees on the outer edge, an eerie version of Central Park.

Suddenly Matt understands.

I’m back in Ryzaard’s world.

As he sprints in the direction of Ryzaard and Jessica, Matt’s feet sink into black mud, making it feel like weights are hanging from his legs and ankles. He doesn’t think he’s making good time, but when he looks up, he’s gained on them and is only ten meters behind.

Ryzaard suddenly stops and turns, still holding Jessica’s arm just above the elbow. A broad grin cuts across his face.

“Just as I planned,” Ryzaard yells, above the din of the rain. “It all ends here, my friend. You’re too dangerous, too unpredictable.” He thrusts Jessica to the mud.

She goes down hard on her hands and knees. Matt can see now that she’s struggling for breath, chest heaving, hands to her mouth.

Raising his Stone above his head, Ryzaard holds it in both hands like the handle of a broadsword. His eyes drift up to Matt. “Now that I’ve got you here, I don’t need her anymore.” Pulses of blue energy shoot out from the Stone. He points it at Jessica.

Matt grasps the Stone in his right hand and thrusts it forward. A jagged line of energy jumps from its tip. It lashes out and strikes at the pulses coming from Ryzaard’s Stone, dissipating them and shielding Jessica just inches from her head. Each time the two energies make contact, it feels like a hammer smashing into Matt’s hand.

A surge of anger and hatred seems to travel through the jagged line back to Matt’s Stone and into his arm. An image of Ryzaard with teeth bared and hands wrapped around Matt’s neck flashes into his mind. He staggers backward.

Jessica’s eyes flip open, and she rolls away from Ryzaard’s feet. An instant later, a power beam bursts from his Stone and slams into the ground where she had been lying moments ago, only a meter from her. Steam and dirt explode from the impact.

He looks up and smiles. “You can’t beat me, Matt. This is my world, my rules. Your strength is an illusion. It’s over.”

As he speaks, Jessica jumps to her feet and runs on a diagonal away, arcing around to come closer to Matt.

Ryzaard laughs again. As a massive blade of blue energy shoots from his Stone, he swings it in front of him, three feet off the ground, in a full circle, on target to catch Jessica at the waist and cut her and Matt in two.

Lunging forward, another jagged line bursts out of Matt’s Stone to intercept Ryzaard’s blade, bringing it to a full stop. Matt feels the full impact in his arms, and it’s like getting shocked with thousands of volts of electricity. He screams out in pain. A rush of violent emotions explode inside his head. In his mind’s eye, he sees and feels Ryzaard thrusting a dagger into his chest. The combination of pain and imagery causes him to stumble and drop to his knees in the mud. A wave of weakness and nausea washes over him. His legs are trembling uncontrollably.

Jessica steps in front, between him and Ryzaard, her hands bent into fists.

The smile is gone from Ryzaard’s face, and he’s breathing hard. “Why do you resist?” he yells across the five meters that now separate them.

In the pouring rain, a small river of water runs over Matt’s hair and down his spine. The jagged line of energy extending out from his Stone grows thin and flickers off. The Stone goes cold and black. He tries to imagine the light shooting out. Nothing happens.

Ryzaard walks slowly toward them. A curved blade of blue sticks from the tip of his Stone like a neon arc in the darkness. Drops of rain sizzle and steam on its surface. He lifts it high in the air.

With vision blurring, Matt’s legs feel like wooden stumps, no longer part of him, no longer under his control.

Ryzaard moves closer. “Power is the ultimate reality.” His soft voice is barely audible through the din of the rain. “How does it feel to be powerless, as helpless as a baby? To watch those you love struck down because of your refusal to embrace a precious gift.”

Something moves around him and gently touches Matt’s back and caresses his neck. It’s Jessica, her fingers tracing lines back and forth, like she always does when they are alone.

“I love you,” she says, her lips close to his ear so that only he can hear. “He can never take that away.”

A rush of emotion flows through his body and collects in the middle of his chest. From there, it moves out into his legs and arms, warming him in a way he’s never felt before.

“This is like a bad movie that just goes on and on.” Ryzaard says. “But it ends now.” He raises both arms high in the air. The energy blade of the Stone is now several meters long and dwarfs him in size, pointing straight up over his head. He visibly grinds his teeth together as he walks closer. The muscles in his jaw flex as rain drips from his mouth and beard.

Jessica puts her arms around Matt’s chest and holds him tightly. “Together,” she whispers.

Digging deep, Matt tries to move his legs again, but they seem to be firmly cemented into the mud. He drops his arms down to his sides and closes his eyes, feeling the rain run down his face and hoping the end would be quick and painless for both of them.

In the black rain, his thinks of Jessica, the warmth of her body against him, her willingness to stand by him and die with him. His dad is somewhere back in the real world. He regrets that his dad will never know what happened to them. They will die together on an alien world light years from earth, their bones rotting in the mud under a relentless rain. He thinks of his mom. With his eyes closed, he searches his memories and finds that day on the beach, her smiling face looking down on him.

A sliver of light takes shape on the back of his shut eyelids. It grows in the darkness until it becomes the face of the Woman from the hilltop in Japan, eyes the color of brilliant amber, lips moving.

“We are the Allehonen.”

As his breath slows and deepens, warmth surges over and through Matt like an ocean tide, flooding into his body, sweeping away the fear of death and Ryzaard, leaving only love in its wake. Love for Jessica, his father, his mother. To his surprise, the love brings energy. He feels it moving down from his eyes to his fingertips, descending his legs to the soles of his feet.

His eyelids flutter opened.

Ryzaard stands ten feet away, holding his Stone in both hands overhead, bloodshot eyes fixed on Matt.

As he stares into those eyes, Matt finds that the hatred for Ryzaard has drained away. In an instant, he sees the happy child that Ryzaard had been, playing baseball in the park across the street from his home in Poland. He sees the dark planes overhead like a cloud of locusts, the tanks rolling down the streets, the coming of the Nazis. He sees Ryzaard’s father taken away and the last dying gasps of his mother. Last of all, he sees the young man in the death camp, stripped of all humanity, helpless and alone.

A feeling of pity mixed with love wells up in Matt’s chest. He tries to speak, but finds that he is unable to move his tongue or mouth.

I understand, he thinks. I understand, and I… love you.

A look of utter surprise crosses Ryzaard’s face. For a brief instant, his eyebrows lift. His Stone drops to his side, and the energy blade fades away. He swallows and takes a step back.

Then a renewed look of determination replaces the look of surprise. Ryzaard’s jaw clenches shut.

Matt hears the voice of a man in his head.

There is no understanding or love. Only power.

With rain pouring off his curled lips, Ryzaard leans forward, raises the Stone and brings the energy blade down in an arcing overhead swing.

CHAPTER 102

“I think you should have a seat first.” Long lines in the tall man’s forehead stand out in the dim light of the tent, darkened by the dust that sticks to everything in the camp. He looks down at Little John.

“Sit down? Why? What’s going on?” Little John paces back and forth, more nervous than ever.

“He’s in the building.”

“Inside? How did he get inside? MX Global has the most sophisticated security technology on the market. They developed most of it themselves.”

“There’s been a major security lapse at the building.” The tall man takes a white handkerchief out of his pocket and wipes the sweat from his forehead. He looks down at the brown stains on the cloth.

“Tell me about it.”

“From what we know, the protocols at the main level security portal suffered a massive breach. Or so it appears. There’s been a full scale breakdown. Security implants aren’t working, and it’s rush hour. The whole area is locked down. It’s chaos.”

“A diversion?” Little John cocks his head to one side.

“That’s my guess.”

“How do you know he’s penetrated into the building?”

The tall man shifts his weight back and forth on his large feet. “There was an explosion.” He lets the words come out slowly and carefully.

“An explosion? Where?”

“The onsite power generators. They’re all on level 5. Looks like he got them with the shaped charges.”

Little John sits down in the camp chair next to the small fridge. He opens it and takes out a cold beer, pops off the top and takes a long drink before looking up.

“So there’s no power in the building.”

“That’s right. It’s dead in the water right now, top to bottom.”

Little John shakes his head back and forth, laughing to himself. “He’s good. You have to give him that. He’s good.” He takes another drink from the can, and then puts it down. “How do you know he’s in the building?”

“The Children are tracking him.”

Little John spews out a mouthful of golden liquid and covers the open floor of the tent.

“Tracking him?” he says. “The Children are inside the building tracking him?” He shakes his head back and forth. “This is bad.”

“They’re following him up an abandoned elevator shaft right now. It looks like he’s heading straight for the top. Right for Ryzaard.”

Little John holds the beer can to his lips for a moment, and then places it on his knee, cocking his head to the side and squinting his eyes, as if he’s trying to see across the thousands of miles that separate him from the crazy man trying to find Ryzaard in the MX Global building.

“The time for decision has arrived.” Little John’s gaze is unfocused, drifting around the tent. “What do we do?”

“Operation Corporate Takeover.” The tall man shifts his weight on his legs. “It’s our only choice.”

Little John looks up. “I know we’ve been thinking about it for years. Are we ready for something that big?”

“Hard to say.” The tall man strokes his chin with long fingers. “We’ve got good climbers, all with the latest scaling equipment. They’ve been itching to do something like this ever since we formed the group. If we got them started now, they’d be up the sides of the building and reach the 175th floor in a few minutes. Then they’d break through the windows at the top. With all the chaos in the building, it might work, at least as a diversion to get him out.”

“What about the visibility?” Little John’s fingers drum the side of the beer can. “It’s still daylight. They’d be seen from the ground. People will get curious. Investigate. It might lead them back to the freedom camps.”

“That’s a chance we have to take, if you want to get him out of there alive.”

“Agreed.” Little John stands up and walks to a pile of pallets at the back of the tent. He picks up a wooden box on top and opens it with a key. The lid pops up, exposing a blue jax. “Get Jones on the line and tell him to get it started. You can give him the details. Let’s hope this doesn’t backfire.”

CHAPTER 103

The last thing Matt remembers is a blast and a blinding flash of light. Then darkness. When he wakes up, he is laying in the mud with Jessica leaning over him, looking down into his face. She helps him get up into a sitting position. Still gripping the Stone in his right hand, Matt has an aching feeling in his wrist just above the Stone.

A dark form lays crumpled on the ground a few meters away.

Matt glances over at it. “Is that Ryzaard?”

“Yes,” Jessica says. Her hands and arms are trembling, her whole body shaking. The same as Matt.

“How did you do it?” she says.

The muscles in Matt’s back ache and spasm. “Do what?”

“Don’t you remember?” Jessica looks incredulous.

“Not really. There was a blinding flash, a big noise.”

“The light exploded out of your Stone and slammed into Ryzaard. Just before it hit, a thin film of blue formed around him like a shield. But your light still blasted him over there. I think you might have killed him.”

The rain is pouring down as Matt stands up on shaky legs and pulls up Jessica. They lean on each other, breathing hard.

“Are you sure he’s dead?” Matt turns to glance at the body of Ryzaard again, lying still in the mud.

Jessica shakes her head. “I don’t know, but he hasn’t moved.”

“Either way, let’s get out of here.” Matt’s fingers go around Jessica’s arm while he holds the Stone firmly in his other hand. “Just relax. I’ll try to move us somewhere else.” With eyes closed, he thinks again of the hilltop in Japan and imagines that he and Jessica are standing there, at the base of the boulder. Any minute, he expects the darkness to vanish and the sun to burst down upon them.

After a long silence, they don’t go anywhere. Matt opens his eyes.

“Not working?” Jessica says.

“No. I don’t know why. I’m doing the same thing I did before.”

His eyelids drop down again, and his grip on Jessica’s arm tightens. This time he thinks of home in Colorado. With a deep focus on his breath, he can feel the air going in and out, belly rising and falling. An image of him and Jessica standing in his kitchen plays through his mind. He opens himself to it, reaches for it.

Nothing.

He has a sense that something is holding him back. His gaze is pulled over to Ryzaard, still lying on the ground. “I’m going to have a look at him. Stay here.”

“Are you crazy? What if he wakes up and—” Jessica stops and becomes a statue.

Before she can finish her sentence, Matt quickly finds the familiar place inside his mind where he goes to stop time.

Great drops of rain hang in the air like dirty diamonds in the darkness.

He walks a few paces through the mud until he’s standing over Ryzaard. Pointing his Stone to the black underbelly of the clouds above, he wills a beam of energy to rise up. A thin white line with crisp edges slowly stretches skyward for two meters until he wills it to stop. Suspended drops of water sizzle and pop against it as he waves it silently in the air. Without warning, he brings it down and slices into the mud inches from Ryzaard’s head. A cloud of steam and dirt explodes at his feet.

In his mind’s eye, he sees the destruction he wreaked on an entire city that night Ryzaard first brought him to this world. He looks around at the shadows of buildings rising around the clearing.

With the Stone in both hands, he finds a connection with the energy beam and wills it to grow longer. Like an extension of his own body, it shoots out another ten meters. As he concentrates, he finds that he can make it bend, as if it were his own arm.

The beam coils up in an elegant spiral high into the sky.

He points it at one of the mammoth buildings two or three hundred meters away. Imagining a sphere of light bursting from Stone’s tip, his thoughts are instantly translated into reality. A ball of blue fire jumps across the distance in a blur where it pierces the structure and, in an explosion of sparks, opens a massive gash in its side.

His lips curl into a grin.

With the Stone in his right hand, he stares down at Ryzaard. He studies the man for any sign of movement.

There isn’t any. Ryzaard is as still as Jessica. Perhaps he is frozen in time, just like her.

Matt’s eyes scan the face. One cheek is half buried in mud. The mouth hangs open with eyes closed to narrow slits. Without taking his eyes off Ryzaard, Matt reaches down and gently tugs at the Stone in Ryzaard’s fingers. It slips out easily.

A feeling of invincibility flows over him as he holds a Stone in each hand.

Time to kill.

The words seem to come into his mind from an outside source. He takes a step back and wills a white blade to grow two meters out of his own Stone. Raising it in the rain, he studies the pulsing white energy and brings it down slowly until it floats above Ryzaard’s exposed neck.

With just a flick of his wrist, he can be rid of this nightmare.

A tremor moves through his hand. He looks back at Jessica, standing motionlessly in the darkness behind him, still in time freeze. Her eyes don’t move, but they seem to urge him on.

But I’ve never killed anyone, he wants to tell her.

Before he can turn back to Ryzaard, a sharp pain shoots up his leg from the back of his knee. Both legs buckle, and he loses his balance. Twisting as he falls, he brings the blade down into the mud where the body of Ryzaard lay.

But Ryzaard is gone.

Ryzaard’s Stone is jerked out of Matt’s left hand. A thin white line flashes above him. His own blade instinctively rises up to meet it. As the two beams make contact, a bone-jarring vibration jolts up his arm, through his shoulder and into his chest. His back slams into the mud.

Ryzaard stands over him. “You are pathetic and despicable. A true weakling. Are you so opposed to using your power that you do not even try to kill me?” He waves his blade over Matt’s head, and the smell of burnt ozone pours off it. “Of course, no one can kill me in this world. I’m safe here. That is how I designed it. You and your friend do not have the same protection.” His jaw clenches shut as he brings the blade down with both hands.

Rolling to the side, a searing heat grazes the skin of Matt’s back.

Ryzaard’s eyes move beyond Matt to Jessica standing still as a rock in the distance. The blade of his Stone stretches out in length to reach beyond her. He grins and swings it savagely to cut her down.

Channeling all his effort, Matt raises his Stone straight up. As light concentrates in its tip, a flat disc of blue energy pops out and blocks the blow. The thought that Jessica is in danger causes a rush of adrenaline. His mind is instantly clear and connects to his body. With a quick arch of his spine, he jumps to his feet.

They stand glaring at each other, blades of pure plasma gleaming, moving in slow circles. Matt keeps the still form of Jessica to his back.

“You haven’t got a chance,” Ryzaard says. He thrusts his blade forward, and it slices the rain close to Matt’s ear before being deflected away.

Ryzaard stops and drops his hand to his side while the blade of his Stone fades away in the darkness.

Matt backs up in the direction of Jessica, keeping his blade bright and pointing at Ryzaard in a defensive posture. The flow of time pulls at him, like a swift river current, and he struggles to hold it back. Something is pushing against him, and it’s getting harder and harder to stay focused.

With his back in a rigid straight posture, Ryzaard holds his Stone at his side as the thin blade grows to a massive length. In a blur, he whips it up and over Matt, as if drawing an arch. Matt’s blade reaches up to meet it too late as it passes over his head. Ryzaard smiles in apparent satisfaction.

He turns and runs in the opposite direction, away from them.

Fighting back the instinct to chase Ryzaard, Matt turns to face Jessica. She is standing still, unharmed. He glances at Ryzaard, receding in the distance, and wonders what’s going on.

The pull of time is getting heavy, and he knows he can’t hold it back much longer. With Ryzaard gone, they seem to be out of danger, so he faces Jessica and allows himself to relax. Time flows again, and Jessica comes to life, a startled look on her face.

Suspended drops of rain pour down.

“You did it again,” she says.

“Did what?”

“Jumped. Moved. It scares me.”

“Sorry,” Matt says. “I stopped time to go have a look at him.” He points behind her. “He’s not dead.”

She turns and stares through the rain as a dark figure moves into the trees around the edge of the clearing. He looks like he’s seeking shelter under one of the mammoth structures just beyond the forest.

“Where’s he going?” Jessica says.

“I don’t know. We have to be careful. He may be playing some sort of trick. Maybe we beat him.”

Weary smiles form on their faces.

“Now that he’s gone, how do we get—” Jessica looks up and freezes, her smile fading, her mouth dropping open. She tries to speak, but the words seem to get stuck in her throat. Her eyes grow larger and larger.

Following her eyes, Matt whips around to see a line of massive skyscrapers falling down upon them, like a swath of trees in a forest cut cleanly through. With no place to run, they will be crushed in seconds.

Now Matt understands what Ryzaard was doing when he flashed his energy blade over Matt’s head and ran away.

He pulls Jessica close and relaxes into the familiar place where he goes to stop time, but something repels him and he can’t find it. Time is running out. Directly above, gravity is pulling the structures down on their heads. The lattice-work of windows comes into clear focus only a hundred meters above and closing fast.

Matt’s eyes meet Jessica’s, and they kneel together in the mud. Crouching over her, there’s popping in his ears from the rush of air. The sound of twisting steel and shattering glass is deafening. Bits and pieces of broken stone and metal splash into the mud around them.

In his mind, Matt sees the image of his father doing a yoga pose, kneeling on the ground, looking up to the ceiling with both hands above his head, elbows straight, palms together. With only a few seconds left before impact, a surge of love for him and Jessica moves through his body.

He grips the Stone in both hands and thrusts it above his head as he visualizes a large sphere of energy bursting out of the tip. A brilliant light flashes from its point.

A maelstrom of steel beams, broken glass and crumbled cement crashes down around him and Jessica in total silence. Looking to the right and left, they are inside a shimmering sphere of light hanging down from the Stone. The building debris vaporizes on contact with the energy field.

Jessica stares up with a look of wonder until the movement stops.

As Matt relaxes, the energy field fades. They both stand up in a small bubble inside a mass of hot metal and melted concrete that extends above and around them. Matt finds Jessica’s hand and closes his fingers around it.

“Incredible,” he says. “There are times when the Stone doesn’t respond, and then other times when it’s so easy to use. I don’t get it. Must have something to do with this artificial world and its creator.” He surveys the damage. “Don’t know how we are going to get out of here.”

Jessica’s eyes drop to the ground, where the mud has hardened into solid rock. There’s a bright green jewel the size of a large pearl at her feet. “What’s that?” she says, and bends down to pick it up.

A microsecond before her fingers touch it, Matt recognizes the implant and yells.

“Don’t!”

But it’s too late. As her fingertips brush it, the darkness is consumed by a sea of white.

Matt opens his eyes. He can tell by the rug under his feet and the smell of leftover sushi that he and Jessica are back in the same room in the MX Global building they jumped away from. In the darkness, someone is pointing a flashlight in their eyes.

“Welcome back,” Ryzaard says.

CHAPTER 104

On the 160th floor, breathing hard.

Kent climbs up another five floors and pauses for a moment to clear his head. His eyes drop to the timer on his wrist. The numbers are slowly falling to zero. He clips a carabineer on a cord around his waist to one of the rungs. For good measure, he weaves both arms in and through the ladder, gripping it tight. His eyes drift down as he waits for visual confirmation of the MEPPs explosion. When it finally comes, it’s still a surprise.

In the darkness below, as if at the bottom of a deep well, there’s a burst of light with no sound.

One. Two.

The entire building shudders, as if it’s drunk. The voice of a hurricane howls up past him.

His earphones start to ring like a fire alarm, triggered by whoever is following him up the shaft. They’ve just passed the motion detector he stuck on the wall at the 125th floor marker. They must have seen the hole he cut into the power generator room on the fifth floor and probably weren’t surprised by the explosion. Whoever they are, they must know by now that Kent’s plan is to cut power to the building.

But none of that really matters.

It will take some time for security personnel to cut through the twisted mess of metal and chemicals on the fifth floor and find the hole leading to the old elevators. Once they get to the shaft, they’ll be crawling up and down it in droves.

By then, he’ll either be gone from the building or dead.

With the last ten floors to go and still breathing hard, he shoulders the backpack and moves up the rungs, ignoring the beating of drums in his chest, hoping that the top floors have gone dark.

At the top of the ladder, he places a single MEPPs on the wall and drops down three floors before detonating it.

After the dust settles, Kent climbs back up and kicks through a wall of crumbling brick, leaving the elevator shaft behind and moving into the dry heat and darkness on the other side of the hole. He emerges into a world of steel girders, round pipes and square ducts, all covered with a thick layer of spray-on foam insulation. It has the look and feel of a cave full of organic shapes carved from solid rock.

He steps carefully onto the floor, testing it with one foot before planting the other next to it. A wide aluminum conduit runs in a straight line past his feet into the darkness. It feels cool to the touch, evidence that it’s an air vent that should open into the ceiling of the floor below. He follows it for several meters and finds what he’s looking for. A section branches down and disappears into insulation under his feet. He sets his backpack down and works his hand through the opening, past the MEPPS anchored on the side, to the bottom where the plasma cutter lays.

He pulls out the long cylindrical device and feels for the tip made of transparent carbon. It can cut cleanly through three inches of metal, glass or cement, which makes it perfect for the job. Careful to keep the point away from his hand, he finds a raised stud three inches from its end and presses hard. There’s a click, and the tip glows the color of sky blue. Using it like a pen, he cuts out a section of the ventilation duct, first working on one end, and then the other. The caustic smell of burnt aluminum and foam insulation tells him the cutter is working.

A large square section of the ventilation duct comes off easily when he pulls it out. Cool air rises up and envelopes his face. He looks down through a mesh vent cover into the darkness of a corridor on the 175th floor below. There’s a horizontal steel girder passing just in front of his face. Grasping it with both hands, one foot steps onto the vent, followed by the other. In the silence, he holds his breath and jumps up and down on its middle. It gives only a little.

A rhythmic pinging goes off in his earphones. Someone just triggered a motion sensor twenty floors below. From the very start, they’ve been staying at a constant distance away from him all the way up the shaft, stopping when he stopped, moving when he moved. No doubt they heard him just blow a hole through the shaft into the interior of the building. No doubt they will come through it after him.

But it’s too late to worry about that now. It’s too late to do anything but keep moving.

Let my son be alive.

He thinks of Matt, and fear pushes against his chest and makes it hard to breath. Pushing all emotion aside, he slams his feet down on one side of the vent. It pops off and falls away like a trap door, leaving him hanging from the steel girder. He works away at the other edge until the whole vent cover falls into darkness and clangs against metal on the floor below. He grabs his backpack and drops into the hole.

It’s surreal to think that he’s standing in the middle of a long corridor on the 175th floor.

He stares through the IR goggles. In the darkness, the walls are smooth and lined with stainless steel, an eerie reminder of a submarine he once toured. There’s a sense of pristine cleanliness and order to the corridor, an almost oppressive perfection.

He has to decide which way to go, right or left. Consulting the plans on his slate, he opts to go left, in the direction of Ryzaard’s office. He trades the slate for a jax and scans for active motion detectors or carbon dioxide sniffers. It looks like there aren’t any. With the power still out, building security probably has no idea what floor he’s on. That’s the idea, anyway.

He moves to the end of the corridor. There’s a glass plate mounted on the wall to the right of a door, a biometric reader that bars entry to anyone not in its database.

Placing both palms on the door, he leans into it with his weight and tries to push it open, but it’s as solid as granite. Then he tries pushing the opposite way with the same result.

It’s doubtful the plasma cutter will slice through the material of the door. That leaves either the MEPPs explosives or the Corrizol. The MEPPs wi