Black Shards Press – Electronic Gumbo is Our Specialty

Interested in the Liberty First novels? The first 3 chapters of Departure, book one of the Recognition saga, can be read for free below, courtesy of the author.


Preface

 

“It’s time we spoke about Myles Randall.”

“I take it you have seen his latest test results.  They are very impressive.”

“Quite.  To be direct, he should be indentured to my group of researchers.”

“Blunt as always, Dr.  I appreciate that about you.  There are other programs, you realize.”

“None are more important.”

“Don’t be so certain about that.  It’s a matter of perspective, after all.”

“Perhaps.  Yet, the correlation of the boy’s intellectual characteristics to those required is nearly perfect…”

“I understand.  I merely point out that yours is not the only possible application for this resource.  And I have concerns about the boy’s background.”

“Why?  His father is a Dependent in good standing.  Exemplary, in fact.”

“There is the matter of his great-great-great-grandfather.”

“Ezra?  I wasn’t aware that he was still alive.”

“You need to pay more attention to our social order. Most of the Lifers are still around, whether they show themselves or not.”

“I still don’t see a problem with Myles.”

“You are too sure of yourself.  Nonetheless, it will be done – the boy will be yours.”

“Thank you.  That is truly excellent news.  My only regret is that we must wait until his Recognition before he can join the team.”

“Three months are of no importance, whereas traditions are their own virtue.

“Such as?”

“They bind the Dependents to us.  Forever.”

“Forever?  That is a long time to live.”

“It is not nearly as long as it used to be.”

“I see your aim now, Guardian.”

“Don’t be too certain.  My goals are my own.  You would do well to remember that.”

Page BreakChapter 1

 

Ezra Randall woke alone and cold.  The room was sterile, white, and overly air-conditioned.  It wasn’t easy for a skinny old man like him to live on a starship, even in the relatively well-appointed guest quarters.  The vessel was deliberately kept at a frigid temperature, the better to keep the humid rot outside from creeping into the ship’s sensitive equipment, irreplaceable technology that would, someday, deliver them out of this place.

As to waking alone, Ezra had never quite gotten used to that.  Eileen had been dead longer than they’d been married, but decades later, he still missed waking up beside her.  He’d never been cold in bed while she’d been alive.

Squinting into the brightly lit mirror, Ezra scraped a old-fashioned safety razor over his jaw.  The thin face that looked back at him was older than he’d ever imagined it could be.  His spectacles made him look like someone’s grandfather, which he was.

Grandfather.  The appellation made him think of Myles.  How he missed the boy!  Five years was a long time.  Giving him up had been almost too much to bear, yet nothing could have been more necessary.  Ezra was really the boy’s great-great-great-grandfather.  But people had stopped counting generational gaps after the Guardianship’s longevity treatments became all but universal in the government-controlled urban areas.

After taking a quick shower, Ezra dressed in a plain brown jumper and wound his way through the ship’s corridors to the bridge.  Even on the ground the command center was always manned.  It had been so, every day, for almost one hundred years.

“Good morning, Jim,” he greeted the ship’s acting captain as he entered.  Dr. Jim Haines was not really a starship captain – there were none left alive, to Ezra’s knowledge – but he held the title because there was no one more qualified.

“Ezra,” Jim Haines nodded to him.

“What’s our state of readiness?”  Ezra asked.

Jim sighed in exaggerated fashion.  Tall, of average build, Haines had sported the same crisp, comb-over hairstyle for as long as Ezra had known him.  Fifty years was a long time to keep the same look, even in this era of extended lifespans, but Jim had always admired consistency more than any other virtue.  He was the foremost physical scientist in their little group.  Consistency and rigor had played a part in his success.  Of course, plain, old-fashioned brilliance hadn’t hurt the younger man either.

“The same as last month.  And the month before that.  And the year before that.  We’re beyond ready, Ezra,” the physicist said.  “The sword can’t be sharpened anymore.”

“The time is coming when we’ll test your ingenuity, Jim,” Ezra said, clapping the other man on the back.  As he did so, it seemed that Haines shrank away from his touch.  It had been like that between them in recent years.  The student had become restless at the feet of the master.  Well, Jim wouldn’t have long to wait now.

“Don’t worry about me,” Haines said in a voice as sharp as the edge of readiness that he’d just described.

“I’m going into town for a few hours,” Ezra announced.

Haines shot him a frozen glance.  “Why?”

“Just a few errands,” Ezra told him.

“Don’t do anything that’s going to get us killed.”

Ezra had some important tasks to do today, chores critical enough that he would have to leave the Independence to perform them.  That was something that he almost never did anymore.  There were few men the Guardian would like to capture more than him.

“I’m afraid I can’t make any promises in that regard, my friend,” Ezra said.  With a quick bob of his head, he left Haines standing agape in his wake.

 

After making his way around the blighted city of his youth and crossing into New Houston’s business district, Ezra took the elevator to the seventeenth floor of the blockhouse where his great-great-grandson Stanley lived.

The building’s elevator was pristinely clean; tile gleamed, mirrors shone and brass sparkled.  It was, he thought, as perfect as the Guardian could make it.  In the reflective glass, he saw a different man than he had seen in his bathroom mirror only hours before.  There were ways to defeat the Guardianship’s biometric scanners and he’d used them.  If he was recognized by the security forces, things would not go well for him, nor quickly, which was worse.  But there was no reason to think that would happen save by random chance.

Ezra strode along the corridor at a brisk pace.  His sharp brown eyes missed nothing, but there wasn’t much to see.  Not so much as a scrap of discarded paper flitted along the hard tile floor.  There wasn’t a single discoloration on the stark white walls large enough to notice and nothing marred the sterile symmetry of the passageway.  Only the colored room numbers of regulation-size differentiated one set of living quarters from another, gold on the left, silver on the right.

His progeny answered his knock.

Stanley Randall stood motionless in the doorway, clearly taken aback at seeing him and perhaps wondering if he should call security.  “Hello, elder grandfather,” he said after a long moment.  “I’m surprised to see you.”

“You’re looking well, Stan.  May I come in?”  Ezra’s eyes flicked from side to side, taking in the corridor in either direction.  Then he looked his descendent up and down.  Stan was tall, slender and straight of back.  He looked content, fit, and his clothes were well-pressed.  His unruly curly brown hair was the only thing out-of-place about him.  Appearances could be deceiving, but not in this case.  Stan Randall was as proper as he looked.

Stanley moved aside with a nervous glance into the hallway.  “That would be best.  Have a seat and I’ll get you a drink.  The usual?”

“Nothing for me.  I can’t stay long, Stan.”  Ezra took a deep breath before continuing.  It was going to be unpleasant to rehash the subject he had come to discuss, but it had to be done.

“I’ve come to look upon you as my own son, Stan.  Maybe that’s because my son and all of his children are dead, I don’t know.  It helps that I can expect to live as long as you, I suppose, but we are family.  That’s important.”

“Of course it is,” Stanley agreed.  “But if you’re here to badger me again about holding Myles out of his Recognition Day ceremony, you may as well save your breath.”

Ezra sighed.  “You’re a good man, Stan.  You’re bright, dependable and solid.  I know it’s difficult for you to understand, but you simply must:  the Guardianship is an abomination.”

Stanley’s head jerked up to glare at his elder, but Ezra kept going so he couldn’t object.  “It’s destroying humanity – what’s left of us, that is!”  He cried.  “Don’t let it take Myles too.  The boy is special.  He deserves a better life than this!”

“I won’t have this conversation with you again, Ezra.”  Stanley’s voice was an icy razor.  “I can’t.  If they’re monitoring us right now, my career would be over in an instant.  According to you, the only ‘real’ people on Earth are the low-techs out in the ruins.  But they scrabble in the dirt and fallout just to survive.  They’re barely more than savages.”

“They’re free,” Ezra said.  “If they have to fight to survive it’s because of people like you.”

“Me?”  Stan gaped at him.  “I’ve never done anything to them.”

“Your failure to speak out gives assent to Cyrus’ massacres, through omission.”

“What can I do about that?”  Stanley protested.  “I’m just making my way, the same as everybody else.”

“Exactly!” Ezra said.  But Stan only looked confused.  “We could all be as free as them.  Myles could be free.  Rochelle.  Amanda.  Even you, Stan, and we wouldn’t have to talk in secret anymore, if people like you would just do what is right.”

Stanley stood and glared down at Ezra.  “You’re pushing the wrong buttons, old man.  Myles wants to be Recognized.  All children his age do.  In the Guardianship, life doesn’t begin until you are Recognized.”

Ezra shook his head.  “Take it from me:  life ends when you become Recognized.  But you’ve never wanted to understand that.”

Unconsciously Ezra rubbed the underside of his left forearm.  No Recognition Chip – R-chip for short – had ever been embedded in his body.  Stan had one, as did Myles and all of the new Dependents.  Once it was triggered at the ceremony, Myles and his friends would be adults and subject to review.

“What you have after Recognition is not life, Stan.  It’s monstrous.  Don’t do it to your son.”  Ezra roughly wiped a tear from his face.  “Somewhere inside, you know this is wrong.  Listen to the truth, Stan.”

“Your truth, grandfather.  Your opinion.”  Stanley’s voice was colder than ever.  “Myles is my son and you will respect my authority.”

“I do, Stan.  But –”

“Stop!”  Stanley shouted.  “Utter even one more word on the subject and I will notify the security forces.  Have I made myself clear?”

“Perfectly.”  Frustrated, Ezra sprang to his feet.  Logically he knew this conclusion had been inevitable, but he’d had to try.  “You are a piss poor product of my genes, Stan.  I see that I shouldn’t have allowed your mother to become part of the family.”

He flung the door into the hallway open and it crashed sharply into the perfect white wall, the rounded knob denting the smooth surface before it rebounded toward the frame.  Walking away, Ezra heard Stan sputtering in an incoherent rage that coalesced into a stream of obscenities that flowed out into the hallway after him.

Ezra turned to face the younger man and, with a wave that he forced himself to keep jaunty, said goodbye.  “Bad language is a social demerit, Stan.  You’d better be careful,” he added with a smile.  “And I’d get that wall fixed as quickly as you can.  You never know who will be checking up on you.”

 

Safely back aboard the Independence, Ezra stopped at the cafeteria to pick up some essentials for the evening dinner before going to his rooms.  Most of the ship’s inhabitants had been on board for a long time, some of them for decades, and most of the long-timers preferred to eat alone.  In this Ezra was no exception.  As he prepared the soy paste for consumption, his mouth began to water.  Ezra shook his head and chuckled.  He had last tasted a real beef steak when he was forty-seven years old.  Nearly two hundred years later, he still salivated for it.  He was getting old.

When he’d finished, Ezra called his Net avatar out of dormancy.  Even in his interaction with the Net, Ezra showed his age.   Most of the younger set kept their avatars in active mode constantly, the better to get information in real time.  By contrast, Ezra preferred to keep Max in his place.  When the AI displayed its ready icon in Ezra’s electronically enhanced fore-vision, he asked it to round up the day’s relevant events using his standard filter.

He had maintained Max’s current iteration for over one hundred years, tweaking it only rarely.  Max had long ago been molded into his role; the avatar training process was simple enough for someone with Ezra’s education.  Like many of those left from his generation, Ezra was disturbed by willful machines.  During the first year he’d owned the AI, Ezra had clipped Max’s wings by removing his will to grow and had been a happier man for having done it.

Whether Max was better off was irrelevant.  The program was a tool, nothing more.  He acted as a data dam by parsing the day’s events into digestible bites, expertly reducing the raging flow of churning, bubbling information to a smooth trickle.  Ezra quickly perused the news before asking the same question he had asked every day for decades.

“Max, anything on Cyrus Magnor today?”

“There are eight hundred and twelve news items regarding the Guardian so far today, Ezra,” Max replied.

“There would be,” he said under his breath.  “Any speeches?  Give priority to the topic of Recognition.”

“There are eleven such entries,” Max said.  “Shall I read them?”

“Exerpt the most interesting.”

Max recited.

 

“…ladies and gentlemen, as you are elevated into the realm of the Recognized, realize that with freedom comes responsibility.  The responsibility to work to better our society, the responsibility to limit your desires to what can be fulfilled, the responsibility to play your part in our common human drama with all your heart and without complaint.  True freedom belongs not in the yearnings of any one man, but to the Guardianship collectively.  I Recognize you now, my young friends.  Reach out and grasp your reward.”

 

Max stopped, the fuzzy threshold of his instructions satisfied.  Ezra sat in silence, stunned.  The Guardian had always been a powerful speaker and was, after all these years, seemingly as brilliant as ever.  In spite of himself, Ezra was moved by his former friend’s oration and was glad he had not witnessed the spectacle in person.  For a time Ezra had believed in the words, but that had been decades ago.  He was beyond subversion now.  He had to be.  Gruffly, he cleared his throat.

“That will be all, Max.  Good night.”

His avatar silently faded out of view, sliding back into his silicon grave.

Ezra walked to the bedroom, reached under the sagging, ancient bed and pulled out a small metal box.  A simple combination lock secured its contents.  Opening it, Ezra reached inside with trembling hands that suddenly stopped, fingers millimeters above the contents, before retreating.  Damn Cyrus Magnor, damn him.  The bastard shouldn’t still have a hold on him, not after all that had happened.  I am my own man, Ezra thought.  Not his.

Reaching back into the box, Ezra extracted a thin, ragged paperback book from the box.  The book was made of real paper. Entitled “The Declaration of Independence of the Thirteen Colonies”, it articulated the vision of a group of men who had been dead for over four hundred years.  The global Net that Max and his kind surfed contained billions of terabytes of information, yet the contents of the ancient book that he held in his hands were not among them.

Ezra read.

 

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. –That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

 

Rights of the People.  The notion that people possessed rights was one Cyrus Magnor had crushed long ago.  Ezra had himself, in a significant way, helped to destroy that ideal.  The Guardianship had no regard for the Safety or Happiness of its Dependents.  It was, Ezra thought, a self-perpetuating machine that served only its handlers, not its citizens.

Frustrated by his inability to change his past actions, Ezra nearly wept.  If only he had not gone along with them.  But he’d been mesmerized by Cyrus’ blinding vision of a better world.  How well he had known the Guardian during those formative years.  How many times he could have single-handedly ended the man’s odious existence.  If only he’d acted.  He could have spared the world the agony of life under the boot heel of a man who’d become a terrible despot.  But he’d lacked the courage until it was too late.

“How was I to know?” Ezra cried aloud.  His voice echoed off bare walls.  The truth was at once complex and translucent, a web of interconnecting facts and nuance made gossamer by time.  In the beginning, the Guardianship had created stability where none had existed and enforced order in a world overcome by chaos.  It was more than possible that mankind could have been eliminated from the planet’s biosphere without the leadership of Cyrus Magnor.  His Guardianship had brought them back from the brink of destruction.  But there had been a high price to pay in return.

Just as Ezra’s taste buds hungered for the taste of real red meat, his soul craved the freedom to create a new society, one in which a man had the opportunity to create his own future without having to beg permission from his superiors.  In the dark, the disparity between life as it existed in the Guardianship and what it could be was too great for him to bear.

The Truth was right here, in the yellowed pages of the old book, within easy reach but just out of men’s grasp.  The Founding Fathers had lived a mere forty years on average, rode horses for transportation and burned candles for light, but they’d seen the way and written it down for future generations.  Why did we give up our birthright?  Ezra asked himself again.  But he knew why.  At the time, the reasons seemed valid.

“I could live forever,” he whispered out of habit.  But there was no one to hear.  Even the Guardianship’s monitors didn’t listen here.  “But I will not.  I’ll be free or die trying!”

Ezra huddled over the box.  A tear dripped from his cheek and fell to stain the already mottled cover of a well-worn book.  Seeing this, he took the thick volume from its place in the container and wiped it off.  If possible, the book was even more tattered than the small one he had read from previously.  Ezra gently opened the cracked cover and began to read.  For a time, he lived in a world where hope was possible.

 

Myles Randall reclined in a form-fitting black plastic chair, his immersion in the computer simulation nearly complete.  Divorced from his body, he was equally unaware of the retention strap digging into his buttocks and his body’s need to urinate.

Every child who lived in a Guardianship Dependency zone had at least one avatar in the virtch, the virtual worlds of the Net.  Making the grade in approved simulations counted toward their citizenship quota.  There were other ways to make that number, but Myles and his friends preferred to play soldier – it was easier than doing time in a real work detail or taking extra courses in school.  None of it was real, but what happened there mattered a great deal to his future.  Myles had built up his baseline trooper for over ten years, one mission at a time.  It took time to move up the ranks in the combat simulations; if you screwed up and got your head blown off you were busted back to grunt level in a heartbeat.

Inside the game, Myles slid silently through the shadows, his back to the wall, head swiveling to see his command group and objective simultaneously.  The rebels were camped out inside an ancient, decaying airplane hanger.  Myles spared a moment to play his sim’s light over the rotting remnants of the planes.  The rendering was perfect.  If the interface equipment had provided a sense of smell, the scene could have been real.

The quick play of the light was a deviation from the mission plan.  It was also a mistake.  Alerted by the beam of his flashlight, the enemy soldiers took up arms and scattered, covering their tracks with a heavy blanket of fire.  Two of his troopers went down behind him.  Myles flattened himself to the floor as bullets whizzed overhead.  In the outside world, his hands gripped the interface controls hard in response.

Myles decided to press on and led his men forward into the tangle of torn and broken airplanes.  They moved slowly and quietly among the array of parts that littered the aisles between the old machines.  Just as his squad reached the edge of the aviation graveyard, the rebels flung open a large hangar door.  Light flooded in and Myles was momentarily blinded.  Taking advantage, the rebels opened fire.

“Fall back,” Myles yelled, knowing it was too late.  More of his holographic men went down beside him.  As he turned to run, Myles felt a dull thump in his leg.  He fell to the ground as the simulation ended.

“This mission result was a failure, Mr. Randall,” a smooth, artificial voice said.  “Your objective was not met.  The enemy escaped with no casualties.  Your squad suffered six fatalities.  Four others were wounded, including yourself.  Your mission grade is an F.”

That wasn’t going to make his dad happy.  Myles unstrapped himself from the black chair, rubbed his ribs and removed the immersion suit.

“Your turn,” he said to the boy standing beside him.  “I’m sick of this game.”

Jon Volkov laughed.  “Sure you are, Randall.  It’s two months to Recognition Day and you’re stressing out.  Don’t sweat it – Recognition is no big deal.  I’ll be there with you.”

Jon was a tall boy, a couple of inches over six feet, well-built and athletic.  His blonde hair hung nearly to his broad shoulders.  Things always seemed to work out for Jon, whether he deserved them to or not.  But Myles thought he sensed a bit of false bravado in his friend’s voice.  Perhaps he wasn’t so confident this time.

Myles stood up beside his friend.  He was about four inches shorter than Jon but just as thick through the upper body.  Myles’ brown hair was thin and straight and plastered to his head with sweat, matted from being inside of the virtch helmet.  He brushed his bangs off of his forehead.

“The Guardianship is about to give us our secondary assignments and it’s no big deal to you, Mr. Volkov?  And what about the unsupervised Net access?  The sex nodes are really hot.”

“Yeah, like you’d know what to do with ‘em,” Jon replied with a lazy smile.

“I learn quick,” Myles retorted.  “Hans Tolbert told me all about them after he went across last year.  You remember how excited he was.”

“Yeah, he was beating his meat to get in there.”

Myles laughed.  “I wonder what he’s doing now.  He hasn’t been around lately.”

“I saw him once after he went across,” Jon said.  “But he didn’t say much.  I wanted to talk to him, but all he said was that he had to run, that they were watching him.”

“Who’s they?” asked Myles.

“I asked him the same thing.  He wouldn’t say anything else. He just walked off.  It was creepy.”

Terry Holloway, who had been standing quietly behind Jon, spoke for the first time.  “My sister Sarah said the same thing.”

Terry was Jon’s polar opposite in appearance and attitude alike.  Barely five foot seven inches in height, Terry might have weighed one-hundred and thirty pounds fully dressed.  He rarely excelled in the mandatory athletic competitions.  But Myles’ friends were alike in one way:  neither was a gifted student, something that didn’t bode well for their future.

“What did she say?” asked Myles.

“I was talking to her right before they took her to the new school.  I thought she’d be excited because she got her first choice – Net technology – but she didn’t seem happy about it.  ‘Enjoy your childhood while it lasts, kiddo,’ she said.  ‘Things change after you get your chip flipped.  The Guardianship likes to keep an eye on you.’”

“Sure they do,” scoffed Myles.  “Half a billion people on Earth and the Guardianship is watching her?  Even I know your sister isn’t worth spying on.”

“Not true,” Jon said, leering up at Myles.  “Sarah’s cute as hell.”

Terry shot Jon a look that the taller boy ignored.  “I’m just telling you what she told me,” Terry said.  “They know things about you after you’re Recognized.  Things you never tell anyone.  Sarah works with the security forces.  She knows what they do.”

“They watch us now.  We can’t leave our home zone without Net alerts going to our parents.  It’s no different for the adults,” Myles protested.  “You probably still believe the nonsense they used to tell us about the Guardian being able to read minds, too.”

Terry persisted.  “My dad says that they watch you work, watch you eat, even watch you sleep.  Your career is set by them too.  Once they put you in a program, you don’t get out.  Like it or not, your future is fixed.”

“That’s true,” Myles said.  “My father works in the personnel assignment department.  But there is a way out.”  Myles paused, deliberately drawing out the mystery, and Jon bit.

“What’s that?”

“Even a high-tech society needs ditch diggers and garbage collectors.  You can get an automatic transfer if you ask for it.  Maybe you should look into that.”

“Real funny.”  Jon aimed a punch at Myles’ arm.  Expecting it, he dodged out of the way.

“My dad says it’s not a bad living – if you don’t mind living next to the slums.”

Myles saw Terry scowl – he lived close to the northern Reclamation Zone – and felt bad for not thinking about what he was saying.  He watched Jon stretch the black mesh immersion skin over his sturdy frame and sit down to get into the sim.  He tossed his shirt at Myles.

“It’s too bad that I can’t get paid for mopping up the basketball court with chumps like you,” Jon said with a smile.  “That’s the kind of recognition I’m looking for.”

“You’re loony,” Myles said.  “No one gets paid for playing games in the Guardianship.”

The idea didn’t make any sense at all.  Games were for physical conditioning, nothing more.  With his hair cut off, Jon would be Grade A trooper material, sure as anything.  The boys went silent as Jon strapped himself into the simulator.

“My dad got drunk a few days ago and started crying,” Terry said suddenly.  “It was weird.  He said that he wasn’t going to let me be Recognized. He said, ‘Life after Recognition is horrible.  Their eyes are always on you.  Men shouldn’t live like this.”

Terry stopped for a long moment and studied the ground at his feet.  “I’m scared, guys.  He shouldn’t talk like that.  What if they come and take him away?  I heard Rhonda Coughlin’s mother was hauled off and shot after she refused to go to meeting night.”

“She went crazy,” Myles disagreed.  “I remember the news report.”

“Maybe she did,” Jon said, his words slightly distorted by the immersion mask.  “But Rhonda lives in my blockhouse, two floors down.  The troopers shot her mom dead out in the hall.  Everyone was watching when they came to get her.”

“I don’t care what you guys say.  Recognition Day is going to be great,” Myles said.  “My dad says it was the best day of his life.  He says that the whole world opens up for you after you’re Recognized and I believe him.  I can’t wait to get out of primary school and on to the next level.”

“Recognition is going to be good for you,” Jon admitted.  “Your team’s test scores are amazing.

“We’ve gotten some good marks,” Myles admitted.  “But I’m still nervous.  I want to be put in the engineering school like Hans was.  I just hope I can do the work.”

“You’ll do fine, believe me.  But I’ll be lucky to avoid getting drafted into the troopers.  I hope that doesn’t happen.  I don’t know if I can shoot somebody just because I’m ordered to.”

“I wish there was no such thing as Recognition Day,” Terry said.  “No R-chips, no security spying on us, and no Guardianship.   I wish they would just leave us alone.”

Suddenly worried for his friend, Myles said nothing.  What could anyone say to a statement like that?  In the chair, Jon started his training mission while Myles and Terry watched in silence.

 

The school that Myles and his sister Rochelle attended was a twelve-story concrete tower designed in the Guardianship-approved form.  It was black and gray and essentially featureless as it rose toward the sky, one of a number of identical structures in the area.

Out of habit Myles used his Net interface to map the route.  With so many similar buildings in the area it was easy to get lost.  Inside, he walked his younger sister to her class on the fourth floor before continuing up the stairs to his own home room on the twelfth.  His age group was about to be Recognized as adults and were granted the privilege of having the building’s top floor to themselves.  The view wasn’t bad, but the long walk up got old after a few repetitions.

The building had eight elevators that efficiently served the fully-occupied school, but Myles took the stairs.  The elevators were for girls.  Boys who used them were advised to walk in the future lest a mark be made in their permanent record.  Reaching the top, Myles was slightly out of breath and paused for a moment before going into class.

His science teacher tapped him on the shoulder.  Myles jumped guiltily.  He shouldn’t have dawdled in the hallway.

“Mr. Weller,” he said, his face growing red.  “Good morning.”

His teacher was a big-boned man with long, lank blond hair and a puffy face.  The mustache he wore was too thin to make him appear dignified and his right eye seemed to drift along Myles’ face as if not quite under his control.

“I need you to help me out this morning, Myles.  A couple of the other students need a bit of remedial assistance.  I thought perhaps you could give it to them.”  The teacher’s words were slightly slurred.  He raised an eyebrow and waited for Myles’ reply.

“Sure thing, Mr. Weller.  I’ll just help Javier and Linda finish our paper on quantum mechanics first,” Myles told him.  “It’s going to be a good one if we can get some time on the electron microscope.”

Mr. Weller fixed his gaze on Myles, both of the man’s blue eyes boring into Myles’.  “I’m afraid that’s going to have to wait a while.  The Guardianship requires the entire class to be at the same level when your unit is Recognized.  Your team needs to stop moving ahead in order to pull up the students who haven’t learned their lessons yet.  It’s not right for you to want to leave the others behind.”

“I don’t want to leave them behind,” Myles said quickly.  He knew from his father that disagreeing could get him a black mark in his file.  The eager note he heard in his voice embarrassed Myles and his face grew hot.  He pushed ahead, fumbling for words that wouldn’t make him look selfish.  “We just want to finish our project.  We’re just starting to film fission reactions in slow-motion.  It won’t take long.”

“That’s not going to be possible, Myles,” Mr. Weller said.  He put a hand on Myles’ shoulder and gave him a quick pat of encouragement.  “Find Moore, Sanchez, Burley and Roche and review the lessons on the atomic table.  Now.”

Mr. Weller walked away before Myles could say anything that might get him in trouble.  Myles looked after him for a moment, wondering what had just happened.

 

That evening was meeting night, so Myles sat in the neighborhood auditorium with his mother, father and sister.  Their assigned row was crowded, as usual, and Rochelle insisted in putting her arm on the rest between them.  The big, round man sitting beside his sister had his flabby arm hanging nearly into Rochelle’s lap.  No wonder she was crowding into his space.  After giving a glare to the oblivious fat man, Myles tried to listen to the speaker.

“– the Guardianship is responsible for meeting the basic needs of every Dependent.  In return, you must respect that our resources exist in finite quantities.  Respect the gift of Dependency by not overindulging or wasting them –”

Three times a week, on the assigned days, his family came to the Guardianship’s orientation meetings.  His father insisted on perfect attendance.  “We’ve got to keep in step if we want to move up in this world,” he’d said more times than Myles could count.

Following the rules was an important part of life.  “You can’t win if you don’t play the game right” was something else his father said repeatedly.  He seemed to be right.  Myles’ family had moved three times since his tenth birthday, each time to a nicer flat.  Their new apartment was very cool.  It was in one of the tallest buildings in the city and the seventeenth floor gave them an excellent view of the city below.  In fact, on a clear day he could see the old city in the distance with his father’s binoculars.

The thought caused Myles mind to wander away.  The old, ruined city must have been amazing:  fifty-story buildings on every corner, thousands of vehicles cruising the streets, trains and planes and people, all running on pure energy.  The thought of all of that misdirected effort was nearly sickening.  Then, individuals had simply gone their own way, without any guidance or direction, wasting time and resources as if there was an unlimited supply of them.  Small wonder they had nearly killed themselves.

Still, the things those lone wolves had managed to build were impressive.  He’d never been near the old city but at times he found himself almost desperate to go there.  The Net clips he’d seen of the old world had been enough to set his mind on fire and boggle his imagination.  If he made it into the Guardianship’s engineering program there was a chance he would get to learn the secrets of the old world’s builders.

Myles slid down in his seat and stared up at the ceiling without seeing it.  What would it be like to explore the ruined hulks of buildings, treasure hunting in the centuries-old hot zone?  The Nets said the plague was still active and that it wasn’t safe to venture into the old cities.  But did they know for certain?  If he was placed in the right position after he was Recognized he would be able to explore all he wanted.  Recognition Day wasn’t far away now.  Soon he’d know exactly what his future held for him.  The thought was comforting.  When it finally happened there would be no more wondering; everything in his life would be settled, once and for all.

Myles’ father seemed to catch wind of his errant thoughts.  Elbowing Myles, his father gestured toward the man on stage, the corners of his mouth taut.  Myles sat up straight and stared straight ahead.  But his mind was still miles away.

 

After the meeting, the Randall family gathered around the dinner table and waited for Myles’ mother to bring the food up from the building’s commissary.  Rochelle sat across from Myles, still wearing the white dress she had worn to the meeting.  Her dark brown hair was cut short in the semi-official Guardianship bob and her dark blue eyes and pale complexion made her look like their mother.  Myles scowled.  His mother was beautiful, but his sister was a pain in the neck.  She didn’t deserve to be pretty, too.  She saw him watching her.

“Stop looking at me!”  Rochelle shouted, her angelic face twisting into a girlish snarl.

Myles continued to stare at her.  His tactile Net interface glove was missing again and she was the only one who could have taken it.  Why she would have bothered he had no idea.  Just to make him angry, more than likely.

“Daddy!” she whined in protest, her voice rising in pitch as she turned to their father for help.  “Make him stop.”

Stan Randall looked at Rochelle for a moment before smiling at Myles.  “How did things go at the science competition today, Myles?”  He asked.  Beside him, Rochelle pouted.

“My team won again.”

“That’s terrific,” his father said.  It’s important for you to do well in these events.  Helps you get a good placement after the Big Day.”

Myles ignored his sister who silently mouthed “that’s terrific” with a sneer.  She didn’t do as well in school as he did.

“I know.”

Myles’ father looked at him, his eyes sharp and alert.  “Is there something wrong with winning?”

“We always win.  It makes us stand out.  I don’t like it.”

“That’s what the competition is for.  It’s perfectly alright to do well in a Guardianship-sanctioned event.  The Three Hundred want everyone to excel.”

“It’s just confusing, that’s all.”

“Your team won.  What else do you need to know?”

Myles looked down at the table.  He knew that he shouldn’t say any more.  But now that he’d finally started to talk about the subject the need to finish was too strong to for him hold back.  “Well, I’d like to know how many questions I got right.  Not as part of the team, just me.”

“That’s a step on the path of selfishness.”

“Everyone already knows who the smart kids are,” Myles protested.  “We all know.  It’s obvious.  Couldn’t the teachers say something to me to let me know that I’m doing well?”

“Would it change your scores to know what they are?”

“Of course not –” Myles started to say but his father wasn’t finished.

“As I’ve said before, that’s just not the way the Guardianship is run, Myles.  You need to accept that and stop thinking of yourself as being better than anyone else.  You’ll never succeed in life with that sort of attitude.”

At that moment Amanda Randall came out of the kitchen with a dish in each hand.  Glad for the interruption, Myles reached out to take a plate from his mother.  The food that was available in their new building tasted really good.  There was never quite enough of it, but your ration was your ration and it didn’t do any good to complain.  Don’t rock the boat we’re in, he could almost hear his father say.

Under the table, Rochelle kicked him viciously in the shin.  Myles straightened up in pain, holding the large plate in one hand as his eyes watered.  The little brat was still wearing her hard-tipped outdoor shoes.  Although he knew he shouldn’t, Myles thought about smacking her a good one.  But he couldn’t do that.  Instead he settled for staring her down again.  This time his look had no effect.  Rochelle smiled at him, her eyes bright with triumph.  He rubbed his leg and Rochelle giggled.  One of these days she was really going to get it.

 

The gentle rap of a woman’s hand on his door woke Ezra Randall from a dreamless sleep.  He rolled out of bed, winced as he put weight on his right leg and again at the thought that followed:  his body was breaking down.  The Treatments he had taken in middle-age would keep him alive for a long time yet, but nothing could keep an old man’s knees from grinding bone-on-bone after a couple of centuries.

“Where did you go when you left the ship?”  Carol Simmington asked without preamble.  She was his closest confidante, his right-hand in many respects and took her liberties accordingly.  With a toss of her long red mane, she walked into his room like it was her own.

“Come in,” Ezra murmured as he dressed.  Modesty was something he’d lost as he aged, at least insofar as Carol was concerned.  After thirty years of working together, there were few secrets between them.

Carol’s green eyes flashed.  “You can’t simply stroll through downtown Houston like that, Ezra.  The Guardian has eyes on every street.  Five years have gone by, but he’s still looking for you.”  She gave him another disapproving flip of her fiery locks for emphasis.

“Jim tells me that the Independence is in working order.  How many of our people are in the immediate vicinity?”  He asked, unfazed by her reprimand.

Carol stared back at him.  “About six hundred, if you count the two hundred children.  Why?”

“Events are coming to a head, Carol.  We all need to be ready.”

Carol frowned, her bold nose wrinkling in thought.  “What do you mean?  I haven’t gotten any security alerts from Jim Haines’ people.”

“Time is running out,” Ezra said.  “Call a Net meeting of all of our members, please.  Very soon.”

“Why?”  She asked again.

Ezra sighed.  “I can’t explain that right now.  But we need to ensure that we’re able to implement the Columbus scenario on a moment’s notice.”

“Leave Earth?”  Carol’s eyes were suddenly as wide and as green as the sea at noontime.

Ezra put his hands on her shoulders and squeezed gently.  “Yes.  I can’t wait any longer.”

Her beautiful jade eyes narrowed in suspicion.  “You’ve been to see Myles, haven’t you?”  She knew him too well.

“I talked to Stan,” he admitted.  “But he’s as full of Guardianship spirit as ever.  He plans to have the boy Recognized next week.”

“You didn’t seriously expect to stop him, did you?”

Ezra shook his head.  “No.  But I will not allow it to happen.  Regardless of what we have to do, the Guardian cannot be allowed to gain control over Myles.  He’s capable of doing far too much to help them and at his age he’s not likely to have the wisdom to question the reasons behind the research they’ll have him perform.  He’ll do it just for the pleasure of learning.”

“What are you going to do?”

“Take him, of course.”

“Albert isn’t going to like this,” Carol said, biting her lip.

“He’ll come around.  He’s too smart to believe that he can continue to live like he does after Cyrus tightens his grip even harder.”

“Maybe.”

“Trust me, Carol.  I’ve known Albert a very long time.  He’s every bit as big a part of this organization as I am.”

“That’s what worries me.  If Albert decides he’s not going, what will that do to the rest of the group?”

“Please set up the meeting,” Ezra insisted.  “We can discuss matters then.”

 

Jim Haines was wrapped in an ethereal cocoon of holographic display panes when Ezra found him in the ship’s physics lab.  Dressed in a standard white lab coat, Jim sported his normal well-shellacked hairstyle and, unusually, an old-fashioned pair of gold wire-rimmed glasses.

“May I interrupt, Jim?” Ezra asked after a moment.

“You already have.”

Patience, Ezra told himself as annoyance pricked him.  At the moment, he needed Jim far more than the other way around.  “What is the likelihood of successfully implementing the Columbus scenario, Jim?”

Haines’ head snapped around quite satisfactorily at his question.  “In my opinion it would be very nearly suicide to attempt it.  But you’ve known that ever since you brought me here to work on the Independence.  Why do you ask?”

“It was your responsibility to improve our chances at implementing our escape plans,” Ezra reminded him.

“And I have.  The issues of habitation and defense were solved long before you came back to us.  The probability of boosting a spacecraft this old into Earth orbit is quite another matter.”  Haines’ usually pasty pale face was turning an unpleasant shade of pink.  “It’s impossible to know what will happen if we launch her.”

“I understand,” Ezra said.  “The Independence is an old ship, but we have a full-time crew maintaining her for a reason.”

“The best that are left,” Jim agreed.  “But this ship is over two hundred years old.”

“So am I.  We are going to leave Earth at some point in time.”

“It’s madness to think about boosting her into orbit,” Jim insisted, his face coloring further.

“The ship will be fine,” Ezra said.  “Your people have done a wonderful job of maintaining it.”  As soothing as it might have been to Jim’s ears, Ezra could not bring himself to use the feminine pronoun to refer to a mere spacecraft.  For him the word her could only mean Eileen.

“What isn’t as clear to me is how you plan to deal with the problem of the R-chips,” Ezra continued, perhaps more brusquely than was wise, considering Jim’s volatile nature.

Haines snorted.  “We’ll simply plot an orbit close to one of their transmission satellites, go out and pick it up.”

“Sounds easy.”

“Keeping your damn chips under control is the least of our worries.”

“They’re not my chips,” Ezra told the physicist in a clipped tone.

“You invented the R-chip.  There’s no use denying your legacy.”

That was the damnable truth of the matter.  If he hadn’t been so clever, the Guardianship might never have achieved dominance over the world.  Of course, mankind also might have committed suicide without Cyrus and his armies to pacify it.  Few good choices had existed during that time.  Even if it had been wrong, Ezra was glad that he had done something.  At least he’d tried.  Not everyone had.

“What you’re telling me is that if we can get this crate into orbit then we’re home free, right?”  He asked the physicist.

“We’ve got the other problems more or less solved,” Jim agreed reluctantly.  “Even food won’t be a problem unless there’s a sudden population explosion.”

“Good.  Carol will be coming to you to set up a group-wide meeting.  Will you assign someone to configure a secure Net session at one of the safe houses in the slums?”

“That’s risky.”

“I know.  That’s why I’m asking for your help.”

“Damn it, Ezra, I’m not a miracle worker.  Put Andre Roi on it.”

There were times, Ezra thought as he mentally counted to ten, that dealing with geniuses was a real pain in the ass, Haines included.  “That’s up to you, Jim.  But you’re his section chief.  If Andre’s going to do the job he needs to get the orders from you.”

Jim blinked.

It was a basic management technique that Dr. Haines evidently still needed to learn.  What was ironic about the lesson he’d just taught Jim was that, in order to do something very important, Ezra was about to skip a few links in the chain of command himself.

 

Later, when he was alone in his room, Ezra Randall sat with the lights off.  He watched the decaying city he’d once called home and thought about his grandson.  After Myles was Recognized he would be a constant feature of the Guardianship’s digital landscape, monitored around the clock for good behavior, and rewarded or punished according to what they saw.

Stanley was a fool.  But he hasn’t seen the things that I have, Ezra thought.  Once Myles was Recognized, they would begin to know him inside and out.  Who he talked to, what he said, where he went.  His chip’s record would be reviewed and archived.  Forever.  Even bodily functions were monitored.  No dimension of behavior was too small for their data warehouse to store away.

He had to act.  Without hesitation Ezra called Max into his holographic fore-vision.  As instructed, Max created an instance of a highly secure, audio-only conference on the local network.  Ezra worked quickly, inviting three men to his room.  Each of the three was there within moments and Ezra began to give the necessary orders.

 

Four days and five nights away from his long-awaited Recognition Day, Myles Randall slept.  REM sleep was hours away and his slumber was as deep and dark as the shadows inside his bedroom.

Suddenly waking, he burst through lacquered layers of sleep, consciousness sending black shards of a dream slicing through his waking mind.  An impossibly strong hand covered his mouth, a damp, odorous rag held in its palm clamped over his mouth and nose.

Myles struggled futilely as two pairs of arms bound him hand and foot.  Thrashing his head back and forth, Myles coughed and breathed in harsh chemicals from the rag.  His eyes strained, flickering wildly from side to side.  He could see very little.  Arms, shoulders, covered heads, everything in black fabric and shadow.  He felt nauseous, ill.  He vomited into the rag and gagged as it choked him.

With a muffled oath the hand and rag withdrew and Myles puked the bile out onto his chest.  Immediately a gag replaced the rag-covered hand, pinching his mouth hard at the corners.  Then he was hoisted up over a man’s shoulder like a sack of grain and carried to the window upside-down.

Myles could see two additional intruders perched there, gargoyle-like on the sill of the window, awaiting his bearer.  The man stepped up to the ledge and Myles’ head hung out into space.  Two hundred feet below he saw smeared blue streetlights and wet gray pavement.  The gargoyles held something in their hands.  A sharp click came from each as they reached for his ankles.

Myles kicked out with all of his strength, but they held him easily and attached something to the bonds that held his feet fast.  Suddenly the men on the window sill were gone.  He tried to look around to see where they had gone but saw only the cityscape far beneath him.  Then the man carrying Myles heaved him bodily out the window.  He fell, screaming against the gag in his mouth until, mercifully, darkness overcame him and he crashed back into unconsciousness.

Page BreakChapter 2

 

Dr. Reginald White wiped his brow and wondered why the air conditioning couldn’t drive away the stagnant heat in his office.  Reggie was a large man, beefy by some accounts, big-boned by others, and pale of feature in a way that caused his skin to grow blotchy when the temperature increased.  The climate control unit’s failure didn’t surprise him.  The truth was that some things weren’t what they once were, no matter how hard the Guardianship tried to make believe.

Twenty-three years had passed since he’d accepted the position as dean of the Texas A&M medical school, but he’d never gotten used to the environment.  College Station, Texas was a fine place except for two pestilences:  the weather and the fire ants.  Still, he’d never regretted coming here – at least during the winter months.  The university had provided many opportunities for his research, both above boards and below.  That was important; as a Lifer, Reggie had a long time to consider possible avenues for his ambitions.

Reggie mopped his forehead again and returned his attention to the papers he was grading.  A new batch of graduates was, in their usual infantile fashion, wriggling toward matriculation.  As ever they expelled reams of virtual documents in the process.  It was Reggie’s self-inflicted responsibility to read each of year-end theses, no matter how pedestrian the subject matter or how immature the understanding.  Not all of them were bad, of course.  It was the rare shimmer of a diamond among the dross that made the exercise worthwhile.

Just as he was settling into a reading rhythm, a sharp, insistent knock came at his door.  Reggie jerked upright, irritated.  His students knew better than to show up without an appointment and his subordinates would have checked with him via the Net beforehand.  Ready to vent some of his pent-up frustration, he pulled open the door only to find the hallway empty.  Not a very funny joke, if that’s what this was.

Then Reggie noticed a small, folded piece of paper at his feet.  He picked it up the note and stared at it.  Hand-written, with a single word on one side: “Starnes”, the slip of paper read.  For a moment he had no idea what to make of the note.  Then his hands began to shake.  Such a message could only come from Ezra Randall.  The word itself had a meaning that could never be forgotten by those who had read the book, one that divided and defined people.

Turning the card over, Reggie saw, in tiny printed script, a Net address of unusual format.  How long had it been since he’d had contact with his former mentor?  Nearly twenty years, Reggie decided after reflecting.  They’d parted ways not long after he’d come to the university.  He’d gotten tired of fighting the Guardianship the way Ezra went about it.  The risk-to-reward ratio was simply too high for him to accept.

Still, Reggie had to admit that he was intrigued.  The message itself told him nothing; therefore, either a document on the Net, to be found at the typed address, would tell him more or there would be further communication.  He could read the document, Reggie thought.  But the Net would know that he’d done so, logging the contents of the document into semi-permanent storage and indexing it for future retrieval.  That was the way of the Net, to index and cross-index all information, and the software was very efficient at its job.

He slipped the note into his pocket and sat back down at his desk, intending to go back to work.  Reggie found his mind returning to the note.  What was it his former mentor wanted him to do?  He supposed that the older man wanted to stir Reggie out of what he saw as Reggie’s misguided complacency.  Working within the Guardianship was anathema to Dr. Randall, but doing so had served Reggie well to this point in his life.

If this had been Ezra’s stratagem it had failed.  He would rather avoid being publicly linked with Ezra again.  Far better, he thought, to do nothing and wait to see what events transpired before becoming involved.

 

Sarah Holloway was good at her job, even though it meant being jacked in to the Net for hours at a stretch.  Because of her aptitude for such work, Sarah had been given advanced training in the use of the Guardianship’s reconnaissance systems after her Recognition two years before.  She’d completed the program easily and was then assigned to work tracking people from the basement of the Guardianship Security Force’s Houston headquarters.

The job was easy for her and most of the time she liked the work.  She was also diligent about her duties.  Assiduousness in the service of the Guardianship was its own reward, of course, but there were others.  So long as she did well, Sarah would want for nothing, but if she failed or complained about the rules of the game, she could end up like her parents.  That was one outcome that Sarah wouldn’t allow herself the luxury of considering.  Her life would be different than – no, better than – theirs, no matter what it took.

The Recon system actually did most of the work for Sarah and the other trackers, which certainly made matters easier.  But there were still decisions to be made, subtle guesses that the AI was too dumb to make and Sarah had an intuition for her work that put her a cut above the others in her department.  She’d just solved a case involving the disappearance of premium foodstuffs from a commissary in Tulsa.  It had been an inside job, of course.  People still thought they could get away with anything, even with the monitoring.

Unplugging from the Net, Sarah sat still, letting herself adjust to the real world.  She heard voices behind her and turned to see two of her male co-workers staring at a projected session.  In it, an attractive woman lay back on a bed, her hair spread in back of her head.  She was naked and Sarah saw the shoulder of a young, muscular man as he approached her.

“– she’s the hottest thing I’ve ever seen,” Gary Gomez chortled, his eyes fixed on the display.  “And I’ve seen a lot.  You’ll wish you were that dude, I’ll promise you.”

“I already do,” Kevin Hughes laughed.  “I see why you keep such a close eye on her.”

“You jerks know that unauthorized monitoring is against the law,” Sarah snapped.  “Turn that off before I call Lorna in here.”

The two men’s heads snapped around as one.  “I thought you were still inside,” Gomez said.

“That’s not the point and you know it.  That woman doesn’t deserve to have her love life spied on by perverts like you.  We’re supposed to be making the Guardianship a better place, not finding new ways for you to jerk off.”

The two men cleared out of the room without another word.  Sarah knew that if she reported the incident both would have their Net assignment revoked.  She ought to do it, she knew.  But Gomez and Hughes weren’t bad men, really.  Whoever came next might be worse.  Besides, she was one of the junior people in the department.  Any complaints she filed now would be on her record for years, even if she was in the right.

After cleaning up her work area, Sarah was about to leave when her inbox chimed at her.  Fully immersed, she flicked her eyes down and saw a flashing green and white icon, an indication that a high priority message was waiting.  She got at least one of these every day and they usually amounted to nothing.  Nevertheless, she tied off her other sessions and immediately opened the new item.  Responsiveness counted too and was recorded.

She nearly sighed when she saw that the case was a missing teenaged boy report.  A majority of her cases were of a similar nature.  Teens, nearly Recognized and chafing at being confined to their home zone, regularly broke the rules, wandered off and triggered the automatic surveillance alert.  These were simple ones, suitable for someone still growing into the job, and they’d become an annoyance to Sarah now that she’d done harder work.

Sarah hesitated.  It was almost time for her shift to end and she had lots to do.  She needed to go to a community meeting before she got further behind in her quota.  And Robin had promised to be there waiting for her.  The thought of him made her stomach flutter.

She was a thin, pretty girl of average height and weight, with dishwater blonde hair, green eyes and a lively smile.  It would nice to be away from here for a while and with other people, especially Robin, and she wasn’t going to miss another opportunity.

She was about to unlink from the Net when the subject’s name in the new case caught her eye.  Myles Randall was a friend of her brother.  A name that unusual wasn’t likely to be a duplicate.  She quickly checked the file and saw that it was Terry’s friend who was missing.

Sarah ran a quick Dependent Locator scan for his R-chip but Myles’ ID wasn’t active in his host district.  Sarah normally solved at least half of her cases this way.  There were fourteen districts in the Houston area and she expanded her search to include the entire region.  Again she received no results.  That was peculiar.  Runaways almost always never went far in their search for a little excitement.

Following the department’s required procedure, Sarah pinned her search filters to the case and linked the notification to her supervisor.  If Myles’ chip signal was detected anywhere in the Houston region, both of them would be immediately alerted.

Where had he gone?  Sarah wondered.  The Myles she knew was a good kid, even good-looking in a “little brother’s best friend” sort of way.  And Myles was super-smart.  Surely he could take care of himself.  But she knew from experience that wasn’t always the case.

Five months earlier she had been assigned to track a fourteen-year-old girl who, after she hadn’t turned up on the Locator, ended up dead in an abandoned field outside the slums.  Lorna Schlatter, her immediate supervisor, had taken Sarah out to see the remains for what she called “value reinforcement”.

The lost girl had been pretty before she’d been cut into pieces by an industrial laser.  That was bad enough, but also she’d suffered unconscionably at the hands of a truly sick bastard before he’d butchered her.  It took Sarah several weeks to track the son of a bitch down.  He was the only person she’d tracked down to be painted by the troopers.  The murdering pervert had deserved every bit of suffering the R-chip dispensed, but Sarah still hadn’t gone to see him die.

The memory brought on an involuntary shudder that Sarah suppressed.  Myles would turn up.  He was too smart to get into that kind of trouble.  Promising herself she’d dedicate her morning to his case, Sarah packed up her things and, already seeing Robin’s gorgeous smile in her mind, half-ran out the door on her way to the community meeting center.

She had no way of knowing that her scan for Myles’ R-chip had triggered silent alarms at the highest levels of the Guardianship Security Forces.  Twenty-five floors above her, Commander Korry Butler, director of the Houston GSF district, learned about the disappearance of Myles Randall, much to his consternation.  Unbeknownst even to Butler, the alert didn’t stop there but cascaded automatically up the Guardianship’s power structure before ending with Sandra Anichi, the continent’s director.

 

The Guardian stared out the window of his floater at the rolling swells of the Atlantic Ocean as the blue-grey water streaked beneath the fast-moving machine.  The fact that such a trip between continents had become routine again pleased him.  It was important for the Guardianship to make advances of this type.  The Dependents wanted to see progress, even if it had nothing to do with their daily lives, and he was determined to give it to them.  They worked better and harder when they thought they were happy.

The floater he rode in was just such an advance.  Powered by an inexpensive fusion reactor, it could travel thirty times the speed of sound if pressed.  Hypersonic wave-riding was perhaps the most significant discovery of the century thus far and, he hoped, only the first in a series of such advances.

Simply put, HWR floaters used their own shock waves to propel themselves, something even the pre-war Americans hadn’t known how to do.  An added bonus was the low environmental impact, important because the environmental recovery was still fragile within the nano-plague’s isolation zones.

The new machine also made his frequent ocean crossings easier to bear.  Cyrus kept his permanent home high in the Alps, not far from his childhood home in what had once been France, but tried to pay regular visits to the satellite offices he kept in each of the Guardianship’s six other administrative areas.  On this trip to the North American area, he had several objectives, not the least of which was some personal medical business.

The Guardian was a man of below average height – he barely topped one hundred seventy centimeters – but he had the shoulders of a weightlifter and was as fit as a man one-eighth his age.  His iron-gray hair was clipped short enough to belong on the head of a new recruit into the security forces.  His eyes were also gray and piercingly bright when they fastened on a subject of interest.

Unaware he was doing so, Cyrus glared at the sea below as if challenging it to single combat.

“Cyrus, how fast are we going?”  Michele asked from beside him, her voice small and uncertain.

Looking over, Cyrus realized he’d quite forgotten the girl.  “About six thousand kilometers per hour,” he said.  “Roughly six times the speed of sound.  Would you like to go faster?”

The dark rolling water churned below them.  A rather vicious storm was railing outside, but he knew from experience the floater would handle the weather without difficulty.

Michele looked away from the boiling gray gloom outside and met his eyes with her liquid blue ones.  “I’ve never been so high or gone so fast,” she said.  The slight tremor in her voice was more pronounced now, as if the thought of more speed frightened her.

With a small chuckle, Cyrus mentally calculated the time it would take to complete the flight.  There was time enough for a bit of fun.  Despite her surprising timidity, the young woman reclining in the lounge chair next to him was more than adequate in the possibilities her body offered.

“Are you enjoying the trip, Michele?”  He asked in a husky voice.  “You seem apprehensive.”

Michele, her long limbs arrayed in a pose that left little to the imagination, flicked her eyes toward the sea-torn sky outside her window.  Outside, the rain above was nearly indistinguishable from the ocean below.

“It’s scary up here,” she said.

“Let’s see if we can relax you a bit,” Cyrus said.  Mentally linking to Cy, his Net avatar, Cyrus called up a holographic image of a rain forest scene, complete with half-seen jungle animals and soft, shrill tropical sounds.  Instantly the forest surrounded them on five sides.  He could hear the wind whisper through the trees, so complete was the immersion.

“Wow,” Michele said, taking in the scene, her blue eyes wide open.

“Elegantly put.  But I think we need more.  Cy,” he said aloud, “music, please.  Classical guitar, nineteenth century.  Randomize the selection from my personal collection.”

Ferdinando Carulli’s Fantasia filled the air and drowned out the sounds of the rain forest. Cyrus turned towards Michele.  “Better?”

“Much,” she said with a smile, stroking his arm as his hand moved up one of her long, lithe legs.

Cyrus took her hand in his, brought it to his mouth and lightly kissed the back of it.  “Has anyone ever mentioned how stunning you are?”  He asked, pressing his lips to the nape of her neck.  She tasted faintly of faded perfume, strong soap, and chlorine.  She was clean; his staff had disinfected her with their usual thoroughness.  With his tongue, Cyrus caressed her neck from her blouse to her hairline.  Michele moaned softly in response.

“Guardian?” Cy broke in.

“Not now!”  Stupid avatar, Cyrus thought, and the mood went, just like that.

“I’m so sorry, Guardian,” the AI said over the sounds of the guitar.  “But there’s a holo-call for you on the secure channel.”

Overhead in the intensely green jungle canopy, a dwarf who looked very much like Cyrus hung upside down from a branch of a gigantic banyan tree.  Cy wore the foppish yellow and purple costume of a royal court jester.  “Duty calls, my master,” the dwarf said with a bit of a sneer.

Cyrus sighed and shoved himself up on one elbow.  “Why can’t you be a bit more subtle?”

“You configured me,” Cy said, spreading his arms in an upside-down shrug.

Cyrus removed the holographic illusion and once again they were speeding across the ocean in a small but luxurious compartment.  Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out a shiny, paper-thin strip of metal some thirty centimeters in length and exactly two centimeters wide.  He wrapped it around his forehead like it was a decorative headband.

“Think sexy thoughts,” Cyrus said to Michele.  He favored her with a big smile and a small pinch before leaning back into his own recliner.  With any luck he’d be able to get back to her before they landed in Dallas.

The metal headband quickly heated to operating temperature and the image of a small woman with blonde hair appeared before him.  The image was very sharp and the edges almost seemed to cut at his eyes.  The woman wore a crisply-cut, bright-green uniform of the North American Security Forces.  The distinctive insignia on her shoulder was that of an Area Director, one of Seven who held the rank world-wide.  In another time, Sandra Anichi’s position would have been akin to royalty; in the Guardianship it more closely matched that of a president-general.

Cyrus concentrated on shaping his thoughts.  “Sandy, to what do I owe this unexpected intrusion?”

The device wrapped around his skull converted certain brain patterns to an outgoing digital signal that was transmitted through the Net to his subordinate as speech.  On the reverse path, signals received by the device were routed directly to the audio centers of his brain.  The process required some mental effort to control the content of the transmission, but it worked.

“Did I interrupt something?”  Sandra Anichi asked.  Her face, never quite pretty, was pinched into an unreadable mask.  Nobody called her Sandy anymore and Cyrus knew it.

“Jealous?” he replied, still without speaking aloud.

“Hardly,” Sandra said, showing him the barest hint of perfect white teeth.  “You’re not my type.”

Cyrus noticed that her hologram’s lips moved when she talked.  He suspected his did the same, despite the additional layer of hardware involved.

“What brings you to my humble continent, Cyrus?”  Sandra asked.  There was a hint of something like suspicion in her voice.

“Just a physical at the Mayo clinic in Dallas.  But what’s this call about?”  He asked, glancing at Michele’s supine form.  The girl smiled at him and made an interesting motion with her hand.

Sandra’s face clouded.  “Maybe it should wait.  This conversation should be secure.”

Cyrus smiled.  Sandy didn’t even know he was using the device.  That’s how good it was.  It was amazing what dividends a stable society could reap.

He told her.  Sandra blinked and Cyrus’ grin broadened at catching her off-guard.

“Cyrus, that thing isn’t perfected yet.  Where would we be if your precious Guardian brain got itself burned to ash?”

“I’ve been using it for months and it’s fine, trust me,” Cyrus said.  “Just tell me what the problem is.”

“The boy has been taken,” Sandra said.

Cyrus’ entire body went rigid.  It took every fiber of self-control he possessed to keep his voice level when he finally spoke.

“You were supposed to keep him under surveillance.”

“We did.”

“Obviously not very well.  What in the hell happened?”

“He was taken out of his bedroom during the night.  The exterior shield was dropped and the window left open afterward.”

There was a long moment of silence as Cyrus fought for control.  “We have to find Myles.  Alive,” he added with emphasis.  “It’s imperative that we activate his chip – we can control him then.”

“Recognizing him now won’t do any good – he’s not anywhere on the Net grid,” Sandra said in an impatient tone.  “Perhaps if you’d continued the build out of the Net’s network infrastructure as I requested we wouldn’t be having this discussion.”

“Don’t use that as an excuse for your failure.”

“I’m merely giving you the facts –”

“Sandy, dear,” the Guardian cut in, “this situation reminds me of something a great man told me once, a long, long time ago.”

Sandra waited for him to go on, her expression frozen in a patient look that said she was humoring an old fool’s folksy wisdom.  He fought his temper back and made her wait for him to speak.

“No one is irreplaceable, Sandy,” he said finally.  “Not even one of the Seven.  Don’t forget that.”

 

Sandra Anichi stepped lightly out of her official floater to survey the crime scene.  Behind her, the pilot took the supersonic airplane smoothly into the air.  The cool jet wash barely ruffled Sandra’s short yellow hair as he did so.  Sandra was a small, fine-boned woman seemingly in the prime of her life.  She was alert, fit and, if the sidelong look the pilot had given her as she’d disembarked was any indication, still an attractive woman.  The fact that she was two hundred and five years old made that last pejorative that much more impressive.

Sandra was also one of the Guardianship’s true believers, one of exactly three hundred and one Lifers – men and women who had taken the purest form of the Randall longevity treatments in the very beginning.  As such, her immortality was gene-deep.  Like any other Dependent, Sandra’s wrist contained the small but universal lump that signified the existence of the Guardianship’s R-chip.  She was Recognized, not out of necessity but by choice.  Significantly, Sandra’s R-chip did not, to her knowledge, contain a self-destruct mechanism.

She stopped at the foot of the building and looked thirty-four floors up the edge to the skyline.  The boy’s father – Stanley Randall, her avatar whispered in her ear – was able to get into one of the better blockhouses in the city and not near the ground floor, either.  Still, she would have expected better, given his position in the Guardianship.  This told her something.  Access to the taller blockhouses was gained through hard work, but a single black mark could be a barrier that no amount of sacrifice could overcome.  Stanley Randall had something to regret just by being born, Sandra knew already, and now there was something else.

A shrill noise from the street caught her ear and Sandra made out a cryer-board sailing above the sidewalk.  Sensing her interest in the machine, her avatar linked it in to her audio feed.  The cryer was playing a speech the Guardian had made recently extolling the virtues of sacrifice and selflessness.

As if Cyrus Magnor knew anything about sacrifice, Sandra thought.  If she called Guardian back right now she’d probably catch the old pervert in flagante delicto with one or more of the young women he bandied about on his wrinkled, arthritic knees.  But it was better not to dwell on the vast chasm between Cyrus’ message and his personal implementation of it.  The Guardian couldn’t read minds – yet – but it was a very good idea to stay away from habits that might become dangerous in the future.

Several Guardianship patrol vehicles, including that of the district commander, were hunkered down outside the Randall’s building.  Myles’ disappearance wouldn’t be treated like an ordinary case.  Sandra went up and two guards from the local force stiffened to attention and saluted when Sandra entered the Randall’s apartment.  Her reputation, somewhat deserved, preceded her.  Sandra wondered if she had been to Houston before.  She didn’t think so – she would remember spending time in any place this inhospitable.  Sweat beaded around her stiff collar and ran down her back inside of her uniform jacket.

“Where’s Commander Butler?” she asked, staring blankly between the men.

“Inside, ma’am.  He’s expecting you.”

From the doorway, Sandra took in the interior of the apartment where a couple sat on the sofa, shoulders and hips touching.  Her avatar ran a biometric scan on them and reported the obvious:  These were Myles’ parents.  A pair of officers she’d sent down from the central office in Chicago interviewed them.  The woman wrung her hands in her laps as she answered their questions.  She might have been a pretty woman, but she’d been crying and it didn’t do anything for her appearance.  The man was pale and watching the officers with an intent expression on his face.

Behind them, two members of the local force stood watching.  They spoke quietly, but in a strained manner, to a third man.  The local boys wouldn’t like the fact that her team had taken over the investigation.  Sandra strode over to the trio.  The man in charge glanced in her direction and recognized her.

“Director Anichi, welcome to Houston,” Butler said.  She didn’t offer to shake hands and the officers nodded and moved away.  “The men you sent over seem very efficient,” he continued.  “I’m glad to have them on the case.”

Sandra watched Butler carefully.  He was not lying, if she was any judge.  Still, she had her avatar record a note to check the commander’s event monitor later.  Their conversation would be reviewed and disciplinary actions applied, if needed.  He’d made the correct decision when he’d called her but now his role in the case had largely been played out.  He wouldn’t like that any more than his men did.

“Commander, my men are here because I can trust them to do what needs to be done.  I expect complete support from every one of your people.  Deputy Chief Hernandez will be running the investigation and any request he makes comes from me.  Understood?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Butler said, his voice and neck equally stiff.

“Show me the scene.”

In Myles’ room she saw signs of a possible struggle.  Blankets and a pillow were strewn on the floor and a lightweight plastic table had been tipped over near the window.  Otherwise, nothing looked out of place.  It could easily have been the normal state of the kid’s room.

Sandra walked over to the window and attempted to push her hand through.  The shield was back up.  Backing up a step, she launched herself toward the open air beyond it.  With a hard slap of flesh against a solid wall, Sandra’s shoulder struck the barrier and she staggered back before regaining her balance.

“How was the shield dropped?” she asked.  Her shoulder hurt, but she wouldn’t rub it in front of so many men.  She’d learned that, no matter how bad the pain, it never paid to show it in front of the other animals.

“I’ve got my people on that,” Butler replied.

“Chief?”  A voice called.

Sandra turned to see Jesus Hernandez standing in the doorway. “Yes, Jesus?” she asked with a small hint of a smile.  It was just a lightning flash of pearly white teeth, but it was more than she would give to anyone else on Earth and they both knew it.

“We’ve finished with the boy’s parents.  We’ll open up their audio logs next, to see if there’s anything we can pick up.  We could use some help with that,” he said, looking at Butler.

“You’ve got it,” Butler said immediately.

“That will take until tomorrow to complete.  According to the building’s entry log, there were only two visitors to the Randall unit last week.  One of them was a Lifer.  He didn’t leave a scan in the log.  No hit on the building’s biometrics, either.  The father says it was his, um,” Jesus stopped to consult his avatar.  “His great-great-grandfather Ezra.”

“Ezra Randall was here yesterday?” she asked.  Of its own volition, Sandra’s stomach seemed to clench into a tiny, hard fist inside her body.

“Yes,” Jesus confirmed.  “We’ve reviewed the still images from the hall cams.  He looks different, but it’s him.”

Sandra turned to Butler. The commander’s face was red.  “I’m looking into that right now.  Apparently the men on-site yesterday weren’t fully briefed.”

“Apparently,” Sandra repeated in a voice even she found grating.  Butler blanched and said nothing.  “There were troopers all around and the man I’ve spent five years looking for just walks in and out right under your noses.  Have I got that right?”

Glaring at Butler, she fixed her gaze on the man until he nodded, a short jerk of assent.

“He isn’t going to be happy.”

Sandra turned towards the window and stared out.  None of the men within earshot needed to be told to whom she was referring.

 

The Guardian’s eyes burned bright under a pair of furrowed eyebrows, gray molten steel that had barely cooled.  Sandra had worked for the man for over a century and a half and she’d learned that he didn’t handle bad news with good grace.  Anticipating him, she was surprised by what he said next.

“This is my fault,” Cyrus said.  He looked away, stroking his chin, his voice pensive.

“How’s that?”

“I’ve never taken Ezra seriously.  He’s a gentle man at heart, a genuine man of medicine.  After everything he’s done for us, I hated to bring him to heel.  But I never anticipated this sort of opposition from him.”

“You really think that Ezra Randall’s behind this?”

Cyrus shrugged.  “I know that he despises his life’s work.  Ezra invented Recognition, but he wants to spare Myles from its side-effects.  It fits.”

Sandra thought fast.  Ezra had never taken a chip, so they wouldn’t be able to track him in the usual fashion.  He obviously hadn’t carried one when he’d come here; if he had there would have been a record of his travels through the city.  “He’s got to have help.”

“I’m sure you’re right.  Whatever he’s planned, he’ll have an entire cadre of supporters.  Let’s not underestimate Dr. Randall again, Sandy.  I’ve been guilty of that until now, but that was a mistake.  He’s a very intelligent adversary.”

“Are the gloves off, Cyrus?”  She asked.  In her mind, there was no use even opening a line of investigation otherwise.

“All the way off,” the Guardian said with an unreadable expression on his face.  “I need that boy.”

Why was Myles so important?  And exactly what was the Guardian planning?  She longed to know but it was unwise to question Cyrus about his intentions, even for one of the Seven.  Although they’d spoken about Myles on several occasions, Cyrus had never revealed his plans for the young man.

“They might hide out along the periphery of the Dependency zone,” she said, thinking aloud.  “But they wouldn’t be able to come out much because of our patrols.  They must use the Net for communications.”

“Follow up on it, Sandy.”  The Guardian mopped his brow with the sleeve of his tunic.

Sandra was suddenly aware of the wan expression the man wore.  Although she know it was impossible, the Guardian looked old.  “Are you feeling well, Cyrus?”  Sandra asked.  Against her will, a part of her hoped that he would respond negatively.

“Just find Myles Randall for me,” the Guardian ordered.

 

The first of Myles’ senses to return was his hearing.  The discordant hums and rattles of various machines rattled around inside his head and drove him toward wakefulness.  He sat up, feeling loose and groggy, like he’d taken too much allergy medicine.  Voices murmured in the distance but the metallic, mechanical sounds kept him from hearing enough to catch the meaning of the conversation.

The room stank of stale urine, vomit, and freshly cooked soy products.  The reek assaulted Myles’ sense of smell like a battering ram.  That led to his first coherent thought of the day:  He was not at home.  Whatever this place was, it smelled like a commissary with the bad luck to be located inside a sewage plant.

Myles stood up, desperate to know where he was.  He wobbled on unsteady legs as he scanned the room.  It was daylight – the faint ambient light told him so – but he couldn’t tell if it was morning or afternoon.  He had been laid out on a worn sofa surrounded by several stiff-backed, wooden chairs.  These were empty and arranged in a semi-circle facing him.

Where was he?  Fighting the urge to panic, he tried to recall how he’d come to be here.  The last thing he remembered was going to bed in his room.  He had tossed and turned most of the night, the excitement of his upcoming Recognition ceremony and the possibilities of what lay beyond keeping his brain from settling down to sleep.

It came back to him in a rush.  The dream:  black shadows and blue light, a jerky, lo-rez movie that he didn’t understand.  Several men had been in his room and he’d been taken out of bed, tied up and thrown out his bedroom window.  He recalled that the kidnappers had gagged him to keep him from crying out and Myles put a hand to his lips, half expecting a harsh-smelling rag to be tied there.  None was.

Then he remembered throwing up and choking on his own vomit as he fell headfirst toward the concrete street below his building.  Looking down at his bedclothes, he saw a large stain on the front of his shirt.  He raised it to his face and winced at the smell.  Myles’ pulse raced as the truth hit him hard.  The memory was real and so was this place.  He had to get out of here!  But where was he?

Myles looked wildly around the room, trying to find a door or window, anything that he could use to get out of this foul-smelling place.  Then he saw a strange, hunched over shape leaned against the far wall and Myles realized for the first time that he wasn’t alone in the dimly-lit room.  A man stared out into the muted light, his back to Myles, arms clasped behind his back.  Deep in his panic, it took Myles a moment to realize that he knew the man.

“Elder Grandfather?” Myles could scarcely believe his own eyes.

Ezra turned around and looked at Myles, his expression more serious than Myles had ever known him to be.  Usually the old man wore an ear-to-ear grin when they were together.  At least he had, until he’d disappeared five years before.  Since then, Myles had not seen or heard from him.  “Hello Myles.  I was beginning to wonder if you were ever going to wake up.”

Myles stared at his great-great-great-grandfather, unable to speak.

“I imagine that you’re somewhat confused,” Ezra said finally.

Myles nodded.  He’d been confused when his grandfather had disappeared the first time, but he was no less puzzled now.  One thing he knew was that seeing his grandfather again made him realize that there was a void in his heart he hadn’t even known was there until now.

“First of all, let me assure you that you are quite safe,” his grandfather said.  The old man came to stand next to Myles.  He had even less hair than Myles remembered but otherwise he looked the same as he had five years before.

“But where am I?” Myles asked.

“The slums outside of Houston.”

“How did I get here?”

“The Guardianship’s surveillance is less complete away from the more civilized zones,” his grandfather said.  “This area isn’t completely ignored, mind you.  It’s just not scanned with the same intensity as your neighborhood.”

Myles noticed that his question hadn’t been answered but didn’t question him.  “Scanned?”

“You’ll understand in time, Myles.  For now, please trust me.”

Something wasn’t making sense.  Why would they want to hide from the Guardianship unless they were doing something wrong?  Vaguely, Myles remembered overhearing a fight between Ezra and Myles’ father about his Recognition Day.  He’d been nine or ten years old and had wanted to go to the park.  Instead the grownups had gone off to his father’s den to yell at each other.  Was that what this was about?

“Elder Grandpa, did you do this to me?”  He asked, cutting to the heart of the matter.

A haunted look crossed Ezra’s face.  For a few moments, he only looked out of the dirty window.  Then Ezra slowly sat down in a battered cloth armchair.  His weight caused a thin cloud of dust to rise into the air, the tiny motes dancing on muted beams of light.

“Yes.”

Although he’d been expecting the answer, Myles felt the words hit him like a fist to the stomach.  He’d been kidnapped by his own grandfather!  “They threw me out the window –”, he began, but Ezra cut him off.

“I had to do it, Myles!  For too long I’ve sat in the shadows, afraid to act, but no more.  You don’t understand it now, but you are the key.”

“Me?  The key to what?”

“The future.  You’re the one who convinced me that it was time to leave.”

Again Myles could only stare.  The old man wasn’t making any sense.

“I have to do it,” his grandfather continued.  “If I don’t, the Guardian will take over everything.”

“Do what, Grandpa?”

“What do you know about the history of the Guardianship, Myles?”  His grandfather asked, ignoring his question.  He peered at Myles expectantly and Myles had the distinct impression the question was meant to reveal his own lack of knowledge.

“Well,” Myles began uncertainly.  “Before the Guardianship came into being there were many independent countries, each looking after their own interests.  One of these little countries deployed a biological weapon that killed a lot of people in America, Great Britain, and Israel.”

“Pakistan,” Ezra said in a low voice.

“They didn’t kill everyone, though.  When America and a few allies obliterated Pakistan, the whole world got into the fight.  When it was finally over there weren’t any more nations.”

“How did the Guardianship start to gain power?”  Ezra asked.

“After the war, everything was in ruins.  Primitive local governments ran everything again.  After twenty years or so, the Guardian started to organize a small part of England.  He gave the people there a vision:  work together, help each other and rebuild.  There wouldn’t be any competition to foster animosity.  No one would be allowed to put their individual needs above those of the group.  One person at a time, he convinced people that this was the right way to live.  More and more people decided to accept his protection.  Eventually the Guardianship grew into the society it is today.

“What is that, exactly?”

“The first truly peaceful, stable society on Earth,” Myles said, repeating verbatim a line he remembered from his social studies classes.

Ezra had listened to Myles intently.  “As with the most insidious of lies,” he began, speaking slowly as if unsure how to begin, “the history you’ve been taught contains a great deal of truth. Cyrus Magnor did save us, I can’t deny that.  He brought mankind back from the brink of extinction, just like you said.  But he saved us because he wanted to rule us, to control us and deify himself.  What the Guardian really wants is complete and absolute power.”

Internally Myles recoiled from his grandfather’s words.  It wasn’t right to talk about the Guardianship without respect.  Nor was it safe.  “My father says that everything we have now is because of the Guardian,” Myles said, taking refuge in his father’s words.

“Your father is a loyal Dependent.  You should be very proud of him.”

“I am,” Myles said.  Belatedly he realized that he’d missed the sarcasm in the old man’s voice.  But he wouldn’t change his answer, whatever his grandfather meant him to think.

“The hell of it is that your father is almost right.  But the life that we have now is only an illusion.  Your sense of the world is so restricted that when you’re given a few privileges after Recognition Day, it seems like you’ve obtained freedom.  My God, Myles, you can’t even decide what to do with your own future.  You have to be told what you’re going to do with your life every step of the way.”

“That’s not true.  I turned in the choices that I wanted.”

“That’s simply part of the illusion.  They let you submit a list in order to let you think that you have some say in the process.  Believe me:  if your choices don’t match what they want you to do, you’ll find out that you’ve got no choice in the matter.”

Myles gaped at his grandfather but could think of nothing to say.

 

Myles looked back at him with a blank stare and Ezra’s heart suddenly felt heavy in his chest.  How could he explain things so that the boy could understand what he was saying?  Two hundred years of history had to be condensed into a single conversation.  Ezra sat down in front of Myles and leaned in toward him.

“A long time ago, before the war, a man could take up whatever profession he wanted to.  He could be whatever he wanted to be, regardless of the so-called social need.”

Myles looked shocked but responded immediately.  “That kind of selfishness was the problem with the twenty-first century.  Too few people were going into critical professions and too many into wasteful ones.  The Guardian says that people suffered because of it.”

“There was often short-term inefficiency in the system,” Ezra allowed.  “But a free-market system automatically corrects this kind of behavior.  Supply and demand is the most basic concept of society – everything is driven by simple economic rules.”

“What rules?”

Evidently economics wasn’t taught in the Guardianship, Ezra thought.  He should have known.  He decided he’d have to use a more concrete example.  “What do you want to do for a living?”

“I want to be a scientist.  Physics or something like that.”

“And if the Guardianship decides that a history teacher is needed and puts you in the position?”

“I’d be disappointed,” Myles said with a frown.  “But I’d accept it if that’s where I was needed most.  A man’s first responsibility is to be of service to others.”

“Spoken like a true Dependent,” Ezra said, his tone more acidic than he’d intended, and his grandson looked at him with wounded eyes.  He forced himself to back off and try yet another approach.

“Myles, your first responsibility is to serve yourself.  If you’re not happy in what you do, you’re not doing anyone any good.  Not your family, not your friends, and certainly not yourself.”

“That’s a really selfish way of thinking,” Myles said.  “The only reason that the Guardianship exists is because people nearly killed themselves off by being greedy.”

“Not true.  The civilization I knew was killed by a form of selfishness, you’re right.  But it wasn’t greed or individualism that destroyed our world.  It was ideological zealotry, plain and simple.”

Myles shook his head.  “I don’t understand.”

“The purest form of arrogance is to claim to understand the will of God.  That’s what a religion is, you understand, a pretense of divine knowledge.  Pakistan was mad with it and the false prophets who pulled the strings in that country goaded their military into poisoning America and Europe.  If the Pakistani people had been free to chart their own course, none of it would have happened.  Of course, if the Americans and Europeans had possessed the courage of their democratic convictions they would have acted to ensure their own safety.  Instead they found out that appeasing an implacable enemy doesn’t work.”

Myles shook his head with a doubtful look on his face and Ezra saw that his speech was too much for the boy to take in.  He’d thought about this moment for five long years, certain when it arrived that he could just find the words to make Myles understand why everything he believed was a lie.  Now he wasn’t so sure.

“Nobody follows religions anymore,” Myles said, certainty back in his voice.

“Wrong again.  They just keep it secret.  But my point is that if you think about it, you’ll realize that there’s a new church in town:  the Guardianship.  And Cyrus Magnor is its Pope.”

“Pope?”  Myles asked.

“The Popes headed the Catholic church, which was a denomination of the Christian faith.  It was one of the largest religious sects ever and, in many ways, one of the most foolish,” Ezra answered.  “But we can talk about that another time.  What matters is that, after the war, the Guardian made a new order with himself in charge.  He and his closest supporters – the Three Hundred – decide how the rest of us live, down to the smallest detail.”

“That’s not true, grandfather,” Myles protested.

“Of course it is.  Let’s try an example.  How much do you pay for soy-meat?”

Myles shrugged.  “Mom does it.”

“But it’s the same every time, right?”  He waited until Myles nodded.  “Does it always take the grocer the same amount of effort to produce it?  Do the farmers always grow exactly the right amount of beans?”

Myles looked at him, perplexed, and again Ezra struggled for the right words.  From the boy’s perspective the questions he was being asked came from a completely alien context.

“The price is simply set by some Guardianship drone in Chicago or Berne.  No one asks the farmer what he’d like to receive for his labor because he serves the government and does what it tells him to do.  Fair or not, it simply doesn’t matter.”

“It seems fair to me.  Why shouldn’t farmers get paid the same amount every year, just like everyone else?”

Ezra smoothed the fringes of his hair and tried to see things through Myles’ eyes.  “If I ran a store, it would serve me to sell my wares for as much as I could get, right?”

“Sure.”

“And if you were my customer, it would serve you to pay as little for them as you could.”  He waited until Myles nodded again.  “If we don’t agree on the price but you offered to pay an amount that I would accept, then we both get what we want.  Make sense?”

A third nod, but this time it was given grudgingly.

“That’s being honest, economically speaking.  The Guardianship is inherently dishonest because it makes people do things they don’t want to do.  In order to control the distribution of resources, the government sets the prices at which goods are sold.  It’s corrupt, on purpose.  It’s designed to keep people under control.  The only people who win in this society are those at the top of the Guardianship.”

“No, grandfather.  That’s where youre wrong.  I’m not going to be controlled.”

“No?  What makes you so special?”

Myles looked away, unable to meet his gaze, and once again Ezra tried to force himself to remove the intensity from his voice.

“Why is it that people can’t have children without permission?”  He asked his grandson in a more gentle tone, the voice of a teacher.

“To keep the population under control,” Myles said.

“You’ve learned well at school, but that’s not the reason.  Another question.  Why is it that children aren’t born anymore?”

“Childbirth is too hard on mothers.  Vats are easier and safer.”

“That’s true.  But the real answer to both of these questions is that the Guardianship wants control over the population.  Inside its cities, they decide who gets to reproduce and who doesn’t and they ensure that everyone is identified in their DNA databases.  Moreover, every new Dependent’s R-chip is implanted just before the fetus is decanted.  It’s all part of the procedure now, no one questions it anymore.  But the R-chip is really an insidious form of database registration.  The chip holds identifying information – your name, ID number and assigned area, among other things, that can be accessed by their tracking systems.  When your body is mature enough to accept the change, the chip’s function is altered.  It starts to retrieve information about you – your heart rate and blood pressure, for example.  It can also record more interesting data.  What you see, hear and say is all available for transmission to the Guardianship.  Your senses can be recorded, transmitted, analyzed and cross-referenced.  Deviate from their expectations and you’re done for.  That’s Recognition, Myles.  That’s the real Guardianship, the one they don’t tell you about until you’re Recognized, until it’s too late.”

“That’s crazy!” Myles protested, jerking away from Ezra’s outstretched arm.  “My dad never told me anything like that.”

“That doesn’t mean it’s not true.  Another thing to know is, the more important you are in the Guardianship’s scheme of things, the more closely you’re watched.  Your father couldn’t have told you the truth, even if he wanted to.  Not if he wanted to keep his job and your family’s apartment.  But as bad as the monitoring is, that’s not the worst function of the chip.”

“What is?”

“When it’s fully activated – after you’re Recognized – the R-chip begins to produce an artificial enzyme that the human body becomes dependent on.  If this enzyme is produced in the right quantities, the host’s life can be extended indefinitely.  The enzyme is the longevity treatment, in other words, and the R-chip uses your body’s natural systems to deliver it.”

“That makes sense.  What’s wrong with that?” Myles asked.

“In and of itself, nothing.  But if the R-chip is exposed to a specific frequency of ultraviolet light, it ramps up production of the magic enzyme and begins to pump out truly massive quantities of the helpful little bugs.  In these quantities, the enzyme is toxic to the body and the result is an extremely painful death.”

“You’re talking about painting,” Myles said.  “But the Guardianship’s troopers use a special ray gun to deal with criminals.”

“Actually, their weapon simply triggers the R-chip’s self-destruct mechanism.  That’s one of the surprises people your age get after they’re Recognized.  The day after the ceremony, each new adult gets a visit from the Guardianship.  First they give you your work or continuing education assignment, just like the rules say, and then they give you the rest of the story.  People change after they’re Recognized.  You’ve had friends who have gone across who weren’t the same afterward, right?  That’s why.”

Myles looked shocked for an instant.  Then his face closed up again.  “How do you know all this?”  He asked, still seeming doubtful.

Ezra knew he should drive home that last point, but he couldn’t.  He felt like a sponge that had been squeezed dry.  He’d hoped for this chance for a long time.  But now that it had arrived he had no more wisdom for his grandson.  But there was one more thing that he had to tell him.

“Because I designed the damn thing.”

 

Myles stared at his grandfather, dumbfounded.  This wasn’t the same man he’d been so close to when he’d been a boy, before Ezra had disappeared.  That man laughed all the time and liked to play catch with Myles, walk among streams in the park, and help him figure out the sims at the training arcade.  This man had kidnapped Myles out of his own room in the middle of the night and given him a lecture about the Guardianship and Recognition, a lecture of the kind that got people taken into the hallway and shot.  None of this made any sense.

“That just can’t be,” Myles said, articulating his confusion.

“Which part?  That the R-chip can help you live forever or kill you, depending on who controls it?  Or the fact that I’m the one who’s responsible for it?”  His grandfather asked.  He looked tired, Myles thought, too tired to lie.

“Both,” Myles said, still confused.  “Even if the R-chip does what you say, I know you wouldn’t have done anything as bad as that.”

Ezra smiled but he didn’t seem happy.  “Myles, the only thing that I can promise is that I won’t ever lie to you.  I’m not proud of it now, but there was a time when I believed the R-chip was absolutely necessary.”

There was a light knock on the door and a woman’s head poked into the room.  “It’s time,” she said to Ezra, her eyes flicking over to Myles.  She took him in quickly, measuring him against some unseen criteria.  Myles stared at the beautiful redhead in return.  She had a smooth, ageless face and wore old-fashioned spectacles like people wore in antique video clips.  She withdrew and Myles was sorry to see her go.

His grandfather stood up.  “I have to leave you for a while.  There’s a lot more that I need to tell you, but it will have to wait.  Get some rest.  And don’t worry, you’re not in any danger.”

“What’s going to happen to me?” Myles asked.

“I’m one of a group of people that don’t accept the Guardianship as the end of human evolution.  It’s our goal to restore democracy to the people.”

His grandfather stroked his chin for a moment, watching Myles as if trying to decide something important.  “That’s why you’re here.  I want you to join us, Myles.  You have a special gift and we need bright young people like you to be part of the team.”

“But I can’t!” Myles cried, stricken to the core.  It was all becoming clear, but he wished it wasn’t.  “My Recognition Day is in three days.”

“I’m afraid you won’t be in attendance,” Ezra said.

“I have to be Recognized!”

“I know that you don’t understand my reasons, but I can’t allow the Guardianship to control you.”

“You can’t do that!” Myles cried.  “I’ve waited my whole life to be Recognized.  My mom and dad will be there, and all of my friends.  It’s all I’ve ever wanted.  I have to go!”

“I’m sorry, Myles.  I truly am.  But sometimes it’s necessary to disappoint someone you love for their own benefit.  I’ve been silent for a long time, but my people are going to declare independence from the Guardianship.  We’re going to give freedom back to humanity.”  Then his grandfather’s sharp, ancient eyes locked onto Myles.  Suddenly the old man no longer looked tired but rather fierce, strong, and determined.  “More importantly, you’re going to help us do that.”

Frustration and the certainty with which his grandfather emphasized his last statement caused Myles’ temper to erupt.  “You can’t make me betray the Guardianship!”  He yelled in the older man’s face.

His grandfather wiped a spot of spittle from his cheek and smiled thinly.  “I won’t have to make you, Myles.  You’ll decide that our way is the right one, once you’ve had time to think about how people really ought to live.”

Ezra closed the door behind him and Myles heard the door lock activate.

“I’m not going to help you!  Do you hear me?  I won’t ever help you!”

Myles hammered on the door until his fists ached but no one came to let him out.  Being sixteen without being Recognized was about the worst thing he could imagine.  What would that make him anyway?  He wasn’t a boy any longer, but he wouldn’t be a man either.

He sagged to the ground and sat on the dusty wood floor with his back against the door.  For the first time that he could remember, Myles longed to feel his mother’s arms around him.  He missed the smell of her flowery soap and the touch of her lips on his forehead.  But she couldn’t come to him here – his elder grandfather had seen to that.

Unwanted tears welled up in Myles’ eyes and he rubbed them away with his dirty hands.  He was too old to cry, even at a time like this.

Page BreakChapter 3

 

Sandra looked across her desk at Jesus Hernandez as he gave her a status update on Myles Randall’s case.  Samples from two different ropes had been found, as had a single rusted climbing piton.  Presumedly both had been used in the abduction; however, the lab technicians had not been able to produce anything in the way of a suspect.  Little of value had been learned since.  Myles had vanished from the Guardianship’s radar screen with barely a trace.

“The Guardian thinks that Ezra Randall is behind the boy’s kidnapping,” Sandra said.  She was thinking aloud, a good practice for a team player, but she was also speaking for the public record.  Right or wrong, Cyrus’ ideas had to be pursued and she, like everyone else, had to be seen pursuing them.  In this case she didn’t mind.  Her instincts told her that the Guardian was on the right track.

“It’s as good a thought as any.  He was on the premises just before the crime.”

“If it was Dr. Randall, finding Myles won’t be easy,” Sandra said.  “There’s been no record of them in the locator software’s logs?”

“Not a trace.  Apparently there wasn’t any detailed coverage on the area at the time.  Finding the body is going to take some old-fashioned police work – Jack Webb style,” Jesus said with a grin.

Her deputy was a fan of the old 2D video genre.  A fair amount of it had passed through the Guardianship’s censors and onto the Net, although many of the programs she remembered from her youth were nowhere to be found.  Sandra felt no nostalgia for the primitive art form.  To someone who had lived through it, there was nothing romantic about the twenty-first century.

“I do think it’s time we started a manhunt,” Sandra agreed.  “But Houston is a big place.  Where do you want to start?”

“In the old city.”

Sandra considered the idea.  Parts of Old Houston were still hot zones where pools of nasty little nano-bugs had established sustainable relationship with the local environment.  Decades after being unleashed, the little buggers could still devour a man from the inside out.  No sane person would go into a bio-hazard zone unequipped.  Ezra’s people had the motivation to take such a risk, but did they have the gear they’d need to survive there?  Her people had combed through every other part of the region – perhaps Jesus was right and Dr. Randall’s rebels had been hiding out in the old city all along.

“Approved,” she said.  “But take proper precautions at all times, Jesus.”

Jesus smiled again, flashing her with his beautiful white teeth.  “I’ll be careful,” he promised.  “I’ve got too much to live for to screw up now.”

“Good,” Sandra smiled in spite of the lurch her heart gave when he looked at her.  “Now go home to your wife.”

He was one gorgeous man, Sandra thought as she watched him walk away from her.  Tall, dark and handsome, just like the Hollywood movie stars in the primitive films he loved to watch.  With chocolate brown eyes and dark, wavy, always perfectly trimmed black hair, Jesus was the man who had melted her frozen heart.

For more than ten years she’d longed for him to touch her.  The chemistry between them was electric.  Sandra knew it and knew that Jesus was aware of it too.  But he was always faithful to Elena.  Despite having had many chances to stray, in many different situations, Jesus had never done anything to lower himself to Sandra’s level.

 

Deep inside the Net, Sarah barely felt the impatient tap on her shoulder.  The sensation was distant but no less irritating for it.  Being pulled out of the virtch prematurely was akin to a heavy sleeper being shaken awake in the morning – quite an annoying way to come back to the world.

Sarah suspended her active sessions and disconnected from the Net interface.  As always, the sudden absence of sensory stimuli was depressing.  The immersion room was stark white and, wincing in the too bright ambient light, she looked about to see who had interrupted her.

“I have a new assignment for you, Sarah,” Lorna Schlatter said.

Sarah’s immediate supervisor was a short, fat and uniquely unattractive woman.  When she smiled, Sarah was reminded of nothing so much as a grotesque, leering toad grinning at its prey before gobbling it down.

“I still have four unsolved kiddy cases,” Sarah said.  The other woman knew this, of course, but it was good form for Sarah to show that she was aware of her workload.

“You’ll work them to completion, naturally.”

Naturally.  What the toad really meant was that she’d be working her old cases on nights and weekends.  Not that there would be any extra pay involved.  However, Sarah knew better than to object.  She had a good job, one that required some skill and kept her indoors.  She’d climbed a long way from her parent’s flat next to the slums and she’d fall a long way if she let go now.  Besides, she wouldn’t give up on that Myles’ case until he’d been found, no matter what it took.

“Don’t worry, dear.  You won’t be getting any more of those cases.  This really is a big step up for you.”  The toady woman smiled again, wider this time, and Sarah tried to force her lips apart to make the appropriate response.  The woman was being sincere and Sarah unexpectedly felt ashamed of her revulsion.  It really wasn’t Lorna’s fault she was ugly, after all.

“Thank you,” she said.  “I do mean to keep working on my active cases.  One of the boys is my brother’s friend.”

“Don’t worry about Myles Randall,” Lorna said.  “He’s part of this case too.  In fact, I think that’s the reason they gave you the new assignment.”

Straining to lift herself, her supervisor lurched up onto impossibly small feet.  “Enough about that.  Let’s go meet your new team leader now.  Between you and me, he’s a bit of an odd one.  But very smart.  You can learn a lot from him if you pay attention.”

Sarah nearly laughed out loud at this bit of news.  The best thing about her job was learning new tricks about the Net.  Besides, she simply had to meet the man who was so strange that the toad could call him odd.

She trailed behind as they left the immersion chamber and walked through the rabbit warren that was the technicians’ basement.  When they arrived at a small, barely-lit conference room, Lorna stopped in the doorway as if afraid to go in.  With an awkward smile she gestured to Sarah to squeeze by her.  Sarah had to hide a grimace as she did so.  The toad could have done with a long, hot bath.

“Sarah, this is Andre Roi,” her supervisor said from behind her, trying to introduce her to the man seated inside.

Sarah extended her hand in greeting, but Andre stared up at it as if she might be a carrier for a particularly virulent and contagious disease.  She let it fall to her side with a quirk of her mouth, as if to say that it didn’t matter.  But it did matter, to her.  Sarah decided that she disliked Andre intently.

“Well,” Lorna said uncertainly, “I’ll leave you two to get started.  See me any time if you need input,” the round woman called over her shoulder as she waddled quickly away.

Roi was a man of average height and build with the high cheekbones and slightly angled eyes of a Russian.  Perhaps it was only his name led her to that thought, but she was convinced that he was a descendent of the former Soviet state.  His skin and hair were dark, the latter curly and somewhat amiss while his eyes were surrounded by sunken circles.  Not a man she would be attracted to, Sarah concluded, unless there was something extraordinary in his manner.  Nothing she’d seen so far indicated that would be the case.

Sarah sat down beside Andre and looked over the holographic displays he had projected above the long, black table.  He was in charge of this aspect of Myles’ case, whatever it was, so she simply sat and waited until he was ready to communicate.  In the meantime, she surreptitiously studied both the strange, taciturn man and the material his session projected.

He continued to work and she waited silently.  Twenty minutes later, Andre finally spoke.

“We’ve been assigned a difficult case.  I trust you’ll be able to pull your weight, despite your obvious inexperience.”

“I’ll manage.”

“At infrequent intervals during the last three years, a group of unknown subjects have created illegal Net conferences.  Unregistered, encrypted sessions,” he added with emphasis.   “Someone upstairs finally decided that they need to be stopped.  You and I have been given the job.”

Sarah felt her pulse quicken in a curious mixture of fear and eagerness.  She didn’t know anything about the type of technology involved, but she longed to learn.  She said as much to Andre.

“We don’t have much to work with.  This,” Andre pointed, “is a dump of the last pirate session’s origination packet sequence.  It’s all fake headers and authorizations that they will undoubtedly change the next time they pull one of these stunts, but there might be something in there we can use.”

“What about the session image?”  She did know that Net conferences were often logged to permanent storage for security review purposes.

“Not available.”

“Then how do we begin?” Sarah asked.

Andre shrugged noncommittally and Sarah had to check her frustration at his apparent lack of interest.  She was feeling a bit lost at the moment and apparently her partner wasn’t going to help her get her bearings.  His attitude made her angry.  Whatever he thought of her, she had things she could be doing, damn it.

“We begin by thinking, Sarah,” Andre said, looking at her for a long moment.  Then he turned back to his work and didn’t speak again.

 

Over the next two days, Sarah studied the logs of the illicit Net activity with a growing sense of despair.  There was nothing in them that provided the least clue to their point of origin or the content of the session that they initialized.

What would she do if she wanted to fake the starting point of a Net request?  Altering the data packets to obscure the origination address would achieve that end.  If that was happening, perhaps the altered packets could be identified by a sophisticated observer program.  For instance, a real-time filter installed in the Net’s gateways might be able to identify altered packets and trace them back to their point of origin.  Was there such software in existence?  She didn’t know, but Andre might.

Sarah went to visit him in his cubbyhole, a niche that was as dark and sad-looking as its occupant.  Andre didn’t look up as she approached.  Sarah ignored the slight and asked her question.

“I don’t have anything like that here,” Andre replied.  “But it’s an excellent idea.”  He turned an interested eye toward Sarah for the first time.  “Are you a coder?”

“No.  Are you?”

“Afraid so.  The last of a dying breed.”

“Why is that?”

“Not much demand any more.  Programmed properly, computers make things more efficient.  But there’s plenty of labor to go around nowadays.  No need for efficiency.”

“Is it hard?”  Sarah asked.

“Not if you want to learn.”

“Could you teach me?”

Andre seemed to look right through her and he didn’t speak for a long time.  Sarah wondered if she had broken some sort of code hacker’s convention by asking for help.

“I could,” the sallow-faced man answered her at last.  “If you promised that you’d go all the way with me.”

Go all the way?  Sarah blushed, glad the pervert couldn’t see her in the half-dark of his cubicle.  Sexual comments on the job were highly illegal in the Guardianship.  She could get him in a lot of trouble if she complained.  Something on her face must have given her thoughts away.

“I mean that you’ll promise to stay the course,” Andre said with a scowl he didn’t try to hide.  “Teaching a beginner is very time-consuming.  Don’t waste my time if you’re going to quit halfway through the process.”

Had she misunderstood his meaning?  Possibly.  It was just that Andre was so creepy.  “I won’t,” Sarah said.

“If you’re ready, let’s start with OnRamp.  It’s a high-level language that humans can read and write easily.  It has to be compiled into binary form before it can be deployed to the Net’s servers.  That step is a bit tedious, but it’s the best tool for generating Net interfaces like the Dependent Locator program you used in your previous assignments.  I wrote that,” Andre added as an afterthought.

Despite herself, Sarah was impressed.  She knew that software had to come from somewhere, but it amazed her that an ordinary man could create such a wonderful tool.  Was he bragging?  Sarah wondered.  Trying to impress her?  But he neither smiled nor referred to the program again.   Watching over Andre’s shoulder, she began to learn.

After working with him for several days, Sarah realized that Andre was right – writing a program wasn’t hard once you put your mind to it in the right way.  The application they were working on was much simpler than the Dependent Locator, but she already found it hard to believe that she’d taken so many things about the Net for granted.  Almost despite herself, Sarah found herself being drawn into what Andre was teaching her.

 

The old city’s horizon was impressive, Jesus thought as he walked between the towering skeletons of the city’s dead, gray skyscrapers.  They dwarfed anything that had been built in recent years and, though their foundations were being broken down by the region’s semi-tropical scrub growth, the sight of them filled him with wonder.  The twentieth century seemed to have been the pinnacle of man’s inventiveness.  It was sad to think how much wealth and progress their ancestors had pissed away.

Even in their current decrepit state, the massive concrete ribbons that had once served the enormous city made the Guardianship’s transportation infrastructure seem insignificant by comparison.  The wasted housing tracts they’d passed through on the way into the urban center spoke to the ancient’s lust for motive power.  No modern city sprawled as recklessly akimbo as Old Houston plainly had.  Why had they decided to live like that?

For a moment the heavy, dark clouds parted and sunlight shone through clean, clear air to glint off the tops of the buildings’ superstructures.  Certainly the men who had lived and worked in them had never breathed air as pure as he could – if he dared to take off his helmet.

The Guardian had implemented many environmental protections and the Dependents enjoyed the benefits of pristine air and water.  But even Cyrus Magnor hadn’t been able to remove the neo-Islamist’s nano-parasites from the hot zones.  Very few of the ancient wonders had been reclaimed for human occupancy and Old Houston was definitely not one of those.  A primary target because of its industrial capacity, Houston had received one of the highest concentrations of bio-engineered nano-tech to hit in the second wave of attacks.

Jesus checked his suit integrity again.  He had been inside the red zone before and knew it paid to make such life-preserving actions automatic.  His equipment was fine, as was each of his men’s.  Danger was everywhere, but if they were careful there was no reason to be afraid.

The dead city’s center was an area of approximately ninety square miles in which few things lived and none without hardship.  Yet there were creatures who scratched out short, desperate existences here.  Until now he’d never believed that there were humans among them.  But if he was right – and Jesus was sure that he was – his quarry was somewhere in the area circumscribed by the ancient concrete loop.

Fifty of Jesus’ men were fanned out in front of him, performing a ground-level sweep of the area.  Each of them carried a handheld tracking device set for maximum range – if they came within a hundred meters of an unexpected R-chip, the alarm would be raised.  This was a restricted zone.  Anyone they found carrying an R-chip was automatically considered a person of interest.

Despite the interesting scenery, walking all day in the hot, humid Houston weather was no pleasant stroll.  By the first break Jesus had used almost half of his ration of water for the day.  Perspiration streamed freely from his body and the sealed bio-suit chafed at the seams and joints.  For one of the few times in his life, Jesus smelled himself – sour sweat and hot, insulated rubber made for a bad combination.

Searching the city on foot was a futile gesture, Jesus realized.  There were too many places a small group of determined men could hide.  He’d made the mistake of forgetting the scale of the ancient world compared to that which the Guardianship ruled.  There was no way to effectively sweep such a large area with so few men.  But he’d wanted to look for Myles here and now he had to follow through.  Unfortunately vehicles were prohibited within the red zone.  There was too much risk of one of them becoming an accidental plague carrier.

Jesus forced himself back to his feet and gestured for his team to do likewise.  He ignored their weary muttering.  The Guardian said that boy had to be found.  Alive.  Jesus didn’t know why it was so, only that it was, and that he was the one who had to make it happen.

They trudged through the streets of rotting asphalt and decaying concrete for two more hours.  Jesus’ eyes stung from his own sweat but he kept them locked on his chip locator.  They’d made their way through perhaps ten percent of the search zone but so far the needle hadn’t budged.

The noon meal came and went – the men all had paste packets and a squirt or two of water to wash them down with.  It sufficed for nutritional purposes and they’d eaten as bad or worse during their field training.  No one complained, but Jesus knew what they were thinking – that this was all a waste of time meant only to cover his ass in case the higher-ups came looking for a scapegoat.  Why shouldn’t they think that?  It was true.

When they sat down to for their last break of the day, Jesus polled the men and found that most of them were now without water.  He was dry himself and was one the verge of calling for a retreat back to the yellow zone when the alarm was raised.

A quarter-mile away from where he sat, a soldier’s scanner detected an R-chip hit and transmitted the alert to the entire team.  Jesus took off toward the spot at a fast trot, making the best time his suit would allow.  Men followed him, alternately trotting and walking, passing him and falling back in a faltering rhythm that told Jesus that they were doing their best.

As he drew closer, the trooper’s scanner transmitted the serial number of the R-chip to the team’s shared workspace – it wasn’t Myles.  Disappointed, Jesus slowed his pace but continued in the direction from which the signal had been sent.  Even if it wasn’t the boy they were after, it was still a contact.  Perhaps the chip belonged to one of Myles’ new companions.

Running the last fifty meters, Jesus reached the trooper whose detector had gone off and watched as the soldier homed in on his target.  As Jesus held his breath, the device reported that the target’s name was Wilson Juarez.  Corporal Wilson Juarez.  The trooper looked at Jesus with a question in his eyes.

Jesus pinged Shane McDonald, his second-in-command.  “We’ve got a false positive here,” he said, his voice tight.  “Wasn’t the equipment programmed to omit our own chips?”

“Of course,” McDonald replied.  “We wouldn’t have made it this far if it hadn’t been.”

The chagrined trooper – Oren Mitchell was his name – threw his chip detector to the ground and stormed off.  Jesus watched him go.  It was his job to keep the men in line and to bring all of the equipment back in proper order, but Jesus couldn’t blame the man for being angry.  This manhunt was a futile gesture and enough was enough.

“Fall back to the base camp,” Jesus barked.  The entire exercise had been a waste of time and energy.  But it wasn’t a complete loss – he had been able to see the titanic works of the ancient world once again and that was not something to miss.  It occurred to him that he liked to come here because there was something missing from the Guardianship’s cities.  He thought about that most of the way back to the mobile base camp before realizing what it was that he saw in the shattered skyscrapers:  inspiration.

Just that quickly, Jesus realized why Juarez had shown up on Mitchell’s scanner.  Both men had been late substitutions for soldiers who’d either fallen ill or been sincere enough in faking it that their squad leader had been taken in by their act.  Only at the end of the day had their paths come close enough together to trigger the R-chip alarm in Mitchell’s unit.

Jesus re-programmed both men’s scanners and synchronized them with the team’s workspace.  It was a simple enough procedure, but that only made him angrier.  There was no excuse for McDonald not having done it right in the first place.  Careless mistakes like that one had cost men their lives before and would again.  But not if he could help it.

Jesus linked to Shane McDonald.  The big man was one hell of a trooper, but he wasn’t really officer material.  Later, when they got out of this, it would be his duty to report Shane’s blunder for what it was – a mistake by a man who’d reached as high as he could hope to.  In the meantime, all Jesus could do was to tear the man a new one.  After a long, hot day in the sun, he was in just the right frame of mind to do it properly and the fact that they all had to do it over again tomorrow only made him that more determined.

 

“Do you really believe that your grandfather kidnapped Myles?”  Amanda Randall demanded.

It was the third time she’d asked that question, Stan noted.  It wasn’t as though he was going to change his answer just because she asked again, but he didn’t call her on it.  Her son was missing, after all.

“Great-great-grandfather,” Stan said instead, checking his own anxiety.

“Whatever he is, he never should have been allowed near my son!”  His wife’s face was a sickly, pasty white color that was beyond pale.  Her voice shook with fear, but Stan wasn’t going to criticize her on that point either.  He was afraid too.

“We kept them apart.  That was a mistake.”

“What are you talking about?”

“We shouldn’t have sent the old man away in the first place.”

Amanda looked at him with startled, angry eyes.  “You mean I shouldn’t have.”

“I didn’t say that.”

“You know that Ezra would have brought the Guardianship into our home with guns drawn if he’d kept coming here.  There are things you can’t say in this world, Stan.  Things you can’t even think.”

Stan listened, but his wife’s words made no impression on him.  His son was gone and it didn’t matter that the man who’d taken him had done it out of pure love for the boy.  He’d gone along with the system his entire life and he’d been rewarded for it, but this wasn’t something the Guardianship could control.  And there was nothing he could do to set things right.  There was nothing anyone could do now.

“You should never have allowed Ezra into this house,” Amanda continued.  “If you’d been man enough to shut the door in his face, Myles would still be here now!”

“Shut your damn mouth!”  The curse burst from his mouth before he knew it was on the way out.

Shocked, Amanda shrank away from him with a look of shocked terror in her eyes.  But she quickly composed herself.  “Where was that anger, Stan?  Where was it when my little boy needed you?”  She cried.  “Will I ever hold my baby boy again?”  Amanda burst into tears and ran out of the room.

“I miss him, too,” Stan said quietly, looking after her fleeing figure.

His hands shaking, Stan poured himself three fingers of real ten-year-old scotch – a perk of his position – and downed half of it in a toss.  For a moment the burning in his belly distracted him but it didn’t last.  His son was gone.  Amanda was right – it was his fault.  He should have reported his elder grandfather to the authorities the moment he’d reappeared on Stan’s door.  But even that was not fair – he’d loved the old man once, just as Myles did now.  Loved him, trusted him and, even after banishing him from their lives, hadn’t imagined that Ezra would betray him.

Was Myles even still alive?  The thought was unwarranted – Ezra would take every care with the boy – but it burned in a corner of his brain nonetheless.  His son belonged with him, not with his elder grandfather.  Even so, he might never see his son again.  The harsh realization knocked Stan Randall to his knees.  He knelt alone in the middle of his apartment as a tear, the first he’d been able to shed, trickled down his cheek.

“Daddy, when is Myles coming home?” Rochelle asked from behind him.  Stan turned around slowly, trying in that extra second of delay to find some hope that he could convey to his daughter.

“I don’t know, honey.”

“I want him to come home.”

“Me too,” Stan said.

“Myles didn’t like me,” Rochelle said.  “I was mean to him.  Is that why he ran away?”

“Of course not.”

“Am I going to school tomorrow?”

“I don’t know.”

“Myles always takes me.”

“I know.”  Stan wanted to take her in his arms but he didn’t dare.  If he touched her – or any other living, breathing human being – he might break down completely.  Instinctively, Stan knew that he needed to keep that much self-control in reserve, in case things got worse.

“Daddy, when I do go back to school, will you walk with me?”  Rochelle’s thin, frail body was shaking as she looked up at him.  Her eyes were as blue as the sky on a cool spring morning and tears glistened in them, tiny pools threatening to burst over the low banks that held them in place.

Stan gave an involuntary cry and Rochelle looked startled for an instant before he crushed her to him, his teeth clamped shut against the panic inside of himself.  It was struggling to get out and he knew that, if it ever did, there would be no putting it back.  The truth was that his son was gone and he was never coming back.

“Of course,” Stan sobbed, burying his face into his daughter’s hair.  She was all he had left now.  “I’ll walk you there, sweetie.  Tomorrow.”

 

“Let’s get this meeting started,” Ezra said.  He couldn’t help smiling.  Now that things were finally happening he felt at least a hundred years younger.

Jim Haines was seated alone in the center of the room, his hands dancing over the old-fashioned keyboard that he’d interfaced to a nearly new computer.

“That’s what I’m doing.”  Jim stopped typing to push a series of buttons on a small black box plugged into the machine’s output port.  “We’ll still be using the 512-bit encryption process,” he said.

“Why hasn’t the upgrade to K-bit happened?”

“Andre says there’s still a problem with the multi-casting process,” Jim said from his workstation.  “You said this meeting was top priority, so I assumed it was worth the risk.”

Carol Simmington came to stand beside Ezra, her red hair flashing like spun copper in the room’s bright, artificial light.  “That encryption scheme could be compromised by now.  We’ve used it several times.”

She smelled good, like peach wine, sweet and sharp.  Ezra shifted his feet to get a half-step away from her.  She was too close for comfort and knew it.  He cleared his throat.

“It’s urgent that we talk to the others tonight.  We’re getting ready to move and everyone needs to know what to do.”

“Why do we have to go now?”  Carol asked, putting her hand on his arm.

“Myles is almost as important to Cyrus as he is to me.  He will have as many assets as he can looking for him.  We can’t hide him for long.”

“What will the others say when they find out what you’ve done?”

“What do you mean?”

“Many of them don’t feel the same as you about Myles,” Carol said.

Jim stopped what he was doing and looked up at them.  “What in the hell is she talking about?”  He demanded.

“Let me worry about that,” Ezra said, not quite meeting Jim’s eyes.

Jim and Carol exchanged glances that Ezra interpreted as being doubtful.

“That’s easy for you to say,” Carol told him, ending a silence that had grown uncomfortably long.  “You’re not leaving anyone behind.  Most of them are.”

“Don’t hide behind the children,” Ezra snapped.  “We’ve all had to make sacrifices.”

Carol stiffened at his words but said nothing.  Perhaps he’d gone too far.  He knew that her life hadn’t turned out the way she’d planned and that the difference was, if not his fault exactly, certainly related to the path he’d chosen.

“I’ve got the secure tunnel hookup going,” Jim said.  “The session’s going live in five seconds.”

“Carol, it’s more important than ever for us to show a united front,” Ezra said.  “I’m confident that most of our people will see things the way we do.  But if we’re not together in this it’s impossible to say what might happen.”

After a moment Carol nodded her assent.  He was not surprised.  Carol was the one person he knew he could count on without question, even if her agreement seemed more forced than usual.  He was glad of her support – this was not a time to hesitate.

Jim motioned at him and Ezra moved toward the edge of the room.  Carol and the others, thirteen in all, followed suit, arranging themselves around the holographic projection as the Net session activated.  In the center of the open space, full-color, quarter-scale images of people milled about, spacing themselves out as if they were actually in the room together.  The real-time digitization was bidirectional, so the participants interacted with each other as if they were face-to-face.

Ezra studied the people as they linked into the session, watching for familiar faces.  He’d been out of circulation for several years; it was good to see so many friendly faces.  His avatar noted and checked each of them off of his list.

“Where’s Albert Jurgen?” Ezra asked when all but three of the major players.  The businessman who had funded so much of Ezra’s work needed to be present.  Reggie White and Andre Roi weren’t here either.  The latter, their best Net engineer, had a good reason for being absent:  He was on security patrol in the virtch.  As for Reginald White, he was probably a lost cause, despite the lengths Ezra had gone to in order to bring him back to the fold.  The note Ezra had sent him had gone unanswered, though Ezra still hoped it might influence the professor in some way he couldn’t foresee at the moment.

“Mr. Jurgen has been delayed,” an olive-skinned man named Henri Deveraux answered.  Deveraux performed a rather vaguely defined role in Albert’s organization.  Ezra had disliked the man intensely since meeting him for the first time more than a decade before, a fact well-known to Albert.  Perhaps that was why he’d been chosen as Jurgen’s proxy for this meeting.

“This is a priority one meeting!” Ezra exclaimed without meaning to.  But it was just like Albert to ignore everything but his own immediate interests.  “Everyone needs to be here.”

“Ezra, we can’t delay now that so many people are waiting,” Carol leaned close and whispered in his ear.  Her lovely scent enveloped him, threatening to distract him from his purpose.

“We need Albert’s buy-in,” he whispered back.  “Besides, not everyone is here yet.”

“We can’t wait for them.”

“I can speak for Mr. Jurgen,” Deveraux said, evidently overhearing their murmurs.  “Why have you brought us here?”  Deveraux’s hologram looked about, seeking approval for his question and, from what Ezra could see, getting it.

“I’m putting us on high alert status.”

“Why is that?”  Jim Haines asked.  “Everything’s in a stable state on the ships.”

“We need to ensure the Columbus scenario’s schedule can be met,” Carol cut in, straight to the point, as usual.

“Why?” Deveraux asked, suddenly looking hard at Ezra.

“My grandson Myles is here with me,” said Ezra.

“You abducted him?”  Jim Haines asked in a flat voice, nostrils flaring.  The intensity of the glare in his eyes seemed to bore through Ezra’s skull.

Ezra nodded.  “His father wouldn’t let him come with us.”

Voices muttered through the multicast, low and angry.  The holographic figures looked back and forth at each other in consternation, plainly unhappy and confused.  In front of him, Jim Haines balled his fine white hands into fists.  He inhaled sharply, plainly straining to keep his anger inside.  He succeeded, for which Ezra was thankful, and said nothing.

When Jim finally exploded there would be a high price to pay – he only became angrier when he tried to internalize his rages – and he, Ezra, would be the one to pay it, like always.  Jim’s volatile temper made him difficult to work with.  At the same time, except for Albert Jurgen, Dr. Haines was Ezra’s most important ally in their little group – and his most dangerous rival.

“You’ve put us all in mortal danger!” Henri Deveraux shouted over the low rumble of the larger group.  “I hope you’re not blind to that fact.”

“That’s why this meeting is being held,” Ezra told him.  “It’s come sooner than we anticipated, but it is time for us to leave this planet!”

 

The sound of Sarah’s Net avatar’s voice woke her from a dream-filled sleep.  She sat up and put a hand to her eyes to wipe the remnants of gauzy memory away.  Lions and jackals had been stalking her in her dream.  That was impossible, of course.  No such animals had existed in over two centuries.  It was just her mind playing tricks on her while she dozed.

“Unauthorized session detected,” a soft, metallic voice said, repeating itself.

Sarah checked the time and was dismayed to see it was just after three in the morning.  Exhausted from an intense week of work, she’d gone to bed early the night before.  Now that she was awake it was unlikely that she’d get back to sleep before work.

The report link in her fore-vision had the highest possible code-word priority.  Seeing that, Sarah forgot about sleep and followed the link.  The packet-analyzing software she and Andre installed had detected a Net session that fit the profile they’d defined.  The report was only a summary but it told her enough to make her spring out of bed.  She had found the hackers!

Sarah dressed quickly and ran out into the night.  Fifteen minutes later she was in her office, waiting for the retinal scanner to grant her authorization to plug into the administrative backbone.  Her fingers twitched with the need to jack in and start the hunt.  A dim light was on at the far end of the hallway, Sarah noticed.  Was someone already here?  Or had the light just been left on?  If a supervisor discovered the omission, there would be a performance demerit for whoever had neglected to do their duty.  But she wasn’t going to tell anyone – that wasn’t her style.

Then Sarah was immersed in the system and data packets were streaming past her faster than she could read them or even acknowledge their passing.  As she watched, the session’s trace log grew larger.  Whatever it was or wasn’t, a lot of people were in the session and using a corresponding amount of bandwidth.  Unfortunately, the participants who had been loaded during the session’s construction wouldn’t be easily identified.  But her program would log the R-chip IDs of any late entrants into the session.  That should be enough to bring the others to justice.  One of them was bound to talk, sooner or later.  They always did, once the questions were asked in the right way.

Acting through her avatar, Sarah applied a visualization skin to the data and the black session materialized in front of her.  It was a self-contained universe of information, an illegitimate growth that writhed in her digitized fore-vision.  The quivering mass pulsed with the ebb and flow of data as it circulated around and through the session’s scope.  It almost looked like something alive.

Using her sniffing tools, Sarah felt the width and breadth of its interface, but the surface was smooth and flawless.  Her probes gained no purchase and skittered off of its edges like drops of water on an oil-slickened sheet of ice.  She couldn’t find a way through the session’s security with finesse – it would have to be done using brute force.  Normally that wasn’t a problem – the Guardianship had processing power to spare – but the encryption level on the session was serious.  She couldn’t wait three days to get in.

Sarah gave up on that line of attack.  Instead she began to examine the still-flowing stream of packets before they disappeared beneath the session’s shield of encryption.  The incoming packets were not transmitted in the clear, but neither were they hardened against her multi-faceted view of their contents.  The Guardianship controlled the keys to the Net’s encoding algorithms and she set about the process of getting the keys out of security escrow so she could analyze the sign-on packets.  The rate of inflow had decreased markedly in the last few minutes.  Evidently most of the people who were going to join the illegal session had already done so – it was now or never.

While she waited, Sarah created a simple table in her logging database.  She started a new OnRamp program and had it dump the contents of the session filter into it.  It was a lot of data but she was cleared for it.  Next, Sarah wrote a simple program that would select off the newest login packets and iterate through them applying all encryption keys known to the Guardianship to the packets.  Another empty table waited to be filled with the R-chip numbers of the participants in this foolhardy bit of Net piracy.

Sarah tested her new code and made the necessary corrections before deploying it to the gateways.  Then she sat there, poised on her chair, waiting impatiently.  Access to the real keys had to be approved and the process was taking time because of the late hour.  Impatient, she started her program and the new code ran to the point of the key query before pausing it, waiting for input.

Though it seemed much longer, it was only minutes until her use of the decryption keys was approved.  She watched, fascinated, as her data table began to fill and the true names of the criminals who’d woken her from a sound sleep became known to her.  When she had them all, she’d report her findings to Lorna.  Then justice would be served.

Suspended in the virtch, Sarah barely felt her real body quiver with excitement.  She always felt so alive here, she thought.  In the three-dimensional virtualization every part of the Net was bright and alive, always in motion.  There were constructs here that had no counterpart in the real world.  Here lions and jackals still roamed and she hunted them, not the other way around.

 

Ezra stared at a spot on the decrepit, water-stained wall.  He imagined it growing smaller, shrinking into itself until the filth was removed from view and the wall was made clean.  The exercise didn’t sooth him today.  The aggregate annoyance of the others intruded on his concentration and the too-real risk of detection began to outweigh the benefit of Albert’s presence.

“Let’s start the formal discussion,” Ezra said, raising his voice to be heard over the crowd.

Perhaps eight hundred holograms mingled on the floor, a rainbow of shadows walking on ruined, filthy carpet.  Side conversations died and heads turned towards Ezra’s avatar as it moved to the center of the flitting, flickering circle.  There was no place to begin but at the heart of the matter.

“As you all know, I have taken my grandson Myles away from his parents.  He is far too valuable a resource to allow him to be Recognized.”

That the others disapproved was obvious from the unhappy rumbling that rose again from the avatars surrounding his.

“You must believe that I haven’t allowed my personal feelings to endanger us,” Ezra said, trying to soothe the agitated people behind the holograms he watched.

“It seems to me that you’ve done exactly that,” said Henri Deveraux.

“It might appear so.  However, you fail to understand the bigger picture.  Myles is unique.  He possesses a special genius that we need to complete the second phase of the plan.”

“Do you seriously expect us to believe that a mere boy is going to give us faster than light travel?” Jim Haines asked.

“It is my belief that Myles has that ability and more besides,” Ezra said with conviction.

“You think very little of me and my team, it seems.”

“Jim – “ Ezra began.

“For my part, I’m not at all sure of this child,” interrupted a harsh, grating voice.

Ezra couldn’t see the speaker, but he recognized the voice.  “Kind of you to attend, Albert.  I take it something more important was keeping you?” He tried but couldn’t quite keep the sarcasm out of his voice.

A thick-shouldered man cut through the crowd’s projection like a laser knife through soft butter.  It was rude of him to float through their avatars, but Albert ignored their angry stares.  He’d always lived in his own world, largely oblivious to the others around him.  His arrogance, Ezra thought, had served him well in certain respects, his wealth being the most obvious.

“In my position, I must keep up appearances,” Albert said vaguely.  “And then there’s the matter of finding a properly secured entry point.  We need to wrap this up as soon as possible.  These people shouldn’t be linked in from their homes.  It’s too dangerous.”

“Then I won’t waste time bringing you up to speed,” Ezra said.  “I called this meeting to inform you that we will be executing the Columbus scenario.  The evacuation must start immediately.”

Albert looked as if he didn’t understand.  “You need a month’s lead time to launch, don’t you?  And how can you pretend to be prepared for life on the other end?”

Ezra started to reply, but before he could speak Jim Haines answered Albert’s concern.  “We’ve met our minimum criteria for launch.  As you know, we’ve had decades to plan.  As for our survival, that won’t be a problem either.  The new technology I’ve developed will protect us against the elements.”

“So you say,” Albert said.  “That place is colder and crueler than you can imagine.  You can’t simply hope that your gadget will work once you land.  We both know that you haven’t tested it under extreme conditions.”

Haines’ face went blank and cold, but Ezra was grateful Jim had come down on his side of the argument.  Without knowing it, Albert had solidified Ezra’s position by driving Jim back onto his side.  But Ezra had noticed the word choices Albert had made.  Whatever their differences, he hoped Albert would choose to remain part of this thing they’d created together.  Apparently that wasn’t going to happen.

“We’ve tested everything to the best of our ability – repeatedly,” Ezra said.  “Our simulations indicate that the ship and its equipment will be in working order when we arrive.  You delayed our departure when I wanted to leave five years ago.  But there simply is no more time.  In the beginning you were the only person I could trust, Albert.  I don’t want to lose you now.  Come with us,” he added, trying one last time to convince the businessman to continue what he’d started.

“You’d be better off listening to me, Ezra.  I might be the only one you can trust now,” Albert said, once again looking at Jim Haines.  Haines growled something unintelligible in response, but Albert ignored it.

“I financed this plan of yours.  I gave many of you the lives you lead,” he said, addressing the crowd at large.  “You’ve been living and working on this ship for decades.  Do you have any idea how many credits I’ve spent or how much risk I’ve taken to funnel them to you?”

“We couldn’t have done it without you, Albert.  I would never claim otherwise,” Ezra said.  “You’ve given us a chance at freedom.  Take that chance with us, before it’s too late.”

Albert gave him a bemused look.  “If you’re taking a chance, you haven’t planned things very well,” he said with a dry chuckle.

Ezra grinned back.  “It’s hardly as bad as that.  We can leave now, safely.  In fact, we must leave immediately.  Myles is too important to the Guardian for him to give up without a fight.  He will be looking very hard –”

A terrible, inhuman scream came from somewhere in the room.  Amped up and drawn out, the wail of pain was akin to that of a bird of prey, shrill and piercing.  Ezra’s perspective shifted back to his corporeal form, his avatar’s view forgotten.  On the dirty floor, the crowd of projections looked frantically around at each other, desperate to know who the source of the terrible cry had been.

“Oh no!”  Another man shouted as he stood to run.  A moment later his image winked out of the session.

Panic ensued within seconds.  The harsh sounds of verbal and physical assaults could be heard from every angle of the virtual projection.  Unfortunately, the session’s audio codec was unable to balance the growing cacophony enough to give them an accurate indication of where the threat lay.  In this the virtual world’s abstraction of reality fell short.

The scene below Ezra unraveled into chaos as the people – his people, Ezra thought desperately – began to realize the danger lay in the real world and scrambled to organize what had to be a desperate, vain attempt to defend themselves.

Carol hurriedly checked the hallway and came back shaking her head.  They were safe, for the moment, whatever was happening elsewhere.

“The Guardianship is here!” a man cried.  “The bastards just painted my wife!  They’re killing us!  Run, people, run away!”

Two figures wearing uniforms suddenly appeared in the transmission, trained their weapons on the man and fired.  No sound emerged, but a beam of dark light bathed the target and he began to scream.  Ezra knew what had happened.  The violet beam of a trooper’s weapon had activated the termination mode of his R-chip.  The man would be dead within fifteen minutes.

“Listen!”  Ezra yelled.  “I’m posting the location of our primary staging site.  Use code set Starnes to decrypt it.  If you can’t go directly to the ship, meet at the staging site in twenty-four hours.  Don’t be late!”

How many people had been able to receive his last words?  Hopefully most, but there was nothing more he could to do.  “Kill the session, Jim,” he ordered.

Dr. Haines sprang into action.  While he worked, Ezra stared in horror at the painted man as he fell to his knees, screaming in agony and clutching his stomach.  The video was low quality, but Ezra could see the hives beginning to break out on the man’s skin.  Within a minute, blood began to leak from his nose and ears.  Ezra imagined he could hear the spatter of the drops as they fell to the floor – impossible, of course, given the noise, but he felt it nonetheless.

The man collapsed on his side, writhing as his breath began to leave him.  If they weren’t already, soon his lungs would be filling with fluid as the cells started to deteriorate.  Minutes later he would drown in his own blood.  The man tried desperately to suck air, but Ezra knew it was wasted effort.

At the far side of the projection, a hugely fat woman looked up at Ezra.  She was a chemist of some sort, Ezra knew, but in the stress of the moment he couldn’t recall her name.  He silently berated himself.  She and the dying man were his people and they deserved to be remembered.

“Judging from the pounding on my door, it would appear that they’re here as well,” she said with a faint wheeze.  “But I won’t subject you to any more of what we just saw.  Good luck, Ezra.  Bring an end to Recognition!  That’s all any of us can ask for now.”  The fat woman waved a large, rubbery hand at him in farewell and disappeared.

The remaining images disappeared from the floor as Jim terminated the session.  Only those physically present in the gloomy, crumbling room remained.  Ezra blinked his eyes as the overhead light snapped on.

“What do we do now?” Carol asked.

“What we intended to do all along,” Ezra replied.  “We free ourselves.”

 

Jesus Hernandez leaned forward in his chair, watching the video feeds that hung in the air in front of him.  Each showed a scene from the R-chip of one of his field officers, the feed refreshing automatically on a ten second cycle.  The strobe effect was designed to give him a tactical overview of the massive operation.  What it actually did was give him a throbbing headache.  There was a limit to how much information a human being could take in, even with help from his (or her) R-chip.

Jesus was overseeing a world-wide raid that was taking place on five different continents.  Over eight hundred field officers were in action even now, men hand-picked by the local district offices for the task and commanded by Jesus from his control center in Chicago.

Hand-picked, yes, but who were the field resources he commanded?  He had his own men spread throughout, but the bulk of the team was made up of local troopers.  What would they do under fire?  Uncertainty made Hernandez uncomfortable – he preferred to select his teams from those he trusted.  Unfortunately, barely two dozen of his own men had been assigned to the mission, so quickly had it been put together.

As a deputy director, Jesus was at a perilous stage in his career, near but not at the top of the power structure and surrounded by highly-motivated, very capable competitors.  There was talk that he would take over for Sandra Anichi when she gave up the job and that leak – along with other, more personal, less accurate gossip – had made other people jealous.  But he’d worked hard to get where he was and deserved the opportunity he’d been given.

Another source of stress was the fact that, after losing the Randall boy, rounding up these petty dissidents was an opportunity for Sandra Anichi’s command to redeem itself.  She had made it clear to him that she wanted to make the most of it.  The irony was that it was the locals in Houston who’d screwed up the surveillance on Myles.  Now Jesus was running a make-up operation using similar resources.  If his team had been asked to handle Myles’ case from the beginning none of them would be in this position right now.  Yet here they were.

He should be home with his family right now, Jesus thought.  But this was a chance for him to prove that he was a cut above the rest.  The early squads were reporting in now and so far things were going very well.  Jesus watched his fore-vision as their kill and capture numbers updated the mission summary report in real-time.  All things considered, the mission was easier than stepping on ants.  None of the subjects were armed.  By law the Guardianship didn’t allow Dependents to bear arms, so how could they resist?  This operation’s success clearly reflected the wisdom of that policy.

Other related data trickled in at a slower pace.  As the targets on the list were taken down, their R-chips were scanned manually and fed back to headquarters.  Jesus compared them against the list one at a time.  No discrepancies so far.  There were a few reports of absent targets, but that was to be expected given the lack of preparation time.  But that was not a problem.

Dependents could run but they couldn’t hide from the Guardianship for long.  The data provided by Sarah Holloway in the information services department had been essential in his team’s planning.  The tech team had done a good job on this one, Jesus thought.  For a change.  Given a little time, they would find Ezra Randall’s stray rebels and make a public example out of their treason.

Jesus topped off his stim-drink and reviewed the priority targets again.  There were several unexpected names on tonight’s list, including Myles Randall’s parents.  Their inclusion was a surprise.  He’d interviewed them himself and in his opinion (not that anyone had asked for it) Stanley and Amanda Randall had already suffered enough.  Except for Ezra, the Randalls were a solid family.  That fact wasn’t completely lost on the Guardian, he noted.  Unlike many, the Randalls were to be taken alive.

Jesus brushed the stray thoughts aside.  His job was not to question the list or the motivation of his superiors who had put it together but rather to kill or capture the people on it, as orders required.  It was not for him to reason why.  Tonight was going to be a long night for him, Jesus thought, but not half as long as it would be for the people in his sights.

 

Terry Holloway awoke to the sound of boots scraping on carpet.  Although he’d never heard it before, Terry recognized it instantly – it was the sound that he’d dreaded for as long as he could remember.  The Guardianship had finally come to take his father away.  But why tonight?  The old man had gotten drunk out of his mind, of course.  But he’d simply passed out quietly on the faded sofa, the bottle still in his hand, instead of shouting obscenities at the Guardian as per his usual pattern.

Terry sat up and pulled on his shirt and pants.  When he walked out of his room they were there, their big guns drawn, just as he’d known they would be.  Terry saw his father on his knees, swaying slightly with the effort of staying upright.  Aaron Holloway looked over at Terry for a long moment, but he didn’t seem to realize who his son was.

“You’re under arrest,” a trooper said.  The man’s gun was holstered, but he had one hand on his hip, ready to move.

“Go fuck yourself,” Terry’s father said, his speech slow and slurred.  A nearly-empty bottle of tequila stood uncapped on the floor beside his father’s chair.

Without a word the soldier’s hand moved, a streak of pale lightning, down to his hip.  In the space of a heartbeat the trooper’s nightstick was in his hand and in motion, the steel rod held in a white fist by a rubberized grip, blurring downward.  Terry saw the bar actually flex as it descended toward his father’s bare skull.  He wanted to scream but there was no time.

The impact sounded like a dropped melon shattering on a concrete floor.  There was an accompanying metallic thrum and his father fell face first to the floor.  With a groan, he tried to raise himself onto all fours but collapsed on the rug without making another sound.  Blood splashed from a dent in his head, pumping out in decreasing spurts.  The liquor bottle tipped over, spilling its contents onto the rug, co-mingling with bright red blood.  The trooper stooped down beside Terry’s father and wiped his club clean on his shirt.

“Dad!”  Terry shouted, running between the men into the room.  He’d long feared that this was how his father’s life would end, but being forewarned hadn’t helped him.

Another of the troopers stepped in front of him, his pistol already drawn.  “Don’t do anything stupid,” the man said in a flat, emotionless voice.

Terry clamped his teeth together, knowing that to speak was to invite death.  He sank down to his father’s side, but there was no one there anymore.  Only a sack of meat remained behind now that the man inside had departed.

“He was just an old drunk!” he cried, unable to control himself any longer.  He took his father’s still-warm hand in his.  Wildly Terry looked around at the group of troopers standing over him, desperate to say something that would shame them and bring his father back.  “Why did you have to murder him?”

“Watch your mouth, kid.”  His father’s killer smacked the rod significantly in his gloved hand.  “I don’t like that word.  Say it again and you’ll get what he got.  That’s a promise.”

Terry glared at them, trembling with fear and rage.  All the troopers were big, strong and ready for trouble.  It would be suicide to even try to fight back, even against just one of them.  Somehow it always seemed to be that way.   The empty bottle on the floor was the only weapon in the room and his eyes rested on it momentarily.  It was no good.

With a strangled cry, Terry sprang to his feet and sprinted for the back door, afraid to look behind him.  Heart pounding, he burst into the street, ducked around the corner, and sprinted as hard as he could for three blocks.  Then he stopped dead in his tracks to listen.  Not a sound followed him.

Terry ran again, not stopping until his lungs burned in his chest.  Gasping for air, he slumped against the wall with his hands on his knees.  He wasn’t really a good runner and couldn’t have left them behind, so perhaps they were going to let him go.

Dad, he cried silently, his tears warm in the cool night air.  Why did you have to say those things?  Even if they were true, couldn’t you have kept quiet?

Even if they were true.  But was there any question of that now?  His father had stayed drunk whenever he could.  Even so he’d been smart enough to see the truth about the Guardianship.  If he’d possessed the wisdom to keep quiet about it, he might still be alive.  He would have been, Terry realized, because they never bothered people who went along with them and did what they were told.  It was always people like his father who brought the troopers out of their holes, nightsticks and guns in hand.

Alone, Terry walked into the night, not knowing or caring where he was going.  One man was to blame for his father’s murder above all others.  The Guardian would never know or care that he’d made an enemy this night.  But Terry swore that, if he ever got the chance, he would do whatever he could to kill the bastard who’d murdered his father.