Home Tales from the Blind Pig
by Michael Bard and Quentin "Cubist" Long
© Michael Bard and Quentin "Cubist" Long -- all rights reserved

chapter 1

Welcome to my world, lady.

I'd spent the last three days getting my, until recently to be aborted, affairs in order as I was wanted back ASAP to take the auxiliary plane Babylon up for a resupply run. I'd be gone now except for Jubatus.

Welcome to my world, lady.

I'd been at the Blind Pig talking to Phil and in the silence that spread from me a cheetah had said those words. Sure, almost certainly they were just welcoming me to the world of SCABS, or some innocuous comment. That's what I'd kept telling myself.

Welcome to my world, lady.

Unfortunately I don't sleep anymore but instead lucidly dream, and my mind had seized onto that phrase and started weaving all kinds of possible meanings and connotations. Maybe he was an agent for the Arabs or the Chinese stating that he'd marked me. Maybe he was secretly an alien and had set himself up to kidnap me. And, in case you're wondering, no, I didn't believe any of those. Unfortunately my subconscious did, and lots more elaborate and less likely scenarios.

Welcome to my world, lady.

And that meant that every night I would dream all the possible meanings. At least it was better than Angelo...

Welcome to my world, lady.

Welcome to my world, lady.

Well, enough was enough. I'd learned through hard experience that the only way to get this kind of thing out of my brain was to have to originator state the meaning. And tonight Mr. Jubatus was going to do just that.

Welcome to my world, lady.

Actually, it's amazing all of the unique information that the search worms I'd created had come up with. It seems that this Mr. Jubatus had gotten SCABS in 2036, only three years ago. It was quick and easy, and had given him certain unique gifts. These had been harder digging out, but some friends had helped. Apparently, he'd become able to toggle his metabolism -- the way he experienced time passing -- either up or down. That meant that he could work orders of magnitude faster than normals, and he'd parlayed that and his skills into a sizable fortune. He was even on the Fortune 400 list of the world's richest SCABS.

Welcome to my world, lady.

According to my information, he was something of a technological problem solver, a troubleshooter that could be hired as required by other companies. He was also a very careful and methodical person -- the number of perfectly filled out and prepared charges he made against SCABS bigots that had attacked him proved that.

Welcome to my world, lady.

Well, enough was enough. I had to get back to work and this would end!

Welcome to my world, lady.

Oh be quiet! I shoved the door to the Blind Pig open and let it slam against the far wall before it started creaking back shut on its springs. Then, ignoring the ripples of silence that that began I stalked across the room towards Mr. Jubatus.

Welcome to my world, lady.

As I'd expected, he was present and leading this choir he was working with. Well, they could wait as I was more important. And then I was upon him.

I reached over to grab his shoulder with my right arm. "Mr. Ju --"

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Jubatus here --

-- incoming at 8 o'clock --

-- and once again, my instincts have upshifted me in response to something they didn't like. I'm only at a tempo of 20; the early warning system must have thought it wasn't much of a threat. And... what the hell was she doing here?

'She' was Susan Carter. Astronaut. SCAB. And the latest in the long line of success stories that haven't yet boosted Phil's confidence in his own abilities. Kind of makes you wonder how much of his 'I am not worthy' routine is just an act, doesn't it?

When she came in the other night, the Strikebreakers were in rehearsal, the same as any other Wednesday. If me and Wanderer hadn't been working Ringwolf through a problem with his part in Godzilla, I might have noticed her before she hooked up with the rabbit. But we were, so I didn't. Why she'd come here was no mystery, not to anyone who gives a damn about space: She was flying the Agamemnon when it pranged, and the quarantine period would've ended on Monday. QED, as they say. Sure, I could've introduced myself, done the whole 'star-struck fan' thing, but I would no more interrupt Phil at his work than he would me. And from what I could overhear, it looked like everything was fine.

So, again: What was she doing here? And why was she so hot to talk to me? You'd think she'd go to Phil if she needed a booster shot; I sure can't do what he does, I haven't got the empathy for it. Good, there was a stool 5 feet behind her. I sat and downshifted.

"-- batus..." Interesting. She'd actually started scanning for me before she'd finished speaking my name. Not bad for a slowpoke. Facing me, she went on: "What the hell did you mean?"

I'm puzzled that she needed to ask. I only said one thing to her that night; surely the meaning of my lone utterance was obvious? Hell with it. If she wanted me to give her an answer she's capable of figuring out herself, she could bloody well wait. To Wanderer: "I'll be done here in a moment." To the green chick: "I'm busy, Ms. Carter. We're rehearsing for a paying gig on Monday. Now, you may not give a damn, but it's important to them --" here I gestured at the group "-- and it's important to me. We'll be done in another 45 minutes or so. You want to stick around like a civilized human being until then, you can spend the time pondering the context of the remark you're asking about, and if you're still clueless, then we'll talk."

"You'll tell me --"

"Bullshit I will! You're coming to me, remember? So. You can just come back later when I've got time for you, and that's when the rehearsal's done. Or would you rather piss me off by wasting more of the band's time? Take your pick --"

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"-- and maybe I'll see you later."

"Jubatus!" I shouted after him, uselessly.

Welcome to my world, lady.

He'd actually vanished upon the utterance of his final syllable, leaving behind only a blurred afterimage on what passes for my retinas! And, just as when he'd vanished upon my calling his name, there was some kind of afterglow left behind. I wondered what that could be. Anyway, as I knew of his abilities, I'd expected such a reaction, and even factored it into my calculations of his most probable responses; I still found the reality of it to be more than slightly disorienting, albeit not enough so to put me off my ill mood. Damn the man -- how dare he -- couldn't he see that I had to know?!

"Crave pardon, demoiselle most fair and verdant?"

Whipping my head around I stared at the wolf who'd spoken up. A wolf wearing a cape who thus must be Wanderer. "What?"

"Such grace and beauty, wanting but a well-mannered air to complete the ensemble!"

"Manners! Didn't you see or hear the way he treated me?"

"Aye indeed; meseems our pardine mutual acquaintance hath rendered thee a most signal honor. An thou were unaware, know now that that was as close to courtesy as e'er Jubatus hath yet been sighted."

Welcome to my world, lady.

"As close to..." If that was the cheetah's notion of courtesy, how did he behave towards people he was merely indifferent to? "Surely you don't mean to say he's normally worse than that?"

"He is rather an acquired taste, 'tis true," the wolf said, nodding. "In any case, the kindness he hath shown thine imperious and over-impatient self is greater than I could have mustered, were I in his position. Pray thee return his kindness, lest he show thee a face less pleasant --"

"Wanderer! Get your canine ass over here!"

"Forgive me, Milady," he said as he bowed, "but I fear that duty calls."

Welcome to my world, lady.

Aaarrgh! Well fine. 'Another forty-five minutes or so' could be lived with. But then --

I turned around and stomped over the bar, having no problems as it seemed that a single space was already cleared for me. At last the proper respect. I pushed the stool into position and then sat down... and landed sprawling on the floor.

Everybody laughed, except for Jubatus and his band. At least it was a kind laughter, not a mocking laughter -- I'd had more than enough of that kind in my dreams.

Ignoring the noise, I stood up and looked around for the stool -- there it was, one foot away from where I'd left it. Nobody was nearby and a glance at the floor as I stood up revealed no scrapes or other signs of sudden movement. Who the...

Welcome to my world, lady.

There was a rumour that one of the stools at the Blind Pig was actually an inanimorph. Could it be?

I called the bartender over and asked for a rum and coke and pointed at the stool. The bartender nodded and came back a minute later with two drinks. Ignoring mine for a moment, I put the second one on the floor by the leg of the stool and then picked mine up and looked around. The booths were in use but the pool table wasn't. At least that would keep me occupied until...

Welcome to my world, lady.

For an instant I stopped, then I picked up my drink and made my way over to the table, patting the stool as I left. At least I'd be able to rest free of that phrase tonight. And if Mr. Jubatus over there delayed any longer, well, then there would be entertainment for the bar. But for now the pool table. It was old, and the balls were worn which would just make it more challenging. In a perfect world, a game of pool would be quite easy to predict by mathematics. The problem is that the world isn't perfect, as the table surface would have irregularities, and the balls would not be identical. Thus to predict the actions correctly, one would need to know the properties of each ball, and of each centimeter of the table so... After putting my drink down on a table beside the pool table, I realized a problem. I was wearing gloves, and that would mean that I would miss imperfections. But if I removed my gloves, that would expose...

I put a good dollop of potassium nitrate into my drink and then took a long sip. I couldn't live like this -- intellectually I knew there was no danger. As my life was going to continue, I would have to force myself to adapt. So, slowly, carefully, deliberately, I pulled off first my left glove, and then my right glove, carefully putting each into my purse. I could sense the carbon dioxide in the air, the water and alcohol vapour, the vast empti --

On to the pool table. Systematically I picked up each ball and rolled it around in each hand. They were cool and smooth, and well used and well cared for; no cracks but there were surface irregularities and imperfections in their spherical shape from manufacture and from use. Their size changed slightly, minutely expanding from the heat of my body as I held them, and that told me something about their probable composition and the state of their internal structure. After ten minutes I knew each ball as an individual. Then it was on to the table. It too was worn, but loved. There was a patch that was not visible but could be detected due to textural differences. Along the sides there were a few spots that showed wear, and rubbing my hands along the rim gave me an idea and an estimate of the elasticity. Each ball, each corner, each spot of the table were all unique entities, complex, organic, used and loved.

By now a small crowd had gathered, probably wondering what I was doing, and over the bustle of the bar I could hear Jubatus' band. But that was all background noise. My attention was wholly reserved for the table, and the balls. Another sip from my drink, and then a click-rattle as I set up the balls for dispersal. A visual and touch check of the available cues, a check of their elasticity, a rubbing of the point around my palm to know its friction, and then it was time to break.

In a perfect world, pool would be easy to predict by mathematics; in the real world, it's an incredibly complex, and ultimately unsolvable, puzzle. Sure, one can find partial solutions, but never a complete one, which meant that there was always a random variance in any shot. Readying the cue I made a note of the location of each individual ball, worked out shot momentum and vector transfers and slowly determined an optimum direction and momentum for the shot. Then it was a question of implementation. A quick motion, a thud of impact vibrating up my arm, and then it was all out of my hands.

Calmly I watched the balls roll and impact and bounce. The first few balls went into their predicted pockets, but then the small factors I hadn't measured -- the movement of air, tiny irregularities in the table, the slight difference between the planned force of my strike and the force actually applied -- began to add up. By the time the last ball rolled to a stop, a total of nine balls had passed into the pockets which suggested that my error estimate of 0.3% was a tad high -- I'd been expecting only eight balls. Back on Easter Island with the table I'd used for years, I rarely missed getting any of the balls to proceed on their plotted course. Using the observed paths and momentum transfers, I began revising my understanding of the balls and table.

Welcome to my world, lady.

And that once again destroyed my concentration, and my relaxation. Where the hell was he? It had been forty-six minutes and looking towards the band showed that they were still singing, and Jubatus was with them. Odd, I'd read that he'd lost his ability to sing -- so what was he doing with a group made up purely of vocalists? My auditory sense was equally as acute as my tactile sense, both courtesy of SCABS, and I chose to put the former to use. I focused my aural attention on the obstinate cheetah, closing my eyes to remove distractions, and discovered him to be the source of a repeating set of tones, rather low in volume. They were quite pleasant once I'd isolated them, especially the purring rumble that was always there, more obviously on the lower notes. But my information was very clear about -- wait, was that truly him singing? Less than a minute later they finished, with Jubatus holding his final note a moment later. So it had been him.

Welcome to my world, lady.

I couldn't help but clench my fists. I had to speak to him, and I had to speak to him now! Spinning around, I put the cue back in its holder, picked up my drink, finished it, and made my way towards him. First though I stopped at the bar, picked the now empty glass up from the floor, patted the stool, and paid the bartender.

And he was right behind me. Strangely, I could again see that faint afterglow around him, that seemed to be mostly in the infrared. What passed for my eyes took in a slightly wider spectrum than my lost human vision.

Welcome to my world, lady.

Welcome to my world, lady.

Glaring at him and through gritted teeth I asked, "What did you mean by that godforsaken cursed phrase?!"

He sighed. "You're an astronaut. That means you commute to this mudball, and you're cloistered away on Easter Island for a good chunk of your dirtside time. Me, I'm stuck here on a permanent basis. Life without possibility of parole."

Welcome to my world, lady.

Just tell it meant nothing! Please. "So?"

That sour smile again, that expression which had been haunting my dreams: "Your little jeremiad on Where It All Went Wrong," he said, managing to capitalize the words with his voice. "Think you're the only person ever to notice that stuff? Hell, you aren't even the first! Fear of science, picking the familiar over the new just because it is familiar, people making an en masse choice for the irrational... some of us have our noses rubbed in that shit on a daily basis. And you're only just seeing it now? Heh. All I can say is, 'welcome to the club'."

Welcome to my world, lady.

Welcome to my world, lady.

"So, that's all it meant?" Please say yes. "Just that the world is not pleasant to anybody and that I have arrived at the world that we both share?" Please answer.

Welcome to my world, lady.

Welcome to my world, lady. Welcome to my world, lady.

Welcome to my world, lady. Welcome to my world, lady. Welcome to my world, lady. Welcome to my world, lady. Welcome to my world, lady. Welcome to my world, lady. Welcome to my world, lady...

"So that's what couldn't wait. I can see why you had to talk to me -- how else would you know I wasn't really announcing that I'd just acquired title to the Earth's entire surface, including mineral rights." After a short pause, he went on, "Yes, that's exactly what I meant."

All the tension left my body and I collapsed on the handily located barstool. "Thank you."

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I frowned. And that's it? That is bloody well it? I don't think so! "I think we could use a little privacy. Back room, you and me, now."

Amazingly enough, Little Miss Prima Donna went along with it. Once safely isolated from prying eyes and ears, I continued: "After that kind of buildup, you've got a bloody lot of nerve pulling that kind of anticlimax. You came barging in here like you own the place, and I want to know why."

She actually looked a bit sheepish. "I couldn't get it out of my head -- it's a curse of my condition."

My disbelief was obvious. She thought a bit, then asked, "Do you happen to know what SCABS did to my brain?"

From what I knew of her history, there was at least one obvious answer. "Rewired for greater neural efficiency."

"Yes, and by quite a large factor, actually. Rather useful when one is unriddling an abstruse equation, but it also provides signal processing for greatly enhanced sensory acuity, which is a bit of a mixed blessing. And sometimes... a part of my brain bites onto something, a stray remark or headline or whatever, and it simply will not let go!"

"And that's what happened here."

"Exactly. Intellectually I knew what you meant, but a part of me didn't. At first it wasn't much, I'd just hear the phrase run through my mind occasionally, but as time passed I heard it more and more until I couldn't think of anything else. I needed you to say what it meant so that my subconscious, or whatever you want to call it, would stop speculating and shut up."

She didn't strike me as the Bester-reading kind, so I passed up the opportunity to ask whether she'd consulted Ben Reich for help with that kind of thing. "Can't let go of a mystery," I mused. "I can see where that might get annoying, but if that's the worst of it, SCABS let you off easy."

For a moment she looked annoyed, then her eyes widened a little in sympathy or pity. She timidly asked, "And you've been dealing with worse, haven't you?"

Sympathy or pity. Either way, I wanted none of it. "Yes," I said flatly. It's a sign of progress; not so very long ago, even that small an admission of weakness would have been beyond me. Time for a change of subject. "So how's life in the vegetable kingdom compare to animal existence?"

She looked grateful for an innocuous topic. "Well, it's a great deal more calm, but there are peculiarities. I find that bright sunlight gives me a strange lethargy, almost like sleep but not quite. Carnivores don't bother me, but herbivores like Phil do." She swallowed. "The weirdest thing though is how I see other plants as, well, competitors -- I couldn't stand having potted plants around me until I cross-bred them with cuttings from my hair." She sighed, sounded like she was finished but then continued in a hurried voice: "I can't be afraid. I never panic or get excited. I can get desperate, hurried, but not actually frightened. There's no fight or flight reflex left, and I only feel the strongest of emotions." She stopped, and I could see her breathing quickly -- no emotions, sure. "What about yourself? Yours is a life on fast forward, or so I've read; how has that affected you?"

I gave her a weary smile. "Less than you might think. I'm rude, obnoxious, and antisocial; I'm hungry all the time; and I'm pissed at the world for being so goddamn slow and stupid." I shifted to a deadpan delivery for my next sentence. "Basically, I'm the same irritating asshole I was before -- no significant changes."

"Yes," she said seriously. "You're still making music, for instance. But there is a point I'm curious about. Why is it that the information I have suggests you can't sing?"

"Because I can't. Not any more, at least."

"Actually, I heard you singing --"

"The hell you did. I don't do that any more."

"Well, I'm certain I heard something, even if it was rather quiet. It went a bit like this --" and she started to hum.

She was obviously untrained. A pang of jealousy instantly stabbed my heart anyway. Her voice had a warm, rich tone and timbre; she could be a clarinet from God's chamber orchestra. And... sweet leaping Jesus on a trampoline... the tune she hummed was a simple harmony line for the last song we did, Just the Way You Are. A simple line, within my vocal limitations, that I'd been playing with inside my head as we were rehearsing. She got it as mechanically note-perfect as a tape recorder, with no real emotional content. Not a problem, I had emotion for both of us.

"I'm fairly confident that was you, Mr. Ju --"

"It was." I didn't trust myself to say more.

"Well, then. While I can't say I'm terribly familiar with vocal music, I must admit I rather enjoyed your --"

My heart threatened to go on strike. I cut her off: "Not funny."

She looked confused. "Nor was it meant to be. In truth, it was really quite pleas --"

"I said: That's. Not. Funny." I tried, but I couldn't keep the angry snarl entirely out of my voice. Fortunately, she got the message and shut up. I closed my eyes. Deep breaths. Calm down. She's not trying to wound you, she's just fucking clueless. I found it easier than usual to put a lid on my raging emotions; could it be the lack of animal scent in the air?

"I'm sorry. I really am over the worst of it, but..." I shook my head. "Singing is still a sore point with me. Tell me, what's it like upstairs?"

It didn't take much badgering to get her talking about her work. I try to keep up with space projects, but it's not easy. Especially the private-sector ones like hers, for which keeping mum is the first line of defense against psychotic neo-Luddite morons like Animal Worshipers Inc., All Humans Must Die, The Really Green Berets, and so on. I ruthlessly exploited this opportunity to get info straight from the horseradish's mouth, and she seemed happier discussing technical matters anyway. That made both of us.

The biggest piece of trouble on her plate was a glitch that kept showing up on Brin Station: Various bits of the structural framework went magnetic at random intervals. The field strength was trivial, no danger in and of itself, but it had lots of potential for catastrophe if it got worse. Could be sunspots, deteriorated wiring, deliberate attack from some military satellite or other -- none of her people had a clue. Inevitably, I made suggestions. Most were things they'd already thought of, some weren't practical for one reason or another, a couple were both feasible and news to her.

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I've never made an organized study of psychology, but I had picked up quite a bit of it during the time I spent in quarantine figuring out what to tell the nice doctors so they'd leave me alone. And the more time I spent in the cheetah's presence, the more certain I became that his was a textbook example of a defensive personality; his abrasive manner was perfectly suited to the purpose of preventing anything like intimacy. Once one is aware, of course, one can see what it is that's being defended. It's a simple matter of reading between the lines, of paying attention to what is not said...

Oddly enough, I felt comfortable in his presence. Maybe because he was a real person, and not a drone; he was the first man or woman in ages who didn't mindlessly reply 'yes ma'am' to everything I said and did. And if he could personally fix the glitch on Brin, then I would have time to explore my sudden feelings, the ones I couldn't even remember experiencing before, a bit more.

"Mr. Jubatus --"

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"-- about those two suggestions. Who do you know who would be suited to look into them on site, so to speak?"

I pondered her question. "Well, there's Jae Haller. Good man, but he's getting old. Maybe Pejman Gonzales --" I stopped when she raised a hand.

"Do you suppose you might be interested in the job, Mr. Jubatus?"

My head snapped up. I stared, and saw a little smile on her face. The heart police came around, again threatening to put me under cardiac arrest. This time I knew she had to be playing with me, damn her vegetable eyes! But still...

"It sounds like you're more than qualified for the task."

My mind whirled; I upshifted so nobody could see if I broke. She -- I couldn't -- it wasn't -- me, in space? Yeah, right. Fat bleeding chance! Even if they could manage to soup up the life support systems to accommodate my hyperactive metabolism, I damn well knew how much of an obnoxious, irritating asshole I really was. There was no way in Hell I could pass any tests for psychological compatibility; lock me inside a tin can with Mother Theresa for days on end, and that's a recipe for one of us to wake up dead somewhere along the way. I forced myself to downshift to the normal human tempo. "That's. Even. Less. Funny."

"It wasn't a joke, Mr. Jubatus. I know that you are eminently qualified as a troubleshooter and problem solver; you are physically fit; and you are the one who pointed out the possible problems we haven't considered. Consider it simply an on-site repair job."

I turned away, unable to return her unblinking glaze. Damn her! She was no dryad after all, but a Siren, luring the unwary to their doom with her ethereal voice. She must have known that I was born in the 1960s; that I'd grown up on space flight, been one of the millions of American kids who were stupid enough to believe in the dream; that NASA had taken a piece of my soul with it during the long, slow dying that started in the '70s... She knows why it's impossible. She has to know. My voice was colder than ice on Pluto: "Get. Out."

She didn't even flinch. "I'm serious. When is a good time for you? Sooner is better from my perspective."

If my instincts had tagged her as threat or prey, I think she would have needed a closed casket ceremony. As it was... I squelched my rage. I didn't know (or care) what sick game she was playing, but I wasn't about to give her the satisfaction of knowing exactly how many nerves she'd hit dead center. I'm calling your bluff, you vegetable bitch. I met her gaze, my own face more wooden than hers: "July. 15 through 21. I won't need longer; either I solve it in a week, or I never will."

She nodded. "Of course. Very well, Mr. Jubatus; it's now March 25, which gives us plenty of time. I'll see to it that all is in readiness when you arrive for preflight training, which you'll need to set aside two weeks for. July 1 through 14 should provide a sufficient duration."

Told you so; accept her offer, and... she'll...

Wait a minute.

She went through various pleasantries. I responded without thinking, for all of my higher brain functions were on hold, paralyzed by one incredible, impossible thought.


I'm going...

Me. Jubatus. Technical writer. World-class irritant. Top-ranking troubleshooter. Fastest SCAB alive.

I'm going into space..!

chapter 2

Why had I invited him?

I'd made a supply run to Brin and stayed up only two days, as I couldn't stand to stay up any longer -- could that have something to do with it? But what? It made no sense. Just like it made no sense that I had had to take a commercial flight to be at the Blind Pig on the evening of April 19th, and at the invitation of Phil himself. Sure, it was convenient as I could also meet Mr. Jubatus at the Blind Pig to pick up samples and give him a list of needed supplies, but that could have all been done remotely. "Could have", but for the annoying fact that I'd been unable even to grab his baseline stats from Derksen's records, nor yet the formula for the metabolic depressant he would probably need. Clearly, someone had blocked out my usual attack methods. Probably Mr. Jubatus, damn him.

So why did that make me more eager to see him?

There was no mystery about the date; it was the anniversary of the first confirmed case of SCABS spontaneous morph. And for the Blind Pig Gin Mill, April 19th was a veritable holy rite, the date on which the coveted Hassan's Horse Award was given to the victim of the best practical joke of the year. But what could that have to do with me? Phil wasn't the type to pull things, yet he had invited me. Had Mr. Jubatus put him up to it for some reason of his own? It had to be Mr. Jubatus.

Damn his towering, overweening, feline arrogance! He'd even made me miss a promising storm front just so that I could be at the Pig on this date. Oddly, I didn't really regret missing the storm, which was even more worrisome as storms were almost all I lived for these days.

Even though I arrived at the Pig about seven in the evening, local time, it was quiet. At first I was surprised, but then I remembered that the award ceremony proper was firmly restricted to 'regulars' and their guests. No 'regular' I, thus I had to be a guest, the only question being -- whose? The only two candidates were Phil and Mr. Jubatus, and I was tending towards Mr. Jubatus. He probably had engineered a practical joke like last year and wanted to lord his superior mind over me. 'Superior mind' -- not a chance! After I entered I heard a click and noticed Donnie locking the door and then a glance around showed that both Phil and Mr. Jubatus were present. I turned and made my way through the crowd to sit beside Mr. Jubatus as he was much preferable to an eater.

A growly throat clearing drew my attention and I turned to see Wanderer standing near the piano, in an open space, holding the Award trophy.

"Ladies and gentlemen and children of all ages! Welcome, one and all, to this fair establishment on the eve of an occasion most solemn." That was met with a volley of raucous laughter from everywhere, which the wolf did not deign to acknowledge. "Far less solemn than it might have been, however! For as each new day did end without any fresh japery to enliven the atmosphere, and the joyless months did drag by, in all sooth I did fear me that we would have had the ever so sad experience of a year free of pranks. And, what is worse, that I would be the first one so ill-starred as to have no new prize winner to whom I might surrender the magnificent Hassan's Horse. But while the gods Momus and Murphy are cruel at times, they are not so cruel as all that! For as my dolor was at its height -- at the very last moment before Catastrophe would have been both inevitable and irreversible -- my fears were all undone! Truly, my friends, in this quiet twelvemonth of near unending seriousness and deep thoughts, we were saved from that most horrific of calamities: A year marked, if not fatally marred, by a complete and utter absence of practical jokes. And now, as I am not long winded," another blizzard of laughter greeted that from all directions, "I will simply announce your chosen winner. By popular vote, a shoe-in due to the curious paucity of other blessed candidates, I do hereby announce the winner of this year's Hassan's Horse Award: She is a beauteous and most intellectual addition to our community, and her name is -- Ms. Sue Carter!"

Applause thundered as I just stared at him. Me? That wasn't possible. I'd only been here twice. The first time nothing had happened, and the second time I'd simply tried to sit on the inanimorph stool who'd gotten out of the way.

"That's just a rumor, you know," Mr. Jubatus commented from beside me.

I turned and stared. How had he known what I was pondering?

"Given the circumstances, you had to be thinking about The Stool That Walks Like A Man, not so?"

Ah -- of course. Everyone knew of my little misstep, and Wanderer had commented on a lack of other candidates. Very well, it was officially a practical joke, which begged the question: Who had done it? The cheetah's doubts notwithstanding, I as yet lacked sufficient data to rule out the possibility of an inanimorph being involved. If the culprit was a living creature, however, the primary candidates were either Phil or Mr. Jubatus. Out of the side of my eye I could see Phil looking away, but most of my vision was filled with Mr. Jubatus' grinning.

Well, that clarified that. Mr. Jubatus thought that he could pull a fast one on me. Well! Soon he'd be in my hands and then... No. It had to be in the bar, it had to be public, and above all it had to be most embarrassing indeed. But until I was ready to spring my trap, no sense giving off any clues...

"Ms. Carter! Wouldst grant mine unworthy self the honor of your presence 'pon the dais? Prithee, step up to receive thine well-earned prize, if you would!"

I whispered to Mr. Jubatus, "I wonder who did it?" and then stepped up, advancing silently in my skin-tight lycra to greet the wolf. As I approached him, Wanderer bowed and held out the award, a statue, appropriately enough of a horse's rump on a pedestal, cast out of well polished silver. The tail was raised to expose the fullness of the horse's ass.

Wanderer stood up. "Inasmuch as you are a relative newcomer, fair lady, it has been requested that I state the rules and restrictions under which thou'rt bound for the next three hundred and sixty and five days following. Primarily, you must always have the statue with you, prominently displayed, each time you enter into and are seen within the Blind Pig Gin Mill. Shouldst thou forget to bring said statue but one time, thou must buy each entity in this establishment a drink; 'pon a second such lapse, thou art forbidden to enter for a period of one month; and if thou do neglect to bring it yet once more, 'tis 'three strikes and out' -- thou wilt be forbidden to ever enter this establishment again."

I nodded. "I believe that vengeance is not frowned upon?"

"Not at all, milady." Wanderer smiled. "Do thee but know the identity of thine tormentor, he or she is yours to use as you will. Of course, anybody is fair game at any time, notwithstanding the decline in both quantity and quality of pranks which seems to have o'ertaken us all these past few years. An thou take an oath to forswear thine righteous vengeance, mayhap the prankster may voluntarily reveal himself."

"I could, but surely that would take all the fun out of it? I will swear no such oath."

He played to the crowd: "Intelligent, beautiful, and she truly recognizes the value of a good jest! Would that all who enter this hallowed space were as congenially compatible to our customs." Then, focusing on me again, "Milady, I wish thee the best of luck in thine year of shame and glory." Lastly, after an elaborate and sweeping bow, Wanderer turned and left me to brave the spotlight as best I could.

I slowly looked around at the patrons, the man with the ears of a raccoon, the deer laying on the floor, the horses, the bugs, the wolves, and the guilty Mr. Jubatus grinning at the table. Of course, they were all grinning the same, so maybe he -- no. It was him, it had to be him. But if it wasn't... Well, in that case, I'd simply have to get each and every one of them, thereby ensuring that the guilty party was caught in my net. QED. I smiled. "As our florid and lupine host said, I am new to your ranks, and not truly familiar with your customs and mores." That was apparently the cue for a discordant electrical noise from the direction of -- Jubatus? Odd, it didn't look like he was working a buzzer -- and a light scattering of chuckles all around. "Therefore, I can only plead ignorance if my next action is in unwitting contravention of said customs: There shall be one round of drinks for the house on me, so that all may enjoy one night of freedom before their doom comes to them."

If the rather loud cheer was any indication, there were no objections whatsoever. Soon everybody had drinks. Indeed, I was given my usual rum and coke before I could even reach Mr. Jubatus's table. For a second I was afraid to touch it for fear of what it might contain, but then I smiled and added a dash of potassium nitrate. If they were so afraid of me that they had to get me this quickly, well then vengeance would be all the sweeter.

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/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Well, what do you know. Little Miss Can't Be Wrong didn't blow a gasket; I probably wouldn't've taken it that well myself. Nice touch, that round for the house. I watched as she made her way through the ridicule that sounded like congratulations, and sat down across from me just as the waitress, Sinclair's daughter, brought me a Mini-CD 50 I hadn't asked for. FYI, that's a concoction consisting of equal parts water and catnip daiquiri -- not recommended for non-felines with a normal metabolic rate. Carter sat down with a trophy-on-table impact that sent ripples across the surface of my drink. She stopped me as I reached to take a sip.

"Not quite yet, Mr. Jubatus, please."


"I need the biological samples I came for free of contamination. It seems that I couldn't access your baseline records, as though certain parties had intentionally locked me out."

Locked out? What the... I upshifted and let my mind race. The records she wanted were safe in the files of Dr. Derksen, whose professional ethics forbade him to pass that kind of data around like candy. Had she gone through normal channels, a couple leaps through bureaucratic hoops would have gotten her what she wanted; but she was 'locked out', meaning she'd gone for illicit access, first, last, and only. She hadn't even bothered trying standard procedures! Naughty, naughty, little girl. No wonder she'd been so well-informed last time around... Okay, time for an unscheduled 'tiger team' check on my own encryption and IC, and my compliments to the doc-roach on the quality of his defenses. Back at the normal tempo, I made a deadpan reply: "Ever heard of doctor-patient privilege? There's a rumor going 'round about how Derksen takes that shit real seriously."

"Let's get this over with quickly." She pulled out a plastic case about 6" square that contained a needle, a pair of scissors and three vials. "First I need a hair sample for base DNA," and she held out the scissors --

-- attack: frontal: threat level low --

-- damned instincts. I downshifted and took the scissors from her, also the vial. "Try not to let your fingers contaminate it."

"No problem." A quick shpritz of DeadGlove -- every cheetah's favorite inert polymer in a spray can -- then I snipped off a fair chunk of fur. Meanwhile, Derksen had arrived; the dryad handed him a sealed needle and a blood vial. "Well, aren't you prepared?"

"Always, Mr. Jubatus. I made the arrangements with Dr. Derksen before I arrived, as I had confirmed he is your doctor and would be present."

'Confirmed' exactly how, hmm? One more stomp on the instincts, and the dryad had her blood.

"I greatly appreciate your co-operation. Now I just need one more, which I trust you'll prefer to donate in privacy." She held out what I recognized as a urine sample container. "I doubt the washroom will be booby-trapped tonight."

Heh. Looks like news of Wanderer's unscheduled shower spread farther and wider than anyone would have expected. And the old barstool trick took this year's prize? No doubt about it, the Pig was going downhill. I took the vial. "I'll be a minute," and stood up taking my drink with me. Think I'd trust her with it? Fat chance.

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

I watched him go with what seemed almost a dim echo of sadness, but that couldn't be. Ignoring my imagination I smiled at the crowd to see Phil standing right beside me.

"It wasn't me."

"I didn't think so. You did e-mail me though."

He almost smiled. "Sure! Wanderer asked me to since I had your address already."

Wanderer? Why would he have... ? To make sure there was somebody to take the award off his hands? I took a sip of my drink to calm my nerves. "Out of curiosity, how is the award determined?"

"The regulars cast a secret ballot. Kind of silly this year, since you were the only contender. Anyway, the current holder of the award gets to hand it to the new victim."

"I see. But how is it that Wanderer got the Horse last year? I thought the perpetrator of the winning prank had to remain unknown, and since everyone knows that Jubatus got him drenched by his own water balloon trap, wouldn't that particular practical joke be removed from consideration?"

"Well, sort of. Not everyone is sure Jubatus is the one to blame, and even if he was the one who did it, nobody's been able to figure out how, which is just as good. Anyway, I couldn't help but see Dr. Derksen with you. Are you okay? I'm not doing anything for the rest of the night..."

I glanced at the gloves on my hands; felt the tight lycra pressing against my body so that I knew I was in no danger; remembered the terror I'd felt in space. "I'm fine, thank you. Quite fine."

Phil looked doubtful.

"I'm not going to kill myself, and it's all thanks to you. Dr. Derksen was here because I needed him to take a blood sample from Mr. Jubatus."

"Mr. Jubatus?"

"I'm taking him up to Brin in July."

I watched him glance upward for a second. "Jubatus in space?" He leaned forward and spoke in a whisper, "Do you really think he's astronaut material?"

"I can handle him, and he is needed. And..." I looked up and saw Mr. Jubatus returning and then had a sudden thought. "Would you please tell Wanderer too -- he was curious." Yes... that flamboyant wolf would likely be very curious indeed, and inasmuch as his spotted victim-of-choice had managed to turn the tables on him so completely, it was more than likely that he'd be equally interested in returning the favor. No sense letting that Shakespeare-spouting mind go idle -- give him some information and I could simply watch him reel in Mr. Jubatus.

In less than a minute Mr. Jubatus was sitting down in front of me and holding out the sample container. He'd watched Phil depart with look on his face that even I could tell was foreign to him. Genuine concern, perhaps? Interesting.

"Here you go -- fluids topped off and everything."

I took the vial from him and put it, and the other samples and sample-taking equipment back in their plastic case and slipped it back into my purse. "You wouldn't believe the trouble I had getting these through customs. But, I do have some more information for you." Picking up my drink, I finished it off and looked to see Phil talking to Wanderer. Mr. Jubatus followed my gaze and inwardly I smiled and decided to plant some extra paranoia -- if Mr. Jubatus could be convinced to strike at Wanderer, then more power to me. "Wanderer had asked Phil to ask me about Dr. Derksen here so I told him that Dr Derksen was taking samples preparatory to your trip into orbit."

"Did he, now." He turned away from them and looked straight at me. "Anyway, you mentioned a list of requirements and restrictions?"

"Yes. You need a space suit -- I've e-mailed the details and suggested manufacturers to you. You will need to shave, if not for the suit, to prevent clogging and damage to Brin's systems. You may bring personal belongings massing not more than five kilograms."

He nodded. "I received the specs and it won't be a problem."

"Good. I'd love to stay and chat, but I need to catch the 10:30 North-Am Air flight back to LA." I stood up, picking up the statue. There was no way it'd fit into my purse so I'd have to get a second carry-on bag at the airport. "Mr. Jubatus, I will see you on July 1st -- I trust you'll be ready? I wouldn't want to disappoint you by having to leave you behind on the ground." Then I turned and pushed my way through the well-wishers in the crowd and left.

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/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Whether it was the date or my own innate paranoia or what, I kept chewing over the dryad's words: 'Wanderer had asked Phil to ask me about Dr. Derksen... ' Now, why would the wolf do that? Sure, he was capable of subterfuge, but that kind of three-times-removed Byzantine maneuvering just wasn't his style. Which begged the question, why would she have felt the need to inform me of this fact? Well, she'd as much as admitted that she intended to zap the lot of us -- 'all may have one night of fun before your doom comes upon you' -- so it depended on how she wanted --

-- food creature: harmless: within range --

-- a squirrel? For a Pan-forsaken squirrel, my instincts had to cut in? Even if his bright orange vest hadn't marked him as an obvious SCAB, I wouldn't want to eat him; I mean, he's barely a mouthful, okay? More, the runt well and truly piqued my curiosity. He was clearly uncomfortable in my presence, and yet he had to've gone way the hell out of his way to meet me eye-to-sternum, so what gives?

I downshifted. The squirrel was too busy jittering in place to say anything, so I figured I'd break the ice: "Nice jacket. Fashionable. Hacked it out of a hunting vest with a Swiss Army Knife, am I right?"

He stammered out, "S-s-s-s-so h-h-how are you? I'm J'jim and I'm n-new here..." His words came out awfully fast, for a slowpoke. Gosh. I might actually have to upshift a bit to follow what he's saying. Amusing.

"Yes, and you're scared shitless to boot. So tell me -- what brings you to the big, bad predator in the corner?"

Jim calmed himself with a visible effort. He may be a squirrel-sized runt, but he had more determination than most human-sized people. "I'm, trying, to, overcome, a, flight, reflex."

"Flight reflex? So... you run away from dangerous situations. This is a problem?" I wanted to ask why a little (read: fragile) guy like him would actually want to stick around when danger strikes, but he cut in before I could do so.

"I'm, not, one, to, run." Oh yeah, he had balls of brass. King-sized. And he wanted my help dealing with his instincts? What the hell, I'm game.

I smiled without showing any teeth. "Bets on that?" A momentary upshift, and my claws blinked into place before me, every last knife-edge clearly visible to the squirrel. "You might want to rethink that 'overcome the reflex' deal. You little guys break real easy. When the weapons come out, you damn well better run, or you're dead, Jim."

He squeaked out, "I would kill to be able to stand and fight!" at warp factor 2.

It wasn't just the irritating overtones of his voice that dampened my mood. "Believe me, you don't want to kill things. Been there, done that, don't recommend it." This was really a job for Phil, but he was busy with Wanderer at the moment, so I was stuck with it. O joyous day. "You know, you're not exactly sounding rational at the moment. How about we kill some time by letting me pick your brain about it?"

Well, that sucked. Phil on his worst day could come up with a better opening line in his sleep. At least Jim was still here -- score one for the tree-rat -- and yes, that was a nod. Fine, I'd take my best shot at ID'ing his problem.

"So: You're an uptight little rodent that wants to act like a badass, but thanks to SCABS, you ain't got the body for it no more. Care to give me the rest of the story?"

"I, I wrestled."

Ah -- progress. "And now you can't find a suitable opponent. So what?"

"I coached."

"Looks like pulling info out of you is gonna be like cracking nuts," I observed. It wasn't much of a joke, but I was just trying to lighten the mood a little. No visible response from Jim. "So anyway. You used to be on top of the world, but now you're at the bottom of the heap."

He nodded. Words would be better, but at least a gesture was something.

I gave the 'moving right along' gesture. "And..?"

"I used to be somebody!" he squeaked. "Back in the day I was a respectable man!"

Bingo! Finally hit pay dirt. "So that's your problem: SCABS took you away from what you love. Ripped a jagged hole in your heart." And now that it was out in the open... now what do I do? What would Phil do, damnit!? I upshifted, bought myself a little time to think. 'Tough love' was the only option that occurred to me. And Jim did want help with some of those pesky squirrel instincts, so... I downshifted and laughed, started inching my face towards him. "Well, guess what? You're not the first, and you damn sure won't be the last. Take a number and join the fucking club, friend.

"I got four words for you: Deal with it, tree-rat." And as the piece de resistance, I put a very toothy smile on my face. In response, Jim shrieked and scrambled up the wall as fast as his tiny little claws could carry him.

Hmm. Looks like I overdid it.

chapter 3

Let's fast forward through the next few weeks. After all the years of continuing disappointments, of people living down to expectations, of heartaches great and small... well. Although I still wasn't quite able to believe it, I could at least pretend to play along until the inevitable disaster queered the deal.

Preparations. If I were an inanimorph like BlueNight, it really wouldn't matter; I could just go up, perhaps even under my own power. As it was, I'd have to spend two weeks training on the Island. I'd have preferred at least three, but somehow I didn't think they'd go for that kind of unilateral change in scheduling.

I had other things to fill my time with anyway. Ordered a new suit, the pressure kind -- custom-built (and worth every kilobuck), fit like a second skin, and I'll still have to lose the fur if I want to wear the thing without being driven psychotic by chafing. Got some rocketry info off the net, gathered the parts, built one, and (most difficult part of the process) got all the permits necessary to haul the thing around with me via airliner. Went on a road trip to Florida, collected a half-liter of water from the Atlantic Ocean. Hit Washington DC on the second leg of that trip, dropped into the Smithsonian Institution, and walked away with 10 grams of powdered rock.

I don't know... maybe writing a hundred-million-dollar check for Moon dust should feel different than paying for dinner. But it didn't, no matter how big a chunk of my liquid assets I'd just signed away. Picked up the suit along the way, plus a two-month supply of depilatory lotion that would probably last me a week and a half, given the way my metabolism works.

Oh, and I also got Derksen to mix up a fresh batch of that metabolic damper he'd used on me that time I collapsed in Wanderer's arms. If I went berserk upstairs, I'd probably end up taking myself out; while that wasn't necessarily such a bad thing in and of itself, the trouble was all the collateral damage I'd inflict along the way...

Finally the fateful date came around to meet the dryad at the Pig for pickup for my trip. I double-checked that everything was packed and then just as I was preparing to leave to give myself lots of time to arrive, my phone buzzed.

I wasn't expecting a call, not one from Harmen and Harmen; and not one at 5:15 PM. Especially not today. The way that contract was written, surcharges multiplied like tribbles for anything outside normal business hours. And it wasn't like I came cheap even during business hours, so I could be fairly confident that my client, at least, felt it was damned important.

The operator on the spot had gotten one of those typically cryptic Windows-derived error messages that I wished would just go away (but didn't expect them to, considering that there are still a few live COBOL programs out there... ). Fortunately, I had admin privileges for the H&H machine. I rode the net on in, and sure enough, the problem was a corrupted DLL; one restored-from-backup driver later, they were back in business. Which left the fun part of the job: Figuring out how that DLL had gotten corrupted in the first place. I upshifted to a tempo of 20 (that being the factor by which I'm quicker than normal), as fast as my remote connection could keep up with, and went to work.

First things first: Confirm that the error wasn't a self-inflicted wound. System logs didn't reveal any glitches in the machine's own internal activity, and H&H's resident diagnostic routines came up green across the board. Even better, my own personal suite of utilities confirmed that the machine in question had maintained nominal status for the past 511 hours straight. And that "even better" wasn't sarcastic; all those tests coming up clean allowed me to rule out bunches and bunches of possible problems.

Next item on the agenda: Since the corrupted driver hadn't been scribbled on by the machine itself, the source of the glitch had to be external, and that meant I got to play with firewalls, sockets, and pings, oh my! I brought up a different set of tools, reanalyzed the system logs from a different perspective, and threw in the logs of network and internet activity as well. Bullseye: At 2:19 PM today, some script kiddie hit H&H's poor machine with the latest download from the "Buffer Overflow Exploit" Of The Month Club. I've known about this particular exploit for seven weeks, had a solution on hand for five, and it took me three clock-minutes to install it now.

At a tempo of twenty, I live through an hour while three minutes tick away on a clock. I had plenty of time to look over my handiwork, reexamine the evidence, and see if I'd missed anything on the first pass. Turns out I had: My script kiddie actually managed to avoid triggering three of the eight warning signs associated with the particular exploit he'd, well, exploited. Veeee-ry interesting, as Arte Johnson used to say.

Ever heard of "retrograde analysis"? The term refers to a highly specialized class of chess problems, in which you have an unlikely arrangement of pieces on the board, and you have to figure out how they got there. It's intrinsically difficult, and tracing down a problem in a computer can be as bad as retrograde analysis in four dimensions. I won't go into detail -- even if I weren't under NDA (non-disclosure agreement), anyone except another technogeek would be bored stiff -- but by the time I'd finished ruling out the impossible, I was a hell of a lot more impressed with my 'script kiddie'.

I went over the logs yet again, this time seeking after evidence of a far more subtle variety than I'd looked for earlier. And no, I shouldn't have gone for the subtle clues first. It's one of the basic axioms of troubleshooting: Start with the easy stuff, and only go as complicated as you must in order to shoot the damn trouble. Anyway, the third round of analysis proved that this guy was good. Real good. Like, '99.99th percentile' good.

Not many hackers out there with that degree of skill; likewise, certain characteristics of the attack indicated that my boy was using a machine significantly higher-grade than a Packard-Dell from K-Mart, hooked up through a connection decidedly faster than your generic T-1 line. All of which, fortunately, let me rule out the vast majority of potential host sites. Candidates were clustered in the Houston tech corridor, Silicon Valley, and...

Easter Island?

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I had to rush to catch the earlier flight than the one I needed to meet Mr. Jubatus, but I wanted to make sure to arrive at the Pig before him. A quick removal of critical drivers from one of his clients was just insurance to keep him busy until I was through with Wanderer, and to confirm his skills. Nothing life-threatening of course, but something that would prevent data processing until detected and replaced. It was fortunate I'd taken these precautions as the flight ran into a headwind and arrived about fifteen minutes late and so I arrived at the Pig later than planned, but still before Mr. Jubatus.

After getting the usual from Donnie -- one of the side benefits of being vegetable was ease of recognition though having to show the Hassan trophy might have been part of it -- I sat down and waited, and Wanderer was quick to approach me.

"Ah, fair demoiselle! Long have I looked forward to welcoming thee again to this fair establishment."

I had heard that he did stop the accent sometimes, but evidently not today. "Yes Mr. Wanderer, I've come to pick up Mr. Jubatus for his trip."

"Be that the trip beyond this surly earth into the firmament beyond?"

"If you are talking about a hop into near earth orbit then yes, although there is a fraction of Earth's atmosphere still present at the heights we'll be at."

"Pray forgive me the inexactitude of my language, but thou hast confirmed my hopes. May this poor thespian ask a favor for not only himself, but for all the patrons of this fair establishment?"

I almost rubbed my hands together -- could it be that Wanderer was already planning to do what I had intended to con him into? "You can always ask, but I can't answer without more information, given the innate hostility of the near earth environment."

"Worry not, milady! What I would ask is a small and innocuous favor. This journey that you and he shall embark upon, it is something of a historic event, and it would be most inadvisable to allow the occasion to go unrecorded." And then a small self-contained camera appeared in Wanderer's hands, not unlike a rabbit conjured by a magician. "In particular, I believe these lupine ears of mine did o'erhear you speak of pressure suits, and needful preparations for such. When our speedy acquaintance is 'suiting up', perhaps you might preserve for posterity a visual image thereof?"

So he had figured it out. Now for a bit of innocence. "Are you sure that Mr. Jubatus won't object to photos of his shaved body? One would think that pictures of oneself looking like a naked mole-rat would not rank high on one's priority list."

I watched him blink for a second digesting that before he continued, in a slightly lower voice: "I fear you speak the truth, milady, but then I did say that this would be of benefit to all our brothers and sisters of inebriation -- yourself included. Given the atmosphere of this congenial establishment and that polished award you have with you, would it not be prudent to partake of precautions to ensure that thou'rt not blessed with the award for a second year?"

His face opened into a predatory grin that he probably expected to discomfit me. Of course it didn't work -- I wasn't an animal that he would eat. Instead I demurely smiled back and answered, "Why Mr. Wanderer, I must admit that that is a lovely idea that is not only not life threatening, but could also be rather amusing. I only wish that I'd thought of it. I am a bit of an innocent at these kind of things." Then I took the camera he offered and slipped it into my bag -- it had even been modified to survive a vacuum, my, my -- and waved as Wanderer returned to his corner and his Lupine Boy entourage.

And then it was just a question of waiting. Time passed and then Mr. Jubatus was late, as I'd expected. I'd have worried if he was on time, as that would have meant that he didn't live up to advance billing. Time passed and it wasn't until 6:30pm that he came stalking in, straight towards me. I wasn't worried as I had booked our flight back to San Francisco for 11:18pm. So I just clasped my hands and politely watched as he sped up and suddenly appeared in front of me, looking ready to breathe fire.

"Please sit down Mr. Jubatus. You are 30 min --"

"You know damn well why I'm late!"

"Please relax, sir. Letting your emotions take control of you is very dangerous, particularly in a hostile environment." This time he allowed me to finish my sentence, and put the time to use damping his anger down to simmering coals.

"And co-workers you can't trust are dangerous, too. What makes you think I want to go upstairs with an amoral --"

"I trust that you are referring to the recent intrusion into Harmen and Harmen?"

"It was you."

Ah good, a statement, not a question. "Yes Mr. Jubatus. I have put a high percentage of my prestige on the line to get things set up to get you up into orbit. You are, in a very real sense, an investment I've made. And, like any other investment, I took steps to make sure that it was a good one."

"You want to test my abilities, you can bloody well make an appointment. You're not the only person whose time is valuable."

"Mr. Jubatus, a prearranged scenario would not have been a true test of how you work under pressure and how you react when the unexpected occurs -- both of which I need to know to gauge your abilities in the hostile environment of near earth space."

"Do you have any idea how many laws this 'test' of yours broke?"

"Thirty-two in all, twenty-seven of them being American. However, due to the interesting vagaries of international law, the company I work for is considered a foreign power, with all rights and privileges thereof. Thus Easter Island is a sovereign state and I am a fully empowered ambassador of said state, with diplomatic immunity whilst on US soil. You could attempt to get the World Court to imprison me, but my company is not a signatory to the relevant treaties, and would be under no obligation to cooperate with any such proceeding. Any economic pressure the US could put on us pales beside what would happen if we simply stopped providing support to their spaceborne assets. The only possible negative result from my point of view is if the US invaded and conquered Easter Island, which probability I estimate at less than 0.03%. If you do attempt to pursue legal action against me, I would simply be denied entry into US territory for a likely 18 months before public reaction had died down such that my presence could be comfortably once again allowed. When one considers how important its orbital infrastructure is to the US, it is actually quite startling to realize how very limited is their ability to maintain it. And, by the way, did you track me via the entry pathway through the 670911 non-removed debug code, or through the .03V internal hardware fault in the physical gateway device that allows intermittent low level hardware access to the BIOS when a buffer overflow event occurs?" I clasped my hands together on the table and looked at him, smiling demurely.

"Legally, your ass may be covered six ways from Sunday, but ethically, you're fucking naked. What gives you the right to manipulate me and waste my time, let alone drag uninvolved third parties into it? You want I should just look the other way, nod and say yes?"

"Mr. Jubatus, from this moment on, your time is my time. When you go into orbit, it will be under my command and my responsibility. That means that to you my word is God's word starting now. Knowing that this test was going to occur, I have booked our flight for 11:18pm tonight. And, to address your ethical concerns, H&H will receive an anonymous donation covering your fees, just as the Trojan I inserted that would have restored the DLL at 7:18pm this evening will self-destruct causing no harm. This means that we have another 22 minutes to relax and enjoy the atmosphere before we need to leave." As I'd predicted, he wasn't going to tell me how he'd tracked me, but I'd bet it was the 670911 debug code.

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/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

I upshifted. I was tempted to spike her drink, just to see that cool exterior crack -- but the stakes were too high for petty retaliation, so I used the "extra" time to cool down. Okay, she was an insufferable egocentric; Christ knew I came off that way myself at times, and like me, she had a solid-enough track record to justify a touch of arrogance. As for the hours I'd wasted jumping through her hoops, they were upshifted hours. A matter of minutes by the clock. What most stung was that she felt the need to test me in the first place. I had a rep for high quality and fast service, and I'd earned that reputation, damn it! What, she thought it was just smoke and mirrors, or a years-long con game or something? Maybe all my returning clients just couldn't stay away from my jovial personality? Maybe --

This wasn't working; I was getting more annoyed, not less. Think of a different topic... That .03V internal hardware fault was news to me, but I'd be damned if I was going to let her know of my ignorance. Mental note: Send H&H a recommendation for a different brand of gateway hardware. I also got some ice water from Donnie to help cool myself down -- I could have used a Mini-CD 50 but I wouldn't give the dark dryad the satisfaction. Instead I just smiled and admired her trophy.

chapter 4

As I drove Mr. Jubatus and his supplies to the airport -- I knew that he'd made arrangements for his vehicle -- I wondered about his reaction or lack thereof though it was what I had counted on. I hadn't lied about the hazards of space given what it had done to... No matter. As long as the cheetah could react calmly in a hostile situation, he wouldn't be a complete burden. The trip was quiet and we each kept to our own thoughts, mine being on the coming plane trip -- I hate public air travel. Somewhat odd considering what I did pilot, and even not pilot, but the problem was that I knew too much. I knew what the pilots would be doing, I knew the potential flaws, and above all I knew that I could do a better job. Unfortunately, I was still kept helpless in my seat because of US laws created after Sept 2001. As we got near to the airport traffic slowed down from the vehicle overflow from the nearby sports complex as the National League game had just ended. The delay wouldn't be a problem as I'd allowed an extra 45 minutes of travel time in case of traffic complications, which of course meant that we had an extra 45 minutes of time to fill.

I had initially been a bit concerned about how my over-speedy (and under-patient) companion would take this delay, but he was prepared: The plentiful pockets of his vest were filled with a remarkable variety of things including a not-inconsiderable selection of tools and parts, and he occupied himself by interrogating me as to which of said items the gatekeepers in the terminal might be prone to object to. I was grateful for this gentle inquisition, as it was a welcome distraction from what was all too soon to come. It quickly became apparent that he had given this matter some thought a good deal before now; he had socket wrenches, electricians' wire nuts, conventional nuts and bolts, and so on and so forth, but nothing that could be used as a stabbing or piercing implement -- no knives, saws, blades of any variety, nor yet even a screwdriver. "The nuts and bolts might raise an eyebrow, but only because you've got rather a lot of them, and they would not be considered adequate cause to hold you back, Mr. Jubatus." He said nothing, so I looked at him, and found him glaring fixedly ahead of us. "Mr. Jubatus?"


"It's just a traffic jam, Mr. Jubatus. No need for profanity."

"Look to the left -- 11 o'clock, about 20 meters and closing. See those guys with the black jackets and baseball bats?"

"Certainly. What of them?"

"They're Humans First."

"I can see that. Again, what of them?"

"They're checking out the drivers and passengers of each car, that's what of them."

Maybe they were just trying to be helpful. "And..?"

"Why do you think they're carrying --"

And then my jaw almost fell open as they started beating the side of a limousine a few cars in front of us with those baseball bats.

"-- those bats around?"

I turned to Jubatus after tearing my eyes from the appalling display. "What are they doing?"

He returned my look with a nasty smile and gestured at the brutes. "That's what they're doing. What's the matter, you thought Humans First was just a bunch of misguided idealists or something?"

"No -- no -- of course their ideas are wrong, but I have only had civil discussions with their representat..." The smashing of glass dragged my attention back to the limousine just in time to watch the men reach in through a shattered window and drag a Dalmatian SCAB out of the limo. There was only one civilized possibility here. "Maybe he was injured and they're just trying to help him."

I heard Jubatus gasp, and then swallow before speaking over the rising sound of the impact of wood on flesh. "He's injured now." Then I watched Jubatus get something and heard the dialing of a cell phone so fast that key presses made only a single chirp. All he was going to do was call for help? I turned to look at him as the cell phone made the connection.

"Mr. Jubatus," I said, my voice cold enough to freeze helium. "Perhaps you can stand aside as another human being is savagely beaten before your eyes, but I could not live with myself if I did nothing. Excuse me, please." I got out of the car and strode purposefully over to the humans.

I stopped a few feet away from them and snapped "Sirs!" in my command voice. Being in charge of ground to orbit shuttles does teach one how to be noticed and obeyed. They stopped, startled, lowering their bats and letting the Dalmatian slump to the pavement oozing blood, and then they noticed me and smiled. I continued, "Your actions are in contravention of your own Constitution, to say nothing of your three Federal SCAB laws and common human decency..."

The largest, whom I noticed had blood on his bat as he raised it, smiled. "You afraid we hurt the widdle doggie? Oh my, we were so wrong..."

I started to turn to Jubatus to lecture him about the proper methods of maintaining civilized behaviour when their laughter drew my attention just in time to see their bats raised.

Their bats raised? Laughter? That made no sense. Sure they'd made a mistake, but there was still time to save their...

The one who'd spoken whipped his bat down and impacted it against my midsection, filling the street with the sound of wood on wood.

How could they? This was wrong -- they had to know that! It was morally incorrect to assault and damage another sentient. What could have possessed them?

The impact bounced off my flexible cellulose ribs and the elastic reaction threw me to the pavement. I was too stunned even to remember the basics of how to land properly.

This couldn't be happening! It was just wrong!

A brilliant eclipse of the streetlight caused by the upraised bat shaded my eyes and...

...a blur...

...and the bat bounced off the ground with much more force than gravitational potential could have passed to it and Jubatus was standing over me, eclipsing the light so that his dark form was haloed by the halogen glow. A distant part of me noticed a digital camera held in one hand.

"Are you all right?"

I couldn't answer. The neural rewiring which granted me vast increase in sensory acuity applied to all sensations, which (unfortunately) included pain. I was individually aware of each abused cell's injury as a separate and distinct note in a symphony of tormented flesh; I knew that the damage was nowhere near fatal, not even a broken rib thanks to their woody substance having a significantly higher elastic constant than bone, but the affected nerves were making themselves felt. It was all I could do to get out, "In... purse... prescription labeled... pain. Now!" Around me I could barely hear the thumps as the bodies of the humans slid to the ground and the distant sound of traffic as the pain became overwhelming.

Another blur. "These?"

By force of will I kept my mind free from the pain enough to look at the bottle and recognize the colour. "Two... mouth."

He gently slipped them in with water out of a bottle from his vest and I forced myself to swallow them and closed my eyes and clenched my teeth against the rising tidal wave of pain. Then they reacted and the pain receded and I could begin to think once again.

"Pain is a sensory impulse, isn't it."

I took a few deep breaths to clear my head, the oxygen pushing the pain away and helping the healing. "Yes it is, Mr. Jubatus. It most certainly is. My bodily substance is..." I winced as I made an experimental attempt to sit up, and my body forcefully argued that that was a bad idea. "Less easily injured than animal protoplasm... but once it is damaged, the pain is very very intense."

"You're all right?"

"I'll be fine -- the drug makes me a bit unsteady on my feet so it is probably better that I rest for a few minutes before the law enforcement officials arrive. I take it that you called them and then took photographic evidence before dealing with the problem with your enhanced metabolism."

"Oh, yeah," he said with a sad smile, his voice quiet and a trifle unsteady. "Solved the problem real good."

Interesting -- not the cynical tone (which was expected), but that he sounded shaken, which was odd since with his abilities he would never have been at risk. I moved around, more carefully this time, until I was sitting on the ground with my legs crossed in a much more comfortable position. "I would have expected you to answer with more vehemence given your earlier attitudes."

"I don't enjoy pulling the wings off flies, no matter how much they ask for it. Anyway, how the hell could you do something so incredibly stupid?!"

"Stupid? Based on my experience with such persons, these were aberrations --"

"Your experience? That, lady, is sampling error with a vengeance! Before the Pig, when's the last time you spoke to anyone with an IQ under 130?"

I almost answered his question -- but there was a more important ethical issue to address. "Mr. Jubatus, violence is the last refuge of the incompetent."

He sighed. "And some folks' first refuge is selective blindness. I imagine it's easier to do that when you live in a hermetically sealed bubble." He held out his right forearm. "Here. Why don't you take off one of your damn gloves and feel what the real world is like!" He thrust it further forward almost into my face.

"As you wish Mr. Jubatus." Mystified, and after swallowing, I carefully removed my right glove and felt along his forearm until I found a minor discontinuity in his skin, buried in the fur. "That is scar tissue, is it not."

"Congratulations. You've found the spot where one of those Humans First 'incompetents' pulled a knife on me. And if you're interested, the rest of the guys at the Pig can give you the gory details of their own up-close-and-personal brushes with such 'incompetence'."

"I still don't understand. All the other such individuals I've talked with were vocal, but not violent. I've never --"

"Never had to deal with that kind of irrational bullshit? Never? Not even during the Collapse?" he asked, and his questions were pointed accusations.

And just like that, it was upon me: A terrible, terrible experience I hadn't thought of in years, a memory which (hindsight assures me now) I must have been doing my best to suppress all along. Just like that, the present was expunged from my sensorium, replaced in its entirety by a past that I had no desire to revisit...

March of 2003: I was at University, just finishing my undergraduate work in physics. The Martian Flu had well and truly left its mark on the outside world, but surely the University campus was safe -- surely the fine intellects gathered in this place would not fall victim to the hysteria which gripped the populace at large? Surely the Collapse would not make itself directly known here?

Surely I was a fool.

No, the Collapse had not respected the sanctity of the University... and a group of people, many of whom I had called friends, made me fully aware of the true extent of my folly as they attacked, seeking to burn the Library.

The power failure, the gibbering howl of the approaching mob, the acrid smoke burning in my nostrils, my finger on the trigger... I felt the salty taste of blood in my mouth, the blood of a fellow student; I smelled the flame and heard the ravening roar of its hunger. I remembered every kick of the rifle and the horror of sentients falling to the ground, shot by others and by myself, never to rise again. I shook with the realization of what I had done, what I would be required to do...

...and then I was back in the present. Safe and blinking in 2039, with more than three decades of insulation between myself and my sins.

"You have dealt with this kind of thing before, haven't you," the cheetah said, the partially-concealed pain in his eyes doubtless a match for my own. "Flashback, am I right?"

"I... yes. I have. During the Collapse. A mob came. Attempted to burn the, the library. I and others... stopped them."

Fortunately, he did not press for details. "You alright now?"

"Not yet," I said with a convulsive shudder. "If you will excuse me, I think I'm going to be sick." I turned and ignored Jubatus as I vomited my drink from the Pig up and onto the street. When my body finally calmed I swallowed dryly and turned back to him. "If you will help me to the Dalmatian, I will examine him before the authorities arrive -- I do have basic training in first aid. You need no longer fear that such a situation will incapacitate me again as I will not forget my self-defense training next time."

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The dryad was just full of surprises, wasn't she?

I helped her up, did what I could to assist while she made the mutt comfortable, and we waited for the cops to arrive. Dog-face had no internal injuries, but he was hurting bad from a bruised rib. When the cops finally did show, Carter's diplomatic credentials ensured that we weren't held up long. Of course, given my photos and the oversupply of other witnesses, I'm not sure her credentials made any practical difference. Another surprise: Carter refused to press charges.

"Mr. Jubatus, your country's legal system will deal with them as they deserve to be dealt with. If I make an incident about this then they could get deported to Ad Astra and I'd have to shoot them."

"Sounds good to me. Can I..." That's when I realized she wasn't smiling. "Hold it. You're serious."

"I am. In terms of surface area, Ad Astra is very small. We haven't the space for a prison or other such facility. The only punishment is corporal. I would not press for deportation, but if they were remanded to Ad Astran justice, I, as the idiot who caused them to be deported, would be the one who would have to shoot them."

There wasn't anything to say after that. I drove, since Carter was still a little woozy from the drugs, and we arrived with time to spare. I returned the rental, then grabbed my carry-on bags -- the rest of my stuff'd been shipped ahead by courier -- and followed her into the terminal.

It wasn't exactly pleasant. I hadn't been around this many normals at one time since before I stopped being one. For that matter, hadn't been in this big a crowd, period. As a SCAB, being surrounded by normals has always been a nervous-making experience for me.

My heart rate was elevated. My senses were abnormally acute. But it wasn't panic; I just felt... intense.

"Are you alright?" asked the dryad.

"I'll manage," I replied, the finality in my tone putting an end to further discussion. As we continued down the main concourse to our gate, I found I had to keep downshifting -- my tempo insisted on creeping up of its own accord. A little voice from the back of my skull provided a running internal commentary on potential threats and escape routes.

Damned instincts.

Something tapped my shoulder; I upshifted instantly to... oh. Carter. I downshifted. "Yes?"

"Mr. Jubatus, please calm down before you bang your head on the ceiling. You're acting as the proverbial cat that everyone is described to be as nervous as."

I stopped, closed my eyes, and took a deep breath. "Sorry. I don't like crowds." I gave her one of my patented sardonic smiles and continued: "After all, we cheetahs are solitary critters."

Double-plus damned instincts! I steered us away from Carter's choice of ticket line, since I recognized the agent there as a Humans First member. No sixth sense, just scabsonthenet.org's online "rogue's gallery", which I'd checked this afternoon. The line moved fairly quickly and the tickets weren't a problem, either. Unfortunately, the twit manning the sonic scanner flagged my luggage as "officially questionable". Even less fortunately, the rent-a-cop who handled it turned out to be a previously unrecognized anti-SCABS bigot.

"Come on over here, Mr. Cat."

Oh, there's a fine display of courtesy. Let's just see how you like it, fucknose. "Not a problem, Mr. Ape," I said as I (and my carry-on luggage) followed him to a large booth off to one side of the main concourse. Sure enough, his scent acquired a sudden charge of anger. Good.

"Excuse me, but are you quite sure --" Carter began quietly, probably below the threshold of human hearing. Me, I didn't care what the clown heard.

"Yes, I'm sure," I declared at a normal volume. "After all, I have a name, and the primate here couldn't bother himself to either ask or call me 'Sir'. He doesn't want to be reminded he's an ape, maybe he should've thought twice before he called me 'Mr. Cat'. After all, some people are sensitive about their species, and it's not very polite nor professional to stir up needless hostility. Isn't that right, Mr. Ape?"

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Enough of this -- the electronic board said the flight was still on schedule, and after the delay on the way here the last thing I needed was for Jubatus to get somebody so angry at him that they held him back.

Oblivious to me and secure in his duty, the security man responded: "Mr. Cat, there is evidence that something in your carry-on will require us to prevent you from boarding --"

Fortunately I'd had an opportunity to read the name tag on his chest as he approached. "Mr. Jacobs," I snapped.

He stopped and whipped around to look at me, anger at his diatribe being interrupted reddening his face. "You're free to go, but he's not."

"I don't have time for this crap, and I don't care who calls who what. What is the problem Mr. Jacobs?"

"I don't have to tell you SCAB."

I very much did not have time for this! "Mr. Jacobs, I am an ambassador of the sovereign state of Ad Astra. As such, you will tell me the problem or I will make an international incident over this. And when it reaches that level I can assure you that your ass will be thrown to the wolves to keep me happy. Now, what is the difficulty?" I had trained my voice to the proper military snap and used it during Brin's construction. His hand flinched as he started to salute before he suppressed the urge.

He licked his lips before answering. "There is no legal reason for me to divulge such information to you. According to subsection 12a of..."

"I am fully familiar with American law. 12a states that you may search and question a passenger about suspect luggage and nothing else. 12b and 12c cover whom you may restrict from boarding. The introduction to section 12 states that such actions listed below should not prevent a passenger from boarding a flight unless dangerous substances are confirmed. Nowhere does it state that such information is privileged." I raised my voice. "I will ask for the last time, what is the problem?" I watched him visibly deflate when he realized that I knew the word of the law.

Pointing at one of the two carry-ons, Mr. Jacobs said, "That contains an unknown powder inside a metal case. We need to know what the powder is."

I turned. "Mr. Jubatus -- may we see the case." There was no question in my voice.

Jubatus reached into his carry-on and pulled out the case.

"We need to check the contents sir."

"Moon dust."

Moon dust? Where had he gotten that?

Mr. Jacobs swallowed. "I need you to open the container so that I can examine it."

"Moon dust isn't an explosive."

"I'm sorry..."

My turn. "Mr. Jubatus, you will open the container and you will do so now. Mr. Jacobs, I will show you the contents and confirm or deny what they are. Is that acceptable." Again, there was no question in my voice.

"Yes ma'am."

"Good. Now. Mr. Jubatus."

He paused for a second before gently opening the case. I looked, and there was indeed rock dust there, pale gray in colour. I removed my right glove, dampened my fingertip, and glared at Jubatus until he held the container in front of me whereupon I touched the surface and let a few grains adhere. I moved my finger so I could examine the material and then I tasted it. Rock. "Mr. Jacobs, this is neither drugs nor explosive. Unless you wish to argue my statement and create an international incident you will let Mr. Jubatus through."

He swallowed again as Jubatus snapped the container closed. "I'm sorry but..."

"Section 12e states that an inspection by a foreign point of entry within a sovereign state that has signed the appropriate air travel treaties with the United States as stated in section 2 will be considered sufficient for suspect substance inspection unless there is obvious incongruity with what is specified by the foreign point of entry. Not only has Ad Astra signed the appropriate treaty, but also I, as a duly appointed inspector of the goods in question," I whipped out the appropriate card, "certify said goods as harmless. If you wish, you may file a protest under section 12 subsection g, but you will need physical evidence of the harmful nature of said substance. Do you wish to file such a protest?"

He paused for a second before answering quietly. "No ma'am."

"Are there any other concerns?"

"No ma'am, he is safe to pass."

"Good. Come along Mr. Jubatus, we have 42 minutes until our flight leaves." After we were through the gate I continued, "And that is how you handle a civilized SCAB hater."

Jubatus' smile was full of black humor. "Wrong -- that's how you handle those people. Probably just as well that I let you do all the talking. I could've force-fed him the letter of the law myself, but..." A sigh, and then in a conversational tone, to no one in particular: "I'm gonna be real glad when we're in the air."

He was silent the rest of the way. To prevent further delays I led him to an empty area of the waiting lounge and after he sat down I turned and spoke to him: "Now, since we are waiting I do have an NDA for you to sign before we reach the island and you see any of the facilities." I reached into my carry-on and pulled out the folder that contained the agreement. "I would have given it to you earlier, but I preferred not to let the others at the Pig get a clue as to what you are getting yourself into. Signing this is a non-negotiable act and is required before you board my plane in San Francisco. You can look at it on the flight over."

"What if I don't like it?"

"Then you stay in San Francisco. Ad Astra will cover your flight back. Mr. Jubatus, you seem to believe that I live inside a hermetically sealed bubble, separate and distinct from the 'real world', and I won't argue the point here and now. However, I would like to point out that your existence has been confined to a bubble you call the United States of America, which bubble you are in process of exiting. From my point of view, you are only just now entering into the real world yourself. And if you'll excuse me, I would like to freshen up."

In truth, 'freshening up' was the least of my concerns, although I did want to sip some water and make sure that any remaining bits of vomit were absent from my chest and face. I was far more concerned about Jubatus. Given how jumpy he was in crowds, I decided that I had better make use of the special scent I had created sooner rather than later.

While it is widely recognized that animorph SCABs can display behavioral traits appropriate to the species they resemble, the full extent of this phenomenon is appreciably more obscure. Yes, animal instincts can indeed fully replace an animorph's mind, but that is comparatively rare; it is far more likely that said instincts merely influence the mind, to a greater or lesser degree. In fact, some animorphs, consciously or otherwise, even exhibit social adaptations of what might be termed their 'template species'. In Jubatus' case that was obviously cheetah. One little known fact of wild cheetah society is that, unlike most large felines, small groups of male cheetahs from the same litter would live and hunt together, co-operating against others. Accordingly, one of the things I'd done with the samples I'd taken from Jubatus was to create a 'littermate scent', which I applied now. No human would be able to detect this scent, as the formula's concentration was too low for it to be consciously noticed even by Jubatus' sensitive nose, but it would be there nonetheless, and would cause his subconscious mind to consider me a littermate and trusted friend. I had chosen not to apply it before meeting Jubatus at the Pig since I was going to talk to Wanderer, for I felt it best not to take the chance that he might notice it and start to wonder. There were other ploys for the wolf, lupine social actions and behaviours that I had plans to use on Wanderer in the future, and there was no sense in arousing any suspicions in his mind prematurely.

After the perfume, I didn't use makeup as I didn't see the need, it was a polite excuse-me as another woman entered and quickly made lots of room for me, and then back out to Jubatus.

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"Now, if you'll excuse me, I would like to freshen up."

I watched her walk towards the rest room. She thinks I'm out of touch with the 'real world'? Real funny, that. I wonder how she'd do on her own, without a whole damn country backing her up? Like to see her keep up with an appetite for meat that can be measured in pounds per minute. Let's see how she handles instincts like a bloody hurricane in her head. Yeah, and let's see how long it'd take her to relearn how to see, to hear, to fucking talk, to move around a world of barely-mobile obstacles without breaking anything... The whole situation was looking more and more like a deal with the devil, but I didn't care. I'd coped with worse than Carter when the stakes were nothing more than a lousy contract; now, with a lifelong dream in my hands, so close I could almost taste it...

Calm down, Jube. I upshifted for privacy and opened the folder to read. The NDA was fairly standard, except for a couple of clauses. First: Anything I developed or worked on, either on Easter Island or on Brin Station, belonged to Ad Astra -- I wouldn't be allowed to take a copy with me. Fine. It wouldn't be the first time a client asked for that, and from what I knew of the setup on Brin, it wasn't likely that the solution to their problem would be useful to anyone dirtside anyway. Second: They wanted me to leave my own toys downstairs, use their hardware and software exclusively -- not that I'd have brought anything even if they allowed it, seeing as how Carter hadn't given me any of the technical data I needed to choose an appropriate selection of cyber-tools. Annoying, but again, not unprecedented, especially among clients who did have a clue about crackers. There was a pen in the folder (Carter had thought of everything), so I downshifted and used it for the signature. So far, I haven't found a pen that works right at any tempo over 4.

Interesting; the dryad emerged from the bathroom a lot sooner than I'd expected. I upshifted, zipped over to her, held out the folder, and downshifted. "Signed."

She twitched, but squelched her surprise almost instantly. Not bad for a slowpoke. After giving the document a once-over, she pulled a small hand scanner out of her purse and used it to capture my signature and the date. "I just sent a copy of your agreement electronically to the US net to make sure that legal copies are available with all required authorities."

"No problem, we can --"

-- attack: 9 o'clock: threat level low --

-- and my claws were poised to reduce an inflatable ball to a cloud of tiny rubberized shreds. Goddamn instincts! I looked around, and saw a little girl running towards me, caught in mid-stride by my involuntary upshift. I put a neutral expression on my face (a smile would be better, but there's still a few prosecutors who think they can get some mileage out of child abuse charges), caught the ball, and downshifted. "I believe this is yours?" I asked as I gently tossed the toy back to its owner. Too bad Mommy Dearest dragged the kid away before she could catch the ball, which bounced off who-knows-where. Oh yeah, crowds are just so much fun.

"Mr. Jubatus, are you usually this high-strung? Every hair on your spine is upright."

"You noticed." Ordinarily I'd just let it go at that, but like Carter said earlier, she was in charge of me for the duration, so she did have a need to know. "It's my instincts -- part of my brain's hardwired to do realtime threat assessments on anything that comes near me. Sight, vision, scent, data on air currents from the vibrissae, my instincts add it all up. And if they don't like the total, I upshift on the spot, end of discussion."

"Which would explain the failure of that water balloon trick of Wanderer's, would it not?"

"You got it. The instincts are my own private DEW line, so fast projectiles are basically worthless against me, except maybe as a decoy."

She smiled at that. Why? "That's quite interesting. Perhaps a coordinated volley of multiple projectiles might have better luck?"

I shrugged. "Maybe so. I'd be able to dodge most of 'em anyway, so you'd get a hell of a lot of collateral damage from the ones that miss."

"Yes. I can see that that would be quite inelegant."

Whatever the hell was going through the dryad's mind, I did not need it -- not on top of everything else that had happened, I didn't. "Alright, Carter. What's up? Why do you care?"

"It is an interesting practical problem in applied ballistics Mr..."

Her sentence died, buried by the terminal PA system: "North Am Flight 223 to San Francisco is now boarding. Would passengers with tickets for rows A-C please move to the boarding gate now. Other passengers will be let aboard in sequence."

She stood up. "That's us. Just stay with me, ignore any problems, and relax."

That made sense; she'd done this a lot more than I ever had, and was giving me the benefit of her experience. "Fine by me. I'll be on you like white on rice."

She gave me a quirky look. "The thought is appreciated, but I doubt it will be necessary for us to be quite that close!"

"What's the matter? You afraid people will think we're in love?"

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In love? Why did I suddenly shiver in anticipation? No, it couldn't. He wouldn't -- he had to be joking. There was no way that he could know. I stopped and looked at him and smiled, "I don't see anything wrong with that --"

His expression was gratifyingly disturbed.

"-- however if you draped yourself around me as your simile suggests, I would guess like a house cat asleep on my shoulder, it would detrimentally interfere with my mobility."

He laughed, a deep purr-like chuckle.

That was unexpected. Based on our previous interactions I'd expected some kind of sardonic comment to push me away. This was certainly not typical. The perfume?

And then I felt something furry tickling me on my opposite side. Shocked, I spun around to see nothing as I heard another rumbling laugh. It had to have been his tail. What was going on? Was Jubatus joking? Was the perfume breaking his mind? Did he love me? No, it couldn't -- probabilistic analysis proved that it couldn't. Love? My heart beat faster...

As I turned back he pulled away. "Did I err?"

"Ye... no..." Why had he stopped?! No, I would not act like this, I refused to act like this! Say something... "I think there may be some residual effects from the pain killer."

He nodded and stopped.

Damn it! Why'd he have to stop?

We both remained silent as we were seated, the other passengers boarded, and the plane took off. I didn't want to remain silent but what could I say? I couldn't love -- I no longer had emotions. I could care for people like Ang... But love? No. So why did I feel so hurt when he stopped?

As soon as the plane reached level flight I pulled out my laptop and flipped it open with a vengeance; while waiting for it to boot I turned to Mr. Jubatus and spoke with a calm voice: "You should probably just sleep -- it'll be a few hours before San Francisco and you look like you need it." I needed rest myself, but that was out of the question thanks to the ballistics problem he had unwittingly inspired.

"Sounds like a plan to me." So saying, he started pulling items out of various pockets of his vest -- protective coverings for his claws (hands and feet) and fangs.

His left hand was covered, and he was putting the guard on his right, when I interrupted. "I take it that there are things I should know about how you sleep?"

"The claw-guards? Let's just say you do not want to see what happens when I don't wear 'em."

I blinked. If he did move a lot when sleeping that could be a problem. "As you wish then Mr. Jubatus. However, I do have a practical question that does need an answer. When you sleep how do you sleep? If you upshift that would affect air consumption and I need to take that into account."

"Okay; I've got enough feline in me that I spend about 40% of the time sleeping. The default schedule is 15 minutes awake, plus 5 minutes light sleep on either side of a 1-minute coma, for a 26-minute cycle. I can stay up for about 5 hours straight when I feel like it, but that's the extent of it. All that's my time, by the way -- the clock-time varies inversely with whatever tempo I'm running at, and as far as I know, the tempo I sleep at is 6."

By now all four limbs were padded and he was getting ready to put the mouthpiece in. "And do you usually move around a lot? Should I be careful waking you up?"

"I don't think I move around more than anyone else when I sleep, just faster. Not so good with claws. And no, I won't need a wake-up call."

"So you'll always wake up on your own? I would prefer a backup plan just in case. The proverbial 10' long pole?"

He shrugged. "Like I said -- 5 minutes of napping on either side of a 1-minute coma."

"10' pole it is. Enjoy your nap."

As Jubatus went to sleep I turned to my computer and started working on the fascinating problem he'd suggested to me. Ballistics is a wonderfully exact science, at least when firing one shot at a single immobile target. But when you are shooting multiple projectiles in sequence at an even faster target, it becomes very complex very fast; it becomes more predictive probability than ballistics. Given the speeds involved it couldn't be controlled by me, so it would necessitate a programmed AI system to adjust...

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Mental note: Try to avoid sleeping on airplanes. The instincts picked up on every vibration of the engines, every little twitch of the airframe, every passenger movement or cough, you name it; if my default tempo of 6 hadn't dampened the plane's vibes (from my point of view, anyway), I doubt I'd've gotten any rest. The flight attendants must've been aware of my dietary requirements, as they made sure to supply a steady stream of beef jerky, not as good as raw but still edible. Meanwhile, the dryad's mind was completely absorbed in some ludicrously abstruse mathematical problem. Definitely over my head, but one of her equations looked like it might have something to do with orbital docking maneuvers. Maybe. And by the algorithms of Ada, she was even working on some low-level assembler code! I spent my own waking minutes trying to anticipate all the problems I might be faced with on the next leg of our journey. The fraction of said problems I might actually be able to help with wasn't large, but even so, it beat driving myself psycho trying to figure out where Carter's head was at...

Time crawled along. When we reached SFO, a domestic blend of fog and drizzling rain ensured that visibility sucked during final approach. After touchdown, it was a matter of waiting for the damn plane to taxi into position for us to debark. Somewhere in there I asked the pretty dryad, "Whatever you're working on, it looks pretty hairy. What is it?"

"AI-controlled kinetic interceptions between moving objects of widely disparate velocities."


"It's a surprise."


"That would be telling."

The quote piqued my curiosity -- did she know it was a quote? And from where? "By hook or by crook, I'll find out."

She smiled. Reference confirmed! "You're dating yourself quite badly there Mr. Jubatus --"

Heh. "And you're not?"

"Touche. But now I believe it is our turn. Please follow me as we are not going the public route but need to go to the private area of the airport. The plane should be ready upon our arrival. Also, we will not need to bother with customs as that was taken care of when we first boarded so you won't have to control yourself during any more interactions."

Annoyance flared up in me. "I did contr --"

"Mr. Jubatus. I'm tired, and still sore from the outside altercation. To be blunt I want to go home."

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

After a short pause, he actually said, "Okay. Home. Want to kick back and relax for a while?"

Kindness? Maybe... No it was just the perfume. At least the mathematics had cleared my mind on that account. "Thank you but no. Our arrival window is set and changing it would be more trouble than it's worth. If you'll follow me?"

I nodded to the stewardess, critiqued the landing which had seemed overly rough to me, and then led off the boarding ramp, past the other passengers, down corridors and past doors leading to other gates, and then through a door marked 'Gate 12 - Private' which I unlocked. Then more travel through quiet hallways and then out into a misty rain lit only by overhead street lamps and the thick scent of salt and oil and gas. The piercing whine of a nearby plane made me envy my companion's ability to protect his ears by pulling them close against his head. A five minute walk across the cold tarmac and then the Fokker 10 was before us with a staircase leading up. Finally I turned and hurried over to where a norm in blue coveralls was closing a cargo panel.


The figure hurried down the ladder with a clipboard under his arm. "Did you have a good flight ma'am?"

"I've had better. This is Mr. Jubatus," I said, introducing the cheetah. "Did his cargo arrive safely?"

"It came last night, and here's the manifest with it and the rest of the supplies." He handed me a clipboard, which I quickly leafed through. Everything requested was loaded, and Jubatus' cargo was all on the last page. Interesting -- if this document was truly accurate, he could build a small rocket out of the items he was bringing up, if he chose to. But why? What would the payload be?

"Mr. Jubatus, please check and make sure that all of your supplies are on board and accounted for."

The cheetah blurred in place momentarily (which Jerry goggled at) to read the manifest, and then returned the clipboard to me. "The list is complete, but I'd like to --"

"Mr. Jubatus. If you are concerned that items listed on the manifest may have gotten misplaced in transit, you needn't worry. Jerry's competence and reliability are shared by all his fellow employees." Then, turning to the human himself, "Very good. Jerry, thanks." Then the final piece of the ritual we'd established: I handed him a small, gift-wrapped package from my purse. "Say hello to your daughter for me, won't you?"

"I sure will, Ms. Carter!"

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Whatever was inside the colorful paper, smiling 'Jerry' made it vanish before he moved over to the boarding ladder. The dryad giving out presents? What a peculiar exhibition...

"Come, Mr. Jubatus." She jogged up the staircase, acting like a kid in a candy store. I followed her up into the cramped cabin and then watched as she sealed the hatch and waited for Jerry's 'all clear'.

The cabin had seats for five: one on each side of the hatch, the other three along the opposite wall. "What seat I should use?"

"No VIPs today -- take whichever your prefer. You'll find water and sandwiches in the cabinet there. Flight time will be about eight hours, I'll know more after I talk to the control tower."

I sat down in the nearest seat and watched her shoehorn herself into the cockpit. "Is the shuttle this small?"

Her voice echoed oddly from in front. "Smaller, passenger-wise. Of course, you'll be sitting beside me up front then."

Up front, with a cockpit full of controls I was clueless about... "I'm not a licensed pilot, you know."

"Then don't touch anything."


Then she got busy with pilot-y things up front, leaving me to amuse myself back here -- ah! The safety pamphlet. It clearly showed where the life jackets were, oxygen, the life raft, provisions, flares, seat belts, padding, first aid kit, plus neat little pictographs to show how everything worked... Not a bad piece of design. All it needed was a friendly red button and the words 'Don't Panic' on the cover. I was looking over the emergency instructions for manual inflation of the life raft when the dryad poked her head out from the cockpit.

"Our flight arrived a little ahead of schedule so we won't have a slot available for another eight minutes."

She still looked a little frazzled; maybe a bit of a distraction would help. "Eight minutes to kill? Fine. Care to play Questions?"

"What's that?"

"Aren't you familiar with Tom Stoppard?"

"You mean it's that silly Rosencrantz and Guildenstern thing where you answer each question with a question?"

"You have a better idea?"

"Are we playing yet?"

"Foul! Non sequitur. One-love."

"How is that a non sequitur?"

"Do you honestly believe 'are we playing yet' follows from 'you have a better idea'?"

"Does not 'are we playing yet' carry an at least implicit presumption that the current activity is indeed the better idea, hence constitute an adequate response (however oblique)?"

I saw her point, but put a puzzled expression on my face. "I'm sorry, could you explain that a bit more clearly?"

"As clearly as when you said you loved me?"

What the -- "Are you sure you heard me properly?"

"You were right beside me -- how could I not?"

"Then why don't I remember saying 'I love you'?"

"Your exact words were 'You afraid people will think we're in love?' which implies that you love me, does it not?"

"How does that follow?"

"Why else would people think we're in love?"

"Isn't that one of the logical inferences from seeing one person stick to another like white on rice?"

"Then why did you taunt me so knowing that I'd make that logical inference?!"

"So... I take it I hit a nerve?"

The dryad stalked over to the fridge and yanked it open, grabbing a bottle of water. "Yes you did!"

"Foul! Statement."

It was only when she turned that I saw tears in her eyes --

-- attack: 11 o'clock: threat level low --

-- and a bottle of water hung suspended between us. She'd tossed it good and hard; its motion was perceptible, even at a tempo of 15. I plucked it out of the air so it wouldn't damage anything. My mood fell with my tempo as I downshifted just in time to watch her flee into the cockpit and slam the hatch shut. "Two-love," I recited mechanically.

Shit. Fine way to start an airplane trip.

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

Damn him! Damn him to fucking hell! How dare he?!

I'd considered inviting him up to the co-pilot's seat but not now. No way and no how.

How could he be doing this to me? Even Ang...

That stopped me. Angelo. I thought I loved him, but did I? If I did why was Jubatus so much more, well, intense? Was it something psychological like simple bounce back? I needed him -- it's why I'd brought him along. He had been right when he'd suggested others to solve the problem, he personally didn't need to come, but I needed him to come. So why was he making me so god damn miserable...

I sat down in the pilot's chair, leaned back, and closed my eyes.

My life had been so simple, mathematically perfect. I knew where I was going, what I was doing, and who I was doing it with. Then the accident, the death, and it all fell apart. Maybe I should have just ended it -- that would have been so much simpler. Elegant even. Now look at me.

Had Phil even helped me when he'd convinced me to try again? It seemed that I'd been keeping too much hidden from him, even from myself. Kind of like Jubatus that way, each of us playing out roles and letting nobody get close. Except I seemed to be letting him get close. Thoughts of him were all that had kept me going...

"Flight 131, you may proceed to runway."

I shook my head to clear it. These thoughts would have to wait. Maybe in a storm I could relax enough to think.

"Roger tower. Flight 131 acknowledging."

"You may taxi to runway 21. Weather is clear above flight level five-zero."

"Acknowledged tower."

I threw myself into the routine and tried to forget. Radio back and forth, conditions, statements, clarifications, then bring the engines to power and taxi across.

"Mr. Jubatus, we are preparing for take off. Please close all cupboards and the freezer and lock your seat belt until further notice."

I wanted to check, legally I should have checked, but a part of me wanted to splatter him across the floor, and another part was horrified at that thought. It wouldn't happen -- I had too much pride to let him be splattered. Finally I was on the runway and clearance was given, and finally I could pull back and open up the engines of this Fokker 10. The power was nothing compared to Babylon's, but it was better than sitting helpless while half-trained incompetents held my life in their hands. The Fokker was a good plane, one of the best around these days, but it lacked the power of the shuttle, and the simple elegance of the originals. I remembered when a friend had taken me up in his DR1 replica. There the wind was blowing in my face, the rattle of the engine filled my bones, and I could dream of chasing down Billy Bishop. Quickly I reached cruising altitude, performed a last communications check and flight path confirmation, set her on course, and set the autopilot. It was time to face Mr. Jubatus again.

With a sigh I got up and opened the door to the passenger cabin and Jubatus was there, strapped in. "You can get out now." I noticed him gritting his teeth. "You may need to pop your ears to adjust to the lower cabin pressure. Here," I got him a bottle of water from the fridge, "drink this, that should do it."

He did and it did. "Thanks. Guess I made a botch --"

"Never mind Mr. Jubatus. It's almost 2:32am your time, 11:32pm Pacific Time, and 7:32pm on Easter Island. Flight time is an estimated 7 hours, 42 minutes, which means we shall arrive at 10:14am your time, or 3:14am on Easter Island. Smoking is not permitted, and you know where the drinks are. The autopilot is functioning and I'm going to take a nap and wake up in about 3 hours -- plenty of time. Please do not disturb me."

He frowned, and anxiety blossomed in his scent. "Who's going to fly the plane while you're asleep?"

"The autopilot. Don't worry -- other than landing, a five-year-old could fly this. Kind of goes against the grain if you're an Evil Overlord, but that's life."

"'Evil Overlord'? I don't even play one on TV, so I want to know: What if something goes wrong?"

"Nothing will go wrong, Mr. Jubatus. Of that, I am certain enough to bet both of our lives. But if it'll make you feel better, you may keep an eye on the controls." Here I latched the cockpit door open and gestured at the autopilot. "If that light flashes red, wake me. If other lights flash red, wake me and try to hold the control wheel steady. And if all the lights flash red, assume nuclear attack position and kiss your ass goodbye. I'm going to sleep now."

Turning away I reclined one of the seats into a bed and grabbed a pillow from one of the cupboards.

"Ms. Carter..."

"Can it. I can't take any more of you today. I've got half a mind to just open the door and throw you out, but I have too much pride to lose my cargo that way. I'll talk to you later." I closed my eyes and tried to ignore him.

Damn him. Why'd I have to go through all this? I should have slept on the North Am flight, but the damnable ballistics problem he'd suggested had grabbed my attention. I couldn't even solve the stupid thing -- there were too many unknowns about the target. I yawned. Maybe a different approach, something psychological...

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Can you say 'day from hell', boys and girls? I knew you could. My life tended towards extremes at the best of times, but this day had been a roller-coaster ride that made orbital reentry look positively sedate by comparison. No wonder the dryad was having problems dealing with it! Doesn't matter. None of it matters. You just keep your eyes on the prize, Jube...

Carter yawned. No need to look, I already knew what I'd see; a body that could set pulses racing in male humans, and did nothing at all for me. And what brought that to mind? Irrelevant. Remember The Dream, that's what this is all about.

All the LEDs were green up front -- no glitches yet. I could see the dim glow of the moon through the cockpit windscreen. Its light made a monochromatic abstract of the Fokker's interior. Dreams... and to think I'd actually believed I was no longer susceptible to that kind of delusion...

I had time to kill. I always have time to kill. Seven hours plus change, by the clock; three hours shy of a weekend, by me. Sure, I could kill lots of time by downshifting to a tempo lower than 1 -- slow time -- but gravity gets stronger when I do that, so I generally don't bother.

The last week's professional journals on microfilm (and the reader), check. Order-5 Rubik's Cube, check. Latest wad of downloaded SF pulp e-zines, check. Hardcopies of some Strikebreakers arrangements I'd been working on, check. A few dekamegawords of microfilmed recent SF, check. Paperback collection of NY Times crossword puzzles, check. I fed the latest Kemperson anthology into the reader, that'd be good for most of an hour...

What had happened? What the fuck had happened? I'd enjoyed Carter's company -- probably because she was the first person in years who could actually keep up with me, the only person who got more than half of my jokes! So maybe I played around a little, and then it all fell apart. Why? I was just trying to be friendly!

But... I don't do 'friendly'...

I could feel my spine cooling.

Something was very wrong. And whatever it was, I wasn't the only target, not while the dryad was getting all sappy. If it was just me, I could maybe believe she was trying some kind of prank, but as matters stood, I had to assume that an as-yet-unknown third party was playing with our heads. Fine, but who? Why? How? All good questions. And until I got some good answers, I would stick to her like white on rice. Unlike Carter, I'd been living on a steady diet of intense mood swings for the past 20 years, which meant I was better qualified than her to deal with the situation.

And deal with it I would. Be damned if I'd just let some jerk mess with her mind!

Nice resolution, but I still had bunches and bunches of time to kill. I turned my attention to the microfilm reader, and loaded Dr. Dobb's Journal into the thing...


"Mr. Jubatus?"

I looked up, blinking. Carter was right in front of me. Must've gotten absorbed in something, lost track of time -- "I'm here. What's up?"

"I felt you should know that we'll be landing in about half an hour. I apologize for not being a gracious host, but this day has taken a lot out of me."

I nodded. "You and me both. It's definitely been one for the books."

She smiled for a second, but said nothing more.

"Got any last instructions or advice for me?"

"Yes Mr. Jubatus. You are about to enter the real world. We don't worry about knives or bats here; the games we play involve automatic weapons and bombs and electronic terrorism. You may have scars, but thus far we have intercepted one attempted nuclear strike on Easter Island, along with a large number of assaults involving conventional explosives. Fortunately the anti-tech terrorists are not too dangerous as they tend to stay away from advanced equipment so that our defenses have little trouble dealing with them. The more annoying problems are the hacker 'gunslingers' looking to make a name for themselves by crashing the Easter Island net. I've done my best, and hired the best, to make the island net bulletproof, but so far I have had to oversee three full system resets and one complete rebuild. We regularly deal with NORAD and they have the same problems. This is the real world, and we play for keeps. Now strap in for we're about to land and I need to give the appropriate clearance codes so we're not shot down."

"Shot down," I echoed.

"As I said Mr. Jubatus, we play for keeps. We can't afford not to."

She returned to the cockpit and took the autopilot offline.

"This is Susan Carter," she said, talking to the Island's air traffic controller, "returning to home base with mission specialist Jubatus Acinonyx."

"Acknowledged. Please transmit your security clearance code, captain."

'Captain'? Well, she was captain of the shuttles...

"Code 0 0 0 Destruct 0."

Now that was an odd selection. Once a Trekkie, always a Trekkie, I suppose.

"Code acknowledged, welcome back captain."

"So Pete, how have things been? Anything interesting?"

"It hasn't even been a day. A private plane ditched outside the 300 kilometer limit and Sylvia's swimming out with supplies."

'Outside the 300 kilometer limit' -- swimming? I'd definitely have to ask later.

"She's probably enjoying the variety. Are the quarters for Mr. Jubatus ready?"

"All set. Drew's looking forward to running him through the physical trials tomorrow."

Oh, joy. It's for The Dream, so keep your eyes on the prize, Jube. Eyes on the prize.

"I bet. Ten bucks says Drew gets beaten."

"Ten bucks? If you're going to throw your money away I'll be the first to take it."

"You should know by now that I never throw my money away."

"This time you have."

"You'll see. Signing off -- I'll talk to you after I get down."

"Roger. There's a storm front moving in but you'll be down long before it should cause a problem, and the lights are on. Talk to you later."


I popped my ears as the plane went into a steep dive, pulling up with very little clearance to spare. The landing gear slapped the runway hard and loud, but if there was any accompanying vibration, I didn't feel it. Then there was a basso roar as the engines reversed, pulling us to a stop amid the knife-edged pools of illumination from the runway's stark artificial lights. I'd unbelted myself by the time the dryad was done with shutting down the systems, but I let her open the door -- it was the polite thing to do, not to mention less likely to get me shot at by some justifiably paranoid guard. A ladder was waiting and she waved to a rat SCAB on the dry runway.

"Well what are you waiting for Mr. Jubatus? We're here."

Easter Island. For space freaks like me, it was the Holy of Holies, like Ayers Rock, Mecca, and Solomon's Temple all rolled into one -- a divine artifact which must needs be kept apart from the Gentiles, for disaster would surely follow if it were ever sullied by the touch of infidels -- one of the few remaining places on Earth where The Dream was still a living reality, not a forgotten relic gathering dust in some museum. I'd finally arrived!

Carter's feet clanged down the steps, a sound which really ought to have been less mundane, damnit! I just stood in the door and sniffed the air. Looking around I could dimly make out one of the enigmatic faces in the distance, next to a strongly lit concrete bunker. I pointed. "Is that..?"

"That's a SAM site. The main building is in the opposite direction. Welcome to Easter Island, Mr. Jubatus.

"Welcome to the real world."

chapter 5

Yeah, reality set in soon enough. As per usual for Easter Island, the weather sucked; aside from the drizzled rain and early pre-dawn fog, the incessant wind was damn cold, and the air was thick with the aromas of the sea and approaching storm. Fortunately, all we had to do was get to our rooms -- the ground crew would handle our luggage and such, and Carter knew the way. She gave me the nickel tour as we walked, pointing out which dimly visible shape was what bunker or other installation.

Until a radar dish blew up.

I upshifted instantly, and it didn't look like there was anything coming our way right that millisecond; when I returned to the normal tempo, the dryad was well into the first step of a full-bore sprint. "Bunker! Now!" she said, and her command voice was easily audible over the war movie soundtrack that was just getting started.

"Not a problem," I said, falling into step with her. "How abo --"

-- multiple incoming attacks: 4, 5, 6 and 7 o'clock: threat levels high to lethal --

-- I didn't look around. Why bother? The ear-piercing sounds of high-powered artillery were quite enough of a clue that the shit had hit the fan, thanks. Obvious conclusion: Time for us to bug out. I grasped the dryad with care and took off, wishing she didn't weigh quite so bleeding much and making damn sure to provide adequate structural support to her various body parts. It'd be kind of stupid to carry her out of harm's way only to end up sloshing her grey matter into lemon curry, now wouldn't it?

I hauled her over to the bunker she'd first pointed out to me as quickly as I dared. The only evident entrance was below surface level, a sort of walled-off patio accessible via stairs leading down into the ground; while I didn't like being boxed in like that, it did provide good cover. Once there, I confirmed there weren't any bullets in our immediate future, then brought Carter to rest at the obvious entrance (being as cautious with braking as I'd been with take-off), took the edge off my hunger with a strip of beef jerky from the supply in my vest, and downshifted. I finished my sentence a bit differently than I'd planned: "-- ut this? I'm going to assume you know how to get in, because I sure don't."

She blinked in momentary surprise, but recovered herself damn fast -- she'd opened up a small chest-level panel and was tapping at a keypad even before I stopped talking. "Thank you, Mr. Jubatus," she said. By this time the ambient projectiles were triggering involuntary upshifts several times per second, and I had to keep downshifting to follow the dryad's words. "I shall feel a great deal safer when we have a couple of meters of reinforced concrete between us and our adversaries. Ah, that's it -- we may n-" PTWEENG! "-aaaghh!"

Goddamn ricochet! Too many bullets -- maybe if I hadn't been overriding my instinctive upshifts -- nothing else aimed directly at us for the moment, thank Athena. Carter's left hand was poised near what had to be a door handle. Fine, she'd done the hard part with the access codes, getting her inside was the least I could do.

Waiting for the damn door to respond was the longest clock-second of my life...

I squoze us through the gradually widening gap, found some cover inside to lay the dryad down behind, located the "emergency close" panic button beside the door, and pushed said button as gently as a tempo of 30-something would allow.

Only after the place was properly sealed off did I return my attention to Carter; first aid was fine, but making sure she survived for it was a higher priority. Looked like a hit in the woody part of the left thigh... and an exit wound in the back of her leg. A clean hit, and I had to assume that her sap was the clear fluid oozing from it. Given her completely unfamiliar metabolism, there was only one thing I could do that I knew wouldn't hurt her: I took the pills out of her purse and water from my vest, and thus armed, I downshifted.

"You're safe now," I told her, holding the pill-vial so she could see it. "I've got your painkiller here, and water to wash it down. If you're coherent enough to understand me, don't try to talk, just open your mouth to let me slip you a couple pills."

She did. So I did. And while waiting for her drugs to take hold, I poked around the bunker in fast-time, looking for alternate modes of entry. I found no other doors to the outside, various lockers marked with a combination of Greek characters and Arabic numerals, one sealed internal hatch which was apparently the access to an underground tunnel, one self-contained chemical toilet (no sewer connection), and a few air vents that looked to be 6 inches square on the inside. The hatch looked safe enough, but I didn't like the vents. What if our attackers weren't all human-sized or larger? Worse, what if they had a size-changing polymorph? Absolute worst, how about an inanimorph? Nothing I could do about it either way, other than stay alert... but there was no fucking way I'd let anything happen to Carter without a fight!

Time passed. The vibrations and noise from outside told me there was a battle going on, but didn't say anything about which side was winning... No. Not gonna go out to join in the fray. I don't know their tactics, I'd just screw up their battle plan. Anyway, Carter'd be defenseless if I left. And time passed...

...ah. Looked like the dryad had something to say. I downshifted in time to hear, "-re you alright, Mr. Jubatus?"

I gave her a sardonic smile. "I thought that was my line, me not having a bullet wound and all. Anything I can do to help with the leg?"

"There is a first aid kit on the wall there --"

A quick upshift put the kit beside her where it could do some good.

"--but not much else I fear. You'll find a roll of bandages for my leg in the blue and green --"

I had it in my hands, already starting to gift-wrap her wound.

"-- ah. Yes. Thank you. Make it tight but not too tight." Just as I finished she attempted to rise to her feet. "Do you suppose you could help me up? I want t0 -- ah!"

"Stay the hell down," I said, cushioning the impact as she collapsed to the floor. "You're still hurting."

Carter grimaced and tried again. "I, need, to -- aarh!" Another collapse.

Well, if she was that determined to hurt herself, I'd do more good providing physical support than ignorable advice. I got under her left shoulder and took her weight. "What you really need is a hospital bed," I complained.

"No time for that, Mr. Jubatus." She gestured with her right hand. "There. That terminal."

I got her to it, and the screen lit up with a few keystrokes from Carter. "I'm linking to our internal data network -- damn! They've disabled the alpha bank of radar dishes!"

"How bad is that?"

"Potentially serious, as the alphas provided primary coverage for the launch runways," she said while her fingers continued their insistent dance on the keyboard. "We can reassign another bank to them as well as its current duties, but it's never good to cover two distinct regions with one bank of radars -- one always loses a bit of acuity."

And without a clear idea of what the attackers were up to... "Shit!"

"Succinctly put, especially if they manage to disrupt any more banks."

I was still playing crutch for the dryad's left leg, thus had a fine view of the terminal screen as she did her thing. My best guess, she was collating data from those radars she'd mentioned; made sense, as Ad Astra's defenses would almost certainly get more use out of her intelligence than her physical abilities.

I was starting to get a handle on what the various displays meant when Carter spoke up: "Mr. Jubatus, how would you like to assist in the defense of Ad Astra?"

What the heck..? "I am assisting. I'm not messing with stuff I'm clueless about."

"You're also a significant distraction. My efficacy in my assigned tasks shall be much greater if you are not present. And given your ability to upshift, the middle of a firefight should present you no greater hazard than the interior of this bunker."

"And leave you here to get killed by anything that comes through the vents or hatch?"

"If it's biological, I have the Halon fire-suppression system; otherwise, I get to make an empirical test of one of my theories about inanimorphs. In either case, your presence would offer no practical benefit."

"How do I get out without exposing you to stray bullets from the firefight?"

"Minimal hazard. I've already adjusted the door to remain open for no more than one-tenth of a second when activated. Go! You'll find a set of fighting gear in cabinet Alpha 12 -- don't worry about the armor, the helmet is all you'll need."

The cabinet was easy to find and the helmet's matte grey finish stood out from the armor and gleaming high-tech weapons. I hefted one of the rifles experimentally, but it was too heavy -- every kilo counted -- so back it went. I put the helmet on, and once the straps adjusted themselves (!) to fit my skull, fuzzy sparks of light danced around my field of view. After a second or so, the sparks congealed into the word READY, accompanied by clean lines and legible text which highlighted possible escape routes, among many other things useful for saving one's ass in a dangerous situation. HUD, Head's Up Display. Cute. "Nice light show. How's it work?"

"Low-intensity lasers paint information directly onto the wearer's retinas."

"Source of this 'information'?"

"The helmet's built-in CCDs and microphone send raw data to Ad Astra's mainframes, which do the necessary calculations and transmit the results back to the helmet."

"Hm. So it's a dumb terminal."

"'Dumb terminal'? That's a curious description, but not inaccurate. It accepts user input through eye tracking or voice commands."

Voice? I don't think so... Okay, let's see how this thing works out when I upshift. At a tempo of 20 I scanned my surroundings, and the helmet's HUD almost kept pace with my head and eye motion. If I was a slowpoke, I'd never have noticed the delay, but as it was, I'd have to work around it. That aside, it looked good; lots of possibilities.

I upshifted to a tempo of 40, ignoring the rhythmic throbbing of the veins in my brainstem -- while I'm physically capable of more, 40's about as high as I can get and still remain functional -- and pushed the button. The door started moving a few seconds later. As it crept open, I looked every which way through the ever-widening gap; lots of noise came in, but none of the accompanying projectiles were aimed in a dangerous direction. About five seconds after the door started to open, there was finally enough clearance for me to squeeze through, which I did.

The pulsing ache in my skull said it was time to downshift. So soon? Gosh. Tempo of 30 should be adequate -- high enough to see bullets coming, low enough that the strain won't make my head explode. Now show me the bad guys, helmet! Eye tracking with a vengeance. One blink at the word MAP, and glowing lines drew a chart in midair about 6 inches in front of my snout, or at least that's what it looked like; the map was initially fuzzed-out, noticeable without actually interfering with normal vision, but it sharpened up real good when I focused on it directly. That's me in the center, there's the bunker, the runway, the launch pads -- what're those things? Try LEGEND... bingo. Hostiles, graded according to degree of threat when that's known. And the closest one is... ease the hell up, it's working as fast as it can... 800 meters, meaning half a mile. Damn! We cheetahs get real tired, real fast. Running (or even walking) all the way there was not a good idea, not if I wanted to be able to do something upon arrival. The problem isn't so much the energy I expend in moving; rather, it's the extra energy I burn making sure that I don't end up... floating?

Sometimes (like now) I just have to be swatted with a clue-by-four. From my perspective, a tempo of 30 means gravity's down to 1/30 G. So why not take advantage?

I took an experimental jump towards my quarry. Sure enough, a second or so into my jump, the HUD informed me that I'd taken off at 930 KPH -- times point-six, call it 560 MPH -- at an angle of 22 degrees; that I should spend 19 point something clock-seconds aloft (call it 10 minutes of my time), reach an altitude of -- 480 meters? -- at midpoint, and land... good Lord... 4.7 kilometers from where I'd taken off!? No way! But then, I am running 30 times faster than normal, so it's 1/30th G, and slow-timed 560 MPH is about 19 MPH for me, and... that's enough. "It must be possible, Captain. It's happening." Just sit back and enjoy the ride, Jube.

It wasn't true, controlled flight -- the best I could do was influence my trajectory a little by angling my body and using my tail as a rudder -- but it wasn't bad at all. Between the rain and the time of day (night, rather), I couldn't see worth a damn, so I let the HUD give me a virtual view of everything. The invaders, the defenders, both sides' bullet traces, the various targets and hardpoints, it was all there in glorious animated vector graphics. Hmmm... why are the attackers just sitting there? Ah, I see, each one's got a timestamp showing when that position was last verified. Okay, just have to be careful, is all. There weren't as many invaders as I'd initially believed; the HUD's best guess was a maximum of 24 plus or minus three, scattered across a few miles of the Island's coast. Thinking back, my oversensitive ears had to've given me the wrong idea about the total number of shots being fired.

Enough woolgathering. Plenty of time to kill, and I might as well plan out what I'll be doing when I touch down...

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When the door finally slammed shut, I let myself collapse into the chair. The wound was worse than I'd implied, but not crippling -- from this point, my services as a coordinator of raw data were far more important. And now I could concentrate on my tasks without Jubatus hanging over me.

Whoever these people were, they were above the quality level of most others. Their older low-tech gear suggested that they were anti-techs, and given their displayed degree of training and skill, I would bet that they were from Greenpeace. At least the situation was stabilizing -- thank God for that else I would never have sent Jubatus out into it.

Why was I so concerned over him? With his abilities he was next to invulnerable, and yet I was strongly afraid for him.

All the time he was here I was extremely aware of his presence, of his quick breaths, of his comforting nearness... I had had to force my attention back to my duties.

And was this any better? Intellectually I knew he was as safe, or even safer, outside rather than inside. Even if they knew that I was bringing him, he wouldn't be a primary target -- I and Babylon would be. That suggested that they had timed their assault for my return, waiting for my final approach before beginning so that they could get me on the ground, and get in before we could prepare air support. Angelo had been the other space-qualified pilot but we hadn't yet found an acceptable replacement for him. At least the situation was in hand -- they'd taken out the primary radar net but by distributing its duties amongst the other launch systems nearly full coverage could be maintained -- I'd put optimization routines for radar coverage into the mainframe years ago.

Still, the attack was odd -- there was something missing. To sneak to shore it seemed that they'd concentrated on aquatic SCABs. Such individuals always seemed easier for anti-tech zealots to recruit; while virtually all SCABs could rationalize blaming technology for the Beagle II probe and their condition, landbound ones at least had constant daily reminders of the benefits to be gained from advanced technology. The same was decidedly less true of aquatics, whose environmental restrictions effectively reduced or eliminated any such positive reminders. In any case, the problem at hand was that in order to sneak ashore they were very limited in the equipment they could take. They'd come in far lighter than they'd needed to, but then they couldn't know the limits of our detector arrays. Drew and I had tweaked the system to a stage were the false alarms from sea life were down to a reasonable level; still, for preparedness, I'd have to work out the maximum safe incursion and let Drew know, just not now. Thus they'd come with a limited number of grenade launchers which seemed to have had their ammo used up and now all they had was anti-personnel weapons which they'd been using freely. But even upon landing they'd concentrated on our defenses, sensing devices in particular, and now they were getting creamed. Their attack didn't make sense, they could have taken out Babylon with their grenades, but they had ignored her.

I was missing something.

In war, decisions are made long before the actual conflict starts -- plans, backup plans, reserves, contingency plans, all prepared and rehearsed. I had rushed to get online to inform Drew of my condition and safety, of the intruders, our defense status, our detection system status, all to let him select the proper backup and contingency plans to fit what was happening. I'd only let Jubatus out because with his abilities he would be effectively untouchable by either side, and with the helmet he would be flagged as a friendly. I'd let Drew know too, and I knew that when all this was over, he would give me a right reaming for releasing such an unknown factor onto the field of battle. The question was, what was our opponents' plan? What was their ultimate goal, and how did they intend to go about achieving said goal?

And then I had it! They weren't the main assault, they were the preparatory wave. Their mission was the radar and the air defenses. And with the Fokker 10 unarmed that meant -- shit! I immediately passed my suspicions on to Drew and ran a routine that split the radar patterns -- that meant some loss of detail on the ground, but it gave detail on aerial threats and we needed to know when the main wave was coming.

My conscious attention suddenly turned back to the displays when I realized that Jubatus was on a straight line course. What the hell was he doing? His defenses were speed and unpredictability, and a straight line destroyed the latter. I pulled up more information and determined that he was... no. That data was obviously invalid, surely?

I was about to ask for a diagnostic when I realized the reports were correct: Jubatus was soaring across the landscape at a speed of 931.8 KPH. Given the medical data I'd finally acquired from Dr. Derksen, that suggested his metabolism was running on the order of 30 times above norm.

Still not entirely sure I could trust the readings, I could only marvel at what he was doing, in mingled awe and disquiet. It was one thing to be intellectually aware of what Jubatus was capable of; it was quite another to see him in action. Still, there was something odd -- given a ballpark figure for the drag coefficient of a furred and tailed humanoid biped, the observed loss of velocity was of distinctly smaller magnitude than it ought to have been. Why?

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Drifting along, I'd pretty well worked the bugs out of my battle plan: Hand-to-hand combat was right out, for a number of reasons. Instead, I'd exploit something that I was glad not to have needed on the flight to San Francisco -- my oversupply of nuts and bolts. Carter had noted their presence, but I doubt she realized why I had them.

Q: What's the difference between a .45 caliber Magnum bullet and a 15-millimeter nut?

A: Not much, when I throw them...

Given my speed and the helmet's HUD as a targeting aid, I should be able to pick off any hostile within a 200-yard radius, no sweat. Also no danger to me. At my current tempo of 30, I can get in, strike, and get out faster than any slowpoke can react. As well, there's damn few bullets that move quicker than a fast walk, from my perspective; I can dodge 'em at will, and if I miss one, I maybe get a bruise, if even that.

Shouldn't be difficult to zero in on them, either. Camouflage they might have, but upshifting makes light doppler down; at a tempo of 30, I see by wavelengths that a slowpoke would call far ultraviolet and then some, and it wasn't likely they'd have worried about anything much beyond the ordinary visible range. It'll be like dynamiting fish in a barrel. The only real difficulty I saw was getting my leaps under control -- up to that point, I'd always focused on learning how to not leave the ground!

Anyway, what with air resistance and the random wind, I touched down about 240 meters short of the HUD's initial estimate. Nobody in line of sight, hostile or friendly. Fortunately, the helmet pointed out some likely points of interest -- its microphones had detected some gunshots I couldn't make out through the wind and rain -- so I picked one and took a baby step into the air. No joy this time either, but my next leap, the third, was the charm! Some guy wrapped up so that you couldn't tell if he was human or SCAB or what, armed mainly with a beat-up old machine gun whose milky plastic gleam was decidedly unlike the Ad Astran weapons I'd seen in the bunker. I glared at the intruder, who wouldn't have had time to react to my presence even if he had noticed me. Okay, shitface, you are officially done.

The first nut flew straight and true. Not! The damn thing jinked and spun like a drunken fruit fly, and by the time it straightened out, it was off course by 65 degrees! What in the name of Hephaestus..? The second was no better. Its flight path was stable, true enough -- trouble was, it described a perfect logarithmic spiral on its way into the ground 50 feet in front of me. Nut Number Three started with a tiny wiggle which quickly grew to dominate its motion; its overall trajectory was dead on target, but it missed completely .

What the fuck!? Okay, take five to figure it out. Tempo of 30, plenty of time before the enemy's gonna notice, let alone react. I've thrown nuts before; not particularly aerodynamic, but with the kind of spin I put on 'em, they fly nice and stable. So why not now? What's different? Well, in the past, I've only ever done it at my default tempo of 6. Faster this time, by a factor of five. They were doing about 600 MPH then, make that 3,000 now. Hmmm, Mach speed is 740 or so, that's...

Son of a bitch!!

Air molecules don't like moving faster than the speed of sound. In the supersonic regime, their behavior is highly nonlinear, not at all what you'd expect; that's how you get interesting effects like sonic booms. My fault for moving too fast -- now I know what breaking Mach feels like. Okay, keep it subsonic this time, annndd -- yes! A high-velocity biopsy sample, blood and various tissues mingled in abstract formation, emerged from the lower left quadrant of the target's torso. I'd aimed for dead center, but it was still my most accurate shot thus far. I overcorrected on the next -- utter miss -- and the sixth nut hit the 'sweet spot', right there in the center of the sternum, or close enough for jazz anyway. Next on the agenda: Look for the guy's partner, HUD claimed they worked in pa --

-- incoming: 7 o'clock: threat level unclear --

-- ah. I turned around just in time to dodge out of the way of a bullet, trundling its way through the air. Thank you for once, instincts. And it's traveling in that direction, so trace it back along its trajectory... gotcha, pal!

I could give more blow-by-blow commentary, but why bother? The second one had armor, took me another 5 nuts to waste him. Both of them were SCABs, otter-derived animorphs -- made sense, you'd want aquatic soldiers if you were planning an waterborne assault. But Ad Astra was more paranoid than me, so how could those yutzes have gotten close enough... Shit! The private plane that went down must've been a Trojan horse! Hijacked or a legit purchase, they got hold of it and prepped it for duty, and here's the end result, may Athena rot their tech-phobic brains! Fine, but what if they had another plane..?

I downshifted and toggled the helmet's walkie-talkie feature. "Any Ad Astran defenders, this is --"

Carter responded: "I know who you are, Jubatus. Congratulations on the two intruders you wasted. The remainder have been forcibly removed from anywhere of importance; unfortunately, they managed to neutralize all of our SAM batteries first."

Which would only matter if -- "So they do have more planes."

"Only one. It's headed directly for the main launch complex, ETA 58 seconds. We're not sure what it's carrying, and we'd prefer not to find out the hard way. Perhaps you can help?"

As she spoke, the HUD showed me some new data: Position, velocity, and probable future trajectory of this last threat -- plus crosshairs which had to be the mainframe's best guess on where I should aim if I wanted to hit the target. Can I help? I have no idea -- but if that sucker does take out the launch facilities, it won't be for lack of my effort! "I'm on it. Jubatus out."

The plane was miles away, cruising at an altitude of 1000 feet and falling. I leapt for it, downshifting to a tempo of 10 while waiting to get within decent range, and then upshifting to 35 to buy myself more time to fire. You get exactly one pass at this target, so you damn well better make it count. I had 65 nuts left, and I tossed them all in sequence, doing my best to direct each one to the precise geometrical center of the crosshairs. I took my time lining up each shot; it might've been all of 4 clock-seconds before I ran dry.

Once they left my hands, the nuts' flight paths were a crapshoot, thanks to the unpredictable winds which raged around and over Easter Island. Even so, with 65 shots, 65 individual rolls of the dice, surely it wasn't too much to ask for one of them to hit something vital? If not, I think there'll be enough time for one last-ditch effort: I leap for the plane, throwing bolts on the approach, and if that doesn't work I try a mid-air docking maneuver for a little up-close-and-personal action. Not the best plan, but when the alternative is to just let the damn thing hit its target...

And then there was nothing to do but wait. Wait for the nuts to hit or miss, wait for gravity to pull me back to the Island, wait for blood pressure to finish forcing my eyes out of their sockets...

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Once I'd tagged the plane, I grabbed all the spare dishes I could and concentrated them on it. The rest monitored the retreat of the invading ground forces as our security closed in on them. Sylvia was almost back from her 'rescue' attempt, but the SAMs she carried were at the limits of their range. After consultation with Drew, we'd ordered her to launch and I'd taken over guidance. The first didn't have a hope so I had it self-destruct, the other might have a chance just before the plane's impact. It'd be messy, but hopefully the impact would cause any explosives the attackers carried to detonate prematurely. The best chance was for Jubatus to get it first, but at least there was a kind of backup.

Unfortunately, this was a problem of a fast ballistic object intercepting a relatively slow ballistic object -- the sort of idealized scenario one might find in a textbook, whose resolution was trivially easy. Which qualified as 'unfortunate' for the simple reason that it gave me time to worry. So far the entire assault had lasted 16 minutes, and the heavier ground weapons were finally coming on line and taking the invaders out at range. They couldn't do any more damage.

Had sending Jubatus out into the midst of this been the right thing to do? If he intercepted the plane before the one SAM then it was. Victory justified anything. So why was I so nervous? In the worst case Jubatus fails, the last SAM detonates, there is damage to the runway and the armoured buildings, maybe a week worth of repairs. Unless the plane's carrying a nuclear device, in which case none of us are going to escape. It had to be conventional explosives.

Or an inanimorph...

That had always been Ad Astra's greatest fear. If a sufficiently potent inanimorph decided to take us out, there was simply nothing we could do about it. We'd tried to get some on board, but the more powerful ones were reclusive, or insane. And way too dangerous to be approached without extreme caution.

Conventional explosives. It's got to be.

Local radar registered a spread of projectiles dispersing from Jubatus' position -- he was making his attempt. I pulled in more available dishes and pulled in a higher resolution and tracked the courses. Sylvia's SAM was in ballistic freefall so there was nothing more to do there but destruct it if it wasn't needed. The plane wasn't swerving. It was a piston job, single-engine, the silhouette suggested a Cub. I wonder who they have flying it? Then the first of Jubatus' projectiles impacted and the plane began to spin.

Shit! He must have hit the tail -- the plane's course was changing and the ballistic SAM was going to miss. As one hand destructed the SAM to prevent additional damage, the other moved to push the emergency klaxon.

There were more impacts, and then, thank God, an explosion. Jubatus must have hit their payload.


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I could have done without the throbbing in my scalp. Honestly. So you got a headache. What did you expect, maintaining that high an upshift for that long? Sure do hope I'm not hurting for nothing... And then there was a spot of light where the HUD said the plane was. The spot grew, faded, and finally glowing lines traced the downward path of the plane's debris, misguided organic materials mixed with chunks of airframe... Groovy. It worked. It's all over, I can rest. And I was tired, too. Tired and hungry, as if I'd just run two 100-meter dashes back-to-back. Had to be the upshift; no way it was the minor amount of physical activity I'd performed. Once back on terra firma, I reverted to my default tempo of 6, took care of certain bodily functions I'd been ignoring, and munched on beef jerky.

Rain and wind, but no fighting within earshot. All very nice and peaceful. I kind of zoned out for a while, until I got to thinking about the attack. Come on, Jube, it's done. Or... is it? Carter chooses her words with precision, and she said the intruders were "forcibly removed from anywhere important", not "defeated"... Better check in with the dryad. I downshifted to a tempo of 1 and toggled the walkie-talkie. "Hey, Carter."

She didn't sound happy at all. "What were you doing?"

What's her problem? Who cares, ignore it, she's got a lot on her mind. "Catching my second wind. What's the status on the remaining hostiles?"

"We've succeeded in protecting the bulk of our assets, but we've had less luck with restricting the attackers' freedom of action. I project a 79% chance of their attempting to leave the Island within the next 5 minutes, and we really can't afford to let them escape."

Because if they did escape, they'd report back about Ad Astra's defenses, and their sponsors would use that knowledge to plan their next attack. Double-plus ungood. "Can I help?"

It wasn't a rhetorical question, not when I was largely unknown to the defenders. On a battlefield, nobody likes a wildcard on their side. "Yes, I think so," the dryad said. "Follow the instructions on your HUD. Carter out."

I got up, stretched some kinks out of my joints, and took off. I went easy on myself, only upshifted to a tempo of 20, and I still got there in less than half a clock-minute. On the way I consulted the HUD, which said the targets were hiding in the southernmost tip of the Island, 5 klicks from where I'd just been, and best guess was that they were trying to get to Moto Nui, a 500-meter-long dot of land about a mile to the southwest. By this time the "fog of war" was pretty well gone; we knew where all the intruders were, and that the active threats numbered 11, of whom 7 were wounded.

They didn't stand a chance. Without me, Ad Astra's main line of defense would probably have been able to pick 'em off without any trouble; as it was, my ability to wade directly into a firefight and not care proved to be a lethally effective ingredient in the military cocktail, especially with the advice and orders I got from the HUD. Basically, I made the difference between "decisive victory" and "overkill". The hard part (for me, anyway) was keeping my feet on the ground at a high level of upshift. Sure it's doable, but as I mentioned before, the contortions I have to go through in order to make that happen burn a lot of energy. And I had to make it happen, because I'm a lot less useful drifting helplessly through the air than I am on the ground where there's rocks and people I can push off of to control my trajectory.

By the time we ran out of bad guys to shoot, my blood carried more fatigue poisons than plasma; if the attackers threw a second wave of ground-pounders, I'd be in no condition to fight them. I scanned my surroundings anyway, just in case one of the intruders had managed to evade -- Oh shit, another one! It was a killer whale, big sucker, with a hell of a lot of cargo strapped to its back. Forget 'inconspicuous' -- the damn thing was bigger than my Extremis, for crying out loud! Why in Ares' name isn't anyone shooting at it!? Fine; if I was the only one who noticed it, I'd just have to take it down before it got close enough to deploy a bazooka or LAW rocket or whatever. But it was hundreds of yards offshore, and me with no functional watercraft... oh, bloody hell.

My aching brain rebelled at the thought of another high upshift. I could feel the 5-alarm burn in my arms and legs. Tough. If I was going to pull off the crazy stunt I had in mind, I needed all the tempo and speed I could get, and if that meant risking a nosebleed, I'd live with it. I inhaled my last remaining strips of jerky, pushed my tempo to the upper limit, and started running for the ocean. The air got lumpy a few steps into my sprint; I ignored it and pushed on. I was doing 70 (and panting hard) when I ran out of land -- and kept right on going.

Walk on water? Nothing to it. There's a South American critter called the basilisk lizard that does it every day. It's just a matter of stepping too fast to sink, and nothing steps faster than I do -- not when I've pumped my tempo up to 45! Oh hell not a cramp -- good, it's gone now. Time to share the wealth, and I don't care if it means going quadrupedal, damnit! My hips ached, my head throbbed, my eyeballs felt overinflated, and I was running against the Headwind From Hell, but that oversized fish would not destroy the Dream, not if I had anything to say about it! I'd sooner die myself, by Hela!

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And finally another lap in the Red Queen's race was over. We'd won again -- hooray for our side. More of our resources wasted on destruction, necessarily so in order to protect the resources that were devoted to the proper purposes. The problem was that while we had to justify our every expenditure to our financiers, their support came from millions of innocent dupes and committed ideologues around the world, none of whom expected a monetary return on their investment; as a consequence, they could afford to lose a million times, but we couldn't afford to lose once. It was always a race, a duel of technology, tactics, will. I started to let myself rest when I noticed an exclamation on the realtime chat.

"Jesus Christ --"

All the invaders were dead. The defenders should all know that, should all know the drills. Correction, all of them except -- shit! Jubatus! There he was, headed out to sea straight towards Sylvia, damn him! His HUD should flag her as a friendly, so why... His metabolism had to have a price -- perhaps he had pushed himself so hard and long that he wasn't fully aware -- his speed, his impossible speed --

I frantically punched into Sylvia's private channel: "Dive!"

"-- he's gone hypersonic!"

It was out of my hands now. Unfortunately, that compulsive part of my mind, the part which cannot let go of a mystery, insisted upon making itself known: Even as I worried for Jubatus and hoped that Sylvia had sufficient time to descend the few decimeters that would put her out of harm's way, that part of me crunched the numbers and typed back a reply. "Incorrect. Given his known capabilities, it is highly unlikely he could reach Mach 5 and live, hence his maximum velocity must be in the supersonic range."

Momentum estimates suggested that only a direct impact would seriously harm a being of Sylvia's build, but the same couldn't be said for Jubatus. With the difference in mass, even a glancing blow would produce much the same end result as if he'd slammed headlong into a brick wall. The only ray of hope I could see was that his accelerated metabolism might give him a last chance to avoid or minimize some part of the damage...

Why was I so worried? Sylvia was far more important to Ad Astra than Jubatus. As he'd suggested, there were others who could troubleshoot as well as he could, probably better as they would present neither the same challenges nor hazards within the context of Brin's wholly artificial environment. Why did I breathe faster as I watched the dots move towards each other, as I pictured the streak of Cheetah moving along the surface of the Pacific? Why did I have to force my hands to unclench as the instant of impact occurred?

And then the dots merged and parted. Sylvia's was fine, but Jubatus' traced an erratic and slowing random walk across the ocean, bouncing like a flat stone, vanishing and returning as the waves alternately hid and revealed his signal.

And then his dot vanished for the last time. Blindly obedient to its programmed imperatives, the system informed me that "Signal JUBATUS has been lost -- shall I attempt to reacquire? [No] [Yes]"

Why was I crying as I called for Sylvia to search and recover?

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Pump the arms. Pump the legs. It's soft, but it's a surface. If a bleeding lizard can walk on water at twenty footsteps per clock-second, you can do it at four hundred -- shit I slipped --

-- and the world spun around me like a souped-up washing machine and the Pacific Ocean was trying to beat me to death and I was too goddamn tired to even try blocking -- damn that hurts -- and my veins throbbed in five-part counterpoint so I couldn't see straight and there was this big thing big and black and wh -- aaaagggghhhhh! -- and suddenly I was flying and everything got kind of peaceful for a while there anyway until the ocean got in on the act again -- water hates me I'm a cat why shouldn't it hate me -- and then the water stopped feeling like hard rubber it wasn't too bad I actually felt okay I mean as much as I could feel anything -- it's getting dark -- and this whole deal reminded me of a joke I wanted to laugh but there was something in my throat oh yeah seawater...

Death is nature's way of telling you to slow down...

chapter 6

Well. He hadn't died after all, a fact which greatly puzzled both his own physician, Dr. Derksen, and Ad Astra's medical staff; by rights, his hyperactive metabolism ought to have consumed every free oxygen molecule in his bloodstream and tissues within tens of seconds of his submergence beneath the Pacific Ocean, if even that great a span of time. Given what was known of his biological peculiarities, it was quite simply not possible for him to have survived the 53 minutes of total aqueous immersion that immediately preceded Sylvia's recovery of his body from the ocean floor! It was not possible, and initially not even considered, for his body was inert, unmoving, unresponsive.

It was also several degrees cooler than ambient temperature, a fact which made no sense even given his metabolic capabilities.

First Angelo, and now Jubatus had suffered for my misjudgments... I wasn't there when Sylvia brought him to shore. I had work to do, and if performing my duties kept me from something I had absolutely no desire to see, that could only be a happily coincidental secondary effect.

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Okay, where the hell am I? I couldn't see a damn thing. Couldn't hear or feel, either -- in fact, none of my senses were working, as far as I could tell. Might as well have been a disembodied viewpoint, floating over black velvet in a sealed room at midnight. Maybe I'd reached satori? Naah. By any name, heaven wasn't in the cards. Not for a devout, hardshelled atheist like me. No light, no sound, no time, no dreams, no pain... Pretty dull, if you ask me. Not a problem. Dull is good; there's a lot of things worse than dull. At least, I think there are... My memory seemed to have fuzzed out on me, so I couldn't say for certain, but I was fairly sure that 'dull' was relatively low on the Things Worth Avoiding scale.

I think I could get used to this...

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With the sun streaming down I slowly walked towards the infirmary thinking about yesterday, keeping as much weight as I could on my cane so as to favor my injured leg. I was in an odd conundrum -- the only reason the terrorist attack had come so close to succeeding was that I had taken the plane off to pick up Jubatus and it had been disarmed; contrariwise, if I had not gone to pick up Jubatus the plane would have been here, been armed, and the attack would not have been an issue. Thus did Jubatus simultaneously bear some of both the blame for the assault's near success and the credit for its ultimate failure. It was just such contradictions as that which made real life so interesting compared to mathematics. No matter how good the predictive algorithm, a single individual could (and probably would) screw it up; thus went SCABS, mutants, and Asimovian psychohistory.

I was coming to see Jubatus because I had an idea that was only safe for me to test. I had no trouble getting into the building, nor yet reaching Jubatus' bedside as he wasn't dying, or at least he wasn't getting any worse. He was alive, but his pulse and respiration, in fact all his autonomic functions, were so slow that they had initially been rejected as random noise by the monitors. Of course his room wasn't the most comfortable place for me as the pretty flowers at the windows hissed at me and I hissed back at them.

Sandra, the chief medical officer, turned to me as I entered but before she could say anything, I asked, "Have Derksen's people been able to pry him out of that emergency consultation yet?" We had been in constant contact with the arthropoid physician until some 4 hours ago, when one of his other patients collapsed in his waiting room. Whoever it was, he had chosen a quite inconsiderate moment to deprive us of Derksen's expertise.

"Still nothing from the Clinic," she said, referring to Derksen's office. "As for our patient, his condition hasn't changed, for better or for worse. There are some drugs we could try, but since he is stable for the moment, we're holding them in reserve until we have more information. According to what we have, he should be fine."

Ignoring the plants I turned and looked at his apparently dead body. "No physical wounds, broken bones, or other trauma?"

"Nothing worse than contusions and abrasions."

In other words, his injuries were minor and strictly superficial. Certainly nothing that would account for his current condition... I held out my hand. "Needle." I'd have to do it as I had the pheromones and Sandra didn't.

"Dr. Carter, I don't think we should risk any drugs without..."

"Sandra, all I need is an empty needle. It won't even pierce his skin. Now."

"Yes ma'am."

Once I felt the needle in my hand I swiftly moved to stab Jubatus with it, controlling my motion so that the point wouldn't penetrate his flesh in case I was wrong. As expected, I wasn't. I had thought (correctly, as it turned out) that Jubatus' control over his metabolism worked in both directions; just as he could significantly accelerate his life processes, it was now confirmed that he could likewise decelerate them as well, and in that manner had reduced his metabolic requirements to a level sufficiently low that he could indeed survive a 53-minute oceanic immersion. That being the case, it was clear that all he needed now was a shock to his instincts as a kind of jumpstart, something to force him to shift his metabolism back to the conventional level of activity. A good 12 centimeters before contact Jubatus was a blur, the needle was gone from my hand, and I could just feel the touch of his fangs around my neck --

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

...light? Kind of blurry, but definitely light. No -- "Lights!" [who said that]

And "Camera!" and "Action!"

[where am I] I seemed to have picked up a body from somewhere -- I'm a fleet-footed, long-leggedy cat. No time to explore the new corpus, because I'm in the middle of some Godforsaken wilderness [how'd I get here] and the Klieg lights are so flaming bright I can barely make out the camera crew [who are they] and I don't want to miss my cue!

There's a new voice, familiar, even if I'm not sure where I know it from: "This is Marlin Perkins [isn't he dead] for Mutual of Omaha's Wild Kingdom. [but it's off the air] Tonight we've got a rare treat for you folks at home! You'll be watching the first-ever footage of the extremely rare Relativistic Cheetah [no such animal] the only living creature whose sheer, raw, speed is great enough to make Time itself slow down! [no that's wrong] Native to the trackless, inhospitable wasteland of Silicon Valley, this elusive beast..."

Perkins blathered on [but he is dead] just like he does every week, providing educational context for whatever gory spectacle the audience was about to see. [ what audience] Except that this time there's no blood, just cubs like me having fun. [but I'm no cub I'm too old]

Damn! [what's wrong what's wrong] Almost missed my cue -- but I bounded into the camera's field of view, and my brother was there [I have no brother] so we tussled, [something's very wrong] play-fighting [no no no no no] for the home viewers -- NOOOO! --

That's when reality went into a tailspin. Where'd the cameras go -- I'm inside? -- what the hell -- this isn't Africa -- Carter's okay! -- bad dream, a hallucination, something, it had to be -- who are all these people!?

Strangers: Not knowing who they were, or what their intentions might be, I took a defensive position between them and the dryad, then downshifted to talk. "Back off. Back the hell off! Good. Now stay there. Nobody moves --"

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

"-- and nobody has to get hurt."

Quite unexpected! The pheromones had ensured that Jubatus' subconscious mind, presumably including his instincts, would regard me as a littermate, hence interpret that 'threatening' needle as nothing more than a playful feint. Unfortunately, said pheromones did little for his conscious thought processes, and it appeared as though I had seriously underestimated the full extent of his suspicious nature (not to say 'paranoia'). At least the cane enabled me to keep standing.

Behind me I heard Sandra scream so I turned to face her. The cheetahmorph stood before me, not recognizing anyone save myself as an ally; with claws deployed meaningfully, ears flat to his skull, and tail twitching, he was clearly no more than milliseconds away from acts of unspeakable violence. "It's alright, Mr. Jubatus," I said, hoping I could defuse the situation. "There are no enemies here."

"You vouch for 'em?"

"I do. All of them. They are my co-workers."

Upon hearing my words he relaxed dramatically, all of his considerable tension visibly draining out of his body. "Good," he said as he stumbled back against me to slump back onto the bed. Unfortunately that pushed my centre of gravity onto my bad leg and I began to fall. He caught me before I fell on top of him, his paws warm and comforting on my side as he helped me reacquire my balance. "Hospital?"

"Thank you. If you're inquiring as to whether you are within one, the answer is 'yes'."

"Also good. I feel like shit -- I've got a migraine headache that covers my entire body."

Just then, a pair of doctors walked in, led by Drew, his fur bristling, as Jubatus covered the bed like nothing so much as a boneless puddle of cheetah.

"Drew, please accept my apologies; I should have clarified what I was going to attempt with Sandra first and allowed her to take whatever precautions she felt was necessary for both the patient's and my health. I was not in any danger, and it was simply Dr. Miesel's concerns over her patient's instinctual reactions that caused her to call for backup."

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

No doubt about it, my unknown assailant had struck again. Whoever was responsible, I looked forward to ripping them a new orifice, or maybe two or three. They'd earned it. In spades. But that was for a later time; for now, all I wanted was to lie down until it stopped hurting. It felt like every muscle in my body was chronically overstressed, every joint painfully raw. And then there was my headache on top of it all; reverting back to my default tempo of 6 helped a little...

Someone new had come in while I was absorbed in my own pain. A lupine SCAB with a lot less wolf in him than, say, Wanderer. This new guy's fur was redder than the Caped Canine's, also a lot shorter, whether because of trimming or genetics I couldn't say -- looked like a wire brush. Seemed like he was chatting with the dryad; I downshifted to eavesdrop.

"...please accept my apologies; I should have clarified what I was going to attempt..." Apologizing? Carter? Okay, they gave her a booster shot, too. Bastards.

When she was done with 'Drew', she turned to me: "Mr. Jubatus, I'd like you to meet Mr. Drew McGregor, Ad Astra's head of security. I believe that you met Sylvia Wigley last night. She was the orca you ran into and she brought you back to shore."

'Ran into' -- oh. Right. So that did happen, it wasn't just a nightmare... "How's she doing?"

"Quite well, actually. Her blubber dissipated the force of the impact sufficiently to prevent any serious harm."

Drew held out his hand. Definitely not so lupine as Wanderer; all-over fur coat aside, the security guard's fully wolflike head was his only non-human part. "I'm pleased to meet you, Mr. Jubatus."

I had to smile (sadly and cynically) as I shook his hand. Sure, he's pleased to meet anyone who threatens his colleagues. "I doubt that, but thanks for the sentiment. Honestly, I don't intend to make a habit of this sort of thing."

He turned to the doctor who was cowering behind the dryad. "Can he leave the room?" She nodded, and he spoke some code into a radio from his belt before he got back to me. "Mr. Jubatus, before we continue I need to ask you some questions."

It must have been serious, otherwise the dryad would be taking him down a peg or three. I shrugged. "It's your nickel; ask."

"Chemical sensors have detected some volatile materials in your personal effects. Could you please let us have a clear look at what it is?"

I sighed. If he's detected the stuff, what's he need to bother me about it for? Come on, Jube, he's just doing his job... "What's the problem?"

"If you'll come outside I'll show you. It is possible that somebody slipped something into your luggage without you knowing it, or with you knowing it."

"Ah! 'Tis sweet Paranoia, come to stay a while --"

The dryad cut me off: "We don't take potential threats lightly, Mr. Jubatus, and neither should you. On matters of this nature Drew's word is law. If we can get going we can get this settled quicker and try and get back on schedule as we've already lost a day."

I stared at Carter for a moment -- A day? What in Cronus' name -- no. Let the doctors worry about it, that's what they're paid for -- then closed my eyes and sagged back onto the bed for a little more recovery time before I climbed back onto the fuel-injected merry-go-round I call my life. "Right. Gimme a few seconds --"

"You've just had 29 solid hours of bedrest. Get up. Now."

I peered curiously at the wolf, through major pain and half-open eyes. "McGregor?" I asked in a conversational tone. "You got any idea what a Mach-speed collision with an adult killer whale feels like?"

"Ah... no..." he said, puzzlement added to his hostility.

"Wanna find out?" I asked in the same bland voice. He opened his mouth but had nothing to say. While he was speechless, I tuned everything out and slipped back to my default tempo of 6. Let the dryad handle him, I'm still hurting too much. Not hungry, or at least not that hungry -- why? Deep breaths. 29 hours? That's insane! Prob'ly fed intravenously. What the hell was I doing... And the pain ebbed as seconds ticked away on the slow, slow clock, McGregor's and Carter's voices rumbling along as a basso continuo --

-- hostile approaching from 2 o'clock --

--and my claws were at the guard-wolf's neck. Don't really want to rip his throat out; getting shot by Ad Astran justice would spoil all my plans. At least I don't feel like shit any more. Crap, yes, but not shit. Now you be nice, Jube... I smoothed my fur back down and sat on the bed, then I took one last deep breath and matched their tempo once again.

"-- going to -- ah!" Apparently, he hadn't expected me to blink into a different position. I spoke up before he could go on.

"Outside, right? Fine."

He soon recovered his poise. Very professional. "Yes. Sir. If you please."

I stood up with care, and was pleasantly surprised that my headache didn't worsen. McGregor's ears flicked, and I caught a hint of a snarl (suppressed near-instantly) to go with the anger on his scent. Sorry, pal, I'm an outside contractor; I don't have to grovel before you like... Hmm. A security chief that wants to control the people he's guarding? Could be. Okay, the wolf's on the short list of suspects. "Not a problem. Lead on, MacDuff."

One hallway later, we were outside in the cold pre-noon air, about 50' away from the Fokker 10, the incessant wind blowing waves in the low grass that covered most of the Island. Two guesses which piece of my carry-on luggage was there before us on the ground.

"Sir, this is the suspect item. Our scans have detected volatile material inside. You will please open it, slowly and carefully." He motioned at the case.

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

I followed behind Drew keeping a wary eye on Jubatus. Our security chief most vehemently denied the alpha wolf that was an integral part of his psychology, but that denial did nothing to alleviate its influence upon him; I had no intention of allowing Jubatus to spoil the control I'd gained over Drew by the years-long process of cultivating a submissive posture towards him. It was always good practice to keep those with power happy, an age-old truism which SCABS had done nothing to alter, and by manipulating Drew's subconscious mind into regarding me as the alpha female of his pack, I had a significant amount of freedom and support from him, without questions, when needed.

Outside the sun was approaching the zenith, and it was indeed going to be a bright, and (to members of the animal kingdom) happy day. Unfortunately for me, the brighter it was, the more tired I became. Early experiments had confirmed that given correct conditions of soil and light my body would root itself; I still did it occasionally under controlled conditions, when I needed to heal or when confronted with an extremely complex problem which my other methods of approach had failed to overcome. It wasn't long until the three of us reached Jubatus' case, the other one that had been commented on at the airport. Always careful, Drew had placed it in the middle of a field, and left it closed. Knowing him it had already been scanned and rescanned.

"Mr. Jubatus," he pointed at the case, "this is the suspect item. Our scans have revealed material of a volatile nature inside. Would you please, slowly and carefully, open it?"

Thankfully, the cheetah nodded and complied without any resistance. "Thought so. Okay, here goes." So saying, he opened the case and removed its contents, competently laying them out on the ground. "I'll bet this is what rang your chimes," he said, indicating one particular item. It was an ordinary 3-litre dewar, an insulated container for liquid chemicals. "Congratulations of the sensitivity of your chemical sensors, by the way; the seals kept volatile leakage down below what the airport's detectors could handle."

"Could you explain exactly why it is that you're carrying a supply of a dangerously flammable chemical with you?"

The cheetah rolled his eyes and raised up one end of a roughly cylindrical 60-centimetre-long object from where it lay on the ground. "Fuel for this sucker." The indicated object was a small rocket, oddly familiar -- of course; a scale model of the Saturn V booster! "It's fully functional, and I'm gonna fire it off as soon as I settle in upstairs."

I could tell that Drew wasn't happy with the notion of this rocket-propelled projectile flying about anywhere near the vicinity of Ad Astra's orbital assets; before he could say anything, I spoke up. "Are you quite certain that this device won't present any hazard to Brin Station?"

"Pretty much. Payload's a couple of hundred grams, nothing dangerous, and I've got the course laid out to avoid hitting anything solid along the way."

"'Pretty much'?" Drew's suspicions were more than evident.

"Yeah, 'pretty much'," Jubatus replied with cynical amusement. "Never plotted this kind of ballistic trajectory before, and since I'll be down here a couple weeks, I figured I could get one of your orbital mechanics to double-check my work before I leave."

"See that you do," the wolf commanded, repeatedly looking from Jubatus to myself and back again. "In fact, I'll see that you do."

Interesting, but potentially a source of conflict. I decided to interject before Jubatus and Drew went too far. "For the moon dust I take it? I don't know many people who'd spend millions of dollars just to send it shooting off towards the stars, other than NASA anyway."

Jubatus shrugged. "It's that, or let it gather interest in a bank vault."

"Very good. Drew, is this all satisfactory for you?"

I could see Drew glaring at Jubatus... "Everything's fine but..."

...I slightly lowered my head in a sign of submission to help relax him...

"...I'd prefer to keep it under lock and key, just to be on the safe side. I'll put it on the shuttle and give you the lock code so that you can give it to him when needed."

"Mr. Jubatus, is that acceptable?"

"If it's okay by you, Carter, it's okay by me."

"Drew, is there anything else you need to know about Mr. Jubatus' baggage?"

"Not any more."

"Good then. If you'll take the fuel storage tank, I'll help Mr. Jubatus to his quarters."

"Are you sure..?"

"I'll be careful, and the day of the tests is the day I've put aside for my own healing. My only regret is that I won't be present to see you torture our guest here."

Drew smiled, and then waited for Jubatus to hand him the dewar and I looked at him until he did. Then Drew nodded and walked away, leaving me alone with my guest. "Feeling all right now, Mr. Jubatus?"

"Better than you," he said with one of his customary wry smiles.

"It'll heal in time for our flight -- don't worry about missing it." I saw him relax slightly. "If you'll grab your luggage, I'll walk you to your quarters and go over the schedule for the next two weeks, hopefully without any further interruptions. Your tests and training are scheduled to start at eight am tomorrow -- I think we both need some rest today."

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

The by-play between McGregor and Carter was interesting -- and a little frightening, too. Ordinarily, the dryad was as fearless and arrogant as an inbred Russian Tsarina, but here and now she was polite, even submissive -- hell, she'd even bowed her head! Yeah, the wolf was definitely a primary suspect for the mindgames culprit. At least she was taking it easy; the bullet wound in her leg looked nasty, but the doctors here wouldn't've let her walk around if it was serious. I upshifted a little to get the benefit of reduced gravity while I repacked my luggage, then went back to tempo 1. "Let's roll, doc."

And we did.

I could've played crutch again, but I was still hurting myself, and her cane was all the support Carter needed. We headed towards a three-story rectangular grey lump. "That's the main residential complex, which is where you'll find your quarters, along with the main cafeteria. Given your basal metabolic rate, the volumetric capacity of your stomach, the most probable time and content of your last meal, and taking into account a downshift factor of approximately 1:25, you should be hungry."

Right on cue, my stomach rumbled. "Thanks for the effort, but there's a much easier way to tell if I'm hungry: Check my pulse. If I've got one, I am." I surveyed the buildings, a set of isolated, greyish bunkers randomly scattered across a lake of knee-high grass with no footpaths and barely any connecting roads. "No paths?"

"Any paved walkways would damage the ecosystem of the Island, and provide easier means of traverse for invaders."

"If that's your reasoning," I said with a sardonic half-smile, "I'm surprised you haven't laid down any pavement to draw them into a killing ground."

"Actually, we've done that near --"

"Forget I said anything." That'll teach me to make that kind of joke around her...

"As you wish. Defensive considerations aside, we also have a large number of SCABs on the Island, most of whom find it more comfortable to walk on natural grass than on asphalt or concrete."

Carter's cane tapped the cement at the entrance before we hit the door. There was a camera over the jamb; thinking back, there'd been another over the door to that bunker Carter got shot at. She pulled a black, oversized PDA from her purse and held it under a scanner below a keypad near the doorknob until the door clicked and swung open. "Data confirmation to ensure we're authorized for access to the interior -- there's one for you in your room."

"Any kind of activation procedure I should perform?"

"No, we've already taken care of all the necessary programming and adjustments."

The door swung shut behind us. Interior decor was Late 20th Century Light Industrial: Linoleum floor, fluorescent tubes overhead, pale monochrome walls, and a bulletin board with some random bits of paper tacked to it. Morbid curiosity got the better of me; sure enough, there was a lot of data about the recent attack. Casualties, both dead and wounded, and who on our side was credited with how many kills. Yep, there I was at the top of the list:

10:1 // ACINONYX, J // MIS_SPEC // 7(8?)SD + 3AD + 0SI + 4AI

Let's see, "SD" was "solo deaths"... never mind the rest, this cat's curiosity had just killed itself. A quick upshift got me back to Carter, where the black hole in my gut made it easy for me to focus on the aromas of food, cooked food-like substances, and stuff that food eats.

She looked up at me. "Please don't wander at random; we're rather cautious about access, which means that at best, you'll find very little other than closed doors."

"And at worst, I get shot and wake up dead."

"Yes. By the way, you should be aware that new faces are not common here, hence your presence is likely to attract a disproportionately high level of attention from Ad Astran employees."

I nodded. "Thanks for the warning."

About 30 feet on was another door, and given the thickly layered aromas that oozed forth from it, the cafeteria had to be on the other side; one more pass of Carter's PDA got us in. The room was large, well lit, and full of wooden tables and chairs, people (maybe 40% of them being SCABs), and the aroma of food. A good selection of potted plants, which I noticed the dryad went out of her way to avoid. The walls held various photos of Brin Station and the Babylon spaceplane, scattered around whatever vertical area wasn't taken up by some of the biggest damn picture windows I'd ever seen. Nice, clear view of the outside, sun shining down... Hold it. No way Ad Astra would tolerate that kind of weak point in a structure like this, and even if they did, this is an interior chamber!

I pointed. "Those aren't real windows, are they?"

"Correct. One of our purchasing agents got an exceptionally good deal on a shipment of LCD displays which turned out to be unsuited to the purpose we intended; this is how we ended up using them, rather than scrapping or storage or resale. We've found that the psychological value --"

"Excuse me?" a mid-range alto interrupted. Female norm, about 5'6", black. Instincts must not've judged her a threat. "You're Jubatus Acinonyx, are you not?"

"That's me. How'd you guess?" Amazingly enough, she didn't flinch when my voice assaulted her ears.

"No guess," she said with a smile. "You're the only cheetahmorph on the Island! I'm Khalisha Stoneham, life systems engineering, and I just wanted to say 'thanks' for helping out during the recent attack."

I did not think of the precise form of assistance I'd given; she meant well, it wouldn't have been polite for me to rip into her even figuratively. "You're welcome. Of course, if it'd been up to me, you wouldn't have needed that kind of help..."

"I hear you, Mr. Acinonyx. Anyway, thanks again, and 'bye!"

After Stoneham started back to her table, I whispered to Carter, too quiet for anyone else to hear: "Put her up to that, did you?"

The dryad's reply was equally low-volume. "I hardly think I'd need to, Mr. Jubatus. You're a new face, which alone would make you a point of interest to our rather insular society, as I said previously. Add in your contribution to our most recent defensive action, and -- best to continue this later," she concluded as another well-wisher stepped up to offer an expression of gratitude.

Our progress through the (thankfully short) line was obstructed many times, as one or another of Carter's colleagues intruded on my space. Not so good for a crowd-hater like me; fortunately, it wasn't as bad as I would've expected. Most of them just couldn't keep from reminding me of the murders I'd committed, but even that was tolerable. Might've been the personal touch -- every one of these people had been at risk from those neo-Luddites, any one of them could easily have been maimed or killed by one of the eco-zealots I'd wasted. Like I said, personal touch. I don't get that a lot. When I'm on a troubleshooting gig, it's usually just me and the machines, and sometimes I never even see a human face...

If I hadn't actually seen any SCABs around here, I'd have still known Ad Astra had a few, from some of the more unusual food offerings. I mean, how many cafeterias offer raw meat heated to body temperature? In between well-wishers and an occasional autograph hound, I collected a trayful of protein, even decided to take a chance on sausage and what was labeled "carnivore's meatloaf". Contrary to popular belief, we carnivores can eat veggies -- we just get the runs. As for me and my accelerated digestive processes... Let's just say that when I munch on plants, the end result ain't pretty.

Fluids: Carter went for orange juice, I grabbed three apiece of OJ, apple juice, green tea, and Jolt Classic. No cash register (meals were part of the benefits package), and then the dryad got us a table. I still wasn't sure I believed what she was eating, and I'd seen her pick it out: Cheeseburger, heavy on the cheese and mushrooms. After inhaling my meal, I downshifted to watch her attack her hamburger.

She noticed me noticing her. After swallowing a neat, symmetrical bite, she asked, "Is something the matter, Mr. Jubatus?"

I smiled. "Your burger. I see fungus, onions, lettuce and tomatoes, and I'll bet there's wheat in the bun. Seems like cannibalism to me!"

She took another geometrically precise bite, chewed, and swallowed before answering: "My fare is no more cannibalistic than yours, Mr. Jubatus. My physiognomy is a curious mixture of plant, animal, and inanimorph, which means there is little that I can't eat. If you want more, go and help yourself."

I nodded. "Not a problem. Time enough for that later."

"Very well. Now that you've had a taste of the normal routine, what do you think of Ad Astra?"

"It's... different. Seems kind of informal."

"What were you expecting, uniforms?"

"Well, yes. I mean, even the Green Lantern Corps at least had a standard color scheme!"

"Green Lantern Corps? Who were they?"

Sigh. "Before your time. Never mind."

I could practically see her brain filing that reference away for later research. "We're here because we share a dream. We don't need anything else to bind us together; unfortunately we're few enough that we know each other at least in passing. Keeps ringers out too." With that she swallowed the last of her juice. "Let's go to your rooms, you need to rest, and I have some work to get done."

"Sure." I upshifted and put both our trays on the rack, and was back picking up my luggage before she finished standing.

"Thank you. And now there's something I'd like to ask you, Mr. Jubatus. I've noticed a faint aura when you adjust your metabolic rate. Do you know why there's a visual effect?"

Oh great, she's getting curious. Play dumb, and hope that throws her off. "There is?"

"Faint, but yes. It's in either the near infrared or near ultraviolet. That might be why you never noticed it; perhaps your body temperature suddenly shifts."

"Maybe so," I said with a dismissive shrug. "Say, when's the cafeteria open?"

She stood up and stumbled a bit before catching herself with her cane. "24 hours. Off peak times the choice is more limited, but there is always meat available. Some of the staff require it."

"You need any help?"

"I'm fine Mr. Jubatus, but I'll take you up on the elevator rather than by the stairs."

"You're sure."

"Perfectly sure. Really, I'd be in a wheelchair all the time if Sandra had her way. I'll be fine for the time being."

Curious, I looked at her. She swallowed, and then answered with just a hint of embarrassment in her voice. "I'll be undergoing some treatment to get it healed tomorrow."

Well, it's none of my business anyway... I nodded and followed her down the hall, past the stairs, and to the elevator. Then it was up to the 3rd floor and a door at the end of another hallway. She ran her PDA under the scanner and the door clicked open. "Your new home. Once you run your PDA under the scanner, the door won't open except to you or to those with override privileges." I followed her in.

The room was about 3 meters square, with a neatly made bed, a compact desk that doubled as a table, a chair, and a computer. A twin to Carter's PDA, this one's LED blinking, was on the bed.

"Bathroom's down the hall and to the right, it comes with shower if you need to use it. Soap is also there. The computer only has internet and e-mail access, and all graphics and script are removed before being displayed so you'll only get bare text."

I thought for a moment. "Scripts I get -- I can live without any virus delivery systems -- but why stop graphics?"

"Our bandwidth is not infinite, Mr. Jubatus, and it is purely by Ad Astra's courtesy that we are allowed to make use of the company net for personal purposes at all."

"Okay. Can I set a size threshold? Only block images over maybe 100K?"

"Yes. I've set the default to absolute blockage, inasmuch as many of my colleagues don't seem to know the meaning of '100K'."

I rolled my eyes. "Typical. Don't recall who first said so, but technogeeks should have to work with last-generation equipment, so they're forced to solve problems, and not just throw more megahertz at 'em."

"An interesting philosophy, Mr. Jubatus, but I am unsure how one would go about implementing it. As well, problems of practicality aside, it is unclear whether the greatest waste of bandwidth is due to technocrats or technopeasants. I once launched a search worm to find the biggest file on the internet; thus far, the single largest item found is 1.27 terabytes in size."

"Ymir's bones! What the hell is that monstrosity!?"

"When I was on the mainland once I took a look at it -- it was apparently a video of somebody's dog sleeping."

I stared in disbelief. "One. Point. Two. Seven. Terabytes?"

"Correct," she said in an amused tone.

"Of some idiot's comatose mutt."

"So it would seem. I must admit I didn't watch the whole thing in its entirety; the Dalmatian may have woken up and chased its tail or something."

"A ter'-and-a-quarter... gaah! Anyone who thinks a bleeding dog is worth that much disc space is obviously too stupid to be on the Net. Please tell me you wrote and deployed a worm to atomize that moron's host machine."

"I didn't see a need to take extreme measures. Rather, I simply wrote a nice polite letter to the person's internet host."

I clicked a pair of claws together (the closest I can get to snapping my fingers these days). "Drat. Oh, well; we're drifting from the topic anyway. What's next on the agenda?"

"Today, your only agenda is to eat and rest, in accordance with doctor's orders. As for tomorrow, Drew will be expecting you at precisely 8am in the morning."


She picked my PDA up off the bed, and indicated one of the controls. "There's a map function you can access by pushing this button. As well, you'll find a hard copy in the top drawer in case you need it," she said, pointing at the desk. "Green areas you have full access to; blue areas you may be present in only while accompanied by myself or other authorized persons; red areas are off limits."

The map was a sea of green with a few islands of blue and red.

"If you don't have access the doors won't open. It shouldn't surprise you that both security and the server room are red zones, nor yet that most of the technical areas are blue."

"What's the blinking for?"

"In this case, it means you've a message, and that specific long/short pattern indicates that the message is from Ms. Wigley -- press the 'right arrow' icon for Play. When you leave run your PDA under the reader and that'll initialize the lock, it's preset for all the other basic functions and your access permissions." Pointing out a specific spot on the case, she went on, "Be aware that you need to touch your thumb to this point here when you pick it up so that it recognizes you. Otherwise it'll shut down." Here she stopped and looked at me. "Are you alright, Mr. Jubatus? You appear to be somewhat less animated than usual."

I blinked. "Mmmm. Yeah. Guess I'm still a little out of it."

"Very well; briefing you on your schedule can wait until such time as you are fully recovered. As for myself, I need to get to work, so I'll let you rest." And then she let herself out.

Once safely alone, I collapsed onto the bed -- the food had done me some good, ditto the passage of time, but I still ached all over. Haven't felt this thrashed in years. What the hell happened, anyway? Gotta talk to what's-her-name, Miesel, maybe she's got a clue... so damn tired...

...mmm... Must have fallen asleep. Clock on the wall said I'd been out for 9 minutes. My wall-to-wall ache was still there, just decayed from 'world class pain' all the way down to 'semi-trivial discomfort', and I was hungry. More precisely, I was hungry-er than I would ordinarily be within a half-hour of filling my stomach; something else to ask Meisel about. Derksen would be better, but he wasn't here and I wouldn't feel right sucking up as much of Ad Astra's bandwidth as that kind of consultation could require. For now, might as well find out what the orca's got to say. That's interesting, it looks like AA's email client is a Hogwatcher clone...

Wigley's message was short -- "COME DOWN AND SEE ME SOME TIME. RSVP BYOB MOUSE" -- and came with a couple-dozen K of graphics, a map indicating a particular spot on the Island's shore. A nice, casual invitation, but did I really want to take her up on it? I mean, I'd come this close to punching a Jubatus-shaped hole in her hide...

I thought about it as I put the toilet to a practical test.

I continued thinking as I made another pass through the cafeteria. It was a little more crowded than the first time, and a nontrivial percentage of the mob were people I'd seen here before. Another nontrivial percentage got in my face to show their appreciation for my pest control services; I managed to keep my temper, and made an upshifted escape with my food while I could still restrain the impulse to give the morons an up-close-and-personal demonstration of what I'd done.

I thought some more, back in my room, as I set the door to keep everybody out and ate in peace. Do I see her or not? How do you make amends to an almost-victim..?

Hell with it. If you can run into her, you can damn well look her in the eyes as she tells you what she's gonna rip out of your hide as a result.

I checked the time and sent a reply: "WILL BE THERE 1400 TO 1430." I could've written more, but... no. Some messages just aren't suitable for the medium of email. That done, I had more time to kill, so I unpacked my bags...

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

With a thunk I let my door close and hobbled over to my work chair (one of those 24-hour ones) and sat down, letting the cane rattle onto the floor. A rocket. He was actually taking a volatile, hazardously inflammable chemical up with him in a rocket! Well...

Touching a key brought my terminal out of power saving mode, and a complex series of keystrokes displayed the status of various projects, due dates, e-mails, system messages, flight plans, mathematical queries, additional reports on cheetah biology, a few personal messages from old colleagues, a CC from Sandra to Dr. Derksen regarding Jubatus' recovery, a collection of speed and resistance data from Jubatus' supersonic flight yesterday... The terrorist attack had backed everything up. Tossing Sandra's CC and the speed/resistance data into the file I was building on Jubatus, a particular tone confirmed that the analysis of the system messages hadn't revealed any problems. The personal mails were shunted into a dedicated box -- at least my filters kept all the crap from getting through -- and I went into the math queries. Dr. Morris down in Moscow had run into an iteration of the Shimura-Taniyama-Weil Conjecture that looked odd and had sent it to me for my opinion. A first glance confirmed that it wasn't a trivial problem, even for me, and I really should have put it aside, but then... Instead I started on it, though I linked the data on Jube's flight path into a flow dynamics analysis program that would check the Ad Astra and NATO databanks for matching patterns.

It wasn't until just after midnight that the first level pattern match was complete and a window popped up displaying matches in order of probability; fortunately that dragged me out of Dr. Morris's problem. Interesting, the closest match was a theoretical NATO submarine with layers of semi-permeable skin whose varying surface characteristics would provide different drag co-efficients in water, the precise value being a derived function of the sub's velocity. That meant... what? Layers of air in his fur? It didn't make sense yet the match was too close. Maybe...

A yawn interrupted my thoughts. Enough putting it off. I sent an e-mail to Sandra (she'd just be getting up) to meet me at the usual place as I answered the various personal greetings. My typing speed is well within the range of human norms, but I had a pack of aces up my metaphorical sleeve; a set of macros, currently 1,572 in number and each one triggered by a unique keystroke combo, for common actions and to type common words, phrases and even sentences. The e-mails went out and I stretched and leaned down and picked up the cane from where it had rolled to on the floor.

At least I'd be able to catch the morning dew.

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

After another cafeteria run to replenish the jerky supply in my vest, I put the map and my PDA into separate pockets and headed out to the shore. If you like your landscapes with a minimum of obvious human intrusion, Easter Island's is the kind of landscape you'll like; most directions are just wind-blown grass as far as the eye can see. You can have as much of that as you want, with my compliments -- I much preferred the poured concrete of the docks.

Of course, I was early. With nothing to look at but waving grass, a few seagulls hovering in the breeze, and the decaying ruins of older (maybe even pre-Collapse) docks, I knew I should have brought something to read. Would've been better than replaying my memories of the attack and wondering about possible consequences of my actions...

-- incoming: 10 o'clock: threat level minimal --

-- and a Peter-Max-on-acid rainbow was rising out of the ocean, a psychedelic collage of streaky spectra and bizarre glints of sunlight -- it actually took me a couple of seconds to recognize it as the splash of a full-grown orca's entrance. I moved out of the line of fire (okay, "water") before I downshifted.

She was an impressive sight; even with SCABS, a 20-ton carnivore isn't something you see every day. "Hello, Mr. Jubatus!" she said in a high, squeaky voice right out of Day of the Dolphin. "Thanks for coming out here. I don't see as many guests as I used to. I'd apologize for my overly formal attire, but I don't have anything else to wear. You wouldn't believe how hard it is to find clothes in my size!"

I stared. Don't just stand there -- say something, damnit! "You... you're okay. Right?"

She squeaked, ducked underwater, and blew a roar of bubbles, then surfaced by the dock to inhale.

"Thank you, Jube. I can call you 'Jube', can't I?"

I had no idea what she was driving at. "Ah, sure. Thanks for what?"

"For the chance to laugh. Everybody's so serious around here. Some days, no one even smiles!"

I looked to the East, towards South America. "I can see how regular helpings of death and destruction might have that effect."

She rocked from side to side -- an orca's shrug, perhaps? "Death is a part of life. Happens to everyone." Here she paused to re-align herself in the water to give one eye a better view of me. "But you're not worried about death in general. You're worried about the people you killed, aren't you?"

"Maybe. Seems to me, that's the kind of thing you should worry about."

She rocked again. "Don't see why. They attacked, we defended. No cause for complaint if we kill them."

"You sure you got all of the attackers?"

"Yes, we --" Suddenly her sentence died between words, then air hissed quietly from her blowhole. "Ah. I think I see the real problem now. Okay. You ran into me, and that bothers you -- why? You didn't really hurt me. Just gave me a major headache for a few hours. No harm done, so why do you care?"

"It's called 'unprovoked assault on an innocent person'. I damn well better care!"

"No harm done," she repeated, "and I forgive you anyway. You've got no reason to feel guilty. But you still do..." She paused, then asked: "Jube, are you Catholic?"

I whipped my head around to stare at Wigley for a moment, then I broke out laughing and collapsed onto the dock. After a while, the orca went on, "Feeling better now?"

I sobered up a little. "Like it matters. Drop the other shoe, Wigley. "

"Can't -- I don't wear shoes!"

I moved to the edge of the dock to sit, letting my legs hang down. "Come on, you know what I mean. I launched a lethal attack at you, and that's got to violate Ad Astra's criminal code. Why am I still alive?"

"You've been talking to Sue about our legal system." Another low hiss (her version of a sigh?). "The affected party doesn't have to press charges. Did she mention that?"

"No, and so what? That still doesn't tell me why you, the 'affected party', chose not to waste my sorry ass."

"Took too long to find you."

Say what? Curious, I looked at Wigley. "Carter didn't mention that you guys even have a statute of limitations, let alone that it applies that quickly."

A Bronx cheer blasted out of her blowhole. "We don't. Sure, I was angry at first, but it took me 42 minutes to find you. By that time --"

"Hold it," I interrupted. "You found me. You expect me to believe I was underwater for almost three quarters of an hour?"

"No. 53 minutes total. Search began after my head stopped ringing. I thought you were dead when I found your body! But you weren't, of course. And then Sandy, I mean Dr. Meisel, discovered you were alive. That's when I decided God didn't want you dead yet."

"Of course not! He's not done fucking with me yet," I snarled, then upshifted to give myself some time to calm down. Cut it out, Jube. She's not an enemy, so don't make her one... Back at a tempo of 1, I sighed and continued: "Sorry, I just..." I shook my head and stood up. This isn't going well. Best to leave before any more harm is done. "Never mind. Thanks for hauling me up out of the ocean, and thanks for --"

"Jube. Mister Jubatus. Don't go. Please."

I stared at her. She knows I'm alive; she's made noise about forgiveness; what the hell else could she want with me? Only one answer came to mind. "Sorry, but I didn't come here to be proselytized at."

"And I didn't come here to proselytize at you! If you want to talk religion, that's fine. But if not, there's lots of other topics we could discuss."

Given the background level of conversations in the cafeteria, I almost asked her why she felt any need to talk to me -- but it was just us two at the dock. Not even a scrap of litter drifting on the breeze. And her body locked her out of any conceivable landbound activities... "You must be really hard up for companionship, if you're willing to pal around with the SCAB who came this close to giving your corpus callosum a military haircut."

She shrug-rocked. "Like I said... I don't get many guests these days."

"Okay." I resumed my seated position. "You should know that I'm a little out of practice with this conversation thing, so I probably won't do it right..."

Wigley rose up out of the water a little, so that a big ripple spread from her on the downstroke. "That's okay, Jube. Like the man said, 'we're all bozos on this bus'."

My ears perked up at the quote. "You know the Firesign Theatre?"

"Sure! My grandpa had all their CDs, even a couple of LP records! It's been years since I heard any of their stuff, though."

"Why? There's plenty of audio files you can download off the net -- or would that violate Ad Astran policy?"

"It is against policy, but I could get a waiver if I wanted..."

"But you haven't? Why not?"

"Jube... I'm aquatic. And I've got no hands," she said sadly.

"So what? Voice recognition should still work for you. For that matter, there's tongue controls, eye-tracking or breath switches."

"Voice works, but my blowhole gets sore after a quarter-hour on the Net. As for the rest, that needs equipment the company won't cover."

"Because you've already got a working solution? Right. Damn accountants. Can't you pay for it yourself?"

"Not yet. The tech that makes me a productive team member ain't cheap, you know. Anyway, I wouldn't download any Firesign Theatre if I could. I don't think a security officer should be a scofflaw, do you?"

I almost asked her why she didn't just buy a legit copy. Obvious solution, except she couldn't play it herself and she's got no friends to convert it to something she can use and... "Shit. I think SCABS worked you over almost worse than it did me."

"Almost worse? I don't get it. You've got hands, you're a convenient size. I'm neither. What have I got that you don't?"

Even at this late date, sometimes I get surprised by what sparks my temper. "You're safe," I growled at Wigley. "If you go feral, you're not going to hurt anyone who didn't damn well put themselves in harm's way!"

"Hmmm..." the orca mused. "Sounds like carnivore shock to me."

I blinked, and just like that, I went from 'royally pissed off' to 'calm and curious' -- the flipside of having an über-active endocrine system. "'Carnivore shock'? What's that?"

"Something you've got real bad, Jube. It's like this. One day you're a normal human being. The next, you love the scent of raw meat and part of you wonders if your friends taste as good as they smell. Carnivore shock. It's worse for SCABs like us, who also got the looks. I'll bet the psychologists have a different name for it."

"Probably -- but you said, 'SCABs like us'?"

"Yes. Been there myself. But I'm okay now."

I waited for her to continue, and she didn't. There, she stops? When she pretty clearly wants to say more? "Come on, Wigley. Let's have the rest of the story."

"You sure you want to hear it? I did promise not to proselytize..."

I rolled my eyes. "Which means your religious beliefs are involved. Okay, fine, spill it. I think I can tell the difference between personal testimony and an attempt at conversion."

"Thanks, Jube!" she said cheerfully. "I was born in Montana, raised Protestant. Didn't give it much thought; I went to church 'cause my parents took me, you know? Never really paid attention, any more than a trout pays attention to water.

"Anyway, Montana is so beautiful, I never wanted to live anywhere else. Always liked science, but..." The orca sigh-hissed. "This was just after the Collapse. You know how it was back then."

"Still is, to some extent."

"Yeah. So. I ended up teaching high school algebra. Married my childhood sweetheart; no children, not for lack of trying. Regular churchgoer, but no real belief. I just recited the words like a parrot. Had my whole life planned out. Have kids, retire from teaching, grow old with Dan..."

"And then you caught the Martian Flu."

"That's right. 2025, that's when God decided to mess up my life. Had the 'Flu in February, but I thought it was just a cold. So did everyone else. We all learned different in September, three weeks after class started. We were doing the Quadratic Formula, when I got the shakes and collapsed. Next thing I knew, I was in the nurse's office. 103-degree fever, black splotches down my spine and arms, and half an inch taller than I'd been that morning.

"It took 40 days and 40 nights. The whole change, I mean. The first week or two, I wasn't very coherent. Not even when I was awake. Growing pains all over, all the time. Pins and needles in arms and legs, all the time. Always clumsy, knocking into bedframe and stuff, when I moved. And always, always, always hungry. You get hungry enough, anything looks like dinner. Anything. You got any idea what it's like to look at a person, and have to keep reminding yourself that they're not food?"

"Yeah," I said, shuddering a little. "You could say I've been around that block a time or two. So the bastards were starving you to death, huh?"

A concussive snort blasted from the orca's blowhole. "Jube, I went from 117 pounds to 40,490! Takes a lot of food to put on that kind of weight. Sure, there's polymorphs can pull mass from nowhere, but I'm not one of 'em. It was just me and what I could shove down my throat. Doctors tried IV feeding, but that didn't work very well. My blood vessels kept shifting around as I grew, and my layer of blubber kept getting thicker. So I ate what they gave me, as fast as they gave it, and wanted more. But they just didn't have more! They tell me I was eating as much as the rest of the hospital put together, at one point.

"Like I said, that was the first couple of weeks. Then something happened: I got enough to eat! Didn't know why, didn't care. I was just glad to not be hungry all the time. Wasn't all good, though. Growth rate before, about one inch per day; after, 10 or so. Growing pains got bad for a while there. Senses got weirder, too...

"Anyway. Got transferred to a local aquarium before I was too big to fit through the doors and halls. Change finished. Learned how to swim, breathe, talk, all over again. Never saw anyone but keepers and doctors."

"Wait. Nobody came to see you during your recovery?"

Wigley shrug-rocked. "Yeah. End of the year holidays. People get busy with Hallowe'en and Thanksgiving and all. Pretty easy for a SCAB to get lost in the shuffle."

"I guess, especially if she's a science-loving scumbag. Even so, why didn't your husband bother to show his face?"

"I... don't know. He might've, but I was pretty much out of it. If Dan ever did visit me, I wouldn't remember and nobody told me. I guess we're still married, officially..." A quiet sigh-hiss. "We don't have a lot in common, these days. You know?"

I thought fast. "Betcha he's ripping off the State by collecting money for support of --"

"Jube!" she shouted. Then, very quiet: "Don't. It's been years. You gotta let go some time." Another sad sigh-hiss, and she continued at a normal volume. "Moving right along. Middle of December, 2025, and SCABS was done with me. There I was, a perfectly healthy orca. Now what? Couldn't teach any more -- no budget for the modifications they'd need to make for a killer whale in Montana. My marriage, well, what kind of wife can I be to a human? We swore 'to have and to hold', but he was too small to hold me, and without arms I couldn't hold him.

"That's what I miss the most; physical contact. What with the blubber and everything, touch is so different now... Anyway. At that point my world was pretty small. Just a tank of salt water big enough to turn around in. Nothing to do -- nothing I could do -- but float and think. Couldn't see much of a future for myself. Didn't want to just float in a tank, alone, for the rest of my life. But what other options were there? Not a lot of employment opportunities for orca..."

"More than you'd think -- but if you didn't have anyone to do the legwork for you, reading the papers or netsearching or whatever, how could you know?"

"Yeah. That tank wall cut me off from human society, real good. I didn't like it. Heck, didn't like much of anything! Lost my faith in God, not that I had much to start with. Especially with Christmas coming. It's the season everyone's supposed to be merry. Happy happy joy joy. But what did I have to be happy about? I should thank God for cutting off my arms? Wrecking my marriage? Permanently exiling me from the human race? Why didn't He just kill me and be done with it?

"I thought about suicide once or twice. Couldn't see how to manage it in the tank with this body. If I'd known how, I might have done more than think about it.

"Thinking about death. That was my frame of mind when my first visitor showed.

"Guy said he was from Ad Astra, the company that'd paid for my food and spacious new quarters and all that. He said they had a job for me, as I was. Offered to fly me out to Easter Island, at company expense, to see how I liked it. I said yes. Nothing to lose. Change of scenery at worst. And if he was for real, it was a way out of the tank!

"Well, he was for real. Job was aquatic security. Patrol, keep an eye on stuff. Sometimes fight and maybe kill. Didn't like the killing part, but it was something I could do. And it was out of the tank! So I signed on, and been here ever since."

I nodded. "Okay, you have your happy ending, but I don't see where God enters into it. What's the deal? "

The orca spun on her long axis and blew bubbles -- was that her version of laughter? -- splashing water all over. "The fastest SCAB on Earth is impatient! Who'd'a thought?"

I shook my head and leaned back against some kind of piling, waiting for her to sober up. "Very funny, Wigley."

"It is! It is! Best I've heard all month!"

I almost set her straight, but... maybe it was the best joke she'd heard, Momus help her. "I'll take your word for it. And the God thing?"

"It's coming, Jube! Don't worry! Anyway. They gave me a video tour of the Island. Set up a screen for me, gave someone a camera to walk around with. Closest I'll ever get to the moai," she said, referring to Easter Island's world-famous, oversized, carved stone faces. "And I saw something I won't forget." Now she moved around a little, aiming her eyes in a search pattern. "Okay. See that cliff? I'd point, but..."

I pointed for her. "That the one?"

"Yes. Look up at the top of it."

I looked, squinted, and could just make out some pale dots. "I see some white specks. What about 'em?"

"They're graves. The last of the natives. Most died in the Martian Plague. When Ad Astra took over, we left the survivors alone. Greenpeace didn't. They launched a major attack in 2024. Native village was just... in the way. We tried not to hurt them, but Greenpeace thinks anyone not fighting for them is a target. When the smoke cleared... five natives left. None survived the year. I think they died of loneliness. All very sad. If I'd had any faith in God, that would've shaken it."

"I would hope so. If people getting wasted for no good reason isn't enough to sour you on the whole God hypothesis, you must be insane. Why do you think I'm an atheist?"

"And how can I not be, right?"

"Well, not to be rude, but... yes."

Wigley shrug-rocked. "Maybe I was atheist at that point. Doesn't matter. I was part of the team, and a few days after the tour, I got to see my first launch."

"Let me guess: That happened on Christmas Day, and God revealed himself to you in the roar of Agamemnon's engines."

She spun and bubble-laughed for a while before speaking. "You think you're just scoffing, but you're right! That's exactly what happened! The pressure wave hit, and suddenly God Himself held me safe in His hands. And I had a revelation: God wants us to go to space! A fetus grows, leaves the womb. A child grows, leaves their parents. Humankind grows, leaves the Earth. That's God's plan. Why is the dream of spaceflight so compelling? Because the Dream is an echo of God's Voice! We who share the Dream are the chosen few who hear it.

"And I knew why God did this to me: He chose me for a soldier in His service. Why me, not anyone else, I don't know. Doesn't matter why, 'cause I know my purpose, and I will protect the Dream. And on my watch, those who would kill the Dream better not be crunchy or taste good with ketchup."

I decided not to ask if she was serious -- she might tell me. "That's, uh, that's very interesting, Wigley."

"No need for diplomacy. Call it 'stupid' if you want, Jube," she said, her voice amused. "That's nothing, compared to what Sue says. I don't mind anyway. Doesn't matter if you believe in God; His plan has a place for you anyway!"

It almost sounded good. Except... "And 'six feet under' was the Islanders' place in His glorious plan."

"You really think the Lord wanted them dead?"

"Look, Wigley. He's all-knowing and all-powerful -- it says so, right on the label. By definition, He knows everything, and He can change anything He doesn't like. So how the hell could He not want them dead?"

She shrug-rocked. "Do I look omniscient to you? If I had to guess, I'd call it mercy killing. Their time was past. They were miserable, forgotten, afraid to change. They died in the Plague -- it just took them a while to stop moving."

I shook my head. Religion was the opiate of the people, and Wigley, just another addict. Clearly, buying into the God hypothesis had warped her mind so badly that it wouldn't surprise me if she could cobble up a rationalization to justify the Martian Flu. "And God moves in mysterious ways, so no matter what goes down, it's all good. Is that it?"

"Mmm... Pretty much, yeah. Of course, that's not counting what happens when we humans decide we know better than Him. Things'd be so much simpler without free will, huh? Dunno why He lets us get away with it. I'm just glad He does!"

"For the moment, sure."

Silence, eventually broken by Wigley: "So you don't trust the Lord. Anyone you do trust?"

I shrugged, gave her a cynical smile. "What do you think?"

A sigh-hiss. "I think... you are worse off than me."

"Yeah. Sometimes being right is a real pain --" I broke off, shook my head. "How do you do it?"

"Do what?"

"Everything," I said, gesturing out towards the ocean. "SCABS may not have hit you as bad as me, but your life still sucks rocks. Here you are, an economy-sized fish, permanently locked out of the Dream you say is God's plan for the human race. That's the same God who ruined you for practically any career but professional killer. And in spite of everything, you not only believe that that Divine son of a bitch is benevolent, but you're actually happy about what He did to you! How the hell do you do it, Wigley?"

"You gotta believe in something, Jube. Me, I believe in the Lord. Not always easy, and so what? If it was never hard, it wouldn't be worthwhile. So I believe in God, and I believe in the purpose He gave me. Good thing you don't have to believe in God to share the Dream, huh? We all do, you know. Christian, Buddhist, atheist, all of us share the Dream. Even you, Jube -- if you didn't, Sue wouldn't have wanted you here."

"Bets on that?"

"Sure! We all share the Dream," the orca repeated. "You, me, Sue, the techs who clean up Babylon between missions, all of us. Beliefs, politics, even species, that's all different -- but the Dream is a purpose we all have in common. All of us. Even the ones who'll probably never have a chance at freefall... You know, Jube, I envy you."

"Envy me?" I growled. "What's the matter, you don't think your body count is high enough?"

Her voice was quiet. "Again with the killing. Can't let go of that, not even for a minute, can you?" Then Wigley sigh-hissed at me. "I'm alive, Jube. You didn't kill me. I'll bet there's lots of people you haven't even scratched! What's done is done. Live, enjoy, deal with things as they happen. Like the man said, 'Always look on the Bright Side of Life'." An actual Monty Python reference, and I'll be damned if she didn't manage to work a British accent into her squeaks!

I shook my head. "Me following that advice is a good way for people to end up maimed or worse. Thanks, but fuck off."

She inhaled and ducked under. A moment later, she splashed water all over the dock and I had to upshift to stay dry. Back on the surface, she paused, looked, sigh-hissed, and then continued. "I'm sorry, Jube. I just wanted to say hello, welcome you to the Island, but it's not really working..."

I got a grip on my runaway emotions. Maybe I had a temperament like a hair-triggered bomb, but she didn't deserve to get caught in the blast radius. "Not your fault. Like I said at the start, conversation is something I'm not much good at. If anyone should offer an apology here... it's me."

Ducking under she let out another roar of bubbles before surfacing again. "Well, if you really want to apologize, come down sometime and read to me! Anything from the library will do. I haven't heard any Niven in years."

She wanted me -- wanted me -- to read to her!? What the bloody hell? Impossible! "I... What Niven do you mean?"

"Larry Niven. You know, Ringworld, Protector, Dream Park, Mote in God's Eye..." She stopped, ducked under for a moment, and breathed again. "It's the voice, isn't it?"

Damn her oiled hide! I upshifted, closed my eyes, and spent a good long while taking deep, slow breaths until my pulse dropped back to the usual rate. Back in control once more, I returned to the conversation: "Yes. It's exactly and precisely the pitiful, substandard excuse for a voice that I've been stuck with for the past 20 years, exactly and precisely because that's the goddamn best I can fucking do. You want to be read to, there's gigabytes of voice synthesis software does the job infinitely better than I'll ever be able to."

"No, there isn't," she said sadly. "I've tried plenty of electronic aids, but they just don't feel right. There's always something missing. I wish Sue'd come more often, she has such a sweet voice...

"Jube, the Pacific Ocean is beautiful. Awe-inspiring, even. Never dull. But... water is really lousy company, you know?"

Okay, she was lonely -- but that lonely? Enough to even consider voluntarily subjecting herself to a lengthy, concentrated dose of the noise I make? Fat bleeding chance. Carter might have put her up to it, or more likely, the orca wanted another shot at converting me. Never mind. No point in analyzing Wigley's motives -- as a hired gun, I wouldn't be around long enough to make it worth the effort -- when there was one bedrock truth which ruled out taking her offer at face value: Nobody could like my voice. Nobody. 'Come down and read to me' -- yeah, right! If she'd played it straight, said she just wanted my company, that would be one thing, but I had no stomach for this kind of hidden agenda crap. "If I have time," I answered as I turned away.

Behind me I heard another whoosh of breath, and more splashing as she submerged and surfaced. "Please come and visit. Either way, I'll pray for you. Everyone can use a little help from high places, don't you think? Come any time. Bring Ringworld, I'll make sure not to splash..."

chapter 7

And with a strangled "Yeeep!", I collapsed in a disordered tangle of hoses and data-lines and cheetah limbs. So damn tired -- I couldn't even move as the decelerating treadmill belt carried me backwards! One thought echoed through my skull as I lay there, gasping for breath:

Why is the bad man trying to kill me?

I was at the nonexistent mercy of a psychotic wolf SCAB named McGregor, and no wonder Carter'd said he was going to 'torture' me...

Somewhere along the way, someone undid the straps holding the gas mask onto my face. My starving lungs greedily sucked in sweet, sweet air. Wait, someone's talking, gotta downshift. And after a couple of false starts, I did just that, in time to hear, "-re you doing, Mr. Acinonyx?"

That was McGregor, the bastard. He thought physical abuse could force me to betray any of my clients' secrets, he had another think coming! I was panting like my life depended on it, but managed to insert some choice words in there anyway: "Acinonyx, Jubatus. Civilian. Ess-ess-en, 55 --" and suddenly the bloody-be-damned gas mask was back in place! So the dire wolf was finally going to stop... pussyfooting... around..?

And then my head cleared, thanks to the 100% oxygen being fed me through the mask; I knew what was really happening, and where, and why. The wolf was putting me through the wringer, alright, but strictly for the purpose of discovering the true limits of my metabolism and physical capabilities. If I were unfortunate enough to be here for another neo-Luddite assault, McGregor would know to pull me out of the fray before I made another disoriented strike at any Ad Astran personnel.

"Okay. I'm back," I said. "You were right, McGregor. When I'm breathing 5% O2, it doesn't matter whether or not you gave me advance notice; oxygen-starved brain equals hallucinations, period." After a deep breath of absolute oxygen, I added, "How long did I last this time?"

"5 minutes 28 seconds. Reflex test in 10."

"Got it." Having succeeded in driving me to exhaustion on the treadmill, he wanted to see how quickly I got my second wind. Aside from the damn '20 MPH until you drop' endurance test, the treadmill also helped McGregor clock my top sprinting speed.

I forced myself into a standing position, still breathing deeply, and walked carefully over to the next stop on this particular 'tour of Hell'. "Having fun, MacDuff?"

"That's not relevant. I'm simply doing my duty."

Yeah, right. I'll bet you enjoy your work, in all the worst senses of that phrase, McGregor. I didn't bother to say anything, because I'd reached his other infernal device, basically a Weed Whacker with a variable-speed motor and soft, paint-soaked cloth replacing the three nylon cords. My task was simple enough: Without getting any paint on my fur, reach between the whirling strips of fabric to pick up a pen on the other side. An elegant and effective method of gauging my reflexes and coordination, complementary to the treadmill tests of my power and endurance. All very simple, except the wolf insisted on running each test multiple times, under various combinations of tempo, oxygen level, and degree of exhaustion...

I looked at the wolf; his PDA was wired up to control everything, and he tapped at it now. "1000 RPM, normal O2, 15-second recovery. Do it... now."

I'd upshifted while he was still saying 'it'. Tempo of 30, high enough that I had .6 of my seconds to work with between one strip and the next, and... close, but I had the pen and remained pigment-free. Of course, it wasn't over; the damn wolf had me do it again and again, with the motor running anywhere from 500 to 3000 RPM. I think it annoyed him that my wrist never got painted, even at 3KRPM. That's because I didn't always just reach straight in; when needful, I added some circular motion so my hand was always at rest with respect to the rotating cloth. And if I missed the pen on one pass, there was always the next time it came around...

"Good. Let's try 1200 RPM," and I knew he'd cut my oxygen before he said, "5% O2. Do it... now."

That worked well enough to start with. It wasn't until maybe the 10th go-'round that the first hallucination cut in; it was a 2000-RPM test, and I looked at the wolf, and suddenly --

-- he was wearing black leather, a sharply tailored suit that had to be hellaciously hot and uncomfortable over his fur, one hand stroking the white Persian cat he cradled in his other arm. "Go away, Mr. Acinonyx," he said with a distinct German accent. "You are far too late. Dr. Carter is my property."

"Bullshit she is! You're talking slavery, asswipe!"

"My love is safe and secure in her velvet cage, Mr. Acinonyx; I provide her a pleasant, comfortable existence. In its place, what have you to offer but" --

--and the apparition was gone. I froze, blinking, while McGregor stared at me curiously.

"Ohhhhhh-kay," he finally said. "I think we've got all the low-oxygen data we need."

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

I was with Sandra in the predawn light, in my private greenhouse near one of the moai. I would have much preferred to be wholly naked to the Sun and other elements, but given the nature of what I now intended to do, simple prudence dictated that a 40-cm-thick layer of impervious, transparent polymer be emplaced between myself and any anti-tech zealots that might have managed to evade Drew's watchful eye. There was no logical reason for this particular location, but somehow it seemed right to share my quiet timeless stare with that of a forgotten stone artifact. The plant kingdom's relationship to Time is very different to that of animals; I know, for I have partaken of both, albeit never simultaneously. To animals, 'now' is an infinitesimally tiny thing, ever fleeting; to plants, 'now' is so expansive as to be almost tangible, and it advances at a stately, deliberate pace. It is different, relaxing in its own way, and full of terror. There is a patience, a dispassionate observation of a world that roars by too fast to comprehend, at a speed which obviated appreciation of the quiet joys of life. When I was mobile, fast, the thought of plantlike existence terrified me. But sometimes it was necessary.

I'd found out about my dual nature at university, soon after the Martian Flu was finished with me. I'd been relaxing outside of the math/computer building on a bright sunny day, letting my bare feet play with the warm soil underneath, when I realized that sitting wasn't right. So I stood up and just stood there, respirating, transpirating, watching the sun rise and fall day after day. It took the biology faculty 2 months to decide to dig me up which, fortunately, restored me to my default state. It was...

It was seductive. And horrifying. And, sometimes, temporarily necessary.

Reluctantly I'd participated in studies, and eventually found that my mode of living was actually meta-stable; I could and did enjoy animal-like existence, but light and soil and a little bit of patience were all the stimulus my body needed to shift over to its alternate mode and take root. I did it when I needed to think, and I did it when I needed to heal as my body was able to regrow damaged sections much faster when in the static meta state. The current belief was that it was because my body could concentrate on repairs without needing to move or maintain a high metabolism. And yet...

Swallowing I removed my clothes and stood facing east, arms outstretched. I curled my toes and dug into the rich life-giving soil which had been enhanced with earth and loam brought from the mainland, and looked and stared and dreamed as the rays of the sun flowed visibly across the land like golden honey...

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

The physical tests really took it out of me. Around noon-thirty (i.e. as soon as McGregor was done playing sadist), I dropped in on the cafeteria and ate like Ad Astra was going to outlaw it tomorrow. Fortunately, nobody bothered me. Of course, the lack of interruptions might have had something to do with the fact that I didn't bother to downshift... You might think handling the tray would be a bit tricky at the 1/6 G I get with my default tempo of 6; if I hadn't already been doing that sort of thing for years, you'd be right. As it was, I came, I ate, I got the hell out and back to my room. With my internal vacuum temporarily filled, I took some time to surf Ad Astra's net before I hit the bed and lapsed into a coma for a while...

...hmmm. Clock said it was 1:24 PM. I'd been asleep for 7 clock-minutes, more than triple the usual; I had been tired. Okay, the next item on my agenda is... heh! Some kind of mock combat, against McGregor, so's he can gauge my fighting ability. Apparently, the Greenpeace assault and the reflex test weren't big enough clues -- more fool he.

And the sparring session was at 3:45 PM, which meant I had just over fourteen hours to kill. So what else is new. I set the PDA's built-in alarm clock to give me 12 minutes' notice, and resumed my exploration of Ad Astra's network. No reason not to start troubleshooting down dirtside, right? Amazingly enough, I actually managed to locate a few exploitable vulnerabilities! Betcha they're known glitches that were left in place as a test... or not. Either way, Ad Astra needed to know what I'd found; I sent a report to the sysop and took another catnap. 1:55. Three hours down, 11 to go...

Awake again, I got a sheaf of hardcopy from my luggage -- a printout of the trajectory I'd worked out for my toy rocket -- and returned to the computer. I found Mathematica (cool program, basically an industrial-strength calculator on steroids) on the machine, spent a while whipping my numbers into shape, then looked over AA's organizational chart and sent the Ballistics department a request (BCC'ed to McGregor) to check over my work. Another catnap, another hour and a quarter done.

At this point my stomach said it was time to take a chance on the cafeteria -- near-empty, thank Hestia, even if the bastards who were there insisted on invading my space to chat. Deliberately and with malice forethought, I pre-empted their anticipated 'thanks for the murders' verbiage by asking them questions, first. That got me a good-sized infodump, insiders' views of Ad Astra. A hell of a lot more tolerable than having to incessantly remind myself not to rip their damn faces off; I'd have to try this again the next time I got surrounded. Three and a half hours gone, and could've been more if their lunch hour hadn't ended.

One more nap in my room later, I went outside with a camera to play tourist. Would've preferred a digital model, but AA regs frowned upon unauthorized CPU-bearing gadgets, so it was a cheap-ass, disposable, 35-millimeter analog film job. I could have spent more, but seeing how bad my vision sucks anyway... It was the usual balmy Easter Island weather -- partial overcast, windy with occasional high-end gusts, bloody cold. Didn't stop me from getting shots of the moai. Also a few aerial pics; as long as I had this opportunity to jump around at a high tempo and not care, why not?

Kind of neat, wandering the Island without a detailed itinerary. Sure, I had a 3:45 appointment, but that was four hours off -- plenty of time to poke around. As I moved, a little glint of light caught my eye every so often. Didn't think anything of it the first time, but by the fourth, I not only realized it was fixed in one spot, I also decided to jump over for a closer look.

Turned out to be a big glass box (four meters tall, three across) with massive metal frame and a sloping roof, whose sides leaned in a couple degrees off of vertical. Contents: One dryad, buck-naked, arms raised to the sky, standing immobile with her feet buried in the dirt up to her ankles --

Shit! She has wigged out! was my first thought. Gotta get her out of there! But the damn box was too well-built! Design-wise, the structure had no evident weak points; sniffing at it, I couldn't find any evidence of poor materials (scent-traces suggested the metal was a high-vanadium steel alloy, and if I recognized the residual plasticizers in the 'glass', it was actually a Kevlar/Teflon polymer blend) or flawed construction (no excessive oxidation, etc, in the welds). Throwing rocks was an option, but not a good one; even my trans-sonic fastball might not be able to scratch the surface, and the risk of spalling off the interior was too great anyway. There was an obvious door, with the phrase SUE'S RESTING PLACE hand-written above it, but no handle -- just a PDA scanner and what had to be a software-controlled automatic latch. A big red button, labeled IN CASE OF EMERGENCY, which Demeter knew this was --

No. The panic button would almost certainly alert McGregor, and forget that until I ruled out the wolf as a potential mindgamer. But at the same time, a sane and active Carter was too damned valuable to Ad Astra, so if the bastard was an AAer, they'd have to be working alone, a single-digit cabal at worst, without their co-workers' knowledge or consent. So the question is... who do you trust, Jube? My reflexive first answer -- trust? yeah, right -- wasn't helpful, so I kept at it, and decided that the least likely suspect was Meisel, the medical head honcho, 'preservation of life' and all that.

I took a chance on the PDA, one of whose many functions was voice chat. An AA mindgamer could have a back door into the system for crap like real-time eavesdropping, but if they did, the PDA's built-in position tracking meant they already knew I'd found Carter, so it didn't matter if I did something which confirmed that fact...

Meisel answered on the first ring. "Mr. Acinonyx! Thank you so much for calling! I've been wanting to compare notes --"

"BFD. The name's 'Jubatus', and I'm about 10 feet away from Carter. What's going on?"

"Ah... excuse me?"

Apparently, I'd derailed Meisel's train of thought. Like I cared. "Look, Meisel. Your big brain, Sue Carter, is just standing there like a bloody mannequin! What the hell is wrong with her!?"

A couple of endless seconds crawled by before I got a response. "Oh. She must not have told you."

"Apparently not," I growled through clenched fangs.

"I'm sor --"

"Fuck 'sorry'! I want answers, damnit!" And then I upshifted high, and took deep breaths until I was calm again. The doc still hadn't said anything by the time I regained a tempo of 1. "Okay. That was uncalled for. I think I owe you an apology, Dr. Meisel."

After another second or so, she said, "No, that's quite alright." The sympathy in her voice could have been genuine. "I can see how it would be quite a shock if you weren't informed."

"Yes, you could say that. Now would you care to inform me, please?"

"Of course, Mr. Acinonyx. Physiologically speaking, Dr. Carter is a plant, and when she's rooted like this, she doesn't just heal, she actually regenerates. She is currently healing, very fast and very completely."

I crouched against the 'glass', peered inside; for all I could tell, the dryad's leg wound was gone. "I... see..."

"Aside from the medical benefits, she also finds the rooted state to be a powerful aid to concentration," Meisel said. "Really, there's nothing to worry about, Mr. Acinonyx! She's done this plenty of times before."

"Not worried," I said as I continued staring at the dryad. "Not any more, I mean. It just... takes a little getting used to, is all. So. When she gonna wake up?"

"Just before sunset. We've found that sunlight eases the uprooting process. Would you like to be in attendance when Dr. Carter returns to active life?"

I thought about declining, but the dryad was vulnerable now, and would be for as long as she stayed rooted. No sense giving the mindgamer(s) a free shot at her. Not on my watch, by Ceres! "Just try to keep me away."

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

My physiognomy incorporates an odd dichotomy. Whilst mobile, I fear planting myself; whilst planted, I fear being uprooted and the return of mobility. Being planted is different. I still breathe, to completely survive by transpiration I'd need to look more or less like a tree to get the required surface area, but shallowly and slowly. Nevertheless my surface does transpirate which creates an odd calmness within my body that changes to a momentary sense of panic when I exhale and inhale, and then returns whilst my breathing pauses to let gas exchange take place both on the inside and the outside. In fiction I'd read before my change, I'd heard it being described as a 'circuit', but that isn't right; it's more like an unstable stasis, the calm before the storm, standing at the top of a cliff just before you leap off. There is an eagerness, a freshness, a calmness that I don't have whilst mobile as I just stand there. When it rains I don't feel raindrops, but instead a sensation of coolness, moistness, and a subtle annoyance at the interference with my transpiration; when it is sunny I often find it too bright and it takes too long to close my eyes if I forgot and left them open. I knew when Jubatus was nearby, a blur, an instant of comfort that was suddenly gone. And as the sun rapidly sank I knew it would soon be time to be uprooted, torn from the earth, and forced once again to the hurry-rush of mobile life, of the endless necessity of rapid breaths and the hypertrophied, Rube Goldberg complexities of animal existence.

Of being forced to interact with those whom Jubatus refers to as 'slowpokes'.

It is time.

Powerless I feel them cutting through the fine roots I've grown, a sensation like clipping a thousand nails; and then I'm gently lifted up by hot animal hands and cold water is sprayed on my roots, cleansing them, tearing me from the soil, forcing me to think and breathe and begin to move.

And once again to fear becoming rooted.

It's over; I'm back and mobile, looking at the shriveled roots left behind and shivering. Carefully putting weight on my leg I find that it has almost completely healed so the rooting accomplished its purpose. Apparently, Jubatus had come to watch my resurrection. "I apologize for causing you to see this, it is the best way for me to heal from traumatic injury."

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Came 3:45 and I was at the designated sparring arena, been there since 3:41. In other words, I'd spent 20-odd minutes puzzling over why McGregor was bothering, and whether or not Carter'd had a hand in designing the protocols, and the usual gang of worries besides. Didn't even see the wolf until after an involuntary upshift -- the sucker fired at me from ambush. A paintball: I traced it back to its source, grabbed it out of the air, and tapped at the door of the camouflaged concrete bunker he was hiding in.

"You know, MacDuff, if you keep on pulling this kind of shit, I might start to think you don't love me any more."

A previously unseen door opened. "Good afternoon, Mr. Acinonyx. Come in." Not the response I was looking for. Then again, a sense of humor isn't necessarily a desirable trait in a chief of security... After I stepped inside, he pointed out a standard-issue Ad Astra helmet: "Put it on."

I did, but that didn't stop me from asking, "Done, but what's the point here?"

"Ad Astra exists in a state of perpetual siege. Need I say more?"

I thought for a moment, then sighed. "Shit. So there really is a non-trivial chance of another neo-Luddite attack while I'm here."

"Approximately 4.7 percent," the wolf agreed.

"Right. All those goddamn idiots who drive their econoboxes to every anti-technology rally they hear about on the Net, and never once get a fucking clue."

"Yup. Hypocrites all."

"Fine, but you saw what I could do in that first attack," I said, then (afraid I already knew the answer) I asked: "What else do you need?"

"A more comprehensive picture of your military value."

"Wonderful," I muttered. Sometimes being right is a real pain.

Then the bastard went to work.

Personally, I've never been a fan of tactical wargames, computer or otherwise. Sure, nobody actually dies in them, but the implicit mayhem really rubs me the wrong way. So naturally, McGregor started on real life military simulations. The first item on his agenda was determining exactly what it took to tag me with a bullet -- sorry, 'paintball' -- which ultimately turned out to be '500 rounds per clock-second, divvied up between five separate attackers'. McGregor took credit; no idea if he really had done it, or he'd ordered the others to allow him the kill, or what. Either way, he certainly smelled happy.

McGregor offered me a couple pounds of raw meat during a snack break. I took a quick (upshifted) sniff, but the only discernable additives were garlic, vinegar and orange extract. So how'd the wolf know my favorite blend? That isn't in any files he'd have access to... "Thanks. Who told you, Carter or Miesel?"

He swallowed his own raw hamburger before answering. "Mr Acinonyx, I have been studying you for nearly a week. I know how you think, and I know your preferences, in food and in everything else."

If he can get that from a week's exposure to me, what's he gotten from his years with Carter? "That go for Ad Astra's permanent employees, too, or just us temps? "

"Everyone. It's my job. She compiles and I research, " he said wistfully. And exactly who might 'she' be..? "We work well together. We keep the rest in line."

Okay, wolf. You've just elected yourself prime suspect, but I don't know your accomplice(s). Yet. "Oh?"

"Carter and I --"

I upshifted to hide my shock. Him and Carter?! Like hell! No way Carter would ever let anybody use her! At least, not willingly... Shock over, I downshifted to keep from missing any more of his words.

"--on't know why she let you loose -- I guess she had her reasons." So saying, he finished his lunch. "Now, time for tactical and unit drills."

"What's the point? You know I work alone."

"Not on Easter Island you don't. You will drill and learn how to help existing units and not force them to abort to avoid you. We will start now."

Not an afternoon to write home about. At least after the wolf was done with me, I got to keep watch as the dryad safely resumed her mobile state...

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

Morning the next day and I was waiting for Jubatus and Sandra on the Fokker. It was calming, albeit not as much so as next week would initially be -- assuming NASA kept on schedule, an event of grave unlikelihood. I felt better, more relaxed than I had in a while. Planting always did that to me, even through the fear it caused both rooting and uprooting. In fact not even the cool wind and the dim sun behind the low cloud cover was enough to dampen my mood. I was inspecting the missiles under the wings when I heard footsteps behind me, and turning around I confirmed it was the passengers.

"Ah, good morning Mr. Jubatus, Sandra. I trust that you're both ready for the fun part of the training?"

I could see Jubatus looking at the missiles under the port wing.

"Medically he's ready, Dr. Carter."

"Sandra, we've known each other long enough, you can call me Susan." I'd suggested this before, but she had always refused and that ensured that she knew who was the dominant personality. She was not herself afflicted with SCABS, but that, far from being bothersome, actually simplified matters; it merely meant that in order for me to ensure that her behaviour remained within optimal norms, I had only to exploit those cues and psychological traits specific to homo sapiens sapiens, and did not have to take other species' into account.

"That wouldn't be right doctor."

"Fine, then --"

Jubatus interrupted us: "Expecting uninvited guests?" He was pointing at the missiles.

"'Expect' is not the right word, Mr. Jubatus. It would be more accurate to say that we feel it would be imprudent not to be prepared for such visitors. This is our primary defense against attacks such as the one you experienced -- the ground stations are supposed to be backups."

He nodded, his eyes retaining their focus on the under-wing ordinance. "Suppose there's an attack while we're up today? Do passengers have any assigned duties when the shit hits the fan?"

"Yes. Passengers must remain strapped into their seats, out of the way." Curious; he'd tensed up a bit at my first syllable, only to relax almost immediately thereafter. "Defensive action is the pilot's responsibility." His reaction was consistent with the data I'd obtained from McGregor, which indicated that Jubatus was, quote, scared shitless, end quote, by violence. Very odd given his gifts in that department.

Obviously satisfied, he nodded. "Fine by me."

"Well, all aboard then."

I'd been awake for a while helping the ground crew with fueling, so I knew the Fokker was set to go. After confirming that both both passengers and the equipment were secure, it was a brief chat with ground control for confirmation, and then a short taxi, power up, and into the air. On-board radar showed clear as we passed through the clouds into the brilliant sunshine and I levelled the plane and put her on autopilot to go back and help the two prepare themselves.

"You can unbelt now and we can begin the freefall samplings whenever you're ready."

Sandra was already unbelting, but Jubatus remained still.


He smiled as if at some private joke. "Not particularly. Should I be?"

"OK. Bags are to your left. Sandra, do you need any help?" She was already getting out the equipment to monitor Jubatus' vital signs and I wanted to be there with the pheromone I was using in case he got jumpy.

"That's all right." She turned to the cheetahmorph. "Mr. Acinonyx, I'm going to need to trim your fur to get a clean contact. It'll just be a few spots."

"Go for it. Spots I got plenty of."

Pulling out an electric razor with vacuum attachment, Sandra quickly cleared the locations required. I watched as Jubatus appeared to remain calm, but I could see an odd glow come and go, the same glow that I'd seen before when he upshifted. By my observations and his own testimony, he involuntarily reacted to threats; apparently the electric razor was so classified. But why the glow? And why was he able to jump so high and smooth during the attack? So far the observed data strongly suggested a layered field effect of some kind around him, but the precise nature of that effect remained unclear. There were a number of possibilities, none of them entirely satisfactory. If this hypothetical field absorbed molecular kinetic energy, it would mean that SCABS had granted him a second superhuman ability, unrelated to his metabolic control, which could not be ruled out a priori but was deeply unlikely nonetheless; alternately, all could be explained if he were a true chronomorph with actual localized control of time. Even with the physics-bending examples of polymorphs and inanimorphs which preceded him, that was an idea I didn't want to accept but... My thoughts were interrupted as the machine beeped once, and then let out a high pitched whine. "Something wrong?"

"I don't know Dr. Carter, I checked it before we boarded, but... it's not getting a clean reading." She flicked it off, removed the contacts, and began to clean them, when Jubatus spoke.

"Mind if I take a look at the manual?"

I looked at Sandra and she shrugged, handing him a three-ring binder of documentation and saying "Go ahead," before she returned to her meticulous 'by the book' procedures. Paper hissed against paper for a short period, then she was about to start re-cleaning Jubatus' shaved bits when the cheetahmorph spoke again.

"Got an idea. It's quick and dirty, but we're on a deadline, and however much slack you guys wrote into the schedule, you burned more than a day of it waiting for me to wake up. If my idea works, we're back in business in under a minute."

Sandra looked doubtful, so I put her mind at ease: "Mr. Jubatus is himself a highly skilled troubleshooter; in fact, that's why the board approved bringing him up to Brin Station. Consider this an example of his abilities."

"Thanks," he said, then he grabbed the monitor and poked around inside. "Pliers?"

I retrieved the tool kit from under the seat and pulled out a pair of needlenose pliers and handed them to him.

He fiddled for a second, the 'aura' of his metabolic acceleration conspicuous by its absence, before pulling his hands out. "Got it," he said, and then handed the pliers back to me. "Try it now." He sat back down and Sandra went through the procedure again, and this time it beeped and kept beeping.

"Mr. Jubatus, what did you do?"

"It thought the impedance was too high, so I dialed down the sensitivity on the check circuit."

Lower sensitivity? I frowned. "But that's just a band-aid, not a proper solution at all!"

He shrugged. "I said my idea was quick and dirty. As long as it works, what's the problem?"


She checked the machine, touched her fingers to Jubatus' neck and after 30 seconds, "It matches what I feel. Still..."

"There you go. The damn thing was just oversensitive; nothing to worry about."

A moment passed, and then Sandra looked at me and shrugged.

"If it's good enough for the doctor, it's good enough for me."

"Thank you, Sandra. Now you'd best get ready for the fun part of the training Mr. Jubatus." I turned to make my way back into the control cabin as Sandra strapped herself down. She could handle herself in freefall but was never comfortable with it. After a quick confirmation with ground control, I turned another 180 degrees. "All ready back there?"

"When you're ready, doctor."

"What she said."

"Here we go then." I pulled the plane into a steep climb, saying, "Freefall in 3, 2, 1..." and then began to apply vertical deceleration to our trajectory. From that moment we were on a ballistic arc. For a second I relaxed, but then I remembered Angelo, and... I grabbed the seat and held on tight, forcing down my fear. I had loved this, the freedom, the peace, but since... No! I refused to live this way. Willing my breathing to calm I managed to relax and listened, but I heard no panic from Jubatus, no screams, just the regular beeping on the monitor -- his heart rate didn't even seem to have jumped. "All right back there?"

Jubatus was the only one who answered. "Piece of cake."

He must have been on planes before. "Mr. Jubatus..." and then the warning on the radar beeped. "...freefall will end in about 2 seconds." After I pulled the Fokker out of her dive, I sent her into a slow climb. "Sandra, any problems from our patient?"

"Nothing odd. His readings are steadier than yours."

Steadier than mine used to be -- even before Angelo my heart jumped a bit when freefall started. Why hadn't Jubatus'? No matter how calm and collected a person is, freefall always raises the metabolism -- it's a survival instinct, a moment of fear. "We'll be ready for another ride in about a minute. Sandra, are you sure that machine is working?"

"I checked the initial freefall readings manually to make sure."

"In that case, Sandra, something is odd. Everybody experiences fear momentarily upon entering free fall, so why don't you, Mr. Jubatus?"

Smugly, he shrugged. "I got used to it."


"What's the matter, Carter? Can't figure it out on your own? Think it through!"

Stop. Think -- don't let him bait you. I never got used to free fall, and I have the fifth longest cumulative exposure of anybody at AA. Therefore, his pulse had to fluctuate. Maybe another trial... "You're both ready?"

"Yes," Jubatus said, and Sandra echoed.

What was I missing? Occam's Razor suggested that all of his oddities were connected. "Freefall in 3, 2, 1..." and then I was again on the edge of panic as the damned monitor recorded the same level of calmness. I forced my mind to focus -- why? Hypothesis: Jubatus could control local time flow. What would that mean? First fact: something decreased his drag. Solution: time varied around him in a highly localized field with the standard inverse-square decay function. This would cause his surface to appear as a set of nested layers of different drag coefficients. Next fact: freefall has no apparent metabolic affect. Solution: Jubatus has stated that his body reacts to threats, it changes the intensity of the time distortion field. Since time and gravity are inter-related, that means that his body would have localized control of gravity. That bastard! All this time and -- no. Remember the scientific method. It may fit the data, but the 'time control' hypothesis hasn't yet been confirmed. A few more seconds passed, and the radar beeped. "Freefall will end in about 2 seconds."

"Gotcha," Jubatus replied.

I waited two seconds, three to be safe, and then pulled the Fokker out of the dive, returning her to level flight. After checking the systems and locking in the autopilot I climbed into the back. Sandra was visibly nervous, and a sheen of sweat was on her forehead -- Jubatus looked perfectly calm. "So how was your first experience of freefall, Mr. Jubatus?"

"Zero gravity? Piece of cake, like I said."

"Mr. Jubatus, that was not 'zero gravity', that was freefall. There is a significant difference. In orbit we will not be under 'zero gravity' but experiencing freefall within a reduced gravitational field."

"Whatever you say, Doc," he stated, his face as insufferably smug as that of any natural feline.

"Mr. Jubatus, English is an exact language." There; as a technical writer, he couldn't help but surrender to the superior force of my argument.

"You bet! And 'free fall' is a Tom Petty tune from the late '90s."

He was mocking me! How dare -- no. Calm, stay calm. "Terms have specific meanings. 'Zero gravity' would almost exist if we were at the Lagrange point between the Earth and the Moon. It did not exist now, and it will not exist on Brin."

"Zero gravity, freefall, what's the diff?"

"They are very different, Mr. Jubatus." I could feel my hands clenching and forced them to relax. "Sandra, do you have everything you need?"

She swallowed. "I'd prefer one more set just to make sure. I want to confirm the whole sequence manually."

It seemed she shared my concerns. "No problem. You've got five minutes."

Jubatus smiled maliciously. "I'll be ready for zero gee when you are."

I opened my mouth to reply, and then closed it. He was edging me on in a friendly banter kind of way; I refused to grant him the dominant position by rising to his bait. "Freefall, Mr. Jubatus." I turned and sat back down, disengaged the autopilot, turned, and began to climb again. After a minute I called back, "Freefall in 3, 2, 1..." and again the Fokker was on its ballistic course. Calm, I would remain calm. Even through the maddening steady beep of the pulse monitor. Think: If Jubatus could locally control time what else would occur? Anything that moved into or through his body would effectively be slowed down or sped up due to the distortion in local space-time. Electricity would be affected -- as was the monitor! But he wasn't shifting so why... And the type of effect suggested that he was slowing down time... Hadn't he said at one point that his default was 6x normal? Did he have to slow down time simply to interact -- and the radar beeped its ground proximity warning. I called back, "Freefall will end in three seconds," and then I waited, and then gently levelled off the dive. A quick turn, a reengagement of the autopilot, and then back into the passenger cabin. "Well?" I asked Sandra.

"Pulse was rock steady -- both on the machine, and through my own fingers. He's good to go."

"Well Mr. Jubatus, you pass with flying colours. Orbit shouldn't be a problem for you."

"I keep telling you, zero gee's a piece of cake."

Friendly banter. Very well, play along with it. "And what sort of cake would that be?"

"Sirloin, extra rare, with lemon/garlic filling and a demitasse of A.1. icing on the side."

Bemused, I could only shake my head. "Freefall, Mr. Jubatus." I returned to the cabin and called ground control and prepared for landing. They called back a weather prediction; according to them, the incoming storm front likely wouldn't actually arrive until tomorrow. I needed a storm, I really did.

If Jubatus did have local control over time, he might also have it over gravity. They were inter-related -- Einstein had worked that out. It seemed too much a coincidence -- my research halted until the collider is built, and then the sudden appearance of a SCAB that could answer all my questions. Still, it fit too well. Fine. Assume he did. How to prove it? Tests and readings -- if there was a continuous local field when he was interacting, then electrical impedance would appear to change as he changed his local space/time. Tomorrow was the centrifuge, and if I could get claim a need to get some baseline metabolic readings...

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For once, being permanently stuck on Fast Forward was a Good Thing: I wanted to soak up everything Ad Astra had to offer, and I only had two weeks in which to do it, with maybe one or two extra days on the other side of orbit.

'Two weeks' by the calendar, meaning at a tempo of 1. That equalled 'three months' at my default tempo of 6, or 'a year and a half' at a tempo of 40... Okay, that last was an unreachable upper bound (if nothing else, my schedule included way too much time spent in the company of slowpokes), but you get the idea, right? The point is, I had a goal with which to while away the hours while I was here -- and that goal was, 'gather a lot more data than anyone else could'.

Even the time necessarily spent at a tempo of 1 isn't that bad; live, first-hand reports from Ad Astrans have a certain something, a personal touch that just doesn't come through in video or text files. And it's not like the time is wasted anyway, because while I'm dawdling with AA slowpokes, the search-bots I've written are combing AstraNet for interesting data at cybernetic speed. Mind you, I'm not stupid (or self-deluded) enough to think I'll be able to take all my booty back home with me, but I'm pretty sure McGregor will rule that some of my collected files aren't sensitive enough to warrant confiscation.

Case in point: The Sue Files, a combination betting pool and running gag that's been absorbing the spare time of Ad Astra's personnel for at least 6 calendar years. A whole batch of files that I ignored when I first noticed 'em on AstraNet, but went back to after hearing various AAers talk about them. The deal is, Sue Carter's been supplying photos and news items to the likes of the Weekly World News --

Yeah, I know. That's what I thought, too. It gets better: Not only is she getting a little cash on the side from the stuff she gives those yutzes to print, but every item she's given them has some sort of 'in-joke' concealed in it, and sometimes more than one! That's what the betting pool is about: how many of Sue's in-jokes will be identified (by other AAers) in any given week or month or whatever...

You want a 'for instance'? Okay, here's one: A photoshopped image, looks like a daguerreotype of Abraham Lincoln shaking hands with one of those big-eyed Grey aliens -- and if you decode the digital watermark, you get a copyright notice and a limerick:

Subscribers to this publication

Are far from a cause for elation.

And if you paid cash

Before reading this trash,

I recommend decapitation.

Another example: A lengthy article -- basically a Bible Code rerun -- that 'proved' President Bush Jr. to be responsible for the Martian Flu. The tricky bit is, if you take the second letter of every seventh word in the thing, you get MINUS B PLUS OR MINUS SQRT OPEN PAREN B SQUARED MINUS FOUR AC CLOSE PAREN OVER FOUR A -- in other words, the Quadratic Formula! But that's not all: In the starting paragraphs, the first letters of the last words in every sentence, in reverse order, spell out LORD WHAT FOOLS THESE MORTALS BE...

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Last night I had sat down and worked out some possible rough mathematical descriptions of the way that Jubatus' time power would likely have to work, on the presumption that he did indeed possess such ability. After one formulates a hypothesis the next step is to test it, and thus...

"Carter, what the hell do you think you're gonna do with this?" he asked, holding up one of the sensor pods of a magnetometer. "I thought I was here for a physical examination, not a Physics 101 exam."

A better description might be a Physics 401 exam, but I decided not to mention that. It is always more useful to have the subject unaware that he is a subject in order to ensure natural responses. "I thought that it would be appropriate to take some baseline readings before you go through the centrifuge, in order to develop a reliable set of data for comparison --"


I paused, puzzled. "Excuse me?"

"I said, 'No'. As in, 'No, I'm not going to let you probe at me.' You can just point your sensors elsewhere, because this is one physics exam I'm not taking part in."

"But... surely you must realize that --"

"What part of 'no' are you having trouble comprehending?"

"Well, I'm not at all clear on why you've elected not to cooperate on this matter. Could you clarify your rationale for me, please?"

"Fu -- uhhhh... Again, no. My reasons are none of your damn business. You wouldn't even be asking that question unless you thought you could persuade me to change my mind, and that ain't gonna happen."

"But --"

"Tell you what: You let me know how many minutes you want to waste on this bullshit, and I'll just go poke around the Island for that length of time, how's that sound?"

Calm. Show no emotion. If my hypothesis was correct, that meant that the cheetahmorph knew and was trying to hide the fact. If he knew, then he must not want me to find out why. Assuming of course that my hypothesis was correct. I had tossed the 'hypothetical' fluid dynamics model of Jubatus' flight to some biological specialists I knew, so if I was wrong, they would find the answer. Until they did I would operate under the assumption that I was right, for Jubatus was the key to my dream for humanity.

He started to get up and I realized that I had almost waited too long. "Very well, Mr. Jubatus. As this exam is not critical to certifying you for orbit, you do have the right to refuse it." I started putting away the measuring devices I'd brought. If he wanted to play that way, there were other ways of getting the data. "If you are ready for the centrifuge then...?"

He got up, calm and collected as he always was, and I motioned him towards the entrance. Contrary to popular belief, Ad Astra is not infinitely powerful or wealthy. The massive centrifuge requires a significant amount of energy and thus it is set up to both use electrical potential to speed up, and then return the same electrical potential into batteries whilst in process of decelerating. There was some loss, as in any system, but the net result is that the power can be stored from off-peak hours, and then be used as a reserve in case of problems. After checking to make sure that Jubatus was securely strapped in and that the medical monitors, which I had adapted to a lower sensitivity -- another point supporting the time hypothesis -- were tested and did work I followed Matt up into the control booth where Peter was already seated and watched as they started the centrifuge up.

And then my PDA buzzed.

What was so important -- ah! It was the storm that had been coming -- the meteorological front had sped up and would break over the island in an estimated thirty minutes, which gave me just enough time to get my equipment. At this point anything that got my mind off of Jubatus would help me think about this rationally. I needed a break to make sure that I wasn't focusing on the hypothetical time control to excess and incorrectly discarding other possibilities. With a nod to Matt I turned and hurried off to get my wings and meet the storm.

I needed to remember that I was alive.

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Considered as a roller-coaster, the centrifuge rated -1 on a scale of 1 to 10 -- bor-ing! The worst part of it was worrying about Carter. Maybe I'd stomped on the bloody magnetometer, but what other sensor-tricks did she have up her sleeve? Have to be careful about resisting the dryad's probes; raising too much of a fuss is a sure-fire way to attract the wrong sort of attention from other Ad Astrans, and Carter's scrutiny is bad enough by itself.

Having done all I could to forestall disaster, I pushed it out of my mind and concentrated on riding the centrifuge. Had a couple of weird spells -- 'real' gravity or not, it was still the first time I'd ever experienced 1 G at my default tempo, kinda threw off my equilibrium -- but upshifting helped, and when it was all over, I thought I'd check in with Carter. Apart from the sensor thing, maybe I could gather more data relevant to the asshole(s) playing with our heads.

Unfortunately, she wasn't there! I just didn't get it. She'd suddenly become very interested in what made me tick, and she pursued whatever interested her with all the unfocused frivolity of a salmon en route to the mating grounds. So why in Thoth's name had she bugged out? I asked the two-man centrifuge crew: "Where's Carter?"

The flunkies looked at each other, and one said, "I think she's gone to throw herself off a cliff."

"No kidding. Thanks ever so." They didn't want to tell me -- fine. I'd just have to find out on my own. Obvious first line of investigation: Use the PDA... and discover that Carter's status was a mystery. ATMOSPHERIC SURVEY, location unspecified. Damn. She's locked herself out of the system; why? Never mind, time to worry about that when you find her. With technological searching out of the question, my next trick was something a little different.

I tracked her scent.

Her trail led outside. There was a hell of a wind, and rain falling in disorganized sheets -- I had to get down on all fours, and even then, Carter's minutes-old scent-traces were rapidly dissipating below the point of detectability. Fortunately, Easter Island isn't very big and doesn't have a lot of foliage to block line of sight. By the time the storm had washed her traces completely away, I'd reached a point where I could stand back up -- and I saw her. On the edge of a cliff.

And she jumped...

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I didn't even feel an instant of freefall before the wind howling up the cliff grabbed me. Even throwing my arms vertical to prevent them from being ripped off wasn't enough to stop the wind from tossing me hundreds of metres into the air against the driving rain, each drop's individual impact a separate and unique impulse of vitality on my back, on my legs, on my head.

I was alive!

Then, so abruptly as to defy thought, the wind scattered into a million tiny vortices, and the rain turned to stinging hail as I stretched out my arms to catch the air and keep from being dashed to the ground. In my mind I pictured the cells of high and low pressure, the swirls of screaming air, the static trembling across their boundaries, capturing the entire system in a four-dimensional differential construct that changed from second to second. In one instant the probabilities were clear, and then something would change the entire system.

Swooping down, screaming both in pain and pleasure, I saw Mr. Jubatus on the ground staring at me in shock, and a slight movement of my arms changed the airfoil structure that kept me from falling so that I raced by only metres above him, outpacing the hail, until I was suddenly grabbed by an unknown cell of warmth that shoved me upwards, the wind singing against the transparent plastic of my wings, making their straps dig into my arms, for a second reminding me that this was only artificial, that I was aloft only through the magic of technology. I lowered my legs, and for a moment I kept my arms outstretched to what I knew was the limit of the stress the material could take, before I let the wind blow my arms back to the vertical.

Then the cell broke, and for moment I hung at the apogee of my arc, before I rotated around and dove straight down, the stinging wind almost blinding me but in my mind I knew where the ground was and how long I had to pull up. As long as the storm didn't mutate.

It was just me, and the storm. And the sure knowledge that I was still alive.

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After the initial surprise, it didn't take long to figure out that she was wearing an airfoil suit of one kind or another, probably made of some tough and transparent plastic. Then there was the second (and continuing) shock of realizing that she wanted this, wanted to risk violent and painful death, that she'd done it deliberately. I remembered the so-called 'extreme sports' that'd been briefly popular around the turn of the century; all of them were as tame as a neutered rabbit, compared to what she'd done. Heh -- maybe extreme sports might still be around if Storm Riding had been part of the deal! Thor's hammer, what an exhibition...

...and an indeterminate number of seconds later, it was over. Aloft, she'd swooped gracefully through the convection cells; unfortunately, her landing was as clumsy as her fight wasn't. She bounced and rolled awkwardly through the tough grass. I was there to meet her when she skidded to a halt.

"What do you think, Mr. Jubatus?"

"I think you fly like a seagull, and you land like one, too. Wouldn't it be quicker and more efficient if you just lose the suit?"

She looked thoughtful for a second, then said, "I could, but then it would be difficult to soar for more than five minutes, and landings would be much rougher." Watching the storm front recede, she went on: "Mr. Jubatus, too often my mind dominates my body. It is times like this that remind me that I am a biological organism, and not one of Stapledon's Fourth Men. It is both an intellectual and physical challenge that I need to stay alive. "Then she faced me. "I am a living creature, not just a brain. Often it is very hard to remember that." With that, she started peeling the airfoils off of her body.

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Sandra had just finished checking me over, she always insisted on checking me over after a ride, and her checks were a condition of the board allowing me to do it. That and wearing a biological monitor to call Sandra and the psychological recommendation that without this release I would go insane. That one had taken some effort. As she finished putting away her instruments she asked me over to a computer station and pulled up a WAV sound file.

"Dr. Carter. What do you make of this?"

I listened as Sandra played a recording of a most peculiar noise, a sort of slow warble in the upper register. "It would appear you've got two oscillators that are marginally out of synchronization with one another, thus creating a 'beat frequency'."

"No. There's just one sound source, and it's Mr. Acinonyx. "

Now that was interesting. Why would Jubatus be making that noise? It was like nothing I'd ever heard, but... "Sandra, could you slow down the recording, say by a factor of six?"

Blinking, she looked at me, and then shrugged. "As you wish."

I waited and then listened to the sound as it played again, this time revealing itself to be far more complex than a mere warble. It consisted of a remarkable variety of noises, hisses and growls and squeaks and clicks and many more, their pitches flitting semi-randomly up and down the audible spectrum and beyond, all seamlessly blended into a sort of multi-layered audio collage, with varying levels of reverb and other processing seemingly applied to the whole of it. And the cadence and 'beats' of this sound, overall, were oddly similar to those of spoken language...

It went on for five minutes. As I listened, my brain's efficiency-heightened auditory center gradually resolved various bits of it to intelligible (if isolated) syllables: 'Ha', 'ist', 'made', and 'vio', among others. But why would Jubatus have made such a sound? What was the point of it? Thinking back, his medical records had contained a section devoted to his vocalizing abilities...

Of course!

"Could it be some kind of RFI or cross-talk from security recordings?"

"No, I don't think so. I believe our guest talks in his sleep and I would guess the distortion and tonal qualities are because the sound is at the frequency limits of the monitoring equipment."

"I'll tell him in the morn-"

"No, best not to."

"Dr. Carter?"

"If he talks in his sleep, we'd better get Drew on it in case he spouts out things better kept secret. I'll make sure he keeps it private and I'll tell him before I take him home."

"Are you sure?"

Looking at the screen I did not allow my smile to appear on my face. "We need to monitor this for security reasons."

"As you wish then. I'll let Mr. McGregor --"

"Don't worry about it -- I'll tell him in the morning. We'll have to swap some of the hardware anyway to handle the frequency."

"I'll log it in his files then."

"You do that. Good night."

"Good night Dr. Carter."

I turned and walked away thinking. If Jubatus did control time, then he was a very valuable commodity. No matter how great his waking reluctance to aid the cause of science, some useful information could be mentioned accidentally. Alternately, there's always blackmail. This time I let my smile onto my face. Drew would take care of the hardware changes, and after that it wouldn't be difficult using some backdoors to make sure that I got a copy of anything recorded.

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Next day was technical systems training, which included the final testing of my pressure suit. This wasn't strictly necessary -- it was all off-the-shelf tech, no real surprises, and I'd checked it myself anyway -- but redundancy is good. Aside from that, I had to lose the fur, to ensure the proper fit. Zero-G meant that shaving was right out -- clipped-off hair fragments being tiny enough to drift inside people's pressure suits to impersonate itching powder, not to mention the usual round of problems electronic circuits have with organic contamination -- so it was depilatory lotion all the way. What I'd brought with me didn't pass muster, so after my attendant stopped laughing, he supplied a half-liter pump bottle of Ad Astra-approved glop.

A shpritz of DeadGlove on my hands and I started to slather on the lotion, which wasn't Nair for SCABs. Pity, that. The stuff bubbled on contact with my fur, and I did my best to ignore the noxious aroma that emerged from each bubble as it popped. Breathing through my mouth helped, but only a little, since the stench insisted on diffusing up through the back of my sinuses. Fortunately, Ad Astra had a little experience along this line; someone rubbed a dab of Vicks under my snout, and I couldn't smell anything over it -- whew!

"Better?" A male voice -- didn't recognize it.

"Yeah. Thanks."

"You're welcome," he said. Caucasian norm, six-footer, light hair. "Even to a human nose, that stuff reeks pretty bad; I don't want to know how it smells to you!"

I smiled. "McGregor really hated it, huh?"

The guy smiled back. "Oh yeah! Same as every other furry type who's gone up."

"You have many outside guests?"

"More than you'd think, though most are norms. McGregor's been up; didn't like it. We took Dr. Brin up once years ago -- it just felt right. Some others, including a few SCABs. It's odd though, every SCAB guest we've had was furred... which was a real bitch till we found this goop. Why are so many of you guys furry anyway?"

I shrugged. "You're asking me? Tell it to the Martian Flu Virus."

"Sorry. Say, you ever done this before?"

"Shave? No, it's my first time."

"Got it," he said, nodding. "How're you set for clothes?"

I almost replied, 'like I need them?', but considering the weather hereabouts, I would need a substitute for my soon-to-be-missing fur. "I'm screwed," I admitted. "Didn't think when I was packing."

He chuckled. "Good to know you're human. Hang loose, I'll get you something to wear."

'Good to know --' son of a bitch! I zipped over to grab his arm before he left. "Hold it. Are you saying some people had doubts about my humanity?"

"Hell, yes! I mean, I wouldn't have believed it was possible to go from zero to 4 gigabucks in... wait. You thought I was talking about your SCABS, not your track record, didn't you?"

"Oh. " 'Enhance your calm', Jube. I let go of the guy. "Right. Let's just say the latter referent isn't exactly common, back home."

He swallowed and then was all business. "Okay. Clothes. Three sets alright? Good. And the goop, how much do you need for your trip?"

"Got a spare six month supply?"

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
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When I met Jubatus after he shaved, I barely managed to keep from giggling. It seemed that he'd met our resident chemist, Dr. Christian Johnson. Although Christian had two PhDs, he never really put on airs -- likely Jubatus never realized and thought he was just some techie. I could still smell some of the goop Christian had come up with on Jubatus and since he'd forgotten clothing, Christian had dressed him in a trench coat and he looked like a detective from some bad anime.


"Nothing Mr. Jubatus. I was just surprised to see you."


I had of course taken charge of Jubatus' training personally. This did require a minor realignment of my various pre-launch duties, but in view of the fact that the cheetahmorph displayed the same remarkable speed in learning as in the performance of any physical action, it was merely prudent that he be assigned a tutor able to transmit information as quickly as he could absorb it.

"Hang up your coat and sit down Mr. Jubatus." Fortunately Christian had also had a shirt and pants hanging around. "As a last minute change I've been asked to train you in your required technical skills in our systems, both computer which you shouldn't have any problem with, and orbital. We're running late already, so I expect you to pay attention."

He was seated at the computer terminal before I finished talking. "I'll just read."

"You will do that, and more. I expect you to read everything to expand upon what I'm going to teach but you will also learn and do what I tell you. There is no room for mistakes. On Earth, bad code can cause lost data; on Brin, it can cause everybody to die." He looked at me, his ears perked, and I knew I had his full attention. It seemed that Jubatus was indeed pathologically afraid of causing death. Odd that. "This terminal is an exact duplicate of the systems on Brin. The chair's different since we have gravity, but the other hardware matches. If you'll open the manual from the icon on the top-left corner of the screen, we'll start."

The rest of the day passed swiftly, with regular breaks for Jubatus to eat food that was brought for him. Morning was with the computer interface, Ad Astra coding structure, what flags designated how critical a function was, and other system-specific stuff. He caught on fast. Most of it was common sense, for example any critical system required three confirmation checks before it could be shut down. That one was inspired by the myth of the NASA technician who had told one of the Viking probes to turn off -- one of the Viking probes on Mars. Our IT head, a structure fanatic if there ever was one, had managed to keep personal idiosyncrasies more or less completely out of the code.

The afternoon curriculum switched to simulators of Babylon.

Incredible though it was, he actually objected to this portion of the training: "This is a waste of time, Carter. My upshift --"

"Shut up Mr. Jubatus. Your upshifting abilities are not sufficient. You may be able to step back, and think about things for a second or two of normal time, but even that is too long. As I told you before this all began, near earth orbit space is dangerous. Even you won't have time to think." I would have to give him an example. "In 2021, at the outbreak of the China/India war, I was aboard the US aircraft carrier Nimitz undergoing pilot training. Ad Astra used to get along better with NASA. When the war broke out and Chinese fighters were detected launching from land bases the admiral didn't know what was going on so he ordered all fighters to be airborne." Again the vision of what had happened that night played through my mind. "I watched from a corner of a lounge as the entire carrier deck exploded into a controlled pulse of activity. Hundreds of men and women ran across the deck. Catapults loaded. Blast deflectors popped up and slapped back down. And during all this not a single person got in the way of another. Why Mr. Jubatus? Because the entire crew had trained repeatedly to work as one organic whole in a four dimensional space/time environment. I watched as individuals suddenly turned for no apparent reason until 2 seconds later a blast deflector popped up. All I could do was stand in awe, staying out of the way of the immense organic machine that operated perfectly. If there had been an error someone would have died. I stood and watched for an hour, mesmerized by the interplay of lights flashing from reflective tape, the roar of engines, the snap of the catapults, the cacophony that was actually an example of four dimensional order.

"It was a defining moment for my opinions Mr. Jubatus. For in that instant, I saw the power and the might that was the due of humanity. That was when I swore that I would keep the race alive.

"However, this is an example for you. Each individual knew exactly where and when they were, and where and when all others were on that carrier deck. Each individual had to know that else either they, or someone who thought that that individual would be somewhere else, would have died. Ad Astra has to act like that because there is no room or time for anything else. You will learn to act like that as best you can, and you will not depend on your upshift to save you, because that weakness could kill everybody.

"Do you understand this?"

I hadn't expected him to balk more, but he had one further objection: "Yes, I understand the importance of cooperation and adherence to schedule and all that. What I don't get is, what's that got to do with the simulator? What's the point, Carter? I'm no pilot, and you damn well know it!"

"No, you are not, Mr. Jubatus. The reason you will go through this is because something could happen to me. Critical life support failure resulting in my death, systems failure, disaster on Brin leaving you the only one conscious, and who knows what else."

"In other words: A 1% chance of living with a half-competent pilot looks real good, when the alternative is a 100% chance of everybody dying in a crash."

"Correct. No one will expect you to fly Babylon with any great degree of skill, but you will at least learn to land her in one piece. There is no choice in this -- this is a requirement of your going up. Take it or leave it."

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Babylon's dashboard was pretty damned intimidating at first sight. Ever seen an old-style 747 cockpit ('old' meaning before fly-by-wire avionics took over everything), the kind with more banks of controls and gauges than a cathedral organ? Well, Babylon was at least that bad. That bird has close to a fifth of a million individual components, and every last one of 'em had its own dedicated indicator or gauge -- or that's what it looked like, anyway! And that's not counting the sensor displays for airspeed and pressure and radar and temperature and hull stress and...

'Nuff said?

Thought so. The point is, that dashboard is isotopically pure Information Overload on a stick, and it's an absolute bear-and-a-half to learn.

The first few runs were what Carter called 'arcade mode', in which all the sim's parameters were tweaked to make it more friendly to complete and utter novices like me; even so, my first actual landing came only after three crashes! Babylon's controls are damned finicky at the best of times, and in some of them the stimulus/response curve can get pretty nonlinear.

And then they started using realistic parameters...

All it took was one little mistake, one tiny error, and the simulator run ended in a fireball on the runway's tarmac -- except for the runs in which it burned up in midair, that is. Whether it was an errant breeze adding a new vector to the simulation, a necessary attitude adjustment to keep the airflow around the hull within nominal parameters, or what, undercorrection was every bit as fatal as overcorrection. Oh, and redundant controls aren't, not really. When you're flying a normal aircraft, it doesn't really matter whether you turn by raising the port aileron, lowering the starboard aileron, or both; with Babylon, it took me four simulator runs to figure out that it does make a difference, and another 15 before I started to get a handle on when it was appropriate to use which option.

I hated it. If not for the fact that I was effectively a backup to a backup, and therefore wouldn't have to go anywhere near the controls unless no alternative options whatsoever were available...

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Faced with a 'take it or leave it' ultimatum, he took it. He did exceptionally well, too; within the first three hours of his training, he improved to the point that no less than 16% of his runs ended in a safe landing, a survival rate well within the low end of the range associated with Air Force test pilots. After his second sequential survivable landing -- Babylon didn't but at least he did -- I gave him the last couple of hours of the afternoon off to unwind. "We will continue tomorrow morning Mr. Jubatus. First with the emergency escape module from Brin."

He jerked. "That holds five people..."

"And if you're the only one conscious, you'll have to know what to do." His 'aura' blossomed around him for a moment when I touched his shoulder. "Don't worry so much. You're doing quite well; it's only your fifth hour of training, and you've already achieved a survival rate of 18%!"

He was not impressed. "Which means a death rate of 82 percent. Not bleeding good enough."

"Mr. Jubatus, your 18% survival rate is poor only in comparison to those registered by guests with a significant amount of flight experience. In comparison to persons who, like you, lack any previous flight experience, you are doing very well indeed! Most of our guests never get two safe landings in a row, and you're the first 'flight virgin' to do so."

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Easter Island is like Oakland; "there's no 'there' there". Face it -- when the high point of each week's social activity is a double-feature on a 7-meter flatscreen TV, you know you're in Geek Heaven. A couple of the techs invited me on the strength of my status as an Official Hero of Ad Astra, and I'd expected the dryad to show -- no joy. First on tonight's playbill was a costume drama I'd ignored when it hit the multiplexes a couple months ago, but the second feature had potential. As per usual for this crowd, it was a classic like Hollywood just doesn't make any more. What with the Plague and Collapse and all, these days there's no way in Hell any SF flick can attract a big-enough audience to cover costs, and even fantasy tends towards lousy box office. If it wasn't for tax write-offs, sci-fi would be completely dead...

Anyway, tonight's second half was one of Disney's greatest cinematic disasters ever: The Black Hole. This excremental piece of celluloid detritus cried out for audience abuse on a scale that only Sue Carter could dispense -- so where was she? Her co-workers assured me that she only left her room for storms or job-related tasks, neither of which was happening at the moment, so my first stop was her private quarters. I followed the map in my official Ad Astra PDA, and knocked on her door.

"Who is it." Even through the door, she sounded dead tired.


It was a few clock-seconds before the door opened, revealing the dryad in her usual skin-tight black. She shook her head at me. "You really need your fur back."

"Wait a couple days," I said with a shrug. "How come you're not watching the movie downstairs? You could give it the MSTing to end all MSTings!"

"'Misting'? Excuse me?"

"Yeah. You know, emm-ess-tee? Mystery Science Theatre?" And she still didn't recognize the reference... sigh. "Never mind. Come on, it's The Black Hole, you'll love trashing it!"

"Oh God. They're actually showing that?"

"Yep -- after The Battle of Baden Hill. Plenty of time to relax during the intermission."

"I don't have time to relax. Too much work."

I gave her a skeptical look. Extreme fatigue, check; driven to an unhealthy level of overwork, check; unwilling to unwind, check. If this isn't another mindgame attack, I'll buy a hat and eat it. "Come on -- everybody needs downtime, and we've got six whole days until launch!"

"Correct. Six days in which I must deal with a superfluity of contracts, studies, mathematical correspondences, papers..."

That did it. I bulled my way into her room. "Fuck that noise. You need to relax, and I'm... just the cheetah... " What in the name of Leonardo..?

Suddenly I was on the set for a remake of Forbidden Planet -- specifically, the Krell Lab! I spun around. Sure enough, the door was the pentagonal Krell egress, and it -- hold on. It did look exactly like that scene where the monster was burning its way in. And, right, a bed, a desk with computer, a large glass window almost hidden behind weird looking plants... it was her room, just with an incredible trompe l'oeil paint job on the floor, walls, and ceiling.

"'It will remind us that we are, after all, not God'," she said, quoting the film.

No shit, Sherlock -- but why do you have it? The fatigue never left her voice; now she'd added some pain to the mix. I gestured for her to go on. "Okay..."

She closed the door, stared at the picture for a bit, then walked over to sit by her computer. "Mr. Jubatus, it is a reminder that I am a mortal, that I come from humanity and evolved up from the mindless primitive."

"True, and so what?"

"Let me clarify. According to your records, you have an IQ of 153, for what that's worth. It is far from clear that IQ tests are a suitable gauge of anything other than how well one does at IQ tests. Before SCABS I was 162; now I'm far, far off the high end of the chart. I would guess in the neighbourhood of 400-500, but that is very loose and dependent on how one interprets things."

"Jesus... How often do you get the feeling you're the only sentient being in a world of jumped-up apes?"

"Mr. Jubatus, I am the only sentient being in a world of jumped-up apes. You still don't get it, so I'll try and simplify it for you. An institutionalized person incapable of functioning in society has an IQ of about 30. Human average is about 120, or 4 times that. My IQ is on the order of 4 times an average human. In other words, to me an average human is only capable of institutionalized support."

"You're smart, alright, but obviously not smart enough to spot the flaw in your analogy!"

She bristled at the implied insult, just for a moment, before her customary mask of impartiality fell back into place. "And what flaw would that be?"

"You don't put a moron away just because he's got IQ 30. Instead, you put him away because he hasn't got the brains to cope with the culture he lives in. 'Nuff said?"

She inclined her head. "Ah. Your point is valid, and perhaps applicable to me as well. Consider this then. How would you survive in a society created by morons?"

Maybe SCABS had screwed her worse than me... "Poorly, I think."

She nodded. "So -- are you willing to concede that there are significant similarities between how a moron interacts with normal humans, and how the rest of humanity interacts with me?"

I nodded. "Obvious. And?"

"Very well. To continue: I'll assume that your IQ does not take your upshifting into account. Note also that this is not EQ, which has confirmed that my social skills are gravely lacking. To all intents and purposes I am Dr. Moebius surrounded by confused and uncomprehending humans. My room is an attempt to remind me that I came from the same beginning, and even the most brilliant of minds can be blinded to their own fallacies. Talking to you is sometimes like talking to a bright child, and that is only because your upshifting allows you to grant yourself extra time to think about things and react."

"Thanks for the vote of confidence, I guess." And here I'd thought I was isolated...

"Let me give you another example. By which adjectives would you most accurately describe my customary speech pattern?"

I had no idea where she was going with this, but the answer was simple: "Verbose. Precise. Needlessly detailed."

She shook her head. "You are correct, correct, and incorrect, respectively. Believe me, Mr. Jubatus, my chosen level of detail is, in fact, a vital necessity. If I know a person I could transfer information to them with a word, a gesture, a smile. It would not be speech, but it would be efficient communication -- too efficient, too lacking in the redundancies with which conventional spoken language is encrusted. Even an eye-blink's lapse of attention on the other person's part could cause him to lose track of the conversation's thread. I almost fell into that trap, a professor realized it and I swore I would never isolate myself. Hence my speech patterns. It is a defensive measure because I am restricted to talking to idiots."

There really wasn't anything more I could say to that, so I changed the subject. "True, but what are you working on that won't let you take a break?"

"The usual. The planned ballistics of our trip; ways to get the cost of the big atom smasher down so that it can actually be built; probability studies for Dr. Summers at MIT; predictive mappings for this year's American League games in the States --"

"Baseball?" I asked, incredulous.

"Drew likes to make bets."

I shook my head. "You need a vacation, lady. Let your vines down, relax."

That got a smile (weak, but a smile natheless) out of her. "That's the problem, Mr. Jubatus. I can't. It's a curse."

Sitting on the bed, I thought about Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, and wondered if anyone at Ad Astra knew -- or cared -- whether she had it... She continued: "I can't stop thinking. It's a desperate need to be working on a problem, usually many problems simultaneously. Even while we're talking part of me is working through the predictions for Drew. But, if you want me to relax, I could use a break. Just a moment, while I put the terminal to sleep."

Waiting for her to finish, I scanned the room again. This time I noticed some new details, including a small bookshelf over the bed with a bunch of brittle-looking, yellowed SF classics. Foundation; a lot of Poul Anderson, including Brainwave (how appropriate); Heinlein; Niven. Of those I recognized, the most recent was a 2004 edition of Anderson's A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows. 2004, that would be... just before she SCABbed over? More details near the bed: A work table which held a half-painted resin cast of the Babylon 5 station, plus an extensive suite of model-working tools; beside that, a wire-mesh crate half-full of finished spaceship models, mostly from last century's SF movies and TV but with a few real ones. Including the Agamemnon, that'd pranged in the spring...

"If you'll excuse me?"

"Oh -- right. Sorry," I said, moving out of the dryad's way so she could get to the work table. Once there, she picked up a very fine brush and resumed painting hull plate lines on the station. The lines she'd already laid down -- it looked to be thousands of 'em, and at least that many to go.

And the brush moved with mechanical precision, a millimeter at a time.

And again. And again. And again. And again. And again. And -- "What do you think you're doing?"

"Relaxing," she said without the least disturbance to her meticulously overexacting work.

"That's what you call 'relaxing'?"

"Exactly so, Mr. Jubatus, " she answered, pausing only to put fresh paint on the brush. "This task is complex enough to take up the majority of my conscious attention."

"And when you're done?"

"Toss it in with the rest." She kept painting. One of the models in the box caught my eye: The NX-01 Enterprise, from the Trek series of that name. Sculpted to an insanely precise level of exacting detail. Ditto for the paint job. And when she was done, all those thousands of tiny lines, all those dryad-hours of intense concentration... she'd just thrown it to the bin.

Hard enough to break off one of the warp nacelles.

"But..." How much of her life had she poured into that one model, only to throw it away? Christ on a sidecar, I'd seen worse models go for thousands of dollars on internet auctions! "These are amazing, why do you..?"

"Mr. Jubatus, they are simply intellectual aids. By working on them, I clear my mind of a problem that has stymied me, allowing me to later come back to it from a fresh perspective. They are quite useful to me."


/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

As I absentmindedly responded to Mr. Jubatus' queries, most of my mind was on the painting. Work at this level of detail requires a rock steady hand, and extreme control of physical movement, along with a fine understanding of the fluid dynamics of a paintbrush. Each panel needed to be meticulously placed, the irregular pattern of lines exactly straight and mathematically perfect else it would obviously be wrong. Painting was a study in detail, fine muscular control, and endless patience. By superimposing my memory of the station over the model in front of me, it was simply a matter of painting the lines, though a very finicky and exacting matter. There was also the subtle shading of the lines to give the plates a visual depth, not realistic in terms of the scale of the model, but that 'forced perspective' enhanced the appearance of the miniature version of the station.

The station. I remembered watching the series, and unfortunately the last season too. Days of dreams and normality when I believed in ideas and scientific possibilities that I now knew were mathematically and physically impossible.

Gravity was like that -- mysterious, misunderstood, but oh so crucial to so many things. And just as impossible until the big atom smasher was finally built, whenever that was. Unless Jubatus was... Ignore that... Concentrate and wait until he was on Brin and there would be time to confirm or deny.

I cleaned off the brush, licked it to a perfect point, and started on the next line.

This wasn't like flying which was an excitement and a dare with continuous peaks of risk, this was calm, predictable, a kind of endless monotony that still required my concentration. Sometimes it almost put me into a trance where I could almost hear my children -- cuttings -- by the window...


Carefully I cleaned the brush, dried it, licked it to a point, and put it in its place. The tone of Jubatus' voice strongly suggested that he would need more of my attention than I could spare. Turning around I saw him holding a model of the NX-01 Enterprise and remembered when Paramount had asked me to be a 'holodeck guest star'. I wouldn't have done it if Ad Astra hadn't insisted. "Did you not tell me to relax Mr. Jubatus?"

"Damn right, and that wasn't 'relaxing'. All you did was trade one treadmill for another."

"It works for me."

The look he gave me was one of purest skepticism. "For a suitably large value of 'works', maybe. Come on, let's head downstairs for the second feature."

"Movies are predictable and so-called 'science' fiction movies are impossibilities, often laughably."

He motioned at the mural. "Every last one of 'em? I know you've seen Forbidden Planet."

"When I was young Mr. Jubatus."

"Then you know they're not all special effects and explosions and 'check your brain at the box office'."

"Your assertion may be technically accurate in a Clintonian sense, Mr. Jubatus, but I've seen them all, and I can perfectly recall them whenever I want, in any scene order I want."

"Fine. How about one you haven't seen?"

"Mr. Jubatus, Hollywood hasn't made anything of any intellectual interest in forty years. I used to try the ones that were recommended by associates, and they never failed to disappoint."

He pointed to the old novels from my youth above my bed. I turned to look; I had them all memorized, if I wanted to I could read any page at any time, but I kept them for their memories of a simpler time.

Grinning smugly, he said, "Bet you haven't seen A Knight of Ghosts and Shadows."

I looked at him for a second, going through all the movies I'd seen over the decades. "Hollywood never made that into a movie. The only Anderson novel they ever defiled was The High Crusade --"

"Naah. Germany, not Hollywood, gets the blame for that one."

I blinked at the interruption. "Be that as it may, The High Crusade is not worth commenting on, certainly no more so than any of the numerous affronts to human intelligence for which Hollywood truly does bear responsibility."

His grin widened. "So who said it was a Hollywood production?"

At that point the computer dinged for my attention. The tone indicated that it had completed another test run on a private problem that I'd been working on for years, likely another false alarm, but you never know. I got up and walked over to the computer and sat down as Jubatus followed.

"What's that?" he asked.

"In 2021, Dr. Saleem Hawkins contracted SCABS and became an inanimorph. In 2023 Dr. Hawkins and Dr. Stein were discussing black holes and apparently Dr. Hawkins turned himself into one. He suddenly vanished, and the fibres on the carpet he was standing on were pulled inward towards a common centre suggestive of the tidal forces of a quantum black hole passing by. In 2033 I detected a gravitic anomaly orbiting about the common centre of mass of the Earth-moon system which I believe is Dr. Hawkins. Since then I've been running backwards extrapolations of the anomaly's current orbit to try and determine if the point of origin matches the date and location where Dr. Hawkins disappeared."

The cheetah blurred in place for a moment, with that odd 'aura' I was coming to regard as characteristic of him. "Sensitive dependence on initial conditions. You honestly think you've got a prayer of success?"

"Given time, yes. It is purely a matter of identifying the one mathematical model which most closely corresponds to reality in this context, and the number of such models which might potentially be valid is, while large, not infinite..." I clicked and pulled up a mathematical plot of the results. "And that was model number 241 proving itself a failure. The data I'm working with is Dr. Hawkins' known position of origin in 2023 and the anomaly's orbital pattern from Jan 1 2035 to Dec 31 2038; by comparing calculated results to the anomaly's actual trajectory on and after Jan 1 2039, and discarding those models which do not match reality, I must necessarily arrive at the correct set of equations. Unfortunately, I haven't had any luck thus far." I plugged in the data for model 242 and started the analysis again. "Eventually I'll get it right. You were talking about bad movies?" I remembered the interesting, but plotwise highly unsatisfying home-made space scenes from the internet when I'd been in university.

"Yeah, but -- that's it? One more down, a subinfinite number to go?"

"Mr. Jubatus, black holes are a theoretical phenomena that even I consider weird. There are thousands of potentially applicable mathematical constructs and this is a private project. If the anomaly is Dr. Hawkins, then he's been there for 16 years and a few more shouldn't make a difference, if he is even there anymore. Einsteinian time dilation may be having an effect, or he may be insane, or he may be a white hole somewhere else. It all depends on what mathematical model you use. Now, as I was saying, movies made outside of Hollywood have yet to impress me."

I could see he wanted to ask further but his eyes flickered to the complex mathematical plot I'd brought up and he decided not to. "Is that so. When's the last time you checked?"


He smiled. "You're up for a years-long trek through the uncharted wilds of darkest Calculus, with no guarantee that the solution you seek even exists, and you don't have the patience to wait for a decent movie?" He shook his head. "Anyway, Knight carbon-dates to 2015. Download it and you will be impressed, or double your money back."

I entered the URL he supplied and started the realtime download -- my logon had long since had the size block removed -- and sat down to watch. It was actually quite good. I knew the story, but the producers had, correctly in my opinion, concentrated on the character interactions rather than the scenes of epic combat and destruction. Their vision of Aycharaych's homeworld was different from mine as I would have added a greater degree of mathematical elegance into the architecture, but that was the limit of my complaints. I even managed to hold Jubatus's hands through the ending.

chapter 8

I get nightmares...

Big surprise, I know. Sometimes I even remember them. Other times, like over the past few days, it's a deduction from the collateral damage -- thrashed bedsheets and so on. And what's making my sleep a chamber of horrors now? Two guesses. Or maybe it should be seven or eight..? Okay, it was a dirty job, but somebody had to get a little blood on their hands. It's just, well, why did it have to be me? Sigh.

Never mind. I've got a job to do, I'm by Hephaestus going to do it, and I'll be damned if I'm gonna let a few bad dreams get in the way. For the moment that means prep work: Interminable sessions of tech training without number, plus as many extra Babylon simulator runs as I can squeeze into my schedule -- even if they're okay with an 18% survival rate, I'm not! But mostly it's the tech; networking protocols, allowable current tolerances, fourteen flavors of emergency procedures, and on and on and on. I inhale the data as fast as Carter can throw it at me and then some, and when she falls behind (which is a lot less often than I would've expected), I go back and review some of the bits that have given me trouble.

And of course there's my copious free time, which I spend eating, sleeping, and gathering data about AA, mostly. When I'm not looking for clues re: the bastard(s) playing with my and Carter's heads, that is. Found something interesting in the launch protocols: Seems the flight crew can specify their own soundtrack for a mission. With further investigation... let's just say I may have found a harmless way to tweak Carter.

Anyway: Aside from the tech classes, there's also a few physical tests... like the zero-G EVA simulator. This thing's a big tank of water. The idea is you get in your pressure suit, get properly weighted for neutral buoyancy, and get in the pool. The freefall simulation isn't so hot, especially compared to the real McCoy like you get in the 'Vomit Comet'; then again, the plane gives it to you in chunks of 30 seconds or less, and there is something to be said for duration.

So there I was, early morning of the 8th solar day of my idyllic vacation on scenic Easter Island, and I had some time to kill while AA's ground crew prepped the EVA simulator for me. There was some kind of problem with my intended air supply -- seal looked 'iffy', like it hadn't been fully cleaned after its last use -- but they had a backup tank ready in about a minute and a half. So I resumed one of my favorite pastimes: Worrying. About the mindgamers, in this case. Thus far, I not only hadn't come up with any answers, I didn't even have a clear idea of where to look for them! I'd decided against an overt investigation -- somehow, I just didn't think Ad Astra's management (or employees) would appreciate a short-term contractor making paranoid noises about brainwashing -- but that just meant I had to inquire indirectly, ask innocent questions whose answers would just happen to have bearing on one hypothesis or another. Good thing I'd already been grilling AAers about their employer...

Unfortunately, the indirect inquiries worked as designed. I got relevant data, alright; I just didn't get anything that supported any of my theories! All I managed to do was shorten the list of possible suspects. Which was something, except that Sue Carter (!) insisted on remaining on the list, and why the hell would she want to play with her own head? My head, maybe; hers, forget it. Hmm. What if there were two different mindgames, one aimed at each of us, and it was just coincidence that both were going off simultaneously? That'd explain why Carter was losing it, while I was merely --

-- incoming at 2 o'clock: minor hazard --

-- again with the instincts. It was just a random techie, who paused momentarily before speaking: "Mr. Acinonyx? We're ready now."

"Thanks." A few clock-minutes of final re-checks later, I was fully submerged and breathing canned oxygen. It smelled like a razor blade feels -- sterile, dry, inorganic, and lethally sharp -- and within seconds, I knew I preferred the air back home, pollution or no. And there was something just below the edge of conscious perceptibility... forget it. I didn't need that kind of distraction.

For the EVA sim, they had me assembling a Soyuz mockup. Not a bad idea; I got plenty of low-G experience from all the time I spend at high tempos, and believe you me, gravity (or the lack thereof) makes a big difference to the behavior and handling of inanimate objects. Would've been disappointed in Ad Astra if they hadn't insisted on empirical confirmation of my zero-gee skills! Unfortunately, whatever-it-was kept on nagging at me, like a paper cut across my sensorium, as I worked...

"...Goddamn it!" I swore, after losing my grip on the reactionless socket wrench. For the fifth time. "Son-of-a-bitching braindead shitheaded --"

That's when the guy running the test gave me a tentative interruption: "Ah, Mr. Acinonyx?"

"What!" I snarled back.

"Go ahead and take fi-"

"Another break!? What the fuck for?"

"Telemetry says your vital signs are spiking again."

That cooled me off in a hurry. "Oh. Good call." My suit's life support systems were designed to cover 250% of my normal metabolic needs; trouble was, I could break 400%, easy, when my temper was on a roll. Okay, I had been seriously angry -- but why? It just didn't make any sense! I upshifted a little, bought myself some time to think...

Look: I've got years and years of experience manhandling stuff around at high tempo, hence low-gee. I've done mechanical assembly in fast-time. No surprises here, so... what was pissing me off? It couldn't be a mindgame attack; whoever was messing with my head, they clearly intended to make me more tractable, not less. Which was one of the main reasons Carter was still on my list of suspects, especially since she had to've spun Ad Astra's management a line about how I wasn't really as bad as --

Bloody hell! It was the dryad! Motive? To solve my upshifting. Obvious, given her published solo papers in J. Physics and the like. Opportunity? Plenty of it. The majority of my time here on Easter Island, she was well within a six-meter radius of me. Method? Lots of possibilities, most likely some kind of mood-altering pheromone (especially if the airtank thing wasn't truly an accident). Nothing I hadn't considered myself, mind you, but what if it triggered a reaction I didn't want... like, say, berserk rage? Catch-22: With my not-quite-cheetah body chemistry, trying the experiment is the only way to know if it's safe for me to try the experiment.

Pheromones... Dosage must've been sufficiently low to keep me unaware of the stuff. Which, in turn, meant it'd wear off real fast after I stopped inhaling it. Like, just for the sake of argument, when I was breathing canned air that Carter hadn't tampered with. So that's what I couldn't put a finger on; I'd noticed the effect of the pheromone, just not consciously!

Which was more repulsive: That everyone around me, since at least as far back as the airport, had been a potential victim of mine... or that Carter just didn't care?

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

It is unfortunate that Babylon is too complex for me to completely check in person. After... what happened... I've always come out to check it in the last few days before launch, but with 190,000 individual components to review, I can only scratch the surface of the aggregate set of potential failure modes. Still better than the NASA shuttle with its 250,000, but even so, there are 190,000 individual components which might fail, which in turn, mathematically speaking, means 18.05 billion possible failure modes which involve exactly two components; 1.143 quadrillion possible three-component failure modes; for four components, 54.30 quintillion; for five, 2.063 septillion; for six, 65.34 octillion; for seven --

You may trust me when I say that it quite simply is not physically possible to check everything. I nonetheless make an effort, over and above what the ground crew does anyway; the mathematics of quality assurance assure that for any given flaw in a system, N + 1 sets of eyes are intrinsically more likely to find it than N sets of eyes. I always check the screw, that screw, first. It's not the same place, but it serves the same function and that screw, at least, will not be loose again. Around it are sub-assemblies and linkages, control systems to switch the engines between jet, ram, scram, and rocket, flight control systems for the ailerons, orbital maneuvering rockets that need to emerge from the mirrored surface before use, electronics, diagnostics, monitoring systems, framework, fuel tanks, shaped composite skin panels, ceramic tiles... It just goes on and on.

The hangar door opened; I heard the latch, sensed the minor increase in ambient illumination as the Sun shone through the now-open doorway and reflected from the polished upper surface, creating a spreading wave-interference pattern that had been described by one visitor as 'the pale azure of the sky crossed with pulses of rich Pacific aqua'. I'd never understood that. Abruptly, my mind was pulled from its reverie by a spoken word. A solitary word that hung in the air, quiet and oddly deferential, in a tone of voice I would never have expected from him who said it: "Beautiful."

Climbing down the ladder from the engines I turned, blinking my eyes to adjust them to the halogen overheads reflected from the mirrored wing I stood beside, and looked to the door in which Jubatus was still silhouetted. "Greetings, Mr. Jubatus," I said as I walked towards him. "What do you think? Does this live up to the advertisements?"

"Yes. Oh, yes." And there was that tone again. Perhaps 'reverent' was the word I was looking for? "Look, if I've interrupted something, it's no problem for me to get out of your face now..."

"That's quite alright, Mr. Jubatus. I would have had to take a break eventually, and now is as good as any other time. May I presume that there is a significant topic you wish to discuss with me?"

"Why the pheromone?"

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

The hangar was easy to find, also easy to get into. The overhead camera looked down on me as I let the scanner read my PDA. Once the door clicked, the camera got a good 12 clock-seconds of me hesitating at the threshold. The thing is, I wasn't entirely sure I wanted to go in, to gawk at the Phoenix in its nest; I've seen too many beautiful dreams murdered by gangs of ugly facts, beaten to death by cold, uncaring Reality... Plenty of dead dreams, alright. What's one more? You and the dryad got business, Jube, so get on with it.

I opened the door... and it was there. Babylon. Not fallen, not in the least, because for just this once, Reality wasn't breaking the dream, but feeding it. I could upshift to extend the moment... no. I wanted to -- had to -- see it for real and true; my eyes were bad enough just because, without throwing in the distorted hues of fast-time.

Babylon is what they used to call a 'lifting body' -- a short, fat, smoothed-out wedge. '...With no engine and the glide path of a highly polished brick...' To the rear it had three massive engines just beneath a short rudder and two horizontal control surfaces; on the right and left were a massive pair of delta-shaped wings that stretched from nose to tail with twisted-up tips. 'When lift plus thrust is greater than load plus drag, just about anything'll fly.' It was blue all over, light on the bottom and darker on top, and its mirror-polished surface transformed the reflected overhead lights into an alien star map, enticingly full of unexplored constellations. 'See what free men can do', by all the gods that never were! I felt almost like a god myself, maybe Viracocha as he looked over the statues he'd just breathed life into -- heh. As if I'd had anything to do with this creation! What the heck, nothing wrong with a little vicarious pride...

Beautiful. Just beautiful. I must have said something, because there was a feet-on-ladder noise from the far side of Babylon and yes, it was Carter. I could feel the pain and anger building up on sight of her, except... right. The pheromone. Made it easier to squelch the oncoming mood swing, which was fine by me; I wanted an explanation, not a fight.

"Hello, Jubatus. What do you think? Does Babylon live up to its press releases?"

"Oh, yes," I replied. "Look, if you've got serious work to do, it's no problem for me to come back later..."

"That's quite alright; I'd have taken a break regardless, and now is as good as any other time. I take it there's something you wish to discuss with me?"

I sighed. May as well get it over with. "Okay. The pheromone. Why?"

That took her by surprise; she actually had to gather her thoughts. "They switched tanks on you."

"Yeah. Want to answer my question?" I shrugged and gestured for her to continue.

"Mr. Jubatus, you are possibly the most dangerous living thing I've ever encountered. If you wanted you could kill me and there is absolutely nothing I could do to stop you. Given your temperament and the limited living space in Brin, I felt it was only prudent to implement precautions to minimize the chance of unfortunate accidents."

What anger I had was replaced with sadness. Here she's got a brain the size of a planet, and she just doesn't understand... "Motivation, that part's fine, that I get. What I don't get is... why didn't you tell me?" I locked eyes with her. "You thought I'd object to your precautions? You think I like being three of the ten most lethal SCABs in the world?"

There was a moment of uncertainty in her eyes. Just a moment, then it was gone. "How can I possibly say what you like or dislike? I know that your entire personality is a defense mechanism, that you're afraid of what you might do. I know that you've made mistakes in the past, and now you snap at people, push them away, have no real friends, all part of your effort to ensure you'll never again hurt anybody. One might suppose that if you found this lifestyle onerous, you would take steps to reduce its necessity -- that, in other words, you would actively seek to reduce the probability that your instincts can ever reduce you to a nonsentient state. But all the information I have suggests that you have, in fact, done virtually noth-"

I broke in on her. "Then you need more data. What you've got obviously wasn't enough to stop you playing Russian roulette with a crowded airport."

"Your simile is inappropriate, inasmuch as I knew precisely what effect the pheromone would have upon you."

"That so? How? Last time I checked, your specialties don't include any of the life sciences, let alone SCABS."

"That... I knew because of probabilistic analysis, based on information gained from Dr. Derksen, and confirmed by empirical tests involving captive cheetahs in zoos."

My heart fumbled a beat or two. Arrogance, thy name is Carter. I resisted the urge to close my eyes and bury my face in my hands. "So... you started with a data set too restricted to cover the problem at hand. From that data, you built a mathematical model for a discipline you're clueless about. And you verified the whole mess through experiments on subjects which lack at least two highly relevant factors. Does that cover everything?"

"I may not have a degree in biology, but I have read up on the subject and I have had numerous successful applications of similar methodologies. In the worst case only a few would have been injured or killed before airport security gunned you down."

I didn't dare move; I felt so disoriented that simply standing up was an impressive feat. No. Somebody please -- "And... exactly, how many is... 'only a few'?"

"To a confidence level of 95%, the body count would have been between 11 and 23."

Horrified, I stared at the dryad as my blood tried to hammer its way out of my body through my scalp. Even if her estimated death toll was accurate -- and McGregor's little 'tests' had proven it wasn't -- This isn't happening. The smartest thing on Earth didn't just admit to being perfectly willing to write off a couple dozen innocent lives for nothing more than sheer intellectual arrogance. "Eleven. To twenty-three."

"Exactly. Given the degree of carnage you could inflict if..."

She went on, oblivious, but that's when I stopped listening; to hear more would have been to invite madness. Morrigan, Osiris and Hela, tell me she's joking! As usual, no response from the deities named.

As she talked, suddenly it all fell into place like the last piece of a non-Euclidian jigsaw puzzle: She was a puppet-master, the ultimate control freak. 'Numerous successful applications of similar methodologies', she'd said... oh, God... Her subservient behavior towards McGregor was deliberate, ruthless exploitation of his instinctive sense of lupine hierarchy; the gift for Jerry was no gesture of gratitude, but, rather, a calculated ploy to buy his allegiance... The more I thought about it, the more I could perceive the naked Machiavellianism behind her every move: It was all games of dominance and power. Everything.

"Is that all I am to you? Just an object to manipulate? --"

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

His forlorn question echoed plaintively throughout the hangar: "-- Is that all anybody is to you?"

His responses made no sense -- he was a textbook defensive personality, manipulating himself to manipulate others. Even if that wasn't true, everybody manipulated everybody else anyway. I'd shown him a way out of his trap and he was hurt. And why did that make me feel so hurt? One thing I'd learned from many of the books I'd read while incarcerated after Agamemnon was that when an opening was found, one should use it to bring the patient around to healing. "That... isn't relevant to the situation at hand. Mr. Jubatus, you now place me in a difficult position. If you resent my manipulation, then that raises the possibility that you might take action against me. Where we're going there can be no risk of such action so I'm now debating whether or not to leave you on the ground."

He made no reply in words. However, I noted signs of life appearing in his haunted eyes, which I took as evidence that he was listening and that my own words had struck home.

"You have been abusive and defensive. You won't let me examine you to confirm that you can control yourself. The one successful measure I've found you object to my use of. Why should I trust you with my life?" Now he'll give in because of the importance of the dream to him. Simple, predictable...

He bowed his head in thought. A couple of seconds later, he emitted a sound not unlike the grinding of mismatched gears, cleared his throat, and finally said (so quietly, so very quietly!), "You're right."

What was that..? "Excuse me?"

His next words were in something approximating a normal volume: "I said. You're right. You shouldn't trust me with your life. Nobody should. So... I'm not going. Not now."

I felt my jaw hang open before with a force of will, my body trembling, I was able to exert control. Take a step back, think...

"Thank you for showing me around. I'll..." He gazed up at the ship. "Could I... spend a little more time here? Looking at Babylon? After that... I'll be in my room. Packing for the trip back home."

Why did he react outside of expectations? Was he attempting to up the ante to gain control? No, all the information I had on Jubatus suggested that that was virtually impossible. Then why? I could leave him -- remote presence from here would almost certainly enable him to solve the problem -- but my entire body resisted that thought. Why? Even when Angelo had been sick and I'd had to go up alone, I'd never felt like this. Jubatus had to come, I needed him to come. Take a step back and try again, "Given what I've put you through that would be morally unaccep --"

He laughed. He laughed! But it wasn't a happy sound, not in the least. "She thinks it's okay to risk 23 innocent lives on one roll of the biochemical dice, and she's telling me about 'morally unacceptable'?" He shook his head and put a sad, anemic smile on his face. "I just wish I'd known earlier. I thought I'd figured it out in the Fokker, and ever since then, I've been worrying about hostile factions running psyops on us."

"'Us'..?" I stopped for a second to gather my thoughts. He must have been thinking that I had been under an outside influence, but what would have given him that idea? It had been patently obvious that I hadn't, the cues were all... Don't worry about that now, this was too important to interrupt. Time for the victory. "Are you willing for me and others to use the scent which has proven its effectiveness?"

"That's the $64,000 question, isn't it?" he murmured, staring at Babylon with an expression I didn't know how to interpret. Quite apart from his having so thoroughly invalidated the foundation of my previous model of his thought patterns, his countenance was far too mercurial, changing from apparent joy to seeming despair to -- "The pheromone. You're sure it did the job."

"Yes, it was quite effective in moderating your hostile impulses."

And with that reassurance, he would of course say 'go ahead and use the pheromone' -- but he didn't! Why did he remain silent? Given his age and the fact that he was here, going into orbit must have been a lifelong dream of his, so how could he resist? Could he possibly regard his concerns over the taking of human life as a significant enough reason to reject it? Surely his superhuman speed placed him outside the compass of 'normal' humanity -- almost as far as my superhuman intelligence -- so I had discounted that possibility. Perhaps -- ah, he was speaking.

"Too many questions," he murmured, his head bowed. "Too damn many questions. You may not realize it, Carter, but you're asking me to beta-test your biochemical cocktail for side effects. Okay, fine, I'll do it -- but not upstairs. Because if the pheromone's not a real solution..."

'Not upstairs'!? No! It couldn't -- he hadn't -- he had to accept, had to travel into orbit with me! I needed -- he --

"You OK, Carter?"

Don't let him see it, don't let anyone see it. "Yes. I'm fine, just a momentary... I need to rest, it's been a long day, yes, a long day. I'm tired, I'll show you her tomorrow. Feel free to look, just don't touch. Tomorrow..." I turned and ran past him, refusing to let my emotional turmoil show on my face but I doubt I was successful. This was all wrong!

"You sure you're alright?"

"I'm fine! Please go away!"

Then I was out the door and outside, oblivious to the setting sun, oblivious to the physiological needs of my body. Everything was falling apart and nothing made sense! I passed Drew, others, but I just ignored them. I could see the entire structure I'd built being destroyed by Jubatus yet I wanted him to stay, needed him to stay, no matter that he -- Finally I reached my room and closed the door and could relax and let it out. Let what out? I let myself collapse on the bed and started sobbing.

It had never been like this with Angelo, not even close. We'd been friends, companions, I'd known what he needed and what to do so that I was always in charge. I had to be in charge, I had to be the best. Even during the psychological examination after Agamemnon I'd been in charge; talking to Phil I'd been in charge even to the point of lying about what happened to me during the Collapse. Even though I had prepared for suicide I'd actually wanted him to help me -- I'd set it up that way. I'd manipulated him to do what I needed him to. I'd told Phil that Angelo had been my lover, but was that true? We'd never physically consummated the relationship, in fact I'd more or less let him declare that to keep him pliable. I'd just accepted it so that I'd be in control. The little pouts, the little frowns, all had been tools to make sure that Angelo had done what I wanted him to do. Over the years had the act become an accepted reality?


I hadn't been in love with him, I couldn't have been in love with him, I was free from emotions.

'Free'. Sobbing on my bed. I had never been free, I had only pretended to be free.

So why Jubatus? Why him?

Because he resisted? Because I didn't know him?

Could that be it?

When we first really met, I'd come to confront him -- and he had put me off. He had not put me first like everybody else always had. Was that the start of it? Was he the challenge I was looking for? Stop, think. I had believed that I was above emotion, and that proposition had been proved wrong. A person above their emotions doesn't flee sobbing from a confrontation. Was my current body as hormone driven as my pre-SCABS body? I needed to know. Years ago Angelo had given me a vibrator as a joke -- I'd never used it. An experiment under controlled conditions. If my body felt hormonal states, I would need to know and now was the time to find out.

An experiment.

Controlled. Predictable.

I stood up and walked over to the drawer it was in...

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

"Carter!" I shouted. I could've pursued, but didn't; me following after wouldn't calm her down any, and calm was what I wanted. No joy. The state she was in, Carter probably wouldn't even notice, let alone stop for, anything short of an Abrams M1A1. It was deja vu all over again; at least this time, the damage I'd done was purely psychological. Still not good. For me, the only consolation was that by bruising her mind, I was reducing the odds of my damaging her body any. I've got too many sharp edges, it's too damned easy for me to carve into other people, but at least I can avoid the deepest, must severe modes of cutting.

Or... maybe the mental bruises were just too much. I'd thought McGregor or whoever had been playing with her head -- wrong. It was really just the emotions she'd been stifling for so many years. All that psychological energy piling up on itself, waiting for release, accumulating and accumulating so that when it finally was released, it'd be the psychic equivalent of a supernova... Such a pleasant thought, that. If I went feral, I could kill dozens or hundreds, maybe even thousands, before someone managed to tag me; if Carter went bugfuck, her potential body count would be limited only by what resources she could commandeer and redirect before any of us 'little brains' figured out what she was up to. Load up Babylon with fuel-air devices and go for a kamikaze run at New York that would make the Two Towers look like an amateur job, engineer a genocidal plague to cropdust North America with from the Fokker, remake a few of Brin's component tanks into however-many 100-kilo 'rocks' and drop 'em from orbit onto selected ground targets all over the world, write a few viruses to usurp control over factories and power plants...

Jesus H. Christ on a steam-powered sidecar. And here I'd thought I was dangerous! Then again, who's deadlier: The mad genius who lays waste to the world, or the asshole who pushed her over the edge first?

More confirmation (not that any were needful): Carter's 'attacks' were a problem that had to be solved, preferably while she was still sane. But how? Theoretically, this was a job for Ad Astra's psych boys. Of course, she'd snowed them all, not to mention I had to assume that all the relevant staffers had long since been manipulated into irrelevance. I could hear the polite, bureaucratic brush-off already: 'Thank you for bringing your concerns to our attention, Mr. Acinonyx. You may rest assured that the state of Dr. Carter's mental health is something we take very seriously indeed.' Phil would be a much better choice, and so would my therapist, for that matter. Too bad they weren't available, and worse that I was the man on the spot. BFD. You are the man on the spot, and wishing otherwise gets you nowhere. Anyway, you're a technical writer -- mastering unfamiliar fields is what you do for a living -- so deal with it already. I very much doubted I could do the dryad any good in what time I had left on the Island, but damn it, I had to at least try!

Carter had given me permission to stay in the hangar unaccompanied, so I ruthlessly exploited her carte blanche, walking around Babylon to familiarize myself with the ship's contours from all angles. And as I walked, one corner of my mind was reviewing the tactics I'd use when attacking the problem that had fallen into my ill-suited lap...

"Jubatus Acinonyx." It was McGregor -- he must've entered the hangar while I was lost in thought, and he approached me as he spoke. "You are in a restricted area, and you will allow me to escort you out. I am both authorized and fully empowered to use lethal force in the event that you resist. This is your only warning."

"Carter said --"

-- incoming at 5 o'clock: lethal attack: counterattack in progress --

--and I found I'd pivoted on my right foot, and a bullet sauntered lazily into the volume of space I'd just recently occupied, and the claws of my right forepaw were poised to gut McGregor, opening his torso from crotch to sternum. Shit! -- back of the hand damnit -- son of a bitch tried to shoot me in the back! and all he got was a glancing blow from a blunt instrument moving at a large fraction of Mach speed. Ow! Hope I didn't sprain anything. Where the hell is that bullet, Babylon doesn't need to suck up a ricochet... there, got it.

After catching the bullet, I downshifted momentarily, to let half a clock-second go by; yep, his gun was flying wild, and McGregor himself, just starting to fall backwards onto the hangar's concrete floor. I caught the gun, unloaded it, put the bullets into one of my vest's pockets, and carefully laid the weapon down on the floor. Next, I stripped the wolf down to the fur, unloaded the rest of his weapons -- the ones which needed ammo, anyway -- into other vest pockets, stacked the implements of destruction with the rest of his tools on the floor next to his gun, and rolled up his uniform into a couple pillows. By the time the improvised cushions were ready to go, he was close enough to the floor that I had to crouch down to put them under him, one for his head, the other for the base of his spine. I sat down 20 feet away from him, took a few deep breaths to calm myself, got a few strips of beef jerky out of my vest, and downshifted to the wolf's tempo.

McGregor didn't just hit the floor; he fell into a backward somersault and rolled to his feet in what looked like an expert defensive posture. I sat there munching protein as his eyes darted around, taking in the entire situation, and a few seconds later, he said, "Shit."

"Yeah." I swallowed dried meat. "You gonna take another shot at me?"

He glared at me for a moment, then smiled. "Forget it. I'm not that stupid."

"Then why the first bullet? Didn't the wargames prove that wouldn't work?"

"A point-blank shot in the back wasn't one of the scenarios we used," he pointed out. "And it was a good test of how you respond in a high-stress situation."

I frowned at him. "You like to live dangerously, don't you?"

"Not really. As I said before, I know you, Mr. Acinonyx. Your psych profile indicates a negligible probability of your allowing yourself to act on any homicidal impulses you may feel."

"'Negligible'..." I snorted. "If it's greater than zero, that probability is too damned high. Look, can we take it as read that you've deemed me not to be a threat to Ad Astra?"

"No, Mr. Acinonyx. If you say you don't intend to cause trouble, I'll buy that -- but you're a loose cannon. Our rules are in place for a reason, and anyone who disregards those rules is trouble, by definition."

Sigh. "Yeah, well, as I was saying when you pulled the trigger, I had Carter's permission to be here."

"Impossible. She knows the rules better than I do, and she doesn't --"

"Am I interrupting something?"

What the -- Carter!?

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

It was fortunate that I had not taken any longer to complete my... emotional self-examination. Judging from what I had heard of their conversation as I approached, it was highly probable that the conversation would have continued in such a way that Jubatus could have done significant damage to my control over McGregor. Speaking of the cheetah: He looked at me, the irritation on his countenance near-instantly replaced, first by a moment of confusion, and next by his customary unreadable mask of a smile. As for McGregor, he too, smiled, but his expression was rather more genuine.

"Dr. Carter!" the wolf said. "Thank you for joining us. Mr. Acinonyx has charged you with a serious breach of protocol -- granting an unauthorized person permission to remain in a sensitive area without escort. While I don't believe he would deliberately fabricate such an accusation, it's possible he may have misinterpreted something. Could you clarify what happened, please?"

'Without escort' -- drat. I had told Jubatus, 'feel free to look', hadn't I? All that meant was that I could no longer afford to lose control -- additional emotional study would have to wait until later. Meanwhile, there was nothing for it but to discover what damage the cheetah had done before my arrival on the scene. Assuming a subtly subservient posture, I said, "Of course, Captain. But first, allow me to apologize for the lack of punctuality in my response to your signal." Here I turned to address my most pressing problem: "Mr. Jubatus, what exactly do you remember my telling you?" I needed time to determine the best way of dealing with this. Looking carefully at Jubatus, I hoped that I'd cleansed myself sufficiently to conceal the olfactory evidence of my recent experimentation. McGregor was less of an issue; for all his externally evident lupine characteristics (head shape included), it so happened that his nose, in common with his other sense organs, was of an essentially human degree of acuity.

The cheetah appeared to glow for a second, presumably to figure out what to say -- odd, that; he had nothing to hide, so why would he act to protect me? -- before he responded: "She said I could look but not touch, just before she took off like a bat outta --"

I turned to McGregor to minimize the damage if I let Jubatus continue. "Indeed I did rush out. I had to, as there was a sudden call from Dr. Hanley in Columbus -- we've been working on a project and he had a sudden breakthrough. I was distracted and I think I did mumble that as I left."

"Sue, you know the --"

"I know the rules very well, but you know as well as I do that he's going up," there was a momentary flash of annoyance on Jubatus, "and if he wants to destroy Babylon here and now, then not only has our research critically failed, Mr. Jubatus is an idiot as he could blow it up and take me up with it if he just waits longer!" The key to control was to keep it subtle; insignificant displays of rebellion were required every so often in order to ensure that McGregor didn't figure it out.

His ears raised and his eyes turned cold. I met them for a few seconds and then slowly lowered my head in a subconscious signal. "Ms. Carter, that is beside the point and you know it. The rules are the rules and there are no exceptions."

I sighed. "I know."

"Correct me if I'm wrong, but wasn't someone starting to make noise about Carter being too damn perfect to make that kind of mistake?"

I ignored Jubatus and concentrated on McGregor as he shook his head, and then continued, "What am I going to do with you, Susan?"

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

"...to make that kind of mistake?"

Say what? First she's defiant, then she's all sweetness and light? I knew Carter's machinations had made the wolf a virtual slave, but how did this one-dryad 'good cop/bad cop' routine feed into that? And what was up with that flowery perfume? She reeked of the stuff -- the wolf'd have to be positively anosmic not to notice it -- but why? Not a chance in Hell that it was an accident or oversight... Never mind. Doesn't matter, and let's see what punishment the judge, jury and executioner's gonna impose.

"What am I going to do with you, Susan?"

Good question, especially with all the dryad's machinations. Speaking of whom: "Standard procedure is to confine me to quarters except for official duties. Do that and announce it, I'll behave."

McGregor sighed. "Fine. So ordered, and I trust you to go straight there." Then, to me, "As for you, get out."

"Okay. Before I go, do you want your bullets back?" I asked, pulling one of them out of my vest.

For a moment, his eyes flickered between me and where I'd deposited his weapons. Fear touched his scent but not his voice or face. "Leave them here. On the floor. I'll do the reloading. Then... just go. Susan will give you more flight training at 0800 tomorrow."

How come the wolf didn't already know about my being grounded, before he showed up here? Could've clued him in myself, but... naah. She must have lied like a rug while convincing Ad Astra's management I was a suitable candidate for orbital duty. They discovered the truth, they'd probably fire her ass, which is stressful at the best of times. Carter being as close to the edge as she was, I'd just as soon wait until after I doped out a plan to use that stress... if I could do that...

Next day Carter came out smelling like a rose, both literally and figuratively; no real punishment ('confine me to quarters', my ass!), and that same perfume, which she'd never worn before yesterday, or so said my Ad Astran informants. More flight training -- joy -- and more of the other drills, too. By late afternoon, I was 'only' wasting Babylon 80 times out of 100 . Great, or at least the dryad thought so. Even with breaks for snacks and catnaps, I was beat by quitting time. And all through the day, neither of us mentioned my grounding myself... maybe she figured that enough time here in the heart of The Dream would make me change my mind. Wrong. Every minute I spent on Easter Island just reinforced my resolve to not risk inflicting myself on Brin Station. And my hope that Carter's pheromone might really be a solution.

So... I wasn't going upstairs. Next stop: Back in the U. S. of A. Going nomadic again might not be a bad idea; the more time and effort the dryad spent on simply finding me, the less she'd have for planning out what to do when she succeeded. Not to mention that any city could and would be a target, if and when Carter really did go postal. Such a pleasant thought, that... I'd definitely have to talk to Phil when I returned. Would've sent him an e-mail, but this was too important for an insecure comm channel, and he (like practically everybody else) didn't bother with encryption, damn it! Then again, encryption probably wouldn't stop Carter anyway...

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

My case studies of Jubatus had shown repeatedly that he was a stubborn SOB and since he hadn't mentioned changing his mind about his not going up, I had no reason to believe that he had in any way altered his decision. All day he'd been silent, but he was about to learn the true meaning of stubborn as it was all to my advantage that he have lots of time to see the culmination of his dream all around him and realize the cost to his own psyche of him not going. All I had to do was keep him going until he cracked, then I would have been proven right, he would help me in our common goal of saving humanity and I would give the world the stars. It was all logical and --

I'm not going.

Not now! I didn't even want to think about Jubatus now.

I'm not going.

I fled, running to try and get away from the voice in my head. Of course it didn't work. Even as I closed my door behind me, I heard him:

I'm not going.

I knew exactly what that meant, so why wouldn't my mind let go?!

With the door closed behind me I fumbled around for the vibrator but even that was no more than a momentary relief. It seemed that regardless of our relative degrees of stubbornness, I needed him more than he needed me to fulfill his dream.

I'd still show him. You hear that Jubatus! You'll break first!

I'm not going.

I needed something, anything, an object to distract me. Maybe... a substitute? Five minutes and my personal firewalls were in place, a fake log of my internet use was stored, and I was browsing the appropriate sites. Another 10 minutes of wading through extraneous, ancillary crap and then I found something. It seemed that I wouldn't even need to hire somebody to customize it.

They say that you can find anything on the internet, and this almost proved it. Among those sites devoted to what were euphemistically referred to as 'SCAB marital aids' I found somebody whose stock in trade included a lifesize stuffed cheetah-morph complete with stiff rubber penis. A bit of artificial scent --

I'm not going.

-- and I could always have Jubatus with me. Though, on the other hand, a smaller one that I could more easily transport up to Brin would probably serve better. But on the gripping hand... To be safe I ordered both, and arranged for them to be picked up from a dummy dropoff when I took Jubatus back to the mainland. If the psychologists of Ad Astra got hold of this... But they won't! Problem solved.

I'm not going.

I'm not going.

I know exactly what that means, so be silent!

My mind stayed quiet and I turned to my computer to plan. Even by overnight courier, allowing one day for delays, it'd take two days to reach the dropoff. I take Jubatus back, pick it up, and I could easily make the trip to Brin next week.

I'm not going.

Of course you won't! And I don't need you to go up.

I'm not --

Shut up! Shut up!


Closing the web browser I started burrowing through my e-mail to try and get my mind off things. There was a big file from Dr. Morris regarding that Shimura-Taniyama-Weil iteration reply I'd sent to him and soon I was working my way through his mathematical logic until I ran into a logical flaw -- the mistake was subtle, to be sure, but present nonetheless. A double-check confirmed the error, but it also confirmed that the initial direction both he and I had jointly agreed on at the start, was, in fact, invalid. That meant that this direction was needed and --

I'm not going.

Had I been holding a pencil I would have snapped it.

I'd had phrases stuck in my head before, but always because my mind was conjecturing alternate meanings. Not this time, I knew very well what he meant, so why couldn't I forget?! I went back to work.

I'm not going.

With forced calm I minimized what I was working on. This wasn't working. I needed a storm and a quick check confirmed that nothing was likely. Another round with the vibrator and in the midst of it --

I'm not going.

Ripping it out I threw it to the floor, shattering it.

I had to get out, I couldn't stay! Carefully I cleaned up the wreckage and buried it in the bottom of the drawer. Back to the computer and a check of where all the guards were via a hidden chunk of code I'd snuck in years ago, and then a few minutes to write a macro to cause all of the cameras to edit me out of what they reported. A quick check revealed that the hall outside my room was empty, then it was an embracing overcoat, a hat that Angelo had left behind a couple of months ago, and then it was outside.

I had to get away, get into the fresh air, get --

I'm not going.

Shut up!

I ran out into the dusk, feeling the grass even through the lycra and cloth that surrounded me, resenting and hating it as we competed for oxygen in the dimming light.

I ran all night, uncaring, tortured. I would not give in. I refused! Jubatus could --

I'm not going.

I didn't care what he was going to do. I refused to care.

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Didn't take long for me to finish packing and police my room. Maybe seven clock-minutes, and you'd never have known I was there. Just as well, really. Shouldn't have come to Easter Island in the first place, but since I did, no sense compounding the error by sticking around long enough to destroy anything important. Packed, ready to depart... any loose ends that need tying up before I leave? Okay, besides the dryad... One dangling thread came to mind: My promise to Wigley. I mean, I had said I'd read to her 'if I had the time', and Chronos knew I had time to kill before I went away...

I lucked out; Wigley was off-duty and could be at our original meet-spot in 15 clock-minutes. I'd already learned that Ad Astra had an honest-to-Thoth library, with a decent selection of SF -- Eastwick Press editions, hardbacks with acid-free paper and fade-resistant ink and so on -- including most of Larry Niven's books. I picked out Wigley's choice, then headed for the dock. The orca was there, and when she caught sight of me, she leaped and splashed like an oversized dolphin.

"Is that a grand mal seizure, or are you happy to see me?"

She bubble-laughed like a flooded Pepsi bottling plant. "You came back! You came back! I'd hug you if I could!"

I shrugged. "Figured I might as well make nice to you before I leave the Island."

"Taking time out from pre-launch prep? For me? That's sweet, Jube, but really, I'd be okay with doing it after you return..."

I gave her a sad smile. "Wait for that, you could be waiting an awful long time. Anyway, I brought Ringworld," I said, holding up the leather-bound Niven, "and if you can stand my voice, I guess I can, too."

"Hold on a sec, Jube," the orca said slowly. "You're only going into orbit for a week or so, and back here before you head home. Right?"

"Nope. Change of plans, you must not've got the memo -- I'm not going upstairs." And before Wigley could say anything, I went on: "Ringworld. Chapter 1, Louis Wu. 'In the nighttime heart of Beirut, in one of a row of general-address transfer booths, Louis Wu flicked into reality.

"'His foot-length queue was as white and --'"


I shut up, nodded and closed the book. "Okay. Didn't think it'd take --"

"Jube." This time I kept my mouth shut to let her continue, and she did: "You're serious? You really aren't going into orbit?"

Sigh. "Yeah."

"Why not?"

I glared at Wigley for a moment. "You, of all people, should damn well know why not. Or if you don't, how about I bounce off you at Mach 1.6 again? Think that'd remind you?"

"No need; I haven't forgot what happened," the orca said. "You overtaxed yourself, Jube. Big time. Not much chance of a re-run of that in orbit, right?"

"No," I acknowledged. "Much more likely that my life support malfunctions, I hallucinate from oxygen debt, and I take a bunch of people with me before I finish dying."

"I see," she said carefully. "You think you're protecting Brin Station from a lethal hazard."

"'Think', my ass! I know I'm protecting Brin from a lethal hazard -- me."

"I see," Wigley repeated... "You know, Jube, Sue went to a lot of trouble to get you here. If you don't go up, what d'you think that'll do to her?"

I snorted. "Remind her that she's neither omniscient nor infallible. This is bad? Carter's forgotten that other people aren't fucking toys for her to pl-"

"She loves you, Jube."

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

By dawn my calm was brittle, forced. I'd thought of talking to Sandra and getting something, but that would bring in the psychologists and I refused to go through that again. It felt like my life had reached an ending, and maybe it had.

I'm not going.

I ignored him.

The island was cool in the dawn, a stiff breeze was blowing off the sea and I felt it through the lycra that clung to me, keeping my body safely insulated. I couldn't live the way I was, but there were so many things that were still undone. For the first time in my life, I didn't know what to do. I remembered Phil telling me that the true measure of humanity was to stand up to fail again. Odd that he added the quote from the Babylon 5 pilot after that...

Was I human?

Did I deserve to count myself amongst them?

If not, did I deserve to live?

If it was the measure of humanity to stand up again, then I had to decide.

But I was so tired of it all. I couldn't go up again. With Jubatus challenging me, making me want to prove him wrong, I just wanted to root and never move again. It was tempting, and oh so easy.

I'm not going.

Fine, you're not going!

Why shouldn't I just quit? No, not quit, just take a break.

Let the universe wait until I'd healed. I was tired of it all, of the weight, of the pressures, of having to lead humanity by the hand down the road it had to go.

Space was the road and I couldn't go there ever again.

Not realizing it I'd walked into shadow and I looked up at one of the few remaining moai. It looked back down at me -- mournful, old, wise, abandoned. A crack bisected its nose and fragments were already on the ground around me.

At that moment I wished I could believe in a god, but there was no evidence, reason, or need for such a divinity to exist.

It's up to you whether you live or die. Personally, I think you can amount to something someday.

Phil's words rang through my head, but they didn't help. I needed a rest, a break.

Some time off from caring for the world.

The cry of a gull pulled me away from the sadness looming over me and I turned and looked out over the gray sea under a gray sky. There were some figures down at the docks -- one of them was obviously Sylvia Wigley; the other, judging by his size, build, and markings, was most likely Mr. Jubatus -- but otherwise I was all alone. I walked away from the rubble and looked for some good soil, not that there's much on this island. I'd just wait here.

As I started kicking at the soil I remembered the good times. I'd wanted to surprise Jube so I'd researched some of the songs he'd sung before he SCABbed over. One seemed oddly appropriate so as I turned to the sun and prepared to root I began to sing.

It just felt right.

"We sailed on the sloop John B / My grandfather and me..."

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

I reviewed the orca's words, and they came out the same every time: 'She loves you, Jube.'

'She loves you'. Now, that wasn't something I ever expected to hear...

"And I think I know why. Me, I'm kinda isolated, but sometimes people do come out here, and we can talk about stuff, okay? But Sue Carter... there's nobody like her. Nobody's on her level. Nobody. No matter how big a crowd she's in, she's always alone -- she can't not be! Which might be okay if she was as emotionless as she pretends to be --"

"-- but she's not," I interrupted. "What's your point? Can you cut to the chase here?"

"Still impatient, huh, Jube?" Wigley said, amused. "The point is, Sue Carter is human. So she needs someone to share her life with. Yeah, some people get along fine on their own, but Sue isn't one of them, okay? She really does need other people in her life. Trust me on this. It'd be best if it was someone on her level, but since there's nobody like that, the next best thing would be someone who can understand 'cause they're as isolated as she is."

"Meaning, me."

"Yep! You two are kindred spirits. She's hurting bad, and you're hurting bad, and with any luck, you guys can help each other heal. What do you think of that?"

"Me... heal..." I stared at the orca for few seconds, then found my voice again: "I think anyone who believes in God, probably has other moronic ideas lodged in their skull."

The orca shrug-rocked. "'If any man among you seemeth to be wise in this world, let him become a fool' --"

"Yeah, yeah, 1 Corinthians 3:18." A Biblical reference -- typical. "What's your point?"

"Anyway, that's why I think Sue loves you. And I'm sorry I interrupted. Could I hear some more Ringworld? Please?"

I upshifted to think. Alright, what's Wigley's game? Listening to me isn't courtesy, it's masochism! It took me less than a clock-second to eliminate the impossible, leaving only the merely improbable truth: The orca really did want someone -- anyone -- to read to her, and she was desperate enough to settle for me. Back at the slowpokes' tempo of 1: "Okay. From the top: Ringworld. Chapter 1, Louis Wu. 'In the nighttime heart of Beirut, in one of a row of general-address transfer booths'..."

Wouldn't have believed it possible, but she let me get through all of the first chapter without an interruption.

"...'"a simple scream of rage is sufficient. You scream and you leap."'

"'"You scream and you leap," said Louis. "Great."'" Then, after a short pause, "End of Chapter 1. Comments?"

"Yeah. You should do this more often." And she went on as if she hadn't just given me the psychological equivalent of a swift kick to the crotch. "Really! Maybe you haven't got as much to work with as most people, but who cares? What you do have, you use real good. Okay, your voice is rougher than Sue's. A lot rougher. So what? I mean, you got across the sheer chutzpah of when Nessus was trash-talking those kzin!"

Maybe she wasn't lying... "And Carter wouldn't have?"

"Nope. Sue just reads -- you perform. When it comes to reading, I'll take you over her any day."

I don't often get shocked speechless. I could hear the whispering of the wind, the crash of the surf... wait a minute. What was I thinking, for the love of Calliope!? That I'd even considered the possibility, even for a second --

"Okay, you've had your fun. I'm outta here." I stood up.

"But you -- hold it -- what's wrong, Jube?"

I glared at Wigley. "What's wrong is, you expected me to believe a line of crap like 'I'll take you over her any day'. In case you weren't aware: I don't like hidden agendas, I don't like to be bullshitted, and I really don't like being lied at. Got it, or am I moving too fast for you?"

"No! Don't go! Please!"

"You want me to stick around? Fine. Tell me why I'm here -- and this time, make it the truth, Goddamn you!"

We stared into each other's eyes -- hers looked stunned -- until the orca quietly said, "Your voice must have been very good, before... I'm sorry, Jube. I didn't fully realize..." She sigh-hissed, then continued normally. "Okay. Why you're here. My social life sucks, Jube. Mostly, people just visit me to unload."

"Like confessing their sins to a priest?"

"Pretty much. What can I say, I'm a good listener. I don't really mind, but... it'd be nice to just talk some time. About baseball or Madonna's latest boy-toy or whatever. You know? So I figured you could help me out here. Pure selfishness, really... If I'd known how you felt, I wouldn't have asked what I asked. And I'm sorry."

Okay, that's more like it. "Apology accepted. And I suppose you know about Carter needing companionship because she's one of your flock?"

"Yeah. She only came around after Angelo died, but she did come around. And like always, I listened. Sue's no believer, but she needs it, bad. She's desperate for something she can accept. I've heard people talk about her, and I think..." She ducked under for a second and bubble-laughed. "I got lots of time to think -- it's in my job description -- and I think you're about as close to an equal partner as she's ever gonna find."

Well, the dryad had told me I was occasionally like a 'bright child'... no. "As close as possible, maybe, but that's not very close at all. As for being her partner..." I closed my eyes, bowed my head, sighed. "Not a good idea. Better she find somebody with zero chance of ever carving her into salad."

"And that's not you? Come on, Jube. You don't kill a guy who shoots you in the back, who are you gonna kill?"

I gave her a sad, weary smile. "Yeah, I know. I've got 20 years' experience, thus far I have controlled myself, the odds are so with me, all of that. It helps. The thing is, if I screw up, even a little bit... just one tiny mistake... people can end up dead. Still think I'm not dangerous?"

Wigley had no answer, and I didn't have anything more to say myself, so the uncomfortable silence stretched onward. Foliage rustling in the wind, waves slapping on concrete, brain the size of a planet singing on a hill... What the?

The dryad was singing. Sounded like Sloop John B, one of the songs I'd recorded back when I could record worth a damn.

"Wigley? Do you hear what I hear?"

"Yeah. Sue's singing again. She does that once in a while."

"Excuse me," I said as I got up. "I think I'd better talk to her..."

"Okay. But I will see you again, right, Jube?"

"I'll be back," I promised. Sadly, my attempt at an Austrian accent went unrecognized.

A couple minutes later, I found the dryad. Standing next to a moai, naked, clothes scattered carelessly around her, languid smile on her face, and her feet dug into the ground. She didn't notice my arrival, just kept singing John B. From her, it sounded like a funeral dirge, not at all like the light comedy I'd played it for on my CD. Somehow, it was giving me deja vu anyway...

"I want to go home / Why don't they leave me alone? / I feel so break-up / I want to go home."

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

And suddenly Mr. Jubatus was present, he having blinked in with an even greater degree of celerity than was his usual habit. I finished the song -- it was the right thing to do -- then addressed him. "Hello there, o feline of my dreams..."

"Carter?" He was so agitated. Of course, he always was, poor thing.

"I am so very glad to see you... In truth, I cannot think of any thing nor any one else whom I would rather have be the last thing I see..."

"Last -- talk to me, Carter! What are you doing?"

"I'm tired, Jubatus... so very, very tired... and I want to rest..."

"But -- you're just gonna root for a while, right? You're not thinking of suicide?"

"Not death... just rest..." My smile spread across my face like an opening flower as, hearing those words, Mr. Jubatus calmed a good deal. "How sweet... you really, truly care... people like you... why I have to, Veidt's method wouldn't work you know, what with SCABS... I have to save the world..."

"Saving the world. Pretty tall order."

"Yes, but... I can do it, solve gravity... open the stars up to humanity..."

"So that's why you're interested in me -- you think my upshifting can help you understand space/time." He was so sad...

"You and I together... saving the world... together... would have been... wonderful... Much nicer..."

"'Would have been' -- meaning you've given up on studying me. Right?"

"Yes... too dangerous... don't know how to persuade you... save the world... why can't everyone do what I say..."

He shook his head. "You said it yourself, Carter -- it's too dangerous. I just wish I could make you understand why."

"Doesn't matter... skin the cat differently... reduce surface population..."

"You -- you don't mean that. You think mass murder is a solution to any problem, you're crazy!"

"What is sanity..? Smarter than you... smarter than everybody... so alone... see what others can't or won't... must be done... consequences occur, even if not seen..."

"But you're talking genocide!"

I smiled, admiring his fur haloed in the soft colours. Cull the herd, not genocide... but nobody knew... sacrifice, "'Decisions had to be made'... Hoped... wanted you... trainable, not a complete idiot... perhaps come to understand... but you refused... rejected me... have to work in isolation... always alone, always alone..."

"No! I rejected a bad idea, not you!"

"Reject me, reject my ideas... no difference... it's alright, catty-kit... eventually, everyone's dead... make some die now... so the race lives... equitable trade..." He wasn't at all happy; what could I say to comfort him, poor dear? "No great loss... they're only stupids, slowpo-"

"Stop it!" he shouted, so I did. And then he said, very quietly, "You win, Carter. I'll go up, and I'll use the pheromone. You win, damn it all to Hades."

chapter 9

I remembered clearly Jube stating that he would go, but after that it was a blur. My transitional state, the twilight zone in which my existence was neither animal-like nor yet truly plant-like, was marked by a mode of thought not entirely unlike that of inebriation -- or so I'd concluded from my readings on the topic, inasmuch as I had never been drunk in either my pre- or post-SCABS lives. In the transitional state I wasn't in complete control, but I also wasn't delusional. My mind wandered in odd ways, often clearer ways, and it was, in fact, the transitional state that helped the most in problem solving -- the vegetative state which followed was usually just an extended meditation on the ideas that occurred to me during the transitional state. I remembered Jubatus stating he was going to get Dr. Miesel; the arrival of her and others; and then the painful uprooting which thrust me back into the animalian chaos of comparatively hyperactive life. My thoughts were clearer, and my inner voice silent. Even though my inner voice hadn't obeyed the rules that time, it had obviously been waiting for something, obviously a tool to help me reach the right condition to get through Jubatus' stubbornness and awaken pity.

Jube had stated that he believed that I was interested in his upshifting because I believed it would help me figure out how to manipulate gravity. That confirmed my suspicions that his particular form of SCABS allowed him to manipulate space/time directly, whether by some kind of either temporal shift, or else gravitic time distortion. In either case, it (and he himself) would serve my purposes. Once he was up I'd have lots of time for detailed study, and given the successful methodology used to convince him, I decided to adjust my customary speech patterns and talk to Jubatus with more-colloquial phraseology. It certainly seemed to have made him slightly more biddable. Nevertheless with the acceptance of the pheromone and the proven success of its effects, everything was go for a launch on schedule. The cheetah was handling the accelerated training; I was in my room all night under 'house arrest', which only meant that I could devote more time to making theoretical models of reality based on either possibility of what Jube did. It also enabled me to get that Shimura-Taniyama-Weil iteration resolved.

For the first time in years, the possibility of progressing in my understanding of gravity existed and it was more a drug to my senses than the broken vibrator ever was.

And it was all thanks to Jubatus.

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

McGregor debriefed me to within an inch of my life; he spent a couple hours behind closed doors with the dryad, too. The ultimate outcome? Don't ask me. It was all Ad Astra proprietary information, and I didn't have a need to know -- but the AA guards tailing her ass every waking moment were probably a clue.

Anyway: What with the neo-Luddite assault, Carter's little brush with outlawry, the consequences of both, and Murphy's Law in general, the pre-planned schedule got shot to hell. The major bright spot was Carter's pheromone; now that I was clueful about it, I could tell that it was doing some good. I'd never actually realized how badly I clenched up when meeting new people -- never had anything to compare the experience to -- but now that I did know the score, I had more reason to hope that the stuff might work as advertised...

But I digress.

Things went into overdrive the last few days before liftoff -- even I had trouble keeping up. More training: safety systems, emergency procedures (Brin's got this untried system that theoretically allows somebody in a suit to re-enter Earth's atmosphere and land safely), panic buttons, basic first aid, vacuum effects on a variety of biologicals (thank you, SCABS), everything else you can imagine, and a lot you can't. Hell, I barely even had a chance to look over the reason I was here -- Brin's hardware and software! The system was a chrome-plated bitch: Obviously designed by a genius, my only question was how sane the designer wasn't. Examining the code, I found it to be a Godawful mess of redundancies, workarounds, and layer upon layer of semi-compatible structures. The whole mess was documented to within an inch of its life, and every bit as deceptively comprehensible as a contract drawn up by the law firm of Coyote, Loki, and Crazy Eddie... Fixing it would be a bitch and seven-eighths, but then that's why they pay me the big bucks, right?

Still, it was the first time I'd ever seen a flowchart with 5-dimensional connectivity, and I got a non-trivial initial shock. I even asked Carter how in Vulcan's name they could have let the system get a state like this. Her answer was instructive:

"Academic niceties like bug fixing tend to be left by the wayside when a situation deteriorates to the point where failure to find a solution means that everyone will die within 30 seconds. And given that we have a working system which does pump the oxygen, run the filters, and generally keep everyone on Brin alive, is it any wonder that we prefer not to disturb it unnecessarily?"

She had a point.

Still, in spite of everything, I managed to get half a grasp of Brin's systems. Okay, a quarter of a grasp. And on the last day before liftoff, we got the full Alice's Restaurant treatment: We were inspected, injected, infected, neglected and selected. When they were through with us, there was zero chance that either of us would carry any trace of contamination, fungus, or contraband up to Brin.

And then it was Zero Hour.

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

The day of the launch proper began at 7:30 AM, with trumpets blaring from loudspeakers -- it was Also Sprach Zarathustra, the tune made famous by Arthur C. Clarke's 2001: A Space Odyssey. But I hadn't... ah. No, I hadn't specified any musical accompaniment for the duration of the launch and preparations thereto -- but my co-pilot, Jubatus, obviously had. Just as Angelo had sometimes...

It soon became apparent that Jube's program was far more extensive than anything my former partner had ever dreamed up. Another tune filled the air as we left the cafeteria after finishing our breakfast; it began with a kind of metallic-sounding percussion, quickly accompanied by a mellow horn of some sort. Jubatus, having observed my momentary puzzlement, spoke: "The theme to Earthstar Voyager -- pretty good, for a third-rate Disney made-for-TV movie. Like it?"

Later on, just as we entered the decontamination facility, a new piece of music burst forth from the loudspeakers -- synthesized brass of some sort. I looked at my companion, the expression on whose face was cheerful and satisfied with a hint of smugness. "And what tune is this?"

"You can't guess? She Blinded Me With Science -- Thomas Dolby." Whoever that was; something else to add to the list of items I'd have to research. "Very appropriate, no?"Mr. Dolby's presumedvoice sang "She's poetry in motion!" before we reached the chamber in which we'd disrobe -- well, that explained why my companion had thought this an appropriate tune for this stage of the process. If it wasn't for the cameras, and Jubatus, I would have been shaking, but I refused to let anybody know my fear. Thus, with an effort of will I began removing my clothing in preparation for the decontamination showers and final suiting up. I'd had my hair trimmed yesterday -- it grows quite fast as it is primarily a repository for starch. As I washed I noticed Jubatus stop and stare. "Mr. Jubatus, you must have seen a naked female form, if you haven't I can give you a tour if you want."

Jubatus blinked. "Oh -- right," he said with a hesitant smile. "Sorry about that. Won't happen again."

Damn him! I wanted him to react, Angelo had, but... No, he was a stranger to the psychs and I couldn't afford to miss this trip at this point -- I didn't think I could go through this again. Instead I just ignored him -- I didn't have the mental strength to worry about him in addition to keeping myself controlled. And my worm would be grabbing images of him for storage and later insertion into Wanderer's camera, along with edited pictures for the punchline, so there was no need. I only had to worry about the showers, and my nakedness.

Nakedness. I remembered prancing and teasing Angelo, all part of the game I unknowingly played. Part of me wanted to do the same for Jubatus, but there were too many watching, but it might distract me. No. I am a sentient being, my body is subservient to my mind. With a sudden violence I pulled off the shirt and then the blouse and tossed them into the labelled box. Then on to the gloves. There is air, lots of air, there is no danger. One, then the other, sensing the air on my skin cool and clean. Concentrate on the pressure. It is there, it is safe. Next was the bodysuit, my final defense. I had never worn one before the accident, but now I slept in it; taking it off for a shower was a major act of will. I couldn't even do that in privacy with the shared washrooms; that was one of my greatest pleasures when travelling -- a private bath and the secret release of control and fear. Swallowing, I pulled the lycra off of my arms and chest, and pushed it down to my waist. My body quivered, its pores opened wide, sniffing at the sterile air. Then a stretch, a shake of the head to free the static entanglement with my hair. There was Jubatus, already done, pointedly looking at the wall, shivering a little in the cool air. Enough waffling, this has to be done or I'll never soar again. There had to be a solution to this but what? Flying was a joy, but drifting, working, it was a horror, the stuff of Lovecraftian nightmares. You're waffling again. A memory flashed into my sensorium of when I first awoke with my new body, of the intellectual detatchment as I looked down at my replaced and hidden reproductive organs and the thought that at least they'd never get caught on anything. I had to do it. Biting my lip I quickly wiggled out of the rest and threw it into the box.

"Time for the showers Mr. Jubatus."

I quickly stepped across the cold cement, forcing myself not to shake, forcing my voice to remain steady. Somehow I kept from running so that I could feel the sensation of water on my skin, to know that I wasn't... Don't think. Just act. Then I was there. Finally. A bit too quickly, I wrenched the tap on and then leaned into the glorious warm falling liquid as it caressed me. I was alive, I was safe.

"Why all this?" Jubatus waved at the showers as he shied away from the sensation of the liquid on his naked skin.

"Remember the Russian Mir station? They had all kinds of problems with fungi and molds, and we'd greatly prefer that Brin be kept free of such. Don't forget the soles of your feet." As I said that I twisted around and balanced on one foot and then the other, facing down, allowing the liquid to caress my crotch. There were things to be said for the extra flexibility SCABS had given me. "Mr. Jubatus, we're all adults here -- lean down and hold up your tail so the liquid can get everything. You're being watched anyway, and they won't let you stop until they're satisfied." I turned away from Jubatus and looked up into the showerhead, enjoying the pressure of liquid on my face, the rolls and drips down my back. Hopefully Jubatus would take a while... but my hopes failed and with a click the showers stopped. I shivered, not from the cold, and then the showers switched back on, this time with water. "Mr. Jubatus, make sure to thoroughly soap and clean your entire body. The antiseptic liquid they switched off itches horribly when it's dry." I had learned that through experience -- the one and only time I'd failed to rinse adequately, the residue had made me miserable all the way up. The fact that it allowed me to thoroughly scrub my entire body and provided a continual reminder that I was safe and in atmosphere was an added bonus. It took me 10 minutes to finish, Jubatus was already done -- either he'd upshifted or he'd pay the penalty. After a last rinse the showers clicked off and I clenched my fists to keep control. I walked slowly forward and pulled open the airtight door, then walked into the slight positive pressure. They'd been venting the room with the showers the whole time we'd been there washing; the air smelled cool, stale, empty. After Jubatus entered I closed and sealed the door. A few quick steps and I was at my suit, clean, white, sterile.

"Mr. Jubatus, please check the rear seal, when I'm in I'll check yours."

"Not a problem. If you need instructions or the manual, look in pocket 11, upper left quadrant on the torso."

"Unnecessary; I read the specs a month ago."

He nodded, and his next words were completely unremarkable in tone: "Their security was pretty easy to crack, huh?"

"Yes. Most security is."

"Didn't even think to make a request through normal channels, did you?"

His disappointment was clearly evident -- and why did I feel hurt? "That would have taken too long and been an inefficient use of my time."

I climbed in through my suit's open back underneath the life support unit behind the head, wiggled into the layers of cloth and rubber tubing for cooling, and felt around back for the wire which I then pulled and secured to the front of the suit, making sure to pull my ass in and out of the way. "Mr. Jubatus, please check that I am correctly sealed." My voice was muffled through the suit, but at last I was safe, secure, protected.

I couldn't hear him walk, but after a second I felt a pressure on my lower back. "Looks fine."

"Thank you." Then I reached down and pulled the lever which locked it in place. A final check to make sure all the onboard systems were working, a test of the air, and then the final step was to plug in the external air conditioning/supply unit to the side so as to preserve the onboard supplies. "Your turn Mr. Jubatus."

Awkwardly I turned around and went through the same procedure with him, although I had to manually push his tail in before he could seal up. His suit differed from mine only in trivial details. I double checked his systems through the external status at the back and made sure they confirmed with his before letting him lock it up and connect the external supply.

And suddenly, before we could begin our final approach to our vehicle, the music was rhythmic brass, not unlike a march. "The theme from one of those movies you can't stand -- The Right Stuff," he said, dismissing it with a wave of one hand. "You go first?"

"The pilot does, yes, followed by the co-pilot, and then any ancillary personnel. On this flight, however, than means you and I alone." With those words, I stepped out on the marked pathway to Babylon, the cheetah three steps behind me, ignoring the light taps of our footsteps.

Suddenly he stopped -- my heightened sensory acuity applies to tactile sensations, including minor variances in air pressure from moving objects -- so I followed suit and turned to face him. His countenance, far from displaying the anticipation and/or joy one might expect in a person about to achieve a lifelong dream, actually bore an expression of mingled fear and worry."Is something wrong, Mr. Jubatus?"

"Maybe,"was his quiet response.

I stepped towards him -- the closer his proximity, the greater his exposure to my pheromone -- and said, "Is there any specific matter that concerns you?"

"I don't know. That's the problem. What if I build up a tolerance to the pheromone? What if it just stops working? What if there's side effects, like it drops my IQ to animal level?"

"I hardly think that --"

The speed and pitch of his words were both rising, and he was beginning to quiver with fear-induced adrenaline: "And I got a lot of freefall experience, but no more than a few minutes at a time. Suppose I have some kind of bad reaction from hours or days --"

We hadn't the time for his paranoid fantasies. "Mr. Jubatus!"

He stopped talking and looked, distraught, at me.

"You are going up to Brin because there is at least one technical glitch that needs to be identified and corrected. In your absence, the worst-case scenario is that this unknown glitch or glitches causes the complete destruction of Brin and all life on board. Do you understand?"

His only reply was a second or so of upshifting. When his 'aura' began to fade away, he said, "Good point. Okay. Let's do it."

After that I led the way to Babylon. More horn music accompanied us -- this one I remembered, Fanfare for the Common Man -- as I helped Jubatus climb up and into the co-pilot's seat and connect his systems to the shuttles life support before climbing in myself and carefully seating myself so that the backpack fit into the space in the seat behind my head. Then I connected myself and handed the external pack to Alex and waved as he climbed down the ladder and the canopy closed.

Once we were sealed in and ready, the comm unit's LED flashed -- that was apparently the cue for the next piece in Mr. Jubatus' program to begin, with strings in the bass register. "What would this be, please?"

"Canon in D. Oh, what a difference Pachelbel makes."

Then I answered the call from Ground Control. The officer in charge said, "Sorry Sue, NASA's got another hold."I rolled my eyes. Didn't they know anything about keeping to a schedule? At least Jubatus and I were still connected to the ground equipment so we weren't using up Babylon's supply of stored oxygen. I flicked the radio to local, "Sorry Mr. Jubatus, but NASA has its hand up its arse again," and then back to ground, "Andrew, you get Drew to call Mr. Kennedy and tell him that we have schedules and commitments too. If they don't get that archaic rust bucket up in the next five minutes, we're going up anyway, and we'll take back our payment for the tank."

"Do you think it'll work any better than last time?"

"You never know, there might be a hint of sanity with them still. We did charge them late fees last time."

I heard Andrew chuckle. "I'll get him on it."

"Thanks, I think we should launch in five minutes regardless -- in the worse case I'll sling from Brin and grab it."

"And bill them for the fuel like last time?" I could hear his grin.

"Yes. Let me know if Drew talks some sense into them, I've got to start the final checklist. Prepare for launch in five."

"Acknowledged Sue."

Jubatus interrupted the circuit: "What was all that about?"

"You know that we build Brin out of the liquid fuel tanks from the NASA shuttle?"

"Sure. And?"

"We pay them a residual for the tank manufacture cost, and for the loss in payload getting it up to where we can grab it easier. It's why we call the station 'Brin', after the author/physicist David Brin who wrote about the idea."

Now it was the turn of the cheetah's eyes to roll. "Fine, but what's with the delays and threats?"

"For fuel efficiency it works best to grab the tank on the way from ground to Brin, but that means we need to link our launches with NASA's. Occassionally they run into problems and the last time I had our lawyers dock our extra fuel costs from their fee."

Then Andrew kicked in, "Guess what, the hold just ended. NASA's go for launch in 15."

"Acknowledged. Beginning final checklist for launch in five..."

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I wanted to ask for details of Ad Astra's arrangement with NASA -- anything to help squelch the impulse to run which simply would not stay buried -- but Carter was busy with final checks. Me, I just sat there, strapped firmly into my seat, keeping as far away as physically possible from the dashboard's thousands of controls. One touch of that big red one, for instance, would send my chair shooting up through the cockpit ceiling... I was acutely aware of the 73% death rate I'd earned in the simulator runs.

"Disengaging from ground umbilicals."

Something thumped at a rate of 13 Hertz -- No, that's my pulse, ignore it. I felt a minor jerk-and-click, then a blue idiot light glowed -- the oxygen I was now breathing came straight from Babylon's internal systems. Point of no return; from here on out, I couldn't escape The Dream if I wanted to. Then my leg started to itch. I reached to scratch... no. No point; my gloves had the claw-guards I'd designed for Hallan's gauntlets, and if I did manage to scratch anyway...

Forget it -- not worth the risk. Cold Equations.

Dry throat. I swallowed.

"Launch in one minute. Final engine startup test."

Soon I'd...

Time and again, Apollo reruns played uncontrollably inside my skull. Time and again, the Saturn 5 rose from its launchpad -- no color survived the glare of the rocket's flame -- tinny thunder rolled from the speaker of a beat-up 10-inch RCA television set -- three men rode a fire in the sky.

Now it was my turn...

More idiot lights. More noise, a faint rumble and whine. I knew the bare technical facts, which components were responsible for what part of the noise -- and I knew the real meaning of that sound:

Babylon was purring. She knew. And she wanted to fly.

"Engine test good. Taxiing to launch start."

She jerked again. The hangar roof slid smoothly backwards.

"Sue, NASA's put on another hold."

"Bastards! Well, we've got a schedule, if it's short we'll circle a bit before engaging the SCRAM."

"Understood Sue. Just keep an eye on your fuel -- the board doesn't like it when you glide in."

Her laugh was a Benny Goodman clarinet solo. She was in her element now; the dryad had become a Phoenix, reborn in the tamed fires of technology... 'My wings are made of tungsten / My flesh is glass and steel / I am the joy of Terra / For the power that I wield --'

"Mr. Jubatus, I'll try for a proper countdown to liftoff, but I might be slightly off."

"Thanks." I must have enunciated the word clearly, otherwise Carter wouldn't've nodded her acknowledgement. Another old song mixed itself into the sound track of my internal reruns: 'Prometheus, they say, brought the fire down to Man...'

"Beginning full thrust in 5... 4... 3... 2... 1... Ignition."

At this point, Babylon really started to move. Lateral acceleration well over 1 G -- compared to this, the commercial jet was a Piper Cub. I braced myself for the crushing pressure to come.

'And we've touched it, tamed it, claimed it, since our history began...'

" Lift-off in 5 seconds..."

Babylon wasn't a smooth ride; with jerks and bumps, she expressed her displeasure at being enslaved to impertinent sacks of impure water like us. Her engines roared, a basso profundo howl that shook the bones. Riding the fire...

'Now we're going back to heaven, just to look Him in the eye...'

"4... 3... 2... 1... Lift-off."

Babylon quit trying to shake us off. She arced sharply upward, screaming through the clouds. I was finally on my way.

'And there's a thunder 'cross the land --'

Next stop: Low orbit.

'-- and a Fire In The Sky...'

chapter A

Ignoring Jubatus' music, I stayed on course in a circular pattern gaining altitude. Unlike the archaic space shuttle in its most recent rebuild, Babylon was a true spaceplane. It took off like a plane, flew in the atmosphere like a plane, and gained aerodynamic lift like a plane. Accordingly, it was most fuel-efficient to travel in a large diameter circular path with a steady rate of climb to take maximum advantage of the lift characteristics of the body. In fact the angle of climb varied directly with the air pressure to take maximum advantage of the greater lift in the thicker air. Of course, there were other effects...

"Andrew, approaching Mach 1 in 3... 2... 1..." I spoke into the radio. Suddenly, an eerie silence filled the craft. "Don't worry Mr. Jubatus, our roar is all behind us now -- we've passed well beyond the sound barrier." All that could be heard was the crackle of static, and the thud and rumble of Babylon in local air turbulence. The physics of aerodynamics has a certain mathematical elegance, and is extremely dependent on the pressure and velocity of the air one is moving through. The only discontinuity in the functions is the switch from subsonic to supersonic, but below and above that point the properties follow a continuous curve.

I would have said more, but the radio interrupted: "Er, Sue?"

"What's NASA doing now Andrew?"

"It's not NASA -- Drew's still on the line with them. Remember that relay satellite you were going to look at in two days?"

"Yes. I take it something's wrong?"

"It just went completely offline. They'd like you to get at it today. Can you..?"

It was the work of a moment to calculate the satellite's current position -- having already been scheduled to visit that particular wounded bird, we had its orbital parameters stored in Babylon's onboard systems -- and determine the cost, in time and fuel and oxygen, of complying with this request. "They're going to pay the usual penalties?"

"Double that if you do it now."

"I estimate it'll take 1.3% of the orbital reserve. O2 won't be a problem. Run an update through the computers down there and send it up, will you?"

"Gotcha, Sue. And we just got word from Drew: NASA's going to launch in 1 minute."


I switched circuits and cut off Jube's music. "Did you catch that, Mr. Jubatus?"

"Enough of it. Flight plan only has one relevant item, servicing that Euro-Asia Telecom relay on the 17th. So the EATers want you to handle it now, huh?"

"Correct. You will get to see... excuse me a minute." I switched back to ground control. "Andrew, I register Mach 3 on schedule. Preparing switch to ramjet."

"Acknowledged Sue."

"Switching in 3... 2... 1... now." With a sharp motion I switched two toggles on opposite sides of the cockpit to their second setting. Babylon jerked, and then leapt forward, pushing me back into my seat. Babylon uses four different engines -- a conventional turbojet for low-speed, low-altitude flight; a ramjet for high speeds (Mach 3 to 7); a scramjet for Mach 7 to 12; and a liquid-fuel rocket for trans-atmospheric operations. The three jet modes are good at different atmospheric speeds as each requires a different range of intake velocities, hence yields different exhaust velocities. A ram only works above Mach 1, and a scram only above Mach 5. "Switch to ramjet successful."


I switched back to Jube's circuit. "We just switched to the ramjet. As you inferred, Euro-Asia Telecom has a bad satellite that I was scheduled to look at on Sunday but I'm going to go over it before we reach Brin. You'll get to see space up close and personal."

"Does this kind of thing happen often?"

"Too often. We're cheaper than putting a new one up, and time and e-mail viruses wait for no man."

"And since you're neither male nor human, that makes you the best techie for the job, right?"

Our velocity reached Mach 4. Our position might actually be changing more quickly than the cheetah's mood. Speaking of which, it occurred to me exactly which emotions he had not been displaying whilst seated here in Babylon... "Mr. Jubatus, I couldn't help but notice that you seem a bit disappointed. May I ask why?"

I could hear the rueful smile on his face as he responded: "Nothing, really. It's just... it's pretty stupid. I mean, I grew up with Apollo, right? Big rockets -- Saturn Fives and all. So for liftoff, I kind of expected more, well, fury and fireworks, you know?"

The dial clicked to Mach five. Well, if my companion wanted a bit of fear and terror, I could oblige him. "Unfortunately Mr. Jubatus, a Saturn Five is not what one might call fuel efficient, nor safe. I've managed to avoid strapping bombs to my ass, not counting the space shuttle of course." Sometimes I'm still not sure how I survived my one trip up in that. Roomy, yes; safe, no."

He honored my remark with one polite laugh. "Heh. Like I said, I was just being stupid."

"I'm still not sure if those first stellar travelers were brave, or merely insane. You have to admire them though." The dial clicked to Mach six. "Actually, Mr. Jubatus, I might just be able to provide you with some fury and fireworks."


"Yes. While it's true that Babylon only carries 5.2% the hydrogen of a Saturn, that is quite enough to provide for a big bang." And the dial clicked to Mach seven, right on time, and I switched back to ground control, leaving Jubatus in the circuit but only able to listen -- and only I able to hear his voice. "Andrew, switching to scramjet in 3... 2... 1... Now."

"Acknowledged --"

A slight nudge of the foot pedals changed the dynamic envelope of air pressures around the scramjet intake just enough to prevent it from running. A red light flashed as an alarm buzzed and the faint roar of Babylon's engines faded to silence. "Bloody scramjet didn't catch." A scramjet is very sensitive to the flow patterns of the air stream. Babylon had always been a bit finicky; it was due to the design of the intake, a problem fixed in Agamemnon, and I'd eventually worked out the optimum velocity and orientation of Babylon to make sure that the flow pattern was within acceptable parameters. And knowing that, it was just as easy to make sure that the flow pattern was almost within acceptable parameters. "I apologize Mr. Jubatus, Babylon has always been rather fussy at this stage."

Andrew's voice came over my headset: "We're recalculating fuel expenditures and rendezvous information based on the most economical solution. You have permission. By the way, NASA has launched."

"Acknowledged, Andrew. Entering dive." I switched so that only Jube could hear my voice. "It seems that today is your lucky day." I pushed the stick and pumped the pedals to put Babylon into a steep dive/spin. "You know that all that's needful would be a slight adjustment in our trajectory," a quick jerk of the controls caused Babylon to jump, "and we'd be heading right towards the Blind Pig." In truth, we couldn't get within a thousand kilometers of the place -- it was almost on the opposite side of the globe. "I've calculated the energy release of an object, of Babylon's mass with the corresponding amount of liquid hydrogen and oxygen of course, that would occur with an impact at Mach 12. It's actually quite impressive."

"Yeah, but the Pentagon might get cranky if you do that inside the US."

"You think the Air Force would attempt an intercept? At our velocity, and with appropriate evasive movement, their probability of success would be about .03 percent." I put a wry tone into my voice. "Since we're both dangers to humanity, that would certainly eliminate both of us with the cost of only a few tens of millions of lives."

"I vote you aim for the Pacific Ocean," he said. He didn't sound any more agitated, but noise from his life support gear indicated that his air circulation pump had shifted into high gear. "We'll be just as dead, but with a hell of a lot less collateral damage."

"That's ignoring atmospheric effects of course. There wouldn't be a nuclear winter, but certainly short term agricultural disruption." I switched my voice circuit back to ground, cutting Jube out. "On maximal success path for scram start. Will retry in 15 seconds." A quick switch back to Jube. "I'm tried Mr. Jubatus. Tired of life, tired of the fear. I can't go on."

"For God's sake, Carter -- don't do it!" I spared the cheetah a glance; his eyes were wide, and I believe his face would have been white with terror if he were human.

And my voice back so that only ground control could hear it. "Restart in 3... 2... 1..." and with a roar that vibrated through my bones, the scramjet came to life and I pulled Babylon sharply upward in a 6-G curve that made my sight dim. "Scramjet active... resuming climb." And then an increase in thrust to a steady 3 Gs for almost a minute.

Back to Jube: "I trust that was satisfactory, Mr. Jubatus?"

It had been far too long since I had last done this.

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The upward acceleration took me by surprise. I'd more than half-believed that the dryad truly wanted to collect hypersonic dirt samples! But of course, it had all been some kind of show for my 'benefit'.

She played me -- again -- damnit! She hadn't really intended to auger into the ground, she was just... testing me? Maybe. I don't know. Hell, I probably can't know what goes on inside that hyperintelligent skull of hers... That wasn't a productive train of thought, so I squelched it. Ditto my rage at having been manipulated. You thought she'd treat you any different than she does anyone else, Jube? Yeah, right. Which was all fine and dandy, but it didn't even touch the $64,000 question: What could I do to bring Carter back within arm's reach of sanity? Well, she was susceptible to emotions, which suggested that her subconscious mind was the way to go. She's an absolute control freak, been that way for years. Hmm... I bet she's not immune to being manipulated herself, just a matter of figuring out which buttons to push. Okay, she's gotta be in control, gotta be one-up all the time... A few minutes' cogitation later, I had what I hoped was a decent battle plan.

Unfortunately, implementing it now wasn't such a great idea, so I killed time by seeing how stars looked at different levels of upshift -- you know, the doppler thing -- without the atmosphere filtering out most wavelengths. Time passed...

"And now we shut the engines down," Carter said.

Why bother to announce it? Did Carter think I'd forgotten the flight plan? "Right," I replied. "Keeps fuel consumption down, and Babylon's engines don't like extended periods of constant boost."

And when she killed the thrust -- remember me talking about 'weird spells' in the centrifuge? Yeah. 'One more time', as the saying goes. And the sensation... closest thing I'd ever felt was seasickness. Not pleasant. Derksen had offered to mix me a Dramamine-analog for my body chemistry. Now I wished I'd taken him up on it...

The dryad noticed my distress. "Are you alright, Mr. Jubatus?"

"Yeah. Gimme a second." Freefall -- microgravity -- call it what you want, it was hitting me a little harder than I'd expected. "I'll just have to get used to zero gee." Shouldn't be hard; I'd long since gotten used to the 1/6 G I live at normally, and the weaker accelerations that come with higher tempos.

"Is there anything I can do to help?"

"No... not until you solve gravity, at least."

It wasn't likely that any slowpoke could've noticed her momentary glare, but I knew I'd hit a nerve, if not which one. "Which is likely to be 'never'. Unless, of course, you're willing to reconsider your refusal to cooperate with my investigations."

What's crawled up her butt -- waitasec, this is the perfect opening! And it was, too, for my plan to rub her nose in her own fallibility. I shrugged. "Why should I? If you want to waste your time on a wild goose chase, fine. Just don't expect me to help you along."

"You're a chronomorph! How can studying your SCABS-granted abilities not result in greater understanding of space-time!?"

"You're assuming I actually do manipulate Time. What makes you think it's not just me adjusting my metabolic speed up or down, fiddling with how I perceive the passage of time?"

"Your heart rate did not increase in the Vomit Comet, and the only rational explanation for this is if you have several years' intense experience with reduced gravity fields. If you do manipulate Time, you must necessarily also be manipulating gravity as well. QED."

I shook my head. "Experience I got, but you're wrong about the cause. It's perception, not Time-tweaking. Under one G, it takes one second for an object to fall 16 feet; when I'm at my default tempo of six, it looks like that object takes six seconds to fall 16 feet, so I perceive gravity as being weaker."

She fumed. "And what of that visual 'aura' that surrounds you when you upshift or downshift?"

"What aura?" I asked, shrugging again. "Never seen it myself, and if Derksen has, he's not talking. How do I know this aura even exists? Assuming you're telling the truth, I say it's just a weird biological effect, courtesy of SCABS."

"So it's just a coincidence that all of the aura's observed behavior is consistent with the hypothesis that you do manipulate Time," the dryad stated, laying on plenty of sarcasm.

"You got it -- and I'd like to see you prove otherwise."

"I shall. But right now, I'd much rather see you explain your anomalous aerodynamic properties as anything but a consequence of Time-manipulation. Your body's drag coefficient, as determined from observations made during the latest battle against Greenpeace, is approximately two orders of magnitude less than one would expect from the shape and texture of your physical form. Absent Time-manipulation, exactly how do you account for your lack of drag?"

I spent a few tens of upshifted seconds thinking before I replied, "Again, I only got your word that this is something real -- but if it is, it's just a consequence of me being furry. I got zillions of tiny little hairs on my body, airflow creates a shockwave at the point of each hair, and the drag is reduced thanks to destructive interference between these shockwaves."

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I clenched my fists, forced my anger down, and remembered the Mayor of Terminus' sign: 'Violence is the last refuge of the incompetent.' Though I couldn't upshift, I was a sentient individual, one of the few that seemed to be left anymore, and I would not let my emotions control me. I remembered a case years ago, a furred bat SCAB that was capable of flight. His ability to fly was unexplainable to others, and he was one of the few who wanted to understand why. In his own words, he 'didn't want to suddenly fall out of the sky and splat all over somebody's car'. Tests and measurements revealed that he was manipulating pockets of air pressure around him, layers of density that resulted in an almost 10 atmospheres of pressure along his wings, and a significantly higher air flow over his wings. It seemed that there was a projected force field around him that compressed air just in front of his wings and let the resulting high pressure decay to normal values behind him, creating two tear-dropped shaped pockets of variably-dense air (behind his wings) on either side of his body, such that the average air pressure all around him was equal to the local air pressure. Metabolic studies suggested that his level of energy consumption during flight was far greater than could be accounted for by the biological expenditures of his muscle movement alone, and the final belief was that he was projecting so-called 'cosmic strings' -- focussed conical cracks in space/time -- from either side of his body. There were some applications of this within quantum physics, and some unexplained minor variances that suggested an indirect effect on the local gravitational field, but all was otherwise still within the mathematics of quantum theory. The detailed pressure/flow measurements yielded a model of the effect of 'fur' on airflow, and studies of small animals in wind tunnels had extended the model to a general equation.

Or, in other words, Jubatus was full of it.

"That's the most preposterous pack of nonsense I've ever heard an allegedly-intelligent being propound!"

He remained silent as I started on the mathematical description of what was the truth, and I let myself go and considered why he was spouting utter impossibilities. Could it be that he believed what he was saying? Could it be that although he affected space/time, he himself believed that it was a purely metabolic effect?

By rights, he ought to have yielded to the force of my superior logic and reasoning... but, of course, he did not. His only reply was an intensely smug, "And you can prove that, can you?"

One of the problems with higher mathematics is that if one doesn't deal with it on a regular basis, without pen, electronic pad, and help, one really can't understand what it means. Given: Jubatus refuses to help. Stated reason: His ability is wholly biological/metabolic, and thus not relevant to the problem of solving gravity. Conclusion: Jubatus will help once he understands that he is manipulating space/time. If that truly is what he is doing.

Question: Was my desire for a key to solve the problem of gravity influencing my observational neutrality? I had to admit that that could be possible. Oddly, it was even possible that my belief that he was manipulating space/time could influence him so that he was influencing space/time, depending on how far one took Heisenberg...

I had no solution to either riddle. But, I also had no other leads on how to solve the problem. Therefore, I would continue working from the premise that Jubatus was manipulating space/time until evidence forced me to reconsider that premise. And, if getting him to accept that premise would convince him to help me, it followed that convincing him of its truth was a priority. And, to convince him, I needed to create at least some friendly respect instead of the current antagonism; his romantic notion of space travel could provide a 'handle' by which he might be maneuvered into the proper frame of mind.

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I let her spew hyperdense math for a while. When she paused for breath, I dialed up my Smugness: "And of course you can prove that, right?" There it was: Would Carter shrug it off and go about her business, or would my challenge prove irresistible to her? Based on what I already knew of the dryad, I was betting on the latter. "Like I said, studying me won't help you learn anything you're interested in. And you've got lots of more important things to do, not so?"

She was silent for a long time before replying: "If proof you require, than proof you shall have."


"In the mean time, would you care to take the wheel, Mr. Jubatus?"

'Take the wheel'? Where the hell did that come from? She can't mean -- "You really want to trust a pilot with a 73% chance of killing Babylon?"

"We're not re-entering, Mr. Jubatus. In fact, we are currently outside the atmosphere. As I recall, you had no simulator runs in which airless maneuvers resulted in any sort of harm. Is my memory accurate?"

Oh God. "Well... yeah, but..." -- and visions of flameouts danced in my head. I can't. Doesn't matter what I want, or how bad I want it, I simply cannot put Babylon at risk like this. I just can't -- "We're all clear, right?"

"Yes. For the next twenty-seven minutes, the only orbital hazards worth our concern are those we'd have to deliberately, knowingly steer towards."

Sometimes I can be a very weak person... "What the hell." I swallowed (useless gesture, leftover reflex from my human days), took a deep breath, gingerly reached out to touch the controls. The hull did not rupture. I made damn sure my side of the dashboard was set to Maintenance mode, and tested the attitude control joysticks. California neglected to slide into the Pacific Ocean. I brought my controls online. The Sun failed to go nova.

I let myself relax. Just a little. "Can I..." Another swallow. "How much delta-vee is safe?" In other words, 'how much thrust can the newbie apply without interfering with the mission?'

The dryad knew what I meant; no surprise, given that she'd invited me to steer. "A maximum of five kilometers per second."

"Thanks." This wasn't a joyride; all I wanted to do was give her however-many meters' worth of forward thrust, followed by the same in reverse. Maybe we'd dock a couple seconds earlier than otherwise. I put my fingers around the joystick and then --


-- the lights went out.

At least Carter wasn't fazed. "No need for profanity, Mr. Jubatus. Unfortunately, minor equipment failures such as this are far from unknown; perhaps you can assist us in fixing some of them while you're here. Now, let me see..." Within a minute and a half, the lights came back on again.

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-- the cockpit lights died.

What? Emergency red lights lit up on my panel. Life support was largely mechanical, so a complete electrical failure didn't pose any threat. Still, it was odd. "No need for profanity, Mr. Jubatus. Unfortunately, minor equipment failures such as this are far from unknown..." but such a complete failure had never occurred in Babylon before. Think. "...perhaps you can assist me in fixing some of them while you're here. Now, let me see..."

Think. The first thing to check when any system failed was to see if anything had changed within the environment. The external environment hadn't changed, and the problem had originated when Jubatus had tried to initiate thrust. That suggested a short in his board. I flicked the appropriate switches and locked Jubatus out of the command net.

"Sue, we read a failure in control systems 5, 8, and 12. Everything all right up there?"

"Mr. Jubatus was about to perform a thrust test to familiarize himself with the actual controls. I'm looking into it now. We're in no immediate danger, and the auxiliaries are live on my board."

"We confirm down here Sue. How is Mr. Acinonyx holding up?"

"I haven't heard any complaints so far." I pulled up a core dump of the pre-failure control code traffic. Hmm, it occurred just before Jubatus initiated any thrust.

"The computer here suggests a short in the copilot board. Thoughts?"

"Dump here shows it failed just as Mr. Jubatus attempted to exert control. That supports the thesis." Still, a complete failure? "I'm leaving his board locked out and attempting a restart. Got our position and orbit logged?"


I typed in the command override. "Ready to re-initialize in 3... 2..."


"...1." I flicked the toggle and the system lights came back on, including those around Jubatus, with the exception of those actually on his board. "Beginning system diagnostic."

"Gotcha, Sue. Data coming through clean."

"Acknowledged." It was all looking good. "Checksums appear to be fine, looks like a localized problem."

"Computer here supports that hypothesis."

"Acknowledged. Sending data dump when you're ready to receive."

"Ready Sue."

I entered the numeric code and sent a dump of all the internal activity since launch. "Sending. I'll set up a realtime update just before I begin to match orbit with the bird -- just in case. Have Brin warm up the scooter."

"We'll pass the message on. Control confirms you're still good for the repair. You know, Sue, you really should wait until we tell you you can go."

"I'll keep that in mind. I'd better get back to Mr. Jubatus -- I'll call if anything changes."

"Got that Sue."

I switched Jubatus back into the circuit. "Sorry about that, it seems to be a localized burnout in your control panel. I'll run a full diagnostic after we dock. I guess for now you'll have to watch."

"Fine by me," he said, his relief plainly evident.

I laughed. The highest proficiency rating we'd ever seen with a newbie, and he was still terrified of rendering Babylon a smoking pile of wreckage! What I knew of his psychology suggested he'd take the con if he had to, and for now that would have to suffice. "If there's time I'll take you out on the scooter."

"Thanks. I wonder... how many of your guests realize why something that looks like an oversized hat rack with a rocket engine up its ass is called a 'scooter'?"

"More than you might have expected. Being the space cadets we are, we've all read too much Heinlein in our misspent youth."

"'Too much Heinlein'? Impossible! Uncle Bodie would be so ashamed of you. Say... if we do take a ride on your scooter... can I drive?" he asked, diffidently and with apparent sincerity.

I arched an eyebrow in his direction. "I'm surprised that you'd want to try."

"It's a pure-vacuum craft," he explained. "Not like Babylon. Speaking of which, what happened? How'd I fuck up?"

"Mr. Jubatus, you didn't do anything wrong. Best bet is that it was a short in your board, that's why it's shut down now. You may have been the incident's proximate cause, but that was merely a coincidence for which you neither can nor should be held responsible. With 190,000 components, something almost always fails."

He emitted one derisive snort and said, "'Coincidence'. In my book, that's an implicit admission you're clueless about why something happened."

Which was true enough, but -- "Don't worry so much. Normally I'd spin her around so you could see the Earth, but that'll have to wait until we rendezvous with the satellite. Just in case."

"In case of what, precisely?"

"There was a gyroscope in Agamemnon, but there wasn't room in Babylon for one of useful size. Some of the penny-pinchers on the board tried to take it out, but the rest of us insisted. It just felt right."

"How so? I thought attitude jets were better all around -- why bother with gyros?"

"For one thing, the relevant physical laws provide for no fundamental upper limit on how much energy a gyroscope may store. And for another... if you review your Heinlein and Clarke, you'll find that gyros are traditional for spacecraft. "

Mr. Jubatus was silent for a short time before continuing, "So the dreamers won out over the bean-counters."

"That's right. Too many dreamers, but that seems to be what's needed these days. Did you know that NASA at one point had plans for a 5000 person base on the moon by the early 1970s?"

"Yeah. Always wondered if that'd helped inspire Space: 1999..."

I winced. After that we talked for a while, and I began pointing out the stars to him. Alpha and Proxima Centauri, Jupiter, Mars... I had forgotten where I was and relaxed when a beep brought me back to reality. "Sorry Mr. Jubatus, 30 seconds to deceleration burn. It'll be a 1.5s burst at .13G. Just keep your hands in your lap and let a woman do the driving."

"A woman? Where?" he asked, looking about comically. "Nobody told me this was a co-ed flight!"

Smiling, I switched Jubatus out of the voice circuit -- he could hear, but anything he spoke would not be transmitted -- and spoke aloud to Easter Island. "Control, are you reading me?"

"Loud and clear, Sue."

"On board systems recommend deceleration burn of 1.51 seconds duration at .1331G with nozzles 6 and 8, followed by a .5 s .1 G burst from 12 and then a .1 G burst 15 seconds later from 9. Countdown at 19 seconds."

"We match your onboard systems."

"Sending full system dump now, followed by live feed." I pushed the button. Ideally, we should probably run a continuous data channel, but the board feared competitors would use the data, and given our bandwidth, 512-bit encryption was the strongest we could afford for realtime use.

"Receiving Sue."

"Preparing for burn in 11 seconds."

"Our countdown matches yours."

"Acknowledged. 9 seconds." I prepared for manual control in case the computer failed -- my SCABS had made my reactions fast enough that it was always a dead heat, but as long as the burn occurred at all it wouldn't be a problem. Unfortunately, to minimize fuel wastage, the slight time dilation effect of our orbital velocity necessitated that the burn be run from up here, rather than by remote control from Easter Island. "5 seconds." I double-checked the program that would first decelerate Babylon, and then rotate her around so that her canopy was facing downward towards the Earth. "3... 2... 1..."

Both the computer and I initiated the burn and I felt it go according to plan, the slight force pulling me tight against my seat belts. Another button and nozzle 12 then ignited for an instant and Babylon began a slow clockwise rotation.

"Enjoying the view, Mr. Jubatus?" I asked, as the blue radiance of the Earth spilled into the cockpit as we created our own dawn. "Halting rotation in 3... 2... 1..." and I pushed another button and nozzle 9 burst into an action and then stopped, letting the Earth hang over us. "I read all good here Control, do you confirm?"

"All in the green, Sue. You are go for EVA."

"Acknowledged." I switched Mr. Jubatus' circuit back to live. He hadn't responded, so I repeated my question: "Are you enjoying the view, Mr. Jubatus?"

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

Looking out the window was... utterly amazing. The lack of atmosphere went a long way towards making up for my shitty vision. So many stars, so clear... If everything after this point was a bust, what I was looking at now just might make the whole thing worthwhile. I drank it all in through my second-rate eyes...

Then the Earth drifted into view. It was... no. Forget it, I'm not even going to try to describe how I felt, seeing that big blue marble for the very first time. Let's just say, now I know why some of NASA's boys and girls get religion up here.

And I'd been fool enough to think that seeing stars justified the trip...

It couldn't last, of course. I squelched my irritation when the dryad butted in: "How do you like the view, Mr. Jubatus?"

"It'll do..." Then I realized we had company, as indicted by the proximity radar and confirmed visually: A satellite, about 30 yards away, which sure looked like the one pictured in Sunday's flight plan. "That's the broken birdie, huh?"

"Yes. Indeed it is."

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

Once upon a time, I loved EVA. I used to consider the suit around me annoying and bulky. I remember Angelo screaming at me when I removed a glove to work on a particularly fine and finicky subassembly. The wrist gasket prevented any atmosphere loss, and my 'hull' -- my vegetative equivalent to human skin -- was tough enough to withstand a mere 30 seconds' exposure to vacuum. Once... and now? I overrode the monitors and increased the internal suit pressure to 1.5 atmospheres so that I could feel it. The suit is on, the suit is on...

With practiced motions I released the umbilical and made sure it moved freely. Then I manually unlocked the hatch and pushed it open, my physical contact with the airlock floor allowing me to hear the slight hiss of the hydraulics. Undoing the straps that held me in my seat I slowly began pulling myself out of Babylon's womb and into the vast, hungry emptiness beyond... "Radio check control."

"We read you loud and clear Sue. Monitors show your heart rate up 20%."

Drat. It seemed that in my mental distress, I'd neglected to override that monitor with false data. "I guess I'm nervous about more system failures."

"Roger that. Can't say that I blame you."

"Pulling out repair kit now."

"Roger Sue."

We went on in like fashion, automatic description and automatic acknowledgement. Space, the final frontier -- our last best hope -- and now it scared the shit out of me. My normally smooth reflexes left me and the case of circuit boards got stuck and I had to work it out. Control asked and I suggested launch had dislodged it. Finally it moved. A final check of the suit jets, a movement of the case to my center of mass, hands moving me to my debarkation point, and then a carefully pictured course and a precise push-off until I was slowly moving, relative to the satellite and Babylon of course, and floating free except for the umbilical. I could feel a tingling in my limbs and realized that I was breathing much too fast and forced myself to breathe at a more normal rate. They reported my heart rate up another 20% and I reassured them and tried to force calm over myself. But it's so very empty and so very hostile... Don't think about it. I am safe, cocooned in a mature technology. With the engines off Babylon can't explode, it can't happen again. Suit radar counted down the distance to the satellite and I made a slight correction with suit jets. I hated doing that, hadn't had to in years, but ever since Angelo I had needed a slight correction every time. Nothing I could do about that now. The satellite began to occlude the blue Earth below me and I prepared for contact, my breath loud in my ears. Slowly, breathe slowly, don't let them know, stay in control, stay in control... Contact. Easter Island transmitted the code to disable the satellite onboard systems, and I pulled myself around to the access hatch, our similar masses ensuring that the satellite rotated also. There was the control panel; I braced my legs around an antenna, pulled out the screwdriver, and began removing the panel. My mass wasn't a factor, as I only needed to brace against the torsional and pressure forces of the satellite on the screwdriver. Locks kept the screws connected to the panel, even when they were no longer holding on to the satellite and soon the panel was loose. Once I would have just moved the panel aside, knowing that I would position it such that it wouldn't drift away, but now I followed procedure and linked it to my suit via a plastic cable. Then it was time to start pulling the suspect boards and testing to find the fault. The first board was good, so was the sec-

"Carter? Something about Antarctica doesn't look right to me. Any chance of getting a better angle on it?"

It took me a second to recognize Jubatus' voice. Carefully I looked up to observe the pale sliver which marked Antarctica's position on the edge of the Earth's disc, and watched the reflected glare grow to cover almost the entire continent. "I'm afraid not; we've neither the fuel nor the time to assume an orbit that would grant us a clearer line of sight. And before you ask, yes you are seeing something peculiar, but nobody has been able to identify it. Whatever it is, it could be a holographic camouflage field, except that it covers the whole of Antarctica, and no one can figure out how to create such a field on that scale. It appeared in 2006 and anything that penetrates it is never heard from again. Mobile sensor devices have been sent in, but no radio signals come out. As for physical data-connections, all cables sever themselves when the slightest backward force is applied to them, and no data ever passes through them. We still haven't been able to determine what established the field; all we know is that it has been continuously active without disruption since 2006. The consensus of opinion up here is that it's the work of an inanimorph."


The Antarctican Force Field: With a good view you could see clouds part around it, storms never quite touched it. It had disrupted weather patterns, just not in any way that made sense. Nobody knew, and without the aid of another inanimorph, we were never likely to find out. A decade ago a US executive decision was made to not touch it anymore, to minimize the chance of waking anything up. One of the few actions of the US government that I actually agreed with. "By the way, all information related to the existence of that thing is classified by your government, and comes under the terms of the non-disclosure agreement. If I have a chance to take you out on the scooter, I'll try to get you a better view."

His line remained silent.

Pulling the third board revealed a burnt section from a blown trace, and that likely was the problem. Passing this information on to Easter Island I pulled out the replacement third board in the case and slid it in. A power up check read fine, and I began reattaching the access panel. What had gotten it was probably an interaction between a flare and the Earth's magnetic field, but there was no way to be sure until it had been examined. Once everything was closed up, I pushed myself back towards the shuttle and signaled Babylon to begin reeling in the umbilical. Through practice my motion was slightly faster than the rate of reel and there was never any tension on the cord. By the time the satellite began correcting its orientation, I was far enough away for the movement of the antenna not to be a problem.

The case went back into its slot easily, and with great relief I pulled myself back into my seat and belted myself in, finally feeling my breathing begin to relax. Closing the hatch, I checked the displays and spoke to Jubatus: "All done here. ETA at Brin 12 minutes, prepare for .11G burn for 2.1 seconds."

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

So an inanimorph had put up some sort of force field over Antarctica? I mean, the whole bloody continent? At least that explained the mystery that'd drawn my attention: The shoreline looked perfectly smooth, which I knew it damn well wasn't. Even with an edge-on view, there ought to have been some visible indication of irregularity!

Inanimorphs... Hell with it. Who cares if Earth's ass-end is off limits, I got the whole rest of the planet to enjoy. There's Madagascar, and Australia, and New Zealand, and, isn't that speck Hokkaido? Japan, anyway. And -- wait a sec --

"What's that, Carter?"

"Excuse me?"

"Right there," I said, pointing to a hot spot whose brightness was fading even as I watched. "Looks like it's in northern China. Pretty damned bright, since it can be seen from up here in the daylight. What is it?"

She looked for only a moment. "Nuclear explosion. It's the third one this year."

She said it so matter-of-factly, as though she were describing some thousand-year-dead historical event... "You're kidding, right?"

"No, I'm quite serious. It happens once every few months, and has done so since before I first became an astronaut. Some of my colleagues have a permanent betting pool on when the next one will go off..."

She went on, and I wasn't listening. I couldn't -- not when my heart was pounding like a jackhammer in my ears, and it felt like thick plates of Lexan were accreting around my brain, putting me one step removed from Reality. 'Once every few months', she says. Call it one every 60 to 90 days. There'd be less fallout if it's an airburst than if it's a ground-pounder. The radiation'll play hell with the local ecosystem regardless. Wonder what the blast products are doing to the greenhouse effect...

Her voice derailed my runaway train of thought, brought me back to the here and now: "What do you suggest?"

I blinked. "Suggest for what?"

"I think you just said, 'Somebody's got to do something about this.' Very well -- what do you suggest?"

"What the hell are you asking me for? I only just got here; you're the one who's had years and years to grapple with the question!" Sigh. Better change the subject... Fortunately, my suit's air-scrubber was working as designed -- it'd already slurped about 98% of my scent-pheromones out of my breathing mix -- so stifling my outrage was trivially easy. "Never mind. Not my department anyway. We got 12 clock-minutes, and that's plenty long enough for me to catch up on my sleep. Good night..."

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

'Catch up on my sleep'? Given that we'd boarded Babylon scarcely an hour before, Mr. Jubatus' remark had seemed absurd at first blush. However, after thinking over what he'd said of his sleeping habits during our journey to Easter Island -- had that been only a fortnight ago? -- the absurdity dissipated. He'd been up throughout the entire flight, and that, for him, was the equivalent of slightly over two solid days' wakefulness for anyone who lived by a normal circadian rhythm... I found it necessary to turn off his channel; the piteous sounds he emitted whilst he slept were far too effective a distraction for the good of my piloting. Fortunately, he regained consciousness before we docked, as he'd implied he would.

\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \
/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /

First thought to cross my mind when I woke up: What the hell is a pearl bracelet doing in low Earth orbit? Then my brain caught up with my eyeballs: It was Brin Station, my home away from home-away-from-home for the next week, and rather than being inches long a few feet away, it was hundreds of meters across and kilometers distant...

The dryad took us in closer. Brin just kept on getting bigger-- no surprise, that, since each 'pearl' in the 'necklace' was an external fuel tank from one or another Space Shuttle mission. New structural details caught my eye every couple of seconds. The inhabited part was a slow-spinning clump of tanks in the middle; sticking out along the axis of rotation on either side were two strings of tanks connected end-to-end like sausage links. As we closed in, random shapes resolved themselves to various station accessories, solar panels and heat exchangers and suchlike. I could make out an occasional sun-bright point of light -- maybe a scooter? hard to say -- moving around... There, that dark circle was where Babylon would dock.

/ /  /   /    /     /      /       /
\ \  \   \    \     \      \       \

The cheetah greedily absorbed every detail as Babylon approached Brin, entered the docking facility, and ultimately stopped moving. A few seconds later, the residual vibrations of contact with the dock dissipated below the threshold of perceptibility.

"We've arrived, Mr. Jubatus."

"Good," he replied. "I've enjoyed as much of the trip up as I can stand. All I need for my day to be complete is my luggage ending up at the ISS."

I very nearly began to explain how and why that scenario was logistically impossible, but that I saw his not-at-all-perturbed face. Ah. It was a joke. Very well, play along -- "That's unlikely to have occurred. But if it had, momentum considerations dictate that we would necessarily have received a correspondingly mis-routed package of equal mass from them. What you'd then be expected to do with a 25-kilogram box of condoms is your own affair, presumably."

Abruptly, I realized what I had just said; cursed my lack of control; and waited for Jube's inevitable scathing rejoinder. But he surprised me yet again: "25 kilos," he said thoughtfully. "Even at a buck-fifty apiece, a man could make some serious money off of guys who can use 'em."

This time, I was grateful for that part of my brain which wouldn't let me abandon an unsolved puzzle. It took charge and inquired, "Which set doesn't include you? Dr. Derksen's notes don't mention any sort of deficit in sexual performance -- you really have no use for such things yourself?"

He looked at me, and his smile was sad, almost wistful. "Nope. I, ah, the equipment is fully functional, alright, but... Let's just say it's not my brand." And suddenly the smile was gone, and the cheetah all business once more. "Time's a-wasting. Docking protocol says the first thing we do is put Babylon into standby mode, right?"

"Yes -- yes indeed. I'm afraid the short in your board puts rather a crimp in your ability to fulfill your nominal duties, but that's not your fault. So..."

Before long, Babylon was properly mothballed and we were free to enter Brin Station. My copilot had quite gotten over his earlier attack of spacesickness; indeed, as we moved along the short tube that connected the dock to the station proper, he bounced giddily between (what were, in my reference frame) the tube's floor and ceiling, seemingly making the entire structure ring at each point of contact! And his 'thumps' were every bit as rhythmical as one of his drum solos for the Strikebreakers -- what could he be thinking of? There was no conceivable reason for this behavior, even ignoring the fact that there were far more efficient ways to get down the tube!

"May I ask what you're doing, Mr. Jubatus?"

He might have replied, but my remark was apparently a pre-arranged cue. Several Brin crewmen appeared as if from nowhere, singing in time with the cheetah's percussive impacts:

"Zero-gee, zero-gee,

"Makes the pedants cringe.

"Zero-gee, zero-gee,

"Hear them moan and whinge!

"(When) You're in free-fall

"(You) Feel (no) gravity.

"Zero-gee... zero-gee...


I winced, but refused to comment verbally. Any sacrifice to make Jubatus feel comfortable, to lower his guard, to allow me to convince him of the truth.

[more to come]

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