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Rainbows End

Copyright © 2006 by Vernor Vinge

         

Dedication

To the Net-based cognitive tools that are changing our lives --

Wikipedia, Google, and the others of their kind, now and in the future.

Acknowledgments

I am grateful for the advice and help of:

Jeff Allen, David Baxter, Ethan Bier, John Carroll, Randy Carver, Steven

Cherry, Connie Fleenor, Robert Fleming, Peter Flynn, Mike Gannis, Harry

Goldstein, Thomas Goodey, Barbara Gordon, Judith Greengard, Dipak Gupta,

Patricia Hartman, Patrick Hillmeyer, Cherie Kushner, Sifang Lu, Sara

Baase Mayers, Keith Mayers, Sean Peisert, William Rupp, Peter H. Salus,

Mary Q. Smith, Charles Vestal, Joan D. Vinge, Gabriele Wienhausen, and

William F. Wu.

I am very grateful to James Frenkel for the wonderful job of editing he

has done with this book. Jim and Tor Books have been very patient with me

in the long process of creating Rainbows End.

Table of Contents:

CHAPTER 00: Dumb Luck and Smart Thinking

CHAPTER 01: Mr. Rabbit visits Barcelona

CHAPTER 02: The Return

CHAPTER 03: A Minefield Made in Heaven

CHAPTER 04: An Excellent Affiliance

CHAPTER 05: Dr. Xiang's SHE

CHAPTER 06: So Much Technology, So Little Talent

CHAPTER 07: The Ezra Pound Incident

CHAPTER 08: No User-Serviceable Parts Within

CHAPTER 09: Carrot Greens

CHAPTER 10: An Excellent Thesis Topic

CHAPTER 11: Introduction to the Librareome Project

CHAPTER 12: Guardians of the Past, Handmaidens of the Future

CHAPTER 13: The Miri Gang Is Born

CHAPTER 14: The Mysterious Stranger

CHAPTER 15: When Metaphors Are Real

CHAPTER 16: The Front Bathroom Incident

CHAPTER 17: Alfred Volunteers

CHAPTER 18: The Myasthenic Spelunker Society

CHAPTER 19: Failure is an Option

CHAPTER 20: The Officer of the Watch

CHAPTER 21: When Belief Circles Collide

CHAPTER 22: The Bicycle Attack

CHAPTER 23: In the Cathedral

CHAPTER 24: The Library Chooses

CHAPTER 25: You Can't Ask Alice Anymore

CHAPTER 26: How-to-Survive-the-Next-Thirty-Minutes.pdf

CHAPTER 27: The Revocation Attack

CHAPTER 28: The Animal Model?

CHAPTER 29: Dr. Xiang Takes Charge

CHAPTER 30: When the Network Stops

CHAPTER 31: Bob Contemplates Nuclear Carpet-Bombing

CHAPTER 32: The Minimum Sufficient Response

CHAPTER 33: Freedom on a Very Long Leash

CHAPTER 34: The British Museum and the British Library

CHAPTER 35: The Missing Apostrophe

EPILOG

CHAPTER 00: Dumb Luck and Smart Thinking

###

The first bit of dumb luck came disguised as a public embarrassment for the European Center for Defense against Disease. On July 23, schoolchildren in Algiers claimed that a respiratory epidemic was spreading across the Mediterranean. The claim was based on clever analysis of antibody data from the mass transit systems of Algiers and Naples. 

CDD had no immediate comment, but in less than three hours, public-health hobbyists reported similar results in other cities, complete with contagion maps. The epidemic was at least one week old, probably originating in Central Africa, beyond the scope of hobbyist surveillance. 

By the time CDD got its public relations act together, outbreaks had been detected in India and North America. Worse yet, a journalist in Seattle had isolated and identified the infectious agent, which turned out to be a Pseudomimivirus. That was about as embarrassing a twist as the public relations people could imagine: Back in the late 'teens, CDD had justified its enormous budget with a brilliant defense against the New Sunrise cult. The Sunrise Plague had been the second-worst Euro-terror of the decade. Only CDD's leadership had kept the disaster from spreading worldwide. 

The Sunrise Plague had been based on a Pseudomimivirus. 

There were still good people at CDD. They were the same specialists who had saved the world in 2017. They quickly resolved the July 23 issue. Public Relations could now spin a more-or-less accurate statement: Yes, this Pseudomimi had evaded the standard announcement protocols. The failure was a simple glitch at the Center's "Current Events" website. And yes, this Pseudomimi might be a derivative of the Sunrise Plague. Denatured strains of the original, death-optimized, virus continued to echo around the world, a permanent addition to the background noise of the biosphere. Three had already been sighted that year, one just five days before the July 23 scare. Furthermore (and here the Public Relations people regained their usual élan), all such events were subclinical, having essentially no perceptible symptoms. The Pseudomimiviruses had an enormous genome (well, enormous for a virus, small for almost anything else). The New Sunrise Cult had transformed that genome into a Swiss Army Knife of death, with a tool to counter almost every defense. But without such optimization, the Pseudomimis were clunky bags of DNA junk. "And so, in conclusion, we at CDD apologize for failing to announce this routine event."

A week passed. Two weeks. There were no further captures of the organism. Antibody surveys showed that the epidemic never got much further than the rim of the Mediterranean. CDD's claims for the outbreak were absolutely correct. This kind of "subclinical respiratory epidemic" was almost a contradiction in terms. If not one victim in a thousand even gets the sniffles, the virus is almost dependent on charity to make its way in the world. 

The CDD explanations were accepted. The public-health hobbyists had been scare-mongering a commonplace event. 

In fact, there was only one misrepresentation in the CDD story, and that successfully eluded public notice: The failure to announce the virus had not been a messup at the public website. Instead, it had been a bug in the Center's just-revised internal alert system. So the responsible specialists had been as ignorant of the event as the general public; it was the hobbyists who had alerted both. 

In the inner circles of EU Intelligence, there were people who were not forgiving of such lapses. These were people who countered terror on a daily basis. These were people whose greatest successes were things you never heard about -- and whose failures could be bigger than the Sunrise Plague. 

Understandably, these people were both paranoid and obsessive. The Intelligence Board assigned one of its brightest agents, a young German named Günberk Braun, to oversee a quiet reorganization at CDD. In those parts of Intelligence where Braun was known, he was somewhat famous -- as the most obsessing of the obsessive. In any case, he and his teams quickly revamped the internal reporting structure of the CDD, then undertook a Center-wide review that was to last six months and consist of random "fire drills" that would probe threats and conjectures more bizarre than the epidemiologists had ever imagined. 

For CDD, those six months promised to be a torment for the incompetent and a revelation for the brilliant. But Braun's fire-drill regime lasted less than two months, and was ended by an advertisement at a soccer match. 

The first meeting of the Greece-Pakistan Football Series was held in Lahore on September 20. The Greece-Pakistan Series had some tradition behind it -- or perhaps the supporters were just old-fashioned. In any case, the advertising was very much a blundering, twentieth-century affair. There were commercials where each advert was seen by everyone. Display space was sold on the inner barricades of the stadium, but even that was not targeted per customer. 

A remarkable thing happened at the match (two remarkable things, if you count the fact that Greece won). The half-time contained a thirty-second advert for honeyed nougats. Within the hour, several free-lance marketing analysts reported a spike-surge of nougat sales, beginning three minutes after the advert. That single advertisement had repaid its sponsor one hundred times over. Such was the stuff of dreams -- at least for those unwholesomely fixated on the marketing arts. Throughout the afternoon, these millions debated the remarkable event. The advertisement was analyzed in every detail. It was an uninspired thing, quite in keeping with the third-rate company that produced it. Importantly, it contained no subliminal messing about (though finding such was the main hope of those who studied it). The delay and abruptness of the surge were quite unlike a normal advertisement response. Within hours, all reasonable participants agreed the Honeyed Nougat Miracle was just the kind of mirage that came from modern data-dredging capabilities: if you watch trillions of things, you will often see one-in-a-million coincidences. At the end of the day, the whole affair had cancelled itself out, just another tiny ripple in the myriad conversations of public life. 

Certain observers did not lose interest. Günberk Braun, like most in the inner circles of the EUIB, had an enormous (let's be frank: an apprehensive) respect for the power of open intelligence analysis. One of his teams noticed the Honeyed Nougat Miracle. They considered the discussion. True, the event was almost surely a mirage. And yet, there were additional questions that could be asked; some were questions that governments had a special knack for answering. 

And that brings us to the second bit of dumb luck. On a whim, Braun called for a fire drill: the analytical resources of the CDD would be pointed at the public-health significance of the Honeyed Nougat Miracle. Whatever the practical content of the mystery, this would exercise the Center in the conduct of a secret, real-time, emergency investigation. At that, it wasn't much crazier than his previous drills. By now, the brighter of the CDD's specialists were very much in the swing of such festivities. They quickly generated a thousand conjectures and imagined half a million tests. These would be seeds for the search trees of the investigation. 

Over the next two days, the CDD analysts proceeded down their trees, extending and pruning -- all the time exercising statistical restraint; this sort of work could generate more mirages than the marketing hobbyists had ever dreamed. Just the topic list would fill an old-time phonebook. Here are the good parts, dramatically arranged: 

There was no connection between the buying surge and the honeyed nougat advert. This conclusion was not based upon after-the-fact analysis: CDD showed the advertisement to small response groups. All of the halftime publicity was similarly tested. One of the stadium displays -- an advertisement for a dating service, which had aired only briefly -- caused occasional interest in nougats. (The dating service advert was a bit of design-artist excess, its background of intersecting lines a distracting moiré pattern.) Proceeding down the test tree, the dating service advertisement was played for a number of specialized audiences. For instance, it had no enhanced effect on persons with antibodies to the July 23 Pseudomimivirus. 

The dating service advertisement did provoke nougat lust when shown to those who'd been infected by the earlier, July 18 Pseudomimi, the one that CDD had properly reported. 

As a child, Günberk Braun had often daydreamed of how, in an earlier time, he might have prevented the firebombing of Dresden, or stopped the Nazis and their deathcamps, or kept Stalin from starving the Ukraine. On off days, when he couldn't move nations, little Günberk imagined what he might have done in 1941 December 7 at a radar outpost in Hawaii, or as an American FBI agent in the summer of 2001. 

Perhaps all young boys go through such a phase, largely ignorant of historical context, simply wanting to be savior heroes. 

But when Braun considered this latest report, he knew he was in the middle of something as big as his childhood fantasies. The July 18 Pseudomimi and the advertising at the football match -- together they amounted to an extremely well-disguised test of a new weapon concept. In its developed form, such a weapon would make the Sunrise Plague look like a malignant toy. At the least, biological warfare would become as precise and surprising as bullets and bombs: slyly infect a population with the slow random spread of disease, all but undetected, and then bam, blind or maim or kill -- singly with an email, or by the billions with a broadcast, too quickly for any possible "defense against disease". 

If Braun had been a CDD person, this discovery would have precipitated immediate alarums to all the disease defense organizations of the Indo-European Alliance, as well as to the CDC in America and the CDCP in China. 

But Günberk Braun was not an epidemiologist. He was a spook, and he was paranoid even for that. Braun's fire drill was under his personal control; he had no trouble suppressing the news there. Meantime, he used his resources in the EUIB and the Indo-European Alliance. Within hours, he was deep into a number of projects: 

He brought in the best cult expert in the Indo-European intelligence community and set her loose on the evidence. He reached out to the military assets of the Alliance, in Central Africa and all the failed states at the edge of the modern world. There were solid clues about the origin of the July 18 Pseudomimi. Though this research was not bioscientific, Braun's analysts were very similar to the best at CDD -- only smarter, more numerous, with far deeper resources. Even so, they were lucky: over the next three days, they put two and two (and two and two and two ...) together. In the end, he had a good idea who was behind the weapons test. 

And for the first time in his life, Günberk Braun was truly terrified. 

CHAPTER 01: Mr. Rabbit Visits Barcelona

###

Within the intelligence services of the Indo-European Alliance, there were a handful of bureaucratic superstars, people such as Günberk Braun of the EUIB. Hopefully, their identities were unknown -- or a mass of contradictions -- to the general public. The superstars had their own heroes. In particular, when people like Günberk Braun were confronted with the most desperate problems, there was a place to get help. There was a certain department in India's External Intelligence Agency. It didn't show up in EIA organization charts, and its purpose was happily undefined. Basically, it was whatever its boss thought it should be. That boss was an Indian national known (to those very few who knew of him at all) as Alfred Vaz. 

Braun took his terrifying discovery to Vaz. At first, the older man was as taken aback as Braun himself had been. But Vaz was a fixer. "With the proper human resources, you can solve almost any problem," he said. "Give me a few days. Let's see what I can dig up."

###

In downtown Barcelona, three days later: 

The rabbit hopped onto the unoccupied wicker chair and thence to the middle of the table, between the teacups and the condiments. It tipped its top hat first at Alfred Vaz and then at Günberk Braun and Keiko Mitsuri. "Have I got a deal for you!" it said. Altogether, it was an unremarkable example of its type. 

Alfred reached out and swiped his hand through the image, just to emphasize his own substance. "We're the ones with the deal."

"Hmph." The rabbit plunked its ass down on the table and pulled a tiny tea service out from behind the salt and pepper. It poured itself a drop or two -- enough to fill its cup -- and took a sip. "I'm all ears." It wiggled two long ones to emphasize the point. 

From the other side of table, Günberk Braun gave the creature a long stare. Braun was as ephemeral as the rabbit, but he projected a dour earnestness that was quite consistent with his real personality. Alfred thought he detected a certain surprised disappointment in the younger man's expression. In fact, after a moment, Günberk sent him a silent message. 

Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>This is the best you could recruit, Alfred?</sm>

Alfred didn't reply directly. Instead, he turned to the creature sitting on the table. "Welcome to Barcelona, Mr. Rabbit," he said. He waved at the towers of the Sagrada Familia that soared up and up from just across the street. The cathedral was best seen without virtual elaboration; after all, the reality of Gaudí architecture was gaudy beyond the imagination of modern revisionists. "Do you have any idea why we selected this location for our meeting?"

The rabbit sipped its tea. Its gaze slid in a very un-rabbity way to take in the noisy crowds that swept past the tables, to scan the costumes and body-plans of tourists and locals. "Ah, is it that Barcelona is a place for the beautiful and the bizarre, one of the few great cities of the twentieth century whose charm survives in the modern world? Could it be that on the side, you and your families are taking touchy-feely tours through Parc Güell and writing it all off on your expense accounts?" He stared at Braun and at Keiko Mitsuri. Mitsuri was frankly masked. She looked a bit like Marcel Duchamp's nude, built from a shifting complex of crystal planes. The rabbit shrugged, "But then again, maybe you two are thousands of kilometers away."

Keiko laughed. "Oh, don't be so indecisive," she said, speaking with a completely synthetic accent and syntax. "I'm quite happy to be in Parc Güell right now, feeling reality with my very own real hands."

Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>In fact, I'm in my office, admiring the moonlight on Tokyo bay.</sm>

The rabbit continued, ignorant of the silent messaging byplay: "Whatever. In any case, the real reasons for meeting here: Barcelona has very direct connections to wherever you're really from, and modern security to disguise what we say. Best of all, it has laws banning popular and police snooping ... unless of course you are the EU Intelligence Board."

Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>Well, that's one third of a correct guess.</sm>

Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>Mr. Rabbit himself is calling from some distance.</sm> An EU real-time estimate hung in the air above the little creature's head: 75 percent probability that the mind behind the rabbit image was in North America. 

Alfred leaned toward the rabbit and smiled. As the agent with physical presence, Vaz had limitations -- but some advantages, too. "No, we're not the secret police. And yes, we wanted some secure communication that was a bit more personal than text messaging." He tapped his chest. "In particular, you see me physically here. It builds trust." And should give you all sorts of invalid clues. Vaz waved to a waiter, ordered a glass of Rioja. Then, turning back to the creature on the tablecloth: "In recent months, you have bragged many things, Mr. Rabbit. Others brag similarly nowadays, but you have certificates that are difficult to come by. Various people with notable reputations have endorsed your abilities."

The rabbit preened. This was a rabbit with many implausible mannerisms. Physical realism did not rank high in its priorities. "Of course I am highly recommended. For any problem, political, military, scientific, artistic, or amorous -- meet my terms, and I will deliver."

Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>Go ahead, Alfred.</sm>

Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>Yes, the minimal version of course. Nothing more till we see some results that we couldn't make for ourselves.</sm>

Alfred nodded as if to himself. "Our problem has nothing to do with politics or war, Mr. Rabbit. We have only some scientific interests."

The rabbit ears waggled. "So? Post your needs to the answer boards. That may get you results almost as good as mine, almost as fast. And for certain, a thousand times cheaper."

Wine arrived. Vaz made a thing of sniffing the bouquet. He glanced across the street. The bidding on physical tour slots to La Sagrada Familia was closed for the day, but there was still a queue of people near the cathedral entrance, people hoping for no-shows. It proved once again that the most important things were those you could touch. He looked back at the gray rabbit. "We have needs that are more basic than picking the brains of a few thousand analysts. Our questions require serious, um, experimentation. Some of that has already been done. Much remains. All together, our project is the size you might imagine for a government crash research program."

The rabbit grinned, revealing ivory incisors. "Heh. A government crash program? That's twentieth-century foolishness. Market demands are always more effective. You just have to fool the market into cooperating."

"Maybe. But what we want to do is ..." The hell of it was, even the cover story was extreme. "What we want is, um, administrative authority at a large physical laboratory."

The rabbit froze, and for an instant it looked like a real herbivore, one suddenly caught in a bright light. "Oh? What kind of physical lab?"

"Globally integrated life sciences."

"Well, well, well." Rabbit sat back, communing with itself -- hopefully with itself alone. EU Intelligence set a 65% probability that Rabbit was not sharing the big picture with others, 95% that it was not a tool of China or the U.S.A. Alfred's own organization in India was even more confident of these assumptions. 

The rabbit set down his teacup. "I'm intrigued. So this is not an information provision job. You really want me to subvert a major installation."

"Just for a short time," said Günberk. 

"Whatever. You've come to the right fellow." Its nose quivered. "I'm sure you know the possibilities. In Europe there are a scattering of top institutions, but none is totally integrated -- and for now they remain in the backwash of sites in China and the U.S.A."

Vaz didn't nod, but the rabbit was right. There were brilliant researchers the world over, but only a few data-intensive labs. In the twentieth century, technical superiority of major labs might last thirty years. Nowadays, things changed faster, but Europe was a little behind. The Bhopal complex in India was more integrated, but lagging in micro-automation. It might be several years before China and the U.S.A. lost their current edge. 

The rabbit was chuckling to itself: "Hm, hm. So it must be either the labs in Wuhan or those in Southern California. I could work my miracles with either, of course." That was a lie, or else Alfred's people had totally misjudged this fine furry fiend. 

Keiko said, "We'd prefer the biotech complex in San Diego, California."

Alfred had a smooth explanation ready: "We've studied the San Diego labs for some months. We know it has the resources we need." In fact, San Diego was where Günberk Braun's terrible suspicions were focused. 

"Just what are you planning?"

Günberk gave a sour smile. "Let us proceed by installments, Mr. Rabbit. For the first installment, we suggest a thirty-day deadline. We'd like from you a survey of the San Diego labs' security. More important, we need credible evidence that you can provide a team of local people to carry out physical acts in and near those labs."

"Well then. I will hop right on it." The rabbit rolled its eyes. "It's obvious you're looking for an expendable player, somebody to shield your operation from the Americans. Okay. I can be a cutout. But be warned. I am very pricey and I will be around to collect afterwards."

Keiko laughed. "No need to be melodramatic, Mr. Rabbit. We know of your famous skills."

"Quite right! But so far you don't believe in them. Now I'll go away, sniff around San Diego and get back to you in a couple of weeks. I'll have something to show you by then, and -- more important for me -- I'll have used my enormous imagination to specify a first payment in this installment plan that Mr. So-German-Seeming has proposed." He gave a little bow in Günberk's direction. 

Mitsuri and Braun were radiating bemused silence, so it was Alfred who carried on the conversation. "We'll chat again then. Please remember that for now we want a survey only. We want to know whom you can recruit and how you might use them."

The rabbit touched its nose. "I will be the soul of discretion. I always know much more than I reveal. But you three really should improve your performances. Mr. So-German is just an out-of-date stereotype. And you, Señora, the work of impressionist art reveals nothing and everything. Who might have a special interest in the San Diego bio labs? Who indeed? And as for you --" Rabbit looked at Vaz. "That's a fine Colombian accent you're hiding."

The creature laughed and hopped off the table. "Talk to you soon."

Alfred leaned back and watched the gray form as it dodged between the legs of passersby. It must have a festival permit, since other people were evidently seeing the creature. There was no poof of vanishment. The rabbit remained visible for twenty meters up Carrer de Sardenya, then darted into an alley and was finally and quite naturally lost to sight. 

The three agents sat for a moment in apparently companionable silence, Günberk bent over his virtual wine, Vaz sipping at his real Rioja and admiring the stilted puppets that were setting up for the afternoon parade. The three blended well with the normal touristy hurly-burly of the Familia district -- except that most tourists paying for cafe seating on C. de Sardenya would have had more than a one-third physical presence. 

"He is truly gone," Günberk said, a bit unnecessarily; they could all see the EU signals analysis. A few more seconds passed. The Japanese and Indian intelligence agencies also reported in: Rabbit remained unidentified. 

"Well that's something," said Keiko. "He got away clean. Perhaps he can function as a cutout."

Günberk gave a weary shrug. "Perhaps. What a disgusting twit. His kind of dilettante is a cliché a century old, reborn with each new technology. I wager he's fourteen years old and desperately eager to show off." He glanced at Vaz. "Is this the best you could come up with, Alfred?"

"His reputation is not a fraud, Günberk. He has managed projects almost as complex as what we have in mind for him."

"Those were research projects. Perhaps he is a good -- what's the term? -- 'weaver of geniuses'. What we want is more operational."

"Well, he correctly picked up on all of the clues we gave him." There had been Alfred's accent, and the network evidence they had planted about Keiko's origin. 

"Ach ja," said Günberk, and a sudden smile crossed his face. "It's a bit humiliating that when I am simply myself, I'm accused of overacting! Yes, so now Mr. Rabbit thinks we are South American drug lords."

The shifting crystal mists that were Keiko's image seemed to smile. "In a way, that's more plausible than what we really are." The heirs of drugwars past had been in eclipse this last decade; access to "ecstasy and enhancement" was so widespread that competition had done what enforcement could never accomplish. But the drug lords were still rich beyond the dreams of most small countries. The ones lurking in failed states might be crazy enough to do what they three had hinted at today. 

Günberk said, "The rabbit is manageable, I grant that. Competent for our needs? Much less likely."

"Having second thoughts about our little project, Günberk?" This was Keiko's real voice. Her tone was light, but Alfred knew she had her own very serious misgivings. 

"Of course," said Günberk. He fidgeted for a moment. "Look. Terror via technical surprise is the greatest threat to the survival of the human race. The Great Powers -- ourselves, China, the U.S. -- have been at peace for some years, mostly because we recognize that danger and we keep the rest of the world in line. And now we discover that the Americans --"

Keiko: "We don't know it's the Americans, Günberk. The San Diego labs support researchers all over the world."

"That is so. And a week ago I was as dubious as you. But now ... consider: The weapons test was a masterpiece of cloaking. We were incredibly lucky to notice it. The test was a work of patience and professionalism, at the level of a Great Power. Great Powers have their own inertia and bureaucratic caution. Field testing must necessarily be done in the outside world, but they do not run their weapons development in labs they do not own."

Keiko made a sound like far-away chimes. "But why would a Great Power plot a revolution in plague delivery? What profit is there in that?"

Günberk nodded. "Yes, such destruction would make sense for a cult, but not for a superpower. At first, my conclusion was a nightmare without logic. But my analysts have been over this again and again. They've concluded that the 'honeyed nougat symptom' was not simply a stand-in for lethal disease. In fact, it was an essential feature of the test. This enemy is aiming at something greater than instant biowarfare strikes. This enemy is close to having an effective YGBM technology."

Keiko was completely silent; even her crystals lost their mobility. YGBM. That was a bit of science-fiction jargon from the turn of the century: You-Gotta-Believe-Me. That is, mind control. Weak, social forms of YGBM drove all human history. For more than a hundred years, the goal of irresistible persuasion had been a topic of academic study. For thirty years it had been a credible technological goal. And for ten, some version of it had been feasible in well-controlled laboratory settings. 

The crystals shifted; Alfred could tell that Keiko was looking at him. "Can this be true, Alfred?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. My people have studied the report. Günberk's luck was extraordinary, since this was really a simultaneous test of two radical innovations. The honeyed-nougat compulsion was far more precise than needed for a test of remote disease triggering. The perpetrators knew what they were coding for -- consider the cloaking advertisement for nougats. My analysts think the enemy may be capable of higher semantic control in as little as a year."

Keiko sighed. "I ... see. All my life, I've fought the cults. I thought the great nations were beyond the most monstrous evils ... but this, this would make me wrong."

Günberk nodded. "If we are right about these labs and if we fail to properly ... deal ... with them, that could be the end of history. It could be the end of all the striving for good against evil that has ever been." He shook himself, abruptly returning to the practical. "And yet we are reduced to working through this damned rabbit person."

Alfred said gently, "I've studied Rabbit's track record, Günberk. I think he can do what we need. One way or another. He'll get us the inside information, or he'll create enough chaos -- not attributable to us -- that any evil will be clearly visible. If the worst is true, we'll have evidence that we and China and even the non-culpable parties in the U.S.A. can use to stamp this out." Suppression attacks on the territory of a Great Power were rare, but there was precedent. 

All three were silent for a moment, and the sounds of the festival afternoon swept around Vaz. It had been so many years since his last visit to Barcelona.... Finally, Günberk gave a grudging nod. "I'll recommend to my superiors that we proceed."

Across the table, Keiko's prismatic imagery shimmered and chimed. Mitsuri's background was in sociology. Her analyst teams were heavily into psychology and social institutions -- much less diversified than the teams working for Alfred, or Günberk. But maybe she would come up with some alternative that the other two had missed. Finally she spoke: "There are many decent people in the American intelligence community. I don't like doing this behind their back. And yet, this is an extraordinary situation. I have clearance to go ahead with Plan Rabbit --" she paused "-- with one proviso. Günberk fears that we've erred in the direction of employing an incompetent. Alfred has studied Rabbit more, and thinks he's at just the right level of talent. But what if you are both wrong?"

Günberk started in surprise. "The devil!" he said. Alfred guessed that some very quick silent messaging passed between the two. 

The prisms seemed to nod. "Yes. What if Rabbit is significantly more competent than we think? In that unlikely event, Rabbit might hijack the operation, or even ally with our hypothetical enemy. If we proceed, we must develop abort-and-destroy plans to match Rabbit's progress. If he becomes the greater threat, we must be prepared to talk to the Americans. Agreed?"

"Ja."

"Of course."

###

Keiko and Günberk stayed a few minutes more, but a real café table on C. de Sardenya in the middle of festival was not the proper place for virtual tourists. The waiter kept circling back, inquiring if Alfred needed anything more. They were paying table rent for three, but there were crowds of real people waiting for the next available seating. 

So his Japanese and European colleagues took their leave. Günberk had many loose ends to deal with. The inquiries at CDD must be quietly shut down. Misinformation must be layered carefully about, concealing things from both the enemy and from security hobbyists. Meantime, in Tokyo, Keiko might be up the rest of the night, pondering Rabbit traps. 

Vaz stayed behind, finishing his drink. It was amazing how fast his table space shrank, accomodating a family of North African tourists. Alfred was used to virtual artifacts changing in a blink of the eye, but a clever restaurateur could do almost as well with physical reality when there was money involved. 

In all Europe, Barcelona was the city Alfred loved the most. The Rabbit had guessed right about that one thing. But was there time to be a real tourist? Yes. Call it his annual vacation. Alfred stood and bowed to the table, leaving payment and tip. Out on the street, the crowds were getting rather extreme, the stilt people dancing wildly about among the tourists. He couldn't see the entrance of the Sagrada Familia directly, but tourism info showed the next available tour slot was ninety minutes away. 

Where to spend his time? Ah! Atop Montjuïc. He turned down an alley. Where he emerged on the far side, the crowds were thin ... and a tourist auto was just arriving for him. Alfred sat back in the single passenger cockpit and let his mind roam. The Montjuïc fortress was not the most impressive in Europe, and yet he had not seen it in some time. Like its brethren, it marked the bygone time when revolutions in destruction technology took decades to unfold, and mass murder could not be committed with the press of a button. 

The auto navigated its way out from the octagonal city blocks of the Barcelona basin and ran quickly up a hillside, grabbing the latch of a funicular that dragged them swiftly up the side of Montjuïc. No tedious switchback roadway for this piece of automation. Behind him, the city stretched for miles. And then ahead, as they came over the crest of the hill, there was the Mediterranean, all blue and hazy and peaceful. 

Alfred got out, and the tiny auto whipped around the traffic circle, heading for the cable car installation that would take its next customer in an overflight across the harbor. 

He was at just the spot he had ordered on the tourist menu, right where twentieth century guns faced out from the battlements. Even though these cannon had never been used, they were very much the real thing. For a fee, he could touch the guns and climb around inside the place. After sundown there would be a staged battle. 

Vaz strolled to the stone barrier and looked down. If he blocked out all the tourism fantasy, he could see the freight harbor almost two hundred meters below and a kilometer away. The place was an immensity of freight containers rambling this way and that, chaos. If he invoked his government powers, he could see the flow of cargo, even see the security certificates that proclaimed -- in ways that were validated by a combination of physical and cryptographic security -- that none of the 10-meter boxes contained a nuke or a plague or a garden-variety radiation bomb. The system was very good, the same as you would find for heavy freight anywhere in the civilized world. It had been the result of decades of fear, of changing attitudes about privacy and liberty, of technological progress. Modern security actually worked most of the time. There hadn't been a city lost in more than five years. Every year, the civilized world grew and the reach of lawlessness and poverty shrank. Many people thought that the world was becoming a safer place. 

Keiko and Günberk -- and certainly Alfred -- knew that such optimism was dead wrong. 

Alfred looked across the harbor at the towers beyond. Those hadn't been here the last time he visited Barcelona. The civilized world was wealthy beyond the dreams of his youth. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the rulers of modern states realized that success did not come from having the largest armies or the most favorable tariffs or the most natural resources -- or even the most advanced industries. In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom. 

But this utopia was a Red Queen's Race with extinction. 

In the twentieth century, only a couple of nations had the power to destroy the world. The human race survived, mostly by good luck. At the turn of the century, a time was in view when dozens of countries could destroy civilization. But by then, the Great Powers had a certain amount of good sense. No nation state could be nuts enough to blow up the world -- and the few barbaric exceptions were Dealt With, if necessary with methods that left land aglow in the dark. By the Teens, mass death technology was accessible to regional and racial hate groups. Through a succession of happy miracles -- some engineered by Alfred himself -- the legitimate grievances of disaffected peoples were truly addressed. 

Nowadays, Grand Terror technology was so cheap that cults and small criminal gangs could acquire it. That was where Keiko Mitsuri was the greatest expert. Even though her work was hidden by cover stories and planted lies, Keiko had saved millions of lives. 

The Red Queen's Race continued. In all innocence, the marvelous creativity of humankind continued to generate unintended consequences. There were a dozen research trends that could ultimately put world-killer weapons into the hands of anyone having a bad hair day. 

Alfred walked back to the nearest cannon, paying the touch fee with a wave of his hand. He leaned against the warm metal, sighting out over the blue mediterranean haze, and imagining a simpler time. 

Poor Günberk. He had the truth exactly backwards. Effective YGBM would not be the end of everything. In the right hands, YGBM technology was the one thing that could solve the modern paradox, harnessing the creativity of humankind without destroying the world in the process. In fact, it was humankind's only hope for surviving the twenty-first century. And in San Diego, I am so close to success. He had insinuated his project into the bio labs three years earlier. The great breakthrough had come less than a year ago. His test at the soccer match had proven the delivery system. In another year or so, he'd have developed higher semantic controls. With that, he could reliably control those immediately around him. Much more important, he could spread the new infection across whole populations and engineer a few universally-viewed transmissions. Then he would be in control. For the first time in history, the world would be under adult supervision. 

That had been the plan. Now incredibly bad luck had jeopardized it. But I should look at the bright side; Günberk came to me to fix the problem! Alfred had spent a lot of effort digging up "Mr. Rabbit". The fellow was clearly inexperienced, and every bit the egotistical fool that Günberk believed. Rabbit's successes were just barely impressive enough to make him acceptable. They could manage Rabbit. I can manage Rabbit. From inside the labs, Alfred would feed the Rabbit just the right misinformation. In the end neither Rabbit nor Alfred's colleagues in the Indo-European Alliance would realize they had been fooled. And afterwards, Alfred could continue undisturbed with what might well be the last, best chance for saving the world. 

Alfred climbed into the gun turret and admired the fittings. The Barcelona tourist commission had spent some real money on rebuilding these artifacts. If their mock battle this evening meshed with this physical reality, it would be very impressive. He glanced at his Mumbai schedule -- and decided to stay in Barcelona a few more hours. 

CHAPTER 02: The Return

###

Robert Gu should be dead. He knew that, he truly did. He had been a long time dying. He wasn't really clear on how long. In this unending present, he could see only blurs. But that didn't matter since Lena had turned the lights down so low that there was nothing to see. And the sounds: for a while he had worn things in his ears, but they were devilishly complicated and always getting lost or worn out. Getting rid of them had been a blessing. What sounds remained were vague mumblings, sometimes Lena complaining at him, pushing and poking. Following him into the john, for God's sake. All he really wanted was to go home. Lena wouldn't let him do that simple thing. If it really was Lena at all. Whoever, she wasn't very nice. I just want to go home.... 

###

And yet, he never did quite die. The lights were often brighter now, though blurry as ever. There were people around and voices, the high-pitched tones he remembered from home. They talked as if they expected to be understood. 

Things had been better before, when everything was a mumbling blur. Now he hurt all over. There were long drives to see the doctor, and afterwards the pain was always worse. There was some guy who claimed to be his son, and claimed that wherever he was now was home. Sometimes they rolled him outside to feel the bright sun on his face and listen to birds. No way was this home. Robert Gu remembered home. There had been snow on big mountains he could see from his folks' backyard. Bishop, California, U.S.A. That was the place, and this wasn't it. 

But even though this wasn't home, his little sister was here. Cara Gu had been around before, when things were dark and mumbling, but she'd always been just out of sight. This was different. At first he was just aware of her high, piping voice, like the wind bells his mother kept on the porch at home. Finally, one day he was out on the patio, feeling the sunlight brighter and warmer than it had seemed in a long time. Even the blurs were sharp and colorful. There was Cara's high little voice asking him "Robert this" and "Robert that" and -- 

"Robert, would you like it if I showed you around the neighborhood?"

"What?" Robert's tongue felt all sticky, his voice hoarse. It suddenly occurred to him that with all the mumbling and darkness maybe he hadn't spoken in some time. And there was something else that that was even more strange. "Who are you?"

There was silence for a moment, as if the question were foolish or had been asked many times before. "Robert, I'm Miri. I'm your grand--"

He jerked his hand as much as it would move. "Come closer. I can't see you."

The blur moved directly in front of him, into the middle of the sunlight. This was not some hint of presence behind his shoulder or in his memory. The blur became a face just inches from his own: he could see the straight black hair, the small round countenance smiling at him as if he were the greatest guy in the world. It really was his little sister. 

Robert reached forward, and her hand was warm in his. "Oh, Cara. It's so good to see you." He wasn't home, but maybe he was close. He was quiet for a moment. 

"I'm ... I'm glad to see you, too, Robert. Would you like to go for a ride around the neighborhood?"

"... Yes, that would be nice."

Things happened fast then. Cara did something and his chair seemed to spin around. It was dark and gloomy again. They were inside the house and she was fussing like she always did, this time getting him a hat. She still teased though, as in asking him if he needed to go to the bathroom. Robert sensed that the thug who claimed to be his son was lurking just to one side, watching it all. 

And then they were out -- what, the front door? -- and onto a street. Cara stayed beside his wheelchair as they strolled and rolled down an empty street lined with tall, thin trees ... palm trees, that's what they were. This wasn't Bishop. But this was Cara Gu -- though on her very best behavior. Little Cara was a good kid, but she could only be good for so long and then she would find some devilish tease and have him chasing her all over the house, or vice versa. Robert smiled to himself and wondered how long the angelic phase would last this time. Maybe she thought he was sick. He tried unsuccessfully to turn in his chair. Well, maybe he was sick. 

"See, we live on Honor Court. Over there, that's the Smithson's house. They transferred here from Guam last month. Bob thinks they're growing five -- oops, but I'm not supposed to talk about that. And the boyfriend of the base commander lives in that house by the corner. I'm betting they'll be married by the end of the year.... And there are some kids from school I don't want to talk to just now." Robert's wheelchair took an abrupt turn, and they were heading down a side street. 

"Hey!" Robert tried again to turn in his chair. Maybe those kids were friends of his! Cara was teasing after all. He slumped down in the chair. There was the smell of honey, and bushes that seemed to hang low above them. The houses were gray and greenish blurs. "Some tour!" he groused. "I can't see a Dam Ned thing."

The wheelchair abruptly slowed. "Really?" The little wretch was all but chortling. "Don't worry, Robert! There's some devious twiddling that can fix your eyes."

Grump. "A pair of glasses would fix it, Cara." Maybe she was hiding them from him. 

There was something about the brightness and the dry wind that swept these streets -- wherever this was. It made him wonder what he was doing tied down to a wheelchair. They toured around a couple more blocks. Cara fussed endlessly over him. "Are you too warm, Robert? Maybe you don't need that blanket." "The sun is going to burn your head, Robert. Let me tilt your cap down a little bit." At one point there were no houses. It seemed that they were on the edge of a long slope. Cara claimed they were looking off toward the mountains -- but all Robert could see was a hazy line of tan and faded ochre. They were nothing like the mountains that shouldered into the sky above Bishop, California, U.S.A. 

Then they were back indoors, in the house they had started from. Things were as dark and gloomy as ever, the room lights swallowed up in darkness. Cara's bright voice was gone. She was off to study for her classes, she said. No classes for Robert. The thug was feeding him. He still claimed to be Robert's son. But he was so big. Afterwards there was another ignominious potty stop, more like a police interrogation than a trip to the can. And then Robert was left mercifully alone, in the darkness. These people didn't even have television. There was just the silence, and the dim and faraway electric lights. 

I should be sleepy. He had a vague memory of nights fading off into nights fading off into years, of drowsing sleep that came right after dinner. And then later waking, walking through strange rooms and trying to find home. Arguing with Lena. Tonight was ... different. He was still awake. Tonight he was thinking of things that had just happened. Maybe that was because he had made it partway home. Cara. So he hadn't found his folks' house on Crombie Street and the bedroom that looked out on the old pine tree and the little cabin he had built in its branches. But Cara was part of all that, and she was here. He sat for a long time, his thoughts slowly crunching forward. Across the room, a single lamp was kind of a whirlpool in the darkness. Barely visible, the thug was sitting by the wall. He was talking to someone, but Robert couldn't see who. 

Robert ignored the guy, and thought hard. After a while he remembered something very scary. Cara Gu had died in 2006. They hadn't said a word to each other for years before that. 

And when she died, Cara had been fifty-one years old. 

###

West Fallbrook had been a handy place in the early years of the century. Busy too. Right next to Camp Pendleton, it had been the base's largest civilian community. A new generation of Marines had grown up here ... and prosecuted a new generation of war. Robert Gu, Jr, had seen the tail end of that frenzy, arriving at a time when chinese-american officers were welcomed back to positions of trust. Those had been high and bittersweet days. 

Now the town was bigger, but the Marines weren't nearly such a large part of it. Military life had become a lot more complicated. Between little bits of war, Lieutenant Colonel Gu found that West Fallbrook was a nice place to raise a daughter. 

"I still think it's a mistake for Miri to call him 'Robert'."

Alice Gu looked up from her work. "We've been over this before, Dear. It's how we've brought her up. We're 'Bob' and 'Alice', not 'Ma' and 'Pa' or whatever silliness is currently approved. And Robert is 'Robert', not 'Grandpapa'." Colonel Alice Gong Gu was short and round-faced and -- when she wasn't deadly stressed -- motherly. She had graduated número uno from Annapolis, back when being short and round-faced and motherly were definite career minuses. She'd be a general officer by now except that higher authority had discovered more productive and dangerous work for her. That accounted for some of her kookie ideas. But not this one; she had always insisted that Miri address her parents as if they were all just pals. 

"Hey, Alice, I've never minded that Miri calls us by our first names. There'll come a time when besides loving us, the Little General will also be our peer, maybe our boss. But this is just confusing my old man --" Bob jerked a thumb at where Robert Senior sat, half slumped and staring. "Play back the way Dad was acting this afternoon. See how he lit up. He thinks Miri is my Aunt Cara, when they were little kids!"

Alice didn't answer right away. Where she was, it was midmorning. Sunlight glittered off the harbor behind her. She was running support for the U.S. delegation in Jakarta. Indonesia was joining the Indo-European Alliance. Japan was already a member of that bizarrely-named club. The joke was that that Alliance would soon have the world surrounded. There was a time when China and the U.S.A. would not have taken that as a joke. But the world had changed. Both China and the U.S. were relieved by the development. It left them with more time to worry about real problems. 

Alice's eyes flickered this way and that as she nodded at an introduction, laughed at some witty comment. She walked a short distance with a couple of self-important types, chattering all the while in Bahasa and Mandarin and Goodenuf English, of which only the English was intelligible to Bob. Then she was alone again. She leaned a little toward him, and gave him a big grin. "Well that sounds like a good thing!" she said. "Your father has been beyond all rational discourse for how many years? And now suddenly he's engaged enough to have a good time. You should be thrilled. From here, he'll only get better. You'll have your father back!"

"...Yes." Yesterday, he'd said goodbye to the last of the in-home caregivers. Dad should improve very fast now. The only reason he was still in a wheelchair was that the docs wanted to make sure his bone regeneration was complete before they let him loose in the neighborhood. 

She saw the expression on his face, and cocked her head to one side. "Are you chicken?"

He glanced at his father. The Paraguay operation was just a few weeks away. A covert op at the edge of the world. The prospect was coming to seem almost attractive. "Maybe."

"Then let our Little General do her thing and don't worry." She turned and waved at someone beyond his vision. "Oops." Her image flickered out and there was only silent messaging -- 

Alice --> Bob: <sm>Gotta go. I'm already covering for Secretary Martinez, and local custom does not approve of timesharing.</sm>

Bob sat for a moment in the quiet living room. Miri was upstairs, studying. Outside, the late afternoon slid into evening. A peaceful time. Back when he was a kid, this was when Dad would bring out the poetry books, and Dad and Mom and little Bobby would have a readalong. Actually, Bob felt a happy nostalgia for those evenings. He looked back at his father. "Dad?" No answer. Bob leaned forward and tried to shout diffidently. "Dad? Is there enough light for you? I can make it lots brighter."

The old man shook his head distractedly. Maybe he even understood the question, but he gave no other indication. He just sat there, slumped to the side. His right hand rubbed again and again at the wrist of his left. And yet, this was a big improvement. Robert Gu, Sr, had been down to eighty pounds, a barely living vegetable, when UCSF Medical School took him on for their new treatment. It turned out the UCSF Alzheimer's cure worked where the years of conventional treatment had failed. 

Bob did a few errands on base, checked the plans for the upcoming Paraguay operation ... and then sat back and just watched his father for a few minutes. 

I didn't always hate you. 

As a child, he had never hated his old man. Maybe that wasn't surprising. A kid has very little to compare to. Robert was strict and demanding, on that little Bobby had been very clear. For even though Robert Senior had often and loudly blamed himself for being such an easy-going parent, sometimes that seemed to contradict what Bob saw at his friends' homes. But it had never seemed mistreatment to Bob. 

Even when Mom left Dad, even that hadn't turned Bob against the old man. Lena Gu had taken years of subtle abuse and she couldn't take any more, but little Bobby had been oblivious to it all. It wasn't till later, talking to Aunt Cara, that he realized how much worse Robert treated others than he had ever treated Bob. 

For LtCol Robert Gu, Jr, this should be a joyous time. His father, one of America's most beloved poets, was returning from a long campout in the valley of the shadow of death. Bob took a long look at Robert's still, relaxed features. No, if this were cinema, it would be a Western and the title would be "The Return of the SOB". 

CHAPTER 03: A Minefield Made in Heaven

###

"My eyeballs are ... fizzing!"

"This shouldn't be painful. Do they actually hurt?"

"... No." But the light was so bright that Robert saw fiery color even in the shadows. "It's all still a blur, but I haven't seen this well in ..." he didn't know how long; time itself had been a darkness "... in years."

A woman spoke from right behind his shoulder. "You've been on the retinal meds for about a week, Robert. Today we felt we had a working population of cells present, so we decided to turn them on."

Another woman's voice: "And we can cure your blurred vision even more easily. Reed?"

"Yes, Doctor." This voice came from the man-shaped blur directly in front of him. The figure leaned near. "Let me put this over your eyes, Robert. There'll be a little numbness." Big gentle hands slipped glasses across Robert's face. At least this was familiar; he was getting new lenses fitted. But then his face went numb and he couldn't close his eyes. 

"Just relax and look to the front." Relaxing was one thing, but there was no choice about looking to the front. And then ... God, it was like watching a picture come up on a really slow computer, the blurs sharpening into finer and finer detail. Robert would have jerked back, but the numbness had spread to his neck and shoulders. 

"The cell map in the right retina looks good. Let's do the left." A few more seconds passed, and there was a second miracle. 

The man sitting in front of him eased the "glasses" off Robert's head. There was a smile on his middle-aged face. He wore a white cotton shirt. The pocket was embroidered with blue stitching: "Physician's Assistant Reed Weber". I can see every thread of it! He looked over the man's shoulder. The walls of the clinic were slightly out of focus. Maybe he'd have to wear glasses out-of-doors. The thought set him laughing. And then he recognized the pictures on the walls. This was not a clinic. Those wall hangings were the calligraphy that Lena had bought for their house in Palo Alto. Where am I? 

There was a fireplace; there were sliding glass doors that opened onto a lawn. Not a book in sight; this was no place he had ever lived. The numbness in his shoulders was almost gone. Robert looked around the room. The two female voices -- they weren't attached to anything visible. But Reed Weber wasn't the only person in sight. A heavyset fellow stood on his left, arms akimbo, a broad smile on his face. Robert's look caught his, and the smile faltered. The man gave him a nod and said, "Dad."

"... Bob." It wasn't so much that memory suddenly returned as that he noticed a fact that had been there all along. Bobby had grown up. 

"I'll talk to you later, Dad. For now I'll let you wrap things up with Dr. Aquino and her people." He nodded at the thin air by Robert's right shoulder -- and left the room. 

The thin air said, "Actually, Robert, that's about all we intended to do today. You have a lot to do over the next few weeks, but it will be less chaotic if we take things one step at a time. We'll be keeping watch for any problems."

Robert pretended to see something in the air. "Right. See you around."

He heard friendly laughter. "Quite right! Reed can help you with that."

Reed Weber nodded, and now Robert had the feeling that he and Weber were truly alone in the room. The Physician's Assistant packed away the glasses, and various other pieces of loose equipment. Most were plain plastic boxes, prosaic throwaways except for the miracles they had made. Weber noticed his look, and smiled. "Just tools of the trade, the humdrum ones. It's the meds and machines that are floating around inside you that are really interesting." He stowed the last of the brick-like objects and looked up. "You're a very lucky guy, do you know that?"

I am in daylight now, where before it was night since forever. I wonder where Lena is? Then he thought about the other's question. "How do you mean?"

"You picked all the right diseases!" He laughed. "Modern medicine is kind of like a minefield made in heaven. We can cure a lot of things: Alzheimer's, even though you almost missed the boat there. You and I both had Alzheimer's; I had the normal kind, cured at earliest onset. Lots of other things are just as fatal or crippling as ever. We still can't do much with strokes. Some cancers can't be cured. There are forms of osteoporosis that are as gruesome as ever. But all your major infirmities are things we have slam-dunk fixes for. Your bones are as good as a fifty-year-old's now. Today we did your eyes. In a week or so we'll start reinforcing your peripheral nervous system." Reed laughed. "You know, you've even got the skin and fat biochemistry that responds to Venn-Kurasawa treatments. It's not one person in a thousand who steps on that heavenly landmine; you're even going to look a lot younger."

"Next you'll be having me playing video games."

"Ah!" Weber reached into his equipment bag and pulled out a slip of paper. "We can't forget that."

Robert took the paper and unfolded it all the way. It was really quite large, almost the size of foolscap. This appeared to be letterhead stationery. At the top was a logo, and in a fancy font the words "Crick's Clinic, Geriatrics Division". The rest was some kind of outline, the main categories being: "Microsoft Family", "Great Wall Linux", and "Epiphany Lite". 

"Eventually you'll want to use 'Epiphany Lite', but in the meantime, just touch the computer type you're most familiar with."

The items listed under "Microsoft Family" were the brand names of Microsoft systems all the way back to the 1980s. Robert stared uncertainly. 

"Robert? You -- you do know about computers, right?"

"Yes." The memory was there, now that he thought about it. He grinned. "But I was always the last to get onboard. I got my first PC in 2000." And that was because the rest of the English Department was brutalizing him for not reading his email. 

"Whew. Okay, you can imitate any of those old styles with that. Just lay it out flat on the arm of your chair. Your son has this room set to play the audio, but most places you'll have to keep your fingers touching the page if you want to hear output." Robert leaned forward to get a close view of the paper. It didn't glow; it didn't even have the glassy appearance of a computer display. It was just plain, high-quality paper. Reed pointed at the outline items. "Now press the menu option that corresponds to your favorite system."

Robert shrugged. Over the years, the Department had upgraded through a number of systems, but -- he pressed his finger to the line of text that said 'WinME'. There was no pause, none of the bootup delays he recalled. But suddenly a familiar and annoying musical jingle was in the air. It seemed to come from all around, not from the piece of paper. Now the page was full of color and icons. Robert was filled with nostalgia, remembering many frustrating hours spent in front of glowing computer screens. 

Reed grinned. "A good choice. WinME has been a simple rental for a long time. If you picked Epiphany, we'd be whacking through their licensing jungle.... Okay, now the rest should be almost exactly what you know. Crick's Clinic even has some of the modern services filtered down so they look like browser sites. This isn't quite as good as what your son and I use, but you won't have any more trouble with 'invisible voices'; you'll see Rachel and Dr. Aquino on the page here, if you want. Be cool, Robert."

Robert listened to Weber's mix of probably-dated slang and tech talk, to the joviality and the phrase structures that might suggest sarcasm. Once upon a time, all that would have been enough for Robert to calibrate this fellow. Today, just out of the murk of senility, he couldn't be sure. So he probed a little. "I'm all young again?"

Reed sat back, and gave an easy laugh. "Wish I could tell you that, Robert. You're seventy-five years old, and there are a lot more ways for the body to break down than the MDs have even imagined. But I've been on your case for six months. You've come back from the dead, man. You've almost got the Alzheimer's licked. It makes sense to try these other treatments on you now. You're going to have some surprises, mostly for the good. Just take it easy, roll with the punches. For instance, I noticed that you recognized your son just now."

"Y-yes."

"I was here just a week ago. You didn't recognize him then. 

It was strange to poke into that dimness, but ... "Yes. I knew I couldn't have a son. I wasn't old enough. I just wanted to go home, I mean to my parents' home in Bishop. And even now, I was surprised to see that Bob is so old." Consequences were crashing down upon him. "So my parents are dead --"

Reed nodded. "I'm afraid so, Robert. There's a whole lifetime that you're going to start remembering."

"As a patchwork? Or oldest memories first? Or maybe I'll get stuck at some point --"

"The MDs can give you the best answers on that." Reed hesitated. "Look, Robert. You used to be a professor, right?"

I was a poet! But he didn't think Reed would appreciate which was the more valued rank. "Yes. Professor -- well, Professor Emeritus -- of English. At Stanford."

"Okay then. You were a smart guy. You have a lot to learn, but I'm betting you'll get those smarts back. Don't panic if you can't remember something. Don't push too hard, either. Practically every day the docs are going to restore some additional capability. The theory is that this will be less disturbing for you. Whether that's right or wrong won't matter if you keep cool. Remember you have a whole loving family here." Lena. Robert lowered his head for a moment. Not a return to childhood, but a kind of second chance. If he could come all the way back from the Alzheimer's, if, if ... then he might have another twenty years left, time to make up for what he had lost. So two goals: his poetry, and ... "Lena."

Reed leaned closer. "What did you say, sir?"

Robert looked up. "My wife. I mean my ex-wife." He tried to remember more. "I bet I'll never remember what happened after I lost my marbles."

"Like I say, don't worry about it."

"I remember being married to Lena and raising Bobby. We split up years ago. But then ... I also remember her being with me when the Alzheimer's really started to shut me down. And now she's gone again. Where is she, Reed?"

Reed frowned, then leaned forward and zipped up his equipment case. "I'm sorry, Robert. She passed away two years ago." He stood and gave Robert a gentle pat on the shoulder. "You know, I think we've made really good progress today. Now I've got to run."

###

In his former life, Robert Gu had paid even less attention to technology than he had to current events. Human nature doesn't change, and as a poet his job was to distill and display that unchanging essence. Now ... well, I'm back from the dead! That was something new under the sun, a bit of technology somewhat too large to ignore. It was a new chance at life, a chance to continue his career. And where he should continue his art was obvious: with Secrets of the Ages. He had spent five years on the cantos of that sequence, poems such as "Secrets of the Child", "Secrets of the Young Lovers", "Secrets of the Old". But his "Secrets of the Dying" had been an arrant fake, written before he really started to die -- no matter that people seemed to think it was the most profound canto of the sequence. But now ... yes, something new: "Secrets of One Who Came Back". The ideas were coming and surely verse would follow. 

But every day there were new changes in himself and old barriers suddenly removed. He could easily accept Reed Weber's advice to be patient with his limitations. So much was changing and all for the better. One day he was walking again, even if it was a lurching, unstable gait. He fell three times that first day, and each time, he just bounced back to his feet. "Unless you fall on your head, Professor, you'll be fine," Reed said. But his walking got steadily better. And now that he could see -- really see -- he could do things with his hands. No more pawing around in the dark. He had never realized how important sight was to coordination. There are uncountable ways that things can lie and tangle and hide in three dimensions; without vision you're condemned to compromise and failure. But not me. Not now. 

And two days after that ... 

... he was playing ping-pong with his granddaughter. He remembered the table. It was the one that he'd bought for little Bobby thirty years ago. He even remembered Bob taking it off his hands when he finally gave up his home in Palo Alto. 

Today Miri was pulling her punches, lobbing the ball high and slow across the table. Robert moved back and forth. Seeing the ball was no problem, but he had to be very careful or he'd swing too high. Careful, careful went the game -- until Miri had him down fifteen to eleven. And then he won five points, each stroke a kind of spastic twitch that somehow smashed the white plastic into the far edge of the table. 

"Robert! You were just fooling me!" Poor, pudgy Miri raced from one corner of the table to the other, trying to keep up with him. Robert's slams had no spin, but she wasn't an expert player. Seventeen to fifteen, eighteen, nineteen. Then his powerful swings got out of tune, and he was back to being a staggering spastic. But now his granddaughter showed no mercy. She racked up six straight points -- and won the game. 

And then she ran around the table to hug him. "You are great! But you'll never fool me again!" It didn't do any good to tell her what Aquino had said, that the reconstruction of his nervous system would cause randomly spiky performance. He might wind up with the reflexes of an athlete; more likely the endpoint would be something like average coordination. 

###

It was funny, how he paid attention to the day of the week. That had stopped mattering even before he lost his marbles. But now, on the weekends, his granddaughter was around all day. 

"What was Great Aunt Cara like?" she asked him one Saturday morning. 

"She was a lot like you, Miri."

The girl's smile was sudden and wide and proud. Robert had guessed that this was what she wanted to hear. But it's true, except that Cara was never overweight. Miri was like Cara, right in those last years of preadolescence when her hero worship for her older brother had been replaced by other concerns. If anything, Miri's personality was an exaggeration of Cara's. Miri was very bright -- probably smarter than her great aunt. And Miri was already into the extreme independence and moral certainty of the other. I remember that persistent arrogance, thought Robert. That had been an enormous irritation; breaking her of it had been what drove them apart. 

Sometimes Miri had her little friends over. The boys and girls mixed pretty indescriminately at this age and in this era. For a few brief years they were almost matched for muscle. Miri loved to play doubles at ping-pong. 

He had to smile at the way she bossed her friends around. She had them organized into a tournament. And though she was scrupulously honest, she played to win. When her side got behind, her jaw set in angry determination, and there was steel in her eyes. Afterwards she was quick to acknowledge her own failures, and just as quick to critique her playmates. 

Even when her friends were gone physically, they were often still round, invisible presences like Robert's doctors. Miri walked around the backyard talking and arguing with nobody -- a parody of all the cellphone discourtesy that Robert remembered from his later years at Stanford. 

Then there were Miri's grand silences. Those didn't match anything in his recollection of Cara. Miri would push gently back and forth on the swing that hung from the only goodsized tree in the backyard. She would do that for hours, speaking only occasionally -- and then to the empty air. Her eyes seemed to be focused miles away. And when he asked her what she was doing, she would start and laugh and say that she was "studying". It looked much more like some kind of pernicious hypnosis to Robert Gu. 

Weekdays, Miri was off at school; a limo pulled up for her every morning, always at the moment that the girl was ready to go. Bob was gone nowadays, "to be back in a week or so". Alice was home part of each day, but she was in a distinctly short-tempered mood. Sometimes he would see her at lunch; more often, his daughter-in-law was at Camp Pendleton until midafternoon. She was especially irritable when she came back from the base. 

Except for Reed Weber's therapy sessions, Robert was left much to his own devices. He wandered around the house, found some of his old books in cardboard boxes in the basement. Those were the only books in the entire house. This family was effectively illiterate. Sure, Miri bragged that many books were visible any time you wanted to see them, but that was a half truth. The browser paper that Reed had given him could be used to find books online, but reading them on that single piece of foolscap was a tedious desecration. 

It was remarkable foolscap, though. It really did support teleconferencing; Dr. Aquino and the remote therapists were not just invisible voices anymore. And the web browser was much like the ones he remembered, even though many sites couldn't be displayed properly. Google still worked. He searched for Lena Llewelyn Gu. Of course, there was plenty of information about her. Lena had been a Medical Doctor and rather well-known in a limited, humdrum way. And yes, she had died a couple of years ago. The details were a cloud of contradiction, some agreeing with what Bob told him, some not. It was this damn Friends of Privacy. It was hard to imagine such villains, doing their best to undermine what you could find on the net. A "vandal charity" was what they called themselves. 

And that eventually got him into the News of the Day. The world was as much a mess as ever. This month, it was a police action in Paraguay. The details didn't make sense. What were "moonshine fabs" and why would the U.S. want to help local cops close them down? The big picture was more familiar. The invading forces were looking for Weapons of Mass Destruction. Today they had found nuclear weapons hidden beneath an orphanage. The pictures showed slums and poor people, ragged children playing inscrutable games that somehow seemed to deny the squalor all around. There was an occasional, almost lonely-looking, soldier. 

I'll bet this is where Bob is, he thought to himself. Not for the first time -- or the thousandth -- he wondered how his son could have chosen such an ugly, dead-end career. 

###

Evenings they had something like a family meal, Alice and Robert and Miri. Alice seemed happy to do the cooking, though tonight she looked like she hadn't slept for a couple of days. 

Robert hung around the kitchen, watching mother and daughter slide trays from the fridge. "TV dinners, that's what we used to call this sort of thing," he said. In fact, this stuff had the appearance and texture of delicious food. It all tasted like mush to him, but Reed said that was because his taste buds were ninety-five percent dead. 

Miri hesitated the way she often did when Robert tossed out some idea she hadn't heard before. But as usual, her response was full of confidence. "Oh, these are much better than TV junk food. We can mix and match the parts. She pointed at the unmarked containers sizzling in -- well, it looked like a microwave. "See, I got the ice cream dessert and Alice got ... angel-hair blueberries. Wow, Alice!"

Alice gave her a brief smile. "I'll share. Okay, let's get this into the dining room."

It took all three of them to carry everything, but no second trip was needed. They set the food on the long dining table. The table cloth was an intricate damask that seemed to be different every night. The table itself was familiar, another hand-me-down. Lena's presence was still everywhere. 

Robert sat down beside Miri. "You know," he said, more to probe reactions than anything else. "This all seems a bit primitive to me. Where are the robot servants -- or even the little automatic hands to put the TV dinners in the 'wave and take them out?"

His daughter-in-law gave a irritable shrug. "Where it makes sense, we have robots."

Robert remembered Alice Gong when she had married Bob. Back then, Alice had been an impenetrable diplomat -- so smooth that most people never realized her skill. In those days, he had still had his edge both with verse and with people; he took such a personality as a challenge. And yet, his former self had never been able to find a chink in her armor. The new Alice only imitated the composure of the old, and with varying success. Tonight was not one of her better nights. 

Robert remembered the news about Paraguay and took a stab in the dark. "Worried about Bob?"

She gave him an odd smile. "No. Bob is fine."

Miri glanced at her mother and then chirped, "Actually, if you want mechs, you should see my doll collection."

Mechs? Dolls? It was hard to dominate people when you didn't know what they were talking about. He backed up: "I mean, there are all the things that future freaks have been predicting for a hundred years and that never happened. Things such as air cars."

Miri looked up from her steaming food. At one corner of the tray there really was a bowl of ice cream. "We have air taxis. Does that count?"

"That gets partial credit." Then he surprised himself: "When can I see one?" The Robert of before would have dimissed mechanical contrivance as beneath any mature interest. 

"Any time! How about after dinner?" This last question was directed at Alice as much as Robert. 

That brought a more natural smile to Alice's face, "Maybe this weekend."

They ate in silence for a moment. I wish I could taste this stuff. 

Then Alice was onto the topic she must have been saving up: "You know, Robert, I've been looking at the medics' reports on you. You're almost up to speed now. Have you considered resuming your career?"

"Why, of course. I'm thinking about it all the time. I've got new writing ideas --" He gestured expansively, and was surprised by the fear that suddenly rose in him. "Hey, don't worry, Alice. I've got my writing. I've got job offers from schools all around the country. I'll be out of your way as soon as I get my feet solidly on the ground."

Miri said, "Oh no, Robert! You can stay with us. We like having you here."

"But at this point don't you think you should be actively reaching out?" said Alice. 

Robert looked back mildly. "How is that?"

"Well, you know that Reed Weber's last session with you is next Tuesday. I'll bet there are still a number of new skills you'd like to master. Have you considered taking classes? Fairmont High has a number of special --"

Colonel Alice was doing pretty well, but she was handicapped by the thirteen-year-old at Robert's side. Miri piped up with, "Yecco. That's our vocational track. A few old people and lots of teenage dumbheads. It's dull, dull, dull."

"Miri, there are basic skills --"

"Reed Weber has done a lot of that. And I can teach Robert to wear." She patted his arm. "Don't worry, Robert. Once you learn to wear, you can learn anything. Right now, you're in a trap; it's like you're seeing the world through a little hole, just whatever your naked eye sees -- and what you can get from that." She pointed at the magic foolscap that was tucked into his shirt pocket. "With some practice you should be able to see and hear as good as anyone."

Alice shook her head. "Miri. There are lots of people who don't use contacts and wearables."

"Yes, but they're not my grandfather." And there was that defiant little thrust of her jaw. "Robert, you should be wearing. You look silly walking around with that view-page clutched in your hand."

Alice seemed about to object more forcefully. Then she settled back, watching Miri with a neutral gaze that Robert couldn't fathom. 

Miri didn't seem to notice the look. She leaned her head forward, and stuck a finger close to her right eye. "You already know about contacts, right? Wanna see one?" Her hand came away from her eye. A tiny disk sat on the tip of her middle finger. It was the size and shape of the contact lenses he had known. He hadn't expected anything more, but ... he bent close and looked. After a moment, he realized that it was not quite a clear lens. Speckles of colored brightness swirled and gathered. "I'm driving it at safety max, or you wouldn't see the lights." The tiny lens became hazy, then frosty white. "Uk. It powered down. But you get the idea." She popped it back into her eye, and grinned at him. Now her right eye was fogged with an enormous cataract. 

"You should get a fresh one, Dear," said Alice. 

"Oh no," said Miri. "Once it warms up, it'll be good for the rest of the day." And in fact the "cataract" was fading, Miri's dark brown iris showing through. "So what do you think, Robert?"

That it's a rather gross substitute for what I can do simply by reading my view-page. "That's all there is to it?"

"Um, no. I mean, we can fix you up with one of Bob's shirts and a box of contacts right away. It's learning to use them that's the trick. 

Colonel Alice said, "Without some control it's like old-time television, but much more intrusive. We wouldn't want you to be hijacked, Robert. How about this: I'll get you some trainer clothes and that box of contacts that Miri mentioned. Meantime, give some thought to attending Fairmont High, okay?"

Miri leaned forward and grinned at her mother. "Betcha he's wearing inside of a week. He won't need those loser classes."

Robert smiled benignly over Miri's head. 

###

In fact, there had been job offers. His return had percolated onto the web, and twelve schools had written him. But five were simply speaking invitations. Three were for semester artist-in-residence gigs. And the others weren't from first-rank schools. It was not exactly the welcome Robert expected for one of "the century's literary giants" (quoting the critics here). 

They're afraid I'm still a vegetable. 

So Robert kept the offers on ice and worked on his writing. He would show the doubters he was as sharp as ever -- and in the doing, he would overleap them, to the sort of recognition he deserved. 

But progress was slow on the poetry front. Progress was slow on a lot of fronts. His face actually looked young now. Reed said such complete cosmetic success was rare, that Robert was a perfect target for the "Venn-Kurasawa" process. Wonderful. But his coordination remained spastic and his joints ached all the time. Most ignominious, he still had to hike down to the john several times each night to take a leak. That was surely the Fates reminding him he was still an old man. 

Yesterday had been Weber's last visit. The fellow had a menial mind, but it was exactly matched to the menial aid he provided. I'll miss him, I suppose. Not least because now there was another empty hour in every day. 

And progress was especially slow on the poetry front. 

For Robert, dreams had never been an important source of inspiration (though he had claimed otherwise in several well-known interviews). But wide-awake attempts at creativity were the last resort of pedestrian minds. For Robert Gu, real creativity most often came after a good night's sleep, just as he roused himself to wakefulness. That moment was such a reliable source of inspiration that when he was having problems with writing he would often go the pedestrian route in the evening, stock up his mind with the intransigencies of the moment ... and then the next morning, drowsing, review what he knew. There in the labile freshness of new consciousness, answers would drift into view. In his years at Stanford, he'd run the phenomenon past philosophers, religionists, and the hard science people. They'd had a hundred explanations, from Freudian psychology to quantum physics. The explanation didn't matter; "sleeping on it" worked for him. 

And now, coming out of years of dementia, he still had that morning edge. But his control of the process was as erratic as ever. Some mornings, his mind was awash with ideas for "Secrets of the One Who Came Back" and his revision of "Secrets of the Dying". Yet none of these morning brainstorms contained poetical detail. He had the ideas. He had concepts down to the level of verse blocks. But he didn't have the words and phrases that made ideas into beauty. Maybe that was okay. For now. After all, making the words sing was the highest, purest talent. Didn't it make sense that such would be his very last talent to return?

In the meantime, many of his mornings were wasted on garbage insights. His subconscious had turned traitor, fascinated by how things worked, by technology and math. During the day, when he was surfing his view-page, he was constantly diverted by topics unrelated to any artistic concern. He had spent one whole afternoon on a "child's introduction" to finite geometry, for God's sake ... and the big insight he wakened with the next morning had been a proof of one of the harder exercises. 

Robert's day time was a grinding bore, an endless search for the right words, all the while trying to ignore the lure of his view-page. His evenings were spent putting off Miri and her attempts to stick foreign objects onto his eyeballs. 

Finally, morning insight came to his rescue. Rising toward wakefulness, thinking dispassionately about his failure, he noticed the green junipers beyond his window, the yard painted in soft pastels. There was a world outside. There were a million different viewpoints there. What had he done in the past when progress hit roadblocks? You take a break. Do something different; almost anything. Going back to "High School" would get him out of this, get Miri out of his hair. It would certainly expose him to different, even if narrow, viewpoints. 

Alice would be so pleased. 

CHAPTER 04: An Excellent Affiliance

###

Juan Orozco liked to walk to school with the Radner twins. Fred and Jerry were a Bad Influence, but they were the best gamers Juan knew in person. 

"We got a special scam for today, Juan," said Fred. 

"Yeah," said Jerry, smiling the way he did when something really fun or embarrassing was on the way. The three followed the usual path along the flood control channel. The concrete trough was dry and bone white, winding its way through the canyon behind the Mesitas subdivision. The hills above them were covered with iceplant and manzanita; ahead, there was a patch of scrub oaks. What do you expect of San Diego north county in early October?

At least in the real world. 

The canyon was not a deadzone. Not at all. County Flood Control kept the whole area improved, and the public layer was just as fine as on city streets. As they walked along, Juan gave a shrug and a twitch just so. That was enough cue for his Epiphany wearable. Its overlay imagery shifted into Hacek's Dangerous Knowledge world: The manzanita morphed into scaly tentacles. Now the houses that edged the canyon were large and heavily-timbered, with pennants flying. High ahead was a castle, the home of Grand Duke Hwa Feen -- in reality, the local kid who did the most to maintain this belief circle. Juan tricked out the twins in the leather armor of Knights Guardian. 

"Hey, Jer, look." Juan radiated, and waited for the twins to slide into consensus with his view. He had been practicing a week to get these visuals in place. 

Fred looked up, accepting the imagery that Juan had conjured. "That's old stuff, Juanito." He glanced at the castle on the hill. "Besides, Howie Fein is a dwit."

"Oh." Juan released the vision in an untidy cascade. The real world took back its own, first the landscape, then the sky, then creatures and costumes. "But you liked it last week." Back when, Juan now remembered, Fred and Jerry had been maneuvering to oust the Grand Duke. 

The twins looked at each other. Juan could tell they were silent messaging. "We told you today would be different. We're onto something special." They were partway through the scrub oaks now. Coming out the far side, you could see ocean haze; on a clear day -- or if you used Clear Vision -- you could see all the way to the ocean. On the south were more subdivisions, and a patch of green that was Fairmont High School. On the north was the most interesting place in Juan Orozco's neighborhood: 

Pyramid Hill Amusement Park dominated the little valley that surrounded it. The underlying rock was more a pointy hill than a pyramid, but the park's management thought "pyramid" was the sexier adjective. Once upon a time it had been an avocado orchard, dark green trees clothing the hillsides. You could see it that way if you used the park's logo view. To the naked eye, there were still lots of trees. But there were also lawns, and real mansions, and the launch tower. Among other things, Pyramid Hill claimed to have the longest freefall ride in California. 

The twins were grinning at him. Jerry waved at the hill. "How would you like to play Cretaceous Returns, but with real feeling?"

Pyramid Hill managers knew exactly what to charge for different levels of touchy-feely experience. The low-end was pretty cheap; "real feeling" was at the top. "Ah, that's too expensive."

"Sure it is. If you pay."

"And, um, don't you have a project to set up before class?" The twins had shop class first thing in the morning. 

"That's still in Vancouver," said Jerry. 

"But don't worry about us." Fred looked upward, somehow prayerful and smug at the same time. "'UP/Express will provide, and just in time.'"

"Well, okay. Just so we don't get into trouble." Getting into trouble was the major downside of hanging with the Radners. A couple of weeks earlier, the twins had shown him how to avoid a product safety recall on his new wikiBay bicycle. That had left him with a great martial arts weapon -- and a bike that was almost impossible to unfold. Ma had not been pleased. 

"Hey, don't worry, Juan." The three left the edge of the flood channel and followed a narrow trail along the east edge of Pyramid Hill. This was far from any entrance, but the twins' uncle worked for County Flood Control and they had access to CFC utilities support imagery -- which just now they shared with Juan. The dirt beneath their feet became faintly translucent. Fifteen feet down, Juan could see graphics representing a ten-inch runoff tunnel. Here and there were pointers to local maintenance records. Jerry and Fred had used such omniscience before and not been caught. Today they were blending it with a map of the local network nodes. The overlay view was faint violet against the sunlit day, showing communication blindspots and active highrate links. 

The two stopped at the edge of a clearing. Fred looked at Jerry. "Tsk. Flood Control should be ashamed. There's not a localizer node within thirty feet."

"Yeah, Jer. Almost anything could happen here." Without a complete localizer mesh, nodes could not know precisely where they and their neighbors were. High-rate laser comm could not be established, and low-rate sensor output was smeared across the landscape. The outside world knew only mushy vagueness about this area. 

They walked into the clearing. They were deep in a network blindspot, but from here they had a naked-eye view up the hillside, to ground that must surely be within Pyramid Hill. If they continued that way, the Hill would start charging them. 

But the twins were not looking at the Hill. Jerry walked to a small tree and squinted up. "In fact, this is an interesting spot. They tried to patch the coverage with an airball." He pointed into the branches and pinged. The utility view showed only a faint return, an error message. "It's almost purely net guano at this point."

Juan shrugged. "The gap will be fixed by tonight." Around twilight, when aerobots flitted around the canyons, swapping out nodes here and there. 

"Well, why don't we help the County by patching things right now?" Jerry held up a thumb-sized greenish object. He handed it to Juan. 

Three antenna fins sprouted from the thing's top. It was a typical ad hoc node. The dead ones were more trouble than bird poop. "You've perv'd this thing?" The node had BreakIns-R-Us written all over it, but perverting networks was harder in real life than in games. "Where did you get the access codes?"

"Uncle Don gets careless." Jerry pointed at the device. "All the permissions are loaded. Unfortunately, the bottleneck node is still alive." He pointed upwards, into the sapling's branches. "You're small enough to climb this, Juan. Just go up and knock down the node."

"Hmm."

"Hey, don't worry. Homeland Security won't notice."

In fact, the Department of Homeland Security would almost certainly notice, at least after the localizer mesh was patched. But just as certainly they wouldn't care. DHS logic was deeply embedded in all hardware. "See All, Know All," was their motto, but what they knew and saw was for their own mission. They were notorious about not sharing with law enforcement. Juan stepped out of the blindspot and took a look at the Sheriff's Department view. The area around Pyramid Hill had its share of arrests, mostly for enhancement drugs... but there had been nothing hereabouts for several weeks. 

"Okay." Juan came back to the tree and scrambled up about ten feet, to where the branches spread out. The old node was hanging from rotted velcro. He knocked it free and the twins caused it to have an accident with a rock. Juan shinnied down from the tree. They watched the diagnostics for a moment. Violet mists sharpened into bright spots as the nodes figured out where they and their perv'd sibling were, and coordinated up toward full function. Now point-to-point, laser routing was available; they could see the property labels all along the boundary of Pyramid hill. 

"Ha," said Fred. The twins started uphill past the property line. "C'mon, Juan. We're marked as county employees. We'll be fine if we don't stay too long."

###

Pyramid Hill had all the latest touchy-feely gear. These were not just phantoms painted by your contact lenses on the back of your eyeballs. On Pyramid Hill there were games where you could ride a Scoochi salsipued or steal the eggs of raptors -- or games with warm furry creatures that danced playfully around, begging to be picked up and cuddled. If you turned off all the game views, you could see other players wandering through the woods in their own worlds. Somehow the Hill kept them from crashing into each other. 

In Cretaceous Returns, the sound of the freefall launcher was disguised as thunder. The trees were imaged as towering gingkoes, with lots of places you couldn't see through. Juan played the pure visual Cret Ret a lot these days, in person with the twins, and all over the world with others. It had not been an uplifting experience. He had been "killed and eaten" three times so far this week. It was a tough game, one where you had to contribute or maybe you got killed and eaten every time. So Juan had joined the Fantasist Guild -- well, as a junior wannabe member. Maybe that would make him clueful. He had already designed a species for Cret Ret. His saurians were quick, small things that didn't attract the fiercest of the critics. The twins had not been impressed, though they had no alternatives of their own. 

As he walked through the gingko forest, he kept his eye out for critters with jaws lurking in the lower branches. That's what had gotten him on Monday. On Tuesday it had been some kind of paleo disease. 

So far things seemed safe enough, but there was no sign of his own contribution. They had been fast breeding and scalable, so where were the little monsters? Sigh. Sometime he should check out other game sites. They might be big in Kazakhstan. Here, today ... nada. 

Juan stumped across the Hill, a little discouraged, but still uneaten. The twins had taken the form of game-standard velociraptors. They were having a grand time. Their chicken-sized prey were Pyramid Hill game bots. 

The Jerry-raptor looked over its shoulder at Juan. "Where's your critter?"

Juan had not assumed any animal form. "I'm a time traveler," he said. That was a valid type, introduced with the initial game release. 

Fred flashed a face full of teeth. "I mean where are the critters you invented last week?"

"I don't know."

"Most likely they got eaten by the critics," said Jerry. The brothers did a joint reptilian chortle. "Give up on making creator points, Juan. Kick back and use the good stuff." He illustrated with a soccer kick that connected with something that scuttled fast across their path. That got lots of classic points and a few thrilling moments of quality carnage. Fred joined in and red splattered everywhere. 

There was something familiar about this prey. It was young and clever looking ... a newborn from Juan's own design! And that meant its Mommy would be nearby. Juan said, "You know, I don't think --"

"The Problem Is, None Of You Think Nearly Enough." The sound was premium external, like sticking your head inside an old-time boom box. Too late, they saw that the tree trunks behind them grew from yard-long claws. Mommy. Drool fell in ten-inch blobs from high above. 

This was Juan's design scaled up to the max. 

"Sh--" said Fred. It was his last hiss as a velociraptor. The head and teeth behind the slobber descended from the gingko canopy and swallowed Fred down to the tips of his hind talons. The monster crunched and munched for a moment. The clearing was filled with the sound of splintering bones. 

"Ahh!" the monster opened its mouth and vomited horror. It was so good -- Juan flicker-viewed on reality: Fred was standing in the steaming remains of his raptor. His shirt was pulled out of his pants, and he was drenched in slime -- real, smelly slime. The kind you paid money for. 

The monster itself was one of the Hill's largest mechanicals, tricked out as a member of Juan's new species. 

The three of them looked up into its jaws. 

"Was that touchy-feely enough for you?" the creature said, its breath a hot breeze of rotting meat. For sure it was. Fred stepped backwards and almost slipped on the goo. 

"The late Fred Radner just lost a cartload of points," -- the monster waved its truck-sized snout at them -- "and I'm still hungry. I suggest you move off the Hill with all dispatch."

They backed away, their gaze still caught on the monster's teeth. The twins turned and ran. As usual, Juan was an instant behind them. Something like a big hand grabbed him. "You, I have further business with." The words were a burred roar through clenched fangs. "Sit down. Let's chat."

¡Caray! I have the worst luck. Then he remembered that it had been Juan Orozco who had climbed a tree to perv the Hill entrance logic. Stupid Juan Orozco didn't need bad luck; he was already the perfect chump. And now the twins were gone. 

But when the "jaws" set him down and he turned around, the monster was still there -- not some Pyramid Hill rentacop. Maybe this really was a Cret Ret player! He edged sideways, trying to get out from under the pendulous gaze. This was just a game. He could walk away from this four-storey saurian. Of course, that would trash his credit with Cretaceous Returns, maybe drench him in smelly goo. And if Big Lizard took its play seriously, it might cause him trouble in other games. Okay. He sat down with his back to the nearest gingko. So he would be late another day; that couldn't make his school situation any worse. 

The saurian settled back and slid the steaming corpse of Fred Radner's raptor to one side. It brought its head close to the ground, to look at Juan straight on. The eyes and head and color were exactly Juan's original design, and this player had the moves to make it truly impressive. He could see from its battle scars that it had fought in several Cretaceous hotspots. 

Juan forced a cheerful smile. "So, you like my design?"

It flashed yard-long fangs. "I've been worse." The creature shifted game parameters, bringing up critic-layer details. This was a heavy player, maybe even a game cracker! On the ground between them was a dead and dissected example of Juan's creation. Big Lizard nudged it with a foreclaw. "But the skin texture is from a Fantasist Guild example library. The color scheme is a cliché. The plaid kilt would be cute if it weren't in all the Epiphany Now ads."

Juan drew his knees in toward his chin. This was the same crap he had to put up with at school. "I borrow from the best."

The saurian's chuckle was a buzzing roar that made Juan's skull vibrate. "That might work with your teachers. They have to eat whatever garbage you feed them -- at least till you graduate and can be dumped on the street. This design is so-so. There have been some adoptions, mainly because it has good mechanics. But if we're talking real quality, it just don't measure up." The creature flexed its custom battle scars. 

"I do other things."

"Yes, and if you never deliver, you'll fail with them, too."

That was a point that occupied a lot of Juan Orozco's internal worry time. More and more it looked like he was going to end up like his pa -- only Juan might never even get a job to be laid off from! "Try your best" was the motto of Fairmont High. But trying your best was only the beginning. Even if you tried your best, you could still be left behind. 

These were not things he'd confess to another gamer. He glared back at the slitted yellow eyes, and suddenly it occurred to him that -- unlike teachers -- this guy was not being paid to be nice. And it was wasting too much time for this to be some humiliating con. It actually wants something from me! Juan sharpened his glare. "And you have some suggestions, Oh Mighty Virtual Lizard?"

"That ... could be. Besides Cret Ret, I have other things going. How would you like to take an affiliate status on a little project?"

Except for local games, no one had ever asked Juan to affiliate on anything. His mouth twisted in bogus contempt. "Affiliate? A percent of a percent of ... what? How far down the value chain are you?"

The saurian shrugged and there was the sound of gingkoes creaking against its shoulders. "My guess is I'm way, way down. That's how it is with most affiliances. But I can pay real money for each answer I pipe upwards." The creature named a number; it was enough to ride the freefall every day for a year. A payoff certificate floated in the air between them, showing the named amount and a bonus schedule. 

Juan had played his share of finance games. "I get twice that or no deal." Then he noticed the subrights section. The numbers were not visible. That could be because anyone he recruited would get a lot more. 

"Done!" said the Lizard, before Juan could correct his bid upwards. 

And Juan was sure it was smiling!

"... Okay, what do you want?" And what makes you think a dwit like me can supply it? 

"You're at Fairmont High, aren't you?"

"You already know that."

"It's a strange place, isn't it?" When Juan did not reply, the critter said. "Trust me, it is strange. Most schools, even charter schools, don't schedule Adult Education students in with the children."

"Yeah, the vocational track. The old farts don't like it. We don't like it."

"Well, the task from my upstream affiliate is to snoop around, mainly among these old guys. Make friends with them."

Yecco. But Juan glanced at the payoff certificate again. It tested valid. The payoff adjudication was more complicated than he wanted to read, but it was backed by Bank of America. "Who in particular?"

"Ah, that's the problem. Whoever is at the top of my affiliance is coy. We're just collecting information. Basically, some of these senior citizens used to be bigshots."

"If they were so big, how come they're in our classes now?" It was just the question the kids asked at school. 

"Lots of reasons, Juan. Some of them are just lonely. Some of them are up to their ears in debt, and have to figure how to make a living in the current economy. Some of them aren't good for much but a healthy body and lots of old memories. They can be very bitter. 

"Unh, how do I make friends with people like that?"

"If you want the money, you figure out a way. Anyway, here are the search criteria." The Big Lizard shipped him a document. He browsed through the top layer. 

"This covers a lot of ground." Retired San Diego politicians, bioscientists, parents of persons currently in such job categories.... 

"There are qualifying characteristics in the links. Your job is to interest appropriate people in my affiliance."

"I ... I'm just not that good at talking people up." Especially people like this. 

"Stay poor then. Chicken."

Juan was silent for a moment. His pa would never take a job like this. Finally, he said, "Okay, I'll go affiliate with you."

"I wouldn't want you doing anything you feel un--"

"I said, I'll take the job!"

"Okay! Well then, what I've given you should get you started. There's contact info in the document." The creature lumbered to its feet, and now its voice came from high above. "Just as well we don't meet again on Pyramid Hill."

"Suits me." Juan stood up. He made a point of slapping the creature's mighty tail as he walked off downhill. 

###

The twins were way ahead of him, standing by the soccer field on the other side of campus. As Juan came up the driveway, he grabbed a viewpoint in the bleachers and gave them a ping. Fred waved back, but his shirt was still too gooey for comm. Jerry was looking upwards at the UP/Ex shipment falling toward his outstretched hands. Just in time, for sure. The twins were popping the mailer open even as they walked into the shop tent. 

Unfortunately, Juan's first class was at the end of the far wing. He ran across the lawn, keeping his vision tied to unimproved reality: The buildings were mostly three storeys today. Their gray walls were like playing cards stacked in a rickety array. 

Inside, the choice of view was not entirely his own. Mornings, the school administration required that the Fairmont News show all over the interior walls. Three kids at Hoover High had won IBM career fellowships. Applause, applause, even if Hoover was Fairmont's unfairly-advantaged rival, a charter school run by the Math Ed Department at SDSU. The three young geniuses would have their college education paid for, right through grad school, even if they never worked a day at IBM. Big deal, Juan thought, trying to comfort himself. Someday those kids might be very rich, but a percentage of their professional fortunes would always go back to IBM. 

He followed the little green nav arrows with half his attention ... and abruptly realized he had climbed two flights of stairs. School admin had rearranged everything since yesterday. Of course, they had updated his nav arrows, too. It was a good thing he hadn't been paying attention. 

He slipped into his classroom and sat down. 

###

Ms. Chumlig had already started. 

Search and Analysis was Chumlig's main thing. She used to teach a fast-track version of this at Hoover High, but well-documented rumor held that she just couldn't keep up. So the Department of Education had moved her to the same-named course here at Fairmont. Actually, Juan kind of liked her. She was a failure, too. 

"There are many different skills," she was saying. "Sometimes it's best to coordinate with lots of other people who together can make the answers." The students nodded. Be a coordinator. That's where the biggest and most famous money was. But they also knew where Chumlig was going with this. She looked around the classroom, nodding that she knew they knew. "Alas, you all intend to be top agents, don't you?"

"It's what some of us will be." That was one of the Adult Ed students. Winston Blount was old enough to be Juan's great grandfather. When Blount had a bad day he liked to liven things up by harrassing Ms. Chumlig. 

The Search and Analysis instructor smiled back. "It's about as likely as being a major league baseball star. The pure 'coordinating agent' is a rare type, Dean Blount."

"Some of us must be the administrators."

"Oh." Chumlig looked kind of sad for a moment, like she was figuring out how to pass on bad news. "Administration has changed a lot, Dean Blount."

Winston Blount sat back in his chair. "Okay. So we have to learn some new tricks."

"Yes." Ms. Chumlig looked out over the class. "That's an important point. This class is about search and analysis, the heart of the economy. We obviously need search and analysis as consumers. In almost all modern jobs, search and analysis are how we make our living. But, in the end, we must also know something about something."

"Meaning those courses we got C's in, right?" That was a voice from the peanut gallery, probably someone who was physically truant. 

Chumlig sighed. "Yes. Don't let those skills die. You've been exposed to them. Use them. Improve on them. You can do it with a special form of pre-analysis that I call 'study'."

One of the students actually held up a hand. She was that old. 

"Yes, Dr. Xiang?"

"I know you are correct. But --" The woman glanced around the room. She looked about Chumlig's age, not nearly as old as Winston Blount. But there was kind of a frightened look in her eyes. "But some people are better than others. I'm not as sharp as I once was. Or maybe others are just sharper.... What happens if we try our hardest, and it just isn't good enough?"

Chumlig hesitated. How will she answer this! thought Juan. It was the real question. "That's a problem that affects everyone, Dr. Xiang. Providence gives each of us our hand to play. In your case, you've got a new deal and a new start on life." Her look took in the rest of the class. "Some of you think your hand in life is all deuces and treys." At the front of the room were some really dedicated students, not much older than Juan. They were wearing, but they had no clothes sense and had never learned ensemble coding. As Chumlig spoke, you could see their fingers tapping away, searching on "deuces" and "treys". 

"But I have a theory of life," said Chumlig, "and it is straight out of gaming: There is always an angle. You, each of you, have some special wild cards. Play with them. Find out what makes you different and better. Because it is there, if only you can find it. And once you do, you'll be able to contribute answers to others and others will be willing to contribute back to you. In short, synthetic serendipity doesn't just happen. By golly, you must create it."

She hesitated, staring at invisible class notes, and her voice dropped down from oratory. "So much for the big picture. Today, we're going to talk about morphing answerboard solutions. As usual, we're looking to ask the right questions."

###

Juan liked to sit by the outer wall, especially when the classroom was on the third floor. You could feel the wall sway gently back and forth as the building kept its balance. That sort of thing made his ma real nervous. "One second of system failure and everything will fall apart!" she had complained at a PTA meeting. On the other hand, house-of-cards construction was cheap -- and it could handle a big earthquake almost as easily as it did the morning breeze. 

He leaned away from the wall and listened to Chumlig. That was why the school made you show up in person for most classes; you had to pay a little bit of attention just because you were trapped in a real room with a real instructor. Chumlig's lecture graphics floating in the air above them. She had the class's attention; there was a minimum of insolent graffiti nibbling at the edges of her imagery. 

And for a while, Juan paid attention, too. He really did. Answer boards could generate solid results, usually for zero cost. There was no affiliation, just kindred minds batting problems around. But what if you weren't a kindred mind? Say you were on a genetics board. If you thought transcription was a type of translation, it could take you months to get anywhere. 

So Juan tuned her out and wandered from viewpoint to viewpoint around the room. Some were from students who'd set their viewpoints public. Most were just random cams. He browsed Big Lizard's task document as he paused between hops. In fact, the Lizard was interested in more than just the old farts. Some ordinary students made the list, too. This affiliance might be as wide as the California Lottery. 

He started some background checks. Like most kids, he kept lots of stuff saved on his wearable. He could run a search like this very close to his vest. He didn't route to the outside world except when he could use a site that Chumlig was talking about. She was real good at nailing the mentally truant. But Juan was good at ensemble coding, driving his wearable with little gesture cues and eye-pointer menus. As her gaze passed over him, he nodded brightly and replayed the last few seconds of her talk. 

As for the old students ... competent retreads would never be here; they'd be rich and famous, the people who owned most of the real world. The ones in Adult Education were the hasbeens. These people trickled into Fairmont all through the semester. The oldfolks hospitals refused to batch them up for the beginning of classes. They claimed that senior citizens were "socially mature", able to handle the jumble of a midsemester entrance. 

Juan went from face to face, matching against public records: Winston Blount. The guy was a saggy mess. Retread medicine was such a crapshoot. Some things it could cure, others it couldn't. And what worked was different from person to person. Winston Blount had not been a total winner. 

Just now the old guy was squinting intensely, trying to follow Chumlig's answerboard example. He had been in several of Juan's classes. Juan couldn't see the guy's med records, but he guessed that his mind was mostly okay; he was as sharp as some of the kids in class. And once-upon-a-time he had been an important player at UCSD. Once-upon-a-time. 

Okay, put him on the "of interest" list. 

And then there was Xiu Xiang. PhD physics, PhD electrical engineering; 2010 Winner of the President's Medal for Secure Computation. Overall the hotstuff index on her was almost Nobel quality. Dr. Xiang sat hunched over, looking at the table in front of her. She was trying to keep up on a view-page! Poor lady. But for sure she would have connections. 

Chumlig was still going on about how to morph results into new questions, oblivious to Juan's truancy. 

Who's next? Robert Gu. For a moment, Juan thought he had the wrong viewpoint. He sneaked a glance to his right, toward where the Adult Education crocks hung out. Robert Gu, PhD Literature. A poet. He was sitting with the crocks, but he looked about seventeen years old. Juan brought his apparent attention back to Ms. Chumlig and inspected the new arrival close up. Gu was slender, almost scrawny, and tall. His skin was smooth and unblemished. But he looked like he was sweating. He risked a peek at outside medical references. Aha! Symptoms of the Venn-Kurasawa treatment. Dr. Robert Gu was a lucky man, the one in a thousand who fully responded to that piece of retread magic. On the other hand, it looked to Juan like the guy had run out of luck after that. He was fully unpingable. There was a crumpled piece of view-page on his desk, but he wasn't using it. Years ago, this guy had been more famous than Xiu Xiang, but he was an even bigger loser now.... What was "Deconstructive Revisionism" anyway? Oh. Definitely not something on the Big Lizard's list. Juan slid the name into the dumpster. But wait, he hadn't checked out Gu's family connections. He queried -- and suddenly there was silent messaging hanging in letters of silent flame all across his vision: 

Chumlig --> Orozco: <sm>You have all day to play games, Juan! If you won't pay attention here, you can darn well take this course over.</sm>

Orozco --> Chumlig: <sm>Sorry. Sorry!</sm> He suspended his question queue and dropped the external session. At the same time, he played back the last few minutes of her talk, desperately trying to summarize. Most times, Chumlig just asked embarrassing questions; this was the first she'd sminged him with a threat. 

And the amazing thing was, she'd done it in a short pause, when everyone else thought she was just looking at her notes. Juan eyed her with new respect. 

###

"You were a little hard on the boy, don't you think?" Rabbit was trying out new imagery today, this based on classic Alice in Wonderland illustrations, complete with engraving lines. The effect was fully silly on a three-dimensional body. 

Big Lizard did not seem impressed. "You don't belong down here. Juan is my direct affiliate, not yours."

"A bit overly sensitive, aren't you? I'm simply spot checking the depths of my affiliance."

"Well, stay out. Juan needs this class."

"Of course I share your charitable motives." The rabbit gave the lizard his most dishonest leer. "But you cut him off just when he was looking at someone especially interesting to me. I have provided you with a most excellent affiliance. If you want my continued support, you must cooperate."

"Listen you! I want the boy to reach out for himself, but I don't want him to be hurt." Lizard's voice trailed off, and Rabbit wondered if Chumlig was finally having second thoughts. Not that it mattered. Rabbit was having fun, spreading out across the Southern California social scene. Sooner or later, he would figure out what this job was all about. 

CHAPTER 05: Dr. Xiang's SHE

###

Shop class. It was by far Juan Orozco's favorite class. Shop was like a premium game; there were real gadgets to touch and connect. That was the sort of thing you paid money for up on Pyramid Hill. And Mr. Williams was no Louise Chumlig. He let you follow your own inclinations, but he never came around afterwards and complained because you hadn't accomplished anything. It was almost impossible not to get an A in Ron Williams' classes; he was wonderfully old-fashioned. 

Shop class was also Juan's best opportunity to make progess on Big Lizard's project, at least with the old farts and the do-not-call privacy freaks. He wandered around the big gadget tent looking like an utter idiot. Juan had never been any good at diplomacy games. And now he was schmoozing oldsters. Well, trying to. 

Xiu Xiang was really a nice lady, but she just sat at the equipment bench and read from her view-page. She had the parts list formatted like some kind of hardcopy catalog. "Once I knew these things," she said. "See that." She pointed at a section in the museum pages: Xiang's Secure Hardware Environment. "I designed that system."

Juan came up with, "You're world class, Dr. Xiang."

"But ... I don't understand even the principles of these new components. They look more like pondscum than self-respecting optical semiconductors." She read one of the product descriptions, stopped at the third line. "What's redundant entanglement?"

"Ah." He looked it up, saw pointers into jungles of background concepts. "You don't need to know about 'redundant entanglement', Ma'am. Not for this class." He waved at the product descriptions on Xiang's view-page. The image sat like carven stone, not responding to his gesture. "Go forward a few pages, you'll find the stuff we have available here in class. Look under" -- jeez this was a pain, spelling out navigation in words -- "look under 'fun functional compositions', and go from there." He showed her how to use her view-page to id local parts. "You don't need to understand everything."

"Oh." In a few moments she was playing with the possibilities, had downloaded half a dozen component gadgets. "This is like being a child. Doing, without understanding." But then she started putting BuildIt parts together, doing pretty well after Juan showed her how to find the interface specs. She laughed at some of the descriptions. "Sorters and shifters. Solid state robots. I bet I could make a cutter out of this."

"I don't see it." Cutter? "Don't worry, you can't hurt anything." That wasn't quite true, but close enough. He sat and watched, made a few suggestions, even though he wasn't really sure what she was up to. Enough of establishing rapport; he marked that box in his diplomacy checklist and moved on to the next stage. "So, Dr. Xiang, do you keep in touch with your friends at Intel?"

"That was a long time ago. I retired in 2010. And during the war, I couldn't even get consulting jobs. I could just feel my skills rusting out."

"Alzheimer's?" He knew she was much older than she looked, even older than Winston Blount. 

Xiang hesitated, and for a moment Juan was afraid he had made the lady really angry. But then she gave a sad little laugh. "No Alzheimer's, no dementia. You -- people nowadays don't know what it was like to be old."

"I do so! All my grandparents are still alive. And I have a great grandpa in Puebla. He plays a lot of golf. Great grandma, she does have dementia -- you know, a kind they still can't fix." In fact, Great Grandma had looked as young as Dr. Xiang. Everyone thought she had really lucked out. But in the end that only meant she lived long enough to run into something they couldn't cure. 

Dr. Xiang just shook her head. "Even in my day, not everyone went senile, not the way you mean. I just got behind in my skills. My girlfriend died. After a while I just didn't care too much. I didn't have the energy to care." She looked at the gadget she was building. "Now, I have at least the energy I had when I was sixty. Maybe I even have the same native intelligence." She slapped the table. "And all I'm good for is playing with jacked-up Lego blocks!"

It almost looked like she was going to start crying, right in the middle of shop class. Juan scanned around; no one seemed to be watching. He reached out to touch Xiang's hand. He didn't have the answer. Ms. Chumlig would say he didn't have the right question. 

###

There were still a few others to check out: Winston Blount, for instance. Not a jackpot case, but he ought to be worth something to the Lizard. In shop class, Blount just sat in the shade of the tent, staring off into space. The guy was wearing, but he didn't respond to messages. Juan waited until Williams went off for one of his coffee breaks. Then he sidled over and sat beside Blount. Jeez, the guy really looked old. Juan couldn't tell exactly where he was surfing, but it had nothing to do with shop class. Juan had noticed that when Blount wasn't interested in a class, he just blew it off. After a few minutes silence, Juan realized that he wasn't interested in socializing either. 

So talk to him! It's just another kind of monster whacking. Juan morphed a buffoon image onto the guy, and suddenly it wasn't so hard to cold start the encounter. "So, Dean Blount, what do you think of shop class?"

Ancient eyes turned to look at him. "I couldn't care less, Mr. Orozco."

O-kay! Hmm. There was lots about Winston Blount that was public record, even some legacy newsgroup correspondence. That was always good for getting a grownup's, um, attention. 

Fortunately, Blount continued talking on his own. "I'm not like some of the people here. I've never been senile. By rights, I shouldn't be here."

"By rights?" Maybe he could score points just by imitating an old-time shrink program. 

"Yes. I was Dean of Arts and Letters through 2012. I was on track to be UCSD Chancellor. Instead I was pushed into academic retirement."

Juan knew all that. "But you ... you never learned to wear."

Blount's eyes narrowed. "I made it a point never to wear. I thought wearing was a demeaning fad." He shrugged. "I was wrong. I paid a heavy price for that. But things have changed." His eyes glittered with deliberate iridescence. "I've taken four semesters of this 'Adult Education'. Now my resumé is out there in the ether."

"You must know a lot of important people."

"Indeed. Success is just a matter of time."

"Y-you know, Dean, I may be able to help. No wait -- I don't mean by myself. I have an affiliance you might be interested in."

"Oh?"

He seemed to know what affiliance was. Juan explained Big Lizard's deal. "So there could be some real money in this." He showed him the payoff certificates, and wondered how much his recruit would see there. 

Blount squinted his eyes, no doubt trying to parse the certificates into a form that Bank of America could validate. After a moment he nodded, without granting Juan numerical enlightenment. "But money isn't everything, especially in my situation."

"Well, um, I bet whoever's behind these certs would have a lot of angles. Maybe you could get a conversion to help-in-kind. I mean, to something you need."

"True." They talked a few minutes, till the place got busy. Some of the shop projects were finally showing results. At least two teams had made mobile nodes, swarm devices. Tiny paper wings fluttered all around. The other swarmer crawled in the grass and up the legs of the furniture and chairs. It stayed out of clothes, but it was awfully close to being intrusive. Juan zapped a few of them, but the others kept coming. 

Orozco --> Blount: <sm>Can you read me?</sm>

"Of course I can," replied the old man. 

So despite Blount's claims of withittude, he couldn't manage silent messaging, not even the finger tapping most grownups used. 

The class period was almost over anyway. Juan looked up at the billowing tent fabric. He was a little discouraged. He had covered almost everyone on the list, and Winston Blount was the best he'd found: someone who couldn't even sming. "Okay. Well, keep my offer in mind, Dean Blount. And remember, there are only a limited number of people I'm allowed to take in." Blount rewarded this sales-jabber with a thin smile. "Meantime, I-I have other possibilities." Juan nodded in the direction of the weird new guy, Robert Gu. 

Winston Blount didn't follow Juan's gaze, but you could tell he was sneaking a peek sideways. For a moment the skin on his face seemed to tighten. Then the smile returned. "May God have mercy on your soul, Mr. Orozco."

###

Juan didn't get his chance at Robert Gu till Friday, right after Ms. Chumlig's other class. Creative Composition was almost always the low point of Juan's school week. Chumlig was flexible as to media, but students had to stand up and perform their own work. That was bad enough when you had to watch some other kid mess up, but unbearable when you were the performer. Order of appearance was decided at Ms. Chumlig's whim. Normally worrying about that would have occupied most of Juan's attention. Today, he had other concerns that mercifully blotted out the usual panic. 

Juan skulked to the back of the class and slumped down, covertly watching the others. Winston Blount was here, which was a surprise. He blew off this class almost as often as he did shop. But he took me up on my offer. The Lizard's account showed that the old man had taken his first step toward signing on. 

On the far side of the room, Robert Gu was surfing with his view-page. Even that looked like a struggle for the guy. But it turned out that Gu was part of a particular Marine Corps family -- and when Juan had reviewed all of the affiliation instructions he had found that that was a big plus. If he could just interest Robert Gu in affiliation, he'd hit the top bonus level. 

Chumlig's voice cut across his thought. "No volunteers for first up? Well --" she looked off into the air, and then turned to Juan. 

¡Caray! 

CHAPTER 06: So Much Technology, So Little Talent

###

Chumlig's "Creative Composition" class was shaping to be the low point of Robert Gu's first week at Fairmont High. Robert remembered his own high school years very well. In 1965, school had been easy, except for math and science, which he didn't care about anyway. Basically, he never did homework in anything. But the poems he wrote, almost without conscious effort, were already in a different world from what his poor teachers normally encountered. They considered themselves blessed to be in his presence -- and rightly so. 

But in this brave new world he could see only a fraction of the "compositions" the students allegedly created, and he had no doubt they could appreciate very little about his work. 

Robert sat at the edge of the class, doodling on his view-page. As usual, the children were on the left side of the room, and the Adult Ed students were on the right. Losers. He had learned a few names, even talked to the Xiang woman. She said she was going to have to drop Chumlig's composition class. She just didn't have the courage to perform in front of others. The only talent she had was in obsolete engineering, but at least she was smart enough to know she was a loser. Not like Winston Blount, the biggest loser of all. Occasionally he caught Winnie looking his way, and Robert would smile to himself. 

At the front of the class, Ms. Chumlig was coaxing today's first performer. "I know you've been practicing, Juan. Show us what you can do."

"Juan" stood and walked to center stage. This was the kid who had been chatting up the Adult Ed students in shop class. Robert remembered his earnest, sales-rep behavior. At a guess, the boy was on the low side of average, the kind that high schools of Robert's time graduated pro forma. But here, in the twenty-first century, incompetence was no excuse: Chumlig seemed to have serious expectations. The boy hesitated and then began waving his arms. Without any visible effect. "I don' know, Ms. Chumlig, it's still not, um, fully ready."

Ms. Chumlig just nodded patiently, and gestured for him to continue. 

"Okay." The boy squinted his eyes and his armwaving became even more chaotic. It wasn't dance, and the boy wasn't speaking. But Chumlig leaned back against her desk, and nodded. Much of the class watched the random mime with similar attention, and Robert noticed that they were nodding their heads as if in time to music. 

Crap. More invisible nonsense. Robert looked down at his magic foolscap and played with the local browser selections. Internet Explorer was much as he remembered, but there were dropdowns that allowed him to "Select View". Yes, the fantasy overlays. He tapped on "Juan Orozco Performs". The first overlay looked like graffiti, rude commentary on Juan's performance. It was the sort of thing you might see on a note passed furtively from child to child. He tapped the second view selection. Ah. Here the boy stood on a concert stage. The classroom windows behind him opened onto a vast city as it might be seen from a high tower. Robert held his hand along the margin of the page, and there was sound. It was tinny and faint compared to the room audio back in the house, but ... yes, it was music. It was almost Wagner, but then it rambled off into something that might have been a marching song. In the window on Robert's view-page, rainbows formed around the boy's image. Fluffy white -- ferrets? -- hopped into existence at every jerk of his hands. Now all the other kids were laughing. Juan was laughing too, but his handwaving became desperate. Ferrets covered the floor, shoulder to shoulder, and the music was frenetic. The creatures misted together into snow and lifted on miniature tornadoes. The boy slowed his rhythm, and the sound became something like lullaby music. The snow glistened, sublimating into invisibility as the music faded. And now Robert's browser window showed the same unmagical child who stood in reality at the front of the room. 

Juan's peers applauded politely. One or two yawned. 

"Very good, Juan!" said Ms. Chumlig. 

It was as impressive as any advertising video that Robert had seen in the twentieth century. At the same time it was essentially incoherent, a garbage dump of special effects. So much technology, so little talent. 

Chumlig talked the class through the components of Orozco's effort, gently asking the boy where he was going to take his work, suggesting that he collaborate (collaborate!) with other students in putting words to the composition. 

Robert looked surreptitiously about the room. The windows were opened onto the brown and sere hillsides of North County autumn. Out there, sunlight was everywhere, and a slow breeze brought in the smell of honeysuckle. He could hear kids playing on the far side of the lawn. Inside, the classroom was a cheap plastic construction, utterly without esthetic sensibility. Yes, school was easy, but it could also be mind-numbingly boring; he'd have to reread his own poems about that. The forced confinement. The endless days of sitting still and listening to dullness, while the whole world waited outside. 

Most of the students were actually looking in Chumlig's general direction. Was that just an artful scam? But when the woman asked a random child a snap question, she got relevant -- if halting -- answers. 

And then, much sooner than he had imagined: 

"... quitting early today, so we have time for only one more presentation," said Ms. Chumlig. What has she been saying? Damn. Chumlig was looking directly at him now. "Please show us your composition, Professor Gu."

###

Juan slunk back to his seat, barely listening to Chumlig's analysis. She was always gentle in these public critiques, but the bad news was obvious all around him. Only the Radner twins had posted something nice. Someone who looked like a rabbit was grinning at him from the peanut gallery. Who was that? He turned and plunked himself down in his chair. 

"... so we have time for only one more presentation," finished Ms. Chumlig. "Please show us your composition, Professor Gu."

Juan looked back at where Gu was sitting. What sort of presentation could he make?

Robert Gu seemed to wonder the same thing: "I really don't have anything that the class would ... appreciate. I don't do audiovisuals."

Chumlig smiled brightly. When she smiled like that at Juan, he knew his excuses would count for nothing. "Nonsense, Professor Gu. You were -- you are a poet."

"Indeed."

"And I made an assignment."

Gu looked young, but when he cocked his head and eyed Ms. Chumlig, there was such power in his gaze. Jeez, if only I could look like that when Chumlig has me on the hot seat. The young-old man was silent for a second, and then he said calmly. "I have written a short piece, but as I said it has none of --" his gaze swept the class, nailing Juan for an instant "-- the pictures and sound that seem expected."

Ms. Chumlig gestured for him forward. "Your words will do splendidly today. Please. Come down."

After a second, Gu stood and came down the steps. He moved fast, with kind of a spastic lurch. Gossipy notes flew back and forth. For the moment, the class's attention was focused like Ms. Chumlig always wanted. 

Chumlig stepped out of his way, and Robert Gu turned to face the class. Of course, he couldn't call a up word display. But he didn't look at his view-page either. He just looked at the class and said, "A poem. Three hundred words. I tell you about the land of North County as it really is, here and beyond." His arm twitched outwards, toward the open windows. 

Then he just ... talked. No special effects, no words scrolling through the air. And it couldn't really be a poem since his voice didn't get all singsong. Robert Gu just talked about the lawn that circled the school, the tiny mowers that circled and circled across it. The smell of the grass, and how it squeezed down moist in the morning. How the slope of the hills took running feet to the creek brush that edged the property. It was what you saw here every day -- at least when you weren't using overlays to see somewhere else. 

And then Juan wasn't really aware of the words anymore. He was seeing, as intense as anything that ever came from his wearable. His mind floated above the little valley, scooted up the creek bed, had almost reached the foot of Pyramid Hill ... when suddenly Robert Gu stopped talking, and Juan was dumped back into the reality of his place at the rear end of Ms. Chumlig's composition class. He sat for a few seconds, dazed. Words. That's all they were. But what they did was more than visuals. It was more than haptics. There had even been the smell of the dry reeds along the creekbed. 

For a moment no one said anything. Ms. Chumlig looked glassy-eyed. Either she was very impressed or she was surfing. 

But then a classic Pompous Bird flew up from the old farts' side of the room. It swooped across the room to drop a huge wet load of birdshit on Robert Gu. Fred and Jer burst out laughing, and after a moment the whole class responded. 

Of course, Robert Gu couldn't see the special effects. For a second he looked puzzled, and then he glared at the Radners. 

"Class!" Ms. Chumlig sounded truely pissed. The laughter choked off and everyone applauded politely. Chumlig held them to it for a moment, then lowered her own hands. Juan could see she was scanning them all. Normally she ignored graffiti. This time she was searching for someone to crucify. Her gaze ended up in the old farts' section, and she looked a little surprised. 

"Very well. Thank you, Robert. That is all we have time for today. Class, your next assignment is to collaborate and improve on what you have already done. It's up to you to find local partners for this step. Send me the teamings and your game plan before we meet next time." The Ignominious Details would be in the mail by the time they got home. 

Then the class bell -- triggered by Chumlig, in fact -- rang out. By the time Juan got himself out of his chair, he was in the tail end of the mad rush for the door. It didn't matter. He was a little dazed by the strange form of virtual virtual reality that Robert Gu had created. 

Behind him he could see that Gu had finally figured out the class was over. He would be outside with the rest of them in a few seconds. My chance to enlist him for the Lizard. And maybe something else. He thought on the old man's magic words. Maybe, maybe, they could collaborate. Everybody had laughed at Robert Gu. But before the Pompous Bird had been launched, before they had laughed, Juan Orozco had felt the awed silence. And he did that with words alone.... 

###

When Robert walked to the front of the class, he was more irritated than nervous. He had wowed students for thirty years. He could wow them with the bit of verse he had composed for today. He turned, and looked out the class. "A poem," he said. "Three hundred words. I tell you about the land of North County as it really is, here and beyond." The poem was a pastoral cliché, composed last night and based on his memories of San Diego and what he saw on the drive to Fairmont. But for a few moments, his words held them, just as in the old days. 

When he was done there was a moment of absolute silence. What impressionable children. He looked over at the Adult Ed people, saw the jagged, hostile smile on Winston Blount's face. Envious as ever, eh, Winnie? 

Then a pair of oafs near the front started laughing. That precipitated scattered giggles. 

"Class!" Chumlig stepped forward and everyone applauded, even Blount. 

Chumlig said a few more words. Then the class bell rang and the students were all rushing for the door. He started after them. 

"Ah, Robert," said Ms. Chumlig. "Please stay a moment. That bell 'did not toll for you'." She smiled, no doubt pleased by her command of literary allusion. "Your poem was so beautiful. I want to apologize to you, for the class. They had no right to put the --" she gestured at the air above his head. 

"What?"

"Never mind. This is not a truly talented class, I fear." She look at him quizzically. "It's hard to believe you're seventy-five years old; modern medicine is working miracles. I've had a number of senior students. I understand your problems."

"Ah, you do."

"Anything you do in this class will be a favor for the others here. I hope you'll stay, help them. Rework your poem with some student's visuals. They can learn from you -- and you can learn the skills that will make the world a more comfortable place for you."

Robert gave her a little smile. There would always be cretins like Louise Chumlig. Fortunately, she found something else to focus on: "Oh! Look at the time! I've got to start Remote Studies. Please excuse me." Chumlig turned and walked to the center of the classroom. She jabbed a hand toward the top row of seats. "Welcome, class. Sandy, stop playing with the unicorns!"

Robert stared at the empty room, and the woman talking to herself. So much technology, ... 

###

Outside, the students had dispersed. Robert was left to ponder his re-encounter with "academia". It could have been worse. His little poem had been more than good enough for these people. Even Winnie Blount had applauded. To impress someone even when he hates you -- that was always a kind of triumph. 

"Mr. Gu?" The voice was tentative. Robert gave a start. It was the Orozco kid, lurking by the classroom door. 

"Hello," he said and gave the boy a generous smile. 

Maybe too generous. Orozco came out of the shadows and walked along with him. "I -- I thought your poem was wonderful."

"You're too kind."

The boy waved at the sunlit lawn. "It made me feel like I was actually out here, running in the sunlight. And all without haptics or contacts or my wearable." His gaze came up to Robert's face and then flickered away. It was a look of awe that might have really meant something if the speaker had been anyone worthwhile. "I'll bet you're as good as any of the top game advertisers."

"I'll bet."

The boy dithered for an inarticulate moment. "I notice you're not wearing. I could help you with that. Maybe, maybe we could team up. You know, you could help me with the words." Another glance at Robert, and then the rest of the kid's speech came out in a rush. "We could help each other, and then there's another deal I can get you in on. It could be a lot of money. Your friend Mr. Blount has already come on-board."

They walked in silence for a dozen paces. 

"So, Professor Gu, what do you think?"

Robert gave Juan a kindly smile, and just as the kid brightened, he said, "Well, young man, I think it will be a cold day in hell before I team with an old fool like Winston Blount -- or a young fool such as yourself."

Zing. The boy stumbled to a stop almost as if Robert had punched him in the face. Robert walked on, smiling. It was a small thing, but like the poem, it was a start. 

CHAPTER 07: The Ezra Pound Incident

###

There was a dark side to Robert's morning insights. Sometimes he would wake -- not to a grand solution -- but to the horrid realization that some problem was real, immediate, and apparently unsolvable. This wasn't worrywart obsessiveness, it was a form of defensive creativity. Sometimes the threat was a total surprise; more often it was a known inconvenience, now recognized as deadly serious. The panic attacks normally led to real solutions, as when he had withdrawn his earliest long poem from a small press, hiding its naive shallowness from public view. 

And very rarely, the new problem was truly unsolvable and he could but flail and rail against the impending disaster. 

Last night, coming away from his presentation at Fairmont High, he'd been feeling pretty good. The groundlings had been impressed, and so had the likes of Winston Blount -- who was a more sophisticated kind of fool. Things are getting better. I'm coming back. Robert had drifted through dinner, pretty much ignoring Miri's pestering about all the things she could help him with. Bob was still absent. Robert had half-heartedly badgered Alice with questions about Lena's last days. Had Lena asked for him at the end? Who had come to her funeral? Alice was more patient than usual but still not a great source of information. 

Those were the questions he'd gone to sleep with. 

He woke with a plan for finding answers. When Bob returned, they would have a heart-to-heart talk about Lena. Bob would know some of the answers. And for the rest ... in Search and Analysis, Chumlig had been talking about the Friends of Privacy. There were methods of seeing through their lies. Robert was getting better and better at S&A. One way or another, he would recover his lost times with Lena. 

That was the good news. The bad news floated up as he lay there drowsing through his scheme for turning technology into a searchlight on Lena.... The bad news was an absolute, gut certainty that replaced the vague uneasiness of earlier days. Yesterday, my poetry impressed the groundlings. That was no reason for joy, and he'd been a fool to be warmed by it for even an instant. Any blush of pleasure should have vanished when little Juan Whosits had announced that Robert was as brilliant as an advertising copywriter. Lord! 

But Winston Blount had applauded Robert's little effort. Winston Blount was certainly competent to judge such verse. And here Robert's morning insight came up with the memory of Winnie applauding, the measured beat of Blount's hands, the smile on his face. That had not been the look of an enemy bested and awed. Never in the old days would Robert have confused it for that. No, Winnie had been mocking him. Winston Blount was telling him what he should have known all along. His outdoorsy poem was shit, good only for an audience accustomed to eating shit. Robert lay still for a long moment, a groan trapped in his throat, remembering the banal words of his little poem. 

That was the genius insight of this dark morning, the conclusion he had evaded every day since he was brought back from the dead: I've lost the music in the words. 

Every day he was awash with ideas for new poetry, but not the smallest piece of concrete verse. He had told himself that his genius was coming back with his other faculties, that it was coming back slowly, in his little poems. All that was a mirage. And now he knew it for a mirage. He was dead inside, his gifts turned into vaporous nothingness and a random mechanical curiosity. 

You can't know that! He rolled out of bed and went into the bathroom. The air was cool and still. He stared out the half-open bathroom window at the little gardens and twisted conifers, the empty street. Bob and Alice had given him an upstairs room. It had been fun to be able to run up and down stairs again. 

In truth nothing had changed about his problems. He had no new evidence that he was permanently maimed. It was just that suddenly -- with the full authority of a Morning Insight -- he was certain of it. But Hell. For once this could be just panic without substance! Maybe obsessing on Lena's death was spilling over, making him see death in all directions. 

Yes. No problem. There was no problem. 

###

He spent the morning in a panicked rage, trying to prove to himself that he could still write. But the only paper was the foolscap, and when he wrote on it, his scrawling penmanship was reformed into neat, fontified lines. That had been an irritation in days past, but never enough to force him to dig up real paper. Today, now ... he could see his soul was sucked out of the words before he could make them sing! It was the ultimate victory of automation over creative thought. Everything was beyond the direct touch of his hand. That was what was keeping him from finally connecting with his old talents! And in the entire house there were no real paper and ink books. 

Aha. He rushed to the basement, pulled down one of the mouldering cartons that Bob had brought from Palo Alto. Inside, there were real books. When he was a kid, he had practically camped out on the living room sofa the whole summer. They had no television, but every day he'd bring home a new pile of books from the library. Those summers, lying on the sofa, he had read his way through frivolous trash and deep wisdom -- and learned more about truth than in an entire school year. Maybe that was where he had learned to make words sing. 

These books were mostly junk. There were school catalogs from before Stanford went all online. There were handouts that his TAs had painfully xeroxed for the students. 

But, yes, there were a few books of poetry. Pitifully few, and read only by silverfish these last ten years. Robert stood up and stared at the boxes further back in the basement dimness. Surely there were more books there, even if selected by brute chance, whatever was left after Bob auctioned off the Palo Alto place. He looked down at the book in his hand. Kipling. Damned jingoistic elevator music. But it's a start. Unlike the libraries that floated in cyberspace, this was something he could hold in his hands. He sat down on the boxes and began to read, all the while pushing his mind ahead of the words, trying to remember -- trying to create -- what should rightly be the rest of the poem. 

An hour passed. Two. He was vaguely aware that Alice came down to announce lunch, and that he waved her off impatiently. This was so much more important. He opened more boxes. Some contained Bob and Alice's own junk, even more vacuous than what they had retrieved from Palo Alto. But he found a dozen more books of poetry. Some of them were ... good stuff. 

The afternoon passed. He could still enjoy the poetry, but the enjoyment was also pain. I couldn't write a jot of the good stuff, except where I happen to remember it. And his panic grew. Finally, he stood and threw Ezra Pound into the basement wall. The spine of the old book split and it sprawled on the floor, a broken paper butterfly. Robert stared for a moment. He had never harmed a book before, not even if it bore the ugliest writing in the world. He walked across the room and knelt by the ruin. 

Miri chose that moment to come bouncing down the stairs. "Robert! Alice says I can call an airtaxi! Where would you like to go?"

The words were noise, scraping on his despair. He picked up the book and shook his head. "No." Go away. 

"I don't understand. Why are you digging around here? There are easier ways to get what you want."

Robert stood, his fingers trying to put Ezra Pound back together again. His eyes found Miri. Now she had his attention. She was smiling, so sure of herself, in maximum bossiness mode. And for the moment she didn't understand the light in his eyes. "And how is that, Miri?"

"The problem is that you can't access what's all around us. That's why you're down here reading these old books, right? In a way you're like a little kid -- but that's good, that's good! Grownups like Alice and Bob have all sorts of bad habits that hold them back. But you're starting almost fresh. It'll be easy for you to learn the new things. But not from dumbhead vocational classes. See? Let me teach you how to wear." It was the same wearisome nag as always, but she thought she'd found a clever new angle. 

This time, he would not let it pass. Robert took a step toward her. "So you've been watching me down here?" He said mildly, building up to what he intended. 

"Um, just in a general way. I --"

Robert took another step toward her and shoved the mutilated book toward her face. "Have you ever heard of this poet?"

Miri squinted at the broken spine. "'E','z' -- oh, 'Ezra Pound'? Well ... yes, I've got all her stuff. Let me show you, Robert!" She hesitated, then saw the foolscap lying atop a box. She picked it up and it came to life. Titles streamed down the page, the cantos, the essays -- even, God help us, later criticism from the mindless depths of the twenty-first century. "But seeing it on this page is like looking through a keyhole, Robert. I can show you how to see it all around you, with --"

"Enough!" said Robert. He slid his voice down till it was quiet, cutting, overtly reasonable. "You simpleton. You know nothing and yet you presume to run my life, just as you run the lives of your little friends."

Miri had backed up a step. There was shock on her face, but that had apparently not yet connected with her mouth. "Yes, that's what Alice says, that I'm too bossy --"

Robert took another step, and Miri was against the stairs. "You've spent your whole life playing video games, convincing yourself and your friends that you're worth something, that you're some kind of beautiful thing. I'll bet your parents are even foolish enough to tell you how clever you are. But it's not a pretty thing to be bossy when you're a fat, brainless brat."

"I --" Miri's hand rose to her mouth and her eyes grew wide. She took an awkward step backwards, up the steps. His words were connecting now. He could see the veneer of self-confidence and bright cheeriness collapsing. 

And Robert pursued: "'I', 'I' -- yes, that's probably what your self-centered little mind thinks about most. It would be hard to bear your worthlessness otherwise. But think about that before you come again trying to run my life."

Tears welled in the girl's eyes. She turned and sprinted up the stairs, her footsteps not a pounding of childish force, but soft -- almost as if she didn't want anything about herself to be sensed. 

Robert stood for a moment, looking up the empty stairway. It was like standing at the bottom of a well, with a patch of daylight across the top.