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Chapter Thirtyfour [K'Pree takes Robyn and Shyla to a Factor Two Waystation, through the timedilation. Their hearts are checked out. K'Pree mentions that this is just the first of fourteen such transits, and Robyn dubs the process "walking the gauntlet"] Do you have problems of racerelations? Not like on your world between ethnicities. Our civilization of civiliations is thoroughly integrated. And these 900 thousand races, all of them allied against the one enemy? All of them. I think I will call your organization something else besides the "civilization of civilizations" you keep mentioning. I think I will call you the Integrated Star Systems Alliance. ISSA. You seem to need labels for everything, but the name is acceptable. So you want us to escort everyone on Earth to "heaven" is what you're saying. Not exactly heaven as I understand the concept from your own mind. There will be no immortality there. Why not? It's not the wise thing to do. If we gave humanity immortality it would fundamentally change what it means to be human. It is the very brevity of life and the reality of death that gives life it's vitality and meaning. With immortality no one would take risks anymore, they would no longer feel alive. They would just breed. If the Forerunners had granted immortality to the mortal races even their realm, as vast as it is, would have filled up long ago. So what are you offering humans? Lebensraum, I believe is the word you use. Room to live, a land that is three million times larger in area than the entire Earth. Territorial wars will become a distant memory. We'll find some other reason to fight amongst ourselves, K'Pree, I assure you. That is the sad, constant fact about this human race you decided to study. Those who still have aggressive tendancies will be encouraged to serve in the ISSA levies under the command of Virtues, fighting Trax instead of other humans. Even the best human warriors will be hardpressed to meet the challenge. Is that all? They will enjoy extended life. It will be rare that a human will die before attaining the age of one hundred Turns. There will be immediate, free health care for all, with transportation by folddoor. Some terminally ill patients will be candidates for healing by Principalities. Are you happy with the body you have now? Yes, we thought this was a special occasion. We selected these bodies to be as close as possible to the ones we were born with. Then you should accept the promotion to archangel. It will mean eternal youth. You will never age and you can hear yourself of all diseases and most injuries. You have already seen the way of it when you became angels. Your brain is like a machine now. You have perfect memories. This was made so that you can interface with the folddoors. Your improved memories will allow you to retain many destination codes. We dare not write them down, you see, for fear of our enemies. So the nanotechnology that changed our brain will change our whole body? * Yes. But there is a limit, naturally, if you are burnt in on or you are cut in on, or in the case of Voor eaten by Trax, not there is probability of the survival in that body, even if yours psyche it will be absorbed in the Oversoul. * I will not accept this unless Shyla is rendered an archangel too. The offer is only for the one. Shyla was the first one to be infected in any case. *Then it is you, Shyla, that would have to accept the offer. I will not accept the rank of archangel unless Robyn is promoted too. Whatever we do, it is always together. I am not certain that this demand is to be accepted. Sophia assigns this gift because She wills to deal with a single representative of the race, not an infinite series of such representatives, or even as many as two. The will of Sophia notwithstanding, K'Pree, neither of us will accept this promotion unless we are both included. * "Do you, as the representative to Sophia of your race, contemplate to refuse to allow the humanity to be saved from the Trax, because there are not two offered promotions? "Let me throw that right back at you. The question should be, will Sophia refuse to save humanity for Her stinginess with these promotions? * We will see if still you say that when the moment comes and you come into contact with the domination that must confer this honor. For while the title it indicates, a domination possesses determined supremacy and does not bend to any servile act. Even I myself have never seen a being so great." [Robyn and Shyla reincarnated, pledge fealty to Bravo] I've been thinking about the way it costs me money for every shipment of SHe3 I send. Unavoidable, Bravo. Solar power is free, but those solar cells and the crews that installed them and drilled the tunnel for the accelerator were all financed with venture capital. Money costs money. We have to pay those investors dividends. And since the whole thing is a big moneyloser you juggling the books and paying the dividends out of her own pocket. Robyn said, "I thought of it as an investment. There would come a time when I would no longer hemorrage money in this way. Someday I was going to cut back on the 'S' in SHe3, and my monopoly on the production of power would make all her earlier losses good." Yes, you explained all that, but now I think your original plan lacked something. Not to put you down or anything, but I don't think you took it out far enough. You stopped building your linear accelerator when it was only 17 miles long. It was a very expensive project. Yes, but 17 miles was just long enough to produce the quantities of SHe3 that she needed for her dumping scheme, but not long enough to make enough SHe3 to sell honestly and openly as a commodity in its own right. So I'm thinking about expanding the linear accelerator. Has the Empress thought about the extraordinary expense of such an undertaking? I'm willing to make this our top priority. I'm willing to spend down the assets which Robyn has bequeathed me. To what length, exactly, does the Empress wish to see her linear accelerator grow to? For that I need your expertise, Dory. No doubt you can get some of the other girls in the Grid to help you. How long does the linear accelerator have to be until we just break even and it pays its own finance charges? It took a while before the girls in the Grid came up with a set of figures that were more or less in the same ball park. Dory took the average of these and gave them to Bravo as the breakeven length. "About seventeen hundred miles. About a quarter of the way around the Moon." "How long would it take?" If two tunnelling and pipelaying crews work at each end of the linear accelerator, and each crew averages 17 miles a year, it will take just exactly 50 years." "Seventeen miles a year? That's based on what?" "M'Lady, that's based on how long it took one crew to construct the existing linear accelerator." "So fifty years? If I'm very lucky I just might see it." "May the Empress live a hundred years." "Thank you, Dory. Nice sentiment. So any length beyond the seventeen hundred miles is pure profit for us?" "How long to build one completely around the moon?" "A cyclotron instead of a linear accelerator?" "Yes. How long?" "Just under two centuries." "So I will never see it finished." "Think longterm, Bravo. If you accept the change, two hundred years would be well within your grasp." "I'm not tempted to become one of you, Dory." "We'll see what you say when you're somewhat closer to death." "I'm stronger than you think, Dory. Tell me, would it be worth our while building a ring around the moon?" "A ring would give us a big leap in antimatter production, because we could use the whole ring to accelerate two opposite streams of particles and slam them into each other, instead of simply making one stream and slamming it into a fixed target like we do now." "Could we afford it?" "It would take a lot of seed money to get our investors interested in expanding what is already, for them at least, a moneymaker." "If I liquidated almost everything we own now, and invest almost every cent the accelerator makes us past the 1,700 mile mark, could we afford it? "We just might manage it." Bravo brought her shuttle to a perfect landing on the roof of Fortuna City. A hydralic platform took them gently down one deck, and a ceiling plate slid into place over them before air was pumped into the small hangar. "The history of the WDF was Robyn making one allornothing gamble after the other, and when each gamble paid off it took you to the next level. What do you think of my gamble?" "I think it's a worthy one. It's in the spirit of risktaking that we of the...former...WDF have always lived by. It would certainly be impressive. Surely the biggest feat of engineering ever attempted in history." The atmosphere around the shuttle had been brought up to the 3 inchpounds of pure oxygen that was standard inside Fortuna. Bravo popped the door of her shuttle and stepped outside. "Then let the word go out. We shall begin working on the CircumLunar Supercollider at once." [Tour of the Elysian Fields, no time to delay, meet Principality, meet Domination]

100 -100

Shyla said, "Joey, this discovery of yours will only do us good if we -retain-control-of-it." - - "Who better than the WDF to keep this secret? They could cut off all your toes and you wouldn't blab it." "Can you put the guts of your Phantomizer in a box that will melt itself if anyone tries to open it?" "I see where you're going," Joey said. "Of course I can. A leadlined box so no one can scan it with xrays. We'll rig it to blow if they try to use ultrasonic imaging too. No reverse engineering. We can have a total monopoly." There were other preparations that had to be made. The Safe House retained its function as a haven for battered females, but it also became a sort of recruiting station for women looking for work. It was light industrial labor. Here and there in windowless concrete buildings that carpeted the Kent Valley gals would do "hitandrun" stints assembling parts for Phantomizers. They had no idea what they were working on. There was no paper trail whatsoever, all the records were kept in the nanotech minds of WDF members. The workers were paid in cash, every day. Their partially completed units would be driven to the Safe House where only WDF Full Members performed the final assembly and armed the selfdestruct devices inside them before they could be put on the market.

101 -101

At first, Phantomizers formed the heart of a waterheater/furnace combination for new homes that ran on the equivelent power of a single light bulb (and that juice was just to maintain the small internal reservoir of liquid nitrogen). In the amount of electricity and natural gas that was saved, this device paid for itself in only three years. The WDF guaranteed the operation of its Phantomizers for five years, but the warrantee was void if it had melted into a solid block of metal, because this meant that tampering by the user had occurred. Other customers used the Phantomizer together with a creek running through their property as a source of electrical power, like a generator that never needed to be refueled and produced only water vapor for exhaust. This allowed them to drop off the centralized power grid and get back to their selfsufficient pioneering roots as Americans. Still others modified their cars with turbines that ran on the ultrahot steam that the Phantomizer could produce. It was the very beginning of the Phantom Revolution, but the movement took so long building up speed that it remained far below the government's radar, and by the time the government knew enough to grow alarmed (for indeed, the Phantomizer meant the end of the old order) too many earlyadopters were already dependent on their units and the good word could not be stamped out. When Robyn came out of Data Storage in November, 1988, taking on Jill's body, she found herself working as an assistant triage nurse at a small hospital in the seedier part of town.

102 -102

Jill still had her ID as Becky Roland and her college degree, so this was a good steady source of income for the WDF as their cash reserves were burned through to get Joey's Phantomizer stuff started up. Robyn in Jill's body put in her notice to quit, but since the little hospital was understaffed she agreed to keep working there for about two more weeks until a replacement could be hired. Staci Pritchard walked in that very day looking pretty bruised. She was a willowy blonde, frail as a flower. She claimed she had tripped on a vacuum cleaner cord and fell flat on her face but Robyn knew without a doubt she was being beat up at home. The other signs where all there and Robyn was very familiar with all of them. There were no open wounds so there wasn't much the doctor could do except prescribe an antiinflammatory drug as well as a strong analgesic to allieviate her discomfort. A couple 250 mg Colarans disconnected her from the pain and had her feeling very fuzzy. "I've given you some pretty hefty painkillers," the doctor said, "so I can't let you drive yourself home." "Then what'll I do?"

103 -103

"What about your husband?" "No! He...can't get off work." That was an inexactitude. Frank Pritchard was home and chronically unemployed. His unemployment check for that week had already been spent on booze. Robyn spoke up here. "I'll tell you what, Staci. If you can stay in the waiting room for about an hour until I get off work I'll drive you home myself." "OK. Thanks." It was an easy wait. The Colaran disconnected her from boredom too. When Robyn was finished they walked together to the parking lot. Robyn said, "By the way, Staci, never mind what my name tag says. I'm not Becky Roland, my name is Robyn." Staci seemed grateful for Robyn's help and didn't inquire further. After Staci told her the way to her house Robyn said, "Can you do me a favor? I'd like you to watch which way we go. I want to show you something on the way home and make sure you know how to get there." Staci nodded her assent.

104 -104

It was a modest looking twostory house on 35th Avenue at the tippy top of the highest hill in Seattle, High Point. There was a Catholic Church across the street. "That house is where I live," Robyn told her. "The very next time you think you're about to have another 'accident' and hurt yourself, I want you to go there. Do you understand what I'm really trying to say to you?" Staci was too shy to blurt out her answer but Robyn was satisfied by a nod of Staci's head. The opportunity to take Robyn up on her offer and go back to High Point presented itself immediately after Staci arrived home. Frank was there, slouched in front of the TV, garbage beginning to accumilate around him since it had been hours since Staci had been there to pick up after him. "Where the fuck have you been!" "At the emergency room." "For a black eye? Bullshit! What did they do?" "Nothing. Gave me some pills for the pain." "Give me the pills, Staci." It was not a request. Terrified, she handed them over. "How much did your selfish little splurge at the doctor's cost me?"

105 -105

"I didn't have any money. They said the bill would be $220." "Well shit, for $220, let me give you another shiner and make it worth it." "She let out a yelp and jumped back. "No!" In terror she fled from the house and fumbled with her keys to the truck frantically. She was safely locked inside before Frank could reach her and pound on the windshield. "If you don't turn around right now Staci so help me God I'll kill your fucking ass!" After getting a few blocks away Staci didn't race anymore. She thought she was safe now. With her car still at the clinic, Frank had nothing to drive to chase her with. But Frank went next door and asked his buddy for the keys to his car for a few minutes. "I gotta catch me an errant wife." That was a good enough reason. Frank caught the keys tossed at him. "Thanks, I owe you a case of beer for this." It was a quiet night with light traffic. Frank still saw what he hoped was her in the truck, stopped at a light far up their street. In his pursuit of her he would ignore such conventions as the rule of stopping at a red light.

106 -106

Eventually he got up behind her and followed her up the hill to the house Robyn had shown her. Pulling off to the side of the street he watched her go in. Probably that Women's Democratic Forum sanctuary the guy on the TV was talking about. Visions of REward money started dancing in his head. He went back to return the car to his neighbor, and thought about the call that would probably result in a shitload of REward money. When Staci was welcomed inside the House a lookout was posted by Robyn upstairs as a precaution. Sure enough, within an hour a police presence began to materialize on the streets below. They weren't advertising themselves with blazing lights or sirens but the sound of the radio dispatcher blaring out into the night from five or six cars gave the game away. Robyn asked Staci to follow her downstairs, where Jill and Joey were standing by. A closet in the basement was actually the door of a tunnel leading next door to the closet in the basement of the house over there. Staci grabbed Robyn by the shoulder. "I want to tell you something. I want to admit something. I tried to be careful but I think my husband followed me here. I don't know how. I think he's the one who called the cops." "It's alright. The WDF is now officially at war. You weren't to blame. The important thing was to get you away from that asshole. And Jill, you know why you have to go."

107 -107

"Insurance. If you and Shyla and Hunky and Dory die here, I'm the only one left with the Change." Joey said, "And I'm going because I can't stand pain. I'd blab everything." Robyn turned to Staci and looked her in the eyes. "There's almost no time left so let me give you some plain talk. They hit you because there's no consequences. It's a cycle. The woman gets hit, so her selfesteem plunges. With no selfesteem, she never leaves her abusive husband or boyfriend. He feels rewarded for hitting. That's why when the woman actually does leave a lot of them snap. They even kill." Staci swallowed, accepting this. "And even if he doesn't kill you directly," Robyn went on, "your fear of Frank is stressing you out, killing your body and your spirit. Staci, here's the keys to a car behind the house next door. It's yours. One that Frank won't recognize. I bet he's watching this house right now, gloating over what's about to roll out from his handiwork, but he won't spot you in this car. Take the back alley and get out of here." "I want to join you. I want to make full payment, with my life if I have to, for what you've already given me, and for what you're about to give for me." "You're on, babe. You're our future. Now get out of here!"

108 -108

Staci evacuated with Jill and Joey, walking down the low tunnel, and she soon found herself in the empty house next door. Within a few minutes a police officer knocked on the front door and asked them to gather what they needed and evacuate the house immediately. "No choice. This is mandatory." Three "civilian" gals, guests of the WDF Safe House, were asked by Robyn to leave. They emerged out the front door, crossed the street, and were quickly scooped up by the police for questioning. They had very little information to give them. The four remaining WDF Full Members, through gun slits on the top floor, dropped two officers the instant they set foot in the yard attempting to serve a warrant. Gunfire was returned, pocking every side of the house and shattering windows. Tear gas canisters merely bounced back out the windows, having hit plate steel behind deceptively lit Venetian blinds. There was a temporary lull. In one upstairs room the girls destroyed ten fullyassembled Phantomizers by breaking the paper seal and giving a hexhead screw a twist. The black boxes interpreted that as an attempt to open it up, and each of them immediately grew red hot, charring the wood floor of the house. 109 -109

Covered by a hail of suppressing fire, more officers made their way to the front door with a battering ram and started trying to bash their way in through a thick metal door, deceptively painted like oak, reinforced with carbon steel door jambs. They worked until they were exhausted and put nary a dent in it. "If they persist," Robyn said, "at the very last we can all do an EOC, but I hate to throw good bodies away." When the FBI arrived on the scene wearing their blue windbreakers they got into an pissing contest over jurisdiction which ended with the Police Chief telling all of them to go to hell and he pulled his boys out of the area, defying the FBI's demand that they provide support. "We can't perform an End Of Cycle, Robyn, look!" Dory pointed at a black box. "That's the original Phantomizer. Joey rigged all the ones we made after that one with selfdestructs, but he never got around to rigging that one. It was just supposed to stay in the house. If the Blue Team wins through, they'll have it." Robyn sighed. "Okay, then we'll have to take this football and make a run for it."

10 -10

"Who would be in charge of something like this?" "Well, over at Sand Point on the Seattle side of Lake Washington is NOAA" "Noah?" Kim said, puzzled. He grinned. "National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. I know someone who works there. I'll bet this thing either belongs to NOAA, or at the very least, they can figure out who it belongs to. As for you, girlie," he said, "have you seen a doctor yet?" "No. What for, the little pinprick?" "For tetanus, at least. Get yourself checked out, Kim." He showed her the eraser tip. "Those needles have a fluid inside them. It could be anything." The policeman chimed in with his agreement. "That's a good idea. And about this mess, thanks for letting someone in our office know."

110 -110

In wartime, Shyla led the WDF. She didn't give the FBI team any time to get set up. Shyla led a surprise attack out of the house right away. Dory bought it right away in a three shot burst from Agent Castle. In reply a volley of knives went up from the WDF side. These were not ordinary knives. They had an arming switch. Immediately after leaving the thrower's hand a sensor detected the free fall of ballistic motion and ignited a small solid rocket in the handle. An infrared detector recessed in the hilt zoomed in on body heat. It was basically a model rocket with a bayonet deliberately blunted to prevent the thing from passing clean through the victim. It was much nastier than the FBI's machine guns. After burying itself in the victim the rocket motor burned right up inside the magnesium alloy blade, starting an unquenchable metal fire inside the body. Only after the entire blade burned up would the fire go out. Water only made it burn hotter and the flame actually ripped it's oxygen supply out of the guy's own tissues. One blade closed in on Agent Castle in tightening spirals and another blade from Shyla was distracted from it's intended target to follow the more attractive engine heat of the first. Two metal fires then. The pain was vast, like being scraped under the foot of a vicious giant with bluehot soles. But there was a little mercy set aside for him, for the twin burning blades finished him off with great haste.

111 -111

Hunky was the one who had flung that blade. Her other blade went out and found Agent Johnson. Robyn was a twofisted knife thrower. The left hand took out Agent Hervey, the right hand blade sailed out toward a cocksure rookie named Agent Atkins, who got hit in the gut. Hervey saw the deadly thing snaking toward him and tried to shoot it down but all he achieved was stray bullets tearing into Hunky, wearing Michelle's body. Agent Atkins died under a more regular blade from Shyla. His actual cause of death was six quarts of missing blood due to her infamous "WDF Haircut," an incision which starts at one ear and crosses to the other one under the chin. A few men who had wavered in retreat now joined the others in fleeing for their lives. Robyn and Shyla saw their chance and both ran in different directions through nearby alleys and the backyards of neighboring houses, making good their escape. The cost of the battle was terrible to the WDF, still struggling to simply grow. Dory's body and Michelle's body were gone. An hour later she and Robyn ate burritos outside a Taco Moment restaurant at a concrete table under a clear night sky. Shyla shivered, recalling their escape from Hanford five years prior. "The Blue Team is slowly winning. They're gonna do an autopsy of Hunky and Dory back there and realize the 'Black Brain Disease' is still spreading. They'll pull out all the stops and there's nowhere we can hide now."

112 -112

Robyn looked up at the stars. "Nowhere on Earth we can hide." "What do you mean?" Robyn took the plastic lid off her Coke and set it down in front of the Phantomizer, and turned it on. Then Robyn took Shyla's Coke and poured all the contents into her own Coke without spilling any over the brim. She put the lid back on her Coke, now twice as heavy as it should be, turned it upsidedown, and deactivated the Phantomizer. Instantly her Coke jumped a hundred feet into the air. They were both soaked, but Robyn had made her point. "I mean the sky is no longer the limit."

113 -113

Joey Miletta and his family went up to the house and rang the door bell. Soon they were looking at two women in their thirties, one of Asian descent, the other African, and Robyn could be either one. Or none. He shrugged. "Afternoon, ladies," he said. The Asian woman invited them in. When they entered the black woman started singing. "Date her, mate her, take good notes and rate her, you hypocrite! But you don't know she's Thumper Bait! Jump her, pump her, then go ahead and dump her, tell yourself it's to save her soul. She's Thumper Bait!" Joey relaxed. That was the prearranged signal, correctly executed. "So if you're Shyla" "That makes me Robyn," the Chinese girl said. "Hello, Joey. It's been a long time since you left us." "What, twenty years? Your little pyramid scheme for swapping bodies is still going strong, I take it. It's probably illegal, you know. Not the body swapping part, but the pyramid part. Why the color switch?" "No choice, this is what was available. We don't get to pick and choose. Besides, variety is the spice of life. Say, you aren't secretly one of those New Righteousness bigots, are you?"

114 -114

"No, hell no, just curious. Blyn, honey, please show the kids the flowers in the front yard." He waited for them to leave. Shyla asked him, "Why did you never take up our standing offer of a new body, Joey?" "Well, you don't mean new new, but some 47 year old spare WDF body after its already been worn by who knows how many women and had who knows how many babies." "But it'd have maybe thirty good years of life left in it, Joey," she objected. "Now you're sixtyfive. Tell the truth, how many more years do you expect to have left?" "You'll be pleased to learn that I have accepted the Change and I am now truly one of you," Joey told them. He showed them his connector to prove it. "Here's a Purple Cable," Robyn said. "I want you to make a contingency upload to the Grid. Blyn too." "Are you expecting trouble?" he asked as the recording was done without distracting him at all.


115 -115

"Then let me come to the point. I've accepted the Change, and I release my wife back to your control. My daughters Chayn and Del are as ready as they'll ever be to join the WDF. And I've got one more item to give you. In return for all this, I want to ask a favor." "Anything, Joey. You're a legend. We're old friends and we owe you so much." "First of all you must know that my son Brand has been taught everything I know about Phantomizers. He will carry on in my place after I've been absorbed into your WDF overmind." "You realize, do you not," Robyn warned, "that by passing that information on to your son you have made Brand the mostwanted man in America. Especially now that you have been Changed. All of our power and wealth rests on our monopoly of Phantomizers, and Brand, the only unChanged person with the secret, is now the weakest link." "I'm certain you will take every precaution to guard his safety. But that is only part of what I'm asking. Robyn, you must swear never to offer the Change to Brand, under any circumstances. It must never be a possibility for him. I don't want it to gnaw his mind. I want him to be free." Robyn looked at him silently, chewing on the complex emotions that must be underlying Joey's request. "Of course. I give you my word as the Empress, Brand shall never be Changed."

116 -116

"I solved the AI problem." "You're kidding!" "No I'm not kidding. It works. It means no more dead time in Data Storage. That's why I came back." He handed her a flatpak. The plastic media was 2 terabytes of nonvolatile RAM in something identical in appearance to a credit card. "Okay, there you go Robyn, be careful with that, it's the only copy of AI.EXE that exists anywhere." Before the coming of human minds the reality of the Grid was an abstract, purely mathematical space. But the women of the WDF went inside it, experiencing it as a virtual reality. To accommodate them there was a near infinite treasure of encoded images and sensations of Earthly existence one level up. A sister could experience another sister's hike, another sister's seven course meal, even the sensation of being in love. Between this level and the basement where raw machine language formed the very fabric of the Grid, a complex weave of sublevels lay atop one another, or grew out of each other, or compacted into each other. Each level was represented as symbols in the next level up, symbols that danced in a partitioned universe that was itself a growing, changing, living thing.


Fragments of sound and video wandered down there as crosstalk and evolved like dreams. Characters from canceled TV shows carried on like ghostly afterimages, endlessly saying the same lines and going through every possible combination of interaction. Sets from other shows intruded. Spinoffs budded into a new layer and separated families forever. Lucy and Ricky would frequently appear on Star Trek episodes looking quite lost. In the Grid, subroutines were not actually conscious, but they had been designed to seek their own uniqueness by linking sometimes silly, always incongruent bits together. This served to further enrich the whole. Here where time was counted off in nanoseconds an accelerated survivalofthefittest was going on. Entities multiplied needlessly. Processing points took false memories from a supply of TV, movies, music, literature and human knowledge collected through out the Internet, even drawing from that highest of human aesthetic endeavors: science fiction. Yet nowhere in the Grid was there a true artificial awareness. There was no program that could look at it's own directory, see the file "AI.EXE" listed there, and know that it was AI.EXE. Joey Mileta thought that many processing points contributing to the generalization of stored memories would achieve consciousness. The creation of a rule of thumb from a handful of experiences would be a sign. But no purely algorithmic process had ever been made to demostrate awareness. Consciousness seemed to be exclusive to living things.

118 -118

His hope had been to give an artificial intelligence the memories of a member of the WDF, thus allowing her to be conscious during Data Storage time, living in an artificial reality. It was a hope that had never materialized. It seemed the Grid could never serve as an independent world for selfcontained artificial intelligences. It could only serve as a mindtool for sisters who were enfleshed. That was, at least, where the problem stood in 2015 when he exiled himself deep in space to evade the American government, which was keen on breaking the WDF's monopoly on Phantomizers. Eventually Joey had to get as far away as Saturn, nearly a billion miles, to shake off his pursuers. The idea came from Blyn when she was fortythree (and he was sixtythree). The topic of conversation had drifted to the Trinity concept of the Catholicism of her youth, and this reminded Joey of why their iceball always needed to have it's orbit refined by observations instead of just getting a computer to print out a universal ephemeris valid for all time. "Well, if the iceball and Saturn were the only two objects in the universe, it would never change. It would be what we call a 'twobody problem,' which has an exact solution. But in real life, we have to throw in the moon Titan, which makes it a 'threebody problem,' for which there is no solution. It's a brute fact property of mathematics itself. No one knows why, but there is something about going from two to three that makes it unsolvable. Not to mention you've got the Sun also, and dozens of smaller moons, and even our neighbor Jupiter has a small effect."


Page 119

"Maybe this mysterious property of 'threeness' goes beyond just making orbits unpredictable. Maybe it's also the answer to your problem of achieving artificial intelligence." "Blyn, dear, how do you propose that I get nonalgorithmic behavior from an algorithm?" "From using more than one algorithm and ganging them together, silly!" "It's already been tried, Blyn. I've rigged up two Generalization Engines to talk to each other, but they never wake up. It works great for visual recognition, voice recognition, all kinds of things like that, but the GE program pair never recognizes itself as a Self." "I'm thinking that it's just like the twobody problem, Darling. Two Generalization Engines interact with each other in a way that is perfectly predictable. But a community of three GE's may be a different story. Three of them talking to each other may cross a critical line of complexity." "OK, I see what you're getting at. Did you come up with this idea yourself?" "Yes. Just now. How will you check it?" "With a big gamble. And I need you to help me."

11 -11

After NOAA obtained the probe it took a few weeks before the federal government realized what it really had. Then the Department of Energy claimed ownership of both the Issaquah probe and the remains of the Idaho probe which had killed a truck driver, and even began making substantial payments to the trucking company and the wife of the driver as part of the deep cover of a DoE experiment gone awry. Everyone suspects the government of lying when it denies messing something up. No one suspects the government of lying when it admits messing something up. Another thing that happened was that federal funds were made available to King County with the proviso that the County Executive declared two square miles north and south of the crash site a "Wildlife Corridor," with hiking by permit only. In practice, the only hikers permitted into the area were DoE personnel looking for other possible components of the probe, or other probes, or for wild animals that may have been stung by the probes. After eight years of searching the only result would be a network of welltrodden trails hidden from the public trails by camoflaged connectors. The occasional hiker who stumbled onto the network were usually cowed and turned back by all the legal notices and signs forbidding nonpermit use. Native Americans shrugged and roamed over the trails at will. To the police, the trails club, and the local paper which ran a blurb, the story DoE spun was that it was just a weather balloon designed to study the prevailing winds at the Hanford nuclear reservation in central Washington state, in case Reactor Number One had an... irregularity.

12 -12

Charlene Null was savoring the final days of her last free summer. Her only worry was a few zits. Next summer, she knew, her parents would expect her to have a job. The trouble was she wasn't good at anything. Except singing, maybe. She could throw great passion into her performances and sounded much older than her fifteen years, but where was the money in it? She was resigned to her inevitable future career in the retail, grocery bagging, or food service industries. Next year. Right now she didn't even know what day of the week it was, nor care. And that, she decided, was the perfect way to be. At hand, there was this upsidedown hike, which started in the morning at her house, descended a thousand feet in three miles to her boyfriend's place on State Route 900, and now the climb back home at the end of the day. Charlene walked the South Precipice trail in airy maple and alder forest with a carpet of ferns. The path traversed a zone of razorsharp ridges and deep gullies carved into soft sandstone eastfacing slopes, with ins and outs so numerous she lost count. Not to mention the many blowndown trees across the trail, which made her have to choose to either crawl under them and get dirty, or try to roll over the top. Charlene was glad she'd gotten the virginity thing out of the way months ago. Having shed the "prude" label she now avoided the "slut" label by simply staying with the guy, sleeping with him just often enough to keep him interested. God forbid her parents should learn this. She didn't love him, not by any means, but to survive the terrible psychological ordeal of high school peer pressure with minimum scarring she maintained a boyfriend the way one would keep up a post office box. A willowy strawberryblonde, Charlene was very feminine, as pensive as her cat. She wore pretty kneelength dresses and didn't even own a pair of jeans, except for hiking when she made a sole concession and wore cutoffs. When she spoke, which was not often, it was in a hesitant but carefully thought out manner. She hardly ever stuck her foot in her mouth. About the only emotion her blank little porcelain dollface would show was a constant impatience, as if she was eternally bored with the people and places she found herself stuck with.

120 -120

The first phase required him to finally accept the Change, something he had always put off, suspecting that it would eventually water him down with a bland femininity that would shortcircuit whatever it was inside him that spitted out all his ideas like popcorn. At least for the time being, before he shared with the rest of the WDF, he remained Joey and was free. Joey's goal was to make sure his potential electronic Self in the Grid tracked his real Self in the visible world faithfully, for the day would come when his body would die and that electronic Self stood alone. It was through the Purple Cable that the tracking would be maintained. But that was a Catch22. Unless there was a roughly congruent image file of his mind stashed in the computer there would be nothing to accept the updates. So how to pull the whole process up by its bootstraps? How to get a rough image of his mind as a starting place? Three Generalization Engines in harness became what Joey called a "Guardian Angel," a companion artificial intelligence that guided him as he was mapped onto the Grid. Before this, all his attempts at a Guardian Angel had no self, so there was no curiosity about itSelf. It got bored and "fell asleep," so to speak. Now, with three GEs running together, it became curious. And the information that it was curious about was contained in Joey's own mind. It configured itself closer and closer to Joey the more he poured out the agonies and ecstasies of his life. It was like a therapist at first. The thing was merciless. It pressed him. It dug through every secret corner, every hidden shameful memory of his life. It sought out his darkest fears, his most terrifying memories.

121 -121

Joey's vernier of sanity was so strong that the AI had to go all the way in. Joey only hoped that Blyn, who was watching him like a true guardian angel, could pull him out and put him together again. Then a threshold was crossed, the Guardian Angel began to be seen as Twin Brother. Finally came the profound realization that the Twin Brother was Self, and the two moved together to become one being. It took a month. The Joey that stared out now through his eyes was in every way the one that went in, yet the ordeal had been a far greater experience than he imagined going in. Joey guessed that one Generalization Engine making rules of thumb from sense data and his memory store, or even two of them working in tandem, were operating as a subconscious, and would often lock into a rut. Consciousness was when three of them worked together to "keep each other honest." From two nodes to three there was a discontinuty in the complexity increase, just as Blyn thought. "It works!" Joey told her with a big grin. Now the WDF would have a program called AI.EXE on the Grid. A stock, offtheshelf awareness. True artificial intelligence. "This will change everything. Everything, Blyn! You were right! You should be proud."

122 -122

Joey knew that after the Change his soul would be immersed more and more into a female sea and he felt that would be the end of the creative tension inside him that led to his invention of the Phantomizer and other things flowed out from being male. With this AI.EXE breakthrough Joey realized that he had achieved all he was ever going to achieve in this life, and it was about time to pack it in. Already he was 64. So he arranged to move his home iceball to the inner system, taking his family with him. Joey Miletta's sixhundred foot wide ice ball followed a very complex threebody maneuver which unfolded perfectly along the path predicted by a numerical simulation on the computer. It was bent by the moon into a big loop, bent by the Earth two weeks later on the return, and finally snagged by the moons gravity in a 448 mile X 2033 mile elliptical orbit with a period of five hours and 46 minutes. The sale provided more than enough money to allow him and his family to live quite comfortably on Earth for the rest of their lives. Just the sheer size of the haul depressed water prices, and some Saturn families on the edge of bankruptcy that year were going to tip over. So it was to be a profitable year for a gangster back at Saturn, Kerr Stratis, although he never felt gratitude to the Miletta family for bringing him his good fortune. He'd take over a busted family's operation in exchange for their passage to Earth, where he'd send them as refugees with little more than the clothes they were wearing. -



"Uploading it to the Grid would have been easier than hand delivery," Robyn said after Joey finished sketching out the story of his discovery, "but it could have been intercepted. I agree this way was best." "Information is power," he agreed. "And right now I have a powerful urge to use the loo." On the pot Robyn took her feet up off the floor and put them on the toilet seat as she urinated, a habit of the Chinese girl whose body she now wore, and whose personality now comprised about threetenths of the new integrated person that called herself Robyn. She heard a knock, then a door slamming the wall, and male voices shouting, "Get on the floor! Get on the floor!" Thinking quickly, Robyn cracked the flatpak in half like a wafer, then in half again, and swallowed the corner she knew contained the actual circuitry. The other two pieces she dropped in the toilet, and flushed. She was just pulling her undies and jeans back up when the bluejacketed FBI special agents busted open the door to the bathroom and proceeded to subdue her. She offered no resistance.

124 -124

The FBI now had Robyn & Shyla, Joey & Blyn, and the three children. They were taken by a series of feints and car switches and devious routes to underground accommodations at the Domestic Enemies Processing Complex in the suburbs west of Washington, DC, on the Virginia side of the Potomac. The DEPC was an installation constructed especially to detain and interrogate members of the WDF. The compound had withstood many attempts by the WDF to break into it, and it had a perfect record of zero successful escape attempts. It also had hundreds of empty cells. Every captured WDF member performed an End Of Cycle at the first attempt to question them by force. Not a day went by that Shyla didn't contemplate raiding the DEPC for the store of her sisters' final memories that were probably still held inside. Robyn and Shyla's "cell" was much nicer than they imagined it would be. There was even a selfservice wet bar. "They want something," Shyla declared after they both napped for perhaps half an hour. "This has to be the good cop/bad cop routine. Don't cooperate and they take our goodies away and throw us in a dark hole with 320 grit sandpaper for T.P." She got dressed and started prowling up and down their suite weighing options and investigating avenues of escape. "Let's see how bad they want us alive," she suggested. Shyla rigged up several bottles of Everclear as Molotov cocktails. They were being watched on camera. A squad entered and confiscated Shyla's makeshift weapons as sweetly as could be done at gunpoint. They were wrapped with chains around their hands and feet and escorted out to a conference room where Joey, Blyn, and their three children were waiting, each of them also laden down with chains.

125 -125-

FBI Director John Straub was a small, middleaged man who looked more like a Sunday school teacher than the universally feared head of the most obtrusive, allpervasive agency in the United States government. Even with the formidable array of resources he had at his fingertips, information about the Women's Democratic Forum was sparse. "I was thinking what a delight it is to have all of you here," Straub said. "It seems you will be our guests for a long time, and we will have many opportunities to clear up a lot of the mystery about you and your organization." "There's not much to clear up," Robyn said. "We're just a nonprofit service organization for distressed women and girls." "Well, we have a lot of gaps in what we do know. Mr. Roland, in the old days, had a motto that went: 'If at first you don't succeed, destroy all the evidence.' We've been trying to learn what really happened back in 1983 for years. Along the way we've learned a lot of things about your WDF. For instance, we know you can will yourself to die anytime you wish. But I'm really interested in the principle behind your Phantomization process." "We will never ever talk," Shyla boasted. "Of course you won't. And we've never seen a male WDF before, but no doubt Mr. Joey Miletta is just as immune to forms of physical persuasion as you women are."

126 -126

He nodded to an assistant, who moved to seize Brand. Blyn started to move toward them but she was stopped by Straub with his gun drawn and pointed at her. He said, "Ladies and gentlemen, I don't believe the quiet man with us has been introduced. Meet our best guy from Special Inquiry. Mike Evers." Primas forced Brand into chair and slapped tape over his mouth, which made him breathe in panicky snorts through the nose. The twin girls were crying over what was being done to their brother. "Torturing a man's son in front of his family," Robyn sneered. "This isn't America anymore." "This shoots a little post under toenails or fingernails up to the first knuckle", Evers explained after withdrawing his gadget from its case. "The post is a toxin that takes many hours to dissolve away, so, well let's just say no one ever volunteered for a second one. What will it be, Joey?" Joey and Blyn came to a simultaneous and mutual decision to protect their children by committing suicide. Chayn and Del screamed when they saw their parents both slump after performing EOCs. Brand remained silent. This was the moment his father once said was destined to come. Unnoticed by anyone but Brand himself, Brand was becoming a man. Evers leaned over Joey and Blyn to verify they were gone.

127 -127

Straub shrugged, and turned to Brand. "No doubt your father passed on to you everything he knew about Phantomizers. I suggest you start spilling your guts, son."

No longer a child, Brand shot a look of contempt at Straub and shook his head. It could just be made out from behind the tape, a nasal, "Go to hell." So on Straub's signal Mike Evers applied the gadget to Brand's thumb. SNICK. Robyn and Shyla were horrified at the agony in Brand's eyes and his attempts to scream beneath the gags. It must be enormous pain. Still, his bravery was admirable. "Brand, I suggest you change your mind," Straub warned. "You're not going to get any sleep tonight." When she was thrown into solitary confinement Shyla took off her satiny white dress and began ripping out the hem to obtain certain objects she had hidden there, small tools made of a polymer whose molecular structure had popped unbidden into her probealtered mind, just as ideas for many other things had popped in there since she was first Changed in 1982. There was a plastic jeweler's screwdriver almost as hard as steel, but perfectly invisible to the metal detector that had been waved over her body. Also there was a dental pick and a very thin scalpel. She didn't get very far with these, because the guards busted in and took them from her, along with her dress.

128 -128

Shyla's pleas that it was cold went unheeded. They locked her up in nothing but her bright yellow undies and matching bra. Shyla sat down and looked bored for a few minutes. Then she took off her panties and began picking at the decorative stitching embroidered on them. Her guards watched this on their screen, but assumed she was just idly trying to fill in time with something to do. Eventually Shyla had accumilated the thread from her panties into a big tangled pile of stuff resembling spider's silk. Her watchers thought she had gone bonkers, and eventually tired of staring at the crazy woman. The thread Shyla dug out from the fabric of her underwear was another gift from the unknown power behind the "weather balloon." It was a polymer chain finer than a newborn's hair, yet stronger than steel wire. Robyn called the stuff Polywire, very difficult and expensive to make. The small quantity she had represented a fortune worth many millions of dollars. Shyla's panties were in shreds and her fingers were bloody from lacing the stuff through little vent holes around the cell door. A piece of one thumb, in fact, had been sliced clean off and the floor was slippery with her blood. She blocked the pain. When she was done Shyla leaned back against a white wall in the brilliantlylit cell and waited until morning, staring ahead and not moving a single muscle. The door slid open and Straub walked halfway through. He stopped and stood there in total disbelief. "This round goes to the Pinks!" Shyla burst triumphantly.

129 -129

His legs buckled. He jerked and bounced down on Shyla's deadly web, letting gravity finish the grisly job. After his spinal cord was severed many slices of Straub meat plopped down in a wet pile at the door.

The guards watching the moniter were furious and sounded the alarm. Soon

the entire complex would be concentrating their wrath on the cell bank. Shyla grabbed Straub's plasma pistol and fired a dozen bursts while sweeping the muzzle down along the door jamb. The heat of the blinding yellow bolts severed the strands of Polywire, opening a way out of the cell again. Totally naked, Shyla paused to dug out the Director's badge with its allimportant magnetic strip from under the gory pile of human pizza that he'd become. Overhead the sky was beginning to fill up with an impromptu crowd of onlookers and newsmedia flying stylish "Veetles," the flying cars that had proliferated ever since someone realized Phantomizers made great little jet engines. Veetles, or VTOLs, for Vertical Takeoff Or Landing, were becoming more and more popular but they were still at the very top end of the market. Ron Primas, the Deputy Director, didn't like the idea of those civilians flitting about over the airspace of the DEPC. "Scramble a helo to go up there and clear out all those unauthorized civilian aircraft buzzing around," he barked to an aide. "No weapons, nothing like that. Just loudspeakers. But tell them to insist." He stepped back inside and went to the security command center roughly at the center of the first floor.

12 -12

At least, this was the story for public consumption. For the parents of Kim and Charlene, DoE prepared a different set of lies. And for Kim and Charlene, no lying was possible at all. "Nanotechnology" is a word meaning deliberate engineering on the same scale of miniaturization that the molecular machines of life itself are on. The idea was to use the best ideas that life had evolved, but without the trialand error and watery sloppiness and dead functions that were carried out by all cells for the same reason humans still had an appendix, because it usually didn't bother anyone and it wasn't worth the effort to get rid of it. In 1982 no one was anywhere near actually working on that scale of teensiness, but they were thinking about it. The word nanotechnology itself didn't even exist until four years later, coined by someone associated with the probes. What the alien probe did, in short, was infect living nerve and brain tissue and onebyone gradually replace each cell with a nanotechnology facsimile of the cell after "learning the ropes" and figuring out how each cell responded to hormones, nutrients, and signals from other cells. Kim and Charlene were placed in quarantine soon after the bumps developed at the back of their heads, and in a few months the bumps cracked open to reveal the pins, but it wasn't until Molly was put to sleep and an autopsy performed that the doctors could see what was really happening.

13 -13

This impression of ennui she gave tended to limit her popularity at school. There was only her little clique of four girls who hogged the Ms. Pac Man machine in the school lunchroom. Then again, if Charlene ever quit her church choir her confident singing voice would be sorely missed. She rounded a narrow ridge and there were only gentle thoughts of this timeless summer and the vague idea, a common belief of youth, that she would live forever. As she drew near to the black shapes laying on the trail ahead, not in her wildest daydreams did Charlene imagine that real immortality was only a few steps away.

In a few days Kim Lokken would start her senior year at Hazen High. She had a license and the keys to her mom's car and a part time job at the Factoria Mall gave her a little bit of gas money, but she knew she'd better not spend the waning days of summer just sitting behind the wheel. It wasn't in her plan. She had to get out. Kim was very bright and did well in school but being on Assistance with four younger brothers meant that her mother simply could not afford to send her on to college. The idea of being many thousands of dollars in debt with student loans put her off. The military would help pay for college, under the G.I. Bill, but she had to hurry to get in under the wire because this program, which was originally set up for vets returning from World War II, was set to expire a few months after she graduated. There was no time to waste. She'd already breezed through the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) and talked to a recruiter. He seemed delighted to be one step closer to meeting his quota but his glee was tempered somewhat by the fact that Kim, well, ah...exceeded her ideal weight. By any definition. Since getting in shape was necessary to get into the Navy, and the Navy was part of her detailed life plan, plus the fact that all of her selfesteem issues could be directly attributed to her weight, she started to go hiking in the range of hills near her home.

130 -130

When he stepped in Ron Primas said to the duty harried officer, "The WDF intends to attack while we are still confused by the death of the Director. ThreatCon Yellow should have been set right after he got killed." The officer looked at the name on Ron's badge and said, "I'm sorry sir. I have no excuse." "Don't apologize to me, go to ThreatCon Yellow!" "Yes sir!" And yellow rotating lights began to glow and twirl in every space and corridor, signalling a higher state of readiness. Guards on every level of the DEPC took the safeties off their weapons and began to patrol their preassigned routes within the building. "Sir, the big board shows the Director is still alive. It shows him moving around the complex." "Show me." The duty officer walked to one large flat screen and pointed to a blinking stickman symbol with the name Straub and his ident number. "He's in the stockade, sir. One floor beneath us. Cell 31. That's where one of the WDF members is being held." "Give me a visual of cell 31."

131 -131

They sat there and watched Shyla escort Robyn out of cell 31. "God damn it!" barked Primas. Now at his orders the yellow rotating lights ceased and blue lights came on throughout the compound. On the intercom throughout the complex the duty officer said, "SECURITY ALERT, THREATCON BLUE. REASON FOR SECURITY ALERT, ESCAPED PRISONERS. TARGETS ARE AN ORIENTAL FEMALE AND A BLACK FEMALE. DETAIN ALL SUSPECTS. DEADLY FORCE AUTHORIZED." The highly compartmentalized DEPC began to slam down tight and no one could move after the two minute mark. Airtight doors slid shut. Elevators locked on their tracks. Presumably after two minutes everyone would be at their posts but there were always laggards. Now only the DEPC Internal Police could move. Individually and in squads they fanned out through the complex taking names and questioning tardy personnel. If their excuses were halfway valid they would personally escort them to their assigned places. If their excuses were lame, there was always guys like Mike Evers, with his gadgets. After releasing Joey's children, Robyn and Shyla descended with them three levels down a partially painted stairwell that was empty of personnel and looked to be little used. Still, the swipe of Straub's badge to open the door at the bottom registered on the Big Board in the Incident Control Center.

132 -132

"What's that movement?" Primas wanted to know. The duty officer was catching on and didn't wait for Primas to spell it out for him this time. He quickly put up a visual of the corridor where Robyn, Shyla, Brand, and the twins were entering from the stairwell. "Aha! There they are! Go to ThreatCon Red! Now! Shut it all up tight!" The blue lighting shifted over to all red, everywhere. Now none of the doors in the DEPC would work at all unless Ron Primas personally authorized it from where he was, on a casebycase basis. He pointed at a section of the Big Board where a force of ten security men were now trapped in a section of corridor and said, "Get ahold of these guys and tell them to drop two levels and work their way east. Release the doors in front of them in such a way that they run smack into where the escapees are trapped. No one else moves." "Yes sir!" But after a few minutes the duty officer was scratching his head and having trouble. "If the Director is dead," he began, puzzled over the anomaly, "what's he doing making his way to the helos?" Primas was watching it all on the monitor. He screamed for an override on the hangar door, and got it. The vast door began to shut again after opening only three feet. The blinding yellow bursts from the ten security men's plasma rifles began to hit around them, some very closely.

133 -133

Under fire, Robyn, Shyla, and the kids dropped and rolled under the closing hangar door just before it slammed shut. They were safe for perhaps one minute. Two of the Veetles broke off from the pack of flying cars overhead and descended to the landing pad. They were green and yellow, beautifully designed cars, with big drumlike moveable vent pods to direct the exhaust as they flew. "We were about to give up on your ass," the driver said as Robyn and Brand got in the back seat. Shyla, Chayn and Del got in the back seat of the other Veetle. "Who are you?" Robyn asked. Her stomach clenched as the Veetle accelerated sharply upward, and the ground dropped quickly away. "Jill," she said. "It was close. We've been hovering for sixteen minutes." The way a Veetle gobbled water was unreal. There was only about four minutes of air time left. She looked at Brand, who remained silent, thinking about the deaths of his parents. His thumb still throbbed, but it wasn't nearly so bad now. Jill set down at a nearby softball field where two identical white sedans were waiting. Shyla and the twins went in one sedan and drove off south while Robyn went with Brand and took off north. Jill and her partner put their Veetles' flight apparatus in standby and drove off the ball field in groundcar mode, moving west. Not until Robyn managed to get onto Interstate 66 did she start to relax but Jill had come through for her. They were free.

134 -134

The War Against the WDF, which began with the murder of Robyn and Shyla's parents, continued for nearly six decades and had roughly the same success as the equally long and futile War Against Drugs. Near the end, most of the WDF was relocated off the Earth far beyond the reach of the US government. For the most part the WDF's own children were their body replacements, but there was still a small amount of recruiting from Earthside and this was vulnerable to attack. The turning point in the War was the Whittling Down Of The Carrier Battle Groups. For nearly a century the United States sat bestride the globe as a military colossus, projecting power with fifteen $1 billiondollar aircraft carriers at the height of the Cold War, twelve $2.5 billiondollar carriers at the turn of the century, and finally eight $5 billiondollar carriers by the 2030's. Six of those final eight carriers were sunk by a handful of $29 thousanddollar WDF Brushfire cruise missiles. Once launched, a Brushfire cruise missile could stay aloft indefinitely. It was powered by a Phantomizer air ramjet, which needed no fuel at all, and it was controlled by the electronic mind of a WDF woman encoded as an Artificial Intelligence inside the missile. Fatally clever and eager to avenge her lost sisters, she would circle in her assigned patch of ocean, very quiet and too small to show up on long range rader, then strike at horribly inopportune times for the Carrier, like when the entire crew was assembled on the flight deck in their dress whites for an inspection.

135 -135

When the US was down to only two carriers, they were pulled back to home waters and the country was finished as the World Policeman. Frankly, America was no longer needed. During the period of Pax Americana, while it lasted, most of the nations of the world gathered together into the Organization of the Nations of Earth, or ONE. Now with the three west coast states of the US putting out diplomatic feelers to ONE and making sounds of seccession, the Pacific Ocean carrier, the USS William Jefferson Clinton, was sending strike aircraft sorties to buzz Olympia, Salem, and Sacramento and make those states think twice about leaving. Robyn thought things had reached a head and it was time to tip events over the edge. It was time to make an end to the war. She announced she was willing to discuss terms for peace, but it had to be in a open discussion covered by the media. President Eugene Sundquist reluctantly agreed. The body Robyn wore in 2040 was a pretty but fat Latina with an oval face and long, rich brown hair. She was dressed in accepted attire for a professional woman, but it was professional women themselves who were less and less accepted today by the New Righteousness. The media called her Round Robyn, because of her preference for fat bodies if she could get them (or the flagrant way she made them fat bodies if she couldn't get them) and also the way she kept coming back around no matter how many times the government thought they smacked her down.

136 -136

"I'm here to listen to Round Robyn because I'm a man of peace," said the President of the United States, opening the conference. "However, it is not the policy of this Administration to negotiate with terrorists. And that's all they really are. Think back to your fear and rage at finding out a house on your block was owned by the Women's Democratic Forum. Remember how you and your neighbors began packing up and moving away to avoid the upcoming mayhem? Remember how Federal, State, and local police put their lives on the line to carry out their lawful duties only to be shot at by Robin's troops? They fought for weeks maybe, merely to drag their feet and cause as many casualties as possible." "I didn't ask for this war," Robyn replied. "I didn't ask for the Change. I didn't ask to be locked up for a year, nor for my parents to be murdered, nor to be chased around for fiftyseven years. But I am going to ask for just one thing, a mere trifle, and then this war will be over. I want my Missing In Action. I want the physical remains of every dead member of the WDF you have in your custody." "Impossible! Really, Robyn, you can't possibly be asking for that. It's not even on the table for discussion."

137 -137

"In that case I'm about to make this personal. Within two hours of leaving here without a deal, I will personally take out your Washington DC missile defense laser. That will clear the way for another strike holding you personally accountable, Mr President. My quarrel is with you, not with the American people." "The Secret Service will now take you into custody, Robyn," snapped the President with a cutting motion of his hands. "The charge is threatening the President." Robyn sighed. Another EOC. But this very well could be the last time, she thought. She lifted her eyes to heaven and traveled to the WDF frigate Chivalrous by radio waves, at the speed of light. To be sure, her old body remained on the ground, dramatically dead on national television with the American people convinced she'd been assassinated. Robyn intended her End Of Cycle to be used as a sympathy ploy. Her new body was already aboard the ship. Everything Robyn was inside, her very psyche, was a 2 terabyte data set that could be uploaded anywhere, even to a spaceship in orbit. Robyn was now a wiry woman in her forties, with elfin features and red hair which floated about her like a mane.

138 -138

The venerable WDF warship Chivalrous was history's first fighting vessel in space. She was 30 feet across and 90 feet long, weighing two thousand tons, but twothirds of her was nothing but tank space for water. There were ten women aboard, but only five sleeping cubicles, so they "hotbunked" it, two shifts, six hours on and six hours off. When Robyn and her Port Watch went to sleep Debby would command the Starboard Watch. Sometimes during critical moments like this attack everyone was at their station and the crewwomen referred to it, sarcastically, as "Port and rePort." As the skipper Robyn got to steer the ship and release the weapons. The four girls on watch under her worked as a team, with the goal of making the ship as close as possible to being a seamless extension of Robyn's will. When Chivalrous passed over Fylingdales Moor in Yorkshire, England, it was picked up on the pyramidal, buildingsized FPS85 phasedarray tracking radar, and again by the FPS92 at Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean. When the ship crossed over the United States, it flew right over the Goldstone Deep Space Tracking Station near Death Valley, California, for a final refinement of the orbital information. All this was collected by SpaceTrack and forwarded to the President.

139 -139

The flight deck and living quarters of Chivalrous were in the front 30 feet of the ship, while the tanks and engines were in the rear 60 feet. Robyn ordered the separation of the two sections immediately after coming aboard, but it was a gentle motion, only about an inch per second. By the time the ship crossed over the Appalachian mountains, the sections were one hundred feet apart. In the growing gap the ship steadily released "chaff" from special dispensers in both sections. Chaff was little aluminum strips, short lengths of aluminum wire, aluminum balls the size of a pinhead, and clouds of aluminum powder. To the eye the space between the two sections of the ship glittered in the sun with fairy dust. To radar, the chaff appeared solid. In the microwave spectrum, Robyn made the 90 foot long Chivalrous appear to be 190 feet long. The tracking system for the DC laser didn't care how long the ship looked. It was designed for one purpose, to keep the laser locked onto ballistic missiles as they approached the city. All the tracking system had to do was keep the boresighted laser focused on the exact center of the image returned by the radar. But the exact center of the radar image of Chivalrous was nothing but chaff floating in space between the drive module and the command module. The gals aboard ship were all thoroughly updated to the Grid, and making continuous updates, just in case it didn't work. Lanette, the Starboard Watch engineer, uttered the WDF battle cry: "Life And Death Are The Same!"


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The dog's skull had been sawed open, but instead of a pale yellow canine brain there was a smooth black ellipsoid that narrowed in a funnel neck that actually penetrated the skull and terminated in an oval cup outside her head. A closer look showed the cup to have smooth inside walls and many short, fine black carbon bristles growing out of the cup's floor. It was an electrical connector with exactly 112 pins. There was a guide hole among those pins so one didn't mess up and put on the cable backwards. From the guide hole they drew a fluid with a syringe, as dark as CocaCola. They injected several other dogs and one monkey with this fluid and got the same mutation, the same 112 pins no matter what the species, as long as the animal wasn't too small. (It was after getting that first batch of animals infected that they dared to put Molly down and do the first autopsy.) They knew from earlier tests, when Molly was alive, that if the pins were crushed or snapped off they grew back just like the lead in a mechanical pencil. They tried shaving off the whole external structure too. It just grew right back. They manufactured a cable that fit the connector perfectly. Kim and Charlene came to call it simply the Purple Cable. Bites also transmitted the infection. There was some speculation that no matter what critter found the probe first, the infection was designed to go up the food chain and get to the most highly evolved species by a succession of lower animals biting their attackers. That's why it was important to make sure there were no other probes.

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On the trails Kim was wellprotected by her big, intimidating Alaskan malamute, Molly. Kim would put other hikers at ease by saying, "Don't worry, if you don't move a muscle she won't consider you a threat and eat you." Sometimes she wished she could get the virginity thing over with, but no one had asked poor chubby Kim Lokken out. She wasn't ugly. Her broad freckleface always registered exactly what she was thinking, so she was lousy at poker. She had "Big Hair," dark brown and wavy, curled with a fat iron, piled in three layers and feathered when she had time, but most mornings she despaired of trying to do something with it. Her father bought her dresses, which she only wore on those rare weekends when he would exercise his custodial rights and have her stay over. Her mother knew better than to waste money on such frippery. Designer blue jeans and black concert tshirts were all that Kim wanted to wear. On the South Precipice trail Molly had run down Elegant Ridge and was sniffing at yards of slick black wrinkly fabric laying in the brush alongside the trail. There was a tangle of long, thin wires gathering into a bundle attached to a dull black sphere, basketball sized, and totally featureless except for a needle sticking out of the surface. Molly let out a yelp of pain and backed off a bit. She was snorting, shaking her nose, then she started growling and barking at the black ball as a newfound foe. Now there were two needles sticking out of it. By this time Kim was coming up. "Whassamatter Molly? You get stung by a bee? Let me take a look." Just as curious as Molly had been, Kim put her index finger close to a part of the sphere that was needlefree, and like Molly, that was something she oughtn't have done. There was a sound like a short squirt of steam and her finger tip was instantly skewered. She pulled it away involuntarily, before the pain had even reached her brain. "Ahhh! Dammit!" Now the ball sported a third extruded spine from its surface. Kim thought about kicking it, then looked at her cheap tennis shoes and changed her mind. Freaking health hazard, she thought, and she planned to tell someone about it. For the time being, she dragged the whole mess off the trail by the parachute, then comforted Molly, rubbing the dog's nose, and turned to walk back to the car. She was no longer in the mood for hiking.

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"Just crossing out over the Atlantic now," Port Navigator Dawn said. "There's the coastline." "Any second now," Debby said. They knew when they were being hit by the laser when the monitor screen of the view aft suddenly shifted colors. All those sparkling pieces of chaff were glowing red, much brighter than they had been even in the sunlight. "It's working!" Lanette blurted. The laser light was so strong radiation pressure was actually pushing the chaff out of the gap, the smaller pieces faster than the larger ones. The change was slow, but still quite visible. "Oh no, look at that," Debby muttered. "The chaff is going to be dispersed before we get over their horizon." "No, don't worry," Robyn reassured her. "It's actually a nice touch. To radar it will look like they cut us in half."

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The ship passed far enough east from the laser that it was very low on their horizon now, and there was too much dust and intervening air for them to be of any more effect. The red glow on the last remaining pieces of aluminum tape ceased. "Now we drift for a while," Robyn said. "For now, let them think they've won." There was silence in heaven for the space of fortyfive minutes. "The Women's Democratic Forum has suffered enough indignity," Robyn said as she flipped the switches that released a bomb. "Now let the American administration truly know who it is they make war upon." The bomb jumped off the side of Chivalrous with a burst from a small attached pyrotechnic squib while the ship was orbiting over the Indian Ocean west of Australia. It was mostly inert steel wrapped in a ceramic case. Inside, there was a ton of water held in a Phantom state and compressed by a factor of one thousand into a cube only ten centimeters on a side. When the Phantomizer was destroyed on impact, that water would seek it's normal volume very violently. Unbelievably violently.

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Robyn had thrown the bomb back along the path of Chivalrous and it pulled away on an orbit slightly different from the ship, an orbit whose perigee dipped a little bit more into the atmosphere. If everything had been figured correctly, the wisps of air even at 50 miles would drag the bomb orbit's perigee a bit futher down, and further, until the bomb could no longer be said to be orbiting, but rather, making a beeline straight for its target. Below 20 miles the bomb would be in-. Its flight control surfaces would begin having an effect and the onboard computer could take control of the final approach. The release velocity of 17,500 MPH would be reduced somewhat by the air friction, to only about 12,000 MPH, but the bomb itself and the Phantomizer built into it would be none the worse for wear. The resulting heat would merely soften up the ceramic shell, making it ready to splatter on impact. It's lower orbit was slightly faster than the orbit of Chivalrous, so the bomb pulled out ahead for much of the 45 minute drop, but soon the drag began to allow the ship to catch back up to it. By the time it hit, all ten of the women aboard (for Starboard Watch didn't want to miss this) had a perfect bird'seye view from directly overhead. The bomb crossed into the United States over Laredo, Texas. When it dropped into the troposphere over Knoxville, Tennessee seven minutes later it became visible over the sunny eastern US.

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It was a brilliant fireball screaming over the Appalachians toward Washington some twenty times faster than any airliner. As it continued to drop it followed pretty much along the same route as Interstate 81, eating up the 512 miles between Knoxville and DC in only three and a half minutes. The apparent destruction of Robyn's ship had given the US a bad case of overconfidence. The laser could have defended itself from the bomb if any warning was given and it was pointed east and placed on red and free. But it was white and tight, resuming it's scan north and east of the city toward the coast where normal threats were expected to come from. And that was precisely what Robyn sought to accomplish by faking the destruction of Chivalrous. With SATNAV the girlspirit driving the bomb knew exactly where she was within 15 feet, and she knew exactly where her target was, and her only purpose was to bring those two numbers together. The bomb entered like a lightning bolt just slightly to the left of the southwest corner of the laser installation, immediately detonating and punching through with an expanding cone of destruction that was fully blossomed 10 milliseconds later, completely taking out both the north and east faces of the structure. Most of the 60 occupants were killed instantly by the concussion.

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Some pieces of the bomb continued on far beyond McLean, Virginia, going so far as to cross the Potomac. Injuries were reported as far away as Bethesda. One lady would be killed in her home in Glen Echo. The children hospitalized after being lacerated by hot fragments in their classroom ten miles away from the blast would be trumpeted by the media. Molten droplets flew everywhere, twice as fast as any bullet, richocheting off of floors, walls, ceilings, through the bodies of people both dead and those who had somehow survived the initial blast. The fury of this shrapnel was expended by the third second after impact. The laser was completely inoperative. "We're a sitting duck for an ASAT," Robyn said. "Let's get the hell out of Dodge." Departure was a mindnumbing fifteen minutes of vibration at a tenth gee. When it was over Robyn turned the ship on it's head to bask in the sun and started the usual twominute barbecue roll to keep one side from getting too hot. Robyn had spent all her time on the flight deck for the attack, so now she set about exploring the ship in earnest. The habitable part of Chivalrous was shaped like a drum, 30 feet across and 30 feet high. This was divided into four "decks," although the only time a deck was truly a deck was during a burn when there was a little gravity to provide a sense of downness. At that time one could stand up and there was a foot and a half of clearance overhead.

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Each deck was the size of an average onebedroom apartment, with a tenfoot diameter hole in each. The flightdeck was on top, the ship's "bridge," and it was somewhat cramped because arranged around the rim were tubes for Brushfire missiles, bombs, the radar, radio equipment, and the base of the telescope. There was a thick circular window forward, dead center, with a liquid crystal layer which could be electronically polarized or even opaqued in the event of a laser attack or if Robyn tipped the ship directly at the sun. Down one level was the largest space on the ship, the "banquet room," and this was not named in jest. Hadlea, the bald, black Port Navigator, was the unofficial ship's cook, and she enjoyed preparing food for both watches. No vitamin pill space diets or entrees heated inside little clear plastic toothpaste tubes for them. Only the best for the WDF, chicken nuggets, fish filets, roast beef, and Robyn's idea of the food of the gods: chocolate cake. The third deck was crew's berthing, shaped like a pie cut into five pieces with a wide hole taken out of the center. The five staterooms had some 900 cubic feet inside, entered through blue curtains secured with top and bottom runners and with big picture windows looking out the side. Very spacious. The Chivalrous was first class all the way. Shannyn and Lacey were a pair, so Shannyn offered to move in with Lacey and leave Robyn her stateroom.

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Since Shannyn hotracked it with Micol from Port Watch, in order to give Robyn their stateroom 24 hours a day Micol volunteered to crash with a blanket in the 60 foot long access tube at the extreme aft end of the ship, past the fourth deck crammed with food, water, other supplies and the ladies' room, all the way back near the nozzles, where she would go to sleep looking at the stars.

Under the dim blue lights of the flight deck the Port Watch gals were in

their usual lethargic state, each undergoing intense daydreaming. They could get away with this on watch because they were really just the available bodies on call. Behind each crewwoman's eyes was a virtual crew of some 20 girls in the Grid watching every sensor aboard Chivalrous. They came to attention, however, in the morning when the Empress drifted up forward to watch Midway draw near. The news from dirtside was dominated by riots. Burning U.S. cities was the top story everywhere as the unrest quickly became one vast united symphony of chaos. The Sundquist Administration desperately tried to black out news of their DC laser disaster but the Grid was more than happy to fill in the blanks. In an America that had been manipulated, taxed to the gills, and kept under surveillance, pentup fury at the coverups, at the denials, at the unnecessary and very, very expensive military fiasco against the WDF finally boiled over.

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The USS Clinton was recalled from harrassing the West Coast to steam through the Panama Canal and help defend the eastern seaboard, now that the DC laser was gone. Seeing this, Washington, Oregon, and California immediately declared independence as the new nation of Ecotopia and applied for recognition by ONE. The women aboard Chivalrous and indeed throughout the WDF congratulated themselves. The war was over. No one knew what America would look like in the days to come, but everyone agreed it would never again be a superpower.

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With the US federal government busily crashing down, Joey Miletta's son Brand was no longer under the gun. His pursuers suddenly had problems of their own far more important than catching Brand and making him talk. So Robyn arrived at Midway in her warship to offer him a ride home at last. Midway was three million tons of iron ore orbiting in the middle of the Van Allen radiation belt, a tiny "second moon" of the Earth. Although it was much closer to the Earth than the classic Moon, Midway was halfway between the two in terms of how much energy it took to get there. It was both a space habitat and an orbiting citadel invulnerable to attack. Its projected value as a source of iron ore was enormous. Midway was the central clearinghouse of the Grid, but most important all to the women of the WDF, it was the sole venue for Freeball. The girls loved their Freeball, which had been played at Midway every 28 days since Hunky invented it. It was a fierce obsession among the WDF and was beginning to attract fans outside of the Gynocracy. "Watching" a game is a misnomer. On Midway itself, besides the referee Gina and the 14 players in the core, the only physical spectators were the 57 other people who lived aboard Midway, all watching through padded slits along the walls of the Gamecore. But almost the entire WDF, about 13,000 women (whether enfleshed or in the Grid) were experiencing the game online from behind the eyes of the players. They could feel the collisions, even smell the sweat.

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The Freeball Gamecore was a very big empty cavernous cylinder, the largest space within Midway, aligned on the rotational pole. It was 40 yards long and 12 yards in diameter, with springgy white padded vinyl on every surface. There were thousands of black felt polkadots on the walls, distributed uniformly, the kind of fabric Velcro likes to grab. The game was called a "gig," and it was composed of four "jams" of ten minutes each, where teams alternated between offensive possessions called "riffs" and defense. In a riff, a team attempted to move the Freeball down the Gamecore toward their goal. The goal was to get the "Freeball," which was actually a living man, stuck to the black felt polkadots on the circular end wall of the Gamecore. The Freeball wore a bright yellow leotard covered all over with black cloth handles and white Velcro polkadots. There were two balls, in fact. The Freeball for the Red Rovers was the WDF Stud Ron Cooper, who went by the alias "The Red Torpedo." His team tended to lose, but they were the favorite of the WDF's more senior members, and also the favorites of those fans who liked to root for the underdog. They had real spirit. When they won it was with spectacular comefrombehind drives, and when they lost it was often by only a heartbreaking point or two.

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For the parents of Kim and Charlene no tale of a weather balloon would suffice, especially as the quarantine of their daughters dragged on and on. So the story the Dept. of Energy told them was that it was a Soviet biological weapon, and it was important that they said not a word to anyone until a cure could be found. Any information at all would spread panic and only help the very Soviets who had dared to attack the USA with a virus carried by balloon. The Feds knew very well the probes were not of Soviet origin. They were far too advanced for the Soviet Union to just give them to the Americans, even if they had been smart enough to make them in the first place. Besides, there had not been so much as a whisper of it in the intel. This technology was like a spike in the curve. There should have been gradual advances ramping up to it, especially in a system like communism that virtually punished innovation. The coverup developed as a matter of course. There was always this old standby: society would probably undergo a shock or a panic if news got out about the existence of extraterrestrial life. At least, that was the conclusion of the Rand Corporation think tank. The real motivation for the secrecy was simple Cold War politics. If the Soviets suspected that America had access to advanced alien technology, and was even benefiting by reverse engineering some of it, they might launch a preemptive nuclear strike. Better to take on the capitalist devil you know than the alienenhanced capitalist devil you don't know.

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The Red Rovers were led by buxom Interior Van Sandi, with the game name "Star Girl." She was the 23rd ranking member of the WDF. Her hair was auburn and rather long for a Freeball player. Sandi was born Jennifer Greaser and joined the WDF in 1992. She was in charge of keeping the air fresh and warm inside Midway, maintaining a constant pressure, and monitoring for excessive levels of CO2. In the game Star Girl was like a coach who also played. She prefered to lead by patiently showing her teammates how to do something rather than barking orders and telling them how to do something. But once she had shown them how to do it she expected them to perform. Almondeyed Exterior Van Amber, aka "Plastic Girl," wore her black hair with four short pigtails. She was born Victoria Kippley and joined in 1996. As Midway's "garbage truck driver," she ranged far afield from Midway in a small spacecraft looking for dead satellites and unused second or third rocket stages to drag back home to be pieceparted out, mostly for the plastics, hence her choice for Plastic Girl as a game name. Sometimes, although nothing could be proven yet Earthside, Amber salvaged valuable satellites that were far from being dead yet. As Plastic Girl, she seemed to have the worst luck of any Freeball player, getting herself injured in almost every game.

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Leggy Interior Flanker Ashley, going by "Tracer," wore a bleached mohawk. Born Kelly Fowler, she came aboard the WDF in 1993. On Midway her job was to monitor the allocation of repeaters for Grid broadcasts. As more people came online and used the Grid, more repeaters had to be assigned. When people tuned out, there was excess capability. It was Ashley's job, together with two other girls, to finetune this. She brought this sensibility of the optimum to the game of Freeball, joining a melee when she was needed and departing when her teammates had it in hand. Exterior Flanker Heidi was dubbed "Lady Ranger." She had dark brown hair with a red dyed blaze running right through it. Originally Amanda O'Keefe, she had joined the WDF in 1994. Heidi was training to be a pilot for the new fighters which were being constructed on the moon. As Lady Ranger, she played Freeball as though it were a space dogfight and her own large body was a fighter. Voluptuous Interior Wingback Colette was "Madame Fantastic," with her strawberryblonde hair in a moptop. She was born Julia Miskimens and came into the WDF in 2024. On Midway her job was drying the hemp plants that grew in most of the tunnels and operating a machine that turned the hemp fibers into material for new socks and other garments for the inhabitants. In Freeball Madame Fantastic was a graceful ballerina.

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Last for the Red team was the androgynous Exterior Wingback Riley, aka "Bulletwoman," who wore her dark reddishbrown hair in a pixie haircut. Born Erin Jordheim, she became part of the WDF in 2034. Riley moved sheets of metal against it's own inertia inside Midway, which made her arms very wiry and muscular. This translated to great strength in the game. The Grays were wary of getting within fistswinging range of Bulletwoman. Gray team was the favorite of the WDF's Baroness majority. Their proud record was 7645. The Gray Storms were led by their Freeball himself, Mr. Brand Miletta, who went by the game name "Gray Arrow." He was honored by his opponent's best efforts to defeat him, and made it a personal rule never to seduce or be seduced by members of the Red Rovers, lest they be influenced and play less than their best against him. Limber amazon Jade was the Interior Van for the Grays, "Airgirl." The 13th member of the WDF, she was also the Grid Administratrix. She kept her blonde hair very short, in a tight buzz cut. Born Samantha Carlson, she joined the WDF in 1989. Jade was Joey Miletta's best student, and took over for him when he was compelled to hide at Saturn. As Airgirl she viewed the game as a series of problems to be solved logically, much like the way a computer would tackle it.

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Agile Exerior Van Marina, aka "Sky Girl," was a doeeyed brunette with her hair braided in a basket weave. She was born Vanessa Guimond and joined in 2037. She was one of Midway's gardeners, growing fresh fruits and vegetables in large centrifuges under bright artificial lights, a job which also involved distributing Midway's own human waste as fertilizer for the plants. "A shit job but someone has to do it," she often said. She was the Gray team's highest scorer. Petite Interior Flanker Karen, also known as "Cosmic Girl," was a feline player with red hair in a crew cut too short for her opponents to grab. She laid down her given name of Melissa Kitzman and came into the WDF in 2020. Karen was a tunnel rat who seemed to know where the richest veins of untapped water ice were inside Midway and led her small team to find them unerringly. In a Freeball game Cosmic Girl easily tunnelled her way out of Red attempts to surround her, bending and twisting her body like a maggot to wriggle free. Karen usually had the most Grid riders behind her eyes.

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Spry Exterior Flanker Sabrina was an alluring redhead who used the alias "Doll Woman." She was born Caroline Brookins and came aboard the WDF in 1994, the same year as opposing teammate Heidi. Sabrina was in charge of the suite of optical and UV telescopes on the side of Midway that always faced away from the bright blue and white glare of Earth. The WDF did astronomy of their own, and they also made a tidy sum doing observations for parties that couldn't afford time on any of the big name orbiting space telescopes. The advantage the Midway telescopes had over the more established orbiting ones was a shorter down time if they failed, because spare parts and repair personnel were already on hand. Doll Woman didn't really distinguish herself in Freeball play, but she was a real hustler, possibly the most eager and hardest working one out there, even if it didn't usually pay off in crucial plays.

Shapely Interior Wingback Raye was "Hawkwoman." Originally Veronica Adams

before joining the WDF in 2033, her dark blonde hair sported a french knot. She was Midway's only doctor, responsible for the health of everyone serving there and sometimes called to treat injuries sustained aboard ships in low Earth orbit. Members of the WDF tended to neglect their health, to Raye's despair, knowing they were only borrowing their body for a year or two. When Hawkwoman played Freeball she was brutal and some thought she was trying to drum up her own business.

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Finally there was the glamorous Interior Wingback Caitlin, alias "Chameleon Girl," who had shoulderlength light brown hair which she let fly free during a game. She was born Megan Peterson and joined the WDF in 1990, the same year Debby of Chivalrous joined. She came up with Intimate Stranger, a popular perfume formula made from from simple household chemicals, doing to the bigname perfume manufacturers what the Phantomizer did to oil companies. On Midway Caitlin mixed the raw materials found on hand trying to find useful products to make. In Freeball, Chameleon Girl was very effective at making herself "invisible" to the Reds, or at least forgotten as she hugged the wall. Chameleon Girl liked to lay low until the Red Rover's moment of supreme vulnerability before springing up and changing the outcome of a riff. In the fourth jam the Red Rovers were down a point, 1211, and missing their Exterior Van. Freeball was rough. Plastic Girl had her knee deliberately twisted after an egregious Gray team foul that awarded the Red Rovers a free shot and an easy point, tying the game at 12 points each. Now with just over a minute left in the gig, Red team took out their vengeance, bodyslamming the Gray culprit, Sky Girl, so hard into a side wall that the wind was knocked out of her for the duration of the game. All she could do was moan and take little breaths, she was definitely in no condition to resume play in the extremely oxygendemanding game.

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Almost a hundred members of the WDF who were "riding" with Sky Girl had to watch the rest of the game with her head through a hole in the wall, from outside the Gamecore. Sweeter for the Red Rovers, Gina didn't call a foul for the hit, but everyone knew it was pure retaliation. Now with both teams were down to six members apiece, the Red Rovers glimpsed the possibility of winning. With the end cap ten yards away, the Reds all kicked together and flung the Red Torpedo as fast as they could on a final lastditch hope to get him down there. The reaction hurled every Rover in the opposite direction. Except for the Freeball, who was stickyVelcro all over, the players had sticky Velcro all up and down their left side and the fuzzy nonsticky pads on their right, ready to snag the Freeball. To prevent this, he moved his body violently to present a more difficult moving target to the defending Gray Storms. Fortysix seconds to go. Gray Flankers approached, first Cosmic Girl and then Doll Woman, who presented their right side first. He swing his arms to fight them off but they bounced off the Red Torpedo like billiard balls and influenced his direction.

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Chameleon Girl and Hawkwoman let their sticky right side grab Ron Cooper and coast along, slowing him down. The end wall loomed. Ron the Freeball struggled to get free, but the girls coordinated their gyrations to allow them to bounce off the wall on their nonsticky left sides. In a few more seconds they managed to fling Cooper against the Gamecore inner wall at the two yard ring, where he stuck fast. Gina blew her whistle and that riff was over. The referee Gina (formerly Staci Pritchard of the Seattle Safe House incident long ago) was the Commanding Officer of Midway. The "whistle" she wore around her neck which was actually a transmitter which flickered the lights and activated a piercing electronic tone, as well as allowing her to start and stop the game clock. The problem was that everyone couldn't just stop at Gina's whistle. They all carried on coasting until they reached the nearest side wall. Teammates helped when they could. Then the possession switched to the Gray Storms. The defending Red Rovers took the risk of placing all five girls in a ring at the required ten yard offset distance, hoping by sheer numbers to capture the Gray Freeball as their own and fling him back at the end cap for a point. Brand Miletta was positioned out in the center of the core at the two yard ring and the team took up the shotgun configuration. Chameleon Girl and Hawkwoman came out from the walls and met him in the center. Their other three teammates paired up at the 6 and 11 yard rings.

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At Gina's whistle the clock resumed with 22 seconds left to play in the gig. Chameleon Girl and Hawkwoman had curled into fetal positions at the Gray Arrow's feet, and he was also curled up. At the sound of the whistle all three made themselves straight as fast as they could. He surged forward, the girls were flung back. By the time the Gray Arrow was getting an assist from the Gray Flankers, Chameleon Girl and Hawkwoman reached the elastic end cap feet first and kicked back off again, perfectly timing it to take advantage of the thumping rebound. Spinning on his long axis now to make him harder to grab, when the Gray Arrow reached the defending line of the Rovers his Wingbacks had overtaken him and joined Van Star Girl to help face the defenders. Freeball was a contact sport. The three Gray Storms kicked and puched to formed a narrow tunnel for him to drill through, scattering redclad bodies like bowling pins. Red Flankers Tracer and Lady Ranger linked hands to swing off each other and change course, tumbing head over each other's heels. Thus, Tracer was flung after the Gray Arrow, but she was going too slow to catch him.


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Stinging from a blow, Red Interior Wingback Madame Fantastic reached a wall feet first and did a little dance. "Left foot sticks, right foot kicks," she chanted, launching herself back out again to chase after him. She was moving very fast, but the Gray Arrow was floating straight and true, while she could never get the leverage to fly straight down the Gamecore, but only made a series of angled bank shots. It was apparent she could never catch up to him. Finally she had to give up trying. Time ran out and Gina blew her whistle signalling the end of the gig. But Brand, the Gray Arrow, was still moving, near a corner now but he twisted his body to avoid being caught along a wall. Nine seconds after the whistle he impacted on the end cap for the gamewinning point, which still counted. Another "W" for the Gray Storms. As he was requested, Brand Miletta joined Robyn in the Executive Lounge, with its view of Earth 2,500 miles below. He was still breathing hard, trying to catch up on his oxygen deficit, and he wished he could have showered first, but Robyn was anxious to speak to him. "Congratulations on the big win," she told him. "Thanks! I understand you are a fan of the Red team, though. Sorry about that." "It's okay," she shrugged, "I'm in for the long haul. The extremely long haul. Someday the Reds will be unstoppable. But now it's time to talk about your future, Brand. We have always considered you a part of our family because of your father and how much we owe to him"

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"And also because I have knowledge that could end your Phantomizer monopoly," Brand interrupted. "True! And that's precisely why we've taken great pains to protect you from certain people within the American federal government who would dearly love to set their claws into you. But recently things have spun out of control down there. In fact, some states have left the US altogether, so you could say they are having a second American revolution right now. No one knows how it will go, but it is likely that there won't even be a federal government by week's end, or at least one that is much smaller and more observant of the rights of the people and the Several States, like it was in the beginning." "So you're saying it's safe for me to go to Earth." "Yes, Brand, I think that option is open to you now. Maybe not to the USA, not for months on account of the violence, but there are many countries who would take you in with open arms, and you have your inheritance to live on. Quite a sum. Your father's 'spirit' in the Grid agrees that it's safe now. The people who wanted to capture you are thinking about saving their own skins right now."

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"Yet I would be living on the inheritance of my father, and I would be, in effect, still his dependent. Robyn, I want to strike out on my own. I want to build an inheritance for my son, should I become a father someday." "In that event," the Empress answered, "you could buy a home on the Moon, or on Fortuna when it's completed. The WDF has settlements on Mars and even in the asteroids. You would live with us, no longer as a guest, but as a man pulling your own weight. I can't promise you'll ever get rich that way, but that is a possibility." "Robyn, I love my WDF family, but I feel smothered by you sometimes. And there's that problem my father encountered, you know, where every girl he falls in love with eventually gets rotated to Data Storage and becomes someone else on him." "Yes, I know, that's why he married so late in life and asked for Blyn to be taken out of the rotation." "Can you give me a ship?" "Give you one? Dearest, I'm a capitalist at heart. I can sell you a ship, but it would take everything you have in your account, and even then I would be letting it go at a discount, because I love you and your father."

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"Do you have a particular ship in mind?" "You can buy Chivalrous, it's old and ready to be replaced, but it would serve you well. But consider my offer carefully, Brand. It will literally cost every Solyad you have, and you will truly be a 'Freeball' because the WDF be discharged of any further obligation toward you." He lit up at this. "You mean I'll be on my own at last? Robyn, it's a deal."

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When Brand left Midway with a full tank of water, he had to decide where to go. All he knew was he wanted to get very far away from the WDF. That ruled out the moon and Mars. And the WDF was starting to creep into the asteroid belt too. As far as making a living went, ice prospecting was all that Brand knew how to do (from helping his father Joey), but there was not enough water onboard to go to Saturn. Well, enough to do a Saturn flyby, but not to stop there. Brand's choices were whittled down to basically just Jupiter. So he did the calculations and made the departure burn. There was plenty of food aboard but no showers were possible during the transit, only sponge baths, and once every two days Brand would wash his hair in a plastic bubble with elastic collars for the neck and both arms to contain the water. There was nothing like a good shampoo to make him feel like a million Solyad again. But it was a long and boring transit to Jupiter. The bridge was lit with dim blue lights and the constant hisses and whistles and chatter on the HF band tended to lull him to sleep. Once every week or so he would have an honesttoGod real contact, another ship passing in the night a hundred thousand miles away. Jupiter and its moons made a miniature solar system within the solar system, some 32 million miles across if you counted all the asteroids scooped up in the planet's gravity. It was really a system only 2 million miles across if you considered it to be just Jupiter, four big moons, and small change. Still, it was four times bigger than the EarthLuna system and there was a lot more to see.

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Brand selected an elliptical orbit that allowed him to view all the major moons close up, one after the other. On one orbit, as Jupiter eclipsed the sun, Brand spotted a very thin backlit ring. It was deep within the gravity well of Jupiter. When he circularized his descent ellipse the ship was 'running on fumes.' Certainly he did not have sufficient water to escape again. So it was a gamble. It was a narrow set of ringlets, far skimpier than the glorious rings of Saturn, but no one else was mining the ice there. It was cherry. Brand snuggled Chivalrous in among the ice and pulled up next to a forty footer. With a little hot water still in the ship's tanks, a spacesuited Brand melted a hole into the ice and secured an umbilical between the ship and the ice ball. He got a cycle going, with hot water melting the ice, and cold meltwater being sucked back into the ship's tanks. Part of the new water was diverted, heated, and cycled back out to the ball to melt some more ice. In a week he had the tanks nearly full again, and the iceball was a jagged mess. Then Brand got underway again, and found another forty footer near the outer edge of the ring. He attached a transmitter to it, and then gently rammed the front of Chivarous against it before bringing the ship's engines up to full power. The fortyfoot iceball blocked the impact of the remaining smaller iceballs on the ring's edge as they plowed their way out into clear space. When sufficient velocity had been obtained to send the iceball towards Earth, Brand started braking Chivalrous with retrofire. Through the front viewport he watched his iceball shrink to a point.

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He patted himself on the back. It would be only only two years transit time from Jupiter to Earth, instead of the six years from Saturn to Earth. But he himself ran out of time when he noticed a clump of his hair drifting in the air. The radiation from Jupiter's much larger version of the Van Allen belts had piled up too fast. Hair was falling out and he started throwing up all the time. Now Brand understood why no one had mined the ring of Jupiter. He went to the L2 point at the backside of Io to recover, and took CureAll to fix the leukemia that developed. While he was nursing his health back, the orange and yellow and red pizza moon Io beckoned to him below. The Chivalrous had landing legs that folded down, so it was possible to go to the surface of relatively small bodies like the moon Io. Brand landed on a powdery gypsum plain. He gazed out at the scene. Io was a cornucopia of mineral wealth, but it was a violent place. There were constant quakes, eruptions, vents, and geysers caused by Jupiter's tidal grip on the satellite. There was a strong return on radar about twentytwo miles to the southeast. It could be an outcropping of metal ore. Brand didn't have a separate vehicle to check it out. They had to fire up Chivalrous and use the whole ship make a little hop to the contact. When he arrived he found a fresh sinkhole, with some type of machine halfswallowed by it. Brand donned his spacesuit to make the short walk over and investigate. 166 -166

If someone was inside, Brand at least knew why he hadn't picked up a distress call. There was an antenna that had been snapped clean off. He picked up a stone and banged on the exterior, then set his helmet against the machine to hear any reply (since sound could not travel well at all in Io's extremely thin air). Presently there came a metallic return banging, so Brand interpreted that as an invitation to try the air lock in the rear of the large machine. Inside was a woman Brand found to be extremely beautiful despite being knocked around a little by the walls of the tilting machine. "You've come to save me!" she yelped, throwing herself on him and squeezing him hard. He took off his helmet. "I'm Brand Miletta." "Jabs Naseth," she said, touching her blonde hair rolled in at the shoulders. "I've been stuck here for days." What is this thing?" "This is one of my father's topsoil harvesters. A sinkhole opened right up under me while I was working."

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"Why didn't your father come looking for you?" "I'm sure he is. But this place is the size of Earth's moon, you know. I flew the harvester down from orbit and this looked like a good spot. Dad doesn't have a clue where to start looking." "Maybe I can pull you out." "It won't do any good, I'll still be stuck here. The front of the harvester is crushed." "Well, Jabs, get your suit on and we'll walk to my ship." "I don't have a suit. Look, I live on my father's ship. I just get in the harvester, come down here and drive around until it's full, fly back to the ship, and my brothers empty the bins and get the harvester ready for tomorrow. I've been doing this since I was a girl of eleven and nothing ever happened. I never needed a suit." "When you take such little regard for your own safety, you're not thinking about those who love you. I'll be back shortly." Brand went to Chivalrous and obtained something like a body bag, but with hose fittings on it.

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When he returned to the harvester, he laid it out and asked Jabs to crawl inside it. "This isn't a fullup spacesuit but it's the best I can do. It's used to transport wounded in airless places. I'm going to carry you to my ship." So he zipped her up, plugged the bag into his suit to inflate it, and set out on foot back to his own ship, carrying her easily in the small gravity. With the sun glinting off his vacuum suit, Brand was literally Jabs' Knight In White Shining Armor. On his ship he plied Jabs with food. She was starving after being trapped for so long. As he watched her eat and talk to him, stretching out her long bare legs and flashing smiles at him, Brand quietly and methodically fell in love. There were about 13,000 active members of the WDF in space, and about 10,000 exWDF members in space who were over 47 years of age. Their bodies were sold to wealthy people, men or women, who were close to death. This gave them thirty or forty years of new life, and the WDF would let them deal with the problems those bodies experienced as they slowly broke down. Living on the moon or in free fall tended to extend their lives another decade. Some of the extremely rich had already cheated death the bodyswap way twice. About a thousand men of all ages purchased used WDF bodies as a substitute for gender reassignment surgery. There was roughly an equal number of nonWDF members of all nationalities working and living in space, but they were divided more or less equally by gender. This meant that all told, women outnumbered men in space by three to one.

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Most of the men who were available to Jabs were simple laborers. The ones who had any money or property were few and far between. Yet here was Brand with his own ship, and a fairly large ship at that. Obviously he was a man of means. Not realizing that Brand was smitten already, Jabs didn't even dare to hope she might land Brand. The trends were against it. Resigned to her fate, she told him where to go to rendezvous with her father's ship. Nathan Naseth's ship was roughly the same size on the outside as the Chivalrous but there was more living space inside. The lesser volume of water tankage didn't matter, because Mr. Naseth never left the Jupiter system, where water was plentiful. Brand returned his daughter to him with her virtue intact. Joyous at her safe return, Nathan invited Brand to abide with him for a while so he could show his gratitude. The Naseth operation was moderately welltodo. Nathan and his two sons, with help from Jabs, surface mined Io for the everrenewing minerals that streaked the surface as the moon continously turned itself insideout. Even some companies on Earth were customers of theirs. Nathan was a wise man, and he could see the love Brand had for Jabs written in his eyes as plain as could be, even if Jabs herself, overcome with selfdoubt, was blind to it. He began to speak time and again how important his daughter's role was to his family's livelihood, how she had been a good earner for years, and what a struggle it would be if she ever left.

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Nathan's clever ploy had the intended effect. "I will serve you five years for the hand of your daughter Jabs," Brand told him, taking the plunge.

Nathan was willing. Brand would make a worthy soninlaw. He said, "Daughter, do you agree to this?" Her heart skipped a beat, but she regained her composure. "Let it be done as he said." So Brand lived and worked with the Naseth family and put Chivalrous at the service of Nathan until the five years of his servitude were fulfilled. The Naseths prospered, and although Brand never broke trust with Nathan and touched his daughter, the five years flew by as though they were as many weeks, because Brand loved Jabs so greatly. During his five years of service to Nathan, the iceball Brand sent hurling towards Earth from Jupiter's ring, the one that cost him all the down time with illness, reached the vicinity of the Moon but apparently "broke cherry" in the lexicon of iceball cowboys. That is, the individual whom Brand contracted to receive the ice and make payment, a Mr. Roth Wardian, took possession of the ice but never came through with the money. Brand sent messages to the WDF asking for help.

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After discussing the matter with Joey Miletta himself, who was now just "Joy," Robyn agreed that it was a serious thing and contacted Brand. On this occasion, there was an hour and forty minutes of round trip travel time for the transmissions, so it was nothing like a conversation. When Brand spelled out what happened, he asked Robyn if she could "take care of my Roth Wardian problem?" Robyn agreed to look into it. As it turned out, Brand wasn't the first one Roth Wardian broke cherry with, he had quite a bad reputation back at Saturn. No one there would do business with him, which is why Brand found it so easy to get the contract with him. With the money from Brand's iceball Roth went out to the asteroids, where the WDF lost his trail. When the WDF picked his scent up again, they were ready to shove a Brushfire missile up his ass, but they ran into a problem which Robyn explained to Brand several months after his first call. "Roth Wardian is now the sole proprietor of 'General Materials Corporation,' and we know exactly where he is. I'm including the oneline orbital elements for his rock in this transmission, your robot Fred can decipher them for you. But the thing is, Brand, we can't touch him. There's nothing to hit. He lives inside this cluster of boulders called the Gravel Pile. They're all just sort of floating there, more or less loosely held by gravity into a ball. If it was a solid rock we could crack it maybe, but the Gravel Pile is already cracked. It's one thing to strike this asshole from a fighter in passing, but I'm not willing to send troops in there to dig him out. And I'm sure that's not what you're asking me for. So accept my apologies and go with our love, Brand. Better luck next time. Robyn, out."

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Finally came the day when Brand went to Nathan and said, "The days of my service are complete. Now give me your daughter to be my wife, as you agreed."

And Nathan said, "Yet a few days more. A ship orbiting a moon of Jupiter is

no place to hold a proper wedding." When all was ready, Brand and the Naseths went down to Jupiter itself in a lighter to the balloon city of Onex. Financed by the money from a hydrogen scoop, and unthinkable only a few decades before, the city of Onex was supported by clusters of balloons in the supremely dangerous atmosphere of the planet, a place of indescribable beauty. Think of all the colors of a thunderstorm at sunset with vast pink thunderheads, lightning flashes, and dark cloud shadows sliced by sunrays in a glory, and you had the environment of Onex on a drab day. But it was a time of tension. The network of electrostatic ring "scoops," operated by the balloon cities for decades, dove in and out of the atmosphere collecting hydrogen for combining with the oxygen in lunar rocks to make water. A year before Brand's wedding, the First True Church of God destroyed some of those hydrogen scoops to increase the value of their own Europa seawater, and a state of war existed between Jupiter and Europa.

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It was a lavish wedding, and especially lavish too was the scenery on Jupiter for the entire five hours of daylight of the Jupiter "day." Against this incredible panorama, as Brand and Jabs exchanged vows to become man and wife, another balloon city, Jossis, was seen passing Onex a hundred miles away. They were like ships at sea, meeting for the first time. And the last time. In a First True Church of God missile attack, distant Jossis was destroyed in the full view of Brand and Jab's wedding party at the height of the reception. The guests were horrified to see all the supporting balloons punctured and thousands of people falling to their deaths deep in the churning depths of Jupiter, where the pressures rose beyond the imagination. Thoroughly intimidated, all of the surviving cities, including Onex, swore neutrality toward the First True Church of God. Brand took Jabs and fled Jupiter, returning to Chivalrous above Io. Jabs' dowry was one of her father's harvesters. With his ship, his harvester, Fred, and Jabs, Brand could immediately set up a rival operation to Nathan's, but he honored his fatherinlaw too much to deliberately strike at his living. Brand knew that Nathan never dealt in carbon, so he moved to the other side of Io and decided to try that. Gambling that carbon was going to become expensive they prospected for graphite. But misfortune struck again. A large eruption of almost pure carbon depressed prices and wiped out all of Brand's gains. A year after marrying Jabs he was back to his original resources.

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With instant gender change, complete down the the chromosomal level, that which made mankind dissatisfied with just grass huts disappeared. Men could step over and sample Nature. Women could step over and offer their Energy. The problem was that the men's hearts weren't really in continuing the race and women's souls had little "energy," little unallocated power to be harnessed and made to serve. This was something that went down to their very cells. People were playing with the dangerous stuff of the evolved unconsciousness here. And gender was the least thing that was being messed around with Custommade animals had long been used to fill gaps men were not willing to wait for nature to fill. They were particularly useful in the terraforming of Mars. However, human genetic engineering began to blur what it meant to be human. First contact with alien races may have been the "weather balloon" in 1983, but Second Contact was when people realized the real aliens were us. One of the most popular adjustments was getting rid of legs, to the chagrin of leg men everywhere. They were useless in zero gee and were often replaced by another set of arms, which led to another whole set of fetishists who were into sex partners with four hands. Of course, those variations could never "set foot" on a planet. Purely functional mutations like that were not as common as the ones appealing to the ever more bizarre sexuality of the inner system. The body fads lost their appeal after the Bioethics War, but even as human forms became more stable and distinct, genders and sex roles continued to remain totally out of focus. Robyn was faced with the infiltration of boys who became girls in order to become WDF and live forever.

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Now Saturn was a hundred times heavier than the Earth and deeply cold, something like 350 degrees below zero, because the tiny sun only gave about 1% of the light and heat to Saturn that it did to the Earth. But that was still about 5000 times brighter than the full moon in Earth's night sky, and the eyes could adjust, so seeing wasn't a problem. The ring system was huge. In fact, if the famous "braided" Fring is taken to be the outer edge, it takes light a full second to cross from one side to the other. The Bring was the brightest one, because it was about six hundred feet thick. The second brightest was the Aring, which was one hundred and fifty feet thick. When Chivalrous arrived, the six hundredfoot ice ball which Brand laid claim to (the same size as his father's) sat in the middle of a local thickening of one ringlet in the Aring. The nearest neighboring ringlet was 13 miles away and moved at only a walking speed relative to Brand's ice ball, only 3 miles per hour. In all that vast area, the arrival of Brand and Jabs by all rights should have gone totally unnoticed. They should have made hardly more than a blip. But the Stratis gang were once neighbors of the Milettas, if four or five hundred miles between folks made them neighbors, which at Saturn it did. Kerr Stratis remembered well the departure of Joey Miletta with his family and a six hundred foot ball of ice.

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The Miletta family had, in fact, hit the jackpot. They moved to Earth to live in style, and here was Joey's kid come back to see if lightning would strike twice. The nerve of the Miletta family not only to come back to this hell, but to do it with a mind to make a fortune, to make a dynasty even, and to rub that in his face! Whatever happened Kerr swore to himself this little Miletta dynasty would be nipped in the bud. Otherwise all the other families would get the same idea, leave Saturn with their iceballs, and where would be the hosts for Kerr to feed on? After the burn, a fourth of Brand's water would be gone. If the ice ball were remelted at that point and allowed to become a solid ball again it would have a diameter of only 475 feet across instead of the original 600. There didn't seem to be any way around the requirement for a second burn at the destination. They had to "circularize" the descent ellipse, or the ice ball would be moving too fast and it would start to climb back out toward Saturn's orbit again. A second burn would reduce the ice ball in mass again, and it would be as though Brand set out with an ice ball only 380 feet across. He could avoid the second burn by crashing the ice ball into an asteroid, but it would vaporize on impact and the whole thing would be gone. There would be no payday.

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But there was one "asteroid" in the Belt that wasn't an asteroid at all. According to Robyn's data it was a milewide collection of smaller rocks, boulders, pebbles, and sand, all spinning just fast enough to keep from sticking together, but not spinning fast enough to fly apart. General Materials owned it, which is to say, Roth Wardian owned it, and he made a tidy profit mining its innards, because he could borrow around anywhere inside it without the expense of drilling solid rock. GenMat called it the Gravel Pile. "Are you crazy?" Jabs said with some alarm. "That's the same guy who ripped you off!" "Honey, I know what I'm doing." Brand reckoned that his ice ball could crash into the Gravel Pile without blowing up. Oh, it would break up alright, but the fragments of ice would just be swallowed up inside the Gravel Pile and Wardian could go in there and grab it easier than other companies could drill for ice on asteroids that already had great veins of it. Now asteroids were all on different orbits with different periods, and the relationships between them were always shifting. Sometimes a lot of waterrich asteroids would drift close together. Supply would outstrip demand and water prices would plunge, at least for that region of the Belt.

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Other times a "desert" would form when few or no asteroids bearing water would be in a region, and the price of water would sharply increase. The Gravel Pile was entering such a "desert." Brand knew Roth Wardian of General Materials would remember his name, so he let Jabs negotiate the contract under her maiden name of Jabs Naseth. Roth knew the Naseth family, and was eager to do business with her. He was also aware of the coming dry spell, and that's why he agreed to Jab's idea to crash the ice ball into his Gravel Pile, and also agreed to pay Jab's almost insane asking price. He knew Jabs would be flying in with the iceball and who knows how much protection, so Roth didn't plan to "break cherry" on her, but when all was said and done, Roth figured he would still make a killing. He'd have the only asteroid with water ice for millions of miles around. It was slow going, the negotiations, because round trip for radio transmission at light speed was three hours.

Kerr Stratis could never have done the planning and the thinking for such a stunt, but he didn't have to. Brand may have taken great care to use only a very directional beam for Jabs to talk to Roth Wardian, but directly behind the dish antenna the signal had a back lobe and Kerr's remotely piloted little satellite sat there and listened in to everything Jabs said.

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Kerr got it into his head that if he moved really close to the Miletta kid, say only forty or fifty miles this time, and if he watched Miletta like a hawk, it could be his ticket out of the Rings. When it was underway he could take over the iceball, kill the Milettas, and ride her down. The Stratis gang was mobile. They had a taut little warship that could be controlled by just the three of them, or even just two in a pinch. Kerr Stratis parked in Brand's ringlet 75,000 km from Saturn's cloud tops. He sat there forty miles to the east. By Saturn's standards, this wasn't being a good neighbor. It was akin to parking one's mobile home flush up against another one. Brand remembered Kerr's little gang well from his childhood here, and he was well aware of their reputation. He knew this sign couldn't be good.

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All her life Robyn marveled at the power of religion to harness the faithful, even when their scriptures were chockfull of glaring contradictions. It occured to her one day that the obvious differences of the WDF, the ability of their "souls" to live forever, their utter disregard of death, their truly longrange thinking, could be explained in religious terms. It would serve to heighten their mystique and even serve as a defensive shield. WDF property would become holy precincts, and the faithful (inside the WDF and out) would hurl their bodies in the way of attackers rather than see the holy places desecrated. In 1996, Robyn set about writing the vaguely Taoistic Sacred Scripture of the WDF, which she called the "Buron." The Buron had a pair of gods, Koth and Portho, and a pair of goddesses, Perusa and Candra. Koth was the Great Sky God who created reality and made the Earth a lush garden. Portho was his impatient son, who created human beings in haste, resulting in bodies that aged and died. Perusa was Koth's wife, a maternal figure who taught all the civilizing arts such as agriculture and citybuilding and healing to mankind. Candra was a beautiful maiden, goddess of all the trees and lakes and wild places, who seduced David Lokken and gave birth to Robyn, first in a line of demigods who linked humans and the gods by blood.

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The WDF left tracts about the Buron on sidewalks and the seats of busses. They went doortodoor like the Jehovah's Witnesses did. That the WDF had abilities far beyond those of mortal men was generally understood, and the Buron provided a plain answer why. Robyn discovered that any lie, if it was repeated often enough, became accepted as the truth. Even the contradictions in the Buron creation passages (which implied an endless, flat world) were ignored or "spiritualized" away. Just as Christianity filled a religious void in Ancient Rome caused by a growing skepticism of the Greek and Roman gods, in only forty years, the "144 Verses" of the Buron were filling the spiritual gap left by the Bible in a postChristian world. But when the Buron reached the hardline religious seperatists of the outworlds, the First True Church of God rejected them outright as the false teachings of the hellbound lesbian pagan Jesuit witches of the WDF. At roughly the same time, the pastor Evan Tannich was expelled from the First True Church of God over his unbiblical doctrines, such as ritualized incest and a system of testing called "Cupel" that pitted boys against each other to the death as the passage to manhood. This was the first crack in the wall of FTCoG unity. The animosity between the two movements was so bitter that Tannich and his followers were compelled to leave Europa altogether. They went to Ganymede, the next moon out from Europa, in an "ark." They weren't particularly welcome by the Church of End Times Saints there either.

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Out of pure spite, Tannich abandoned God altogether and adopted the hated WDF Buron as the holy writ of his new Racial Holiness Church. Of course, the spiritual guidance in the Buron, which spoke of voluntarily laying down greed and power and not seeking personal credit for good works, seemed to be antithetical to Evan's harsh letterofthelaw religion. Obviously the Buron needed another text to illuminate its true meaning, and one day Evan unveiled the New Buron, which he said had been dictated to him personally by the Lord Koth Himself. His followers never heard of Koth but they were in no shape to argue with him. They were forced by the End Times Saints to wander on the near side of Ganymede, facing Jupiter, unprotected from the ionizing radiation of the magnetic layers surrounding the planet. Half died before the year was out of crippling radiation sickness. They were called "martyrs." Women's Democratic Forum missionaries dressed as Roman Catholic nuns, wearing Rosary beads with the classic Venus/Woman symbol instead of crucifixes, were received in the airtight tent of Evan Tannich on the border between Ganymede's near and far side. The nuns, Sister Dory and Sister Jana, were pleased that the Buron had found a willing audience among the outworlds at last. They were given a copy of the New Buron written in Tannich's hand, with his wish that it be conveyed to Robyn. The nuns thanked him and retired to their own tent for the evening.

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There, Sister Dory read the New Buron and saw the shape of Tannich's devotion. It was plain he had latched onto Koth as a warriorking God, much like Yahweh had been for the ancient Israelites. "Ironic, isn't it, Jana?" she remarked, chuckling ruefully. "The Christians had their New Testament god of love, which they claimed was the same god of the Old Testament who ordered soandso to smite thisandthat tribe, every man, woman, and child, and now Tannich reverses it. We give him a god of love in the Old Buron, and he turns him into a vengeful sonofabitch in his New Buron." "And he will already have some ready answer how that can be," Jana said cynically. "Like Koth was only a god of love spiritually, or that killing your enemies is showing them tough love or something." By the time Sister Dory asked for a second meeting with Tannich, she had fashioned a strategy. She said, "Last night the goddess Candra appeared to her servants, Sister Jana and I, in a vision. Lady Candra said her father Koth found great favor in the faithfulness of his servant Evan Tannich. She said whatsoever enemy Evan Tannich met on the field, if he cursed them in the name of Koth and in the presence of the servants of his daughter Candra, that same enemy would melt away from the forces of Tannich and flee before him."

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"We shall put this to the test immediately," Tannich replied. "Already the Oligos Pass is held against us by the filthy Church of End Times Scum, which blocks us from crossing the Yoman Mountains and passing onto the farside of Ganymede. In the name of the almighty Koth, and in the presence of the servants of Candra, Sisters Dory and Jana, I curse the forces holding the Oligos Pass with an allencompassing, nonrevokable curse!" Now Sister Dory exercised an option which had always been built into the Phantomizers, but never used until now. Fearing that their own products could be used against them, the WDF built a radio receiver inside each one, which allowed them to start the selfdestruct process by remote control. And the forces of the End Times Saints, whether they purchased their Phantomizers fair and square from the WDF or stole them from others, nevertheless were vulnerable to this option. From a small transmitter plugged into the connector at the back of Sister Dory's head to a satellite orbiting Ganymede, the signal went out to some of the forces guarding Oligos Pass. Not all of them. Perhaps half of their ships or ground vehicles wouldn't work anymore after that point (Dory didn't want to see a total slaughter). When the forces of Evan Tannich's Racial Holiness Church attacked them, they were not prepared to defend themselves. It was all they could manage to pull all their troops out in the remaining vehicles that did work. True to Sister Dory's word, the enemies of Tannich fled before him. Thus began the Lord Koth's conquest of Ganymede.

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When Brand claimed his six hundred foot iceball, he used the engines of Chivalrous to melt a small pond into the surface. Quickly, before the ice froze again, he sank Chivalrous into the ice until he struck bottom. He melted more ice and sank again, and again, using the retrorockets to push them all the way through the ice until the back of the ship was just poking through the other side, with only the engine nozzles and the back door sticking out into space. Then he let all the water freeze again (which put some dents into the ship as it expanded). For the next year he melted many veins into the ice, which would allow hot water to make a slush or slurry, to be used as propellant for the big burn. Also he dug a large chamber in the precise center of his iceball, and there he constructed from scratch, using the knowlege his father imparted to him, perhaps the largest Phantomizer that had ever been built. One time when Brand was working in this chamber he was caught offguard by one of Kerr Stratis' henchmen, Josh Glieck, who had managed to get aboard by stealth. He had Brand in his crosshairs, dead to rights. But Jabs, working over on the Chivalrous, happened to see them together on a screen so now it was her turn to be Brand's Knight In White Shining Armor. With a stab of her finger on a nearby button, the air began rushing out of the central cavern. Brand realized what was happening and quickly took a breath and held it.

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Josh Glieck didn't know what was happening and hesitated in his shot, but he continued to breathe in and out as the air rapidly thinned. Black and white dots danced across his vision as he grew more and more confused. In seven seconds he was unconscious. In three more seconds, still observed by Jabs, Brand grabbed the Phantom gun and turned it on Josh. Jabs hit another button to begin restoring the air to the cavern. In less than a minute Josh stirred back to awareness. Generally, water inside the body is not free. It's mostly trapped in the spaces between knots of proteins, which look like tangled phone cords. Even blood is just a thick syrupy mess, almost a gel. If Brand fired the Phantom beam at Josh's gut he might just run a slight fever. Instead Brand tipped the gun up a little toward Josh's lungs and when he pulled the trigger it was a whole different story. Suddenly all the air molecules in his lungs found they could drift right through each other instead of bouncing off each other like before. His lungs became like bottomless pits ready to accept any amount of air.

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Josh took an involuntary final gasp that went on and on as long as the Phantom beam continued to fire, until maybe ten times his lung's normal capacity was crammed with phantom molecules of air all superimposed on each other. Then when Brand turned the Phantom Gun off, all those molecules started obeying the original rules, such as Pauli's Exclusion Principle, which said they couldn't occupy the same space at the same time. All that suddenly superheated high pressure air came roaring out of Josh's mouth like rocket exhaust, taking flaming bits of what used to be his delicate lungs along with it. It was an incredibly painful but relatively quick death. So that was the end of their Josh Glieck problem. "Fools rush in," Brand muttered, "where angels fear to tread." Jabs entered the cavern armed with her own Phantom Gun, and found that Josh was already dead. "Who the hell is he?" "Probably one of Stratis' boys. I don't know how he got in here, but I don't want to wait around for another try by those guys. We have no choice. Get ready for departure."

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There had been no news from Josh since Kerr Stratis dispatched his henchman to Brand's iceball, but something was up. Predictably, when Brand started his burn, Kerr Stratis shadowed him in his ship. Brand's navigation calculations involved the use of a right triangle. One leg of the triangle was the 4 miles per second Brand needed to get from their circular orbit in the Aring up to escape velocity. The other leg of the triangle was the 3 miles per second he needed to get from Saturn to the Gravel Pile. The third leg of the triangle, then, 5 miles per second, was the bottom line, the total velocity change he needed to come up with. Even if they went stoked the engines of Chivalrous to 100,000 degrees, it was going to consume about half of the ice ball's water just as propellant to get the journey underway. Now anything in orbit that wasn't flying exactly along the equator will cross the equator twice on each circuit, once going from north to south, and again going from south to north. As the ice rock began moving away from Saturn, at every equatorial crossing Brand skillfully wove through narrow gaps in Saturn's A Ring where the sheet of floating ice was thin, a piloting job that consumed all of his attention.

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As they accelerated, some of the ionized hydrogen and oxygen atoms were diverted into storage chambers carved in ice after being separated by electrostatic plates, to be used later for power on the trip to the Gravel Pile. Finally they were free of the Aring, and emerged into empty space. Brand stopped weaving the iceball and sailed straight and true. Kerr Stratis saw this. He said, "I do believe our colleague Josh has been killed. Register our displeasure, Mr. Loreth. One disabling round, center of mass." They lobbed a shell, which flew across the intervening space and hit deadcenter, right between the six roaring engines of Chivalrous' hexagonal drive section. The back door was taken out, and air began to rush out of the ship. "We have a hull breach," Jabs said, striking buttons that would close a series of hatches between the habitation module and the service tunnel to the rear. If they survived this adventure, Brand would have to go back there in a suit and repair the damage.

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"Return the guesture," Jabs said. "I thought this was a warship." "I'd love to, dear heart, but this warship has its nose buried in six hundred feet of ice and its ass sticking out. Fred, you're going to have to just try to evade them. All I can do is program random course changes and hope they won't be able to connect with another round of hundred millimeter." And there was another problem looming. The dense F Ring, focused by shepherd moons, and even "braided" in spots, was too dense to plow through, and too wide to hop over on the ascending and descending nodes. It sat out there like the Great Barrier Reef, but it only blocked the slower descent ellipse used to get an ice ball from Saturn to the asteroid belt. The faster ice balls headed for EarthLuna just missed grazing the outer edge of the ring. Because of this, before Brand's current stunt no one ever actually tried to send ice to the asteroids. After setting the computer to weave randomly when it flew, he left with Jabs. They floated to the simple spherical cavern at the exact center of their ice ball, reached by a long thin tube melted into the ice. As the ship whipped the iceball this way and that to evade more of Kerr's incoming shells and the cave turned around them, Brand and Jabs hovered in free fall next to a pair of gadgets.

191 -191

"Hold your breath," Brand said as they reached final approach. "Here goes." Brand's entire ice asteroid, including Brand himself and his wife, was Phantomized by an omnidirectional burst from the first gadget. The air in the small room, no longer confined by collisions with the walls or by collisions with each other, rushed out almost instantly, and they found themselves in a vacuum. The actual passage through the Fring took less than one second. Brand and Jabs felt nothing. Nor did they see anything but a momentary blankness. With even their retinas Phantomized, their eyes did not block photons of light, just as their bodies did not block the ice of the Fring. Soon, Brand's gadget turned off and they could see again. Some liquid oxygen prepared by Brand beforehand was quickly brought to a boil by the second gadget and filled the room with air again before Brand and Jabs passed out. "We did it!" Brand cheered as they accomplished their Breakout to clear space beyond all further obstacles. "We made it through!"

192 -192

"No collision," Kerr's one surviving henchman Dane Loreth said on the pursuing ship. "The FRing wasn't so much as ruffled by their passage." "The Miletta kid must have found a hole," Stratis concluded. He recklessly steered his ship in after him. Not a glimmer of the truth, that Brand used a Phantomizer to penetrate the Fring, registered on his mind. "There's no hole!" Loreth screamed. "Veer off!" But it was far too late. There was no explosion, for Kerr's ship was waterpowered, so there were no combustibles aboard. The red glow came from kinetic energy as his unlamented ship totally disintegrated and the broken fragments pingponged through the ice. This time the F Ring was ruffled. And that was the end of their Kerr Stratis Gang problem. "Fools rush in," Brand muttered, "where angels fear to tread."

193 -193-

It actually took longer to go from Saturn to the asteroids than it did to go from Saturn to Earth. So this was the Eight Years, a transit without benefit of Phantomizable water, for every single drop of water contained in Brand's ice ball had been Phantomized once and for all just to get it through the F Ring barrier. As Brand's father discovered long before, it was a oneshot deal. Nothing in the universe would get those water molecules to "stand up" ever again. But with some foresight on the part of Brand, some of the energy of the transfer burn was used to effect a separation of a moderate amount of water into hydrogen and oxygen, which was stored as liquid in different ice voids scattered throughout their little asteroid. This could be combined again to make a flame for heating and cooking, or to produce electricity in a fuel cell to keep the batteries of Chivalrous charged up. Still, eight years would be pushing the limit, and strict conservation was observed at all times. With the ship's nose buried deep inside the iceball their only view of outside space was through the remote cameras on the surface. There was nothing to see at any rate. It would be another two years before they even crossed the orbit of Jupiter, and that giant planet would, of course, be nowhere nearby when they crossed. So the unneeded flight deck was largely abandoned.

194 -194

To save power, often Brand and Jabs stayed in just one of the staterooms and kept each other warm, moving to one of the other four staterooms when it started to smell too funky. Clutter from two years of lousy housekeeping hung about them. There were tools, publications, and personal items floating about to no end. All the misplaced objects that briefly caught their fancy, all their referenceonly discarded junk tumbled in the air like the contents of an attic, filling every available space. To reshelf half of it would be an exercise in threedimensional polyominos: possible, but impractical. However, they dared not throw anything overboard yet no matter how trivial. Not with threefourths of the journey yet to complete. So this Crossing became a dreadful selfimposed torture for Brand and Jabs. Oh, it wasn't all torture. Sometimes they came out of hibernation in the staterooms and caught up on the work that the ship demanded. In their routine aboard the ice ball, their "days" blended from afterwork fatigue to late afternoon relaxation to evening lovemaking without any sharp transitions. There was a low intensity sexiness with every moment together and at no instant could one say "now we are making love" or "now we are not." Gradually Jabs took on more than her share of the work maintaining their home, letting the constant activity still her mind. She made routine inspections of forgotten corners of the ice ball and marveled at the reliability of some of the components of Chivalrous, despite the ship's extreme age.

195 -195

But around the twoyear mark petty little perceived slights and injuries boiled up and spilled over. Jabs went on a sabbatical. She got in the harvester (which had been parked for the entire flight in an ice "garage" near the surface melted out by Brand) and moved off for a while, claiming she needed to take the machine out for an extended inspection of the ice ball's exterior. But she went much farther afield than Brand expected her to, and that alarmed him. The controls of the harvester comforted her as she sulked . She'd flown harvesters for her father since she was an eleven yearold girl. Oh, she would still talk to Brand on the radio but there was always the psychological refuge of the off switch and the symbolic "Youcan'treachmefromthereandsweettalkmeintoquittingmytempertantrum."

When she didn't come back within 24 hours the war of words escalated and Jabs began taking the harvester further and further out to "punish" Brand. Of course, she regretted playing this game after they finally made up, especially after realizing how long it was going to take to get back to Brand now that her tantrum had already been thrown and all she wanted to do was see him as soon as possible. At the height of Jabs' folly, she was 200,000 miles away and the time lag actually become noticeable. She couldn't hurry because the harvester's fuel wasn't the Phantomized water anymore but their precious hydrogen. Her selfish fit had been costly.

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Sweet conversations would go on between them. The delay gave Jabs just enough time to compose each of her words before she spoke them. She constructed her response to be as sexy and provocative as she knew how, but she missed the simple spontaneity of actually being with Brand. When the big day arrived Jabs docked at the aft end of Chivarous and delivered Brand's thirtyfifth birthday present: herself. Brand didn't even wait for her to get out, he pressed into the harvester and virtually attacked her. Jabs had crisscrossed herself with red electrical tape like a present and she let Brand devour her. The harvester became the scene of zerogee gymnastics as they welcomed each other back to the heaven of their joined bodies. "I really missed the smell of you," Brand said, savoring the special scent Jabs always had when she had been finished off. "I didn't appreciate it until it was gone." When the end finally came they could only lie there wrapped in each other's limbs, whimpering "I love you" to each other. Every inchpound of sexual torque inside them had been wrung out. They were astonished anew at the amount of sensual joy they had given each other and the complete satisfaction they felt.

197 -197

Lace Mileta was born in 2053 at almost exactly the threeyear point of the journey to the Gravel Pile. She was not born when Brand and Jabs had Phantomized themselves, yet every atom in her little body had already been Phantomized. It was only with constant watchfulness that Brand and Jabs and baby Lace continued on with their miniecosystem intact. Everything was recycled. Air, water, and even their own solid wastes were turned into compost for their little garden. The ship had dried fruits, beef jerky, and canned foods stocked in odd corners which Brand dug out now and then to prevent them from starting to despise eating the same old foods. From the General Store at Saturn's moon of Tethys Brand once bought a supply of meats, kept frozen in nooks of the iceball to suppliment their diet, but they were rationed too. In terms of recreation there was plenty to do. Since they were not going directly to Earth, Brand decided to maintain zerogee for the Crossing (he figured they could all acclimate themselves to gravity at their own pace on the flight from the Gravel Pile to Earth). Free fall play was available. The tenfoot wide hole down the first four decks of the ship was like a miniature Freeball Gamecore once Brand had lined the edges of the decks with padding. To exercise the brain every book ever scanned or otherwise stored in electronic form was in the memory of Chivalrous.

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For atmosphere, he played rock from the 20th Century, music with obvious survival value since it had survived for almost 100 years. He hated the crap they were playing back in the Rings, weird schizophrenic disco Jabs liked but he despised. It was mostly songs about people slitting their wrists and trying to clean up after themselves as they died. Things like that. When it was Jabs' turn to listen for alerts on the alarm board she nursed Lace and took in old movie titles, which were as close to Earth as she had ever been. To Jabs who was born and raised in space, the concept of a sky, a horizon, any scene filmed outdoors, on a "planet" was simply beyond her ken. As Lace grew to become a toddler (if "toddling" was possible in free fall) it wasn't any better for her. She was a secondgeneration space girl. Scenes of Earth were things only seen on Mom's display screens and vaguely understood at best. But Lace did enjoy seeing movies with animals. Aided by Koth's "divine assistance" (which was really the WDF messing up Phantomizers by remote control), the Racial Holiness Church, led by the "prophet" Evan Tannich, instigated a popular revolt that resulted in Ganymede's capital of Relbim throwing open their airlocks and welcoming Tannich's forces into the city, as it was recorded in the new New Buron (for Tannich was rewriting it all the time). In the new New Buron, Tannich styled himself the Mouth of Koth, and wrote of himself in the thirdperson: "...but not of himself did he reign, but only as Koth spoke to him."

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On the occasion of capturing the city of Relbim, Tannich announced that the Church of End Times Saints had formally merged (at gunpoint) with the Church of Racial Holiness, forming the Church of End Times Saints of Racial Holiness, with himself as Supreme Pastor. At first the WDF "servants of Candra" applauded this, but to their shock he turned on the nuns and started actually preaching against their patron goddess Candra. He said, "Thus says Koth, 'Candra! My daughter! This your father has against you, that you have permitted your followers to believe that the line of Robyn carries your blood. "Uh oh," said Sister Michelle, who had rotated in to replace Sister Dory as the senior nun. "'Because you do not affirm that the Women's Democratic Forum carries only human blood, behold! I make you human yourself. This day you are no longer a goddess, and are doomed to die, for perpetrating the lie that the WDF are demigods. About this time the nuns of the Women's Democratic Forum realized Robyn had created a monster. "'To the women of the WDF no burden is placed on you unless you continue to worship Candra as a goddess, for I, Koth, am the only God. There is no other.'"

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It was only with quick thinking, plus a little superstition fear on the part of the people, that the Missionary Sisters made it out of the city in one piece. The only weapon they had now to stop the practitioners of this supremely ugly perversion of spirituality from attacking the WDF was the very Phantomizer "zapper" they used to put them into power. Shortly after this incident Tannich died of cancer from his years of overexposure to Jupiter's intense radiation. Refusing to take CureAll or undergo the many common and effective treatments for the cancer, Evan actually practiced what he preached. By his own example he accepted the judgement of the universe that he was unfit to survive in that environment and he went on to Koth's paradise of Anabas. Others who had proven worthy to survive would carry on his work. Indeed, the ones left over seemed to be more or less immune to ionizing radiation. Soon the Church of End Times Saints of Racial Holiness, led by Klaus II Axelrod now, colonized the Jupiterfacing side of Europa, to the great consternation of the First True Church of God. Smugglers bought Church of End Times Saints of Racial Holiness water "poached" from the radioactive side of the First True Church of God's moon. Punitive bombing and commando raids by the First True Church of God on the nearside of Europa and Ganymede, which were not hampered by the nuns this time (because the WDF was now completely out of the picture) nevertheless had little effect on water smuggling.

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As Brand and Jabs and Lace neared their destination, the word got around what was going to happen. Two Water Guild ships begin harassing the incoming Mileta iceball with laser strikes to try to prevent them from getting to the Gravel Pile, for it would wipe out their profit margin. This totally pissed Brand off, and he decided to play his hole card. He melted the ice around Chivalrous and worked the ship free. Her fangs were brought out to bear on the offending Water Guild vessels. But it was all a bluff. There was very little power remaining to fight. But the Water Guild ships recognized the Chivalrous as the WDF's (and indeed history's) very first fighting spaceship and moved off to a safe distance to wait. Brand actually considered the arrival of the Water Guild gnats a stroke of luck. Now he had a valid explanation for his inability to finesse the iceball into the Gravel Pile. He had Jabs radio their buyer and tell him that her Phantomizer had been damaged in the attack so she needed his help. So Roth came out with his four ships and let loose a missile at one of the Guild ships. When it was destroyed the remaining one departed the area with its tail between its legs. Then with a huge carbonfiber net the Miletta's ice ball was taken under tow with Roth's four ships flying at the four points of a tetrahedron. They weren't trying to slow the iceball down, they were merely guiding the ice for the last few million miles. 202 -202

At one point Mr. Wardian paid a short courtesy call to Jabs aboard Chivalrous, where she introduced little Lace and her "boyfriend" whom she definitely billed as the junior partner in the operation. She didn't even see fit to mention Brand's name to Roth, because the deception was still on. Brand acted cool towards Roth, as if flexing his muscles. The idea was to put out of Roth's mind any idea he had of pushing Jabs around when it came time to pay. During this visit Jabs gave Wardian the information for the account which she expected him to credit upon actual delivery of the ice, now less than three weeks away. As planned, Roth Wardian allowed the ice ball to crash deep inside his Gravel Pile, which swallowed it up with hardly a ruffled stone. In fact, only a few boulders were knocked loose forever from the Gravel Pile, and only a fraction of the water was lost as steam. He gladly paid the account of Ms. Jabs Naseth her agreedupon amount. Brand, Jabs, and Lace didn't want to stick around and join Wardian to celebrate their venture. They wasted no time flying aboard Chivalrous to the asteroid Ceres, the largest one in the Belt. Lace was overwhelmed. She was born and lived her whole short little life on a six hundred foot asteroid, and now she was jumping around on one that was six hundred miles across, and even had a little gravity, about 3 percent of Earth's, not enough to beat Lace down, but enough to get her used to the concept of gravity. Ceres was a genuine world. In fact, Ceres was to the Moon in size what the Moon was to the Earth.

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The settlements on Ceres, half above the surface and half underground, were still rather chaotic. There was a wild west flavor to the place, and no one political entity ruled the entire asteroid. However the WDF quarter of the town of Tasker was fairly civilized. They recognized Brand Mileta as their old Freeball for the Gray Storms and let Brand and his family through the gates. As paying customers, mind. They didn't insult Brand by offering anything on the house. Brand inquired about passage to Earth, and was told there would be a military transport leaving in about a month which could make room for them. It wouldn't be nearly as fancy as a fullup cruise liner, but the Milettas had just made a horrible crossing from Saturn and it sounded like the lap of luxury to them. In the meantime he took them up on their offer of hotel accomodations. As long as he stayed here among the WDF they were safe from any retribution from Roth Wardian. For already Roth had discovered the reason for the Miletta's haste. Their entire ice rock was already Phantomized, making it totally useless as a source of power. The possibility of such a thing never made the slightest glimmer in his mind. It never occurred to him that Jabs' ice ball would be made entirely of Phantomized water, because normally that was all thrown overboard as propellant, a natural waste byproduct of the process of moving the dang thing. He had no idea what they did, but he saw that Jabs' collision idea was really just a way to mask the lack of any unPhantomized water on her ice ball to slow it down. 204 -204

Even what little good water there was in the Gravel Pile before the collision was now thoroughly mixed with the bad water, requiring an elaborate test and thus making all his water worthless. Soon the word got around that the Gravel Pile's water was tainted. Roth was financially ruined. His misery was compounded further when he learned who "Jabs Naseth" really was, the wife of Brand Miletta, the schmuck he ripped off years before. So that was it. Brand had his vengeance. It was beautifully played. Roth Wardian swore to use the last dregs of his resources to hunt down and destroy Brand and his whole family.

205 -205

News from the WDF's continuing fiasco on Jupiter's moon Ganymede rolled in. Ruthless assassins, each one a product of the harsh Cupel system, killed every male First True Church of God heir on a single bloody night. Now all the moons of Jupiter were united in the newly formed "First True Church of End Times Saints of Racial Holiness," ruled from the city of Relbim. That was quite a mouthful, so Klaus II Axelrod dropped the silly Church names and simply declared himself the sovereign Emperor of Relbim, and it was thought he or his successors would be a dangerous enemy of Robyn someday. The only good news was that water prices were plunging throughout the system as pumping facilities destroyed in the war were repaired by the Empire and a new sense of normalcy settled in. Brand was relieved that this crash in water prices occured after he got paid for his ice ball. The day of departure rolled around, but the final leg of their voyage would be no luxury cruise. The WDF troop transport Illustrious was designed not for pleasure but to deliver 900 of Robyn's warriorettes to any point in the Solar System ready to fight. It was a drum with many decks, simulating gravity with rotation lest Robyn's army grew soft in free fall. Brand and Jabs joined the brutal physical training regimen to get into shape for the full gee of Earth. Even Lace participated to a degree. After spending her entire short little life in free fall, gravity was still a new concept to Lace.

206 -206

During the year transit, Brand and his family worked their way, at their own slow pace, toward the full "gravity" on the outer rim, guided by the best physical therapists the WDF had to offer. Brand was philosophical about it. "This is where we pay for the zero gravity fun we had all those years." Brand remembered that he and Jabs and Lace were still totally prePhantomized, making all of them uniquely invulnerable to Phantom guns. It was an advantage he didn't want to give up yet, not with Roth Wardian no doubt waiting for them when they landed. The problem was that any water or food they consumed would filter into the cells of their bodies, making them gradually vulnerable to being Phantomized again. The next Phantomization might be under conditions he could not carefully control, like at the point of a gun. Brand went exploring around the ship. Around the inner rim of the ship was a wide passageway called "Broadway" that accessed the propulsion areas. Here he found the Engineering Officer and tried to explain his problem to her without giving anything away. "I don't quite know how to put this," he began, feigning embarrassment. "My wife belongs to a religion that requires all our food and drink to be consecrated to the goddess Perusa. And by 'consecrated' I mean Phantomized for a few seconds. Would that be possible?" "Yes, of course. I could make this station available to you for the whole transit."

207 -207

"Many thanks!" So Brand and his family maintained the oncePhantomized status of every atom in their bodies. One time when Brand was resting from a particularly strenuous bout of exercise, he took a time out near a portal looking out on the spinning universe while Jabs continued to work with Lace. A redhaired member of the WDF in her standard gray miniskirt uniform and kneehigh boots sat down close enough to Brand to speak without being overheard. "It pleases me to see you again...son," she said. "Mother?" he said, looking her in the eyes, but getting a shake of her head in denial. "Father?" "I'm trying to be discreet," the woman said. "I'm not sure your child would understand some crazy lady throwing herself into her life claiming to be her grandfather." "So...father. What do you call yourself now?" "Joy. JOY." "Clever! Not so drastic a shift from Joey. But why a woman? Why only women?"

208 -208

"Robyn is preparing us for star travel. We of the WDF are Femina Caelesitis, she says. Cosmic Woman. The idea is that living in space puts demands on a colony for food and energy. Men bring nothing to the table, but women bring the ability to reproduce. A space colony of nothing but women will have a better chance of surviving than the classic 5050 mix." "You still need men to kickstart the embryo," Brand pointed out. "No, there's a new thing that came out while you were away. We can dissolve the cell walls between two eggs and tease their nuclei together, and 'kickstart' cell division with an enzyme reverse engineered from a sperm cell. So two women can now have a baby girl that is truly a coproduction." Brand shook his head in wonder. "And you accepted this deballing for the sake of eternal life?"

"It's not really immortality you know. We of the WDF say we go back to when Kim Lokken and Charlene Null were first Changed in 1982 but in a real sense Kim and Charlene died a long time ago. The memories that made them unique are so diluted by now there really isn't a Kim and Charlene anymore."

209 -209

"Nor a Joey. It's just a way to ease the fear of death by making life fade slowly away instead of suddenly burning out." "That's close to the mark, son. My personality lingers like an afterimage for a while, but the person named 'Joy' is really like a bus. Some women get on, others get off, and the only thing in common is that we all agree to call ourselves 'Joy.' "And it's the same way with my mother and sisters, only they never were near dying time." "True. Still, they would love to see you again. They can get out here the same way I came, at the speed of light." Brand indicated politely that his wife and daughter weren't ready yet. Joy accepted this, and remained silent for a time. Jabs came over to them holding Lace by the hand. "Who are you talking to, honey?" she asked. "Hi, I'm Joy. I was just telling Brand how much we consider you part of our WDF family. And we take care of our own. If you ever need anything, anything at all, use this phone. You don't need to dial anything, just flip it open." Joy wisely handed it to Jabs, rather than Brand, lest Jabs grow understandibly suspicious of a strange woman handing him a phone.

210 -210

After that they didn't run into Joy again, but several times during the remainder of the voyage they saw another woman using the same body. Roth Wardian was flat broke. His entire fortune was tied up in the Gravel Pile, and he had even taken out some loans to finance the Mileta iceball deal. Soon those creditors would be looking for his head. He had a plan to get his money back, but he'd have to call in a bunch of favors he'd been banking for years, all of them as good as gold. One marker was owed by a thug in the dockyards of Ceres who had his finger in every ship repair contract pie. He told Roth his boys had counted on having Illustrious in "drydock" (meaning the entire ship would be laid up in a chamber with normal atmosphere so work could be done on her hull), but it fell through. The WDF cancelled the work order. That could only mean the ship was being diverted to EarthLuna where better facilities could be used. So now Wardian knew generally where the Miletas were going. And if they had fallen in with the WDF he could narrow it down further, because the WDF mostly operated out of the northern part of Ecotopia. He called in another marker to get passage to Earth on a fast ship. It would be even less of a picnic than the Miletta's trip on Illustrious. His ship was an unnamed cargo transport for rich people on Ceres who wanted their toys sent out from Earthside as fast as possible. The transit would only be five months.

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But there was a catch: it didn't rotate. There was no artificial gravity to get Roth Wardian ready for Earth's gravity. He spent most of the last twenty years of his life in free fall so when he got dirtside he would have serious problems. The waste product of Phantomizers is clean water vapor, but that increases the greenhouse effect. Also there was a lot a scrap heat as more and more people used the miracle energy source. There had been a marked acceleration of the warming trend in recent years. When Brand, his sisters, and their parents came to the Moses Lake spaceport a generation ago the ocean had risen only 100 feet, drowning part of the Seattle waterfront and the nearby cities of Everett and Des Moines, Washington. The rest of Puget Sound City was fortunate, thanks to being built on high wooded bluffs. Now, when Brand and Jabs arrived at the same spaceport at Moses Lake, even some of those lucky communities were in distress, for the sea had risen three hundred feet above the ancient waterline. Moses Lake itself had grown to become one of the world's great cities, rivalling even Los Angeles in southern Ecotopia. Most of the irrigated farmland of the Columbia Basin was developed now, and even the "TriCities" of Richland, Kennewick, and Pasco, sixty miles south of the Moses Lake city center, were merely that part of greater Moses Lake which met the sea. Here the once mighty Columbia River emptied into salt water as a mere trickle after nearly every drop had been used in Phantomizers by the 80 million people and sent into the air as vapor.

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Brand reminded himself that when he debarked on Earth all those years ago it was accompanied by no small amount of trouble. He hoped it wouldn't be the case this time. When Jabs and Lace set foot on Earth for the first time in their lives, they marveled at the millions of people all driving Phantomized water cars on the concrete spaghetti of the freeways. Brand took to driving again like a duck to water. Jabs said, "Driving. It looks impossible to do." "It's exactly like riding a bicycle," Brand said. "Once you learn, you never forget how." "Great," replied Jabs. "What's a bicycle?" When Roth decided to strike, it was against Brand's daughter. He worked through a third party, with men unknown to Brand and Jabs, men who could watch Lace all the time for a moment, any moment, no matter how brief, when Lace wasn't being watched by her parents. One man whisked Lace into a car. Another man, unseen within, whisked the car away.

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It took only a minute for Brand and Jabs to notice Lace was missing. Brand was in a terrible rage at this low blow but he understood it as an escalation of the war. Jabs was an inconsolable wreck. She couldn't sit down the rest of that day. "So Wardian made his move," she said. "I just never thought he'd stoop to hurting Lace." She wanted Brand to call the police. She wanted him to call the WDF. Call anybody. Brand decided to wait until Roth contacted him. The next day, the driver of the getaway car arrived on their doorstep and gave them an envelope. "I work for Mr. Wardian," he told them. "The kid is safe. Mr. Wardian wants a refund. He'll be in touch." Inside the envelope was a picture of Lace, her face wet with tears, tied up in a strange room. "Now call the police!" "I want Lace back alive," Brand told her, shaking his head. "I'll call the WDF instead." "This Roth Wardian guy found your house," Robyn said when they told their story to her. "That's an easy trick. We can turn that right back around and track him down. It won't be hard. They say he's wheelchairbound from the gravity." "Show her the picture," Jabs said. Brand passed the envelope to Robyn.

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Robyn looked at the picture of Lace closely, which permitted everyone available on the Grid to try to match it. This was a problem personally important to Empress Robyn, so many members of the WDF dropped what they were doing to help. A few women recognized the walls behind Lace as the interior of a certain power plant, and relayed this information to Robyn through the transciever Plug at the back of her head. "We're in luck, little Lace is being held in a Phantomizer power plant nearby. At the old Hanford site, as a matter of fact." She fired a glance at Shyla. "Any Phantomizer power plant is open to us," Shyla added. "Maintenance. The WDF can come and go at will." Jabs was fitted out in a WDF uniform. Brand went in his own clothes, but no one would question his presence among the WDF team. He was to be a "contractor" tagging along. Joy and Blyn showed up in a van with two other WDF troops Brand didn't know, Loxie and Jenna. Funny looks exchanged between all the women got Brand thinking.

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The Hanford Nuclear Reservation passed out of the hands of the US federal government with the Revolution, of course. Ecotopia sold the land to various parties. Even the WDF purchased a plat, the portion of land where the first Name Ritual occured. They even left the railroad tracks in place and hunted down the exact same gondola car (the numbers taken from Robyn and Shyla's memories) to establish a Historical Site, the exact place where Kim Lokken and Charlene Null changed their names. The WDF was getting old enough to have monuments to its past. Robyn drove the van right by the site but there was no time to stop and wax nostalgic with Shyla. The power plant was formerly known as Nuclear Reactor Number One. Dirty fission power was long abandoned with the coming of ultrasafe Phantomization, but the old turbines and generators were still used. Only the source of the steam was different now. The WDF team entered a set of doors with keys they had and stood in a large glassenclosed gallery looking down on a dozen consoles attended by technicians. The glass was very thick and they could hear no sound through it. "Just in front of this control room," Robyn told Brand, "behind that far wall, is one of their two Phantomization chambers which provide the power. Should one of those Phantomizers go down for any reason they can quickly shift over to the other reaction chamber until the faulty Phantomizer is repaired by us."

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Robyn led them out of the gallery and down a sloping walkway leading under the ground. In this place a window looked into a round room with a threefoot diameter shaft running from the metalgrated floor to the ceiling. "This is the space between a steam turbine in the ground beneath us," she said, "and the generator above. The steam comes from the Phantomizer chamber and turns huge blades. The rotation is geared down to one RPM, as you can see." They walked further on down echoing concrete passageways and took a glass elevator which faced back toward the parking lot. It burst from underground and rose eight stories to a skybridge which went clear across the gigantic space of the power house. They went went halfway along the skybridge and looked over the edge 80 feet down onto the generators. There were ten redpainted generators, and each generator was the size of a house. No sign of Lace. The WDF team left Brand and Jabs alone, some doubling back, some taking an escalator down, others seeking a way to get on the roof. The skybridge led to a broad observation deck. Here the floor was covered in luxurious thick orange plush carpet and the walls and handrails were trimmed in bright blue. There were various science exhibits scattered around, like a little museum of electricity and physics. Jabs pushed the button on a Jacob's ladder, a pair of rods like an old TV antenna which had an electric arc climbing up it.

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There was another exhibit with a screen activated by a button which was supposed to show video clips of the power plant in operation. A yellow sticky was next to the button, and on it was printed the name "Miletta." Brand pushed the button. Roth Wardian showed Brand and Jabs a live image of his little girl, who was tied up alone and in tears. "Mileta! Shall I describe what will happen to her lungs when the Phantomizer is activated?" Brand Mileta fired a shot at the screen, in a tantrum. "I know where Lace was being kept now," he told Jabs. "It has to be the inactive Phantomizer, the one on standby in case the active one went down." Brand and Jabs entered the chamber. "Mom!" Lace cried. Brand fired a shot at the wall and a shower of sparks flew. Roth Wardian shrugged and activated the Phantomizer, but Jabs and Lace and Brand Mileta were all unharmed. "Lucky shot," Roth said to himself, thinking the Phantomizer was destroyed by Brand. Just as it didn't enter his mind at the time of the buy that Jabs' ice ball had been prePhantomized, it didn't enter his mind now that Jabs and Brand had already been Phantomized, and Lace too, by proxy. Surviving a Phantomizer went against everything he knew. Roth was a criminal character at heart. His mind could only see the Phantomizer as a lethal weapon when people were in its beam.

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Brand took his finger off the trigger, cutting off the beam, and Roth Wardian died in the same horrible manner he intended the whole Mileta family to die. "Fools rush in," muttered Brand, "where angels fear to tread." It was a ridiculous sight, Roth coughing up glowing pieces of his lungs like rocket exhaust, pushing him right back out the door in his wheelchair. At least Lace wouldn't have to look at the grisly end of their Roth Wardian problem. Brand swept Jabs into his arms for an extended kiss. Then the WDF team entered and saw to their great relief that they were safe. They respected Brand and Jab's intimate moment and gathered around Lace instead, showering her with love. "Dearest," Jabs asked, breaking their kiss. "Why are all these strangers fawning over Lace?" "Jabs, honey, Blyn and Joy are really your inlaws. They're Lace's grandparents. Loxie and Jenna are her aunts, they used to be named Chayn and Del Mileta. When you deal with the WDF you have to be prepared for crazy stuff like this." Jabs absorbed this for a moment, then summed it up. "So this was a family affair. The Milettas solve their own problems."

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"I assembled the team," Robyn said. "At Joy's suggestion, no doubt," Brand guessed, seeing his father's guilty grin. Whoops! Joy was caught. "Look at the sweet little thing," Loxie said. "Niece, you have no idea what a happy, rich, spoiled brat you're going to be!" "I want Lace to be a happy, rich, spoiled brat," Brand said. "She's not my son. She's got nothing to prove to herself. She can join your WDF if that's what she chooses. She can fall in love the traditional way and spend the rest of her life with no worries about anything. Don't you see? Lace herself, and her mother and their happiness are my life's reward."

Baby Lace opted for the WDF, of course. On the morning of her 16th birthday, 3 MAY 2068, Lace Miletta was taken by her aunts Loxie and Jenna to a waiting car, packing only a small carryon bag. They couldn't really prepare Lace for the experience she was about to undergo.

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"We know it's not transmitted through the air, like by sneezing," he explained. "Otherwise you'd be in total isolation." "Transmitted how? By blood?" Kim asked. "Like that new AIDS thing they're talking about?" "You must take care never to stick anything into the little hole for the cable guide pin. If you pierce the membrane inside, there is a fluid that can make other people sick just like you if they come into contact with it." "Sick? I don't feel sick." "Kim, your brain isn't even alive anymore!" "Yeah, right. How could we be having this conversation then?" "I'll tell you what we know so far. It spreads just like a virus. When it gets in a nerve cell it...learns the ropes. It learns everything that the cell does in response to chemical signals from other cells, to nutrients, hormones... everything. Then it takes over the cell's job. It uses material found on hand to remodel the nerve cell into a black structure that straddles the length of the old cell but it's skinnier, more compact. No more sloppy proteins floating randomly in water, more like a machine."

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Global warming had turned Greater Seattle into a vast archipelego of islands that used to be scattered zones of high ground. The WDF "boot camp" was called ShangriLa. It was on a twentymile long peninsula that jutted from the Cascade mountain front and pointed right at Seattle. ShangriLa was a 160 acre square plat of woods, hemmed by a tall barbed wire fence. The private Ring Road, a mile of blacktop along the perimeter, was patrolled day and night by a pair of WDF soldiers in a truck, and other soldiers ranged through the interior woods on trails wellknown to them, ever alert for trespassers. The Ring Road provided access to fifty homes on oneacre subplots, all of them estates owned by members of the WDF. The location wasn't ideal for the construction of home sites by any stretch of the imagination. From the entrance, ShangriLa rose steeply to some 900 feet on one part of its western border. The location was more important to the WDF for nostalgic reasons. Contained within the barbed wire fence, in the northwest corner, was the exact place on a trail where Robyn and Shyla had encountered the alien "weather balloon" fourscore and six years before. Loxie proceeded to the locked gate, which bore a sign saying "ShangriLa Covenant Community" There they waited a few minutes for the perimeter guard truck to come around from the other side and open it up so they could drive through.

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Loxie and Jenna accompanied Lace into the reception center but they would soon part. Jenna knew Lace wore size eight. Lace was given a long sleeve, halfgray and halfwhite thick cotton dress with an elaborate decorative pattern embroidered in black thread on the left, or gray side. Pink wool socks went over the feet of her tights, then she was zipped up in a pair of shiny patent leather boots that ended just below her knee. "Now you might be in the WDF Army fulltime," Loxie told her, "or you might just be a civilian. I don't want word to get back to me that you deliberately screwed up to be a civilian. That will adversely affect your teammate's chances of being picked up for corporal." Yes Loxie." Lace was also issued a supply of red nail polish, premoistened towelettes, a lighted makeup mirror, ruby earrings, scented soaps, toe clippers, the list went on. "We are no longer facing a shortage of girls wanting to get in," Jenna said. "Rather, we are turning many away. This has the effect of driving up the quality of our recruits. So we don't treat our boot campers like the scum of the Earth, like other armies do. Still, the WDF is the most formidable fighting force in the world. Part of that comes from your immortality. But it also means you will be toughened up. You're the elite! They'll throw a lot of mind games at you when you get there. Just remember, that's all they are: mind games."

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Lace got three more complete sets of clothes and another pair of boots which she was told to wear only for inspections. She also got one raincoat, which Jenna said would be used frequently, four red WDF tshirts, four pairs of shorts, four pairs of undies, and four bras. There were huggles and kisses, and even tears, then Loxie and Jenna took their leave of her, fairly bursting with pride for their niece Lace. Access to the actual boot camp facilities was through a member's house, out the back door, and into the woods. Most of the buildings looked like fat commas in their top view, irregular, with trees and ferns planted on their roofs. The walkways were gravel and dirt. No airborne photography would capture the existence of a training facility here. Lace was assigned to a room Charlie quad with a girl named Stephanie and another named Geraldine. The corporal of Charlie quad showed them how to fold their clothes. She said, "There's a right way, a wrong way, and the WDF way." Overhead they heard a rumbling that went on for a long time. Room Bravo 2 was being "cycled," that is, they were being exercised intensely for not doing things the WDF way. Lace would learn all about that soon enough. The afternoon of May 7 was a full physical and dental examination by real doctors who were also WDF full members. The women of the WDF tended to neglect their health, knowing there will always be fresh bodies to occupy. Here was the WDF's first real look at the new bodies coming in.


May 8 was their first day to shoot laser rifles at the range. The 9th was when classes actually began. Stephanie, Lace, and Lace were in room Charlie 2. Rooms Alfa 1 and Bravo 3 also began classes that week, nine girls in all. The corporals of the three quads alternated giving the classes. There was a lot of information for the first week but Private Stephanie had been through this before. She was there to help them, for this would help herself. Her chances of advancing to corporal depended on how well Lace and Geraldine did. May 2025 was "Work Week." Their first two days were spent in the laundry room doing the wash of every girl in training, thirty sets of uniforms. Four days were spent on "KP," Kitchen Patrol, mess cranking with the outgoing Bravo 3 room for two days and training up the incoming Alfa 2 room for the next two days. The room leaders like Stephanie acted as waitresses. The rest of them were grill cooks. Lace wasn't happy flipping hamburgers in the WDF, but she knew things would get better. On the afternoon of May 26 Stephanie told Lace and Geraldine she thought their composite score was very high, which did bode well for her advancement. Geraldine's individual score was troublesome, however. Indeed, on the 31st Geraldine was not selected to remain in the WDF Army. She placed moderately high, but still in the lower half of the class. She was to be mustered out and put to work as an assistant to a WDF full member until her connector bloomed. "I outrank Shyla now," Geraldine said with a shrug, trying to cheer herself up. "I'm a civilian."

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Stephanie moved up to Charlie Quad Corporal. Private Lace went out to pick up her new girls, Vera and Annette, and retained residence in room C2. Lace used much of their free time making the girls run up the 900 foot hill on the one mile course, which brought intense grumbling. She said, "Your minimum time on this course is twenty minutes in the final. Any time less than that is extra credit toward your composite score." Work Week came again but Lace wasn't behind the grill this time. She worked out in the chow hall, keeping it clean, setting out milk, and serving the table reserved for the three Quad Corporals. For room inspection on June 25 Vera and Annette missed a spot. Lace found it at the last minute and wiped the dust with her hands. They passed the room inspection but she herself flunked the personnel inspection with her filthy paws. They were supposed to be a team. Lace didn't cycle them or anything, but Vera and Annette were deeply ashamed. They made it up to Lace with a good score on the range, throwing live rocket blades. If a girl became a Quad Corporal it was partly the luck of the draw. She may be a great leader but have a pair of new recruits who don't want to be in the Army no matter what. Or she may be a lousy leader but get two new fish that have their heart set on being officers in the Army themselves. It didn't matter. There were only 3 Quads, so from the 9 Room leaders only three got picked to be Quad Corporals. The rest were to train elsewhere in the WDF as specialists.


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Lace was one of the lucky three. Vera and Annette both advanced to Privates, Room leaders under Lace. She also picked up Private Eve as a Room leader, and six new recruits took up residence in Charlie Quad. May and June had been cloudy and cool, in the low 60's. July 8 ushered in summer at last, but the trees still kept things ten degrees cooler inside the camp. As the corporal of Charlie Quad, Lace started giving classes for the new girls. She taught how them to kill and how to ignore pain. She took a class to the site of the weather balloon crash where it all began and outlined the nature of the Change that was working its way through all of them. "But as to why the aliens made us like this nobody knows." Lace didn't have to crank during Work Week, having already done so twice. "RHIP," she said. "Rank Hath Its Priveleges." And when a room messed up an inspection it was her turn to cycle them in that timehonored tradition. Lace herself was required to attend leadership classes deep into the night. "The Change is starting to take hold," they said. "Sleep beyond about four hours a night is becoming more and more optional for you." Lace was being groomed for great things, and being selected for officer candidate school on July 31 was another step in that direction. After three months, she finally left ShangriLa.

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The WDF determined that Lace would make an outstanding shipboard navigator. Par for the course was memorizing star patterns so she could orient herself in space instantly, but to her this was certainly no chore. Lace loved to look at the stars above all things. So on November 22, 2068 when Lace had been completely modeled on the Grid through her Guardian Angel and she laid down her body and her triple given name of Lace Pauline Miletta to become Yvonne forever, it wasn't the usual virtual reality paradises of sensual ecstasy her electronic mind flitted off to, but rather, to the center of a part of the Grid called Skyglobe where she could gaze on the stars as long as she wanted to. Gaze for the whole two years of her Data Storage time, if Yvonne had her way. In Skyglobe, she had eyes in the back of her head. Literally. Her view was a full 360 degrees left to right, as well as 180 degrees up and down, as though Yvonne was a single omnidirectional eye at the center. Just by thinking about it, she could zoom in toward any region of space until she hit the limits of the resolution of the dataset. Yvonne repeatedly alternated her view with another dataset photographed five months prior. She was looking for changes, which would show up as "blinkers" and catch her attention. Soon she had most of the blinkers identified as planets or asteroids, but one blinker remained that drew her interest. It was a blinking "smudge," not a star.

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The blinking smudge was very close to the star Procyon, the brightest star in the constellation Canis Minor ("Little Dog"). Yvonne thought she had found a comet. She reported her smudge to the appropriate organization and anxiously awaited confirmation of "Comet Yvonne."

But closer observation revealed it was not a comet. The smudge was made up a thousand points of light. Spectral analysis showed a preponderance of hydrogen, but the lines were doppler shifted deeply to the blue, indicating a velocity of 1,500 miles per second! Six months after Yvonne's first observation they had a range to the smudge by parallax, about one lightyear, and the smudge had slowed its approach slightly. If this smudge had appeared in the early days of the WDF the US would have covered up its existence. These days information flowed freely. Robyn called a news conference in August 2069 to announce the discovery. "What we have is not one mothership on-, but a whole fleet, no, a swarm of motherships on-. Based on their rate of decelleration, our visitors will be here in about 125 years, just a few years before the 23rd Century begins. No doubt we in the Women's Democratic Forum, who claim extraterrestrial origin for what we call the Change, will have many of our questions answered at that time. It remains for us to arrange a suitable reception for them. Finally, I would like to add that this discovery was made by a brand new member of the WDF, Miss Yvonne, which shows how valuable our new blood is to us. May she inspire many more young ladies to achieve great things."

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As was his custom of late, Josef Onsager, the younger son of the late Emperor Stefan I Onsager of Relbim, went into the women's quarters and pressed his halfsister Dyann for sexual favors. He approached her in secret, having sent the servant females on errands, for Josef and Dyann's activities meant certain death for them both if they were caught. The New Buron was clear that only "The boy who survives the ritual battle shall take the sister of his opponent, and his own sister, to be his wives. Thereafter he shall be responsible to Koth for worship, being then a man." Josef was not likely ever to reach manhood no matter what his age. Stefan I died putting down an uprising at Titan, leaving behind only Josef by one mother and Stefan II and Dyann by another. His older brother Stefan II had the first crack at wagering Dyann in the ritual combat. If he died, Dyann would go to the victorious Clan, together with the throne. If Stefan survived, not only would Dyann become his wife, but so would the sister of his vanquished opponent. In either event, it was impossible for Josef to legally acquire Dyann or any other woman, as long as he lived. Dyann had obeyed the injunction that "A woman is not permitted to speak to a man, nor to own anything; she is property herself," so she could not approach Josef directly and offer her body, but there was no doubt she used his pentup youthful energy against him, making sure to be seen by him wearing her dress fashionably shredded just so. Of course, after she had him wrapped between her endless legs she could speak to him freely.

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If Josef objected to anything she wanted, Dyann would remind him with a taste of withdrawal from his new drug that her body was the only one he would ever use, and Josef, a product of a polygamous society with strict rules on who could mate, knew it was only a matter of time before his need rose again to dominate all his thoughts. But this time when he came to her Dyann balked. "When are you going to make a respectable woman out of me?" she implored. Josef had only one thing on his mind and he didn't want to discuss her concerns again. "Let's have sex." "No, Josef," she said firmly, drawing the line and redeeming all the influence over him she had banked. "What if I am with child? My life will be forfeit. Now is the time to do what I outlined for you." Josef crumpled like a house of cards. He yielded to Dyann and arranged a sitdown with the heads of the other three Clans.

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"What do you mean, like a machine?" "All those cells are dead. Both of you girls have been hooked up to EEGs and they show nothing. Legally, under the Washington State Code you are brain dead." "So why can't we just accept your safety tip about the fluid in the guidepin hole and go home?" Kim asked. "Well, so far it's only had an affinity for nerve cells but we've been watching to see if it changes, and starts attacking other tissues in your body." "You mean, our whole body could be changed like this?" "We don't think it will mutate by accident, it's got this amazing twooutofthree voting scheme that it uses when it replicates. A random mutation would have to occur at two data points at the same time. But we don't understand the programming. We don't know if some timer inside will go off and make it change its behavior. That's why we've had you under observation." "Why can't we see our folks?"

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Present was young Maurice III Chelwood of Callisto, the furthest large moon from Jupiter, with the least internal heating from tides, and so the poorest. Still, the Chelwood holdings were greater than all the families of Jupiter's smaller moons combined. Of all the Clan Patriarchs, Maurice III hungered for the throne most of all, for the authority to tax the Empire and steer resources towards Callisto would be then his. It was for Maurice that Dyann was arrayed at the sitdown, silent of course, but dressed in her most alluring attire. She was the sexual bait to tip his decision in favor of Josef's proposal. The middleaged Patriarch Hans VI Axelrod ruled the second moon, Europa, where oceans of water under a crust of ice made it the most intrinsically wealthy real estate in the Empire. It was no secret that Lord Axelrod thought the throne should naturally be in the hands of the greatest producers. Dyann was presented here for him too, less perhaps as a sex toy (he already had four beautiful wives) but more as a possible key to making his dream of ascendancy into reality.

The oldest man present, Andre I Dugard of Io, was not being presented with

Dyann, neither as a potential bed partner nor as avenue to the throne. Andre was the most vocal opponent of what he called Stefan I Onsager's "Fiscal Calamity," this Grand Imperial Citadel they presently occupied, this horrendously expensive fortressmonument to the late Emperor's own ego. He would at least hear Josef out, and maybe vote in a way to shake up the status quo. Together, the three votes of these Patriarchs outweighed the Emperor's own two votes in the State Council.

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"My Lords, I thank you for this audience," Josef began. "I come to you as a humble servant of Koth and his Word, and it gives me great regret to bring to your attention that the Empire is facing a crisis because my brother, the Emperor, has skirted the clear intent of Koth's very Word when He inaugurated the Cupel testing system." Not one person present in the chamber doubted the existence of Koth. After all, was not He coming personally from Procyon with a host of His avenging angels? Did not an expedition from the New Confederacy defile Koth's temple on Venus in the 2150's and suffer instant destruction? They were unaware of the truth, that Robyn just sat down one day and made Koth up out of her own head. Even the name Koth was really an acronym for "King of the hill." "The Emperor is a coward!" Josef declared, something that would have stunned this august body if the Emperor were any other man than Stefan II Onsager. "Our father died before he could train Stefan properly. Stefan knows he can not survive the death challenge. So he postpones the ritual combat indefinitely and remains the Boy Emperor, even in his mid twenties, while our sister Dyann approaches thirty and wastes her prime childbearing years." "What is that to us, boy?" barked Chelwood. "When he dies without an heir, the throne will pass to one of us, or our sons."

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"Yes, my Lord Chelwood, but if it comes to that, after long decades of humiliation for the Empire being ruled by a boy, even a boy with a gray beard. Almighty Koth Himself will be here in twenty years! Shall He be pleased to find His Empire in this state, with the ruling Clan led by a boy?" "That more than any other reason is why we agreed to listen to you," Lord Dugard said. "If you wait until the Emperor dies of old age, milords, the Popular Assembly will decide who wears the crown. Who here doubts that Clan Axelrod has the most Advocates in their pocket? With no offense intended to Lord Axelrod, of course." "None taken, boy," Hans Axelrod said, for it was a plain statement of truth. "Yet I, for one, am not willing to put the Empire through that scenario, as beneficial to Clan Axelrod waiting might be. What is your plan?" "I propose to challenge my brother the Emperor," Josef declared, "for the hand of our sister Dyann."

"Impossible!" yelled Andre Dugard. " There would be chaos within all four Clans. We would be dangerously flaunting our laws governing the rights of the firstborn son with this precedent."

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"Yes, Lord Dugard. That is why the precedent must narrow in scope, and it must be the unanimous decision of you three Lord Patriarchs. Only the State Council can alter our laws in such a way, and the Emperor is certain to cast his two votes against you. "I see another problem," Chelwood added. "Whether you kill the Emperor, or he kills you, there will still only be one woman. The lowliest trooper in the Army has two wives. The survivor of the death combat will be damaged goods due to the lack of one wife. No one will want to challenge you for officer rank, wagering his two wives to pick up only one." "The solution is obvious," Axelrod said. "Josef shall fight the Emperor merely for the right to be called 'firstborn,' because Emperor Stefan is delaying things beyond all reason. This is a narrow enough precedent, quite within the scope of the State Council to establish. After that, if Josef survives, or alternatively if Stefan survives, they may wager their sister in the traditional death combat. Only then shall he have his two wives in full accordance with the Word of Koth, and he shall be a man. Do you consent to this, Josef, son of Stefan I?" "I do, my Lord." "Does the woman consent to this?"

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Normally Hans Axelrod wouldn't give a crap what a woman thought, but this decision veered far outside tradition, so the woman's assent would smooth the way a little. Dyann, who had engineered this very thing from behind the scenes, nodded her head silently. "Do Lord Chelwood and Lord Dugard consent to this?" "Both of them uttered 'Aye,' impressed by the wisdom displayed by Axelrod here. "Then it is so ordered. The combat shall take place in another tenday." Emperor Stefan II strenously objected to the decision, as expected, but preparations for the personal combat went forward. It was shaping up to be a huge sporting event, to be watched and wagered on even by many in the Inner System. In interviews, Josef said, "I'm coming after him with my blade. If my brother chooses to defend himself, fine. If not, that's fine too." When the tenday passed, Stefan II and Josef met in the designated place, a part of the elevenmile long Grand Imperial Citadel far from the plush Imperial sector, filled with many pipes, obstacles, and hazards including live steam. It had been chosen to realistically simulate conditions a soldier might find in real combat. Spectators and the media ranged about on balconies and alcoves, in nooks and crannies all around them.

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As required by tradition, Josef drew his sword wordlessly and saluted Stefan with a sharp military slash vertically downward. Stefan whipped out his own sword and returned his brother's salute. These were the classic decorative weapons carried by all Relbimian officers as part of their dress uniform, but the swords were also quite deadly and real. They had been loaned to them by other Onsager clan members, of course, for neither "boy" in this Ritual served. They started in with the fairly standard stuff, just simple thrust and parry from safe distances. Then without a word the Emperor literally pounced upon his challenger. Stefan's blade sliced down with bewildering speed as he hope to make a quick end to the combat. But Josef had studied his brother well in his few practice bouts with their father and he didn't fall for this. Stefan was going to have to work much harder for his victory. Stefan attacked again. At each of his parries the Emperor felt he was striking stone. There was simply no give. So he backed out of range and they began the usual circling of each other, testing with probing thrusts. Stefan paused and a sudden oxygen debt forced him to draw breath in a sharp gasp. Josef made his first attack then, a clumsy but forceful pounding of bladeonblade that started to wear his brother down. The auxiliary noises of their fighting were the only sounds to be heard in the steam plant that morning. A resonant backslide of steelonsteel and CLASH! Nick, slide, and CLASH!

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Stefan was moving him back now but Josef's defenses proved more and more unyielding as the Emperor swept him closer to the edge of the floor. For a "coward" Stefan was attacking with frightening violence. Perhaps he was desperate. Josef was a few moments gaining his original stance at the cost of a few more feet of floor. Stefan tried to prevent Josef from circling around him and getting his back towards a metal pit belching steam. This time Josef pressed an attack. Stefan countered with a deft flip of his sword down along the back of his arm. It became a shield allowing his arm to bear the brunt of his brother's blows. Josef realized he was dangerously vulnerable to a bloody touch from the Emperor in the form of an elbow jab with his blade's tip. Stefan was perfectly positioned to do just that, well beneath Josef's high twohanded thrusts. Josef saw his mistake just in time and twirled, backing off, but he went too far and lost his footing. Josef started to flail his arms, leaning back too far and getting his center of gravity over the metal pit. The Emperor smelled victory and lowered his sword, just for a second. The only option Josef had left to stop his backwards fall was to bury his sword in Stefan's chest and this he did. For just a moment the friction held him there. But slick with blood, his sword slipped back out and Josef fell.


Stefan sank to his knees, then keeled over in a gruesomely unnatural slump, clearly dead. A lingering, hideous scream came from the bottom of the metal pit as Josef was scalded by the steam. Technicians scrambled to cut the flow off, but it was too late. By they time they reached him he was still alive but had thirddegree burns over 40% of his body, mostly his face, chest, and arms. The throne passed to Josef by default, but the new Emperor's first challenge was coping with the excruciating pain of his treatments, which involved frequent changing of bandages which clung to his flesh. More often than not, he was sedated and could barely comprehend the Imperial Decrees which Dyann brought to him to sign. The Emperor's second challenge came from within his new clan, long before a decent interval to recover had elapsed. It came from Josef's cousin Johann, the son of Stefan the First's younger brother. Johann Onsager was as much a coward as Josef's older brother had been, perhaps more so. Johann studied recordings of Josef's lessthanstellar performance against his brother. That, plus Josef's injuries convinced Johann he could lick him. Johann offered up his own sister Suzann. The winner would become a man and claim Suzann and Dyann as wives. The loser would be dead.

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The ruling Triumvirate of Axelrod, Chelwood, and Dugard refused to interfere, calling it a "purely internal Onsager matter," but privately they all three delighted in the continued slide of Clan Onsager into moral bankruptcy, and they set a day for the ritual combat ten days after the challenge was issued. Johann vowed to chop Emperor Josef to pieces in his own hospital bed if he did not defend himself. Despite his public boasting, however, Johann was terribly dismayed when the Emperor appeared at the proper time, wearing a metal skullmask to hide the disfigurement of his burns. The Emperor's voice was electronically amplified and metallic sounding within his gray scuplted mask, but it was undoubtedly the voice of Josef. Johann tentatively drew his sword, then saluted the Emperor with a sharp military slash vertically downward, in accordance with tradition. The Emperor returned his salute, only because the forms required it. Then, his brother had done with him, Josef began his attack without telegraphing his move. But Johann had studied the Emperor well in recordings of his earlier bout. His defense was impeccable because he knew this would be no practice fight. Despite his burn injuries which would doubtless slow him down, a touch of the Emperor's blade here would let his life out in red jets. He acknowledged Josef's attack with a respectful nod, the respect born from his peril.

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When Johann switched to a merciless offense the new Emperor stumbled backwards away from him, giving the impression his resistance was weakening in the face of his challenger's pure forcefulness. Johann sensed a trick and seemed to hesitate in his advance. The Emperor twirled his sword in an eyecatching show, and Johann's attention was solely on that. Suddenly the Emperor shattered his pattern with a single wildly random response, a beautifully choreographed booted foot cruelly snaking out into his enemy's face. Johann, his eyes on the flashing Emperor's blade, didn't expect the blow. Johann fell flat on his back and had the wind knocked out of him. From his outstretched arm the sword flew straight away and eventually came to a stop somewhere in the equipment nearby, where the jangling sound betrayed where it stopped. Watchers throughout the Imperium and beyond were disappointed, seeing now that the spectacle was going to be brief. Placing the tip of his sword against his challenger's chest, Josef fully realized he won. The anger washed over him to let something worse bubble up. The Emporer favored his cousin with a sneer, as though he was reluctant to get his blade filthy with this coward's blood. This isn't really happening was Johann's final thought as the steel tip slid into his heart. There was a chorus of cheers as the Emperor wiped his blade on his vanquished foe's garments. As the survivor, he had the full rights and obligations of a man in Relbimian society, and no one could contest his possession of his cousin Suzann and his halfsister Dyann as wives.

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"That's a decision for Mr. Roland." "My father dotes on me," Kim warned, "and he said he was talking to our congressman to get permission to see me." "Mr. Roland knows about that." "So you're just going to keep us here forever," Charlene snorted. "Because we think this has happened to you for a reason and so far we haven't learned what that reason is. That's where a little more cooperation from you gals would go a long way. For instance, we don't know what the connectors in the back of your skull are really for." "Sometimes I feel like some hidden things are getting more and more clear," Charlene offered, after a sigh of resignation. "I keep having the notion that we've been picked to be gobetweens or something. Like translators. And right when I'm on the verge of learning more you always take away the Purple Cable and those notions get squashed." Kim nodded. "That's true. We want to start keeping the Purple Cable with us overnight."

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The Emperor turned to gaze at the stars through a viewport as assistants restored his black robe, which he had removed for the combat. "It is a pathetic Empire for Koth to find, were He to arrive today," Josef said in the rich overtones of his baritone voice, amplified by his mask. "But now we shall see proper action. We have twenty years to set things aright." On the following morning another cousin, Relbimian Empire Navy Commodore Peter Onsager, was summoned to meet the Emperor under less contentious circumstances. He bowed respectfully before his masked lord and was commanded to take a seat. The Emperor said, "I want you to begin planning for military operations on the Earth's Moon. Specifically, in the TaurusLittrow highlands." "The Moon, miLord? What could possibly be on the Moon to interest the Empire?" "The key to Phantom power. The WDF manufactures all Phantomizers in one heavily guarded complex on the moon. I propose to raid the facility and smuggle away the plans to the Phantomizers, or at least one Phantomizer in a partially assembled state." "Why? The price for a Phantomizer is reasonable enough, and the WDF have never resorted to embargo. True, they have taken great pains to ensure no one else can produce Phantomizers, but they freely sell Phantomizers to anyone with the money."

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"But in so doing they have created a universal dependency. You know from our history that we allied with the WDF at the founding of the Empire a century ago. You also know that we have been told it was the power of Koth that caused our enemies to flee before us. Would you be willing to entertain the notion that we've only been told what someone wanted us to hear?" "What do you mean, miLord?" "The evidence is clear to anyone who will honestly look at it. The WDF can disable Phantomizers by remote control. Now what's to stop them from rendering our entire Empire completely without working Phantomizers? It goes against the character of our outworld people to be dependent on anyone. We will commence the raid when you are ready." "You command, and I obey, my Emperor. But if the WDF can disable Phantomizers by remote control, what will stop them from disabling your landing vessels and turning the whole invasion into a rout?" "We don't understand how the WDF communicates with the Phantomizers to disable them, but we know they must get within a certain range to do so. Your forces must take care not to let them get in range."

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On March 12, 2177, the Relbimian armada of four hundred troops aboard 16 transports arrived in the EarthMoon system on their great gamble to win the Phantomizer sweepstakes and and the chance to break the Women's Democratic Forum monopoly forever. The fleet whipped around the other side of the Moon from Robyn's orbiting city of Fortuna One and entered orbit. In defense, all the WDF could do at that point was transmit the signal to arm hundreds of space mines which had orbited the moon like sentries for years.

Mines were a nuisance but they were not really considered dangerous. Onsager, aboard his command ship Punisher, considered them to be good target practice for his gunners whenever one came around the limb of the moon. They were officially referred to as SemiManeuverable AntiSpy Satellite satellites (SMASSS). None had nuclear warheads, but Phantomizer warheads were nasty enough. Mines were generally easy to avoid, being in orbit where they marched to the precise laws of gravity and their positions were known to all parties at all times. When the mines saw the enemy ships they made small alterations in their orbits. Each ship immediately noticed the discrepancy on radar and changed their own course to swing clear. The fleet began constantly doing random course changes to avoid becoming more predictable to the mines than the mines were to them. It took several orbits around the moon before the pattern of the mines could be crafted by their internal artificial intelligences into a concentrated phalanx.

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The invaders were gathered close in to the moon, a loose cluster of ships less than fifty miles in altitude, but the sharply bending lunar horizon was still distant enough to allow time for emergency evasive action when hundreds of these space mines popped up over the lunar limb in a gigantic surprise. Evasion began immediately but many of the devices had actually repositioned themselves to take advantage of the most likely evasion plans. The mines were thinking ahead. A last ditch laser barrage defense was turned on the rapidly closing mines but there were simply too many of them and some of the invaders were too slow and clumsy to get out of the way. The troop ships Conqueror and Brutalizer actually ran into each other, crippling each other for the remainder of the battle. The six officers from both ships salvaged what they could of the tragedy, jettisoning themselves in their command sections and making their way down to the prearranged rendezvous point on the surface of the Moon. But fortyfour troops would continue to flounder in orbit. Fourteen of the other ships successfully evaded the mine attack. But the troop ship Harrasser was not so lucky, seeming to walk right into them. The artificially intelligent mines were ecstatic that they could finally fulfill their purpose and explode. Harrasser was mightily struck by the cresting wave of mines and all 25 soldiers aboard her died.

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Next the WDF unleased their surfacetospace missiles from all over the Moon. Half of these missiles were not armed with explosives. Instead they were tasked to haul up inflatable mylar balloons, long strips of chaff, aluminum foil, dummy warheads and canisters of infraredemitting aerosols. In the middle of all this pure trash the real live Brushfire missiles were completely hidden by an opaque white smear on radar, made even worse by WDF jamming which backlit the mess. When Onsager realized this and ordered everyone to switch to visual acquisition on telescopes his list of potential threats was ten times larger, thanks to the WDF deployment of decoy inflatable missiles. By the time Onsager figured that out the real Brushfires were already on Terminal Cruise, helped by triangulation with passive and active sensors scattered in odd corners all over the surface of the Moon. Onsager tried jamming back. He tried substituting the real radar reflection of Punisher with an electronic impostor and then moving that impostor blip off to a new course hoping the missiles would follow. Many did. Then the ships protecting Punisher, and Punisher herself started taking potshots at the rest of the incoming missiles with thumping 80 kilowatt laser firepower, two rounds per second per turret. With all these defensive efforts at a peak the big wave broke and sprinkled only a relative handful of Brushfire missiles through to hit the Relbimian transports Degrader and Immolator, which were destroyed in spectacular, silent explosions with all hands aboard. But the fireworks show was just getting started.

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Seven WDF fighter pilots entered the fray led by Jill, leaping from the rim of the rotating Fortuna One. They were flying seven meticulously crafted "Sandwich Fighters" as Robyn called them, the WDF's classic fighter spacecraft. These were singlepilot, flat, angular ships "sandwiched" between two large solar wafers decorated with black crosses. Soon after the seven fighters had all gathered together Jill barked her orders. "All Pink wings prepare to make your runs. Sting 'em with random attacksno pattern! Set your Multiblip Repeater to attack formation Delta." The Multiblip Repeater was a jamming device unlike any other. Most jammers filled the enemy's radar picture with clouds of static. But the Multiblip Repeater simulated the echoes of real contacts. So mixed in with the real blips of Jill's randomly flying fighters were the false blips of a dozen ghost ships in a precise "V" attack profile. Attack Formation Delta. Peter Onsager directed his arsenal toward the juicy targets of all those blips lined up in a straight "V". He instructed the ships under his command to ignore the other blips, the randomly moving blips, as silly attempts to jam. The Multiblip Repeater was even more realistic. It deleted contacts one by one as the invaders thought they scored "hits." Not until Jill's people actually passed to within visual range did the Commodore realize he had been tricked. By then it was too late. This first pass had to count. Jill's people made sure to hit all the good stuff, the missile racks and most of the gun mounts. Most importantly, they obtained the neutrino signature of the Phantomizer aboard Onsager's ship. A quick check on the Grid identified it and provided the cancellation code.

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Punisher reached out and slapped Jo as she passed by, crippling her ship with closein laser fire. "I'm hit!" she screamed as her fighter spun wildly out of the zone of combat. Eventually her nerves settled down and she was able to bring her ship under semicontrol. Jo didn't know it yet, but the battle of Luna was over for her. The damage was far worse than she realized, and later when she went over the exterior of her ship she would marvel that she made it back to Fortuna in one piece. Meanwhile Heidi and Jann's blows combined to score a fatal hit on the troop transport Repressor. It fell like a stone to the surface of the Moon and impacted, killing all 25 people aboard. Then the six remaining Pink Wings headed back out and regrouped, tearing a path away to free space. Jill had set out to interest the control ship in her tiny force. The Punisher was definitely interested now. With what little dignity it had left the wounded command ship and her retinue of troop transports turned to stately pursue their attackers. Jill brought her team to a halt. "Pink wings execute Formation Delta. Scramble your repeaters." Everyone expertly complied. Now the actual ships were in a precise "V" pattern and the false electronic blips were moving randomly. Onsager had picked up on things right away. Now he scoffed at the primitive attempt to fool his radar with a "V" of dots all lined up withit was obvious nowmachine precision. Not the rough formations to be expected from inexperienced women pretending to be combat pilots. This time he directed his missile and gunfire to the randomly moving contacts.

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"It's electronic warfare," Jill said to herself. She was in a rhythm with the other five gals. They all functioned as one unit. And this time when they came in they transmitted the neutrino code to disable the enemy's Phantomizer drive. Then they allowed the burning command ship to pass into the restricted space defined by Jill and the five ships under her command. The cornered Punisher slowly withered away under the WDF's continuing attack. The Commodore's smooth gray ellipsoid was on fire and had giant ragged bites taken out of it. Ninety percent of her surface weaponry and sensors were gone and a fatal blow against her Phantomizer drive had been scored. Punisher could no longer run and she could no longer fight. Without fanfare Onsager and four of his senior officers made their way to the Captain's gig and jettisoned, riding on conventional power that didn't rely on Phantomized water. They abandoned the rest of the Punisher crew to their fate. None of the crew left behind survived the final blow, a Brushfire missile fired through a gap in the hull. In complete disarray the invasion fleet broke formation and set their course to get as quickly as possible to the Moon's surface. They were harrassed by Jill's fighters all the way down. The Relbimian transport Subjugator was crippled by a good shot and her descent turned into a freefall as she spiraled down to the ground. All hands aboard died in the crash.

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Nine troop transports successfully landed in the predesignated place, a small plateau in the TaurusLittrow highlands about 12 miles from Robyn's Phantomizer plant. Very close by was the actual landing spot of the historic 1972 Apollo 17 expedition. It was the site of the sixth and final moon landing of the 20th Century. Jill came in low over them and scored a direct hit on the Relbimian troopship Oppressor, killing or wounding about half the people aboard. Peter Onsager saw this and it pissed him off. When Jill came around again for another pass, this time with all her girls in formation behind her, Peter prepared to let Jill have it with a shoulderlaunched surfacetoair missile (although the Moon had no air, so a different name for her weapon would have been more appropriate).

With effortlessness derived from countless hours of training Peter

shouldered his rocket canister and took meticulous aim while the rest of his people dove for cover. From Jill a little laser strafing fire touched the ground at Peter's feet. Peter took aim and fired, unperturbed and undeterred by Jill's attack. The passive, IRhoming, radarsilent SAM found its way unerringly toward the intense heat of Jill's underthrusters. Two objects crossed in the sky, Peter's missile and Jill's spacecraft. The intervening factor was a hot puff ball at the point of closest approach only three feet away from Jill's wildly evading fighter. "I'm hit!"

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Jill's fighter tumbled in a flat spin to the ground like a tile thrown out a window. This sudden loss of their leader seemed to scare the rest of her fighters off. The "air" campaign was largely over. Now the surviving Relbimian troop transports could unload their people and supplies unmolested. Jill watched the rest of the war as a disembodied AI. Peter set up a perimeter with troops stationed at the four points of the compass armed with shoulderlaunched SAMs, in case any of the WDF's remaining fighters returned. Inside that perimeter the halfbubbles of many pressurized tents dotted the plain here and there, scattered too far apart for any single strike to take two out. The tents were psychologically important. They permitted the troops to get out of their vacuum suits or at least take their helmets off. No one could spend all their time inside a spacesuit, no matter how disciplined they were, not even troops from the airless worlds of Jupiter. Peter Onsager's tent was identified by gold and black banners. When Uriah Onsager and his two officers entered it he found the Commodore in the middle of a meeting with all the rest of the surviving officers. "Good, Uriah, you made it," Peter said. "You're the last one to come in. Give me your report." "Our transport took a hit from a fighter but we landed with no casualties."

24 -24

He looked her in the eye, and shook his head. "That's out of the question." "In that event we want the cameras removed from our space," Kim said. "What cameras?" "Come on, Doctor. You think we're just two airhead girls, don't you? We've had a lot of time on our hands, being locked up in there, and we've found your two filthy little spy lenses peeping in on us." "I see there's no fooling you two. But the cameras were not used for what you seem to be implying they were, Kim." Kim said, "Look, yeah we're infectious, and you've got some federal law that says you can take away our liberty and keep us in this quarantine of yours, but guess what? I'm eighteen now. I have basic human and Constitutional rights like plain oldfashioned privacy! You wonder why we don't want to play any of your games anymore? Who can blame us? We're just pissed off for being on Candid Camera all this time without knowing it." For the first time he became aware that Kim and Charlene were holding hands, and he blushed. And the realization that he was blushing made him blush deeper.

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"Great, Uriah, then we finally have a picture of what happened. Give him the latest figures, Captain." Captain Sharet Onsager rifled through his papers, then said, "We lost our command ship Punisher, and five troop ships. A sixth ship was attacked on the ground and we lost another sixteen troops in that. We've got a total of fortyfour troops stuck in moon orbit aboard the Conqueror and Brutalizer who can't land but six officers from those two ships are here now. All told we are just over half our original strength." There was some shocked gasps and murmuring from Uriah and his two men at at that. Peter cut them off as harshly as he had cut off the rest of him men here just moments prior. "This mission has not failed. As long as one Relbimian soldier yet lives the mission goes forward. Is that clear?"

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After they forayed into the hills for fortyfive minutes the Yellow Rille (so named because of the many sulphur outcroppings found in it) became a steep canyon and Peter Onsanger veered left, leading his large company of fifty men. They climbed to a small plateau called Yellowbanks on the WDF map, and let the rille go it's own way for the time being. As the moon went this was high and rugged terrain, the result of extensive volcanism. The rille itself was a steep channel carved by a river of lava billions of years ago. They stayed on the high ground, walking on black gravel and sand and dust as fine as the ashes left over in a barbecue. Their backpacks and various portable weapons were enormous loads for each of them but the 17% gravity helped. Presently the rille finished its wide bend and rejoined them from the east. Dull red and green minerals formed layers in the walls of the gorge, dotted by bright yellow sulphur deposits. There was a certain stark beauty to it all, Peter thought. Io didn't have a monopoly on this. Casting his gaze "upstream" he noted that the rille had shrunk to a third its normal depth and was coming out of the north and a little east of north. "The rille has forked," he said. "This is just a feeder gully. We cross here." The problem of fording a chasm without specialists, even a relatively small one such as this North Fork of the Yellow rille, was going to have to be overcome with a little creativity. There was no question of hiking down one side and up the other, the pumice stones littering the whole area would make it like walking on marbles. Most of the officers paced around, at a loss for ideas.

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Peter asked around if anyone had packed some cable. There was a flurry of searching and finally someone produced a coil of about four hundred meters of it. The cable wasn't very thick or heavy, but it would be strong enough to support the weight of a person, Peter decided. He attached the long cable to a surfacetoair missile and took aim at the far side of the rille, aiming near the top where it began to flare out and become level with the land on the other side. He chose his target carefully, trying to get as high as possible but not too high, lest the missile skip off the soil instead of diving into it. Then he pressed the firing stud. Success! The rocket dug itself deep into the lunar regolith before burning out, taking the cable with it. The tunnel it made collapsed behind it. Peter tugged hard on the cable to make sure it was snuggly anchored. He asked his men to anchor this side of the cable around a boulder and snip the excess off. The next part was easier. Peter repeated his trick with the rest of the cable, but this time he aimed about four feet below where the first cable had buried itself, making doubly sure it was snug because this was the one that would bear the most weight. Soon he had two wires stretched tight across the gap, one wire for under the boots and another at chest level for balance. Peter made the first crossing to prove it was safe. An hour later the entire group had made the crossing. The last men to come over cut the two cables and let them fall slack against the steep western wall of the tributary rille.

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This was virgin land, inaccessible to all without taking extraordinary measures. They had placed themselves far beyond reach. After five more kilometers following the tributary rille on its east bank Peter authorized a few hours rest. On the next march Peter continued to follow the North Fork of the Yellow Rille again, ever up toward its source. It curved needlessly, often back almost on itself but it gradually and inexorably shifted course to the mountain range in the east which he had begun to glimpse from the hilltops. These were the Doldrums of the WDF Territory. The combination of the terrain and the angle of the sun gave the land the appearance of being moody, as if the Moon itself were taking its nap. The heavy shade, almost black shade in parts made it seem secretive, even gloomy. As Peter led them ever up along the tributary rille he wondered if Robyn even knew all this stuff was back here. The dull thumping of artillery could not be heard in the nearvacuum of the Moon, but it could be felt as bursts of vibration under their feet. The flashes of warfare never lagged far behind. It had to be Colonel Uriah Onsager, who led the bulk of the surviving Relbimian troops on a frontal assault on the factory along the main branch of Yellow Rille. Joy and her WDF troops edged up over the top of a moon dune and surveyed Uriah's forces. Joy wondered if they knew the fragility of the thread on which they now hung, with their oxygen supplies stretching eight miles back to their landing zone.

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Joy took aim at an air truck with her ATGW and fired. The trick was to keep the target centered in the crosshairs until it hit. This could be tricky with the intense pressures of combat, but Joy's people had earned their reputation by their steely cool under fire. Her missile hit. None of them were armored, certainly not to the 20 centimeters of steel which the ATGWs were capable of penetrating. Marina fired her missile. The rocket screamed away, spooling out a fine guidance command wire behind it. Using electrical signals sent down that wire, Marina carefully kept her crosshairs on target and struck a plastic aeroduct pipe. By this time the Relbimians began to realize where the threat was coming from and directed fire east. The lunar regolith erupted with laser and plasma fire. Courtney was killed before she could shoot her AGTW. Many rockets were wasted by having two or more rockets hitting one target. It was bound to happen, given Joy's company's loose organization at that point, and their orders to pick their own opportunity and fire as quickly as possible. Dalia squeezed the trigger on her missile launcher...and nothing happened. The weapon was a dud. Cursing, she dropped it and took up a more protected position behind a boulder. Naomi, rattled by plasma rounds dinging the soil nearby, couldn't keep her target centered and missed. Her missile struck the ground and exploded, but even so, she contributed to the fog of war and helped as suppressing fire to keep the Relbimians from retaliating effectively.

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Shauna didn't aim for an oxygen truck or a pipeline, she directed her rocket at a truck carrying Relbimian troops east to their position. Then the ATGW attack fell silent. Nearly a hundred wires lay on the soil. Joy's counterraid was complete. Although not all of the enemy's oxygen supplies were destroyed, but enough to ensure that only the Relbimian officers would taste air tomorrow. When rumor of this got out, they would have a fullscale mutiny on their hands, and the Relbimian army would disintegrate. Racked by demon suffocation, rationing the last of their oxygen to extend their lives, the invading troops would willingly surrender to the WDF just for the hope of a mouthful of air. But for the moment, before their losses sunk in, the Relbimian attack still had teeth. Their suits were twice the weight of each troop, so the net effect of wearing the suits and lunar gravity was to be on a world with 50% Earth's gravity. For protection their spacesuits were covered entirely with mirrored reflective surfaces, but some joints and parts of the lifesupport backpack, despite the best efforts of design engineers, were vulnerable to a laser hit. Uriah Onsager led a retaliation with forty men across the open while Joy and nine of her surviving gals hid behind rocks at the top of the gray slope and took leisurely potshots at them. For the Relbimians the trick was to present a moving target, hustling to the left or right, jumping up, flipping through the air, tucking and sliding to the ground, never the same sequence of moves twice. Troops who fell into the error of patterned movement were awarded a laser hit and quick death.


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Relbimian troops dropped like flies as the WDF scored hit after hit. Heedless of their losses, Uriah and his forces just kept coming, each trooper dancing and ducking to avoid being hit. The random movement came as second nature to them. Presently some sixteen of them overran the WDF position, led by Uriah himself. Joy grappled with Uriah and placed her faceplate against his so he could hear. "You took our position but it was awful, just awful! You lost over half your people!" Uriah said nothing to her in reply. Instead he just took his knife and ripped the fabric of Joy's spacesuit from crotch to sternum, letting her deflate like a tire. While they remained hidden here atop the gulch the North Fork road could be seen paralleling them perhaps four hundred feet below. Peter could see it busy with the traffic of war, mostly armored trucks all climbing slowly in single file. Going home to Robyn! Peter scrambled up a small rise to get a clear view back the way they'd come. From here, he could see all the way to the bridge and the four round hills where they'd begun this side trip. The entire area was intermittenly lit with laser flashes. Binoculars revealed WDF vehicles exchanging colored lightning with unseen adversaries. Suddenly, silently, the bridge collapsed. It was briefly replaced by a cloud of dust which quickly sank back to the ground. "Sabotage! Well, looks like Uriah will have to find a different way up here."

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They plunged on, heading east, and gradually the road and Peter's party began to come together. The rille was getting more and more shallow as they approached its source. Peter felt high, in elevation as well as in spirits. Finally they had gone as far as they could possibly go while remaining out of view. This was it. This was the very source of the North Fork rille: a single unremarkable fumarole crater, nearly the same in appearance from every other crater on the moon, but different in that it hadn't been created by impact. Now they were forced to take the road. Far above them the road wound its way up and still up on a hairball of switchbacks. There were no straightaways longer than a hundred meters. Three light APCs ascending the mountain rounded a corner just then. Too short a distance between the time they saw Peter and the decision point where it would be surrender or ram. Fifty soldiers aiming lasers and rockets swayed them to pull over peacefully. There were seventeen girls in the three trucks, stragglers of the big caravan Peter had seen from the rilletop. Peter didn't take any time to ask questions. The girls were simply tied with plastic tiewraps, a prepackaged gift for Uriah Onsager somewhere behind them. But Uriah, faced with a logistics shortfall of oxygen, would never come.

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Now Peter's platoon found itself with transportation. Half of the men were crammed inside, half were cleaving to the outside with weapons ready and tight. But they were all thinking how good it was to be moving while sitting on their ass and dangling their poor abused booted feet. The Phantomizer plant lay somewhere beyond this mountain wall, a wall which Peter could see became a literal wall just above them. The road made a final turn and Peter was staring at a tunnel drilled right through the final jagged wall. A trap? Peter no longer cared. "Follow Me!" he shouted. Whooping it up, without a second thought, his company plunged through the tunnel. They were the first (indeed they would be the only ones) to crack Robyn's final line of defense. Peter and his people walked through the tunnel right out onto the roof of the Phantomizer complex. They quickly found a walkway hemmed by a guardrail, and this walkway led them eventually to an airlock big enough to take all fifty armed men in two groups. It was very easy. Perhaps suspiciously too easy. When the pressure came up to the three lbs of pure oxygen that was standard inside the complex they stepped out and dropped a flight of stairs to the main deck below. They longed to shed their spacesuits once and for all but they dared not, fearing that they would all be flushed out to space with the touch of a button.

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Peter and his people found themselves in a maze of passageways without a clue where they went. The maze of corridors opened up into a roomy area, like a food court in a shopping mall, and here Peter's commando team ran into the first members of the WDF prepared to stop them, a small squad led by Hunky. All of them pointed their weapons at Peter face. Hunky made signs for Peter to lift the faceplate on his helmet so he could hear. When Peter complied, Hunky said. "Tell your team to let their guns drop to the floor, or you get it. Now!" Peter carefully complied. He and her team did nothing which might make Hunky squeeze the trigger. "Good, now reach over and slowly unsheathe your sword halfway out with your right hand, dear. Halfway out only, mind you. That's perfect. Now grab the hilt with your left hand so that when you pull it out, the sword's tip is pointing back your way and not mine." When Peter had done this Hunky let him pull the sword the rest of the way out of her sheathe. "Slowly, slowly now. I know you're tricky, Commodore. OK, now hand it to me."

25 -25

"I see what you mean by privacy issues," Dr. Trochmann said, chastened by the realization that it had, indeed, been his fault that the girls were now much more than friends. "I think this whole spat between us has been due to nothing more than bad communication." "I agree," Kim said. "We should clear the way between us and continue to talk."

"OK!" he said, his mood brightening at this breakthrough. He seemed a

different man. "There are some security things I need to change first, but then I'll let you have your privacy. Honestly. And your Purple Cable. You have my word." Charlene didn't trust them to just turn the cameras off so she jammed more wads of chewing gum over the fisheye lenses in the corners of their room, even over the ones she decided were inactive dummy lenses, just to make sure. No one came to clean them off like they had before, so it was working so far. There was only one change in routine as far as the girls could tell. In the past their tormentors seemed to have the code for the door memorized and they just punched their way out without a second thought. But now, very often they would take out their wallet, or look at a scrap of paper from their pocket before punching the buttons that would let them out. That could only mean that they were now scrambling the code daily to balance the loss of their camera eyes.

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Peter's thumb hit a switch on the hilt and the cap on the very bottom flipped up to reveal a lens. Hunky looked at it in astonishment. A powerful laser in the hilt instantly blinded her. Her eyes slammed shut, but there were bright spots dominating her vision. "Ah, dammit! Damn you! I'm blind!" What followed was a flurry of fighting where Hunky's three squadmembers had the better of it at first because they were still armed, while Peter's people had to scramble on the floor for their weapons. Peter ducked and rolled and swerved to avoid being burned. Eventually Peter's numbers prevailed. Seven members of his group were hit before Hunky's three girls were shot. Hunky was still alive, but she was left behind, groping in her blindness. None of her girls were left alive to provide imagery of the scene to Hunky via the Grid. Soon Peter discovered what Hunky was defending. It was, indeed, the jackpot. There was a WDF shuttle loaded with perhaps a dozen Phantomizers which were not fully assembled, their selfdestructs not fully armed. At last they could be reverseengineered and the WDF monopoly ended. Hunky was probably right in the middle of trying to evacuate them away to safety when Peter arrived.

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"This is exactly what I was looking for," Peter said. But he didn't relax until all of his surviving men were aboard the shuttle with the treasure of the ages and he himself was in the cockpit flying them all away. Peter's stolen shuttle arced high over Mare Serenitatis in a parabolic curve away from the mountains ringing the southeast corner of the lunar sea. The Phantomizer manufacturing complex was snuggled down there far behind him at the lat and long of 20 degrees North and 30 degrees East, but no signs of the battle could be seen from this altitude. He was flying the shuttle herself, his attitude and throttle commands communicated through the ship as digital commands down glass fibers. But when he attained orbital velocity the ship's controls no longer responded no matter how desperately he tried. The hatch behind Peter linking him to the rest of his crew slid shut by itself and was locked. "Welcome to Fortuna Spaceways," a woman's voice blared from a speaker. "Traffic Control Fortuna One will control your flight from this point on. Please relax and enjoy your ride." Peter soon found that he had no other choice but to do just that.

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In an hour Fortuna One came into view behind the sharply curved horizon of the Moon. Here was the first realization of the space habitat concept first proposed in 1969 by Gerald K. O'Neill. Fortuna was much smaller than the orbiting cities O'Neill proposed for the L4 and L5 libration points, but it was the only artificial structure in space to have a working ecological balance. The glass and aluminum habitat in lunar orbit held the record as the largest (wo)manmade object in space until the Relbimian Empire constructed the Grand Imperial Citadel a hundred years later It was a spinning disk about 3200 feet in diameter and 540 feet thick. It's outer surface was mostly enormous glass windows contained in a Gothic, spiky framework that lent a delicate cathedrallike air to the habitat. The interior was a combination of urban buildup and elaborately landscaped gardens. Fortuna was not only WDF headquarters, it was also their fleet's premier "shipyard". So Fortuna looked like a wheel. The hub of this wheel consisted of two parts, one that rotated with the rest of Fortuna and one that remained motionless to permit the docking of ships. As a captive of Traffic Control, Peter was merely a spectator as the shuttle slid into Fortuna's hub. When the shuttle came to a stop the exterior hatch of the shuttle's cockpit popped open. Peter took the hint and exited the ship, clinging in the zero gravity to the outside. An attempt to release his people further back in the main section failed, the door would not budge. So he shrugged and had a look around.

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Between the nonrotating hub and the rotating body of Fortuna proper was a thing called the Differential. It was a chamber about thirtythree feet high, 540 feet wide and it wrapped seventeen hundred feet around the axis of the station. Here was where one made the actual crossing between the two moving parts. Peter launched himself into the air of the Differential, and soon air currents took ahold of him and gently delivered him to the slight gravity on the rotating side. Doors magically opened in front of him, indicating the way to go. Peter noticed a scarcity of WDF girl scouts. Instead of presenting themselves for slaughter they seemed to back off as if on orders. There was a glass elevator to the rim. Peter hesitated for a moment, then stepped inside. For a delicate few moments he would be trapped at the mercy of WDF operators in the hub who could run the capsule to a dead stop halfway down if they chose, then kill him with laser light. But nothing like that happened. The forest sector of Fortuna was arranged around 300 foot Green Hill, the highest point on the rim. Peter could see foot trails spreading out like a web from the the summit as he descended. On one side of the hill there was a farm with 13 acres of fruits and veggies and a ten acre apple orchard with room for about thirty head of cattle among the trees. On the other side were old fir trees and about a thousand foot long stretch of whitewater in a deep chasm, a part of Fortuna sculpted to be wild, quite a valuable commodity in space. There was a deep human need to be surrounded by chaos periodically to balance the order of technology.

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The scenic drop ended with a gentle stop in an abandoned terminal on the rim. "Where now," he mused, "is that damned escort to take me to Round Robyn?" The sun, moon, and earth rolled around with dizzying speed outside Fortuna's gigantic windows. Robyn's castle was down around the rim but perched high enough atop a rocky promontory to appear eyelevel to Peter from where he stood. Beyond the hilltop structure was "61 City," sonamed because it straddled sectors six and one. Peter gave up waiting and moved off toward the stony little mountain, zigzagging between a creek and a stretch of road on a piece of rugged "wild" land between two windows more than five hundred feet apart. There was a sudden nightfall as the moon's airless limb cut off daylight like the flick of a switch. Peter followed the road into the face of a cliff below Robyn's estate. The tunnel was unlit. He steeled himself up, slapped down the frequency doublers hinged to a forehead strap and picked his way into the tunnel by it's now visible residual heat. When he was halfway through the bright white tunnel lights suddenly came on. Doubled through her goggles the light shifted to ultraviolet and seared Peter's vision. He cried out and tore the device off his head with one hand and brought his laser to bear with the other. But his eyes were tracking with dazzlespots and he couldn't see to shoot.

265 -265

"That was for Hunky," a woman said. Still somewhat blinded, Peter cast the laser away for no good reason a split second before the burning pain settled in. It had been an involuntary jerk, like touching a hot plate. His returning sight revealed the smoldering weapon at his feet brownhot and warped to uselessness. Peter whirled to face his attacker. It was Shyla. Robyn's killer, her blonde demon. She had Peter dead to rights, but she merely smiled and tossed her own hand laser through a door in the tunnel wall that slid shut. "What. Orders from Robyn not to kill me?" Peter taunted as he watched Shyla limber up with her sword in hand and strut toward him. Shyla gave a single nod. "I must work around your one big disadvantage. If you die, you stay dead. But Robyn gave no instructions on care and handling. As long as you are still breathing when I drag you up there I do not think she will mind damaged goods." Peter felt the tension rise as he hefted his own sword in his sore and throbbing right hand. Shyla was someone Peter had never been sure of conquering. Here was the chance to end forever parts of his own personal insecurity.

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Where Shyla dealt from reason Peter dealt from emotion, seeking the meaning of his existence by chasing demons, by facing down an endless parade of enemies marching unbidden like shadows in his mind. The two women saluted together in mock ceremony and the dance began. They circled, waiting for an opening. This was the classic blustery start of a sword fight long on words and short on risky moves. "I laughed when I saw you sneaking your way around Fortuna," Shyla said, keeping up her smooth flowing footwork. "Did you actually think you would get to Robyn armed while I still live?" "You're alive?" Peter lunged forward suddenly in ferocious attack and forced his opponent to the defensive momentarily. Shyla recovered, bouncing lightly on her toes. "You're not Shyla," Peter sneered before a counterattack focused his whole attention on Shyla's blade flashing forward in a blur. Forced to give ground, Peter kept speaking to attempt a distraction. "You're not even Charlene Null. She died long ago. You're just a walking stiff with the residue of that skank's mind. Killing you wouldn't be murderit'd be absolution for allowing a monster to exist among us for too long." "Nice." Shyla rewarded him for that with a prickly scratch from the shoulder to left breast.

267 -267

Peter risked a glance down at the blood beading up there and in that moment Shyla was in the air leaping high in the quarter gravity and aiming a foot blow at Peter's head. Almost instinctively Peter put both hands together as a single fist and sideswiped the offending boot. Shyla sprawled badly and landed on her back. Both women now had a new respect for each other. They faced each other anew, focusing on probing each other's defenses. Gaging the changes, at the same time seeking not to be changed. Shyla fought with calculated risks but never rash ones. Peter was rash, but attacked with supernatural speed. The blades would thrust just here, or there, bait or blow? The combinations were infinite. It was a game. A deadly game of looking for the opponent's hesitancies through a net of deception and decision. When Peter said, "You lousy cunt," Shyla merely continued the high tension ballet. However, when Peter described the things he would do to Robyn when he finished here Shyla did an unexpected thing and threw her sword away. Peter tracked the errant blade with his eyes as his training required. In that split second Shyla blasted him with another kick squarely and solidly in the face. Then they were rolling and thrashing on the ground. Shyla's breasts were punched. Fingernails and teeth went for eyes and other soft spots. Shyla yanked at Peter's hair. Soon Peter's sword was knocked loose, but he retained a knife built into the hilt, and in all their rolling around together he got the better of Shyla and stuck her good.

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He got up while she lay there stunned. "There," Peter said with satisfaction. "That wasn't too hard." He retrieved his sword and used it to finish Shyla off with a clean decapitation. Peter knew Shyla's severed head was now transmitting her final moments to the WDF Grid to provide a complete data set of Shyla. He cradled the head in his hands and spoke to it, adding some more data for Shyla to chew on. "I know it takes about twenty minutes to complete your mind upload. I'm about to wrap your head in an EMI shielding bag and cut off your transmission, and I will add some plastic explosives and a detonator to the outside of the bag. Here's the deal: I want to be unmolested as I make my way back to the ship. I want you to restore manual control. You may send someone to follow me with one ship to retrieve your head after I release it. If I'm not happy at any point, I'll blow your head." At that point he wrapped Shyla's head in a silver bag which he had brought along folded in his pocket and sealed it with a yellow sticker. This bag acted as a "Faraday cage" which blocked radio transmissions, just like they way broadcast radio was cut off when you drove across a steel cantilever bridge. This was an unexpected attack, and the WDF did not seem to be prepared to deal with it. When Peter left the tunnel under the mountain, he saw WDF girls fanning out away from him, seemingly unconcerned but moving with a carefully considered speed and manner to say to Commodore Peter Onsager, "We are no threat to you."

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Holding Shyla's final memories was a gamble that would work only as long as the WDF thought they could pick him off after he made the drop. If Peter blew up Shyla's head, they could reconstitute her from her last good update, but there would have been an unavoidable Bifurcation, which every WDF member dreaded. The version of Shyla carried in this severed head would experience death. From her point of view, another Shyla would go on, and get to live and love, with no continuity of self between the two Shylas. Peter was exploiting the WDF's only real weakness. Afterwards they would never relent in their hunt for him, but for now there was no incident until he was free of Fortuna One in the shuttle. In clear space, he signalled the standby pilots in his nine troop transports to take off immediately and meet him in orbit, leaving stragglers behind if necessary. Then he disabled his ship's communications gear to prevent the WDF from getting control if the ship again. This was the critical moment, the decision point when Robyn would have to choose to permit Shyla a continuity break, which the WDF called True Death, in order to prevent Peter's escape. Robyn proved unwilling to do so. Only when the nine Relbimian ships formed a protective shell around his shuttle and it's precious cargo of halfbuilt Phantomizers did he release Shyla's head into space for pickup. The Empire had broken the back of the WDF monopoly.



Charlene almost despaired but Kim explained to her that the change actually did not make their task any harder at all. They just had to pick a fixed range and try all the combinations in it, night after night, until the daily shifting combo happened to fall into that range. It was a hex keypad, a fourbyfour square with sixteen buttons numbered 0 through 9 and A through F. The girls also knew from listening carefully that the code was always four taps. The problem was that there was a ten second delay after trying a number before the red light would reset to the yellow light and it was ready to accept another try. Kim figured if they started at 6:00 pm and went all through the night to 6:00 am they would just be able to do all of the "Lucky 7's." That is, the whole range from 7000 to 7FFF. The changes to Kim and Charlene's central nervous system made them especially good at doing repetitive tasks like this. They didn't even have to think about it. After the basic rhythm set in they could go on for hours and it would seem like no time had passed at all. But eventually the muscles in their hands would cramp up, so they shared the task in shifts. Kim had figured it would take about two weeks to score. They got the green light on the sixth night with the winning number 76FC.. It was 11:14 pm on Sunday, September 18, 1983 when they stepped out into the darkness of the rest of the clinic, hoping it was deserted for the night.

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First Expedition 2182 The gentle red neon glow of reentry gave way to an unrelieved pale yellow blankness on the viewscreen ahead as the sound of wind built to a highpitched hiss. At thirtyone miles altitude they skidded out from under the eternal cloudcover overhead and became the first human beings to look with their naked eyes upon the surface of Venus. The lander pilot, Charles D. "Chuck" May said, "Check this out, we're at thirty one miles and I've already got good control on my aerodynamic surfaces. We're no longer ballistic." On Earth, 31 miles was practically the edge of space. His copilot, Samuel Baxter, answered, "When we get further down into that soup it'll be more like steering a submarine." The planet's atmosphere absorbed blue wavelengths. In the distance the ground was all yelloworange and brickreds, merging with the yellow of the sky. As their eye followed the surface closer towards them the ground changed to the true color, the gunmetal grays of suboceanic basalt on a relatively flat terrain.

271 -271

They approached the foothills of Maxwell Montes, nearly seven miles high, running bright red with lava streaming from side fumeroles and streaks of yellow sulphur, an astonishing vision of hell. As they approached from the south their target was a longdormant subsidiary peak with a broad summit plateau. The landing site was clear as a bell. Both men could even see the black triangle there, the object of this expensive and difficult inquiry by the New Confederacy, those States south of the MasonDixon line that came together again during the general balkanization of the old USA. An undulating wind vortex rose from the triangle, twisting and flailing, a permanent, stationary tornado. With her short wings, Venus Explorer looked a little like the 1950's BMovie idea of a rocket ship, and she landed that way too. Just above the surface the computer switched to-. Venus Explorer automatically tipped up her nose and began a plain oldfashioned retrobraked descent. But something was wrong. "We've got a severe crosswind," Baxter called out. Commander May overrode the landing program and took manual control, cancelling most of the side motion toward the triangle. This maneuver was beginning to eat into their reserve fuel. Baxter told him twenty seconds remained before they would have to abort. May set her down on her feet somewhat offset from her intended landing zone. They announced their success to Houston, but it would be about ten minutes before they heard back due to the extreme distance.

272 -272

Before celebrations could begin they proceeded to run through the lander shutdown checklist. Temps outside were about 800 degrees F. In the broad, clouddiffused daylight they could see the black triangle from their window, very close at hand. The eastern edge, the edge nearest them, seemed to be be raised, as though it were lined with a dark girder. The other sides of the triangle seemed to be knifeedges, sharply defined. The wind whistled and howled outside and the heat blurred and shimmered the view. Their spacesuits were designed for one full hour of surface time. They were completely insulated from the heat and used liquid nitrogen to cool it. This boiled the nitrogen to gas, which was purged from a pipe to the outside air. Even getting the exhaust out required a pump to get it up past the 84 atmospheres here atop the mountain. And this was the nicest spot on Venus. Suiting up took a full two hours. Though they had made their descent already wrapped in pressure suits, there was much more to put on before they could pop the hatch. Their spacesuits were so heavy, in fact, despite the 88% gravity, that they used hydralics to provide mechanical enhancements to their legs. The ship had no ladder, the astronauts merely jumped off the front porch forty feet to the ground below. The 60 MPH crosswind caused them to drift on their descent considerably closer toward the mysterious black triangle.

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After May's boots hit the scorched Venusian soil he said, for posterity, "To boldly go where no human eyeball has ever set foot before." This was recorded locally by his ship, but never transmitted on to Earth. Only when Robyn and Shyla returned to this scene years later would the recording be retrieved.

Baxter, the "Buzz Aldrin" to May's "Neil Armstrong," joined him with a slap

of his feet on the ground. It was strangely devoid of dust and pebbles. The wind had long since swept them away. "Windspeed now 75 MPH," Baxter reported as they walked closer to the object. Soon they reached a point of no return, their feet struggling for purchase on smooth andalusite blocks despite their gripping tread as the wind increased to 110 MPH. There could be no going back now, only a fight to delay being dragged forward. The ghostly, nearly transparent permanent twister kinked for a second, then straightened. Both astronauts were flat on their stomachs now, unable to find a crevice to grab. They were being hauled ever forward, faster and faster. May conveyed some information about what was happening to the mothership, but this was peppered liberally with profanities. Sliding over the stone, both May and Baxter were severely injured on the lip of the triangle as they banged into it and flipped over and inside.

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They groaned with the accompanying pain. The sound of wind faded to nothing quickly. In free fall, tumbling, May and Baxter both saw the Venus sky through a yellowwhite triangular window accellerating away into blackness. It discharged plumes of gas that dissipated like thruster exhaust. But this was no pit. Their eyes grew accustomed to the darkness now, and they found themselves in space, to their great astonishment. They were tumbling away from each other with broken arms, broken ribs, and no way to get back together. The stars were a rain of lights spinning far too fast for them to see, but they wouldn't have recognized these stars anyway. None of them understood what was happening. Neither May nor Baxter knew they were the first human beings to travel outside of the Solar System. They never knew they were in the contrail of an ISSA probe flying between the stars, using Venus' atmosphere for thrust, seeking a new system to introduce folddoors to. The triangle was just a white dot now, very far away. May and Baxter were out of mutual radio range in ten more minutes, and each man spent the remainder of his hour alone composing himself for death.

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Second Expedition 2189 The four big Jovian moons were easily visible from Earth through a small telescope or even a good pair of binoculars. Ganymede, the third of these out from Jupiter, was the largest moon in the Solar system, larger even than the planet Mercury. It was the domain of Clan Onsager and the site of the vast city of Relbim, from which the Empire drew its name. Many monuments and landmarks of the Relbimian Empire were still to be found in the city, but the actual seat of power had long passed from Relbim to space above. With an iron grip Emperor Josef Onsager ruled all the outer worlds beyond the asteroid belt from the Grand Imperial Citadel orbiting high over Ganymede. The GIC was a metal cigarette, eleven miles long, large enough to cast a shadow on the cracked, curving ice and rock surface of Ganymede far below. It was by far the largest object ever constructed by mankind. Lights, Hangar bays, windows, pipes, gun mounts, and power conduits speckled the surface in a fantastic jumble that dulled the eye and blurred into a nondescript gray, white, and black wall of detail. At the extreme forward end of the GIC, the Emperor waited in his private audience chamber, watching Ganymede spin around and around outside the single large round viewport in the ornately decorated bulkhead. Like the WDF's much smaller Fortuna One, the GIC rotated, but the gigantic core was hollow, permitting even the largest of the Empire's capital ships to enter along the GIC's axis and gently dock along the core's inside walls.

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The Emperor didn't even bother to remember the name of the bespectacled scientist who came to see him now in this one place aboard the GIC Josef knew he could not be overheard by his enemies, whether outside the Onsager Clan or even within. The scholar was an elderly man whose white hair matched his white robe, and he kneeled before Josef on the carpet leading to the throne as protocol required. There was no one else but him and Josef in the chamber, but the scientist had been carefully searched for any weapons, and Josef, of course, was quite capable of defending himself if any foul play occured. Even the thought of violence from this scientist produced a hidden smile inside Josef's metal skullmask. "I abase myself before my Emperor and beg to report," the man humbly said. "You may rise and speak." The man stood on his feet then, this very man who had used the documents and hardware obtained by Peter Onsager in the Battle of Luna twelve years prior to produce the Empire's own Phantomizers invulnerable to being disabled by remote. He said, "Milord, all is in readiness, but I have several, ah..." "Reservations?" suggested the Emperor.

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"Concerns, Sire," he blurted instead, choosing his words carefully. "The diamonds we have brought up from Jupiter's core, there are too many on board. If we are careless, the sun may become too hot even for us here in the Outworlds." The diamonds he spoke of were a discovery the Empire made recently after they had the ability to construct Phantomizers to their own specifications. The conditions under Jupiter's clouds were of enormous pressure upon pressure, until the carbon in the methane gas component of the atmosphere had been squeezed into its hardest form, pure diamonds the size of hailstones which precipitated onto a sea of liquid hydrogen so dense the diamonds floated on the surface like little icebergs. Before Phantomizers none of this would have been discovered by human eyes, even eyes flying unmanned drones. The pressure would have simply crushed any tanks. But with Phantomizers, no tanks were needed at all. The ambient air provided propulsion. The Emperor did not share the man's concern. He just said, "Proceed to your next reservation." "Yes Sire. Sire, the sun has burned for five billion years. Do this and it will burn for only five thousand years more." 278 -278

The scientist was speaking of a plan known only to the Emperor and himself to inject those diamonds into the sun. Carbon was a catalyst in the complex fusion reaction that turned the sun's hydrogen into helium and liberated energy. Carbon participated in the dance, and then emerged intact as carbon. It was similar to the effect chlorine atoms had on the Earth's ozone layer, as an instigator, and in both cases a very small amount had an enormous effect. The Emperor did not share the man's concern. He just said, "Proceed to your next reservation." "Sire, this will mean certain death for the eighteen billion people of the inner Solar System!" "You are revealed as a man of conscience," the Emperor said in his deep electronicallyenhanced tones. "Thank you, Sire." The Emperor pointed a gloved finger at him. "I did not mean that as a compliment." He began strapping himself in. "No Sire! Not the seat belt!"

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"Yes, the seat belt! I see I cannot trust you to remain silent. I need total surprise. If the mud people get wind of our operation, we will be flooded with refugees." The Emperor flipped a safety catch and touched a glowing button on his throne. The glass in the large round viewport began sliding aside, permitting the air in the chamber to escape into space with a deafening roar. The scientist screamed "Noooooo!" as he was swept off his feet and flushed out to space, together with all his papers. Then the glass window slid neatly back into place. Air was pumped back in. The Emperor was none the worse for wear, his metal mask and bodycovering suit totally protected him from the decompression. He whipped out a phone. "Admiral this is the Emperor." Peter Onsager had been promoted to Admiral from Commodore following his victory at Luna and was now the Tactical Action Officer of the GIC. Josef said, "I've finished my housecleaning. You may get underway." The four great engines ignited, taking the GIC out and away from Ganymede. For the first time since construction, the Grand Imperial Citadel left the gigantic Jupiter system, with fully half the population and wealth of the entire Empire aboard, and the Emperor alone among living men knew the full import of the course on which he embarked.

27 -27-

Kim wore the Purple Cable as a belt, wrapped around her twice. Now came the part they dreaded. There was another lock on the outside door of the clinic proper, for those times when Kim and Charlene were let out of their living quarters for medical tests or to eat. They hoped no one was so paranoid over security that they would have a separate combo for the outside door, with two numbers to memorize, or their escape would become a dramatically more difficult and timeconsuming process. 76FC. Green. Go. They were out of the building.

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Third Expedition 2190 At her estate on Fortuna One, Robyn touched a switch and the large outdoor patio they'd been lounging on began sinking slowly into the ground. Rhonda Owen, a reporter for Interworld News Network, and her cameraman, discovered Robyn's mountain was hollow as the patio came to a stop high up in a gigantic cavern. Two tubes ran through the cave: The PanFortuna Highway plus the river. "A long time before you were born, Rhonda," Robyn said, "there was a series of spy movies. At the climax of every one the hero would be captured and brought to the villain's cave with lots of blinking lights, dozens of oblivious technicians and some kind of giant doomsday weapon or rocket ship or the like. And with a big sweep of his hands the villain would boast of soon taking over the world or blowing it up or whatever. Well, as you can see I've got the prerequisite blinking lights that do nothing but look cool. I've got dozens of oblivious technicians. And in the center ring, I've got my rocket ship, the Aphrodite. Robyn made the ritual big sweep of her hands. "Are the rumors true?" Rhonda asked. "Is that a starship?" It looked too small, just a metal nipple the size of a large house.

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Robyn broke into a spate of laughter at this. Even Shyla grinned. "A starship? No, just an interplanetary spaceship. A ship built for two. Shyla and me. We're off to Venus." "Venus? But Venus is supposed to be really really hot." "Well, about seven years ago a fragment of the shattered United States sent a couple guys to Venus to check out something they picked up with a radar mapping satellite, but they didn't survive the trip. We've been watching the site from orbit ever since then. The 'anomoly' is a perfect equilateral triangle, perfectly black. It returned all zeros in the data when we pinged it with radar. Until recently, that is. Now we think it's safe and we're going to have a look. Unlike the New Confederacy, the WDF has a sunshine policy on our scientific research. That is why we have invited you here on the eve of the launch of the Second Venus Expedition." "Do you think this anomoly on Venus has something to do with this smudge in the sky you say is an alien fleet?"

That 'smudge' will arrive in only seven years," Shyla told her. "What if

they aren't friendly? Wouldn't it be best to arm ourselves with as much information about them as possible? That information might be on Venus. We've had a couple thousand questions since 1982 and I think when we get to Venus we will finally start to get some answers."

282 -282

Jill and Debby were flying together on a patrol, their WDF Sandwich Fighters linked together by a thin cable so they could talk without revealing their presence by radio. Around them they could see only the stars and a small, spinning, uncataloged asteroid passing them a few miles away. "Deb?" Jill said tentatively. "Deb, I know it's not your watch yet but I got one." "I'm awake, Jilly, what do you got?" "Radar, in band seven, off our starboard beam and down a little bit in Z." Debby called up her Electronic Surveillance Measures screen. "All I see is you at zero eight zero." "Wait a few seconds. It's a longrange radar so the pulses are spaced far apart." "Okay, now I got the enemy symbol on ESM. I'm slewing my telescope over to have a looksee." On the stubby cylindrical post that attached her top solar panel to the rest of her fighter the telescope spun over to the right on the lower gimbal while Debby's primary weapons, the twin lasers, remained locked straight ahead. Soon Debby saw on her screen a distant gray dash trailing glowing smoke against a hailstorm of stars. "I see him!"

283 -283

"Deb, I want you to move off about a hundred miles to get a good baseline so we can triangulate and get a range." "Okay, breaking the wire, talk to you when I get back." "Sire, I have something," Admiral Onsager called, and the Emperor drifted over to him in the vast but cluttered space of the Combat Engagement Center, or CEC. When Josef loomed over his shoulder the Admiral said, "We assumed Tracks 4022 and 4023 were just boulders, but now Track 4022 is showing independent movement." "We've been detected." The Emperor pointed at the Admiral's screen. "Send everything in this octant against the hostile tracks. They must not escape." "Yes Sire!" "What the? Sorry to break radio silence, Jilly but I just took a hit." "Are you all right?" They were broadcasting in the clear, but at least they spoke the Forerunner Tongue all WDF members naturally knew as a byproduct of the Change. That way no one could decode what they were saying.


"My top solar panel is fucked. Just one second..." Debby swung her twin laser mount to bear on the offender, an insectlike dark gray Imperial fighter. A few rounds on target and she was rewarded with a satisfying hot ball of expanding gas where the fighter used to be. "Oh yeah! Now I'm okay!" It was somewhat far away but Jill saw the explosion. "Nice shot." "For what it's worth," Debby said, "here's my angle on the intruder." Jill played around with Debby's data for a bit. "Damn, that thing is eleven miles long! It must be the Emperor's fortress come out to play." "More bad news, Jilly. There's a whole wall of bad guys in our way. Fighters and bombers." "Get back here with me so I can cover you!" "Too late. I'm gonna punch a hole through the bastards." "Uplink your memories to me as long as you can," Jill said. "See you in the Grid!"

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Jill and Debby had run into Squadron 21, dozens of fighters like the one that assaulted Debby plus some larger bombers with their articulated insect "heads" that send a flat laser beam in any direction. The squadron commander ordered them to hold station about a thousand miles off the asteroid Ida and it's attendant WDF Boundary Defender to block any escape to there. When Debby was in range he ordered all his ships to fire at will. She was killed instantly. Her ship broke up under the withering firepower, but included in the debris was one fully armed armed nuclear BrushfireC missile. When the pile of expanding garbage that was Debby's ship passed her attackers, at exactly that instant, the Brushfire detonated, destroying most of the ships and clearing a neat hole for Jill to escape through. When the fireball had grown to fill the sky and dimmed to invisibility Jill dared to look again, and she saw the disk of the Boundary Defender looming even closer. Together with a tiny rock only a mile across called Dactyl, Boundary Defender A31 was one of two "moons" of the giant yellow potato that was Ida. A WDF Boundary Defender was a wheel like Fortuna One but only half the thickness and diameter of Robyn's habitat. And there were no delicate windows, only heavy armored plates. A Boundary Defender was a semimobile spacecraft carrier.

286 -286

As the GIC got closer Jill found herself being jammed and unable to warn the Boundary Defender of their danger. When she got very close she put her laser on low power and locked onto a solar panel to talk through the radio noise. "This is Jill, prepare to receive me." They must have heard because a docking port slid open as she entered the hollow space in the hub. Two Imperial fighters in the van of the pursuit released one Bulldog missile each. They weren't nuclear, but Phantomizer bombs were significantly more powerful than conventional explosives. "It's a hit!" they exulted as the rim of the Boundary Defender erupted into clouds of molten droplets that scattered to every corner of the sky. Eighty women died instantly, but the fires were easily contained by flushing the surrounding spaces to open vacuum. Jill climbed backwards out of the back hatch of her fighter, near the nozzles. Already it was being topped off with more water. "What hornet's nest did you stumble into?" asked Dory in her body with the red moptop as Jill got out. Dory was the fourthhighest ranking member of the WDF and now the CO of this Boundary Defender. She had taken a stint here because the WDF had intelligence that something was brewing over there in the Empire and this was the most likely point of the first engagement.

287 -287

"It's the Empire boys, Dory. They've finally come out in force. We've got no time to lose." "We can't call for any help through this jamming." "In that case some of us will have to stay and fight," Jill said as they left the docking bay and entered a maze of tunnels and passageways. "Some of us will try to break out to Mars. It will be up to you, Dory, to decide who stays and who goes." "Our problem has multiplied, Sire," Peter Onsager said, pointing to a threedimensional representation of the Boundary Defender hovering in a holographic projection. "Track 4023 survived. She has fled to a WDF Boundary Defender, M'Lord." The Emperor searched his memory. "About ninety fighters and bombers. Not one ship must be allowed to escape!" The Grand Imperial Citadel was very close now. It could be seen with the unaided eye. Yvonne, who had once been Lace Mileta, sat at a console with a Purple Cable coming out of the back of her head. She said, "The Great Sharing is now complete! Any one of us now has the recent memories of all of us!"

288 -288

Dory gave the order to launch all birds. From the rim of the spinning Boundary Defender the Sandwich Fighters just fell straight off into space, dozens of them. Already the GIC was scoring hits on the station. Jill led the escapers, and Audrey led the attackers. Audrey got her ships into some kind of formation and made an assault on the vast cylinder, which put up a mindboggling light show to defend itself. She just shook her head as she flew near enough to the GIC that it gave the illusion of being a metal world under attack. "Unbelievable firepower!"

Gun mounts on the GIC like the head of a giant robot traded shots with WDF gun mounts, which emerged from their hidey holes like steel cobras. "Paybacks for Debby!" the WDF gunner shouted. A single Relbimian bomber, looking like a legless wasp, released two missiles, which lept out ahead of the ship toward the central hub of the Boundary Defender. "Bulldogs away!" the weapons officer shouted. Dory looked out the main window of her curving bridge and saw the approach of the missiles with her own eyes. She had time to calmly note, "We're dead." The missiles chewed up the entire hub and secondary explosions caused the station to chew itself up. It became a giant pile of debris sporting a plume of smoke from each rotational pole as the GIC slid by in victory. Scratch one Women's Democratic Forum Boundary Defender.

289 -289

The pilot of a WDF bomber said, "There goes our home sweet home! Bye, Dory!" "We have no choice now," Audrey said as they all fled the scene. "We have to join Jill and try to flee to Mars." Her appraisal of their chances was not very good, but she did not voice her fears. Everyone would have worries enough watching their own backs. "M'Lord, share your thoughts, I beg you," said young Andre II Dugard, the newly installed Patriarch of Io, when he had been granted an audience with the Emperor. He shaved his head, and his features were striking. He wore a black robe like Josef, and a luxurious jacket. Mars could be seen over his shoulder out the forward viewport as he asked, "Why have we travelled to the home of our enemies?" "One WDF bitch has defied all our efforts to stop her from warning her people." "The Emperor knows that not even the GIC can prevail in battle against the full might of the WDF." "I mean only to skirmish. Robyn will see us veer off to tend our wounds. Then we will be unmolested as we accomplish our true purpose at Mercury." "Very good, Sire!"

28 -28

It wouldn't do to have Kim and Charlene locked up inside the clinic in the unlikely event of a fire, so for fire safety and also as a precaution in case the girls did get out, a guard was posted in a shack nearby with bright lights flooding the doorway. Kim and Charlene stood there illuminated like a pair of does frozen on the highway. Fortunately for them the guard wasn't expected to just stare at the outside of the clinic for the duration of his watch. Just staying awake was sufficient, it seemed. So he had his back turned, hunched over a newspaper. The girls crept around the outside of the clinic as quietly as they could until they were exactly 180: around from the guard shack, and then they headed straight out in the long shadow of the building.

Once it had just been a facility for the emergency treatment of Hanford's onsite radiation burn victims. There was no outer perimeter of eight foot high barbed wire fences or rolls of concertina wire or dogs or land mines as they had feared. Soon they found themselves trodding through sand and sagebrush on a gentle slope down to the Columbia River. Having spent their whole life with the light pollution of Puget Sound City they had never seen the clear and dark desert nighttime sky. They gasped at the beauty of the many, many stars and the white phosphor Milky Way above. But Charlene, wearing a tan and white dress that ended about midthigh, began to shiver. "It's cold!" she husked. She had not yet learned that the changes to her meant she could detach her awareness from any unpleasant sensation.

290 -290

"Clan Dugard are very formidable warriors," the Emperor went on to praise him. "I know you will do your duty, Lord Patriarch." Andre II bowed and departed the Emperor's presence in the Combat Engagement Center. Just ahead of the GIC and a column of smaller ships was Jill, the last survivor of the Ida Boundary Defender. Mars loomed before her, and she could even see the tubeways between the major cities of the Tharsis Plateau and the capital now. "Just a little bit closer, you foolish men," she taunted, unheard by them. "I've got enough juice for one more shot." She adjusted the pitch of her fighter to get the Relbimian fighter immediately behind her locked onto the same plane. Then the target acquisition computer skewed the twin laser mount to point directly at it, and she took her shot. There was a satisfying puff ball of gas and debris as the enemy ship disintegrated. "Did you not know a Sandwich fighter can shoot in a circle?" Soon she was safe under the protective cover of the groundtoair weaponry of the capital city of Mars, Valles Marineris, perched atop a cliff on the edge of the largest canyon in the Solar System. Valles Marineris had a glass dome created by burying liquid oxygen under the sand of a crater and nuking it, allowing the bubble to rise like bread and solidify. Its ecology was already well along with tall trees and a lake.

291 -291

When Jill landed she didn't take the time to give an oral report. Instead, she sat in a chair and attendants attached a Purple Cable, giving her direct access to the Grid. The souls of a thousand fallen sisters poured into the Grid like sparkling pixies, bearing tales of the battle with the GIC. Immediately the entire WDF fleet rose to meet the approaching enemy, every cruiser, destroyer, frigate, bomber, and fighter that could be brought to bear, for this was the emergency Robyn had foreseen. And although the WDF was well aware of the incredible firepower mounted by the GIC, it was thought that if many waves Brushfires could be put on target simultaneously, it would overwhelm even those laser defenses and at least some would sprinkle through to score hits. In every passageway, workspace, and private apartment aboard the Grand Imperial Citadel the voice of Admiral Peter Onsager was heard to say, "All personnel prepare for free fall." Never in its history had the GIC braked its rotation, but as Mars grew in size ahead the four great Phantomizer engines were shifted to vent counter to the spin, cancelling the gyroscopic effect that kept the GIC steady on its long axis. The one million people who lived and worked aboard the giant cylinder were suddenly thrown into weightlessness. Few of them experienced physical uneasiness with this maneuver, however, for in their leisure time anyone could go to the parts of the GIC closer to the axis and experience diminished gravity, participating in sports such as humanpowered flight.

292 -292

Now in free fall, the Admiral ordered the engines to vent down together, which rapidly flipped the GIC end over end. All of these acrobatics were remarkable to see in a vessel eleven miles long and a mile across. As his robes floated about him, the Combat Engagement Center flipped completely around the Emperor. The overhead became the deck. Mars loomed even closer. When the GIC was facing tail first along its own path of approach, Onsager ordered it to be spun back up again, restoring gravity and gyroscopic stability. Now to the surprise of the WDF the big engines of the GIC actually became mighty weapons, four powerful searchlights sweeping space and searing any incoming Brushfires they could find. Soon the battle was joined in earnest, but the women of the WDF Navy had already begun to despair.

293 -293

Venus was halflit, a perfectly white cueball growing visibly as Robyn and Shyla watched it now. They would not be entering orbit around Venus before they landed. It was going to be a straight shot from Fortuna to the surface of Venus with no stops. "Incoming message," Shyla said. Due to the enormous distance from Mars, the transmission was fifteen minutes old. Hunky was on the screen, in her chiseled new body with a short butch haircut. She said, "Boundary Defender A31, near the small asteroid Ida, has dropped off the Grid. We don't know if it's equipment troubles." "Send a reply, Shyla. Condition Three, and tell Hunky we are not cancelling our expedition, but we do want to be kept advised. When you're done with that we'll land this bitch." They came in butt first. Reentry was quiet at first, but as the daylight terminator was crossed, plunging Aphrodite into night, the view outside the window became lit with phosphor oranges and red that had probably been there for some time but were not visible in the bright sunlight. A high squeal started to be heard, but Robyn and Shyla couldn't quite pin down when it had begun. The squeal became a dim roar, the glow faded away, and they waited as the view went to total black.

294 -294

There was no sea on Venus to provide a standard "sea level" but when they sank to thirtyone miles altitude above the standard reference geodesic which was an average of all Venus elevations, the dark clouds parted, presenting for the women a panoramic view of hell. They could see every feature of terrain, but it was as if they were looking at a photographic negative, but all in reds. Their destination was Maxwell Montes far in the north, on the Venusian "continent" called Ishtar Terra. It was a brighter red than the surrounding landscape, because it was lit with glowing lava from active volcanism. Aphrodite came in from the southeast over Bell Regio. The computer took Robyn and Shyla unerringly to a flattopped secondary cone of Mt. Maxwell. It was relatively dark but she could see where the computer was trying to bring them. The parachutes deployed. Landing was anything but smooth, more like a controlled crash. Boulders strewn around the site made for a jerky, violent end to the flight, but at least the damage was confined to the lower module, and not absorbed by the upper stage that would serve to take them into space again. "We made it!" Shyla said, giving Robyn a victory kiss. "Now for the hard part."

295 -295

The nighttime temperature in this inferno was exactly the same as the daytime temperature. The sky above was not quite black, but dimly lit like a vague, faraway red overcast as it reflected the oven glow of the surface. The ground seemed to periodically roil like a mirage from the heat. As they descended a ladder along the outside of Aphrodite Shyla asked, "Have you thought of something to say?" "Yes I have. By the way, what's the temp?" Shyla checked her wrist thermometer. "It's 840 degrees." "Thanks." Robyn reached the skirt of their ship and hopped to the ground. She said, "When it's 840 degrees, Bucky Beer Hits The Spot!" "Robyn!" admonished Shyla when she joined her. "The first words on Venus are 'Bucky Beer Hits The Spot?'" "Hey, a sponsor's a sponsor. Eight million Solyad is eight million Solyad!"

296 -296

In about ten minutes they came upon the carcass of the New Confederacy lander. It looked pretty bad off after thirty years in the Venusian environment, which wasn't doing their own ship a hell of a lot of good right now either. With the nearby folddoor cut off now, there was no wind. The women just strolled right up to the coordinates of the radar anomoly, and found something like a very long black box laying on the ground, forming what was one side of the triangle. "This is where the thing came from that changed us, Shyla. This is where it all began."

Shyla put a foot up on the artifact, and made as though she wanted to hop over it into the triangular zone that had appeared black in the photos. But she thought better of it, seeing that some of the larger boulders had been shaved clean off at a height of about six inches above the ground. She set her foot back down and joined Robyn again. "Good choice, Shyla, somehow that seemed to be a dangerous thing to do." Robyn was a little sickened as she imagined the door somehow turning on as Shyla walked around there and her feet getting sliced neatly off at the ankles. Then Robyn saw the unearthly symbols on a fivebyfive keypad of white keys. "Jesus, Mary, and Joseph! That's the very alphabet we invented when they held us captive back at Hanford in 1983!"

297 -297

"Maybe we didn't really invent it. Type 'hello.'" Robyn held out her hand for Shyla to grasp it as she typed a greeting with the other. For an instant they saw it, the surface of Venus suddenly replaced by a welllit hole in the ground. The rocks were still there under this "mirror." If Robyn or Shyla had found the time to do so, they could have reached around the effect and found that there was still a gap of a few inches where some of the smaller stones could be grabbed. The underside of the mirror was solid black, as smooth as polished obsidian. But reaching over the top face of the "mirror" Robyn or Shyla could have stuck their arm in and waved it, or pushed their arm in and out safely. And the strangest thing of all, looking along the edge, they would not have seen their hand poking through the plane of the mirroreffect at all. Their arm could have even gone below the surface of Venus. It was as though the top side of the "mirror" was a hole in the universe leading to another place, and the bottom side of the mirror was a solid stone ceiling about six inches over the ground. But all these observations were not made by Robyn nor Shyla, because Venus had about 85 times the pressure of Earth at sea level, and the place on the other side of the hole only had a pressure of one standard atmosphere. Both Robyn and Shyla, still hands, were swept along in the burst of wind, tripping headoverheels across the threshold and sucked in.

298 -298

Then the door, now over their heads. immediately deactivated, sealing the women inside. Robyn and Shyla found themselves seated on two large cushions, as if someone knew exactly where they would fall and prepositioned them there. Robyn said, "We seem to have fallen into some sort of void." "This must be the bean bag room," Shyla replied. "Please remove your headpieces to permit speech," K'Prie Shabatthani told them in a loud voice, speaking Forerunner. "The air is quite cool." The women complied, and with their first look at K'Prie they stared in dumbfounded astonishment. K'Prie was slick and shiny with moisture. Her skin was smooth, like a frog's skin, dark green with many golden flecks. Her neck/mouth tentacle pointed at them, which gave the illusion of her looking at them, but K'Prie's organ of sight was really in the center of her abdomen protected by metal armor. Finally Robyn found her voice, only to utter, "God in heaven." Shyla's remark was a little more intelligent. "Well, Robyn, there can be only one First Contact, and it looks like we get it."

299 -299

"I am K'Prie Shabatthani. I was present on your world before you had a written history but your planet has made approximately ten thousand Turns around its sun relative to that time. I realize I don't look that old, but there are some nearly magical things one can do with timeexpansion." "What are you?" Robyn asked. "Briefly, I am a Setasian appointed to study humanity for the purpose of intelligently representing your race until the time when humanity can speak for itself. That time has now come." "Are you male or female?" "I am a member of the eggproducing half of my race and therefore a female in one sense. But I am a female with more authority and freedom than is known of the males of our species. For it is the males of my race who are the passive, nuturing half. Our males are those who fertilize the eggs and watch over the young people. Your concepts of maleness and the femaleness are probably not applicable to me."

29 -29

All Kim could do was pull her close and share body warmth as they tried to walk as fast as they could with the loose sand underfoot. Shortly they came to a wire fence, and Charlene put her hand out to spread the wires apart so she could crawl through, but quickly pulled back again. "Dammit! I got shocked!" They looked at it for a moment and decided to try to roll under it, with a little bit of burrowing into the sand to get more clearance. Soon they were through the electric fence and standing at the river's edge. In the moonlight they dimly saw the roaring whitewater of Coyote Rapids. This was the middle of the untamed stretch of the river called Hanford Reach, the only part of the Columbia left wild. Above and below Hanford Reach the river was nothing but a staircase of long lakes behind hydroelectric dams. The girls knew they couldn't set foot in the water here, or they'd be swept away and drown. They had to find a bridge. There was only the Vernita Bridge, a left turn here and five miles upriver. But they would have never made it. Department of Energy cops were crawling all over that whole area. The girls didn't choose to go that way because they wanted to get away from lights, not move toward them. So they started walking on the river bank downstream.

300 -300-

Robyn and Shyla noticed that K'Pree spoke the "Forerunner Tongue" with almost no accent, at least no accent relative to the way which they spoke it, but her word choices were peculiar. The Forerunner Tongue allowed this leeway. It was a language so rich the WDF employed it for battle communications in the clear, rotating the sets of words used so that analysts never caught on. "I am Robyn. She is Shyla. We've spent nearly our entire lives trying to get here." "Whatta l o n n n n g strange trip it's been," Shyla added. "In the name of our Civilization of Civilizations I receive you favorably here. You can ask all the questions that you wish." "Where are we?" was Shyla's first question. "And how did we get here?" "You are no longer on the second planet of Sol. You are on my home world of Setase. You have arrived through a folddoor. It is like communication by electronics on your worlds, but instead of reuniting two distant people in conversation, we can reunite any two distant places in space. Or time. We have learned to change the shape of reality to our will. The folddoors are the basis of our Civilization of Civilizations."

301 -301

"Did you send the probe that Changed us?"

"Yes. I planted a seed when I sent that machine and in this hour I have harvested the two of you. It was necessary. You have observed a large fleet of ships approaching your system."

Robyn nodded. "We count about a thousand of them, only six years away now, all in decelleration mode. We call that-. Are they your people?"

"Not my people. That is a Trax armada. When they arrive you will find yourselves in a war you cannot win. There is much I can tell you, but the explanation will be accelerated if each of you accept a foldline interface. You will find that it perfectly fits your bioelectronic connector. Then I can show you what happened directly, from mindtomind."

"It feels heavy," the Vondan Theorizer Jor Narayan complained when he was welcomed to the information gathering station. Both the cave and Jor's point of departure briefly occupied the same position in space and time along the triangular plane of the folddoor. Many thousands of lightyears were bridged by Jor as though walking from one room to the next.

302 -302

"Only one part in thirtytwo more than Standard," the Setasian Caseworker K'Prie Shabatthani told him, but the visitor had been trained for some time on a Factor Two Waystation, where gravity was only five parts in nine of Standard. K'Prie wondered if he was the right choice after all. A Theorizer should never draw conclusions from immediate sensations.

K'Prie was naturally very curious about how the folddoors worked, but the Forerunner race who created the network had continued to advance and merge their identities together, becoming "Sophia," the personification of wisdom, the Supreme Being of the universe. Sophia was a tangible, real, scientifically observable deity who nevertheless found it beneath Her to answer the annoying technical questions of newbie worshippers.

K'Prie guessed that folddoors, applying principles of quantum gravity, manipulated the fabric of spacetime the way a textile guild craftsbeing folded and punched and bonded a new garment.

Jor's eyes tried to adjust in the dim tunnel. Daylight poured from one end and K'Prie indicated they should walk that way. "Take the greatest care at the end of the tunnel, it is a full thann down to the earth."

303 -303

Despite being two utterly different races K'Prie and Jor both spoke, they both made similar sounds in the air with their articulated breathing organs. Speaking seemed to be an ability found in all civilized races, and these two beings were part of the next step up, the "Civilization of Civilizations." They spoke the Forerunner Tongue, the common language of the Integrated Star Systems Alliance, although their accents and choice of words were very different, reflecting their unique backgrounds.

A shiver ran through his body as they neared the end, despite his shiny black bodycovering fur. "This is a very cold planet, nothing like Vondan," he said, thinking of the steaming jungles of his home world.

"Much more then nothing like Setase," she said, and Jor let his eyes rest on her skin, kept moist by goldflecked secretions. The warm oceans of her world were contaminated with dissolved heavy metals like gold, and K'Prie's race had evolved mechanisms for precipitating the metal outside of their bodies. "Three parts in four this world is ocean, but too cold for us. Do you know why I asked for you?"

"I am told the most promising species on this world are very much like Vondans."

304 -304

"The highest animals on this planet all have a high inner temperature, like Vondans. The female maintains the egg to the inside of her body until her offspring are able to survive on its own, external to her, like Vondans. The parent feeds the recently expelled offspring from the juices produced by her own agency, like Vondans. My belief is that your own biology gives you understanding of this new race that I cannot possibly supply, simply because they are so different from me."

"Yet there are many more races that have developed along these same lines. Why choose Vondans in particular?

                                                                      "The candidate species on this world does not enter estro. Or rather,

they are continuously in estro, ready to have intercourse, like Vondans, wide you are known for being."

Jor assured her she quite correct in her reasoning. There indeed would be nuances in the candidate races' sociology K'Prie would miss. Setasian reproductive biology was unusual, even for the ISSA. Their fertilizing males had an orifice that sucked the egg out of the female's body while it was still attached to her at the end of a long flexible organ. Later, as the egg quickened within her, she would be overcome by a drive to bury that egg as deeply into the mud at the bottom of the sea as she could. Then the female would depart while the males guarded the spawning grounds from predators.

305 -305

They stepped to the edge of the tunnel outlet under an overcast sky. The view was of a gigantic, rocky, flatbottomed valley gouged by a wall of ice which Jor could see far to his left.

"The ice is retreating," K'Prie said. "The last time I was here we had to burn a hole from the end of the tunnel up through the glacier in order to exit."

"What is the wisdom of maintaining the information collections station here now that the ice has melted?"

"To be a thann up on a sheer wall of the cliff is likely to discourage the local population from studying this place out of curiosity. From the last period of information collection there has been a change in their economy base of foodgathering. The large animals on which the hunters depend for their food have nearly disappeared, which will exercise pressure on them to invent agriculture. New territories have been opened up for the plants with the withdrawal of the ice. They still produce stone instruments by chipping, but many have developed one preference for small geometric shapes. They already have an oral history and they are on the cusp of learning to write it down. I foretell that civilization will come to this world by the next information collection period."

306 -306

All her data had been gathered by an Eye Probe, a highlypolished silver ball with a tiny fold door inside of it and many small nozzles. With a never ending supply of highpressure air folded in from some faraway planet, K'Prie had remotely steered the Eye Probe from camp to camp, spying on the activities of her candidate species. For now the Eye Probe rested in its niche in her tunnel, ready for her to instruct Jor on its use.

The "Alliance" part of the Integrated Star Systems Alliance presupposed an enemy to ally against, and they indeed had one. The enemy of the ISSA was a single race, the implacable Trax, whose individual beings did not retain a unique identity. So they differed from the races of the ISSA, where every being was a unique "I" with an individual identity. Each member of the Trax was part of one collective hive mind of formidable intelligence.

                                                                      Perhaps twothirds of the galaxy's inhabitable star systems were

already occupied by the Trax. The core of the ISSA in the Elysian Fields was thirtyfive million light years away in the heart of the Vega Supercluster, perfectly safe from the Trax, but emerging races still appeared in the cradle of wild star systems here in the "Local Group" of galaxies, vulnerable to attack. The ISSA identified and evacuated these new races to safety before they were discovered by the enemy and wiped out. If the Trax encountered resistance in their target star system, their overwhelming force of numbers eventually prevailed, permitting the daughter hive to set up unimpeded.

307 -307

In the process of occupying systems, the Trax had encountered folddoors, often catching them jammed with crowds trampling each other to evacuate off the planet. They were by now extremely familiar with them. They had even managed to capture many of them intact and in perfect working order.

The ISSA used a network of onedimensional foldlines to verify a folddoor is free before letting the requesting door dial in. The Trax just dialed in. If they did this while you were still walking through it would slice you neatly in half. The odds were incredibly high against this happening. The Trax used their doors to dial randomly, hoping for a hit. Since there were trillions of possible combinations, they rarely succeeded. It was as unlikely as winning the lottery or dying in a spacecraft accident, so most beings put the danger deep into the back of their minds and forgot about it.

The first indication K'Prie and Jor had that they were the unlucky victims of a Trax incursion was when several long, hardshelled limbs reached out with polyjointed dexterity and pinned Jor's arms to his body. So quiet K'Prie thought in that instant before she and Jor both began to scream in their startled fear.

She signalled the alarm with jabs on a keypad before Trax limbs settled down around K'Prie too. She watched one bite Jor's head clean off with pinching razorsharp mandibles. K'Prie shuddered.

308 -308

He wasn't gone, of course. His last memories, his "psyche" was even now going up a onedimensional foldlink to become part of Sophia, even if she wasn't sure exactly what that meant. But to K'Prie, coming from an oceanic world with terrible predators, being eaten was not a pleasant way to end this phase of being. It triggered deeprooted fears that most other races were not burdened with.

They rotated her to face them and she could see the tunnel was thick with them now.

One of the Trax wasn't interested in eating K'Prie at all. It made its way to the end of the tunnel and leaped off into the air on four transparent wings. Its only purpose was to get as far away from the scene as it could with what it was carrying before the inevitable counterattack. This planet was ideal for the Trax, and the ISSA was not about to let them settle it the easy way, pouring through a folddoor, maybe even getting a pregnant queen across. They held an attack team in a high state of readiness just for alerts such as the one K'Prie sent out.

K'Prie was just about to be stuffed into the next Trax mouth when she saw an eruption of arms and wings and a spray of yellow blood from near the folddoor. The ISSA was burning and blasting their way in, and K'Prie was dropped to the deck, a forgotten meal.

309 -309

The ensuing fight sickened her in its noise, its unbridled violence, a thrashing of Trax limbs, small explosions of projectiles, the smell of charred meat as hand lasers swiped the scene. For some of the ISSA troops this was the third or fourth firefight that work day.

Losing the one folddoor was unavoidable, but K'Prie would never be able to explain losing two. So she gathered the Eye Probe in her arms as she was escorted out by the combat team that had saved her life.

A folddoor couldn't be turned off, only destroyed. And a mere chemical explosive small enough to fit through the door was not powerful enough to destroy the door. It required the devastating power and compact size of a fission device. The ISSA team had just moments to set one up and get out before more Trax could dial in and continue the battle for the door.

Centered on the tiny hole high up the cliffside, a much larger hole, from clifftop to base and just as wide, was blown out by a device with roughly the power of the Hiroshima bomb. The single fleeing Trax was scorched by the flash and stunned by the following blast, but it was sufficiently far away that it would survive long enough to do what it was supposed to do. Which was to land, unfold the petals of a solar array, and start the radio beacon looping through its special code.

30 -30

At about 12:30 am they came to a section where the river was gradually shifting in its bank and the girls were faced with the choice of getting wet or going back through the electric fence, because there was no more beach to walk on. So they dug another hole and squeezed under the wire, laughing at what they thought was pretty lousy security for a nuclear reservation. It didn't cross their mind that the electric fence was simply to keep critters out so the cops wouldn't have to investigate every breach of their network of infrared trip points inland, exactly like the glaring breach the girls now made with not a clue of having done so. By 1:00 am a call was made to the guard shack at the Allard clinic, and soon after that the word was out on the street that Kim and Charlene were gone. Halfasleep, E. G. Roland fumbled with the phone receiver and there was quite a pause before he remembered he was supposed to bring it to his ear and say, "Hello?" "Sorry to wake you up at this hour, Mr. Roland, but you wanted to be informed if the Lokken and Null girls escaped." "What time is it?"

"One fifteen in the AM, sir."

310 -310

It was 8,000 BC, in Europe. Like ripples on a pond Earth was for the first time making its presence known to the universe. In just over eleven years the Trax would pick up those signals and know exactly where that brief struggle for the folddoor had taken place. And their response would be to send an armada.

As the caseworker for the human project K'Prie had significant rank. Still, her options for salvaging her project were limited. A thorough review and a centrally rendered (read "bureaucratic" [read "slower"]) decision could become utterly moot by the rapid sweep of events on Earth as the clock ticked slowly away in the Elysian Fields. She would have to ram a minimum proposal up the chain of command as fast as she could.

First K'Prie had to find out if the Trax had managed to get through. She dialed up a Factor 2 Waystation as a destination. The light on the other side of the door was reddened, dim, the beings working over there moved in slow motion. K'Prie stepped across the threshold. The sensation was bizarre. As her brain crossed the plane of the folddoor her thoughts on the other side were slowed to onehalf, her heart skipped a beat. When she had passed over a medic looked up her race's internal organ arrangement on a screen and placed a probe tip at the appropriate place for a standard check. When crossing to a place that is under timedilation the only option was to take it by perfect multiples of two. Odd multiples like three or 1.7 threw the heart into arrythmia and killed the traveller, and multiples of four or eight were too difficult to push into (or pull out of) and even wrought cellular damage.

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Looking back to where she came, the room was tinged violet and very bright. Beings rushed about their business at double speed.

A Factor 2 Waystation was a small city floating high above the Elysian Fields, one of many, using the same trick of importing compressed gas by folddoor as K'Prie's Eye Probe. It was eleven thousand times farther from the Elysian plains than the earth was from the sun. But there was nothing to see. There were 8 million such Factor 2 Waystations. Every minute here meant two minutes elapsed back on Earth. From here K'Prie could sidestep, journeying to another Waystation that had exactly the equipment she needed, a hotworld environment suit modified for Setasians and a radio receiver on a rising platform with a large folddoor mounted in the ceiling.

For all was not lost, there was still one more folddoor in the star system she was studying. Except it was on a planet with a very difficult climate. That was deliberate. Hiding it on the second planet choked with clouds and broiling hot, the Trax would never stumble onto the folddoor if they got to the system first.

K'Prie brought the pressure up to some eighty times Standard, her best guess at the conditions on Venus. Then she dialed out. She was close, the ambient pressure was eightyfour times Standard, the burst of air was not sufficient to knock her down. But she could see the metallic receiver get dull with heat as the temperature rapidly climbed.

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She slowly raised the platform through the folddoor, rising with the whole mechanism as the parabolic dish started to turn to face where she knew the Earth would be. It was night, here on this Venusian mountaintop. The whole scene was lit with a dim red glow from the surface itself. It was so hot the rocks glowed internally from their heat. K'Prie got a symbol on her screen, 1.411 Gigahertz, a standard Trax beacon.

So that was it. This system would belong to Trax. Her only option was to evacuate the humans to a virgin system before the Trax arrived to claim Earth. To do that she needed to go up her chain of command. So she ran the Gauntlet.

A Factor 4 Waystation was only 2 thousand AU above the ground. That much deeper into the gravity well made clocks run four times slower there than in the rest of the universe. When one went through a Factor 2 Waystation and continued all the way down to the Elysian Fields, it was called running the Gauntlet. There were fourteen Waystations between the outside universe and the surface of the Elysian Fields. Only at the last Way Station, Factor 16384, which was a mere 4 AU above the Elysian Fields (less than the distance between Earth and Jupiter) did the Elysian Fields first become visible, an infinite grid of orangered suns stretching off to a flat horizon, and a patchwork of multicolored landforms along the ground.

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It was in the shape of a gigantic sphere. A ray of light would travel across the diameter of the Elysian Fields in almost exactly the same time it took for the Earth to go around the sun. The Elysian Fields had eight times the mass of the entire Milky Way Galaxy. It was a galaxy in it's own right, but all the stars were squeezed into a region one lightyear across. All that light and heat was trapped by the event horizon, for the Elysian Fields was actually a black hole with the heft of 8 galaxies. And just above that event horizon, like slag in a furnace of molten steel, was land. Here was the heart of Sophia's realm. The EFields was an artifact that defied the imagination in its scale.

Pick any point on the Elysian Fields and start walking. When you return to where you started, a billion years later, you will have passed under more than 150 thousand suns. Almost 24 billion suns illuminated the EFields like a grid of street lamps, suspended on magneticallydirected pulses of plasma as each sun hovered like slowly sputtering rockets balanced on their own exhaust.

Any three neighboring suns formed the vertices of a perfect equilateral triangle, the west sun, east sun, and south sun each supplying one fourth of the light and heat to a pad between them called the Habitable Zone. The more distant north sun, southwest sun, and southeast sun all together supplied the final one fourth of light and heat to the Habitable Zone. 314 -314

Every sun pulsated on and off with it's own unique cycle between 20 and 30 hours long, and each cycle resulted in a burning, twisting line segment in a train that streamed down from the star, eventually entering a ten million mile wide hole in the land directly beneath it ringed with mountains 8,000 miles high. "Summer" is when all the nearby stars are bobbing up and down in sync. "Winter" is when they alternate periods of maximum heat, first one, then another, with few combining. Races that loved the heat, races that loved the cold, and races that loved every climate in between found wide swaths of land to occupy. And there certainly was no need to fight over territory. Between any three suns there was a triangular patch of prime fertile land and freshwater lakes with the area of 3 million Earths. K'Prie went to that patch claimed by the Gorpai race.

Her boss Uriel was a Gorpai, and he had once been a Caseworker like K'Prie, but now he was a Seeker. The Gorpai were a reptillian race, but as a Seeker he had been given the ability to change his body to any shape to avoid detection when he observed new candidate species. It was Uriel who found the Earth and assigned it to K'Prie. For his meeting with her, Uriel took the shape of a Setasian, all soft tentacles including a large headless neck tentacle with an articulated mouth at the end of it. His brain and sensory organs were relocated in the center of his body, and he walked on suction cup feet. K'Prie filled him in on what had happened. He held the authority to release the hardware she needed next.

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"An oldstyle chemical rocket?"

"A large one, " K'Prie affirmed. "Several stages. With a set of Ushermaking probes for the payload."

"Why can't we contract to have the thing built onsite?"

"The state of the planet is extremely harsh. Some chorzons of observation and I completely have ruined one receiver of microwaves."

"Let me see what you picked up."

She gave him a polymer sheet with a copy of the Trax signal waveform inscribed on it. "Yes, I've seen this before, there will be no objection from me. But it will take time to prepare your rocket."

In the end it took one hundred eleven Earthdays of Elysian Fields time. K'Prie felt that time pressing on her, afraid that the hunters would find Earth at any moment, for on Earth itself nearly 10,000 years of human history passed before the Ushermaking probe was launched.

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"And the rest we know from direct experience with your probe," Robyn said. "In all our history never before has it happened like this. The circumstances that surround your first contact with us are unique. There was not a way to avoid to forced conversion of you two. You realize, Robyn, do you not, that all the beings that have been Changed like you and Shyla can work the folddoors? That is why now you have perfect memories. It is necessary for your new job. You will come to memorize millions of folddoors numbers." "Well, we've never had access to a folddoor until now. We didn't even know folddoors existed, or what we were supposed to do with these powers you gave us. "Time is at a premium," K'Prie warned. "You must bring me to the third planet." "Agreed."

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K'Prie donned the same environmental suit she wore on the surface of Venus before and accompanied Robyn and Shyla back to the good ship Aphrodite. She carried a miniature folddoor only perhaps three feet long. Along the way Robyn ducked into the wreck of the New Confederacy ship and scrounged around for logs, for any removable electronic media that might have recorded what happened. When they reentered their ship Robyn and Shyla prepared for launch Your pardon, K'Prie, we are ready to get back into space now. Even with all the disembodied girls in our little local onboard 'Grid' a launch requires many splitsecond decisions so this will consume the full attention of Shyla and I for a while." The operation was just like the old moon landers. Aphrodite had a smaller upper stage capsule that used the lower stage as the launch pad. In a halfhour they were well clear of Venus' atmosphere and on their way. "Fortuna here we come," Shyla said. "Home of the Women's Democratic Forum. They're gonna trip when they see you, K'Prie!" "I find it interesting, the way you have evolved your Women's Democratic Forum in answer to the alteration from my probe. There is no record of another race that made the same choices that you have made. Do the unChanged people of Earth fear you?"

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"They have come to have a healthy respect for us, if that is what you mean," Robyn told her. "In battle we do not fear to die, because for us there is no personal end, and that gives us an advantage in combat over those for whom death is the end." K'Prie said, "I understand. Your real bravery is matched against their vicarious bravery which is instilled only by discipline and the fear of being seen as a coward. In truth, though you were not aware of it, every member of your Women's Democratic Forum, including yourselves, already are messengers and lawgivers and punishers of wrongdoing." "So to merely accept the Change is to be inducted into your Civilization of Civilizations as policewomen?" "Yes. Already you are ministering beings precipitated out from humanity in order to provide service and guide humanity. To this end, also to put you into a relationship with the Civilization of Civilizations, you've been given the ability to operate the folddoors and speak the tongue of the Prominent Ones. You will be needed as the enemy draws near." "But you are bringing help, right K'Prie?"

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"The place in which the greater part of our resources are located and where the authority necessary in order to free those resources is made, the Citadel of the Prominent Ones, is in a space region where the speed of escape from it is nearly completely the light speed. The time passes there approximately 33 thousand times slower relative to your planet which is at a remote distance from that place. Therefore you can see that we have had only enough time of preparation for sending one machine. Even now I regret the passing of every instant." "No choice," Robyn said. "It's fortyfive days in this baby from here to Fortuna One. And it's gonna be just this cramped." "Does this vessel have the ability to carry itself to its destination unattended?" "Certainly, K'Prie. Don't you worry about that. If Shyla and I both keel over, the girls in the computer will pilot Aphrodite back home smoother than silk." "Then a new option has been made available. Please follow me." K'Prie anchored her folddoor on one bulkhead magnetically. Then she lit it off and crawled through it. Robyn & Shyla followed her through. It was strange. When they were halfway across there would be full gravity on their arms, head, and torso, but their legs back on the ship still floated.

31 -31

"And who are you?" "Sergeant Jim Lasker in Building 1002 at Pearl." "How did they get out?" "As far as we know, sir, they just punched the right combination on the doors and walked out." "The sentry at the clinic dropped the ball. Have the damn kids been picked up yet?" "Not yet sir. But we'll get 'em. We've had some level two motion detectors tripped on the riverbank near Nancy so we're concentrating downstream and northeast of the clinic. There's nowhere to hide."

"OK, sergeant, then I'll be expecting another call from you shortly, with

good news. Bye." He hoped he sounded more disappointed than he really was. The escape of Kim and Charlene was the excuse he was looking for to do what he had wanted to do for a long time now. Of the handful of people who knew about the alien probes, Roland was a member of the faction that was in favor of destroying every shred of evidence that it ever existed. He hung up, then dialed another number.

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After crossing through they found themselves back in the "Bean Bag Room" on Setase, and K'Prie turned off the folddoor. "You recall that I said folddoors link points in time as well as space. Now let us return to your ship again." She fired up the little folddoor again, and led them back to Aphrodite. Out the window Fortuna One was visible, a tiny wheel spinning against the backdrop of the Moon. They had just bypassed the entire dreary 45 day voyage. "Damn that's a neat trick, K'Prie!" Robyn squealed. After Aphrodite docked in the Fortuna One Differential, the door was opened from the outside and Hunky was the first one aboard. She looked surprised to see Robyn and Shyla. K'Prie was hiding in the Bean Bag Room for the moment until Robyn could smooth things over. Hunky asked, "Did your radio go on the fritz?" "No," answered Robyn. "Why? What's been going on?" "We've been trying to contact you ever since Shyla's last message right before you made planetfall. In short, Robyn, there's been a war with the Relbimian Empire. You don't have a WDF Navy anymore."

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"You're kidding! And how did the enemy come off?" "The enemy ship was the Grand Imperial Citadel itself. Eleven miles long, Robyn! He got one good ragged bite in his ass from a nuclear Brushfire and moved off. We haven't seen him since. They destroyed most of your fleet but they didn't manage to hurt anyone on Mars itself. All the cities are safe." Robyn, Shyla, and Hunky left the ship then. Robyn was carrying's K'Prie's small folddoor. She set it up in the Differential and turned it on. From the other side K'Prie started shoving the regularsized folddoors through. All Hunky could see at that point was K'Prie's tripletentacled hands briefly. Hunky trusted Robyn to explain in her own time. Shyla pointed at a captured Relbimian fighter, which was docked next to the Aphrodite. "Where did you get this?" "Apparently the pilot and the copilot were both blinded by a stray laser shot," Hunky explained, "and they set down on the Hellas Plain. I went out there and after a little knife action I had me a Relbimian fighter in pristine condition. I flew it in to Fortuna and waited for you to get back." -



"We could raid the Grand Imperial Citadel in this thing," Shyla added. "They'll let us dock as a straggler from the war, and then I'll fight my way to Peter Onsager. I want his ass. Don't try to stop me." "Stop you?" Robyn asked with a chuckle. "Are you ready to go right now, Shyla? You can taste Onsager's blood today." "Don't be silly, Robyn," Hunky said. "The instruments in the fighter show the GIC is now stationed off Mercury. That's a good two months away easy." "Shyla, you go with Bravo in the fighter and take this mini folddoor. Do the same trick K'Prie just showed us and catch Hunky up on what's going on. Dory, arrange another ship for us. You and I are going to take some folddoors to Mars and we will indeed arrive there today. At least from our point of view. Within the hour, in fact! I'll explain along the way. Have some other girls take the remainder of these folddoors down to the Earth and the Moon, and K'Prie will show them how to use them. We're doing all the legwork now, you see. This is just preparation." The Empress had given her orders and now it was time to move.

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It was fiftyeight days of real time to Mercury, but Shyla and Hunky experienced it as only a few minutes in the Bean Bag Room. K'Prie was waiting there, and Hunky accepted her existence with remarkable equanimity, as Shyla knew she would. There were none cooler. K'Prie gave both of them a new weapon, a foldblade. This was a tiny folddoor built into a hilt so that it could become a sword up to four feet long. If the foldblade was dialed to the Elysian Fields, the blade was black and hard as obsidian, but so thin that it actually disappeared from view when turned edgewise, and there was no material it couldn't slice like a hot knife through butter. If the foldblade was dialed to a null device or even to outer space, it was a shard of nothingness that sucked the very air out of the room. K'Prie warned them not to use that mode in a small, airtight room or they could suffocate. When they returned to the Relbimian fighter it was making a slow pass along the length of the Grand Imperial Citadel, as required by procedures so it could be properly identified. When it crossed to the very forward end of the GIC Bravo and Shyla saw a stream of sparkling objects being hurled out of the front of the huge vessel at enormous speed. Shyla operated the controls of the ship's telescope to zoom in and track one of those objects so she could identify what it was.

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"It looks like a gigantic diamond," she said at last. "Why is the Empire throwing diamonds out into space?" was Hunky's question.

"Not just out into space," Shyla said, "but back along the orbital path of

Mercury, at exactly the correct speed to perfectly cancel Mercury's motion. We're the ones who are moving. You see those diamonds? Relative to the sun they aren't moving at all." "Which means the sun's gravity is free to start pulling them in. That takes me back to my first question, which I now modify to 'Why is the Empire throwing diamonds into the sun?'" "I don't know, let's pass that question back to the Grid after we dock." Would the Empire accept this fighter after being away for so long? The moment of maximum suspense came and went. They were admitted into the central core and given an assigned place to dock. Shyla wrestled control of the ship away from the autopilot and chose another place to dock that wouldn't have a company of armed guards waiting for them.

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By not parking the fighter where the Empire told Shyla to go, this blew their cover instantly, but it gave them a critical few minutes to exit the fighter unmolested and set up the mini folddoor. In the hanger they dragged a larger folddoor through the smaller folddoor and turned it on so people could come in without crawling. Then the entire WDF Army began methodically pouring through, all of them armed with foldblades too (they had been training for this operation for 58 days, after all). Some of the new women brought more folddoors. The GIC had been successfully breached. The WDF infection was spreading with a preplanned rapidity that defied belief. Hunky's question about the diamonds was carried back to the Grid faster than the speed of light, for it traveled by folddoor. Soon she had her answer when Robyn herself arrived in the WDF controlled zone of the GIC and had a "huddle" with her senior officers. She brought an illustrated chart. "This is probably going to bore the crap out of you and fly right over your heads, but we now know what the Empire is really up to by throwing diamonds into the sun. Diamonds are made of pure Carbon12 isotopes. Here's the cycle:

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Carbon12 fuses with a proton to form Nitrogen13.

One of the protons emits a positron to form Carbon13. 
A proton capture produces Nitrogen14. 
Another proton capture produces Oxygen15. 
An energetic alpha particle is emitted to return to Carbon12. 

"You see that even after the cycle you end up with Carbon12 again, so the whole thing can repeat. Believe it or not, they are trying to change how the sun produces energy. They are trying to move the sun off the main sequence and turn it into a red giant, and they might succeed." The huddle erupted into a cacophony of shouted questions as the import of what Robyn said sank in. Robyn continued when she had order. "The sun will expand to swallow Mercury, Venus, Earth, even Mars. It will burn so hot the ice will melt on the Jovian moons. If they pull it off just right they'll have oceans and land ready to be fertilized and farmed." "It's a diabolical plan," Shyla said. "The biggest massmurder in history. It will mean the death of eighteen billion people!" "But you have to admit it's a staggering dream," Robyn said, begrudging a certain admiration. "They won't be able to sustain the sun burning that hot for more than a few thousand years but that will be long enough for them to claim the stars as sole human heirs."

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"Then it is clear what we have to do," Hunky said, thinking of the people she existed to protect. "We have to stop them before they change the sun." She lifted her foldblade in a salute to Robyn and struck off on her own. Robyn felt a little sorry for the Relbimians now. The main body of the WDF Army was cutting quite a swath through the GIC as they continually expanded their spherical perimeter. The entire vessel was alerted to this, of course. Robyn's troops used their hissing foldblades dialed to nothing, as oneway membranes with nothing able to return, to cut giant holes in steel walls and decks no matter how thick they were. Even the broadside flat of a foldblade dialed to a null device could eat metal. As K'Prie released more and more folddoors, they were being carried by tube transports throughout the vessel, creating new pockets of infection, new centers of WDF occupation that expanded and fought to link up with the others. When Robyn's forces ran into companies of Imperial troops firing hand lasers the beams of deadly light was swallowed up by the blades. The Empire may have taken out the WDF's Navy but they were now being attacked from the inside. All that excitement kept the attention of the Empire focused there, permitting Shyla and Hunky to make their own seperate ways deep into the GIC by stealth. Shyla went forward, where she thought the Admiral would be. Hunky went aft, toward the mechanism that was launching the diamonds.

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They were more subtle, opening doors by sliding their foldblades through cracks to slice bolts, entering the room, and closing the door behind them. When they killed a guard, it was from behind, with the blade ripping across their neck. Still, it was slow going for both of them. Neither Shyla nor Hunky could hide as locals. Women of the Empire simply were not to be seen outside of the innermost chambers of their individual families. They certainly did not sneak around armed with blades. Shyla made a grand entrance into the Combat Engagement Center, slicing a round hole in the ceiling and dropping catlike to the floor less than thirty feet away from Admiral Peter Onsager. As she crouched she immediately switched her foldblade's destination from a nulldevice to a setting that made both sides of the blade as hard as the diamonds the Empire was throwing away and as black as space itself. Guards stepped forward with blasters aimed at her but Peter said, "Hold! She's mine." Shyla broke into a wicked grin and stood fully upright as the guards cleared a circle around her. Peter called for a blade, since it was not his custom to bring his sword into CEC, which was a place for command and control, not military pageantry. He twirled the unfamiliar blade around to get the measure of it, to gauge its balance and heft.

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"I have come," Shyla announced as she walked slowly toward him, "to hold you personally accountable for holding my eternal soul hostage. She raised her blade. "What's particularly galling to me is that you managed to get a promotion for doing so. That second star on your shoulder cost us the Phantomizer monopoly and now it's going to cost your very life!" Onsager attacked with his sword. Shyla easily blocked his every blow with the flat of her foldblade, toying with him. He said, "I had no idea you would take your loss so hard, Shyla. I mean you have a reputation for persistence but this elevates you to the status of legend. No future benefit to you, unfortunately. Where can you go?" He phrased his next words hoping to instill a sliver of fear that could slow her down. "Look around you, Shyla Kill me and your death will surely and swiftly follow." Shyla was finished playing around with him. She had achieved her purpose in making sure he knew who it was that would kill him and why. She turned her foldblade's edge to face him and neatly chopped his steel sword in half. Astonished, Peter attacked her with the foot of steel left attached to the hilt and she sliced it in half again. Finally he tossed the useless hilt at Shyla, and she batted it neatly away.

32 -32

By this time his wife Ruth was awake next to him in the bed. She started to ask him what was going on but he held up his hand and pursed his lips, guesturing for silence, as the man on the other end experienced the same rude awakening. "Good morning. It's Ed...Sorry...I know it's five o'clock there...look, something happened and this whole thing is probably going to blow up in our face, let me emphasize our face, unless I can get that plane we talked about this week instead of next month like we planned...this morning or afternoon if I can get it...great...TriCities Airport over in Pasco is where...it's got runways long enough to handle a converted 737...uh huh...OK, thanks a lot, pal, you're a real lifesaver. Bye." "What was that about?" Ruth asked, intrigued by the very unusual call. It sounded almost like her husband was planning something illegal. "Oh, some stuff happened, Darling, but now it looks like I won't be going to jail after all." Satisfied, he reached over and decisively put out the bedside lamp. With 560 square miles, the Hanford site was large enough to require "town" names to identify places within it. They had chosen to use mostly women's names. So there were places like Ruth, Edna, and Susie, which were nothing more than railroad junctions, really. The clinic was only a mile north of Helen, which was just a large electrical substation and a cluster of warehouses.

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On her backswing from that batting action she sent the foldblade swiftly through his entire body, hoping to intimidate the onlookers by the sheer violence of Onsager's demise. He fell into two separate halves, flooding the deck with his blood. Shyla quickly thumbed the controls of her foldblade so it's destination was the nothingness again. A few hotheads took their shots at her with blasters. She crouched with effortless athleticism and spun around on the shiny deck, blocking the incoming beams and slicing legs. When she had cowed them sufficiently, and killed all those who refused to be cowed, she stood up and turned off her terrible hissing blade. "Where is the Emperor?" she challenged, staring all of them down. "Let him stand forth." At that moment Hunky found the heart of the massdriver which was throwing diamonds into the sun. Most of the inhabited portions of the GIC were on the outer rim, where centripetal force was greatest, or along the inner core, where centripetal force was least. The aft half of the primary bulk of the vessel was tanks of water for propulsion. The forward half was deck upon deck, bin after bin full of diamonds. It was a fortune beyond imagination, but even a single shuttle load of these diamonds, if they were taken to Earth, would make prices crash so low so fast the shuttle's entire cargo would be like so much broken glass.

331 -331

Automatic conveyors were pushing the diamonds over a metal cliff, like many glittering waterfalls. They were falling into the barrel of an enormous massdriver where they were scooped up in midair by giant buckets lined with superconducting coils. The buckets, with their loads of diamonds, were pulled by circular electromagnets lining the barrel, sequenced by computer one after the other in an accelerating pattern until the buckets reached maximum velocity halfway down the length of the massdriver. Then the computer timed the electromagnets to start braking the buckets, but the diamonds were not magnetic so inertia made them keep going right out of the bucket's mouth. At the end of the barrel the buckets reached a total stop and were returned to a reservoir of buckets in the middle of the GIC by a separate track. The diamond buckshot continued out into space, followed by another blast, and another, without end. Hunky had two Phantomizer grenades left. They each packed a lot of punch for their size, the same as a full ton of old style high explosive. She armed one and tossed it over the metal cliff, merging it with the waterfalls of diamonds. But sensors in the walls of the pit detected the nondiamond foreign body and fired a tracking laser at it. When the grenade's internal Phantomizer failed it exploded harmlessly in the air far above the large but delicate mechanism that aligned fresh buckets in the massdriver barrel.


Hunky knew what she had to do now, but she didn't relish it. She armed her last grenade and jumped over the metal cliff with it, screaming the WDF mantra, "Life And Death Are The Same!" She tucked her own body into a fetal position as a shield, cradling the grenade tight against herself. The laser locked onto her and swiftly killed her with deep, horrible burns slicing across her spinal cord, but the grenade she protected was not harmed. It successfully penetrated into the holy of holies, the most critical mechanism in the magazine of the diamondthrower and exploded. The Empire was now out of the sun modification business. In the Combat Engagement Center someone yelled that the massdriver was out of commission. Another one asked, "What does that mean?" "What it means," the Emperor said, stepping forward into Shyla's view at last, "is that I don't have to wear this monkey suit anymore." The Emperor removed the gray skullmask and a mane of long black hair, streaked with gray hairs, shook free from under it. The sculpted face and prominent cheekbones of Dyann Onsager was revealed, never seen in public before.

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Shyla saw her and began to laugh uncontrollably. "The Emperor...is a woman?" a guard said incredulously. Not in the wildest dreams of any Relbimian standing there did that possibility occur to them. Women in the Empire did not even speak to men, let alone kill them in ritual combat. "Where's Josef?" "He's still alive," Dyann said in a silky contralto, her voice no longer modified into Josef's voice by the mask.. "He still signs all my Imperial Decrees for me. He's even the father of Josef II, through Suzann. She's welcome to him, I can't bear to look at him myself." "But why?" Dyann tossed the helmet on the deck. "It doesn't matter anymore," She walked over to a column and punched a code into a keypad. Far away there was a rumble as the GIC's engines roared to life, and people soon felt a slight side component to the artificial gravity as the vast vessel began to accelerate forward. "What have you done?" demanded Shyla, stepping forward with her blade held high.

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"Something that cannot be countermanded, even by myself," Dyann Onsager revealed. "From here on out, as long as there is still water in our tanks, we shall drive ever deeper into the sun. Nothing can stop it, or change our course by a single degree, I made certain of that long before I ever set out." "Demolition," Shyla said. "We'll go down to engineering take out the main engines one by one." "Go ahead and try it," Dyann taunted. "Then the water will be shifted to the secondaries and there's twenty of those. Blow those and the program shifts to the attitude thrusters. By the time you straighten all those out more than half the water will be expended. You see, those diamonds in our holds have been appointed for the fires of the sun and nothing can stop it." "You crazy shitbird!" Shyla screamed. She dialed her folddoor to Robyn's number, and soon Robyn was staring at her through the slit of her foldblade like a slot in a fence. It was the best advance in communications since the telephone, because if Shyla wanted to she could even pass a note to Robyn right through her foldblade. She said, "We've got to get our people out now. They've set course for the core of the sun. They're gonna dump the whole shooting match in, all the diamonds, and there's nothing we can do."

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"Koth has judged and found us wanting!" chanted Dyann, her eyes blazing with her insanity. Robyn held up her blade and told Shyla, "Try to get back here as quickly as you can. There's been a change of plans. We can still save the inner system. Robyn out." She flicked off her blade, and Shyla's previous setting to a null device resumed with it's characteristic hissing, as though it were a portable hull breach. Shyla looked up at "Empress" Dyann. She said, with utter contempt, "I'm not accustomed to killing other women. I'll leave you to these people whom you've deceived for so long. You want to commit suicide and take these people along with you? Fine, you can answer to them. You're not worth one more second of my time." Shyla cut a round hole in the deckplate and jumped through to the space below CEC, seeking the fastest way to the nearest WDF strongpoint.

336 -336

When Shyla crossed the WDF lines she saw that Robyn was already starting to pull all her people out. They were abandoning the doomed Grand Imperial Citadel in droves. A WDF soldier told her, "Robyn wants you to meet her at your place on Fortuna One. This folddoor is ready to send you through." Within seconds Shyla found herself once again at Robyn's estate, with the Moon and distant Earth spinning around and around outside those giant cathedral windows in that familiar way. She saw Robyn, Dory, Jill, and Gina, the top members of the WDF. Hunky was missing and presumed dead. "There you are Shyla," Robyn said. "We've been waiting for you to get here. K'Prie is about to speak and I consider you to be one of us, even though you haven't accepted the Change."

"But where's Hunky?"

"She was trying to take out the diamond catapult. The diamond catapult was taken out, but I don't suppose she survived it. As soon as that is verified we'll rush her up here in a new body. K'Prie, we are all present and you may begin."

337 -337

K'Prie said, "A powerful freewill decision has been made by the human controlling the large vessel, creating a specific future for your entire Solar System, for even the furthest worlds of it. Or more accurately, it has given your whole Solar System no future at all. Your sun is about to 'go nova' in the parlance of your own people. That means it will suddenly begin to burn so hot that it will shed it's outer layers in an explosion so large it will be seen by beings halfway across your galaxy. No life will survive here, not even the hardiest spore. Sophia has seen it. Are there any questions so far?" Shyla said, "Is there any way to undo this future?" "It is possible, but not permitted. It is possible because with Sophia's permission we could travel back perhaps a hundred Turns and emerge from the folddoor on the second planet, and perform changes in your outer system that would prevent the creation of the large Vessel called the GIC. This would restore the future where the sun remains stable, but not prevent the Trax armada from arriving five Turns from now." Robyn said, "How about this? We go back in time 10,000 years to the point when the Trax interrupted your study of our planet, and lie in wait for them, and before they can set up their beacon we kill them. That way the Trax armada never gets sent to our system at all."

338 -338

K'Prie said, "Sophia will not permit that, because it would change certain things I said and did in Sophia's realm after the Trax incursion. There would be alterations in time that would touch Her realm. Sophia never allows such contamination. However, Sophia has set aside a habitable zone in Her realm for humans. She has appointed for you two tasks. "What tasks?" Robyn asked. "For the first task, it is the will of Sophia that you evacuate every living human being you deem worthy." "Evacuate them to where?" "Paradise." "Heaven is real?" "Heaven, as you call it, is a world. It's an artificial world created by the Forerunners. It is the biggest world that exists in our universe, the biggest world that can exist. Sophia's realm. I gave you a glimpse of it when I related my story directly to you mindtomind recently. You will soon see it for yourself." -



"How do we know who is 'worthy?'" "By your own judgement. The judgement of every member of the WDF who will assist you. It is a serious burden, but the Change has prepared you. In the ISSA all of you are already known by the title of 'Usher.'" "So you want us to usher every good person on Earth to 'Heaven' is what you're saying." "Not exactly heaven as I understand the concept from talking to your people. There will be no immortality there." "Why not?" "It's not the wise thing to do. If we gave humanity immortality it would fundamentally change what it means to be human. It is the very brevity of life and the reality of death that gives life it's vitality and meaning. With immortality no one would take risks anymore, they would no longer feel alive. They would just breed. If Sophia had granted immortality to the mortal races even her realm, as vast as it is, would have filled up long ago."

33 -33

The girls had been steered away from the Mulberry trees along the river by the electric fence and deep gravel pits connected by a maze of unpaved roads that made up the relative highlands of Nancy. There was a single rail line crossing the area from southwest to northeast. Kim led Charlene off the gradually ascending scrubbrush plain into a newly dug milelong trench intended to hold contaminated water from the K West reactor. This would prove to be a mistake. When they had walked about halfway down the huge ditch, which was only wide enough to hold perhaps four cars sidebyside, a pair of headlights appeared ahead and turned to line up on them. Kim and Charlene threw themselves flush against the gritty trench walls. They could feel the cool moistness of the face of newlyexposed gravel, and a flinty smell. The tiny rocks were somewhere between sand and small pebbles in size, and they were held together loosely by a sheen of underground moisture. They thought about climbing, but it would be useless to try. Besides, the gravel face was unstable. In some places clods of dirt and gravel were actually overhanging. easily knocked down by the brush of a hand. In other places a single scrape would unleash a miniature slide of loose gravel, the tiny rocks piling around Kim's feet. She had an idea. "We can hide right here, if we hurry. Start scraping the walls of this trench, Charl." "Until we get buried up to our necks, maybe. He won't even have to cuff us, just point his gun at our two heads sticking out of the dirt and wait for backup."

340 -340-

"So what are you offering humans?" Jill wanted to know. "Room to live, a land that is three million times larger in area than the entire Earth. Territorial wars will become a distant memory." We'll find some other reason to fight amongst ourselves, K'Prie, I assure you," Bravo put in. "That is the sad, constant fact about this human race you decided to help." "Those who still have aggressive tendancies will be encouraged to serve in the ISSA levies under the command of Warriors, fighting the Trax instead of other humans. Even the best human warriors such as yourself will be hardpressed to meet the challenge." "Is that all?" Dory asked. "They will enjoy extended life. It will be rare that a human will die before attaining the age of one hundred Turns. There will be immediate, free health care for all, with transportation by folddoor. Some terminally ill patients will be candidates for treatment by Healers." Robyn queried K'Prie about the second task.

341 -341

"That is the really unique thing. Sophia has never before granted permission for this to any race in the history of the Civilization of Civilizations, a history that extends back for billions of Turns. You see, the current timeline with the impending Nova Sol has some advantages which Sophia has discerned. First, the explosion will destroy the entire incoming Trax fleet when the wavefront hits them. Already they are close enough. Second, the explosion will absorb all time paradoxes which are created in this system." Robyn's face lit up. "I think I see where you are going with this K'Prie." "Sophia has granted you the freedom of unrestricted time travel between the moment the Trax beacon is activated, about 10,000 years ago, and the moment the decision was made to initiate Nova Sol. Therefore, Robyn, after you usher all the worthy among living humans to Sophia's Realm, you are to usher the worthy dead. That is, you will go back in time and save the worthy among every human who ever lived." "I see that we have our work cut out for us." "It will get easier as you continue. You will work backwards in time like a wave. As you recruit more and more Ushers, you will be working with a population on Earth that grows fewer and fewer in numbers. Ten thousand Turns ago you were very few indeed. I was there."

342 -342

"And in Paradise will we see Sophia?" "Sophia is composed of the very Forerunners themselves, invisible, made of pure intelligence, pure thought, united in purpose and will into one Being Who rules the universe. Sophia is the creator of the folddoors and Paradise. Your own Grid was an independent and primitive version of 'Sophia' though you knew it not." "So you basically have your own "Grid" but you worship it as a deity." "Worship is perhaps not the right word. She listens to us, and She gives Her commandments. She gives us Paradise to live in. If we die in an accident or battle she preserves the spark inside each of us that we call our identity. In return for all this, we offer our service. But it is not service to Sophia herself that honors Her, because she lacks for nothing. We serve Sophia by serving life." When Earl Roland and Ed Conley tortured Hunky on April 15, 1986, they chose an abandoned cabin way back up in the woods where her screams would go unheard, a cabin no one else knew about. Except Hunky, of course. Hunky rescued her younger self, cutting her muscular arms free of the 55 gallon drum with a foldblade. Ed Conley was the one armed with a gun. Hunky sucked that gun into her foldblade, dialed to nothing, along with most of Ed's lower right arm.

343 -343

She took her younger self's hand in her hand, a net gain of one for the WDF and they didn't even need to Change her. The Hunkies looked at Ed Conley cradling his arm and whimpering, and they looked at Earl Roland. "I'm not going to kill you," the older Hunky told him. "It's much better to leave you behind when the wave passes. You'll love this world then. All the fuckups like you will be left. You'll just have to get used to reality changing under your feet all the time as we pull more of the good'uns out in 1985 and beyond." After the Hunkies left, Earl Roland and Ed Conley found themselves inhabiting a chaos world constantly shifting as people in the past who made a good difference in the world were evacuated to the Elysian Fields. It could be anything. They didn't even have to be as blatantly evil as Roland. Harsh words with someone, a fight, a lapse in kindness. All these were factors in their summary judgement as the WDF wave passed by. A person might only be having a bad day and have the misfortune of being a brat at precisely the time Robyn's harvesting angels passed by. Too bad. This merely affirmed and fulfilled the Santa Claus theology of "you better be good for goodness' sake!" which was also known in other circles as Karma. Every decision was reviewed by women in the Grid, sisters watching for injustice on the part of other sisters. It was "Judgement Day," and being left behind was to literally be in hell on Earth as evil was concentrated. But all those overlapping contradictions would be absorbed at the end of history by the cleansing fire of Nova Sol

344 -344

On September 19, 1983 Jill flew her Sandwich fighter between the Oregon coast and Hawaii, hunting for a 737 that had been modified into a cargo plane. When she found a candidate on radar she moved close so she could read what was painted on it. "Inland Empire Airways." Yes, that was the one. She adroitly maneuvered her fighter to get over the top of the plane and snapped herself to it with her ship's magnetic feet.

The plane's automatic pilot detected a loss of altitude with this

additional load of weight and revved up the engines to compensate, but it could not entirely stop the descent. A compromise was reached at eight thousand feet. No big deal, NASA's space shuttle often rode piggyback on a 747. And this way there would not be so much decompression. The back hatch of the fighter popped open and Shyla, strapped securely to Jill's fighter lest she be blown away like a leaf in the wind, used her foldblade to carve a hole in the roof of the plane. A lot of loose papers flew out. Then Shyla threw a rope ladder down into the hole and descended into the plane, where she could see the people aboard had been crying. Obviously they already knew there was no pilot and the controls didn't work, but here was a strange crazy woman to rescue them. Shyla had a direct foldline link to Jill through a plug at the back of her head. After she cut the rope ladder and her safety strap she told Jill to get clear.

345 -345

Shyla turned and saw them at last, her dad and mom, Mark and Lorraine Null. They didn't recognize her, of course. She was wearing the body of a strange woman twice the age of their missing daughter. But Shyla did feel a sense of closure that made this all worthwhile. She said, "Nothing to worry about folks, I'm here to save you, even you nurse Ratched." Kristen Ramsey looked puzzled. That's what Charlene Null called her. Kristen may have been unpleasant to her childhood self back at Hanford, but Shyla did not judge her to have deserved death in a plane crash. Since there was only a limited space Shyla chose a mini folddoor. They would all have to crawl through it to safety. After she lit it off she said, "I'll keep it simple and explain later. If you go through this triangle you will live. If you stay here in the plane you will die. Follow me." She got down on all fours and crawled through, hopping over the mechanism of the fold door. Dr. Gary Trochmann and nurse Ramsey followed, then Shyla's parents, Andy Fulford, and Congressman Bob Lessing. Finally Robyn's divorced parents, David and Elaine Lokken, came through the door. "Are we dead?" asked Lorraine. "Is this heaven?" "Yes and no, Mom," Shyla said. "Yes you're on you're way to heaven, but no, you are far from dead. I've come across two hundred and ten years to save you, and boy do we have a lot of catching up to do!"

346 -346

On the WDF's negative twentysecond birthday, November 22, 1963, Dory walked quietly into a vacant room in the Texas School Book Depository building in downtown Dallas. Just before the President's motorcade passed by and Lee Harvey Oswald was to take his three shots, she shouted, "HEY ASSHOLE!" and completely spoiled his concentration. He never got off his three rounds. Dory disappeared before Oswald could track her down. "And that answered a question that bugged Americans for a long time," Dory told Robyn after this incident. "The Warren Commission was right. Lee Harvey Oswald was acting alone." "So that's one famous conspiracy theory that was bullshit," Robyn said. This and many other stories like Dory's were preserved in the Grid, which was becoming a comprehensive encyclopedia of all human history as the WDF worked their way back in time. Michelle liberated the Nazi concentration camps in a most unusual way. When the victims were herded into the showers, they found a folddoor waiting for them before the ZyklonB gas could be turned on. The Nazis caught on to this immediately, of course, when they found no bodies inside, but by then it didn't matter. The wave had passed them by. The Jews were being saved in reverse order from when they were killed. It would be the next earlier batch of victims that found the escape hatch in the showers. And so on, until Michelle had saved them all and reversed the greatest evil of the 20th Century.

347 -347

Deciding the eternal fate of every human who ever lived on Earth was psychologically taxing for even the most hardened member of the Women's Democratic Forum. On a regular basis Robyn rotated them up to "real time" to recharge. They required experiences that were not available even in Earth's antiquity or on the endless Elysian plains. To this end Robyn began exploring the neighboring stars using ships powered by folddoors channelled to a door on a highpressure planet, which could attain velocities near lightspeed. Barnard's Star was a cool red dwarf where the optimum lifezone was at 2 million miles. All three sizable bodies in the system were well beyond this distance. Ianthe was covered in ice but had extensive vulcanism, which created isolated thermal pools and caves suitable for bizarre forms of primitive life. The WDF conducted exobiological research here, and maintained the Warm Springs Resort, which was even beginning to draw nonhuman vacationers from throughout the ISSA. The Hybla/Dia pair at Ross 154 was a rare example of a double planet. Squeezed by tides into teardrop shapes, the planets came within 400 miles of touching, and shared an oxygen atmosphere across the gap. One could fly a classic airplane from Hybla to Dia, or back again. In the gravitational null point which is slightly closer to Hybla than to Dia, it was possible for human beings to live and play free of the bonds of gravity.

348 -348

Aside from the many WDF estates floating between Hybla and Dia, the sport of Freeball and other activities involving humanpowered flight were prevalent here. The tips of the "teardrops" that were the pointy ends of Hybla and Dia where they nearly kissed are among the highest mountains ever discovered in the universe, yet the effort to scale them was minimal because the gravity near the summit is nearly cancelled. Elsewhere on Hybla and Dia, where the bulk of the companion world filled half the sky, the views were memorable. Hybla/Dia was by far the most popular restandrelaxation destination for members of the WDF. Ross 128 was being used by the Trax as a rallying point to assemble a vast armada, aimed at either Sol, Alpha Centauri, or even nearby Lalande 21185. After discovery by a WDF expedition, this Trax armada became a favorite target of Robyn's. "For too long the Trax has been on the offensive," she said. Here they were put on the defensive at last. Nearly every member of the WDF has served in the huge battle at Ross 128, which has been largely a rout, although some surviving Trax ships continue to elude mopping up. The existence of the Trax in force at this red dwarf star justified Robyn's effort to survey every nearby star, no matter how insignificant. Traxian communications were limited to light speed. When news of their losses at the hands of the WDF at Ross 128 reached Procyon, they were expected to display their typical overreaction.

349 -349

Ross 248 was found to be yet another red dwarf star with no planets. The frigate sent by Robyn to explore this system is still in orbit around the star, on the surface of a small asteroid which was among the few rocky bodies found in the system. The single folddoor on board is ready to receive traffic, but after surveying this system and coming up empty the crew put the frigate in standby mode and abandoned ship. An expedition to the nearby triple star system Groombridge 34, a mere 1.8 light years away, was to be launched from Ross 248 by another crew aboard this frigate, but Robyn called it off. This represented the highwater mark of humanity in real space, with 10.32 lightyears as the farthest mankind penetrated into real space uncontested. Thereafter Robyn turned her attention inward, through folddoors to Earth's own past and their future on the Elysian Fields. "You must know that I met a certain rabbi in 29 AD," Dory reported to Robyn much later when the WDF had worked their way back that far. "He even understood modern Hebrew. So my curiosity was satisfied. You would not believe how much suffering the Jewish people have endured because they were blamed, collectively, for killing that man."

34 -34

A third light mounted on the windshield and handoperated by the driver was sweeping methodically up and down the slopes of the gravel pit as the vehicle slowly advanced. "How long can you hold your breath?" "I think one minute." "I bet we can do it longer, now. I bet we can totally override the impulse to breathe, now." "For how long? Until we're brain dead?" "Remember what Doctor Trochmann said? We're already brain dead," Kim reminded her. "Dig!" Charlene started to obey. "Well, it's not the brain I meant. Don't you watch TV? Notice how all those drowning victims need CPR? You go a few minutes without air and it messes up your heart." "Well, we can try to cut it as close as we can. But we have no other choice. Dig." They did most of the work now before the truck got too close, each of them scraping at the walls until enough gravel had collapsed to leave only their head and one arm free.


"You answered the ageold question, did he even exist?" "Women in that time were treated the way the Relbimians treat their women now, but he was different. Very womanaffirming, that Joshua son of Joseph." "I would have probably liked him very much. Did he come along?" "No, that's the strangest thing. He knew everything about me and what we were doing. He didn't want to be 'raptured,' Robyn. He wanted to be left behind. He said after our harvest there would be nothing but chaff and the world would be an even darker place than it already was. He said it would need him more than ever." There was one more contribution Shyla made before she abandoned "real time" forever, and it was a dramatic one. Laktur, fourth planet of Sirius, was home to a peaceful race of beings, longstanding members of the ISSA, who achieved a form of immortality by cyborging themselves. Some Lakturians have existed for nearly 100,000 years, replacing their machine body parts whenever they wear out. This extraordinary long lifespan has made all of the Lakturians extremely conservative, wary of accidents, and timid in the face of their foes.

351 -351

Laktur came under concerted attack by the Trax hive on nearby Procyon. Despite the protection of warriors drawn from all parts of the ISSA, the battle was going badly. As she did with humanity, Sophia consented to allow the Lakturian race to be evacuated by folddoor to a permanent home in the Elysian Fields, but the arrival on Laktur of a dreaded Traxian Tower threatened to cut the evacuation short. The Traxian Tower came down amid a storm of lingering, dancing, arrowstraight lightning bolts that were paths of air superheated by gammaray lasers. Anything that even remotely looked like a dangerous target was serviced by the Tower as it began to roam the prairie. It was on this field of battle Shyla unveiled a weapon of her own design, something she had prepared for a year. On Lemnos, a planet with deep ice, Shyla had melted a miledeep shaft, removed much of the air, and placed a folddoor at the top and the bottom of it. There was a steel cannonball about three feet in diameter which fell down this shaft. When it got close to the bottom it fell through the folddoor and emerged at the top of the shaft once again. The process repeated over and over. After a year the cannonball was pushing the speed of light. Relativistic effects made the cannonball grow and grow in mass, until it was many times heavier than it's original weight. Shyla carefully aimed a third folddoor at the faraway Tower and let them have it with her lightspeed cannonball. There was no kick on her end.

352 -352

But at the end of one thousand and fifty years the Traxians ventured close to this strange black entity that was the invisible gravitational heart of the Vega Supercluster. They came close enough to see the pattern of billions of suns which tiled the infinite plain below, and they understood at last where all their victims had escaped to. From high above, the Traxians ranged far over the plain, watching the broadcasts which travelled so well on a world that was for all practical purposes flat. They wanted their first attack to be against the human territory. They would take the ISSA's best warriors out in one short sharp shock and the rest of the softies would fall into line. When the Traxians were certain they were over the human patch they sent down a Queen in a single Tower. It was a magic trick done with vast magnets, the way Sophia directed proton wind from the 24 Billion Suns down as rocket exhaust. When the Trax Queen's Tower began to fall toward the surface, Sophia replied by retiring the magnets and making all of Her 24 Billion Suns omnidirectional again. Every being on the Elysian Fields saw it, the final, universal Sunset, a fall that would take eighty days to complete. Each sun was on-. Time and history were drawing to an end. Half of the suns were already nodding on their down cycle. Those suns had a head start on their free fall and when they sank below the event horizon barrier just underneath the surface of the Elysian Fields, they added their mass to the eight galaxies' worth already contained inside the vast black hole core, making the total volume slowly expand.

353 -353

As twilight began to set in, a brilliant bluewhite star could be seen directly overhead. It grew brighter and bluer until it outshone even a sun, yet all its light was concentrated in a single point. Sophia Herself arrived to witness the grand finale, choosing to make herself visible in the human form of the creatures who lived on this patch of Her Realm. She manifested Herself as a stunning woman, dressed in garments of pure white light, and Sophia's beauty was almost too great for anyone to bear. Robyn immediately discerned who She was and fell flat on her face, followed by every one of her people. "Stand up, children," Sophia said. "No more time for this formality. Not even I wanted to miss the light show. The event horizon is drawing nearer under our feet. We're speeding up, far beyond the 23daysperminute of before. The light of all the universe is coming in. It's like watching a movie in highspeed. "Dear Lady Sophia," Robyn humbly asked her. "Why is it only a point overhead?" "The gravity of My realm is bending even the light. Photons from galaxies and stars angled off to the side are coming almost straight down by the time we see it. Do you realize, sweet Robyn, on the other side of the EFields someone could look up right now and see the same thing? But no, the Trax Queen has chosen to arrive in this place. Look!" Sophia pointed straight up in the sky.

354 -354

Behind them a folddoor opened to allow K'Prie Shabatthani to travel from the Setasian region of the Elysian Fields. She arrived just in time to see what Sophia was pointing to, the Traxian Tower seperating itself from the brilliant point of light overhead and settling on the plain perhaps twenty miles away. "Hello once more, Robyn and Shyla!" K'Prie greeted as she was welcomed into the WDF inner circle. She had been intimately entangled with humanity's story. Sophia personally invited K'Prie here to witness the end. Night came on as the last of the 24 Billion Suns set behind the rim mountains of the exhaust pit. With all the stars under the surface of the Elysian Fields, the abstract event horizon rose above the surface like invisible floodwater. Robyn imagined she could feel it. She thought it would mean instant death, but that seemed to be delayed. Signals from the Queen in her Tower stopped reaching the rest of her armada overhead. Now nothing, not even light, could ever escape from the Elysian Fields into space ever again. Time dilation became infinite.

355 -355

Overhead, the single brilliant bluewhite star that was the light of all the stars and galaxies in the universe glowed red, for there was an era out there of about 100 billion years when only the dying embers of red dwarf stars burned. That entire epoch was experienced as only a few seconds here, and Robyn's head reeled with the realization of those passing eons. Then the light winked out for good with the final death of the outside universe. Not even the implacable Trax enemy lived out there now. Risking one Queen and one Tower had been enough, and it had triggered the final isolation of the Elysian Fields. No more of the Trax came down. They had gone on to whatever destiny awaited them. The Trax had always been perculiarly immune to further evolution, but entropy defeated them in the end, as it must. They died amid maximum thermal disorder which they themselves brought on with their matter flippers. There was no one out there to attack the Elysian Fields. Sophia said, "Outside the ages race toward infinite time and there are only cold isolated particles racing off into infinite space, giving no more light ever again." "But what do we have left?" "Stories, Robyn," K'Prie said. "Your Grid was filled with nothing but stories and it always was a rival 'Sophia' but now your Grid is no more. There is only Sophia and She has the stories now."

356 -356

There remained the single Tower out there in the night with a Queen inside. Left alone this final Trax infestation could spread across the dark face of the Elysian Fields, flipping matter for power, burning the inhabited areas and transforming the entire vast artifact into their own image. "They could venture underground, Lady Sophia," Robyn warned, "and not even You Yourself would know peace!" "Don not be afraid, child."

They could see the Tower was ripping huge gashes in the thin surface of the

Elysian Fields, exposing the light of the eight galaxies worth of suns inside, which were all mashed together into one ferocious sun. "The material of the surface is really very thin," Sophia explained, "but it's a perfect reflector, you see. What kept it so rigid was nothing more than light pressure." The pure white light that was escaping from inside the Elysian Fields was backlighting the sky now as it bounced around and found itself unable to rise beyond the new limit of the event horizon, which was only a dozen miles miles above the surface now.

357 -+

-357 Back Home


It continued to grow brighter and hotter all around them. The Elysian Fields were being dissolved by fire and K'Prie and the WDF delegation had to resort to isolating themselves from the pain. Soon the physical bodies of every being on the surface of the Elysian Fields was destroyed. But it was also a cleansing fire, because the Traxian Tower and their Queen were consumed as well. As the light and heat continued to mount higher the very ground melted away, and there was nothing now in all of reality except Sophia and those who had their being within Her. Love for Sophia was now the only coin to buy one's way. There was no more front nor back, no more left nor right, no more up nor down, no more long ago or later, only different degrees of love. A point no longer represented a place in time or space, but a particular state of Sophia's selfsufficient, continuous pleasure. Moving in the phasespace of Sophia was to move through successive states of delight. Robyn remained herself, together with Shyla as always, and they realized with a starburst of their own joy that the Great Story was only just beginning, yet it would not be written in English nor even the Forerunner Tongue. It would be written in Love.

35 -35

They hyperventilated to get as much oxygen in their bloodstream as possible. Then, as the DoE cop's white governmentissue truck approached very close they held their breath and completed their selfburial, hoping he was too intent studying the trench sides to glance at the little pair of ongoing rockslides ahead. Since the newlydug trench was pretty unstable anyway there were many such piles of gravel along the walls. Kim and Charlene calmed themselves as much as possible, but fatigue poisons were beginning to accumilate in their heart muscles, and both of their hearts were beginning to stumble and miss beats. Very dangerous. Ventricular defibrillation was close. It was time to come back out for air even if it meant staring at the cop face to face. They pushed through and tentatively took a breath after four minutes buried alive. No loud gasping, because the truck was still very near. But the red glow of taillights meant that it had passed by. In fact the driver had not even given the brandnew little twin landslides a second look, he was checking the nooks between the landslides where he figured someone could hide. The girls patiently and quietly recovered. The crisis of the first security sweep had passed. After the guard's truck had left them far behind the girls continued on their way east along the dry floor of the long wastewater sump. Their ordeal had not gotten them very dirty. The gravel they had buried themselves in was a lot like wet sand at the beach, only with bigger grains.

36 -36

In about fifteen minutes of walking they rose a bit to stand where the truck had been when they had first seen its lights. Railroad tracks were here. A white sign said "Bettie". Kim decided to walk along the tracks, and though she didn't know it, the tracks were a good choice, because they would cross no sensors or trip wires, and there was no road paralleling the track, paved or not. Two miles to the south across a sagebrush plain many yellow lights illuminated Hanford's main cluster of tritium production reactors. They supplied America's Cold War nukes with that extra "oomph" that made them thermonuclear weapons. At about 3:00 am the girls reached the halfway point across the wide, flat tongue of land they were crossing formed by a northerly bend of the Columbia. Here was a major rail junction identified as "Ginger" and a cluster of paved roads. In the distance to the southeast a few approaching vehicles could be seen by their headlights so the girls hid behind some rolling stock on a Ginger side track. "We'll rest here a bit," Kim said, and she quickly chose a low, brown BurlingtonNorthern gondola car to climb into. With many other identical railroad cars sitting around it was a good place for them to hide, as long as they laid down.

37 -37

Charlene was shivering and she snuggled up to Kim, grabbing Kim's warm, chubby, bluejeancovered legs and draping them over her own goosepimpled freezing bare legs. She said, "It's one thing to try to ignore the feeling of being cold, and another thing to actually feel your body warmth." "Let's get some Purple Cable time," Kim suggested. She unwrapped their precious wire harness from around her waist. "This is stolen government property," Charlene pointed out. "They said it cost about $3000 to make the Purple Cable." "So what? Think of it as the price they have to pay for treating us as government property for so long." They plugged in and felt the familiar dual awareness as they began filling in the gap in each other's pool of memories from the last time they had briefly shared. There was a sense of vast unexplored territory just ahead. Both of them smiled as they realized no one would ever interfere with their Purple Cable time again. That is, if only they could escape this installation. Kim and Charlene just wanted to be left alone with each other. Unlimited cable access time was the purple Grail driving them on. -



"We'll have to change our names, you know," Kim said. "They'll never stop looking for us." "If we ever get out of here. Do you have a name in mind?" "Robyn." She didn't have to spell it out. Charlene could see it now in blue neon letters in her own mind, written there by the power of thought for her benefit. Robyn with a "y". "I like it. As for myself I've always wanted to be called Shyla." She pictured it written out in large letters in a feminine hand. "It even sounds like 'Charl' a little bit. But we dare not go to a judge and have our names changed for real." "We don't need a judge to make it real. We ourselves make it real." Robyn giggled but it was true. She almost burst into tears at the thought that this sharing was available to her at any time, for the rest of her life. In this moment she could not imagine Shyla being out of her sight, now or ever. Out there in the night the DoE cops were setting up a tripod. Nightvision goggles were still a few years in the future, but a device like a studio television camera was available to do the same job.

39 -39

Once mounted on the tripod they stared at the green screen and began slowly sweeping the horizon all around Ginger. The dark boxes of many railroad cars crept across the screen. There were two IR sources out there in one car, but the cold steel walls shielded them well. It was 3:30. The second sweep by the DoE cops was over and they bundled up their nightscope and drove away, having failed to find the two targets of their search. Kim and Charlene had crawled into a rail car but they were forever dead. Only Robyn and Shyla would crawl out and go on. They decided to stick with the train tracks and continue northeast. If anyone came again, with any luck they could hide in another one of the scattered rail cars. In a mile they reached a place where the tracks, a paved road, and a gravel road all came together. Now the gravel one ran parallel to the tracks on their right , making the girls feel a little exposed. A half mile after that a paved road took its place alongside. They could see a hint of the coming dawn in the eastern skies. Robyn felt her available choices were becoming fewer and fewer. The rail curved sharply north, then northwest for a quarter of a mile, then north again for about fifty feet before coming to a dead end. Here was an old forgotten box car, forlorn in the dim gray light of 5 o'clock in the morning. Now there were only two choices. They could hide in there and wait to be picked up, or they could hoof it across the sand.



Robyn saw a line of white cliffs about two miles to the east and guessed that was the far bank of the river. They were hideously exposed here and the light was getting slowly but steadily brighter. There was little else to do but to make for the water again and hope to find somewhere to hide. They struck off due east. In 800 feet they crossed a row of fence posts without any barbed wire strung between them. This was another line of IR sensors. The DoE cops had them on their lighted map again. Five minutes after tripping the infrared picket they crossed a wide paved road on the brink of a gentle slope down to the river. They heard sirens. Blue flashing lights were visible to the north and south. Almost the entire Hanford police force was closing in like the jaws of a steel trap. Robyn and Shyla ran downhill toward the river, kicking up sand. The girls met that old electric fence again, and dropped to worm themselves under the bottom wire. They heard dogs now, but once they'd gotten to the other side of the fence they figured they wouldn't have to worry about them. "We're in luck," Robyn said when she got her first good look at the river current. "Not too fast, not too slow..." They had completely run out of options. So Robyn carved out for herself a new option by simply wading straight out into the water.

41 -41

A grin broke out. She was pleasantly surprised. It being the late summer, the water had baked in the sun behind Priest Rapids Dam 25 miles upstream, and behind Wanapum Dam before that. "And not too cold!" she finished her thought. Shyla followed Robyn in and started sinking up to her waist in the water, her skirt billowing up around her. "Not bad. It's room temperature. Like old bath water." Here the river slowed and silt had piled up to form several islands. Seven miles per hour. It wasn't the dangerous speed of the whitewater at Coyote Rapids, but it wasn't the still water backed up behind a dam, which would force them to swim for it. And there was a wide zone shallow enough to permit the girls to touch their feet on the bottom now and again. But their bobbing heads were very visible in the brightening dawn. There was a hard splash in the water a fraction of a second before they heard the sharp report of a rifle. Up until now it had been almost a game for Robyn and Shyla. It never occured to them at all that they would be shot at. They stared at each other with wide eyes, took a few breaths, and went underwater. They had been unprepared, so three minutes down there was all they risked.

42 -42

When they came back up they were six hundred yards away, hopefully beyond rifle range. But the southern group of rentacops were getting out of their trucks to look at the river with rifles in hand, and the girls were coming up on them fast. They hyperventilated and dove again. One of the itchy trigger fingers up there thought he saw something and fired a round. The sound of his shot sparked a barrage of blind fire by the other men. Robyn and Shyla passed through a gauntlet of instantlyforming white bubblelines as dozens of bullets laced the water. After they surfaced again it would be almost two hours of drifting along, with their eyes darting and scanning the shore, before the river carried them past a roadless waste of sand dunes and they could begin to relax.

43 -43

The plane was a 737 in which the coach seats had all been removed, leaving only the first class section in place. In the back Roland had stored all the pieces of the Weather Balloon Project. All the human pieces of the project (and that was really how he looked at them, as nothing more than objects) were seated in front. Robyn's divorced parents, David & Elaine Lokken, were present as well as Shyla's father and mother Mark & Lorraine Null. All of them were quite excited to have finally obtained visitation rights with their daughters, even if there was this one last inconvenience of a flight to Nevada. Dr. Trochmann apologized for the long delay earnestly, and explained to them that the clinic at Hanford had simply not been configured to handle visitors. Indeed the Doctor was kept busy answering a great many questions, from the parents, from Congressman Bob Lessing, and every now and then his associates would chime in with supporting information. His associates were two people Robyn and Shyla used to call Good Cop/Bad Cop, ie. Andy, a young, easygoing medical intern the girls had liked, and Kristen, a stern nurse they had not liked. After ninety minutes of listening to Dr. Trochmann, Robyn's father realized the good Doctor was repeating himself. David Lokken felt thirsty but there didn't seem to be any stewardesses on this flight to wait on them.

44 -44

Bored, he pushed up the plastic light shade to look down at what he anticipated would be the dry mountain ranges and salt flats of Nevada. Instead there was nothing but blue sky, blue water, and little white puffy clouds hugging the interface between the two. "The ocean? What the hell?" Dr. Trochmann took alarm and spared his own look out a window. "Strange. We shouldn't be making a detour over the ocean." Both he and David rushed forward to throw the curtains aside and talk to the pilot. There was, of course, to the horror of everyone aboard, no pilot...

Robyn and Shyla crawled out of the water and shivered for an hour, both of them dangerously near hypothermia as they dried out in the noon sun of September 19 on the right bank of the river, just below the first few houses on the edge of the city of Richland, Washington.

"This is the bottom, Shyla," Robyn said as she begged her friend to get up

and continue on. "This is the worst it will ever get, and no more. I promise you." Still soggy, their shoes squished as they slogged their way through back yards and side streets and emerged on a thoroughfare named George Washington Way, where they found a seedy twelveroom motel.

45 -45

They wanted $25 dollars for a room and a $15 phone deposit. In Robyn's front pocket were the four damp twentydollar bills sent to them by mail on birthdays and Christmas which were all the money she and Shyla had to their name. They stripped out of their clothes. Shyla's dress was completely ruined. Robyn laid her jeans and tshirt out in the sun to dry, and tried to call her mother, getting no answer. Shyla tried to call her parents and got no answer as well. Robyn decided to try her father later when he would be home from work, and both of them took a nap for a few hours. Robyn woke up first, dressed, and stepped out to get Shyla some new clothes and both of them some food, which they devoured quickly. That was the last of their money spent. Then Robyn called the bus line in the yellow pages to get the schedule for the run from Richland to Seattle. The next one would be leaving at 8:30 that night, and after that they would have to wait until tommorrow morning. Finally, Robyn tried her dad at home, and Earl Roland answered the phone. "Hello? Lokken residence." "Who's this?" "You're the one calling, sweetie, you tell me first."

46 -46

"This is Robyn...Kim. Is my dad there?" "No, he's out with some friends." "Who are you?" "I'm one of your dad's coworkers. He's letting me use his computer to get some stuff done. Can I take a message for you?" "It's really important. I'm stuck out here in TriCities with no money, and I need my dad to wire some bus money right away so I can get home. Can you call the tavern or wherever he is and tell him that?" "I'm sorry, Kim, he didn't say where he was going. Can you wait for him to get home and call again?" "There's no time. I'm in trouble. I have to be on that 8:30 bus." "Well, look, I really appreciate your dad for letting me use his computer, so I'll tell you what I'll do. I can wire you some money and I'll just have David pay me back whenever."

47 -47

"That would save my life, if you did that. Can you spare a hundred bucks? "Sure." "What's your name again?" "Earl." "OK, Earl, I really appreciate this. Look, I don't have my driver's license on me, so you'll have to give Northwest Unity a secret message so I can get my money." "What do you want to use?" "Here goes, two words: 'Robyn with a "y"...that's the question. Shyla is the answer. SHYLA...thanks...Bye." Shyla smiled at her choice of a secret message. "Who's Earl?" "Earl says he's a coworker of my dad's. He says he's using my dad's computer to do something workrelated."

48 -48

"What kind of computer does your dad got?" "A Trash80." "Yeah, right," Shyla snorted. "Like someone would actually use a Trash80 to do real work. Earl? That name sounds familiar. I think Andy told me once that Dr. Trochmann's boss was named Earl." "Mister Roland is Earl Roland? Coincidence, Robyn. It's not that rare of a first name." "Do you want to risk it? This Earl guy is sending us bus fare. And he knows we will be coming in on the 8:30 bus from TriCities." "What choice do we have?" "Do you have money?" "Not much. About 700 bucks in my savings account." "That's enough to get us to Denver."

49 -49

"Denver? Who's in Denver?" "Friends of mine, Robyn. They'll let us sleep on the couch or whatever until we figure out what to do. You should call your bank. I think they can wire your money, if you call them before they close. And if Earl is Earl Roland, he will find that using his real first name on the phone with you was a mistake." "If it was Earl Roland we'll find that giving him our new names may have been a bigger mistake." The bank asked Robyn for her social security number and her mother's maiden name and her birthday to identify her properly before letting her make the withdrawal. But their rules would not let Robyn close out the account over the phone, only facetoface, and the account had to have a minimum of $50 dollars in it, so from Robyn's $693 they could only send $643. They bought bus tickets and headed in the opposite direction from Seattle. After a stop at Pendleton, Oregon, the bus climbed into the Rockies by many switchbacks, the infamous "Cabbage Patch Hill" wellknown to truckers, and in the dwindling light of dusk the chessboardflat irrigated terrain of the Columbia Plateau was left far behind. The view haunted Robyn, but she couldn't put her finger on why.

50 -50

Earl Roland and a Mr. Ed Conley, packing pistols, were there in Seattle at 2 am to greet the passengers of the bus from the TriCities. The idea was to wait for everyone else who had rides to go home, leaving only poor Robyn and Shyla there with few witnesses around. They would be invited to get in the car, and whether they came willingly or were shot dead first, Roland had no personal preference either way. But the two men were to be disappointed. In the early morning the bus stopped for breakfast at Eden, Idaho, about 9 miles north of Twin Falls, and the America Today newspaper had a story about a cargo plane that had gone missing somewhere over the Pacific. It was particularly newsworthy in that Congressman Lessing was reported to have been aboard that plane. Robyn immediately bought the paper. She recognized the name Lessing as the politician who was trying to get permission for her and Shyla's parents to see them. The girls poured over every word of the article, but there was very little else to learn at that point. More phone calls to their parents still yielded no answer. They would try again and again at every stop. The next edition of America Today, which they picked up in Cheyenne, Wyoming, had more information. Through eyes blurry with tears they learned that their parents, Dr. Trochmann, and his two assistants had also been on the plane.

51 -51

The blow struck Shyla the worst. She was the younger, her parents were both still married and they had been a close family before the quarantine. On the final leg of the bus ride from Cheyenne a hundred miles south to Denver she grieved, sobbing uncontrollably, taking no regard of the other passengers. Robyn's own grief was compounded by her broken promise. When they were shivering on the banks of the river the other day it was not the "worst" or the "bottom" as she had promised Shyla after all. This was.

But there was another piece of information in the article that was quite sobering. The two daughters of the couples were reported to have been aboard the plane as well. Robyn and Shyla were officially dead. "Earl" had seen to that, and now they would forever be looking over their shoulders for "Earl" who would be very interested in making reality conform to the pretense he had created. They stayed briefly at Shyla's friend's house near Colfax Ave. on Capitol Hill. Neither Robyn nor Shyla could get a job, putting down their social security number would alert Roland. So they were forced to mooch. They tried to be the best houseguests possible but after four weeks Shyla's friend politely asked them to find other arrangements.

52 -52

There were new friends, Robyn and Shyla could stay with them for one or two weeks, and sometimes they just lived on the street, staying warm that winter of 198384 by loitering inside convenience stores, sleeping in shelters for runaways, mourning the death of their folks but doing little else for months. Their cash dwindled to nothing. At one point Shyla came up with $40 and Robyn was extremely pissed at her, accusing Shyla of whoring for it. "He didn't touch me," Shyla defended herself. "He said he had a thing for schoolgirls. He gave me a twenty and said all I had to do was pose there in a certain way. He kept his hands to himself and when he was all done he gave me another twenty. Robyn apologized for getting mad at her. "It's just that I promised you things would always get better, but they're getting worse, and I can't stand breaking my promises." "It's alright, it's not your fault. And we've got food money now." Later there would be some additional smoothing over of hard feelings with Purple Cable time. It was Shyla's voice, not her body, employed for underthetable cash in a pathetic little Denver cover band called No Film At Eleven, which would be their only bread and butter for most of 1984.

53 -53

No Film At Eleven was just boys making noise, except for the girl drummer, Susan Burrell, who almost resembled a football linebacker herself. She was an enormous woman, plain of face, with shortcropped blonde hair. Susan was absolutely fearless when it came to taking drugs. She was one of those personalities that got bored easily and she'd do anything to alter her reality. When nothing was available she'd go around actually pressing on the blood vessels leading to her brain to get dizzy that way, or even pass out. Robyn and Shyla were very fortunate to have run across her. They had debated the morality of infecting other people with the "change," but here was Susan, someone who practically begged for it after she was shown the 112pin connector at the base of both Robyn and Shyla's skull and the whole thing was explained to her.

A syringe sucking up a few cc's of dark liquid from the offcenter hole in Robyn's connector, and a shot in Susan's arm was sufficient to start the process. After about five months when the bump on her neck broke open to expose the pins Robyn and Shyla took turns getting Purple Cable time with Susan, explaining much more to her, directly, mind to mind. So in June of 1984 there was the second Name Ritual, with Susan Burrell laying down her name and becoming forever known as "Hunky."

54 -54

Robyn was not a member of No Film At Eleven, she more or less just hung out with Shyla, but she filled in her time by practicing with some of the band's keyboards through earphones, and asking questions. After a year she thought she was good enough for an audition, suggesting that the band's guitarist could concentrate on his guitar and leave all the keyboard work for her. Robyn surprised everyone by demonstrating what a virtuoso on the keys she had become in only a year. She couldn't read sheet music, but aided by the "change," Robyn could hear any piano or synthesizer passage and play it noteperfect the first time, as though she were classically trained. And she had quite a repertoire of her own original content, mostly little fragments of tunes that could be developed into songs with a little work. Shyla and Hunky were all for letting her in, but the other two guys were bitterly opposed to splitting the money for their lounge gigs five ways. This led to a nasty blowup that ended up with Shyla fired, and Hunky quitting. All of the members of No Film At Eleven lived together in Englewood south of Denver, splitting the rent for a threebedroom house. On the night of the blowup the two boys in the band moved out on them, shamelessly taking the next month's rent money the girls had paid them in advance, and totally trashing Hunky's drum kit right in front of their eyes in a berserker rage. They defied the girls to call the police, knowing that Robyn and Shyla would avoid that at all costs, for reasons the boys sensed but didn't specifically know.

55 -55

Afterward there was just Robyn, Shyla, Hunky, and Hunky's beatup old white Galaxie 500 which blew oil so fast it needed a new quart every time Hunky filled it with half a tank of more gas. They decided to drive back to Seattle. The car made it almost all of the way there. It was some small consolation that none of them ever heard of No Film At Eleven or the male members of that band again.

EARLY WRAP OF PROBE investigation into the State to a permanent RAISES IRE crash. A spokesman for facility on the

                     the families of eleven    island of Lanai,       

(AP) WASHINGTON persons missing and Hawaii. Families of the victims presumed dead alleged Representative of an Inland Empire the probe was being Lessing had wished to Airways 737 cargo plane shut down due to tour the facility. At believed lost at sea pressure by the Reagan the request of the Sept. 19, including the Administration. The families of the wife of crash victim downed plane was being deceased minors, the Representative Robert leased by the National Times Intelligencer Lessing (DRenton), Center for Infectious is withholding their protested the House Air Diseases to transport names from Safety Subcommittee's two girls and their publication. The DoE decision Tuesday to end families from a medical staff lost in their yearlong temporary facility the downing was Dr.

                     hastily erected at the    Gary Trochmann, 47,    
                     Hanford Nuclear           intern Andrew          
                     Reservation in            Fulford, 25, and 29    
                     Washington                year old Kristen       
                                               Ramsey, R.N. from the  
                                               Center for Disease     

56 -56

Roland didn't know about Hunky yet, so she could gain employment. Hunky's waitressing job was their only source of income. Around December 1984 they began thinking about putting together their own band. "I never wanted it to come to this," Robyn told them, "but we have no choice but to...borrow...what we need." Shyla stared at her. "Stealing, you mean." "A certain music store on Broadway happens to have the exact same keypad lock for security as the doors at the clinic back at Hanford." "That street is welllit at night. We'll never have the time we need to try enough combos." "We'll use the back door. There's an alley. "And there's three of us now, instead of two," Hunky reminded them. Still, it took more than a month. They dared not go on consecutive nights, and more than once the approach of drunken men made the ladies wrap up operations for that night.

57 -57

When they finally got the green light on the lock they entered and quickly loaded up the car with what they needed. Robyn felt dirtied by what they had been forced to do.

Hunky latched onto a gal pal who could play guitar. Chris Savitt was a more

normalsized woman than Hunky, lightskinned, with jet black hair in a neat cut ringing her head like a helmet. Being a female guitarist at that time was considered a gimmick. There had always been a sublimated sexuality about playing a guitar. To any suggestion that she was symbolically eliciting sounds of ecstasy from a woman Chris would raise an eyebrow, saying, "And? Your point?" Other bands boasting chix with guitars would come, but in 1985 Chris was about seven or eight years ahead of her time. Hunky talked Chris Savitt into accepting the nanotechnology infection too. But she had to be persuaded a lot harder than the more experimentalist Hunky had been. At her Name Ritual in February 1985 she took on the name "Dory." Throughout the ages Hunky and Dory would go together like bread and butter, like fries and a shake...like Robyn and Shyla. They settled on the band name "Beermother." A cult following began building up around them, mostly lesbians. The girls had a few original songs worked out and were shopping around their demo tape but they had no idea anything was growing out there. It took them completely by surprise when the San Francisco based Gallery label offered to finance their first record: $14,000.

58 -58

To four roommates struggling to eat in the mid 1980's it was a beaucoup sum. Beermother booked time in a studio which dinged about half of the 14 grand. Robyn spent three thousand dollars on her dream system, an Animatech Songmaster, a music synthesizer used by the pros and previously only drooled on by Robyn in the music shop. The rest of the money went for living expenses, but divided by four it didn't go very far. That focused their minds and efforts on the record they were making. They crafted their songs over a few weeks in the spring of 1985. From the Songmaster Robyn evoked lush textures of sound, and the rest of the band came in dubbing layer after layer within a framework of a brief, punchy 36 minutes of music. They titled it Impotent America Entranced. Beermother was in fact busting out of the starting gate with an instant classic. The LP came along at precisely the right moment to pull the Gallery together from a casual distributor for hobbyist musicians into the premier firsttier label it later became at the heart of the vast Intraworld Communications Corporation. In the first song Shyla took her dig at the political climate in Dubbed Leftist By the Righteous, which clocked in at four minutes. It was one of the three hits on the composition:

59 -59

Girl and girl go for a whirl It unbalances you, sundazzles you Aggravates the pure hate within you So headline me, stigmatize me Might makes fright so invite all to fight me! This over a backwardmasking boogie shuffle carefully designed to be a red flag for Holy Roller types. Subversive as hell, a call to revolt, yet this was a very accessible track to a mass public which either didn't get the lyrics or ignored them for the ornate arrangements and synthpop hooks. The driving beat and anthemic melody of You Are Here closing out side one was actually used as the title music for a shortlived (six episodes) midseason replacement television show about fashion models called "Runway," but events would conspire to prevent Beermother from ever receiving royalties. The album's biggest hit was Thumper Bait, a moreorless conventional three minute rocker about fleshly temptation that was getting the most airplay for the song and heavy rotation on cable tv for the video. Thumper Bait didn't name names, but enough television evangelists saw a shoe that fit and wore it, blasting the song from their pulpits, thereby jacking up sales.

60 -60

All told, Impotent America Entranced moved 600,000 units. The band was at the zenith of their popularity, although not by any means in the same league as Head. Sisters Anita and Nicole Phillips were wowed by Beermother in a Seattle club and asked them to join their 1985 Head tour, starting with a date in Los Angeles. Robyn suspected that Roland was closing in, however, so she had to resort to some deceptive maneuvering to make it to the gig. "Shoot, Robyn! It's slipping!" They had gotten past the halfhearted pat down at the box office without being stopped, but Shyla neglected to wrap the tape carefully around her calf, and a bottle of brandy slid down the inside of her pant leg and shattered on the blacktop. Robyn didn't break her stride or even look back. "You brought that in here?" she gasped, with mock indignation. That brought chuckles to some of the others walking on the long, crowded, landscaped path leading to the Irvine Meadows Amphitheater. Robyn hoped her own bottle wouldn't slip next. They were both wearing wigs. Shyla hid her soft reddishblonde hair under a shiny, jet black, precisely rolled pageboy with perfectly straight bangs, and Robyn tucked her flyaway wavy brown mane under an outrageous bright fireengine red punk hairdo with hints of blue and some bleached tufts.

61 -61

Headlining the show was Head, down from Seattle, touring on the heels of switching to Discord Records and releasing their biggest album ever, and their first selftitled one. Most bands put out an album with one or maybe two hits on it, tops. Even Head. But not this time, with their fourth LP to be released bearing no less than five solid stadium rockers on it, classics that would henceforth play for all eternity on FM rock radio: Dressed To Kill, No Love Lost, Forever, Pipe Dreams, and All Or Nothing. Only when Deth Pepper unleashed their landmark LP Insomnia in 1987 would Head's 1985 album be eclipsed in the world of pop metal. As Robyn and Shyla picked their way to their seats Beermother was warming up, with Hunky beating out a long drum solo and Dory doing some improvisation on electric guitar. Joey Miletta, their sound man, was tweaking a big mixer board. Beermother's "gimmick" was a sort of badgirl mystique. They encouraged the rampant rumors floating around that a couple of their band members were wanted by the law. Beermother's Thumper Bait video used a flying spot scanner to make a cloud of blurry squares around the faces of the lead singer and the keyboardist, and this just added fuel to the fire. Robyn pointed out to Shyla that besides the usual concert bouncers there was heavy law enforcement presence around and behind the stage. They had formed a gauntlet up there, determined to intercept the mystery band members if and when they showed up. Their presence merely added to the crowd's feeling of anticipation.

62 -62

By an unspoken signal, part of the crowd suddenly rushed down to fill up the space in front of the stage. Robyn and Shyla started diving over newly vacated seats to join them, pushing their way through them right up to the edge of the stage. After a word from Joey to a couple of bouncers, Robyn and Shyla were physically pulled up onto the stage. They were, after all, the other two "mystery" members of Beermother. The crowd, clued in on the Beermother mythos, cheered the clever way they had bypassed the heat behind the stage, and began to grow excited. Beermother had no bass player. Robyn filled out the bottom end of their sound with her TB303, fiddling with its knobs while it stepped through intricate bass lines that she had painstakingly keyed in before the concert, interacting with the aptlynamed Hunky, who was beating the crap out of her drumkit. By doing so, they were inspiring a kind of dance music called "Techno" that would appear in clubs about five years later. Hunky was powerful, and her great deal of physical stamina combined with an artistic ability to improvise her rythyms in, and around, and under Robyn's more precise electronic sequences. Sometimes Hunky put down her drum sticks and rushed out to function as an extra bouncer if any overexuberant fans managed to slip through the line of security. Dory's guitar was heavily altered with fuzz, delay, reverb, infinite sustain, and envelope shapers, almost to the point of being unrecognizable as guitar.

63 -63

She and Shyla ruled the high end of the band's sound, and often Dory's guitar and Shyla's voice would perform as one instrument, courtesy of a vocoder. While Hunky sat playing drums and Robyn and Joey fiddled with their knobs, Dory and Shyla ranged all over the stage, dancing together, doing the flashy legwork of putting on a good show. Sometimes Dory provided additional vocals. All the boyfans (and some of the girls too) were in love with Dory, but now some of them were getting their first clear look at Shyla and they liked what they saw. The changes to Shyla wrought by the alien probe provided incredible control over her voice. She could mimic almost any female singing voice after listening to a single tune, from operatic sopranos to sexy coos and snarls. It was Shyla's voice that had impressed Head's Phillips sisters. The roar and whistling of the Irvine Meadows crowd rose to a deafening level. All eyes were on Shyla in her glistening black wig of straight hair curled in at the ends, which matched Dory's natural hair. Except for the few present who had seen Beermother in Seattle clubs, this was their first good look at Robyn as well.

"Good evening, Los Angeles! It's good to be out of the Seattle rain for a while. I'm Shyla. My friends Robyn, Hunky, and Dory are gonna play some tunes for you, starting with this old familiar standby."

64 -64

She was interrupted by police and FBI agents swarming the stage from its perimeter, apparently on a prearranged signal. One of the feds flashed his badge to Shyla and said, "Charlene Null, you're under arrest for espionage." Robyn, as Kim Lokken, got the same spiel. Joey, Hunky, and Dory were cited for "harboring fugitives". Shyla decided to appeal to her fans. "Hey folks, it looks like the pigs don't want us to play for you tonight! What do you say to that?" The crowd expressed their great displeasure, booing, throwing stuff at the stage, pushing the security guys back and some of them even wedged between the bouncers nd clambered up onto the stage to confront the cops. A riot was a hair'sbreadth away and the agentincharge knew it. He made a chopping motion with his hand. The men released the girls and returned to their positions just offstage. They could afford to wait. The crowd cheered again, excited by this fullparticipation theater Beermother was putting on. It was all quite a great warmup for Head. Shyla wasn't sure how long they'd get to play before the hammer of the Law dropped again so she told the girls, "Thumper Bait."

65 -65

The opening bars of their hit from Impotent America Entranced filled the stadium, and the fans went wild. Shyla put on that smoky natural voice that belied her youth and started belting it out. Your goodygood book bible baptist bitches are gonna know this time! Eve was framed by Adam but blaming the victim ain't gonna fly this time! Booze her, use her, try your best to lose her, cruise holy writ for a loophole! She's thumper bait! Stalk her, block her get your flock to mock her, she won't submit to the status quo! She's thumper bait! Dory had just launched into the blistering guitar solo that bridged to the middle third of the song when a shot rang out and the band skidded to a stop. Robyn was face down on the stage in a widening pool of blood, with a tiny hole in her back. In the sudden silence Robyn stood back up and the crowd saw a much larger hole in her chest from a hollowed out dum dum bullet. Without hesitating she dived straight out into the audience. Some caught her, getting splattered and soaked in blood, others backed away, and Robyn sank to the ground. -



"How can you still live like that?" someone asked. Robyn tried, but couldn't answer. The answer was that she indeed could not live like that. Robyn knew she was already dead. Hydrostatic shock had burst the walls of every cell in her heart and lungs. But due to the probe's rewiring of her entire central nervous system, for a brief time she could still act. Her wig was already off, revealing a shaved head. She began taking off her clothes. Shyla knew she was next to be shot at and she began running to make herself a more difficult moving target. She dove off the stage and was caught by the crowd, but her head dipped down, and she was let down to the ground easy close to Robyn. Disbelief became confusion, and confusion became a panic that was just beginning to take hold of the fans. But there were still enough hesitating people around to provide cover as she also ditched her wig and stripped off her jeans and shirt. Soon Robyn and Shyla were a pair of bald women, both wearing silver lami bikinis, a pair of anonymous concertgoers again, except that Robyn was missing a lot of her chest. A bubble of blood formed at Robyn's mouth and popped. Her upper lungs were shattered, but she managed to rasp out to Shyla, "Get me to the R.V."

67 -67

Hunky and Dory didn't wait around to get picked up, and faded into the chaos swirling throughout the amphitheater. They avoided the official Beermother bus, now crawling with cops, and made their way toward General Parking, where Robyn parked the Winnebago that she and Shyla had arrived in. With shaved heads, the girls couldn't hide their protruding connectors from anyone. It didn't matter now. But the further Robyn walked, helped along by Shyla and Joey, the more her legs began to stumble as oxygen starvation finally took a toll and killed her muscles. At the edge of the parking lot she sank to the ground, helplessly staring out, unable to move so much as a finger or utter a single word. The nerves were still sending signals, but no muscle was alive to obey them. Soon Hunky & Dory arrived to help carry Robyn's body the rest of the way to the Winnebago. "I'm gonna receive Robyn," Shyla told Joey Miletta. "Make a safecopy of me." Inside the RV was something Joey had constructed called a Tone Encoder. It had a Purple Cable on one end of it and a 16 track reeltoreel tape recorder on the other end of it. Joey plugged Shyla into it and started rolling the tape. Knowing the tape was recording, Shyla pushed her memories out. Somehow she just knew how to do it. Joey told Hunky, "Drive. Get us out of here. She needs an hour and a half."

68 -68

It would take thirty minutes or so just to get out of the parking lot, because the congestion was compounded by police who were slowing the vehicles as they left and checking the occupants with flashlights. When it was Hunky's turn she didn't stop, but plowed right through the checkpoint and out onto the highway. "They made us," Dory bit off. The thick traffic prevented any police or federal agents from following immediately, but there was no doubt that their description and plate number was being radioed ahead. But one thing was in their favor: they weren't the only vehicle of interest. Some of the concertgoers were on parole or had a lot of drugs in their car, and they panicked at the checkpoint and rushed through too. "Don't get on I405," Joey said. "That's where they'll be waiting for us. Stay on the back roads, Hunky. Pull over in some quiet place. All she needs is one hour." Finally the tape ran out and the recording of Shyla's memories was finished. On each of the tape's sixteen tracks was a mix of 7 tones. If they played the tape back through a bank of 112 filters, one for each pin, Shyla's memories, her self, her soul could be reconstructed. Shyla put the reel in a can, wrote her name and the date on it, and told everyone, "This is me so please don't use this tape for a jam session." Joey, Hunky, and Dory all grinned.

69 -69

It was just a little humor to assuage her fear, for she was about to plunge into the unknown. Joey hooked Shyla up to Robyn's corpse with a Purple Cable and she began receiving her. Robyn's memories and personality flooded in, much faster than the recording of Shyla to reeltoreel had gone. Shyla had the sensation of being overwhelmed by them. Her self was being pushed down, flooded out, but there was the beginning of a creeping return as the edges of Shyla soaked into the new memories of Robyn which stood firmly in the center of her mind. The threshold levels between neurons were being flushed of Shyla's values and set to Robyn's values, but this was not universally accomplished. The neurons were even being rerouted to reflect Robyn's longterm memory but this too was not 100% complete. A new woman was emerging, in fact, who would have about 70% of Robyn's wiring and 30% of Shyla's original wiring. At some point Shyla surrendered her identity, and Robyn found herself staring out of her friend's eyes. She had been shot dead, there was her bloody body right in front of her, but now she was alive. "Robyn?" Joey probed, looking at her intently. "Yes, it's me. It works!"

6 -6

A willowy strawberryblonde, Charlene was very feminine, as pensive as her cat. She wore pretty kneelength dresses and didn't even own a pair of jeans, except for hiking when she made a sole concession and wore cutoffs. When she spoke, which was not often, it was in a hesitant but carefully thought out manner. She hardly ever stuck her foot in her mouth. About the only emotion her blank little porcelain dollface would show was a constant impatience, as if she was eternally bored with the people and places she found herself stuck with. This appearance of ennui tended to limit her popularity at school. There was only her little clique of four girls who hogged the Ms. Pac Man machine in the school lunchroom. Then again, if Charlene ever quit her church choir her confident singing voice would be sorely missed. She rounded a narrow ridge and there were only gentle thoughts of this timeless summer and the vague idea, a common belief of youth, that she would live forever. As she drew near to the black shapes laying on the trail ahead, not in her wildest daydreams did Charlene imagine that real immortality was only a few steps away. In a few days Kim Lokken would start her senior year at Hazen High. She had a license and the keys to her mom's car and a part time job at the Factoria Mall gave her a little bit of gas money, but she knew she'd better not spend the waning days of summer just sitting behind the wheel. It wasn't in her plan. She had to get out.

70 -70

"How do you feel?" "Very strange. I mean, I call myself Robyn, but what's left of Shyla is very, very strong. We're all mixed up in each other!" "We can't stay here," Hunky said. "We have to hoof it. The police will be looking for the Winnebago." "What about your body?" Dory asked. "Let 'em find it," Robyn said. "We can't carry it. Let Blue Team think they got me." Blue Team. That was Robyn's name for Roland and the other faceless enemies of her Pink Team. Joey Mileta, a redblooded male happy as a clam to be running around with the gals, didn't mind being lumped in with the Pinks at all. They took a cab, the legendary cab ride when the WDF was founded. Robyn, wearing Shyla's body, rode shotgun, and the other three sat in the back.

71 -71

"Ladies and gentleman," Robyn announced, "tonight, November 22nd, 1985, the band known as Beermother is officially and hereby defunct." "But what about our royalties?" Joey Mileta objected. Robyn shook her head. "Money can be traced. Besides, I think the Feds will get a court order seizing all our stuff anyway. No, I reveal to you now the successor organization to Beermother, the Women's Democratic Forum. My Gynocracy, my governmentbywomen, and I am its Empress. You're in, Hunky. You too, Dory. And also the EmpressConsort, Shyla, who is temporarily in Data Storage. And Joey, you're in too, if you want, despite your gender handicap."

"As long as I don't have to accept the Change, like y'all," he said. "Well, then we'll keep you around as a WDF Limited Partner." "Okay, tell us, Empress Robyn, how are we going to make a living?" Dory asked. "It's staring us right in the face," Robyn said. "We've got the fountain of youth! What I've got in mind is one of those pyramid multilevel marketing schemes, but for bodies. As long as we can keep bringing in new members, young ones, we can never die."

72 -72

"How would you manage that?" Joey asked. "It sounds like it would only work for a while, like any other pyramid scheme, before it came crashing down." "Seniority in the Women's Democratic Forum shall be reckoned by time in service, dating from when a woman freely accepts the Change and gives up her body for the use of her senior sisters. Now the most senior onesixth of the WDF shall hold the title of Duchess. Currently that means only me. A Duchess shall be entitled to two years in a body, alternating with one year in Data Storage, or DS." "Where she experiences no time," Hunky added, pointing at the big reel of magnetic tape. "To Shyla, right now, this time is passing in an instant." "Right. Now the next most senior onethird of the WDF shall hold the title of Countess. A Countess shall be entitled to one year in a body alternating with one year in DS. Currently only Shyla has this rank. As for you two, the junior onehalf of the WDF shall hold the title of Baroness. A Baroness shall be entitled to one year in a body alternating with two years in DS." "That sounds...really great, Empress Robyn," Dory said, not totally sold on it yet.

73 -73

"Well, remember, it's only temporary. Think if it as an incentive to go out there an recruit new women. Every day at precisely 12 noon West Coast time, the percentages shall be recalculated and the most senior of the Baroness and Countess ranks advance. If we get enough new fish, you will advance to Countess, and even Duchess ranks. A rising tide lifts all boats." "But if your sisters die in battle against Blue Team, like what happened tonight, it will result in the most junior of the Duchess and Countess ranks retreating a step as the pool of available bodies shrinks," Joey pointed out. "True," Robyn admitted. Dory said, "Back to my original question: How does this make us money?" "Well, lets start recruiting rich girls." "Pretty rich girls!" Hunky said.

"Straight girls?" Joey asked, hopefully.

"Straight girls are fine, ye who hopes to 'shoot fish in a barrel.'"

74 -74

Dory said, "So we're gonna shift our talents from selling records to selling immortality." Robyn nodded. "Let's go up to these old millionaire guys who've got six months left to live and offer them a new lease on life. Albeit in the body of a woman." "No men in the WDF?" "Except for Joey. Let's keep this the Pink Team," Robyn said. "Man or woman, if you were about to check out and you had the money, how much would you pay for more time on earth?" "How young do we recruit?" Dory asked. "Let's start them young," Robyn said. "Let's get them in at age 16 and start making the change, and train them for a year before we send them to Data Storage and put their fresh body into circulation. Let's say for about thirty years. Let's say, from age 17 until age 47, which is past childbearing years. Then we'll sell the bodies to rich men at death's door who are desperate for a second chance at life. Even you, Joey, when you get older, unless you are very strong, I'll bet you relent and accept the Change. The offer will always be there for you." "I'll think about it Robyn. Hey! Maybe in the meantime I can help you breed your own recruits."

75 -75

"This is quite the society you are proposing here, Robyn," Dory said. "Well, as I've just discovered, when you overlay another mind with your own, the memories of the owner are not fully erased, merely dampened to about probably a third of their original intensity. So I'm a composite personality formed from one third of Shyla and twothirds of Robyn. When it's my turn to go into DS again the new woman will be formed of twothirds herself, twoninths me, and oneninth Shyla." "So the WDF will breed and crossbreeds memories and personalities," Joey mused, "creating a common pool of knowledge and experience. Wow." He was struck by the beauty of Robyn's vision. In time there would such an intermingling of lives there would be one great oversoul carried in many bodies, yet not one woman would be reduced to a mere cog in a machine. There would always be a balance of community and individuality. The cab stopped where they were going and the women got out. Joey paid off the very puzzledlooking driver, saying, "You look confused. Did you understand a word of what we said?" "Nothing." "Good."

76 -76

The WDF's physical address was a modest house in West Seattle assessed at $89,500. It was owned by Domestic Robots, Inc., or DomeRob, which in turn was a corporation formed by John Diehl, the WDF's lawyer, in Joey Miletta's name, since Joey was the only member of the WDF who still had a legal name and Robyn hoped Joey the Sound Board Operator had slipped under the radar during the media frenzy at the height of Beermother's fame. But no. Apparently this was insufficient buffering and it looked like Blue Team had found them. The hammer blow came when Hunky went missing in April 1986. There was no further contact with her and no attempts by anybody to collect a ransom. It was assumed that Roland's people abducted her. Hunky's latest update to tape backup was ten days prior to the day she went missing. Robyn wanted her to stay in Data Storage until the fate of the original Hunky was resolved. Shortly after Hunky disappeared the WDF accepted one postulant for training, twentytwo year old Becky Jensen, a hardcore nutball Beermother fan who recognized Dory in May, started tagging along, and slowly wormed her way into the WDF. Generous financial gifts from her $500,000 trust fund, accessible to her since graduating college, restored WDF financial solvency for the first time since abandoning the band's income from touring and sales of Impotent America Entranced.

77 -77

Joey Miletta, at a cost of $8,000 in parts, built a stack of thirtytwo Winchester hard drives to replace the ninetyminute reeltoreel method with a nine minute mind update procedure. Empress Robyn commanded daily updates to avoid the tenday gap that happened to Hunky. Becky's bud opened early in December, and she was physically ready for her first daydream session linked with another member of the WDF. Mentally, Becky was nervous about her first use of the Purple Cable, and suggested putting it off. She definitely had something to hide and she knew there could be no more hiding it when linked mindtomind. Finally the Empress herself commanded it, and undertook to do the first mindlink herself. There could be no denying her. But Robyn yanked the Purple Cable off after only a few seconds. "She's Roland's daughter!" The other members stared at her in shock, hurt to the quick by the revelation. She nodded her head to affirm it. "I'm Becky Roland, not Becky Jensen." "And you aren't really a Beermother fan who recognized me in that parking lot?" Dory asked. "Well, I heard of you, but no, I wasn't really a fan."

78 -78


"Why, Becky? Why did you hurt your friends like this? We love you."

Her eyes moistened. "My father found you and asked me to learn everything about your band so I could maybe hang out with you guys. But he didn't know I would truly join you. He didn't know I would make the Change." "Yes he did," Robyn told her. "He counted on it. Your father kidnapped Hunky, and I can assure you Hunky killed herself rather than answer his questions. But you're Daddy's little girl. After you make the Change you'll cooperate with him and answer all his questions because you love him." "Your father stands in the way between us and what we have to do," Dory added. "He stands in the way of what you will have to do, if you fully become one of us." "If? If I become one of you? The deal is still on? I thought I was through. I thought being the daughter of the enemy meant instant excommunication for me." Robyn shook her head. "I can't tell you our goal in words, I have to show you. And showing you, I can't promise free will would still be involved at that point. Showing you would be enlisting you. Enlisting you would make you belong to us heart and soul. That's why I'll give you a free choice now. You can stay with us, or you can walk away."

79 -79

"You can return to your father now, and go with our love," Dory said. "But it will mean falling into indifferent emptiness." "And leaving us would be a permanent decision, Becky," Robyn told her. "There could be no going back. That is what it means to be in the WDF. Your sights are set on eternity. Your choices are forever." "I don't think I can look anyone in the eye after what I did. I think I have to walk." "That choice makes me sad, but we cannot coerce you into becoming part of our living network. For the record, may I ask what name were you thinking of using, if you had chosen to stay with us? "Jill."

7 -7

Kim was very bright and did well in school but being on State Assistance with four younger brothers meant that her mother simply could not afford to send her on to college. The idea of being many thousands of dollars in debt with student loans put her off. The military would help pay for college, under the G.I. Bill, but she had to hurry to get in under the wire because this program, which was originally set up for vets returning from World War II, was set to expire a few months after she graduated. Kim already breezed through the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery and talked to a recruiter. He seemed delighted to be one step closer to meeting his quota but his glee was tempered somewhat by the fact that Kim, well, ah...exceeded her ideal weight. By any definition. Since getting in shape was necessary to get into the Navy, and the Navy was part of her detailed life plan, plus the fact that all of her selfesteem issues could be directly attributed to her weight, she started to go hiking in the range of hills near her home. On the trails Kim was wellprotected by her big, intimidating Alaskan malamute, Molly. Sometimes she wished she could get the virginity thing over with, but no one had asked poor chubby Kim Lokken out. She wasn't ugly. Her broad freckleface always registered exactly what she was thinking. She had a big pile of dark brown wavy hair, curled with a fat iron and feathered the best she could. Her father bought her dresses, which she only wore on those rare weekends when he would exercise his custodial rights and have her stay over. Her mother knew better than to waste money on such frippery. Designer blue jeans and black concert tshirts were all that Kim wanted to wear.

80 -80

Earl Roland and his wife moved to suburban Washington DC, closer to his contacts in the Department of Defense who were the sole customers of the unique composite materials he and and a select group of people, as a private defense contractor called RCS Zero, had an exclusive monopoly on producing. RCS Zero stood for "Radar Cross Section Zero" and it referred to a material that did not reflect radar at all. Much like the black alien parachute material that RCS Zero copied. He was delighted to see Becky return after nearly eight months' absence. There had been no contact during that time and he had a million questions. "They call themselves the WDF, father. The Women's Democratic Forum." "Seven, including two men. Well, six now, since I don't count anymore. Surely not enough to warrant all your attention, Dad." "Who's the leader?" "Robyn. The synth player." "That's impossible, she's dead. The girl posing as Robyn is really Shyla. She lied to you, Becky."

81 -81

"Did you have anything to do with that night at the concert, Daddy? When Robyn was shot?" "Of course not, dear, don't be silly." Her father pulled her close for a hug. He ran his fingers through her hair and felt the bump on the back of her head. "Do you want to talk about what's happened to you?" "I know what's happened to me. My brain has been remodeled by a virus from outer space." "You don't know that!" The source of the Change seemed to be a sore spot with him, something his mind refused to accept. She asked, "Fine, let's not talk about what happened to me. What happened to Hunky? They told me you kidnapped her." "We just wanted to ask her questions, dear."

"Who's 'we?'"

"RCS Zero. We just wanted to ask her a few questions.

82 -82

"You asked her where the probe came from and you didn't like her answer." "We just wanted to ask her a few questions. But she died. I don't know how, but it was not my doing." "Let me get the story straight from her." "I'm sorry dear, I told you, she's dead." "But I'm betting you still have a...souvenier...from Hunky. A part of her that doesn't rot because it isn't really alive anymore. I'm betting your curiosity won out and you have Hunky's brain. Bring her out to me, Father. They showed me what to do." "I'd rather you didn't." "No more lies! No more hiding the truth. I'll go back to them, Daddy. Back to your enemies! I'll beg them to take me back. You and I will be enemies and I'll never return to you, unless you kidnap me too."

83 -83

He looked at her for a long time. Finally he opened a desk drawer and removed a crumpled black lump resembling a water bag, with one end narrowing to a connector. He laid it on the desktop. People's exhibit A, lending truth to all the things the other girls had said about her father. She stared at him. For a moment she could not recognize him as her father. He was dead to her. Her father was dead and she didn't know who this strange man was. She grabbed it and showed him the 112pin connector. "Look at it! This is what happened to me! This is real! Can the United States do this yet? Can anyone in the world do this yet? Don't say the Soviets. Oh, that's what you've told everybody, enough times that you are even starting to believe your own propaganda. But no one on Earth has this kind of technology." "We cannot know the answer to that, one way or the other!" "No, you cannot know the answer because you refuse to let your mind be conformed to reality. We aren't the only ones in the universe. We aren't as clever as we think we are." "Honey, your brain has been affected. A strong delusion could be built right in, it could be an intended part of the change."

84 -84


This wasn't her father anymore. He could hatch schemes centered around the

strange Change that had happened to Robyn and Shyla, even send his own daughter to accept the Change, but he would dance around and around the central reality of it. He wasn't really sane anymore, and this made her very sad. That made the next step much easier for her. Becky unlatched the purple cable that doubled as a belt on all WDF members and removed it from though the belt loops in her jeans. She hooked up to what was left of Hunky's brain and did the download while he was watching. She didn't know if Robyn still had the last copy of her mind on the Winchester drives or if she had erased it in anger after her defection. If Robyn had done so, then this was her last act on Earth as Becky, she was committing suicide now. It didn't seem to matter to her one way or the other. Death would be the proper payment for the betrayal she had committed against those she now considered her true family. Earl didn't have a clue that Becky was ceasing to exist before his very eyes, that Becky was being crunched down and she was becoming Hunky as the memories of the dead girl flooded into her. Hunky's last moments were the most vivid. She had been stripped naked, because that was an effective way to remove from a person their natural psychological shielding that would allow them to resist more effectively.

85 -85

Her arms had been tied, bent back around a 55 gallon drum filled with solid concrete that refused to budge even under Hunky's powerful attempts to move it. Her muscular legs were spread straight out and her ankles held in clamps securely mounted to the floor. Ed Conley was there, wielding a pair of snips, like one used to cut locks. They were closed around the toe right next to the big toe on her left foot. He looked eager to use them, and only awaited the signal from Earl. Roland said, "This is really going to amaze you, how much it's going to hurt." And he would have been right, had Hunky not already blocked all sensation from that foot. "You wanna know where the rest of us are," she said, utterly bored with the entirety of these procedings. "We already know where the rest of you are, how do you think we found you? But we wanna know who made the weather balloon." "Aliens." "That's no answer. Don't be facetious. This is not a game, Hunky. Who really made the weather balloon, and why? Will there be more of them? How many other people have you changed?"

86 -86

When no information was forthcoming he told Ed to go ahead and cut her toe off. Hunky chose that moment to die. Not to avoid the pain, she could block any pain. She intended to die anyway but chose that moment to do so simply because the sight of her losing toe after toe to the bloody set of shears would be annoying as all hell. Jerk! Let him think the shock and pain killed me, was her last thought. "You tortured Hunky, Daddy!" Hunky said, letting Becky come through. "That is what I wanted to spare you from. There was some things we had to know, and some things I've had to do that I'm not proud of. I'm sad that you had to learn about this mess at all." "And she died for nothing. She told you the truth!" The intervening seven months simply did not exist for her. But Hunky didn't need to be filled in, she already knew from the 29% remnant of Becky within her the main things she missed. Roland offered up something in his defense. "But we didn't kill her! She did that on her own." "She performed an EOC. That's what Robyn calls it. End Of Cycle. We can kill ourselves just by thinking about it. But Father, don't you dare tell me she was to blame for that. Not when you had her tied up and helpless, and were cutting her toes off."

87 -87

Hunky looked down at herself. It was a voluptuous body, and from Becky's memories of times in front of a mirror she knew she had a regal face topped by brown hair streaked with blonde. There was a little getting used to the relative weakness of this new body, but Hunky was more than happy with it. And now she knew why Roland had sent his daughter out last May to entice them. "You and your buddies realized that if you moved to capture the whole WDF, they would have all committed suicide and you'd learn nothing. But if you sent your own daughter in there..." "I know they're working toward a purposethe Beermother phase was nothing more than a way to raise funds." "So you asked me to pretend to be Beermother fan, to learn everything about themI was bait, with my trust fund opened up to catch their eye." "You have to go back. You have to ask them to take you back." Hunky nodded in agreement. Becky's leap of faith, her leap into the dark unknown when she rescued Hunky's final moments from eternal oblivion in Roland's desk drawer deserved an infinite reward. That sacrifice would stand in place of the Name Ritual for Jill. Hunky drew from their combined memories the name Becky had been thinking of using. So Becky was no more.

88 -88

Jill was safe in the WDF data core (Hunky knew Robyn would not have erased her), and Hunky would return her favor and much more. She would update her own file first, then return Jill's body to her with these moments being experienced now. Jill's training was over. She would now forever take her place as the honored fifth member of the WDF. She left Earl Roland then, and never glanced back at him.

When Hunky got back to the WDF safe house Joey Miletta started work on a

new project. Nothing like it had ever been seen before. It was only useful for someone with the Change, or "Black Brain Disease," because the alien nanotechnology did most of the heavy lifting crunching numbers. The construction did not proceed as smoothly as it could have. Joey said, "If a project requires 'n' components, there will be 'n1' components on hand." In a few days it was done, a device to actually map the daydreams of the WDF as a television video signal. All that was needed was a video RAM buffer to hold the image in progress, like an easel or scratchpad. With tight feedback, the modified brain made changes as necessary. At first the images where indistinct, but they became more and more clarified as Hunky learned to use it. Hunky threw up an image of Jill's father from her recent encounter.

89 -89

There wasn't enough RAM to store a sequence of images, certainly not in 1986 when 512 kilobytes was considered a lot of memory (it was enough for the space shuttle), but Hunky could make the images move and the scenes plus audio were recorded on VHS tape. Joey grew very excited. "Do you have any idea of the porno you could do?" Robyn and Dory just snorted. Hunky was too busy to snort. Each take was a performance demanding all of her attention. She had to concentrate as hard as she could to provide every detail of the conversation with Earl. Many takes were rejected because she had forgotten to animate the muscles in Earl's face as he spoke, or mismatched the audio to his lips. Each new take was an improvement over the old. Pathways in her modified brain kicked in to make the work easier as soon as they "caught on" to what she was trying to do. Hunky even added incrementing video digits at the bottom of the indicating the time. She was making a video tape from her memory of her final conversation with Roland. It took many days, and when it was finished they had a short blackandwhite segment of video indistinguishable from the real thing, as though Hunky had worn a camcorder strapped to her head that day with Roland. It wasn't the entire discussion, just the juicy "smoking gun" part at the end that would eliminate Roland as an irritant to the WDF forever.

8 -8

On the South Precipice trail Molly had run down Elegant Ridge and was sniffing at yards of slick black wrinkly fabric laying in the brush alongside the trail. There was a tangle of long, thin wires gathering into a bundle attached to a dull black sphere, basketball sized, and totally featureless except for a needle sticking out of the surface. Molly let out a yelp of pain and backed off a bit. She was snorting, shaking her nose, then she started growling and barking at the black ball as a newfound foe. Now there were two needles sticking out of it. By this time Kim was coming up. "Whassamatter Molly? You get stung by a bee? Let me take a look." Just as curious as Molly had been, Kim put her index finger close to a part of the sphere that was needlefree, and like Molly, that was something she oughtn't have done. There was a sound like a short squirt of steam and her finger tip was instantly skewered. She pulled it away involuntarily, before the pain had even reached her brain. "Ahhh! Dammit!" Now the ball sported a third extruded spine from its surface. Kim thought about kicking it, then looked at her cheap tennis shoes and changed her mind. Freaking health hazard, she thought, and she planned to tell someone about it. For the time being, she dragged the whole mess off the trail by the parachute, then comforted Molly, rubbing the dog's nose, and turned to walk back to the car. She was no longer in the mood for hiking.

90 -90

Her final preparation was to empty the Becky Roland Trust Fund of every dime, and squirrel the two million dollars away in many other accounts controlled by the WDF. Then Hunky, in Becky's body, got on a plane and made the five hour flight to the East coast. She went to the press and made allegations against her father that he lied to Congress in 1983, and she had a tape to prove it. A few days later Congress issued a subpoena for the tape and required Hunky's presence to testify in a session of the House Energy Committee after the tape was played. The hearing was closed to the press and other observers due to the topic of stealth aircraft technology, which would not be unveiled for the public for three more years. "Dad, please listen to me well, because I want an answer. On this everything hinges. Where did you get all your money? The truth, Daddy." "The police found this thing. Well, two things, one here in Washington and one in Idaho. We still don't know what they are, who made them, why, or where they come from." "You know where they come from, Daddy, but you dance around the issue and refuse to look at it straight on."

91 -91

"You're wrong, we did have a good look at them. They were like a ball tied to a parachute. When I learned of them I put out a story that they were stray weather experiments from Hanford and that's how I got possession of them." "So you lied." "I don't call it lying, Becky. I call it dealing with the world adaptively. The parachute was made of some very dark material that rejects heat perfectly, but absorbs radar. We used the government's own engineers and labs to analyze it, made some of our own samples, then turned around and sold it back to the government for millions of dollars so they could build warplanes invisible to radar. It's been a goldmine for us." "So why did you keep Kim and Charlene confined? You knew they weren't really sick." "If they had reached their parents, the whole house of cards would have crashed around the ears of me and some very powerful people who are also involved in this."

"You told Congress under oath that Kim and Charlene were sick. You told

them Kim and Charlene were on that plane that crashed in the ocean. Did you make that plane crash, Daddy?"

92 -92

"Don't think ill of me, Becky. I'm your father. I did it all for you and your mother. Civil service pay is just not enough to give you two the things you deserve to have." The committee wrapped up that day's session with a subpoena for Earl Roland to appear before them, to reconcile if he could the statements on the tape with his 1983 testimony. The next morning, Hunky learned in the news, he was found dead of apparent suicide. Or he was murdered by those "powerful people" he had alluded to. No one else would be called before the committee. They didn't seem to want to push it any further. In any event, the version of Jill inside her approved. At least, Hunky had a strange thought which she knew didn't originate entirely with her: That wasn't really my father at the end. Hunky had full access to Jill's lifetime of happier memories with her father and she agreed. She joined Jill as one being in celebrating the Earl Roland who was, before he had ever heard of the black probe.

93 -93

The death of Earl Roland seemed to take the heat off. Tentatively, the WDF went semipublic. They advertised their Seattle home as a "Safe House" for battered women and runaway teen girls. Linda Sunkel was nineteen and living on the streets of southwest Seattle with her very young baby, Hailey, nursing her in alleys, living on whatever change she could get from passersby, and furtively hiding from police, who would surely call her predicament "child abuse" and take the baby away to Child Protective Services. The existence of the WDF's "Safe House" became known to Linda by flyers posted on telephone poles. She hesitated, being neither a battered woman nor a teen, and thought she would be unwelcome there too, but positive wordofmouth on the street gradually steered her closer. From the two million dollars brought to the WDF by Jill, a significant amount was spent providing food and new clothing for any woman or girl who came to the house. All were welcome. Drug dependent ones. Even the rowdy ones. Linda drifted north to the highest point in Seattle and came to the Safe House. She found that there was no shortage of women there willing to help with baby Hailey. Indeed, it was rare that she even had to change her baby's diapers. But truth be known, Linda was just there for the Three Hots and a Cot, and she expected to wear out her welcome in short order. To her surprise, the WDF's purse seemed nearly bottomless. If a gal was turned away, it was usually only for lack of room in the house.

94 -94

Linda was more receptive than most of the other women there to Robyn, Hunky, and Jill's attempts to plant a seed. She was gradually indoctrinated deeper and deeper into the WDF's central mysteries. But one of her objections was that if she entered Data Storage, she would miss two years of Hailey's life growing up, and more years would be missed in time to come. It was a lot to ask, that a mother should give up her child. "You're wrong," Robyn told her, growing excited. "When you come out you will gain all the memories of a woman who spent those two years helping to raise her. And as the years go by you will accumilate more and more sisters within you. You will know your daughter from many viewpoints, from the memories of many women who have taken care of her and come to love her. And someday, if Hailey choses to follow you and join us as a Full Member, you could even have the opportunity to be your own daughter, and she could be you. Talk about catching up! Nothing would be held back in such a sharing. So you won't miss anything, Linda. But you will gain so much more." For an instant, moved by Robyn's words, Linda glimpsed the great beauty that was the unfolding WDF. She was sold. In July of 1987, Linda accepted the beginning of the Change, and on November 22 she laid down her given name and became the Baroness Michelle, the sixth Full Member of the Women's Democratic Forum. Her baby Hailey, a future Full Member, was thrown in for free.

95 -95

One day Joey Miletta called Shyla, Dory, Jill, and Michelle (the only WDF members currently in living bodies) together in an upstairs room to tell them of a breakthrough that would change the course of the WDF, and human history, forever. For his demonstration Joey placed a glass of water on a table in the middle of the room. Also there was a pitcher of more water, and a black shoeboxsized device. "This discovery would not have been possible," Joey began, "without the video tapes you ladies have been making of some of your daydreams. I watched them and some ideas seemed to persistently emerge. Whoever is responsible for bringing the Change seems to have a purpose, and wants to guide us to the next step, as though they are impatient with us for spinning our wheels and getting nowhere." "What did you find?" "There's two worlds, Shyla. There's our everyday world up here on this scale, where things behave in analog, smoothly, and there's the microscopic world where things act in digital, with little jumps. Down there things act in ways that go against common sense, but we usually never see it. Sometimes the strangeness of that digital behavior is magnified to our level."

96 -96

"Like superconductivity?" "Right, Jill. You might remember from your college days that if you get a loop of wire cold enough, resistance falls to zero. An electric current will actually flow around inside it forever. Also if you get liquid helium cold enough, it will become superfluid. Viscosity, which is that gooey property of syrup and ketchup, falls to zero. Start the stuff swirling around inside a beaker and it will never stop moving."

"How does that really work, Joey?" Michelle asked. "It's still not very clear, not even after decades of messing around with it. The electrons in the loop, or the helium in the beaker, join up as 'Cooper pairs' which talk to each other somehow. When one electron or helium atom zigs, the other one zags, and the result is no net resistance to their flow." "Isn't that perpetual motion?" "You're right to be wary of that, Jill. In a way, yes it is, but it's not very useful. You see, there's no net profit of energy, and in fact it takes energy just to keep everything cool enough for superconductivity or superfluity to even work at all."

97 -97

"So it's like a wheel that spins forever if you leave it alone, but if you try to draw power off it, it just spins down to a stop." "Right. Now, here's what I did after I realized what some very strong suggestions on the video tapes were getting at. I fired Cooper pairs of electrons from a superconducting ring at Cooper pairs of superfluid liquid helium atoms in a little glass lens, and I got Cooper pairs of light bouncing off, in the form of twinned microwave photons." "So it combines both forms of superblankityblankblank!" "Exactly. One of the twin photons corkscrews right, the other one left, and if they hit a target atom it doesn't know what to do so it just sort of stands up at right angles to our universe, and for lack of a better term I'll say it's 'Phantomized.' Now picture the water inside a glass as a bunch of very tiny ping pong balls bouncing off each other as well as bouncing off the inside of the glass. This gives you a pressure to the water, a certain resistance to being squeezed. If you fire my Phantom Ray at it, all of a sudden the PingPong balls start travelling straight through each other and only bounce off the glass." Joey turned on his black box, but there was no visual indication that anything was happening to the glass of water. Jill said, "I'll take your word for it."

98 -98

Joey smiled. "Don't take my word for it. Watch." He poured some water from the pitcher into the glass. Quite a bit of water, in fact, but there was absolutely no sign of any overflow. "In the Phantom state, things like water molecules can exist superimposed right over the top of each other." "So now the glass can accept almost any amount of additional phantom water," Dory put in. "At least until the Phantom Gun is turned off." Joey flipped a switch on his black box, and water shot up out of the glass like a geyser, striking the ceiling. "Water isn't normally compressible, so it reexpands violently to seek its normal density, and if there is any resistance to that, it gets very hot. It gives off far more energy than it takes to phantomize the water in the first place." "I see. There's a hidden source of power." "Yes, and there indeed is the principle of the Phantom Compression Engine that could soon be running cars from tap water. No more reliance on gasoline. We can rig homes with hot water heaters and furnaces that run basically for free. I haven't even begun to catalog all the possibilities."

99 -99

"Joey, you say the beam makes the water molecules stand at right angles to our three dimensions. I can't even imagine in what direction that is." "And I can't even point in that direction. All I can say is that instead of lying flat in the present 'now' they stand up in time and become say, a few seconds 'thick.' Does that make sense?" "I think so. It's sort of like the way a hundred coins lying flat on a table will cover a wide area, but if you stand them on end and they'll pack tight into a single roll. But if the phantom water is moving through itself, how come it doesn't move straight through the glass?" "Because I've prepared the glass by phantomizing it once already. Phantomization is a oneshot deal. Every particle that is made into a phantom has something like a little mailbox flag that remains up forever, and nothing will coax that particle to stand up ever again." "So a power plant using phantom compressed water in a closed loop will never work." "Right, Jill. Only water which has never been Phantomized before will work, and after that it is useless for power and fit only for drinking. A hundred years from now only a tiny fraction of one percent of Earth's sea water will have their little 'mailbox flags' up, but someday usable, compressible, unPhantomized water will be harder and harder to come by, like fossil fuel."

9 -9

It wasn't an emergency, but when the Issaquah police got Kim's call it was the second one that week complaining about a "dangerous weather balloon thingy" up there, so they called a local club which had assumed the responsibility of maintaining the trails in the area, and the selfstyled "Chief Ranger" in turn got ahold of Kim to ask her exactly where the debris was located. She answered that she didn't know the name of the trail but that she could take him straight to it and show him. So four days after being pierced by the needle, an Issaquah policeman picked up Kim and the Chief Ranger, Bob Sandage, in a patrol car. It was the Chief Ranger's idea to do it this way, lest Kim feel less than comfortable with a rugged, scarylooking mountain man alone with her in the woods. He was a tall man with dark curly hair under a trails club ball cap, and he sported a a full, curly beard. She took the cop and the Chief Ranger to a housesized boulder and they struck off south until the Precipice trail turned west to ascend Elegant Ridge. This was the correct spot. He leaned over the black sphere with the eraser tip of a pencil prudently standing in for a nose/finger this time, and he verified that sure enough it was still active and just as nasty. "What do you think it is, Bob?" the policeman asked him. "Don't know for sure. I once saw a radiosonde that came down in the woods but nothing like this."

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Strangers In Paradise