The story of Justice Wing begins. Originally this was meant to be an Amazon-first serial, but that didn’t work in my workflow, and I wanted to ramp up content for Banter Latte. Since it was meant for publication, it’s longer than my usual serials. Later episodes will shorten back up.
Sol System Asteroid Belt Zone II
The Earth is, on average, about ninety-three million miles from the sun. Astronomers long ago defined that distance (computed more exactly) as a single astronomical unit, or AU, to more easily compare the orbital distances of objects to each other — essentially as a yardstick for planets. Mars’s orbit, for example, very roughly averages 1.52 AU from the Sun — call it one and a half times Earth’s orbit. Jupiter’s orbit very roughly averages 5.2 AU — over five times Earth’s orbital distance.
Most of the space between Mars and Jupiter’s orbits is empty; honestly, most space is empty. However, debris from the creation of the Solar System and other sources had gathered midway between Mars and Jupiter. This debris ranged in size from microscopic dust to the 950 kilometer wide dwarf planet Ceres. Collectively this region was and still is called the asteroid belt: billions of chunks of rock and metal spread out over a huge expanse of space where very little happens.
Still, on a particular day many, many months back quite a lot did happen out there. It didn’t look like it at the time, of course. It almost never does — when a chunk of snow falls off an outcropping at the top of the mountain it doesn’t look like it could destroy a village, after all. Really, it was hard to tell anything was there at all.
If you started on Earth, dove straight from the planet to the Sun, passed through, came out the other side… and then traveled out another 2.8 Astronomical Units… we’d see a tiny little man-made object far from home.
The machine in question was about twelve meters long and about five meters wide. It was shaped like a can, more or less, and had wide fan-like wings coming off it. The wings were covered in glittering black glass — solar panels, supplementing its power reserves with the tiny amounts of energy that came from the sun. It was a flat dark grey and covered in a material that was nearly thermally null, with a series of rotating units designed to vent waste heat via a laser always oriented away from the sun — all to keep astronomers and other nosy types from noticing it was there. A lighter grey ‘21D’ was stenciled on the side. One end of the can had an irising cover that was open, revealing a series of lenses inside. Unlike most lenses they were opaque — suggesting they weren’t lenses at all — and were rotating back and forth as though focusing. Similarly, small clamps on the end of the craft were extending and retracting, graspers clamping and releasing over and over again, as though it were trying to lock onto a surface that just wasn’t there.
As with everything else out in the belt, little 21D was actually orbiting the Sun at a high speed relative to the star. A nice, stable orbit at that distance would involve going around 17.8 kilometers per second, which seems impossibly fast, at least until we remember the Earth itself is moving around 30 kilometers per second in its own orbit. However, 21D’s velocity was hardly a constant — suddenly it lurched outward, then suddenly back down towards the sun, or forward or pulling back, as though it were a marionette and its puppeteer kept yanking strings sharply in one direction or another — up or down, left or right, forward or back. And yet, there was no sign of exhaust or propellant. If one of those nosy astronomers happened to see 21D lurching to and fro across space — despite the Sun being in their way — would undoubtedly blame equipment failure when they saw the impossible movements of the tiny tin can.
The sudden lurches were no doubt hard on 21D’s internal components, and one had to assume it would fail soon enough and become just one more chunk of orbiting material. It might even hit something first — a chunk of rock or dust or metal — though the odds were against that. Space really was pretty empty even in the belt. So when it did hit something, in one sense that was pretty lucky.
Or really, really unlucky.
Specifically, it hit an asteroid. This asteroid was very roughly 15.7 kilometers in diameter, and from the asteroid’s frame of reference 21D hit at over 50 kilometers per second.
Naturally 21D couldn’t survive, but the same strange effect that caused it to lurch back and forth seemed to protect it on first impact. Its solar panel wings were shorn off almost immediately of course but the can itself penetrated the rock and drove deep before its protection failed and it was crushed in an implosive effect that then burst forth like a rippling wave, both through the rock and then out into space.
The asteroid in question had been discovered by an astronomer named Furuya Yosai. He registered it with the Union of International Cooperative Astronomers on their Distant Minor Planet Registry, where it was tagged do9541. He named the asteroid Akane, after a girl he was quite sweet on named Maniwa Akane. Ultimately, Maniwa Akane married someone else and Furuya Yosai finally married a woman named Eri. He named at least twelve stellar objects after Eri, none of which were hit by unexpected artificial satellites that we know of.
Asteroid (do9541) Akane was nicely stable in its orbit. It revolved around the Sun once every 4.68 years, and based on observation it would go on orbiting for thousands of year.s Little 21D changed all that with its implosive end.
The ripples of energy enveloped the asteroid the same way and caused the whole asteroid to shudder, and then be yanked out of its orbit hard, pulling it sharply towards the Sun much faster than anyone could have believed. Unlike the satellite, that sudden sunward acceleration lasted less than twenty seconds. Had it gone on much longer, Akane would probably have been pulverized into dust. Instead, its orbit was now much steeper, its movement faster, and it careened in the general direction of the sun.
At its speed and angle Akane would miss the sun and even avoid being destroyed by its heat. It would be going very fast, however — 2.8 AU of the sun’s gravity would pull it faster and faster, and its initial speed was already pretty fast. As it was, it would curve around the star and back out much faster than even most comets, leaving Akane hurtling far out towards the Oort cloud and possibly even entirely out of the Solar System.
In actuality the asteroid’s trip would be cut short when it hit the Earth.
Justice Wing: Emergence
“On the Threshold”
Crown City, Illinois
23-June, 3:24 pm CDT
The EM D-Line
For about a year and a half into his college education, Chad Keillor didn’t bother to take the EM places. It made no sense to take the time or spend the money — he could get there faster on his own, and it’s not like anyone would see him, after all.
Chad had revised his opinion when Cindy had told him, rather forcefully, that people noticed when you always just magically appeared. So he’d started riding the ol’ single rail like everyone else.
Four and a half years later — and three weeks after receiving his Library Science degree — Chad couldn’t imagine traveling around the city any other way. The EM — it stood for ‘Elevated Monorail’ — carried everyone. Rich and poor, young and old… all the people of the Unique City rode the EM. Chad loved that. He’d been raised in West Littleton, Illinois — three and a half hours away on I-55, or around seven minutes for Chad on days he learned his Dad was cooking Pot Roast — and had lived in relative isolation. There had been almost twice as many undergraduates at UCrown during Chad’s time there than the total population of West Littleton.
And as he took the time to get to know Crown City, Chad realized how much he loved it. He loved people, in all their different forms. It was stunning to him how individual everyone could be even in the heart of one of the largest cities in America. On the EM, Chad could feel like part of something. Something huge.
And in one sense, wasn’t that exactly what Chad was looking for? Wasn’t that his actual genetic imperative in a nutshell?
Of course, he couldn’t ever really scratch that itch, could he?
Still, he was in a good mood. He was on his way back to Chesterton Heights from the Crown City Public Library — he’d spent a lot of the last five years in that Library, which made sense for a freshly minted Librarian-on-paper. He’d learned its ins and outs. He’d gotten to know everyone. It was the kind of thing a bunch of Library Science kids did to ingratiate themselves — there were always more fresh graduates than Library positions, after all. It was all part of their plan.
Well, Chad had a plan too — but it was a very different plan than those opportunistic classmates. He didn’t intend to get a job at the Library. He just needed to be well known there. He needed to work there and be such a part of the place that no one would think twice if he claimed he’d been there all day. But he couldn’t have an actual job there or a supervisor there. Nothing where someone in the building was tracking Chad’s whereabouts.
That was another reason he was in a good mood today. Chad had an interview at a newspaper. No, at the newspaper in Crown City. The Crown City Chronicle. Before Chad had gotten his Masters in Library Science, he’d gotten a B.A., double majoring in English Literature and Journalism. The Chronicle was the brass ring for prospective journalists. Only the best would ever have a byline in their paper.
But then, Chad wasn’t going for a byline in the paper. The job he wanted was the job most people settled for. The job they took to get their foot in the door so they could work their way up to real journalism. No one wanted to be a career fact checker, after all.
No one but Chad Keillor. Because he had a plan. And it was going great.
The EM’s recorded two-tone beep crackled on the speakers. “Fisher Street. Please let people off the train in an orderly manner.”
Chad stood up — the EM wasn’t crowded right now, though within a half hour it would be. As the monorail came to a stop in the outdoor station, sliding under the plexiglass arch that gave some scant protection from rain, he was able to walk straight to the doors and out onto the concrete platform. He got out of people’s way and walked down the concrete stairs to the street, heading for a pay phone. He felt almost giddy with excitement over the day. That meant celebrating!
Chad fed coins into the phone and punched the house number. He knew Cindy would be there. Her thesis was on the impact of evolving urban landscapes on the habits of nocturnal insect life — the constant noise and light of the city streets — and that meant a lot of night work in the lab observing different populations of cockroaches, ants, wasps, and their other six legged cohorts. For now, this was around when Cindy was first getting up for the day.
Cindy answered on the third ring. Cindy always answered on the third ring. Even when she was waiting for an important call Cindy would stop in front of the phone and let it ring three times before picking it up. “Hello?” she said in her bubbly mezzosoprano.
“Hey!” Chad said. “How’s the day?”
“Ugh. I slept horribly. Screw cockroaches — I think urbanization’s ruining my nocturnal habits. You sound shockingly perky for the late afternoon.”
“I thought I always sounded perky.”
“You always sound cheery. You can be cheery and downbeat at the same time.”
“Trust me. We used to date, remember? I know you.”
“We’ve been best friends since we were three. We live together. Why is a now-ancient high school relationship the reason you know me?” Chad was grinning, leaning back against the side of the public phone’s half-booth as they talked.
“Ancient he says. You know, calling girls old may be why your relationships don’t last.”
“I’ve had three relationships. Two had to move out of town and we parted amiably—“ Chad didn’t want to directly say that one was with an ancient Djinn who’d gone to UCrown disguised as a human and the other was with an alien girl he’d known back when he was in space training with InterPlanet. “—and the third is on the phone with me now. I don’t think any of those ended because I have a sense of time.”
“Go on. Dig yourself deeper. I know where you sleep. Why’re you calling me? Why aren’t you just home?”
“Because! I want to pick up food for us!”
“Pick up food?” Cindy paused. “You got a callback.”
“I have a scheduled interview on Thursday.”
“At the Chronicle?”
“At the Chronicle.” Chad’s smile was a bit smug, but then it was the phone so he figured he’d get away with it.
Cindy squealed. “That’s great! Heck yeah you pick up food! That’s awesome! Have you told your parents?”
“I’ll call them when I get home.”
“Do! Or go over there first! No, wait. Don’t. I want food!”
“Right — what food do you want? My treat. Anything you’d like given the understanding that I’ve got like thirty bucks total right now.”
Cindy paused. “Anything?”
Chad paused as well. “No.”
“You said ‘anything.’”
“No, Cindy. No.”
“You know what I want, Chad.”
“Cindy — no! Why are you even suggesting — you’re the one who keeps after me to cut down on my… out of the way travels!”
“This is different! This is pizza!”
“This is Las Bendiciones Imperial pizza!”
“Yes! Which is by definition in Las Bendiciones!” Chad turned, leaning into the booth, self conscious now. “Which is in California.”
“I paid attention in Geography, Chadders. I also paid attention when I first ate Las Bendiciones Imperial pizza.”
“I… it’ll get cold.”
“I’ll hang up the phone, grab the warm bag, set it on the radiator by the open window, and then go order the pizza.”
“You’re going to make a long distance call to order pizza? I — I can just order the pizza when I get there.”
“You never get the order right.”
“We order the same thing!”
“So screwing it up takes effort. I’m honestly impressed.”
“Yes, Chad. Yes. Pizza.”
“I’m coming straight home. We can microwave something from the freezer.”
“You’re coming straight home to grab the warm bag, and then you’re taking the express to deliciousness, California!”
Chad sighed. “Goodbye, Cindy.”
“I’ll put it under my name so you know it’s for me!”
“Goodbye Cindy!” Chad hung up. He took a deep breath, and stepped back. It’s not that he minded going longer distances for food. It’s that Cindy was the one who kept harping on him when he used his abilities. He loved her dearly, and dearly appreciated how much she worried about him, but it irked him when she’d conveniently drop her opposition when it benefited her.
On the other hand… it was really good pizza. And they were celebrating…
Back at the apartment. Cindy hung the phone up. Her hair was short, currently cut into a bob with a gold hairclip holding it up on the side, and also currently a kind of cotton candy pink. It accented the slight pink undertone to her skin, and more importantly achieved Cindy’s required level of ‘sassy.’ She was in her sweats and oversized T, which is to say her pajamas — she hadn’t had a reason to go out since getting in from the lab and going to sleep. She walked over to the milk crates they’d made into living room shelves and pulled the red and black velcro covered warm bag out. It had silver foil lining to preserve heat — one of Cindy’s college exes had been in pizza delivery, and Cindy used to hang out at the pizzeria. The pizza warm bag was a surprisingly useful memento of that relationship.
She set the bag on the radiator, then walked back over to the phone. She dialed a number that was written on their ‘important phone numbers’ pad — the only one of those numbers in the 323 area code.
“L.B. Imperial,” a bored voice said, picking up after one ring.
“Hi! I’d like to place an order for pickup!”
“I’d like two large artichoke, pepperoni, and mushroom pies, please — and can you add jalapeños to one of those?”
“K. Who’s this for?”
Cindy looked over her shoulder. The warm bag was gone. “No problem,” she said, grinning. “You have a lovely day, sir.”
Crown City, Illinois
23-June, 3:35 pm CDT
The Facility, Level Six
Dale knew the Facility was underground both figuratively and literally. Still, most of the time it just looked like any other cubicle farm. Fluorescent lights, bad AC, blue carpet, beige painted drywall, bulletin boards with office notes and offers for free puppies — the whole nine yards.
Dale had never been down on six before. Six was no cubicle farm. Cinderblocks and cold linoleum tiles, cold recessed lighting and significant metal braces — it looked less like an office and more like a military outpost. Of course, two goons in green jumpsuits and riot gear were dragging him by the shoulders down the hall. That set a tone all by itself. “What the Hell are you doing?” he shouted. “What — why are you doing this?!”
The pair didn’t answer. They walked up to a heavy metal door with a safety glass square window. What light came through that window was gloomy. A third guard was waiting there, punching a code into a keypad and then touching her thumb to the panel. A light turned green and the door slid open.
“Please — just tell me what you want!” Dale shouted, but the two guards just threw him through the door, letting him land on the floor. This floor was straight cement, as were the walls. The light came from an inset panel in the ceiling and was indeed dim. “Please!” Dale shouted again, even as the door slid shut. There was the hissing sound of a hermetic seal.
“Jesus, and here I thought I was special. I guess they treat everyone like that.”
Dale rolled over, startled.
A man was lying on a mat in the opposite corner. He was a touch burly, with black hair and a black beard — both unkempt. He was wearing a filthy white button-down shirt and equally filthy slacks. He wasn’t wearing shoes. They’d taken Dale’s shoes too, when they’d grabbed him from the upper levels. “Hey, roomie,” he said, smiling a wan, beaten down smile. “What’re you in for?”
“I… I don’t… I don’t know why they…”
He laughed. “Sure. Me too. No clue why, only that’s total crap. I know why I’m here. I’m here because I messed up badly. You too?”
Dale breathed hard. “I… I didn’t… I didn’t do anything…”
The man shrugged. “Whatever, guy. We’re going to have plenty of time to talk. Commode’s on the wall. It’s the lower metal square. The higher one’s a water fountain. Please for the love of God don’t screw those up. That pad over there’s yours, I guess. They’re mounted to the floor and there’s no blanket so I hope you like being cold when you sleep.”
Dale stared at the man. “…they… how can they just… throw us down here?”
The man laughed. “It’s a criminal organization, remember? Who’s going to stop them?”
“I… I don’t… I’m not part of all that.”
He laughed. “Did they pull you in off the street? I mean, I guess I can see those bastards doing that… but then I’ve been here for a while.”
“No. No, I work here. But… but I don’t… I program spacecraft!”
The man blinked, sitting up in his corner. He stretched as he did it, popping sounds suggesting he didn’t do a lot of moving these days. “We have spacecraft?”
“Yeah. Unmanned. We… we send them out to mine asteroids for raw materials, then send them to platforms to be processed…”
“…seriously? In… like, orbit around the Earth?”
“No… no, it’s all on the far side of the Sun, to minimize the chance it’ll be noticed. Our bosses don’t like being noticed. We bounce signals between stations. Takes twenty-eight minutes for our commands to get there and another twenty-eight to come back…” Dale paused. “I… you don’t care about that. I don’t know why I said it. I don’t know why this is happening to me!”
“Don’t care about— are you kidding?” The man laughed, which turned into a cough, which turned into a coughing fit. After a moment he wheezed, then looked back up. “I was in HR. I didn’t know we had our own freaking space program!”
“Yeah, well. We do.” Dale looked at the man. “You worked in Human Resources?”
“Why are you here?”
He laughed. “I messed up, same’s you. Looked the other way on some stuff a buddy was doing. That ended up blowing an operation. They figured out the reason he didn’t get stopped earlier was because of me. So here I am. I think there’s something about money, too — I’m not sure. I mean, I didn’t skim or anything, but sometimes things get fast and loose. You know how it is. Sometimes you have to make sure the files look the way Ms. Chance wants them to look.”
“Oh God, Ms. Chance.” Cordelia Chance was one of the high-ups at the Facility. When Dale had first seen her he’d fallen instantly in lust. By the end of their first conversation he was just in hate. The woman clearly thought ruthless was a virtue and treated even casual conversation as a battlefield. “She oversees our program.”
The man laughed. “Iron Rod Chance oversees a bunch of miners? That’s rich. Hey — what’re you mining out there, anyway? Some kind of rare minerals?”
Dale shook his head. “Not — well, sometimes. Mostly it’s bulk materials.”
“…why not just buy raw materials? It has to be less expensive than doing it in space.”
Dale laughed. He was still scared and he hurt from being thrown into the room, but he was beginning to crash from the adrenalin and the other guy at least gave him something else to think about. “It’s not about expense. The bosses don’t want anyone to know just what resources they have, so they mine things on the other side of the solar system where no one can see. It’s all kind of crazy — there’s so many easier ways to do all this. We don’t even use normal mining gear.”
“Well… sure. Pickaxes wouldn’t work well on space rocks, right?”
“It’s not even that. We use gravity.”
The man blinked. “Huh?”
Dale took a deep breath. “I don’t know how it works, but the bosses… they can create… it’s like an energy envelope around things, and then make the thing react as though it were next to a gravity well. It’s the most incredible thing I’ve ever seen. I don’t know why they don’t patent it.”
“How do you mine with gravity?”
Dale took another deep breath. “We have several types of remote craft. One’s called the pulser.”
“What — like the star-things?”
“Those are pulsars. No, it’s a drone that mostly looks like a can with fins. It locks onto the asteroid we want to check. A second drone called a listener positions itself on the surface as well. Sometimes more than one listener locks on. The pulser then creates waves of this fake gravity, and the listeners… well, listen. That tells us the composition of the asteroid in detail, and lets us know if it’s worth mining.”
“And if it is?”
“Then we detach the listeners and the pulser creates conflicting envelopes. That creates gravitational instabilities on specific harmonies. The asteroid shakes itself to dust, but the veins of ore we want are kept more or less intact. Then a third type of drone goes in to clean, crush and package the ore, and a fourth carries the ore packages to the processing platforms.”
“…that’s crazy. It’s like they’re… I don’t know. Just showing off, except no one knows they’re doing it!” The man sounded impressed and fascinated, all at once.
“I know. But they paid well and I had the skillset they needed. I’d script the next sequence for a drone group, send those scripts off, move on to the next group, and so on… by the time I was done the first set of drones would be reporting back and I’d script the next series of commands.”
The man stared at Dale. “So why’d they throw you down here? How do you mess that up?”
“I don’t know! I don’t… know…” Dale turned pale. “Oh God.”
The man laughed, coughing again. “Looks like you do know,” he said. “I can’t wait to hear this.”
Crown City, Illinois
23-June, 3:41 pm CDT
Crown City Chronicle newsroom
Four days out of five Barbara Babcock charitably looked like an unmade bed. Her somewhat wavy blond hair was usually cut above the shoulder and only rarely looked brushed. Her skin was more tan than not but the only ‘makeup’ she generally wore was chapstick. She mostly wore sweaters and skirts over tights with little regard to color coordination. She was clean enough, most days, but just plain unkempt. That, coupled with her generally frenetic attitude made it seem like she just didn’t have time for appearance.
By contrast, Teddy Porter — her partner — had creases in his slacks and shirt so sharp they could cut bread. He was dark skinned with tightly curled brown-black hair and brown eyes behind slightly oversized black hornrims. The result looked just nerdy enough that his clothes felt like an overcompensation. Striped oxford shirts, suit pants and matching coats that were less ‘reporter’ and more ‘executive.’ Impeccably polished shoes. He screamed image when you saw him.
When they were together, they looked completely mismatched. Babcock’s anarchic energy and Porter’s sharp reserve seemed wholly incompatible. Add to that Babcock’s somewhat irrational need to be taken seriously and Porter’s apparently infinite ability to take embarrassment in stride, and it was hard to figure out how either of them worked apart, much less together.
But in the last couple of years, the two had worked together, and shockingly well at that. Junior reporters were a dime a dozen, but the best stood out — and if there’s one thing you could say about ‘Babcock and Porter, Incorporated,’ it’s that they stood out in any crowd. They were an asset to the Chronicle’s pages, even if they weren’t always pleasant in the actual newsroom.
And on days like today, they were insufferable. Because if there was one thing Babcock and Porter did match up on, it was their ability to be smug.
“One side!” Teddy said, ducking around a copy boy as they wove between the maze of desks in the Chronicle’s newsroom. “Page one’s coming through!”
“Hey hey, Carla!” Barbara said, weaving alongside her partner. “How’s it going — ah! Sorry! Don’t care! Got a date with da Boss and I don’t wanna be late to this one.”
Carla rolled her eyes, as did half that side of the room. Like most newsrooms, the Chronicle’s offices were masses of typewriters, the odd bulky beige computer here or there, teletypes clattering as loud as the typewriter keys at all hours of the day and night, a bank of televisions propped on desks in one corner keeping an eye out for breaking news that hadn’t hit the wire, masses of paper in book, bound, paper-clipped, stapled, or loose form over every available surface, the profound smell of burnt coffee in the air, and a dozen reporters who were part of a journalistic tribal culture that dated back to the Taft administration. The gang had grudging respect for the stories Babcock and Porter, Incorporated brought in, but had long since run out of patience with the pair on a personal level.
At the north side of the room — the opposite side from the elevators and the bathrooms — there were a series of offices behind glass walls. These were the sacred shrines in the newsroom: editorial offices. While copy editors worked the cramped desks along the room’s sides where the light wasn’t so great, the section editors worked out of their offices, passing sentence on the stories that reached their desks. Arts. Finance. Medicine. Politics. Crime. Sports. Entertainment. Science — every section of the paper had its feudal lord, ready to pass judgement. They then would confer with the Editor-in-Chief, and from that coterie would be born the daily papers.
Babcock and Porter, Incorporated had bounced between sections early on, but their dogged determination and occasional crazy stunts had dug up enough dirt that they gravitated to their natural domain — the City beat — and worked directly with the City editor most days. That editor’s name was Bernadette Jonson.
Bernadette Jonson — friends called her Bernie, subordinates called her ‘da Boss’ if they wanted to get yelled at, and everyone else called her ‘Jonson’ — was in her fifties, dark brown skinned with greying hair. She was less a person and more a presence. She had been the first black female reporter at a Crown City paper. She had been the first black female reporter to win the Herrington Award. She was the first Crown City reporter period to win four Herringtons. She had been the Chronicle’s first black associate editor, the Chronicle’s first female political editor, and was breaking new ground with every promotion. Now tapped to run the city desk, Jonson only had the national editor as a peer and only answered to the Executive Editor, the Editor in Chief, the Publisher, the Owner, and God — though not necessarily in that order. Her room, like pretty much all the offices, was another mass of paper contained on shelves and available surfaces. She had a computer of her own, which was turned on, and a manual typewriter in the corner just in case. She looked up briefly when Babcock and Porter came through her door, and she didn’t look impressed.
Barbara didn’t care. She dropped a folder on top of a pile of pages more or less in front of Jonson. “How much you love us, Boss?” she asked, grinning.
“Keep calling me that and it’ll keep going down.” Jonson picked up the folder, opening it and glancing through the files. “This is Nowak?”
“As if it’d be anything else,” Teddy said, grinning. “We have Nowak meeting with Carlotti stooges three times in four weeks. We have confirmed investments in Nowak’s husband’s business through suspected Carlotti shell companies. We have three different votes where Nowak was the swing city councillor, which all broke Carlotti’s way. We have four sources saying that Anson Carlotti himself—“
“That’s the son?”
“The nephew,” Barbara said, breaking in. “Anson Carlotti’s been calling Nowak’s daughter at her job. Like, a lot. Can’t you feel the love? I’m feeling the love. Teddy — feeling the love?”
“Oh, I’m feeling the love,” Teddy said. “We have her six ways from Sunday, Jonson. I know — you love to find the holes in a story. This time? We’re plugged up tight.”
Jonson kept skimming the files.
“You know we’re right,” Barbara said. “We got it. We so got it.”
Jonson held up a finger towards them, still reading.
“She’s right,” Teddy said. “We’ve got it.”
“When I hold the finger up, it means shut up because I’m reading.” Jonson kept reading.
“Right,” Barbara said. “She’s reading, Teddy.”
“She is in fact reading, Barbara.”
“Oh yeah.” Barbara bounced from foot to foot. “We’ve got it, Teddy.”
“I know we’ve got it.” He grinned even more.
Jonson closed the file, steepling her fingers and not looking at the pair.
Barbara waited, then leaned forward. “Come on, Boss. We got it. You know we got it.”
Jonson didn’t say anything, just yet.
“We… got it, right? We got it.” Teddy had started to frown, slightly.
“We confirmed every source! We have every — we got it!” Barbara snapped.
“Yeah,” Jonson said. “You got it. It’s tight.”
“Yes!” Barbara shouted. She high fived Teddy, who looked both thrilled and relieved.
“We’re not publishing it. We’re putting it in the drawer.”
Barbara and Teddy froze. “What?” Teddy asked.
“I said we’re putting it away.” Jonson said, turning to the two. “And I’m taking you off the story. No more Nowak.”
Barbara’s face cracked from astonishment straight into rage. “Are you kidding me?” she demanded. “That story’s solid!”
“It is the position of the Crown City Chronicle that there’s no story here. I don’t care how solid you think it was. We’re not running it.”
“We’ve been working on this for months!” Teddy snapped. “And… and you’re just shelving it?”
“What the Hell do you want us to do? Cover dog shows or Scout troop meetings? That story is news, Boss!”
“Not at the Chronicle, it isn’t.” Jonson kept her hands steepled, looking at them and not raising her voice. “We’re not printing it. And I’m taking you off this story. Do you have trouble understanding that?”
“You’re damn right I have trouble understanding it!” Barbara shouted. “We’ve got it, Bernie! Have you forgotten what news looks like? Do you seriously want us to stop now?”
“I seriously want you to remember who you’re talking to,” Jonson said, frowning. “Why don’t the two of you go wait for me in the conference room. Try to calm down while you’re doing it. When I get there, we’re going to have a little talk about things. Do you get me?”
“Boss, we’ve spent months—“ Teddy snapped.
“Do you get me?”
Barbara fumed, looking away.
Teddy shook his head. “Yeah,” he said. “We get you. C’mon, Barb. Apparently we can’t recognize news.” He sounded bitter.
“Yeah. We can’t.” She snorted, storming out of the office. Teddy followed.
Three of the reporters at the desks nearest to Jonson’s office began clapping sarcastically as the pair stepped out. “Page one coming through,” Skip said. He was at best a cynic, and hadn’t ever loved Babcock and Porter, Incorporated.
“I’m sure da Boss was impressed with all the noise you two made,” Carla said.
“Yeah — go figure,” Barbara snapped. “We’re crazy enough to care about our story. Must look pretty insane to you, Carla.”
Carla snorted. “Someday you two will lose your baby teeth and figure out how this all works.”
“Oh sure. Sure we will. And we can be just like you, right? Come on, Theodore. Let’s go to our room and think about what we’ve done.”
“I’m thinking something, all right,” Teddy said, as they walked into the conference room and shut the door.
“Damn it!” Barbara snapped, slamming her fist down on the conference table.
“I don’t get it. She wasn’t against this story, right? I mean, she was all for us doing this, right?”
“Oh yeah. All for it. What the Hell happened, Teddy?”
“I don’t know. I just — I don’t know. I guess we’ll find out when Bernie gets here.”
“Yeah,” Barbara seethed. “I guess we will.”
Las Bendiciones, CA
23-June, 1:43 pm PDT
Las Bendiciones Imperial Pizzeria
Mason Temple was pretty hungry and pretty annoyed. The gang back at the workshop had figured waiting until after 1:30 meant the lunch rush would have passed and he’d be able to just grab the food. No such luck — the line was out the door. Mason had wanted to get it delivered, but he’d been shouted down by the rest of the team. “It’s faster to pick it up!” they said. “You’ll see!”
Yeah, Mason was seeing, all right. He rubbed his temples. His hair was short and a bit spiky, and he was wearing a salmon colored button down and jeans. He was the only one who showed up every day in a button down shirt. Somehow at least three of the other engineers managed to turn that into a reason to mock Asians. Because apparently Asians all… wore button down shirts? Mason didn’t get it. But then they also thought he was Japanese because again, Asian. And one guy thought his name was anglicized because Asians weren’t named ‘Temple’ and obviously when Mason emigrated he’d thought a Masonic Temple was something you named yourself after.
Mason was from Viejo Bosque, five and a half hours up the coast in California. His parents were both born in America. As for his being named ‘Mason’ with the last name ‘Temple?’ His parents spent a lot of time stoned and thought it was hilarious at the time. God, he was tired of explaining himself. He was tired of being right when he said delivery was a better idea than pickup, or when he said they could cut out a third of the circuits and increase efficiency while reducing power only to be ignored, or when jerks couldn’t tell the difference between Japan and Korea and didn’t understand that racist ‘compliments’ were still racist.
“Hey — are you okay?”
Mason blinked. He’d been staring down at the sidewalk, waiting for the line to move. The guy ahead of him was a big guy. Blond and brown eyed, wearing wireframe glasses, a brown windbreaker over a button down shirt, and slacks, despite the Bendicio heat. And… he was carrying a pizza delivery heat-bag. Not one from L.B. Imperial. A generic one.
“Yeah,” he said. “Sorry — long day. Why… are you carrying a pizza bag?”
The guy smiled ruefully. “My roommate’s crazy.”
Mason laughed. “Yeah. I hear—“
There was a sharp tone, like a cordless phone ringing. Well, in a sense it was. Mason slid his portable out of the belt holster he kept it in. It was as long as a standard phone handset, but smooth and thin, beveled like an eyeglasses case. He pushed a hidden stud and two panels slid inward, exposing the transmitter and receiver. Unlike most portables, it had no separate antenna. He held it to his ear. “Hello?”
“Hey, Mason!” Joe, from the office.
“Hey, Joe. I’d apologize for being late, but I’m stuck in the line you said wouldn’t—“
“Yeah, whatever. Hey, you got a phone call. It sounded important. Someone named Annie or Annabelle or something? She said she was calling from Central America and that it was important.”
Mason blinked. “Amana Juma?”
“I guess? She said it was important and she only had a couple hours she’d be near the phone.”
“I… right.” Amana was a college friend from back in the day. She’d gone into Archeology. They’d been buddies early on but their programs had pulled them apart over time. She was down on the Yucatan Peninsula last Mason knew. What could she possibly need from Mason that was that important.
“Anyway — message sent! Get back soon — we’re hungry over here you know!”
“Wait—!” Mason heard the connection disconnect, which automatically turned the portable off. He took another deep breath. If it was that important he needed to call her right back, but if it was personal he didn’t want to do it in the middle of the line for pizza pickup!
“Was that a portable phone?” the blond guy asked. “I’ve seen them before but never anything that sleek.”
“Oh — yeah,” Mason said. “It’s a prototype. I made it.”
“You made that? Wow.”
Mason shrugged. He didn’t really want to talk — if Amana needed help and was waiting by—
“So… where do you work? I’ll grab your pizza and bring it there.”
Mason blinked. “What?”
The blond guy looked earnest. “Seriously. You look like you need to get back right away. This’ll probably take twenty minutes. You go and I’ll bring your pizza to your office.”
Mason opened his mouth, then closed it. “Arclight Tech. It’s on 77th.”
“Okay. Is the pizza already paid for? I don’t have a lot of cash on me—“
“We… gave a credit card. Are you sure?”
The blond smiled. “Absolutely.”
“It’s not out of your way?”
“Everything about this trip’s out of my way. Besides.” He held up the heat-bag. “I seem to be equipped for it.”
Mason laughed. “Okay.” He paused. “I’m Mason. Mason Temple.”
“Chad Keillor.” They shook hands. “And Arclight Tech on 77th. I’ll get it there fast as I can.”
Mason grinned. He didn’t know why he trusted this guy — but then what kind of scam could this be? The worst case scenario would be he stole their pizza or blew them off. “Thanks,” he said. “You’re a lifesaver.”
Chad laughed. “I try,” he said. “I’ll see you there.”
Monument City, MD
23-June, 5:01 pm EDT
Northeastern Air Shuttle Flight #541
on approach to Monument International Airport
Astrid Bixby dreamed of rainbows in the sky, leading to gleaming gates of shining metal, of winged women and brave warriors, of ancient languages and oh so modern problems—
“Ladies and Gentlemen if I can have your attention please—“
Astrid jerked awake. She was pale and freckled, with red curly hair that was a bit messy at the best of times, and was so thin and small she practically looked twelve — which had been annoying even before she’d passed the Bar.
“—making our final approach to Monument International Airport in Monument City,” the Air Hostess — so they were currently called, apparently — was saying. “At this time we ask everyone to please return to your seats, return your seatbacks and tray tables to their upright and locked positions, and make certain your seatbelt is securely but comfortably fastened as we prepare for landing. Our Air Hosts and Hostesses will be coming through to collect any remaining trash.”
Astrid shook her head, trying to clear the cobwebs. She hadn’t meant to sleep the whole way to Monument City — she’d meant to have a coffee or two to get sharp. She was being met by a Foundation representative, which meant this was going to be a coworker’s first impression. Instead, she was half-asleep and rumpled. Great.
“Excuse me, miss. We need you to put your seat back up.”
Astrid blinked, looking at the Air Host. He smiled, but it was the tired smile of a guy sick of passengers not doing what they were told.
“Sorry,” Astrid murmured, putting her seat up. She handed her empty pretzel bag to the Air Host, who tossed it in his trash bag.
Yeah, today was going to be stellar.
Crown City, IL
23-June, 4:19 pm CDT
1291 Fisher Street
“Seriously,” Chad was saying. “This was… it was maybe a fifth as wide as your cordless handset. It was amazing. I don’t know how he can keep the thing charged.”
“Says the man from another universe with the cave full of alien technology and the friends in space,” Cindy said, taking a bite of the jalapeño-laden pie. “Oh God this is good.”
“Right. Other universes. Space. Not from here. That’s my point, Cindy. Mason’s phone wasn’t alien — I looked. It was just… better than anything anyone else has made. Someday we’re all going to have one.”
“God, I hope not. I know guys with car phones now. It’s horrible. They can’t get away from their office. Just like he couldn’t.” She paused. “Explain to me again how you ended up delivering pizza to them?”
“The guy got an important phone call. It was time sensitive. Clearly from someone important to him. It was easy enough to grab their pizzas at the same time I grabbed ours.” Chad shrugged. “I was just being neighborly.”
“They’re not your neighbors, Chad. They don’t live in our time zone.”
“Everyone’s our neighbor, Cindy. It doesn’t matter where.”
“God, you’re the strongest man on the planet, with a brain that works, like, eight hundred times better than mine, and you’re the biggest mark any con man ever found. How is that possible?”
“You don’t have to be gullible to be friendly, Cindy.”
“See — this is why we broke up.”
Chad arched an eyebrow. “As I recall, we broke up for very different reasons.”
“Don’t interrupt.” She took another bite. “Seriously, Chad. This is awesome. Thank you.”
“No problem.” He paused. “But tell me again why it’s okay for me to fly to Las Bendiciones at nine times the speed of sound to get you pizza, but not okay for me to fly to Northside to catch someone falling off a bridge.”
“Because when you’re flying around the city you’re creating patterns of unusual behavior,” Cindy said. “And sooner or later people notice patterns. And as they notice patterns, they report patterns, and eventually the government shows up and you end up at Area 54 being dissected.”
“You’re confusing Area 51 and Studio 54.”
“And you’re ignoring the dissection part.”
“My skin’s impenetrable, remember?”
“I’ve seen you bleed before.“
“That’s different. Delta radiance is a byproduct of dimensional or altiversal travel. It’s not something terrestrial technology can produce. Besides, no one’s going to try to dissect me in the first place. I’m just helping people.”
“Of course they are. You’ve seen what happens when the wrong person learns about you, Chad. And that was just one person.” She paused. “And can this new friend of yours build a delta radiance projector?”
“What? Mason? Of course not.”
“He can build a portable phone that’s smaller and thinner than most television remotes, but he can’t build an anti-Chad death ray? Why?”
“There’s a bit of a leap from miniaturizing transmitters and building cross-dimensional interphase projectors, Cindy.”
“Chad. If you can describe the thing in English that means someone can build it. That’s science.”
Chad shook his head. “What stuns me is you’re doing Doctoral work in a scientific field.”
“That’s right. I’m a scientist. So believe me!”
“You’re a bug scientist.”
“The insects tell me you’re being an idiot, Chad. And for what? Being a good neighbor?”
“No, Cindy. That’s the end of it.” Chad was sitting up now, his pizza slice forgotten. “I have been blessed with abilities. With or without those abilities, I have a responsibility to be a good neighbor to every one of my neighbors — and that means everyone on this planet. If that means bringing a guy’s pizza to his office so he can make an important phone call, that’s what it means. If it means exposing my abilities and potentially risking myself, that’s what it means. That’s non-negotiable. If that means we can’t live in the same apartment any more, I’m sorry. I really am. I love you and always will — you’re my best friend. You’re my sister as much as Kathy is. You’re the first person I ever loved outside my immediate family. But I will not let people suffer because helping them bothers you.”
Cindy frowned, looking at Chad. “God. It’s annoying arguing with you. Yell at me, for God’s sake.”
“I don’t have to yell at you. I’m right.”
“That’s a matter of opinion.”
“Yes it is. But it’s my opinion. And it’s my choice.”
“Why? Why is it your responsibility? And if you quote old comics I swear to God I’ll find a way to smack you and make you feel it!”
“It’s everyone’s responsibility, Cindy. But not everyone has the abilities I do. And if you need more than that—“
“I do need more than that!”
“Once, my biological mother had to ask for help from her neighbors. Those neighbors were suffering like they’d never suffered before. It was the worst day of their lives,” Chad said softly. “And they didn’t hesitate. They took me in and they raised me. They’re my parents. I can’t ever repay them — and they’d never ask. All I can do — and must do — is pay it forward. If you have an argument that trumps that… well, I’ll be pretty surprised.”
Cindy stared at Chad. “You’re the last survivor of an entirely different human race,” she said, just as softly. “If you die, there’s no survivors at all. Everything your birth mother did will be for nothing.”
“That’s not true,” Chad said. “If I help just one person — just one person — then everything my mother did was worth it.”
“You met that quota in high school.”
“Then your argument’s moot.”
“Chad — God damn it! Don’t you understand how scary—“
Chad suddenly, sat up, looking off to the side. His eyes began to sparkle — literally sparkling, from the inside, reflecting off the moisture of his eyes.
“Chad, are you lis—“
There was a sudden rush of wind, even as Chad’s glasses fell onto the couch he’d been sitting on. There was a bang from Chad’s bedroom — he’d had to open the door, apparently — and maybe a momentary flash of blue in the room, but otherwise Cindy was alone in the apartment.
“Chad? Chad?! I know you can hear me!” Cindy shouted, looking up at the ceiling.
There was no answer.
Cindy shook her head. The dumb idiot was going to get himself found out and that was going to get him killed. Cindy knew it would happen. If she were smart she’d get out of his life now so she wouldn’t have to watch it happen.
Of course… that would also mean losing the friendship of the best person Cindy had ever known — not to mention walking away from a man who’d saved her life a half-dozen times — because he wanted to help people who needed it. Cindy was more selfish than Chad — everyone was more selfish than Chad — but there was a special place in Hell for people who walked out on their loved ones for reasons like that.
Besides… Chad was right about one thing. She was all for his using his powers when it benefited her directly. But then, she’d never ask him to do anything that risked exposing him to the world. She didn’t mind his using his powers. She worried about him getting caught.
Cindy took a deep breath, then turned and scooped up another slice of pizza. “Congratulations on your job interview, Chad,” she muttered, and started eating. No sense in waiting for Chad — who knew how long he’d be, and she had to start getting ready for work soon.
Crown City, Illinois
23-June, 4:23 pm CDT
The Facility, Level Six
Dale was staring at the floor, his heart thudding in his chest. It seemed insane, but if this was because of a mistake he made, there was only one possible mistake he could think of—
The other prisoner was watching Dale. He looked amused. “You look like you just accidentally swallowed a goldfish. This must be a Hell of a story.”
“I… I don’t know. I could be… I mean, it… I didn’t mean to do…”
“Hey — hey hey hey. Don’t panic.” The man leaned forward. “Take a deep breath. Whatever this is, the first step is to get your head around it. Talk it through.”
“Okay… yeah… okay. I… I’d only been on the job about three weeks, and Chance had been riding me over efficiency.”
“Big shock. So what happened.”
“Well… see, here’s the thing. All the remotes are a half hour away both ways, and space is full of surprises and so’s mining and everything like that, right? And that’s not even counting things like gravity fields or stuff. Which means things break.”
“Sure. They’d have to.”
“But there are rules. If we lose contact with a remote we’re supposed to get a visual on it. If we can’t get contact back then we need to either destroy it or send its info over to a disposal team.”
“Why? Why would they care?”
“Because someone might notice a random piece of hardware if it’s putting out the right kind of energy signature. Someone might figure out somebody’s doing something in the asteroid belt. And the gravity field tech can cause major trouble. I mean, we only mine asteroids up to a certain size because we know that above a certain size people are likely to notice things are missing. By the same token, if suddenly a bunch of asteroids change course then astronomers are going to want to find out why, so if a pulser goes critical it can be a major security breach. So if we lose control of a listener or a miner or a cargo drone it’s bad, but if we lose control of a pulser we have to be absolutely certain it’s been taken out.”
The man shrugged. “So?” He coughed again.
“So it was… God, my third week. And like I said, Chance had been riding me, and I sent off my instructions to do a sounding on a hundred and fifty meter rock. And I got back the acknowledgements of two listeners and a pulser, and sent off the instruction to start the pulsing. All by the book.”
“When I got those results back, the pulser was gone. The listeners showed it — it had done the gravity sounding, but there was a major pocket of something — ice or methane or something — right below the surface where the pulser had set, and the gravity waves had caused a major degassing incident which must have blown the pulser off the asteroid and knocked out some of its electronics.”
The man frowned. “So you got a visual and reported it?”
“No. I tried to get a visual — with everything in the area — but I couldn’t find it anywhere. And I was way behind schedule and—“
“And… what?” The man’s eyes were narrowing.
“And I was freaking out — but we had no signals and the drones didn’t see anything. It had to have blown apart, right? Gone critical and shattered or gotten slammed into some chunk of rock and died or whatever. So I… just reported it destroyed and moved on. I mean, it was clearly destroyed!”
“But you didn’t know that it was destroyed,” the man asked.
“No — but… but it had to be, right?”
“Yeah — of course. I mean… what good would reporting it lost do except get you in trouble? I mean, sure, they could probably use some kind of sensors to do a more detailed sweep if they knew to do it, but… come on. Why would it even be necessary?”
“Right, rig… right.” Dale was shaking a bit.
“I mean… what could have happened? One remote be noticed? If it were it’d make the news. Obviously it didn’t make the news so that didn’t happen.”
“Of course… if it were still active but out of control, it might accelerate really fast. I mean, that’s the thing about these things. From your description, I mean.” The man’s gaze was more intense now, staring at Dale. “They create a field that simulates a pseudomass. If that pseudomass is strong enough, it could accelerate quickly. And from your description, the remote would be primed to envelope whatever mass it was attached to — it was just blown off by degassing, so if it did hit something, it might not just get crushed. It might actually trigger a pseudomass-acceleration on whatever it hit.”
“…what… what are you talking about?”
“Man, can you imagine? What if it hit something big. Well, not big like planet big, but… say, fifteen or sixteen kilometers in diameter. If it were going fast enough, it’d embed right into the thing like a bullet hitting dirt, but before it was crushed its actuators might trigger. And wow… can you imagine if the thing suddenly triggered a pseudomass acceleration on the whole fifteen klick asteroid? Say — a really massive one in a completely different direction from the asteroid’s existing vector. Towards the sun, say?”
Dale had gone completely pale. “I… I thought you didn’t know about this stuff,” he said.
“A giant rock like that would probably be noticed. Or could be noticed, depending. I mean, that’s the kind of thing that astronomers live to find — a chunk of rock behaving badly. Of course, if it was pointed towards the sun it’d probably take care of itself. It’d burn up, right?”
“Though… if its vector were juuuust right… it would head towards the sun but not straight at the sun. And of course the sun’s gravity would increasingly affect it long after the pulser had died… so if it were just right — on just the right course and just the right vector… it might miss the sun and be just far enough out so it didn’t vaporize in the sun’s heat… but the Sun’s gravity would have been pulling and pulling all that time, so it’d be getting faster and faster… And that would be hard to miss, don’t you think?”
Dale didn’t say anything. He just stared at the bearded man.
The man pushed himself to his feet. “Still. Even that wouldn’t be too bad, Dale. There’s lots of potential explanations for something like that. The only way it’d be really bad is if… well, say that slingshot accelerated the asteroid onto a collision course with something really significant. Like Jupiter, say. Or Venus. Or the Moon.” He paused for a long moment. “Or the Earth.”
“Oh my God,” Dale whispered.
“If that fifteen point seven kilometers-in-diameter rock were suddenly rocketing towards the Earth at unimaginable speed… well, that would be a disaster, wouldn’t it? Literally. If the rock hit Earth at its full size and speed, it would almost certainly create an extinction level event that would devastate the Earth’s biosphere and end the human race in pain and fire. Of course, if you reported the missing remote, then there’d be plenty of time to take care of the asteroid before it became a problem. The only real issue would be if the first anyone at the Facility learned about this was after the asteroid had cleared the Sun.” The man’s eyes were heated now, a rage burning behind them.
“Who are you?” Dale whispered.
“Who am I? Oh, well. I told you. I’m in Human Resources. All the way at the top of it, really. In fact, I guess you could say I hire and fire everyone.” He knocked on the door.
It slid open. A statuesque red haired woman was standing in the doorway. She was wearing a blood red jumpsuit with at least three sidearms that Dale could see. Dale knew her all too well.
“Is everything all right, sir?” she asked Dale’s cellmate.
“Absolutely, Miss Chance. Everything is fine. I’ve had a little chat with Dale here. I think we have a complete understanding of how do9541 Akane just happened to get yanked out of a stable orbit and thrown onto an intercept course with Earth.” The man sounded cheerful, but one look at his face put the lie to that. “So. Rather than finding a way to stop Akane from killing us all and becoming planetary heroes in the process… we have to find a way to stop Akane from killing us all because if we fail it’s our bloody fault.”
“You mean his fault, right?” Cordelia Chance’s eyes were flinty as she started at Dale.
“No no. If you hand a shotgun to a bonobo, it’s hardly the bonobo’s fault when someone’s head gets blown off.”
“What do we do with him, then?”
“Why… nothing. Leave him here. Make sure he gets fed. But otherwise? Let him think about what he’s done. If we happen to survive our upcoming rendezvous with Akane, we’ll let him out and figure out what happens to him next. If we don’t? Well, what does it matter? Die down here or die up there? It’s all still dead, right?” The man walked through the door, Chance stepping out of the way to let him past. “Good talk, Dale. Nice to meet you.”
“Who are you?” Dale asked again. He looked terrified.
The man looked back. “My name is Leonardo Lucas. I am the architect of everything you see. I am the inventor of every technology on those satellites and ever so much more. And to my eternal regret, I’m the man who let you take a pretty good shot at assassinating the Earth.”
The door slid shut, leaving Dale alone and trembling in the dark.
“Did you actually learn anything new, Mister Lucas?” Chance asked. Her demeanor was slightly deferential, which didn’t come naturally to her.
“I mostly confirmed what we’d suspected,” Lucas answered. “Given the timing and the last known observations of Akane, it pretty much had to have been a remote from Dale’s group, and that was the only pulser reported destroyed in that group in that timeframe. Mostly I wanted to see what he had to say for himself.”
“And nothing. He worked out the screwup. I now definitely know it wasn’t intentional or malicious, which in some ways makes it worse.” The pair stepped into a waiting lift. Lucas pushed the button for the second level.
“So what’s the worst case scenario?” Chance looked at her boss.
Lucas considered for a moment. “If our observations are correct, barring any intervening or unseen factors… Akane will hit the Earth going almost a hundred and fifty thousand miles per hour. Call it sixty-seven kilometers per second – an asteroid strike moving as fast as a comet. Our models show it hitting at a seventy nine degree angle. At its density…” The doors opened and he stepped out of the lift. Chance followed, of course. “Put it this way, Miss Chance. If Akane hits Crown City at that angle and speed, less than ten seconds later Empire City and the rest of New York State and New England will be consumed by a fireball and cooked by hours of thermal radiation. Twenty minutes after impact, the most powerful earthquake ever felt on Earth will hit London, England. If anything happens to survive that earthquake, the air blast from the strike will hit London less than six hours after impact and will still be powerful enough to obliterate whatever was left.” He paused in front of the conference room, looking at Chance. “Akane’s roughly the same size and density as the Chicxulub impactor that destroyed the dinosaurs, but Akane’s going almost three times faster — massively increasing its energy on impact. Even if it hit the ocean at the farthest point from land — at that size and speed? No one survives this, Miss Chance. No one.”
Chance nodded. “Understood, sir. So what do we do about it?”
Lucas opened the door. Several of his staff were already inside. “What do we do? We stop it, of course. I am Leonardo Lucas, Miss Chance. I am unparalleled anywhere on this planet. I don’t accept fate. I dictate it. And I will not be the cause of the end of the human race.” He turned to his staff. “Gentlemen and ladies — how easily can we intercept Akane?”
“Not very, Leo,” Corben said. She was looking at a fanfold printout. “Most gravitstatic equipped gear is at Da Vinci 3 or out in the Belt.”
“So what?” Kandagawa asked, sitting on the other side of the table. “Those are constant boost drives and we can push 9 or 10 G acceleration. Of course we can intercept.” He looked smug. “Did you forget?”
“No, I’m just smarter than you,” Corben snapped. “Sure, we can get a few pulsers going fast enough, but so what? We can’t accelerate them to intercept and still slow them down enough so they can land on Akane. If we try to decelerate too fast, the inertia will crush them!”
“Clearly we need a skyguard to prevent this issue next time,” Lucas said, dryly. “Until then, let’s go with what we have. Can we fabricate and launch from the planetary surface?”
“Not fast enough,” Jenkins said at the end. “We’ve gotten good at building gravistatic emitters, but they need microgravity for proper alignment. Down here at the bottom of the well—“
“I thought we were putting a few fabrication satellites in orbit over the Earth,” Chance said.
“We are, but the project’s been delayed again,” Lucas said, rolling his eyes. “Making ‘communications’ satellites that are actually small industrial plants and getting them past inspection teams is relatively hard. Stealth launches make the global intelligence community go ballistic — no pun intended — and might make a few trigger happy generals start lobbing nuclear weapons. There are reasons we’re building as much as we can out on Da Vinci 3. Very well. Our best hope is landing a gravistatic pulser onto the surface and decelerating or redirecting Akane’s path, complicated by the extreme difficulty in doing so without destroying the pulser.”
“We’ll need more than one,” Corben said. “This is over the pulsers’ operating tolerance. And there’s still the issue of getting them there.”
“Can’t we just… I dunno, nuke it?” Li asked. She was relatively new.
“No good,” Kandagawa said. “It’s almost sixteen thousand meters across. Any kind of explosive will just break it apart, and it’s not likely we could blow the chunks far enough away. A dozen half-kilometer or 1-K asteroid strikes will kill us just as dead.”
“A single pulser got Akane moving in the first place,” Jenkins said. “Why can’t we—“
“It got Akane moving, but nowhere near as fast as Akane’s moving now,” Lucas snapped. “Remember, it slingshot around the Sun after picking up a shockingly high rate of speed while falling towards it.”
“Slingshotted,” Corben said.
Lucas paused. “What?”
“Akane slingshotted around the sun. You said ‘slingshot.’ That’s the noun form. And it wasn’t a slingshot — I mean, it wasn’t a gravity assist because Akane and Earth are both in the Sun’s…”
Lucas stared at Corben.
“You… don’t actually care about the grammar, do you?”
Lucas kept staring.
“Okay, so…” Corben, a bit flustered, looked at her fanfold of paper again. “Maybe we can… intentionally produce several gravistatic implosive effects? A single one might not stop Akane but if we can hit the thing with five or six pulsers in series….”
“And if that fails?” Chance sounded cold. “What’s Plan B?”
Lucas snorted. “Plan B? Is too terrible to consider. I’m honestly not certain the extinction of the human race wouldn’t be preferable. So let’s make Plan A work, if you don’t mind.”
Corben and Kandagawa looked at each other. “Right, Leo,” Corben said.
“Good. Someone get me a cup of tea.” Lucas sat down, looking at his filthy sleeve. “And maybe a change of clothing. Playtime is over, after all.”
Crown City, IL
23-June, 4:29 pm CDT
While Chad and Cindy were arguing and Leonardo Lucas was questioning Dale, life in Crown City was going on as normal. It wasn’t quite rush hour but it was close, which meant the arterials were filling up fast. At the same time, everyone wanted to get as far as they could before work let out and traffic slowed to a crawl.
On Interstate-94 Westbound the flow of traffic was getting heavy but speed hadn’t gone down yet. Up North, around exits 41 through 44, I-94 was three lanes each way with a concrete divider in place of a median and hints of woods on either side of the road.
Just north of exit 42 there was thick brush past the Eastbound side of the Interstate. On the Westbound side there was undergrowth leading to trees. A raccoon lurked in the brush on the Eastbound side, before running out across the lanes, weaving and jumping onto the median. Eastbound was gridlicked, but the cars were shooting past on the Westbound side. Still, the raccoon kept going.
The driver of a blue subcompact slammed on her brakes. Behind her a red pickup began skidding to a stop, and behind that two… three… four other vehicles hit their brakes and swerved. And honestly, it seemed like everyone would make it…
But behind them all, a tractor-trailer was doing 70, trying to get out of Crown City’s metropolitan area before traffic slowed to a crawl. The driver was good at what he did but was just tired enough to not see the sudden brake lights until it was too late. He hit his own brakes and tried to swerve into the leftmost lane, but when the big rigs overbalanced all too easily when they were full up, leaving the driver helpless to stop his truck from jack-knifing and starting a roll that would take out all six cars ahead of him. It might even hit the raccoon.
But the sound of six sets of car brakes, the air brakes of a truck, the skids and the rolls — they were distinctive. The shrieks of drivers and passengers were too. And even though he was miles away and there was no way sound could travel that far, that fast… back in Chesterton Heights Chad Keillor heard it all.
The noise triggered an instinctive surge through Chad’s body, accelerating him bothphysically and mentally. From his point of view the world slowed to a crawl. He turned at incredible speed, flipping his glasses off and not waiting for them to land on the couch while he began scanning out with his enhanced perceptions — his eyes sparkling as he zeroed in on the noise—
There! I-94! Six cars and a tractor-trailer! At the speed the truck was going several of the cars would get hit by the trailer as it rolled horizontally across the highway, not to mention the traffic behind the accident-in-progress! How many would get killed right there…?
None, if Chad could help it. He didn’t hesitate. He just moved. Without his glasses Chad’s eyes were very light amber. They looked… well, weird. Potentially alien. That’s why he wore glasses he couldn’t possibly need. They had a subtle tint that concealed the oddity. He almost threw himself through the air into his room, discarding his clothing much faster than even a high speed camera could record. He felt the bioenergies that gave him his power damping down the air currents and displacing the air ahead of him, preventing air compression from suddenly combusting into a fireball or cracking into a sonic boom even as he pulled on the blue bodysuit he’d gotten as a member of InterPlanet. It was designed to withstand rigorous use and if someone happened to see anything it would just look like a blue blur. Chad didn’t even wear blue the rest of the time.
The living room window was still open, so Chad slid through it, his feet not eventouching the floor. Once outside he grabbed altitude fast and shot out over the city. Chad’s bioenergetic field continued shifting through the air, still dampening down any sonic booms before they could happen — essentially absorbing them the same way he was displacing the air to avoid friction and compression explosions. It was a good trick, though he couldn’t do it forever.
The bioenergy that made all that possible was mostly invisible — only a few effects around his eyes were ever directly visible. The energy was generated by every cell of his body — from his neurons through his bone marrow to his skin — and it interconnected like a second nervous system that responded instantly to his thoughts. It was this altiverse’s physical expression of the evolutionary trait which — in his native altiverse — connected his human race into the Synergista. The Synergista couldn’t exist in this altiverse — physics and biology didn’t work the same way in every altiverse — but those genetic traits still existed and still had to express. In this case, that expression gave him a raft of incredible powers from his speed through his strength through near impregnability all the way to being able to ‘hear’ something miles away instantly.
No other person on Earth could do the things Chad could do. No other human being from Chad’s altiverse had survived an attempt to subvert the Synergista into a weapon. His entire interconnected human race had willingly sacrificed itself to save their galaxy — their universe — from conquest and destruction. Chad had been saved because he was the natural heir to the Synergista — the last Prince of that dead civilization — which meant that as his parents died the usurpers couldn’t take control and prevent the sacrifice.
Chad had to be worthy of that. That sacrifice, and that gift. And right now that meant saving these people. Flying over I-94, Chad could see where the cars would collide and the truck’s trailer would strike. It almost looked frozen as Chad moved at this speed.
All right. First things first. The cars would be the easiest. Chad flew down and over, plucking the first car up into the air — his bioenergetic field invisibly moved to cover the car, letting him lift it without crushing it and keeping the people inside from being smashed apart by inertia. He set it down behind the truck on the wide grass at the side of the road. He made sure the wheels had stopped moving before setting it down and stalled the engine out in the process. Then he flew back to get the second, the third, the fourth…
There. All off to the side. Chad could feel pressure building on his biofield and his nervous system. It was hard to move at this speed without slowing down or at least dropping enough of his field to let a sonic boom happen — but this close to people a boom like that would shatter windows and even potentially hit like a bomb. He had to keep that from happening. That meant he was absorbing a ton of energy into his field — energy that wanted back out.
His eyes sparkled again as Chad perceived the interior of the truck’s trailer. Textiles. All right — there wasn’t additional hazard from the cargo at least. Flying to where the truck’s trailer and cab were connected — a section already torquing — Chad focused his bioenergies into a burning lance of golden light that seemed to burn out of his eyes like lasers. The energy seared into the fifth wheel — burning and melting the metal, snapping the kingpin free so that the hitch came loose. Good. He could work with that.
First came the cab, of course. Chad focused and lifted — the field surrounding it making it possible exactly the same way it had for the cars — it was just a bit bigger and a bit more unwieldy. Getting the engine stalled out was easy enough and making sure the wheels wouldn’t be turning was just as simple. He set it down on the grassy side of the road ahead of the cars and flew back up.
Which left just two things to do.
The first was the trailer — there was nothing it was going to hit, but rolling would still cause a huge amount of trouble and if cars coming up behind weren’t paying enough attention there’d be a problem. Chad breathed out even as he flew underneath the trailer. Slowly — slowly he balanced it. It was already in a roll so he couldn’t just pick it up. He had to even it out without rupturing the walls of the truck, all while the stuff inside the trailer was being hurled against the sides. And, of course, the pressure of keeping the sonic boom off and the energy contained was getting pretty intense…
He felt it shift… felt the torquing motion even out… and slowly he was able to lift it up, the frontmost axle across his shoulders. He was still moving much faster than could easily be seen, but from his perspective he was incredibly gentle as he moved it down the road away from the cars and truck cab, setting it down on the grass and getting it in place…
It was sliding a bit, he could tell — the cargo shifting, as there was only so much inertia he could compensate for at these speeds — but not enough to knock it over. It would have to do.
Chad had only one detail left. Flying back, he carefully picked the raccoon up off the road and flew it to the far side, setting it down at the edge of a copse of trees. A quick check showed the raccoon wasn’t hurt, just as it looked like none of the people were more than shaken up.
Done. Chad threw himself straight up, checking all around himself for aircraft. When he was high enough and the air was thin enough and he was certain no planes would be endangered, he released his energy-hold, letting the turbulence of his speed and the discharge from manipulated and absorbed friction and compressed air hit him and burst like fire all around him.
Chad turned, focusing his perceptions on the highway. From the point of view of the drivers, the whole thing had taken less than seven seconds from the time the cars started skidding to the moment the cars were stalled out on the grassy strip next to the road.
Seven seconds to save twelve people and one raccoon, not to mention keeping I-94 open heading into rush hour.
That alone settled the whole argument. Seven seconds spent saving lives far outweighed the risk of discovery. Cindy would just have to learn to live with it.
Crown City, Illinois
23-June, 4:25 pm CDT
Crown City Chronicle
14th floor conference room
Bernadette Jonson was clearly in a bad mood when she finally joined Babcock and Porter in the conference room.
“I’d complain about sitting around wasting our time,” Barbara snapped, getting up out of the chair she’d flumphed in before, “but since we’re not supposed to be doing anything I guess that isn’t possible!”
“Shut up,” Jonson snapped. “Shut up and grow up. We—“
“I’m pretty sick of being called a kid,” Teddy said, arms folded as he leaned against the wall. “I don’t care how wet behind the ears we are — we’re your best reporters and you know it, so—“
“I said shut up,” Jonson shouted. “God! Yes, you’re my best reporters, which makes me sad because you’re both such idiots!” She slammed her hands down on the conference table at the head. “Of course I want you two on that story! Of course we should be publishing that story! So stop being stupid and listen!”
Barbara scowled. “All right. Let’s hear it.”
“I didn’t pull your story. It got pulled above my head. How high above my head I don’t know. I heard it from Gaines, but it clearly wasn’t his idea.”
“But why? This is news, Bernie!”
“Stop calling me Bernie, Babcock. You don’t have the right. You don’t know half of what you think you know about journalism, and less than that about life.” Jonson slid into the chair at the head of the table. “Why? Good question. Why do you think?”
Teddy frowned. “Nowak,” he said.
“Obviously. Go on.”
Barbara frowned. “They’re in it. They’re part of the chain. The corruption. Carlotti. Nowak. The money and the votes — they paid someone off.”
“Or we paid someone off and don’t want it exposed. Maybe the Publisher owes Nowak for something, or maybe the Chief’s being blackmailed. Or maybe some dumbass vice president plays golf with Nowak’s campaign manager. There’s tons of possible reasons, but it all comes down to one thing. We can’t print that story. Not right now. Not with what you have. You need way more before we can break that chain.”
“More? We got it!”
“Yes! You got the story! But you don’t have enough to give me the leverage to force the story into the paper. All that would happen is it’d get intercepted and all three of us would be fired. And good luck to any of us getting another job in the Central time zone, much less Crown City!” Jonson shook her head.
“So why didn’t you just say they killed the story? Why make us think you were making the decision?” Teddy sat down across from Barbara.
“Because you two have crappy poker faces and because I have a room full of reporters who’ve fallen into cynical, compromising ruts! If I foisted responsibility off on the up and ups, I’d lose credibility with them and confirm their worldviews, and right now I need them at least pretending to be investigative reporters. Especially since you two are currently poison. We still have a paper to put out, remember? Besides, at the end of the day I was the one telling you two it was going in a drawer. It doesn’t matter how Old Yeller got rabies. It was my responsibility to shoot him.”
“Wait, did you just call us rabid dogs?” Teddy squinted. “Because I’m not sure—“
“So this isn’t over?” Barbara asked, leaning forward and looking at Jonson.
“Of course this isn’t over. Novak’s still out there. Carlotti’s still out there. And whoever killed this story is still out there, over our heads on the upper floors of the building. At the same time, you two were pulled off the story. You heard me do it, and so did Carla, Skip, and half the cronies out front. Which means whoever wanted this pulled upstairs has heard about it. And so has whoever got to them. That gives us time. So. Here’s a question for the two of you — one I’m not officially asking. Are you two still going to investigate this story?”
“Yes,” Barbara snapped.
“We never stopped,” Teddy echoed.
“Imagine my surprise. Fine. But you still need to justify your paycheck, so you’ll have to do other work too. You get that, right?”
“If we stay here,” Barbara said, a bit sullenly.
“Oh, by all means quit,” Jonson said. “Because quitting the first time an editor pulled you off a story’s a great way to convince some other paper to hire you. Maybe the Chesterton Heights Weekly Shopper’s looking for a couple of investigative reporters. You two can crack through all the corruption at the Chesterton Park Annual Jamboree’s jam making contest. Win a Herrington or two. When I said grow up before? This is what I was talking about.”
“So we need to find another story and also keep working on this story,” Teddy said. “Because there are plenty of hours in the day.”
“And we can’t let anyone here know we’re working on the Nowak story, because we don’t know who’s on the bad side of this.” Barbara said.
“Exactly,” Jonson said. “That’s what we’re talking about. Does this story mean that much to you? Are you willing to get even less sleep while you chase down leads and get pulled in two directions at once, all for a story you might never get to publish and can’t even admit to chasing?”
“Absolutely,” Teddy said.
“Better believe it,” Barbara said. “We don’t give up, Boss.”
“Glad to hear it.” Jonson leaned back. “Are you two ready to call someone at the Crown Herald Trib and slip them your whole story and let them publish it, even if you get no credit for any of it?”
Barbara blinked. “What?”
“You heard me. If it comes down to it, are you ready to give all your sweat and hard work to the rival paper across town, knowing they’ll crow about it for years.”
“You… can’t mean you’d ever do that,” Teddy said.
“Can do it, have done it. Mick Donlan’s won three Herringtons in his career. One of them should have been mine. But that’s okay. One of mine should have been Mick’s, and it wasn’t about the award — it was about the truth.” She leaned back, arms folded. “But that’s me. It might not be you two.”
Barbara looked wide eyed. “I… I mean, sure, of course. The… the important… thing’s the story getting out, right? I…”
“You don’t know. I get it. That’s fine, Babcock. You don’t have to know. Not yet. Maybe that’s too much to bear. But you need to figure it out — because there’s no guarantee that anything you get’ll be enough to put it in the Chronicle. Especially since we’ll have only one shot at publishing anything.”
“So why didn’t you send our story to the Herald Trib now?” Teddy asked.
“Because it’s your story, not mine. Right now that makes it your call. And because right now if it went over there the people who’re trying to kill this story will know it came from you. That’s another reason you need more. If you have to go nuclear, it has to be deniable or you two’ll still lose your jobs. Maybe the Herald Trib will hire you, but maybe not.”
“How do we even investigate this?” Teddy asked. “We’d have to do a ton of leg work, plus a ton of research, all without anyone figuring out we’re doing it.”
Jonson smiled a bit. “Well, I can see the problem. Seems to me you need a unicorn.”
Teddy and Barbara both blinked, a bit stunned. “A… unicorn,” Teddy asked.
“…pretend we have no idea what you’re talking about,” Barbara said. “It shouldn’t be a stretch.”
“Children. Okay. In the middle ages, people used to go hunting unicorns, right?”
“…they did?” Teddy asked.
“They did. Geared up. Got the best nets and bows and arrows and even a couple virgins on retainer, so they could go ride off into the woods and find themselves a magical horn-horse.”
“…good for them,” Barbara said. “I’m still lost.”
Jonson rolled her eyes. “They were poaching. Riding out, killing deer or other game illegally. But feudal lords and foresters and sheriffs and I don’t know what would catch them and they’d get fined or punished. So they had to have a cover story. There was no law against hunting a unicorn, after all. It wasn’t poaching to catch a unicorn. And sure, maybe the up and ups would think they’re crazy, but so what? They got tasty deer meat and they didn’t get hassled.” She pointed from Babcock to Porter. “You two need a story you can chase down but won’t ever actually land. One that’ll take you across the city. One that’ll let you ask questions all over the place. Something to occupy your time but let you actually be poaching Nowak and Carlotti.”
“Like what?” Barbara asked.
“Not for me to say. Literally. I need to have my own deniability in all of this.”
“That won’t give us decent research time,” Teddy said. “Not if we’re chasing unicorns and corruption at the same time. We won’t be able to grab the right set of records from City Hall, say — not without people figuring out the game.”
“True, true.” Jonson half-smiled. “Tell you want. I have a kid coming in here. Just out of college. I’ll give him to you two. Let him do the grunt work.”
“Boss,” Babcock said, “We don’t have time to chase down a story plus a myth and teach some greenhorn college kid how to type.”
“Don’t worry about it. He’s essentially your age. Got his Masters, plus a journalism degree and a lit degree. He’s made out of research. And more to the point? He’s the one person who’ll be working at this paper not already in this conference room who you know isn’t part of the people who shut your story down.”
“Wait. He has a Masters? And a Lit degree?” Teddy cocked his head. “What kind of reporter is he?”
“Oh, he’s not. He’s going for a fact checker’s job. In fact, he wants to make a career out of it.”
There was a long pause.
“What kind of person gets a Masters degree to launch a career as a glorified copy editor?” Barbara asked.
“What kind of Masters degree does he have, anyway?” Teddy asked. “Is he, like, going to be fact checking science?”
“Not quite. He has an MLS.”
“An MLS?” Teddy asked. A… Master of Library Science?”
The silence was brief, but palpable.
“He’s a librarian?” Barbara shrieked.
“No, he’s a fact checker. He’s just trained to be a librarian,” Jonson said with a smile. “He actually has a plan — he’s gonna grab his assignments in the morning, then spend his day at the Crown Public Library or the Hall of Records or what have you doing the grunt work, then drop stuff off at noon and in the evening. Which is perfect for you two — people around here won’t see much of him, no one in the field will associate him with you two and your stories… really, I’m doing you a favor.”
“This… doesn’t feel like a favor,” Teddy said.
“Yeah? Maybe not. But I have a good feeling about him. He’s earnest. And his references say he’s crazy dedicated and crazy honest.”
“Crazy I’ll buy,” Barbara muttered.
“If he doesn’t work out he doesn’t work out,” Jonson said. “In the meantime, he’s what I can offer to you two. You have to suck up the pain of what happened today, get back on the horse, and bring this story down. And right now that means finding a credible unicorn.” Jonson pushed her chair back, standing. “And I need to go fill an article-sized hole on the city page, since Babcock and Porter, Incorporated’s article turned out to be a dud. No, really. Believe that.” She looked at the two of them. “You’ve had a good honeymoon here, guys. For a couple years you two have been golden. But today? You got to feel the real joy of being a reporter — you got to be shot down, entirely unfairly. So get up and prove you’re as good as you two seem to think you are. Or don’t. Either way, I’ve got work to do.”
“Yeah,” Teddy said. “Uh… thanks. And… sorry.”
“Don’t thank me and don’t apologize. Let’s be clear. I screwed the two of you today. Whether or not I had a choice, I screwed you. And now I’m in a conference room telling you you’re right, then walking out front and saying you two were wrong. I’m screwing you again. You were pissed off when I walked in. Good. Be pissed off. Pissed at the people upstairs, and at me for not backing you. Be pissed off enough to bring in the story that they can’t shut up or shut down.” Jonson was clearly frustrated and angry, almost shaking as she spoke. “If you two decide to throw this to the Herald-Tribune I won’t blame you — I brought it up. But I want this to print in the Chronicle. I want us to clean up our own mess. So be angry and be brilliant and when you get this story? Rub my damn nose in it.” Jonson stormed out, not waiting for goodbyes.
Barbara looked at Teddy.
“We got it, Barbara,” Teddy said. “Whatever else happened today, we nailed that story.”
“Yup,” Barbara said. “And got a beating for our troubles.”
“We doing this?”
“Of course we’re doing this. How can we fail? We have a librarian on our side.”
“Absolutely. But first, we have to go hunt unicorns.”
“Yeah. You know any virgins?”
“If I make the only comment I can possibly make, you’d be able to report me for harassment, Barbara.”
“What, and only have the librarian to work with? No thanks. Come on. We need to let them laugh at us and then go get a drink while we figure this out.” Barbara got up and headed for the door. Teddy followed.
Out in the newsroom, a group had collected around the TVs. Teddy frowned at Barbara. She nodded and they walked over.
Out on the edge, one of the other junior reporters — Grace Piontek — was giggling. “Hey guys,” she said, turning. “Did you see this?”
“What’s going on?” Barbara said, craning her neck. The attention seemed to be on a helicopter looking down at a bunch of cars off the side of the Interstate.
“WRME’s got breaking news,” Grace said, still laughing. “See, I guess a bunch of cars swerved to avoid a squirrel or something? Anyway, there was going to be, like, a ten car pileup and then a truck jackknifed and was going to blow them all away—“
“That’s horrible,” Teddy said.
“Wait for it. Suddenly there was a whoosh and maybe a flash of blue or gold or something, and all the cars are parked on the side of the road, along with the truck, and its trailer, which was parked in front of it. Like, the whole thing took five seconds.”
“That’s crazy,” Barbara said.
“It’s not so crazy,” one of the copy editors said. “Mi mama? My Mom? She said she was walking down the street and this kid went running out after his ball, and a cab was gonna plow right into him, but then there was this blast of air and the kid was standing right in front of her. She says three or four of her neighbors say the same thing.”
“I heard about things like that,” one of the other copy editors said. “My cousin’s an ambulance driver. He said they were stuck in bumper to bumper with a crash case in the back and couldn’t get a hole to drive though — and suddenly there was a rush like they were flying and then they were at the hospital.”
“So what did they do?” Teddy asked.
“What do you think? They got the patient inside. They didn’t have time to work out why the miracle happened and also save the guy.”
“Miracles?” Barbara asked.
“Oh yeah,” Grace said. “They’re saying ‘guardian angel.’ Oo — I know. Maybe it’s Captain Prestige right out of the comic books! Or maybe aliens!”
Teddy laughed, looking at Barbara. “Yeah, maybe it’s aliens.”
“I don’t think it’s aliens,” Barbara said, looking at the television. She slowly smiled. “You ask me? It sounds like a unicorn.”
Greystone City, Michigan
23-June, 6:02 pm EDT
The top eight floors of the Montreal Tower were technically one residence — owned by one of the richest families in Greystone. The Montreals had been real estate developers and bastions of the community for generations.
Not that being a bastion of Greystone City was such a prize these days.
There had been a time when multiple forks of the Montreal family had lived in several condominium style apartments carved out of those eight floors. Time and tragedy had reduced those until now most of the Montreal Residence was empty. Truly wealthy families didn’t want to live in Downtown Greystone these days. Midtown and the West Waterside districts were far trendier and considered far safer.
No, these days the Montreal Residence at Montreal Tower was home to a number of servants and caretakers… and just two Montreals: Esmerelda Garcia-Montreal and her daughter Sophia. Cousins and other family members practically begged Esmerelda to move to the historic mansion on Cherry Court Avenue or even outside Greystone. Suitors and opportunists moving in on Sophia usually baited their hooks with promises to get the mid-twenties socialite out of Downtown entirely.
Ten years since the incident, and those idiots still missed the obvious. If Sophia wanted to leave Downtown, she would. If Esmerelda were going to abandon the Montreal Residence, she would have done so already.
Hartford had cleaned up the dinner dishes, leaving Essie and Sophie in the parlor. It was nighttime. This high up in Greystone the city looked beautiful. That kind of thing was deceptive of course. Let the night come and cover the dirt of the city, then move high enough and far enough away from the streets so all you saw were the glittering lights, and it all looked so peaceful. Neither mother nor daughter were fooled.
They had the radio on. It was telling some story of gang violence in Stoneworks East. Just another night in Greystone, which had ‘won’ most dangerous city in America for the third year running. It kind of just passed Essie by. She looked over at the pictures on the nearby end table. The family — Román and Esmerelda Montreal standing in front of their then-young children Robbie and Sophie. A formal picture they’d taken for Christmas cards that year. Manny had died a year and a half back, leaving the vigil to just his wife and daughter. Another picture of Sophie and Robbie at some martial arts tournament. The junior prom picture of Robbie and poor Dawn Atenas-Moore, both smiling so innocently. The last picture like that they ever took.
The phone rang. It was the private line — the one almost no one knew to call.
Essie didn’t move. Sophie stood and walked over to the phone, picking it up. Essie could hear her talking softly, but couldn’t make out what she was saying.
The news had moved on to financial news. Another terrible day for the markets, punctuated by successes for Greystone’s Eastbrook family. Naturally — the deeper the corruption, the more successful a family was. The Montreals never played those games — if their money hadn’t been in real estate too valuable to burn down, they’d have been chased out long ago. As it was, Essie pretended she didn’t know what went on in their high rises and tenements. If that meant the average person trying to survive down on the streets of Greystone lumped her in with the Eastbrooks and everyone else… well, so what. She wasn’t doing anything about it, was she?
Once they’d had hope. Now there was just the vigil. The refusal to leave. Bearing witness to a city’s sins and accepting them.
Sophie came back in. Her raven hair was long, framing her beautiful face. She looked a lot like Essie had at her age, but in much better shape thanks to those continuing martial arts of hers. So much like Essie, but she had Manny’s eyes. Essie loved seeing those. She missed Manny. She missed Robbie. She missed hope.
“Who was it?” Essie asked.
“Rob,” Sophie said. She was frowning.
Essie rolled her eyes. “And where is he now? Katmandu? Johannesburg? Shanghai? Sing-Sing?”
“No. No, he was calling from Heathrow.”
“Heathrow?” Essie pursed her lips. “Arriving or departing?”
“For Greystone City.” Sophie looked at her mother. “He’s coming home.”
Essie froze. “To visit?”
Essie bit her lip, before turning to look at that prom picture again. Robbie so handsome in his tuxedo, just seventeen years old. Dawn looking so beautiful. So fragile.
“So it’s starting,” Essie said, softly. Her heart was beating a little bit faster.
“All right. Start moving the staff out in the morning. Don’t fire anyone. Promote them. Give them better, not worse.”
“I know the plan.” Sophie looked out over the city. “Is it strange that… I hope he doesn’t show up, even though I’m annoyed it took him so long?”
“It would be strange if you didn’t feel that way,” Essie said. “But he had a lot to do, and as long as your father was still alive…”
“I know. Dad wouldn’t approve.”
“No, he wouldn’t. Your father was a good man.”
“I know.” Sophie sounded… bitter? Wistful? Maybe both. “Maybe now we can get something done.”
“Probably not,” Essie said. “But better to try and fail than just keep waiting. I’m going to go talk to Hartford. He won’t want to leave. He’s very loyal. I hope we won’t have to fire him.”
“If he says no, I have a plan B.” Sophie always had a plan B.
Of course, Plan A was currently getting on a transatlantic flight. With luck, that would be enough. But then, Sophie and Essie didn’t believe in luck any more.
The question was… could they still believe in hope?
- I would like to thank Wednesday Burns-White, Mason L. Kramer, Matthew Gerber, David Mansfield, and Will Frank for their gracious assistance.
- I would also like to acknowledge the various asteroid impact resources and calculators available at http://simulator.down2earth.eu/planet.html, https://purdue.edu/impactearth, http://impact.ese.ic.ac.uk/ImpactEffects/ and others. These are your go-to locations for calculating just how much destruction a chunk of rock will do if it hits the planet.