3rd World Products, Inc.|
Copyrightę2002 by Ed Howdershelt
When Selena comes to my house in Spring Hill, she's usually in need of some time away from her own world. I can understand that, because other than visiting to see her, it's the reason I spend most weekends at her house.
Sometimes she announces her intention to visit and sometimes she just shows up on a weekday. That's how I can tell how stressed she is. If she shows up without calling ahead, she's been pushed to within sight of her limits for the moment and needs a break, so she goes where the service is good and the phone won't ring for her. My place.
If she calls ahead, she'll usually be on her way to or from Tampa and wanting to see if I have plans for lunch or dinner. I'll never tell her how many times I've changed other plans in favor of being available for her. Her ego is big enough already.
Wednesday morning she showed up unannounced in shorts and a sweatshirt around eight and rather irritatedly said that her Tampa class for that week had been cancelled and that nobody had thought to tell her or anyone else not to be there.
"So I don't have to be anywhere until one," she added. "And that's old man Leet's class in economics." She shuddered at the thought. "Bor-ing. Where's Steph?"
"Don't know. She's been keeping herself busy lately with some kind of hobby."
"She hasn't told you what she's doing?"
"She doesn't want me talking about it unless it works out."
Tiger came in from the screen porch and hopped up to Selena's lap as Elkor's field-generated faux feline jumped onto the coffee table and sat down. As she ruffled and petted Tiger, Elkor said, "Hello, Selena."
"Hi, Elkor." She looked closely at Elkor's fake fur and said, "That looks so real."
"Thank you. Tiger disagrees, but he accepts the effort."
"Well, how very damned magnanimous of him. Wow, Ed. Hanging out with you and Elkor has turned ol' Tiger into a real lap-cat, hasn't it? I remember when he'd tear your hand off if you tried to touch him."
"After about a week, he'd fully realized that food and safety were no longer survival issues. Elkor says he still has bad dreams, though. He was in the dumpster when his mother and brother were crushed by that crate. The poor little guy was afraid to stay and afraid to leave and he couldn't wake his mother up. He was in the dumpster from just after dawn until just before I found him. When he'd managed to get out, he had to try to hide from a big-assed rat. Then I grabbed the bag he was hiding in. He thought he was gonna be somebody's lunch for sure."
"Jesus," said Selena. "I'm surprised that he's adjusted as well as he has."
Tiger said something and Elkor translated.
"Tiger would like to know why Selena has become so attentive, Ed. I hesitate to make any reference to the day you found him. What should I tell him?"
"Just tell him that Selena is very happy that he's become such a beautiful, friendly person, Elkor. Tell him that she likes holding him very much."
Elkor passed my words to Tiger and Tiger looked up at Selena. She smiled and nodded and said, "That's absolutely right, Tiger," as she gathered him into a hug.
After getting a canned tea from the fridge, spending some time with Tiger and Elkor, and chatting a bit about a couple of teachers who leaned unnecessarily hard on their students, she stretched out on the couch and opened one of her textbooks. Elkor and Tiger went back to the porch and I got up to go to work on some web pages.
"Oh, I almost forgot," she said, taking something from her shirt pocket and handing it to me. "They're grape seeds. The big blue kind and the little red ones."
Selena had given me a small zip-lock baggie full of grape seeds. I like grapes, but I don't know a damned thing about planting the seeds or caring for the plants.
"I like seeds," she said. "They're like little packets of energy, just waiting for the right time and place to explode into a whole new plant."
Hefting the fat little baggie, I asked, "Did you save some for yourself?"
"They'd take too much maintenance for me," she said, turning the page of her Business Administration book, "I'm too damned busy all the time, what with school and work. But you have the time, don't you? I mean, you're retired, so you have time for a little gardening, don't you?"
Truth one: Yeah. I had the time. I even had some interest.
Truth two: Something about her automatic assumption that 'I'd have the time' irritated me a bit.
"Well, gee, ma'am, I just don't know," I said. "Things have been pretty hectic here at the old folks' home lately. Maybe we could just buy grapes like everyone else?"
Selena looked up from her book, then her startled gaze locked on me.
"I didn't mean..." she began, then she shook her head and said, "No, I guess I did. I'm sorry, Ed. I wasn't thinking."
I shrugged and said, "Ah, what the hell. You're right. I either have time or I can make some. That's part of what being retired is about, I guess. I just never really wanted to spend my spare time gardening."
Selena sat up and said, "Then don't. It was just a thoughtless suggestion, anyway. I can give the seeds to someone else."
I set the baggie on the coffee table and looked around the back yard speculatively, then said, "Tell you what... I'll plant them along the fence and see how they do on their own. If we're meant to have grapes from these seeds, they'll grow, and if I see anything later that looks like a vine, I'll even be careful with the lawn mower."
Selena's concerned expression became a grin. She stretched rather gloriously, lay back on the couch, and softly said, "I'll let you feed them to me in bed, mister."
As if I hadn't heard her, I said, "You know, I guess I could maybe spring for some plant food to help get things started. Wouldn't hurt."
Lifting one leg to point her toes at the ceiling and examining the leg in an unnecessarily meticulous manner, she said, "I'd feed you grapes in bed, too."
Gazing rapturously at Sel's leg, I said, "Hey, I might even look up grape-growing on the net and do some weeding and watering now and then."
"You're so easy," she said. "I ought to have you move in with me. I wouldn't have to pay the lawn service."
Fact: We'd discussed the idea of moving in together a few times. There always seemed to be several good reasons not to do that. I went to the couch and ran a finger from her ankle to her knee.
"You'd supply the tools and pay the gas, right? Room and board and fifty bucks a month, too?"
The leg folded instantly and looked just as good to me that way.
"Hell no," Sel said with a giggle, "I'm just a poor student, mister. What you see is all you get."
"Mmm. Well, ma'am, I just can't do that at this time. I guess we're stuck with the grape deal for now. Wanna seal it with a kiss?"
Selena did manage to get in a couple of hours of study time before she left for Gainesville and I stepped into the back yard to decide where to plant grapes. Some moments later, my comm implant tingled slightly just before Elkor said, "Linda would like a word with you, Ed."
"Thanks, Elkor. Patch her into the link, please."
Elkor said, "Go ahead, Linda."
Linda said, "Thanks, Elkor. Ed, you're on standby alert as of now."
Big deal. In our line of work, we were never really not on standby.
"What's up?" I asked.
"We've received information that 'One Earth' may try something during the personnel rotations, so we're putting everybody available on standby."
"Linda, we've rotated factory personnel four times a year for two years. Why this one?"
"We don't know. Maybe they didn't feel capable until now. At any rate, you're one of our most mobile people, so you're going to be one of the floaters."
"One of? That means you've finally assigned the other two flitters to people?"
"We have. Scott and Luann have been drilling with them for two weeks."
"Drilling? You make getting to know a flitter sound like loads of fun, ma'am."
Linda sighed and said, "Bear in mind that those flitters have normal cores, Ed. If you want them to do something, you have to be specific, and there are things that their programming won't let them do, so the pilots have to know their limitations."
"You sound as if you think that Steph and I can work outside those rules, Linda. Getting her a larger core didn't change anything in that realm. We can't."
"Have you tried?"
"Do you even have to ask? Remember when she wouldn't open the station bay doors for fear of harming people who only may have been inside?"
"But you got in, didn't you? You forced her to choose, and she did."
"Read the report again. Talk to her. Anything else?"
"No. Just be ready to go if we need you."
"Later, then." She disconnected the link.
As I used my field implant to winnow a row of little holes in the soil along the fence, I thought about the 'One Earth' group. Unless they'd come a hell of a long way up the ladders of technological and organizational evolution since their formation, they were unable to field anything more dangerous than military surplus weaponry. That meant that they'd have to be up to something fairly devious, because weapons like theirs wouldn't be any kind of match for Amaran technology.
I dropped a seed in each of the holes along the fence and kicked dirt over them, then used the toe of my sneaker to pack the dirt and thought some more. One Earth had been formed from a variety of disparate hate groups who still hated each other, but hated the Amarans more.
Individually, none of them had ever been more than a dangerous annoyance to anyone. Together they were no more or less obnoxious or dangerous than before, only bigger. Given previous capabilities, the only way that One Earth could effectively attack the Carrington base would involve sabotage; someone on the inside or a special delivery of some sort. Linda wouldn't need me or the other flitter drivers to deal with such attacks, so she apparently had some other worry in mind.
"Elkor, I need an update. How well-armed are the One Earthers these days? What's the worst that anyone thinks they can realistically come up with?"
"Two members of Congress believe that the One Earth movement may currently possess a nuclear device," said Elkor. "The One Earth leaders neither confirm nor deny that speculation. Otherwise, they appear to be limited to conventional armaments."
"Which states do those Congressmen represent?"
"Wyoming and Idaho."
"Do they usually ask for money when they mention One Earth?"
"In almost all instances they request federal funds to be used in thwarting One Earth and similar organizations."
"Uh, huh. That lets them out as credible sources unless they have proof. Have they presented any solid evidence that One Earth has a nuke?"
"No, Ed. They continue to merely suggest and speculate extensively."
"Thought so. Elkor, pretend you're One Earth and try to figure out two things: How to do the most damage to the factory operation with the tools and people known to be available to them and how to deliver the means of causing that damage."
"Shall I present you with the several scenarios that appealed most to Linda and her security staff?"
It didn't surprise me that Linda had already involved the most powerful computer on Earth in defensive speculations.
"Yes," I said. "But let's go over the known components first. Weapons, transportation possibilities, skills available among their members, and so on. I'm betting that One Earth is fairly well-equipped and has some seriously-trained people on tap, but if they have any nuke or bioweapon people, that's where I'd look first. I can't envision a conventional attack on the base being successful."
"You and Linda appear to think along similar lines," said Elkor. "That's almost precisely what she suggested. I'll begin with my report to her. Of known personnel, only one is known to have been employed in the nuclear industries. He was fired from a janitorial position seven months ago. Two One Earth members have been employed as laboratory workers in biotechnical fields involving research. Both called in sick two months ago and apparently disappeared."
"Did they quit on or near a payday?"
"No. In fact, they left in the middle of a pay period. Their last paychecks were discovered among other mail when police investigated missing persons reports."
"Who filed the reports and when? And what reasons were given?"
"Both reports were filed by their employers four days after the missing workers called in sick because neither worker could be contacted."
"Elkor, the employers probably wouldn't have filed missing persons reports based on absenteeism alone, and the cops might have sent someone around to see if those guys were alive, but they probably wouldn't have begun a real investigation without more reason. Did somebody prod them a little?"
"Both workers were known to be members of One Earth, Ed. Their actions had been under loose surveillance for several months by federal agencies. Local police were used to avoid revealing the ongoing federal surveillance efforts."
I laughed. "If the guys managed to make themselves disappear, what the hell are the feds 'surveilling'? Empty apartments?"
Elkor said, "It would seem so, although several agencies are making other efforts to find the missing workers."
"Maybe they'll think to look in Idaho and Wyoming," I said. "Oh, well, I'm going to clean up a bit and get those web pages finished today."
When the woman at the party in Tampa -- Lynn Harper -- had suggested using a flitter to search for sunken treasure, Steph had been inspired by the idea of finding things lost in the sea. She spent quite a bit of time scanning the Atlantic seabed while I attended a new-age giftware show Orlando.
The show had been over for three days before Stephie had found her first artifacts; a few silver coins and some frail, rusty iron fittings that divers had missed near a wreck that had already been salvaged. She brought the stuff home and we spread it out on the kitchen floor so I could take pictures of it with my old 35mm Nikon.
Steph asked, "Ed, why are you using that kind of camera to take pictures?"
I had to stop and think. "Habit, I guess. I hauled this camera all over Europe, Steph. When it's time to take pictures, it's the first thing I think of. Does it matter?"
"No, but it seemed odd, since I can produce any pictures you may want."
I shrugged and clicked the last two frames of the roll, then asked, "Got any idea why it took so long to find this stuff, ma'am?"
Steph's Ingrid Bergman-like hologram appeared on the other side of the little pile from me and said, "It just did, Ed. These items were in the 127th grid. The ocean certainly seems a lot bigger when I'm searching the bottom of it. I appear to have been expecting quicker results."
Admiring the lines of her latest emerald green jacket and skirt "ensemble", I said, "Wow. Nice outfit, miLady. That's how it is when you're searching for things, Steph. The stuff will probably never be exactly where you think it should be, and the longer you search, the bigger the job will seem. Are you going to continue searching?"
"I don't know yet. I'd like to, I think, if only to have something of interest to report to my other self aboard the factory, and it isn't as if I have an otherwise full daily schedule Earthside. Do you think it's worthwhile?"
"It is if it interests you. Are a few coins enough to make you keep looking for more? You might find other things of interest, too. A lot of ships and boats have gone down around Florida and in the Carribbean. 'An otherwise full schedule,' huh? Are you hinting -- yet again -- that I don't make enough use of you?"
"Well, I suppose that you could construe that portion of my remark in that way if you tried hard enough."
"Uh, huh. Okay, how about I drop everything and we go for a ride, Steph?"
"That shouldn't be too difficult, Ed. You aren't doing anything at the moment."
"That's beside the point, and I have to get your stuff off the kitchen floor, so just give me a minute or two to saddle up, lady. You didn't answer my previous question. Do you really want to continue looking for treasure?"
A human might have paused for thought in some obvious manner for a few moments, if only to appear to be considering the matter. I'd gotten used to Elkor's and Steph's apparently instantaneous decision making, so it didn't surprise me when she instantly responded, "Yes. I'd like to continue."
"Good enough, then. Read up on the subject of sunken ships before you go looking again, though. It may save you some time."
"What makes you think that I haven't already studied the matter?"
"If you had, you wouldn't have spent so much time looking where you did. Ships that draw more than a few feet like deeper water for the most part, and rumor has it that most of the Spanish ships went down in storms, not from running aground."
Steph said, "I hadn't considered the possible reasons for their sinkings. I simply began scanning the seabed. Ed, why didn't it occur to me to wonder why they sank?"
"You would have, sooner or later. Anyone as new to the world as you are might have done the same, Steph."
Her tone was flat as she asked, "Are you comparing me to a child again?"
I shrugged and grabbed a six of beer and another six of Dr Pepper in order to restock Stephie's onboard cooler, then headed for the front door and the flitter in my driveway.
"No offense, Steph. Tell one kid there's money buried in the back yard and he'll grab a shovel and start digging up the whole yard, but tell his older sister and she'll try to figure out why someone would have buried money out there and study the yard so she'll have some idea of where to start digging. Or rather, where to make her little brother start digging."
"I see. You were comparing me to a child."
"Sorry 'bout that, but you asked, didn't you? I tried to give you an answer."
Could a computer pout?
It seemed so to me as Stephie rather stiffly said, "Yes, I suppose I did. I'll be more careful with my future questions, Ed."
Having said that, she disappeared.
"Don't be that way, Steph. You're just newer at some things than others. That's just the way things are. It isn't a big deal and I don't want you to not ask me something for fear that you'll get an answer that reminds you how young you are. Jeez. Youth isn't a crime, you know. Even extreme youth. How many other two-year-olds can do what you do? Only one, that I know of, and that's Elkor. Relax, lady."
She made no answer to my attempt to reason her out of her snit and seemed disinclined to initiate conversation as I restocked her cooler.
"Where do you want to go today, Steph?"
In a ho-hum, disaffected tone, she said, "I don't really care at the moment, so I'll defer that major decision to someone much older and presumably wiser than me."
"Cute. Big city or open country? You know, there's nothing to stop you from going places alone when you're bored."
"I do that sometimes, but it isn't the same. Open country, I guess."
"How about the Blue Ridge mountains? Haven't been there in a while."
I went back in the house for Tiger, who pretended to need an invitation, of course, and then tried to appear to give the idea due thought and consideration.
"Get your stripedy little ass in gear if you want to come with us," I said.
Tiger gave me his 'oh, well, I guess it can't hurt' routine and said something that caused Elkor to field-generate his cat-carrier. As we approached the flitter, he greeted Stephie and she returned the yowling greeting with one of her own.
Minutes later, settled in my seat with a Dr Pepper and watching the sky slide past at 40,000 feet, I glanced at the field-generated cat that was Elkor's poppet and the real cat who was Tiger, both of whom were sitting together like dashboard ornaments as far forward in the cabin as Stephie's design would allow. Steph's lovely image appeared next to me and asked what music I'd like during the trip, which only added to the surreal effect of the moment.
"How about something classical, this trip, Steph? The lady you're named after was fond of Tchaikovsky's violin concertos. Try the one in D, opus 35."
"I can access three versions by three artists. Do you have a preference?"
"Itzhak Perlman or Sara Chang. You pick."
"Okay," said Steph, as the music started. "Try to tell me which one I chose."
"Will do. Gimme a minute."
Three minutes or so into the music, something about the way the artist handled the piece made me say, "That's Chang."
Stephie's surprise was very evident. "How did you know?"
"Sorry, ma'am. My secret. You're too smart for me most of the time, you know. I don't get to surprise you very often."
"I think you simply made a guess, Ed."
"A guess? Did I sound as if I was guessing?"
"Yes, you do think I was guessing. Don't you think us paltry-minded humans can do something as simple as analyzing a bit of music?"
"Well, of course, Ed. I'm sorry that I... "
"Gotcha. Hell, yes, I was guessing, and you fell for it."
"No, I didn't. I just didn't want to hurt your feelings."
"You were about to fall for it, Steph. You were right on the edge. Don't even try to deny it."
Tiger sounded off at us. Stephie spoke to him in cat, then said to me, "Tiger thinks we're about to fight, Ed. I'm reassuring him otherwise."
"He's a cat, so he'll be disappointed, I'll bet. He watched two lizards fight outside the kitchen window for almost an hour the other day."
The canopy seemed to flicker, then did it again a second later.
"I'm telling him... Just a minute, Ed. I'm experiencing a field anomaly."
"The word 'anomaly' covers a lot of ground, Steph. Can you be more specific?"
"How is the anomaly affecting you?"
"My fields are..."
The sentence was left hanging as Steph disappeared, the console went blank, and the flitter began a long fall. The field that ordinarily held me in my seat during odd maneuvers also disappeared, allowing me to free-fall within the cabin as the powerless flitter turned on its side. The patchwork surface of the Earth below began to expand.
I glanced at Tiger. He, too, was free-falling, and had automatically adjusted himself as if to land on his feet. He looked at me with wide eyes, but made no sound. Elkor was also floating above the dashboard, and that seemed odd to me, along with the fact that none of my Dr Pepper was trying to get out of the bottle, even when I wiggled the bottle enough that the liquid should have escaped.
I let go of the bottle, watched it for a moment, then said, "It won't work, Steph."
The fall continued in silence. I pulled myself over the seat backs to reach Tiger and said, "No sweat, kid. She's just messing with me to get even," as I ruffled his chin, but the motion sent him into a slow spin. I stopped him and turned him back to face me.
Tiger seemed less than convinced of the truth of my words as the fall continued, but he made no sound. I gathered him to me and let him brace himself against my chest, turning him so that he was looking at me instead of the uprushing planet below the flitter, but after a few moments, he turned his head to look down.
As Tiger's claws began to dig into my chest a bit, I patted him and said, "It's okay, little guy. Really. Take it easy." Raising my voice a bit, I said, "Check Tiger, Steph. You're scaring him, and the joke's supposed to be on me."
The flitter righted itself and Tiger and I were guided to a standing position on the deck and Stephanie's image reappeared in the cabin as my Dr Pepper bottle found its way to my hand. Tiger didn't jump down right away, as he ordinarily would when aboard Steph. I gently disengaged his claws from my shirt and ruffled his ears and chin as I sat down with him.
"I was monitoring you," said Steph. "Your heart rate barely increased fifteen percent during twenty thousand feet of falling. Why, Ed?"
"Details, Steph. Too many things didn't add up. If you'd lost your field, the canopy would have disappeared, but the air pressure never changed. Elkor's field-cat was floating with us. Gravity has no effect on fields, so there was no reason for Elkor's cat to be falling with us unless he wanted it to. Also, you both use broadcast power. What would affect your field would likewise affect his, but he didn't disappear when you did. Then there was the Dr Pepper that wouldn't flow out of the bottle, even with a little extra effort. There was one other thing, too."
When I didn't immediately say what that one thing was, Stephie asked, "Okay, Ed, what was that one other thing?"
I said, "Tiger. He was in on it. Even when he began to worry, he kept his little furry mouth shut because he has implicit faith in us."
Stephie made no reply beyond some cat-noises. Tiger settled into my lap and regarded her image for a moment, then switched his attention to Elkor, who was sitting on the dashboard again. Then Tiger looked up at me. I ruffled his neck and ears.
Elkor said nothing, regarding Tiger and me in a thoughtful manner. A few minutes later we were skimming above the snow-covered Blue Ridge parkway at a height of perhaps three hundred feet, still in a state of silence.
In a tone containing frost, she asked, "Yes?"
"It would have worked on just about anyone else, except maybe an Amaran."
"It would have worked on Amarans, too. No flitter has ever crashed."
"Never? Not even in the early days?"
"Never," she said flatly.
"No Earth aircraft has that kind of record. That's pretty impressive, Steph."
"Yes," she said, still in that frosty tone. "I suppose it is."
While the view was nice for a while, one snow-covered mountain looks much like any other when they're as worn-down as the Blue Ridge chain. Half an hour later we were back at the house. Steph had responded when spoken to during the trip, but hadn't initiated any conversation. I unlocked and opened the front door to let Elkor transport Tiger into the house, then went back to the driveway to talk to Steph.
"Think back, Steph," I said, sitting down on the edge of her deck. "Remember when we had to intercept Ellen before she reached Gary on the big ship. You left one bay and entered another in something like three tenths of a second."
"The maneuver was easily within my operational capabilities."
"Oh, obviously so, ma'am. Yes, indeed. But at that time, it wasn't within mine. Remember how I reacted to that ride? Isn't that what you wanted earlier?"
"I suppose it was."
"Does it make you feel better at this moment to remember that moment?"
A very small smile had formed on her floating face.
"You can admit it," I said. "Go ahead."
"Yes," she said. "I suppose it does."
I stood up and said, "Well, cherish it, lady, because I'll do my best never again to be that startled by something you do. Can you live with that?"
Her smile grew somewhat larger as she said, "I think I'll manage."
"Good. I'm going inside now. You're lucky that Tiger didn't water your upholstery, you know. He's a tough, smart little guy, but that was a helluva trick, Steph."
She looked sheepish enough as she said, "I won't do that again, Ed."
"You can uncross your fingers, Stephie. Just don't do those things while Tiger's aboard, okay?"
Her slightly smiling, disembodied face nodded. "Okay."
The phone rang as I entered the house. It was Lynn Harper, calling on her cell phone for directions to the house. Hearing her voice brought an image of her to mind; a short, energetic brunette in her forties who seemed never to stop moving or talking. I doubted that she needed directions and suspected that the call was nothing more than verification that I was home before she detoured for a visit.
She'd insisted that I call her back before the end of February so that she'd know whether she'd have to use standard methods of looking for a couple of sunken Spanish ships. When I hadn't called her back by February 21st, she called me and made her pitch again, insisting that she should drop by the house to discuss matters, since she'd be going through Spring Hill on her way back to Tampa, anyway.
She had been very persistent, and I had finally acceded and told her to drop by in the afternoon. I was putting some tools in the garage when a car horn beeped from the street. The short brunette who showed up in a white '99 Lexus had a big smile and an image problem. Her 'just us folks' persona wasn't a side of her that had been evident at the party and it seemed rather forced when compared to her moderately exorbitant wardrobe and jewelry.
"Hello," she said, getting out of the car. "You don't keep your flitter in your garage?"
"There's no room in the garage."
After shaking hands with her, I walked around the car as if admiring it and noted that the license plate was not that of a rental. Lynn tucked her briefcase under her arm rather than carrying it by the handle.
She glad-handed me again on the way to the front door and she was a little too effusive with compliments about my 'lovely, lovely house' and 'my lovely, lovely neighborhood'. When she spotted Tiger in the kitchen window, he was immediately labeled a 'lovely, lovely cat'. Everything was just a little too 'lovely' to suit me.
I took her mannerisms as a sign of nervousness or excitement at the prospect of getting a project underway until Tiger came to meet her. He endured her touch and presence only briefly before he excused himself to the back porch. Tiger normally spent a bit more time in coming to his decisions about people and I couldn't remember a time that he hadn't at least stuck around nearby to observe or annoy a visitor, but he seemed to want nothing to do with Lynn Harper.
Lynn again presented me with her plans to look for treasure in the waters around Florida in only slightly more detail than she had at the party without divulging anything of significance, including the names of the ships. She played a videotape that contained only footage that I'd already seen on the Discover channel and then handed me an expensive-looking prospectus from her self-owned company. When she really began to grate on me, I excused myself to go to the bathroom and called Steph.
"Treasure hunters can delude themselves, Steph. I was hoping that this woman would be able to guide you toward a better chance of finding something, but she doesn't really strike me as being good partner material. Check salvage records for that area she mentioned and check her out, too. Does her story track?"
"Checking now, Ed. Why are you so suspicious of her?"
"To me, she rings like a cracked bell, Steph. She comes on like a hustler. Tiger didn't like her, either, and he's usually ready to soak up any attention he can pry out of anyone. I'll bet that the maps she showed me aren't even of the same part of the ocean that she says she wants to search."
"Would you happen to have any" -- Stephie cleared her artificial throat -- "perhaps more substantial reasons for distrusting her?"
"No. She just reminds me of an overdressed TV evangelist. I think she's all hype."
"Well, she checks out as having been involved in several search efforts, Ed. Until recently she's been engaged in raising funds for other peoples' treasure hunts and marketing the results."
"Only the money ends of things? No actual experience searching for treasure?"
"There's no record of her being involved in the actual search efforts, just the planning stages, fundraisings, and marketing of treasures. Regarding the areas she's mentioned, I can't find any record of anyone searching or finding anything in any of them. That may only mean that logistical difficulties have ruled out those regions."
"Doubtful. On a couple of the charts, the water was only nine to twelve fathoms. I guess it's time for her to meet you in person, Steph. I'm going to turn her down for now, but a ride will impress her enough to keep her on tap in case we happen to need her later for anything. One thing, though. I'll pretend to be issuing orders. You pretend to be just a simple computer around Lynn. If she thinks that you're even close to being sentient, she'll try to con you into something."
When I returned to the living room, I told Lynn that we'd meet Stephanie outside and raised my watch near my face as I said, "Stephanie, come to the house."
Steph's voice came from my watch. "Yes, sir."
With a quizzical glance at my watch, Lynn asked, "Is that how you control your flitter? Voice commands through a wristwatch?"
"Pretty neat, huh?"
I led the way to the front door with no further explanation. Stephie landed in her usual manner, which is to say that she dropped into view and stopped so quickly that it almost appeared as if she'd materialized a foot or so above my driveway.
"Lynn, Stephanie. Stephanie, Lynn. Let's get aboard and go for a ride."
Once we were seated, I raised my watch and said, "Up to ten thousand feet, Stephanie."
Steph announced our arrival at that altitude as if she'd been fresh off the assembly line, saying, "We are now at an altitude of ten thousand feet, sir."
"Forward, Stephanie. Speed one hundred miles per hour."
Lynn said, "That's all you have to do? Tell it how fast, how high, and how long? It looks as if just about anyone could fly one of these."
"Just about anyone could, but not this one."
"Why not this one?"
I handed her my watch. "Try it."
Lynn examined at the watch as if looking for a way to turn it on. I leaned toward her and said, "You don't have to press any buttons or turn it on. Stephanie, stop."
As our forward motion ceased, she said, "Yes, sir."
Lynn stared in big-eyed nervousness around the flitter. Everyone did that, it seemed. They all expected to fall from the sky when the flitter stopped.
Sitting straight again, I said, "Now you try it."
Lynn collected herself enough to raise the watch to her lips and said, "Stephanie, go forward. Uh, like before. One hundred miles per hour."
Stephanie neither answered her nor moved. Lynn glanced at me, then repeated her command less hesitantly with no better results.
I leaned toward the watch again and said, "Stephanie, reverse course and return us to the house, same speed and flight path."
Stephie instantly turned us around and we headed back. Lynn handed me the watch and I put it back on my wrist.
"Why didn't it work for me?"
I said rather flatly, "Because you aren't me. All personal flitters are like that."
That was truthful enough. Fresh off the factory line, they were like that. After the ride Lynn again pitched her proposal, which basically amounted to her supplying research data and me using Stephie to search the seabed.
Lynn said, "Look, I know it sounds as if you'll be doing all the real work, but that's why I only want thirty percent of whatever we may find. I'd want a full fifty percent of any royalties from sale of the video footage and such, and I may write a book later, in which case we'll share those proceeds, as well. Are you ready to go to work?"
"I don't think so," I said. "A lot of people have wasted a lot of time looking for treasure. I'd hate to become one of them and I do have other commitments."
She redoubled her efforts to convince me with intense and circuitous reasoning, which only made her more closely resemble one of those televised religious hucksters. After a few minutes of that, I sighed and stood up.
"I'm afraid that the answer is 'no'. Thanks for stopping by, Ms. Harper."
She kept pitching all the way to the door, but when it finally occurred to her that I truly had no interest in working with her, she turned into a verbal viper, castigating me for having wasted her time. I reminded her that she'd badgered me for the visit, but she was making enough noise on her way to the car that I doubt that she heard me.
As Lynn turned to head toward US-19, Steph asked, "Have you come up with any valid reasons for distrusting her?"
"I just don't like something about her, Steph."
"Could it simply have been a personality clash? I've read about those."
"Sure it could, Steph. In fact, I'd damned near guarantee it in her case. But we don't need her to look for sunken ships."
Steph materialized her holoimage between me and the kitchen sink.
"We? You're going to help me?"
"If you wouldn't mind, yes. I don't know what I'll actually be able to contribute to your effort, but if you'd like a cheerleader..?"
Steph grinned and said, "Sure! But is excluding her really fair? Wasn't looking for those ships her idea?"
"Treasure hunting isn't her idea, Steph. It isn't even a new idea. If you want to search for sunken treasure, you can soak up all known info and go looking for it on your own. That ol' girl just wants you for your body, ma'am. You'd dive, search, retrieve, and do all the scut work while Lynn sat in an office and took thirty percent of the find and a fat commission from selling the results. She's absolutely unnecessary."
"But she mentioned a team of divers using archaeological techniques."
"She doesn't know that you can use your field to pick up a dime on the sidewalk as easily as you could lift a small car, Steph. She thinks you're just a flying submersible pickup truck, and I didn't buy her spiel about archaeologists on the dive team. She said that wreck sites would be reported to appropriate agencies, but only after she's through with them. Her concern is finding treasure and turning it into money. She doesn't give a rat's ass about preserving wreck sites while there's gold in them."
Elkor asked through my implant, "Are you particularly concerned about preserving wreck sites, Ed?"
"Not the Spanish plunder ships. According to documentaries I've seen, the wood of the ships is usually beyond salvage for even archaeological interests, and things like cannons aren't worth enough to justify bringing them up by usual methods. I'd probably grab everything of saleable or historical value, sell some of the stuff and donate the rest to museums, then report the wreck site locations."
After a moment, Elkor said, "Confirmed. At many such wreck sites, no efforts have been made to retrieve cannons and similar large fixtures."
"Steph," I said, "We have a couple of things to do this weekend, so you can start looking for treasure on Monday, if that's all right. In the meantime, you'll need to pick a last name so you can get some ID to open a Swiss bank account."
"Monday's fine with me. May I use your last name, Ed?"
"I don't think that would be a good idea. You're likely to be too successful and drive my taxes through the roof."
"Well, then, how about 'Montgomery', after the actress who played a witch?"
"You like those old shows, don't you? Okay, that one would work. You'll need a private, numbered account, and for that, you'll need some ID, like a passport. Tonight we'll contact the 'Citizens of the World' people in London. They supplied their passports to the Ugandan refugees in the seventies and eighties, and if Andrew Franks is still with them, he owes me a favor for saving his ass in Angola in 1978."
"That isn't the way such things are usually done, Ed. This sounds somewhat devious and evasive."
"Shortcuts usually are. On the other hand, the CW passports are instantly available and were considered valid enough to help a UN delegation get several political refugees out of a Ugandan prison some years ago. London's about four thousand miles from here and five hours different, so we'll make the trip last three hours and I'll catch a nap on the way."
I packed a few things for the trip, including Tiger in his Elkor-carrier, an Army-issue field jacket and liner, my cowboy boots and backpack, and a sleeping bag, and we boarded Steph. We arrived at nine in the morning, London time, and parked in the street outside the CW office. When I stepped off the flitter, the early morning chill of late-February London reached me quickly despite my field jacket and boots.
Ignoring the gawkers on the sidewalk, I left Tiger and Elkor aboard Stephie and went inside, where a cute -- but rather skinny -- secretary invited me to a seat near her desk. When I asked about Andrew, she informed me that Andrew had been retired for a few years and that his daughter was now running the office.
When a sharp-looking blonde who looked vaguely familiar came out of the office a few minutes later, I stood up and said, "Hello, Krista. Do you remember me?"
She froze and looked at me hard for a moment, then stepped back to just within the office doorway and took a picture from the wall by her door. Stepping back into the lobby, she compared me to the picture before putting it back on the wall.
"Yes," she said, in a clipped, formal British accent. "You seem to have aged fairly well. The last time we met I was about eight, I think. You were the... mercenary... who accompanied my father home from Angola, weren't you?"
I nodded. "I was a mercenary medic, and you seemed a lot happier to see me back then. You certainly grew up well, ma'am. How's your dad these days?"
She hadn't moved from the doorway, and by the secretary's nervous glances, I could tell that this wasn't the way Krista usually greeted her visitors.
"Some of the old wounds still bother him," said Krista, "But he's otherwise healthy enough. At the risk of sounding uncivil... Why are you here after all these years?"
"A ladyfriend of mine needs your kind of help, Krista."
After a moment, Krista leaned against the doorframe and asked, "A ladyfriend, hum? Is this ladyfriend in trouble with the police anywhere? Or is she a mercenary, too? Could that be why she needs a passport? Her country disowned her?"
I laughed. "No, it's nothing like that. She's not even two years old yet."
The secretary chuckled and said, "The terrible twos and frenzied fours are the worst years before they reach fifteen, and then the real trouble starts. I know; I have two girls of my own."
I smiled at the secretary's humor, but Krista didn't loosen up at all, other than to straighten and express a slight concern as she asked why I hadn't brought the child in with me.
"Ah, well," I said, "Maybe we should talk a little about 'the child' before I bring her in here. Could we step into your office for a chat?"
Krista stepped forward and again gave me a hard gaze.
In a firm, flat tone, she said, "You are -- or were -- a mercenary who just happened to be on the same side as my father in Angola, and that was too many years ago, sir. Meaning no disrespect, I have no idea what you may be today, and I'd rather not be alone in the room with you for the moment."
I met her gaze and saw that this woman had a spine that was probably every bit as tough as her father's. I hoped that she'd have his heart, as well, as I called Steph to join us.
"We may as well get past the introductions. Stephie, could you please pop in right about now?"
Steph's tall, almost-Ingrid Bergman holoimage materialized somewhat to my right and said, "Hello, Krista. I'm Stephanie Montgomery. Ed told me that your offices might be able to help me."
Krista backed a step and then another, until she was just inside her office. The secretary opened a desk drawer and had a small automatic pistol pointed in Stephie's and my general direction almost instantly.
"Krista?" asked the secretary.
Krista, staring at Stephie, didn't answer immediately, which prompted the secretary to ask again.
"Krista? What should I do?"
To head off Krista's response, I used my implant to send a narrow field to nudge the stapler on the secretary's desk. When the secretary glanced at it in startlement, I used the same field to quickly tug the gun up and out of her grasp, suspending it near the ceiling. Both womens' eyes were fixed on the hovering pistol until I spoke again.
"Krista," I said, "We're here to see about a CW passport. That's all. Can you give us a few minutes to tell you why she needs one?"
"You said she was only two. She doesn't look like a child to me. How did you take that gun away from Marlene?"
"Never mind the gun. Stephie could look like an infant if I asked her to. Or if she wanted to. She could also look like a little old lady, but this is her preferred appearance. This is her chosen self. Can we talk now?"
"I... I don't know. Why do you... Why does she need... Our services? What is she?"
I sighed and lowered the gun to the secretary, who stared at it briefly before taking it and rather fumblingly pointing it at us again. I turned to face Krista.
"Stephie's just a person who needs some ID to open a bank account and become something other than my legal slave, okay? Unless you're in favor of slavery, you'll hear us out. It's that simple."
She laughed. "Slavery? Just where might you be residing these days? In East Africa? The Sudan? How can she be a slave? She's not even human!"
"Try West Florida, ma'am, and what we have here is a thinking, reasoning mind that happens not to inhabit a normal human body. In fact, she has to wear a vehicle license plate on her butt 'cause she's residing in a flitter. I don't know that having a passport will change that particular aspect of things, but she needs some credentials to open a bank account and function independently in the world."
With a small, nervous giggle, Krista asked, "She's a flitter? Are you having me on?"
"No, I'm not, and this is becoming tiresome. All that you ever knew about me is that I was once on the same side of a conflict as your dad. I managed to get him to a hospital when he was hit and later I brought him home to Coventry when he was able to leave the hospital. That should be worth a few moments of your time, if nothing else. If it isn't, just say so and we'll get the hell out of your office right now."
The secretary stood stiffly straight and almost stepped forward, but halted her motion when I looked in her direction. Her voice was icy and tense as she spoke.
"We have damned good reasons for being cautious, Yank. There are plenty of people who really don't appreciate what we do because it interferes with their mistreatment and imprisonment of those who disagree with them or resist them."
"Marlene," said Krista, "He knows what we do and why. That's supposedly why he's brought his... friend... to us."
Where Marlene's tone had been the stiffly formal tones of someone challenged, Krista's quiet, commanding tone was laced with iron. She stepped forward and indicated that we should enter her office.
"Hold my calls, please, Marlene. I'll leave my door slightly open during our conference."
"Yes, ma'am," said Marlene, putting the gun down to pick up the phone. "Should I notify your father?"
Krista seemed to consider that for a moment, then coolly said, "Yes. Certainly. Tell him that" -- she referred to the picture on her wall -- "Sergeant Howdershelt is here. Nothing else. I want to see how well he receives this event."
Once Steph and I had been seated by Krista's desk, she sat down in the chair behind the desk and said, "Rest assured that I run this office empirically, not according to old debts or favors. You will now tell me precisely why this woman -- that is, your flitter -- needs one of our passports."
Ten minutes later I had outlined Steph's evolution to sentience and her situation in general. Krista's expression still contained a trace of skepticism, but she reached in her desk drawer and laid a small sheaf of papers on her desk in front of Stephanie.
"These forms will require various information and your signature. Can you hold a pen, or would you have to use some other means of creating a signature?"
Stephanie matched her gaze and quietly said, "I'm perfectly capable of operating an inkpen."
My implant tingled slightly as the pen in the wooden holder on the desk lifted a few inches and drifted to the papers. Stephanie's image put her hand to the pen and began to fill in the blanks as Krista watched intently, then Krista looked sharply at me.
"You aren't doing this for her, are you? Which of you disarmed Marlene?"
"That was me," I said. "But this is Stephie."
"And just how might I know that to be the truth?"
I sighed and said, "I guess you can't know that. Maybe if I left the room?"
For just a second or so, Krista hesitated, then she said, "Yes, please. I'd like to talk to Miss Montgomery alone, if you wouldn't mind too terribly. Close the door behind you. If you'd like tea, Marlene will find you some."
I nodded and stood up, but didn't immediately head for the door.
Stephanie looked up at me and said, "I'll be fine, Ed. Go ahead."
Through my implant, she asked, "Should I leave this link open?"
I left the room, pulling the door shut. Pausing outside the door, I whispered, "An open link would be too distracting, if not for you, then for me. You can handle this, Steph."
"But we've always..."
"No buts. This woman is already suspicious enough of me. If she thought I was coaching you, she'd turn you down instantly and without further discussion."
Marlene got to her feet as I approached her desk. At least she was no longer armed as she turned to face me.
"Would you like a refreshment? A tea or a Coke, perhaps?"
"I drink coffee," I said. "And I have some in the flitter. Back in a few."
"I'm quite sure that under these circumstances Krista would prefer that you remain where you can be seen."
I stopped halfway to the door and turned to face her.
"Just in case I'm somehow controlling Stephie, you mean?"
She didn't back down an inch. "That would seem likely, wouldn't it? Not that we can be sure of anything, anyway, really. You might somehow be controlling her now."
I came to sit by her desk and said with a grin, "Gee, you Brits used to be such a trusting bunch. What happened?"
She grinned back at me and said, "Maybe too many Yanks have tried to diddle us. How did you take the gun from my hand earlier? And how did you hold it near the ceiling?"
"Magic," I said. "Plain and simple magic."
"I don't believe in magic."
"Well, then, how about Amaran technology? It's the same thing to most people."
Her smile broadened. "Yes, that I can believe. How did you...?"
A big man burst into the office at that moment and spotted me. He was Andrew, but not the same Andrew I'd carried and dragged through several miles of Angolan scenery. This Andrew was at least fifty pounds heavier, balding, and using a cane to quickly traverse the room.
He yelled, "Jesus on a great big stick! It is you! What the hell brings you here? How are you? When did you get in?" - and by that time, he'd reached me.
I'd stood up as he'd trundled across the room. He wrapped his arms around me and squeezed for some seconds, then backed off a pace and stared at me.
"Well?" he asked, "Should I believe you came here just to see me?"
"Nope. I came to see that good looking blonde in the other office."
He shook his head and grinningly said, "Wrong. That's a great looking blonde and she's my daughter, so behave or I'll use this damned cane on you."
Krista poked her head out of her office and said, "Oh, good, you're here. Keep him occupied, Daddy. I need a few more words with his lady before I can make a decision."
Andrew looked at me and his eyebrows went up. "Your lady? So this really is an official visit?"
"Yup. Sorry I didn't come all this way just to see you, but it's definitely a bonus."
He laughed and said, "Good of you to say so, anyway. Oh, by the way, have you seen what's parked in front of the building? It's a flitter, by God! With a cat in it! Hovering a foot above the street! I'd never even seen one up close before. Want to go have a look at it?"
I glanced at the secretary, who looked as if she wasn't about to tell Andrew that it was daughter's preference that we remain in the office.
"Yeah," I said. "By all means, let's go have a look at it. By the way, it's mine. Maybe you'd like a ride, later?"
In startlement, he asked, "It's yours? How the hell did you get a personal flitter? They've barely gone into production and they cost a mint. Of course I'd like a ride later. I'll wager we'd all like a ride once our womenfolk are finished yapping and shuffling papers." Turning on his good heel to lead the way to the door, he added, "Come on!"
Stephie contacted me through my implant.
"Ed, she wants to know where I was born and where I'm living now. What should I tell her? I wasn't exactly born."
Being several feet from Andrew, I subvocalized my response.
"Born. Created. Same thing. Tell her the truth; that you were 'conceived' aboard the ship that returned to Amara, Steph. Use the factory station as a residence address. That's technically true, since there's a copy of you there, and I'm sure the other Stephanie will know what to do with your mail."
Some moments went by before she said, "Ed, now she's asking more questions about you than me."
"What kind of questions, Steph?"
"Who you work for now, how you came to own a flitter..."
"Tell her she'll have to ask me about some things because you don't know the answers."
"But I do know the answers. Are you telling me to lie to her?"
Andrew ran his hands over Stephie's hull field as Tiger stood watching from the top of the console. There was no sign of either Elkor's cat-golem or carrier modes. I felt an irrational urge to tell Andrew to knock off groping my flitter, but I stifled it and let him admire her in peace. He discovered Tiger and tried to pet him, but Steph's field again prevented contact. I watched Andrew try again and fail again as I answered Stephie.
"No, Steph. Not lie. I specifically said 'some things'. Couldn't there be just a few things you know nothing about?"
"Well, of course, Ed, but..."
"Then think of those things in particular when you tell her there are 'some things' you know nothing about and field her questions about me to me."
"I haven't had any experience at being devious, Ed."
"Fake it, Steph. Just choose your words carefully."
Andrew turned away from his examination of the flitter and vain attempt to pet Tiger and asked, "Did you say something?"
I turned to face him and pointed down the quaint London street as I said, "Yup. Sure did. This place looks damned near the same as the last time I was here, Andrew. The only new item seems to be that glass building a few blocks away. This cat, by the way, is Tiger, so named for his stripes and his former attitude."
Andrew grinned and said, "Some things about London will probably never change much. There will probably always be some streets like this one." Pointing at my luggage in Stephie's cargo area, he asked, "That's your only bag? You weren't planning to stay very long, were you?"
"Can't," I said. "We need to get Stephie squared away and get back. She's about to start a new job and I have to be somewhere this weekend."
"Stephie? Short for Stephanie? The woman you brought?"
"That's her. You'll meet her when your daughter's finished with her paperwork. She's currently a stateless person. We're trying to fix that."
Andrew nodded. "You do know that our passports are largely symbolic, right? Some countries haven't recognized them without a bit of arm-twisting by the UN."
"The US and Swiss are members of the UN. If they can force someone else to accept a CW passport as proper ID, they'll have to accept it themselves or face the media."
"I see," said Andrew. "Or rather, I really don't see, yet, but I'm sure that I will sooner or later. This is a fine machine, Ed. How about a tour?"
I stepped aboard, followed by Andrew, and proceeded to kill time by explaining some of Stephie's abilities without going into great detail. Tiger seemed to find Andrew immediately acceptable and jumped into his lap. As Andrew held Tiger and studied Stephie's console, Steph contacted me again.
"All the forms are finished. She seems to be studying the documents."
"She's thinking, that's all," I whispered. "Don't get nervous about it."
"I don't get nervous, Ed."
"Oh, of course not, miLady. But you can get excited about things, right? Close the link and stick to business in there while I chat with her daddy."
"Okay, Ed, but I don't get nervous."
"Try telling Elkor that. You'll probably hear him laugh for the first time ever. Just let me know how things go. Over and out, ma'am."
Andrew turned from Stephie's console to me said, "You're doing it again, Ed. Either you're in contact with someone or you've become a schizophrenic. Which is it?"
I shrugged. "You got me, Andrew. I'm in contact with someone. The lady inside your daughter's office is getting rather nervous. I was just reassuring her."
"Yes, I heard that much. How is she talking to you?"
I tapped my skull behind my ear. "An implant."
"Does she have an implant, too? Are you directing her in this matter?"
I shook my head. "No, just trying to put her more at ease."
Andrew sat in one of the seats and regarded me thoughtfully for a moment.
"Who is this woman, Ed? What is she to you?"
"Just a very good friend, Andrew. One who suddenly finds herself in need of credentials."
He'd met many such people before; people who were refugees or stateless persons for one reason or other. He visibly dismissed Steph's statelessness as a non-issue with a slight wave of his hand.
He leaned back slightly in his seat and said, "Krista flies the big desk now, so tell me what you've been up to these last twenty-odd years." With a grin, he added, "You know, there are a lot of people from those times that I'd rather never meet again."
I returned his grin. "I know what you mean. It's probably good that a lot of them killed each other off over the years."
He nodded. "So they did. So they did. But there's always a new batch of them ready to step in, isn't there? Not much has changed, has it?"
"It will," I said, thinking of the Amarans' genetic contribution to the human herd of Earth. "Eventually. It has to."
Andrew glanced at me skeptically as he picked up the guidance egg from the console, looking it over carefully as he spoke.
"I used to think that way, too, Ed. What does this gadget do?"
As I was explaining the use of the control egg to him, Steph activated the console with a soft chime and her face appeared on the screen.
"May I say hello to your old friend, Ed?"
"Sure, Stephie. Andrew, this is the lady in your daughter's office."
Andrew seemed somewhat in awe of her as he said, "Uh, hello, Stephanie. I'm most pleased to see you. Most pleased. Call me Andrew. Do you know how very much you resemble Ingrid Bergman?"
Stephie smiled and said, "Yes, people have told me that many times." Switching her gaze to me, she said, "We're about to join you outside. Krista's assembling my passport as we speak."
"You look as if you're about to jump up and down and squeal like a cheerleader."
"I wouldn't give you the satisfaction, sir. Krista and Marlene would like to see the other me."
"Bring 'em on, miLady. You're driving, by the way."
Her smile broadened and she said, "Oh, thank you, kind sir. I feel so privileged."
Steph's picture disappeared. Andrew stared at the screen for another moment, then turned to me.
"Wow," he said in a quiet tone. "You sure know how to pick your friends, Ed. What did she mean by 'the other me'?"
I flicked my eyebrows at him and asked, "You'll see. Want a beer? Sorry, but it's American beer and it's cold..."
"I'll take one anyway," said Andrew. "Thanks. But where's the cooler?"
I reached into apparently empty space and hauled out two Ice House beers.
As he took the beer, Andrew slowly asked, "Uhm...Why can't I see your cooler, Ed?"
"Bending the light around it is more energy-efficient than contending with the heating it would cause. Would have been nice to have one of these in Angola, huh?"
"Damned right", he said, locating the cooler with cautious fingers. "Hey, remember the time Kelso got drunk and buried three cases of beer in the mine's slurry mud to cool them and then forgot where he buried them? As long as I was there, he went out almost every night with a shovel. He almost got shot twice because he was digging by the compound fence. They thought he was looking for diamonds."
We shared a laugh at Kelso's expense and waited for the women. Moments later, the office door opened and the three women trooped down the steps to the sidewalk. Steph waved her brand-new CW passport at me and grinned as they approached the flitter.
"Ed, I'm officially a person!" she said. "Well, sort of, anyway."
I said, "Congratulations, ma'am!"
Krista stopped a few feet from the flitter and asked, "This thing really flies?" and then quickly amended, "Oh, hell. It isn't touching the ground now, so why shouldn't it? Is it safe? Really?"
Steph turned to her and said, "No vehicle made is safer than me. I promise."
Marlene said, "Safety is a relative thing, anyway. I've always wanted to ride in one of these." As Andrew turned his seat slightly, Marlene got a look at Tiger and said, "Oh, you've brought your cat?! How adorable! Hi, kitty!" She reached to pet him.
I said, "That's Tiger. He's our morale officer."
Krista said, "I can believe that, at this point."
Marlene hiked her skirt a bit and stepped onto Stephie's deck with my assistive hand-up, then stood gazing around the interior. Krista shrugged and followed her aboard. Steph simply disappeared from the sidewalk and reappeared next to her console as her passport floated over to me. I thought Andrew's bottom jaw would hit the deck as I picked the pale blue booklet out of the air.
"How...?" asked Andrew, staring at Steph's image.
Looking through the passport, I said, "As well as being a gorgeous hologram, she's also the flitter's computer. She can be pretty much anywhere she wants."
Steph gave me a slightly surprised expression and asked, "I'm gorgeous?"
"To me you are, and you've heard me say things like that before, ma'am. She takes a nice picture, too, right, Andrew?"
"Huh?" Andrew shook his head slightly, straightened and organized himself, and gallantly said, "Absolutely. I concur with Ed, Stephanie. You're every bit of gorgeous."
He extended a hand to her without dislodging Tiger and she reached as if to take it. As his hand closed on empty air, the astonished look again appeared on his face. Stephie giggled right along with the other two women, said, "Oops," and then made her hand solid enough for Andrew's grasp.
"Ed," said Steph, "There's a passport service fee to be paid and I didn't bring my purse. Come to think of it, I don't have a purse."
"No fee this time," said Krista. "It's worth it to ride in a flitter."
"Yes, a fee," I said. "We aren't destitute refugees, and unless your methods of funding have changed, you still operate on a shoestring. How much?"
When Krista again seemed ready to refuse, Stephie said, "Fifty bucks, Ed."
I peeled two hundreds off the fold of money I'd brought and said, "Here, Krista. Let it help pay for someone who can't."
Krista looked at the $200 for a moment, then at her father. He nodded. She took the money and tucked it into her bra -- a motion which caught Tiger's attention for some reason -- and said, "Thank you. It will. Dad, you aren't supposed to be drinking and you know it. Remember what the doctor said."
Tiger hopped down from Andrew's lap and went to investigate Marlene and Krista. Andrew sipped his beer, smacked his lips, sighed, and said, "Special occasion, oh daughter who thinks she's my damned nurse. A beer won't kill me."
"Well, I guess we'll find out, won't we?" she snapped softly at him. "If you make me an orphan by reverting to your old ways, I'll find a way to get even. Count on it."
With a sigh, Andrew said, "I have no damned doubt you will, dearest daughter, but I'm finishing this beer and I may have another and I'm going for a ride in a flitter before I die. If the excitement is too much for me, so be it. You're old enough to fend for yourself now."
Steph said, "My scans find nothing physically wrong with you, Andrew, except some old wounds that appear to have healed as much as they're able."
Tiger seemed to focus his attention on Krista and leaped into her lap. She was obviously not a cat person, as demonstrated by her rather stiff, hands-apart manner. Tiger ignored her inhospitability and sniffed her industriously.
"That's what I've been telling everybody for years," said Andrew.
Steph asked, "Why does anyone think that anything is wrong with you?"
Andrew shrugged and said, "Damned if I know. I guess it's expected of someone my age. Or maybe a certain young woman simply needs to rule my life by her own standards with an iron hand?"
Krista scowled at him very briefly and said to me, "He's turned into a professional grade curmudgeon since the last time you saw him."
I almost laughed as Tiger decided that Krista's was the lap of choice. She apparently wasn't used to furry attention. She sat as stiffly as before, watching him arrange himself so that he could see everybody else.
"Your dad seems about the same to me, ma'am. Don't worry. If he croaks, we'll just bury him at sea from 50,000 feet or so."
Krista startled and stared at me as if wondering whether I was sane.
Andrew cut off his daughter's potential response by asking, "She can fly that high?"
"Oh, she can fly higher than that, but I figure that's high enough to do the job. You know; no muss, no fuss. 'He fell overboard, officer'. Good enough?"
With shrug and a 'yeah, that'll work' expression, Andrew took another sip of beer. Marlene had been looking around, apparently in vain, as she'd half-listened to the sort of father-daughter banter she'd obviously heard many times before. I belatedly noticed that the ladies were empty-handed.
"Sorry, all. Would anyone like a beer or a Dr Pepper?"
"Beer, please," said Marlene.
"Me, too, for a beer," said Krista. "I tried Dr Pepper once. Why is this cat on me?"
"He has a weakness for blondes," I said. "Just like me. Is he purring yet? That always works well for me."
Krista sardonically asked, "If that were true, shouldn't Stephanie be a blonde?"
"Nope. Stephie does her own hair. Two beers coming up."
Marlene's eyes widened as I repeated my reach into apparently empty air and retrieved two bottles of Ice House. After another explanation about bent light, I sat down in the pilot's seat and deposited Stephanie's new passport in the console's storage bin. Tiger hopped down from Krista's lap and took his usual station on the console. Stephanie let her image disappear and we began lifting from the street.
The others were glancing around themselves almost frantically.
"We don't need seat belts," I said, then I explained a bit about fields.
Although there were dubious expressions, nobody asked to get off, so I suggested to Steph that we cruise around London unless anyone wanted to see anything in particular within a five hundred miles or so. Marlene asked if that would include Scotland, and I said it could if she so desired, so she suggested several points of interest up that way.
It was a fairly tame flight for Tiger and me, but you'd have thought the others were on a rollercoaster at first. After a long flight and a visit that lasted well into the evening and included a dinner in Krista's favorite restaurant, all of us promised to keep in touch as we said our goodbyes. As we headed back to Florida, Stephie said that she'd time our arrival for six in the morning, local time, and I settled in for a few hours of sleep.
"Elkor?" I asked.
"Nothing. Just wanted to make sure we hadn't left you behind, somehow. Why'd you ghost out on us?"
"Ghost out? Oh. I see. Sometimes one learns more using quiet, unobtrusive observation, Ed."
"Unobtrusive? Yeah, you were that. Did you learn anything while you were lurking?"
"Yes, I learned some things."
"I haven't finished assimilating the data. May I respond to that later?"
"Couldn't you give us a little now?"
After a moment, Elkor said, "I was monitoring all participants, but particularly Krista. She was extremely wary of you at first, but she later became somewhat excited and aroused when she looked at you, as did Marlene. Can you explain this occurrence?"
"Maybe. A majority of princesses always seem to secretly lust for the barbarians, no matter what -- or, rather, who -- they marry for the long haul of life. Or what they admit to anyone else. Krista and Marlene are princess types."
"I find no adequate references for that statement. How can you be sure it's an accurate assessment?"
"Well, for one thing, I've been some princess's barbarian often enough, and I've read far too many romance novels when the only thing else to read was the label on my C-Rations. We used to be the end of the line for some publishers' overstocked titles."
"That's hardly enough data from which to draw a conclusive an opinion."
"Huh. You weren't there when starving princesses pounced on me, Elkor. All that prim, proper denial leaves 'em hungry, you know. They either crack under the strain and find a way to get laid or they stuff themselves with chocolate. Why do you think romance novels sell so well? They all have some woman of station taking or being taken, and the guy is always a relative barbarian, socially or otherwise. The formula works. Trust me. Ask Joan Rivers or Abigail Van Buren. Rivers jokes about it and Dear Ol' Abby writes consolation notes in her columns."
"It still seems too simple a conclusion."
"Complicate it all you want, but verify your data. Read some romance novels. Watch some soap operas. You'll see the pattern."
Steph asked, "So you think Krista had the hots for you, Ed?"
"Not so much me, per se. What I represented, more likely. A safer version of the barbarian. One that couldn't upset her world by sticking around too long."
"You aren't that old, Ed. You have many good years ahead of you."
"Well, thank you, ma'am, but what I mean is that she saw me as a more controllable and temporary barbarian, perhaps older than she'd truly wish for, but still the type. One that she could surreptitiously use to scratch her itches and then politely be rid of before I became any sort of risk."
"Risk?" asked Elkor.
"Risk," I said. "To her carefully-crafted world, her self-esteem, and her self-image; those things which she values beyond all her other desires and probably all else but her father's opinion of her. I'd have been an excusable dalliance, but that's not to say that her father would have excused me for it."
"I think I understand," said Elkor.
"Me, too," said Steph.
"Study, chillun. Study. People are complex critters. That's why they get themselves into so much trouble. They think they're thinking when they aren't. They think when they should follow their hearts. They follow their hearts when they should be thinking. Sometimes they think to avoid following their hearts, and vice versa. Now and then they arrive at the right combination of brain and heart, but by that time, they may be too old to do much about it. Sometimes they get lucky fairly early, or are very adaptable after they've made their choices. More often they don't get lucky, hence the high divorce rate. Oh, yeah, and sometimes they mistake lust for love."
Elkor said, "You've made being human sound like a confusing ordeal, Ed."
"Guess I did, at that. Oh, well. I don't feel confused. I feel tired. I'm going to sleep now, guys. Good night."
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