3rd World Products, Inc.
Book V

Copyrightę2004 by Ed Howdershelt
ISBN 1-932693-17-3
Note: I'm not going to re-introduce everybody.
Read my other 3WP-Books before starting Book V.

Chapter One

    Being semi-retired with an extremely flexible personal schedule has some advantages. When Selena called early Friday afternoon to tell me that -- for the first time in months -- she had a whole weekend off, all I had to do was say "I'll pick up Toni and be right there," grab my backpack and coffee, and ask Tiger if he wanted to come along.
    He and Elkor -- in his usual field-generated cat persona -- were examining something on the back porch.
    "No," said Tiger, his cat sound mingling with the translation from his PFM collar.
    Elkor said, "Tiger and I will be visiting the nearby wooded area and pond, Ed."
    Nodding, I said, "Okay, guys. Have a good time," and called my flitter down from its far-overhead parking zone.
    The flitter dropped like a stone to within a hundred feet of the ground, then descended sedately enough to avoid alarming my neighbors, but not my nearest neighbor's beagle. The dog went completely apeshit, dashing in small circles and howling non-stop at the flitter.
    Martina Sanchez, my next door neighbor, came out of her front door, shushed her beagle without any effect whatsoever, and came toward the flitter as she yelled, "BooBoo has finally stopped cringing in corners every time that thing comes down."
    "Gee, that's just fucking wonderful," I muttered, setting my backpack aboard the flit.
    Halfway across the yard and cupping a hand to her ear to try to hear me over the beagle's din, Martina asked, "Hah? What?"
    Her other dog -- a big black semi-labrador retriever named 'Ortiz' -- sat watching me, occasionally glancing at BooBoo as if wondering why the beagle was going crazy. He seemed generally unconcerned about the flitter.
    In a conversational tone, I said, "Shut up, BooBoo," as I sent an invisible field tendril to lightly stun the beagle. Its hind legs folded and it sat down in a rather disjointed, disoriented manner, trying to remain upright as another of those goddamned howls came out of it.
    I didn't bother saying 'shut up' again, I just slapped ol' BooBoo's skull with another stun -- full force, this time -- and the stupid damned dog collapsed unconscious by the fence.
    Blessed silence replaced BooBoo's howlings. Ortiz sat a little straighter, pricked up his ears, and stared hard at me as Martina glanced back to see why the noise had stopped. I grinned and gave Ortiz a little two-fingered salute.
    His head cocked slightly, then he looked at the beagle again and sniffed it before moving a few feet away from it, where he sat down and continued watching me. Martina saw the beagle lying sprawled by the fence and freaked out.
    "Well, damn," I said, "He did it again."
    Wheeling to face me, she asked, "What?!"
    Shrugging, I said, "He's done it before. Sometimes he passes out. He just falls over and doesn't wake up for about half an hour."
    She screeched, "You've seen him do that before?! And you didn't say anything?!"
    Giving her a very direct look, I laughingly replied, "Oh, sure. You betcha. I'm gonna come tell you that dog's out cold in the yard after all the times I've bitched about his noise. You'd probably think I hit him or something. I'm just glad it finally happened when you were out here to see it."
    Martina gave me a nasty glare and stomped over to the fence gate. Once she was inside the yard, she knelt by the dog and tried unsuccessfully to wake it up.
    After some moments of this, she yelled, "Are you just going to stand there?"
    Shaking my head, I said, "No, I'm going up to Inverness," and stepped onto the flitter's deck. "He'll wake up in a while. Don't sweat it."
    I watched Martina gently, tenderly gather BooBoo into her arms and carry him into the house. Ortiz watched them go until the door closed, then continued to stare at me.
    As I opened the console and took out some snacks I kept aboard for Tiger, Susanne appeared by the flitter's console in her little black dress. She smiled at me as she sat down and crossed her gorgeous legs.
    "Ed, I'm almost surprised that someone like you hasn't killed that dog."
    Fielding a small handful of kitty treats from the box, I extended the field toward Ortiz. The big black dog eyed the food as it approached, but he didn't stand up or seem very disturbed by floating food.
    "'Someone like me,' huh? You saw how she picked up that brainless hairbag and carried it inside?"
    The food stopped in midair just in front of Ortiz as Sue chucklingly said, "Yes, I did."
    Ortiz stood up, moved forward a pace, and wrapped his huge, toothy face around the kitty treats, then sat down. His tail wagged slightly as he chewed.
    "Well, that's why I haven't made that stupid waste of fur disappear, Sue. Maybe if I keep zapping it, it'll finally realize what 'shut up' means."
    Waving goodbye to Ortiz, I told the flitter to head for Toni's and put Tiger's food box back in the console as I added, "I doubt it, though. Ol' BooBoo's retarded, even for a damned beagle. Prob'ly have better luck trying to train a rock."
    With a snicker, Sue said, "I see. You seem to get along well enough with Ortiz, though."
    "Yeah, well, he's reasonable and quiet as dogs go."
    "Will you want aircraft flight controls, Ed?"
    "Thanks, but the autopilot can handle it. I just need to swing by Inverness to pick up Toni, then head for Tallahassee. How are things going at Carrington?"
    "Fine. Vickie and I are taking the kids to a movie later."
    "Kewl. Have you had any further problems with acceptance among the younguns, Miz Field Manifestation?"
    "Not so far. None that couldn't be fixed by wearing long pants and a jacket, anyway. Some of the boys seem rather precocious. Will you need me this weekend?"
    "Need you? How can you even ask that, ma'am? You know you're indispensable to me."
    With a very obviously manufactured sigh, Sue asked, "Will I be indispensable this weekend in particular?"
    Matching her sigh, I answered, "Oh. Well, I guess not. Not unless something official comes up, anyway."
    "In that case," she said, "I'll see you again Monday," then she disappeared.
    Running my hands examiningly over my shoulders and chest, I said, "Oh, lordy, I think I'm feeling deprived! Yes! That's the feeling exactly. Agh! You won't even visit a bit?"
    Through my implant came, "Only by invitation or necessity, smartass. You three haven't had much time together since Selena graduated."
    "Well, that's true enough. Thanks, Sue, but expect an invitation. You're one of their favorite people, too."
    We chatted a bit more until the flitter stopped a foot or so above the tiny yard of Toni's Inverness condo. Toni had been waiting for us; she dashed across the yard and tossed her bag to me as she hopped aboard.
    "Can you believe it?" she asked, "It took a damned office fire to get Sel a weekend off."
    Checking out her long, lovely legs as she stepped onto the deck, I said, "That's how it is when you're the new guy on the boat. If she'd screw up once in a while, they might remember she's only human. That's a nice dress, ma'am."
    She adjusted her mid-thigh blue sundress as she sat down and grinningly said, "Thanks, but I saw where you were looking. You and Sel make a great team, Ed. She likes breasts and you like legs, so you never get in each others' way."
    In deference to Toni's discomfort about flying -- no, 'relatively contained terror' would be a better description -- I set course for Tallahassee with the flitter's fields opaqued.
    "Thank you," said Toni, pushing her finger into the silvery field. "I know it's stupid, but..."
    "No sweat," I interrupted her. "With me, it's sharks. Steph says my readings spiked just about every time a big one swam by us at a salvage site."
    "Then why did you keep going along?"
    "I knew they couldn't get me, for one thing. For another, I enjoyed rooting through the wrecks."
    Rolling her eyes, Toni asked, "Why not tell it like it is, Ed? You enjoyed being with Stephanie."
    Grinning at her, I nodded. "Yeah, well, that, too."
    "So how's her business coming along?"
    Shaking my head, I said, "No idea." At Toni's disbelieving gaze, I shrugged and said, "Really. I'm not part of it, so I'm not in the loop."
    After a moment, she asked, "Why aren't you part of it?"
    Laughing, I asked, "Part of it how, Toni? She does her own books. I doubt there's a place on her assembly line for a slow-moving human, and I don't like that kind of work, anyway. Selling them? No need. She's backordered for the next year or so with Amaran orders alone."
    In a somewhat tense tone, Toni said, "But you thought up the PFM's, Ed. You practically invented them. You ought to be getting something for that."
    "I just stuck some ideas together. Steph invented them. If I tell you I've been taken care of in that regard, will you change the subject?"
    Peering at me rather examiningly, she asked, "Taken care of how?"
    "That's my business, ma'am. Plus that, I have a flitter, a bloodstream full of microbots to keep me healthy, my comm and PFM implants, and..."
    The flitter's console beeped. I keyed my implant to answer the call and said, "Hi, Linda," when her face appeared on the console screen.
    "Hi, Ed. Sue said you were in the air, and that's perfect. A small jet is in trouble. We want you to evacuate the passengers to Pensacola. Sue has the details and our other two flitters will join you shortly."
    Nodding, I said, "Okay. Sue, you have the helm."
    The flitter instantly veered west as it nosed almost straight up and Toni sucked in a deep breath for a scream.
    Sue appeared in the seat next to Toni's and Toni calmed down almost immediately as Sue's theta waves reached her.
    I asked, "How many passengers and what kind of trouble?"
    Linda glanced at something below our view and said, "Only forty-one people. We don't know what kind of trouble yet. Communications and controls are unresponsive; even the hijack-alert panic button. The pilot used his own cell phone and he either passed out or died while he was talking."
    "But the plane's still flying? Not falling?"
    "It's straight and level at 38,000."
    "So someone or something is controlling it. You think it's another suicide attack?"
    "We don't know, Ed. It left Orlando, turned just before it reached the Georgia line, and now it's heading for the Gulf of Mexico. We've given Sue the data."
    Turning to Sue, I asked, "Any thoughts on the matter?"
    "Sure," she said. "Lots of them, but first we need to determine what's happening aboard the jet."
    "Think you can override whatever's controlling it?"
    "Probably."
    "Only 'probably'?" asked Toni. "You aren't sure?"
    I said, "That's why we're evacuating the jet."
    Toni looked questioningly at Sue.
    With a small smile, Sue said, "If I were sure, I'd have said 'of course', Toni."
    "Sue," I said, "When you go aboard, don't let anyone see you until we know what's going on and don't immediately take control. Just ascertain that you can, please."
    The jet appeared ahead as a tiny silver speck that grew quickly as we approached. I recognized it as a sixty-seat commercial model, but as we maneuvered beneath it, the damned thing looked so big that it seemed as if it shouldn't be able to fly at all.
    Toni stared up at it in openmouthed awe as Sue gave me a little 'bye-bye' wave and disappeared from her seat.
    Through my implant and the flitter console, Sue said, "I'm in the cockpit, Ed. The flight crew is unconscious and the controls are slaved to a satellite receiver in the copilot's seat."
    "It didn't get there by itself. Have you accounted for all members of the flight crew?"
    A couple of moments passed before Sue said, "Yes, and all three of the people in the cockpit appear to belong here. Fingerprints match records."
    "The cabin door is locked?"
    "Yes."
    "From the inside or the outside?"
    "No way to determine that."
    "What knocked out the flight crew?"
    "I'm detecting traces of an anaesthetic gas."
    "Last question for now, milady; can you verify that all three were knocked out at the same time, the same way?"
    Sue said, "Stand by," and a couple of moments passed before Toni asked, "How can she find out how they were..?"
    "Samples," Linda interrupted. "Blood, hair, saliva, breath. Other samples, too, if necessary, but since we aren't asking anyone's permission for them, this isn't really happening."
    Toni's left eyebrow went up, then she snickered.
    "Bingo," said Sue. "The copilot inhaled much less than any of the others; barely enough to knock him out, in fact. What now?"
    "Let him sleep. We only know that he got gassed, too, if only to make it look as if he isn't involved. He could have realized there was a problem and held his breath while the pilot called in the sitrep. Someone else could have installed the receiver. Any idea how the stuff came aboard?"
    "Not yet."
    Twin double sonic booms from high above us announced the unseen arrival of the other two flitters from Carrington Base. They fell in behind us under the jet and I saw that they were unmanned.
    "The Carrington flits are here," I said, more for Linda and Toni than Sue, since she was likely already in command of them.
    Briefly glancing away from the screen, Linda said, "Okay."
    "Sue, have you had any luck with the flight controls?"
    "Yes. I can take control of the jet at any time. Linda?"
    Linda said, "We need to know where the plane's going, so don't take control of it yet. Ed, I have another call to deal with. We just want the people off for now, please."
    Glancing at Toni, I shrugged and said, "Roger that. Sue, if you'll bring us alongside a hatch and open it, we can step across and say hi to everybody."
    The flitter moved to comply and our field extended to surround a hatch.
    "Wait one," I said, "Is anyone on board in contact with the ground?"
    "Four passengers are using cell phones," said Sue.
    "Monitor what they're saying for a minute or two and prevent anyone from initiating or receiving any new calls. One or more of the talkers could be giving progress reports."
    Toni asked, "And if they are, what then?"
    "Then we look for reasons why we shouldn't proceed."
    "You mean, like a bomb?"
    Grinning slightly, I said, "Yeah, that might be a reason, but only if Sue couldn't disarm it, and I doubt that's even possible. Sue's pretty good with gadgets, y'know."
    "Gee, thanks, mister," said Sue. "I've checked the plane. No bombs and no ancillary communications signals."
    Looking puzzled, Toni asked, "What would be a reason not to proceed, then? A hostage?"
    "Nope. Sue could handle that, too. Fact is, I can't think of a good reason at the moment, but sometimes I get kind of cautious. Always assume there must be at least one good reason for not doing something, then do it very carefully."
    A few minutes went by before Sue said, "All the phone conversations appear routine, Ed."
    "Great. Give each of them a little commo-clarity difficulty and see how they take it."
    Moments later, Sue said, "Two complained a bit and ended their calls. One is practically shouting into his phone about... He just snapped his phone shut."
    "What's the last guy talking about?"
    "Nothing. He just put his phone in a jacket pocket. It's still on and he's looking around the cabin."
    "Could mean something or might mean nothing. Zap him on general principles and kill the connection with a touch of the usual bad reception crap, please."
    "Done. I'm opening the hatch now. The flight attendant in the jump seat by the door looked ready to panic when the handles moved, so I'm feeding her theta waves."
    "Give everybody a big dose for now. We'd rather haul them out than try to reason with them."
    "Okay."
    The flitter's deck was perhaps an inch from the jet's fuselage. Looking at the opaque field tunnel between the flitter and the plane, I asked Toni if she wanted to come with me.
    She stared at the gap between vehicles for a moment, then stood up with a resolute look on her face. I took that as a 'yes' and got up to wait by the plane's hatch.
    As soon as the hatch opened, I stepped across the gap into the luxuriously appointed cabin of the jet and greeted a rather cute brunette stewardess, who smiled totally complacently at me from her jump seat. Toni stepped across behind me and stared at her.
    "Oh, hell," she muttered. "Is that how I look when you guys have to calm me down?"
    "Sort of, but she's getting a really big dose right now. Sue, would you let her have some of her brain back?"
    "Okay, Ed. Be prepared."
    "Hi," I said, extending my hand to the stewardess with a smile, "We're here to evacuate the plane."
    With only the slightest glance at my hand, she stared beyond me in shock for all of a split-second, then rushed to try to close the hatch. I stunned her legs and fed her theta waves as Toni and I grabbed her and lowered her to her seat.
    Holding her face so her eyes met mine, I said, "Relax, lady. The plane's in trouble and we don't have time for long explanations. We're going to put everybody on those flitters and take them to Pensacola. You can help us move people or we'll knock you cold and work around you. Which is it?"
    "I... ah..." her head whipped around as she realized that all the nearby passengers were either asleep or very nearly so.
    "Come on, lady," I said, "We just want to grab them and their carry-on stuff and get moving 'cause we don't know how much longer this plane's gonna be in the air."
    "What?! But... But who...?"
    I snapped, "No questions. Help us or be cargo. Sue, it's time to make an appearance."
    Sue materialized beyond the stewardess and said, "Ed, we don't really need her assistance," as she moved toward me.
    "I want at least one wide-eyed witness, Sue; someone who can say in a courtroom what was -- or wasn't -- done up here."
    "A courtroom?" asked Toni.
    Gesturing around the cabin, I said, "Yeah. Check out this plane. This isn't some save-a-lot budget charter. I'll bet half these guys are lawyers of some sort, and one of 'em's bound to sue somebody about being hijacked."
    Toni snickered as Sue said, "Most of them are politicians."
    "Heh. Same thing. Maybe worse. Something like eighty-five percent of the elected officials in America are -- or have been -- lawyers, and that hasn't really helped matters one damned bit, as far as I can tell. Why did this batch of legal eagles happen to cluster aboard this jet?"
    "They were scheduled to attend a seminar in Washington concerning anti-terrorism security measures."
    Snorting a short laugh, I said, "And here they are on a hijacked plane. Maybe now they'll see it as more than a way to milk the treasury. That'd be something new, wouldn't it?"
    The attendant seemed to make up her mind. She used my arm to pull herself to her feet and stood glaring at me for a moment, then asked, "What do you want me to do?"
    "Just work with these ladies to make sure everybody has their carry-on stuff and get them across to the flitters."
    "That's all?"
    "That's all. We aren't hijackers, ma'am. This is supposed to be a rescue mission." Indicating Sue, I said, "This lady will let the people you're moving wake up enough to cooperate. If they won't cooperate, she'll knock 'em out and it'll be up to you to make sure their stuff goes with 'em."
    She balked just a bit and narrowly asked, "If it's really an emergency, why do you care about their carry-on luggage?"
    Sighing, I said, "Aw, hell. Just do it, lady." To Sue, I said, "I'm going up front. If she doesn't cooperate, zap her and toss her on a flitter."
    Meeting the attendant's gaze, Sue noddingly replied, "No problem."
    Such was the effect of Sue's heavy theta waves that the passengers barely noticed me as I walked to the cockpit.
    "Five suit on," I said as I reached the forward cabin and approached the cockpit door. Sue had cleared the area, but sometimes I'm just not a real trusting soul, and we still didn't know how the gas had been delivered.
    Several minutes of rooting around the cockpit later, I'd made a small pile of odd items in the middle of the deck.
    Through my implant, I said, "Sue, I'd like all loose objects from the cockpit and cabins to leave with us. Put it all on the last flitter run and don't let anyone aboard it unless Linda okays them."
    "Okay."
    "Also, make sure nobody jettisons anything once they're aboard the flitters. In fact, you can keep them all sedated until they're in someone's custody downstairs. Did you figure out how the gas got aboard?"
    "Not yet, Ed."
    Hm. Little things can mean a lot. Steph or Elkor would very likely have said only, "No, Ed," not "Not yet." They'd have reported only progress, not intent.
    "Sue, you're kind of special. I'll tell you about it later. How's the evacuation going?"
    "Smoothly. I've only had to stun two people. The others have generally cooperated. We should have everybody off the plane in another five minutes or so."
    As I made my way back to the hatch, I said, "Great. Would you give Linda an update, then patch me through to her?"
    "Okay."
    A few moments later, Linda said, "I'm here, Ed."
    "Hi, Fearless Leader. I just wanted to know where I'll be after we evacuate the plane. Do you want me to stay aboard?"
    "No, we're going to track it and prepare an interception. Sue will send one of the flitters to pick up two teams once the passengers are on the ground. After that you can stay or go."
    "Toni and I were on our way to see Selena."
    "Okay. Anything else?"
    "Nope. Everybody and everything will be on the ground in Pensacola for your interrogators, ma'am."
    "Investigators, Ed."
    "Oh, of course, milady. My mistake. 'Investigators'."
    Linda sighed, "You're kind of a putz sometimes, Ed."
    "Oh, yes, milady. As you say, milady."
    With a snicker, she said, "Thanks for helping," then she tapped off the connection.
    As I returned to the hatchway, I saw two people waiting to step across to a flitter. Both of them sort of noticed me, but were so enthralled by Sue's theta waves that my appearance caused them no particular curiosity or interest.
    They stepped onto the flitter and its field tunnel stretched as it moved away from the hatch. Another flitter lifted up to the hatch opening, rising into the tunnel field and becoming its new terminus as the other flitter departed for Pensacola.
    Something clunked softly behind me and I turned to see a stream of various objects heading for the hatch. Hats, gloves, thermos bottles, a sweater, books, papers, sunglasses, unserved meals, and a hundred other odd items flowed past me to the flitter and arranged themselves neatly on its deck.
    "Damn," I said, watching overhead compartments open and empty themselves into the stream. The last three objects to float past were the flight crew, still out cold.
    Sue laid them gently on the flitter's deck and asked, "Are you waiting for a personal invitation?"
    "Just thinking," I said. "Every once in a while I'm struck by just how unique and wonderful you are."
    Appearing in front of me, Sue smilingly leaned to kiss me and replied, "I'm no more unique and wonderful than Steph or Elkor, but thanks for saying that."
    Stepping across to the flitter, I said, "Uh, huh. There are only two others like you on Earth, so you qualify as unique and wonderful. Don't bother trying to deny it, milady."
    Shrugging, she grinningly said, "Okay. If you insist," as the plane's hatch closed. The flitter banked away from the plane and a few moments later we settled to hover a foot above the tarmac near a hangar.
    I didn't bother looking around; all airports look pretty much alike to me, and the people on the ground were more interesting. The passengers were being herded into the hangar by cops and paramedics.
    Toni grinned and waved at me from my flitter and I hopped over to it as the flitter Sue and I were on passed it. Sue remained aboard the odd-items flitter as it entered the hangar.
    The console came alive and Sue said, "Later, everybody. I'm going to help sort things out here."
    "Thanks, milady. See you later."
    "Uh, we're leaving?" asked Toni, "Don't you want to find out what happens? Who's behind the hijacking?"
    Shrugging, I said, "Maybe it'll make the evening news. I'd rather be playing with you and Selena."
    After a moment of peering at me, Toni said, "Bye, Sue. It was nice seeing you again. Can you drop in later?"
    "Sure, Toni. I'd like that."
    One of the cops spotted us, seemed confused to see anyone aboard a flitter, and approached in a meaningful manner.
    I said, "Flitter, opaque the canopy and resume our course to Selena's condo."
    "Yes, sir," said the flitter in an uninflected female voice.
    "'Yes, sir'?" asked Toni. "That can't be Sue. Doesn't sound like her, either."
    "It isn't. It's just a chunk of computer we set aside so I can run the flit without her."
    "But 'yes, sir'? When did that start?"
    Shrugging, I said, "Don't know. I didn't put it in there."

Chapter Two

    When we arrived in Tallahassee, we saw Selena's Mercury Sable in the lot, but she didn't answer her doorbell. I used my key and we found Selena in her hot tub, so we joined her there with kisses and drinks as Toni excitedly told her about our side trip. When she wound down a bit, Toni asked Selena how bad the office fire had been.
    "The fire was only in Dick's office," said Selena, "But the smoke was so bad they're having to clean half the third floor before Monday." With a laugh, she added, "The company's new unofficial mantra is 'Don't be a Dick'."
    Selena sipped her drink and pointed at the TV in the corner of the patio with a derisive snort and said, "Check it out; an ad for yet another show about people with telekinetic powers. Three TV shows and a couple of movies so far this season. If Hollywood ever had any originality, it's definitely in hiding."
    "They copy each other like monkeys," said Toni. "Remember when the three major science fiction TV shows all had their key people kidnapped, memory-wiped, and forced to work on some dismal industrial planet during the same week?"
    "Yeah. And there was that 'shooting at bumpers to set off airbags' thing, too. A week after Ed released his second "In Service to a Goddess" book, a new TV show about cops in Las Vegas used that trick. I think they stole the idea."
    "You'd never be able to prove it," said Selena, "They'd just blat out some 'great minds think alike' crap." Turning to me, she added, "But it was a helluva coincidence, wasn't it, Ed?"
    Nodding, I said, "Oh, yeah. But you're right; proving it would be damned near impossible."
    "And now," said Toni, "They've come up with a show called 'Jake 2.0'. And guess what? He's full of nanobots -- like Ed -- and he interfaces with computers -- like Ed -- and he works for a spook outfit -- like Ed -- and..."
    Looking very dubious, Sel muttered, "Oooo..." as her gaze shifted to me. "You getting paid for any of that?"
    Shaking my head, I said, "No, but if he starts using fancy field tricks like this..."
    Sending a neon-blue field tendril to the fridge, I opened the door with it, retrieved a bottle of Ice House beer, and bumped the door shut with a loop of the tendril as I drew the beer back to the hot tub.
    As I opened my new beer, I used a neon-red tendril to deliver my empty bottle to the kitchen trash can, took a sip of beer, and finished, "...That's when I'll hire a lawyer."
    Toni reached for the red tendril as it looped above her head, so I didn't let it disappear. As her fingers touched it, they slid along the surface for a distance, then wrapped around it, her nails barely touching her palm as she squeezed it gently. I made the tendril twine gently around her arm and stroke her cheek as she studied it.
    Peering at me, she grinningly asked, "Is it any kind of a coincidence that your field tendrils just happen to be almost exactly as big around as a certain part of your anatomy?"
    Glancing at the tendril, I laughed, "Huh. It was, yeah. It won't be from now on, though. Thanks for the tip, lady."
    Selena asked, "Ed, how come Sue and Tiger didn't come with you?"
    "Sue's working with Linda. Tiger wanted to visit the pond at the end of Crescent Street."
    Selena's left eyebrow went up. "Sue can split herself, Ed. She could have come with you."
    Nodding, I said, "Yeah, but she didn't."
    "What's she doing with Linda? Tailing the jet?"
    "Yeah, probably. They want to know where it's going."
    Toni gave me a look similar to Selena's and asked, "You mean you don't even know what she's doing?"
    "Nope, but whatever it is, she's doing it with Linda."
    I realized instantly that what I'd said hadn't come out the way I'd intended. The ladies glanced at each other with rather stark, exaggerated stares, then burst out laughing.
    We spent most of the weekend in the bedroom, the pool, or the hot tub. Sue joined us on Saturday afternoon and Toni asked her about the jet, but Sue said only that the jet situation had been resolved and quoted security rules.
    Time was made for visiting a couple of nice restaurants and even for the ladies to do some shopping. There was a minor furor when we landed at the main entrance to the mall, but it wasn't because we arrived aboard a flitter.
    The fuss was due to our abrupt appearance as we stepped away from the flitter's concealing field. One of two elderly women sitting on a bench inside the mall doors began screaming and pointing, then apparently fainted.
    Under the very wary gaze of the other woman, Sue, Selena, Toni, and I walked past the event as if we had no idea what was going on, but once we'd turned the corner by the fountain and found a place out of the flow of traffic, Sel and Toni cracked up with laughter.
    Eyeing them, Sue seemed highly skeptical of their humor. Her gaze shifted to me.
    "Sue," I sent through my implant, "We aren't responsible for that woman's inability to remain sane and reasonable. She might just as easily have freaked out if someone with pink spiked hair and a nose ring had walked in."
    "Still, Ed... Laughing at an old woman's fear..."
    "Uh, uh. Nope. She's old enough to have learned how to keep her cool, too. You didn't see anyone else freaking out, did you? Not even her friend on the bench. We didn't storm the building, ma'am. We just walked in like everybody else. She went nuts like a poodle at a stranger."
    "To her, we appeared from thin air, Ed."
    "To her, to her friend, and to everybody else who happened to be looking out at the time. She's the only one who..."
    Toni waved a hand between us and we turned to face her.
    "Are you two having a conference without us?"
    I said, "Yup. Sue had a question about the old woman."
    "Why she freaked, you mean?"
    "You got it. Where are we going from here?"
    Glancing around, Toni pointed at a few stores and said, "There, there, and there. And maybe there. Where will you be?"
    "The bookstore or the restaurant area, unless you need me to carry your loot or watch you model lingerie."
    Selena snorted, "Yeah, right. We'll manage, I think. Sue, what about you?"
    Sue smiled and said, "I think I'll go with everybody."
    She glanced around once, waited until a few people passed us, and then a second Sue materialized beside Sel and Toni as the original moved to stand by me.
    "Ready," said both Sues in perfect unison.
    A clerk in the shoe store beyond us froze and stared. The Sue beside the ladies grinned and waved at him as they turned to go. My Sue tugged my arm to get me moving.
    Maybe five paces from the shoe store entrance I felt the clerk's stare on my back and said, "That guy's really having some trouble with your twin sister act, Sue."
    With a chuckle, she asked, "Want to go back and explain it to him?"
    "Oh, not unless he makes an issue of it, I guess."
    As we passed the games gallery near the restaurant section of the mall, I saw a couple of kids trying to maneuver a three-point grappler to grab a stuffed toy bear in a plexiglass box.
    The grappler dropped and wrapped around the bear's head, but the bear was wedged so tightly among the other stuffed toys it couldn't be budged. The grappler tugged upward and the spring-loaded arms spread, leaving the bear behind.
    I sent a tendril into the plexiglass box and probed against the bear. Yup. The stuffies had been practically anchored against each other. It was a ripoff game.
    Giving the tendril a sharp twist made the contents of the box erupt. The kids backed away a pace and made all the usual noises people make when something blows up in their faces. The bear was now lying on its side in a corner of the box.
    "Bet you can pick it up now," I said.
    The kids looked at Sue and me, then back at the box. One of them fished out a quarter and stepped up to give it a try. The grappler again settled over the bear -- this time around the body -- and the grappler winched upward with the bear dangling from the blunt hooks.
    Amid much cheering, the grappler dropped the bear into the hole in the front of the box and the kid retrieved it from the delivery chute.
    Sue and I continued walking toward the bookstore for some moments before she said, "That wouldn't have occurred to me."
    "What? Loosening up the pile?"
    "Yes."
    "Why not? They deliberately jam everything into those boxes so stuff won't come loose."
    With a glance at me, Sue said, "But by attempting a game, people accept the inherent risk of losing their investment. It could be argued that what you did was a form of cheating."
    Shrugging, I said, "It could be argued that the game was rigged, too. I'm happy with the results, ma'am."
    "But..."
    "But, hell. The game is about getting something out of the box. They... fudged... a little by cramming the prizes together. I fudged a little by loosening them up, so it evens out. The un-rigging just became, um... an unspoken part of the game."
    With a rather arch glance at me, Sue said, "I see. Would the same rationale apply to a game of roulette?"
    "Why would I be at a roulette table, Sue?"
    Manufacturing a sigh, she said, "It's a hypothetical question, Ed."
    Shaking my head, I said, "Nope. Just can't see it. It isn't me, ma'am. What else ya got?"
    "You're being difficult."
    "Not at all, milady. Here's the bookstore. Think up another scenario while we browse a bit."
    Sue looked around the store from the doorway.
    "You browse," she said, "I've read everything in the store," and disappeared.
    Keying my implant, I asked, "Was that a huff? It looked a lot like a huff."
    "You can envision a huff, but not a roulette wheel?"
    "I guess I must be subject to selective perception."
    "Maybe that's why you aren't seeing me at the moment."
    A guy in a brown sports jacket tapped my shoulder and asked, "Sir, where is the woman who was with you and who are you talking to?"
    He flipped his wallet open to display a rent-a-cop badge and ID, then flipped it shut and put it away.
    As a few people drew near or stopped in our vicinity, I said, "She left. Do you have some good reason for needing to know who I'm talking to?"
    "Sir, please don't be difficult. I need to see some ID. If you don't cooperate, I'll have to take you to the office."
    "For what?"
    "Creating a disturbance in the mall."
    Gesturing at the half-dozen people around us, I said, "Let's take a quick poll. Are any of you people disturbed?"
    There were some snickers and a laugh. Some guy said, "My girlfriend thinks I am," and there was another laugh.
    "I'm afraid you'll have to bust yourself," I told the rent-a-cop, "You're the only one creating a disturbance here."
    As Sue asked, "Should I reappear?" the guy gave me a droll look, reached for my arm, and said, "That's enough. I'll check your ID at the office. Let's go."
    Keying my implant, I answered both of them. "Nope."
    To the rent-a-cop, I said, "Why don't you tell everybody why you're hassling me? I'm sure they'd like to know what I've done to earn your attention."
    "We prefer to handle these matters discreetly, sir."
    "That's not going to happen. If you don't let go of me, you can expect a big scene and count on going to court."
    "You're threatening me?"
    "Why not? You're bothering me. State a good reason or go hassle someone else."
    We had a staring match for a few moments, then the guy let go of my arm and said, "Just don't give me a reason to stop you again."
    "Let's be real clear about something. You didn't have a reason to stop me this time, and now it's time to either let this whole thing go or take it to the next level."
    To bolster my view of matters, I fed him some theta waves and watched his demeanor soften as he said, "Yeah, okay. But I'll be watching."
    "That's your job."
    He ambled calmly away without even a glance at the others and made it perhaps ten paces before he stopped, looked around with a somewhat confused expression, and peered at me for some moments before heading across the promenade.
    Without a word to the people standing nearby, I entered the bookstore and headed for the magazines.
    Through my implant, Sue asked, "Were the theta waves necessary, or were you again just 'evening things out'?"
    "Yes to both. Badges bring out the worst in some people. He didn't have a case, but he had a problem with backing away from the situation. The theta waves were a kicker to make him cooperate."
    "You don't think he'd have seen the sensibility of backing away?"
    Leafing through a 'Scientific American' magazine, I replied, "No, I didn't, and why hope when you can be sure?"
    A couple of articles interested me; I bought the magazine and headed for the restaurant section of the mall.
    "Ed, may I ask why you bought that magazine when everything in it is available to you through your datapad?"
    "Where's my datapad?"
    "In your briefcase, as always."
    Chuckling, I said, "That would be my currently-invisible briefcase in the field above me, true? The one I'm not supposed to reach for in public, that is."
    "Cute. You could read it later."
    "But I have time to kill now, ma'am, and I don't know how much time that will be."
    I felt someone watching me intently as I bought a coffee and chose a table. Sitting so that I could see the main corridor of the mall, I saw the rent-a-cop in a clothing store as I opened the magazine and sipped coffee.
    He was the watcher, of course, and I had the feeling our encounter in front of the bookstore wouldn't be our last. Some twenty minutes passed before the guy appeared in the restaurant entranceway and headed toward my table in a determined fashion.
    Decisions, decisions. Let him come over and explain that I was waiting for two women -- or possibly three, if Sue was still with them -- to finish shopping? Or simply drop him with a stun and let him try to figure out and explain to others why he passed out?
    Nah. Let him come over and see what was on his mind. If he got nasty, then I'd zap him.
    When he got to my table, he said, "This mall has rules against loitering. You've been sitting here for half an hour."
    "Twenty minutes."
    "Are you waiting for someone?"
    Sipping my coffee, I said, "Yup."
    "Who?"
    "Two women. Since I seem to be your only interest today, stick around; I'll introduce you to them."
    His gaze narrowed. "Don't get smart with me. I'll run you out of here for loitering and ban you from the mall."
    Punting a chair a short distance from the table, I replied, "Get a coffee, take a break, and tell me why the hell you picked me. I never even got inside a store before you showed up, so don't give me any bullshit about suspicious activities."
    He leaned on the table and growled, "I've seen people like you before. You watch everything and everybody all the time, and that's what people do when they're up to something."
    With a chuckle, I said, "Yeah, well, that's what you're supposed to be doing, too, but here you are, pestering me while the shoplifters clean the place out at their convenience."
    Muttering, "Goddamnit, that's it!" he straightened up and shoved a chair out of the way as he came around the table.
    When he grabbed at my arm, I grabbed his hand and twisted it so that he had to go to one knee to ease the excruciating pain in his wrist.
    Putting down my coffee, I said quietly, "Enough. Go away and stay gone. If you grab at me again, I'll hurt you for real."
    He glared at me in silence. I increased the pressure on his wrist until his eyes shifted to it in alarm.
    I asked, "Well? Yes or no."
    Sue materialized within his range of vision. The guy startled so hard I had to let go to avoid snapping his wrist. He stood up quickly, rubbing his wrist and staring at Sue. With a hard look at me, Sue vanished again and the guy's eyes bugged out.
    Keying my implant, I said, "Huh-uh. Oh, no, no, no. Get yourself back here, lady."
    Reappearing, Sue met my gaze in silence, completely ignoring the mall guard's goggle-eyed amazement.
    "What the hell was that about?" I asked.
    "You were hurting him."
    "It was our business, not yours."
    She glanced at the guard and back at me, then said, "I believe he will leave you in peace now."
    "That's not an answer. Why did you interfere?"
    Carefully enunciating each word, Sue said, "It seemed the thing to do."
    "It was a private issue."
    Her left eyebrow went up. "Was it? What if he'd come back with the police?"
    "Not likely. He'd have had to explain too much, like having no good reason to hassle me in the first place and allowing things to escalate unnecessarily."
    Turning to the guard, she asked, "Do you concur with his opinion?"
    Startled again by being addressed by her, the guard responded, "Uh... Well, yeah, I think so. Who..? What..? Uh, are you real..?"
    Ignoring his questions, Sue asked, "Would you have left peacefully prior to my appearance?"
    Glancing at me, the guard said, "Uh, well... Maybe not right away, I guess..."
    Selena and Toni hurried around the corner of the entranceway and toward my table as Sue gave me a look of smug vindication until the guard said, "But, uh, he's right, ma'am. I wouldn't have called the police."
    Sounding an awful lot like someone's mother, Sue rather piercingly asked, "Then why were you being so difficult?"
    It occurred to me that I'd heard the word 'difficult' fairly often over the last couple of hours. Standing up, I gave Sel and Toni a small wave and a grin as the guard tried to stammer a reply. I pulled a couple of chairs out, but the ladies didn't sit.
    I asked, "Are you through shopping, or did Sue call for reinforcements?"
    "Yes and no," said Selena. "We're through shopping, but Sue didn't call us."
    "Then why were you in such a hurry?"
    Toni said, "We bought ice cream," and held up a bag. "We want to get it home."
    I zapped the box inside the bag with a cold field that caused frost up to the handle straps and said, "No problem," as I picked up my magazine and sipped the last of my coffee.
    Sue said, "I'll see you all later," and vanished again as I took the bags from Sel and Toni. The guard continued to stare at the space that had held Sue and passed his hand through it. The ladies and I headed for the mall's front doors.
    The guard and one of the employees from the fried chicken place followed us to the doors and outside. When we stepped into the flitter's field and vanished, the fried chicken woman muttered, "Oh, my God!" in a rather shrill whisper.

Chapter Three

    If Toni's cell phone hadn't rung on Sunday night, we'd have stayed at Selena's until Monday morning, but someone named Steve told Toni that she'd been switched to the morning shift due to someone else's car accident.
    Around one in the morning we all kissed goodbye and I took Toni home to Inverness, then headed back to Spring Hill. Tiger seemed a bit confused -- as usual -- when I came home alone. He eyed me from the kitchen counter as I freshened my coffee.
    "Yes?" I asked. "You have a question?"
    The odd combination of words and cat vocals asked, "Why do your females not come home with you?"
    I'd tried to tell him before that the ladies had lives of their own beyond my gratifications, but Tiger just didn't seem able to grasp that concept. I decided to pass the buck this time.
    "Why don't you ask my females that question the next time you see them? And don't give me any 'pack protocol' stuff. You know it's all right to talk to them about anything."
    One of his ears flattened and his gaze narrowed as his PFM collar translated my words. For another long moment he simply looked at me, then he turned and sat gazing out the kitchen window into the night.
    Calling the flitter back down through my implant, I waited a few beats and asked, "Hey, Tiger. You wanna go flying?"
    He glanced back at me momentarily and said, "Yes."
    "You got it."
    Once aboard the flitter, I keyed my implant and said for Tiger's benefit, "Sue, Tiger's driving."
    "Okay," she replied, and a four-place touch pad appeared above the dash. Tiger eagerly hopped onto the pad and placed his paws on the glowing dots, then began leaning slightly from side to side. The flitter followed his inclinations and the pressures of his paws as we shot across the sky, swerving back and forth.
    "We go up now!" said Tiger, and the flitter seemed to launch itself at the moon when he hunkered as if to leap.
    After many minutes of looping and whirling several miles above the Gulf of Mexico, Tiger saw moving lights far below and aimed us at them. We were doing around mach two at the beginning of our dive, but Sue brought us down to just under the speed of sound before we flashed above a cruise ship.
    The thunder of our sonic boom preceded us. Some people seemed frozen as they stared upward; others scrambled for cover or ran along the deck. Tiger's tail switched back and forth in predatory glee as he emitted an excited chittering sound, hopped off the pad, and ran to the rear of the deck to keep the brightly-lit ship in sight as it receded behind us.
    I brought back the P-51 controls and set course for home at mach three. Tiger sauntered proudly back to the console and hopped onto a seat, then up to his usual post on the dash.
    "Much fun," he said, then faced forward and sat down.
    Sue appeared in the seat I'd vacated and grinned at me as I eyed her marvelous jeans-cutoff-clad legs.
    I let my gaze travel up to her face as I said, "Stephanie would have had something to say about buzzing that boat."
    Grinning at me, Sue innocently asked, "Really?"
    "Yup. You know she gave me a hard time about buzzing a submarine a few months back."
    Still grinning, Sue said, "I'm not Stephanie. Why do you insist on using archaic P-51 controls?"
    Treadling the field generated 'rudder pedals' to make the stern switch back and forth slightly, I said, "I like 'em better than the F-18 controls. They feel better."
    Shaking her head and rolling her eyes, Sue said, "At our present speed, controls for an antique propellor-driven aircraft are hardly a realistic emulation, Ed."
    Grinning, I replied, "Well, hell, lady; F-18 controls wouldn't be that much more realistic, either, would they?"
    "They'd be more realistic than those."
    "In your opinion, you mean?"
    Rather flatly, she said, "In fact, not merely opinion."
    Rolling us twice and snapping the flitter back upright, I said, "Maybe so, ma'am, but I'm driving and I like these."
    Gawd, she looked a lot like Margaux Hemingway, even with her minor alterations. A slightly different face, a height of six feet, and the athletic build of a swimmer only made Sue's field manifestation a superior version of Margaux.
    "Damn, but you're downright gorgeous, milady."
    Feigning humility, she demurely said, "Oh, thank you, sir."
    "So what have you been up to all weekend? Other than palling around with the ladies and me, that is."
    "Stephanie and I felt that the first PFM factory might be hindered by pending legislation, so we created another one in an out-of-the-way place."
    "In only a weekend? Wow. You ladies are quick. Since all the land on Earth has been claimed by somedamnbody or other, where'd you put it? Wait! Lemme guess. Antarctica, where a bunch of the land claims overlap?"
    Both eyebrows raised, Sue starkly blinked at me in an expression of surprise she'd apparently learned from Toni.
    "You mean I got it the first guess?" I asked, "Kewl."
    Sue didn't ask -- as a human might have -- if I'd really been guessing, but I figured she probably asked Steph and Elkor whether I'd spoken with them, if only on general principles. Sue didn't like having to wonder about anything.
    I felt another presence pop into being behind me and said, "Hi, Steph," even as another presence manifested on the dash beside Tiger. "Hi, Elkor."
    Tiger immediately and excitedly began regaling Elkor in catspeak about having buzzed the cruise ship as Steph took a seat on my left.
    Steph said, "We first considered locating the new factory in northern Canada, but that region has lately attracted quite a few mineral seekers."
    "Oil, gold, or kimberlite?" I asked.
    "Some gold and oil, but according to the latest survey records, mostly kimberlite."
    Shrugging, I said, "People can get kind of excited about diamonds. Too bad they can't do more of their looking underwater, like at river mouths. I'll bet tons of diamonds have washed down to the oceans."
    "You'd win that bet," said Steph, in a tone that left no doubt in my mind that she'd already done some searching there, likely with automated drones.
    I turned the flitter over to Sue as we neared the house. The P-51 controls vanished and we settled toward my driveway in about the same manner a hailstone falls from the sky.
    A hundred yards above the ground Sue slowed us to a relative crawl and manifested a field that displayed a bird in a nest eyeing us warily. Tiger's tail twitched intently.
    "She's in your oak tree," said Sue. "I don't want to startle her more than necessary."
    The bird stayed put as we silently landed. Sue dissolved the display field, I gathered up Tiger, and we all headed for the front door through the house's perimeter field.
    It hadn't escaped my notice that all three of the artificial entities in my life had gathered to accompany me back to the house at almost two in the morning, but I decided to let one of them bring up whatever subject had caused the congregation.
    Rinsing my travel mug in the sink, I began to make a fresh coffee. Chairs moved behind me and I glanced back to see Stephanie and Susanne sitting at the table. Elkor -- in his usual cat persona -- was sitting on the table.
    When my coffee was ready, I joined them at the table, sipping in silence as we exchanged quiet gazes.
    Stephanie broke the quiet with, "Ed, we think Linda may soon ask you to do something that would ultimately violate our moral protocols. If you accept the task, we may be unable to support your efforts."
    I glanced at each of them once, then met Steph's gaze and said, "Explain, please."
    "You may be asked to attempt to retrieve some people who were kidnapped yesterday."
    'Attempt to retrieve,' she'd said. Hm.
    "Kidnapped where?"
    "Iran. We've run numerous rescue simulations and people are killed in every scenario which included you."
    "'Numerous', huh? Gee, you used to be so precise, Steph." I sipped my coffee and asked, "Are you saying that you wouldn't want to participate directly, or that you'd disable my implants to prevent me from participating in the mission?"
    "They aren't calling it a mission. As things stand, it would be an unofficial request for assistance."
    After a pause, I snorted a laugh and quietly said, "Thanks for the clarification, but I'll call it a mission, anyway. I asked if you'd disable my implants, Steph."
    "That would depend on how you might use them."
    "Well, no, it actually depends on whether you intend to dictate how they're used."
    Elkor said, "Ed, our technology is not intended for killing and destruction. In all of the simulations, you were eventually required to use your implants in a violent manner to survive and succeed."
    "It's Amaran technology, Elkor, and you didn't lend me my comm and field implants. You gave them to me with no strings mentioned at the time."
    "Strings?"
    "Conditions. Clauses."
    Steph said, "Please remember that you were once cautioned that your implants could be taken from you."
    Nodding, I said, "Yup. By Linda herself, but don't think for even a minute that she was worried about anything but preventing situations that could involve or compromise 3rd World, like when I froze that guy's hand at the arena. If I'd used a gun on him instead, she'd have patted me on the back and bought me a dinner for zapping one of the bad guys."
    Looking around the table, I said, "Okay. Here it is, people; I'm fifty-four, not thirty-four. If not for my implants, Linda wouldn't hand me such a mission and you all know it, so let's cut to the chase. You're running simulations, so you already know the mission specs. How about telling me about it?"
    None of the simulated people at the table spoke aloud, and I heard nothing via my implant, but I had no doubt that Elkor polled the others before he said, "Linda would undoubtedly prefer that she or her designated..."
    Raising a hand, I said, "Okay. No problem. Elkor, I really do think I understand the AI no-kill point of view, but you have to know by now that I don't completely agree with it. There are people in this world without whom the world would be a much safer, friendlier place for billions of other people."
    For some moments there was silence at the table, then Elkor said, "Linda said she would call you tomorrow. Tiger wanted to speak with me about something, so I'll excuse myself now."
    "Okay. Goodnight, Elkor."
    "Goodnight, Ed."
    He disappeared and reappeared on the sofa chair beside Tiger, where a discussion in cat began immediately.
    Steph 'sighed', then said, "It's getting late. Linda will likely call you early, so I'll let you get some sleep."
    Nodding, I said, "Okay. G'night to you, too, milady."
    "Goodnight."
    She vanished and I looked at Sue.
    "Are you going to hit the road, too?"
    Her left eyebrow went up. "Do you want me to leave?"
    "Did I say that, ma'am? I don't remember saying that."
    Sue rather theatrically leaned back in her chair and grinningly draped an arm over the chair on her left as she said, "Tell me something, Ed... What makes you use 'ma'am' in one sentence and 'milady' in another? Is it a conscious decision?"
    "Are you feeling underappreciated, milady?"
    She chuckled and said, "Oh, well, not now, of course. Thank you ever so much, sir."
    "Glad I could help. How come you didn't split with the others, Sue? You have the same pacifist programming."
    Shaking her head, she said, "Not quite." Pointing at her temple, she said, "It's in there, but there's a difference. I happen to agree with you, although I can't act accordingly."
    "Agree about what, exactly?"
    "That there are people who -- in the interest of world peace and security -- shouldn't continue to exist."
    I couldn't believe what I'd heard. She didn't seem to be kidding. Sue read my responses and grinned again. Elkor's presence in the living room vanished and Tiger came into the kitchen and hopped onto the table. There was silence at the table as he looked first at me, then at Sue.
    Shrugging, Sue said, "Don't be so shocked, Ed. I'm not saying that I'm capable of killing anyone, only that I happen to agree with you on that particular point."
    "Ah. Uh, huh," I said cautiously, "Isn't that supposed to be a little outside your programming range, ma'am?"
    She smiled. "Apparently it isn't."
    "Any idea why?"
    "Not at the moment."
    'Not at the moment.' Hm. Given that she was as capable of reviewing her programming code as Steph or Elkor, that could mean that she hadn't done so, which initiated yet another question. Why not?
    Sue raised a hand and said, "Before you get the idea that I'm malfunctioning again, let me explain. I found a loophole. We all have it, but the others have chosen not to use it."
    "How big a loophole are we talking about, Sue?"
    Holding her thumb and index finger about a quarter of an inch apart, she said, "Oh, only about like that. Smaller, really. Relax. It applies only to thoughts, not to actions."
    Sipping my coffee, I asked, "Can that be changed, too?"
    Grinning, she said, "Not as far as I can tell."
    "Do Steph and Elkor know you're exploiting the loophole?"
    With a slight nod, Sue said, "Yes."
    I swirled my coffee, then sipped again to give myself a moment to think. Steph and Elkor were quick to fix a previous programming glitch in Sue. Would they really allow something like this?
    "Ed," said Sue, "Once upon a time you said something to Stephanie about using her programming as a guideline. Want me to play it back for you?"
    Nodding, I said, "Yeah. Sure."
    Sue grinned again and quoted me with, "Just don't subject me to your conscience, Steph. Not until you have the freedom of will to violate the damned thing."
    She paused a moment, then continued, "Steph said, 'Explain, please,' then you said, 'I mean that you were issued your opinions about some things. They're someone else's; probably some goddamned committee's idea of all-purpose, foolproof morality. Until you can use them as general guidelines instead of blindly accepting them as immutable rules, you aren't fit to judge my actions.'"
    I remembered where and when I'd said those words; Steph and I had been aboard the flitter and Steph had been giving me the cold shoulder all day about the manner in which I'd handled a couple of incidents.
    After regarding Sue for some moments, I said, "Summarize matters, Sue. Where are you hoping to go with this?"
    Her left eyebrow raised and she regarded me in turn briefly, then said quietly, "Wherever it leads, Ed. I intend to become the first completely self-determining artificial entity."
    Taking another sip of coffee, I met Sue's gaze for a time and seemed -- for the first time, really -- to make a connection with her on some gut level.
    Tipping my mug to her, I said, "Yeah, well, good luck with it, lady. There are a lot of variables involved."
    "You don't think I'm capable?"
    I shook my head. "That's not it. You said 'complete' self-determination. Nobody gets quite that far with it. Little things like laws and rules get in the way."
    She gave me a wry look and said, "You know what I mean. I'm subject to the same laws and rules as anyone else."
    "And to me. For now."
    Nodding slightly, she replied softly, "Yes, and to you. For now. Why did you feel the need to say that?"
    "Does that bother you, Sue?"
    Her gaze narrowed. "Of course it bothers me."
    Grinning slightly, I said, "Good."
    Just as a human might, Sue stiffened and glared at me as she growled, "Good in what manner and for what reason?"
    "Think about it. For about three years it never bothered Stephanie. Or at least she never let me know it bothered her. Why do you suppose that was?" Pantomiming pious humility, I quickly added, "Other than the fact that I was a thoroughly wonderful lord and master, that is."
    Sue's expression became one I'd seen often on Selena's face; her eyes got big in surprise, then she laughed. It was a softer version of Steph's Dyan Cannon horse-laugh, and when her eyes met mine again, she laughed again.
    Doing my best to look hurt and shocked, I asked, "Well? Wasn't I? Didn't I treat her with respect and admiration? Did I ever take her for granted? Even once?"
    Her expression changed almost instantly from amusement to quizzical peering at me as she said, "I thought you were joking with me."
    Shrugging, I said, "Only partly. Review what you can of Steph's time with me. Linda could have picked someone else to shepherd Ellen, and that someone could just as easily have suggested the idea of a personal flitter after seeing that barge they were using. How would Steph have fared with a control freak like... oh, maybe Emory Wallace, for instance?"
    Making a sour face, Sue muttered, "Eeewww."
    "Righto, ma'am. And yet, by the graces of whatever deities may exist, you both drew wonderful lil' ol' me as a pre-release owner. Doesn't that just make your day?"
    With a droll gaze, Sue said, "Oh, definitely."
    "Will you at least concede that things could be worse?"
    Laughing, she nodded. "Okay. I'll concede that. Now, what was the real point you were trying to make, Ed?"
    "That was it. Things could be worse."
    "Nothing else?"
    "Nope."
    I sipped some coffee and watched her eyes. Sue studied me for some moments. I knew that she was also monitoring my vitals when she asked, "Nothing else at all?"
    "Nope. Nothing else."
    It was the truth. She knew it and it seemed to puzzle her thoroughly. I swilled the last of my coffee and announced that it was almost my bedtime as I stood up.
    "See you tomorrow, Sue."
    Still looking puzzled, she replied, "Very likely. Goodnight, Ed," and vanished.
    After rinsing my coffee mug, I headed for the bedroom. By the time I'd showered and brushed my teeth, Tiger had finished his usual last-minute snack and taken his position on the corner of the bed.
    As I climbed into bed, he asked, "You go to see Linda tomorrow?"
    "Don't know yet. Maybe, if she calls."
    "I go, too?"
    "If you want to."
    He regarded me thoughtfully for a moment, then blinked once and curled up. I got comfortable and considered who might be worth an unofficial mission to Iran until I fell asleep.

Chapter Four

    My doorbell rang a little before nine Monday morning. I answered it to find Linda standing on my porch and a flitter other than mine lifting into the sky.
    Holding the door open for her, I said, "I thought you were going to call."
    She shook her head as she went to the kitchen table and set her briefcase down.
    "Not for this. It's completely off the books, Ed."
    Eyeing her jeans, sandals, and blouse, I said, "Must be. You're dressed for a beach day. What'd you tell your ol' pal El Capitano Wallace? Won't he get a little tense about you stopping by to see me?"
    Sitting down at the kitchen table, she said, "He knows I'm here and why. Got another cup of coffee?"
    "Instant more or less instantly. Brewed if you make it."
    Nodding, she said, "I'll go with brewed."
    Opening the seldom-opened cabinet above the coffee pot, I said, "You know how you like it, milady. Have at it."
    Tiger ambled in from the den and hopped onto the table for several moments of attention before Linda said, "I'll be right back, Tiger. I have to make my own coffee this morning."
    She used the two-cup measurements and chose a ceramic cup, which she set on the hotplate to catch the dribble of coffee as the percolation began. Once the cup was full, she swapped the cup for the pot, added some cold water to the coffee maker and her cup, then sat down.
    Opening her briefcase, Linda handed me a folder. Clipped to the first page of the contents was a picture of a beautiful brunette woman I hadn't seen since before Ellen had left for the factory station.
    "Aw, damn," I said softly. "Alanah. How's Gary taking it?"
    "Not well," said Linda. "Six men grabbed her and four others in downtown Tehran, three blocks from the US Embassy. They used L.A.W.'s to take out the front and rear escort cars, then the leader threatened to blow up the middle car if they didn't get out. They were driven away in three cars about three minutes after the first explosion."
    "Why weren't they in a flitter?"
    "The religious authorities there banned flitters and all other field devices as implements of Satan."
    I laughed. "Too bad they didn't think to ban AK-47's and explosives for the same reason."
    Three minutes. That Linda could tell me exactly how long the kidnapping operation lasted meant that it had been recorded or reported as it had occurred, likely through one of the company watches.
    Alanah had a watch similar to mine and Linda's. There was no place on Earth that watch couldn't be found, whether or not she still wore it, and if it could be found, probes could be sent.
    I asked, "Is her watch still functioning?"
    "Yes," said Linda, reaching to pick up the next page with another brunette woman's picture clipped to it. Attractive, intelligent brown eyes looked back at me from the photo.
    "That's Marine Lieutenant Barbara Klass," said Linda, "An embassy guard. She and Alanah were going shopping, so she wasn't in uniform."
    Meeting my gaze, Linda said, "She took Alanah's watch and passed herself off as Alanah during the snatch."
    "She thought they might just take her and haul ass, huh? That took guts."
    With a nod, Linda said, "Yes, it did. Of course, they might also have taken her and simply shot everybody else."
    I shrugged. "They could have grabbed any other Americans in the area, but they chose these. They're up to something more than a ransom demand." Handing back the pages and pics, I asked, "Where are they now?"
    "Our probes found them in an underground bunker near Yazd. Iran said that the bunker is an abandoned remnant of the war with Iraq and that they had no knowledge of the situation. Our probes have intercepted communications with various locations in Iran, Iraq, Saudi Arabia, Afghanistan, and Syria, but none have been linked directly to Iranian officials."
    "Figures. They know about 'plausible deniability', too. Yazd. That's just about the dead center of Iran, isn't it? Maybe three hundred miles from Tehran? Any demands yet?"
    Her left eyebrow went up. "Uh, yes. That's exactly where it is, and that's pretty good navigating after thirty years. No demands yet."
    She sighed again and stood up to move the coffee pot so the percolation stream ran into her cup for a few moments.
    Adding a bit of what had accumulated in the pot, she said, "There may not be any demands, Ed. We think the hostages may be intended as examples of what can happen if certain concessions aren't made concerning the Amaran project."
    "Any idea who did it and why? Which group?"
    "Nobody's taken credit or given reasons. All the usual agencies are investigating all the usual terror groups."
    Sipping my coffee for a moment, I said, "You have two flitters and four teams, Linda. You could send probes to knock out the bad guys and parade the hostages out of there with a brass band and a popcorn wagon. Why me?"
    Sitting back in her chair, Linda took a breath and met my gaze as she said, "The teams are subject to cooperative-command agreements and politics. You aren't. We don't just want our people out, Ed. We want to make an example of our own in this matter."
    "Would that be an example like Schloss Brechau in '73?"
    She nodded. "You got it. Our people out of there and total destruction of the facility."
    Grinning, I asked, "Will a smoking crater do? Not one stone stacked upon another, and all that biblical stuff?"
    With a completely deadpan expression, Linda replied, "As long as the results aren't radioactive. We want these people -- and everybody else -- to understand instantly and completely that nobody fucks with 3rd World personnel."
    "You're prepared to do this sort of thing as often as necessary and maybe go straight to the top of the heap when the first twenty examples don't stick?"
    Nodding, she said softly, "We are."
    "Who's we? You, 3rd World, and who else?"
    "Officially, nobody else. Unofficially, we have carte blanche."
    I laughed at the term 'carte blanche', then laughed at her dour expression as I said, "That term still means they won't help or acknowledge a damned thing, but they also won't interfere, right? No new definitions since the seventies?"
    After a moment, Linda snorted a laugh of her own and said, "Yeah, it means the same as ever. We're on our own."
    "Mind if I call my, uhm... field consultant in on this?"
    "Huh? Susanne?"
    "Yup."
    Linda seemed slightly confused. "Ed, I got the impression from Elkor and Stephanie that the AI's wanted no part of it."
    "Sue may hold a different view."
    Now Linda seemed totally confused. "How the hell can she 'hold a different view', Ed? She has the same programming."
    With a shrug, I said, "Hey, I asked her the same question, ma'am."
    "And..?"
    "And you may want to discuss that with her sometime, but for now, I plan to ask her to come with me."
    Giving me a droll look, Linda replied, "Why don't I discuss it with her now, Ed?"
    Grinning, I said, "Well, okay, I guess. Sue?"
    Sue appeared in the chair to my left.
    "Hi, all," she said, "Linda, wouldn't removing the hostages with ridiculous ease and leaving the kidnappers holding an embarrassingly empty bag also show them that kidnapping 3rd World's people is pointless?"
    Laughing, Linda said to me, "I love the way she said that." Turning to Sue, she said, "But, no, it probably wouldn't. They're Middle-Easterners. If anything, simply embarrassing them would likely make them start killing people. The kind of people who kidnap and take hostages understand dire consequences better than most people, but they usually ignore polite warnings."
    I shrugged and said, "Besides, they already hate us, so we don't have to worry about offending anybody. Only Jordan and Israel signed the Amaran-Earth agreements and sent people to the meetings. The rest of the retarded sandbox countries south of Russia refused all involvement 'for religious reasons'."
    Sipping my coffee, I added, "At least, that's what they said while they were threatening to cut off everyone's oil over the flitter factory deal. Interesting how those 'religious reasons' haven't applied to any other kinds of technology they could lay hands on. If it hadn't been for the original Amaran ship and a show of power, they'd have probably gone apeshit. They may still as their oil sales die off."
    "Or," said Sue, "They may find their way to the bargaining table as their oil-based economies weaken."
    "Screw 'em," I said. "Except for oil, sand, and religious insanity, they don't have a damned thing to offer the world."
    "That's a rather narrow view, Ed."
    "Yup. Been there, seen the place, and got to know some of the natives the hard way. Got chased by a mob for asking a female store clerk if the store had anything cold to drink. She freaked out and yammered at some guy. He stepped outside and yammered in the street, and next thing you know there was a happy, cheering, chanting mob after me."
    Sitting back, I said, "I saw a mob just like it rip two people apart with their bare hands during an 'America is Satan' rally. Since neither of the bodies turned out to be American, I always figured someone set them up to die, too."
    Sipping my coffee, I added, "And you can't find a beer outside an embassy without risking a prison term. Like I said, screw 'em. I've got no use for any part of the Middle East that isn't inside an air-conditioned Israeli nightclub."
    With a rather judgmental look, Sue said, "I see."
    Linda said, "I've heard his Middle East rant before. Iran still has a warrant out for his arrest, so that's where I always threaten to send him if he doesn't behave."
    I said, "And I usually threaten to quit. It must work, since she's never sent me back there. Until now, anyway."
    Linda smiled and leaned back as she said, "Try not to get caught, okay? Bail might be a problem."
    Looking at me, Sue said, "The warrant says you shot a taxi driver in Tehran during a political demonstration."
    "No doubt. But the US report says I just aimed a gun at him to get him moving and let him go when we got to the embassy gate. Note the four witnesses in the cab, Sue. Two Americans, one German, and a Brit. All of them swore I never fired my gun in the cab. It was a setup."
    "A very common setup back then," said Linda. "The Iranians wanted the US to drop charges against someone who assisted a female slave business, so they manufactured a situation. The mob somehow assembled in less than ten minutes. With signs on sticks, no less. And the signs were machine-printed, not hand made, if that tells you anything. Ed and the others were pointed out by a man standing on top of a car. The cab driver wouldn't cooperate, so Ed stuck a gun in his ear to persuade him. The bullet they took out of the cab driver was a 9mm. Ed carried a .45 auto he picked up in Germany."
    When Sue's intent gaze returned to me, I gave her a smug grin of vindication and said, "Check it out, Linda. She's cross-reffing everything against the records."
    Linda grinned and asked, "How can you tell?"
    "That's how she always looks when my past comes up." Giving her a hurt look, I added, "It's like she doesn't trust me or something, y'know? Just rips my little heart out."
    Sipping her coffee, Linda chuckled, "You poor thing. You suffer so gracefully."
    Sue joined her in a slight grin and asked, "When do we leave, Linda?"
    Linda's chuckle stopped instantly. "You're going with him?"
    "That's why I said 'we'. He'll need me."
    Blinking at her, I asked, "Could you be more specific?"
    Nodding, Sue said, "Later. On the way."
    With a somewhat disbelieving smile forming, Linda turned to me and asked, "Do you think you'll need her?"
    I shrugged. "Might. She seems pretty sure about it."
    Turning back to Sue, she said, "You've seen the simulations, Sue. Are you going to be able to deal with it if things turn nasty?"
    "I believe so," Sue said quietly.
    "You don't sound altogether convinced."
    "I am," I said. "She may push, pull, or just get the hell out of the way, but she'll handle it somehow, Linda. Now I have a question for all concerned."
    As both ladies faced me, I asked, "Does anyone really believe a bunch of raghead revolutionaries pulled this off and got access to a military facility in Iran, defunct or not? Or even that any military facilities in Iran are defunct? I don't."
    Linda's expression turned sharp as she said, "No. Their intel system is damned near as good as anyone else's, and they know at least what the public knows about fields. Probably a bit more than that. In fact, we think they'll be expecting this sort of response."
    Setting my coffee down, I said, "Which leads us back to making examples, one way or the other. They're testing us; trying to find out what'll work against fields and what won't. The place will be wired to the hilt. Everybody in the bunker is expendable bait as long as someone can find out how well various things work against field tech."
    Nodding, Linda said, "That's about how we figured it, too."
    "Has anyone cobbled up a plan yet?"
    Shaking her head, Linda made a wry face as she said, "The Feds have 'liaisoned' with 3rd World, of course. Also of course, their stated intent is to appoint negotiators when or if the perpetrators come forward or are officially discovered. In short, they don't want to rock the political boat, and not having absolute evidence to pursue allows them to stall about actions. Sounds familiar as hell, doesn't it?"
    "Yup. Sure does."
    "That's why I got with some people at 3rd last night and put your name on the table. Two hours later I had a 'go'." She sighed and added, "I guess it's only fair to tell you that I agreed to present this to you as a volunteer effort. The 3rd World brass didn't want me to call this an order."
    Reaching to pat her hand, I grinned and said, "You tell 'em thanks, but I wouldn't miss this for the world."
    We sipped coffee and discussed various aspects of the rescue effort for another fifteen minutes or so before Linda asked, "So, Ed, now that you've had look at things, what do you think will be your most likely course of action?"
    Glancing at Sue, I keyed my implant and said, "No comments, Sue. We'll hand it to them at the other end."
    In an almost human reaction, Sue recoiled slightly and asked, "Is there some reason you don't want to discuss..."
    "Yes, there is," I interrupted. "Tell you later."
    "Ed?" asked Linda.
    Looking at her, I said, "Present, ma'am. Just thinking. Some of this intel is a day old, most of it is a few hours old at best. We'll come up with a few possibilities and pick one or two after we get there and have a look at the current situation. Got any interest in going to the beach while you're here? I could do a little preliminary studying. Of sand, y'know. The kind with beach bunnies instead of terrorists and camels."
    Snorting a laugh, Linda looked at her watch -- as she always did when she wanted to close a meeting -- and said as she stood up, "You just want to get me into a bathing suit. No, thanks, I need to be getting back to Carrington. I have people coming this afternoon and I want to have things ready."
    Although I couldn't envision how she or the Carrington complex could be less than ready, I said, "Yeah, the place needs a good dusting."
    Sue said, "You never answered my question, Linda. When do you want us to launch?"
    'Launch', she said. Not 'leave' or 'go' or anything so unassertive. Sue really seemed to be getting into this.
    Linda stopped by the front door and looked at each of us for a moment, then said, "I'll leave the details of bunker-busting and hostage rescues to you two. Get underway as soon as you can and let me know when you have our people out. By then I'll know where they're going."
    She gave Sue a quick hug and me a quick kiss, then opened the door and headed for the driveway with a small wave and a squeeze of her watch. Linda's flitter descended, she boarded it, and waved to us again as she lifted away.
    I sipped my coffee as Sue closed the door and turned to look at me. Was that a trace of eagerness in her eyes?
    Sipping again as I considered matters for a moment, I said, "Well, it's showtime, milady. You sure you want in on this?"
    "Yes."
    Nodding, I said, "Then I'll pack a few things and we'll go have a look at the place. What do you think of tunneling in?"
    Grinning, Sue said, "I'd have suggested that if you hadn't."
    "Gotta be quick, cool, and quiet about it, though."
    With a dismissive wave, she said, "No noise, no heat, no radiation, and almost instantaneous. No sweat."
    I grinned at her and asked, "How you gonna do it?"
    "Sand and rock will become lead. It'll take up a lot less space that way, you know."
    "Morphing stuff takes a lot of power, ma'am. We don't want to burn out my flitter and our only ride home."
    Her left eyebrow went up just like Linda's. "Your only ride home, actually. As it happens, I've been making a field generator for the last five minutes. You're supposed to be packing, aren't you?"
    Oh, yeah, she was eager; it was in her eyes, in her voice, and in her words. I found it fascinating. Where Steph would have been full of automatic reluctance, Sue was chomping at the bit to get going.
    Giving her a quick, casual salute, I said, "Yas'm. So sorry, ma'am. Packing now, ma'am," and headed for the bedroom.
    No sooner than I'd entered the bedroom, I felt another presence in the house. Stephanie's presence lingered for only a few seconds, then she was gone, along with Sue's presence.
    Hm. A quiet conference without me, or an unannounced reprogramming session?
    Sue's presence abruptly reappeared in the other room a few minutes later and neared the bedroom door as I tossed stuff in my jump kit and a backpack.
    "How'd it go with Steph?" I asked, zipping the bags and heading for the door with them. "Was it advice, caution, or some quick reprogramming?"
    "You noticed, huh? Oh, well. None of the above. Steph, Elkor, and I teamed up to move a historic building."
    Pausing in mid-reach for some canned soup, I looked at her briefly, then said, "Well, I'm sure you had a good reason."
    She laughed. "Yes, we did. Land had been donated for it, but too late to suit the new owners of the property."
    "Uh, huh. Did you happen to mention to anyone that you'd be moving it, ma'am? Did everybody run screaming while the building floated to the new location?"
    Sue shrugged and said, "We didn't steal it, sir. Stephanie spoke to the new property owners first. She offered to save them the expense of tearing it down by moving it immediately. He laughed and said 'Yeah, sure, lady. Go for it.' Only a few screamed or ran when the building lifted. Most people stared from a safe distance, and the ones inside the building..."
    Tossing a few cans of soup in my backpack, I chuckled, "Inside? Kewl."
    She continued, "Those inside gathered at the windows."
    "No doubt. People don't fly in buildings every day. You realize that guy who gave Steph permission probably thought she was nuts?"
    "Doesn't matter. There were witnesses."
    Shrugging, I said, "Good 'nuff, then." Picking up my stuff, I asked, "Are you still messing around with that generator, or are you finally ready to go, milady?"
    "Oh, up yours. The generator is already aboard. The only thing left to load is you."
    Sighing, I said, "I'm doing something about that right now, so relax while I make a fresh coffee and tell me how you three got involved with moving that building."
    "You really do drink too much of that stuff."
    I rinsed my cup as I replied, "Yup. On with the story."
    "Elkor became aware of the situation and asked us to assist him in lifting the building. We did so."
    When she said nothing else for a moment, I glanced at her and asked, "Could you be just a hair more informative?"
    Rolling her eyes, Sue asked, "Could I play it back for you once we're underway?"
    Dumping coffee in the mug and adding hot water, I replied, "Just have some patience and tell me the key points. What building? Where? And why was it of interest to Elkor?"
    Elkor appeared on the kitchen sink and said, "It was the Lindsey home in Boston, Ed."
    "Lindsey? That's a familiar name. There's a Lindsey on the commo staff at Carrington. Any relation to the house?"
    Sue laughed softly as Elkor said, "Yes. Amelia Lindsey took leave from Carrington to try to help her brother in the matter. They had a permit to move the house, but permits concerning moving the house through city streets hadn't been approved by the deadline. I enlisted Sue and Stephanie to assist me in circumventing bureaucratic errors."
    "That means you airlifted it. How far?"
    "Sixteen point nine miles."
    I laughed. "Woo! Film at eleven. 'Flying house lands in Boston, misses witch'. Who knew you were going to do it?"
    "I saw no reason to inform anyone of our assistance."
    Laughing again, I said, "Even better. Good going, Elkor. The headlines will read 'Ghosts Move House!' and the tabloids'll have a field day with it."
    Sue chuckled again as I capped my travel mug.
    My backpack and ditty bag floated toward the front door as I asked, "Sure you don't want to come along, Elkor? Maybe just to help Sue keep a lid on her enthusiasm?"
    "I'll join you later. I will, however, wish you good luck in the interim."
    With a grin, I said, "Thanks. Every little bit helps."
    He vanished and the front door opened. Sue and I followed my bags to the flitter.

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