3rd World Products, Inc.
Book 11

Copyrightę2008 by Ed Howdershelt
ISBN 1-932693-33-5
978-1-9326-9333-1
Note: I'm not going to re-introduce everybody.
Read my other 3WP-Books before starting Book 11.

Chapter One

    My flitter hovered in stealth mode ten feet from Mina Tierney's twelfth-floor Alexandria, Virginia office window. At three minutes to four, the tall, attractive brunette woman checked the clock over her door, made a few last notes, tossed a folder in her out basket, and locked her desk.
    On my field screen I watched a sniper on the fifteenth floor of an unfinished building nearly a block away. He quickly put down his binoculars and snuggled up to the stock of his .50 caliber rifle, his finger already on the trigger.
    Tierney rolled her chair back, stretched and rolled her neck, picked up her purse, and stood up. Walking around her desk, she stopped to take her coat off the rack between her two office windows, presenting a perfect profile as she seemingly found reason to closely examine one sleeve. The sniper fired.
    Instead of destroying the incoming round, my flitter used its field perimeter as I'd instructed; to capture the slug undamaged. I reached up and plucked the bullet out of the air above the deck as I sent a ping to Clarke's datapad.
    "Clarke, did you get all that?"
    The sniper fired again as Clarke replied, "Sure did."
    "He just made a follow-up shot." I paused to pluck a second slug from the air and said, "A flitter probe will follow him and feed the info to your pad."
    On my screen, the sniper did something I considered rather unusual; he lined up for yet another shot as Tierney shrugged herself into her coat. A moment later, the flitter intercepted a third bullet. The sniper picked up his spotter binoculars and stared through them for a moment, then started quickly disassembling his rifle and packing the parts into a molded plastic case.
    "Hey, Ed," said Clarke, "How did you get Jonel to go along with us? I thought 3rd World was dead set against lending people to support FBI and CIA ops."
    "I didn't ask. This is my flitter and you only wanted me to fly cover for a woman in DC while you nailed a sniper. If Jonel has a problem with that, she can tell it to a priest."
    "Oh, holy shit! You're saying she doesn't know you're here?!"
    "She might or might not know by now. Doesn't matter. I'm off the clock and I'm keeping a woman alive. The sniper's heading for the lift. Once he's aboard it, I'll get these rounds down to Harter. Tell Miz Tierney I think she's one hell of an actress, okay?"
    "You bet. Harter's still at the van. Later, Ed. And thanks again."
    "No problem, Clarke. See you later."
    The flitter plummeted like a stone and stopped a foot above a white panel van with a plumbing company name on its sides. I hopped over the side and used a field platform to lower myself to the ground, then tapped on the van's passenger-side door. The blonde woman in the driver's seat saw me through the window, set her datapad on the dash, and opened the door for me.
    I reached up to drop the three bullets into her hand, then turned to go, but she asked, "Hey! That's it?!"
    Looking back, I said, "You have the slugs. You have a copy of the vids. What else do you want?"
    She gave me a wry look. "No hello or goodbye?"
    Meeting her gaze, I said, "Harter, five minutes after we met, you made a point of telling Stevens you weren't at all happy about me, so why bother with social bullshit?"
    Her gaze tightened. "He told you I said that?"
    "Hell, no. I heard you tell him."
    "You couldn't have. You were in the next room with Clarke."
    "Maybe you didn't notice the room partitions were just fabric-covered accordions, Harter. You were standing by the map on your side. I was standing by the map on our side. You said, 'Clarke pulled this guy out of thin air as far as I'm concerned. We don't know a damned thing about him except that he's been off our payroll for almost twenty years, so stay tight in case he fucks up big time. Make sure he doesn't take anybody else down with him'."
    To her credit, Harter reddened slightly -- but only very slightly -- as she made an 'oh, my God!' sort of face and rolled her eyes.
    "Uh... Would it help to say I'm sorry?"
    With a grinning shrug, I replied, "Try it with Clarke. He's the guy you work for," just as gunshots sounded from the front of the unfinished building. My implant pinged half a second before Clarke said, "Zero on my pad, Ed! We're pinned by three shooters!"
    As she looked in the direction of the shots, Harter asked, "Ed? What's..." but I'd already called up my board. Soaring around the building, I had my flitter guide the board to hover a hundred feet above Clarke's position and saw him hunkered behind a forklift with two other people as pistol fire peppered the forklift. Hm. All that shooting without valid targets? Someone was providing cover fire while someone else moved.
    Using a field screen, I had the flitter show me the sniper. The guy was hauling ass toward a back fence as his two pals unloaded their weapons at the forklift. I sent stuns at all of them, then told Clarke where to look for them. As I lowered the board to the ground and let it disappear, Harter came running around a truck with her gun drawn. Leaving my screen up, I yelled, "All clear!" and waved her over to show her a probe view of Clarke and his people cuffing bad guys.
    Holstering her gun, she asked, "What the hell was that... that thing... you were on?"
    "It's how I get around when I'm not on the flitter. Aren't you supposed to be at the van?"
    Her gaze narrowed as she flatly stated, "I'm also backup."
    "Relax, it wasn't criticism. What would you bet at least one of the bad guys will claim diplomatic immunity?"
    "No bet. The sniper is definitely Iranian. With Savak, in fact, but he's listed as an executive secretary by the embassy."
    I chuckled, "No surprise there."
    Clarke and the others came out of the building and we all headed back to the van. The prisoners were loaded and Harter climbed into the driver's seat as Clarke said, "Well, that's it. I guess we won't get to follow anybody after all."
    "You could let one escape."
    He shook his head. "Not in a convincing manner. We'll postpone charges and let forensics see what they can turn up during some quiet interrogations. Thanks again."
    I grinned. "It was kinda fun to get out for a while."
    "Well, let me know if you get in trouble about this. If Jonel fires you, I'll make you a spot on one of our teams." When I gave him a fisheye look, he sighed, "Yeah, right. Sorry. Forgot. No teams."
    Harter's left eyebrow went up at that. "Why not?"
    Glancing at her, I replied, "I prefer to work alone."
    "Why?"
    "Take me out for dinner and drinks and maybe I'll tell you."
    For a long moment, Harter just looked at me, then her narrow, irritated gaze shifted to Clarke and back to me. She said, "That remark could easily qualify as sexual harassment."
    I chuckled, "Or even a compliment. You just demonstrated perfectly one of the reasons I hate working with other people." Calling up my board, I said, "Later, Clarke," and lifted into the evening sky.
    Once aboard my flitter, I headed back to Florida half-expecting Jonel to call and try to give me a hard time about working with Clarke. As the flitter landed, I saw the results of the thunderstorm that had been approaching when I'd left.
    A pine tree had fallen in the neighbor's yard, thankfully missing everything but the ground. In my own yard an oak tree had broken and splintered and now tilted dangerously close to the house.
    Using a thin field to slice the fallen oak tree into fifteen-inch pieces, I sat in the shade with an iced coffee and watched Tiger wander over and around the tree chunks.
    My implant pinged with Denise Jonel's chimes. I answered with, "Hello? Who is this, please?"
    She sighed, "Oh, very cute, Ed."
    "Gee, lady, your voice sounds almost familiar. Give me a hint?"
    "Can you remember anything about having a new boss?"
    "Oh, yeah! Happened about a month ago, didn't it? Danielle... no, that's not it and don't tell me. Ahhh... Got it! Denise! I think. Yeah! And your last name starts with a 'J', doesn't it? Hey, doesn't matter, I'll look it up later. What's on your mind, ma'am?"
    She shot back, "Firing you if you don't stop clowning around. How about putting up a screen?"
    I did so and she appeared in a light brown skirt and jacket that fit her well without quite looking snug. I let her see my appreciation and said, "Wow. Nice outfit, Denise."
    Addressing her directly by her first name in that manner was a test of sorts. She flunked it when her eyes hardened noticeably and she seemed to frost over a bit.
    I regarded her in matching stony silence for a moment. "Right, then. I'll ask again; what's-on-your-mind?"
    Jonel heard me enunciate each word of my question and seemed to stiffen before she replied in a rather schoolmarmish tone, "What were you doing in DC this afternoon?"
    "Not DC. Alexandria. And if you really don't know, you don't belong in that chair."
    She snapped, "Never mind what I know; what I want to know is why you think you can circumvent 3rd World policies."
    "I saved a woman's life today. On my own time, no less. If that's against 3rd World's policies, they can explain it to the media when you fire me. Did you have any other reason for calling?"
    A couple of seething moments passed before she replied, "Yes. I may have an assignment for you."
    "You 'may' have an assignment? You don't know yet?"
    She glowered at me and flatly replied, "I'm still deciding."
    Sipping my coffee, I said, "Ah. Well, holler back when you're sure, ma'am. Anything else?"
    For a moment she appeared to be considering various responses -- likely scathing responses, judging by her expression -- then she said, "Come to Carrington for a briefing this evening."
    "Can't you just give me some details and let me get started on whatever it is?"
    "I'd rather discuss the matter in person."
    "Is that how Linda would do it?"
    Through clenched teeth, she grated out, "Damn it, let's get something clear, Ed! It's my office now and I'd rather discuss this matter in person." She took a composing breath, then asked, "How soon can you be here?"
    I shrugged. "An hour. Or less." I chuckled, "You should know that, too, ma'am."
    Glaringly glancing at her watch, she snapped, "Make it an hour and a half. I should be free by then."
    "Okay. Is that it for now?"
    Studying me for a moment, she replied, "Yes. See you then," and tapped her 'off' icon. I let the field screen dissipate and went to take a shower. As I put on clean clothes, Serena popped into being beside my dresser in her usual cutoffs, sneaks, and blue blouse.
    Letting my gaze travel up her until it locked on her ice-grey eyes, I said, "Hi, there, Flitter Goddess. How's the field scooter biz going?"
    "It's soaring, of course. I thought you might like to discuss Jonel's intentions before you go to Carrington."
    "Um... well, I think I might rather just sit here and stare at you, ma'am. I never tire of your gorgeous eyes, y'know."
    Her 'gorgeous eyes' rolled and her face assumed a 'yeah, sure' expression as her gaze returned to me. She manufactured a sigh and said, "As that may be, I happen to know why she called you."
    I put on a sneaker and said, "Kewl, ma'am. In that case, why'd she call me?"
    "There have been recordings of anomalous field use in places where there should be no field manipulation devices. Jonel has sent probes to monitor the regions, but they've been unable to determine who may be creating the anomalies."
    'Anomalies', huh? Yeah, I guess that's one way they'd see field uses by someone who wasn't on the right list. They'd want to know who and how at the very least, especially after all the trouble one nutcase kid with a PFM had caused at the factory station.
    I asked, "Has anyone been hurt or killed as a result of any of the anomalous field uses?"
    "Not according to records available."
    "How big is the area and how many 'anomalies' have occurred?"
    Putting up a field screen that displayed a red-boxed overhead view of what I recognized as a portion of Grand Canyon, Serena said, "Since April seventeenth, eight hundred and six incidents have been recorded in this area. None were recorded before then."
    Studying the display, I noted that the elongated red rectangle extended from the tiny town of Cameron westward as far as Supai. The area encompassed about ten miles on both sides of the canyon and the largest numbers of green dots were concentrated in parking areas. Touching a green dot displayed the date and time and the length of time an anomaly existed and the amount of energy involved. I called up a graph. Most of the dots seemed to represent bursts that had lasted less than two seconds and used very little energy. Less than ten percent had lasted longer than a few seconds.
    Looking at Serena, I asked, "How many of the dots coincide with reported car break-ins and thefts, ma'am?"
    Canting her head slightly, she answered, "Eighty-three."
    "Big stuff or little stuff? Cameras? Electronics? Credit cards?"
    "Most of the reported thefts have involved small amounts of money or food and drink."
    "Money left in cars? Likely small change, mostly. Any felony-sized thefts? Fifty bucks or more?"
    Causing a few of the green dots to expand, Serena said, "Yes, but in each case a larger amount of money was ignored."
    "So someone's using fields to pop door locks or pilfer. Didn't Jonel's probes watch for that sort of activity?"
    With a small grin, Serena replied, "Apparently not, or not in any effective manner."
    "Meaning nobody thought to tell the probes to look for it?"
    Still grinning, Serena nodded. "Apparently so."
    Sweeping a finger along some of the green dots lightly peppering the canyon walls and bottom, I said, "No parking lots in these places. Any indications of how the fields were used there?"
    Serena shook her head. "No evidence was found."
    "Hm. Hunting, then. Maybe. Or maybe self-defense. That place is still pretty wild when you get off the tourist trails." Putting on my left sneaker, I stood up and said, "And I'd bet the probes have been there since the rash of 'anomalies' started. How many did they send out before Jonel called me?"
    My question made Serena laugh softly. "Seventy probes have been circulating within the region for the last forty-six days."
    That gently amazed me. "Jeeezus! Not even one of them has been able to catch somebody using a field? What does that tell you?"
    Laughing again, she said, "I'd prefer to hear what it tells you. After all, I've been among those who never thought to suggest the field surges might be related to petty thefts."
    "Okay. Having already met a lady who could see fields, it tells me that someone in that area may not only be able to use fields, but may also be able to spot them. How's that sound, milady?"
    Lifting an eyebrow, she replied, "Reasonable," and vanished.
    Hm. I finished dressing and made a coffee, then pinged Tiger and Annabelle to ask if they wanted to come with me to Carrington. Tiger seemed less than enthusiastic about the idea and Annabelle reflected his attitude.
    "No, Ed. Linda is not there."
    "Other people are there, Tiger."
    "But Linda is not."
    "Okay. See you later, then."
    "Okay."
    Grabbing my backpack and cowboy hat, I called the flitter down as I headed outside, then formed a field platform and rose to meet it. As I aimed it at Carrington and settled back in my seat, I noticed how different things seemed to feel; I had almost zero enthusiasm and even felt an odd twinge of reluctance about the trip. I sipped coffee, put on some music, and gave my reluctance some thought. I'd never felt this way when Linda had been in charge. Well, almost never.
    With a sigh, I thought, 'Oh, well. Give the new girl the chance you promised her,' and sipped again, setting the flitter's speed to kill most of an hour so I could check email and messages in discussion groups.
    When I arrived at Carrington, I had the flitter park over the admin building and skimmed off the flitter's deck on my board, looping down to land at the front doors. The guy at the security desk wasn't Chuck; he was a stranger who -- though he checked my ID and obviously knew who I was because of my board -- made me wait as he called Jonel's office for authorization to let me into the building.
    An ID check by some new guy I'd have readily understood, but that I suddenly needed authorization to enter the building came as a complete and unpleasant surprise. Handing my ID back, the guy passed me through and I got underway again.
    There was a noticeable lack of traffic in the corridors as I headed for the mess hall to refill my coffee and grab a donut before the meeting. As I approached the mess hall's doors, I saw they were shut. I couldn't remember ever having seen them shut before. A sign on the right door became readable that said 'Hours of operation' and listed three two-hour serving times per day. Well, damn.
    The clock above the doors said I'd have to wait half an hour, which was fifteen minutes too long even if I'd been willing to wait. I detoured to the security office -- historically a ready source of coffee and donuts -- and found the door locked, but almost as soon as I realized that, a buzzer sounded and the latch snapped back.
    Entering the office, I found a lovely brunette lady in an Air Force uniform at a desk where before had been open floor space. I looked for the coffee pot along the left wall and it wasn't there.
    Eyeing my shirt, jeans, and sneakers in a slightly critical manner, she asked in a flat tone, "May I help you, sir?"
    "Yeah, where's the coffee bar? I have to kill a few minutes before a meeting with Jonel."
    "The coffee service was removed, sir."
    Looking appropriately amazed, I said, "No donuts I could almost understand, but a cop shop without coffee? Are you sure?"
    Unamused, she replied, "Yes, sir, I'm sure."
    I sighed, "Can't believe it. Oh, well. Is Cap'n Wallace in?"
    Her gaze was direct as she replied, "No, sir," and offered no further info, such as when he might return.
    Enough. I said, "Later, then," and turned to go, but she said, "Sir, I need to see your ID."
    "Why? Is the base on alert or something? You think they'd have let me in without one?"
    Her gaze narrowed. "Regulations, sir."
    I showed it to her and she actually logged my card number, something else I couldn't remember ever having happened. I clipped the card back on my shirt pocket's flap and again turned to go.
    She said, "Sir, you're supposed to wear your ID on its lanyard."
    Saying, "Didn't get a lanyard with it. Don't really want one, either," I continued out of the office. A small motion near the ceiling above a water fountain nearby made me look and I watched a camera turn to aim at me. Her? Whatever. I sipped some of my remaining coffee, called up my board, and headed for Jonel's office, two corridor intersections away.

Chapter Two

    When I tapped on Jonel's door, a buzzer sounded and I opened the door to find Anna at her usual desk in the outer office. I smiled at her and said, "Am I glad to see you, ma'am. They've changed this place for the worse since the last time I was here. Would you believe there was no coffee in the security office?"
    "Sure I would," she replied dourly, "We can't keep coffeepots in our offices anymore. How've you been, Ed?"
    "Fine. You?"
    With a finesse that almost caused me to miss her action, she gave me the old signal for 'watchers' as she replied, "Same as ever. Have a seat and tell me how Tiger's getting along with Annabelle." As I did so, she confirmed the signal and silently tapped an index finger twice on her desk.
    Uh, huh. In other words, don't talk about anything else? Anna wasn't much of a pet person; although she'd been happy to see Tiger when he'd visited, she'd never asked about him between visits.
    Wondering how and why she'd come to know some relatively ancient spook signals, I shrugged and said, "They're still together and show no signs of getting tired of each other."
    Glancing at the clock on the wall, I asked, "If I'm gonna have to wait more than fifteen or so, I could zip down to the mess hall and be there when it opens." With an elaborate questioning look, I asked, "By the way, ma'am, why is it closed? It was never closed before except for cleaning."
    With a shrug of her own, Anna replied, "New rulers, new rules."
    From her desk intercom came Jonel's voice saying, "Anna, I've finished with Senator Hainey. Send Ed in, please."
    Hm. Anna hadn't yet let her know I'd arrived. I got to my feet and gave Anna a thoughtful look as I passed her desk. She returned a 'yup, that's how things are' expression and buzzed me into Jonel's inner office.
    Jonel sat at her desk making notes as I walked in. She glanced up and indicated the chair by her desk, then returned to scribbling. I looked around and noted various differences about the office; new furniture, two new paintings, none of the old paintings, and no coffee urn in the recessed wall space near the door.
    Well, damn. I checked my mug; not much left. Thumbing at the bathroom, I said, "Take your time, ma'am. I'll rinse out my mug and make a fresh cup."
    Looking up to fix me with a direct gaze, Jonel said, "It's customary to ask to use someone's bathroom."
    "It's also customary to at least say 'hello' to visitors. Are you saying I can't use your bathroom to make a coffee?"
    After a moment, she said, "No, of course not. And hello."
    I nodded, said, "Thanks and hello yourself," and sipped the last of my coffee as I entered the bathroom. Once I had a fresh mug of coffee, I took a seat by her desk and watched her as she penned yet another note before she put the pen down and looked at me.
    Her eyes studied my shirt for a moment, then went to my coffee mug before they returned to my face.
    "Well," she said, "Some things never change, do they?"
    "Nope. But some do, it seems. No coffee in offices? The mess hall closed in the middle of the afternoon?"
    "The 'dining hall'," Jonel corrected me, "Yes, Ed, some things have changed around here." She sat back in her chair and added, "And for the better, I think."
    I chuckled, "Since I was nearly out of coffee, I think I'll disagree. How about telling me why you called me?"
    Jonel regarded me silently for a moment, then said, "We aren't to that point in the conversation yet. First we need to talk about the way you're dressed."
    "No we don't. You said you had an assignment for me, Denise. Let's have it so I can get to it."
    She stiffened and her eyes hardened as they had before at my use of her first name. I'd suddenly had more than enough of whatever she was trying to dish out. Meeting her gaze, I said quietly, "Or, if you intend to try to drop some kind of dress code on me, you can just give me my retirement papers now."
    Rolling her eyes, she responded sarcastically, "Oh, now how could I have possibly known you'd try to play your retirement card the minute I suggested something you didn't particularly like? That won't work, Ed. Not this time. The next time you appear in this office, you'll be wearing appropriate..."
    In a conversational tone, I cut her off with, "Can the crap, Denise."
    Her eyes got big. She blurted, "What did you just say to me?!"
    "I said, 'can-the-crap-Denise'. And give me my retirement papers. I'll drop them at personnel on my way out."
    "That tired old 'retirement' threat won't work anymore, Ed! You just don't know when to quit pushing, do you?!"
    "And you don't seem to know when someone's being dead serious. Hand over my papers."
    "Forget the damned papers! Where the hell do you get off, thinking you can talk to me like that?!"
    "Where the hell do you get off, thinking you can forget everything we agreed on back before Linda left?" Getting up, I sighed, "Never mind, I'll get new ones at personnel," and walked to the door. It was locked and the knob wouldn't move.
    Jonel got to her feet and said in a cold, hard tone, "I'll let you know when this interview's finished, Ed. Get back over here."
    I sent a tendril into the lock and found the circuit board, located the motor wires, and fed them current. The lock snapped back and the door opened. Jonel had come around her desk and was heading toward me as I let myself out, closed the door, and sent a bit too much current into the lock's circuit board.
    Looking at wide-eyed Anna, I asked, "You heard?"
    She nodded and nearly whispered, "Oh, hell, yes. Ed..."
    "Right. It's been nice knowing you, ma'am. I'm heading down to personnel to retire again."
    "Uh... Oh. Okay." Sniffing the air as she glanced around, Anna asked, "Is something burning?"
    "Not now, it isn't."
    The connecting door buzzed, but the lock didn't snap. It buzzed again, then again. I gave Anna a little two-finger salute and headed for the outside door. She buzzed the latch for me. Before I reached the first intersecting corridor, two AP guards came running around the corner and one of them hollered, "Sir! Stop where you are!"
    I keyed on my five suit and kept walking toward them. The guy repeated the command. I said, "I'm on my way to personnel, guys. If it'll make you happy, you can come with me."
    "No, sir! You will stop where you are! That's an order, sir!"
    Okay, I stopped. "Now what?"
    "We have orders to escort you back to Ms. Jonel's office, sir."
    "Nope. I've had enough of this place. It's my retirement day, guys. I'm going to personnel."
    He quickly moved to my right as the other guy moved to my left and said, "No, sir! You're going where Ms. Jonel wants you to go."
    Grabbing my arms was a mistake. Our protective fields merged. When their uniformed arms touched my bare forearms, I sent light stun tendrils into both guys. They dropped and I called up my board, then zipped on to personnel thinking that zapping guards probably wasn't quite what Stephanie'd had in mind when she'd reprogrammed PFMs to allow certain types of contact by others wearing PFMs.
    When I'd asked why she'd thought it necessary, she'd asked, "Ed, how many times have you reacted to a situation far too slowly?"
    "You mean like ducking when it's already too damned late? Oh, a few times, I guess. We could count my scars if it really matters."
    "What if someone turned on a p-field after being injured? How would that person be treated?"
    "Ah. Yes'm. Good point, milady."
    I didn't ask why nobody'd thought of that before, even though field suits had been around for quite a while. That afternoon she'd sent reprogramming to all PFMs.
    At Carrington's personnel office I was pleasantly surprised to find the door unlocked and went in. The woman at the reception desk seemed somewhat wide-eyed and tense.
    I ventured, "Jonel's already called you, hasn't she?"
    The woman nodded slightly.
    "Look, I just want to retire, ma'am. Give me the papers and I'll fill them out."
    She shook her head. "I... Uh... I can't. Ms. Jonel said..."
    Calling up a field screen and instructing the flitter to connect me to Wallace's datapad, I said, "Stand by one, ma'am."
    Wallace answered and pretended vast surprise. "Well, well! What brings you to our neck of the woods?"
    "You gonna pretend Jonel didn't tell you I was coming?"
    He shrugged. "I guess not. What's up, Ed?"
    "Not 'up', Cap. 'Down'. Jonel locked the door to keep me in her office. I fried the lock and left anyway, then two of your guys grabbed me on the way, which means Jonel called out the guard when I wouldn't stick around and take her crap. Now I'm trying to get some woman to cough up retirement papers so I can sign out for good."
    "Turn the screen, Ed. Let her see me."
    I did so and he said, "Ms. Mitchell, give him the papers."
    "I... uh... Ms. Jonel said... said I shouldn't..." She let her sentence trail off and looked rather pleadingly at Wallace.
    "Cap," I said, "I'd rather not get her in trouble, so why don't I just leave? Maybe you can talk Jonel into being sensible later."
    "Who says she's the one who isn't being sensible? She's trying to retain an asset, isn't she?"
    I sighed, "Look, I'm gonna split. It doesn't matter to me whether she says I quit, got fired, or retired, 'cuz you and a dozen others know the real story. If I have to, I'll get a lawyer."
    For a moment he just looked at me, then he said, "Maybe Linda could help."
    "Nah, don't bother her with it. All I need are some witnesses for later, and I've got those. If Mitchell won't give me the papers, I'll just hit the road for now and do 'em later."
    Looking a bit to his left, Wallace said, "Just a minute, Ed. Jonel's calling. Stay put while I talk to her, okay?"
    Any reason not to? No. I replied, "Yeah. Okay."
    I opened a link through the flitter to monitor his datapad. Jonel was in the middle of a tirade when I tuned in. Wallace let her rant for a time, then said, "No. I know him, Denise. He's not bluffing."
    She ranted, "Then he can by-God get the hell off my base! The bastard locked me in my own office, Emory!"
    "He said you locked the door. He also said you wouldn't give him his retirement papers and that you told Mitchell not to give him the forms in personnel."
    "Retirement, hell! He's fired, Emory!"
    "Not a good idea, Denise. Too many people know what happened and his flitter probably recorded everything, as usual. He'd sue and I've no damned doubt at all he'd find a way to win. 3rd World wouldn't be too happy with you about that."
    Jonel looked shocked and incensed. "Are you siding with him?!"
    "I'm just stating the facts, damn it! If you really want him gone instantly with as little fuss as possible, just give him his damned retirement papers!"
    Looking as if she might explode, Jonel seethed silently as the two APs I'd stunned came bursting into the office with their stun wands at the ready. One yelled, "Freeze!" and the other circled behind me.
    Holding up a hand to point at the field screen, I said, "Just hang on a minute, guys. I have your Cap'n Wallace on the horn."
    The guy behind me snapped, "That screen's blank!"
    "I'm on hold. He's having a chat with Jonel." Thumbing at Mitchell, I said, "Ask her."
    They didn't have to ask. The shaken woman nodded vigorously and yelped, "Yes! It's true! He was talking to Captain Wallace when Ms. Jonel called him!" Shaking her head slightly, she amended, "I mean, she called Captain Wallace!"
    The APs glanced at each other and seemed uncertain about how to proceed for a moment, then the one by the door asked, "How did you stun us back in the hall? We had our p-fields on."
    Rather than tell him about field tendrils, I said, "I helped invent PFMs. Some things they can do aren't in the manuals."
    "What things? Why not?"
    I shrugged. "Damned if I know. I didn't write the manuals. Haven't read 'em, either. Now hush up and let's wait for Wallace to get back to me."
    In my flitter-view of Wallace's datapad, I saw Jonel draw a deep, focusing breath. Some of the red faded from her face and she said in an icy voice, "Have him come back to my office. If he can get my goddamned door open, I'll hand him his goddamned papers."
    Wallace replied, "Okay, Denise. I'll tell him."
    She poked her 'off' icon and Wallace reopened our link with, "Ed? You still there?"
    Watching myself on Wallace's datapad, I canceled the flitter link and replied, "Yeah, Cap."
    "Jonel says you can have your papers if you can get her door open." He chuckled, "She didn't say what would happen if you can't."
    "Roger that. Okay, Cap. On my way."
    "Let me know how things turn out, okay? I'll want your version."
    "You'll get a recording. Thanks, Cap."
    When I called up my board, the AP between me and the door hopped sideways like a startled cat. I headed back to Jonel's office and knocked. Anna let me in and stood to one side as I sent another tendril to locate and energize the lock motor's power wires. The lock snapped back and I opened the door to find Jonel standing near the door with my papers.
    She held them up and I reached for them, but she snatched them back and said, "Not so fast. I want a word with you first."
    "We already had some words, ma'am. I didn't like any of 'em, so I'm gonna re-retire and maybe take a long bike trip to the Grand Canyon."
    The last two words made her stop and stare, just as I'd expected. I grabbed the papers out of her hand and checked them over to give her a moment to think, then nodded.
    As I stepped backward through the doorway, Jonel quickly followed, peering at me as she asked, "Why the Grand Canyon?"
    "To get away from Florida for a while. Bye."
    "Hold it! I never told you about the assignment."
    Holding up the papers, I said, "Can't see how that matters now."
    "But it does! That's where I was going to send you!"
    I shrugged. "Still doesn't matter. Bye," and turned to leave.
    Jonel stepped forward quickly and grabbed my elbow as she sharply gestured for Anna to leave the room. Anna gave me a stark, raised-eyebrow glance, then left, pulling the door shut.
    I kept a firm grip on my papers as I turned to face Jonel and clearly enunciated each word of, "How do I get through to you, lady? I'm outta here."
    Jonel hissed, "Just wait a minute, damn it! Maybe we can work something out! Don't you even want to know why I want to send you there?"
    Meeting her gaze, I asked, "Was it something you could have told me without dragging me all the way out here to New Fort Tightass?" Gesturing around, I said, "I used to like visiting this place, but now it's full of new people and it's all about badge checks, locked doors, and a serious lack of such simple amenities as office coffee. And my soon-to-be-ex boss apparently wants to institute a damned dress code. Not my idea of a pleasant place at all, ma'am. Others may have to put up with that kind of bullshit, but I don't."
    As I again headed for the front door, Jonel stated firmly, "But you do still need someone between you and the government."
    "It doesn't have to be you. I'll figure something out."
    "Damn it, can't you be reasonable, Ed?! Maybe I overplayed my hand earlier."
    "You actually thought you had a hand to play, Denise. For that matter, you thought there was a damned game, even though I made all that clear long before Linda left. I came here for an assignment, but you tried to shove a dress code at me. Bye."
    Looking rather exasperated, she said, "Forget all that! Just forget I said anything! I do have an assignment for you, Ed. At the Grand Canyon; I wasn't kidding about that. Why not take it and we'll both back off a while and talk about things again later? How could that hurt?"
    Hm. She had a point of sorts. How could it hurt? I'd made my point, too. I had my papers now and I could always file them later if she continued being difficult.
    Apparently sensing my thoughts, Jonel said, "You have your papers. File them later if you still want to. But why not at least have a look at the job?"
    Shrugging, I said, "Okay. Sure. What is it?"
    She seemed suspicious. "That was entirely too damned easy, Ed. Are you going to let me waste my time telling you, then walk out of here and go straight to personnel anyway?"
    I chuckled, "Not if you'll quit screwing around and get to it. What's the big deal at the canyon?"
    Jonel said, "Put up a screen and I'll show you." I did so and what she displayed was essentially the same as Serena's info. I kept my observations to myself. After she summarized, Jonel said, "Our probes have had no luck at all for over two months. I want you to find out what's making those field blips."
    Shrugging again, I folded my papers and stuck them in a back pocket. "What the hell. Okay. I was going out there anyway."
    Her face morphed from somber to moderately exuberant in an instant, but her eyes didn't quite match her expression as she said, "Excellent! We'll talk again tomorrow."
    "About what? Unless something new turns up, that is? Denise, if you really want me aboard this boat, it'll be better if you just tell me what needs done and stand by."
    Her eyes hardened a bit. "If things end up having to be that way, maybe we can work something out. How soon do you think you can get to the canyon?"
    I added up travel times between stops and said, "Saturday to prep for the trip. Leave Sunday. Stops to visit my sisters. I could probably be at the canyon by next Sunday."
    That answer didn't please her at all. "Can't you just load your bike on the flitter and get there tomorrow?"
    "Nope. I got that bike to ride it and I told my sisters I'd be visiting them. Besides, if I buzz in with a fresh High Plains sunburn and a wad of gas receipts on a bike with Florida tags, I'll look like a tourist, not some kind of cop. Whoever's making those field blips seems to know how to avoid being spotted, and I'd bet that person would be just as quick to spot someone watching the parking lots."
    "You think it's definitely a person?"
    "Ever heard of a natural phenomenon that caused a field blip?"
    Jonel shook her head. "No. I asked Wallace's TAC officer the same question and got the same answer."
    After a bit more chat, I left with my paperwork and stashed it in my flitter's console as I headed back to Florida.

Chapter Three

    Serena materialized in the seat to my right and asked, "Would you care to review some probe logs concerning your assignment?"
    Retrieving a beer from the cooler, I nodded. "Sure. You know, I think you're every bit as beautiful as any of the other AI ladies."
    Giving me a mild fisheye look, she asked, "Were you under the impression I needed reassurance?"
    "Nah. Just felt like stating the obvious. Damn, you're pretty."
    Calling up probe logs on a field screen, she replied, "Thank you."
    Serena was also somewhat different from my previous AI friends in that she seemed to prefer a cooler, more aloof demeanor, but my comments didn't seem to offend her. At first I'd wondered about that, so in my usual tactless way, I'd simply asked her, "Does it bug you when I compliment you?"
    She'd fixed me with her usual direct, rather impassive gaze and replied, "Not at all."
    "You're sure?"
    Her left eyebrow had lifted. "Yes, I'm sure."
    "Good."
    And that was it. I'd never asked again, despite being tempted a few times when she'd received such compliments as if they'd been weather updates. I let my gaze travel over Serena, then glanced at the screen data. Damn. Reviewing the blip logs would take hours.
    The probes had scanned parking lots and cruised the canyon environs in about the same manner as a UARV -- an Unmanned Aerial Recon Vehicle. While they provided some fairly impressive views of the region, half an hour of watching the vids provided nothing in the way of info useful to catching a field user.
    "Lemme guess," I said, "These probes were directly controlled by people in 3rd World's security office."
    Serena gave me an odd look and nodded. "Yes, they were."
    "Figures. Do any of them record from fixed positions?"
    "Two. How did you know these probes weren't drones?"
    "They didn't feel like drones. The blips were a low priority, but nobody could locate their cause, so they probably put newbies on the monitors and called it training. The newbies turned the operation into a video game. Look how they buzzed those cliffs and that creek."
    When Serena made no response, I instructed the flitter to show me only probe views recorded within thirty seconds and one hundred yards of each field anomaly. That cut the pile of vids down greatly, but still showed me nothing particularly useful.
    I checked monitor logs and muttered, "Seems likely they'd have tried to see if any people were consistently on hand during anomalies, but if they did, there's no mention of it. Flitter, root through the recordings you just displayed and show me any people present during the anomalies, please."
    The screen expanded to about nine feet tall and wide and row upon row of iconized human faces appeared. Each icon was about an inch and a half square.
    "Well, damn," I said, "That didn't simplify things much, did it?"
    Serena chuckled softly and I asked the flitter to show me only those people who appeared in conjunction with field anomalies more than ten times. The screen shrank dramatically and only four rows of people remained.
    "Make that twenty times, flitter."
    Only half of one row of pictures remained and the screen adjusted to present them in a square frame about four feet by four feet.
    "Now that we've winnowed the pile a bit, show the number of times each person appeared in the vids, please, then display only the top ten percent." As an afterthought, I said, "And whatever info our searching turns up should not be shared with anyone at Carrington yet. That bunch has become a little too heavy-handed."
    My remark made Serena give me a sidelong glance as numbers appeared below each picture and most of the pictures vanished. The screen adjusted again to present the remaining four people, one of whom was a park ranger who had the lowest number at 88. The other three people had scores ranging from 103 to 262.
    Studying the faces, I saw that the park ranger was white, likely of Slavic ancestry. The two next highest scores belonged to a couple of Indian boys in their teens, and the highest score of all was that of a very tanned brunette white woman who looked to be in her late twenties. The flitter speculated her age to be about twenty-two and said she was five-nine tall and one-thirty-four pounds.
    Sipping my beer, I said, "She should have used sunscreen. I'd have guessed her as almost thirty. Flitter, the next time a probe spots her, send one of your own probes to keep an eye on her, please. Has that woman ever worked for 3rd World or any of its affiliates?"
    Serena replied, "Her face doesn't appear in personnel records."
    Hm. "What about government records?"
    "The flitter is currently searching US and Canadian databases."
    "Has 3rd World ever lost any field-using equipment on Earth that would reasonably match the anomalies in some manner? Intensity or frequency or whatever other ways?"
    "No, Ed."
    Hm, again. Maybe one of the AIs had issued someone else gear like my field implants? Not the most likely answer, but I couldn't remember having directly asked that question.
    Elkor appeared on top of the flitter's console in his cat suit and said, "Ed, your earliest successful attempts to use your implants generated similarly small field impulses."
    "You've become a mind reader, Elkor. Have any of the AIs issued implants to anyone else?"
    "No, Ed."
    "Do you have any other thoughts about how this woman might be causing the blips?"
    "No, Ed."
    "Hm. Possibly a dumb question, but have they already scanned the region for field manipulation devices? They're on all the time, right?"
    "Yes, Ed. None were discovered."
    I sighed, "Of course not. That would have been way too easy." Sipping beer again, I asked, "We know a woman who can see fields. Is it possible this one can make her own? No gadgets needed?"
    Serena canted her head slightly and said, "She'd be the first human proven capable of doing so."
    "Proven, huh? Others have claimed to be able to use fields?"
    She nodded. "Yes, but none have been able to demonstrate their abilities during tests."
    "You said 'human'. What about non-humans?"
    Shaking her head slightly, she replied, "None."
    "What about me? Now that I've had some time and practice with implants, what are the odds that I could whomp up some kind of field activity without them?"
    For whatever reason, responding to that question took Elkor what seemed a rather long time. Something like a whole second elapsed before he said, "That ability seems unlikely, Ed."
    Uh, huh. Let's find out for sure. "Elkor, can you turn off my field manipulation implant and turn it back on later?"
    "Yes, Ed."
    "Good. Let's see how the day goes without it."
    Looking concerned for the first time since she'd first appeared in my life, Serena asked, "Are you certain you wish to do this, Ed?"
    "Sure. He said he can turn it back on and I can prob'ly survive a few hours without it while I try to conjure up some kind of field. Go ahead and do it, Elkor."
    The flitter was descending toward my driveway as a sudden sense that something was very wrong or missing settled over me. I shuddered once, took a breath, and muttered, "Damn. I knew the instant you turned it off."
    Wondering if I still had telepathic contact with the flitter, I linked to it and made the console monitor come on, then had it display a P-51 Mustang. I felt a sense of relief when the picture appeared. Just to be sure, I switched the picture to an A-10 Thunderbolt, then to Tiger. Both pictures appeared instantly.
    Taking a penny out of my pocket, I tried to generate a field to lift it out of my hand. Nothing happened, but Elkor's gaze seemed to intensify slightly. I looked at Serena, saw a similar expression on her face, and asked, "What's the matter?"
    Serena said flatly, quietly, "You're manifesting a field, Ed."
    Looking at the motionless penny, I replied, "Not much of one."
    "No, but a field nonetheless."
    Elkor asked, "Will you continue this experiment?"
    Shrugging, I said, "Sure. For a while, anyway." I chuckled, "But prob'ly only until I start feeling a little too inconvenienced."
    I found a bit of lint in my shirt pocket and set it on the deck, then tried to move it. The bit of lint didn't budge. I tried a little harder and thought I saw some of the fuzz at the edges move, but that might have been for any of a number of reasons, including my imagination. I tried aiming some heat at it and it just sat there. No fire. No smoke. No results whatsoever that I could see.
    I asked, "Did I at least heat it up a little?"
    Serena said, "You warmed it to 107.4 degrees Fahrenheit."
    Sitting back, I sipped beer. "Hm. Okay, then. First, let's all agree that this qualifies as a secret. Just between us, right?"
    Elkor asked, "May I ask why, Ed? This sort of discovery could be of great importance."
    "No doubt about it, Elkor, but I'd rather not become a lab rat. For the sake of argument, let's say that there's a woman in Arizona who can make her own fields in some manner. Say she's using them to pop door locks and steal stuff out of cars. If that's all she's doing, there's no hurry about getting out there and I'll ride the bike rather than haul it to the canyon."
    Looking at Serena, I asked, "Need I suggest that you find some unobtrusive way to look inside her head, ma'am? See if she has any unusual brain activities going on? Like that?"
    She replied, "Certainly you may suggest it, but such a personal invasion would be illegal without her consent."
    Trying to match her demeanor, I said, "Well, la-de-dah, lady. She's using her talent to rip people off."
    "She's merely suspected of theft. Evidence is circumstantial."
    I finished my beer and said, "Picky," as I tossed the bottle at the flitter's field. It flashed to plasma as I stood up and sighed, "Yeah, sure. Okay. Make me do all the work. I'll ride all the way out there just to see if she'll let you poke around in her head."
    Serena gave me a look of mock concern and said, "You poor thing. Your life with me must be little more than a series of trials and tribulations. Will there be anything else for the moment?"
    "Nah. I'll holler if I think of anything, milady."
    Still smiling, she vanished.
    Looking at Elkor, I laughed, "Wow. She's one of the least sympathetic AIs you've ever conjured up, dude."
    "Apparently so. I'll place copies of my data at your disposal as you experiment."
    "Thanks, Elkor."
    He also vanished. I slung my backpack on a shoulder and stepped off the flitter, aiming little field blasts at leaves and twigs as I ambled up the walkway. Nothing moved, of course. I tried stunning a few ants and they seemed to stagger a bit, but the way they bumble around made it hard to tell for sure. When I entered the house, Tiger and Annabelle were sitting on the sofa chair.
    Both of them gave me rather studious looks and Tiger said, "Ed, you feel... different." Apparently struggling to find a way to say what he was thinking, he added, "Something is not there."
    "I'm trying something, Tiger. I had Elkor turn off my field implant for a while."
    "Was it broken?"
    "No, I want to see if I can use fields without it."
    A moment passed, then he asked, "Why?"
    I shrugged. "Just to see if I can. It's a thing of interest to me."
    Tiger knew about things of interest, though his were most often small living creatures and things that smelled odd.
    He replied, "Okay," as I sat to pet them.
    Annabelle said nothing; she still wasn't a big talker. She'd acquired a reasonable vocabulary, but never seemed to have much to say. On this occasion, however, she did.
    "I liked you better before. You do not feel... correct... now."
    I petted her and said, "Well, I'm still mostly me and I still like cats. Is that good enough, ma'am?"
    She appeared to give that thought for a couple of beats, then stretched her chin up for some rubbing and said, "Yes."
    "Glad to hear it. Tiger, I'm going on a trip on the motorcycle soon. I don't know when I'll be back, so I'll ask Sharon to check your food and water. Okay?"
    He asked questions about the trip and I asked Elkor to turn my implant on so I could call up a screen and show Tiger pictures of the Grand Canyon. After a few pictures, Tiger said, "There is nothing. Here is grass."
    "I'll try to find something to bring home for you."
    He agreed that would do and I asked Elkor to again turn off my implant. It took a surprisingly short time to make a few calls and get everything together. Once everything I thought I'd need was stashed somewhere on the bike, I headed to a gas station with thoughts of leaving on Saturday instead. Giving the matter more thought, I found no good reasons not to do so.
    While I was adjusting gear and checking the bike's juices, several members of the local SCRC group rolled in. They seemed amazed at the amount of stuff on the bike and I told them about my trip, which seemed to amaze them even more.
    Harry Evers yelped, "That's two thousand miles, Ed! Each way!"
    "Yup. And probably a thousand or so incidental miles."
    Lana Evers asked, "You're going all that way alone?"
    "No. I'll meet up with some people in Flagstaff."
    Lana looked at me as if I was nuts and walked into the convenience store. Others made similar comments by word or deed, except for Ben Stoller. He laughed, "Don't listen to them, Ed. Most of them have never been more than one tank away from home on their bikes."
    Pretending deep offense, Harry corrected him with, "Two tanks, Ben. We went to Daytona last year. It was a tank each way."
    "Oops. You're right. Okay, two tanks from home."
    There was more such yap and a few questions before I excused myself and headed home. One of the SCRC people, Linda White, knew about my field scooter because she'd been in my neighborhood when I'd come home one day. She'd said nothing at the gas station, but when I got home, my phone rang. Since I'd turned off my implant again, the tendril I automatically sent to pick up the phone failed miserably. I picked it up by hand and turned off the answering machine's recording.
    After greetings, she asked, "Why the bike, Ed? Your field scooter could handle the load and get you there faster."
    "I don't want to get there faster. I'm gonna use the road time as isolation to think about some things."
    "What kind of things? Are you having problems of some sort?"
    "Only the usual, I guess. For example... I've been working on the same book for the last five years; just tinkering with it now and then and trying to finish it without making it look as if I just nailed it shut to be done with it."
    "The one about the furry alien?"
    "Yup. I've written about a dozen other books while that one's been under construction. There are a few other things going on too, and I'm really kind of tired of Florida's scenery. There's nothing here but sand and jungle between housing developments."
    Pausing for a few beats, she opined, "Ed, there's more bugging you than you're telling me."
    "Prob'ly so, ma'am."
    "I think definitely so, Ed."
    "Well, that's your privilege, ma'am. Look, I still need to contact a few people. Say hi to George for me."
    There was another pause, then she sighed, "Yeah, okay. If you ever need to talk, let me know, okay?"
    "Thanks, Linda."
    "See you when you get back. Have a good trip, okay?"
    "Will do. G'night, Linda."
    "Goodnight, Ed."
    Once she was off the phone, I emailed BJ Ray and Joe Buford from my edits group and let them know I'd be heading for Grand Canyon. That would come as no surprise to them; we'd been discussing the idea of meeting somewhere someday and had pretty much settled on Arizona, which was almost equidistant between BJ and me and only about a day's drive for Joe.
    Joe's reply came while I was on line, saying he could get the weekend off and that he'd check with BJ. I sent an acknowledgment just as BJ's reply arrived. She was enthusiastic and said she'd check with Joe, then answered the message she received from him while answering mine. She also offered to choose a motel in Flagstaff as our meeting point and base of operations.
    After a few more messages among ourselves, I turned off the computer and got ready for bed. Tiger and Annabelle sprawled on the corner of the bed as I turned out the light.

Chapter Four

    Saturday morning was clear and bright, but a few things kept me from hitting the road until ten. Once I was underway and an hour north of Spring Hill, a sense of freedom seemed to settle in and brighten the world a bit. Dark clouds ahead looked as if they were smack above my route, but the road curved around Florida's coastline and the clouds soon sat above farms to the east.
    There was no rain all the way to Tallahassee, where a light sprinkle dampened my windshield. I managed enough of a field to wipe the droplets off the windshield in two-inch wide strips as I rode. As I took a break at a convenience store, I studied the sky ahead and asked Elkor to turn my implant back on.
    He asked, "Will you experiment more later?"
    "Oh, sure, but I may need my regular fields soon."
    Once I was on I-10, I took the bike up to 80 and mostly held it there unless traffic or conditions warranted slowing down. Just past the Marianna exit, I was stopped by a Highway Patrol car for a license and registration check. As the cop watched me mount up to leave, he produced a digital camera and said, "We don't see too many bikes with coolers or bikers wearing cowboy hats. Mind if I take a picture?"
    I shrugged. "Nope. Go ahead."
    He walked around the bike and shot from my left, then from my right, and grinned as he said, "Thanks. Have a good day."
    At the Alabama border, I stopped to swap my hat for a helmet, then continued on to Mobile, where the sky again threatened to rain on me. On the long Mobile Bay Bridge there was nowhere to shelter, so the idea of a lightning storm didn't appeal to me at all. I turned on my five suit on general principles, but I really didn't think it had a chance in hell against a lightning bolt.
    No rain fell, but lightning struck the bridge twice as I crossed the bay. The first bolt hit far ahead of me and the second seemed to hit a truck about a quarter of a mile ahead of me. Another bolt struck a boat just north of the bridge as I reached the tunnel end. By the time I reached I-65N on the other side of town, I was out from under the mass of storm clouds. I followed I-65 to US-98 and headed for Hattiesburg under a clear sky.
    Stops for food, gas, rest, and one stop to see if I could help an older couple in a Buick along US-98 near Wilmer, Alabama had added a few hours to my travel time. We got the Buick started and I followed them to the nearest gas station with repair bays, talked to the mechanic, and got a fresh coffee before I continued my trip.
    It was getting dark as I chose a motel in Hattiesburg where I could park the bike in front of my room. I unloaded the bike, took a shower, and checked email before I called Elkor and again asked him to turn off my field manipulation implant.
    Serena appeared and they watched as I tried again to levitate a penny and eventually managed to lift one side and stand it on edge. I decided to try my luck with water and half-filled one of the paper-wrapped glasses from the bathroom sink. It took what seemed to be an awfully long time to manifest a bit of ice in the glass.
    As I continued to build the wad of ice, I asked, "Elkor, if I can do this, should I be able to turn my implant off and on?"
    His little cat face turned from the ice to me. "Very likely."
    "Would you coach me through it a few times?"
    He agreed and perhaps fifteen minutes later I felt as if I had a reliable grasp of the method. After another half hour of practice with my paltry fields, I turned my implant back on and sacked out for the night at around eleven.
    The motel's wake-up service called at eight Sunday morning, as I'd requested. I left everything but my laptop and backpack in the room and had a quick breakfast next door, then returned to brush my teeth, pack the bike, and check out with a fresh mug of coffee.
    After a stop for gas and to check the bike over, I got underway toward Jackson, Mississippi. The quality of the road surprised the hell out of me; apparently they'd resurfaced it since I'd last driven it back in 1998. I rolled along enjoying hills that were more than simply bumps in the terrain and forests that weren't slash pines and jungle undergrowth for the next hour until a cop car lit up behind me.
    It was another license and registration check, of course, but also a helmet check. The black lady cop turned my helmet over and checked for a DOT sticker, then checked the inside tag. As she handed my helmet back to me, she read aloud the bumper sticker on the side of my blue cooler 'trunk' that said 'I'd rather be hang gliding!'
    Giving me a skeptical look, she asked, "Is that for real?"
    "Yup." I showed her my Gliding Association card and she muttered, "Well, I'll be damned..." as she eyed me again. "Aren't you a little old to be messing around with... things like that?"
    I shrugged. "Nah. I get a senior rate."
    She didn't seem to know whether to believe me. "Those things really got a senior rate?!"
    "Well, it's really the same as all the other rates, but they don't tell you that until you've already signed up."
    She snorted a laugh. "You're kidding me, right?"
    "Yup, sure am. Officially, there are no seniors in the sky and pilot discounts don't exist. We just don't get any respect, y'know?"
    Laughing again, she waved at the road and said, "Go on, now. Get outta here. I'm not gonna bust you today."
    Mounting the bike, I said, "Thanks, ma'am. Be sure to suggest that to all your badge-toting buddies, too, okay?"
    The ladybear gave me a little hand-flap wave, grinningly replied, "Oh, you bet, honey!" and got in her car.
    Other than some seriously squirrelly traffic in Jackson, the rest of my trip through Mississippi and Louisiana was uneventful. At the Texas welcome station near the state line, I parked in the almost-empty east side of the lot and swapped my helmet for my cowboy hat. After washing up and making a fresh mug of coffee, I spent some time walking around to loosen up a bit, then took a seat at one of the picnic tables.
    When a fly landed on the table, it seemed a good time to turn off my implant again and practice a bit. I sent a stun at the fly and it seemed disturbed, but continued moving. I tried a few more times and managed to make it stagger and hunker, but then the damned thing got up and started buzzing around my coffee mug.
    "Uh-uh," I muttered, "Not my coffee, damn it," and sent another stun at it. The fly seemed to freeze and plummeted to the table. I realized then that I had the right key, but the wrong attitude. As I had when training others to use PFMs, I tried to think of things that irritated me in order to beef up my field intensity. Didn't work. Being out on the road and away from it all felt too good, I guess.
    A beat-up old blue pickup truck with Louisiana plates and a camper shell entered the parking area and stopped just down the row from my bike. Almost instantly, four small children and a chow dog burst out of the camper end of the vehicle and hauled ass toward the welcome station's main building as a noisy group. A big man and a little woman got out of the front of the truck. She followed the kids as the man ambled over to look at my bike.
    He saw me sitting at a nearby picnic table and seemed not to connect me with the bike, likely because of my hat. Walking around the back of the bike, he flipped the padlock on my cooler 'trunk' up once, then he switched his attention to the right-side bag and tugged experimentally on the cargo netting holding it.
    As he quickly unhooked the bottom of the netting, I said, "Hey!" and turned my implant back on as I got up to walk over there.
    He looked up from unhooking the net in a curious, challenging manner and growled, "Whyn't yew jist turn yer ass aroun' an' git th' fuck outta here?"
    Sipping my coffee, I replied, "Won't happen. That's my bike."
    Glancing at my hat, then at the rest of me, he said, "Yew don't look like no biker."
    "You aren't the first to think so. Get away from my bike."
    His dull glower became a glare of hatred and he turned to face me. "Yew don't be tellin' me what to do, muthafucka! I'll kick yer ass!"
    He glanced around and whistled. I glanced around, as well. A low growl came from my left and his damned dog came tearing across the grass at me, snarling and showing its teeth. The guy in front of me tensed, probably thinking he'd lunge at me when the dog got me. I stunned the dog as it leaped and it slid to a stop between us.
    Sure enough, the guy had already started forward. He had to step lively to avoid stepping on the dog. I grabbed his right sleeve and dropped to one knee to pull him forward and down, slamming his head on the sidewalk twice. When that didn't quite put him out, I whacked his head on the concrete again and he lay still.
    I looked around and didn't see anyone, so I slung my coffee mug between the handlebars, rehooked the cargo net, put on my helmet, got on the bike, and fished my keys out of my pocket. As I started the bike, I considered whether I wanted the guy to wake up pissed and perhaps chase me in the truck. He seemed the type to do that.
    Stopping by the passenger side of the truck, I poked the right front tire's sidewall with the tip of my knife. Was one tire enough? Changing it could take as little as fifteen minutes. On general principles, I also flattened one of the truck's back tires before I got underway toward Dallas. It occurred to me that he might talk to the cops, but I kind of doubted he would. He also seemed the type to want to avoid their attention.
    Lifting my coffee mug from its sling, I sipped as I rode along and wondered why Serena hadn't materialized. Any of the other AI ladies would have, if only to criticize my use of violence. I sent her a ping and she answered, "Yes?" without appearing.
    "I just wondered why you didn't drop in back there, ma'am."
    "You didn't call me and you didn't appear to need assistance."
    Huh. Oh, well. First time for everything. I said, "Just wondered. Sorry to have bothered you, milady."
    "You didn't. Five percent of my processing abilities are reserved for monitoring and assisting you."
    I laughed, "Wow! Five whole percent?!"
    "Shall I inform you when that task requires more than two percent? So far it hasn't."
    With a grin, I replied, "Oh, yes, ma'am! Please do! I'd be damned surprised if I can draw three percent barring extreme emergencies. Care to join me on the road for a while?"
    She paused, then answered, "I will if you wish."
    "Nah. I heard your lack of enthusiasm. Later, milady."
    "Later, Ed."
    A bit less than three hours later, darkness and I reached the eastern side of Dallas at about the same time. There was brand new black pavement leading off in several directions. Multiple lines of reflective cones and barrels seemed to form a maze that sometimes even followed the general path of white painted dots -- not actual lines -- on the pavement. Clusters of signs pointed everywhere, especially two big clusters someone had knocked down.
    I pulled off the road and took a good look around, then chose a double line of barrels as the most likely path through the maze. A dozen or so miles later, I found myself following I-20 around the south side of town. Good 'nuff. I got off the Interstate at Beltline Road and reached my sister's house a few minutes later.
    Rather than have her cook, I hauled my luggage into the house and took her to a late dinner. We chatted for an hour or so, but there wasn't much news that we hadn't already shared in emails. After watching the weather, I hit the sack around midnight.
    Monday morning began with a semi-Siamese cat walking on my legs. I watched her stealthy investigation of the stranger on her couch until she suddenly realized she was being watched and froze.
    When I said, "Hi, there," she bolted across the room and into the kitchen past my sister, who paused in washing dishes to raise her voice to say, "That one was abused. She hid under the couch for her first two weeks here. What do you want to do about breakfast?"
    "If you're hungry, let's go out again."
    "Sounds good. I'll be finished by the time you're ready to go."
    "Okay. Speaking of going, last night's weather blonde said all the wet crap from the coast will get up here this evening, so I'll get underway when we get back from breakfast. Maybe I can outrun it."
    We had a fast food breakfast and she helped me haul my stuff out to the bike. After making a coffee for the road, I got rolling around ten, taking I-30 to Fort Worth's I-820 loop, where I picked up US-287 and headed north for Wichita Falls. The scenery became mostly open fields between towns and I noticed a slight headwind not long after I passed Decatur. By the time I reached Bowie, the headwind wasn't so slight anymore; I figured it to be about twenty miles per hour.
    There was a big patch of thunderstorm ahead as I entered Wichita Falls, so I stopped for food and gas, parked the bike under the station's canopy, and watched the storm drench the downtown area for half an hour or so as it passed. A cop pulled in and we talked about the travails of traveling on a bike for a while, then he left and I got underway again a few minutes later.
    The wind was blowing again as I rolled through town, but it didn't get bad until I reached the town of Iowa Park. After a couple of sudden gusts, a steady strong wind from the north did its best to try to shove me across the highway. I had to lean into it as if I was taking a long curve in the road and that strong north wind only got worse as I passed Vernon, Texas.
    A sign said Amarillo was 171 miles ahead. Rather than take a chance on getting stuck somewhere, I'd been filling the tank about every 150-160 miles. I noted that my mileage was down from its usual 41 per gallon to about 35 due to extra weight, the wind, and doing about 80 mph on the Interstate. The empty distances between towns and my memories of Bible-belt Texas rolling up its sidewalks way too early made me think that 150 miles or even slightly less was a much more sensible refill point.
    In Amarillo I got on I-40 and headed west. North of the highway were miles of three-bladed windmills standing in rows like soldiers. They made complete sense as gusting winds stronger than before made me lean even farther just to keep the bike in one lane.
    Studying the barren landscape along the way, it was easy to envision the area as the bottom of an ancient ocean. Except for a lack of water and fish, it looked pretty much like the ocean bottom I'd seen during some of my coastal dives.
    If you haven't been to Albuquerque, be advised there's a steep stretch of Interstate carved into a canyon wall just before you get to the eastern side of town. I thought the canyon might provide some protection from the wind, but I was absolutely wrong about that. It channeled the wind into an even stronger tailwind.
    I began that downhill run just after dark on fairly normal Interstate highway, but it soon became an apparently endless construction zone as bad as the one in Dallas. Everyone was going considerably faster than the posted 45 MPH speed limit and jockeying to try to get around each other as if they were in some kind of race.
    There were suddenly semi trucks in front of me and behind me and a carload of four dumbasses on my left who didn't seem to realize that rolling downhill in the dark at sixty in a construction zone in a tight little cluster with big-assed trucks was a really bad idea. Correction; as I glanced into the car, I saw the driver seemed frozen at the wheel, terrified of what he'd gotten into. His eyes looked like a couple of saucers and I could see him gritting his teeth.
    Did it ever occur to him to simply slow down from sixty and look for an opening on his right? Not even once, apparently. I was hoping he'd pull ahead or drop back so I could get the hell out of that slot between the trucks, but no. He stayed right where he was, even when his left side scuffed the concrete barricades a couple of times.
    Sometimes you know without the slightest doubt that it's time to get the hell off the road. That's how I strongly felt at that moment, but there was nowhere to go. When the car swerved from a third contact with that barrier wall, I got as far to the right as I could, hugging the white line and ready to dart ahead on the too-narrow shoulder of the road.
    Up ahead there seemed to be nothing but canyon wall on my right, but then I saw what looked like a curving exit marked off with barrels. I crossed the white line and downshifted, then slipped between the barrels and let my engine and gears back me down from sixty as I discovered I was in a heavy equipment parking zone.
    A loud grunging noise made me glance ahead in time to see headlights swing skyward through the dust. The car's left side tried to climb the concrete barricade and it flipped onto its right side. One of the trucks bumped the car's front end and the car spun, slapping against the barrier as I rolled behind a bulldozer some guy was messing with. He said I couldn't be there even as westbound traffic screeched and rattled to a frantic halt on the highway.
    Nodding at the road, I said, "Can't be out there, either."
    I parked my bike and turned it off, went to see if I could help, and found that two nurses on their way to work had taken complete charge of the situation. The occupants of the car had been battered and bruised, but not too seriously injured.
    Returning to my bike, I sat sipping coffee as I watched activities for the next hour or so. It took the cops and an ambulance quite a while to get there and longer still to get the dead car off the road. When things started moving again, I gave the long backup of cars and trucks time to thin out before I got back on the road.
    About half an hour later I found an Arby's, had a light dinner, and continued on to my other sister's home. We had a nice visit, then I sacked out for the evening without bothering about email; tomorrow would be soon enough.
    Tuesday began around nine and everybody had places to go and things to do, so I hopped on the bike and went looking for breakfast, then spent some time rolling around Albuquerque and exploring the surrounding hills. Rocks, cliffs, odd plants. Bright sunshine, thin air, and every bit as much rush hour traffic as any other city.
    A day was all I needed to know that I wouldn't be very comfortable there. The climate of the High Plains requires a high-number sunscreen, SPF chapstick, and some effort to stay hydrated. My lips were shiny and threatening to split before I realized how fast I was turning into sunburnt jerky.
    Central Avenue was home to half a dozen Internet cafes near a college, so I asked a few people for their opinions. A few minutes later, I found 'The Flying Star', a cafe that had a deli, a bakery, and thirty or so styles of coffee. The place was busy, so I had to wait for a table. I spent maybe ten minutes rooting through their magazine rack before some people left a nearby window booth. After handling a stack of email and visiting my usual discussion groups, I considered what else in Albuquerque might be worth seeing and almost missed the answer by leaving the cafe.
    Sudden motion outside caught my attention. I looked out the window to see a gorgeous brunette woman driving a red Mustang convertible zip into a parallel parking space by some paper boxes. She wore a sharp-looking casual outfit; light blue mid-thigh shorts and a matching blouse, both of which fitted her magnificently.
    She had to wait for a break in traffic to open her door and I shamelessly admired her fitness-queen legs before my gaze returned to her face. Something about her looked familiar. Damned familiar, in fact. A wisp of blonde hair moved on her collar and I realized she was wearing a wig, which instantly brought up a name. Nicole Sherman? Well, the legs and the face seemed right. I typed her name into Google and checked pictures against the woman outside. Yup. If it wasn't her, it was her twin.
    The light a block away changed and she was finally able to open her door and step out. Grabbing a briefcase from the back seat area, she quickly walked around the car and took a moment at the curb to straighten her outfit, then headed for the cafe's front steps.

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