HIS IS THE good part. Hassan Sulari loves this one. When the magnetic catapult on the mothership throws his little spaceplane forward and he kicks in his scramjets, somewhere over Afghanistan, he’ll sail up and away into a high suborbital trajectory over the pole. Hassan has never gotten authorized for orbit, but this is pretty close.
It’s his first real mission. He’s carrying four cram bombs—“Compressing Radiation Antimatter” is what it stands for, and when they talk to the media they are supposed to stress that they are “mass-to-energy, not really nuclear” weapons, because for all practical purposes they are baby nukes and that’s bad PR.
The catch is that damned jack in the back of his head. He accepted a lot of extra money from Passionet to have it installed and to fly with it, it’s going to make him rich—and in UNSOO that’s not common—but there is still the nagging feeling of showing off. After all, he’s a pilot, not an actor.
“We’re getting ready to go plugged with you,” the voice from Passionet says. “If you’ve got any embarrassing thoughts to get out of the way, think them now.”
“None I know of. I’m at orbital injection minus four minutes.” Hassan does his best to sound bored.
“We know—timing’s perfect. Give our folks a ride.”
Just as they click off and it goes live, he does have the strange thought that there really don’t have to be human crews for UN Space Ops like this—a machine could do a prohibited-weapons interdict just as well. He finds himself wondering why he does this—no, to his shame, why he is fearing doing it.
That makes his stomach knot hard during the last instants of countdown. Then he hears the word “inject” and the mothership catapult flings him forward over the nose of the big airplane; watching his stability gauge, he sees it’s all go, waits a few more seconds till the navigation computer has a fix, and then flips the scramjet lever.
He is slammed into his seat again, and the brown-and-white mountains of early spring morning fall away below him. The vibration is heavy, and the pressure is intense; he sees the West Siberian plain open out beneath him, wrapped in its canopy of blue air. He is as high up as weather satellites go. His heart is pounding and despite the military reason for the mission he is mentally lost in the scenery.
By the time the scramjets cut out, there is polar ice on the horizon, and his hands automatically begin their ritual of arming and readying the shots.
He arcs higher still, coasting upward on inertia, and now the Earth
begins to return toward him. He is weightless—not because there is no gravity but because he is moving with it—and he has an intense recollection of his childhood fantasies about space travel. He hopes they won’t mind having that in the wedge they are recording—
Over the pole now, falling nose-down across the ice cap ninety miles below, and the countdown begins; his weapons lock on target and he need only pull the trigger on cue to turn over control to the missiles themselves. He receives the go-ahead and initiates.
There are four hard shoves on the little spaceplane, and he sees his missiles falling away like sparklers thrown down a dark canyon. He will miss their impact off the North Slope, but the pleasure of launching them was exquisite.
And from the jack in his head, he is informed that 750 million people shared the experience.
There’s a cherry-red glow around the bottom of the spaceplane, and weight begins to return as the plane once again resists gravity rather than rides with it. It was more like a training flight than he expected. He’s never seen Pacificanada, but he’s told the new, struggling nation loves UN Peacekeeping Forces credits, and he will have plenty.
As he falls back toward home, life seems pretty sweet when it can include things like this.
Randy Householder is cruising I-80 out of Sacramento in a car so old it had to be retrofitted to drive itself. It runs and it’s what he can afford, and he doesn’t worry about it.
But he’s trying to get onto the net, and that is unbelievably slow and frustrating tonight. After fourteen years he’s learned that this always means the same thing—some damn crisis tying things up. Back in i when the Flash happened, it was six days before he could get on and get his messages. At least this time he can get them, but they’re slow.
It’s been a long time since he’s been impressed by getting a hundred messages. That’s normal traffic. About half of it will be some small-town police chiefs, sheriffs, magistrates, proconsuls, ombudsmen, whatever they call them around the world, mostly letting him know they’re still looking for evidence and that nothing has come in. A few will be new ones taking over, some will be old ones leaving and letting him know their successors may not be helpful.
The other half will be people like Randy, mostly just passing along support notes. There are seven others Randy hears from most nights—all the ones who had children killed in a way similar to what happened to
Kimbie Dee. They’re always there. Sometimes he talks with them live; they’ve traded pictures and such over the years.
There will almost always be at least one reporter. Randy does not talk to reporters anymore. The damn media take up too much of the bandwidth on the net—like they’re doing tonight. And they’re no help.
Last time he talked to one, she kept wanting to know about how he lives his life. Shit, Randy told her, he didn’t have a life. He stopped having a life fourteen years ago when the cops came to the door of his mobile home, and made him and his then-wife Terry sit down, and told them that Kimbie Dee had been murdered, and it looked like a sex murder. Life stopped when they told him they had the man who did it and no clues about motive, but they knew damned well from the jack driven into her skull
she’d been murdered and raped—Christ, Christ, the coroner had said she’d been jammed with a mop handle hard enough to rupture her intestines, and then raped while she hemorrhaged, but she’d still been conscious when the man hanged her.
Randy’s clutching at his keyboard with his fists and that does no good.
Stay relaxed, stay calm, keep hunting. It’s going to be a long one, you’ve always known that.
Kimbie Dee was killed to make an XV wedge. There’s a big underground market in those things. Once or twice a year, someone is arrested for selling the one that features her death. Sometimes they arrest the guy he bought it from; sometimes Randy is able to hack the files about one of the suspects, and find more people who might be involved. Now and then—the last time was three years ago—something cross-correlates, and Randy’s datarodents bring him back one more piece of information, move him another step up one of the distribution chains.
When that happens, there’s an arrest. Randy gets reward money. Like he cares crap about that. But Randy and the world’s cops get one step closer to the guy who paid for it; somewhere out there, some big shot, someone with more income to spend on his “fun” than Randy ever made in any year of his life, is still at large and unsuspected. He’s the man who handed all that money to a man and said, “Here’s what I want you to do to a pert little blonde girl.”
The man who killed and raped Kimbie Dee Householder has been in his grave for eleven years. Randy was there to see him strapped into the chair. The man who hired it done is still out there.
Randy’s going to see him dead, too.
Just as soon as all this damned noise gets off the net. He checks the text news channels and finds it’s some stupid thing about Alaska, Siberia, the UN,
and atomic bombs. He vaguely remembers Alaska got independent right after the Flash—the UN made the U.S. give it up, or something.
President Hardshaw is going to talk about it to the media later; Randy will tune in to that on the TV—he votes for her every time and he never misses one of her speeches. She was Idaho Attorney General back a little before the murder. If she’d still been in office—she and the guy they now call the President’s Shadow, Harris Diem—instead of the liberal “concerned” homo Democrat that was—they’d’ve tracked down the bastards and nailed them while the crime was still hot. Randy’s sure of it. So he doesn’t need to think about World War Three; he can let the President sort that one out. Everyone has their little job.
Back to Randy’s. Just keep plugging away. “We’ll get him yet, Kimbie Dee, even if the whole world has to come apart,” he says. He tells the car to head east, toward Salt Lake City, because the satellite connections will be better and cheaper. Then he climbs into the back, opens the fridge, gets himself a beer, calls up the file of messages, and starts sorting through his mail.
Some perverse spirit, somewhere out there, has decided that this is the big year for Ed Porter to work with amateurs. Probably some woman, some upper-level bitch who doesn’t like the way the wedges he edits sell like crazy, or the shows he assembles dominate the net. But he’s the main reason Passionet is XV of choice for female experiencers, and third among males. A
net, for god’s sake, at the top even among men, and Porter is one of three senior editors there, and they still persecute him. They still give him shit assignments like this.
It’s gotta be some woman.
Anyway, at least he’s away from Boring Bill and Cotton-Brains Candy, as he calls them. A whole two-day vacation from “Dream Honeymoon” to work on this breaking story.
But this guy Hassan, this pilot, is a
. He’s pure military. Gets excited but holds it in. His pulse rises but not enough. What comes in through the jack is a smart guy doing a job he’s good at. Even when he fires the bombs off, there’s just a minor thrill. And of course the silly bombs are just going through the ice, into the mud of the North Slope; through Hassan’s eyes, all Porter sees is some bright sparks plunging down toward the nightdarkened ice. Nobody down there to burn, or to scream with pain; nobody up here in Hassan’s brain to exult in the destruction or laugh maniacally at people dying; no agony, no passion, nothing. Nothing to experience but the smooth working of a machine, according to a perfect plan.
As XV goes, it’s a zero.
Jesse knows Naomi wants him to be more interested, and she is right, and it is a big deal—if he wants any confirmation he only has to listen to the hundreds of students milling around in the PolAc Room. Even for U of the Az, this is a big crowd, but then you don’t get to see a UN Space Ops bombing raid in real time every day.
Of course instead of the old-fashioned television, he could just as easily be back at the dorm—Passionet has wired one of the pilots—and be there for all practical purposes. Maybe catch it on replay? No, Naomi calls that warpom.
What he’d really rather be is home with Naomi, no TV, no XV, no clothes—he shoves the thought back, hard. If he even hints in the next hour it’ll be another fight with Naomi, and he doesn’t want that, not right now. It’s been a week since they’ve more than kissed.
On the other hand Molecular Design Economics, which he’s got to pass with a Significant Achievement or better, this term, if he’s going to stay on track for his Realization Engineering degree, is at eight A.M., it’s already almost ten, and though his homework is done he hasn’t reviewed it or read the supplementary chapter.
Still, Naomi’s back—tiny and soft to the touch but with rock-hard muscle underneath—is against his chest, and therefore the nicest tight round butt in the Az is a quarter inch from him.
There’s a lot of noise and Jesse looks up to see what it is. Something big, anyway, a lot of flickery movement on the screen. Everyone is arguing about that; nowadays you don’t see an image flicker like that, not with packetized digital signal.
It’s not coming in well, he realizes, because UN Information Control is trying to slap their logo across it and it’s not quite working. People are booing and hissing, some of them at the UNIC insignia, some at what’s behind it, some on general principles.
Like every college assembly room built in the last century, this place wasn’t made to meet in, it was made to be easy to clean, so it has plenty of hard, flat surfaces and the whole thing is echoing and ringing.
Call it midnight before they get home, and she’ll want to talk for an hour … there goes the homework even if there’s no sex. And getting a Significant Achievement is no piece of cake; sure, it’s the lowest of the academic grades, but it’s still light-years in effort beyond Probable Comprehension, Positive Attitude, or Open Mind—and employers nowadays really do read your transcript. It’s got to be Significant Achievement, Demonstrated Competence, or Mastery … and he thinks by now the top two are out of his reach.
Absent Naomi in his life, Mastery would be in his reach in most subjects. There’s a lot of easier ass in the world—
He has no idea why he can’t concentrate these days. He forces his eyes back to the screen, notices a dark bar across it, realizes what he’s looking at is Naomi’s hand, palm down, in the gesture for “quiet” that they used in grade school when you were a kid.
The room is so noisy, between boos, catcalls, people loudly explaining things to each other, and other people shushing and shouting “Quiet, please, quiet!,” all echoing off all those hard, flat surfaces, that he can’t think anyway. He wants to just turn into a caveman, drag Naomi out of here bodily, heave her into his old Lectrajeep, drive out to someplace in the desert, and just stare up at the stars until the sun comes up.