If Jack Out had been able to scan the corporate headquarters of NCC, he would have seen no one who looked particularly restless. The complex of low concrete buildings faced with natural stone blended into the gentle hills of Potomac, the pyramidal core rising only three stories.
If he had zoomed in on one businessman coming to the first security gate, where the guide checked his badge and vetted him by voiceprint, he might have noticed first the $3,000 of British tailoring and over $700 of leather accoutrements, down to the last-made shoes and the half-inch thin briefcase. He would have noted the two PPs discreetly serving as cuff links.
His second reading would have been of the power under the costume. The businessman was polite, formal, even courtly in greeting everyone who passed, as he went though the second level thumb print check and the third level iris scan. But everyone stepped back slightly as he passed, and as he rose in the elevator to his office, the two young women behind him rolled their eyes to each other and pantomimed a swoon.
For the man appeared like a Picasso minotaur in pinstripes. He was over six feet tall but appeared shorter because of his thick neck and massive shoulders. His black hair was combed straight back and accented the Aztec bones of his dark face. When he spoke to someone, his black eyes locked on theirs and didn't move.
The man was Ulysses Vallejo, Vice President of Employee Development. Five years ago he was a Jesuit dropout in Sonora, where he was discovered by NCC's headhunters and recruited personally by M. Lee, NCC's founder. Now, as he entered his office, he was thinking of Callie.
"The Lab is set aside for you, señor," his secretary said.
"One hour of Breathing Room?" he asked. He was assured that he would have as much as he needed. He thanked her, went into his inner office, and closed the door.
He sat at his desk, closed his eyes, and with perfect olfactory memory, recalled the smell of Callie. He had taken her into The Net for the second time a few days ago, and she had been splendid. It was one of his functions to discover and recruit new flyers, and then to mentor the finest prospects.
She still insisted that she wanted to remain in charge of her research squad, even after he had taken her out past Jupiter on the newest probe and spread the universe out before her.
When they returned, she shook with total orgasms (as everyone did, as he told her she would) and tried to say things about God. He calmed her and calmed her, and then he told her the story about Pilgerman. Only the beginners believed they had met God, or wanted to.
He knew what he wanted Callie to do. For the first time, NCC was assembling fliers into teams. So far only he and Lee knew this, and they would be the ones who selected and composed the teams. The First Team would have only one predator; that would be Callie. My challenge, he thought, is how I will use her brother.
A soft green light on his desk flashed once, accompanied by a muted chime. Thirty minutes to prepare.
Vallejo crossed to a panel in the wall and opened it to reveal an alcove containing a 13th century pre-dieu before a large carved wooden crucifix from the same period. He lit candles before it, and knelt to meditate.
Mi amigos, he thought, it has been a while. Behind his closed eyes he saw the images of his heroes rise, fully vivid, while he melded with each one in turn: Teresa of Avila, Jakob Boehme, Rumi, Hildegard of Bingen, William Blake, dozens more.
My good, simple friends, he thought. How I envy you a time when we could have entered mystery through a single lens, through an aperture of faith, with the pure architecture of a single rhetoric.
Then he called up the last one, the one he believed would understand how it had to be done now: the elegant patrician face, the clear eyes, the articulate hands of Teilhard de Chardin.
The light and the chime came on twice.
On the way to the core of the pyramid, Vallejo smiled, thinking of Jack Out. How Jack believed, as most probably did, that one just jumped out across The Net and sailed.
It was that unfortunate popular slang, he thought. Fliers. He preferred an older metaphor, that of the Rope Dancer. For to work The Net, one needed the excellent support of a community of others, who held and wove, in nanoseconds, the electronic strands beneath his feet.
He turned into the unmarked door that held The Booth. Jack Out would have been dismayed to see how primitive it looked: actual racks of display panels tended by two ATCs (so they called themselves, Air Traffic Controllers) who looked like disc jockeys.
"Gentlemen," he said, laying one hand on each of their shoulders where they sat side by side at their consoles, "you see how simple life can be. I demand the best, and they give me the best."
The pair grinned and blushed, even though he told them nothing new. The one on the left was Reginald Dunstan, an angular Oxonian in wrinkled corduroy jeans, plaid flannel shirt, huge fluffy bedroom slippers, and smudged bifocals that slid halfway down his nose. The other was the chubbiest Ethiopian Vallejo had ever seen, Abbas Semil, in a vivid running suit, three gold necklaces, and bare feet.
"M'lud," Reg replied with easy sarcasm, tugging an imaginary forelock.
"Deeply honored," Selim said quickly. "All systems cleared and locked, Mr. Vallejo. A fine day for flying. DoD limits are 120 seconds max."
"Tight," murmured Vallejo. But he knew he would be in and out before the Department of Defense protection systems armed themselves and burned out any riders.
"We've never lost one yet," Reg said, as Abbas writhed in embarrassment. The pair had lived together for years, and knew each other so well that they only worked together when their biorhythm charts peaked at exactly the same time
"Into you hands I commend my spirit," Vallejo teased, and turned to the door. Reg raised his hand an inch off the panel and mimed a Sign of The Cross, which made Abbas sigh.
"Well, luv," Reg said, "he's your hero."
"You're my hero," Abbas huffed, as they started throwing switches and moving down the checklist.
"Well said," Reg said, rubbing his hands together and grinning. "Let's spread a lovely Net for Saint Ulysses, then."
Vallejo descended deeper into the core. Although only the three top stories were visible, the pyramid descended fifteen floors into the Maryland countryside. When he entered the flier's dressing room, all talk stopped.
About two dozen of the seventy fliers stood about in various stages of undress, of both sexes, many races, and ages from thirteen to sixty-four. Anyone could recognize a flier; they had no eyebrows. In fact, they had no body hair at all, shaven daily to fit precisely into their flying suits.
The flying suits hung in their lockers like their own flayed skins, having been cast in latex from their own bodies for immaculate fit. On the shelves above them were the expensive hairpieces most wore in public. Not one of them would have flaunted their status by going out bald.
But even a child could spot a flier, hairless or not, by their inhuman calmness and poise, the attitude valued as "zero cold." Any candidate who had not mastered a "midbrain lockout" to control any unchosen emotion would never have passed the first level of the 800 hours of the Management Training Program.
Vallejo, moving through the room with such grace and easy warmth and confident humor, greeting each with a touch and a compliment, disturbed and excited them. This was Top Gun, up close. Even with his black pelt of hair, even with his exciting touch, they all knew he could still be "Mr.Zero At The Bone," whenever anything in The Net moved against him.
He paused at the door of his private dressing room and noticed the hand lettered sign they had taped on his door, a quotation from e e cummings: "there's a hell of a good universe next door let's go"
"And a hell of a good team to follow me," he told them. They were too cool to applaud, but he could tell.
His dresser, a tall young Nicaraguan, was waiting for him He took Vallejo's clothes away, noting with approval that below the eyebrows the Vice President had already shaven himself meticulously close.
The dresser powdered him all over, even the soles of his feet, with a sable brush dipped in hyperconductive talc. Then he brought out Vallejo's suit.
On the inside it looked exactly like Vallejo, matching every protrusion and concavity. But on the outside it was a crocodilian skin of polymer an eighth of an inch thick, studded with antennaed sensor bumps near every major organ and even approximately by each chakra and acupoint, more precisely located than ancient sciences ever imagined.
The dresser hissed with impatience at himself as he fitted the skintight helmet as well as he could to Vallejo's head. Then there was only the facepiece to seal on, and Vallejo's life support would be in the hands of the ATCs. He signaled the booth.
"On!" Abbas said at once.
"And on," Reg echoed him, "and on and on and on...."
The dresser could not restrain himself as he lifted the facepiece, and paused. "Señor," he whispered, "para Los Angeles?" Vallejo's eyes stared back calmly, and he said nothing.
Vaya con Dios," the dresser said hastily, and sealed him in. I hope not, Vallejo thought. Now he was alone in darkness for a second, and once the dresser had cleared out of the room, he sensed the outer door opening, and the Breathing Room came to life.
He gave it a few seconds to recognize him, inhaling his olfactory signature and auric profile, and settling itself to accommodate him. The room was several hundred feet long, one hundred feet wide, and one hundred feet high. Every square foot was covered with sensors, except for a glass panel high on one wall which accommodated a visitor's gallery.
The gallery was already packed with silent spectators and more were trying to squeeze in. The word was out: "Vallejo's working." Most of the fliers were not worth watching from the outside. They usually settled into a lotus or lay down in the center of the room. One even sat and played chess while the rest of him flew The Net. But Vallejo was a mover.
They watched him cross without hesitation to the marker in the center of the room, even though he couldn't see it. He would see nothing except what he spun out of himself or what The Net fed him; the eyepieces of his facepiece were large, protruding receptors.
He paused, savoring the solitude. Then, with a smile, he recited in his mind the cut-and-paste prayer that was the flier's favorite:
"As above, so below. As within, so without. As it was in the beginning, it will be The readiness is all."
Then, with no other preliminaries, he leaped straight up, rising forty- eight inches off the floor, moving as easily through the whispering air as others might rise through water.
In the booth, Reg and Abbas tracked him a nanosecond later, underriding him with just enough energy to sustain him wherever he chose to go and as long as he stayed.
"Trite?" Reg said dryly. "SDI, all 22 sats at once."
"Classical," Abbas snapped back. "The God's-Eye view."
"God wishes He had lenses like ours," Reg said, then sat up abruptly. "What's he doing? He's not on visual."
Three floors down, in the Breathing Room, after a second of hang time, Vallejo's body descended to the crepitating mat on one foot, poised like Shiva. Inside himself, Vallejo balanced the pull of the military tracking system tracking constant orbits over every quadrant of the Earth simultaneously, but saw nothing.
"Now what the bloody hell..." Reg murmured. He didn't like it all. The neon pattern that was now spreading across the display of the globe on the master kino display like cracking ice was like nothing he had ever seen. But Abbas, excited, had already found the file he wanted and displayed the same pattern on the backup screen.
"Trite?" he demanded. "He's following the ley lines on kino!"
They looked at each other, then turned to throw high fives. "Maestro!" Reg acknowledged. "Can this system handle a sense of humor and a high style?"
Then the SDI warning came up. When it was down to five seconds he forwarded it to Vallejo, as the SDI defense lasers warmed up. "...two...one..." he told Abbas, who had his eyes closed.
"He's out," Reg said, and Abbas breathed again. "And now... hello, Texas. Deep in the Heart of the supercollider And still no visual."
Down in The Room, Vallejo's body raced around the margin, in ecstatic leaps, then suddenly froze en pointe.
"Three times around and out," Abbas exulted, "and right into Hubble II and III." The computers had already found and locked the move infinitely faster than Reg and Abbas could, but in NCC's system the ATCs always had override power if they questioned the move.
"Read it and leap," Reg said. They were working at top speed now, working the panel controls with both hands and both feet, perspiring even in the constant cold of the booth.
At the edge of deep space the massive Hubble telescopes adjusted themselves slightly to focus at maximum distance, in opposite directions, out into the universe.
"Visual at last," Abbas sighed. They rested, thrilled at knowing that the entire view was pouring into Vallejo instant by instant as the telescopes continued their scan.
Then they jolted upright and ran the last sequence over and over, Reg cursing and Abbas frantic.
"He's off the board!" Abbas screamed. "He's gone!"
"Im-fucking-possible," Reg muttered, snapping one spectrum after another through the mainframe, tracking millions of possible combinations in less than three seconds. "It is not possible for us to lose where he is!"
In The Room, the gallery was silent. Vallejo's body, a few feet in front of them, hung levitating, limp, head back, as if suspended from a cable to his heart.
Inside himself, Vallejo was in infinite darkness, feeling nothing. Not even compassion for the groundskeepers he had betrayed. Having inverted all of the momentum he had accumulated from The Net into himself, he was where no one had ever gone with the technology. It was where he wanted to be, hanging in darkness a bait for Angels.
He had felt the presence of Angels in The Net before. The first time he turned away in terror, and it passed him inches away like a monster express. Another time he had a microsecond flash in visual that filled his universe with light, and back in his body, scarred his retinas.
He expected another such burst, maybe even alleluias, and would wait as long as it took. So when The Angel did arrive a second later, tiny and brilliant as a photon, arcing at incredible speed through his third eye, down through his throat chakra and exploding in his heart, Vallejo had no chance to change his mind.
Back in the booth, Reg and Abbas breathed again. They brought up his life support displays and found them all normal.
"Wherever he's hiding," Reg said, "we've still got his body, and that's just fine, thank you."
Then the displays flatlined. Down in The Room, Vallejo's body fell eighty feet to the floor, rolled twice, and lay prone. Unsure, some of the spectators gently applauded the move.
In the booth, both ATCs shouted in terror. Reg realized that the med team would be there in less than a minute and The Net was wide open.
"Shut it down!" he yelled at Abbas, closing out circuits with both hands and feet.
"You can't! He's still out there!" Abbas screamed. Then, tears pouring down his cheeks, he snapped into the lockout process, and The Room breathed its last a few seconds before the med team was in and running toward the motionless body.
Reg tried to record his testimony for the inevitable inquest, but the input mouse kept jittering wildly in his shaking hands. Abbas was rocking back and forth in his chair, his hands covering his face, muttering in Amharic. Neither could watch the scene below on the video.
Finally Reg threw the mouse aside and sat gnawing hopelessly at a fingernail, growing aware that Abbas had still not stopped.
"Please, luv," he whispered, "in English."
Above ground, sunrise was just beginning, and Callie entered her private office alone. She opened her electronic mail and found only one entry, coded confidential, and dated several hours previously. When she displayed it, she recognized the two lines from the Diwan of Ibn Arabi.
"Oh marvel! a garden among the flames.... My heart has become capable of all forms."
It was signed with a single letter U.