In the booths at the Down Time, it was the same old bullshit. Most were drinking SuperBeer, the commercial mix of brew and amphetamines that all could afford. A red-eyed aging surfer type with matted blonde hair was holding forth.
"Listen to me! You don't need no fuckin Net. It's shit they tell you just to keep the people down. Anything The Net can do you can do on your own. You know how I know? I was in Bolivia in '82 and sat in on a brujo session, real strong mojo, and these dudes, they could go anywhere, anywhere, in the fuckin Spirit. Man, they could shut down the bitchin Net if they wanted to. But they don't want to."
CrayDaddy caught Jack's eye and gave a sad wink. Five minutes later they were in the cold alley outside, leading out to Columbia Road. The voices they heard passing were mostly seven varieties of Spanish, but there was Ethiopian and Korean and Arabic in the polyglot too, and even some of CrayDaddy's soft Bahamian.
"Doin you a favor, Jacko," he said in that whispery voice, "to tell you they trackin the Crays. I know, I know I told you they fell off a truck in Norfolk dock, but you over eighteen. You know they still under export ban."
"So why give a shit if some command-and-control honcho gets beheaded in Jordan when the shipment comes up two short?" Jack raged, pounding his fist into the side of a Dumpster.
"Not me and not you. I don't know who, but I know he's on high. So listen to me when I tell you: you still owe me a hundred and fifty K, and I'm telling you anyway to disappear yourself."
A van without windows rolled across the mouth of the alley and stopped.
"Shit and oh dear," CrayDaddy said quietly. "Don't try to run, my babe. Oh, don't even think of runnin."
Callie was on her way to the top for the first time. Everybody talked about what they called the Crystal Palace, the apex of the NCC pyramid that was the office and residence of M. Lee.
Callie had never seen Lee, or never known anyone who did, except Vallejo. Now she was carrying the report her medical team had done on his body, to deliver her diagnosis personally to the President.
She knew enough not to expect the executive office to look high tech like the rest of the pyramid, knew that some corporations even affected the look of the interior of English country manors, right down to working fireplaces and wainscoting.
But she stepped out of the private elevator into what seemed to be an arboretum or aviary. Tall trees, pine and orange and date palm and banyan, rose overhead toward the slanting glass ceiling which echoed with the occasional sounds of the tiny brilliant miniature tropical birds flashing among the branches. A Moorish pattern of tiles under her feet guided her past a slowly flowing fountain.
Through the glass she could see for at least twenty miles, out across the Potomac into Virginia and south past the towers of Georgetown University. Callie had climbed the peak.
In the center of the room a tall pale patrician woman sat at a wide glass desk inset with display screens, her graywhite hair pulled tightly against her fine boned skull. Wordlessly she invited Callie to sit with an outflowing gesture of her long, ringless hand." I have an appointment with President Lee," Callie said.
"Yes," the woman said Callie waited, and took in the unwavering thin lipped smile and the pale eyes watching her. Then she sat down.
"I apologize," Callie said. "In a building built on secrets, your face - and gender -- must be the best kept ones."
The smile and gaze didn't change.
Callie drew the dossier from her case. "As you directed," she said, "my medical team has updated its status report on Ulysses Vallejo."
"Analysis?" the woman said, ignoring the offered binder.
"He was clinically dead for over ten minutes. Then his vital signs were restored, but the state he's in now has many of the appearances of coma."
"Brain wave activity is abnormally high on alpha, delta, and theta simultaneously. Neuronal activity and dopamine levels are equally high. DNA structure has become more complex, in ways we can't adequately describe. We've never seen anything like it."
"Yet you had him removed from the medical center."
"He's in the bunker in the center of the pyramid, the secure room with the heaviest electronic resistance shielding. At random times, though his body temperature hardly changes, the ambient temperature rises close to 100 degrees with corresponding humidity. It's like a jungle. And in the mist many have seen and felt unusual electrical activity. Some of the attendants and cleaning crew won't come close to him."
"Externally he seems unchanged. But on the deepest physical levels he seems to be growing -- certainly becoming more complex, possibly mutating. If you will tolerate a metaphor, he's probably using his body for compost."
Jack was rolling in the filth of the alley, his back on fire. The two cop team had moved so smoothly, and their dark blue jumpsuits hid them so well in the dark, that all he noticed was that one was young and the other at least twenty years older.
Jack had turned to the young one and grinned, holding his hands up high and loose in surrender. "No mas!" he said. It was the older one who went for one smash at Jack's kidneys without a word.
The younger one had his wireless NeoTASER sighted on CrayDaddy in less than a second.
"Noncombatant," CrayDaddy whispered, stepping back and not looking down at Jack. "Blind too."
Callie never expected the laugh. M. Lee rose and opened a small, exquisite lacquer cabinet and withdrew a carafe of white wine and two goblets, and poured a little for both of them.
"Forgive metaphor? My dear, I embrace it. It's the true new wealth of NCC, you realize -- the disciplining of metaphor, the spinning off of endless associative fractals for us to explore with our advantages of neotech."
A multicolored finch descended to hover close to the woman's chair. She raised one wandlike finger and the bird lit on it, turning its head to watch Callie.
"The Garden In The Flames?" Callie asked, holding the untasted wine.
"And what is that? Ulysses, hiding in his smoldering body? Or this room, nestled in the most furious bonfire of psychotechnic energy in the history of the universe?" "Or something much bigger," asked Callie, "out in the Angel territories?"
Lee raised her hand and the bird whirred away in a tiny blaze of black and orange.
"Or without size, happening in the soul of a Persian poet. Or all of these, mutating one into another? All of those possibilities are ours, Callie. As real as the wine in your hand. Because we will make them real.
Oh, we'll still rely on the horse that brought us here to carry us there -- the tired old horse of objectivity and linear thought and analytical science. Your horse, Callie. But our future is in flight."
Anger rose so fast in Callie's throat that it showed only in the precision with which she folded the dossier and replaced it in the case.
"You could have called up my report on the system," Callie said, putting the wineglass down. "Instead, you bring me up here to tell me that my career is lost on the slow track. Now shall I go back down to my level and play scientist some more?"
The pale eyes leveled on her and the cool slow voice dropped to winter. "Don't ever play the fool with me, Callie. It's enough to be half-twin to one. Don't protest. Fortunately he's also a capital-F Fool, which allows him entry to places you and I and Ulysses are denied. Until now he's played the figure in the tarot deck, dancing through, sniffing a rose, unable to see that he's stepping out over the abyss. That will change a bit."
For the first time the eyes blinked, slowly, making Callie realize that everything the woman did was a microsecond slower than normal and felt slightly reptilian, like the smile that now raised the pale lips a calculated millimeter at the edges.
What Jack was smelling was the odor of fear and ancient piss. He was face down on the mat in the back of the van, his hands manacled behind his back and the security mask locked onto his head so that he saw nothing.
"Why?'" he croaked, as the van nosed through the crowded Saturday night streets of the Inner District.
"They don't tell us, citizen," the younger cop said. "Suspicion of subversion? Grand theft neotech, worth twenty years of teaching computer literacy in Lorton?"
"Shut up," his partner replied.
"Give a virgin a break," Jack tried again, talking slowly to keep his kidneys from flaring again. "What happens to me next? How do I keep from getting my balls busted?"
The younger one, enjoying the ride, couldn't resist.
"Just head right into the Great White Light," he said, "and don't look back."
"I told you to shut up, "the older one. Then he snorted laughter. "Great White Light. Christ."
The van eased out-onto the Beltway and started moving fast.
"What do you want from me?" Callie demanded, still ready to walk out on all of it, to drop the climb she had invested herself in since she was twelve, ready at the wrong word to turn Out.
"To cure your deformity. Oh, of course it's not physical. There, you're boringly perfect, and NCC recruits perfection only for the lower levels. But you can be forgiven that because of the interesting sharp, broken edges of your soul, that make you useful and valuable."
Callie, stung, felt the anger edge into hate-love."
"If you know so much about me, you know why I seldom trust or....
"That's not your deformity, dear. It's your inability to see how you've twisted away from what you could be, what at this moment you are. Oh, you're an artist of loving -- but do you hunt?"
Confused, Callie flashed on the Middleburg horse country, on brass horns and riding breeches and tan-and-black hounds, and then on two foxes scrambling along both sides of an interminable fence. Was she being invited to a weekend in the country? Then she felt the cold fingers under her chin, tilting her face up toward those eyes.
"It happens so seldom," the woman said, "that one steps through so clearly from myth into time. The Huntress -- and you can't even see her yet."
Ten steps out of the van and they were into a lift. The helmet and cuffs were still on and Jack was still at zero visual.
"Hey, come on, officers," he said, trying to stand easy. "Talk to me."
Then, as the lift slowed, one of them reached out and pressed a touch pad on the helmet. A second later Jack suddenly felt wildly paranoid and started trembling. "What did you do!" he screamed. "What did you do!"
In the next moment they snapped off the cuffs and helmet, shoved him out of the lift, and stepped back in and disappeared.
Jack staggered into a horrid brilliant crystalline light that speared through his optic nerve into his brain. He screwed his eyes shut but the darkness was worse, and drove him to open them in an instant. He shrank from the large, moving shapes over his head and flinched from the small squeaking ones. And oh God, who was the bleached feverish crone advancing toward him lisping his name?
"Mister Out! In time! Don't stand on appearances!"
Worse, who was the other one, the darker shape behind the horror rushing toward him?
"Callie?" he stammered, as the insane light wavered and crawled.