Tony edged his oversized body out of the ever-present Northwest drizzle onto a lift-bus more crowded than E. coli on an agar plate. He ran his sand-colored hands absently through his thick, shoulder-length black hair. Flicking his wrist, he broke The Rules as the dislodged dampness sprayed across several of his neighbors. Several commuters gave him a hard glare. Unwritten TriMet Transit laws included staying in one’s own space. He half-heartedly smiled an apology.
“Mondays,” Tony whispered through a hangover that bothered him only enough to know he’d once again been drinking too much—the tenth time in twelve weeks. And for the same number of weeks he thought about breaking his own personal commandment not to use any drugs, even over-the-counter hangover cures. Too many burns started out that simply. He wanted to keep his personality.
To take his mind off the pain, he stared out the partially fogged windows at the passing miasma of gray. Another exciting day of running tests for a product that won’t do much for anyone, for a company that cares only about the few credits it sells for, he thought grimly.
A departing commuter offered a diversion as Tony forced himself between several other passengers like they were two line-backers to capture the empty seat. Two other hopefuls gave him the angry looks often accompanying someone else’s victory. Ignoring them and the hushed but omnipresent sounds of 218 commuters crowded against him—not to mention the press of 2.3 billion in the Portland environs—Tony wiggled his hips enough to get fully seated between his neighbors.
As comfortable as one could be on the TriMet at rush hour, he reached for the news chips floating near the ceiling, missing his first two attempts. Working really hard to focus his eyes on the task, he finally snagged one. He snapped the seal as if breaking a cracker and waved his prize near the neural implant under his left arm.
As he dropped the chip’s now-useless, biodegradable cellulose capsule to the floor, the headline screamed “Unemployment Plummets to 27 Percent!” through his neural connection. Despite the newsman’s pleasant baritone, Tony winced and wiggled the muscle at the back of his ear, muting the audio. He then harrumphed at the headline’s very concept. Only a gullible fool would believe news that optimistic.
Tony absently flicked his eye to change the solido page, but nothing caught his attention until the sports news popped up in front of him. Attention, but no relief. “Spiders Trounced by Packers in a 41-14 Rout.” Tony read enough to realize the league would use his Aussie Spiders as a punching bag this season. The loss of their star quarterback to a neck injury three weeks ago had put the Aussies into a tailspin, and nobody, least of all Tony, expected them to recover.
He fondly remembered his football days in high school, but only in a child’s dreams could he play beyond that venue. Lacking the size or talent to play tight end professionally, he would’ve needed massive implants or genetic drug therapies just to compete—both against league rules at the time.
“BREAKING NEWS” flashed across his view. “Third Greenie Bomb This Week!”
Tony’s shoulders straightened. In lurid detail, the article explained how a small explosive device killed at least thirteen people and maimed scores of others when it detonated within the BioNetix home offices. Even before the first screams of the injured pierced the air, the Green Action Militia took responsibility for the act. “Violence will escalate until the world is no longer exploited by the megacorps!” ranted an unidentified GAM spokesperson.
In a sop to equal time, a midlevel VP at BioNetix denounced the act as nothing more than “the brutal ruthlessness of cannibals.” As a commentator interviewed eyewitnesses to the explosion, the article played some poor amateur solido footage of the bomb’s debris cloud engulfing a group of workers as they entered the building. The image didn’t interest Tony much and he flipped to the scrollbars that summed up the sixty-seven other acts of terrorism known thus far as acts of the GAM, including eighteen direct assassinations, multiple bombings, product tampering, and many more.
The newsies, Metros, and even the pundits painted the Greenies as a “black necrosis,” but the rabble considered them modern-day heroes. This dichotomy resonated on every gossip ring, coffee klatch, political mindshare, and bull session across Earth, not to mention most everyone in the solar system.
Tony absently wondered why anyone would fight order. His life balanced. It held order. It comforted him in a dismal and gray way. He knew from one moment to the next where his next meal and entertainment would come from. He wondered how an unwinnable, pointless war against the entire system could even be considered sane.
The romance of the GAM still attracted him like the Merry Men of Robin Hood fame, but the thought of leaving his reasonably comfortable life to kill people made him absently shudder.
Engulfed in the paradox between his heart and head, he didn’t notice when the eyes of the woman seated next to him went wild and she spasmodically clutched her package to her chest. Oblivious to Tony, she gasped, eyes rolling back into her head. He glanced in frustration when someone bumped into his legs, only to find the woman collapsed on the floor, leaning against him.
Until just that moment, the ancient-looking grandmother with a streak of gold down the center of her curly hair had been just another insignificant cog in life to him—just another obstacle to negotiate and placate in his day-to-day life. She jerked spasmodically in place against his legs, unable to even fall over decently in the tightly packed lift-bus. Later, Tony remembered with shame that his first act was to push her away. She collapsed bonelessly to the rubberized floorboard. The only sound came from her head landing with a dull thud.
“Leave her alone!” shouted a man wearing the yellow vinyl tights of a bodyguard.
“Please step back from the victim,” the automated TriMet emergency voice finally offered in a smooth, pacifying voice designed to calm any panicky witnesses.
Somehow the year his parents sent him to live with his grandparents in Queensland all came back in a rush. Tony remembered Granther hobbling around on his peg-leg. He also remembered, with some throbbing memories in the seat of his pants, how Granther’s rattan cane forced him to learn. The war taught Granther many things, all of which he felt the need to cram into his grandson in the space of that single year.
Tony’s thoughts returned to the old woman on the floor. Kneeling next to her, Tony tried to remove a badly misbalanced box she still managed to clutch to her chest. It took two tries and a jerk to free it so he could place it on the seat. With an ear to her chest, he muttered to himself, “No heartbeat.”
He remembered the stings Granther delivered whenever Tony dared to err. “Lay the victim down. Make sure he/she is on a hard surface,” Tony mumbled, mimicking Granther’s thick Aussie accent. As he talked, he followed the instructions like an obsessive-compulsive, or one of Pavlov’s dogs.
“For your safety and hers, please move away from the victim,” ordered the lift-bus’s pleasant voice. “We have been diverted to Portland General. The Metro Police will meet us upon arrival in six minutes and twelve seconds.”
“First, tilt the victim…” Tony’s back flinched, awaiting a cane too many years and kilometers away. “No, no, first I have to make sure the airway’s clear!”
He obeyed his grandfather’s teachings automatically, without thinking. A mottled orange goop dribbled down the side of the old woman’s face. “Don’t be surprised by the taste of vomit,” came Granther’s drill-sergeant voice. “It’s common for heart attack victims to regurgitate.”
Tony tilted her pale face to one side and used his fingers to scoop out a clump of stinking goo the consistency of cottage cheese. With a strong flip of his wrist he sent the mess spraying across the small open floor area, adding to Sargasso Sea of discarded gum, ink stains, news capsules, and cigarette butts—and simultaneously decorating a number of shoes, trousers, and hose.
“Now tilt back the head and blow in her mouth,” Granther’s disembodied voice ordered in Tony’s mind. He took the precaution of wiping off her mouth with his sleeve before bending over and placing his lips on hers.
A wet slime sprayed up through her nose across his cheek. The taste of sour milk and stale cookies filled his mouth. “Oh, yeah, pinch nose.” This time he succeeded in expanding her chest with his breath.
“THINK!” Tony shouted out. The packed TriMet commuters managed to back away slightly, giving him a few more centimeters of room. “Is it two breaths and fifteen chest compressions or the other way around?” Everyone looked dumbfounded. “QUICK!” he barked, looking directly into the dyed green-and-yellow face of an Oregon University student.
“Please stop, citizen. Your activities may be legally actionable.”
Tony didn’t hear a word, totally focused on his own question. The racing in his chest gave him the answer. More beats to his heart than the number of times he breathed.
“Lace your fingers together and push hard on the chest directly between the nipples.” The sharp multiple reports of the woman’s ribs dislocating carried through the bus, while everyone watched in morbid curiosity. A man in the front row fell over in a faint, caught and held nearly upright by the press of the other bystanders.
“Stop that! You’re killing her!” one passenger insisted.
This time the lift-bus came to Tony’s defense. “Negative,” came the pleasant voice, still trying to instill calm. “There is no murder taking place.”
“The first compression will almost certainly crack the victim’s ribs. Don’t despair, because repairing broken ribs is much easier than restarting a heart which has been stopped too long.”
One large man looked menacingly down at Tony. “Leave her,” he insisted. “The doctors will take care of her—if she has medical, that is.”
Tony paid no attention, slowing his compressions. “After fifteen full compressions, each about every half second or so, you need to give two breaths of air, assuming your victim isn’t breathing,” Granther said through him. Tony’s ear moved right next to the woman’s face. He still heard nothing.
“Continue your fifteen chest compressions followed by two breaths until help arrives or the victim’s heart starts. This should be checked every compression set.”
Tony continued his physical lifesaving. Many wouldn’t even look. Others stared with the same sort of fascination as if watching someone put their head in the mouth of a lion.
“Yes, I know,” he mumbled jerkily during one chest compression session. “Everyone says don’t get involved. Stay at arm’s reach. It’s not my problem. But I can’t sit here while someone dies.”
Time lost its cohesion for Tony. He muscles burned and his own chest ached with the unusual labors. Thirty. Two. Thirty. Two. Thirty. The repetition kept him going. Whether one minute passed or sixty, Tony’s heart leapt when he detected a pulse—faint, but definitely there. At last, the woman began to breathe on her own.
Tony all but collapsed against the seat, still straddling the old woman’s torso. Spots danced before his eyes and his ears rang. He coughed heavily between desperate drags of air as the bus gently settled down on a landing pad. A pair of red-suited medicos waited along with a Metro cop, completely sealed in his blue suit of armor showing no face to the world.
The trio slowly filed on as soon as the doors opened. The Metro, in a rare instance of friendliness, helpfully directed civilians toward a waiting replacement bus.
“Hurry,” Tony urged, barely having enough air for a few desperate words. “Has pulse,” he gasped with his last possible breath. The medicos, not bothered by Tony’s pleas, casually lifted the woman’s wrist and scanned her DNA from her epithelial cells.
“She’s got full medical. Get the life capsule in here on the double!” Haste replaced the formerly lax efforts. A high-tech gurney floated in.
“Out of the way, civilian,” one of the medicos all but yelled at Tony.
Still winded, Tony didn’t respond, instead crawling a few feet out of the way. The doctors lifted her quickly into the golden coffin-like device and closed the lid. The life capsule would sustain any spark of life left in her.
“I did it! I saved her!” he gasped breathlessly, as his chest gradually felt less and less like he’d spacewalked without a suit. “It feels good! Did you see what I just did?”
“Sir, are you a relative?” the policeman asked, snapping him back to reality like the first yank of a bungee jump.
“Huh? No, sir. She was just another passenger. She was sitting there and then her face went white and—”
While the policeman’s fully armored face contained no clues, Tony still detected a sense of disappointment or resentment. “I’m going to have to ask for your ident,” came his voice, colder than before.
“Certainly, officer,” Tony said, offering his own wrist for a DNA sample. The officer scanned it with a device built into his left index finger. “First time I’ve ever had a policeman scan my ident. Is that a fourteen-seventy-five Merrick Scanner?”
The policeman ignored the question. “You aren’t a trained medic.”
“No, sir.” While Tony paid his police protection money promptly every month, he saw no reason to antagonize this officer. Who knows who might’ve paid them more? And paid or not, police could and would arrest you for anything they might feel like. “But my grandfather was a paramedic in the Australian Civil War. He taught me—”
“Then why were you attending to her? You could be in a great deal of fiscal trouble. This lift-bus carries all the proof she needs to convict you of malpractice.”
“I understand, sir. But I couldn’t just stand there and let her die.”
“You could and should have. I suggest you go home and think this over. I’ll notify your work, Tony Sammis.”
“Yes, sir.” Tony exited the bus back into the gray wetness of the day with extreme emotions simmering—excitement, happiness, fear, and dread. He walked absently toward the replacement transport when he felt a tap on his shoulder.
“Sir, your box,” offered the Metro. The emotional stew boiled over. Having a policeman’s attention never boded well. Without thinking he took the proffered box from the cop’s blue-clad arms.
“Thank you, sir,” he said, stepping onto the bus. In retrospect, Tony never knew why he took the box.
* * *
The subtle scent composition “American Beauty,” by the Master Composer Beatrix Smith, wafted jasmine and cinnamon across the room.
“This October meeting will come to order,” called an unamplified voice.
The décor’s pure simplicity proclaimed the occupants’ wealth. A simple mahogany table, the wood alone valued as much as a large home, dominated the room, with matching straight-backed chairs added as a garnish. Manufactured-diamond glasses and decanters with ice water sat next to pads of actual wood-pulp paper, where a lesser organization would’ve used computer screens, or perhaps even synthetics. The steel-gray depression that coated Portland nine months of the year artificially filtered in colors through a stained-glass mosaic that ringed the one-hundred-ninety-sixth floor penthouse. Fittingly, it depicted the purchase of Manhattan from the natives for a handful of trinkets.
Ten of the richest individuals in the entire Sol system calmly took their seats around the table. For all their wealth, they still wore almost identical charcoal-gray suits, differing in cut only for physical size and sex. They’d been the cogs of the great megacorps too long to fully embrace the individuality they’d earned the right to express with impunity.
Almost as one they turned on the recording mechanisms nearly transparent on their left sleeves. Even by meeting in this loose association, these people of power defied every antitrust law in every country or merchant association in the system, but this transgression would come as no surprise to anyone, anywhere.
“France hasn’t been forthcoming with the devaluation of the franc as our lobbyists decreed.”
“So you’re pushing for punitive measures?”
“Yes. I believe we’ve been too easy on the statutory authorities of late.”
“I second that.”
No one spoke.
“So do we have options for these punitive measures?”
“I suggest a four-week transit strike.”
“In France it’d be a miracle if there wasn’t a transit strike.”
No one laughed. “Percomm Systems is out of order.”
“Energy embargo. No energy in or out of the country. Our projections show they have enough for a three-month reserve. I suggest we withhold energy from the Palpon Station for a minimum of four months, but in any case until compliance.”
“This will be a good visible lesson.”
“Good, and we can piggyback that with some profit-taking against our energy reserves in the country.”
“Objections? No? It is carried. BirskTek, would you please implement this action immediately. Any new business?”
“I’d like to propose a solution to the Green Action Militia’s recent depredations on each of our organizations,” Nanogate announced.
“A solution?” spouted Percomm Systems, as he shifted to try to get more than sixty percent of his personal bulk into his chair. “Preposterous!”
“The member from Percomm Systems is out of order again. Proceed with your proposal, Nanogate.”
“As you all know, we’ve seen an alarming increase in the actions of the group known as the Green Action Militia.” Several of the executives nodded in agreement. “Each of our corporations has suffered the attentions of these terrorists. I’d like to propose a course of action to bring these losses to our gross profits and personnel back in line.”
“How?” the pudgy man interrupted again. “We’ve all tried. They’re like wily feral animals. Oh, occasionally we get one or two, but never enough to even cut into their recruiting.”
The chairman raised his walnut gavel to control the Percomm Systems’ executive officer, but Nanogate caught his eye and waved him off.
“Too true. Our actions have not only been ineffective, but going even further, they’ve added to our own troubles.”
“That sounds a bit farfetched,” commented the chairman, breaking his own rule.
“May I have the indulgence of the panel for a few moments to prove this?” Nanogate, the newest addition of the group with only six months of tenure, didn’t have the clout of the others. His peers often outvoted his pet projects. A solidographic projection atop the table tabulated the results.
“The member will proceed,” announced the chairman.
“One of our conglomerates’ major products is arms. We sell to any group that can pay the price. As a result, we have good modeling systems for the interactions that take place below the purview of the system government. I’m speaking, of course, of the black market. We’ve applied that modeling to our current crisis. In short, the data I’m projecting over the table shows that our actions have only removed the less successful members of their movement. Worse, their failures—our successes—only bring them more sympathy and attract recruits to their cause.
“The models project a range of outcomes that at best case show within sixty months, even with our chokehold on the media, fifty-eight percent of the public will be behind the GAM. This would lead inexorably to a requirement for major and costly concessions, cutting profits nearly eighty-three percent.”
While no sound uttered from any member, eyeballs clicked in Nanogate’s direction. Attentions that had wandered to thoughts of sexual conquests, hobbies, and other business immediately refocused themselves directly upon him.
“Remember, I’m talking best case here,” Nanogate added for emphasis. Two members actually turned in their seat to face the most junior member of their august company. “Worst case, our projections show their support growing exponentially. If not checked, this would result in the breakup of this committee and the destruction of business as we know it.”
No one said a word for nearly a minute.
“How is that possible?” Pudgy demanded, the first to break the shocked silence that permeated the room. He stood, a breach of unwritten etiquette, to emphasize his next question. “How do we know your simulations are accurate?”
“I’ll be more than happy to have my experts talk to yours. Our databanks on this matter are open to all.” The significance of that gesture, in an age where knowledge equates to wealth and power, wasn’t lost on the other members. Not one of them would have the information checked.
“So is there a solution?” asked CNI, one of four female members.
“We need to eliminate the GAM as a significant force.”
Even the chairman couldn’t let this inconsistency pass unchallenged. “But didn’t you say that attacking them would only make them stronger?”
“No. I said our current methods were less than ineffective.”
“Then what more than trained troops and police could possibly suffice? We all spend a small fortune keeping forces trained, informants paid, and an army of field operatives trying to sniff them out, not to mention bounties offered for key members.”
“If I might digress for a moment to basics taught to us by the late zaibatsu of Japan: eighty percent of any problem can be solved with twenty percent of the resources needed to solve the entire problem. I’m suggesting only solving that which is cost-effective. I only ask the required effort from each of you as you have the ability.
“This is the eighty percent solution I offer.” A small stack of bound wood-pulp papers slid around the table, with each representative pulling off the top copy. Nanogate waited as they each scanned the four widely spaced pages. When each of them looked up, he continued.
“I call for a vote.”
“Before the vote,” remarked the chairman, quickly scanning the pages before him, “I’d like to point out that there’ll be an initial increase in losses on the order of twenty-three percent over the first quarter.”
“What’s the schedule for reduction?”
“My team’s simulations show that by the end of the second quarter, our losses will be down by forty-five percent and eighty-two percent by the end of the third quarter.
“As a whole, the GAM is probably a necessary evil. They provide an outlet to the populace that will, at the end of our campaign, be relatively harmless.”
“Please place your vote.” The computer tallied ten “Aye” votes.
“The next item on the agenda is planning the reduction of the food supply next year…”
* * *
Smoke wandered liberally but leisurely up from a tiny clay pot in the center of the almost barren room, filling the top of the chamber like a ghostly inverted bathtub, even to the dirty rings of previous gritty fills. In a perfect lotus position, a young Latina blended into the serenity room near the smudge, only the barely audible sounds of an ocean surf interrupting the silent tranquility. Even the most open-minded physician would be concerned about the slowness of her breathing and heart rate, if anyone so lofty would deign to enter her world.
The twenty-something chica’s long, crude-oil-colored hair hung down over her right shoulder in direct contrast to the bare skin on the left side of her head. Buttoned only in one place, her white lab coat, bearing numerous random stains, fell loosely over her legs, partially hiding the glyphs tattooed directly into her caramel-colored skin.
From the outside of the room’s only door came the tiniest of scratches. Her breathing increased and her body languidly unwound from itself as she stood, showing even more of the ebon symbols against her evenly tanned skin. Her knees locked, and with legs clamped together she bent in half at the waist, placing her palms flat on the floor. Without moving from this position, her long aristocratic fingers lifted a lid and placed it over the smoldering pot. A quick exhalation doused the tiny flame beneath.
Unrolling back to her full height, her gaunt form rose over 180 centimeters. Only the barest crest in the upper part of her smock gave any indication of sex. The black runes covered every visible centimeter of her skin below her neckline. She walked with a gliding grace toward a small mechanism in the far corner. A spring-wound conveyor lifted a trail of sand, pouring it over a series of wooden and metal plates. Turning off the motion, she silenced the ocean’s simple cadence. Opening the door, she repatriated the sounds of Portland’s bustling city into her sanctuary.
“Good morning, Plutonia,” Sonya said in a soft soprano to the tiniest wisp of gray fur that wound around her ankles. A large orange and white tomcat joined Plutonia in praising their human companion. The mewing chorus of seventeen other felines, plus the shrill barks of one small Pomeranian, joined the admiration. Live pets, banned everywhere on Earth for the last fifty years, were her only roommates.
Sonya started a pot of boiling water over a simple gas grill, yet another of her illegal activities. As she waited, she spread five kilos of homemade pet food into a wooden trough on the floor. Plucking three broad leaves from a mint plant in a window box, she laid them into the top of a tall wooden drying box and took a similar number of dried leaves from a slit in the bottom. Between her palms she ground the brittle leaves to a near powder into a tiny metal bulb. The old-fashioned teapot worked hard to develop its shrill, piercing cry after starting from a low, lonely note.
As Sonya dipped the tea bulb into a petite porcelain cup, Plutonia jumped up to the beaten and scratched white polymer tabletop. The cat stepped over and around bags of nitrogen compounds and detonators, and a stack of incomplete pipe bombs to sit unconcerned amongst the potential destruction and clean her fur.
Sonya pushed aside a plastic bag of gunpowder, set down her teacup, and eased herself into a patio chair whose green color clashed with just about everything nearby. Sonya took a moment to stroke her tiny friend and croon encouragingly at her in a low, raspy voice. She knew a customer waited in her living room. She sensed him arrive during her meditations, but her morning tea took precedence. Her customers often suffered much longer waits than this man would endure, especially as his tabby only had a minor chest cold.
She sipped her hot tea with both hands firmly around her cup. It brought back fond recollections of her mother. Sonya could see her sitting in the kitchen brewing some potion or another—this one for wart remover, that one as an AIDS cure, the other one as a love potion. Her mother, an aging woman even in Sonya’s earliest memories, lived in a one-bedroom slum apartment. The reek of cooked cabbage and raw salmon pervaded all of Sonya’s recollections. They were the smells of home, however revolting to most. She could remember helping her mother stew sauerkraut for use as a poultice against baldness. The day before the Metros murdered her, she said to her daughter, “Girl, you are equal parts empathy, knowledge, and magic. You’ll be a formidable witch one day.”
* * *
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