Thinking Outside the Box – Blurb


Select a Strong Leader

High velocity splatter covered the opposite wall like red wine sprayed over a bridal gown. Blood soaked into the carpet in a pool and smeared across the plaid couch near the splatter’s origin.

As he’d opened the door, Tony Sammis wrinkled his Roman nose at the wet-copper stench. The intense light of a sunny winter’s day, rare for Portland, poured through the slits in the blinds. With exaggerated quiet he closed the front door with a conspiratorial glance outside to make sure he’d not been seen hotwiring the lock.

Tony slid his electronic slim-Jim back into his inner jacket pocket as he took in the room. Six pieces of a Crate & Barrel faux-oak coffee table occupied the center of the room. A La-Z-Boy recliner itself reclined on its back, the footrest stretching off at an unnatural angle toward a solido that showed only the “Technical Difficulty” image. Tony ran his olive-complected hand over a dent in the wall the size and shape of a person’s back.

While not a criminal detective, Tony had no difficulty finding the weapon that had caused the mess on the wall. A crimson-coated, aluminum bat lay not 2 meters away amidst the shards of a broken, ceramic lamp. Bending over for a closer look, Tony made out at least two impact points on the Louisville Slugger. The blood, flesh, and hair matted on the bludgeon showed blond and redheaded victims. Narissa, like himself, was a brunette. She hadn’t gone without a fight.

No one in the Green Action Militia had heard from Narissa in over twenty-four hours. Her net footprint ended at 0736 yesterday. Her implant remotes refused remote activation. The obvious conclusion was that she’d been abducted.

Three other Greenies had gone before her but they’d been swallowed up like they’d never existed. Narissa left them something to go on.

Tony teased one of each hair sample, which still had follicles attached, off the bat. He wrapped them in his clean handkerchief, for want of better storage.

The silence was only broken by the faint sound of a neighboring apartment’s toilet flushing. He really didn’t expect anyone to still be in the flat, but he wasn’t sure.

Tony glided through the kitchen with a grace one wouldn’t expect of his big, stocky build. He took care not to disturb the trail of red drops across the white imitation tile nor the rose-colored smudges around the sink. With his ring phone, Tony clicked a quick picture of one very obvious fingerprint in the gore. He noticed a pair of towels with a washed-out pink color. Someone had a hell of a lump.

The desk in the corner looked untouched in spite of the designer purse sitting in plain sight. A pair of LifeStone earrings, worth more than the entire flat, lay in plain sight next to them. No blood trail tracked back into the bedrooms or the bathroom.

Tony stretched his 190 cm, stocky frame up from his crouch, willing his broad shoulders to relax. Anyone who saw Tony gave him wagon room. While he wore no powered, body-modifications, his football player tight-end build gave him a presence in a society that prided itself on anonymity.

Just weeks ago the GAM had won a Pyrrhic victory against the remorseless cabal of megacorps. Many had died on both sides. Now the war was over. The Greenies should be safe. They shouldn’t need to hide any longer. They should be able to sit on their laurels and watch things change for the better.

Tony mentally slipped off his rose-colored glasses with a heavy sigh. Every time in his life that he’d relaxed he’d paid a price. One or even two of his people could be written off as coincidence or chance. Not four. The Green Action Militia was being hunted in earnest.

His normally casual smile hardened into a line. “Case Red. Disaster protocols,” Tony said to a percomm mailbox that sent out priority signals to every member of the GAM.

*  *  *

Case: Red

Doctrine of Emergency Dispersal

Case Red is a stringent alert for the Green Action Militia second only to Case Black, the disbanding of the GAM.

The Case Red alert will only be issued in the event that there has been a significant breach in the security of GAM personnel or data networks. The downside of obviously massive communication and capital disruption is balanced by the need to save as many members as possible. Because of identity and location changes, this dispersal will also reduce the number of colleagues that any one captured member may betray.

Orders for Case Red

–       Immediately power-down percomm.

  • o Percomms to be used only for reporting emergencies when no other options are available.
  • o All communications are to be done using prepaid disposable ring, watch or clothing phones.
  • o Each prepaid phone to be used only once and then discarded or destroyed.

–       Engage in no electronic commerce or banking.

–       Immediately travel by foot to backup currency, identity and equipment location.

  • o As in previous doctrines, this location must be at least ten kilometers from your current home or place of work.
  • o Dispose of all current identifications of current identity.
    • This includes changing the network IDs of all implants.
    • Under no conditions are you to contact any discarded identity while Case Red is in force.
  • o Assume new identity.
  • o Carry enough cash to function for at least one month.

–       Travel another ten-plus kilometers before taking cash only transit to backup identity location.

–       Team meetings will be through net address solido (NAS) only.

  • o NAS location has been implanted but mentally blocked. It can only be retrieved once Case Red has been declared.
  • o Meetings are at intervals of exactly one week after Case Red declaration.

–       Be as paranoid as possible.

–       Make significant personal change if possible.

  • o This could include hair color change, unmonitored genetic therapy, mechanical enhancement or more mundane physical disguises.

–       Change identities if even suspicious that there is surveillance or a hunt for you.

–       Only the joint decision of two Action Committee (AC) members may cancel Case Red.

  • o If only one or zero AC member remains, Case Black is mandated.

*  *  *

Augustine Cordoba, also known as gm4_1c3, lay supine in a net cradle of her own design. It was the size and shape of a chaise lounge. She floated 15 centimeters above the receiver unit, suspended by superconductive strands woven into her neon-green jumpsuit. Sixteen neural transmitters, each in a different color of an expanded rainbow, poked out through her cropped, blue-white hair. Most striking were the silver-ceramic cornea replacements that allowed her to view virtual reality as easily as the material world. She looked genetically blind but with the built-in enhancements could see better than any living creature. Her pale skin belied her Hispanic last name. Her mother often joked about a wild Christmas party. Minor crow’s feet around Augustine’s eyes and the beginnings of liver spots betrayed her age. She would turn seventy-four in August, her namesake.

The severe white room, barely large enough for her servers, had never been traced to her. She’d purchased it through sixteen different cutouts long before joining the Green Action Militia. In fact she’d never even shared the location of this retreat with her fellow Greenies. None of her other net jock acquaintances, including the infamous D0m_N3t, had unraveled the Byzantine labyrinth of her continuously rerouted net signal, even to the correct continent.

While technically on the run under Case Red, she could be safe here for a time. Running and hiding was a game for the young and she knew she could remain hidden only so long. She had a duty to perform before she was caught. She sighed loud enough to be heard above the white noise generated by the fans of her massive racks of computers.

“Welcome to the Catholic Church Penance and Reconciliation Node,” came a voice over her cochlear implant. An ornate but realistic crucifix zoomed in from the stained-glass background in virtual reality. “Your confession is protected against quantum code breaking by the one-time pad cipher you provided in person at the church.

“This net node supplies absolution for Roman Catholic, Catholic Reformation, and Catholic Schism sects. Please state your preference.”

Augustine swallowed hard. She promised herself this day of reckoning even before she strayed from her religious background. Guilt had built upon guilt over her years as a terrorist. “Catholic Reformation.”

“This conversation may be recorded for training and quality control purposes without any loss of the sanctity of the confessional.”

The view changed to show her virtual image dressed in her Sunday finest, blue calico dress. Multiple layers of petticoats held out the hem. She could feel the crinoline rubbing against the nylon stockings as she approached the outside of an antique wooden confessional, complete with a second door for the Father Confessor. She swept the penitent’s door aside and took her place on the kneeler, appropriately covered in black velvet.

Facing a wicker screen she started in classical style, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned. It has been twelve years, six months, and twelve days since my last confession.”

Augustine watched the node’s processing thread switch rapidly from a standard absolution generator to a more stringent one. Wintel’s public list of net jocks showed gm4_1c3 rating as thirteenth as of this morning’s update. Only a hack with a rating in low double digits would have noted the change. No one under a twenty rating could forgo watching the network calls and underlying code.

All she could think of was that an automation wasn’t enough for what she had to unburden.

“Why have you been so long away from our church, daughter Augustine?” the preprogrammed illusion continued.

“I couldn’t reconcile my life as a terrorist with my faith in God.”

The program shifted its source again. A real human being took over. Augustine smiled grimly.

“So, daughter, what part of being a terrorist brought you into conflict with your faith?” The priest’s voice was young with a hint of the sing-song of an Asian birth.

First line support, Augustine thought. Boy, is he in for a shock.

“I would like to confess six murders by my own hand, sixty-three murders by collusion, and eight hundred four deaths by acts of omission. I would like to start with these, Father, and if we can get through them I can discuss lesser acts of violence that left persons maimed, homeless or penniless.” She watched the young priest’s call for help in the data stream. The I/O focus changed to a new node with another live confessor, presumably one with more experience. She could imagine ninety fledgling priests listening in on this unusual confession as a training exercise.

“Miss, that’s a great number of mortal sins,” said a new voice in a strong southern United States’ accent. The partially-obscured, computer-generated avatar’s mouth didn’t quite match the living person’s words.

“Yes, Father. I understand this. I did it while fighting for our people.”

“Who are ‘our people’?”

“All of the people disenfranchised by the megacorps. I was a member of the Green Action Militia.”

There was a short pause. The process generated a secondary link to a library routine but left the original I/O focus intact. Even this experienced priest needed assistance. “Daughter, our Father and his Son acknowledge no earthly power. Your sins were sins no matter the reasoning behind them. ‘The road to hell is paved…’”

“…with good intentions. Yes, I do understand this, Father. That is why I removed myself from the church as long as I did. I couldn’t reconcile my love for our Father with the sins I committed.”

“And you couldn’t remove yourself from this temptation?”

“No, Father. It was a needful thing. I couldn’t turn my back on the suffering of my fellow man so I forced myself to turn my back, temporarily, on the church and God’s love.”

A long pause as the library routine scoured a database with a very strong access code that she broke without exerting but a sliver of her talents. “So you regret your actions?”

“Am I sad? Yes. Do I feel the guilt of the mortal lives I took burdening my soul? Yes. That being said, I did what was needed. I don’t feel the world is a worse place for those deaths.”

“And who are you to judge others? Why do you think you can usurp the prerogatives of God?”

“I am only who I am. I can only make decisions that I see need to be made. If I do anything else I am nothing but a sheep.”

Augustine watched an instant message token spawn to a far off IP that she followed through Calgary, Switzerland, and the Bahamas. She dropped her surveillance process as it didn’t matter whom the Father needed to talk to.

“Daughter, the first act of the confessional is contrition. You must truly be sorry for your acts. You must be sorry enough not to repeat them. From what I hear in your words you may be sorry but you haven’t convinced yourself they were wrong.”

“I disagree, Father. I do know that they were wrong. I feel the burden of the sin upon me.”

“But you’d do it again?”

“Yes, Father, given the same circumstances I would do it again.”

“Then you cannot be absolved and your soul must remain in jeopardy, my daughter.”

“Even though the likelihood of reoccurrence is nonexistent?” Augustine rebutted.

“Even so. It is what you will do with your soul and your life that matters.”

Through the network she could actually feel the gritty velvet pressed through her stockings into her knees just below where the petticoats held her dress out. The distraction focused her thinking. She could feel her guilt pressing in on her. “I think I understand now, Father. ‘Go forth and sin no more.’”

“Good. You have fulfilled the first two portions of your confession. The third I feel won’t be as simple. Your sins are heavy and require more than a few Hail Marys and a handful of Our Fathers.”

“I stand as a good daughter of the church, Father. What would you have me do?”

*    *   *

Seventeen people gathered around a scratched mahogany table in a room already infamous to anyone with obscene amounts of money. The room still bore the scars of The People’s wrath, as administered by the Green Action Militia. Smoke smudged the walls near a ceiling still riddled with bullet holes. A telltale pink stained the grout between the Venetian marble slabs. The stained glass windows, across one wall of the room, depicted the purchase of Manhattan from Native Americans. Somehow it had evaded the maelstrom of the Green Action Militia coup.

The least of the occupants in this room measured their wealth in trillions of dollars. Despite this they weren’t the richest human beings, but close. To be chosen to this elite council required as a prime requisite a demonstrable ability to run a major corporation. An isolated computer system had selected fifteen of the seventeen. The two exceptions survived the overthrow of the previous junta and were now charged to carry The People’s message forward.

“I think we all know each other, at least by reputation,” said the tall, gaunt Wintel. “And I gather we will all get to know each other a great deal more over the next few years. I suggest we dispense with introductions and move to the first order of business. I believe we need to elect a chairman.”

“I’m not familiar with this process,” claimed the majority owner of MinInc, the sole mining company on the red planet. The slight man fiddled with one of the controls of a handcrafted, Martian day-suit.

“I suggest we have a general ballot and unless there is a clear victor then we race off the two with the highest totals. Are there any objections?”

“I object,” came a mellow, but not loud voice. It contained no rancor.

“Yes, please. Your objection?”

“Before we vote on a chairperson, shouldn’t we know what the duties of the chairperson are?” Nanogate asked. At 172 cm and 82 kilos he wasn’t an impressive physical specimen in a room of physically unimpressive people. His tailored suit of hand-woven wool cost more than the average annual salary of his employees.

Nods went around the table.

“We haven’t fully defined the function yet, but let’s agree to some preliminary rules to build upon,” Wintel suggested.

“For now shall we say that the chairperson calls our group to order and conducts these proceedings,” offered the female CEO of BeringC Protein.

“I suggest he doesn’t have a vote in the council but he can veto any action agreed to by the council,” MinInc said. General agreement followed.

“And the council can overrule the veto by a three-to-one margin,” Wintel interjected, his angular features looking like a bird of prey.

“Of course.”

“I suggest one more thing,” Unified Textiles, the only other survivor of the Greenie attack, said. “The chairperson may introduce a motion. It has priority and doesn’t require a second, but if defeated by even a simple majority he must step down as chairperson and cannot be reelected to that position.”

“Do I hear objections to these powers?” No one spoke. “Then let us cast our first ballot.”

The council silently cast their ballots over the room’s network. The electronic voice of the computer spoke next.

“Sixteen ballots cast for Nanogate. One vote for Wintel.”

Nanogate, the other surviving member of the previous stratocracy, nodded to the rest of the members. “I am going to put my rule to the test immediately. I insist that all of our meetings be held in this room. I want a mural on that wall depicting the Auschwitz concentration camp. Emotionally, this was the biggest failing of any government in modern history.

“In addition I move that the rest of this room remain intact, down to the stains of our eight fallen comrades.

“With these two reminders let us never forget that governments can and do hurt the people they protect and that the people they injure can retaliate.”

*   *   *

The lighting in Boxed Storage Depot #6 of the Portland Corrections Facility was so dim a cat would have difficulty navigating through it. Yet the ordered movement of the simple 40 cm cubed metal shells, each corner rounded, indicated that the darkness didn’t trouble them. The boxed stacked themselves sixty tiers high, stretching for over a kilometer in either direction. It looked like a warehouse of shiny antique toasters. The depot’s inert atmosphere of nitrogen reduced deterioration of any of the boxed mechanical components. This didn’t help the poor human brain sealed within.

A silver boxed unit with A1412 etched across its side, rolled in and slipped into one of the few vacant locations in the immense grid of similar “toasters.” His box needed time in the charging racks.

The deep-space-like silence of the great room shattered with the squeal of amplified feedback.

“Who be that?” J112, the boxed unit next to A1412, asked.

“I think it was Charlie Durmot,” A1412 said in as close to a sad tone as his onboard electronic speakers could produce.

“Charlie’s been acting a bit squirrelly lately. Remember last week when he washed G42’s shell instead of the windows?”

“How did he end it?” G996 asked.

“I saw him in the tool crib with a pneumatic drill,” A1412 replied.

“How long he been boxed?”

“Seventy-five years,” G996 whispered.

“Shit. No wonder. There be times I think I be losing it and I be only boxed twenty-three years.”

“Last week, Charlie told me that he remembered his boxing day clear as anything but he forgot his own name,” G996 said. “I reminded him but I guess it wasn’t enough.”

“I am Stephanie Delfalkis,” G996 intoned as if she hadn’t ever heard her own name.

“I’m Henry Royston,” A1412 copied.

“I be Ben Calwood,” J112 said emphatically. “I’ll be using the hydraulic press when I forget who I be. Less chance of stay’n alive with half an even more ruined brain,” J112 said.

“I’m leaning toward liquid nitrogen,” G996 said.

“Too slow. I don’t want to change my mind halfway through.”

“That’s the problem, Henry, by that time you ain’t got no mind to change.”

“I am Henry Royston.”

“I am Stephanie Delfalkis.”

“I be Ben Calwood.”

*   *   *

A Norse god, seemingly carved out of onyx, strode into the lift-bus wearing a dapple gray kilt and deep black jersey. Phillip, never Phil, Christine found out last night, ignored the stares of outright lust he elicited from the women. The handsome man took a news chip and broke the seal next to his neural implant.

Christine watched as his arrogance only drew more desire from those who enjoyed the male form. She enjoyed the show, from the men who turned away to shun the newcomer and the pheromone chorus from the women. But most important, he didn’t notice her, even though she’d been in his bed just last night.

Last night she’d been elegant, sophisticated and elusive – a neon light against the other cheap and tawdry women. Her chestnut brown hair had been woven up in a spiral on her head and she’d worn a gold-latticed Jérémy Amelin gown that cost more than the bus they rode in.

Today, at 45 kilos in oversized, paint-stained sweats and with her dirty-brown hair mostly held up in bun by a pen, Christine faded into the background. The only thing that made her stand out was the lust in her brown eyes.

Her eyes surreptitiously darted over his muscular neck, the area of his biceps trapped against his body, and his broad, sensuous wrists. She licked her dry lips as she caressed the surgical-steel blade in her jacket.

“Schofield Building, level forty-six approaching. Rooftop Gym, Paris Restaurant, Schofield Market,” announced the TriMet lift-bus in its ever-so-pleasant tones.

Phillip bent down to adjust his calf-hugging boots. The sight drew at least one muffled exclamation. Stretching tall he walked out the door as soon as it opened.

Keeping her eyes down as the drab wallflower, Christine paralleled his course toward the gym. Her face flushed as she caressed the scalpel. “Soon,” she whispered and consciously slowed her breathing. She wanted him. She needed him. Heat raced along her thighs up into where his seed still lingered inside her.

She altered her speed and angle slightly. She would have him just as he entered the building. Her nervous fingers twitched, causing the blade to gently and accurately peel one fiber at a time from the inner lining of her warm-up. Just ten more steps. A moist trace ran down her inner thigh. She held her breath, as every nerve ending focused on the body heat building up unbearably in the steel of her blade.

The passion in her loins turned to ice as a mental alarm sounded at a screeching level that would deafen a rock. Every hair on her body suddenly stood up in fear.

Phillip, safe and alive, walked on, never knowing that the very breath of Death had warmed his neck.

Her own hunt forgotten, her lust fizzled. She felt someone stalking her, and she wondered what had triggered her certainty that she was now the quarry. Had it been a glance lingering on her too long? Perhaps an abnormal change in a person’s path alerted her. The subconscious nature of the alarm made it all the more demanding of her attention.

Christine went through the revolving door of the gym but instead of entering the building she let the door carry her around back outside. No one singled themselves out as an obvious hunter. She walked calmly to another lift-bus stop, her head still held low. As she waited she pulled out a compact and made to straighten her makeup, although she wore none. The mirror gave her the opportunity to view many angles around her position.

“Lift-bus fourteen approaching. Please stand back.” The eyes beneath the bushy Mediterranean eyebrows of a hard-bodied man in shorts and a wife-beater glanced at her just long enough for her to pick him out. She wasn’t jumping at shadows. There was at least one.

Christine timed her mock suicide perfectly. Three bystanders shrieked as she stepped off the edge so close to the arriving lift-bus that the gravitic charge partially melted the pen into her hair. She calmly removed her jacket as she fell, letting it fly away by itself. After counting out four more seconds she deployed a tiny parasail. She wasted no time, directing her flight back toward the building she’d just jumped from. With an expert’s hand she took the thermal the Schofield building provided and banked tightly under the landing zone’s overhang. Flying so close to the windows, people gawked out of offices and board rooms as she whipped past.

On the other side of the building she yawed across the open space between buildings, spilling air as rapidly as she dared. Spotting a likely target, Christine dove into the open shell of an office undergoing tenant improvements. The scalpel, just seconds earlier intended for a more gruesome task, slashed her harness before she fully entered the windowless area. Her momentum propelled her through the debris of construction, battering her severely until she ended up in a ball against the stairwell door.

Without a word she stood up and dusted the old-fashioned drywall powder off her clothing. She assessed her injuries dispassionately as nothing serious enough to hinder further movements. She’d feel it tomorrow, but today she could still move. She walked right out the emergency exit, only now using her percomm to report the incident.

With only sixteen floors between her and ground level, in a different building with multiple choices of egress, her hunters had exactly zero chance of catching her. Instead of elation at her successful escape she instead felt only a minor resentment at her own failed stalk. Her bottled-up sexual tension itched in a way only a kill would scratch. A deep breath later she assured herself that there would be other kills – many others.

*  *  *

Tony sat in the back of a liftousine in a suit he’d bought off the rack at WalMaCo. As usual the sleeves were too short for his long arms. His female companion, rented, could have starred on any number of solidos. With what she charged, Tony would bet she made a better living as arm candy than most successful starlets. The blond, wearing a silver bodysuit so tight that it left no question whether she shaved her pubic area, leaned into him and purred. Tony cared about her advances as much as she did in making them. She was camouflage, not a sex partner.

“Seventeen fourteen Columbus Drive North, level ninety-four,” he told the driver.

“Yes, sir. Twelve minutes, sir. But I can take longer if you’d like.”

Tony smiled at the woman in the chauffer’s mirror. “No, thank you. There will be time for that later.” Tony turned and gave his companion a deep kiss.

The liftousine rose up off the landing pad and oriented north, sliding past the historical multistory Skydeck building of Chicago. Trying not to itch where his partner pressed the chaffing fabric of his suit into his skin, Tony thought about the last few weeks.

Eleven days ago, after his discovery at Narissa’s, Tony had travelled across the Midwest by hitching rides on nultrucks using only his middle name, Eugene. His size helped him as the drivers expected help loading and unloading.

Four different drivers and forty-eight hours took him to Indianapolis, a town that he’d never visited. It seemed like a perfect place to stop for a time and perhaps even set up his next identity.

His first stop got him Astropreen insulated underclothing so the sub-zero temperatures of the unusual cold of this year’s Midwest winter didn’t freeze him. To establish himself further he rented the cheapest of tube hotels. He paid in cash and only a week at a time despite the fact that he could have purchased the entire hotel several times over with just the cash he had in his bedroll. He ate at ground level food vendors, their great stew pots steaming in the freezing air. He wandered around through the broken snow learning his way around.

On the eight day he felt a creeping dread – an itch at the base of his neck he couldn’t scratch. A bull dyke, with metallic leg replacements that were shaped like those from a thoroughbred horse, lounged in a doorway across from his hotel. Her natural arms seemed powerful enough to rip many centimeters of filmies. She tried hard to concentrate on her news feed rather than on him. Then he’d caught glimpses of three other people a bit too mercenary to be just lounging around this particular slum.

Tony didn’t even approach the hotel but rather ploughed through the slush on the street as he changed to the other side. Taking a chance, he winked at the powerful woman as he walked past. She growled and went back to her news.

Something had tipped them off to the hotel, not him personally.

As he walked further down the street he abandoned his clothes, his bedroll and over a quarter of a million credits.

That surveillance he witnessed had prompted a change in his modus operandi. Instead of travelling and living like a welf, he was now on his way to purchase a penthouse home for cash. Marcus Andropov, playboy and adventurer, was his newest identity. His impeccable credentials as well as many stacks of thousand dollar bills were in a briefcase at his feet.

A middle-aged woman, whose overly white complexion suggested too many genetic cosmetic therapies, waited patiently at the edge of the landing pad. As a realtor, she carried the requisite sixteen folders of flimsies held close to the chest of her smart skirt-suit.

The driver landed them skillfully enough that Tony didn’t realized they’d grounded. As the driver walked around and opened the door, the realtor pranced up in heels much too high for her age. He guessed her age at eighty—trying to keep her looks close to thirty and failing.

The art-deco styling of the Whitehaven Mansions appealed to Tony’s sense of style. The wraparound windows, lending each unit a view of the entrance platform, appealed to his sense of security.

“Welcome, Mr. Andropov…glad you could come…I have a very exciting property to show you…who is your lovely companion.” The greeting came out all as one sentence without even a breath. The overblown introduction set Tony to wondering how much her commission on the property would be.

“Thees ees Margareet,” Tony aka Andropov waved dismissively.

His escort had very definitive instructions to remain silent. She gave a tiny curtsey which looked out of place considering what she wore. She did offer her hand.

“The pleasure is all mine, Margareet,” the realtor said effusively.

“Please to show me property.”

“Absolutely.” The realtor fell in between Tony and his companion. “The entrance platform is maintained at a steady twenty-two degrees no matter the weather. The property we are seeing is a lifetime lease. The building was designed by Claude R. Bistolme! Skylife featured it last year in its Best Places to Live section. It has five bedrooms, four baths and comes with its own garden. It can be leased as you see it, with all furnishings and decorating…”

Tony mentally ignored the patter. Tony could tell the pitch came from someone with a great deal of experience as it was all directed at him, rather than the girlfriend.

A doorman, in the bright blue uniform of Whitehaven Mansions, opened the brass wrapped door for them to enter the building. “…which comes with not only a gourmet chef but also a concierge for…”

Tony had changed in the months since he’d been a member of the megacorp machine. Now he focused on the safety aspect, rather than the opulence that once would have had him lusting. Tony’s ignored his hostess and instead collected survival information. He noted the fire stairs, something so many people forgot about in this age of dynamic fire suppression systems. He noticed two different housekeeping lifts as his guide took him to the lavish direct lift bank for the residences.

An elevator operator, his uniform sporting epaulets and shining buttons, opened the door and ushered them inside.

“Ninety-three sixteen, please,” the real estate agent said. The operator closed the outer doors and then the inner ones before turning his lever to take them higher in the building.

“The Whitehaven Mansions has an interior decorator and three…”

Tony focused on the tiny escape diagram of the building posted in the lift. It indicated three more fire escapes, one being a drop-chute. He also observed the operations of the manual elevator, just in case.

The doors opened onto a two-story room, dominated by massive windows across the opposite side. The simple, yet elegant, furnishings were dwarfed by the vista of a frozen Lake Michigan stretching out to infinity. Its ice buckled into an uneven tundra.

Tony set his briefcase down on the butcher-block wooden countertop and walked to the window.

“I did tell you how fabulous the view is. Whitehaven Mansions have purchased the view rights for the next hundred years with an automatically renewing option every hundred years after that.”

Tony tried not to react as seven small nultrucks landed in sequence on the Whitehaven Mansions’ platform. Men in black combat gear poured out of the back of each.

“Would you be excusing? Where would be having the room of baths?”

“Oh, there are three bathrooms. There is one down that hall off the kitchen…”

Tony walked sedately until he reached the kitchen. A discrete universal symbol for the drop chute showed its concealed panel. He yanked it open and jumped inside the gelatin escape capsule.

The automated system slammed the door shut, sealing him in a cellophane envelope filled with a sticky clear gel. The capsule accelerated toward the ground at five g’s down the heavily insulated tube. Tony momentarily blacked out. Above him every alarm had to be sounding but he didn’t care. His companion would be paid by escrow. The realtor would be cheated of a commission but no other harm done. Only the hunters would be denied their prize. Tony hadn’t even counted one before the deceleration hit him. The escape capsule stopped with a bump. The automated sequence ejected Tony onto a soft mat before dissolving the capsule to prepare for another escapee.

Tony landed flat and hard on those mats used for teenage gymnastics. While they were softer than a tile floor, he could already feel the bruise forming on his hip. Getting up, he dashed across the large survival room to the exit. Down two flights of fire stairs and across a commercial walkway between buildings and he might as well be on another planet as far as the hunters were concerned.

All the while he wondered when he would be safe enough to protect his people.

* * *

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Thinking Outside the Box

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