THE MAN awoke to water and mud.
He sat and spat, clawing his way to air, the iron of blood bleeding from his lips.
He leaped to his feet, forcing his legs into a run. He was tall, and with big hands. One held a gun, an old-fashioned gun. A slugthrower.
A bright blue light flashed in front of his eyes, hitting him in the chest, and he stumbled. The pain was real, and then it was gone. This war was red and black, filled with yellow flashes of pain and death. Not the blue of another world.
A horse galloped by, the sound that of gurgling flesh, a man’s last grasp at life. Then another. Black, with muddied armor. A flag, long and pointed, flew from a tall pole.
He raised his hand, signaling. These were his men, and his horse lay dead, killed by exhaustion, enemy fire, or worse. His helmet, missing. Would his men know him?
It was the fifth or eighth or tenth man that stopped, he wasn’t sure. It was there, and it stopped, and the horse turned in the mud, and the man saluted.
“Sir.” The man threw out his hand.
He reached for it, to pull himself aboard. The moment of contact, skin-to-skin, took his breath away. It was like holding an electric dynamo, and it burned into him, filling his head with an inrush of knowledge. Soldiers killed. His field promotion to general. The military objective they must fulfill. And there was so much more. The man’s name—Levi—they carried a shared past that went to West Point and beyond. His own name, though. He searched, certain he would find it, and it wasn’t there.
Then the battle crashed around him once again, and he gasped with indrawn breath at the knowledge that was now his.
“Aboard, old friend. They never told us it was like this at the academy.” Green eyes flashed against pale hair forming a halo under a metal helmet.
“They never do.” He yelled his reply, pulling hard and swinging aboard, his weapon held high. The big animal jumped, leaping forward, and he wrapped an arm around the man’s waist.
“They have machine guns. We didn’t expect that.” Levi had one hand on his helmet and the other on the reins. He nodded, looking to the back of the animal. “Took out half our men. There’s an extra, sir.”
“In the bag.” He tapped his helmet. “You’re missing yours.”
“Who are they?” That had not come through in the handshake. He reached to the saddlebag and pulled a helmet out, fastening it on his head, the motion of the horse fitting his body as if he and it were one.
“Ruskies, we think, sir. Fool communists.” Levi spat the words. “Better we’re dead than living under their foul breath.”
“Don’t cross your fingers.” An image of a sun flashed in his mind, and a great long needle slipped soundlessly into its corona, the unheard screams of a million souls tearing at his gut. That wasn’t here, though. That wasn’t now. “There are worse things than being here, this day, this battle.”
“Can’t think what, sir, but if you say so.” Levi half turned, and through the streaks of mud on his face, he grinned.
Something exploded nearby, and the horse reared. The light flashed, yellow and white, before going dark, and something fell into the mud at their feet. Neither soldier looked. The man with the big hands didn’t have to. He felt the rage of the fallen comrade’s death burn him inside, like a torch to his soul. He pictured a gun with a blue light, and it lanced into him from an unknown source a mile away. He shook his head. That wasn’t real. This was real, the blood and the death, and the shells flying overhead.
The animal leaped a low wall and into a shallow stream. It smelled of the darkness from beyond which no man could return, and its color was more black than red. It roiled with death, and soon it would carry more.
A rattle of a distant gun, and the man just in front of them screamed. The man’s mount stumbled, and with a twist of its head, it lay still.
“The stars above!” The tall soldier gasped. His stomach wrenched him sideways, the two deaths double the fire.
“Can you make it, sir?” Levi spurred the horse. “We’ll be safe in another hundred feet.”
“Sure.” The noise surrounding them was deafening, and he leaned and yelled, “My name. What’s my name?”
He didn’t get his answer. It was the next shell that took them down. It whistled, calling, and he knew it had his number. The wheel was turning once again, and his time had come.
It was mud at first. All mud, and the stench of sulfur. And horse dung, the odor of death mixed with life. Then came the white light, blinding him to all else. White and red and blue. Not the blue from before, but the blue from now, from this world, from this existence. It was the blue of a sky overhead that knew no war, no flying machines, no satellites, and no death raining down from silver needles; no black beetles and no unseen enemies worse than the tales from men’s imaginations.
And last of all, it was black. The noise of his impending death exploded in his ears. He had one last thought, that he wished he’d learned his name.
Finally, it reached deep into his soul, and with the wrench of an uncaring fist, it twisted his life from him, leaving him motionless in the mud.
“THIS is him. Ser!” The soldier, fresh with his deacon’s stripes, knelt in the mud, turning over the dead body wearing the general’s uniform. “The markings on the collar. I’m sure this is him.”
He wiped it clean, and sure enough, there were two stars.
“Check the arm.” Another man in a crisper uniform touting a bishop’s oak leaf stepped to his side. His tall boots were spattered with mud and blood, but his clothes were unmarked. Off to the side stood four blank-eyed soldiers, perhaps men, and perhaps something else. When the uniform moved, the blankeyes watched him, as if they were under his control.
“A minute, ser.” The soldier pulled out a tool with a mean edge, and he flicked a switch. A blue light flickered along the business edge, and it cut through the wool uniform like butter. The soldier yanked the material away, exposing an arm bruised and shredded in a number of places. On the forearm was a tattoo of a wheel. “This is it, ser.”
The crisp uniform knelt and traced the design with an outstretched finger, the whorls of steel and springs; dreams and starlight; spiderwebs and dust. And pain. Always the pain.
“Can you read it, ser?”
“Here. It’s different than last time.” He pointed to one spoke that swirled off to a constellation of points. “Perhaps . . .” He appeared thoughtful. “Did you find the transfer capsule?”
“One minute.” The soldier dug through the man’s uniform, locating something in an inside pocket. “Here, ser. He had it with him all the time.” He held up a silver stick, slender, with a gleam that seemed to wink before going dark.
“Never got to use it. Pity. We might have found him and stopped this, then.” The crisp uniform took the stick, wrapping it in his hand protectively.
“Shall I?” The first man held up the cutter.
“Take the skin.” The uniform nodded. “We’ll need it for our report.”
The blue light flashed, and the deed was done.
DREAMS had been dreamed, and the omens had rung true. The dreamer’s dream was contained.
A table as large as a room glowed with red light, and in the center, all the possibilities of creation swirled with multicolored patterns.
A voice screeched, “The dreams are changing. Call the dreamers to attend! The dreamer becomes undreamed!”
And the table was touched, and the possibilities swirled within.
BLACK and oil extended the breadth of the cosmos and beyond. Beneath its glittering surface, a metallic gleam flashed for a moment and disappeared, consumed by liquid night once again.
In the distance, something moved. A shift, bare and small, as if forgotten. Never there, except in someone’s dreams.
Stardust sprinkled across the cosmos, a spiderweb of faint light, with little more than the memory of dust for its underpinnings. A thousand races died, and in their places, a thousand more were born.
A giant finger the width of a star system stretched forth, and a pointed nail touched the night just where the spiderweb of light had left the faintest trail of stardust.
The oil moved, sluggish against the fabric of time, and then it settled into the black of the night once again.
A DARKNESS as wide as the universe collapsed in on itself, and the man’s eyes opened. Someone breathed at his side. He turned, and a name formed in his mind. Sundra. And with the name, he knew their two children, the flitter parked on the roof, the time he’d stolen her kiss at the university, and the way she’d moved against him the night before their son was born.
He was a mystery, though. He didn’t know himself at all. A blank slate. Unknown and unnamed. A cipher in the void of space and time.
He remembered the noise, though. And the mud flavored with blood.
He took a deep breath, wishing the smells and the sounds away. He wanted what he had this night, not that world so far away. He wanted to be next to his woman, greet his children in the morning, and feel their arms around his neck.
He also wanted to know his name.
He closed his eyes, certain the rest would come. The rest would always come.
He turned to Sundra, wrapping a strong arm across her firm waist, and against the gentle rise and fall of her back, he fell asleep once again.
“DADDY!” The door crashed open, and brilliant sunlight flooded the room.
In that one word, a hundred images fell into his brain, each neatly clicking into its assigned slot. Levi and Caitlan, bike rides in the park, a third birthday party with candles that refused to go out, and a long boat ride up the river, holding his sleeping daughter the entire way back.
He didn’t need a memory to know what happened next.
Four pajama-clad feet leaped onto the bed, mischievousness filling two pairs of eyes. The girl was light, boasting blue eyes and golden hair. The boy, taller, was nearly a twin, with white hair and green eyes.
“So, that’s how it’s going to be. I’m home one day, and I’m already under attack!” One day. How did he know that? He laughed, grabbing at the boy. “And how old are you, Levi?”
His son’s age. Why was that important?
“Eleven!” The boy squealed as fingers dug into his ribs. “No, Daddy! Stop!”
“I can’t stop.” He upped the ante, bringing louder peals from the boy, as he glanced at Sundra. She had a pillow bunched in her arms, for protection, he figured. In that moment, he saw small feet kicking, and he knew they’d done this before. “Afraid, Sundra?” He grinned.
“It’s always like this the morning you get back.” She leaned in and gave him a quick peck on the cheek. “Thank you for coming early.”
“Early?” He frowned, but Caitlan wanted some of what Levi had, and he had to tuck her under his arm. He was lucky she was smaller. She was easier to control.
“For Levi’s birthday.”
He was hit with a cacophony of memories, forced into his brain like a deluge down a drain pipe. In that moment he saw three missed birthdays, a flood of tears, and angry words with Sundra on the link. He also knew she hadn’t spoken with him for three days the last time, and that he was trading three weekends on the station for this one day home. That was not cool at all.
“Daddy! Come see!” Levi rolled off the bed, taking much of the bedding with him, and he grabbed his father’s arm. “Come, Daddy! Come see!”
“What?” He glanced at his wife. “Sundra?”
“Don’t look at me.” She smiled, an expression of true pleasure. “It’s all Levi’s doing. I didn’t even have to help much. Just go.” She pushed on his arm.
“Can I go too, Mommy?” That was Caitlan. She had her arms around Sundra’s neck, and she was twisted in what remained of the bedding.
“In a moment, baby. It’s Levi’s birthday.”
“I want a birthday.” Her face screwed up, and her eyes turned red.
“You’ll get one. It’s just not your time.” Sundra looked at the man with pleading in her eyes.
He grabbed Levi in his arms, and he pulled him back on the bed. He was that soft and hard that made up eleven-year-olds, the stomach and the knees and the ribs and the fingers. And he smelled good, like a fresh puppy just from a bath. The man leaned into Sundra, and he whispered, “First, tell me my name.”
“Daddy!” Caitlan sang the word out. “That’s your name.”
“Daddy doesn’t know his name.” Levi barely got the words out, before he squealed in delight once more, his mock agony at being shaken no more than part of the special day.
“Go on.” Sundra laughed, bumping her forehead against his. “It hasn’t changed.”
“Humor me.” He gave her a kiss, catching the side of her mouth, and letting the boy slip away from him. “Just say it to me.”
“Slate. Slate Knalb, of course. What else would it be?”
The storm drain opened wider, and the world fell into his head. The shuttle, the rebreather that had cut out on him two years ago, and the six weeks in the tank, just to regrow one lung. And Bren. Could anything worse happen! Bren, when they were eighteen, killed in the Packing Wars, the pointless, pointless Packing Wars. And there was so much more, and, and—
He knew his name.
Slate. Always Slate.
And always, always losing everything in the end.
He shook it off. That wasn’t now, and it was now he had to live. “You!” He pointed to Levi, who was leaning in and motioning him through the door, tempting Slate with giggles and a gleam in his eye. “You wait, you little trickster.”
“Can’t catch me,” Levi yelled, and he was gone.
“Can’t catch him, Slate.” Sundra leaned in and gave him a kiss. “But you’d better try.” She laughed, pushing him away. “Today belongs to your son.”
“It does, does it?” He leaped up, grabbing a pair of heavy, belted pants draped across the back of a chair, and he hopped into one leg as he stumbled out the door. He blinked, his breath taken away, as he exited the room. The hallway was glass, wall, floor, and ceiling, the reason for the brightness. It brought on a crippling vertigo that was there and gone before he could catch his breath. Outside was nothing. Truly nothing. He looked back. “What . . . what floor?”
“203rd. Slate, we’ve lived here for three years.”
“Three years?” He laughed, pulling his second leg on and glancing back outside. “Maybe we should move higher. Where is here?”
“Don’t start. You’re the one who chose St. Louis Tower.” She lay back, her nightgown gaping at the front, apparently aware of what she was doing. “And you know why we’re stuck on this floor.”
And he did. Not before, but in her words, it hit him like an elevator turned loose from its moorings. The investments lost in the Crash, the savings wiped out, even Levi’s private schooling gone. It was why he worked the station. Then, the cost of the third child they’d hoped to have. The permit. For the price of one child permit you could move up another hundred floors.
“Any chance of Trey?” He snapped the belt shut.
“Are we about to PowerBall?”
“Daddy?” The call filtered hard against the glass.
“Go!” She threw a pillow at him. “One day. Don’t waste it.” She pulled her daughter up under her arm.
“Coming!” He yelled it. “This better be good.” He looked back at Sundra, then pointed to Caitlan. “You, lady, mind your mother.” He laughed when she stuck her tongue out at him. Then he was off and running.
IT WAS the third time around the air suspension part of the track that caused the crash.
“You are dead, Levi!” Slate leaped out of his remote beam and fell into the secondary beam with his son. Of course, with two drivers, the beam fragmented, and Levi’s arc car skittered into a sun, collapsing into a flaming ball of light.
“Daddy! No!” But by that time, the boy was in Slate’s hands, and the game was shot anyway.
“Gotcha, Levi.” He rolled onto the sofa with the boy, pressing his face into his neck to blow just below his ear. He hadn’t known to do that, but as soon as he did, he remembered how it made Levi wet his pants. He used to do it to him just to make him scream.
“No! Not that!” Levi twisted loose, just as the game holo faded away, slipping into the shadows, and the living room and the view through the wall of glass returned. “Daddy! Anything but that!”
Slate pulled the boy up under him, one hand under his head, the hair damp with sweat, and he whispered in his ear, “You’re mine, Levi. I can do anything I want.” As he bent to blow on his neck a second time, the building shivered, and they froze.
“Daddy?” Levi, warm and perspiring from the game, pulled Slate’s arms around him tighter, twisting up into his father’s embrace. “It never did that before.”
“Shush for a minute. Let me listen.” He caught Sundra coming in off the glass hallway. She held Caitlan in her arms.
He pulled one hand from under Levi and held it out. “I need to listen.” He whispered the words.
And there it was. A grinding sound, low, like stone on steel, with just a hint of a whine to give it an edge. Like Bren the night before he died, said he heard sounds, and no one listened.
“Slate?” echoed by Caitlan’s, “Daddy?” Both were whispered, and still, the sound was harsh in the silence of the room.
“Stay, Levi.” Slate disentangled his body from the boy’s, pressing on his chest to hold him on the sofa. “Don’t move.”
“Where are you going, Daddy?” Concern flashed in the boy’s eyes.
“Don’t you worry. Eleven-year-olds don’t have to worry on their birthdays. That’s the one day their daddies take special care of them.” Slate smiled, and he made sure it was warm and reassuring. “I love you, son.”
“I love you too, Daddy.”
The boy’s breath was warm on Slate’s face, and that frightened him. Bren’s breath had been like that. Bren. Slate’s big hands felt the boy’s small ribs, and he leaned to kiss him on the forehead. Then he stepped away.
“Sundra, away from the windows.” He took her arm, gave his daughter a kiss, and watched them walk to sit by Levi. He was pleased to see his son take his wife’s hand. She was a good woman and a wonderful mother. She would take care of his children. He didn’t know why he thought that, but he knew it was important. She would. She would have to.
He stepped into the hallway, looking down. Covering the face of the building, other hallways snaked across the surface of the structure, some clear, more in jewel tones, others patterned in pulsing lights. Some showed people walking, most clothed, some not. Privacy was by mutual consent, not by mutual exclusion. If you didn’t want to look, then don’t. Otherwise . . .
That wasn’t what he searched for.
The ground. It was there, barely, the morning mists from the river sweeping across the landscape. There was no city. In that look, that sweeping look, he knew the hundred stories underground where the shopping malls stretched into the virgin bedrock, and even deeper where the machines fabricated air and water and reprocessed nutrients to grow food in vast underground caverns. It was a hundred kays before there was another scraper like this one, three hundred fifty stories of life and heat and love and families and all the things that make up a person’s existence.
The world, green as far as the eyes could see. The hundred-kay greenbelts, humanity’s gift to the future. Let the world heal, and humanity would heal, also.
Except the stations. And the Packing Wars. And Bren.
By all that was good, the stations were worse than death. But then, the Crash had been the same, and he would work in a sour pit, just so that his family didn’t have to live there. He’d made that decision long ago, and he’d sworn never to regret it. Mostly he didn’t. Mostly.
Today? Yeah, he regretted it. Levi, sweat-damp hair, and building that game just to play with his daddy. And Caitlan. More than anything, he missed Caitlan when he was gone, never mind how much he missed Sundra. Sweet, sweet Sundra, sweet even when she yelled at him and made him sleep on the sofa. He loved that woman more than, than, than what he gave up working on the station. His life. Yeah, that’s what he gave up, the weeks and months he was away from his family.
The building shook again. He placed his hand against the glass, feeling it vibrate.
“Sundra, get the kids dressed. We’re going out for the day.” He kept his hand on the glass. The grinding wasn’t louder, but it shouldn’t be there at all.
Her voice was very bright, and he looked at her. Her voice was too bright, and that was when he knew she understood. Bad things were happening. Very bad things.
“Levi?” Slate stepped to the boy and swept him up in his arms. Eleven was big. Big to hold very long. “How ’bout some clothes? Warm, too. Might go to the Falls.” He set him down, patting him on the rear. “Go, now. I want to leave yesterday.” He watched him scramble away, no sound, no voice, no agreement. Just going. Slate took a deep breath.
“The Falls? It’ll be cold.” Sundra put her hand to the side of his face.
“Dress warm. Caitlan, especially. I’ll get food.”
“Food? You don’t think . . .”
“A picnic. That’s all.” He smiled. He could see it in her eyes, though. He wasn’t fooling anyone. “A picnic, Catie? Would you like that?” He kissed her cheek, blowing a raspberry. She brushed his face away.
“Can it be my birthday, too?”
“Of course it can, sweetie. It can be your birthday, too.” Sundra kissed her on the temple on the way out of the room. “It can be your birthday every day of the year.”
Slate’s stomach was a rock. He wanted to smash his fist into the day, make it back to what it was supposed to be. Instead, what did he do? Grabbed a satchel and began dropping in all the food he could find. He wasn’t exactly sure why, but he wasn’t leaving anything edible behind.
That’s what Slate did, hoping his world wouldn’t fall apart.
GETTING to the flitter was more work than it should have been. More nightmare, perhaps, was a better way to say it.
It was a straight shot to the parking levels, express from the 203 Station. Every floor had an express, even if you had to sometimes wait on it because another floor had commandeered the core track. Still, the wait was never long, not with the inertia dampers and MagThrust. This time, Slate didn’t think they were the only ones headed out. That caused backup. It didn’t cause the electrics to wobble, though, the lights blinking just enough to know they blinked.
That was something else.
“Slate? Are we going to make it?” Sundra had a backpack on, and Caitlan rode one hip. Sundra’s tweedies were lined with llama, one of the few breeds that did well enough in the wild to harvest, and then, just their fleece. It was a good choice. Her top? Full false down, the kind that was flat enough to be a shirt, but warm enough to bake you if you stayed inside too long. Better choice.
“Hope so.” Slate looked at Levi, glued to him like a third leg, the boy’s arms around him. He caught his wife’s eyes, and he changed his answer. “Yeah. We’re heading on a picnic, right, Levi?” He rumpled the boy’s hair, the texture soft like Sundra’s.
“I wanna see the waterfall.” Caitlan had her head on Sundra’s shoulder, and she buried her face in her mother’s hair.
“It’ll be the best day ever.” Slate would have taken her, just to hug her in his arms, but he had a backpack of his own, and a duffle besides. “Think so, pal?” He bumped Levi with his hip.
Best as Slate could remember, that was the first of the real hiccups. The lights blinked, really fast, like they were as scared as Slate was, and they came back on as fast. He might not have noticed if he weren’t in step-up mode already. He looked at Sundra to see if she’d caught it. Yeah, she was already looking at him, a question in her eyes.
“It’ll be fine,” he mouthed to her, his words invisible. Then the car jerked, faltered, more like, and began to pick up speed again. He took a deep breath and pulled Levi closer. If that were possible.
There were eight levels of parking. Not enough for the whole building, of course, but that wasn’t part of the design. Most people didn’t keep a private flitter; didn’t have one or only leased a share. Out one day a week, you only needed one-seventh interest. It was a practical solution to a practical problem.
Slate needed one on a regular basis, the only good thing about the station. They paid the lease. It was the company’s on the station, but his when he was home. Thank God.
“In.” He tossed his duffle in the undercompartment, reaching for Sundra’s backpack before tossing in his own. “Now, Catie.”
“Do as your father says.” It wasn’t cold in the garage, but Sundra pulled her collar tighter. It looked like she shivered.
“Thanks, Levi.” Slate took a slim package from the boy, cringing to see it was a wrapped present. He hadn’t even gotten to open it. He slipped it in with the bags.
“For the Falls, right, Dad?” Levi smiled tentatively. “We can open it there.”
“You got it.” He nodded. “In the back, please. Now.”
Other people were loading up, all across Level 5, and he wanted to be gone. The urgency? Something thrummed in the back of his head, and Bren kept knocking in his brain. Knock, knock. Slate? It’s me, Bren, and I’m coming home.
Whatever that meant.
The floor shivered. He climbed in and palmed the screen. It glowed green, and when he released it, the green turned into a nebula, then coalesced into the StiRik logo, a feathered loop around a stylized letter R. He’d been told it looked a bit like a DNA strand caught in a tornado. The systems began to come online, air and lights, with the gentle beat of a muted rezband in the background. The seats self-adjusted, and the windows cleared, transparent in the muted lights of the garage.
“Welcome, Slate. I see you are initiating travel today.” A carefully modulated voice spoke. “This is not an official day of work. Where shall I plan your destination?”
“The Falls. Right?” Sundra.
“Is the Falls an acceptable destination, Slate? I can integrate Sundra’s prompts into my permissions file for the day. Travel time is one hour forty-three minutes, with a seven-minute delay. The egress ramps are already backed up. This seems to be a popular excursion day.”
“Integrate and negotiate. I want out quicker.” Slate looked at Sundra, only to have her bite her lip and turn away. It was the redness in her eyes that told how she felt.
“Negotiations may require credit disbursement. How much—”
“Just do it, any level.”
“Negotiations commenced. Egress slot confirmed. Cost—”
“Unimportant. How long?” He glanced back at the kids, the internal ESyst already up and attempting to entertain them. Caitlan was tossing a virtual ball back and forth in her hands. Levi was holding a lemur, all nanodust and lumens made real, and it was licking his face. He laughed and looked like the rush to board was forgotten.
“Thirteen seconds. Initiating electrics now with turbines coming online.” The flitter began to move, and quite rapidly, although the buildup of speed was so smooth it was hardly noticed. They were still, and then they were jettisoned toward the egress ramp, internal inertia dampers doing just that, and slotting in with computer efficiency, shooting from the building exactly thirteen seconds later.
Sunlight slashed through the flitter, and immediately, the canopy silvered, cutting the glare. The whine of the turbines bled through, with just a hint of oil and hot metal, then the sound rose out of the audible range, and things were silent.
“Just a trip to the Falls, right?” Sundra reached for his hand. “For Levi’s birthday.”
“Mine, too.” That was Caitlan.
“Right, Slate?” Sundra reached to his face, stroking his cheek on one side. “For both of them?”
He swiveled his seat and grabbed Caitlan’s ball. “Right, Catie, if you can convince your brother to share.” He tossed the ball to her, reaching to pet Levi’s lemur. “Nice, job, Levi. When did you create this one?”
“Just now. Want to hold it?” He held the creature out.
“I told you he’s good.” Sundra nodded. “Real good.”
The flitter vibrated, and Slate looked up, past the ball, the lemur, and the inside of the flitter. He looked for their residence. St. Louis Tower should still be visible, what with the clear day. Ground fog didn’t affect nearly a kay up.
Also. The system hadn’t put out a turbulence warning. The vehicle shouldn’t have done that.
He felt his stomach churn, then something hit him, like a sledgehammer in his gut. He took a deep breath and held it, but the pain didn’t fade. It was like . . . Bren. Like Bren, all over again.
The dash dinged, and a private ear popped up from its recess. It sat cupped in an orange ring of light. Slate took it and slipped it into his ear.
“Tell me.” Sundra looked at him hard. “I want to know.”
Slate nodded and put his finger to his lips, listening. He kept the ear low, always, with the kids. Anything that came in over the private channel was something they didn’t need to hear. He suspected this wasn’t good. Too many omens today.
He depressed the orange ring, and the tiny voice in his ear started up.
“Flitter SLT682. Flight Plan 473.6 St. Louis Tower, destination Niagara Falls, validated and in progress. NorAm Logistics and Routing will be redirecting your return trip to Chicago Tower. Temporary housing is under negotiation. Confirmation expected shortly.” The voice went quiet, leaving a dull buzz in Slate’s ear.
Slate held his finger in the orange depression until the ear beeped. “Explanation?”
“St. Louis Tower unresponsive. Reason unknown. Confirmation received Chicago Tower.”
He sighed, his finger still in the orange. “Cost?” Chicago Tower was very toney. It would eat up a lot of credit reserves very quickly. Anything decent, anyway. Anything affordable would be a bunker unit at worst; an atrium climber at best. Neither would offer a view of outside, and that was not acceptable.
“St. Louis Tower malfunction necessitates mandatory redirection, and all costs are reimbursable per insurance contract Provision 144.b, courtesy of State Tower Insurance Company, Policy Number 213-4HH-246-04.”
“Slate?” Sundra pushed on his leg.
He released the orange button for a moment. “We’re redirected to Chicago tonight. Insurance is covering it.”
“That’s good, right? Free lodging?” She smiled and looked more at ease. “Our insurance dollars at work?”
He laughed. “If they’ll give us an outside unit.”
“I don’t think purgatory plans to freeze over by the time we get there. But, you never know.”
He smiled and pushed the orange light again. “Negotiate. Outside room, State Tower Policy whatever you said a minute ago.” He looked at Sundra and chuckled.
“Lodging confirmed. Outside room 96F.”
“No higher?” He hated low floors. Sometimes acid rain etched the glass, and that obscured the views.
“Floors 76-99 are surcharge free within your contract, Provision 144.e. Would you care to renegotiate?”
“No. 96F will be fine. Oh, how many baths?”
“One private within unit, one communal for Level 96, shared by keycode chip broadcast, Level 96 only.”
“Satisfactory. Initiate contract. Stock supplies within Provision 144.e limits.”
“Contract published and filed, per Chicago Tower and NorAm Public Housing Authority.”
“Logging off.” He waited for the response. It was impolite to log off before the system cleared you from contact. And he suspected they recorded each impolite disconnect.
“Thank you, Flitter SLT682. Enjoy your day at the Falls.”
He released the circle, looking at Sundra.
“I heard enough. Thank you for requesting supplies. I’ll be too tired to fill out a requisition tonight.” She smiled. “It’ll be a vacation for the kids. Time off from school. They’ve needed that.”
He smiled back. He needed a vacation. It was the thousand needles in his stomach that worried him, though. It had happened before, when Bren died. He’d known, even before the reports came in. Like a fist to his solar plexus, the kind that makes you want to roll over and vomit.
That’s what he wanted to do now, a thousand times over.
Something really bad was going on. He just didn’t know what.