In a world of ever-worsening crisis, Angelo Osic is an anomaly: a man who cares about others. One day he aids a stranger. . .and calls down disaster, for the woman called Tamara is also a woman on the run, the only human with the knowledge that will save Earth from the artificial intelligences plotting to overthrow it.
Fleeing the assassins who seek him as well as Tamara, Angelo seizes the only escape route available: to sign on as a mercenary with the Japanese Motoki Corporation in its genocidal war against the barbarian Yabajin. Jacked into training machines that simulate warfare, Angelo "dies" a hundred times. . .and is resurrected to fight again. In a world of death, he dreams only of life--and the freedom to love once more.
"I hesitate to tell you that this is Dave Wolverton's first novel. The book is so mature in its sensibility and so strong in its artistry, so deep in its invention that most of us who write fiction would be proud to have such a novel as the culmination, not the beginning, of our career.–Orson Scott Card, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction
The author's profound insights into the brutal reality of modern warfare, as well as his faith in the triumph of human compassion, make this first novel an excellent selection for most sf collection.–Library Journal
A dusty gray hovercraft floated to a stop in front of my booth in the feria. As its door flipped open an emaciated woman struggled up from the shadows within and into the stabbing daylight. A strange feeling swept over me, the physical shock one feels upon recognizing an old friend whose face has been marred by tragedies. I searched my memory for an elusive name.
Her head slumped and rolled from side to side as she moved. Sweat stained the armpits of her black skinsuit, and blood dripped from the bandaged stump at the end of her right arm. An old mestizo woman lurched away from the craft, made the sign of the cross, and muttered "¡Qué horror!" A small boy gaped at the thin woman and moaned "¡Una bruja!" and the crowd murmured in agreement that this walking skeleton must be a witch.
She staggered to my booth, shouldering past curious peasants, and thrust her bloody stump over the counter. I opened my mouth, hoping my tongue would find the name my mind couldn’t supply, as she demanded in English, "Are you Señor Angelo Osic?"
I nodded, relieved that she didn’t know me, secure in the knowledge that her husky voice was unfamiliar.
She braced herself on the counter, trembling. "Can you fix this ... this body?"
"Sí—yes," I said, gently prodding the stump at the end of her arm. "Do you have your hand? Perhaps we could reconnect it."
Her wound was fresh, but would soon be infected. "A new hand will take months to grow—months more to be usable. Might I suggest that a prosthesis would be fast—"
"Do a hand. Now! And bones too. I need bones." She talked with the quick, commanding voice of the rich refugiados from the Estados Unidos Socialistas del Sur. I thought she must be a criminal from Guyana or the American colonies in Brasilia Independiente. I studied her closely: The slope of her shoulders and her narrow cheeks indicated that she’d been born with a small frame, but even if she had bone disease too, the two factors couldn’t account for the small diameter of her joints. "How long were you in low-G?" I asked.
"Never been in low-G," she lied.
"You should be in the hospital," I told her, afraid to deal with a criminal. "I am only a poor pharmacologist. And my drugs are not as miraculous as people sometimes claim."
"Fix me!" she said. "No hospitals. No questions." She pulled out a computer crystal as long as her hand and slipped it into my palm. Its smooth, non-glare surface was virtually invisible, except for the packet of liquid RAM at one end. It was fine crystal, Fugitsu quality, worth a small fortune, perhaps even enough to buy a rejuvenation treatment. I had never been able to afford a rejuvenation, and needed one badly.
"You need a place to rest—a hospital bed," I said.
She leaned forward, and I saw she was young, much younger than I had first imagined; her black hair fell in front of her deep-set, black eyes and her sweaty face paled with genuine terror. "If you ball me over, I die," she said.
In that moment when she showed her terror, I thought she was beautiful. I felt a strong urge to help her, to comfort her. Telling myself she might not be a criminal, I got out of my booth and locked its rusted aluminum door, then escorted her back to the hovercraft. I gave the driver my address in Gatún and told him to go by way of Avenida Balboa. He drove slowly through the crowded feria, and soon the thin woman closed her eyes and curled into a ball and breathed in the wheezing manner of those deeply asleep. We floated past crowds of mestizos selling bright dresses and macaws, fresh fruit, cheap Thai microchips tumbling from earthenware pots.
Everywhere their hungry eyes and gestures beckoned the merchant sailors from Europe, Africa, and Asia who searched the backwaters of Panamá for high-tech and contraband items.
The local peasants became angry with my chauffeur for driving in a pedestrian zone and refused to move, so he flushed the hovercraft’s thrusters, blowing hot air and dust into the crowds, burning the naked legs of the children. Their curses and cries of pain came to me distantly through the thick glass of the windows. I felt dirty and sinful to be in that craft, and wished I hadn’t agreed to take care of the thin woman. I jacked in a call to Uppanishadi-Smith Corp. and ordered a limb-regeneration kit, an osteoporosis rehab packet, and a self-regulating canister of fluothane. I wetted my lips with my tongue and searched the faces in the crowd for a friend.
On the border of the free zone, the crowds thinned and I found Flaco, a good friend who did not mind dealing with criminals as much as I did, and had the driver stop the limo. Flaco stood with some arms dealers who haggled with four guerrillas over the price of used body armor.
One of the guerrillas pulled off a helmet, and I saw by his oversize, misshapen ears that he was a chimera—one of the genetically upgraded supermen General Torres had created in Chile before the socialists overthrew his regime. I watched the chimera search through the armor for a better helmet.
Although he was short in stature, his frame was huge. In Haiti men had engineered ten-kilo fighting cocks with spurs long enough to disembowel a coyote, and no one had raised an eyebrow. But when Torres announced that he was engineering chimeras so they could live on other planets, the news caused fierce riots in Concepción, revolt in Temuco. I remembered a picture shown to me by a peasant from Talcahuano: he smiled as he and a fellow rioter each held the wingtip of a large brown creature, half bat, and half man. He told me he’d clubbed it inside one of the engineering compounds. The Alliance of Nations had lodged formal protests of the work done in Chile.
The chimera finally picked the best helmet in the lot. He had a broad, pleasant smile, and I was happy he had come to fight the Colombians.
I waved to Flaco. He came to the hovercraft, stuck his narrow face through the window and raised an eyebrow as he saw the thin woman.
"Hola, Angelo. So, you have taken to dating dead women?" he said, laughing. "Good idea. Very classy! Very sensible!"
I got out of the hovercraft, embraced Flaco, and walked out of the thin woman’s listening range. "Yes," I said. "She’s quite a catch for an old man. Not only is she beautiful, but when I’m done with her, she’ll make fine fertilizer for the lawn." Flaco laughed. I handed him the crystal. "What is the value of this?"
Flaco rolled it over in his hand. "Any software on it?"
"I don’t know."
"Maybe 400—500 thousand," he said.
"Will you check its registration code? I think it’s stolen. Also," I whispered, "I must know who this woman is. Can you get a retina scanner and bring it to my home tonight?"
"Yes, my friend," Flaco whispered. He glanced at the woman in the floater. "Once, I saw a spider with legs that thin—" he said, "I stepped on it." He patted my shoulder and then laughed.
I got in the hovercaft and left the free zone. And as we floated down the highway on the outskirts of Colón, we rolled past the evenly spaced rows of banana plants. Because I’d never floated down that road in a fast car before, I noticed for the first time how perfectly ordered the plantations were, with each plant three meters from its neighbor. I lost my eyes while serving in the army in Guatemala as a young man, and had them replaced with prosthetics. They register colors in the infrared spectrum as shimmers of light, something like the sheen one sees glimmering off platinum in the sunlight. And on this day the dark green canopy of the banana plants shimmered with infrared light. Under the canopy of leaves were jumbles of hammocks, burlap lean-to’s, tents, cardboard boxes and old cars—squalid, temporary shelters for the refugiados who were fleeing the socialist states in South America. The refugiados were afraid to brave their way through Costa Rica to the north, so they huddled together, waiting for ship passage to Trinidad or Madagascar or some other imaginary capitalist paradise.
I looked at the homes among the plantations and thought it strange to see such disorder among order. It reminded me of an incident from my childhood: a family of murderers called the Battistas Sangrientos had been caught selling body organs outside our village.
When the police caught them, they took the family to the beach to execute them in front of the whole town so people would know what a despicable crime had been committed. Three boys in this family were only children, perhaps ten to twelve years old, and it was rumored that when gutting victims these boys often raced each other to salvage the most precious organs. But all the Battistas swore the boys were innocent. And when the police got ready to shoot the family, the Captain told them to form a line, but the young boys clung to their murderous father and refused to leave. The policemen clubbed the boys, and it took a long time for the police to get the family to stand in line. And once the family was standing in a line, it took a long time for the Captain to give the order for the firing squad to shoot. I have always believed that the Captain waited just so he could enjoy that moment of watching them stand in line. And as the bullets tore through the children I wondered, Why could the Captain not shoot them while in a huddle, clutching their father? What difference did it make?
When we reached my home, I carried the thin woman to the cool basement and laid her on a blanket on the floor. I checked her pulse and was looking at the bandage on her stump when I heard a foot scuff on the carpet behind me. The limo driver had brought in two small bags and set them down. I paid him for the thin woman’s fare, and it took all of my cash money. I escorted him from the house and asked if he would drive me to Colón for free since he was going that way. He said no, so I walked the eleven kilometers back to Colón to pick up my drugs at Uppanishadi-Smith Corp.
I enjoyed the walk back home. My house was old and the plaster walls were crumbling, but all the other houses in the area were also in poor repair, so it didn’t look bad by comparison. Some people even thought it was a rich person’s house because it was on the lake and because they couldn’t imagine a morphogen dealer not being rich. But I had once hustled rejuvenations in the penthouses of Miami, where people never seemed to overcome the boredom of their hollow lives, where a person’s obtainment of a rejuvenation treatment was often the prelude to suicide. I would sun myself on my rooftop in the afternoons, and dream of a simple place where people lived lives of passion. I found that place when I found Panamá.
By the time I got back home the sun had just set. The air was getting cool. Flaco lay under the papaya tree in my front yard, watching a large brown fruit bat gorge on the uppermost papayas and spill dark seeds to the ground. "¡Hola¡ Angelo," he called when he saw me. "I brought that thing you wanted. Spider Legs is inside. She’s awake now. I brought beautiful yellow roses for her. She likes them as much as that bat likes papayas. I think her nose is stuck to the flowers."
"So, you have met her?" I asked.
"Yes. I told her I am a doctor, and that you called me in to administer medications."
"Did she believe you?"
"Oh yes, I am a very good liar," Flaco laughed. "Also, that crystal did have software on it—old military software."
"Yes. A reality program for a brain bag."
I had once heard a doctor at a convention give a speech on reality programs. The military attached them to brains when they needed to store them for transplanting. The reality program kept the transplantee from suffering sensory deprivation, so he wouldn’t become paranoid or psychotic. It locked him in a dream where he ate, worked, slept, and did other routine things, unaware he was separated from his body. But the reality program can only tap into existing memories and vary scenarios by merging portions of those memories. The brain bag then monitors the brain’s reaction to the scenarios and keeps it from becoming surprised or shocked. I asked, "Is it stolen?"
"According to the registration code on the crystal, it belongs to a Señor Amir Jafari. He lives at one of the Lagrange orbits. He hasn’t applied for citizenship with any nation, so he may prefer to live outside the law. It would be illegal for him to have this program; he won’t report it stolen."
"Is he a doctor?" I asked.
"Why would he be interested in brain storage?"
Flaco shrugged again, pulled the crystal from his pocket, and said "If you want to sell it, we could get 572,000 standard IMUs."
I calculated: barring complications, the thin woman’s medication would cost about twenty-six thousand international monetary units, which would leave a great deal of profit, almost enough to buy a rejuvenation. All I would have to do was invest the money for a year or two. However, I decided to ask the thin woman if she had a receipt for the crystal, hoping she hadn’t stolen it. I asked Flaco to hold the crystal a few days.