From the author of the Journeys of McGill Feighan series
Erased = Victory
What if you created a devastating technology—the Time-Space Separator Unit, the "Tisser"—that could literally erase a person or place from the time-space continuum, as if they had never existed?
What if you were part of a rebel group rising up against a corrupt, oppressive government?
What if you decided to use the Tisser as a weapon and eliminate your enemies from the fabric of the universe itself?
What is the true price of freedom? And how do you patch up the holes you leave behind?
Tears for Emily
The lookout at the monitors said, "Cops!" That froze the dissident leaders in Emily Kenyer's apartment. Outside, brakes screeched. Silence: then a shotgun roared. Big Dan Higgins took charge. "Stay put. It's not for us; it's across the street."
He's got good instincts, Kenyer thought. Cool-headed and sensible. I like that. I wonder how it jibes with his "modified anarchy," though?
"Emily, get the lamp by the window. Harry and Chelle, fade, now; I'll meet you at the van later. Out the back, soft but righteous, you know?"
She moved across the living room while his two assistants slipped through the kitchen. His gaze tracked her like radar; she felt it even with her back turned. Maybe you'll get your chance, Em, she thought. Make the most of it; convince him before he leaves town. She pushed the button of the Kmart lamp, and darkness swallowed them all.
Red shimmers streaked the ceiling. She glanced outside. Below, sheriff's men crouched behind open cruiser doors; a spotlight whitewashed the house across the street. "Dan, it's a foreclosure eviction."
"Doug, stash the monitors. Emily, is there a crowd yet?"
"Small—the cops are trying to break it up." Yet even as she spoke, T-shirted figures mushroomed around the fire hydrant. "Getting bigger."
"Folks," said Higgins, "I'd hoped we could get to know each other tonight, but let's be elsewhere when they come collecting statements. Anybody but me have outstanding wants or warrants? No? Good … Win and Martha, out the front, pretend you live here and want to see what's happening—then slip away." He shook hands with the middle-aged couple, patting each on the shoulder, then turned to Doug and the other Yale student. "Out the back, around to the right, come up between the two houses and make like nosy next-door neighbors. Gape, mingle, vanish. Got it?" At their nods, he shook their hands, too. "See you soon, okay?"
When the metal-sheathed door latched behind them, he faced Kenyer and Sheila McDermot. "Let's get the extra glasses out of here, and we'll be set. I carry, Sheila washes and rinses, Emily dries and puts away."
Kenyer looked into his dark brown eyes. Bold and commanding, they irked her by taking for granted the obedience she granted only to those who shared her goals. She wasn't yet sure about Dan Higgins; he'd used the bystanders too glibly and gave a lot of orders for one who claimed to be a quasi-anarchist. "You're staying?"
Higgins ran a hand through his sandy hair. "I have to talk to you. Tonight." He scooped up the empties. "Come on."
Shrugging, she followed him into the kitchen, wondering not why he had singled her out—every dissident passing through New Haven got in touch with her, sooner or later—but what he wanted from her. Money? Refuge? Trustworthy assistants? He wanted something. Everybody did. Even she.
She was willing to trade. She'd give what she could; she'd yield the present to ensure the future (unless asked, "Who do we put on trial afterwards?" She'd never answer that one). But she had to know, first, that whoever she aided was marching in the right direction.
In the sink, the water ran brown. McDermot took the remaining glasses from Higgins. "Em's right, Dan. You ought to split."
"You armchair types get nervous easy, don't you?"
"A joke, all right?"
Outside, a bullhorned voice ordered Irvine Gregory to throw down his weapon and surrender. The shotgun spat Gregory's reply; glass tinkles broke the night.
Higgins clapped his hands. "That's telling them, Irvine!" His bulk filled the kitchen. He pressed against the formica-topped counter to get out of the way. "Do New Haven cops foreclose at night for a reason, or just for kicks?"
"Both," Kenyer said. McDermot passed her a slippery crystal tumbler. She dried it carefully; it was part of a set. "The bastards time it for impact. You see your neighbor out on the streets at two am, it hits home."
"God, if I could just glitch some computers so it would happen to them—" He leaned towards the doorway like a compass needle drawn to a magnet. "Maybe I'll put Harry on it."
"Who is Harry, anyway, your man for all seasons? Last week he was doing a report for you on our Olin campaign; interviewed me for hours." She still thought the time spent recapping the activities of the Checkbook Coalition was wasted and didn't keep her opinion out of her voice.
He chuckled; his sympathy ran warm and rich. "That's Harry, all right. He's a 20th Century Renaissance man—except that he has no aptitude for politics, of course. You have to let him do things his own way, but give him a problem, any problem, he'll bring you a solution you can 99.9% trust. We'd be nowhere without him."
Someone screamed high and sharp, and all three tensed. The shriek cut off. Far away, somebody else coughed.
"Damn!" said Higgins, lips tightening. "I wish we were ready now."
"In the Olin campaign," Kenyer said, closing the cupboard, "we—"
"Your Checkbook Coalition?" He cocked his head and regarded her with interest.
"Uh-huh. We set up a phone chain. When they tried to foreclose on a member's place, we'd pull the chain. Two, three hundred people'd race over to occupy the house and stay until the cops gave up."
"Yeah, Harry said that; I thought it was great! But look, I have to be honest," he said, touching her shoulder lightly, "I didn't have time to read the whole report. Harry's nuts about detail, which is crucial when he's breaking me out of Leavenworth—"
An insight delighted her. "That's why you sent him away first."
Bewilderment showed on his face, but only for a moment. "Oh, yeah. I get caught, the movement gets a martyr; he gets caught, we lose our best tactician." He studied her so closely that she had to step aside and hang up the dish towel, just to break his gaze. "Although, with people like you waiting in the wings, maybe now we could survive Harry's arrest."
"Thank you." She tried not to show how much that pleased her. "But is this what you risked hanging around to talk to me about?"
An explosion rocked the room; McDermot ran to the front windows to investigate. "A cop car's burning!" she called.
Higgins glanced at his watch. "Maybe fifteen minutes till those bozos get organized enough to shoo people away; we'll skip then. But first—" His eyes narrowed. "According to Harry, you say we should promise not to punish any of the crats." He jabbed a finger in the direction of the street. "Not even the bastards out there murdering Irvine Gregory. Why?"
"Because," she said, finally free to deliver the lines she'd been rehearsing, "a system born in vendetta dies of vendetta. Look at China, Iran—even Italy. It's reprehensible to punish people for being cogs in the machine you've supplanted. And by now, the technique of establishing a revolution's legitimacy by savaging the old order is so trite that it won't work in America. It will only deepen resistance. That's why."
Into the room seeped the stink of burned rubber. Higgins sniffed at it and made a face. "Dammit, those are arguments! Why do you feel that way?"
She took a deep breath and prayed that the explanation would make sense to him. "Because of my mother."
He frowned. "But she's not a crat. I know your father—"
"She's a victim."
His raised eyebrows told her to go on.
"My father travels a lot for the Defense Department," she began.
"I said, I know. That's something else we have to talk about."
"I thought it might be," she said, disappointed. A woman of talent and character, she knew she was more than a doorway to David Kenyer's attention, but it was difficult to convince strangers of that. Though she loved her father—even, at times, still visualized him as the looming giant who would tickle her toes, envelop her in huge, furry arms, and answer any question at all—she hated him, too. She could not stop being his child, and she wanted to be herself. It was one reason she'd moved out. "What about in particular?"
"It can wait. You haven't told me how your mother got victimized."
He seemed sincere; she awarded him a mental point. "Well, he was out of town so often that she decided to start an ad agency. She made a name for herself in a couple of years. Then—"
A siren whooped once, then moaned down into silence. "Go ahead," he said.
"Well, a Federal Trade Commission inspector stopped in for the quarterly truth-in-advertising audit, and propositioned Mom. When Mom turned her down, she wouldn't issue the permit to place the next quarter's ads. Mom complained up and down the line; the inspector sued for 'defamation of a public servant.' Mom lost. The inspector owns the agency now. And Mom still owes half a million in damages. If she ever gets a job again—but no agency anywhere will touch an FTC enemy—the court's going to garnish 75% of her take-home. So she gave up. She became a housewife. She hasn't allowed herself to have an intelligent idea for four years."
"You sound bitter," said Higgins softly.
"Wouldn't you be? They ruined her!"
"At your mother, I meant."
She bit her lip. "Maybe I am. I know how badly she got hurt—some of the inspectors perjured themselves just to destroy her credibility—but I think she gave up too easily. That was her life. She should have fought harder."
"Not everyone has your intensity," he said.
"But it's symptomatic!" She clenched her hands. "There's two hundred fifty million people just like her, letting themselves get raped because, in the short run, it's safer than fighting back. That's why I started the Coalition, to teach people how to fight back. To get them to take that first step."
"I admire your passion," he said, his eyes fixed on hers. "But you still haven't explained—none of all that explains—why we shouldn't punish the crats."
"Because, damn it anyway, the ads were dishonest. By FTC standards, at least."
"What?" He blinked and stepped back.
"Don't you see? The system pukes up regulations it'd take a Talmudic scholar to decipher, and gives enormous powers to millions of petty bureaucrats, and—listen. Turn it around. By the book, my mother's ads were illegal, even though the inspector knew they wouldn't deceive anything smarter than a frog. The lie, though, is in the pictures—reshoot them, they cost forty or fifty thousand. Common sense says issue the permit anyway, but if the inspector does, she's risking her career, and why should she do that for nothing?"
He folded his arms. "You're justifying corruption?"
"No, damn it, I am not!" She wanted to shake him. "I'm saying our system puts normal, weak human beings in positions of terrible temptation—and for God's sakes, we shouldn't devote the new system's energies to punishing people for being human! We should concentrate on designing something that won't create the same goddamned situations."
"But you said this inspector perjured herself."
Exasperated, Kenyer said, "She had to! If she'd told the truth, she'd have lost her job—and the way Mom was filing complaints, not taking Mom to court would have been the same as signing a confession. It's my whole point: the system is totally screwed up, we have to replace it, but we cannot punish the people who didn't have the guts to do anything but go along with it!"
"Replace—not reform?" The question rang cool and aloof.
"Listen." She wondered if she were about to insult him but decided to risk it. "You claim your income tax strike is intended to choke the government into submission, force it to reform itself—and I don't buy it. I don't think you do, either. Get ten million regulators to stop bleeding us by making it harder for them to pick our pockets? Uh-uh. Look across the street, damn it; it just makes them desperate!"
He nodded. A very slow smile stretched the corners of his mouth. "Harry said you were more a revolutionary than a reformer."
"Well, he's right about that," she said hotly. "But I'm not an ayatollah; I say, pardon them all and start over fresh, tabula rasa. It's the only way."
"In that case, you might be able to help us a lot." He reached for her hand; the gesture was surprisingly innocent. "Come on, let's get Sheila and split, I have a favor to ask you two."
"All right." But she quickly slipped free of his fingers. She had yet to decide if he were serious, or if his talk were only an excuse to get close. Too many revolutionaries spent more time seducing than subverting; they were in the movement to stoke their self-esteem, not to cause change. She hated that type. Not that she objected to pleasure, but she had to be more than a body. She had a brain, and a heart as well.
Higgins pulled on his mask, a lifelike plastic sleeve that flattened his nose and rounded his jawline. He'd barely tucked it under his shirt collar when the doorbell rang twice, three times, insistently.
"Stay in the shadows," said Kenyer, crossing the living room. She swung open the door and caught her breath: two policemen stood there. "Y-yes?"
"Sorry to bother you, lady," said the one holding the rifle with the telescopic sight, "but we need your front window. The angle's better'n I can get from the ground." He pushed his way past her. His companion hurried to open the window.
Raising a hand, she spun on her heel, wanting to shout "No—get out!" but she thought better of it when she caught the worry on McDermot's face. "You mind if I leave?" she said instead. "I don't want to be here when they start shooting back."
"No," said the sniper's companion, "go ahead—we'll close the door on our way out."
"Thanks." She kept her body between the cops and Higgins as the anarchist, face averted, walked into the hall. He's so tall I'm probably not shielding him much, but what the hell. Can't hurt.
Before she closed the door, she heard the sharpshooter say, "Bill, see is there any beer in the fridge." She gritted her teeth. And left.
McDermot had parked her car around the corner; the two women flanked Higgins and chattered as they walked, giving him reason to watch the sidewalk. The police and firemen stationed up and down the block barely glanced at them. Yet Kenyer's stomach stayed knotted till they were in the car, anyway.
"God," she said, sinking into the '92 Datsun's back seat, "let's not do that again any time soon … Dan, what's this favor you want to ask us?" As they pulled out into traffic, she realized she had been shivering.
"It's like you figured, Emily—I don't believe the tax strike alone is going to be enough to bring down the government. But what it will do is cause a cashflow crisis come November, and right about then the government will be very vulnerable. That's when we attack."
"With what?" she said. "Where are our armies?"
"I figure for this area, you two will do just fine." He smiled broadly. "What we've got is better than a suitcase nuke."
Appalled, she stared at him. The car pancaked through a pothole and threw her against the seatbelts. Oncoming headlights lanced into the Datsun. For an instant she imagined smoking rubble and wanted to puke. "No—all those people—no!"
He recoiled, blinking, like he'd expected applause, not a slap. "What?"
Her hands trembled; so did her voice. "How could you—I never met you before tonight, but from your books, your speeches, I thought I knew you and now—my God, nukes? No! You can't save the people by destroying them."
His jaw dropped. "No, wait, I'm not talking—" He reached inside his suit jacket and pulled out what seemed to be a microputer. "This is what we use. A T-SS unit—a Tisser—and it doesn't kill anybody."
Confused now, she shook her head. The vision of mass death persisted, but Higgins had just said that it was all wrong. There'd be no death, no destruction … which made no sense: how could anything harmless coerce a government? But if, oh, what if, a magic wand to wave, no, that's silly, there are no magic wands … Deliberately, she flattened the hope peeking out of the trough of horror. "Dan, you're talking gibberish."
"Uh-uh." He smiled again. "I'm talking genius—E. David Kenyer's."
"Dad?" She wanted to put disbelief into her tone, but couldn't quite manage it. Her father had created too many implausible artifacts for her truly to be surprised. "Somehow, it figures." Fitting, though, that his brilliance would help her abolish his world. "May I see it?"
He passed it over. "It's off."
She took it gingerly anyway, wary of placing her fingers near a button. "You called it a T-SS unit?"
"A Time-Space Separation Unit. Nicknamed the Tisser."
"He never mentioned it, so it must be Defense Department. How did you—"
"You read about the terrorist attack at Fort Benning last year?"
She nodded and nibbled on her lip, suspecting what was to come.
He sighed. "It cost a million dollars and seventy-nine lives to take one breadboarded prototype away from the crats field-testing it, but last month it paid off. Two of our guys finally made some sense of its programming. That's production model number one, there."
She blinked. "That raid cost three hundred lives."
"The rest were crats."
"Scientists, a technician, a photographer—people!" She thought him wrong not to show more compassion. "Listen, we count their dead like they were our dead. We have to. Otherwise … otherwise we lose our souls. We make an Iran, a Reign of Terror—"
"Nobody wants that—and that's where the Tisser comes in." Though the three were alone in the moving car, he lowered his voice—then chuckled at his instinctive precaution.
The rueful laugh restored some of her faith in him. Most rebels took themselves far too seriously. If Higgins didn't, he might be able to give more rein to the compassion she was sure he had—and would need.
"Look, your father designed the T-SS unit so it wouldn't hurt anybody, but we've got to find out exactly how."
Now he had her off balance. She shook her head. "You lost me."
"We know how to assemble it; we think we know what it does—but we don't know any of the theory. See, it eliminates things. I don't mean destroys. I mean eliminates: sic the Tisser on something and whoosh! the target's gone, completely, no sign of it left." He paused ostentatiously.
Amused, she took the cue. "Where does it go?"
"The name suggests another dimension, maybe. But we don't know that, or what side-effects it has, or anything else. It makes things disappear and re-appear, too, later on. That's all we know. Are you close to your father?"
"He thinks so." She extended her hand for the weapon again. "But … there are tensions." It was very light, very plasticky. It looked cheap. Yet it awed her with its potential to equalize—and sickened her, too. "How does it work?"
"The GI model is more sophisticated. With this bootleg one, though, you use a first-corner indicator—" He pulled from the case what looked like a telescoping antenna; unfolded, it opened into the corner of a cube. "—and punch in how many meters it should zap from each tip: width, depth, and height, in that order."
"Then you press the 'subtract' button, and that—that volume you described is gone. Along with everything in it." He spread his hands, splayed his fingers. "Now what we—"
"Does it come back alive?"
His eyes wavered for a second. "Yes, but …"
"It dies quick?"
"No." He seemed surprised. "Paralyzed, yes, but only for an hour or two. Nothing more, but …" Looking retrospectively baffled, he puffed his cheeks, and blew air through his pursed lips. "There's something … you forget what you Tissed out; you even forget that you did Tiss something … when we tested it, we thought we'd failed, because we couldn't see that anything had disappeared. One of our techs wondered if maybe the memories hadn't started off full—to work right, it has to store a huge string of spatial coordinates—so he cleared all the memories … and things came back."
Night wind whipped through the open window; she shivered. "What do you mean, 'came back'?"
"Well, actually, we had zapped things—but once they were gone, we couldn't remember that they'd ever existed. It wasn't till we brought them back that we recalled they'd been gone. Before, it was like they were not missing—it was like they'd never been. As a final test, we took out the mayor of San Francisco. Nobody noticed—no, that's not right; after a day or two, people started saying, 'Why don't we have a mayor?' Not 'Where's the mayor?' but 'Why don't we have one?' Honest to God, even when they looked it up, they couldn't remember the poor guy. Until he came back, and then everybody said, 'Where were you?'"
"Why does it work that way?"
"God, Emily, if only we knew …" He slumped in his seat and suddenly looked like what he was: a thirty-five-year-old professor, and an Oregon homeowner so fed up with taxes and bureaucracy that he'd risked everything to force a change. "That's why we're trying to figure out some way to get answers from your father without tipping off the crats."
"He'd call them himself if you approached him …" She stared hard at Higgins, trying to decide if he was, indeed, the kind of person who should run things afterwards. I wish the deaths of those crats bothered him more … but he had that sense of humor, and she was sure she could make him see that there were already too many victims. "Would you like to get into my father's desk?"
His eyes widened. "Damn straight, I would. Can you set it up?"
"Right now, in fact. Sheila—let's go to my folks'."
"On our way," McDermot said, and turned onto the Boulevard.
At Edgewood Avenue, Kenyer checked her watch, then tapped McDermot on the shoulder. "It's three am. Better drop us off here; we'll walk the rest of the way."
McDermot pushed a loop of blonde hair back over her ear and looked at them curiously. "I can take you right to their door, you know."
"And Dad will hear your car, and lumber down, and …" She dug a cigarette out of the crumpled pack in her windbreaker pocket. "Can you see the introductions? 'Dad, this is Dan Higgins, Number One on the FBI's Hit List. Maybe you recognize him from tonight's facspaper?'"
"With my mask on you can introduce me as anybody," said Higgins.
"Dan, that plastic face looks real good from five meters, but at handshaking range it wouldn't fool a baby. Take it off as soon as we get there." Aware that nervousness was making her chatter, she snapped on the lighter. The butane flame danced blue and yellow as it warmed the palm of her hand; the smoke felt good, so she held it in. "No, we can't drive up; Dad keeps his window open, and some sounds wake him all the time: firecrackers, breaking glass, cars coming up the gravel … Once we're inside, we're okay, though. The house is almost soundproof, and Dad's a heavy sleeper."
"How about your mother?" McDermot asked, looking meaningfully from her twenty-year-old friend to Dan Higgins. "Won't she wonder?"
"She's not home."
"I could have sworn I saw her at the store tonight."
"She's in Chicago, visiting Aunt Mae."
"Are you sure?"
"Listen, even if I'm wrong, even if she is home, you know her. She'll be vague and hospitable and a little relieved when I say, 'Nope, just popped in for a sweater 'cause the walk was getting chilly and your place was closer than mine.' Then tomorrow I'll get a phone call about dating older men who are probably married." She started, lips tightened, at the windshield's reflection of the cigarette ember. "That's your role, Dan—older man on the make for younger woman."
Higgins squeezed her shoulder lightly. "No trouble."
But McDermot seemed unwilling to be reassured. "What if she's home and if she recognizes him? What then?"
Kenyer dismissed the idea with a sniff. "If she got back early, there's about one chance in ten she even glanced at tonight's facs. Maybe one in a hundred that Dan's face'll ring a bell. Then she'll shake her head and accuse herself of being silly, because the man her foolish daughter brought home is wearing a suit, and everybody knows rebels are wild-eyed and smelly and carry machine guns under their T-shirts." Higgins snorted; she elbowed him. "Listen, you have to play it straight. She's living in a fantasy world, but she's not dumb. If you act like anything but a late date with sex on your mind, she'll get suspicious."
"Of what?" he said.
"She won't make the rebel connection, but she'll think you're, oh … you're casing the place. You sweet-talked me into inviting you in so you could look around. Don't let her get going in that direction. The house is all she's got, and if she thinks you're threatening it—"
"I understand," he said. "I promise I won't ask where you keep your silverware, or if it's really a Ming vase on the mantel piece."
She chuckled, confident that things would go right. "Come on, let's go. Sheila, thanks for everything—let you know how it turns out."
"You do that," she said, releasing the brake. "'Night."
Companionably silent, they watched the taillights jiggle through a stretch of potholes, then disappear around the corner. The night was still and clear; a sprinkling of stars glimmered through New Haven's haze. The moon filled in for the burnt-out streetlights. Somewhere birds called, and lovelorn fireflies signaled their needs. "Nice lady," said Higgins at last.
"She didn't like your crack about her being an armchair type."
"She didn't grow up a barefoot farm kid like you, if that's what you mean. But her family has been political for three generations—her grandparents with the unions, her folks for civil rights in the sixties and the environment in the seventies—"
"Ironic, huh?" he said.
"That she's fighting to undo what her parents wanted to achieve."
"Not really … they honestly wanted to make America better. They told me once, when they saw the government bloating like a leech, they turned and aimed at it. They even worked for Reagan in '80. And when the crats came back in '84—with all those new programs and that huge deficit?—they led a march on Hartford. Sheila spent 1985 in a foster home because both her folks were in prison … so don't call her an armchair type. She's paid."
"I guess I should have read Harry's report more carefully."
"I'll apologize next time I see her."
"Good. Come on, it's this way." Exhilaration put bounce in her step. It wasn't that this man could trigger bloody riots just by twitching his finger. That, if anything, depressed her. She couldn't respect power when it created victims, but his notoriety thrilled her: proximity to it would make her important.
Dan Higgins scared the police, so his companions did, too. To the cops, whoever associated with the rebel had to be dangerous; housecats don't walk with tigers. At any moment, a cruiser could wail up. If that wasn't being taken seriously, nothing was.
"Dan. After the revolution, how are we going to shut up the people who want to restore the bureaucracy?"
"Shut them up?" He stopped and looked down at her. "We're not. That's what modified anarchy is all about—nobody shuts anybody up."
"Good." Reassured on that, she said, "What do you want Sheila and me to do? You never told us."
He looked into the night. Very quietly, he said, "While I'm in town, I'll be picking out targets for you two to zap at H-Hour. When the time comes—"
"What do you figure we'll take out first? With the Tisser, I mean."
"Police departments." Quiet, now, his low voice rumbled like gravel being stirred. A working streetlight tested the verisimilitude of his false face; orange brilliance bounced oddly off the dyes in the vinyl. He started walking again. "Without obedient local police, the government's helpless. See, we pay taxes, ultimately, because cops have guns. But if there are no cops, no guns, then the crats can't force the money out of us, and they can't pay each other. And you know that those parasites won't work for nothing. The whole structure will disintegrate. Then—then, we will be free!" The shadow of his clenched fist beat on the pavement. "Free!"
She frowned. It seemed simplistic. "What about the Army, the National Guard?"
"If they come, we'll do the same to them—but remember, they'll have to donate their services, too—and somehow, I don't think they will."
Emily's instincts said it wouldn't happen that way. It never went as quickly, as cleanly, as the visionaries promised. Like rowers on a muddy pond, they thought thirty strokes and you're across, that's all there is to it, but she knew there was more. Beneath the surface, the blades had to slash, scattering fish, cutting weeds, stirring up muck. The leaders saw the hull skim the ripples; she saw the turbulence. She vowed, once again, to devote herself to saving the fish. "We're here."
He turned and looked. "Nice place."
Behind the sloping-front lawn, the garage clung to the two-story, twelve-room house. In the half-acre backyard towered a climbable pine, in whose resiny branches Kenyer had used to lose herself for hours at a time. The house had been her home for nineteen years. She loved it. Quietly, she said, "They raised the mil rate again last year. Dad said taxes were so high he had to unload it, but the best offer he got was only twice the tax bill."
"Is it in bad shape?" They walked up the drive, careful not to crunch gravel.
"No," she whispered, "it's in beautiful condition—but who can afford a big mortgage on top of $1200 a month property tax? It's not like you get any services—usage charge for everything, garbage, sewers, streets … The city has programs for everybody but the people who pay for the programs." She held a finger to her lips. "Ssh."
The thumblock remembered her touch and let the door swing back into the dark entryway. A loose board creaked. Without switching a light, she led him into the long, high-ceilinged living room, and closed its door. Grateful for the orange shag rug that absorbed their footsteps, she seated him at a rolltop desk. She flicked on its lamp.
He skinned off the false face and wiped his cheeks—then stared at the desk in bewilderment. "Doesn't he use a computer?"
"Of course he does." She rested her hand on his right shoulder. "But it's voice-keyed, and you couldn't get into it. Besides, he sketches most of his ideas on file cards before he feeds them into the machine—says he can't think at a screen—and he keeps the cards in one of these drawers. Or in most of them; I mean, he has a ton of cards."
"Well—" Dubiously, he pulled on a handle.
"Good morning," said a mellow but sarcastic voice from the door.
"Mother!" Emily gasped. Spinning, she shielded Higgins with her body. "Did we wake you? I didn't realize you'd come home."
Sandra Kenyer's green eyes left Emily to touch on Higgins, then returned. Her hair was brown, long, and streaked with gray. The streak was chance; its retention, deliberate. She held herself with dignity, even when wearing the pink nylon gown whose ruffles brushed the floor. Crinkles around her mouth and eyes spoke of easy laughter. Tonight, her lips were compressed. "It's almost three-thirty, and yes, you did wake me. I flew in this morning. I thought you were burglars." She brought her right hand from behind her back. It clutched a small automatic. She looked at it, mouth puckering into a wry moue. "I was afraid I'd have to—"
"You can put it away, Mother," said Emily. She disguised her upwelling of relief. A shot would have sunk them. The police would have come, recognized Dan … "We're harmless. But why didn't you wake Dad?"
"I didn't think the burglars would wait that long." Her relief resonated in her voice. "So. How nice of you to drop by."
Emily restaged mentally the scenario she'd outlined in the car. "We were walking; I got chilly." She dropped her eyes and pretended to fidget.
"I see," said Sandra Kenyer knowingly. Her tone was either condescending or embarrassedly casual. Clearing her throat, and glancing away, she said, "You know your father doesn't like you in his desk."
Before Emily could react, Higgins said, "Emily told me that, Mrs. Kenyer, but I had to have a sheet of paper. A line just came to me, and I have to get it down before I lose it. They come so laboriously, you know, like children."
Though she found his fluency in falsehood disturbing, Emily kept her face blank, and watched her mother's sense of hospitality struggle with her protectiveness. Confusion won. "A line?"
"A line. Poetry. I'm doing a—" Appearing to rein in artistic enthusiasm by brute force, he said, "Anyway, I needed some paper, and didn't think Mr. Kenyer would mind."
"Dr. Kenyer," said the scientist's wife, but she seemed reassured. "Well, if you're trying to compose, would you like a cup of coffee, maybe some cake or cookies?"
Emily said, "Mother—"
"That would be very nice," said Higgins. "I'd like to polish this line before I leave, which may take an hour or more. Coffee would be perfect."
"It'll only be a minute."
"I'll help." Emily realized at last that Higgins wanted privacy and time to search the desk. She hurried to the door, uncomfortably aware of the oblong bump in her coat pocket. She couldn't take it off because her good-housekeeper mother would hang it up, and maybe find the Tisser. She'd have to wear it a little longer.
Her heels tapped on the vinyl tiles in the corridor, finding and forming a syncopation with the swishes of her mother's slippers. After a moment she said, awkwardly, "Hey, Mom, I'm sorry we woke you—" She pushed open the swinging door and held it.
Sandra Kenyer grabbed Emily's arm and almost threw her into the kitchen. Sandra's teeth grated; her jaw muscles bulged. Her eyes had narrowed to slits of hostile emerald. While her hand plucked the phone off the wall and her fingers began to tap numbers, she hissed, "What the hell do you mean bringing a rebel into my home?"
"What do you m-m-mean?"
"I mean your 'date.' Dan Higgins a poet, pfah! His picture's all over tonight's paper; what did you think I was, blind? And letting him ransack your father's desk, I am so—hello, police? … Yes, I'll hold."
Emily saw what she had to do, but rebelled. Why do I have to make her a victim? Dan— She moved towards the door, hand in her pocket.
"And don't try to warn him, either, because I will shoot him. You could have cost your father his job, his reputation—hello? Yes, dammit, but hurry!"
While Sandra Kenyer glared at the phone, Emily took out the Tisser. I'm sorry, Mom, I'll bring you back. Her fingers shook with fear, urgency, and—already—self-loathing. But I have to. She pulled out the first-corner indicator and began prodding the keys. On; 1 for width—
—1 for depth—
Still jamming the phone to her ear, Sandra Kenyer thrust her hand into her gown, grabbing for the automatic. The billowy nylon thwarted her grasp.
—2 for height—
"Emily, what are you—"
She pressed the indicator against her mother's suddenly struggling body—and '—' to eliminate!
For a time, measurable only in microseconds, she knew horror. Her memory was a rope of many strands, and, in the instant, half their fibers faded away. Half her life disappeared. Half of herself died. She felt the loss and regretted her impetuousness. It was too much to throw away; she had to have it back, she had to have—she had to—she had—she—She gnawed on a knuckle and wondered what she'd lost. A victim, she thought faintly, or something to do with love …
She was alone in the kitchen, staring at the wall phone that had never had a receiver. A T-SS unit quivered in her cold white hand. She couldn't understand why she was holding it. It was Dan's, and it belonged with him. Shrugging, she tiptoed back to the living room.
He was still at the desk, rifling through its thousands of file cards without disturbing their precise alignment. Somewhere he had found surgeon's gloves, thin and green. His back stiffened as she entered; his head turreted. He exhaled his fright at sight of her. "Geez, I thought it was your father."
"Dad? No. Once he's asleep, you could stage a rock concert down here and not wake him. Talk about heavy sleepers." She bent across him to set the Tisser on the desk. Deliberately, she pressed her breasts against his shoulder blades. "Did you find what you wanted?"
"No." He turned to take her hand, then winked. "Not in the desk, anyway."
Let him be grateful, she thought. It'll give me leverage to help save the victims. Because, of course, that was what she wanted more than anything. To protect the innocent. She smiled, slowly and sweetly. Avid for affection, for closeness and security, she lifted his insulated fingers to her cheek. "Like I said, once he's asleep he's dead to the world."
"Sounds good." As he stood, his gaze slipped away to the framed photograph on the mantle. "Who's that?"
She twisted around in his arms and leaned back against him. A woman with green eyes stared at her. "I don't know."
"Oh." Clearly, he'd asked only out of politeness. "I thought it might be your mother."
"My mother?" She probed that notion, but it was like looking for a thirty-third tooth. "No, it's not. I thought you knew. I never had a mother."
For no reason at all, she began to cry.