They gave her a berth on the Ra because her father was famous, not because he was rich. Wealth was no guarantor of admittance to the ranks of the fabled Sunseekers; their sponsors didn't need the money. But there was always a price to be paid, due at unforeseen intervals decided upon by the caprice of the self-appointed leaders of their intrepid little band of a dozen or so sunseeking souls.
Right now, they had started in on Eleanor, an elegant girl of Bantu ancestry whose great-grands had made their fortune gun-running along the Horn of Africa (so it was rumored) and parlayed that wealth into a multisystem exotics import/export business.
"Sweetkins, I'm not sure I can stand to look at much more of that vegetable fiber. Cotton!"
"Algodon!" Akvir mimicked Zenobia's horrified tone. "I thought we'd agreed to wear only animal products."
"If we don't hold to standards," continued Zenobia, "it'll be soybric next. Or, Goddess forbid, nylon."
Eleanor met this sally with her usual dignified silence. She did not even smooth a hand over her gold and brown robe and trousers, as any of the others would have, self-conscious under scrutiny. Rose suspected her of having designs both on Akvir-self-styled priest of the Sunseekers-and on the coveted position of priestess. Of course it went without saying that the priestess and the priest had their own intimate rites, so after all, if one was priestess, one got Akvir-at least for as long as his sway over the group held.
"That a tattoo?" Yah-noo plopped down beside Rose. The seat cushion exhaled sharply under the pressure of his rump. He was new on board, and already bored.
"What?" Self-consciously, remembering-how could she ever, ever forget? — she touched the blemish on her cheek.
"Brilliantй, mon," he said, although the slang sounded forced. He was too clean-cut to look comfortable in the leather trousers and vest he sported. He looked made up, a rich-kid doll sold in the marketplace for poor kids to play pretend with. "Makes a nice statement, cutting up the facial lines with a big blotch like that. It's not even an image tattoo, like a tigre or something, just a-" He paused, searching for words.
She already knew the words.
Blot. Eyesore. Flaw. Birth defect.
She was irrevocably marred. Disfigured. Stained.
These words proclaimed by that famous voice which most every soul on this planet and in most of the other human systems would recognize. Golden-tongued and golden-haired. Chryso-stom. Sun-struck. El Sol. There were many epithets for him, almost all of them flattering.
"Ya se ve!" Yah-noo clapped himself on the head with an open hand, a theatrical display of sudden insight. "You're the actor's kid, no? You look like him-"
"If never so handsome," said Akvir, who had bored of his pursuit of Eleanor.
"No one is as handsome as my father," snapped Rose, for that was both her pride and her shame.
"I thought there were operations, lasers, that kind of thing." Yah-noo stared at her with intense curiosity.
To see a blemished person was rare. To see one anywhere outside the ranks of the great lost, the poor who are always with us in their shacks and hovels and rags even in this day of medical clinics in every piss-poor village and education for every forlorn or unwanted child, was unheard of.
"Yeah, there are," she said, standing to walk over to Eleanor's seat. She stared out the tinted window of the ship. The Surbrent-Xia solar array that powered the engines made the stubby wings shimmer as light played across them. Here, above the cloud cover that shrouded the western Caribbean, the sun blazed in all its glory. Ever bright. Up here, following the sunside of the Earth, it was always day.
"You going to see the big head?" asked Eleanor in her lean, cultured voice. "The archaeological site is called after a saint. San Lorenzo."
"Yah. Sounds very slummy, a little Meshko village and all."
"Quaint," said Eleanor. "The right word is quaint. Saint Lorenzo was one of the seven deacons of the Church of Rome, this would be back, oh, way back during the actual Roman Empire when the old Christian-" She said it like a girl's name, Kristie-Anne. "-Church was just getting a toehold in the world. Like all of them, he was made a martyr, but in this case he was roasted over a gridiron."
"Over a football field?"
"No." Eleanor laughed but not in a mocking way. She never used her knowledge to mock people. "No, it's like a thing with bars you grill fish on. But the thing is, that he was burned, roasted, so you see perhaps he was in a prior incarnation related to some form of sun worship. The fire is a metaphor for the sun."
"Oh. I guess it could be."
Eleanor shrugged. Rose could never understand why someone like her ran with the Sunseekers. Only except they were, so everyone said, the jettest black of all social sets, the crиme de la crиme, the egg in the basket, the two unobtainable birds in the bush. That was why her father never came running after her after she ran away to them.
She had seen a clip about two months ago as the night-bound told time, for up here in the constant glare of the sun there was only one long long day. He had referred to her in passing, with that charmingly deprecatory smile.
"Ah, yes, my daughter Rosie, she's on a bit of a vacation with that Sunseeker crowd. That's true, most of them are older, finished with their A-levels or gymnasium or high school. But. Well. She's a high-spirited girl. Fifteen-year-olds always know just what they want, don't they? She wanted the Sunseekers." The rest went without saying: The very most exclusive social set, don't you know. Of course my child would be admitted into their august ranks.
He had only to quirk his lips and shift his elbow on the settee to reveal these confidences without any additional words passing his lips. His gift consisted, as so many, many, many people had assured her as she grew up and old enough to understand what their praise meant, of the ability to suggest much with very little.
But her elder siblings-long since estranged from the family- called it something else: The ability to blind.
The engines thrummed. Rose set a hand against the pane that separated them from the air and felt the shudder and shift that meant they were descending. In the lounge, Yah-noo flipped through the music files. The mournful cadences of an old Len-non-McCartney aria, "I'll Follow the Sun," filled the cabin. Eleanor uncoiled herself from her seat and walked back, not without a few jerks to keep her balance as the pitch of the Ra steepened, to the dressing and shower room, shared indiscriminately by the almost two dozen inhabitants of the ship. She did dress, stubbornly, in fabrics woven from vegetable forebears. Rose admired her intransigence but more than that the drape of the cloth itself, something leather cured in the sun or spinsil extruded and spun and woven in the airless vaults of space stations could not duplicate. Style, her father always said, sets apart those who are watch-able from those fated only to watch. It puzzled and irritated him that his disfigured daughter had no sense of style, but she had only ever seen him actually lose his temper once in her entire life: that day in the hospital when her mother had backed her up after she stubbornly refused, once again and for all, to undergo the simple laser operation that would at least make her middling pretty.
He wanted to be surrounded by handsome things.
The ship turned as it always did before landing, going down rump first, as some of the Sunseekers liked to say. Her hand on the pane warmed as the rising sun's rays melted into her palm. They cut down through the clouds and the sun vanished. She shivered. Gray boiled up past her, receded into the sky as they came down below the clouds and could see the ground at last.
Rugged mountains rose close beside the shore of the sea, receding behind them. The lowlands were cut by ribbons of muddy water beside which sprawled the dirty brown and white scars of human habitation, a village. The old ruined Zona Arqueolуgica lay on higher ground, the centerpiece of a significant plateau.
It had been a week since they'd last landed. The texture of the earth, the lush green carpet of vegetation, amazed her anew. She blinked on her computer implant to get an identification of the river. A map of the region came up on the screen, not a real screen, of course, but the simulation of a screen that according to her tekhnк class was necessary for the human eye to register information in this medium. Sim-screens for primates, they would shout when they were younger, but it was only funny when you were young enough to find the parallel between simulation and simian amusing, like being six years old and getting your first pun. But like a bad pun or a particularly obnoxious advert balloon, the phrase had stuck with her.
The lacy mat of tributaries and rivers floated in front of her eyes on the sim-screen, spidery lines that thickened and took on weight and texture, finally moving and melding into the landscape until they seemed to become one. Disoriented, she blinked the screen off and staggered back to find a couch for the final deceleration. The couch snaked a pressure net across her, calibrated to her weight, and she tilted her head back, closed her eyes, and waited for landing. Aria segued into gospel hymn, "Where the Sun Will Never Go Down." Yah-noo hummed along in a tuneless tenor until Zenobia told him to shut up. Finally, they came to rest; the altosphere shades lightened away and everything went quiet. She felt giddy. When she stood up, her feet hummed with the memory of engines and she swayed as she walked, following the others to the 'lock and out onto the plank that led down to the variegated earth of the night-bound, the lost souls-all fourteen billion of them-who must suffer the sad cyclic subjugation to the endless and cruel celestial reminder of our human mortality, night following day following night. Or so Akvir put it. He had not seen night for nine months.
The village itself was so small, so pathetic, and so obviously isolated that at first Rose thought they had inadvertently stumbled across the set for an actie, the kind of thing her father would star in: Knight in the Jungle, in which the liberation priest, Father Ignatius Knight, gives his life to bring literacy and the World-WideWeb to a village under the censorious thumb of a Machine Age dictator, or Dublo Seven, Heritage Hunter, in which the legendary M. Seven seeks out and recovers artifacts hidden away by greedy capitalists so that he can turn them over to the Human Heritage Foundation whose purpose is to preserve human culture for the all, not the few.
The air was so hot and humid that even her eyelids began to sweat. It stank of mud and cow dung. A pair of skeletally thin reddish dogs slunk along the tree line. Curious villagers emerged from houses and from the outlying fields and trees to converge on the landing spot, a cleared strip beside a broad concrete plaza marked by a flagpole and a school building. There were sure a lot of villagers, more than she had expected. A dilapidated museum stood by the river at one end of the road. The great Olmec head Akvir wanted to see rested in the central courtyard, glimpsed from here as a rounded bulk behind rusting wrought-iron gates. Right now Akvir was head-hunting, as he called it. In the last month they had stopped at Easter Island, Mount Rushmore, Angkor Thom, and the Altai Mountains.
A bird called from the trees. Eleanor stepped out in front of Akvir and raised a hand, shading her eyes against the early morning sunlight. But she was looking west, not east into the rising sun.
Rose felt more than heard the cough of an antiquated pulse gun. Dogs yipped frantically, helping and bolting, but the sound that bit into their hearing was too high for humans to make out.
"Effing hells!" swore Yah-noo behind her. "My transmitter's gone dead."
Who used pulse guns these days? They were part of the lore of her dad's acties, like in Evil Empire where he played a heroic West Berliner.
Eleanor shouted a warning as a dozen of the villagers circled in on them. Were the natives carrying rifles? For a second, Rose stared stupidly, thoughts scattering. What was going on?
Akvir started yelling. "Back on board! Back on board! Everyone back on board!"
Voices raised in alarm as the Sunseekers blundered toward the ramp, but their escape was cut short by the unexpected barking stutter of a scatter gun. A swarm of chitters lit on her skin. She dropped to her knees, swatting at her face and bare arms.
The crash of a riot cannon-she knew the sound because her father had just premiered in a serial actie about the Eleven Cities labor riots of fifty years ago-boomed in her ears. A blast of smoke and heat passed right over her. As people yelled and screamed, she lost track of everything except the stink of skunk gas settling onto her shoulders and the prickles of irritant darts in the crooks of her elbows and the whorls of her ears.
Someone grabbed her wrist and yanked her up into the cloud. Her eyes teared madly, melding with sweat; the smoke blinded her. But the grip on her arm was authoritative. She stumbled along behind, gulping air and trying to bite the stinging sour nasty taste of skunk gas from her lips. The rough dead earth of the lander clearing transformed between one step and the next into the soggy mat of jungle; an instant later they were out of the smoke and running along a sheltered path through the trees.
Eleanor held her by the wrist and showed no sign of letting go. She didn't even look back, just tugged Rose along. Rose blinked back tears and ran, hiccuping, half terrified and half ready to laugh because the whole thing was so absurd, something out of one of her father's acties.
Instead of elegant gold-and-brown dappled robe and trousers, the other woman now wore a plain but serviceable ice-green utility suit, the kind of clothes every and any person wore when they did their yearly garbage stint. Woven of soybric, it was the kind of thing fashionable Sunseekers wouldn't be caught dead in.
What had happened to the others?
She tried to speak but could only cough out a few hacking syllables that meant nothing. The skunk gas burned in her lungs, and the awful sodden heat kept trying to melt her into a puddle on the dirt path, but still Eleanor dragged her on at a steady lope while Rose gasped for air-such as it was, so thick you could practically spoon it into a cup-and fought to stop the stitch in her side from growing into a red dagger of pain. Her ears itched wildly.
They hit a steep section, and got about halfway up the slope before her legs started to cramp.
"Got… to… stop…" she gasped finally and went limp, dropping to her knees on the path. Her weight dragged Eleanor to a halt.
"Shit," swore the other woman. "Damn, you have been spending too long with the do-nothing rich kids. I thought you weren't like them. Don't you ever get any exercise?"
"Sorry." It was all she could manage with her lungs burning from exertion and skunk gas and her elbows and knees itching as badly as her ears from the irritant darts, but she knew better than to scratch at them because that only spread the allergens, and meanwhile she had to bite her lip hard and dig her nails into her palms to stop herself from scratching. The skunk gas and the pain made her eyes tear, and suddenly she wanted nothing more than for her mother to be there to make it all better.
That made her cry more.
"Aw, fuck," said Eleanor. "I should have left you back with the others. Now come on."
She jerked Rose upright. Rose had enough wind back that it was easier to go than to stay and deal with the itching and the burning lungs and the pain again, the memory of watching her mother die of a treatable medical condition which she was too stubborn to get treatment for because it went against the traditional ways she adhered to. She touched her blemished cheek, the habitual gesture that annoyed her father so much because it drew attention to the blemish and thereby reminded them both of those last angry weeks of her mother's dying.
Sometimes stubbornness was the only thing that kept you going.
Eleanor settled into a trot. Rose gritted her teeth and managed to shuffle-jog along behind her, up the ghastly steep path until it finally, mercifully, leveled off onto the plateau. The jungle smelled rank with life but it was hard enough to keep going without trying to look around her to see. Wiry little dappled pigs, sleek as missiles, scattered away into the underbrush.
By the time they came out into the clearing-the Zona Arqueolуgica-Rose's shift was plastered to her body with sweat. Eleanor, of course, looked cool, her utility suit-wired to adjust for temperature and other external conditions-uncreased and without any of the dark splotches that discolored Rose's shift. At the tuft of hairline, on the back of the woman's neck, Rose detected a thin sheen of sweat, but Eleanor brushed it away with a swipe of her long fingers.
They stepped out from under the cover of jungle onto a broad, grassy clearing, and at once an automated nesh-recorded welcome program materialized and began its preprogrammed run.
"Buenas dias!" it sang as outrageously bedecked Olmec natives danced while recorded prehispanic musicians played clay flutes, ocarinas, and turtle shells, and shook rain sticks, beating out rhythms on clay water pots. Fat, flat-faced babies sat forward, leaning onto their knuckles like so many leering prize fighters trying to stare down their opponents, and jaguars growled and writhed and morphed into human form in the interstices of the background projections. "Bienvenidos al Parque Arqueolуgico Olmeca! Aquн es San Lorenzo, la casa de las cabezas colosales y el lugar de la cultura Madre de las civilizaciones Mexicanas! Que id-ioma prefieren? Espaсol. Nahuatl. Inglйs. Japonйs. Mandarнn. Cantonйs. Swahili." The chirpy voice ran down a cornucopia of translation possibilities.
The place looked like a ruin, two reasonably modern whitewashed buildings stuck on the edge of the clearing with doors hanging ajar and windows shattered, three thatched palapas fallen into disrepair. A herd of cattle grazed among the mounds, which were themselves nothing much to look at, nothing like what she expected of the ancient and magnificent home of the mother culture of the Mexican civilizations.
But the technology worked just fine.
Eleanor gave her a tug. They followed a path across the ruins toward the larger of the two whitewashed buildings. Every few meters 3-D nesh projections flashed on and began their fixed lec-ture-and-display: the old ruins came to life, if nesh could be called life or perhaps more correctly only the simulation of life.
Poles stuck in the ground were the storehouses for the treasure-the knowledge, the reconstruction of the past. Between them, quartered, angled, huge image displays whirled into being: here, a high plaza topped with a palace built of clay with a stone stele set upright in front; there, one of the great stone heads watching out across a reconstructed plaza with the quiet benevolence of a ruler whose authority rests on his unquestioned divinity; suddenly and all of a piece, the entire huge clearing flowering into being to reveal the huge complex, plaza, steps, temples, and courtyards paved with green stone, as it might have looked three thousand years before during the fluorescence of this earliest of the great Mesoamerican civilizations.
Eleanor yanked her inside the building. Rose stumbled over the concrete threshold and found herself in a dilapidated museum, long since gone to seed with the collapse of the tourist trade in nesh reconstructions of ancient sites. All that investment, in vain once the novelty had worn off and people stopped coming. Most tourists took their vacations upstairs, these days. Mere human history couldn't compete with the wonders of the solar system and the adventure promised by the great net, and affordable prices, that opened out into human and Chapelli space.
The museum had been abandoned, maybe even looted. Empty cases sat on granite pedestals; tarantulas crowded along the ceiling; a snake slithered away through a hole in the floor.
"Shit," swore Eleanor again. "Did it have bands? Did you notice?"
"Did what have bands?"
"The snake. Goddess above, you ever taken any eco courses? There are poisonous snakes here. Real poisonous snakes." Dropping Rose's wrist, she stuck two fingers in her mouth and blew a piercing whistle. Rose clapped hands over her ears, but Eleanor did not repeat the whistle. Her ears still itched and with her fingers there in such proximity, Rose could not help but scratch them but it only made them sting more. She yanked her hands away and clutched the damp hem of her shift, curling the loose spinsil fabric around her fingers, gripping hard.
A trap in the floor opened, sliding aside, and a ladder unfolded itself upward out of the hole. Moments later a head emerged which resolved itself into a woman dressed in an expensive business suit, solar gold knee-length tunic over plaid trousers; the tunic boasted four narrow capelets along its shoulders. She also wore tricolor hair, shoulder length, all of it in thin braids of alternating red, black, and gold-the team colors of the most recent Solar Cup champions. Rose knew her fashionable styles, since in her father's set fashion was everything, and to wear a style six months out of date was to invite amused pity and lose all one's invitations to the best and most sunny parties. This woman was fashionable.
Two men, dressed in utility suits, followed the woman up from the depths. Both carried tool cases.
"Eleanor," said the businesswoman. They touched palms, flesh to flesh, by which Rose saw-though it already seemed likely given her entrance-that this was the real woman and not her nesh analogue. "All has gone as planned?"
"I'm afraid not. The Ra is disabled, but we seem to have run into some competition." She gestured toward the two men. "Go quickly. We'll need to transfer the array to our hover before they can call in reinforcements." They hurried out the door.
"And this one?" asked the businesswoman. "Is this another of your ugly puppies?"
Rose wanted desperately to ask, What are you going to do with me? but the phrase stuck in her throat because it sounded so horribly like a line in one of her dad's acties. Maybe she sweated more, because of nerves, but who could tell in this heat?
"When the operation is over, we can let her go." Eleanor spoke almost apologetically. "I just wanted her out of the way in case there are complications. And she's a good rabbit to keep in the hat, in case there are complications. She's the daughter of the actor."
"Oh!" the businesswoman crooked one eyebrow in surprised admiration. "Oh! Well, I mean, there was so much publicity about it. She's not nearly as pretty. And that-" She stopped herself, although her hand brushed her own cheek in the place the mark stood on Rose's face. She lowered the hand self-consciously. "Vasil Veselov is your father?"
Rose didn't know what to say. She nodded.
The businesswoman waved invitingly toward the trap. "Put her in the basement."
Eleanor took hold of Rose's wrist again and pulled her toward the extruded ladder.
A touch of cool air drifted up from the hole, quickly subsumed in the heat. Rose glanced toward the businesswoman, now making calculations on a slate; she had apparently forgotten about her partner and Rose, much less the great actor.
"Go on." Eleanor snapped her fingers. "Go."
Rose climbed down. Beneath lay a basement consisting of a corridor and six storerooms. Water beads like the sweat of the earth trickled down the concrete walls. Eleanor shoved her along to the end of the row where a door stood ajar. Waving Rose in, she began to push the door shut.
"What are you going to do with me?" Rose demanded, finally succumbing to the cliche.
"Nothing with you. You're a nice kid, Rose, unlike those obnoxious spoiled brats who have nothing better to do with their time than waste it circling the Earth as if that somehow makes them more especial than the rest of humanity. Like they're paying for it! What a sick advertising stunt! I didn't want you to get hurt."
"What did you mean about keeping a rabbit in the hat?"
"Planning for contingencies. It doesn't matter. Anyway, I really admire your father. Sheh." She gave a breathy whistle. "I had a holo of him in my room when I was younger. You'll be free to go in an hour or so."
"What's going on?" This request, Rose knew, would be followed by the Bad Guy telling all, because Bad Guys always told all. They could never resist the urge to reveal their diabolical plans.
Eleanor slammed the door shut-not because of anger but because the door wasn't hung true and was besides swollen from moisture and heat and that was the only way to get it to shut. Left alone in the room, Rose tested the door at once, but it didn't budge. She stuck her ear to the keyhole but heard nothing, not even footsteps. At least the itching had begun to subside. Finally, she turned and surveyed her prison.
It was an ugly room with concrete rebar walls, a molding ceiling sheltering two timid tarantulas in one corner, and a floor made up of peeling rectangles of some mottled beige substance. The tarantulas made her leery, but she didn't fear them; she knew quite a bit about their behavior after living on the set of Curse of the Tarantula. The rest of the room disquieted her more. The floor wasn't level, and the tiles hadn't been well laid, leaving gaps limned with a powdery white dust. Two old cots made up of splintery wood supports with sun-faded, coarse burlap stretched between stood side by side.
She winced, remembering the businesswoman's casual words. In one corner someone had set up a shrine on an old plastic table, one of whose legs had been repaired with duct tape. Two weedy-looking bouquets of tiny yellow-and-white flowers resting crookedly in tin pots sat one on either side of a plastic baby doll with brown hair, brown eyes, and painted red lips. The doll was dressed in a lacy robe, frayed at the hem and dirty along the right sleeve, as though it had been dragged through dirt. A framed picture of the same doll, or one just like it, lay at its feet, showing the doll sitting on a similar surface but almost smothered by offerings of flowers and faded photographs of real children, some smiling, some obviously ill, one apparently dead. Someone had written at the bottom of the picture, in black marker in crude block letters, El Nino Doctor. Doctor Baby Jesus.
Rose knew something about the Kristie-Anne religion. Jesus was the god-person-man they prayed to, although she had never quite understood how you could be both a god and a mortal human being, more or less, at the same time. "The gods are everywhere," her mother used to say. "They are what surrounds us, Mother Sun and Father Wind, Aunt Cloud and Uncle Moon, Sister Tent and Brother Sky, Daughter Earth and Son River, Cousin Grass and Cousin Rain. Gods are not people."
Yet some people thought they could be. Rose sniffled. She wanted to cry, but because crying made her eyes red and puffy, unattractive, she had learned to choke down tears. But she was still frightened and alone.
She tongued the emergency transponder implanted in her jaw, but it was dead, killed by the crude blast of the pulse gun. Everything else she had left on the Ra.
"I want my daddy," she whispered.
A flash of light winked in the staring eyes of the baby doll. It began to talk in a creaky, squeaky, distorted voice, stretched, tenuous, and broken with skips and jerks.
"Si habla Espaсol diga, 'si.' Nahuatocatzitzinй, amehuantzitzin in anquimocaquilia, in anquimomatilia inin tlatolli, ximotlatolti-can. If you speak English, say 'yes.' "
Startled, she took a step back just as she said, scarcely meaning to, "yes."
"Please wait while I connect you. A medical technician will be with you in a moment. Catholic Medical Services provides sponsored medical advice free of charge to you, at any hour of the day or night. Help will be given whatever your circumstance. Please wait. When the doctor comes on line, state your location and your-"
A fluttering whir scattered the words. After a pause, a barely audible squeal cut at her hearing. The doll spoke again, channeling a real person's voice.
"Please state your location and need. I am M. de Roepstorff, a medical technician. I am here to help you. Are you there?"
She was so stunned she forgot how to speak.
Patiently, the voice repeated itself. "Are you there?"
"I am. I am! I'm a prisoner-"
"Stay calm. Please state your location and we'll send a team out-"
Static broke the connection.
There was silence, stillness; one of the tarantulas shifted, moving a few centimeters before halting, suspended, to crowd beside its fellow.
"Are you still there?" Rose whispered. "Are you there? Yes. Yes, I speak English."
"Please wait while I connect you. The medical technician will be with you in a moment. Catholic Medical Services…"
The doll's recorded voice squealed to a bruising pitch, ratcheted like gears stripping, and failed.
A grinding, grating noise startled her just as the kiss of cooler air brushed her face. The table rocked, tilted to the right, teetered, and crashed sideways to the ground, spilling pots, flowers, picture, and doll onto the concrete floor. Nothing broke, except the floor. One of the rectangular tiles wobbled, juddered, and jumped straight up. Rose leaped back, stumbled against a cot, and sat down hard as a man dressed in dark coveralls with a crude burlap mask concealing most of his face emerged from a hole in the floor, climbing as if going up a steep staircase. All she could see was his mouth, undistinguished, and his eyes, the iris dark and the white bloodshot with fatigue or, maybe, some barbaric drug intoxication.
"Quien eres?" he demanded. He carried a scatter gun. With it trained on her, he called down into the hole. "Esperabas un prisi-onero? Es una muchacha."
Be cool and collected. That's what her father always did in the acties.
"Eleanor put me here," she said aloud as calmly as she could, hoping Eleanor was on their side. She was so scared her knees actually knocked together. "I don't know what's going on. Please don't hurt me. I'm only fifteen. I can't identify you because you're wearing that mask, so I'm no threat to you."
The man climbed out of the hole, crossed to the door, and tested it.
"It's locked," she said helpfully. "I'm a prisoner. I'm not a threat to you."
He cursed, trying the handle a second time. A nasty looking knife was thrust between belt and coveralls, blade gleaming.
A second figure-head and shoulders-popped up in the hole. This one wore an old corn-cap, with a brim, the kind of thing people wore before implants and sim-screens rendered such bulky equipment unnecessary. She was also holding an even more ancient rifle, the kind of thing you only saw in museums next to bazookas, halberds, and atlatls under the label Primitive But Deadly.
Had the pulse gun killed her implant? She didn't think so; it was technologically far more sophisticated than plain jane location/communication transponders and phones. She blinked to trigger it, caught a sigh of relief as the screen wavered on. Sotto voce, she whispered, "Spanish translator, text only. Cue to voice."
The one with the rifle, dark eyes unwinking as she studied her captive, lifted her chin dismissively.
"Termina ya." A woman's voice, hard and impatient. Words scrolled across the sim-screen as Rose pretended she couldn't understand them. "No podemos dejarla aqui…cannot leave her here. She will go and tell of our hiding place."
Adrenaline made her babble, that and her father's maxim: keep them talking. How successfully he'd used that ploy in Evil Em-pirel "Is that an AK-47? I've seen one in nesh but never in the flesh before. Is that a thirty round magazine?"
"No puedo hacerlo… I cannot do it," said the first terrorist. She is too young. She is too innocent."
"No [untranslatable] is innocent."
The itch on her ears returned until she thought it would burn the lobes right off, but she clutched the side of the cot hard and the pain of the wood digging into her hands helped keep her mind off the itching and the fear.
Don't give in to it. Once you gave in, the itching-or the fear-would consume you.
"Look at the mark on her face. It is real. It is not a tattoo of a rich child. No one with this type of mark on the face can be our enemy." He took three steps, close enough to hit her or stab her, but his touch-fingers brushing the blemish-was oddly gentle.
"I shoot the street dogs," said his companion. "Things like this will be the death of you."
"Then how will the outcome change? I do not like to kill. And I question what this locked door signifies. It should have been left open."
"We've been outmaneuvered. There's another party involved who wants the same thing we want."
He nodded decisively, the kind of man used to being obeyed. She knew that look, that stance, that moment when the choice was made. She had seen her father play this role a hundred times: the charismatic leader, powerful, strong, ruthless but never quite cruel. "I thought we could use this as a base for storage, but it is compromised. Let us go. They will not take our prize so easily."
"The girl will make a good hostage."
"You believe so? I do not believe that anyone preoccupies themselves over her." He turned to Rose and, for the first time, spoke in the Standard she knew. "Does any person care for you? Will any person pay a ransom for your rescue?"
Was it fear that made her tremble convulsively? She snorfled and hiccuped as she tried to choke down her sobs. Never let them see you cry. Never let them see how unattractive you are. How scared you are.
Beautiful people were less likely to die.
He gestured with the scatter gun, the universal sign: get up. She got up, shakily, followed them down a short wooden ladder into a low tunnel weeping dirt, hewn out of rock and shored up by a brace work of boards nailed together and old rebar tied tightly with wire. Down here they paused, she crouching behind the fearsome woman while above she heard the man moving things before he climbed back down into the tunnel and levered the tile into place. The woman spoke a command to make a hazy beam of light shine from her cap.
Rose blinked down through menus, seeking information on San Lorenzo. It ran across the lower portion of the sim-screen as the man poked her in the back with his gun.
Miocene sedimentary formations… salt domes.. the entire San Lorenzo site is a great mound in itself, largely artificial in construction.
"Andale," he said.
The screen read: Move now. Imperative!
They crawled until her hands were scraped raw and her knees were scuffed, reddened, and bleeding in spots. Neither of them spoke again, and she dared not speak until spoken to. Not soon enough, gray light filtered in. They pushed out through undergrowth into a ravine where a pair of young people waited, their faces concealed by bandannas tied across nose and mouth, their bodies rendered shapeless by loose tunics worn over baggy trousers. They each carried a rifle, the wood stock pitted and the curved magazine scarred but otherwise a weapon well oiled and clean. The man spoke to them so softly that Rose could not hear him, and as she and her captors hiked away, she glanced back to see the other pair disappear into the tunnel.
They followed the rugged ground of the ravine through dry grass and scrub and past stands of trees on the ridgeline above, Rose stumbling but never getting a hand up from her captors. The sun stood at zenith, so hot and dry beating down on them that she began to think she was going to faint, but they finally stopped under the shade of a ceiba and she was allowed to drink from a jug of water stashed there. The ceramic had kept the water lukewarm, although it stank of chlorine. Probably she would get some awful stomach parasite, and the runs, like the diamond smuggler had in Desert Storm, but she knew she had to drink or she would expire of heat exhaustion just like the secondary villain (the stupid, greedy one) had in Knight in the Jungle, despite the efforts of Monseigneur Knight to save him from his own shortsighted planning.
The man had brought Doctor Baby Jesus with him, bound against his body in a sling fashioned from several bandannas so that his hands remained free to hold the scatter gun. The bland doll face stared out at her, eyes unblinking, voice silent. As her captors drank, they talked, and Rose followed the conversation on the screen that was, of course, invisible to them.
"We have to fight them," he said wearily.
"I knew others would be after the same thing," she said. "Bandits. Profiteers. Technology pirates."
He chuckled. "And we are not, Esperanza? We are better?"
"Of course we are better. We want justice."
"So it may be, but profit makes justice sweeter. It has been a long fight."
Distant pops, like champagne uncorked in a faraway room heard down a long hall, made the birds fall silent.
"Trouble," Esperanza said.
Rose had hoped they might forget her if she hung back, pretending not to be there, but although Esperanza bolted out at a jog, the man gestured with his gun for Rose to fall in behind his comrade while he took up the rear. The pops sounded intermittently, and as they wound their way back through jungle, she tried to get her bearings but could make no sense of their position. After a while, they hunkered down where the jungle broke away into the grassy clearing she had seen before, the Zona, but now a running battle unfolded across it, figures running or crouching, sprinting and rolling. A single small-craft open cargo hover veered from side to side as the person remote-controlling it-was that him in the technician's coveralls? — tried to avoid getting shot. All the cattle were gone, scared away by the firefight, but there were prisoners, a stumbling herd of them looking remarkably like Akvir and the other Sunseekers, shrieking and wailing as they were forced at gunpoint to jog across the Zona. The nesh-reenactments had spun into life; from this angle and distance she caught flashes, a jaguar skin draped over a man's shoulders as a cape, a sneering baby, a gaggle of priests dressed in loincloths and feather headdresses.
The firefight streamed across the meadow so like one of her dad's acties that it was uncanny. Unreal. Shots spat out from the circling jungle, from behind low mounds. A man in technician's coveralls-not the one controlling the cargo hover-toppled, tumbled, and lay twitching on the ground. She couldn't tell who was shooting at whom, only that Yah-noo was limping and Zeno-bia's shift was torn, revealing her pale, voluptuous body, and Akvir was doubled over as though he had been kicked in the stomach, by force or by fear. She didn't see Eleanor or the woman in business clothes. A riot cannon boomed. Sparks flashed fitfully in the air, showering down over treetops. It boomed again, closer, and she flattened herself on the ground, shielding her face and ears. Esperanza shouted right behind her, but without her eyes open she couldn't see the sim-screen. A roaring blast of heat pulsed across her back as, in the distance, people screamed.
Now the cavalry would ride in.
The screams cut off, leaving a silence that was worse than pain. She could not even hear any birds. The jungle was hushed. A footfall scuffed the ground beside her just before a cold barrel poked her in the back.
"Get up," said the man.
She staggered as she got to her feet. No hand steadied her, so she stumbled along in front of him as he strode out into the Zona. Esperanza had vanished.
The cargo hover was tilted sideways, nose up, stern rammed into the ground so hard that it had carved a gash in the dirt. Bugs swarmed in the upturned soil. The technician still clutched the remote, but he was quite still. A youth wearing trousers, sneakers, and no shirt stood splay-legged over the dead man. The boy's mouth and nose were concealed by a bandanna, black hair mostly caught under a knit cap pushed crookedly up on his head. He had the skinny frame of a teenager who hasn't eaten enough, each rib showing, but his stance was cocky, even arrogant. He stared at Rose as she approached. Her sim-screen had gone down, and his gaze on her was so like the pinprick of a laser sight, targeting its next victim, that she was afraid to blink. He said something to the man, who replied, but she couldn't understand them.
The Sunseekers lay flat on their stomachs on the ground a short ways away, hands behind their heads. Three more bandanna-wearing men waited with their ancient rifles and one shotgun held ready as six newcomers jogged toward them across the clearing, but the newcomers paid no attention to the prisoners. Like the bugs in moist dirt, they swarmed the hover.
"March," said the commander, gesturing with his scatter gun.
No one complained as their captors prodded the Sunseekers upright and started them walking, but not back the way they had come.
Akvir sidled up beside Rose. "Where'd you go? What's going on?"
The boy slammed him upside the head with the butt of the rifle. Akvir screamed, stumbled, and Rose grabbed his arm before he could fall.
"Keep going," she whispered harshly. "They killed some of those people."
The youth stepped up, ready to hit her as well, but when she turned to stare at him defiantly, he seemed for the first time really to see the blemish that stained her face. She actually saw him take it in, the widening of the eyes, and heard him murmur a curse, or blessing. She had seen so many people react to her face that she could read their expressions instantly now. He stepped back, let her help up Akvir, and moved on. "No talking," said the commander. "No talking." No one talked. Soon enough they passed into such shelter as the jungle afforded, but shade gave little respite. They walked on and on, mostly downhill or into, out of, and along the little ravines, sweating, crying silently, holding hands, those who dared, staggering as the heat drained them dry. After forever, they were shepherded brusquely into a straggle of small houses with sawed plank walls and thatched roofs strung alongside a tributary river brown with silt, banks densely grown with vegetation. An ancient paved road that was losing the battle to cracks and weeds linked the buildings. Someone still drove on it: at least four frogs caught while crossing the road had been flattened by tires and their carcasses desiccated by the blast of the sun into cartoon shapes. Half covered by vines, an antique, rusting alcoline pickup truck listed awkwardly, two tires missing. Three of the houses had sprouted incongruous satellite dishes on their roofs, curved shadows looming over scratching chickens and the ever present dogs. A few little children stared at them from open doorways, but otherwise the hamlet seemed empty.
A single, squat building constructed of cement rebar anchored the line of habitation. It had a single door, through which they were herded to find themselves in a dimly lit and radically old-fashioned Kristie-Anne church.
A row of warped folding chairs faced the altar and a large cross on which hung a statue of a twisted and agonized man, crowned with a twisting halo of plastic thorns. None of the chairs sat true with all four legs equally on the floor, but she couldn't tell if the chairs were warped or if the concrete floor was uneven. It was certainly cracked with age, stained with moisture, but swept scrupulously clean. A bent, elderly woman wearing a black dress and black shawl stood by the cross, dusting the statue's feet, which were, gruesomely, pierced by nails and weeping painted blood.
The old woman hobbled over to them, calling out a hosanna of praise when the commander deposited Doctor Baby Jesus into her arms. As the Sunseekers sank down onto the chairs, dejected, frightened, and exhausted, the caretaker cheerfully placed the baby doll up on the altar and fussed over it, straightening its lacy skirts, positioning the plump arms, dusting each sausagelike finger.
"What kind of place is this?" whispered Yah-noo. "I didn't know anyone lived like this anymore. Why don't they go to the cities and get a job?"
"Maybe it's not that easy," muttered Rose, but no one was listening to her.
The commander was pacing out the perimeter of the church, but at Rose's words he circled back to stand before them. "You don't talk. You don't fight. We don't kill you."
Zenobia jumped up from the chair she had commandeered. "Do you know who we are?" Her coiffure had come undone, the careful sculpture of bleached hair all in disarray over her shoulders, strands swinging in front of her pale eyes. "We're important people! They'll be looking for us! You can't just-! You can't just-!"
He hit her across the face, and she shrieked, as much in outrage and fear as in pain, remembered her torn clothing, and sank to the ground moaning and wailing.
"I know who you are. I know what you are. The great lost, who have nothing to want because you have everything. So you circle the world, most brave of you, I think, while the corporation gets free publicity for their new technology. Very expensive, such technology. Research and development takes years, and years longer to earn back the work put into it. Why would I be here if I didn't know who you are and what you have with you?"
"What do you want from us?" asked Akvir bravely, dark chin quivering, although he glanced anxiously at the young toughs waiting by the door. For all that he was their leader, he was scarcely older than these teens. Behind, the old woman grabbed
Doctor Baby Jesus and vanished with the doll into the shadows to the right of the altar.
The commander smiled. "The solar array, of course. That's what that other group wanted as well, but I expect they were only criminals."
"You'll never get away with this!" cried Zenobia as she clutched her ragged shift against her.
The commander lifted his chin, indicating Rose. He had seen. "You don't think so either, muchacha?"
"No," she whispered, embarrassed. Afraid. But he hadn't killed her because she was blemished. Maybe that meant she had, in his eyes, a kind of immunity. "I mean, yes. You probably won't get away with it. I don't know how you can escape surveillance and a corporate investigation. Even if the Constabulary can't find you, Surbrent-Xia's agents will hunt you down in the end, I guess." She finished passionately. "It's just that I hate that line!"
"That line?" He shrugged, not understanding her idiom.
"That line. That phrase. 'You'll never get away with this.' It's such a clichй."
"Oh! Oh! Oh! You-you-you-defect!" Zenobia raked at her with those lovely, long tricolor fingernails, but Rose twisted away, catching only the tip of one finger along her shoulder before Akvir grabbed Zenobia by the shoulders and dragged her back, but Zenobia was at least his height and certainly as heavy. Chairs tipped over; the Sunseekers screamed and scattered as the toughs took the opening to charge in and beat indiscriminately. Yah-noo ran for the door but was pulled down before he got there. What envy or frustration fueled the anger of their captors? Poverty? Abandonment? Political grievance? She didn't know, but sliding up against one wall she saw her chance: an open path to the altar.
She sprinted, saw a curtained opening, and tumbled through as shouts rang out behind her, but the ground fell out beneath her feet and she tripped down three weathered, cracked wooden steps and fell hard on her knees in the center of a tiny room whose only light came from a flickering fluorescent fixture so old that it looked positively prehistoric, a relic from the Stone Age.
A cot, a bench, a small table with a single burner gas stove.
A discolored chest with a painted lid depicting faded flowers and butterflies, once bright. The startled caretaker, who was standing at the table tinkering with Doctor Baby Jesus, turned around, holding a screwdriver in one hand. A chipped porcelain sink was shoved up against the wall opposite the curtain, flanked by a shelf-a wood plank set across concrete blocks-laden with bright red-and-blue plastic dishes: a stack of plates, bowls, and three cups. There was no other door. It was a blind alley.
The light alternately buzzed and whined as it flickered. It might snap off at any moment, leaving them in darkness as, behind, the sound of screams, sobs, and broken pleas carried in past the woven curtain.
What if the light went out? Rose bit a hand, stifling a scream. She hadn't been in darkness for months.
This was how the night-bound lived, shrouded in twilight. Or at least that's what Akvir said. That's what they were escaping.
Saying nothing, the old woman closed up the back of Doctor Baby Jesus and dropped the screwdriver into a pocket in her faded skirt. She examined Rose as might a clinician, scrutinizing her faults and blemishes. Rose stared back as tears welled in her eyes and spilled because of the pain in her knees, but she didn't cry out. She kept biting her hand. Maybe, possibly, they hadn't noticed her run in here. Maybe.
In this drawn-out pause, the shadowy depths of the tiny chamber came slowly clear, walls revealed, holding a few treasures: a photo of Doctor Baby Jesus stuck to one wall next to a larger photo showing a small girl lying in a sick bed clutching the doll itself, or a different doll that looked exactly the same. A cross with a man nailed to it, a far smaller version of the one in the church, was affixed to the wall above the cot. Half the wall between shelf and corner was taken up by a huge, gaudy low-tech publicity poster. Its 3-D and sense-sound properties were obviously long since defunct, but the depth-enhanced color images still dazzled, even in such a dim room.
Especially in such a dim room.
Her father's face stared at her, bearing the famous ironic, iconic half smile from the role that had made him famous across ten star systems: the ill-fated romantic lead in Empire of Grass. He had ripped a hole in the heart of the universe-handsome, commanding, sensitive, strong, driven, passionate. Doomed but never defeated. Glorious. Blazing.
"Daddy," she whimpered, staring up at him. He would save her, if he knew. She blinked hard. The sim-screen wavered and, after a snowy pause, snapped into clear focus.
The curtain swept aside and the commander clattered down the three wooden steps. One creaked at his weight. He slid the barrel up her spine and allowed it to rest against her right shoulder blade.
"Ya lo veo!" cried the old woman, looking from Rose to the poster and back to Rose. She began to talk rapidly, gesticulating. When the commander said nothing, did not even move his gun from against Rose's back, she clucked like a hen shooing feckless chicks out of the way and scurried over to take Rose's hands in hers.
"Su padre? Si, menina?" Your father? Yes?
Then she turned on him again with a flood of scolding. The rapid-fire lecture continued as the commander slowly backed up the stairs like a man retreating from a rabid dog.
"What hind of fool are you, Marcos, not to recognize this girl as the child of El Sol? Have you no hind of intelligence in your grand organization, that it comes to an imprisoned old woman like me-" She spoke so quickly that the translation program had trouble keeping up. "… que ve las telenovelas y los canales de chismes… who watches the soap operas and the channels of gossip [alternate option] entertainment channels to tell you that you should have known that more people would be on that ship than the children of businessmen?"
The old woman finished with a dignified glare at her compatriot. "This girl will not be harmed."
"That one?" He indicated the actor, then Rose. "This child? With the marked face? How is it possible? She carries this blot." He touched his own cheek, as if in echo of the stain on hers. "The children of the rich do not have these things."
"God's will is not ours to question," she answered.
He shrugged the strap of his scatter gun to settle it more comfortably on his shoulders. "Look at her. Even to look past the mark, she is not so handsome as El Sol."
"No one is as handsome as my father," retorted Rose fiercely, although it was difficult to focus on the poster since the image blended with the words scrolling across the bottom of her sim-screen.
They both looked at her.
"Ah." Seсora Maria waved a hand in front of Rose's face. Her seamed and spotted palm cut back and forth through the sim-screen. Swallowing bile, reeling from the disrupted image, Rose blinked off the screen.
"Imbйcil! Que estabas pensando? Esta niсa, de semejante familial For supuesto que lleva implantada la pantalla de simula-cion. Ahora ya ha entendido cada palabra que has dicho, tu y los ostros brutos!"
Without effort, she turned her anger off, as with a switch, and presented a kindly face to Rose, speaking Standard. "For favor, no use the seem… What it is you call this thing?"
The seсora looked up at the commander and let loose such a stream of invective that he shrank back against the curtain momentarily, but only to gather strength before he began arguing with her. Their voices filled the chamber; Rose covered her ears with her hands. Mercifully, the itching had subsided completely. She dared not blink the screen back on, so she cowered between them as they argued fiercely over her head. One of the young toughs stuck his head in but retreated as the seсora turned her scolding on him.
Through it all, her father watched, half amused, half ready to take action, but frozen. It was only his image, and his image could not help her.
In the church, the screaming had subsided and now Rose heard whimpering and weeping as orders were given.
"But where-!" The slap of a gun against flesh was followed by a bruised yelp, a gasp, a sob, a curse-four different voices.
Shuffling, sobs, a crack of laughter from one of the guards; these noises receded until they were lost to her ears. The Sun-seekers had been taken away.
"Are you going to kill them?" she whispered.
They broke off their argument, the commander frowning at her, the seсora sighing.
"We no kill-we do not kill." The seсora spoke deliberately, careful over her choice of words. "They bring us better money if the parents buy them from us."
"But kidnappers always get caught in the end."
The commander laughed. "Fatalism is the only rational world-view," he agreed.
"In the stories, it may be so, that these ones are always caught," continued the seсora. "We take a lesson, a borrowing, from our own history, but this thing called ransom we use for a different purpose than the ones who stole the children in the old days."
"What purpose?" Rose demanded. She had gone beyond worrying about cliches. "I see the poverty you live in. Are you revolting against the inequality of League economics? Is this a protest? Will you use the array to help poor people?"
The commander's sarcastic laugh humiliated her, but the seсora smiled in such a gentle, world-weary way that Rose suddenly felt lower than a worm.
"Hija, I am the inventor of one of the protocols used in this solar array that powers the ship you children voyage on. These protocols were stolen from me and my company by operatives of Surbrent-Xia. In much this same way as we steal it back, but perhaps not with such drama." She gestured toward the poster and the stunningly handsome blond man who stared out at them, promising dreams, justice, excitement, violence, and fulfillment. "No beautiful hero comes to save me. The law listens not to my protests. Surbrent-Xia falsifies their trail. They lay certain traps for me, and so the corporation and patent laws convict me, and I am dropped into the prison. There I sit many years while they profit from what I helped create. All these years I plot my revenge, just like in this story, The Count of Monte Cristo, no? Was not your father starring in this role a few years ago? So now we have the array in our hands. I leave-have left-markers in my work. Like this stain upon your cheek, those markers identify what is mine. With these markers, no one can mistake it otherwise. With this proof-"
"And the children to draw attention to us," added Marcos.
"— we will get attention to this matter."
"But you'll be prosecuted for kidnapping!"
"Perhaps. If we get publicity, if a light is shined onto these criminal actions made by Surbrent-Xia ten years ago, then we are protected by exposing them. Do you see? Surbrent-Xia 'got away with it'-they say this in the telenovelas and the acties, do they not? — they got away with it last time because it was hushed."
"They kept it quiet," said Marcos. "No one knew what they had done."
"But why did you have everyone beat up? What did Akvir and Zenobia and Yah-noo and the others have to do with anything or what anyone did ten years ago?"
The old woman nodded, taking the question without defensive-ness. She seemed a logical soul, not an emotional revolutionary at all. "We have not harmed them, only bruised them. It is in answer to-it is in-"
"— retaliation-" said Marcos.
"That is right. Excuse my speech. I have been many years in isolation on these false charges. The world, and my enemies, did not play nice with my relatives in the old days. We are not the only ones who play hardball. An eye for an eye."
"But they're innocent!"
"They are all the children of shareholders. That is why they come to ride on the beautiful ship, to be made much of. You do not know this?"
"I just thought-" She faltered, knowing how unbelievably stupid anything she said now would sound.
I didn't know.
Hadn't her father talked and talked and talked about the Sun-seekers, how very sunny and fashionable they were? Hadn't she run away to get his attention, so he would be surprised she had gotten into some group so very jet, so very now, even with her disfigurement?
"They are lucky you came to them," continued the seсora. "Of what interest are the children of shareholders, except to themselves and their parents and their rivals? But you are the child of El Sol. When you came aboard, everyone is watching."
"Good publicity is good advertising," added Marcos sardonically. "This is what we all want."
Right now, she just wanted her daddy.
"It still doesn't seem right." They hadn't bitten her yet. They hadn't bruised her, not more than incidentally. "To hurt them. They aren't bad, just-" Just pointless. "And what about Eleanor? I mean, the other ones."
"The other ones?" asked Seсora Maria.
"The competition," said Marcos. "We don't have a positive ID on them yet, but I presume they are working for Horn Enterprises. Horn wants the array, too."
"Horn filed a wrongful use claim against Surbrent-Xia for theft of their cell transduction protocol."
"Which came to nothing. But they had a grievance, too, and plenty of markets out-system who won't ask too many questions about whether they have patent rights. This is so much useless speculation, now. We got the array. They did not."
How could they analyze the day's nasty work so dispassionately, as though it were the script of an actie in development?
"You killed two men! Eleanor was really nice to me!" Another second and she would be blubbering, but she held it in, sniffing hard, choking down the lump in her throat.
"We killed no one," said Marcos angrily. "Just two hurt, in the Zona, but they are only stunned."
"There was blood."
"There is always blood. This other, this Eleanor-no se. There was a hover that flew off once they saw they had lost."
"What about me?"
Seсora Maria gestured.
Rose eased up to her feet, wincing with pain as her knees bent. "Ow."
"We should let this pauvre go home. She can use the call-up in Anselmo's house."
"The Constabulary will come," said Rose.
"Not soon," said Marcos. "Your flight plan registers a stop at San Lorenzo to visit the museum. They do not know otherwise. They will not be expecting you to leave for some hours. We have time."
"Andale," said Seсora Maria.
Marcos shrugged, sighed, and motioned with his gun for Rose to follow him. Perhaps he wasn't the commander after all, or perhaps he was just behaving as men ought-as her mother used to say: respectful toward the etsana, the grandmother, of his tribe.
The house belonging to Anselmo sat riverside, one door facing the road and a second overlooking the bank. A small receiver dish tilted precariously on the roof, fastened to the topmost beam. They had to walk up two steps made of stacked concrete blocks to get onto the elevated wood floor inside. Like the entire village, the little one-room hut was untenanted, except for a burlap cot without bedding, a table, and a bright yellow molded plastic bench pitted with pinprick holes. An old-fashioned all-in-one sat closed up on the table. Looking out through the other door, Rose watched as a loose branch drifted past, snagging on a tree, while Marcos powered up the box and tilted up its view screen.
"Where did you take the others?" she asked. The driftwood tugged loose from its trap and spun away down the river.
He mulled over the controls, not looking up at her, although a hand remained cupped over the scatter gun's readouts. "They will be safe." He spoke to the box in his own language. Lights winked on the console. "Here. You may enter a number. Use the keypad."
She had a priority imavision code, of course, that identified her immediately to her father's secretary since her father never ever took incoming calls personally.
A whir. A beep.
"One moment, Miss Rose. Putting you through."
The secretary did not turn on his own imavision. Although the screen remained blank, Marcos stepped away and turned sideways to give her privacy and to keep an eye out the door. But even so he started when that famous golden voice spoke across the net in a tone richly affectionate and so precisely intimate, using the pet name for her that no other dared speak.
"I didn't expect you to call." He hadn't turned on the imavision. Maybe he was getting dressed or entertaining visitors. Maybe today he just didn't want to see the blemish on her face. "It's been so long since we talked. I've missed your voice so much, here at home. All your little quiet noises in the background. It seems so empty here without you puttering around.
How are you? Are you having fun up there in the eternal sunshine?"
"N-n-no, Daddy. I'm just-" She faltered, glancing toward Marcos, who still stared out the door at the sluggish river.
"You should be in-" A pause. A voice murmured in the background. "San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. Some kind of a museum there, I see. Olmec civilization. Pride of the collection is a large stone head! What will you children think of next!"
"D-daddy." She wiped away a tear with the back of her hand.
"Are you crying, little mouse?"
"Daddy, I'm in trouble."
"Rosie, you have a contraceptive implant-"
"No, Daddy. No. I'm in trouble. Please come get me."
"Come get you?"
The screen flashed, a nova of light that spread, swirled with color, coalesced, and formed into an image of his face. The most famous face in the universe, so people said.
He looked put out.
"Come get you?" he repeated, as though she just told him he had turned purple. "I have three interviews today to support the opening of Judge Not. The ratings aren't as strong as they need to be. After this a meeting with the Fodera-Euler Consortium to sign the contract for the Alpha Trek 3-D."
He glanced back over his shoulder, speaking to a person not within the imavision's range. "What's the time frame?"
"Ten days," said his secretary, off screen.
"And the Consortium wants to begin recording-?"
He turned his brilliant smile on her. He had the most glorious blue eyes, warming as he stared intently at her through the ima-vision, as though he were really right by her side, comforting her infant sobs on a stormy night. He didn't even flinch, seeing her blemished face in such a close-up. "Listen, Rosie. You hang in there for ten more days and I'll come get you. We'll make the most of it, father and daughter reunited, that kind of thing. Let Joseph know when your first landfall comes once the ten days are up. I'll be there to meet you. No need to mention you called now and arranged it in advance. Pretend you're surprised to see me."
"Are you in danger of being killed?"
Marcos had not shifted position, nor his grip on the scatter gun. "No. I don't think so, but-"
"Rosie. Mouse." His tone softened, lowered. "You know I will never let you down. But as long as your life or health isn't in danger, it can't be done for ten days. I made an arrangement with Surbrent-Xia that you would stick with the Sunseekers for three months. You weren't to know, but I trust you can see how important it is that I fulfill my contracts. You know how tight money is these days-"
"You 'made an arrangement' with Surbrent-Xia! I thought I ran away!"
"You did. You did. Fortunately, you picked the right place to run away to."
"But I want to come home, Daddy. Now. I need to. You don't understand-"
"It can't be done. If I break the contract, we get nothing. Just ten more days."
She hated that tone. "But, Daddy, the-the-" What was Marcos going to do? Shoot her with a nonlethal weapon while her father could see and hear? "I am in danger. An awful thing happened. We landed at San Lorenzo and then we were attacked by corporate raiders who wanted the solar array. And then we were caught in the cross fire when another group who had their technology stolen stole it back. I thought they were bandits, first, but it's all some kind of corporate espionage that goes back for years and years, like they're always stealing things, bits or patents from each other and stealing them back and selling them out-system-"
"Joseph! Joseph!" He turned away from her, showing his profile. Always aware of the camera's eye, he never lifted his chin because it distorted the angle of his nose. "Did you get that down? We need more information! This could be a gold mine if we get it into development first. I see it as a serial. A family saga about ruthless technology pirates!" His beautiful face loomed again, grinning at her. "What a good girl, Rosie! I knew I could count on you! Is there someone there I can talk to, who would be interested in a contract? Who has inside information?"
"A contract!" She recoiled from the table, sure she hadn't heard him right.
Marcos was already pushing past her. "What kind of contract? Is there money? Is there publicity? We'll need leverage…" He leaned down in front of the view screen, introduced himself, and began bargaining.
"Love you, Rosie! Now, M. Marcos. First we'll need an all-hours contact number-"
Marcos ignored her, and her father had forgotten her. Amazingly, Marcos didn't even object, or seem to notice, as Rose left the hut and trudged down the dirt street back to the church, her only companions half a dozen chickens and two mangy dogs who circled warily, darting in to sniff at her heels until she kicked one. Yelping, they raced away.
The church remained empty, abandoned, six chairs overturned and one drying bloodstain, nothing serious.
Seсora Maria had departed from the little back chamber, but she had left Doctor Baby Jesus sitting upright on the shelf, plump arms spread in a welcoming gesture as Rose halted in front of him.
"I speak English," said Rose, her voice choked. Tears spilled, but she fought against them. "I need help."
A whirr. A squeal.
"Please wait while I connect you."
A different voice, this time. A woman. "Please state your location and need. I am M. Maldonado, medical technician. I am here to help you."
"Are you there?" The voice deepened with concern.
She found her voice, lost beneath the streaming tears. "I just need your help. Can you connect me to my brother? His name is Anton Mikhailov. He's an advocate at-uh-" She traced down through her sim-screen. "This is his priority number."
"Are you in danger?"
"No. No. Kind of. Nobody's going to kill me. But I'm lost- I'm sorry. I know this isn't what you're here for. I know this isn't important. You must get thousands of life-and-death calls every hour."
The woman made a sound, like a swallowed chuckle. "This system was defunct twenty years ago, but we keep a few personnel on-line because of people who have no other access. It's all right. It's all right. What's your name?"
"Please stay on the line, Rose. I'll get a channel to your brother. If you want to talk, just say something. I'm here listening."
She had nothing to say. She fidgeted anxiously, swallowing compulsively, each time hoping to consume the lump that constricted her throat.
Dull, officious Anton, who worked as an advocate for disabled or troubled children or some other equally worthy and boring vocation. He had left the family fourteen years before, when she was only a baby. He had been raised by someone else, by traitors, thieves, defectives. He had rarely visited his parents and then only on supervised visitations, because the ones who had stolen him had poisoned his mind. Yet he always wrote to her four times a year on the quarter, chatty notes detailing the obscenely tedious details of his life. Each note repeated at the end the same tired cliche: Call me any time, Rosie. Any time.
She didn't really know him. He could as well have been a stranger. Why should he do anything for her if her father didn't even care enough to come when she asked? Wasn't this the only time she had ever asked anything of her father?
All these years she had never asked.
"Patching you through," said helpful M. Maldonado. "M. Mikhailov, I'll remain on stepped-back link if you need me."
"Thank you. Rose?" Anton had a reedy tenor, rising querulously. She didn't know him well enough to know if he was surprised, annoyed, or pleased.
"Anton, it's Rose."
I'm Rose, she thought, half astonished, hearing her own voice speak her own name: a small, isolated voice, lost in the dim room, in the old church, in the forgotten village, in the green jungle, on the common earth beneath clouds that covered the all-seeing eye of the sun. It was amazing anyone could hear her at all. She sobbed, choking on it, so it came out sounding halfway between a cough and a sneeze. She could barely squeeze out words.
"Please, come get me."
"Of course, Rose. Right away. Where are you?"
"I'm all alone."
The buzz of the fluorescent lamp accompanied her other companion: the solitude, not even a mouse or a roach. The world had emptied out around her. For an instant, she thought the connection had failed until Doctor Baby Jesus whirred and Anton spoke again, an odd tone in his suddenly very even, level all-on-the-same-note voice.
"Did you call Dad?"
She sobbed. She could get no word past her throat, no comprehensible sound, only this wrenching, gasping, ugly sound.
The baby doctor sighed with Anton's voice. "He'll never love you, Rosie. Never. He can't love anyone but himself."
Fury made her articulate. "He does love me. He says so."
"Love is just another commodity to him. Maybe you get something, but there's always a price to be paid. I'm so sorry. Evdi and Yana and I love you-"
"He does love me."
"I'll come get you. Stay where you are, Rosie. I'll come. Will you stay? Will you be there? Don't go running off anywhere? You're not going to change your mind and follow those damn Sunseekers?"
"But he doesn't want me." She began to sob again, torn in two. She heard Anton reply, faintly, only maybe his voice wasn't any fainter and it was just her own weeping that drowned him.
"I'm coming, Rosie. Just tell me where you are."
She couldn't speak. She could only cry as their voices filtered through the creaky stutter of the baby doll's speaker.
"M. Mikhailov, I'm attempting to triangulate, but the intercessor has been partially disabled so I can't get a lock on your sister's position."
"Do you have a position on the Sunseekers?"
"That ship with the new solar array technology. That grotesque advertising ploy-'you need never set foot in darkness again,' something like that. I can't remember their idiot slogan.
Maybe in your line of work you don't have to keep up on the gossip rags-"
"Oh!" said the voice of M. Maldonado. "Isn't that the ship that the actor Vasil Veselov's daughter ran away to-
"That one," interrupted Anton. "Do you have any way to get a fix on it? Here, let me see, they've got a public relations site that tracks- Yes. Here it is. I've got it touched down in a muni-cipio called San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan."
"I'll get all transport information for that region, but if you're in-ah-London, it will take you at least eighteen hours with the most efficient connections, including ground transport or hov-ercab."
"I have access to a private 'car. Rose. Rose?"
"I'm here." Amazing how tiny and mouselike her voice sounded, barely audible, the merest squeak.
"Rose, now listen. It says here there's a little museum in San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan. Do you know where that is? Can you get there and wait there?"
Of course, maybe it wasn't more than open welts sown with salt, discovering the truth: her father had wanted her with the Sunseekers all along. Had manipulated her to get her there. Sur-brent-Xia had paid him to get his daughter onto the ship in the most publicly scandalous way possible. He had set it all up, used her to get the money and the publicity.
"Daddy doesn't want me," she said, voice all liquid as the horrible truth flooded over her, soaking her to the bones.
"I know, Rosie. But I love you. I'm coming. Just tell me where you are. Tell me if you can get to the museum."
"Okay," she said, to say something, because she had forgotten what words meant. A chasm gaped; she knelt on the edge, scrabbling not to tumble into the awful yawning void. What would she do now, if no one wanted her? Why would anyone want her anyway? Blemished, disfigured, stained. Ugly.
"Okay," he repeated, sounding a little annoyed, but maybe he was just worried.
Maybe he was actually worried about her. The notion shocked her into paying attention.
"Okay," he repeated. "I will be there in no less than six hours. You must wait by the museum. Don't go off with the Sunseekers, Rosie. I will meet you there, no matter what. Okay?"
Doctor Baby Jesus fell silent, having done his work. The fluorescent light flickered. A roach scuttled across the shelf, and froze, sensing her shadow. Her tears stained the concrete floor, speckles of moisture evaporating around her feet. She just stood there, stunned, unable to think or act. She couldn't even remember what she had agreed to. The light hummed. The roach vanished under the safety of the baby doll's lacy robe.
The young voice, male and bossy, spoke perfectly indigenous Standard.
"Hey! You in here, girl?" The young shirtless tough who had hit Akvir upside the head and cursed at him in Spanish pushed aside the curtain and ducked in. "There you are. I'm taking you back to the village."
"The village?" she echoed stupidly, staring at the rifle he held. Staring at him. He had pulled the bandanna down and the ski mask off, revealing a pleasant face marred only by the half-cocked smirk on his lips. He sounded just like one of her friends from home, except for the Western Hemisphere flatness of his accent.
"The village," he agreed, rolling his eyes. He did not threaten her with the gun. "Those Sunseeker people, they're all there, waiting to get picked up. You're supposed to go with them. We got to go, pronto. You know. Fast."
"That's by the museum, isn't it?"
"Si," he said, eyes squinted as he examined her. "You okay?"
She wiped her cheeks. Maybe the dim light hid the messy cry.
"We got to go," he repeated, shifting his feet, dancing up two steps and pressing the curtain aside with his rifle as he glanced out into the church. "It'll be dark soon. They got some 'cars coming in to get all of you out of here before sunset. You got to get out before sunset, right?"
"The museum," she said. "Okay. Is it far?"
"Four or five kilometers. Not far. But we got to go now."
She nodded like a marionette, moving to the strings pulled by someone else. She got her feet to move, one before the next, and soon enough as they came out of the church she found her legs worked pretty well, just moving along like a normal person's legs would, nothing to it. A group of little boys played soccer along the dirt track of the hamlet, shouting and laughing as the ball rolled toward the river but was captured just in time. They turned off into the ragged forest growth before they passed the house where she had talked to her father; she saw no sign of Marcos except the flash of the ceramic satellite dish wired to the roof.
The boy walked in front of her. He had a good stride, confident and even jaunty, and he glanced back at intervals to make sure she hadn't fallen behind or to warn her about an overhanging branch and, once, a snake that some earlier passerby had crushed with repeated blows. It had bright bands on what she could see of its body, a colorful, beautiful creature. Dead now. She sweated, but he had a canteen that he shared with her-not water but a sticky sweet orange drink. A rain shower passed over them, dense but brief, to leave a cooling haze in its wake. All the time they walked, he kept the big plateau to their left, although they did not ascend its slopes but rather cut around them along a maze of dirt trails.
"Who was that woman?" she asked after a while.
"My great-aunt? She's some kind of crazy inventor, a genius, but she got into trouble with corporate politics. She was in prison for a long time, so I never saw her but I heard all about her. She was a real, uh, cabrona. Now maybe she is more nice."
Rose could think of nothing to say to this; in a way, she was surprised at herself for asking anything at all. Just keeping track of her feet striking the dirt path one after the other and all over again amazed her, the steady rhythm, the cushioning earth, the leaf litter.
The forest opened into a milpa, a field of well grown maize interspersed with manioc. A pair of teal ducks flew past. When they cut around the edge of the field they saw a stork feeding at an oxbow of muddy water, the remains of the summer's flooding. Lowlands extended beyond, some of it marshy, birds flocking in the waters.
Another kilometer or so through a mixture of milpas and forest brought them to San Lorenzo Tenochtitlan on the shore of El Rio Chiquito. Here the houses had a more modern look; half a dozen had solar ceramic roofs. There was a fenced-off basketball court and a school with a satellite dish and a plaza with a flagpole where the Sunseekers sat in a distraught huddle on the broad concrete expanse, staring anxiously westward while a few onlookers, both adults and children, watched them watching the horizon.
It was late afternoon. The sun sank quickly toward the trees. The Ra sat forlornly on the grassy field behind the school, within sight of the old museum. Its stubby wings looked abraded, pockmarked, where the solar array had been stripped off.
"Rose!" Akvir jumped to his feet and rushed to her, his hand a warm fit on her elbow. "We thought we'd lost you!" He was flushed and sweating and a bruise purpled on his cheek, but he looked otherwise intact. He dragged her toward the others, who swarmed like bees around her, enveloping her with cries of excitement and expansive greetings. "You're the hero, Rose! They said you begged for our lives to your dad and he asked them to let us go. And they did! All because of your father! They're all fans of your father! They've all seen his shows. Can you get over it?"
She stood among them, drowned by them. All she could do was stare past their chattering faces at the boy who had led her here. He had fallen back to stand with a pair of village women, his arms crossed across his bare chest and the rifle, let loose, slung low by his butt. One of the women handed him a shirt; she seemed to be scolding him.
"Look!" screamed Zenobia, still clutching her torn clothing. "There they are! There they are!"
A pair of sleek, glossy hovercars banked around a curve in the river and leveled off by the boat dock, but after a moment during which, surely, the navigators had seen the leaping, waving, shouting Sunseekers, they nosed up the road to settle, humming, on the grassy field beside the disabled Ra. Akvir and the others jumped up and down, clapping and cheering, as the ramp of the closer 'car opened and three utility suited workers, each carrying a tool kit, walked down to the ground. They ignored the crying, laughing young people and went straight for the Ra. After about five breaths, the second 'car's ramp lowered and a woman dressed in a bright silver utility suit descended to the base where she raised both hands and beckoned for them to board.
The sun's rim touched the trees. Golden light lanced across the village, touching the half hidden bulk of the great stone head beyond the museum gates.
With a collective shout rather like the ragged cry of a wounded, trapped beast who sees escape at long last, the Sunseekers bolted for the 'car. Halfway there, Akvir paused, turned, and stared back at Rose, who had not moved.
"Aren't you coming?" he shouted. "Hurry! Hurry! They're fixing the Ra, but meanwhile we're going on. You don't want the sun to set on you, do you?"
"I'm not coming."
Everyone scrambled on board, one or two shoving in their haste to get away. Akvir glanced back at them, shifting from foot to foot, as Zenobia paused on the ramp to wave frantically at him. The sun sank below the trees.
He took two steps back, toward the hover, sliding away as they were all sliding away, following the sun. "You don't want to stay here with the night-bound? With the great lost?"
"It's too late," she said.
She had always belonged to the great lost. Maybe everyone does, each in her own way, only they don't want to admit it. Because no matter how diligently, across what distance, you seek the sun, it will never be yours. The sun shines down on each person indifferently. That is why it is the sun.
His fear of being caught by the approaching dark overcame him. He gave up on her and sprinted for the ramp; as soon as he vanished inside, it sealed up and the second hover lifted off with a huff and a wheeze and a high-pitched, earsplitting whine that set all the dogs to barking and whimpering until at last the 'car receded away over the trees, westward. The first hover remained, powering down. The technicians had lamps and instruments out to examine the scarred wings of the Ra.
Rose stared at the lines the grass made growing up in the cracks between the sections of concrete pads poured down in rectangles to make the huge plaza. The eruption of grass and weeds created a blemish across the sterility of that otherwise smooth expanse. In the village, music started up over by the museum where someone had set up a board platform in front of the fence. Guitars strummed and one took up a melody, followed by a robust tenor. A couple of older men began dancing, bootheels drumming patterns on the wood while their partners swayed in counterpoint beside them, holding the edges of their skirts.
The boy approached across the plaza, torso now decently covered by a khaki-colored long-sleeved cotton shirt that was, not surprisingly, unbuttoned halfway to the waist. He no longer carried the rifle.
"Hey, chica. No hard feelings, no? You want to dance?"
"I'm waiting for my brother," she said stoutly. "He's coming to get me. He said to wait right here, by the museum."
"Bueno," agreed the boy. "You want a cola? There's a tienda at the museum. You can wait there and drink a cola. I'll buy it for you."
Shadows drowned the village, stretched long and long across houses and grass and the concrete plaza. The transition came rapidly in the tropical zone, day to night with scarcely anything like twilight in between. She had not seen night for almost three months. Was it possible to forget what it looked like, or had she always known even as she tried to outrun it? Had she always known that it was the monster creeping up on her, ready to overtake her? The daylit gleam of the Ra's wings was already lost to theft and now its rounded nose and cylindrical body faded as shadows devoured it.
Laughter carried from the museum as a new tune started up. The smell of cooking chicken drifted on the breeze. Dogs hovered warily just beyond a stone's throw from the women grilling tortillas and shredded chicken on the upturned, heated flat bases of big canister barrels.
"You want a cola?" repeated the youth patiently. "I'll wait with you."
"I'll take a cola," she said, surprised to find that all her tears had dried. She set her back to the west and trudged with him toward the museum, where one by one lamps were lit and hung up to spill their glamour over the encroaching twilight. A woman's white dress flashed as she danced, turning beside her partner.
"Your dad's El Sol?" he asked, a little nervously. "En verdad? I mean, like, we all see all his shows. It's just amazing!"
Inside she was as hollow as a drum, but down and down as deep as the very bottom of the abyss, there was still a spark, her spark. The spark that made her Rose, no matter who anyone else was. It was something to hold on to when there was no other light. It was the only thing to hold on to.
"Yeah," she said. "That's my dad."
The sun set.