IN THE MIRROR, LAMAR GELDE LOOKED AT HIMSELF in swimming trunks. At seventy-seven, a wreck of a man. His white skin hung on a six-foot frame, muscles trim but stringy, chest thin and leathery despite daily workouts. His belly button sagged a good two inches from where it should be, and his toenails looked like ancient ivory. Grabbing his pool robe, he pulled it over his body, lashing it at the waist.

The face, at least the face, bore a semblance of dignity. The latest max-illofacial outcomes took thirty years off him, beginning with the nasolobial folds (receded) and the platysma bands wattling his neck (gone.) He peered closer: a few hairline cracks around his eyes argued for the next procedure, corrigator muscle update. He reminded himself that there was nothing ghoulish about being good-looking at his age. Everyone did it. Well, maybe seventy-seven was pushing it, but if he was going to live a long time, now was no time to start slipping.

Caitlin Quinn hailed him with a raise of her poolside drink. He made his way to her, noting that her thirty-five-year-old body still looked fit, though she had the bad taste to complain of it.

“What’ll you have?” she asked, pointing her data ring at the house.

“Seltzer and lime.”

She stranded the order at the smart wall, her smile wobbling. She’d called him here to talk about something. Anything she needed, he was the man.

As Caitlin made her way to the wet bar to retrieve their drinks, Lamar watched Rob and his son horsing around in the pool. He sighed. A nice little family scene on the surface. Underneath, nothing of the sort. Caitlin and Rob were on the outs. No doubt Caitlin was half in love with Titus Quinn, her brother-in-law, and Rob was clueless. Since they were living off Titus’s millions, Rob no longer had to worry about being fired for being forty and hopelessly out of date with savant AIs. Nope. He’d had the money to quit outright before they fired him, and now he and Caitlin had their own little middie start-up company. They should take their happiness while there was still time.

Thirteen-year-old Mateo stood on the diving board, waving at Lamar. “Back dive, uncle Lamar, watch!” He danced on the board, then launched his body, folding in a way only a cat or youngster could manage, smoothing out in time to make a decent plunge.

Lamar clapped, impressed. Mateo waved like crazy and swam the length of the pool. Despite no little envy, Lamar was proud of the kid. Handsome, motivated, respectful. Liked his “uncle.” Well, Lamar had promised to take good care of the family. Rob and Caitlin were Quinn’s only family now—they and their children, Mateo and Emily. Lamar had grown closer to them in the interval of Quinn’s absence. Nice kid, Mateo. It made Lamar wish he’d had a few of his own. But Caitlin, seated again next to him, looked unhappy. She had no idea how unhappy she had a right to be. It made him feel like shit.

She wouldn’t be in on it. How could she be? She was a middie, smart enough to tend lower-level AI’s, the savants. Same as Rob. But she’d never be a savvy, testing over 160. It wasn’t her fault, but she wasn’t up to dealing with the new world.

Mateo did a flying back somersault, landing on his butt. Rob roared with laughter, and Mateo hauled himself out of the pool, breathless but laughing anyway.

“Good kid,” Lamar said.

“I know.” Caitlin cut him a glance. “Not good enough, maybe.”

He frowned, and the conversation sagged into the waiting silence.

“We got the results. He didn’t ace the test.”

Lamar gaped at her. Didn’t ace the test? The Standard Test. Christ, the kid was the grandson of Donnel Quinn and the nephew of Titus Quinn, and he didn’t slam the Standard? He hung his head, not looking at her. Genetics. It was genetics. Mateo got his brains from Caitlin and Rob—no shame in that—but he was no savvy. Not like Lamar, or Titus. Christ almighty. A blow.

Caitlin pushed on, falsely cheerful. “He’s bright. IQ 139. He’ll be fine.”

Fine. Yes, depending on your definition. Didn’t Mateo have some big ambitions, though? Something about being a virtual enviro designer . . . well, not likely. Stanford wouldn’t take him, or Cornell. Lamar could pull some strings. But the boy didn’t have the right stuff to make it far; couldn’t do calculus in his head or understand advanced quantum theory. Time was when even the average-smart could do real science, but that time was gone.

The easy stuff had all been done, and now, talking to a middie—much less a dred—was like explaining sunrise to a pigmy.

“I’m sorry, Caitlin.”

“Of course you are.” Her voice didn’t cloak her bitterness. Lamar was a savvy.

He shifted uneasily in the pool chair. He should have been prepared for this. Mateo was thirteen, the age they gave the Standard. What was he supposed to say: Brains aren’t everything? Oh, but they were.

Mateo grabbed his towel and made his way to the adults while Rob did his pool laps.

“He doesn’t know yet,” Caitlin whispered.

“Ho, unc,” Mateo chirped.

“Ho, young man.” Lamar pasted on a smile, more rigid these days after his rhinoplasty.

Mateo took a sip of a half-finished soda, and Lamar watched him with dismay. The boy squinted against the July sun, making him look confused and wary. The spark in his eyes, that look of broad perspective, was missing.

Lamar should have seen it before. The boy was a middie, poor son of a bitch.

“Want to see a double twist?” Mateo asked, jumping up. Assured that every adult within two blocks would want to see Mateo Quinn perform dive platform feats, he raced off, heedless of Caitlin’s call not to run on the cement.

His departure left a vacuum in Lamar’s heart. What a miserable mess.

Mateo wasn’t in the club. Bad enough to leave Caitlin and Rob behind, but now Mateo? Quinn would be unhappy. Quinn would carve Lamar a new asshole.

Lamar sank into a dark place, thinking of how his little revolutionary cabal was screwing over his adopted family. Thinking of how he’d have to face Quinn for leaving Mateo behind when the world change came about.

The fact was, even Lamar didn’t want to leave him behind. He liked the boy, liked Caitlin and little Emily. For God’s sake, how could he abandon them?

The topic didn’t bear close scrutiny. It was a monstrous scheme. But if the world had to be abandoned, Lamar and his people couldn’t be blamed.

That responsibility fell upon the Tarig. They were intent on using the Rose universe as fuel and had been beta testing the concept for fully two years, if not longer. Lately the tally of vanished stars included Alpha Carinae, a rare yellow-white super giant, which people who bothered to learn their stars knew as Canopus. Few bothered. The astronomers were in a lather, of course.

Particularly since over the last three months Alpha Carinae had been preceded in death by Procyon, the lovely marquee star of Canis Minor, and 40 Eridani-B, a DA-class white dwarf. People paying attention, like Lamar and his friends, saw these vanishings as yet another hint the end was near. The stars had simply winked out. Impossible, of course. But not for the Tarig.

Nothing, really, could stop them, not for long. Lamar and company’s little plan—with the very apt name of renaissance—would hasten that act of cannibalism, after first saving a few gifted people who the Tarig might tolerate in their closed kingdom. We’ll help you burn it. Let a few of us emigrate, and we’ll show you how.

Grotesque, yes. But who else could fight the monstrous Tarig, if not equally ferocious humans? These were Lamar’s usual ruminations, forestalling the guilt that threatened to inundate his days.

But a new thought was forming. Perhaps—just perhaps—he didn’t have to leave the boy behind. Lamar Gelde might, for example, bend the rules a bit. Given his exemplary service to the new renaissance, hadn’t he earned some privileges?

Of course he’d have to face Helice, and she was fierce on the topic. But the hell with Helice, the little rat-bitch. He’d never liked her, and she wasn’t in charge from across the universe. Furthermore, Quinn would appreciate the out-of-the-box thinking. Quinn would goddamn well owe him big time.

Lamar watched Caitlin as he sipped his drink. By damn, I’m poised to do something good and decent. By damn.

Mateo was going to get his numbers changed. Caitlin was going to retest, too. Her numbers would come up strong, as well. Rob—well, no one would miss him. He was out of the equation. Lamar would have to pull off a bit of backroom manipulation, and normally such a switch could never escape the scrutiny of the mSap . . . but the thing was, he didn’t need to fool the machine sapient that ran the Standard Test. He only needed to confuse the bureaucrats for a few days. By then, it would be too late.

Lamar murmured into his drink, hardly believing what he was saying to Caitlin: “I can get you in on something. You and your family.” Now that he had said it, it filled him with a vast relief. In the midst of the coming storm, amid the colossal suffering to come, someone would have a reprieve.

Caitlin looked at him, waiting.

“I can’t tell you what it is. Something’s coming. Not a word to Rob or anybody, not even Mateo.” He noted Caitlin’s growing confusion. “It won’t matter about the test. Very soon, it won’t matter at all.”

“What are you talking about? Are they coming up with a new test?”

“No, no tests. That’s behind us now.”

She scrunched her lips in thought. “It might be behind you, Lamar, but it’s not behind us.”

He fixed her with a pointed look as Rob, draped in a towel, ambled over from his swim. “I can’t say more. Don’t push right now. We’ll talk, but privately.”

She started to protest, but he shook his head as Rob joined them.

Poor Rob. He was a dead man. It made him feel like hell to know so much, while simple people enjoyed their barbeques and swims. But he couldn’t let himself worry about Rob. He’s holding the race back. Propagating, watering down the neurons. Rob wouldn’t have a place in the future. Not like Lamar. Not like Titus Quinn. Men with the requisite IQ.

It was all based on merit.

And in the case of Mateo and Caitlin, on who you knew.

Entire and the Rose #03 - City Without End