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A Clear Signal

Mark L. Van Name

One month to the day after Jim's execution, the aliens showed up at my gym. It was a Tuesday morning, and, as usual, R.C. and I had the place to ourselves. R.C. was in the far rear corner of the large free-weight room, methodically pumping his way through a warm-up set of hack squats. I had just finished my last set of bench presses and was sitting on the bench, trying to decide whether to add an extra chest exercise or call it a day. When the three aliens came through the gym's steel door without setting off any of the alarms, we both reached into our gym bags and kept our hands on our weapons, waiting to see what would happen.

The aliens were taller and more buglike than the way they looked in the pictures and video I'd seen, and their skin was more of a sky blue than I would have guessed. As they walked closer, their legs moving more like those of a mantis than a man, I could see the clear, skintight suits they wore, the necklaces I knew from the news were translators, and the gill-like atmosphere conversion slits in the clear hoods that fit them like kids' Halloween masks of dead presidents.

They moved as a group, in a triangle. R.C. stood, his hand still in his gym bag, and took one step closer to them. The rear one nearer to him turned its head to follow his progress, while the other rear one kept its eyes on me; clearly, the leader walked in front. I liked that; I respected the alien in front for the choice, and I was glad to have an easy target. The leader was a little larger than the others, probably edging toward a full seven feet tall and almost as wide as a thin man; hitting him should not be a problem if it came to that. All four of the leader's hands were obviously empty; disks the shape and thickness of bagels and the color of the morning ocean off Key West were equally obvious in all four hands of each of his bodyguards.

R.C. tilted his head at them and raised an eyebrow. I shook my head slightly; he'd know I wouldn't do it, and he'd also know that I would back his play if he felt it had to go that way. He pulled out his gun, and immediately a low buzzing filled the room as the air between the aliens and R.C. shimmered briefly. R.C. went down fast, all six and a half feet and 280 pounds of him collapsing as if the air had gone out of him.

My hand was just clear of my gym bag. I dropped the gun onto the towels in the bag and pulled my empty hand very slowly away. Going cold inside, I asked, "Will he be okay?"

"Yes," the leader replied. "He should awaken in approximately one hour and experience almost no discomfort." His voice was as good as it had sounded on TV, an announcer's voice, deep and rich. It lacked only emotion, but that lack made it disconcerting, almost threatening.

I let out the breath I hadn't realized I had been holding since I asked the question, and I leaned back against the racked bar. The metal plates on the bar clanged from the impact, and the aliens paused; I wondered if their translators were trying to make sense of the noise. "So what can I do for you guys? From what I've read I thought you were meeting only with government leaders. I thought you weren't allowed to mingle with the rest of us."

My question seemed to catch the leader off guard, and he paused and waved his lower left arm slightly. "Yes, we are restricted. We are here . . . without official approval. We are seeking Matthew Stark. You are he?"


"You must do something for us."

I looked at R.C.'s crumpled body and knew I shouldn't say it, but if I were any good anymore at taking orders I wouldn't have ended my five years with the gang at Langley with the company version of a dishonorable discharge. "Screw you. You bypass my alarms, waltz into my gym, mess up my workout, and zap my partner; I don't have to do anything for you."

"Yes, you do. We would not have risked the negotiations with your governments if we had been able to ascertain other possibilities. You must come with us, receive your instructions, and then execute them. No other option is acceptable."

The three of them had stopped only a few feet away, and all eight of the bodyguards' hands were now pointed at me. I could feel the anger welling in me even as I fought to control it. "Sure, there are other options. One is that you and your two friends turn around, walk your skinny blue asses out of my gym, and do whatever it is that you want me to do. Or you find somebody else to do it. Try one of those options. I choose when I work, and I choose the people I work for, and I don't choose to work for you."

After a slight pause, the leader spread all four of its arms and said, "We did consider those options, but we do not believe either would lead to success. We cannot do what we need you to do. We have already tried and failed. We do not know of anyone else with your unique qualifications. And, time is increasingly precious."

"What exactly is it that you want me to do?"

"Locate James Peterson and return him to us."

I stood up without realizing I was going to do so. Eight disk-filled hands tilted and followed my movement. I felt the rush of emotions as my sadness and anger fought, then went cold as the anger took over completely. "I can save you idiots a lot of work. Jim's dead. He's been dead for a month. It was all over the news, the first execution in North Carolina in over three years."

"No. He is not. We . . . intervened and repaired him."

"That's crap. I read the stories on the execution, and the coroner pronounced him dead on the spot."

"Yes, by your standards, for a short time he was dead. Our medical facilities are much more advanced than yours, however, and we were able to repair him before he suffered any permanent neural damage. After we restored him, he was . . . working for us. But now he has escaped."

I didn't want to listen to any more. I had not particularly wanted the state to execute Jim. If anyone was to going to kill him, I should have done it, but I had had that chance and had chosen to let it go. The state's killing him would not bring him back to what he had been, and it sure wouldn't bring Louise back. In the end, though, I had made peace with the execution; he had brought it on himself. I didn't need my own special representatives from the first confirmed alien visitors to Earth coming into my gym and picking at that wound. "If you really did steal Jim's body and bring him back to life, he's your problem. I've been done with him since they arrested him five years ago. I'm going to shower. Get the hell out of my gym."

I turned and headed for the showers. A current like the shock from a wall outlet passed through my whole body, and as I passed out I heard the buzzing.

* * *

I met Jim the summer before ninth grade, in those uncomfortable months when we were stuck between schools, between the friends we had known and the ones we hoped to meet, between the old hat of middle school and the new adventure of upper school. I had always loved watching basketball but had never been any good at it, and I had always been too afraid of failing to be willing to pursue it. On the first Monday morning of that summer vacation I promised myself I would try basketball in earnest, and I walked the half mile to the nearby community center, where I knew pickup games were always available for those brave enough to join them.

The Woodlawn community center was a large old yellow stucco building that housed a surprisingly well-equipped weight room, a torn-up pool table, a trampoline, and one real wood-floored basketball court. The air conditioning couldn't keep up with the combination of the summer heat and the energy of all the kids in the place, but it did at least manage to make the inside temperature stay well below that of the St. Pete summer outside. The basketball court was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen, the wood worn smooth by years of running feet, the glass backboards freshly marked for the summer season, the nets still white. It was also a place I could not play, because you had to either bring your own five players to queue up for a chance at the current winners on the court or be on a summer-league team scheduled to play on it.

Fortunately, a row of six concrete outdoor courts stood right next to the building. Each was full-sized and had a buffer of about ten feet between it and the next court. A few trees at one end of the row provided a little bit of shade from the sun; the best players not already indoors competed on the court nearest to those trees. The worse you were, the farther you played from those trees.

I knew my place and went to the farthest court, where two half-court games of three-on-three were in progress. I stood on the sidelines, practiced dribbling the old rubber ball I had picked up at a yard sale, and waited for a chance at joining a team. Despite several game changes and a few half-hearted attempts on my part to get the players to notice me, no one picked me for a team. As angry as that made me at them, I also really didn't blame them. I had grown up but not filled out the previous year, so though I was already a little over six feet tall and almost to my adult height, I still weighed barely a hundred and forty pounds. Despite my weight, my height would have made me attractive to potential teammates if I hadn't been so obviously uncoordinated, a guy who had trouble dribbling for more than two bounces without losing control of the ball. I could have claimed a shot at a game and picked up two other guys when my turn came, but I was afraid of the anger that would roar out of me at the humiliation I would feel when all of them turned me down.

Around lunchtime a lot of guys headed out to get food, and the games on my court shrunk to two on two. I was watching a game carefully, studying the moves of the players just as I studied the NBA stars on TV, hoping the knowledge would help me when I finally got into a game, when up walked the only guy in the place who looked like more of a geek than I did.

He was an inch or two shorter than I, and he looked like he weighed a good thirty pounds less, a bag of small bones wrapped in sickly white, acne-scarred skin. His shorts were unfashionably short, and he wore a tee shirt that said, "Jocks suck." He came straight over to me, stuck out his hand, and said, "Hi. I'm Jim, Jim Peterson. Looking for a partner?"

I stared at him for a moment. I couldn't imagine a worse partner, but then again, any partner was a way onto the court, and I probably looked like just as bad a prospect to him. I shook his hand. "Matt."

"Gotten in yet?" he asked.

I laughed. "What do you think?"

"You're not sweating enough to have played recently, and I'm betting you're about as attractive to these Neanderthals as I am, so I'd guess no."

"You'd guess right."

"Well, we'll fix that now." He turned and yelled to the four guys playing on the half court in front of me, "My partner and I have next. What's the score?"

None of the guys looked happy about it, but one of them said, "Eight to five, us."

Jim sat with me and watched the game.

"Have you ever played here before?" I asked.

"A couple of times," he said, "though getting on without a partner is tough."

"Have you ever won?"

He laughed this time. "What do you think?"

I liked his honesty. "I'd have to guess no."

"You'd guess right."

One of the guys on the floor hit a rattling jumper from just north of the foul line, his teammate high-fived him, and the other two guys grumbled. The guy who hit the shot waved us onto the court and said, "You're up."

Jim jumped up and headed toward the foul line and the guy with the ball. "I'll take this one."

I walked to my man, Jim checked the ball, and the game started.

We could do no right. Though both of them were shorter than either of us, they shot over us, went around us like we were rooted to the ground, out-rebounded us, and generally kicked our butts. Playground rules were make-em, take-em, and they either made their shots or got the rebounds, so we barely touched the ball. The game ended eleven to one, our only point a lucky heave by Jim on a move that I think was supposed to have been a lay-up but that ended up looking like he was tripping over his own feet while running. I was hugging my sides for wind as I walked off the court.

I didn't care about losing, and I didn't care about the pain in my side. I was elated. I had come to the courts, found a partner, and gotten into a game. Jim had treated me like I was competent, even though I wasn't, and so though I failed, I at least got a chance to try. As bad as I was, I learned that day that I loved playing the game—even playing it that badly—even more than I loved watching it.

Jim and I sat together the rest of the afternoon, until I had to go home to dinner. We played every chance we got, and we talked between those chances. We talked about the players on the court. We debated the greatest moment in an NBA championship series, both of us going for classics over recent efforts: Jim argued for Michael Jordan's huge straight-from-the-sickbed performance in Utah, while I pitched a moment from ancient history, Willis Reed's injured run onto the court in the famous game in the Garden. We lost every game, with our best effort coming in an eleven-to-four outing in which a lot of lucky bounces went our way and the other guys looked like they were barely paying attention.

The best moment of the day, though, came when I got up to leave. As I turned to walk away, Jim said, "See you tomorrow?"

I smiled. "Yeah." I was sore from a day of playing—not watching, but playing—basketball. I had a partner and a chance to play again. Life was good. "See you tomorrow."

* * *

As consciousness returned I fought the temptation to move and instead stayed very still, eyes shut, trying to maintain the slow, even breathing of one asleep. I felt a bit muzzy from whatever the aliens had hit me with and had to work to concentrate, but I was not in any physical pain—good news for R.C., I hoped. I could feel a hard platform under me and bonds of some sort around my wrists and ankles. I tensed my muscles ever so slightly against first the wrist bonds and then the ankle ties, but predictably none of them gave at all. If I couldn't work the bonds I wasn't going to gain any advantage by pretending to still be out, so I opened my eyes and looked around.

I was in what had been an auto mechanic's garage. As my head cleared, the smells of the room grew stronger, more distinct: oil that had worked its way for years into the pores of the concrete floor, grease, dust, bits of metal, hints of mold. The room was dim but I could clearly see the old wooden workbenches along the side walls and the lighter spots on the walls where racks had hung. I could also see three aliens—they looked like the ones who had taken me, though I couldn't be sure—standing in the same triangular formation near the foot of the unfinished worktable I was sprawled across. To my left and slightly behind them sat a fourth alien, one a bit smaller than the original three and wearing a large breathing helmet instead of the tighter masks of the others.

The alien who had done all the talking so far picked up where it had left off, as if nothing had happened. "You must locate James Peterson and return him to us."

My throat was dry enough that it took me a few moments to be able to speak clearly. "No," I said, "I don't have to do that."

"You are our prisoner, and you must do as we instruct."

Motivation was clearly not their strong suit. I raised my head a bit and cleared my throat. "No, I don't. You can obviously knock me out and take me captive, but you can't make me do anything. It doesn't work like that."

The alien in the rear spoke for the first time. His translator must have been set differently from the other alien's, because his voice came out higher, a tenor to the other's bass. "We can kill you if you do not do as we say."

I was glad and a bit surprised to realize that aliens could be amateurs, too. They were clearly used to dealing with people who were also amateurs, people who had no ability to accurately gauge what they were really worth—or not worth—in any situation. I don't know why I was surprised, because most people—and, I had to assume, most aliens—aren't very good at what they do. I'd almost certainly end up paying in the short term for this knowledge, but it was still a source of power they didn't realize they had given me. "Of course. But if you kill me, I can't do what you want me to do."

The new speaker paused for a moment, then rose and walked slowly over to me. Though he looked to me much like the others, his slower, more careful walk made him seem older, an elderly man forced out of a comfortable chair by an impolite guest. "You are, of course, correct. Though your life is . . . irrelevant to me, killing you would not help us achieve our goals. We do, however, have another option: We can make your lack of cooperation more painful than the choice of helping us."

I saw his upper right arm move; then the pain hit and I couldn't see anything. I made no attempt to suppress my scream; they can always make you scream, so there's no point in pretending otherwise. My whole body felt like it was pulsing with currents of pain, every inch of skin, bit of bone, and length of vein and artery a channel for the purest pain I'd known. I prayed I'd black out. The pain continued for a time I couldn't measure or even find the words to contemplate, and then I got my wish.

* * *

I'm not sure how long I was out. As I came to I tried to prepare myself for the thickheadedness and the racking residue of pain that my past similar experiences had left, but consciousness returned, as it had before, quickly, and amazingly, pain did not come with it. Either the torture device or their healing technology was very good.

The older alien was standing where he had been, so I probably hadn't been unconscious for long. When I opened my eyes, he spoke. "Are you now prepared to do as we instruct?"

I knew I'd win this game—I'd known from the moment I knew they needed me—but I also knew that playing was going to be expensive. What I didn't know was just how expensive. I was going to have to find out. "No," I said. "But—"

The pain hit just as quickly as the last time and even more forcefully, and it seemed to go on longer. I didn't even have enough control left to pray for unconsciousness, but fortunately it came on its own.

* * *

I lost count of how many times I blacked out, but I don't believe there were actually that many. In the few moments of consciousness I enjoyed between the attacks of pain I tried to focus on the goal of making the deal I knew I would have a chance to make.

Finally, the opportunity came.

As usual, the older one asked if I would help, and as usual I said no and tried to continue, expecting the pain again. This time, though, he let me go on.

" . . . but I do think we could make a deal that would meet your goals." I gulped air as I realized I had held my breath before speaking and had tried to blurt out the whole sentence before they could zap me again. When the pain didn't come, I kept going. "I know you can hurt me enough to make me say anything. You can even make me do anything—for a while. As soon as I get a chance, though, I'll end up trying to get away. So, why not make a deal instead? From what I've read about your people, you're here to discuss possible trade opportunities. Well, we can make a trade."

New sounds filled the air, sounds I realized were their voices in their own tongue. The older one and my gym visitor seemed to be doing the talking, though I couldn't be sure others didn't speak.

After a short time the older one spoke to me again. "You are right that we are primarily merchants. We do not, though, normally make trades with . . . races such as yours. We simply take the helpers we need. In this case, our goals and our arrangements with your governments make that option more expensive to pursue than normal. So, what sort of trade?"

"When I work, I do—" I paused to find the right word, a word that would appeal to them "—salvage. I find things for people, and I return those things, and the people pay me."

"How much do they pay you?"

"Half of what the thing is worth."

The alien's response was the fastest it had been. "That is absurd. No such service is worth half the value of the object in question."

"It is," I said, "if the object is difficult to find and retrieve, so difficult that normal approaches will not work, so difficult that there is significant risk and there are no other options." Anyone talking to the highest levels of all the leading governments on Earth who resorted to kidnapping a single guy rather than simply asking for government help clearly couldn't operate in the open, so I spelled it out for them, just in case. "My services are worth the fee, for example, when the buyer cannot afford to be openly searching for the lost goods."

"Of course. It is clear that you appreciate our situation. I assume it is also clear that your . . . discretion is vital in this matter."

"Of course. When I work, it's always confidential."

"And what price would you put on James Peterson that we might pay you half?"

They were serious. Jim was alive, or at least they believed he was.

"He really is alive?"

"Of course. He has been working for us since the moment we arranged his revival. I repeat: What price would you put on him and on this task?"

I could have told them that I would find Jim just so I could put him away again, but there was no point in throwing away a good opportunity.

"I assume you guys don't have anything like a normal bank account, so I have to answer your question with another: What can you pay that I can use but that would also allow you to meet your needs for discretion?"

They chattered again for a while, then the original speaker left the room. He returned quickly with a stained brown paper bag that looked and smelled like it had been in the trash for a couple of days.

"Diamonds. We traded some very simple devices to a minor government to obtain some working capital. This bag contains enough value to easily equal the cost of a single human."

The original speaker opened the bag next to my head so I could look inside. The contents were beautiful, more diamonds than I had ever seen in one place, facets dancing in even the room's dim light, each stone easily a carat or more. He put the bag in my hand so I could gauge its weight. I'd have to revise my opinion about the aliens' skill at motivation: The bag had to weigh at least two pounds, maybe more. Even with the massive cuts we'd have to take to move the diamonds without alerting the IRS, they would buy R.C. and me a long, long break in high style before we had to work again.

The alien took the bag from my hand and put it on a workbench on the right-hand wall.

"It's enough," I said. "What do you want me to do when I find him?"

The original leader stepped back as the older alien spoke. "You do not need to do anything. He—" he pointed with his upper left arm toward the original speaker "—will accompany you. You will leave when you have found James Peterson. He will retrieve some materials that are ours and . . . deal with Peterson."

I shook my head. "That won't work. To find him, I have to talk to people. Your friend here is hardly inconspicuous, and I'm sure you don't want him to be seen wandering around in the open."

"That point is not negotiable. He must be with you."

I stared at the original leader and pictured him in a pair of pants, a sweatshirt, and a big hat. It wouldn't be enough. There was no way I could take him out in public. Perhaps, though, if he stayed out of sight, kept to the car while I worked. "Let's compromise. He can ride with me to each place I go, but he'll have to wait in the car whenever I deal with other humans."

The two of them chattered again briefly, then the older alien spoke to me. "That is acceptable."

"What assurances do I have that you will not kill me after I find him for you?"

"The same assurance we have that you will not try to kill our representative: Neither side would gain anything by such behavior."

It wasn't much, but it was what I had expected him to say, all he really could say. "Okay. Now, how about letting me go so we can get started?"

The older alien pointed an arm and the bodyguards freed me. The bonds appeared to be a sort of flexible plastic wrap. I reached for one near my ankle but the nearer bodyguard snatched it away.

"Leave now and begin your work," the older alien said. Pointing to the original leader, he continued, "He will answer the questions you will need to ask." He turned and walked toward a side door, the two bodyguards trailing him.

I got up, grabbed the bag of diamonds, and followed them. My new buddy trailed me. The side door led to what had once been the garage's office, and from there we went out into the light. It was early afternoon, the fall air still warming from the sun, so I had indeed been gone only a few hours. My stomach began to rumble as my body relaxed and I realized I was hungry.

Two black BMW sedans with blacked-out windows were parked outside the garage, which sat well back from the road. On either side of the garage and on the other side of the road were fields of wild growth. A road sign just visible from where I stood told me I was only a few miles outside of Pittsboro, so they had taken me less than an hour from the gym. Moving surprisingly quickly now that he was out in the open, the older alien folded himself into the passenger seat of one of the cars. The bodyguards crammed themselves into the car with him and quickly drove off.

"You were expecting spaceships?" asked my companion.

When I realized he was trying to make a joke, I stared at his face for a sign I could use in the future. I found nothing. If their expressions changed, it was in ways I was unable to discern. Then I noticed that his lower right arm was twitching slightly; I'd have to watch those arms.

"No. It makes sense that with your particular needs you'd try to keep a low profile."

His lower left arm reached into his suit and briefly disappeared; the suit appeared transparent the entire time. The arm reappeared holding the car's keys.

"How about I drive?" I asked.

"I would prefer that," he said. "Your automobiles are not well suited to us."

"I would also prefer it." I took the keys and headed to the car. The seat was all the way back and leaning two-thirds of the way down, so it took me a few moments to adjust it. The alien folded quickly into the car, but he definitely didn't look comfortable. That was fine by me; we'd be in the car a lot, and after this morning's episode I didn't mind at all that he suffered. "We're going to be together for a while, so I need to know what to call you. I go by Matt; what's your name?"

"In my language it is—" the translator let out a burst of the chattering noises I had heard earlier "—but the translator cannot find equivalents in your language for our names."

"Okay, I'll name you." I looked at him crammed into the seat, arms everywhere, a giant blue bug reclined almost on its back, and I laughed. "I'd go with Gregor, but that's too much work to say. So, Greg it is."



"It will serve. Now, you must find James Peterson."

"First, we have to go back to the gym so I can change and grab some food." I started the car and we headed out. I drove in silence, wanting the time to think, and I was pleased to find that Greg was content to ride quietly along.

* * *

By the time ninth grade ended, Jim and I were the closest of friends. Neither of us needed to study much to keep up with our homework, so we spent every evening we could at the courts. We played every two-man team we could find, we joined every larger game that would have us, and when no one else was around to play, we practiced shooting and played each other. The playing and the practice paid off, because by the end of the year we were regularly joining games on the second court from the trees. The day we were asked for the first time to play in a game on that court, we celebrated like we had jointly jammed home the winning basket in the NBA championship game.

When we weren't playing basketball, we were talking. We talked about everything. We endlessly analyzed what it would take to transform ourselves from the geeks we knew we were to the cool juniors and seniors who somehow managed to actually date girls and not merely wonder what happened on dates. We found we were both only children and speculated what it would be like to have a brother or a sister or both. We learned we both hated our fathers: I hated mine for abandoning my mother and me before I was born, and he hated his for not leaving, for staying to smack him and his mother around whenever the guy had a bad day. We confessed our big, ill-formed dreams; Jim loved science and wanted to win the Nobel Prize in something, while I wanted to somehow change the world, to make a big difference.

We were brothers.

We began the new summer with two goals: To play our way onto the wood floor before school started again, and to put some muscle on our skinny frames. To reach our goals, we created a ritual of work and swore we'd make each other keep to it until the summer ended.

We started each morning by hitting the center right when it opened so we could get a jump on the weight benches. We worked out most of each morning, until we were too sore to continue. Then we'd eat an early lunch, stretch a bit, and hit the courts. We'd play until dinner, go to one or the other of our houses to eat, then head back to the courts and more games until the outside lights cut off at ten. By the time we got home it was all we could do to collapse into bed until the next morning.

The gym was where we discovered just how hard we could push one another, and where I found for the first time a constructive way to express the anger that was always roiling inside me.

We were at the end of our Thursday leg workout, a particularly brutal routine in which we did twenty-rep leg sets with heavy weights: first extensions, then squats, and finally leg presses. I was on the incline leg-press machine, in my third and final set of twenty heavy reps, fighting a weight I had been stuck on for a month. Each time I had tried this weight, I had grunted out the first two sets, but I had failed to make the third. I couldn't even come close. I'd never made it past fifteen reps on that set, and the exercise now loomed as a demon in the gym, a dragon that always slayed me.

Jim had gone first and pounded out his third set, setting a personal best. He was sitting on the bench next to the machine as I strapped myself in. "You can do this, Matt," he said.

"I know I can," I lied. I didn't know it all. Sure, my head knew it was possible, but in my heart I could already feel the incredible pain that hit around the tenth rep, already see the image of myself getting up from the machine having failed yet again.

"No," he said. "You don't know it, you don't believe it, but you're wrong. You can do it, but have to believe it and you have to pay the price."

I nodded, took a couple of deep breaths, and started the set.

The first nine reps were good and relatively painless, my body a machine, my legs pistons the weight could not stop. The tenth was everything I had feared, as much a blast of pain as the previous nine had been routine. I paused after it, legs extended, sucking air.

"Push it," I heard Jim say.

I pounded out two more reps without pause and then had to rest for air. I looked at my legs and was surprised to find they were shaking. I shook my head no.

"Bull," Jim said. "Don't you give up."

I nodded yes and ground out the thirteenth and fourteenth repetitions, then stopped again for air. It was over. My legs knew it. My head knew it. My heart knew it. I might get the fifteenth, though even that was doubtful, but I surely wouldn't get another. It was over.

"No!" Jim shouted in my ear. "You are not giving up! Not this time." Out of the corner of my eye I saw him stand. "Hey," he yelled, "you guys want to see a real wimp? This loser's been stuck on this same rep for a month and he's about to wuss out again."

I sucked air and shook my head at him, anger filling me faster than air. In the mirrors on the side walls I saw a few guys stop what they were doing and look at us. I hated them for it, hated them for all the crap they and others like them had given me, hated them for having fathers they could go home to, hated them for all the times they knew how guys were supposed to behave and I didn't, hated them for already having the kind of body I wanted, hated them for everything I wasn't and didn't have.

"Go ahead, Matt," Jim said. "Fail. Just get out of there fast so somebody else can use the machine."

I wanted to kill him. The rage formed into a single word, first in my brain and then in a hiss from my lips: "No." I beat my head against the back support, hit it and hit it and hit it again until the pain in my head overwhelmed the pain in my legs, and then I let the weight down and slammed it back up, then down again, no pause, my legs almost throwing the weight. The rep numbers appeared in red in my mind. Fifteen. Sixteen. Seventeen. Eighteen. Nineteen. Twenty. I couldn't stop, couldn't give them the satisfaction of doing only the minimum. Twenty-one. That would show them. I pushed the twenty-second rep up so hard the weights actually left contact with my feet for just a second, slammed up the supports, and unstrapped my hands as the weight fell back onto the supports. I jumped up, seeing only red, ready to kill, anger with no goal or target, just anger.

"Good job, Matt," Jim said from somewhere not far away.

The anger receded like the tide flowing away from the beach, leaving me breathing hard, legs shaking, the back of my head pounding, and I sat down hard on the bench where Jim had been.

"I could have killed you," I said between gasps.

"Nah," Jim said. "You couldn't have caught me, not with those legs after that monster set."

We both laughed. Even though I didn't think I could stand I felt so good, so happy to have cracked that barrier, so free of any anger—for the first time, even if only for just that moment—that I laughed again, and Jim laughed with me.

* * *

I parked the BMW in back of the gym near the employees-only entrance, next to R.C.'s enormous truck. I put down the window to give R.C. a good look at me; after this morning, he'd have all the defenses activated and be monitoring the security cameras, ready for bear and heavily armed.

"I have one of them with me," I said. "I also have these." I held the bag out the window in my left hand and twisted my body so I could pull out a diamond with my right. "I'm working."

The gym's metal security door clicked three times and popped open. I got out of the car and Greg followed, unfolding more quickly than I would have thought he could. We walked inside, and the door closed automatically, leaving us in total darkness. I stood while R.C. finished the scans and satisfied himself that all was well, then the door a few feet in front of me opened to our office. R.C. was off to the side, his eyes and a shotgun trained on the alien.

I handed R.C. the diamonds. He took them but kept his eyes on Greg.

"What's the job?" he asked.

"Apparently, Jim really is alive. I have to find him, and then Greg here will take him and some stuff of theirs away."

R.C. raised an eyebrow and asked, " 'I'?"

I watched Greg's arms, but nothing moved. Their translators had worked well enough so far that I had to assume he was following everything now. "Yes," I said. "I have to do this on my own. I think Greg here and his people would be a lot more comfortable that way."

"That is correct," Greg said.

I looked R.C. in the eyes. "You need to stay here and cover the business. The gym's been busy enough that you'll have plenty to do." Our gym had over two thousand square feet of workout space, another three thousand square feet of living space, all the latest fitness equipment, thousands of pounds of free weights, and more than twenty-five hundred members on its books. It also sat nearly empty almost all of the time, a convenient cash business. All but a few of its members were just names we bought from friends at local hotels, out-of-state travelers who had passed through Raleigh at one time or another. R.C. and I were the only people with permanent access cards, though from time to time we would give temporary cards to others working on jobs with us. R.C. would be covering something, but it would be my back, not the business.

He nodded, grabbed the bag of diamonds, and left through the door opposite the one we had entered. I knew he'd monitor the room until I left, and that from then on he'd be there if I needed him—but I also knew I'd never see him, and neither would Greg.

"Tell me about what Jim was doing for you guys," I said, "and about how he escaped and when."

"I cannot discuss that," Greg replied.

I pulled over a chair and sat down in front of him. I motioned to another chair, but he didn't take it. Instead, he folded his legs and sank slowly to the floor.

"If you don't," I said, "finding him will take a lot more time. Your leader said you wanted to get both him and some materials back. The most logical assumption is that those materials are related to what he was doing. Right?"

"That is correct."

"If he took them, it was almost certainly either to sell them or to continue the work you were doing that involved them and then sell the result of that work. Otherwise, he'd have no reason to take them. If I don't know what he was doing for you guys, I can't know whether he's likely to be looking to sell something or to hole up for a while, and so I can't know how to track him. Understand?"

"Yes." Greg paused long enough that I wondered if I'd have to push him again to get him to talk. Finally, though, he resumed. "Our race belongs to a trade guild that includes many other races. The guild's rules are quite strict and very expensive to disobey. They limit the technologies guild members can use and the products they can offer when they operate on nonguild planets, such as yours. The overt mission of our visit to this planet is in accordance with those rules; we and others have guild permission to begin preliminary trade talks. The project for which we took James Peterson is not, however, in accordance with those rules. Thus our increased need for discretion and my unwillingness to answer your questions."

"So you were smuggling?"

"If I understand the term correctly, the answer is, somewhat. It is not that simple."

"Then cheer up, Greg, because I don't care about smuggling." I pulled my chair a bit closer. "What I do care about is earning those diamonds, which means I have to find Jim, which means I need to know what he was doing. So, one more time: What was he doing?"

"We chose you for this job because he mentioned you."

I had assumed they knew about me from Jim's police records, but I should have known better than to make assumptions. "What did he say?"

"That he was looking forward to seeing you again. He laughed when he said it. Were you friends? Did he laugh from happiness?"

"Yes, we were friends once. Not any more." The anger I felt rising inside me, the anger I always felt when I thought of Jim, was not going to help me now, so I pushed it back. "No, I doubt he was laughing from happiness." I still needed to know what Jim had been doing, and I didn't want to keep dancing with Greg. "How you found me doesn't matter now. What matters now is what Jim was doing for you and when and how he escaped."

"You are aware of his work in nanotechnology."

"Of course. He loved it and was really good at it, right up to the end." Even then he was as good as anyone, just not good enough, and certainly not entitled to do what he did. I had to look away from Greg because this time the flush of anger was almost overpowering. As I so often did, I wondered what it would be like not to be made of anger, not to have it always just under the surface, a river washing over and through me and ready to boil over at any time. I know most people aren't this way, and I'm glad, but I can't really imagine what it's like inside their skins. And, of course, it was irrelevant, because I was built the way I was built, and that wasn't going to change now, if ever. "So what he was doing for you involved nanotech?"

"Yes. We had adapted a technology of ours for use here. We were unable to complete the adaptation without certain aspects of your environment that we could not get without being here. Guild rules would not allow us to bring a research team here or to test here, so we smuggled samples of the technology and recruited James Peterson to complete it for us."

Nanotech research meant an electron microscope, one or more controlling computers, and some very specialized nano-machine building tools. "How much equipment did he have?"

"Perhaps ten pieces. I am not sure. I was not involved in its procurement or setup."

"Where did he get it?"

"We gave him diamonds, as we did you, and I believe he traded them at local universities for the equipment he needed."

That made sense. He had been a researcher at UNC, and he knew every nanotech research lab in the area. A few bribes and a panel truck, and he'd be set.

"Did he transport the equipment in a truck?"

"Yes, a large white one he purchased."

"Did he take the truck when he escaped?"


"I don't suppose you know the truck's license number or make or anything like that?"

"No. It was white and old and tall enough inside for us to be able to sit like this but not tall enough for us to be able to fully stand without bending."

It was probably a used delivery truck. Possibly useful to know, but nothing I was going to be able to trace easily. Besides, he was smart enough to pick up another one just to be safe. "Where was he working?"

"In a warehouse not far from where we took you earlier. He arranged the use of the building."

"Was there a basketball hoop near it?" I pointed to one of my prize possessions, a framed signed poster of Dr. J dunking in the last All-Star game he had played in while still in the ABA. He was retired long before I was ever watching basketball, but in the hours and hours of videos I had studied I had always found him to be one of the most graceful players ever. "A metal rim, like that, on a pole."

"Yes. Behind the building. He threw a ball at it every day for quite some time, until we forced him to return to work. We found this activity senseless, but he insisted on repeating it."

Jim, like me, had always been a creature of habit. I was glad his time in jail hadn't worked this habit out of him, because it would help me find him.

"After you brought him back after his execution, was one of you always with him?"

"Until his escape, yes."

"Good. Did he ever go anywhere other than this building and the places he bought the equipment?"

"No. We would not allow it."

"Good. Now, back to my two remaining original questions: When did he escape, and how?"

"He left in the early morning eight days ago." Greg's lower left arm twitched slightly. "It took us a very long time to locate you."

I realized Greg was embarrassed. If I was right, a lower left arm twitch noted embarrassment, a lower right, humor.

"How did he escape?"

"We cannot be sure, because none of our people with him survived. We believe he created a solvent from some of the chemicals he acquired for his work, because the suits of all four of his guards were partially decomposed. Our suits provide us with both a breathable atmosphere and skeletal support; without them, this planet is almost immediately fatal to us." Greg touched his suit with his upper right arm. "In the last week we have changed some of the materials in the suits. I am wearing one of the newer versions." The lower right arm twitched again.

I laughed. "Don't worry; I have no desire to kill you. If I had wanted you dead, R.C. would have killed you before you made it from the car to the gym. We've made a deal, and I'll honor my part."

I stood and pushed back the chair. "Right now, though, I'm going to grab a bite to eat and take a shower. Then we'll start looking for Jim. Can I get you anything?"

"No," Greg said. "The suit provides for my nutritional needs."

I headed for the kitchen. As the door into the rest of the gym was shutting and locking, I yelled, "Stay there, and you'll be fine. I'll be back in about an hour."

* * *

Louise Mason entered our lives in the second semester of our junior year of high school, a mid-year transfer whose father's business had brought her family from North Carolina to St. Pete for a three-year stint. Jim and I were in a lot of the same classes, and Louise was in every one we shared: AP math, AP English, third-year programming, marine biology, and creative writing. She was bit of a geek—barely over five feet tall, rail-thin, glasses, a tendency to laugh too loudly and too easily—but she had a brilliant smile and an always tangled mane of shoulder-length curly brown hair that drew your attention and made you smile every time you saw her bounce into a room. Every smart guy in the school noticed her and, if the hallway chatter was any indicator, wanted her.

Earlier that year, Jim had broken through the dating wall, and he was now going out regularly with a girl named Margie who was also in most of our shared classes. Margie befriended Louise, and I used that friendship as a way to meet and then, with Margie's nudging, ask Louise to join the three of us for dinner and a movie at the mall. To my surprise, Louise accepted.

In the course of the evening we discovered we had none of the usual things in common. She came from a rich Raleigh family and was determined to go back to North Carolina to college so she could be near them. My mother and I were poor, and I wanted to go to college somewhere else, anywhere else, that I could make a fresh start. Louise hated sports, and basketball and the gym provided the best moments of most of my days. She was an ovo-lacto vegetarian, and I loved red meat and ate it every chance I got.

A dumb comment of Jim's brought Louise and me to our first piece of common ground. We were sitting on benches outside the theater, people-watching while we waited for the previous film to end. A mother and father were taking turns pushing their young son, a kid who couldn't have been more than six or seven, along the main walkway of the mall. The boy was crying, but they kept pushing him. Every now and then his father would slap the back of his head and whisper angrily at him.

"Some people shouldn't have kids," Margie said.

We all nodded in agreement.

"We shouldn't allow them to have kids," Jim said.

"What do you mean?" Louise asked.

"Just what I said," Jim answered. "We should not allow people who aren't competent to have kids to breed. We should sterilize them."

Louise looked at him and shook her head. "Who's going to decide who's competent to have kids and who's not?" she said.

"I have to agree with Louise," I said. "I'm with you, Jim, in not wanting people like that to have kids, but I can only wish those people would make that choice. I sure don't want somebody else having that much control over anybody."

"Well, I do," Jim said. "I think the people who are smart enough should make the choice." He waved his arm to take in the four of us. "People like us."

"No way," I said. "I don't want that kind of power over anybody else, and I sure don't want other people having that kind of power over me. I'd be happy just being able to make my own decisions."

"Definitely," Louise said. "People have to make their own decisions, and as long as those decisions don't interfere with the rights of others, we have to respect them."

"I don't," Jim said. "I don't respect them at all. If they aren't going to be decent parents, we shouldn't let 'em breed. It's just that simple."

We all knew there was no point in arguing further, so we dropped the topic and moved on.

After the movie, I gave Louise a ride home. On the way we ended up talking about individual rights, the limits of personal freedom and responsibility, what we each thought good governments should do, and on and on. We kept talking in her living room, long into the night, and when our hands accidentally touched around two a.m., we held them tightly. I had never known how much power could come from one small hand until that moment. I was on fire, almost giddy from that small touch. Louise's mother came down and kicked me out a little while later.

Louise and I didn't kiss that night, but as I looked her in the eyes at the door, I knew one day we would. It took a whole month more for me to work up the courage, a month in which I found an excuse to sit alone with her for at least a few minutes almost every day. By the time we kissed, we knew we belonged together.

* * *

After my shower, I threw a few days' worth of clothes into my duffel bag, which by default I kept loaded with my toiletries kit, a specially encrypted cell phone, a leather indoor/outdoor basketball, and some workout clothes in a smaller gym bag that fit inside the duffel. I added some color printouts of photos of Jim the papers had run in the days right before the execution. Last to go in was an old favorite, an over-and-under, sawed-off Winchester shotgun I hoped I wouldn't need. R.C. was already gone. I gathered up Greg, and we headed out.

The Raleigh-Durham-Chapel Hill area of North Carolina had for decades been merging into a single population center, and today almost every major link between the cities showed the typical artifacts of modern American suburban sprawl: well-maintained roads, clumps of fast-food restaurants yelling for your attention, malls spaced so you were never far from one, and the occasional outlet stores claiming unheard-of bargains. Every such sprawl also has its darker arteries, where everything takes a step down and the businesses cater to the appetites that every such area inevitably both has and feels obliged to deny. The center of the run along the top of the triangle between Durham and Raleigh was one such route. Here you could still find car lots that would accept cash and forget to report the transaction, restaurants with truly cheap food for those brave enough to eat it, discount gas you'd put only in cars you didn't plan to keep long, check-cashing places with rates that would embarrass loan sharks and a shotgun always in sight behind the wire mesh, and older ranch homes set back from the road with neon signs noting they were open until two a.m. and offered all-girl companionship.

When we stopped at the first one, a white clapboard joint with no name I'd ever known and simply a red neon "Massage" sign out front, Greg asked, "Why are we stopping at this place?"

"What's the first thing a man will want when he gets out of jail?" I said.

"I do not know. We fed Peterson and provided him shelter."

"Have you ever dealt with large groups of males stuck with only males for long periods of time?"

"Of course," Greg said. "Sex. We failed to provide it. We take care of this appetite between engagements with the legions we use on other planets, but we failed to do so with Peterson."

"Exactly. Jim wouldn't want to show his face to anyone who might turn him in, but he would want to get laid."

Unfortunately, he hadn't been at the first place I tried, so we moved down the road to the next one. It was also a bust.

The third was an old brick ranch with a sputtering orange neon sign that showed an outline of a cat and the words "The Cat House" below it. Small ceramic cats filled the interior space between the windows and the blackout curtains behind them. A woman named Shirley ran the business for the Durham biker gang that controlled the low-rent half of the prostitution business in the area. I had done some work for her when she lived in a monstrosity of a house on a golf course in Cary with a husband who was a bigger monster than the house. R.C. and I had found their teenage daughter and returned her before we learned why she ran away. The next time they called us to find their daughter, we never called back. The time after that it was just the husband calling, and this time he was seeking Shirley. For her, not for him, we went looking and found her at Duke Medical, tubes down her throat to help her breathe while she healed from the repairs to her shattered cheekbones and broken nose. We never told him where she was, but we didn't have to; she went back on her own. When she grew old enough and damaged enough, he left her and she ended up here. Nothing new about the story, but nothing good about it, either.

"How are you, Shirley?" I asked after they buzzed me in and she took me back to the office, a smoke-filled room where a TV always ran and the women dozed or doped between visitors.

"You know, Stark," she said. "Same old thing." She plopped into an overstuffed chair that had last been comfortable around the time I was born. She lit up a cigarette. "That Beemer you're driving tells me you haven't sunken low enough to be shopping here, so what can I do for you?"

I showed her the picture of Jim. "Has he been here in the last week or so?"

She didn't even look at it. "You know I don't care about stuff like that. They're all just men. The faces don't matter."

I walked to her and bent over her chair so I could whisper. With my right hand I held the picture in front of her face, and with my left I fanned out five hundreds. "I can afford to be generous here, Shirley. Have you seen this guy?"

She stared at the money longer than she looked at the picture, but she did finally look at it. "Yeah," she said as she grabbed the half of the bills not in my hand, "he was here."

I held onto my half as our hands touched. Her hand was cool and dry. "When?"

"A week ago today. He bought a couple of sessions, one with two girls. Generous." She looked up at me. "Like you, right?"

I let go of the bills and she quickly tucked them into a pocket in her grayish housedress. "Right," I said. "Now, I need one more thing."

"What's that?"

"I need to see your parking lot videos for that day." The bikers who ran the place didn't invest much in the girls or the building, but the steelwork over the doors and the surveillance gear that ringed the building and sat in some of the nearby trees were both solid. Their places were never successfully raided, because by the time the cops could get inside everyone was just watching dirty movies and talking.

"You know I'm not supposed to even look at those, Stark."

I held out five more hundreds. "I know. But I need to spend some time with those videos. I'll do it here so the disks never even need to leave the building."

She grabbed the money. "You know, Stark, with this and maybe a little more, I could get out of here, start over, maybe even find that daughter of mine again."

I knew it would never happen, but what the hell, Greg and his friends were paying. "Show me the videos, and I'll give you another grand when I'm done with them."

She nodded and took me back to the camera room. It had once been a nice-sized closet, but now it was so crowded with gear and supplies that my shoulders touched the shelves on either side when I sat in its lone chair. Shirley grabbed a box of disks off a shelf, rifled through them, and handed me one. She pointed to the only empty player. "Knock yourself out."

I started the disk and the little monitor above the player came to life with a soundless image of the rear parking area. I hit fast forward and watched long stretches of empty ground broken occasionally by cars speeding up and men jumping out of them and running out of this camera's view and to the rear door of the house. Finally, one of the men was Jim. I reversed and took it slowly until I had the moment when he drove up. I paused on the best shot of his vehicle coming down the drive. It was an old yellow panel truck, the paint doing a good enough job of covering whatever its sides had once said that I couldn't read the words but a bad enough job that I was sure there had been words. I moved the images forward slowly until I got a clear shot of the rear of the truck as Jim parked it and was getting out, then paused the image.

Jim had been careful, careful enough to throw off almost anyone who would be looking for him, but he was not so careful that I couldn't get what I wanted. Mud covered the license plate numbers, but not completely, so you couldn't read the numbers but the mud would still look like a legitimate accident should anyone stop him. Clearly visible, however, was the state name and symbol: Florida. I knew he would steal plates from where he wanted to be, because the theft would get reported here in North Carolina but take a while to find its way to the local cops, and in the meantime the vehicle would blend in where he was headed.

He was going home.

I ejected the disk and took it back to Shirley. I handed it to her with another ten hundreds sitting on top of it. "Thanks, Shirley."

She put the money into the pocket along with the earlier bills. "No problem, Stark."

I stopped in the doorway of the office as I was heading out. "You could get out, Shirley. You know that, don't you?"

"Yeah, I know. This might be what it takes."

I looked at her and knew that her head might know what she could do but that her spirit had never known, would never know. I didn't mind the money, though; I'd love to be wrong, to see a miracle one day. "Sure thing, Shirley."

Out in the car I called R.C. He picked up on the first ring but said nothing; had he spoken, I would have known something was wrong. I told him to look for warehouse rentals in St. Pete and gave him the description of the truck.

"What is St. Pete?" Greg asked.

"A city in Florida," I said. "Where Jim and I grew up. Where I believe Jim is now. And, where we're going."

* * *

Louise and I were in the second to last month of our senior year at the University of North Carolina in Chapel Hill when we got the news about Jim's parents. Jim and I had kept in touch by e-mail since he went to Florida State and I followed Louise to UNC, but we had visited rarely. Louise was staying over at my apartment—she wasn't willing to upset her parents by actually living with me—so we were both caught off-guard when he showed up at my place.

When I let him in, Jim collapsed onto some pillows on the floor in my small living room. "Have you heard?" he said.

I looked at Louise to see if she knew something I didn't, but she shook her head. She still had the same mass of hair I'd noticed in high school, and I still loved the way it danced when she shook her head.

"No," I said. "Heard what?"

"My Mom and Dad are dead," Jim said.

I knelt down beside him. "What happened?"

He wouldn't look at me. He just kept staring straight ahead. "The funeral was this morning, and then I drove all day to get here. I didn't want to be there anymore."

"What happened, Jim?" I asked again.

He finally looked at me. "I was in Tallahassee when the police there found me. They pulled me out of class. I thought I was in trouble, but I couldn't figure out for what. Other than spending too much after-hours time with the 'scope and the other lab gear messing around with my own nano-machine projects, I couldn't think of anything I'd done even remotely wrong." He looked away again, off into the space in front of him.

Louise moved to his other side and reached to touch him, but I shook my head no and she backed off.

"As near as they can tell, he beat her to death, Matt." He balled his hands and hit the sides of his head a couple of times. "He hit her too hard or too many times or something—I don't know—but something broke inside her. They might have been able to save her if he'd just called for help, but the jerk shot himself first. One bullet from a pistol right through the brain; he got that right." He looked at me. "No one called the police for days. I was at school, Matt. If I'd been home I could have stopped him, or at least gotten her to a doctor. I could have saved her."

"You can't blame yourself for that, Jim," I said. "There's no way you could have known to pick that particular time to drive all the way home from Tallahassee. No way. He did it, and it's his fault."

Matt stood. "Yeah, right!" he yelled. "I couldn't have known that he was going to beat her to death that particular day. But what I could have known is that it was going to happen someday, that he was going to go too far one day and kill her! I could have taken him out first. I could have, and I should have."

"No, Jim, you shouldn't have. That would have been murder, and that would have been wrong."

"Wrong? More wrong than my mother being beaten to death by that animal I had to have for a father?"

"I can't say what would be more wrong. I don't think it works like that. What I can say is that your mother was the one who had to make the choice. She had to leave. She had to make that choice, not you."

"You think she deserved this?" he said. His hands were in fists and he looked like he might hit me.

"No," Louise said quietly, so quietly I don't think Jim heard her.

"No," I agreed. "She didn't deserve it." I stood and faced him. "I'm not saying that at all, and I don't for a second believe she deserved this. I'm just saying that she had to make the choice to leave, and nobody—not you, not anybody—could make that choice for her."

"Well if I had, she'd still be alive," Jim said.

"It's not your fault, Jim," I said.

He stared at me for a bit, but I don't think he was seeing me. Finally, he said, "You mind if I crash here tonight?"

"No problem. You want the bed or the sofa?"

He looked at Louise like he was seeing her for the first time. "Hi, Louise," he said. "Sorry about showing up like this. You guys keep the bed. I'll just sit here for a while."

We went into the bedroom. When I came out a few minutes later to get a glass of water, Jim was curled in a ball on the sofa, fast asleep. I threw a sheet over him and went back to the bed and Louise.

We talked until almost four a.m. that night, Jim's tragedy making us both feel the need to stay awake, to stretch the day, to cling to another as if we needed proof we were still alive. We talked about our life after college, and I told Louise about the men who had visited me in my latest political science class, about the offers they made of a chance to really make a difference, to channel all my frustrations and energy into working to change the system. I told her the job would mean training in Virginia for a year or two, then moving around the world for a while. She didn't want to leave the area and intended to get her Ph.D. in math at UNC and teach or do research if she could find a job. We agreed to worry about all this later and fell asleep curled tightly together.

When we awoke in the late morning, Jim was gone. Louise asked me again about what I had planned, and though I tried to say nothing was set, she knew what I was going to do, and so did I. I had always wanted to be somebody special, to do something special, something that would matter, and this seemed to be the best shot I'd get. I thought of Jim's mother and desperately did not want to be someone who had never made the choice to make the changes his life needed. I had no idea what I was really getting into, but at that age, who does?

By the time we graduated, Louise had slowly taken all of her stuff out of my apartment, and though we were still dating only each other, you could almost see the space between us. Jim and I talked a couple of times a week for the first couple of weeks after the funeral, but then the calls faded away. A week after graduation, Louise and I said good-bye, I called Jim to let him know I was moving, and I headed for Langley.

* * *

Greg and I rode without talking until we were almost through South Carolina, and then I decided to try again. "What was Jim doing for you guys?" I asked.

"That is not relevant," Greg said.

"Yes, it is. You've told me it involved nanotech, so I know what sort of gear we're looking for, but I don't know how we'll spot these materials you want back."

"I am to locate them."

"Are you sure you'll be able to do that?" I said. "Do you know what form they'll be in? Whether Jim might have copied them? How he might have stored them? Whether he'll be in a public place when we find him?"

Greg was silent for several minutes before answering. "I find myself in an awkward situation. You are right that I may not succeed in that part of my mission without sharing the information you have requested, but I am also not to discuss it. Some of my more . . . aggressive colleagues have gone beyond the rules others of us advised them to follow, and now we must remove all traces of those transgressions. James Peterson's work is such evidence."

"What form will the evidence be in?"

"I do not know. Small, sealed containers are likely, of course; that is the form in which we gave him the original nano-machines."

Greg paused again for long enough that I assumed he was done and switched on some music.

Halfway through a song, he turned off the music and resumed talking. "It is also possible that the machines will be in one or more human subjects," he said.

I was glad traffic was light and I had the cruise control on, because I swerved slightly as I whipped my head to the side to look at him. "He's putting your nano-machines in people?"

"Not exactly. His job involved the adaptation of our machines to humans in this environment. So, what he would put in humans would more precisely be his own machines, built from our initial prototypes."

I forced my voice to be calm. Nothing about this sounded good, but I wasn't going to get anything from Greg by appearing too anxious. "What do these nano-machines do?"

"That is not relevant."

"Maybe not. What certainly is relevant is why you needed Jim, because if I know that I may be able to guide our search better." I didn't need that info, because merely knowing the type of equipment and where Jim was headed was a good enough start, but I was hoping Greg wouldn't realize that. "Was it because you couldn't make the machines work in humans without his help?"

"No. We have our own supply of humans in other locations. The machines definitely work in humans."

"Your own supply?" This time my voice rose slightly before I got it under control. "What does that mean?"

"That is not relevant."

I took a slow, deep breath before continuing. For the first time in my life, I seriously wondered if the alien abduction stories were true. "Okay. But what did you need Jim to do if you knew the machines would work in people? I mean, once you knew they worked, you were done, right?"

"No," Greg said. "We knew they worked in humans in other locations. They would not work correctly in this location, on your planet. Conditions here were interfering with the machines, stopping them from functioning properly. We do not know exactly what those conditions are, so we could not at any reasonable cost duplicate them elsewhere. Guild rules do not allow us to set up our own laboratory here. As we explained, the guild would also not allow us to openly pursue the product line this more aggressive faction led us to create. Hence our need for James Peterson."

The realization hit me hard enough that I had to stay quiet or risk giving it away, so I made myself drive in silence for another half hour before I said, "One more question. How far along was Jim in his research when he escaped?"

"I do not know."

"Was he yet using human subjects? If so, it would help me find him to know that he needed a place that could hold additional people."

"No," Greg said, "he had not yet progressed to that point. However, the day before he escaped he told us that he would need to obtain subjects soon."

"What if he has tested the nano-machines in people, or if he's testing them in people when we find him?"

"Then we must retrieve those people as well as any other containers of the machines."

Crap. Now I had to find Jim or risk either him hurting more people, the aliens taking those people away, or both. I nudged the cruise control a few miles per hour higher and forced myself to focus again on the road.

* * *

For a little over two years after I left the company, I traveled and worked odd jobs when I found them or they found me. As the specter of turning thirty became more real, I decided it was time to settle in one place, even if only to have a base of operations for a while. The Chapel Hill area was the logical choice. My mother had died in my second year at Langley, so there was nothing to take me back to St. Pete. I'd kept up with Jim and Louise via the Web, and I knew they were both working at UNC, Jim as a nanotechnology staff researcher and Louise as a math post-doc. Though part of me wasn't sure seeing Louise again was the best idea, another part was eager to see her. More importantly, she and Jim were the closest thing to family that I had. R.C. and I had just started working together, and where we were based didn't really affect the kind of work we did, so he agreed to move to North Carolina as well.

We spent the first year there setting up our gym and doing a couple of small jobs for old clients so we could have a bit of a nest egg, and I wondered when I'd get around to calling Jim and Louise. I meant to do it many times, but I kept finding excuses to put it off. Finally, I called. They both seemed happy to hear from me, so I proposed that the three of us get together.

At my suggestion, we met on neutral ground at a neutral time, for lunch at a Mexican restaurant in a shopping center in the middle of Research Triangle Park. I got there first and grabbed a booth in the back with a clear view of the front door. They came in only a few minutes apart, Jim first, then Louise. Jim looked like he still played some ball but wasn't hitting the gym much, thinner than he had been during college but still carrying more muscle than when we first met. Louise was remarkably unchanged, perhaps a bit heavier but with the additional weight only filling out her figure and making her look even better than she had. We were all pretty awkward at first, but when I got them talking about their work, the conversation flowed easily.

"The use of nanotech in medicine is in its infancy," Jim said. "Drugs can take you only so far. Cloned parts are okay if the host body can handle the shock of the transplant surgery and if you can afford the cloning. Only nanotech can go right in and actually rebuild organs that aren't working well, destroy bad cells, and basically make you a literally new person."

"I didn't think the FDA had cleared any nanotech testing on humans yet," Louise said.

"It hasn't," Jim said. "The stupid government would rather make us twiddle our thumbs with animals than give us access to a decent group of subjects. It's not like it would be hard to find subjects, and everyone knows we won't be able to make real progress until we do. Yet the government won't even lift a finger to help. Do you have any idea how many prisoners would jump at the chance to risk one of our tests in exchange for an early release?"

Louise looked furious. "What if the tests go wrong? And even if the tests were to work out, what about the prisoners' rights? Wouldn't that kind of offer amount to coercion?"

"Sure," Jim said, "the tests could go badly. Some of the prisoners might die; I acknowledge that risk. It's not like we're talking about the cream of the crop of humanity here, Louise." He took a sip of his drink. "As for it being coercion, maybe, in some cases, it would be. In most cases, though, I think the prisoners would truly volunteer happily. More importantly, though, so what if it is coercion? For Christ's sake, they're prisoners; it's not like they didn't earn whatever happens to them."

I saw the fight brewing and though I was on Louise's side I didn't want to sit through it. "Louise, what is your research in?" I asked.

She glared at Jim but took the opportunity to change the subject. "I'm investigating possible uses of a type of math known as negative probabilities—it's primarily German, never really caught on here—in algorithms to mimic human vision. I'm working with a couple of people in the computer science department and a cognitive scientist in the psych department, and we think we're onto some pretty exciting stuff. Take our work, add it to some of the recent advances in direct neural feeds, and we might really be able to feed visual pattern data even to people without optic nerves so they could effectively see."

Jim shook his head. "Why use your giant machines to feed that data down some wire into a dead nerve, when with just a little slack from the government we could learn what it would take to make nano-machines that could rebuild all the missing parts, from the nerve on out? The ability to make that kind of repair doesn't have to be far off, you know."

Jim and Louise went back and forth for a while, until Louise said, "We've been talking about our work, Matt. What have you been up to? Are you still working with the same people?"

I looked her in the eyes as I spoke, hoping to see . . . I don't know what, maybe some sign that my having left would be important to her, or that she'd be interested in trying again. "No. I left a couple of years ago. A friend of mine and I opened a gym together, and we do odd jobs to make a little extra money." I didn't see whatever it was I was seeking, but I couldn't tell if that was because it wasn't there or because I looked away too quickly, embarrassed at lying to them but not willing to tell the truth, not there, not yet.

"That sounds like fun," she said.

Despite her words, Louise's body language convinced me she felt I was a total failure. Or maybe it was all inside me, maybe I just felt like a total failure simply because I wouldn't tell her everything I did. I couldn't tell the difference, couldn't separate the words she said from the way I expected her to feel about them.

The lunch ran out of steam quickly after that. Jim asked if he could come by and shoot some hoops and grab a workout some time, and I said sure and gave him my number. Louise said she'd keep in touch, and I knew she wouldn't.

When I got back to the gym I worked the squat rack until my legs were shaking and I felt the old rush of cleansing anger as all the mess-ups and dumb choices of the past seven years washed away in the purifying red haze. I did set after set until I couldn't do any more and I felt like I was going to throw up, and then I just sat on the floor, wishing things were different but not having a clue how to make the wishes come true. I'd made the choices I'd made, and I could go only forward, not back. Looking forward, I couldn't see how or even why Louise and I could be together again, but still I missed her and wondered over and over what my life might have been if I had stayed.

* * *

Way past midnight, I pulled the BMW into the parking lot of a motel near the ocean outside Savannah. It was very late, and the city was buttoned down for the night. At first I was too wired to sleep, so I walked to the beach and sat on the sand. Greg insisted on following, so I made him wrap a towel around his head and a bedspread from one of the two motel beds around his body. It was late enough and dark enough that I figured no one was likely to spot him, and anyone who did would just see a very tall, very thin man wrapped in a blanket against the slightly chilly evening.

I called R.C. and asked him to reach out to some of our police friends and see if there were any recent increases in missing-person reports in St. Pete or Tampa. As usual, he had nothing to say. I knew I'd hear from him when he had any information he felt we needed to discuss.

For a few minutes I tried to figure out just what was going on, what Jim was doing for the aliens, but after a while I finally accepted the simple fact that in the end the answer did not matter because it would not change what I had to do, that the details of whatever was going on would not stop me or change my mission. The sooner I found Jim, the sooner all of it ended. Time and again I've found myself in situations where I was desperate to understand the why of it all, the reasons for everything that was going on, and every single time I ended up having to act without all the knowledge I wanted. You learned what you could, but in the end, whether you understood everything or not, you did what you should.

I gave myself over to the sound of the waves. Growing up on the Gulf side of Florida, I had always found waves to be a special prize, a treat nature brought only when a storm disturbed the normal flatness of the Gulf of Mexico. That this treat was almost always available in the Atlantic was something I had never learned to take for granted, and waves never failed to calm and center me. When I realized my chin had hit my chest for the second time, I clung to the drowsiness and the calm and headed back to the motel, Greg in tow.

We slept well but still got a reasonably early start. We rolled into St. Pete late in the afternoon of a beautiful, cloud-free day. I was itchy for activity, an animal corralled in too tight a space for too long. We stayed on the freeway until we hit the middle of town, then I exited and parked in a lot near Haslam's, one of the city's few surviving private bookstores. I called R.C. to see what he had found. This time, after I identified myself, he spoke.

"The old Woodlawn community center."

"Are you sure?"

"It's now a warehouse for the county. The truck is parked under cover out back. It's him."

R.C. knew it was my play and he was backup, so I was sure he wouldn't go in before me.

"Thanks. I'm on the way." I started to hang up but realized he should have hung up first and hadn't. "What?"

"He's not this stupid. He kept the truck. He came here. He's expecting you."

It didn't change a thing, but I was still embarrassed for not realizing it earlier. "Yeah."

"I'm here," R.C. said, and then the phone went dead. I smiled; for R.C., that was a positively tender moment.

"Do you know where James Peterson is?" Greg asked.

"I think so," I said.

"Then drive me there," Greg said, "and we will take him and the materials we require." Greg stuck the upper arm on each side into his suit and withdrew in each one of the bagel-sized weapon disks. "Your job will then be done."

"No. I have to go there to be sure. If he is there, I'll need a little time alone with him to learn where the materials are. Then he's yours." I pointed at the weapons. "You've got the firepower to take us both. A little time won't hurt you, and it might make the difference between getting back the materials and having Jim leave them where someone else—maybe others from your guild—could find them."

I waited while Greg thought about it.

At length, he said, "That is acceptable."

I nodded, then got my bag out of the trunk and crawled into the backseat. I changed into a pair of shorts, a sleeveless sweatshirt, two pairs of socks, and my high-tops.

"What are you doing?" Greg asked.

"Jim's expecting me. The most comfortable ritual for us is to shoot—" I realized how Greg might misinterpret that just as I said it and quickly corrected myself "—play some basketball, so I figured I might as well be comfortable. It also gives me an excuse to carry a bag." I put the stubby shotgun in the gym bag, then covered it with a couple of small sweat towels and the basketball. I left the gym bag in the backseat, tossed the duffel back into the trunk, and climbed into the front.

I turned to face Greg. "What will you do with Jim when I give him to you?"

"As we have discussed," Greg said, "we are operating beyond the guild rules. That fact must not come to the guild's attention. So we must not allow James Peterson to be accessible."

"Let's talk about ways to make that happen," I said.

Greg listened as I talked, and when we had a deal, I headed the car up Sixteenth Street to the old community center.

* * *

After the lunch at the Mexican restaurant I didn't see Louise or Jim again until she surprised me by calling and asking me to join Jim and her for dinner at her place. Her home was a small but lovely old brick ranch house not far off Franklin Street in Chapel Hill. I knew no post-doc paid enough for her to afford the place, so I figured her parents were still helping her out. I felt the same mixture of disdain and envy I always experienced when I learned that other people's parents were helping them pay their way.

I arrived on time. Jim pulled in behind me just as I was getting out of my car. We walked up to the door together and knocked.

When Louise answered we were both so visibly shocked that she had to speak to get us to move. "Will you two stop staring and come in, please? I'm not contagious or anything like that."

Louise looked like a skeleton wrapped in parchment. Gone was the hair I had always adored, her scalp now completely bare. Her cheeks and eye sockets were sunken, and she moved slowly, carefully. I had thought she was thin in high school, but compared to now she had been plump then.

She led us to a living room with a sofa, a couple of chairs, a granite-topped fireplace, and framed photos on all the walls. I recognized many of the people in the photos, found myself in quite a few, and also noticed some with her and men I didn't know. I knew I had no right to the quick flash of jealousy and suppressed it.

After we all sat, I asked, "What's wrong, Louise?"

"That depends on what you're talking about," she said. "If you're talking about the way I look, the answer is the combination of radiation, chemo, and drug therapies I've been taking for the last four months. If you're talking about what's really wrong, it's the cancer."

"What kind do you have?" Jim asked.

She laughed. "I wish it were only one kind. The doctors don't know what came first or why, but I have both ovarian and renal cell."

She leaned forward, her elbows on her knees, and she looked so frail I was afraid her arms would crumble under her own weight. "I don't want to make a big deal out of this. I'm at peace with it, or at least I'm at peace with it most of the time. I've already stopped the therapies because I couldn't bear them any more. I didn't want to spend however many more days I have going to the hospital for therapy and then feeling sick afterward. I called you guys because I didn't want you to find out later, and because I wanted to see you while I was sure I could still have a decent time."

I wanted to scream, but I didn't know exactly why or at what. Instead, I felt myself go cold inside, the way I had trained myself to do when I was working, and I asked, "How long?"

"The doctors say that if I'm lucky, I might have as much as three more months. I'm more likely, though, to have only three or four more weeks. I've done a living will and worked everything out with my doctors and my family, because once my brain is gone I want them to let me go."

Jim appeared lost, staring into space, not able to look directly at her. "Have you tried everything?" he said.

"Everything I'm willing to try," she said. She stood. "And that's all I want to say about that. Now, if you can stand to be with the world's thinnest hairless woman, I've ordered some tasty Chinese take-out, and we can eat. I'm really enjoying my food now that the drugs and chemo have worn off, though my throat is still sore. I definitely don't worry about calories anymore."

I don't remember much about that dinner. I know I didn't eat much, and for all her talk of enjoying food, Louise ate even less. Louise and I did most of the talking, and Jim either listened or pretended to listen as he stared off into space. We talked about her house, about places I'd seen, about old times, and when she got tired, Jim and I cleaned up for her and headed for our cars.

He stopped me at the door to my car, grabbed my arm as I was reaching for the door handle. "Are you just going to let her die?" he asked.

The question uncorked the rage I'd bottled when she first told us, and I wanted to scream at him and hit him. Instead, I kept my voice level and asked, "What else can we do?"

"We can make her try more treatments, keep fighting, not give up," he said.

"No," I said, "we can't. We could try to talk her into it, but you heard her: she's endured all she's willing to take, and none of it has done any good. She's made her choice, and she's at peace with it, and that's it, that's all there is."

He threw my arm aside in disgust. "I cannot believe you're just giving up like that," he said. "You want to watch her die because you blew it with her and she dumped you? Is that it?"

I grabbed him by the throat and took him down to the road before he could even raise a hand to stop me. I fought to keep myself from crushing his larynx and quickly released my grip. "Jim, you know better than that, and you're lucky, very lucky, that I know you know better. Yeah, I blew it with her, but I've never wished her harm, and I never will. I don't have any choice but to respect her choice—and neither do you." I got into my car and drove off.

* * *

The truck I had seen in the security video at The Cat House was right where R.C. had said it would be, so I parked behind it and sat for a moment.

"Don't blow this, Greg. Wait for me, and I'll come back."

"And if you do not?"

"Then do what you want with him. The only way I won't come back is if I can't."

The truck was tucked under an overhang that had once protected a loading dock. The wall in front of it had provided rolling doors for the loading dock, but now boards covered where the doors had been. I carried the gym bag around to the right side, where I knew some courts stood outside one of the center's side doors, and walked over to the nearest hoop. I put the bag just off the court under the basket, grabbed the ball, and started shooting.

I was just beginning to work up a light sweat from some lay-up drills when Jim, dressed in some still-new gym clothes, came out of the door. He was more muscular than I remembered, but after his time in jail that only made sense. He rebounded one of my shots, dribbled out past where the foul line had once been, and took a shot. His form was as beautiful as ever: effortless leap, good extension at the ball's release, wrist held too long forward in the playground show-off mode he'd never outgrown, great rotation on the ball. Swish. I caught the ball as it was coming through and tossed it back to him. You make it, you get to take another; playground rules, the way we'd grown up.

We went back and forth that way for a while, just like old times, each always knowing where the other's shot would go. I felt my body relax into the rhythms of the court, and I enjoyed it for a few minutes. I could almost forget why I was there, all that had happened before. Almost.

The sun was going down when Jim spoke.

"Did they pay you in diamonds, too, Matt?"

"Yeah. When did you figure it?"

"The moment I got away. Who else could they call? It's a good thing for you they didn't know enough to realize you would have done it for free."

"I suppose so," I said. "You know more about this whole mess than I do."

He tossed me the ball and stared at me.

"You don't know what this is all about, do you?"

I walked over to the gym bag, put the ball inside, and grabbed a towel. As I dried my face, I said, "Not really. I know it's about putting you back in jail. That's enough for me."

He laughed. "That's amazing. Come on; I'll show you what your new friends were up to."

I dropped the towel into the bag and pulled out the shotgun. "Hold up, Jim."

He turned and looked first at the gun, then at me.

"You couldn't kill me before. You had to rely on the cops to take me where someone else could kill me." He shook his head, then turned around again and started walking. "Bring your toy and come see just what you're rescuing."

I kept the shotgun pointed at him and followed him into the building.

The walls of the place were piled high with old sports and recreation equipment: disassembled trampolines, tumbling mats, broken-down pool tables and ping-pong tables, boxes and boxes and boxes of who knows what. Jim had cleared a sizable section of the concrete floor and set up some old pool tables as work surfaces. The computers and microscope, a few racks of labeled vials, and some odd gear I did not recognize sat on three of the tables. On the fourth was a man who looked like a derelict on a three-day binge and who smelled worse, his arms and legs spread and bound by rope to the legs of the pool table. When I got closer I could see the blood dried around his eye sockets, ears, and mouth.

"Dead?" I said.

"Yeah," Jim answered. "I thought I had this thing figured out, but my first cut at it was too much for the body. The head bleeds out as soon as the machines start working."

"Your first cut at what?"

"Ah," Jim laughed, "that is what our new blue friends are so eager to cover up, isn't it? What they have built is really quite remarkable. A lot of people must have died before they got it right. You see, their nano-machines infiltrate the brain and bond to all the sensory connections and the key emotion centers. The machines record what you see and how you feel, then transmit it in real time in compressed form to a receiver like this one—" he pointed to the piece of equipment I had not recognized "—which decodes it into a signal they can interpret and use." He patted the box. "I confess I don't have their encoding standard completely worked out yet, but I'll get it."

"What's the point of all this, Jim?"

He laughed again. "Don't you see? We're the product here, Matt. Pump these nano-machines into one of us, and we become a walking show for the amusement of the aliens and their customers. Set up receivers around the planet, fill us all with the nano-machines, and they've got seven billion channels that are always on!" He paced in front of the equipment, visibly excited by the pure tech aspects of it, all implications irrelevant in the face of the technical challenge.

"So why did they need you? If they had this all figured out, why not just release the machines?"

"Because though the nano-machines may work, the signal they produce is trash. Two-thirds of the manufactured goods on this planet contain a processor and a transmitter, and all those processors are talking all the time. Our atmosphere is positively drenched with transmissions. Wherever they tested must have had way fewer transmissions or transmissions at different frequencies, because when they tried out the prototype here the broadcasts from the nano-machines were garbled—total garbage."

He walked over to the table that held the dead man. "My job was to get them a clear signal. I thought I could do it just by boosting the power a little and shifting to a less frequently used band, but as I said and as you can see—" he patted the corpse on the table "—the power increase is more than a body can bear."

* * *

For the next few days after Louise told Jim and me about her cancer, she and I talked almost every day. She didn't want to get together in person, but she seemed to enjoy chatting on the phone. She called a couple of the days, and I called the others. We talked about old times, her work, her family—everything but the cancer. So I wasn't surprised to hear her voice when I picked up the phone one afternoon, but I was surprised at what she said.

"Something's wrong. I'm hurting in different ways than usual, ways I don't think I should be hurting."

"Did you call your doctor?" I asked.

"Not yet, because I just saw him this morning, and I was fine—I mean, as fine as I get these days." She paused and I could hear her sucking in air, fighting the pain. "Nothing unusual was wrong, nothing to explain all this pain I'm feeling in my abdomen."

"Did you do anything unusual?"

"Not really," she said. "After the doctor appointment I stopped and picked up some flowers, then I met Jim for lunch—he finally called, you see, so I figured what the heck—and then I came home."

I thought about my last meeting with Jim, about the talk the three of us had had that day at lunch, about his research, about his mother, and my heart sank.

"Call your doctor," I said. "I'm coming over."

"Okay," she said. "I don't think you need to, but right now I wouldn't mind the company either. This feels weird."

I drove as fast as I could from our gym to her house. Along the way I dug out Jim's card and finally got him on his cell phone.

"What did you do?" I asked.

"She called you," Jim said.

"Yes. What did you do?"

"I made a choice," he said, "that's all. I couldn't just sit by and let her die. Maybe you could do that, but I couldn't."

"That wasn't your choice to make, Jim. She had a few more weeks, maybe a few more months, and now you may have taken those from her."

"Or I may have saved her."

"For your sake, I hope you're right," I said. "But even if you are it wasn't your choice to make. I'm on the way there now; I'll deal with you after I see her." I hung up.

Louise didn't answer my knock on her front door, but it was unlocked so I let myself in.

I found her lying on the floor in her bedroom. Her eyes were bloodshot, blood was coming from her ears and her mouth, and she was barely conscious. I knelt beside her, wanting to hold her but fearing contact might infect me and so unwilling to risk my life, too.

She looked at me. "Matt?"

"Yeah," I said.

"I think this is it."

My face and eyes were hot. "Yeah, it probably is."

"I thought I'd get more time, but it's okay," she said, "it really is okay."

"Sure," I said, knowing it wasn't, knowing she didn't have to die now, at this time, in this way.

Her head fell to one side, and it was over. I didn't bother to check for a pulse. The flow of blood picked up unnaturally, the nano-machines continuing to work, and I backed out of the room.

Jim came through the front door just as I finished explaining the situation to the 911 operator. Ignoring the operator's instructions to stay on the line, I dropped the phone and tackled Jim, taking him down hard. I hit him in the stomach and the face, then sat on his chest and pinned his arms. He spit blood and didn't resist.

"It didn't work, Jim. You killed her."

He looked genuinely sad, but I didn't care how he felt.

"I had to try, Matt. She wasn't going to do anything, and at least this treatment had a chance of working. The nano-machines should have been able to find and destroy the cancer cells. I really thought they could do it."

"Maybe they could have, but they didn't. They also destroyed her."

"I couldn't just let her die," he said. "Can't you see that?"

"No, dammit!" I screamed. "I don't see that at all. It was her choice, not yours."

"She was making the wrong choice," he said. "I couldn't let her do it when I knew there was a chance I could save her."

"It was her choice," I said. "Hers!"

I grabbed his throat with my left hand and began to squeeze. He tried to buck out from under me, but I kept him pinned, kept slowly increasing the pressure. I wanted to kill him, and I wanted to do it slowly.

"I'm the one holding you down, Jim, so I think I'm the one who gets to make the choice right now. How do you like it?"

I squeezed more, and I could see in his eyes that the lack of air was starting to really hurt him. I wanted so much to finish it, to crush his throat and kill him for what he did, but I didn't. I forced myself to let go of his throat, and then I stayed on top of him until the police arrived.

* * *

I looked again at the dead man and shook my head. "Why help them, Jim? What's in it for you?"

"I suppose I could say I helped them because they saved my life," he said, "but you'd know better than that." He leaned against the pool table that held the dead man. "I helped them because I knew I'd get a chance to steal this technology. Do you have any idea how valuable this technology will be once I perfect it? How much it could do for us? Imagine the possibilities. Want to know what your lover is really feeling? This can let you. Want to know what it's like to play in the NBA All-Star game? Now you can, even if you'll never be that good."

"What about the people you infect with these things?"

"Once I get it working, they won't suffer at all. I doubt they'll even know."

"That's not the point, Jim, and you know it. You can't just take control of other people's lives like this. They get to decide; not you."

"No, Matt, they don't. None of us gets to decide much of anything. Haven't you learned that yet? Governments decide to fight wars, and people go off and die. Companies that leave toxic materials where their employees work and ultimately cause the deaths of those people decades later are making fatal decisions for those people—and the people never even know it. Drivers who aren't paying attention kill other drivers who never had a choice in their fate. It happens all the time. This technology will be just one more way some people won't get to make choices."

I raised the gun. "No, Jim, it won't. It's wrong. I can't stop all the ways that people don't get to choose, but I can stop this. And I will."

He pushed off the table and walked toward me. He stopped six feet away.

"What are you going to do, Matt? You couldn't kill me before, and you can't kill me now. Oh, I believe you can kill, but you can't kill me because I won't fight back and because we're brothers, two of a kind."

"No. We were brothers. We haven't been that for a long time."

"Maybe not, but you still can't kill me, and you can't stop me without killing me." He turned his back on me and headed over to the table that held the computer. "Get out of here. Go tell them you couldn't find me, and let me get back to work."


He stopped and turned. "What?"

I pointed the shotgun at the ground in front of him. "You may be right that I can't kill you, but that doesn't matter. I don't have to kill you to stop you."

He opened his mouth to speak, but I could not hear what he said over the sound of the shotgun blast. The shot tore up the concrete in front of him, ripped small holes through his legs, and threw him backwards. He lay on the ground, his legs a pulpy mass, bleeding heavily, screaming.

I yelled over the screams. "You'll only suffer for a while, Jim. The aliens will fix you up; they've done it before. And when they're done, they'll take you away, because they can't afford to have anyone working on this stuff on Earth anymore. They may be back with this technology, but that's tomorrow's problem, and we'll have time to prepare." Shock was clearly setting in, and Jim had stopped screaming and was now whimpering in pain. "You'll be working for them for a very long time."

I grabbed a couple of vials from the rack, retrieved the gym bag from under the basket, wrapped the vials in the sweat towels, and put them and the shotgun in the bag. Our best hope was that the alien guild rules would keep this technology away long enough that we could figure out how to deal with it. I knew some researchers, some former colleagues of Jim's, whom I thought might be trustworthy enough to try. It wasn't a great chance, but it was a chance.

Greg was lying facedown on the ground beside the car, all of his arms spread, R.C. standing over him and holding a very large shotgun against his neck. Both of the disk weapons were on the ground behind R.C.

"Feel better?" I said to him.

R.C. smiled. "Much."

"Good. Now let him go."

R.C. raised an eyebrow.

"He and I have a deal. Don't we, Greg?"

"Yes," Greg said.

R.C. backed away, and Greg righted himself.

"Jim is inside. Call your people now, because he's hurt and you'll need to repair him."

"What about our materials?" Greg asked.

"Everything is inside."

"Did he succeed?"

"No. He said he still hadn't made it work. There's a dead man in there whose body is proof that Jim's telling the truth. You need to get rid of that body, too."

"Did James Peterson tell you what he was doing for us?"

"No," I said. I handed him the weapons. "Now, keep your part of the deal and get him out of here."

Greg put the weapons back in his suit and went silent for a moment. "A small ship is on the way and should be here momentarily. Though we dislike landings, we must conclude this affair quickly. You are done. You should leave."

"You'll take him away? You can take him anywhere you want, as long as it's not on this planet, but you will repair him and take him away?"

"Yes," Greg said. "We have found humans useful in many situations. Even though we cannot use him on this planet to continue his work, I am confident we will find a use for him elsewhere for a very long time."

I nodded and turned to R.C. Greg headed toward the building where Jim lay bleeding, and R.C. and I walked off to his truck. I felt the disturbance in the air before I heard the ship's very quiet approach, but I didn't look back to watch it land. I'd done what I could and what I should, and for now that had to be enough.


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