Five minutes before the airlane turnoff to his private estate, the Jovian coupe’s throb alarm shuddered through his body. Dang. Trouble. Only two sources knew that code, neither of them likely to be spreading joy at this time of day.
Hunh. Guild summons. Better than a family crisis, what with three elderly mothers between the three of them and only one of the old girls in reasonably good health. A Guild call-in might also mean something nasty, but at least they had decent food at the Building. He checked his position and punched in the message acknowledging the summons, added a notation pinning down a 4:00 p.m. E.T.A., then shifted the SkyHorse over to automatic pilot. No fun driving on manual, not now that his daydream of a peaceful evening at home had been derailed.
Not that Teal and Fawn wouldn’t greet him with joy whenever he did make it to the house. A little absence would let their notably soft hearts grow fonder. Keep rationalizing, Seeder, he told himself silently. Keep convincing yourself this life is the one you love.
Well, such was life in EC, and not just as a Guild operative, either. Delays, meetings, politics, smog…. The monster megalopolis had existed as such for far longer than Garrett had been alive, a blurred East Coast merging of what had once been a dozen major cities, maybe more. Some said even Census records might be unreliable in ol’ EC, what with nearly a billion Souls living and fighting and dying here. Sometimes dying hard in these oceans of poverty lightly speckled with occasional glittering islands of conspicuous wealth.
His route took him over those seas of suffering for the most part, rabbit warrens of suspicion, hate, and despair lacking either the will or the funding to prevent air traffic from web-netting their airspace on the order of a million plus times per day.
Current vehicle production standards kept the most deadly forms of pollution down to a safe enough minimum, a level that still killed millions upon millions of subsistence level subhumans but did so at a rate too slow to prove in court.
Sound pollution? Another matter entirely.
Not that he wasted much time thinking about the slummies. No profit in that. More amusing to mentally review Jupiter’s ill fated attempt to conquer Earth. Oh, the Jovians had invaded successfully enough. Up to a point. Their overconfidence reminded Garrett of an ancient news clip he’d stumbled across one day while browsing through Guild Library archives. A U.S. President–Tree? No…President Bush, that was it. Bush had seen his own American troops go thundering into the capitol of some country in the Mideast and immediately declared,
It was worth a chuckle for sure. By New Year’s Day, 2026, no one other than the ceftifiably insane religious fanatics found it possible to keep on believing homo sapiens was the only sentient species in the universe. Plenty of suicides, homicides, religious conversions, you name it. Interestingly enough, many scientists and science fiction writers of that day turned out to be among those who couldn’t handle the truth.
Most of those know-it-all types had confidently predicted that beings born and raised on Jupiter, if they existed, would turn out to be built like Sherman tanks with muscles to shame a quarter horse because of the gas giant’s overwhelming gravity. In truth, the sons of Jupiter were beanpoles, eight to twelve feet in height, thin and springy as a good fishing rod. No amount of anorexia among humans even came close. Their first battle commander, eventually killed by Earthling guerrilas, measured out at just under eleven feet in length and ninety-seven pounds….and that was with at least a pound of good old fashioned backwoods homemeade illegal Arkansas lead stuck firmly in his gizzard.
For nearly a century, frustrated Jovians attempted to colonize barbaric Earth. They had the lead in technology, certainly. Just as certainly, they were able to prevent local Earthside governments from creating a strike force with the capability of hurting them on their home planet. Like the white man taking over the continent long occupied by none but the red race, the Jovies brought overwhelming weapons to bear: Superior organizational structure, a worldview totally incomprehensible to the natives, technology, disease, and sheer numbers.
Yet even with all of that, Jupiter Colonial had to give up and go home in the end, grudgingly admitting they simply couldn’t match Earth’s combination of junk yard dog mentality allied with outside-the-box thinking and sheer “anything goes” treachery.
During the first ten years following the initial Jovian landings, more than ten thousand separate militias had formed with one specific goal in mind: Kick the Twiggies (as the Jovians were sneeringly called). Official governments formed covert units which sometimes opposed the militia cells, sometimes cooperated with them. Pointing out anything good about a Twiggie was a sure route to getting your throat cut, were you an Earthman.
Many history teachers thought Horla eb Dcour, the Jovian saddled with the task of formally announcing Jupiter’s final withdrawal from Earth in 2119, said it best.
“You Earthies have many qualities both good and bad, tut there is one thing aboute you which defeated our purpose from the start. This is youre tendencee to manyness while being a onenesse. By thiss is meant there are so manee differente wayes of thinkging among you, it became imposssible for uss to guesse which tacticc of manee might bee used against uss.
“It might bee a collum patience belyinge the storme about too breake. It might bee an opene refusall to accepte anee quittinge the strugggle shorte of deathe. It might bee an appearance of accepatance that was nott accepatance at alle. Butt the greateste onenesse underlying ale these seeminde deeferences, I thinn you were gladd wee came. Tooo manee of ou love to fighte the waye oure people love a goode gass operra. Youe were happee wee hadd come too bee ann enemee so you coulde unite againste uss and kille uss ande itt didn’t mattere iff youre owne families died, that just maede youe happeer to kille uss. So wee will goe nowe, butt I wille give youe something too thin aboute. A fewe thousande yeeares frome nowe, looke oute fore Plutoe.”
Of course, that speech suffered badly from its tortuous route through various computerized translators. No single language could accommodate both Earthian and Jovian concepts, let alone grammar. Linguists did agree on one thing: The textbook version of eb Dcour’s words remained the most accurate edition available.
Some Guild members strongly suspected Box technology had played a part in the demise of Jupiter’s expansionist dreams on Earth. Certainly the Guild had risen to power during that time, but…. It would have been something, Boxing into a Jovian’s inner worlds. Any such adventure would most likely have killed the Seeder ten times out of ten. Too alien, too many unknowns. Space opera hacks write regularly about adventurers blithely going where no pfsark has gone before, but could it actually be done in real life?
Not likely. Not likely at all.
Hell, he’d personally had a nasty adjustment as a young cadet, struggling terribly to make the shift from South Dakota to the hustle-bustle of EC, and that took place on his home planet. On his home continent. In his home country, for Pete’s sake. What woud it be like to launch into a complely alien universe? Despite his essentially entrepeneurial nature, the answer to that one had to be No Thank You, Bub. Some of his clients did have bizarre inner worlds, all right, and he’d seen some strange stuff in dreams and during contemplation. Yet even so….
“Welcome, Garrett.” The parking garage computer at the massive, heavily fortified Guild Building knew his retinal scan, naturally, and greeted him in a clear, feminine voice. “Long time no see.”
Something about that Barbie Doll soprano coming from the big GB logo ticked him off. Maybe it was the incongruity of hearing a corporate symbol covered in twenty-four karat gold sounding like a hooker programmed to appeal to every pedophile in the city. Or not. Who knew.
“Never long enough for me,” he replied in a flat tone, automatically checking all locks and alarms before turning his baby over to Big G-String. The garage got its name from the laser braid cable that served as the central spinal cord for the entire building, No one remembered the lesser wit who’d thought of the name, but the name itself had stuck.
“I’m wounded,” the garage whined. Garrett did not react; it was a freaking machine after all. Alive in its way. Fair to middling level of artificial intelligence. But a machine.
Three men and one woman waited in the small conference room assigned to Sector 60, all fellow field Reps except for Harlan Johnson. Serving as Administrator of the Sector these past three years, the old man had a simple, old line name and a simple, old line approach to business. He worked harder than anyone else, and he took care of his people.
“Hey, Garrett,” the boss wheezed, “Grab a tray. You just came off assignment, right?”
“Right. Thanks, Harl.” Seeding was hungry work; every Rep knew that. The long catering counter yielded a chili cheeseburger (John Carr Simbrah beef for the burger, only the best for the Guild), a full quarter of a cherry pie, and a quart bottle of Jovian Demise. Despite its ominous name, JD was a soft drink; few Seeders drank to excess and several–Garrett Di Marco among them–touched no alcohol whatsoever.
“That’s right,” Jenny Santha Lee nodded as he took a seat at her right and began to eat. “You still eat meat, don’t you?”
“All I can cram down,” he mumbled around a mouthful, not bothering to turn his head to acknowledge the stocky brunette. “How’s business?”
“Not bad. Not bad at all. Wonny and I have done three team visits in the past month. Very profitable.” She gestured across the table to a slightly too smooth young black man with the physique of a body builder and the morals of an inner city pimp. How Won Ton Sampson had managed to avoid running afoul of Guild Standards, no one had the faintest idea. Not that anyone challenged his ability in the field. The guy was good, maybe the only Rep still living who could out-Seed even the legendary Garrett Di Marco.
Garrett did not like him.
The other man in the room was easygoing Ahot Ajki, tall and thin enough that most believed widely circulated stories about Jovian genes being grafted onto his family tree a few generations earlier. Other than that, he was mostly Eurasian and a genius at survival.
Garrett liked Ahot as much as he disliked Won Ton.
“Down to business, gentlemen.” Harlan J’s gaze included Jenny. The Guild made no bones about its practical chauvinism. A woman could be a Seeder, no problem at all. But to other Guild members, she was a man while on duty. If a girl didn’t like it, she could go sling Holstein burgers at a fast food joint.
A sudden coughing fit prevented the Administrator from continuing for nearly a full minute. Everyone else pretended it wasn’t happening. Although a few affluent humans were living to one hundred and fifty years of age or even more, Seeders tended to die early. Harl had been the oldest active Rep in Guild history when he’d finally been booted upstairs at age fifty-seven. Health problems. More than half of all Seeders retired in their mid-thirties with only a handful working past the age of forty.
Like football, Seeding was a young man’s game.
“Sorry about that.” One final throat clearing, a long swig of some bright green drink in a heavy crystal mug, and the briefing continued. “We’ve got two items on the agenda today. Number one: Be extra careful out there. We’ve confirmed A.S.P. does exist.”
Stunned silence greeted his announcement. Garrett forgot to chew for a moment, swallowed noisily, cleared his throat. “You mean….”
“Yep. The Anti Seeder Project is not a tabloid fairy tale after all. Two of our Security hotshots backtrailed a Sling Sleaze so called journalist and found a cell hut. We decided to call it that because that’s what it was: They operated out of a–well, I guess you could say a shack–situated in the warrens about three miles outside of what used to be Fort Meade. Yep. Right here in EC, boys and bozos.”
Clearly shaken, Won Ton Sampson put a long fingered, elegantly manicured hand in the air. “Yo, boss, are you saying we snagged people, machinery, what? This isn’t easy info, so lay it on us straight, okay?”
For once he was echoing Garrett’s rattled thoughts exactly.
“No,” Harlan admitted sadly. Why he was sad became obvious as he told them the rest. “Neither machine nor live body. No, no. No dead bodies, either. The place was actually pretty clean if that’s a word you can apply to anywhere in those warrens. But our guys were able to scan the place and came up with several DNA traces. That’s hard to avoid if you’ve been living in a place–of course, you all know that. I’m not triying to talk at kindergarten level here, troops.
“Well, anyway, one of the people who’d been there, and thus one we have to assume spoke to the Sleaze Slinger, matched a profile in our files.”
The Seeders looked at each other. Guild power was considerable but its computers did not contain a database for the entire world’s population. Only two categories of individuals were comprehensively scanned and catalogued by the Guild, and not one of the Reps thought for a second their boss was referring to a client.
“That’s right, boys and boo-boos. One of our own. Or,” he studied the now grimly intense faces before him, “He used to be. The name Gertie came up with was John Battig.”
“But….” The first to respond, albeit hesitantly and with strain clear in her voice, was Jenn. “John was killed five years ago. Car wreck, right?”
“Yep.” Harlan simply waited, letting them come to their own conclusions. No one in the room had an IQ under one-fifty. They were all street smart, highly educated, and accustomed to operating in dimensions considered fantasy by the majority of humanity even today. He was not disappointed; his people all got to the mental intersection at about the same time.
“That’s right.” The Administrator took another pull from his mug before continuing. “He was reported dead, and the Sling Sleaze came up with that hate line about how the Guild loves a loyal lackey. Now, is there anybody in this room who couldn’t fake his own death, convincingly mind you, if he were so inclined? Eh? No? Didn’t think so. Battig is alive. And we all know from Security briefings that John Y. Battig, Senior Seeder, began to publicly doubt the Guild teachings a good two years prior to his supposed demise. He was finally stripped of his Box, all Guild implants were removed, his SkyCar had its garage codes recycled, and we booted his sorry heretic tail out the door.
“Gentlemen, the floor is open.”