Within your head are many mansions. It’s a jungle in there.____Perry Cranberry, Comedian
“Okay, okay.” Sven brought the others up to date step by step, only failing to mention the fact that Gubby the Grub, deceased, had a family now dependent on the murder victim’s Guild pension for survival. “Once I got settled back under those nasty bushes, there wasn’t much to do but lay low. There’d be plenty of time to react, since I’d know what was going to happen the instant Ahot knew it.
“So I decided to use the time to check over the three manuals I’d kyped from the Guild. Glad I did. Maybe it’d be an overstatement to say they’re worth more than the Sorter and data chips combined, but one of them is a detailed operations manual for Higher Echelon Reps. Another lists who gets what data reports within the organization–that one let’s us see just how they’re internally structured, the chain of command, that sort of thing.
“And the third volume might just be a blueprint for constructing and maintaining both Boxes and Sorters. I can’t be sure on that one yet; it will take a computer engineer who eats calculus and craps physics to figure it out. But, boys and girl, we did make a haul.”
Kate interrupted, unable to help herself. “Why is the Guild so stupid they don’t have cameras in there?”
“In the rooms you were in. The data thingie and conference room and hallway between. That’s not logical.”
“Oh, but it is. Security cameras, even now, still use memory chips to record what they see. What if even one security employee went rogue and decided to smuggle out pictures of the Sorter in action or Inner Circle Seeders in conference? All he’d need to do would be duplicate a chip before routinely erasing it!
“The conference rooms don’t even have audio pickups for that selfsame reason. There are panic buttons and intercoms, but that’s all. And to be fair, who would think a lone raider could get through three layers of heavily guarded outer rooms, all of which do have full camera coverage?”
“Me. I would.”
“Well, me too,” the Seeder admitted, “But then, I cheated big time and got lucky–or had some big time spiritual protection, however that went. Anyway, back to the story.
“Along about midnight, the Chairman decided to send in the Interrogatory Team, the IT. I’d have soiled my pants except the smell would have made me easier to detect. I was one scared sumbitch.”
“That’s when I felt you,” Kate nodded. “I knew it was very very bad.”
“Yeah. It certainly looked that way.
“Normally, it would take hours to run even a cursory check on just one man’s inner universe, and that’s with sticking to a few common search areas, scouting them in a hurry and then hustling on to the next guy. A thorough search, mind you, would require days, maybe even weeks. But most of us Seeders are creatures of extreme habit. We heavily favor certain Launch In sites, like my preference for the moment of birth on the causal plane. If the IT narrowed its focus, checking only the half dozen most commonly used sites on a preliminary search, they might–I thought–be able to scan one dude every hour.
“Until fatigue caught up to them and they had to rest, that is.
“When I first saw the IT, things looked so bleak I lost it and started laughing hysterically. Ever tried to shut your own butt up because loud can get you dead, yet still things just seem too funny for words? Anybody but Kate, that is? No?
“Well, these IT guys are something else. Never seen anything like them. Not a one under six feet, two hundred pounds, muscles top to bottom, side to side, and front to back. Packing heat enough to fry a moose, everything from the latest EMP and laser weapons to handheld freaking rockets. I mean, those boys could mess you up. They obviously weren’t intending on playing pattycake; if they caught me, those mofos were going to kill my a**.”
Kate started crying.
“Hey, baby, hey. They didn’t. Close calls don’t count.”
Gene Trask put his arm around her shoulders. She quieted to mere sniffles.
“At least I wasn’t going to have long to wait. They launched into him minutes after I’d figured out how I was going to fight, and they found my trail right off. If I stayed put for another hour at most, I’d be toast.
“So I backtracked to a nasty piece of jungle and laid an ambush. Big, nasty python was going to argue over that particular tree limb, but it finally got tired of me bugging it like a zoo monkey throwing its own feces at tourists. Slithered off someplace. I got settled, hoping like crazy it wasn’t the type to sneak back around and eat me. Then I waited some more.
“Pretty soon, along comes the IT. Their leader was a weird looking character, tall, must have been close to seven feet, wore a black deflector cape over his uniform. His head was long and narrow, a skinny sort of oblong. Spooky, but I brain-tackled him anyway; there weren’t really any other options. Launched in when he passed under my perch, and there I was, checking out a nursery full of skinny-headed newborns.”
“Wait a minute.” Gene lifted a blue-veined hand. “You mean you went inside the search team leader?”
“Yep. And no, I’d never tried launching into someone who was already inside someone else. But I didn’t have much to lose by trying, now did I? Once in, I got my tail over to his Records Center and started messing with his memories. Pretty soon he turned to his crew and announced they’d been wrong; they were following a worthless trail. Put there by a Soul traveler, maybe, but nobody using a Box.
“I don’t know if the others believed him or not, but they didn’t argue, just followed him to the nearest Dead Zone and launched back Out. He didn’t bother to tell them why he’d changed his mind about the trail, just told Ahot he was free to go until after his appointment with Mr. Burberry Mansk today.”
“Uh-oh.” Pete saw where this was heading. “You mean our Eurasian friend had to go back to the Guild building today?”
“Big time. The IT Commander wanted to run some more tests, figure out if they could identify who was making those ‘false’ trails. They’ll comb through that boy until they figure out the trail was real after all…and then they’ll know they’ve been had. Fortune smiling, I won’t be clearly identified as the Seeder who did it, but they’ll know it was a Box. Without a doubt.”
“Wait a minute.”
“How come you’re not still stuck inside the security dude?”
“Oh. I didn’t say that?”
Just then, the car topped a rise and Pittsburgh–what was left of it–came into view. Three flattened buildings for every one still standing, rubble rubble everywhere, not a tree in sight.
“Maybe I should wait to finish until–”
“Only kidding. Well, that was as it turned out the trickiest maneuver of all…and then some. I’d launched in without being detected, but that was from a stable perch in deep jungle from a point some fifteen feet above the target. I couldn’t launch back out while were were still among the trees, since I needed to hover above the IT and didn’t dare risk smacking into a jungle giant or even that blasted python.”
“No sh*t,” Gene muttered.
“And if I launched in the open, I risked being spotted immediately, helicoptering over their heads like some demented fruit bat on meth, just hoping they were too stupid to look up. Fortunately, they picked a low-light Dead Zone, sort of a twilight area, no shadows.” He laughed at the image. “I just about didn’t make it, launched out okay, but then it felt like I was slipping in the air, trying hold my balance and my breath all at the same time. Mighty good thing none of those boys ever played Speed Calibration the way I did. They actually looked down at their hands when they punched in their coordinates.
“Zap! Away they went. A second later, whap! Down I came, belly flopped on the grass next to a grown-over tombstone. Took the wind right out of me.”
Kate’s little red head whipped around the other direction, straining a muscle she chose to ignore. “You were lying there at dark in the middle of a graveyard? Ee-ew-w-w!”
“Hey, at least they weren’t my bones buried there! And I’d done what I had to do, gotten back out of the team leader while remaining inside Ajki.”
Pete chuckled. “Good point.”
“Anyway, all I had to do then was get my a** back to my original point in those same nasty bushes, then hunker down until Ahot got to the Burberry Mansk mansion so I could launch back Out. Only trouble was, I hadn’t taken enough food when I launched in originally–barely enough water–and I didn’t dare fall asleep.
“Good thing I figured how to launch from the Edge, though. I mean, I couldn’t have made it back to a bona fide Dead Zone no matter what. I’d locked up in that position you saw in the mansion, no electolytes, no body fuel. End of the line; it was all I could do to time it right coming Out.”
Gene turned, raising one bushy white eyebrow. “How do you feel Sven? No bull, now.”
“I feel like 20 or 30 railway cars flattened me like a pancake and then a whole herd of cows dumped on me for topping,” the Seeder admitted cheerfully. “My left knee aches like a bastard, and I’ve got to pee about as bad as you must, you old fart. How do you feel?”
“Mmm…not bad. Not bad at all, actually. You know, Ahot AJki really did help me. Now that we know you’re going to live so Pete and I don’t have to listen to Kate scream like a the north wind pooping snow bricks, I’m thinking this was kind of fun.”
“Hey!” Kate yelled sharply, hurting every male ear in the vehicle, “If you two crazy bastards ever think you’re going to try one of these capers again, I’ll kill you myself!”
“Capers?” Pete asked.
“Capers?” Gene echoed.
Sven laughed. “I love you too, baby. And Pete, I’ll love you if you’ll just whip into that recharging station just ahead.”
Kate sang. “Whip it in and whip it out before the kidneys get the gout!”
“That doesn’t make sense, honey.”
“So Life does?”
“A topic for another time. Pete, why are you shaking your head?”
Their driver turned the wheel to hit the offramp. “Well, boys and girl,” he chuckled, “We aren’t exactly home free just yet…but things be definitely back to normal.”