Monday, December 19, 2011

Looking Into the Near Future

In SF, we tend to look a few hundred years into the future, and deal in starships and extrasolar worlds. I've always wanted to look out into the Solar System, the real estate of the Real Future, and I've been looking over George Friedman's shoulder, into his crystal ball, particularly his last two books, 'The Next Decade' and rereading 'The Next 100 Years' (they sound like the same book, but the difference of focus is key, and he looks more closely at Brazil in 'TND', a country I expect to see as a major space power), trying to come up with a new near future setting, one that doesn't involve hand-wavium and near-magic, but does involve the development of the Moon and the NEAs...
He thinks we will have to re-fight the cold war with Russia, in miniature, on more time... supporting Poland and Eastern Europe against a resurgent Russia, while Germany and Western Europe stays out of it. Later, Eastern Europe and Turkey would expand into the region, physically or at least economically dominating things, especially Turkey, whose time has come round again, thanks in part to the mess we have left in Iraq and the Arab Spring (too soon for GF to have added that to his speculations in 'The Next Decade', but I can read the tea leaves a little bit, too 8-).
Brazil, in South America, and Angola, in Africa, both have a special relationship (BrazAnga!). They are Portuguese-speaking countries, and Angola has cheap labor and resources Brazil needs as it reaches its internal limits and looks around to outsource some of its economy, like we did, to China and elsewhere, and which China in turn did to SE Asia. I think that maybe in the late 21st C, the US, which considers the Pacific to be its personal lake, at least from Hawaii back to the mainland, and the North Atlantic to be a 'pond', will acquiesce to Brazilian South Atlantic power. Turkey will be a regional naval power, from the Black Sea to the Persian Gulf, all places that the US is less and less interested in any more. India will probably be our proxy in the IO by the late 21st Century.
Coastal and South China will call the shots in the future, not Beijing. It is cruising for a bruising right now, crony capitalism on steroids, with bad debts at 25% to 40%, twice what Japan experienced in the 90's. The only question is how far it will fall apart, and how far the central government will go to crush dissent a generation after Tienamen Square.
By my musings, the US is still the big guy at the end of the 21st C, with a 1/4 Quadrillon dollars GNP, but the Gross World Product may be $1.5 to $2 Q at this point, because I'm sure everybody who can is growing just a little bit faster than the Big Dog, over a long time. Even if the GWP is $1 Quadrillion, no worries; that's still ~20 times what it is today, and it implies a new source of energy, probably offworld solar or He3, or both. For the US, we'll be fracking for natural gas and using more coal in the near future, and dealing with the environmental damage, as and when. Per-maybe-haps we'll come around to nukes in a can, and 'burn' up some of our nuclear waste before that ticking time bomb goes off; maybe. But at some point we will need to look up, and go up and out, to secure the new source of power we'll need in the next hundred years.
The numbers are pure fantasy, grounded in my imperfect understanding of what I've read and my prejudices, but they imply that all but one of the 'Next Five' will be in Eurasia- Turkey, India, (South) China, and Japan, all nicely balancing each other so that there is no dominant Eurasian power. Brazil is probably more troublesome, a South Atlantic power with a foothold in Africa, but Nigeria, South Africa and Argentina are available to oppose it, and Poland (which will lead Eastern Europe against Russia, get lots of goodies, but not all, after it falls apart, and protect a declining Western Europe by default), Iran, Indonesia, Vietnam, and the Philippines will serve as buffer states elsewhere. Australia will probably be looking for a friend, now and always, and we can keep her, if we play nice. Turkey controls much of the Middle East and as much of North Africa as it can, hemmed in by Poland, Nigeria and Iran, and rattling sabers with India.
What I've taken away from the two books looks like this- China and Russia crumble due to wars and internal troubles. Russia is dismembered and marginalized by Turkey and Eastern Europe; Japan gets Maritime Russia in the West as a protectorate. It also develops interests in coastal China, as does everybody else. As time goes on, Turkey and Japan become regional powers, offset by Poland, Eastern Europe, and Iran in the West and by India, China and United Korea in the East. Turkey probably guarantees Japan's access to Saudi oil for a little while longer, but everybody will be kicking the hydrocarbon habit eventually.
In the thirties Brazil is growing as a power across the South Atlantic in Angola and southern Africa. The US moves to oppose this through Argentina, South Africa and Nigeria, already a regional power and now beginning to really grow, industrially, the fruits of stability and investment in education and infrastructure is paying off in a take-off like Brazil now. It has a similar size population, but a long way to grow to catch up.
I have Brazil growing explosively in my spreadsheet, so it will look like a threat on our front door step, too close to ignore. The US will over-react, leading to a nazi-fication of Brazil in the media, and we will probably be preoccupied with the South Atlantic while Turkey is growing into a potential problem. GF has Turkey and Japan trying to develop spheres of interest in Eurasia, which the US will oppose, having seen off Russia and China as threats and we never want to see any one country dominating the 'world island', and becoming a threat to American power. If they ally and act together, as GF have them doing in 2050, they could achieve their goals, or just a likely get smacked down. The US would go to India, a resurgent and re-aligned China, and smaller regional powers like Poland, as counterweights, allies and proxies.
In the long run, just a gut feeling, but I think that Brazil and Japan will be space powers. I don't see Japan going away, but I do see it having another 'lost decade' if it does go down to defeat, as GF has them doing in the 2050 War. China, India, and Turkey, too, for I don't think you can grow in the last half of 21st Century without space power, either force or energy. Countries that don't go into space will eventually be marginalized, like Russia, and become either victims or quaint backwaters.
In 2050 the 'Big 4' are the USA, Japan and China, who have swapped places again, followed closely by Brazil. Again, these numbers are pure fabrication, but I can work with this. The US economy is three times as big as it is today, and the population is a third larger (there are about half a billion people in North America, just as the population of Europe has fallen towards half a billion). All three are about half as big as the US, and bigger, economically, than the USA is today, great powers with suborbital space planes, oh my. Turkey and India are not far behind; watching each other uneasily in Central Asia and the Indian Ocean, plus their combined weight is about equal to any of the preceding three. The next five economies after the US add up to nearly twice its economic power.
George Friedman doesn't address this, but I will. From this point on, space power and dominance becomes imperative. The US will still try to control the seas, as a great trading power, but in the last half of the 21st Century we might see the US making territorial claims on the Moon because it is the new high ground. As an American, I say- 'Sweet!' But as a human being, I say- 'Oh shit.'
My model has the US growing quickly in the 50s and 60s, fueled by cheap energy and lots of it, plus developing heavy orbital industry. China rides along, Japan turns aside for a little bit, and Brazil also loses its way for a while. Turkey and India both grow quickly, with Turkey growing into its empire and realizing untapped potential in a stabilized Middle East. India is still industrializing on the ground, but growing into space as well.
China pulls ahead of Japan again, Brazil powers up and gains on China, a long stern chase through the seventies and eighties. During this time, GF sees a crisis unfolding with Mexico and the borderland in the Southwest, so I throttle the American economy back a little. Seven decades from now it's ten times as big. As it is now, China's is nearly half as big, as is Brazil's. These two are no threat to each other and share enemies, plus a resentment of nearly a century of American power; its hubris and carelessness. They are both interested in space power, and may force some sort of concession. It's hard to imagine the balance of power system falling apart, but they might back each other against the USA, leading to a world of squabbling great powers that can make the former superpower back off.
Oh shit, squared.

 
https://docs.google.com/spreadsheet/ccc?key=0An8sUusc114SdHFnVkhKQlpTdzlQcVZHMjBwQTc3MGc&hl=en_US#gid=0

Friday, December 16, 2011

Planetary Security


I obsess about manned space travel, going to other worlds in the solar system for fun and profit, but one thing is really short-sighted; why aren't we doing more about falling rocks? One small comet or asteroid could take out a city, wreck a country or a continent, and a large enough bit of celestial bad news could end us as a civilization or a species.

Proof of large impacts is available nearly every night, when we look up at the moon. The round shapes of certain seas and bays is proof on the globe which we all live, work and play on, that such things can happen, have happened, and certainly will happen again.

We shouldn't send people into space just because a few of us would sell our souls for the privilege. No, we should be sending manned crews, right now, to the Near Earth Asteroids, to know our enemy, to figure out how to move space rock, or gravel, or nasty ices of methane, ammonia and water. These are things we need to do because it is prudent to prepare for the worst, because we are capable of doing something about the threat, and because we really need to stop thinking that one small world, the third rock from the sun, is all there is to the universe. We need to go outside of ourselves again, like we did during the Apollo missions, when we went to another world, however briefly.

Let Go

A guy is learning how to shoot with a bow, and his teacher tells him to draw the arrow back in one fluid motion, aim, and- "When you let go, let your anger go with it."

I liked that... every formal martial art, and most of the informal ones, have certain philosophies of force. I do not think that it is any less moral to assert yourself in preemptive self-defence, or in a measured display or use of force, than it is to go to the store and buy hamburger. In the one case, you have imposed your will on another, to prevent the other from imposing their will upon you. In the case of the hamburger, you have hired a killing, for food. The death of an animal was reacquired, so you could eat; 'death is the high cost of living.'

I don't know how to fight, and yet I think that everybody should be taught the basics, for confidence and self-defense, if for no other reason. I know, within me, there is a vicious, blood-thirsty thing which wants to see my enemies messily dead, wants revenge in kind, and more, wants to escalate. It scares the hell out of me, and I know that I would be a better human being if I was to deal with that, one fine day.

That's what I want; not saints, but better human beings. Ones inclined to mercy, justice, benign self-interest, faith, hope, and charity. All of our better angels, and none of the demons with which we must wrestle for our souls.

Thursday, December 15, 2011

New Years' Musings

I'm a little early, but I was thinking today about how my writing year has gone. I've made no big story sales; I'm grateful to the two people who bought a story over on Smashwords, but I'm going nowhere fast...

Last year, I had a bit of success with getting nearly a dozen short bits published on Everyday Weirdness. I also got a story on Tales of World War Z, and then a few more. This year, I've had a bit more success with ToWWZ- 'Lifeboat Captains' got a lot of praise, and I'm writing sequels, eventually, but I still need to figure some things out, I guess.

It helps to have goals, achieveable, measurable goals. To that end-
  1. I will make myself write my 500 words every day, and 5K words every week!
  2. I will finish a story every week!
  3. I will finish one of my poor step-child novel-interrupises, starting with 'Barbara Wednesdays' Treasure' by my birthday in April.
  4. I will revise and collect some of my stories, my Tales of the Conservancy.
  5. I will finish 'The Unknown Fantasy Kingdom' as a novella and get it up as an ebook, somewhere, by summer.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

6th Part of my 73 part conquest of the solar system!

A 1,000 meter Solar Power Bubble would generate 10 MW of power, roughly 12 hours a day. My earlier estimates are 11.1 million kg of bubble, for about $33M. Per StarTram, I need my mass-driver up at 22 km altitude, where air density, mass and potential buoyancy has halved four times, to 1/16th, so the air in the 1 km SPB masses about 40 million kg. We need to heat the air up a lot more, but it's already cold at that altitude, and since there's less of it to heat, we can afford to divert power into heating the air, beyond the passive amount we've been counting on. We need to heat the air up, on average, by 90 degrees C, from around 270 K (probably less; -3 C is ~27 degrees F). Even if we are dealing with 96 degrees, divided by sixteen, and multiplied by ten, we only have to come up with the equivalent of 60 degrees worth of heat, whereas the 100 meter SPB needed 73 degrees. Thermal mass, and the heaviness of same, is probably more important.

I'm going to wave my hands some more about the mass of the mass driver. I really can't see it adding more than a few thousand tonnes per km, but I could be wrong... the thing is going to stick out like a sore thumb in thermal, is all! These things only really make sense as remote power generation, communications and space launch platforms for microsats, which I expect to be the norm. $100M is too much, if someone can provide orbital launch services from a spaceplane first-stage, or a high-altitude aerostat. A demonstration mass driver, 300 km long, launching at 60 m/s^2, would cost over ten billion dollars, and still need a kicker stage to get it from 6 km/s to orbit...

36 GWhr of power per day. A 3 tonne orbiter to 6,000 m/s is 108 billion joules, 30 MWhr of electricity. We can do 1200 of these a day, 50 an hour, one every 72 seconds, or 30 per hour during the daytime hours, every 36 seconds. Six gees is high, especially with working parts, rocket engines that must fire to get the orbiter safely into orbit. But we should be able to put a tonne of payload on orbit at a time, and reuse the orbiters, or cannibalize them for spare parts.

The best thing would be to not have to get the orbiter all the way to orbital velocity, using hypersonic skyhooks. The center of mass is in a higher, slower orbit, with the lower end at 100 to 200 km altitude. The high end is moving too fast for it's altitude, and objects released from there go into escape trajectories. The lower end of the tether experiences about half a gee of acceleration, a little over 4 meters, and the outer tether is under roughly the same, outward, drag. An electromagnetic motor, powered remotely by SPB or by solar power in orbit, pushes against the Earth's magnetic field, making up the losses from cargo going up and out.

If we already have the skyhook, we can lower the acceleration by half to 30 m/s^2 on passenger flights, increase the launch time but reduce the velocity, and then use on-board thrusters to accelerate to match the 6 kps of the lower end of the skyhook. Or we could double the length of the mass driver, and double the through-put, too. Each launch takes twice as long, 200 seconds, under half the acceleration for twice the distance. But we could double the cargo capacity of an orbiter which is going up to the skyhook, and have a few passengers in each 3 tonne orbiter, which returns and deploys a para-wing to land, perhaps even under power.

I don't really see the demand for this thing, beyond tourists to the lower end of the skyhook, who then go up to an orbital hotel at midpoint/midway station, for a spectacular view of the Earth. Say about twelve flights per day, eighty per week, four thousand a year, mostly for a few thousand tourists, a few hundred scientists, engineers and space workers going up and coming back down a few times a year... $10 billion plus for that works out to $2.5 million per flight, for the first year, plus operating costs, then just operating costs. If you need it to pay for itself and replace itself inside of 5 years, that's $4 billion a year and $1 million per flight, $1,000 per kg or $1/2 million per seat, assuming each orbiter is a two-seater, or a three-seater with one pilot (and the 'pilot' is most likely a company man, dead-heading while the computer flies).

These are expensive propositions, but if this thing takes off, the cost goes down, the more the cheaper it gets. At five percent of capacity and twenty thousand launches per year, that's $200/kg and $100,000 per seat. I think we could get there in five years, at which point the thing can afford to operate at cost, and prices fall, use soars... well, probably. Is thirty to sixty thousand tourists in the first five years reasonable? Not really. Eventually, but not soon. Even with 500 tourists, and as many added every year for ten years, that's less than 28,000 in that time, more likely and more reasonable.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Catching Moon Dust for Fun and Profit

Alright, I was playing around with an old idea again, something Paul Birch talked about with his Orbital Ring System and Kingsbury also elaborated on for his LEO port in one of his novels, 'Moon Goddess and The Son' (talk about the future not being what it once was- that dates back to the Eighties and had a number of assumptions that went away along with the end of the Cold War!)

Falling Moon rock, kicked out of the lunar gravity well and dropped down to Earth is moving at just under escape velocity, or about 11 kilometers per second. A kilogram @ 11,000 meters/s^2 has 121 million joules of energy, or about 33 kilowatt hours worth of electricity- a dollars worth @ $.03/kWhr. If we already had a mass driver on the edge of the atmosphere, which is to say, either an Orbital Ring System, a Lofstrom Launch Loop, or a Forward Fountain Bridge reaching up to space (so you see, the idea has been around, and reinvented constantly! 8-), we could have the worlds' tallest dam going... if we already had the ORS/LLL/FFB or any of the other things that would make cheap access to space and developing the Solar System possible.

Sigh.

I did work out an orbital ring system, purely back-of-the-envelope, based on a 16 KPS matter-stream dyanmicly supporting three times as much stuff- the containment for the mass-beam/matter-stream, orbiters  and cargo, passengers and spaceport infrastructure. At 12 tonnes per kilometer, and a 100 miles/160 km altitude, that would be just under half a millon tonnes of megastructure. A bridge on the edge of space, with ladders hanging down to let us climb up to heaven, hook a ride on some very fast matter and accelerate escape velocity. Outgoing traffic, infalling mass, a mass transit system to make the poor old Space Shuttle look like a joke...

Thursday, December 1, 2011

December 1st, and NaNoWriMo is over...

I haven't been writing in my blog, and I'd like to do something about that, so I'm going to try to write at least a little something every day in December... I said 'try', but there is 'do or do not', dongma? 8-P

I feel strangely like I should be doing something... oh yeah, this is National Novel Finishing Month! Or December, whichever! Thanks for the support, and now I'm going to get back to the things I led slide for a month; the unfinished space opera story, the Oscars 2011 assignment I have due next Sunday (whatever that was 8-), the next story for ToWWZ, turning Barbara Wednesday's Treasure into a novella, oh, and figuring what I'm going to do with my nano, which is either half a novella or the bare bones of a novel, with great big holes, tons of revision, characters that need to refocused, two or more redundant characters that need to be combined, etc.

Funny how 'Just write!' got me to 'Whoa, now what?' It ain't such a bad place to be, but, honestly, if I get my 500 words, or 700 words, tonight, and then goof off, watch Burn Notice, that'll be nice.


BTW, I realized today that I wrote 21K words about spaceships without a single alien... I don't think I chose to do that consciously, although it may have been influenced by Firefly in a way, and Joss Whedon's Space Western didn't have any 'noids or freaky starfish aliens. I gots to write me a first contact yarn, right about... now! 8-P

Time to go in search of the elusive frosty and then maybe I'll go to bed early- or per-maybe-haps I'll work on 'The Man Who Would Build Spaceships' and then to bed. Anything could happen...

Sunday, November 27, 2011

3rd Part of My 2011 Nano

Romantic Retreat, Interrupted
We went on a little retreat, just the critical people you might say... I don't know if I was really that crucial, but I'm sure that I was there because Meiguo was going, and I'm his boss. Dolan had some plans for us, but they were preempted, first by No Such Agency, or something even more black and secretive, perfect for getting my inner conspiracy theorist going, and there was also a third party with extreme views on the shipstone.
The retreat was up in the mountains, on the state line between PA and NY state. Just a few cabins and a lodge by a lake still open even this late in the off-season, or else Dolan got it re-opened for us. The lake was a heat-sink, still pretty warm even in late fall and given to fog in the morning, the waters just nearly warm enough for a polar bear. A few romantic fools braved it in little row boats- Meiguo and Beatrice, of course, and couple from Materials Testing. They were out early Saturday morning, and I waved to them while I was taking a walk around the lake after breakfast. That seemed like about the limits of off-season activities up here, but it was good enough for me. I was going to break out my laptop when I got back to my cabin and work up the next step in my project, unless Dolan decided to fill us in on why he wanted us up here before then. He said he wanted us together for lunch, so I thought I had the rest of the morning for myself.
I saw the two black SUVs drive up to the lodge, one stopping long enough for two men to hop out. Dressed in black and carrying weapons, but no identifying markings like 'FBI', so I got off the path, behind a tree and on my cell phone as fast as I could. No signal.
We had service up here; the cell phones and laptops had worked fine last night, so somebody didn't want is us communicating with each other or the outside world. The possibilities were, if not infinite, then at least a very large number. More than I cared to dwell on, out here in the cold, wanting to run, and yet wanting to help my friends. But the main thing which sent me creeping around, trying to sneak back to the lodge, was curiosity, damnable curiosity, which killed the cat.
I got to a good vantage point, of where the deck at the back of the lodge, freshly swept clear of snow, was full of my friends and coworkers. I saw Dolan arguing with one man in black who seemed to be in charge. They went on for three minutes by the clock on my cell, which was still without signal, and then everyone was sat down and the man in black and my boss talked at the people. I was far enough away that I couldn't hear what was said, but there was annoyance, but little real anger, so I started to relax. That was when I became aware of another one of the unknowns, coming up the path from the Lodge.
I felt like an idiot at I suddenly worked out what he was doing; my vantage point was important for securing the place. I couldn't see how I was going to get away without being spotted, and the man was coming right towards me. I backed up behind a fallen log, cursing silently. What to do?
I looked back and saw the man in the body armor had stopped, gun up but not quite pointed at Dr. Sparks. where had Tom come from, Damn it!
"Sir, hold it right there," the intruder told him and reached for his comm, on his shoulder. Sparks stepped toward him and the man stopped trying to talk to his people, the gun coming down and covering the organic chemist now. I don't know my guns, but it was a futuristic-looking piece of hardware, like something out of a dystopian SF flick. I could easily imagine it spitting out a lot of hurt.
"I'm afraid I got myself lost out here in the woods," the Doc said rather feebly, or rather, he seemed to me to be obviously acting. The man snarled and advanced in a threatening manner, reversing the long arm as if to hit the old man with the rifle butt.
"Don't pull any crap with me, you old fart," the soldier said, lowering the butt and looking just a little uncomfortable. Maybe ashamed of himself. I jumped up to make what surely would have been a futile attempt at subduing him. At the very least I got his attention just as Meiguo came up silently behind him and put him in a head-lock, applying steady pressure to his carotid arteries.
"Of course he knew how to do that," I groaned to myself. The advanced rifle fell but Sparks caught it. The light went out of the mans' eyes and Meiguo eased him to the ground.
"Is he dead?"
"Unconscious. We need to tying him up and-" Beatrice threw some rope at him, and he looked lost. There may be a few things he's not good at... which is okay with me, because I really suck at sneaking around in the woods, don't I?
"What's going on?" I demanded of the three of them. I grabbed the rope and tied the guy up, then shook him. He didn't stir, either faking it or completely out of it.
The Doc looked uncomfortable, but Bea was never one to mince words. "It's possible his Uncle brought us u here to hand us over-"
"No!" Meiguo shouted, very angry for once. I whistled. Sometimes that kid acted a little like the reincarnation of the Buddha. Bea and Sparks shushed him.
"Do you want them up here?" Beatrice said sharply, and Doc Sparks looked like he wanted to commit mitosis, split right down the middle and try to work on calming them both down. I chuckled and interrupted thoughtfully.
"The way Dolan was arguing with the man down there just now, I doubt that. But it wouldn't surprise me a bit if somebody suggested this to him, with this in mind, or maybe something else-"
Something wet sprayed on my face, and I turned to Sparks as I wiped it off. There was blood on my hand and the Doc looked very surprised. He stumbled, half pushing and half falling, saying, "I think I've been shot..."
I tackled all three of them and we went down in in a tangle. Beatrice cried out and I felt something tear across the back of my shoulder painfully, and a buzz like a wasp. Something wet immediately started trickling down my back and I felt a draft where two big holes had been torn through my clothing.
"Bea, you hit?" I said, grunting as the crease in my shoulder started to hurt, a lot. I've had a few close calls with power tools, but this was the worse pain I'd ever felt, a line of fire from right behind and under my right armpit and on up the middle of my back. I suppose I was lucky; just then I was thinking about how close all this had passed to my spine, my neck, the back of my skull... Doc Sparks wasn't moving.
"Doc!?"
"I'm okay," Beatrice said, which was a lie; I could see where she was holding her shoulder, another near miss. But she was concentrating on Sparks, applying pressure with her other hand to a hole in his side which was leaking an alarming amount of blood. Meiguo was gone.
"Where's Meiguo?"
The soldier I'd tied up coughed and turned over towards us. He was awake and glaring at me. "Untie me!"
I ignored him and he added, "That other guy with the moves ran off towards the sniper. Let me help or we're all dead, starting with him!"
I dug my leatherman out, painfully, and cut the rope. Then I handed him his shiny rifle. He turned over on his belly with a little cover and started firing, muttering, "Damn civilians, gonna get myself killed over a bunch of damn amateurs-"
A bullet struck the log he was using for cover and he rolled away and behind some roots.
"Get the hell down!" He fired wildly without exposing himself, in the general direction of the bullets.
"Hey, Meiguo-"
"I'm way high, and he needs the distraction, if he's gonna pull this off." But he stopped and peeked, getting back down quickly. "I don't see him, which is good, maybe the sniper doesn't either-"
A few shots rang out.
"Well, he's shooting at something, I guess I'd better do what I can to help..." he carefully sighted fired three three quick shots and took cover again. A few close misses struck near him and where Beatrice was working to save the Doc, then a couple more at something else.
"How's the Doc?"
"He needs a real paramedic, and somebody who knows what they're doing," Beatrice said angrily. There were tears streaming down her face, and streaks of blood. "I'm barely getting a pulse on him, he's unconscious but in a lot of pain, and the blood is so damn dark..."
"Kidney or liver, probably the liver," the soldier commented. "Too bad, that old man probably saved my life, even if you all fucked things sideways..." He fired again, and then he fell back, sprawling, the rifle falling from lifeless fingers. There was a hole under his left eye and gore leaking out under the back of his helmet.
I stared at the dead man, and we heard two more quick shots, right on top of each other, and then nothing. "Meiguo," Beatrice sobbed, and then she looked down at Tom Sparks, eyes wide. "No!"
I crabbed around low, shoulder hurting but I had to know... I took Tom's left hand, but there was no pulse. I held it hard for nearly a minute; nothing. And no more shots, either. Because we weren't showing ourselves? I bobbed my head up into view and back down as fast as I could, then again, feeling stupid. Then, increasingly brave, I stood up next to a tree.
I saw Meiguo making his way back to us. He was staggering, bloody, and a lot of the blood had to be his, leaking out of a hole in his shoulder. He reached us and went to his knees.
"Just a little bit too slow..." and he leaned over, hands on the ground, and threw up. His hands were gory and torn.
"You got him?" I asked after a little bit.
Meiguo leaned back against the base of the tree, looking at the dead soldier by his side. "She's very... dead. I left her rifle; I broke it."
I blinked and thought that one over, looked at his torn hands, and nodded. We all started as sounds of screams and gun-fire came up the hill from the lodge.
"My Uncle," Meiguo said, getting wearily to his feet.
"You sit your ass back down!" He'd lost a lot of blood already; all that adrenaline must have had his heart pumping like crazy. But he wasn't listening to me, and with a cry Bea tore herself away from Sparks. She hit him hard enough that they almost went down, but they kept their feet, just barely.
"Don't!"
Meiguo was smiling at her, and leaning hard on her. "You remember when you said you hated John Wayne and I said that I did too? I lied."
I looked down at Tom and the guy whose name we still didn't know, who had died for all of us anyway, and prayed that this wasn't a big fucking mistake. "I guess we'd better see what we can do to help..."

7016 + 1987 = 9003
Not a Mistake
I looked down at Tom and the guy who's name we still didn't know, who had died for all of us anyway, and prayed that this wasn't a big fucking mistake. "I guess we'd better see what we can do to help..."
We went down the hill to the lodge at a very slow pace, Beatrice helping Meiguo. I got under his other arm when he stumbled again, and we parked him on some firewood stacked behind the little outbuilding where the lodge kept the grounds keeping equipment.
"You stay with him," I told Beatrice.
"Why, because I'm a girl?"
"No, because you'd just be worrying about him, instead," I told her. And because you're a girl, I thought. I wouldn't be able to concentrate, worrying about her and Meiguo both. She relented; not that she would ever have admitted it, but I suspect that she was glad of a reason to stay with her boyfriend.
Does it need to be any more complicated than that?
I shouldn't have left them. I'll regret that till the day I die.
My right shoulder was numb from the cold, the two big holes in my clothes were good for that much. I went around to the back of the lodge, under the patio, to the back doors of the place, the kitchen and the storerooms. The delivery trucks backed down a ramp on the west side of the lodge, and one of the black SUVs I'd seen earlier was there, dead men-in-black body armor fallen by the vehicle, drivers' side, shoot-gun and at the back door. One of the lodge staff was face-down in front of the delivery door, shot in the back running away from whatever or whoever had taken the MIB down, I thought. All four were cooling corpses.
Six dead people, two of them people I had known and one of whom I'd loved like an uncle, was about my limit. I leaned against the building and would probably have been sick, if I hadn't heard a female voice, calling for help. I sighed, a shuddering of my whole being and sucked in a deep breath of that cold clean air, and went around the open door, low like I'd seen on TV. Nobody shot at me, and I kept moving, trying to not be a sitting duck.
I tripped over the woman; some hero I was. I caught myself on a prep table; I was at the back of the kitchen, right by the walk-in freezer. Most of the lights were out and it looked like there had been a lot of shooting in here. I kneeled by the woman.
"Hey," I said, and she focused on me. A local woman, maybe a cook, she had a cut on her head which looked a lot worse than it probably was. It looked like she'd been shot n her upper left leg, through the outer thigh. That I could maybe do something about, taking a hopefully clean rag from the prep table and wrapping it around her leg over the wound. I tied it loose and put her left hand over it.
"Press down on this. Who are you, and what did you see?" Part of that was curiosity and part of it was what I'd heard and seen about- keep the victim talking, find out what you can about the situation. Keep them calm and, yeah, try to keep calm yourself.
"Ann, Annie Pitt. I run the kitchen and-" her eyes filled up with tears as she rememered. "The first set of them were scary and mean, but they didn't kill people! The others came in, shooting everybody, shot my boy Freddie in the back!" she sobbed, quietly, already spent. I thought about Tom, and then Meiguo, Bea and the rest of them. I shook her lightly.
"What else? I need to know more, I need to-"
There was more gun-fire, a battle on the floor above us. I left Annie and ran for the stairs.

9,003 + 626 = 9,629 words

End of the Line
The ground floor was even with the parking lot. I came up the stairs by the main entrance and lobby. Behind the check-in desk facing the doors was the dining room and the patio at the back of the place, the North facing part. The stairs were to the West, the parking lot to the South, and conference rooms lay to the East. The gun-fire had died down, but I heard a few more shots, and shouting.
"You're at the end of the line in here. We came to kill some of these people, but we don't have to kill you-"
"Whoever you are, you've killed half of my agents. I'd start running if I were you, and not stop."
"Brave talk, for a dead man. I want Dolan, Sparks, and Leguin, and that's the end of it. I only get paid for the brains behind this..."
I was just a little insulted, but what does a working man expect? I got across the lobby and I was ten feet from the mercenary, maybe thirty feet up the way from the leader of these men in black. I still didn't know who they were for sure, but they didn't want us dead, a vast improvement over the other guy. The killers must have them pinned down there.
"Who wants me dead?" It was Mr. Dolan.
"Somehow I don't think the folks paying to kill you would appreciate me telling you. Would you?"
Dolan laughed. "I can't say that I would, no. Nor would I trust a man who doesn't stay bought-"
"Dolan, shut the hell up!"
"But I have a counter-offer. Your lives."
"Dolan!"
"Mr. Bester, you had your chance, now let me try to salvage this."
"You are threatening me and mine, as a counter-offer?" The mercenary sounded more amused than offended.
"Yes."
Things were very quiet.
"Say your piece, ass-hole."
"Walk away from this if you want to live. I promise you, you don't have to worry about Bester or the government; you need to worry about me."
"We're out of time," someone else said quietly, in the little knot of killers. I glanced around, saw four of them. One reached for something on his harness. I didn't know what it was until he reached for a tab on it.
"Here's what I have to say to that, Mr. Dolan!" He held the grenade up for his men to see and said, quietly, "We make sure, and then we get the hell out of here."
I was moving before I even thought about it. One of the men shouted something, but I grabbed their leaders' hand after he pulled the pin, before he could throw it, and he dropped it as we struggled for the grenade. I kicked it into the corner, their corner, and turned and ran back around the wall. One of the killers grabbed me, and pulled me back, and he was between me and the grenade when it went off. Mostly.
Something rang my bell pretty damn good.

9,629 + 505 = 10,134


The Next Bit
I didn't exactly lose consciousness, but I was looking at a blurry world. The mercenary who had grabbed me had saved my life, taking the brunt of the blast. He was in ribbons, like bloody, undercooked hamburger, and the top of his head was gone. Somebody over on the other side of the wall to the lobby, which now had several substantial holes in it, was keening like a horse with a broken leg. It was a truly pitiable sound, of mindless pain. Distantly I heard more gunfire, but this was closer than it seemed, in my ringing ears. The men in black were leapfrogging this way. One of them looked in at what was left of the man, and then shot him.
"Poor bastard..."
I was suddenly in the crossfire as two mercenaries fired on the men in black from the dining room, and three more joined them from the front door. This provided enough cover for those two to make it to the stairs and down, while the three out front faded back into the bright sunshine outside.
They were going to get away and I leaned against the wall, not really caring at this point, just glad to be alive after the grenade business. And then I heard four more shots, two and then two more, from outside, off towards that maintenance shed.
I went back out the same way in which I had come in, a dead Annie barely registering. Someone shot at me in a half-hearted fashion as I got out the delivery door, and then the mercenaries roared off in one of the black SUVs. A half dozen got away, out of how many? I panted, running for the shed as men in black shouted behind me. I didn’t stop.
Beatrice and Meiguo were laying tangled where they fallen, a double-tap to each head. At least they had died together, I remember thinking. Tom was up the hill with a dead stranger, and I turned to go. The rest of it is a jumble of images, as the world turned on its side. I suppose I fell down and blacked out.
***
I woke up in a hospital bed. Dolan was sleeping beside me, the next bed over. Great, now I was recovery buddies with my boss... I took inventory of my aches and pains and was happy, on the balance, with the result. The shoulder hurt a little, and there were a few stitches under some bandages on my forehead.
I was alive, and the only thing bad about that was that so many of my friends were not.
"You're awake," a man said. I saw him standing at the door. "May I come in?"
I shrugged and winced. "Ow! Uhm, who are you?"
He held out a hand for me to shake. "Agent Bester; make that Chief Bester, and never mind which agency. You don't need or want to know!"
"I really don't," I agreed. I frowned, for Bester was still holding my hand.
"We had a bad day the other day- when my team has a bad day, people die. Half of my team, and many of your friends. But thanks to you, not all of them." He suddenly grinned. "That was crazy-brave, my friend. Thank you!"
Bester took a seat by my hospital bed. "But mostly it was crazy. Why? Why did you do it?"
"I'm not brave, or suicidal. They probably would have killed me on the way out the door. So it seemed like a good idea, at the time..."
Bester stared at me, then he sat back I his chair and laughed. "'...seemed like a good idea-'"
"-at the time, yes."
"I wish I had a dozen of you, Mr. Hobson!"
"Any one of my friends would have done the same. Any one of them..."
"That's my opinion of Meiguo, and Beatrice, and Thomas, as well," Dolan said, sitting up painfully, or trying to. "My legs-"
"What's wrong with him?" I demanded of Bester.
"Maybe I should get the doctor-" he said, getting up.
"Or you could just tell me what you know, what he's-"
"She. Doctor Rebecca Varley."
"What she would tell me anyway. I'd say you know a little bit, and it's bad."
"Yeah... you really do need to talk with her, but you got hit low in your back by some flying shrapnel." He looked uncomfortable.
"When was this?" I asked.
"Mr. Dolan caught a bullet, or part of one, when those thugs were getting away, trying to keep us from following so closely." Bester turned to Dolan. "I'm sorry, but you should have stayed down, stayed back."
"I needed to find my nephew." Bester looked away, and I closed my eyes. Beatrice, Meiguo, Thomas and how many others?
"He's dead?" Neither of us answered, and he said again, louder, angry, "Is. He. Dead!?"
"Yes," I said.
Dolan turned away from us. "Go away, please."
"I'm sorry for your loss." The man in black stood up and made his way out of the room.
The silence stretched out for minutes and I wanted to fill it up, but there was nothing to say. I don't have any family left, living, and I haven't for a long time now. Certainly no sister, or nephew to take the place of children of his own.
Dolan turned back to me, saw me looking at him, sighed.
"My sister was older than me. I was ten when she went away to college, dropped out, had adventures, finished school and set off to save the world. She started with China... was pre-occupied with it." He turned back to me. "I rebelled against her, you see. I was mad at her for going away, a lot of things."
"I don't understand, what about your parents?"
Dolan shook his head. "She was always more of a mother, a parent..."
"Why are you telling me all of this?"
He bit his lip. "I tried to make up for what I threw away with my sister, with my nephew, and I'd be telling him all this, but I can't, now, can I?"
He turned his face back to the wall, and that was that.

2nd Part of My 2011 Nano

Meddler
Doc Sharp was an inveterate meddler, not a joiner per se, but those groups of which he was a part, he really took part in. The stories of his 'social engineering' are the stuff of legend...
He was a great planner and an excellent expediter and troubleshooter. His genius at Molecular solutions was to wander around, adding value quietly, confronting problems and false starts in an ego-easing, non-threatening way. Paranoid geniuses (and very few smart people were as secure as Tom; "There’s always some young punk of a grad student gunning for your work and position," as I’d once overheard) saw him coming and smiled. People regularly dropped by and talked until, hours later, they left re-energized, problem solved or reduced, or maybe with insight and a totally new direction in which to look for answers. They called it the 'Spark'.
Tom had a plan- The Plan, he called it, and it was very nearly as comprehensive as that makes it sound. It was a tactical and strategic blueprint for the roll-out of the Shipstone, and he got it by jogging an elbow here, dropping a loaded question there, by turns squashing egos, or boosting them. He encouraged my hobby, and got Beatrice looking at spin-offs along with her Nobel dreams. Meiguo he took pains to get to know, before he put him rather agreeably into the harness.
***
"So what did you guys talk about at lunch?" I asked Meiguo a few days after he'd started. Sparks had kept him an hour longer than he was supposed to. I was annoyed, but I wasn't going to make that big a deal over it. I liked them both, and the kid was the bosses' nephew after all.
He had a funny expression. "Travel, the different places where we'd lived. He's been to my- he'd been to where I grew up."
"In China?"
"Yeah."
"What was that like?"
Meiguo shrugged. I sighed.
"Alright, my little minion, back to work."
He didn't turn to his work right away. "Mr. Hobson-"
"I told you, call me Luke."
"What do you think of Doctor Sparks?"
I shrugged. "I like him. Don't you? For that matter, isn't he like Beatrice's mentor or something?"
"Something like that. I don't know about Sparks. Likeable, Bea really likes him, but he's, I don't know..."
"Pushy?"
"That's one word for it. Maybe... manipulative?"
"He's definitely that. He has a certain charm to him- charisma we called it in my moldy old D&D days. There are definitely leaders of men, like your uncle, who are all about bending other people's wills to his own vision. Making money, ruining competitors, surviving the economic storm. A bit of a pirate." Meiguo was laughing.
"Sparks isn't like that, but he does have the charisma thing. He has things he wants, mind you, but they aren't exclusively for himself. I think he would have made a good priest or reverend, I don't even know his religion-"
"Agnostic," Meiguo put in. "It came up."
"Did it, now? He never asked me..." But thinking back on it, we had talked about God and philosophy from time to time. Somehow that had never seemed strange, thus my impression of him as a good preacher man. Maybe he was a man of God without being in your face about it.
"So what does he want?"
"He wants people to be happy, to succeed. He gets a lot of mileage out of figuring people out, and then he puts things in their path, or asks a question, makes a remark, finds out what they might need, and arranges that they can get it. He doesn't give it away, or steal your accomplishments. He helps you to be more... you."
"God's Tom," Meiguo muttered. "From Stephen King's 'The Stand'. When they hypnotized the retarded man, Tom Cullen- did you ever read it, 'The Stand'?"
"Luddite though he is, I read King. 'The Mist' and 'The Stand' are his best ones."
"When they hypnotize Tom, to send him as a spy into enemy territory, they speak with another personality, who identifies himself as 'God's Tom'." Meiguo put a hand to his forehead. "That stayed with me, here and also here," he moved the hand to over his heart. "I'm a Christian and a Buddhist, I don't see where the two have to be exclusive, and I converted in a little basement church in the village where I grew up. They have to take that one passage to heart over there, about going into a room and shutting the door to pray quietly? My minister and his congregation bear witness with humility and grace."
"I told Sparks about all of that... it's weird, that his name is Tom, isn't it?"
I shrugged. I find that universe is a pretty interesting place to be. We are built to find patterns and make our own meaning. "Yeah, it is strange..."
"So we're all God's Tom, in our own way, trying to be more perfectly ourselves. And this guy, Doctor Sparks is all about that, so I guess I trust him."
"What did he suggest, for you?"
"He didn't really seem to be hinting at anything, but we did talk about how some martial arts focus on being reactive, and redirecting your opponents' energy."
So he had handed the kid a leading question, then. I smiled and said gruffly, "Well, enough with the talking, more with the working, alright?"
Meiguo laughed.
Obligatory PDA
(I can't write a love scene, per se, these two aren't my MC, Luke is! Sigh 8-)
The next day I came in to the shop, way too early in the AM, and I found Bea and Meiguo necking. I backed out as quickly and quietly as I could and went to get a fresher cup of coffee. When I came back, I made a little discrete noise. They were both still there, as expected. Meiguo had the good grace to look a little embarrassed, but Beatrice gave me a rather annoyed look.
"Like the show?" Apparently she'd seen me earlier, I guess.
"Yes."
She blinked and left in a huff, the line in her forehead more pronounced. She's a pretty young woman, when she's not angry at the world for it not bowing to her desires. She's more often given to smiles than to frowns, but I don't let her have an inch these days. I do mourn the loss of her sunny smile, though, and the laugh lines at the corners of her mouth.
"Woman wants," I told Meiguo cryptically.
"Wants what?" He said, perplexed.
"Oh brother, are you in trouble!" I laughed at his further clueless-ness, and he joined me a little uncertainly. Then we got to it.
Judy
Judy Sharp is the Doc's wife of nearly forty years; they met in college, dated but didn't really fall in love until later, when they were both working for Uncle Dupie. She had majored in Law and minored in Chemistry, and had worked in patent law. She retired when the company grew smaller and elected not to try to get into a partnership or start up her own practice late in life, and she writes freelance instead. They moved a little north of their old home of thirty years and got a place within walking distance of Molecular Solutions when the Doc signed on. No children; they either couldn't, or didn't want them, but I tend to think the former. She's not the busybody her husband can be, but she is like an aunt or a second mother to some us.
Judy wanted to throw welcome party for Meiguo; no doubt she knows the real score, but a simple thing like B&E and corporate espionage wouldn't stop her. I imagine it only added spice to the enterprise, and the lady does know how to throw a party. She's a little bit Martha Stewart, and little bit, hmm, Mel Streep. She likes a little zing in her get-togethers, if you know what I mean...
In the event, the party turned out to be smaller and quieter than I'd expected. Instead of a packed crowd spilling out onto the back deck and the fire pit, a mere two dozen guests were there, and they dwindled into an after party with purpose.
"Lukie-boy, you want to join us in the corner by the piano?" Tom went around to the other guests; Mr. Dolan and his date, a local realtor who had sold me my house, as it happened, Meiguo and Beatrice, Jim Mera, a guy I knew from accounting, and a few others. Some of them were people I'd never seen before at these parties, actually, but I did notice a pattern. They were all well, not to put too fine a point on it, troublesome. Jim, the guy in accounting, had gone to Dolan over an error that might not have been a simple mistake; the offending party had left the company shortly there after.
Dolan was the last to join us, his date leaving because she had "an early day tomorrow." I winced at the tone and the look on her face. Dolan didn't look very happy, either. He took a seat, the last space available, on the couch with his nephew and Beatrice.
"What's this all about, Sparks?"
"I've been concerned, for the last few days, that we aren't doing enough to prepare," Sparks said.
"The new substance? I've got people working on that... people who handle the roll out of new products all the time."
"I understand that, I do. And I know that their are other people looking into, uh, the military applications."
Beatrice looked like she'd bitten into something nasty at this point, and Meiguo leaned over to say something to her.
"This doesn't really concern-"
"With respect, sir, yes it does."
Mr. Dolan stood up, turning to go and reaching for his keys, but Meiguo jumped up and put a hand on his shoulder. "Uncle Mike? Please. Listen to the man. What could it hurt?"
Dolan sat back down. "Tom whatever you have to say, make it good. I don't need this shit!" He rubbed his face in his hands and then added, "Sorry, Judy."
"Don't be. I know all about this, of course, and this is bigger than our stocks, bigger than our individual lives."
Dolan glared at Tom, who simply shrugged. "She drugged it out of me..."
"Dragged?" Meiguo said.
"Drugged; she plied me with alcohol. A few Yuenglings and a 'you look troubled dear,' plus a very fine old Scotch Whiskey. Loosened my tongue right up, you see-"
"About the Shipstone, before my head explodes?"
Tom settled down. "Shipstone changes everything, and we are the ones who understand it best, if we really do. We are morally obligated to choose wisely for the entire species-"
"Don't you think I know that?"
"You do, but you still don't grasp how this will change literally everything."
"Tell me, oh wise grey-beard, who's this close to losing his job..."
"Are you going to fire me again, Mike?"
Mr. Dolan snorted. "Yeah, because that works so very well..."
I think that maybe Judy was the only other person in on their little joke, and we were not laughing. But Dolan visibly relaxed, stole his nephews' beer, and had a slug of it. "Alright. I'm bent. Straighten me."
"This is an emergency, ad hoc planning committee. I've talked to each of you about this, and I want to go around the room, get each of your thoughts. Let's start with..." his eye fell on Jim Mera, "Jim from accounting."
Jim looked around nervously, ending up with Dolan, who gave him a thumbs up. "Well, the big picture is energy. It's a big part of the economy, and cheap energy drives growth... the shipstone will make leveling of wind and solar truly feasible, but the really big thing will be the way it stands to decentralize the power grid. We should look into private power production and distribution, and service contracts for domestic and commercial Shipstones-"
"Residential and commercial? What about liability on that?"
"We've got to satisfy the EPA and OSHA anyway; once we clear those hurdles, and Underwriters Laboraties..." he went on like that for a while.
"Is it going to replace oil?" I asked.
Jim scratched his head. "The question is how fast, and how much? In Europe and Japan, major importers of oil, they'll want to kick the habit as fast as possible. Oil, petroleum is going to be with us as an industrial feedstock for a long time yet, but demand for oil to burn is going to fall off in a big way. You don't want to be in oil for years to come. This'll take a long time to shake out."
I glanced at Meiguo. "What about China?"
Jim looked his way and shrugged. "I'm working on an overview, and I'm not a China expert. They depend on us to buy cheap consumer goods from them, which we won't be doing if the world economy gets disrupted in a big way by Shipstone, and it will. Plus they've outsourced some of the production to other countries in Southeast Asia just like Taiwan and Hong Kong originally outsourced manufacturing to southern China. The Chinese get some things from us, too... cheap oil will be good for them, but they'll transition to Shipstone as soon as they can, and we know, historically, they don't respect copyright protections very well."
"How expensive will that be?"
"The transition process or piracy? I'll been looking into both problems."
"Transition. I've already accepted that, short of selling this to the military in a big way, our copyrights won't be worth very much, even inside the U.S-"
"We can still get some value for them," Judy cut in, "upfront and if we patent spin-off products. But the domestic market would soon be flooded with cheap knock-offs, flooding from overseas. Molecular Solutions could sell the patent to somebody in a better position to produce new products using Shipstone, but they won't pay very much... they would make more money off of volume sales, in the long run, if we can get this in products quickly and get them to market first." She looked around the room. "So, for a lot of reasons, only some them concerning MS seeing a decent return on investment, Shipstone should come to market as soon as possible. It looks like that shouldn't be problem, from what Jim has found out."
Jim nodded. "I was looking at what it has cost us to prototype production for the Shipstone which we need to conduct research, and the numbers are very encouraging. To date, a pound of this stuff is running just under thirty dollars, and that is only going to go down as the chemical reactors make more. The capital investment in materials and skill to increase production goes down a little over time as well, and while it's going to cost more to scale it up, the economies of scale will also knock that initial capital cost per pound, way down. We've produced nearly half a ton of this stuff to date, a little over $28,000 dollars, and for that kind of outlay, we could probably have a small factory rolling out that much every day, for an order of magnitude less per unit cost-"
"Mr. Dolan," I interrupted, "for the pirates, we're talking about garage-scale production, meth-lab production, and while it's probably that dangerous for any half-assed backyard chemist," Beatrice snorted," it can and will be done." I'd cooked up my own first batch on the sly, last night; three kilos.
"What about safety, again?" Dolan asked. "We had that fire in the lab..."
"That was a one-time event," Beatrice answered. "We understand charge and discharge rates better, and have proper safeties. The power surge sent 1700 amps through that wire and it burned up."
I whistled, having done the repair work. It burned up good. That was about fifty times what the wires had been rated for, no wonder the poor damn piece of my equipment had fried.
"Objectively, is Shipstone inherently dangerous?"
Slowly, Meiguo put his hand up. "Yes." Beatrice looked ready to tear into him, but he manned up and went on. "Efficiency varies a lot from production lot to production lot, we're still learning, and we've had a few samples that have, uh, melted. And one discharged so violently that it, well, it exploded, like a defective firecracker... There is plenty of potential as a safe, uncharged substance that becomes a variable explosive based on charge, as well as the power source for weapons and vehicles."
From the looks on several faces, this was not news to everyone. I felt just a little queasy, thinking about nearly seven pounds worth of material sitting in my basement. Somehow I knew my homeowners insurance wouldn't cover the damages, if I had a house fire tonight.
"So production is dangerous, cheap and easy; utility is high, but so are the risks of idiot-error." Dolan looked around at us. "So is gasoline, so is propane, and we use them in our cars and homes. What else do we know, what do we need to find out yet, and is there any coffee?"
There was, and we went on to have an all-night bull session.
Sister-Mother
Once a year, I take a personal day. I'm overly mysterious about it. Even so, folk tend to get the word and leave it be, but as I prepped Meiguo for a day by himself, after less than week of working with me, he was naturally curious. Of course, the Shipstone must roll, and Dolan came down, himself, to see me a half hour before closing.
"Do you think you could cancel tomorrow?"
"It's the anniversary of-"
"Oh, yeah." He looked away. "Sorry. I knew that, and I'd forgotten."
I stared after him and blurted out, "You knew that? How?"
Dolan shrugged. He didn't turn around. "You are working with my nephew on the most important thing in the world, but you're working with my nephew. Of course I know everything I can about you, and did a little more digging besides." Now he did turn back. "I'm sorry for your loss."
After he'd gone through the door, I saw Meiguo not-looking at me, looking anywhere else. "What?!" I snapped.
"You could tell me why you're dumping all this on me-"
"Its just one day!"
"That's cool," he said quickly and hurried back to work. I slammed a few drawers on my tool-box and began to regret my behavior. I don't want to be that kind of boss, and I don't want to be that kind of human being. I'd spent years being miserable...
"It's about my parents. They died in a three-car pile up when I was seventeen, a bunch of years ago. They were... old, and I was young and stupid, a little bit wild. They died on a Saturday night, out looking for me, and I didn't know about them for nearly a week. I almost missed their service. I have an older brother, much older. He never talks to me."
"I have an uncle who I fight with, but at least we shout at each other."
I smiled bitterly. "Yeah, the dysfunctional family is the best kind, except for all the rest-"
"Better than no family, Mr. Hobson. Even you know that, or why else would you have made your own?"
"What are you talking about, kid?"
"For a man who likes to pretend he wants to get away from everybody, you have found a way to be a part of a whole lot of lives. My Uncle talks about you and Tom a lot; I think most of what he knows of you is through Doctor Sparks. You act a little bit like an uncle with Beatrice, but she doesn't see it; in many ways I'm a lot older than she is, which is strange. From my mom, I always thought that women were smarter, understood more."
"I imagine that she was a special woman."
"She was, and no, I didn't appreciate that nearly as much as I did after she was dead. My Uncle was the same way, only more so. They were very different people, but he thought the world of her. I know there were at least three occasions where he helped out behind the scenes, because she wouldn't take his help; once financially, which she really hated, 'blood money' she called it. And when she was in prison and he got her out of there and out of China, period. And again when she wanted to go back."
"What happened then?"
"Killed, murdered for a little money, or maybe somebody inconvenienced by her arranged it, the death of a meddlesome foreigner." Meiguo shook his head. "I brought her home to her family, and then I stayed. Because my uncle couldn't ask me too, but I could that that was what he wanted."
"You've got good eyes, kid. Eyes that see inside of people." Damn if he didn't turn away. "What's the matter?"
Gruffly, focusing on his work, he said, "That's what my mother said."
I finished putting my tools away and put my coat on. "All yours, Meiguo; do me proud tomorrow."
Anniversary
I was a month shy of my eighteenth birthday when I lost my parents. My older brother had a wife and children and lived in another state, and I was... difficult. A loner I always will be, but I experimented with herd behavior at the end of high school, after I discovered that alcohol made me a different person- funnier, more social, happier. Well, at least at first. Alcohol also made me fight, and lost me what few real friends I had back then. The ones I partied with, they weren't my friends.
That time I disappeared on Thursday morning, and by Saturday night my parents were just about out of their minds, according to my neighbors and my brother. He came up from Virginia to help Mom and Dad, but he got here on Sunday morning, about seven hours after they had died. I- was missing for another four days, and finally showed up on Wednesday morning.
The house was full of people, getting things ready. The arrangements had already been made and things went smoothly, without me. My brother took one look at me and walked away. Alice Hart, our next-door neighbor, broke the news, and told me the viewing and cremation would be that night. I slept, I guess I might have cried, then I got up, put on the suit that had been set out for me, and then we bore up through the service.
The next day my brother told me I would be coming to live with him and his family.
That didn't last very long. I was legally an adult soon, and just left. I just went, passed on from one place to another, one job to another. And I haven't talked with my brother in years. We're both fine with that.
***
The accident took place at what was then a lonely intersection. There's a traffic light and a strip mall with a gas station off to one side now.
It was a four-way. They had stopped and then went on. But they had pulled out in front of a drunk who roared right past his stop sign, and he pushed them into an oncoming car. Neither the driver nor the passenger had a chance, crushed and spun between two cars, one traveling over fifty miles and hour. They died, each with in seconds of the other.
Like I had for the last seven years, since I finally got my shit together, I lay flowers at the base of the traffic-light pole nearest where the car had come to rest between the other two, pushed over into the northwest corner of the intersection. I had a few words, but I said them quietly, in my heart. Then I went back to my car and sat in it for a little while.
By and by, I came back to myself, and as I did, I had the distinct feeling that I was being watched. I groaned; this would not be the first time I'd been bothered on this little pilgrimage by curious bystanders. But when I looked around, there was no one obviously interested in me. I started my car, backed out of my parking space, and drove out of the parking lot of the strip mall.
That feeling didn't go away. There was a little green sedan, a Hyundai, which I could have sworn that I'd seen it at least twice before, the first time when I'd stopped for coffee at five AM, at the start of my drive. The second time had been when I stopped to get gas.
Paranoia is insidious, but even paranoids have enemies, y'know? I started to get more and more nervous, until I looked up to see the Hyundai turn off. I breathed a sigh of relief, and then I had a thought; what if I was right? Maybe... I slowed down and a car passed me as I dithered, and then I pulled over on the shoulder of the two-lane highway, waited for traffic to pass in both directions, and made an illegal U-turn.
I went back up the road, turned left following my little green sedan, and went down the road a couple hundred yards. Around a bend in the road, in the middle of nowhere with just fields one side of the road and forest on the other, was my friend, pulled over. There was enough room on some grass, where some farmer would have parked his combine, or some hay-wagons, that another sedan, dark blue was parked, driver to driver the same way cops will pull up by each other, windows down. A woman in the green sedan was talking to a man in the dark blue one. They looked up and saw me.
I went on past, glancing at them but not staring. I didn't want to try to ignore them; two cars parked that way is inherently interesting, right? I was sweating, and drove around randomly for twenty minutes. I managed to get myself thoroughly lost. I didn't know the area anymore.
I drove through another little cluster of business by the road, another strip mall and a couple of gas-stations just down the road from a housing development and an RV dealership. There was a burger joint of the franchise I liked best, and I was lost and hungry, so I pulled in. I got my directions, a soda and a sack of burgers, and was headed back to my car when I saw the man in the blue sedan drive by. He was slowing down and turned in at the other end of the strip mall, pulling around to a pump at the gas station down there. The guy seemed to ignore me. He got out his cell phone and walked inside, to pay for his gas, apparently.
I sat in my car, ate a burger, and watched him get his gas, then drive off. I was not fooled. I sat for a while, and sure enough, the green Hyundai drove past the other way, the route I would surely have taken after getting directions. The opposite direction from the blue car, earlier.
I went that way, and there was the blue car, pulled over on the side of the road, hood up, the man fussing with the dipstick. He nodded as I went past, and the last I saw of him, he was pouring a little oil.
I sure hoped he didn't ruin his engine, play-acting. Reflecting on that thought, I hoped that he would.
I was in a spot. I wanted to know what they wanted with me, and I also really didn't want anything to do with them. I didn't have a clue as to how to go about either; they seemed to be doing a good job of keeping me in their sights. What to do? I didn't know, but I wasn't crazy, and these people were just following me, at this point. I decided maliciously, that if they wanted to follow me around, I'd take the long way home...
I drove west, into the mountains and the heart of the state, then turned south again, not at all sure I could find roads that would take me where I wanted to go, and not caring very much. I trended southwest on back roads, getting higher and a little farther from home, over all. I hadn't seen any other traffic for half an hour and was driving with the sun in my face, when a sports car, in canary yellow with black markings, like a hornet, came up behind me, doing eighty or ninety to my forty. I cringed, as the roads were crooked and not very good, and there were places with steep drop-offs into mountain streams. But he slowed down as he came up on me, a white male, middle aged with dirty blond hair, talking on the phone. He pulled off after another quarter mile, in one of those look-out spots for sightseers.
A minute later, as I was passing through a nature reserve, more concerned with finding an easterly road, he was back again. The yellow sports car was doing fifty or sixty, and then he accelerated, until he was gaining on me like I was standing still.
I panicked, I guess. I put the pedal all the way down, and prayed that I was half the driver my uncle had been. He'd been a part-time racer when I was a little boy, until he'd rolled his pride and joy off a dirt-track and burned. I braked into the first turn and then gave it all the gas I could.
He was gaining all the while, but at least for the next three turns, braking was my friend, I don't know why. But we came up to a straight run and my heart sank. By the next turn he was ten feet behind me, and I didn't brake nearly as much as he did. I could see him smiling in my rear view mirror... but I made it, drifting a little, and flew down the road, almost headlong into a green, oncoming car. There was just a moment of recognition, the woman grinning and shouting something, and then I was trying to get out of her way and stay into control of my car.
The driver of the green car twisted her steering wheel hard and drove her car across the road into my lane behind me and halfway onto the shoulder. The yellow sports car had braked enough so that he had stayed completely in control of his car, confident of catching me. But the oncoming green car gave him nowhere to go. He steered wildly around her, but the green car turned back towards her lane just as they came together. The sports car went out of control, flying across the road, up the hill and rolling three or four times. The green car spun around and slammed trunk-first into a tree.
I hit the brakes and pulled over. I must have sat there for a full minute, watching the twisted, upside down sports car, but the man didn't move. I shuddered, but I turned back around, driving past the car slowly. From where I was, it seemed to me like his neck was at an unnatural angle, and I decided that that was the best that I was going to do for him. The driver of the green car, however...
She had stumbled from her car, something in her hand, muttering as I drove back to her. She'd been watching me at the yellow car, and had started to come around the corner of her wreck, but had relaxed as I drove past the sports car. She put the Glock behind her, but I had seen it. I debated driving on, but I stopped and asked, "Need a lift?"
The blue car from before came squealed around the curve just then and the woman said, "No, I'm fine."
Special Agents
Special Agent Jake Green, of the FBI, had been very concerned for his partner. He cuffed me and put me in the back of his blue sedan before calling the local law enforcement or doing first aid of her, though. I could tell because he was short with me, just a 'protective custody' and two sentences for the the county dispatch. "Traffic accident at," he rattled off a location. I hadn't really know which rad I was really on," need an ambulance. Federal Agents requesting assistance."
I should have drove on. 'Coulda, woulda, shoulda.'
"Don't mind Jake; he's a good agent."
"And you are?" I asked the woman. The passenger side door was open and the first aid box was sitting on the seat. She winced as she wiped at a cut.
"Gabrielle Trudeau. Call me Gabby; Jake says I talk too much-"
"Which you do," the big man muttered. "It's unprofessional. He's dead."
Jake took her and turned her around, a little more hands on that I'd have expected, looking at her pupils and then examining her cuts and scrapes. "You'll live."
Gabby must have seen that on my face.
"Priorities. You're somebody we were supposed to keep alive."
"Not that I'm complaining, but why?"
"Come on, Mr. Hobson, that's not at all hard to work out, I would think. A man with access to a big secret wanders off alone, maybe to meet with somebody? We had to watch you."
"Watch me, not be my bodyguard. Why is somebody trying to kill me?"
"Gabby," Agent Green barked, and she gave him a sweet smile.
"Jake thinks you don't need to know." She turned back to me and frowned. "I think that forewarned is forearmed, don't you?"
I nodded, mouth dry.
"Who stands to loose big with this new material? Yeah, all of them. A regular rogues gallery..."
"Spinning conspiracy stories and feeding my paranoia-"
"I thought you might be," Jake interrupted. "Paranoid. If you hadn't been so jumpy, maybe we'd have followed you home by now."
"It has been a long day, and it's not over yet."
The local LEOs arrived about then, and we started in on that. Agent Trudeau at first refused treatment and I caught Jake smiling at that, but she relented and the checked her for a concussion. The county sheriff's deputy called for the coroner, we all gave statements, and then we were free to go, in a manner of speaking. I drove up front in the blue sedan, with Gabby and without the cuffs. Agent Green drove my car, and we all headed back home.
On a personal note, I kind of liked being rescued by Special Agent Gabby. We talked about the Shipstone, spun some real-life conspiracy theories, and talked about people in general. I relaxed and nodded a couple of times, almost falling asleep.
I was not at all prepared for it, when we drove up on my house ablaze. I remember thinking, in shock, how it lit up the night sky quite nicely.

7,508 + 504 = 18,012