The spectrum bled.
Tomas shifted through indigo into a bloom of vermillion that spread from the void with fractal resolution. He scattered, re-invented his form and coalesced around the anomaly.
The mirrorplay echoed out into white static too fast to isolate the signature. No matter—he had made it to port. Needles of light arced into spheres and the visual field shifted black to indigo.
With the final obstacle cleared, Tomas uncoupled his helm and rose from his crib stiff and sore. A red light blinked on his cell—the pit boss wanted to bend his ear. He ignored it; he'd been in longer than he thought and the last thing he needed was a conversation.
He shook his body awake and hopped out of his crib into an aisle that ran the length of the warehouse.
The work shift had changed. A new crop of jockeys was already deep into the first run.
Tomas walked sidelong between racks of cribs crammed with high-paid, twitching twenty-somethings. Double chins shook beneath their helms. Their soft bodies strained against angular gear. You would never know they held the most promising minds in history.
Directing currents of data flow through the networks of the world always came down to the same thing: anticipation. It was the one problem that computers famously couldn't do better than humans—and it was the biggie, right at the root of common sense, non-heuristic politeness, getting a goddamned joke and, as it turned out, intuiting convergent patterns out of chaos.
Tomas had taken a crack at the problem of automated intuition for his dissertation. His working title was, "Laughing to Bits." He no longer had time for such things. Too many bills. Anyway, the puzzle of humor had made him dour.
Humans would stay in the loop as the glue between systems and sets the world over. Fine. The most lucrative human glue was in data trafficking, so Tomas had become a DTC—a glorified traffic cop—for the constant swell and flow of data.
At the heart of prediction was chaos, that realm of pattern play hyper-sensitive to initial conditions. Computers didn't stand a chance, but for humans it could be child's play. Not proper work at all, more like a game.
It was the r/evolution of his generation and Tomas had been swept into the middle of it: the synthesis of human intuition and computing power to solve complex problems. In the early days, data had no tangible abstraction layer. But ancient, linear symbols were better suited to the era of monks and scribes. The visualization schemes made all the difference. Early technologists had been so literal. Visual numerics was the new algebra. Navigating it was a beautiful trance.
Beautiful inside the mind. Outside it made a wreck of the body with the abuse of performance enhancing drugs and long hours spent slack.
Tomas walked between the tightly packed cribs heading for the back entrance, but the pit-boss had followed him and now loped on the cat-walk in an interception course to the elevator doors.
His first boss had been a Javanese data sculptress who took advantage of the data rush to explore art forms. He had a massive crush on her and she teased him about it, rebuffing his advances and calling herself a suisexual. Tomas argued that the best of what you could do alone would never meet the measure of making love. Her answers had something to do about overpopulation and the climax of gene pools. Had she really said z chromosomes? Or was she mocking his German accent? Her sculptures were confusing, too, but they gave him a familiarity with hauntingly abstract shapes that few DTCs achieved with formal study. It was quite the advantage for him when he finally decided to join the Corpse.
Tomas jogged to get to the elevators first. His body rose and fell too much for comfort, plus, after an eighteen hour shift in the crib he was bushed. He hated how easy it had become to get drenched in sweat, but the last thing he needed right now was a quality assessment analysis with a pit boss who probably only wore a helm for porn. He needed a shower and a steak and as much dreamless sleep as he could afford.
The pit boss skipped to keep up, then broke into a run. "Tomas. A word."
A word was never all they wanted. The Corpse--known in official capacities as The Consensus Corporation--scraped a percentage fee off of every international data transaction. Tomas figured he might as well get his share. You could have or you could have not and comfort didn't seem like a such a bad thing this far out from youthful idealism.
Sculpting data with the Javanese goddess had given way to data mining in Prague when she was deported and he forswore Berlin. It was lonely, exhausting work. The gourmet food and holographic wrap-arounds never made up for it. But once the visualization helms came out of beta it was a whole new game.
There were two ways you could do it.
One: stare into a perfectly symmetrical pattern that moved rapidly by, like rows of corn on the side of a country road and wait for an anomaly: a distant scarecrow, a bent stalk, or, more often than not, a single missing kernel.
Two: cultivate the converse, a deep, zen-like gazing into a static haze of chaos waiting for the merest hint of a pattern to emerge.
The first was extremely focused work, with moments of relaxation. The other was incredibly relaxing with moments of high tension. It came to the usual right brain/left brain personality schism. Most right brained people had the native sense to avoid this line of work, so there were always openings for those willing to give it a try.
Tomas took it up a level.
He had been an early adopter and contributor to a scheme that employed both methods simultaneously—one for each eye. It drove people crazy to think about it, much less to do it. Yet Tomas excelled at it and made a name for himself as a datashifter. He became a poster chid for the burgeoning field of the human factor. He won a couple of awards, hell the old man had even called to toss him an atta boy.
Tomas reached the elevator first, huffing. He hit the call button harder than he meant to. It wouldn't do to injure those fast flying fingers--each one was insured for more than his life.
But prizes and accolades were artifacts of the past. It might as well have been someone else's past. The communication standards were ever-changing and to stay connected everyone had to upgrade. Constantly. It was pricy and took time to learn each next version's modality, but the result was that every year several orders of magnitude more data could comfortably travel in the same communication spectrums. Data management was continually taken to new heights. People came out with stunning uses and meta-uses, not that Tomas followed all that any more. His expertise was in keeping the ever-increasing amount of data moving along efficiently. Form over content. There was no money in content anymore. The glory-day heroes of the Human Factor became the working stiffs of the Human Factory. Tomas settled into a lucrative line of work, but it took more out of him each year than it gave back. Not a sustainable situation.
The elevator chimed and the doors slid open. A late straggler for this shift ducked around him and scurried down the rack through the maze of cribs.
The job consisted of spotting emerging patterns in global data flow and aligning one's assigned data with it, while avoiding chaotic zones. Holographic helms and haptic gloves were standard issue from The Corpse. Soul-sucking aside, who could complain? It was fun, competitive, lucrative and you got to play with the best gear out there.
"Wait." The pit boss flung himself in front of the elevator doors. He held out his helm and gauntlets while he caught his breath. "Put these on."
Tomas groaned. "If you want me to work a double then you'll have to pay me double, too."
"Not if it's your scratch."
Tomas cocked his head. That didn't make sense. "I saw it dock."
The boss smiled, showing too many teeth. "It arrived, yes. Scrambled."
In his haste to wrap up his shift he hadn't compared the checksums. He didn't know anyone who did as The Corpse would do it for you. Plus, there was usually no profit in garbling data—stealing, yes, but this was so rare it should have stayed theoretical. His cheeks burned from being caught cutting corners like an amateur. It would cost in reputation and pay. What had become of him?
The helm reeked of the pit boss's cologne. The leather gauntlets were new, barely broken in; any amount of time in these and he'd have serious blisters.
The problem was apparent instantly. The visual field stretched from indigo to indigo, go, going, go-go and waves crashed in an emanation to pure nothingness. The data seeped out, lost in chaos. Blue waves followed. They fanned, arced, and splayed into dissimilar partitions.
A shock of blackness swept over him followed by a deafening buzz of hornets. Angry hornets.
* * *
Cracking the shells open was the best part. The more Melon could collect before sunset, the more she could hammer open before the fire tonight. If he was satisfied with the day's catch, papa might sing a verse of the Gita. Mama might laugh and they could all lose count of the shells, there would be so many good ones.
She waded thigh-deep through hard, slippery shells sweeping her gaze from the jungle to the water and back. Most of the shells were silver with black crust, but there were colorful ones to be found by clever eyes. The best were the thin purple ones that seemed to be washing up a lot lately. Her number two brother showed her once how, at depth, there were many different kinds of shells. Lower down were heavier ones with strongly defined ridges. Some even had tails. Those were hard to open even with her sharpest rocks. Closer to the top were the slippery small ones that were easy enough to split—if you could hold on to them.
She fished a clump of three purple shells into her bag and waded further out.
Most of the shells had cracks and holes and were ruined by sea water. Those weren't the good ones. Papa said it's only the whole ones that held pearls. Thankfully, there were plenty of those and Melon was good at finding them and she was still light enough to wade through them without sinking. But it was slow, hot work.
Her eyes burned and her feet ached. She tried not to think of the line of jungle shade where her brothers would be breaking coconuts waiting for her to tug; waiting for the harvest.
The beach was vast. Her brothers and sisters were tiny flecks where they waved to her from the edge of the beach. They didn't hunt shells with her anymore. They were too big now and might sink and keep on going down and down. It had happened to Bright Fan's brother. Melon's mama had stopped making babies so it was all up to her now.
Melon murmured the prayer for levity and kept moving. That was the trick to not sinking: you had to lean into the shells and keep moving.
Number one brother beckoned for her to hurry.
The strong smell of the shells baking stung her nose. This was the worst part.
Sometimes she fainted and they had to pull her back by the rope and she'd have a red itch under her arms for days. That was better than coming back without the bag filled. Whenever that happened she could tell by the way they all looked at her that she was the cause of their hunger and sadness. She could be good, she would be. Like a princess.
She closed her eyes against their watering, took shallow breaths and felt blindly with her hands.
She felt first with the back of the hands, then the palms to distribute the heat. She plucked shells up with the fingers only when she had decided it was a keeper. Fingers were the worst place for blisters. She said a word of thanks for the sandals, even if they were made of tire and wouldn't impress the invisible prince when he came for her, as of course he must.
When the bag was full she unslung it from around her shoulders and yanked on the line.
Number one brother pulled on the rope until the bag cleared the beach. Then number two brother slung it over his shoulder and sprinted into the jungle on the path to the village. Her sisters would be waiting at home for the bag of shells. Most would be cracked before Melon got back home, but they always saved one or two for her. At least she got to pick them out. Papa always said if it wasn't for her, where would they be? Sinking to the bottom of the beach.
Without the rope it was dangerous to linger, but on the way back to shore she always looked for one or two more shells. She could hide them in her dress and the tax men that watched from their tree houses would never see. One bag per child was a cruel law.
She lunged for an orange shell—those had fat double pearls—and shook it.
Sand came out.
She dropped it.
A silver shell peeked through a sprawl of seaweed, slightly worn, but the weight felt right.
She knocked off a barnacle and stuck it into her dress pocket. Other children scavenged long into the heat of the afternoon; they weren't as quick to fill a bag as her.
She dug at an unusual mound and uncovered a shell big as her two hands. It was an ancient shell from farther down. She couldn't remember what its pearls were like, but since it had no cracks she hid it along with the others. It would be hers to crack and what a surprise she'd have for mama.
Number one brother grabbed her wrist and hauled her up to a solid root. "Don't lag."
She bowed her head and followed him swiftly through the canopy of leaves.
* * *
The buzzing was intolerable.
Tomas yanked the helm off and shoved it back into the pit boss's arms. He shook off the gauntlets, let them fall to the floor, and tried to catch his breath.
The ringing subsided into a chasm of white noise in the background.
"The great Tomas. Losing your edge?" the pit boss spoke in a charming Eastern European accent, surely affected. "That is an expensive packet. Guess where it's getting deducted from."
All the other jockeys were hooded, working silently, twitching for the cause of progress. No one seemed to care. It was his own local problem.
This was the first time that he'd lost a route since training. It bugged him more than the pay hit. "It wasn't my fault."
"Then prove it."
This was his third pit boss this quarter, Tomas had only the vaguest notion of his name. It wouldn't be long before he disappeared on the next rotation of the corporate carrousel. Still . . . the complaint was legitimate. That galled him. Big money would be lost if he couldn't find a way to make the delivery and they would make him feel it.
"Hornets out of nowhere, sir," Tomas said. "I was passing through a Vega region that has been stable for years—"
"I know where you were."
The pit boss's eyebrows danced. "You want me to do your job? Transfer me your salary," he said. "Seriously. Figure it out. Letting this shipment default is not an option. Next time I patch in the Olechu and he won't like it."
It was never good to see the Olechu. He was the boss's boss's boss. If there were any position higher, Tomas had never heard of it.
The pit boss perched, preened and veered his sharp nose closer. "You are fucking up my ratio," he said. He paused to lick his lips. "Are you still here?"
Tomas returned to his crib and dove in. At once he was expelled by hornets. And again.
He wrestled his helm off and closed his eyes and thought about the sound of the hornets—an audio interpretation of a disruptive frequency that exceeded the protective algorithms and scattered the data irrecoverably.
The probable origin was geographic in nature—virtual conglomerations don't have enough energy in their signals to initiate a prolonged overflow. His body was in Chicago, but his data could have been anywhere. Most likely it was in several places at once. All he directed was its abstraction. He would have no way of knowing where it had been in relation to hardware—who even thought like that anymore?
Tomas reviewed the metrics on the three hornet runs. They all used the same narrow harmonic range. No wonder he didn't anticipate it—none of his tools were optimized for the old, power-hungry single-frequency bands. They had been banned ages ago for just this reason.
He stretched his back and swallowed two ePhcaps. No clue how long this would take. His body was going to despise him.
He strapped on his helm and knifed a search. It verified that this was a popular frequency used by the last generation, the pioneers. Godblessem, as the tube kept reminding him, but they were greedy resource hogs. Who would be using that tech? Terrorists had much more sophisticated gear. Some desperate start-up revolution most likely. If only he had time to experiment.
The pit boss was right, one more dropped packet and his rep would be tarnished. At forty-three they'd be saying he was past prime. Couldn't handle the upgrades.
"Well, it happens, mate," he could hear the Australian say cheerfully. "How's about a pint?"
Now why didn't he think of that earlier? The Australian specialized in ancient gear, he would know something if anyone did. Only one problem: Tomas owed him too much as it was already.
It was almost true, about the upgrades. The latest cells came with features he still never used or thought about, not the way the squires used them. The previous model had worked well enough, he'd been reluctant to send it in, however the communications contracts left him no option; it was more expensive to keep the old model. Shame, the sculptress had always said purple was his color. The newest breed of tech was black again. Black was back.
Stop this belly aching, he told himself. You can figure this out. Same harmonics both times can’t be a coincidence.
He took hours to code a defense. He ignored shift changes and the pit boss's pacing by his cribside. Twenty-three pills later he was ready to dive again.
Indigo-blue thrashed into a sudden greening.
This time he was ready. As the hornet buzz began he layered in a bandpass filter.
The honeypot quieted the hornets as quickly as they came on. The data hive altered, became innocuous, a disintegrated wisp.
He forwarded the session file for analysis and steered his shipment into port. Into Indigo.
Spinout, tail-tuck. Wide-wing fan. A victory lap.
Drinks were on the pit boss—it was a new guy—and he kept them coming.
Tomas had made him look good on his first day in the division. The bastard had already dialed in the top dog, the Olechu. They had both been watching, ready for Tomas to eat shit. Instead they had front row seats to his brilliant moves.
They presented him with a slim box.
Tomas grinned and tipped his whisky down. About time for a company watch, he thought.
It wasn't a watch. Inside the box was one of the coveted sleek black betas; cutting tech only the super-rich got first.
He stared at it too long and sobriety crept in. It was a gift with a tether. Reluctantly he handed over his old cell and configured this new one to his biomes.
In grandiose fashion, they gave him the next day off.
He woke in the middle of the night unable to sleep and broke open a three-year-old housewarming gift to make a cup of coffee. He touched his burnt tongue tip to the living room window and traced the snake of Lake Shore Drive which lay between the bejeweled city and the black of Lake Michigan.
The data from yesterday's job had been delivered, deal done, so there was little chance The Corpse would investigate further. Anomalies aren't cash cows and tend to suck you in when you try to milk them. But it nagged at Tomas that he had been stalled by anything.
His upgraded cell whined for attention.
Cant' get enough time with this, he thought. "Ok, let's see what you can do." He initiated a replay of the hornet's manifold of offending data's signatures that he had syphoned off the attack and had them sent to the window for display. The new cell had no perceptible lag. He couldn't help but grin. This kind of speed was going to be delicious to work with.
Yet the anomaly's signatures were garbled. Protocols more than a few decades old became as unreadable as an unearthed civilization. Protocol decay.
He didn't keep a helm at home and almost went in to work, but, disgusted by the impulse, he did something he hadn't done since . . . maybe ever. He bundled up in two layers of coats and walked to the waterfront. Since the new cell cancelled out the howl of wind so well, he dialed the Australian. It was time to trade in for some answers.
Smash, smash, smashing shells.
Home. Melon crouched in the stuffy spot behind the curtain of cords that dangled across the opening to outside to keep out flies. With a pile of shells and her hammer and her family around her Melon felt at peace.
She propped up on her elbows and rubbed her eyes against the smoke.
The whacking of shells and the cheers that followed pulled her out of sleepiness. It sounded like they were finding lots of pearls out there.
"Good shells?" Melon asked. She looked up at the towering figure of her father. His face hid in the erratic shadows cast by the smelting fire. "Papa, I'm hungry."
"You can't eat too much. Do you remember why?"
She nodded. "To stay light so I can work the shells."
"The shells are good." His cool hand brushed her forehead.
"Did I get enough?"
He sighed. "It is never enough."
Coughing, mama beckoned her close to the bed.
Melon slipped around her brothers who were cooking cracked shells in a pan over the fire pit to loosen the pearls. The smoke stank worse than on the beach.
Not worse. That wasn't true. She had grown to like the tang of shell smoke. It reminded her of home, of mama. It meant that mama would get her medicine and laugh again, soon.
The coughing wouldn't let mama talk but her gentle hugs made up for it.
Auntie motioned for Melon to come over with one hand as she sorted pearls with the other. She had a rattling cough, but not so bad as mama. "Let her rest, child. If you can't sleep, help me sort."
Melon shook her head. She would never spend her time sorting by the fire like they did. It's what brought the cough. Even if the grown ups wouldn't listen, she knew. If there were places that made you sick, there must be places that could make you better too. She would go to one of those places and the prince would find her.
A wondrous cracking smash resounded and everyone cheered. Even mama smiled. Melon pulled a shell out of her dress and joined her sisters in the shell opening game. After a good one and a bad one Melon held before her the two-handed, bulky shell.
She had forgotten about that one. She lifted her chest as her arms rose above her head. Her hair flowed back, like a queen. The smooth shell felt at home in her hand, still warm from the sun.
She flexed her arm to slam the hammer down and the shell flickered with light.
"Hello," it whispered.
She smacked her finger to avoid hitting the shell. The sting of it made her flinch and drop the shell, but she didn't cry out.
The shell wobbled at her feet, dark and silent.
Her sisters were arguing, her mama was coughing, papa was scolding number two while number one smirked.
She picked up the shell with both hands and bravely interrupted.
"Listen to this," she said. "It's amazing!"
All heads turned to her.
The shell stayed silent.
She flushed with embarrassment. She shook it hard. Harder.
Her family stared blankly, then returned to what they had been doing as if no more than a fly had buzzed in their ears. A fly to be waved off with a flick.
She ducked into her sleeping nook, turned her back on them, and let the tears flow.
The family's banter swelled and took her to sleep, her head resting on the bulky pillow of the shell.
Purple, flowing, whipped by the wind, the waves on Lake Michigan jumped at him over the imported boulders that held back the shoreline from eroding. Spray hit like icicle spears thrown by a frost giant. It was hard to believe there used to be a whole other country farther north.
The upgrade buzzed, rang and then jabbed Tomas through his pocket.
"Good day, mate," the Australian said. "Are you crackers? I've got your coords now. Give me one good reason not to go ballistic."
"Data is beautiful."
The Australian snorted. "What about when what the data encodes is heinous? How gorgeous is a list of war criminals? Or the components of street drugs? Or their recipes? What about the manufacturing orders for civie bombs? Launch codes? Try again."
"I have the new beta cell."
"Do you now? And in a giving mood? That might—"
"Not giving, sharing. 24 hours to do what you want with it--if you can answer my question."
"Mate, you have my attention but not my forgiveness."
"I'm not asking for forgiveness." Tomas sent the hornet signature over the connection. "Can you decode this?"
The sound of helm straps buckling came through the cell.
After a moment the Australian belted out his trademark see-saw laugh. "Where'd you find that relic? Predates even my heyday."
"Can you decode it?"
"No score on the translation to human. Probably an encrypted transmission. These guys are a pack of mullets though, running smack into you like that. Repeatedly. They left a whopper of a trail with a blinking arrow pointing back the way they came. Only thing I can think of is a quickie crim ident job. You escorting sensitive data? Because maybe--"
"Wait," Tomas said. "Blinking arrow? You mean you know where the signal came from?"
"Not hard to triangulate. South Pacific. Some unpronounceable island. I even have a number. It's dusty like the dinosaur, but it might work. Do we have ourselves a bargain?"
The fire had subsided. By the steady breathing, everyone was asleep at last. Even mama's coughing was light. Melon didn't know what had awakened her until the shell hummed again.
It shimmered with light.
Melon blinked. This was really happening. "You must tell the prince Mama needs a doctor," she whispered. "Medicine costs too many pearls and I'll be too big soon."
She peeked one eye open, saw its light and knew that it was listening. She kept talking, low but excited. She would stay up all night talking to the prince. He would help her. He had to.
"A man came and took all our pearls for medicine. Mama said it tasted like dung," she explained. "I don't think it was the real medicine. Papa's angry. He says we are fools. But I'm not. I found you."
The girl was even younger than her voice had made her seem. Once he got her to hold it right he could see her face: soot covered, smeared, but happy. No more than four or five. Her nose ran constantly, but the fire of joy and hope and intelligence burned in her eyes. He had forgotten humans were capable of this blend of emotions.
"Take me where you found me," he said at last, unable to break through her fantasy of him as some kind of fairy tale prince.
She spoke a variation of Mandarin. Better accent than his though.
Tomas sighed. Was this the daughter of the comm crim who buzzed him with hornets?
The song stopped and the shell opened. On its belly was the face of a small, pale, sad man. He looked confused.
Melon laughed. "You're so tiny," she said. Then she grew serious. "Are you the prince?"
"Chinese?" he said with a terrible accent. "Where are you?"
Melon screamed with delight. "I'm right here," she said. "With you. Silly."
Shells clattered behind her. The little man on the shell opened his mouth, about to speak.
She put her finger to her lips and said, "Shhh."
She pressed the shell against her back to shush it while her sisters passed. They hardly noticed her. Melon stuck her tongue out at their backs. What did they know?
"Are you the perfect prince?" she asked when they were alone again.
"—you realize you've breached at least a hundred international—am I what?"
The girl's hair stuck out around her blocking out the background. The wind occasionally revealed a silvery glinting landscape.
"What's behind you? Hold down your hair," Tomas said. "I thought you said you were at the beach."
"It is the beach. See?"
"Actually, no. Hold it up above your head."
"Hold up what?"
Tomas tried to think of this from her point of view. "Me. Hold me above your head."
She disappeared from view. Spread out as far as the cell could see was an endless heap of old tech gear. Cells and PDAs. Game systems. Trackers. GPS nodes. Lots of last year's purple. Mine could be there for all I know, he thought.
"You found this cell—I mean, you found me on the beach here?"
"What were you going to do with me?"
She blushed. "Crack you open for pearls. I'm sorry. It's what we have to do. But then you spoke to me and I didn't. Are you going to help mama before you take me away with you to the palace?"
Tomas stared at his cell, at the hologram of this earnest girl. What help could he give?
"What's wrong with your mother?" he asked.
"She rests in the coughing bed even though I told her not to. She shouldn't sort pearls. I'm not going to. I won't."
"Show me the beach again."
"I'll show you home."
She held the cell out and walked him through a landscape entirely made of broken tech. Jungle trees straddled a corroded layer of monitors, visors, cells, cables, even ancient mice and—good lord—keyboards. Every bit of tech from the last century was represented. She walked with bare feet over a broken landscape of glass, metal and shards.
Her house, if you could call it that, was one of hundreds of shanties built of wires and tubes, metal boxes, computer husks. In front of her door dozens of twisted phone cords hung. A dense smoke poured out.
"Watch out," Tomas said. "Your house on fire."
She laughed and parted the curtain with one hand.
When the phone adjusted to the low light Tomas cringed. The wind off the lake stung his eyes.
Her mother clung to life, a fragile shadow, hollow at the cheeks. She breathed in small shudders. The coughing bed. It was a foot from the fire pit.
A pan of burnt solder simmered at the edge of the fire. Printed circuit boards and plastic enclosures littered the ground. In one preciously arranged pile, which the girl zoomed in on with great ceremony, was a motley collection of chips, ICs, capacitors, resistors.
Hadn't he heard that old electronics could be scavenged for trace metals? Copper, silver and gold. How much would it take for meaningful quantities? Pearls.
Tomas felt insignificant. He was one guy who worked inside a stupid helmet, stuck inside a cubicle, jammed inside an air conditioned skyscraper, far distant on the horizon, lost in a land high on nothing more than the progress of progress.
She took him to a sheltered corner of the hovel and whispered, "What now, prince?"
What could he possibly do for her village or her family? He had nothing to give that would make any sense in their world. What was he going to do: quit his job and spend his savings to go there. Then what?
The longer he took to answer the more the spark in her eyes faded.
No. Not that, he thought. Maybe he couldn't help them, but perhaps there was something he could do for her.
* * *
The pulsing came flat. Not at all like the prince had said. Then, all at one, it burst into full view in her palm, a globe of tiny lights. She glanced back to make sure everyone was asleep. When her eyes focused on one part of the shell it would move as if responding. The more she concentrated, the more detail appeared.
"Follow it," the prince said.
The wide arcing of shapes encompassed the sky and she flew through it while lying on the ground. She steered with her eyes. A shadow below the fountain of light beckoned to her.
"That's you," she said.
"Can you catch me?" he said, disappearing.
Only he didn't disappear. He hid between the patterns. Like a shell among shells. The instant she spotted him, she was beside him. Again, he disappeared—or tried to.
This was just like wading the beach hunting for shells where the tiniest shimmer told of treasure. It tickled her mind to think this way, to move so fast.
"Let me try," she said. She darted into the sworls.
The prince followed, when he could.
She was agile and inventive. She liked the prince's strange world. She could dance here forever . . . And then he was gone. It was all gone. The shell sat dark and silent in her palm.
Smoke scratched at her throat. Home had never felt so small and dark before.
She shook the shell and pressed it everywhere.
It kept silent.
* * *
Indigo-black with hornets. Hornets, hornets. Tomas watched as jockey after jockey yanked their helmets off to shout or look about in consternation.
The pit boss scrambled in, fuming, coffee stains down his suit.
Olechu's clipped voice boomed on the loudspeaker. Frenzy distorted his words, but you could catch the gist: who ever had initiated the global broadcast would be out of a job and free of the burden of a license to drive data for the Corpse.
The Net had already caught scent of the crash, thanks to the Australian. The Corpse would recover like the persistent zombie it was, but there would be investigations, coverage, questions.
Tomas allowed himself a thin smile, wondering if it had worked, wondering what it would cost him. The power in that old phone must have run out on her, but if one phone still had power there had to be others. Until they yanked his hack all the data in the Corpse's roster would flow to that beachhead. Every cell capable of waking would leap to life in a hopeless attempt to answer. He ignored his frantic and confused coworkers as they popped out of their cribs and yanked off their helms and met each other for the first time.
* * *
Melon stood with her family on the edge of the beach. They had all come running when news came. The whole village had come, though it was well before dawn. Papa carried mama in his arms. Auntie leaned between number one brother and number two.
Her speaking shell was still quiet, but the beach was alive with light and sound.
The neighbors were full of speculations, shouts of alarm, cries of delight.
From all along the beach came the call of birds, trills of ringing, snatches of song, rattles and shaking, a thousand tiny voices. Lights winked like fallen stars.
At once she understood that each light was another speaking shell. There were so many. The perfect palace had been here all along, right beneath her feet. Her invisible prince must be close. She called out to him, laughing, hoping he could see this, too.