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First pages

PROLOGUE

Of course, over the past weeks there had been wild and unsubstantiated rumors no one took seriously. The totally unexpected and thoroughly unsettling news had only finally been officially confirmed today, less than two hours ago. People now knew that everything was suddenly radically different but had no idea what the big change would mean for them. Literally, no one had seen this coming. Everyone was still trying to figure out how they should react.

The Zero Zero had been half empty when Maki Walsh first came on the scene, only its usual midday patrons in attendance. It was normally what you’d call a tough bar with even tougher customers, its clientele almost exclusively smugglers, dealers and other disreputable denizens of the fringe life: just his kind of joint. But over the past hour, average citizens had been drifting in, not knowing the place’s rep. They were folks who’d been in the area on some unrelated business and were suddenly in desperate need of a quick stiff drink and a chance to mull over what they’d just learned.

The partying had only really started in the past thirty minutes or so, the initial shock finally easing off some. Maki sat back, watching the bar fill up, knowing things were going to get pretty damn wild over the next few hours and looking forward to the show.

One of Maki’s table mates, Angry Drunk, returned to the realm of the living in fitful stages: beginning with an almost indiscernible twitch, a series of blinks, confusion, reorientation and finally focus, as his head slowly rose from the table. The Earther’s expression darkened to what would have been a menacing scowl, if it weren’t for the damp napkin hanging from his cheek. Some throat clearing followed and the facial décor was noticed and removed before Angry Drunk grumbled, “Who you?”

“A new friend, remember? Told you the story about the frozen cat?” Maki beamed cordially, looking over to Friendly Drunk for support.

Slurred confirmation. “Take it easy. Maki’s okay. Been tellin’ each other war stories, while you were power nappin’.”

“Stories?” questioned Angry Drunk in a horse yet threatening belch.

“Yeah, Maki’s a fellow transporter.”

“Asshole, you tellin’ this dude our business?” snarled Angry Drunk.

While the inebriates renegotiated their business relationship, again firmly establishing who the top dog was, Maki Walsh scanned the joint: neon, mirror and tarnished chrome. No sign of them he’d come with amidst the thick raucous crowd and thickening smoke. From his seat, Maki could make out faces from at least two-dozen different planets. The bar rocked with over-amped off-world and Maki took note that all its vids were tuned to news channels, not a single sporting event to be found. Only his table and two others, hosting dead serious poker games, seemed immune to the rapidly spreading party fever.

Glancing at the transducer laying upon the scratched and discolored tabletop, Maki accepted the fact that he was stuck in place for the duration. He’d chosen to wait at this particular table because it possessed Zero Zero’s sole vacant seat and its occupants appeared only semi-conscious at the time. But revitalization had occurred and Maki had managed to make it work for him, until now. Seeing there’d been no formal introductions, Maki had christened the pair of sots with what seemed highly appropriate nicknames.

Satisfied that his partner was once again properly positioned in their private social hierarchy, Angry Drunk focused his seemingly perpetual irritation back at Maki and barked, “What’s wrong with your ears, man?”

Broadcasting friendly and harmless, Maki answered the exact same question he’d answered for Angry some twenty minutes earlier. “Nothing. This is how we grow them where I come from.“

“Kind of orange too, ain’t ya?”

“We Keragonians like to refer to that as our golden complexion.”

Angry drunk’s expression shifted from skeptical to downright belligerent so Maki sought to divert. “Been tying off some loose ends on a big money job. When we landed, had no idea everything was going to get crazy wild and the biggest party in history would fire up.”

“All bullshit!” snarled AD. “Ain’t gonna change shit!”

Maki saw clearly that this was probably very true, for his companions. The bar’s boisterous party mood surrounded but did not pierce the table’s alcohol-fueled gloom. Further diversion was indeed sorely needed. “How would you guys like to hear another story? This one doesn’t have a cat in it but does have three brothers and ends in a lot of blood. Yeah, thought that might get your interest.”

Indeed it had. Friendly’s mouth hung slightly open in anticipation, his eyes fixed on Maki, as were Angry’s. But the latter’s gaze dared this newcomer to amuse and distract. Walsh smilingly took up the challenge, settling back in his chair and beginning with, “A good storyteller never starts off directly with the blood and guts. A climax has to be built up to, tension mounting along the way. You’ve no investment in an individual’s fate unless you know who that character is and what brought him or her to their moment of destiny.

“Which is why we’re going to commence our little tale deep within a secret cavern which could only be reached through an ancient catacomb, set far below the Sicilian city of Palermo. Yeah, we’re talking Catholics here; the secret kind, the real hardcore true believers. We’re going to open our little saga in the same way many of the followers of that banned faith lead off every meal, with a prayer.”

THE STORK JOB

Their street clothes lay neatly folded atop the sixteenth-century crypt of some nameless and forgotten martyr, replaced with the vestments rubrics required for the occasion. The redheaded alter boy wore the standard surplice over cassock. Cardinal Campanella was attired in gold-trimmed white alb, surplice and stole over ebony undergarment. He held in his hands a bottle of holy water and gazed into it, as if seeking guidance from within. The Cardinal was lost in troubled consideration of the magnitude of the moment. By papal decree, Campanella was about to lead his faith into new and uncharted waters and the responsibility lay heavily on his shoulders.

Finally he disengaged from this deep contemplation and studied the young boy who stood before him. Cardinal Campanella reached out to straighten the lad’s surplice and pat down an unruly tuft of hair. “Are you ready, James?” he asked.

“Yes, your holiness,” the twelve year old answered solemnly.

Set against the poorly lit gray corpse-laden capuchin catacomb walls, the man and boy’s garments gave the impression of radiating a sacred light. Many of the chamber’s mummified occupants seemingly gazed silently on the pair, as if questioning the reason for their presence, thought Campanella. But he shook off the notion, stepped over and depressed an unadorned cross decorating the wall between two inset coffins. This effort was answered with the satisfying sound of metal sliding across metal behind stonewall. Campanella then shoved hard against the wall itself, to the left of the cross. The towering two-ton slab of rock rotated smoothly and quietly on its well-oiled axis. Cardinal and alter boy then squeezed between the open door and frame and disappeared into darkness.

 

The modern electric lights didn’t begin to illuminate the ancient tunnel until fifty feet or so from the catacomb entrance. Campanella and the alter boy walked silently toward the light. The passage took a left turning and only when past this bend did the technicians come into view. Each and every one of the men wore plain black cassocks, their heads lowered respectfully in prayer. Campanella and the boy marched past them without comment but the Cardinal did take note of the thick black cables entering the tunnel from a darkened hole in its ceiling: electric power clandestinely rerouted to do God’s work.

The tunnel terminated into a huge relatively unlit cavern, the true dimensions of which were lost in the gloom. But the faintly echoing sounds of their footfalls told Campanella that it was vast. It had been chosen for its immensity and the fact that few knew of its existence. The Church’s ultimate fate lay with what would eventually fill this damp and forbidding cavity. Today was just the preliminary first step of a sacred effort that might take decades to realize.

Its humble beginning sat in the cavern’s center, illuminated by a single overhead bulb. Cardinal and acolyte approached it whispering the Lord’s Prayer in their respective native languages: Italian and English.

When they came to a stop before the computer, Cardinal Campanella reverently raised the bottle of holy water and carefully removed its stopper. A fraction of the bottle’s contents were then poured into a hand and the Cardinal began to cautiously sprinkle the sacred water across the console’s upper surfaces, avoiding any vent or other opening. With eyes closed he intoned, “Ego te baptizo in nomine Patris, et Filii, et Spiritus Sancti.”

****

Ten years later

Sunday 7:00 pm.

Maki Walsh’s motto had always been, “Business should make you rich, not dead.” It was a credo that was getting harder to live by with each passing day. But he was still managing: keeping to relatively low-risk scams and small-time rip-offs but mostly smuggling jobs. As long as he kept his distance from anything to do with OmniEver Inc, Maki felt safe enough.

This game plan had now brought him to the outskirts of San Cristobal de las Casas, a small city in the mountains of southern Mexico. His client’s farmhouse (no, make that a hacienda this far south) looked innocent enough at first glance: ceramic tile roof, painted adobe walls. But even in the evening’s fading light, Maki’s experienced eye easily spotted the trio of surveillance cams set into the decorative trim of the security wall. They were comforting. Maki liked working with careful people.

Another cam peered down from the eye of a fiberglass gargoyle set above the front door. So Maki didn’t bother knocking, just smiled up at the crouching pseudo monster and waved. The door soon opened to reveal a tall and pale man, easily in his seventies, dressed in crisply ironed slacks, a white shirt and what Walsh thought might be called a photographer’s vest: an overabundance of handy pockets. Maki liked the look and the practicality of the garment and made a mental note to pick one up for himself down the line. The client greeted Walsh with a suspicious gaze and a “Yes?”

“Ground transport,” answered Maki.

The old guy peered past Walsh, obviously checking to see that transport had arrived alone. “Come in.”

Maki watched the, by now, familiar display of reactions dance across his client’s features; the man clearly reaching the conclusion that he was not completely happy with what he was seeing. Walsh’s ears and golden skin hue were dead giveaways that he wasn’t local. Plus, being a bit short-changed in the tall and slim departments never inspired confidence in a new client. With the inspection completed and assumptions determined, the elderly gent stated noncommittally, “I was expecting an Earther.”

“Because you figure, in my line of work, blending in is an advantage. That ain’t always the case. But I understand. If you’re uncomfortable with the arrangement I got other irons in the fire,” said Maki, taking a well-practiced hesitant step toward the door. “Know this, though, I got clean papers and biometrics for this sector and have been in the business more than twenty years. So what’s it going to be?”

After a few short but tense moments of judgment and determination, the old guy answered with a nod and gestured that Maki should follow him. He led Walsh through an earth-toned wood and leather living room, to a closet in the adjoining hall and opened it. Inside, a ratty suede jacket hung on a hook with a pair of battered boots on the floor. The client stepped into the closet and gave Walsh a questioning glance.

Maki, having been in even weirder situations in the past, put it together in a flash, shrugged and joined his client inside the closet. He was figuring on a secret panel set into the back wall. Instead the old man shut the closet door and the disguised elevator automatically began to descend. Once it settled, the old man opened the door and stepped out into something that most certainly didn’t belong in any Mexican basement.

It was a large expanse of gray utilitarian efficiency. Maki was a definite machine guy, comfortable with anything from a computer to a starcraft. He recognized a nearby electronic microscope, a centrifuge and a few other items but the vast majority of the chamber’s gear was a mystery to him. The lab had a distinct biological bent to it. A joint like this wasn’t supposed to exist anywhere outside some high-security industrial park.

Now it was Maki’s turn to give his client the reevaluating once-over. “I’m not getting paid enough for this job, am I?”

“I was told you were not one to ask undue questions,” replied the client in a tone and cadence that clearly set him apart from the lowlife scum Walsh was used to dealing with.

“Fair enough, Doc. A deal’s a deal. Where’s the cargo and am I going to have to take any special precautions with it?”

“A few,” answered the Doc with a bemused smile. He then crossed to what looked like an out-of-place ornate panel, set on the far wall of the lab. A hidden button was obviously pressed and the panel rose to reveal a window beneath. Maki guessed it was one-way glass. He stared into the adjoining chamber for a few gut-churning moments before turning his gaze back to his client.

“You know, OmniEver Inc has a lot of dos and don’ts, Doc. One of their biggest don’ts is genetic manipulation on the lower races. That’ll earn you a very painful and public execution, just to discourage anyone else from getting that stupid. Only thing worse than this is messing with artificial intelligence.”

Unperturbed by the pronouncement, the Doc pulled an over-stuffed manila envelope from an inside vest pocket and handed it to Maki. “In the envelope you’ll find double the agreed-upon fee for your services, delivery instructions and all the paperwork you’ll need for the cargo. Well?”

Maki stared at the temptation in hand, weighing and worrying. The job had suddenly gained an element of risk far outside his comfort zone. But there were debts owed and investments already made, related to this endeavor. The transaction was dangerous but not suicidally so. Maki wasn’t happy but it wouldn’t be the first time he’d skirted this close to the edge. Wasn’t like he was doing anything really stupid, like competing with some OmniEver Inc enterprise. “Okay. What kind of paraphernalia am I going to need for this shipment?”

“It should take me only a few moments to gather up all the necessities,” answered the Doc. He left Walsh staring grimly into the next room, with its soothingly colored décor and muted indirect lighting. Maki knew enough about kids to peg the three boys at being no more than six months old. They were plainly unaware of his scrutiny, happily playing amidst multitudinous toys.

Maki knew they existed, but hadn’t been planetside long enough to yet get a good handle on all Earth’s rather weird racial classifications. Nonetheless, Walsh was fairly certain that he was looking at a good across-the-board selection of the Earther breed.

Kid #1 could easily be one of the Doc’s own grandchildren; that same pale hue.

Kid #2 was a shade warmer in tone, had almond-shaped eyes and jet-black hair; the runt of the litter.

Kid #3 had the darkest hide and was the heftiest of the three.

Walsh studied his cargo, silently cursing himself for the decision just made. What had he gotten himself into? Maybe Maki’d never been a parent but even he knew normal kids, this age, just didn’t use their toy blocks to jointly build, complete with ramparts and towers, almost three-foot-tall castles.

 

 Sunday 7:45 pm

Less than fifteen minutes out from the hacienda Maki spotted three dark shapes against the full moon; instant recognition, mostly because of their running lights being dimmed. Corporate cops on a raid! They descended into the valley Walsh had just departed.

Taking a deep breath, Maki reminded himself that panic would only get him captured or killed. Maintaining the speed he’d been traveling at, Walsh chanced a quick glance into the back of the vehicle. His cargo still sat in the comforter-lined pen the Doc had set up on the van’s floor, ignoring the myriad toys placed around them. All three of the babies intently studied Maki and his driving.

The flyers had disappeared from the rearview screen, were probably now landing by or hovering above the hacienda. Maki’s nameless client was most definitely history, about to disappear into OmniEver Inc’s notorious but seldom-spoken-of Black Hole prison system. But if the Doc kept his cool, he might buy Maki enough time for his nondescript van to blend into the heavier traffic on Camino 195. Walsh felt he still had a chance of surviving his hasty and greed-driven decision.

 

Wednesday 8:30 am

The next three days, driving up the Pan American Highway, were pretty uneventful. Maki was more than a little surprised when he discovered the kids only cried when they were in need of changing. The rest of the time the boys were quite content to sleep, play with their toys, watch videos or listen quietly to the soothing classical music the Doc had provided for the trip. At each rest stop they ravenously gobbled down a ration of their special formula.

Normal parenting was nowhere near this easy; of this Maki was certain. With each passing mile the calm at the back of the van fostered nothing but unease up in the drivers’ seat. Every time Maki glanced back, to check on the lads, he half expected to be confronted by a half dozen glowing green eyes or something worse.

Maki avoided overnight layovers in cities and towns. Down time was spent off road, in some seriously out-the-way location Walsh’d scouted out on his trip south. Each night he would unroll his sleeping bag next to his already slumbering travel companions. Each morning he would awaken to find them intently studying him through the mesh of their playpen.

Just before reaching the country’s northern border, Maki treated the guys to a special drug-laced batch of formula the Doc had also supplied. The peacefully slumbering babes were then deposited into a smuggler’s niche above the driver and passenger seats, along with their folded-up pen.

Crossing into the United States was no problem, thanks to rush hour traffic, Maki’s very expensive fake ID and his even more costly biometric palm stick-on. His appearance raised no red flags. Alien workers were a fairly familiar sight already, having been brought in soon after the corporate takeover, to help with the transition.

Earthers still manned the now seemingly incongruous Customs and Immigration station but were backed up by ominous hovering corporate security droids. Their sensors had replaced the sniffer dogs for detecting the usual contraband. Walsh’s van was tricked out with myriad counter-measures designed to thwart such inspections. Maki gave the right answers to the usual questions, all the time listening for any giveaway cry, belch or fart from overhead.

Twenty minutes after the road signs switched from Omni-voice/Spanish/English/Korean to simply Omni-voice/English/Korean Maki pulled into a rest area, to return the van’s traveling playroom to its earlier state before his passengers awoke. But when he opened the smuggler’s niche Maki was greeted by a trio of questioning gazes. The lads had all rolled onto their bellies, ready to crawl back into the light. The Doc’s knockout formula clearly wasn’t anywhere near as strong as it should have been. How long had the kids been awake? Were they conscious during the border crossing? But the most unsettling question of all Maki tried hard not to consider. Why had they remained so quiet all this time?

The gang spent the night at the dead end of a country road outside San Diego. Knowing this would be their last evening together, Maki allowed the boys out of the van. The babes clearly enjoyed this new freedom and change of environment. At first they seemed confused by the grass Maki set them on, each of them first poking at it, then pulling loose a handful and carefully examining it. Maki wondered if this might not be their maiden venture into the great outdoors.

Walsh thought he’d have to intercede when Boy #2 discovered and grabbed up a small beetle. Maki felt certain it was heading for the mouth. That’s what babies did with newfound small objects, wasn’t it? Anything might be food, right?

Instead #2 allowed the frantic insect to crawl from one hand to the other until it settled down, then intently studied this wonder until Boy #1 crawled up. The bug was then passed to him and the examination was repeated. The same thing occurred when #3 joined them. Once their curiosity was satisfied, the beetle was set gently onto the ground, to go its own way.

Exploration continued until, one by one, changing was needed. Maki then set them back into the pen and rationed out their late night formula. Fifteen minutes later they were all out for the count. Maki leaned back against the van’s sliding side door and carefully studied them. He drew a blank, trying to think of anything that could possibly look any more innocent than the three of them sleeping together like this. But their very existence a mighty corporation feared and could mean a life sentence for Walsh, if he were unlucky enough to get caught with them.

Delivering those kids to their new parents couldn’t happen soon enough. As far as Maki was concerned, these damn kids just weren’t natural and much too dangerous to be involved with.

 

Thursday 9:20 am

Walsh parked down the street from the Episcopalian Church for a couple of hours, checking it out for anything that might not look kosher. He hadn’t been expecting a church. His delivery instructions for this stop included only an address, no names or anything like a location description. Just one more item to add to the list of things Walsh didn’t like about this miserable job.

Religion and Maki were strangers. A church? He would have been more comfortable delivering the kid to a brothel or a meat packing plant.

It being a weekday, the chapel’s only early morning visitors were an elderly couple, who stayed about fifteen minutes and then left. Maki gave it another ten and then dished out drugged formula to babes #2 and 3. #1 got an undoctored treat. When Dos and Tres finally drifted off to baby dreamland, Maki pulled the van into the parking lot behind the church.

As soon as he grabbed up #1 and started heading toward the chapel’s rear entrance, Maki’s burden began issuing a God-awful wail. Seeing how this was the most vocal any of the kids had so far been, it really threw Maki off stride. The little shit couldn’t possibly know what was going down, could he?

Switching to the baby talk he’d heard real parents use to calm their own progeny, Maki cooed, “Hey, it’s okay; nothing to worry about. Just going to introduce you to some really nice people.”

#1’s response to this reassurance was to double the volume of his protest, which brought Father Michael Cainan out from the chapel, fully expecting to find some poor injured animal. Maki watched the pastor’s expression change from concern, to confusion, to realization, to what had to be unabashed joy. “You made it! We were so worried. We had no way to reach Dr. Lazgood. Thought you’d be here yesterday?”

Dr. Lazgood, huh? “Sorry about that,” said Maki. “Been sticking to a lot of back roads to avoid check points, you understand?”

“Come in. Come in.” said the pastor, responding to Maki’s subtle little dose of reality reminding, only now glancing around to see if anyone was within earshot. As soon as Father Michael shut the chapel doors, the priest called out loudly, “Helen! They’re here, Helen!”

A woman, who could have easily passed for Father Michael’s sister, came rushing into the chapel and immediately took the now quiet and intrigued babe from Maki, tears of joy cascading down her cheeks. The pastor was maybe a couple inches taller than her. Both had sandy blond hair, identical complexions and were just a tad overweight. “Oh, praise the lord! He’s beautiful!”

Yeah, Maki thought, clearly a made-for-each-other couple.

What followed was a lot of thanks, to both God and Maki Walsh. This child was the answer to their prayers. Certain that he was only moments away from some heavy proselytizing, Maki began inching his way to the door, claiming he had to get back on the road. He gestured for the priest to follow him to the parking lot.

When he reached the van, Maki turned to Father Michael and said, “Don’t go trying to reach your Dr. Lazgood. Think the corporate cops bagged him.”

The pastor let this sink in and finally said, “We will pray for his soul.”

“You know what you got in that boy of yours, don’t you?”

Father Michael studied Maki anxiously before answering. “Yes, but I didn’t think you’d know.”

As he climbed into the van Maki said, “Saw the Doc’s setup and have been traveling with…your boy the past three days. I’d have to be blind not to know. Don’t worry, though. You’re never going to see me again. Just wanted to make sure you knew what you were getting yourself into.”

“We do. God’s work is our calling.”

“Well, good luck with that,” Maki said as he shifted into reverse, still unsure exactly what the preacher did or did not know.

 

When they came around #2 and 3 scanned the van for a good ten minutes before giving up. They then settled into staring accusingly at Maki as he drove. He ignored them, turning his attention instead to the long litany of possible pitfalls he’d been fretting over since departing Dr. Lazgood’s hacienda/lab. Could Lazgood have escaped the corporate cops? Not likely. If he had been busted, the Doc would eventually talk. Everybody did. A secret didn’t remain one for long once the Corporation’s telepathic interrogators got to work.

In the plus column was the fact that the Doc knew squat about Maki. He’d surely seen the van, but Maki had driven up to the house with fake license plates and only switched back to his righteous tags later.

Still, the corporate cops might be looking for a white van, this make and model, thanks to the hacienda’s security cam system. A vehicle switch was in order: another unwanted expense.

But there were other questions, less pressing, that kept coming to mind. Such as how long had the Doc been pounding out super babies? Were #1-3 his first effort? Or were they the last of a long line of genetic time bombs Lazgood had shipped all over the world for God-only-knows how long? Well, those were OmniEver Inc concerns, not his. Maki punched in the GPS coordinates for his next delivery and settled back for a long drive. With a bit of luck he might reach Marin County before nightfall.

The van passed fields of green, crops being harvested by robotic work crews, no human supervision required.

 

Thursday 7:35 pm

Things hadn’t been going right. Neither of Maki’s charges would have anything to do with the drugged formula he offered them earlier, after he’d again switched to his fake plates. The boys had obviously cottoned on to the trick and weren’t going to get dosed a third time. Force-feeding the kids wasn’t an option, only because Maki had no idea how to manage it. Walsh was just going to have to make his second delivery with two wide-awake potential wailers in tow.

Thoroughly exasperated, Maki hissed at the boys, “Okay, don’t eat! But you’ve got to stay quiet, all right? You make any noise you’re going to get Uncle Maki into big trouble. You understand?”

Did they?

 

Kid #2’s final destination Maki found a bit more comforting than #1’s new home, but not by much. The mansion was easily larger than Father Michael’s church, rectory included. In Maki’s book, big money could easily be as creepy as religion.

Maki cruised past the mansion, just to reconnoiter the lay of the land a bit, and was not pleased by what he saw. Beyond two huge oaks at the front of the property lay an ocean of grass, the house set well off the road: much too much exposure. Worse still, there were security lights everywhere, already blazing in the gloaming. #2’s foster daddy was obviously very rich and very careful. But for some reason Maki found no comfort in this caution. He reached under the seat and pulled his pistol from its lead-foil-lined hideaway. The 38’s muzzle was then stuck into his boot top, out of sight but within easy reach.

When Maki stopped to turn around, a couple miles down the road, lights from the house could still be seen above the tree line. An awful setup was all the excuse Maki needed to veer from the course so meticulously mapped out for him.

As ordered, Maki rang up the number, listed in the delivery instructions, waited for the sound of his micro’s summons being answered and said, “New born.” He then promptly broke the connection and shifted back into drive. Maki was supposed to call five minutes out from the address. An earlier arrival now seemed a minor but prudent precaution.

But the change in plans didn’t appear to throw anything off for the cargo’s recipient. When Maki pulled up a full four minutes ahead of schedule there was already someone waiting outside the mansion’s delivery entrance.

He was surprised to see that the big guy in the sharkskin suit, who lumbered up to the van, wasn’t the same racial type as Kid #2. The obvious thug-for-hire had so much upper-body muscle grafted on, he now only vaguely possessed a human silhouette. The behemoth said nothing, just held out his huge meat hooks for the expected package. So Maki reached around, gently lifted Dos from the pen and delivered the goods. #2 didn’t start howling until he was in the monster’s paws. Who could blame him? Of course #3 immediately decided to make it a duet.

Out of the corner of his eye, Maki saw the wailing echo register on the thug’s face. But before the bruiser could open his mouth, Walsh stepped down hard on the accelerator and the engine’s electric purr rose to a whining protest. In the side mirror, Maki saw the suit calling out but his words were lost beneath the screech of tires spitting up gravel.

The van vibrated with Tres’ howls of protest and betrayal for the next half hour. Maki thought he best stow his gun, so he wouldn’t be tempted to empty it into the outraged infant. Strangely enough, as soon as Maki did this Tres lowered the volume to a mildly irritating sob. This continued until Walsh reached Oakland and stopped at a dilapidated old big box store, where he purchased an infant baby seat.

Moving Tres up front was all it took. The kid immediately became captivated by the passing neon lit scenery. Walsh relaxed markedly also, comforted by being back in his natural environment: an overpopulated metropolis.

Maki then spent the next hour checking out used car lots and finally settled on a suitable desperate-for-the-business concern that had just the vehicle needed.

Forty minutes of haggling later, Maki transferred his gear and Tres from the white windowless potential problem to a dark green solution with tinted windows all around. Cash was exchanged to even out the deal and Maki headed off toward US80.

The last leg of Walsh’s journey would surely be the most problematic. Traveling territory in transition was always tricky. Maki had to admit, even though it went against long-held prejudices, not enough law was sometimes worse than too much law. Most of the way, Maki would be keeping his gun within easy reach, as he drove across country to New York City.

 

Friday 8:30 am

Maki and his charge slowly returned to the waking life, finding themselves in a motel room outside Sacramento. More than a week of living out of the van was about all Walsh could stomach. Relatively clean sheets and a hot shower had become dire necessities.

Maki found Tres still lying on the room’s other bed but his eyes were wide open, quietly watching the waking adult. “Morning, kid.”

Determining that a change of diapers wasn’t yet called for, Walsh elected to take care of his own hygienic needs first. He worked his way around the hanging laundry that was drying throughout the bathroom, visited the throne and then brushed the night from his mouth.

Afterwards, sitting in a battered lounge chair by the front window, Maki fed Tres his morning formula. To the sounds of contented sucking, Walsh considered the remainder of his assignment. He’d have to overnight power charge the van’s Lithium Ion 1000s at least twice to get across country. Meals and motels were also factored into the budget. His and the kid’s papers were good enough to indulge in the luxury of sleeping indoors, but Maki didn’t trust Tres’ enough to chance air travel. The road trip added time to the task, but better overly cautious than incarcerated.

By the time Tres finished breakfast, Maki had calculated that his overall expenses for this transport job barely topped ten percent of gross. Expectations of actually realizing this windfall brought a huge smile to Maki’s golden features.

Bouncing Tres on his knee, Maki informed the giggling child, “Kid, you and your brothers may be unnatural freaks of science and a definite peril to ol’ Uncle Maki’s freedom but, in the end, you’ve helped me come a long way toward saving enough for a new ship and a new life. Thanks.”

 

Friday 10:45 am

The trip was mapped out to avoid the new metropolises OmniEver Inc was busy erecting across the country. Route 80 made this easy, linking one old Earther city to the next all the way to New York. Maki figured pushing hard the first day would get him somewhere near Salt Lake City. The further away he got from California and its southern border the safer he’d feel.

Maki and Tres started off the trip in silence, Walsh concentrating on the road, the baby soaking up the sights and sounds of a new world. But once traffic thinned, Maki’s gregarious nature asserted itself. Without realizing it, Walsh began an on-again-off-again monologue that would last until the Big Apple came into view. Sometimes it seemed that Tres hung on Walsh’s every word. Most times, though, the boy would stare out at the passing scenery, seemingly oblivious to Maki’s ramblings, watching passing marvels, like huge mechanical harvesters toppling redwood trees, some over a thousand years old.

“You know, kid, you picked one hell of a time to come into life, especially on this planet. Everything’s changing. Earth’s old ways are dying and the brave new world of OmniEver Inc is rewriting all the rules. You’ve got no idea what Uncle Maki’s jabbering about, do you?


AUTHOR Q&A

About me

Over the past forty years Jim Starlin has written and drawn for Marvel Comics, DC Comics and myriad other publishers. His works include The Infinity Gauntlet, Thanos, Batman: A Death in theFamily, The Infinity War, Warlock, Captain Marvel, The Silver Surfer, Dreadstar and many other titles. He created Thanos, the Infinity Gauntlet and Drax and Gamora from the Guardians of the Galaxy. Novels cowritten with Daina Graziunas include Among Madmen, Lady El, Thinning the Predators and Pawns.


Next in:
Science Fiction & Fantasy
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