Less than four hours had passed between Mandy's vision and Dreamland One's alert, so nobody had bothered spinning down from the aborted response to Sutro Tower. The helicopters were refueled, the SUVs were idling, the non-cape agents were in their body armor. They all wanted to be ready, now that something was finally happening. But we stood around, waiting for the 'go' order, and to find out where we were going.

I don't like waiting. I don't have to do it, usually, I'm not used to it, and I have no plans of getting used to it. Seabring came out of the building from having been briefed by the Boss, I called to her as she approached, "What's taking so long?"

She seemed lost for an answer, or a way to put the answer she had into words. "D1 is in simulation mode, has been since it talked to the mini-computer we found in Dreadbird's head." She started to continue, stopped, and then said, quietly, in the voice of someone truly shaken, "There are new variables."

"Such as?"

"Need-to-know." Before Rapture could yell at her about the non-answer, she added, "And that's direct from the Boss."

So we stood around, except for Rapture, who found a spot to sit lotus-style away from everyone else and meditate. It helps her conserve power, focus it. She wants to be fully loaded. She wants blood: for Veronica Moresbay, and even for Methis and Dreadbird, but especially for McLeary.

McLeary, whose empty husk was lying in a refrigerated coffin deep within Dreamland Headquarters, on Chowdhury's orders. I felt nausea just thinking about it.

Mandy walked up, looking concerned; behind her was Portland Drew, pushing Junior in a stroller.

"Anything?" I asked. I knew the answer, of course: if Mandy had had another vision, anything, we would have heard.

She shook her head almost imperceptibly. "What about the Boss?"

Everyone looked out of the corner of their eyes at Seabring, who said nothing. I said, pointedly, "Apparently there are new variables. What that means I have—"

"I want this over as much as the rest of you," Seabring said as if she'd been barely holding the words in. "I want…" Her eyes went wide and she put her hand over her mouth.

The others probably thought the melon-baller had penetrated the Dreamland One's shield, had taken Seabring's brain, even if only for a second. Eight people gasping in horror at once is an awful sound. I was around behind Seabring and holding her hair while she vomited onto the lawn, before they realized that she was still alive.

"If she's sick she should lay down. " Portland Drew, just turned nine, offered helpfully.

"It's just stress, Portland, dear. She'll be fine. It's been a difficult week." Mandy looked at me reprovingly. "For everyone."

"OK." Portland said, oblivious to Mandy's subtext. "But laying down cures a lot of stuff, you know. I think—" Her eyes went wide, but her hand went to her ear, as if on instinct, the way all of ours do when our earpieces come to life.


"The Boss says he's finished his simulations. He says I'm supposed to suit up and then go see him."

"What? No. Absolutely not." Mandy sounded panicked.

Seabring was still doubled over, trying to say something and failing, and the rest of us were at a loss for words. But Rapture was suddenly at my elbow. "She needs to go in, now. Find out what the plan is. Enough with the waiting."

"We're not going to send… no. She's nine. It's a mistake. The computer's made a mistake. It's not a person, it doesn't know." Mandy took Portland by the hand. "We'll go in together. Explain it. Come on."

Massive was grinning. You better do as she says, man. I know that voice as well as he does.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Dreamland One: the face of it, anyway, what you see when the blast door rolls open and you walk down into the dark and then back out into the light again. The oddly reassuring voice that probably comes from faraway speakers you can't see — probably some tech it came up with in an otherwise unoccupied moment — but sounds like someone very close to you talking quietly. "Portland Drew is vital to a successful outcome."

"Not acceptable. She's a child."

"The danger to Portland is minimal. Mandy, you've always trusted me before, even with the life of your own child."

What the hell does that mean? "Wait a second—"

Mandy, once she has a full head of steam, can't be interrupted. "The melon-baller has killed two of us already."

"It will kill more, if Portland stays behind. It will continue to kill, until she goes."

"It couldn't kill Fleet, he was too fast. Send him to the—"

"Our enemy will have adapted to Fleet's speed. The simulations results are incontrovertible: even if he never slows from his highest possible speed, not even once, not even for an instant, Fleet going without Portland will almost certainly result in his death."

"Then find some other way. Do some more simulations."

"There are no more simulations to do. There are no consequential variables yet to be accounted for. The scenario I have described is optimal. To attempt any other approach is to introduce far greater risk to a greater number of people."

"I can't believe that—"

"I want to go." Portland's voice, clear and determined and earnest. "I want to."

Mandy was virtually in tears by that point, and she got down on one knee to grab Portland by the shoulders.  "You're a little girl, you don't understand."

"I want to help make everybody safe. I could die, but Boss says I probably won't. I understand fine." She crossed her arms. "I'm going."

Portland pulled away from Mandy and headed for the door. I half-expected my wife to continue her protest, fully in tears and screaming, but she didn't make a sound. She was on her knees, unmoving, arm outstretched towards the door as Portland went through it, as if petrified by fear and desperation.

"Honey, I think…" I circled around to help her up. There was a teardrop hanging in midair, three inches below Mandy's chin; Portland had escaped by freezing her, temporarily, in time, as she'd done before to Junia and Carlos.

"Mandy will be angry when it wears off, at all of us. But eventually, she'll understand," Dreamland One said. "Go with Portland. She has the address."

At the door, I asked, because I couldn't not ask. "What did the mini-computer — the one Chowdhury took out of Dreadbird — what did it tell you? Where the melon-baller was hiding?"

"I knew where it was hiding the day I built the shield. The mini-computer told me what the melon-baller is doing with the stolen brains."


~ * ~ * ~ * ~

Three Line Thursday: "Afloat"

It was here, on this still water, where you decided
To leave the cradles of this boat and your life,
And thus disturb to rippling chaos the waters of mine.



Breakfast, eight in the morning: Mandy received a vision, dropped her glass of orange juice which shattered on the kitchen floor, and Junior cried while his mother stood rigid with her breathing shallow and her eyes rolling back in her head.

We'd been behind the shield array — constructed to protect us from the melon-baller's seemingly indistinguishable-from-magic brain-stealing tech — for a week, waiting for some plan of action to come out from the Boss or for an actionable clue to fall into our lap with no result. Then: Mandy's vision.

It was a long one: before it was over and she could tell me what had happened or was happening or was about to happen, I was dressed and on the intercom to the others. "Suit up."

Mandy came out of it, rubbed her eyes, surveyed me already in my outfit and said: "Sutro Tower. It's Dreadbird. But…"

I was already to the door, but stopped to hear the rest. "But?"

"Something's different. With her, I mean. She's never killed anyone?"

"As far as we—"

"There's somebody dead there, dead already." She reached for Junior, to pick him up, soothe him. "I don't know who, or where. Maybe more than one."

"Call it in." The others would be half-into their suits now, unless they'd already been wearing them, in which case they'd be headed for the landing pad or the motor pool. Except for Rapture, who'd be waiting in a hover. I slowed enough as I passed her on the headquarters lawn to repeat what Mandy had said, and then we were off.

Rapture's flight mechanic, whatever it is, doesn't make her anywhere near as fast as me. But she's faster than the helicopters, which were still waiting for personnel. I'd get there first, then her, and then suddenly, everybody else. It's what always happens, and I like it that way.

Sutro Tower is an immense red-and-white claw of steel and cable scratching at the sky; at its base lies a squat, brutal building bristling with dishes and other tech. As I approached I counted eighteen, twenty, twenty-two quadcopter drones, man-sized and mean-looking, all orbiting the top of the tower. In the center of their perimeter: Dreadbird, a tiny speck doing I couldn't tell what.

I was circling across broken ground, looking for a good route up to her when the quadcopters started spraying bullets at me. The transmission building was the only real cover nearby, and the front door was propped open, so I headed for it.

I stopped to avoid tripping over the site watchman, laying unmoving on the floor near the entrance, when my head suddenly hurt, as if I had been in the midst of a migraine for hours and was only now noticing it.

My reflexes are fast, as I've told you before. They would have to be, for me to control myself, to move my limbs rapidly enough and at the right times to stay in purposeful motion, to keep from tearing myself apart attempting a change of speed or direction. My nervous system has to be able to produce those impulses and carry them in an ordered manner. I don't know why I don't think fast. Maybe the mutation's limited to my motor cortex or something. Maybe Doctor Chowdhury would know, or D1.

I was moving again before the normal, human, slow part of my brain understood what was happening: someone was trying to steal it, right out of my skull, right then. I went through the doorframe rather than the door, emerging in a cloud of splinters and concrete dust, bullets kicking up dirt ten feed behind me and then twenty and then thirty as I gained speed. I toggled my collar-mic to send a warning to the others before the wind noise made me impossible to understand: "Trap. Stay away."

Somebody was talking to me over me earpiece as I ran, probably Seabring, but I couldn't understand her. It wouldn't have mattered, because I wouldn't have turned back towards Sutro Tower for anything in the world, not for Seabring, not even for the Boss. I didn't stop until I was back at headquarters safely within Dreamland One's protective shield.

I didn't have to, as it turned out D1 had drones of its own. They were the size of small helicopters, wicked fast, and armed with some kind of energy weapon. Where the Boss had been keeping them I had no idea, none of us had ever seen them before. Maybe it had been getting ready for something like this for years without telling anyone; maybe it had built them yesterday.

We watched it happen, gathered around the big screen in the ops room, all of us except for Rapture. She hadn't made it back to base yet, but the others hadn't had time to leave it before being waved off by my message. Dreamland's drones made short work of the bogeys around the tower: they fell smoking in twos and threes every few seconds and it was over within a minute, and the friendlies had only a few bullet-sized dents to show for their troubles.

The guard inside was alive, unconscious, which was odd but welcome. It was Dreadbird who was dead.

~ * ~ * ~ * ~

"The melon-baller laid a trap, all right, but so did D1." Seabring explained, as we all waited for Chowdhury to emerge from the operating room. "The Boss must have figured the antenna complex would figure into it somehow."

I began, "But how would—"

"I have no idea. You try second-guessing a self-aware computer. I don't know what it knows about the melon-baller's tech and what that would imply about what the melon-baller needs. Maybe D1 set traps all over the place, and this is just the one the enemy happened to trigger. But I know one thing..."

Rapture, ever impatient, snapped, "What?"

"The melon-baller's trap? It was for you," Seabring pointed straight at my forehead, "mister 'first responder'. The melon-baller made a play for your brain, specifically. Maybe he would have settled for somebody else, but he tipped his hand right away, and for you."

Chowdhury emerged, shaking his head. "Miss Wang — 'Dreadbird', as you knew her — has been dead for some time, possibly more than a month. The body shows signs of long-term refrigeration. And it appears that her brain was removed, and replaced by the mini-computer, surgically, at the time of death. It was the cause of her death."

"Motherfucker." Massive was stone-faced but his voice rumbled with anger. "I'm gonna enjoy taking this guy apart."

"It also appears that her tech implants have been removed, taken apart, some of them modified, and then all re-implanted with their connections extended to join with the mini-computer in the skull. When D1's electro-magnetic spike trap hit the body, the implants conveyed the pulse to the 'brain' and disabled it."

Everybody else was quiet, processing; I was full of adrenaline and anger. "What now?"

Chowdhury shrugged, looked at his watch. "Dreamland One is talking to the mini-computer."

"Talking to it?"

"We have to be patient, this could—"

The alert sounded in the hall, and all of our earpieces beeped. Everyone but me jumped.

"Who the hell sounded the alert?" Seabring asked, looking around for an absent culprit. "We're all right h—"

The building-audible alert sound ended, but over our earpieces came Dreamland One's strange, flat, artificial speaking voice, the one that had ensorcelled us all at our entrance interviews. "I have him. Suit up."

Five Sentence Fiction: "A Word Of Warning"

"This will all be city, one day."


"Everything will be city, arctic to tropics, tendrils reaching out into the ocean and spiny spikes into the sky, a sprawling nest lousy with humanity. The very Earth will groan under its weight."

"You're a real downer, mister time-traveler, you know that?"

Right Of Way

These iron horses carry with them the sins of the cities of the East, barreling across God's pastures belching that hellish black smoke as they go. Every boxcar, every hopper, every tanker, every wheel and axle and coupler, each is a knife in the heart of our way of life. If we let this affront continue, surely we will all of us perish.

You have power; it comes from the Lord, as all power does. He expects you to use it as an agent of his will, the instrument of his vengeance and judgment. Go to the tracks, and wait.