The lights on the big board went out one by one.

Fonvielle remembered the American dead. The. programmes had all been costly. Mercury, Gemini, Apollo, Hercules, Pegasus, Circe, Argos, Vulcan. But there had always been men and, for the last seven years, women. Everyone wanted to cross the threshold, and reach into space. He had lost friends to the stars. More than he should have. Alan Shepard, Grissom, Cap Collins, Capaldi, Len Nimoy, Rusoff, Mikko Griffith, Mildred Kuhn, Mihailoff, Hamill, Con Lindsay, Garret Breedlove. The white heat of the early '60s, with Nixon riding them for results, had been exhilarating at the time, but the historians were right. Corners had been cut, and the drive to get Apollo together had killed too many people. He remembered the blown hatch that had taken Grissom, lightheaded from the first spacewalk, to the bottom of the ocean. And the computer error that had turned Richard Rusoff into a second moon, silently orbiting the Earth for a projected five centuries before the burn-up cremated his dried and preserved body. And the fuel leak which had burned up Griffith, Kuhn and Mihailoff in an instant just before take-off.

But it had taken the Needlepoint failures to bring down the programme.

Needlepoint was up there somewhere, glinting in the night sky. A ring of satellites, fully equipped with laser weapons, hanging useless in their erratic orbits. It would be at least thirty years before they started tumbling towards the ionosphere or out into space. Every time an American strategist looked up at the stars on a clear night, he would be reminded of the money pit the Needlepoint System had turned out to be. And he would curse the memory of President Trickydick Nixon. And of Commander Lawrence Jerome Fonvielle.

They left him alone, and turned off the main lights. He stood in the dark, surrounded by dead machines.

At last, he could give in. Tears coursed down his cheeks, and his entire body was racked with silent sobs.

He slumped onto a polythene-covered swivel chair, and wiped his leaking eyes.

The skeleton programme NASA was keeping up at Edwards Air Force Base was a joke. Just a few green airmen peering at the monitors to make sure all the government-owned satellites were still spinning in their orbits, keeping out of the way of all the private junk. Agnew had given up the country's hold on the sky, and left only a few multinats in the space market. And all they were interested in was throwing up a horde of little silver balls so they could beam porno into the depths of the Amazon basin, or shift electronic blips of money from Switzerland to Osaka. The age of the explorers, the pioneers and the heroes was over. The Suits had thrown it away, and now the merchants were moving in.

His face dry at last, he swore to keep the Dream alive.



'C'mon, Jesse Garon, don't fail me now…'

Whenever he was alone, which was most of the time, the Op talked to Jesse Garon as if his brother were there. In a sense, he was. In the backwoods, they said that when one of identical twins died, the survivor would carry the baby's soul for the rest of his natural life.


Despite his thick leather waders, the cold of the Mississippi Delta swamp was seeping into his legs. He had been in one place for over two hours, since before sundown, waiting for the attack to come.

On a still night, you could hear the helicopters coming from a long way away. He had enough time to take the rocketlauncher out of its watertight case, and load up with a GenTech one-shot Ground-to-Air missile. The weapon was heavy on his shoulder, but he stood his ground, putting up with the ache, his right eye to the nightsight.

Around him in the swamps, the cicadas trilled. There were water moccasins weaving across the surface of the rancid waters, and he had heard that the 'gator population was rising now they were raising the reptiles for food. But he'd been trailing through swamps all his life, and nothing had bitten him to death yet.

He wore a heavy black leather jacket, zipped up to his chin. Underneath, his shirt was a vivid pink. He didn't want that flash of colour in the night, marking him out as a target for the CAF. His face and hands were camouflage-streaked.

Finally, he heard the whup-whup-whup of the spidercopters. The CAF nightriders were flying out of Vicksburg in precise military manoeuvers, raiding, extracting tribute, coralling a load of indenture boys and girls, and retreating. They were connected in the state legislature, the Op knew. Indenture was a profitable system for the corps and politicos. In boardrooms across the world, they had wet dreams about workers you don't have to pay. The swampies had tried to get some official law in to deal with the Confederates, but no one was interested. They had had to pool their money and hire themselves some protection.

When he was first mustered out of the army, back in '60, he had gone to a Western movie with his Mama Gladys and the Original Colonel. The Magnificent Seven. In that picture, a group of poor Mexican fanners were being terrorized by a gang of bandidos led by Eli Wallach. They put all their money together and appealed to some American gunfighters to come and help them out. Although they had very little, the cowboy heroes agreed to fight and mostly die for the farmers. Back then, when he was taking down $10,000 a week, he hadn't believed those seven gunfighters would really take the job.

But here he was, nearly forty years later, with a rocketlauncher cricking his neck, preparing to go into battle with a couple of chopperloads of Klan-hooded killerscum for what amounted to a potful of beans and some used-up cashplastic tokens.

He could see the spidercopters now, stealthing their way across the bayou, ripple-patterning the waters. They were painted with the stars and bars, and they were packing enough hardware to burn out a small town. Which, since Mayor Kettle had refused to pay tribute or hand over any more young people as indentees, was exactly what they planned to do to what was left of Yazoo City.

The New South was full of factions like the Confederate Air Force, semi-official gangcults with some money behind them. With the gradual erosion of centralized government and the permeation of the state law-enforcement agencies by the big corps, a whole slew of patriotic warlords had set out to carve themselves little empires.

The Commander-in-Chief of the CAF was a dyed-in-the-wool white supremacist fanatic called Burtram Fassett whose last gangcult had called themselves the Knights of the White Magnolia and operated out of Phoenix. Turner- Harvest-Ramirez had broken up that crap game in the early '90s, but now he was in the bigotry and intolerance business again, lording it over a cadre of tightly-drilled white trash soldiers dreaming of white-columned, ivy- swathed mansions they'd never get their dirty boots into. Robert E. Lee would have had them shot down like dogs, but they sang 'Dixie,' 'The Bonnie Blue Flag' and 'I'm a Good Old Rebel' while they were burning out black churches and families, and could recite all the dialogue from Gone With the Wind if prompted. The South had always raised as good a crop of hatred as of cotton.

There were three spidercopters, moving in the classical arrowhead formation. The Op had flown similar ships in Central America in the '80s, and remembered how devastating it had been when the Sandinistas got hold of weapons like the one he was hefting right now. He grinned at the memory of high-tech engines of death crashing in flames in the jungle. It was time the CAF birdmen got a taste of their own napalm…

The young men of Yazoo City—despite its name not much more than a collection of swamp-harvester's huts these days—were spread out through the swamp, hefting rusty burpguns and flamethrowers. The Op had drilled them for a few weeks, and knew they would do their best. They couldn't hope to stand up to Fassett's forces for any length of time, but he was counting on the CAF being so spooked by meeting any resistance at all that they went to pieces. That was more than likely. The fanatics were always the first to run when you shot back. He remembered only too well being the only one to stand tall outside Managua when the government troops popped out of the ground. Those Contra yellowbellies Uncle Sam had had him supporting probably hadn't stopped running.

The lead copter hovered, and its attendants held their places in the formation, noses slightly down, weapon arms bobbing. The Op had the flying machine in his sights, and initiated the launch sequence. The LED below the sight counted down from twenty. He found himself twitching to the beat of the LED, his hips moving in his waders,

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