quicker to work with than magnetism. When you wish-

There it was, ahead. The Whatever.

Rushing toward rendezvous, the bola’s camera spied something glittery, vaguely oval in shape, gleaming with a pale blueness that pulsed like something eager.

Gerald’s hand was the grabber, turning a fielder’s mitt of splayed fingers, reaching as the object loomed suddenly.

Don’t flinch, he chided ancient intuitions while preparing to snatch whatever this hurtling thing might be.

Relax. It never hurts.

Only this time-in a strange and puzzling way-it did.


Does the universe hate us? How many pitfalls lie ahead, waiting to shred our conceited molecule-clusters back into unthinking dust? Shall we count them?

Men and women always felt besieged. By monsters prowling the darkness. By their oppressive rulers, or violent neighbors, or capricious gods. Yet, didn’t they most often blame themselves? Bad times were viewed as punishment, brought on by wrong behavior. By unwise belief.

Today, our means of self-destruction seem myriad. (Though Pandora’s Cornucopia will try to list them all!) We modern folk snort at the superstitions of our ancestors. We know they could never really wreck the world, but we can! Zeus or Moloch could not match the destructive power of a nuclear missile exchange, or a dusting of plague bacilli, or some ecological travesty, or ruinous mismanagement of the intricate aiconomy.

Oh, we’re mighty. But are we so different from our forebears?

Won’t our calamity (when it comes) also be blamed on some arrogant mistake? A flaw in judgment? Some obstinate belief? Culpa nostra. Won’t it be the same old plaint, echoing across the ruin of our hopes?

“We never deserved it all! Our shining towers and golden fields. Our overflowing libraries and full bellies. Our long lives and overindulged children. Our happiness. Whether by God’s will or our own hand, we always expected it would come to this.

“To dust.”

– Pandora’s Cornucopia



Meanwhile, far below, cameras stared across forbidden desert, monitoring disputed territory in a conflict so bitter, antagonists couldn’t agree what to call it.

One side named the struggle righteous war, with countless innocent lives in peril.

Their opponents claimed there were no victims, at all.

And so, suspicious cameras panned, alert for encroachment. Camouflaged atop hills or under highway culverts or innocuous stones, they probed for a hated adversary. And for some months the guardians succeeded, staving off incursions. Protecting sandy desolation.

Then, technology shifted advantages again.

The enemy’s first move? Take out those guarding eyes.

* * *

Infiltrators came at dawn, out of the rising sun-several hundred little machines, skimming low on whispering gusts. Each one, resembling a native hummingbird, followed a carefully scouted path toward its target, landing behind some camera or sensor, in its blind spot. It then unfolded wings that transformed into holo-displays, depicting perfect false images of the same desert scene to the guardian lens, without even a suspicious flicker. Other spy-machines sniffed out camouflaged seismic sensors and embraced them gently- cushioning to mask approaching tremors.

The robotic attack covered a hundred square kilometers. In eight minutes, the desert lay unwatched, undefended.

Now, from over the horizon, large vehicles converged along multiple roadways toward the same open area- seventeen hybrid-electric rigs, disguised as commercial cargo transports, complete with company hologos. But when their paths intersected, crews in dun-colored jumpsuits leaped to unlash cargoes. Generators roared and the air swirled with exotic stench as pungent volatiles gushed from storage tanks to fill pressurized vessels. Consoles sprang to life. Hinged panels fell away, revealing long, tapered cylinders on slanted ramps.

Ponderously, each cigar shape raised its nose skyward while fins popped open at the tail. Shouts grew tense as tightly coordinated countdowns commenced. Soon the enemy-sophisticated and wary-would pick up enough clues. They would realize… and act.

When every missile was aimed, targets acquired, all they lacked were payloads.

A dozen figures emerged from an air-conditioned van, wearing snug suits of shimmering material and garishly painted helmets. Each carried a satchel that hummed and whirred to keep them cool. Several moved with a gait that seemed rubbery with anxious excitement. One skipped a little caper, about every fourth step.

A dour-looking woman awaited them, with badge and uniform. Holding up a databoard, she confronted the first vacuum-suited figure.

“Name and scan,” she demanded. “Then affirm your intent.”

The helmet visor, decorated with gilt swirls, swiveled back, revealing heavily tanned features, about thirty years old, with eyes the color of a cold sea-till the official’s instrument cast a questioning ray. Then, briefly, one pupil flared retinal red.

“Hacker Sander,” the tall man said, in a voice both taut and restrained. “I affirm that I’m doing this of my own free will, according to documents on record.”

His clarity of purpose must have satisfied the ai-clipboard, which uttered an approving beep. The inspector nodded. “Thank you, Mr. Sander. Have a safe trip. Next?”

She indicated another would-be rocketeer, who carried his helmet in the crook of one arm, bearing a motif of flames surrounding a screaming mouth.

“What rubbish,” the blond youth snarled, elbowing Hacker as he tried to loom over the bureaucrat. “Do you have any idea who we are? Who I am?”

“Yes, Lord Smit. Though whether I care or not doesn’t matter.” She held up the scanner. “This matters. It can prevent you from being lasered into tiny fragments by the USSF, while you’re passing through controlled airspace.”

“Is that a threat? Why you little… government… pissant. You had better not be trying to-”

“Government and guild,” Hacker Sander interrupted, suppressing his own hot anger over that elbow in the ribs. “Come on, Smitty. We’re on a tight schedule.”

The baron whirled on him, tension cracking the normally smooth aristocratic accent. “I warned you about nicknames, Sander, you third-generation poser. I had to put up with your seniority during pilot training. But just wait until we get back. I’ll take you apart!”

“Why wait?” Hacker kept eye contact while reaching up to unlatch his air hose. A quick punch ought to lay this blue-blood out, letting the rest of them get on with it. There were good reasons to hurry. Other forces, more formidable than mere government, were converging right now, eager to prevent what was planned here.

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