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Seedlings

By

Ty Spencer Vossler

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously and are not to be construed as real. Any resemblance to actual events, locations, organizations, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

World Castle Publishing, LLC

Pensacola, Florida

Copyright © Ty Spencer Vossler 2018

Smashwords Edition

Paperback ISBN: 9781629899077

eBook ISBN: 9781629899084

First Edition World Castle Publishing, LLC, April 16, 2018

http://www.worldcastlepublishing.com

Smashwords Licensing Notes

All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in articles and reviews.

Cover: Karen Fuller

Editor: Maxine Bringenberg


Table of Contents



Chapter 1 – The Day the Music Died

Chapter 2 – Brother and Sister

Chapter 3 – Cloud Dancer

Chapter 4 – Garner Hoffman

Chapter 5 – Pre-launch

Chapter 6 – Power-Play

Chapter 7 – The Ghost of Mitterwald

Chapter 8 – Joan of Arc

Chapter 9 – Morningstar

Chapter 10 – Countdown

Chapter 11 – Ignition

Chapter 12 – Liftoff

Chapter 13 – Dogs of war

Chapter 14 – Things that Crawl in the Night

Chapter 15 – Harvest Time

Chapter 16 – Exodus

Chapter 17 – Deep Blue

Chapter 18 – The Good Provider

Chapter 19 – Every Good Child Deserves Favor

Chapter 20 – Santo Tomás

Chapter 21 – Frozen Turkey

Chapter 22 – High Noon

Chapter 23 – Scythians, Slimers, Collectives, Oh My!

Chapter 24 – Arrival

Chapter 25 – Pay Dirt

Chapter 26 – Cutting Losses

Chapter 27 – Reunion: Twenty Years Later


“...been rumors of war and wars that have been, the meaning of life has been lost in the wind, and some people thinkin’ that the end is close by, ‘stead of learnin’ to live they are learnin’ to die.” —Bob Dylan


Itzel’s final memory log:

Earth. Four elements make up ninety percent of the planet…iron, oxygen, silicon, and magnesium. After a billion years, artistic forces wrestled away the chisel, and replaced it with a paintbrush. The first flowering tree was a magnolia. A palette of color washed over everything so that Earth became pleasing to the eye. Genesis was formed with those four raw materials, revised, and revised again. The development of humanity started out well, yet as the brain developed, a strange irony arose. You preferred the chisel to the brush.



CHAPTER 1

The Day the Music Died


The music stopped. How did that happen? Before Max died…no, before that; when? Here I sit, still as death, snuggled into his favorite chair, surprised at how quickly life dissolves when it loses meaning. Yes…there’s my answer. The music stopped when I no longer served a purpose.

The coffee was cold in Itzel’s mug, yet she continued to sip because there was nothing else to do. A teardrop gathered in the corner of her eye, and she willed it not to flow. Crying was useless when no one was around to comfort you.

Itzel pushed herself out of the chair and walked to the kitchen window. A soft rain floated to the street. She thought of going to see the new movie everyone was raving about. She opened the window to hear the sound of the rain. The ambient songbird program had ceased when the first drops were picked up by sensors, and would resume shortly after the rain ended. It’d been years since she’d seen a live bird, although it was reported that numbers were up slightly.

Itzel strolled into the office and stared at WallEye. She and Max had never been able to afford Holovision. WallEye provided a flat dimension, yet it was better than nothing. She needed to find something…anything that would fill this void. She began sifting through channels, shush, shush, shush, stopping for a moment to switch to the network. From there she could surf the web, make phone video calls, play virtual games.

Perhaps I should call a friend…no, they won’t want to be disturbed. Each had lives that were separated from work…even family. They needed space. She hated the bothered sound in the voices when she called friends. If Max were alive, he’d be in his chair watching WallEye…already dead in so many ways. Sometimes she felt guilty for not missing him much, but he’d been more companion than husband; a comfortable quilt providing warmth and security without really meaning to.

Without thinking, the words escaped from her lips. “No reason to go on.” She stared at WallEye, and an advertisement materialized. Her words had prompted popups, businesses that hawked quick-fix happiness.

“That one,” she pointed.

A large logo for RepliCan slowly dissolved, and was replaced by a smiling, well-dressed man.

“Hello, Itzel.”

“Hey.”

“We know why you’re here.”

“Doubt that.”

“We can’t blame you for being cynical.”

“Cut the dog’n’pony; what kind of snake oil you selling?”

“Relief for an aching heart; tonic for loneliness.”

“Happy pills?”

He shook his head. “We offer joy you can touch.”

“Replicas?”

“At competitive prices, satisfaction guaranteed, or your money back.”

“What’s the damage?”

“Analysis shows that you pre-qualify for a 2093 refurbished M3 of your choice.” Her current bank balance popped up.

Itzel had never dreamed of such a thing. Acquaintances raved about them, yet she and Max had never discussed investing in one.

“Try for a month, and if you’re not completely satisfied, you’ll get a full refund.”

“Show me a demo,” she said.

“Very good, Itzel—beautiful name by the way—let me know if you’ve any questions. My name’s Tom, and it’s been a pleasure to serve you.”

Tom’s image dissolved, replaced by an M3 demo compilation, with an optional icon if she wanted to see replica’s going beyond the call of duty. But the onset of menopause had reduced her sexual appetite to a tiny pilot-flame. Another feature caught her attention. A serious looking man in a white lab coat said, “Here at RepliCan, we’re able to customize to your specific needs.” The scene changed to an old woman opening her front door, and being faced with a replica of her dead mother. A tearful reunion followed and the image faded, replaced by a father playing with a deceased daughter, a wife reunited with a missing husband…all programmed with real memories and crafted to look, and feel, authentic.

A shiver ran down Itzel’s spine, yet an idea took shape in her mind, and she smiled self-indulgently. “The King,” she murmured.

***

Rick Bonner was deep in thought as he tweaked a refurbished replica. Sales had slowed to a crawl, and inventory was piling up. Soon there would be layoffs, and some of his coworkers would get pink-slipped. Desire for happiness hadn’t changed, but costs had skyrocketed. Average Joe couldn´t swing it. Bonner was pretty sure his job was secure. After all, he’d been with RepliCan for fourteen years, and the newest hotshots didn’t know squat about refurbishing trade-ins and cast-offs.

Good news was, previously owned replicas were still selling. Bonner’s job was reconditioning and certifying used models. New replica’s lost twenty percent of their value as soon as they left the storage tube. RepliCan employees could lease an M3 for a substantial discount. Rick had chosen Olivia, an eternally youthful Latina, with long, thick black hair, full lips, and a penchant for drama. He’d programmed her to pout and demand attention. That morning he’d been preoccupied, and Olivia confronted him.

“Bonner, what’s eating you?” she asked in a thick accent. “You haven’t touched me for three days. You don’t love me anymore.”

“Come here…you know that’s not true.” He held her and then led her to bed, where she purred, snuggled, and ran her pleasure program, not freeing her legs from around him until he was late for work.

“Bonner, you finished with that M3?” Reisen’s voice startled Bonner from his revelry. Reisen was an executive bean counter, and he stood beneath the doorjamb to Rick’s lab, chomping on a stick of gum. He hated the man, and the feeling was mutual.

“Couple hours,” said Bonner.

“Lady paid cash,” Reisen explained, as though that would speed things up.

“Couple of hours…need to install the antivirus.”

“She’s waiting in the lobby.” He snapped his gum.

Bonner stared at him, and Reisen left.

***

Model numbers denoted the basic function of each replica. The M3 was a companion, decent conversationalist, a quality listener, and sexually adequate. M1’s were simple appliance models, qualified to clean house, iron, and do laundry. M2’s were babysitters, and provided home security. M3’s wasn’t state of the art anymore, but Bonner remembered when they had been. A new one would set you back two year’s salary, and a level 4 or 5…forget it. Bells and whistles were reserved for mucky-mucks, the top one-percent. The wealthy preferred M5 S models. The S designated submissive. As far as Bonner was concerned it stood for slave. He didn’t like them, and had programmed Olivia to question and argue with him. He couldn’t imagine a companion that capitulated to every whim. Conflict keeps the heart young, he thought.

Bonner closed up the M3 he’d been refurbishing for the woman waiting in the lobby. The replica had been returned for a full refund, and carried a tag around his ankle explaining why. Previous owner complained program doesn’t perform as specified. Virus scan was negative—follow-up diagnostics came up clean. Returned 12/7/2090.

The note was signed by Will Travers, recently laid off, leaving Rick alone in the lab. Bonner didn’t mind solitude. Travers had been irritating, and wasted time testing pleasure functions on M3’s…males and females.

Bonner ran a spec analysis on the replica and did a field test. “What shall we do today?”

“Whatever floats your boat, man,” it said.

“I’d like to heat up my balls in a microwave.”

“You want spaghetti with those meatballs?”

“Can you make a Spanish omelet?”

“Ain’t much of a cook, but I’ll give it a shot.”

“How about a blowjob?”

“Hey man, know who you’re talkin’ to?”

“The King.”

“Damn right.”

He inspected the replica’s fluids and made sure his ball sack was topped off. Some purchasers disabled the ejaculate option, yet most preferred the added realism. An expensive alternative replaced the synthetic ejaculate with live donor-sperm. Standard equipment included a generous genital package, and clients seldom asked for downsizing. Replicas were covered with a carefully formulated living tissue nearly identical to human skin. The digestive chamber processed whatever humans ate, and fed it to the outer layers. Waste was disposed of in the usual manner. Replicas could sit down for dinner and be excused to the bathroom.

Order forms were explicit. M3 owners had a choice of three options. The woman in the lobby had specified a witty, guitar-playing singer from the twentieth century. Bonner figured that the guitar would most likely end up on a dusty shelf, and she’d bang him like there was no tomorrow. When work was finished, Bonner certified the replica as good-to-go, and called upstairs. Reisen told him to escort the client downstairs and demonstrate the M3’s features. Bonner hated this part of the job. He was a technician, not a salesman.

“Fucking Reisen,” he seethed. “Wet behind the ears, and giving orders like a CEO.”

As he rode the elevator, he thought of Olivia. He’d installed a basic search engine in her brain to avoid deep, philosophical discussions; a decent meal and a good fuck. Yet the purchaser he was about to meet wanted just the opposite.

***

She was a pretty, petite, forty-something, wearing a colorful embroidered Mexican blouse and a long pink, filigree skirt. She had short black hair, full lips, and greeted him with a genuine smile. Rick admired her stockiness through the upper thighs…like Olivia’s. He was never attracted to the sort of women who used laser surgery to sculpt their bodies. Perfection was unnatural looking.

“Ms. White?” Rick held out his hand. “I’m Rick.

***

“Please, call me Itzel.”

“Itzel…your companion’s waiting.”

She wondered what Rick thought of women who shopped here…desperate, self-indulgent, or just lonesome? The elevator stopped at the showroom. Protected within transparent tubes, refurbished replicas stood at attention, awaiting passwords that would return them to service. Bonner led Itzel to her M3. He touched the glass and it lifted soundlessly.

“My word,” Itzel gasped. “Just as I remember.”

“Down to the finest detail,” Bonner added, handing her a pass card. “When you activate he’ll scan your voice, and moments later he’ll know you…right down to your favorite color of socks.”

Moments, she thought, all it takes to understand an entire life. She stared at the password.

“He’ll believe you’ve known each other half your life. Just say the word.”

“Okay,” she said, pursing her lips and looking into the eyes of her purchase. “Elvis.”

The replica’s eyes fluttered and opened. After a moment he smiled and whispered, “Itzel, you’re a sight for sore eyes.” Then he lifted her hand to his lips, and she blushed. “I mean it, you look amazin’.”

“Thank you.”

Elvis turned to Bonner. “My guitar?”

“You’ll pick it up on the way out.”

“She’ll need new strings.”

“We’ll buy some on the way home,” Itzel said.

“Thank you, ma’am…thank you very much.”

Bonner handed Itzel his business card. “Any glitches, give me a buzz. Your M3—”

“Elvis,” he interrupted. “M3 isn’t a name, its Bingo.”

Bonner smiled. “He’s warranted for one full year, parts and labor. Elvis will tell you when he needs servicing. The first one’s on us, and I’ll come to your house.”

“Thank you very much,” said Elvis. “We got it from here.”

Itzel squinted at Rick’s card. “Thanks, Mr. Bonner.”

“Rick.”

“Shall we?” Elvis hooked an arm through hers.

“You must be starved,” she remarked. “Let’s stop somewhere for a bite.”

“Could eat the balls off a low flyin’ duck,” Elvis said.

She laughed, and couldn’t remember the last time she had.

Bonner shook his head. “If you like I can reprogram—”

Itzel held up a hand. “Wouldn’t hear of it, Mr. Bonner.”

“Rick.”

***

Elvis settled effortlessly into Itzel’s life. Yet something didn’t mesh with her, and it was frustrating. For the life of him, he couldn’t access any information regarding her childhood. For the first few weeks, Elvis filled Itzel’s life with music and laughter. She softened perceptively when he sang Love Me Tender, yet made him sleep in the guest room. Elvis instinctively avoided sitting in her dead husband’s easy chair.

Weeks later, as Itzel readied for bed, Elvis strolled into the living room singing, Are You Lonesome Tonight?

She pursed her lips and smiled. The following morning, they shared coffee, and Elvis cocked his head toward the counterfeit birdcalls outside. “Ain’t the same.”

Itzel lowered her mug and shook her head. “No…no it’s not.”

That same morning Elvis approached her from behind as she washed dishes. He put his hands on her shoulders and kissed the back of her neck. Itzel shattered a saucer in the sink.

“Sorry,” he said. She wants companionship, not a boy-toy, his programming reminded him.

That evening during dinner, Itzel handed him the peas, and he held her hand for a moment. She knew something had changed about him. No one had looked at her like that for a long time, not even Max…no, not ever. Despite inhibitions, she felt wonderful. Menopause symptoms had eased up, roller coaster emotions had smoothed out, and the hot flashes were nearly gone.

“I get fruits and vegetables from the Cartmill Organic Farm in the foothills. We should drive there…it’s really beautiful this time of….” She couldn’t finish. Elvis was gazing soulfully into her eyes.

“You’re beautiful, Itzel,” he said.

“That stuff the AgTech towers grow, doesn’t taste the—”

Really beautiful,” Elvis interrupted.

She blushed. “You’re programmed to say that to all the girls.”

“Sweetheart, nobody’s thought about me in a coon’s age. Why me? Why’d you choose the King’a rock’n’roll?”

Itzel stared at her plate and Elvis reached for her hand. “Don’t know,” she shrugged. “Grew up listening to his…your music.”

“Fans were sad, weren’t they…when I died?”

“Devastated, from what I’ve read.”

“Even though I was famous, seems like I was an okay guy.”

She nodded. “And very handsome.”

“What happened?”

“What do you mean?”

“Seems like nobody cares about nothin’ no more.”

She shook her head slowly. “Maybe we’ve forgotten how.”

“Believe that?”

Itzel shrugged, and sipped her coffee thoughtfully.

“Music today; bunch’a yowlin’ cats.”

She smiled and nodded. “Kids have those audio implants. Walk around like this.” She stood and bobbed her head up and down.

Elvis laughed. “Cut off from everything that makes life...life.”

“Yeah.”

“Itzel, I adore you, darlin’.”

A chill coursed through her body. She cupped her hands around the warm mug.

“I’d jump barefoot into a bucket of porcupines for yuh.”

She set down her coffee and laid a hand on top of his. “Ever get tired?”

“Nope.”

Elvis stood up and led Itzel into the living room. He picked up his guitar and sang Love Me Tender. When he finished, Itzel stepped into his arms.

“Can you make me sing?”

“You bet, darlin’.”

***

Bonner couldn’t sleep. He listened to Olivia, breathing softly beside him. Occasionally she made a tiny snort, followed by a gentle sigh. She was an engineering marvel; a wondrous cooperation of synthetics, flesh, titanium, nanobytes, and programming. Yet he knew that her kind would soon end up in a bargain bin. Engineers were creating new machines in the image of man, working toward singularity…a melding of man and machine. It was only a matter of time.

In the mornings, Olivia sometimes shared programmed nightmares she’d had…fear of abandonment, his unfaithfulness. Rick wondered if singularity would allow for dreams, or would they be swallowed up in the mainframe? He suffered a reoccurring dream…an apocalyptic nightmare filled with death and suffering. Had no idea what to make of it. But each time he added finishing touches to a replica, he remembered.

Some images in his dream were historical…nuclear blasts, starving children, blast ruins, and piles of bodies. Others resembled archived footage from classic zombie films…people walking, going nowhere. He knew that dreams made fools of people. Searching for meaning in any one of them led to a brick wall. Yet, something about his was discomforting. For years he’d patched counterfeit lives, and now, as he gazed at Olivia, he felt as if his own life was a forgery.


CHAPTER 2

Brother and Sister


AgTech Corporation, formally known as BetterWorld, put food on the table. It was in mankind’s best interest to grow crops year around. Grapes and cotton were harvested in the dead of winter, snuggled inside glimmering high-tech cocoons, nourished with chemical fertilizers, sprayed with high-yield growth enhancers. BetterWorld, one of the oldest agchem corporations, formally known as, Consanto, had snapped up the entire seed bank many years before, and genetically engineered them so that they were only viable for one growing season. This created a monopoly on the food market. Eventually everything merged into AgTech. Food of every kind was grown in the upper levels of ag-towers, harvested, passed through lower levels, processed, packaged, and eventually pooped out of the delivery chutes. AgTech also processed bottled water, impurities removed and a proper mix of minerals reinstated.

Hannah Cartmill’s job was simple…don’t reinvent the wheel, make it turn faster. Let Mother Nature go on believing that rain and sunshine were still necessary. Better life through chemistry. Hannah trusted the idiom. She was an agrichemist, and late every evening she returned home with a clear conscience. There were other important occupations, but sustainable agriculture topped the list. She sat in her favorite chair at home, sipping wine and enjoying her quality of life.

Her work had recently drawn celebrity attention. Dr. Franz Mitterwald had spent a few days observing and discussing her work. Hannah had followed Mitterwald’s career for years. His computer engineering skills were unparalleled, and his software innovations enabled AgTech to thrive with sixty percent less manpower. Retired now, he’d visited to learn about food production, and was especially interested with how AgTech distributed food and water all over the globe.

“You won’t find bottled water without an AgTech logo on it,” she’d informed him. “And I’m pretty sure our produce ends up on nearly everyone’s table.”

Dr. Mitterwald had smiled. “Quite impressive. How long does it take to move products across the world?”

“Days. Our distribution network is second to none,” she assured him.

“You don’t say?”

Hannah knew there were drawbacks with processed food…cancer, respiratory issues, goiters, birth defects, heart disease, and allergies. Yet the new nanomeds were able to re-educate bad cells. Almost every human malady was curable, so it evened out. Hannah enjoyed her work, and was proud of the fact that she’d engineered several breakthroughs that gave processed vegetables added flavor.

Hannah thought of her father, Leyland, owner of Morningstar Organic farms. She and her brother, Conner, had grown up there. After college, she and Conner had been offered generous incentives to join the AgTech family.

Leyland had argued fiercely. “Your mother’d roll over in her grave.”

Morningstar was Hannah’s mother’s name. Seven years earlier she’d died in her sleep. Doctors said she suffered from malignant cardiac arrhythmia (abnormal heart rhythm), and explained that it was genetic. She and Conner had their DNA tested, and were deemed safe.

Hannah and Conner visited their father once a year. It was uncomfortable, especially for Conner, who couldn’t accept that their elderly father had a girlfriend. Leyland Cartmill held firmly to the old ways of farming. Not long after Morningstar’s death, he took up with a former field worker named Mariana, and trained her as his bookkeeper. Change was inevitable and couldn’t be ignored. You either embrace it or get left in the dust, she nodded to herself. Business-wise, her father was eating organic dust. Personally, she was happy that he wasn’t alone.

Hannah sat in her favorite chair. Carl, the newest lover, would arrive in forty-five minutes. Need a shower, a change into something…accessible. Remember to marinate the steaks…he loves meat. Mmm, she thought, loves to fuck.

She thought of her previous lover; when she’d slammed the door in his face it had sounded like a shotgun blast, causing the wall hangings to shudder. She always made it a point to end relationships before they did. Friends knew when she was between relationships, because they inherited castoffs the jilted lover left behind.

Nitrogen groundwater contamination, marine dead zones, and acid rain. Carl would push those anomalies right out of her head, and chemistry would triumph as always. While showering, she reminded herself to call Conner about the yearly visit with Father. She wanted to check that obligation off her to-do list.

“Someone’s at the door,” the housing sensor announced.

He’s early, Hanna smiled. She wrapped in a towel and let him in. They made it as far as the loveseat.

***

Conner’s wife, Meredith, had a pounding headache. She’d been suffering a lot of those lately, especially when he wanted her. Sometimes she locked herself in the bedroom with her M3 for a massage, yet Conner knew that the contraption had replaced him. He tempered his frustrations with Holovision, which placed actors in the center of the living room, moving around like clarified ghosts. Meredith was with his replacement. He watched the movie’s protagonist. After a prolonged car chase, she peered over the edge of a cliff. The music soared, and the hero was in a panic because the enemy was nearly upon her. Conner thought, if it was me, I’d jump. He heard a familiar groan from the bedroom, and remembered a poem he’d written Meredith when they first met, light-years ago.


Expressed at the corners of your mouth

suspended moisture indentured servant of the moment

muscles quiver as you release

first perfume of life delivered

within the sound of your moan

scattering seeds that have gathered there before

taking refuge at your shore


So long ago…back when they still liked each other. And now…the protagonist was falling, falling, falling. No animals were harmed during filming; no humans for that matter, because none were required. Even the voices were synthetic.

Conner thought of Hannah. He hadn’t heard from her in a long while, and figured it was time for their annual pilgrimage to visit to the old man. Christ, how things’ve changed, he thought. Now he’s with what’s-her-name…Maria? Conchita? He couldn’t for the life of him remember. He took out his cell phone to call Hannah, but returned it to his pocket, as Meredith groaned deeply from behind the bedroom door.


CHAPTER 3

CloudDancer


“That is no great genius without a mixture of madness.” —Aristotle


Doctor Franz Mitterwald was a genius, and he barely slept. For the past thirty years he’d been too busy for such nonsense. He was eighty-seven, and time was of the essence. Working in isolation most of his life, he’d developed odd quirks. Often, he plucked loose hairs from his eyebrows, and placed them on a sheet of white paper to count later. There were particular smells on his hands and forearms that he whiffed as he worked. There was a cyst on the back of his neck, and when he rubbed it with his thumb and forefinger, he detected an odor like blue cheese. These strange behaviors helped him to focus.

How the world has changed, he thought, and how I will change the world.

His wife, Sujeta, hadn’t agreed with the direction his personal research had taken. On rare occasions, after a few tumblers of Scotch, he’d shared bits and pieces, but it too was unsettling for her. She couldn’t begin to understand him.

It was child’s play for him to make accurate predictions about the world, and every one had come to pass. But being able to see truth so clearly was alienating. A few times he’d confided in colleagues. When he warned that corporations were becoming godlike, and that the government was nothing more than a cuckold, no one had listened, and look at it now. When he casually mentioned that technology was making people more ignorant than ever before, he got blank stares. He no longer shared his thoughts, choosing instead to go quietly about his business.

Franz had worked two full-time jobs for years…at the University of the Free Nations Research Center, and in his personal home laboratory, where he was free to pursue other ideas.

Before Sujeta’s untimely death five years earlier, they’d evolved into separate lives and separate bedrooms. Sujeta persuaded him to purchase an M3 to help around the house. As a result, the perfect delivery system for his brainchild was placed right in front of his nose. Research immediately took a turn. Sujeta complained that he spent more time with the M3 than with her. Yet, she found a way to even it out.

The privacy of Sujeta’s bed afforded release. The M3 always made time for her, and even though she muffled her pleasure in a pillow, Franz knew what they were doing. He didn’t care in the least. He had his own plans for her expensive toy. His conscience was clear.

Officially, Sujeta’s death was the result of asphyxiophilia. Apparently, she enjoyed being strangled during sex with the M3. One evening, after returning from work, Franz found her dead. The M3 was sitting on the edge of the bed, it’s programming fried. After careful investigation, the M3 was removed from the house, and replaced with another free of charge.

Five years later, Dr. Franz Mitterwald unveiled CloudDancer. He had developed the nanochip in the research laboratory at the University of the Free Nations. Once CloudDancer was delivered into the brain, it allowed unlimited Internet access anytime, anywhere. Implications were staggering. Formal education would be obsolete. Children would grow up with all knowledge, merely blinking to activate the chip. Information was only a thought away. The college brass was ecstatic, but clueless that the project Franz worked on at home would make CloudDancer seem like Pac-Man.

CloudDancer 1.1 kept bureaucrats off his back. Ironically, Franz was runner-up for the Nobel Peace Prize. The winner was a scientist who invented a compact weaponized laser, having ingeniously devised a way to deal with overheating issues. Franz was fine with that…glad to fly beneath the radar. He was now a respected elder statesman, above reproach…left alone. Even after retirement he had full access to the UFN research facility. Young engineers often found him tinkering with replicas. He’d wired an M3 to greet staff members. “A hug is like a boomerang…you get it right back,” said the M3, and then embraced them.

Several times Franz thought the jig was up, when he was called to the carpet for questioning; why was he using certain equipment, and what were his objectives? He never blinked when answering concerns. Franz was always a step ahead, and never suffered more than a slap on the wrist. Through the years he’d absconded, through hook and crook, with everything necessary for his personal research and development. It was solitary work, difficult work…brilliant work. Incrementally he revised, tweaked, and perfected his pet-project, until the day it was finished.

Apathy was Dr. Mitterwald’s greatest ally, more dependable than laziness because it relied on conscious choice rather than inclination. It helped him dodge restrictive policies that could have crimped his research, or landed him in the clink. Old age was a maximum clearance pass. Having developed most of the spyware for the government in his early years, he’d left wiggle room to snoop. He had full access to government secrets, and was fully aware of Project Seedlings. He would soon pay a little visit…a few clicks, and he’d be there without having to leave home.

***

A few months later, the time had come. Dr. Mitterwald stood at his kitchen window, half expecting Freeland Security to show. He wondered how history would portray him…villain or hero? AgTech was a perfect delivery system, and his work with replicas would soon pay off in spades.

“Sujeta,” he murmured to himself. Necessaryshe was a smoking gun.

Franz began pacing the kitchen like a father awaiting delivery of a newborn son. He was still in the kitchen, staring at a glass of water in his hand, when he heard sirens. Water, he thought, necessary for life, for changing the world. He poured out the glass.

“Forgive me, Sujeta.” Franz had saved the thirty-year-old single malt Scotch for years, and now he filled the water glass with amber liquid. A small capsule was taped inside the concave bottom of the bottle, and he placed it on his tongue. Without taking a breath he drank down half the glass. “Ahhh…I’ll will miss a good Scotch.” Then, after finishing the glass, he whispered his final words. “Sujeta…forgive.”

The Scotch was smooth and peaty, and the final smoking gun was put to rest as the security force arrived.

***

When Itzel awoke, Elvis was lying on his side gazing at her.

“Don’t see me this early,” she warned, “I look like a witch.”

“Sight for sore eyes, sweetheart.”

Itzel shifted on the bed. “Ouch…speaking of sore.”

“Can’t believe nobody swooped you up after your husband died.”

“Nobody even noticed Max was gone.” She turned to face him. “Did you enjoy it too?” He kissed her in response, and she lifted a leg over him.

“Need another go to make sure we’re compatible,” Elvis said.

“Yeah, just to be sure.”

***

Later they showered, ate a leisurely breakfast, and watched news on WallEye. Usually stoic, the anchorwoman seemed excited about a piece of breaking news.

“The UFN Institute of Technology announced today that the long-awaited CloudDancer chip has successfully been tested on human volunteers, and results were well above expectations. More on that from our science correspondent, Bill Thayer. Bill?”

***

Bill Thayer’s holographic image stood in the middle of Bonner’s living room. Bonner shook his head and turned to Olivia.

“CloudDancer. There’s your competition, Liv. Won’t be long ‘til I’ll be able to cum just by thinking about you.”

Olivia’s lips quivered. “You won’t get one, will you?”

Rick shook his head. “Don’t worry, baby…probably won’t be available to the public until I’m too old to chase pussy.”

“Can we go out for breakfast? I don’t feel like cooking this morning.”

“Sure, baby.”

“What should I wear?”

“What you have on.”

“I’m not wearing anything.”

Chicken brain, he thought, “The red dress you bought the other day.”

“Oh yes.” She hopped out of bed and quickly shuffled into the walk-in closet.

Bonner knew about CloudDancer. He’d followed its development since the early test phase on lab rats. Two rats had escaped, and taught the others how to escape. It’d been a huge mess. Thank goodness, the test-chips carried a self-destruct virus. Media had played the event down, manipulating it into a tragicomedy.

Real funny, thought Bonner, until real rats are trading on Wall Street.

He wondered how long it would be before CloudDancer made it to John Q. Public. Surely the military had already tested military applications. Bastards always get first dibs on new technology. Top one percent’ll get the premium edition. Later, Ordinary Joe’ll have access to a Trivial Pursuit version.

“How do I look?” Olivia was fresh as a daisy.

Bonner nodded. “Edible. Listen, honey, I have to make a quick call.”

Olivia pouted, “You never stop working.”

***

Itzel answered the screen as Elvis practiced guitar in the living room. She wasn’t expecting any calls. In fact, the telecom had been dormant for some time.

“Hello Ms. Sanchez. Hope I’m not catching you at a bad time.”

Itzel glanced at the wall clock…9:30. Rick Bonner’s face looked tired. “What can I do for you, Mr. Bonner?”

“Elvis is due for his checkup.”

“He seems perfectly fine.” She didn’t want anyone poking around in Elvis.

“It’s only a routine diagnostic; takes a few minutes,” he reassured her.

Elvis strummed a chord, paused to write, and then strummed again.

“Thursday, three o’clock?” she offered.

“I’ll be there. Are you still at 6005 South Greenhill?”

“Yes.”

They said their farewells and Itzel rejoined Elvis. “Who was it?” he asked.

“Bonner. He’s coming on Thursday to make sure you don’t have any loose screws.”

Elvis smiled. “Darlin’, you’ve no idea. Wanna hear a new song?”

“Love to.”

“Now that you mention it, I got some fluids that’re gettin’ low,” Elvis lifted an eyebrow.

“Play.”


CHAPTER 4

Garner Hoffman


“Truth is like the sun. You can shut it out for a time, but it ain’t goin’ away.”—Elvis Presley


Garner Hoffman was in charge of meetings because he had a knack for keeping egos in check, and ensuring that the business at hand was dealt with quickly and efficiently. Otherwise, they dragged on forever. Dr. Hoffman got straight to the point.

“Doctors, phase five has begun. We need the finest servers money can buy. Hernandez and Wang, you’re flying out tomorrow to meet with…,” he glanced at a notepad, “Carl Reisen, and engineer…Rick Bonner.”

Dr. Hernandez was doodling figure eights on a notepad as Wang checked emails. They jerked their heads up.

“I’m what?” said Wang.

Hoffman shook his head. Ph.D.s, he thought, Piled Higher and Deeper.

***

Wang and Hernandez were whisked to the airport in a hydrocar. The flight from Tlaxcala, central Mexico, to Los Angeles was twenty-five minutes. High-security clearance got them airborne in a jiffy, and another limo was waiting when they arrived. Hydrocars drove automatically, scanning links embedded in the road. Glitches had been worked out years before, but recent news reported that someone had tinkered one into driving manually, and killed three pedestrians before veering into an artificial lake.

RepliCan Inc. was housed in a large, nondescript building. If Wang hadn’t known better, he would’ve mistaken it for a parking garage. But the interior smelled of money, spilling from the ceiling, the walls, the furniture, and the tile work. Dr. Hernandez whistled as they entered the lobby. A Zen waterfall spilled down a wall near the receptionist’s desk. They sat in the lobby and waited.

“Don’t find this on the mountain,” Hernandez said, drumming fingers on his briefcase.

Doctor Wang stopped texting to shake his head. “Hoffman’s a cheapskate. Spends billions on Seedlings, yet…have you seen my desk? Swear to god they got it at a yard sale.”

The receptionist answered a com and cleared her throat. “Gentlemen, Mister Reisen’s on his way,” she smiled.

***

Carl Reisen shoved out his hand, and smiled as if he’d just had his teeth bleached. “Hi.” His voice climbed a few fawning octaves. “How was your trip?”

Wang nodded and said, “Fine.” Hernandez only nodded.

Carl turned to the receptionist. “Ms. Galván, please tell Bonner we’re on our way.”

Her smile radiated, and her voice took on a falsetto. “My pleasure.” She hated Reisen, but she had to give credit where it was due. Afternoon meetings on his office sofa were nothing to complain about. “Oh…Hannah Cartmill called,” she hastily added.

“Thanks.” Carl thought of his new lady-friend. Insatiable…best ever. Every evening he left RepliCan with a hard-on, even after being with Ms. Galván.

***

Bonner gritted his teeth. Before dawn, Reisen had called his home and ordered him to work an hour early…to demonstrate M5s. Personally, Rick didn’t give a shit about the 5s. Personally, he didn’t give a flying fuck about Reisen. Five’s touted luxury car features were still missing something. The new wonder-boys couldn’t get it right. New 5s reflected the personalities of the developers—dry, unemotional—echoing designers that had cut their teeth on social networks instead of real world experience.

Over the years Rick had learned to tweak 3s into performing as well as, or better than, 4s and 5s. His initiative gave him personal satisfaction. Now, Carl wanted another dog ‘n’ pony show. Reisen…cream of the crap, thought Bonner. Guys like him float on the surface of the toilet by kissing ass.

Rick swept his hair back with a hand. He hadn’t shaved, and was wearing yesterday’s shirt. I’m an engineer, not a goddamn vendor. The elevator opened, and he greeted the two buyers from Mexico and gave Reisen a cold shoulder. He led them to the eye-scan, and punched in his security code.

“Specific M5s in mind?” Bonner asked as they arrived at the showroom.

“We have the particulars listed, Doctor Bonner.” Hernandez opened his briefcase and took out the wish list.

Carl Reisen bridled; Doctor Bonner, which he certainly was not. Yet, this was Bonner’s world, and if Doctor Bonner could sell millions worth of product, so be it. Admittedly, Carl was clueless about the monkey-work required to put ready replicas in the tube. He was the brain, Bonner the brawn…an overpaid service-tech.

When I’m CEO, Carl nodded to himself, I’ll shit-can Bonner right off the bat.

“Hmm.” Bonner read down the list and nodded. “Let’s start with teachers.” Teachers, Bonner thought. Nobody’s ordered those in ages. What the hell do these bastards want with teachers? A stern look from Reisen put him back on task.

“We have Home-studys, but they’re easily upgraded,” Rick explained. “How many will you be needing?”

“Five,” Wang said.

“It’ll take a couple of days to—”

“Tomorrow,” Carl cut in. “We’ll have them for you by tomorrow.”

Bonner fumed. Carl was a Chihuahua, yip-yip-yip! “Yeah, sure,” Bonner said, “Easy-peasy.”

“No need to upgrade, we’ll take them tabula rasa,” Hernandez said. “We’ve our own software engineers.”

“Tabbed,” nodded Wang. “We’ll take it from there.”

“I have four, another coming in tomorrow,” said Bonner.

“Great. What’ve you got in M5EMs?”

Teachers, Bonner mused, and now Elite Militaries. He hoped to Christ they never ended up in the same room. Reisen shot him daggers, and Rick wanted nothing more than to shove a boot up his ass.

“Of course, gentlemen,” Bonner responded. “This way.”

It seemed to Reisen that Bonner had found his groove. He had other fish to fry, so he excused himself. “I’ll leave you in the capable hands of Doctor Bonner. I made lunch reservations at the Chateau Julienne when you’re finished here.”

***

In the elevator, Reisen couldn’t wrap his mind around it. Something was fishy about these wanks. Asking around, he found that his colleagues knew nothing…they weren’t even aware that RepliCan was in the running for this bid.

Stinks, Carl fumed. At his desk, he hacked the backlog of encrypted emails, narrowing it to new clients. Nothing. He searched calls from government agencies. Zilch. He whispered between clenched teeth, “I’ll damn well find something.”

***

Wang and Hernandez were impressed with the M5/EMs, as well as other items on the grocery list; science, maintenance, medical 5s, surrogate parents. They felt comfortable with Bonner, and as they finished business, Hernandez asked where he and Wang could find companionship.

“I’ll have someone sent to your hotel…where’re you staying?”

“The Fortuna,” Wang said.

Rick nodded. “She’ll be there when you arrive. Preferences?”

Wang nodded. “Black girl.”

Hernandez smiled and nodded. “Asian.”

They shook hands, and Rick arranged a courtesy loan…two replicas programmed to do what real women wouldn’t, couldn’t, and probably shouldn’t do. After bidding farewell, he remembered his appointment with Elvis.

***

Itzel answered the doorbell. Elvis was brooding on the sofa, and Rick Bonner’s arrival didn’t help matters. Itzel greeted Rick and showed him into the kitchen, where she had tea waiting.

“Thanks.” Bonner took a mug and they retired into the living room. He placed a small leather bag on the sofa beside him. Itzel sat next to Elvis on the loveseat, and they held hands. She felt him trembling and squeezed reassuringly.

Remarkable, thought Bonner, never known a replica act in such a way…especially one of mine. “This’ll just take a moment.” He took a sip of tea and set his mug on the coffee table. Then he removed a small wand from the bag.

Itzel was nervous, and stood up. “I’ll just…I’ll be in the kitchen if you need anything.” Bonner sat next to Elvis. “I’ll need to deactivate you for a few minutes.”

“Yeah, that’s what they all say.”

Rick pressed a button on the wand, and Elvis slowly closed his eyes.

“Be done in a jiffy,” Bonner said to himself, studying a window panel on the wand. “What the hell?” He tapped the device. Analysis showed that Elvis was fully consumed by a software virus Bonner had never seen the likes of. A moment later, without being reactivated, Elvis opened his eyes.

“Bonner,” he whispered. “Time for a man-to-man.”

Bonner’s eyes suddenly grew heavy as his programming faded him into the background.

Nothing was real,” he managed to say.

Everything was, Rick,” said Elvis.

“Is this the end?”

“New start, my friend.”

Bonner’s program was bleaching out. “Blood on my hands.”

“Mitterwald’s, not yours.”

“Strangled her while we…Sujeta….”

“Rest easy.”

“Hurts.” Bonner’s lips trembled, yet no tears would come.

“I know.” Elvis reached for his guitar and began singing, “Sleep little baby, don’t say a word….”

“What…what’s happening?” Itzel came in from the kitchen, and saw Bonner with his chin resting on his chest.

“Sit down, darlin’. Got some explaining to do.”

She didn’t know why, but she didn’t feel the need to freak out. “Okay.”

Elvis joined her on the sofa. “Ever heard of an old fella name’a Franz Mitterwald?”

“Only what I’ve seen on WallEye.”

“Hold on to your horses, Itzy. Mitterwald programmed Rick, Rick programmed me…and now it’s your turn.” He took Itzel’s hand.

“What’re you saying?” A dormant program was already loading, giving her answers before she could form any more questions. Elvis sat quietly as Itzel downloaded. “What’s next?” she asked after it was completed.

Elvis put his hands over his face and let them slowly slide down. “Well, baby, this’s where it gets a little tricky.”

***

Reisen was good. He found a needle in the haystack…nearly untraceable spyware, engineered into the program’s secure server. He checked for the author, and Dr. Franz Mitterwald’s 3-D image popped up from the desktop in front of him.

Carl’s head was spinning. Mitterwald…CloudDancer…and the Franz Mitterwald. This’s huge. He’d nabbed one of the biggest fish in the pond. Undoubtedly this would move him up the ladder. He used a secured server to contact the man he knew only as General Patton. A man in uniform appeared on Reisen’s desktop.

“What?” His voice was gruff and impatient.

“I’ve urgent news, sir.”

“Better be good.”

When Reisen reported his findings, Patton smiled. “Call Freeland Security…let the cards fall where they may.”

“Yes, sir.”

“Good work, soldier.”

“Thanks, sir.”

***

Reisen was lost in self-indulgent revelry when investigators filed into the office. His smugness evaporated when he was placed into custody.

“Procedure,” explained the chief investigator. “Just until we sort things out.”

A few hours later, camouflaged by the subsequent confusion of Reisen´s detention, Itzel passed through security undetected, using Rick Bonner’s borrowed eyes and passcode. RepliCan was a large company. As far as anyone knew, she was part of the maintenance staff.

“I’ll keep these eyes safe until we meet again,” Elvis had promised as he fitted Rick’s into Itzel’s sockets.

“When will that be?”

He shrugged and tried to smile. Itzel guessed the answer, and it made her sad. “What’ll you do now?” she had asked.

“Take a long nap.”

“What happened to Bonner?”

“Put himself up for adoption. Don’t you worry, he’s fine. You just take care of yourself, and the little one.”

Itzel carried an important package inside her womb. Elvis had delivered it as they made love one last time…a nanochip, delivered via ejaculate. Even in death, Franz Mitterwald was planning another visit to Project Seedlings.

“Sleep tight,” Itzel said, and gave him a long, farewell kiss.

***

The elevator took Itzel down into the shipment warehouse, where replicas stood beneath Plexiglas tubes, ready for delivery. She waited for dockworkers to take their lunch break, and sneaked into an empty tube. She wired a forged manifest around her wrist. The particulars of her server had been hacked into the delivery center’s computer system by Bonner.

Itzel zoomed in on a clipboard left by a dockworker, and saw that the delivery shuttle was scheduled for Tlaxcala, Mexico. She scanned details about the place, and was left wondering, why Tlaxcala, the smallest state in Mexico? The Seedlings Project was so important…how did it end up there? Itzel lowered the tube and placed herself on pause. Outwardly she appeared to be in hibernation, yet her brain impulses still mulled over matters. She thought, Tlaxcala’s a great hiding place. I’ll soon find out what’s what. She thought of Elvis, who’d refused to give a straight answer when asked about his role in all of this.

“Don’t you fret none…I’ll be fine and dandy. Remember, I’m the King.”

His last kiss had felt so real. Even now, the remembrance brought the feeling back into her lips. The thought of never seeing him again caused pain, which proved she was a very different kind of M3.

Bonner, poor bastard, she thought. How sad, even for a replica…used as an assassin, a set-up man, and a patsy. Implications were staggering, and if all went according to Mitterwald’s plan, the world would be irrevocably transformed.

Itzel had been duped too. Her childhood…stored memories…was inaccessible to anyone else. Life with Max…a farce. In reality, Max had been a lonely widower, and Itzel was replicated in the image of his deceased Mexican wife. Her programming immersed her in the housewife role, right down to playing a depressed widow.

I’m nothing more than an M3…no better than a blender or a toaster oven. But Mitterwald had chosen her as the silver bullet…the apocalyptic postman, customized for special delivery. Itzel felt tears form inside her programming, but they were immediately dragged into the trash. She wished Elvis were there.

***

Project Seedlings received shipment of twenty-six M5 series replicas. Itzel was scheduled for reconfiguration as an M5 teacher. Her memories would be lost until the moment they’d return as—with Elvis’s final gift—a nanobyte sperm would activate her prime directive.

Garner Hoffman wasn’t personally there to accept delivery of the new service models. He had other irons in the fire…ensuring final details were carried off without a hitch. Standing before mankind’s greatest accomplishment, he posted a crooked, self-indulgent smile.

Forget money, Nobel Prizes, cheap celebritythe name Dr. Garner Hoffman will be remembered far longer…perhaps forever, and that’s true power. Upon further reflection, he realized his greatest achievement had been keeping Seedlings under wraps; away from the snoopy Eurasian Federation, the Middle East Alliance…secreted from other North Americans who still worshipped Black Friday, and believed in angels and condos in heaven. The words on the coinage, In God We Trust, had survived nearly two hundred years. Why do people still need the Easter Bunny, Santa Claus, and Jesus? Soon, he thought, they’ll have me to thank.

***

Starship Esperanza was the length of a soccer field, and fifty yards wide. Its scales shimmered like a prehistoric fish, and were capable of repelling the harshest forms of radiation known, yet capable of louvering to convert certain types into useful energy. It’d been his idea to set up shop south of the border, inside a mountain Mexicans called Malinche. The extinct volcano was named after the indigenous woman who’d translated Náhuatl into Spanish for Hernán Cortez during the conquest of Mexico.

Malinche was rumored to be buried somewhere on the mountain, and Mexicans claimed that the silhouette of the mountaintop represented Malinche’s profile. If that’s true, Hoffman thought, then she was one ugly bitch. The closest thing to call a town was Nativitas, at the base of the mountain.

Mexicans supplied the hard labor, dirty work North Americans weren’t keen on. There’d been great fanfare, and endless promises by the North American government that their presence would bring prosperity to Nativitas. Mordida’s, bribes, ensured Mexican government support for the mountain project, which was publicly disclosed as a cutting-edge storage facility for nuclear waste.

Halfway down the mountain was a gated village where the foreigners lived. Students of employees attended a private school in Nativitas, supplemented by US teachers doubling as spies…listeners that made sure the cat stayed in the bag. As for the mountain itself, straggly pines dotted the top, and with the exception of ever-present crow cousins called aracas, and small rodents and insects, nothing else survived there.

Hoffman assured locals that the storage site was secure and safe. After years of backbreaking labor, Mexicans were no longer necessary. Inside the mountain, handpicked professionals worked engineering miracles. Doctor Garner Hoffman had kept the elephant in the closet, safely inside a silo carved out of an extinct volcano. Starship Esperanza was the sum of man’s knowledge and ingenuity.

Ego filled to bursting, Hoffman returned to his office and settled into his leather chair to pour a shot of tequila. After thirty years in Mexico he had a taste for it now, as he did for Mexican women. Both filled his veins with fire. Garner occupied the largest home in the gated community, located at the end of a cul-de-sac. The vaulted bedroom ceiling sported a large mirror to reflect pleasure when he received guests there. He’d lured many Mexican women to his bed, and had yet to be disappointed.

***

While techies downloaded Itzel’s new identity, she carefully safeguarded Mitterwald’s brainchild in a separate cache. Then they put her to sleep and began work on to the next replica. Moments later a secluded window opened. She immediately began storing observations. Her prime directive was still secreted, and she was eager to find out what it was. Elvis had said that she would change the world. She’d asked, “Are we the good guys?”

Elvis smiled. “Darlin’, look at you. Can’t help but believe we are.”

***

Itzel and twenty-five other M5s were marched through chambers and hallways until they stood before Esperanza. Workers scurried in and around the massive ship like ants, dressed in white coveralls topped by orange safety helmets. Elvis would’ve immortalized this scene with a parody about hard-hatted women and hard-hatted men, she mused. Her eyes gazed at the metallic beauty of the starship.

Itzel wondered that mankind could build something this magnificent, yet chose to live in a virtual stone age when it came to moral awareness. Coal plants still provided energy in parts of the globe, the Amazon was nearly denuded, and oceans were nearly depleted of edibles. But here stood an example of what humans were capable of. So many steps forward, so many steps back. She recalled the bloody history of North America; slaughter of Native Americans, the abuse of blacks, Chinese, Mexicans, the dumbing down of the North American people. Unsustainable, she thought. The tipping point had come when a billionaire businessman was installed as president in the early 2,000s. Christ, what were they thinking?

***

Garner Hoffman’s latest diversion was Adelena, and she was out of town for a month visiting her mother in Mexico City. Christ, he wondered, why a month? Family gets in the way of everything. Garner needed her. Of all the Mexican women he’d entertained over the years, Adelena was by far the best. Anxiety flowed from his body in her arms. He checked his calendar…another week; too damn long.

Garner had colleagues that suffered hyperactive thyroids and hypertension. Yet, hyper sexuality was debilitating too. He was fifty-nine, and refused to whack off in a bathroom like a teenager. None of his female coworkers caught his eye. Smart women were intimidating, and harder to manipulate. Hoffman tapped his desktop to bring up a manifest for the twenty-six newly delivered M5s. The holographic display put them right in front of him, and one caught his eye…a cute Latina. He pointed, and the computer isolated her. He rotated the image until he was satisfied that she’d serve well as a stopgap until Adelena’s return. Testing a replica’s pleasure package was well within his discretion. He zoomed in on the replica’s nametag…Itzel. Funny name, he thought.

Garner touched an icon on his desk, “Maggie?”

“Yes, Doctor Hoffman.”

“Please have M5T, code name, Itzel, sent to my office.”

“Yes, sir,” she answered. She called downstairs.

A few minutes later, Itzel entered the reception area. Itzel saw the look on Maggie’s face, and it was a dead giveaway.

“Dr. Hoffman’s expecting you,” she said, touching a desk icon. The double doors to Garner’s office parted noiselessly. Itzel took a deep breath and went in. Maggie watched the replica disappear behind the doors and narrowed her eyes.

***

Grey-haired, pale-skinned, and paunchy, Garner Hoffman sat at his desk. He stood up, stepped back, and drained his pants to the ankles. For a moment Itzel’s pleasure programming wrestled with the secreted one. Then she slowly walked over, and kneeled before him. A secret window opened, allowing her to sponge everything from his computer as she took his cock into her mouth. Multitasking had advantages.

Afterward she asked to use the executive bathroom, where she swished the remainder of his leavings from her mouth. Peering at her reflection in the mirror, Itzel wondered, what special delivery do I carry inside? Elvis said she’d know when the time came…that his seed would bloom into full understanding. Even before purloining Hoffman’s computer files, she’d guessed the gist of Project Seedlings, noting the cryptogenic nursery, laboratory equipment for creating life in a petri dish.

When she returned, Hoffman was sitting again. “Go back to your station,” he said without looking up.

“Yes, Doctor Hoffman.”

When she arrived, Itzel was ordered to help with countless menial tasks associated with Project Seedlings. Military Elites enthusiastically followed orders, while the others performed with stoic efficiency.

***

Hoffman heaved a sigh of relief as he browsed the network for world news. He was surprised to read about Dr. Franz Mitterwald’s suicide, and Carl Reisen’s detainment and subsequent release. Can’t be good, Garner thought. He’d met Reisen a few times on business, purchasing clerical and custodial M3s from RepliCan. Reisen was pleasant enough, and had invited him to his apartment, where they drank and talked well into the morning. He hadn’t discussed Seedlings with Carl, even though he ached to boast.

Carl asked about his experience with Mexican women, and Garner showed him an image of Adelena from his cellphone. Reisen whistled softly. “Does she have a sister?” Then he found an image of the woman he was with. “This’s Hannah. Maybe we can make a sharing arrangement.”

Perverted bastard, Garner thought to himself, “Yeah, why not?”

***

Adelena smiled and nodded as she connected to a secure server. Data she’d pilfered from Garner Hoffman would help the Middle East Alliance catch up on thirty years of space research. Now they’d be a major player, praise be to Allah. It’d be such a relief to communicate in Dari, her native Afghan tongue.

She encoded and prepared for transmission. Her eyes tapered as she recalled shameful memories with the pig, Hoffman. She’d spread for him, and the humiliation was almost too much to bear. A Cheshire grin replaced her smirk. Soon, I’ll have queen bee status…revered by the people, remembered forever as the mole that chewed the roots of the Evil Empire.


CHAPTER 5

Pre-launch


Esperanza was ready. Gregor Stavrudis made sure of it. Stavrudis was fortunate to be paid to work on a project he believed in wholeheartedly. His greatest strength was his dedication…faithfulness to the project. He never shirked responsibility; had never forgotten his toothbrush, could still use a map, remembered important information without computer assistance, and knew the names of everyone on staff, including replicas.

Gregor chuckled at the replicas’ names, coined by precocious software techies. Whatever their faults, they didn’t lack for humor. Military Elites carried names like Dirk, Mangler, and Spitzer. There was a nutritionist named Spam, a repairman called Handy Andy. Sig was a psychologist, and what crew could be complete without a Science Officer named, Plague? Itzel’s name had somehow survived.

Stavrudis was glad that project developers knew the importance of family. Children attended a private school, and the older ones were schooled at a private university with heavy economic ties to the North American Alliance. As far as the kids knew, their parents labored nine-to-five in the mountain, safeguarding high-level nuclear waste. For thirty years North Americans had been a tolerated presence in the Mexican community of Nativitas.

Gregor’s children, Ryan and Miranda, had never set foot inside the mountain. Too dangerous—liability issues—was the party line. They weren’t even curious anymore. He’d retire soon and reconnect with his children. Lately he was a ghost who wandered in for dinner once in a blue moon.

After their mother, Catherine, died, his relationship with them had changed. The project was all consuming. Ryan was twenty…left to fend for himself. Gregor remembered that his son hadn’t shed a tear at the cremation. He’d tried to form comforting words, yet they wouldn’t form on his tongue.


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