Sample PagesEric called Kevin from the Training Lab to say that Ms. Lang was ready
to leave, and they would all meet in a few minutes in the lobby.
Her face was softer, tapering to a chin that was more rounded than it
had appeared from a distance through the window. And her mouth was wider and more
full-lipped closer up, with an upturn at the corners that gave her a homier look. Her
eyes, too, were bright and alert, silently interrogating, alive to every response. Face to
face, she was altogether less aloof and daunting.
"This is Kevin," Eric said, introducing them. "And his
partner in crime. . . . I guess you and Taki know each other?"
"Oh yes, Michelle and Taki are old friends already," Ohira
put in, nodding.
"Kevin and Taki are kind of unofficial staff here at
Neurodyne," Eric said. "Thats another advantage of having your own
company." He gestured. "Kevin, this is Michelle Lang, who takes care of
Ohiras legal matters businesswise."
She smiled and took in his lean, wiry frame, tall for his age, clad in
a pale blue shirt and jeans; narrow features with sharp, mobile eyes; mop of fair hair,
tousled and shaggy. "Hello, Kevin. Im pleased to meet you at last."
"Hi," Kevin responded. He would have liked to elaborate
further with something witty and erudite the way people in movies always seemed to be able
to, but nothing of that description suggested itself. But then, people in movies had
scriptwriters to spend hours thinking it up for them.
"That was quite an experience," Michelle said. "Now that
Ive had my reality expanded, I dont think the world will ever seem quite the
same again. I suppose you must be used to it."
"It takes practice," Kevin said.
"You did just great once you got the hang of it," Eric said.
"I think shes going to be a natural," he told Kevin.
Now that Michelle had seen the mecs, the plan was for them to drive to
the house so that Kevin and Taki could introduce her to their "Bug Park," which
was what Ohira had really brought her to see. Eric looked around the group. There were
three adults and the two boys. "Okay, I guess Ill take Kevin back." He
looked at Ohira and Michelle. "Whose car did you two come in?"
"Mine," Michelle said.
Eric nodded. "Taki, do you want to ride with us or go with your
uncle and Michelle?"
"Oh, Ill stick with Kev."
"Of course he does," Ohira said. "What boy wants to
listen to us talking about money and business?"
They began moving. "Do I need directions?" Michelle asked
Heber as he held open one of the plate glass doors leading out of the building.
"Just follow me. Mind you dont fall down a hole in our local
lunarscape outside the gate."
The road along from Neurodyne was being torn up by backhoes cutting
trenches; bulldozers were leveling the adjacent lot.
"We saw it on the way in," Michelle said. "Whats
"Oh, theyre expanding the office parkthey call it a
corporate campus. We were one of the first companies here. Its to be
expected, I suppose."
"Whats the place next door going to be?" Kevin asked.
"Some kind of management training facility, I think." Eric
waved a hand vaguely as they crossed the parking area. "Thats another of the
advantages of microengineering for you. With us, a factory floor is the size of a regular
office. Nobody whos into any conventional kind of manufacturing would get a lease
anywhere near this place."
"I still cant get over how nice it is to have my own legs
back again," Michelle said.
With Erics maroon Jaguar leading, they followed Interstate 5 west
for a little over fifteen miles, exiting north when they had passed Olympia. The road
became single track, and soon they were descending across thickly wooded slopes toward
water, with occasional homes tucked among firs and pines. Kevin could see Michelles
white Buick in the passenger-side wing mirror, following them about a hundred yards back.
Cars were another subject of extreme significance for him right now. He
was at the age where his visions of the unbounded freedoms that would come with a
drivers license had grown to be matched only by the unendurability of having to wait
another year to get one. Most unfair was the thought that he could probably handle a car
as well as most adults that he knewat least, he would if he could only get traffic
Eric had been taking him out to unused lots and other deserted places
since Kevin was ten. It was part of the way in which Eric had tried to compensate and keep
life as full as possible after Kevins mother died. The way he allowed Kevin and Taki
to come into Neurodyne and use the equipment there was another instance. All the same,
Kevin was conscious of an increasing distance between them since the times when they had
built model airplanes together and gone out to the flats to fly them, or set up a
telescope out on the deck at the house on a frosty night to marvel at Saturns rings
or the color bands of Jupiter. He told himself that with Eric running his own company now,
and everything else that was going on, that was only to be expected. And Kevin himself was
getting older. Perhaps he was being allowed to learn that the world was not his alone;
that others lived in it too and needed to do things for their own reasons. If so, it
seemed a good thing to be made aware of.
"Did you two get that driver routine sorted outthe one that
was hanging up?" Eric asked as he drove.
"Yes, finally," Taki answered from the back. "There were
a couple of glitches."
Kevin added, "We cleaned it up so itll run faster, too.
Maybe we can check it out later, after Michelle leaves."
"Whats all this about we cleaned it up so that it
would run faster?" Taki challenged. "I was the one who spotted it. You
were too busy watching Michelle get out of the car."
"Ah, the truth tumbles out," Eric murmured, grinning.
"I just said she was something different to be showing up with
Ohira," Kevin insisted defensively. "Besides, you only shortened the loop. Who
was it who saw that we could replace the whole thing with a conditional sub?"
"And then attached the wrong interrupt. . . ."
"Only because you didnt update the device table."
"It was there, penciled in."
"Well, it would have helped if youd said so."
"I did, but you werent listening. You were too busy looking
out the window."
A silence fell while the car negotiated a bridge over a creek. Kevin
decided that he was getting the worst of things and changed the subject. Ohira ran a
corporation called Theme Worlds Inc., which operated public amusement centers,
theme-parks, and similar attractions. He was always looking for new ideas. As far as Kevin
could make out, his aim in bringing Michelle along was to show her what Kevin and Taki had
been doing, and let her judge the potential for herself.
"Is Ohira really serious about thinking that this could have real
commercial prospects?" Kevin asked his father.
Eric nodded. "Oh yes, very serious. Hes been trying to sell
her on the idea, and now he wants her to see for herself what its all about. No
doubt hes hoping shell get as fired up about it as he is." Eric was not
exaggerating. Ohiras performance earlier had shown him about as fired up,
externally, as he ever got about anything.
Kevin turned his head to look back from the passenger seat. "Did
you hear that, Taki? Theyre getting serious about it."
"My uncle is always serious when moneys involved," Taki
"So does that mean we could be onto a good thing here if we play
our cards right, do you think?"
"I guess . . . if he meant what he said."
Shameless in recruiting allies wherever they were to be found, Ohira had indicated that as
far as he was concerned, since it was the boys who had originated the concept, they should
receive an appropriate share of the proceeds if the project ever became a reality.
"You two might have taken your first step to becoming
millionaires," Eric told them. They reached the cluster of mailboxes mounted on a log
shelf where narrow trails diverging off among the trees led to the surrounding houses, and
turned along the one with the sign saying heber.
Michelles first impression of the house as she got out of her car
after drawing up behind the Jaguar was of comfortably contained confusionlike
Hebers office. It had begun as an original two-level structure, since sprouting an
aggregation of decks and extensions that seemed to have lost their way in the surrounding
greenery. To the right of the house and at the rear, the ground descended toward the edge
of the water that they had been approaching. Michelle estimated it to be about a half mile
across to the low hills forming the opposite shore.
One door of the double garage was open, revealing a gray Dodge van. A
clutter of cabinets, stripped-down electronics frames, and assorted pieces of machinery
took up the rest of the space. To the side of the garage was an extension, probably some
kind of workshop, with a go-kart and a partly dismantled motorcycle under a carport roof.
A blue Jeep was parked in front of the garage, and a brown Ford around at the side. Heber
had said that his wife, Vanessa, would be home. Michelle guessed that he had used her car
that day for some reason. Although they had not yet met, the image that Michelle had
formed of her went with the Jaguar, somehow; the Jeep was definitely more
Michelle and Ohira moved forward to where Heber and the two boys were
waiting. "Most people expect something vast and imposing," Heber said, tossing
out an arm as they began walking to the house. "Everyone seems to think that all
corporation presidents live in something like the Taj Mahal behind security walls with
electric gates. I suppose were not really what youd call very formal."
"Id call it casual," Michelle told him.
"Dont try to change it. It suits you."
"It gets more casual round back," Kevin commented dryly.
"The tidiest places I can think of are museums," Heber said.
"But not very much gets done in them. Would you or Taki really want to live in one? I
cant imagine either of you surviving half a day."
"Is that a lake at the back?" Michelle asked.
Heber shook his head. "Not quite. It eventually connects to the
Sound, but through a maze of inlets. Youd need to know them to find the way
"I think its wonderfulthe sort of change I could stand
for a while."
"Oh? So where do you live?"
"The city, right in the center. But thats where the firm is.
I dont think I could stand a long commute twice every day."
"Yes, I understand exactly what you mean," Heber said.
The woman who greeted them at the door was short and mousy haired,
fortyish perhaps, dressed in tan slacks and a lightweight patterned sweaternothing
at all like the person Michelle had pictured. As the arrivals entered, she chided Kevin
about not leaving his laundry out again. Kevin returned some remark that Michelle
didnt catch, and ducked with a laugh when the woman tried to tweak his hair.
Michelle realized then that this was a housekeeper, or equivalent. Heber introduced her as
"Will everyone be staying for dinner?" Harriet asked Heber.
"I dont think soit wasnt the plan." He
looked at Michelle and Ohira. "But if you want to change your minds, it wouldnt
be a problem."
"Thanks, but I have to be in town tonight," Michelle replied.
"A coffee would be very welcome," Ohira said.
"How about a pot of coffee, sodas or whatever for Kevin and Taki,
and some cheese or snacks or something?" Heber suggested.
"Ill see what I can rustle up," Harriet said with a
nod, and disappeared along a corridor leading off to one side.
The interior echoed the easy informality that Michelle had read into it
outside. In addition to the regular hallway furniture of coat stand, side table, and
chairs, there was a case of bookshelves that looked as if it carried overflow from other
rooms, and a grandfather clock wearing a sombrero. Some kind of early scientific
instrument made of polished wood and brass hung on the wall, along with a couple of old,
framed sea charts and other pictures. A gray cat, curled on one of the chairs looked up
and regarded the intruders balefully, otherwise refusing to be budged.
"Thats Batcat," Heber said. "It usually guards the
house from there. When it isnt on that chair, it manages to be on the wrong side of
every door, no matter how many times you let it through. Sometimes I think it has
"Liquid cat," Kevin said. "It flows under the crack and
reconstitutes on the other sidebut never when youre looking."
"Why Batcat?" Michelle asked.
"Oh, I cant remember," Heber said. "Harriet got it
from somewhere as a kitten. Why did we call it that, Kevin?"
"It could cross a room from one side to the other without touching
the floor," Kevin said.
"Oh, thats right. I believe it, too." Heber led the way
through toward the rear of the house.
The story as Michelle understood it was that Kevin and Taki had long
ago become expert mec "pilots," and Heber had started giving them old prototypes
and obsolete models to experiment with, which he let them modify for their own purposes.
From these, they had built up a collection of what they called
"battlemecs"like tiny Heinleinesque power suits or computer-game
war-robotsthat they used for acting out combat games, performed in miniature over
real landscapes. Apparently Taki had a lab at home also, and there was an area behind
Kevins house that they reserved for their exploits "in" these bug-size
machines. They called it "Bug Park."
Ohira, always an entrepreneur, had become fascinated by these games
that the boys had created, and wanted to develop the concept commercially as a novel form
of entertainment for the public. The Circus Worlds, Water Worlds, and all the other
familiar themes had become, in his opinion, boring. The visit to Neurodyne had shown
Michelle the technology. Now Ohira wanted to give her a feel of the kind of thing they
could do with it.
Michelle was less sure about where Vanessa stood with regard to the
prospect. It seemed she was also a scientist by background, and, like Doug Corfe, had
worked with Heber at a company called Microbotics, toward Redmond on the far side of Lake
Washington, east of Seattle, which also produced microscale devices but of less advanced
design. She had married Heber after the death of Kevins natural mother, Patricia,
and moved with him when he left Microbotics to start Neurodyne. Her attitude mattered
because Ohiras plans would require licensed use of the Direct Neural Coupling
technology that made Neurodynes mecs unique. Even if the patents were filed in
Erics name, which Michelle thought would most likely be the case, Eric didnt
strike her as the kind of person who would press matters if Vanessa had some objection;
and if, on the other hand, the company owned the patents, Vanessa would almost certainly
be a co-ownerwhich would make her agreement necessary anyway. When Michelle sounded
out Ohira to see if he knew the situation, he had seemed surprised. It had never crossed
his mind that what a wife might think could be relevant to business affairs.
Michelle could think of no particular reason why somebody in
Vanessas position should object to such a deal. But if her experience of human
nature had taught her anything, it was never to take anything for granted.
Vanessa was waiting in a large, airy arboretum of a room, riotous with
potted ferns and climbing plants hanging from hooks. Two armchairs and a couch finished in
a soft, dark brown velveteen faced a brick fireplace, and a baby grand stood at the far
end. The far wall consisted almost entirely of glass, looking out over the rear garden and
the water through a screened-in porch. Although they were still on the same level as that
on which they had entered, there were stairs on the far side leading down. Evidently, the
slope of the ground toward the water created another level below in the rear part of the
Vanessa was what Michelle would have imagined a few hours previously,
before meeting Eric. But the impressions of him that had been coming together in her mind
since then had been steadily altering her expectations, with the result that now she found
Vanessa would have looked in place on the cover of Vogue or at a
film-festival party in Cannes; her face was made for the title role in Cleopatra movies.
She was tall and poised, with hair falling to her shoulders in a black wave edged with a
hint of red where it caught the daylight from behind. Her dress was sheer and dark, woven
with silver and blue metallic thread, sleeveless, high-collared, and figure-hugging. Her
eyes had a peculiar iridescent quality, not taking on any readily definable color but
reflecting the light in a way that seemed to alter the tint as they moved, like moiré
silk. They regarded Michelle with interest and curiosity, but betrayed nothing.
"Im pleased to meet you, Ms. Lang," she said after Eric
had introduced them. "I take it youve had the tour of the firm. This is our
off-duty side. Sometimes its not all that easy to tell the difference."
"Oh, I think theres a world of difference," Michelle
answered. "Whats work there becomes a hobby here. And this location by the
water is charming. Did you know exactly what you wanted and have to search for ages, or
were you just lucky?"
"Eric had made his mind up to move out of the city when we left
MicroboticsI assume theyve told you that story?"
"It was Kevin who wanted to come out this way, to be nearer to
TakiTaki has family scattered all over the Olympia area. In fact, it was through one
of Hiros friends that we learned this place was on the market."
"Hiroyukithats Takis father," Eric put in.
Michelle already knew of him through Ohira.
"Its nice to hear of families being that close," she
said. "Especially these days, when everybody you talk to seems to be lost among
strangers. How did you all get to know each other? Was it professionallywhen you and
Eric were with Microbotics?" It seemed likely. The Japanese were also active in
But Vanessa shook her head. "Through Kevin and Taki. They
discovered via the Internet that they were kindred spirits, and it developed from
there." Michelle glanced at them. They were looking on and waiting patiently while
the adults played through their formalities. She was warming to these two, she decided.
"Anyway," Vanessa went on, "I gather that Ohira has brought you here
because of this idea that he wants to popularize. Were you aware of the technology before
you saw it at the labs today?"
"I thought I was. I did some reading when I knew wed be
coming here. But actually experiencing direct neural connection was something else."
Michelle shook her head. "Its just . . . well, it seems
"DNC, you see. It makes all the difference," Ohira said.
"Wait till youve tried the Park," Vanessa told
"Are you joining us?" Michelle wasnt sure what made her
ask. Maybe it was that Vanessas dress wasnt appropriate to showing casual
visitors the back yard.
"No, Im afraid youll have to excuse me," Vanessa
replied. "Im meeting some people in town this evening. In fact, I ought to be
leaving now. But Im sure youll be suitably impressed." She looked at Eric
as he stood aside to let the two boys and Ohira cross the room to the stairwell. "Is
the Jaguar okay?"
"Fine. I put some gas in it at lunchtime."
"Thanks. . . . Im not sure how long Ill
Eric looked puzzled. "I thought you were away for a couple of
days. Isnt this the seminar on neurophysiology, or whatever it isthe one where
youre giving the presentation on DNC?"
"No, thats next week."
"Oh. I was planning on going back to the labs later. Doug needs
some help with the new assemblers. I dont know if well be through by the time
you get back."
"Ill see you when I see you, then," Vanessa said.
"Yes. Have fun." Eric turned to follow the others, and for an
instant Vanessas and Michelles eyes met. Vanessa smiled politely, and nodded.
But at the same time there was a coolness about the light in those hypnotic, blue-violet
eyes that didnt match the set of the lipsa distancing effect, as if they were
not looking at somebody standing a few feet in front of her, but watching a face being
telephotoed from a thousand miles away.
Michelle smiled back, striving to inject a warmth that she hoped would
look natural. Just reflexive cautiousness, she told herself. A reaction to a strange
female entering anothers family turf, probably not even conscious. Thats all
there is to it.
Then Vanessa left. Michelle followed Eric downstairs after the others.