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Eric 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. "That’s another advantage of having your own company." He gestured. "Kevin, this is Michelle Lang, who takes care of Ohira’s 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. I’m 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 I’ve had my reality expanded, I don’t 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 she’s 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 I’ll 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, I’ll 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 don’t 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. "What’s happening?"

"Oh, they’re expanding the office park—they call it a ‘corporate campus.’ We were one of the first companies here. It’s to be expected, I suppose."

"What’s 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. "That’s another of the advantages of microengineering for you. With us, a factory floor is the size of a regular office. Nobody who’s into any conventional kind of manufacturing would get a lease anywhere near this place."

"I still can’t get over how nice it is to have my own legs back again," Michelle said.

With Eric’s 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 Michelle’s 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 driver’s 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 knew—at least, he would if he could only get traffic experience.

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 Kevin’s 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 Saturn’s 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 out—the 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 it’ll run faster, too.

Maybe we can check it out later, after Michelle leaves."

"What’s 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 didn’t update the device table."

"It was there, penciled in."

"Well, it would have helped if you’d said so."

"I did, but you weren’t 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. He’s been trying to sell her on the idea, and now he wants her to see for herself what it’s all about. No doubt he’s hoping she’ll get as fired up about it as he is." Eric was not exaggerating. Ohira’s 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? They’re getting serious about it."

"My uncle is always serious when money’s involved," Taki said.

"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.

Michelle’s first impression of the house as she got out of her car after drawing up behind the Jaguar was of comfortably contained confusion—like Heber’s 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 "Eric."

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 we’re not really what you’d call very formal."

"I’d call it casual," Michelle told him. "Don’t 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 can’t 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. You’d need to know them to find the way out."

"I think it’s wonderful—the sort of change I could stand for a while."

"Oh? So where do you live?"

"The city, right in the center. But that’s where the firm is. I don’t 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 sweater—nothing 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 didn’t 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 Harriet.

"Will everyone be staying for dinner?" Harriet asked Heber.

"I don’t think so—it wasn’t the plan." He looked at Michelle and Ohira. "But if you want to change your minds, it wouldn’t 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.

"I’ll 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.

"That’s Batcat," Heber said. "It usually guards the house from there. When it isn’t 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 clones."

"Liquid cat," Kevin said. "It flows under the crack and reconstitutes on the other side—but never when you’re looking."

"Why Batcat?" Michelle asked.

"Oh, I can’t 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, that’s 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-robots—that 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 Kevin’s 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 Kevin’s natural mother, Patricia, and moved with him when he left Microbotics to start Neurodyne. Her attitude mattered because Ohira’s plans would require licensed use of the Direct Neural Coupling technology that made Neurodyne’s mecs unique. Even if the patents were filed in Eric’s name, which Michelle thought would most likely be the case, Eric didn’t 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-owner—which 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 Vanessa’s 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 house.

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 herself surprised.

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.

"I’m pleased to meet you, Ms. Lang," she said after Eric had introduced them. "I take it you’ve had the tour of the firm. This is our off-duty side. Sometimes it’s not all that easy to tell the difference."

"Oh, I think there’s a world of difference," Michelle answered. "What’s 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 Microbotics—I assume they’ve told you that story?"

"Yes."

"It was Kevin who wanted to come out this way, to be nearer to Taki—Taki has family scattered all over the Olympia area. In fact, it was through one of Hiro’s friends that we learned this place was on the market."

"Hiroyuki—that’s Taki’s father," Eric put in. Michelle already knew of him through Ohira.

"It’s 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 professionally—when you and Eric were with Microbotics?" It seemed likely. The Japanese were also active in microtechnology.

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 we’d be coming here. But actually experiencing direct neural connection was something else." Michelle shook her head. "It’s just . . . well, it seems practically real."

"DNC, you see. It makes all the difference," Ohira said.

"Wait till you’ve tried the Park," Vanessa told Michelle.

"Are you joining us?" Michelle wasn’t sure what made her ask. Maybe it was that Vanessa’s dress wasn’t appropriate to showing casual visitors the back yard.

"No, I’m afraid you’ll have to excuse me," Vanessa replied. "I’m meeting some people in town this evening. In fact, I ought to be leaving now. But I’m sure you’ll 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. . . . I’m not sure how long I’ll be."

Eric looked puzzled. "I thought you were away for a couple of days. Isn’t this the seminar on neurophysiology, or whatever it is—the one where you’re giving the presentation on DNC?"

"No, that’s next week."

"Oh. I was planning on going back to the labs later. Doug needs some help with the new assemblers. I don’t know if we’ll be through by the time you get back."

"I’ll see you when I see you, then," Vanessa said.

"Yes. Have fun." Eric turned to follow the others, and for an instant Vanessa’s and Michelle’s 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 didn’t match the set of the lips—a 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 another’s family turf, probably not even conscious. That’s all there is to it.

Then Vanessa left. Michelle followed Eric downstairs after the others.

 
Content © The Estate of James P. Hogan, 1998-2014. All rights reserved.

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