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The Smartest Mob . . .
(a parable about times soon to come)

Written by David Brin
Illustrated by Lee Kuruganti

Washington was like a geezer—overweight and sagging, but with attitude. Most of its gutty heft lay below the beltway, in waistlands that had been downwind on Awfulday.

Downwind, but not out.

When droves of upperclass child-bearers fled the invisible plumes enveloping Fairfax and Alexandria, those briefly-empty ghost towns quickly refilled with immigrants—the latest mass of teemers, yearning to be free and willing to endure a little radiation in exchange for a pleasant five-bedroom that could be subdivided into nearly as many apartments. Spacious living rooms began a second life as store fronts. Workshops took over four-car garages and lawns turned into produce gardens. Swimming pools made excellent refuse bins—until government recovered enough to start cracking down.

Passing overhead, Tor could track signs of suburban renewal from her first class seat aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista . Take those swimming pools. A majority of the kidney-shaped ponds now gleamed with clear liquid—mostly water (as testified by the spectral scanning feature of her TruVu spectacles)—welcoming throngs of children who splashed under summertime heat, sufficiently dark-skinned to bear the bare sun unflinching.


So much for the notion that dirty bombs automatically make a place unfit for breeders, she thought. Let yuppies abandon perfectly good mansions because of a little strontium dust. People from Java and Celebes were happy to insource.

Wasn't this America? Call it resolution—or obstinacy—but after three rebuilds, the Statue of Liberty still beckoned.

The latest immigrants, those who filled Washington's waistland vacuum, weren't ignorant. They could read warning labels and health stats, posted on every lamp post and VR level. So? More people died in Jakarta from traffic or stray bullets. Anyway, mutation rates quickly dropped to levels no worse than Kiev, a few years after Awfulday. And Washington had more civic amenities.

Waistlanders also griped a lot less about minor matters like zoning. That made it easier to acquire rights-of-way, re-pioneering new paths back into those unlucky cities that had been dusted. Innovations soon turned those transportation hubs into boom towns. An ironic twist to emerge from terror/sabotage, especially when sky trains began crisscrossing North America.

Through her broad window aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista, Tor gazed across a ten mile separation to the West-Bound Corridor, where long columns of cargo zeppelins lumbered, ponderous as whales and a hundred times larger. Chained single-file and heavily laden, the dirigibles floated barely two hundred meters above the ground, obediently trailing teams of heavy-duty locomotives. Each towing cable looked impossibly slender for hauling fifty behemoths across a continent. But while sky trains weren't fast, or suited for raw materials, they beat any other method for transporting medium-value goods.

And passengers. Those who were willing to trade a little time for inexpensive luxury.

Tor moved her attention much closer, watching the Spirit's majestic shadow flow like an eclipse over rolling suburban countryside, so long and dark that flowers would start to close and birds might be fooled to roost, pondering nightfall. Free from any need for engines of her own, the skyliner glided almost silently over hill and dale. Not as quick as a jet, but more scenic—free of carbon levies or ozone tax—and far cheaper. Setting her TruVus to magnify, she followed the Spirit's tow cable along the East-Bound Express Rail, pulled relentlessly by twelve thousand horses, courtesy of the deluxe maglev tug, Umberto Nobile.

What was it about a lighter-than-air craft that drew the eye? Oh, certainly most of them now had pixelated, tunable skins that could be programmed for any kind of spectacle. Passing near a population center—even a village in the middle of nowhere—the convoy of cargo zeps might flicker from one gaudy advertisement to the next, for anything from a local gift shop to the mail-order wares of some megaCorp. At times, when no one bid for the display space, a chain of dirigibles might tune their surfaces to resemble clouds . . . or flying pigs. Whim, after all, was another modern currency. Everybody did it on the VR levels.

Only with zeppelins, you could paint whimsical images across a whole stretch of the real sky.

Tor shook her head.

But no. That wasn't it. Even bare and gray, they could not be ignored. Silent, gigantic, utterly calm, a zep seemed to stand for a kind of grace that human beings might build, but never know in their own frenetic lives.

"Will you be wanting anything else before we arrive in the Federal District, Madam?" asked a voice from above.

She glanced up at a servitor—little more than a boxy delivery receptacle—that clung to its own slim rail on a nearby bulkhead, leaving the walkway free for passengers.

"No, thanks," Tor murmured automatically, a polite habit of her generation. Younger folk had already learned to snub machinery slaves, except when making clipped demands.

"Can you tell me when we're due?"

"Certainly, Madam. There is a slowdown in progress due to heightened security. Hence, we may experience some delay crossing the Beltway. But there is no cause for alarm. And we remain ahead of schedule because of that tailwind across the plains."

"Hm. Heightened security?"

"For the Artifact Conference, Madam."

"But—" Tor frowned. "That was already scheduled. Taken into account. So it shouldn't affect our timetable."

"There is no cause for alarm," the servitor repeated. "We just got word, two minutes ago. An order to reduce speed, that's all."

Glancing outside, Tor could see the effects of slowing, in a gradual change of altitude. The Spirit's tow cable slanted a little steeper, catching up to the ground-hugging locomotive tug.

Altitude: 359 meters said a telltale in the corner of her left TruVu lens.

"Will you be wanting to change seats for our approach to the nation's capital?" the servitor continued. "An announcement will be made when we come within sight of the Mall, though you may want to claim a prime viewing spot earlier. Children and first time visitors get priority, of course."

"Of course."

A trickle of tourists had already begun streaming forward to the main Observation Lounge. Parents, dressed in bright-colored sarongs and patagonian slacks, herded kids who sported the latest youth fashion—fake antennae and ersatz scales—imitating some of the alien personalities that had been discovered aboard the Dean Artifact. A grand conference may have been called to declare whether it was a genuine case of First Contact, or just another hoax. But popular culture had already cast judgement. The Artifact was cool.

"You say an alert came through two minutes ago?" Tor wondered. Nothing had flashed yet in her peripherals. But maybe the vigilance thresholds were set too high. With a rapid series of clicks on her tooth implant, she adjusted them downward.

Immediately, crimson tones began creeping in from the edges of her specs, offering links that whiffed and throbbed unpleasantly.


"Not an alert, Madam. No, no. Just preliminary, precautionary—"

But Tor's attention had already veered. Using both clicks and subvocal commands, she sent her TruVus swooping through the data overlays of virtual reality, following threads of a security situation. Sensors tracked every twitch of the iris, following and often anticipating her choices while colored data-cues jostled and flashed.

"May I take away any rubbish or recycling?" asked the boxy tray on the wall. It dropped open a receptacle, like a hungry jaw, eager to be fed. The servitor waited in vain for a few moments. Then, noting that her focus lay far away, it silently folded and departed.

"No cause for alarm," Tor muttered sardonically as she probed and sifted the dataways. Someone should have banished that cliche from the repertoire of all AI devices. No human over the age of thirty would ever hear the phrase without wincing. Of all the lies that accompanied Awfulday, it had been the worst.

Some of Tor's favorite software agents were already reporting back from the Grid.

Koppel—the summarizer—zoomed toward public, corporate and government feeds, collating official pronouncements. Most of them were repeating the worrisome cliche.

Gallup—her pollster program—sifted for opinion. People weren't buying it, apparently. On a scale of one-thousand, "no cause for alarm" had a credibility rating of eighteen, and dropping. Tor felt a wrench in the pit of her stomach.

Bernstein leaped into the whistle-blower circuits, hunting down gossip and hearsay. As usual, there were far too many rumors for any person—or personal ai—to trawl. Only this time, the flood was overwhelming even the sophisticated filters at the Skeptic Society. MediaCorp seemed no better; her status as a member of the Journalistic Staff only won her a queue number from the Research Division and a promise of response "in minutes."


It was beginning to look like a deliberate disinformation flood, time-unleashed in order to drown out any genuine tattles. Gangsters, terrorists and reffers had learned the hard way that careful plans can be upset by some soft-hearted henchman, wrenched by remorseful second thoughts about innocent bystanders. Many a scheme had been spoiled by some lowly underling, who posted an anonymous squeal at the last minute. To prevent this, masterminds and ringleaders now routinely unleashed cascades of ersatz confessions, just as soon as an operation was underway—a spamming of faux regret, artificially generated, ranging across the whole spectrum of plausible sabotage and man-made disasters.

Staring at a flood of warnings, Tor knew that one or more of the rumors had to be true. But which?

Washington area beltway defenses have already been breached by machoist suiciders infected with pulmonella plague, heading for the Capitol . . .

A coalition of humanist cults have decided to put an end to all this nonsense about a so-called "alien artifact" from interstellar space . . .

The U.S. President, seeking to reclaim traditional authority, is about to nationalize the DC-area civil militia on a pretext . . .

Exceptional numbers of toy airplanes were purchased in the Carolinas , this month, suggesting that a swarm attack may be in the making, just like the O'Hare Incident . . .

A method has been found to convert zeppelins into flying bombs . . .

Among the international dignitaries, who were invited to Washington to view the Dean Artifact, there may be a few who plan to . . .

There are times when human/neuronal paranoia can react faster than mere digital simulacra. Tor's old fashioned cortex snapped to attention a full five seconds before her ais, Bernstein and Columbo, made the same connection.

Zeppelins . . . flying bombs . . .

It sounded unlikely . . . probably distraction-spam.

But I happen to be on a zeppelin.

That wasn't just a realization. The words formed a message. With subvocal grunts and tooth-click punctuations, Tor broadcast it far and wide. Not just to her favorite correlation and stringer groups, but to several hundred Citizen Action Networks. Her terse missive zoomed across the Net indiscriminately, calling to every CAN that had expressed interest in the zep rumor.

This is Tor Pleiades, investigative reporter for MediaCorp—credibility rating seven-hundred and fifty-two—aboard the passenger zep Spirit of Chula Vista . We are approaching the DC Beltway defense zone. That may put me at a right place-time to examine one of the reffer rumors.

I request a smart mob coalescence. Feedme!

Disinformation, a curse with ancient roots, had been updated with ultra-modern ways of lying. Machoists and other bastards might plant sleeper-ais in a million virtual locales, programmed to pop out at a pre-set time and spam every network with autogenerated "plausibles" . . . randomly generated combinations of word and tone that were drawn from recent news, each variant sure to rouse the paranoic fears of someone.

Mutate this ten million times (easy enough to do in virtual space) and you'll find a nerve to tweak in anyone.

Citizens could fight back, combatting lies with light. Sophisticated programs compared eyewitness accounts from many sources, weighted by credibility, offering average folk tools to re-forge Consensus Reality, while discarding the dross. Only that took time. And during an emergency, time was the scarcest commodity of all.

Public avowal worked more quickly. Calling attention to your own person. Saying: "look, I'm right here, real, credible and accountable—I not ai—so take me seriously."

Of course that required guts, especially since Awfulday. In the face of danger, ancient human instinct cried out; duck and cover. Don't draw attention to yourself.

Tor considered that natural impulse for maybe two seconds, then blared on all levels. Dropping privacy cryption, she confirmed her ticketed billet and physical presence aboard the Spirit of Chula Vista, with realtime biometrics and a dozen in-cabin camera views.

"I'm here," she murmured, breathlessly, toward any fellow citizen whose correlation-attention ais would listen.

"Rally and feedme. Tell me what to do."

Calling up a smart mob was tricky. People might already be too scattered and distracted by the rumor storm. The number to respond might not reach critical mass—in which case all you'd get is a smattering of critics, kibbitzers and loudmouths, doing more harm than good. A negative-sum rabble—or bloggle—its collective IQ dropping, rather than climbing, with every new volunteer to join. Above all, you needed to attract a core group—the seed cell—of online know-it-alls, constructive cranks and correlation junkies, armed with the latest coalescence software, who were smart and savvy enough to serve as prefrontals . . . coordinating a smart mob without dominating. Providing focus without quashing the creativity of a group mind.

We recognize you, Tor Pleiades, intoned a low voice, conducting through her jawbone receiver. Direct sonic induction made it safe from most eavesdropping, even if someone had a parabolic dish aimed at her ear.

We have lit a wiki. Can you help us check out one of these rumors? One that might possibly be a whistle-blow?

The conjoined mob-voice sounded strong, authoritative. Tor's personal interface found good credibility scores as it coalesced. An index-marker in her left peripheral showed two-hundred and thirty members and climbing—generally sufficient to wash out individual ego.

"First tell me," she answered, subvocalizing. Sensors in her shirt collar picked up tiny flexings in her throat, tongue and larynx, without any need to make actual sound. "Tell me, has anyone sniffed something unusual about the Spirit? I don't see or hear anything strange. But some of you out there may be in a better position to snoop company status reports or ship-board operational parameters."

There was a pause. Followed by an apologetic tone.

Nothing seems abnormal at the public level. Company web-traffic has gone up six fold in the last ten minutes . . . but the same is true all over, from government agencies to networks of amateur scientists.

As for the zeppelin you happen to be aboard, we're naturally interested because of its present course, scheduled shortly to moor in Washington , about the same time that delegates are arriving for the Artifact Conference.

Tor nodded grimly, a nuance that her interface conveyed to the group mind.

"And those operational readouts?"

We can try access by applying for a Freedom of Information writ. That will take some minutes, though. So we may have to supplement the FOIA with a little hacking and bribery. The usual.

Leave that to us.

Meanwhile, there's a little on-site checking you can do.

Be our hands and eyes, will you, Tor?

She was already on her feet.

"Tell me where to go . . . "

Head aft, past the unisex toilet.

" . . . but let's have a consensus agreement, okay?" she added while moving. "I get an exclusive on any interviews that follow. In case this turns out to be more than . . ."

There is a security hatch, next to the crew closet, the voice interrupted. Adjust your specs for full mob access please.

"Done," she said, feeling a little sheepish over the request for a group exclusive. But after all, she was supposed to be a pro. MediaCorp might be tuning in soon, examining transcripts. They would expect a professional's attention to the niceties.

That's better. Now zoom close on the control pad.We've been joined by an off-duty zep mechanic who worked on this ship last week.

"Look, maybe I can just call a crew member. Invoke FOIA and open it legally—"

No time. We've filed for immunity as an ad hoc citizen posse. Under the post-Awfulday crisis rules.

"Oh sure. With me standing here to take the physical rap if it's refused . . . ."

Your choice, Tor. If you're in, press buttons in this order.

A virtual image of the keypad appeared in front of Tor, overlaying the real one.

"No cause for alarm," she muttered.

What was that?

"Never mind."

Feeling somewhat detached, as if under remote control, her hand reached out to tap the proposed sequence.

Nothing happened.

No good. They must've rotated the progression.

At that moment, the wiki-voice sounded a bit less cool, more individualized. A telltale indicator in her TruVu showed that some high-credibility member of the mob was stepping up with an assertive suggestion.

But you can tell it isn't randomized. I bet it's still a company-standard maintenance code. Here, try this instead.

Coalescence levels seemed to waver only a little, so the mob trusted this component member. Tor went along, punching the pad again with the new pattern.

"Any luck getting that FOIA writ?" she asked, meanwhile. "You said it would take just few minutes. Maybe we'd better wait . . ."

Procrastination met its rebuttal with a simple a click, as the access panel slid aside, revealing a slim, tubelike ladder.


No hesitation in the mob voice. Five hundred and twelve fellow citizens wanted her to do this. Five hundred and sixteen . . . .

Tor swallowed. Then complied.

* * *

The ladderway exposed a truth that was hidden from most passengers, cruising in cushioned comfort within the neatly paneled main compartment. Physics—especially gravity—had not changed appreciably in the century that separated the first great zeppelin era from this one. Designers still had to strive for lightness, everywhere they could.


Stepping from spindly rungs onto the cargo deck, Tor found herself amid a maze of spiderlike webbery, instead of walls and partitions. Her feet made gingerly impressions in foamy mesh that seemed to be mostly air. Stacks of luggage—all strictly weighed back in Diegotown—formed bundles that resembled monstrous eggs, bound together by air-gel foam. Hardly any metal could be seen. Not even aluminum or titanium struts.

"Shall I look at the bags?" she asked while reaching into her purse. "I have an omnisniffer."

What model? inquired the voice in her jaw, before it changed tone by abrupt consensus. More authoritatively, it said—Never mind. The bags were all scanned in Diego. We doubt anything could be smuggled aboard.

But a rumor-tattle points to possible danger higher up. We're betting on that one.

"Higher?" She frowned. "There's nothing up there except . . ."

Tor's voice trailed off as a schematic played within her TruVus, pointing aft to another ladder, this one made of ropey fibers.

Arrows shimmered in VR yellow, for emphasis.

We finally succeeded in getting a partial feed from the Spirit's operational parameters. And yes, there's something odd going on.

They are using onboard water to make lift gas, at an unusual rate.

"Is that dangerous?"

It shouldn't be.

But we may be able to find out more, if you hurry.

She sighed, stepping warily across the spongey surface. Tor hadn't yet spotted a crew member. They were probably also busy chasing rumors, different ones, chosen by the company's prioritization subroutines. Anyway, a modern towed-zep was mostly automatic, requiring no pilot, engineer or navigator. A century ago, the Hindenberg carried forty officers, stewards and burly riggers, just to keep the ornate apparatus running and deliver the same number of passengers from Europe to the U.S. At twice the length, Spirit carried five times as many people, served by half a dozen attendants.

Below her feet, passengers would be jostling for a better view of the Langley Crater, or maybe Arlington Cemetery, while peering ahead for the enduring spire of the Washington Monument. Or did some of those people already sniff an alert coming on, through their own liaison networks? Were families starting to cluster near the emergency chutes? Tor wondered if she should be doing the same.

This new ladder was something else. It felt almost alive and responded to her footstep by contracting . . . carrying her upward in a smooth-but-sudden jerk. Smart elastics, she realized. Fine for professionals. But the public had never taken a liking to ladders that twitch. The good news: it would take just a few actual footsteps at this rate, concentrating to slip her soles carefully onto one rung after the next . . . and worrying about what would happen when she reached the unpleasant-looking "hatch" that lay just overhead.

Meanwhile, the voice in her jaw took on a strange, lilting quality. The next contribution must have come from an individual member. Someone generally appreciated.

Come with me, higher than high,
Dropping burdensome things.
Lighter than clouds, we can fly,
Thoughts spread wider than wings.
Be like the whale, behemoth,
Enormous, yet weightless beings,
Soundlessly floating, the sky
Beckons a mammal that sings.

Tor liked the offering. You almost wanted to earn it, by coming up with a tune . . . .

 . . . only the "hatch" was now just ahead, or above, almost pressing against her face. A throbbing iris of polyorganic membranes, much like the quasi-living external skin of the Spirit. Coming this close, inhaling the exudate aromas, made Tor feel queasy.

Relax. The voice was back to business. Probably led by the zep mechanic.

You'll need a command word. Touch that nub in the middle to get attention and say Cinnamon.


It was only a query, but the barrier reacted instantly. With a faintly squishy sound, the door dilated. The stringy stepladder resumed its programmed journey, carrying her upward.

Aboard old-time zeps like Hindenberg, the underslung gondola had been devoted mainly to engines and crew, while paying passengers occupied two broad decks at the base of the giant dirigible's main body. The Spirit of Chula Vista had a similar layout, except that the gondola was mainly for show. Having climbed above all the sections designed for people and cargo, Tor now rode the throbbing ladder into a cathedral of lifter cells, each of them a vast chamber filled with gas that was much lighter than air.

Hundreds of transparent, filmy balloons—cylindrical and tall like Sequoia trunks—crowded and pressed together, stretching from the web-floor where she stood all the way up to the arching ceiling of the Spirit's rounded skin. Tor could only move among these towering columns along four narrow paths leading port or starboard . . . fore or aft. The arrow in her TruVu suggested port, without pulsing insistence. Most members of the smart mob had never been in a place like this. Curiosity—the strongest modern craving—formed more of these ad hoc groups than any other passion.

Heading in the suggested direction, Tor could not resist reaching out, touching some of the tall cells, their polymer surfaces quivering like the giant bubbles that she used to create with toy wands at birthday parties. They appeared so light, so delicate . . . .

Half of the cells contain helium, explained the voice, now so individualized that it had to be a specific person—perhaps the zep mechanic or a dirigible aficionado. See how those membranes are made with a faintly greenish tint? They surround the larger hydrogen cells.

Tor blinked.

"Hydrogen. Isn't that dangerous?"

She pictured the Hindenberg—or LZ 129—that greatest and most ill-fated ancient zeppelin, whose fiery end at Lakehurst, New Jersey, marked the sudden end of the First Zep Era, in May of 1937. Once ignited—( how remained a topic of fierce debate)—flames had engulfed the mighty airship from mooring-tip to gondola, to its swastika-emblazoned rudder in little more than a minute. To this day, journalists envied the news crew that had been on-hand that day with primitive movie cameras, capturing onto acetate some of the most stunning footage and memorable imagery that ever accompanied a technological disaster.

Nowadays, what reff or terror group wouldn't just love to claim credit for an event so vivid? So attention-grabbing?

As if reading her mind, the voice lectured.

Hydrogen is much lighter and more buoyant than helium. Hydrogen is also cheap and readily available. Using it improves the economics of zep travel. Though of course, care must be taken . . . .

Tor was approaching the end of her narrow corridor. For the first time, she encountered the trusswork that kept Spirit rigid—a dirigible—instead of a floppy, balloonlike blimp. A girder made of carbon tubes, woven into an open latticework of triangles, stretched and curved both forward and aft. Nearby, it joined another tensegrity girder at right angles. That one would form a girdle, encircling the Spirit's widest girth.

Tracking Tor's interest, her TruVu spun out statistics and schematics. At 800 feet in length, the Hindenberg had been just ten percent shorter than the Titanic. In contrast, the Spirit of Chula Vista stretched more than twice that length. And yet, its shell and trussworks weighed less than half as much.

Naturally, there are precautions, the voice continued. Take the shape of the gas cells. They are vertical columns. Any failure in a hydrogen cell triggers a pulse, bursting open the top, pushing the contents up and out of the ship, skyward, away from passengers, cargo or people below. It's been extensively tested.

Also, the surrounding helium cells provide a buffer, keeping oxygen-rich air away from those containing hydrogen. Passenger ships like this one carry double the ratio of helium to hydrogen that you'll find on cargo zeps.

"They can replenish hydrogen en route if they have to, right? By cracking water from onboard stores?"

Or even from humidity in the air, using solar power.

And yes, the readouts show unusual levels of hydrogen production, in order to keep several cells filled aboard the Spirit. That's why we asked you to come up here. There must be some leakage. One scenario suggested that it might be accumulating in here, between the cells.

She pulled the omni-sniffer from her purse and began scanning. Chemical sensors were all over the place, nowadays, getting cheaper and more acute all the time—just when the public seemed to need them. For reassurance, if nothing else.

"I'm not detecting very much," she said. Tor wasn't sure how to feel—relieved or disappointed—upon reading that hydrogen levels were only slightly elevated in the companionway.

That confirms what the onboard monitors have already shown. Hardly any hydrogen buildup in the cabins or walkways. It must be leaking into the sky—

"Even so—" Tor began, envisioning gouts of flame erupting toward the heavens from atop the great airship.

—at rates that offer no danger of ignition. The stuff dissipates very fast, Tor, and the Spirit is moving, on a windy day. Anyway, hydrogen isn't dangerous—or even toxic—unless it's held within a confined space.

Tor kept scanning while moving along the spongey path. But hydrogen readings never spiked enough to cause concern, let alone alarm. The smart mob had wanted her to come up here for this purpose—to verify that the onboard detectors hadn't been tampered with by clever saboteurs. Now that her independent readings confirmed the company's, some people were already starting to lose interest. Ad hoc membership totals began to fall.

Any leakage must be into the air, continued the voice of the group mind, still authoritative. We've put out a notice for amateur scientists, asking for volunteers to aim spectranalysis equipment along the Spirit's route. They'll measure parts-per-million, so we can get a handle on leakage rates. But it's mathematically impossible for the amounts to be dangerous. Humidity may go up a percent or two in neighborhoods that lie directly below Spirit's shadow. That's about it.

Tor had reached the end of the walkway. Her hand pressed against the outer envelope—the quasi-living skin that enclosed everything, from gas cells and trusses to the passenger cabin below. Up close, it was nearly transparent, offering a breathtaking view outside.

"We passed the Beltway," she murmured, a little surprised that the diligent guardians of Washington's defensive grid would have allowed the Spirit to pass through that wall of sensors and rays without delay or scrutiny. Below and ahead, she could make out the Umberto Nobile, tugging hard at the tow cable, puffing along the Glebe Road Bypass. Fort Meyers stood to the left. The zeppelin's shadow rippled over a vast garden of gravestones—Arlington National Cemetery.

The powers-that-be have downgraded our rumor, said the voice in her jaw. The nation's professional protectors are chasing down other, more plausible threats . . . none of which have been deemed likely enough to merit an alert. Malevolent zeps don't even make it onto the Threat Chart.

Tor clicked and flicked the attention-gaze of her TruVu, glancing through the journalist feeds at MediaCorp, which were now—belatedly—accessible to a reporter of her level. Seven minutes after the rise in tension caused by that spam flood of rumors, a consensus was already forming. The spam flood had not been intended to distract attention from a terror attack, concluded mass-wisdom. It was the attack. And not a very effective one, at that. National productivity had dropped by a brief diversion factor of one part in twenty-three thousands. Hardly enough damage to be worth risking prosecution or retaliation. But then, hackers seldom cared about consequences.

Speaking of consequences; they were already pouring in from her little snooping expedition. The mavens of propriety at MediaCorp, for example, must be catching up on recent events. A work-related memorandum flashed in Tor's agenda box, revising tomorrow's schedule for her first day of employment at the Washington Bureau. During lunch—right after basic orientation—she was now required to attend counseling on the Exercising Good Judgement In Impromptu Field Situations.

"Oh great," she muttered, noticing also that the zeppelin company had applied a five hundred dollar fine against her account for Unjustified Entry Into Restricted Areas.


"Double great."

Ahead, beyond the curve of the dirigible's skin, she spotted the massive, squat bulk of the Pentagon, bristling with missiles, antennae and other security measures . . . still a highly-protected enclave, even ten years after the Department of Defense moved its headquarters to "an undisclosed location in Texas."

Soon, the mooring towers and docking ports of Reagan-Clinton National Skydrome would appear, signalling the end of her cross-continental voyage. And of any chance for a blemish-free start to her new career in Big Time Media.

"I don't suppose any of you have bright ideas?" She addressed the group mind.

But it had already started to unravel. Membership numbers were falling fast, like rats deserting a sinking ship, Or—more accurately—monkeys. Moving on to the next shiny thing.

Sorry, Tor. People are distracted. They've been dropping out to watch the opening of the Artifact Conference. You may even glimpse some limos arriving at the Naval Research Center , just across the Potomac . Take a look as the Spirit starts turning for final approach . . .

Blasted fickle amateurs! Tor had made good use of smart mobs on several occasions. But this time was likely to prove an embarrassment. None of them would have to pay fines or face disapproval in a new job.

Still, a few of us remain worried, the voice continued.

That rumor had something about it.

I can't put my finger on it.

The "voice" was starting to sound individualized and had even used the first person "I". And yet, Tor drew some strength from the support. Before an attendant arrived to escort her below, there was still time for a little last minute tenacity.

"Can I assume we still have some zep aficionados in attendance?"

Hardly anyone else, Tor.

Some us are fanatics.

"Good, then let's apply fanatical expertise. Think about that leakage we discussed a while ago. We've been assuming that this zeppelin is making hydrogen to make up for a major seep. Have any of those amateur scientists studied the air near Spirit's flight path?"

A pause.

Yes, several have reported. They found no dangerous levels of hydrogen in the vicinity of the ship, or in its wake. The seep is probably dissipating so fast . . . .

"Please clarify. No dangerous levels? Is it possible they found no sign of a hydrogen leak at all?"

The pause extended several seconds longer, this time. Suddenly the number of participants in the group stopped falling. In the corner of Tor's TruVu, she saw membership levels start to rise again.

Now that's interesting, throbbed the voice in her jaw.

Several of those Am ateur Scientists have joined us now.

They report seeing no appreciable leakage. Zero extra hydrogen along the flight path. How did you know?

"I didn't. Call it a hunch."

But at the rate that Spirit has been replacing hydrogen . . .

"There has to be some kind of leak. Right. It must be going somewhere."

Tor frowned. She could see a shadow moving beyond the grove of tall, cylindrical gas-cells. A figure approaching. A crewman or attendant, coming to take her, firmly, gently, insistently, back to her seat. The shape wavered and warped as seen through the mostly transparent polymer tubes—slightly pinkish for hydrogen and then greenish-tinted for helium.

Tor blinked. Suddenly feeling so dry-mouthed that she could not speak aloud, only sub-vocalize.

"Ask the AmScis to take more spectral scans along the path of this zeppelin. Only this time look for helium."

The inner surfaces of her TruVus showed a flurry of indicators. Amateur scientific instruments, computer-controlled from private backyards or rooftops, could zoom quickly toward any patch of sky. There were thousands of such pocket observatories, in and around any urban center—hobbyists with access to better instrumentation than the previous generation could imagine. Dotted lines appeared. Each showed the viewing angle of some home-taught astronomer, ecologist or meteorologist, turning a hand- or kit-made instrument toward the majestic cigar shape of the Spirit of Chula Vista . . .

 . . . which had passed Arlington and Pentagon City, following its faithful tug into a final tracked loop, approaching the dedicated zeppelin port that served Washington DC.

Yes, Tor. There is helium.

Quite a lot of it, in fact.

A plume that stretches at least a hundred klicks behind the Spirit. Nobody notice before this, because helium is inert and utterly safe, so no environmental monitors were tuned to look for it.

The voice was grim. Much less individualized. With ad hoc membership levels suddenly skyrocketing, summaries and updates must be spewing at incredible pace.

Your suspicion appears to be well-based.

Extrapolating the rate of helium loss backward in time, half of that gas may have been lost by now . . . .

" . . . replaced in these green cells by another gas."

Tor nodded. "I think we've found the missing hydrogen, people."

It all made sense, now. Smart polymers were programmable—all the way down to the permeability of any patch of these gas-containing cells. If you did it very cleverly, you might insert a timed instruction where two gas cells touched, commanding one cell to leak into another. Create a daisy chain. Vent helium into the sky. Transfer gas from hydrogen cells into the helium cells to maintain pressure, so that non one notices. Trigger automatic systems to crack onboard water and "replace" the hydrogen, replenishing the main cells. Allow the company to assume a slow leak into the sky is responsible. Continue.

Continue until you have replaced the helium in enough of the green cells to turn the Spirit into a flying bomb.

"The process must be almost complete by now," she murmured, peering ahead toward the great zep-port, where dozens of mighty dirigibles could already be seen, some of them vastly larger than this passenger liner, bobbing gently at their moorings. Spindly fly-cranes went swooping back and forth as they plucked shipping containers from ocean freighters at the nearby Potomac Docks, gracefully transferring the air-gel crates to waiting cargo-zeppelins for the journey across land. A deceptively graceful, swaying dance that propelled the engines of commerce.

The passenger terminal—dwarfed by comparison to those giants—seemed to beckon with a promise of safety. But indicators showed that it still lay as much as ten minutes away.

We have issued a clamor,Tor, assured the voice in her jaw. Every channel. Every agency.

A glance at telltales showed Tor that, indeed, the group mind was doing its best. Shouting alarm toward every official protective service, from Defense to Homeworld Security. Individual members were lapel-grabbing friends and acquaintances while smart mob attendance levels climbed into five figures, and more. At this rate, surely the professionals would be taking heed. Any minute now.

"Too slow," she said, watching the figures with a sinking heart. With each second that it took to get action from the Protector Caste, the perpetrators of this scheme would also grow aware that the jig is up. Their plan was discovered. And they would have a speedup option.

Speaking of the perps, Tor wondered aloud.

"What can they be hoping to accomplish?"

We're pondering that, Tor. Timing suggests that they aim to disrupt the Artifact Conference. Delegates arriving at the Naval Research Center are having a cocktail reception on the embankment right now, offering a fine view toward the zep port, across the river.

Of course it is possible that the reffers plan to do more than just put on a show, while murdering three hundred passengers. We are checking to see if the Umberto tug has been meddled-with. Perhaps the plan is to hop rails and collide with a large cargo zep, before detonation. Such a fireball might be seen all the way from the Capitol, and disrupt the port for months

One problem with a smart mob. The very same traits that multiplied intelligence could also make it seem dispassionate. Insensitive. Individual members surely felt anguish and concern over Tor's plight. She might even access their messages, if she had time for commiseration.

But pragmatic help was preferable. She kept to the group mind level.

One (anonymous) member (a whistle-blower?) has suggested a bizarre plan using a flying-crane at the zep port to grab the Spirit of Chula Vista when it passes near. The crane would then hurl the Spirit across the river, to explode right at the Naval Research Center ! In theory, it might just barely be possible to incinerate—

"Enough!" Tor cut in. Almost a minute had passed since realization of danger and the issuance of a clamor. And so far, nobody had offered anything like a practical suggestion.

"Don't forget that I'm here, now. We have to do something."

Yes, the voice replied, eagerly and without the usual hesitation. There is sufficient probable cause to get a posse writ. Especially with your credibility scores. We can act, with you performing the hands-on role.

Operational ideas follow:

CUT THE TOWING CABLE. (Emergency release is in the gondola. Reachable in four minutes. Risk factor: possible interference from staff. Ineffective at saving the zeppelin/passengers.)

PERSUADE ZEP COMPANY TO COMMENCE EMERGENCY VENTING PROCEDURES. (Communication in progress. Response so far: obstinate refusal . . .)

PERSUADE ONBOARD STAFF TO COMMENCE EMERGENCY VENTING PROCEDURES. (Attempting communication despite company interference . . .)

PERSUADE COMPANY TO ORDER PASSENGER EVACUATION. (Communication in progress. Response so far: obstinate refusal . . .)

UPGRADE CLAMOR. INDEPENDENTLY CONTACT PASSENGERS URGING THEM TO EVACUATE. (Dangers: delay, disbelief, panic, injuries, fatalities, lawsuits . . . .)

The list of suggestions seemed to scroll on and on. Rank-ordered by plausibility-evaluation algorithms, slanted by urgency, and scored by likelihood of successful outcome. Individuals and sub-groups within the smart mob split apart to urge different options with frantic vehemence. The inner face of her TruVu flared, threatening overload.

"Oh, screw this," Tor muttered, reaching up and tearing off the specs.

The real world—unfiltered. For all of its paucity of layering and data-supported detail, it had one special trait.

It's where I am about to die.

Unless I do something fast.

At that moment, the zep-crew attendant arrived. He rounded the final corner of a towering gas cell, coming into direct view—no longer a shadowy authority figure, warped and refracted by the tinted polymer membranes. Up close, it turned out to be a small man, middle-aged and clearly frightened by what his own TruVus had started telling him. All intention to arrest or detain Tor had already evaporated during the last minute. She could see this in his face, as clearly as if she had been monitoring vital signs.

WARREN, said a company name tag.

"Wha—what can I do to help?" he asked in a hoarse whisper.

Though hired for gracile weight and people skills, the fellow clearly possessed some courage. By now he knew what filled many of the slim, green-tinted membranes surrounding them both. And it didn't take a genius to realize the zep company was unlikely to be helpful during the time they had left.

"Tool kit!" Tor held out her hand.

Warren fumbled at his waist pouch. Precious seconds passed as he unfolded a slim implement case. Tor found one promising item—a vibrocutter.

"Keyed to your biometrics?"

He nodded. Passengers weren't allowed to bring anything aboard that might become a weapon. This cutter would respond to his personal touch and no other. It required not only a fingerprint, but volition—physiological signs of the owner's will.

"You must do the cutting, then."

"C-cutting . . .?"

Tor explained quickly.

"We've got to vent this ship. Empty the gas upward. That'll happen to a main cell if it is ruptured anywhere along its length, right? Automatically?"

A shaky nod. She could tell Warren was getting online advice, perhaps from the Zep Company. More likely from the same smart mob that she had called into being. She felt strong temptation to put her own specs back on—to link-in once more. But she resisted. Kibbitzers would only slow her down right now.

"It might work . . ." said the attendant in a frightened whisper. "But the reffers will realize, as soon as we start—"

"They realize now!" She tried not to shout. "We may have only moments to act."

Another nod. This time a bit stronger, though Warren was shaking so badly that Tor had to help him draw the cutter from its sleeve. She steadied his hand.

"We must slice through a helium bag in order to reach the big hydro cell," he said, pressing the biometric-sensitive stud. Reacting to his individual touch, a knife edge of acoustic waves began to flicker at the cutter tip, sharper than steel. A soft tone filled the air.

Tor swallowed hard. That flicker resembled a hot flame.

"Pick one."

They had no way to tell which of the greenish helium cells had been refilled, or what would happen when the cutter helped unite gas from neighboring compartments. Perhaps the only thing accomplished would be an early detonation. But even that had advantages, if it messed up the timing of this scheme.

One lesson you learned early nowadays: any citizen can wind up being a front-line soldier for civilization, at any time.

In other words, expendable.

"That one." Warren moved toward the nearest.

Though she had doffed her TruVu specs, there was still a link. The smart mob's Voice retained access to the conduction channel in her jaw.

Tor, said the group mind. We're getting feed through Warren 's goggles. Are you listening? There is a third possibility. in addition to helium and hydrogen. Some of the cells may have been packed with—

She bit down twice on her left canine tooth, cutting off the distraction in order to monitor her omni-sniffer. She inhaled deeply, with her eye on the indicator as Warren made a gliding, slicing motion with his cutter.

The greenish envelope opened, as if along a seam. Edges rippled apart as invisible gas—appreciably cooler—swept over them both.

HELIUM said the readout. Tor sighed relief.

"This one's not poisonous."

Warren nodded. "But no oxygen. You can smother." He ducked his head aside and took another deep breath. The next words had a squeaky, high-pitched quality. "Gotta move fast."

Through the vent he slipped, hurrying quickly to the other side of the green cell, where it touched one of the great chambers of hydrogen.

Warren made a rapid slash.

Klaxons bellowed, responding to the damage automatically. (Or else, had the company chosen that moment, after several criminally-negligent minutes, to finally admit the inevitable?) A voice boomed insistently, ordering passengers to move—calmly and carefully—to their escape stations.

That same instant, the giant hydrogen gas cell convulsed, twitching like a giant bowel caught in a spasm. The entire pinkish tube—bigger than a jumbo jet—contracted, starting at the bottom and squeezing toward a sudden opening at the very top, spewing its contents skyward.

Backwash hurled Warren across the green tube. Tor managed to grab his collar, dragging him out to the walkway. There seemed to be nothing satisfying about the 'air' that she sucked into her lungs, and she started seeing spots before her eyes. The little man was in worse shape, gasping wildly in high-pitched squeaks.

Somehow, Tor hauled him a dozen meters along the gangway, barely escaping descending folds of the deflated cell, arriving at last where breathing felt better. Did we make any difference? She wondered, wildly.

Instinctively, Tor slipped back on her TruVu specs. Immersed again in the info-maelstrom, it took moments to focus.

One image showed gouts of flame pouring from a hole in the roof of a majestic sky-ship. Another revealed the zeppelin's nose starting to slant steeply as the tug-locomotive pulled frantically on its tow cable, reeling the behemoth toward the ground. Spirit resisted, like a stallion, bucking and clinging to altitude.

Tor briefly quailed. Oh Lord, what have we done?

A thought suddenly occurred to Tor. She and Warren had done this entirely based on information that had come to them from outside. From a group mind of zeppelin aficionados and amateur scientists who claimed that a lot of extra hydrogen had to be going somewhere, and it must be stored in some of the former helium cells. But that helium cell had been okay.

And now, amid all the commotion, she wondered. What about the smart mob? Could that group be a front for clever reffers, who were using her to do their dirty work? Feeding false information, in order to get precisely this effect?

The doubt passed through her mind in seconds. And back out again. This smart mob was open and public. If something smelled about it, another mob would have formed by now, clamoring like mad and exposing the lies. Anyway, if no helium cells had been tampered with, the worst that she and Warren could do was bring a temporarily disabled Spirit of Chula Vista down to a bumpy but safe landing atop its tug.

Newsworthy. But not very. And that realization firmed her resolve.

Tor yanked the attendant onto his feet and urged him to move uphill, toward the stern, along a narrow path that now inclined the other way. "Come on!" She called to Warren, her voice still squeaky from helium. "We've got to do more!"

Warren tried gamely. But she had to steady him as the path gradually steepened. When he prepared to slash at another green cell, farther aft, Tor braced his elbow.

Before he struck, through the omniscient gaze of her TruVu, Tor abruptly saw three more holes appear in the zep's broad roof, spewing clouds of gas, transparent but highly-refracting, resembling billowy ripples in space.

Was the zep company finally taking action? Had the reffers made their move? Or had the first expulsion triggered some kind of compensating release from automatic valves, elsewhere on the ship?

As if pondering the same questions, the Voice in her jaw mused.

Too little has been released to save the Spirit from the worst-case scenario. But maybe enough to limit the tragedy and mess up their scheme.

It depends on a rather gruesome possibility that one of us thought up. What if—instead of hydrogen—some of the helium cells have been refilled with OXYGEN? After experimenting with the programably permeable polymer, we find that the fuel replenishment process could be jiggered to do that. If so, the compressed combination—


Tor shouted "Wait!" as Warren made a hard stab at one of the green cells, slicing a long vent that suddenly blurped at them.

This wave of gas wasn't as cool as the helium had been. It smelled terrific, though. One slight inhale filled Tor with sudden and suspicious exhilaration.

Uh oh, she thought.

At that moment, her TruVu display offered a bird's eye view as one of the new clouds of vented hydrogen contacted dying embers, atop the tormented Spirit of Chula Vista .

Like a brief sun, each of the refracting bubbles ignited in rapid succession. Thunderclaps shook the dirigible from stem to stern, knocking Tor and Warren off their feet.

Is this it? Her own particular and special End of the World. Strangely, Tor's clearest thought was one of professional jealousy. Someone down below ought to be getting truly memorable and historic footage. Maybe on a par with the Hindenberg Disaster.

While the violent tossing drove Tor into fatalism, all that invigorating oxygen seemed to have an opposite effect upon Warren, who surged to his feet, then charged across the green cell, preparing to attack the giant hydrogen compartment beyond, heedless of the smart-mob, clamoring at him to stop.

Tor tried to add her own plea, but found that her throat would not function.

Some reporter, she thought, taking ironic solace in one fact—that her TruVu was still beaming to the Net.

Live images of a desperately unlikely hero.

Warren looked positively giddy—on a high of oxygen and adrenaline, but not too drugged to realize the implications. He grimaced with an evident combination of fear and exaltation, while bringing his cutter-tool slashing down upon the polymer membrane—a slim barrier separating two gases that wanted, notoriously, to unite.

* * *

Sensory recovery came in scattered bits.

First, a smattering of dream images. Nightmare-flashes about being chased, or else giving chase to something dangerous, across a landscape of burning glass. At least, that was how her mind pictured a piling-on of agonies. Regret. Physical anguish. Failure. More anguish. Shame. And more agony, still.

When the murk finally began to clear, consciousness only made matters worse. Everything was black, except for occasional crimson flashes. And those had to be erupting directly out of pain—the random firings of an abused nervous system.

Her ears also appeared to be useless. There was no real sound, other than a low, irritating humming that would not go away.

Only one conduit to the external world still appeared to be functioning.

The Voice in her jaw. It had been hectoring her dreams, she recalled. A nag that could not be answered and would not go away. Only now, at least, she understood the words.

Tor? Are you awake? We're getting no signal from your specs. But there's a carrier wave from your tooth-implant. Can you give us a tap?

After a pause, the message repeated.

And then again.

So, it was playing on automatic. She must have been unconscious—out of it—for a long time.

Tor? Are you awake? We're getting no signal from your specs. But there's a carrier wave from your tooth-implant. Can you give us a tap?

There was an almost overwhelming temptation to do nothing. Every signal that she sent to muscles, commanding them to move, only increased the grinding, searing pain. Passivity seemed to be the lesson being taught right now. Just lie there, or else suffer even more. Lie and wait. Maybe die.

Also, Tor wasn't sure she liked the group mind anymore.

Tor? Are you awake? We're getting no signal from your specs. But there's a carrier wave from your tooth-implant. Can you give us a tap?

On the other hand, passivity seemed to have one major drawback. It gave pain an ally.

Boredom. Yet another way to torment her. Especially her.

To hell with that.

With an effort that grated, she managed to slide her jaw enough to bring the two left canine teeth together in a tap, and then two more. The recording continued a few moments—long enough for Tor to fear that it hadn't worked. She was cut off, isolated, alone in darkness.

But the group participants must have been away, doing their own things. Jobs, families, watching the news. After about twenty seconds, though, the Voice returned, eager and live.


We are so glad you're awake.

Muddled by dull agony, she found it hard at first to focus. But she managed to drag one canine in a circle around the other. Universal symbolic code for QUESTION MARK.


The message got through.

Tor, you are inside a life-sustainment tube. The rescue service found you in the wreckage about twelve minutes ago, but it's taking some time to haul you out. They should have you aboard a medi-chopper in another three minutes, maybe four.

We'll inform the docs that you are conscious. They'll probably insert a communications shunt when you reach hospital.

Three rapid taps.


The Voice had a bedside manner.

Now Tor, be good and let the pros do their jobs. The emergency is over and we amateurs have to step back, right?

Anyway, you'll get the very best of care. You're a hero! Spoiled a reffer plot and saved a couple of hundred passengers. You should hear what MediaCorp is crowing about their "ace field correspondent". They even back-dated your promotion a few days.

Everybody wants you now, Tor, the Voice finished, resonating in her jaw without any sign of double entendre. But surely individual members felt what she felt right then.

Irony—the other bright compensation that Pandora found in the bottom of her infamous Box. At times, irony could be more comforting than hope.

Tor was unable to chuckle, so her tooth did a half circle and then back.


The Voice seemed to understand and agree.


Anyway, we figure you'd like an update. Tap inside if you want details about your condition. Outside for a summary of external events.

Tor bit down emphatically on the outer surface of her lower canine.

Gotcha. Here goes.

It turns out that the scheme was to create a garish zep disaster. But they chiefly aimed to achieve a distraction.

By colliding the Spirit with a cargo freighter in a huge explosion, they hoped not only to close down the zep port for months, but also to create a sudden fireball that would draw attention from the protective and emergency services. All eyes and sensors would shift for a brief time. Wariness would steeply decline in other directions.

They thereupon planned to swoop into the Naval research Center with a swarm attack by hyper-light flyers. Like the O'Hare Incident but with some nasty twists. We don't have details yet. Some of them are still under wraps. But it looks pretty awful, at first sight.

Anyway, as it turned out, our ad hoc efforts aboard the Spirit managed to expel some of the stockpiled gases early and in an uncoordinated fashion. Several of the biggest cells got emptied, creating gaps. So there was never a single, unified detonation when the Enemy finally pulled their trigger. Just a sporadic fire. That kept the dirigible frame intact, enabling the tug to reel it down to less than a hundred meters.

Where the escape chutes mostly worked. Two out of three passengers got away without injury, Tor. And the zep port was untouched.

Trying to picture it in her mind's eye—perhaps the only eye she had left—took some effort. She was used to so many modern visualization aides that mere words and imagination seemed rather crude. A cartoony image of the Spirit, her vast upper bulge aflame, slanted steeply downward as the doughty Umberto Nobile desperately pulled the airship toward relative safety. And then, slender tubes of active plastic snaking down, offering slide-paths for the tourist families and other civilians.

The real event must have been quite a sight.

Her mind roiled with questions. What about the rest of the passengers?

What fraction were injured, or died?

How about people down below, on the nearby highway?

Was there an attack on the Artifact Conference, after all?

So many questions. But until doctors installed a shunt, there would be no way to send anything more sophisticated than these awful yes-no clicks. And some punctuation marks. Normally, equipped with a TruVu, a pair of touch-tooth implants would let her scroll rapidly through menu choices, or type on a virtual screen. Now, she could neither see nor subvocalize.

So, she thought about the problem. Information could inload at the rate of spoken speech. Outloading was a matter of clicking two teeth together.

Perhaps it was the effect of drugs, injected by the paramedics. But Tor found herself thinking with increasing detachment, as if viewing her situation through a distant lens. Abstract appraisal suggested a solution, reverting to much older tradition of communication.

She clicked the inside of her lower left canine three times. Then the outer surface three times. And finally the inner side three more times.

What's that, Tor? Are you trying to say something?

She waited a decent interval, then repeated exactly the same series of taps. Three inside, three outside, and three more inside. It took one more repetition before the Voice hazarded a guess.

Tor, a few members and ais suggest that you're trying to send a message in old-fashioned Morse Code.

Three dots, three dashes, then three dots. SOS.

Is that it, Tor?

She quickly assented with a yes tap. Thank heavens for the diversity of a group mind.

But we already know you are in pain. Rescuers have arrived. There's nothing else to accomplish by calling for help . . . except . . .

The Voice paused again. Wait a minute.

There is a minority theory floating up. A guess-hypothesis.

Very few modern people bother to learn Morse Code anymore. But most of us have heard of it. Especially that one message you were using. SOS. Three dots, three dashes, three dots. It's famous from old-time movies.

Is that what you're telling us, Tor?

Would you like us to teach you Morse Code?

Although she could sense nothing external, not even the rocking of her life-support canister as it was being hauled by evacuation workers out of the smoldering Spirit of Chula Vista, Tor did feel a wash of relief.

Yes. She tapped.

Most definitely yes.

Very well.

Now listen carefully. We'll start with the letter A . . . .

It helped to distract her from worry, at least, concentrating to learn something without all the tech-crutches relied upon by today's college graduates. Struggling to absorb a simple alphabet code that every smart kid used to memorize, way back in that first era of zeppelins and telegraphs and crystal radios.

Back when the uncrowded sky had seemed so wide open and filled with innocent possibilities. When the smartest mob around was a rigidly marching army. When a journalist would chase stories with notepad, flashbulbs, and intuition. When the main concern of a citizen was earning enough to put bread on the table. When the Professional Protective Caste consisted of a few cops on the beat.

Way back, one human life-span ago, when heroes were tall and square-jawed, in both fiction and real life.

Times had changed. Now, destiny could tap anybody on the shoulder, even the shy or unassuming. You, me, the next guy. Suddenly, everybody counts on just one. And that one depends on everybody.

Tor concentrated on her lesson, only dimly aware of the vibrations conveyed by a throbbing helicopter, carrying her (presumably) to a place where modern miracle workers would strive to save—or rebuild—what they could.

Professionals still had their uses, even in the rising Age of Amateurs. Bless their skill. Perhaps—with luck and technology—they might even give Tor back her life.

Right now, though, one concern was paramount. It took a while to ask the one question that burned foremost in her mind, since she needed a letter near the end of the alphabet. But as soon as they reached it, she tapped out a Morse Code message that consisted of one word.


She did not expect anything other than the answer that her fellow citizens gave.

Even with the hydrogen cell contracting at full force to expel most of its contents skyward, there would have been more than enough right there, at the oxygen-rich interface, to incinerate one little man. One volunteer. A hero, leaving nothing to bury, but scattering microscopic ashes all the way across his nation's capital.

Lucky guy, she thought, feeling a little envy for his rapid exit and inevitable fame.

Tor recognized what the envy meant, of course. She was ready to enter the inevitable phase of self-pity. A necessary stage.

But not for long. Only till they installed the shunt.

After that, it would be back to work. Lying immersed in sustainer-jelly and breathing through a tube? That wouldn't stop a real journalist. The web was a beat rich with stories, and Tor had a feeling. She would get to know the neighborhood a whole lot better.

And we'll be here, assured the smart mob. If not us, then others like us.

You can count on it Tor. Count on us.

We all do.

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