Copyright © 2011, 2013

ISBN: 978-0-615-36358-5





PROLOGUE

Master Jintao begins his day as usual, looking over his suits in a rosewood paneled dressing room. The weather outside is gloomy, but no matter. He runs his fingers over the dark blue cloth of an Angstrom suit, marveling at the superb craftsmanship. It is impeccable, made of self-cleaning fibers. It has no seams. Manufactured by nano assemblers, it is fitted to his exact dimensions. He reads the label. "Everlasting satisfaction guaranteed." He smirks, remembering the company's vidi-ad. It claims the suit is so indestructible it can even stand up to a nuclear storm. Ha! The suit survives, but the person turns to ash! Makes him laugh everytime he thinks of it.

Hanging the suit on a chromium arm that extends down in front of him, he adjusts the shoulders and speaks a command, "Stow!" The garment is spirited away, taking its place among a dozen others in the upper reaches of his closet.

Dispite their high value, he would not hesitate to sacrifice all of his suits; they've become monuments of his servitude. "Close!" he says and mirrored panels slide into place.

Narrow bands of morning light shine through the shuttered room, drawing bright lines across the floor. Bright stripes run up his naked body, tracing its contours. A reflection stares back at him: a fit, middle-aged man: tall, lean and toned, with a square jaw and a shock of dark hair. He is relaxed; there are no pressing issues today. He smiles and a criss-cross pattern forms on his lower eye lids. This day is auspicious. It is his birthday. Yet there will be no celebration. Only a few know his real age and even fewer know on which day he was born. Master Jintao is very private; and he is careful and circumspect in all things. On this day, without fanfare, alone in his penthouse, he has begun his one hundred and twenty sixth year.

With the tip of his forefinger he pokes the skin beneath his eye. The tissue slowly recovers. Signs of depleted elastin and collagen. Striding across the dressing room he stops at his Medi chamber and utters a single word, "Dermagen." The door slids round on a semi-circular track; he steps inside and turns around. Rotating into position, the door closes with a whuff . The booth is like an old friend to him, protective and discrete. Iridescent mists of biologically active molecules begin to drift in, hues of yellow and green. He inhales and infusion begins.

~


It has been a long road for Master Jintao, a long life, one with family obligations that inoculated him from birth, preparing him for the helm of the family's megacorp. He was never given the option of indolence, a childhood spent in constant training. Expectations were high and without fail he met every challange with dutiful resolve. Having achieved doctorates in molecular engineering and international business, in his mid-thirties, he was appointed president of the mining division. Using his position as a capstan from which to hoist the company to greater heights, he assembled a team of world class engineers who translated his ambitious visions into reality. Scores of advanced systems were developed: transporter systems, deep space mining vehicles and orbital power stations with ground receptors. And, as economies shifted and the winds of providence blew to his advantage, he piloted the Jintao Corporation into uncharted territory. Under his steady hand, the company became a juggernaut, traversing the hostile waters of global commerce, leaving companies too-large-to-fail floundering in its wake. His foresight and discipline became widely praised and for decades he was the epitomy of what men with vision could achieve.

Even though his corporate responsibilities were huge, it would be short sighted to say that Master Jintao's interests were limited to corporate life. For decades he patronized the arts and caroused wih an elite group of friends and dated some of the most desirable women of his time, skillfully avoiding capture. He piloted a submersible to the blackness of the Challenger Deep and walked on orbiting platforms with a panoply of stars rotating overhead. Yet, dispite his celebrity and accomplishments, there was a longing. If only time would permit, he would retreat, seek solitude and take time to contemplate the deeper mysteries of life. However, endless committments filled his days; his perpetual drive filling every waking minute. Yet his desire to slow down and think of things outside his sphere of diligence was ever present.

The dynasty's future had come to rest squarely on his shoulders. China's "One Child" law had deprived him of siblings, an idiotic rule in his opinion that caused him to resent being the last of his bloodline. What sense did it make to have so much and have no one to share it with? When he passed his one hundred year mark, restless dreams began, dreams of children he didn't have, playing at his feet, vying for his attention. Those nights transferred into waking visions of marriage and the raising of children. The idea ruminated for months, but he was unable to reconcile the precious time it would take. Life was slowly sifting away - grains of sand in an hour glass. His days were finite and an heir was needed, and so he began a search for inventive alternatives.

To avoid the entanglement of marriage, he considered replicating his genome, but oftimes cloning resulted in weakened offspring. Unacceptable. Then there were surrogate services, however selecting a partner for invetro fertilization had both legal consequences and the potential for unpredictable genetic results. Genome engineering was still new and had been know to produce unexpected results. Plus, it required government oversight.

The debate went on in his mind for almost a year until the day an ingenius workaround presented itself. As with almost everyone of his generation, his genome had been purged of undesirable health risks before birth, so there was no need for further preening. If his gene expressions were modified just slightly, using natural randomization, the resulting genome would neither be classified a clone nor would it be "engineered" and therefore would be free from government scrutiny. The modified helix could then be inserted into a sterile ova and a surrogate could carry the baby to term. The integrity of his family line would be preserved without the unpredictable influence of anothers genetic history. Totally logical.

Master Jintao procured the most advanced equipment money could buy and set up a private lab that only he knew about. Sacrificing a few hours every night, he explored, looking for the perfect randomizing algorythem. In the end he had caused his own genetic helix to recreate itself with slightly different expressions. The following day, he enlisted an agent to the task of finding a suitable female to serve as surrogate. Contracts were drawn, keeping Master Jintao's identity undisclosed and nine months later a healthy baby boy was born. The infant was as close to a natural extension of the family line as one could imagine - not a clone, but definately related.

Master Jintao was more than pleased with the results. The baby was healthy and robust with striking green eyes and boundless energy. A nanny was hired to see to the day-to-day child's needs and, as the years passed, the best tutors and trainers were employed. As the boy's intellect began to grow he showed great promise and every week Master Jintao contributed what time he could spare to teach the boy the value of knowledge, the endless search for truth and the responsibility of his birthright. On each birthday, the boy was given clever gifts, ones that taught as well as entertained. To the delight of Master Jintao, the boy grew strong and confident, maturing into an intelligent and personable young man.

~


Slightly moist, the door of the Medi chamber opens and Master Jintao steps out. His ears pick up distant clouds unleashing their charge, a storm approaching. The sky is darkening and rain is pattering on the lofty glass overhead, each drop reflecting the sky above, the sea below. Hidden actuators silently turn, opening the wet atrium shutters and pin-narrow ribbons of light gradually widen across the dressing room floor. He stands before the mirror again, nimble fingers touching his upper cheek. The tissue is supple now, of indeterminate age. He feels his chin: strong, like his father's and like his son's.

A memory edges into view - the last time he shaved his face - years ago - a laser gliding silently across the contours of his skin - staring at a place far beyond the mirror, he was focusing on the day's work ahead.

He feels his cheek, no stubble now, follicles obliterated long ago. His eyes stare back at him with unwavering confidence; everything is exactly as it should be. The boy is away at college and the man in the mirror is free. He can do as he pleases. This is a most auspicious day, a day without obligation.

Taking hold of his arm, he feels the muscles - still firm, the ligaments still supple. There, in the reflection, stands the quintessential hominid - a marvel of natural engineering - ever curious about itself, about its origins, about its purpose.

Why the bilateral symmetry? Why not trilateral? Or quadrilateral? Questions. Questions that require deeper understanding. These bodies are a vast constellation of molecules, a federation of trillions of cells, spontaneously generated from a string of proteins - constituent parts working together on so many levels. These bodies are a world separated into different nation states, each soverign unto itself, yet cooperating. These bodies are a gift from an anonymous benefactor - an enigma. So many unsolved mysteries. Why did inert matter become animated? Why did life spring into being? A thermodynamic redistribution of solar energy? Natures quest for steady state? Where is it headed?

Never enough time to dive deeply into these mysteries - never enough time. Finally, he had realized the only way to make time was to pick a date and declare that to be the time. Otherwise it would never happen. At long last that day had arrived. He is ready now, bound for a secret place, a place where he can think without interruption, a place he has named the 'estuary'.

Beyond the shutters, in the rooftop garden, imbricated banana leaves gleam with green wetness and the rain continues to fall. Kilometers away a legion of storm clouds are drifting across the South China Sea, menacing the smaller islands, heading toward New Hong Kong. He can feel it coming.

~~~


CHAPTER ONE

It was early evening and rivulets were cascading down the seamless glass walls of the penthouse. Overhead, wet air-borne vehicles sped past, glistening forms with trailing sprays that seem to hesitate before falling hundreds of meters to the pedways below. The Jintao housekeeper stood just inside the floor to ceiling glass wall, her dark Asian eyes examining a wisp of vapor that had materialized in front of her. Curiously, it twisted and folded on itself, shimmering like perspec in a breeze. Not sure just what it was, or whether it was inside or outside the glass, she squinted to bring it into focus. Perhaps a reflection, she thought. The light plays tricks. Rotating slowly, the thing faded from view, as if avoiding closer inspection.

Turning, she crossed the room, stopping at a large polycarbonate table, clear as diamond. At its center stood a vase with the cut flowers she had carefully arranged: hybrid freesia, deep blue iris and delicate calla lilies. How simple and pure: no memories, no thoughts, but still transpiring. Siphoning water even in death. At the far end of the table, a solitary place setting of gold and bone china stood waiting... waiting for Master Jintao.

Decades earlier, when she was given the opportunity to serve as housekeeper, the offer had come with a single requirement: she was to change her identity to Ning, the name of his previous housekeeper. It made no difference to her; the elevated position was more than ample reward. She had undergone voice coaching and a few minor appearance modifications and, as these things go, after a short while it was as if she had always been Ning.

She walked again to the outer glass wall, watching a glide slowly cruise past, its curious occupant eyeing the penthouse. Unfazed, she stood fast, the one-way mirror glass concealing her. Below her the structures of South Point sparkled in the darkness, magnificent hives for a privileged few. She waited patiently for the soft tone announcing her benefactor's glide approach to the rooftop bay. Anytime now the tone would come. The minutes trickled by.

He was late and there had been no com talk that night. That was unusual, but it was alright; he was a man of great responsibility and important works. His habit, she knew from experience, was to work through his daily checklist until the last item was complete, and yet... this was the first time he had not informed her of a change in schedule.

Walking through the extensive quarters of the penthouse, she passed the kitchen and her room, pausing at the master's son's room, closed since he left for university. Continuing on toward the guest wing, she passed the atrium and the master's suite with its dressing room, private study and lush terrace, returning at last to the great front room. Once again from her lofty vantage she looked to the dwellings below and the deep waters of the China sea, her thoughts as obscure as the distant horizon. Suddenly a lightening pop lit the turbulent waters, gray sharp edged waves capped in white. Her fingers followed a loose strand of hair to the back of her head, tucking it carefully into the bun.

Almost an hour now and no com talk. Her finger touched a quadrant of the metallic disk on her wrist and the house responded, projecting a menu. Opening a line, she initiated the call. It bipped without answer. She could only guess the reason: he was working on the Zeurb acquisition, or maybe expansion plans for Jintao Space Division or the hostile take-over threat she had heard him talk about. Pressing the disc again, she spoke the company name. Department icons winked into view. The hour is late; com center has gone auto.

"Operator," she said.

In a wink, the head and shoulders of an avatar appeared in front of her, its face expressionless, lips barely moving, enunciating in perfect Mandarin. "Housekeeper Ning - you've reached Jintao Corporation. How may we assist you?"

"Dr. Jintao was expected over an hour ago. I need to know when he will be here. If he's engaged, please do not disturb him."

"Please wait." The hologram froze, its inner protocol opening several channels at once. Search routines burst across the corporate net. A dozen microseconds later, the operator reanimated. "Egress history for Dr. Jintao: last departure - yesterday, aeropad B, eighteen hundred hours, fifty-three minutes. No scheduled meetings. No transponder signal. Transporter activity negative. Com link: unresponsive." The avatar continued with pre-programmed assurances that appropriate personnel would be notified and Ning would be contacted as soon her employer was located. She disconnected before the standard, "Thank you for thinking of the Jintao Corporation."

Wrestling with the news that Master Jintao had not gone to his office since the previous day, Ning's apprehension rose to a new level. There was nothing on the household calendar or the corporate docket to explain where he had gone. What should she do? He was a multifaceted man, dealing with complexities that were beyond her realm of understanding, but the lack of protocol... it was unprecedented. Then again, a man of prominence was not to be held accountable to those in his employ.

Ning went to the kitchen galley, commanding the NutriSynth system to reset dinner from delay to halt. She ordered the cabinet shelves to rotate, bringing down a large ceramic jar, embossed with clouds and five fingered dragons. The jar hissed as she released its vacuum seal. Taking out a three fingered pinch of pale green tencha leaves, she spread them on the countertop. Carefully, she began to de-vein and de-stem the dry leaves. She then transferred the desired pieces to a stone mortar and began slowly to grind them. The resulting talc-like matcha powder would be combined with milk, cooked, chilled and turned into green tea ice cream for the Master's dessert. It was an ancient recipe he was fond of - a recipe that would take time.

While Ning tended to her cookery, security protocols at Jintao corporation branched out, looping for sixty minutes, attempting to locate the CEO; consistantly returning with no information regarding the executive's whereabouts. At the top of the hour, a report was automatically dispatched to Prefecture Law Enforcement. Within minutes, the police began scanning hospital logs and detectives began conducting face-to-face interviews at private clubs where Master Jintao held memberships - clubs where they often found delinquent executives.

Before the second hour elapsed, a lone detective appeared at the rooftop door of the penthouse. The door sounded its ring tone and projected a hi-res image of the visitor inside the entry area: a middle aged woman with steely eyes, standing uncomfortably as rain shed from her transparent plastic hood.

"May I help you?" asked Ning.

In a mannish voice the visitor introduced herself and held up a backlit ID badge: Lieutenant Zhao. The house performed a facial scan, cross checked her ID, authenticated it through the city database and displayed an approval. Ning opened the door and took the lieutenant's wet raincoat, hanging it in the HEPA stream to dry. She then led the officer into the great front room.

Zhao paused before settling into the offered chair, silently studying the housekeeper and surveying the room. She sat and unbuttoned her jacket pocket, withdrawing a small yellow card with NHKPE printed in black across its face. Rotating her chair so she could see the entryway, Zhao placed the card on the crystalline table between them and asked for permission to record.

Ning glanced at the yellow card, then back to the detective, her face displaying no emotion. She said not word. There they sat, neither of them relaxed, backs not touching the chairs, eyes fixed on each other. Zhao had seen this kind of hesitation before, not totally unusual in situations like this. Formal depositions often made subjects uncomfortable. Zhao was good at reading people. She could spot the lairs and was seldom wrong. Ning wasn't one of them, she concluded. Ning was a solid citizen, but she did notice something unusual: Ning's pupils did not fluctuate. There were several possible explanations for this including physiological disorders. She made a mental note.

Another moment passed and Ning consented to the recording.

Zhao gave a reassuring smile, as if she had done the right thing. Beginning in rapid cadence the detective initiated the session, "Sector fourteen interview; Jintao residence, South Point; Jan 17; insert time stamp. You are Ning, Dr. Jintao's housekeeper. Is that correct?"

"Yes. That is correct."

"When did you last see Dr. Jintao?"

"Last night."

"So you didn't see him today?"

"No. He was gone when I came on duty."

"What time did you come on duty?"

"Seven thirty AM, as every morning."

"Has he been absent without notice before?"

"Not since I've worked for him. It's been over twenty years," she said, looking down and smoothing the lap of her gray uniform. "He always lets me know if he's going to be late."

"Do you have any idea where he might have gone?"

"There are many places. I have many ideas, but I would only be guessing."

"Did he have any personal appointments today?"

"None that I am aware of."

"Any medical conditions?"

"No, of course not."

Ning appreciated the lieutenant's directness. Her questions had followed a logical path... until now. Why was she asking about medical conditions? With the arrival of molecular intervention, hardly anyone had a medical condition worth asking about. Master Jintao was in perfect health. Then it dawned on her. Could he be involved in some sort of accident?

Zhao had checked reported injuries en route, but as a courtesy she conjured a current log, projecting it into the space between them. "None of the ERs have him." The detective's eyes wandered briefly to a glide passing close to the outer glass wall. The log faded and Zhao asked. "Who else lives here?"

"No one. The young Jintao is away at college."

"I will need contact information for Dr. Jintao's family and friends."

"Yes, of course." Ning stated the request and the house responded, projecting a full list of contacts. Flicking the air with a forefinger, she carefully considered each name as she went down the list, highlighting the ones that her master had frequent contact with. "These are people he coms often. You may download their com links."

Zhao held her yellow card up to the address book. Names and numbers were instantly copied and the card returned to the table. She continued dispassionately. "Does he have enemies? Anyone who might wish him ill?"

"No, of course not," said Ning, finding the insinuation somewhat insulting. "You must know Dr. Jintao is a citizen in excellent standing." How could she think such a thing? The idea that someone might want to harm Master Jintao was unimaginable. An enemy? Her thoughts raced.

Zhao put in, "Don't be alarmed. These are just routine questions. Most likely he's fine and we'll locate him soon. The best thing for you to do is to be patient. With permission I'll upload my contact info. I want you to call me if anything comes to mind."

"Yes. Yes, of course," said Ning, preoccupied with the new possibilities.


Over the next four hours Ning initiated two more conversations with detective Zhao who was reassuring but unable to relay anything positive about Master Jintao's whereabouts. She explained that they were analyzing transportation records and surveillance feeds and a picture of the senior executive was rotating on public view in every neighborhood. Associates, merchants and even street vendors had been questioned and dozens of leads were being pursued.

A few minutes before midnight, Ning accepted the possibility that something unfortunate might have happened to her employer. It appeared unlikely that the situation would be resolved anytime soon. She opened a com line to Master Jintao's only child, Simoon.

~


Oxford, England

Reclining in the sling of his Sosai workstation with Debussy playing in the background, the young Jintao was wrapped in hermetic concentration inside his cyber cocoon, scrolling through a dissertation he was to deliver in a month's time, searching for gaps in the logical progression, oblivious to the world around him. Dozens of dialogue boxes lined the field's edge, portals to research notes and simulations. The view field surrounding him cast a soft glow on the plastered walls. He had worked for several hours and was beginning to tire when: BIP BIP BIP - BIP BIP BIP. Eyes darted to the flashing message:


4:11:03 PM Tuesday, January 16, 2205

ORIGIN: New Hong Kong - CALLER: Ning


Ning was like family and it had been a year since he'd seen or spoken to her. She looked exactly as he remembered: round cheeks, thinly lidded dark eyes with familiar creases at the corners, small circumflex eyebrows, hairline wrinkles across the bridge of her nose and forehead.

He answered casually, "Hao jui bu jian." (Long time, no see.)

"Nin hao, young master. I'm sorry to disturb you, but I have something of importance to tell you." Her voice was serene, a voice he had known for as long as he could remember.

"News you say. What news?" He wondered why she was calling so late and being so formal.

Ning paused, hoping to soften the blow. Her eyes closed, lids flickering, searching... unable to come up with a diplomatic artifice. She went directly to the point. "Your father has gone missing." In the next few minutes she recounted what had happened, step by step, careful to include every detail.

Even though her voice was calm, the news was startling and Simoon felt more and more detached as he listened. Can this be real, he wondered. It doesn't fit.

His father's life was so well organized and predictable. Surely there was a reasonable explanation. Had a note been left? either in the house or in the com system? No, was the answer. Couldn't his glide beacon be tracked? Again, the answer was no. Certainly his father had told someone where he was going. Finding it absurd to think otherwise, robotically he thanked Ning for her diligence and asked that she stay in touch with the detective, and to call back the moment there was any news.

Unable to continue his work, he sat, raking through the facts. The sensuround field phased out and he rotated his sling to its upright position. Running fingers through his short black hair he furrowed the puzzle over and over again in his mind. The penthouse was a two minute flight down the glide path from company headquarters: across the central valley to the South Point cluster. His father routinely traveled by corporate glide and the glides were zero-defect rated - as was everything in his father's world. On top of this, his father was an assiduous communicator, always in contact with his office. It didn't add up... someone must know.

With Ning's afterimage lingering, the full weight of the conversation struck him. End of the line: his father had no siblings - and neither did he. If his father did not return, he would be the last of the Jintao bloodline, heir to the dynasty. His chest heaved. He stared at the floorboards. His life would change. He would be catapulted into corporate life, slave to the megacorp. Stepping away from his workstation, his eyes lifted to the timber and daub of the gothic revival ceiling and a small window high above. Hazy beams of light filtered through to the opposite wall. Suddenly he was struck by how much his small Victorian room looked like a crypt.

There are professionals on the ground doing what they're trained to do. Tell me father, what should I do? I know you would want me to stay - stay and finish the thesis. But no.

One floor below, Simoon's banlu was humming a tune as she ascended the staircase of the antique row house, her silky black hair swaying at the middle of her back. Reaching the top floor, her almond shaped eyes opened wide. Simoon was standing there, on the landing, socks against the wooden floor, a hollow look on his face.

"The post just arrived. There was a package for us." said Sealy, taking in his troubled expression. "What's the matter?"

He told her about the call from Ning, the search for his father and his urge to leave. As he spoke, she stepped in closer, listening carefully, feeling his anguish. "Your father is an important man. I'm sure everyone is looking for him. We can go if you say so, but what about your thesis?"

"I'll ask the mentors to hear it right away."

"Is it finished?"

"It'll have to do."

~


CHAPTER TWO

For a time, Simoon pushed the mystery out of his thoughts and managed once again to concentrate on his thesis. A few days later he submitted it.

They were packing for the trip home, emptying closets when Sealy came across the package she received on the day Ning called. She called out to Simoon, "We haven't opened this."

"What is it? Who's it from?" asked Simoon.

She turned the container over and over. "Odd, the tracking symbols show China as the origin, but it has our address as the to and the from."

"Here, let me have a look." It was a small polyfoam box, somewhat soft to the touch, rounded at all corners. With a tug, he freed the end of an orange strip, peeling it away from the equator. As he did so, a narrow bead of clear gel appeared at the parting line and evaporated. Discarding the box lid he discovered a small metallic cylinder inside. Plucking it from its nest, he gave it a twist and removed the top. Upended the tube in the palm of his hand, an object the size of a thumb tumbled out: a clump of reddish brown fur with a gold chain attached. "A rabbit's foot," he said, stroking the fur with his forefinger.

"What?"

"Have a look," he said, handing it to Sealy

Stroking the fur, she felt something beneath. Brushing hairs back she revealed its tiny claws. "Eeuuu, it's a dead thing," she said, quickly handing it back. "That's grotesque. Who would send such a thing?"

"Haven't you seen one of these before? It's a talisman. It's good-luck. Supposed to bring prosperity, or fertility; I forget which - maybe a belated union present."

"It's barbaric! Who knows what kind of diseases it could be harboring. I need to sani my hands." She stepped into the kitchen galley.

He mused, "Huh. No note."

"Gross," said Sealy, rubbing her hands under the Sanihood's blue light. "Throw it away."

"I like it. I'm keeping it." he said. Tucking the charm inside its metal cylinder he tossed it into one of the suitcases.


Outbound on a Cathay Pacific Stratos750, in their private compartment, the young couple reclined in overstuffed sleeper seats. Simoon's eyes closed shortly after take-off and his thoughts returned to his thesis review. His work was unrefined, not as smooth as he would have liked, and the lingering unease of his father's disappearance had made the review feel like an autopsy. He might as well have dissected a piece of his gray matter and splayed it out for them to prob and poke. He was powerless to do any better under the circumstances. Slipshod was not his style and he would have done anything to be get through the ordeal - serve up his entire cortex for examination had they asked. Fortunately the decision came quickly. Signaled by a nod from the department head, their probing abruptly stopped. Thanking him for an excellent presentation, they wished him Gods speed and a positive conclusion to his personal crisis. Their hasty dismissal was a let down, as if the data he had so diligently lazed into the crystalline matrix, might be chucked into some dark corner of their archives, unread, until the ultimate heat death of the solar system. Hurriedly finished, it was a second-rate representation of his abilities. So be it. He was free of it. Perhaps someday he would return and do it over.

A holographic Asian female, clad in the pale blue Cathay Pacific uniform, appeared in their cabin, her straw blond hair cut in Dutch boy style, her lips pursed in an impish smile. She asked for his order.

"The shrimp salad," he answered, barely lifting his lids.

"And to drink?" she asked, her imagery flickering at too low a resolution to be convincing.

"Ginger beer."

"Maybe you should have a real beer," said Sealy. "It's going to be a long flight; it might relax you."

"I'm okay," he said.

Interpreting his comment as an affirmation, the hologram jittered and replied, "Shrimp salad and Tsitao beer.

She vanished before Simoon could say another word. He turned his attention to the view field in front of him, brushing the in-flight readouts to the sidebar, he flicked through the entertainment guides, finally choosing something from a classical music file.

Haydn's Serenade began sweetly, a piece they both liked. Their seat backs reclined, leg rests gently lifted and the music lulled them into a restful state. Near the end of the piece, their tranquility was interrupted by an overhead panel, chirping as it lowered slowly with their food and drink.

Their meal finished, Sealy turned on her side, settling her head on Simoon's shoulder, her hands embracing his arm. With eyes closed, her thoughts turned to their first meeting on the Oxford campus. It was the fall of 2199. He appeared on the opposite side of the green - tall and handsome, his squarish face smiling at her. "A fine specimen," her girlfriends encouraged.

She had known about the Jintaos and had seen him before, on special occasions in New Hong Kong. At the time, she had promised herself not to be overly impressed, but when he spoke to her, she found his demeanor irresistable. He was sophisticated beyond his years, a rare combination of charm and humility. She spent most of her free time with him in her second year at university. Simoon shared her interest in free market economies and was always a willing listener when she talked about the historical facts underlying social change. She, on the other hand, found his engineering studies terminally boring. At first she made an effort to show interest, but eventually she confessed, "I don't want to know how things work; it's enough that I know people who can fix them when they break. I can't help it; I'm drawn to different dynamics... the kind that shapes society."

He understood her point of view but secretly it made him laugh. How could anyone go through life without understanding how things work?

Simoon was gentle with her and she felt safe with him. He was confident and sociable, with an ability to strike up interesting conversations in any situation , yet he was no pushover. She recalled a Sunday afternoon inside the King's Arms, a pub that boasted the highest IQ per square foot of any bar in the world. A large group of students, most of them Brits, had crowded around; subject of the day: the Chinese invasion of Oxford. Simoon broadcast his opinion immediately. Invasion was an inappropriate term since England, after all, was a Chinese colony. The room went silent.

A tall, thin fellow with nasal intonation, dismissively confronted Simoon. "My dear fellow, quite the other way round," he said. "Hong Kong was a British colony for a hundred and fifty years."

The Brits in the crowd raised their mugs and cheered, "Here, here!"

Sealy was embarrassed for Simoon. She knew Brits had it right.

The clamor faded and Simoon said nonchalantly, "What you say is partly true, the crown was granted occupation of Old Hong Kong for a while - a purely strategic concession resulting in the conversion of that mountainous coastal island into a serviceable port... at England's expense. But that's beside the point. Where do you think you Anglo Saxons came from to begin with? Your ancestors, settlers of the British Isles, migrated here from China thirty thousand years ago. You Brits are Chinese expatriates!"

The crowd was in an uproar and Simoon had to shout above the din to be heard. "But wait there's more!"

This should be interesting, mused Sealy.

"Englishmen and Chinamen may look different but we are essentially the same."

"Nonsense."

"No, very much sense. We're identical at the elbow," he said, holding up his elbow and pointing to a spot, "right where the ulnar nerve traverses the humerus. "Test it. Tell a Chinaman and an Englishman a joke at dinner and they'll both wake up in the middle of the night laughing."

There was a pause. The crowd digested his jibe. Then happy murmurs of "funny bone" percolated through the room.

Simoon's voice brought Sealy back to the aircraft. "What were you thinking about?"

"The King's Arms," she said with a smile and a little yawn, rearranging herself for a deeper nap..

Simoon continued sipping his ginger beer, trying not to think about his father, continuing instead to think about English pubs.


His last week in New Hong Kong, before leaving for university, the project team he was assigned to at Jintao Space had held a farewell party in his honor at their favorite public house, the Seas of Fortune. The pub, registered to a trading company of the same name, was allegedly owned through a tangled progression of shell companies, by either the Duke of Windsor or one of his illegitimate offspring. Having continued in the same location since its founding in the late 1800's, the Seas of Fortune had weathered several natural disasters including the tsunami that all but destroyed old Hong Kong. Through the economic turmoil that followed, the pub remained open while the city rebuilt itself and emerged as New Hong Kong.

Light from leaded glass windows filtered into the dark wood interior. Bar tops and tables were scarred with pen knifed hieroglyphics, some recent, some centurys old, testimony to eons of unrelenting revelry. The place had character, reflecting bygone days when clipper ships came and went and the tea trade was heavy.

Another pitcher of Guinness came down with a wet thud on the thick wooden table. The group's section chief, Gregory McGowen, stood, insisting on yet another toast to the young Jintao. "Come on lads." He said, eyeing the group. "Fill yer glasses. We may not see this young flath again for many a year."

McGowen was a a tall Scotsman with reddish hair and ruddy skin and hands the size of catcher's mitts. He was a deep river of knowledge held in high regard by his employer. He had a face and physique that looked less like that of an engineer and more like that of a prize fighter . In truth, he had boxed for his regiment during his days in the RAF, before toughing his way through an engineering degree at Cambridge. For the next three decades he worked for the Jintao Corporation, validating their faith in him many times over by handling even the most difficult assignments with regimental fortitude. Raising his mug high, the big Scot proclaimed, "To yer health and may the wind be ever at yer back."

After his toast, McGowen parked himself quietly next to Simoon and stared at his half glass of ale. "The wife and I had cats ya know. She's gone but I've got em still."

Cautiously venturing to communicate on a personal level, Simoon asked, "What kind are they?"

As if entranced, McGowen replied, "Sphinx they are - hairless, ya know. Nothin' in the world as soft as the skin of a Sphinx." His large forefinger lightly circled the rim of his glass. "It's like they're made of air."

Simoon couldn't help but be impressed with McGowen's gentleness, evidence of the big man's ease with himself. Yet there was a sadness there as well. Politely, Simoon added, "We were all very sorry to hear of your wife's passing."

"Aye. It's been three year, but it seems like yesterday." Perking up suddenly as if shaking off a dream, McGowen retorted, "Your father's the best man I ever worked for... a true leader he is. Big shoes lad, mighty big shoes." Taking a long sip of dark beer he went on. "You're next in line ya know. And when you come back from university, no doubt he'll be givin' you a project of yer own. Anythin' you need then, you just ask me." McGowen cracked a broad smile. "Eh. Who knows, someday I might be workin' for you."

Simoon looked at Sealy's head resting on his shoulder and took another sip of ginger ale while the Stratos750 whistled across a black sky.


Sealy was dreaming of a sunny afternoon back at Oxford. Simoon was there with her, sitting on a blanket next to a willow tree. They were watching boats cruise up and down the Themes and Simoon had opened a picnic basket full of treats.

"What a surprise," she said, looking at the cheese and pate, preserves, French bread and wine.

Unclipping two glasses from the lid of the basket, Simoon said, "You might find something interesting in that tree."

"What do you mean?"

"You'll just have to look."

She stood up. "And just how do you know this, mister, mister."

"A little bird told me."

On the other side of the tree she found a crevice where the tree trunk had molded itself around the remnants of a cut branch. Inside the crevice, Sealy saw a little box wrapped in red paper. Bringing it to the blanket she stood there, smiling.

"Go ahead. Open it," he said.

Inside the box was a two finger ring set with diamonds and rubies.

"It's beautiful," she said.

"You know how well we get on. I want you to be my banlu (partner)." asked Simoon.

Gingerly, she put on the rings, surprised at how well they fit her second and third fingers. Holding up her hand for Simoon to see, she replied, "You and me. Yes. Definitely yes. How long shall we set the renewal for?"

"I was thinking three year intervals with automatic rollover."

"That's exactly what I was thinking," said Sealy.

Sealy and Simoon were a perfect match: mannered and intelligent, raised with traditional Chinese values. But in keeping with their generation, they had opted for a contractual union agreement instead of the long-established marriage pact.


Simoon nudged her. "Almost there," he said, pointing to the window.

Her eyes opened to the airplanes tailored cabin. She looked out, beyond the gleaming fuselage, where bits of coastline flickered in the white cloud cover. Intuitively the fragments joined in her mind: the familiar contours of the Gulf of Tonkin and the Leizhou Peninsula.

Vibration surged through the craft as it slowed to sub-sonic.

~


CHAPTER THREE

New Hong Kong

The great South Point complex stood defiantly on the shore of Deep Water Bay, its massive support struts buried twenty meters into bedrock. Designed to withstand any insult nature could hurl at it, the architectural marvel towered three hundred meters above the inland communities, its far-reaching shadow casting a reminder of what privilege could buy. Tier upon tier of elite dwellings were suspended there, interleaved with greenscape terraces and public service areas. More than a housing complex, it was a destination - home to the most distinguished citizens: bankers, dignitaries, media personalities and industry moguls. In a prime location on the uppermost level, Master Jintao's penthouse looked out on an unobstructed visa of sky and sea.

It was midday and Ning greeted the young couple. She led them to the great front room, returning moments later with tea and biscuits. Sealy looked pensively at the rare statuary and paintings, appreciating the mix of antique and modern. She looked at everything, the polished furniture, walls sheathed in raw silk, marble floors largely obscured by rare oriental carpets. She looked at everything except the expansive view. She was noticeably uneasy. While Ning told them about her latest conversations with Lieutenant Zhao, Sealy labored to calm herself. It wasn't the unexplained disappearance of Simoon's father that made her uneasy, although that was part of it; it was the height. Outside, the sky loomed, pale as a gull's eye and the sea sparkled below like an enormous gray fish. She felt as if the room were swaying, as if at any moment the walls might vanish and the floor might tip, and she might fall from that awful height, slipping irretrievably into the dark depths of the sea.

Holding the warm cup in both hands, she forced herself avert her fears. Pressing her back deeper into the sofa, she felt its plyfoam cushions slowly re-contouring and cradling her.

Ning continued telling them about the lieutenants updates. Even after leads had dwindled to an improbable few, she had stayed in contact with the lieutenant. Every clue had been diligently pursued but unfortunately the investigation had reached a standstill. There were no new leads to follow. No ransom demand, no suicide note, no trace. Master Jintao had disappeared without explanation. Simoon had managed to remain calm and attentive, but a feeling of angst was gradually overtaking him. Sitting there in the penthouse with Ning restating the hopelessness of the situation, it appeared as though his father had been plucked from the world by some unknown force.

His thoughts turned to the corporation. Would he be expected to fill the void? That was an unnerving possibility. He needed to look for his father - find him - if he could be found. Simoon tried to focus on what Ning was saying, listening with his eyes, watching her. She was calm and unhurried. She seemed so unemotional. Her restraint was taunting him. Was she concealing something? He couldn't be sure. Fatigue was setting in.

Having reached the end of her report, Ning led the young couple through the penthouse. Like two weary pups, they followed her into the master's suite where she pointed out embedded technology in the walls and appliances, features that Simoon was already aware of. In the dressing room Ning commanded the mirrored wall to rise, revealing the garment bays. "These are Master's Angstrom suits." Then, turning toward the door, she murmured something that sounded like, "No need where he lives now."

"Why is she showing us his suits?" Sealy asked.

Simoon was suddenly jolted. "Wait. What did Ning say? Something about my father not needing these where he lives now. Is that what you said?"

"The master is very healthy," said Ning with a coy smile, "and there is no evidence of his demise, therefore we must assume he is still alive. And, if he is alive, he must be somewhere. Don't you think? And since he has left his suits, he must not need them."

"I can appreciate your sentiment," said Simoon, earnestly. "You want to believe that he's somewhere - that he's alive and that he'll return. So do I, but there's no evidence to support that. Unless you know something you haven't told us."

"I haven't told you everything I know," said Ning, lowering her head in deep reflection. "That would take a very long time indeed. But I have told you what I know relating to your father's absence. He is a great man. He will return when he is ready."

Simoon was puzzled. Ning had always been logical and courteous, but today she seemed obtuse, her manner approaching disrespect. Almost two weeks had elapsed without any contact and yet she was convinced that the senior Jintao was still alive and would return. He pressed on. "Do you know where my father is?"

She hesitated, as if selecting her answer from a range of choices. "No."

"Then how can you be certain he will return?"

She paused again, making up her mind before answering. "Because he has no clothes."

"What? What are you saying?"

"Formal and informal, all of his clothes are accounted for."

"I don't understand. You're saying he left without his clothes?" said Simoon staring at the suits.

Sealy ran her fingers across the fine Angstrom cloth.

Simoon looked hard-eyed at Ning. "You must be mistaken. Please, check again."



Day became evening as the young couple combed through the senior Jintao's personal effects. They found ample evidence of his fastidious lifestyle, but nothing to suggest where he might have gone. Ning completed another inventory of the Master's clothing and declared once again that all of the garments were accounted for.

Bed time came early but sleep did not come easy for Simoon. Restless visions of the corporation and the search for his father caused him to roll back and forth under the sheets. When sleep finally came he dreamt of his father in fleeting images, always just beyond reach. It was as if no matter how many steps he took, the distance between them remained the same - as if trying made no difference at all. He felt he must call someone. He searched for his com disk but couldn't find it. A woman with white hair appeared and offered hers. He tried to use hers but it wouldn't respond. Suddenly he was walking on a hillside. There was a fork in the path. He went down the one on the right but it ended. He turned around but there was no way to get back to where he came from - no way forward and no way back.

While he tossed, Sealy slept deeply in the oversized bed, dreaming of the residence they had left behind in Oxfordshire, a place where she felt safe. When Simoon awoke the next morning, she was already up.

"I don't think I can stay here," she said. "The height is making me nauseous."

"You have vertigo. Do you want us to find another place to stay? I suppose we could move," grumbled Simoon, tired from his nocturnal odyssey. "Give it a few days. You might adjust."

"I'll try. I know you've got a lot on your mind, but I really don't like being here."



In the kitchen Simoon found Ning preparing breakfast. Her "master with no clothes" comment was still ringing in his ears. The idea of his supercentenarian father out in the world naked was offensive but he knew her well enough to know she wasn't intentionally crass. She had made a point: with no evidence of foul play or misadventure, it was conceivable that his father would return when he felt like it. Simple deductions were often more likely to be true than complex ones. The clothes were a mystery but the real question was where had he gone? Irritated by having to claw for answers, Simoon blurted out, "What haven't you told us about father's disappearance?"

Ning continued to set out plates and cups. Tilting her head without looking up, she said, "Your father's actions are consistent with who he is. He is a strategist... a pioneer... a very wise man."

What she was saying was self evident and only half of him was listening to her circuitous rhetoric. As she went on, advising him to expect the unexpected, the other half of him concentrated on her delivery. Like a chocklight brushing across a dark room, he noticed something. Ning's humble attentiveness, ever present in his youth, was gone, replaced by a puckish and somewhat aloof attitude. Why so obtuse? What was she hiding?

"You haven't answered the question."

"I do not know where he has gone or why," said Ning emphatically.

With a clear head, on the morning of his third day, Simoon stepped into the lobby of Building One of the Jintao Corporation. He paused near a larger than life statue of his ancestor, Qui Juang Jintao, founder of the megacorp. He studied the face. He'd been told of a resemblance but the metallic finish made it difficult to judge. Seeing his ancestor represented, larger than life, as an inanimate object left him feeling insensate. It was a deficient effigy. From what he knew, Qui Juang had been a dynamo, creating the family business out of nothing at all. He had lifted himself out of that social morass known as the Peoples Republic and built an empire. Beginning with public construction projects, he had leveraged his profits and build factories of his own. Following in his footsteps, the family became an indispensable part of the Sino-industrial complex. Expanding the business into heavy equipment Jintao Corporation later become a prime contractor for the Chinese space program.

So there stood Qui Juang Jintao, founder of the dynasty, a huge inanimate lump of palladium intended to symbolize the company's proficiency at mining precious metals. An atomaton would have been better. At least it could greet everyone.

Simoon turned toward the elevators only to find his path blocked by two executive secretaries, both dressed in black - variations on the same corporate theme. Simultaneously, they inclined their heads toward him. It was only a degree or two, but he caught it - a subtle but unmistakable kowtow. He had to remind himself to stand and accept the ancient gesture, a custom of groveling that should have been laid to rest with the last emperor.

"I am Dee Dee Cheu, and this is Shu Song Liu. It is our privilege to meet you. How may we provide you with excellent service today?"

"Nothing at the moment," he said, bypassing them and heading toward the elevators.

Although he was there to pursue his own agenda, he realized it was important remember that the day was also about ceremony, to demonstrate that a Jintao was still in charge. As he made his way across the lobby all eyes were on him. His walk was deliberate, relaxed yet commanding. His new suit was impeccable. The secretaries followed him into the elevator, parking themselves on either side. Disembarking on the eighteenth floor, the secretaries trailed behind him, their shoes clacking on the polished marble floor.

Like a synchronized unit, they entered the executive conference room: familiar gray felt walls, rosewood floor, gold and glass cases at the side wall, displaying national awards and gifts from foreign governments, a massive rainbow obsidian table at the center. Around the table sat nine senior executives, sternly watching as they traversed the room.

Avoiding eye contact, Simoon made his way to the open seat next to Dr. Hao, the presiding president. Seven years earlier Hao had been appointed president when Master Jintao retired from day-to-day management. A glimpse of Hao refreshed his memory: salt and pepper hair combed back, a concentration of gray at the temples, deep blue Angstrom suit. Hao's composure was legend, an enigmatic iron wall behind which lived a tough negotiator and a remarkably intelligent strategist.

Hao introduced Simoon as heir to the Jintao Corporation, and its future CEO, then introduced the other executives one by one, returning at last to the young Jintao. "I speak for all of us when I say we feel the absence of your father deeply and wish we could have greeted you under more fortunate circumstances. Even so, it is our pleasure to have you here with us today."

Taking his cue, Simoon slid his chair back and stood up resting his fingertips on the table. He began in a calm, steady voice - attempting his best approximation of corporate speak. "Thank you Dr. Hao. Thank you all. I'm honored to be in your presence. Your excellent service is what makes the Jintao Corporation such a superlative example to the rest of the world. Our customers, our employees and even our competitors are inspired by the leadership and expertise you demonstrate. We are grateful for your wisdom and professionalism and the company owes you a debt of gratitude. We have a great legacy and we are on a great journey together. My desire is to learn all there is to know about our company and to eventually participate in its management. However, at this time stability is most important. I'm sure agree. It goes without saying that Dr. Hao will continue as both President and Chief Executive for the foreseeable future."

One by one the executives stood and reintroduced themselves, delivering a summary of advances within their specific areas of expertise. Simoon watched the parade, each coming from a different discipline, yet all of them regimented in their conformal suits, each delivering same length presentations in the standard corporate parlance. A part of him felt sorry for them.

When the meeting adjourned and the executives filed out, Dr. Hao turned to Simoon. With his hand firmly pressed against the table between them, he leaned in and spoke in hushed tones. "Your father's office is yours to use. Let the secretaries know if you need anything and come see me when you've settled in."

As Hao left Simoon stood and so did the secretaries. He turned to them and said, "Bring a pot of tea with two cups and find Gregory McGowen. Bring him here." The women scurried away, their lives once again filled with purpose.

Alone in the conference room, Simoon imagined taking the helm of such a megacorp, shrinking from the crushing responsibility that office would impose. It seemed like an impossibility, a stress level he would never wish to aspire to. Yet he was confident that in time he could adapt; he could master the role and become one of them. But where was the joy? Becoming the chief executive seemed like being a slave to the corporate machine. On the other hand, if he had that power, he could make changes. He could transform the company into a center for creativity, an oasis for intellectuals; he could encourage self expression and relax the dress code...

His thoughts were interrupted by the sight of a large figure striding into the room: gray space boots, gray slacks and a matching gray flight vest over a dark blue turtleneck. It was McGowen and from the way he was dressed it was obvious that he had no aspirations of entering the executive ranks. From a little highland town of Aberlour, he had reached the shores of China in his youth, married a Chinese woman made a home for himself at Jintao Corp. The position of project manager suited him perfectly. He could hire and fire and run his projects the way he wanted, without having to deal with corporate politics. Many were in his debt and he was obligated to no one. He was a man Simoon could trust.

"There ye be laddie." said the big Scot. Coming to a halt next to the boardroom table he raised a grin. "Good ta see ya."

The aroma of toasted oats and hay wafted up as one of the secretaries poured tea. The young Jintao picked up a steaming cup and rolled it in his hands while a second cup was poured.

"Tea?" asked Simoon, looking to McGowen.

"Aye. Don't mind if I do. Over in the factory it's colder than a brass monkey's behind."

Taking the chair to Simoon's left, McGowen picked up the cup. "It's been awhile. A lot's happened," He took a sip, eyeing the women over the rim of his cup.

Simoon turned to the secretaries. "Leave us, please. I'll com you if I need anything." He waited for them to exit, then said, "I spent the morning playing heir apparent, but what I really want to do is to find out about my father's disappearance. I want to know everything. It's unbelievable he hasn't turned up. You've got the inside track on how things work around here. Bring me up to speed. What happened?"

Settling back in his chair McGowen took another sip and set his teacup down. "Mighty strange it was. Can't help thinkin' one day I'll turn a corner and he'll be here... just like before. But... well, you saw the headlines. The search was massive. There were rumors and theories... and the police dogged every clue. Turned up nothin' though. You'd do well to talk to them."

Simoon agreed that in time he'd talk to the police, but first he wanted to retrace the events that led to that last day, to try and see the events from his father's point of view, to maybe look where others hadn't.

"There was somethin'," said McGowen. "Somethin' that happened awhile back. Might not be what you're lookin' for, but I thought it was curious."

"What? What are you referring to?"

"It was an odd thing; happened over a year ago. We had an anomaly at one of the orbitin' power plants. A survey crew was sent up and they reported a system overload... triggered by solar flares, they said. Then your father sent a couple of top engineers up to have a look-see. They spent two days up there in zero-G, doin' tests for him. When they came back, your dad released an official memo... basically agreed with the survey team... solar flares overloaded the coils. Case closed, end of story. Right?"

"Go on."

McGowen leaned forward, speaking in a quieter tone. "First of all, it was odd for your Dad to be dealing with equipment failures. But then he did somethin' even more unusual. If you look at the data logs, you'll see that he continued to access the engineering reports for months. He worked with the data from his private lab."

"He had a private lab?"

"To be sure. He liked to tinker."

"And why do you think it was unusual for him to study the data?"

"Officially, he never posted anything more about it." McGowen sat up in his chair. "Now that in itself isn't unusual around here; everythin's on a 'need-to-know' basis. Clearly he didn't need to tell anyone what he was doin'. But somethin' had his attention. Know what I mean? Your Dad would never use his time for idle curiosity." He paused for another sip of tea.

"I think I follow." said Simoon, a quizzical knit on his brow. "I'd like to look at his private lab and those files."

"When I heard you were comin', I figured as much. You can see the files whenever you like and I may have found a rabbit hole as well."

"A what?"

"Aye, a rabbit hole - that's what our IT boys call it. It's a security feature, sort of a data tunnel. I'm pretty sure your father socked away more data than what we found. I'll show you whenever you like."

"Now... now is always the best time," said Simoon, setting down his cup. "When you've finished your tea."

~


CHAPTER FOUR

McGowen emptied his cup in a single gulp and stood up. A few minutes later his footsteps were echoing down a glassy black corridor on the tenth floor with Simoon in close pursuit. While they walked, he put in, "Your father was very buttoned down. No one had access to his files. He encrypted everythin'. Took our code-jocks quite awhile to hack through." McGowen looked up as they passed a surveillance camera and changed his tone to a whisper. "But I'm pretty sure they didn't find everythin'."

Arriving at the door of Master Jintao's lab, a synthesized female voice declared, "Gregory McGowen - Simoon Jintao - you are approved for entry." The voice could have belonged to any cultured Mandarin lady, although some of its intonations were unmistakably those of Master Jintao, the program's tutor.

As they entered, a dim ambient glow lit the windowless lab. Racks of instruments and supplies stood against the walls. Mobile test instruments stood near a large workbench at the center. Stepping up to the black topped, anti-static bench, McGowen said, "I should tell you up front, we found nothin' in the files to explain his disappearance so far. View field - ON."

A faint haze appeared from the bench top to the ceiling. He tapped the field with the palm of his hand and dozens of folders appeared. "These are the files they decrypted: briefs on power transfer technology, treaty agreements, personal notes on various projects. Interestin', but nothin' to explain what happened." He poked an icon at the edge of the field. A graphical emblem enlarged, an inverted pyramid, the Jintao corporate logo. "Looks like the standard company logo, but move your head side to side. See? It's not just two dimensional. It's got depth. It's a tetrahedron. I think it might be an access point; maybe a link to an offsite database. The IT boys played with it, but never got past. Maybe you'll have better luck."

"It's familiar. I had a puzzle like this when I was a child."

"Did ye now? Well have a go." said McGowen, stepping aside. He turned away and began to root through a storage bin.

Simoon's hand extended into the view field, his fingers stretching to press all three sides of the emblem. His other hand reached in to press the apex at the same time. The shape suddenly rotated end over end, presenting its hidden side. Behind the pyramid was a rectangular recess outlined in neon blue. Dozens of pale green Kanji characters appeared, floating in grid formation above the icon, jiggling slightly as if beckoning. Simoon considered the number of blank spaces in the rectangle. From the available characters, he selected one after another, dropping them onto the recess, constructing three words: Knowledge, Courage, Honor - his father's personal motto. The recess closed and a female voice spoke again, "Shieh shieh. Bio ID, please."

"It's asking for bio-ID. I need something of my father's."

"I was expectin' that. This view field is an older model... doesn't have autosensin'." McGowen handed over a thin plastic card retrieved from the bin. "Try this, it might work."

Simoon held the card up to catch light from the view field. "A bio-transmitter, I haven't seen one of these for ages. But we still need something of his - even just a speck of bio-matter."

"No tellin' how sensitive this system is. You're the same bloodline. Might work. Put your finger on it."

Simoon placed his index finger in the outline on the card and in a few nano-seconds the card soaked up a enough ambient RF energy to transmit. For a moment the system did nothing, as if considering Simoon's place in the Jintao bloodline. Then a line of bold magenta text popped into view:


AUTHENTICATION FAILED


The female voice came again. "BioID please."

"It was worth a try," said Simoon, looking around the room. "But it wants my father's bio."

"What can we get?" asked McGowen. "A hairbrush or a toothbrush would do."

Simoon was thinking about skin flakes lodged in the filtration systems at the penthouse when suddenly he remembered something. Reaching into his pocket, he felt for the chain. Pulling on it, the little brown hare's foot slid from his pocket. He placed it on the transmitter card. It fit perfectly and the voice came again.

"Shieh shieh. BioID accepted."

The emblem faded, replaced by eleven equally spaced folders.

Astonished, McGowen asked "What was that you used?"

"I wasn't sure what it was for, or who sent it... until now. My father must have put this together." Turning the rabbit's foot over in his hand. "It must be infused with his genecode."

Simoon opened the first folder - instrument readings from the malfunctioning power station and notes from the survey crew. He closed the folder and skipped to the last one. It contained several documents arranged by entry date. Tapping the last one, opening it, he hurriedly scrolled down to see the last entry.


MUST SEE WITH MY OWN EYES


"What does it mean? What did he need to see?"

"A dinna ken lad, said McGowen. "I don't know. Perhaps the answer is somewhere in these folders."

"It's going to take a while, but I'm going to read all of this," said Simoon. " You should probably go on with whatever you were doing. I'll call you when I'm done."



~~~



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