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Over the desk a three dimensional hologram of a double helix broke apart, incorporated new DNA, broke down into sections, simulated protein linkage, then recombined only to start over again.

Daneh Ghorbani watched the simulation with a distant expression. The Doctor of Genetic Repair was fine skinned like her sister, with the same titian hair. Unlike her sister she wore it long, and a good geneticist would be able to tell that her eyes probably were not naturally cornflower blue. However, like her sister, she had very little in the way of "enhancements" and the ones that she did have were all nongenetic. She had enough problems fixing other people's lives without screwing up her own code.

The hologram was not running at the actual speed of the program; it was just a graphic representation of a process that was going on much faster than the eye could see. Computations and comparisons were going on across the Net, looking for a combination of genes that would eliminate a particular problem in the current patient's code.

The result of that problem was sitting on a chair across from her, twitching and watching her earnestly. Herzer Herrick had been born with a genetic condition with symptoms similar to Parkinson's disease. It had gone undetected in standard genetic scans and only started to manifest itself when he was five years old as hidden retrogenes broke loose and began randomly encoding. In the last ten years it had progressed to the point that he was losing vision because of inability to control his eyes, had occasional epileptic fits and had to be transported most of the time. The prognosis was that if his condition continued to be untreated, and up until now it had been untreatable, he would shuttle off this mortal coil before his twentieth birthday. Or about four hundred and seventy-five years before he should.

Despite these problems he was in fairly good physical condition. Up until recently, exercise had tended to reduce the worst effects of the disease, so he had exercised assiduously. Now, though, his physical condition was starting to deteriorate along with his nerves.

To make matters worse, he was a friend of her daughter. It was one of the reasons Daneh had avoided contact with his treatment; she knew that so close a relationship was asking for trouble. Furthermore, she and Herzer's parents did not get along. From the first sign of Herzer's "spasms," his parents, Melissa and Harris, had begun shunning him as if the genetic damage was infectious. It was not until they had "given him his freedom" at the ripe age of fourteen and Herzer had personally approached her, that she was willing to take the case. Now, given his deterioration, she reproached herself for waiting so long.

But an end might be in sight. If Dr. Ghorbani had anything to do with it.

"It's like a jigsaw puzzle, Herzer," she said, watching the double helix form and reform. "Some genes won't go with other genes, no matter how you cram them together. Sometime in your family's history somebody decided to cram a couple of your genes together. And they don't fit. The result is your nerves can't regulate your neurotransmitters anymore."

"Ye', doct'or," the boy said with a sigh. " 'H know."

"Yes, you do know," she said with a smile. "I'm trying to think of a way to fix it. A way the autodocs wouldn't."

"Trie' docs 'fore," the boy said, trying and failing to focus on the hologram or even the doctor across from him. His head, though, steadfastly twitched out of line and he couldn't get his eyes to compensate. "They can' fin' uh promem."

"Oh, they can find the problem," Ghorbani corrected. "You didn't know that?"

"N-no," Herzer replied. "Uh 'ought 'ey couldn' fi' it."

"Those are two entirely different things, son," she said softly. "The problem is that fixing it the normal way would kill you."

"Whuh? Whah?"

"The problem is in neurotransmitter regulation," Daneh said. "To fix it would require changing your DNA and then changing out all of your regulatory proteins. Since while that's going on, none of your neurotransmitters are going to work at all, that's tantamount to killing you. We might as well pump you full of neurotoxin. That's why the docs won't treat it; they aren't allowed to take any chances beyond a certain parameter."

" 'Ange?" he asked. "Or a 'ansfer?"

"Both have ramifications under the circumstances," she replied with a lifted chin and a "tchuck" that signified "no." "I think it was a Change sometime in your gene history that was the problem; the complex that is interfering with the neurotransmitter production is nearly co-located with the site for a gill protein. And I see you have mer-people about three generations back. Trying to do either a Transfer or a Change would be chancy. A Transfer assumes that your nerves, your brain cells not to put too fine a point on it, are acting normally. Yours aren't. I'd put about a thirty percent likelihood that if we tried to Transfer you to a nannite entity or something similar you'd either lose significant sections of memory, or base-level processing ability, or both. Lose base-level process and you're going to be a semifunctional mind in a nannite body you can't control. Not a good choice either."

"Muh 'ody's go'g and muh brain 'oo," the boy pointed out. "Don' ha' 'oo ma'y 'oices lef', doc'or."

"Hmmm . . ." she said. "I have an idea. I'm not sure if it's better or worse than Transference; I'll have to model it. The problem is getting worse, but we've got a little time to figure it out." She looked over at him and smiled. "I will figure it out, Herzer. I promise."

"Ogay, doct'or," he said.

"In the meantime, have as good a time as you can. I'll get back to you in no more than a week."

"Ogay, doct'or," he repeated. "I can go now?"

"You should go now. All the usual. Get rest, drink fluids, exercise if you can."

"I 'ill," he said with a sigh. " 'Bye."

"Take care," she replied as he disappeared from the chair.

She leaned back in her float-chair and stared up at the ceiling for a moment, then waved at the hologram to dismiss it and snapped her fingers. "Genie: Chile."

The transfer was the closest thing to instantaneous so a moment later she closed her eyes and let the ocean breeze blow over her as the sound of surf and waterfall filled her ears. The small wooden cottage was on the slope of a ravine near Puntlavap, overlooking the Po'ele Ocean. A large stream cascaded down the ravine to meet the crashing waves twenty meters below and the combination of sounds both soothed her and aided her focus.

But today it didn't seem to be working.

She opened her eyes after a few moments and balefully regarded the clouds that were sweeping in from the west.

"It's there," she whispered. "I can feel it."

She stood up and began striding back and forth on the cottage's deck as the first blast of wind from the approaching storm blew through. The wind caught her hair, blowing it into her face but she barely noticed as she stopped and stared into the approaching storm abstractedly.

"A jigsaw," she muttered, as the rain started to fall, the droplets streaming off of the barely visible force-field. "Do it one piece at a time?" She was sure there was an idea there, if it would just come into focus. It was close.

At that moment there was a faint but increasing chiming.

"Yes? Genie? I told you I didn't want calls here," she said in exasperation.

"Except from a limited list of individuals," the disembodied male head of her genie popped into midair and grimaced. "It is Sir Edmund. He says it is an urgent message."

"Put him through," Daneh sighed, all thoughts of jigsaw puzzles blown away as if from the storm. "What is it, now, Edmund?"

The image of her former gene-mate had changed little in the last two years; he was just as broad and heavily muscled and his face was still barely creased with lines. Maybe there were a few more gray threads in his beard, but not many. His demeanor, however, was . . . odd.

"Daneh, thanks for letting me talk to you," he said. "I'd like you to consider donating your excess energy credits to the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project. Wolf Four requires a major refit including the removal of trillions of tons of crustal material and the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project needs your help."

"WHAT?!" she shouted. "I come here to get away, Edmund! I've got a very sick boy I'm trying to heal and I do not need you soliciting me for terraforming funds! And just what do you care about terraforming? It's going to take a half a million years to form a viable planet! You're the one who always pointed that out to me."

"Terraforming is essential to the future, not just of the human race but of life itself. In a few million years, this planet will be consumed by our own sun. If we do not have new planets to move to, planets that have been prepared for terrestrial life, all life on Earth, the only planet with significant life yet found in the galaxy, will be destroyed."

"Hold on," she said. "What are you? You're not Edmund Talbot, are you?"

"I am a legally authorized message from the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project, a project that needs your help."

"Genie! Spam!" she shouted as the image disappeared. "Oh! Oooooo! Genie, contact Edmund, use an avatar, tell him his image has been hacked. And tell my sister, too."

"Yes, ma'am," the personal program replied. "I asked if it was an avatar of Edmund Talbot and it said it was."

"But it had to tell me the truth," she said. "I've asked Sheida when they are going to fix that, but she keeps telling me there aren't enough votes in the Council."

"Yes, ma'am," the genie replied. "Both will be informed."

"Okay," Daneh sighed. "Never mind; I can't think anymore today anyway. Home, genie."

* * *

Edmund Talbot looked up from the inlay he was applying with painstaking care as his butler projection made the sound of a throat clearing.

"Master Edmund, there is an avatar at the door to see you."

The projection was dressed in thirteenth-century court dress of the Frankish kingdoms, its surcoat of wool and silk marked with a blazon of red and silver, argent upon gules, a human head, erased. With its fully human appearance and placed beside the antique tools, armor and weaponry arraying the room, the projection did not look outlandish in the least. It looked like a standard medieval flunky, not a cloud of nannites dressed in silk, wool and linen.

There was, in fact, no sign of advanced technology anywhere in the cluttered workshop. The grinding wheel was foot powered, the forge at the end was pumped with hand bellows, the barrels that held sword blanks and bar steel were of local oak and the materials were all natural with the appearance of having been handmade. The sun was setting, leaving the shop in a chiaroscuro of shadows and golden light, but the sole lighting source was a glass-shaded tallow dip.

Edmund himself was dressed in trews and a rumpled tunic that, with the exception of the cosilk material and extraordinary fineness of the weave, would have blended well in any medieval Ropasan setting from the fall of Rome to the Renaissance. With his callused hands, massive forearms, graying hair and beard and heavy-set physique, he could have been mistaken for a medieval master smith. Or, perhaps, a lord with a hobby.

Which was the whole point.

The sole exception to the period garb was a pair of thin-rimmed glasses that he now pushed down his nose to look at the butler.

"Who is it?" he asked.

"Mistress Daneh, my lord," the projection replied. "Shall I show her in?"

"By all means," Talbot replied, taking off his glasses and standing up.

It took only a moment for the projection and the avatar to return. The avatar could have simply appeared, but that would not have given the impression of being shown into the room. Since the entire teleport program was managed by the Net, which theoretically could send anyone, anywhere, protocols were in place to prevent unauthorized entry. Persons who were not specifically given access to a home had to translate to outside of the dwelling, and noncorporeal beings, projections, avatars and persons who had been Transferred into nannite clouds, could not simply enter a home without prior permission. Technically, Daneh Ghorbani's avatar could have translated directly to his location. But Edmund's friends and relations, who had such permission, were well aware of his peculiarities and always asked permission.

"Edmund," the avatar said.

Talbot paused for a moment drinking in the sight of his former lover. Avatars by default simulated the current appearance of their host. This was not always the case but Daneh would not have adjusted it if she was using her real name. Thus it appeared that physically she had hardly changed. Her hair was a tad redder and showing some blond highlights, probably from sun. By the same token her skin was a bit more tanned. But other than that she was identical to when they had been together. She looked . . . well.

While he could feel himself getting older day by day.

"Mistress Daneh," he replied with a slight bow. "To what do I owe the honor?"

"Someone's spamming you as an avatar," the avatar replied in an acid tone. "I don't suppose you gave the Wolf 359 Terraforming Project permission."

"I don't think so," Talbot replied with a snort. "Sorry about that; I'll try to get to the bottom of it. Avatar, I don't suppose you have any details?"

"Mistress Daneh did not ask me to gather any," the avatar replied in a toneless voice.

"Very well. Are you keeping well?"

"Mistress Daneh is fine and I will convey that you asked about her."

"And Rachel? She is well also?"

"Miss Rachel is well. She is currently energy surfing off Fiji."

"Well, tell Daneh my door is always open to her and give Rachel my love. Tell her I look forward to her visit next month."

"I will, Master Talbot. Good day."

"God speed, avatar."

He stood tapping his lip in thought until the projection had walked out of the room and his butler returned.

"Charles, send avatars to all of my friends telling them about this and apologizing. Send a complaint to the Council on the subject. Send a copy with a warning of further action to the Terraforming Project and contact Carb and ask him to see who decided I was a good target."

"Very well, my lord. And you have another visitor."

"Who?" Edmund asked.


"Oh, hellfire and brimstone," Talbot swore. "What does that donkey's ass want?"

"He did not vouchsafe that to me, my lord," the butler replied. "Shall I show him in or tell him to go find a short and unpleasant route to hell?"

"Avatar or being?"

"Being, my lord."

"I'll meet him in the Hall," Talbot replied after a moment. "In three minutes."

"Yes, my lord."

Edmund first donned a tabard with his coat of arms, then walked to the main room of the large house. The walls of the room were lined with armor and banners celebrating victories over the years against a range of opponents. There were katanas, broadswords and tulwars on the wall, while one end of the room had a surreal sculpture consisting of literally hundreds of fantasy swords, virtually all of them not worth the metal they were made from, welded together. The tabards of a hundred knights acted as little more than wallpaper and the doors were faced in battered shields.

A set of late medieval plate armor, quite battered and worn, stood on one side of the room's outsized fireplace while the other side was flanked by a tower shield from the top of which protruded a hammer and a long horseman's lance.

Edmund took a seat in front of the fireplace and waved at the butler to show his visitor in.

Dionys McCanoc was tall, two meters and a bit, and broad as a house. He was currently humanoform with a touch of elven enhancements; not enough to violate protocols, but enough to set any true-elf's teeth on edge. His hair was long and silver with holographic highlights—it hung down his back in a waterfall that caught the light in a rainbow effect—while his skin was pure midnight black, not the black of a Negroid effect, but an absolute pitch black.

His eyes had vertically slit pupils and glowed faintly even in the light from multiple oil lamps.

"Duke Edmund," he said in deep velvety baritone while bowing at the waist.

"What do you want, Dionys?" Edmund asked.

When Dionys had started showing up at tournaments, Edmund had taken the time to do some research. They had never ended up in competition, but Talbot was always careful to check out potential opponents, and problems, and Dionys had "problem" tattooed to his forehead.

Talbot had determined that Dionys was a fairly recent pseudonym, as was the general elven appearance. He had heard rumors that McCanoc's previous incarnation had gone so far off the permissible track that it had actually come to the attention of the Council.

Whether he had actually been remanded to therapy or simply placed on probation was unclear, just as the crime for which he had been accused was buried under privacy restrictions, but as soon as he entered the recreationist sub-culture the reason for his problems became obvious: Dionys was just bug-house nuts.

He had started his career in recreationism by trying to force a duel with the King of Avalonia. Since the king had no reason to accept the challenge of a duel from a person who hadn't even won his spurs, he rather pointedly declined.

Dionys then proceeded to start a whisper campaign against the king, accusing him of everything from cowardice to pedophilia. At the same time he began gathering a group of henchmen—who were immediately dubbed "The Young Louts"—and used them to sow discord far and wide in Avalonia. Throughout this period he either avoided tournaments or participated only against the weakest possible opponents, especially when the rules permitted enhanced weaponry. With excellent power-blades and his Changed size, he swiftly crushed all his opponents.

Finally the situation reached a condition of crisis and the king banished him from the kingdom. Not content to rest in banishment, Dionys continued his verbal, political and physical assaults from the fringes of the group until the king eventually gave up and agreed to a personal combat.

However, due to the ability for people to Change and enhance, formal challenge had changed over the years. What Dionys did not realize was that in such a challenge, the Net, which had full access to Change data, determined handicaps based upon the degree of Change of each fighter. It went without saying that enhanced weaponry was banned.

When he went into battle against the king, McCanoc's absolutely mundane armor and weapons were loaded down with nearly a hundred kilos of weight.

Because of his avoidance of the challenge ladder, it was unclear how good McCanoc might have been. His few battles had ended in massacres, but they were always against lighter, unskilled opponents. Whatever his actual ability, the challenge against the King of Avalonia was brief. The two met in ground combat against one another, both using Ropasan broadsword, mail and shield. Their swords, befitting the ritual nature of the challenge, had blunting fields on them and the battle was decided on points.

Despite that fact, Dionys was not only defeated but defeated quite bloodily. The King of Avalonia had been in a thousand similar battles over the previous century or twain and he knew every legal trick, and most of the illegal ones. He used them to not only win on points, but win in such a way that Dionys was going to remember the pain for some time. At the least he was never again going to consider a shield as a purely defensive weapon. When McCanoc stumbled off the field his helmet was streaming blood out onto his armor. He teleported out and wasn't seen on the fields again for months.

That had been nearly a year before and only in the last few months had the Louts and their ringleader been seen. This time Dionys seemed serious about moving up the challenge ladder and had been fighting opponents who were of similar mass. As it turned out, he was fairly good. But since his opponents tended to have weaponry that was just as enhanced as his, when enhanced weapons were permitted, he was moving up the ladder very slowly.

Which appeared to be the problem.

"I want you to make me a set of turbo armor and a power sword," the fighter said.

Talbot couldn't help himself; he laughed out loud.

"You have to be joking," the smith finally chuckled. "Why on Earth would I make you anything?"

"Well for one thing, the credits," Dionys said, apparently unfazed by the laughter. "I can pay you handsomely for it, I don't think you'll believe how much."

"I don't think you have any idea how much it is worth," Edmund replied. "I don't just conjure armor out of the air or you wouldn't be here. Every piece is custom constructed from the base iron and for enhanced armor, which I assume is what you want, I use customized nannites. A full suite takes nearly three months to complete. What could you possibly offer me that would be worth three months of my precious life?"

"Two hundred teracredits," Dionys said promptly.

"What?" Talbot snapped. "That's a noticeable slice of the planetary budget! There is no way you can find that sort of money!"

"I can get it," McCanoc replied. "I have . . . sources."

"Okay," Talbot admitted, grudgingly, "assuming you can lay your hands on it, that's a lot of credits. There's only one problem."


"I don't want them," Edmund said. "I have nothing worth spending two hundred teracredits on. In fact, I have nothing to spend the credits I have on; I give almost all my surplus to my daughter. Who never manages to spend all of them. So I don't have any use for your fortune, whatever its source."

"All right then," Dionys said with a nod. "I can appreciate that. In that case, think of the challenge. I don't want just any set of weapons and armor, I want the most magnificent armor and sword ever created. The armor has to have self-contained power sources, be able to drain power from external sources, trade power and repair damage to itself and its user. The mail should be kinetic reactive and, of course, impenetrable. All of it proof against any field generation or energy weapons. The sword needs to generate a scything field and a power field as well as be able to drain and trade power. It has to be the finest, the best nannites, the best programs, capable of taking on any enhanced suits on Earth and defeating them. All of that invisible to casual inspection and, of course, it should look . . . good." He gave the battered suit of mail and half armor by the fireplace a dismissive wave.

"Challenge is for the young," Talbot said, leaning back in his chair and stretching out his feet. "When you get to be my age, you're either over doing stuff for the 'challenge' or you're dead. There is a reason the most common cause of death in our time is accident. Followed closely by suicide."

"So you won't do it?" Dionys asked.

"I doubt it," Talbot said. "And why in the hell do you want something like that? You can't use that in any tournament, anywhere. Not even ones that permit enhancements. The power drain function alone would preclude that. And that is more than a 'casual' inspection."

"It's not for a tournament," Dionys said. "Although, I'd want to be stealthed and be able to turn down the enhancements if I did use it in a tournament. But I intend to use it to become king of Anarchia."

Talbot was not one for expressive mirth but he couldn't help laughing out loud again.

"Oh, thank you for that, Dionys," he said, trying to get his breath back. "I haven't laughed this hard in forever."

"I'm serious," the visitor said with a glare. "I can make myself the first king of Anarchia since Charles the Great."

"With my help," Talbot said, still chuckling. "King of Anarchia. With stealth power-armor. I suppose it should glow, too?"

"Under the right conditions," Dionys said loftily.

"What's your favorite color?" Edmund grinned.

"I think it should flow out a midnight black cloud," Dionys said. "That would be . . . appropriate.

"Hah," the smith grunted. "No. Not black nor red nor royal blue nor even flaming pink. Go away."

"I don't need your help," McCanoc replied hotly. "Fukyama has agreed to construct me a set."

"Fukyama has that ridiculous flying castle to support," Talbot replied. "And he has a tendency to play the wrong ponies. Which is why he's a credit whore. And you can quote me. He'll be more than obliging for two hundred teracredits. He'd sell his soul for two hundred teracredits. Of course, his armor is second rate compared to mine, but you get what you pay for."

"It will be the most famous armor ever constructed," McCanoc pointed out. "Surely that is worth something."

"Not much," Talbot replied. "Damn sure not worth two, three months of my limited time left in this veil of tears," he added, standing up.

"Get this straight, Dionys," Talbot continued, placing his hand on the shoulder of the set of armor. "I don't like you. I don't like your attitude, I don't like your actions and I don't like your friends. I don't care about the challenge of constructing the most massive set of cheats ever constructed. I don't care about your money. You have nothing to offer me. I have no intention of constructing anything for you, much less power-armor. And I don't want to see your face on my land again. Ever. Am I clear?"

"You had better rethink your position 'Master Talbot,' " Dionys said, stepping forward to loom over the smaller smith. "You really don't want to be my enemy."

"Boy, I was threatened by people more scary than you before you were born," Talbot said with a yawn. "Get out of my house."

"Very well," McCanoc said, stepping back. "But you are going to regret this for the rest of your life."

"My only regret is letting you in the door," Talbot replied. "And you are permanently shunned. Don't get the idea you can come back."

Dionys snarled at him, raised his hand above his head and snapped his fingers. After a moment he looked around in surprise.

"Among other things, I've got one hell of an apport block on my house," Talbot said. "That's the way out," he added, pointing.

Dionys spun around in place, then stalked to the door, yanking it open after a moment's fumbling with the archaic handle and leaving it open.

"That's the quality of opponent you get these days." Talbot sighed as the butler came back into the room. "He doesn't even know enough about period to slam the door." He flicked a finger at the door and it shut. Softly.

"Such a terrible person," the butler said.

"Not so terrible, Charles," Talbot replied. "Just young. And sociopathic. I wish they had cleaned that gene out, but it does have its uses from time to time. I think he enjoys expressing it a bit too much."

He shook his head and stroked the set of armor, fingering a nick in the shoulder-piece. "Just young. Hah. He wants to be king of Anarchia. Don't they all?"

The butler program sensed that this was one of the times it was supposed to engage in "small talk" and pulled up the appropriate sub-routine.

"King of Anarchia," the program said in surprise. "Forsooth, there hasn't been a king in Anarchia in over a hundred years! Not since Charles the Great conquered it all in but ten years. And then ruled it, in peace, for another ten before disappearing once again!"

"No, there hasn't," Talbot said, turning away from the armor and shaking his head again. "And I can do without the recap; I mean, I was alive then, remember?"

"Yes, milord. Sorry."

Edmund stopped and stroked his beard for a moment in thought. "I need to call Fukyama and tell him to make sure to get the payment up-front." He paused again, pulling at his beard. "King of Anarchia, hey?" He worked his face and pulled at his beard again then looked around as if surprised by his surroundings.

"I'm going to the pub for dinner," he said abruptly.

"Yes, my lord," the butler program replied.

"And Charles?"

"Yes, my lord?"

" 'Vouchsafe' I can handle but 'forsooth' is overdoing it."

"Yes, my lord."

"Don't wait up. I feel a carouse coming on."

"Yes, my lord," the program said. "One item I should bring to your attention is that Miss Rachel has sent word that she will not be able visit next week. Her friend Marguerite's birthday party will interfere."

"Oh." Edmund thought about that for a moment then sighed. "Definitely don't wait up."

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