Rainbows End

Vernor Vinge

Tor Science Fiction

[Chapters 1 and 2 of Rainbows End, by Vernor Vinge, Tor Books]
 
CHAPTER 01: Mr. Rabbit Visits Barcelona
 
###

Within the intelligence services of the Indo-European Alliance, there were a handful of bureaucratic superstars, people such as Günberk Braun of the EUIB. Hopefully, their identities were unknown -- or a mass of contradictions -- to the general public. The superstars had their own heroes. In particular, when people like Günberk Braun were confronted with the most desperate problems, there was a place to get help. There was a certain department in India's External Intelligence Agency. It didn't show up in EIA organization charts, and its purpose was happily undefined. Basically, it was whatever its boss thought it should be. That boss was an Indian national known (to those very few who knew of him at all) as Alfred Vaz.

Braun took his terrifying discovery to Vaz. At first, the older man was as taken aback as Braun himself had been. But Vaz was a fixer. "With the proper human resources, you can solve almost any problem," he said. "Give me a few days. Let's see what I can dig up."
 
###

In downtown Barcelona, three days later:

The rabbit hopped onto the unoccupied wicker chair and thence to the middle of the table, between the teacups and the condiments. It tipped its top hat first at Alfred Vaz and then at Günberk Braun and Keiko Mitsuri. "Have I got a deal for you!" it said. Altogether, it was an unremarkable example of its type.

Alfred reached out and swiped his hand through the image, just to emphasize his own substance. "We're the ones with the deal."

"Hmph." The rabbit plunked its ass down on the table and pulled a tiny tea service out from behind the salt and pepper. It poured itself a drop or two -- enough to fill its cup -- and took a sip. "I'm all ears." It wiggled two long ones to emphasize the point.

From the other side of table, Günberk Braun gave the creature a long stare. Braun was as ephemeral as the rabbit, but he projected a dour earnestness that was quite consistent with his real personality. Alfred thought he detected a certain surprised disappointment in the younger man's expression. In fact, after a moment, Günberk sent him a silent message.

Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>This is the best you could recruit, Alfred?</sm>

Alfred didn't reply directly. Instead, he turned to the creature sitting on the table. "Welcome to Barcelona, Mr. Rabbit," he said. He waved at the towers of the Sagrada Familia that soared up and up from just across the street. The cathedral was best seen without virtual elaboration; after all, the reality of Gaudí architecture was gaudy beyond the imagination of modern revisionists. "Do you have any idea why we selected this location for our meeting?"

The rabbit sipped its tea. Its gaze slid in a very un-rabbity way to take in the noisy crowds that swept past the tables, to scan the costumes and body-plans of tourists and locals. "Ah, is it that Barcelona is a place for the beautiful and the bizarre, one of the few great cities of the twentieth century whose charm survives in the modern world? Could it be that on the side, you and your families are taking touchy-feely tours through Parc Güell and writing it all off on your expense accounts?" He stared at Braun and at Keiko Mitsuri. Mitsuri was frankly masked. She looked a bit like Marcel Duchamp's nude, built from a shifting complex of crystal planes. The rabbit shrugged, "But then again, maybe you two are thousands of kilometers away."

Keiko laughed. "Oh, don't be so indecisive," she said, speaking with a completely synthetic accent and syntax. "I'm quite happy to be in Parc Güell right now, feeling reality with my very own real hands."

Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>In fact, I'm in my office, admiring the moonlight on Tokyo bay.</sm>

The rabbit continued, ignorant of the silent messaging byplay: "Whatever. In any case, the real reasons for meeting here: Barcelona has very direct connections to wherever you're really from, and modern security to disguise what we say. Best of all, it has laws banning popular and police snooping ... unless of course you are the EU Intelligence Board."

Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>Well, that's one third of a correct guess.</sm>

Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>Mr. Rabbit himself is calling from some distance.</sm> An EU real-time estimate hung in the air above the little creature's head: 75 percent probability that the mind behind the rabbit image was in North America.

Alfred leaned toward the rabbit and smiled. As the agent with physical presence, Vaz had limitations -- but some advantages, too. "No, we're not the secret police. And yes, we wanted some secure communication that was a bit more personal than text messaging." He tapped his chest. "In particular, you see me physically here. It builds trust." And should give you all sorts of invalid clues. Vaz waved to a waiter, ordered a glass of Rioja. Then, turning back to the creature on the tablecloth: "In recent months, you have bragged many things, Mr. Rabbit. Others brag similarly nowadays, but you have certificates that are difficult to come by. Various people with notable reputations have endorsed your abilities."

The rabbit preened. This was a rabbit with many implausible mannerisms. Physical realism did not rank high in its priorities. "Of course I am highly recommended. For any problem, political, military, scientific, artistic, or amorous -- meet my terms, and I will deliver."

Mitsuri --> Braun, Vaz: <sm>Go ahead, Alfred.</sm>

Braun --> Mitsuri, Vaz: <sm>Yes, the minimal version of course. Nothing more till we see some results that we couldn't make for ourselves.</sm>

Alfred nodded as if to himself. "Our problem has nothing to do with politics or war, Mr. Rabbit. We have only some scientific interests."

The rabbit ears waggled. "So? Post your needs to the answer boards. That may get you results almost as good as mine, almost as fast. And for certain, a thousand times cheaper."

Wine arrived. Vaz made a thing of sniffing the bouquet. He glanced across the street. The bidding on physical tour slots to La Sagrada Familia was closed for the day, but there was still a queue of people near the cathedral entrance, people hoping for no-shows. It proved once again that the most important things were those you could touch. He looked back at the gray rabbit. "We have needs that are more basic than picking the brains of a few thousand analysts. Our questions require serious, um, experimentation. Some of that has already been done. Much remains. All together, our project is the size you might imagine for a government crash research program."

The rabbit grinned, revealing ivory incisors. "Heh. A government crash program? That's twentieth-century foolishness. Market demands are always more effective. You just have to fool the market into cooperating."

"Maybe. But what we want to do is ..." The hell of it was, even the cover story was extreme. "What we want is, um, administrative authority at a large physical laboratory."

The rabbit froze, and for an instant it looked like a real herbivore, one suddenly caught in a bright light. "Oh? What kind of physical lab?"

"Globally integrated life sciences."

"Well, well, well." Rabbit sat back, communing with itself -- hopefully with itself alone. EU Intelligence set a 65% probability that Rabbit was not sharing the big picture with others, 95% that it was not a tool of China or the U.S.A. Alfred's own organization in India was even more confident of these assumptions.

The rabbit set down his teacup. "I'm intrigued. So this is not an information provision job. You really want me to subvert a major installation."

"Just for a short time," said Günberk.

"Whatever. You've come to the right fellow." Its nose quivered. "I'm sure you know the possibilities. In Europe there are a scattering of top institutions, but none is totally integrated -- and for now they remain in the backwash of sites in China and the U.S.A."

Vaz didn't nod, but the rabbit was right. There were brilliant researchers the world over, but only a few data-intensive labs. In the twentieth century, technical superiority of major labs might last thirty years. Nowadays, things changed faster, but Europe was a little behind. The Bhopal complex in India was more integrated, but lagging in micro-automation. It might be several years before China and the U.S.A. lost their current edge.

The rabbit was chuckling to itself: "Hm, hm. So it must be either the labs in Wuhan or those in Southern California. I could work my miracles with either, of course." That was a lie, or else Alfred's people had totally misjudged this fine furry fiend.

Keiko said, "We'd prefer the biotech complex in San Diego, California."

Alfred had a smooth explanation ready: "We've studied the San Diego labs for some months. We know it has the resources we need." In fact, San Diego was where Günberk Braun's terrible suspicions were focused.

"Just what are you planning?"

Günberk gave a sour smile. "Let us proceed by installments, Mr. Rabbit. For the first installment, we suggest a thirty-day deadline. We'd like from you a survey of the San Diego labs' security. More important, we need credible evidence that you can provide a team of local people to carry out physical acts in and near those labs."

"Well then. I will hop right on it." The rabbit rolled its eyes. "It's obvious you're looking for an expendable player, somebody to shield your operation from the Americans. Okay. I can be a cutout. But be warned. I am very pricey and I will be around to collect afterwards."

Keiko laughed. "No need to be melodramatic, Mr. Rabbit. We know of your famous skills."

"Quite right! But so far you don't believe in them. Now I'll go away, sniff around San Diego and get back to you in a couple of weeks. I'll have something to show you by then, and -- more important for me -- I'll have used my enormous imagination to specify a first payment in this installment plan that Mr. So-German-Seeming has proposed." He gave a little bow in Günberk's direction.

Mitsuri and Braun were radiating bemused silence, so it was Alfred who carried on the conversation. "We'll chat again then. Please remember that for now we want a survey only. We want to know whom you can recruit and how you might use them."

The rabbit touched its nose. "I will be the soul of discretion. I always know much more than I reveal. But you three really should improve your performances. Mr. So-German is just an out-of-date stereotype. And you, Señora, the work of impressionist art reveals nothing and everything. Who might have a special interest in the San Diego bio labs? Who indeed? And as for you --" Rabbit looked at Vaz. "That's a fine Colombian accent you're hiding."

The creature laughed and hopped off the table. "Talk to you soon."

Alfred leaned back and watched the gray form as it dodged between the legs of passersby. It must have a festival permit, since other people were evidently seeing the creature. There was no poof of vanishment. The rabbit remained visible for twenty meters up Carrer de Sardenya, then darted into an alley and was finally and quite naturally lost to sight.

The three agents sat for a moment in apparently companionable silence, Günberk bent over his virtual wine, Vaz sipping at his real Rioja and admiring the stilted puppets that were setting up for the afternoon parade. The three blended well with the normal touristy hurly-burly of the Familia district -- except that most tourists paying for cafe seating on C. de Sardenya would have had more than a one-third physical presence.

"He is truly gone," Günberk said, a bit unnecessarily; they could all see the EU signals analysis. A few more seconds passed. The Japanese and Indian intelligence agencies also reported in: Rabbit remained unidentified.

"Well that's something," said Keiko. "He got away clean. Perhaps he can function as a cutout."

Günberk gave a weary shrug. "Perhaps. What a disgusting twit. His kind of dilettante is a cliché a century old, reborn with each new technology. I wager he's fourteen years old and desperately eager to show off." He glanced at Vaz. "Is this the best you could come up with, Alfred?"

"His reputation is not a fraud, Günberk. He has managed projects almost as complex as what we have in mind for him."

"Those were research projects. Perhaps he is a good -- what's the term? -- 'weaver of geniuses'. What we want is more operational."

"Well, he correctly picked up on all of the clues we gave him." There had been Alfred's accent, and the network evidence they had planted about Keiko's origin.

"Ach ja," said Günberk, and a sudden smile crossed his face. "It's a bit humiliating that when I am simply myself, I'm accused of overacting! Yes, so now Mr. Rabbit thinks we are South American drug lords."

The shifting crystal mists that were Keiko's image seemed to smile. "In a way, that's more plausible than what we really are." The heirs of drugwars past had been in eclipse this last decade; access to "ecstasy and enhancement" was so widespread that competition had done what enforcement could never accomplish. But the drug lords were still rich beyond the dreams of most small countries. The ones lurking in failed states might be crazy enough to do what they three had hinted at today.

Günberk said, "The rabbit is manageable, I grant that. Competent for our needs? Much less likely."

"Having second thoughts about our little project, Günberk?" This was Keiko's real voice. Her tone was light, but Alfred knew she had her own very serious misgivings.

"Of course," said Günberk. He fidgeted for a moment. "Look. Terror via technical surprise is the greatest threat to the survival of the human race. The Great Powers -- ourselves, China, the U.S. -- have been at peace for some years, mostly because we recognize that danger and we keep the rest of the world in line. And now we discover that the Americans --"

Keiko: "We don't know it's the Americans, Günberk. The San Diego labs support researchers all over the world."

"That is so. And a week ago I was as dubious as you. But now ... consider: The weapons test was a masterpiece of cloaking. We were incredibly lucky to notice it. The test was a work of patience and professionalism, at the level of a Great Power. Great Powers have their own inertia and bureaucratic caution. Field testing must necessarily be done in the outside world, but they do not run their weapons development in labs they do not own."

Keiko made a sound like far-away chimes. "But why would a Great Power plot a revolution in plague delivery? What profit is there in that?"

Günberk nodded. "Yes, such destruction would make sense for a cult, but not for a superpower. At first, my conclusion was a nightmare without logic. But my analysts have been over this again and again. They've concluded that the 'honeyed nougat symptom' was not simply a stand-in for lethal disease. In fact, it was an essential feature of the test. This enemy is aiming at something greater than instant biowarfare strikes. This enemy is close to having an effective YGBM technology."
Keiko was completely silent; even her crystals lost their mobility. YGBM. That was a bit of science-fiction jargon from the turn of the century: You-Gotta-Believe-Me. That is, mind control. Weak, social forms of YGBM drove all human history. For more than a hundred years, the goal of irresistible persuasion had been a topic of academic study. For thirty years it had been a credible technological goal. And for ten, some version of it had been feasible in well-controlled laboratory settings.

The crystals shifted; Alfred could tell that Keiko was looking at him. "Can this be true, Alfred?"

"Yes, I'm afraid so. My people have studied the report. Günberk's luck was extraordinary, since this was really a simultaneous test of two radical innovations. The honeyed-nougat compulsion was far more precise than needed for a test of remote disease triggering. The perpetrators knew what they were coding for -- consider the cloaking advertisement for nougats. My analysts think the enemy may be capable of higher semantic control in as little as a year."

Keiko sighed. "I ... see. All my life, I've fought the cults. I thought the great nations were beyond the most monstrous evils ... but this, this would make me wrong."

Günberk nodded. "If we are right about these labs and if we fail to properly ... deal ... with them, that could be the end of history. It could be the end of all the striving for good against evil that has ever been." He shook himself, abruptly returning to the practical. "And yet we are reduced to working through this damned rabbit person."

Alfred said gently, "I've studied Rabbit's track record, Günberk. I think he can do what we need. One way or another. He'll get us the inside information, or he'll create enough chaos -- not attributable to us -- that any evil will be clearly visible. If the worst is true, we'll have evidence that we and China and even the non-culpable parties in the U.S.A. can use to stamp this out." Suppression attacks on the territory of a Great Power were rare, but there was precedent.

All three were silent for a moment, and the sounds of the festival afternoon swept around Vaz. It had been so many years since his last visit to Barcelona.... Finally, Günberk gave a grudging nod. "I'll recommend to my superiors that we proceed."

Across the table, Keiko's prismatic imagery shimmered and chimed. Mitsuri's background was in sociology. Her analyst teams were heavily into psychology and social institutions -- much less diversified than the teams working for Alfred, or Günberk. But maybe she would come up with some alternative that the other two had missed. Finally she spoke: "There are many decent people in the American intelligence community. I don't like doing this behind their back. And yet, this is an extraordinary situation. I have clearance to go ahead with Plan Rabbit --" she paused "-- with one proviso. Günberk fears that we've erred in the direction of employing an incompetent. Alfred has studied Rabbit more, and thinks he's at just the right level of talent. But what if you are both wrong?"

Günberk started in surprise. "The devil!" he said. Alfred guessed that some very quick silent messaging passed between the two.

The prisms seemed to nod. "Yes. What if Rabbit is significantly more competent than we think? In that unlikely event, Rabbit might hijack the operation, or even ally with our hypothetical enemy. If we proceed, we must develop abort-and-destroy plans to match Rabbit's progress. If he becomes the greater threat, we must be prepared to talk to the Americans. Agreed?"

"Ja."

"Of course."
 
###

Keiko and Günberk stayed a few minutes more, but a real café table on C. de Sardenya in the middle of festival was not the proper place for virtual tourists. The waiter kept circling back, inquiring if Alfred needed anything more. They were paying table rent for three, but there were crowds of real people waiting for the next available seating.

So his Japanese and European colleagues took their leave. Günberk had many loose ends to deal with. The inquiries at CDD must be quietly shut down. Misinformation must be layered carefully about, concealing things from both the enemy and from security hobbyists. Meantime, in Tokyo, Keiko might be up the rest of the night, pondering Rabbit traps.

Vaz stayed behind, finishing his drink. It was amazing how fast his table space shrank, accomodating a family of North African tourists. Alfred was used to virtual artifacts changing in a blink of the eye, but a clever restaurateur could do almost as well with physical reality when there was money involved.

In all Europe, Barcelona was the city Alfred loved the most. The Rabbit had guessed right about that one thing. But was there time to be a real tourist? Yes. Call it his annual vacation. Alfred stood and bowed to the table, leaving payment and tip. Out on the street, the crowds were getting rather extreme, the stilt people dancing wildly about among the tourists. He couldn't see the entrance of the Sagrada Familia directly, but tourism info showed the next available tour slot was ninety minutes away.

Where to spend his time? Ah! Atop Montjuïc. He turned down an alley. Where he emerged on the far side, the crowds were thin ... and a tourist auto was just arriving for him. Alfred sat back in the single passenger cockpit and let his mind roam. The Montjuïc fortress was not the most impressive in Europe, and yet he had not seen it in some time. Like its brethren, it marked the bygone time when revolutions in destruction technology took decades to unfold, and mass murder could not be committed with the press of a button.

The auto navigated its way out from the octagonal city blocks of the Barcelona basin and ran quickly up a hillside, grabbing the latch of a funicular that dragged them swiftly up the side of Montjuïc. No tedious switchback roadway for this piece of automation. Behind him, the city stretched for miles. And then ahead, as they came over the crest of the hill, there was the Mediterranean, all blue and hazy and peaceful.

Alfred got out, and the tiny auto whipped around the traffic circle, heading for the cable car installation that would take its next customer in an overflight across the harbor.

He was at just the spot he had ordered on the tourist menu, right where twentieth century guns faced out from the battlements. Even though these cannon had never been used, they were very much the real thing. For a fee, he could touch the guns and climb around inside the place. After sundown there would be a staged battle.

Vaz strolled to the stone barrier and looked down. If he blocked out all the tourism fantasy, he could see the freight harbor almost two hundred meters below and a kilometer away. The place was an immensity of freight containers rambling this way and that, chaos. If he invoked his government powers, he could see the flow of cargo, even see the security certificates that proclaimed -- in ways that were validated by a combination of physical and cryptographic security -- that none of the 10-meter boxes contained a nuke or a plague or a garden-variety radiation bomb. The system was very good, the same as you would find for heavy freight anywhere in the civilized world. It had been the result of decades of fear, of changing attitudes about privacy and liberty, of technological progress. Modern security actually worked most of the time. There hadn't been a city lost in more than five years. Every year, the civilized world grew and the reach of lawlessness and poverty shrank. Many people thought that the world was becoming a safer place.

Keiko and Günberk -- and certainly Alfred -- knew that such optimism was dead wrong.

Alfred looked across the harbor at the towers beyond. Those hadn't been here the last time he visited Barcelona. The civilized world was wealthy beyond the dreams of his youth. Back in the 1980s and 1990s, the rulers of modern states realized that success did not come from having the largest armies or the most favorable tariffs or the most natural resources -- or even the most advanced industries. In the modern world, success came from having the largest possible educated population and providing those hundreds of millions of creative people with credible freedom.

But this utopia was a Red Queen's Race with extinction.

In the twentieth century, only a couple of nations had the power to destroy the world. The human race survived, mostly by good luck. At the turn of the century, a time was in view when dozens of countries could destroy civilization. But by then, the Great Powers had a certain amount of good sense. No nation state could be nuts enough to blow up the world -- and the few barbaric exceptions were Dealt With, if necessary with methods that left land aglow in the dark. By the Teens, mass death technology was accessible to regional and racial hate groups. Through a succession of happy miracles -- some engineered by Alfred himself -- the legitimate grievances of disaffected peoples were truly addressed.

Nowadays, Grand Terror technology was so cheap that cults and small criminal gangs could acquire it. That was where Keiko Mitsuri was the greatest expert. Even though her work was hidden by cover stories and planted lies, Keiko had saved millions of lives.

The Red Queen's Race continued. In all innocence, the marvelous creativity of humankind continued to generate unintended consequences. There were a dozen research trends that could ultimately put world-killer weapons into the hands of anyone having a bad hair day.

Alfred walked back to the nearest cannon, paying the touch fee with a wave of his hand. He leaned against the warm metal, sighting out over the blue mediterranean haze, and imagining a simpler time.

Poor Günberk. He had the truth exactly backwards. Effective YGBM would not be the end of everything. In the right hands, YGBM technology was the one thing that could solve the modern paradox, harnessing the creativity of humankind without destroying the world in the process. In fact, it was humankind's only hope for surviving the twenty-first century. And in San Diego, I am so close to success. He had insinuated his project into the bio labs three years earlier. The great breakthrough had come less than a year ago. His test at the soccer match had proven the delivery system. In another year or so, he'd have developed higher semantic controls. With that, he could reliably control those immediately around him. Much more important, he could spread the new infection across whole populations and engineer a few universally-viewed transmissions. Then he would be in control. For the first time in history, the world would be under adult supervision.

That had been the plan. Now incredibly bad luck had jeopardized it. But I should look at the bright side; Günberk came to me to fix the problem! Alfred had spent a lot of effort digging up "Mr. Rabbit". The fellow was clearly inexperienced, and every bit the egotistical fool that Günberk believed. Rabbit's successes were just barely impressive enough to make him acceptable. They could manage Rabbit. I can manage Rabbit. From inside the labs, Alfred would feed the Rabbit just the right misinformation. In the end neither Rabbit nor Alfred's colleagues in the Indo-European Alliance would realize they had been fooled. And afterwards, Alfred could continue undisturbed with what might well be the last, best chance for saving the world.

Alfred climbed into the gun turret and admired the fittings. The Barcelona tourist commission had spent some real money on rebuilding these artifacts. If their mock battle this evening meshed with this physical reality, it would be very impressive. He glanced at his Mumbai schedule -- and decided to stay in Barcelona a few more hours.
 
CHAPTER 02: The Return
 
###

Robert Gu should be dead. He knew that, he truly did. He had been a long time dying. He wasn't really clear on how long. In this unending present, he could see only blurs. But that didn't matter since Lena had turned the lights down so low that there was nothing to see. And the sounds: for a while he had worn things in his ears, but they were devilishly complicated and always getting lost or worn out. Getting rid of them had been a blessing. What sounds remained were vague mumblings, sometimes Lena complaining at him, pushing and poking. Following him into the john, for God's sake. All he really wanted was to go home. Lena wouldn't let him do that simple thing. If it really was Lena at all. Whoever, she wasn't very nice. I just want to go home....
 
###

And yet, he never did quite die. The lights were often brighter now, though blurry as ever. There were people around and voices, the high-pitched tones he remembered from home. They talked as if they expected to be understood.

Things had been better before, when everything was a mumbling blur. Now he hurt all over. There were long drives to see the doctor, and afterwards the pain was always worse. There was some guy who claimed to be his son, and claimed that wherever he was now was home. Sometimes they rolled him outside to feel the bright sun on his face and listen to birds. No way was this home. Robert Gu remembered home. There had been snow on big mountains he could see from his folks' backyard. Bishop, California, U.S.A. That was the place, and this wasn't it.

But even though this wasn't home, his little sister was here. Cara Gu had been around before, when things were dark and mumbling, but she'd always been just out of sight. This was different. At first he was just aware of her high, piping voice, like the wind bells his mother kept on the porch at home. Finally, one day he was out on the patio, feeling the sunlight brighter and warmer than it had seemed in a long time. Even the blurs were sharp and colorful. There was Cara's high little voice asking him "Robert this" and "Robert that" and --

"Robert, would you like it if I showed you around the neighborhood?"

"What?" Robert's tongue felt all sticky, his voice hoarse. It suddenly occurred to him that with all the mumbling and darkness maybe he hadn't spoken in some time. And there was something else that that was even more strange. "Who are you?"

There was silence for a moment, as if the question were foolish or had been asked many times before. "Robert, I'm Miri. I'm your grand--"

He jerked his hand as much as it would move. "Come closer. I can't see you."

The blur moved directly in front of him, into the middle of the sunlight. This was not some hint of presence behind his shoulder or in his memory. The blur became a face just inches from his own: he could see the straight black hair, the small round countenance smiling at him as if he were the greatest guy in the world. It really was his little sister.

Robert reached forward, and her hand was warm in his. "Oh, Cara. It's so good to see you." He wasn't home, but maybe he was close. He was quiet for a moment.

"I'm ... I'm glad to see you, too, Robert. Would you like to go for a ride around the neighborhood?"

"... Yes, that would be nice."

Things happened fast then. Cara did something and his chair seemed to spin around. It was dark and gloomy again. They were inside the house and she was fussing like she always did, this time getting him a hat. She still teased though, as in asking him if he needed to go to the bathroom. Robert sensed that the thug who claimed to be his son was lurking just to one side, watching it all.

And then they were out -- what, the front door? -- and onto a street. Cara stayed beside his wheelchair as they strolled and rolled down an empty street lined with tall, thin trees ... palm trees, that's what they were. This wasn't Bishop. But this was Cara Gu -- though on her very best behavior. Little Cara was a good kid, but she could only be good for so long and then she would find some devilish tease and have him chasing her all over the house, or vice versa. Robert smiled to himself and wondered how long the angelic phase would last this time. Maybe she thought he was sick. He tried unsuccessfully to turn in his chair. Well, maybe he was sick.

"See, we live on Honor Court. Over there, that's the Smithson's house. They transferred here from Guam last month. Bob thinks they're growing five -- oops, but I'm not supposed to talk about that. And the boyfriend of the base commander lives in that house by the corner. I'm betting they'll be married by the end of the year.... And there are some kids from school I don't want to talk to just now." Robert's wheelchair took an abrupt turn, and they were heading down a side street.

"Hey!" Robert tried again to turn in his chair. Maybe those kids were friends of his! Cara was teasing after all. He slumped down in the chair. There was the smell of honey, and bushes that seemed to hang low above them. The houses were gray and greenish blurs. "Some tour!" he groused. "I can't see a Dam Ned thing."

The wheelchair abruptly slowed. "Really?" The little wretch was all but chortling. "Don't worry, Robert! There's some devious twiddling that can fix your eyes."

Grump. "A pair of glasses would fix it, Cara." Maybe she was hiding them from him.

There was something about the brightness and the dry wind that swept these streets -- wherever this was. It made him wonder what he was doing tied down to a wheelchair. They toured around a couple more blocks. Cara fussed endlessly over him. "Are you too warm, Robert? Maybe you don't need that blanket." "The sun is going to burn your head, Robert. Let me tilt your cap down a little bit." At one point there were no houses. It seemed that they were on the edge of a long slope. Cara claimed they were looking off toward the mountains -- but all Robert could see was a hazy line of tan and faded ochre. They were nothing like the mountains that shouldered into the sky above Bishop, California, U.S.A.

Then they were back indoors, in the house they had started from. Things were as dark and gloomy as ever, the room lights swallowed up in darkness. Cara's bright voice was gone. She was off to study for her classes, she said. No classes for Robert. The thug was feeding him. He still claimed to be Robert's son. But he was so big. Afterwards there was another ignominious potty stop, more like a police interrogation than a trip to the can. And then Robert was left mercifully alone, in the darkness. These people didn't even have television. There was just the silence, and the dim and faraway electric lights.

I should be sleepy. He had a vague memory of nights fading off into nights fading off into years, of drowsing sleep that came right after dinner. And then later waking, walking through strange rooms and trying to find home. Arguing with Lena. Tonight was ... different. He was still awake. Tonight he was thinking of things that had just happened. Maybe that was because he had made it partway home. Cara. So he hadn't found his folks' house on Crombie Street and the bedroom that looked out on the old pine tree and the little cabin he had built in its branches. But Cara was part of all that, and she was here. He sat for a long time, his thoughts slowly crunching forward. Across the room, a single lamp was kind of a whirlpool in the darkness. Barely visible, the thug was sitting by the wall. He was talking to someone, but Robert couldn't see who.

Robert ignored the guy, and thought hard. After a while he remembered something very scary. Cara Gu had died in 2006. They hadn't said a word to each other for years before that.

And when she died, Cara had been fifty-one years old.
 
###

West Fallbrook had been a handy place in the early years of the century. Busy too. Right next to Camp Pendleton, it had been the base's largest civilian community. A new generation of Marines had grown up here ... and prosecuted a new generation of war. Robert Gu, Jr, had seen the tail end of that frenzy, arriving at a time when chinese-american officers were welcomed back to positions of trust. Those had been high and bittersweet days.

Now the town was bigger, but the Marines weren't nearly such a large part of it. Military life had become a lot more complicated. Between little bits of war, Lieutenant Colonel Gu found that West Fallbrook was a nice place to raise a daughter.

"I still think it's a mistake for Miri to call him 'Robert'."

Alice Gu looked up from her work. "We've been over this before, Dear. It's how we've brought her up. We're 'Bob' and 'Alice', not 'Ma' and 'Pa' or whatever silliness is currently approved. And Robert is 'Robert', not 'Grandpapa'." Colonel Alice Gong Gu was short and round-faced and -- when she wasn't deadly stressed -- motherly. She had graduated número uno from Annapolis, back when being short and round-faced and motherly were definite career minuses. She'd be a general officer by now except that higher authority had discovered more productive and dangerous work for her. That accounted for some of her kookie ideas. But not this one; she had always insisted that Miri address her parents as if they were all just pals.

"Hey, Alice, I've never minded that Miri calls us by our first names. There'll come a time when besides loving us, the Little General will also be our peer, maybe our boss. But this is just confusing my old man --" Bob jerked a thumb at where Robert Senior sat, half slumped and staring. "Play back the way Dad was acting this afternoon. See how he lit up. He thinks Miri is my Aunt Cara, when they were little kids!"

Alice didn't answer right away. Where she was, it was midmorning. Sunlight glittered off the harbor behind her. She was running support for the U.S. delegation in Jakarta. Indonesia was joining the Indo-European Alliance. Japan was already a member of that bizarrely-named club. The joke was that that Alliance would soon have the world surrounded. There was a time when China and the U.S.A. would not have taken that as a joke. But the world had changed. Both China and the U.S. were relieved by the development. It left them with more time to worry about real problems.

Alice's eyes flickered this way and that as she nodded at an introduction, laughed at some witty comment. She walked a short distance with a couple of self-important types, chattering all the while in Bahasa and Mandarin and Goodenuf English, of which only the English was intelligible to Bob. Then she was alone again. She leaned a little toward him, and gave him a big grin. "Well that sounds like a good thing!" she said. "Your father has been beyond all rational discourse for how many years? And now suddenly he's engaged enough to have a good time. You should be thrilled. From here, he'll only get better. You'll have your father back!"

"...Yes." Yesterday, he'd said goodbye to the last of the in-home caregivers. Dad should improve very fast now. The only reason he was still in a wheelchair was that the docs wanted to make sure his bone regeneration was complete before they let him loose in the neighborhood.

She saw the expression on his face, and cocked her head to one side. "Are you chicken?"

He glanced at his father. The Paraguay operation was just a few weeks away. A covert op at the edge of the world. The prospect was coming to seem almost attractive. "Maybe."

"Then let our Little General do her thing and don't worry." She turned and waved at someone beyond his vision. "Oops." Her image flickered out and there was only silent messaging --

Alice --> Bob: <sm>Gotta go. I'm already covering for Secretary Martinez, and local custom does not approve of timesharing.</sm>

Bob sat for a moment in the quiet living room. Miri was upstairs, studying. Outside, the late afternoon slid into evening. A peaceful time. Back when he was a kid, this was when Dad would bring out the poetry books, and Dad and Mom and little Bobby would have a readalong. Actually, Bob felt a happy nostalgia for those evenings. He looked back at his father. "Dad?" No answer. Bob leaned forward and tried to shout diffidently. "Dad? Is there enough light for you? I can make it lots brighter."

The old man shook his head distractedly. Maybe he even understood the question, but he gave no other indication. He just sat there, slumped to the side. His right hand rubbed again and again at the wrist of his left. And yet, this was a big improvement. Robert Gu, Sr, had been down to eighty pounds, a barely living vegetable, when UCSF Medical School took him on for their new treatment. It turned out the UCSF Alzheimer's cure worked where the years of conventional treatment had failed.

Bob did a few errands on base, checked the plans for the upcoming Paraguay operation ... and then sat back and just watched his father for a few minutes.

I didn't always hate you.

As a child, he had never hated his old man. Maybe that wasn't surprising. A kid has very little to compare to. Robert was strict and demanding, on that little Bobby had been very clear. For even though Robert Senior had often and loudly blamed himself for being such an easy-going parent, sometimes that seemed to contradict what Bob saw at his friends' homes. But it had never seemed mistreatment to Bob.

Even when Mom left Dad, even that hadn't turned Bob against the old man. Lena Gu had taken years of subtle abuse and she couldn't take any more, but little Bobby had been oblivious to it all. It wasn't till later, talking to Aunt Cara, that he realized how much worse Robert treated others than he had ever treated Bob.

For LtCol Robert Gu, Jr, this should be a joyous time. His father, one of America's most beloved poets, was returning from a long campout in the valley of the shadow of death. Bob took a long look at Robert's still, relaxed features. No, if this were cinema, it would be a Western and the title would be "The Return of the SOB".

Copyright © 2006 by Vernor Vinge

End of excerpt from Rainbows End