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The Old California Shopping Center was the Santa Ynez Police Company's biggest account—and one of Miguel Rosas' most enjoyable beats. On this beautiful Sunday afternoon, the Center had hundreds of customers, people who had traveled many kilometers along Old 101 to be there. This Sunday was especially busy: All during the week, produce and quality reports had shown that the stores would have best buys. And it wouldn't rain till late. Mike wandered up and down the malls, stopping every now and then to talk or go into a shop and have a closer look at the merchandise. Most people knew how effective the shoplift-detection gear was, and so far he hadn't had any business whatsoever.
Which was okay with Mike. Rosas had been officially employed by the Santa Ynez Police Company for three years. And before that, all the way back to when he and his sisters had arrived in California, he had been associated with the company. Sheriff Wentz had more or less adopted him, and so he had grown up with police work, and was doing the job of a paid undersheriff by the time he was thirteen. Wentz had encouraged him to look at technical jobs, but somehow police work was always the most attractive. The SYP Company was a popular outfit that did business with most of the families around Vandenberg. The pay was good, the area was peaceful, and Mike had the feeling that he was really doing something to help people.
Mike left the shopping area and climbed the grassy hill that management kept nicely shorn and cleaned. From the top he could look across the Center to see all the shops and the brilliantly dyed fabrics that shaded the arcades.
He tweaked up his caller in case they wanted him to come down for some traffic control. Horses and wagons were not permitted beyond the outer parking area. Normally this was a convenience, but there were so many customers this afternoon that the owners might want to relax the rules.
Near the top of the hill, basking in the double sunlight, Paul Naismith sat in front of his chessboard. Every few months, Paul came down to the coast, sometimes to Santa Ynez, sometimes to towns further north. Naismith and Bill Morales would come in early enough to get a good parking spot, Paul would set up his chessboard, and Bill would go off to shop for him. Come evening, the Tinkers would trot out their specialties and he might do some trading. For now the old man slouched behind his chessboard and munched his lunch.
Mike approached the other diffidently. Naismith was not personally forbidding. He was easy to talk to, in fact. But Mike knew him better than most—and knew the old man's cordiality was a mask for things as strange and deep as his public reputation implied.
"Game, Mike?" Naismith asked.
"Sorry, Mr. Naismith, I'm on duty." Besides, I know you never lose except on purpose.
The older man waved impatiently. He glanced over Mike's shoulder at something among the shops, then lurched to his feet. "Ah. I'm not going to snare anyone this afternoon. Might as well go down and window-shop."
Mike recognized the idiom, though there were no "windows" in the shopping center, unless you counted the glass covers on the jewelry and electronics displays. Naismith's generation was still a majority, so even the most archaic slang remained in use. Mike picked up some litter but couldn't find the miscreants responsible. He stowed the trash and caught up with Naismith on the way down to the shops.
The food vendors were doing well, as predicted. Their tables were overflowing with bananas and cacao and other local produce, as well as things from farther away, such as apples. On the right, the game area was still the province of the kids. That would change when evening came. The curtains and canopies were bright and billowing in the light breeze, but it wasn't till dark that the internal illumination of the displays would glow and dance their magic. For now, all was muted, many of the games powered down. Even chess and the other symbiotic games were doing a slow business. It was almost a matter of custom to wait till the evening for the buying and selling of such frivolous equipment.
The only crowd, five or six youngsters, stood around Gerry Tellman's Celest game. What was going on here? A little black kid was playing—had been playing for fifteen minutes, Mike realized. Tellman had Celest running at a high level of realism, and he was not a generous man. Hmmm.
Ahead of him, Naismith creaked toward the game. Apparently his curiosity was pricked, too.
Inside the shop it was shady and cool. Tellman perched on a scuffed wood table and glared at his small customer. The boy looked to be ten or eleven and was clearly an outlander: His hair was bushy, his clothes filthy. His arms were so thin that he must be a victim of disease or poor diet. He was chewing on something that Mike suspected was tobacco—definitely not the sort of behavior you'd see in a local boy.
The kid clutched a wad of Bank of Santa Ynez gAu notes. From the look on Tellman's face, Rosas could guess where they came from.
"Otra vez," the boy said, returning Tellman's glare. The proprietor hesitated, looked around the circle of faces, and noticed the adults.
"Aw right," agreed Tellman, "but this'll have to be the last time…Esta es el final, entiende?" he repeated in pidgin Spanish. "I, uh, I gotta go to lunch." This remark was probably for the benefit of Naismith and Rosas.
The kid shrugged. "Okay."
Tellman initialized the Celest board—to level nine, Rosas noticed. The kid studied the setup with a calculating look. Tellman's display was a flat one, showing a hypothetical solar system as seen from above the plane of rotation. The three planets were small disks of light moving around the primary. Their size gave a clue to mass; the precise values appeared near the bottom of the display. Departure and arrival planets moved in visibly eccentric orbits, the departure planet at one rev every five seconds—fast enough so precession was clearly occurring. Between it and the destination planet moved a third world, also in an eccentric orbit. Rosas grimaced. No doubt the only reason Tellman left the problem coplanar was that he didn't have a holo display for his Celest. Mike had never seen anyone without a symbiotic processor play the departure/destination version of Celest at level nine. The timer on the display showed that the player—the kid—had ten seconds to launch his rocket and try to make it to the destination. From the fuel display, Rosas was certain that there was not enough energy available to make the flight in a direct orbit. A cushion shot on top of everything else!
The kid laid all his bank notes on the table and squinted at the screen. Six seconds left. He grasped the control handles and twitched them. The tiny golden spark that represented his space-craft fell away from the green disk of the departure world, inward toward the yellow sun about which all revolved. He had used more than nine-tenths of his fuel and had boosted in the wrong direction. The children around him murmured their displeasure, and a smirk came over Tellman's face. The smirk froze.
As the spacecraft came near the sun, the kid gave the controls another twitch, a boost which—together with the gravity of the primary—sent the glowing dot far out into the mock solar system. It edged across the two-meter screen, slowing at the greater remove, heading not for the destination planet but for the intermediary. Rosas gave a low, involuntary whistle. He had played Celest, both alone and with a processor. The game was nearly a century old and almost as popular as chess; it made you remember what the human race had almost attained. Yet he had never seen such a two-cushion shot by an unaided player
Tellman's smile remained but his face was turning a bit gray. The vehicle drew close to the middle planet, catching up to it as it swung slowly about the primary. The kid made barely perceptible adjustments in the trajectory during the closing period. Fuel status on the display showed 0.001 full. The representation of the planet and the spacecraft merged for an instant, but did not record as a collision, for the tiny dot moved quickly away, going for the far reaches of the screen.
Around them, the other children jostled and hooted. They smelled a winner, and old Tellman was going to lose a little of the money he had been winning off them earlier in the day. Rosas and Naismith and Tellman just watched and held their breaths. With virtually no fuel left, it would be a matter of luck whether contact finally occurred.
The reddish disk of the destination planet swam placidly along while the mock spacecraft arced higher and higher, slower and slower, their paths becoming almost tangent. The craft was accelerating now, falling into the gravity well of the destination, giving the tantalizing impression of success that always comes with a close shot. Closer and closer. And the two lights became one on the board.
"Intercept" the display announced, and the stats streamed across the lower part of the screen. Rosas and Naismith looked at each other. The kid had done it.
Tellman was very pale now. He looked at the bills the boy had wagered. "Sorry, kid, but I don't have that much here right now." He started to repeat the excuse in Spanish, but the kid erupted with an unintelligible flood of Spanolnegro abuse. Rosas looked meaningfully at Tellman. He was hired to protect customers as well as proprietors. If Tellman didn't pay off, he could kiss his lease good-bye. The Shopping Center already got enough flak from parents whose children had lost money here. And if the kid were clever enough to press charges…?
The proprietor finally spoke over youthful screaming. "Okay, so I'll pay. Pago, pago…you little son of a bitch." He pulled a handful of gAu notes out of his cash box and shoved them at the boy. "Now get out."
The black kid was out the door before anyone else. Rosas eyed his departure thoughtfully. Tellman went on, plaintively, talking as much to himself as anyone else. "I don't know. I just don't know. The little bastard has been in here all morning. I swear he had never seen a game board before. But he watched and watched. Diego Martinez had to explain it to him. He started playing. Had barely enough money. And he just got better and better. I never seen anything like it.…In fact—" he brightened and looked at Mike, "in fact, I think I been set up. I betcha the kid is carrying a processor and just pretending to be young and dumb. Hey, Rosas, how about that? I should be protected. There's some sorta con here, especially on that last game. He—"
"—really did have a snowball's chance, eh, Telly?" Rosas finished where the proprietor had broken off. "Yeah, I know. You had a sure win. The odds should have been a thousand to one—not the even money you gave him. But I know symbiotic processing, and there's no way he could do it without some really expensive equipment." Out of the corner of his eye, he saw Naismith nod agreement. "Still"—he rubbed his jaw and looked out into the brightness beyond the entrance—"I'd like to know more about him."
Naismith followed him out of the tent, while behind them Tellman sputtered. Most of the children were still visible, standing in clumps along the Tinkers' mall.
The mysterious winner was nowhere to be seen. And yet he should have been. The game area opened onto the central lawn which gave a clear view down all the malls. Mike spun around a couple times, puzzled. Naismith caught up with him. "I think the boy has been about two jumps ahead of us since we started watching him, Mike. Notice how he didn't argue when Tellman gave him the boot. Your uniform must have spooked him."
"Yeah. Bet he ran like hell the second he got outside."
"I don't know. I think he's more subtle than that." Naismith put a finger to his lips and motioned Rosas to follow him around the banners that lined the side of the game shop. There was not much need for stealth. The shoppers were noisy, and the loading of furniture onto several carts behind the refurbishers' pavilion was accompanied by shouting and laughter.
The early afternoon breeze off Vandenberg set the colored fabric billowing. Double sunlight left nothing to shadow. Still, they almost tripped over the boy, curled up under the edge of a tarp. The boy exploded like a bent spring, directly into Mike's arms. If Rosas had been of the older generation, there would have been no contest: Ingrained respect for children and an unwillingness to damage them would have let the kid slip from his grasp. But the undersheriff was willing to play fairly rough, and for a moment there was a wild mass of swinging arms and legs. Mike saw something gleam in the boy's hand, and then pain ripped through his arm.
Rosas fell to his knees as the boy, still clutching the knife, pulled loose and sprinted away. He was vaguely conscious of red spreading through the tan fabric of his left sleeve. He narrowed his eyes against the pain and drew his service stunner.
"No!" Naismith's shout was a reflex born of having grown up with slug guns and later having lived through the first era in history when life was truly sacred.
The kid went down and lay twitching in the grass. Mike holstered his pistol and struggled to his feet, his right hand clutching at the wound. It looked superficial, but it hurt like hell. "Call Seymour," Mike grated at the old man. "We're going to have to carry that little bastard to the station."
Copyright © 1984 by Vernor Vinge