Peter Power Armor

– Peter Power Armor –

By John C. Wright

*** *** ***

That flesh we had nursed from the first in all cleanness was given
To corruption unveiled and assailed by the malice of Heaven 
By the heart-shaking jests of Decay where it lolled on the wires 
To be blanched or gay-painted by fumes—to be cindered by fire 
To be senselessly tossed and retossed in stale mutilation
From crater to crater. For this we shall take expiation.
But who shall return us our children?

— Rudyard Kipling (1865–1936)

Table of Contents so far

  • *** *** ***

    AD 2076

    1.     Happy File One: Machines are Bad for You

    Let me tell you a story about a girl named Ethne. I didn’t like her when I first met her, but all that is changed now.

    I found the power-armor I used to wear as a child in the wall-space behind my parent’s attic, behind a door paneled to look like part of the wainscoting. No dust disturbed this miniature clean-room; no looters had found it here, not in all the years.

    The fact that smooth white light filled the room when the silent door opened filled me with a premonition. I stepped inside and saw, (as I had not dared hope) that an umbilicus connected the little suit to sockets in the wall. The energy-box above the socket was stamped with three black triangles in a yellow circle. Behind me, in the main attic space, I could hear the little brat named Ethne grunt a little high-pitched grunt as she picked up a crow-bar. A moment later there was a shivering crash as she tossed it through one of the living stain-glassed dormer windows. I remembered the day mother had purchased those windows, grown one molecule at a time by a nano-mathematician artist. Those had been days of sunshine, and even the upper windows no one saw had been works of fine art, charged with life.

    You see, Ethne was a naughty, silly girl. It is really not her fault. She was raised to be that way.

    “Darling,” I said, trying to keep my voice even. “Don’t kill the windows. They are special. They were bulletproof, once, back before their cohesion faded. They’re antiques, and cannot reproduce. It makes them the last of their kind.”

    Ethne was bright enough to ask a question: “So what? What makes them special?” It is always good to ask questions.

    I said gently: “You see how the old building had their windows facing outward? Not like modern buildings. Remember your school? All the windows only face inside, toward the courtyard. And your dorm is the same way, isn’t it? You can tell a lot a about a culture by where they put their windows.”

    The courtyard-based construction of modern buildings reminds me of European designs. I don’t really like Europe.

    I heard little Ethne whine to the matron: “Mother Hechler! Mr. Paine is trying to oppress me again!”

    It was not my real name. I always introduced myself as Thomas Paine, these days. No one ever caught the reference, not even people my age.

    The chestplate of the power-armor was set with large phosphorescent buttons, with little cartoon-character faces to indicate the function options. I hit the Peter Power-Armor Power-on Pumpkin with my thumb. There was a goo-ga flourish of toy trumpet noise, a whisper of servomotors, and the suit stood up.

    I know Ethne did not know her parents. I am guessing the age at about seven years old. Her mother, her real mother, had been a lovely, lively, caring woman, smart as a devil and with a sense of humor to match. That sense of humor managed to get her declared an unfit parent.

    The father, Geoffrey, had been an environmental engineer. Very bright man. He had written papers, back before the Diebacks, questioning whether the trends showed a General Global Warming or a General Cooling. Those papers had cropped up again after Ethne was born. Geoffrey had been sterilized by the committee in charge of the First Redistribution; they believed in Global Warming. He had been made to vanish by the Second. They believed in Cooling.

    And little Ethne was just not as bright as Geoffrey’s daughter should have been. I knew the ugly reason why.

    The helmet came only about to my waist, even when the armor was upright on its stubby legs. It looked like a miniature King-Arthur’s knight, although I remember other attachments could make it look like a deep-sea diver’s suit or a Fire-fighter. The smart-metal was made of a flex of microscopic interlocking strands, and I saw telescopic segments at the limb-joints and breastplate-seams, enabling the suit to expand to fit a growing child.

    I heard, behind and below me, a soggy, heavy noise as the stairs whined under the bulk of Mrs. Hechler’s footsteps. I heard her pant. She said, “Ethne!” she was calling up the stairs. Hechler was too inert, it seemed, to make it all the way. “Stop familiarizing with the People’s Helpers. You are to call him ‘Janitor’ or ‘Shit-sweeper.’ We don’t use his name, moppet: it makes them uppity.”

    Tiny xylophone-notes came from inside the helmet as the suit ran through its systems check. I could see the colors of a puppet-show reflected backward in the faceplate during the warm-up, as big-eyed rabbits and ducks in sailor suits pantomimed out safety messages as each suit function went through its automatic check. It may seem absurd, but tears came to my eyes when Battery Bunny turned into a skeleton-silhouette surrounded by twinkling lightning-bolts above the words: KEEP FINGERS CLEAR OF THE RECHARGE SOCKET! Battery Bunny had once been a best playmate of mine, since I had had no real, non-virtual friends. (Billy Worthemer was a real friend of mine. A real flesh and blood boy. Lots of blood. I will tell you about him if I have time. But, after Billy, no, after that I had had no real friends, except for Bunny. Well, maybe one.) Good old loyal bunny. How could I have forgotten him?

    I wiped my eyes. At the same time, to cover the xylophone-noise of the suit-check, I was saying loudly: “Matron Hechler! The student-child is destroying property of the state! This may lead to bad habits later!”

    Another soggy noise as Hechler climbed another step. She wheezed a moment, then said, “Let her have her fun. This stuff is from the Time of Greed. It’s worthless. Go ahead, Ethne.”

    I heard a dull giggle, and then more smashing.

    I twisted and removed the adult-override key from the armor’s chestplate, picked up the remote handset from the socket, and thumbed the test button on the microwave relay. The LED lit up. I tapped my fingers on the handset and the little armored suit did a silent little jig of joy. Such elegant controls! Such a well-made machine!

    Another button made Mr. Don’t-Point-Me come out of his holster. I had forgotten, or I never knew, that the holster had a child-safety relay on it, which made an alarm-noise blatt from the handset. With one thumb I pushed the suppress button on the handset to kill the noise. With the other I reached for the larger, colored controls on the chestplate. I remembered that the Deadly Donkey button armed the lethal rounds. I hit Sleepy Sancho Pancake, and watched as a clip of narcoleptic darts was jacked into the chamber. The little armor twirled the gun on its gauntlet-finger and slid Mr. Don’t-Point-Me back into the holster. I had programmed that little flourish in, when I was a child. I had seen Laser Cowboy do it on STV, and I had practiced and practiced in front of a mirror. That was my hand motion.

    Hechler had heard the alarm. Her voice came nearer, sounding angry, “What’s that noise?”

    I said in a loud happy voice, “Ethne! Come quick!”

    Ethne, sullenly, “What…?! Is a machine? They’re bad for you.”

    “Never mind,” I called out. I heard her little footsteps coming closer. “I’ll just keep it all for myself.”

    Ethne’s footsteps sped up. Any adult who cannot outwit a seven year old should turn in his license.

    I also heard the Matron’s voice coming at a lumbering trot. Stairs squealed, and then the attic floorboards protested. “What — what’s that light up there!”

    I had to get her to come up. I said loudly, “It should be obvious what it is, you soggy old fart! I’ve found a working light. Don’t you have eyes? I must say that I am continually amazed, now that each village and hamlet is divided into work zones and care zones for the communal raising and nurture of children, at the consistently low quality of the substitute parents involved.”

    Ethne was in the doorway, now. Her eyes grew big and round. I remember days when children often had such looks on their faces, at birthday-parties, or at Christmas. Back when we had Christmas. I took Ethne by the shoulder and guided her toward the armor. My other hand pushed the introduction menu sequence with the handset. The armor turned toward Ethne, evidently recognizing her as having the infrared profile and radar-silhouette of a child. It performed a perfect courtly bow toward her. She watched in awe as it took her hand and bent over it, pretending to kiss it.

    And the little brat (her brattyness forgotten, or on hold) actually blushed and looked pleased, a modest princess. She was utterly charmed. I had to smile.

    I continued talking the way I used to talk, in a loud voice, “But we cannot have a society where all child-rearing is public, without expecting it to end up in the same state as our public bathrooms. And what kind of low, common, ignorant folk will volunteer to serve as wardens for children not their own, whom they cannot adopt or make their own? Who would be willing to raise a child by rulebook? By committee? I suspect those who cannot get jobs as prison guards…”

    But that was enough. Mrs. Hechler was here, red-faced, and angry enough that she had forgotten to use her radio-phone to call Jerry. Jerry, downstairs, was not a Regulator; he was an Infant Proctor, which was something between a Baby Sitter and the Bull. But I think he was packing heat.

    Maybe she was too dumb to call him; too dumb to think I was dangerous. Or maybe her phone was broken again.

    Her eyes grew round when she saw the lights, the atomic-power symbol on the wall, the brass-and-gold little armored figure. I do not think she recognized what the armor was; I think she thought it was a statue or a toy or something. A woman raised in her generation, of course, could not understand the kind of folks people of my parent’s generation were. And so she stepped into the room.

    She did not know what kind of thing Peter was; or what kind of person I am.

    *** *** ***

    2.      Happy File Two: Jump and Run when Jump and Run Music Plays

    Let me explain it to you. I don’t know how much room is in the file: I’ll try to be brief. But I have to tell you the way it was.

    My dad was there the day the rules of war changed. He was about eight years old. He had climbed a tree, and found a little green-and-brown colored aerosol spray-can wedged into the branches, pointing over the sidewalk below. I remember him telling me how bright and sunny the day was, how the sidewalk sparkled, how the people looked so happy, so normal, when they walked by, walking dogs, carrying groceries, herding children, balancing schoolbooks on heads.

    Every time someone walked by, the little aerosol can button went down. Activated by a motion sensor. Dad put his hand in front of the nozzle, and felt a wet invisible spray touch his palm. He sniffed it; it was odorless. He wiped the sticky wetness off on the green-and-brown label of the can.

    His district was one of the few with a death toll under one hundred. A day or two later, a swarm of self-propelled smart-bullets, maybe launched from a passing crop-duster, maybe mortar-shot off the back of a flatbed truck, swept through the area, and homed in on everything which had been tagged by the invisible radio-active mist.

    One of the bullets struck the aerosol can, of course, so that no further tagging was done, and the second and third wave of smart-bullets which came the next day, and the next week, found no targets. Everyone who walked by on the sidewalk that day—Dad used to tell me their names, they were his neighbors and playmates—was gone.

    When I was young, and played with my Dad, he used to pretend to be Captain Hook. His prosthetic was actually a complex thing, that could open and close almost like a pair of fingers. But it did look like a hook.

    The next generation of smart bullets were even smarter, smaller, and able to fly longer distances. With a shoulder-launched booster, a rifleman could throw a packet of smart bullets over the horizon.

    And warfare wasn’t warfare any more. No more gathering on battlefields, no more getting into big battleships, and steaming out to meet other battleships. No sir. Soldiers traveled in pairs, not in platoons. One rifleman to launch the bullets. He would sit in a tree, or wearing a diving suit and lay on the bottom of a lake or something. His partner, the forward observer, would walk into town with a laser pencil. He would sit on a park bench and pretend to eat a submarine sandwich or something, or smoke a cigarette—which was legal, back then—and point the laser pencil at a passer-by. A bullet from out of the sky would drop down and hit the target. In a crowd, who would hear the noise? Maybe he’d get two or three, he’d pack up his sandwich, walk down the street, find another bench.

    You could launch smart bullets from a normal shotgun, or even a lead pipe. Heck, if you dropped one off a tall enough building, it could pick up enough speed for its lifting surfaces to get purchase, reach terminal velocity, and if your target was anywhere below the building, the bullet could angle over. There wouldn’t even be the sound of a gunshot. Same thing dropping a boxful from a cropduster.

    Those smart bullets were smart. They had memory metal jackets which could act like little, tiny fins and ailerons, giving them some ability to correct their course in-flight when diving into the target. Some changed shape as they entered the target, swelling or dilating to change their cross-section. They could slim down their noses right before hitting bulletproof vests, to become armor-penetrating, and flattening their heads when they hit flesh to become dum-dums.

    Mom told me her bridesmaid was shot during the wedding. The girl was standing too near an open window, and maybe her gown gave her a silhouette that some dumb smart bullet thought looked like a target. That was back when people still gathered in churches for weddings and stuff. Back when buildings still had open windows.

    The pixel resolution on these weapons was not the greatest. Forty-nine times out of fifty they could not tell the difference between a school-child and a lamp-post, a passer-by, a shadow on the wall, a fire hydrant. So you’d have to shoot fifty-one bullets to make sure you hit a target.

    Yes, I said a school-child. Target of choice, once the rules of war went away. Why? Well, the point of war is to use violence to terrify the enemy into submission; to break his will to resist. Right? The best place for violence was in a town; that’s where the people are. The best place for terror is in a school; that’s where the people gather all their children.

    All their unarmed, unprotected, beloved, innocent children.

    If you were a soldier, there was no point in looking for other soldiers to shoot at. They were all dressed like civilians, like you were, sitting on park benches, eating submarine sandwiches, or pretending to smoke. Or sitting up a tree thirty miles away; or in a diving suit taking a rest on the bottom of a nearby lake, watching for a target-lock. No point in trying to shoot at soldiers. There were none to find.

    I know what you’re thinking. What about shooting the leaders? Assassinating the captains and colonels and commissars on the other side? Presidents, Premiers, Prime ministers?

    Listen, honey, I’m running low on memory, so I’ll try to make this quick, but it is complex—everything is tied into everything else. I’m trying to explain what kind of people your folks were, your real folks, and why they made a power armored suit like this.

    When the nature of war changed the nature of government changed. What is a government, anyway, besides a group of people in the business of winning wars and stopping fights, right? Even before when I was born, politicians had been using computer enhanced imagery to make their images on STV look younger, more commanding, more handsome, less fat. Whatever. Guys with squeaky voices were given nice baritones. It was fake, but so what? We never minded if a politician did not write his own speeches, did we? Why should we mind what he really looked like, so long as he did his job?

    Well, it was just a small step from cartoon-drawing over real politicians to replacing those politicians entirely with computer-generated talking heads. You see, the world when I was young was not divided into Haves and Have-nots. It was divided into Knowns and Unknowns.

    When the nature of government changed, the nature of citizenship changed. The nature of wealth and power changed.

    Not everyone was trying to shoot the kids, though. Thank God for that. When everything went away, when everything went bad, there were still some people who kept their heads. After my parents were killed, this family of Amish farmers found me, wandering the fields at night, still carrying my Mom’s head. I guess I was out of my mind, a bit. Jeez! How old was I then? Younger than you.

    My other real-time real-life friend was Mr. Eister. He had taught me how to shoot, what to do during incoming-fire drills, how to check food for foreign substances after saying grace. I remember him as a tall man, tall as a mountain it seemed to me, who always wore an odd, old-fashioned wide-brimmed hat. When I was six, I had insisted the mansion-circuits make such a hat like that for me, which I insisted on wearing all the time, even to bed, even to church (we had churches back then.) The only thing which could get me to take that damn hat off, was Mr. Eister himself, when we were suiting up. I remember arguing with him that my helmet was big enough to allow me to wear the hat beneath it, if I scrunched it up a bit. He had explained … once … that the extra fabric would prevent the helmet cushions from seating properly on my skull. When I hadn’t listened he waited patiently till I suited up, then he struck me in the head with his gun-stock, knocking me from my feet and setting my ears ringing. “English,” (he always called me that,) ” English, a hard-shot shell would conduct a thousand time more foot-pounds of force that that little tap.” He had leaned over me to talk. “The only thing what keeps thy brains from being churned to jam during a fire-fight, lad, is that thy helm here can flex to deflect the shockwave into the exo-skeleton anchor-points. Which it cannot do if thee must wear thy hat; remove it.”

    Poor Mr. Eister. Someone posted a bounty on the Amish. Didn’t like their ways, didn’t like their looks, didn’t like their farm carts blocking the road. Who knew why? Who gave a reason? I was in my armor when a flock of bullets dropped out of a clear blue sky and stuck the house, spreading jellied gasoline everywhere. I was cool and safe, surrounded by flames. Peter played jump-and-run music, so I could not hear the sound of my new family sizzling and screaming. I jumped and ran. With the Jack Rabbit toggle thrown, I could jump over a church steeple.

    How could they get away with shooting at us?

    It was the crypto, you see. Encryption. Encryption and digital money. Governments did not bother raising and training armies. You did not need esprit de corps and unit cohesion to win a war any more. Governments just put out bounties over the Net, posted the reward and the bag they wanted on a public board in some neutral country. There was always a neutral country willing to carry the board.

    The posting? Just a public announcement that decryption keys to a certain amount of digital cash would be sent out to anyone who could anonymously post a ‘prediction’ of how many people of a certain nation would be killed on a certain day. There was a third-party verification system to confirm the kills, also encrypted both ways.

    You see, with double-encryption, you could actually pay some one the digital cash, or even leave it laying around at a public bulletin board address, but anyone who picked it up could not spend it without unscrambling it. It was worthless and safe.

    Each time someone downloaded a copy of your bag of cash to their personal station, a new unique key and counter-key would be generated automatically. Let us say a hundred people, or a million, make copies of the scrambled cash. A hundred keys, or a million, are generated. Each personal to the person making the copy.

    You send your counter-key back to the government hiring you, along with whatever proof you want that you’ve killed the number of people they wanted killed. You sent it in anonymously. Once they have your unique counter key, they can publicly post the decryption for your unique key. They can shout the decrytp from the roof-tops; it doesn’t do anyone any good but you. Unique means that you and only you can unscramble your copy of the cash bundle. Everyone else just has a string of garbled ones and zeros, meaningless and worthless. You have a code which opens a credit line through a numbered Swiss bank account. You never meet your employer; he never meets you. The other party could not even help the police find you even if he wanted to.

    And not just governments. Anyone who wanted anyone killed, for any reason or no reason. Someone posted bounties on black children. Someone else posted bounties on Ku Klux Klansmen. A retaliation? Who knew?

    Someone else posted bounties on Jews. Someone else picked Witches. Someone else picked Christians. Homosexuals. Smokers. Non-smokers. Heterosexuals. Dog-owners. A zero-population group posted bounties on anyone. Anyone at all.

    And it did not need to be one person posting the bounty. I contributed a few bucks myself, when I was in school, to have a certain famous entertainer who annoyed me bumped off. It was only a dollar or two; I meant it as a joke. I was drunk. But people kept adding to the fund. A dollar here, a gold gram there. After about five years, the bounty on the guy was half a million.

    Now, I am not a murderer. That guy escaped. You see, that entertainer did not look like he looked in the See-vees. His picture was computer-generated. He was rich. He had friends. He was an Unknown.

    Remember what I said about the difference between Knowns and Unknowns? It was the difference between life and death. Unknowns had all their money encrypted, overseas, stored as strings of scrambled numbers. You never met them face to face; you talked over the phone; and the picture and the voice on the phone could be someone, anyone, no one. But it wasn’t them.

    Remember I said governments changed? They were run by Unknowns. Appointed bureaucrats, some of them; others were just campaign finance contributors.

    And taxes? Well, when everyone can hide their assets, there is no way to collect from them.

    Tangible assets were different. Governments just seize them. They don’t need a reason. They see a house or car they like, they take it. A piece of property, a publicly traded company. In the early days, they had to plant evidence of drug-dealing, or cigarette smoking, unauthorized public prayer, or gun ownership or something. Later, they just claimed the right of Eminent Domain and took what they needed.

    How else could they be fed, those governments? How else could they continue?

    It didn’t bother the Unknowns. They just took out Seizure Insurance and kept most of their assets intangible. The ultra-rich sold or burned their cars after every car trip, and bought new ones before they went out again, just so they would have nothing on the highways to be seized. That was back when we had highways.

    So how do you protect your children, in a time like that, with a civilization going to hell. You cannot negotiate with the assassins because no one knows who they are. Your rulers will not protect you. They are anonymous kleptocrats. The police? Don’t make me laugh; everyone I knew kicked a few bucks into the kill-the-pigs kitty every time he got a traffic ticket, or had another car seized. The army? But there is no army. There will never be another army again.

    A bullet-proof vest is not thick enough to stop a mid-sized smart bullet. And in order to have plate thick enough to shield your little child’s heart and head from the assassins, you must mount it on an articulated exoskeleton.

    *** *** ***

    3.      Happy File Three: Do as  You are Told


    I hated the stuff when I was young, and I always used to play with my faceplate open, so I could smell the free summer breeze. Billy Worthemer was the same way. Open faceplate. I talked him into doing it too, so he couldn’t tell on me.

    We were in the courtyard green-area. In a protected zone, with no line-of-sight to any taller buildings.

    I remember seeing the targeting platform that painted us, Billy and me. It was just a motion sensor clipped to the collar of a puppy dog, with the sensitivity turned down so that only a body larger than a dog, but smaller than an adult, would set it off. Billy went over to pet the dog. I raced him to it to be the first one there, and picked up the dog.

    I remember Peter Power Armor saved my life. I was hit in the shoulder by the round, but the shot did not penetrate. But the ricochet caught Billy in the face. He was turning around to say something too me; maybe to ask me to let him have a turn petting the dog.

    I do not remember what happened to his face. I really do not. I remember the whine in my gauntlets when I pulled the innocent little puppy in half. Poor dog. I remember that. I do not remember what Billy looked like. Not at all.

    I should erase that last bit. It has nothing to do with what I was saying. I am trying to tell you what your parents and grandparents were like. Are like. You’re my grand-daughter. It took me so longer to find you. But I never gave up.

    We are the kind of people who look after our kids. Having power armor for kids seems ridiculous, doesn’t it? These days, it does. In the old days, it did not.

    Everything you’ve been told about history is a lie. The People’s Jesus did not come back to Earth and marry Mother Gaia, and appoint the First Protector of the Green People. That’s not what happened.

    The society I was raised in, the nightmare, could not last. The Unknowns could not last. They did not even know each other, did they? How could they help each other?

    But what could stop the nightmare? Shut off the Net, you’re saying. Cut the cables, arrest the Providers, take an ax to the mainframes, tear up the ground-lines. Easy enough. But who was going to do it? Not the multinationals; all their money was in the Net. Not the Unknowns; the Net was their universe.

    In a society where everyone is being shot at, shot at any time and at all times, there are only two things you can do. Either you make sure everyone has a gun or you make sure no one has a gun.

    The people West of the Mississippi chose the option number one. The people in the East chose option two.

    The reality behind option two, of course, is that ‘no one has a gun’ actually means, ‘no one but the authorities has a gun.’ And that means, ‘everyone but the authorities shuts up and does what they’re told.’

    The reality behind option one, of course, is that ‘everyone has a gun’ actually means, ‘If you want me to shut up, tough guy, come over here and make me.’

    The two systems are incompatible.

    That’s what the Second Civil War was really about; it was not about the Sacred Spotted Owl. And when the war got hot enough, and enough transatlantic cables got sabotaged, the Net went down. The Stock Market, all the stock markets, really, and bank records, personal records, everyone’s identities, known and unknown, just went away.

    The economy just went away.

    And when that happened, the civilization’s ability to feed the population of the world was cut roughly in half. And the old fashioned methods of warfare came back. We had soldiers again. I am not saying whether that was a good thing or a bad thing. They are brave, the soldiers these days; they wear uniforms, they do not hide and slink and sneak like soldiers from my day.

    I am not brave. I am not like the soldiers of today. I am one of the old men of the days. My mission was to rescue you. I did it our way.

    I was telling you about Peter Power Armor. I was telling you that I knew Mrs. Hechler would not know what it was. She had not lived through my grandfather’s time, when father took their boys out into the woods to shoot squirrels. Or my father’s time, when school uniforms all were woven with bulletproof material. My time I’ve told you about, the time of the Unknowns. The time of your mother (my daughter.) Her time was even worse; the time of the Diebacks.

    Industrial collapse. No more computers, no more smart-bullets. War is more like the old days; men in uniforms who can see each other through the grass, in the trenches, shooting. The bullets aren’t smart enough to pick their won targets any more. The nature of war turned back.

    Your generation is so lucky. You don’t know anything. Lucky, stupid, stupid, lucky fools.

    A woman of Mrs. Hechler’s generation would not believe any children’s toy could be armed.

    But Mrs. Hechler knew it was a machine, and machines of any kind were rare these days, and she knew the Correct Thought. “Ethne! Get away from that Satan-metal thing! Green Jesus and Mother Earth hate machines! Don’t touch it!”

    I said, “Darling Ethne; this is your magic fairy-tale knight-in-shining-armor, come to rescue you. Its yours, yours, all yours, your very own.”

    “Shut up!” Mrs. Hechler said to me.

    I shrugged, putting my hands behind my back. “Oh, come now, you foul-smelling sack of lumpish fat. I am not the one who cannot control a seven-year-old girl. You signed the authorization saying we could explore this deserted old house to see if there was anything we could loot or sell for the communal kitchen. I’m not the one who will catch hell from the District Helpfulness Manager.”

    That directed her attention back to the child. “Ethne Cornwall Delaplace! Ward of the State 142! Come here right now! Let go of that thing! It belongs to everyone!”

    I said, “You are a princess, raised by trolls, who hate that you come from a high and noble lineage. This gentle knight-errant shall rescue you and take you to a free land across the Mississippi to the West. On your very life, do not let go!”

    “Ethne! Come here! Don’t make me call for Jerry downstairs!”

    I said, “Free, Ethne. Freedom. No more equalization injections because you are smarter than other kids. Freedom!”

    Ethne smiled at me, looking very beautiful to me for the first time since I met her, just like her mother when she was a little girl.

    And she said, “Please, sir. I want to be smart again, like I used to. I want to be free.” And that was when I fell in love with her.

    I think the mention of the F word did it.

    Mrs. Hechler strode forward, huge and ponderous in her wrath. Mrs. Hechler grabbed Ethne by the arm. It was a good grab, swift as a snake, the kind of grip guards should learn to use on prisoners. And I am sure it hurt, because Ethne screamed.

    I pointed the handset at the scene, opened the lens, and said carefully into the mike: “Child under attack.”

    It was amazing how surprised Mrs. Hechler looked when she fell. I had underestimated how loud the shot of the tranquilizer dart would be. I had not expected Jerry, who had been waiting outside, to come up shooting. Jerry was not licensed as a cop, just as security. A baby-sitter. Regulations said he was not allowed to be armed with anything but a stunner. That hand-cannon he held was no stunner; it was shooting through walls, brick and plaster. Made a hell of a noise. Just like the old days, eh?

    I had also underestimated how clever the power-armors neural net had been programmed. It practically opened up in half and scooped Ethne into itself. Jerry really never stood a chance. It was very noisy and very bloody; not the sort of thing a child should see.

    It is too bad you are unconscious. Peter sedated you because you were screaming and putting your hands in front of his gun barrels. I am recording this all through the hand-set into the suit playback for you to hear when you wake up.

    Yes, I was wounded in the fire-fight. Wood-shrapnel from where a stray slug hit the door-frame. In my day, our doctors could have saved my leg.

    I wish you could see what you looked like when you took off just now. It was lovely. You jumped out the window and over the next house. You should see the Seven-League-Boots program in action; each jet-assisted leap was two hundred yards if it was an inch.

    I’ve already called in the escape over Mrs. Hechler’s radio phone. The patrols are headed up north, into the swampland. In a minute, if I am strong enough, I’ll send in a report that you were sighted down south, in the hills. All their equipment still runs off the old, old programs. Old as me. And I know the magic words to open the trap-doors and make my voice whatever CO’s voice they need to hear. And old trick.

    I am a wizard, a warlock, a fraud, a gray old Prospero from a lost island, who never repented or burned his books or broke his wand. I have cast a spell on you, princess, and befuddled them.

    They will not catch you. They will never catch you. I can just imagine the troopers on horseback, those of them who can afford horses, trying to catch you by lantern-light. I was the one who played hide-and-seek with my little friend Battery Bunny when I was eight, in that armor.

    One touch of the Mr. Frog button turns on the sneeky-peeky lowlight goggles, activates the aqualung, lets you to crawl along a river-bottom at night. The smart-metal is radar invisible. If those barbarians still have any working radar sets. If they could get the bureaucrats in their organization to release them to the river patrol. Which I doubt. Which I doubt.

    And Homer the Homing Pigeon who lives in the helmet is gyroscopically aligned and corrects himself by star-pattern recognition. So you cannot get lost or get turned around. I selected the map-program through the handset. It was the first thing I did before I started recording.

    And you can hear me through the Happy File crypto playback, marked with the Memo the Remember Elephant.

    I do not mind going away. I was one of them, darling. An Unknown. That’s why my name is not on the records. Dad gave me trapdoors into the computer systems that survived the Netcrash. That’s why I was able to find my family. To find you. I am sorry for the things I did and I do not really mind dying. I’ve tried to make up for it.

    What else do I need to say? I am getting sleepy now, and its hard to think.

    I am the last of the Unknowns. I could make myself a fake ID. I could travel in the East on forged papers. I could give my self authorization to read the Child Safety and Domestication Bureau records, to unseal sealed files, and depart without a trace.

    My magic. Left over from the old days. I wove a cloak of cunning mist and made myself invisible, while I was right in front of their eyes. Who looks at janitors? My papers were in order.

    The job as a janitor at the Children’s Center I got by hard work and sweat; something rare here. Tricking Mrs. Hechler into violating regulations and going to loot a deserted house in a public-owned area was simply not difficult. All serfs ignore regulations when they can; it’s the only way they can live. There are just so many regulations, you see, no one can listen to them all.

    Is there anything else I need to tell you, anything else I need to explain?

    What they told you about the West is all lies too. We don’t shoot each other down in the streets, we don’t have gunfights in every bar. We do have bars, but not everyone drinks.

    I do not know what went wrong with all the people back East, after the Diebacks. I do not know why they could not rebuild. The Western states are mostly empty desert. How come they got rich? I do not know. Maybe the Easterners did not have the will to resist when the People’s Green Church of Mother Life came along. They certainly did not have the means to resist. They did not have anything like Peter.

    But those deserts are so beautiful under the starlight. You’ll see them soon.

    Oh, God, let me stay awake long enough to tell you this.

    Darling, I do not know the names of my contacts in the underground railroad. Remember I told you about encryption? You just go to any public phone once you are across the Mississippi, in the wide Western places they’ve remembered finally what a free country is supposed to be. They’ve also remembered how to set up a working Net again. Another Net. Are the bad old days coming back again? I don’t know. I’m very tired, and I just don’t know. Maybe you can grow up and stop those bad things from happening.

    Don’t let me forget. Get to the phone. Push the button shaped like Puss-in-Boot. It’s the crypto cat. It will turn on the circuit and make the phone call for you. It will call the nice people.

    Get to a phone. Peter will know what to do. Trust Peter. He’ll take care of you.

    Peter loves you; I love you.

    Goodbye, God bless, and Godspeed.

    You mother is waiting for you in Austin. Your real mother. We got her out of the camps months ago. Her name is Rosalind. She was very pretty when she was your age.


    Here find Another Tale from an Aeon Near or Far