Out of My Mind

By Laurence K. Scott

 

           

            Lazing along on a thermal a hundred feet above the water, Arden was having his first brainriding experience with an eagle.  He could feel the roots of the golden eagle’s feathers and the small muscle movements as it adjusted its wings to maintain altitude and position over the pool just below the rapids.  Its polarized vision eliminated glare off the surface, allowing it to spot a brook trout idling along just below the surface.  The eagle locked onto the trout, its heartbeat increasing dramatically as it stooped for its dive.  My god, what a thrill!  In seconds Arden, sharing the eagle’s senses, was doing sixty miles per hour vertically, coming down just behind the trout.  A few feet above the water the eagle extended its wings to brake, leveled out and thrust its claws down and forward, dipping them into the water as it passed over the trout. 

            Damn!  Too soon.  The eagle had missed, although Arden could feel the trout’s firm muscles through the tip of one claw as it darted away.  Spreading its wings for power, the eagle climbed back up and aimed for the limb of a cottonwood along the bank.  It came to rest on the branch, and Arden knew, as the eagle did, that the disturbance it had caused would keep all the trout wary for a few minutes, until its presence had passed from their limited memories. 

            On the air were the smells of the water and the green plants growing along the banks, with hints of a campfire miles away in the fading winter light.  Hundreds of smells saturated the air, each distinct and linked to an image in the eagle’s mind that identified it as a danger, a food source, a direction finder, another bird, a car’s exhaust, or one of countless things that shaped its world and helped it calculate what came next.  Similar images simultaneously crowded in as the eagle’s extraordinary vision picked out every movement in its 270-degree field with amazing sharpness in brilliant, saturated colors.  It was like the difference between the old-fashioned 3-D flat panel television Arden remembered from his grandparents’ home and the holovision in his own living room, with an image he could walk around.  Every tiny sound, from the ripples of the water to the wind in the grass, seemed magnified, yet crystal clear.  Arden felt like a child again, when every sensation seemed new and intense.  He was alive in a way he had never felt until he began brainriding, when Wild Rides, the first of its kind, opened its doors six months ago.  

            His first experience riding a golden eagle had proven to be quite exhilarating.  The nuances of using the feathers as ailerons was difficult to get the hang of, even though he had done many birds before, because an eagle’s flight characteristics were quite different than a sparrow’s or a crow’s.  He knew that he should concentrate on the mechanics of the experience if he ever hoped to become a driver.  Whoever was steering this bird was pretty good, and didn’t want to waste the customer’s money sitting on a cottonwood branch.  After resting barely fifteen seconds, the eagle was in flight again, this time going a hundred yards or so downstream to check things out.  Arden made an effort to tear his attention away from the sensory input to focus on the way the tail and wings worked in conjunction to control direction, climb rate, and the other mechanics of flight. 

            Odd that there was no fear of flying, as Arden would have felt on an airliner looking out the window during takeoff.  When you were brainriding, you were the animal, and the sky was the eagle’s natural habitat.  Its confidence in its own ability was a given; the animal had no fear of flying or crashing.  Why should it? 

            This time a small bass caught the eagle’s incredible eyes.  Arden had ridden a fish’s mind already; it was required that brainriders progress from the simpler nervous systems to the more complex because the experience could be overwhelming in its intensity and complexity.  The so-called lower orders of life, such as bees, although quite complex in their own right, were motivated entirely by instinct and chemical signals.  They felt nothing like what humans think of as emotions, even those as basic as fear.  Avoidance of danger for insects and arachnids was simply an instinctive reaction to stimuli.  They felt nothing at all, pleasant or unpleasant, merely nerve impulses that led to some kind of action or inaction as the situation called for.  Many birds and mammals had limited emotions, such as feelings of tenderness toward their young, fear, and happiness, or at least a sense of well-being. 

            In all the creatures that brainriders might inhabit, the nerve signals causing pain and other discomfort were filtered out by software and not conveyed to the riders; most people would not pay to experience pain, and this was, after all, a profit-making venture.  Arden was amused by the thought that some people would pay to experience pain, and as the technology became more widely available, no doubt there’d be people who would. 

            As the eagle watched the bass from above, Arden recalled the feel of water sliding along the flanks of the streamlined tuna’s body he had inhabited, and the electrical tingling from the stripe along his side that sensed the musclular activity of other fish nearby.  He knew the sensation of water flowing through his gills, and the amazing bursts of speed the fish could accomplish with a flip of its tail.  That sense of oneness with the water was nearly as good as flying.

            But not quite.  Flying under your own power was the ultimate rush.  Again the eagle stooped, eyes locked on the shadow of the bass beneath the surface, and there was the burst of speed as its wings folded along its sides, the abrupt deceleration as they fanned out to slow its descent and level out, the splash as its talons entered the water and this time came up grasping the wriggling bass like a living torpedo.  Arden felt the eagle’s rush of exulatation at catching the bass and knowing it would soon devour its squirming, dripping prize that was already dying from the talons piercing its sides.  The eagle selected a spot on the ground that appeared deserted and landed there.  Without hesitation, it tore into the fish’s belly and began gorging on the iron-rich liver.  The scent was overpowering, and the process so unnerving that Arden backed out and pulled the headset that connected his brain to eagle’s, leaving it to finish its meal alone somewhere in northern Montana, a thousand miles from where Arden lay in a booth at Wild Ride. 

            “God, that part is gross!” he commented to himself.  No one could hear.  The lights were gradually coming up in the booth, which was just big enough for the couch, soundproofed to avoid disturbing other brainriders in case he should involuntarily shout or otherwise react to what was happening in the life of his host. 

            He laid the headset down gently in its holder, and noted the counter showed he had been online with the eagle for thirty minutes.  This would be a very expensive trip compared to a brief ride with a sparrow.  Brainriding could be addictive, and the cost increased depending upon several factors, including the difficulty of capturing the creature and implanting the transponder, its useful lifespan, the relative difficulty of “wiring” it, subjective factors like the thrill level, and so on.  Eagles had no natural enemies, lived quite a long time, and were relatively easy to wire.  But they were hard to catch, rare, and they were predators, and thus they were expensive to ride.

            “Wiring” more intelligent creatures, such as dogs, cats, and bears, was correspondingly difficult, and the more intelligent the creature, the more difficult to deal with animal rights activists, who disapproved of all brainriding activity, at least where birds and mammals were concerned.  The great apes, dolphins, orcas, and a few other species were still off limits to commercial brainriders.  Only recognized scientists were legally permitted to wire them, and only under strict guidelines that didn’t allow "steering” them.  Laws had already been passed that made wiring a human a major felony, and as yet it had never been done, as far as Arden knew. 

            He touched the keypad to authorize the charge to his account, and left the booth.  Although it was midweek during working hours, nearly all the sixteen booths were occupied, as evidenced by red bioglow panels on the doors.  Clearly, brainriding was a growing addiction.  He walked toward the exit, still buzzed from the excitement of the hunt.  Predatory animals were the premium rides, at least for most men. 

            But for the sheer thrill of flying, smaller birds like hummingbirds and sparrows were best.  Their unerring ability to fly into the tiny open spaces in hedges and trees at thirty miles an hour without injury was amazing when you were seeing the world as they saw it, and they were constantly on the move.  The rides were cheap, and the drivers didn’t waste a lot of time pecking for insects or sticking the hummers’ long, slender tongue into flowers, but the rides were only ten minutes long because smaller birds have to eat so frequently to keep up their energy levels, especially the hummers.  It was found that if they were ridden for more than ten minutes an hour, their health suffered for it. 

            He had ridden a rattlesnake once.  It was relatively inexpensive compared to the eagle, but still pricey on his salary, because they hunt so seldom and you had to be on a reservation list.  Steering them to hunt was not workable because they take so long to digest their meals, and they’re too sluggish to hunt when they’re disgesting because that’s where their blood supply is concentrated.  When they feel hunger, they hunt.  Until those hunger pangs began, there was no point in steering them to hunt. 

That was the trouble with most predators.  So you had to be ready to go to the salon, as it was called, at a moment’s notice, usually between dusk and dawn, because most hunt at night.  The biggest predators, like wolves and cheetahs, cost a bundle just because the salons could get it.  Great whites were extremely expensive.  Those big predators were still out of his reach.  Although he wanted to try them all, the birds were what he loved for the sense of freedom, the thrill of escaping all restraints.

Arden wanted to be a driver so he could indulge his habit and get paid for it, and get paid well.  He was taking an online course to learn the trade.  Officially, drivers were called Remote Behavior Directors, or RBD’s.  They were jokingly called “ribids,” like the sound frogs make.  The farther you went in the RBD curriculum, the more expensive it got.  You began with “classroom” instructions on the principals involved, and then you had to buy a two-way headset and begin practicing with it, learning to use your thoughts to give orders to computer-simulated animals.  Then you had to become comfortable in completely alien bodies, which is why drivers specialized more and more in narrower and narrower classes of animals.  Driving a shark was an entirely different thing than driving a wolf.

            The real animals, of course, already knew how to do everything the driver expected of them.  The trick was in learning how much control to exert to get the desired behavior, and how to control adverse behaviors the customer doesn’t want to pay for, such as flopping down for a nap in the middle of a hunt, as lions are prone to do, or spending too much time preening, as birds will do.  You had to learn to be the animal, and enforce your will only to keep it goal-directed.  You had to turn off the animal’s mating instinct one moment, its urge to defecate the next.  Riders weren’t interested in such aspects of the host animal’s life.  At least normal people weren’t.

            Entering the dimly-lit waiting room, Arden was surrounded by holos of bighorn sheep bounding up and down nearly-vertical cliffs in the Rockies on one side and weird luminescent creatures from the ocean depths on the other.  There were no customers waiting.  The clerk at the counter was watching a small holo of a popular sitcom at his desk, the characters on Venice beach engaged in a volleyball game.  All the girls had large breasts.  He turned it off as Arden approached. 

            “Enjoy the ride?” he asked casually. 

            “It was pretty good.”

            “I’ve seen you here a lot.”

            “Yeah, I’m kinda into it, I guess.”

            The clerk nodded.  He was a nondescript young guy, adopting the black-leather-jacket-and-pompadour look of the 1950’s that was popular these days.  Arden himself had to go back to work, and was still in his 7-11 outfit.  A bit under six feet tall and wiry, he had the reflexes to be an exceptional basketball player but knew he was far too short for the pros.  He thought of himself as a romantic loner but came across as more of a social misfit, though he wasn’t bad looking in a Gypsy way.  His family was decidedly blue-collar, from one of the older and less-affluent neighborhoods of Culver City.  Now 21, he was fumbling along in a community college making straight C’s while working on his RBD courses and working a split shift at the convenience store.  Without high GPA and personality index scores, scholarships were impossible to get.                                          

            “Gets expensive, doesn’t it?” the clerk asked.

            Arden thought of his last statement credit statement.  If he weren’t still living at home he couldn’t make it.  As it was, he was dropping a third of his income at the salon and knew that if he wanted to finish his RBD classes, he’d not only have to kick his brainriding habit, but get a better job or work another shift to boot. 

            “Yeah,” he answered glumly.  Not in the mood for conversation, he was about to push his way out the door when the clerk spoke again.

            “I been checkin’ out the animals you ride.  You seem to like the birds a lot.”

            Arden was a little sheepish.  “Well, I love to fly and the common ones are cheap.”

            “Ever think of being a driver?”  The clerk was chewing gum, and now folded his arms and cocked his head in inquiry.

            “Yeah, actually.  I’m taking classes right now.” 

            “You think you could be good at it?”

            Arden couldn’t help adopting a haughty tone.  “I know I could be good at it.  I’ve flown with every kind of bird you’ve got, and I study them while I ride.  I know the differences in the way the different species fly, what they can do and what they can’t.  I’ve dropped a lot of money on birds.  I can’t wait for the chance to drive one myself.”

            The clerk abruptly changed the subject.  “How’d you like to make some real money?”

            Arden stopped and looked at the clerk.  He couldn’t imagine that a clerk in a salon made much more money than he did. 

            “Doin’ what?”

            “First lemme ask you a question.”  Arden walked over to the counter.  From that distance he could see that the leather jacket was real leather, nice stuff.  Maybe this kid wasn’t totally full of shit.  “Would it bother you if it wasn’t entirely legal?”

            “Depends,” Arden responded.  “What kind of illegal are we talking about?”

            “Lemme ask you another question then.”  The clerk leaned over the counter just as the front door opened and a man stuck his head in.

            “Got an open room?”

            “Sure,” the clerk said.  “Go on in and pick one.”

            “You got an octopus wired?  I always wanted to try an octopus.”

            “We’ve got one that’ll take on a moray eel if you can afford it, and we’ve got

little run-of-the-mill ones too.  Run a few demos and then take your pick.”

            “Great,” the guy said, and went on through.

            “So anyway, lemme ask you.  How do you feel about the drug war?”

            “Are you kidding?  After 75 years of throwing money at it, they haven’t made a dent.” 

            “You got anything against people who like to party a little?”

            Arden was getting the drift.  “I don’t care what people do as long as they aren’t hurting anyone else.”

            “What if someone told you that if you could pass an aptitude test, you could take an accelerated course at no cost to you, get your license, and be driving some pretty nice birds within a couple of months and getting the same salary as one of our regular drivers?”

            “I’d ask why someone would do that for me.”

            “From here on out, what we talk about is strictly confidential, okay?  If you don’t think you can keep it that way, then you can just keep walking and forget we talked at all.  The people who would do that for you are serious people, and if you cross them, they don’t just forget about it.  If we talk, you can still say you’re not interested, but you can never repeat what I say to anyone or there’ll be trouble.  Do you want me to go on?”

            Arden looked at his watch.  He had half an hour yet.  He studied the clerk’s face.  The guy seemed totally serious.  He thought about where he’d get the money to finish his courses and how much competition there was for the few jobs available, and he thought about how long it would take to get his license at the rate he could afford the class.

            “Yeah, go on.  I can keep my mouth shut.”
            The clerk studied him back for a moment, then said, “My name’s Eddie.  I get paid to recruit guys with talent who don’t much care if what they do is illegal.  The risk is minimal, but if you’re busted, you take the rap and swear you were on your own.  If you made any deals for a lighter sentence, you’d never live to testify.  The good news is that the boss would pay all your legal fees, and if you did any time, the company would keep you on full salary until you got out, then relocate you to another country where they do business and put you back to work.  When you’re off duty, you can ride anything you want as long as you don’t bump a paying customer.  The pay is great.  Still interested?”

            Arden almost said no thanks.  This was scary.  But he was sick of his crappy job at the convenience store, and had no desire to take a bullet for the Saudi Arabian owner if some gang banger with a gun robbed the place on his shift.  He was sick of living with his asshole parents and being nagged about blowing all his money on brainriding instead of paying them rent.  He was sick of being broke, and to be honest with himself, he doubted he’d ever manage to come up with enough money to become a driver anyway. 

            “Can I still say no after I find out what I’d be doing?”

            “As long as you keep your mouth shut.”

            Fifteen minutes later, Arden emerged from the salon as dusk settled onto the familiarity of La Cienega Street, but it all looked different now.  A new world was opening up to him.  Christmas was two weeks away.  By the spring, he’d be in his own apartment at the beach with a new Tesla, or at least a Hyundai, in the garage, and in the meantime they’d pay him half his regular salary during training.  But today, he had the pleasure of telling the Saudi owner to shove his job up his ass.  He grinned all the way to the 7-11.

#

            The genetically-engineered condor was about thirty percent larger than a wild one, and could easily carry five kilos of Ecstacy from where it now stood in the desert  off Mexican route 2 east of Tecate to the rendezvous point about 30 miles due north of California State Route 1 near Mount Laguna.  It was early morning, still cool, and the low desert scrub threw long shadows on the sand.  Nearby a lizard was warming itself in the sun.  The condor was very nervous at being handled by the two Mexicans who were attaching the package of drugs to the harness slung under its breast, which was skillfully feathered to blend into the animal’s body.  Arden was calming it down and keeping it still from his RBD station in Los Angeles so the handlers could do their jobs.  It was his first real assignment after 90 days of intensive training, and he wanted to make a good impression on the experienced driver who was piggybacking him and would report back to the boss.  Arden did not know the other driver’s name, but he could feel his presence in the way a pilot can sense the co-pilot’s hand on the stick.  So far, so good.  The huge bird had not even ruffled its feathers and stood stock still.  Arden was pleased with himself.

            Its handlers had been told that the condor was trained to perform like a homing pigeon, in the belief that the less they knew, the better.  When they were done, one of the men said simply “listo,” and stepped away from the bird as Arden watched.  He then relaxed his hold on the condor, which instinctively began running and flapping its wings to get away.  In a few seconds, it was airborne and looking for a thermal to take it high above the desert into the cloudless, sunny Mexican sky.  Once it had attained altitude, Arden could begin steering it north.  Down below, the Mexicans were returning to their dusty, red pickup, where they would smoke, play cards, and wait for the condor’s return.

            The elation Arden felt as the condor rose was indescribable.  He would be good at this, really good, thanks to his quick reflexes and his unusual, as he had since learned, ability to immerse himself in the animal’s nervous system.  The skill level approached that of a jet fighter pilot, with the added ability to become one with an animal.  He had heard that only about one in ten people recruited for the job ever became masters at it.  Learning to read the thousands of nerve messages per minute of even a simple animal’s brain and then control each of them could take years, even though most of the irrelevant brain activity of the host animal, such as autonomous muscle control of the heart and other inernal organs, was filtered out by sophisticated software to avoid the distraction it would otherwise cause.  “Playing by ear” required a leap of faith in one’s own ability to share the animal’s brain functions and let the animal’s instincts control its behavior as much as possible, taking control only when necessary.  That was the area most difficult for student drivers to master. 

            For the first time in his life Arden felt in control of his destiny.  As the creosote bushes and mesquite dwindled in size below, he experienced every sensation the condor did, felt it growing calmer by the second.  Now riding a thermal, it leveled out at a thousand feet, from where its view extended for a hundred square miles. 

            The condor knew all the landmarks within its range and could distinguish its position relative to the sun, but unlike a homing pigeon, had no sense of magnetic direction, no stellar navigation ability.  Researchers were still trying to isolate these attributes and learn how to genetically or microelectronically implant them in other species.  They also were working on the problem of how the human brain could interpret and utilize senses that humans had never developed.  The host animals, of course, were completely unaware of them.  A pigeon does not consciously call upon its magnetic sense to determine where it is and how it will get to its destination.  Such abilities must be controlled by the driver to be of any use, and therein lay the problem. 

            But today, Arden would only have to rely upon the condor’s magnificent eyesight to find California 94, just across the border, follow it east about five miles to S1, head north until it joined Interstate 8 for another five miles, then follow S1 as it split off from Interstate 8 and head north a few miles to the rendezvous point in a clearing up a dirt road near the tiny town of Mount Laguna.  

            Flying over a low range of hills, the scent of carrion wafted into the condor’s nostrils, and Arden had to check its urge to go and investigate.  As an opportunistic scavenger, it would eat as long as it had the capacity, but Arden knew it would soon be well fed and needed it to stay focused on its job.  He pushed the scent out of the condor’s brain and focused on the horizon.  And there it was, the black ribbon of Route 94, threading through the low hills a couple of miles away.  Tilting his right wing down, he made a long turn toward the east, keeping Route 94 off his left wing. 

            He soon spotted the tiny town of Campo, and two more miles farther on he saw S1 branching north.  It all seemed so easy.

            The flight quickly became routine as he allowed the condor to seek out thermals, gliding from one to the next, only having to nudge the condor back on track now and then when it strayed too far off S1 in its search for thermals.  Condors do not have strong flight muscles, and avoid flapping as much as possible to conserve energy, but it would be rewarded with food soon.  Arden scanned the skies, looking for any minidrone aircraft that might be looking for suspicious activity on the ground or in the air, but the territory was so huge that intercept was unlikely, even if the DEA ever caught on to this method of smuggling.  

            Within half an hour, the clearing in dense chaparral came into view about two hundred yards east of the paved road.  He knew this to be the right one on sight of a silver, late-model pickup truck parked in the middle of the clearing.  A young couple appeared to be having a picnic, with a cooler and the usual picnic paraphernalia arranged on a blanket spread out on the ground.  But from above Arden spotted the lookout, a

small Hispanic man wearing new Levi’s and a sleeveless undershirt with black boots and a white straw cowboy hat standing near the entrance of the clearing, watching the dirt road.  As Arden circled, descending slowly, he could see the the small man carried a machine pistol.  He had noticed the condor, and called to the couple.

            Arden dropped gently down and landed a dozen feet from the truck.  The young male of the couple, a Caucasian dressed like a ranch hand, walked over to the bird as Arden kept it steady, wordlessly removed the load it carried, and walked back to the truck with it.  The condor jerked its head reflexively to watch as the mule concealed his bundle within a bale of hay in the bed of the pickup.  He came back carrying several pounds of raw, putrid beef, which Arden allowed the condor to attack.  He had already learned to detach himself from the sensations accompanying the condor’s meal, having practiced many times the whole sequence with birds carrying dummy loads.

            While the condor gorged itself, Arden explored the neural connections to the voluntary muscles and tendons, practicing the grip of the talons and the minute shifts in the wing and tail feathers that controlled the flight attitude.  He itched to be back in the air, and knew the condor did too, because it was uncomfortable near humans and knowing from the different scents and landmarks that it was far from home. 

            The condor was shuffling its feet now, done with its meal.  Arden let it take wing and begin searching for a thermal to ascend to the blue sky.  From here it was easy.  He could feel the driver who’d been piggybacking him withdraw from the big bird, and knew he’d made a good impression.  It had been a flawless run.  In his cubicle, Arden allowed himself to smile and the past few months.

            He had never met whoever he worked for.  His only contact with management had so far come through Eddie, who’d set up his training, handed him his paychecks, and introduced him to the few people, mostly other drivers in training, he was allowed to know only by their first names.  He was told he was not to exchange personal information with the other drivers, including their last names.  He was not to socialize with other employees.   

            Eddie had shown him around his “classroom,” which was actually a cubicle much like the one in which he had so much experience as a brainrider, except that there was no card reader and the headset was slightly bulkier.  Lunch was brought in; he was allowed 20 minutes to eat and get back to training, which was conducted by a senior driver and paced according to the speed at which the senior driver felt Arden was learning.  He received rudimentary training on driving a range of animals of lesser intelligence, such as flying squirrels, horses and so on, and more advanced training in driving birds, particularly the larger soaring birds.  He also received basic training in handling some of the larger fish, including sharks, but was told his training would be ongoing if he did well in his first assignment.  Arden was done with the first phase of training in two months. 

            He was put to work four to six hours a day while he continued advanced training.  Arden spent most of his time driving patrons in the perfectly legal rides that paid the overhead and turned a decent profit for the owners, whoever they were.  At first he drove only the cheapest rides that required the least experience. 

According to Eddie, the legal operation provided a cover for the smuggling

operation and also served to to launder the money derived from the smuggling.  That much was obvious even to a novice like Arden.  No doubt it also turned a fairly tidy profit.

            “The less you know, the more the owners like it,” Eddie had told him his first day of training.  “As far as you’re concerned, you’re well paid to be a braindriver and give the customers a thrill.  You tell no one, not your mother or your girlfriend or your best friend, about the other part of your job.  And believe me, they check.  That cat that’s rubbing your leg while you’re having a beer with the boys could be driven by someone reporting everything you say.  Nobody gives a shit what you do in your spare time, but keep your mouth shut and stay out of trouble with the law.  No drugs.  Period.  The first time you get popped for a crime, they’re gonna wonder if you might make a deal.  If you do get popped for anything, your first call is to me, so I can get a lawyer on his way.  Otherwise, you talk to no one, admit nothing no matter what you’re arrested for.  You understand?”

            Arden understood.  He had no illegal vices, a fact he was now sure was known to Eddie and his bosses before Eddie had ever approached him.  They wanted people with no records who were unlikely to ever have one, just normal people with a talent for driving other creatures, nondescript people who were willing to break the law to get ahead, people who, like Eddy, knew that taking the offer to work for Wild Ride, Inc. was

their only real chance for a real career paying real money.

            “Totally.”

            And less than six months later, here he was, working his dream job, already an experienced driver. 

            Wild Ride’s offices were on the second floor, above the salon.  An elevator opened onto a reception area, nicely done in warm woods, with forest green chairs on a burgundy carpet with a forest green border.  To the left of the reception desk was a door with a frosted glass panel and a hand-lettered sign on the glass reading “Authorized Personnel Only.”  To the right was a wooden paneled door that was unmarked.  Both doors had card slots beside them.  At the reception desk sat a generically handsome young man who could have been a pro linebacker and was reputedly a martial arts expert with easy access to a Glock automatic in the desk.  Everyone who came in the door was politely scrutinized by the receptionist, even employees he saw every day.  The management came up from the parking garage in a private elevator to the executive office; everyone else came through reception.

            His third day on the job Arden got off the elevator and approached the receptionist, holding his personal data card in his hand.  Arden ran his PDC through the card slot on the desk and waited while the receptionist compared the holo on his desktop to the living person before him and then scanned the ID information on his panel display. 

            “Okay, Arden.  Enjoy the day.”  He smiled cordially and handed Arden his card back as another driver Arden recognized, a fat young man wearing a headset, came off the elevator and approached the desk.  Arden muttered “Morning, Ronnie,” swung to the left, walked over to the door and ran his card through the slot.  The door clicked and he

went through, allowing the door to close automatically behind him. 

            He was in a wide hall, carpeted to match the reception room, but with glass cubicles to the right and left, six on a side.  The insides were similar to the public cubicles

downstairs, but instead of being windowless, with a bioluminescent screen to indicate whether they were vacant or occupied, these had large windows in the door.  As he reached his assigned cubicle, he saw inside it a woman a few years older than himself seated on the edge of the driver’s chair.  The cover of the interface panel rested on the chair beside her, and she appeared to be using the latest-model Apple Omni to make some kind of adjustments to it.  She was a few inches over five feet, very slender, fashionably dressed in a violet mini-dress over black tights.  From her glossy black hair, cut short, and the epicanthic fold accentuated by makeup, he guessed her to be proud of her Asian, probably Vietnamese, heritage.  She was quite pretty.

            She looked up as he opened the door.  “Right on time, Arden.  I like that.”

            Arden was somewhat flustered by her self-assured manner and her looks.  “I, uh, can I help you?”

            Her expression fell somewhere between a smile and a smirk as she turned her attention back to her task.  “Not unless you know how to tweak this thing.”

            He felt awkward, at a disadvantage.  “So you are…?”

            She didn’t look up, but answered matter-of-factly.  “Lubya Kasarov.  I’m part owner of Wild Ride, and I’m also the technical director, which makes me your boss.”  She smiled warmly.  “I helped invent this technology, and I put this system together, but don’t let that intimidate you.”

            Then it clicked.  Arden had seen her on a morning talk show two years ago, when Wild Rides had opened with a big media splash.  She’d had long hair then, and was more conservatively dressed, but he’d noticed then how attractive she was.  That show had prompted him to try Wild Rides, and he’d been immediately hooked.   

            “Oh, sure, I should have recognized you.  Sorry.  Well, then, I guess you know what you’re doing.”

            She smiled wryly.  “I guess.  You did tell Eddie that you actually wanted to feel some of the pain sensation from your rides, right?”

            A light dawned.  “Oh!  Yes, yes I did.  I kind of expected some nerdy guy in coveralls to show up.”

            She looked up now with a flirtatious glance.  “You sound disappointed that you got me.” 

            “No!  I just never would have thought…”

            “What?” 

            “That someone who could put all this together would look so…uh…like you.”

            Her look changed to amused puzzlement for a couple of beats.  Then her attention went back to her work.  “Whatever.  I’m going to dial in about thirty percent of the pain impulses.  I assume you want to know whether you’re pushing too hard.”

            “Well, yes.  Also, I want to know why my red-tailed hawk has an involuntary flinch on the right wing when he reverses pitch just before he takes snatches prey.  I think he may need a few days off.  But in general, I want to know what’s going on with my rides.  Maybe you could give me about fifty percent.” 

            “You’re the driver,” she said, and touched the Omni screen a few times.  “You seem pretty sure of yourself, from the trips I’ve piggybacked.”

            “Really?  You’ve ridden along with me?”

            “Part of my job.  Especially on your condor work.”  The condors were only used for moving contraband. 

            “So I’m doin’ okay for a new guy?”

            “You seem to take to it like a duck to water.  If you can broaden your range of rides and do as well as you have with birds, you could get bumped a grade within a couple of months.”

            He nodded and digested her comment.  “That’s great.  Thanks.  So you’d have something to say about it?”

            She smiled.  “Definitely.  I’ll be keeping an eye on your progress”   She popped the cover onto the interface panel and stood up.  “Nice to meet you, Arden.”

            “Yeah.  Same here.” 

            She brushed by him and he watched her go, admiring the swish of her minidress.  Then he sat down, put on his headset, and checked his assignments.  A girl wanted to ride a hummingbird, a guy wanted to try a feeding penguin, and then there was a condor pickup in Mexico.  Better get with it, he thought.  Jeez.  A bump in grade would mean he could afford a nicer place, maybe one of the new Tesla convertibles.  Too slick.  And Lubya.  Wow.  If she weren’t older and the boss to boot, he might try putting some moves on her.  As if he had a snowball’s chance in hell with someone like her.  Still, it didn’t cost anything to dream. 

            That led him into thinking about when porno brainriding sites would challenge the current holo sites.  Immediately after brainriding had become a reality, public fear of mind control had led to a hastily-written law that made wiring a human for brainriding a felony with mandatory prison time.  Arden knew that the threat of prison wouldn’t deter the porn industry from going after the huge profits that brainrider porno would generate, but as far as he knew, no one had yet set up such an operation.  Still, it was only a matter of time.  He wondered if there would be guys who wanted the girl’s point of view…  That made him shudder, so he went to work.

            Lubya returned to her office thinking Arden just might be perfect for what she had in mind.  He was young, bright but not too bright, he was a natural driver, and he obviously was taken with her.  She smiled to herself.  “Instantly infatuated” was more like it.  It didn’t hurt that he was kind of sexy in an outsider way.  He just might do…  She decided to monitor his run today.

            Later that day, cruising comfortably over the Mexican desert, Arden could feel the presence of a rider accessing the condor’s nervous system.  He had been told that only authorization high in the chain of command could enable anyone but the assigned driver to enter his host while he was on a smuggling run, and that he was not to acknowledge the presence of anyone else unless the rider initiated contact; in other words, don’t speak unless spoken to.  That was literally how drivers and riders communicated.  They simply spoke, and their bodies back in their cubicles would seem to be talking in their sleep.  Their speech signals would be “heard” by their rider or co-driver, which is how much of Arden’s training had been done.  The “voice” one hears is the same “voice” one hears in one’s head when one is reading, or thinking, for example, of how to word a letter.  But so far, he hadn’t been spoken to while on a smuggling run, though he’d been aware of having had a rider before.  Now he wondered if Lubya could be monitoring him again.

            “Pretty easy job you have, Arden.”

            Now he was certain.  His instructors had always been strictly business.  “Maybe easy compared to a PhD in neuroscience, but it still takes some effort.”

            “This is Lubya.”

            “So I figured.  How are you?”

            “Fine, thanks.  I wanted to ask if you’d had a chance to see how my adjustments are working for you.”

            “Fine so far.  I had the hawk out this morning, and judging from what I could feel at fifty percent, I think he needs some time off to let his wing heal.  I told Eddie, and we agreed to take him off line for a few days and let him rest in his cage and have the vet look at him.  Otherwise, he could develop a permanent injury.”

            “I think that’s smart.  We have a big investment in every ride, and they’re only good for a few years at best.  I think I’ll dial up the pain track for all the drivers so we get earlier warnings of problems.  I can still isolate the riders from the pain impulses.”

            “Sounds like a plan to me.”

            “You’re really enjoying the work, aren’t you?”

            “Oh, hell yes.  Most of the time I forget when I have a rider.”

            “I’m glad that you mentioned it, Arden, because that can be a problem.  You’ve got to remember that we depend on repeat business.  Eddie told me a guy came out of your station yesterday complaining that he was getting airsick from too many stunts.”

            Arden was quick to admit the incident.  “You’re right, you’re right.  Eddie mentioned it to me too.  I forget that sometimes the riders get so excited that they forgot they can say something, or just pull off the headset.”

            “Don’t worry too much about it.  Just remember you’re the professional.  Go through the pre-flight instructions with the riders and don’t get ahead of yourself.  You’re still new at this, and you’ve got more talent than experience.  Take it slow, and you’ll do all right.”

            “Thanks, Lubya.  I’ll slow down and play it by the book.”

            “Listen, I don’t want to distract you too long, but I have a favor to ask.”

            “Sure, Lubya, what is it?”

            “It’ll take a few minutes to explain.  Why don’t you get to your cubicle 10 minutes early tomorrow and put on your headset.  I’ll contact you.”

            Arden was eager tohelp.  “Sure.  Sure.  I’ll talk to you then.”

            She was gone.  Arden spent the rest of his trip wondering what kind of favor he could do for someone who had more money and power than he’d ever dreamed of.

#

            At 9:45 a.m. the next day, Arden was slipping on his headset.  He touched the power button and keyed in his code.  He had spent about five minutes checking his assignments for the day when he “heard” his name.  “Arden?”

            “Yeah.”

            “Lubya.  How are you feeling today?  Ready for a challenge?”

            “Always trying to improve my skills.  What’s up?”

            “Before we discuss it, you must be sworn to secrecy.  What I’m asking is technically against the law.”

            “Well, you already know that’s not a big deal for me,” Arden boasted.

            “So you’re okay?”

            “I’m okay.”

            “All right then.  We’re trying to get legislation passed to allow us to wire some of the higher mammals for commercial use.  The one we’d most like to be ready with the instant we’re allowed is the chimpanzee.”  She pronounced it with the accent on the first syllable.

            “Yeah, I’d love a chance to drive a chimp.”

            “Guess what, Arden.  We have a chimp wired.  It’s at our lab.  I’d like you to be the first to have a shot at it.”

            “Wow!” was all Arden could muster for a response.  “Yeah, sure!  When do I start?”

            “The first thing you’ll do is just ride along with it for a while.  It’s a smaller male, not likely ever to be dominant in its group, so it has a somewhat subservient character. His name is Pong.  Once you get the feel of him, we’ll have you start working on motor skills.  They’re so much like humans, it actually ought to be easy.  Think you can handle it?”

            “Absolutely!” 

            “Good.  Obviously, this will involve some overtime, and we’ll make sure you’re well compensated.  This could be a big career move for you.”

            “I really, really appreciate it.  I won’t let you down.” 

            “I’m sure you won’t.  After you’re done with regular assignments today, get something to eat, and then come back and we’ll get you started.  Okay?”

            “Okay.”

            “And remember, this is top secret.”

            “Of course.  And thanks.”

            There was silence for a moment.  Then, “You’re so into this, and you don’t hesitate to put in as many hours as we ask.  Don’t you have a social life?”

            He was a bit embarrassed.  “Not really.  I mean, I go out with a couple of different girls, but nothing serious, and I don’t really hang out with anyone.  Ever since Wild Rides opened, I’ve been kind of addicted to it, I guess.  This is all I ever want to do.”

             “We don’t want you to burn out, that’s all.”

            “No sweat.  I love every minute of it.”

            “All right then.  Talk to you later this evening.”

            “Okay.”  She was gone.  Arden’s head was spinning, his heart thumping.  What an opportunity!  He’d never in his wildest dreams imagined he’d be singled out to be the first to drive a chimp.  In six months he’d gone from a kid with no future to the job of his dreams, and now a chance to become a superstar in the world of brainriders.  To top it off, he’d get to work more closely with Lubya…  The girl he was dating (he’d lied, there was only one) now seemed dowdy and dull, with her exaggerated makeup and trendy hairstyle.  Her biggest goal in life was to finish cosmetology school and get a job as a stylist in a chain of beauty shops. 

            The rest of the day would seem like an eternity.  After finally clocking out and grabbing a fast-food burger, he was back at the reception desk checking in.  He dutifully got settled in his cubicle, and had barely put his headset on when Lubya came through. 

            “Ready to start?” she asked.

            “Totally,” he responded.

            “Okay.  I’m hooking you up as a rider.  Obviously, there won’t be a driver, so you’ll just have to ride along.  Pong is very active and bounces off the walls with enthusiasm.  I’ll kick back into the loop later, and you can tell me what you think.  Okay?”

            “Great.  Whenever you’re ready.”

            “Stand by.”  A short pause.  “Okay.  Hit channel three.”

            Arden had barely closed his eyes and relaxed when he felt the sudden rush of Pong careening around, over, under and through the structures filling the chimpanzee enclosure.  He was playing with several other chimps, being chased one moment, chasing the next, shrieking, swinging from one horizontal to the other, bounding up and down ladders, all as effortlessly as a sparrow flits from branch to branch.  He rolled and tussled with his friends, jumped up and down, did back flips, and all with such ebullient playfulness that Arden couldn’t help but laugh. 

            The outdoor “lab” was a least fifty feet high and a hundred feet square, housing half a dozen chimps.  It had been built around two mature trees, a fig and a black oak.  A larger male looked over his shoulder at Pong, then climbed like a rocket to the top of the oak, which brushed the wire-mesh top of the enclosure.  Pong followed, the sureness of his grip and the rapidity of the climb causing Arden to gasp aloud from his reclining chair as Pong glanced down at the receding ground.  Hanging on to a branch with one hand, Pong exchanged swipes with the larger chimp, which swung around the trunk and kicked with both feet, thumping Pong in the chest.  Pong let go, dropped six feet and caught another branch to break his terrifying fall.  He scrambled back up and grabbed the other chimp’s foot, and they began descending the tree in a ceaseless contest of strength and agility, excitedly chattering, shrieking, and making faces at each other.  Never once did the fear of falling enter Pong’s mind, or even the thought that he might.

            The lightning speed at which the chimps played made even the battle between a mongoose and a cobra, in which Arden had ridden the mongoose, seem slow-paced.  Pong’s reaction time seemed instantaneous and the feeling of power in his limbs was enormous.  The major difference in motor skills between himself and the chimp was the dexterity of Pong’s lower limbs and feet, which felt more like huge arms.

            Nearing the bottom of the tree Pong heard a bell ring, and the attention of all the chimps was suddenly directed toward a human who was pushing fruits and vegetables through a chute into the cage.  They all rushed for it and battled for their favorite pieces, but it was clearly the big male who’d been playing with Pong who dominated, baring his large canines and physically taking what he wanted from others.  Arden could feel Pong’s anger and jealousy of the big male, and also his fear of him.  The emotions were utterly human, as human as the joy and excitement he’d felt in play.

            Through all this, Arden could also share the somewhat primitive thoughts that crossed Pong’s mind, which dwelt briefly on how he might best the big male or conceal fruit he might steal.  Little else but his urgency to eat stayed on his mind for long, but it was clear that he could think to a certain degree and that he possessed a will resembling a human’s.  In fact, the experience reminded Arden of being three or four years old. 

            When the food was gone, the chimps’ movements slowed down, and they began finding places to lie down and let their digestion work.  Pong lay against the trunk of the fig and became torporous, but his eyes remained open and watching the other chimps.

            Arden opened his eyes and broke contact with Pong.  He was sitting half-reclined, coming down from his experience, when Lubya broke into his thoughts.

            “Well, what’d you think?”

            “Fantastic!  His play activity is at a far higher level than a human athlete could ever achieve.  His physical power is enormous and his coordination is amazing, way more than a human.  He scrambles up trees as if he were weightless, and he has a sixth sense of where he can grab a branch that will hold him.  He has sort of a 3D mental map of his surroundings, with himself always as the center of it.  It’s really astonishing.”

            She laughed.  “You’ve gotta get in touch with your feelings about this experience, Arden.” 

            “Well, it’s pretty intense.”

            “I know.  I rode along with Pong for a while myself.”

            “So…what next?”

            “I think you should spend a little more time getting to know Pong.  If you don’t mind getting up an hour early, maybe you could join up with him early in the morning, when his activity level is even higher and his energy lasts longer, and you could explore his nervous system in more depth.” 

            “Oh, yeah.  Whatever you think.  I’ll be in tomorrow morning.”

            “Great.  Just remember that chimp behavior can be fairly gross.  You just have to shrug it off.”

            “I can deal with it.  It can’t be much worse than a condor eating carrion.” 

            “Okay.  I’ll set up a code for you to get on line with him without my having to be there.  How about your mom’s maiden name in brackets?”

            “That’s good.  Her maiden name was Hammlich.”  He spelled it.

            “Got it.”

            “Well, then…”

            “There’s something else I wanted to ask…”

            “Sure.  What?”

            “Well, I need someone to talk to about a little personal problem I have, and we have this policy about fraternizing with other employees.  I don’t want to break my own rules.  But if you’d be willing to meet me for a beer later, it would help me out a lot.”

            Arden jumped at the chance.  “Sure!  Anything I could do, you name it.  Where?”

            “There’s a little bar over on Melrose near La Brea.  The Neutral Zone.  You know it?”

            “No, but I’m sure it’ll be in my GPS.  When?”

            “About fifteen minutes?”

            “Okay.  See you there.”

            Arden’s brainwas racing like Pong around his enclosure as he drove his new

Honda e-coupe along L.A.’s crowded streets toward The Neutral Zone.  The little car wasn’t as sexy as he’d have liked, but it did get 400 miles to the charge and was fun to drive.  Actually, he didn’t “drive” in the sense of handling the brakes and steering.  In Los Angeles, as in most cities of any size and almost all freeways, sensors embedded in the pavement communicated with a central mainframe computer and the car computers, taking over and automatically setting their speed, spacing the cars and steering them according to the destination input fed to the cars’ voice-activated GPS units.  It had been more than a decade since traffic signals were eliminated and vehicles without modern electronics were forbidden to enter the regulated zones.  As a result, cars rarely stopped or even slowed for intersections, where they threaded precisely around each other, narrowly missing each other but never colliding.  Traffic jams were rare, caused usually by a car’s mechanical failure leading to an accident.  With modern safety devices, injuries were even more rare.  Traffic flowed better than it ever had, and traffic on the freeways averaged over 70 miles per hour, day and night. 

            Arden wondered why Lubya would pick him to confide in, and what it could be about.  Holos on both sides of the street competed for his attention, showing plates of sushi suspended in front of a Japanese restaurant, Heineken being poured in a golden stream into a frosted glass in front of a sports bar, a nearly-nude, two-foot-tall pole dancer in front of a strip joint, all just over the heads of pedestrians cruising the boulevards.  Huge holos hung suspended over many buildings, displaying the newest-model Lexus, the beach at Waikiki with a wind-surfer skipping along, a scene from an action-adventure holo, and on and on.

            The Neutral Zone was much more laid back, a one-story building on a corner with a parking lot in the rear, its only advertisement an old-fashioned neon sign over the entrance with its name in blue script over a tilted martini glass with a stuffed olive pierced by a toothpick.  He made a left into the lot, got out and walked away, the security system beeping softly behind him.  He saw only an older Mercedes and a late-model Cadillac in the lot.  Entering the front door, he found an interior resembling a cozy living room, with groupings of sofas, love seats and easy chairs around coffee tables taking up most of the space.  At one table, an older couple sat drinking from highballs.  The man laughed softly.  Two businessmen sat at another table, going over some kind of plans on a portable holo.  An ornate oak bar filled one wall, the bottles arranged before a large mirror and softly lit from below through glass shelves.  A white-haired man sat at the bar, looking despondent and nursing a drink.  There was no holo to distract the few patrons, only muted Chopin coming from hidden speakers.  Looking around, Arden noted that Lubya had not yet arrived, so he staked out a grouping of two easy chairs and a small table in the far corner and sat facing the door.

            A pretty server about his age approached, and Arden told her he was waiting for someone.  She said “I’ll come back,” and faded away. 

            Lubya entered just then and began looking around.  She wore jeans studded with rhinestones along the outside seams over open-toed shoes with a medium heel that gave her a couple of inches, and a black leather car coat over a cream-colored alpaca sweater.   Arden’s pulse quickened.  She was really stunning.  He waved.  She spotted him and headed his way, looking serious.  He stood as she approached, said hello, and watched her sit.  She flashed him a tight smile and thanked him for coming.  He sat somewhat nervously.

            “What are you having?” Lubya asked, as the server returned.

            “Uh, a Heineken.”

            “That sounds good.  I’ll have the same.”

            The server smiled.  “I’ll be right back.”

            Lubya fussed with her purse momentarily, then put it firmly on the table between them.  “Maybe this isn’t a good idea.  I’m not sure I should get you mixed up in this.”

            Arden was uncertain how to respond.  “Mixed up in what?”

            “As I mentioned, I have a personal problem and I don’t know who to talk to about it.  You seem like a nice guy, and I just thought…”

            “No, I don’t mind.  I don’t know whether I can help, but I’m a good listener.”  In truth, Arden was so taken with her he’d have danced on hot coals for her amusement.

            She seemed self-conscious and less confident than before, fidgeting a moment before starting out.  “I don’t know where to start.”

            “That’s no problem.  I’ve got all night.  Just talk and I’ll listen.”

            The server arrived with two chilled glasses and their bottles of beer, ice crystals slowly sliding down their flanks.  She poured silently and was gone.

            “Well, four years ago when I was in grad school and we were developing the technology for brainriding, I was so busy I didn’t have time for a social life.  I guess I       

was kind of a nerd, but it was so exciting to be at the forefront of something so revolutionary, that I worked at it all day every day.  I never thought of anything else.”

“Totally understandable.  You were changing the world.”

            “We were.  We really were.  So when we finished school and I was trying to figure out how to use this knowledge I had, I knew I didn’t want to sell out to a big corporation.  At best, I’d be a slave to company politics.  At worst, they’d chew me up and spit me out after they’d gotten all they could get from me.  Of all the people working on the project, I was the one who best understand the bio-electronics.  IBM, Sony, Apple…they all offered us jobs, and everyone else went for it.  But none of them would let me keep the rights or even share ownership of anything I might develop, so I turned them all down.”

            That took guts, I bet.”

            “Yes, but within two months I was ready to give in.  I couldn’t find any decent work with no strings attached, didn’t have any money to develop the products I had in mind.  Even without me, the big players were certain to get the equipment developed before too long, and then where would I be?  It looked hopeless.  Then this guy, Cesar, just showed up at my dinky little apartment one day with an offer beyond my wildest dreams.  He had as much capital as I’d need to develop the software and hardware, and then commercially exploit it.  I would get 50% of everything I developed, as long as it had commercial value and was exploited for profit.  He’d be a silent partner.  All I had to do was run everything through his accountant and have weekly meetings so he could

contribute ideas and make sure I was on the track to develop the profit potential.  Otherwise, I ran the show.  I had carte blanche.”

            “Sounds like a sweet deal.”

“It was.  His lawyers drew up a contract and I borrowed money from my folks to retain a top-flight attorney to review and approve it before I signed.  He told me it was too good to pass up.  The details aren’t important, but it’s made me financially secure.”

            “So far so good,” Arden commented.

            “Yes, but then it gets complicated.”  She looked away and sighed.  “Cesar is very attractive.”

            Arden felt a twinge of jealousy.

            Lubya seemed to study the bottles behind the bar for a moment.  “Oh, I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.  You don’t need to hear my problems.”

            “It’s okay,” Arden hastily replied.  “You’ve been so nice to me already.”

            “Are you sure?  I feel so…lame about this.”

            “No, please don’t feel like that.  I want to be your friend.”

            She looked searchingly at him.  “All right.”  She sighed again.  “So, after I had begun developing the concept for Wild Rides Inc., I was seeing Cesar fairly often to discuss things; you know, how it was going, where the money was being spent.  Then one day he asked me out.  I was flattered.  I’d hardly had a date since high school, and here’s the handsome, smooth-talking, incredibly rich guy driving a Ferrari who wants to date me.  So I said yes.”                                                                                           

            She could see that Arden was growing somewhat uncomfortable with this narrative, but she pressed on.

            “At first, it was like one of those novels that bored housewives read.  I totally fell for this guy and the lifestyle.  Weekends in Monaco, only the best restaurants, gifts of jewelry that cost more than the car I was driving.  Cesar seemed crazy about me too.  I knew women practically followed him around, but it seemed like he didn’t even notice.  Two months after our first date, I moved into his Bel Air home.  I felt like the luckiest girl in the world.  That was about two years ago, just after we opened this place, and the money started pouring in.”

            Arden spoke.  “I take it that at some point things took a downturn.”

            Their beers were empty.  Arden signalled for two more.  Lubya slipped off her shoes and tucked her feet under her.

            “Cesar had talked me into using genetically enlarged condors to smuggle drugs.  He had arranged for a genetics lab in Mexico to create them after he financed Wild Rides, and all I had to do was get them wired.  He would recruit the drivers from our customers and I would arrange the training.  The profits could be laundered through the legitimate business.  I didn’t like the idea, but he convinced me that it was the only way to get ahead financially enough to dominate the market.  We knew that several competitors were close on our heels with big corporate money behind them, and we had to get up to speed quickly.  So I went along with it.  But it’s always made me uncomfortable.”

            “Frankly, it does me too,” Arden said.  “But anyway….”                                              

            “Anyway, things went great for quite a while.  Cesar kept reasuring me that even if the DEA ever took down one of our condors or intercepted a drop, we’d be in the clear.  Only the guys who directly answer to him know how this works, and they all know talking would be suicide.  Besides that, there’s the Abort button on your interface.  In the legal rides, it simply severs the connection.  In the smuggling birds, it pops a sulphuric acid capsule that melts the implant, kills the bird, and elminates any possible connection to Wild Rides.  But there are still too many people on both ends, and one of them is all the DEA needs.  Cesar keep reassuring me that he’d take care of everything if it ever went that far, but I’m not so sure any more.  He also ignores the fact that our communications with our rides is done by plain old two-way radio, and if anyone ever figures out how we’re doing this and cracks our transmission codes, we’re done, and it all comes back to me, not him.  I don’t think I can trust him any more.”

            “Why?” Arden asked.  The server returned with two frosty bottles and two clean glasses.  They were silent while she waited on them.  Arden tried not to be obvious as he appreciated Lubya’s compact figure, the smoothness of her skin, her delicate features, her slender fingers with the exquisitely manicured nails. 

            Lubya continued, watching the server’s retreating back.  “After about a year and a half that seemed perfect, I began to notice that Cesar was finding reasons to be out late, making more business trips, and just not being as attentive as before.  Whenever I said anything about it, anything at all, he got testy with me, told me that he had a big business to run and a lot of obligations.  Then he started getting critical of me, how I dress, how I act.  We were making a shitload of money, but he was never satisfied.  Then about two or three months ago, I became convinced that he’s catting around.”

            “How come?”

            “Cesar is, to put it mildly, a highly-sexed kind of guy.  He rarely wants to…you know…any more.  I can deal with a failed romance, but now I’m getting a little scared.”

“Scared?”

“I think Cesar is setting things up to throw me to the wolves if the Fed ever gets too close.  I’m the one with the know-how.  I’m the one with all the hardware and the software.  On paper, I run everything.  I hire everyone.  Cesar is an investor only.  But the thing that scares me most is that Cesar didn’t get to be a wealthy drug dealer without burying a few people.  We have a lot of parties.  Some of them are mostly for people who either buy drugs or smuggle them.  I can tell that nearly all of them are terrified of him.  They’re not scared of me.  If anyone does talk, they won’t talk about him.  I’m getting pretty sure that everyone who could point a finger would point it at me, not him.”

            Arden sat back.  “Wow.  I see what you mean.  I had no idea who was behind the smuggling until now.  Even my interview was done on camera, and the interviewers’ voices were electronically altered so I couldn’t tell whether they were male or female.  Well, I’m sure you know that.”

            “Of course.  In fact, Cesar did all the talking about the smuggling part, and I conducted all the testing and questions that had to do with the technical parts of the job.”

            “I was wondering that after I saw you in my cubicle that day.”  He noticed how glum she was, how tired and defeated.  “So what are you going to do?”        

She shook her head.  “I don’t know.  I’m trapped.  My life is in this business.  He’d never let me sell it to someone else.  He wants me right where I am, right between him and the DEA.  I haven’t let on that I know he’s cheating on me, but he’s not stupid and he knows I’m not either.  He’s getting meaner with me, and I think I see where this is going.  I think he’s going to break it off with me, and when he does, I’ll be nothing but an employee.  He doesn’t care what our contract says.  I’ll be nothing but an employee for life, because he can’t let me go.  He’s making too much money on me.  And if I walk out, I’ll be nothing but a liability to be eliminated.  Not a very bright future, huh?”

            “Jesus, Lubya.  That reeks.”  He sipped his beer, looking sincerely sympathetic.  “Is there anything I can do?  I mean, I’m nobody, but I owe you a lot already.”

            She propped her arm on the arm of her chair and rested her forehead in her hand.  “I don’t know.  I just needed to confide in someone.  I can’t tell my family.  My dad would insist that I make a deal with the DEA and try to salvage the business, but there’s no way.  You heard in your interview what happens when people talk, and he’s not kidding.  I’d never live to testify.  I don’t want to drag you into this.  I just need to think.”

            “Well, if I can help…”

            “Arden, I’m already starting to be sorry I asked you to meet me here.”  She slid her feet back onto the floor and into her shoes.  “Cesar knows people everywhere, people who owe him favors, people who owe him money, people looking for the little presents of white powder he drops off.  I don’t think he knows this place, but how can I be sure someone he knows hasn’t seen us together?”

            “I don’t know.  I don’t even know the guy, but if you think we should leave…”

            “Maybe I’m just being paranoid.  I’m sorry I said anything to you.  It’s not your worry and you shouldn’t be involved.  Maybe it would be better if we leave.  But there’s something else I wanted to discuss with you.  Could you come by for a few minutes?  I’m feeding a friend’s cat for a few weeks while she’s in Europe.  It would be safer than my old place.”

Arden tried to conceal his thrill at the idea of being alone with her.  “No

problem.  I don’t have any plans tonight.”                                                                                 

            “Good.  It’s the Mercury Apartments, 1701 Wilhoit, Apartment 220.”  Arden repeated it.  “Give me a five-minute head start, then come on over.  If everything’s okay, I’ll leave the door ajar and you can come on in.  If there’s any problem, the door will be closed.  Just walk on by and I’ll contact you tomorrow during your shift.  Okay?”

            “All right.  Five minutes.” 

            She stood up and spoke loud enough for the bartender to hear.  “Thanks for the beer.  I’ll think about that new assignment.  See you at work tomorrow.”

            Arden stood up.  “Thanks.  Have a good night.”

            Lubya left without looking back.  Arden sat down again and finished his beer, watching the businessmen’s holo and trying to figure out what it depicted.  It looked like a layout for a strip mall.  He went to the bathroom, wondering what else Lubya could want to talk about.  Returning to the table, he left a generous tip and signalled for the check.

            The apartment was about twenty minutes away in Echo Park.  He spent that time trying to digest what Lubya had told him as he let the Honda do all the work of finding its way.  Her story had stirred his protective instinct and fueled his infatuation.  Despite all she’d accomplished in her still-short life, she seemed so small and vulnerable, in need of a champion.  Arden knew he was no hero, but he was certain he would go to great lengths to help her if she asked.  He’d never known anyone like her, and probably never would again.          

            Once in the parking lot, his GPS showed the exact location of number 220.  The apartments were nice but nothing special.  Arden walked casually up the stairs and into the hall that split the second floor into two halves.  The apartment was halfway down on the right, and the door was ajar, although the room inside was dim.  He stepped in, and as he closed the door, a lamp was switched on and he could see Lubya sitting on the sofa beneath the lamp, feet tucked under her as before.  “Hi,” she said.

            “Hi,” he responded, looking around.  He saw no cat, but he could see into the kitchen, and on the floor were two bowls.  Lubya motioned for him to sit on the sofa.  On the coffee table were two Heinekens, already open.

            He sat in front of one of the beers while she watched him.  She picked up her beer and held it out for a toast.

            “To the future.”

            Arden awkardly picked up his beer and touched it to hers, harder than he intended.  “The future.”  He drank and leaned back, feeling uncomfortable and unsure how to act.  She was still watching him.

            “Arden?”  He turned to face her.  “I need to be held.  Could you do that for me?”

            He felt as though a dam broke inside himself.  He turned toward her and scooted closer.  She leaned into his arms, and he held her that way, his heart thumping harder than it did after his morning run.  When she turned her face up to him, he was certain where this was leading, and instinct took over. 

#

            Two hours later they had showered and were sitting at the dining table facing each other, sipping red wine she’d poured for them.  His hair was still damp and in disarray, but hers didn’t seem to have been disturbed.  He had put his pants back on but was still shirtless and shoeless.  She had found a red silk robe to put on; was holding his hand and studying it, her bare foot atop his.  Arden was completely hooked.

            “You don’t think I’m too old for you?” she asked without looking up.

            “Are you kidding?  You look younger than I do.”

            She smiled.  “That’s the Asian in me.”

            “You are so beautiful.  I haven’t been able to get you out of my mind since the day I met you.  I didn’t know what it was like to be in…”  He stopped, suddenly aware that neither of them had yet used the word.  He actually blushed.  “I mean…”

            She looked into his eyes.  “It’s okay.  I didn’t expect this either.”  She pressed his hand to her face and closed her eyes.  His heart felt like it could explode.  They were silent for a moment.  Then Lubya opened her eyes and sighed.  “You’re spending the night, aren’t you?” 

             “If you want.  But won’t Cesar miss you?” 

            “He and his bodyguard took his helicopter down to Mexico this afternoon.  He won’t be back until tomorrow afternoon at the earliest.  Sometimes he parties for a couple of days.  He rarely even calls me any more when he’s gone.” 

            Arden couldn’t believe his luck.  Then he remembered her last comments at the bar.  “Wasn’t there something else was it you wanted to discuss with me?”

            “Oh, yes.  I’d forgotten.”  She laid his hand on the table and covered it with hers.  “I’m just curious.  I don’t have that much experience brainriding, much less driving.  It’s creepy to me, even though I practically invented it.  And I don’t have the talent for it like you do.  I just don’t feel comfortable in another creature’s skin.  What I wanted to know is, do the rides ever fight the driver?”

            “Some, yeah.  Not in the sense that they seem to know what’s happening to them and resist being driven.  What you’re fighting is their instinct.  None of the animals I’ve driven have a high enough level of consciousness to have what we think of as will or will power, although most have a very strong will to live.  It’s relatively easy to control them.  Generally, the idea is to let them do what their instinct tells them as long as it’s what you want them to do.  When you want something different, you have to overpower them with your will, which becomes progressively harder the more the animal believes it’s in danger.  That’s what makes it challenging.  It takes really intense focus, and very quick reactions.  Now animals high on the scale like Pong?  I don’t know.  I sense something more like will in his brain.  When I try to drive him, I don’t know whether he’ll consciously fight me, or if I’ll win if he does.  Do you foresee a problem?”

            “With Pong?  No, I’m sure you can handle it.  We have eight drivers, and I think you’re going to be the best of them.  The only thing you lack now is experience with all the animals we’ve wired, but that will come.  You pick up skills with new ones faster than anyone else I’ve ever seen.  That’s why I chose you to work with Pong.”

            “Thanks.  You won’t be sorry.”

            She patted his hand.  “I know I won’t.”

            Arden yawned.  “I’m feeling like I could sleep around the clock.”  He looked visibly exhausted.

            “Why don’t you turn in?  I need to do a couple of girl things.  I’ll be there in a few.”

            “Sounds good to me.”  He stood up, leaned over and kissed her, then walked somewhat unsteadily toward the bedroom.

            By the time Lubya followed him a few minutes later he was dead to the world.

#

            The next couple of weeks were a blur for Arden.  Immersing himself in his work all day, then into the evenings practicing with Pong and other animals new to him, he’d never imagined loving a job so much.  Several times, when their schedules permitted, he met Lubya at her friend’s apartment for an hour or two of bliss.  He had never known such passion existed in him.  The time was never long enough, and he couldn’t get enough of her.  He knew the danger of being discovered, but couldn’t stop himself and didn’t want to anyway.  Whether it was infatuation or love, he didn’t know and didn’t care; he simply had to have all of her he could.

            His new life was consuming him totally.  Hatred for Cesar was growing in Arden, though he’d never met the man.  Lubya had revealed that Cesar’s verbal abuse was getting more frequent, and he was provoking arguments.  Once he had shoved her and raised a hand to strike her, refraining at the last moment, only because, Lubya believed, he didn’t want to risk police involvement in their lives.  But the hatred that flashed in his eyes had truly frightened her.

            Nearly three weeks into their affair, Lubya asked him to meet her at her friend’s place that evening.  Cesar was away, and they’d have the whole night.  Arden’s heart began thumping at the promise of an evening to rival their first one together. 

He arrived at dusk according to plan, bringing takeout from an Indian restaurant nearby.  She let him in, grinning like a schoolgirl ditching class, closing and locking the door behind him.  The table was set, complete with a bottle of wine and glases.  Arden realized he hadn’t taken lunch that day, and devoured the food, with Lubya laughing at him as he wolfed curried chicken. 

            Appetites sated and wine in hand, they sank into the sofa cushions, leaving the dishes for another time.  Before they’d finished their wine, most of their clothes were strewn around the living room, and they were intertwined on the sofa.  Lubya, breathing heavily, put her hands to his bare chest and said, “I think we need a little more room to stretch out.”  She slipped out of his embrace, stood up, took his hand, and pulled him up.  She smiled over her shoulder as she led him into the bedroom.  He was having trouble walking.
            Much later, exhausted, they were sitting up in bed, leaning back on pillows propped against the headboard.  Lubya had brought glasses of wine from a fresh bottle she’d just opened and set them on the nightstand.  Arden felt contentment like none he’d ever known, but knew their future was uncertain.  He put his arm around her and pulled her close, putting his lips against her ear.

            “I love you.”

            She turned her face up to his, suddenly very serious.  “Do you, Arden?  Do you really love me?”

            “Yes.  I really do.”

            “I love you too.  I really do.  But what are we going to do about it?”

            “We’ll work something out.”

            Lubya turned away and looked out the window, where a Japanese pine softly illuminated by lights in the central courtyard of the apartments swayed gently in a breeze.

            “Sometimes you seem so young and naïve, Arden.”

            “We’ll work something out, Lubya.  We will.”  

            Lubya reached for her wine and took a drink, then swirled the wine around the glass.  “Do you think you could drive a human?”

            Arden was somewhat taken aback by the change of topic.  He took a deep breath, then reached for his wine and took a drink.  “Wow.  I don’t know.  If the person volunteered and didn’t fight it, I don’t see why not.  Definitely no problem as far as motor skills go.  But if the person fought it, I’d be at a disadvantage, especially if the  person was strong-willed.  Someone like that would probably be able to stay in control.  I could probably control a child, or someone very submissive.”

            “But if it was someone strong-willed.  What if they were really exhausted, or had too much to drink, or had taken some kind of downer medication?”

            “Maybe then it could be done.  Why do you ask?”

            “Thinking out loud, I guess.  Trying to figure a way out of the mess I’m in with Cesar.”

            “Wo.  From what you’ve told me about him, you’d really be playing with fire.”

            “I’m already doing that.  Cesar is obviously tired of me.  He said he’ll be gone a few days on some excuse that he has business in Paris, and I shouldn’t call him.  I’m smart enough to act like nothing’s wrong, because I don’t want to force a showdown, but it’s coming anyway, and probably soon.  I’m beginning to think he’s going to force me to sell out my part of the business, or worse  He’s already got me training my replacement, although that’s not how he put it.  Karl was a year behind me at UCLA, working in the same field.  Cesar says we need Karl to help with all the new salons coming online across the country, even though I can do all the technical stuff from my current office.  Setting up salons is no harder than setting up a Starbucks.  It’s just a matter of making the equipment, the offices and the booths fit the space.  We have perfectly competetent people to do that.  But teaching Karl my secrets makes me expendable.  This company will be worth billions in a decade.  Cesar wants it all, so he can get out of the drug business.  This company is my invention, my baby, my future.  I’m not giving it up.”

            “What if you just tell him you won’t sell?”                                                                           

            “That’s why I say you’re naïve, Arden.  You don’t say no to Cesar unless you want to wind up on a slab.  My folks would inherit my interest, and he’d probably get it for much less from them.  If I don’t do something first, I’m screwed.”

            “What you’re talking is some heavy shit, Lubya.”

            “I’m talking all or nothing.”  She sighed heavily.  “I wouldn’t blame you if you walked away right now and pretended we never had a conversation outside the office.”

            Arden twisted around in bed to face her, taking her hands in his.  “I don’t think I could do that now.  How far have you thought this out?”

            Lubya let the sheet slip down off her breasts as she sat up straighter and turned toward him.  “I know a lot about the brain, and I’m sure that even if he had enough drugs in him to lose consciousness, his muscles would still respond if he were wired.  The problem is delivering the drugs in the right amount and keeping him too stoned to resist until he’s been wired and I’m done with him.”

            “What is it you’re thinking of doing once you have him wired?”  Arden’s voice betrayed his trepidation about what was coming.

            “If I had a new contract ready for his signature, I figure a good driver like you could get Cesar to a notary public, and he could sign over his half to me for a reasonable amount.  I could hand over a check, get the contract and a receipt notarized, and be done in half an hour.”

            “Uh…and what happens then?  After I break off the connection and the drugs wear off, Cesar is going to be really pissed off.”

            “There’s only one answer to that, isn’t there?”                                                        

            “You don’t want to go there, Lubya.”

            Suddenly agitated, she stood, threw a silk robe over her shoulders, and began pacing, not bothering to tie the robe.  “Then where do I go, Arden?  You’re so fucking smart.  You tell me!”

            He was shocked by this outburst.  “I’m sorry.  I didn’t mean…”

            “I’m trapped, Arden!  That sonofabitch has all the power here.  He’s rich, he’s ruthless, and he has at least a hundred guys on his payroll who’d take me out without even asking for a bonus.  Everything I’ve worked for, all my ideas, all my blood, sweat,  and tears are in Wild Rides, and I’m probably days away from him taking it all for nearly nothing, if he even lets me live.  So if you don’t want to help, just get the fuck out and pretend I never trusted you…”

Arden was nearly speechless.  Half an hour ago he’d thought his dreams were coming true, and now…what?  He got up, came up behind her and put his arms around her.

            “I’ll help baby, I’ll help.  It just seems like there must be a better way.  If we sat down and thought about it, maybe…”

            She turned in his arms and faced him, her naked breasts pressed up against him. 

            “Don’t you see?  There is no other way.  It’s him or me.  Him or me.”  Her head fell against his chest and she started crying.

            He stroked her hair.  “Oh, baby, don’t cry.  We’ll work it out.  We’ll work it out.  I promise.  I won’t let you down.”

#

            Back at his apartment building the next morning, Arden sat in his car after the garage door was down, feeling inexplicably hung over and headachey, wondering what in hell he’d gotten himself into.  His world had changed so radically in the short space of a few months that it was hard to adjust to, even without the current crisis in which he’d found himself.  No use fighting it, he was head over heels in love with Lubya, and in his mind there was no choice but to protect her from what seemed like a certain fate unless she went on the offensive before Cesar did.  For all he knew, Cesar was already spying on Lubya and knew about their relationship. 

            Lubya had explained that she didn’t think any of Cesar’s associates in the drug business had any idea how he arranged the condor drops.  He was extremely secretive in general, but particularly about this part of his business.  He’d told her that the drugs, which were of only the highest quality, brought in by condors were for private clients known only to Cesar, much of it traded for political favors, insider information on securities trading, or simply sold to wealthy acquaintances for inflated prices.  What remained was sold at premium prices to socially-connected dealers who jacked up the prices even further and sold only to the wealthy and famous. 

            Unfortunately for Lubya, Cesar had taken her into his confidence back when he actually thought he was in love with her.  Once he was finished with her, she’d be a huge liability, a potential leak that could only be plugged one way.  She was right.  It was him or her.

            Never before had Arden given serious thought to killing a human being, but it seemed there was no logical way way out of it.  A man like Cesar could crush Lubya, and Arden’s life would mean no more to him than a bug’s.  It seemed there was no turning back.  With Cesar out of the picture, she’d simply have to see that Eddie got a generous separation allowance, and from then on she’d be out of the drug trade, a legitimate business owner.  And free to be with him.

            He looked at the clock on his dashboard.  Only an hour until he had to be at work.  He got out and closed the door.  The Honda beeped gently at him.

#

            That afternoon, Arden was sitting in his cubicle awaiting his next assignment when Lubya contacted him.  They had agreed after their first night together that she would initiate all contact.  When she contacted him at work, she would always greet him as “Wonder Boy” so that he could be sure it was her on the other end, since the “voice” in his head that came through the interface was generic.  He would greet her as “Supergirl” to affirm she had the right person, just in case someone else should be in his work space.

            “Hi, Wonder Boy.” 

            “You okay, Supergirl?”

            “I’m good.  I’ve thought about this.  A lot.”

            “Me too.  It’s practically all I think about.”

            “He called me this morning right after I got home.  He’s coming home day after tomorrow.  He sounded…weird.  I think he’s up to something.  I think we need to do it then.”

            Arden’s pulse quickened, and he could feel sweat breaking out on his forehead and under his arms.  “So, what do you have in mind?”                                                              

            “Cesar has his helicopter pick him up at LAX.  The pilot drops him at a helipad near the Getty Museum, where Cesar has his car.  It’s only a few miles from here.  He has a bodyguard named Rogelio who travels with him, but he always gives him some time off after trips when he plans to stay home for the day, so he’ll come home alone.  Cesar loves my machaca for breakfast, and I can put in enough of my prescription sleeping pills to be sure he’ll go out.  Then I’ll inject him with some heroin.  I know where he keeps his product samples.  While he’s totally out of it, I can get him wired.  I have all the stuff I’ll need in my home office.  When you get there, you can get him up and walking, and we’ll head for a notary public.”

            “What about the contract he’s supposed to sign?”

“I’ve already discussed it with my lawyer.  He can have it ready by tomorrow. Don’t worry.  Everything we need, the heroin, the sleeping pills…it’s all right there.  You just make sure to practice on driving Pong every chance you get until then.  I’ll set it up.  Practice making him do things he doesn’t want to do.  Talk to Eddie and ask to take a long lunch day after tomorrow and I’ll approve it.  You have a condor run scheduled for three o’clock, but if everything goes as planned we may abort that.  I should be ready for you by noon.  You can do it, Wonder Boy.  Just keep telling yourself you can do it.”

            “You don’t need help getting him wired?”

            “I’ve done it hundreds of times.  The word ‘wired’ is actually a misnomer.  It’s really a tiny implant.  I make a small incision with a laser scalpel on the back of his head above the hair line, anchor the interface in the brain stem, and then seal it with bioglue.  The stuff works so well that even if he knew I’d done it, he wouldn’t be able to find the scar.  The whole thing takes about twenty minutes.  The rest of it is programming the interface.  I’ve done it hundreds of times.”

            “Assuming this all goes right and he signs the new contract, what happens after that?”

            “We’ll go back to his place.  Then it’s up to you to keep feeding him sleeping pills and heroin until he goes to sleep.  Permanently.  We’ll need his fingerprints and DNA on the syringe and the bottle, so it will look like accidental suicide, like he was just trying to get to sleep to get over jet lag.  When he’s gone, I’m free.  We’re free.”

            “What if something goes wrong?  You’ve never wired a human, right?”  “Nothing will go wrong.  The implant is the same for all large animals.  It’s the programming that changes by species, and I’ve practiced a lot on chimps.  Anyway, he’ll be so drugged he’ll be no harder to control than a rag doll.”      

            “I keep thinking, isn’t there some other way?”

            “With all that thinking, have you come up with anything?”

            “No, but maybe if we thought about it for a few days, really thought about it…”

            “He could be planning something right now!  We have to beat him to the punch.  There won’t be a better time.  I know him.  He’ll have a bad case of jet lag, he’ll be drinking, and it’ll never get any easier to do this.”

            Arden wavered.  “I don’t know…  It’s just that…”

            “Arden, I love you.  Do you love me?”

            “Oh, God yes, Lubya!  You know I do.”

            “Then remember this: When he’s done with me, and that won’t be long, I’ll still be the only person who knows enough to put him in federal prison.  My life won’t be worth a dime.  Even if he doesn’t kill me, I’ll be a slave to his drug dealing.  And so will you.  Either way, we’ll never be together.”

            “All right, all right.  I know you’re right.  It’s just hard to wrap my head around it.”

            “Look, Arden.  I know it’s a hard thing to deal with.  It’s hard for me to deal with. The only way to handle it is to have a plan and stick to it.  Do what I’m asking, and work with Pong as much as you can.  Assert your will on him.  Make him climb when he wants to sleep.  Make him refuse food.  The time will pass so fast you won’t believe it.  Don’t think about what you have to do day after tomorrow.  Leave that to me.  All right?”

            “Yeah.  Yeah, I can handle it.” 

“If you think you’re getting cold feet, think about when this is over.  After that, it’s smooth sailing for us.  Nothing held over our heads.  You’re going to come through for me, aren’t you Arden?”

            “You know I will.  But why do I need to be there?  Can’t I do it from the office?  Won’t it look coincidental that I take the afternoon off the day Cesar dies?”

            “Think about it, Arden.  First of all, no one will ever think to connect you with Cesar’s accidental overdose.  Second, your interface at the office is subject to monitoring from several terminals in the building.  Third, if you’re on duty, wouldn’t you be driving for customers?  How are you supposed to do two things at once?  Wouldn’t it be really suspicious if I told Eddie you’re doing something for me and not to disturb you?”

            Arden felt stupid.  “You’re right, you’re right.  I’m just nervous.”

            She gave him the address and the gate code, and told him to use the monorail and pay cash to get to Bel Air.  She gave him walking directions from the Bellagio Way entrance to Bel Air, told him to dress in a tennis outfit so he’d blend in. 

            “Don’t worry.  I’ll be there, and I’ll do what I need to do.”

            “Okay.  All right.  I love you, Arden.  I’ll call you later.”

            “I love you too.  But Lubya?”

            “Yeah?”

            “Just a suggestion.  He may think something’s wrong when he gets groggy.  Keep reassuring him that he’s okay.  Act like you’re concerned about his welfare, and ask if you should call 911.  If he wants you to, pretend to do it.” 

            “Good idea.  Now you’re thinking right.”

“No matter how many chemicals he has in his system, he’ll know something’s going on the minute I start pulling his strings.  I just hope I can handle him.”

            “You can do it, Arden.  This is for us.  Just stick to the plan.”  And she was gone.

            Arden still found himself not quite believing this was really happening.  And yet it was.  There seemed to be nothing to do but stick to the plan.  For the rest of the day, he spent every minute when he wasn’t on an assignment working with Pong.

            One of the problems in driving Pong was his unpredictability.  He instantly switched gears without rhyme or reason, it seemed, going from docility to agression, from loving to scolding and back.  The only things that settled him down for long were grooming, regardless of which end he was on, and sleeping.  Arden found that when Pong  

was asleep, he was easily able to assume muscle control without resistance from Pong, although opening his eyelids quickly brought him awake.

            Another problem was Pong’s irritability when distracted from his purpose.  He was like a willful two-year-old human child refusing to obey when given a direct order.  He stubbornly reisted Arden’s inputs, but gradually Arden was asserting mastery over the animal, and with extreme concentration was able to force action from him despite his resistance.  Often, when directed into playful activity, he eventually began having fun, and then his resistance melted away and Arden could back off.  Arden found that small movements, like bringing his hand to his mouth, met with with little resistance from Pong, only mild curiosity that his hand was moving by itself.  Arden gained confidence that he could drive Cesar if his willpower were subdued by drugs.

            Lubya contacted Arden just before his usual quitting time and asked how it was going, seeming pleased with his response.  She told him she had left word with the night duty counter clerk and the upstairs receptionist that Arden was working on a special project and was not to be disturbed. 

            “But don’t work too late,” she cautioned.  “I want you at your best, and it sounds like you’re making great progress.  “You have all day tomorrow if you need it.  Tomorrow night I want you to get at least eight hours of sleep, even if you need a sleeping pill to do it.  Okay?”

            “Okay.  I think by tomorrow night I’ll be able to control Pong no matter how hard he resists, and it’s hard to imagine Cesar could be any more stubborn when he’s full of sleeping pills and heroin.”

            “Great.  We’ll get through this together, sweetheart.  I love you.”

            “I love you too.”

            After saying good night, Arden bored on.  When the chimps began settling down for the night, Arden practiced keeping Pong awake, and found that the sleepier he got, the easier it was to drive him.  It was very satisfying.  When he finally allowed Pong to sleep, he stayed a while to see what he dreamed of.  The dreams, predictably, were mostly about dominating the females of the group, fighting the dominant male and forcing him to turn tail, and eating his favorite foods, such as apples, that the dominant male usually grabbed for himself.

            The next day passed in a blur of activity for Arden.  He had a condor drop scheduled, as well as a number of riders to carry on a variety of birds.  Most exciting was the cheetah he’d recently qualified to drive.  It had two cubs to feed and was happy to hunt as often as Arden needed.

            Late in the morning, Lubya contacted him to give him another brief pep talk and tell him the schedule still looked good.  She had the contract, had made an appointment for the following day with a notary, and had double-checked everything.  She reminded him to get plenty of sleep and follow his usual routine.  If anyone asked, he was to say he just wanted the time off to sit by the pool and read.  He was to be at Cesar’s home at twelve-thirty.  She gave him detailed instructions on getting there.

            “How’s it going with Pong?  Are you able to drive him okay?”

            “I’ve got a basic handle on it.  The hardest thing is keeping up with him and redirecting him because he moves and reacts so fast.  But it’s sinking in.  The trick is going with the flow.  I think with a little more practice, I’ll have it.”

            They discussed the details of the plan and then parted company.

            He got little time with Pong all day, but after taking a half hour for a junk food dinner, spent until nearly ten p.m. practicing the hardest moves on him.  He felt totally capable of handling the big primate, but would he be able to handle a nearly-incapacitated drug dealer with a reputation for brutality?  It was nearly time to find out.

            Finally arriving at his apartment that night, he threw back two shots of tequila, brushed his teeth, and fell into bed.  After thrashing for half an hour, he took melatonin and gradually drifted to sleep.

            When he awoke the next morning, he had a brief moment of anticipation of a new day before remembering what this one would bring.  Then he had to force himself to put on running shorts and head out the door for his usual two miles, turning his music up to drown out the thousand worries trying to get his attention.  Back at home, he turned on the news and ate a quick breakfast before showering, dressing, and laying out tennis clothes to change into later on.  Then he headed for work. 

            Hard as he wished otherwise, the day rushed along.  His driving wasn’t as smooth as usual; in fact, it was so choppy that one of his riders asked if he was feeling okay, and when he replied in the affirmative, was asked if he was new here.  He did his best to concentrate, until finally, his last ride was done at eleven-thirty.  Despite all the worries crowding his brain, there was nothing to do but follow the plan. 

            Waving perfunctorily to Eddie, he left the building and went directly to his apartment without stopping for lunch.  He simply had no appetite.  He changed clothes, then did deep-breathing exercises to calm himself down until it was time to leave.  His apartment building was full of college students, and he knew few of them beyond a nodding acquaintanceship.  People came and went constantly and at all hours.  The pool was always busy, and Arden frequently used it on days off.  He doubted anyone could say for sure two days from now whether he’d been there this afternoon or not.  He threw a white hand towel around his neck and left.

            Twenty minutes later he got off the monorail and walked into Bel Air at twenty-five after twelve.  It was a bright, early-summer day, windless and slightly over eighty degrees.  The old-money streets of Bel Air were lined with huge homes, the cheapest of which cost more than Arden was likely to earn in his entire life.  Nearly all the trees, ranging from palms to pines, were tall, mature examples that conveyed comfort, security and stability.  The deciduous trees were in nearly full leaf, their leaves yellow-green.  Cesar’s home, estate actually, was on one of the most exclusive streets, surrounded by a high, ivy-covered wall, as were perhaps half the homes on the block.  There was little traffic and he saw no pedestrians.  He went to the gate and entered the code.  The gate obligingly clicked, loudly enough to make him start, and he went in as casually as he could manage, punching the button to reverse the rolling gate.

            The huge home was set back a hundred yards down a tree-lined drive.  Walking down the drive slowly revealed the Grecian portico and a half acre of manicured lawn, with flower beds brimming with flowering plants, and flowering hedges around the front of the building.  It was hard to imagine a drug lord living there; it looked more like a place the governor should live.  Lubya had instructed him to go directly to the front door and walk in.  He opened the massive oak front door, set from waist level up with a leaded-glass fleur-de-lis.

            The foyer was what you’d expect, from the parqued floor to the crystal chandelier.  Before he could take in the rest of his surroundings, he heard Lubya’s voice coming from an intercom set into the wall by the door.

            “Wonder Boy?”

            “I’m here.”

            “Go straight ahead to the staircase and take the doors to your right.  I’m in the dining room.”

            Following directions, he found Lubya seated at the huge mahogany table, her fingers flying over a holo keyboard on the polished surface as she watched a twenty-one-inch holo display.  Their breakfast dishes and silver, still on the table, had been pushed out of her way.  Across from her, Cesar was slumped over the table, obviously unconscious.  He was smaller than Arden had imagined, appearing an inch or two less than Arden’s height, but somewhat heavier, with longish black hair falling forward and concealing most of his features.  He could have been dead.  He was dressed like a corporate executive in a suit the color of brushed steel, the suit jacket draped over the back of his chair.  His shirt was a luminous blue, and Arden could see the tip of a patterned Hermes tie lying in his lap.  Arden’s pulse was thumping in his temples.  He felt a cold sweat forming on his forehead, and his palms were clammy.                                  

            “It’s going a little slower than I thought.”

            “It’s working though?”

            “Oh, yes, but I have to get it done soon.  Our appointment with the notary is in an hour and a half, and you’ll need some time to work with him and let me know if I need to make adjustments.  I’ve never done a human before.”

            “God, I can’t believe we’re really doing this.”

            She looked up and tried for an encouraging smile.  “Believe it, sweetheart.  In two hours we’ll be done.  You’ll head home and I’ll call 911 to tell them he’s not responding.”  She waited for his weak smile in response, and went back to work. 

            Arden looked around at the opulent room with its expensive furnishings.  The floor was the same parquet as in the foyer.  Under the dining table was a plush Oriental rug, predominantly wine-colored, with a pattern of forest green, gold and navy blue fleur-de-lis.  The wainscoting matched the floor, the baseboards and the crown molding in color.  The walls were artfully plastered and painted a light bluish grey.

“Be sure not to touch anything, just in case,” Lubya warned him. 

            “Oh, sure.  I wouldn’t.”  In fact, he was rather afraid to.

            She touched her micropad and the holos disappeared.  “I think that’s good enough for now.  I want to get you set up with the interface and make sure you’re able to get in okay.  Then you can tell me how it feels.  I’ve never had a ride that could talk back before.  Follow me.”

            She put the micropad into her purse and stood up.  She was dressed in a navy silk pantsuit with a narrow stripe in a maroon that matched the color of her blouse and medium-heeled shoes.  She threaded her way through the huge house and through a sliding door in the rear.  Beyond a swimming pool was a guest house, probably built later than the main house, but blending well with its design.  Her heels clacked on the tiled apron around the pool, and she walked into the guest house.  It was cool inside, with open oak beams supporting a crowned ceiling of varnished oak planks.  The furnishings were more modest than the main house, but nicer than any Arden had ever enjoyed the use of.  On a small table beside an armchair in the living room was the portable interface she had mentioned, which was about the size of a tiny Omni, with a slender headset beside it that looked like a stainless steel arc of metal about half an inch wide.  The connection between them was wireless and, Arden knew, encrypted to avoid any chance of eavesdropping, as were all communications with wired subjects.

            “This is it.”  She touched it and a holo keypad appeared.  “Sit down, and I’ll key you in.”  Arden nervously sat in the armchair and pulled on the headset.  “See if you can have him sitting up by the time I get back to the dining room.  And while I think of it, remember that if he gives you any trouble, stand up.  Studies show that men actually think more quickly when they’re standing.  It’s a relic left us by primitive hunters.”

            He closed his eyes, and at first was confused that he saw only blackness before remembering that Cesar was asleep, and didn’t seem to be dreaming.  He could feel Cesar’s breathing and the pressure of the table against his chest.  After getting his bearings, he opened Cesar’s eyes and could see the linen tablecloth faintly lit by the light coming through the dining room windows.  He could feel some dim awareness in Cesar’s brain, but there was no question he was still asleep.                                                              

            Overcoming his nervousness, Arden brought him up to a sitting position with his forearms resting on the table, just as Lubya entered the room, acting surprised to see Cesar upright. 

            “Cesar?”

            “It’s okay, Lubya.  I have him under control.”  He was surprised at the voice, which was deeper than his own.  To Lubya, the words sounded thick and slurred. 

            Lubya’s hand flew to her chest and she breathed a sigh of relief.  “It’s still a shock to see him sitting there, looking like he woke up.”  She bent over and looked closely at him.  “His eyes are pretty dilated.  Good thing he has dark brown eyes.  It’s hard to tell till you’re up close.  Can you tell whether he’s coming out of it at all?”

            “He’s becoming dimly aware, but I think his brain interprets my presence as a dream.”

            “His voice sounds fine, but I forgot about his accent.  Do you speak any Spanish?”

            “Not really.  Just a couple semesters in high school.”

            “Well, I’d rather you don’t try to fake it.  The notary doesn’t know him, so it won’t be a problem unless we run into someone he knows, which is really unlikely.”

            “This is way weirder than driving an animal.  Just hearing my words come out in someone else’s voice is creepy.”

            “It’s weird hearing his voice talking like you.”

            “I can feel him down there starting to wonder whether he’s dreaming.  Do you have something ready?  Maybe some more sleeping pills?”

            “Don’t worry.  I’ve got plenty.  Why don’t you get up and move around a little?”

            Cesar got to his feet, feeling awkward, and took a few steps.  “I can already tell I’m not getting enough feedback from his muscles.  My brain’s kinda disconnected from his body.”

            “Yeah, you do look a little disjointed.”  She sat down, pulled the micropad out of her purse and fired it up.  After a bit of fiddling, she looked up at him and said, “Walk around the table.  Take it slow.”

            He did as instructed, looking a bit like Frankenstein’s creature in one of those ancient film clips. 

            “Tell me when it feels more natural,” she instructed, pushing a holo slider very slowly.  His motion became less jerky and then smoothed out.

            “That feels about right.”            

“Good.  You look fine.  Now sit down and try writing something.”  He sat.  As she pushed a pad of paper and a pen toward him, her eyes widened.  “Oh God.”  Their eyes met, and then he looked down at the paper, and the same thought dawned on him.

            “Oh God.  I’ve got to sign his name.  What is his last name?”

            “Romano.  It’s Romano.”  Her eyes darted around the room.  “Pull his wallet out.  He has a California driver’s license.  Maybe you could practice his signature.”

            He fumbled for the wallet, got it out, found the driver’s license, looked at the signature.  It was signed as Cesar Romano C. in a florid script.  Arden was familiar with the Hispanic naming practice of using only one’s father’s first surname as his surname for informal purposes, and adding his mother’s first surname after that for formal purposes.  His printed name was shown as Cesar Romano Castillo, and the signature followed a common practice of adding the mother’s initial to the informal signature for contracts and other legal documents.

            Arden attempted to duplicate the signature and made a mess of it.  He was light years away from a convincing forgery.  Panic began to set in.  “I’m nowhere near it!” he whined. 

            Lubya came around the table to look, and dismay showed on her face.  “Relax.  Keep trying.”  She clasped her forehead and began walking around the table.  She rummaged in her purse and came up with a bottle of pills.  She handed across to Cesar, who took it and swallowed it absently.

            Arden tried to relax as he signed the name over and over.  There was some improvement, but not nearly enough.  Lubya was now chewing her fist.

            “Stop,” she said.  “Think about it.  How do you get up to speed so fast on a new animal?  Like Pong?”

Arden blinked.  “I don’t know exactly.  You ride along until you know what he can do, get the feel for it, the muscle control.  It just seems…I don’t know…natural, I guess.  You just have to relax and…drive him.”

            Lubya got down almost in his face.  “You told me yourself that Pong’s agility and reactions are far beyond a human’s ability.  You still have the same old reaction times, and you don’t have the coordination of a gymnast, must less a chimp.  How can you make him do specific things you don’t know how to do at speeds you couldn’t match?  How do you make him, or any creature, get to the goal you want ?”

            Cesar’s face took on a puzzled look.  “It’s not like ordering him around.  It’s more like…visualizing a film of what you want done and forcing that image into his brain so hard it pushes everything else out.  Then his muscle memory takes over.”

            “That’s it, Wonder Boy.  Pong’s still doing things himself that he already knows how to do.  You’re calling on his muscle memory to do what you can’t do.  It has to be a similar thing with Cesar’s signature.  Look at his signature until you can visualize it completely.  Then do what you’ve just described.  Focus on his signature, and Cesar will sign his own name.”  She went behind him and rubbed his shoulders, trying to work the tension out. 

            Cesar, pen in hand over the paper, stared down at the signature on his driver’s

license, and after half a minute said, “It’s not working.”

            “You’ve got to make that image crowd out everything else in his brain.”

            Nothing happened.

“Arden, relax.  You have to relax.  Maybe if you kept the signature in your

mind and close Cesar’s eyes, so he’s not getting all the visual clutter like the picture of him.”

            “Okay.  Okay.  I’ll try.”  He took a deep breath.  Cesar’s face relaxed, his eyes closed, and then his hand jerked and moved, carelessly executing his signature. 

            Lubya was delighted.  “Perfect!”  She clapped her hands and hugged his shoulders.  “Well, almost.  Looks like he’s drunk, but it’ll do.”  Cesar smiled.  Lubya looked at her diamond watch.  “We should go soon.  Let me see you walk some more.”

            “Okay.  But he didn’t like doing that.  Think we should we give him another sleeping pill?”

            “I think a little heroin would be better.  That should make him more docile.  I’ll show you how to do it, and then his prints will be on the kit.  Roll up his sleeve.”

#

            They took Lubya’s Mercedes coupe to the notary’s office on Wilshire to lessen the chance of an encounter with police, remote though it was, and parked in the underground lot of a highrise.  Inside, they crossed the lobby and took the elevator to the seventh floor, Lubya carrying a manila envelope and her handbag.  Cesar’s body felt leaden to Arden, as though Cesar was purposely trying to be dead weight, but he managed well enough that Lubya didn’t seem to notice.  Cesar was in great shape, and although less than Arden’s height, he was heavier and more muscular.  Arden liked the looks he got from women they passed and couldn’t help smiling back a little.  But he also noticed the looks Lubya got from men they passed, and suddenly felt he was playing well out of his league.  The Armani suit he was wearing probably cost what he netted every two weeks. 

            The building was all professional offices, and lacked any garish holos vying for attention.  The signs were all traditional and conservative, usually brass lettering and perhaps a subdued logo, of the “Keller, Steinbeck & Rand, Attorneys at Law, LLP” variety.  Only one office, an accounting firm, advertised itself in soft blue bioluminescent lettering.  The halls were carpeted in deep blue low-pile with a pattern of small grey diamonds. 

            “It’s this one,” Lubya said, pointing to the open double doors of a law firm.  They approached the built-in, glass-brick reception desk, where an efficient-looking, middle-aged woman sat at a holo displaying an appointment calendar.  She was wearing a tiny earpiece.

            “May I help you?” she asked, looking at Cesar appreciatively.  Arden was suddenly jealous of Cesar.  Women didn't look at him like that.

            Lubya answered her.  “Lubya Kasarov to see your notary, Helen Miro.”

            The receptionist glanced at the holo.  “Of course.”  She tapped a key on the holo.  “Ms. Miro, your two o’clock is here.”  She listened for a moment, and then looked up, this time at Lubya.  “She’ll be right with you.  I wouldn’t even bother sitting down.”  Arden glanced around at the waiting area.  The comfortable-looking chairs were all unoccupied.  Within seconds, an overweight young woman emerged from a hall a few steps behind and to their left of the reception desk and smiled at them. 

            “You must be Ms. Kasarov.  Please come in.”  She gestured toward an opening to their left at the end of the reception desk.  Lubya and Cesar went around as Helen waited.  She extended her hand to Cesar.  “You’re Mr. Romano?”           

“I am.  Nice to meet you.”  He shook her hand.

            “How are you?” asked Lubya, shaking her hand. 

            Helen smiled again.  “I’m fine, and so glad it’s Friday.  Just follow me.”  She turned and went back the way she had come as Lubya and Cesar followed. 

            As discreetly as she could, Lubya whispered to Cesar, “Don’t smile so much.  It looks forced.”

            Helen stopped at the second office down the hall, turned and said “Please go on in and have a seat.”

            They went in a found a small, windowless office with a walnut desk and matching guest chairs where they took their seats.  Helen took her seat behind the desk.

            “You’d like me to notarize a contract for you?” she asked.

            “Yes,” Lubya answered, extending the manila envelope across the desk to her.

            “Fine.  I’ll need to see two forms of identification.  Usually we ask for a PDC and a driver’s license.”

            “We have both,” said Cesar.  He had spent the drive over staring at his own signature for Arden’s benefit.  He pulled out his wallet, removed the two cards, and slid them across the desk to Helen.  Lubya found her cards in her handbag, and did likewise.

            Helen ran their PDC’s through a reader on her desk and compared the holos on their driver’s licenses to their faces.

            “Your holo is certainly more flattering than mine,” she said to Lubya, smiling, and returned their cards.  “Your hair was so lovely when it was long.  Not that it isn’t really cute now.  Why’d you cut it?”     

“Oh, you know.  You need a change once in a while, and I’d worn it long since I was little.  This way it’s so easy to take care of.”

            “I know what you mean,” replied Helen, whose own dark-blonde hair was a bit longer than Lubya’s and tightly waved.  She removed two copies of the contract from the manila envelope and placed them side by side on her desk.  “These are identical originals?”

            “Yes,” answered Cesar.  “One for her, one for me.”  Arden had been attentive to any sign of consciousness from Cesar.  Things seemed to be going almost too well.  He had only a vague feeling akin to being alone in a well-lighted room on a dark night with no curtains on the windows and the knowledge that he couldn’t see out, although someone outside could see him clearly.  He felt he was being watched, but it was impossible to probe Cesar’s mind while paying attention to the process at hand

            Helen flipped to the last page of one copy.  “This was not prepared by one of our attorneys?” 

            Lubya answered.  “No.  I…we didn’t realize the attorney who drew up the contract doesn’t have a notary in his office.”

            Her head bent over the contract, Helen said, “And you both understand that when you sign this contract it is effective immediately, and you acknowledge that the consideration mentioned in it is adequate and has been received by each of you?”

            “Yes,” Lubya answered, pulling a letter-sized envelope out of her handbag.  “I have Mr. Romano’s cashier’s check in the amount mentioned right here.  His consideration, of course, is his relinquishment of all right and title toWild Ride, Inc.”

            Cesar nodded.  “That is correct.”

            Helen pulled a small embossing machine out of a drawer and placed it on her desktop.  “At least he or she left space for my stamp.  You’d be surprised how often they forget that.”  She slid the last page of each contract into a slot on the embosser and pushed a button, then pulled each out and slid it across the desk toward them.  “There’s a little table that pulls out from under the desk top.  See it?”

            Lubya slid the table out between herself and Cesar, and pulled one copy of the contract onto it.  She reached for a pen from the desk set.                                            

            “Please sign and date each copy on the line where your name is typed,” Helen instructed.  Lubya did so, placing the second copy atop the first as she signed it.  She then handed the pen to Cesar.

            Cesar looked at the pen a moment.  Then his face suddenly exploded into rage as he yelled, “I won’t sign this fucking thing!  Can’t you see they’ve drugged me?  They’re controlling my mind!”  His Spanish accent was even more pronounced than Lubya was used to.  Cesar was trying to get to his feet.  “Call the police!”

            This outburst completely blindsided Arden.  He had no idea where it came from, had had no suspicion that Cesar was conscious enough to act.  Focusing with all his ability, he overrode Cesar and dropped his body back into the chair.  He could feel Cesar fighting him, but could sense his confusion and the fog of the drugs flowing through his brain.  His mind spun, looking for a response.  He could see the two women staring at him, Helen with her mouth open, both leaning away from him.  He pushed Cesar back down into his fog and forced a smile and a chuckle from his lips. 

“Not funny, huh?”  The women continued to stare at him.  “Sorry.  My sense of

humor is sometimes inappropriate.  And my Spanish accent is atrocious.”  He tried a smile.  “Really, I apologize.  I gave in to a juvenile, stupid impulse.  Forgive me.”  He reached for the pen still in Lubya’s hand, and turned the contracts toward himself. 

            Helen visibly relaxed a bit, putting her hand to her chest and exhaling with a shaky smile.  “Wow!  You really shocked me with that one!  I was totally buying it.”

            “You can be so immature sometimes, Cesar,” Lubya scolded.  “What the hell were you thinking?”

            “I wasn’t thinking.  I’m so sorry.  Really.”  Taking a deep breath to steady himself, he recalled the mindset that had allowed him to perfect Cesar’s signature earlier that afternoon.  He lowered his head over the contracts to shield his eyes from Helen’s, closed his eyes briefly, as Arden called up the picture of Cesar’s signature and made it blot out everthing else.  Then Cesar’s hand was smoothly signing, despite the protest he sensed from Cesar.  Finding the second contract, he swiftly executed it.  He would have to let Lubya do all the talking and concentrate on keeping Cesar from another outburst.

            They all sat somewhat stiffly after that, saying little and finishing their business quickly to put the embarrassing incident behind them.  Helen filled in the blanks on her notary stamp, and pulled out her record book.  She made some entries, and pushed it forward for their signatures.  They signed, put the contracts back into the manila envelope, and Lubya ran her card to pay for the service, apologizing for Cesar’s outburst.  Within minutes, they were in the elevator heading down.

            Lubya spoke as soon as the doors closed.  “Are you okay?”

            Arden smiled grimly at her.  “That was really close.  He’s still somewhere under all the drugs, fighting me.  It’s really hard to concentrate on holding him down and acting normal at the same time.  Do you have any more pills or heroin with you?”

            “No, but it’s only ten minutes from our house.  Can you hold on?”

            “I guess I’ll have to.”  He smiled as reassuringly as he could muster, marveling at the strength of Cesar’s personality as he felt him struggling to clear the cobwebs from his brain.  He was aware of Cesar thinking “You bastard.  You fucking bastard,” and knew the thought was directed at him.  The only things keeping Arden in control were the clarity of his own mind and his experience at driving other creatures, especially Pong.  He knew that if the drugs wore off, there would be no contest; Cesar would be in control. 

            On the short drive home, Arden rigidly maintained control of Cesar’s body, fearing there might be some primal reserve in Cesar that would allow him to suddenly lash out again.  He had been surprised once already and didn’t want it to happen again, so he searched Cesar’s brain for any sign of strength, but little came through, although he got a vague sense of growing resistance to his controlled.  The human brain was clearly unlike any he had driven before.  Unlike even the chimp’s, it seemed to think on several levels at once.  Perhaps Lubya’s hasty wiring job had failed to tap into all of them, because so little of what Cesar was thinking seemed accessible to Arden.  Although his memories could be searched, his central nervous system was available, and his muscles could be controlled, apparently only some of Cesar’s thoughts articulated in words were being picked up by Arden.  Mental imagery, such as he got from Pong, was not coming through well at all.

Back in Bel Air, Lubya’s Lexus automatically tripped the gate sensor and the garage door, and they rolled into her space without stopping.  They quickly entered the house and returned to the dining room.  Arden’s unease was growing as he sat Cesar down in the same chair, facing away from the table, and took off his suit jacket.  So far he had tight control over Cesar’s muscles, but he knew the drugs were wearing off, and he could feel Cesar’s resistance growing rapidly.  Scraps of Cesar’s articulated thoughts were coming through more and more frequently, mostly in Spanish, but sometimes in English.  Que paso?  What the hell’s happening to me?  Gotta get the fuck outa here.

            “It’s time he overdosed.  Roll up his left sleeve,” ordered Lubya.   

            Lubya found more heroin and helped Cesar get some liquified and drawn into the syringe.  Facing him, she tied off his upper arm with a rubber tube.  “Hurry,” she said.  As Arden was manipulating the syringe in Cesar’s right hand, turning it toward a vein in the crook of his elbow, he felt the sudden loss of control as Cesar dropped the syringe into his lap and grabbed a steak knife lying on the table.  In a flash he swung it toward Lubya, still standing before him.  Caught totally by surprise, she gasped as the knife plunged into her thigh and remained stuck there.  She fell to the floor, groaning in pain. 

            Cesar, in a rage, screamed “How you like that, bitch!  You gonna stick me and I stick you instead!”  He was trying to stand up.  Cesar’s diverted attention allowed Arden to swiftly regain muscle control through panic-fueled will power.  Against Cesar’s resistance, he picked up the syringe, found a vein popping above the surface, plunged in the needle, and was pushing in the plunger before Cesar screamed “No!” and managed to pull out the needle and fling the syringe away.  Even though he hadn’t emptied the syringe, Arden could feel the fast-acting drug take effect within seconds, and Cesar’s rage subsided until he seemed to be barely conscious.  With an effort, he waited long enough for Cesar’s eyelids to droop and his muscles to relax while he watched Lubya, who had struggled to sit up and was grimacing in pain, until he could no longer fight the urge to go to her. 

            “Lubya!  Just wait!  I’m coming!”

            “No, no, stay with him!  I’m okay!”                                                                              

But too late.  Arden was already rushing from the guest house and had pulled off his headset for fear of it flying off as he ran, causing him to lose contact with Cesar.   

            He burst through the sliding door at the rear of the house and dodged furniture as he ran through to the dining room.  There he found Lubya sitting on the floor, grimacing in pain, the knife still protruding from her thigh.  There was remarkably little blood.  Cesar was gone.  Arden went down on his knees beside her.

            “Oh, my God!  Oh, my God!  What do I do?”

            “Get it together,” she gasped through clenched teeth.  “I’m not going to die.  Now put your headset back on and find out what he’s doing.  There are guns in the house.”

            He fumbled with his headset, finally got it on, and closed his eyes.  Through Cesar’s eyes, he could make out a hallway passing the doorway to a kitchen as Cesar slowly stumbled past it.  He was having trouble with his balance and seemed to be fighting to stay awake.

            “He’s in the hall by the kitchen.  He doesn’t have a gun.”

            “He must be heading for his car.  How’s he doing?”      

“He’s really groggy from the heroin.  I didn’t get the syringe emptied, but maybe I can stop him and finish it off.”

            “No!  He’s too dangerous.  He’s stronger than you mentally and physically.  We can’t risk making a mess of this.  If he overpowers you, we’re both dead.  Even if you could pull it off now and kill him with the overdose, I’d still have to explain to the cops how I got a knife stuck in my leg while he was shooting up and overdosing.  Heroin doesn’t make you violent.  Let me think.”  She grimaced from the pain. 

 “Okay,” she finally said.  “This could be okay.  He won’t call the cops.  It’s not in his nature, and he knows they’d be swarming all over this place. There’s heroin here, and unregistered guns.  With that and the knife in my leg, there’s probable cause for a warrant.  I’m sure his computer has enough evidence of his drug operation to send him to prison.  He could prove he’s been wired and we tried to kill him, but he wouldn’t go to prison to get back at us.  He’ll figure he can do that later, on his own terms.  He can’t stay and fight because he’s too stoned and he doesn’t know where you are or whether you have a gun or I have other help.  He couldn’t count on Rogelio getting here in time to help him, and he doesn’t know if you’ll be able to control him again or when.”

            “So what’ll he do?”

            “He’ll get in his car and tell it to take him to his helicopter.  On the way, he’ll call Rogelio and have him meet him there.  Then he’s safe from us.  He knows how to fly his chopper.  With Rogelio helping, he should be able to do it.  His safest bet is to fly home to Mexico, because if I call the cops and say he stabbed me, he’s screwed in the U.S.  He’s got money, a home and plenty of contacts in Mexico, and he can come after me any

time.  And he will.  If I don’t call the cops, he has nothing to lose by going to Mexico, because everything he owns will still be here and he can get the implant removed there as easily as he can here.  Easier, in fact, because no one will ask questions there.”

            “So we’re just letting him go?”

            “As long as he’s doing what I think he’ll do.  I want you to ride him but don’t let him know you’re there.  What’s he up to now?”

Arden closed his eyes.  “So far, so good.  He’s in the Ferrari and the garage door        

is up.  He’s having trouble talking, but yeah, he’s headed for the helicopter.”

            “Let him get going.  As soon as he calls Rogelio to meet him and we’re sure where he’s going, I’ll explain what you do next.  After that, I’m calling Eddie with a cover story, then I’m going to the emergency room with an even better story.”

#

.           Half an hour later, Arden was back in his own apartment with the portable interface and his headset.  Lubya had needed only a few minutes to explain to Arden what to do that afternoon.  It was a fiendishly simple plan, but one that would wrap things up even more neatly that the old one.  She then called Eddie to tell him that Cesar wanted Arden to try out the portable interface for the drop and wouldn’t be in.  He helped her to  her car, the knife still in her thigh, then slipped out the gate and headed for the bus stop. 

            He arrived at his apartment with ten minutes to spare before he had to hook up with the condor.  Knowing he might be busy for several hours, he quickly prepared and wolfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, washing it down with a glass of milk.     With a minute to spare, he powered up the interface, put on the headset and

connected with the condor, which was still caged and being unloaded from the back of a pickup east of Tecate, as usual.  He squawked twice, waited a second, and squawked three times to signal his handlers that he was driving the condor and ready for the flight.  One of the handlers acknowledged the signal with “Si, si.  Espere un momentito.”

            Arden calmed the bird and waited as the handlers set the cage on ground, let it out of its cage and strapped the cargo to its chest.  It was a heavy load, at least six kilos of cocaine.  Arden walked the condor out onto the dusty desert floor, allowing it to flex its huge wings and hop a few times to limber up for flight.  He could see the tips of the extended wings spread out six feet on either side of him, and feel how anxious the condor was to escape these bizarre creatures with their alien and frightening body odor, the stench of onion and tequila on their breath.  The sky beckoned. 

            “Vaya con Dios,” said the taller one, and the Mexicans grinned at each other.

            Had it been possible, Arden would have laughed at the blessing.  He could not imagine that God, if He existed at all, would have blessed this mission.  Lifting his wings, he began pumping his legs, reaching for the sky.  Within 30 feet he was airborne and the Mexicans with their beat-up old F-150 were shrinking below him as they watched briefly, then climbed in, ready for an afternoon of tequila and cards.  Finding a thermal, Arden rose up a few thousand feet, from where he could trace Mexican Route 2-D, a major route, running east/west below him about a mile south.  Instead of heading north, he tipped toward the south, in no hurry, and drifted across 2-D until the traffic looked about the size of piss ants, and knew he was well into Mexico.  Then he turned west, keeping the highway off his right wing. 

            He allowed anger to flood in again at the son of a bitch who’d tried to kill the woman he loved after using her to set up a sweet scheme to run drugs for the elite and increase his own fortune.  Cesar had lied to her, set her up as a buffer between himself and the DEA, and would have virtually enslaved her for life or even killed her if he’d been able.  Now, as a result of their attempt on his life, Lubya, and probably Arden as well, was dead meat unless Arden could stop him.  It was up to Arden and Arden alone.

He flew west about twenty-five miles before he was on the outskirts of Tijuana and then jogged a bit south to avoid attracting attention.  Even though there’d be nothing someone on the ground could compare him to in order to determine his great size and become curious, there was no use taking chances.  Anyone who chanced to look up would take him for a common condor at a much lower altitude.  After only a few more miles, he was out over the Pacific, and still he flew west until he could just see the shore behind him. 

            Being over water was making the condor very nervous.  There was no natural reason for it to be here.  Arden had to keep track of Cesar, and to do so, he would need to leave the condor and log into Cesar’s signal.  Once the condor was free of its driver, it would immediately head back for its accustomed territory near Tecate, which was what Arden wanted.  He had calculated that the condor would need about ten minutes to get back over Tijuana, still headed east, which was perfect.  That would put him about ten minutes from his final destination, and allow him more time to listen in on Cesar if he needed it.  It was the only way he could think of to be certain the condor would be in a predictable place when he returned to it.

            Back in his apartment, Arden opened his eyes, and reset the interface to hook up with Cesar, then leaned back and closed his eyes.  Through Cesar’s eyes, he saw the ocean below, and heard the muted sound of the rotor swishing overhead.  The new Bell 212-H turbine was vastly quieter than early helicopters.  New technology had reduced engine and rotor noise nearly to a whisper.                                                                                             

Cesar stared down at the water for so long that Arden was about to disconnect before he finally heard Rogelio speaking. 

            “You feelin’ okay, Jefe?”

            Cesar looked over at him.  Rogelio was light-skinned, black-haired, and clean-

shaven.  He looked like a light-heavyweight cage fighter with a few losses under his belt, and in fact, had been before Cesar had offered him a real job.  “Better,” he answered.  “Still a little woozy from the drugs, but okay.”

            “You did a great job flying this thing out of town.” 

            “It’s easy.  It pretty much flies itself.  In my condition, coming up with the flight plan was the hardest part.” 

            Rogelio was looking toward the coast now, where sheer cliffs looked down on white beaches.  “Where are we now?”

            “You’re like a little kid, Rogelio.  ‘Are we there yet?’” he mocked.  Cesar consulted the holo display in front of the windscreen and manipulated it a bit with his index finger.  “Those are the cliffs at La Jolla.  We’ll be over Mexican waters in twenty minutes.”

            “I’ll quit worrying when we’re out of U.S. territory.”

            “You worry too much.  If she’d snitched us off, by now we’d have had a call from the tower telling us to turn back.”

            “All the same…”  Rogelio trailed off.

            “What I can’t figure out is why they’ve stayed out of my brain since I stuck her with the knife.  It’s like they wanted me to get away.”                                                          

“Why do you say ‘they’?”

            “She didn’t have a headset on, so it couldn’t have been her brainriding me.  She’s got help.  When I find out, he’s dead too.”

            “We gotta get that thing outa your head before they start fucking with you again.  Then we can go after them.”

            “Which reminds me, call Luis and ask him if he got a neurosurgeon to meet us at the compound.  Tell him we’ll be there in thirty minutes.  I don’t care if he has to snatch one right outa the hospital.  I want this thing out now.”     

            Arden had heard all he needed.  He reversed his steps and rejoined the condor, which was just then passing over the beach at Tijuana.  He knew the reason that the police were not involved was that Lubya planned to tell paramedics and doctors that she had been using the steak knife to chop at a frozen steak to separate it from another and accidentally stabbed herself.  She would stick to the story, at least for now.

            Arden now knew he had plenty of time to carry out their plan, and had confirmed their deduction that Cesar would stay out over the ocean to avoid potential interdiction and then cut inland after crossing into Mexican territory.  From Lubya’s directions to Cesar’s compound, he was sure he could find it.  At his current height several thousand feet up, he could see most of Tijuana.  He simply had to head east again, follow Route 2-D about 10 miles into the low hills, and he would find the compound slightly north of the road.  From a high vantage point above the compound, using the condor’s excellent vision, he would be able to spot Cesar’s chopper long before it could spot him.  Circling high above, he would look from a distance like an ordinary condor, which had become relatively common in the area since conservation efforts had succeeded decades before. 

            It took only about fifteen minutes for Arden to locate the compound, easily spotted by its helipad marked with a huge bullseye.  It was situtated at the base of a low hill a few hundreds yards off Route 2 a few miles west of Tecate, a walled enclosure covering about five acres, containing a large, modern, two-story house constructed of stucco-covered adobe with a red tile roof and a wide veranda around the front and sides, traditional in appearance.  There was an attached, four-car garage, and there were two outbuildings that looked to be guest houses flanking the main house.  Behind the house was a large pool, a tennis court, stables and a putting green.     

            Arden assumed Cesar’s helicopter would be coming in fairly low, and took a position on a thermal a few thousand feet up, circling lazily, so the condor could rest.  It was growing weary of the weight it was carrying, which required more flapping than it otherwise would need to stay aloft.  Arden wanted it ready for action soon.  He hoped that Cesar had not changed his flight plan, since he couldn’t risk abandoning the condor long enough to tune in on Cesar a second time.  The condor would have been miles away to the east before he could return to driving it.       

About ten minutes passed before he spotted a helicopter a couple of miles away approaching at a few hundred feet altitude from almost due west headed straight for the compound at about a hundred and forty knots.  The timing would have to exact.  Arden began a circling descent, continually measuring his progress against the chopper’s, until he was a couple of hundred feet above and a few hundred yards in front of it.                     

When the chopper was about a thousand or so yards from the compound, Cesar  slowed it to about forty knots in preparation for landing.  At this point, Arden folded his wings and stooped suddenly, diving into its path and crossing horizontally in front of it as he kept his eyes on the cockpit to confirm by sight that Cesar was indeed aboard and that this was not some other drug dealer’s helicopter coming by coincidence.  It was Cesar, all right.  Cesar saw him at the same time and did a double take, recognizing the huge bird as one of his own, carrying a load of his precious drugs.  He pointed toward the condor, now less than a hundred yards in front of him, but it already had Rogelio’s attention.  Bothmen stared.

            The sleek helicopter stopped completely while Cesar considered what was going on and what to do, which was exactly what Arden wanted. 

            Arden brought his nose up and wheeled the condor, with its thirteen-foot wingspan, through a looping one-eighty-degree turn, flapping with all the strength it had to preserve every possible bit of speed.  The bird was made for soaring, not powered flight, and had lost some of the speed it had gained in its dive, but was still moving at about thirty knots as it aimed directly at the stationary helicopter.  Back in his apartment, Arden’s heart was beating wildly, and so was the condor’s, which feared the huge malevolent bird it was heading for.  It tried to override Arden’s control, its instincts screaming at it to turn aside and run, but Arden knew the creature too well and had too much experience driving it to allow it to ruin their plans now.

            Cesar realized then what the condor was doing.  His eyes bulged open as he thrust the cyclic forward and increased the collective, trying to gain speed and maneuver out of the condor’s way.  There was a slight delay as the rotors changed pitch, and then the chopper began to pick up speed, heading for the compound, now only five hundred feet below and a thousand feet ahead.                                                                                   

            He was too late.  The huge black bird flew straight into the helicopter’s rotor blades a split second after Arden pushed the abort button to severe his connection to it and break the sulphuric acid capsule open.  He did not get to see the chopper’s blades flying apart or the white cloud made by the exploding shipment of cocaine.  He did not see the sleek helicopter drop from the sky like a stone and crash into the ground, its fuel tank rupturing and exploding into a fireball that guaranteed there’d be no survivors.

            But Arden did see the aftermath.  Cesar had kept for a pet a young red-tailed hawk that Lubya had wired in an early experiment for use running drugs, after Cesar had decided it couldn’t carry enough weight to bother.  In his apartment, shaking and practically hyperventilating, he first tried to hook up with Cesar, and got an error message:  IMPLANT FAILURE.  He then entered the code Lubya had given him for the hawk, and successfully hooked up. 

            The hawk was kept in a large screened enclosure near the back wall of the compound.  The enclosure rose twenty feet above the wall and contained a palo verde tree that nearly touched the top.  The hawk usually perched high in the tree, which is where it sat when Arden connected with it.  The noise of the crash and subsequent explosion had captured the hawk’s attention, and thus the first thing Arden saw through the nervous hawk’s eyes was the wreckage of the burning craft, and the column of black smoke that rose into the clear sky.  Arden was satisfied that Cesar would trouble them no more.

            He turned off the interface, sat back and took several deep breaths to try to calm down.  He couldn’t quite believe he had just killed two men two hundred miles away.   There was little chance Mexican authorities would question the obvious.  It would go down as a freak accident, and even if there were suspicions, there was nothing that could ever link Lubya or himself to the crash.  As far as he could see, it was all over, but that didn’t stop his shaking and his recriminations.

            When his pulse was near normal again and he felt calmer, he called Lubya.  She answered immediately, a holo of her image hovering above his Omni.  

            “Don’t’ say anything specific, but how’d it go?” she asked, without a greeting.

            “It went well.  Are you okay?”

            “Yes.  Can you drop by?  We should talk in person.”

            “Sure.  Where are you?”

            “You remember my friend’s apartment?”

            “Sure.”

            “In half an hour?”

            “Okay.”

“Don’t forget to bring the, uh, you know…”

            “All right.  See you then.”

She was gone.  Arden changed into stovepipe jeans, an old pair of cowboy boots, and a madras plaid shirt with mother-of-pearl buttons.  He picked up the portable interface and headed out the door, thinking the way was clear for him and Lubya.

            But during the fifteen-minute drive to meet Lubya, guilt and doubts began to creep in.  He had killed two men he didn’t even know.  Everything he knew about Cesar and his relationship to Lubya came from Lubya.  He knew that the condor flights originated from sites near Cesar’s compound, that Cesar had a bodyguard, and that he intended to take revenge against her and himself for trying to kill him, all of which did nothing to support her claims.  It seemed likely that the drug organization was Cesar’s and the seed money for Wild Rides had come from him, but how could Arden know whether the rest of Lubya’s story was true?  After all, Cesar had come home and was peacefully eating his machaca breakfast when Lubya dosed him with sleeping pills.

            Arden tried to brush these thoughts from his mind.  There was nothing to indicate that Lubya, barely out of grad school, could be so ruthless as to plot a murder that turned into a double murder simply to gain more power and riches when she already had more than she could’ve imagined three years ago.  But was it possible?  Well, of course it was, but Arden did his best to dismiss his doubts as guilt and remorse for what he’d done for love.

            But then, he had to wonder whether Cesar’s transponder implant had the sulphuric acid capsule.  It made sense that she’d have used the self-destructive type in order to erase the evidence afterward.  Did she?  But if so, why hadn’t Lubya used it rather than rely on Arden using the condor to crash Cesar’s helicopter?  Was it because she feared an autopsy would reveal the destroyed implant and lead to further investigation?  Perhaps she feared the acid would be insufficient to kill him.  Or was it because her plan had always been to have Arden take him up in the helicopter and crash it, to draw suspicion away from herself?  Could it be that the interface had a means of recording the driver’s identifying information and the commands that were given?  If so, couldn’t it be used to frame Arden for the murder?  His mind was boiling with questions.                                                 
            
Arden arrived on time, interface and headset in hand, and knocked gently.  Lubya, moving awkwardly in faded blue jeans, flat sandals and a peasant blouse, let him in, shut the door behind him, and put her arms around him.  Arden responded, but her embrace felt restrained, almost stiff. 

            “Are you okay?”  She only nodded.  When she pulled away, she took the interface and headset from him and, limping heavily, walked into the living room and sat on the sofa.  She placed the equipment on an end table, tucked her legs under her, winced, and leaned against the arm of the sofa.

            Arden followed her, and sat beside her, leaving a foot of space between them. 

“So the wound wasn’t bad?” he asked. 

            “Bad enough.  It needed ten stitches and I’m supposed to take it easy until the pain goes away.”  She paused, looking at her hands in her lap.  “So…it’s done?”

            He nodded, swallowing hard.  “Exactly like we planned it.”

            “I’m so sorry I had to drag you into this.”         

He looked around the plain room, a typical apartment so utterly unlike Cesar’s mansion, his face somber.  “Did they buy your story about how you got stabbed?”

            She smiled wryly.  “No.  The ER doctor must have reported it, because a cop came and talked to me before I even got out.  They asked me who I live with and whether we argue a lot.  They wanted to know if he was home then, and where he is now.  I told them he had left on a trip just before it happened, and just said he had to go out of town again for a couple of days.  I stuck to the story.  There was really nothing more they       

could do.  The cop will make a report, and nothing will come of it.  They’re too busy to waste much time on it.”

            Arden nodded his head, then caught her eyes with his and didn’t look away.  “I need to know, Lubya, was it really necessary to do what we did?  Was there really no other way?”

            She returned his look.  “Everything I told you about him is true, Arden, and there’s even more.  He sold weapons to anyone who had the money.  I think he was also involved in human trafficking.  But he was practically above the law.  He could have taken everything I have and gotten away with it.”

            Arden finally looked down at the floor.  “Driving the condor into his helicopter wasn’t so hard.  I was full of adrenaline and angry at him for what he was doing to you.  But I didn’t even know Rogelio.  I’m having a little difficulty accepting what I did.”

            She started to rise.  “You’ve been under a lot of stress, Arden.  Let me get you a glass of wine.  That’ll help calm you down.”

            He raised a hand to stop her.  “No, thanks.”  He sat, wringing his hands.  “Lubya, I need to know that what I did was right.”

            Lubya put her hand on his arm.  “Rogelio would have cut your throat and left you to bleed to death if we’d failed.  He knew exactly what kind of man he worked for.  There’s no need to feel guilty that he went down with Cesar.”         

Arden clasped his hands between his knees.  He nodded again.  “I needed to know that.”

            “Then I’ll tell you again.  They both deserved what they got.”          

            “All the same, killing two men isn’t an easy thing to live with.”

            “I know.  I know.  I wasn’t there, but I’m just as responsible as you are.  Maybe more so.  But now is not the time to break down.  We have to be careful.”

            “About what?  The cops don’t even know Cesar’s dead, and if they find out, why would they connect it to you?”

            “The police are sure that Cesar had something to do with the stabbing, but they can’t prove it.  They probably suspect the kind of things he’s involved with.  They’ll get more suspicious as soon as they learn about the crash.  They may already be watching his house.  That’s why I wanted to meet here.  I’m pretty sure that he had a lot of law enforcement people on his payroll, and they’re not going to be happy that the gravy train will dry up.  They’ll be digging.”

            “But there’s nothing to find!  We’re home free.  The Mexican authorities are going to think it was a simple collision with a bird.  Even if they figure out that the condor was carrying the coke, why would they suspect it was remotely controlled?  They probably don’t even know that brainriding technology exists, and even if they did, there’s

no evidence left of it.  I pushed the abort button before the condor hit the rotors, so all they’d find even if the condor wasn’t burned to ashes is some unidentifiable residue in its brain stem.  Probably all they care about is the same gravy train drying up anyway.  And there’s no reason for them to share information with American authorities.”                    

“Maybe.  But that doesn’t mean that the cops won’t be looking.  Are you sure you don’t want something to drink?”

            He waved her off.  “Why would they be looking?  You’re being paranoid.”       

            “Look.  A drug kingpin stabs his girlfriend and three hours later he dies in a suspicious chopper crash.  The cops and the DEA might already know about it.  Cops don’t believe in coincidences.  They’re going to be suspicious.  We ought to chill out.  I think it would be better if we don’t see each other for a while.”

            “Wait.  I just killed two guys for you and now you don’t want to see me any more?  You’re supposed to love me.”

            “I do.  I do.  It’s just for a while,” she hastily replied.  “A few months, while they go through the motions.  Then it would look normal, like I’m just getting on with my life.  If they knew now that we’re already seeing each other, it would look like what it is.”

            “So, you’re in the clear because you were in the emergency room when Cesar’s chopper went down in flames.  Now you’re as stiff as a mannikin when you hug me, and we aren’t seeing each other for a while.  I don’t know, Lubya.  I’m beginning to feel like a—what did that guy who shot President Kennedy call himself?—a patsy.”

            “That’s not it at all.  I’m just tense after all this, and I’m in pain.  You’re taking it all wrong.  Not seeing each other is to protect both of us.”  

“Why do we need protection?  What if they’re suspicious?  How could they ever  prove what happened?  Unless…”  He stood up, pointed his finger at the interface.  “Unless there are records.  Electronic records that you control, that you can manipulate.  Maybe all those condor runs I made were recorded.  Maybe what you were doing that morning in my cube was setting the interface to record the data on the smuggling flights and make it look like I was working directly for Cesar.  Maybe your little portable interface even has a record that proves I was the one riding the condor that brought Cesar down.  You’re the genius who designed the system.  It woud be easy to do.  Are you really just protecting yourself by setting me up?”

            Lubya had gotten to her feet and taken him by the arms.  “That’s not it at all, Arden.  There’s no record of any of that, and even if there was, I love you. I’d never set you up.  You have to trust me.”

            “I did trust you, until you said you want to break it off.  I feel like a fool.  How would you feel?”

            “I understand.  I do.  Look, what if I made sure you got a promotion to driver first class?  Maybe start giving you a cut?  If I were setting you up, how would I explain that?”

            “Okay, fine.  But I think I’ll keep that interface.  Whatever it did or didn’t record, I’d rather that I keep it.  And starting tomorrow, I want to see how how the system works and how flight records are kept.  I’m in this up to my neck.  I have to protect myself.”            
           
She put her hands on his shoulders and began to rub them.  “You’re getting all worked up over nothing, baby, and letting your imagination run away with you.  Sit down.  I’ll get you a glass of wine.”

            He angrily pushed her hands away.  “Why the hell do you keep pushing wine on me?  I told you…”  He stared at her, a light dawning in his eyes.  “The wine I had here that night.  It was spiked, wasn’t it?  That’s why I woke up the next day with a wicked hangover without ever getting drunk. 
            She was backing away, shaking her head.  "It was just wine.  That's all it was."
            Arden began probing the back of his neck beneath his hair, until they stopped on a lump just below the base of his skull.  “You bitch!  You wired me even before you wired him!  Now I’m one glass of wine away from following Cesar to the grave!  Whoever’s in there, buddy,” speaking to the would-be driver in his brain, “you’d better ask what back-up plan she has for you.”

            He felt it then, the tug on his muscles, the feeling of someone in his brain, trying to infiltrate.  Anger surged in him, and he pushed the presence away.  But it crept back.  He felt the presence within him creeping into his arms and legs, preparing a takeover attempt.  So this is how Cesar felt.

            “Give it up, buddy,” he said, looking directly at Lubya.  “Take it from a guy with experience.  It doesn’t work that great with a human even when your ride is stoned, and I’m straight.  If I were you, I’d run from this black widow before she eats you too.”  He felt a wrenching on his muscles, trying to force him to sit down.  Resisting was relatively easy. 

            “Your other boyfriend is trying to drive me, Lubya, but it’s not working.  I’ll have this thing taken out before I ever fall asleep again, and I’ll make sure there’s a record of it.”

Lubya adopted a pleading tone.  “Arden, I didn’t know whether I could trust you at first.  I fell for you, and I wanted to, but there was so much at stake.”

            “You paying attention, buddy?  Well, I trusted you, sweetheart, but no more.  Now I’ve got to figure out how I save my own skin.”

            “Look, I’ll take out the implant, and I’ll make it up to you.”

            “Damned right you’ll make it up to me, but no way are you cutting on me again.  Give me a minute to think.”  He paced nervously a moment, went to the end table, picked up the interface and jammed it into his pants pocket, then put the headset around his neck.  “All right.  Here’s what we do.  We get a doctor to take the implant out as soon as possible.  You’re going along, because I’m not letting you out of my sight while this thing’s in my head.  We’ll make a holo of the whole thing.  You’ll admit you drugged me and put it in without my consent.  I’ll tell them that for now I don’t want to press charges.  I keep the implant and the holo and a copy of the medical report.  I hold onto the portable interface.  Then we can talk about my future.”

            “No way, Arden.  Do you think you can force me to do all this, with me kicking and screaming all the way?  No doctor would listen to you.  They’d call the cops first.”

            “If you don’t do it, I’ll call the cops right now.”

            “So you think you can blackmail me into doing this?”

            “Let’s not forget who started all this.  I need to have insurance that I won’t be the patsy, that’s all.  We can talk about my other terms after I get it.”      

Lubya’s shoulders sagged.  “I hoped you’d be reasonable.”

            “I am being reasonable.”                                                                                              

“No, it’s me or you.  I see that now.”  She looked straight into his eyes.  “Jonathan, push the abort button.”

            “Wait, Jonathan!”  Arden, suddenly realizing his implant had a sulphuric acid capsule, wildly began talking.  “Don’t you see you’re too?  Isn’t it obvious you’ll be next?”

            “Do it, Jonathan!” Lubya shouted.                                                                                

He heard the answer as a generic voice in his brain.  She wouldn’t do that to me.”

            “I thought that too, Jonathan.  But think about it.  You’ve heard her say she loves me and I believed her too, but now she wants to kill me to protect herself.”

            “I love you, Jonathan, not him.  Push the abort button!”  

            “Shut up, Lubya.  Am I wrong, Jonathan, or did you have a little wine, make love, fall asleep and wake up with a hangover?”  Arden could feel the cold sweat trickling down his forehead and under his arms.

            Lubya pushed her face close to Arden’s, and with growing desperation she pleaded, “Don’t listen to him, Jonathan.  It’s true that I used him, but with us it’s real.”

Jonathan’s answer was slow in coming.  Yeah.  I did have a hangover, and this weird metallic taste in my mouth.”  

            Lubya was growing desperate.  “That was the wine, Jonathan.  You’re not used to it.  I love you, baby.”           

“She told me she loved me and I killed for her.  Don’t you see we’re all just tools to her?  Tools she can throw away when she's done?  You have an implant, buddy.”

She loves me.  She wouldn’t.”

            “Then prove me wrong, buddy.  Feel the back of your neck right below the skull.”

            “He’s lying, Jonathan.  You don't have an implant.  I do love you.  This was all for us.  Push the abort button.”

            “She’s the liar, Jonathan.  Feel the back of your neck.  There’s a lump, isn’t there?”  Jonathan prayed he was right.

            “There’s a little lump.  I don’t know if it was there before…”

That’s it, Jonathan.  Don’t you get it?  She’ll own you.  She’ll make you help her get rid of my body.  You’ll be a murderer, buddy.  You really think she’ll get away with it twice?  You’re screwed, Jonathan.  Walk away before you get any deeper.”

            “Jonathan, I love you.  If you love me, push the button, so we can be together.”  Desperation had made her voice shrill.                                                                           

“You won’t be together.  You’ll wind up in prison for life if she doesn’t push your abort button first.  She can’t leave you as a witness.  Get that implant out today, Jonathan.  Melt your interface with a blowtorch and forget this happened.  If you don’t push mine, I’ll make sure she won’t push your abort button.
            “Push it, Jonathan!” Lubya screamed.  “Push it or forget our future!  Your future!”            

            A long second later, Arden heard Jonathan’s final words.  I can’t handle this.”  Then the presence inside him was gone, and Lubya stood before him, her face contorted by rage and frustration, a spoiled child who couldn’t get what she wanted.

“Jonathan’s gone, Lubya.  It’s time you do some damage control before the whole thing unravels.”

            “Meaning what?”

            “Meaning we do what I proposed before you tried to kill me or I call the cops right now.  As long as this thing’s in my head, I can’t let you out of my sight.  All I know is that as soon as you get the chance you’ll head for the first interface you can find, dial me up, and push the abort button.  I’m over a barrel, and so are you.  If I had the stomach for it, I’d just kill you, but I don’t, so make up your mind.  Do as I ask, or I call the cops.”

            “You’d never call the cops.  You’d go to prison too.”

            Arden snorted.  “It’s better than having you pop the cap in my head.  And who knows?  If I play dumb, tell them I’ve been made a human guinea pig against my will, tell them you threatened to kill me if I didn’t follow orders, they might believe me, especially when they find the acid capsule.  You sure as hell don’t have an implant, and you’re the brains behind brainriding.  One thing’s for sure.  If the cops learn about my implant, they’ll damned sure tip off the Federales to autopsy what’s left of Cesar, and if they find his implant, you’re done.  Maybe I’ll go to prison, but maybe I won’t.  If I don’t, your competition will be opening salons right and left.  An experienced driver will be in high demand.  Either way, at least I’ll be alive and my brain will still work.”

“You little bastard.  I took you off the street and made you somebody, and this is how you thank me.”

            “Don’t make me laugh, Lubya.  You used me and tried to kill me.  So what’s it going to be?”       

            Her expression changed from anger to resignation and her shoulders slumped.  “All right.  All right.  I suppose I have no choice.” 

            Arden relaxed a little.  “Good.  That’s good.  There’s no reason either of us has to go to jail.  Now tell me, where’s the other interface?  You’re too smart to come here without one.”

A light seemed to dawn on her.  “I’ll get it for you.”  She turned and headed toward the bedroom, a little too quickly for Arden’s comfort.  He rushed to catch up with her.

            “Wait, damn it!  I’ll get it.”

            “Don’t worry.  I’d have to turn it on and dial you in to hurt you.”

            He was a step behind her now.  “Wait!  I said I’ll get it.”

            But she was already at the nightstand, pulling open the drawer, reaching inside for, instead of the interface, a wicked-looking handgun.  Grabbing it, she spun around, but was too slow for the lightning reflexes that made Arden such a good driver.  He caught her wrist in mid-motion, twisting it up and away from himself in the split second before it went off, sending a bullet through the soft tissues beneath her chin and into her brain.  Her body, literally a dead weight now, slumped backward onto the bed, rolled off and onto the floor, where a pool of blood began to rapidly accumulate on the carpet. 

            Horrified, Arden’s hearrt and brain began racing.  The report of the pistol had been oddly muffled, and a quick look at the barrel told him why.  It had a very short but obviously effective silencer, indicating the gun was probably one of Cesar’s tools of his trade.  Arden knew there were probably traces of his DNA all over the apartment from his visit there a few days before, and possibly traces on her wrist where he had grabbed her.  There’d be gunpowder residue on his hands, his shirt, everywhere.

            Even though her death would appear to be an obvious suicide, he found a bottle of alcohol in the medicine cabinet, and wrapped a tissue around it before picking it up and pouring some on another tissue.  He used the second tissue to wipe her wrist carefully to remove any DNA he might have left, forcing himself not to be sick at the smell of the pool of blood, now huge, beneath her head.  He replaced the bottle in the cabinet, and flushed both tissues down the toilet.  He thoroughly washed his hands and face in the sink, again using tissues to avoid touching anything, flushed the tissues, dried himself on his shirt tail and tucked it back in.  He would later dispose of all his clothing in a dumpster far from his apartment, just in case.  Any other DNA traces that might be found could be explained by his prior visit if he were ever even questioned.  Plenty of time to come up with a good story. 

            Using more tissues, he searched her purse and the small apartment, just in case she’d brought a portable interface with her, but found nothing.  He suspected she had only one other, and that now it was in Jonathan’s possession.  He had little doubt that Jonathan would keep his mouth shut when he learned of her death, rather than implicate himself, and that if he hadn’t already destroyed the interface, he soon would. 

            Arden ran through his visit again.  He’d cleaned up everything he’d touched.  He’d brought nothing except the interface, so he was leaving nothing behind.  There was nothing else he could do, so using one last tissue, he let himself out of the apartment, put the tissue in his pocket, and walked away.    

It was an adults-only, working-class apartment complex, and he saw no one as he walked to his car, probably because it was just turning five o’clock and the residents hadn’t yet begun arriving home from work.  Driving away, a cold chill washed over him.

            How much did Eddie know?  Would he know the condor never made it to the drop point?  After Cesar escaped, Lubya had told Eddie that Cesar wanted Arden to try the portable interface and that he wouldn’t be in.  He decided to say that Lubya had called him to tell him to forget it, that Lubya herself would drive the condor that day to try out the portable interface, and that he could take the afternoon off unless Eddie needed him.  That would implicate her if Eddie learned what had caused the chopper crash.

            He probably didn’t know yet that Cesar was dead, and he certainly didn’t know about Lubya.  Arden doubted that Eddie had any real status in Cesar’s organization or he wouldn’t be working the front desk.  Lubya had told him that the condor operation was Cesar’s personal business, which implied that very few people were involved and probably none with any financial interest other than the hired hands at each end who handled the birds and the drugs.  It seemed unlikely that anyone existed who had enough at stake to dig into what had happened to Cesar, or who had enough knowledge of the operation to try to move in and take over.

            Arden was fairly sure that as far as Eddie knew,  he was just a driver.  His best plan was just to go back to work tomorrow, play dumb and act as if nothing had happened.  The office staff would no doubt wonder within a few days what had become of Lubya, but they’d keep coming to work and the accountants would go on paying the bills and the salaries until they were told to stop.  He had no idea how long it would be before Lubya’s body was discovered, or the cops started looking for either Cesar or Lubya or who would take over the company, but as long as the paychecks kept coming, he’d keep his mouth shut and keep going to work as if nothing had happened.

            No matter what Eddie knew about any criminal activity, any information he could give the cops would also implicate himself in a drug-smuggling operation that would send him to federal prison.  Eddie wasn’t that stupid.  He’d play dumb too. 

            As for the mysterious Jonathan, he was probably someone Lubya met in grad school, someone a year or two behind her who, like Arden, had come looking for a job.  Whoever he was, he would figure out when he learned Lubya was dead that Arden was the last person to see her alive.  But as with Eddie, if he talked to the cops, he’d have to admit his own criminal conduct, risk going to jail, and probably make himself forever a persona non grata in the brain-riding community, both academic and for-profit.  Not likely he’d be talking to anyone.  With any luck, his interface was already a pile of molten plastic.  The one in Arden’s pocket would be in a very short time.  Or maybe not.  Maybe there was a use for it.  He’d have to think about that…

            Arden breathed a bit easier.  He’d see a doctor today if possible or tomorrow for sure, concoct some convincing story about how the implant got there and why whoever put it there couldn’t take it out.  The main idea was to remove any suspicion of criminal conduct that would require the doctor to report it to police.  Arden had little down he could bring that off, perhaps with a story about a drunken party and accepting a dare.  

If this all blew over and nothing came of it, someone would probably take over Wild Rides and he’d still have a great job.  If the cops started snooping, well, he’d have he’d have to deal with it.          

Meanwhile, he’d have to live for a day or two with the threat that Jonathan might discover Lubya’s death, blame him, and push the abort button, if he hadn’t already destroyed the interface.  Arden doubted that outcome.  Jonathan had learned the truth about Lubya, and after all, he wasn’t out of his mind.

 

END