And now, without further ado, let me present to you my firstborn.
Machines were Justin Wyatt’s life. The only thing he loved more than building them was putting the finished product to work, and the big, fast, noisy widgets were always the most fun to test in the field. The world might not need a revolutionary new snowmobile design, but he was having an immensely good time giving it one.
He checked his safety straps and braced for the day’s third trial run. The rented helicopter lifted his prototype sled towards the top of the mountain, and icy rocks flashed by, far below. Watching engine readouts had kept him preoccupied during the first two lifts, but this time he enjoyed the scenery instead.
The view across the desolate peaks of the BrooksRange was stupendous. The biggest drawback to being rich was money’s tendency to attract people and responsibilities that he would rather avoid. Privacy was a luxury he was more than willing to purchase. The freedom to indulge his whims was the only real benefit of having more money than he could ever spend.
The helicopter dipped lower, and the sled cleared the top of the run. Justin released the tow cable. Thin cold air seared down his throat as the sled plummeted towards the steep slope. A thumb flick brought the motors online, and they whined as the gyros kicked in. Snow flared upwards on landing, the impact jolted through Justin’s body, and the sled roared as snow churned through the intake chamber.
The mountainside flew past in a celebration of swooping turns and wrenching drops. Justin leaned into a sharp arrest at the end of the run, only meters from the waiting helicopter. Echoes bounced off the valley walls.
He peered upslope at the trails he had carved.The modified jetfoil was doing an excellent job. The sled would never be able to share a hill with skiers, but a groomed slope would survive reasonable traffic without damage. His client would be pleased.
The sound of rotors thumped overhead while he checked over the displays and reviewed the telemetry from the run. When he looked up, William Clooney was waiting for him beside a second helicopter at the far side of the pickup zone.
The rotor blades of both vehicles were lazily spinning at idle. The downdraft ruffled William’s stylish overcoat and made a mess of the man’s expensively cut gray hair. His expression was a courtroom blank, and the presence of his briefcase was a bad sign.
Justin stripped off his goggles and popped the safety harness. “Aren’t we on vacation? What brings you here?”
William glanced at the helicopter, and then approached awkwardly over the snow. “I brought you a problem.”
“I thought you and your pack of feral lawyers were supposed to tend to problems, so that I could ignore them.” Justin powered down the sled. The idle turned rough, developing a dissonant rattle that threatened to shake the engine cowling loose. He reached underneath to pull the plug. “Disaster can wait.”
William sighed indulgently a few minutes later.“Was it a successful test drive?”
“More or less. Wait a second.” Justin finger-tightened a questionable bolt and punched up the power again. The machine responded with a rumble. “Did you see me? How’d it look?”
“Terrifying, but I’m neither an adrenaline junkie nor addicted to snow sports. I don’t understand how you do it,honestly.”
“Practice. Ride the drop, keep your balance, and correct course so that things break your way. It isn’t hard.”
“Not for you, perhaps.” William paused. “Are the new power cells still meeting your expectations?”
Justin retrieved his toolbox from the helicopter and pulled out the diagnostic kit and a set of instruments. “They’re not technically power cells.”
“I don’t think the public will be comfortable with ‘ferroceramic electromagnetic storage capacitor,’” William said. “We can let Marketing decide.”
“No, we can’t. Wyatt R&D isn’t getting these. I don’t feel like listening to them bitch about my methodology. The patents are still sealed in my name. I might toss them to Dawnstar Foundation,once I work out the bugs.” Justin finished a few more adjustments to the motor before defeating the temptation to ignore his responsibilities. “All right,what’s the dire crisis? Another directive from an unhappy ex-Wyatt?”
William shook his head. “Not this time, although ex-Wyatt the Second will be involved.”
“Then it must be another licensing request from what’s-his-name over at Martin-Hong. Tiff’s been hounding me about expansion again.”
“His name is David Hong,” William said. “And he’s their director of R&D, as you very well know. You’ve invited him to dinner more than once.”
“No, I didn’t. Tiffany planned all those. She likes him. I think he’s a weasel. I don’t remember weasel names.”
“In any case, no, it isn’t a licensing issue.This is official trouble, and dire enough that I’ve scrounged up a backup pilot. Entirely too many people saw you drinking beer for breakfast for you to legally fly second seat. We don’t need the scandal of Civilian Security Bureau officers arresting you for violating flight regulations as soon as you get home.”
Justin stopped dead in the middle of repacking the field kit. “Home today? That bad?”
“Bad enough. Extremely bureaucratic.”
“What kind of red tape? Audit? Insurance? Asset taxes?”
William settled a long-suffering glare on Justin and refused to answer, which meant it had to be a regulatory issue. William was touchy about those.
“Articles of Restriction again?” Justin sat back on his heels. “Does the Fed want to drive growth or not? Is the US part of a global economy or not? Isn’t the government ever going to get tired of changing its own rules? Maybe it’s time for another Restoration. Maybe we could get itright the third time around.”
William said stiffly, “Speaking on behalf of everyone who was out of diapers during the last round, I’ll thank you not to make light of that option.”
“I’m not joking. The never-ending new regs are choking us. We can’t sit back and let a pack of bureaucrats—”
“Dammit, Justin, shut up.” William folded his arms and deliberately turned his back. “You know I think that the Fed isn’t holding the reins tight enough. I am in no mood for this. You have no right to joke about Restoration. You didn’t live through it.”
Justin’s anger dissipated in an instant. “No, I didn’t. Sorry.”
William had lived through the riots and the militia-driven coups and the societal collapse that preceded Restoration, and the scars ran deep. He’d been nearly as old as Justin was now by the time the worst of the chaos was beaten back.
The man brushed at his coat in a finicky gesture. “The Fed’s regulatory powers are nothing, compared to what they were,and the dangers of corporate or privately driven rebellion are still very real.Yes, we glued the broken pieces of the world back together, but it’s still fragile, and it needs corporate cooperation to survive. You know that, when you’re not acting like a child who’s been told to clean his room.”
“I said I was sorry.” Justin turned to finish packing. “You know I’m stupid about some things.”
“I’m sick and tired of that particular stupid,”William said. “Ignorant pouting was excusable when you were sixteen. It’s an embarrassment now. I hate it when you mock what my generation went through. I hate it. We built something good from the ruins we made of our country, and people died to make it real. Don’t even joke about tearing it down for your damned convenience.”
“I’m not mocking anything, William. I’ve helped rebuild it, thanks to you.”
The self-inflicted financial and physical damages of the Restoration years had stifled growth and innovation for a longtime, but overall the United States had come out ahead in the wake of the global meltdown. From its incorporation, Wyatt Enterprises had ridden the crest of a surging economic revival.
Justin walked around William to face him down.“Look, all I’m saying is that we never could’ve gotten off the ground today.The Restoration changes in patent law and tax structures, the consolidation of services and loosening of regulatory oversight; that made Wyatt Enterprises possible. Now the government is smothering everything again.”
William sniffed. “They can’t smother me.”
“Nothing keeps you down.” Justin caught William’s eyes and made sure his gratitude was visible. “Anyone who could take a fifteen-year-old’s crazy patent application and build an empire out of it can do anything. I’m sorry I pushed your big red button. I don’t know what I’d do without you.”
“Without me you’d own a mechanic’s shop in Lincoln,Nebraska,” William said. He added with exasperated affection, “Finish up before you freeze to death. I’ll give you the full brief in the helicopter.”
“Should I give you my phone?”
Before finishing the first paragraph, Justin could feel his blood pressure spiking. He kept his mouth shut and kept reading. His temper was developing a sharp edge, but he refused to hit William with it again so soon. When he was done, he set down his datapad and took a deep breath. “You’d better keep the phone for a while,” he said.