Greg Archer stumbled on his first step into Big Lake, Nevada. The Emperor had warned him. He stepped out of the shade of the Texaco station and glanced at his watch.
Leave it activated. He noted the time. Any time within the next thirty minutes and he could escape with one push of a button.
He paused in front of the storefront window. Hair was in place. Suit was straight. He hefted his briefcase and headed down the street.
It was a small town, and the city hall was smaller than the bait shop next to it.
“Come on in.”
The Mayor was relaxed at a small desk in the corner.
“Hello, there. Can I help you?”
Greg smiled. “Oh, perhaps. I was just admiring your town.”
“We like it. Not much industry, though. Too dry to farm and too far from the interstate for a casino.” The Mayor waved him to a chair.
Greg smoothly caught the name on a picture frame.
“Mayor Norris, I noticed that the bait shop seemed closed?”
“Oh not really. It’s mine. If I hear a car drive up, I’ll check it out. Do you want to some fishing gear? I have a good selection of Castaway’s on sale.”
Greg chuckled. “You don’t expect I’d want to buy some bait?”
“Not unless you are headed towards Lake Mead.”
“Where exactly is the ‘big lake’ in Big Lake?”
“That hill a few blocks over is the dam. But I’m afraid it is getting close to empty. Global warming or El Niño or something. It’s been dropping for close to three years now. Come summer, unless something happens, the shallows’ll get hot and the fish’ll die.”
Greg leaned forward in his chair. “Can’t you get water from somewhere else?”
The Mayor shook his head and stuck his hands in his pants pockets. “I looked into it. Agricultural water is several hundred dollars per acre-foot. And that’s only if you already have the canals in place.
“But with the Colorado River water crisis, there’s no way we could get the state to help us. I’m worried about the wells. They’re getting low too, and I’m not sure the city could afford to truck in water.”
“Sounds like a tough place to be. What’ll you do with no water?”
“Oh, I’ll probably stay, but people are talking about closing down and moving.”
Greg let the silence build.
“Well,” he finally said, “there are other sources of water.”
“What do you mean? Cloud seeding? We tried that.”
“Well, what is it? I’m listening.”
Greg picked up his briefcase. “Have you heard of the Emperor?”
He handed the Mayor a single sheet of paper.
“The Emperor can deliver water into the Big Lake reservoir at one dollar per acre-foot, or $10,000 per foot at your spillway, whichever you prefer. Payment due after delivery, one foot at a time. Dollars or imperials.”
Greg closed the deal thirty minutes later. He had to guarantee it was legal, and was out on the dusty street quickly as he could manage.
Stepping back into his apartment a minute later, he was startled by his master’s voice.
“How did it go?”
“Fine. Signed contract and everything. But boy he was needy! We could have charged ten times as much.”
“I’m much more concerned with getting established. We’re just getting our feet wet.”
“He asked when do we start.”
“I’ve already turned the water on. He should notice it soon enough.”
Greg hesitated, then said, “You know, my commission will be a while showing up on this. I’ll still need to pay my rent while we are getting established.”
“Oh. How about a $20,000 advance? By the way your next assignment is on your kitchen table. I am re-programming your watch now.”
“Fine,” he whispered. He had been going to ask for a thousand.
The phone rang. Diana stepped into the kitchen and picked it up.
“Bob! I’m so glad you called.”
“I got your voicemail about the athletic banquet. Does James still want me to come home for that?”
“He is standing right beside me. Why don’t you ask him yourself.” She handed the phone to James.
“Hi, Dad. Can you come home for the athletic banquet?”
“Well, I don’t know. Business is hectic right now, I don’t know if I can make it.”
On sudden impulse, James asked, “Then, can I come work for you?”
“Whoa, there. You’re still in school. Besides the security here is pretty tight. I don’t think it would be approved.”
“I know a lot of stuff. You taught me to program. Or I could, you know, fetch stuff. I could be a go-fer.”
“James. I know you are a good worker. If things were different, I’d love to have your help. It’s just not practical right now.”
James sighed. “I understand. Just keep me in mind. School will be out sooner than you think.”
“Okay,” he laughed. “I’ll remember.”
“Uh, Dad? Could you talk to Mom awhile? I think she gets lonely.”
He handed the phone back, to his mother’s bemused expression.
“Bob. I’ve missed you.”
James headed towards his bedroom. He walked inside and faced east.
LIGHT LIGHT LIGHT
Being ready for it, he stepped into the french girl’s bedroom without falling.
The light snapped on. She gasped.
She grabbed her blanket up to her neck.
James waved his hand, and immediately pressed his watch. He fell on his back as he returned to his father’s work shed.
I wasn’t ready for that. Was she naked? What time is it in Paris? What did she see?
He pressed the watch again, and feeling the curve of the earth in his step, speculated that he was farther north, but not too far west.
The base was lit this time, a bank of electric lights shone from near the computer consoles. He walked away from a rack of computers and surveyed the mass of gear in the stone gallery. There was no sound other than the whir of fans. He could hear his own footsteps, but if his father were still talking on the phone, then he was not here.
The Dwarves! Sitting in a row, looking very much dwindled and out of place among the imposing ranks of high powered computer racks, the old machines from the work shed were still powered up.
He logged in. The account was still active.
On a hunch he checked the cables, and located a single cable that has been sliced off, still dangling from an ethernet port.
This was the cable to home.
If I can only reconnect it!
He checked the software. As he expected, there was a transaction log. It went dead on the eleventh or twelfth. I discovered it on the twelfth.
And there it was, a log entry showing a sphere connection termination. There were details. Great.
He checked the sphere creation software. It was a little different than he remembered, but there was a place to enter the co-ordinates directly.
He typed fast. Talk a long time Dad.
Fine-tuning the tiny sphere’s locations, he edged them both into the shadows behind the computers. He stuffed the cut cable back through to Texas and logged out.
Diana Hill was still talking on the phone. James headed out to the work shed.
He located the crimp tool needed to put a connector back onto the cut cable.
Mom had been laughing.
As he worked, he thought, It’s been a long time since I’ve heard her laugh.