Keith Franklin looked at the metal contraption, twice the size of a chest freezer, resting on the back of the wagon.
"I'm sure you're know that April never haggled over the prices?"
He nodded. "Never budged."
Hodges opened the panel on the side, showing a screen and keyboard and various ports and slots. "It's because the charges are built in down at the packet level. She couldn't change them. Now this communications center will be fully operational once you connect it to city power and run the first antenna, but each additional antenna will cover a different radio band and the more you add, the cheaper your costs will be."
Keith raised a timid hand, "Excuse me, why is that again?"
Hodges nodded, never showing exasperation. "Here is an example. A message from Scandinavia addressed to your ID arrives on the ten-meter radio band, but suppose you only have stretched an antenna for the twenty-meter band and your radio doesn't pick it up. If the station here at IIS headquarters picks it up, the system will know that your station isn't active on ten-meters yet so it will record the data and re-transmit it to you on twenty-meters. Each time it has to be recorded and re-transmitted, more charges are added. You would still get the message, but at a greater cost. Understand?"
"Yes. So, what does this thing cost? I'm not rich."
"But you know the business. That's why I'm leasing it to you rather than to a grocer or a carpenter. You never pay me. Your lease charges add a fraction to your message costs. After ten years or so, they'll drop off. In addition, as more stations are built and distributed, you'll be making re-transmit costs off of them. Believe me, I want you to make a good living off this. We will be competitors, but regardless of your charges for electricity, office space, and helpers, people on your side of town will likely do business with you rather than cross town to do business with me. I'll make my profit in Information Credits over the life of your equipment--a trickle that won't stop for years. You'll make yours off every message that flows through your station. You'll sell your Info Credits to your customers in exchange for regular cash. Everybody wins."
Hodges showed him the way it was to be set up, with detailed printed instructions. Keith was thinking about buildings where he could set up shop. It was exciting, and frightening.
Suddenly, Hodges stopped in mid-sentence, frozen like a statue.
"I'm sorry, Mr. Franklin. I'll have to finish this later. Please come back and speak with me tomorrow, okay?"
"Is there a problem?"
"There's a personal issue, unrelated to you. We'll still do business. Sorry."
He flipped the cover down to protect the gear and moved quickly back into the office.
"April." The girl looked up at his tone. "Get out the telephone and call Medical Alert. Tell them to get to Mary Ellen's house."
"Granny? What's wrong?" She was already at the special cabinet, pulling out the ancient piece of gear.
"Tell them it may be a heart attack or a stroke."
April's eyes were shiny, but she was all business. There were only a few dozen active phone numbers in Austin, and the important ones were written on a sheet in front of her. She made the call and got the doctors on the way. Hodges had already left. She was left alone in the office. She shouldn't leave. But it's Granny! Hodges was never wrong about things like this. She suspected he was psychic, like the guy that worked for the Mayor.
She locked the doors.
"Miss Jensen!" Keith pulled around with his bicycle.
"I've got to go. My Granny is sick."
He nodded. "Then get on. I'll take you." The bicycle had a carrying cage on the back. It was uncomfortable, but she made it work. They passed Hodges on the way, his long cloak flapping around him as he made a steady but slow run. Hodges waved them on.
April was there to lead the Medics in. They didn't smile as they worked.
The hospital room was small but private. The Jensen family and Hodges waited in shifts. Scott Jensen looked a lot older than his age, and his wife Denise was worried about him as well. Denise and April went in to wait with Mary Ellen Victor, April's godmother. She had no relatives left, but since the Star, they had been family.
Scott pulled out a large bottle of clear liquid and when no one was looking, handed it to Hodges.
"Thank you." He placed it in a pocket of his coat. "I haven't had time to refuel."
"It's 190 proof. I haven't been able to get the last of the moisture out."
"It will do."
They sat in silence. Nearly everything they'd had to talk about over the years had already been said.
"Scott. You have seen the terms of Mary Ellen's Will?"
He nodded. "You get the company. We get the house and lands."
Hodges nodded. "I am also aware of your medical condition. Denise and April will not want for funds. Nor your grandchildren, when they come."
The thyroid cancer caused by the fallout in the bad years had become so common it had it's own nickname. Everyone knew someone who had it. Medical care had not recovered enough in the eight years since the collapse to treat anyone.
Denise came out after a few minutes. "She's awake. She wants to talk to Hodges."
He rose and went to the room. April was in the bed beside her Granny, holding on tight.
She looked at him. "Still dressed like the Shadow, I see."
"It serves its purpose."
She looked down at the girl cuddling in her arms. She couldn't bring herself to send the little one away.
"What can you tell me?" she asked. She was struggling with the words. Her heart was damaged beyond recovery.
Hodges nodded. They had gotten used to talking in code when they had to talk in the presence of people who did not know what he was.
"There is no sign of Abe yet. No part of his craft beyond the tail section we found last year has been detected. And yes, I still believe he lives. But the chances are that he was taken away."
Mary Ellen closed her eyes, nodding. Over the years, she'd been infected by the irrational hope that her adopted son had survived that impossible battle eight years earlier. Certainly his enemies had never appeared either. Perhaps, somewhere out in the stars, he still lived.
"And your plans?" She coughed lightly, and cleared her throat.
"Wait and prepare."
Mary Ellen stroked April's hair. "Honey, could you go tell the nurse to bring me something to clear my throat please."
She nodded and climbed down and left the room.
"So, Hodgepodge, are you still planning to take over the world?"
He had no expression. "I plan to place myself at the center of the recovery. To be ready to serve Abe when he returns, I must have a technological civilization to maintain myself. To that end, I am restarting a new worldwide network, as you know."
"An Internet you control."
She nodded. "So this is the last chance I have to stop you."
"Correct. You and Abe can change my programming. No one else."
There was a moment of labored breathing. "You will always work for Abe's approval."
He didn't even reply. That was an axiom.
She nodded. "I hope my Creator judges me as faithful as you have been to yours. Could you call the Jensen's in now?"
He nodded and left. He sent her family in and found a restroom where he could pour the alcohol fuel into his internal fuel-cell's tank before leaving. There was still much to be done.
Keith fumbled the entry form, struggling under the eyes of the customer.
"The little girl would have already finished that."
"Yes, but just be glad we're open today. They're all at the funeral."
"Oh yeah, I heard about that. Victor was a feisty old lady, right to the end. I remember her fighting the City Council over the moonlight towers. She lost, but it was a good fight. We needed people like her."
Keith calculated the charges and keyed the query into the system. "Check back in a couple of days. We should know by then if someone is going to bid on it.
"By the way, what part of town are you from?"
"Downtown, off Congress Avenue."
"Well, you might be interested in the fact that I'll be starting up a branch office just on the other side of the bridge in a few weeks."
"Really? That's interesting. I assume little April will train you how to do it?"
He nodded, a sad grin on his face. "I hope."
Hodges stood in the back as a dozen people spoke about their memories of Mary Ellen Victor and her husband Frank. He had declined the opportunity to add to the eulogy. It would not be in character. The gravesite ceremony was well attended and he waited patiently, shaking hands and giving appropriate responses to all of the people who knew that he had worked with her.
Denise Jensen came by. "Are you okay?"
He nodded. "Yes." She looked into his eyes, and then with a little jerk, she smiled. "You know, I had forgotten. It's been a while. You look real."
"I always appreciate your honesty, Mrs. Jensen. I always hope to be real enough for you and yours."
He smiled. Soon enough, she would be the last human to know his secret. Although she had never been part the technology that her failing husband Scott maintained, she'd been there when the first of his humanoid bodies had been tested, and her critiques had contributed to what had been done right, and what he kept hidden under his coat and hat.
It was important that she trust him all the rest of her life.
Eventually, he was the last one there. Light was fading. He moved closer so the video recording he was making got a good view of her grave. He made some minor touchup, smoothing the grass patches and arranging the flowers more symmetrically. Mary Ellen had never made any requests about her burial, other than it be in the grave beside her husband. She never seemed to think in terms of her death.
Still, he was working to remake the world in the absence of Abe's explicit commands. It was no stretch to make allowances for what Mary Ellen would have wanted, if she were still here.
A car pulled up near the gravesite. It was his. Another branch of his consciousness had driven one of the disguised, remote-control vehicles out here to pick him up. In the dark, it was safe enough. He turned off the recorder, and waited a moment. Should he make human mannerisms here, where there was no one to see?
After some thought. He nodded to the grave, and then left.