The heat that drenched the forest outside haunted the chill of Mr Eiffrich's study, at Camp Bellevue, where Sage and the president were investigating a legal question. Mr Eiffrich wanted to get a handle on Sage's curious idea about the Vireo Lake project for himself, before it went any further. He had a couple of law degrees in his portfolio (though he'd never practiced). They were using the president's standalone e-library, and refering to arcane sources Sage had collected through his UCLA contacts: but chiefly they were looking things up in books and weatherbeaten files, the leader of the free world committing sorcery of a legal kind; with his gangling apprentice.
'You're not offended that I couldn't let you guys join the investigators?' wondered Mr Eiffrich. 'It's not that we don't value your expertise-'
'Tha's awrig',' Sage assured him, stacking loose document pages neatly as he scanned through them. He found the schoolmaster glances over the spectacles more intimidating than the presidential rank. 'We reckon we done Lavoisier.'
'Mmmph.' The fractured syntax comes and goes, thought Fred, likewise the bumpkin vowels. I don't believe Cornish can possibly be his first language: wonder what's going on there. Accents interested him. 'Your captain having applied his telescope to the wrong eye, in a noble tradition of Br- er, English insubordination-'
Sage kept his eyes on the print. 'Telescope? Huh? You lost me.'
The president gave him a schoolmaster look. 'I meant, in matters of United States national security, I thought I was the one giving the orders...'
. . .
Fred laid down his smartboard, and contemplated the middle distance for a minute or so. 'Sage, d'you remember, last time you were in this room, you gave me a sample of organic cocaine, for investigation?'
'I remember that interview.'
'I have a result for you. You were right, it was from the same vinyard.'
The sample had come from Rufus O'Niall's castle. Mr Eiffrich was reporting that it was chemically identical with cocaine discovered in the possession of Ax's kidnappers; establishing a connection between O'Niall and that hostage-taking.
'I've nothing more to tell you yet, but the case is not closed.'
So you didn't fall, my guitar-man. You were hunted down. The issue no longer seemed vital, Ax had found other ways to leave shame and defeat behind. Sage nodded, not wishing to discuss O'Niall right now. The unfinished business could wait.
'Thanks for letting me know.'
They studied without diversion for a while, Mr Eiffrich unconsciously and naturally using the former Aoxomoxoa as an extension of his reach: search this, copy that for me, fetch me the '97 box; but finding Sage surprisingly adept when they came to a conference. 'You've had some experience in our Intellectual Property law?'
'We spent eight years getting bludgeoned into the ground by Ms Ciccione's lawyers, after we quit Maverick.'
'I remember something about that… How's the racial situation in England since the Dissolution?'
Ooh, and how did we get to English efnic tensions from Madonna? But he answered, placidly, 'Horrible. The Celtic nations have us f- er, surrounded, don't they? The British Resistance are mad dogs, the rural whites are halfway back to the stone age. The drop-out hordes have to be kept in camps for their own protection while they do our slave labour, and they're not happy about it. The Boat People drive us all nuts, the hippies are barking, the Islamics think they are God's gift, and the east of the river, the whole fen country from Essex up to Ely, has been a no-go area for years, which isn't something we shout about-'
'The River would be the Thames?'
'Yeah. Only one river in England gets called the river.'
Mr Eiffrich stored away this tidbit of Englandiana, and made no comment on the lurid catalogue. They continued their search. 'You rockstars should get on well with the black population?'
'Nah, that didn't happen, due to historical accident. Back in Dissolution summer most of the black music scene selected itself out of the famous popstar Think Tank: perceived as too gun-crazy. People make such superficial judgements. The secret rulers had their own plans for violence, see… Lookin' at it another way, Allie Marlowe did the paperwork an' she carn' abide hip hop. Allie's a closet feminist you know. A very dangerous woman.'
'Don't get too baroque, Sage. I might think you're winding me up.'
'Right.' Sage chewed his thumbjoint, frowning over a stack of withered fanfold documentation for the World Wide Web, University of Hawaii, circa 1994. 'Mr Eiffrich, I need to phone a friend.'
'Who's the friend?'
'My dad. It's going to be reasonably secure.'
This would be Joss Pender, of eks.photonics, European software baron: one of the awesome few businessmen to thrive in the Crisis. 'Okay.'
Sage tapped his wrist, and for a moment looked stricken, the cyborg reduced to mere humanity. He slapped his pockets and found a Krypton satellite mobile. Fred Eiffrich listened, with fellow feeling for the man at the other end, overjoyed to be accosted at five am, out of the blue, by his vanished, adult child.
'No one can get on with the black politicos,' continued Sage, breaking the connection (voice only, no picture for his old dad, and not a word of open affection, ah, I have been there, thought Fred), and looking around for a previously discarded file. 'They're like Boat People, all f- gangstas: there's no continuity, you talk to some bloke and blam, he's dead, have to start again. Rob gets on best with 'em.' Sage grinned, affectionately. 'Unlike me an' Ax, he can't be a gangsta hisself, as he refuses to pick up a gun. Rob's our genuine radical: non-violence, minimum wage, free education, votes fer women, the whole weird package. He's a throwback.'
'Did you get what you wanted from your dad? I only heard the one side.'
'Yeah. I'll show you in a minute-'
'And the Hindus?'
'Oh, they run the place. All the top suits are Hindu or married into Hindu families. Like the Jews and Hollywood, you know.'
Mr Eiffrich peered over his spectacles. 'Do you do a lot of public speaking?'
'Only in times of acute national emergency. Then I go on the telly and talk about rescuing kittens from trees.' Sage looked up, delivering a jolt of blue and a puckish grin. 'It's okay, Mr President. He keeps me on a short leash.'
The president took off his eye glasses, used them for a bookmark, (he was examining a tome of IP case reports), and looked around the booklined room. The western light had mellowed, giving life to the eyes of the dark-haired woman in the portrait over the fireplace. 'It always seems to me to be winter in here,' he murmured. 'Not in a bad way. I mean, there's a feeling of shelter, the fire in the hearth, the blizzard shut outdoors…' They had been speaking of the English situation in the present tense, and, joking apart, he knew that Ax Preston's Minister understood what was going on.
(the word lover seemed an impertinence, he would leave that aspect alone-)
'Sage, last time we met, I said you were messing with Ax's girl, because I hadn't grasped the situation between you three. I'm personally fond of your boss, I count him a friend, I believe he's a figure of vital influence, and… I jumped in too fast. I do that, sometimes. I apologise. Are we square?'
Sage shrugged. 'Of course.'
'Good, because there's something I have to ask. If Ax were to accept the Presidency, would you go with him, and take up that burden again?'
According to the US media,
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There was a long silence, Sage frowning, studying the braided gold ring on his left hand. With the damn-your-eyes mischief turned off and the blue eyes lowered, that much-photoed, oddly attractive face looked strained and weary. Ax seemed fine, but the president felt that the Lavoisier adventure had been very tough on this guy, whatever his spiritual resources (another aspect Fred planned to leave alone).
'The trouble with Ax… Hm. The trouble with Ax is, he doesn't let the bastards grind him down.'
'And there's no attitude more calculated to get those bastards grinding. Yeah, I hear you. It wouldn't be an easy ride, I know. He'd be no man's puppet, and I see why his friends and, er, anyone close to him as you are would hesitate-'
'What did Fiorinda say?'
'Right now I'm asking you.'
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'That's all I wanted to know.' The president recovered his eyeglasses, marked the place with a feather from the jar of owl feathers he kept for this purpose, and said, 'I believe this works. It can be made to work. I want to share your idea with some of my staff, let them play Devil's Advocate. Now, a false start is something to avoid at all costs. Will you please, this time, wait until I give you the word?'
'Understood, Mr President.'