Chapter Two

The Morning After

The alarm went off at 6 AM exactly, same as always. My first thought was,
"What a weird dream!" but then I realized I was still seeing my bedroom sharp
and clear, and no, I hadn’t left my contacts in. Habit forced me to make the bed
before padding into the bathroom. Shrugging out of my robe, I looked at myself
in the mirror. I was still Graciela Juarez – but with a difference. I was younger,
like ScOsh had told me, and things had been redistributed. I didn’t think I’d lost
any weight, but it was moved around some. Where before I had been something
of a couch potato, mixing night school and work, and my body showed it, now I
had real muscle tone. Not bodybuilder muscle, either, but the kind of lean
muscle that comes from long hours of aerobics. I had a definite hourglass shape
now – my waist had shrunk at least three inches. My breasts may have been
slightly smaller, if anything, but firmer – perkier. Turning a bit, oh boy did I have
a nice butt. Breasts are fat, butt is muscle. My face was still my own – not much
change there – but my skin glowed with health. I’d have to start making at least
occasional time for the gym, thanks to ScOsh. I wasn’t going to let this waste
away. I’d also have to get used to a lot more male attention – I wasn’t a beauty
queen, but women notice what attracts men and I was definitely something they’d
notice now. I had that petite bouncy athletic look I’d always envied, instead of
the slightly couch-potatoish one I’d had before. My hair was about the same,
shoulder length and wavy, so dark most people call it black, but hair had always
been my one eye-catching feature, and I took care of it.

I showered, dressed, and put on make-up. I never used a lot, needed less now,
and wanted to not draw attention to my changed self, so I made myself as low
key as I could. I opened the door into the hall expecting to see ScOsh crashed
out on the couch.

Instead, there was a neat handwritten note on my computer "Went out for a
while. Back as soon as I can". That, together with the remains of our meal the
previous evening in the trash, was the only evidence he’d ever been there. I set
the coffeemaker going, and made my breakfast – scrambled eggs, since there
was no bread for toast – and my phone rang. It was Mama. I’d forgotten to call
her last night when I got home. She’d known I was working late, and worried.
She was right to worry, but I was damned if I was going to tell her about last night
– anything about last night. The opening act would just scare her to no good
purpose and the rest would make her certain her baby girl had lost it. Did I
mention I’m the youngest of five – four girls and a boy? Yeah, Mama was overly
protective of me, and worried way too much. If we both lived to a hundred with
great grandkids of my own, I’d still be her baby girl. "I’m fine, Mama, just got
done so late I figured you’d be in bed by the time I got home."

"Hija, you shouldn’t be working so hard all the time for that man," she told me,
"He doesn’t leave you any time for yourself. How are you going to meet a nice
boy to marry and give me grandchildren if you’re always working?"

If you know Mexican families, there really isn’t any response to the husband and
children thing unless you’ve got the ring and at least a child on the way. That
didn’t keep me from trying, "Mama, you’ve got fifteen grandchildren already.
Peter is almost my age and sure looks serious about that new girlfriend of his."
Peter had finished his MBA the previous summer and Mama couldn’t be more
proud. He wasn’t making much yet, but he did have a good job putting his
degree to work. She crowed over him for a couple minutes, and let me get off
the phone.

It was time for work, but my phone rang again. I didn’t recognize the number, but
it was long distance, so I gave it a chance on case a family member needed help.
It was ScOsh, "Grace, I have two million dollars for you."

A statement like that does get your attention, especially when you’re scrabbling
for twelve bucks an hour so you can go to school part time. He’d already refused
my virtue, such as it was, so I was pretty certain that wasn’t his objective. What
was? "Um, thanks, I think. Why?"

"I offered you compensation, and you accepted. You may not realize it, but you
are running a risk by hosting me. What is your schedule today?"

"Nothing special. Work, then school tonight – Organic chem. There’s an exam I
haven’t studied for"

"Can you call in sick to work today? There’s a risk I have to show you how to
minimize. You should be fine by tonight."

"For someone paying me 2 million dollars I can. When do I get it? And risk?
What risk?" And what did you DO to earn two million dollars overnight? To
myself.

"I’ll explain when I see you. Stay in until then. I’ll be there within an hour. An
Earth hour."

So I called in to "Call Me George" Martinez and told him I’d caught a cold from all
the rain. My first sick call in two years. He wasn’t happy, but I’d finished the EPA
report he needed, so he had to let me slide. If ScOsh was as good as his word –
and he had been so far – I might never come back. Then I cracked the O-chem
book.

I amazed myself. I had struggled with the differences between aldehydes and
ketones, but it was a snap now. I not only understood, I was drawing
connections the book wasn’t making – at least not yet. Better yet, I was
remembering them. I satisfied myself, pulled out my calculus book from last
semester, and suddenly understood calculus for the first time in my life. Ditto my
Tuesday night Molecular Biology class. I went back to O-chem. I remembered it
all. I read three chapters ahead. It was dryer than hot desert sand thanks to the
writer’s pedantic text, but it wasn’t hard.

I got the impression more time than an hour had passed, and I was right. It had
been an hour and ten minutes. I couldn’t have done it in less than four hours
before. Then I remembered ScOsh was ten minutes overdue. The way he came
and went was creepy, but he seemed to have it pretty well under control. Where
was he?

He stepped out of the hall closet just then. God alone knows where he found the
room, but he did. He wasn’t carrying anything that looked like it could hold a
million dollars, but I’d reserve judgment on that. He hadn’t been carrying the
sword I’d seen, or the other weapon, the one that killed the gangbangers, either.
"Sorry I’m late," he said, "But exchanging the money turned out to be more
complicated than I thought. I found out about your physical libraries last night
after you went to bed, so I walked through first your local college library, then the
Library of Congress. Then I went to Atlantic City, and went through all the
casinos there. Then Las Vegas"

"You cheated the casinos?" I interrupted, incredulous, "You cheated the mob-
owned
casinos?"

"I did no such thing," he said, "It’s not cheating to use skill. If they don’t have
rules posted that forbid it, it’s not cheating. There were rules posted, but
absolutely nothing about using any of the skills I employed. I borrowed a chip
from someone for a few minutes, and used it to win. Then I gave the original
chip back to the owner with interest. I went from casino to casino. Didn’t win too
much from any of them. When people started to take an interest in my winning, I
lost a little, then changed tables and started winning again. I know how not to be
noticed. Speaking of which, that applies right now. You’re about to have visitors.
I’m not here; don’t expect them to find me no matter what they do, so act natural.
Don’t do anything out of the ordinary. Your planet doesn’t have the technology or
the wizardry to catch me. I want to keep it to a minimum because there’s at least
one person around who can." Then he simply disappeared right in front of me,
just as there was a knock on my door.

I went to the door. The spyhole showed two cops in uniforms, right out of central
casting. One Mexican, one Anglo. "Can I help you?" I said, loudly enough to be
heard through the door.

"Riverside Police. Ms. Graciela Juarez?" The Mexican’s accent was medium
strong. Probably didn’t grow up around a lot of Anglos, like I had.

"That’s me. Can I see your badges?" You don’t let cops in without making sure.

"Yes ma’am." First one guy, then the other. Looked normal enough, not that I
was sure I’d be able to tell bad ones. I opened the door and stood there.

They looked me over in a way men never had before. I wasn’t certain if I liked it
right now, but I could tell my earlier surmise about male attention was correct.
They were both appreciating the scenery. There was a wedding ring on the lead
cop’s hand (the Mexican) but not the Anglo’s. Neither was too far from my age.

There was one thing they might be there about. They’d also have a pretty good
idea I didn’t really have a cold already. So I decided to tell some of the truth.

"We found four bodies in the street in front of your office last night. We asked if
anyone had seen anything, and Mr. Martinez said you had been working late.
Building security logged an exit at 8:38, and the bodies were killed sometime
between seven thirty and nine."

"Yes officer, I saw the bodies and I panicked. I came out, started walking to my
car, saw them and ran. I’m sorry, I know I should have called, but I was just so
scared." All the while doing my best little girl at the horror movie act. "I drove
home and just shook a while down there in the parking lot, then I ran up here and
ate. I was so hungry, I hadn’t eaten since lunch, and then I ate some more
because I sometimes do that when I’m upset, and before I knew it I had eaten
like 5 sandwiches. Then I went in the bathroom and threw up. Then I sat there
for a while, on the bathroom floor. Then I went to bed, and shook until I fell
asleep. I don’t know what time that was. When the alarm went off this morning, I
just couldn’t go back yet. Please don’t tell my boss I’m not really sick! Please?"

"Mind if we come in and look around?"

This was it, the moment of truth. I decided to take ScOsh at his word. He’d been
more than fair with me. Actually, he had already been absurdly generous and
was promising more. But solid citizens don’t just roll over for the cops. "You got
a warrant?"

"No, ma’am." The Anglo. I could tell he’d bought the fear, hook, line and sinker.
Maybe a little too well. "Just want to take a quick look around, make sure you’re
okay here. Never know if their friends tracked you down. Some of these people,
they don’t care if you had nothing to do with it, didn’t see a thing. They want to
know who offed their homies and they don’t take too well to ‘I don’t know.’ We
could probably arrange protective custody if you want." He winked suggestively.

Dios Mio! Someone who’s just had a scary experience like that and you’re hitting
on her!
Still, I decided to ignore it. "Okay, take a look around if you want, but no
protective custody. I have an exam tonight. I need to finish my degree. I’ll make
myself be okay by then"

They came in, took their time. I was grateful Mama made me learn good
housekeeping. I hadn’t cleaned the bathroom last night, but it was clean enough
to look like maybe I had. No puke or residue or anything. The bed was made, of
course. The kitchen trash backed up my story. No obvious holes, except, "Who
is this blanket for?" the still-unused blanket was on the couch.

"I was just about to watch some TV when you knocked. Anything to have some
voices around. And it’s cold. Maybe ask Mama to come over, or my sister. If
they can."

"You sure you don’t want protection?" the Mexican asked, "Maybe it’s not such a
good idea to bring your family into it if the gangs get nasty. We got women we
could put you with." So his partner being on the make was at least faintly
embarrassing to him.

"No, but thanks." I was pretty certain I had better than they could possibly offer, if
I needed it.

"Okay, Ms. Juarez. Thankyouforyourcooperation." It all came out like it was one
word. He would have said it many times. They left.

They couldn’t have been more than halfway down the stairs when ScOsh
appeared, again right in front of me. Jesus it was unsettling how he did that. I
jumped and started to wind up for a good yell but he shushed me, "No loud
noises. I’ve lulled their suspicions, but if they heard you yell, I’d have to do
something overt. That would draw notice. They’re normal Earth humans, but I’m
not the only one who has tampered with them. I had to be very careful." He
started pulling money – cash – out of somewhere. I couldn’t really get a good
look at how or what or where. He said, "Pocket" as if that explained everything,
but it really did make an impressive pile. $2 million doesn’t sound like a huge
amount of money any more, what with all the talk about millionaires and
billionaires and lottery advertisements, but it turned out $100 is the biggest bill in
circulation, and $2 million is twenty thousand of those. It fit on the table, but it
wasn’t in the neat bundles you see in the movies and it wasn’t a small pile. I
stuffed as many as my wallet could comfortably hold there, then pulled out some
old plastic grocery bags to hold the rest and stuffed them in the back of my
bedroom closet.

"Suppose you level with me? Tell me exactly what is going on?"

"Okay. First though, I need to teach you to guard your thoughts just a little. If the
opposition spots you, you’ve got to have a charade that’s believable on the
surface. Of course, if they get interested enough to take a real look at your mind
there’s nothing I can do that will stop them from getting what you know. It’s for
your protection and mine."

"Okay, but don’t think you can get away with fobbing me off after."

"I won’t." He actually pulled out some kind of writing implement, and wrote, "I
promise to tell Grace everything she wants to know" on the notepad I kept on the
nightstand. He handed me the note, "The people I’m after, they know all the stuff
I’m going to tell you. So there isn’t any reason not to. But the mental guard
stands a good chance of keeping them from spotting you."

His demeanor got very serious, and he asked, "We can do this quick and easy
but unsettling – like how I learned your languages only in reverse – or slow and
hard but not so invasive. Most of our people – non-Guardians anyway – learn
slowly over their first thirty years or so. That’s not an option for you, so it’s going
to be a long day if we do it the second way. Especially since what you need to
learn is a bit harder than the basic skill"

"Which would be better?"

"With one day of practice, you’re not going to be perfectly seamless, so rapport
will work just as well, perhaps better. The other way is trial and error. It’s more
convincing in someone with a lot of practice, but you’re not going to have that
practice. If they look that close, you’re going to be caught anyway."

"If that was rapport back when you followed me here, it wasn’t so bad. We could
do that. That was how you learned English so fast?"

"I’ve got what you might call a natural supercomputer in my head. It’s one of the
basic Guardian skills." He paused a moment, then continued, "What we are
really good at, better than anything else, better than anyone else we have ever
encountered, is mental augmentation. From that, everything else flows. If you’re
smart enough, you can figure out how to do things. Almost anything else. I’m
fast and I’m strong and I’m agile – I could win any athletic contest on Earth easily
on my first try – but it’s because my people are smart and have figured out self-
augmentation, so we’re stronger and more agile and even more precise and
balanced and faster. I’m not the smartest of my people – I’m only the first rung of
the ladder up from basic level. In fact, I was quite old when I became operant, so
old that I and everyone else had expected me to die without becoming operant.
There were over a million people just as strong as me or better in the building I
was in just before I came here. But enough of that for a while. We need to get
your lesson done."

"But how did you do it?"

"I linked us up in rapport and read out your language center. It’s one of the
easiest areas of the mind to locate and read if you know how. You knew two
languages, although you were more comfortable in this one, so that’s what I
talked to you in."

"What else did you read?!" I hissed at him

"Nothing. Well, surface thoughts, but the way you throw them off they don’t really
count as reading. I’m hoping to put that under your control, if you’ll let me. We,
or at least my people, don’t go around stripping the innermost thoughts of
everyone we pass in the street. People get upset. Before too long, someone
gets upset enough to do something about it, so even our operant children learn
to follow polite rules. My arrival here was a special situation, or I wouldn’t have
even accessed what I did. It wasn’t wrong by our rules, but it was rude even if it
was necessary. Please accept my apology?"

"How many sisters do I have?"

"Three, but you just shouted that answer at me." Okay, I was convinced enough.
I had thought about the answer when I asked the question. He was plenty quick
enough to have played dumb, so his answer convinced me when a denial might
not have. Maybe he wasn’t telling me quite everything – who does? – but there
was credibility there.

"So what do I have to do for this rapport thing?"

"You don’t have to do anything – I do – but eye contact does make it easier. It’s
mostly symbolic, but it does work that way, at least for Second Order Guardians
like me. Just look at me and relax." I started to ask about Second Order
Guardians but he stopped me, repeating "Just look at me and relax."

I looked at him. He hunched a bit, to make it easier, and then we connected. I
don’t know how to explain it, really, other than kind of like a computer connection
direct to your brain. I found out later that this was considered a very narrow
rapport, Guardians can open a channel for anything up to something that’s kind
of like an instant mental nirvana and soul graft between two Guardians that trust
each other that much. Kind of like two yogis communing with each other, but
really communicating on hundreds of levels at once. He began that mind talk I
had experience briefly last night, but this time he didn’t switch to spoken words
after a few seconds. He was also able to demonstrate what he was talking about
on a level I could understand. It couldn’t have been more than a couple minutes
later that I had a basic understanding of what levels of thought exist in natural
state humans, which and the difference between a thought that was practically a
mental shout for attention, one that was merely easy to read, and one that was
more difficult – and how to route my thoughts between the various levels. No,
don’t ask me to explain – there are concepts we don’t have words or context for
in English or any other Earth language. Then he went in to the hard part –
building a surface presence that didn’t stand out by its total lack of exposure.
Normal Earth humans, without Guardians around to tell them they’re mentally
shouting, shout everything constantly. So things like "hungry" and "cold" had to
be on that surface shout level. If they weren’t, it was like a big neon sign to any
Guardian close by, saying, "Warning! This one is different!" ScOsh had
encountered a couple people who were able to keep their thoughts under closer
control, but so far as he could tell, it was strictly natural variation, and they were
rare enough that he had evidently bored down into both of them to make certain
they weren’t enemies or controlled by enemies. I didn’t want the details. "I’m
going to the post office
" needed to be casually readable if someone tried,
because that was the case with everyone around me. It was only things that
needed to be hidden that got buried more deeply. The next hour and a half was
a lot of things like, "Grace, pretend I’ve asked you to go to the store for me to get
ammonia," which meant that store and drive and things like sight and hearing
had to be on the surface shout level, ammonia needed to be under the surface
but casually readable, and why I was doing it and who I was doing it for had to be
down where casual scans wouldn’t reveal them. He cautioned me repeatedly, "If
you draw their attention, it’s all over. So the entire point is to not attract attention
by being in any way interesting. Think routine and same as everybody else. It’s
a good thing if you can act disengaged or bored. I’m keeping you out of it as
much as I possibly can. I know it’s exhausting, especially running a deception
like this where one of our own citizens would just naturally put everything down
below casual reading level in the normal course of things. I do not know that
they would respect your limitations, so I’ve got to work on the assumption they
won’t. Soon as you’re here in the apartment with the doors closed, I’ve set up a
glamour that makes you appear normal Earth human even if you’re not,
anymore, so you can relax when you’re here at home. Nowhere else. If they
come in here, they’re going to sense I’ve been here anyway. And once this is
over, you’ll be able to just be yourself – it shouldn’t matter if someone spots you
then"

Eventually, I got it down to the point where it was automatic enough to be easy.
If I’d been the old Graciela Juarez, I didn’t think I could have done it at all, but it
wasn’t too hard with my newfound mental acuity. "I think you’ve got it, Grace," he
finally said, "I’ll put you through one more short session before you leave for your
class tonight, but you’ve done the last sixty close enough to pass. If I had infinite
time, I’d drill you a lot more, but I don’t, and you need a break." I was sweating
and shaking and had a splitting headache – which he proceeded to cure. I got
the strong impression that "last sixty close enough" was way below the usual
standard, and I was starting to understand why. ScOsh himself noticed
everything, and was preparing me in the assumption that his opponents were up
to that standard at least.

"You’re what our procedures consider an informed bystander, Grace," he said,
changing the subject, "You’re not doing anything active in the conflict. By those
rules, they might try and subvert you, but they shouldn’t aim violence directly at
you. It’s acceptable by the rules if you get caught up in something aimed at me –
that’s your own fault and your own lookout. But if I’m gone, or not around, or
incapacitated, killing you or hurting you is bad form. Lame, weak, and wasteful.
On the other hand, there is more than adequate evidence that they don’t always
play by the rules. So be careful. If it looks like I’m in trouble, get away. If I’m in
anything that looks like it might be conflict, or dangerous, get away. Ideal is
surrounded by innocent bystanders – people that don’t know a thing. If they
wanted to hit you with something individually targeted, it wouldn’t be too major of
a violation. But if they caught complete innocents up in it as well, that’s a game
changer and they know it. My side finds out about it, we stop playing as nice as
we have. And they really don’t want that."

That explained why he was being generous. Under the normal rules, I was okay
as a target only as collateral damage – but the folks on the other side might not
play by the rules. Also, I had seen how good ScOsh was at individual targeting
the previous night. I was certain he hadn’t missed any shots. He had to have
fired more than once last night, but I couldn’t have told you just from observing
him – it was only four different dead bodies with no evidence of any other
damage that told that tale. So that meant the opposition was at least in his
league as far as speed and accuracy. If not, they wouldn’t last long.