In her years of marriage to the leader of the band, Laurel Sinclair had learned plenty about dealing with problems: flaky studios, incompetent roadies, goofy groupies, even crooked managers and record company execs. But political trouble? It felt more like something out of a historical movie, of people having vapors over Elvis Presley's on-stage gyrations, or an entire town in an uproar over the moral threat of ragtime.
Squaring her shoulders and trying to look taller than her modest height, she faced the man in Navy dress whites. "But Kim and the Humdingers isn't a political band."
"However, it is a band led by a clone. One with genetic modifications." Admiral Alton gazed back at her with those blue eyes so much like her husband's, only with deeper lines around the corners. "And these days, that in itself is a political matter. Particularly when your band is here at the request of a governor publicly at odds with the Administration. In an election year."
"True." The admission tasted sour in Laurel's mouth. She'd felt uneasy about this gig ever since Kim had first mentioned it. But you didn't refuse Governor Thorne's personal request to headline her special Independence Day concert at Candlestick Park. "Flannigan must really have a bug up his butt this time. He's been beating the drum of anti-biotech hysteria ever since the incident in Hawaii, and--"
She stopped, noticing the right corner of Alton's mouth twitching, hard. Kim had already left the Navy when they met and married, so most of her understanding of an officer's obligations were theoretical. "Sorry, I shouldn't be putting you in the position of criticizing the President."
Was that a hint of warmth in Alton's expression? "Actually that's a misconception. A commissioned officer is allowed tactical criticism of the President's positions and policies, so long as it is stated respectfully. After all, he is our commander-in-chief, not our god." A pause, as if considering what he wanted to say. "Right now I need to speak to your husband. I have on good sources that the Department of Security will get an order to shut down this concert, and I want to give him an opportunity to ensure he never receives it."
"Ah, to put the telescope to the blind eye." Jack Alton might not be the Nelson buff Laurel was, but she had confidence a professional Navy officer would recognize the reference. "I don't have any spare backstage passes on me, but I'm sure I can talk you past security. After all, you are Kim's clone-brother."
"Then let's get going." Admiral Alton set a brisk pace. At least here in the service corridors of Candlestick Park they didn't have to push their way through the crowds that would be filling the public concourses while the opening act was between sets.
Laurel had expected at least a little security hassle. Memories of the Summer of Fear faded slowly, even two decades after the Energy Wars ended. But the uniformed security guards she encountered just waved them through on sight.
Backstage was always a tense place right before a show, but Laurel could feel the shift from excitement to apprehension as everyone saw she had company, and then whom. Yes, they knew this was not an ordinary situation, and no, they weren't going to complicate things by indulging their curiosity with questions. However, it wouldn't keep them from wondering, even worrying.
Admiral Alton wagged a thick finger. "Steve, I need to talk with you."
It sounded strange to hear her husband being called by his actual given name. Laurel reminded herself that he and Alton had first worked together in the Navy during the Energy Wars, long before he began his musical career and made their ur-brother's nickname his stage name.
Kim pulled himself to his feet and came over to join his clone-brother. "So what're we looking at?"
At Alton's explanation, Kim's eyes widened. "I think we'd better put Peter in the loop. We'll have to deal with light-speed lag between here and Grissom City, but he deserves to know what's going on."
Laurel had halfway expected Alton to balk, but he agreed with enthusiasm. "Definitely, get a satellite link with Captain Caudell. The Moon's cleared the horizon, so we shouldn't need to worry about relay sats the Administration could block."
It took a few minutes for the technicians to get the link up and running, since they'd been working on it in preparation for the actual concert. They just had to get it working on a local teleconference system rather than the big screens on stage.
Peter Caudell must've been in the middle of his own warmups, because he had the look of a man caught by surprise. That and he was in some kind of green room, rather than on stage in Grissom City's main concourse where he would perform his part of their joint concert.
"Hey, Kim, isn't it kind of early?" Then he looked more closely at the teleconference screen under the camera, pulled himself up in a more military demeanor. "Admiral Alton?"
"We have a problem." He explained yet again the plan to shut down the concert.
Peter didn't even try to hide his shock. "What kind of horseshit is this? This is America, dammit."
Kim extended a hand in a gesture of restraint, although he might be just a little out of camera range with his clone-brother standing right in front of it. "They've got precedent, after they shut down Irina Bulganina's concert--"
"She's a foreign national, and her husband's a big wheel in the Russian government, so they were able to claim a security threat. But we're Americans..."
Even as Peter was arguing with Kim that there was no way the Federal government could do a repeat of the business down at Altamont, at least not without serious repercussions, Admiral Alton pulled a mini-tablet out of his pocket and tapped in several commands before leaning over to one of the comm techs. "Can you get an image feed from GeoScope 15?"
The tech looked a little surprised, but typed some instructions into her workstation. Moments later Alton nodded with satisfaction. "Good. Now send that image to Captain Caudell."
The reaction was astonishing. Peter went from frowning to wide-eyed with astonishment. "Wow. That's current?"
"About half an hour ago, and the crowd has probably grown since the satellite passed over our location. Somebody," Alton's tone left no doubt about his opinion of that individual, "was mass duplicating counterfeit tickets, and sharp ones too. We were able to get wind of it in time for state and local authorities to shut it down, but not before a number of them got out in the wild. There are a lot of disappointed people out there, and some of them have already tried to climb the stadium walls."
Laurel didn't hear the rest of Alton's speculations because a motion in her peripheral vision attracted her attention. She turned just in time to grab the little girl running toward some valuable and fragile equipment.
"Vicki, didn't I tell you to stay with your Uncle Chet?" Laurel scanned the area. "Chet, where are you?"
The silver-haired man looked up, shaking his head as if to clear it. Yes, he'd gotten lost in whatever dreamlike state his biomods generated.
Chet Sinclair wasn't actually Kim's brother, birth or clone. Instead he was a Nimitz clone who'd helped Kim out of a jam back in the Energy Wars. In acknowledgment of the life-debt between them, Kim had made him a sort of adopted brother.
"Sorry, Laurel." Chet gave her a sheepish smile. "I guess I slipped up again."
Much as Laurel would've liked to bawl him out for his carelessness, she wasn't going to do it now. Not just because she didn't want to cause a disruption in the middle of a conference that bridged two worlds, but also out of respect for what was between him and Kim.
It isn't his fault that a mod package that worked out so well in clones of the man blamed for the Navy getting surprised at Pearl Harbor turned out to interact badly with the geneset of man who was sent to replace him. Laurel gave Chet a rueful smile. "Maybe I ought to be the one babysitting you and Vicki both."
"Maybe." Chet had long ago made peace with his situation. "I usually don't have this much trouble."
"It might be all this upset." Laurel inclined her head toward the teleconference still in heated progress.
Would there have been less heat and more light if the three of them had been free to vent their frustration with President Flannigan? Not that they weren't coming close, dangerously so in the case of Admiral Alton's comment that the man kept being a divider right when the nation most needed a uniter.
Meanwhile, the time's ticking away. Laurel cast an uneasy glance at the big clock on a nearby pillar. Should she remind them, or would that just put them into shoot-the-messenger mode?
Peter Caudell must've reached the same conclusion. "It's almost time to go on stage. We need a decision."
"We're not backing down and going quietly, and that's final." Kim spoke in a low growl quite unlike his usual voice.
Admiral Alton was visibly pleased by the news. "Then I'll tell my people."
Laurel recalling him mentioning having scattered sailors and Marines throughout the crowd outside the ballpark's walls. His original concern had been agents provocateur, but now his people would have a second mission, one that would require a little more subtlety than taking down someone trying to whip disappointed people into a frenzy in which they would do something stupid.
As she watched Admiral Alton leave, Laurel felt a flare of apprehension. That man was walking a very thin line, and even being a hero of the Energy Wars wouldn't save him if things went awry and the civil authorities started asking awkward questions.
Which is why he has to get back up to the governor's box with the other special guests before anyone notices he's gone. Laurel knew she wouldn't be able to relax until the last note was played and the fireworks began.
As if you ever can. She blew a kiss to her husband as he headed toward the stage. Even without politics to complicate things, problems could always crop up, and if not caught fast, could ruin a show.
She could hear them going through their on-stage sound checks when a small hand tugged at her sleeve. She looked down at Vicki. "What's wrong, sweetie?"
"Mommy, I gotta go."
There could be no mistaking the urgency in her voice. Although Laurel had limited her daughter's fluid intake in the hours immediately before the show, she hadn't been willing to risk actual dehydration the way she might herself. Not to mention that, while Vicki was toilet trained, she was still young enough to have trouble holding for any length of time.
Laurel caught Chet's attention. "I'm going to take Vicki down to the restroom."
It would've been a lot easier if there'd been restroom facilities in the immediate backstage area, but if there had been some, they'd been taken out or repurposed. So it was down the corridor and a flight of stairs.
At least you're not having to take her through the crowds on the regular concourses. That was just enough to make Laurel think of Admiral Alton making his way back to the governor's box. Of course the area immediately around it would be carefully secured, but was there a private passage all the way up there, or would he have to get through the public corridors at some point?
It was just enough to get her to thinking about all the things she'd overheard, the speculations on how their opponents in the Administration would try to go about shutting the concert down and measures to take to prevent it. By the time Vicki was finished, Laurel realized that everyone had forgotten one very important weak point.
Trying to cut the power to the stage is too obvious, after they tried it on Irina Bulganina. But the big attraction of our concert is simulcasting with an artist who's on the Moon.
Laurel retrieved her cell phone. Just so Chet had his on him. If he'd left it in one of the equipment bags, it could vibrate all evening and he'd never know.
She was relieved to get a prompt answer. "Chet, I'm going to run down to the satellite truck and give the guys a heads-up, so it's going to take a little longer than I'd expected."
He didn't sound too surprised, but his tendency to drift in and out made him hard to faze. All the more reason to make it quick and get back up there with him.
Vicki was getting a little big for a hip carry, but as long as Laurel could manage, it was faster than any of the alternatives. Still, Laurel wasn't looking forward to having to thread her way through the crowds outside.
When she got to the service entrance, she was surprised to find people standing around back here, climbing on semi trailers, doing anything they could to get high enough to see something, anything of the concert for which they'd been unable to get tickets. Or worse, gotten duped into buying fake tickets and turned away at the gate.
She scanned the area, looking for the satellite truck. At least with Grissom City having a decent sized transmission dish, they no longer needed a radio telescope to pick up signals from the Moon as they had in those early missions when she was a little kid, but they'd still need a direct line of sight.
A quick look at the eastern horizon picked out the Moon, looking like a big silver coin hanging over the Berkeley Hills. At any other phase, the landing lights of one or another spaceport would be shining like an impossible star, but right now it looked just like the Moon of her childhood.
Back when we all thought cloning was as much science fiction as permanent lunar settlements were in those days. Sometimes it was hard to remember the time before the Soviet Union came crashing down in a cataclysm of social upheaval, before the revelations came out of what both sides had been doing with human genetic material. Before some people decided it was easier to blame the experimental subjects for existing than to confront the politicians who'd authorized the experiments out of fear that the Soviet program might be producing super-soldiers and suchlike nightmares rather than pursuing pseudo-immortality for various high-ranking apparachiki.
And right now there was no use indulging in nostalgia for lost innocence. She had a satellite truck to locate and people to warn, and she needed to get it done quick and get back inside before the show started.
On her way, she scanned the crowd, half hoping to find a strapping young sailor or Marine she could pull in as muscle. But she knew better than expect something so convenient.
When she got to the satellite truck, she was initially relieved to find it unmolested. But on second thought, it was too quiet. The guys who ran it should be yelling hi to her by now. Something's wrong.
The guy who stepped around the back of the truck didn't look like a thug, but he moved like a man accustomed to having his violence up close and personal. At Laurel's side, Vicki stiffened, spoke with all the earnestness of a small child. "You are a bad man."
At once he turned to face Laurel directly. "So, did your old man tell you to bring your clone-spawn down here as a human shield, or did you come up with the idea yourself?"
The accusation stung. Memories of the Energy Wars died hard, especially for someone who'd worked in radio during that time.
But Laurel no more than opened her mouth to refute the accusation than she realized she could only admit even worse: that she had failed to consider that she was putting her child in danger. She shifted position to lead with her right side, which would give Vicki a modicum of protection, and considered how to extract herself from the situation. "So you're admitting you're up to no good down here."
The guy's lips curled upward in a smile, but his eyes showed no hint of kindness. "I like fire in my women. It sizzles so nicely when squelched."
Make that definite, this guy was Trouble. Laurel edged backward, scanning the area for an avenue of escape. Where was everybody when she needed just one person to notice, to raise the alarm?
If she'd been alone, she would've bolted and hoped she could outrun that guy just long enough to lose herself in the crowd. With Vicki at her side, she had no illusions about how well that would work.
A sudden sharp buzz of vibration in her pocket broke her concentration: her cell phone. No time to answer it.
The moment's distraction was just enough to let her opponent close the distance between them. "You know, you could make it a whole lot easier on yourself. You just give up here and now, I secure you so I know you'll stay out of trouble, and after we've got this concert shut down, I'll cut you and your brat loose, no harm done."
Everything Laurel had learned, from Kim, from her martial arts instructors, from a cop who used to be her neighbor, told her there was only one answer. "No. Hell, no."
She kicked, wishing she had heavier shoes on. She might be out of practice, but her toe connected where she aimed.
Except he didn't double up in spasms. Was he wearing a cup, like guys did at the dojo?
Nothing to do but keep fighting, try to keep him out of grappling range, try to find something tender enough to set him off balance just enough she could make a run for it. She was not going to surrender, not with Vicki as a potential hostage.
Just as she was running out of options, she heard a familiar voice shouting, "There she is."
Chet? Even as Laurel turned her head to look, her attacker grabbed her.
But only for a moment, because another man came charging in. He landed one solid punch, then another. Trouble staggered backward, and from the crowd two burly Marines came running to pin him to the ground.
For a brief moment of confusion, Laurel thought sure her husband had abandoned the stage to come to her rescue, that she'd ended up ruining the concert after all. And then she realized that no, this man was in dress whites with a rear admiral's two stars at his shoulders.
He cast a wry look at his fist. "At least I didn't break my Academy ring doing it, although I daresay he," he cast a sour look at their would-be assailant, "is going to have a few lacerations from it."
"Admiral Alton? Aren't you a little old to be getting into fights like this?"
The admiral gave her a dry chuckle. "I'm only sixty-two. That's younger than Gus Grissom was when he went charging into Johnson Space Center to fight the ragheads who were shooting it up."
Laurel remembered that day, when the news director came running into the broadcast booth and interrupted her current song to make the announcement of the terrorist attack on the heart of America's space program. "Well, there is that. But right now we'd better find the guys who are supposed to be running the satellite truck and make sure the link isn't sabotaged."
It didn't take long - they'd not had her training, and had let themselves be tied up and gagged in the back of the truck, under the dish. Freed, they were able to reboot the computers the would-be saboteur had tried to crash, and had the feed live.
Except by that point it was too late to get backstage again. For a moment Laurel tried to console herself with the idea that she'd still hear the performance, even if she couldn't see the stage or the three big screens behind it on which they'd project various images, including that of Peter Caudell's part of the concert.
And then Admiral Alton told her to follow him. She pulled Vicki back onto her hip and let Chet walk right behind her, covering her vulnerable side all the way to one of the VIP entrances. The guards might be a little surprised to see them all together, but did not dispute Admiral Alton's right to bring them up to the governor's box.
Well, there's no way he's going to be covering up this absence. Might as well enjoy getting to see the concert from the best seats in the house.
Except that intention lasted only until she got seated. That was the point when the adrenaline rush ran out and all the energy went right out of her. One moment she was fine, and the next she was shaking so hard she had to grab hold of the arms of the chair.
A middle-aged woman of authoritative demeanor came over, spoke in a strong New England accent. "Are you all right?"
Laurel intended to answer that she was fine, but what came out of her mouth was a fumbling, "I-I don't know."
"She's had a significant shock." Admiral Alton picked up Vicki and explained about the incident at the satellite truck. "I brought her up here rather than take her backstage and leave her to her own devices."
"Quite wise." The woman gave Laurel a measuring look. "Although you would've been wise to call for backup instead of just running down there by yourself."
Laurel's cheeks flushed, and her befuddled mind finally placed the woman: Renza Armitage, governor of New Hampshire. A disconnected part of Laurel's mind recalled Kim grumbling about how, of all the governors of the fifty states, the only two to have the balls to stand up to Flannigan should be women.
But she didn't get any time to ponder that conundrum, for Governor Armitage was calling to the windows. "Chandler, come over here and keep an eye on Mrs. Sinclair."
"Yes, ma'am." The lanky young man who came over to sit beside Laurel was wearing the uniform of a midshipman at the US Naval Academy. But more interesting was his long face, and particularly those bulging blue eyes and the fleshy lips over teeth like piano keys being played by invisible fingers.
Renza Armitage couldn't have children of her own, so she adopted a Shepard clone from NASA's clone creche. She was saying something about Chandler being on his summer cruise on a ship based out of San Diego and it not being that hard to get him a little holiday leave with family.
And then the concert began in earnest. Both Kim and Peter were doing a lot of very American stuff, even if not all of it was explicitly patriotic. There had been a time when John Denver's "Rocky Mountain High" had been seen as somewhat countercultural, but from Peter it became a hymn to his home state, a home he had to be missing while stationed on the Moon for an extended period. Even songs like "Country Roads, "The City of New Orleans" or "The Devil Went Down to Georgia" were becoming songs about pride in a vast and varied land under these two men's leadership.
Although most of the concert had been planned for the most part to be done by one or the other side, Laurel recalled that they were planning to do "The Ballad of Gus and Stu" together. For a terrible moment she wondered if the attempt to sabotage the satellite truck would interfere with the synchronization of two different artists operating three light-seconds apart. But it all went as smoothly as the individual numbers had.
And then Kim's guitarist walked out to the front of the stage, carrying a red, white and blue Stratocaster Laurel could never recall having seen before. At first Laurel couldn't even recognize the melody through all the effects, until she remembered just how much Em idolized Jimi Hendrix.
Even as she was pulling herself to her feet and placing her hand over her heart, the other occupants of the governor's box were making the same realization. As were uncounted others--although Em must have intended it to be a guitar solo, thousands of voices were joining in all over the ballpark:
Oh say, does that star-spangled banner yet wave,
O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?
As the final chords echoed their last off the concrete structural members of Candlestick Park, the air filled with the roar of jet engines. In the fading light of evening, Laurel could see a formation of four F/A-18 Hornets flying overhead, sweeping past the Golden Gate and out over the Pacific to the carrier from which they had come.
Moments later the fireworks display began from its barge out on San Francisco Bay. And drained as Laurel might be at that moment, she was filled with a sense that, no matter how hard James Ethan Flannigan might try to set brother against brother, to distract the people from their frustrations and disappointments by beating the drum of hatred against those he condemned as "un-natures," there were still plenty of people willing to pull together instead of apart.
If you haven't yet, check out our Independence Day contest Grand Prize Winner,Break the Skyby Matt Souders!