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Leaf Lovers

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For Edison Carter, highly praised and highly-paid telejournalist for the top-rated network, it had been a slow day for news. Despite the lousy weather, he had completed his story on the Leaf Lovers and would be home in time to change for tonight's party.

The Network 23 helicopter was making good time back to the tower despite the heavy snow fall. Martinnez, the ex-combat pilot, acted as if he was flying on a clear spring day that it ought to be. May Day Eve was supposed to be sunlit and warm. Of course, nothing had ever been the same since the polluted atmosphere had turned the days into a perpetual haze and starless nights except in deep winter.

"Remember when snow was white?" Edison asked Martinez over the roar of the blades.

"Just barely. Before the War."

"Right," Edison said slowly. Carter had missed the War that had caused so much of the atmospheric damage. He had come to maturity among the blackened ruins of the cities. the barren dusty Fringes and the pervasive electronic ogre of television.

Martinez landed the helicopter on the snowy concrete of the Network 23's pad. The tower loomed among the skyscrapers, the rulers of the ruined city, while below on the streets people fought over loaves of bread and television sets sat on every debris-filled garbage can. It took hard work, guts. and sex appeal to climb from the slums to the moneyed classes and the major path was through television. Edison was always reminded of this fact when he saw how fast a person could fall back down onto the streets when the camera lens turned another direction.

His controller. Theora Jones. smiled at him over the top of her computer terminal as Edison entered the main studio. "This will be an interesting piece by Edison Carter. For once, it won't be Live and Direct."

He grimaced. "You wouldn't believe how long it took to get an interview with the Leaf Lovers, Theora. I practically had to offer my first born to their trees."

Her eyes laughed though her face was stern. "And that would be so much to give up!"

"Since I don't have one, it would be difficult to an extreme," he quipped. "Unless I give them Max, of course. Here's the cartridge." Edison had been using the RR7 Camgun, a recording camera, instead of his normal vidi-cam with a live feed back to control. This time he recorded his report on the cartridge.

She tapped on the keys of the old-fashioned typewriter that was connected to the sophisticated computer that ran most of Network 23.

Instead of hearing the eternal sounds of the city which was the backdrop for ninety-nine percent of Edison's reports, she heard the quiet bubbling of water and the sound of wind through rustling leaves. Up came a picture of the domed glass-enclosed room, dominated by metal vats full of waving vegetation, and brown-robed people who were chanting with a low rhythmic beat.

Edison's taped voice rolled over the picture. "The Leaf Lovers came out of the War with the memory of how Earth was and the seeds to start rebuilding what had been destroyed. Three years ago, prominent scientist, Paul Genque, opened this Nursery."

The camgun narrowed in the face of a distinguished man in his early sixties. The greying hair was lovingly stroked back to show a huge nose, fleshy lips and grey eyes with heavy lids. It was a very sensuous face.

"He hadn't changed much," Edison commented dryly.

"Did you know him before?" Theora asked, smiling at his tone.

"Four years ago he was running that research institute, GeneBank. Genque was convinced that he knew exactly what was right for the world and that science could provide it."

"And now he's tending trees?"

"He said he had a revelation out beyond the Fringes. He founded Leaf Lovers and seems to be doing very well with it. You should see the dormitories."

Edison's tape rolled on. "The Nursery is a glade of the past set in the wasteland beyond the Fringes. It has no vidi-cams, no security cameras, and only the legal number of televisions that run only taped nature documentaries from the past. No current broadcasting. The men and women who live here are content with their little world and their lives."

The picture shifted to a trio of women standing by a vat. Two were pouring liquid into the bowl while the third was chanting, her palms pressed together. The women's dun-colored clothing almost made them look like they were part of the trunks.

"What are -- " Theora started.

"What you are watching is the tending of the trees, a ceremony which happens every day at this time," Edison's taped words drowned her out.

The chanting woman raised her arms, showing a pattern of scarring that looked like a leaf-pattern, then the picture cut off.

"Genque made me shut down at that point," Edison commented. "Theora, what you're missing is that they were pouring blood in the chemical mulch. Their blood."

She flinched. "Edison, that's awful!"

"You should see them do it. You're only allowed to give blood once a week. Genque doesn't want to totally drain his people." Edison leaned on the back of her chair, enjoying in the faint perfume in her brown hair. "They do it willingly as well, Theora. And it's having quite an effect on those plants."

"I'm surprised he doesn't do human sacrifice," she commented, shutting the file down.

"That's against the law, and would be a waste for the body banks," Edison joked callously.

Theora frowned at his levity. "Edison, it isn't funny. Those women could find themselves -- "

"Both sexes give blood, Theora," he interrupted. "It's their own choice. Genque apparently figured this out when he started the seedlings. He was a brilliant biochemist before he started to bud with new ideas."

Theora made a face at his pun. "I'll put the credits on the beginning and the end before we transmit tonight."

"Speaking of tonight, Edison," a familiar voice broke in behind them, "You have a command performance this evening, don't you?"

Carter's producer, Murray, leaned over Theora's terminal, his balding head gleaming in the darkened room as the video lights danced behind him, casting reflections on his pate. "Cheviot's got you doing the Rags Bash, doesn't he?"

Benjamin Cheviot, the head of Network 23, was the most powerful man in television according to the ratings at the moment, and his word was law at Network 23.

Carter grimaced. "The things I do for this network -- "

"Oh, come on," Theora broke in, her blue eyes alight with amusement. "You are the highest-paid telejournalist on the top network in the world. You can do virtually anything you want."

"Then why don't I feel privileged?" Carter protested plaintively. "The Rags Bash with all those carefully-beautiful people. I'll be outnumbered. And remember, Theora. I'm not the top at the moment in ratings. Max is and -- "

"That's almost you," Theora said with a slight laugh.

Murray winced. "I just wish I could get Max to follow my orders as well as you do," he said sarcastically. "He's totally out of control, Edison! Cheviot said he's been -- "

"The R-Ra-rags Bash, huh?" Max Headroom, Carter's alter-ego in computer form suddenly appeared blanking out the map of the city. "Ahh--hh--! The delicate sm—sm--ell of flower--s--s on a May Day- -ay! W-w-wish I could be there!

"Speak of the devil, and he shall appear. Wishing has never stopped you before," Carter accused Max. "Just drop in on a tube." The computer simulation could go anywhere where a cable could lead and a television set appeared. He also had absolutely no discretion and Edison had learned to put a blanket over his set to preserve some privacy in his apartment.

"Well, you'd better get moving," Murray ordered. "You can't go looking like that."

Edison looked at his winter-stained leather jacket. "You mean, I have to dress up?"

Murray looked at him impatiently. "Well, you may see yourself as a working joe," he said with a touch of acid. "But tonight you represent our network and we're on top. You might try to take a little pride -- what?" Theora's screen went wild, then cleared up, showing the queue of live feeds that normally filled it. She tapped on the archaic keyboard.

"What happened?" Murray said, worrying.

"The weather!" Theora exclaimed with exasperation. "I think that the dish on the roof must be filled with snow again. Why Bryce can't -- "

A light flashed and the screen faded into a personal communication vidiphone. The elongated face that filled it wore black glasses thicker than bottle bases and was surrounded with computer hardware. It was also about sixteen and belonged to the head of computer systems at Network 23, Bruce Lynch. "Theora? Are you there?"

"Another devil, though a friendly one," Carter murmured into her hair. "We're both here, Bryce."

"What are you doing tonight, Theora?"

Carter's right eyebrow went up. The boy was precocious to a fault. She was Edison's controller after all!

"I was just about to ask you that myself," he said over her shoulder. "Would you like to go to the Rags Ball tonight, and --"

"And nothing," Theora interrupted them both firmly. "I have the late shift, then I'm going home. It will take hours to get there in this snow."

Bryce shrugged. "I just thought we could watch the Rags Ball. I've been tapped in for the last hour. It's real weird down there."

"Pipe it up." Carter suggested.

The young man hit some keys.

The Rags Ball was a reasonably new arrival on the social scene. In the last three years, it had become the trendiest event of the spring. The room was held in the largest banquet room of the Ad Mart.

Bryce had tapped into the secure-cams at the Ad Mart. Fake plastic and aluminum trees stood in each corner of the room, with bouquets of white plastic flowers in ancient porcelain vases decorated the end where the banquet table was set. The flames under the food braziers flicked in the omnipresent breeze. At one end of the room on an upraised dias, were three huge televisions surrounded by banks of fake blossoms.

Edison frowned and straightened up. "What's he doing there?" He pointed to a burly, distinguished man in a long flowing caftan standing next to a woman in a deep green dress. Her back was to the camera.

"That's your friend, isn't it, Edison?" Theora asked.

"Not a friend. Genque. I left him at his Nursery."

"Who's he?" Bryce asked.

"I'll explain later, Bryce." Theora said.

"Well, you can ask him tonight, Edison," Murray cut in. "You had better get moving."

Edison put his wet hat on his head. "Who's covering the Rags Ball since I'm doing the pretty, Murray?"

"No one. Someone got to Zik zak and convinced them it would make lousy ratings, so they asked Cheviot not to waste Network time. They're right, of course. Our ratings bottomed last year when they were broadcast."

"But if Genque is there, it might be a nice ending for my Leaf Lovers piece," Edison argued. "I could take my vidicam."

"Cheviot's not going to like you ruining your tuxedo with a vidicam," Murray retorted with a notable lack of enthusiasm.

"I'll keep an eye on you," Bryce chirped. "I rebuilt the fly camera I made at school, and I like watching social events."

"Amazing what you can learn from them," Theora murmured. "Edison, be discreet. I'm not sure Bryce is quite ready -- "

"Theora, I'm the soul of discretion," Carter assured her with a chuckle.

"Yes, I remember from last year's party," she said dryly, referring to her previous job. "We even heard about that over at World One."

"Edison, get moving." Murray ordered.

"Have a good time," Theora called to his wet-leather back as it excited. "I'll finish up here."

Edison wished that he was wearing wool or fur or even long underwear. The ballroom at the Rags Ball was cold even though the heaters were going full blast. It was the snow outside piling against the windows. Odd drafts swept through the room, making everyone shiver.

Again he was struck by the appearance of the people. Ranging from mid-thirty to mid-seventy, they seemed to be artificially preserved in their youth. Edison had always heard that men's sexual potency died after a certain age, but most of the boasting in the men's room by men over fifty was of young women and Fringe conquests discarded after one-night stands. He wondered if the same conversations were going on across the hall with the ladies about Fringer men. Someday he'd have to ask Theora what women talked about in the powder room. Maybe there was a story on restroom gossip.

Across the crowded banquet room he saw Cheviot talking with Genque. The Leaf Lover had changed his earlier dress for a lurid green caftan with embroidered leaves in gold. From Cheviot's expression, Edison saw his boss was alternately fascinated and repelled by Genque. He wondered if Cheviot or Genque had seen the broadcast that evening.

He wished Theora had come. The room's hangings would appeal to what he knew of her. Of course, he couldn't prowl as easily if she had, but then again, he had Bryce's fly as a chaperon. Occasionally he heard the buzz and knew the boy was nearby. The hell with him. Sooner or later, Bryce had to learn the facts of life.

One woman stared at him in an unmistakable fashion. She wore a sash with the Rags symbol on one shoulder, and her dress was deeply cut in the front and filled to overflowing. Her curly short hair was decorated with a wreath of flowers. The thought of Theora was driven straight out of his head as the woman moved slowly through the crowd towards him.

"Mr. Edison Carter," she said in a deep sultry tone. The perfume from her wreath filled his nostrils. Real flowers? Or just perfume? She must be very wealthy.

Edison unconsciously straightened up. The tuxedo fit his lanky forrn well enough but the neon orange tie with LEDs was his own private rebellion against this job. Cheviot had seen it, winced, but didn't comment. "And you are...?"

"My name's Alicia Bittern," she replied, sliding her hand under his elbow. "I'm here to make sure you are entertained tonight."

"I'm sure that won't be a problem," Edison said matching her tone. "Would you like a drink?"

"Just what I was thinking," she agreed. "Lead on, Mr. Carter."

 

Theora licked the last of the chocolate chip cookie dough off her fingers, and wiped her fingers on the tattered napkin by her terminal. The cathode tube flickered, washing out her peach skin and giving the white of her eyes a ghostly tinge. Murray had left for his lengthy trudge home through the increasing snowfall. Strong winds from the north were blowing heavy gusts of snow against the newsroom's windows and the temperature outside had to be dropping from the chill inside.

She spent an hour discussing the Leaf Lovers and Genque with Bryce after the broadcast of Edison's piece. The public's response had been tepid. It had been too many years since most of them had seen real greenery for them to care what a loon beyond the Fringes was doing.

Theora agreed with Bryce's final assessment of Genque. The man's God complex would be a danger if he was still tampering with human genetics. It was safer for all if he was playing with plants.

They had tuned in on the Rags Ball long enough to see Cheviot open the ceremony and to see Edison arrive with his neon tie. Bryce approved, Theora noted, amused. She had little doubt that Bryce would be snooping again before the end of the evening but, at least, she didn't have to know about it. Theora dragged his attention away from lurk mode with a complaint about the amount of snow piling in the satellite dishes, and he promised to see if he could devise some dish that was self-heating.

May Day. She had a vague memory of when it meant clear skies. She remembered her mother, her real one, taking her to a meadow once and showing her a patch of blue flowers. Violets? There was also a tall yellow blossom like a trumpet. Whenever Theora thought of her mother, who had died when she was very young, she thought of those flowers. Sentimentality.

It must be because I was reading those pre-War files on the environment, she admonished herself. And that piece of Edison's. But someday I would like to have a flower of my own...

"Theora? Are you still there?" Bryce interrupted her reverie.

She tapped a code on her terminal, opening a link. "Yes, Bryce?"

"I've been watching the Rags Ball," he said confidently.

"Prying?"

"That guy Genque is really a flake. He's sicced his girlfriend on Edison!" Bryce replied.

"Girl friend?" Theora straightened up, piqued despite her earlier words. "What girl friend?"

"That woman who was with him this afternoon," Bryce said pointedly. "The one in green who was talking with Genque? As soon as Edison arrived, she went for him. He's getting her a drink right now."

"So what, Bryce?" Theora challenged. "I'm surprised that a man like Genque would be pimping but -- "

"But, nothing!" Bryce cut her off. "I found out who she is, Theora. Her name is Alicia Bittern and she was Genque's chief assistant when he was at GeneBanks."

"Bryce, you have no right to be following Edison -- "

"I know, I know, you went into that hours ago," Bryce cut her off rudely. "But this is important, Theora. I looked at the security files on Genque and Bittern. When Genque left the GeneBanks, she didn't go with him. She stayed at the research institute as one of their primary marketers. The Rags Ball is full of her clients. I broke into the GeneBanks marketing database and checked."

"Bryce! That's illegal."

He gave her pained look and she remembered that a great many of his actions were illegal.

“What does she market, Bryce?"

"An aphrodisiac called New Life," Bryce explained. "I haven't gotten into the main research banks yet to find out the ingredients but it's connected with Genque's Nursery because transport trucks go out there every week."

"It must be a new brand of aphrodisiac to break into that jaded crowd," Theora said with a shrug. "They have the best Zik zak can provide."

"And she also promotes those Snuff films they show on that pay channel, Network 427," Bryce said, wrinkling his nose. "Of course, the deaths are the best holographs money can buy but still... what are we going to do about Edison?"

"What about Edison?" Theora countered. "If he goes home with this Bittern, that's his business, Bryce! And I would suggest you leave him alone and stop snooping!"

"Ah--hh--true lust!" Max chimed in unexpectedly from the terminal on the right. "Edison is having more fun now then he's had in m--mon--months."

"Oh, not you too," Theora said with disgust. "Why do either of you think I'd be interested?"

"Cold sh--ow--wers...," Max suggested. "The spurned--"

"Oh, you're both impossible!" Theora cut him off. She swung her chair around and picked up her heavy coat. "I'm going home."

"I'm going back to watching," Bryce said enthusiastically. "I might be able to pick up some tips."

"Do you like my perfume?" Alicia asked, holding up an ornate glass perfume bottle. She sprayed him playfully.

Edison coughed, then sneezed. The scent was overpoweringly sweet. "It's a little strong. Sorry."

"That's no problem," she said, smiling at him. "I've always been interested in meeting you, Mr. Carter. My friends from Zik zak say you're the biggest draw in network television."

"I suppose I am," he said, warmed by the flattery despite feeling slightly overwhelmed. The woman's body took up a great deal of the bench in the small nook where they had retreated.

"And I only go for the ones at the top," she purred, putting his right hand on her pendulous breast and leaning forward.

Despite the undeniable attraction he was feeling, Edison still felt a trace of caution. He hadn't heard the fly for a while and wondered if Bryce had finally gone to bed, but knew the irritating boy was probably was taking notes from some securicam. He wouldn't have put it past Bryce to pipe the visual through to Theora, though his controller would turn it off as soon as it showed up. And Max... Max would pipe it through the city if he dared!

She kissed him, pressing him back against the wall of the nook.

He responded for a second then pulled away, taking a deep breath. The floral perfume was making his head spin.

"I'm... sorry, but -- " He stopped, staring at her. She was wearing nose filters. Why? Didn't she like her own perfume?

"Oh, no buts, Mr. Carter," she said in a sudden vicious tone, her strong arm pinning him against the wall. "You're all mine." She lifted the perfumer and fired another blast. Edison saw little sparkles of light, then they turned into black spots which grew and spread. He fell off the sofa, unconscious.

The woman smiled and went to the door to the hallway. Two men were waiting for her. She waved and they came inside, picked up the reporter's limp form, and took it to a small van waiting by the back door of the Ad-Mart. Alicia followed with a twisted smile, ignoring a buzzing as a fly landed on her wreath of flowers.

Murray was relaxing in his bachelor apartment, a Zik zak soda in one hand and a book in the other. On the stereo was a set of old-fashioned jazz compact discs and light flickered from the multi-set television bank on one side. He always felt, as a producer, that he had to keep up on the news and a set of news queues scrolled continuously down his main set. Luckily the bank was all Network 23 equipment and the downloads from the satcams were screened by the overnight staff before dumping in the queues.

Outside, it was still snowing heavily.

He didn't want to consider what getting into work was going to be like. He didn't want to think about the starving people down in the Fringes who would be cold and frozen in the morning. That would be Edison's problem. Nothing like a heart-wringer from Carter for the morning show.

Murray preferred to dream of what would happen once the snow melted. Maybe one of those extremely rare blooms nowadays. Those broadcasts always garnered good ratings since people were starved for the rare and exotic. Even Edison's piece tonight had done better than he expected, though the poll sampler showed that the people would have rather seen the weather reports.

"Murray?" Someone was calling on the vidiphone in the living room.

He put the book down and used his remote to flicked on the vidiphone. "Bryce? What is it?"

Bryce looked worried. "Edison's been kidnapped."

The last thing Edison Carter remembered was falling off the couch in the anteroom. Now he was riding in a bumpy transport with a suspiciously familiar smell and his mouth was filled with a gag.

He tried to place the scent. Smelled like a used shoe... no, a bus. He tried to sit up and found himself bound to whatever he was lying on.

Opening his eyes, he saw shadows on the inside of the cloth sack encasing him. Lights flickered oddly in red and yellow and he knew that he wasn't dead, because he doubted heaven or hell had a neon-flickering tie in those colors.

Something sagged against his right side and he turned his head fractionally. The shape, barely discernable, was large and curvy and smelled like flowers.

What was Alicia Bittern doing here? In fact, what was he doing here? And where the hell were they going? After a long ride, Carter felt the transport slow, then stop. His body was shifted to a trolley, and pushed into a building. He and the cart were being pushed down a corridor, wheels rattling on the vinyl flooring, then into some kind of a large room. Again he smelt a familiar smell. Not Alicia's floral perfume this time; this was more earthy, more organic... he knew in sudden bemusement exactly where he was. Genque's Nursery. But why?

The cloth of the bag was torn back and sudden light made Carter blink and wince. He looked around groggily, seeing that it was the same room where he had filmed the women giving blood. Only now the plant tanks were arranged in a different layout, a V-shape leading up to three tanks of bubbling fertilizer. Built over the fertilizer was a platform with a table hung from four chains. The chains were attached to the ornate metal framework that held up the frosted glass dome.

Robed acolytes moved him to the platform and then onto the table, strapping him down with leaf-entwined wire cording. The platform had grooves in it like a cutting board. Through the fog in his mind, Edison tried to figure out exactly what it was for. He sensed movement then saw the bulky figure of Alicia Bittern climbed on the platform to stand beside his head.

"Mr. Carter is awake, Master," Alicia proclaimed, trailing a fingertip along the side of Carter's jaw.

Out of the corner of his eye, Edison could see the distinguished form of Genque climbing to the platform. He smiled down at the bound and gagged telejoumalist.

"You've got a few hours yet, Mr. Carter. The sacrifice won't be till dawn."

Edison's eyes widened and he sluggishly tried to move. The wire made it impossible. Straining against it made his arms and legs hurt.

Alicia lifted her small perfumer and gave him a spritz. What little awareness Carter had drained away.

"But we still have to prepare you for the ceremony," Genque said, gesturing to several of his robed followers.

"But what do they want with him, Bryce?" Murray asked bewildered, looking at the fly's-eye view of the room.

Bryce shrugged. "Well, Edison's tied up on a cutting board. I assume they're going to cut his throat and drain off his blood."

Murray stared at him in horror. "What? They can't do that! Cold-blooded murder's still illegal! And, Edison... why him, of all people?"

"Genque is an advocate of one of the old religions. Each year they sacrificed their King to ensure a fertile harvest. Sometimes they did it twice a year," Bryce informed him. "I learned about it from Theora's files."

The producer shook his head in disbelief. "Bryce, that's barbaric! And crazy!"

"And exactly what we're dealing with," the boy said sarcastically. "What are you going to do about it?"

"Me?" Murray said bewildered.

"Someone's gotta do something!" Bryce demanded. "I mean, I don't want Edison off-lined permanently!"

Murray winced. "Nor do I. He's too good a friend as well as a pain in the butt." The man took a deep breath as he settled down in front of the computer next to the television bank. "Bryce, call Theora first -- "

"She's gone home," Bryce said. "Left about an hour ago."

Murray muttered something un-transmitted on the public airways and tapped his Network security code on the keys.

"What are you doing?" Bryce asked from the other terminal.

"Calling Martinez. His helicopter is about the only thing that might be able to move in this muck. He can come pick me up."

"Not in this storm, he won't," Bryce predicted. "There's supposed to be a bad blow hitting your sector any minute. But you can get Theora. She's still stuck in traffic according to the monitor in her car."

"Are you monitoring—never mind. Pinpoint her while I talk to Martinez," Murray ordered. "Let's see if we can get the Metros out there as well."

Theora's car was bogged down in a snow bank. The hubcaps were sunk so far that the fender rested on the top of the mounded snow.

It had taken her an hour to get this far and she could still see the looming form of Network 23, not ten blocks away. First there had been the limousines that slid into each other, then a bus that overturned.

She gave up the thought of going home and reached into the back of the car pulling out a thick pair of boots. Squirming, she changed her heels for the boots, pulled her heavy coat closer around her slim body and headed for the network tower.

The beating sound of propellers above her when she was only a block and a half away from Network 23, made her look up, shielding her eyes from the snow-laden wind.

The red helicopter landed in the large plaza that stood in front of the Network tower not twenty feet from where she stood.

She pulled open the door. "Martinez?"

"Get in," the thick-set pilot directed. "Murray's got a job for us."

"But...but... how'd he trace me?" she asked in bewilderment as she climbed in.

"The satcams found your car on infrared. You're about the only living person out and moving at this hour," Martinez explained as he piloted the helicopter up and out into the storm.

"Why are we heading into the Fringes?" Theora said, uneasily seeing the helicopter turn away from the tower.

"We have to get to Edison in time to save him," Martinez said.

"Save Edison?" Theora replied, bewildered.

"Murray will explain. Put on the headphones and hit the third button on the right."

Back in his lab, Bryce was frantically trying to find a way to get into Genque's Nursery. No matter what Edison had reported, Bryce couldn't believe it had no securicams or televisions connected with the satellite systems. If it had televisions, and a link of some type, then Max could get into the system.

But finding the right link was a problem. All the normal satellite links were clean with no illegal tapping from a spot beyond the Fringes. The power links to the city showed no taps. So what was Genque using to keep all those plants warm along with all his people?

The satcams pinpointed the path that Edison's van had taken to the Nursery. To the infrareds, the building was a glowing ember in the cold and snowy landscape beyond the fringes.

Frustrated, Bryce slammed his fist against the terminal. The Nursery had to be run from their own genera-tors. The complex was self-sustaining.

"Hi!--Hi, Bry—Bryce," Max said unexpectedly. He appeared on the screen where the satcams had been showing the infrared pattern.

"Not now, Max," Bryce said impatiently. "I have to get into the computer at Genque's Nursery."

"Nurs—Nursery—Nursery?" Max inquired. "I was there this afternoon."

"What?"

"Network 427 was transmitting—transmitting out there and I went along for the ride--ride. Almost got stuck," the head confided. "They—they shut down very fast. I don't like those people."

"Max, can you get in there again? I have a feeling that Network 427 will be transmitting from the Nursery again tonight," Bryce said with foreboding.

"If--if--they open the link," Max said smugly. "I can go anywhere."

"Murray, this is just awful!" Theora exclaimed as she and Martinez flew over the city. "How much time do we have?"

The vidiphone's image of Murray checked a screen out of the camera's range. "According to what Bryce's fly picked up, they're going to kill him at dawn. And that's twenty minutes from now."

"I’ll be at those coordinates in fifteen," Martinez said laconically.

Theora saw the pilot gritting his teeth every time a heavy gust of wind blew against the chopper and his knuckles were white. She only hoped that the coordinates were right. Murray had once sent Edison and Martinez to the wrong street when they were tailing a suspect. Theora wished desperately that she was in Murray's apartment... and that the producer was here.

"Make it faster," Murray ordered. "They've got him stretched out on that cutting board. Every time he starts to wake up, Bittern gives him a zap of her perfume."

"I wish I had guns in this thing," Martinez said happily. "This is like the old days."

Theora shot him an angry look. "I don't want anything to do with guns or the old days! I'm a modern girl and I work with television cameras!"

"How about a camera gun?" Martinez asked, jerking his head back.

Theora crammed her head around to see the long thin shape of the camgun sitting behind her seat. "I can use it, but what use is it going to be?" she said rhetorically. "It's not going to scare anyone!"

"It looks like a gun, and they don't have to know it shoots film," Murray cut in emphatically. "Scare them! Keep them busy until the Metros show up. They're having problems with the snow."

"They and all of us," Martinez muttered under his breath as the helicopter bobbled and snow coated most of the windshield except where the wipers kept it reasonably clear. The consistency of the snow had changed from light and dry to wet and sticky flakes, the size of a gumball. The weight slowed the helicopter's speed.

Theora had doubts about the entire project but kept her mouth shut. There was no other way of saving Edison.

Genque shifted Carter's shoulders so that he was lying flatter on the platform. In the shiny glass of the greenhouse, Edison could see where all the spokes of the metal framing came together in a round disk. His figure and the two others on the platform were clearly reflected. "You're a special request," the imposing man whispered so only Carter and Alicia could hear. "This will be the culmination of my work for a year."

"Mmtmilfgh," Edison mumbled, and managed to raise one groggy eyebrow.

"My followers here will see it as a rebirth of the spring season. Your blood will saturate the plants and, with the genetic manipulation I gave them, they will bring out even more of the bark for New Life which my darling Alicia markets," Genque purred. "New Life brings in most of the money to run this facility. But she also markets to a more discriminating crowd who likes watching -- "

"Death," Alicia said urbanely from where she had moved up to stand at Edison's head. "And this will be a live feed as well."

Carter shook his head, still puzzled.

"Network 427," she supplied.

Edison's face froze. He was going to be the main entertainment on the Snuff channel? Everyone knew those deaths were fake... weren't they?

"So you see, Mr. Carter, nothing will be wasted," Genque concluded cheerfully, cracking his knuckles. "The body and blood go to the plants, your death to the camera which is so neatly concealed in the top of this dome, and the credits will go straight to the Leaf Lovers' special accounts. You just disappear. Do you have a body bank you’d prefer?"

If this was going to Network 427, there would have to be a satellite feed and television And where there was television, there could be a rescue.

Edison prayed that somewhere out there, Max was looking for him.

Bryce flicked over to Network 427, and winced.

What he saw was the slow dismemberment of an animal.

Max blinked onto the screen. "That--that's awful!"

"Max, have you found the link from Network 427 to the Nursery?" Bryce asked emphatically. "Apparently Edison's the special programming for this morning's sunrise service!"

"Wha--what—what can I do when I ge--ge--get there?" Max asked.

"Take over control of their computer systems. Get me into it," Bryce replied. "I might be able to stall things till the Metros get there!"

"Save the whales!" Max caroled as he took off into the televised stream. "Plants before people!"

"Wails?" Bryce said, bewildered.

The gleaming, frosted dome of the Nursery was a beacon in the sky. Martinez, pushing the helicopter to its limits, guided it towards the glowing light.

Theora loaded the camgum that she pulled from the back seat. She looked doubtfully at Martinez's gleeful expression, and cringed into her seat as the helicopter hovered over the glass dome that was the crux of the three arms of the Nursery complex. The glass was held in place by an umbrella structure of lacy metal looping that looked alarmingly like a spider's web.

Below she could see shapes and forms, shifting shadows of black and white against the glowing light. There seemed to be a V pattern with most of the movement at the apex.

"What are you planning?" she shouted. "Martinez!!"

The pilot didn't answer, just guided the helicopter further away from the apex of the dome, down to one of the
arms, and then set it down on the glass roof.

The glass gave way, shards flying everywhere and opening the arm to the icy wind and heavy snow. Martinez revved the engine enough to keep the blades above the glass-littered floor and the jagged edges of the metal framing while the body of the helicopter was inside the arm.

Theora was badly shaken. She took a deep breath and, looking around, saw the glass had stopped falling. It was a four-foot drop to the floor. The helicopter's wind had blown away all the glass from directly underneath, and saying a silent prayer, Theora opened the door, and jumped out. The camgun swung against her side as she landed with a thud.

The room was a mess. The shadowy figures were twenty or so robed acolytes who were clustered near the platform she had seen from Bryce's fly's-eye view. She could see, through blowing snow, Edison's prone figure still stretched out, and the massive form of Alicia at one end of the platform while Genque stood at the head with a knife in his hand.

Martinez took the helicopter up through the gap¬ing hole, leaving her behind. The noise immediately dimin-ished.
Theora pointed the camgun at the figures and there was a wail as the people fled out of her way. Several hid behind the planters that made up the V.

"HOLD IT!" Genque's voice boomed out.

All the robed figures froze in place.

Theora saw that the platform was constructed of plexiglass and the three bubbling pots of mulch were reflected in the bottom of it. The smell was incredible.

"I want Edison Carter!" she yelled for want of a better statement.

"Then come and get him," Genque taunted, letting the knife in his hand drop till it was against Edison's throat. "You're too late."

And almost as if he had cued it, the lights of the dome went out, leaving only the bright spotlight of the circling Network 23 helicopter shining through the dome and the falling snow.

"Bombs--bombs--bombs away!" Max crowed from his position in the main communications center of the Nursery. He had followed the link from Network 427, finding a sophisticated irrigation and communications set up at Genque's complex.

"Max!" Bryce called urgently. "Block the picture from the Nursery to 427."

"Why--why? It'll be better than--than--Rambo when Theora-- starts shooting!"

"The loss of the picture and sound means that it isn't worth killing Edison. Max! You heard Genque," Murray chimed in from a nearby link. "This was a special request, and I'm going to sue whoever wanted it! Cut the picture and sound...NOW!"

Max obeyed. leaving access only to Bryce's and Murray's sets.

"Martinez!" Murray called imperatively. "She's going to need some help in there."

"I got it," the pilot said laconically. "Hold on."

The others waited, boiling with frustration be¬cause there wasn't anything they could do to help Edison or Theora.

"It's too late," Theora warned the robed man on the platform. "Everyone knows your plot. The Metros are on their way."

"The plants!" one of the robed acolytes screamed, pointing at the empty basins where foliage had been seconds before. The holograms had died when the power went out. "Master?"

Genque looked panicked for a second, then flung out his arms, the knife picking up the faint light. "She's killed them! Stop her and they shall live again!"

"No, they won't!" Theora shouted. Desperation goaded her to yell at the acolytes, "Those plants were holographs! Genque's been draining you for his own profit, and even now he's killing your precious plants by not letting you get them out of here! The wind and the snow will kill them and he'll let it happen! But if he kills Edison Carter, the Metros will put you all away and those plants will die even faster!"

Genque smiled as he brought the knife overhead, holding it in both his hands. "You can't convince them; they'll do what I tell them to! And that gun's nothing but a camera! GET HER!"

They looked around uncertainly.

"Don't be a fool!" came an unexpected cry as Alicia grabbed Genque's arms. "We’re off-line with Network 427, and the Metros are on the way! If you murder him, we'll be terminal! Genque!"

"Shut up!" he said shoving her away with one brawny arm. "It's already out-of-hand. I'm taking him with me!"

There was a roar and the helicopter descended through another glass arm of the dome. The icy wind blew through the dome sending shards of plexiglass and metal over the platform and the chained table.

Edison's restrained figure swayed back and forth as Alicia shot Genque with the perfumer. The bulky man swayed. then reached out and grabbed her. The struggling bodies fell across Carter, then rolled below him onto the slick floor. The fly buzzed off.

The helicopter revved its engines heightening the wind. It was so strong that Theora fell on her knees, holding her right arm over her watering eyes.

Alicia screamed as the wind blew her off the platform. The weight of Genque's body held her just above the organic mulch. Then they fell.

Theora averted her eyes as both sank into the bubbling mass. She gulped as the cookie dough she'd snacked on earlier threatened to make a return visit. Horrible choked gargles came out of it, and she felt her stomach turn. Within thirty seconds, the sounds had ceased.

Then, she realized the acolytes had taken the fall of their leaders as an opportunity to start moving the planters. They paid no attention to the platform and its prisoner. Theora moved cautiously forward, holding the camgun ready to use as a club, but she, too, was ignored. She scrambled onto the platform beside Edison.

The man craned his head to see her, vast relief showing in his eyes. He had a few cuts from falling glass, but looked as if he would survive.

She fumbled free the damp cloth gag. "Well, Edison?"

"You've never been so beautiful, Theora, as when you're carrying a gun." He gave her a faint smile. "Want to get me out of here?"

"Do you know how many people would pay to keep you like this?" she teased as she went to work on the wire holding him to the table. "We could auction you off." She got one knot untwisted and over his body, enabling him to move his legs. The other knots followed.

He stretched, then sat up, rolling off the table shakily. "Very funny. I can outbid them to stay free. What happened to the lights?"

"MM--Max--Max!" came a voice booming from the top of the dome.

Theora realized that the disk above must be a camera. Bryce, Murray and Max must have seen everything. She blushed.

Edison grinned as he looked up. "Thank you, Max... Can we leave now? I'm getting a cold from the wind in here!"

"What do we tell the Metros when they arrive?" Theora countered.

"I'll worry about that later," Edison replied. "Theora, Genque said my death was a special request. I wonder who requested it?"

Theora shivered. "Let's not think of it, Edison. Come on. We're getting out of here."

He took the camgun from her and they went towards the open arm where the red helicopter was waiting outside A fly buzzed after them, then settled under the collar of Theora's heavy winter coat.

Martinez flew them off towards the city.

Murray sighed and leaned back, rubbing his eyes. They had been on time. Of course, Edison would have to be back at the Nursery in the morning to do a follow-up when the Metros took over the complex, but tonight Murray was just glad that all of his people were still alive.

Looking outside he saw the snow was falling lightly. He tapped up the weather satcams. It was the eye of the storm moving over the city. The flakes would be back soon.

"Bryce," he called to the vidiphone where he was still linked to Lynch's apartment. "Edison had a good point. Who was the special request for?"

Bryce shrugged. "Want me to break into Network 427's files and find out?"

"No... no," Murray said slowly. "That would be totally illegal, and they could sue us."

"What if someone tries again?" Bryce asked.

"Edison will take care of it. He's very good at taking care of himself. He'll be fine," Murray added with growing unease.

“I’ll find out!" Max chimed in unexpectedly on the Network 427 screen. "Tally Ho!"

"Max!" Murray yelled.

"Too late," Bryce said resignedly.

The head reappeared after a few seconds. "Well--well--!"

"Who was it?" Murray asked intently.

"I--I--I followed it to a encrypted line," Max said reluctantly. "But--but I think it went to—Zik zak's headquar¬ters."

Murray blinked in astonishment, then shook his head. "Who wants to kill Edison there? He's the top journalist on the Network that gives them the highest ratings!"

"And his death would outpull other show," Bryce commented. "I mean, once we found out what happened, the network would probably run it over and over again during the trial, and every time it would get more of the -- "

"Thank you, Bryce, I know!" Murray said violently, his face screwed up in distaste.

"Well, thankfully it didn't happen and they're coming home. You'd better get Max out of the Nursery. The Metros are almost there."

"Home—home—sweet home," Max caroled as he appeared on one of Murray's sets. "Nice apartment."

"Murray, I'm going off now," Bryce said. "I'll have Medical standing by for Edison when he arrives."

"Thanks, Bryce," Murray said tiredly. He looked over at his digital clock. It was time to leave for work.

"This is Edison Carter, Live and Direct from the Genque Nursery Complex out beyond the Fringes. As I said in my last report, this is a place where flowers and foliage are as highly regarded as human life. The Nursery is now under the control of the Metrocops, who found the remains of its creator, Paul Genque, and the noted marketer, Alicia Bittern, in one of the vats.

"It seems likely that the complex and the plants will be sold after being impounded by the Metros. Three vats of plants are still alive and being tended. They are expected to bring high prices at the Ad-Mart auction.

"The cost of New Life aphrodisiac has reached stratospheric levels. The drug was produced by the Nursery and will not be marketed again.

"Links between the Nursery and Snuff Channel 427 are also being explored. It is rumored that some of the events broadcast over the last few months were live deaths, not holographs. The World Broadcast Council is looking into the matter. Arrests are expected to follow. As for the people who lived here, most have fled back to the Fringes. The Nursery is abandoned."

Edison looked around the ruined domed room. Glass still strewed the marble floor and there were heaps of snow where the helicopter had broken in. The storm had finally stopped ten hours after he, Theora and Martinez reached Network 23.

It seemed less impressive in the daylight. The sun had come out and the snow was melting rapidly.

"Signing off, Control," he said.

"Right, Edison. Martinez is waiting for you outside," Theora replied. "And Cheviot wants a full report when you get back."

"Thanks." He walked outside to where the helicopter was waiting for him.

The stocky pilot looked over at the telejournalist. "Ready to go?"

"I can hardly believe it happened," Carter murmured.

"Look around, Edison," Martinez suggested. "That's what's unbelievable."

Carter looked around, seeing the snow heaped around the glass walls of the ruined dome. Patches of earth showed where Martinez had hovered the night before. The soil was dark with moisture and small plants had sprung up overnight.

"I don't believe it, Martinez," he exclaimed, picking a blue flower. "Mother Nature always comes back. Shall we take this for Theora?"

"For Theora," the pilot agreed. "Let's go, Edison."

They flew back to the glass towers of the city over a wasteland full of blooming flowers.