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Authors: Thomas T. Thomas

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Coming of Age: Volume 2: Endless Conflict

BOOK: Coming of Age: Volume 2: Endless Conflict
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Table of Contents

COMING OF AGE

Volume 2: Endless Conflict

By Thomas T. Thomas

COMING OF AGE,
Volume 2: Endless Conflict

Thomas T. Thomas

Hope for Peace, Prepare for War

The Italian proverb says, “Hold your friends close, but your enemies even closer.” Sometimes you must hold family closest of all. As John Praxis and Antigone Wells benefit from the life-extending techniques of regenerative medicine to enter that unknown space beyond the traditional enfeeblements of old age, they discover that the endless conflicts of family, business, and politics still pursue them.

In her efforts to secure financing for the revived Praxis Engineering & Construction Company, John’s daughter Callie has brought a viper into the nest who will follow them through two generations. But the Praxis family has vipers of its own, as John’s second son Richard returns from Texas to install new intelligent software that will spy on their operations. Along with these local adversities, the family must also cope with political reverberations from the Second Civil War, dislocations from an untimely Bay Area earthquake, and the disaster of a mid-continent volcanic eruption followed by political collapse and foreign invasion.

Volume 2 of
Coming of Age
is a tribute to the resilience of the human spirit in the face of personal challenges and social changes. John, Antigone, Callie, and their family members become strangers—both to themselves and to each other—in a world that is only partly of their own making.

COMING OF AGE

Volume 2: Endless Conflict

All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction.
Any resemblance to actual persons or events is coincidental.
For more information, contact [email protected]

Copyright 2014 Thomas T. Thomas

Cover photo © 2013 NejroN via iStockphoto
®

ISBN: 978-0-9849658-4-7

Electronic Version by Baen Books

www.baen.com

The Story So Far …

In the middle of a trial over Praxis Engineering & Construction’s responsibility for defects in a new hospital project, Chairman of the Board John Praxis suffered a massive heart attack. Sometime later, the lead attorney for the plaintiff suffered a stroke. Both were candidates for innovative stem cell therapies: he got a new heart with muscle and nerve tissue grown on an armature of synthetic collagen; her brain was seeded with new nerve cells that replaced those killed by the aneurysm. While each patient recovered slowly, they met in the rooftop garden of the medical center and developed a personal relationship.

John and Antigone returned to a world on the edge of collapse. The country’s inflation had gone into overdrive, and when the Chinese, Japanese, and other holders of U.S. debt refused to buy any more and sold their assets, when the oil-producing countries refused the falling dollar as payment, and when international bankers forced restrictions on U.S. growth in return for monetary support, the country started to fall apart. In the midst of the crisis, John and Antigone adopted new, healthier lifestyles—his through jogging, hers through Okinawan karate—and trid to remain hopeful in navigating their respective organizations—his construction company, her law firm—through the collapsing economy. They also renewed their personal contact outside the hospital when John retained Antigone as his personal attorney.

As the country fell apart, John’s sons Leonard and Richard chafed under his renewed leadership and considered his every move to save the company as the desperation of a sick old man. Yet between his own and his daughter Callie’s shares, John retained a controlling interest in PE&C. Richard as chief financial officer with access to the accounting system formulated a plot that would make Callie seem to have embezzled massive amounts from the company. This nullified her support and enabled the boys to remove John from the company. At the last step, John brought in Antigone as Callie’s defense counsel, and she negotiated a settlement that preserved John’s and Callie’s fortunes as the company collapsed. Soon after, Antigone’s law firm was also forced out of business.

While John’s wife Adele succumbed to alcohol-related illness and eventually slipped away, his grandson Brandon was pulled into the U.S. Army through his ROTC commission. After an abortive foray to block the distribution of an arms cache in Arizona, Brandon was sent for combat training in California and then joined the federal government’s attack on the secessionist capital, Kansas City. The Second Civil War was well under way.

John spent the nine years of the Second Civil War in San Francisco, where he worked as buyer in a plumbing supply company and helped out as the neighborhood handyman. The fortune he rescued from the family construction business had been invested in a national program that sold public property to private individuals—in his case, the Stanislaus National Forest—in order to raise needed revenue. Antigone was trapped on the other side of the border during a visit to her sister Helen in Oklahoma. She passed the Oklahoma bar and set up a practice inside the new Federated Republic. Callie Praxis went to Europe, married an Italian count with shady business connections, and raised her daughter Rafaella, who was eight at the end of the war. When Callie’s husband died in suspicious circumstances, her fortune was held hostage by his wicked Uncle Matteo. Brandon Praxis saw many battles and become a lieutenant colonel in the U.S. Army. Leonard Praxis and his wife retreated to a cabin high in the Sierra Nevada, where they died in a military strike into Northern California. Richard Praxis and his family moved to Texas, where he worked for a computer company developing software that brought about the economic collapse of the old United States.

Callie returned to San Francisco and discovered that John was now suffering from a hormone imbalance, the treatment of which the underfunded California Medical Service had ruled as “age inappropriate.” With an armistice and peace pending, she took him to the Mayo Clinic inside the Federated Republic for his second round of stem cell therapy. Antigone discovered she has kidney disease and the best place for her treatment was also the Mayo Clinic. There John and Antigone were reunited and renewed their romance.

Once cured, they returned to San Francisco with Callie to restart the engineering business and rebuild the country’s infrastructure. Unknown to John and Antigone, however, Callie was using seed money from her husband’s mafia connections to fund their projects. Brandon was demobilized and came to the new company to serve as their ruthlessly effective head of security. Their success also attracted Richard Praxis, who had new software that would accelerate the rebuilding programs and also grant him cyber access to their engineering business. At the same time, Uncle Matteo sent ex-policewoman Mariene Kunstler to represent his interests in the business, and she immediately spun her own web of control over Praxis Engineering’s projects and clients, as well as running her own side businesses. Mariene was introduced to Richard’s new software and instantly intuited something wrong about it. She promised to keep her mouth shut so long as he agreed to share information with her.

With the war over, the State of California attempted to reclaim its interest in the Stanislaus National Forest by charging John with negligence and damaging public property. Antigone stepped in and defended his title under the National Assets Distribution Act. He will take complete possession of the land in thirty years—if he lives so long.

John and Antigone agreed to have a child through in vitro techniques, and he had a silver pendant made that encoded their combined genomes. On a romantic visit to the Loire Valley, he gave her the heart-shaped pendant in the garden of the Château de Chenonceau, sealing their love.

Part 4 – 2030:
Life and Death

1. The New Watchdog

Rome was the last stop on their extended vacation. Antigone Wells had started to think of it as her honeymoon with John—but without a marriage ceremony to kick it off, nor the certainty of a marriage certificate to carry them home. Still, the fact that they were now expectant parents—but without the inconvenience of a pregnancy—helped her sustain the illusion.

On a summer morning that was already growing in heat and humidity, Wells chose to wear a loose blouse of dazzling white cotton, a full skirt which floated around her bare legs and ended just below the knee in bands embroidered with colorful yarns, and light leather sandals open at toe. She looked and felt like a peasant girl and seemed to blend right in with the locals.

She and John went sightseeing in the most ancient part of the city, centered between the Piazza Navona and the Pantheon, ending up hot and exhausted at the latter. John explained from his background in the construction business that the building was more than nineteen hundred years old and had been in nearly continuous use. That was why the little square before the entry porch was several feet below the surrounding street level.

“The city has literally grown up around this place,” he said. “Layer by layer.”

Inside the great bronze doors, after they crossed a stone threshold that he said had “felt the booted feet of Caesars and the slippered feet of Popes,” he showed her the soaring, sand-colored interior of the rotunda.

“It’s the largest dome of unreinforced concrete in the world,” John said, “made lighter by the inner coffering.” From where he was pointing, Wells understood him to mean the waffle shapes stamped into the ceiling. He explained how, by tracing the curve of the dome down past the belt of blind windows and balconies at the dome’s base and then inward toward the floor, the structure enclosed a perfect sphere more than one hundred and forty feet in diameter.

It was beautiful—and delightfully cool. Wells rushed forward, to the very center, where she could stand under “the oculus” and look up into the open sky far above.

“What do they do when it rains?” she called back to him.

“Mop the floor, I guess,” he replied, coming up to her.

They toured the chapels and tombs around the perimeter, then turned to leave by the bronze entrance doors. As they walked out through the shadows of the portico, a woman came toward them from between two of the close-set pillars.

She was brown skinned, wore her dark hair long and in ringlets, and had outlined her eyelids with too much kohl, like an Egyptian priestess. She was dressed not unlike Wells herself, except the woman’s blouse was torn and dirty, her skirt went down to her ankles, and she had a woolen shawl pulled over her head. She carried a baby on her right arm, and her left hand was stretched out begging for alms, or spare change, or whatever she was asking for in a language that didn’t sound like Italian. She kept pointing at the baby and murmuring.

John smiled politely and leaned in to hear what the woman was saying.

That was when Wells saw a flash of metal, reflecting the bright sunlight out in the square. The flash came from between the folds of the woman’s shawl and the baby’s dangling feet. Operating blind beneath her burden, the Gypsy woman was wielding a knife, apparently trying to stab John, or perhaps to cut away his trouser pocket—which would be as good as stabbing him if he moved any closer.

Wells reacted instinctively. With one hand she pushed back on John’s chest to force him away from the weapon. At the same time she performed a hop kick: her hind foot shifted forward, moving under her center of gravity, for balance, while her forward foot lashed out to strike at the wrist of the hand holding the knife. Her leg moved so fast that her skirt billowed around her knee and immediately closed behind it with a
whump!

The baby and the arm holding it went flying in one direction—with the arm actually detaching itself from the woman’s shoulder underneath the shawl. The hand with the knife went in the other direction, passing across and becoming momentarily pinned against the woman’s body. Well’s forward foot came straight down with a loud
slap!

That put her in a tee stance, ready for the next move. The slap of sandal leather on pavement echoed the clatter as the baby—actually, a wooden doll—and the false arm nailed to it landed on the flagstones five feet to the side.

The Gypsy woman recovered instantly, spinning into a crouch and swinging the knife back across her body in a wild, thrusting arc that missed by less than an inch cutting open Wells’s stomach. The woman snarled, flipped the knife expertly in her hand, and prepared for a lunging, overhead strike that, given the short distance between them, would drive down, puncturing Wells’s sternum and passing through to her spine.

But after all these years of training, Antigone Wells was quicker than any street-fighting Gypsy. Her forward foot came straight up, her bent rear leg unfolded until the knee almost locked, to give the kick added speed, and the ball of her flying foot arched back from the stiff leather of the sandal’s loose sole. Her skirt went
whump!
again, and the foot caught the woman on the point of her chin, while the sandal’s leading edge cut into her throat. The woman’s cry became a strangled “
Yawp!
” and she performed a backflip that landed her at the base of a pillar. Her head struck the stone and she folded up.

Wells walked over, kicked away the knife where it had fallen, lifted the woman’s head, and touched her neck. Her throat was bruised with a raw blood line where the sandal had left its mark, but she was not deeply cut. Her carotid gave off a strong pulse. Behind her head, the pillar showed a fresh bull’s eye of blood on the gray stone.

Only now were people beginning to react to the ruckus and move toward her and John. Not wishing to spend the rest of their vacation in an Italian jail, Antigone Wells took his arm, pulled him through the ring of people gathering around the Gypsy woman, and ran across the square, up the sloping ground, and off into a side street.

* * *

John Praxis wasn’t exactly sure what had happened. Apparently, Antigone had suddenly gone berserk, kicked a baby and then the woman holding it, possibly killing both, and then dragged him away from the scene of the crime. He knew Antigone was an expert in some form of karate, but he had never actually seen her in action.

When they finally stopped running, she pushed him up against a brick wall and frantically felt the sides of his body, up and down, from armpit to thigh.

“Are you hurt?” she kept asking insistently.

“Am
I
hurt?” he repeated in a daze. “You just killed a woman and her baby!”

Antigone stopped, drew back, and stared at him. “That was no baby. A doll—a distraction, while she tried to slit your pockets with a knife.”

“You
saw
a knife?” he asked doubtfully.

“Didn’t you?” she replied.

Praxis thought back to the scuffle. All he had actually seen was Antigone’s kick at the baby, the baby flying off to one side, then a flurry of arms and legs that ended with the poor woman thrown back on her butt and striking her head on a stone pillar. It left a bloody mark. If a knife had been involved, then how was the woman holding it? Her free hand was in sight the whole time, outstretched for money.

“I … can’t be sure,” he admitted.

He reached into his trouser pocket, to draw out his handkerchief and wipe his face. His fingers went down, past the pocket’s bottom, and out into the open air, right through the torn cloth of his pant leg. He stared down at his fingers, wiggling them inanely.

“Oh,” was all he could say.

“She had a knife,” Antigone said quietly. “It was hidden by a doll hung on a false arm. I was afraid she would cut you.”

“Is she dead?”

Antigone grimaced and shook her head. “It takes more than a sock on the jaw and bump on the head to kill someone like her.”

Praxis wondered how much experience Antigone Wells actually had with jaw socking and head bumping. Enough to know a thing or two about survival probabilities, apparently. What he still could not quite believe was the speed of the fight. He had never visited Antigone at the
dojo
she attended in San Francisco, never watched her sparring with other students, and only once or twice had he seen her performing a
kata,
or fighting form, in cleared space in the living room on Balboa Street. He had gathered—from nowhere in particular, from general knowledge, or from that one glimpse of her careful practice—that Antigone’s brand of karate was something slow and thoughtful, like
tai chi
or yoga. Something graceful and feminine. The reality was fast and brutal and left bloody marks.

He knew it would be dim-witted and chauvinistic of him to harbor hurt feelings about the incident. But still, his pride was vaguely injured. When John Praxis was growing up, men were supposed to be the strong, protective types, while women were supposed to shriek and cower in moments of danger. That was just the way the world worked. He never expected that, when the knives came out in a street fight, he would be the oblivious partner walking around in a daze, while the lady on his arm would spin around three times and turn into Wonder Woman.

He didn’t regret that Antigone had saved him, not at all. But still, he felt somehow diminished. The best he could manage was, “Thank you, m’dear, for saving me.”

She tucked a stray bit of hair past her ear. “You’re welcome, sweetheart.”

* * *

On the second anniversary of the Treaty of Louisville, Brandon Praxis flew to Washington to honor the fallen among the troops he had led.

Because the country’s capital remained in Kansas City, the entire District of Columbia had become a National Heritage Park. Some of the country’s best museums were already located there, including the Smithsonian, the Air and Space, the Museum of Natural History, and the National Art Gallery, and it was considered inappropriate as well as too expensive to move them all to a new setting. Now the public buildings of the former federal government joined them as tourist attractions.

The White House had become a history center with exhibits on the country’s foreign wars and invasions, from 1812 to Afghanistan. The Presidential Emergency Operations Center under the East Wing was dedicated to the Cold War and Atomic Era, while the Situation Room in the basement of the West Wing celebrated the country’s response to the September 11 attacks.

The U.S. Capitol building became an art gallery, with traveling and rotating exhibits in the hallways, amateur theatricals staged in the House and Senate chambers, and noontime concerts in the Rotunda—although the acoustics were terrible, with a nine-second reverb delay that had to be compensated with arrays of sound-damping loudspeakers.

Brandon and every other former U.S. soldier understood that the nation would have only one monument to the Second Civil War—the Oval Pool in Oklahoma City, which serially hologrammed the names and images of the Federated Republic’s dead. But Arlington National Cemetery was still intact and functioning, and a section had been set aside for the men and women who had fought and died on the “wrong side” of the war.

He had bought a wreath, a simple circle of cypress leaves with a cluster of two white roses for his own 2nd Battalion and three red roses for the 3rd Combined Arms Division of which they were a part. No one else would understand the symbolism—except for the two hundred and eighty-three soldiers resting here, lying among comrades from other units, other battles.

As Brandon approached that section of the cemetery on foot, he recognized a familiar face. Frieda Hammond was wearing a black business suit and carrying a long white flower, perhaps a lily.

“Hello, Major,” he said quietly.

“Colonel. You remembered, too.”

“Of course.”

They walked down the row of graves, and he laid his wreath on the first name he recognized: SP4 Corporal John J. Sparto, who had died defending his burning tank on the northern bank of the Ohio River. That had been an awful death. Sparto deserved the wreath.

“So many of them,” Hammond said, “for such a cocked-up war.” She laid her flower on the next grave, Chief Warrant Officer Eugenia Sparrow.

“I’m sorry,” Brandon said. “I don’t recall exactly what happened to her.”

“Helicopter crash,” Hammond replied. “During routine transport.”

“Oh! Do you remember them all? Each death?” he asked.

“Of course … it was my job,” she replied simply.

Another thing there would never be, Brandon realized, was a Tomb of the Unknown. With DNA analysis and better recordkeeping, each soldier could now be accounted for. Rumor during the war had said that the only MIAs were soldiers who actually chose to disappear. Brandon doubted that. War offered too many ways to atomize the human body beyond recovery.

When they reached the end of the row and had run out of names that even Hammond could recognize or remember, she turned to him, gave a sad smile, and saluted.

“See you next year, Major?” he asked.

“Probably not. You say good-bye and move on.”

“That’s the way of it, I guess.”

* * *

When John Praxis got back to the office after his vacation—more like a honeymoon—with Antigone, he learned that his daughter had totally changed around the company’s computer system. The installation was so deep and invasive that they finally had to hire an information technology manager to keep everything together and running properly.

Her name was Penelope Winston, but she introduced herself as “Penny,” and she was young enough to be his granddaughter—maybe even a great-granddaughter. She was pretty enough, in the no-makeup, face-scrubbed, farm-girl fashion, with curly red-brown hair, blue eyes, snub nose, and freckles. She showed up at the Friday lunchtime executive meeting wearing blue jeans, a black tee shirt blazoned with the motto “I can explain it to you but I can’t understand it for you”—which Praxis found vaguely disturbing—a military camouflage jacket, and combat boots. The whole outfit was two notches below San Francisco standard for the old casual Friday, plus it was snarky. This was unfortunate because she was giving a major demonstration of the new system’s capabilities that day.

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