Page 48

“I know you have at least one transmitter planted on the man, and you never let a piece of equipment out of your sight without a tracking device.”

Buffy paused. Then she asked, “Are you near a data port?”

I looked around. “There’s a public jack about ten yards from me.”

“Great. They don’t have wireless maps of the convention center up for public access—something about ‘preserving the security of the hall’ or whatever. Go over and plug yourself in, and I can give you Senator Ryman’s current location, assuming he’s not standing within ten yards of a scrambler.”

“Have I mentioned recently that I adore you?” I rose, chucked my bottle into a recycler, and walked toward the jack-in point. “So, Chuck, huh? I guess he’s cute, if you like the weedy techie type. Personally, I’d go for something a little taller, but whatever floats your boat. Just make sure you know where he’s been.”

“Yes, mother,” Buffy replied. “Are you there yet?”

“Plugging in now.” Hooking my handheld to the wall unit was a matter of seconds. The standardization of data ports has been a true blessing to the technically inept computer users of the world. My system took a few seconds to negotiate a connection with the convention center servers, and most of that was verifying compatibility of antiviral and anti-spam software. It beeped, signaling its readiness to proceed. “I’m in.”

“Great.” Buffy quieted. I could hear typing in the background. “Got it. You’re in the exhibition zone on the second level, right?”

“Right. Near the Starbucks.”

“Drop the singular; there are eight Starbucks kiosks on that level alone. Bring me a sugar-free vanilla raspberry mocha when you come back. The senator is on the conference floor three levels down. I’m dropping you a map.” My handheld beeped, acknowledging receipt. “That should have everything you need, assuming he doesn’t move.”

“Thanks, Buffy.” I unplugged myself from the wall. “Have fun.”

“Don’t call back for at least an hour.” The connection cut itself off.

Shaking my head, I focused on the map dominating my screen. It was fairly simplistic, representing the convention center in clear enough lines that my route was difficult to misinterpret. The senator’s last known location was marked in red, and a thin yellow line connected him to the blinking white dot representing the data port where I’d downloaded the information. Nicely done. Pushing my sunglasses back up, I began making my way down the exhibition hall.

The crowd had grown thicker during my water break. That wasn’t a problem: Buffy’s mapping software was equipped with a full overview of the pedestrian routes through the convention center and had been programmed to come up with the fastest route between points, rather than the shortest. After estimating congestion levels, it displayed a route that made use of little-used hallways, half-hidden shortcuts, and a lot of stairwells. Since most people will use escalators whenever possible, taking the stairs is often the best way to avoid getting yourself lost in a crowd.

The human tropism toward illusionary time-saving devices has been the topic of a lot of studies since the Rising. There were an estimated six hundred casualties in one large Midwestern mall due entirely to people’s unwillingness to take the stairs during a crisis. Escalators jam if you overload them. People got stuck on elevators or ambushed by zombies that had been able to worm their way into the crush of people trying to force their way up the frozen escalators, and that was all she wrote. You’d think that after something like that, folks would start getting better about expending a little extra effort, but you’d be wrong. Sometimes, the hardest habit to break is the habit of doing nothing beyond the necessary.

It took about fifteen minutes to descend three levels and make it past the cursory security checkpoint between the exhibition levels and the conference floor, which was closed to everyone save the candidates, members of their immediate family, official staff, and the press. The security check consisted of scanning my press pass to confirm that it wasn’t a fake, patting me down for unlicensed weapons, and performing a basic blood check with a cheap handheld unit from a brand that I know for a fact returns false negatives three times out of ten. I guess once you’re past the door in these places, they don’t worry as much about your health.

The quiet of the conference floor was a welcome change from the hustle and bustle of the levels above. Down here, the business of waiting for results was exactly that: business. There are always a few hopefuls who stick it out even after the numbers indicate they don’t have much of a shot at the big seat, but the fact of the matter is that the party nominations almost always go to the folks who take Super Tuesday, and without party backing, your odds of taking the presidency are slim to none. You’re welcome to try, but you’re probably not going to win. Nine out of ten of the folks who’ve been out pounding the pavement for the last few months will be heading home after the polls close. It’ll be four more years before they have another shot at the big time, and for some of them, that’s too long to wait; a lot of this year’s candidates will never try for it again. Dreams are made and broken on days like this.

The senator and his team were in a plushly appointed boardroom about halfway down the hall. A placard on the wall identified the room’s inhabitants as “Senator Ryman, Rep., WI,” but I still knocked before trying the door, just in case something was going on that I wasn’t meant to interfere with.

“Come in,” called a brisk, irritated voice. I nodded, satisfied that I wasn’t interrupting, and stepped inside.

When I first met Robert Channing, the senator’s chief aide, my initial impression was of a fussy, egotistical man who resented anything that might get in his way. After a few months of acquaintanceship, I haven’t been forced to revise that impression, although I’ve come to understand that he’s very good at what he does. He doesn’t travel with the convoy. He’s usually at the senator’s office in Wisconsin, arranging bookings, setting up the halls where Senator Ryman speaks, and coordinating outside news coverage, since “three amateur journalists with a vanity site doesn’t exactly constitute wide-scale exposure.” Oddly, much of my respect for him comes from the fact that he’s willing to say things like that to my face. He’s been very upfront about everything that affects the senator’s chances at the White House from day one, and if that means stepping on a few toes, he’s okay with that. Not a nice guy, but a good one to have on your side.