Prayers for a SAINT
Text ©2003 Roger E. Moore (firstname.lastname@example.org)
Daria and associated characters are ©2003 MTV Networks
Feedback (good, bad, indifferent, just want to bother me, whatever) is appreciated. Please write to: email@example.com
Synopsis: Amy Barksdale takes her favorite niece out to celebrate the publication of a Melody Powers story. Another story follows.
Author’s Notes: This mini-technothriller was written in response to Thea Zara’s PPMB contest for writing a fanfic story in which someone discovers Daria Morgendorffer’s “Melody Powers” stories, producing peculiar aftereffects. The tale grew in the telling until it was too big to post on PPMB, however. Much of this story is based on research notes I had generated for an unpublished technothriller novel unrelated to “Daria.”
Acknowledgements: My thanks go out to Thea Zara for her contest, and to my beta-readers (in something like alphabetical order): Ace Trax, Brother Grimace, Crusading Saint, Dennis, Deref, Galen “Lawndale Stalker” Hardesty, RedlegRick, Robert Nowall, Ruthless Bunny, Steven Galloway, (again) Thea Zara, THM727, and Wyvern337. Further acknowledgments are at the story’s end.
Macbeth: How now, you secret, black, and midnight hags! What is ’t you do?
Three Witches: A deed without a name.
—William Shakespeare, Macbeth, Act IV, Scene I
Amy Barksdale flipped through the digest-sized pulp magazine until she got to the novelette that had brought her to Boston. She sighed as she looked at the artwork of the determined-looking female astronaut, opposite the story’s title page and the author’s byline: By Daria Morgendorffer.
“So, my favorite niece finally got published,” she said, “and boy, did you ever! How in the world did you come up with this story?”
Daria felt a thrill run through her down to her toes. The favorite niece and her favorite aunt had a private booth at the best seafood restaurant in Boston, a fine-dining establishment far above Daria’s college-freshman budget. “It’s been floating around in my head for a long time,” she said. “I wanted to do a spy-in-space story, something better than that movie Moonraker, and it sort of . . . um . . .”
“Blasted off,” Amy finished. She laid the digest on the table before her. “You won’t believe this, but I actually buy this magazine, Cold War & Hot Lead. It has excellent espionage fiction. I read it at work when things are slow. It’s great fun.” She shook her head slowly. “It’s just incredible to see your name in here—and your story even got the cover art! An excellent painting, too, professionally speaking.”
Daria’s face radiated delight. “My friend Jane Lane, the one who goes to the fine arts school here—she did the painting and all the interiors. My editor said authors never get any say over the art, but the magazine’s art director saw Jane’s sketches, and he—well, blasted off.”
Amy’s eyes widened. “Jane did this? That’s wonderful! I definitely have to meet her while I’m in town. It’s perfect for this great story you did. It has lots of action, and the characters are excellent, too. It really made me think. I read it the second I got it home from the bookstore. I was just in paradise and had to fly out to tell you.”
Daria’s cheeks turned red. “Thank you.” She hesitated before adding, “That means a lot to me, Aunt Amy.”
“You’re welcome.” Amy tapped the magazine with a forefinger, unable to keep from smiling. “I notice that Melody Powers has a spy sister named Harmony, a spy best friend who’s an artist, and a . . . spy aunt.” Amy gave Daria a sidelong look, one eyebrow raised. “Annie Blackdale?”
Daria’s blush deepened, but she couldn’t help a smile, either. “It’s just a name.”
“I see—and Godiva is just a chocolate. Any particular reason you gave Melody a spy aunt?”
“I, um, sort of wanted to share the glory.”
Amy snorted. “You spread glory around like manure on a farm. Well, at least you didn’t call her aunt Helen or Rita. I should be grateful.”
“I was thinking about giving Annie her own spin-off series, if Melody Powers catches on.”
Amy rolled her eyes. “Some people’s kids,” she murmured. “Okay, I have to know all the dirty details. Pretend I’m really, really smart and not just a dull boring art appraiser. How did you come up with the plot and all of these . . . spaceships? Did you make them all up?”
“Well, the Mjolnir is kind of made up. It’s based on an old space-glider project the Air Force had, called Dyna-Soar. It’s not spelled like ‘dinosaur,’ it’s spelled . . . well, forget it. Anyway, I assumed that there was an actual, completely built Dyna-Soar spacecraft left over from the 1960s, in storage somewhere, and Melody’s aunt, Annie, used it when she attacked the Soviet battle station at the start of the tale.”
“Uh-huh. Where’d you get the name ‘Mjolnir’?”
“That’s the hammer of Thor, from Norse mythology. It was the weapon Thor used to kill the Midgard serpent during the final battle between the good gods and evil gods.”
“Yeah,” said Daria, then she stopped and stared at her aunt, her mouth open.
Amy managed to look offended. “I read, too, you know,” she said.
“You say that in such a sincere way. Keep talking, my dear favorite niece.”
Daria smirked. “Anyway, the project that Mjolnir was part of, SAINT, actually existed once. SAINT was an acronym for ‘satellite interceptor.’ There was another Air Force project about forty years ago with that name, at the same time as Dyna-Soar was around. The Air Force wanted to build a spacecraft that could shoot down or destroy hostile satellites in earth orbit. Russian satellites, of course.”
Daria hesitated. “The rest might be a little boring. It’s mostly technical and historical stuff.”
“Okay. Um—the SAINT project got cancelled when some international space treaties came along that banned the use of weaponry in outer space, but SAINT kept appearing and disappearing in different forms over the years. It’s what we now think of as an ASAT program, ASAT for antisatellite. We shot down one of our own satellites in earth orbit in the 1980s, as a test.”
“I think I heard about that. We used a missile launched from a fighter jet, right?”
Daria gave her aunt another curious look. “Yeah,” she said at last. “A missile from an F-15.” She recovered and went on. “Anyway, the robotic Soviet battle station I wrote about in ‘A Prayer for SAINT X’ actually existed, too.”
“You have to tell me about that one.”
“Sure. It was pretty weird. A lot of stuff’s come out about that satellite, the Polyus. It was a sort of nightmare project, the Soviets’ last-ditch response to President Reagan’s Strategic Defense Initiative.”
“The ‘Star Wars’ thing.”
“Yeah. What happened was, in the early 1980s a bunch of Soviet premiers came and went really fast, old guys who kept dying off right after they gained power. One or two of them were sort of nuts, I think. One of the nutty ones got really upset at Reagan’s SDI program, and the premier decided to create a way around it, an—” Daria raised her hands and made quote marks with her fingers “—‘asymmetrical response.’ If the Americans could shoot down regular ICBMs, the only solution was to build a battle station that could launch its missiles directly down over the U.S. from orbit. There would be no warning time, and once the station was overhead, the nuclear missiles would hit us in just six minutes instead of a half hour or so for slowpoke ICBMs. SDI would be useless, but we wouldn’t know that. The Soviets would have the upper hand after all.”
“Couldn’t SDI have shot the battle station down once it was in orbit, though?”
“Not if we didn’t know it was a battle station. The Polyus was pretty big, but the Soviets claimed it was an engineering satellite full of test equipment, which was sort of true. The Soviets launched it on the first flight of their largest successful rocket, the Energia, which was as powerful as a Saturn V. This was in May 1987, like in the story.”
“Huh. Where’d you find out about this?”
“I read about the Polyus and the Energia in a science magazine a few years ago. I was really stunned, so I looked up more information about them on the Internet and in some other magazines, because I kept thinking I could do something with the concept in a story. Someone else beat me to it, though. That movie with Clint Eastwood, Space Cowboys, I think was based in part on the Polyus story.”
“You’re saying that the Soviets put a real nuclear battle station into orbit in the late 1980s?”
“It didn’t have any nukes on it. It really was a test vehicle, but it was supposed to try out all the weapons systems and defenses the actual Polyus would have: nuclear missile launcher, ASAT defense cannon, laser reflector, barium-cloud dispenser for use against particle beams, and other stuff. The Russians later said that some of the project’s technicians screwed up, however. They accidentally fixed the maneuvering rockets on the station to fire incorrectly, so just as soon as the Polyus got to the point where it was ready to go into orbit, its rockets fired in the wrong direction and made the whole satellite fall out of orbit. It reentered and crashed somewhere in the Pacific.”
“The Americans didn’t really shoot it down, then, like in your story.”
“No. We had no idea the Russians
were even doing this. We screwed up, too—never had a single clue as to what was
up. Military intelligence is such an oxymoron.”
Amy winced. “You do like to stick it in and twist it, don’t you?”
Daria grinned. “What do you care? You’re too smart to be in military intelligence!”
Amy’s gaze drifted down to the magazine again. She was quiet for a few moments. “I’m very proud of you, Daria,” she finally said. “You can’t imagine how proud I am.”
When Amy looked over at her niece, Daria’s eyes were unusually bright. Daria looked away, embarrassed. She picked up her cotton napkin and wiped off her glasses with it, dabbing her eyes as well. She sniffed and put her glasses back on. “Thank you,” she said, her voice a little rough.
“I’m sorry your folks couldn’t be here to celebrate with us. I’m afraid I didn’t give much notice, though, flying in on a whim like this.”
“I’m . . . I’m happy with just the two of us.”
“Know what? Me, too. This Melody Powers character of yours is a dynamite chick. Is this your first story about her?”
“Oh, no. I’ve been writing these for years, since junior high.”
“I was wondering about that. I had the impression you’d worked a lot with her. It shows in the story.”
Daria just smiled. “Enough about me. How’s the art appraisal business?”
Amy took a deep breath and let it out. She stared down at the little plate in front of her, covered with crumbs from her appetizer. “Sort of boring, actually. Not as much fun as it used to be, even with all the traveling.” She was silent for a moment. “I wonder sometimes how life would be different if I’d taken up another line of work.”
Amy was quiet again for a few seconds. When she did speak, her voice was very low. “I wonder what life would have been like . . . if I had done something odd, like . . . oh, join the CIA or something like it. You know, pretend to be an art appraiser, to keep certain annoying family members out of my life, but in reality be an intelligence analyst.”
Daria grinned. “Like cousin Erin’s husband, before he got canned?”
Amy looked pained. “Thank you for bringing back that special memory. I’d almost pushed the wedding entirely out of my mind.”
“Don’t be offended, okay? But I can’t imagine you as a real spy.”
Amy suppressed a little smile and looked away, across the dining room. Her eyes narrowed in thought. “I imagine there would be all sorts of people in intelligence work. Some, a small few, do the legwork in other countries, but most of the rest stay home in boring places like the Pentagon or Arlington, looking over satellite photos and recorded messages and news programs, trying to make sense of it all. Everyone’s looking for the common threads we need to know, to keep us safe. I’ve heard it’s challenging work, but it can get to be a routine, and you don’t often hit it big. It can be frightening, too, if you learn certain things. Or so I’ve heard.”
“Yeah.” Daria looked around their table. “Looks like we still have some time before the lobster gets here. Those people in that booth across the room were here before us, and they’ve not been served yet.”
“Hmmm. So few people are in here, I thought . . . oh, well.” Amy looked down and picked up the magazine again. “This was great.”
Daria just smiled.
“I’m not a writer like you,” said Amy softly, “but I wonder how I would do a story like this if I were. A writer, I mean.”
“How would you do it?”
Amy stared at the magazine’s cover, at the winged black spacecraft firing missiles and bullets far above the blue Earth. The silence drew out.
“If it were up to me,” said Amy slowly, “and I were writing the story, I would have used an old Mercury spacecraft, not a Dyna-Soar.”
The smile on Daria’s face flickered. Surprise and puzzlement crept in. “A Mercury capsule? Like what John Glenn used? Why?”
“Because there aren’t any Dyna-Soars around,” said Amy. “Boeing didn’t build any. That’s D-Y-N-A-S-O-A-R, right? For ‘dynamic soaring’?”
Daria’s face went blank. “Uh, yeah, that’s—”
“Boeing made a full-scale plywood model of a Dyna-Soar, for show, but that was all. McDonnell Aircraft made twenty Mercuries, though, and four were unused after the program ended. I’d have picked one of those, one that wasn’t in the public eye, like capsule number twelve-B out in the Silver Springs warehouses in Maryland. Mercuries each had their own resin heat shields, for reentry after the mission, and they were flight-tested. You could scrounge a few parts from other museum spacecraft, like number seventeen at Wright-Pat and number fifteen in California, but that could be done without a lot of trouble, since the government owns them all. You’d have to clean it up and add new parts, of course, rewire the electrical system and put in new flight controls, a web couch, a real computer, and a stick control for the pilot, like on the shuttle. The spacecraft would weigh over a ton and a half, but you could do it.”
The look of complete shock on Daria’s face deepened. “Aunt Amy?” she gasped.
Amy chewed her lower lip. “True, it would help a lot if the project had actually been started in the 1970s, something the Air Force had cooked up with NASA as an emergency rescue vehicle for the shuttle, before they realized it wouldn’t work. You’d have the crewed part, then, something halfway prepared with new wiring and circuitry, stuck away in a hangar at Wright-Pat where people could keep tinkering with it, improving it, giving it better systems against the day we really needed it.
“If it were up to me,” Amy went on, not looking at Daria, “I’d also get a leftover Agena D upper-stage booster with restart capability and add extra fuel tanks, widening it at the top to cover the Mercury’s heat shield. The Air Force museum at Wright-Pat might have an Agena stuck in storage that the government could quietly requisition. Around the tanks, you could put maybe four heat-seeking Sidewinders with their fins stripped off, with just the rocket nozzles for maneuvering. They’d need high-energy booster motors, saving the regular motors for closing with the target, but that’s not a problem. The warheads would use radar-proximity fuses, because in space a cloud of flying debris is better than one warhead for causing damage. I’d also love to have armored the Mercury, but then it would weigh too much, and debris in space moves too fast to be stopped by anything. A loose bolt would punch through any armor you had. I’d keep the astronaut in his suit from launch onward, and . . . just wish him luck.”
Daria stared at Amy, hypnotized.
“That’s just me, though,” said Amy. “And I wouldn’t have used a straight-eight Delta to send up the Dyna-Soar from the Cape, like in your story. I’d have stuck to the regular flight schedule from Vandenberg and found a regular old spysat launch that coincided with the predicted Energia liftoff. If I’d checked the schedule, I could have preempted a White Cloud ocean surveillance launch by the Navy, maybe PARCAE 9, and used their own Atlas H. Screw ‘em if they cried about it. That way, the launch would have full security, and the Soviets photographing Vandenberg from space would see only what they’d expected to see, not something unexpected. The payload shroud for an Atlas H was big enough to hide a Mercury and Agena combination, if you stretched the shroud slightly. I might strap a bunch of solid-fuel boosters to the Atlas so it could get the altitude the Mercury would need, but I wouldn’t change much else. The payload would be loaded onto the booster under the shroud, so the Russkies would never know until it was too late.”
“Oh, God,” whispered Daria. She fell back in her seat. “Oh, God, no.”
“Couldn’t use a secret agent for the pilot, though,” Amy said. “Tempting, but you couldn’t do it, even if you had a whole year to train after the NRO found out what was being assembled at the Krunichev Factory for shipment to Baikonur that next year. When I—I mean, when the NRO saw the photos of the mockup moving out on its flatcar, everyone knew there wasn’t time to train a newbie.”
Daria’s face was pasty white. She had to swallow twice before she could speak. “Who—” She dropped her voice “—who would you use? A shuttle astronaut?”
Amy shook her head. “They were too much in the public eye after Challenger was lost in ‘86. Reporters were all over them. You’d need someone with a very low public profile, a hot pilot but not well known. I’d go for a test pilot from Edwards. I’d have picked up three, so you’d have backups in case one or two washed out. I imagine if it had been done, we might have wound up with one guy who washed out because he couldn’t handle his liquor, one who got cancer and had to be hospitalized, and one guy from Pittsburgh, a quiet guy with deep brown eyes and a warm smile, about five-foot-nine so he’s perfect for the cramped Mercury cockpit, a guy whose uncle was a Tuskegee bomber pilot in World War Two, and this guy would end up being your pilot. He . . . his name would be . . . Major Michael Graves. ‘Graveyard’ to his buddies, but ‘Mikey’ to his closest friends. He would do it.”
“Aunt Amy,” whispered Daria, “I’m really scared.”
“No need to be scared, Daria.” Amy took a sip of her ice water. “Everything’s okay. We’re just talking about writing stories.”
“Did I do something wrong?”
“Not at all, dear. You did something right. You got a story published, and it was wonderful.”
“But . . . but you flew out to see me right after the story came out. You came out right after you read it. Did I do something wrong that—”
“No, Daria, you did fine. Everyone at work loved your story.” She stared into space. “It took us all back. I bought copies of the magazine for everyone. You’re quite famous in lots of . . . strange places.”
There was a fragile silence.
“You’re not in any trouble ‘cause of me?”
Amy hesitated before speaking. “Some people were a little surprised, but they checked into things, and everyone’s satisfied now. We’re all proud of you. Surprised, but very proud.” Amy gave Daria a smile. “Trust me on that, okay?”
Daria struggled to find her voice. “What happened?” she whispered.
“Back then, you mean? In my story?”
Amy looked around to make sure no one was near them. She then looked down at her hands in her lap and played with her fingers.
“What happened? What happened. We did a bad thing, I think, not that it matters anymore. We had no authorization from the White House to proceed until the day of the flight, and I suspect the go-ahead didn’t really come from the President. He hadn't a clue, I believe. Not his fault. We played it fast and loose.” She looked Daria right in the eyes, then. “This is still a story, and just a story, right? Just a little story?”
Daria nodded stiffly. She looked like she was about to faint.
Amy nodded, too, and looked away again. “Everything came down on the morning of May fifteenth. I’d been up since the day before. Couldn’t sleep, too much caffeine, too wired. We got word about three a.m. that the Energia was being fueled, and we got Mikey into his blue suit and into Peregrine Seven at five a.m., then loaded it on the Atlas as fast as we could.” She smiled. “He named his spacecraft Peregrine because it’s the smallest of the hunting falcons, and all Mercury missions had the number seven in their name. It was tradition. You gotta have tradition.” The smile faded.
“Mikey trained with Peregrine in the shuttle’s Vertical Assembly Building at Vandenberg—after Challenger, no one was using it for anything much, and we had full security and free run of it. I was handling flight communications with Mikey, me just a novice ASAT analyst with a voice that Mikey liked, so they made me CAPCOM. Mikey was the calmest of us all, just sitting there in Peregrine inside the shroud, waiting for it to happen. He was solid. Then we got the go, and we lit the Atlas that morning and kicked him off the planet. I thought I would die, my nerves were so bad, but I kept it together. He’d complete half an orbit, catch the Polyus, and come down in the southern Indian Ocean later, west of Australia.”
“But,” said Daria, “I don’t understand. The Polyus was unarmed. It was just a test spacecraft . . . a testbed with no . . .” Her voice failed her as her eyes grew impossibly large. “Oh, no.”
Amy looked grim. “Gorbachev wasn’t in control of everything. There was a group of Soviet generals in the air force and strategic rocket forces who’d worked closely with Andropov and Chernenko, and they wanted to do the Strangelove thing and hit us first without warning. Gorby didn’t believe us until almost too late. The surprise attack would have forced Gorby to order a full preemptive strike right after and get rid of us before we killed them all. The generals had turned Polyus into an operational weapons platform with four thermonuclear mines, maybe half a megaton each. We never did learn what targets they had in mind, but it doesn’t really matter, does it?” She shrugged.
Daria stared, her mouth open in horror.
“So, Mikey took Peregrine into a low polar orbit, heading up over the Arctic, and then we got the bad news. The Energia was put on a launch-pad hold. If it didn’t get upstairs A.S.A.P., the whole project would be a wash. Peregrine was a one-shot only, no fallback. We’d have to bring Mikey down, and when the Polyus really went up, we’d have to shoot it down with MHVs, ASAT missiles from F-15s, assuming we could catch it before it launched its nukes. We had to take it out as fast as we could, or we’d have to launch a full spread in retaliation. SAC had the bombers up on a surprise drill, ready to go. We were all just waiting for the world to end. Mikey said we should keep him up for a couple of passes, just in case, so we did. Peregrine was optically black and mostly radar absorptive, like the Polyus, so we thought the Soviets wouldn’t notice him. We’d also stuck a fake payload in the shroud with him, something that would imitate a standard White Cloud array, cables and all, separate from Peregrine, so the Russkies wouldn’t know the launch was really for something else.
“But it didn’t work. The generals must have picked him up when he went over the western Soviet Union on his first orbit. For reasons we didn’t understand then, they ended the hold and went on with the countdown. The Energia would take off from Baikonur after an hour’s delay. We gave Mikey a series of thruster firings to change his orbit, and he got his attack window, an even better one than he would have had on the first pass. He came over the North Pole on his second orbit and was dead on to fire his Sidewinders while the Energia core was still climbing, rolling over so it could drop off the weapons platform. Polyus would then fire its engines to climb into its orbit and kill us.
“Then everything hit the fan. Colorado Springs called and said they were seeing movement in a Cosmos satellite, what the Soviets had claimed was a Molniya weather satellite in a failed orbit. It had the profile of a sleeper ASAT, a hunter/killer with a shotgun bomb. They were coming for Mikey. I told them to look for other low-orbit satellites that would intercept Mikey’s new orbit, and they found another one, a research Cosmos, that was also moving out of orbit to get closer to him for a popup kill. They had crap all over the place. We had to get Mikey down right away.
“Mikey stayed with it. He never lost his cool. The generals went ahead with their launch. We didn’t know then that Gorby had the KGB and three units of special forces crashing their way into Baikonur, trying to stop Energia from going up. They were a little late, though, and Energia went up before the MiGs arrived to shoot it down. The generals knew it was their last shot at winning the Cold War, do or die. They’d do, and we’d die.
“Mikey waited until his attack window came up, then he let go of his Sidewinders in opposing pairs. The Energia dropped off the Polyus at about that moment—and the damn platform turned without starting its engines, just seconds after the Energia let go of it, and it painted him with radar and opened fire. We must have done a crappy job of making Peregrine radar invisible, damn worthless stealth paint. The Polyus’s recoilless cannon was huge. Mikey took evasive action, but Polyus blew the engine bell and one of the fuel tanks off the Agena. It stopped firing then, so it could reorient itself and get into orbit. Mikey dropped the Agena and used the Mercury’s thrusters to get stabilized, slow down, and reenter. About then, one, maybe two of his Sidewinders found the Polyus and blew the ever-loving daylights out of it while it was thrusting to get away from the fight. That’s when it fell out of the sky, too, and our big birds spotted a huge fireball coming down into the South Pacific, where we picked up the pieces later by submarine. The fake Molniya came up five minutes later and took out the rest of the Agena, but Mikey was already coming home. Or so we hoped.”
Amy took another sip of her ice water. “I wish I could write like you,” she said to Daria. “I can’t write worth a darn. I would love to write a story like that.”
“Wha—wha—what happened to Mikey?”
The waiters arrived at that moment with the lobster. Amy waited until they left before answering. She looked down at the lobster before her. “I’m not as hungry as I thought I’d be,” she said.
Daria found it hard to speak. “Is he dead, Aunt Amy?”
“We don’t know,” Amy whispered. “Peregrine came down intact, but it fell in the sea near Antarctica and we couldn’t find anything when we finally got there. If it landed by parachute, like it was supposed to, Mikey could have gotten out and used his raft to get to an island or an ice floe . . . but we never found him. The spacecraft’s beacons didn’t turn on, I don’t know why. We never found the capsule, either. We looked for a long time, praying for him every day, but we never found him.”
Amy and Daria sat without speaking for several long minutes. Amy took a deep breath. She seemed to have aged greatly since they’d entered the restaurant. “We didn’t think about it at the time . . . but . . . it was strange that his first name was Michael. In the Book of Revelation, chapter twelve, verses seven through nine, it tells of how the archangel Michael fights a war in heaven with Satan, and he and his angels cast the Devil down to earth, and that was what Mikey did. We were his little angels, his helpers, but he shot down the weapons platform himself and saved us all. He saved millions of us, maybe billions, maybe all of us, because he did what he did. He did his job real good.
“And then,” Amy continued in a weary voice, “as the years passed, we realized he had done more than that. The Soviets had sunk a huge amount of money into the Energia and Polyus programs, too much money. They’d drained all their other government projects, gave up butter for guns, hoping they could overcome our on-again-off-again SDI program. When Polyus was destroyed, that was the domino that knocked all the other dominoes down. The generals who had armed Polyus had special interviews with the KGB, which did not like the idea of anyone usurping the nuclear chain of command, and they all suffered fatal hunting accidents right afterward. The Energia program was cancelled the year after. The Warsaw Pact rose up in revolt the year after that, the Soviet economy collapsed, Gorby got caught in the coup, Yeltsin bailed him out, and the Evil Empire broke up and was gone, just like that. Totally gone. And—” Amy suddenly put her hands over her face, trying to stop a sob “—and Mikey did it.”
Daria swallowed, watching as Amy got control of herself.
“Some of the people I work with think Mikey really was Michael,” Amy whispered, “that he was the archangel come to save us. I know he wasn’t, but sometimes it’s hard not to think about it. He and Peregrine both disappeared. He didn’t have any living family. He was just there when we needed him, our guardian angel in real life. Maybe he really was. He was such a wonderful man. He had such beautiful brown eyes, and he radiated such warmth. You felt so good when . . .”
She couldn’t speak. Daria reached over and took Amy’s nearest hand. They sat like that for a minute more.
“I’m okay,” said Amy at last. She blew her nose in her napkin. “We should eat.”
“That was a good story,” Daria whispered. “Maybe you should be a writer.”
Amy flashed a weak smile at her. “Thanks, but no. I just like to make up stories when work is slow, you see. I guess it runs in the family. I liked your story better.”
They managed to eat their lobster and even enjoyed it. They talked about college, about Daria’s parents and her sister, about Jane, about little things.
They were outside on the sidewalk, walking to Amy’s flame-red sports car, when Amy said, “Would you and Jane like to visit me at work sometime?”
The question fell on Daria like a ten-ton weight. “Uh . . . sure, if it’s okay.”
“I’d love to have you both out. Everyone at work is quite the fan of yours now. However, I’m afraid I’d have to ask that you not tell your mother about this, for certain reasons, if you wouldn’t mind. And don’t repeat the story, either, even if it’s just a story.”
“Sure, no problem. I don’t talk to Mom about everything that goes on in my life, anyway.”
“That’s how nature intended things should be between mothers and daughters,” Amy said. “Do you think we can visit Jane today? I’d love to see those paintings of hers. For professional reasons, of course.”
Amy unlocked her car, and they got in. “And,” Amy went on, “I was going to ask the two of you about your career plans.”
Daria turned in her seat to stare at Amy. “What?” she said faintly.
“Well, you know, being a writer and an artist, those kinds of jobs are rewarding, but they don’t pay much. It’s possible that there are other careers out there, interesting things you could do with your time, and you could do a little writing and painting on the side. It might be worth looking into.” Amy looked at her favorite niece and grinned. “Think you’re smart enough for . . . intelligence work?”
Acknowledgements II: Kara Wild was the first person to suggest that Amy Barksdale was in the art appraisal business, in her extensive fanfic series, the Driven Wild Universe. My shameless theft of this idea is hereby noted. Also, the name of Melody Powers’ sister, Harmony, was borrowed from Galen Hardesty’s own Daria/Melody Powers stories, which also inspired a good bit of this one. Kara Wild’s “Abruptly Amy” material sparked the note about Annie spin-offs, and Mike Yamiolkoski’s “Guardian” got me to thinking about its, um, subject matter. Thanks!