ON A CLIFF OVERLOOKING THE PACIFIC OCEAN, Lamar Gelde sat
in his sport vehicle, straining to see the panoramic view of the breakers
and distant horizon. His car headlights tunneled a blind light into
the fog, in a socked-in December landscape, dominated by saturated low
clouds and the pounding surf. It had been decades since Lamar had seen
the ocean; and he wasn't going to see it today, either. Instead he was
going to see one of the most difficult men in the Western Hemisphere:
He brought good news, but Titus might not see it in that light. No
telling how the man might react, especially as reclusive as he'd become
these last couple of years. Lamar loved Titus Quinn like a son, and
hated watching him throw his life away, here on this godforsaken coast
where it rained forty-five inches a year and the nearest neighbor was
fifteen miles away.
But this isolation was precisely why Titus Quinn retreated to the Oregon
coast, to escape the company of his fellow men and women and to stay
a universe away from black hole interstellar transport and the destinations
that implied. Lamar carefully backed into the whiteout conditions on
the road and sped toward his meeting, one that would take Titus by surprise.
Titus's own fault. The man never answered the phone.
In the warmth of the car, Lamar drew off his gloves and gripped the
steering wheel of the custom ZXI 600, loaded with after-market options,
gliding through the hairpin turns with a surge of power from the precision
engine, worth a year's salary of a member of the Minerva board of directors.
Retired or not, he could still afford it, even without the Minerva stipend
that kept him on retainer. Now, Minerva had a little task for him, one
Lamar intended accomplish, both for Minerva and for the sake of Titus
Quinn's immortal soul. At thirty-four, Titus was too young to be living
in the past. Today, Lamar hoped to recall him to life. That was how
Lamar saw it, though he was pretty sure Titus would see it differently.
He gunned the engine and grabbed roadway down the straightaway, wiping
sweat from his hands so he wouldn't lose his grip on the wheel. He hadn't
seen Titus for over a year. He hoped Titus had mellowed a bit.
Keep Out, More Private Than You Can Imagine. The
sign on the sagging split log fence had been freshly redrawn. Turning
down the rutted drive, Lamar squinted at the warning signs nailed to
trees. Not Interested, Go Away. In another few yards: Contrary
to What You Believe, You Are NOT an Exception. The road descended
into green-black trees, dripping with moss and rain. Last Turn Around.
Land Mines Ahead. Lamar sighed. He knew Titus had booby-trapped
the property, but he trusted that Titus had not yet stooped to land
Parking the car under a giant tree heavy with pea-green fans of cedar,
Lamar struggled out of the low-slung car, hating the indignities of
old bones and sagging muscles. He pulled his jacket close around him
and tucked in his head against the rain that had now begun to patter
through the overhead branches. Cold, soggy, godforsaken
were the words that came to mind as he slogged down the path toward
Titus's beach house.
A high whine needled at his hearing, followed closely by a crunch
and the fall of a giant branch across his path. Still waving from the
jolt of hitting the ground, a wood sign proclaimed: My Dogs Are Hungry.
Lamar stepped over the crude barrier and shouted, "Titus? It's
Lamar. Stop this nonsense, will you?"
Fog rolled through the treetops, blobs of congealed wool. Through
them, he could see the melted yellow of the sun, thin and cross-looking.
It was high noon, ten days before Christmas. A miserable time of year
to be on the coast. Ahead he saw the beach house, two stories, brown
shingles, looking like a hole in the forest and not a proper residence.
Rain trickled down Lamar's neck as he hurried down the path, surrounded
by sounds of small explosions and the accompanying release of foul smells.
No, Titus Quinn was not growing mellow. If anything, his property was
worse than ever. Christ, we should visit the man more often. Keep him
tethered to reality. "Titus?" he shouted.
Up ahead Lamar heard, "Who the hell is it?" A shutter slammed
open on the second story of the cottage, and someone's head poked out.
"It's Lamar, for Christ's sake."
"Go away." Titus disappeared from view.
Lamar shook his head. He'd known this was not going to be easy.
The porch that usually overlooked the ocean on the four days a year
when one could actually see the ocean in this dreadful climate felt
slick as snot, causing Lamar to grip the handrail and jam a Paul Bunyan-sized
sliver into his hand. God damn, he thought, rapping on the front door,
the things I do for Minerva Company.
He rapped again, this time using the oddly fashioned door knocker
in the shape of a face. Eventually Titus answered the door. He looked
resigned at seeing his old friend. But it was not a friendly greeting
-- in fact, no greeting at all.
"How did you get past my defenses?" Titus asked, turning
back into his living room and leaving his guest to close the door.
Coming inside and throwing his gloves on the side table, Lamar said,
"You can't keep the world away forever, you know."
"Doing okay so far."
Doing okay would not be how Lamar would describe it.
But despite his reclusive lifestyle, Titus did look fit. A couple
inches over six feet and athletically built, he hadn't yet gone soft.
He was handsome still, despite the white hair that had prematurely come
upon him. He kept it clipped short, and it might as easily have been
blond. In fact, except for the baggy plaid shirt, he might still be
mistaken for Minerva's top interstellar pilot, a man who'd won the heart
of Johanna Arlis -- a tough woman to please.
A whining sound from the direction of the dining room caused Lamar
"Don't worry, it's not an incoming missile. It's my new St. Paul
Titus flipped on a light, revealing what Lamar had not noticed before:
that the entire living and dining rooms were crisscrossed with miniature
train tracks, both at floor level and elevated. One snaked by Lamar's
feet, making a turn at the lamp, past a miniature semaphore and telegraph
"The Blue Comet," Titus said, as though Lamar should be
impressed. The line of cars stretched into the back hallway.
Titus hit another button, and a sparkling green-and-gold locomotive
came clacking around the sofa. "A new acquisition. Lionel 381,
all steel, with brass inserts plus the original box. Paid eleven thousand
bucks for it." He frowned at Lamar. "Suppose I overpaid?"
Lamar well knew that Titus could afford to squander a damn sight more
than that. Minerva made sure Titus needed no money. That he need never
succumb to selling his story to the newsTides, or to the insatiable
fan base of those who believed that Titus Quinn had traveled to another
universe. Two years ago. A lifetime ago.
Lamar reached out to touch the locomotive, now stopped at a crossing.
"Uh-uh," Titus warned. "Gets skin oils on the moving
parts." Lamar retracted his hand and unbuttoned his coat instead.
Removing his jacket, he looked for a place to put it amid the furniture
cluttered with cast-off clothing, dirty dishes, and packing boxes for
model trains. Lamar hung the coat over a lamp.
"Titus," he began.
A hand came up, stopping him. "I go by Quinn now." Titus
Quinn fussed with the Olympian, adjusting the switch in the tracks,
ignoring Lamar, the man who was his last link to Minerva, who had been
watching out for Titus's interests since the man himself didn't seem
"I wouldn't have disturbed you if it wasn't important."
Titus took the locomotive to the dining room table covered with miniature
tools and boxes of spare parts. "Sometimes the wheel alignments
need a few tweaks. It's three hundred years old, so I don't begrudge
it a little tune-up."
Lamar looked around at the place. Even in Johanna's time, it had never
been tidy. Johanna had had canvases stored everywhere, and tubes of
paint ... but now, it was clearly a bachelor place.
"They've found it," Lamar said softly.
Tinkering. Titus used the small screwdriver with surprising precision
for someone with large hands, and for working, as he was, in the gloom.
Lamar went on. "A way through, Quinn. To the other place."
Titus didn't flinch or look up, but he stood immobile, screwdriver in
hand. Lamar let that statement settle. Looking around, he saw pictures
of the family collecting dust on the fireplace mantel. At least Titus
hadn't turned the cottage into a shrine. As pitiful as he was, he'd
made something new for himself. Lamar resolved to be patient.
Titus turned the model over in his hand, as though seeing it for the
first time. "Still got the original screwdriver-assembly kit. Otherwise
I would only have paid half as much."
Lamar looked about for a place to sit down, then gave up. "It
was a fluke, really. Some physics geek let a program go haywire, and
they found themselves in a barrage of impossible subatomic particles.
Minerva thinks the source of those particles is quite ... big."
Titus's icy blue eyes met his own. When they did, Lamar said, "The
source is large. Infinitely large. We think it might be the place you
A lopsided smile came to Titus's mouth. "The place I went."
"Yes." An eyebrow went up. "You mean, Minerva thinks
I went someplace? You mean instead of abandoning my ship and
hightailing it off to some backwater planet, I actually went someplace?"
Lamar coughed. "Minerva owes you some apologies. I've always thought
But Titus was still talking: "You mean you think you've found
the other universe, and that I wasn't lying and crazy after all? You
mean you think you've found Johanna?" He slammed the locomotive
down on the table.
Lamar winced. Eleven thousand dollars ...
"And Sydney," Titus whispered. Sydney had been nine at the
time of the ship disaster. She was their only child. Titus stood near
his chair, body tensed, but with nothing to hit. Except maybe Lamar,
and Lamar was practically his only friend.
"I'm telling you that they've found what may be the other
place. Nobody knows what it is, much less who might be there."
He hated to bring up Stefan Polich's name, but he couldn't tiptoe around
forever, and it was, after all, Minerva's CEO who'd sent Lamar here
in the first place. "Stefan thinks we know the way in."
From another room came the faint rumble of an electric train looping
through the cottage. Lamar wondered just how extensive this hobby had
Finally, Titus blinked. "Would you like a cheese sandwich?"
Lamar closed his mouth. Then nodded. "That would be fine. Thank
you." He followed Titus into the kitchen, ducking under a two-track
bridge over-pass supported by pillars made of door moldings.
Titus leaned into the refrigerator, pulling out plastic containers
with strange colors inside, and finally found a hunk of cheese to his
liking. Lamar shook his head. Here was the man who once commanded colony
ships through the stabilized Kardashev tunnels, who could run navigational
equations in his head and repair cranky lithium heat exchangers at the
same time. Living off moldy food. Playing with train sets.
He'd been a family man once. No one had ever thought Titus Quinn would
settle down, but when he met Johanna Arlis, she'd tamed him before the
colony ship that he'd met her on reached its destination. Well, neither
of them were what you might call tame. Johanna was dark, flamboyant,
passionate, and irreverent. Only Johanna had ever matched Titus's appetites,
and he'd not looked at another woman for the nine years they'd been
married. Still didn't, though Johanna was dead, tragically dead, and
her daughter with her. On Titus's ship, the Vesta, along with
every other passenger. All dead, except Titus. For which Minerva had
fired him, and for which Titus had never forgiven himself.
The sandwich sat in front of Lamar, remarkably appealing. And Titus
tucked into his own sandwich with gusto, despite just having been told
that the human race had discovered a parallel universe. One that, a
couple of years ago, to the general derision of the civilized world,
Titus had claimed existed.
Titus swallowed another mouthful of sandwich. "Why should I believe
any of this?"
"Because one of Minerva's favorite sapients believed it, that's
why. Killed off an entire orbiting space platform to prove it."
"Oh. A crazy mSap thought it found another universe." He
"Stupid machines with quantum foam for brains. I've had collies
that were smarter."
"They're as smart as they're supposed to be, without taking over
the world." After the Jakarta Event, the World Alliance had developed
firewalls to forestall runaway machine intelligence. To forestall a
posthuman world. Those firewalls apparently needed some rethinking.
Titus muttered, "So Minerva's taken over the world instead. You
and all the half-assed geniuses. Gee, why don't I feel all proud and
Lamar glanced away. He himself was one of those geniuses, a savvy,
in the vernacular. Able to outthink a computing savant. That fact conferred
on him status and privilege beyond the dreams of the average smart --
and far beyond all the rest. Titus had scored at the right level, of
course, but had squandered his opportunity for the life of a pilot.
"I thought you'd be more interested," Lamar said. He took
a bite of his sandwich.
Across the kitchen table Titus eyed him with a hot, blue stare. "Stefan
Polich thought I'd be interested."
Of course Stefan Polich was behind all this. The president of Minerva
Company would have to be. Lamar spoke through a mouthful of sandwich.
"He's said that he made a mistake. For a man like Stefan, that's
a big step."
Titus licked his fingers and wiped them on his wool pants. "Well,
fine. We're all settled then." He stood up, carrying his plate
to the sink. "Stefan Polich -- "
Lamar interrupted. "I know what you're -- "
"Stefan Polich," Titus repeated, somewhat louder,
swinging around, his eyes glinting, "has decided to ask my pardon,
eh? So sorry Titus, old man. So sorry you lost the one damn job you
were any good at. So sorry I said you murdered your wife, that we put
the word out that you went nuts and that you made up cock-and-bull stories
about some flaming fantasy world." Titus was still holding his
lunch plate like he wanted to crack it on someone's head. "So sorry
that nutcases come traipsing onto your property, lurking about, hoping
for a glimpse of the man who claims to have been the privileged visitor
to another cosmos or what they're secretly hoping for -- their favorite
At the present volume of discourse, Lamar checked out escape options
through the kitchen door, where two room-long trains were just passing
over the bridge.
"And now," Titus continued, "if I don't mind, he'd
like me to be interested in his new interest in the little
universe next door!" He stared at the plate, then turned to the
sink, ran water over the plate, and left it on the counter, his movements
Lamar had to get the whole story out now, before Titus got further
worked up. "One thing more. He wants you to go back."
Titus stared at him with eyes like old pack ice. "Get out, Lamar."
Lamar gazed at Titus, thinking how much he looked like his father,
Donnel, the old man -- for Christ's sake, Lamar's contemporary -- who
used to be in business with Lamar, who'd asked Lamar to take care of
his boys when he died too young and no one remained to care for them.
Lamar had done his best. And now Titus was throwing him out of his house.
Probably he deserved it. They all deserved it -- Stefan Polich most
of all -- for not standing by Titus when he needed it.
After the ship broke apart in the Kardashev tunnel, Titus put his
wife and daughter in an escape capsule, and the forty other survivors
in numerous small pods, and sent them off. Then, at the last moment,
when he'd done all he could to save the ship, he found that Johanna
had kept her own capsule attached to the ship. He boarded and they launched
just in time to watch the Vesta blow apart. The next thing Minerva
knew, six months later, after all hope of survivors had been abandoned,
Titus showed up on the planet Lyra, disoriented and his memory gone.
Hair gone white. Tales of a barely remembered world. Claims that wife
and child were there. That he had been there for years, though he'd
only been missing six months. No wonder Minerva distanced itself. But
for some reason Lamar himself had believed Titus. That was one reason
why he was no longer on the board of directors.
Not that he expected any gratitude for that little act of faith.
"Get out," Titus repeated.
Lamar looked around at the cottage stuffed with Titus's old life and
with his new hobby. "What have you got to lose? An expensive hobby
that's taken over your living room? What are you afraid of, anyway?"
But he was backing up as Titus herded him around the sofa and toward
the front door.
Titus smiled, not necessarily a nice sight right now. "Not afraid,
Lamar. Just tired of Minerva's nervous twitches."
"Yes, twitches. Makes you guys nervous, doesn't it, all the attention
I get, all the crazies coming by, sniffing for the real scoop on invisible
worlds. You're terrified that I'm finally going to give an interview
on the global newsTide, really cash in, reveal what a piece of shit
that ship was, that you sold as safe to all those colonists who died.
Aren't you?" He grabbed Lamar's coat and shoved it at him. "Be
somewhat easier if I just walked out a ship hatchway into the void.
Regrettable space accident. Former pilot tragically dead in same K-tunnel
where his family was lost. Make a nice, tidy ending to the sorry tale,
"Christ, Titus, you think we're trying to kill you? You
think -- "
"Don't call me Titus. That person's dead now." The gloves
were shoved in his face, and the door opened before him.
Titus's face had lost its anger, the expression replaced now with
a kind of thousand-yard stare. Lamar waited until Titus said, "You
really think I'm going to believe you've found that place after
all this time? After I begged you to search, to pay attention? Now,
all of a sudden, Stefan has taken the big step of saying he was
wrong?" He shook his head in some mirth. "Pardon me, Lamar,
but that's such bullshit."
It was time to convey the last piece of information. "Your brother,"
Lamar said. Damn, this was distasteful. It made even Lamar hate Stefan
Polich. "Rob's turned forty. The only reason the Company keeps
him is that he's your brother. I'll do all I can for him, Titus, I swear
it. But they'll let him go, you know they will." He felt like an
Quinn's voice was eerily quiet when he said, "If you touch my
brother or his job, I'm going to put my trains away and come after you.
All of you."
From the yard came a crash, perhaps some jury-rigged tree limb, or
a smoke bomb. As the sun broke through a tattered cloud, Titus's eyes
glinted. "Now then. I'll turn off the system for three minutes.
By then, you'd better be gone." The door slammed shut.
Lamar was left standing on the porch, staring at the door knocker
in the shape of an oddly thin and sculpted face, both beautiful and
Lamar spoke so that Titus would hear him through the door.
"Titus ..." No, not Titus any longer; he wanted to be called
Quinn. "Quinn, for Johanna's sake. I thought, for her sake . .
From inside he heard the tinny hoot of the St. Paul Olympian racing
through the living room.
Along with the damp cold, a sense of dread crept through Lamar's jacket.
Quinn was wrong if he thought this was the end of it. As far as Minerva
was concerned, it was just the beginning.
A CRASH CAME OVER THE BOW OF QUINN'S KAYAK. A patchy, thin
fog tore now and then to reveal a sky the color of what Johanna used
to call cerulean. He sped northward, lulled by the rhythm of paddling.
Brief glimpses of the horizon drew his gaze outward, to the limit of
sight. Some days he thought he would try to reach that horizon, just
paddle without stopping. He'd thought of that more and more lately.
He'd even fantasized that he'd find -- somewhere past the horizon --
the place that eluded him, that kept Johanna and Sydney. The place that
Lamar Gelde claimed was now found.
He kept up a brutal pace, propelling the kayak through the chop. It
was no coincidence that Lamar Gelde had shown up just when the newsTides
were nosing around to do a major story on Titus Quinn, one that would
bring unwelcome attention to Minerva's stellar transport losses. To
protect his coveted privacy, Quinn had no intention of giving an interview,
but Stefan Polich couldn't know that. The man would do anything to shut
him up, even concoct a story that they might have a lead on Johanna
He sliced the paddle again and again into the waves, reaching for exhaustion,
for peace. Not that peace was that easy to come by.
The ocean always conjured that other place, but when he tried to summon
the details, all he grasped was fog. And a vast emptiness. In that vastness
were his lost memories. This was the reason he couldn't move beyond
what had happened. Because he didn't know what had happened.
A wisp of fog descended over him. On its fuzzy screen he imagined a
strange river flowing. It moved slowly, more like lava than water, more
silver than blue... . And the things that rode the river ...
The image receded, leaving him no wiser. Somewhere in the murk lay his
memories of the other place. Ten or so years of memories. But the tests
had all shown he was the same age as when he left Earth, still thirty-four
years old. Of course, these contradictions only existed if one held
to strict rules of logic. And Quinn's hold on strict rules had always
Up the beach he could see someone on his property. Paddling fast,
he got close enough to see that it was his brother Rob. Caitlin and
the kids were with him. They hadn't spotted him yet. He could still
evade them, as he had been doing for two years now, for reasons not
entirely clear to him. Rob with his normal family. Those kids. He was
becoming a lousy uncle -- eccentric, unpredictable, unavailable. He
wearily paddled to shore. For Caitlin's sake, because she always thought
the best of him, and he hated to prove her wrong.
As he pulled the kayak up the beach, his brother and Caitlin came
down to help. Quinn nodded at them. "I thought you weren't coming
until the twenty-third."
Rob smirked. "Merry Christmas to you, too."
Caitlin gave Quinn a big hug, which he returned with feeling. Her
face always lit up when she saw him, the last human being who seemed
to look forward to seeing him. She wore her light brown hair pulled
casually back from her face -- round, where Johanna's was oval, green
eyes where Johanna's were deep brown. He couldn't understand what a
fine woman like that saw in his brother, though he liked Rob, too, after
"Uncle Titus," Mateo shouted, "I found a dead bird!"
Down the beach, Mateo was holding a mass of greasy feathers.
"Good!" Quinn shouted. "Give it to your little sister!"
Mateo began chasing Emily with the bird as Caitlin hustled down the
sand to forestall a sibling fight.
Quinn gazed at his brother, seeing a mirror image of himself: big-boned,
deep blue eyes -- but gone a little soft with that desk job he liked
so much. "I thought you said you were coming on Friday."
"This is Friday." Rob gestured at the porch with
his armload of presents. "Let's get these inside." He stared
at his brother. "We are invited in? We drove three hours
from Portland, Titus."
"I haven't got any food or anything. For the kids." Well,
there were some hard candies left over from last Christmas.
"Caitlin brought the food, naturally. You don't think we'd let
you cook a turkey, do you?"
Quinn helped to carry the presents, feeling like an ass that, again
this year, he had more or less forgotten about Christmas. He cut a glance
at Rob -- Rob doing the brotherly thing, reaching out, doing Christmas.
Rob the stalwart, the steady.
Rob hanging by a thread at the company.
Quinn began the unlocking procedures on his front door, fiddling with
mechanisms he'd designed himself. Also he'd designed his door knocker.
In the shape of an impossibly long face, with finely formed lips and
brows, it was cast in bronze from his own carving. Rob took in the view.
"It's nice here."
"Yes. No one around for miles."
"That's not what I meant."
To avoid a rerun of the lecture on becoming a hermit, Quinn made a
show of bundling the packages inside and looking for a place to stow
them. He dumped the parcels on the couch, on top of the kayak equipment
he'd been cleaning that morning, while Rob carried bags of food into
the kitchen. Thunderous jolts from the porch announced the arrival of
Mateo and Emily, hollering and streaming sand.
Caitlin managed to grab Mateo by the collar. "Shoes off,"
Quinn waved at them. "Don't bother." He looked around at
the mess. "Little sand can't hurt the place."
Emily was drawn to the dining room table, where the Ives New York
Central locomotive sat prior to the new headlight installation Quinn
had planned for that afternoon. Before his brother showed up a day early.
"Uh-uh," Quinn said. "Don't touch, remember?"
His heart crimped a little looking at his niece, his memories of Sydney
at that age poking up as always when Emily was around.
Emily nodded sagely. "Espensith."
Quinn smiled. "Very espensith hobby."
From the kitchen came his brother's voice. "My God."
"Oh, that thing in the sink?" Quinn said. "It's a jellyfish."
He got Mateo's attention. "Ever seen one? You can see their innards
through their skin."
Mateo dashed into the kitchen to confirm this marvel.
Looking around the living room, Quinn realized he should have picked
up a little. He started lifting items off chairs, then spun around looking
for where to put them.
"It's all right, Titus," Caitlin said. "Really. We
don't need to sit." She took the pile from his hands and plopped
it at the base of a pole lamp. Then, checking that Emily wasn't listening,
she looked him square in the eyes. "How are you? Tell me the truth."
Quinn cocked his head and put on a jaunty smile. "Good. I'm good."
"You are not."
"We haven't seen you for months." The words were reproachful,
but her tone made it go down just fine.
"Guess I've been too wrapped up in the hobby. You said I should
take an interest in things."
"I meant people, Titus."
"Oh. Well. People are harder." He noted that the Lionel
Coral Isle was going into the curve at the sofa a little fast and flicked
his right hand into the digit commands that controlled his railroading
models. He could have used a voice-actuated system, but he liked hand
controls. He'd always been good with his hands, and wearing the three
tiny rings on his right hand, he could manipulate the timing and performance
of eight trains on five tracks, no problem.
Mateo was back. "Can I hold the new engine? The one that cost
eleven thousand dollars?"
Pointing at the St. Paul Olympian just emerging from the back bedroom,
Quinn said, "Just for watching, Ace, not for touching."
Mateo eyed the sleek train with its brass and die-cast trim pieces
as it raced under the dining room hutch. "I wish I had a toy like
"It's not a toy," Quinn said, rummaging in the coat closet
for the presents he'd mail-ordered for the kids.
"Then what is it, if it's not a toy?" Mateo asked.
Rob had returned from the kitchen. "It's an escape."
Emily pronounced, "It's a hobby."
Retrieving the cardboard boxes from the closet, Quinn responded, "It's
a way to keep from thinking." Then, seeing the worry on his sister-in-law's
face, he put on a cheery grin. "Merry Christmas, to my favorite
nephew and favorite niece."
Mateo rolled his eyes at the old ploy. "We're your only nephew
"Well, there you go, then." Quinn handed the presents to
the kids, who received a nod from Rob as to opening them now. They tugged
open the boxes, filled with tronic gadgets five years in advance of
what either of them could figure out.
"Didn't have any wrapping paper," Quinn said.
"That's okay -- " Caitlin was saying, but Rob interrupted.
"For God's sake, Titus." He looked like he'd say more, then
glanced at the kids.
Caitlin's hand came onto his arm again. Like a dog handler, Quinn
thought. Why didn't she just let Rob have his say? He knew what his
brother thought of him. Of his hobby, his crappy little cottage.
Instead of the expected rebuke, Rob said, "Join us for Christmas,
Christ, the man had no idea what lay just around the corner, at his
cushy little job.
The kids were punching buttons and causing lights to flash on their
Quinn managed a smile. "I'll try."
Mateo, still fiddling with his present, said, "Kiss of death."
"Out of the mouths of babes," Rob said. He locked a gaze
on Quinn. "You aren't going to come. Why don't you just say so,
save us all from waiting up for you?"
Quinn shrugged. "Okay, then."
Rob snapped, "Fine with me." Kneeling next to the kids,
he started repacking the gifts, shoving paper into the boxes while the
kids watched in dismay.
Emily said, "I thought we were staying."
"So did I," her father murmured.
Caitlin watched this familiar interaction play itself out, knowing
better than to step between them until they'd each taken a hunk of flesh.
If they didn't love each other, it wouldn't matter if Titus came for
Christmas, but Titus could infuriate her husband in ten seconds flat,
without even trying.
"Kids," she said, "play outside for a few minutes before
we head back." She was letting her husband's edict stand, and Rob
"I'll keep them from drowning," Rob said, knowing when to
get some distance from the heat of an argument.
You do that dear, Caitlin thought. You could look at the Pacific Ocean
as a drowning pool or a beach adventure. Rob would be watching for beach
logs in the surf every time.
Titus was smiling. Damn his blue eyes, anyway.
"I just don't do Christmas," he said, engaging and wry.
But it wasn't going to work on her this time.
"You're slipping away, Titus. From us." As he started to
shake his head, she added, "From yourself."
He looked around his living room as though assessing whether this
could be true or not. But it was true. No jollying the kids along,
no earnest hobbies could hide the fact that her second-favorite man
in the world was becoming one of her least favorite.
Titus's face relaxed, grew serious. "I don't much care anymore,
She shook her head. "That'll be true in another year. It's not
true right now."
"It's not?" He looked hopeful that she was right.
He was giving her some power over him with that simple utterance,
and it was a heady gift. "No," she said, "it's not. That's
why you're coming for Christmas." He didn't answer, but she hoped
he'd come. It would be a small gesture -- for Rob, for the kids. She
hoped her request wasn't just for herself. She always worried that she
was the only one who felt electricity in any room where Titus Quinn
Happy screams from the beach drew their attention to the open door,
where they could see Rob looking at them from the shore. He wouldn't
like her begging Titus to come. So she hadn't. She'd commanded him.
And Titus was at least listening to her, listening with a blue-eyed
intensity that held her transfixed. She let herself imagine that he
liked a woman who could match his strong will. Not that Caitlin would
ever compare herself to Johanna, a woman she'd both loved and deeply
envied. They'd been friends: the beauty and the plain Jane. The flamboyant
and the responsible. Just once, Caitlin would have liked to trade places.
She picked up one of the toy boxes, using that moment to cover the
heat that had come into her face. Standing, she put her hand on Titus's
arm. "Say you'll come."
He didn't answer, but he looked at her, all defenses gone. "I
miss them, Caitlin."
"I know." Let them go, she wanted to say, but hadn't the
He reached toward her, and for a moment her breath caught on a snag,
but he was taking the gift box from her grasp. "I'll put these
in a bag," he said, and the moment was gone.
"Titus, at least see us off. Rob will take that for amends."
"Which it won't be."
She grinned. "No, of course not."
At last they were packed and on their way. Quinn watched as Rob's
truck climbed the steep driveway. The kids waved from foggy windows,
and Rob honked the horn. All was patched up until it fell apart again.
Quinn reflected that Caitlin was the best thing that ever happened to
his brother. He hoped Rob knew that, or he'd have to give him a black
As the truck disappeared up the road, he snapped on the juice to the
property defenses. He always looked forward to seeing Caitlin, but he
was glad she was gone. For a moment there, she had looked so much like
In a heavy rain, the copter swooped down the approach to
Minerva/Portland, skimming over a vast and uniform lattice of Company
buildings, a land-devouring sprawl that -- combined with the other corporate
holdings of EoSap and TidalSphere -- stretched from Portland to Eugene.
Helice Maki gazed out the rain-splashed canopy at the squat office buildings
glued together with parking lots and roads.
Banking, the copter provided a view of the Columbia River slinking
through the city, and in the distance, Mount Hood's white cone. These
were the only things that hadn't changed about Portland, covered as
it was with Company warrens stretching from here to the horizon. Dense
canyons of office buildings might be smarter use of the land, but the
masses preferred ample parking for their custom transport rigs. Helice
shook her head. As the ultramodern world spun toward its sapient destiny,
some things remained impervious to good planning and higher math.
In the cool cabin, her business suit sent a surge of warmth to maintain
her comfort zone, but her hands were clammy from nerves. This was her
first board meeting at Minerva, the Earth's fourth-richest Company.
Slipping into fifth position, as Stefan Polich had admitted over drinks.
Helice thought the events on the Appian II would change all that, but
only if managed wisely, a task CEO Stefan Polich might fumble.
Approaching for landing, the copter sped toward the roof pad of a
cavernous building housing at least eight thousand workers. As the craft
settled on the roof, security crew sprinted across the pad to open the
hatch, then stood back as Helice hopped out, ignoring helping hands.
A short distance off, Stefan Polich stood, so lean he looked like he
might disappear if he stood sideways.
He hurried forward, waving at the pilot, calling him by name. Helice
winced. It was the wrong name. Stefan was starting to lose his edge.
"Helice, how was the ride on the beanstalk?" He held an
umbrella for her, ushering her into the building. Stefan handed the
dripping umbrella to a staffer.
"It was fun." The space elevator was fun and had
given her some time to prepare herself to meet the company on new terms
-- equal terms, as Minerva's latest partner. And to begin to put her
stamp on things -- starting with the proper handling of Titus Quinn.
Dismissing the security staff, Stefan led the way in his blue jogging
suit and sneakers, making Helice feel overdressed. The black fabric
of her suit sparkled now and then with little computing tasks. She stranded
the data from her suit into the company data tide, that omnipresent
stream of data cached in data structures embedded in the walls and carried
by light beams through the work environment.
Amid his long strides, Stefan glanced at her. "He said no."
"I know he said no. Titus will change his mind." It was
essential. They needed his experience with the adjoining region, as
it had been dubbed. Minerva's great hope was that the adjoining region,
if it existed beyond the quantum level and if they could penetrate it
-- mighty ifs, no doubt -- that it might be a path, plunging through
the universe in a warped course, giving access to the stars. An access
that might not rip apart a stellar transport like a barn in a tornado.
Stefan said, "He likes to be called Quinn, now."
"I heard." Why did people insist on telling her things she
Stefan kept up a good pace, in his habit of using the Company's long
corridors to stay in shape. "He ran Lamar off the property."
"I know that," Helice said. "Even the threat about
the brother ... what was his name?"
"Even that made no difference. But we'll let him stew a few days.
He'll come around." When he did, when he agreed to go, Helice would
go with him. Somebody had to make the business judgments. Minerva wouldn't
let him go alone, Stefan had already said as much.
The validity of the find was becoming more convincing every day. Earth-side
mSaps -- tightly under control -- confirmed the optical cube data Helice
had salvaged. At irregular points in time and locale, Minerva sensors
detected quantum particles that mirrored the proper quantum orientation.
Shunning ordinary matter, they were devilishly hard to register. But
the mSaps reasoned -- with the nonchalance of machine sapience -- that
beyond the horizon of our universe lay another. It was incredible. And
she wanted to see it for herself -- wanted it with a fierce hunger that
had slowly crept upon her during the three-day descent on the space
elevator. She didn't know who Stefan was considering for the junket,
but she had to make her pitch now -- now that she had him alone.
They power-walked through the savant warehouse, packed with technicians
tending the savants and tabulators that in turn tended Minerva's data
tide. Every tender aspired to administer to the mSaps, but that privilege
fell only to the savvies, those who could, for example, solve complex
equations on the back of a napkin, or even without a pencil at all.
Like Helice herself.
Here in the warehouse, young scientists on the make had only a few
months to prove themselves. Failing in the Company, they might find
a menial job -- but most would opt for the dole, the guaranteed BSL,
the Basic Standard of Living. Just shoot me, Helice thought, if I ever
sit drooling in front of a Deep Vision screen.
The savant warehouse led to the central warrens, where the work cubes
formed a vast lattice. Stefan broke into a jog and Helice followed.
The occupants barely took note of the owners passing by, intent on their
data entry quotas. This was where the data cycle began, where the information
strands wound onto the skeins of the nonquantum tronics forming the
broad base of the computing pyramid that embodied Minerva's collective
knowledge. This scene was repeated at similar company nests at Generics,
EoSap, ChinaKor, and TidalSphere.
And now Helice Maki was at the top of that pyramid. She took a moment
to savor this, but the taste ran thin. The region next door towered
in her imagination, casting a long shadow on the day.
She glanced at Stefan, "Still got a fix on the emissions? Three
After the destruction of the Appian II, every Minerva installation
in commercial space had joined in the search for anomalous particles.
They'd found them in three other locations, across several parsecs of
space, now that Minerva knew what to look for, and how to look, using
a next-generation program of the one Luc Diers had inadvertently set
"One locale," Stefan answered. "Two of them dried up."
Helice knew about the shifting coordinates. "That just reinforces
my thesis. It's not merely a quantum reality. If it was, the readings
would be constant. So it's a universe of greater than Planck length."
"Right, it's bigger than that, but smaller than our universe.
And it's not always in the same place." He banked around a corner
and sprinted up a stairway, his face starting to redden.
On the first landing, Stefan bent over, hands on knees. He shook his
head. "Damn, but I'd like to believe all this, Helice."
"I know you would." He'd been a worried man since the day
she'd met him. She'd heard that he used to be a driving force, but these
days he was afraid of risks, looking for proof before making decisions.
This was not the man to lead Minerva, or manage the real estate next
He puffed, catching his breath. "Hell. What makes you so cocksure?"
"No guarantees," Helice said, "but try thinking of
it this way. How come we live in a perfect universe? Ever think of that,
how we just happen to live in a space-time where things are stable and
tend to support life? We just happen to have the exact force of gravity,
the exact force of the strong nuclear force so that things cohere rather
than not. That's a lot of fine-tuning for our convenience. Religion
says that God arranged it that way. Nice answer, except it kind of stops
Stefan unfolded from the bent-over position and leaned against a railing.
She had his attention.
"So you could say, of course the universe is finely tuned
for us. If it weren't, we wouldn't be here to wonder about it. But then
it leads to the idea that there must be other space-times where things
aren't perfect for life. Where the fundamental particles have different
values, and some universes -- maybe the majority -- will be cold and
dark. And some, like ours, won't."
"Right. The multiverse has some scientific logic behind it, if
not scientific evidence."
"No evidence. Until now."
Stefan smiled. On his thin face, it looked more like a crack than
a grin. "Wait until you see what we've got at the meeting."
Frowning, Helice realized he'd kept something from her. "Tell
me now, Stefan." She hated secrets. All her life she'd had a horror
of people whispering, knowing things she didn't, talking behind her
back. Being smart could be a curse in a world where intelligence measured
your worth. Being smarter than her parents had been the worst, when
they couldn't follow where she went, when she outgrew them before she'd
even grown up.
Stefan started the next flight, a little slower now.
Helice didn't move from the landing. "Stefan."
He turned, waiting. This was her last chance to get him on her side.
"I'm your best thinker. Your best strategist. I'm young, in great
shape. I don't have a family to hold me back. I'm new, and willing to
put myself on the line to prove my worth." She wouldn't beg. But
she could argue.
He let the words settle. "And if true?"
She didn't like the hostile tone, but she pressed on. "I want
to go. With Titus. As his handler." She walked up to join him,
standing finally on the same step, but he still towered over her. If
he sided with her, she would be the first -- along with Titus -- to
know what the new universe held. How could knowing mean so much?
And yet it did.
"It'll be dangerous, Helice. Titus might not come back."
"I've said I'm willing to risk a lot."
"Maybe I need you here."
She forestalled a harangue by a declaration: "I won't be content
to stay behind."
He watched her with narrowed eyes, appraising her. "I'll consider
it." He turned and, breath returned, ran up the steps, leaving
her to follow. Leaving her with hope, though not much.
She and Stefan arrived at the boardroom, and all faces, real and virtual,
turned to them.
Around a smart table sat the other partners: Dane Wellinger, Suzene
Gninenko, Peter DeFanti, Sherman Pitts, Lizza Molina, and special projects
manager Booth Waller. Twelve others shunted in virtually, and their
chairs silvered with their images. Looking at Booth Waller, Helice stopped
and touched Stefan's arm. "I thought it was just the partners."
"Booth is on track for partnership. You knew that."
She hadn't known. Booth was an easy man to underestimate, a mistake
she wouldn't make again.
The board members welcomed Helice with nods. She thought that one
or two might even be sincere. She brought prestige to Minerva at a time
when they needed it. And she'd brought them the Appian II. That was
the contribution that really earned her the expedition. It was, after
all, her region. She'd salvaged it from the Appian, ensuring
its discovery wasn't lost to an obsessed mSap.
Stefan said, "We've made a little progress while you were in
transit." He nodded, a motion that made his face look even more
like a hatchet than it normally did. He voiced the table display, and
in front of each board member appeared a V-sim projection of a small
"It doesn't look like much at first," Stefan said. "Booth,
take us through this thing."
Booth rubbed his hands on his thighs and started to stand. Then, thinking
better of it, remained seated. "It's not always in the same place,
so we had trouble getting a lock on it. We finally got this result at
the Ceres Platform," he said, referring to another K-tunnel outpost.
"The physics team says we're bumping up against the membrane of
another universe. Think of it like a bubble within a bubble, where reality
is on the surface, or the brane. Sometimes the branes touch."
Helice rolled her eyes. To be lectured on brane theory by this guy
Booth noted her impatience and went on: "Anyway, at one of these
brane interfaces we went in about nine hundred nanometers. We've consistently
gotten in at least that far, proceeding a nanometer at a time, and recording
the sights. We're confident we can transfer in a mass, but we're not
to that point yet. We're using ultra-high-energy quantum implosions,
followed by an inflation to macroscopic size." He shrugged. "If
you want the gruesome details, we'll bring in the physics guys. But
for now, think of it as a simulation of the big bang. But instead of
creating a universe, we're punching through to one that already exists.
Helice tried to keep her voice even. "We know this, Booth."
"Okay, then," he said, "what you're looking at is the
picture so far."
"The picture of what?"
"The other place." Booth got the reaction he was hoping
for. "I thought you'd be surprised." As the board members
leaned in to squint at the display, he added, "We've been busy,
as I said."
Booth enlarged the sim until the center of the circle looked grayish,
like a fried egg seen in negative. Vertical slashes appeared in the
gray center. To Helice it looked like chromosomes in a nucleus. He enlarged
the display again. Some of the vertical slashes were askew, or bent
over. Booth pointed a wand at the display, changing angles of view,
from the vector of the pointer. The scene began to look familiar, but
not quite ...
"We're not sure if the color spectrum is distorted, or how the
transmission degrades through our interface."
Helice peered at the V-sim. "Are you saying that this is a visual?
Not just a graphic representation?"
Booth coughed. "Yes. It's the adjoining region. What we've seen
Helice stared, and stared hard. They'd been talking about a mirror
universe, a place, and until now -- even as intriguing as those words
were -- it had just been talk. But here was a visual. It staggered her.
The board members, silver and real, remained silent for a long while.
Then, from down the table Suzene Gninenko asked, "So what exactly
are we looking at?"
Stefan made a sweeping gesture at Booth. "And the answer is?"
Booth's voice squeaked as he said, "Well, actually, our best
guess is ... that it's grass."
It could not have been a more remarkable utterance if Booth had claimed
to see angels dancing on the head of a pin.
The board members exchanged glances. Suzene Gninenko peered at the
V-sim like she'd never seen a blade of grass before.
"Grass," Helice said. Now that the suggestion was planted,
the picture did look like blades of grass.
Face beaming, Stefan looked at Helice. "Apparently the universe
next door is not dark, barren, or chaotic. It has an atmosphere. It
"The blades aren't green," Helice murmured, still strangely
moved by the presence of those brave shoots of grass.
"We don't know what light is falling on it, or what the photosynthesis
analog might be. Chlorophyll isn't the only option."
"What are the chances that grass would look so similar -- over
there?" She controlled her elation with difficulty. She had believed
in it before anyone else. It shouldn't come as such a surprise. But
the implications of grass, of life, were almost beyond comprehension
-- as few things were to Helice Maki.
Stefan smiled, enjoying her reaction. "Maybe God plays in more
than one realm."
Along with every other member of the board, Helice stared at the bent-over
blades of grass. She murmured, "Yes, but which god?"
She intended to find out.
THEY CALLED SUCH THINGS OUT-OF-BODY EXPERIENCES. From Quinn's
research, he knew them to be illusions. An OBE was the impression of
being detached from one's body and seeing it from above, now proved
-- to the scientifically minded, at least -- to be the result of body-related
processing in the medial temporal lobe of the brain.
His body was giving him such an illusion now.
He lay on his couch, having fallen asleep there well after midnight,
and now awoke to the OBE. A man stood below him, standing on the
edge of a platform, looking down. By scrunching forward a bit, Quinn
could look over the man's shoulder. His stomach convulsed at the sight
of the thirty-thousand-foot plunge to the planet below. Beyond the man's
shoulders and fluttering hair, Quinn could see a vast ocean, a gaping
maw into which the man might step at any moment. The man was thinking
of jumping; the ocean beckoned with silvery indifference.
It was always the same OBE. Quinn knew the next thing he would do was
look up. He fought this inclination.
The man below him was himself. Neither of them spoke, by mutual
consent or by the rules and vows of this illusory place.
Then he did look up. There, in all its wrongful horror, stretched
a river of fire as broad as the world. It must not be there. It must
not be silent and stable. But it was. It had eaten the Sun. It was
Quinn turned away, facing down -- almost as bad. He descended, becoming
one with the man standing on the platform. No longer the superior, knowing,
separate mind, he now had truly become Titus Quinn, indivisible. And
he so wished not to be.
The scene faded, as it always did, leaving him feeling light-headed
and disturbed. Was this the phenomenon known as OBE, or had he actually
been dreaming? Of far more interest: was this a memory? Two years ago
he'd known the answer. He'd been someplace, a place that had kept him
a long time. He had snippets of memory that amounted to little more
than dreamscape images. He didn't know what happened to his wife and
daughter. For a few months after he had regained consciousness on Lyra,
a settled planet on the rim of known space, he had strongly believed
that he'd been in an alternate world. Gradually he'd come to doubt his
experience, his shattered memories, though there was no explanation
for how he had come to be on Lyra. Ignoring his claims, Minerva treated
him like a disoriented survivor of a terrible event, the ship's explosion
and the death of its passengers and crew.
Thus it was of the utmost importance whether the vision of the man
on the platform between bright ocean and flaming sky was a memory or
not. Because if it was a memory, then that was the other place.
He heard noises outside. In an instant he realized it was what had
kicked him out of his dream. There were sounds outside, in the yard.
Now fully awake, he sat up, throwing off the coverlet. From the next
room, through the kitchen window, he spied one of his defensive lights
strobing. Another light caught his eye through the window near the dining
room hutch. His feet found his shoes in the dark, a knack carried over
from the old days when he had often been summoned to the flight deck
in the middle of a sleep shift. He was instantly awake, also a carryover,
all senses on alert. As he passed the laser gun propped up against the
bookcase, he grabbed it and made for the back door, already fully dressed,
having fallen asleep that way.
Outside, the fog dumped a load of moisture onto his warm body, quickly
leveling the heat gradient between him and the Pacific Northwest air.
He crouched near the door and listened. It was Christmas Eve. A soggy,
The cedar trees dripped rain from limb to limb, a patter so light
it might have been the background radiation of the universe. A drift
of lavender smoke slid through the woods, like the cremated remains
of unwanted visitors. Quinn waited for them to reveal their positions.
It was easier to trespass in a soggy wood than a dry one, since every
fallen stick was likely rotted and willing to bend rather than snap.
But that very fact would lead people to move too quickly, and sooner
or later, Quinn would hear them. A spike of noise off to the left, a
chuffing of breath, or the soft scrape of cedar fingers against a wool
cap ... Quinn rose and, avoiding the squeaky middle plank of the deck,
crept down the stairs into the woods.
His falling-down cottage by the sea held little worth stealing. Most
of what he had, he'd be happy to give any truly needy burglar. But he
would die to protect his trains. He'd spent two years of his life assembling
the most intricate standard-gauge model railroad in the history of the
bungalow hobbyist. The fact that it was probably worth almost $400,000
was not the point. It was the care with which he had hand-selected every
piece, maintained the precious antique system with the sweat of his
brow, and the fact that his house without it would be intolerably empty.
The idea that someone would break in and summarily dump his Lionel 381
Olympian into a duffel bag filled him with a simmering resentment. He'd
show them, by God. Clutching his shotgun, with the dual modes of paint
spray and hot laser stream, he crept forward, swiveling his head, listening.
He keyed the gun to view his integrated communications environment
protecting his five acres. The system had triangulated the intruder's
position through sound patterns. By the graph on his gun's display,
he was fifteen yards to the southeast of Quinn's position, moving toward
the road. He keyed in the scope, looking in the infrared. Yes, a figure
He advanced. He'd give him a dousing of orange paint to brand him
for a guaranteed six days, according to the fabber's warranty.
Carving through the mist came a river of golden smoke, knifing up
his nose and tracing a bitter gully down his throat. He couldn't help
it; he coughed.
Now the woods grew unnaturally quiet. Even the perpetual dripping
of the trees ceased.
Then a block of shadow emerged from the night, moving fast, some thirty
feet away. Having given away his position already, Quinn shouted, "Stop
where you are. Or you're a dead man."
Then he was crashing after the shadow. As it fled toward the road,
Quinn hurdled over fallen logs, propelled by adrenaline. As the moon
took sudden command of a blank spot in the canopy, he could see a figure
trying to make it up the steep embankment by the road.
"Stop!" he yelled again, and then he brought the nozzle
of his gun up, determined to paint the fellow before he got to his car.
He pulled the trigger, and by sound, he knew he'd sent off a lethal
stream of laser instead of paint. The intruder was down, hit by the
mistaken blast of laser, lying wounded, possibly dead. Quinn's heart
coiled, and he broke into a sweat that made him simultaneously hot and
cold. He saw the end of his life before him: a virtual courtroom, a
Shaking, he came closer to the form, now lying immobile in the rotting
leaves. He reached down and flung the body over to face him.
He called for lights, and they bloomed from his hidden illumination
Before him lay a girl in city clothes, ripped and dirty. She was staring
in consternation at his gun. He'd missed.
"Jesus," was all he could say. She was young. Maybe fifteen.
Lord God, he had almost killed a child. He let the gun fall to forest
"I'm sorry," she said, and tears were just behind the words.
"Jesus," he repeated. He was frozen to the spot, unable
to move, but not because she looked afraid, but because she looked familiar.
Her eyes were dark, with flat slashes of eyebrows pointing to a long
straight nose and a wide mouth that looked like it could smile as broad
as the world. She looked just like Sydney. Like Sydney would have --
if she were still alive. His throat tightened so hard it might strangle
He looked down at the shotgun, lying in the rotting leaves. It made
him weak to think of it.
The girl stood up, eyeing him warily. Now, as he saw her expression
and the blue eyes, she didn't look like Sydney, except insofar as all
young people evoked all young people, for those who loved specifically.
At a movement from the road, Quinn looked up. "Your boyfriend's
a coward," he said. "Why isn't he down here helping you?"
She shrugged. "Sorry we bothered you. We just wanted to see .
. ." She paused, and now tears did come. "See you for real."
"Okay," he said, surprising himself. "Here I am."
He watched her watch him, imagined what she would be seeing. A guy with
rumpled clothes, no space hero.
Maybe she did look like Sydney. That dark hair ... But the terrible
truth was, he was having trouble remembering what Sydney looked like,
except for her pictures.
"So you wanted to see me for real," Quinn said.
The girl lay inert on the ground, eyes big.
"Thing is? I'm not real. In a sense, I'm not really here at all."
She was watching him with more intensity now that she had concluded
he wasn't going to shoot her. "I haven't been here since I got
here. Since I got back from that place. And no, I don't know where it
was. I'm not holding back secrets. There are no secrets, no conspiracies.
I don't remember anything. Sorry to disappoint you. I know you want
to believe things." He held up a hand. "Never mind what it
is you want to believe; that's your business. But don't pin it on me.
I'm not really here. Anymore."
She hadn't moved from the hillside, nor did she now.
But she was listening.
"Do you understand?" he asked her, knowing she couldn't
have the slightest idea what he was talking about, but needing, suddenly
and with a strange intensity, for her to understand.
And then she gave him the gift. She said, "Yes. Yes, I do. I'm
terribly sorry, Mr. Quinn."
He nodded at her, unable to speak. But her words unlocked him. Yes,
I understand. The young girl gazed at him with the look of wisdom and
blankness that children sometimes had. She knew she was talking to a
ghost, a man who had slipped away from himself. Who had almost killed
The girl rose to her feet and, with the swift recovery of the young,
scrambled up the embankment.
When the car squealed off down the road, he shouted after her, "And
lose that miserable boyfriend of yours, will you? Where was he when
you needed him?"
He picked up the gun and trudged back to the house, dousing the tree
lights as he went by, feeling dazed by what he'd almost done.
Caitlin, he thought. What's happening to me?
In his bedroom, he felt under his bed for the duffel bag, hauling
it out, still packed from the last trip he'd made.
He didn't want Rob's noisy household right now.
But, he was very sure, he needed it.
Past 1:00 AM, Quinn's car sped along the rutted dirt road,
murky with coastal fog. Pebbles and rocks kicked up, denting the paint
job. But by the time he reached the first Mesh, the dents would be pearling
back smooth. He drove fast, eager to be out of the woods, to separate
himself from some darkness he could hardly identify. He swung into a
curve, accelerating out of it, driving hard before he changed his mind.
He conjured up the expression on Emily and Mateo's faces when he showed
up for Christmas after all. Maybe even Rob would smile, that brother
of his who thought Quinn had squandered his future. Even before the
star ship disaster.
Quinn and Rob had both tested at the same time, even though, at eight
years old, Quinn was taking the test early. They walked into the test
as two bright, active young boys. Quinn walked out as a fast-track boy.
A savvy, as the term went. His brother, as a middle-track child.
A middie. To his credit, Rob never begrudged his brother's genius-level
score. But to Quinn's enduring annoyance, Rob had expected Quinn to
do something with it. Quinn could have made his fortune by now,
but all he had wanted was to pilot the K-ships. It was the best job
in the universe. Johanna had understood that, and never tried to change
him. Went along on his trips.
Went along on his trips. He swerved from those thoughts. Reaching
the paved road with its smart surface, he floored the accelerator, an
action that the car's savant overruled, assuming control, establishing
an annoyingly safe speed.
In the darkness, the car headlights created a white tunnel, at the
end of which Quinn could now see the Mesh platform, where a platoon
of cars was just forming up. At this time of night it was a small fleet
that would mesh together for as long a ride as their respective passengers
shared common destinations. Joining front to back in the modern -- and,
in Quinn's mind, damn inferior -- version of trains, they'd zoom onto
the highways at super speeds, conserving highway space and protecting
against highway slaughter with mSap control. Quinn felt the bump of
his car as it meshed with the one in front.
As sapient-run transport, PMT -- Personal Meshed Transport -- was
efficient and private. People overwhelmingly preferred personal transport
to communal buses -- or rail cars for that matter. It was a damn shame.
What must it have been like to ride the Southern Pacific's Coast Starlight
into Los Angeles, with the porters, dining cars, and the full-length
Easing into the short queue at the station, Quinn noted that the platform
was deserted except for washes of fog and pools of lamplight.
Through one of these pools stepped a woman wearing a black tunic,
her hair piled into a holiday coiffure. She ducked into a for-hire PMT
in front of Quinn's, eyeing him as she did so, revealing a stark and
lovely face. Party over. Going home.
The platoon set off, quickly reaching top speed on the intercorridor
between Portland and points west. Now that his vehicle was meshed and
his attention to driving was no longer needed, the newsTide streamed
onto the dashboard, a recap of the latest protests from South America,
where an antitech junta had banished all foreign and domestic Company
holdings and proclaimed the people's right to traditional jobs and life
off the dole. A Catholic priest in Argentina, Mother Felice Hernandez,
was taking things even farther, threatening secession of indigenous
peoples from their national governments and proposing a ban on technology
imports and even the world tides of news and information.
Poor bastards. Only ten percent of South Americans finished even a
sixth-grade education. The vast majority were mired in the twentieth
century, maintaining a fatalistic resistance to the data-fed world.
They must think their old lives preferable to digital delights and underemployment
in the data warrens of South American tronic giants.
Thinking of his brother holding on by the skin of his teeth to just
such a life with Minerva, Quinn thought that the United States could
use a Mother Hernandez of its own.
He rested his head on the back of the cushioned seat. He could sleep
for an hour, except for the fact that he was unnaturally awake. The
windows curving in front and back of the cars allowed him to see straight
down the platoon, into each car.
Through his forward window, he could see that the passenger in front
of him had turned around and was looking at him. Her auburn hair had
fallen down to her shoulders, framing her face, giving her a siren beauty.
The woman parted her tunic, baring naked breasts. He reached forward
to opaque the window, but stopped, and instead touched her full breasts
through the layer of polyscreen. Her eyes closed and she pressed harder
into the window. A jolt of erotic energy spiked into him. It surprised
him how quickly she had summoned him. Placing his hands on his side
of the window, he insisted she look at him. Finally she did, driving
up the heat in the car. In her left eye he saw the glint of bioware;
she might be recording this for later enjoyment. She was one of those
modern women, unafraid of bodily adaptation, insisting on direct access
to the tideflow, despite the infamous failures of machine-body interface.
Even so, he wanted her. Even if it was through a window. This was
closer than he'd been to a woman in two years, and he was man of appetite,
or used to be. Her eyes softened, and he thought that perhaps she too
was lonely, locked in her compartment as he was in his.
There was an emergency release on the window. She saw him glance at
it, and nodded. They had plenty of time. It wouldn't be rushed. He hesitated.
Why not? Why not take some comfort?
Outside, clusters of tract houses sped by, where people lived and
made love ... but the moment passed. He pulled away from the window,
seeing the hurt in the woman's eyes. His lips formed the words I'm
sorry. He blacked out the window, leaning back in his seat. At least
he still felt something. Even if it was for a stranger. That might be
progress if, as Caitlin said, he'd been slipping away.
But there could be no one new, not even like this, for the body alone.
He owed Johanna that much, and he meant to stick by it.
Caitlin made up a bed for him on the couch. In her bathrobe,
with her hair crunched up by sleep, she looked sweet. And relieved to
"I need to talk to you," he said.
But then Rob came into the room, shuffling out to see what the commotion
was, and Quinn thought that it could wait until morning, because he
wanted to talk to Caitlin alone.
He lay down, weary at last.
Caitlin turned at the door, as though she would have said something.
But, "Good night," she whispered, and left him to toss on
the hard couch until sleep came.
In the morning, in the children's room, he and Mateo tinkered with
a broken savant action figure. The lower-level tronic figure wouldn't
activate the battlefield pieces of the invading hordes that Mateo needed
as backdrop for his battle queen, the lovely and formidable Jasmine
The kid had imagination to burn. He'd announced at age five that he'd
be a virtual environment designer. Quinn didn't know if he had the talent,
but Caitlin claimed he did. More to the point, would a Company think
so? But the kid was eleven years old. He didn't need to worry about
the Standard Test for a couple years.
Emily lolled on the bed on her stomach, watching the proceedings.
"I can't step on the battlefield, or my feet will get smuffed."
Quinn angled the tronic probe into the savant's circuits. "Smuffed?"
Mateo shrugged. "She's been warned."
Appearing in the doorway, Rob said, "Maybe Santa Claus has some
solutions wrapped up under the tree."
Quinn almost had the kink worked out. "Santa Claus will get smuffed
if he tries to fly over this tactical ground."
"Yezzz," Mateo said, "tactical ground."
Rob watched for a few minutes more, and then headed back to the kitchen
to help Caitlin with breakfast.
With the smells of real cooking and the quiet play of the children,
Quinn felt a pang of envy for this domestic peace. And a decided unease
that it might be shattered. At forty, Rob was in no position to start
over. Or Caitlin, either. The dole would ensure they'd be warm and entertained,
but it was a comfortable hell that Quinn would despise, and so would
From the lanai of his brother's apartment twenty stories
high, Quinn could barely hear the street noises. At this distance, the
road grid was lit up, looking Christmasy in the white and red lights.
From the street, sirens pierced the heights as security converged on
some scene of violence. The ground level was no place to loiter, and
the higher the apartment, the more expensive it was. Rob and Caitlin
had worked their way up as their fortunes improved. But it was still
a miserably small four-room hive of a place, one that made Quinn antsy
to be gone, even as his mind churned.
They want you to go back, Titus, Lamar had said. They've
found it. The other place. And what if they had found it?
Sipping his dessert coffee, he looked across Portland's sprawl, with
its ocean of prefabber residential boxes. These boxes might be uniform,
but their walls carried the tideflow, bearing virtual schools, markets,
information, social contact, entertainment. By the Blix-Poole Act, each
citizen was guaranteed a basic standard of living that included housing,
food, and EDE, Electronic Domain Entitlements. The Companies paid the
taxes that kept the world fed and housed. Educated, if need be. With
such deep wealth, they could afford it. They couldn't afford not to,
not after the Troubles had brought civilization to the brink of darkness,
when the starving told the well-fed that those gradients must pass.
So in a way, the dreds -- those with IQs of one hundred or less -- had
changed the world.
Caitlin and Rob lived considerably better than what Blix-Poole managed
to dole out. Rob tended savants for Minerva. For now. Quinn looked south,
toward the cramped apartment blocks where occupants upgraded the EDE
basic services with every piece of gear they could afford. These diversions,
selected by each occupant and reinforced by data agents, created a feedback
loop that created odd, individual realities. Psychoneurologists claimed
that people were unaware of choices -- that their subconscious generated
the "choices" using its hidden logic. By this theory, people
were biological machines, driven by subconscious processes always a
half second ahead of what we consciously "chose" to think.
So you could walk into any child's bedroom, any couple's parlor and,
by seeing their virtual environment, look into the jungle of their minds.
Quinn's cottage, though, didn't have live walls, his reality being on
Caitlin opened the sliding door and joined him on the lanai, handing
him a glass with an inch of amber in the bottom. "The good stuff,"
she said, raising her own glass.
They toasted each other. Behind her in the living room, Rob was settling
in to the evening newsTide.
She gestured toward the city. "Not as nice a view as yours, but
not bad, for a guy with a master's degree and a wife who likes to stay
home." After a moment she said, "Want to talk about it?"
"About whatever it is that brought you to see us last night."
"Maybe I came to spread holiday cheer."
"To annoy my brother by tinkering with toys?"
"Bingo," Caitlin said, tossing off her drink. She'd brought
the bottle, though.
They settled into two stiff chairs that barely fit on the lanai. "Now,
talk. I want to hear what's going on, and I don't want any bullshit
this time, Titus Quinn. I don't know who you think you're fooling, but
it ain't me."
"Half my pleasure in life comes from fooling you, Sister-in-law."
"Half of nothing is still nothing, Titus."
Quinn held his glass out. Received a splash. "I haven't thrown
myself into the surf yet, for God's sakes." He looked over at her,
but she wasn't letting go. Nor would she, now that he'd come to her.
"It's Minerva," he said. "They're back meddling with
me. They said they'll shit-can Rob if I don't do what they say."
She leaned forward, worried. "What more can they possibly want
from you? You've already given them everything."
"Not quite everything." He told her about what Minerva claimed
to have found, and what they wanted him to do. He didn't know what to
make of it. But a needle of hope was thrusting up from his innards,
and it was drawing blood as it came. What if they were right?
Caitlin took an angry swig from her glass. "Sons of bitches.
This came from Lamar?" He nodded. "You don't believe them,
He didn't answer. Maybe he did believe it; maybe he needed to believe.
But Caitlin would have a hard time accepting the idea. He'd never asked
her whether she believed his claims of where he'd been. He assumed she
didn't, and he forgave her for that. But he didn't want to hear it outright.
Caitlin stood and went to the railing, gripping it. "Damn, but
this makes me mad. Look at you. I see that look in your eyes, Titus,
and it makes me real mad. They've done the worst thing to you that they
possibly could have done. They've made you hope again."
Caitlin wrapped her sweater more closely around her in the chill December
air. Just when she thought there might be a future for Titus, the past
threatened to swallow him up once more. She'd be damned if she'd let
She went to him, sitting down knee to knee with him and taking his
hands in hers. What to say to a man who heard only what he wanted to,
whose stubbornness was as strong a legend as his sojourn in another
Taking a deep breath, she said, "I wish I could change things
for you. But they're gone, Titus. It hurts so bad, but they're gone
for good. I'd jump off this porch for you if I could make it different.
But nothing, nothing will bring them back."
She searched his face for a response, but she was talking to a man
who'd piloted star ships. So of course he wasn't listening to cautions.
Why should he? Was this safe little apartment with a safe little wife
the sum of his dreams? No, not even close. It was what she loved about
the man, and what sometimes stirred her to imagine a bigger life, even
while fearing it.
She noted his glance as he looked back at Rob in the living room.
Pouring another splash, she said, "We'll get by, Rob and me. I've
still got a degree in engineering that I can do something with. We'll
get by; don't you worry about us." But Titus's eyes were stoked
with some pale fire, and her words slid away from him. "God damn
you, Titus, if you go and get yourself killed."
"Thanks," he said, eyes mock large.
"Don't get goofy with me, Titus. I mean this."
From somewhere, perhaps the apartment below, came the tinny refrain
of a Christmas carol.
Quinn knew she meant it. But the harder she pushed, the more he went
opposite, and the more he said to himself, What if they had found
the other place? And why was hope the worst thing that could happen
to him? Even if it was a mirage, wasn't it better than -- than what
She shook her head. "I read you like a book. You aren't listening
He put a hand on her arm. "I am listening to you, Sister-in-law.
But I might not mind what you say."
She wavered, finally smiling. "No, you never minded. Lamar told
me all the stories. You never listened." She looked more wistful
than he'd ever seen her. He didn't like disappointing her, his staunchest
ally in his war against, quite possibly, the whole world.
Caitlin vowed not to share the Minerva news with Rob, at least until
after Quinn went home. He didn't want to argue with his brother, though
he'd have to, eventually. When he and Caitlin entered the parlor, they
found Rob asleep in front of the silvered wall.
Then, tiptoeing into the kids' room, Quinn checked on his favorite
niece and nephew.
From a dark corner of the room came the voice of the toy savant, Jasmine
Star. Her program activated by motion sensors, her mechanized voice
exclaimed: "Come to do battle, pagan scum?"
Emily was sleeping with her hands thrown over her head like she was
jumping into a lake. Mateo was dreaming hard, twitching.
Maybe it was true that Caitlin and Rob could take care of themselves,
as his sister-in-law had said. They didn't need a benevolent brother
holding the world off with bloody fists. But what if that brother had
brought players onto the field that would never have noticed Rob Quinn,
one savant tender among thousands? What if Rob was about to suffer just
because of having the wrong brother?
Emily's face had a faint sheen of perspiration, as though dreaming
were hard work. The room swelled around him, full of big things like
justice and innocence and rage. He was going. Of course he was. The
decision felt like fog evaporating off the ocean. He wasn't going to
watch this family suffer. He'd walked into the room having decided,
but not realizing it. Now, it was clear.
As the breath he was holding left him, he felt weak with relief. He'd
wanted to go from the moment Lamar asked him -- he'd just hated going
at Minerva's request. But the truth was, he'd go any way he had to.
Mateo stirred, knotting his blankets around him like armor.
Okay, then. I'm going.
On his way out of the bedroom, he cast a glance at Jasmine Star, sitting
in her cardboard box.
"Yes," Quinn answered her at last. "Heading into the
In the darkness, he thought he heard a far-off din, as though he were
hearing, across endless plains, a thousand voices raised in a desperate
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