Storm wall, hold up the bright,
Storm wall, dark as Rose night,
Storm wall, where none can pass,
Storm wall, always to last.
—a child’s verse
Storm wall, dark as Rose night,
Storm wall, where none can pass,
Storm wall, always to last.
—a child’s verse
Above the fortress the sky dimmed to lavender, a time that passed for night in this world. Here every creature knew by their internal clock what time of night or day it was, all but Johanna Quinn, a woman of Earth. Between this universe and the next only a thin wall intervened, a permanent storm that forbade contact between Earth and the Entire. Or so most believed.
Johanna hurried down deserted corridors following the heavy drumbeat of the engine just ahead, a bass thrumming that pounded in her ears and the hollow of her chest. Coming to a divide in the hall she took the left branch, remembering her partial and wholly inadequate map. This hall too was deserted, and she rushed on. She prayed not to be discovered, although she had her alibi, thin as it might be.
Johanna wondered how he would kill her when the time came. There were good ways and bad, and she allowed herself—amid all her sacrifices—to have a strong preference in the matter. Her captors could do what they wished, of course. They were Tarig.
Tonight only one Tarig inhabited the Repel of Ahnenhoon, and Johanna profoundly hoped their paths would not cross. Her presence in this hall was not strictly forbidden, though. In her ten years of captivity she had earned a degree of freedom. Like a butterfly with a pin through its body, she could move up, down, and in a circle. Enough freedom to have learned by now how large, how vastly large, was her prison with its thousand miles of corridors and mazes. Even so, few sentients lived here—a measure of Tarig confidence regarding assault and their preference for solitary lives. However, they had not reckoned what havoc a lone woman could wreak.
Something yanked her from behind. She stifled a gasp, staggering. But it was only her long hair, caught for a moment in a knot of cables snaking along the wall. She tucked her hair into her tunic collar and hurried on, following the thunder of the engine, louder now as she approached its seat.
Up ahead was the opening she sought: the deck that circled the containment chamber. She passed through the arch and onto the catwalk where in time of siege defenders of the Repel might take aim against intruders. That Johanna was such an intruder her lord would be surprised to discover.
She gazed out on a broad valley of giant and baffling technology. Lights winked across acres of metal machines—many presumably computational devices—separated by paths as narrow as the Tarig who had made them. Alongside these machines tall struts held up silos of churning material, and these in turn sheltered docks of instrumentation, arcane in design and disorienting in their scale. An occasional gleam announced the work of molecular fabbers cleaning and repairing. Standing on the high deck Johanna could easily see the great engine nesting at the center of the cavern. It shuddered and boomed, knocking all other sounds out of the air. The engine of Ahnenhoon.
From this distance it looked no larger than her fist. It crouched in two lobes like a metal heart. Within sight but not within reach. At floor level the engine nested in the center of an unbreachable maze. This was why she had come here tonight: to look for patterns. Somewhere in this cavern lay a path—a continuous course from the perimeter of the walls to the engine. Someday she would walk that path, to the heart of it. She gripped the rail and peered, searching for any route she could spy from this vantage point. Her eyes grew weary with the paths and their twists. She prayed for keen sight, being one who believed in prayer. But each lane that she traced through the valley of machines came to an end or fed back to the beginning. The maze held.
Nearby, perhaps three miles distant, the wall of the universe formed a barrier between this cosmos and Earth’s. The wall, crafted by vast and faultless technologies, resisted penetration. Yet this lobed engine could reach through, bringing about the collapse of all that she loved: the Earth and everything else beyond imagination to the ends of the folded, curving universe. It would not, Lord Inweer said, happen today or next year, but soon. In response to the siren call of the engine the Rose universe would fall in on itself in an instant. Thus collapsed it would burn so very brightly. A fine source of fuel and virtually an eternal one.
For all her intent gaze the maze kept its secret. No paths pierced the heart of the chamber; at least not one she could see. This excursion was a failure. God, of course, didn’t owe her a revelation.
She felt more than heard a presence behind her. Turning, she saw her servant. The vile creature had followed her.
“SuMing,” Johanna said, keeping her voice even.
SuMing bowed. As she did so her braid fell forward, a great rope of hair that hung to her waist.
“Did you bring my shawl? One is cold.”
“Your shawl is in your apartments of course.”
“Then you have a long walk back, SuMing.”
With a hint of a smile, SuMing bowed to her mistress. She had no choice but to fetch the shawl. As she turned away she stopped suddenly, then bowed again, deeply this time, as another figure appeared from a side corridor.
It was the Tarig lord. SuMing must have alerted him. Johanna bowed to Lord Inweer. “Bright Lord.”
In the early days his form had disquieted her, but no longer. Her lord’s face was fine, even beautiful. One could become accustomed to anything, living with it long enough, Johanna had learned. The Tarig even seemed normal with their muscular, attenuated bodies and seven-foot height.
Standing before Johanna now, Lord Inweer’s skin gleamed with a copper tinge as though he were cast from metal. SuMing hurried past him, causing his slit skirt to billow. “Stay,” Lord Inweer said. The servant stopped and turned back, waiting on her lord’s pleasure.
However, Inweer took no further notice of SuMing, his eyes fixed on her mistress.
“Johanna,” he said, his voice smooth and deep. “We find you abroad. Not sleeping, hnn?”
She had planned what to say if caught. With all the poise she could muster she turned from him, looking down into the chamber. “It called me. I had to see it.”
In four strides he stood next to her, his gaze sweeping the great hall one hundred feet below.
To Johanna’s dismay she found herself shaking. She breathed deeply to control this, but Inweer had already noticed.
“Afraid of heights, Johanna? Or afraid of us?”
“Both,” she answered, though only one was true.
On her back she felt the pressure of his hand, heavy and warm, without claws. Perhaps he believed her. She had served him well, and received his indulgence in return. Until lately, since the news had come that Titus Quinn had been seen again in the great Tarig city far away. And that he had fled, taking all the Tarig brightships with him. Now Inweer had cause to worry where her loyalties lay. He suspected that she still loved her husband, and she let him believe that. It conveniently explained her agitation these days. But she hoped that Titus had forgotten her. He should concentrate on more urgent matters. Such as this engine. If he knew it existed. Pray God that he did know it existed: She had risked everything to ensure that he did.
Inweer guessed that her thoughts were of her husband. “Titus did not rescue you when he came to the bright city. Did you think it possible?”
“No. Still . . .” She put on a wry smile. “My husband was always unpredictable.”
“We recall.” Once, long ago, Inweer had known Titus in the Ascendancy where the Tarig had kept him. All the ruling lords had known him. One had died of the experience.
Inweer watched her with an unblinking, black gaze. “You must shut your ears against the engine.”
“Other things which we required of you were eventually possible. You recall?”
Now he toyed with her. She dared to leave his question unanswered. Instead she murmured, “Why did you ever tell me, my lord?”
In his chambers one ebb-time when he had held her as she wept, he had murmured the thing that he thought might release her from longing. He had told her the purpose of the engine.
“We should not have done it if it deprives you of rest. An error?”
She put her hands on the railing, feeling the engine’s drumming even there. “Perhaps.” You made a mistake, she thought, a most profound mistake.
“Yes, an error,” he conceded. “We wished for you to give up your hope of home. It had sickened you. We favor that you remain well.” He added unnecessarily, “You will never go home.”
“If not, I wish always to be with you, Bright Lord.”
“Yes,” he murmured.
If it appeared that he had forgotten SuMing he now made clear that he had not. “SuMing,” he said, “come to us.”
SuMing appeared by his side, bowing low. “Bright Lord?”
Without looking at her but still gazing outward, he said, “Climb onto the railing.”
Her mouth quivered, then released the words, “Yes, Lord.” Wearing practical tunic pants, she climbed up, sliding her legs over the railing, locking her hands in position. She teetered ever so slightly.
Lord Inweer said, “Johanna, are you cold? You shake.”
“Yes, very cold.”
“SuMing,” he said, “remove your jacket.”
To do so SuMing had to remove one hand from the rail to undo the clasps. After a long fumbling at knots she undid the five buttons, dipping one shoulder to let the jacket fall away, leaving her with a small shift for a top.
“Hand it to your mistress.”
She did so and Johanna took the garment, locking glances with the terrified girl. The silks of the girl’s tunic rustled in the air currents from below.
“Now jump,” Lord Inweer said.
Without hesitation, SuMing let go, pushed off, and plummeted. In an instant Inweer had grabbed her braid, stopping her fall and ripping a terrible shriek from her. Then she hung quietly, her braid clutched in Lord Inweer’s hand.
Inweer’s outstretched arm did not tire. He turned to Johanna. “Shall I open my hand?”
Below, SuMing hung perfectly still, keeping a terrible silence. Johanna wished she were strong enough to rid herself of this enemy. But not this way. “No, my lord,” she whispered, “I will teach her to better please us.”
He cocked his head. “If so.”
Then Inweer raised his arm, lifting SuMing’s limp body in an effortless maneuver that hauled her onto the railing. With his other hand he pulled her knees clear and deposited her on the floor, where the girl collapsed, twitching. A trickle of blood fell down her neck.
Ignoring SuMing, Inweer resumed his conversation with Johanna. “It all has a price,” he said, gazing at the engine. “Even the gracious lords must pay a price for all we do.”
Johanna watched SuMing shivering on the floor, her scalp pulled halfway from her head. She could not go to her yet.
Inweer went on. “You understand the price?”
“Insofar as I can.”
“You can understand.”
In saying this he required her to leave him blameless in the matter of the engine. The Tarig universe was failing, its power source rapidly depleting. Only one decent substitute existed: Johanna’s universe. So the burning of the Rose was the price for the billion sentient lives gathered here in their far-flung sways and in their common hopes for life and love. The same things that people on Earth desired, which only one place could have.
SuMing inched away from the precipice and pulled herself into a ball, hugging her knees.
“SuMing,” Johanna said, “can you walk?”
“Yes, mistress,” she whispered.
“Then go to bed.” Even traumatized and bleeding, SuMing should get out of Inweer’s sight quickly.
SuMing looked up. Her expression might as easily have been hatred as gratitude. She crawled backward for a small distance, eyes on Lord Inweer. Then she managed to stand up and stagger away.
Johanna felt a cold river move through her, the currents of things to come. The person sitting on the rail might easily have been herself. It helped to watch how others faced a terrible death. SuMing had been brave.
Inweer held out an arm for her. “Now you will rest?”
She laid her hand on that hard skin, that tapering arm.
It would all be so simple if she despised this Tarig lord. But that was far from the case.
She looked into his dark eyes. “Yes,” she said, answering whatever he had asked her. She must always say yes. Loving him, it was easy to do. In most things she gladly obeyed, serving him in all ways but one.
Titus Quinn watched with only a few misgivings as his niece and nephew played with the world’s most comprehensive standard-gauge model train collection outside of a museum. It was worth upward of a half-million dollars, and used to be off-limits to touching, except by himself. Today he allowed six-year-old Emily to hold the train set controls, and eleven-year-old Mateo to polish a locomotive. They were his only family in this universe, and he meant to cherish them until he returned to the other one.
“All aboard,” Emily declared, presiding over the Ives New York Central model train, just pulling out of the station by the bookcase. She slammed the start button with her fist, causing Quinn to wince. The S-class locomotive strained to life, hauling four illuminated passenger cars plus flatcars, boxcars, tenders, and a caboose.
Next to him at the dining room table, Mateo polished up the Coral Aisle, using the special cloth that Quinn reserved for the locomotives. “When will Mom and Dad be back?”
“Tomorrow, Ace. You get to see them tomorrow.”
Mateo’s face fell. “Maybe they’ll stay longer.”
“Hold on,” he heard Emily say.
The Ives New York Central barreled toward the sofa, zooming too fast into the turn. He saw the trajectory, and knew it would be grabbing air. He jumped up, gesturing uselessly. “Emily . . .”
Too late for interventions, the locomotive jumped the tracks coming out of the turn, flying a couple of feet before folding back on the tender unit and first three passenger cars. It fell to the floor with a sickening clatter.
Reaching Emily’s side, Quinn saw the tears welling, her face starting to come apart with shock. “Hey, don’t worry,” he told her. “They make these trains real strong.”
Emily’s mouth crumpled, but she held on to her dignity.
At Quinn’s feet, the locomotive lay, still humming with power. He shut down the system with a signal of his data rings, the ones he’d forgotten he wore, that could have avoided this accident if he’d been paying attention.
Mateo ran over to survey the damage. “Boy, did you screw up,” he told his sister. “You broke it.”
Quinn snorted. “Hey, a simple crash like this? Hell no. We’ll just pick it up, okay?”
She nodded, sniffing back tears. “We’ll fix it?”
He paused, thinking of a small alien girl who had recently been sure he was a man who could fix things. The day, already rainy, seemed darker for a moment. There were things he’d done on his mission for Minerva Company that haunted him.
“Sure, we’ll fix it. But later.” He stood up, needing some fresh air, even if it was sodden with cold spring fog. “Get your coats, guys.”
“It’s raining,” Mateo said.
“You bet. That’s why the coats.” Quinn led the way, stopping Emily on the porch to redo the mismatched buttoning of her yellow jacket.
Outside, the rain had upgraded into a wet fog, with the sky brightening to a lighter shade of gray.
Not like the bright. The bright sky of the Entire. The place that, after only a few weeks’ absence, had begun to pull on him like a force of gravity. When he went back, he would be not a sojourner, but a strike force. Fire, oh fire, the navitar had said on that impossible river of the Entire. And, Johanna is at the center of it. In two utterances predicting that the Tarig would burn this universe, and that Johanna would warn him of it. Before she died.
“Uncle Titus?” Emily gazed at him. He was still holding on to her yellow jacket.
How could they burn a universe—collapse it in an instant? There was a way, the physics team said, and it elegantly bypassed speed-of-light issues and all the other objections. A quantum transition. If the universe, our universe, was not at the lowest-energy state possible, it could make an instantaneous quantum leap, turning matter—all matter, everywhere—into hot plasma. This was just one theory of a dozen or so that attempted to explain what Johanna said the Tarig knew how to do. And were starting to do, at Ahnenhoon.
“Uncle Titus?” Emily repeated, trying to pull away.
He released her. “Stay close so I can see you, okay?”
She ran off down the strand toward her waiting brother.
When he was around Emily and Mateo, the Tarig seemed remote, hardly credible. Even after years in their presence, he still knew little of them. Where did the Tarig come from, really, beyond the legends they fostered? Were there limits to their powers? How did they manipulate matter and energy as they did? They hoarded much, and even those sentients who knew them well were not privy to essential Tarig secrets.
He watched Emily in the hillocky sand, her small legs pounding, hands held out for balance. His daughter had loved the ocean. Did Sydney miss it where she was? She would be grown up now, and beyond sand pails and shell collections. Perhaps beyond him as well, although that did not bear long thought. He lengthened his stride to keep the kids in view. As they raced down the beach, Quinn ran too, into the stinging air, icy with moisture.
Out of a curl of fog a figure appeared, near the dunes. It startled him. The whole beach hereabouts was his. Others were not welcome.
The figure stood on the beach, dressed in a parka and what looked like suit pants and city shoes.
“Who the hell are you?” Quinn said. The stranger remained silent.
“Kids! Over here now. I want you over here.” Quinn walked up to the intruder. “So who the hell are you?”
The man sported a day’s growth of beard and piercing blue eyes—but watery, as though unused to salt air. The breeze rustled graying hair. He made no move to respond.
“Pissing me off,” Quinn growled at him. “This is my property.”
A reaction finally, a sour face. “Property. Like that other place? You know. That belongs to everybody. Not just you, Quinn.”
This stranger knew his name. Quinn was suddenly conscious that he hadn’t come armed on this excursion. Usually, outdoors, he carried a knife, an artifact of another place. But not today.
“That’s fine,” Quinn shot back. “But you’re on my property, fellow. You’ll leave now. Might try calling for an appointment.” Quinn looked down the beach. The kids were walking back toward him.
“Property,” the man said. He looked beyond Quinn, to the surf, the horizon. “Who do you think owns the water out there? The damn ocean.” He came closer, and his breath smelled of whiskey. “Everybody owns it. Same as the other place.”
An unpleasant smile. “Yes. The Entire, isn’t it?”
Quinn hoped he’d heard wrong.
“The Entire,” the man repeated. “What you call it, right? Doesn’t belong to you or your damn company. Belongs to damn everyone. Think you’re the only one wants to have that nice big life?” Spoken with righteous contempt.
“Get out of here. I’m calling my security. You better be gone.”
“Okay, sure. We’ll talk later, when you’re in a better frame of mind.” He emphasized frame of mind viciously. “Just want you to remember me, Quinn. And that I know. There’s lots of people who know. Keep it in mind.” He started to back off.
Mateo appeared out of the fog, coming to Quinn’s side. Quinn put his arm around Mateo’s shoulders.
“Where’s your sister?” Quinn murmured to him.
The figure in the parka moved off toward the dunes. He climbed the first dune and stood for a moment, a shadow against the glowering sky.
“A little warning,” the man shouted at Quinn, his voice tinny. He disappeared down the other side of the dune, leaving Quinn unsettled and nervous.
The fog blew in wisps, and the waves crashed again in normal cadence. “Where’s your sister?” Quinn asked.
“I don’t know.”
That jerked Quinn to attention. “She’s not with you?”
“I thought she was here with you.”
Then, Mateo in hand, Quinn ran down the beach. She was up ahead. Surely just up ahead. Quinn ran until Mateo cried out, and then Quinn stopped, knowing he had run farther than Emily could have gone in a couple of minutes.
Shouting her name, he raced for the dunes. He didn’t look at the surf. She hadn’t gone near the water; she was smarter than that. In the dunes, his instinct told him. He raced to the edge of the dunes, and crested the first one, looking wildly at the grasses and gullies. Seeing no one, he charged over the next ridge, and the next, calling. But she was gone. Gone with the man in the parka. Kidnapped.
The enormity of this thought tightened his innards. Emily, he said, barely breathing. Grabbing Mateo by the hand, he raced down the beach toward the cottage. There was only one road in and out of here. Sometime in the past few minutes he’d heard a car engine. Whoever it was had come by car.
Quinn stormed into the cottage to grab his keys, yelling for Mateo to go to the car. They met there and piled in. Quinn gunned the sports car out of the garage, yanking it around to climb up the driveway, and careened out onto the road. Choosing the direction toward the highway, he voiced a security alert and saw by the light on his dashCom that it had gone out. He drove fast, straining to see ahead in the fog.
“Did that guy take Emily?” Mateo asked, looking miserable.
“I don’t know.” He tried to wrap his mind around the situation. The word was out; people knew about things Minerva had hoped to keep to themselves—things too big to keep to themselves, too big to patent. And now people were using Emily to be sure they got a piece of paradise. They might be surprised to learn what paradise had in store for them. . . .
An incoming voice message from his security backup brought his attention back to the moment. He answered. Come by air. Come now.
He jammed around a curve, all the while drenched in a sense of the unreal. How could this be happening? How could he have let her out of his sight?
“Uncle Titus, slow down.” Hunkered down, Mateo held on to the edge of the bucket seat.
Yes, going too fast. Too fast in the fog, with bad traction, and reinforcements coming anyway. It would all be over soon. It would—
Something in the road. Steering to avoid collision, Quinn slammed on the brakes, jolting the two of them forward, into the dashboard. A few picoseconds before impact of head to steering wheel, the vehicle’s interior phased into a yielding matrix, softening the crash impact. The rear end skidded to the side, sending the car nose first into a ditch and knocking Quinn’s breath out of him.
Quiet settled around him. “Mateo?”
A shaky voice. “I’m okay.”
Quinn hauled himself from the car and ran down the road to the place where he’d seen a streak of bright yellow. He cried out, “Emily? Emily?”
A high-pitched voice threaded to him; perhaps Mateo—Mateo, whom he’d left in the car, maybe hurt. God, the world was a jumble. He whirled around. Standing at the side of the road a short distance away was Emily.
Her jacket was still buttoned all the way to the top, and she stood just as she had on the porch. Racing to her, he scooped her up, hugging her fiercely. Her arms went around his neck, bringing the smell of wet wool to his nostrils.
At last he released her. “Where’ve you been, honey?” His voice, shaky.
“Went for a ride.” She looked worried.
Then Mateo joined them, looking tussled but not bruised.
“Those people,” Emily said, looking down the road. “I didn’t want to go, but . . .” She took one look at her uncle’s face and started to fall apart.
“No, honey,” he said quickly, relief washing over him in progressive waves. “I’m not mad at you. It’s fine. You’re fine, sweetheart. I just love you, that’s all.”
Mateo looked at his sister and shook his head slowly. “Screwed up again, Em.”
Clutching Emily to his chest, Quinn looked down the dirt road, where the would-be kidnappers had fled. If they’d meant to keep her, they could have. This was just a little shot over the bow from the man in the parka.
He took Emily and Mateo to the side of road and sat down, an arm around each of them. He’d known, he’d always known, that the larger world mingled with the personal. Great events corkscrewed into small ones, leaving holes, sometimes eternal ones. His life had been like that lately.
Fortune hunters could break into his own backyard and demand that he change his frame of mind. They could demand answers to a few questions, questions new in the history of the world. Questions such as, Who does the universe next door belong to?
And who gets to decide?
Stefan Polich kept well back from the edge of the sixty-story drop, high railing or not. The item he held in his hand was too precious to risk a slip. On the outside, it was merely a gray velvet case the size of a dollar bill, but it held a costly payload.
Stefan turned the box over in his hand, hearing the soft clunk inside, a reassuringly heavy clunk, and an expensive one. The contents represented thousands of person-hours, crammed into the short period of time that Titus Quinn had been back.
A security guard came to the edge of the patio, nodding to signify that Helice Maki was here.
“A moment,” Stefan muttered. Let her wait. The woman plagued him—newest, youngest, and oddly, most dangerous member of the board. It rubbed the wound raw to remember that he was the one who’d put her name forward in the first place.
His glance came back to the gray velvet case. Calibrated to maim, not to kill. All the scientific resources and capability of the fifth-largest ultratech company in the world assured him that this thing was calibrated precisely. Local effects, devastating ones, with an internalized mortality sequence to ensure containment. He believed his people when they told him this. He prayed they were right. Prayer sat uneasily on him, but to lead you needed a little faith. That was something Stefan had recently decided, now that he was dealing with the most startling turn of events: contact with a stage-four civilization, one that had created, or at least enlivened, a separate but proximate universe. These beings might normally have little reason to regard the Earth, Minerva, and its CEO except for one inescapable fact: Their universe was porous. One could enter. Cause trouble. The two universes were linked, like conjoined twins. Unfortunately these twins shared only one heart.
Slipping the gray box into his jacket pocket, he nodded at the guard, dreading the confrontation with Helice. Small of stature, large of ambition. Had he erred terribly when he refused to let her go to the other place? Denied her ambition, she had undermined him at every turn.
Helice came in, surrounded by three of the tallest security staff Stefan had ever seen. He thought that she looked like a human among Tarig—beings Quinn described as unnervingly tall and steely. But as to predators, in this case it was the short one.
He waved her in. “Helice, good. Have a seat.”
She pulled up a chair by the door, leaving her bodyguards at their posts.
Stefan glanced at them. “Privacy, Helice.”
“These are dreds,” she said, using the pejorative term. “Harmless.” She meant they were stupid. A dred had an average IQ—by definition around one hundred. But stupid or not, they understood they’d just been insulted.
Seeing Stefan’s discomfort, she waved the guards away. The brutes went through to Stefan’s drawing room, lurking just beyond hearing range. Since the world had cracked open, Minerva board members went under guard, a caution against competitor firms sniffing around the edges of the secret of the Entire. They’d come to the brink in a damn hurry, since that innocent day when a postdoc student discovered right-turning neutrinos and the other place had announced itself with particles of impossible angular momentum.
“Nice view,” she said. “You can see forever.” The city sparkled in the night glow of lit skyscrapers, gilded by rain.
“Wish I could. Wish I could damn well see tomorrow.” When the board would vote on whether to send Quinn now, rather than later. Perhaps, if Helice had any clout, they’d also vote on whether to send the man at all. Someone had to go, and soon—now that the secret was out, proven by the man who had trespassed on Quinn’s property yesterday.
Stefan poured two glasses of wine, noting how young Helice looked. She was young. Twenty years old, the youngest quantum sapient engineering graduate in Stanford’s history. Helice had surrounded herself with prodigies like herself so long she had little tolerance for people of average—or even above-average—intelligence. Stefan, on the other hand, had attended enough diversity training to understand that simple folk had their place, and it wasn’t a bad one.
Helice broke into his thoughts. “When we first found it, we thought it would save us.” She referred, of course, to the realm next door. Its inhabitants called it the Entire, without regard for the fact that it was not all there was.
“Yes. We thought so.”
“Now it’s going to kill us.” Helice looked wistful, rather than afraid. Perhaps one so young could not imagine her own death, much less the death of everything.
Stefan still had trouble grasping the news that Titus Quinn had brought home. That to preserve their unnatural environment, the lords of the Entire would burn a natural one. It would be no act of malice or even ill will; they needed this universe to sustain themselves. Once Tarig engines were up to speed, the combustion would be instantaneous, forming a concentrated heart of fire that would last the Entire billions of years. It was a loathsome act, like dining on a child.
It was shock enough to discover an alien civilization. That it far surpassed human achievements staggered him. The Tarig had, Quinn said, found a barren universe and shaped it to their own desires. With powers like this, what chance did the Rose, as they called our cosmos, have?
Stefan put his hand on the gray box, taking comfort from it.
“Sending Quinn is a mistake,” Helice said.
“Maybe. But there’s no time to train someone new.” Ever since Emily Quinn’s brief abduction, they’d been racing to advance the schedule. Competing factions had now come into view. “We have to move quickly.”
Helice shrugged. “We’ll let the board decide if that’s so.”
“Perhaps the board will be persuaded by this.” He pulled out the velvet case, setting it on the table between them.
Her eyes flicked to it, then narrowed. “Oh. You are ready, aren’t you.” Her forehead wrinkled to indicate she was thinking—thinking faster and better than most.
Opening the box, Stefan exposed the bracelet. Noting her expression, he said, “Don’t worry; it’s empty. The nan won’t be ready for a few days. But this chain is what Quinn will carry with him when he goes. It’ll create a limited but effective local collapse. Everything in a mile-wide circle will fall into nanoscale chaos. Hard, built structures will fall to sludge.”
“Yes, if in the vicinity.”
Helice picked up the six-inch length of it. Heavy, it draped against her hand.
“We call it a cirque,” he said. “He’ll wear it on his ankle.” He took it from her. “It’s hollow, although to the naked eye it doesn’t have much thickness. When live, it’ll be molecularly dense, loaded with nan.” He indicated three indentations in the length of it. “Quinn will press these links in a certain sequence, and that will bring the nan together in a stream, to share information. From there it’ll build a surge momentum capable of mutating the environs where it’s released.”
“Surge momentum. You mean a nanoscale changeover.”
“We don’t like to use that term.” Ever since nan technology became practical, alarmists had warned that the molecular process could get out of hand. Go uncontrolled, in a chain reaction. “We’ll be under control,” he said. “There’s a phage system that shuts the whole sequence down after an hour.”
He indicated that she should hold out her hand. When she did, Stefan slipped it around her wrist and inserted the two ends together to make a circlet. “That’s the first step. Form a circlet. After pressing the codes into the indentations, the timing is fifty minutes. Time for Quinn to get some distance.”
She dipped her hand, and the metal strip fell off her wrist onto the table. “Oops. Good thing it’s not loaded.”
He stared at her. She had actually dropped a billion-dollar bracelet. Stefan picked it up and replaced the chain in its case. He strove for patience. “We’ll give this to him as soon as the board decides the schedule. It can’t be soon enough. Quinn might not be ideal, but he’s all we’ve got, I’m afraid.”
“We’re all afraid. The board’s afraid.”
“No, not all of them. Only your people on the board.” Of course it only took 51 percent to quash the whole deal. They could agree with Helice that Titus Quinn was too shaky, too odd, too driven. They could argue that they needed someone under better control. Someone like Helice. Sitting across from him she looked damn cocky, as though she’d counted the votes and liked her tally.
She gazed out over the city. “All you need to do is compromise a little.”
“Send you instead?” How could she still be harping on this? She was young and inexperienced. Without the language, without decent cultural cover. She knew nothing about the place except what Quinn had told them in debriefings. And by her own admission, he’d withheld plenty: the name of the Tarig lord who could be subverted, for instance. All to make himself indispensable.
“Yes, send me.” She pinned him with a gaze unfettered by wine and goodwill. “I’d stay on task. The man can ruin our only chance. Over there they don’t know that we know what they’re up to. They won’t be on guard yet. We have one chance to take Ahnenhoon out of action. If Quinn blows this—goes looking for the daughter, whatever—we won’t get a second chance. Kiss the Earth good-bye, and wave a last time at the stars. It’s all for burning.” She smiled prettily. “That’s my pitch for the board tomorrow. Like it?”
“No.” He rose, and went to the railing. His hands made sweat marks on the railing. Looking down, he got that little jolt from the profoundly dropping view. If he just knew which way the board would vote. Christ almighty, the Tarig wanted to burn the Rose like an enduring source of coal. Might take a few decades, but they’d already started the process. Stars sucked out of existence . . .
He turned to her in frustration. “What do you want, Helice?”
“To win.” She joined him at the railing.
“What would you settle for?”
“I’m not sure I have to settle.”
He stared out into a wall of rain borne in on a bank of fog from the river and deflected by the veranda’s climate control. “The thing that bothers me? I just don’t believe you. You don’t think Quinn will fail. You just want to go there yourself, and would sacrifice everything to do it. Sorry. It paints an ugly picture of you, I realize.”
“I don’t deny it. I want to go.”
“Clouds your judgment, you know.”
Her voice went low and throaty. “I was there when he came back—you remember? I listened to him for weeks. Every day, we debriefed him—six, seven hours at a stretch—and yes, I was intrigued. It would take a heart of stone not to . . . not to want to go. The creatures. Those sentient species. The storm walls. I want to see these things for myself. I want that.” She stared into the rain as though she saw them now. “There are other sentient races out there, Stefan. We may never find them otherwise. But they’re in this one place. So yes, I want to go.”
After a pause she said, “But that’s not the reason I’m volunteering. I don’t expect you to believe me.”
“Just tell me what it’ll take to not hear your pitch tomorrow.”
She said simply, “Send me with him. He goes. Okay. But I go with him.”
Stefan looked at her with new appreciation. The woman could compromise. She wanted it that much. She wanted the Entire in a strange, unreasoning way. Her fascination might arise from how the place had affected Quinn. A man obsessed. And Quinn had brought her down that path slowly—without, at first, her even noticing it.
She wouldn’t give up; Stefan knew that. He fingered the velvet case in his pocket. So much depended on the little circlet and its delivery to the right place: the core of the enemy.
“All right,” he said. “You go.”
A smile hit her lips and stayed.
“If you’re set on this, make sure your papers are in order.” Tellingly, his mind had jumped to the notion that she would die in the Entire.
She whispered, “Thank you, Stefan.”
It wasn’t a good compromise. Helice could slow Quinn down. She could blow his cover by doing the wrong thing, saying the wrong thing. On the other hand—a critical other hand—she might keep the man on track.
Now that he had overcome the last barrier to Quinn’s departure, he let his mind settle uneasily into the image of Titus Quinn taking possession of the cirque. The man who’d been, until recently, a hermit, and halfway mad. “You think he’ll do the job? You think he can focus on what we need?”
“Frank opinion? He’s not your man. He’s got too much personal history tied up in this. The wife, the daughter. Their home is, or was, the Entire.”
“But this”—he spread his hands in front of him—“is his world. We’ll be utterly dependent on him. I don’t like the man, but he’s no coward.”
She conceded, “Maybe not, but the question is, would he rather save us, or go after his daughter?”
Stefan muttered, “Damn the daughter, anyway. Why couldn’t she have died like her mother?”
Helice turned a sweet expression on him. “You could always give me the cirque.”
Relentless, she was. “Let’s just say you’ll be backup. If he fails, then you deliver it.” Every person on the board had misgivings about endangering the Entire with this nano weapon. The place was a rich region to develop, and in some respects the company’s future depended on it. Its byways might offer safe paths to the stars of this universe. But before Minerva could develop the Entire, they had to overcome it. Some might find that distasteful. But he trusted Helice Maki had none of those scruples. She would cleave to her mission like a pit bull.
She nodded, her eyes exultant. “You can count on me, Stefan.”
He imagined the furor when he broke this news to Quinn. “He won’t like you going along, you know.”
“He’ll be okay,” she said. “Because we’re not going to tell him.”
The young woman’s face held an unsettling combination of ecstasy and innocence. Titus Quinn watched her fluid movements through the window of the Deep Room, that light-filled tank where, as an mSap engineer, she programmed the machine sapient. Her lips moved as she voiced code, but with audio off, the impression was one of a woman dancing in light.
Quinn spoke to Caitlin standing next to him. “She looks too young to train an mSap.”
“You have to be young, remember? Who else could keep up?”
The empty warehouse was a new acquisition. It worried Quinn that Caitlin was here with only two bodyguards—presumably lurking on the grounds, though Quinn hadn’t actually seen them. Lamar Gelde was waiting outside, along with two cars full of security staff, all of them uneasy to be making an unauthorized stop for Quinn’s personal business.
“She’s a renormalization expert,” Caitlin went on. “This sapient’s not brand new. It used to work for the Coastal Desalinization. She’s retraining it, bringing it around to seeing things our way.”
Quinn didn’t like the anthropomorphic references. The mSaps were just machines, not really sapients or some kind of AI. Quantum processors did not a consciousness make.
In the Deep Room, the engineer turned around. Her arms fell to her sides, and some of the light of the mind-field subsided. She looked in their direction, placidly, with that flat, hostile look of the wholly self-absorbed.
“Can she see us?” Quinn asked.
“If she’s paying attention to us. She’s still thinking, though.”
Oh, thinking. When you said that about a savvy, one who tested in the upper limits of human intelligence, you said it respectfully. Normal snobbery metastasized into something truly ugly these days, establishing a chasm between middies like Caitlin and the technical smart-asses like this young engineer. It gave Quinn a creepy feeling, this intelligence divide, in a world where the rigors of advanced quantum physics and biomolecular engineering evaded the understanding of all but a few. He was one of those, but he’d bypassed the advanced degrees for a fast-track career as a starship pilot. So much for smart.
He and Caitlin left the observation chamber, entering the warehouse proper, soon to house Rob and Caitlin’s new software company. She stopped in front of a double-paneled wood door, stranding her code into the smart surface, releasing the locks.
They entered the office, cozy with rose-colored carpet, an expensive desk, and a view out to a parkland—a far cry from Rob’s former life tending savants like a groomer in a stable. Now Rob was an entrepreneur, thanks to his brother’s millions—Quinn’s travel fees for duties performed in the Entire. Quinn was glad that his brother had finally relented and taken the loan.
Caitlin settled herself into a leather sofa and he sat next to her, glad to have a moment alone with her, wishing he could tell her what he was facing. She’d always been his confidante. But for her safety, he could tell her nothing. And what would he say, anyway? The world will end in fire, Caitlin. You think the world is eternal, but it’s not. It’s fragile. A dry forest waiting to catch a spark. That’s what matter is. Latent fire. He pictured a hot wind sweeping over Portland, a storm of heat and smoke . . . and shook off the vision.
“Fine, thank God. She’s doing fine. It could have gone badly, and didn’t. You’re not still thinking you’re responsible?” She shook her head dismissively. “I’ll get us a drink.” Rummaging in boxes on the floor, Caitlin tucked her dark blonde hair behind her ears as it fell forward, casually feminine. She found two cups and a bottle of scotch.
“I don’t have much time, Caitlin.”
She smirked. “You’ve got time, Titus. They’ve got to wait for you. They control so much, but not everything.”
She was right. He wasn’t a slave to their agendas. He was the only person who’d been to that other place and had any idea of how to survive there. The thing that he wanted to tell Caitlin, and couldn’t, was that he might not make it back. He would be entering a Tarig fortress. He hadn’t thought much about escape. He couldn’t think past Ahnenhoon.
She poured him a drink and they toasted each other.
“I’m going back, Caitlin,” he said finally. “Leaving tomorrow.”
Watching Titus, Caitlin took a swallow to cushion her dismay. So soon. Just when she had adjusted to having him back, and with that altered face—more narrow, the eyes too dark, covered as they were with lenses that were supposed to make his eyes look blue. She thought she detected a ring of amber around his irises. But every time he spoke, she found the old Titus. No one was quite like him, with his mannerisms, his way of moving and of thinking. When she’d married Rob she foolishly thought he might be something like his brother. But Rob was only Rob, and the recent vacation hadn’t helped.
Titus said, “I’m worried about you and the kids. It feels like hell to be leaving like this.”
She gestured around her. “You regret that we’ve got our dream company, that we work for ourselves and don’t even need to work?”
“I regret the bastards are crawling all over you like flies on a picnic.”
The biggest fly was Stefan Polich, the man who’d personally threatened to destroy her son’s upcoming testing results if Caitlin didn’t spy on Titus, report on him. She’d expected retaliation when she’d told him to go to hell. Now that Titus was leaving, she braced herself for something along those lines.
“We’ll survive,” she said. “I don’t walk around being scared. Besides, what can you do? You’re going. You have to go.”
Titus hadn’t told her why. And she wasn’t going to ask. He looked like he had things on his mind. That surely would be the adjoining universe, the place where Sydney might still be alive. Caitlin had last seen Sydney and her mother at Minerva’s private airport—Johanna holding Sydney’s hand, Sydney hoisting her own duffel, just like her father’s. That was the last Caitlin ever saw of her niece and sister-in-law.
She wished she’d never been party to the information that Johanna was dead. It removed a barrier between her and Titus. He had to love somebody. A man like that would love somebody, love them ferociously. Here she sat, the good little wife and mother, the good sister-in-law, never breaking the rules, never letting herself go.
Her hand shook as she poured another splash of the scotch.
Misinterpreting, Titus said, “Let me get you more security. My people this time.”
“Titus, no. I’m not going to live like that. Shut up about it. Besides, you think because you’re leaving we’re less secure? After what happened on the beach? Christ. Get you gone, and we’ll be better off.” If he was gone, there’d be no danger of her letting go. Everyone was definitely better off with her not letting go.
“If they tinker with Mateo’s Standard Test, I’ll keelhaul their asses using the biggest ship I can hijack.”
She smiled at the bravado. “But we won’t ever know if they tinkered. He either tests savvy or he doesn’t.” She figured Mateo could well be one of the superintelligent. He had his uncle’s genetic heritage, his grandfather’s.
Titus was looking out the window but not seeing the view, she guessed. It seemed to her that he was already in the other place.
“There are some dark things over there,” he murmured. Perhaps he saw that world right now, instead of the patch of woodland outside the window. “They can hurt us.”
“Titus.” The unpleasant thought struck. “You’re in danger. This trip isn’t just for Sydney, is it?”
A silence stretched on. Then he said, “If I don’t come back I want you to have it all. You and Rob. Everything I have. You’ll need it.”
She put down her scotch. She didn’t want to talk about money. About life with Titus gone. “We need you, Titus,” she said, wanting to say instead, I need you. But she was the good sister-in-law. It was such pure shit.
She looked at him calmly, dropping her guard. “It isn’t working. Rob and me, it isn’t working.” Noting his frown, she said, “You want us to be happy with each other, I know. You want us to be a good family.” The bitterness in her voice surprised her. When Titus didn’t respond, she continued. “You want us to be what you used to be. Well we aren’t. We’re just Rob and Caitlin, and it isn’t good. It can’t ever be good.”
He shook his head. “I knew there were issues. Rob isn’t always—”
“Isn’t always what?” She let that hang in the air for a moment. “Isn’t you, Titus. He isn’t you.” The words were such a relief, she felt a mountain of tension leaving her body. No, Rob wasn’t a desiring creature, a striving creature, with quick, unholy passions and the drive for adventure. Just once in her life she’d like a man to make love to her as though he’d sell his soul to do it. She closed her eyes. God, it was all such a mess. When she opened her eyes, heavy tears stuck in the corners.
She wasn’t sure who moved first. They’d been sitting side by side, and now she was in his arms, with tears their excuse. To hell with the excuse. She wanted him to undress her right here on the couch.
“Please, Titus,” she whispered.
“Caitlin, Caitlin,” came his throaty reply.
She pulled her head away from his shoulder and kissed him. She couldn’t stop herself, and was glad she couldn’t. His hands raked through her hair, and he kissed her back. Titus was in charge, no question, and she would have done anything, wanted him to take her to the limit. His hands were on her, and she almost cried out at the pleasure of it.
Then he pulled back. He put his hands on the side of her face, looking at her with an intensity that froze her.
He stood up, turning away. “Jesus,” he whispered.
It was all clear to her in an instant. He was saying no. Of course he was. He couldn’t be a son-of-a-bitch who’d bed his brother’s wife.
“Caitlin,” he said. “I can’t. We can’t do this.”
“Speak for yourself,” she said, catching her breath.
He looked at her, emotions warring on his face. “I am.”
She calmed herself, pulling her hair behind her ears. “Is it because of Johanna?”
“Because of Rob.”
She nodded. She wanted him to spell it out, wanted it to be clear now that he was leaving and might not come back. “Was I ever someone you could have loved?”
He looked at her, his face tight with emotion. “Christ, Caitlin, how can I answer that? How can you ask me?”
She knew it wasn’t fair. Either answer would make her miserable. She stood up, smoothing her outfit. “Well, just so long as I was someone you could have fucked.”
He grabbed her arm. “Jesus, that’s ugly.”
She knew it was. She smiled, and gently took his arms away. “I’m sorry, Titus. I’m a little out of my mind right now. We both are.”
He stepped back, composing himself as well, but not willing to let it go just yet. “Are we? Out of our minds? I could still throw caution away. Could you?”
“No,” she said, creating the hardest smile she’d ever faked.
He stood looking at her.
“You go now, Titus.” The sooner he walked out of there the better. She felt like tinder near a fire. She wanted to burn. But she was able to hope, too, that he’d just go.
“You and Rob . . . ,” he began. “I’m sorry.”
“Not your fault.” Not his fault for being the charismatic older brother. “We’ll get by. We always do.”
He was still hesitating to leave. Finally he spoke the words that ended it all right there. “I’m not saying that you should stay with Rob. That’s none of my business, I know that. But if you don’t stay, I’m not in line, Caitlin. I can’t be and still live with myself.”
“I know,” she whispered. The awful thing was, she did know. She understood how it had to be. “Go bring that youngster home,” she told him. “Bring yourself home.” She still meant that with all her heart.
And then he was gone.
“She took it badly?” Lamar Gelde looked worried as Quinn climbed into the backseat of the company car, middle vehicle in a caravan of security.
They pulled away, accelerating after reaching the smart surface of the arterial.
Lamar nodded. In his seventy-six years, he had never married, had never studied women’s behavior. But he said with elaborate weariness, “Women hate to say good-bye.”
The city passed in a blur as the custom security vehicle eased into the automated flow of the freeway, where at need the chauffeur could override, pulling out of the linked formations of cars. Riding in the front passenger seat, a thin man with a ponytail kept nearby vehicles under surveillance, assessing armament with enhanced glasses made to look like sunglasses. The man on the beach hadn’t been armed, but the next interested party might be.
Quinn sank into the backseat, thinking about Caitlin. He kicked himself for not having known how she felt. For not knowing how vulnerable he was when a woman he found attractive offered herself to him. It had been three years since he’d been intimate with a woman, so he was a sitting duck for acts of kindness. A few acts of kindness spooled through his mind.
“Want to stop off at Rob’s?” Lamar asked.
“No.” Not even. He’d call Rob to say good-bye.
The cars sped onward toward the airport, the dashCom winking with traffic flow predictions. From there it was a short jaunt by hyperjet to the mid-Pacific space elevator. Time to go. High time.
Quinn murmured to Lamar, “You’re sure we’re ready for this?” Minerva had had only a few weeks to plan the mission. This time he would go armed into the Entire, something he hated, even if there was no choice.
Lamar nodded. “It wasn’t hard once they put their savvy minds to it. A bit of nan and the damage is done.” Lamar smiled, revealing good white teeth, the best money could buy. Quinn didn’t begrudge him his vanity. In his youth Lamar had been a handsome man. Lamar was now something better: a good man. The only man in the company who’d stood up for Quinn when he first came back from the Entire messed up, memory erased, family lost. Gone over the edge, said Stefan Polich. Lamar had been his only ally and got booted off the board as a result. These days he was Quinn’s handler because Quinn wouldn’t allow handling by anyone else.
Half of Quinn’s mind was still back with Caitlin. Pray God she didn’t hate him. Things he should have said crossed his mind, and then what he had said: I’m not in line. Ugly. Blunt. Maybe it needed to be.
“I’m sorry about where you’re headed,” Lamar was saying. “It’s damn dangerous. I owe your father more than to send his boy into this madness.”
“Is that what it is? Madness? They’re burning stars, Lamar. Beta Pictoris. The Trapezium Cluster. Hoping to do worse.”
Lamar sighed. “Sons of bitches. Like being eyeballed by a tiger for a snack.”
“My father would want me to go.” And then, mind back on Caitlin, moving to a safe topic regarding her: “But if I don’t come back, you take care of Caitlin Quinn. My assets go to her and her family, and you keep Stefan and Helice at bay, their hands off her, off her assets. Even if she and my brother aren’t together, Caitlin’s still family. Understood?”
Lamar raised an eyebrow. “Is that how it is?”
“Just in case, that’s all. They’ve already threatened her. Stefan will go after the boy. So will Helice. If they get paranoid and think I’ve betrayed them, they’ll squash her.”
“Stefan would, maybe. I’ll watch him.” He left unsaid, Helice.
A heavy silence descended. The longer it stretched, the more uneasy Quinn felt. Was there something here he should know? Did Lamar not get Helice’s character? Or had she bought him out? He hated to be suspicious of Lamar, of all people. But Lamar still let it sit. Quinn was leaving his family in the man’s care, and now suddenly he didn’t feel perfectly at ease.
“Helice is young,” Lamar said. “She’s making the mistakes of the young. She doesn’t like you; I recognize that. But you could win her over if you weren’t so goddamn stubborn.”
“I don’t want to win her over. She’s a vicious brat.”
“You never forgive, Titus.”
Quinn let it go that he’d called him Titus. He went by Quinn now, as Lamar damn well knew.
The car peeled off the freeway, went to the driver’s command, and under local control, sped toward downtown.
At Quinn’s inquiring look, Lamar said, “We’ve got one more stop. Hope you don’t mind. It’s the morgue.”
When they came to a stop, Quinn saw a figure standing, hands in coat pockets, hunkered against the wind now blowing sharp off the Willamette River.
Lamar let the window down as Stefan Polich approached, peering in.
He fixed Quinn with a gaze. “Think you’d recognize the man from the beach?”
He did. Even lying still, the sneer gone and the eyes closed. Yes, it was the man in the parka who’d known Quinn’s name, known the name of the Entire.
“That’s him,” Quinn confirmed. He pulled the sheet over the man’s face, covering the damage from a gunshot in the mouth.
“Killed himself before we could question him,” Stefan said. “He was armed, after all.”
“What about the others?”
“Police are looking. But we’re looking too. I don’t think they’re as eager as we are.”
Yes, eager. And not for Emily’s sake, but because the man had said that the Entire didn’t belong to Minerva. That might be true in the larger sense, but not in the Minerva sense.
“So who was he?”
“His name’s Leonard Garvey. A sapient engineer, down on his luck. A drinker. We don’t see a connection with the major companies. Pray God he was on his own.”
“That’d make a pretty good prayer. ‘Please, Lord, secure my bottom line.’” He brightened, getting into the baiting of Stefan Polich. “But then, that is your religion, isn’t it?”
Lights gleamed off metal trays, waiting to receive the dead. They were alone in the basement lab, except for Leonard Garvey, failed sapient engineer, failed kidnapper. Think you’re the only one wants to have that nice, big life? By that did he mean long life? If so—and Quinn fervently hoped it wasn’t so—then quite a lot was known out there about the Entire. Some knew the very thing that inhabitants of the Entire most feared would be known. That nice, big life.
“What’s this about, anyway?” Quinn asked. “You didn’t need to come to the morgue.”
“No one knew I was coming here. I needed some privacy.” Then, with disarming honesty: “I don’t trust everyone at Minerva.”
Quinn’s sarcasm killed the conversation for a minute as the two men sized each other up. They despised each other, and being on the same side hadn’t changed that. Quinn had once had a thriving career as a captain of an interstellar ship. It was a risky job and paid accordingly. But Quinn would have done it for nothing. When his ship broke up in the Kardashev tunnel, Stefan couldn’t get past the fact that Titus Quinn was apparently the only one who survived. Quinn couldn’t get past it either, but that didn’t mean he forgave Stefan for firing him or for putting him in a badly maintained ship in the first place.
“The truth is,” Stefan continued, “someone talked. Someone in my group. That’s why Garvey came after your niece; that’s why there’s movement afoot to figure out what the Entire is. Where it is. Everything we’ve worked for and which will only be solely ours for a little while longer. We’d hoped for a few months. Anyway, it’s why you’re going early.”
“You can’t keep the place secret for forever.”
“No. But they’d stop you, Quinn. They wouldn’t trust a renegade pilot running loose with military nan in the other place. Why would they? They don’t have the background or the trust. They might accuse us of making up a threat. We have to act before the feds or the companies make an issue of it. Before fighting over the Entire obscures what needs doing. You see where it could go?”
Quinn did. He thought the secret worth keeping to prevent public mayhem. There were no useful precautions, no shelter from the holocaust. The only refuge, the Entire itself. With humans decidedly unwelcome, an exodus in that direction was suicide.
This wasn’t a decision Quinn would leave up to a summit of corporations. So once again, and against his instincts, he found himself aligning with Stefan Polich.
Stefan looked around, scanning the scrubbed-down room, smelling of antiseptic and toxic fluids. But Quinn no longer had heightened capabilities of smell. Originally implanted so that he could avoid ingesting toxins in the new land, Quinn had found that some enhancements were impossible to live with. Millions of years of evolution hadn’t prepared humans to detect smells like a predator. He’d had the Jacobson’s organ removed from his mouth. Sometimes plain human was enough.
Looking up, Quinn noticed that Stefan had taken something from his coat pocket and now held a small box covered in gray velvet.
Quinn knew what it was. The weapon. The nano device.
Stefan opened the case, revealing a silver chain. “A cirque. The designers call it a cirque. It goes on your ankle.” Pushing the box back into his pocket, Stefan held the cirque with exaggerated care. “It’s live. Loaded, you understand?”
Quinn did. It was lethal now—its contents sequestered in three chambers, each one with only partial instructions of how to digest an industrial complex the size of New Hampshire. He gazed at the burnished metal chain. It was attractive, like an antique Rolex.
“The code is four, five, one,” Stefan said. “A total of ten. You press the first indent four times, the second one five times, the last one, once. Each indentation is a different width, beginning large and ending small. Once the code goes in, the cirque opens, comes off your ankle. Then you press the links again, in reverse sequence: one, five, four. Active, good to go.” He eyed Quinn. “When you make the placement, hide it. The nan needs time to share information. Give it an hour. Once fully enlivened, it will spread as fast as a forest fire under a stiff wind.”
Stefan dragged a chair away from the wall. “Put your foot up here. Either one. See how it fits.” He handed the cirque over.
The carbon nitride casing was reassuringly heavy. Quinn put his left foot on the chair seat and linked the two ends, fitting them with a click. Active nan, military grade, riding his body. Give me something I can’t lose, he’d told them. Something I don’t have to carry. And here it was.
“Test it,” Stefan said. “That it comes off.”
Quinn examined the chain, noting again the three indentations on the loop. He pressed down the sequence: four, five, and one. Nothing happened. For a moment he thought, They mean for me to go down with Ahnenhoon.
“Pull it open.”
Quinn did, and the chain detached, coming away in his hands.
Lowering his voice, Stefan said, “From now on we don’t talk about the cirque, and we don’t look at it. There’ll be no physical exams. No baths, either, by the way.”
“It’s okay in water, though?”
“Yes, but let’s not chance it.”
“Not very reassuring.”
“Okay, take a bath.”
Looking at the cirque, Quinn thought he could do without.
“You don’t have to do this, you know,” Stefan said. “We could send someone else. You could brief somebody, train them. I’m not saying you have to go.”
“How sure are you about this thing?”
Stefan looked him straight in the eyes. “We’re not one hundred percent. But it’s the best we’ve got.”
Quinn liked that bit of honesty. “Do I really have an hour to get away?”
Stefan smiled. “So we’re still trying to kill you?”
“Do I have an hour?”
“Don’t wait an hour.”
Stefan glanced at the cirque in Quinn’s hand. “You know the value of that thing? Ounce for ounce, the most expensive artifact in the world. We’re giving it to you to do what needs to be done. If you’re not up to it, tell me now.”
“Who else is there?”
“That’s no answer.”
“I thought it was.” He looked at Stefan Polich, reminding himself that he wasn’t doing this for Stefan or for Minerva. It was for the Rose. For the people he loved, for Mateo and Emily, and for everyone else, as well. He would have done it even if Johanna, in her message to him, hadn’t begged him to act. She had reached out to him in a recorded warning, one she’d sent to him when he had first been imprisoned in the Entire. He hadn’t found it then, and never knew what she took to her grave knowing: that the Tarig meant to destroy us. Last time back, he’d finally heard her warning. But even without her urging, he would have tried to stop the gracious lords, as they termed themselves. At close quarters with them for so long, he’d had time to grow familiar with their ways. No one else had a ghost of a chance of stopping them.
Stefan was waiting for Quinn to answer.
Quinn took the cirque in both hands and, leaning over the chair, clicked it into place around his ankle.
They left the morgue, entering the corridor where their respective security staffs waited. The chain traced a cold circle around his ankle. He’d have to practice taking it off, so he could do it in a hurry.
He didn’t for a moment believe he’d have an hour to get away.
In zero-g, Lamar Gelde felt like his stomach was floating free. The shuttle between ship and space platform had no rotation, so for these interminable minutes of approach to the dock, he was getting a good dose of weightlessness. He was strapped in and all loose objects were secure—the intercom kept reminding them not to take out anything that might escape and become a projectile—but he couldn’t do anything about his stomach.
“I’m too old for this nonsense,” he grumbled.
Next to him, Quinn smiled indulgently. Fine for him, thirty-four years old and accustomed to the topsy-turvy from his starship days. He resented Quinn at the moment, and it flooded him with relief to discover hard feelings against a man he’d wronged.
The forward screen showed their slow crawl approach to the Ceres platform, toward the dock mast. Rivets, handholds, grappling arms, and solar arrays bristled from the platform’s pockmarked hide. It had grown massively since Lamar had last been here, when he’d first watched Quinn enter the adjoining region. Since then the whole complex had become dedicated to dimensional interface, growing all the time. Crawling with workers and bots, its irregular design hid modules and compartments that most of crew never saw, and weren’t meant to.
A solid clunk announced they had docked. Several technicians debarked first, leaving Quinn at the last to help Lamar. Releasing the seat restraints they lost contact with the deck. Lamar went sideways in orientation to the former floor and flailed for a moment as he tried to right himself. At his side Quinn said, “Don’t struggle. I’ll steer us through.”
Lamar felt Quinn’s steady hand on his elbow. With a practiced assurance, Quinn used the handholds to guide Lamar toward the open hatch, through which a cold current of air now rushed. The dock mast had no rotation either; so still adrift, Lamar followed Quinn’s example in gripping the safety line and pulling himself to the lift. Arriving, they found the doors closed, the lift in use by the first contingent of passengers heading to the upper decks. Lamar and Quinn waited with their three guards, men in bulky jackets trying in vain to form a security perimeter here where all orientations were temporary and likely to float out of control.
Out of control. That was about the size of it. Damn Leonard Garvey anyway, trying to abduct the child, scaring the bejesus out of all of them. The man was a lunatic, a drunk, a security leak. It made Lamar sick to think how full of holes all precautions had become. The platform itself might be alive with spies, probably was, with all these newcomers. Helice said they were screening for federals too. Well, they could handle government types: shoddy, underpaid, bantam-weight goons. These were the types responsible for cobbling together the dole, the entitlements that somehow people thought they had coming. So 75 percent of company earnings went to prop up the unfit and envious. And while the feds might be easy to fend off, the industry competition was more worrisome: EoSap and TidalSphere among them. Lamar glanced at the three security men. Who could you trust anymore? The question brought his own duplicity to mind.
“Are you okay?”
Quinn thought his distress was the zero-g. Lamar clutched the handhold. “I don’t know, to tell you the truth.” He wanted to say, Helice is going with you. Just let her, Titus. Things have grown beyond you now, and it’s no ill will I bear you, far from it. I loved your family, your father, and you. But it’s all bigger than you know, Titus. And it’s bigger than Helice going along for the ride—much bigger.
Quinn gently nudged Lamar toward the now-open door of the lift. “We’ll get you some solid ground.”
Solid ground. Would there ever be such again? “I’m sorry,” Lamar said. Indeed he was sorry—for the Helice deal, and for so much else.
“We’ll be there in a moment. You’ll be fine.”
“No, but I am sorry.” It felt awful to say it and know that Quinn didn’t understand. Lamar wasn’t cut out for intrigue. God help him that it had ever come to this. He gripped Quinn’s forearm. “Just remember that I’m an old man; can you do that?”
Quinn looked amused. “Lamar. Don’t worry. Someday I’ll tell you about the time my chief navigator threw up in zero-g.”
“Please don’t,” Lamar said, now genuinely sick.
“Take hold,” the intercom voice said. “All lift passengers take hold. In five, four . . .” The voice counted down, and they pulled themselves down the handholds toward one of the walls designated in large letters as floor.
Gravity came on, jarring them against the hard deck. Lamar bent over, bile running up his esophagus. He waved help away as the four others held the door open.
One of the security had fetched a rolling chair. Good grief, a wheelchair. He sank into it, and off they went down the corridor. Someone put a lap blanket over his knees, and his humiliation was complete.
Helice Maki looked around the antiseptic cubicle. Just a short walk now to the transition module. She was ready for it. Despite how little she knew about her destination, she was ready. Quinn would lead the way, teaching her as they traveled—he’d have to teach her or risk exposure to his enemies. Language came first. She had rudimentary Lucent, even though Quinn had refused to give lessons. Such a power-grab. Who did he think paid for his little visit to the Entire? In any case, the first time he returned from the Entire he had raved for days in a semiconscious state. All recorded. It had taken her people two years to crack Lucent from the fragments, but you can’t keep a good mSap confused for long.
She did a few deep knee bends to keep her circulation going and to fend off a mild nervousness. For a few minutes more she had to rely on Lamar and the others. Had to trust Stefan to remain befuddled. Stefan Polich believed in her passion to deliver the cirque and the nan. Quinn and Helice to the rescue. It would be a rescue, just not the one Stefan had in mind. Poor Stefan. A man who had faith in technology and human enterprise. Well, that did have a certain ring, yes it did. But how totally unimaginative. More typical of dred or middie thinking than his intellectual class.
In moments she would be in the Entire. It thrilled her, and beyond that, it was fun. Deadly serious, too, of course. She didn’t relish killing anyone, but deaths would inevitably occur. For example, she was going to be rid of Quinn at the first opportunity. After he had made all the introductions.
Walking amid his security phalanx, Quinn followed Lamar in his wheelchair, feeling a little light-headed. Sudden gravity demanded adjustments. As did suddenly leaving the universe. They were heading directly to the transition module with no sleep period, no delays. All for the purpose of staying ahead of the competition. Even if the competition had no idea what the stakes really were.
He had no reason to hope that, this trip, he would see anyone whom he’d known in the Entire. Like Anzi, the woman who had guided him. Her uncle and master of the sway, Yulin. His fighting master Ci Dehai. The timid Cho, who had ferreted out Johanna’s message in the library. The scholar Bei or the navitar Ghoris. The alive brightship that had deposited him at his home at the end. He wanted to find some or all of them again, especially Anzi. But the Entire was not just a world, it was a universe; smaller than the Rose, but not so very much smaller. And he’d be in a hurry.
Pressing against his ankle was the cirque—a weight he still was not used to. Just his imagination, probably, that it threw him off his stride. Just his imagination that the nan in their separate links were scratching at the doors between. Once the tiny chambers opened and their contents shared information, the nan went into changeover mode. Changing things. Changing. A nice word for a nasty business. He didn’t like bringing military nan into the land where his daughter lived. There was just the slightest unease in his mind that the weapon could not be controlled.
His goal was clear if hopelessly general: After Ahnenhoon he would go to the sway that held Sydney. Despite weeks of feverish thought, he’d formed no sensible plan to do so. He only knew, had to believe, he would find her.
Construction and tech uniforms everywhere, crowded corridors. From belowdecks came the high whine of robotic assemblers. Minerva was getting ready to ship out needed equipment, if all went well. If peace could come of Quinn’s act of sabotage. If the inevitability of contact with humanity could persuade the Entire to make concessions for travel.
“Sir.” A stocky fellow with sandy hair had introduced himself to security and managed to fall in step beside him.
“Mikal,” Quinn said. Mikal James, program chief for the transition.
Mikal nodded at him and Lamar. “I hoped to meet you at the dock. Running behind, as usual.”
That didn’t bode well since Quinn was about to be lifted out of the universe in a controlled quantum implosion of which this man was nominally in charge. “Glad to see you. Set to go, then?”
Mikal hesitated a split second. “Yes.” A terrible smile, meant to be reassuring.
The issue was interface, crossing, correlations. Mikal headed the team of physicists who’d worked out what they’d do today: how and where Quinn would enter the Entire. Getting home was even more complicated, but getting to was devilishly hard. The universe next door shifted. Connections came and went, and Minerva had damn little by way of maps or orientation to place. In Entire terms, they lacked the correlates, the formula predicting time and space connections between here and there. This was the most closely guarded Tarig secret, akin to the navigational charts of medieval times, those secret maps hoarded by the Portuguese in a desperate and losing gamble to keep Cathay and the new world to themselves.
So when Mikal had responded, Yes, set to go, he meant, Yes, I have a way in. A way in that would put him in safety relative to the main things that could kill him, such as the storm walls and the River Nigh. Marking these entities were emissions of exotic matter, forming a signature—a loud one, but nothing compared to the bright, which shone like a beacon now that they knew what to search for.
In front of Quinn, security staff wheeled Lamar onward toward the wing housing the transition module. Here, the press of workers and crew grew thick.
By way of explanation, Mikal said, “Station’s at capacity for personnel. We’re perfecting the crossover. For objects of scale.”
Of scale. Material of the sort it would take to sustain a delegation: supplies, equipment, terrain vehicles, replacement parts. They believed in the possibility of making peace with the Tarig. They wanted to believe that eventually, they would be welcome.
“So you can send objects of scale now?”
“We’re a long way from perfection.” Mikal glanced over at Quinn. “You’ll be fine. It’s larger-mass objects that give us problems. Ships, for instance. We’re far from that goal.”
Ships. Damn right they couldn’t send ships. Although, if Minerva—if all the corporations—were content with the Entire as a route to Rose destinations, then he was much more at ease. It was staying and settling that he’d promised to guard against. Promised Su Bei, just one of those who lived in the new land who didn’t trust human actions, but who did trust Quinn to temper those actions.
What he could do to preserve the Entire, he would. Perhaps the enmity of the Tarig would be enough to restrain human immigration. But both the Rose and the Entire would have to come to terms with each other, and sooner rather than later. Because the correlates existed. Because he thought he knew where.
Because, this trip, he intended to bring them home.
Dressed in a paper lab coat, Quinn stood in the control room with Mikal and Lamar. Just as he had asked, no one else was present, much less Minerva bureaucrats.
The interface module stood out from the main platform some two hundred yards, connected to this sector of the platform by an access tube. Here in the control room Quinn couldn’t see outside, but he remembered the cold chamber with the harness that hung suspended from the ceiling. They’d lift him up, so that he’d be out of contact with the deck. He didn’t ask why that was necessary, didn’t ask for details of the quantum implosion and inflation process of which the nearest analogue was the Big Bang. As alarming as that summary was, Quinn didn’t dwell on it. What bothered him was the entry point. Last time he had landed in a wilderness where he nearly died of his injuries. He accepted that danger. He just didn’t want to fall between. From lessons learned in the Entire, he knew there was a between.
Glancing at the control room monitors, Quinn saw the transition chamber with the harness at its center. Embedded in the walls were 4310 titanium nozzles, giving the chamber the look of an inverted sea urchin.
He turned to Lamar, getting a reassuring smile
Lamar quipped, “No pictures in your hip pocket?” Pictures of Sydney.
Quinn tapped his head. “Got hers up here.”
“I know you do.” Lamar reached out a hand. Quinn shook it.
Looking at Mikal, he asked, “How long do I have to wait in that rat hole?”
“We never know. I’ll try to make it short.”
Time to go. The hatch to the sterilization booth lay before him. There, he would be sonically cleansed of microbes that they might not wish to unleash on the Entire. Just as he made ready to go through the door, Quinn noticed Lamar’s pinched expression, the sheen of sweat on his high forehead. What the hell did he mean, Remember that I’m an old man?
They were waiting for him to pass through the door.
Quinn pulled off the paper gown, handing it to Lamar. Then he opened the hatch and walked through, closing the seal behind him.
Watching Quinn pass through to the sterilization chamber, Lamar realized he was holding his breath. He dragged air into his lungs. Waited.
After a few minutes, Mikal said under his breath, “Leaving sterilization booth.”
That meant Quinn was in the tube, and dressing in his travel clothes—garments assembled according to his strict instructions, including the Chalin knife he’d brought home last time.
“In.” Mikal nodded at the screen. Quinn had entered the transition module.
“Module two on screen,” Lamar said, finding a chair next to Mikal.
Then, side-by-side monitors showed Quinn and Helice adjusting straps, getting hooked in. She in her module, he in his.
Lamar and Mikal waited, in company with no less than three mSaps. When the three agreed, Mikal would enable the transition, not before. This time, one machine sapient alone would not decide when and if they were good to go. Coordinating between mSaps was Mikal’s job. The computers didn’t talk to each other, but would decide independently.
Lamar wiped his perspiring hands on his slacks. This was taking longer than before. He looked up, hoping to catch Mikal’s attention, but the man was focused on panel displays.
On the second screen, Helice was bearing up well, looking oddly elated. In his own module, Quinn’s expression was controlled—what many people mistake for coldness but which is actually intense concentration. He was a pilot. Maybe not one in a cockpit this time, but nevertheless going somewhere fast, and needing all his reactions intact when he got there.
Lamar looked at his watch. It had been ten minutes, but felt like an hour.
Even in this remote section of the platform, distant clangs of tools announced the continuing construction. For a moment, Lamar fancied it was fists beating on the bulkheads, trying to get in, trying to sabotage them. Why didn’t the Tarig come to the Rose, after all, put a stop to this. . . .
“We’ve got something,” Mikal said. “Aligning. Aligning now.”
Lamar pushed himself out of the chair, heart racing.
“Okay,” Mikal said, “locked on. Have one. Have two.” He was noting the judgment call of the mSaps.
Agreement. Mikal’s hand went to the toggle. “We’re good. Transition.”
He threw the switch, but immediately they were in trouble. The screen flashed a sickening warning, pulsing with error warnings. Two more strobing screens joined in, now accompanied by a shrill machine scream. The display for one of the mSaps went black, burst back to life in a scramble, an awful haze of decoherence. Mikal was swearing, hunched over the keyboard, as screens flipped and savant backups yelped frantic messages.
Mikal shook his head. “Should have waited, God. . . .”
“What’s going on?” Lamar staggered closer, staring at the screen. Helice hanging suspended.
But Quinn had gone. The harness hung by a wisp of material that stretched to a long, melted filament.
“God . . . ,” Mikal said. “We lost it, lost it. I should have waited.”
Helice was still in the module. Left behind. She had to go.
“Send her,” Lamar barked.
“Can’t,” Mikal barked. “Lost it.”
“No you didn’t. Look.” Lamar pointed to Quinn’s harness. It was moving on its own, moving backward, sliding sideways, disappearing inch by inch into nothingness. They still had connection. Two mSaps said they had connection; one said no. “Send her.”
“I can’t. We’ve only got two—”
Lamar fumbled in his coat pocket and drew out a small pistol, bristling with wires. Hand shaking, he pressed the gun against Mikal’s right temple. “Send her. Do it now.” As Mikal hesitated, Lamar made a dent in his skin with the barrel.
Mikal threw the switch. Then he lurched away from the computer banks, backing away from this apparent madman who shared his control room.
But Lamar’s attention was all on the second module. Helice was folding together like a book closing. She became a thick line, then a thin one.
Gone. But her harness hung in the air, burning.
“Shut off the goddamn racket,” Lamar growled.
The emergency noise subsided as Mikal whispered, “We just killed them. You killed them.” He looked at Lamar with loathing.
“Don’t be an idiot. We had two agreeing.” Almost dropping the pistol from the sweat streaming off his hands, Lamar jammed it into his jacket pocket. Until now he hadn’t known he had it in him, to use a weapon.
“I’ll report you.” Mikal was still trembling.
Lamar felt his own legs shaking. He tottered out of the control room. “Goddamn mSaps,” he muttered.
How many mSaps does it take to screw in a lightbulb?
Answer: What’s a lightbulb?
It took a human to make the tough decisions. Helice had to cross over. Everything depended on it. Lamar might be an old man, but he knew that much.
A World Too Near © Kay Kenyon