Bright of the Sky
|Series:||The Entire and the Rose: Book 1|
|Sub-Genre Tags:||Alternate/Parallel Universe|
|Avg Member Rating:||
Kay Kenyon, noted for her science fiction world-building, has in this new series created her most vivid and compelling society, the Universe Entire. In a land-locked galaxy that tunnels through our own, the Entire is a bizarre and seductive mix of long-lived quasi-human and alien beings gathered under a sky of fire, called the bright. A land of wonders, the Entire is sustained by monumental storm walls and an exotic, never-ending river. Over all, the elegant and cruel Tarig rule supreme.
Into this rich milieu is thrust Titus Quinn, former star pilot, bereft of his beloved wife and daughter who are assumed dead by everyone on earth except Quinn. Believing them trapped in a parallel universe--one where he himself may have been imprisoned--he returns to the Entire without resources, language, or his memories of that former life. He is assisted by Anzi, a woman of the Chalin people, a Chinese culture copied from our own universe and transformed by the kingdom of the bright. Learning of his daughter's dreadful slavery, Quinn swears to free her. To do so, he must cross the unimaginable distances of the Entire in disguise, for the Tarig are lying in wait for him. As Quinn's memories return, he discovers why. Quinn's goal is to penetrate the exotic culture of the Entire--to the heart of Tarig power, the fabulous city of the Ascendancy, to steal the key to his family's redemption.
But will his daughter and wife welcome rescue? Ten years of brutality have forced compromises on everyone. What Quinn will learn to his dismay is what his own choices were, long ago, in the Universe Entire. He will also discover why a fearful multiverse destiny is converging on him and what he must sacrifice to oppose the coming storm.
This is high-concept SF written on the scale of Philip Jose Farmer's Riverworld, Roger Zelazny's Amber Chronicles, and Dan Dimmons's Hyperion.
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
Marcus Sund came awake all at once. "Lights," he said.
The cabin remained dark. "Lights," he repeated, louder this time, but with the same result. He sat up. The station hummed with life support--the ProFabber engines churned in their colossal duties--but something was missing from that profound vibration.
He dressed hurriedly, toggling the operations deck as he yanked his shirt on. "Report."
"Sir, we have some minor failures in noncritical functions. We're on it."
Marcus left his cabin and hurried down the corridor. The lights browned and surged back again. The station exec knew his rig, down to the last bolt and data structure, and therefore he could feel through the soles of his feet that the hum was wrong, the vibration of the carbon polysteel deck plates a few cycles off. That worried him far more than the flickering lights.
The station's military-grade ProFabber engines simultaneously churned out artificial gravity and monitored the Kardashev tunnel, calming it for company business--the business of interstellar travel. With such critical functions, the engines were under the control of the on-station machine sapient. Thus, if engine performance fell even slightly, and if the system hadn't alerted Marcus Sund by now, that meant the mSap--the station's sole machine sapient--was not paying attention. It was unthinkable that the machine sapient was not paying attention.
They were far from home. The Appian II space platform orbited a stellar-mass black hole, stabilizing it. From their position deep in the Sagittarius arm of the Milky Way near the Eagle nebula, the Earth's sun appeared as a mere dot in the constellation Taurus. Even with Kardashev tunnel transport, the Appian II depended utterly on the station and the twenty-third century AI that ran it. The platform contained living quarters for 103 crew, an advanced research laboratory, and Marcus Sund's entire career.
As Marcus approached station ops, twenty-year-old Helice Maki met him in the corridor. Six years ago she had been the youngest graduate in the history of the Stanford sapience engineering program, a fact that she mentioned with annoying frequency. He didn't like her, but he needed her now. By the expression on her face, she felt it too--that something was wrong.
"I'm going in," she said, nodding at the Deep Room, site of the interface with the quantum sapient.
"Go," he said. The sapient had better not be in trouble, but if it was, Helice Maki could deal with it.
With a sickening blare, the klaxons burst to life. As Helice disappeared into the Deep Room, Marcus rushed to the operations suite a few doors down. Here, tenders were on task, deadly serious. The deputy exec reported that in the last two minutes, the ProFabber engines had powered down to maintenance level, abandoning the K-tunnel. It could hardly be worse news, not because the tunnel had to work, but because the mSap had to. They were dead without it.
"Lock out the mSap from expert systems," Marcus ordered. He had to nod at his deputy to reinforce the order. They were isolating themselves from their central computation resource, a logic device with perhaps limitless capabilities. Now they must fall back on the workhorse savants--simple tronic computers, wickedly fast, duller than stumps. The K-tunnel as a transport route was off-limits for now, but they could clean it up later. They could get through this, Marcus thought, while the word runaway kept stabbing at him.
From the Deep Room, Helice's voice came over the comm, throaty with emotion. "Get in here, Marcus."
Ops was erupting with reports from all stations, all decks: Tronic systems failing; K-tunnel functions, off-line; extravehicular communication arrays, off-line; life-support systems moved to auxiliary power. Onboard host experiments terminated; memory caches dumping data, slaved to the mSap for incoming data.
The deputy exec turned to Marcus. "The mSap is hijacking storage capacity from every embedded data structure on station, and slaving it to itself, commanding all station power, and locking out both human and savant overrides."
Runaway. Marcus brushed the thought aside.
But people in the room heard the assessment, and exchanged glances of disbelief. Not one of them, including Marcus, had ever seen a rogue machine sapient. Stories had it that once an mSap got away from its handlers, it could quickly form goals of its own--a chaotic state known as obsession. Pray God this mSap had not acquired one.
Leaving his deputy in charge, Marcus hurried down the corridor to the sapient domain, took a chair in the anteroom, and punched up a screen so that he could see Helice Maki at work inside the Deep Room.
She came on-screen, talking to him as she worked the sapient. "Secure this channel." He obeyed.
Surrounded by the simulated quantum output, and talking in the sapient code language, she pointed her indexed thumb at sections of the sapient's mind-field. To Marcus, it looked like she was dancing--or conducting a symphony.
In between code talk, Helice spoke softly to him: "It's an incursion. We have a worm loose in here."
"That's not possible," Marcus snapped. He'd never used such a tone with Helice Maki before, especially given the rumors of her impending installation as a company partner.
She ignored him. "There are missing responses, rogue strands. I'm beginning error correction."
"Don't do that; we'll lose everything." It had taken three years to coach this mSap to oversee a space platform. Retraining it would be an ugly smear on his reputation.
"We've already lost everything. It's on a mission, and it's not mine. Or yours. Isolate the savants from this rogue."
"I've already done that."
"Okay, okay," she said, preoccupied. She pointed her hand where she wished to retrain, talking the gibberish of the sapient engineer, looking almost ecstatic, like a believer getting a dose of Jesus.
As he waited for her, he tapped into the comm. "Report."
"Marcus, we've got an imminent life-support failure on deck four. If we evacuate, we'll lose connection with the main nutrition fabber."
Food was the least of his worries right now. "Evacuate. Take all self-contained life suits off the deck." He knew how that sounded. Like they'd need them.
The sapient grooming staff trickled in, leaning against the wall in the small anteroom, waiting to help--or to throw themselves on the funeral pyre. Anjelika Denhov arrived first, with three postdocs trailing her, looking ill. Their research had been running on the mSap. They could pray they hadn't touched off this disaster.
Marcus saw his career imploding. He thought they'd live through this--Christ, this was a Minerva Company main K-tunnel station, of course they would survive--but his career was over. On his watch, they were abandoning a deck, yanking critical science lab work, dumping all data, and, worst, retraining an mSap. His stomach tumbled in free fall, like his career, heading to a permanent landing in the warrens of the damned. There, the majority of people were unemployed, living off the dole, feeding on the Basic Standard of Living and virtual entertainments, sustained by the wealth of the Companies--the behemoth economic blocs that fueled the world. His parents took the dole, and all his siblings, and all his cousins. He was the only one who had tested strongly enough to groom the sapients, and then, groom the groomers. He had risen high. Looking down, he could see how high.
From the screen, Helice had stopped her dance. "Oh my God."
After a beat Marcus prodded, "What, what is it?"
She stepped in closer to the knot in the display, a tangle of virtual quantum waves. She mumbled something in code. Then: "It's a simple evolutionary." She turned toward the optic and said, "Someone's let loose a goddamned evolutionary program. And it's in its three hundred and ninth generation."
Marcus leaned into the audio pickup. "That could be EoSap, it still could be," he said, wanting to blame Minerva's arch competitor and not one of their own crew.
"No. This is a basic vector that any groomer could deliver to the sapient. Somebody sat in your chair out there, Marcus, and goddamn typed in an evolutionary training sequence."
"If it's simple, then yank it out," Marcus pleaded.
She glared into the optic. "It's not simple anymore." She turned back to the cocoon of light surrounding her, mesmerized by the visions she saw in the Deep Field.
Runaway, Marcus thought again. If the mSap had broken out of control, it was in danger of grabbing every resource, every qubit it needed for whatever it was doing. Such things had been seen before. The Jakarta runaway, for one, when an evolution-driven mSap had nearly taken over the world's entire fleet of orbiting comm satellites. Korea had responded with nuclear strikes, leaving the island of Java a radioactive slag heap.
"Who's had access here?" Marcus glanced at Anjelika Denhov, who had better know what her postdocs were up to. The people in this room were the only ones who could have interfaced with the mSap.
Anjelika turned to her three gangly charges. "Well?" She eyed them each in turn.
No movement. The team looked slightly green in the glow from the Deep Field room.
"Anybody got a theory?"
Under her stare the newest of them, Luc Diers, swallowed hard. "It was me," he said.
Marcus turned on the youngster. "Talk. Talk fast."
"I was just trying to salvage my program." Luc glanced at Anjelika, his PhD adviser. "I didn't want to fail." Realizing that he still had the room's attention, he stumbled on: "I kept getting nonsense readings, and I couldn't fix it. I had no idea the mSap would take an interest. Would commandeer everything."
Marcus didn't know if he was relieved or sickened that it was one of his own crew.
Luc told about his simple, evolving program that was supposed to reconfigure his experiment on fundamental extragalactic particles so that it was back on track and not outputting data on impossible particles. Particles never seen before. Luc was going home next week. He wouldn't have time to restart the program. It was just a minor program running on the mSap. He thought no one would notice.
Listening in, Helice exploded. "You thought no one would notice? You let go of your program goal and assigned it to my sapient?" Luc stared at the floor, and Helice turned away in disgust, concentrating again on the Deep Field.
They all watched, transfixed by the sight of a woman trying to tame a quantum monster. The eerie light flickered on her face like a tormented mind probing for comfort from the one person on-station who could understand it. She murmured, "It's analyzing an anomalous structure. A profound goal that it can't reach. And it's getting lost."
"God help us," Marcus said. He leaned into the comm. "Call Mayday."
The audio responded, "Sending." The nearest help was weeks out of the system.
Helice walked out of the Deep Room, pulling off her data rings. Glancing at Anjelika, she asked, "Which one?" Anjelika nodded at the unfortunate postdoc, who cringed under Helice's predatory stare. "Name?"
"All right, Luc," she said in a too-smooth voice, "describe the anomalous readings that you retrained my sapient to fix."
Luc winced hearing this characterization of his crime. "Neutrinos," he said.
The group stared at him, waiting. He plunged on. "I had impossible neutrinos. Wrong angular momentum, wrong spin state. Reversed, actually."
"Meaning?" Marcus snapped.
Anjelika broke in: "Think of it like the direction of corkscrewing. Neutrinos go to the left."
Luc added, "And the ones I kept registering went to the right, if you want to think of it that way. And the readings were coming from everywhere at once. So it was garbage. Unless it was evidence of another dimension, it was garbage."
Helice put up a hand to stop others from interrupting. "What do you mean, dimension?"
"Space-time construct. Universe." Meeting blank stares, he went on, "Nature creates symmetry all over the place, except at the subatomic scale. So some folks figure the missing symmetry is in other universes. Like right-turning neutrinos are in the fifth dimension, and orthopositroniums' missing energy is there. It's all in other dimensions."
Marcus stood and fixed a blank and hopeless gaze on Luc Diers. "Kiss your ass good-bye, son."
Luc nodded. "Yes, sir."
Helice said, "Get out of here, all of you. Except Marcus and Luc. Make yourselves useful somewhere." When they left, she said, "The mSap wants this station, Marcus. And it's taking it."
He nodded, strangely calm, now that he knew the worst. Runaway. He glanced at the Deep Room. "Kill it."
"And kill the station?"
A small moan came from Luc as the reality of their disaster sunk in.
"Maybe we can still salvage life-support systems," Marcus said.
"You can't. It's dissolved your networks. You don't have any networks left."
"We've got expert systems."
"That can't talk to each other."
He glanced at the room again. "Kill it, Helice." If they could. There was the Jakarta runaway. It had copied itself into a thousand home computers moments before decoherence.
"First I'm downloading the mSap output." Leaning over the keyboard, she shunted the data into a high-storage optical cube. She was taking it home. She was leaving. "Prime the shuttle and get us a pilot. You can assign whoever you want in the remaining seats." She cocked her head at Luc. "He's coming with me." Her face softened. "You come too, Marcus."
He heard her as in a dream. "Put the sapient down, Helice."
She looked at him a long moment. "Putting down the mSap." She leaned over the control board and typed in the command to collapse wave function. To blow its quantum nature, that of being in several places at once, they needed to shatter the quantum isolation. Turning on the lights inside the domain could do it.
And did. In an instant, the $1.3 billion demigod snapped into decoherence.
A soft whine came from the Deep Room, high-pitched and eerie. Aside from terror, Marcus felt relief. At least they could still kill it.
As they opened the door into the corridor, the sickening blare of the klaxons ballooned louder.
"Meet me at the shuttle bay," she said, already heading out the door.
In automatic problem-solving mode, Marcus began prioritizing the remaining shuttle seats. Send home nonessential personnel. The researchers, the support techs, the... he let a wave of nausea pass through him. He decided on the six people who'd fill the remaining shuttle seats. He wasn't among them.
His rig. His watch.
Hurrying down the corridor, Helice had Luc by the arm, heading for the shuttle bay, avoiding running but wasting no time. She clutched the data cube. The quantum platforms didn't travel, of course. Too leaky, too vulnerable.
"I'm sorry," Luc whispered.
Helice nodded. "Yes. Yes you are." Sorry was only the beginning of his troubles. But first they had to launch out of here. With the mSap down and the savants isolated from each other, the station now ran on human-powered thought, which, as the case of Luc Diers demonstrated, often went awry. Hurrying down the corridor, she debriefed Luc, wringing the salient details from him, of his research gone wrong.
Then, herding him into the domain of the executive quarters, she made a quick stop for Guinevere, her pet macaw.
"Carry this," she told Luc, passing the hooded cage to him. Guinevere gave a harsh bleat of protest as they rushed on to the launch bay.
A pilot, disheveled and pale, joined them there. Four others trickled in to join them, their faces betraying wild-eyed panic.
As they began finding their seats, she went forward to talk to the pilot. "Before you do anything," she told him, "isolate your onboards from all station contact." At his confused expression, she said, "Sapient's got an obsession. It'll eat your tronics for a snack." The mSap was dead, with any luck. But it hadn't been a lucky day so far. He nodded, somber.
"And go, go now."
"Still waiting on two more passengers, Ms. Maki."
"Not any more. Get out of here if you want to save the passengers you have."
Back in the passenger cabin, she strapped Guinevere's cage into one of the seats, then herself, as the engines hummed to life. Luc followed suit, looking stunned. She held her hands in a firm clasp to keep them from shaking. She didn't give the station a snowball's chance in hell. Go, go, she urged the pilot.
They launched, easing out of the bay, vernier thrusters working.
Holding the cube in her hand, Helice stared at it. She'd made a snap decision that Luc's discovery was real. Because the mSap had taken right-corkscrewing neutrinos seriously. Because it had marshaled the entire resources of the station to cache its output, pursuing a problem so deep and long that it must be the toughest question in the history of quantum sapients. Helice had known all this, standing in the Deep Field, gazing into the obsession. It suggested not a sapient run amok, but a sapient probing the most astonishing question: Where had the right-turning neutrinos come from? And how could the source's mass exceed that of the universe?
With the shuttle under way, she looked out the viewport, seeing the lights dim on the top deck of the station. Then another. Deck by deck, the platform was powering down. They would freeze to death before their air ran out. She tried not to think about the dying, but the two empty seats next to her kept the thought fresh. She patted Guinevere's cage absently, seeking comfort.
They sped homeward. She clutched the data cube in her pocket, all that remained of the mSap and its journey next door. Into an infinite land.
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: Titus Quinn.
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 mines.
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. Titus.
"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 BunyanÐsized 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 to flinch.
"Don't worry, it's not an incoming missile. It's my new St. Paul Olympian locomotive."
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 post.
"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 to care.
"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 went."
A lopsided smile came to Titus's mouth. "The place I went."
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 so."
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 gotten.
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 overpass 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 shrugged. "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 happy?"
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 gaming universe!"
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 precise, tense.
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."
Copyright © 2007 by Kay Kenyon
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