Caitlin Quinn stared at the letter. An actual paper letter, it bore the masthead of the United States Bureau of the General Standard. She hadn’t known until this moment that Lamar had been serious about altering her son’s scores, and her own.
She and Mateo had been recategorized from “forward capability in key skill sets” to “advanced capability.” From middie to savvy in one fell swoop, changing their status, not only to savvy, but to felon. Now the question was, what was she doing breaking the law? And just why did Lamar Gelde think they could get by with it?
She read the letter again, with its simple, bald statement of fact. Previously, the wrong records had been forwarded to the Quinn family. The present documents would confirm new standings for the Standard Test. Relief accompanied the guilt she felt. Now she wouldn’t have to sit down with Mateo and explain his scores and his future. Now she and Rob wouldn’t have to tell their son that being of forward capability instead of advanced was a fine and worthwhile status. The two of them would have pointed to themselves as evidence that it was possible to make a good life as a middie: the new software company, their close-knit family, their lovely home—all despite the fact that they lacked the designation of ultrasmart. They would have painted the brightest picture that they could. Lied.
They had meaningful work because Titus’s millions were on loan to them, financing their software company, complete with a dedicated mSap. True, the family was together, and perhaps Rob loved his wife. The lie was that she still loved him. Because though it had been a year and a half since Caitlin had last seen Titus, it was unfortunately that brother she loved. Next to Titus, Rob seemed ordinary, without fire. And because Rob wasn’t his brother, she had shut her heart to him. If she could have changed her heart, she would have. Titus had said, I’m not in line if you get a divorce. I can’t be and still live with myself. The problem was, didn’t that imply that if he were not the brother-in-law, he would be in line?
She fingered the letter that might be Mateo’s passport to the best future. Nearly every day Mateo asked if the test results had come in. Not yet, she’d said. Little Emily didn’t help by declaring that she was going to be a savvy like Titus. At only eight years old, it would be awhile before Lamar would have to alter her scores.
Tucking the letter into her jacket pocket, she wondered how she was going to explain this to Rob. Not to worry. According to Lamar, the price for the switched scores was that Rob not know. But how long before the Bureau of Standard Tests figured out the mistake? How long before Mateo’s improved access to the best schools came to Rob’s attention? It couldn’t be kept secret. And Lamar didn’t care, said it wouldn’t matter. Because something he called the transform was coming.
Now that she was well and truly into this mess, she was determined to get answers from Lamar. He was going to tell her the truth, and he was going to tell her today, or she’d tear up the letter and tell the Bureau of their mistake.
She grabbed her satchel and left her office, hoping not to see Rob. As she walked down the corridor of the plush central offices of Emergent Corporation, she stranded a command into the embedded data structures in the walls calling for her car. People nodded at her from their cubicles in the refurbished warehouse, site of their by now three-hundred-strong workforce in educational software development.
Rounding a corner, Rob saw her and waved. Deep in conversation with one of the team leaders, Rob was energized, busy and happy. She pointed at the door, mouthing Have to go out. He dashed down the hall to kiss her goodbye, a peck on the cheek.
“I’m running out to see Lamar.”
It felt like a lie, and was, in any case, just a partial truth. Just as it had felt like a lie when she hadn’t told Rob that she and Titus had almost made love on the floor of her office, before Titus pulled back and remembered that you didn’t screw your brother’s wife.
“Lunch with the old man?” Rob asked brightly. He had mostly forgiven Lamar for riding herd on Titus about his duties in the adjoining region. Rob forgave easily, and she hoped he’d do the same for her when it came her turn to be faithless. To be part of the transform when Rob couldn’t. Whatever the hell the transform was. If Minerva was on the verge of a breakthrough in computer platforms—say to biological/DNA integration—if this was the mysterious transform, she could understand it being kept secret. But what did that have to do with the Standard Test?
“Have fun,” Rob said, noting another section chief who was waiting to talk to him. And he was gone—happy, clueless. Hurrying outside before he changed his mind, Caitlin stepped into the glaringly bright day to wait for her car to drive itself up from the underground garage. It was her one true luxury, almost embarrassing in its perfection: a bright blue Mercedes sedan large enough to carry the four Quinns—on those few occasions when they were all together.
She wished Titus was here. For the millionth time in the last months she wished she knew more about where he was. There are some things over there that can hurt us, he’d told her before he left the last time. But insofar as she was privy to Minerva’s secrets because she was family, she still knew only fragments: A parallel universe. Time passes differently than here. Titus engaged in great events that might kill him. In consideration thereof, Rob and Caitlin received all Titus’s considerable monetary compensation.
And now there was the transform. By day’s end she’d know what that was, but even in her determination, she had the feeling she would regret finding out.
The Columbia River lapped up against Lamar’s house, a little slap, slap, from one of the world’s great rivers. The Columbia slid by Portland in a whisper, barely noted by Portland’s four million inhabitants whizzing over bridges in Meshed public transport and private autos. Lamar was more connected to the river; he lived on it. His houseboat was small, compact, and lovingly detailed. For all its tungsten countertops and mahogany trim, it was surprisingly modest. Caitlin supposed Lamar spent most of his money on his face, a gesture to vanity that was becoming increasingly foolish.
“Caitlin,” Lamar said. “I got your message.” He waved her on board, happy and nautical-looking in his silk shirt and captain’s cap. She joined him on the deck, accepting a glass of wine and settling into a deck chair. He guessed why she’d come.
“You might say thank you,” he murmured.
“I don’t know what to say. We’ve now lied to the US government.” She held the letter in her lap, marveling that even Lamar Gelde, formerly of the board of directors of the Minerva Corporation, could get the system to think it had erred—and then admit it, in writing.
He eyed the letter. “Just hold on to that. It’s your ticket.”
She watched as a few sailboarders skimmed by, riding the winds from the gorge. Some people were perfectly happy being middies, or even dreds. She had once been rather happy herself. Why now, all of a sudden, was she being made to feel that she needed to be something else?
She folded the letter lengthwise, making it easier to gesture with. “I’m not sure I want this.”
“Oh, you want it.”
“I can’t do that. Not today. Give me some time, for God’s sake.”
A little slick of oil creased the river, twisting the blue sky’s perfect reflection in its rainbow waters. “I have—we have—all the money we need,”
Caitlin said. “Savvy or not, we’re wealthy. I don’t care if you’re on the verge of some tech breakthrough. I’m not going to lie to be a part of it.”
One of Lamar’s improved eyebrows went up. “Speaking for Mateo, are you?”
“We can’t keep up a pretence. Sooner or later Stanford or Harvard will figure it out. We can lower our sights. Maybe a state college.”
Lamar put his drink down and went to the ship’s rail, looking out at the industrial waterfront on the Washington State side of the river. “Well, that’s fine. Not a bad idea. State college . . .” his voice tapered off. When he turned around, his face was pained.
“What the hell is this about?” she spat at him. His expression was locked down, and she meant to shake it loose. She stood up, leaned against another part of the railing, and held the letter over the water. “Tell me what’s going on, or this goes in the river.”
Lamar started, putting out a hand to restrain her. “That’s your future.”
“Convince me.” Louder, she said, “Tell me what the hell is going on with my family and the Standard Test, or I won’t have anything more to do with you ever again, much as I love you. So help me God, I won’t.” Her hand was shaking. Until this moment she hadn’t realized how much tension she’d built up around this subject.
It was a standoff between them. The day was warm for late fall, but the deck took on a chill.
Lamar had only a few moments to marshal his strategy. He had to tell Caitlin something. But he judged her incapable of the cold, hard truth. She stood there in her expensive smartSuit, and her comfortable morality, demanding to be pure. All right then, if pure was what she needed, pure was what he’d give her.
“Titus is calling for a few people to go over. You’re among them. You can bring Mateo and little Emily.”
That piece was maybe the biggest she could absorb for now. He brought up her chair and pressed her into it.
He nodded at her consternation. “Let me lay this out. Titus has found a world called the Entire. It’s not perfect, but it has a fundamental advantage: it’s got the science of a million years from now. There’s a civilization over there. They’ve been around much longer than we have, and they have the means to give us the keys to the universe.”
Her voice was profoundly small. “A civilization?”
“The Entire. That’s a word you’re never going to use except when we’re together. You understand?”
“Those who control this . . . Entire . . . are afraid of an inundation of our people into their lands. Understandable. So we’re starting small. Two thousand people will cross over, to establish a base, a community. To begin bridging the cultural and technological differences. We need wives, husbands, families, children. The last thing we need is to look like a military operation.”
He was proud of this spin so far. It was already beginning to settle Caitlin down.
“The reason the Standard Test matters is that Minerva is insisting only savvies go over for now. We need our sharpest mathematical and analytical minds, obviously.” Even though Minerva wasn’t involved, not as an entity at least, it was the most likely way to spin this thing.
“Minerva knows I’m not a savvy.”
He shrugged. “They’re not going to question three new names on the list, not if Titus asked for them.”
“Why aren’t we hearing about this publicly?”
“There are issues. We need to keep this under wraps for a bit.”
She sat very quietly, then, seemingly looking at the river. Lamar gave her time. At last she said, “Why does Titus want us and not Rob?”
The next part was the cruelest lie; he needed a moment before he could utter it. “Quinn wants a few people he can trust—not just technological smart asses chosen by Minerva.” He shook his head in mock frustration. “No, damn it, that’s not it. The fact is, he wants you.” He did hate himself.
But the lies would save her life. The Earth was in Tarig gun sights. No one would survive the coming storm, no one on this side of the brane interface. Rob wouldn’t, nor all the other middies and dreds. He looked away, upriver, gathering his story. “Quinn confided some things to me. He knows you’re unhappy with Rob.” He turned halfway around, but couldn’t face her.
“He hopes you might find some happiness with him.”
He coughed. “Yes.” He didn’t want to see the look on her face. It would just about break his heart, so he didn’t turn around. “Go across and be at his side for a few months, Caitlin. Give him the support he desperately needs right now. Johanna is dead. Sydney is likely dead as well. He doesn’t have family anymore. He’s a lonely man, with a lot on his shoulders. Go and help him. Then, if it doesn’t add up for you, come back. Or wait for Rob to join you, in the next wave.”
On that safer lie, he faced her. “Once the kinks are worked out, there’ll be a modest influx of colonists. Rob can be in that number, if you want—if he wants.” He spread his hands in a gesture of reasonableness: “It’s the biggest opportunity in history. It’s a chance to meet an alien civilization, and come to terms with it. Mateo and Emily would grow up with astounding resources at their fingertips.”
“What is the Entire, Lamar?”
She’s hooked, he thought. He drew his chair closer. He told her what little he knew. The picture built up from Minerva debriefings of Quinn when he returned last time. And he told it all—all except for the fact that the Entire was on its last lump of coal. That it needed a source of fuel as vast as a universe. And that there was nothing we could do about it. Lamar presumed that by now Helice had convinced Quinn not to use the nan device on the Tarig engine. Barring a total destruction of the Entire, there really was nothing to be done about the Tarig threat.
Satchel over her shoulder, sunglasses hiding her dazed expression, Caitlin was ready to go, eager to leave to be alone to think, no doubt.
“Be ready to go,” he told her. “Be packed.” He wouldn’t say how the team of two thousand was preparing for the crossover, just that it was a few hours’ drive away on the Hanford Reservation in Eastern Washington. He warned her not to go there; although she was now on their list, her savvy status was only a piece of paper. A few questions, such as “Where did you take your graduate degree?” would mark her as counterfeit.
She stopped at the ramp to the wharf. “Why do you call it a transform?”
Lamar got a kink in his chest. Damn. He improvised: “When the first wave comes home—those who decide to come home—there’ll be an utter transformation in our society, at every level. You can’t keep knowledge from changing the world. And believe me, it will.”
He watched her make her way down the pier toward her car.
Brave girl. Took it like a champ. The things he did to keep Titus Quinn happy. This was a gift to him: your niece and nephew, saved from destruction. As for Caitlin, well, she wasn’t an unattractive woman, middie though she was. Let Quinn do with her as the spirit dictated.
Dizzy with his performance, he slowly lowered himself into a deck chair.
Meanwhile, Caitlin stood by the Mercedes. The sun glinted off the perfect blue three-coat gloss of the hood, and she stared at it until her eyes hurt.
She tried to imagine the Entire. Its fire-laden sky, its limitless extent, all folded inside a geography. Its alien peoples, some of whom were very much like us. Her thoughts circled around Lamar’s descriptions like a plane looking for a place to land.
But most of all, she thought of Titus. Titus and her.