IN A MISTING RAIN, CAITLIN LEFT THE FREEWAY and unlinked her car from the mesh system, cruising over the megabridge to the Washington side of the Columbia River. From here to the Hanford reservation the automated highway went to dark road: no dataflow on pavement conditions, no safety tracking of her car. In spite of the rain and the unfamiliar road, the moment she left the smart highway she felt a measure of relief. They’d need a satellite to see her now.
No reason they’d go to that trouble, though. Lamar expected her to be what she’d always been: the good trooper, the good mother. Doing what was expected of her. It was a role Caitlin had played her whole life. The dutiful child in a large family; the diligent student, rising as high as a middie could; the faithful wife—of sorts.
With typical savvy arrogance, Lamar didn’t expect her to think for herself. Well, he was wrong on that score. As she took the steep climb up from the Columbia gorge, her anger rose. How gullible did he think she was? Titus had not sent for her, of course. Yes, he’d gone into another universe— this she’d known for years—but he wasn’t asking for Caitlin by his side.
There’d been a moment yesterday when she’d let herself think he did. Back there on the deck of the houseboat, she had believed it for three or four breathless minutes. Jesus God, she had. But it wasn’t in Titus’s makeup to woo her away from his own brother. They’d been through that little scenario, she and Titus. Even if you two split up, I can’t be in line, Caitlin.
So Lamar was lying. About Titus and her, and maybe a lot more. There were world changes coming. The transform, Lamar had called it. No doubt there was money to be made from the transform. She could not imagine what motive Lamar might have for involving her and the children it in, but she meant to find out. She owed Titus a look at Hanford, at this crossing-over site; there was something involved here besides a get-rich-quick scheme. And if it involved Titus, it could be critical.
At the top of the cliff she stopped the car at the old Maryhill mansion. A quick stretch here to steady her nerves. Playing the spy was new ground for her, and she was nervous. From Maryhill’s cracked and windswept terrace, the gorge plunged a thousand feet, the Columbia River tracing a gleaming path in the cleft.
She looked around her at the decaying Edwardian mansion of Sam Hill, nineteenth-century railroad baron. Commanding the cliffs, the mansion slumped into ruin, its remaining windows cloudy, like cataract eyes. Three hundred years ago they’d called it Sam’s folly, the palace Sam Hill built for Queen Marie of Romania as an ostentatious gift. Since then, it had served as a museum, an art gallery, and finally a hospital for the refugees from the Hanford phage outbreak, a nuclear waste solution gone wrong. Though the phage outbreak had been quelled, Hanford was still pockmocked from its incursions. A disaster piled on a disaster, given the original nuclear cleanup problem harking back to 1944. Despite all the tech that savvies could muster, radionucleotides still polluted the ground, and Cherenkov radiation yet curdled in mothballed reactors. All the reactors were cocooned now. A good place for secrets, then.
According to Lamar, a new group was pretending to take on the toxic waste problems: HTG, the Hanford Transition Group. From Caitlin’s research, she saw evidence that the group had government contracts to test biomolecular remedies of some sort. HTG, with its Web site and white papers on experimental nuclear waste cleanup, established a convincing semblance of credentials. They’d gone to a lot of trouble to justify a presence in no-man’s-land.
Lamar had said the compound would hold two thousand people and prep them to undertake the journey. When I call you, be packed, he’d said. He meant her, Mateo, and Emily. But not Rob. He assumed that Caitlin would leave Rob. She didn’t want to examine how close Lamar had come to the truth. Nor did she want to think about how obvious was her infatuation with her brother-in-law. Was Rob the only one who hadn’t guessed?
Why was Lamar trying to get Caitlin involved in this? At times, she thought she saw affection in Lamar’s eyes. He was doing her a favor, by his lights. But she didn’t trust him anymore.
A squall raced across the flats as she drove onto the reservation, pelting the blue hood of the Mercedes. Within minutes the shower was done, and sun reclaimed the Eastern Washington desert.
It seemed impossible for a conspiracy to be holed up in this open land.
She left highway 240, turning into the new HTG road, surrounded by lupine, bunchgrass, and sagebrush. It was big country, dipping through low, rolling mounds all the way to distant hills. As she drove on through the desert, she began to catch up with the river’s circuitous route once again.
Far ahead was a string of squat buildings, the old reactors built along what must once have seemed the perfect stretch of free-flowing water.
Though the containerized waste products were long ago encapsulated and sunk to the bottom of the Mariana Trench in the Pacific, the ground at Hanford would be hot for twelve thousand years. Apparently HTG personnel weren’t objecting to the location; they didn’t plan to be there long.
Signs declared this road off-limits. Passes required. Dead end. She wondered if all the select personnel were already gathered here, or only those busy erecting the compound. The more people, the less she would stand out. But since she was part of the project, along with Mateo and Emily, it was logical that she might want to check out the accommodations. They might be in the compound for months, after all, and the kids needed a semblance of normalcy. She’d pretend to care about that.
The first checkpoint was a small glassed-in station breaking up a stretch of electrified fence. An unsmiling attendant wanted her pass; lacking one, Caitlin gave her name, waiting while he checked it against a database. He waved her on, saying there was another checkpoint ahead, a DNA scrape.
Well, she could pass that test.
Where this group planned on going was still hard to grasp. Lamar claimed that as soon as Titus gave the signal, the people on the list would debark for a place called the Entire. She knew the place existed because Titus had told her it did, calling it the adjoining region. She didn’t know how they would cross over; Lamar had said nothing about making the transition at one of the stellar black hole space platforms. Maybe this was the next generation of crossover stations. Those in the first wave of colonists were savvies, of course—the very best minds available to work on the issues of interface, settlement, and cultural integration. And they’d want their families along.
Plausible enough. Yet Caitlin remembered that when Titus had left, he’d been filled with foreboding about things in the adjoining region. There are dark things over there, he’d said. They can hurt us.
Driving up to the second perimeter, Caitlin found a small group of buildings nested among idle earth-moving equipment and trucks. She parked where she was told and proceeded inside where she gave up her DNA sample; a slight stimulation of the tear ducts, and the blotter registered all her vitals.
“Your first visit,” the pleasant technician said.
“We’ll assign you a guide, in that case. It helps to call in advance.”
Caitlin waited in the modest anteroom, paging through phony pamphlets about HTG and nuclear cleanup. All very bland and earnest, all making her deeply uneasy. Why was secrecy so necessary? Well, corporate espionage was big business, and Minerva had the biggest corporate secret of all: the adjoining region. And, she mustn’t forget, EoSap or ChinaKor, or another of Minerva’s competitors, had kidnapped Emily for one bad half hour not long ago . . . so there might be an understandable company paranoia.
However, nothing in the brochures had Minerva’s name on it.
But it could still all be legitimate. Lamar’s story could yet be true. Titus could be waiting to sweep her into his arms.
Both things as likely as flying pigs. Caitlin stood up. Her escort had arrived.
Jess drove fast. A mousy, slight woman of about thirty, she didn’t look like someone who lived for risk; but here she was, one of the two thousand— leaving for the universe adjoining.
Chatty, too. “None of us have time for tours,” she said. “We’re pushing hard.” She gave Caitlin a rueful glance. “Then I checked your number and decided I had time. You’re right up there. Your number’s real high.”
“That right? All I know is that I’m going.”
“Yeah, well you’re going before I am, that’s for sure. I’m number one thousand eighty-seven.” She shot a look at her passenger. “You’re sixteen.
Those are your kids then, Emily and Mateo?” She shrugged. “Numbers seventeen and eighteen. Somebody up there likes you.”
Caitlin managed an apologetic smile. “I’m Titus Quinn’s sister-in-law.
Must be nepotism.”
Jess grinned. “Oh good. For a minute there I thought I was going to have to make small talk with someone who talks in differential equations.”
“Don’t worry. Not my idea of chitchat.”
They were coming up on the compound, a scattering of igloo-shaped huts in the shadow of the enormous, steel-encased reactor looming three stories high.
Jess saw Caitlin lean closer to the window to look at it. As they passed it, Caitlin felt a vibration through the car.
“Yeah,” Jess said, “it’s an abandoned reactor. Don’t worry, the bad stuff’s all buried.”
The streets were empty of cars but dotted with pedestrians now that the sun was back out. As they drove into the company camp, Caitlin saw the requisite coffeehouse and soccer field, the former full, the latter empty.
“It’s the kids that concern me,” Caitlin said. “I think it would help to see the arrangements.” She twisted the purse handles in her lap, putting on a show of temerity. “I just want the kids to feel comfortable here. We’ll have enough stress as it is.”
“We have one hundred seventy-five kids already, did they tell you that?”
“No. So you’ve got the educational stuff worked out? A school?”
She smiled. “Wait’ll you see.”
Before they went into the modular school unit, Jess turned to Caitlin and put her hand on Caitlin’s. “I don’t have kids, so I can’t pretend to know what it’ll be like for you. If there’s anything I can do, let me know.” When Caitlin nodded, Jess went on. “Must be tough, with the situation with your daughter. I know I’d be upset.”
Caitlin covered her confusion by pretending to wipe at her eye. She wanted Jess to say more, but how to pry without exposing how little she knew? She mumbled, “How would you handle it, if it was your daughter?”
Jess looked surprised. “Well, all I can say is, you wouldn’t stay here, would you?
A long pause. Jess was now looking at her more shrewdly. “Are you kidding me?”
Caitlin acted the distressed mom. “It’s just a tough situation.”
“Look. She’s still young. She won’t test for a few more years. And if she doesn’t have the scores, you’ll get your grandchildren from your boy. Better than nothing.”
Grandchildren? What was the woman talking about?
Jess sighed. “It’s our chance to get it right this time. Without the dreds pulling us down, diluting the good stock.” She winced. “Sorry. Your daughter. Nothing against her. And she might be fine, she really might. She’s got those good genes.”
It was not as though middie or dred status meant you couldn’t have children. Not yet. But was it coming to that? “Right,” Caitlin responded. “Good genes. I’m counting on those.” She managed a wobbly smile.
“I know you’re anxious. But Emily will be fine. At least she’ll survive.”
Caitlin’s thoughts stopped right there. Survive?
Jess’s expression turned bleak. “I hate what’s coming. We all hate it. It’s our home.” She snorted. “Gone. Just like that. I hate it.”
Gone? Caitlin tried to match Jess’s expression. Bleak. Wistful. Guilty. She sensed that they wouldn’t stay on this topic. It was too unpleasant, But Caitlin needed more. “What will it look like, do you think? When it happens?”
The other woman paused. “You can’t think about things like that. It’ll make you crazy.”
“Haven’t you wondered, though?” She was pushing too hard, but she couldn’t let it rest, couldn’t back off. “I guess I’m just the nervous type.”
“But you’re committed.”
Caitlin put starch in her voice. “Jess, we’re all committed to this. You just said, you still hate it.”
The other woman grabbed her purse out of the backseat, then stopped, hand on the car door. “Yes, I hate it. I dream about it. Fire roaring like a hurricane. You don’t suppose they’ll have time to see fire, do you? I imagine the river boiling off . . . I imagine . . . I imagine . . .” Her mouth trembled. “I imagine it. I can’t describe it.” She gathered her purse in her arms like a baby.
“Let’s go in.”
The school had walls. A few tables for desks. Computers. Caitlin didn’t hear a word of what the teachers said.
She was imagining the river boiling off.
When they emerged from the instructional module, the sky was darkening toward evening. Caitlin didn’t dare ask to see the crossover place inside the reactor vault. She’d already gone too far with Jess. But then, as they drove back to the parking lot, Jess brought it up herself. The transition stage, as she called it, was off-limits. No one got in. It was a clean room, techs only.
In the mothballed reactor vault. Well, actually, under it. The engine itself was on the ground floor of the old reactor vault.
That was a little spooky, Jess admitted. To be so close to the thing. The stage and the engine were sited together so that HTG had no footprint on the land. Nothing an outsider could detect.
Caitlin took a closer stare at the steel-clad structure as they passed it this time. A deep thrumming sound came from it.
“We go in, we don’t come out again,” Jess mused. She crumpled her lips.
“With the engine overhead, I think I’d rather be number sixteen. Get through it in a hurry. Last person out pulls the chain, I guess.”
Caitlin could hardly wait to be rid of Jess. She waved at the woman and fumbled for her car keys. After several tries, she got the door open.
So this was the transform Lamar had been referring to.
Oh, Titus. Oh, brother-in-law, fuck me to hell. It was the end of the world.