IT WAS FULL DARK AS CAITLIN SPED DOWN THE HIGHWAY, keeping the Mercedes under manual control, passing meshed transport, passing at eighty, at ninety. To one side, the Columbia River. Instead of seeing its familiar placid waters, she imagined a cloud of vapor flashing into the air.
The river boiling off.
Jess had said, I dream about it, fire roaring like a hurricane. Our home, gone, just like that. I imagine the river boiling off.
Lamar had called it the transform. But it was a holocaust.
At least we’ll survive. But to survive, you have to leave.
A half moon brightened the water, drawing her eyes when she needed to drive fast, drive very fast. Be packed, Lamar had said. Be ready. And when did he plan to end the world? She was losing her mind. Wasn’t she?
Lamar had lied about Titus. Titus hadn’t asked for a few people to join him in that place—the Entire. He had nothing to do with this. Lamar was behind it—with whom else, Caitlin had no idea. But Lamar was high enough in the group that he could change Mateo’s test scores. So Mateo could go over to the Entire, with his sister and mother. So he could stand on—what had Jess called it?—the transition stage excavated under the old reactor.
Something terrible was going to happen, and only Lamar’s two thousand were shipping out in time to avoid it. An apocalypse of fire. Our home, gone. Jess has nightmares.
She kept remembering a small, niggling thing, something Jess said about Emily not having children. Lamar’s two thousand savvies were not coming back. The children would grow up and have children in the Entire.
But if they didn’t test well, they wouldn’t be having children. Because the average person was dragging us down, and the average was about to become better. It sounded like eugenics. She had no proof, but at the same time she was sure. Ugly as that was, there was more: they weren’t going to leave the Earth intact.
There’d be a good, savvy reason for that. They didn’t want more people coming over to dilute the gene pool. They were creating an uber-colony of smartasses, just like the fanatics who’d threatened for decades to start colonies in South America—or Idaho, for that matter.
She was driving too fast. Slowing, she drew in gulps of air. At a legal speed, she voiced to her dashCom, “Audio contact, Rob.”
She had no fucking idea what she would say.
He answered quickly. “Caitlin? Decided to come home tonight?”
“How are the roads? Where are you?”
“About an hour out.” She passed a platoon of meshed cars, ambling along at sixty mph. “Rob.”
He waited. “You OK?”
“Of course, OK. I’ve had a thought about that bad software glitch and don’t want to lose it. I’m going to encrypt.”
A pause. “Right. Go ahead.”
She voiced, “Encrypt audio signal.” The light flashed. You didn’t survive in business without keeping your conversations to yourself, and Emergent’s virtual educational modules were constantly poked at by their competitors.
Now encrypted, she started over. “It’s not the software, Rob. Something’s happened. Can you get the kids over to Mother’s?”
A pause for decoding. “What, tonight?”
She really had no idea how to begin. “I need you, Rob.”
A very long pause. “That’s nice to hear.”
Amid her panic a thread of shame corkscrewed in. “I’ll meet you at Emergent, back door. Please don’t ask me anything. Just do it?” Do we have enough of a relationship that you’d get the kids out of bed at 10: 00 p.m. and drive over to Multnomah and wake Mother up, no questions asked?
“You got it,” he said.
Oh, steady Rob.
Rob at her side, Caitlin stranded the door code into the panel of the deserted office. “Lights off,” she voiced, and they slipped inside.
Once the door locked behind them, Caitlin fumbled her way to the bathroom, keeping the light off. Rob followed her, not speaking, blessedly not asking her anything until she could relieve her bladder and wash the misery from her face.
When she joined him, she sank onto the floor, pulling Rob down with her. She rested her back against the wall.
“What, you murdered someone?”
Rob was so bemused he didn’t even know what his first question was. His silence gave her the room to shape her story.
“Was Mom awake?”
“Yes. I told her we were having problems. She figured out it was marital.”
He didn’t elaborate. He’d said Mother figured it out because they were having problems. Of course they were, even if they’d never discussed it.
Caitlin brushed past that topic, dwarfed as it was by events.
“I have some things to tell you that I’m not proud of. But the worst things aren’t personal. They’re . . .” her voice trembled. “Rob, they’re something so bad.” She couldn’t see him in the absolute dark. Maybe that was best for what was coming. “I’m scared to death.”
He put an arm around her. “I know. Just start talking, hon, let some words out.”
“It’s about Titus. It’s about Lamar. And the kids.”
“Whole family, then,” he said with a smile in his voice, treating her like a panicked child.
She stopped, thinking that this was the last moment of peace Rob would know. She gripped his hand in a wordless apology. Closing her eyes, Caitlin tried to find a thread to pull on, somewhere to begin.
“Lamar changed Mateo’s standard test so that he’s shown as having advanced capabilities. As savvy.”
Oh, baby, you think that’s bad.
“He also changed mine.”
Their voices took on a chamber resonance in the great space of the converted warehouse. She lowered hers to a whisper, and told him, then, of Lamar’s offer to get them in on something, and that she grew suspicious and drove, not to visit her friend in Goldendale across the river, but all the way to Hanford.
Rob’s arm came off her shoulders. “Why didn’t you tell me?”
“I was ashamed of something.” She wasn’t going to soften this. It would be so easy to make this part obscure, and she by God wasn’t going to because Rob deserved the truth. They’d been married a long time, and she’d been treating him like shit for years. No, not like shit, maybe like something worse. Like a clueless, pleasant roommate.
Maybe it didn’t matter any more.
“Lamar didn’t change your scores.”
“I don’t need . . .”
“No, don’t ask questions yet. I need to tell you the whole thing. Lamar is planning a crossover to the place Titus went. For a bunch of savvies. Some of them are his friends. Like me and the kids. But not you.”
A much larger silence hulked.
“Lamar has a staging ground up at the old Hanford nuclear reservation where people are starting to congregate. I saw it. It’s innocuous looking. Just a bunch of modular dwelling units, a makeshift school—surrounded by the decommissioned plants. They’re getting ready for a mass crossing to the place Titus went. Lamar said it’s like a pocket universe, but enough like our own that they can make a human colony. Lamar is trying to say that Titus is ready for an advance team of scientists and their families to join him. And he’s letting me and the kids go out of some kind of pity. He’s excluding you. Because he assumes that I want to be with Titus.” She paused, letting that statement sink in.
“And do you?”
Well, that was a nice, controlled reaction. “No. No, but that doesn’t mean I’m not guilty, Rob. I’m not saying I’ve been . . . a good wife.”
“You’ve been.” But his voice was tentative.
Now was the time for the thing she’d been trying to say since she’d walked into the warehouse. “I’ve been in love with Titus for a long time.”
They sat side by side staring into the darkness, trying to see something, anything that would save them.
“I’ve fought it and reveled in it. I’ve pushed it away and wished to act on it. I would apologize if it wasn’t so pathetic and self-serving. I just fell in love with him. I just, at times . . . it crept up, and I—”
“Don’t, Caitlin. Just stop explaining. I know this.”
A fringe of bitterness attached to his words: “I may not be Titus, but I notice some things.”
Jesus. He knew. And all this time he forbore to say anything. It sounded miserable, even to her, but she said, “You didn’t care?”
“I cared. You weren’t sleeping with him?”
“He didn’t ask you to?”
From the sound of it, she thought he put his head in his hands. Anger flared as she realized that it was more important to him to have his brother’s loyalty than his wife’s. She could have told him, but she didn’t feel like it, that Titus wouldn’t have been with her even if something happened to Rob, because he wouldn’t be in line, as he’d said. So not only did she not have Titus, but she could never have had him. The whole thing was so fraught with layers of abstraction and longing that she couldn’t decide, at this moment, how to feel. Goddamn Rob for accepting things, and goddamn Titus, too, for saying no. She was not thinking clearly, but what was new about that, after years of pretending, pretending that her marriage wasn’t cracked down the middle?
“Caitlin,” Rob began.
She turned on him, frazzled and desperate. “Is it just that we didn’t have sex? Is that all that matters? Is it all just a game of who shags whom?”
“That’s a lot of it.” He didn’t back down. “It matters to me.”
How was she planning to make this Rob’s fault? That he didn’t love her enough to care who she loved? She stood up, pacing, bumping into a desk and painfully crunching her shin. “Shit, oh shit.”
Rob found her in the dark. “Look. Caitlin. I don’t blame you, and I’m not looking for an apology. There’s just one thing I want right now, and that’s you.”
He said it so artlessly and without rancor that it caught her breath. She wanted to move toward him, but that was too easy, to receive absolution and then move on to the end of the world. But the thing was, she was relieved by his words. A drift of comfort settled down from above, like a blessing. “Oh Rob, I don’t deserve this.”
“I don’t care about who’s right, Caitlin. Can’t you just listen to me? I want us to be good with each other again. I want you back.” He put a tentative hand on her arm, or tried to, but touched her breast instead. He moved to her shoulder. “I’m not Titus, but can you love me?”
“I don’t know,” she whispered. “I’m so fucked up. Please let me try. Can you do that, can you let me try?”
They managed to touch hands.
“And Caitlin?” He gripped her hand. “Why are we discussing all this in the dark?”
“Because Lamar is trying to kill me.”
“I thought you said he was trying to help you.”
“He was. But I went to Hanford. He’ll find out. He or one of those people is going to start worrying about me, especially after we hack his computer.”
“Hack his computer?”
“We have to get some evidence for what they’re doing. No one is going to believe me, and we might not have any time to wait for people to investigate.
They’re hiding everything inside an old reactor. That’s where the transition platform is. If we can prove there’s something strange in there, it would blow their cover story of a nuclear cleanup. So we need to raid Lamar’s files.”
She was tired, and rambling, and she hadn’t yet told Rob about the hurricane of fire, and how the dreds weren’t going to dilute the good stock anymore.
“I think we need to sit down for this,” she began.
Just before dawn, they left the warehouse. It was still dark, so she still hadn’t seen Rob’s face, not clearly. It was surprising how much you could tell just by voice. He was sober, focused, and a little stunned. Still, he was working the problem. He was probably dealing with all this so well because he hoped she was wrong. And when he found out the opposite, he would feel exactly what she did: Quiet, sick panic.
They said their goodbyes and went to their separate cars: Rob to get the kids and Mother, finding a hiding place for them, and Caitlin to ferret out someone who was good enough to get past Lamar’s computer security.
She settled into the driver’s seat. If she couldn’t find someone for the job, she’d return to the office and put her mSap on it. It would mean losing eleven million dollars’ worth of quantum programming. She wasn’t a sapient engineer, but she could handle savant programming, and she could jury-rig an mSap. It might leave a quantum mess behind, but it could be done.
Rob started the car, then shut it off again and got out, coming over to her. She rolled down her window.
“I love you,” he said. By the streetlight, she caught him putting a finger to his lips.
She wasn’t to answer, and she didn’t.