WHEN LAMAR TOOK THE CALL, he heard only a tinny, almost deadpan voice: “From the dark to the bright.”
HEN Just one simple sentence, it had the ability to make his heart race and his mind freeze. No need to answer, it was a recorded message, now going out to 1,999 others. He sank into a chair, hearing in his mind that plain, flat sentence, “From the dark to the bright.” He looked straight ahead as the wan afternoon sun silvered his houseboat windows.
Events had eclipsed his ability to process them. The lords of the Entire were killing the universe. He’d betrayed Titus, a man who was like a son to him. When he looked up at the sky at night he confirmed for himself what they said: Sirius, the brightest star in the sky was gone. All this paled before the fact that he’d just killed Caitlin Quinn.
An hour later he took a sweater off its hook and put it on over his shirt. He washed up the few dishes in his sink, setting them on the drain board. Checking his refrigerator for perishables, he threw them into a plastic bag. He shut off the gas valve, then went into his bedroom to fetch the small satchel with his change of socks and underwear. Calling up the time, he calculated he could be at Hanford in about three hours. Road conditions on I-5 southbound would be disastrous, he had cause to know. He decided to head north, taking the Washington side of the river.
On the way out, he picked up the garbage sack in the kitchen. Stepping out onto the deck, he voiced the houseboat door locked. Hanford, then. Oddly, he found he had tears in his eyes. Not for the general demise of the world, but for the particular end of Caitlin Quinn.
On his way to the car, he dropped the sack of food in the garbage bin.
A crowd had gathered outside around the reactor building. They stood talking, singly or in knots, staring at the door to the vault containing the engine, and below that, the transition stage. Children ran freely, their shouts and squeals making the adults seem grim by comparison. Maybe they were grim. They really should have waited in the dorms until their number was called, but Lamar couldn’t blame them if they wanted to gather together, now that it had begun.
In the press of bodies, Lamar saw Booth Waller near the reactor door. He was with Alex Nourse and Peter DeFanti. Lamar thought that the crowd was too large, might draw attention. But what attention? Satellites? Spies? Their one apparent spy had been dealt with. He had avoided newsTide accounts of the ball of fire on the freeway; no need for the news—he’d been an eyewitness.
The mothballed reactor towered above him, its steel encasement looking molten in the Eastern Washington sun. The steel dome encased the first mothballing of concrete and lead shielding. That pathetic sarcophagus lasted barely two hundred years. Now, even clad in steel, the beast looked nondescript, nothing like a nuclear reactor, much less a launch platform to other universes. From Lamar’s vantage point on the edge of the crowd, he saw Bechtel’s enormous vitrification plant in the distance. It was very nearly the largest building in the world before it was abandoned. Strictly low-level waste, that place. The aluminosilicate glass tubes could only hope to hold the easy material. The hottest stuff—the cesium and technetium—went into the big trench in the ocean, ignoring the screams of the whale lovers and other paranoids. But despite technical problems that had stymied generations of physicists, the thorniest problem at Hanford was record keeping. As generations of cleanup projects started up and broke off, the reservation filled up with failed, only partially characterized projects. When it was time to leave, contractors simply walked away, sometimes not even locking the doors.
And wasn’t that what renaissance was doing? Normally Lamar would kick such a thought away. Now he let it sit in his mind. Because he had no heart for the thing anymore. It struck him squarely, without doubt: he really didn’t care. He didn’t want to live with himself for the centuries that might lie ahead of him.
He turned around looking toward the access road, wondering if anyone would notice him slipping back to his car and just leaving.
But Booth was walking toward him, Alex Nourse in tow. The three of them nodded at each other, a quick acknowledgement that Lamar had earned back his right to be here.
Booth said, “We’ve begun. First one gone, Lamar.”
Lamar was confused. “Gone? But you’re number one, Booth.”
Alex spoke up. “We’re starting a little further down the sequence. For practice.”
The sons of bitches were afraid of screw-ups. They were afraid of their own systems.
Alex looked around at the crowd. “Most everyone’s here. We’re up to 1,989. Some are going to be too late.” An eloquent shrug.
And some died before getting here, Lamar thought. “Well, how did the practice crossing go?” He tried and failed to keep the contempt out of his voice, but they didn’t notice anyway.
“Looks good,” Booth said. “Solid contact. The strongest on record. We locked on—and here’s the exciting part—we’ve stayed locked. We think she’s managed to stabilize the interface from the other end.”
No need to say who she was. Goddamn, to think of that annoying youngster pulling it all off! But he didn’t begrudge it to her. It just surprised him that everything was working. Perhaps somewhere deep in the compost of his being, he’d hoped it wouldn’t.
Booth went on, “We don’t lack for volunteers to move up the list. People are anxious to go.” He nodded at the superstructure of the vault building.
“The engine. Hear it?”
Lamar listened. Yes, a few decibels higher. Now that he focused on it, it threw an ominous, thrumming net over the day. No wonder people seemed grim.
“I’d like to see the pond.” Despite his ugly mood, he wanted to see with his own eyes the migration under way.
“Trent Phillips is going next.”
Lamar hesitated. He was already letting himself get sucked back in.
“Okay, then.” He had liked himself better under the cloud of despair. At least that had showed a little conscience. He followed Booth and Alex toward the access door. Already, Portland seemed a universe away.
The crowd reminded Lamar of shoppers waiting for a sale. They looked enviously at Lamar and Booth as they headed to the door. Alex stayed behind to marshal the list, jockeying people, kids, luggage—didn’t they remember, no luggage? Lamar’s thoughts, though, were on Titus Quinn. What was he going to say to him?
The cement corridors were cramped, cold, and feebly lit. It was like walking through the passageways of an Egyptian pyramid, pathways few were meant to use. The engine’s throbbing pulse was louder here, like the heartbeat of a nuclear beast. But there was no reactor inside. The whole thing had been disassembled and buried in discreet pits around area five of the reservation, pits hot enough to kill sagebrush in three days. All to make room for the engine. It pounded at Lamar’s chest, as though demanding access. Wasn’t there some bible verse? I stand at the door and knock. If any man hears . . . What was the next part? If any man hears . . . How did it go? It seemed important to remember. But if he remembered, would he be held to account for all that he was doing? And if he’d forgotten, would God forgive him? An old man, after all. He glanced at Booth Waller. So what was this young man’s excuse?
Here on the main floor were the makeshift showers and dressing stalls so that people could suit up for the crossing. Don’t want to contaminate the pond, or infect the Entire with disease vectors. We’d arrive as clean as possible, and what needed cleaning up later, the Tarig would no doubt attend to it.
They descended a staircase, entering a region of yet colder air but brighter illumination. Down a narrow hall they crammed into the tiny control room. The transition stage itself was a clean room, so no idle observers there. At the boards, John Hastings and Isobel Wu nodded at the brass as they entered, then turned to their work. Isobel’s witlessly reassuring voice came over the speakers: “It’ll take twelve picoseconds to move you out of the water, Trent, you understand? That’s twelve trillionths of a second.”
For God’s sakes, they didn’t need to explain picoseconds to a particle physicist, but Isobel didn’t know anybody this far down on the list. She went on, “Don’t think of it as holding your breath, but don’t suck in material as you go under. When you feel your hands come to the end of the railing in the matrix, just pause and remove your hands from the grip. It’ll be over in a blink. Ready?”
In his clean togs, standing by the pool, Trent looked uneasy. He stood at the head of the short flight of steps leading into the transmission matrix.
Dressed all in white, he looked like a man about to undergo a total immersion baptism. Sometime in the last few months they discovered that the probes worked better in a high transmission-induced colloidal mixture.
People had been prepped about this, and Trent looked stalwart, if eerily pale.
Isobel voiced to the mSap. “Entering the bright.” Now the sapient would take control.
Trent walked down the stairs, bravely, Lamar thought. His hair, spreading out on the surface for the moment, looked as though it was reaching for a last moment of air.
The mSap controlling the connection initiated the quantum implosion and inflation, a daunting process that essentially reduced matter to fundamental particles and reconstituted so quickly, the body didn’t even noticed that it hadn’t, for a moment, existed. Best not to think about it. Everyone knew that Titus Quinn had come and gone that way; he was the only proof it could be done, and it calmed the nerves of even the quantum theory guys.
“Done,” Isobel said.
Already another person was entering the transition room, suited up and eyeing the pool like an electric chair.
Booth glanced at Lamar. “Do you want to go after him?”
“I thought we were going in order.”
“Not having second thoughts?”
“Of course I am, you stupid fuck.” Lamar was sick of them all. “I’ll wait my turn.”
Lamar stared at the surface of the gel. He moved closer to the control room window, straining to see into the vat. It was empty. There’d been no light show, no zapping sound, just a . . . he didn’t want to think silent dissolve.
It sounded too much like oblivion.
At Pioneer Courthouse Square in the middle of downtown Portland, Caitlin felt reasonably safe. A crowd might be her best protection, both for anonymity and for security, if Lamar’s group decided to come after her. She worried that her two-hour wait would attract attention, though. Stefan had claimed he couldn’t possibly get away from the office before five. The transform was coming, and Stefan couldn’t be bothered to hurry.
She tapped her coat pocket for the dozenth time, feeling for the list of two thousand. She wished she had her other documentation with her, but the letters from the Bureau of Standard Tests were sitting on the coffee table at home where she was afraid to return.
Damn Stefan anyway, for making her wait. But if anyone could marshal serious opposition to Lamar, if anyone she knew personally could do it, that would be the head of the fifth-largest company in the country. He might not like her—she and Stefan had clashed before—but he couldn’t afford to disregard Titus Quinn’s sister-in-law.
Her phone vibrated in her pocket again. It had been ringing over the last few hours, but the only person she would take a call from right now was Rob.
She looked at the incoming. Her mother again.
No calls. It was too dangerous. Lamar could find her if she used her phone, if they were tracking her.
The damn phone again. This time, instead of Call Mother, the message said: Emergency. Call Mother. It could be a ruse, someone using her mother’s phone. She ran a typeprint check on the message, seeing that it had an eighty-seven percent chance of being her mother’s typing, her digital signature.
Then, without making a conscious decision, she placed the return call.
“Mom?” she said when her mother answered.
“Oh my God. So I was right.”
In the background, Emily’s voice, and Mom shooing her to her room.
“What emergency? The kids all right?”
“They’re fine, but . . . Oh honey. The police called.”
“You answered the phone? You’re not supposed to answer. You’ve got to stay hidden.” Jesus, her mother was being reckless, answering the phone, placing calls. . . .
“It’s Rob. It’s about Rob.”
“What are you talking about?”
“There was a car accident this morning. A blue Mercedes—they think it was a Mercedes—piled up on the freeway. It’s yours.”
She wasn’t driving the Mercedes. In a bout of trembling, Caitlin found a half wall to sit on.
“They traced the car to you, hon. I’ve been trying to reach you for hours.
The police thought you were okay because your phone was still working.”
Caitlin couldn’t speak, couldn’t even think.
Her mother went on, “Someone died in the car.” Her voice wavered, but didn’t break. “It was Rob, sweetheart. I’m . . . so sorry. He brought us here in the Mercedes, so I knew he had that car.” Silence, as Caitlin tried to absorb this. “What can I do, hon? Where are you?”
“It could have been anyone’s Mercedes, it could have—”
Her mother interrupted. “They found a piece of the license plate.”
The reality began registering. She held the phone in her lap.
“Caitlin?” came her mother’s voice.
She had traded cars with Rob; she was driving his sports car, he was driving the Mercedes because he had to transport the children and Mom.
Horribly, she felt relief—relief that the children hadn’t been with him.
Shock was there, too, a staggering weight of it.
Caitlin spotted Stefan Polich. Tall and thin, dressed in his signature jogging suit, looking stiff and out of place in the public square. He saw her, waved.
She threw a bleak wave back. “Mother, call the police. Tell them someone has been threatening our family, and I’m on the run. I’m going to hang up.
Promise me. Call the police.”
“Honey, what—“ “Just do it. Don’t call me again, I can’t answer.” Caitlin hung up. The Mercedes, crashed. They’d murdered Rob. By mistake. They were trying to murder her.
Pushing her emotions into a firm, small hole, she took a deep breath. It shuddered when it came out. Then she stood up and started walking toward Stefan. Looking around, she scanned the square for signs of Stefan’s security people. She’d asked for no goons, not trusting Stefan yet.
Caitlin, they go everywhere with me.
They drop you off, and they stay away, Stefan. You’ll be in a public square.You’ll be fine for twenty fucking minutes!
They’ll stand across the street, that make you feel better?
She saw them, standing with a clear line of sight to Stefan.
As she crossed the square, she jammed her fists past the corner of her eyes, wiping away tears of pure, overwhelming panic. Rob was dead.
As she stood in front of Stefan, he took in her expression. “God, what’s the matter?”
“We have to get out of here. Hurry.” An enclosed, hidden place was best. Keeping moving was best; don’t let them close in.
She charged out of the plaza, checking to be sure Stefan was following her. Making her way to the curb, she dashed across the street into the recessed entry of a mall. Stefan waited on the other side of the street, watching for traffic to clear.
Just run for it, she urged. He found a break and hurried across. Grabbing him by the arm, she pulled him through the door and into the hubbub of a super mall. She led him around a media kiosk and found a bench out of sight of the glass front doors. She sat, pulling him down with her.
“Caitlin, what the hell is going on?” He looked at her reproachfully, as though there was little that could justify running in a public place.
She had to summon her argument, but instead she was just realizing what Rob’s death meant. He was on his way to EoSap, the biggest competitor Minerva faced. EoSap would have listened to Titus Quinn’s brother. They knew someone had gone over to the Entire; one of their flunkies tried to kidnap Emily to apply pressure. They would have listened to Rob. Stefan was her last chance.
Two of his guards came through to the mall; he waved them back. They took up posts beside the cheap diamond outlet a hundred feet away.
She chose her beginning point and asked, “Where is Booth Waller? He works for you, right?” She paused, waiting for him to answer. Then she went on: “Where’s Peter DeFanti?”
“Booth? He’s on vacation. I never see DeFanti.” Stefan waited, eyebrows raised. The shoppers were young, carrying purchases in fancy bags, chattering, laughing.
“Booth isn’t on vacation.” She lost her train of thought almost immediately. After planning what to say for hours, now her thoughts vanished.
She made a new beginning. “Booth and Lamar and DeFanti have a plan.
The plan involves the Entire, and going over to it. Rob and I found out, and they’ve just killed Rob.” She saw his expression of disbelief, and despaired of telling him even more preposterous things. “Have you heard about a crash on the freeway? They demolished my Mercedes. Rob was in it, and now he’s dead.”
She sneered. “My husband. The one that used to work for you. Never mind. He’s dead, and now they’re hunting me. I just talked to my mother. She and the kids are in hiding, Stefan.”
He was starting to look around as though for people he could pretend to know so he could get out of this increasingly unpleasant conversation. Across from the goons, a mall security man chatted up the barista at World Bean, armed with a pathetic tangle gun. He’d be ready to take down anyone threatening America’s merchandise.
“You think Booth is killing people? And Lamar? He’s your uncle, for Christ sake.”
“He’s Titus’s uncle.” It sounded defensive, and it was irrelevant.
She charged on. “They have two thousand people they’re planning to send over to the Entire; I’ve been to the place where they’re congregating. It’s on the Hanford Reservation in Washington. Near one of those big abandoned reactors. It’s in the reactor. I mean in the shell of the reactor.” She stopped in frustration. “Stefan, they’re hiding. Hiding what they’re doing, because they plan to leave this place in ruins when they go so no one else can follow them, because they hate the rest of us and want to keep the race pure.”
Stefan watched her with the blankest look she’d ever seen.
Bringing the papers out from her coat pocket, she handed them to him.
“That’s the list of the ones who’re crossing over. I’ll bet not one of them is at work today. You should check.”
Stefan was shaking his head. “I don’t know these people.” Wrinkling his forehead, he muttered, “I know a few . . .”
“They’re not all Minerva people. They’re all savvies, though.” When he dared to shrug at her, she snarled, “Look at it, read it. I almost got killed getting this, so you can damn well read it.”
But he wasn’t intimidated. “Caitlin. This isn’t making any sense. Why go over, why go over secretly? We’re waiting for Quinn to report back. And the Hanford thing . . . I . . . I’m sorry, it’s nonsense.” He looked at her with some discomfort. She was Quinn’s sister-in-law. She could be influential with their man in the Entire, so no doubt he realized he owed her a little time, but it was coming to an end.
She plunged on, talking fast now, trying to pull together the evidence for him, so he could see, so he could believe. “Lamar got my scores altered at the Bureau, Stefan. He moved heaven and earth to get my scores changed to savvy so I could join his damn group and go over too, because he knew Titus would be pissed if I was left behind. In the ruins.”
“Ruins.” Stefan challenged her with silence.
She took a deep breath. “They’re going to blow up . . .” She had planned a small lie, to be more convincing. “They’re going to detonate a nuclear device. To hide their transition place, their crossover platform that has all the new technology that they don’t want anyone else to have, so that they’re the only ones going over. That bomb is going to go off about two hundred miles from here. And very soon.”
“Lamar is going to detonate a nuclear device? Are you listening to yourself?” “I know what it sounds like! But you—”
“Why didn’t you call the police, then?” He gestured at the security cop, as though this lone, beefy guy could stop what was coming.
“The police wouldn’t believe me, would they? The only one who would is someone who knows about the Entire, and that’s you.”
He reached over to touch her hand. It turned into a pat. “You’ve just lost your husband. You’re in shock. Anyone would be.”
Jerking her hand away, she said, “I have two letters at home. The Bureau of Standard Tests has said it made a mistake on my scores—from twenty-five years ago—and also on my son Mateo’s scores from a few months ago. We’re now both savvies, isn’t that nice? And we were invited to cross over. When I refused, they came after us, so I wouldn’t tell anyone. You want to see the letters?” Stefan stood up. Reaching for his cell phone, he said, “I’m calling someone to come down and drive you home, Caitlin.”
“No!” she jumped up. “For God’s sake, at least investigate. All those people on the list”—she waved at the papers he was still holding—“all of them are at Hanford. Call work, ask your people who’s there and who’s not!”
The cop was now watching them.
Stefan hesitated. “Caitlin.” He paused until he had her attention. Speaking quietly, he said, “I don’t believe you. I’m sorry. You’re falling apart, and I’m going to get you some help.”
“You son of a bitch,” she murmured.
As he directed his attention to his phone, Caitlin backed away. “If you don’t do something, I’m going to make sure that Titus Quinn never deals with you again. We’re bringing everything to EoSap. Every ounce of every damn thing that Quinn learned over there is going directly to EoSap.”
He was talking on his phone, ignoring her. The goons, now concerned, were walking toward her.
She turned and rushed toward the door to the street. Barreling past people just entering, she chose a direction, and hurried away from Pioneer Square. Rounding a corner, she saw an empty cab and hailed it. Mercifully, it stopped.
“Just drive,” she said as she clambered in. Just drive. Where to go? She had no idea.
The driver looked at her in the rearview mirror as she moaned. It had just struck her that she had left her only evidence—the list of two thousand— with Stefan Polich.