IT WAS 9: 00 P.M. when John Hastings came back on shift at the transition stage, what everyone was calling the pond. After dinner and an hour’s rest, John prepared to take the first evening shift, relieving Isobel Wu. Beside Isobel in one of the three chairs in the control room sat Booth Waller, who had taken refuge there, watching the transitions, too nervous to wait outside.
When John entered, Isobel gave him a weary glance, finishing up her last crossing. “From the dark to the bright,” she voiced to the mSap. Upstairs, the engine thrummed hard enough to jangle John’s teeth.
Isobel and John would both be awake for the last transition; they’d cross together after activating the renaissance engine for the transform: Isobel to make sure John didn’t have a change of heart; John to make sure of her.
In the transition room, Chitra Kamath had just entered. She balanced her toddler son on her hip, adjusting his face mask that supplied oxygen for those too young to hold their breath.
“Get some sleep, Isobel,” John said as he settled into his chair.
“Who can sleep?” Isobel muttered.
Booth looked up from his crossword puzzle. “You can. Take a pill, we need you fresh tomorrow.”
“Chitra’s all yours,” Isobel told John, and left the control room, heading for a sandwich and a sleeping pill.
Leaning into the pickup mike, John instructed Chitra on the immersion process, feeling a bit like he was drowning a mother and child. But it was life, not death, they were headed for.
Chitra’s crossing was controlled by the mSap. The AI controlled it, monitoring the connection with the Entire; that part had to hold steady, and was. In the back of John’s mind curled a disquiet over how they’d been changing the order of the list, with the head folks holding back, letting others precede them. He guessed that neither Lamar nor Booth trusted the other to be left behind. Maybe at the last, the two of them would turn the lights out. That was fine with him. Who wanted to have such a thing on his shoulders? All the mSap engineers had drawn from a hat for the responsibility entailed in the last slots. But the world would undergo a transform of sorts, anyway. The Tarig made sure of that. Speeding it up was no crime, nor was saving a few good people.
The mSap registered a successful crossing. The pool cleared. Chitra and son and were at this very moment in the new world. John wondered mightily what would be the first thing they would see.
Outside the crossover vault, people were still gathered, sitting in huddled groups, giving support to the next ones lining up to go. A few people had already bailed out. They were allowed to go to the back of the list to settle down. John didn’t envy Alex Nourse’s task of managing them. When John had come on shift, he’d seen Alex with his clipboard, looking official as he chatted with people and organized the line. He’d also had a gun clipped to his belt. No one missed that little addition to the tech array.
John turned in surprise at a noise at the control room door. Lamar Gelde poked his head in. “Booth.”
Looking up from his crossword puzzle, Booth rose to his feet and joined Lamar in the corridor outside. He shut the door, leaving John to concentrate on his migration task.
Lamar looked every bit of his seventy-seven years. Booth had often wondered why Lamar even wanted to go over. Who would choose to be old for the next two hundred years?
Lamar glanced up at the stairs. “Folks are getting restive. Alex is having a hard time keeping them steady. It’s taking too long. It’s the waiting.”
“We all knew how long it was going to take. Can’t people go to bed?”
“They’re all out there. Nobody is sleeping, Booth. I think we should double up. The longer this takes . . .” He shook his head.
“Your nerves shot, Lamar?”
“Bloody fucking right.”
Booth bit down on a retort. “I’ll come up and talk to them.”
Lamar snorted, “You’ll talk to them? They hate you, Booth. You were supposed to be the first. How do you suppose that looks to everyone that—”
The control room door slammed open. “Jesus, get in here,” John shouted, lunging back to the control panel.
Booth and Lamar jammed in after him. Through the control room window they could see someone lying on the floor near the pool. Someone had collapsed. “They just came through,” John said, looking ill. “Came through, came up. My God.” He pushed past Booth and rushed into the corridor.
Alarmed, Booth ran after him to the transition room.
When he got there, he saw a woman covered in slime from the transition matrix, her white hair pulled into a clasp at the back of her head. Kneeling, she coughed up fluid. She was wearing dark clothes. That couldn’t be right.
Crouched down before the woman, John stared at her in dismay.
Booth looked at Lamar who had just come in the door. “Get Alex down here, fast!” They needed to control this situation, and Alex was good in an emergency.
Struggling to rise, the woman coughed up a wad of pool fluid. Then she sat up, leaning against John, who held her like she was contaminated with radioactive trailings.
“Who the fuck is this?” Booth asked John, who was supposed to be in charge of the transitions.
“She came through,” John whispered. “Up from the pool.”
“Dressed like that? Dressed in—” then Booth realized what John was trying to say and hadn’t quite put into words: The woman covered in slime and coughing her guts out had come from the matrix.
John wiped her face clean with a hanky. After a moment she pushed herself up into a sitting position, sopping wet and starting to shake. “Give her your sweater,” Booth snapped at John. She accepted it, looking puzzled by the garment. John put it around her shoulders.
At a sound from the door, they saw someone entering: a white-suited figure. The next in line for crossing. Booth waved him away. “She fainted,” he said, standing up to block the view of the visitor. “Wait upstairs. We’ll come and get you.”
The door closed behind him.
Shakily, John helped the woman onto a bench next to the vat. It was hard to tell who was shaking more: John or the visitor.
The woman spoke, looking directly at John. “No more,” she said, her speech heavily accented. She spoke English, so maybe she wasn’t from the other place.
“Who are you?” Booth asked her. Her age was impossible to guess. She didn’t look old enough to have pure white hair. . . . Then, Booth remembered Quinn saying that some of the people in the Entire had white hair while young. His heart was hammering hard enough to jump out of his chest.
The woman said, “He killing all. All are to dying.”
Booth exchanged glances with John. “Who is killing?”
“The Tarig lord dying persons in a pile of blood.”
“Oh God,” John whispered.
“Shut up!” Booth leaned down to her. “What are you talking about?
Who the hell are you?”
The woman looked up at him with clear, yellow eyes. She spoke again. “I called Ji Anzi. From where you call Entire.”
Booth seemed to have stopped breathing. Gulping in a lungful of breath, he struggled for calm, wrestling with the improbability of a reverse crossing.
But yet, with the connection established between here and there, maybe it wasn’t so outrageous after all.
The newcomer looked around her, noting the pool, the control room, the men gathered around her.
The door crashed open. It was Alex Nourse, with Lamar right behind him.
“Shit,” Alex said, seeing their visitor.
Booth nailed Alex with a stare. “Did you tell people to wait?”
Alex nodded. “We’ve got one in the dressing room, but we told him we’re taking a break. He’ll go back to the dorms.”
John blurted out, “She says they’re killing us as we go over. Everyone is dead. Everyone.”
Booth silenced John with a look. This wasn’t his lead.
Alex and Lamar joined the circle around the woman.
Booth thought it likely, almost certain, that the woman had come to them from the very place they were all bound. He would have been more impressed by this fact if she hadn’t just told them that the Entire would kill them. In a pile of blood.
He got down on one knee to look her in the eyes. “What’s going on over there . . . Jiasi . . . what is your name?”
“Jianzi. What’s happened there?” Unconsciously, he had glanced at the pool, as though that was the direction of the Entire. “Tell us.”
Hugging the sweater around her shoulders, she said, “Tarig not wanting humans. Tarig killing all coming into our land. Hel Ese, she dying too.”
Worse and worse. “Helice Maki is dead?”
“Yes, sorry. Very much dead. They kill she. Now they kill you.”
John looked like he had just drunk a quart of pool matrix. He put his hand to his head, whispering, “Oh God, oh God.”
“Why should we believe you?” Booth spat at her, realizing that she could unravel everything, that John could blather this and no one would go over— that they would all lose their nerves. It nagged at him, that this might be a counterstrike. She looked harmless, but she had already derailed them, if temporarily. “Jianzi, do you want us to come over?”
“No. Lords killing you.”
“I mean, do you welcome us, personally?”
“In my person, do I have welcome of you?”
She paused. “You should take welcome, certainly. Sadly, they not liking you.”
Alex burst into the conversation. “Who sent you?”
“No person sending. I always want be in Rose. Now door open—you open it, or lords do? But door open, I see dying, and I run for warning you.”
Booth and Alex exchanged glances. Deep shit. And she was maybe lying and maybe not. Alex shouldered closer to her. “Who’s doing the killing?
How are they doing it?”
“Lord Ghinamid using a—how you say, knife sword. Then with thrusting and slicing, he killing everyone to die.”
“Why the hell doesn’t someone stop him?”
The woman pursed her lips. “They Tarig.”
Alex whispered at Booth’s side. “Anybody search her yet?”
Alex pulled her to her feet. “We’re going to make sure you aren’t carrying a weapon. You understand?”
The woman nodded, allowing Alex to pat her down. In her jacket he found something. Booth thought it looked like a heavy flexible cloth. Alex pushed her back down on the bench and began to read it.
Lamar knelt down beside her. “Why? Why are they killing us? Why not just shut down the crossover link?”
The woman looked at him, at his white hair, his face, maybe trying to make sense of a situation as bizarre for her as it was for them. “Tarig, they hating of the Rose.”
Lamar frowned. “But they sent us word we could come.”
Having finished reading, Alex nodded at them all to go out into the corridor. They left the woman and regrouped in the corridor.
Alex passed the piece of writing around. Booth got it first. English, of course, or Alex wouldn’t have been reading it. It was an account of the renaissance project from the viewpoint of someone inside the Entire. From the viewpoint of Titus Quinn, for Christ’s sake, who’d signed it.
Lamar looked at it next, swearing under his breath.
John said, “Why is she carrying the note? Why bring it here?”
Alex had grown very quiet. “Because Quinn hoped to alert someone here to what we’re doing. Unfortunately, for him, it’s us.”
John looked confused. “So she’s lying? They’re not killing us?”
Booth said, “That could be one interpretation. Maybe a damn good one.”
This Jianzi was against them and making up a story to disrupt everything. If Booth didn’t manage the situation, John Hastings could go off the deep end, killing the group’s confidence in the project.
The men leaned against the cool walls and tried to get a grip on what they were facing. Booth threw out: “I think she’s lying.”
John looked panicked. “But what if she’s not!”
“Why would Helice have sent the message that we could go over unarmed? We had it all worked out which message to send in each circumstance. She indicated unarmed. There were some issues, but not critical ones.”
Kay Kenyon 403 “To be fair,” Lamar said, “that could have changed.” His hand was resting on a gun he wore in his waistband. Booth hadn’t noticed before that Lamar had started wearing a gun.
Booth snorted. “Quinn’s behind this, he signed the paper. We knew he had to be kept out of it. Maybe Helice failed to do that.”
John shook his head. “She said everyone’s lying in a pile of blood. We’ve got to stop the transitions. It’s too dangerous.” He flicked a glance at Alex with his clipboard.
“Shut up,” Booth said to John. “You don’t give orders. You don’t make decisions.”
Alex Nourse frowned. “Why didn’t Quinn come himself, then? Why send a woman to stop us? She might be for real.” He nodded apologetically at Booth. “I’m not saying stop the crossovers. But I’m just asking.”
Lamar rounded on him. “You stupid scumbag. We’ve come all this way, and now you’re backing out?”
Everyone was talking at once, but Lamar had drawn a gun, and he faced off with the other three men. “Let’s be clear,” Lamar said. “There’ll be no defections. None.”
“Lamar, come on . . .” Alex moved forward with a placating gesture, but as he did, Lamar shot him in the face. At the impact, Alex jerked backward and sprawled on the floor, pieces of bone and blood clinging to the wall that had been in back of him.
With the roar of the gun still reverberating in his ears, Booth looked in disbelief at Alex’s body. “Fucking hell! Jesus fucking hell.”
Lamar licked his lips and pointed his gun at John. “You clear where we’re going with this? We’ve come too far. We’re going on.”
Booth felt like his legs might give way. Beside him, John was moaning, head in hands. Booth managed to say, “Lamar, put the gun away.”
The old man did, reluctantly. “I’m just saying. We stay the course.”
Booth took John’s elbow and shoved him toward the door to the transition room. “Go keep her calm. And get a goddamn grip.”
When John staggered through the door, Booth and Lamar faced off with each other. “Why the fuck did you kill him?”
Lamar’s lip curled. “He was wavering. He was influencing John. We’ve got to be steady.” He bent down and picked up the clipboard that had fallen from Alex’s hands.
Booth looked at that calm gesture, and shook his head. “You’re out of control.”
“Well, if I made a mistake, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry . . .” He’d just killed Alex. And he was sorry. Booth thought of the next people that would come down the steps. “Help me drag him out of here.” He pointed down the corridor. “Around to the back.”
The two men bent to their task, depositing Alex’s body in a dead end around a corner. Booth took the gun from Alex’s body and put it in his pocket. Then they came back with rags and water, and cleaned up what they could. There were stains; it couldn’t be helped.
When at last they’d finished, Lamar said, “I’m going up. I’ll keep things moving.”
Booth couldn’t shake the picture of Lamar shooting Alex point blank in the head. “I never knew you were such a bloody son of a bitch.”
Ignoring the jibe, Lamar glanced at the door to the transition room.
“And her? What are we going to do with her?”
Booth had been wondering the same. On the one hand, they needed to know everything that she had to tell them. But it could take hours to find out all she knew, maybe days. Could they afford to delay? Maybe this was exactly what Titus Quinn intended: Send her to slow them down, then Quinn comes through with a larger force. . . .
Booth said, “Let’s bring her up to the engine vault. I’ll question her there. If there’s anything else we need to consider, I’ll fetch you.”
Lamar shook his head. “No good. We need someone to watch John. He’s going off the tracks.”
Booth nodded. Their mSap engineer was freaking out. They couldn’t let him out of the control room now, to spread this news.
Lamar offered, “You stay with John. I’ll get someone to handle the line out there. Then I’ll come back and see if there’s anything more to learn from her. That way, there’s only the three of us who know anything.”
Booth hesitated. “Maybe. But the next person who crosses over goes with a weapon.”
Kay Kenyon 405 “Good.”
“Whoever’s next, give him yours, Lamar. You’ve got no business with a gun.” In the back hallway was a cache of weapons under lock and key. Booth was astonished to realize that this once far-fetched precaution was now proving needful.
They went into the transition room, finding the woman wild-eyed, crouched in the corner. John still had flecks of blood on him, which wasn’t helping the visitor’s panic. They managed to calm John down, bringing him into the control room and explaining the plan. People would have guns going over—those who were willing to carry them. But nothing would be said about Tarig killing people. It wasn’t confirmed. The woman could have been sent by Titus Quinn.
John balked, but saw reason when Lamar threatened him again.
“I’ll be waiting at the top of the stairs, John. Nobody comes back up.
Especially not you.”
Jianzi, or whatever her name was, pressed herself firmly into the corner, not wanting to go into the hall. It took two of them to get her up the stairs.
Through the antechamber, they dragged her to the heavy doors into the engine vault. Long ago, people used to take tours of this very room, back when it gave access to the front face of the reactor core. Superceding the reactor core now was the renaissance engine, two stories high, sprayed with cooling foam and thrumming mightily.
Once inside, they left the lights off, searching by flashlight for something to tie the woman’s hands and feet. Here, the engine’s relentless drumming sounded like the pounding of ocean surf, further stressing Booth’s ragged nerves. Dragging Jianzi along with him, he found some copper wire coiled in a box in the corner. As he bent to retrieve it, his prisoner bolted for the door, but Lamar caught her, and the two of them managed to bind her.
An oily cloth served as a gag.
They left her there, parting in the upper hallway. Its walls were still mint green from the old days, and a sign, fresh as in 1945, said, “Evacuation Route.”
Booth had by now gotten his determination back. He told Lamar, “As people come down to the transition room, I’ll give them a gun from the cache. I’ll talk to them before they go over. You just find someone out there who can take charge of the list and keep people coming. Can you do that without murdering anyone?”
Watching Booth slip back down the stairs to the transition room, Lamar considered drawing his pistol and getting rid of the bastard. But Booth was armed too; he had Alex’s gun.
Lamar had only a few minutes—a brief window when Booth would be rummaging in the weapons cache and waiting for the next victim to suit up and come down. Lamar’s first move was to handle the people outside; then he’d handle the girl inside.
The moment that he’d seen the Chalin woman on the bench near the vat, he’d known that their enterprise had failed. She was saying that their colleagues were all dead, and whether she was lying or not, he knew that things had gone far enough. He’d almost quit after killing Caitlin. Now, with Titus Quinn fighting back and the Tarig possibly on his side, Lamar knew that renaissance was in shambles.
The Tarig were welcome to the Entire. Let them have it. The Earth was good enough. It would have to be good enough; it was all they had. Lamar was simply too disheartened and too tired. He was a murderer twice over, but Alex Nourse didn’t count; only Caitlin counted, and he’d have turned the gun he had in his waistband on himself if it weren’t for the fact that he bloody well was going to stop Booth and crew if he could.
And he thought, just maybe, that he could.
Smoothing his hair down, he took a calming breath and opened the door to the waiting crowd outside.
Anzi looked around her at the cavern prison. It was cold and dark here, just like the songs said. But of course she was inside.
She had made one terrible mistake. She carried the note from Titus. He’d meant it for her alone, or at least never meant it for his enemies. By carrying it on her person, she had revealed that she was against them. They didn’t believe her about the lord murdering their people. At least they didn’t act like it. And therefore they were still going to kill the Rose.
It was at times like these that she wondered why the Jinda ceb couldn’t have given her a decent weapon, something a thousand thousand days in advance of anything that the Roselings or the Tarig had ever dreamed of.
But the Jinda ceb had their own agenda, and unfortunately, it was not to save Titus Quinn’s universe.
Left alone in the dark, she thought about Titus and his adversary in the plaza. It was clear who would win that fight. And perhaps he already had. The Jinda ceb had told her that the orientation of the two universes had been firmly fixed for these hours by Lord Nehoov. So, in the same moments she was breathing the air in this cold, hollow place, Titus might be taking his last breaths in the Ascendancy.
This seemed impossible to her. She felt her breath coming in, going out. It was as though she was breathing for him, of him, through him.
Under a heavy mantle of stars, in a dark broken only by hundreds of flashlights, Lamar stood in front of the groups camped out in front of the vault building. The 1,947 remaining Earth-side members of Project Renaissance stood in small knots of friends and co-workers. Anchored by one or two flashlights, the groups looked like an army around its cook fires. And they were an army of sorts. An army of self-styled rebels, determined to salvage the human race from its inevitable regression to the mean.
Some of them had clustered by profession. On his left, a gaggle of astrophysicists; directly in front, the biologists. They sat on the ground, or on folding chairs, or stood in tight circles, offering each other comfort or just plain company. And although they were savvies—each one of them—they were all dumb as stumps. Did you really think we could pull this off?
Yes, and he’d thought so, too. But no longer. The decision, when it had come, had brought him an acute relief. It just hadn’t been clear until a few moments ago what he could do to set things right. Killing Alex Nourse was an ugly prelude to all that came next. Although he’d intended to shoot him in the chest, in his panic he’d got him the head. Fatal either way, but, Christ, to see that carnage on the wall! It had shaken him to kill Alex. But everything depended on geeks like Booth being in control. They had no idea how to be ruthless. Alex Nourse had.
Lamar held up his hands and called for attention. People moved in closer, but he could really only talk to those closest.
“We’ve run into some trouble with the mSap, I’m afraid. We’re running some diagnostics. Nothing to worry about, but we need to take a break and do a little cleanup.” He hushed people when a few started to speak. “Look, we’re going to start up again in the morning, once our readings stabilize. We’d like you all to head back to your dorms and try to get some sleep. We’ll be fine, but move along now. No point in drawing attention to our location with all the flashlights. Really, people, let’s call it a night. We begin again at first light.”
A dozen questions hit him all at once. What was the problem? What did he mean, readings? Why weren’t they sharing the problem with the other sapient engineers?
He answered as best he could, while shooing people off. The mSap engineers were another matter. They had to be dealt with.
“Those of you who’ve been working on the sapient engineering, John wants to meet with you in Dorm B. Please assemble there. John will be over in a few minutes.” He delegated a few people to take the message into the crowd and get people to go back to the dorms.
That had taken what he judged to be five minutes. Booth might be just settling in down there, ready with a supply of weapons to hand out and wondering when the next person would show up.
People were moving along, heading back to their dorms or the coffeehouse. Lamar ducked back into the vault building through the steel access door and along the corridor between the old concrete cocoon and the outside wall. He was wasting precious minutes coming back for the woman, but he was tired of being responsible for death, and this woman would die if Booth concluded she was sent by Titus.
She looked up in alarm as he entered.
He hurried over to her and began removing her bonds. As he worked the wires binding her ankles, he said, “I’m helping you, you understand? I know you want to stop the engine, but there’s nothing you can do from here. That takes an engineer. You understand? We have to go for help. All right?”
“Yes.” She stood, rubbing her wrists. “We going outside?”
He gave her the jogging outfit that had belonged to Chitra. “Put this on, and hurry.”
Once the woman had discarded her wet clothes and dressed in Chitra’s too-small garments, Lamar led the way by flashlight to the door. In the corridor, the sparse working lights showed that they were alone. Looking at the woman, he realized he’d forgotten that her hair was pure white. God almighty, she stood out like a fox in a hen house. With his flashlight tucked away and gun drawn, he dragged her quickly by the elbow toward the nearest dressing room.
“Help me find something to cover your head.” He searched the piles of clothes. Nothing. Jesus, why didn’t anybody have a bloody hat?
She left the dressing room. He charged after her, but when he got into the hallway she was just emerging from the next dressing room with a scarf tied around her hair. It didn’t cover it completely, but it didn’t need to.
Enterprising girl. It would have to do.
Here in the corridor it was a straight shot to the outer door, but they’d have to go past the stairway entrance. He hoped Booth wasn’t getting impatient. All he needed was just a few more minutes.
“Quiet, now,” he whispered to the woman. Jianzi she called herself. “Step quiet, Jianzi. No foot noise.”
Careful not to clank on the metal floor grating, they hurried past the dressing rooms and the stairwell. At the door, Lamar whispered to her, “Say nothing, you understand?”
“Yes. Sky is outside?”
What kind of question was that? “Yes. Just be quiet, and when I start to run, you keep up.” He opened the door.
A group of people were walking purposively toward him. God almighty.
It was Peter DeFanti and some of his cronies. He tried going off in the other direction, but Peter hurried up to him.
The Minerva board member confronted him. “What the hell is going on, Lamar? We can’t stop now. People are worried sick. Why wasn’t I notified?”
He slid a glance at Lamar’s companion.
Lamar snapped, “For one thing, turn the goddamn flashlights off.” He rounded on Peter’s friends. “I said off. Now!”
A few lights clicked off, but Peter kept his on. “Why?”
Lamar affected an exasperated sigh. “We never wanted people out here lighting things up. Everyone was supposed to wait at the dorms. I was just coming to get you. We’re having a meeting in Booth’s office. Booth is coming up. We can’t talk here,” he enunciated, glancing at the others who weren’t in the need-to-know loop.
“Who’s she?” DeFanti asked, snaking another look at Jianzi.
“Jesus, Peter, we’re in a hurry. She just got here, a late arrival. Can we meet at Booth’s, please?”
“Then why are you headed over there?” he glanced in the direction Lamar had been going.
Jianzi cupped her hand over her mouth and made a few gagging sounds, bending over as though she’d throw up.
Lamar took the welcome cue. “Shit, she’s already thrown up twice down there. Just trying to get a little fresh air.”
“Christ,” DeFanti said, looking at her with disgust. “I’d like to know how she got in line before me, Lamar. What, you guys are changing everything on a whim?”
“I said we’ll explain,” he said, sending another meaningful glance at DeFanti’s pals. We’re not going to talk in front of them.
DeFanti stared at him. Finally he said, “Okay, I’ll be at HQ. Just get your ass over there.”
Jianzi continued a show of retching as the group turned away.
Lamar led her away into the dark, blessing her quick thinking. He looked around him. There were still hundreds of people milling around, but the cluster was thinning. Taking Jianzi by the arm, he made his way through some of the outlying clusters of people, which he was relieved to see were breaking up and heading in the direction of the dorm huts. Continuing in a wide arc around the gatherings, he headed on a trajectory that he judged would eventually bring him to the parking lot in front of the mess hall. After a hundred yards or so, he flicked off his light.
He’d forgotten how dark the nights were on the Hanford reservation. The moon was rising over the hills to the east, but it was just a sickle. They stumbled along blindly to get distance from the vault.
“Good thinking back there,” he told Jianzi. DeFanti didn’t know all two thousand of their group, so he couldn’t expect to recognize her, but there was something about Jianzi that drew DeFanti’s attention. Remembering this, he quickened his pace.
Switching on the flashlight, Lamar took a quick reconnoiter. He was without landmarks—nothing but grizzled clumps of sage and bunchgrass.
Behind him, he saw pinpoints of lights near the vault building. That would be his reference point then; move away from those. Before he switched off his light, he noted Jianzi staring up at the sky.
“Stars. So small?”
“Yes.” Christ, to think that she’d never seen a night sky! She might be quite unused to the absolute dark. With the flashlight off again he asked, “You all right, Jianzi? We have just a little way to go.”
“I fine to hurry, please.”
Whatever that meant. He patted his pants pocket, assuring himself that he still had his car keys. Out of decades of habit, he’d brought them along. Car keys. He snorted. He was back in the world now, after so many months of projecting himself into the Entire. Where they were killing people in a pile of blood.
As they trudged on through the cooling desert, he asked her, “Titus Quinn sent you?”
“Titus. Yes, but no time to tell me how to do. No time, he fighting Tarig murderer.”
God. Poor Titus. “He’s a brave man.”
“What your name?” she asked him as he flipped on the flashlight again.
There were no buildings within range of the light stream. They had overshot his target. “Shit.” He realigned himself to the distant lights of the gathering by the vault, lights barely visible now. He led her on a new tangent toward the parking lot.
“Your name Shit?”
He snorted. Yes, from now on. “Just call me Lamar.”
“You Titus uncle?” After a moment she said, “He trusting you.”
Well, good. Now where was the damn car?
“You hurry for killing engine, though.”
Using his flashlight recklessly, he washed its light over the parked cars, quite forgetting where he’d left his own. Jianzi was pulling away. “You hurry for killing engine.”
“I don’t know how to kill it! We have to drive for help.” Collecting his wits, he remembered that he was parked at the very back of the lot, having arrived later than most. He rushed on. At last, with exaggerated relief, he found his own vehicle.
He yanked open the passenger car door. “Get inside. It’s a car. You understand car?” When she didn’t answer he said, “Can you trust me?”
“Yes. I trusting you, for Titus’s uncle.”
“The car will be noisy, and it’ll go fast.”
“We needing fast.”
Rushing around to the driver’s side, he slid in and fumbled for his keys.
Turning on the engine, he backed up and tried to keep the direction of the road firmly in mind. He looked back in the direction of the vault. Were there more lights than before?
Finding the road, he drove slowly enough to drive by the parking lights.
Now was no time to end up in the ditch, stuck on some ancient sage root.
“Jianzi, look behind. Tell me if you see people following us.”
She turned in her seat, watching.
Before them, the road dove into the night. He traveled at a good clip, watchful for tumbleweeds and elk. “Is Helice Maki really dead?”
“Yes, I told so. She dying of bad wound from to and fro.”
When he judged they had gone about a mile, he turned the lights on full and gunned it.
Helice was dead. The enterprise was over, indeed. Except for the engine.
Booth might not believe that people were being killed as they went through to the other side. He still might just go last and pull the plug. Maybe when he discovered the girl and Lamar gone he’d figure out that Lamar had gone for help. He’d double people up—triple them up in the pool, if that was even possible, and keep the stream going, trying to get as many across as possible before intervention. He drove on.
“Stars so small,” Jianzi said again. “I thought they bigger.”
“Yes. Far away small.”
Lamar wished she’d keep quiet. He listened for cars in pursuit, maybe following them at this moment, lights off. But at the same time, he was fascinated to be sitting next to her. Who was she, really? And the sheer marvels of what she’d known and seen . . .
His thoughts turned to the man he had most betrayed. Though he had killed Caitlin, his harms against Titus harried him closely now as he thought of whether he could make amends, could even get away from Hanford at all, and when he did, if he could hope to bring in law enforcement help. The woman with her strange yellow eyes and white hair would be a big help.
“How has Titus fared in the Entire? He didn’t destroy the Ahnenhoon machine, did he? Did Helice stop him?”
She turned around from her perch on the car seat to look at him. “Ahnen-hoon still there. Titus gave chain to river where lie down quiet.”
“Good man. We never meant to blow up the Entire. The chain was a mistake. Is the chain why they hate us? Why they’re killing us?”
“No. They hate Hel Ese. Hate door open. Bringing you. Door shut to be best. So thinking they.”
“Helice thought they’d let us come.”
“I confused why. I gone some time. Come back, and Titus fighting, Hel Ese dying.” She paused. “I fearing Titus dead.”
The way she said it, he thought she was close to Titus. Maybe his lover.
“Too many people dying, Jianzi. You were good to help stop it. Thank you.”
He thought he saw lights in the distance. Lights coming toward him from up ahead. His gut tightened.
“If anything happens, I want you to know—that I’m sorry.”
She turned around in her seat to face the front, peering through the windshield.
“Stars getting bigger,” she said.
Had Booth called in backup, backup that no one knew he commanded?
Or had they circled around through the scrub and come at him this way? He turned out his headlights and slowed to a crawl. He considered getting out of the car and hiding in the desert, but what good would that do? Without a car, he had no way of getting help. The nearest city was still forty miles away.
Pulling off the road, he cut the engine.
“Wait in the car.”
The September evening was still pleasant here on the hot side of the state. It was a land that nurtured grape vines and apples trees as well as engines of ruin. He took a deep draught of sage-filled air, savoring a last look at the stars. He’d done the right thing in the end. That wouldn’t save him, but it made him like himself a little better.
He thought of the Entire, and how Titus’s friend had just said he’d thrown the nan-filled chain away so it would lie down quiet. Titus, he thought, you were always a good man. He wondered what that felt like.
The lights got bigger. It looked like a convoy, but when it got closer, Lamar saw that it was only five cars. They stopped a ways down the road, lights still on, blinding him.
Car doors slammed. People got out.
Lamar stood with his hands at his side.
A burly-looking man came into the light. “Throw your gun on the ground. Easy and slow.”
Lamar did as he was told. Shadows milled next to the cars. He squinted at them, wondering who this was. Not renaissance, unless Booth had hired some thugs. The big fellow was patting him down.
One of the others was striding forward.
Lamar knew him. Christ. His heart began beating again. It was Stefan Polich.
“Enough,” Stefan said to his man, who backed up a couple paces.
Stefan had, of all things, a gun in his hand. Lamar shook his head.
“Stefan, put that away before you shoot your foot off.”
Stefan didn’t budge. From behind Stefan and his bodyguard, he heard, “We’re going to need a few guns, Lamar.”
Caitlin moved into view. The shock almost took him to his knees. Wonderingly, he stared at her. Caitlin.
Kay Kenyon 415 She sized him up. “Where were you going, Lamar?”
“To hell,” he said, realizing the joke was bad, but feeling suddenly giddy.
But who was it that he’d blown up in that car, then?
“Besides that,” she growled.
“I was coming for help. To stop them.”
“And I’m the sweetheart of Titus Quinn.” She strode forward and slapped him hard across the face.
He took it. It was just the beginning. He didn’t dare ask her who was driving her car. Was it Rob, then? Thank God, no matter who it was.
Lamar tried to focus on their immediate danger. “I ran from them, but they’ll be coming after me. So get out your big guns, Stefan. You did bring some?”
They were quiet on that score.
“The engine,” he said, looking between Stefan and Caitlin. “You found out about the engine, and you’ve come to stop it. Yes?”
Caitlin sneered. “Not exactly. He doesn’t exactly believe me. Or didn’t until maybe now.” She glanced at Stefan. “But he’s willing to go in for a look.”
Lamar’s stomach dropped. “For a look? A look?” Incredulous, he turned to Stefan. “They’ll shoot you down, Stefan. They’re leaving, crossing over. And shutting us down here with the engine. Where are the fucking marines?”
Stefan gestured behind him. “It’s all I brought with me. I can call in some favors. I can make some calls. First you tell me what the holy hell is going on.” He told his security to turn off the car lights. That done, they stood in the dark.
“Who’s in the car with you, Lamar?” Caitlin asked.
He wanted to say, Titus’s sweetheart. And knew not to. “Her name is Jianzi. She’s from the Entire.”
He looked behind him into the distance, to the spot where the crossover vault crouched in the darkness. And there, yes, headlights coming this way.
Stefan was too late. All he had was five cars full of security. To stop the transform, he’d needed the US Army, and he’d brought his goddamn bodyguards.
“Make your phone calls, Stefan,” Lamar said. “Whoever needs to get woken up, wake them. These folks are going to blow up the world.”