PETER DEFANTI WALKED TOWARD THE VAULT BUILDING, pushing down hard on the panic that threatened to overtake him. The camp was in an uproar; people had waited about twenty minutes for the promised meetings in the dorms, but neither John nor Booth had showed up. Now a group of six people had decided to go into the crossover vault and were heading that way when Peter caught up with them.
Peter nodded at them, team leaders for logistics, engineering, nanochem, astrobiology, and physics. “Anybody have any goddamn idea what’s going on?”
MSap engineer Shaun Coe looked at him like he should know. That he didn’t filled Peter with foreboding. Something had gone awry. Something to do with Lamar Gelde. Lamar said there were meetings arranged, but it seemed there weren’t. The sapient engineers were furious that they hadn’t been brought in on problems immediately. The more Peter thought about it, the more he wondered if, when he and Lamar had talked for a moment outside the vault a half hour ago, he’d actually been trying to get away. If he didn’t want to go across, no one would greatly care, but if he was hiding things, decamping with the thought of turning them in, that was—well, that was a disaster.
Now they’d go down to the control room and find out what the hell was going on.
As Peter, Shaun, and the rest of the group descended the stairs to the transition room, they were assaulted with a pungent odor too organic for the cleansed and metallic corridors. Peter thought it might be blood.
Shaun flipped his handheld light on and looked at the wall. An unmistakable red smear stained the wall. In the silence, everyone understood that their investigation had just turned deadly serious.
“Anybody armed?” whispered one of the engineers.
Logistics chief Jennifer Wren, who had gone a few steps ahead, pointed to something around the corner where the corridor zagged to give access to the control room. Joining her, Peter saw the weapons locker lying open.
Mike Jacobsky from nanochem took a handgun, bristling with sensing wires, and powered it up, while several of the others did the same. Mike aimed the weapon at the door. He fixed DeFanti with a look. “You want to knock?”
Peter shouted for John to open up.
When the door opened, an unarmed John Hastings faced four guns pointed in his direction.
“Oh, Christ,” he moaned. “Not again.”
With the truth of the last few hours finally out, Booth sat alone on the hard metal floor, indescribably weary. He’d chosen the engine vault as a place to wait, the place he’d be most likely to find peace to think.
Peter and his gaggle had come down to the control room and taken it over, demanding answers, and none too gently. So it all came out, all the surreal and ruinous events of the past hour and a half. After they’d finished debriefing him, Peter had called a general meeting back at the mess hall.
They disregarded Booth for now, his bad judgment and mishandling of things temporarily set aside in favor of greater matters.
Blanketed by the engine’s incessant bass drumming, Booth looked around him.
The woman from the Entire was gone, of course. The wires that had bound her wrists lay in a tangle on the floor where she’d been trussed up.
Lamar had freed her. No doubt she’d lend a bit of credibility when he went to the police, in where?—the Tri Cities? Peter DeFanti had sent a security team after Lamar, but Lamar would have been using his dashCom the moment he left the compound, and might be meeting with the police on a road between here and Richland right now.
He stared up at the renaissance engine. It was a marvel of quantum tech married with vision. Somewhere across the branes was a universe cooling toward death. That universe, known on faith alone as the Entire, was doomed. Even the masters of such technology as Titus Quinn had described couldn’t save it, not without fuel, a colossal source of it. The renaissance engine could have solved the issue, for a small price. Let us come over. For God’s sake, let the human race start over again.
The great engine looked like a beast in a bathrobe, its bulk made broader yet by the coolant foam cocooning it. The powerful drumming in the vault comforted Booth. The machine was here, faithfully purring in its standby status. All that remained was to send over a few good men and women and to let the engine fulfill its purpose. That was delayed, but not thwarted. Who would believe Lamar, anyway? It could take hours or even days for anyone to muster an intervention. If it was just a few police cars from the Tri Cities, Shaun and Peter planned to keep them at bay for a time. But as soon as shooting started, the local gendarmes would get serious reinforcements, and renaissance would be over for good.
The general meeting would go on for a while yet. Maybe they’d decide he’d blown their mission and have to be tied up next to the engine, to feel the first impact of detonation. Or worse, they’d decide to deactivate. Dismantle.
It was during these moments, sitting alone in the dark of a September night in the old reactor cocoon, that Booth Waller decided to go it alone. The engine wouldn’t go to waste. The dream was still vivid in him. It wouldn’t crash because of a fretful old man and the gutless wonders assembled in this compound.
It could not be a coincidence that the woman of the Entire had arrived during the crucial time of their migration. Titus Quinn must have learned their exact timing, probably from Helice, under duress. Then he’d sent the woman as the first sortie, to confuse and confound them. That being the case, it was likely a lie that those crossing over were being murdered by the Tarig.
Helice Maki might not be dead, and was perhaps even now working on their behalf to stop Quinn’s maneuvers.
Therefore, it might all be salvaged. It would be salvaged, he decided.
Some people had already gone over to the Entire. Surely some of them were alive. Perhaps all of them. It wouldn’t take two thousand individuals to form a gene pool. They’d always known that a few good people could engender a viable population. Genetic manipulation could take care of errors.
It filled him with a surge of sweet relief to know that he had recourse. Renaissance had recourse.
He stood up, relief flooding the dark alleys of his body where, moments before, there had been despair. Oh, to feel hope again, that sharp love of the future! Looking around him, he stretched out his arms, letting his heart pound to the same cycle as the engine.
If Peter’s meeting called for a stand-down, Booth would cut Peter and the rest of them out of the chain of command. He would light the fuse for the transform.
When he went over, the Tarig would thank him for it. It was their only hope.
Bullets sprayed across the hardened exoshell of Stefan Polich’s personal Nova Class Mercedes. If Stefan had needed final proof of Lamar’s incredible story, this was it. His men held their fire, waiting for their chance to land a hit.
Crouching next to him were Caitlin and the woman whose name, she said, was Anzi. He was acutely aware of her strange and flagrant presence, but there was no time to think about her now.
When the cars had swooped down on them, Stefan’s people were waiting.
They’d pulled their cars into a barricade and took positions behind them, training twelve pathetic close-range handguns on their assailants. From the vehicles facing off across a few dusty yards of road, considerably more fire power. Their attackers had pulled up just out of range, having scanned the sweeps on Stefan’s guns, taking their measure. They’d also called for him to surrender, but that couldn’t happen. Caitlin made sure all of his guards knew they’d have an extravagant bonus if they stayed in the fight.
One of his men had turned careless, taking a shot in the chest. They couldn’t even retrieve his body from the spot where he lay in the ditch. Stefan’s hands were trembling, waiting to use his pistol, wondering if he had the courage to put his head up over the hood of the car and just fucking shoot. But they were out of range anyway, so he didn’t have to test his bravery yet.
Next to him, Caitlin was showing Anzi how to use a gun. The two women were calm and grim, wasting no words. Somehow in the last hour Caitlin had accepted the woman as legitimate. Titus Quinn hadn’t exactly sent her. She’d been in another dimension—the nature of which she could only haltingly describe—and had returned to see Titus fighting the Tarig who were killing those crossing over. Crossing over. Helice Maki had been working on her own transition platform, the slimy bitch. Her plan was evil almost beyond belief, unless one considered how often their miserable species had acted on paranoid and horrific ambitions. He needed to know more, but they’d barely had time to get the basic story as their pursuers came at them.
Stefan had called everyone he could think of. But people were in bed, and getting through to them had yielded nothing so far. He knew people in DC—but you didn’t call them at 1: 00 in the morning and get them to a phone easily, even if you were Stefan Polich of Minerva Corporation.
Caitlin crawled over to him, behind the command car, the one that they’d already deformed into its crashform, hard and fireproof. “Any luck?” she asked, voice low.
“No. I’ve got two generals and a joint chiefs staffer calling me back. If they do. I got through to a private security firm, one that can muster air and ground support. They’re looking over a contract.” He gazed at her in the spillover light from surrounding headlights. “I’m sorry, Caitlin. I should have . . . I didn’t believe you. Maybe I didn’t want to believe you.”
Not bothering to answer him, she glanced over at Lamar, leaning against the former wheel of Stefan’s car. “I say we give him a gun.”
“You’re shitting me.”
“Give him one. They’re going to come after us. They know we’re sending out calls.” She tilted her head in the direction of the enemy cars, now beginning to ratchet up the assault.
Booth waited outside the vault building, grateful that the darkness prevented him from contemplating too closely all that would be sacrificed in the coming minutes. But it was all going to die anyway. The brightest star in the sky had already died for the Tarig. Sirius, star of legends. The masses, of course, didn’t worry about Sirius. If it had been worth worrying about, the newsTides would have told them.
A cluster of flashlights streamed out of the mess hall three hundred yards away.
He had a few moments to try and guess their decision. Plunge forward or fall apart. Do the job, or squander it all.
DeFanti led the way. When they got closer, the small crowd held back a few yards and let Minerva’s big man convey the news.
The answer came clean and brief: “We’re powering down, Booth. For now.” DeFanti glanced in back of him. “The vote was to power down until we figure out what Helice is facing, or if she failed.”
“A close vote?”
“No. Overwhelming. We haven’t decided what comes next, except to take the engine off line.” He waited for Booth to react, but got no foothold.
“The Tarig may be killing us. We’ll wait for another signal from Helice. If it doesn’t come in three days, we’ll dismantle things.” He added, “If we even get that chance after Lamar is done spilling the story.”
Booth nodded. “Where’s John Hastings, then?”
“I want to ask him something. It’s important.”
DeFanti called out for John, and from the forward edge of the group— possibly the group that had come to handle taking the engine off line—the mSap engineer came forward.
Booth regarded him, heart pounding. “You agree with this decision?”
John paused, snaking a look at DeFanti. “No, no I . . . don’t. We’re ruined here.” He shot a look at DeFanti. “You know it, Peter. Lamar will sic the police on us. I voted go.”
Bless his geekish heart, bigger than most, Booth had to admit. “Let’s do it then.” He jerked his head at the door. “Step inside, John.”
DeFanti raised a hand to forestall him. “I said we’re done, Booth.”
Booth rounded on him. “What the fuck do you care if a couple more people go over?”
“The group . . .”
“Yeah, well let the group give themselves up, then. Fine. If I want to go, if John does, what do you care?” He eyed John pointedly. “Get inside, now.”
John shuffled forward, but DeFanti grabbed his arm.
Booth stopped his protest with a right hook to the jaw. As DeFanti staggered back, Booth rushed for the door, John at his side. Booth yanked the metal door open enough for the two of them to slide through, even as John was stuttering, “They’ll come after us . . .”
Booth slammed the door closed and locked it, using the crude slide bar left over from the Eisenhower Administration. “No, they won’t.”
He leaned against the cold metal door as people beat on the other side of it. “John,” he said, locking gazes with the man on whom everything now depended. “We’re going over. Go armed if you want. I’m taking a gun. Up to you.” He shook his head. “He shouldn’t have tried to stop us. What difference does it make to them?”
John had no answer to that. He let himself be pulled along to the dressing rooms.
“We’ll do this right. No contaminants.”
They donned their white jumpsuits, with John moving more slowly all the time, perhaps reconsidering. The engine thrummed louder than ever before, like a stampede of cavalry.
“Look,” Booth said. “If you don’t want to go, all right. But at least send me.” They zipped up their suits. “But we’ve come this far; you should go with me. Up to you.”
“All right, I’m going.”
They slipped into the corridor and down the steps. Booth kept a mental patter going to keep up his spirits, his purpose: Renaissance still works. It will work. We’re going over. He’d rather die on the other side than go to prison for the rest of his life.
Outside the control room, Booth stopped at the weapons cache. “I’m taking one. You?”
John shook his head.
Perfect. “Okay, then, let’s go.” Entering the control room, Booth said, “How’s it work then, how is there time for the last person to go over?”
John’s Adam’s apple bounced as he tried to find his voice. “I set a sequence for a three-minute interval, then it’s automatic. A three-minute pause now for the first, and three minutes between.”
“Good. Are you ready?”
“No, I . . . how can I be ready?” John tried again to swallow, failed. “It’s too fast.”
“You want to spend the rest of your life in prison with a nice hairy felon for a roommate?” At John’s look, Booth said, “Do it, then.”
John gave a short nod. He touched the screen. As the sequence loaded, console lights flashed, and Booth hoped they were the right ones.
Booth said, “Either you go first, or me; which do you want?”
At that, Booth drew his gun, activating it. “Wrong answer. You’re going first. And you’ll set the engine to go.”
John’s face fell into panic. “The engine?” He looked helplessly at the door, though he must have known he’d be shot dead if he tried for it.
“We don’t need two thousand people, John. There are dozens of people over there. We can engineer our way to a new beginning. The Tarig will help us, because we’re going to save them. Turn on the engine.”
John stood unmoving, stunned or terrified, or both.
“You’ve got a couple of choices. I can kill you, or you can turn the engine on and go over first. I’ll be the last to leave.”
“You’re going to kill me anyway!”
“No, you’ve got that wrong. I need you on the other side. I need every single person who has the guts to go. I hope that’s you. Is it?”
John looked at the gun. He’d seen close-up what it could do. “Yes.” He punched in a code. After a beat, a shuddering rumble vibrated through the vault. By Christ, it was the engine lighting up. It was renaissance. Without it, the masses would follow. They weren’t welcome.
“Go, then,” Booth said.
John bobbed his head at the control board. “I’m going to voice the code.
It’ll be good for two crossings.”
John’s voice came out thready but clear: “From the dark to the bright.”
Then he fled from the room. In a few seconds he was through the door to the transition chamber. He stood at the top of the stairs, counting off two minutes, fifty-five seconds.
In the control room, Booth was counting, too. John moved down the stairs, holding his breath at the last minute, ridiculously holding his nose.
Then Booth was in the hallway, feeling the roar of the engine shake his bones. He opened the door and strode to the side of the pool, counting out the three-minute wait.