In the lead car, Lamar was wedged into the backseat between two oversized goons. They held their guns casually between their knees, as though they had no fear of shooting their nuts off. Lamar was armed too, a little measure of undeserved grace from Caitlin. He was to lead them into the best position, coming around off-road to the back side of the dorms. They had eleven guns left, if you included the woman from the other side, who’d never fired one until a half hour ago. But it wasn’t those guns on which the future of the planet depended.
It depended on the guns in the air.
A thrilling whuf whuf whuf overhead blanketed the night with urgent power. Bright swaths cut the desert into ribbons as six copters threw down dramatic cones of light. The game was on. Goddamn, but Lamar was almost happy. No, he was happy. If he’d had a chance to take a piss before they piled in the cars to follow the air strike, his happiness would be complete. It was a sad commentary on the state of national defense that the army wasn’t here. No, not so much as the CIA or even the damn Border Patrol. Stefan Polich might be an almighty mega dog of industry, but he couldn’t rouse the armed forces at midnight to take seriously a threat with an epicenter in Eastern Washington.
No, it had been Minerva’s chief competitor, EoSap, that had come through with the air power and a few big guns. EoSap, Minerva’s arch competitor, very interested in the Entire, having run spies since the first right-turning neutrinos got snagged at the Ceres space platform. So that had been Rob Quinn who’d been coming back from EoSap when Lamar insanely blew him up on the freeway. Spilling her story, Caitlin had turned to her husband and they’d split their efforts: Caitlin to Stefan at Minerva, and Rob—with all the authority of being Titus Quinn’s brother—had gone to EoSap. Even as Polich was calling them from the desert, they were mobilizing to have a look-see. A looky-look with headlights, military trained security, and nice big weapons.
So EoSap, combined with Minerva’s five cars, was going to stop the fuckers. Of which Lamar had been one, to be sure. But making amends, now.
Lamar pointed out the window. “Over here.” The driver veered around to put them behind the dorms. In the distance, he saw flashes of fiery action, maybe hugging around the engine vault. Last ditch stand there? By the reaction from outbursts of guns here and there, renaissance was not standing down, or at least some weren’t. Lamar wondered how many really cared to take an armed stance. Christ, they were PhDs and planners, not trained fighters.
The car bearing Stefan and Caitlin pulled up parallel to the dorms. Everyone piled out, staying low to the ground, using the cars for barricades. Lamar leaned back to catch Caitlin in his sight, thinking he’d come to her side. But she caught his eye. A slow shake of the head told him he didn’t have permission to apologize; to say, I’m sorry I killed your husband. Not yet.
Two of the EoSap copters settled down further off, too valuable to put in harm’s way. But the real death-dealing was riding inside the things—EoSap’s security, looking from here like they had more gravitas as soldiers than Stefan’s bouncers.
He listened, wincing, to the sporadic fight. Someone took a hit; a terrible one. He couldn’t know what was going on anywhere, much less over at the engine vault. But people were dying, or would die—for what he now saw as a revolting, pious, and murderous ideology. That had to stop. And Lamar was perhaps the only one who could stop it.
At the backside of the dorm, a shadow passed behind the window. Certain that someone was inside, Lamar cried out, “It’s me, Lamar!” They were listening. They couldn’t help but listen. “We need to let it go, it’s too late now. Save yourselves, can you do that?”
At the other end of the car, kneeling by the hood, Stefan’s bodyguards watched him in contempt and shook their heads.
Then came the response from inside the building: “Don’t come in, we’re armed.”
Who was that? He didn’t know everyone. But he thought it might be Eamon McConnell. “Just give it up!” he shouted. “The army’s coming, folks.
Give it up, you know? Before more people die.”
Lamar waited and watched. No gun smashing the window, pointing at the enemy. Maybe they were talking it over. Eamon was a quiet guy, their best doctor. He wouldn’t be looking to fight.
“Eamon!” He decided to shout the name. More shadows at the window.
“I’m coming over to talk.”
He stood up. The security guy next to him snarled, “Shit, head down.”
But Lamar was the only one who could talk to them. And he would talk to them, if they’d let him, or damn the whole thing, and let come what may.
As he began walking away from the shelter of the car, Stefan’s man lunged at his legs. Evading him, Lamar staggered away from the car, throw -ing his gun down, raising his hands. “Just talk,” he shouted. “That’s all.”
Silence from the dorm.
Lamar took a step forward.
A shot took him in the forearm. Another, the chest. The violent shock stole his breath, lit up his brain in internal fire. He was lying on his back, staring up. Shouts over there, in the desert; gunfire somewhere. Stars over him.
Why so small?
Pain flashed in his chest, but it didn’t matter. The body was remote from him; he was wandering, lost, a short distance away. Not where he had thought he might be at this time and place. Not in the Entire. Not even in the Rose. The world was so small; it was in the fist of his mind. Then the fist opened, and there was nothing there.
Weapon fire split the air once more. Something burned over by the big building. The explosive sounds of hand weapons traced the paths of fighting.
But whether there were two fronts or seven, it was hard to tell.
Standing back in the wall of cars, Anzi watched another air machine fly in, like a dirigible but very loud. She saw a flash of light by the blockish building that dominated the plain. In the explosion, she thought that the machines of war had found their focus. A gun rested in her hand. Press thumb into the slot. . . . But she didn’t want to use this thing that she didn’t know how to properly employ.
The woman who was the wife of Titus Quinn’s brother touched her forearm. Anzi turned to her.
“The battle’s slowing,” the woman with the difficult name said. Anzi smiled at her. She was a favorite person of Titus’s. She and her young children.
“I hoping so.”
The woman whispered, speaking slowly so that Anzi could understand, “Tell me how Titus is. You said he was fighting? Does he have help?”
“No help against the lords. I not see him win.” She looked at the wife of Titus’s brother. “Shall I give him message? Tell him you are good, and small childs also? He so loves small childs of his brother.”
They ducked low at a renewed burst.
When Caitlin didn’t answer, Anzi said, “Lamar the uncle, he dying?”
“Yes. You can tell Titus that. But Lamar was with Helice Maki. He did bad things.”
“Oh. Uncle with Hel Ese.” That was sad news. She collected her news, wondering if she would ever deliver it.
“Anzi.” In a pause in the fighting, the wife of Titus’s brother hesitated.
“How do you know Titus Quinn?”
“We . . . I help him in the All . . . then separating, since throwing chain away. You know chain, he bringing in to help Rose?”
Caitlin did not know, so Anzi said what she could of the chain and what had been done and not done. She didn’t know how to express in English the finer points with which Titus measured his actions and responsibilities.
“You seem close to him, Anzi.”
Anzi hesitated to say more, because they hadn’t yet spoken of Johanna and how the first wife was dead. Had Titus reported that on his last sojourn home? Anzi wasn’t sure. That was a time when he had heard, erroneously, that Johanna had died of grief.
The wife of Titus’s brother said, “You love him.”
“Yes.” And then, because she was still waiting, Anzi said, “And Johanna dying, and Titus hearing. Titus and I . . . word for together?”
The wife of Titus’s brother said very softly, “Lovers?”
Anzi thought she knew that word. It meant love and sex. How to answer that? Finally she said, “We marrying, when could at last.”
The woman crouching next to her took on a strange expression, perhaps longing?
Anzi said, “I wanting go home for him.”
The woman reached out and held her hand. “Yes. Yes, of course you do.”
At a count of thirty-eight seconds, Booth heard the first assault.
He stood at the edge of the transition pool, staring back at the door. There was no lock on it. Counting: thirty-eight, thirty-seven. Just a few seconds more. John was already gone over. Booth next.
The noise overhead was horrendous, a series of concussive jolts. They were taking out the main door—twenty-seven, twenty-six—but they didn’t know they had to be in a hurry, they’d take their time—twenty-three . . .
The door slammed open. Instead of a force of men, it was only Peter DeFanti, not even armed. Booth yanked up his weapon. But he’d wired it down for the crossing, and before his thumb hit the indent, DeFanti was on him, jerking him away from the lip of the pool, pounding a fist into his face.
Reeling away, Booth struck him in the temple with the gun. DeFanti went to his knees, head bowed. As Booth swept back for a kick, DeFanti launched himself at Booth’s knees. Booth teetered, losing his footing on the side of the pool, grabbing DeFanti’s shirt as he fell, and they both went over, hitting the viscous fluid, splattering matrix, hitting so hard, Booth lost the air from his lungs.
Transition coming, let it be now, but it was eleven, ten, nine . . .
Entangled with DeFanti as they both struggled in the matrix, Booth gulped a throatful of fluid, oh God, gagging, drowning. Booth’s gun floated in the matrix, hitting him in the elbow as he thrashed. He floundered, air, please, a breath of air. DeFanti was flailing, trying to get to the stair. A glimpse of a leg going up the stairs, and Booth grabbed him by the ankle, pulling him out of sheer hatred, boiling outrage that . . .
There were two people together, where one had been programmed.
The crossing went awry.
The constituent pieces—not even molecules, but fundamental particles— floated into the void. The multiverse would recycle them, as it did all useful things.
The waters in the pool calmed. Above, the engine paused. Then it clicked over into ignition mode.
It was a mighty surge. The gravity wave spread out, beginning the quantum transition that would have dissolved all matter. But it had no cohort in the Entire. Missing the connection as it had been programmed, the engine ceased its throbbing and fell silent.
The security forces that EoSap had hired spread everywhere through the vault, into the corridors, dressing rooms, control room, transition room. They found one body stuffed into the end hallway behind the control room.
Someone who’d been shot in the face. Those who thought they’d seen Peter DeFanti rush ahead into the vault must have been wrong, because he was nowhere to be found.
Night deepened in the desert. Those who were going to die, did. The rest gave themselves up, coming out of the dorms and the dining hall, and even straggling in from the scrub. They were herded into corrals. Stefan and others conferred, made their calls.
The police were standing some thousand yards away, having instructions from a Special Forces unit of Fort Lewis to stand off until an incident commander arrived.
The compound was eerily quiet. People kept looking at the reactor vault as though it was a time bomb. But the hulking steel cocoon was silent as the stars. No one knew why the engine in the vault had gone off line. Perhaps the assault shook its quantum base or the coolants failed. For an awful moment, Caitlin wondered if she had mistakenly set all this in motion in her paranoia. But the renaissance people were already admitting things, though the stories were varied and bizarre. Some lied, some cast blame elsewhere, but there could be no denying the machine that occupied the place of the old nuclear reactor.
Some moments before, Caitlin had taken Stefan to one side and made her last request of him. In return for his help, she promised that she would speak strongly for him with Titus. And since Stefan still hoped that Titus could pull strings in the Entire—lucrative ones for the company—Stefan Polich did not turn her down.
Leaving him to accomplish his delicate task, she left his side and walked over to the reactor building. It was off-limits, but the group was disorganized enough not to notice when she went inside, past the ruins of the outer door.
Here, in the anteroom of the old nuclear reactor, a cold, stale air tinged with smoke was giving way to a desert breeze. It was growing cool outside, as the remnants of the warm day escaped into the clear sky. It felt good on her weary eyes. Caitlin touched the drapes of the dressing rooms as she passed them, thinking of people undressing for the gas chambers of Auschwitz.
She had little curiosity about the transition stage, below. People had gone over, one at a time, stepping on what she thought of as a scale, where you weighed in, taking the measure of your load of sin and bullshit. She had little pity for those who, Anzi had said, were cut down on the other side.
Keeping to the upper level, she savored the quiet time, walking the old perimeter corridor between the outer steel and the old reactor building wall.
Her thoughts turned to Rob, Rob who had been a hero at the last. The man who saved the world, bringing EoSap for the good of the world and a handsome profit. She would have to learn what arguments he’d used. And all this time, she’d thought it would be Titus who made the winning save in whatever game had been afoot. But it wasn’t any longer clear what she had thought Titus would do, or wouldn’t do, except that he wouldn’t have her.
But it didn’t matter anymore.
Anzi’s declaration, far from breaking her heart, had freed her. That lightening of the burden of desire, resulting from a few words from the beautiful woman with the white hair, greatly surprised her. Things seldom proceeded as you expected. Thank God.
She walked slowly through the old nuclear reactor and listened to her footfalls against the metal floor grids until she was ready to go outside again.