CRESCENT CITY RHAPSODY
Copyright © 1997, 1998, 1999,
Kathleen Ann Goonan All Rights Reserved
Published by Avon EOS, February 2000
MARIE always knew she would be murdered. Not knowing the details kept her on edge for many years.
In a way, it was a relief when it happened.
Involved in stock reports, Marie felt rather than saw the sky's gradual blackening; welcomed the slight breath of breeze on her sweat-sheened skin; heard thunder rumble with the distant, primal pleasure she always felt during this season when storms deluged New Orleans daily.
There was little traffic on her small bricked side street this time of day. As usual the beat of desultory blues rose from street musicians to her office, on the fourth floor of the town house which had been in her family for generations. After their usual noontime skirmish the appetizing smells of hot spices and garlic had vanquished the sweetish, sickly smell of spilled beer that cooked up from the bricks around nine a.m. like steam. Since the corner restaurant had been there for over a century, and the beer for longer than that, these smells were a part of the cycle of the day for Marie and, she liked to think, for a long line of Maries.
Even wearing shorts and a halter top, she sweltered in the muggy afternoon as she sat low to the floor in a canvas sling folding chair, her favorite seat when working. Sipping strong, sweet coffee watered by melting ice she absently noticed that the rough bricks of the wall behind her work space lacked their usual slice of sun.
A visitor to her high-tech loft might have been surprised at its elegant hard-edged simplicity, but visitors were few. The glass and wrought iron furniture was a stark contrast to the elegant chambers below, which were furnished with expensive antiques, looking quite the same as when the building was new, several hundred years ago.
Up here, rare tropical plants flourished in Chinese pots. French doors leading to the balcony stood open. An aromatic herbal scent pervaded the air, leavened by hot wind that banged the green shutters hooked back loosely against the streetside bricks. Though Hugo, her bodyguard and long-time friend, hated her practice of leaving windows and doors open, she could not stand being separated from the weather. At college in Chicago, twenty years earlier, she had left her windows open during the coldest nights, a practice which created a daily argument that soon fell into a mannered sequence of feints and parries. But today, Hugo wasn't here to play the game.
Marie's computer screen was an arc of about sixty degrees, of flat, silverish, flexible material resting on the floor, a crescent of information. The apex was about four feet high. Marie like to keep a lot of information visible. Sometimes, like today, it looked like the jumble of a messy desktop, a dada collage of bright colors and odd shapes. She held the keyboard on her lap. The top border of the screen shone with voodoo symbols: a snake, a drum, and lwa, the spirit of love, represented by concentric nesting hearts. Not that she knew anything about voodoo, though her name and heritage were intimately related to the practice. She was not superstitious by nature, particularly with her rather scattered scientific and mathematical background, a skimming of many topics. But the images had been designed as a gift by a believing friend, of which there were many in New Orleans, and she used them because they were beautiful.
The path beneath the snake branched to include files on every person of any importance in New Orleans, and many who might seem to lack any distinguishing qualities. This information had been committed to computer only in the past few decades. Before that, such facts had been held within the minds of a long line of Marie Laveaus.
A stock trading program ran on auto in the upper right hand corner, using the latest complexity-based algorithms. Although she had a stranglehold on local politicians which she was certainly not going to abandon, Marie had diversified from her family's traditions. Her wealth now came from discreet investments in the most promising of new small companies specializing in some essential facet of nanotech, though generally the application was not called nanotech, but by a much more specific name. Her holdings were an international patchwork, for one country might ban what another allowed. Since around 2005, the possibility and dangers of true self-replication had been taken much more seriously, and every possible avenue that might lead to such a development was closely scrutinized. Because this process was usually accomplished by appointed government committees, and because developers had powerful lobbies, many loopholes were naturally overlooked. Over the last few years, Marie had observed a pattern emerging that perhaps few people had the time or inclination to fully realize, one based not on scientific development itself, but on the commerce spun from it. She believed that it wouldn't be much longer before self-replication would become a reality.
Once that happened, all bets were off. The floodgates would be loosed. Conrol over matter, on a very discreet scale, would be possible. Unlike most people, at least those who ventured an opinion in a public venue, she did not fear this eventuality. She took a keen interest in it. There would be some point, she believed, that a sort of singlularity would be passed--that humankind would pass a point of no return, beyond which everything would be unimaginably changed.
She planned to be there.
Marie looked away from her stock information, the varied ways in which sales, calls, and puts were progressing. She enlarged several pictures of her daughter, set them in motion, so that Petit Marie danced, stuck out her tongue, played quietly in the corner of this very room, unaware that her actions were being saved.
Beauty had blessed--or cursed--most of the women in Marie's family, quadroons and mistresses and then the free businesswomen who had laid the foundation for Marie's present fortune. One of them had been the sister of the famous second Marie Laveau, voodoo queen of New Orleans, and the name had made its way down through several rings of cousins before alighting, solitarily, on Marie.
Until, that is, her own daughter, Petit Marie, had been born.
Marie always felt that her own face was too strong for beauty, her nose too straight and long, her chin too determined, her eyes too clear of the romantic dreams and rubbish which had ruined her mother's life. But beauty had re-asserted the ancestral pattern in Petit Marie. This was quite obvious, even though she was only five years old. Her dark eyes were round and large; her skin, the color of gold-kissed mahogany, held a constant deep pink blush over her cheekbones. Her irascible hair flowed in a black kinky stream down her back, resisting combs, causing a daily temper of screams and threats. She was wild, merry, a delight . . .
And she should have arrived in Paris by now. Marie blanked the videos and rubbed a cramp at the back of her neck. She could easily verify her daughter's physical location. She could beep up Petit Marie, or Hugo, or Al. She could check the satellite position of the jet, her own private jet. She restrained her self. They were greeting one another, her child and her husband, Al. He was giving his daughter presents. Too many presents. Al's nasty yappy little white dog was bouncing around like a ping-pong ball, adding to the din. Soon they'd remember mom, staying behind to work. Alone. Any minute--any minute they would call. At least Hugo was with Petit Marie and would remain during the long visit she would have with her father.
Clipping back the braids dangling in her face with a brusque gesture, scraping her scalp with the large barrette, Marie frowned as a constant feed of red, green, and yellow lines tangled in one quadrant of her screen; paused and knotted in an odd rhythm. Scrying these signs was like watching the surface of the sea, divining not only that there were fish below, but their size, depth, color, direction of travel. This twinge signalled something different. And therefore important.
She called up specifics. Someone, somewhere, had sucked down a big chunk of a rather interesting small company working on artificial, trainable neural pathways. The company was called Infinets. She glanced at their annual report, then asked for their bills of lading for the last six months, quickly analyzed the raw materials, and told two different analysis programs to figure out who was behind this purchase.
Leaning forward, suddenly eager, she set up the process that would acquire snips of Infinets from here and there, gradually, in a process that might take hours or days and initially be distributed to a range of buyers with no discernible connection.
Sheer gauzy curtains billowed into the room as a gust of wind brought her back to the present. Why didn't they call? Al's stubborn dark face, that face she'd found so attractive years ago and still did, damn him, appeared on the corner of her screen as she spoke his name. She almost said, "Call," but hesitated. No, she'd give them a few more minutes before pestering them.
Al wouldn't live in New Orleans. He claimed it was too dan gerous. Marie thought that was just an excuse; he was simply homesick. All his communication to her since he'd left had the same content. I've lived in your country; now you live in mine. Come, come to Paris, to my worn, pleasant rooms piled high with books, forgo your heritage, honor our marriage, become civilized and leave your obsession with the future in a haze of flowering spring trees and strolls along the Seine and my delightful cooking.
His cooking! The lazybones had given up his trendy new restaurant on Royal Street once they'd married. He had the staying power of a midge. He'd always hoped to lure her to Paris; she saw that now. He'd pined and moped so that she'd sent him back, for a month's vacation that turned into half a year, and then he and Petit Marie pined and moped for one another. Well, they'd have a good time without her. Marie had work to do. And unfortunately he was right about the danger. But that was everywhere. It followed her. It would follow her anywhere. Her family was relatively safe, as long as she wasn't around.
The brief jump of a fake siren below her window startled her, then the sound stopped abruptly. Just kids playing. Uneasy, she rose, crossed the dark, polished wooden floor, strewn with Petit Marie's toys, kicking aside a puzzle piece with her bare foot, and stepped out onto the balcony. Marie ignored the cozy tableau of wrought iron chairs ranged round the small table where she took her morning coffee and grasped the railing so tightly her knuckles whitened. She should have gone with her daughter. She hadn't realized that she would miss her so much.
Tall palms in massive pots bent in the wind, their fronds clicking. A riot of red geraniums and yellow hibiscus were sheltered by an ivied brick wall. For a second Marie scanned the street for the black limo which would bring Petit Marie home from school, then caught herself. Just as well the little one was leaving for a while. She had started to complain about Hugo sitting at the back of the classroom each day. It was an elite school and the administration had insisted that, with all the wealthy people sending their children there, their security was already fine, thank you. Money, as usual, had prevailed. Some parents objected to the bodyguard as an everpresent reminder that violence could burst into their children's classroom; others welcomed him. Marie was working on an alternative. She could hire a teacher, bring children here for Marie to learn and play with, on her own terms. She certainly didn't want her daughter brought up alone, taught only online. She would need the skills which came only from dealing with others, and those were learned only through direct experience.
Well, surely she could stand being away from her child for a month or so. Though danger to both of them would be lifelong, so much so that she'd put off having a child for many years, she had lately been able to make certain provisions which very few people in the world could afford. Provisions for alternatives which very few even knew existed, pulled together as they were from so many sources . . .
Marie took a deep breath. She'd give them another five minutes before she called. She watched the street show below as she had all her life, though today it held little interest. Two jugglers, in shimmering purple and yellow clown suits and masks that sparkled with obsolete computer circuits, spun pins through the air in intricate rhythm. Their huge mirrored shoes flashed with the last ray of sunlight as black clouds boiled across the sky. The French Quarter was locked into a curiously uneven ananchronism, based solely on the desires of those who lived there. Solar cars, where limited street access existed, were fine; they were noiseless. Other exterior trappings of technology, such as satellite dishes, were banned. On the other hand, she was free to land a small helicopter on her specially reinforced roof any time of the day or night. She could pretty much do as she pleased, being on the board of just about everything imaginable, and having plenty of money to contribute, and plenty of secrets to reveal should the lure of money prove inadequate.
A blast of cold wind hit her, and on either side of her head massive hanging pots of ferns pirouetted in unison, a row of dancers schooled by the wind's wild grace. Though the crowd around them was disbursing at the first fat drops of rain, the clowns juggled on intrepidly.
Maybe she would go to Paris. Al was quite wily, in his way. She smiled despite her worry. Could she hold the invisible reins of the city from halfway around the world? Al thought her des potic, old-fashioned. No, she told him earnestly, these are my people, this is my home. I have great plans for my city.
Your city! She could hear his snort even now.
A razor's edge of rain hissed up the narrow street, chilling her with sweet cold wind and ozone. It swept across her tin roof with a pounding roar, and steamed briefly on the street bricks below. The two black musicians dashed for cover, leaving rain- sheened chairs. Tourists huddled beneath store awnings.
The phone's ring was faint, but she turned, gladness blossoming. It must be them. Marie was safe in Al's Paris flat.
Then a glint from the street caught her vision, an odd motion of one of the clowns. She paused because he was pointing one of the pins at her . . . and the whoop of the fake siren filled the air.
Paralyzed, Marie had a second to experience her heart pounding in terror, heard her own cry in the roar of the storm as if it were that of someone else, felt rough bricks skin her face and arms as she spun to the floor of the balcony from the force of the bullets. Above her one of the fern pots exploded in a shower of dirt and shards.
She heard the soft beep which signalled that her vital functions were being shut down, and which would call them . . . even now, they were on the way. A minute, no more.
Among her ragged thoughts a thread of gratefulness spun briefly--at least Petit Marie was safe. The timing was perfect.
Then she died.
THE RADIO ASTRONOMER
to take a curve on the two-lane blacktop; the creek had flooded the road here
last week, leaving a sheet of ice in the bend. The back wheels of his Ford pick-up
held steady and
after the ice he resumed his previous speed. He had gone into town for a Thanksgiving party and he shouldn't have.
Now it was late and he would have to spend hours shaking the unpleasant feelings being around too many other people seemed to stir up. He would never be able to socialize happily, but a
certain excruciating amount of it was always called for. At least he didn't go off the deep end any more; thanks to medication and the hard work of Sally, his older sister and always his champion, his flights of manic intensity had been under control long enough for him to settle into a life of being a professor of astronomy at a rural state university. Not the glittering academic life his parents, dead for several years now, had envisioned for him, pushed him toward; far short of what all indications had been during his adolescence, when all doors were open, when every major university wooed him. The courses he taught didn't begin to scratch the surface of what he knew; he was an astrophysicist. But it was a predictable life; even, generally, a satisfying life. It had been purchased at the cost of closing the floodgates to the infinite. It was enough. If he was deliberate and firm, there was a reason. He lived with a certain amount of satisfaction at just being able to function predictably. Most people took this state of mind for granted. It was a privilege for which he'd had to fight.
Nobody else was on the road. It was Wednesday night, and everyone had gone over the river and through the woods and were at grandma's now. Sally was expecting him for dinner tomorrow in
Roanoake, thirty miles north. He was looking forward to seeing Annie, his niece. In her second year of college, she was beginning to be able to ask intelligent questions. She was majoring in nanotechnology. Seemed like a real scattershot major to Zeb, but then, he tended to keep entirely immersed in what was happening farther than the eye could see. Annie was a bright kid. Zeb only hoped that she would not suffer as he had, that his genetic weirdness would not be echoed in her.
Across a snowy field that seemed to glow faintly even though the night was moonless, an old white farmhouse threw patches of colored light onto the snow through a window--an early Christmas tree. Behind the fields rose dark ridges, trees blackly sawtoothed against a slightly lighter sky. Zeb cranked his window down and lit a Camel. The blast of cold air felt clean
The party had been stuffy. Zeb stood out, as usual, felt clumsy and big in his heavy boots and plaid wool shirt. He explained to his hostess when he arrived that he had to go up on Angel's Rest later on and check the antenna but he still felt out of place. He sat gingerly on one of Dr. England's delicate chairs which he suspected was a real, and easily breakable, antique while she and her husband, a film professor, passed out eggnog, wishing he could smoke. He didn't see anyone else smoking, though. England had urged him to drop by when she saw him in the supermarket this morning; probably felt sorry for him, he thought now. He just hadn't known how to say no. He didn't want to insult her. Parties with mathematicians and physicists were tolerable, because it only took a few minutes to start a heated academic argument, but these people were all with the arts. They were nice, but he heard snippets of conversations around him filled with concerns he knew he would never be able to fathom. He took a sip of eggnog and looked around, wondering if he could slip into the kitchen and pour it out, and wondering how long he had to stay to be polite. He decided it didn't matter. He would just leave. He stood to go.
Then Terri had come in the door.
She was dressed nicely, as usual, he saw, as Judy England took her coat. A black dress. Pearls.
"Zeb," she said, seeing him. She came over.
"Stay away from the eggnog," he said. After a long moment he said, "How are you doing?"
Her eyes were slightly merry at that; a small victory, pulling two whole sentences out of him.
"Fine," she said. "Wonderful." Her hair was ashy blond, but he knew that she had it done once a month because a lot of it had turned white when she was thirty. The year she'd married him.
"You look good," he said. She always did. Perfect. Even on waking, she looked good. Even when she was sick as a dog. Nothing in her life had ever been messy. Except him.
Their talk was small, but it always had been. They had been married three years and she finally decided that she didn't like the lack of talk. Now she was married to a sociologist. He was from New York. He talked a lot. Their house was nice. Perfect, like her.
"Well, guess I should go," he said. He gulped the eggnog and frowned. It really was terrible stuff.
She put one hand on his arm. "Take care, Zeb. Are you still living in that--old house?"
He knew she'd narrowly avoided calling it a decrepit old shack, or some such thing. That was part of her perfection. She was always diplomatic, while he was blunt and inconveniently truthful. "Mm hmmm."
"And do you still spend all your time studying that radio astronomy data?" She'd hated that. Apparently she had thought it some sort of bachelor pursuit that he would outgrow, even though he had been forty when they got married. He didn't spend as much time looking at the stars through telescopes as she had
imagined he would; that seemed much more romantic to her. But stars and space had a lot more to say than could be seen in the visible spectrum. Zeb spent his time online, travelling, or teaching. He had no hobbies or outside interests; he didn't watch television and he didn't go to the movies and he didn't read fiction. He still wondered how two such dissimilar people had ever considered marriage. Then she smiled, just a bit, and he remembered.
"Pretty much." He looked at his watch.
"Well, I guess you have to go. Some kind of important signal to check on. Right?"
"Right. Tell Jim hi." Jim was her new husband.
He had hurried out into the cold air gratefully. He took his gloves and hat from his pockets, pulled them on, checked the chains on his truck tires and got in. The bed was full of sand bags for traction, but he left a little too quickly and the back wheels fishtailed on the icy unplowed side street. That's right, he thought. Hurry away from your latest failure. He heard his sister's voice again as he turned onto main street. She had called this morning about Thanksgiving. "Oh, Zeb, why don't you come down tonight? You'd rather be alone with that radio stuff. I guess some things will never change. No wonder that nice woman divorced you."
Now, safe in relatively unpopulated Giles County, he finished his cigarette, tossed the butt out the window, and rolled it up. It had taken him an hour of careful driving to get out to the lower slopes of Angel's Rest. A student's father owned the field they'd built their antenna in. It had taken most of the fall to put it up. He had agreed to check the constantly incoming data over the break; make sure everything was operating all right. Of course he was up there pretty often anyway, as often as time allowed. He loved the thing. So big, so seemingly primitive, yet the same kind of homemade setup with which the existence of pulsars had been discovered.
Now, the trees thinned and he slowed for his turn. He still felt as if someone, or something, was chasing him. Hurry away from yet another failure. Hurry away from other people. He put on
his turn signal for no one and swung between two fenceposts onto what was a frozen dirt road beneath an unbroken crust of icy snow. He pushed the four wheel drive button and shifted into
low. The newer trucks did all this on voice command, but he preferred his old dependable model, a real antique from 1979 with no sensitive computerized components, bought for fifty bucks from
an old woman whose husband had kept it pristine, and repaired with parts foraged from several junked trucks he kept on the slope behind his house. He'd bolted on a global positioning system that put maps on a small screen next to the radio; that was the extent of his modernization process.
The road climbed the brow of a hill for a while. A doe leaped through his headlight beam, as if she'd been waiting for a car to show her a good crossing. A clump of snow fell from a fir branch
onto his windshield and he turned on the wipers for a moment; they whirred in the silence. Terri would have had the radio on the whole time; classical. It wasn't bad. He had never complained. He just preferred the sound of the wheels grabbing the snow, the steady smooth growl of the transmission. The raw data. It had its own poetry. Or, if not poetry, at least a kind of honesty.
He started up the steeper part of the road and the trees thinned off to his left. Far below the farmhouse lights were like stars. He could see the few lights of Pearisburg in the distance. If it
weren't for the snow, he might stop here, and just look at the view. It was profoundly silent up here on a windless night such as this. But he had to keep climbing or he might get stuck.
He drove on a narrow, treacherous stretch for about ten minutes, reflecting that he couldn't let the students come up here anyway until the snow cleared off. Too dangerous. It was kind of early
in the year for snow.
He slid a bit when he coasted onto the bald, a huge swipe of treeless space at the end of the ridge. He stopped the truck and got out, grabbing his wide-beam flashlight from the seat.
The stars arced overhead in vast splashes of white. His boots crunched through the snow, which reached mid-calf. His flashlight created long shadows on the snow thrown by the poles
holding the dipoles and wire. He experienced mild pride. His students had done almost all the work of getting the grants to finance the project, and the physical work as well.
He grappled in the back of his truck for the push broom he had brought and set the flashlight on the hood. He set to work pushing snow off five large solar collectors. They were tilted, and most likely the snow would melt enough to slide off tomorrow, but he might as well do this while he was here. It took the better part of an hour, and then he tramped round and made sure all the wires were holding. It was quite a hike in the snow. By the time he got back he was drenched in sweat.
That done, he walked over to the recording shack. It was a small prefab; inside, recording pens were powered by solar batteries. He dialed the combination and unlocked it; stepped inside,
switched on the overhead bulb.
Pens moved slowly across steadily moving rolls of paper. One of the many things this project was supposed to do was give the students an appreciation for the raw data, untranslated by any
computer program and operated without any computerized components. Hands-on experience had helped him immensely, and he had great respect for learning the basics. There was so much
fancy software now that a lot of students no longer truly understood how the data was generated in the first place. This setup would be useful in his teaching for many years to come, long after the current crop of students moved on, as long as they could keep it here. He was trying to work out a rental agreement. The farmer who rented it for his cows in the summer wasn't too comfortable about the antenna. Apparently he thought it might radiate the cows.
The wind was starting to pick up and made something outside whine. The papers were piled neatly in boxes below the notation bars holding the moving pens, folding slowly as they fell. He
carefully tore off the first one and placed the folded stack on a nearby shelf. He would take all of them back with him for the students to analyze. As he turned to get the second stack he glanced through the tiny window and noted that the valley was dark. He could usually see several towns from this high perch.
Some kind of power failure. He was a fan of self-sufficiency; he heated his cabin with a wood stove and his hot water was solar heated; his generator was also solar powered. He paid an electric bill, but it was very low. His property looked as if he were operating a full-scale communications empire. Several radio towers and a few more satellite dishes were scattered across his acres. He felt a mild ping of smugness as he turned back to his work.
The pens began scribbling wildly. That was odd. He watched, wondering what sort of malfunction might be occurring, knowing that the beauty of the setup was that there were very few interfaces. This was directly from space, this scruff, as it was called. He stood to one side so that he wasn't shadowing the paper.
Suddenly the pens stopped. The seconds ticked past. Then they started the scribbling again. Stopped. Each time the interval during which the scribbling occurred was longer. Each data
section was not any sort of configuration he had ever seen before. Radio interference from towns was pretty sparse here, but it could happen. He pulled up the lone stool, perched on it, and watched.
He watched for two hours, propping his back against the wall. He dozed off at one point and woke, shivering. He decided he should warm up in his truck; he didn't know how long this would last. As he crunched out to the truck he thought that they'd have to set up some sort of way to heat the observatory, as they were calling the little shed; someone less self-sufficient than him
might get stuck up here overnight. They kept a cellphone there but he liked backups. He was responsible for the student's safety.
He climbed into the cab. The damned truck wouldn't start. He swore, got out, and opened the hood. He hung the flashlight from a hook on the underside of the hood and checked all the
connections. Water in the battery. He had just filled the gas tank this morning. Nothing wrong that he could see.
He took the flashlight, slammed the hood, pulled his down bag from behind the seat and tramped back to the shed. It would be a long, cold night.
When he got back in, he noticed that the radio sky seemed to have returned to normalcy. He watched the pens move in slow sweeps. The lights were back on in the valley. He looked at the plastic floor. Hardly big enough for him to stretch out on. Maybe it would be better in the truck. Sighing, he returned to the truck. He turned the key one last time. No luck.
Then he remembered: he had replaced the starter last week with a new solenoid-type starter from the dealer. None of his junk starters were any good.
He surveyed the situation. The truck sat at the top of a bowl-shaped depression. Maybe it would jump-start. The worst that could happen was that the truck would be stuck at the bottom of the hill instead of the top.
He let off the brake and the truck slowly gathered momentum. After a minute he popped the clutch and the engine caught. Gingerly shifting into first he went into a controlled slide and
started up the hill on a different track, hoping that he had enough momentum to get to the top. In another few seconds the truck was next to the recording shed.
He sat back in the seat, thinking. Then he turned on the heat full blast.
Leaving the truck running, he went back and took the data from each roll, making sure he had the last few hours of information.
After he finished getting the papers, he turned off the light and locked the door behind him. He had already planned to be back on Friday. Now he thought he might return tomorrow.
He stacked the papers in a box on the floor of the truck, and climbed in the cab.
His house was on a low ridge halfway between Angel's Rest and town. It was about two a.m. when he turned into the long driveway. His two collies, Pleiades and Zephyr, rushed from the
porch to meet the truck.
Rather tired by this time, he staggered into the yard, tilting his head to look at the stars. Puzzled. Intrigued. What the hell was going on? And after too much staring, they seemed to flash and flare and twirl like the Van Gogh print Terri had put on their bedroom wall. He felt giddy; euphoric. That was a bad sign. He needed his medication. Sally kept urging him to get one of the new time release implants, but he was shy of having stuff in his body like shrapnel.
He and the readouts survived the dog's greeting and he crossed the porch and opened the door. The collies rushed inside through their own door and bustled around, barking. He turned on some
lights and set the readouts on a huge heavy table in the center of the living room, pushing side a stack of books to make room. He touched the ornate Warm Morning Stove he had bought at a junk store in Newcastle: cold. He stuffed a few newspaper twists, some kindling, and two big logs on top of the still-glowing ashes, closed the door, and opened the dampers. The fire roared
and snapped for a few minutes before settling down. He hung his down coat on a hook and unlaced his wet boots, which he set near the stove.
His farmhouse was over a hundred years old. It had never been fancy; the farmers hereabouts had eked out a living from bottomland and rounded it out with a few cows and sheep they ran in the high meadows during summer. It had taken years of steady work to make the entire house not only habitable, but as up-to-date, communicationwise, as he wanted it to be. There were still certain things that needed to be done, eventually. The bedroom under the eaves featured wallpaper that was sixty years old. It was yellowed, though it had clearly once supported
various colors of flowers. The living room, where he spent most of his time, had been three rooms. He had taken out the walls and put posts in strategic places. Two old comfortable couches and several big armchairs sat here and there, facing not one another but various flatscreens, some wall-mounted, some stand-alone. Bundles of wires ran every which way beneath various rugs, which made the room look as if it might be infested with large snakes. Electronic gear was stacked on tables scattered through out the room, lights winking at seeming random. Terri had complained about the decor, but it all seemed warm and cozy to him. The "living room" she'd insisted on was on the other side of a closed door, with lovely stenciled walls, but lacking furniture, since it had been hers. No sense in heating an empty room. The wide plank floor beneath his feet was scarred and dark. Maybe some day he would refinish it. The walls were covered with books and cd's.
He went into the kitchen, turned on the propane stove burner, and made himself some coffee, which he drank black. He picked up his vial of pills; put it down. Best to take his next one tomorrow morning, his regular time; that's what they told him to do if he missed taking one. He made some scrambled eggs in a cast iron skillet and carried his snack back into the living room.
Bannered across his mail screen was a message from an old friend in Washington: WOW!
He heard from Craig at least once a month. They'd done a few papers together, but Craig moved in higher planes than he did; he was internationally known and taught at Harvard for a portion of
each year. They'd met at Stanford, during the heady year before Zeb had crashed.
Crash was the word for it. He would literally be walking on air for days on end, forgetting to eat, absorbing books, lectures, raw data. He was there on a scholarship, studying graduate physics though he was only eighteen. He was the darling of the physics department. He spent most of his time submerged in challenges he chose himself, discussing them with heated intensity in the lounge, arguing points, picking up insights. He would come down from a week of this utterly wrung out, sleep for a day or two, and drag himself out of bed with no energy. The world looked dull and stupid; completely impermeable. He couldn't understand how he could have been so excited, how it had all clicked so purely. Then it would start to build again, until he once again was in the realm where he could fill pages and pages, disks and optical spheres, with pure thought. Often he would have a hunch and work backwards from it, filling in the blanks, knowing what was true and then proving it. He wasn't always right, but even when he was wrong he learned something. He was lit. He was burning.
He couldn't even remember the depth of his despair when the darkness took a long time to lift, and then longer and longer. He had cut his wrists. Why? Such an action was completely unimaginable to him today. But back then . . .
Sally was pregnant then with Annie. She'd still flown out to California. Their parents were dead. She was his only hope. His college HMO would pay for only the most rudimentary of treatments. He lost his scholarship. All was in fragments--not only his thoughts, but his life. He was like two different people. Three. More. They were not finely delineated. But he was, most definitely, mentally ill.
Sally got him back in shape. Brought him home, took him up north, to an expensive clinic, talked to people who might have an inkling of what was wrong. Different than simple schizophrenia.
Some sort of neuronal firing malfunction, possibly stress related. Many medications were tried. He was now on medication generations removed from those.
He was satisfied with the path he had taken. Teri had compared him to Rimbaud, some French poet who had burned like the sun, and then never wrote again. He felt that comparison was rather
unfair. He was still capable of thought. He still published the occasional paper. At first he chafed at the medication, for it was clearly holding him in, barring him from the higher realms he knew existed. But living in this slow way, he could savor life. He was happy. Before, he had never been happy. He had merely been extremely excited.
He eased into a chair. The dogs sat next to him, panting. The room was warm now. He ate his eggs and toast. "Wow," he directed verbally, and the Wow file opened.
He read, "What the hell's going on? Why the blackout? Got a clue? Craig."
He tried to log on to the Internet, but now, apparently, the phones were down. Craig's message had come through almost two hours ago.
Clearly some news was called for. "CNN," he said resignedly.
The alerted screen was tiny, and filled with static.
After a minute, Zeb found a local station that was broadcasting. The eyes of the woman doing the story were worried; her voice quavered at times. ". . . have radio information broadcast from
Washington in the past half hour. An apparent high-altitude electromagnetic pulse of unknown origin has caused communication failures. Many satellites are out of commission and a plane
crashed in the fog at National Airport, killing everyone on board, when their radar went haywire. Emergency crews are working overtime to get phone services running again. Expect temporary lulls in service and please do not panic. Floyd and Montgomery counties are presently without power." She paused for a moment as someone handed her a paper. "We repeat, there has been no known hostile action on the part of anyone. There have been no reported nuclear explosions."
"Quiet," he said, and the screen was silent, though the picture remained. He sat back in his seat. Thinking.
The most likely source of an electromagnetic pulse would be a nuclear explosion in the atmosphere. Depending on the power and location, it could do a little damage to communications and power systems or a lot. A 1962 explosion of a nuclear weapon over the Pacific blacked out Honolulu for half an hour and triggered burglar alarms. But if there had been an upper-atmosphere nuclear explosion, Zeb thought that there would be a lot more war hysteria. Still, it could be hidden.
All his data was instantly backed up, constantly, sent to lurk until needed. He rose, went to another screen. This one had a keyboard. He called up the profile of the last few hours.
There was a pattern of crashes. After each crash his programs reflooded the system, only to crash again, like a person with a bad stutter.
He converted that information to a simple time chart; printed it out.
He piled books on the floor and made room to unfold the last few hours of his readouts. He checked them against the antenna printout. Same pattern. He stared at it for a long time.
Except that it was reversed. During the times that the little blackouts occurred, his pens had recorded. They had stopped during the times his computer had briefly rebooted. Something had happened. Something that should have been washed out by a solar flare. What had happened? This was no solar flare. That much was certain. And probably no nuclear explosions. An intelligent source had created this pattern. There was no way it could happen at random. No way in hell.
He could think of two possibilities: humans, which was the more reasonable. Or some interstellar source. He sat in front of the fire. It was nice and hot now. Too hot. He pushed his chair
back a foot.
Maybe someone--or something--was communicating with them at last. Or at least communicating in their general direction. The idea of aliens never had excited him much, though. He was much more interested in the mechanics of time, space, stars, and planets. This information would be fodder for the alien-seekers, certainly. But of course there was another explanation. There
had to be.
He was startled awake by the ringing phone and realized that he was stiff and cold. He'd fallen asleep in the chair. The fire was out.
"Phone," he said, then "Hi."
Sally's voice issued from the screen, but not her picture. He had picture capability, but few others did. Her voice was pitched higher than usual and she spoke rapidly.
"Thank God you're all right, Zeb! They just got the phones working again. I've been so worried!"
"Calm down," Zeb said. "Is everything okay there?"
Her deep, shaky breath was audible. "Yes. Yes, we're fine. The power was off for about six hours but it came back on this morning and I put the turkey in the oven. I hope it doesn't go
out again." She paused. "Are you still coming?"
"What time is it?" he asked groggily.
She sighed. "I guess you were up all night again. That's no good for you. You need to keep on an even keel. It's noon. I'm a nervous wreck. Maybe we should stick together. I've got lots of canned goods. The stores have been ransacked . . ."
"Why don't you and John and the kids come down here?"
"This is the best place to be if there's a problem, Sally. I've got heat, the woods are full of deer and wild turkeys. . ."
"I was thinking you should stay here," she said, rather grumpily.
"Right, Sally. In the heart of uptight land where everyone would be vying for food."
"Roanoke is not exactly Washington, D.C.," she retorted. They were silent for a moment.
Zeb shifted in his chair and a spasm shot through his back. "Look," he said. "I was planning to come up there. I'll be there in about two hours. Then we can decide what to do. Okay? And I'll bring the dogs in case I have to stay--"
"The dogs? They shed all over everything."
"Brad will be very happy." Brad was ten and wanted collies of his own, much to his mother's dismay. "See you soon, okay?"
He got his stuff together quickly. He looked at the printouts for a moment, then packed them up too. They contained valuable information. In fact, they probably had rare information. Most
radio telescopes, heavily computer-dependent, would have been knocked out by the pulse. Apparently a lot of satellites had been knocked out. Except maybe those in the Earth's shadow,
depending on what the source had been. But then they wouldn't have this information either. As he picked up the box, he wavered. He didn't really know what conditions were like out there.
Still, it might be best to take them. He looked around and grabbed a paper grocery bag from the kitchen. Better than nothing. He slipped the printouts inside.
He was starting to walk out the door when he remembered Craig. He went back and sent him a message that would be sent whenever traffic allowed. "Kids made a dipole antenna," he said. "Pretty interesting footage. Strange conclusions. Talk to you tonight." He was pleased when the message zipped off.
Both dogs fit in the cab with him. Pleiades got up as close as possible to the window, crowding the dash, staring forward. Zephyr cowered on the floor, preferring to pretend that she was
not zooming down the road faster than she could possibly run. He stuffed the printouts under the seat.
He made it to the Interstate then realized he had forgotten his medicine again. "Damn!" he said, and smacked the steering wheel with his hand. The dogs looked at him.
He bit his lip, then decided to keep going. He was almost halfway there. There were some old pills in Sal's medicine cabinet; they were probably still good.
The road was crowded. He wondered where everyone was going. Both the north and south lanes were bumper to bumper, moving steadily but not very fast. Emergency flashers lined the road
every few miles where wrecked vehicles were being cleared away, but apparently plenty had been spared damage. That meant that the pulse's effects varied quite a bit.
The trees and hills coming toward him assumed a strange, graceful rhythm, entering him in a cadence like music.
The distance between inner and outer dissolved. He was the trees, the traffic, Ironto Mountain, the green exit sign. He was the data; he even had it memorized; he realized, there in his photographic memory, the silences and signals blazing in a strange ratio. Like a message; a signal. Sure, it would happen again. If the ratio of signal to silence held. But not soon. Maybe in another year.
Damn. Damn. No one knew. Well, a few people probably knew, but not many. And he didn't really know anything either. He wished he had stayed home so he could mull things over with Craig. His excitement began to grow.
The trees, the cars, the gray sky. Flowing. Drawing him along. Glowing with a lovely light. He sighed. Only thirty more miles. Then he would have to forsake this beauty, this utter, piercing
harmony. He would have to take his pill. The doors to the infinite, when they opened, let in such a bright light. It would be nice if it was always this way. But he knew that after a long, trackless time of perfection, which was usually seventy-two hours more or less in the dull, timebound world, it would all turn to shit.
The sky drifted toward him, in warping skeins of wind-driven flakes. Traffic slowed further. He pushed Plieades aside and opened the glove compartment, keeping his eyes on the road. It
was a stretch. He rummaged around until he felt his little recorder. Good. He took it out, clicked it on, started to talk. When he was like this he had to write, usually equations. Or
talk. Talking was the next best thing.
The smell of Thanksgiving dinner filled Sal's house. The dogs pushed their way inside, and Brad screamed in delight and embraced them, ignoring Zeb. John and Sally and Annie hugged
him. There was a fire in the fireplace. It was all one thing all one thing. What Teri had wanted, maybe, with him. He stared into Sal's eyes and smiled. A big smile.
She looked at him suspiciously, her long blond hair escaping from her ponytail, her apron spattered. "You need a pill, Zeb."
He nodded, smiling. "I guess." Amazing how bright everything was in here; how buzzing with sound and energy. He hoped that he could taste everything the right way. Today of all days . . .
"Hey, Zeb!" John, his brother-in-law, shook Zeb's hand vigorously. "Hell of a day for the TV to go bonkers. I was looking forward to the Purdue game." He rubbed his large bald head ruefully and his ruddy face creased with a half-worried smile.
Then Sally was there with a pill and a glass. "Scotch?" he asked hopefully.
"Water," she said sternly.
He swallowed it only because he knew it would take several hours to kick in. Several hours of ecstasy. He notice Annie looking at him thoughtfully. "What's up?" he managed, his head filled
with images, which would translate, if he had a pencil in his hand, to equations that would express the projected periodicity of the signal. He thought, vaguely, that perhaps he should ask for one.
"I was thinking," said Annie, looking startlingly like her mother at that age, with those clear blue eyes, that curly blond hair, "that right now a DNA based drug is in the planning stages--"
"A nanodrug, right?" asked Zeb. Everything was prefaced by "nano" in her world. He usually tried not to make fun of Annie's solemn belief in the coming power of nanotechnology, but
sometimes that was difficult.
"Time to eat." Sally herded them into the dining room; her slate-blue colonial wallpaper and graceful cherry furniture looked timeless in the candle light.
"We have some serious matters to discuss," said John, as they sat down at the table. "What do you think of the blackout?"
Zeb was not in a cautious mood. "I think that it's a deliberate manipulation of the electromagnetic field of the earth by some intelligent entity."
Brad looked at him. "Do you mean aliens? That's what all the kids are saying."
"You haven't seen any kids this morning," said Sally sharply.
"We were playing. Outside," said Brad, slipping a slice of turkey under the table.
"I told you to stay inside. And don't feed those dogs at the table," said Sally.
"I'm not. I dropped it."
"I'm sure Uncle Zeb meant no such thing," said John, passing the mashed potatoes.
"He missed his pill," said Sally.
"Now wait a minute," said Zeb, getting irritated. Sally looked at him sternly. Zeb turned to Annie. "What do you think?"
"I think that it's a good opportunity to stress the development of organic-based nanotech communications, at least for backup. I'm sure my friends would think so too, if the Internet was
working better. I just got logged on again when you got here, but I got bumped right away."
John shook his head, smiling faintly. "She and her friends see the world through a haze of nanotech."
"What's wrong with that?" demanded Annie. "Nearly free manufacturing! All you need is the raw materials and everything is assembled. No more factories. And no more poverty. That's just the beginning."
"You're becoming a Marxist." complained John.
Zeb was beginning to chafe. As he ate, the numbers and ratios began to fade, along with the urgency. He told himself it didn't matter. He had the data at home. He could work it out the long way, the hard way, when he got back. And he could also recall it, though it was more difficult under the influence of his medication. The neurons simply didn't fire in quite the same
way. It made a difference. An important difference, he tried to remind himself.
"So everyone is saying that it's a solar flare," he said.
"That's what CNN says," said John. "Seems reasonable."
"Why do you have this other idea?" asked Annie.
"I have readout data from the antenna my students built up on Angel's Rest. Remember when you saw it last summer, when they were working on it?"
Annie nodded. "Well then, how or what do you think is causing this?"
"I really don't know. I just know it doesn't fit the profile for a solar event."
None of the others in the dining room, that room redolent of roast turkey, stuffing, yams, and pie, had any idea of how quickly things might change, thought Zeb. They'd had a scare, a small one. But it was over, apparently. Time to forget. Particularly if it was a natural, uncontrollable event. Solar pulses might come in waves, so they would be worried for a while, but that was all. Soon everything would be back up and running,
where the damage wasn't too serious. He could see it so clearly. Talk turned to other matters. The pleasant clatter of silverware and crystal overtook his efforts to concentrate; Sally allowed
Zeb a glass of wine and they grinned at each other.
"A toast," he said. He looked round at all of them. "To--this."
"To this," they said, and Annie raised her water glass, and the dogs, sensing something, scrambled to their feet and watched. Zeb felt himself calming down. Shutting down, the other part of
him said sarcastically.
The rest of the afternoon passed pleasantly. The steadily falling snow outside formed a counterpoint to the fire inside. They played Scrabble. To Zeb's unvoiced irritation, Sally
insisted that they leave the radio off, though Zeb was hoping for any information it might yield. "It's really so lovely likethis. A Thanksgiving without all that noise!"
Finally Zeb rose.
"Time to go," he said. The dogs hurried to the door.
"You're not staying the night?" asked Sally, surprised. But--it's snowing, and--"
"I'm fine," he said gently, hugging her briefly. She always looked so harried. "You take such good care of me. But I have a lot to do. A lot to think about." He sighed. He hadn't meant
to bring it all up again. But they couldn't stick their heads in the sand.
"Look," he said. "I want you to promise that if anything happens up again you'll come to my place, all right? I'm not kidding--everything there is self-sufficient." He paused, remembering how the progression stretched away from him, how the long "yes" would suddenly turn to "no;" stutter between them for a while, and then . . .
He went and got his coat, suddenly filled with urgency. He kissed them all good-bye. He looked long at Brad and at Annie; they, more than anyone, would feel the eventual brunt of this. But--maybe he was utterly, completely wrong. He fervently hoped so. Sally made him wait and rushed to the kitchen; returned in a minute with some hastily wrapped leftovers and a whole pumpkin pie, in a small hamper.
The Interstate was deserted except for long-haul trucks spewing mud. Gray twilight glowed around the mountains, which closed in around the highway above Roanoke. House lights twinkled here and there, isolated. Even AM stations were far between and faint; he picked up no FM stations at all.
He was puzzled, as he turned onto his long driveway, by the half-filled tire tracks. Who in the world would have come to see him? A student, perhaps?
There was no other vehicle at the house. His headlights showed that whoever had been here had left. But the door stood partly open. He leaned back in his seat.
After a minute he climbed down from his truck. The dogs rushed past him, into the house. After a minute Plieades came back and stood in the door, as if to say, aren't you coming too? Admittedly, his dogs would most likely simply greet an intruder, although they could seem vicious enough at times.
He walked to the house, reached inside, turned on the light.
He was stunned. The floor was covered with books; a chair stood upside down; file cabinets dumped. He began to get angry. He went to the phone to call the police. What could they have been after?
Then he noticed that the few sheets of the printout that he'd torn off the rest, because it was before the phenomenon occurred, were no longer on the table. He was sure he'd left them there.
Who the hell knew that he even had them? Well, some people at the party knew that he'd been going to the antenna last night, but he seriously doubted that any of them would have given it a
second thought, or understood the possible significance. Some of the ten students working on the project might have told others about it, but again, that was unlikely to stir up any interest.
He slowly went to his email setup, wondering what to say. Finally he just wrote, "Craig, any news?"
After ten minutes it bounced back. No such address.
He ran a search. It didn't take long.
Craig no longer existed online.
Downshifting gingerly on the icy street to turn a corner, Zeb passed the umpteenth all-night candle vigil he'd seen on his drive up the Shennandoah Valley to Fairfax. In front of a church, a crowd milled about the core group of heavily bundled folks standing on a snowy swale sloping down to the four-lane highway in Northern Virginia. The church itself was powerfully lit, and filled, according to the strategy Zeb had heard on the radio, with covered dishes and ever-fresh reinforcements.
He'd listened to the radio all day. There was a lot of talk about the end of the world, sin, and the best way to go about imploring God to reconsider. Very occasionally he'd hit on some mention of the Emergency Summit which was to begin tomorrow. Astoundingly, from Zeb's perspective, official talk had changed from the solar flare explanation to "a previously undiscovered
quasar," with occasional mention of an electromagnetic pulse. Excited talk from newscasters, mostly; curiously little from anyone in authority. Sound bytes from various heads of state asking for order and doling out calculated phrases of soothing comfort.
Traffic was heavy for two in the morning. At least Zeb thought so, though he hadn't been to the DC area for about three years. The city must be filling up for the summit, and people weren't
flying if they could help it. Zeb wouldn't have minded flying. He knew that nothing would happen again until the dates he had dropped off at Sally's on the way up, with the admonition not to
let anyone she knew fly at those times. The first day was three weeks away, but he didn't know what might happen to him by then.
Ten miles of No Vacancy signs prompted Zeb to turn abruptly into the Captain's Nest, a motel with a green blinking anchor, an artifact from long ago when Route Fifty was a major corridor to
Delaware beaches. He jumped from the cab into the shock of cold; traffic swished past on the wet road.
"Last room," said the elderly, thin-faced clerk, sliding a heavy brass key across the worn Formica counter.
Zeb opened #10 and left a copy of his tape beneath the pillow, the tape he had made on the way to Thanksgiving dinner in Roanoake, when he understood it all. He hadn't had time to
reconstruct his reasoning yet. He had another copy in his pocket, had left yet another in an iron box buried on the slope above his cabin. The printouts were still underneath his truck seat.
In another fifteen minutes he was on a quiet subdivision street. He passed a yard posted with a sleigh outlined with lights and a waving Santa. Most of the houses had turned off their holiday
lights for the night, though. He glanced at the map screen on the dashboard. One more block then turn left.
Craig's wife sent him a Christmas card every year. He had known her in college as Craig's girl friend, a quiet girl with long brown hair and heavy glasses, a math major. They had two children, one in college now. He had never met the kids. He had seen Craig fairly often since college, at meetings, but had never been to this house.
He turned right onto Swan Lake Drive. Craig's was three houses from the corner on the right. He looked around to see if there were an untoward number of cars parked nearby but it didn't look like it. He wondered whether to park farther away and walk and decided that might be a good idea. He thought again that he should have rented a car. Surely whoever had ransacked his house knew what kind of vehicle he had. For all he knew a satellite had him under surveillance right now.
And, he reflected, he'd even taken his medicine.
He parked down the street. He sat in his truck for a minute
after he killed the engine. It was cold; his unreliable truck thermometer showed twenty-one degrees. He hadn't called ahead. He realized that he had only the vaguest of ideas of what he
hoped to accomplish here. A confrontation with Craig? Or maybe he would find that his old friend had suffered the same kind of indignities as he had.
Somehow, he thought not.
He took a deep breath, wrenched his door open, and slid out of the cab.
The good homeowners had duly cleared their walks but he walked gingerly because of ice. He saw no one. He turned up the walk, stepped onto the small porch, and rang the doorbell.
A dog barked inside. He rang again, holding the buzzer down. "Go away," a voice whispered at his elbow. He started. An intercom.
"I can't," he said. "It's Zeb. I need to talk to Craig."
"Craig's not here." Clara's voice.
"Where is he? Is he all right?"
There was silence again for a while. He buzzed again. The dog barked.
"Craig really isn't here," she said, sounding irritated.
"Look. I'm sorry I woke you up. I've just kind of stopped by for a holiday visit."
He was sure she knew something. "Please. It's really cold out here."
He heard a snort. The chain rattled; she ordered the dog away from the door. She opened the door and yanked him inside by the arm. She shut and chained the door swiftly.
She turned, frowning. "I thought you lived without heat." Her hair was much shorter now and was blond. She was not wearing glasses, and her blue eyes were just as sharp as he remembered,
but much more worried. She was wearing slacks, a turtleneck sweater, and heavy socks. "You look rather distinguished, despite the mountain man get-up."
"Thanks, I think," said Zeb. "You look great. You were awake, I guess."
The dog growled but remained lying. "Quiet, Zeit," said Clara.
"Zeit?" Zeb frowned down at him. Zeit was a Doberman. Zeb had never cared for the breed.
"Spare me the jokes," Clara said. "It was my son's idea. He was studying German at the time. Come in and sit down."
Zeb followed Clara two steps down into a den that faced the back yard; a fire burned low in the stone fireplace. Zeit followed at his heels. Clara gestured toward an antique table that served as
a bar. "Help yourself. The Dalwhinnie is excellent. That's what I'm drinking."
Zeb took a lot of water and a drop of whisky. He and Clara sat facing one another on deep leather chairs. Zeit's eyes, as he assumed an alert pose before the fire, did not leave Zeb's face.
"So where is Craig?" asked Zeb.
"I don't know." Clara leaned her head back against the cushion and stared straight ahead. "I often don't."
"Do you have a clue?"
"No," she said. "He just vanished two days ago. I know that he's safe, but that's all. He has very high security clearance." A resentful undertone entered her voice. "For all I know they took him to one of those holes in the mountains. You know, those places where his family isn't allowed to go. Sometimes, Zeb, I--ah, what's the use." Now she just sounded disgusted. "I don't know if I'm mad at him or at the government. It's had the same effect, I guess." She got up and poured herself another inch of whisky. Zeb noticed that despite her clear speech she swayed alarmingly as she turned from the table, steadied herself, and walked very carefully back to her chair.
"You don't seem surprised that I'm here."
She sighed. "Look, Zeb. You may be in danger. Craig expected that you might come and he told me to tell you that, if you insisted. You seemed insistent. Believe me, you're lucky to get
that much. He's told me nothing else."
"Not that my house was broken into and data stolen? Data that only he knew about?"
"Since he didn't break into your house," said Clara, with a hint of anger in her voice, looking at him directly, "it seems clear that someone else knew as well. When was that?"
So she didn't know. "Thanksgiving."
"Oh. What was the data about?"
"Want to guess?" Zeb asked in a sarcastic tone.
Clara narrowed her eyes. Her mouth tightened. Zeit growled at him, raising his lips so that sharp teeth showed.
"Just joking," said Zeb, with a faint smile. "I have collies. They're much better-natured. Look," he hurried on, when her grim expression did not soften, "I'm not sure how much you know about
this so maybe it's better not to tell you more. Endanger you."
She laughed briefly, and the dog put his head down on his feet. "Don't worry about that. I'm just trying to piece things together for myself. I'm sure it has some sort of bearing on what happened the other night. 'The Incident,' as they're calling it in The Washington Post. Craig just went around muttering 'Out of the blue' while he threw things in a suitcase. A car came and picked him up. That's all I know. Except that he told me to tell you to lie low. Those were his words. Lie low. So whatever you know, you're right, Zeb. It's dangerous. For you, anyway."
"And for you if I'm here," he said, eying the dog and rising as slowly as a tai chi practitioner. Zeit sprang to his feet, and Zeb felt lucky the dog didn't go for his throat. "Sorry."
"You have a place to stay?"
"I'll be fine. Mind if I leave by the back door?"
Clara knelt by the sliding glass door, pulling the curtain over her head, and threw an iron bar on the rug. She stood and slid the door open. "You're . . . better?" she asked, hesitantly, looking up at him. She remembered, of course his dramatic breakdown.
He smiled. "More or less"
He tramped through the snow of four back yards and looked between the houses at his truck. He considered just walking away from it, leaving it there, maybe coming for it in a few days. That's
silly, he thought.
But even though he didn't turn on his lights at first, he had to, eventually. At that point the car that nosed out from a space down the block and fell in behind him turned on its lights too.
But it turned off before he reached the main road. Got the jitters, he decided. There was nothing he could do anyway.
A man was loading up the newpaper box at the motel and Zeb bought a Washington Post. Inside his room, the heating unit clattered. He shucked his boots and crossed his legs on the bed, shoved a thin pillow behind his back. The paper said that the summit would start tomorrow at the Four Seasons Hotel. Next he would get out his computer and log on. He had thought he ought to
avoid it at least until he had time to set up some kind of decoy identity, but it didn't seem to matter now since they--someone--probably knew where he was.
He fell asleep on that thought, sitting up, the light on, fully dressed, clutching the newspaper.
When he opened his door the next morning at ten, he saw that another six inches of snow had fallen. Good. Traffic would probably be light. The Metro would probably be overloaded. But
it was later than he had hoped. He hadn't set his watch alarm.
It was a gloomy day. He had no time for breakfast, though it wasn't good for him to skip meals. He thought about putting on his tire chains, but decided to risk going without. He could put them on later if he needed to. He shaved, unzipped his suit bag, and tore the dry cleaning bag off of his suit. He hadn't worn it since his wedding. He was relieved to find that it still fit. He stuffed eight or nine conference badges scooped from a drawer on his way out of the house into his pocket. This event would most likely use some sort of coded signal or bar code scan, but one of these name tags might be useful in a low-scrutiny situation.
He tossed all of his luggage into his truck cab, but he didn't check out. He left the radio off as he pulled onto the four-lane road. The hysteria was wearing after awhile. He stayed on Route Fifty; it went straight into town. He didn't hit any congestion until he crossed the bridge. He could get no farther than the Vietnam Memorial, and fortuitously snagged a parking place from someone just leaving. He checked his map; the conference hotel was only about ten blocks away. He left his down coat in the car; it didn't mesh with his present appearance. He put one of the tapes in a pocket, and set out, aware that he was probably being followed.
He would have enjoyed the walk were it not for the sense of gravity and responsibility that weighed on him. The gray sky spat flurries that melted on his face. The noise of traffic was muted by the snow, only partially cleared from the streets. Holiday decorations were out in full force, so it all might have seemed quite festive were it not for his worry.
It seemed almost impossible to him that he was the only one in the world who had the information that he had. Almost. Because if the magnetic pulse had knocked out satellites on a large scale
as well as power and the computerized elements of the great radio telescopes, it was feasible that his collection of information was at least rather rare.
Still, any astronomer of note knew most everyone else in that small category. Surely they all would have made some effort to get their speculations onto the Internet. That would be anyone's
But perhaps all speculations, and speculators, if they came anywhere near the mark, had been dealt with as he had been.
As he walked he became increasingly agitated about the situation. Maybe he should get a lawyer, even though he had never employed one in his life, not even for his divorce.
He was several blocks from the hotel when serious congestion confronted him. It was like New Year's Eve on Times Square. He pushed and squeezed through the crowd. Many people were wearing headphones and then a woman appeared before him and offered him some for $50.00. "It's the summit," she said.
The tiny earphones nestled in his ears. He pressed onward. He heard that a session was about to start in the Magnolia ballroom on the second floor.
Finally he squeezed against the brick wall of the building. Next to him was a gray metal door. He tried the handle but it was locked.
Then it was gradually pushed open. A man stuck his head out and yelled "Hey, back up, folks." No one paid any attention but eventually the man got it opened wide enough so that he and three
others managed to slip through it. Just before it shut again Zeb stuck his hand inside and shoved it back open.
Inside was a corridor lined with ceramic tile. He walked briskly for a short distance, came to a stairway, and climbed to the second floor.
He emerged on red carpeting of oriental motif beneath a crystal chandelier. A lot of people were milling around, but at least there was room to walk. CNN was interviewing a woman about ten
feet away; no one seemed to notice him. He grabbed a badge at random from his pocket that said Dr. Zeb Aberly, Radio Astronomy, Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He headed toward a ballroom that had one door open; it was standing room only. As he stepped inside a guard said quietly, "Sir--"
He walked past, ignoring the guard, who followed, grasping his arm and looking at his badge. "Doctor Aberly, I must see your pass."
He felt in his pockets. "I must have left it in my room. I'll get it after this session."
"I must ask you to leave, sir."
"I'm sorry," Zeb said, his voice rising in spite of himself. "It is essential that I attend this session." He walked ahead but the guard grabbed his arm.
Zeb shook him off and pushed through the standees, hoping to lose the guard, but another guard joined the chase. One of them grabbed his arm again and the other took the other side. Zeb
struggled. "Let go of me," he said, and as they pulled him toward the door he began yelling, "They're lying! They're all lying to you! I have some real data!"
Heads turned but in the eyes of those near him he saw only irritation. In less than a minute he was out of the ballroom. One guard kicked the door shut behind him. "Now, look," he said, "do I have to call a cop and have you arrested?"
Zeb knew he was out of control but it seemed called for. He yelled again, "There IS NO QUASAR, don't you UNDERSTAND?" And then the CNN microphone was shoved in his face.
The announcer said briskly, "And here we have . . . Dr. Zeb Aberly from Virginia Polytechnic Institute. He seems to have become embroiled in a controversy. Dr. Aberly, did you say that
there was is no quasar?"
"He can't--" said one guard but the other gave him a warning look. They released Zeb and stepped back. Zeb was startled. The announcer looked at him questioningly.
"That's what I said." He ran his fingers through his hair, suddenly aware of how rumpled he must look despite his earlier pains.
"And you are a radio astronomer, sir."
"That is correct. I'm a professor of astronomy. I have data that suggests that an--"
The lights went out.
In the darkness he was grabbed once again and this time he fought harder. The emergency exit lights came on and a repetitious warning blare sounded. He was dragged bodily to the stairs and
as the door closed he saw the lights come on again. The siren ceased. He felt what might be a gun in his side. "I'd suggest that you be very quiet for the next few moments, sir."
"Who are you?" he asked, but was jabbed again. "Let's go."
He was hurried down the stairs and down a corridor different than the one by which he had entered.
A shabby, dented gray car was in the alley, running. As the men pulled him into the alley the passenger door swung open. Craig leaned over from the driver's side and said, "Get in, Zeb."
Startled, Zeb did so. Craig reached across him and slammed the door and they jounced down the alley, leaving the henchmen behind.
"I tried to keep you out of this, Zeb," said Craig. He had long ago traded in his heavy black glasses frames for some sleek, urbane, and stylish, but Zeb could only think of him as his old
roommate, brilliant yet savvy in a way Zeb had never been and never cared to be. Craig had a sense of the political that Zeb was aware that he lacked utterly. He was wearing an expensive-looking black overcoat, buttery kid gloves, and a cashmere scarf. The only mystery, thought Zeb, was why he was driving an old rattletrap.
"Then why did you try to steal my readouts?" he asked. Craig had chosen an alley perpendicular to the hotel and now they were in the clear.
"You still like Chinese food?" asked Craig.
"I guess," said Zeb. "I should eat." He felt in his pocket for his pills and realized that they were in his other pants. Second time in a week. Out of his routine. "What's going on?"
"Take a wild guess." Craig cut across three lanes of oncoming traffic. They careened through some scary-looking blocks, then he zipped into an empty parking space. "What luck. The restaurant is on the next block. Didn't you bring a coat? What kind of a mountain man are you?"
They got out. "Don't lock your door," Craig said. "Leave the glove compartment open so thieves can see there's nothing in it." Zeb did as he was instructed. Snow wafted down on fenced-in
lots of rubble as they walked. Traffic was light. Zeb set a fast pace to try and keep warm. "Are we at war?" he ventured.
"Good wild guess," said Craig. "That's the general impulse, but there's a problem. At war with whom? Some entity that we have only a brief radio inkling of? Someone who, admittedly, tried to knock out our communications systems and defense satellites and did a damned thorough job of it too. Problem is, they haven't declared themselves. Now, we don't know who else besides you has the incoming radio profile. Down here." Craig steered him down some steps to a door with a half-moon window.
Warmth and the million mingled smells of Chinese food hit him--five spice, frying noodles, roasting duck. He was initially surprised to find the place packed, then realized that it must be
lunch time. An empty booth awaited them, with a small vaguely oriental-shaded light jutting from the wall. Craig didn't order anything; the waiter seemed to know him and brought tea and then
hot and sour soup and then an array of vegetables, lo mein, and duck as he and Craig talked. Everyone around them spoke Chinese. Mandarin, he supposed, not that he could tell.
"I was hoping you'd just stay tucked in the mountains down there," Craig said, shovelling down noodles with his chopsticks. "I really had nothing to do with your house being ransacked. The
word dipole was a tag, particularly when the eyes were on every known astronomer."
"But you know about it."
Craig didn't say anything.
"And why are you feeding the public all this crap about a quasar?" Zeb put his ceramic soup spoon down. He never could eat when he was nervous. "Solar flare. Whatever. You and I
know that it's not."
"You and me and the fencepost, buddy," replied Craig. "And about a hundred people at the Pentagon, and maybe a couple hundred more around the world. Some people in your general situation. Not as many as you might think."
"Surely there's some plan to let everyone know--"
Craig shook his head. "Quite the opposite. Use your head. These dumplings are good. With that sauce. Eat, man. Now just what exactly do you think people would do in the face of actual
evidence of . . . well . . . just think. Massive civil unrest. Utter chaos. It's going to be bad enough. Thinktanks are going all over the world to try and figure out how to cope once the . .
. quasar . . . washes things out completely. I mean, who knows what that's going to be like." Craig shrugged. "The main thing is to keep communications viable."
"So that it will be easier to perpetuate massive lies? Seems like what you want is the opposite effect. You have children, Craig. Don't you think they deserve to know the truth?"
Craig stared at him blankly. "What for? This is a matter of national--and international--security."
Zeb was flabbergasted. "You can't keep something like this a secret."
"Something like what?" Craig asked, his words slow with exaggerated patience. "This event quite resembled a solar flare, or a nuclear-caused electromagnetic pulse."
Zeb nodded. "But it's what happened during the pulse effect that's important. The information that I recorded . . . . Look. An electromagnetic pulse--an EMP--does certain things to the ions
in the atmosphere. I think that certain elements of the atmosphere were cleared away by the pulse event to make way for whatever was coming in."
"And what exactly do you think might have come in?"
"I don't know. All I know that I have this information--"
"Which you need to hand over to the government. Here's the deal." Craig put his elbows on the table; clasped his hands; leaned forward. "We share with you and you become a part of our team. Like you said, this is war. At least, for the moment. An undeclared war though; that's what makes it strange. And this is your country. There's still a chance that this has somehow come
from a human source, or a completely natural source. We're not going on the air and say that an extraterrestrial intelligence caused the pulse. And that that's not even the whole story--that
there was other information incoming at the time that in all probability was not picked up by any kind of receiver that had any kind of computer components in it. As if they only wanted certain . . . agents . . . to have it."
Zeb was getting irritated. "Are you intimating that I'm some sort of alien agent?"
"It's not me, buddy. It's the mindset. It does seem to me that you're refusing to help. Why? And why should we tell the public anything more at this point? No matter how organized what
you call the incoming information seems, that could be an accident. Not only do we have human cryptographers but we have AI cryptology analysis engines that needs to be working on this
"But putting that aside, there are enough problems of international concern right now without everyone thinking that aliens might land. You're already marked because of what you did
there at the conference. So your alternative is to get a real good lawyer, and fast, because plan B is to take the key and lock you up. Because you're nuts. There was a quick meeting after
they couldn't find the printouts to decide how to contain you.
There's a certain amount of hysteria in the air, Zeb. I hope it won't last, but I don't know. There are a lot of zealots when it comes to this kind of thing. I'm prepared to pull all the strings I possibly can for you. I can vouch for you. I know what you used to capable of. Even a lot less of that is a powerful resource for us. But you're going to have to change your attitude. And pretty quickly too. Like in the next sixty seconds. I can convince them that you'll be useful. Come on, Zeb." Craig's eyes were honestly pleading. "Otherwise . . . "
The muffled buzz of a cellphone sounded from Craig's overcoat, which he had tossed onto the bench next to him.
"Your phone's ringing," said Zeb.
With his eyes still on Zeb, Craig took it out, flipped it open and shut. "Now it's not. I am not all powerful, Zeb. Far from it. Say yes now. Just agree to this, all right? I have a new identity for you. The newshounds are going to be after you after that performance you gave. You are not to be found. One way or another. Do you understand? You can't contact anyone."
Many fears gripped Zeb. The overriding fear was deeply related to self-preservation. He knew that the wiser course would be to go along with Craig. Yet he could not. He knew that it wouldn't last long if he did. If only he could pretend, he could probably do some good, eventually. But he knew himself too well. He would soon begin to bluntly contradict people. This was something that the scientific community should be working on together. He was utterly opposed to the secrecy that Craig implied was so necessary. And if Craig tried to protect him, he
would go down too.
"Is there a back door?" He whispered because suddenly his voice would not work.
Tears stood in Craig's eyes. "I'm sorry," he said. "Give us a struggle, all right? I'm going to be in trouble."
"I'm just going to the bathroom," Zeb said.
Craig shrugged, pulled a large packet from his coat pocket and tossed the coat to Zeb. "Take this." Zeb clutched the coat to him. As Zeb passed, Craig grabbed his arm and pressed a wad of
money into his hand. Zeb stifled an impulse to laugh and shoved it in his pocket.
He pushed through the steamy restaurant, turning down a narrow hallway obstructed by boxes with Chinese writing on them.
He exited into a snowy netherworld, gray and shifting, the buildings on the next block obscured by sheets of snow. The heavy utility door slammed shut behind him. He pulled on Craig's coat, stuffing the money in the pocket without counting it. There was no one in the alley.
In front of him was a church, wire mesh covering soaring stained glass windows. But the back door was unlocked.
He stepped into the echoing interior. He saw no one, but felt deeply comforted by a presence he had never been able to explain and had never wanted to, that he always felt in churches. Maybe
it was just the memory of his mother, who had taken them to church until he had rebelled. A faint scent of incense lingered in the air.
He was not Catholic, but he put a coin in the box in front of a bank of flickering candles and lit one. The light of the world. Truth. Knowledge. Transcendence.
If Craig was right, they were entering the Dark Ages again. If Craig was right, there were few people who could stem the tide of ignorance. Especially if government was actively on the side of
ignorance, and if the Internet was not functioning. He feared he lacked the temperament, the physiology, to be one of those who would become the inevitable underground. Maybe if he could
contact them, they could band together somehow.
But already his world was drifting apart. An odd, diffuse, inappropriate joy edged his thoughts, even as he contemplated the bleakness of the situation. He could not contact Sally. He might walk back to his truck, later, but it would surely be gone, and his pills with it. He would go to a hospital at some point and try to get more without revealing his identity. He should hurry. Once he passed a certain point he wouldn't care.
He felt, as he stood in front of the steppes of candles casting flickering shadows, that the very architecture of the church was drawing his thoughts upward, outward. The abstract glass, dimmed in the lack of sun, nevertheless lent definition to light, as his neurologic architecture defined reality for him.
A new space of thought hovered round him. Speculations concerning the nature of infinity. What vast time had it taken for the disrupting wave to arrive at earth? Or if the origin was close, what vast time had formed up those capable of such a journey? He had grasped the edge of some of the particulars. He had the tape of his speculations--but that would be ruined, perhaps, when the next incident occurred. He also had the periodicity of his computer's lapses, which in any event would not have been difficult to find elsewhere. Unless, somehow, it was even now being erased from any kind of unlikely peripheral record such as he himself had unwittingly made.
The world would probably not change quite as quickly as he would. He had little to go back to. His dogs were safe with Sally. He would miss them greatly. But he might not be able to care for
them very well in this new life.
He realized that he had passed the point of no return. Not because he was too far over the division's verge to care, but because he was not. He was still capable of making the decision.
He would not go back. Not to his old life. Not to his old mind, the parameters of which he had carefully defined over many years, to keep the light from flooding in all at once. Let it flood.
The world he had staked a place in was gone. Overnight, in a blast of light out of the range of human eyes. He lit a candle with a taper; watched it flare to life. He observed it for a
moment: the blue core; the planelike whorling of the corona.
There were mysteries in the sky. There always had been. There always would be.
If he hadn't been so afraid he would have been elated.
He walked down the aisle of the church, found a door behind the choir pews, and stepped out into the silvering world.
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