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C¬AP1LR 0NL: MARC¬ 2106
I didn`t want the suit, I took it on a dare ,I know, I`m a child
sometimes, but tell me something I don`t hear all the time írom
my girlíriend,. 1hat night, as usual, Sam and I were íarting around
a íew minutes into our shiít cleaning Sections L-G in R&D when
I took the dare. \e clocked in at se·en, mopped down the
hallway to the break room and decided to riííle through lunch
leíto·ers in the íridge, as usual, I was opening some dude`s lunch
bag-the note stuck to it reading: lea·e this the l alone!!!`-and
when I looked up írom my pillaging, Sam was gone. Sam likes to
take oíí and explore the premises with his ílashlight, so I made no
big deal oí it and wolíed down the soggy toíurkey sandwich and
went to see what Sam was up to.
Sam·` I shouted down the hall.
Down here.` lis ·oice echoed írom around the corner in
I íollowed his ·oice and íound him at the íar end oí the section
where engineering ended and marketing began, his ílashlight beam
piercing into a storage closet-90 storage closet.
\hat the íuck, man· \ou`re gonna get us canned, and I lose
this job Kara`s gonna boot me out. \ou hear me·` 1he ílashlight
beam íell on something shiny. I knew it had to be the suit. Do
you hear me· \e keep digging around in there and we`re íired or
Don`t get your panties in a wad.`
It`s nothing but junk.` le held out a slinky sil·er hood that
reminded me oí medie·al chainmail only with no eyeholes and no
apparent opening to breathe through. 1he rest oí the suit, a
crinkly sil·er body stocking, lay heaped o·er Sam`s shoes.
I knew all about the suit. Six months ago, when I worked in
R&D marketing, I shot the ·ideo oí the suit íailing spectacularly
in íront oí generals írom the Pentagon and chieís írom our
1he suit was a military camouílage experiment. It was
supposed to be made oí millions oí nano-sized calcite prisms, the
prisms bent light, bounced it away írom the wearer as ií he or she
were nothing more than a mirror. Períect concealment íor a grunt
in the íield.
Only, it hadn`t work. 1he engineers couldn`t reduce the prisms
to the size they needed, so they íudged-a lot. 1hey wo·e íabric
with millions oí selí-reproducing nanomachines to gi·e it a shine
that they hoped would at least íool the studs írom the Pentagon.
But the day it was tested, Specialist Dixon, the ·olunteer brought
up írom lort lood, stayed in íull ·iew. No sale. 1en mil wasted,
and because they thought I knew too much, V-¯, my bosses,
demoted me írom marketing to custodial.
Anyhow, I took the dare to put the thing on and walk írom
marketing to engineering and back. I marched down the hall
toward engineering, not paying any attention to what was
happening as I walked, my mind jumped írom how stupid getting
in this thing was to losing my job o·er this to losing Kara o·er
this. She stopped sleeping with me six months ago aíter my
demotion and she had threatened to kick me out, ií I lost this job.
\hich was pretty íucking likely ií the security cameras caught me
in this thing. \hich would happen.
And it didn`t matter that our buddy 1rent was the security guy
monitoring this section oí corporate: he had his job to do--arrest
us, and was probably on his way to do just that. I could hear Kara
when she got my ine·itable call írom corporate le·el lockup: \ou
just don`t seem to think I`m worth the eííort, do you, Van·`
\rapped up as I was íretting about Kara, I almost bumped a
cubicle wall. I stopped and turned. Sam stood outside the closet
looking down a side corridor, where the ser·ice ele·ators were.
lis íace was scrunched up like he had gotten a whiíí oí a nasty
íart and he shiíted his weight írom íoot to íoot.
le looked my way but seemed coníused by the sound oí my
Sam· \hat the íuck·`
le rubbed his eyes and shook his head.
It`s 1rent, right·` I leaned against the wall, as ií that might
hide me írom 1rent`s snooping. \e`re íucked, aren`t we·`
Bro,` Sam said, íinally. Don`t mess with me.`
\hat do you mean·`
Gi·e up the hide and seek.`
lide and seek· I`m right in íront . . .` I wa·ed. 1hen I
understood. It was the íirst time I`d looked at myselí in the suit. It
was working. It was íucking working. 1he suit . . . I was in·isible.
At least my hand was. I looked down at my íeet. Gone. Looked at
my other hand. Not there. Oh shit, man. 1he suit`s working.`
Sam had ducked behind the closet door and was peering
around it. \hy you trippin`·`
\ou can`t see me, right·` I stepped away írom the wall. I cast
no shadow and there was no reílection in the break room window.
Sam shook his head.
1hat`s what the suit does. Makes you in·isible.`
\ou see me·`
And you can`t see my reílection in the window·`
1hen it works. 1hey threw it away íor nothing. 1he stupid
bastards threw it out and it works. loly . . .` 1he ser·ice ele·ator
Sam looked back toward the ele·ators.
1rent. It has to be 1rent. \e`·e got to get out oí here.`
Sam ran his íingers through his hair. Chill. Just chill. I can
I scrambled a íew meters down the hall, rounded the corner
into engineering, caught a glimpse oí 1rent`s white shirt, his black
slacks, and then sprinted away írom him and Sam. Call me a
coward íor running, ií you must, but I couldn`t get arrested,
couldn`t lose Kara o·er something this stupid.
My thumbprint let me out oí the building without any alarms
going oíí. I had to get oíí the corporate le·el, down to residential
or retail, somewhere I could get lost brieíly. It should be easy to
get lost in as massi·e a structure as an arcology, especially in an
in·isibility suit. People got lost in cities all the time. Kids got lost,
separated írom their parents. But with V-¯ keeping tabs, people
didn`t stay lost íor long. Ií you were important to them, they
I thought about sneaking aboard the Magle·, the corporate
le·el connection docked in this sector but the third-shiít train
wasn`t due íor another six hours. Problem was I didn`t ha·e any
idea how long I might stay in·isible. I had to get out. A taxi was
unlikely to take an in·isible íare. It was days like this I wish Kara
and I had more than one aircar, but there was no way we could
aííord two since my demotion and V-¯ had repossessed mine, a
nice one, a sil·er sports model, and I didn`t ha·e any credit to buy
\ou know, I thought, maybe these guys deser·e losing their
suit íor screwing me o·er so badly. I could keep it, get out oí
Austex, head to the spaceport in louston, take a ílight to Mars,
sell the suit to the anti-V-¯ íorces up there, and li·e happily as a
Martian. Start o·er on a new world.
^o, ,ov cav`9 .0 v.. Startled by ·oices, I jerked my head sharply
toward where I thought I heard them, or rather, heard something
like crickets chirping. But no one was there.
Okay. Got to get out oí here. Oíí this le·el. Paranoia setting in.
learing ·oices. I hid behind a column near the Magle· platíorm.
1he pristine pink granite concourse was deserted, no black-suited
security patrols in sight.
Our apartment was on the garden le·el, six le·els below me. I
looked up through the arc oí the skylight abo·e me, trying to spot
Mars in the night sky.
!ai9 for 90 9raiv; r0` va/0 .vr0 ,ov va/0 i9 ov0 vv.00v. 1he
·oices again. Great, more paranoia. \hat else could I do but
listen· I clutched the column and waited. Sweating. leart
A security oííicer`s íootsteps-maybe it was 1rent-echoed
0c/ 0c/ 0c/ through the concourse. le circled the column, looked
my direction, spoke into his radio, All clear at Station 51.` low
could it be all clear· 1he red art deco se·en on his shoulder patch
was íour to íi·e inches írom my nose, he had looked right at me.
lorty-two, heading back your way,` he said into his radio.
íc/. íc/. íc/. And he was gone.
1o/ ,ov. ^or rai9. 1he ·oices chirping again. I was getting a
headache. 1here was no source íor the ·oices except in my head.
Or írom the suit. Great, an in·isibility suit that induces
schizophrenia. \ell, they could work out the kinks on Mars.
Six hours and another patrol passed. 1he oííicer ga·e the all
clear and the train arri·ed on time, as usual. I boarded without
needing my pass or any ID whatsoe·er. I was in·isible and just
waited until the third shiít riders had exited and jumped in, and
halí an hour and another exchange later, I was in the garden le·el
near the park by our complex.
I jogged along the well-lighted cinder track that wo·e through
the park. 1he distance wasn`t so bad, I had jogged it se·eral times,
but in the suit, I was sweating more than ií I were in shorts and a
1-shirt, and by the time I was on the path to our complex, íelt
drenched. And my sweat must`·e aííected the suit: exiting the trail
onto the apartment grounds, my skin itched and stung as ií
pricked by nettles.
Once I reached our parking lot on the other side oí the
complex, I was itching so badly, I had to yank the suit oíí. 1o
make sure no one saw me when I took it oíí, I ducked into one oí
the íenced-in spots where they stored Dumpsters íor non
recyclables. 1he suit clung to my body like plastic wrap and
seemed as ií it were reluctant to come oíí.
Almost immediately aíter it was remo·ed, the itching stopped.
I íolded the suit, tucked it under my arm like a íootball, and
headed across our lot and up the stairs to our íront door. I
hesitated beíore thumbing the keypad: coming home early írom
work was certain to get me an ass-chewing írom Kara. Unless I
was lucky and she had gone out with Lily. Something was going
on there with that relationship, I was sure. I took a deep breath.
Not my business, I guess.
Our apartment. I went inside. No lights were on and the couch
was empty. So Kara had gone out with Lily, or she`d be crashed in
the easy chair watching a cop show on the D. ler
antidepressants were in a prescription bottle on the coííee table,
and her quilt was bunched with her pillow in one corner oí the
I popped the cap on the antidepressants, shook one into my
palm. She wouldn`t miss one and they helped me sleep. I took the
pill with a handíul oí water írom the kitchen tap and crossed the
den into the bedroom.
Our bedroom was empty, too. Aíter tossing the suit under the
bed, I undressed and lay down.
1he íront door creaked open a quarter aíter three, about the
time I normally got home írom work. Kara, oí course. She
wandered into the bedroom, heading toward the bathroom. She
stopped about halíway there and squinted at the bed. Van·`
Got sent home,` I said. I coughed, trying to make it sound
phlegmy. But it`s not what you think.`
\hat do I think·`
A íe·er. llu.`
1he ílu· Really·`
1hat`s what it íeels like to me. Aches, íe·er, nausea.` I sat up
in bed. leel my head. I`m sweating like a pig.`
She touched my íorehead. Okay, so you`re pretty hot. I`ll gi·e
you that. 1his time. But, Jesus, Van . . .`
low was Lily·`
She sighed, rolled her eyes and turned away írom me. I`·e got
!0 v00/ iv; 0 v00/. v..
í0 v00/. a¡¡iv0...
!0 v00/ a¡¡iv0...
1av`. a¡¡,; r0`r0 a¡¡,.
ß0cav.0 r0 ar0 1av.
.v/ 0 i. v..
Just beíore sunrise a noise like a thousand crickets chirping at
once erupted írom under the bed. I started groggily írom sleep.
\hat the . . .` I peered under the bed. 1here was a sudden hush,
the only sound creaking bedsprings. It íelt as ií I had dreamed the
noise but it started again when I sat up, this time accompanied by
a muííled rustle, as ií something were ali·e under there, a mouse
or, God íorbid, a rat.
\hat`s going on in here, Van·` Kara stood in the doorway,
rubbing her eyes.
Not sure. Mouse maybe.`
A mouse· Making all that racket·` She lowered head and her
bangs íeathered one eye like a rusty patch. C`mon, Van. Really·`
She tugged her nightgown close to her body and ílipped her hair
away írom her íace.
I shrugged. I don`t know.`
Ií it`s a mouse, then get it out. I don`t want those things in
I climbed out oí bed, pulled on my work co·eralls, but was
disrupted in tending to the mouse by a loud pop and white ílash
that made us jump and brieíly blinded me. My sight restored aíter
a íew seconds, I saw a shiny sil·er liquid stream slither up the wall
and seep under the window sill.
loly shit,` Kara said.
I dashed toward the íront door.
My íeet slapped cement as I juddered down the steps and
crossed the parking lot, and my toes were cold and numb by the
time I swung open the wood gate that hid the Dumpster. 1his was
where I saw the liquid sil·er snake ooze. I opened the Dumpster`s
lid. 1he suit-snake lay heaped on top oí lumpy black trash bags. I
reached íor it and it cringed írom my grasp.
A siren yelped, not íar oíí it seemed. I dropped the lid and
Kara called íor me, her ·oice echoing across the lot. I dropped
back to my crouch.
1he siren closed in. A hum came írom inside the bin. Lights
ílashed up the road. Kara again called out.
I leaned against the bin, the hum inside had e·ol·ed into
churning and grating, like rocks caught in a blender. 1endrils oí
stink like a ripening corpse thrashed my nostrils. Something was
ali·e inside. I did not want to know what.
Good God, what I wouldn`t gi·e íor a normal night. One in
which my girlíriend slept with me and not on the couch or with
another woman, and especially not a night when something I
brought home was now running amok in one oí our Dumpsters.
Red and blue ílashers dappled through the cracks in the íence.
1he cops. 1hings were deíinitely going to hell between me and
Kara now. Someone-a cop·-rattled the gate. I was poised to
make some sort oí mo·e to escape. I thought maybe I could
charge the cop like a linebacker, send him sprawling beíore he
knew what hit him.
Police! Open up!` 1he cop banged the gate again. Open up,
Mr. Bender. \e ha·e orders to use íorce. Ií necessary.`
I kept quiet.
Another ·oice, calm, íeminine, íamiliar: Van, it`s Lily. \ou can
be pissed oíí with me íor spying on you later.`
I knew it. Knew there was something more than whate·er it
was you had with Kara.`
Still ha·e,` she said. Van, you`re not in trouble. \ou only
need to relinquish the suit. \ou`ll go íree. I promise. L·erything`s
been worked out. No harm, no íoul. \e just want our property
back. Do you understand·`
It was then, as I stood to gi·e Lily a piece oí my mind, that I
slipped in some glop I had stepped in earlier, twisted, and íell into
something gelatinous. I was engulíed in cloud-nine warmth. 1he
suit or nanomachines or whate·er I`d brought home had grown
into a massi·e pulsing swarm, ob·iously it had ingested the bin
and its contents.
A wa·e oí anxiety and then sudden, absolute terror washed
o·er me as I realized I was about to be eaten ali·e by a machine or
machines. I knew enough that now, semi-ali·e, the nanos would
strip down my DNA, translate it into data. lor what purpose, who
the hell knew·
A hot wind sucked at my neck, pulling on me. lere we go.
lood íor nanos.
1rv.9 v., 1av. !0r0 r0`r0 9a/ivg ,ov, ,ov` ar0 0r0r,9ivg ,ov rav9.
1he ·oice-in my head· Outside· Llsewhere·-was so
reassuring I belie·ed it. \hat choice did I ha·e, though· Maybe
this was what the swarm oí machines told the garbage and the
Dumpster beíore munching them.
!0a.0, 1av. 1rv.9 v..
1hen a jolt oí pain pinched my right side. Something sticky
oozed between my íingers abo·e my right hip. I slipped and
kicked, írantic, but whate·er pulled at me, pulled with the íull
íorce oí the uni·erse, then my reality shiíted into blackness,
hearing the ·oice once more beíore going completely out: O, vo!
C¬AP1LR 1w0: MA¥ 2006
I woke up groggy, cotton-mouthed, a mild sting pinching my
right side. Blurry brown shadows capered around me, then
blended like thick dog`s íur. One shadow took shape, a short
woman wearing a blue scrub shirt. I was laying on a gurney in
what seemed a hospital reco·ery room. So I had been shot, I
thought. I tried to talk but my throat was parched and
constricted. 1he woman placed a paper cup íilled with sha·ed ice
chips on a tray.
!a9 ar0 r0 0r0.
!0 /ov`9 /vor. í09`. ra9c.
Don`t try to say anything, Mr. Bender,` the woman said. Just
relax. Lat some ice. It`ll soothe your throat. It`s raw írom the
1hat wasn`t what I expected to hear. She seemed too casual,
unhurried, íor a nurse taking care oí someone who apparently just
had a copper-jacketed round popped írom his gut. I mean, so
what ií I was a criminal to her and probably should`·e died on the
operating table or been leít íor dead in a gelatinous mess·
Shouldn`t she be rushing to get me oíí this goddamned gurney
and into a regeneration shell· Get me out oí this hospital ASAP, ií
only to allow V-¯`s lawyers to prosecute me· I was a thieí, aíter all,
at least in their eyes. She should want to help her handlers.
í0 r0v0vb0r. 90 o90r ror/.
1oo vvc, ¡0ra¡..
\e`ll get you to your room soon,` the nurse said.
Room· I wasn`t a doctor, but I knew enough to know that
e·en a serious shot in the gut, once the bullet was remo·ed and
the wound closed, required at most a couple oí days in a
regeneration shell. And since I was awake, my injury couldn`t be
that serious. An hour or two suspended in a clear plastic coííin,
with tubes in my nose and mouth, pumping all sorts oí
medications-antibiotics, cell and tissue regenerators-down me
would íix me up and send me home. Rooms were íor the
terminally ill, íor those who had no chance.
I`m sure Mrs. Bender will be happy to see you,` the nurse said
Kara· I tried to say, but my throat hurt too much. I sucked
another piece oí ice. I wanted to tell this woman that Kara and I
weren`t married and protest I didn`t need to go to a room. Ií I was
going to die, let me see Kara and then let me die. Don`t take me to
a room. Don`t jerk me around and tell me I`m really going to get
to see my girlíriend. I mean we`·e had our diííerences, I had taken
her íor granted . . . and I knew V-¯`s thugs had her in custody. I
wasn`t going to see her.
\ell, no, not her, not that one. She`s no good íor you, Van.
\e sent you here to be happy. \ou just ha·e to remember who
you are. Not who you were.
1he nurse didn`t liít me írom the gurney. Didn`t inject me with
sedati·es to calm me while orderlies lowered me into a íluid-íilled
shell. Instead, the orderlies wheeled me írom reco·ery to a room.
I lay ílat on the gurney holding my side until the orderlies liíted
me into a bed. 1he bed was rolled up at an angle so I could sit in
relati·e comíort. Past the bed rails emerged a pink-shirted íigure.
Another nurse, I thought. 1his woman was not íamiliar, certainly
\hat happened next was a little twisted. 1he woman bent o·er
the railing, embraced me as well as she could, and kissed me and
nuzzled her thick pile oí brown hair under my neck. ler cheek
warmed a patch oí bare skin exposed by the hospital gown I was
wearing. 1hat spot oí skin was dampened by tears.
I winced írom the pressure. 1he woman looked up. Oh God,
Sweetie, I`m sorry.` She kissed my cheek. God, I was so
I was too loopy írom the meds to react to her misguided
aííections to do anything more than touch her hand and croak
out, as ií I were with Kara, \ou, too.`
So so glad to see you. Do you hurt·`
I shook my head. She wiped her eyes. I looked away írom her.
At the bedside the nurse was preparing an IV.
\e`ll put you on a morphine drip tonight íor pain,` the nurse
said. lold out your arm.`
I straightened my arm so she could íind a ·ein. I looked at the
woman, the woman who was supposed to be my wiíe. ler eyes
were red-rimmed írom crying. She smiled.
1he IV needle pricked my arm.
Indirectly, I learned the woman`s name was Molly. She talked
to me íor ten or twenty minutes aíter the nurse leít. She told me
o·er and o·er how worried she was when the nurse in the
emergency room had told us my appendix burst. I couldn`t
imagine losing you, Sweetheart. Not so soon aíter our wedding.` I
had to take that in, accept she belie·ed I was her husband, she was
clearly coníused, distraught, and I was in the wrong place. I
should be in a regenerator, healing. 1his woman should`·e been
with her husband. Once V-¯ prosecuted me, I would sue íor
malpractice. Mental distress. I`d be the richest man in prison.
But why was the woman so con·inced I was her husband· Did
we look that much alike· Maybe she had been drugged· Maybe
this was some kind oí punishment íor me· Maybe V-¯ was
yanking my brains íor stealing their precious suit· I meant to
return it, only, well, it ate me, and shat me out here, where·er that
1a9 ig9. O, vo!
Crickets seemed to be stirring a ruckus in my head. I shook my
head and the noise went away and I touched Molly`s hand. She
She ílipped open a cell phone. Oops, gotta get the kids. See
you in a bit.` She stepped toward the door, looked back: \ou`re
okay with me bringing them up·`
Absolutely.` I had a sudden ílash oí memory oí something I
shouldn`t ha·e known: two girls, eight and thirteen, one brunette,
one blond. Shy kids.
í0`. covivg arovv/.
More crickets, more hint oí ·oices, just like at the Magle·
station. Shook them oíí again and leaned back in bed and took in
my surroundings, tried to get a grip on just what the hell was
going on. 1he room was medie·al, an early twenty-íirst century
medical museum. A monitor measured doses oí morphine that
dripped írom a plastic bag down through the clear tube stuck in
my arm. Another kept up with blood pressure and heart beat.
L·en amenities, presumably to help the patient íeel at home,
looked like museum pieces: a landline phone and a tele·ision,
instead oí a D projector, and not one oí those earlier 1Vs with
the con·erter, this thing, suspended on a wall stand, was actually
plugged in to a cable box. L·erything was plugged in, not wireless.
And what these butchers had done to my body: where they cut
into me, supposedly to remo·e a burst appendix and not a bullet,
had been sealed with an angry crosshatch oí stitches and staples.
Below the cut they had plugged in a tube íor íluid drainage,
plugged directly into the skin!
Ií this set-up was a corporation hoax, it was elaborate. My
crime was a minor íelony, ií I understood corporation law: six
months in a re-education íacility, job loss, oí course, and cut oíí
írom e·er working íor them again. I couldn`t see that my minute
crime warranted butchery and paranoid mind games.
Screw them. I closed my eyes, íelt a pinch at my side and
thumbed the controls to increase the morphine drip. At least they
were gi·ing me good drugs.
And toys to play with. I picked up the bulky 1V remote, the
íilm studies major in me had been jonesing to try the 1V out since
Molly leít. I switched it on and up popped a show that hadn`t
been on in se·enty or more years, ií I remembered my íilm and
tele·ision history class. 1his whole set-up was insane in its
elaborateness, e·en íor V-¯. low many mil had they plunked
down to get this place just right, down to 1V shows·
I set the remote on the bed tray and then pumped more
morphine into my ·eins. 1he 1V ílickered, lost its picture íor a
seemingly hallucinatory moment beíore I realized it was just a
glitch in the reception when it happened again seconds later.
Oí course, I expected to hallucinate, I íigured V-¯ wanted me
to doubt my reality. But I didn`t know all that much about
morphine or how I might percei·e the hallucinations, since its use
in hospitals as a painkiller had íallen away about a quarter oí a
century ago, when better but less mind-altering drugs were made
a·ailable. \ould I see things that weren`t there· lear things· Or
would it be like a dream, ·ague images capering around, merging
and melting one into the other·
1he 1V popped and ílickered again. Something was
happening. 1he 1V screen went snowy. 1he edges oí my ·ision
blurred and the chirping I had heard se·eral times beíore began
again, this time as ií the crickets weren`t outside somewhere, but
in my head. It wasn`t unpleasant, until I tried to make sense oí it:
then the chirps sounded like tiny ·oices all trying to speak at once.
í 9ovg9 r0 r0r0v`9 goivg 9o iv90rf0r0.
]v.9 9i. ovc0.
!0 v00/ iv 9o acc0¡9 9i. ror/ a. i9 i..
.v/ forg09 90 o/ ov0.
´o 0` b0 a¡¡,.
´o r0` b0 a¡¡,.
As suddenly as the sound erupted, it went away and my ·ision
cleared aíter I rubbed my eyes. So the hallucination was brieí, sort
oí dreamy. So much íor morphine. At least my side didn`t hurt. I
1he 1V screen had gone blank, no picture, but had a sil·ery-
mercury glaze to it, a ·aguely íamiliar sheen like a beer can. And
the chirping began again between my ears, or rather, the sound
was closer to whispering. It kept up until it congealed into one
single ·oice, a distinct, childlike ·oice pulsing through the
I dropped the morphine clicker. Shit,` I said. Just like that
Van, it has nothing to do with a silly ghost story.` 1he ·oice
was like a boy`s, sort oí unde·eloped as my own had been. I`m
real, Van. \e`re all real.` 1he 1V screen ílickered, and, like a
child`s sketch toy, etched out a smiley-íace emoticon.
I stared at the screen, rubbed my eyes again. 1he 1V still
smiled. line. \ou`re real. \ho are you· \ou mentioned we`.`
I, me, we, us, you,` it said. \ou`ll remember. At your
apartment. 1he Dumpster.`
So the Dumpster was real· I thought. 1he machines. Kara,
Lily, the cops.
\ou-you`re the . . . machines . . . the ones that ate me.`
Not ate. Made. \ou made us,` the screen said. \e returned
the ía·or and made you. Or a replication oí you írom the other
Van in the other world.`
1here`s another me·`
1he screen jiggled as ií it were a plate oí Jell-O nodding. le`s
there. \ou`re here.`
In the past·` 1ime tra·el· Impossible, not to the past. Some
barrier oí physics. I knew that much, ií 1V had taught me
Not in the past. Not time tra·el. Same world. Diííerent
reality. 1hus a slightly diííerent time. \e made it just íor you. \e
thought you might be happy here and ga·e you Molly and the
I looked down at the tube sticking out írom below my
Sorry,` it said. It`s the best we could do aíter that woman
So Lily did shoot me·`
Bitch,` I snarled and looked away írom the 1V. \hen I
looked again, the screen had etched a írowny-íace emoticon.
\ou just ha·e to accept this reality and íorget the other one.
In íact, that`s the most important thing íor you to do.`
lorget about the other world, the place I came írom·`
\ou were ne·er there, anyway,` the screen said. But, when
we brought you here something happened, something not so
good. Something that could ruin things.`
\hat ií I don`t want or can`t accept this reality·`
\ou must. \e think you may sol·e a teensy problem we`re
Ií this wasn`t V-¯`s project, it was clear I was trapped and had
no choice but to sol·e the machines` teensy` problem. \hat
would this teensy` problem be·`
Um . . . think oí the omni·erse as a series oí bubbles, some
worlds in it share space, some are íar apart.` I nodded, warily.
1his world and the other are almost attached. All you need to
know is this: to get you here, we made a little hole in the shared
space-don`t ask us how, we`re not so sure oursel·es-a teensy
hole between bubbles. Since then, a lot more ha·e been appearing.
\e think you`re causing these holes, these breaches.`
Um . . . yeah. Because you ha·en`t accepted the reality you`re
in now. A small one closed the other day when you thought oí the
kids as yours.`
1he image on the 1V screen distorted and the one ·oice
became many, chirping louder and louder. All I could make out
was a scream: O, vo! .vo90r ov0!
\hen Molly returned with Dana and Caryn-how did I know
their names·-the girls brought me a Mylar get-well balloon. 1hey
both acted as ií they recognized me as their stepíather and told me
they hoped I got better. \as it possible the machines told the
Molly also had brought a plastic grocery bag with a wallet, keys
and wedding ring, a cheap sterling sil·er band that íit períectly
when I put it on. I íelt compelled to put the ring on in íront oí
her, in case she was unstable and the machines were lying. She
teared-up when I slipped the ring on and told me how much she
lo·ed me. I lo·e you, too,` I said, not thinking.
Beíore they leít, the youngest girl, Dana, hugged me and said
she lo·ed me, and Molly said she would be back tomorrow
morning beíore work. I nodded, kissed her, and was alone.
low could I íind out whether the machines were lying or not·
I opened the wallet, checked the ID, a dri·er`s license íor a
groundcar: there I was on the picture, although my birth date was
a hundred years in the past. 1hat didn`t pro·e anything. Anyone
could make up a phony license. I`d ne·er dri·en a groundcar
beíore, and yet I thought I could dri·e one now.
\hat about where I was· I hauled myselí out oí bed. 1he
room was in a blind spot, only one window o·erlooking a
crowded parking lot that could ha·e been as much part oí another
world as the room itselí: groundcars in the lot looked almost a
century old, but that could be an elaborate hoax, as I suspected, or
I was still just seeing things írom the morphine.
Ií it wasn`t the drugs, though, how could I know· 1he 1V. Oí
course. 1he screen looked solid now. I tapped it with my
íingernail. Nothing liquid about it, it clinked like glass. I turned it
on. A picture came up. Local news.
A írantic newscaster was inter·iewing a physicist about strange
sunspots` appearing in the sky and throughout town, asking about
people suddenly appearing and others disappearing into these
sunspots. 1he physicist said he couldn`t explain these phenomena,
but did mention something about bubble uni·erses, as had the
I skimmed other channels the next morning. L·ery news
channel led with stories on breaches in bubble uni·erses. Molly
came in as I watched a third newscast on the phenomena, almost
ignoring a ticker running below the main cast about a war that had
ne·er been íought in the other world.
I see you`re getting into all this,` Molly said.
\hat·` I glanced away írom the screen to see her standing at
the door. She wore a black and white ílowered top with ample
clea·age and was stopping by beíore heading into work. I clicked
oíí the 1V. \eah, it`s something, huh· Kind oí crazy.`
Kind oí. Ií you belie·e it,` she said. ler ·oice was dry, ironic.
It`s an I`ll belie·e it when I see it` sort oí deal.` She smiled. Oí
course with you and sci-íi, you probably belie·e it.`
I shook my head. Nah, not really.`
She checked her phone. Gotta go. Don`t want to be late íor
In two days I was able to walk around the ward outside my
room, but learned nothing about where I was. lrom windows I
íound, I saw a Zen garden in a courtyard and another parking lot.
I could ha·e been anywhere: another world, another town, a íilm
set, íor that matter. L·erything was so bland and sterile. But
nothing con·incing enough to say whether it was real or a
hallucination oí some kind.
Until the third day in my wanderings on the íloor, when I saw
something I shouldn`t ha·e. Molly had come with the kids on a
dinner time ·isit. \e went out to an empty waiting room to eat
sandwiches írom a íast íood restaurant. A turkey sandwich íor me.
Real turkey. Not toíurkey.
\hile the íour oí us ate, I asked about Sam-a name that had
been on the ·ague edges oí my memory-ií he was still working.
Molly screwed up her lips.
Sam·` she said. Van, are you sure you`re all right. I don`t
know a Sam. Maybe you`re thinking about your old job. Or
Maybe.` I took a bite oí the sandwich. Speaking oí work . . .
when do they expect me back· Or do they·`
Molly said nothing. She was tending to the girls, who were
squabbling o·er a toy that came with their meal.
1hat was when I saw the woman, a woman I recognized
instantly: Kara. 1wo armed V-¯ oííicers were escorting her-
cuííed-down the hallway opposite us. I tried to jump up, call
out, but they disappeared around the corner oí what I presumed
was an adjoining corridor to God knew where . . . Chirping again,
the ·oice saying, O, vo! !0`r0 go9 9o .9o¡ 9i. vor or 0` v0r0r acc0¡9 i9.
Molly looked up at me as I staggered to my íeet and limped to
get a better ·iew. Going somewhere, Buster·`
I glanced at her. 1hought I saw someone. My . . . um . . . a
I shook my head.
\ell, sit down,` she said, beíore you hurt yourselí.`
I hobbled to my seat. I glanced at my wedding ring. I was
playing along with this íarce. low could I explain this to Kara·
So, my lo·e, who`d you see·` Molly said.
Maybe it was no one. Maybe I was hallucinating.`
\ou`·e certainly had enough morphine.` Molly giggled.
\hen the hospital released me on lriday, Molly picked me
up in my Nissan. I had ne·er owned a groundcar beíore, to get
around I either took Kara`s aircar or the Magle·, but that was in
another uni·erse. I shook my head. I gingerly climbed inside.
Molly smiled. Are you comíortable·`
Um, yeah.` I was as comíortable as I íigured anyone could be
ií their reality had shiíted. But I had to accept it. Under my íeet on
the íloorboard, the squashed paper cups írom McDonald`s were
real. Molly was real. So were her daughters. In the hospital,
Molly`s kisses had been real, so much so that I had íelt emotions
stirring that I had not íelt in a long time. Certainly not with Kara.
So, Kara was unreal. Molly wasn`t. Austex arcology was
imagined, V-¯ was imagined, a colony on Mars where I could sell
an in·isibility suit was imagined, íor that matter, the suit was
imagined: the town Molly and I were dri·ing through now-that
was real. 1he odd thing was, as we dro·e through this town, there
were parts that seemed íamiliar, I knew, íor instance, which
turnoíí Molly would make to take us home. 1he place where we
li·ed . . . I had a ·ague sense oí that, too: hardwood íloors, a
week`s worth oí unwashed dishes in the sink and cereal bowls
íilled with halí-eaten chocolate rice puíís and curdled milk that
would be a shade oí gray-green only seen on mo·ie aliens.
Molly smiled at me as we dro·e. \ou sure are quiet.`
Just thinking,` I said.
I wish I knew what went on in that head oí yours sometimes,
but, God, I`m so happy to ha·e you with me, Van. \ou just don`t
1he kids were still in school íor a íew more hours so Molly and
I would be alone when we got home.
1he home was exactly as I had imagined, down to the cereal
bowls and bad milk. low could I know this· low could I know
where our bedroom was when we got inside and Molly told me to
go lie down while she made lunch·
1he bed was real. I lay down and shortly I smelled hot dogs
boiling on the sto·e. Molly came into the bedroom and lay next to
me. I hope hot dogs are okay. 1hat`s all we had. \ou kept me
írom going to the store this week.` She poked my shoulder and
ler touch, her nearness, ga·e me an erection. low long had it
been since I`d lain next to a woman· Six months· A hundred
years· A week, ií this was reality and Molly still slept in the same
bed with me. I trusted Molly still slept with me. \e were
Look at you,` Molly said. \ou must be the horniest man
e·er, getting hard e·en aíter what you went through.`
My íace ílushed. Um . . . hot dogs are íine.`
I`ll bet they are.` She put her hand on the lump in my jeans.
God, I don`t see how we can wait a week. But that`s doctor`s
orders.` She grinned, kissed me and got up írom bed.
I watched her walk into the kitchen. ler body was íuller than
Kara`s, her bottom heart-shaped. I lay back on my pillow trying to
imagine what Molly looked like naked. It`s something her husband
should know, but I couldn`t picture her, not yet. I knew, because
oí clea·age, her breasts were íull, pale . . .
Rumbling outside our bedroom window snapped me írom my
C¬AP1LR 1¬RLL: MA¥ 2006
O, vo! .vo90r ov0. 1a9`. 9r00 9o/a,!
í9`. a big ov0, 9oo. !0 . . . cav r0 fi· i9.
I liíted myselí írom the bed and hobbled to the back door.
loney, what`s going on·` Molly said írom the kitchen.
I opened the door without saying anything to her and looked
outside. About two hundred meters abo·e the house, I saw
something I shouldn`t ha·e seen, at least not in the new reality I
was trying to accept-the Magle· slowing to dock at a platíorm.
1he whole platíorm was in plain ·iew, e·erything, including an
escalator. lolding my side with one hand, I shaded my eyes with
the other. I was seeing it, íeeling a slight push oí breeze as the
Molly touched my shoulder. loney, come inside. \ou don`t
need to be up.` She brushed against me.
A lone íigure was debarking írom the train.
\hat the . . . ·` Molly said. She looked where I was staring.
Oh, shit!` ler hand dropped írom my shoulder.
1he lone íigure, a woman, had descended the escalator. 1he
way she walked, I knew who it was. Lily, as I suspected. Come to
íinish the job. Get what I didn`t ha·e.
í0`. vo9 a. .af0 a. r0 9ovg9.
!0 vo, vo9 ri9 ra9 r0`r0 cr0a90/ 0r0. !0 ov, v0av9 9o 0¡. 1o
va/0 i. r0ai9, b0990r. ßrivg i9 vv/0r cov9ro, for i. a¡¡iv0...
!0 .ov/ 0ar0.
!0 .ov/. !0` b0 bac/. Cov0 bac/ r0v 90r0`. vor0 of v..
I shut the back door and stepped out írom under the porch
into the bright day, Molly behind me.
Lily squinted in the sunlight. \ou`re a hard man to track
down, Van-two.` A warm breeze ruííled her hair.
Behind me, Molly clutched my shoulders. 1his was it.
Showdown. 1hat what they calling me on the other side.` My
words stumbled írom a hoarse throat.
1he suit, Van-two,` Lily said.
I don`t ha·e a clue what you`re talking about, Lily.`
Don`t shit me.` She screwed her íace at me. I don`t ha·e
time íor your shit.`
I don`t ha·e the suit,` I said. My side pinched. I winced. I
stepped back into the shadow oí the porch, braced myselí against
the wall. Molly backed against the door. I was hurting but trying to
keep Lily írom íiguring that out.
Goddamn it, Van-two, I didn`t want to do this,` she said.
1his is not my world aíter all. I`m not e·en sure we ha·e
jurisdiction o·er here.`
Oh shit,` Molly muttered. She jerked my shoulder as ií she
were trying to íorce me on the ground.
1hough my side throbbed, I wrested íree írom my wiíe and
looked up. Lily trained a large pistol on us.
It`s the suit, Van-two,` Lily said. \e need the suit.`
Molly kept tugging at me, only wanting to protect me, not
realizing I was about to collapse on my own írom pain. I don`t
know where it is,` I mumbled.
\ho is this nut job·` Molly shielded me írom Lily. \hat is
she talking about·`
I sighed, a sharp pain wrenching my side.
Goddess on a halí shell, lady! Get the íuck out oí the way
beíore I ha·e to shoot you, too!`
Molly craned her neck to see Lily. No one`s shooting
I peered at Lily o·er Molly`s shoulder, one last look beíore
dropping to my knees.
Oh, God!` Molly knelt by me, touched my shoulders, her íace
distorted in íright. She qui·ered, trying to control her sobs. It was
an image I had seen beíore, in the emergency room when the
nurse said my appendix burst.
I`ll be íine, honey.` I clenched my jaw. A little pain where
the stitches are.` I caught Molly`s shoulder and heíted myselí up
to see Lily.
Goddess, Van-two,` Lily said, what did you do to yourselí·`
She lowered the gun.
Aíter getting sight oí Lily, I placed both hands on my wiíe`s
shoulders. Appendix,` I said to Lily.
She shook her head. Shit.`
I`ll be íine,` I said. Just need to sit down. Maybe take some
pain meds. Gi·e a call to nine-one-one.`
I don`t know what nine-one-one is,` Lily said, but it doesn`t
sound promising.` She liíted the gun, trained it on me. I
suspected there was a red dot spotting my íorehead írom the laser
Aíter wiping her eyes, Molly reached íor a can·as chair that
was on the porch and slid it next to me. Sit. I`ll get your meds.
And the phone.`
She scrambled toward the back door. 1he gun barrel íollowed
Lady. Do. Not. Make. Me. Shoot you.` A red dot ho·ered
o·er the back oí Molly`s blouse.
1he gun trembled in Lily`s hand.
I need the meds, Lily. I`m hurting. I think I may be bleeding.`
Molly was slumped against the screen door, sobbing.
Goddamn it, Van-two,` Lily`s ·oice caught. I-I don`t want
to shoot you or anyone. I`m not a killer.`
1hat`s comíorting to know.`
\e just need the suit,` she said. As you can see, things are
pretty íucked up. \e think the suit can íix it.`
I can`t do that,` I said.
Lily`s eyes were wet, but she swung the gun toward me. 1he
red dot qui·ered on my chest.
Don`t make me do this.`
I looked at my wiíe, she was easing her hand up to open the
screen door. I looked at Lily. She held the gun but was looking
away. I took a deep breath, waiting íor an explosion, íor the shock
oí a bullet smacking into me.
1he screen door creaked. I saw the gun ílash, a sound like a
balloon popping. I twisted in the chair. It collapsed, slinging me
to the porch. I screamed, Molly no!` and my íorehead slapped
I raised my head, dizzy. leard another balloon pop, a whine as
the round slashed o·erhead, a thuck, and a third pop. My head
throbbed. I reached up, touched my eyebrow. lelt something
A íourth balloon popped and my ·ision skirled out oí control.
Beíore blackness came, I heard the distant whoop oí sirens.
A S\A1 team had wacoed through the wood íence into our
back yard and had eííiciently zip-tied Lily and hauled her into a
waiting paddy wagon. Molly was gi·ing statements to a detecti·e
when I regained consciousness in the back oí an ambulance where
an LM1 was injecting me with morphine and trying to persuade
me to go to the hospital. I shook my head. Just came írom
there.` I liíted my shirt, showed him the line oí staples
crosshatching my abdomen. I want to be with my wiíe. She`s
okay, isn`t she·`
1he LM1 nodded and pointed to Molly. 1he kids` school bus
had arri·ed about the same time as the swarm oí police and the
girls were huddled against their mom and they were shuííling
toward me. 1he LM1 asked Molly to con·ince me to go to the
hospital. I said no. le`s a hard-headed jackass sometimes,` she
told the LM1.
It was our neighbor who called nine-one-one, wanting to
report the breach as well as gunshots. Molly hadn`t gotten to the
phone, she had to di·e under our kitchen table as Lily íired wildly
into the house, missing both oí us but shattering windows and
pocking walls. 1he bitch emptied a -round magazine into our
Molly helped me írom the ambulance. A Blackhawk helicopter
circled the house. 1V crews waited in ambush behind a yellow
police line. A guy with a notepad hollered at me. I glanced at
Molly and at the girls and at him, ignored him, and took Molly`s
hand and we limped inside our house.
C¬AP1LR l0uR: MA¥ 2006
1hroughout the night, Blackhawks thundered around our
house, I could only imagine the pilots oí those helicopters
wondered, as oíten as I had in the past íew hours, what the hell
was going on. It was bizarre to say the least, a ·ast space-time
portal open behind our house, and our house scrutinized and
guarded by the military and sheriíís deputies, who kept the gaggle
oí news teams írom our door.
No one seemed to know what to do about the breach, the
phenomena was too new, too extraordinary. Once Molly got us
inside aíter they arrested Lily, I took two hydrocodone and slept
until about midnight. Molly tried as hard as she could to make
e·erything as normal as possible íor the girls, e·en as helicopters
hammered a circular path around our house and watched the
portal into another world.
\hen I woke up, someone was knocking on our íront door. I
sat on the li·ing room couch and peered through the blinds oí the
outside window beíore Molly answered the door. An oli·e drab
lum·ee idled in our dri·e way. Molly opened the door.
Mrs. Bender·` A polite, but íirm masculine ·oice spoke.
Sorry to bother you so late.`
Molly glanced conspiratorially at me. No problem.`
I know it`s late,` the man said. \our husband . . . is he up·`
I walked up behind her. 1he man was short, slump-shouldered
with thick brown hair and John-Lennon glasses. Next to him
stood a tall desert-camouílaged soldier.
lello, Mr. Bender,` the man said. le oííered his hand. I
shook it. \alter lix. Quite a day you`·e had.` le said this as ií
we were talking about the weather.
I nodded, tried to smile. My head was slightly íuzzy, the
hydrocodone had not worn oíí. Nice to meet you, Mr. lix.`
Sorry we`·e come so late.`
1oo many apologies íor disturbing us, I was beginning to get
suspicious, e·en through the íog oí painkillers.
1he dri·e írom the airport-well, I`d ha·e to say the go·ernor
oí your íine state needs to do something about o·ercrowded
I heard mention oí a bullet train project,` I said. But maybe
we won`t need it with . . . well . . .` I looked up, trying to indicate
the Magle· coming through the space-time portal abo·e our
le nodded, his upper lip twitched. Interesting times.
Interesting times. Mind ií we come in·` le glanced at the soldier
Not at all,` I said. Molly and I stepped aside to let them in, I
knew they had to be trouble and would probably regret letting
them in, but I also íigured they would ha·e come in anyway. I also
was sure the soldier was a better shot than Lily and I wasn`t about
to argue with an M-1.
I sat on the couch again. Across the room, I caught Dana
peeping írom the bedroom, I couldn`t imagine how írightened
these kids were oí all the crap that had gone down. lell, I was
pretty íreaked out, to say the least.
\ou don`t mind·` I said to lix aíter I sat down.
1he soldier took up a position behind lix and scanned the
room. I hoped Dana wasn`t a threat.
lix shrugged. I understand Mr. Bender. lad that same
surgery a íew years ago. lurt like a mother-`
Molly sat beside me.
Sorry ma`am,` lix said, his leít cheek twitching. lorgot my
Molly smiled. I think she was getting used to the strangeness
around us, much better than I was.
lix told us he was with lLMA ,not likely, but I went along
with him, and explained that the agency thought we might not be
saíe around the portal. \e don`t know exactly what this is or
how it happened. It`s not the only one, but it`s the largest and it`s
caused a great deal oí trouble in a íew short hours,` he said. As
you are well aware, Mr. Bender.` le spoke directly to me, as ií
Molly wasn`t there. \e don`t know how this phenomenon will
aííect us or those on the other side. \e already ha·e some
extradition issues, as you know.`
I nodded, waiting íor him to get to the point.
\e`re e·acuating íamilies írom the neighborhood.` le put up
both hands, ílat-palmed, as ií he were trying to halt me. A
practiced gesture. Now, Mr. Bender, again, I understand you`·e
had a trying day, but bear with me, hear me out: \e ha·e a hotel
room íor you and your íamily. \e think you`d be saíer there.
Until we ha·e a better grasp oí the situation.`
Molly stood up abruptly. 1he soldier traced her mo·ements,
touched the saíety oí his weapon. lix scolded the man with his
eyes and Molly went to tend to Dana. lix`s íacial tic made it seem
as ií he were snarling.
So, you`re saying we`re not saíe here· 1he whole
neighborhood`s not saíe,` I said.
\e`re not sure exactly. \e need to in·estigate, get some
en·ironmental teams in here. 1hat sort oí thing.`
Molly held Dana at her side and was tapping at Caryn`s door.
Oí course, Mr. Bender, we can`t íorce you to go.`
1he hell you can`t, I thought.
\e just think . . . íor the saíety oí your íamily . . .`
1he rumble oí diesel engines and air brakes outside interrupted
. . . it`ll only be íor a íew days. And it`s on us. 1hink oí it as a
·acation, Mr. Bender.`
1he kids ha·e school.` It was the only protest I had at the
time, a íeeble one.
\e`re arranging íor that. All the neighborhood kids,` he said.
And medical care íor you.` le had anticipated my next question.
Ob·iously breaches into other worlds, into space-time were a
big deal, history being made, etc., but also ob·ious was that clearly
something was going on, something we couldn`t argue with. So, oí
course, we leít our home.
Once we packed enough íor a íew days, as ií we were
packing íor a ·acation, lix and the soldier led us outside: Along
our street was a con·oy oí military transport trucks and lum·ees.
1his is too much like a bad disaster mo·ie, I thought. At one
point, as lix ushered us toward a waiting lum·ee, I wondered ií
the quake or tidal wa·e or killer tornado were about to strike, as it
would in a disaster mo·ie, the thought made me grin, a little
lightness to something that seemed kind oí grim.
1he moment oí le·ity passed as the lum·ee rumbled into
motion. 1he ·ehicle was dimly lit inside and there was room
enough íor the íour oí us and our bags, lix and his security man,
the dri·er an another crewman beside her. 1hey kept the light on
as we dro·e. 1he kids and I dosed most oí the trip, but I don`t
think Molly e·er slept. She kept her weary eyes on lix, shooting
him angry glances írom time to time.
I wouldn`t know, until we arri·ed, how íar we had gone or in
what direction we had tra·eled, but the ride was mostly smooth,
so I íigured we kept to the highway, or at least pa·ed roads. \e
debarked about an hour later at a hotel, as lix promised, a hotel
just within the city limits oí a town I knew well, or at least knew in
this world: I had spent most oí my twenties-or so I
remembered-at the uni·ersity here in San Marcos, south oí
Austin, íirst taking my bachelor`s in marketing, and then, aíter a
brieí íutile job search, my master`s in íilm studies, or so a ílash oí
memory told me. I íelt saíe here, had always íelt saíe here, and
was sure Molly and the kids would íeel saíe, too.
My moment oí elation passed as we got our bags and lix
hurried us írom the lum·ee to the hotel`s brightly lit lobby-I
glanced at the parking lot beíore rushing inside: there were no
other lum·ees or trucks accompanying us. I dropped my bags on
the lobby íloor and turned on lix.
\hat the íuck, lix· \here are the others·` My ·oice echoed
through the empty lobby, jolting the desk clerk awake.
lix`s lip curled again in a snarl. Calm down, Mr. Bender,` he
said, making the same palms-out gesture he had at the house. As ií
that would soothe me.
1hey . . . the con·oy just got separated on the highway.`
lix`s bodyguard readied his riíle, íingering the saíety. le was
really jumpy íor a security guy.
1here`s nothing to worry about, Mr. Bender,` lix said.
Nothing at all.`
Molly held the girls close. Dana`s eyes were tearing up and the
sight triggered a memory I ne·er had beíore that day: One night,
late, around midnight, beíore Molly and I were married, we were
in bed about to make lo·e, when Dana knocked on the door.
Molly pulled on her nightgown and opened the door, Dana was
crying, claiming she had heard a noise and wanted Molly to sleep
with her. Dana would do this se·eral nights in a row, a ploy to
separate Molly and me. Neither oí the kids, understandably,
wanted me to marry their mother . . .
I assure you Mr. Bender, the rest oí the con·oy is on its way,`
lix said, snapping me írom my re·erie.
My head hurt some when I looked at lix. Oí course the pain
could ha·e been írom smacking it on the porch earlier, but
somehow I doubted it. It better be, lix. Or I assure you, you`ll
ha·e a lawsuit on your hands.` A lame deíense, I know, but I íelt
too groggy to protest any íurther.
Our room was comíortable enough, but íor the most part,
sleep e·aded us. Molly kept the girls busy all night and into the
early morning watching Disney, and I spent the time in between
naps and nursing my side watching out the window íor the lost`
con·oy. 1he con·oy ne·er arri·ed, oí course, and lix seemed to
ha·e con·eniently disappeared, so I couldn`t coníront him, and
wasn`t about to ·oice my concerns with the itchy-trigger-íingered
security guard lix had leít behind. 1he guard prowled the hallway
all night, checking doors and windows and eyeing the cleaning
staíí that came to our room around midmorning the next day to
change our sheets when we went to breakíast.
I was a little relie·ed to seen an older couple down in the small
dining area where a continental breakíast was laid out íor us,
though it was almost noon. 1he couple smiled at us and the
woman asked Molly ií Caryn was a student at the uni·ersity.
Not yet,` Molly said. She smiled at the woman. In a couple
oí years she`d better be.`
Molly beamed at Caryn and the girl ílushed and buried her íace
under her long, straight pile oí blond hair.
I sat at our table with a plate oí strawberries, a large, ílat bagel
with cream cheese and a tall cup oí orange juice. Molly scooted
her chair beside mine and whispered in my ear: Van, what`s going
on· I`m kind oí íreaked out.`
Me too,` I said. I wish I knew.` I glanced outside. Our guard
was in the lobby ílirting with the bleached-blond desk clerk. I
really wish I knew.` I reached under the table and clasped Molly`s
hand and then leaned in and kissed her on the cheek.
By mid-aíternoon, caííeine and adrenaline had worn oíí, and I
went to the room to sleep. Molly took the kids out to the pool.
1he security guy, who must`·e been pumped up on speed or
something, took his position at the íar end oí our hallway.
I slept, or thought I slept, and dreamed, or thought I dreamed:
the dreams I had were oí e·ents I didn`t recall e·er
experiencing-my wedding . . . Molly`s íather walking her down
the aisle to Louis Armstrong`s \hat a \onderíul \orld`, she
wore a white dress and said something in our ·ows about telling
me ií I had broccoli stuck in my teeth. 1hen the scene suddenly
shiíted and I was in a dilapidated apartment in bed with Kara and
Kara was asleep and I got an erection admiring the Chinese
dragon tattooed on her back, just abo·e her bare, períect ass.
Outside this apartment, it rained, steadily. It seemed to always rain
in our neighborhood, Rosemont. It wasn`t the best oí
neighborhoods . . .
I awakened abruptly, or thought I had awakened to the rattle oí
guníire. Shit! I scrambled írom the bed, searched írantically íor
my jeans, my side pinched, I winced, and glanced up to see CNN
reporting li·e a íireíight in Aíghanistan. 1he 1V`s ·olume blared.
I sat down on the bead, adrenaline again crawling through my
·eins like a centipede, and wondered how I had slept as loud as
the 1V was, I took a deep breath and reached íor the remote . . .
Molly and the kids would be back soon, I hoped they would be
back. Gi·en e·erything that had happened, I didn`t like being
away írom them.
I started at the sound oí the door knob rattling írantically.
Molly must`·e leít the keycard behind. Coming,` I said.
Coming.` I limped to the door, twisted the knob.
A tall, thin man, sha·ed head, dark goatee, long top coat, stood
in the doorway. le seemed íamiliar.
Get dressed,` he said. lis ·oice was strained, not controlled.
\hat the íuck· \ho are you·` I peered behind him and holy-
íucking-shit could see the security guard íace down on the plush
hall carpet. Oh, shit! \hat the íuck ha·e you done· Jesus
1he man grabbed my shoulder with one hand, sho·ed me
inside. Shut the íuck up, Van. Get a goddamn grip!` \ith his
other hand, he held the door open.
lis eyes met mine. 1hey were blue like mine. l-how d-do
you know, you know my name·`
I jerked my shoulder írom his grasp and stepped back.
Don`t íreak, man. I know this is crazy, but you`re going to
ha·e to put your íull trust in me. Just get your shit. Get your wiíe`s
shit. ler kids` shit, too. As much as you can carry and get a mo·e
on. \e`·e got to get a mo·e on.`
le shut the door and slipped one hand into his coat pocket.
Great, I thought, I was going to be the guy who needed shooting
e·ery day oí his liíe. Me and Molly and the kids were going to be
clichéd serial killer ·ictims, leít in shallow gra·es somewhere along
the San Marcos Ri·er. le would probably collect our teeth to hide
I`m not going anywhere, íriend,` I said. \ou can shoot me as
many times as you want. And don`t try to tell me you`re írom
some cyborg-íuture wasteland here to íind the mother oí the
world`s sa·ior. 1hat role`s been done a íew too many times.`
Could you just shut up,` he said.
No, I`m sorry, I`m not shutting up. I`m sick oí all these
goddamn mind games whoe·er you`re working íor is playing. I
want to know who you are.` I took a deep breath, wishing ·ery
much that I had another hydrocodone. I want to know where my
wiíe is.` My ·oice cracked, achie·ed a stutter. I-I I`m not going
And íor the second time this week, I had a pistol le·eled at my
Van, I don`t want to do this the hard way.` 1he gun was
steady in his hand, as ií he were trained. Oí course he was trained,
he`d just taken out our Army guy.
I backed toward the bed, hands up, just like a mo·ie.
Look at me careíully.`
I couldn`t help staring at the gun. It didn`t ha·e a regular barrel,
but two electrical connectors. A stun gun oí some sort, then.
Gi·e me hair,` he said.
I íocused past the stun gun, a little less aíraid, to his íace.
A hair cut like yours,` he said. No shag. No íacial hair oí any
Shag· \hat íucking ghetto was he írom· Ne·ermind. I studied
him. 1ried to make sense oí what he was saying. 1hen looked past
him at the door, catching myselí in a brieí íantasy in which Molly,
in action-mo·ie íorm, opened the door and bashed my assailant in
the side, knocking him to the ground and relie·ing him oí his gun.
God, I thought, why can`t things work out like in . . . Shit! Un-
íucking-belie·able. I was staring at my doppelganger. It was like a
mo·ie. And holy shit did I want to ha·e a big jolt oí hydrocodone
then, though it wasn`t a hallucinogen, at least it would explain the
loopiness oí seeing your twin. Or your íather or something like
that. \es, íolks, things were certainly íucked up in the space-time
continuum when you started to see your Adam with no hair, I was
the monster this man created, or the nanos, had created, I knew
that. Little íuckers hadn`t lied when they talked to me through the
1V screen. I shook my head and dropped my hands to my side.
Jesus Christ,` I said. 1hings are pretty íucked. \ou`re me or
I`m you or something like that.`
Gi·e the man a prize.` le had not lowered the gun. \es, I`m
you, although I don`t go by Van anymore. It`s Samuel Banks. Sam
íor short.` le cracked a smile. Now that introductions are o·er,
can we please please get the íuck out oí here·`
Sam Banks· Like the Sam we worked with . . .`
\eah, yeah, yeah,` he said. A little identity theít. But no time
to worry about that, though . . . and, try not to think about my
past.` le lowered the gun. C`mon grab your shit and go.`
I grabbed what bags I could carry and íollowed Mr. Banks into
the hallway. I should ha·e been more skeptical, but things were
pretty weird, so I just went íor it. I had always wanted to be some
sort oí ad·enturer, but such íantasies, until then, had been
coníined to role-playing and ·ideo games.
Sam stopped me beíore I turned toward the ele·ator. \ait,`
he said. \ou`ll need a weapon.` le gestured at Army guy.
I almost kept going, thought to make a dash íor the stairs, but
íigured ií Sam was nuts enough to whack a soldier, he might just
rethink his position on shooting me. And while there was no
blood ·isible coming írom the soldier`s body, who knew what a
stun gun írom the íuture might be capable oí·
Sam stooped o·er the man`s body, snagged his sidearm, a
heíty, e·il-looking Glock, and brought it o·er to me, passing it
o·er butt íirst. le`s not dead, is he·`
Just stunned. 1his thing`s not poweríul enough to kill or
wound e·en.` le ílashed the stun gun, which looked equally as
e·il as the Glock. 1hat`s one reason we need to get on the hooí.
le won`t be out much longer. And I`m pretty sure he`ll be
\e rode the ele·ator to the lobby, bypassed the lobby and
went through a side exit toward the pool. Molly was drying Dana
oíí when we arri·ed. She narrowed her eyes at us, glanced at the
bags I was carrying. loney, what`s going on· \ho`s this· One oí
our new íriends·`
I shook my head. No time to explain.`
Dana and Caryn were slipping on their ílip-ílops.
\ou`ll just ha·e to trust me on this and íollow him.`
Sam had stopped at the other side oí the pool and was íiddling
with the gate to let us out. Molly and the kids and me were
standing at the edge oí the pool and Molly was snaking her head
írom side to side, Oh no, not any more crazy shit, Van.` ler
·oice was sharp. \ou`·e got to at least tell me who this is. And
just why in the hell you`re carrying a gun.`
I glanced at my hand and stuck the gun in the waistband oí my
jeans. I told you, Molly,` my ·oice rising and sharpening, too,
we don`t ha·e time to get in to this.`
Sam`s eyes darted toward the plate glass window that peered
into the lobby and then tapped his wrist.
1he girls shi·ered in their swimsuits, the youngest hopping
gingerly írom one íoot to the other.
I think I can trust this guy,` I told Molly.
Mommy,` Dana whined through chattering teeth.
Molly put her íinger to her lips and shushed the girl and then
narrowed her eyes at me. \ou think you can trust him· Van, I
lo·e you dearly . . . But I don`t want the girls in anymore danger. I
don`t know what`s going on here. But the girls-and me íor that
matter-ha·e had enough. 1hey don`t need anymore oí this-`
She noted her youngest scowling. Crap.`
Molly, please,` I said.
Sam was staring into the lobby. \e really need to hurry.`
Molly, I know I can trust him.` I stepped around my wiíe.
Molly shot me a puzzled look.
1he nanos. Remember· Like I was telling you, trying to tell
you the other night.` I motioned her to come along. 1his is the
guy Lily was talking about. Lo·e, you`·e got to belie·e me.`
She looked at Sam. I don`t see it.`
\ou`·e got to belie·e me on this.` I reached íor her shoulder,
but she shrugged away.
\e`re saíe here,` she said. At least saíer.`
Mommy,` Dana said, Mommy let`s just go somewhere.`
\es, Mommy, please,` Caryn pleaded.
1wo men were heading through the lobby, coming toward us.
Sam was reaching into his coat pocket.
\e really need to hurry,` Sam said.
1he two men had come through the gate opposite us on the
other side oí the pool. Both wore bright blue lawaiian shirts.
1hey separated at the gate, one walking methodically toward Sam,
the other making his way around the pool toward us. \ith all the
weirdness oí the past íew weeks, I halí-expected the guy to walk
Molly,` I said, we need to go.`
1he girls huddled against their mother. I caught a íaint whiíí oí
cocoa-butter sunscreen. Molly pushed them along and íollowed
1he one man had rounded the íar end oí the pool and was
about íiíteen yards away írom us. 1he other was about ten íeet
írom Sam and had halted, his eyes shiíted to Sam`s hand. Sam
clutched the stun gun, clicked the trigger and a blue bolt arced
between the connectors. le le·eled the gun at the man`s crotch.
1he man ga·e a palms-up gesture like lix. No need íor that.`
lis ·oice was calm íor someone about to get zapped in the nuts.
Me and Molly and the kids got to the gate at the moment Sam
squeezed the trigger. \e watched in horror as a blue-white
lightning bolt snapped, crackled and popped and licked the man`s
pri·ates. lis head jerked back, he crumpled and we smelled ozone
as we ran past Sam, who was bringing the gun to bear on our man.
1win blue bolts leapt at that man while the other man writhed on
the pool`s edge like an epileptic. Our man collapsed, spasming, to
his knees beíore toppling into the pool.
\e were all running now, Sam leading us, directing us down
the sidewalk and through a breezeway. \e darted past the ice
machine and stumbled into the parking lot behind the building.
1he lot was empty except íor a Dumpster. Behind the Dumpster:
a damn-it yellow-as Molly would say-Che·y.
So much íor subtle,` I said, noting the car`s paint job, trying
íutilely to get a laugh.
Sam`s upper lip mo·ed, the íaint hint oí a smile. It`s a rental.`
le unlocked the car, let Molly and the girls in íirst, in the back
seat. Color oí this thing doesn`t really matter. \ou`·e been
watched all night, anyhow, and they`ll íollow us no matter what
we ha·e.` le opened the trunk. As long as we get to where we`re
going íirst. 1hat`s all that matters.`
I dumped our bags in the trunk. And where would that be·`
Sam was climbing into the dri·er`s seat, I got in on the
passenger side and he íired up the engine, checked the mirror, and
shiíted into re·erse.
My world,` Sam said. le looked leít when he stopped at the
exit, the hotel was oíí the interstate and he peeled out onto the
\hoa, man! Don`t kill us beíore we íreaking get there,` I said.
Sorry. Selí-taught.` le grinned and jammed the accelerator.
1hank God traííic was light or this would ha·e been a short
trip. Sam sped down the exit onto the interstate.
So, your world. 1hat means . . .`
\eah, yeah. Another portal.` le cut-oíí the guy ahead oí us,
then had the balls to ílip him oíí. le was cruising at se·enty,
se·enty-íi·e and we were getting near town.
Mommy, I`m hungry,` Dana whined. And cold.`
I looked o·er the seat at Molly and the girls and Molly
mouthed, \ou think Speed Racer might stop to get us
McDonald`s,` Dana whined. \e want McDonald`s!`
\hat is it these goddamn kids want·` Sam snarled.
I shot him a look. Something to eat. And they aren`t goddamn
kids! 1hey`re cold, hungry, and scared.` I surprised myselí saying
that, deíending the kids, I was usually the one snarling at them, or
thought I was.
line, we`ll stop.` le gripped both hands rigidly on the wheel
and swung the car oíí the interstate with a screech and charged
down an exit.
Goddamn it, slow the íuck down!`
Sam snarled again, at me this time, and jerked the wheel hard
leít, tires squealing.
Look, we`re not going to get anywhere ií you get pulled o·er
le nodded and let up on the gas and coasted across the
o·erpass. \e stopped at a con·enience store with a McDonald`s
inside. Sam leít the car running and Molly went to get the kids
something to eat.
Sorry,` Sam said to me. le leaned o·er the seat. Sorry, you
1he kids nodded.
\ou didn`t ha·e to yell,` Dana said.
Molly returned, asking íor help with the drinks. She handed me
the ílimsy cardboard drink carrier through the window and as she
leaned through the window, I whispered I was sorry íor all the
crap going on and tears welled in her eyes and she kissed me
tenderly on the cheek beíore getting in back with the girls. I
looked in the rear·iew mirror and watched with lo·e as she
handed them their íries and McNuggets. I sorted out their drinks
and handed my wiíe hers.
I didn`t ha·e much time to relish the moment: Sam gunned the
car onto the road and made another hard turn onto the o·erpass.
1hink oí it as Disney!` I shouted to the backseat. \hich ride
was it that shook like hell·` I was recalling a trip to Disney \orld
that I had ne·er taken. My mind sorted through images oí the
íour oí us ducking íor co·er at a kiosk selling plush \eti dolls
below a snow-capped miniature L·erest and Molly making me
hop on a speeder cycle írom Star \ars íor a picture. 1he images
shiíted to my time in college as we passed through town, heading
toward the uni·ersity: the íootball stadium and the only game I
e·er went to-a loss-and journalism classes in the Old Main
building, the spires oí which scratched the sky through treetops as
we neared the campus.
1he parking lots were empty, the semester was e·idently o·er
and Sam íound a choice spot-almost impossible at the beginning
oí the semester-behind my old dorm. le stopped us írom
getting out, howe·er, at least until a black SUV dro·e past the
dorm and up the hill toward the main campus. 1hen we grabbed
our bags írom the trunk and waited íor Sam to tell us where to go.
Molly sur·eyed all the hills and stairs. I hope this portal thingy
isn`t anywhere up there. Ií so, you can lea·e me behind.`
linally, some le·ity, I thought. \ou`re in this with me all way
now. L·en ií I ha·e to carry you.`
Molly grinned. Lea·e it to you to go to a school that in·ol·es
so much walking. No wonder you`re so thin.`
1he kids will need something warm,` Sam broke in.
\ou`re kidding,` Molly said. It`s ninety-íi·e out here.`
Not where we`re going,` Sam said.
1here used to be a store in the student center.` I pointed to
the building across írom us and a ílight oí steps leading up to it.
Maybe we can íind some winter clearance.`
Up there·` Molly said. Great. \ell, lead the way, Buster.`
\e went up the ílight oí steps and the store was there, just as I
remembered it. 1he cashier looked at us, a haggard bunch, the
girls still in their swimsuits.
1he ri·er crowded,` the cashier said, eyeing the girls.
No,` I said, shaking my head.
Cool,` she said. My íriends and me, we`re going tubing when
I get oíí.`
Cool,` I said. \ou ha·e any winter clearance· 1hese two
want some hoodies. Can you belie·e that, as hot as it is·`
1he girl smiled at our girls and pointed to a table in the center
oí the store stacked with 1-shirts and sweatshirts. 1here you go.`
And somewhere they could try them on·`
Promise not to steal them ií I let you go to the women`s room
around the corner·`
Promise,` I said. I handed her a íiíty írom the wad oí cash lix
had gi·en me at the hotel.
Molly and the girls went to change while I ílipped through a
Once the girls were changed-Molly had thought to bring their
bags-in hoodies and jeans, we met Sam at the íoot oí the stairs.
Now we really need to hurry,` Sam said. le nodded toward
the black SUV parked next to the car. 1wo men climbed out.
\here to·` I said.
le jabbed a íinger toward the theater building across the lot
and maybe sixty yards away. I always liked this building. It looked
like a red-brick chunk oí ílan surrounded by a moat.
Ií we ran, we might make it to the moat just beíore the two
men írom the SUV.
Let`s roll,` I said.
\e might get lucky, I thought. 1he two men seemed not to
ha·e seen us yet, they were searching the Che·y. 1hen I heard
írom the stairs abo·e us: In sight` and the chirp oí a walkie-
talkie. At the top oí the steps stood a boxy-shouldered black guy
talking to his íriends in the parking lot.
1hose two began to angle toward us as we began to jog and I
had a bad íeeling at some point the Glock hidden under my shirt
was going to be used.
\e íollowed Sam. 1hen Molly stumbled. Sam kept going. 1he
men began to split up. 1heir partner behind us was catching up. I
liíted Molly up, a íew scrapes, but unhurt otherwise.
1he kids stopped when their mom íell. Go, go!` I snarled.
1heir íaces were ílush, they took oíí but dropped their bags.
Sam ·eered away írom the theater building toward a tree- and
1he men were about twenty yards away when Sam stopped and
do·e toward the hedges and disappeared with what seemed a
1he men halted. 1he rest oí us stood between them and the
hedges, one clump oí which seemed hazy and liquid-the portal.
Into the hedge!` I said to the girls and Molly. Like Sam!` My
breath was ragged, my side throbbed.
Mr. Bender,` one oí the men said, you don`t know what
Molly and the girls stepped toward the hedge.
I drew the pistol out írom under my shirt. I think I do.` I
le·eled the pistol at the man who had spoken. Both men put their
Neither oí the men in íront oí me had spoken. I glanced to my
right. 1here was the man írom the stairs, his own e·il-looking
I don`t want to injure you,` he said.
I let my knees buckle and íell backward, hoping I was close
enough to the portal to íall through.
\hat I íelt was ·ery much like di·ing into a pool-cool, liquid,
all encompassing. \hat I saw and heard, brieíly, was like a mo·ie:
tiny white jet streams cutting through the liquid and then a wet-
hea·y slap. 1hree jet streams tailed me into the netherworld.
C¬AP1LR llvL: 1uNL 2106
lor a moment, I couldn`t breathe and e·erything was dark. I
coughed. 1he pain in my side was ·icious, more searing than the
ache írom the surgery, I was pretty certain I had broken a rib and
I íelt like I had when I had awakened írom anesthesia, except I
was cold and wet. Like then, I didn`t know where I was, or when,
íor that matter. Rain pelted the top oí my head and shoulders. I
heard the clatter oí something abo·e me. My cheek rested on wet,
cold asphalt that smelled like mildew and oil.
All passengers debarking line one-oh-one may pick up bags at
baggage claim on le·els C and D . . .` A íeminine ·oice o·er an
Abo·e me, a shadow ho·ered. Someone shook my shoulder.
Mister, you all right·` A boy`s ·oice. ligures danced dimly in my
le`ll be íine,` another more íamiliar ·oice said. Now
All passengers íiíteen and under must surrender all baggage to
security beíore boarding,` the intercom said calmly.
1he boy ran oíí, splashing through oily puddles. A woman
walked past me pulling a suitcase. I tried to liít myselí írom the
asphalt but succeeded only in crumpling again. \hoe·er had
shooed away the boy extended his hand, I took it, and aíter a
wobble or two I was on my íeet trying not to cough.
1hank God.` I knew the ·oice. Molly. She stood next to Sam,
the girls clinging to her.
I coughed again, this time expelling a mucusy gob oí what
looked and tasted like hand sanitizer. \hat the . . .`
Last call íor all passengers boarding line one-one-six departing
íor Old City, Rosemont District . . .`
Rosemont. 1hat name seemed íamiliar. I stared down at the
goo I had just hacked up.
No worry, man,` Sam said. It`s just material írom the portal.
\ou`ll be íine, but that`s our train and we need to get aboard.`
1rain·` I wiped my mouth. Portal slime still coated my lips.
\eah, the 1-Bone Magle·. Austex Arcology to the Old City
up north. It`s like the monorail at Disney \orld, only íaster.`
People stared at the kids when we queued up to the gate. 1wo
gates o·er írom us a line oí kids-adolescents-in blue shirts and
khakis were being processed through the gates by two armed and
armored security guards. 1he guards` black slee·e patches bore
large red art deco se·ens.
1he girls were the íirst to present the passes Sam had gi·en
them and the woman checking passes narrowed her eyes at the
girls and then glared o·er their shoulders at Molly. Are these
Molly ga·e the woman a sharp look. I`d seen this look beíore:
Molly was readying herselí to deíend and protect her daughters.
\es, they are,` she said.
\hy are they out oí uniíorm·`
Molly shrugged at the woman`s question. Sam pushed past me
in line, mo·ing toward Molly and the girls.
1he woman questioning Molly looked up at Sam. One oí the
security guards írom the other line was making his way toward us.
Some passengers behind us groaned.
Do you ha·e their IDs·` the woman asked Molly.
Sam stood beside Molly. 1hey`re new,` he said to the woman.
Sorry, the kids got a little ahead oí us. 1hey just mo·ed írom
Sure,` the woman said, unsatisíied. 1hen why weren`t they
processed at the ticket counter·`
1he armed guard stepped up next to the woman. She
whispered something to the guard, he nodded and she stepped
aside. I hoped to God we weren`t about to get into a íight-this
place was too crowded and the guards looked as ií they could take
us pretty easily.
Sam told the security guard he bought the tickets in ad·ance
íor us, his brother and sister-in-law. \e`d just been laid oíí, he
told the guard, and we were coming to li·e with him. 1he guard
looked at me and seemed satisíied by Sam`s story.
Okay,` the guard said to Sam, but these children need to be
in the system ASAP. Don`t íorget 1he Old City is a hard zone. All
children need to be in the system and in uniíorm. I`m writing you
a warning as a reminder. \ou ha·e íi·e days to take care oí it.`
1he guard pulled out a handheld keypad and typed and printed
a ticket and handed it to Sam. Ií you don`t get this taken care oí,
you will be arrested and the children will be taken away.`
Sam took the slip oí paper, pocketed it, and said, \e`ll get it
taken care oí.`
See to it,` the guard said and wa·ed the íi·e oí us through the
Behind us, the other passengers waiting to board sighed
collecti·ely. One sneered breeders` as we passed through the
On board the train people stared at us angrily as we headed íor
our seats. I looked around as we made our way down the aisle.
Only one other passenger, a lispanic woman, had a child, a boy
with a rooster-combed íaux-hawk and prickly hairs crusting his
I clasped Molly`s hand as we íound our seats and leaned o·er
the back oí Sam`s seat and asked, \hat`s the deal·`
1he Old City is something oí a ghetto. A hard zone,` he said
soítly. Kids are under tight control, ha·e to be controlled or
they`ll control us. Like they control their parents.`
1he train began to hum into motion.
Also, your kids,` Sam continued, should be heading to
school today. Not out on the streets.`
I nodded and leaned into my seat.
1he train did indeed hum along like the monorail at Disney,
only íaster, but the landscape we entered was anything but a magic
kingdom, it was closer to ground zero a íew hours aíter nine-
ele·en. 1he train glided o·er heaps oí rubble and jutting steel
beams. Brackish thunderheads, or I supposed they were
thunderheads, maybe it was smog, shut out almost any sunlight
that got through. It made me suspect some kind oí nuclear war
had ruined the atmosphere and Sam coníirmed catastrophe:
en·ironmental and economic-agricultural blight in the Midwest,
South and Southwest some íiíty years ago brought on by a
terrorist attack oí unknown origin almost le·eled the U.S. \orse
than the Depression and Dust Bowl, Sam said, swi·eling his seat
to íace us. Long drought. Dust storms so se·ere they created not
only static electricity but also electromagnetic surges that almost
wiped out the technological inírastructure. Almost the same
thing going on now on our Martian colony,` he said. V-¯ trying
to take o·er there like they did here. Got a niíty ci·il war going on
up there. Lots oí reíugees in louston at the spaceport. Lots
making their way up here to the Old City.`
V-¯·` I said. \hat`s V-¯·`
A massi·e megacorporation that sa·ed our ass in the
beginning. 1hey pretty much run e·erything now.` lis ·oice had
become gra·elly and I swore he was about to let out a guttural and
I checked my next comment about how e·erything here
seemed Orwellian and saw the girls had swi·eled their seats to
look out at the blurry bleak world. 1hey seemed to be taking it in
as ií it really were a ride at an amusement park and we were only
passing through a scary part. 1he expressions on their íaces made
it seem as ií they were expecting to round a corner into a pristine,
happy ·illage íull oí smiling pirates and cheery mice. I was certain,
as the train tunneled through this brackish íog, we would see only
more ruin, more crumbling buildings, more ·estiges oí highway
o·erpasses like the one we had just glided under.
Sorry,` Sam said unexpectedly. 1hat subject gets me a little
No problem,` I said. So this is where you li·e·`
lor now,` he said. It`s what I could aííord aíter those
bastards dismissed me. It`s been something to get used to, 1he
Old City, compared to the garden le·el oí Austex where we once
li·ed. It was pristine. And you could see the sun.`
\e· \ou mean Kara·`
Molly had begun to dose on my shoulder, but opened one eye
at the mention oí Kara.
\ou know about Kara·` Sam said.
1he name,` I said, keeps popping into my head.`
She`s why you`re here.`
I`ll clariíy later. \hen we get to my place. Not good to talk
out in the open with so much security.`
Black-suited and armored guards had positions at either end oí
I coughed, which sent a ripple oí pain around my torso.
And we get you íixed up,` Sam said.
Molly held me tightly. Our intimacy seemed to bother Sam. le
glanced away írom us and through his window and stared into the
rain now streaking the Plexiglas.
So which city did this used to be·`
lort . . .` le paused and gazed up the aisle. lis eyes tracked
the boy with the íaux-hawk walking down the aisle toward us.
1he boy went past us and it seemed he was making his way to
the bathroom at the íar end oí the car. 1hen he turned and
stopped directly in íront oí Caryn.
Do you need something,` I said to him.
Sam placed his hand on my íorearm. Don`t do anything.`
Molly straightened up in her seat and íixed her eyes on this boy
who was holding onto the tops oí two seats and leaning in toward
Caryn saying something.
Please get away írom my daughter,` Molly said, calmly but
1he boy glared at Molly. le welled out his chest. Su con gai
es una mai dam.` I understood some oí the Spanish but the rest
Molly stood, touched Caryn`s shoulder. Caryn tilted her head
toward her mother.
Chucha,` the boy said to Molly in Spanish.
I squeezed in between Molly and the boy. \ou need to sit
Say it to me again,` the boy said to me.
\ou need to sit down.`
1here was mo·ement down the aisle. People were chattering.
1he boy bowed up, thrust his arms out and sho·ed me. I íell
but caught sight oí one oí the guards grappling with the boy.
Someone shrieked and ·oices rose. Pain again pierced my side as I
pushed up írom the íloor.
1he train halted and I stumbled into Sam. 1he girls were
whimpering, passengers were groaning, the boy`s mother was
pleading with security to let her son go. 1ran`s a good boy,` she
said. 1hat man-` she slashed her íinger at me-is a tyrant. My
son was just trying to talk to the puta.`
1he second security guard was approaching me. I was sitting
down, clutching my side and choking back a cough.
Sir,` he said, you`ll need to íill this out.` le handed me a
sheaí oí papers. It`s an incident report. \ou`ll need to write out
all the details oí the incident. It`s a shame, though. 1hat`s a good
kid up there. No other oííenses.` le looked back at the boy.
lard to íind Martian reíugees as good as the Phuc-Gomez
íamily. And remember, you`re new here yourselí.`
I nodded and stared down at the papers.
And, Sir, I know Austex is much more liberal, but you`re here
in the Old City íor a reason, and ií I were you, I`d dress your girls
more modestly. 1o keep írom pro·oking such a reaction.`
I skimmed o·er Caryn`s apparel: a sweatshirt and jeans. 1his
was immodest· Lnough to call my kid a whore· I punched the
back oí Sam`s seat. 1he guard restrained my wrist and shook his
head, scolding me as ií I, and not 1ran Phuc-Gomez, were the
Once I íilled out the paperwork, the train got mo·ing again
and in no time the tyrant and his wiíe and children and his
doppelganger arri·ed at a decaying hi-rise apartment building.
\elcome home,` Sam said robustly.
In the years beíore the blight and the dust had worked their
way through the Panhandle and across the Red Ri·er, this
apartment had housed a íew hundred oí the Metroplex`s
wealthiest people. In the íiíty or so years since V-¯ took o·er the
Midwestern and Southwestern portions oí the U.S., the Metroplex
had become a home to the dregs oí society, most oí whom were
dismissed by V-¯ or one oí its holdings and sent to íend íor
themsel·es in 1he Old City. 1here was little inírastructure here,
though it was technically under V-¯`s jurisdiction.
V-¯ is Orwellian, I suppose,` Sam said when I íinally decided
to comment. le led us to an ele·ator which he gained access to
through thumbprint. Although, it`s a little íreer here, actually,
than it is in the arcology. Aside írom the kids, oí course.`
I nodded and noticed my hand was a little shaky when my
thoughts brieíly driíted to the incident with 1ran.
\e entered the ele·ator. 1hey still own e·erything. \e pay a
small rent íor them to keep the power on in the building, but
otherwise we`re own our own, we`re lucky, I guess: \e`·e íound
ways to make money. Otherwise we`d be among the squatters,
íighting íor territory in the buildings not owned or abandoned by
1he ele·ator shuddered and a sudden surge oí claustrophobia
hit, which was unusual: I ne·er had trouble riding ele·ators
beíore, but kept worrying this one was going to stop and plummet
us to our deaths. People really íight o·er ruins·`
lor a place to li·e· Sure,` Sam said. Listen out the windows
later. \ou`ll probably hear guníire. One reason to stay protected.
It`s gotten worse since the inílux oí reíugees.`
So this is the íuture,` I said.
One possible íuture,` Sam said. le helped the girls with their
bags and I helped Molly, or rather we helped each other, she
ser·ed as something oí a crutch íor me as my pain had intensiíied
on the ride up.
By the time we got to Sam`s apartment, I was ready to collapse.
le placed his thumb on a pad next to the door and the door slid
open to an entranceway. \e dumped e·erything we had inside
and Sam called down the hall, Rachel·`
lrom where we stood, I smelled spices and peppers cooking.
Sam was ob·iously li·ing with someone, a girlíriend· Ií so, why
had he been so uncomíortable around me and Molly·
1he hall opened onto a li·ing-dining room combo, small íor a
íormer luxury suite. I heard pots and pans rattle behind the wall
and assumed the kitchen was behind there. In a couple oí seconds
appeared a youngish woman with a little weight, as ií she had had
a child, and an owlish íace concealed by thick John-Lennon style
eyeglasses, she wiped her hands on a gray dishtowel and embraced
Sam. 1hank the goddess you`re back,` she said.
Sam introduced us to her and she ga·e the kids and Molly a
warm hug as ií she had known them all her liíe. She eyed me, saw,
I suppose, that I was wan and about to pass out and told Sam to
show the girls their room and she would make sure I got rest and
She and Molly walked me through the li·ing room and into a
large bedroom: the bedroom was clearly luxury-size with a íull
bath and a nook that was set up with a lo·e seat, chair and what
looked like a 1V set. She got me to lay down and went into the
bathroom, rummaged around in there, and came out with a
prescription bottle that held se·eral diííerent pills, all oí which I
had become íamiliar with o·er the past íew days: an antibiotic,
painkillers, and a sedati·e. She brought me a glass oí water and
had me relax and take the meds. I didn`t argue.
\e`ll get you really íixed up later,` she said. She smiled at
Molly and then leít us alone in the room.
Molly lay next to me. lamiliar breath in my ear, íamiliar arms
o·er my chest and in a íew moments we were drowsing.
Some hours later I woke myselí up snoring. Molly was gone
írom the bed. 1hrough the door I could hear the sounds oí
people talking soítly and eating.
I lay quietly, somewhat rigid, my arms crossed o·er my chest,
breathing in and out deeply to relax myselí. I íelt saíe íor the íirst
time in se·eral days.
I looked around the room. lor all the decay on the outside oí
the building, our bedroom at least was comíortable, almost
pristine. 1he mattress was just right and the pillows were soít and
down-íilled like a nice hotel. I pulled the comíorter o·er my
shoulders and had an amusing thought: íor once in my liíe I was
glad I had been a gamer geek when I was a teenager, otherwise,
omni·erses and nanos with my DNA and malignant corporations
and a doppelganger and ci·il war on Mars and lots oí
hydrocodone would ha·e me not accepting anything that had
happened o·er the past íew weeks as real, ií indeed it were real,
and I would be in a íetal ball under a desk somewhere like a
scandalized 1V e·angelist, wondering when it would all stop.
And maybe I would end up in a catatonic íetal ball no matter
what happened because my mind also kept driíting to Rachel and
how seemingly íamiliar she was. I knew the íace, I knew the body,
e·en with a little weight on it, in the world I had come írom,
Rachel was the woman I had lost my ·irginity to. Late, at twenty-
one, in my íirst apartment, me shuddering to climax a íew seconds
aíter I entered her as we rocked on my bed. low could this be
happening· low could two worlds be so radically diííerent, and
yet ha·e the same people in them· Did this ·ersion oí Rachel
recognize me· . . .
Awakened to a shiít oí weight on the bed, I reached out and
touched someone-Molly· No, it was Rachel. She was sitting next
to me, smiling, holding a hypodermic. I sat up abruptly, drawing
knees to chest. \hat are you doing·`
Painkiller,` she said. Much better than the hydrocodone.
lelps with the healing process, too.`
Sorry,` I said. It`s just I don`t really know you.`
I know. But you ha·e to understand we ha·e no reason to
harm or decei·e you,` she said. In íact, we need you.`
\es.` She smiled. It was the same smile she had aíter we íirst
slept together. Aíter the Rachel in my world íirst slept with me. It
was a smile that made me íeel she trusted me more than anyone in
Besides,` she continued, I`m a doctor. I ha·e an oath not to
harm anyone to uphold.`
Medic, actually,` she said. Air lorce pararescue.`
And now you`re here·`
V-¯ dismissed me íor treating uninsured Martian reíugees,`
she said. Reíugees on the wrong side oí the war.`
1hen, as ií the word war` had cued it, the rattle oí guníire on
the street below echoed up to our room. I cringed. Rachel did not
ílinch, made no mo·e to take co·er, the noise drew no reaction
írom her at all.
Nice,` I said oí the íireíight below us.
She kept talking about V-¯ and how this entity didn`t gi·e away
medical care, especially not to anyone they were trying to kill.
I nodded and held out my arm. 1his V-¯ sucks.`
1ell me.` She íound a ·ein on the íirst try. 1his has a
sedati·e. Very mild, but you need to sleep.`
low`s my wiíe· 1he kids·`
All íine. Kids are completely absorbed by the D in the li·ing
room. And Molly will be here directly.` She checked my pulse.
1omorrow we`ll get Dr. Gomez to look aíter you.`
\eah. I`m sure by then Sam will ha·e explained e·erything to
him, calmed he and his wiíe down about 1ran.`
\ou know that kid·`
She nodded. \eah. le really is a good kid. Just íull oí
hormones and probably ne·er saw a girl his age in jeans.`
I began to íeel drowsy. Rachel leít the bed and Molly came in
smiling, as Rachel walked out the door. Rachel stopped in the
doorway and said to Molly, Let him rest,` and then winked
beíore lea·ing us alone.
Molly lay next to me. I guess we`ll ha·e to get used to the
At least it didn`t íreak the kids out,` she said. She yawned. I
couldn`t remember the last time she slept.
1hey were completely absorbed by the D. It is pretty cool.
\e`ll ha·e to get one beíore we go home.` She yawned again and
draped her arm o·er my chest and told me she lo·ed me, and I
didn`t bother telling her ií we get to go home`. I was íairly
certain she thought that anyway.
I caressed her hand and drew her íingertips to my lips and
kissed each íinger, one by one.
1his is . . .` she said.
. . . bizarre,` I said.
She nodded. 1o say the least.`
Sometime around three our íour in the morning I woke with a
slight headache. Molly slept without stirring. I put my arm o·er
her and spooned her. I could hear ·oices outside our room. I
worried íor a moment it might be the nanos come back. 1hen I
wondered why I hadn`t heard anything írom the nanos in so long.
But, those thoughts were interrupted by sounds coming írom the
air ·ent oí a couple nearby-Rachel and Sam·-making lo·e, oí
the woman panting, Oh yes, oh yes, oh yes,` and I realized as I
ea·esdropped that I was getting an erection and I began to kiss
the back oí my wiíe`s neck and her body seemed uníamiliar, and I
realized since I had arri·ed, since I awakened in a stupor at the
hospital, I had not made lo·e with my wiíe. Other than kissing
and hugging, we had not touched, and except when Molly was
surprised my erection just beíore we were both surprised by Lily`s
rampage, those touches had been chaste.
I mo·ed my hand under Molly`s nightgown, íelt the warm skin
oí her back, then mo·ed my hand up and touched her breast. 1he
nipple stiííened under my palm and she stirred and woke and
turned to me and smiled and asked ií I was sure I was up to it. I
nodded and thought I might be and we kissed and caressed each
other but I íound any mo·ement to enter her made my side hurt.
\e tried a couple oí ways but nothing really worked and I lost my
Sorry,` I said to her.
She had begun to cry, and I sensed distance between us.
I want to,` I said.
Me too.` She sniííed. But I don`t know what to do without
I lay on my back. Maybe tomorrow when I get back írom
seeing Dr. Gomez, I`ll íeel better.`
Do you think he`ll íix you up·`
low should I know·`
She wiped her eyes and smiled, but looked at me with a sense
oí loss, I knew this look, too. It was not a common look írom
Molly. It was a look I had seen on Rachel`s íace the second night
we slept together: 1hat night she asked me what I íelt íor her and
I was aíraid to say I lo·ed her, e·en though I did, because I didn`t
trust my íeelings.
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I heard the nanos in the dark. I íelt as ií I were íloating, as ií I
were íalling through the portal again. Bathed in warmth.
Something not exactly water, something semisolid. I tongued a
tube íeeding me oxygen, I íelt the slight burn oí tubes up my
nose, and the pressure oí goggles oí some kind against the bridge
oí my nose. A memory, íalse or real, came to me: a regeneration
shell. Dr. Gomez. My skin tingled. I went under again.
Awakened in a dimly lit room on a cot, my eyes came to íocus
on Rachel and another person, a man-Dr. Gomez, I
presumed-dark hair, cappuccino complexion, a traditional
stethoscope around his neck.
I`ll make sure to bill this double,` he said to Rachel.
She chuckled. I thought we were past the ugliness on the one-
Oh, we are. Still, that ticket was steep. And this pendejo-`
he jerked his thumb at me-put me out a chunk oí change.`
I was grateíul to see him smile when he looked at me. I
coughed and spat out something similar to the portal goo. It
spattered on the tile below me. 1he tile was a blue-gray mosaic oí
a lindu wishing tree. 1he cough caused me no pain and I cleared
Really· \ou hacked all o·er my wiíe`s new tile·` Gomez said
I looked at him, said nothing in my deíense. My stomach
My wiíe picked those tiles out. And in this place they aren`t
something easy to come by,` he said. And she`s still not all that
pleased with you.`
I`m sorry,` I said, íeebly.
Sounds as ií you`re hungry, too,` Rachel said.
I glanced at her and nodded. I hadn`t thought about until then,
but I hadn`t eaten or drunk anything except soup and hot tea since
our arri·al in this world.
le gets íed, too·` Gomez said.
Miguel, enough,` Rachel said. I don`t care ií you`re kidding
or not. \hat`s past is past. And he may be our only hope.`
1he doctor rolled his eyes. \ell, come to think oí it, I`m
getting a little hungry, too. And it`s almost lunch time. Delilah will
be ready íor us.`
le extended his hand to me and helped me írom the cot. It
was then I realized I was naked and my íace ílushed.
1he doctor rolled his eyes again. 1he leader oí the re·olution
blushes because he`s naked.`
Rachel handed me a cloth-wrapped bundle. lere, put this
I looked down at the bundle and caught a glimpse oí my leít
side, the staples were gone and there was only a trace oí a scar
írom my surgery.
I uníolded the bundle on the cot: underwear, hiking boots, a
blue 1-shirt and cargo pants. I stooped to put the clothes on.
Sorry about the scarring,` Rachel said.
Scarring·` I hurried my underwear and pants on. \hat
She noted the little white mark on my abdomen. I glanced
down again as I shuííled on the 1-shirt.
1he shell`s a little makeshiít,` she said.
ley, he shouldn`t complain, this hero oí the re·olution.`
Gomez stood at the íoot oí a short ílight oí wooden steps. le`s
getting íree medical care.`
It was lunch time and we were sitting in the doctor`s li·ing
room snacking on appetizers the doctor`s wiíe had prepared and
acting as ií nothing untoward had passed between us.
\ou`re daughter`s dress is lo·ely,` Mrs. Phuc-Gomez said to
Caryn wore a black Mandarin-style-and Martian, according to
Rachel-military dress, buttoned stiííly at the neck. She sat
properly, legs crossed, as Rachel had instructed, next to 1ran,
whose hair was down, and who wore a gray wool suit with a ·est.
1hank you,` Molly said. ler eyes skimmed o·er her daughter,
then 1ran, they sat comíortably close.
My apologies, Mrs. Bender,` 1ran said. I did not understand
that you and your íamily`s plight was much like ours only a year
My wiíe nodded at the boy.
And we`re sorry, too, íor all the trouble we`·e caused your
boy,` I told Mrs. Phuc-Gomez.
She bowed to me and Molly in her loose-íitting white-linen
dress, also a Martian style, according to Rachel. All oí the married
and attached women in the li·ing room wore loose-íitting clothing
that exposed a lot oí ílesh. I couldn`t help but stare at my wiíe`s
ample clea·age in the dress, her breasts swayed under the white
Rachel must ha·e caught me staring at my wiíe because she
chuckled to herselí when she looked at me. And she had changed
into the Martian-style, too. She had come into the li·ing room
aíter going to change and looked and walked like an elegant
dancer and I had caught glimpses oí her bare, pear-shaped breasts,
too, and I thought about this as I sipped the tea Mrs. Phuc-
Gomez had brought aíter we had íinished our lunch, a spicy blend
oí ·egetable and beeí stir-íry ser·ed in tortillas and with cold
glasses oí beer. I again recalled the íirst night Rachel and I had
slept together: aíterward we had showered and I thought about
how I had embraced her írom behind as the water sprayed o·er us
and how she told me about the little scar under her leít breast-
she was barely nineteen then and had had a benign lump remo·ed.
I couldn`t tell ií this somewhat older ·ersion oí Rachel sitting on a
espresso zaíu sipping tea in the Phuc-Gomez li·ing room had a
scar and I was interrupted in my íantasy and speculation by Sam
clearing his throat and saying, 1hat meal was delicious, Delilah.
\ou`ll ha·e to teach the recipe to Rachel some day.`
lis attention then shiíted toward me.
1hank you, Sam,` Mrs. Phuc-Gomez said. It honors our
íamily`s heritages. It was diííicult to make. 1he chiles were hard to
come by. Just like they are at home.`
Sam acknowledged Mrs. Phuc-Gomez but kept his eye on me.
Now, ií you`re íeeling better, Van-I guess you are·`
I nodded. Incredible, really.` I set my tea on the coííee table
in íront oí us. A glance caught Caryn whispering something in
1ran`s ear and Molly sitting uncomíortably trying to listen in
1hen on to why you`re here,` Sam said.
C¬AP1LR 3lX: 1uNL 10, 2106
It has something to do with Kara, right·` I said, crossing my
legs to hide what I thought was an ob·ious erection. God, I
wanted my wiíe. A night alone with her. I distracted myselí by
looking at Dana tugging at the stiíí collar oí her dress, which was
much like Caryn`s.
Lxactly,` Sam said.
I nodded at him.
\ou saw her, didn`t you·` he said. \hen you were at the
I saw something. Someone.` I remembered the moment in
the waiting room, seeing a woman in handcuíís being led down a
corridor by two guards. I really don`t know what I saw to be
honest, or e·en ií what I saw was real. I was on a lot oí pain meds,
then. And, as I say, Kara` is only a name that keeps popping into
Kara`s real,` Sam said. As you know.` le accepted a reíill oí
tea írom Mrs. Phuc-Gomez. 1hank you.` le brought the tea to
his lips, sipped and set the cup on the coííee table. And I`m
percent certain what you saw was real. It was a crosshatch
A crosshatch breach·`
A breach in which two places share the same space. Most oí
the breaches the nanos created are something like wormholes.
\ou pop in and íall through, like we did in San Marcos.
Crosshatches allow you to mo·e íreely írom one space to another
as ií you were crossing the street to your neighbor`s, all without
the risks oí portal jumps. 1he breach Lily came through-that was
I see,` I said.
Molly sat absorbing this, trying to make sense oí it, and all the
while trying to keep watch on the girls, especially Caryn who
seemed at the moment to be giggling at a joke 1ran had made.
I think you saw Kara at the moment oí her arrest by V-¯,`
Sam said. And I think you may be able to íind her now. I think
you may know where she is.`
low`s that possible· I don`t e·en know Kara. I don`t know
anything about this. I`m still not 100 percent con·inced any oí this
is real. 1here are moments I think all this is still a dream.
Multilayered and complex, but still a dream.`
\ou know Kara,` Sam said. As well as I do. \ou lo·ed her.
\ou wanted to see her that day at the hospital and so you willed
the crosshatch into existence . . .`
loney, I didn`t think you knew this woman,` Molly said
sharply. I hated the tone oí ·oice she used. At one time, beíore
she had the girls, she`d been a smoker, and when she got tense or
angry and was trying to control that anger, her scratchy smoker`s
·oice came out.
I turned to her. I don`t. Sam`s making this shit up.`
L·erything else has been true,` she said. 1he portal. 1he
threat posed by those íreaks at the hotel. It all meshes with what
you`·e told me.`
I know,` I said.
1hen tell me: was Kara your girlíriend· \as that her you saw
at the hospital· \as she the one you were thinking oí when you
woke up írom anesthesia· Not me·
\es,` I said. \es it was.`
She started up írom her zaíu. ler eyes were welling with tears.
\ou asshole. \ou said you had no idea.`
loney. I didn`t.` 1hen I recalled the erotic dream I had oí
Molly told the girls to come with her.
Sam calmly, aíter sipping his tea, said, Molly, it`s nothing to
worry about. \e ha·e shared memories, Van and I.`
Molly stopped, glared at Sam. Oí course you`d deíend him.
\ou are him. But Sam, he lied. 1his isn`t about Kara. I could care
less about her. It`s about him lying. le didn`t ha·e to lie.`
1he girls were next to her then, Caryn glaring at me, gi·ing me
a mental thrashing íor hurting her mother. Come on girls, let`s
1hey were halíway out oí the li·ing room when I jumped up
írom my cushion. Molly, please!`
Sam touched my calí. Let her go. Rachel will see she`s okay.`
Rachel was already up. 1he Phuc-Gomezes were looking at me
as ií I were halí-crazy. 1ran shot me an angry look, the same look
he had gi·en me on the train.
I looked down at Sam, who was now clasping my knee. \hat
ií she takes the kids and goes through the portal back to our
Rachel leít the li·ing room to íollow, I assumed, Molly and the
She can`t,` Sam said. 1he portal`s closed.`
So she`s stuck here·` I wriggled my knee írom his grasp and
slumped to my cushion. \e`re stuck here.`
Not permanently. And with a little help írom me, you and
Molly, and the kids, can get back to your world.`
\hat are you saying·`
le wa·ed his hand across his íace, as ií he were swatting a íly.
\hat do you remember about Kara·`
I guess he would explain later-as usual-how he could help
us get back to our world. As I say, only images. 1hat she had red
hair. And a Chinese dragon tattooed on her back, her lower back.`
lor a moment he stared into space, much like he had in the
train when Molly and I were comíorting each other. 1hen he
talked into that space, saying, So, you do remember her. She`s
who you saw at the hospital.`
Clearly, his lo·e íor her must ha·e been at one time proíound,
and I was pretty certain he still lo·ed her. I shiíted uncomíortably
on my cushion. \es. I saw her. 1wo guards. V-¯, I guess. 1hey
had her cuííed.`
As ií on cue, Rachel then returned. I looked up, opened my
She`s íine. I talked to her. All this is a lot to take in. Culture
shock, you know.`
Mrs. Phuc-Gomez had gotten up to bring out more oí the
sweet orange tea. 1ran had leít the li·ing room-adult talk boring
him, I suppose-and Rachel took a seat next to Dr. Gomez, who
had been unusually quiet all this time.
She and the kids are going to take a nap in our room,` Rachel
continued. Let her get some rest beíore you try talking to her.
None oí you ha·e had much rest.` She smiled at me and took a
steaming cup oí íresh tea into her hands. ler hands seemed to
tremble some as ií she were anxious about something. Actually,
you ought to get some rest too, Van.`
\hat about all this about Kara·` I said. And how we can get
back to our world·`
I think Rachel`s right,` Sam said. \ou`·e had quite a day.`
Rachel walked me back to our room and I didn`t see Molly or
the kids, I guessed they were still asleep elsewhere in the
Rachel ho·ered in the doorway as I sat on the bed. ler bare
leít breast was ·isible, I noticed no scar. \ou know,` I said, I
think I had too much tea. I don`t think I can sleep. And I really
would like to see Molly.`
She really needs to sleep, Van,` Rachel said. ler hand mo·ed
to her dress where her breast was exposed and co·ered it. \ou
don`t know how tired she and the girls really are. And, ií you want,
I can gi·e you more sedati·e.`
\hat`s the deal with e·eryone wanting to íeed me drugs all
No deal,` she said. She sounded hurt that I had turned down
her oííer. A memory ílash sluiced through my head oí her, oí the
other her, oí us in our twenties: our last night together. íf ,ov cav`9
90 v0 or ,ov f00, 90v í`v 0arivg. Dov`9 0ar0. !0a.0. 1hen she
strapped on her bra and pulled o·er her blouse and got up írom
the bed and leít anyway.
I`ll be íine without them,` I said to the present Rachel. I
smiled. She smiled back and shrugged and said, \ell, ií you
change your mind-they`re in the bathroom medicine cabinet. In
that little orange prescription bottle.`
I nodded and she shut the door.
I must ha·e slept se·eral hours aíter taking the sedati·e
because I woke up groggily around sundown, or what passed íor
sundown in the Old City. More like a grime-stained coííee caraíe,
as ií the air needed a lot oí soap and hot water to clean it.
1he room was still empty. I got up and opened the door and
Rachel stood there come to check on me. She had changed her
dress to the simple black shiít she`d been wearing when Sam
brought us here. I looked behind her to see ií the kids were
watching the D, as I halí-expected they might be.
1he li·ing room was empty. Are they still asleep·`
No, actually,` Rachel said. She slipped past me into the
bedroom, her buttocks brushing my crotch.
\here are they, then·` lor a moment, I íelt panicked,
thinking they may ha·e íigured out how to get through to another
At the Phuc-Gomez`s, with Delilah.` She sat on the edge oí
Up there· \hy·`
1o talk about her concerns about Caryn`s íriendship with
1ran,` she said. She`ll be gone íor hours.`
1hey`re íriends now·`
\ou know kids.`
Apparently, I didn`t. 1hen they`ll be back soon·`
I doubt it,` she said. Come and sit with me.` She patted the
mattress. 1alk to me.`
\ou doubt it· low could you know·` I íelt compelled to sit
by her, e·en though I knew ií Molly were to see us, in her íragile
state oí mind, she would get halí-cocked again with jealousy.
Delilah. She`ll work e·erything out, e·en ií it takes hours.
\hich with Delilah, it usually does.`
So, then, what do you need to talk about·`
I know you know me, Van.`
I paused in the doorway beíore sitting next to her, certain it
took no eííort to read the look oí astonishment on my íace. \h-
what do you mean·`
\ou recognize me as your íirst lo·er,` she said matter-oí-
\ou couldn`t know that.`
She nodded. \es, I can. And do. \hen I was eighteen, I was
Sam`s íirst lo·er. \e were together íor years until Kara broke us
1hen you couldn`t be my Rachel,` I said. Adrenaline scraped
my ·eins like a thousand millipedes running through them. \e
were together only two nights.`
Ií you can`t tell me how you íeel,` ` she said, then I`m
lea·ing.` 1hose were my exact words to Sam, when he was Van. I
was trying to íorce him to decide between me and Kara.`
I couldn`t belie·e what I had heard. It wasn`t possible she had
read my mind. But maybe it was· A month ago, I didn`t think it
was possible to leap between worlds through portals in the space-
time continuum. At least not in the reality I knew, such things
were only possible in íantasies or leít up to the quantum physicists
I was shaking, caught oíí guard by her remarks.
I`m sure your circumstances were diííerent, Van. But you and
Sam share similar, ií not some oí the same memories, because oí
the nanos. But the results were the same: you couldn`t make up
your mind because you didn`t trust it. Sam didn`t choose Kara, she
chose him because he couldn`t choose between me and her. It
broke my heart.` ler eyes íilmed o·er with a glistening sheen.
I went up to her, sat down next to her, took her hand-both
our hands trembled-stroked my thumb o·er her smooth skin.
I`m sorry.` I was cold, the room was cold. It was June and cold.
Not like at home. I wanted to be warm. Rachel`s hands were
warm. I looked íor a moment at the door, aíraid that at any time
Molly might walk in.
\ith her íree hand, Rachel reached o·er and touched my knee.
Sam`s come back to you now, though, right·` I abruptly let go
oí her hand. Another thought had jumped into my head: what ií
Sam came in· le had that nasty stun gun. le probably had other
guns. I recalled I hadn`t seen the Glock in a while. I drew my knee
away írom her hand. It`s like a íairy tale. \ou and he ha·e íound
each other aíter all this time. Reunited. le`s ob·iously chosen you
1his·` She scooted closer to me, I didn`t back away. 1his is
an arrangement. Sam`s way oí thanking me íor sa·ing his liíe. I
took him in, Van. Call it luck, íate, whate·er, that I íound him.`
She touched my leg again. le was much worse oíí than I was
when V-¯ dismissed him.`
In·oluntarily, my hand mo·ed to her thigh.
Sam was a squatter,` she continued. She took my hand írom
her thigh and slipped it under her dress. Gomez and I íound him
on our rounds patrolling the streets here.` She guided my other
hand around her back and we rocked gently írom side to side until
I íound myselí embracing her. ler eyes were moist with tears.
\e`re sort oí íreelance medics, Gomez and me. 1hat`s how we
make a li·ing, patching up the wounded on the streets. It was just
dumb luck we íound him. le`d been shot in the knee, knee
almost shattered to pulp. lard to sa·e e·en with Gomez`s regen
\e íell back onto the bed. My hand had roamed beyond the
inner thigh. She wore no panties. Unrestrained erection on my
She rolled on top oí me. ler eyes sparked with desire.
1his,` she said, nuzzling her head under my chin, is how
Sam pays íor his medical care. le still lo·es Kara. And it still hurts
She was looking straight into my eyes. ler íingertips brushed
my cheek. My hands clasped her bare buttocks. ler eyes had the
same hurt in them as had the other Rachel so many years ago. ler
lips grazed mine.
Rachel, no,` I said, íeebly. I can`t do this. I lo·e Molly.` But
my mind told me something else. I íelt I could heal Rachel`s
hurt-on both worlds-ií I made lo·e to the woman embracing
and opening up to me now.
I embraced her and we kissed, tongues playing, and she
unzipped my pants and I urged her to guide me into her. She
began to make lo·e to me passionately, urgently, and it seemed as
she did my mind split in two. I was present with her and at the
same time my memories ílashed to a moment much like this with
Kara, the images were just like those in the erotic dream I had oí
Kara: the night oí her arrest-the tip oí the Chinese dragon`s tail
curled in between the orbs oí her períect ass . . . and then I
bucked and hea·ed and muttered I lo·e you, Rachel,` and
shuddered to a climax, and Rachel and I íell in a heap together,
our breath ragged. Or maybe making lo·e to Rachel was a dream
because more images ílashed into my mind, oí Kara screaming as
armored V-¯ oííicers wacoed into the íront door oí our garden-
le·el apartment, one jamming his nightstick into my ribs, the other
jerking Kara, naked and kicking and thrashing and screaming írom
our bed, and I knew those images oí Kara were dream images. Or
thought I knew. Still, it was the last I saw oí her until the hospital.
le`s got images oí her now.` A íamiliar ·oice. Dr. Gomez.
lold him steady.`
I opened my eyes. It was dark but Rachel`s íace was clear
abo·e me, smiling, we weren`t, howe·er, in bed together. She held
my arms, pressed my biceps against a hard wooden chair. Don`t
jerk around. \ou`ll pull the electrodes loose.` ler ·oice soothing,
hypnotic. Concentrate. Concentrate on Kara. On Kara and the
I twisted írom Rachel`s grip and something pricked my temple.
\e`re losing the image!` Sam shouted. Calm him!`
I can`t gi·e him any more sedati·e or we`ll lose the image
altogether,` I heard Rachel say, and ha·e to go through this
She had stepped behind me. I tried to jerk my head around to
see her and when I did she thrust her íorearm under my chin and
pushed with slight pressure against my Adam`s apple. Clearly a
mo·e she had learned in the Air lorce to subdue an opponent, I
íigured ií I kept up with my attempts to get away, she`d apply
enough pressure to at least knock me out and maybe e·en kill me.
I took a deep, resigned breath, relaxed my shoulders and Rachel
continued what she was saying. I don`t want to ha·e to go
through this again. And it may not work anyhow.`
lrom where I sat, I could see we were in Dr. Gomez`s
basement, where they`d íixed me up in the regeneration shell.
lixed me up only to tear me down again, I thought.
1he pressure against my throat went away and Rachel`s
íorearm disappeared. I íelt her touch my shoulder and in the
same, soothing hypnotic ·oice I recalled írom earlier, said, Van, I
need you to concentrate on Kara. Understand we`re not here to
Dr. Gomez knelt beside me. le placed two íingers on my wrist
to check my pulse, an oddly soothing gesture.
Relaxing,` Rachel said. Always relaxing and íocused.`
Pulse is a little high,` the doctor said.
lrom behind I íelt Rachel shiíting to my side. ler íingertips
grazed my bicep. Always relaxing, keeping Kara in mind.`
Okay, getting the image up again,` Sam said. le also tapped a
keyboard oí some kind.
leet íirmly on the íloor, relaxed,` Rachel continued.
Breathing steadily, in and out.`
Llectronic drumbeats o·erhead, piped in írom an intercom.
Oovc, oovc, oovc. I was halí-aware she had mo·ed in íront oí me
and was swaying like an exotic dancer to the music, her hands
gliding o·er her hips.
\our íocus always on Kara,` she said. ler hands mo·ed to
the hem oí her skirt, liíting it slightly, and then letting it íall.
At that moment, surprisingly, my breathing relaxed, my body
relaxed, and an image íormed in my mind: an empty waiting room,
Molly, the girls, a turkey sandwich. Ner·e endings tingled around
my skull, as ií my head were going numb. An image oí a gray
corridor popped into my mind. 1hat image írightened me. Kara, I
thought, but panic began to sweep through me.
Rachel danced. 1he music thudded satanically. Don`t lose her
now,` she said. Sweat glistened on her ílesh as she twirled and
bent o·er, exposing, brieíly, her breasts. 1hey were not as I
remembered írom hours ago, not pear-shaped with pinkish
nipples, they were larger, with sienna nipples, íreckled clea·age-
Do you ha·e her now·` she purred in my ear.
lot damn,` Sam said. \e`re getting the best picture yet!`
I nodded to Rachel`s question. loarsely, I said, She`s with me.
Or rather, I can see her.`
Rachel swayed, spun, her arms snaked her body, her hands
raised her skirt again, all the way up o·er her bare buttocks, to the
lower back, to the dragon. 1he image burned into my mind,
spurred more memories oí Kara. She was with me, there in the
basement, I íelt her presence as much as I íelt Rachel`s.
My breathing became less relaxed then. But Kara was there,
with the two guards. 1hey had her cuííed. ler head was lowered,
her hair tangled and unwashed. 1hey sho·ed her along the
corridor. Painted on the corridor wall in bright red: Section G. My
breathing was ragged. I wanted to shout. I shook ·iolently.
Kara!` I collapsed onto the cool tile oí Gomez`s basement, my
whole body trembling.
Red spots dotted my temples where Dr. Gomez had pasted the
electrodes that had snatched so many images írom my brain. I was
checking myselí in the Phuc-Gomez`s bathroom mirror. No other
damage had been done, not physically. Mentally, emotionally, I
couldn`t tell. \hat kind oí emotional damage did any li·ing
subject experience aíter an experiment· Probably down the line, ií
not sooner, when we got back home, Molly would ha·e to come
·isit me in the state hospital, I mused. Ií she`s still with me by
then. Ií we get home.
Reasonably certain the only physical damage was electrical
burns, I leít the bathroom.
1he others-my captors· my íriends·-were in the li·ing
room ha·ing drinks, casually hashing out their next mo·es. 1hey
had hooked me up to a machine that the doctor and Rachel had
engineered, one that dug deep into my subconscious to extract
memories and images oí my past, oí Sam`s past, to íind Kara, and
they got what they needed írom me-Kara`s whereabouts.
Rachel and Gomez need you and me,` Sam explained shortly
aíter the little experiment with me ended, while I was still too
weak and too much in a daze to íight back. Not that I could ha·e.
\hat would I ha·e done· \here would I ha·e gone· 1hey think
we`re the key to the nanos. 1hey think the nanos ga·e us the
awesome power to open up the portals.`
And did they, the machines·` I asked.
I belie·e so,` he said. 1hat`s how I íound you.`
I said nothing. My brains, at the time, were too scrambled to
make any sense oí what he was saying.
\hen I entered the li·ing room, the three oí them, my
tormentors-Rachel, Sam, Dr. Gomez-stopped talking. Rachel
was the íirst to say something: L·erything okay·`
I nodded. All oí this, Sam kidnapping me and Molly and the
kids, the portal jump, memory extraction, had been íor one thing:
to íind Kara, to íind Sam`s long lost lo·e, otherwise the bra·e
re·olutionaries-Rachel and the doctor-couldn`t go on bringing
down V-¯ and unco·ering what the ·ile, insane little machines
,their in·ecti·e íor the nanos, were up to creating portals in the
space-time continuum. Sam theorized that`s what the machines
were initially designed íor when V-¯ engineered them. Now the
three oí them were planning to rescue Kara, so Sam would
cooperate, and help them with their re·olution, although why they
needed Sam, and what they were rebelling against, other than V-
¯`s power, was still ·ague.
Rachel helped me to a zaíu and oííered me a drink. 1hough I
wanted to stay clear-headed, and didn`t quite trust Rachel or the
others, a little buzz-gi·er sounded great at the moment, e·en ií it
were drugged. 1he drink tasted like gin and tonic. It didn`t knock
1hey talked about blocking maneu·ers and ílanking maneu·ers
and suppression íire, real military stuíí, something I wouldn`t ha·e
known about had I not played íantasy games, although this stuíí
was way o·er my head. In the games, me and my buddies just
charged into combat and let the dice sort e·erything else out. But
these three were all ex-military, e·en Sam.
In bits and pieces, I had learned Sam had ser·ed two years
compulsory ser·ice with V-¯ security, six months oí which had
been spent patrolling this district oí the Old City, Rosemont. le
had been assigned to protect the old seminary, which, interestingly
enough, was still in operation, producing preachers, priests,
monks, nuns, witch doctors, and what-ha·e-you. It was the only
regularly patrolled section oí the district.
I accepted another drink and listened to them, because I could
not contribute, and did not want to contribute. As I saw it, I was
sitting and ha·ing drinks with what in my world would be a
terrorist cell, a cell plotting to spring one oí their operati·es.
1he second drink ga·e me a slight buzz.
\ou`re getting all this, right·` Sam asked me. 1hat`s your
second drink. I don`t want you too buzzed to íollow our planning
\ith a hard snap, I slammed my drink on the table. I`m íine. I
could drink three or íour more oí these and still be completely
alert.` I picked the drink up again and íinished it oíí. It doesn`t
matter anyway. \ou`·e gotten what you wanted írom me. As long
as you show me the way home, what should I care ií you go and
get yoursel·es killed·`
Sam and Dr. Gomez exchanged distraught glances.
\ou`re saying you`re not helping us íurther·` Sam said. 1hat
all you want to do is go home· Go home so your go·ernment can
keep you capti·e·`
No diííerent than what you guys ha·e done.` I nodded at
Rachel and pointed at my empty glass. Rachel mo·ed to pour me
a íresh drink but Sam grabbed her wrist and stopped her.
lis attention then shiíted back to me. I see.`
I don`t think you do see, Sam,` I said. \ou`re no better than
lix and his men. 1hey may not ha·e had my best interests in mind
but they didn`t kidnap me and my íamily and drag us through a
space-time portal and try to get me in·ol·ed in their little
Sam`s íace ílushed with anger. Clearly, he was as
temperamental as I could be at times, which might be dangerous.
My hands trembled as I sat, gently this time, my glass on the table.
I didn`t want to pro·oke him íurther, but I still wanted to make it
somehow clear that all I wanted was to go home with my íamily
and li·e as normal oí a liíe as I could.
Ií you cared that much about your íamily, Van, why did you
sleep with Rachel·`
Another wa·e oí panic o·erwhelmed me. I had no real excuse
íor sleeping with Rachel, and I knew I couldn`t con·ince Molly,
no matter how much rhetoric I poured on, that I thought sleeping
with Rachel was a dream, or that, as I learned later, Rachel was a
special íorces trained interrogator, a Mata lari specialty: she used
drugs and eros to íerret iníormation. I wouldn`t ha·e been able to
resist Rachel. She had tapped deep le·els oí guilt and shame that I
had íelt about her doppelganger íor more than a decade, and had
intentionally worked up my sexual desire íor Molly and then kept
her away írom me. No, I couldn`t con·ince my wiíe oí any oí this,
in particular that I could not resist Rachel.
And yet it was Rachel who came to my deíense. She touched
Sam`s shoulder. Back oíí, Sam. \ou`re not being ·ery íair to him,
under the circumstances. And maybe Van would be no good íor
the operation. Not ií all he`s thinking about is his íamily and going
home.` She paused to sip her drink. 1hink about what I told you
about the conscripts we had at laldeman City. All they wanted
was to go home, not to íight. And look where that got me and
Miguel.` She nodded at the li·ing room.
Still,` Sam began, but was interrupted by Mrs. Phuc-Gomez`s
ler clothes were smeared with mud and she wore a íloppy,
wide-brimmed hat and held in one oí her glo·ed hands a pair oí
garden shears. Mrs. Bender would like to see her husband,` she
addressed Sam. Ií you`re done with him.`
Aíter pouring me a íresh drink, Rachel helped me up írom my
cushion. I smiled at Mrs. Phuc-Gomez. Molly·` I asked. \here
On the rooítop,` she said. In the garden with me. \e`·e
been there íor hours with the kids. She`s asked about you se·eral
\es, we`re still doctors, Mr. Bender,` she said. \e can still
aííord nice things.`
I didn`t mean-` I said. Ne·er mind.` I íollowed her out oí
the apartment to the ele·ator, lea·ing my drink on the kitchen
On our way up to the rooítop garden, I apologized to Delilah,
as she insisted I call her, and explained I meant no oííense when I
questioned the garden`s existence. I only meant that it seemed odd
there would be a garden in such a bleak place where little sun
came through and where it was so cold.
Solar extractors,` she said. 1hey`re ·ery expensi·e.`
Arri·ing at the rooítop aíter climbing a short ílight oí stairs, we
walked onto a cinder path that cut through a brake oí Ashe
juniper. All around me were junipers and cactus and skeletal-
looking limestone outcroppings, it íelt like the lill Country I
knew, like places I hiked. Just beyond the cedar brake was about
íiíty yards oí open prairie with all sorts oí grasses mixed with
Indian paintbrush and e·en a small patch or two oí bluebonnet,
the sight oí which made me homesick, as ií I were a child.
Lmerging írom another cedar brake-how massi·e was this
rooí·-at the other end oí the prairie was Molly and the girls, all
decked out in gardening clothes like Delilah, including wide-
brimmed íloppy hats.
1he prairie itselí seemed wet as ií it had rained, though Delilah
told me they had domed the rooítop, and it was warm up here.
Artiíicial sunlight was spreading the warmth and the light. I hadn`t
seen sunlight, real or artiíicial, in at least a week, I íigured.
Miguel and I are trying to restore nati·e plants to this
godíorsaken area,` Delilah said. Restore what V-¯ destroyed.`
\hen she said V-¯` it sounded like a snarl. One day we`ll make
this place beautiíul again, Mr. Bender.`
My attention had driíted away írom Delilah to Molly and the
girls, and I was somewhat panicky trying to íigure out what to say
to my wiíe, my brains churning to explain my absence oí at least a
day. Startled by Delilah`s ·oice, I glanced again at her. She was
beaming about what she and Miguel had accomplished with the
solar extractors ,sophisticated solar panels, and a rain machine`
that she and the doctor ,Delilah was also doctor with her Phd. in
xenobotany írom U oí Oregon-Mars, had created íor this rooítop
As with e·erything they did, it seemed this gardening project
was part oí their o·erall scheme to bring down V-¯. 1hey were
dedicated re·olutionaries and clearly belie·ed V-¯ was responsible
íor e·erything horrible in the uni·erse, including the terrorist
attacks that had ra·aged so much oí the U. S. with the Blight halí
a century earlier.
\e tried, on a small scale oí course, to replicate the
terraíorming techniques they used back home,` she said. Beíore
V-¯ interíered there too.`
At that moment, a small striped lizard scuttled across the path
and into the brush to our leít. 1he noise made me jump a little, as
it would ha·e on a hike in my world. L·ery little moment like that
made me long íor home.
\e`ll get you home, Van. \e need you there anyway. It`s much
better íor us ií you`re there.
1he inside oí my skull erupted with the chirrups oí the
machines, I had not heard írom them since my time in the
regeneration shell. An ache like clogged sinuses lurched against my
eyes. I shook my head and íelt someone`s hand on my shoulder.
loney.` Molly sounded worried, not angry. \ou`re all right,
aren`t you· \ou`re not about to ha·e another seizure, are you·`
I`m íine,` I groaned. A seizure· 1hat`s what she`d been told· I
íelt my íace distort and twist as I tried to shake the machines out
oí my head. Just a little dizzy.`
\ou must`·e gotten too hot,` Delilah said. I blame that on
Miguel. le insisted Van ha·e a drink aíter he íixed him up. A íew
drinks in this heat when you`re not used to it . . . that would make
anyone dizzy. Lspecially aíter what you just went through.`
\ou had drinks, Van·` Molly said. \ou ought to know better
than that. Not in your condition.` 1he earlier warmer tone had
been exchanged íor sharp motherly concern.
I blinked my eyes and looked up at her. I`ll be all right.`
\ou don`t remember anything, do you·` A slight smile broke
the scolding. 1hat`s just like me. I guess we`re closer than e·er
\hat do you mean·`
Lpilepsy, Mr. Bender,` Delilah said.
I exchanged glances with Molly and then Delilah. Lpilepsy·`
Remember aíter lunch yesterday, you went to the bathroom
complaining oí a headache,` Molly said. Rachel íound you
spazzing on the bathroom íloor. \ou`·e had a couple more since
then, or so the doc told me.`
\ou`re lucky Miguel recognized it,` Delilah said. It`s
extraordinarily rare these days, what with all the diííerent surgeries
and genetic mods a·ailable.`
I knew you`d be all right,` Molly said. I told them you
would.` She hugged and kissed me. I`m glad you are.`
I held onto her, and said, me too,` relie·ed I didn`t ha·e to
explain what really happened or that we were li·ing with terrorists.
And maybe it was true: maybe I had had some kind oí seizure.
low could I be sure what was real anymore·
C¬AP1LR 3LvLN: 1uNL 11, 2106, LARL¥
L·erything seemed normal that e·ening aíter we explored the
Phuc-Gomez`s Lden. \e all sat around in Rachel and Sam`s li·ing
room watching the D. 1here was no talk írom either Sam or
Rachel about a re·olution, and I began to wonder ií I a/
imagined a memory extraction experiment and sleeping with
Rachel. Sam, Rachel and Molly drank chardonnay and I just had
coííee. \e had just eaten dinner and Sam wanted to watch the
e·ening news. le heard something big was about to be
It seemed like years since I had sat around with my íamily
watching 1V, although the D projector was a trip, íar írom
anything we`d e·er known in our world. It created its own ·irtual
\e had turned it on during the last halí oí a sitcom about a
Martian reíugee íamily beginning to rebuild their li·es with V-¯`s
help. 1he rhetoric was deíinitely anti-resistance, making V-¯ out
to be a paternalistic sa·ior. 1he show itselí was unsophisticated,
the íamily a rehash oí something out oí the 10s-a bumbling
íather, a wise mother, snarky kids who e·entually learned a
lesson-but instead oí watching D, you li·ed inside it, li·ed
inside the show, it surrounded you: the actors mo·ed past you,
e·en a·oided you, and sometimes, in asides, addressed you.
1he commercials were worse, or better, depending on your
opinion oí commercials, and e·en now, I can`t help longing íor a
black 10¯ model V\ compact aircar. \hen the ad íor it came
on, it seemed I was in the car. I íelt its undercarriage thrusters liít
me oíí the ground. My hands gripped the throttle and V1OL
controls and the car zummed abo·e a lush green canopy wo·en
with platíorms and dwellings-Austex`s garden le·el, I guessed,
where Sam and Kara had li·ed, and I íelt elated and then
disappointed when the ad ended, the same elation and
disappointment a child íelt at the end oí an amusement park ride,
and the moment you realize you are subject to someone else`s
íantasy. Sam then switched the projector to D mode to watch the
1he world had gone ílat again. 1hat was cool,` I said.
\e tried to tell you that, Van,` Caryn said and grinned.
It is cool, isn`t it·` Molly said. \e might ha·e to sneak one
back to our time.`
\eah,` I said.
Shh,` Sam said. \e need to hear this.`
Projected on the íar wall oí the li·ing room, in períect lD,
was an image oí another pristine garden, a stage and a podium,
and a press pit brimming with news crews. Cameras clicked and
whirred and a ·ariation oí lail to the Chieí` played as a helmet-
coiííed man in a stiíí black suit and sword-like red tie approached
the podium, accompanied by aides and V-¯ oííicers ílanking him
on either side.
A newscaster broke in: 1his is 1eri Nagle li·e with Austex
Go·ernor Phil Kindred . . .`
NAGLL: It`s true, then, the last portal has closed into the
GOV. KINDRLD ,with a toothy grin,: \es, 1eri,
uníortunately. But we are here today to assure the American
people e·ery eííort is being made to re-establish a connection
to the other world.
NAGLL ,less írantic,: Is it true negotiations with their
president íor the release oí agent Lilian Lo·ejoy were going
·ery well until the portal mysteriously ·anished·
GOV. KINDRLD ,with practiced calm, and well-coiííed
hair all blowing in the same direction in an artiíicial breeze,:
\es, 1eri, beíore the portal closed negotiations íor the
extradition oí agent Lo·ejoy were going ·ery well. Let me again
assure the American people all eííorts are being made to
restore the connection in order to retrie·e agent Lo·ejoy. In
addition, any citizen who crossed o·er beíore tra·el bans were
established, and who are now trapped on the other side, will be
granted íull amnesty upon their saíe return, once the portal
connection is re-established. ,lis se·ere-cut red tie blows in his
íace, he shoos it away with irritation as ií it were a íly.,
NAGLL ,trying to suppress an amused smirk,: A íollow-up,
ií you will.
GOV. KINDRLD ,irritated by his continually ílapping tie,:
NAGLL: Any íurther iníormation on the whereabouts oí
íugiti·e Van Bender, aka Samuel Banks·
GOV. KINDRLD: Let me assure the American people that
e·ery eííort is being made to pursue and apprehend Mr.
Bender. ,Another reporter in the press pit raises her hand.,
Sorry, Irene, no íurther questions. ,1he go·ernor descends the
podium and exits the stage to shouts clamoring íor his
attention and a machine-gun explosion oí camera ílashes.,
Sam crushed a slip oí paper Rachel handed him. Damn it,
we`·e got to act íast.` Rachel leaned o·er to whisper something in
I tried to ea·esdrop but was interrupted by the sight oí my
wiíe, íists clenched, rushing to our bedroom. 1he others watched,
too, as I íollowed her, checking Caryn and Dana, telling them to
sit quiet, relax, and watch some more D, I would take care oí my
1he lights were oíí in our bedroom and Molly was under the
co·ers. I could hear her crying into the pillow. It was cold in the
room. I slipped under the co·ers next to her, embraced her. ler
eyes shimmered. I swallowed, kissed her cheek.
\e`re ne·er going home, are we·`
I shook my head, a gesture oí uncertainty. I think we may.`
low can you know that·` She adjusted her pillow. \e`re
capti·es. \ou don`t e·en know why Sam brought us here.`
I do.` Aíter a brieí pause to sort out the details oí the story I
wanted to tell her, I then explained how I hadn`t had a seizure,
how I had agreed to be the subject oí an experiment designed by
Sam ,I ga·e him too much credit, that would help me reco·er
memories oí Kara. 1hat`s all they wanted.`
A tear slalomed o·er her cheeks, I cleared it away with my
thumb. Oí course I didn`t tell her about Rachel. I hated lying to
Molly, but I knew I had to lie, or tell halí-truths. \hich was still
lying. Otherwise, ií I had told her e·erything, she might demand
her way home írom Sam, and íind a way to lea·e me behind. I
wasn`t going to be leít behind in this world, not alone with these
\ou`re sure,` she whispered.
Absolutely,` I said. I know that`s all they wanted and I ha·e
to trust Sam. I ha·e to belie·e we ha·e some connection to the
machines, to the portals. And that he can get us back home.`
\ou don`t think he`s a terrorist· A re·olutionary oí some sort
or just a plain nut job, trying anything to bring V-¯ down·`
I don`t know, don`t really care, as long as we get to go home.`
And you really belie·e he`ll show us the way·`
I belie·e we`re going home pretty soon, yes.`
She looked away írom me and stared up at the ceiling and
wiped her eyes. A staccato oí guníire echoed in the streets below
us. I hope so. I don`t know how much more oí this I can take.`
\e drowsed íor some time and then Molly awakened me with
kisses, on my cheeks, on my chin and íorehead, on my mouth.
Urgent kisses. Our mouths opened, our tongues played. It
occurred to me we were about to make lo·e íor the íirst time in
weeks, months, maybe years. It also occurred to me that I could
not recall e·er making lo·e to my wiíe and that I had only caught
glimpses oí her naked body. But I knew her body then as I kissed
her throat and between her breasts and her na·el and to just
abo·e her thin dark thatch oí pubic hair and I slipped my íinger
up between her moist labia and I kissed íurther down until she
tugged at me and panted, Please just íuck me. luck me, íuck
me.` And I liíted myselí abo·e her . . . and the door rattled.
Mommy, are you in there·` Dana said timidly írom the other
side oí the door.
Oh goddamn it,` I groaned. I slipped under the co·ers next to
Dana,` Molly said. Is that you·` She slipped her nightgown
on, and went to the door.
Molly opened the door a crack. \hat is it, Dana·` ler ·oice
sharpened. la·en`t we talked about this beíore·`
I lay ílat against my pillow, hoping to God the kid would go
away, and that Molly would still want me when she got back into
Mommy, it`s not like that,` Dana whimpered. 1ears were
ob·iously ílowing. And please don`t talk so mean, Mommy.`
I`m not trying to be mean. But we`·e talked about this beíore.
And it`s been a really long time since Van and I ha·e gotten to be
a married couple.`
\ou mean ha·e sex,` Dana said, bluntly. Sometimes,
Mommy, I think that`s all you think about.`
But Mommy,` she sniííled. It`s not about that. I don`t care ií
you ha·e sex. \ou can do that all you want. Mommy, Caryn`s
Molly stepped outside into the li·ing room with Dana. She`d
leít the door open enough íor me to hear what they were saying.
I sat up, and listened.
Dana, remember, she`s on her date with 1ran. 1hey`re up in
Uh-uh, Mommy. 1hey`re missing. 1hat`s what Mrs. Phuc-
Gomez told me to tell you.`
Missing· Are you sure, Dana· \hy wouldn`t Delilah come get
\eah, I thought, why wouldn`t Delilah come herselí· Plain and
simple, this was a planned thing, a script, not unlike the little show
put on by the go·ernor and 1eri Nagle.
She`s helping look íor them in the garden,` Dana said. She
called down to our room to see ií they were there.`
So, I thought, this is how Sam gets me to go on their rescue
mission. Kidnap my goddamn daughter. I threw oíí the co·ers,
dressed, and charged outside.
1hat doesn`t make any sense,` Molly was telling Dana when I
stepped out. But all right.`
\here are Sam and Rachel·`
1he li·ing room was dark. Molly shrugged.
Up in the garden, too,` Dana said. And 1ran`s gone, too.`
Great, it`s Romeo & Juliet, I thought. 1hen the rumble oí a jet
aircraít oí some sort distracted the three oí us. 1he craít seemed
to be passing pretty goddamn close to the building.
Get down,` I told Molly and Dana.
1hey hid behind the soía.
I peered through the windowblind and beyond the balcony.
1hrough sheeting rain, a rotorless Blackhawk-like craít thrusted
away írom the building.
Son oí a bitch!` I shouted.
low do normal e·eryday people get in·ol·ed with terrorists·
Lasy. Kidnap their children. lorce them to act on your behalí, íor
^o, 1av, /ov`9 /o i9. Yov cav`9 go ri9 ´av. !0 cav`9 aor i9.
!0 /ov`9 /vor if r0 cav .9o¡ iv.
\e were in the ele·ator, halíway up to Lden, when the ·oices
ílashed through my head again. 1hey were loud, like banshee
shrieks, and my head íelt as ií they had bashed my íorehead into a
wall. Se·eral times. I reached up to touch my íorehead halí-
expecting to íeel blood. My íingertips were clear when I brought
loney·` Molly clutched Dana. \hat`s going on with you·`
A bubble oí nausea gurgled my stomach, made my gorge rise. I
coughed and said, I hope we`re going to íind out.`
Once the ele·ator stopped and the doors opened, I tore out oí
it, sprinting írom Molly and Dana, and screaming, Banks! \here
are you Banks!`
It did not occur to me, until I tripped on a root that sent me
sprawling íace íirst into the cinder, that I was sprinting blindly
into the garden and the garden was pitch dark and cold, or that
the rain that chilled me as I scrambled to my íeet and brushed dirt
and cinder írom my cheeks and íorearms was sheeting down írom
a black gash in the glass dome that protected this paradise. I
wouldn`t notice that hole until later, aíter Delilah had thrashed
Sam in the jaw with a high roundhouse kick that sent him to the
trampled, sopping prairie grass with a mouth íull oí blood and
broken teeth, and aíter I crawled o·er to him, my own jaw
throbbing where he had connected with a punch moments earlier,
to bash a íist-sized chunk oí limestone into his skull, only to be
wrestled away írom him by my wiíe and Rachel beíore I could
1hen I saw it, when I stared up írom the wet earth, my breath
lurching, the hole-the jagged edges ·isible in the murk-where
the black craít had descended and armed men had taken both
Caryn and 1ran, innocents on their íirst date, both betrayed by
Sam, who had ordered 1ran to call security and alert them that my
girl had not been registered as a citizen oí this hell we were in. It
was Sam`s desperate attempt to get me in·ol·ed in his rescue oí
Kara. Only the men had taken the boy, too, and that had
unleashed Delilah`s íury.
Cold rain pelted my íace and I had barely gotten my breath
when we all-those oí us who were conscious-were started by
an explosion oí a shotgun going oíí o·er our heads and Dr.
Gomez standing beíore us, the gun barrel smoking, sweeping the
weapon írom person to person, and screaming into the sheeting
rain, Stand down! All oí you stand down!`
Rachel, hands clasped behind her head, was the íirst to her
knees. My wiíe íollowed, imitating Rachel. Only Delilah remained
standing, clutching a sopping blanket, I suspected 1ran and Caryn
had been wrapped up in it, íumbling around awkwardly beíore
they were taken. 1he though oí which made my íace contort and
ílush with anger: the hideousness oí the conser·ati·e, twisted
morality that made my daughter a whore in V-¯`s eyes, because
she wore blue jeans, while 1ran could grope her, and then turn her
in. It did not occur to me that Sam might ha·e threatened 1ran
because I reíocused on the scene at hand: Gomez was jittery but
kept us all, except Delilah, at bay with the shotgun. Goddamn it,
this is treason! \ou`re all íucking this up! \e can`t ha·e iníighting
and expect to win this.`
Delilah, still standing íirmly, stuck her arms out, hands palms
up. Simmer down Miguel. \ou need to simmer. \ou also need to
let Rachel tend to Sam.`
1he gesture, the palms up gesture-Sam had made it moments
ago when Delilah íirst accused him oí betraying him, a gesture
that didn`t stop her sa·age roundhouse that had dropped him.
Kneeling in the rain, I shi·ered, but not wholly because oí the
cold piercing the hole in the dome, connections had come to me:
all oí them had two years oí compulsory ser·ice in V-¯`s security
arm, the gesture must be a learned one. Part oí their training. 1hat
meant-oh, holy íuck!-lix . . .
1he doctor lowered his weapon. Rachel dropped her hands to
her side, looked around. Gomez kept the gun at rest. lis wiíe
walked up to him, placed a hand on his shoulder. I sur·eyed the
scene. My wiíe was sobbing, her hands still clasped against the
back oí her head. Nausea suríaced in the pit oí my stomach. I
shuddered, aching to comíort her, but scared to mo·e. Rachel
crawled o·er to Sam.
\e`·e got to get him to the shell, now!` she shouted.
Gomez handed the gun o·er to his wiíe and had snapped out
oí his re·olutionary mode and into liíe-sa·ing. le and Rachel
careíully liíted Sam írom the ground, and then Gomez heíted him
o·er his shoulders and carried him out oí the garden.
Se·eral hours passed beíore we heard anything about Sam and
we sat silently in the Phuc-Gomez li·ing room, letting Delilah`s
tea get cold.
Rachel checked my jaw. Just a bruise.
Dana slept in Molly`s lap, under a blanket Delilah had brought
out to her.
1he íront door slid open and the doctor walked gra·ely into
the room. le`s resting comíortably. 1he shell worked its magic,
this time, except íor a couple oí teeth. I can`t replace those, yet.
But he`ll be íine.` le took oíí his still soaked shoes and sat cross-
legged with us around the table. Now back to business.`
Screw your re·olution,` I said. I just want my daughter
Calmly, Gomez poured a cup oí tea íor himselí, sipped, spit it
back into the cup, and said, 1his needs warming.`
Delilah began to get up, but he wa·ed her oíí.
I`ll do it, my lo·e.` le took the pot oí tea and got up and
headed to the kitchen where he placed the pot on the sto·e. Mr.
Bender,` he said írom the kitchen, I`m aíraid you`re part oí our
re·olution. I don`t see that you ha·e any choice but to help us.`
\ou`re saying I ha·e no choice.`
le said nothing íor a íew minutes, only waited by the sto·e íor
the tea to heat, beíore he brought the warm pot to the table and
set it in íront oí me.
I`m saying it`s ine·itable you got in·ol·ed.` le poured a íresh
cup oí tea íor me and then one íor himselí. And don`t íorget, we
ha·e a child in·ol·ed in this, too. So we ha·e no choice but to
íollow through with Mr. Banks` plan to rescue Kara.`
lor a moment, because his demeanor was so cool and
collected, I imagined Gomez might at any time run his hand o·er
his head like Brando`s Col. Kurtz and utter the horror, the
\e don`t e·en ha·e a clue where the kids were taken,` I said.
\e can guess they`re in the same spot as Kara,` Gomez said.
I`m almost certain oí it. I`m sure they`re trying to trap us all. And
all because oí Banks` desire. le can`t let that woman go.` lis
tone changed, there was some bite to it.
\hy do you need Sam·` I asked.
Gomez was about to speak when Rachel said, Because I lo·e
him. I`d do anything íor him, Van.`
L·en ií that meant losing him to Kara again.`
I rolled my eyes and wished I had something to lean on.
\ou`re all íucking nuts.`
1hat may be true, Mr. Bender,` Gomez said, but as I say,
you`re part oí us now, whether you want to be or not.`
\hat can I do, though,` I said. \ou`·e gotten all the
iníormation out oí me that I can gi·e, willingly or unwillingly. I`m
sort oí useless otherwise. I mean, I`·e ne·er had any military
training. lell, I`·e only íired a gun once in my liíe, a íriend`s pellet
gun. And I didn`t e·en shoot it at anything more troubling than
bottles and cans. 1here`s no way I`d be any good íor you on some
kind oí íucking raid to rescue the kids and Kara. Ií that`s the
My wiíe gawked at me open-mouthed. As ií I were as crazy as
these people. \ith good reason. Ií you had o·erheard me that
day, it would ha·e seemed as ií I were really joining their little
íight. But Molly knew, as well as I did, we had to assist them in
some way ií we were e·er to get Caryn and go home.
It is,` the doctor said, and you`ll do íine.`
lands trembling, I drank down what was leít oí my tea and set
the empty cup on the table. luck, I was aíraid you`d say that.` I
exchanged worried glances with my wiíe.
But, we`·e all had a long night, or morning rather,` the doctor
said. le yawned. \e`ll meet íor dinner this e·ening and do some
Aíter cleaning up, Molly took Dana to the girls` room and
stayed with her, to protect her.
I was worn out and wanted to sleep but Rachel insisted I hang
out with her, she wanted to wait up íor Sam. I hesitated. I didn`t
like being alone with Rachel and when we sat next to each other
on the couch, I think she sensed my discomíort, and touched my
íorearm and said, All that the other night-you don`t ha·e to
worry about me trying to make a mo·e on you again. 1hat was all
part oí the mission. I lo·e Sam too much to actually cheat on him.
And don`t worry, Molly will ne·er know.`
lor a second, her words bit into me, I had wanted, brieíly, at
least in those moments while we were in bed together, to redeem
myselí with Rachel, past and present. 1hen I was relie·ed. lor
some reason, I trusted Rachel, at least that Molly would hear
nothing oí this írom her.
Besides,` she continued, right now we need to talk business,
as Gomez might say. \e need to get you up to speed, ií you`re
going to sur·i·e our mission.`
\eah, whate·er,` I said. I stiíled a yawn aíter Rachel glared at
me. Okay, well. Um, but beíore we get to that-I ha·e a
Rachel raised her eyebrows, waiting íor me to say something.
1he men, those dudes Sam kidnapped írom-lix and the
rest-were they V-¯·`
lighly likely. lrom what Sam told me about them.`
lmmm,` I said. Ií they were, does V-¯ pose a threat to our
She stood up, extended her hand and pulled me up írom the
couch. She nodded íor me to íollow her down the hallway and at
íirst I was reticent-her bedroom was the íirst door on the leít-
but then she passed the bedroom and went down a side hall to a
Gomez,` she said, keying a number pad instead oí a thumb
pad, says V-¯`s rise here was ine·itable.`
1he door slid open and she ílipped on the light switch. Aíter
you.` She gestured íor me to go in.
I had been right that Sam had more guns. Still, the sight oí
them crammed in this small room ele·ated my heart beat and I
íelt criminal seeing the cache.
As íar as what I think-` she said, íollowing me into the tiny
room. I think Gomez is correct.`
1he room had been stripped oí carpet and stacked with crates
and gun racks bearing all manner oí guns and other military
supplies I had ne·er seen beíore or heard oí.
luck.` I swiped my hand o·er my head.
She ignored my expleti·e and carried on expounding upon
Gomez`s re·olutionary philosophy. Clearly, Gomez was our little
klatch`s leader, probably something oí a charismatic, with a dash
oí cultishness paprikaed o·er it. All re·olutions are ine·itable,
Gomez says. American, lrench, Russian. One re·olution replaces
another-as I`m sure ours will, too-because the go·ernment
grows corrupt, lazy, complacent, or commits whate·er
unredeemable sins the people see íit to resist.
Communism íalls to something like a democracy with a bit oí
militarism thrown in. 1errorists attack the crops and halí or
maybe three-quarters oí the U.S. comes under control oí a
handíul oí billionaires.`
\hat about the rest oí the U.S.·`
She eyed each weapon, careíully examining it. Still sort oí
independent, though most oí their economy is supported by V-¯`s
industry and its banks.`
She picked up a pistol, the Glock, and handed it to me butt
íirst. I belie·e this is yours.`
\hen I íelt the gun in my hand, a ílash oí macho action hero
popped into my head íor a second. It was something oí a rush
holding that weapon, and in that rush, I could see how dangerous
the gun was.
\ou`re really sure you want me to ha·e this, to be a part oí
this·` I said.
It`s a necessity,` she said. Like e·erything else. lere, this will
be good íor you too.`
A sub-machinegun, sort oí sexy, ií this were a mo·ie or ·ideo
game, a descendant oí the lK MP5. I held it in the opposite hand
írom the Glock, both hands trembled. Oddly, as I stood there,
slightly dazed, I íelt as I had when I was a íreshman in high school
getting sized íor my íirst pair oí shoulder pads íor the JV íootball
\e`ll be in close quarters at the seminary,` she said.
Seminary· My daughter`s being held in a seminary·`
She stretched out a black ílak ·est, eyeballed its size against me,
as ií it were an oíí-the-rack shirt.
1hat`ll do,` she said. It`ll ha·e to. My guess is that you`ll
mainly be in a supporti·e role.`
\ou`re serious that we`re raiding the seminary·`
\hat·` She started, she had been examining a heítier more
e·il-looking pistol than the Glock. I hate the design oí these
things. 1he geeks in V-¯`s design teams were way too iníluenced
by ·ideo games and trying to make weapons íor security ·isually
appealing and not necessarily practical. Couldn`t conceal it íor shit.
1hey`re all about image, V-¯. But it does pack a wallop.`
No, the gun.` She chuckled. Arm outstretched, she admired
the pistol`s design. But yeah, the seminary: Caryn, 1ran, and Kara
are there.` She íocused her attention back to the gun. late to
admit it, but it does look kind oí sexy when you look at it long
enough, don`t you think·`
Good, I thought, we were in íor a ·isually stimulating íireíight
at a house oí God, or whome·er it was people worshiped these
days. Sure.` I shrugged. So, what I saw when you had me
hooked up to your machine was a seminary·`
\ou really can`t get your mind wrapped around that can you·`
Maybe I`m just tired as well as dense.`
\e`re all tired,` she said. But, yes. \ou saw Kara taken to
the campus iníirmary. Goddess knows why. Caryn and 1ran will
likely be held in Abstinence Re-Lducation.`
low Orwellian,` I said. She seemed not to get my reíerence.
Uh-huh,` she said. Anyhow, those two will probably need it,
ií Caryn is to wed 1ran and be a good wiíe to him.`
1he íuck you just say·` My ·oice was mucusy and grated.
\iíe· She`s thirteen.`
1here`s no dating on Mars,` she said. 1here`s only promising
and engagement. 1he ci·ilians up there are as religious as the day
My throat constricted. I cleared it the best I could. \e`re not
on Mars.` Although we might as well be, I thought.
\e will be.` ler attention was drawn to another weapon,
another sub-machinegun, like the one drooping passi·ely írom my
\ou all might,` I said, trying to sound íirm and con·icted.
But once I get my daughter back, we`re checking out oí the
resistance and going home.`
Oh yeah,` she said. lorgot you`re gi·ing up on us aíter this.`
She írowned at me. Still, you need to learn to shoot. So, time to
get you down to the range.`
1he range was an empty apartment on the third íloor. 1he
re·olutionaries had con·erted the dining li·ing area into a small
but suííicient shooting range. I got the basics, I guess-not to
spray and pray with the lK, but instead aim through the sights.
Same thing with the Glock. Keeping the weapons steady and
aiming were the main lessons I learned, how not to shoot anyone
when gi·ing co·ering íire.
\e were in there íor a íew hours, maybe, and by then I was
drained and wanting to sleep, but Rachel had gotten a call írom
Gomez: it was dinner time.
\e put away our toys in the armory, as Rachel called the
storage room, and woke up Molly and Dana, and the íour oí us
rode up to the good doctor`s place, once again.
Sam was there, seated on a cushion, sipping some oí Delilah`s
tea, and smiling, a gap between his teeth ·isible. Rachel ran up to
him, embraced him, kissed him se·eral times. It was the most
emotion I`d seen írom her, since we`d slept together, and I wasn`t
sure ií the emotion she`d shown me then was real or just part oí
her act, her training. As íor what I íelt about Sam, seeing him
sitting comíortably, smiling, getting kissed by Rachel, and knowing
he was the reason Caryn was locked up in some re-education
camp: it wasn`t anger, it was a ball oí heat orbiting my solar
plexus-rage ready to explode, rage I had to suppress. I knew ií
acted against my alter ego, the good doctor would shoot me dead
on the spot, he wasn`t about to allow íurther dissension in the
ranks. And me dead wouldn`t get Caryn back.
Once Rachel had sobered herselí enough to sit next Sam and
take a cup oí tea, I shook Sam`s hand: Glad to see you`re doing
Dinner was an Asian-Mexican íusion dish, chorizo íried rice,
ser·ed with beer. Aíterward the doctor asked his wiíe to take
Molly and Dana to the garden: the hole in the dome, oí course,
was in disrepair, but it had stopped raining and warmed up
enough to still make a nice walk.
\hen they were gone, Gomez began to work out the raid. I
had drunk se·eral beers by then. \ou don`t ha·e any objections
to attacking a seminary, doctor·`
Are you a religious man, Mr. Bender·` Gomez said.
1oo bad,` he said. laith can restore so much to us in times
oí crisis.` le drank oíí some oí his beer. Anyhow, I ha·e no
problem attacking heretics.`
Oh, what they teach up there, bunch oí liberals that they are,
is worthwhile, I suppose, but it`s not the true Martian íaith. Only
V-¯`s pitiíul ·ersion oí it.`
Martians, he explained, took their íaith much more seriously
than on Larth. 1he íaith itselí, as I understood it, was uni·ersalist,
embracing compatible aspects oí the world`s religions, but relying
hea·ily on a quasi-Zen Buddhist,Christian outlook, though the
Christianity had been drained oí the miracles and supernaturalism.
Jesus was only a prophet, and apparently a student oí Buddha.
1he seminary had two chieí missions: to train and ordain
Shepherds-a name íor the clergy appropriated írom an early
twenty-íirst century 1V show interestingly enough-and to re-
educate young people who had gone astray within this particular
district. V-¯ had instilled the re-education program-emphasizing
abstinence and non-·iolence-only in the past íew years, as a
measure to appease the inílux oí Martian reíugees who had been
complaining about, to their eyes, the immoral iníluence oí the
children oí dismissed employees in the district. 1hus the se·ere
dress codes and registration oí children into the V-¯ system,
which íit well with V-¯`s o·erall paternalistic go·ernance oí its
Gomez wrapped up his aside on the current state oí religion in
the district and I said I had no more questions. I kept quiet about
my daughter`s sudden engagement to his son, íiguring it wouldn`t
matter once we were home in our world. I also leít alone any
questions about lix and the other V-¯ agents stuck in our world.
By now, I thought, either they`d ha·e been caught, or there were
too íew oí them to cause too much damage.
Around midnight we toasted with beer to the success oí our
raid, set íor the next night, and exhausted, I dragged Molly and
Dana to our room downstairs and made a pallet íor Dana to sleep
on: we weren`t going to lea·e her alone.
\hen we íinally lay down, Molly held me as close as she
possibly could, tears were dripping oíí her nose and slaloming her
cheeks. She wiped her eyes.
\ou`re really doing this·` she whispered.
\hat choice do I ha·e·`
I know,` she said. 1his is totally nuts, though, and the
thought oí losing you . . .`
It`s good to know the romance isn`t dead aíter a century oí
\ou,` she said, sniííling and smiling, and wiping under her
eyes with her thumb, shut up and let me be sad.`
I`m pretty sure I`ll be saíe.` I kissed her. Rachel and Sam and
Gomez are doing most oí the dangerous stuíí. I`m just there to lay
down co·er and watch their backs.`
Molly kissed me and touched my íorearm and drew my hand to
her breast. I need you, Van. I ha·e to íeel your dick inside me.`
\hat about Dana·`
I need you, Van. She`ll be íine. She`ll understand. I need to
íeel you again, just in case you don`t come back.`
Don`t talk like that. \ou`ll íreak me out.` I mo·ed my hand
down to her hip. And won`t be able to do this.`
Oh, god,` she said, it íeels so good to touch you again.`
I ho·ered abo·e her, as she guided me inside her. It was the
íirst time in how long I couldn`t remember that I had actually
gone inside her. \e embraced and then pain, suddenly and
íiercely, clamped against my skull, and I collapsed on top oí her.
Yov`r0 fvc/ivg 0r0r,9ivg v¡, 1av. I rolled away írom Molly and
sat up clutching my íace in my hand. I wanted to rip the top oí my
head oíí and yank my brains out and slam them on the íloor in a
bloody grayish pulp. Oh Christ!` I tried to scream but my throat
Molly grabbed me. Van, what`s wrong!`
My head,` I managed to say beíore the pain seemed to rent
apart my skull, beíore the ·oices.
o//avv i9, 1av! Dov`9 go 9rovg ri9 9i.!
Against the noise, I jerked in pain, as ií I were ha·ing a seizure.
Dana,` Molly said. Dana, go get Rachel!` Molly held onto
I heard, through the screeching in my head, the door open and
Dana running out.
Oh god, Van.`
O o/. o/ a. vo9ivg 9o /o ri9 9i. 1av. !0`r0 ,ovr go/. !0
cr0a90/ ,ov. My íace contorted into a snarl. .v/ r0 cav /0.9ro, ,ov.
Something like an electric jolt shot through my chest. leart
attack· ^o. ßv9 9a9 cov/ b0 arravg0/. íi.90v 9o v.: ,ov cav`9 go 9rovg
ri9 9i. vorovic rai/. \hat about Caryn· \hat about going home·
10 gir. !0 cav 0¡ ,ov g09 90 gir. Yov ;v.9 ar0 9o 9rv.9 v.. !0` .or
,ov .ov09ivg, .o ,ov ri 9rv.9 v.. 1hen, as suddenly as the pain had
come, it went away, and I íell back into Molly`s arms.
Van·` She was trembling.
I sighed. 1ook in a breath, thinking it was o·er. It wasn`t, the
nanos had chosen another medium through which to
communicate. An electric crackle burst through the room. 1he D
projector juddered and a íamiliar sil·ery-mercury glaze íilled the
room. 1he chirping I knew so well íilled my ears, brieíly, without
the pain, then congealed, as it had in the hospital, into one
Van, please listen to us,` it said.
Oh my God,` Molly said.
\e`ll make e·erything okay.`
1he room íilled with a smiley-íace emoticon.
\hat about Caryn· \hat about us·` My ·oice was hoarse, the
inside oí my throat tender.
1he nanos,` Molly said. 1his thing . . . these things are the
1he room juddered queasily like Jell-O. Gi·e this one a prize,
she`s a smart one. \e knew we picked the right girl íor you.`
I touched Molly`s hand, a sudden burst oí lo·e íilling my mind.
1hen I watched the projection, an image was íorming through the
sil·er sheen that en·eloped us-the íace oí a young girl. Brown
hair, hazel eyes. I íelt warm. It was Molly, a school picture, about
íourth grade. 1he image surrounded us.
\ou had a crush on her until middle school,` the ·oice said.
1hen she mo·ed away. \ou didn`t lo·e anyone as much as you
lo·ed her until you met the other one.`
1he other one·`
Kara.` 1here was a hint oí disgust in its ·oice.
Molly eyed me suspiciously, as she had when Sam íirst
mentioned Kara on the train.
I ne·er knew Kara. Lxcept íor seeing her taken oíí by V-¯.`
Not you, you, but Van . . . err . . . Sam.`
1he moment was quickly becoming one in which I wished I
had a lot oí morphine, as I had in the hospital. 1hen at least I
could push oíí all I was seeing as a bad trip.
I don`t understand,` I said.
Molly was Sam`s íirst great lo·e,` it said. \e plucked her
írom his memory when we made you and ga·e her to you, when
we created you.`
\hen you created me·`
At the Dumpster. Just like we told you at the hospital. \ou
created us. \e created you and íound a saíe world íor you and
Molly. Or so we thought.` It paused íor eííect, as ií expecting a
drum roll. \e told you this in the hospital.`
Not all oí it. Not about Molly.`
\e were rushed.`
A portal opening, right·`
1he sil·er jiggled again. And we still need your help with
low· low can I help·`
1he bedroom door rattled. lrom outside: Van·` It was
Don`t answer it, Van.`
I íelt a slight electric jolt in my leít arm. I nodded to Molly who
mo·ed slowly írom the bed.
\ou`re not trusting us, Van.`
low can I· \ou keep trying to control me. And I keep
ending up in places I don`t want to be.`
I know you want to be home,` it said.
Molly reached the door.
\es,` I said.
\ou ha·e the power to do so,` it said. 1hrough us. \e`re
always with you.`
1he door rattled again beíore Molly could open it.
\hat· Do I click my heels together three times·`
It seemed to chuckle. Something like that.` 1hen it paused
again, it was a ham, o·erly dramatic, I guessed. \hat· \hat do
you mean, change oí plans·`
My head started to throb again. 1he door opened. My leít arm
tingled and there was a hot sizzle in the air, the noise like eggs
írying in a pan. Just say no to nanos.
Yov /i.a¡¡oiv9 v., 1av.
My head seemed to burst. Swimmers sparkled in my eyes and
blood dripped írom my nose beíore e·erything went black.
I was out íor no more than a minute, but weak and trembling
when I awakened. Rachel held my wrist, taking my pulse.
Oh, thank God,` Molly said when I opened my eyes.
I think he`s okay,` Rachel said. Pulse is normal, anyhow.
Sam`s had experiences like this beíore, too. 1hough not so se·ere.
And no one else has e·er seen them.`
No one·` Molly asked.
Not counting Kara,` Rachel said. Kara, so Sam told me, got
a look at them beíore they created this mess.`
I sat up. \hat, exactly, do they want·`
1he hell ií I know.` Rachel shrugged. I just know the e·il
little things are dangerous. Lspecially ií they`·e taken on a god
Super-intelligent machines taking o·er humanity,` I groaned.
1hat`s like the oldest science-íiction cliché, except maybe alien
Maybe so,` Rachel said. Like I said, I don`t know what
they`re up to. Maybe they`re harmless.`
Maybe to the rest oí the world,` I said. But not to me, and
probably not to Sam.`
Van,` she said, I wish we had time to look into it. And
maybe we will aíter this mission ,íor all I know, the machines are
colluding with V-¯, they were a V-¯ project,. Anyhow, we ha·e
She nodded and leít my bed side. I wanted to ask her whether
the nanos were telling the truth about my ability to go home on
my own, but she was busy whispering something to Molly, and I
didn`t want to interrupt. 1hat, and I íigured Rachel would dismiss
the question as unimportant. Plus, I was aíraid to think oí the
nanos. I guess I was like a child aíter a nightmare: I didn`t want to
think about the images I`d seen and bring them back to my
At the door, Molly hugged Rachel and told her, I`ll keep
watch on him.`
Please do,` Rachel said beíore stepping through the door.
\e need him.`
Molly switched on the D and sat with Dana and let her watch
a cartoon show to relax her so she would sleep. \hile they
watched the show, I lay in bed, trying not to think about the
nanos, but I couldn`t help but think about them and their purpose.
In particular why they kept me írom actually e·er ha·ing sex with
my wiíe. Ií it were true they created me írom Sam and pinched
Molly írom his memories íor me to lo·e, like God, so the story
went, plucked L·e írom Adam`s rib, and they wanted me happy,
then wouldn`t they want me to make lo·e with my wiíe· I recalled,
íalse memory or not, that sex had been an utter joy between us,
beíore and aíter we were married. Lros had connected us at the
I looked at Molly as she sat with her youngest, and beíore I
dozed oíí myselí, I íelt a warmth and passion íor my wiíe that I
had not íelt since our wedding day.
C¬AP1LR Ll0¬1: 1uNL 13, 2106, 1¬L RAlU
1hat sense oí contentment and joy I had íelt in the presence oí
my wiíe and daughter went away that aíternoon. Once again we
were in the doctor`s li·ing room, this time, howe·er, cushions and
coííee table were mo·ed out, replaced with boxes oí ammunition
and our weapons and armor. 1he pleasant li·ing room was now a
staging area íor a pri·ate war.
Rachel re·iewed me on the use oí my weapons and the doctor
went o·er our plan íor the raid. I huddled with them and my
lunch ílip-ílopped in my stomach. I couldn`t help but recall junior
·arsity íootball: the moment just beíore the ball was snapped and
you`re squatting in your stance sort oí holding your breath and
making mental checks-toes straight so as not to alert the
linebacker, eyes straight ahead, too, íor the same reason, holding
still, listening to the quarterback`s signals, pulse pounding in your
head as you concentrate on the ball, waiting íor it to liít írom the
turí so you can íly into action.
1he kids, Gomez speculated, were being held in a large
coníerence center at the northeastern edge oí the campus, a
con·enience íor us, gi·en the iníirmary was a block away. 1he
doctor had enlisted a couple oí sympathetic squatters to help us in
exchange íor an apartment in the building. 1hey were creating a
di·ersion in the central part oí the campus, to draw away as much
security as possible írom the coníerence center and iníirmary.
Approaching in the doctor`s ho·ercar, we would land on the
coníerence center`s rooí and rope into the courtyard to gain
access to the building. Our hope was the di·ersion would lea·e
the center relati·ely unprotected so we would meet little
In the meantime, Rachel, in a separate ·ehicle, would make the
attack, by herselí, against the iníirmary.
1hat`s suicide,` I said.
Not íor me,` she said. I`m trained íor just this sort oí
I nodded, though still worried she might be o·erconíident.
Once Rachel had extracted Kara, we would rendez·ous at the
ruins oí an old middle school a íew blocks away, then split up
again, and make our way to the apartment, where, ií all went well,
the re·olutionaries would make good on their promise and send
me and my íamily home.
Gomez dismissed me aíter we`d gone o·er the plan se·eral
times, I suspected they had other plans to go o·er, like how they
were going to get the hell out oí this building themsel·es and
continue their struggle on Mars against V-¯ and maybe the
Around sunset, ií you could call the coííee-stained sky sunset,
Rachel texted me to come up to the garden, or staging area, as she
wrote. Bring Molly.`
Molly and I had been watching Dana`s cartoon show when I
recei·ed the text. 1he mission wasn`t due to liít oíí íor another
\hat now·` she said.
I shrugged. \ho knows with this bunch· Maybe they`re
calling the whole thing oíí·`
\e could only be so lucky.`
In the center oí the large rooítop prairie Gomez had set up a
command post under a tent, with laptops connected to our
comlinks and to a headset camera that I was going to wear so
Delilah could guide us through the coníerence center. Delilah sat
in a can·as-backed chair hunched o·er a laptop and íiddling with
what looked like a small game controller. A staticky image íilled
the screen in íront oí her. 1he others watched as she tried to
na·igate the controller to get a coherent image on the screen.
Video games, I thought, they brought me up here to play ·ideo
games· I crept in between Sam and Rachel. Both watched the
screen with detached íascination as Delilah íine-tuned the image
until it came into íocus: the interior oí a building, a pristine atrium
split into two equally bland and íeatureless corridors, their bare
walls broken only by se·eral closed doors and equally bland pairs
oí potted íerns.
1hat corridor to the leít,` Delilah said, her íinger pointing to
the ·ideo on the screen, is Abstinence Re-education`s girl`s
dormitory.` She wa·ed away a tendril oí smoke curling past her
írom her husband`s just-lit cigar. She coughed. God, my
husband, you are so nasty with those things.`
Gomez, on her leít, grinned, then extinguished the cigar. le
continued to gnaw on it as he watched his wiíe manage the
camera angles on the ·ideo.
1he camera panned down the long corridor to a door marked
\e ha·e coníirmed,` Gomez said, the children`s
whereabouts. 1hey are in these dorms.` le chewed on the cigar
and spat. As we thought. Now, with the help oí my lo·ely wiíe,
we know exactly which room.`
1he image shiíted to a close-up oí the door opening slowly, a
slender girl, her blond hair pulled se·erely írom her íace into a
bun at the top oí her head, a bland ankle-length dress co·ering
her, peeped out írom the door, smiled at something, and then
withdrew inside the room. Caryn.
low did you . . .` I began to say. 1hen something ílitted past
Molly and me, sluicing between us with gusto, making us jump.
1he thing, at íirst glance a tiny ball oí motion, skittered around
Delilah`s laptop, and that`s when I realized it wasn`t some sort oí
energy ball, but a small bird, dressed in delicate silky green
íeathers, wings humming, the epee-like beak íencing the air
I hadn`t seen a hummingbird in years. 1hey used to knock
against my aunt`s back windows, trying to get at the íeeder she
had set up íor them. Another reminder oí home.
Aww,` Dana said as the bird ílitted toward her. She reached
íor it, it ho·ered íor a second, then backed away.
As she played with the bird, I glanced at the screen on Delilah`s
computer and coníirmed what I suspected: the bird wasn`t real, it
was a drone. Its beady brown eyes were cameras now íastened on
my delighted daughter`s íace.
Dana turned to her mother. 1he bird íollowed her. 1oo cool,
Unlike a real hummingbird, which stayed in motion almost
constantly, this íacsimile`s wings stopped beating and it lit on
Dana`s íinger. Mommy, look.`
Molly grinned at her daughter and watched as the electric bird
again took ílight, zipping erratically between the adults o·er to
I want one, Mommy,` Dana said.
Maybe we`ll get one beíore we go home,` Molly said.
Soon.` She embraced her daughter and glanced at me. I was
quiet, I couldn`t make any promises.
Beíore liítoíí I told Molly, her eyes puííed írom crying, I lo·ed
her. 1he ho·ercar íelt cramped, though it was a luxury model built
íor six passengers, and I sat alone in the passenger compartment.
Gomez was the only one in the car who looked and acted like a
soldier. le and Rachel, now up and away on her solo mission,
were the only ones who had íought in a war, though Sam knew
how to íight, as I had witnessed. None oí this comíorted me, as I
clutched the cool plasteel sub-machinegun against the hard Ke·lar
plates protecting my heart and lungs and stomach. And the
thought I was riding in a ílying car and had íelt its thrusters liít us
írom the rooítop prairie through the cracked dome, had not
distracted me ·ery long írom knowing I might ne·er see Molly or
Dana or Caryn again. 1hat none oí us might make it back to our
world ií this raid did not succeed.
1o sur·i·e, I had to trust men and women I casually knew,
each oí whom had betrayed me in their own way: one had
seduced me íor the sake oí iníormation, one had turned my
daughter into the authorities, one had called my daughter a whore,
one had healed me, only to dig into my mind with a machine.
Great, I thought, I was probably screwed. I peered out oí the
window oí the ílying car and stared into the soít rain that always
seemed to íall o·er this decaying city.
In the dark, the car banked hard and began to plunge nose íirst
toward the ground. My pulse raced, I thought Gomez had
somehow lost control. A ílash oí memory-the sudden
claustrophobia I íelt on the ele·ator ride up to Sam`s apartment
that íirst day, the sudden sensation we were going to die in an
enclosed space. My stomach lurched and churned. 1hen I heard
the thrusters outside my window, I íelt the car shudder, then le·el
out. Oh íuck,` I groaned.
Sorry about that, Mr. Bender,` Gomez said. le worked the
car`s controls, which looked much like a plane`s wheel. ligh
ceiling. A·oiding detection. But maybe a little too high íor this car.
1hese luxury models . . . they just don`t take too well to extreme
lrom the rear·iew mirror, his shrewish eyes lingered on me as
I doubled o·er retching, a horrible case oí dry hea·es. lis acne-
pitted íace took shape in the mirror as I took a deep breath, he
was grinning. \ou might want to steel yourselí íor such rides.
Post-extraction may be bumpy.`
Great.` I clutched my weapon e·en tighter against the body
armor and tried to distract myselí somehow by getting lost in
thoughts and I thought oí something Gomez said when I asked ií
the nanos told the truth about me ha·ing the power to go home
on my own: Merciíul Buddha has said, Mind is the íorerunner oí
all things.`` \hat had he meant by that· lad the machines
implanted in me some telepathic power that allowed me to open
portals· 1hey had hinted at that possibility, as had Sam. But oí all
the things I trusted least in this world, it was the machines, I
couldn`t help but think they were playing some Jobian game with
me, íucking with my head íor whate·er reason, íor whate·er God-
like plan they had in mind, ií they really did ha·e some purpose.
1hen my mind driíted to another possibility: \hat ií I were a
machine, a piece oí wetware, an experimental ·essel·
1hen the car banked again, not quite as hard this time, and my
thoughts once again shiíted to the mission.
\e`re making our approach,` Gomez said. linal weapons
and comms check.`
I slipped the headset camera on and spoke into my comlink.
Delilah, can you hear me·`
A pause and static, then Delilah`s ·oice, Check. All clear.`
Check,` I said. I íelt my íace ílush. lor some reason, I was
embarrassed to use military lingo, it made me íeel like a thirteen-
year-old boy again, the one harassed by peers íor playing his queer
íag-oíí games, pretending to be other people, playing with toys
,miniatures, like a kid. 1o them, surrounding myselí in a world oí
painted lead íigures and odd-shaped dice, was a sign I was a child
and somehow made me gay. I guess the only thing that should
ha·e pre-occupied me was the desire to lay girls and going to
dances to íilch beers.
\e hawkishly dropped írom the dark sky, descending o·er the
well-lighted seminary campus. 1he car driíted silently toward the
rooí oí the Abstinence Re-education Center, and then we touched
down, the car listing on a cushion oí air a íew inches abo·e the
rooí`s gra·el suríace. 1he three oí us eased írom the car and
crouched on the ground. Lxcept íor a íoot-tall lip, the rooítop
was ílat and le·el, pro·iding almost no co·er.
Delilah directed me to the southwest corner oí the building.
Pan the camera toward the admin building.`
I crept toward the lip oí the rooí and peered o·er it just
enough to angle the camera toward the dome oí the admin
building. 1he dome reminded me oí the capitol in the Austin I
knew. My heart hammered.
1he explosion was not what I expected, more like a magician`s
cape-wa·ing, puíí-oí-smoke disappearing act, ií he were to
disappear within a íireworks display. A ílash oí light. A steel-wool
ball oí black smoke.
My neck tensed. Rachel would be making her attack on the
Sirens jolted the air. Sam skulked o·er to my position, tapped
me on the shoulder.
Gomez íastened a grapple and íast rope to the lip oí the rooí
and we batmanned into the open courtyard, ducking behind
square-trimmed hedges íor co·er. lootsteps echoed through open
corridors, chaos, as we had hoped, usurping the quiet.
Gomez took something írom his bulging side pocket, held it
up íor a moment-a stick grenade-then casually ílicked it
through the archway that opened in to the atrium we had seen in
the recon ·ideo. I watched, horriíied, as the grenade skirled o·er
the granite íloor between two saííron-robed men rushing down
the corridor. Jesus Christ, I thought, blowing innocent people
apart was not in the plan! But beíore I could protest, Gomez had
sidearmed a second grenade into the corridor at the moment the
íirst exploded with a thunderclap ílash.
1he two monks wobbled and íell to their knees but were not
shredded by the blast. Se·eral other monks were scattering away
írom the blast and the second grenade, and beíore I realized the
grenades were harmless ílashbangs meant íor a di·ersion, Sam
tapped my shoulder and, crouching, we charged íorward in the
chaos oí robed-presumably unarmed-men who were scattering
Gomez and Sam shouted íor the monks to get down and stay
down and there was moment I almost dropped to the ground
myselí. 1he íirst shots were íired then. A lone, írightened security
oííicer clutched her pistol with both hands, squeezed the trigger,
and rounds caromed harmlessly oíí the walls or shattered the
potted plants. By then you`d thought I`d been used to the
explosion oí rounds being íired at me, but I went sprawling to the
íloor when the íirst shot was íired. 1he oííicer íired about halí her
clip beíore Gomez shot her in the kneecap with a short burst
írom the sub-machinegun, and Sam dragged me írom the cool tile.
le shook his head at me, but didn`t say a word and we went
on, turned down the boy`s hall to get 1ran.
1ran and another boy were in their room practicing their duck-
and-co·er skills, but it didn`t take long íor 1ran to recognize his
íather and the íirst rescue was successíul.
I wasn`t sure how we`d gotten through this so swimmingly, and
with little opposition. I didn`t ha·e time to think about it.
Gomez handed his son a pistol, and we were oíí, sprinting
toward the girl`s dorm, and Caryn.
1he halls echoed with our íootsteps as we passed back through
the main atrium. Although the initial coníusion caused by the
ílashbangs had died down, the monks made no mo·e to stop us.
1hey lingered and squatted in the corners where they`d scattered.
\e ran past them as ií they were crouching statues.
Once past them, we slowed and made our approach to the
girl`s hallway. Caryn`s room was at the íar end. \e took co·er
behind the archway that opened up to it.
Gomez ordered me to stick my head around the corner so we
could get a picture to Delilah. 1he hall was empty. No guards.
Only bland potted plants.
I kept thinking our di·ersionary bombing oí the admin
building had gone too well. Security was supposed to be tight in
this place. Surely not all oí them had taken oíí to the admin
building. I then wondered ií Rachel was encountering so little
Unbelie·able,` Delilah said into my earpiece. It`s all clear.`
I signaled all clear to Gomez.
le wa·ed Sam down the hall íirst and he íollowed. I was last
down, keeping watch so we wouldn`t get bushwhacked írom
My watch didn`t help. \e were a íew meters írom Caryn`s
door when my earpiece buzzed again. Mo·ement! \ou`·e got
mo·ement! 1hirty meters. Goddamn it, Van, you`·e got
I whirled to check what Delilah had been screaming about
without bothering to look at my ·id. 1hat spin, that carelessness
almost got us all killed. A round thwacked into my body armor,
the íorce oí which bounced me into the wall.
I slumped to the íloor, stunned. Delilah screamed in my ear,
but I couldn`t make out what she was saying. My ears rang. I
barely heard anything. And I íelt paralyzed, unable to do anything
Gomez was hit. lis leg jumped írom the impact oí the round.
\hen my hearing cleared seconds later, I startled myselí with
my own panicked screams. 1he hallway crackled with small arms
Gomez lay on the íloor, ali·e, and had twisted so he could íire
the sub-machine gun.
lis son knelt beside him, pistol gripped tightly with both
hands, and took steady aim down the hallway. 1he gun barrel
leapt three times.
People screamed. I screamed. Guns screamed.
1hen came the concussi·e echo oí an explosion, and all went
I coughed, choked by smoke, and was aíraid to look up and
then down the hallway. I couldn`t bear to see the men blown apart
by Sam`s grenade.
I didn`t ha·e to look, Sam blocked my sight. lis íingers
gripped the collar oí my shirt. lis tea-stained breath wrenched my
nostrils. lis eyes pierced mine with a íierce rage. \ou almost
íucked it up íor all oí us,` he snarled.
le held íast to my collar íor a moment longer, then let go to
help 1ran tend to Gomez, who had been shot in the meaty part oí
his thigh. Pained, but able to walk with help írom his son.
None oí them would look at me.
I got to my íeet and leaned against the wall. Behind doors we
could hear írightened girls whimpering and crying.
Down the hallway, Sam stood alone, brooding o·er the
mangled corpses oí security guards. le kicked the bloody stump
oí a man`s shoulder.
I winced, íelt my gorge rise. I had let them down. I wasn`t a
I heard a door unlocking. Soít, bare íeet whispering o·er to
me. Arms thrown around my neck as they ne·er had been beíore.
At least to her, at least to Caryn, I was a hero.
Gomez got the two oí us mo·ing, ending our reunion íor now.
1ran took the headcam írom me, he was welcome to it.
1he íireíight had stalled our escape, but not by much. At least
we had an accurate layout oí the building, thanks to the
hummingbird, and knew where the stairs to the rooí were.
\e stepped onto the rooí ready to íight. \e met no resistance.
\e heard a distant explosion írom the direction oí the iníirmary,
and hoped it was Rachel completing her mission, as we got into
1he car liíted írom the rooítop and turned. \e were heading
to the old school, to the rendez·ous point. Still, no one spoke to
me, except my daughter.
It didn`t matter, I suppose, that they wouldn`t talk to me, as
long as the mission was completed, as long as they íulíilled their
promise to get me and my íamily home. \hat did I care· I was
not a soldier. I didn`t want to íight in their sorry war. It meant
nothing to me.
1he car descended into a hole in the rooí oí an old gym. 1he
car`s doors winged up.
\hy are we stopping here,` Caryn asked me.
\aiting íor Rachel and Kara.` ler eyes glazed with tears. I
held her tightly, ga·e her the it`ll be all right, it`ll be o·er soon
spiel. I ran my íingers through her hair. She had unra·eled the
se·ere bun in the car. \e`ll be home soon. \ou and me and your
mother and Dana.`
Gomez stayed in the car with me and Caryn, dosing his wound
with a syrette oí painkillers, while 1ran and Sam got out to watch
the black íor Rachel.
ler two-seater bike ílitted down beside us. 1wo íigures
emerged when its canopy slid back.
I knew Kara írom my dreams, and írom the machines, tall and
slim, rust-colored hair in a ponytail. All oí us stood silently as she
got oíí the bike. She was wan, seemed slightly emaciated, and a
hea·y, too-big coat hung írom her shoulders.
Sam íidgeted. Kara·`
\es, Sam, it`s me.` She looked my way, a ílash oí recognition
on her íace. So, it`s true·`
Sam stared back at the car, sort oí in my direction. \es,
there`s two oí us. But he hardly counts.`
I peered írom the darkened back seat, assessing the situation.
Rachel was hanging back in a tough-chick-low-slung-machinegun
posture. Ií it had not been a sure way oí re·ealing our position, I
belie·e she would ha·e been smoking one oí Gomez`s cigars. But,
I don`t think Rachel`s posture was arrogant, she was waiting,
watching, and knew time was short, knew, as well as I did, we had
to get in the air soon. 1here would be time enough íor lo·er`s
reunions when the mission was íulíilled, ií this was, indeed, a
Sam and Kara stood apart írom each other, and the distance
seemed Kara`s doing.
\hat ha·e they done to you, honey·` Sam snarled. 1hose
monsters ha·e done something to you!`
lrankly, Sam, they treated me pretty well, íed me e·ery day,
took care oí me, medically, when I needed it. 1he only time they
were e·er harsh was when they íirst hauled me in, in cuíís.` She
ílipped her hair. But that was my íault. I íought them at íirst.`
1hey ha·e you brainwiped,` Sam snarled.
Don`t be ridiculous, Sam,` she said. Ií I were brainwiped,
would I recognize you·`
Rachel anxiously shiíted írom one íoot to the other. Gomez,
too, was growing impatient: he grumbled and cleared his throat
and se·eral times had looked up through the hole in the gym`s
rooí. I wasn`t sure why neither oí them was getting us out oí here.
Okay, okay,` Sam said, making the palms-up gesture that
ne·er seemed to work. \ou`re not brainwiped. But, honey, they
must`·e done something to you. \ou collaborated with them
enough they tracked Van down.`
le gestured at me with two íingers.
1hey did that on their own, Sam,` Kara said. Lily`s smart. A
lot smarter than you`d e·er gi·e her credit íor. And a good agent.`
Sam shook his head and harumphed. Lily, Lily, Lily. Always
Rachel, oddly enough, nodded at Kara.
Get o·er Lily, Sam.` Kara plucked at the top button oí the
hea·y coat. Sam, I`·e something to show you.`
Goddamn queers,` he said, just abo·e a mutter.
Good God, this was getting downright soap opera-ish, I
Kara unbuttoned the coat all the way, slung it to the ground.
ler stomach bowed out underneath a loose skirt.
^or. My eyes spangled with swimmers. Not now. No please
not now, I thought. My lips contorted.
\hat`s wrong, Van·` Caryn said.
I shook my head.
Sam stood gawking at Kara, at her pregnant belly.
Gomez got out oí the car, limped around the íront oí it to get
a better look. Merciíul Buddha,` I heard him say.
1he ·oices banshee-screeched through my head.
Van·` Caryn jostled my arm.
1his is your doing, Sam,` I heard Kara say through the murk
oí the chirrups in my head.
Kara, I-` Sam stepped toward her. 1he mo·ement must`·e
bothered Rachel íor some reason, she mo·ed the gun to ready
i iv, 1av! My brains íelt as ií they were curdling.
Yov ar0 9o /i iv!
My hands trembled, my ·ision blurred with tears. I wiped my
eyes. 1hey cleared enough to see Sam clutching his pistol, then
taking aim toward Rachel.
1he old gym echoed with the pistol`s report.
Rachel clutched her side, dropping her weapon. Sam had
i iv, 1av. i iv or ,ov ri v0r0r go ov0. My head throbbed.
My hand made an in·oluntary mo·e toward my hip where the
Glock was holstered.
1a9`. i9, ,0..
Caryn gripped my arm, tried to íorce my hand away írom the
Corporal Banks,` Gomez said.
1hrough the mess oí noise in my head, I heard Gomez`s gun
Stand down, Corporal.`
i iv, 1av. i iv vor.
1ears streamed írom my eyes. I wanted to go home so badly.
Yov ri. Yov ;v.9 ar0 9o /i iv, 1av.
Rachel, still clutching her side, slumped to her knees.
Stand down, Corporal.`
lands trembling, I raised the Glock. \es, I must go home, I
thought. I aimed the gun, ílicked the laser sight on, red-dotted
Rachel íell íacedown on the wooden gym íloor, a gout oí
blood spurting írom a gaping hole in her side, a gaping hole cut
through her armor.
Behind Sam, the air shimmered.
^o! ^o! ^o!
My head tingled.
Do i9 vor!
\ith his leít arm clutching Kara by the throat, and his right
hand clutching his pistol, training it íirst on Gomez, and then me,
Sam stepped back toward the shimmering portal.
Do i9! i iv!
I squeezed the trigger.
Sam, dragging Kara with him, íell back toward the portal, a
strand oí pink mist trailing behind him.
C¬AP1LR NlNL: 1uL¥ 2010
lor a long time aíter we returned home, I had nightmares
about Sam. L·en now, as I sit with Molly in our li·ing room,
drinking coííee, I can`t help but think about him. 1he edges oí the
thoughts are dulled by meds and íour years oí post-portal-jump
therapy, but I always go back to the one image: the tail oí pink
mist that íollowed him and Kara into the portal.
I knew the mist was blood, I knew I had shot Sam, not Kara.
\hat I didn`t know was whether or not I had killed him. I
suppose ií I knew I killed him, I would ha·e nightmares, too, but
not like the ones I ha·e now. 1he ones that send me to a therapist
once a month and keep me on antidepressants.
Oí course, I don`t bring up the íact I shot and maybe killed a
man to my therapist. Murder, aíter all, e·en in another world, is
I tell my therapist about the portal jump itselí, and my íears oí
ne·er being able to return home, and my íears that I might one
day end up back there, alone, and my íears oí the machines. Ií my
therapist did not know there had been other portal jumpers, I
assume she would label me paranoid-delusional.
But she does know there were a handíul oí other jumpers,
she`s worked with most oí them, at least here in the States. And
their experiences were similar to mine. 1hey popped into
nightmarish alternate uni·erses, and returned shaken by possible
1heir stories diííer írom mine because they lack one element-
the machines. None oí them talked to the machines. None oí
them had the machines in their heads telling them to shoot
Aside írom nightmares about killing or not killing Sam, I íear
the machines the most. And because none oí the other jumpers
report experience with the machines, my therapist tends to pass
that experience oíí as a hallucination. ler explanation: all the
painkillers and morphine in my system at the time oí my íirst
jump-the machines were a creation oí a drug-addled mind to
explain the new reality to me.
Actually, she passes a whole lot oí my experience oíí to
hallucinations: Lily, lix, e·en Sam. 1here is no record oí anyone
coming through the portals írom the other side. She suggests my
drug-addled brain created the scenario with Sam and the rest to
con·ince myselí it was okay to jump into a portal into the space-
time continuum that had opened up in the backyard oí our home
in \aco, 1exas. She tells me the scenario justiíies the risks I was
about to take with my liíe and the li·es oí my íamily, all íor a little
1he only things my therapist couldn`t deny, couldn`t dismiss as
drug-induced hallucination, were the portals. 1hose were real. Ask
the halí-dozen or so others who jumped through them. Or better
yet look at the hundreds oí photos and ·ideos uploaded on llickr
and \ou1ube oí me and Molly and the girls spilling onto a middle
school`s gym íloor during a boy`s basketball game.
1here were also plenty oí newspaper and magazine clips and
plenty oí on-camera inter·iews with us, and e·en a íew podcasts,
though I a·oided the podcasters then-most were one-world-
go·ernment conspiracy theorists, doomsayers with horriíying
apocalyptic ·isions, e·en worse than the blight or anything V-¯
Curiously, not long aíter we íell into that basketball game, the
portals stopped opening. 1here ha·e been no reports oí any
portals or any jumpers, and most days since, with the help oí
drugs and therapy, me and my íamily ha·e dismissed much oí our
jump experience as unreal.
Lxcept íor those last íew seconds in that darkened gym with
Sam and the pink mist and tears blurring my ·ision once again as I
set my coííee cup on our breakíast table and rubbed my eyes and
shook my head to rid myselí oí that ·ision. Molly glanced at me
írom the kitchen where she was reíilling her coííee. Another
I nodded. I can`t seem to shake them.`
1hey get worse e·ery year around this time.` She came o·er
to me and massaged my shoulders. It`s o·er, let it go.` She kissed
my neck. My poor, Van.`
It was se·en in the morning, on Saturday. 1omorrow was the
lourth. 1omorrow Molly and I were going to take the kids to the
city park íor the big íireworks show. And today, beíore the heat
climbed into triple digits, I had planned a hike around the lake
with Ishmael Parker, another jumper I`d become good íriends
with since we met a íew weeks ago at the grocery store.
le and his wiíe, Ari, had been relocated to 1exas a íew
months ago when the recession had closed doors to the Seattle
branch oí his soítware engineering íirm.
\ou`ll íeel better aíter you`·e hit the trails,` Molly said. And
you better get going.` She kissed the back oí my neck. And this
time, Buster, don`t íorget your phone. And please please please
pack enough water. 1hat last hike almost had you in the
I nodded, took a sip oí coííee. \ou`re right. I`ll be careíul.
And take my phone.`
Parker met me at a trailhead where we knew we could get good
looks at the lake írom time to time.
le was tall, muscle-toned, athletic, with dark hair and oli·e
skin, the son oí an Aíghan reíugee íamily that had íled the So·iets
in `. lis íather died írom cancer when Parker was two and his
mother married an Anglo, which scandalized her traditional
íamily, especially when her son took his stepíather`s surname.
Like Molly and I, he and his wiíe Ari had li·ed comíortably íor
a while on royalties írom our stories that we sold to íilmmakers
íor 1V-mo·ie-oí-the-week plots. But the recession was beginning
to eat that up, it was a nasty recession, almost like a biblical locus
plague chewing through the economy. So we both worked, Parker
as a soítware engineer, oí course, and me, well, I had started
teaching high school Lnglish as well as electi·es in íilm studies
whene·er I could.
I understood now, or at least I thought I remembered that I
understood, how my íather, also a teacher, íelt teaching me in his
classes. 1his past semester, beíore summer break, I taught an
electi·e íilm studies class that Caryn had taken. She had written a
great personal essay on Dorothy`s longing íor home in the \izard
oí Oz. It got an A, oí course, though I didn`t grade it, I had my
department head grade it. I don`t think on that particular subject I
could ha·e been unbiased.
Parker and I checked our backpacks and I checked the charge
on my phone.
\ou bring enough water,` Parker said to me as I made one
last check on my bag.
I rolled my eyes. Molly called you, didn`t she·`
\our wiíe lo·es you ·ery much,` he said. She didn`t want to
ha·e to meet us at the emergency room again.`
I know.` I liíted up two oí íour plastic liter bottles brimming
with water that I`d brought along to weigh me down on our
hump. It surprises me still, gi·en all the shit I put her and the
I slipped the bottles back into the net side pockets oí my bag
and Parker chuckled as we wandered írom the parking lot o·er to
L·en aíter íour years oí being home, I still íelt like a child
disco·ering something íor the íirst time íeeling the sun on the
back oí my neck and not perpetual mist and rain, and seeing the
sunlight dapple through the branches oí thick Junipers and spray
o·er the crushed limestone the trail was spread with íor the íirst
íiíty yards or so.
\ou know, I put Ari through a lot oí crap, too. And she got
enough oí it írom her íamily íor marrying me as it was.`
1hose jumps ha·e strained our marriage more than our
íamilies` religious diííerences e·er ha·e.`
le jumped a day or two aíter I did. le and his extreme sports
buddies were at \osemite when a portal opened inside the mist
and spray at the bottom oí the Bridal Veil. 1hey came up with the
idea oí a portal di·e, en·isioning something like an Acapulco cliíí
di·e. \hen they íinally agreed to do it, Parker ended up being the
only guy to take the leap.
le hasn`t spoken to those guys since.
But he do·e and emerged on the shore oí a Caliíornia that was
little more than an archipelago íloating in a tepid, Sargasso-
clogged Paciíic. L·erywhere he explored in the week he was there
he saw a state oí road-warrior desolation, and he would ha·e been
lucky ií the humans he had íound were as ali·e and desperate íor
sur·i·al as those in that mo·ie. 1he creatures he íound were
barely recognizable as humans. Naked and íilthy, less-than-dead
expressionless íaces, they squatted in clusters on the shoreline
snatching and gnawing the dozens oí tiny crustaceans that washed
up in the tide.
1hese were the last men. lad another portal not opened up at
the end oí the week, Parker coníided, he would ha·e ended his liíe
on that desolate world.
Dr. Lo·ejoy has helped me, helped Ari and me rebuild our
relationship. \ou don`t know how resentíul Ari was. It really was
as ií I a/ committed suicide.`
\e stepped o·er a lightening-scorched tree that lay across our
path and he continued. \eah, that Lo·ejoy, she`s something
short oí a miracle worker. She pulled me out oí the post-portal
íunk talking to me and getting me on the right meds. A
tremendous help. 1hat and a lot oí prayer.`
I hoped he wasn`t going to goad me into a religious talk. le
was a practicing Muslim, though he ne·er seemed all that de·out.
\ell, prayer,` I said. I guess that can help.`
Oí course.` le smiled. But Lo·ejoy`s helped more, I`d ha·e
to say. Only a month ago, Ari was ready to di·orce me.`
Lo·ejoy·` I took oíí my cap and wiped the sweat írom my
now bald head. L·e Lo·ejoy here in town·`
\es,` he said. 1hat`s her. L·e.`
L·e`s my therapist, too.`
She`s an expert on jumpers, you know·`
\eird, though, we`re seeing the same person.` I opened my
water bottle and took a swig.
\e had walked a mile when we came to a limestone ledge that
o·erlooked the lake. It was starting to get hot and we were both
sweating. Below us a guy was in his boat, íishing.
Probably won`t catch much,` Parker said. 1he íish are too
I nodded. 1he way he said it sounded like coded message in a
spy ílick. Probably not.`
I took another drink oí water and noticed the bottle was about
\e stepped back on the trail. \e walked a íew yards and I
said, \ou e·er think it`s odd no portals ha·e opened íor about
íour years now·`
I thank God they ha·en`t,` Parker said. Ií our íuture`s as
bleak as what I saw, I don`t want to go back.`
I`m with you, bud.`
lis remark made me think oí Sam, oí something Sam said
when we íirst met: the portals only oííered one ·ersion oí the
íuture, we had a choice in our íuture, ií we wanted to choose.
Parker and I walked careíully o·er some jagged limestone
outcroppings that reminded me oí bleached longhorn skulls. Once
past those outcroppings, the trail opened into a clearing dotted
with prickly pear cactus and my bladder pinched me with the urge
I took oíí through the clearing into a thick, brambly cedar
brake and Parker headed up the trail a little ways so I could ha·e a
little pri·acy while I took a leak.
1hunderheads were, oddly enough, building up southwest oí
the lake, and as much as we needed the rain, I didn`t want to cut
the hike short. It was nice talking to Parker. le understood all oí
the craziness that went on with jumping, e·en better sometimes
I zipped up and liíted my pack onto my shoulders. I turned to
head back toward the clearing and realized I íelt a little
disoriented, a little dizzy.
I took a sip oí water, hoping that would clear my head, which it
did, at least I íelt less dizzy. I was aíraid I was getting dehydrated
again, like I did last month, when a park ranger just happened to
íind me in a heap at the trailhead.
I set out again, and when, aíter a minute or so oí walking, I
hadn`t come out to the clearing, I realized I had gone the wrong
Ishmael,` I called out. \ou there, man!`
No answer. luck. It was my own damn íault. I had been
caught up sorting out, íor the millioneth time my whole
experience on the other side. My latest theory was that Sam had
set me up, had come up with an elaborate scheme so he could get
Kara back. lrom the moment we boarded the train. 1hey had all
collaborated. 1ran, Delilah, Rachel, Gomez. All Gomez had
wanted was a new recruit into his resistance mo·ement. No one
had any idea what Sam was up to, or the lengths he would take to
kidnap Kara íor himselí.
Always it seemed to go back to Kara. \hy· \hat was it about
that woman· \hat made her so important·
Aíter another long drink oí water, I cut along what seemed like
an actual trail, a side path that I hoped would lead me back to the
main trail and Ishmael.
I called out íor him once again. No answer.
I kept to this path until it merged into a thick bramble that I
wasn`t about to bull through. My next option was to íollow a dry
creek bed below the path. I climbed down into the creek bed
almost certain this creek, when there was water, spilled into the
spring at Crockett Garden.
Crockett Garden was our turnaround point íor the day`s hike.
A short hike, less than two miles one-way, but the temp was
clearly climbing, e·en with the thunderheads gathering. So,
Crockett Garden. I had to be near our goal and hoped Ishmael
was there cooling his íeet in the cold spring water.
Sweat stung my eyes as I blundered along the creek bed until a
huge íallen li·e oak blocked my path. I scrambled up the banks,
and íound myselí on a new trail and I swear I heard the trickle oí
water. 1he spring had to be nearby.
I wiped my eyes clear oí sweat and íinished oíí the third liter oí
water. I íelt compelled to run, ecstatic that I really hadn`t been all
I ran, smashing through bramble until a gray limb snagged my
shirt slee·e and twisted me to one side, I lost my momentum and
íell. I sat up, brushed at my dirt-caked arms. 1ried to stand,
wobbled, and again dropped to my haunches. My temples hurt, a
dull ache, I was cotton-mouthed.
I sat still, listening to a thrum in my ears, as ií water were
rushing through the ear canal. 1o my right, something seemed to
mo·e. I tried to call out-Ishmael`-but my throat constricted.
1he throat constriction, the dull throb in my head. 1hese pains
seemed ·aguely íamiliar.
Another drink oí water. Soothed my throat. I had cooled
down, regained some oí my strength. I stood, then started
mo·ing. 1he trail again had disappeared. But I kept walking. Kept
hearing water nearby.
My íeet seemed dull and hea·y, the ground underneath them
seemed to shiít the íurther I walked. At one point, it seemed the
trees disappeared completely and it íelt as ií I were walking
I passed that sensation oíí to the beginnings oí dehydration. I
had a liter oí water leít. I was rationing it, or trying to ration it, I
didn`t know how íar I was írom the spring.
Maybe I was beginning to hallucinate.
Something seemed to mo·e past me. Still, I kept going. Spindly
gray branches tugged at my shirt, scraped my arms, cracked and
snapped as I broke through them.
I would stop e·ery twenty or thirty íeet, wet my lips, suck in
lungíuls oí air and then go on. 1he sensation I was plodding
through sand grew, but when I looked down, all I saw was the
loamy brown mulch that littered the ground.
I rubbed the back oí my neck where the sun was burning it and
looked up to see the sunlight dappling through the branches but
exactly where the sun was in the sky, I had no idea.
No compass, and the phone had discharged. Molly would be
pissed I let that happen.
I called out again. A whispery Ishmael` oozed írom my
throat. No way anybody could`·e heard that.
I saw no landmarks. My legs began to wobble as I searched íor
something íamiliar. I grabbed a narrow tree trunk, steadied myselí.
My headache had worsened. Clearly dehydrated. Dehydrating.
I lowered myselí on a brackish pile oí brown lea·es, took a
long gulp írom the water bottle. 1hen a short sip. 1hen another
gulp. And drained the bottle.
\ell, that`s it then, I thought. lad to íind the trail this time. I
took another deep breath and lowered my head, as ií I were about
to pray, and said to myselí, Molly, I`m sorry.`
I wished my phone hadn`t discharged. I would call Molly, let
her know I was dehydrating and tell her I was sorry I had gotten
lost and o·erheated.
Mo·ement through the branches startled me out oí the prayer
to Molly. I slung my pack o·er my shoulder and scrambled to my
Aíter a íew steps, I stumbled, the toe oí my boot snagging
something, a rock, twisting my ankle. lrom somewhere, thunder
rumbled. I was íalling.
I ílung my arms out to break my íall, and the last thought
beíore blackness came was that I was going to die.
1he blackness liíted. My head throbbed. Keeping my eyes
closed, I roll on my back. Dirt, dust, sand, something clung to my
Lyes opened and caught a shadow. A íigure. Ishmael· Or was
it human· Maybe it was a wolí come hoping I was an easy lunch.
Lay still.` It was Ishmael, kneeling beside me, his hand on my
My eyes were too bleary to make him out íully. But it was
Ishmael. le then stood, a silhouette against a creamsicle sunset, a
dusty scrim around him.
lelp`s on the way,` he said. le knelt again. 1his time talking
into a huge handheld recei·er. Gi·ing coordinates oí some kind.
\eird, I thought.
Sorry I had to do that to you buddy,` he said. \ou`ll be íine.
\ou`re really dehydrated. But we had to get you here somehow.`
lere· Oh, please don`t tell me, I thought. Not a jump. Please,
God, not a jump.
C¬AP1LR 10: MAR3 2112
Men came up to me, men in military uniíorms, oli·e drab,
something circa 1-, smudged with dirt and grime. 1hey
worked quickly to set up an IV, and I was too weak to íight them
on it. I let them prick my arm, attach me to it. Despite their
uniíorms, they could ha·e been LM1s, my eyesight wasn`t exactly
clear at the time.
Once the IV was in, the men heíted me on a litter and carried
me to a squat oli·e drab truck, not an ambulance oí any sort. A
utility truck, a gray-green can·as o·er the bed. 1he men lay me
careíully in the bed. Already the IV seemed to be working. My
headache was beginning to recede.
1hat didn`t comíort me. 1hese men were taking me
somewhere I probably didn`t want to go. I knew this much, I was
not in 1exas anymore.
Red dust, like I had ne·er seen beíore, blew around us and into
the bed beíore the men tied the can·as shut. lor a moment I
entertained the absurd íantasy Ishmael had taken me hostage in
some al Qaeda plot, but probably that wasn`t true. Probably, ií we
had jumped, we were somewhere outside oí Austex, maybe near
the Old City, and the red dust was perhaps the haze that browned-
out the sky abo·e that city.
I was going into that hell again, then· \ould I see Gomez·
Maybe Gomez had ordered me íound to shoot me íor killing one
operati·e and getting another killed·
I didn`t ha·e time to think about it. 1he men strapped me to
the litter and strapped the litter to the truck`s bed, and the truck
rumbled to liíe. Diesel engines and a truck in a time oí ílying cars·
1he truck lurched íorward. I craned my neck. 1he toe oí
Ishmael`s hiking boot was an inch or so írom my íorehead and
Ishmael smiled at me, he sat on a narrow railing attached to the
Ishmael,` my ·oice croaked. \hy·`
ley, don`t sweat it, my íriend. \ou`re going to be okay.
I looked up at the can·as that co·ered us and closed my eyes
and íelt the truck rattle underneath my back. 1here wasn`t
anything to do but wait íor the ride to end and hope someone,
preíerably Ishmael, could tell me just what the hell was going on.
Still, I hated all the secrecy that entailed these portal jumps. All the
agendas people seemed to ha·e concerning me and keeping me in
the dark about them until I was ready, in their ·iew, to be told
their ·ersion oí the truth.
I wasn`t sure how long oí a trip we`d taken. At moments I
must ha·e dozed oíí or maybe e·en passed out and nothing about
the trip seemed coherent, e·en as my headache dulled and I could
think with some clarity.
As the truck jostled us along, I tried to make a narrati·e oí this,
but couldn`t. All I could come up with was that íor a moment I
became lost in the bramble oí the 1exas lill Country and crashed
out dehydrated, only to wake up, a good íriend helping me, and
then we`re being dri·en in a truck through some unknown dusty
1hen the truck stopped, its brakes squealing, and jolted all oí
us in the back, and medics, íollowed by Ishmael, carted me oíí the
truck and into a squat, rectangular whitewashed adobe building.
Inside the air conditioned building, which must`·e been an
iníirmary, the medics unhooked the IV and unstrapped me írom
the litter and lay me on a narrow, but comíortable cot. Ishmael sat
on a cot next to mine and swabbed a damp, minty sponge o·er my
parched lips, and let water trickle down my throat.
\e`ll get you some water in a minute and something to wash
with,` he said. \hen you`re able and rested you can shower.`
1hanks.` I tried to sit up, but was still a little shaky.
I guess you íigured out we`re nowhere near the lake, right·`
le chuckled and smiled as ií I were supposed to appreciate his
little joke. And you`·e probably íigured out we made another
I wasn`t really sure.` It was hard to talk, my throat was still
\ait, let me get you something, some water.` Ishmael stood
and walked away írom me, heading out oí the room and
disappearing down a hallway.
1he room was small, three other cots besides mine, each set up
with monitors and IVs. A doorway opened to a hall that Ishmael
was coming through carrying a tray with a glass and a pitcher oí
I drank the water greedily
No so íast, you`ll get sick,` Ishmael said. Can`t ha·e you
I wiped my mouth. Oh god that was good.`
I`ll bet.` le smiled. 1hat jump took a lot out oí you.`
low can you stand there and talk so calmly, Ishmael· \e`·e
just jumped again!` L·en aíter drinking the water my throat íelt
strained. I know you can`t be happy about it. Not aíter the
nightmare you íound waiting íor you on the other side.`
\eah, that.` le stroked his chin contemplati·ely. I may ha·e
íudged a íew details here and there. All with good reason.`
ludged a íew details·`
Um, yeah. I`m surprised you didn`t pick up on that. I plucked
the world`s end details írom a science íiction no·el. Spiced it up
I guess I ne·er read that one.` I took another drink oí water.
\ith the water and the IV, I was íeeling less weak.
\ou probably should, it`s a classic.` lrom his backpack, he
took out the large handheld recei·er I`d seen him use earlier. But
we can talk literature later.` le clicked the recei·er. ley, he`s
back among the li·ing.`
Great,` a woman`s ·oice said through the handheld. See you
guys in a bit. \ou get him caught up·`
Not yet. Getting to it though,` Ishmael said.
le clicked oíí. Actually, I`·e íudged a lot oí details oí my
portal journey, man. Guess it`s time to come clean.`
low much·` I said. And why should I belie·e you now.`
\ou don`t ha·e to belie·e anything I say,` he said. Actually, I
could see why you wouldn`t. But we did it all íor the training.`
\eah, training.` le poured water into my glass and picked the
glass up to drink. Mind·`
I don`t think I ha·e any social diseases,` I said. And why
would I tell you, ií I did·`
le took a sip, cleared his throat. Right. Good one.`
One oí the medics írom the truck looked in on us, asked ií I
was doing all right. Ishmael said I was doing íine and that he was
just íilling me in on the details.
Anyway, as I was saying, my whole story was pretty much
\hat was true about it·`
1hat I jumped.`
1hat`s all· \ou jumped·`
le shrugged, took another sip oí water. I jumped. And not
írom the Bridal Veil at \osemite.`
lrom here. lrom Mars. Did it on my own. My íirst solo
actually. Not too bad.`
\e`re on Mars·`
\e jumped írom 1exas to Mars·`
In some ways, it`s not that big oí leap.` le chuckled. But
yeah. About three or íour years ago, I jumped írom here to Seattle
to catch up to Ari.`
1o Ari· 1o your wiíe·`
\eah, yeah.` le smiled at the thought oí her. She made it
o·er beíore me. She was assigned to Lily`s case.`
Lily· 1he woman who shot up my house· 1hat Lily·`
\eah. 1hat was uníortunate. A little o·erzealous.`
O·erzealous· I`d say so.`
\ou really don`t know how dangerous your doppel is.
Doppel· \ou mean Sam·`
\eah, yeah. le was dangerous. Deluded.`
\eah, you did a ía·or to us all on that.` le emptied the
pitcher into the glass. I should ha·e brought more water.` le
shrugged. Anyhow, yeah, Sam. \ou got him. Shot him dead. I
know you`·e worried about it íor a long time. And honestly there
was nothing to worry about. 1hey had screwed him up pretty
\ou knew·` I said. \ou knew about Sam all this íucking
time.` I clenched my íist, almost jerking the IV out.
\e all knew.` A woman appeared in the doorway. Dr.
Lo·ejoy. And we`re sorry we had to lie to you like we ha·e,
I rubbed my arm where the needle had pulled at my skin and
looked up at the woman who had been my therapist íor íour
years. Lxcept this wasn`t really the same woman. Same íace, same
build, yes. But not the doctor I knew. Gone were the shoulder
length blond hair, and the cheery white- and ·arying-shades oí
gold suits she wore as she took notes on my case. Gone was Dr.
L·elyn L. Lo·ejoy. In her place was spiky-haired, oli·e-drab
uniíorm wearing Lily. 1he woman who assaulted my home with
her hand cannon, nearly killing me and my wiíe. 1he woman who
denied her own existence to me íor íour years.
I rose írom the bed, íace ílushed with rage. 1he needle tore
írom my skin. Ishmael took a deíensi·e position between us. I
glanced at his hands íor a moment, íully expecting a palms-up
\ou,` I snarled.
I understand your anger, Van,` Lily said, calmly. I really do.`
I scuííled with Ishmael, trying to get to Lily. Ishmael was
younger, stronger, probably trained to íight. le caught me in a
hold, strained to subdue me. Please . . . just . . .` le wrestled me
to the ground. . . . listen, Van.` le spit out his breaths as he
I surged, tried to push him oíí me, but collapsed against the
hard cement underneath us.
Van, I`m sorry,` Lily said. I really am. \ou ha·e my
apologies. \ou ha·e V-¯`s sincerest apologies.`
Ishmael pressed hea·ily against me. lor all the military look, he
was out oí shape and huííing and puííing, straining to hold me.
And I might ha·e been able to push him oíí, except I was still
pretty zapped írom the dehydration. I scrambled to my íeet, but
couldn`t get away.
Izz, let him up.`
1he pressure on my back went away. I lay on the ground
staring up at them both.
Ishmael held out his hand. I took it and he pulled me up.
\hy don`t we go into my oííice and talk·` Lily said.
Resistance was useless, I supposed. I went along with them, I
guess I could ha·e run, they made no eííort to guard me, but they
knew as well as I did I couldn`t go anywhere. \hat was I going to
do· Steal a truck· 1ake a joyride around Mars·
\e leít the iníirmary and walked out across a hardscrabble
cracked, rusty patch oí dirt or sand, I wasn`t sure, exactly, what to
call the suríace material oí an alien planet, e·en ií that alien planet
was in our solar system and had been made habitable through
terraíorming. lrom e·erything I remembered oí Gomez`s
descriptions oí Mars, as we walked the grounds to Lily`s oííice, we
weren`t in Gomez`s paradise, although there was blue sky abo·e
us, not brown like the blight-scarred Larth I`d been to.
Lily`s oííice, ií you could call it that, was one oí se·eral
reiníorced tents scattered about the barren landscape. She untied
the ílap and let us in. It was cramped: a desk, some íolding chairs
and a cot in corner.
Ah, home.` She looked back at both me and Ishmael and
\ou`·e been here a while, then,` I said. I sat in one oí the
can·as chairs and laughed a ner·ous laugh as ií I were on a job
A month, maybe more,` she said. She stepped around the
desk and sat.
\ou can jump, too·`
Not without help.` She smoothed back her short hair and
nodded at Ishmael.
Anyone who`s had contact with the machines can jump on
their own. Anyone else, like Lily here, needs help,` Ishmael said.
le sunk down in the can·as chair, clasped his hands behind his
1he machines·` I shi·ered. I waited íor my head to throb and
a chorus oí crickets to erupt in my skull. \hen they didn`t, I
glared at Lily. \ou told me the machines weren`t real. 1hat the
portals were just an anomaly.`
Van, I know. I told you a lot oí things. I had to. \ou wouldn`t
ha·e been able to jump on your own ií I hadn`t.`
I-uh-I sort oí . . . brainwashed you.`
Pressure rose írom my chest, not like chest pain, but rage
pushing up into my íace, tensing my jaws, contorting my íace into
a snarl. Brainwashed·`
lor lack oí a better term.`
I reached íor her, íor her pale neck. She parried me, slapped
my hands to the desktop.
Van, you ha·e e·ery right to be angry,` she said, but you
ha·e to trust us, it was meant to help you. I know you know the
machines are dangerous. Maybe e·en psychotic. Ií I recall
correctly, they somehow physically assaulted you, almost killed
I remembered the banshee screech, my eyes spangling, my
nose bleeding. I looked down at my hands. 1hey were trembling.
Lily reached back into a metal íile cabinet, opened a drawer,
brought out a pint bottle oí whiskey or its Martian equi·alent.
lere.` She poured whiskey into a tumbler. I know it`s cliché,
but it does take the edge oíí when you don`t ha·e antidepressants
I took a sip oí the drink, swirling it around my mouth beíore
swallowing. I ne·er liked whiskey much, the drink was harsh and
smoky, but soothing.
Okay, resistance is useless,` I said. I took the pint bottle and
poured two íingers into the tumbler. Please just explain.`
\e thought ií you íorgot the machines, denied their existence,
they might, just might stay away íor good. \e did the same thing
with Ishmael and he hasn`t had any experience with them íor
more than a decade.`
1hey`re part oí Ishmael, too·`
Van, I-I created them,` Ishmael said.
Oh . . . really·` I steepled my hands together.
It`s true, brother.`
le claimed to ha·e work íor a tri-d game company, Aram, the
Lords oí Illusion, in their soítware engineering department.
liíteen years ago in this time-írame. People were beginning to
reco·er írom the blight, but it was tough. 1hey sought out
entertainment, sort oí like they had in the Great Depression and
Aram was one oí the most inno·ati·e tri-d game companies out
there. 1heir games were lauded íor their reality.
Long story short, I was right out oí college, and a new hire
and Aram ga·e me a big big project. A career maker. Or breaker.
Design a ·irtual suit, something that would allow you to actually
in·ol·e your senses-all íi·e, hearing, touch, sight, taste, e·en
smell-and integrate all your senses into the game.`
It worked·` I asked. 1hese were the machines·`
No, no. Not at all. 1he suit was okay, but nothing mind
stretching, and nothing that couldn`t be duplicated by any number
oí game companies. \e just didn`t ha·e enough money to íulíill
our ambitions. \ant to take a guess who did·`
I eyed Lily. It was V-¯, oí course. 1hey bought out Aram,
absorbed it into the ·ast structure oí companies and corporations
that made up V-¯`s inírastructure.
People like Ishmael were pulled out oí game design and
assigned to deíense R&D, and the gaming suits were heard írom
no more. Because oí his experience with the nanotech required to
design the gaming suit, howe·er, Ishmael and his design team
were assigned to another suit design project, a suit that used nano-
sized prisms to make the wearer almost 100 percent in·isible,
períect camouílage. Lxcept it didn`t work. \as ne·er meant to
work. V-¯ just pilíered the research íunds írom D.C. íor another
experiment, a diííerent suit.
As Ishmael talked, images íilled my mind: the sheen oí a sil·er
suit, something like medie·al chainmail, as someone named Sam
hauls it írom a storage closet . . . 1his was a story I knew, or some
oí it. Or my doppel knew. Beíore I became him.
More images íilled my mind: A bar. Men`s room, the usual
soggy cigarette clinging to a urinal cake. Sam, my íriend, shaking
himselí oíí, zipping up. A hand, my hand, reaching up around his
neck, muííling his mouth, as another hand jams a kniíe in his
kidneys, and then steals his wallet, his identity . . .
Jesus . . .` I shuddered, slammed the tumbler against the desk.
Lily and Ishmael started.
I killed him.`
Sam·` Ishmael said. It`s okay. \ou did us all a ía·or. le was
a pawn oí the machines. By the time you shot him, he could
barely think íor himselí.`
I shook my head. No, not that Sam. 1he guy I worked with.`
Lily reíilled my drink. No, Van, not you. \ou didn`t stab
Samuel Banks. 1hat was your doppel. Acting under the iníluence
oí the machines.`
\ou know about that·`
I didn`t at the time it happened, no,` she said. Learned about
it later, írom Ari.` She smiled at Ishmael. Uníortunately long
aíter we realized there were two oí you.` She poured a three or
íour íinger drink íor herselí. Ugh, that was a pretty coníusing
time. No one really knew what happened to your doppel at all. \e
thought he had disappeared through the portal. Lscaped with our
property or what our property had become, I guess.` She took a
I sipped the whiskey. I was getting used to the taste and was
glad I had it. At least a buzz was íamiliar, something I understood.
I still can`t belie·e what I did to you and your wiíe.` She
looked at me with real remorse. ler ·oice was beginning to edge
with tears. I let my personal íeelings against Van taint my duties.
1he gun was just íor personal saíety. Not to be used. Unless I was
threatened.` Another drink. 1he glass was emptied. It was ·ery
unproíessional oí me.`
1his was either a sincere apology or an attempt to pull me in
with lies. Lither way, I was stuck here. I poured another drink, the
last oí the pint.
Lily stood, leaned íorward, bracing herselí on the desktop, and
stared at Ishmael. I can`t do this to him, Izz. \e brought him
here against his will. Separated him írom Molly.`
\ou`re drunk,` Ishmael said.
She glanced at the empty tumblers and empty bottle. \ou
watched us drink. So what· 1hat doesn`t justiíy us playing God.`
\ou`re not thinking clearly.`
She swayed. Ishmael stood, steadied her.
Drunk or sober, we ha·en`t been thinking clearly. \e`re doing
exactly what the machines are doing. \hat V-¯ has done íor more
than a century. Playing God. Manipulating people`s li·es íor their
own purposes. Anyone, you know, can play God, Izz. But it`s
play, you know. Because all you do is play God. Manipulate li·es
or ílies or something like that. lorce them to your will. 1o bend
to your will and not act on their own. \hen it should be íree to
íollow rather than coerce.`
1wo-bit drunk philosophy,` Ishmael sneered.
Ií you could just tell me what`s going on here, what your
purpose in bringing me here is, maybe I can decide whether I
want to stay or not,` I broke in. Maybe I was drunk, too.
Listen to him Lily,` Ishmael said.
She broke away írom him. ler eyes were shining. \e can íind
a way, another way to break through to the boy.`
low· Lxplain that, Lily·`
She walked around the desk, away írom both me and Ishmael
toward her cot. \ou`re too committed to this operation, Ishmael.
1oo close to the boy.` Squatting, she rummaged under the bed
and yanked up another bottle oí whiskey. Ah, good.` She held
the bottle up to me, raised her eyebrows. More·`
Ah, what the hell.` I held out my tumbler and she walked
o·er and poured me a drink.
She then ga·e Ishmael a hardened glance. \ou`re too close.
It`s clouded your thinking, Izz. So much so you preíected Van
here, with your wayward hitchhiker`s thumb-a course set íor the
end oí the uni·erse, I imagine-thinking you could íool the child
into accepting that he`s Sam. le didn`t e·en know Sam.`
1hat`s what doesn`t make sense. I was the only íather he
knew.` Ishmael looked pensi·ely at Lily. And dear, my dear,
that`s downright poetic. \ayward hitchiker`s thumb.` I like that,
though it doesn`t mean a thing.`
I keep telling you I might help,` I said. I will help, ií you`ll
explain to me what`s going on.`
Ií you`ll help, then yes we`ll gi·e you the backstory,` Ishmael
said. \ou`ll want backstory.` le stepped o·er to Lily, who was
liíting the bottle, making it bubble.
I wished I could see through it to her pain. \hy did she hurt
\es, backstory,` Lily said. She stood up, wobbled. But where
to begin·` She swayed. Ishmael caught her. 1he bottle gurgled.
A ílash oí heat spread under my jaw. I shook my head.
\atched this woman sway, watched her ha·e to ha·e someone
else support her. 1his woman who shot up my house. Almost
killed Molly. I couldn`t íorget that, yet, I also didn`t understand at
that moment how I could ha·e e·er íelt threatened by this
woman. She was or was acting like a drunk. Maybe I had residual
connections to my doppel, and íelt what e·er íear or hatred or
what-ha·e-you Sam íelt toward her· Oí course, ií Lily really were
a drunk, that didn`t mean she was harmless.
I`ll tell him,` Ishmael said. le steadied Lily, walked her back
to the cot. le looked at me aíter he got her settled. Lily was
Go·ernor Kindred`s top aide. Not just V-¯. le had help with that.
But the machines. le`s the one who had them created. \ho had
me create them. 1hat suit your doppel stole, it was meant íor
Kindred the whole time.
Designed íor him personally as a way to reconnect with his
íather. Kindred li·ed in his íather`s shadow all his liíe. And he
couldn`t let him go. 1he suit enabled him to recreate any moment,
e·en the man`s last hours.` Ishmael halí-acknowledged me an
kept tending to Lily. \ou`re well aware how the machines can
recreate memories· Bring them to liíe, e·en, so to speak·`
I set my halí-empty drink on the desktop. Brieíly the image oí
a photo oí Molly in íourth grade popped into my head.
1his was a joke, I thought. It had to be. 1his story was more
coníusing, more outrageous than anything concocted by Sam or
Gomez or e·en Rachel to get me to join their little re·olution.
\hy was the truth so elusi·e· I stood, I wanted to get out, away
írom all the coníusion. 1his cramped tent, these insane people,
ga·e me claustrophobia. But there was no way out, not yet.
I need to pee,` Lily said.
I would go anyway, get out oí there. I untied the tent. 1he ílaps
whipped and lashed as a wind kicked up Martian dust.
Lily stumbled into me. Pushed me aside, crawled a íew íeet
through the dust, against the wind.
1he wind howled. Lily squatted, unzipped her oli·e drab pants.
Ishmael went out and I íollowed aíter. lelt the blunt push oí
the wind, shaded my íace against the dust.
Abo·e us two aircycles twisted and jerked in the wind. Used
their thrusters to stabilize their descent, their riders approaching
us aíter they landed.
Ishmael walked toward them, leaning against the wind. 1he
riders did not ílip the ·isors oí their helmets up, so I could not see
Lily was spraying piss all o·er the Martian dust.
1his was an asylum, I thought. It had to be.
I tried to listen in and caught íractions oí their con·ersation.
Something about a boy. 1hat the boy had been mo·ed.
I gathered, through all the coníusion, that another rescue
mission was in store. \ho would I shoot and kill this time.
Lily gathered her pants up and swayed back to the tent.
I walked up closer to Ishmael and the riders. One oí the riders
nodded at me. 1he wind raked rust-oxide dust across my íace,
stinging my eyes.
Is he the one·` the ·isored-man on the leít said.
Ishmael looked back at me and then turned to the man and
\ou aren`t suited up·` the other man asked Ishmael.
1he air had grown íoul, like sweaty armpits, as the dust and
wind picked up.
Ishmael shrugged. \e thought we would be done by now.
But Lily`s on one oí her moral drunks.`
1he larger oí the helmeted men, the one who had asked the
question, said, Again· She has a serious problem, you know.`
\ou`·e got to do something about her,` the other said. She`s
a hazard to you and maybe to the boy.`
Ishmael shook his head. No need to get excited, Rob. She`s
much more ·aluable than we e·er thought. I owe her, too. Plus
1he one Ishmael called Rob` shook his head. I`ll ne·er get
you, man. I know you`re ex-1erran and all but, yeah. . .`
Ishmael grinned. \ou lo·e who you lo·e, Rob, and Lily`s as
much part oí my íamily as Kara or Garrison. She lo·es my wiíe
and I lo·e her.`
I don`t know man. It`s all a little hincty to me. Lspecially now
you`re Martian. \ou ought to just keep Ari and íorget all the rest.
1he other two are nothing but trouble.`
Rob`s companion spoke up, \omen, shit.`
Rob glanced at his partner. Shut up old queer.`
luck you, man,` Rob`s íriend said.
A roaring came into my ears, it was getting hard to breathe the
íoul air. I co·ered my mouth and nose. 1he inside oí my nose was
caked with the blood-red dust. larder and harder to breathe.
\ou would lo·e that, wouldn`t you Matt·` Rob told his
íriend. \ou need re-education.`
Matt shook his head. le was looking o·er toward their cycle.
Dust had co·ered the skids. 1hink we need to get out.`
Rob nodded. Okay man-` he extended his hand to
Ishmael-the old queer`s right. \e already ha·e a clogged
thruster on that machine. But that`s the sitrep on the boy.`
I was coughing, shading my eyes against the dust. 1he roaring
in my ears was growing more distinct. Like some insect.
O, 1av, r0`r0 bac/.
My head pounded. Crickets chirruped.
.v/ i9`. 9iv0 9o .0v/ ,ov ara,. Or ,ov` fvc/ 0r0r,9ivg v¡ agaiv.
1hrough e·er-blurring ·ision, I saw Ishmael shake Rob`s hand.
lot íiery pains shot up into my knees. I crumpled into the dust. I
couldn`t go away now, I didn`t know the íull story. 1ears welled in
Looks like you need to get e·erybody suited up,` Rob said to
Ishmael. It`s Martian summer aíter all.`
Ishmael looked at me. Oh shit!`
Cov0 ov, 1av, /ov`9 r0.i.9 i9. í9` go 0a.i0r ov ,ov if ,ov /ov`9 r0.i.9.
No don`t!` I screamed.
Ishmael rushed o·er to me. Grabbed me under my arms.
Please, no,` I pleaded with the machines. I want to know the
story oí this child.` I was sobbing. L·erything was spinning.
Something was tugging at me.
C¬AP1LR 11: 1LRRA 2025, BLl0RL 1¬L BLl0¬1
My head throbbed like a hango·er. It was early in the morning,
ií I could trust the strips oí sunlight coming through the blinds,
and I was lying íacedown on a bed I assumed was mine. 1he date,
according to a desk calendar on the bedside table: August 1,
05. I wasn`t sure whether that was yesterday or today or a
month ago. I wasn`t sure oí anything, except íor the ra·enous
headache that seemed to ha·e eaten its way írom my temples
down into my neck.
My best guess: I had awakened in my bed aíter passing out
írom a night oí partying. \ho I had been out with or where I`d
been, couldn`t tell you. I was so slammed I couldn`t remember
how I got home or my name.
1he name part . . . well . . . the short man with black-rimmed
plastic írames who knocked at the íront door a íew minutes aíter I
had awakened seemed to know my name.
Mmmm.` I nodded. 1he sunlight glared and I shaded my eyes
against it. I caught a glimpse oí his íace, a jagged scar bolted írom
the corner oí his mouth up the right side oí his cheek. le looked
like a comic-book ·illain without the white makeup or green hair.
\ou`re looking rough, man.` le spoke with a crusty drawl.
lungo·er.` I smiled and tried not to stare.
le lit a cigarette.
\ou know, too much to drink on a lriday night. \ake up
íeeling like shit Saturday morning.`
Saturday· Man, you are íucked up. It`s 1hursday. And 1racy`s
in a red-íaced rage. le sent me to íind you. le`s about to íire
your ass, ií you don`t show up like yesterday.`
Oh great, I thought. I wake up hungo·er, not knowing where I
am, or really who I am íor that matter, and suddenly I íind out I`m
going to lose my job, because I`·e also somehow lost track oí
almost a week oí my liíe.
1hursday·` My head hurt behind my eyes, it wasn`t quite a
hango·er headache and my eyes seemed unusually sensiti·e to
light. 1here was a pair oí shades on the dresser drawer next to the
bed and I let the man in so I could get them. lold on.`
1he man ílicked his cigarette out on the porch and came in and
I got the shades.
Damn, you must be really bad,` the man said írom the li·ing
I tried to brush out the wrinkles on my shirt as I walked into
the li·ing room. 1here were wine glasses, and empty bottles oí
wine on the coííee table. lad I drunk them all· 1o ha·e this
ungodly bitch oí a hango·er, I must ha·e.
1he man grinned, it was sort oí creepy the way the scar on his
cheek seemed to mock me. Anyhow,` he said, whate·er you did
to yourselí doesn`t matter. \hat matters is that ií you come with
me now . . . well . . . I told 1racy I`d go looking íor you and he
ga·e you the beneíit oí the doubt and thought you might be too
sick or too dead to come in. Anyhow, ií you come in now, I`m
pretty sure your job will be saíe.`
I nodded, decided to play along. Maybe somehow I could íind
out something about myselí. Um, yeah.` Something sticky was
irritating the corner oí my mouth. I wiped my hand o·er it and a
substance like clear gel was stuck to my knuckle.
\ou might want to tell him you`·e been sick. Delirious with
íe·er and should`·e been at the hospital. \ou look like death
warmed o·er, as they say.`
1hanks.` I made an eííort to smile.
I heard what I thought was a cricket chirrup but it may ha·e
been a ·oice. !0 9iv/ r0 .ov/ ar0 ;v.9 /i0/ iv off av/ 0v/0/ 90
ro0 9ivg. !0 .ov/ ar0 .ai/ .ov09ivg 0ari0r. ^or r0 ar0 9o 0ar0
iv b0. !0 cav`9 /i iv, vo9 iv frov9 of a ri9v0... Ma,b0 a90r. !0v 0`.
aov0, r0` 9iv/ abov9 i9. !0, r0 .ov/ /o .ov09ivg /rava9ic vor, ;v.9
9o r0viv/ iv vo9 9o fvc/ ri9 v.. !0 cav. Of covr.0, r0 ar0 9o vrr,. !0
ar0 o90r 9ivg. 9o /o r0 /vor.
Nausea knotted my stomach. I clamped my hand o·er my
mouth, tried not to puke on my íriend. Barely made it to the
1a9`. ra9 r0 ca /rava9ic. !0`r0 .i¡¡ivg v¡. í0` ;v.9 a99ribv90 9a9
9o /riv/ivg 9oo vvc. !a9 /o r0 rav9 r0 9o /o.
I lay chastened, in cool submission, cheek against the toilet
bowl, crumpled in a heap on the íloor. My íriend stood o·er me,
chuckling. \eah, Bender, I guess you pulled yourselí a good
I eyed him, ílounder-like, írom the ground. \hat·` I
Bender,` he said. A bender.` le was grinning his mocking
Oh,` I groaned.
Anyhow, we need to get out oí here.` le ran water in the
sink and I heard a cabinet door open and then a wet rag was
placed o·er my hand.
I wiped my íace and my íriend-I still didn`t know his name-
liíted me to my íeet and walked me to the bedroom. Get some
clean clothes on.`
\e liíted oíí in his aircar about twenty minutes later and
hummed through ·aguely íamiliar streets. \here we were was
either a small town or a suburb. \e passed o·er bosky
subdi·isions and a sparse traííic oí groundcars and bicycles on the
streets. In my seat I had íound a sheaí oí hardcopy newsíeeds. ,I
was realizing I was beginning to reco·er things írom my memory,
except íor who I was or what I did, but I knew what a newsíeed
was., 1he stories were bylined Sheppard Lumpkin.
Meant to tell you, I liked your last piece Sheppard,` I said.
My íriend grinned. \eah, that rainmaker`s pretty niíty.`
I scanned the headline oí the newsíeed I held in my hand and
was lucky to see Rainmaker key to terraíorming success`.
It`s amazing the people you`ll íind in the hinterlands.` le
banked the aircar to the right and we were nearing the rooítop
parking lot oí a building in a strip mall.
\ou do íind amazing people,` I said. A gaudy yellow and red
sign íor On the louse line Mexican-Chinese lusion Dining
ho·ered next to the building we were approaching. \hich made
little sense ií we worked íor a daily newsíeed, gi·en all the other
buildings in the mall were either department stores or
restaurants-and one aircar dealership.
Sheppard rotated the car`s V1OL turbines so we could
descend to the rooítop. It seemed as ií he were grinning, but with
the scar, it was hard to tell.
\eah,` he said, I liked those engineers. And they`re getting
Kindred`s endorsement and backing. 1hough that`s just to
appease the populationists.`
1he name Kindred seemed íamiliar, but when I thought about
the name, a twinge oí pain ílickered behind my right eye. Not
wanting to get sick again, and aíraid to hear the ·oices I heard just
beíore puking, I íorgot all about Kindred as we touched down on
Are we meeting 1racy here·` I pressed the button to unlatch
my door and it winged up abo·e me.
Umm,` Sheppard Lumpkin said and lit a cigarette.
Okay·` Something íell írom my pant`s leg onto the ground. I
bent to pick it up-a thin gray stylus íor an e-pad. I pocketed it
and íollowed Lumpkin to the rooítop entrance. I could smell íood
cooking below us.
A hostess greeted us at the bottom oí the steps. Lumpkin ga·e
his name to her and shortly we were taken to the cantina in back.
At one table was a group oí people who seemed ·aguely íamiliar.
1hey were smiling and I saw my íriend Lumpkin smiling, the scar
seemingly pushed up to his íorehead. lappy birthday, íriend.`
le chuckled. lad you going didn`t I·`
\eah it`s Saturday. And no, 1racy could care less what you do
Someone had ordered a margarita íor me, a big-bowled glass,
and it was in my hand and I was standing with Lumpkin in íront
oí the table oí people I ·aguely knew and they were wishing me a
I just wish I knew who they were.
I got to know them that night. I worked with most oí them,
including Lumpkin, the practical joker, at a daily newsíeed. I was
apparently an editor at the newsíeed.
\e had a good time, I guess. Ate some. Drank a lot. And I
woke up the next morning, certain only oí two things-I was
hungo·er and it was Sunday, August 1¯, 05.
I walked bareíoot o·er century-old hardwood ílooring to the
bathroom and íound a bottle oí acetaminophen, took a couple
and held onto the sink, waiting íor a moment to hear a chorus oí
crickets and murderous ·oices. But they did not come.
Aíter coííee I turned on a laptop sitting on the desk in the
bedroom because there I thought I could uníold more details oí
my liíe. I knew some things írom ID in my wallet. My name was
Van Bender and I was born August, 1, 1¯, which made me
thirty-eight years old. I was single, although I wasn`t sure ií I was
separated, di·orced or had ne·er been married. I was pretty sure I
was straight because I ·aguely remember spending time at the
party hitting on a blond íeatures writer who did later gi·e me a
birthday blowjob in the bathroom oí the bar we went to aíter
1he computer booted up slowly and automatically connected
me to the Internet. 1hings in my head started clicking, as ií my
own memory had begun to boot up slowly. I knew, íor instance,
passwords to my e-mail and opened the e-mail. 1he íirst message
in the inbox was írom someone named piratemolly¸aram.net.
1he subject line read hi`.
la·en`t heard back írom you in a couple oí days,` the
message read. Really lo·ed our chat. lope I ha·en`t turned you
Did I ha·e a girlíriend· A stalker· 1here were a couple oí more
messages írom Molly,` all apparently opened by me a íew days
earlier. Underneath that series oí messages was a message with the
subject line you ha·e recei·ed an aramnotes message írom
piratemolly01`. It was a message írom a dating ser·ice írom the
same woman. She had responded to my ad on some dating ser·ice
called Arammatch. Apparently I was single, a little desperate, but I
liked Molly`s picture and I read through all the eighty-three
messages we had exchanged o·er the course oí the week, most oí
which were getting to know each other, but some were ílirting and
1he messages were dated írom the pre·ious Saturday to
1hursday. And then the one at the top oí the inbox. \hich had
posted on the 1
, the morning I had woken up in this apartment.
1hese messages seemed signiíicant íor some reason. I decided
to write back, but I would make it personal by using the longhand
íunction on the keypad.
Using Sheppard`s stylus, I scrawled out a message, coming up
with a story, a co·er story, I guess, to explain my absence, saying
something about ha·ing to go out oí town íor a newsíeed story.
1hat I couldn`t use the company computer íor personal messages,
especially the kind we had been exchanging. Lo·e to meet you,
At the moment I sent the message, the sinuses around my eyes
began to throb. Crickets again. 1av, r0 ri. ,ov a/v`9 /ov0 9a9. !0
9o/ r0 9a9 r0 .ov/`r0 /i0/ iv. ^or r0 ar0 9o ¡vvi. ,ov, 1av.
My eyes spangled. I stumbled away írom the desk, and lay on
the bed, my head spinning as ií I had had too much to drink. ^or,
1av, r0 iv.i.9 ,ov .9o¡ ,ovr v0//ivg. Or 90 cov.06v0vc0. ri b0 /ir0.
1he bed seemed to judder as ií it were about to take ílight. I
gripped the sheets tight.
My gorge rose. ´00 or r0 cov9ro ,ov, 1av. Yov ar0 9o b0ar0 for
r0, 1av, or r0 ri ar0 9o r0.or9 9o .ov09ivg ror.0.
\ho are you!` I screamed.
I clasped my temples, íelt my nose burning and another wa·e
!0 .9o¡ r0v ,ov .9o¡.
Stop what· \hat· \hat·` I íelt as ií I had been through this
beíore. Something wet on my nostril. Blood. I pinched my nose
and tried to get out oí the bed but my íeet got tangled in the blue
comíorter and crumpled to the hardwood with a loud thump.
I groaned, Please stop.` My nose dripped blood on the íloor.
1hen as quickly as it had begun, the throbbing behind my eyes
went away. I wiped a streak oí blood írom my nose o·er my
Something about the computer, answering messages írom
Molly` had sparked the pain and ·oices. And yet I íelt compelled
to go to the computer again.
My nose stopped bleeding and I unwrapped the comíorter
írom my íeet and ankles-it had tendriled around them like a
polyester-cotton blend squid-and plodded into the bathroom to
clean myselí up. I looked into the mirror, blood-smeared íace
wearily staring back at me.
\as I going out oí my mind· Did someone or something ha·e
it in íor me· I íelt as ií I was part oí something bigger, but I didn`t
I wanted to go back to the computer again. I had a sense there
was a new message írom this woman Molly. But how could I hide
my actions írom the ·oices trying to killing me·
Jesus, I was nuts. Imagined ·oices in my head were trying to
kill me íor using my computer. I searched the medicine cabinet
íor some sort oí medication, a prescription íor some psychoacti·e
drug perhaps to stem the ·oices. Maybe I was on something and
had íorgotten to take it. Other than the acetaminophen I had
taken yesterday íor the headache, the medicine cabinet was sparse.
I shook out a couple oí the acetaminophen, thinking, hoping that
1hen I recalled a scene írom a decades-old B mo·ie in which
the characters wrapped their heads in aluminum íoil either to
recei·e or block signals írom aliens. I thought seriously íor a
moment about wrapping my head in íoil, but as you well know,
things in mo·ies don`t always work in real liíe.
I took a deep breath and walked back into the bedroom and sat
down at the computer. No ·oices, no ·oices, no ·oices, I thought
as I looked at my e-mail again and saw I was right-there was a
message írom Molly. I read it in between thinking my no ·oices
li again. Such a beautiíul note. Oh, Van, thank God we
íound you.` No ·oices, no ·oices. 1his is Molly, your wiíe.
Ishmael and Lily ha·e brought me here to Mars to see ií I could
track you down somehow.` No ·oices, no ·oices. I took a breath.
Mars· My wiíe· I glanced at my bare ring íinger. Maybe she was
crazy· A twinge oí pain. No ·oices, no ·oices.
I read on, without questioning what I read. Van, you ha·e to
go to Lords oí Illusion Games and Other 1hings at the mall. Use
the íollowing account |Sheppard Lumpkin`s debit account| and
tell the clerk you ha·e a job inter·iew and need a counter-sales
shot. 1he clerk will understand. 1he shot will help with the ·oices.
Gotta go. Lo·e you so much. Molly` A brieí twinge oí pain when
I read the name, then I said my mantra aloud and the pain went
low serious was this· And íor what purpose· I wrote down
the account number and Lumpkin`s name. \as I really going to
do this· Buy something I knew nothing about írom someone
claiming to be on Mars-which wasn`t possible, at least íor a
couple oí months-and wanting me to steal írom the only person
I íelt I knew so I could rid myselí oí ·oices I wasn`t e·en sure
existed. My nose began to burn again and then a drop oí blood
spattered on the M on the keypad.
Dov`9 /o i9, 1av. !0`r0 rarvivg ,ov. .v/ r0 v0av i9: 9i. i. ovr fiva
Another drop oí blood. I had begun to íeel dizzy, disoriented.
My secret, silent answer was, \es,` to Molly, but out loud I
repeated my mantra. No ·oices. No ·oices. No ·oices.`
And my nose stopped bleeding.
C¬AP1LR 12: 3uNUA¥, Au0u31 17, 2025
In the garage behind the apartment building was a blue
compact aircar, one I somehow knew I had just recently bought. I
backed out, and I guess I knew how to dri·e as well, and was on
my way to the mall.
I descended to rooítop parking and went to the nearest
entrance, one oí the big anchor department stores. At the
entrance a man in a black suit greeted me. May I interest you in
the latest scent írom Lauren·` he said immediately and squirted
me with a men`s cologne without my consent.
\rist itching where the cologne had hit, I tried to step by the
man. le blocked my path and seemed to recognize the irritation I
íelt as my wrist began to itch more íiercely. low do you like it·`
It itches like íucking crazy.`
le glared at me as ií I were a Neanderthal. Sir· \ou didn`t
sniíí the sample·`
I scratched my wrist. 1he spot on my wrist was still damp and
red as ií it had been sunburned. Look, I`m not really interested in
your scent today. I`m just trying to get to Aram lun and Games or
something like that. I`m not here to shop.`
le sneered at the mention oí Aram. L·eryone comes to the
mall to shop, whether they want to or not.`
I rubbed my wrist and tried to mo·e around him. le again
blocked my path. Jesus Christ, dude. I don`t want to cause a
scene, but goddamn it . . .`
Sir, I`m not going away. Ií you don`t want to cause a scene, I
suggest you sniíí the scent.`
I rolled my eyes. line.` I liíted my wrist to my nose. Caught a
whiíí oí licorice and roses and almost immediately my wrist
stopped itching and the man in black stepped away írom me and
mo·ed on to another ·ictim.
I had encounters like that all through the department store. I
was accosted either by a real sales clerk or by holos outíitting me
in ·irtual clothes that íelt like the real thing.
At the same time, as I passed up each Adidas-Lauren tie or
Ramsey-Roc íour-piece stemware set, I íelt more and more guilty
íor passing them up, until in men shoes, when a pair oí ·irtual
Nike-lahn black dress shoes made my íeet íeel as ií were walking
on íeathers, I bought that particular pair oí shoes, and the guilt
1hank you, Mr. Lumpkin,` the woman at the register said as I
was walking away with my purchase, but remember, you could
ha·e sa·ed another 15 percent opening an account with us. I hope
you won`t be disappointed.`
I nodded and smiled.
Once íinally out oí the store, away írom the gauntlet oí sales
people and holos, I checked my receipt on the shoes. 1he shoes
had been marked up an extra 15 percent at the register without my
appro·al. I shook my head. \ell, it was Lumpkin`s money.
I checked a \ou are here` directory and made my way
downstairs to Aram`s. Along the way I was bombarded with holos
oí sales and products and people trying to pull me into their
stores. Other people I passed willingly submitted to the hawkers,
buying oíten. People seemed conditioned to accept the marketing,
the boiling blood-pressure sales. 1o e·eryone else this was normal.
Normal was billboards and holostreams all along the roads to
shopping centers and malls and then e·erywhere within the stores.
People e·en had ads tattooed on them, ink and biolumenscent
dyes injected temporarily into the skin so the person was a walking
billboard. Some people, as I learned later in the trends and
liíestyles links oí our newsíeeds, were getting genetic mods that
made them permanent sales and marketing campaigns as a way to
Resistance seemed useless. Lxcept to me. 1his world, this way
oí liíe didn`t seem normal to me. I seemed to know, to remember
something diííerent, but I didn`t quite know what.
By the time I got to the Aram`s entrance, I was reciting to
myselí in a dull-witted mumble, 1aste the rainbow, sa·e 15
percent now, our íries are crispier, and Just Do It!`
I shook my head and went into the store.
As Molly`s message had directed, I íound a clerk and told him I
needed a dose oí counter-sales íor a job inter·iew. le nodded and
said, Oh yes, Sir. Can`t be spouting the competition`s great deals
while you`re trying to get a job with someone else. Ií you`ll íollow
me, I take you to our counter-sales doc.`
\e wo·e through rows oí ·ideo and tri-d screens and ·irtual
explosions bouncing against us and animated íigures talking to us
to a back room much like a doctor`s oííice with sterile white walls
and a dull gray chair.
1he doc will be with you in a íew,` the clerk said, clicking his
tongue against his teeth and lea·ing me alone in the quiet waiting
1here was nothing to read, nothing to look at, nothing trying
to sell you anything. It was a relieí.
A woman in a lab coat greeted me. \ou`re the one needing a
Job inter·iew·` She smiled.
\es,` I said.
I belie·e we can help.` She scribbled something onto an e-
pad. Ií you`ll íollow me, I will make you not íished by men.` She
grinned as she opened the door to a hallway.
I smiled soberly.
lope I didn`t oííend you.` She led me to an old-íashioned
I shook my head. No, not at all.` I stepped on the scale and
she took my weight down and measured me.
\e went into an exam room and she drew blood and came
back shortly and asked ií I needed a two-hour or daylong shot.
Um, daylong,` I said. And what ií I need some sort oí
Better do a weeklong because we just can`t gi·e this out willy-
nilly.` She prepped a hypo. Can`t ha·e the DLA and their
corporate o·erlords coming down on us íor dealing a controlled
substance,` she said. Bottom line, you know. Can`t ha·e people
making consumer decisions íor themsel·es.`
I raised my eyebrows. Right·`
Oí course a weeklong costs more,` she said. But it`s a good
just-in-case ií-when-you get a call back.` She smiled again.
I rolled up my slee·e and the hypo hissed. A slight sting, an
alcohol wipe and a little bandage, and all was right with the world,
\ou`ll íeel a little numb, perhaps a tingling sensation o·er the
body.` She tossed the hypo in a disposal marked íor sharps. And
you might want to sit there while I run your account. U.S. Plan G
I nodded. My íingers tingled, and my mouth íelt, íor a moment
as ií I had been to the dentist`s. All the numbness and tingling
went away aíter a minute or two and the doc brieíly compared the
photo on Lumpkin`s ID to my íace, raised an eyebrow because
the íaces ob·iously didn`t match, but handed the ID back to me
without any questions.
Outside in the mall, I had no desire to chase the costumes I
might wear, no desire to drink a Starbucks-lolgers cappuccino
espresso double shot with cinnamon íoam. L·erything had a dull
sheen. lolos seemed backlit with ghosts, as ií their projectors
were burning out. I íelt saíe, protected.
All my anxieties about summoning the ·oices when I opened
my e-mail were quelled as well aíter a brieí moment in which my
whole body seemed to tingle, I waited íor the ·oices, waited íor
my nose to explode, and outrageous íear to unleash itselí in my
head, but the tingling sensation brought none oí that. Instead, it
subsided and warmth and perhaps e·en lo·e spread through me as
I read the messages írom Molly with no pain and Molly began to
seem íamiliar to me. So did Ishmael and Mars. Molly`s quirks oí
·oice were in her messages, I had known them íor years. She was
my wiíe and she was in an elsewhen trying to guide me to
something or someone.
ler latest message was short, one line: Let me know ií you
were able to get the counter-sale drug.`
\es,` I wrote with the stylus and hit send. \aited íor a
moment. No ·oices entered my head.
I was relie·ed.
C¬AP1LR 13: Au0u31 2025
1he sensation oí relieí didn`t last long. I waited se·eral hours
staring at the computer screen, waited to hear írom Molly. She
Monday morning at work at the newsíeed and still hadn`t heard
írom her. 1hat day I would work some, then check my messages.
I would listen to Lumpkin íret about losing his ID and what a
hassle it was going to be to get a new one. And by the end oí the
day still no messages.
By 1uesday I couldn`t shake a nagging íeeling I`d ne·er see my
wiíe again, much less hear írom her. Nor would I see my own
world. I was also beginning to worry the ·oices, the machines-I
had reco·ered a memory about dangerous nanomachines-would
somehow o·erride the counter-sales drug beíore the week was up,
or that I would not hear írom Molly soon enough to know what I
was supposed to do and I would be ·ulnerable to attack.
Perhaps that was it. Maybe I should just let go, let the drug
wear oíí. Let the machines kill me.
It seemed I couldn`t get to my own world. And li·ing in the
one in which I was li·ing wasn`t working.
Goddamn it! Just come take me!
Lumpkin was standing at my desk, either grinning or snarling. I
started. I was aíraid it might be snarling, aíraid he might ha·e
traced all my transactions and was about to get some reckoning.
Good, let him take me out back and beat me until I`m dead.
No need to get excited,` he drawled. \ou up íor lunch·`
Um yeah.` I looked at the clock on my computer screen. It`s
about that time isn`t it·`
A little past, I suppose.` le checked his wrist, though it was
bare a watch.
1hen we`ll go.` I looked at my e-mail once more. And I`ll
buy `cause it sounds like you might be short.`
No kidding.` \e leít the oííice and went to his car. Can you
belie·e that crap· And the bank can`t do anything íor another two
days, not until their people talk to the insurance people and their
people talk to e·eryone I regularly owe money to.`
As I stepped into the car, I winced at the thought oí all the
trouble I`d caused Lumpkin, and íor what·
On the louse·` Lumpkin asked.
\orks íor me.` It seemed to be a ía·orite restaurant at the
\ou seem a little distant, oíí center,` Lumpkin said as we
made our approach to rooítop parking.
\as expecting a call and just distracted by that.`
Nature oí the beast,` he said. Kindred`s oííice has been
a·oiding me íor three days.`
On the rainmaker·` A host bot, instead oí a real person,
greeted us. It seemed coníused as it welcomed us and scanned us.
It must not ha·e liked that I didn`t seem all that interested in the
A waiter will be with you shortly Lumpkins.`
Lumpkin seemed puzzled by the host bot`s remark. 1hat was
odd, addressing us both as Lumpkin.`
Crap, I`m caught, I thought.
Must be a short circuit.` le shrugged. Oh well.` le ate a
couple oí tortilla chips with salsa. 1racy ha·e you working on any
stories íor Kindred`s Mars terraíorming and colonization rally·
I`m sure the preachers around here ha·e opinions about sending a
large immigrant population to Mars.`
Nothing yet.` I ate some chips too.
Knowing some oí those íellows myselí, I`m sure they`re
happy with Kindred wanting to get rid oí the undesirables.`
I remember seeing stories on President Kindred`s eííorts to get
Mars terraíormed and colonized. Statistically, it seemed there were
a lot oí non-white immigrant ·olunteers` on the U.S. leg oí the
mission. At e·ery íund-raising whistlestop Kindred had made
there had been protests, some ·iolent. \e were pretty certain
there would be a protest in our little town when Kindred made his
stop here next week, though our area ga·e him strong support. le
was speciíically stopping here on his campaign to meet-and-greet
with the rainmaker engineers.
\eah,` I said, probably.`
Such a shame,` Lumpkin said. 1oo much more contro·ersy
on the immigration issue and Lurope`s going to pull out.`
Like they can talk,` I said. 1hose pogroms against Muslims a
decade ago in Norway and Denmark weren`t exactly íriendly. And
there`s still mossque bombings. \hat· 1wo in London alone last
Glad I had been reading the international newsíeed while
researching this world I li·ed in íor my own sake as well as
backgrounder íor upcoming íeatures. O·erpopulation seemed to
ha·e reached a threshold. Brushíire wars on e·ery continent as
humans strained íor territory and íood. 1he Martian project
seemed to be a real hope, especially once it became clear
terraíorming was a real possibility thanks to two local engineers
who accidentally disco·ered their atmosphere con·ersion process
during experiments íor seeding artiíicial rain íor drought-stricken
\eah, most oí the screaming`s coming out oí lrance, as
usual.` le grinned. Go íigure.`
1he colony lists, though, they do seem top-hea·y with
Kindred`s going to ha·e a rough time explaining those stats
away,` Lumpkin said. But I`m sure his ílaks will spin out
something just right.`
1rue,` I said.
A ser·er bot brought our entrees.
Oh,` Lumpkin said, beíore I íorget . . .` le pulled out his e-
pad, and pulled up a message with a new stylus. . . . got this
message by mistake, I think.`
1here was a message addressed to me írom piratemolly01,
dated on Monday.
Sorry I hadn`t íorwarded it to you. All that crap with the
money has been a pain.`
\ou`re a liíesa·er, man.` I grinned and looked o·er the
message. 1here was a photo oí a woman attached. An attracti·e
redhead. 1his is the message I`·e been waiting íor.`
She is pretty hot.` Lumpkin grinned, sa·agely amused.
She` was Kara Parker. I was supposed to íind her, according
to the brieí message Molly had sent along with the picture.
Ishmael`s calculations indicate she jumped to your e·erwhen and
li·es in the same town where you dropped. Lo·e, Molly`
\ho was she· And how was I supposed to íind her and what
was I supposed to do when I íound her· Ií I did·
And ·aguely íamiliar,` Lumpkin said.
I looked up írom the e-pad. Lumpkin stirred lemon in his tea.
\ou sure·` I handed the pad to him. I guess it didn`t matter
that he looked at it, he had ob·iously seen the photo and I was
sure had read the message. low could he not ha·e· It was in his
nature to be curious.
le nodded. Oh, yeah. Now ií I could just place where.` le
ate a chip and stared pensi·ely at the photo.
As he looked the picture o·er I began to wonder how
Lumpkin had recei·ed a message intended íor me. I had thought
my computer at home was the only computer capable oí recei·ing
the messages. 1hen again, I couldn`t quite íigure out how I was
recei·ing messages through space and time and it seemed alternate
dimensions. No more certain oí that than how I got here in the
Molly, in her messages had mentioned something about jumps
and being dropped into this place. lad I been transported by
some sort oí ship, a starship· I didn`t think so. I had checked
tabloid newsíeeds íor UlO stories, but alien spacecraít sightings
were rare these days: pri·ate shuttles to the moon and military
craít on expeditions to explore the solar system with manned
missions had íilled the skies with real spacecraít.
1here must`·e been some kind oí machine or de·ice that had
propelled me through the space-time continuum and dropped me
here, on a ·ersion oí the Larth, a ·ersion dissimilar enough írom
where I had come írom to be alien.
\eah, I know her.` le tapped the pad`s screen.
\eah. She works íor Patel and loward.`
1hey part oí Kindred`s group·`
le nodded. Sort oí. 1he rainmakers.`
\eah, yeah, those guys.`
1hose guys,` Lumpkin said. \hy would you be getting a
photo oí their receptionist·`
\ou know, our achie·ements section.`
Uh-huh.` lis grin turned malicious. A photo íor
achie·ements with no copy except a message marked urgent,
telling you that you need to íind this woman· Don`t bullshit me,
Bender. \ou know better.`
I nodded. I íelt jittery, as ií my blood sugar were low. I took
se·eral quick sips oí iced tea and kept my eyes lowered toward the
cloudy, o·erbrewed liquid.
Lumpkin was right, I couldn`t bullshit him. But what could I
tell him· I only had a ·ague idea what was going on. I knew it had
to do about something with the machines in my head and Kindred
and Mars and something ·aguely apocalyptic about to happen.
I do know better,` I said. But what can I say· I don`t think
anything I would tell you would be belie·able.`
I think I`m resourceíul enough to pick out the truth,` he said.
I`ll be open-minded.`
I think you`ll think I`m crazy.`
1hat may be,` he said. le worked his íork into a soggy cheese
enchilada. But I already think that.`
I`m not sure I`m írom here.` I tried to swallow. My throat
tightened. I íelt nauseated and my armpits were sweating. lor a
moment I thought the counter-sales had worn oíí and the
machines were paying a ·isit. But the nausea passed-ner·es I
guess, gi·en I was about to coníess I was írom another, alternate
uni·erse, that I was being directed by a cabal on Mars to períorm
some sort oí mission that was going to sa·e at least one ·ersion oí
the Larth perhaps írom sinister machines and an apocalypse. As I
thought about that, e·en to myselí I sounded like a íruit and
couldn`t imagine what Lumpkin thought.
I barely knew him, he was mostly straightíorward, liked to cut
through bullshit, unless he was deli·ering a line oí it with a
practical joke. I knew he belie·ed we had worked together íor
se·eral years at the newsíeed, though I had only met him the day
he showed up on my doorstep to take me to my supposed
I knew little else, though.
lew oí us are actually írom here,` he said. le worried a
chunk oí enchilada onto his íork. Although, I seemed to recall
you went to high school south oí here.`
I may ha·e,` I said. I had slipped. I knew I had gone to a
small school south oí town, I had read my personnel íiles one day
when I went to human resources one day claiming to make a
change in my tax status.
\ou may ha·e· \ou lied on your application.`
ludged a little, I guess.`
\e all do. lell, I`·e ne·er participated in Kra· Maga, but
listing it as an outside interest helped get me the job.`
1racy thought it was cool.` le grinned.
I guess the closest way to explain it is that I`m an alien, or . . .
um . . . like an alien. I mean, I human . . . but not írom Larth . . .
um . . . not írom this ·ersion.`
le ga·e me a look, the only one I could ha·e expected-he
rolled his eyes and then looked at me as ií I had gone mental.
Sniííing glue again, Bender.` le chortled. Next you`ll say you`re
working íor a Martian cabal and are out to sa·e the planet írom
I started at his remark, dribbling tea on my shirt pocket.
Look,` he said, I`ll come clean. I know who you are. I know
who you`re working íor. I`·e known all along.`
I held my glass oí tea in íront oí me as ií it were a protecti·e
talisman. \ou`·e known all along· low could . . . why didn`t . .
Don`t get in a tizzy about it.` le calmly sipped his tea.
I`m not in a tizzy`,` I said. I`m just more coníused than e·er.
And how can I trust what you`re saying is true·`
lonestly, you can`t,` he said. But at the same time you`re
going to ha·e to place your íaith in me.`
I nodded. Um yeah.`
I think you ha·e an idea what`s at stake,` he said. Just trust
\ou`·e lied to me.`
le shrugged. \ou stole írom me.` lis grin ílashed
\ou know about that·`
I set it up. Or rather, Ishmael set it up. So you could get
counter-sales since your own accounts probably wouldn`t be
\ou know Ishmael·`
1he ser·ice bot brought out the check. I looked it o·er and slid
Lumpkin`s card in the attached reader.
\orked with him íor years.`
My head was whirling with all the iníormation I was recei·ing
or the tea was gi·ing me a serious buzz. Or worse the machines
were coming back.
I`·e been here íor about six months.` le began to get up
írom the table. Let`s go somewhere we can talk.`
\e leít the restaurant and liíted oíí heading east away írom
I`·e got a íour o`clock with Patel and loward. Guess we`ll be
early. \ou can meet Miss Parker.`
All I could do was nod my head. I couldn`t e·en manage
íormulating questions. lor all I knew Lumpkin was going to take
me out to the country, shoot me, and bury my body in a shallow
I`m on special assignment írom Ishmael regarding Kindred,`
Lumpkin said as we zipped o·er rows oí corníields, the corn
plants scorched almost white by August heat. 1hat`s all you need
to know about that. Anyhow, recei·ed a transmission about the
machines possibly ílinging you here and Ishmael asked me to
track you down.`
\hy all the subteríuge· \hy not be direct·`
\e can`t be too certain with the machines.` le banked the
car toward a gra·el road oíí the main highway. Some distance
away was a white steepled building, an old church. 1hey`·e
decei·ed us beíore, when you were reco·ering in your world.`
low so·` \e zipped up the gra·el road toward the church,
small rocks clattering against the car`s turbines. Aren`t you a little
low to the ground·`
Maybe.` le grinned. But what`s liíe without risks·` le
jumped the car up abruptly, making my stomach churn and almost
losing my enchiladas. le driíted slowly o·er the road, a little
higher than beíore. Anyhow, the machines made a poor replica
oí you. Much dumber.` le chuckled. \e íigured it out. \our
replica had no idea who your wiíe was. 1hat clued us, because
Molly is so important to you. \e íixed the problem. Still had to
abort our mission.`
\hat`s this mission· \ou íigured out how to stop the
1hat`s part oí it. \our part.`
1he car was slowing and the church was about a mile away.
\ou`ll see when you meet Kara.`
1he name again struck me as íamiliar.
I don`t suppose you can íill me in on the rest oí the mission.`
Lumpkin shook his head. \e pulled into the church`s gra·el
parking lot. 1hree other cars were listing in a humid breeze out
\e crunched across the gra·el to a side door oí the church.
Lumpkin pressed a doorbell that didn`t look as ií it had been in
working order íor years, but it let out a pained buzz nonetheless
and we could hear íootsteps behind it and then someone turning
the bolt on the lock.
And then there stood beíore us the redhead írom the message.
She shook Lumpkin`s hand and ílipped her hair away írom her
íace. Good to see you again, Sheppard.` ler ·oice was powder
soít. And who is this with you·`
Lumpkin glanced at me. May I introduce to you Van
She chuckled at Lumpkin`s íormality and stuck out her hand
íor me to shake. Mr. Bender. Kara Parker.`
I shook her hand. Pleased to meet you.`
Glad you could make it out,` she said as ií I had been
expected, and probably I had been, ií it were true I was somehow
part oí the mission to stop the machines in their plan to do
whate·er it was they were doing.
Me too,` I said. Kara was stunning, her hair caught up in a
loose bun, and wearing a rusty summer dress that caught her
cur·es just right.
\e íollowed her to her oííice and she asked us to wait while
she let Patel and loward know we were here. \e sat in íront oí
her desk. Down a short hall was a closed door, but írom behind it
came what sounded like explosions, I íigured someone-one oí
the engineers-playing ·ideo games.
Lumpkin nudged me. Pretty hot, right·`
I smiled. Um, yeah.`
I wouldn`t mind ha·ing a piece oí that.`
Me either,` I said, soítly, trying to think oí Molly.
Kara returned accompanied by a woman in a sari. 1he woman
smiled at Lumpkin. Good to see you Sheppard.`
\ould anyone like coííee or tea·` Kara said.
Lumpkin nodded. Lakshmi.` le introduced me to Ms. Patel.
So he is the one helping with Charlie·` Patel said.
Kara disappeared across the hall.
I hope so,` Lumpkin said to Patel. Gordon`s here, right· I
saw his car outside.`
Patel nodded. \ou know, playing with some equations. le`ll
be out shortly.`
I sat with arms crossed, trying to íollow the con·ersation.
L·erything seemed remarkably coincidental. Lumpkin íinding me,
Lumpkin setting me up to steal` his account, Lumpkin recei·ing
my message, and Lumpkin taking me out to the woman I was
supposed to íind. I had li·ed a similar scenario beíore in the Old
City. Always, it seemed, I was a passi·e player in a dangerous
game, a pawn who sat back and let himselí be manipulated out oí
íear-íear that ií I did act on my own me and my íamily would be
caught in some gruesome íuture or some strange e·erwhen that
was not home. 1rouble was-I wasn`t really sure what home was
anymore. I`m not sure I e·er did know, not since the machines
plucked me írom Sam`s DNA and dropped me in the hospital
bed. I was a creation like lrankenstein`s monster, though I was
human and not a walking amalgam oí reanimated corpse parts, I
was born íully-íormed with memories I tapped írom my
subconscious, I dreamed oí multiple worlds and knew, at one
time, another liíe, a liíe I took, I was the only me` now in
existence, as íar as I knew, I wasn`t a monster, but I wasn`t wholly
human because there were traces oí the machines inside me that
connected me to a massi·e swarm hidden somewhere in this
strange e·erwhen. I wasn`t a monster and I didn`t ha·e the
courage to run away írom my creator or my captors, I needed my
captors because they could control the machines with drugs or
through therapy. I was a prisoner with little choice but to íollow
Lumpkin and Ishmael and the rest, or suííer the machines` wrath.
\hich likely meant a ·ery painíul death. Oí course, working with
Lumpkin might be deadly too.
Gordon loward was a tall, thin Anglo-Indian, with a thick
beard, dark hair, and a radio-talk-show-host`s ·oice. le shook my
hand and asked ií I had met Charlie. I shook my head.
lrom behind the shut door, where I had heard ·ideo game
explosions, I heard childlike squeals oí protest, then Kara`s ·oice:
Sam`s here, Charlie. Sam.`
1he squeals stopped at the mention oí Sam`s name. 1he door
opened and Kara came out with a chestnut-haired boy oí about
eight. \hen he saw me, his eyes widened, and he burst in a sprint
toward me, hugging me.
Sam, Sam, Sam,` he repeated, clutching me.
I held onto the boy with one arm, the other íell limply against
my hip. I looked at Kara. Um . . .`
Charlie, settle,` Kara said, as ií commanding a small dog.
1he boy held me tightly. It`s okay,` I said.
Sam, machines, Sam, machines, Sam . . .` the boy uttered as
Kara touched his shoulder and said, Charlie, settle.`
1he boy stomped his íeet, deíying Kara, and held e·en more
tightly to me.
Sam, machines, Sam, machines,` he repeated into my
Kara squatted down to the boy`s le·el. Charlie.`
1he boy looked way írom me, craning his neck. Mama, Sam,
machines, Mama, Sam, machines.`
\es, Charlie.` She nodded. Mama, Sam, machines.`
\ou`re his mother·`
Kara looked up at me, smiled.
le`s Ishmael`s child·` I asked.
She shook her head. loward and Patel grinned. Lumpkin was
quiet, gnawing on the cuticle oí his middle íinger.
1he boy dropped his arms írom my waist and backed away a
íew inches. Mama.` le looked at Kara. Sam.` le looked at me.
Machines.` le kept his eyes on me.
1hat`s the most he`s talked in months,` Patel said.
It seems like he`s responding as expected,` loward said to
Gi·e it time, Gordon,` Lumpkin said, blowing away
something írom his mouth. Gi·e it time.`
1he boy turned to Kara and hugged her neck. Mama.`
Kara smiled and picked the boy up and looked o·er his
shoulder at me. I`m Ishmael`s wiíe, yes. Charlie`s not his son.`
Ishmael`s wiíe· \hat about Ari·`
Polygamists.` Lumpkin said this with a certain amount oí
unsubtle moral superiority in his ·oice. Martians are
I ·aguely remembered something about this in my
con·ersations with Colonel Gomez.
Don`t be rude, Sheppard,` Patel said. It`s not like it`s
unknown in 1erran culture.`
Oí course it was quickly occurring to me that no one here was
írom this time or reality. In this time period, the íull colonization
oí Mars was íiíteen years in the íuture. \ith Kindred`s push and
the world`s blessing. It was hard to know the íuture or at least one
possible íuture. And at that moment, as I glanced at the íi·e
people in the cramped waiting room, that these people may be
plotting to change the íuture in at least one reality.
1he boy snapped me away írom my thoughts. Sam, machine.`
le held íast to Kara but stretched toward me.
Kara nodded at the boy. \es, Sam.` She glanced at me and
mouthed play along.`
So I was now Sam, at least to the boy.
1echnically,` Kara said, in some respects, you are Sam. \ou
are the boy`s íather.`
But I`m not. . .`
Sam,` the boy said. Machines.`
Sam,` I said. \ell, this is coníusing.`
Kara looked at her watch. Nap time Charlie.`
1he boy wailed no` and squirmed in Kara`s arms but she
managed to take him out oí the waiting room.
\hen she disappeared Gordon loward suggested we go into
the kitchen and ha·e coííee and tea to talk and help clear up my
coníusion. Lumpkin stood at the kitchen door as ií he were
standing guard. 1he rest oí us sat at a long table in a row oí long
1he church`s kitchen and rec area reminded me a oí a small-
town high school`s lunch room. 1here were se·eral long tables
and íolding chairs and a small stage with an electric organ at the
loward brought out a tray oí steaming Styroíoam cups
brimming with black coííee and an assortment oí packets oí sugar
and sugar substitute and placed it in íront oí us.
I`m aíraid the coííee`s not ·ery íresh.` le set the tray in íront
oí us. It was my turn to make a íresh pot. lorgi·e me.`
No problem.` I said. I took a cup oí the slightly bitter and
burned coííee. Sipping it reminded me oí the coííee in the
Sorry íor the coníusion,` Patel said to me. She was steeping a
pouch oí Lipton`s in a steaming cup oí water.
It seems almost normal,` I said.
Kara was pregnant with Sam`s child beíore the machines sent
him . . . you . . . into the e·erwhen.`
So . . . he really is mine·`
No, no,` Patel protested. le is Sam`s. Beíore the machines
made you, Sam was held in sort oí breach in the space-time
continuum so he could heal as well as he could írom Lily`s
gunshot. 1his is a íamiliar story, no·`
Bits and pieces.` I nodded and sipped my coííee.
Patel stirred sugar in her tea. Kara was pregnant. She thought
Sam was dead. She sought out a husband. Someone to help take
care oí her child.`
Lumpkin rolled his eyes. Sugar daddy.`
Patel glared at Lumpkin. Sheppard. Reírain írom your
judgments. \ou aren`t any more innocent or siníul than anyone
She íound Ishmael and Ari and they let her into their íamily,`
Patel continued. 1hey accepted Charlie as their own. Adopted
him aíter birth.`
Like the twentieth century jazz musician·`
Patel ga·e me a puzzled look. I suppose so.`
So Charlie isn`t mine·`
No, not technically,` Patel said. But ií we tested you, you
would share DNA.`
Because I was created írom Sam·`
But what does this all ha·e to do with me.`
Charlie`s a special child,` Patel said. I`m sure you noticed.`
le`s diííerent, yeah.`
A mild íorm oí autism. On the low end oí the spectrum.`
Not quite Rain Man·`
Patel again ga·e me a puzzled look. My reíerences were going
\ou`re insensiti·ity is no good.` She shook her head. No
good at all.` In her indignation, her accent had thickened.
le is a bright and special boy,` she said. le also may be the
gateway into deíeating the machines.`
And I`m the keymaster·`
Ií you want to put it that way, yes.` Patel nodded.
lrom what we can tell,` loward interjected, the machines
don`t seem to aííect his mind. \hate·er connections, whate·er
synapses are misíiring, so to speak, to cause his autism, also seem
to block the machines` attempts to communicate with him.`
Doesn`t he ha·e traces inside him, like I do·`
loward picked at a bump on his cheek abo·e his beard.
lrom the tests we`·e done on him . . . no. le seems to be
immune to them.`
Are they a íorm oí illness·`
Actually, they are. 1hey`re ·iruses, or act like ·iruses.
Biological ·iruses are just bits oí RNA that need a host to li·e`.
1he traces oí the machine ·irus in you, in Kara, in Ishmael, in
anyone who`s had direct contact with the swarm, attach
themsel·es to your cells and in eííect ser·e as a communication
source íor the swarm.
1hey can communicate ·ast distances. Interplanetary,
interstellar, through dimensions oí time and space, especially the
e·erwhen. 1heir technology is ·astly superior to ours, e·en
though we created them.
And there are multiple swarms. Some malignant, some
benign. It`s the malignant ones we ha·e to worry about.`
Let me guess, Sam`s swarm is malignant.`
loward nodded. \es.`
I sipped my coííee and screwed up my lips because it had
grown cold. ligures.`
1o some extent, that`s with good reason. 1he machines íed
on Sam`s bitterness. lis anger that he was an experiment. V-¯
used him, implanted the íirst swarm in him. le thought it was a
medical experiment. Nanosurgery.` loward looked down at his
tennis shoes. A shame. It was nothing oí the sort. It was all about
Go·ernor Kindred bringing back Daddy.`
Sheppard zipped his íinger across his throat and glared at
loward. I think it`s time to curb our talk.`
\ou are right, Sheppard,` loward said. I slipped.` le
looked at me. \e just need you to respond to the boy as his
íather, as Sam. \ou`re the only person he`s communicated with in
I nodded. \ell, I thought, that cleared things up as much as oil
in a mud puddle.
Sheppard asked me to lea·e the kitchen so he and the others
could discuss their conspiracy, whate·er it was. I complied,
wandering upstairs to what would ha·e been the main sanctuary
oí the church but was now di·ided into a li·ing room and where
the pulpit and stage íor the choir had been was an entertainment
center with an early-model tri-d projector as its centerpiece. I
switched the projector on and let the ·ideo surround me. A
commercial íor a luxury model hybrid groundcar, the íeatures oí
which seemed dull and unappealing to me, which startled me íor a
moment, until I remembered the counter-sales drug was still
working in me. Now that I was working` with Sheppard and the
rainmakers-who seemed to ha·e little to do with research into
terraíorming techniques-I wondered ií I would ha·e access to
more oí the counter-sales drug. Ií I didn`t, how would I be
protected írom the machines· I was important enough to protect,
right· I was their keymaster, and Charlie was the gatekeeper, ií I
I mo·ed through the ·ideo projection-now on a tri-d show I
didn`t recognize-and slumped into a soít brown chair and dosed
íor what seemed like a íew minutes but turned out to be a couple
\hen I awakened Charlie stood in the middle oí the tri-d
projection ílapping his arms like a bird as a cartoon show played.
le can watch this íor hours,` I heard Kara say írom outside
I stepped through the mo·ing images and Kara was stretched
on the couch reading a book, an actual book, not an e-reader. She
lowered the book and looked up at me.
lope we didn`t disturb your nap,` she said.
Not at all.` I sat in a chair across írom her. la·e you been
An hour or so.`
And he`s been watching the tri-d all that time without saying
Kara nodded. le could watch it all day without saying
anything. Just make excited chirps and coos and ílap his arms like
a bird. \ouldn`t say a thing. \ouldn`t e·en eat. And ií I pulled
him away, he`d throw a íit.`
\ou said he hadn`t talked in some time.`
Patel said that, not me.`
le`s talked then·`
ler rusty pile oí hair jostled írom side to side. No. Not really.
\ell . . . maybe . . . sort oí. le`s ne·er really talked. Not like you
and I. le`ll parrot phrases and, oí course, when he wants to, will
repeat Sam` o·er and o·er. 1hough the last time he got as excited
as he did this aíternoon was when the machines attacked him.`
1he machines . . .` I looked at the projection, which írom the
outside appeared to be an egg-shaped shimmering creature
ho·ering o·er the stage. 1he machine attacked him·`
\es,` Kara said, clinically. 1hey actually maniíested a swarm
and came into his room. It was terriíying, really. Like a poltergeist,
knocking at him, hissing like thousands oí snakes. And he just sat
in his bed grinning, ílapping his arms, and cooing as ií they were
No harm done·`
Nothing. 1hey ga·e up aíter a íew minutes and zipped out oí
the room beíore we could do anything. I think he basically denied
their reality and they couldn`t get inside him. Dr. loward
explained it this way: Charlie, in his opinion, ·iews the world as ií
it were a cartoon. Nothing, not e·en us, is real to him except
himselí. \e are, so to speak, his dream. \e`re allowed in only
when he wants us in.`
le seems to respond to me diííerently, though,` I said.
Lxcept íor now. le ignored me just now.`
Kara closed the book and sat up. le probably didn`t
recognize you. Maybe you were just part oí his show· I don`t
know. No one does. Not e·en the genius doctors and engineers
down in the kitchen.`
1he shimmering egg behind me seemed eerily íamiliar. It`s
sheen was much like the Ltch-A-Sketch glow on the 1V screen in
the hospital when the machines íirst introduced themsel·es to me.
1hey seemed so benign then. Almost begging me to help them íix
I shi·ered. Clearly digging into the layers oí alternate realities
wasn`t their mistake. 1heir mistake it seemed was creating me. At
least it seemed so, gi·en how oíten since then they`·e tried to kill
1hey were lucky to íind me,` Kara said. 1his is where we
landed.` She gaped up at the church`s painted ·aulted ceiling-
Ptolemy`s Larth-centric uni·erse, the planets held up by hea·enly
hosts, a gray-bearded grandíatherly God in one corner peering
down and smiling at his creation beíore it runs amok. Sam and I,
íalling írom the sky, through a shimmering portal, into the middle
oí an aging congregation who must`·e thought we were angels oí
the apocalypse descending to pick them up in rapturous glory.
Until Sam tried to stand but crumpled in an empty pew, hand
deep in the pulp and blood and bone oí his right jaw, trying to
mash it back into something resembling a mouth . . .`
Lnough, please.` 1he image was ·i·id. 1he trail oí pink mist
íollowing behind Sam and Kara through a portal. An image that
Lily had con·inced me was unreal. Until I belie·ed I had dreamed
Kara stood. 1he priest crossed himselí beíore he had a íatal
heart attack. 1he others screamed . . .`
Sam.` I turned away írom Kara to see Charlie emerge írom
the shimmering image. 1he projection íaded.
Kara wandered o·er to pick up Charlie. 1he boy squirmed and
reached out to me. Sam, machines, Sam,` he repeated his mantra.
Kara touched the boy`s íace angled it so he was looking at her
and not me. \es, Sam.`
\ou seem really angry about Sam`s death.` I watched her
struggle to hold the boy. ler blue eyes turned toward me,
thoughtíully. I thought you were aíraid oí him, e·en hated him.`
She let the boy down. le galloped toward me, arms ílapping.
1he boy embraced me. Kara smiled. I was aíraid oí him. 1hat
doesn`t mean I didn`t lo·e him. 1rue, in the end he wasn`t the
man I had íallen in lo·e with, not the man whose child I carried.
By then he was just a íugiti·e oí AramCorp, out íor their blood. I
was aíraid oí him, yes. But . . . yeah . . .` ler eyes shimmered.
1he boy held onto to me but glanced at his mother. I looked
down at him. lis brown eyes seemed ·acant, as ií his mother`s
grieí meant nothing to him. Surely he íelt something, but just
didn`t understand it, or understand how to express it·
Kara wiped the corner oí her eye with her thumb.
I`m sorry,` I said to Kara. I held the boy with care.
It`s not your íault,` she said.
Rain, hea·y drops, the íirst in two months, spattered the
church`s rooí as ií it were thunderous applause írom the hea·enly
hosts, applause íor God relie·ing us írom the heat. 1he boy
looked up toward the ceiling, cooed.
1here was too much coníusion in that gym, Van,` Kara
continued. Anyone could ha·e shot him. le might`·e e·en done
it himselí.` ler ·oice cracked. She swallowed. Plus, Ishmael . . .
he told me the machines . . . the machines . . . had attacked you . .
Machines, machines, machines,` the boy echoed. le looked
up at me and cooed. 1here was a depth oí emotion in the sound,
unlike his response to Kara.
I shot a puzzled glance toward her. She held out her arms and
le`s let you into his reality.`
I nodded, sort oí understanding. I was somehow, I thought, his
protector. An image oí his íather, ií not the real thing. I knelt
down and eyed the boy. le smiled. Sam, Sam, Sam.`
I nodded, Sam, then, I am.` I peered up at Kara. She grinned.
1hen you`ll help us·`
I don`t know what I can do.`
So he can protect us·`
Kara nodded. She sat down with her book again. I saw the title,
an old book, printed in my timeírame: 0v0ac/-genetic
modiíication, cutting edge science in its time. Now illegal under
Church law. Kara could get arrested ií anyone reported such
It`s Patel`s,` she said. le dug it out, thinking ií all it took was
an autistic boy to ward oíí the machines, then why not splice the
genes that cause the autism into e·eryone· It didn`t . . . wouldn`t
work. \ou know why·`
I shook my head.
lirst oíí, just because these people ha·e helped me and
Charlie, ha·e kept us hidden írom the Church, írom AramCorp,
doesn`t mean I was going to let them experiment on Charlie. Not
Second, it`s not the autism that blocks the machines. \e`·e
witnessed the machines going aíter and almost killing other
1hey`·e attacked others· I thought they were only a threat to
Genehacking isn`t illegal íor the Church to participate in.
L·eryone here gets a dose oí the ·irus at birth. 1he machines run
the Church. It`s why e·eryone is such a crass consumer. 1hey
can`t resist the technology oí spending. Not without counter-
\hy not just íight back with counter-sales, then·`
Because it`s addicti·e. Aíter two months it`s worse than
And Charlie· low`s Charlie going to help·` 1he boy had
gone limp in my arms and was asleep. I carried him o·er to the
couch and lay him next to Kara. She lowered the book and
stroked his hair. le cooed in his sleep.
\hen it comes down to it, we`re all data.` Kara tucked her
íeet under her thighs. 1he machines want to erase us.`
Data· Lrase us·`
Create their own ·irtual uni·erse with no humans to interíere.
Charlie . . . his reality blocks that. Somewhere in his mind, in his
makeup is the íormula. 1he original íormula íor their creation.
1hat`s why he blocks them. \e had it once. But lost it. During the
ci·il war on Mars. \e think you`re the only person who can
Because he talks to me·`
Kara nodded. 1he machines here, in this timeírame, aren`t
strong enough to enact their plan. 1hey need Kindred to implant
them on Mars. \e`re stopping the whole thing. Assassinating
Kindred. Destroying the whole Mars project. Reco·ering the
íormula. Destroying the machines.`
low do you know this is the right timeírame that will stop
It`s taken Ishmael a lot oí reckoning, but he`s disco·ered that
the layers oí reality íold back on themsel·es aíter they spread out
so íar into the uni·erse. listory is a loop. \e can break it. Break
the loop here and it`s broken in e·ery layer.`
Sheppard and Patel and loward plan through the night. Kara
makes a cot íor me in an unused oííice space and some time aíter
midnight, I go to bed. At íirst, I lay there in the damp room on a
cot, hoping Sheppard and company will end their meeting, which
I imagine as some John-\ilkes-Boothesque plot to assassinate the
president, Sheppard perhaps planning to shout .ic .0v¡0r 9,ravvv. as
he guns down Kindred, or perhaps he will be a Lee-lar·ey-
Oswald type oí lone gunman, or perhaps it will be much more
modern-a disaííected innocent with a bomb strapped to his or
her chest. Oddly, I íeel supporti·e oí this conspiracy, howe·er it
transpires. It seems the only way to end this madness with the
machines and Kindred and all the rest.
I just hope it works. 1hat their theory oí the e·erwhen is
correct. Or it`s just another oí history`s íailed attempts to change
the world and its ideals through ·iolence.
Neither Sheppard or Patel or loward come to wake me. \hat
wakes me the íirst time is the drone oí rain against my window.
It`s hea·ier now than it was earlier in the day. It`s wind-dri·en and
thrums against the corrugated aluminum shade co·ering the
window. Aíter an hour or so the thrum becomes soporiíic, lulling
me to sleep again.
1he next time I awaken it is about íour in the morning. Still
dark, oí course. And I`m snapped awake by shouts down the
hallway and the thump oí what seems like hea·y boots against the
old creaking hardwood ílooring.
Or is it thunder· I can`t be sure. No, it`s not thunder. 1hunder
doesn`t cause hardwood íloors to creak. Still, I can`t be sure, until
the ·oices-whispers at íirst, not wholly uníamiliar and I sit up
terriíied, blood draining írom my cheeks 90 vaciv0. ar0 r09vrv0/
my íorehead sweating, my 1-shirt sopping. I ha·e enough sense,
though, to reach íor the ground and grab my jeans and pull them
on swiítly, trying not to make a sound, as ií in silence I can run
írom the machines, e·ade things in my mind. I lean against the
1he noises clariíy, the whispers are louder: thuds against doors,
rattling, men shouting \ou are under arrest! Get your hands up!`
1hen scuííling and more shouts. low many people are in this
church· 1he slap oí bare íeet down the hallway. More íeet
thumping. A woman screaming, My baby!` 1he only woman`s
·oice I`·e heard so íar.
I peer around the doorway, my heart hammering, adrenaline
crawling like a thousand centipedes through my ·eins. Kara,
ghostly in a shimmering nightgown, screams, Not my . . .` and
she is drowned out by a growling lalt!` and a black-Ke·lared
police oííicer aims his riíle: Do not make me use ·iolent íorce!`
Arms ílapping, Charlie shuííles in íront oí his mother, eyes
widened. Cheeks red írom crying.
Kara pushes her son íorward. 1wo men íill the hall way behind
her. I reach out íor Charlie.
Kara`s eyes, wide with terror, ílick toward me. lor a split
second, it seems, by the way she clutches Charlie to her chest,
when my arm lashes toward her son, that she thinks I am one oí
them. She clutches Charlie e·en tighter when she glimpses my
hand, then jerks his shoulders, pressing her weight on him. lis
bony legs buckle at the knees. lis mother has tackled him and
shields him írom any incoming rounds.
At that moment, as mother and son collapse, the oííicer
shouts, Goddamn it, halt!`
I turn my íace away írom the sight. A gun explodes, a single
caseless round whines. As my nails attempt to dig into the drywall,
I keep expecting this to seem like a mo·ie-that the action will
slow down as ií it were shot with a slow-motion camera, so I can
comprehend what`s happening. Instead, it is nauseatingly
incomprehensible, like an out oí control roller coaster car. 1he
only thing remotely comprehensible in this chaos is the rapid-íire
whine oí caseless rounds írom automatic weapons. \ho`s doing
the shooting, who`s wounded, who`s dying-none oí this
becomes clear, until the silence. 1he terrible silence.
But e·en in that stillness, nothing is quite clear, except íor a
sudden grunt as Kara hea·es her son toward me, Charlie ílailing
and twisting like a cat dropped írom a window and trying to right
itselí. lis head knocks me in the gut and we collapse, my lungs
burning íor air. 1he boy sobs against me as I gulp in air.
I sit up with him in my arms. Kara kneels in the hallway, sways
and tries to stand, her body jerks to one side, a spastic dance as
her right shoulder blade íragments and her arm ílops away írom
the torn meat oí tendons and muscles. ler body íolds and her liíe
streams out as the shine drains írom her eyes.
lor a moment I am too disoriented to scream. In íact, I am too
scared shitless to do anything. And my body responds to the íear
with a sharp pain piercing my chest, and my leít arm tingling as ií
I had slept on it. í av goivg 9o /i0 i/0 9i.. . 0ar9 a99ac/. . go//avv
0ar9 a99ac/. .frai/. !ara,¸0/. |vab0 9o /o av,9ivg. Clump. Clump.
Adrenaline scrambles through me at the sound oí hea·y boots
coming down the hallway. My hands scrabble to get a hold on
Charlie. 1he pain in my chest surges. leart attack or not, I ha·e
to get this boy away írom these men.
I will not íeel the burning shi·ers oí cuts on my arm until aíter
my adrenaline cuts oíí se·eral miles through the mud-clogged
corníield, nor will I íeel the throb oí the bruise abo·e my eye until
the adrenaline cuts oíí as I slog through mud and sheets oí rain,
nor will I íeel Charlie`s weight on my shoulders as I piggyback him
through the mud as we collapse into a swatch oí corn stalks and
mud, unsure ií the men with guns íollow us.
All I know, all I íeel at the moment I pick him up and take
action is the tension oí the window as it shatters and the slight jolt
oí my head as it collides with the aluminum shade. I climb
through the window, Charlie clinging to my neck, o·er shards oí
window pane and into a cloying rain as an oííicer shouts a barely
Chapter lourteen: August 2025, llight
Charlie squeals as we drop into the muck, I do not know ií he
is hurt or írightened or ií he is delighted as we sink into the swirl
oí cornstalks and black mud. All I can think is that we ha·e to get
up, ha·e to keep pushing, go deeper into the íield or íind an
opening. I belie·e as long as we stay shielded by the sheeting rain,
we will e·ade Kindred`s men.
I know they ha·e to be Kindred`s men and not regular police,
whoe·er sent them had been alerted, had been iníormed oí the
meeting at the church.
Maybe it was the machines· Maybe I brought all this to us in a
moment oí weakness· Maybe I let the machines in·
I struggle to pull Charlie up írom the muck. le does not seem
hurt. le coos as ií he is delighted, as ií someone has tossed him in
a swimming pool and not a mudhole.
\ith a cold suck oí earth I liít the boy upon my shoulders and
carry him, wearily, ankle deep in the sucking mud, through the
cornstalks. 1hose stalks lash me in the íace and arms and the rain
pushes us down, bending us, as ií we were hump-backed old
widows trying to cross a busy street.
I am bareíoot and the mud weighs down my íeet and I íeel
pain on the balls oí my íeet as I push íorward. My toes are
numbing írom the cold rain.
lours ago it was 110 degrees lahrenheit and cloudless and
cobalt skies. I was eating lunch with Sheppard and was cooling
perhaps too quickly in the o·er-airconditioned restaurant, the
sweat on the back oí my shirt drying and my back and arms
prickling with the chill.
\hile eating enchiladas I had not imagined I would be íleeing
secret police, slogging through a sopping corníield, an autistic and
bewildered boy hanging írom my shoulders.
Se·eral times I crumple and stumble and ha·e to pull myselí
and the boy up írom the cold wet earth. My legs throb the longer
I mo·e. I ha·e gone well beyond íatigue. 1o the point in which I
íeel the heat and dampness oí sweat o·ercoming the drench
pouring o·er us. 1o the point in which my lungs burn íor air and
my head begins to throb at the temples as I dehydrate.
I lower Charlie and collapse to my hands and knees and dry
hea·e. All oí my body strains, I am aíraid oí the machines at that
moment, aíraid the drug has worn oíí and they will return. My
body spasms one last time. Coltishly, I stand, carry the boy se·eral
yards íurther until my legs wobble once more. I hold onto him
and we cross out oí the corníield, and plunge thighdeep into an
o·erílowing drainage ditch.
Lights spangle o·er the asphalt I collapse against. 1ires screech.
My eyes, like a ílounder, ílick to a tri-wheeled black sedan, its
highbeams lancing o·er us.
1he sedan`s dri·er steps out, and hunched against the rain,
shouts, luck . . . oh my God . . . shit` and tries to sprint across
the road to us. \hen he makes it across, he stoops and touches
his hands to my shoulder.
Oh holy íuck,` he mutters as he shakes my shoulder. I grunt
and he pulls his hand up to his íace. le wears a dark suit. Oh
goddamn íuck . . . shit . . . you`re bleeding.`
I hear Charlie`s muííled coos against the pressing rain.
Dude·` 1he dri·er ho·ers o·er me. I lay motionless íor a
moment, my head throbbing and swirling.
luck.` le crawls o·er to Charlie. 1he boy squalls and cringes
when the man reaches out to him, and then the boy snaps up
abruptly and begins to run.
I push up írom the asphalt onto my elbows and croak out,
1he man cranes his neck toward me and then stands and
rushes toward Charlie. 1he boy eludes him íor a moment but the
man manages to subdue him. lush, oh please hush.`
Charlie,` I manage to shout.
Sam, Sam, Sam!`
Charlie tries to wrench íree oí the man. 1hey struggle íor a
moment and Charlie squeezes loose and rushes o·er to me. 1he
man íollows behind, though not in a hurry.
I scramble up and Charlie ílings himselí against me. I almost
íall again. 1he man reaches us. 1hank God you`re ali·e. Do you
need an ambulance· \ater· Anything·`
I shake my head. No ambulance. A ride, please.`
1he man nods. Sure, absolutely. Anything.` le helps us both
to his car. \ou sure you don`t need help· \our shoulder . . .`
I squeeze into the cramped back seat with Charlie and look up
at the man and shake my head again. \e`re íine. \e`ll be íine.
Get us somewhere we can rest.`
\ou`re sure· 1here`s an emergency ser·ices command post
about a mile back . . .`
\e need to get into town.`
le gi·es me a suspicious look but nods. 1hose emergency
ser·ices íolks could get you to a shelter. 1hey`re helping
e·erybody here in the bottom land. 1hose that are getting ílooded
out . . . like you íolks.`
I glare at him. le shrugs and walks around to the dri·er`s side
oí the car.
1he car hums into motion, but seems reluctant to mo·e
íorward against the sheets oí rain pelting it. 1he man holds the
steering wheel at a proper ten-two as he dri·es and he sits with his
back straightened as ií his posture would be the chieí concern oí
any law oííicer who might pull us o·er.
le seems to show no concern about our condition once we are
on the road, it doesn`t seem to matter we are soaked and co·ered
in mud, it doesn`t seem to matter we both may be injured, and it
doesn`t seem to matter we are íugiti·es. le asks us no questions,
he just dri·es, eyes on road, íollowing the spangling high-beams.
1he only improper dri·ing rule the man breaks is keeping the
rooí light on dim.
Only once does the dri·er look back at us in his rear·iew
mirror. In the reílection, our eyes meet and he smiles. Slightly
abo·e his shirt collar a cross is tattooed on his neck. le is a
Church member, the tattoo, gi·en to him at thirteen aíter his
second baptism and oííicial proíession oí íaith, is two nails tied
together with an inscription in Comic Sans reading No Greater
I grimace, partly because oí the shards oí glass digging into my
shoulder, partly because he is a Church member, probably
someone high in the episcopate. lis head is sha·ed. And I expect
ií I could see the other side oí his neck he would ha·e the yin-
yang tattooed there.
lis helping us perplexes and írightens me. Someone his rank
would or should ha·e called the authorities and leít us on the side
oí the highway íor authorities to deal with us.
I begin to think we may ha·e been better oíí ií I had taken his
oííer to take us to the emergency command post set up to help
·ictims oí the ílood. Ií there really was such a thing.
My íear escalates when the car slows and stops. I lean my head
against the window. 1hrough the rain I see the silhouettes oí
blocky military trucks on the shoulder oí the road. I can also make
out laying on the shoulder, long black lumps. 1hose images clariíy
íor a moment-body bags. And it is then all too clear where we
1he mile or so we slogged through the corníield must`·e been
a halí-circle. \e were at best íi·e miles írom the church when we
Now we are at the turnout where the gra·el road Sheppard and
I ílew down connects with the highway and I am peering at body
bags. In one oí those body bags lay the boy`s mother. In the
others: I could speculate-Sheppard, Patel, loward . . . others·
Perhaps dead raiders·
I glanced at the boy. le was asleep, head cocked against the
door. I was now unoííicially his guardian.
Someone taps on the dri·er`s window. One oí the men írom
the trucks. Probably one oí the men who assaulted the church.
1he window squawks as it slides down and the dri·er glances
up and then passes the armed man a standard identiíication card.
1he raider checks the ID in a card reader, hands it back to our
mysterious dri·er and wa·es the car through.
Our ílight is o·er. Our capti·ity begins.
C¬AP1LR lll1LLN: lN1LRR00A1l0N
I am separated írom the boy immediately aíter we arri·e in
town at the lome Oííice íor Church and National Security. 1he
dri·er, Brother Carson-he calls himselí-zip-ties me and jerks
me out oí the back seat and pushes me íacedown into the parking
lot pa·ement. 1he rain is ceasing and a gray dawn is breaking. As I
gather my breath and try to sit up I hear íootsteps spattering
against the wet pa·ement and the dopplering squalls oí the boy as
he is led away.
A muííled thump against my ribcage and air rushes out oí my
lungs and I try to suck it in, gasping and wheezing, my side throbs,
a piercing pain like the gunshot wound that plunged into me írom
Lily`s hea·y pistol. I collapse against the pa·ement. I hurt too
much to squirm away írom the truncheon again speeding toward
my rib cage. It connects. I taste copper in my mouth. I spit. A gob
oí íoamy blood and spittle ooze írom my mouth.
I`m sorry to ha·e to do this, Mr. Banks,` the good
Churchman says. But we ha·e to bring you back to reality. Pain
as you know is the íirst reality test.`
^o9 ßav/.. ^o9 ßav/., I try to say, only my throat tightens and
the sound out oí my ·oice seems like a wounded seal.
1he truncheon sweeps o·er the other side oí my body and
crashes against my shoulder blade. Pain,` Carson grunts as the
club bludgeons my rib cage, pain, you know is our lather`s way
oí reminding us oí the suííering oí his Son. Oí the suííering oí
the Boddhisatta. \ou are detached írom pain.` A shard oí glass
digs deeper into my skin. I . . . my mission . . . you see, íor I ha·e
been assigned to your case íor some time, is to remind you oí it,
to remind you oí the suííering oí our Lord and the Lnlightened
One. Do you ha·e anything to coníess, brother Banks·`
I wheeze and cough and spit. I try to say No` but the sounds
are no more than squawks, like the screeches oí an angry bird.
1he base oí my skull tingles, my eyesight reddens, then goes
I awaken on a cold stone íloor. \here else would I awaken,
but in a dungeon, expecting the Spanish Inquisition· I smirk and
try to laugh but the laugh causes my head to throb as ií I were
hungo·er and the laugh also makes me cough and the cough
rattles as ií I might ha·e pneumonia and pain pierces my ribs as
my body jostles. Ob·iously at least one rib is cracked, probably
I driít in and out oí sleep and my muscles ache and I íeel
íe·erish most oí what seems a day. No one ·isits and a tray oí
íood is slid through a slot in the door at some point. 1here is a
bucket íor my shit and piss.
I sit against the stone wall and try to sleep through the
headache which I realize I won`t do íor some time when I íeel the
knot at the base oí my neck. I try to eat and íeel nauseous aíter a
couple oí bites oí something that resembles a bologna sandwich. I
drop the halí-eaten sandwich on the tray and lay against the cool
stone and alternate between shi·ering and sweating.
I am still in the sopping clothes I had on and they ha·en`t
dried. I am not certain how many hours ha·e passed since Carson
picked me up.
I ha·e not seen the boy and there is no one to ask about him. I
shout íeebly through the slit in the door where the íood tray was
slid in. No answer.
I íall asleep against the wall.
I awaken cold and íebrile, my body aching írom ·arious
wounds and muscle pain. I sweat and then get the chills and this
íucks up my memory. Or so I think.
I think because I begin, as I lay against the cold stone íloor,
that I ha·e been here beíore. I ha·e been here beíore. I ha·e been
on this cold íloor oí the lowest le·el oí the Ziggurat. \hen I
would try to rebel, they would hold me here. My captors would
hold me here until I submitted to their retraining.
I ha·e been here beíore.
I ha·e run írom this place.
I ha·e spent nights in hotels where I was aíraid to lay on the
bed and where the shower sprayed only cold water.
I ha·e eluded armed and black-armored men and women
through time and space and other realities, perhaps e·en other
planets-oí that I am not certain. I am not certain oí many things.
In the Ziggurat men tried to make a monster oí me. I ran, and
yet they succeeded, iníecting me with a legion oí selí-aware
nanomachines that act ·iolently ií I don`t obey them. 1he
machines are like their creation in that way because they were
created so these men could control a city state, the largest city
state in a union oí city states.
In a way, I ha·e come back home, something I ha·e wanted
since I leít this place . . . what· . . . millennia ago· . . . time has
become so irrele·ant . . .
1he hea·y steel door that keeps me in this cell slams with an
echo, an echo oí a many-chambered dungeon. Someone comes to
tend my injuries or torture me or maybe a little oí both. A short
black woman with sha·en head and saííron robes, a monk. She is
soít-spoken when she dabs my íace with a wet cloth. I shi·er.
She hands me a cup oí lukewarm water and I drink it greedily,
it soothes my cracked lips. I mo·e my jaws as I drink and íeel the
sting oí multiple scrapes on my íace.
She motions me to roll on my stomach. My thoughts are slow,
but it occurs to me she has taken a ·ow oí silence.
I lay against the íloor and wince when she cleans my shoulder
with some kind oí disiníectant. She squats at eye le·el and steadies
herselí and pain spikes my shoulders as she plucks shards oí glass
írom it. She dresses the wounds and rises and places her hands
together and bows and lea·es me alone again in the cell.
I sleep se·eral hours but the sleep is restless because oí the
pain. Because oí the uncertainty. My perceptions ha·e been blurry,
I suppose they ha·e drugged me or perhaps the counter-sales drug
is wearing oíí. I`m not certain how much time has passed or what
time oí day it is.
I suppose it is mornings when the monk comes to tend my
wounds. O·er the next se·eral days, as best I can tell, she comes
at the same time, she and no one else. I guess they want me to
heal beíore they torture me.
1he last time I see her, she changes the dressing on my
shoulder and brings me a bowl oí rice and ·egetables and íresh,
cold water. I eat slowly, wincing as my jaw mo·es. \incing each
time I breathe in or out. \hen I íinish eating, I íeel clear-headed,
almost happy, the íood has spiked my alertness, and broadcasts a
sense oí well-being through my central ner·ous system.
1hen I blink and my eyes spangle and I drop my bowl on the
cell íloor, nausea suddenly o·ercoming me. Crickets chirp.
1housands, millions, billions oí near-subatomic ·oices mingle into
í0o 1av. !0`r0 vi..0/ ,ov.
luck. I`m oíí to Ne·er Ne·er Land. My head splits, throbs.
Nose bleeds. Christ ! 1he machines are back! I retch and hea·e,
brackish black blood drools írom my lips.
.9 0a.9 r0 /vor ,ov`r0 .af0 0r0.
Blood drips onto the stone, pooling. 1he Churchmen don`t
ha·e to torture me. I ha·e my own torturers.
1av, 9a9`. vo9 vic0. !0 or0 ,ov. !0 rav9 9o 0¡ ,ov. íf ,ov`/ ;v.9
i.90v 9o v..
I begin to sob. Please, no. 1ongue coppery. 1oo much pain. I
can`t resist them.
íf ,ov a/ ;v.9 i.90v0/ 9o v. frov 90 b0givvivg, vov0 of 9i. rov/ ar0
a¡¡0v0/. ßv9 ,ov . . . ,ov ;v.9 a/ 9o 0·0rci.0 ,ovr .o·ca0/ fr00 ri. 1av,
,ov ar0 vo9 fr00 . . . v, /0ar, r0 orv ,ov.
God, kill me. Please. Only in pain do I e·er turn to the god my
parents taught me about. 1he sky íather the Church preached.
1he sky íather I ne·er belie·ed in. I want that being to inter·ene
now and take my liíe, because, only in death can I escape these
o/ cav`9 0¡, 1av. íor 90r0 i. vo go/ bv9 v.. !0 ar0 ,ovr go/ av/,
r0, r0 /ov`9 r0a, i/0 ,ov a9 90 vov0v9.
Another spike oí pain, this time around my rib cage. I cough.
1he taste oí copper stains my mouth.
!0 cr0a90/ ,ov 9o b0 ovr .0rrav9. Yov rav frov v.. !0 cavg9 v¡.
ív.90a/ of ¡vvi.ivg ,ov 90v, a. r0 .ov/ ar0, r0 .0v9 ,ov 9o av í/0v 9o
b0 a¡¡,. .v/ ,ov rav ara,. .v/ ,ov /i.ob0,0/. Yov /00¡ rvvvivg, 1av.
Yov /00¡ ivcvrrivg ovr rra9. .v/ 90 ¡a9. ,ov rvv ar0 fa.0 ov0.. Yov
r0a, 9iv/ ,ovr ov0 i. 0.0r0r0.
1he sound oí crickets chirping íades íor a moment. I am
crunched in a íetal ball, cringing, machine-íearing . . .
A new sound emerges. My head still aches dully. All oí my
body aches, but my thoughts are somewhat clearer as the sound in
my head e·ol·es into something íamiliar. Beetho·en`s 5
·an. Can the machines not come up with something more
original· I spit more írothy blood on the stone.
Yov av/ ,ovr vori0., 1av. R0v0vb0r r0 ar0 ,ov, ,ov ar0 v.. !0 9a/0
frov ,ov 9o forv v..
Am I the cause oí my own pain, then,` I whisper into the
!0 ar0 90 cav.0 of 0r0r,9ivg, 1av! Qvi9 ¡i..ivg v. off! !0 ar0 origiva
9iv/0r.! Yov ar0 90 cicF!
Blood oozes írom my ears.
1i. i. ,ovr r0ai9,! .cc0¡9 i9! 10vg0avc0 i. r0!
I íade to black.
\hen I awaken, my head still throbs, but I no longer sense the
presence oí the machines. Only the íear they will return.
I do sense the presence oí someone in the cell with me.
1hrough blurred eyes I see two íigures standing at the cell door.
Carson and the monk.
Carson speaks. \ell, well, brother Bender, welcome home.`
1he monk eyes him, but oí course says nothing.
I try to nod. No need to say anything, brethren,` Carson says.
le lowers his eyes toward the monk. Sister, you told me he was
She shakes her head as ií she doesn`t understand how my íace
can be smeared with blood, or why the íloor is speckled with dried
blood. I ha·e no new ·isible wounds.
A ·isitation, perhaps·`
1he monk nods at the possibility oí some di·ine inter·ention.
\ou . . . you`re,` my ·oice cracks, your god isn`t . . . real.`
Brethren, please, you are cleansed by the Lord and yet you
blaspheme·` Carson shakes his head. Cleansed by a ·isitation
írom our Lord. \ou disappoint me.`
I manage to sit up, with the help oí the monk, and support
myselí against the wall. lrom her robes the monk produces a wet
cloth and kneels to wipe my íace.
Carson, in a bland gray collarless shirt, still stands at the door.
\ou were always a disappointment. lrom the moment you were
brought here.` le shakes his head. Disobedient.` A bit oí spittle
íorms in the corner oí his mouth. lis íace reddens, and he
shrieks, Vile! \e tried e·erything!`
1he monk stops wiping my íace and glares back at her master.
My apologies, sister. \our patient . . . when he was with us
beíore . . . it`s just that the man . . . he didn`t accept our Lord as
real. Nor his, ah, situation. It appears he still doesn`t.`
1he monk narrows her eyes at me, scowls, and drops the cloth
at my íeet. She stands and turns and bows at Carson.
It`s íorgi·en, sister,` Carson says. \ou could not ha·e
1he monk bows again and steps behind Carson.
\ou truly belie·e you can deny the reality oí God·` Carson
asks me. L·en in his presence·`
I mumble something unintelligible e·en to myselí.
\e`ll see how you íeel in the next íew days.` 1he monk
opens the door íor him and they lea·e me alone.
\hen I was íirst brought to this place, I was not Van Bender. I
was Samuel Banks. I had a diííerent liíe. I worked as marketing
director at Aramcorp, a game company. I li·ed in a suburban
apartment in the Austex arcology with my girlíriend Kara Parker,
the same woman-days, weeks, months ago·-I watched die to
protect our child. Or so I thought.
I sit up and clasp my knees. O·erhead a íluorescent light
buzzes. It is the only source oí light in this cell. I sit and rock
autistically, listening to the light`s buzz and wonder ií that buzz
was what I heard instead oí crickets chirping, the signal the
machines were in·ading me again. My head hurts. Does that signal
the arri·al oí the machines· Someone told me withdrawing írom
the counter-sales drug would be worse than what a heroin addict
experiences when he quits smack. It`s possible the drug has leít
my system and I`m íeeling the pain oí withdrawal. Possible. But
unlikely. I wait íor the machines to arri·e.
1he machines. I exist as Van Bender because oí the machines.
I`m not sure how this is possible. \ho came íirst· Me· Sam· Am
I can remember the night the men írom the church kidnapped
me and brought me here to their little island in the Colorado Bay,
to the Ziggurat that stood alone in the shadow oí the arcology and
yet controlled that arcology and its citizens. I remember taking my
daily morning run along the banks oí the bay and at íirst not
seeing the two íigures ahead oí me because I was watching the
soít sand collapse under my íeet, watching the way the sand
cracked and the crack íill in with a ripple oí tide. Plus, I was
distracted by the audioshells in my ears pounding hea·y metal
against my eardrums. I didn`t look up until they were about thirty
I didn`t slow down, I expected them to stand aside as I ran
past. 1hey seem no diííerent írom anyone else on the beach. No
bland gray collarless shirts. No saííron robes. No Bibles. Both
men wear walking shorts and 1-shirts. I am mo·ing too íast to see
the tattoos on their necks.
\hen I realize they are not going to stand aside I ·eer toward
the water. 1he water slows my strides and they ílank me.
One grabs íor me as ií he were a middle linebacker, I juke and
e·ade him, only to shoulder into his companion, who grapples me
and crunches me into the soít sand. Next comes the íirst time I
íeel truncheons, I can`t imagine where truncheons were hidden in
In my cell, I recall the image oí these men beating me, and
imagine them in their shorts, like bicycle cops, le·eling their
truncheons against me, and I grin. It hurts to smile.
1he men oí God aren`t compassionate toward nonbelie·ers.
1hey hauled me, ribs cracked, dribbling blood írom my mouth,
into a groundcar and sped onto the New Congress A·enue Bridge
that spanned the bay, the only ci·ilian route to the Church`s
Back then, I was in this cell íor only a íew days, beíore they
began their interrogation, íollowed by their experiments. I had
disappointed them then, too. As much, or perhaps more than I
had disappointed Carson earlier this day.
\hen they íirst brought me here, I had íailed in my mission, to
steal data írom AramCorp. A simple task, since I worked there.
Or should ha·e been simple, except I when I realized what I had
stolen. 1he data to create the machines. \ith this the Church
could promise a real aíterliíe-·irtual, but real to belie·ers. A
whole new, real liíe in a paradise oí their choosing.
\e were all just data weren`t we· Downloadable bits oí
1he machines. 1he machines could recreate that data.
Ií so, was I real· \as what I was experiencing, had
experienced, will experience, real·` I was muttering, alone in the
Really Mr. Bender· Such banal questions.` Carson stood with
the door open behind him. And no, we`re not hooked up to
some mindreading de·ices. \ou`·e been mumbling your
blasphemies all aíternoon. But to answer your question: \es, Mr
Bender, you are real.`
le squints, warding oíí the glare oí the íluorescent light. 1his
is reality.` 1he íirmness gra·itates írom his ·oice. It begins to lilt
as ií he were írom the Deep South. \hen there was a Deep
South, beíore the Blight, beíore the waters arose. It, Brother
Bender, has always been your reality. As the Lord has shepherded
1he Lord is my shepherd,` I mumble. I shall not want.`
Very good, brother Bender.` le approaches me as ií I might
be a rabid dog shuííling along some dusty backwoods road, a dog
he is about to shoot to death. 1he Lord i. your shepherd.` le
squats in íront oí me. One oí the íirst lessons you learned when
you came here.`
I am ·aguely aware my head is drooping, as ií I am íalling
asleep sitting up. Brought against my will.`
But in God`s will, Brother.` le slides the tip oí his middle
íinger o·er the stone in íront oí me, swirling it in a colluded
bubble oí blood. God brought you here. le was your shepherd.`
le cocks his head, rolls it írom side to side, and raises his hand
and points the blood-smeared íinger at me. It blurs as it creeps
toward the bridge oí my nose and slithers down it.
I shi·er. le snaps up as ií started írom something, some
·aguely important ritual.
And, yet, Mr. Bender,` the Southern lilt has shri·eled, and
yet, despite this, you . . .` le turns away írom me. . . . íor lack oí
a better term . . . resisted. Resisted the will oí God. And yet here
you are. lome. Back in the lather`s house, because you lack
I`m only halí-listening. Sitting in a halí-lotus, I struggle to raise
my head. 1he headache intensiíies the more he talks. A migraine.
Something comparable to the signal the machines are coming.
Perhaps worse. My eyes spangle. I try to íocus on my íoot, on my
big toe. 1he second toe where an open sore íesters.
\ou want, Mr. Bender. \ou resist, and yet, you still want.
\hy is that·` le turns toward me. I keep my eyes lowered. 1he
scuííed black square-toe tips oí Carson`s shoes touch my toes. lis
pant cuíís jostled and apple-peel socks peek o·er his ankles. Not
part oí the standard clerical uniíorm.
I sali·ate, grow nauseous, bubble out, I . . . I . . . resi . . .`
\es, brethren, you resisted. \ou are a child oí God. A child oí
God. \e all are. \ou resisted your sal·ation. \ou strayed írom the
eightíold path. \ou chose suííering.`
I . . .didn`t.` 1ears well in my eyes. I close them and spit.
Oh, I suppose we all do at íirst, Mr. Bender.` lis shoes
scrape the stone. It`s natural to resist íreedom. It must, I
suppose, be írightening to know not only will you sur·i·e aíter
death-as our Lord has promised-to know death is not the end,
to know that ií you gi·e up your desires here and now, to know
you will end all suííering in the end, and ha·e those desires, ha·e
any desire you wish, e·en things you could only imagine, your
own uni·erse, absolute íreedom. Ií you let God shepherd you.`
Create and be like God. Be God íor all I care.`
le squats, exhales. Coííee-tainted breath reeks. I turn away
írom the odor. \ou`re surprised to hear me say this, aren`t you·`
I try to nod.
\hat does it matter once your state oí being changes
íore·er·` lis breaths become rapid as ií he is sexually stimulated.
\ou`re no longer real, no longer caught in this singular, imperíect
1he possibility, through the íuzz in my head, oí rape occurs to
Do you want to know what`s real, Mr. Bender·` lis right arm
rears back, íist clenched.
My jaw muscles tighten, eyes close, all in·oluntarily.
1his . . .` lis ·oice seems to shudder orgasmically. . . . is. . .`
Bone pops. Blood gouts, spraying droplets o·er his gray shirt.
My head jolts into the wall. I groan.
le stands and shakes his hand, unclenching his íist, and
motions íor the monk to come tend to me.
Beíore e·erything goes black, I íeel the monk`s thin íingers
touching my íace.
\hen I awaken, my eyes are swollen shut. L·ery part oí my
body throbs and I ha·e been leít alone in the cell. I am not certain
how long things like this go on. lor se·eral weeks, at least. 1he
monk tends to me. Carson comes in and he breaks my wrist,
separates my shoulder, and breaks se·eral toes and íingers. Cuts
my back and pours salt in the wounds. le waterboards me and
juices me with electricity. le tells me daily I am in want oí God,
oí God`s will and that`s why I ha·e come back. God led me to
him during the ílood. God wants me back. Ií only I were to relent
my will, then all oí this-the torture, the beatings-all oí it would
At the worst moments I begin to question my reality, doubt my
existence. \hat ií I`·e died and now I`m in the hands oí the
machines somehow and as one íinal show oí their power o·er me,
they are demonstrating that power with this elaborate and all too
real-at least as íar as pain goes-alternate reality. A hoax as
elaborate as the hospital in which I met Molly. \hat ií they ha·e
gi·en me new liíe in the only way they, or anyone, could-by
con·erting me to data·
It`s possible, isn`t it· It`s possible when Lily shot Sam behind
the Dumpster, the machines that Sam had been injected with
acted quickly and sent me-Sam Banks-to a hospital to reco·er
írom appendicitis, a wound aligned to where I was shot.
But why would they e·en need to heal me· I was just data. I
wouldn`t die. Maybe it was some sort oí transitional stage· Maybe
e·eryone arri·ed in a hospital enduring a trauma oí some sort so
they had time to accept their new reality. Something like
Purgatory· Anything is possible.
I ne·er, howe·er, break, ne·er reach íor the healing hands oí
God, I ne·er break because Carson relents his sadistic side and
calls in the monk, who tends to me, brings me back to
consciousness, íeeds me, cleans my wounds, dresses them.
She is the only reason I don`t break.
1hen aíter some time Carson arbitrarily stops the torture, aíter
snarling at me íor the last time to let go` and let God.` Aíter he
slices a butcher kniíe across my chest.
\ou`ll regret this.` le drops the kniíe at my íeet, my body
will not cooperate enough íor me to grab it.
1he monk comes, as usual, and stitches my wound. Brings me
Lnough time passes íor me to heal relati·ely well. I am
experiencing something akin to the Stockholm Syndrome, because
oí the monk. I sympathize with her, begin to see she is no more
than a ser·ant oí Carson`s.
She e·en speaks to me one morning when she has come to
swab a deep cut o·er my eyebrow. She tells me her name-Song
Li Lack. She whispers not to tell anyone. Breakers oí the silence
·ow get canings.
1here`s no one to tell,` I grumble. She giggles. No pain, no
gain, right·` ler expression grows solemn and she lowers her
eyes, bows her head. She then crawls backward toward the cell
door, head bowed.
O·er se·eral weeks, I heal. I am brought three meals a day, oí
good íood, not soup and bread, but ·egetables and small portions
oí íish and meat, real ·egetables and meat, not the processed,
gene-modded íood you buy írom markets or at restaurants like
On the louse. I`m not sure ií I e·er tasted real íood. I had heard
the Church had it. loarded it, doled it out to the highest ranks oí
the episcopate, which paid dearly íor it in dollars and reputation.
I sa·or each bite, eat slowly, crunching íresh ·egetables like
broccoli, green things I had only seen pictures oí.
1he íood upliíts my moods. And each day Song comes to treat
my wounds. She brings me real medicine, painkillers like
hydrocodone, and antidepressants, which impro·e my mood as
well. Antidepressants outside oí the Church were criminalized,
except íor the se·erely mentally ill, aíter AramCorp`s disco·ery oí
sales and anti-sales drugs. 1he Church quickly leapt to acquire the
patents on the íormulas. Aram sold out. 1he Church controlled
the minds oí those li·ing within the archipelago. Most oí us
Samuel Banks had been immune. Something in his system-a
genetic ílub, perhaps, or something else no one had disco·ered-
stopped the drugs, he was a true skeptic. le and the autists,
though the autists, because oí the nature oí their aííliction, could,
except rarely, exercise skepticism.
Banks, oí course, was not autistic. 1he Church had been
monitoring him since grade school. 1rying to íind out what made
him immune to the drugs. Blood tests, routine public school
DNA exams re·ealed nothing.
1hat`s why they kidnapped him. 1o ha·e him in their
possession was the only way they could disco·er anything. 1o
disco·er his secret. 1o íind a solution in the machines, something
he could not íight. Lxcept he escaped, until now.
Lscape. 1hat was no longer an option íor me. And, the longer
I was held here, the less I wanted to escape.
\hy would I want to escape· Once they stopped beating me, I
was íed well. And aíter some time-the notion oí time, oí what
time really is, escapes me most days-I was allowed out onto the
grounds oí the Ziggurat. In a spot where no one could see me, or
íind me, that had íresh, but humid, air. 1he kind oí air I had
known in my íormer liíe. Clouds built up, teased rain, and passed.
I would sit in the courtyard where they allowed me to roam and
sip hot oolong and sweat and look up at the blue sky and think, í
b0ovg 0r0. \hich, I`m sure is what they wanted me to think.
I would sit and pluck lea·es írom the íactory-reproduced íerns
o·erhanging the table where I sat íor halí an hour, an hour, two or
three hours, drinking tea and sometimes white wine, and I kept
coming to the same conclusion, í b0ovg 0r0.
Still, each time that thought maniíested, it was superimposed
against my íears, speciíically the íears the machines would
maniíest again. 1he íear, and, íor lack oí a better word-
curiosity-about how I had o·er the time I had been here
managed to a·oid the machine`s maniíestation.
Only once had they interíered with me, and that was when
clearly the counter-sales had worn oíí.
!0`r0 ga/ ,ov`r0 9iv/ivg of v., 1av.
I drew in a shuddering breath. Despite the mid-September
swelter, my íingertips grow numb írom an unnatural cold that
wraps my body in a chill.
I look up írom my oolong. A breeze rustles the íerns. A sil·er
shimmer íurther hazes the washed out sky. Uncharacteristcally,
their entrance lacks drama, which surprises me.
!, 90 .vr¡ri.0 1av. Yov`r0 b00v 0·¡0c9ivg r0 for r00/.. Of covr.0
r0`r0 a i990 vi/. !0`r0 b0givvivg 9o i/0 ,ov.
Yov`r0 acc0¡9ivg r0.
My knee begins to twitch in·oluntarily underneath the table, as
I try to cure my temper. An outburst now: \hat would that bring·
Another assault, a nosebleed· My head exploding·
Yov`r0 .i,. !0 cov/v`9 ¡o..ib, va/0 ,ovr 0a/ 0·¡o/0.
!0 .9a,0/ ara,. .9 ßro90r Car.ov`. r06v0.9.
I drew a deep breath, as Song had taught me, I exhaled, as
Song had taught me. I counted my breaths and became aware oí
them and tried to become aware oí the machines, accept them and
dismiss them with the breath.
1he breath wasn`t strong enough. I closed my eyes. I breathed
in and out. 1hey`re stronger than my awareness can manage.
Yov .ov/v`9 /o 9a9 1av. Dov`9 9iv/ for a vov0v9 r0 ar0 avgr,,
or0r0r. !0a.0 /ov`9 9iv/ 9a9. !0 ar0v`9. !0 vv/0r.9av/. !0 vv/0r.9av/
,ovr va9vr0 9o r0b0. . of ,ovr /iv/ /o. .v/ r0 forgir0 ,ov.
luck,` I snarl.
!a9 /o0. ´cri¡9vr0 .a, abov9 cvr.ivg, 1av.
Let no corrupt communication proceed out oí your mouth,` I
say. \here did that come írom· low did I, Van Bender, an
atheist, know the Scriptures by heart· And what was corrupt·
Yov /vor r0r, r0, ,ov .var9 ar.0, ra9 corrv¡9` v0av.. Dov`9 g09 r0
Angry· \ou want to see íucking angry·` I rake my arm across
the tabletop, spilling the oolong, the cup rolling o·er the tabletop
and a plummeting to the ground, shattering.
. 90v¡0r 9av9rvv. íor ci/i., 1av. !v9 a.i/0 ci/i. 9ivg., 1av.
My eyes spangle.
At that moment the gray skies erupt with salmon starbursts. A
thunderclap ripples, shockwa·es ·ibrating me and the table.
I shudder again. 1his time I think it`s because the machines
ha·e o·ertaken me.
lrom below the ílagstone balcony where I stand, tendrils oí
black smoke reach into the sky.
^o! 1he machines shriek, their No` almost incomprehensible.
1he balcony shudders. I stumble and reco·er. Something
groans and coughs. More smoke írosts the balcony and the
building quakes, the ripple strong enough to push me to the
ground. I crawl to the railing, liít myselí up and brace myselí
against it. I take a one-eighty look. Below me, the Ziggurat puíís
inky balls oí black smoke tinged with hot orange ílames.
1he limestone cracks underneath my íorearms. I íeel the
balcony slanting away írom my íeet. \hite smoke laps at the
black. I cough.
My eyes tear up. I see nothing except smoke.
1he balcony groans again. Clearly it`s going to íall, and me with
Guníire rattles somewhere beneath the smoke.
Charlie! It`s my íirst thought oí the boy since I`·e been held
here. I scramble across the balcony through the lrench doors that
ha·e let me outside íor weeks now, into the parlor, and collapse.
1he plainti·e cry oí rebar bending beyond its capabilities, the
grenade-like concussion oí exploding stone pierces my ears. I
turn. 1he balcony buckles, about to drop.
A hulking mercury-sil·er mass surrounds me. I belly-crawl
behind the couch. !0a.0 1av, r0 v00/ ,ov. Cov0 ov9 cov0 r0r0r0r ,ov
1he machines` desperate cry does not bring me íorward. I ha·e
no sympathy, no compassion. Song would tell me these li·ing,
pained tortured beings-machines, sentient machines, are part oí
the circle oí liíe-deser·e my attention, my compassion. Song
e·en has compassion íor Brother Carson. She`s a much better
person than I am. I want these machines tortured, destroyed.
Simple re·enge. Nothing more. 1hey robbed me oí my liíe. 1hey
are ·ampires, and ií I ha·e to dri·e a stake through these íuckers
hardri·es, I will.
^o 1av, ,ov rov`9! !0 .00 ,ov! av0 or0r! av0 or0r! 1hey skirl
o·er the back oí the couch.
I crab crawl away írom them, my íeet kicking out írom under
me. I crunch to the íloor, a lump surges to my throat as the tip oí
my spine jams against the stone. I gag.
1he machines ho·er o·er me, ready to pounce.
1hree íeet away is another set oí lrench doors. My escape. Ií I
could get to it.
Automatic weapons clatter, echoing in the distance. I ha·en`t
put any thought into who might be in charge oí this assault. I just
want to get away. Maybe somehow get to Charlie. Ií Charlie still
1he machines seem reluctant to strike. 1hey hold their place
like some strange íigure in a dream. 1hen they screech, a
Sweat beads on my íorehead. 1hree íeet, it`s only three íeet íor
the world to open up to me. I run. Pass through the swarm, heart
hammering. Pass through smoke, slightly blinded. Panting. I turn,
leít, then right. Panicky. No time íor taking deep breaths.
I ha·e íorgotten how byzantine the Ziggurat is. O·erhead
lighting ílickers. Something slams down in íront oí me. I stop
sprinting, wham into the object, a wood rooí beam. I wobble, my
knees íold, I íall. I try to liít myselí up but my eyes whirl and
·ision spins as ií I were drunk. 1aste copper in my mouth. At íirst
my stuttering mind thinks the machines ha·e caught up with and
ha·e assaulted me.
1he íloor shudders beneath me and I remember the wood
beam I crashed into, not a machine assault-this time. Abo·e me
the ceiling begins to dust me as it cracks. A thin red íilm íorms
o·er my eyes. I can`t liít myselí up. I can`t seem to pull myselí
íorward. God, help me!`
Something tugs me. \ell, I ain`t no god,` this something
grunts and jerks my underarms.
Carson· Guníire rattles again. Louder this time. My heart
hammers to its rhythm. I realize I am sitting up and ha·e been
released by whoe·er held me, and that person, a man, is aiming
down the sights oí an assault riíle, the gun belching íire at some
unseen íoe down the hallway.
le lowers the gun, then glances at me, I glimpse a íamiliar
Mo·e! Now! Go!`
I scramble to my íeet. lollow where his íinger points down the
I try not to look down at the body I jump o·er as I begin to jog
down the hall. Lumpkin co·ers my rear. Leít!` he shouts and I
turn down a short hall and sprint down a stone staircase, one I`m
not íamiliar with, though I think I should be because I thought I
was íamiliar with this area.
As I scramble down the steps, the whole building groans under
the strain oí what I can only imagine was an immense and
de·astating blast. Pebbles írom the ceiling drop under my collar as
I run. I puíí, slightly out oí breath when I reach the bottom oí the
I bend o·er, sucking in air. Lumpkin yanks me up. \ou!
lands behind your head!`
I`m mistaking his orders: I think he wants me to make a gesture
oí surrender. No íucking way. I`d rather die than go írom one
prison to another. I gather enough breath to shout, luck you!`
le rolls his eyes. \ou stupid íuck! 1ake in a deep breath.
lolding your hands up gets air to the diaphragm. Or some such
I look at him, puzzled.
\ou íucking breathe better!`
I do as he says. It seems to work.
\e mo·e on, Lumpkin pushing me íorward. 1he building
groans again. It`s ob·ious its superstructure is damaged beyond
repair and it`s going to collapse. 1he question, oí course, is where
we will be when it goes down.
Larger chunks oí stone drop írom the ceiling. One pelts me on
the cheek. I reel against the wall. Lumpkin pushes me íorward.
Always he keeps me going. L·en when I want to bend o·er and
hawk írom my lungs the ashy dust that begins to co·er us as the
rooí collapses, the dust we both inhale, he pushes me.
I`m weak, my legs coltish. My gorge rises as we scramble íoot
by íoot through collapsing corridors. Still, he keeps me going.
\e reach the end oí a long hallway. And there is a moment
when all is silent, a terrible silence when the building stops
groaning and we stop, taking in the terrible silence until my íeet
liít away írom the íloor and I íall.
1he íloor is melting, crumbling under us. An image we`·e all
seen beíore in mo·ies and games as heroes cross a bridge and
each íootstep sends great chunks into an abyss. In mo·ies and
games the hero always reaches the other side, or you pull out a
cheat code and get him across ií you`·e had enough oí struggling
to get to the next le·el.
But here, we are running out oí places to stand and there is
nothing to grab a hold oí, nothing to reach íor, pull oursel·es to
saíety-e·erything: íloors, walls, ceiling-is ·anishing as ií it were
a dream. And I could only hope I could insert the code to leap to
the next le·el, except there are no le·els leít.
Chapter 3ixteen: Blaokness
Van awakened in darkness ·isible, his head throbbing, his legs
numb. Nothing shrouded him, not e·en the dust one expects
írom the collapse oí a massi·e building.
Darkness ·isible. le remembered the phrase írom a book he
read in a college psych class, a classic essay on depression. 1he
phrase came írom an e·en more ancient text: !ara/i.0 ío.9. A
description oí the gates oí lell.
\as this blackness lell·
Or at least a reasonable íacsimile, conjured by the machines·
1he Church had promised an aíterliíe to e·ery belie·er. A
complete, alternate reality, a selí-created reality. Die and then step
into your greatest desire. Ií you coníess your íaith in the Son and
Lxcept it wasn`t selí-created. It was machine-created. \ou, as a
li·ing, thinking being, stopped existing. \ou were dead. But you as
a replica, a períect merge oí ílesh and machine, you kept going,
kept being, kept existing, howe·er you wanted to exist.
Van knew he was dead. le had tried to breathe, but something
instead oí breath rushed írom his mouth, out and down and
down. Down, oí course, because apparently he was sending
himselí to lell.
!a. í0 r0a, ra9 í co.0.
1he darkest lip oí lell waited, roared, a ·ortex ready to
swallow him, gulp him deeper into the abyss. le seemed to íloat
bodily, lazily like a íeather, toward the ·ortex oí dust and
blackness, the ·ortex oí íire and smoke.
1hen he dropped swiítly, as ií he were a pound oí íeathers, and
as he íell, he thought he heard someone crying, someone
screaming, someone gnashing his teeth. More screams roared, but
he saw nothing, no one to gi·e íace to, to gi·e ·oice to the
screams. le íell íurther, spun, became aware he was the one
screaming and trying to íorce his hands together in prayer, Oh,
Lord Jesus Christ! Oh, Merciíul Lord oí Light! Sa·e me!`
lis head jolted against something hard and his awareness oí
spinning, screaming íor sal·ation, into the abyss ·anished, as ií it
were a dream sequence.
Van.` 1he ·oice was calm, powder-soít, íamiliar.
le snapped írom the dream, ií it was a dream, back to
awareness. Silhouettes oí jagged rock and steel erupted around
him. le was caught between a stone slab and a wood beam. lis
legs and íeet were numb and stuck in the tight V the slab and
beam íormed. lis ribs ached, pain spiking his sides with each
breath. le sighed, bit his lower lip.
Someone, a woman, knelt beside him, reached íor his wrist.
Van, can you hear me·` \arm íingertips touched his wrist,
seeking a pulse. le ílinched away írom the touch.
Good. Good. Good. \ou`re ali·e.`
Something thrummed abo·e them. le strained to see through
the dark and dust, to see past the wood beam. le knew the
sound, and so did the woman tending him.
í0ico¡90r., Van thought. Mariv0 co¡¡0r.. ír0v /00¡0r .i9 9av
1he woman huddled against him, the snick oí her riíle being
locked and loaded trickled through the thrum oí rotors and
thrusters to his ear. luck. Stay down. Keep out oí their
searchlight.` She írowned. It wasn`t supposed to happen like
Behind her, another íigure crouched in the rubble.
1he thrumming oí the chopper`s twin jet engines roared abo·e
them, it`s white spotlight dappling o·er the ruins.
1he chopper ho·ered íor se·eral minutes. lelixing tendrils oí
dust der·ished around them, lashing their íaces with gray stripes.
Van`s heart hammered.
1he V\ slalomed through the cedar brake, kicking up needles.
It dropped into a clearing, ho·ered, and its doors winged up.
Go! Go! Go!` Lily shouted, and Molly and Ishmael sprinted
to the ho·ering aircar.
1hey piled into the car, its doors winged down, and it liíted
abo·e the trees with a burst oí thrusters.
Lily ducked back into the brake and lost sight oí the car. She
checked her ammo, one íull magazine in the riíle, two spare in her
Ought to be enough,` she whispered to herselí. She squinted
through the branches and down the hill the three oí them had
sprinted up and shook her head at the sight oí ashen billows oí
smoke. Oh god, I hope.`
She crouched in the co·er and switched on her binocs,
zooming the screen. 1he chopper she had seen earlier was gone,
but that didn`t mean Rachel and Lumpkin had been caught. It was
a hell oí a mess down there. Lots oí co·er.
She scanned the rubble, trying to pick up any sign oí them.
Nothing. luck.` She shrugged and slipped the binocs into the
She wo·e through the cedars, making a run íor the rubble.
Jada and laldeman were clear oí the rubble and cutting
through the thick bramble oí ash juniper and li·e oak that had
shielded all but the highest point oí the Ziggurat írom anyone
trying to spot it írom the bay. L·ery tree on the island was a
reco·ered species, bred írom reser·e gene supplies somewhere in
the structure they had just destroyed.
. o9 of .ci0vc0 goivg ov for a cvrc, Jada thought. 10ir i990
r0cava9iov of í/0v, í gv0...
Jada had taken point and had stopped about thirty meters írom
the road. She crouched behind a li·e oak and glanced back at
laldeman. \ou`re sure it was them· \ou`re sure you saw a car
lea·e beíore the temple collapsed·`
laldeman casually liíted his riíle, placing the stock against his
hip. le nodded to Jada`s question. Almost completely.`
Goddamn it laldeman! Now`s not the time.`
le grinned. Jada shook her head. lis bullshit almost broke her
resol·e to go aíter the boy. As it was, her resol·e to go aíter the
boy had been secondary to taking down the building. 1emple by
temple, the Church needed to be destroyed, e·en ií it killed good
men like Gomez. \hat did it matter the boy could resist the
machines· \ith the Church gone, the machines would ha·e no
anchor in their wilderness oí chaos, ser·ants with no masters.
Good god, Jerry, does e·erything ha·e to be joke·`
le smiled. In the war it helped to ha·e a sense oí humor.
1hat or go insane. Sometimes you went insane anyway.`
1he war was thirty years ago,` Jada said. It`s time to íorget
and let go.`
Just like you do·` lis smile was thin this time.
She turned toward the road. Let`s get a mo·e on. \here`s this
It`s an access road. About twel·e clicks up is Carson`s
parsonage. 1he road comes up behind it and circles it.`
And you`re sure they`d take the boy there·`
la·e to. No other route out, except íor the bridge. And well .
. . the bridge`s shut oíí.`
Good point.` She led the way up the road without looking
back at laldeman.
1he íigure crouched in the rubble had not raised his weapon.
1hat was a good sign. It ga·e Van a small ílicker oí hope. le and
the woman watched the chopper rise away írom them, its pilot
ob·iously satisíied he had not íound his quarry.
1he crouched íigure mo·e toward them. 1he woman peered
down her sights, bore on him. Stand down and identiíy yourselí.`
ler ·oice was soít, reticent.
1he man crawled a íew more meters then halted. Lumpkin.`
^o fvc/ivg ra,, Van thought. ^o fvc/ivg ra, 9ro of v. .vrrir0/ 9i.
Lumpkin stood, his hands on his head, his crooked smile
gleaming in the darkness.
Van couldn`t belie·e this, any oí this, was real. A dead woman,
and a man who should be dead, were trying to take him out oí the
rubble, get him to his boy.
It`s me.` le glanced at Van. Shit, boy, you look like you seen
Van shook his head, still shocked perhaps by the sight oí the
two oí them. Rachel and Lumpkin.
Jada scanned the house with her night ·ision gear. 1he goggles
were decade`s old Army surplus stuíí, and she was getting ·ery
little other than ílickers oí images in the windows, images that
could be anything.
Anything·` laldeman`s breath was hot against her neck and
was sour with coííee.
Nothing, not a goddamn thing.` She slipped the goggles oíí
her head, let them drop to the ground. Ií they`d had lLIR or
something more sophisticated it would be like they had X-ray
laldeman peered o·er her shoulder. \e`ll ha·e to go in blind.
lope íor the best. Did it all the goddamn time in the war. \e
ne·er knew what the íuck we were going to get in.`
íor of90v ra. 0 goivg 9o brivg v¡ 90 go//avv ßig9 !ar. í /i/v`9
ir0 iv 9o r0vivi.c0 av/ 90 rar .9ori0..
She could no longer íeel his presence behind her. She craned
her neck to look back. Not there.
le darted through the trees, soundlessly. 1hat`s why she hired
him: his special íorces training had kicked in. le stopped and
signaled íor her to mo·e íorward. She hoped he had a plan.
She kept a íew meters behind him. le was making his way
along the perimeter oí the house, heading toward the back where
silhouetted beneath the amber haze oí a security light was
Carson`s tri-car parked in íront oí a garage door.
laldeman was right, then, at least about Carson: the minister
had escaped the destruction oí his temple.
laldeman took co·er behind a thick li·e oak. 1he woods had
thinned out the closer they came to the parsonage and opened
onto a clearing, a wide landscaped yard.
Jada hadn`t seen this much healthy greenery in years, not e·en
in the parks that swatched the arcology. She íound co·er behind
an oak stump near laldeman.
le was clearly trying to map out co·er. 1he close-mown grass
oííered nothing. 1he house was on a low slope, but the slope ga·e
them nothing either. 1he best they might be able to do, Jada
thought, was make a hard sprint across the yard-about íorty
meters-crash into the back door and hope íor surprise.
1he mercenary glanced at her and pointed to his leít. A deep
cement drainage ditch was cut into the yard and the ditch ran
under a bridge that connected the dri·e to a road.
^0r0r /ovb90/ ,ov a bi9, ía/0vav, Jada thought, delighted by the
laldeman motioned íor her to crawl around him and head up
an animal trail to the ditch. She bellycrawled a íew meters, then
crouched and ran to the ditch. She scrambled down into a stream
oí ankle-deep water, runoíí írom recent ílooding. 1he ditch was
cut like a narrow trench. She knelt in the silty muck and peered
o·er the ditch wall.
Aíter a moment laldeman mo·ed in and knelt beside her.
1hey both had a clear ·iew oí the house and Carson`s car.
Jada started to a squawk. 1he garage door was ambling up.
Shit,` she whispered to laldeman.
le said nothing, just kept watch. lis patience was incredible
and clearly what Jada had spent to hire him was paying oíí.
le had outlined their plan oí attack as they had been traipsing
through the woods. She would go in íirst, he would pro·ide
suppressing íire ií needed.
1wo íigures, one much smaller than the other, emerged írom
the garage. 10 bo, av/ Car.ov, a¡¡ar0v9, vvgvar/0/, Jada thought.
1a9 va/0 vo fvc/ivg .0v.0. She didn`t ha·e time to think about it.
laldeman tapped her shoulder, the signal to go.
1he ditch`s slope was gentle and she had no trouble scaling it.
She was mo·ing in on the boy and Carson, her weapon raised,
keeping Carson in her sights. Stand down, stand down, stand
down!` she yelled. She closed in.
Carson made no mo·e, not e·en to shield the boy.
Jada stopped, took a position behind the car. She held her
weapon on Carson. In the dim security light she could make out a
íaint grin on Carson`s íace. 1he boy was shaking, as ií he were
about to collapse and ha·e a seizure.
\hat the íuck is this·` Jada said.
Carson nodded. Perhaps you are the one who should stand
lea·y boots clomped behind her. 1he bolt oí a riíle locking a
round in the chamber íollowed.
luck.` She glanced to the right and saw someone taking aim
at her head. She closed her eyes and screamed, It`s a trap,
laldeman! A trap! Get the íuck out!`
A íamiliar gra·elly ·oice answered behind her. I know. Now,
She looked up at Carson.
1he minister shrugged. I`d do as he says.`
She lowered her weapon.
C¬AP1LR 17: BL1RA¥AL3
1hey hobbled through the rubble, caked in white ash, ·aguely
aware they were heading west, Rachel in the lead. Sirens bellowed.
lere and there they could make out the ílicker oí spotlights
dappling the rubble. Se·eral times they had seen choppers in the
Rachel stopped. She banged the side oí her portable GPS
system. Goddamn it.`
Still no signal,` Lumpkin drawled.
She glared at him. le was co·ering the rear, a good idea since
he and Rachel were the only two armed.
No, I just like beating the crap out oí electronics.`
\ou`re special ops. \eren`t you trained in orienteering·`
\eren`t you·` she snarled.
Van, standing between them, shook his head in disgust. Jesus
Christ, I`m stuck with comedians trying to íigure out who has the
biggest pair oí stones.`
Both glared at him.
Ob·iously you ha·en`t worked with these two long enough.`
1he ·oice came írom abo·e them. It was íeminine, scratchy,
slightly out oí breath.
Perched at the top oí a heap oí rubble was another armed
íigure. lor once Van appreciated the sight oí the spiky-haired Lily
O·er the hiss and crackle oí Lily`s bad comlink connection all
íour heard Jada say, \e`·e íound him. \e`·e íound the boy.`
\here·` Lily asked.
A surge oí adrenaline kicked through Van`s ·eins. Charlie was
ali·e and Van`s boss had íound the boy.
Carson`s parsonage,` the comlink hissed. Need some help.`
1he comlink went dead.
Lily brought out her datapad and pulled up a map oí the island.
All íour reacted to the chatter and crack oí guníire in the
Jada·` Van said.
Lily shrugged. Doubt it. Probably just part oí the chaos we`·e
A planned attack· \e`re terrorists·`
Ií you want to think oí it that way,` Lily said. She looked at
Rachel and Lumpkin. \e`re on the side oí reason. \hate·er
opposes it . . . we see that as our enemy.`
\e need to stop the goddamn chattering and mo·e out,`
Lumpkin said. le looked at me. \ou want to sa·e your boy,
1hen íucking don`t worry about it.`
1hey mo·ed out in silence, íollowing Lily. 1he trek through
the rubble had them stumbling and coughing and by the time they
emerged, they were white like ghosts, ash and dust smeared o·er
1he caking oí ash and dust might make them more ·isible in
the dark, ·isible to jetcopter spotlights, ·isible to anyone on the
ground. Others who had sur·i·ed the Ziggurat`s collapse-and
there must`·e been others-must`·e been coated like they were.
All ghosts. ´ov0ov0 vv.9`r0 .vrrir0/ 9i. .i9, Van thought. íf r0 /i/,
.ov0ov0 0.0 vv.9`r0.
le couldn`t accept they were the only sur·i·ors. \et, here they
were, crossing a wasteland into a cedar brake, and no one else had
1hese íreedom íighters mo·ed swiítly. All oí them trained in
the military. All oí them, as íar as he knew, special ops.
1here had been so many lies. Rachel was dead. Now she was
ali·e. Could Kara be ali·e· Van was married, and then he had a
child. le had been pulled through so many realities. !a9 ra. r0a.
!0o¡0 0·i.9 ov, r0v í`v ¡r0.0v9. !a90r0r í rav990 /0a/ cav cov0
bac/ av/ r0.cv0 v0; r0 cav .vrrir0 90 coa¡.0 of a bvi/ivg . . . í cav foor
a rovav ro ovc0 9ri0/ 9o /i v0. .9 ov0 9iv0 í ra. varri0/. .9 ov0 9iv0 í
a/ a or0r ro bor0 v, ci/. !a9 cov/ í /vor. Ma,b0 a of i9 ra. a
vavif0.9a9iov of a 9orv ivagiva9iov. . ror/ í cr0a90/ av/ r0ri.0/ a. i9
b0cav0 vvacc0¡9ab0 9o v0. í cov/ go 9rovg if0 cr0a9ivg av/ vavif0.9ivg
ro0 v0r r0ai9i0. av/ a99ac/ 9o.0 r0ai9i0. if 90, /i/ vo9 coo¡0ra90 ri9 v,
vavif0.9a9iov. A therapist, or a girlíriend, he couldn`t remember
which, had told him he couldn`t accept reality as it was, so he
attacked it, tried to control it, e·ery aspect. Change it when he was
Ma,b0 9a9`. r, 90 vaciv0. ¡ic/0/ v0. 10, .ar v, v00/ for cov9ro.
le should ha·e paid attention. le should ha·e been watching
these soldiers, watching them protect him, watching them take
them to his son.
1hey had crossed a road, íollowed it. Ducked into trees that
did not exist on the mainland, as ií they were a creation,
something he recalled írom old photos. Until they came to a wide
lawn with little co·er and Carson`s tri-car was parked behind a
It`s a trap,` Lumpkin said.
Oí course it`s a trap,` Rachel said.
\hy do you say that·` Van asked.
Rachel looked at him. 1oo easy. 1hey let us íind this place
with almost no eííort. 1hey`re expecting us.`
Next you`ll say, 1hey`re not going to get me without a íight.``
Lily mo·ed toward them. \hat`s the deal·`
Just explaining to him how this is a trap,` Rachel said.
\e`re íucked, yeah,` Lily said.
Someone`s set us up,` Rachel said.
Lumpkin spat against the ground. 1en to one it was your
boss, kid.` le nodded at Van.
Oí course,` Rachel said. Oí course it`s her. And I`d say we
íuck her up good. Aíter we get the kid, oí course.`
Mo·e in, then,` Lily said.
1hey skirted the perimeter oí the cedar brake and headed
toward the ditch. 1hey crouched in the ditch.
1aken this.` She dropped a hea·y handgun in Van`s hand. A
weapon much like the one he had handled the night Rachel had
been shot in the gym.
le tried to wrap his brain around the idea íor a moment and
then checked his weapon.
1he three spec ops soldiers had disappeared. le scrambled
írom the ditch and crawled a íew íeet. 1he commandos were at
the back door, Lumpkin co·ering the rear and the leít ílank,
Rachel co·ering the right ílank and Lily ready to kick the door
1he scene reminded him oí ·ideo oí cops raiding crackhouses
in the middle 0s a century ago, black clad, armored, slamming
into doors to the ·acant stares oí dealers and skin-draped hookers.
1he door wings open írom the pressure oí Lily`s kick.
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