Part One: The Old World
Rene Sozia dreamt of The Big Bang once, the night her
In the dream, she was an impartial observer hovering
above a tiny speck of one-dimensional nothing. She had no
sense of depth or distance; she could have been a
micrometer from a tiny object or she could have been light
years from a large one; there was no way to judge.
It was a shape so small that it could not possibly
have any substance. It was perfect, ideal geometry so
complex that it could not possibly have described an area
of space. It was whole; there was nothing outside of it.
Nothing but the open eyes of a third-party observer.
In her dream, Rene could see the universe react to her
presence. She felt it like a sound wave in heavy water.
She sensed it beyond all the sensual organs of her body.
It trembled with uncertainty. It is tiny and I am huge,
she thought. In this strange fever dream, she could sense
the universe drifting towards her. She had no way to know
how fast it was coming, but she knew that it was attracted
to her like a stray photon to a collapsed neutron star.
The speck of one-dimensional geometry experienced
It desired certainty, and it suffered the difference.
It exploded into fractured space.
It engulfed her as it grew large in four dimensions,
and vanished from her sight as it shrank into a hundred
more. The stuff of the universe exploded into electrons,
protons, and neutrons, which combined into large, stable
structures that now dwarfed her. It created certainty out
of space, as a defense: certainty that a positive charge
will cancel a negative, certainty that all things will fall
apart and die, and certainty that at the end of time,
everything the universe ever was will collapse and return
to the unified space from whence it came.
But in between, it exploded into a riot of forms, and
every form was nothing but a transient solution to the
primary, universal desire-for-certainty.
Before the dream faded, Rene would see this desire.
She would see its shape.
It was shaped like a tessaract.
Awake in the World of Skin
Rene Sozia was having this dream at the age of eleven,
in a large rented van outside the Ganzwelt Theater in
Berlin, seated beside her younger sister, Sasha. Both
girls had short brown hair, giant brown eyes, a sharp jaw
line, and a scrawny form that came from an unsteady diet of
whatever tasted good.
It was summer. It was late.
On the theater marquee: "KALI UND TANNIS SOZIA:
Posters in the display windows showed Rene's parents
facing off across a colored image of an unfolded hypercube.
They were gorgeous, splendid Finnish junkies, pale and
gaunt, not a gram of fat on their bodies -- nothing put
away for the future.
Rene's younger sister Sasha leaned her head out of the
window of the van and sniffed the air. Sasha was nine.
Rene snored lightly beside her.
"It smells funny out here," Sasha said, taking in the
ozone smell of electric motors mixed in with summer pollen,
burnt espresso, and the drifting smoke of a Turkish incense
dealer set up on the street two blocks away.
"It's clean," replied Asa Fisk, the Sozia's attorney
and manager. Asa drank a cup of coffee and ran a hand
through his thinning black hair. He had a bitter smile.
Both girls thought of him as a father, for it was Asa who
maintained order and sobriety in the chaos of their
nomadic, bohemian childhood.
Inside the theater, Kali and Tannis performed an
interpretive dance in traditional black leotards. It was
the culmination of a dream Kali had suffered as a child,
the expression of the One Truth this haunted performance
artist had carried her entire life. It had taken her ten
years to discover she could only describe her vision by
using every muscle in her body, and another twenty-six
years to teach her bones to fold just so.
The center of the stage glowed with a huge, slowly
moving holographic cube, shimmering with the full spectrum
of visible light. As Kali and Tannis Sozia danced, the
"The tessaract," they chanted.
"Evidence of our shortcomings," he said.
"Evidence of the true shape of the universe," she
"A universe we are biologically incapable of
"We cannot see it," she said.
"We cannot hear it."
"We cannot taste it," she said.
"We cannot smell it."
"We cannot touch it," she said.
"No matter how far we reach."
"Deeper than a flood," she said.
"Closer than your blood," he replied.
He felt weak. He looked for her.
He saw her collapse on stage. The audience of wealthy
Green yuppies in designer fibers gasped and murmured. Kali
stared up at the holograph of the tessaract, and twitched,
one final gesture of defiance against the irrepresentable
Tannis fell to her side, took her by the shoulders and
shook her. "Kali! Get up!"
She opened her eyes and drew her last breath. She
looked up at him, terrified, but not of death. She was
terrified of the tessaract glowing over his shoulder. She
looked at it like she had never seen it before, and then
looked to him. She was not herself.
Her diaphragm was too relaxed to draw another breath.
She suffocated on stage.
In the van outside, Rene awoke and drew breath like
she had never used her lungs. She gasped like a fish out
of water, eyes bulging, and clenched her hands into fists.
She looked around, and paled with horror. "Oh, no. I
don't believe it."
Beside her, Sasha drew sharp breath of her own.
"Mother, no!" She pulled the handle and opened the door,
left it open, dashed through a group of Hindi tourists and
into the theater.
Asa followed her quickly. "Sasha, wait! What it is?
He dashed two steps towards the theater, and then ran
back to the van, closed the door Sasha had left open.
"Rene, stay here."
Upon hearing her name, Rene caught her own eye in the
van's rearview mirror. She was eleven. She was Rene.
"This can't be happening. This can't be real." She shut
her eyes, balled her hands into fists, and covered her
ears. "My name is Athena. My name is Athena."
Tannis overdosed that night.
Rene spent the next two months in a mental institution
in a near-vegetative trance induced by top-notch
pharmaceuticals, staring at the padded walls and reciting
her singular incantation. She wore a straight jacket
because when she was admitted, she had torn her entire
forehead from her skull because, she would eventually
explain, she couldn't stand to be trapped in her body any
more. A danger to herself, she wore a straight jacket and
ate a steady diet of thorazine.
There she sat, naming an endless and seemingly random
series of Platonic solids: tetrahedron, cube, octahedron,
dodecahedron, and icosahedron. She named them over and
over, in her every waking hour, and then again during her
Sasha meets Duval
While Rene remained lost to her psychosis, Asa Fisk
settled the Sozia estate and sent Sasha to a small, all-
girls' Catholic boarding school in Paris called Saint
Joan's. He took legal guardianship of the girls. He kept
his secret from them, but a lifetime of stress and
cigarettes had left him less than five years to live, and
he knew it. He could feel it when he walked up a flight of
stairs. He began to look for any relations who could take
his place, and he found a man named Duval Coeur-des-Anne.
Their last surviving relative, Duval was a distant
cousin at best, but he was also a French businessman of
thirty-nine, a flashy dresser, a noted womanizer who had
lost his family at a young age and clawed his way to the
top. He had a hodge-podge of unattractive features: fat
lips, puffy cheeks, parted eyes, thick black eyebrows, but
Asa thought that he had a good heart.
Asa calculated correctly the effect on Duval of
suddenly having two more orphans thrust on him by a dying
man. It was painfully French, and Duval had no choice but
to play it through. Sasha wore the plaid skirt and navy
blazer of a private Catholic school, and smiled up at Duval
with more than childish mischief in her eyes. Asa
explained their position. "The estate settled enough for
both girls to attend a fine boarding school in Paris, but
Rene has fallen into a trance."
Duval and Asa flew to Berlin to see Rene.
They met Dr. Skoldin in the lobby of the Prussian
sanitarium; she was a heavy Slovenian woman, weary with the
psychopathologies of the deeply disturbed children under
her care; she was gray at thirty-seven.
Asa waited in the lobby while Skoldin took Duval in to
the ward. "Lost both of her parents on the same night to a
batch of bad heroin." She shook her head with rote
Duval gave a rote response. "Yes. Tragic."
"When she was admitted, she was hysterical. She tried
to kill herself several times. She kept claiming she was
the goddess, Athena, trapped here by mistake in what she
called 'the world of skin.'"
"Does she remember anything before that?"
"Once, she mentioned having to get back to China, but
that was all she said about it."
Duval asked if Rene had been to China.
Dr. Skoldin shook her head. "Asa says no, and he's
known her all her life. It was probably a metaphor, like
the slow boat or crossing the Jordan River. After two
days, she became non-responsive. We adjusted her
medication. We take her for walks around the gardens, but
she's not there. She's somewhere else."
They stopped at Rene's door and looked in through the
glass window. Inside, there was a bed, a dresser, a
mirror, and a steel chair. Rene, a scrawny little girl,
sat on the steel chair and stared at the wall, lazily
naming geometric forms, rocking slightly for punctuation:
"Cube, dodecahedron, tetrahedron, octahedron, cube,
icosahedron, octahedron, octahedron, cube, octahedron,
dodecahedron, dodecahedron, tessaract."
"Is there a pattern?"
Dr. Skoldin nodded. "It's a long, repeating string
made up of six basic shapes. There's the five Platonic
solids, plus this shape called a tessaract."
"I meant could it be a code of some kind?"
Dr. Skoldin shrugged. "It could; it's always the
same. But I doubt it. The subject is adrift in a world of
chaos. The naming and visualization of these geometric
shapes is a prayer for order, nothing more." She sighed.
"We've tried to get her to respond to geometry, to other
shapes, to pictures of these shapes, but we get nothing
from her. It's like her senses are all turned off."
A year went by, and then a few months, and December 19
found Duval in Paris, preparing the large apartment he kept
for business and indiscretions for Sasha's vacation from
He was in the middle of negotiating the sale of his
robotics company, the company he had spent the last ten
years building. He awoke, he prayed in the mighty name of
Jesus, he watched financial news while he ran on a
treadmill and reviewed the final contracts he would go in
to the office today to sign.
Last night, he had fallen asleep tipsy after a
celebratory feast at a nearby bistro with the buyer and the
buyer's sharp female attorney. He had fallen asleep
dreaming of the money, dreaming of all the work, all the
stress, all the late nights and ruthless decisions, the
weight of responsibility that had twisted his back and
elevated his blood pressure, everything he had done to
become the world's premier supplier of intelligent assembly
line machinery, all of it was finally about to pay off. He
was about to be paid one lump sum for a lifetime of hard
Fifty million euros.
The castle he wanted in Burgundy only cost two;
renovations would only cost another four. It had stables,
which would need horses, for maybe another four million.
Servants, definitely, even if it meant another million a
year. The house in Cozumel and the yacht that would anchor
off the private pier would cost another two or three
million. Sasha and Rene would never worry about money
Duval wanted to wake up and continue to dream of the
Fifty million euros.
But while he was running on the treadmill, watching
the tickers from Frankfurt and London, he could not focus
on the contract in front of him. He wanted to review
paragraphs that he found particularly thrilling, such as
the one that gave him additional shares in the new company,
and a seat on its Board of Directors, or the paragraph that
created the obligation to continue to run his part of the
new company in compliance with the Zero Waste Initiative.
He ran his finger over the page, but all he could see
was his young cousin Sasha, dressed in her navy blazer and
plaid skirt, sitting in his office, shaking her head,
Fifty million euros, she said, isn't enough.
He showered, with Sasha's image in his brain, scolding
him the whole time.
By the time he was dressed and seated in the back of
his chauffeured sedan, behind bulletproof windows, alone
with his telephones and briefcase, he couldn't even see the
contract. All he could see was her.
"It's seller's remorse," he consoled himself. "You're
just scared because you've never done anything else. It's
normal. It's natural."
And in his mind, Sasha shook her head and whispered,
"Don't do it."
He had wanted to be done with this business to
surprise her, to have all the time in the world for her, to
have her there to celebrate, to pop the cork. He was proud
of her and wanted her to be proud of him.
In the last seventeen months, Sasha had become very
popular at her boarding school, making friends easily,
joining clubs and earning top marks in every class.
Teachers commented that she never got an answer wrong, and
Duval had put his hand on Sasha's shoulder proudly,
defending her with a smug grin to the suspicious Mother
Superior, "Is there something wrong with that?"
He'd seen her confirmed into The Church. He had seen
her pray to the Virgin Mary. He had never seen her fail at
anything she attempted.
He had never talked to her about his business. She
Upon opening his office door, he half expected to see
her there, sitting in his chair, shaking her head and
telling him that fifty million euros was not enough.
She came from a half-day at school, rode the Metro to
Duval's office, and sat on the couch in a sterile reception
area decorated with dead flowers and framed blueprints.
Inside, Duval met with his buyer and his buyer's lawyer.
Sasha sat in the lobby and waited, and then, for no reason
she could explain, she stood up and barged in to the
She marched through the cubicles that she had never
set foot in before, and the dour secretaries and suntanned
salespeople stared at her, curious. "Can I help you, young
She stormed through. "No, thank you."
She walked past older secretaries, administrative
assistants in gray pantsuits, now on a mission. She
stopped at the door to the conference room and opened it
just as Duval was preparing to sign.
He turned to her, and his face went pale. "Sasha,
what you doing here?" He could barely speak, as his mouth
went dry, parched and arid.
"I need to talk to you right now," she answered,
He smiled, glanced at his guests. "In a moment. I'm
She stomped her foot and screamed, "Now! Now! Now!"
The gentleman from the automaker and his stylish
female attorney shared a knowing glance, and suddenly,
Duval felt his situation dissolve into uncertainty; they
were observing him, and Sasha had robbed him of control
over what they saw.
"Come with me," he told her, took her hand firmly, and
led her out of the room, down the hall, curtly, dragging
her, and pushed her into his office.
He closed the door behind him, just short of a slam.
He took a deep breath and prepared to lay in to her with a
"He's lying," she said. "He doesn't have financing."
Duval froze, gaped, and then deflated, walked to a
client's chair, collapsed in it.
"What did you say?"
"That man in there. He can't finance this deal
without a third company, and he can't acquire one until you
agree to sell."
Duval blinked and took Sasha by the shoulders, set her
down in the second client's chair and looked into her eyes.
"What do you know about this deal?"
She thought for a moment. "You make parts for
automated machinery. Robots and such. They make cars, but
all of their competitors also make robots. They want to be
bought out by an overseas partner, and they need you to
fill out their portfolio."
"You don't think I should sign."
She shook her head and went on in a plain, informed
voice. "There's more. Your company complies with the Zero
Waste Initiative. Theirs doesn't. If they don't have you
to 'green' their numbers before their exception expires
next year, they'll face fines that will cost them their
major financial backing. They only have enough capital to
make one investment, and yours is the only company that
fits both criteria."
Duval smiled, delighted at being caught, amazed at his
adopted cousin. She spoke it like it made sense. Like a
ten-year-old girl could see it so clearly. He licked his
lips and his mouth went dry and he felt weak in the knees,
as if he had scratched four winning numbers on a five-
number lottery ticket. "How do you know all this?"
She looked down, worried. "I just saw it. As if I
was right there, watching you in that room." Her eyes
looked up at him, scared but defiant, as if he had raised a
hand to strike her.
"Has this ever happened before?" he asked her.
She shook her head slowly, ashamed, then revised her
response and nodded. "Once. With my sister. The night
our parents died."
He swallowed the nervous lump in his throat and put a
hand on her knee. "You didn't do anything wrong." He
smiled at her, touched her chin. "I won't tell if you
don't." Then he nodded to the door and grinned. "What
should I do with them?"
She folded her arms and nodded as if the whole issue
presented only one solution. "You should buy him out."
A tremble ran up and down Duval's spine. For the
first time ever, he considered the possibility that he
could be bigger than a company with a fifty million euro
price tag. He saw a billion, and his fist clenched around
"How much do you think I should offer him?"
She rolled her eyes. "I don't know. Start low. Two
"And where will I get this money?"
She squinted and thought and bit her bottom lip.
"It's there. There's a way. You can split up his company,
sell off the parts, and just keep their heavy machinery
business. It makes more sense for you to become a well-
rounded and entirely green robotics concern out of all
this. You can then borrow against the Green Interest
Deduction that your smaller, cleaner company will reap from
the European Central Bank."
He stared at her, in awe, and knew that she was
speaking the truth. A ten-year-old girl in a Catholic
schoolgirl's uniform knew more about this deal than its
He took hold of Sasha's shoulder and felt power in his
hands. "Are you certain?" he asked her.
She nodded. "I'm certain."
Duval Meets August
Barely a month went by before Sasha was called out of
school by Duval to join him for dinner in the private back
room of a Paris bistro. He explained to her that some of
his business peers used to seek the advice of a woman in
Switzerland as a kind of business oracle until her recent
death. "Do you know how the Tibetan lamas find the souls
of their masters reincarnated in young children? These
people think you're the same way. Humor them."
Sasha ate a light pasta meal while two nervous old men
in suits waited for her attention and half-heartedly
listened to Duval talk about his corporate sponsorship of
robot war teams. When Sasha finished eating, the first of
her guests stepped up, put a briefcase on the table, opened
it, and showed Sasha stacks of wrapped euro bills. Duval
nodded and the supplicant closed his case, looked over his
shoulder, and whispered in Sasha's ear. She listened and
then said, "No."
The man smiled and left.
The next one approached her, opened his own steel
briefcase filled with cash, leaned forward and whispered
his own question in her ear. She shook her head and said,
"Not this quarter. Wait for the weather report from
After dinner, she told Duval, "That was fun."
He showed her the money. "Not bad pay for answering
two little questions."
Duval's restructure and renovation of his new company
attracted fawning reviews in the European press. His
company now sold entirely automated assembly lines, custom
suited for any manufacturing industry. Every one of his
factories was a model of Zero Waste production. Contracts
poured in, and so did his admirers.
Duval moved his offices to his Green factory in
Burgundy -- an assembly line that produced assembly line
parts, which were then shipped to clients and assembled as
needed. Duval believed that one of the signs of rising
above the heap was the ability to bring the mountain to
you. The day August de Winter came to visit Duval in
Burgundy was the day that Duval's mountain came calling.
August de Winter, the Swiss Deputy Director of the
European Central Bank, liked Duval for one simple reason:
he knew everything about him in an instant. He knew that
the only thing Duval cared for was respect. He wanted all
the symbols of status and class. He didn't care if the
masses fawned; he only wanted the grudging -- and it had to
be grudging -- respect of the elite, the technocrats and
financiers, the inner circle of government reserves and
August de Winter, of course, was one of those elite,
and not just for his intimate familiarity with every
financial index or economic indicator required to project
risk on to a business venture and verify its success.
August de Winter came from a family line that collected
titles bestowed by a dozen defunct monarchies. He was four
times a Lord, seven times a Baron, two times a Duke, and
upon the (unlikely) death of a young woman in Luxembourg,
he would become Holy Roman Emperor.
August's passion, and the ultimate reason that he
opened a credit line to Duval was his fundamentalist
approach to ecology. He invented Green Tariffs and Zero
Waste economics. He drafted the penalties that taxed a
business based on its environmental impact. He rammed it
through the World Trade Organization and sent the United
States scrambling to retaliate. He had polarized the world
with his "new moral code for capitalism," and he took every
opportunity to advance that code. A few smart businessmen
had found the formula that allowed them to prosper in the
new system, while others stuttered, faltered, and fell
prey. Duval was one of the smart ones.
In short, he liked Duval because Duval was his
According to Duval's contacts, August had left the
Central Bank six months ago when his sister, Julia, died
during a mountain climbing accident, near their home in
Switzerland. He had already become a recluse after he was
nominated for (but did not win) the Nobel Prize in
economics for his work on Green Tariffs. He had been in
semi-retirement at a huge castle in Swiss Bavaria for the
last six years, where the Central Bank's planners and risk
managers came to consult. Then his sister died, and the
The visit to Duval's factory was the first outing
August de Winter had made from the walled confines of his
alpine retreat in almost six years. According to his
attorney, August merely wanted to see in person the "Green
Standard" he had heard so much about.
He appeared every bit as impressive as his myth. He
was tall, broad, fit, robust, with very short white hair, a
square jaw, straight nose, and eyes that saw more than what
the world showed him. He wore a conservative gray banker's
suit, and the lines on his tanned, weathered skin showed no
emotion, only age.
He shook Duval's hand after he emerged from a
chartered helicopter on the landing pad outside the
factory. Duval had debated all morning about whether or
not to meet August in person or wait for him in his office,
and finally had called Sasha. She said she couldn't help
him, she was in the middle of class, but "if you were
coming to meet someone for the first time, which would you
August took the tour, nodding, remarking on the
manufacturer of the glass, the lighting, the gutter design,
the water filters, but he was looking for something else.
At the end of the tour, in Duval's office, they broke
bread, opened a bottle of wine, and ate lunch. August said
he was very impressed. "I've heard you were one of the
first to see the advantages of looking at a triple bottom
"Got me everything I have," Duval agreed.
"You believe in Zero Waste, then?"
Duval took a deep breath. The very last thing he
wanted was to appear as a fan, or a disciple. He heard
August fancied himself as Constantine, enshrining a
heretical sect as the national religion of Europe. If that
were true, Duval would like to see himself as Charlemagne.
If August was Mohammed, Duval would be Saladin.
"I believe it is a useful guideline," Duval answered.
August nodded. "Zero Waste has many logical
conclusions." He looked up at a blueprint on the wall for
a humanoid robot, part of a painting done by a neo-
surrealist. "Have you considered building yourself a new
Duval laughed. "I'd be lying if I said no."
"Immortality," August blurted out suddenly, "is one
ultimate expression of Zero Waste economics." He pointed
at the painting: half blueprint, half smiling man. "Does
it generate less entropy to house our minds in a mechanical
body? Or if you want long-term durability, are organic
bodies really the best way to go?"
Duval leaned back and thought about it. "What about
August snorted. "The Borg," he said.
August looked up. "The Borg," he repeated. "From
"The TV show?" It was familiar to Duval by name only.
"I've never seen it."
August was amazed. "You've never seen 'Star Trek?'"
Two weeks later, after Sasha had won the European
finals in MENSA, Duval picked her up from the old, vine-
covered school in Paris and drove her out to a small
suburban airfield, where August de Winter's jet waited to
take them back to his castle for the weekend so they could
watch "Star Trek."
Sasha snorted. "'Star Trek' is for geeks," she told
They landed outside Zurich and were met by a
bulletproof limousine. It was a short drive up a curving,
Alpine road on an early spring afternoon. A light fog hung
in the thick trees, obscuring everything but the dark
forest and the climbing road.
"Is he rich?" Sasha asked at length.
Duval took a deep breath. He had heard rumors, and
the world had seen him pay seven hundred million euros for
four failing mining companies in The Congo, seven times
what they were worth, just to put them out of business, and
the rumors persisted that it was money he pulled out of his
back pocket without batting at eye. Duval knew better than
to look at the numbers.
"You have heard of this new Green Tariff system?" he
Sasha nodded. "It's in the news. You're the guy they
"Through his influence over that system," Duval told
her, "August de Winter literally owns the very definition
Sasha leaned over and nodded to the pane of glass
separating them from the front seat. "Our driver," she
said, "would give his life for him."
They crept through a gate in wide stone wall, and the
mist broke to bright Bavarian blue skies, and the sight of
a castle that looked like it had been hewn from the
The limousine pulled up to a courtyard built out from
the main tower. Sasha could see at once that the location
had drawn a series of interested builders. What appeared
to be a monastery provided the front of the building, most
of it carved into the living rock. Above this stood a high
tower with four stone turrets, state-of-the-art siege
defenses for 1000 CE. Under this main tower, a network of
long stone corridors cut through the mountain, leading to a
newer, more luxurious rear house, complete with a lawn,
gardens, and a breathtaking view of the headwaters of the
Upon entering the cold, plain stone entrance hallway,
Sasha noticed immediately that after climbing up to the top
of the Alps on one long, uphill road, there were still
steps leading up to the front door; the front entrance
itself was another long staircase leading up to the main
hall, and every exit from that hall was another staircase
leading up again.
The second thing she noticed was the staff. The cook
and chauffer were full-time, long-time employees who were
very worried about their boss, worried that he would close
the house and send them away, worried that he, too, would
do something reckless and kill himself like his late
sister. For these two servants, her death hung over the
immaculately cleaned and professionally kept castle as if
to let her go would be to let these worries become reality.
The rest of the staff had been hired for the weekend to
make the castle look as good as possible. It took Sasha
until that evening to realize that she and Duval were the
reason August had gone through the trouble.
Duval almost felt disappointed. At last, here were
the corridors of power he had so longed to see, and they
were occupied in sterility by a lonely old man with a dead
sister and an anonymous staff of professional servants.
August met them in the entrance hall, wearing a polo
shirt and a knit wool sweater; Sasha's very first thought
of him was that he preferred the cold. Then she said to
herself, "His name is de Winter. Of course he prefers the
cold." He looked at home in a castle, in this castle, here
at the edge of the Black Forest, here at the center of the
West. He appeared as a protein channel on a membrane made
of money that separated the wealthy and their wealth. If
Capital was water, he had redesigned its ice caps, lakes,
watersheds and aquifers to change the way it trickled down.
But other than this obvious impression, Sasha felt
nothing from August as he took her hand and smiled and
introduced himself to her. He was a void, a great wall, a
closed blast door in front of a well-stocked bomb shelter.
When he looked at her, she had to shy away; his eyes saw
more than she wanted to show him.
Then he said, "I saw your parents dance once, in
Ibiza. Your mother was brilliant."
Duval could not picture August in Ibiza.
Sasha drew a quick breath and held it nervously.
August continued. "I went because I knew your
grandmother." He stood up. "She taught advanced calculus
at the London School of Economics, where my sister received
her master's degree. They shared a bond."
August gave them a tour of the weapons and arms that
his late sister had spent most of her life traveling the
world to collect. The pieces ranged from flint axes found
in France to elaborately decorative cannons made in China,
swords, bows, spears, armor, a Winchester repeating rifle,
and all the way up to a defused cruise missile from Boeing.
"My sister always said that the best place for weapons was
in a museum."
They ate a light dinner of fruit salad and grilled
mushroom sandwiches, in a modern dining room in the new
house, with a view of the gardens and the sun setting over
the mountains below them. Sasha wanted to know more about
her grandmother. "My mother never spoke of her."
"Rene Whitehall," he said. "She was nominated four
times for the Nobel Prize, but never won. She had only the
one daughter, Kali, after a one-night stand during a
convention in New Delhi." He paused from his meal and
looked at her, waited for her to pause and look back at
him. "She died," he said, "the day your mother married
that dancer from Finland. She was walking home from school
and got hit by a car. My sister and I attended the funeral
in London, and we discovered that you, my dear," and here
he leaned out to smile at her, "are descended from
Sasha grinned. "No way."
August caught her smile and wore it for a moment, then
continued. "At the funeral, we discovered that your
grandmother had a gift." He kept his eyes focused on hers,
even as she slowly opened her mouth and continued with her
sandwich. "She had a gift for knowing what other people
Sasha stopped mid-bite and then continued,
deliberately focused on the texture of toasted wheat bread,
crisp romaine lettuce, sliced tomatoes, a zesty balsamic
dressing, and the meat of a large, grilled portabella
mushroom in the middle of it all. A gift. She looked to
Duval. He kept his eye on August, wearing his flattest,
deadest game face.
"A gift." She turned back to August and swallowed.
"Is that a fact?"
"In China," August went on, now chatty and abstract,
"they believe that certain people have what they call 'fast
Chi,' or 'unstable Chi.' Chi, of course, is the Chinese
word for spirit, or life-force. Some people who have these
'fast spirits' are born that way; others have their Chi
excited to a higher frequency by some traumatic event. But
the Chinese say that this is a spirit that is too fast for
its body, and so its thoughts and desires have a tendency
to jump to other bodies like radioactive emissions. One
man, Dr. Lao, who works on the Chinese space program,
believes that fast Chi can displace thoughts from nearby
subjects back to its own body. This man believes there is
a scientific basis for charisma, ESP, telepathy, or luck.
And he's working on quantifying it right now."
After dinner, they gathered in a large home theater
that seemed to get very little use. Except for the huge
television and the discrete speakers surrounding them, the
room was furnished entirely with artisan reproductions of
medieval furniture. Duval and Sasha sat together on an
overstuffed leather couch while August sat in a tall wooden
chair on an assortment of pillows. A few of the staff came
to join them for the viewing at August's invitation.
Sasha did not know that she would have nightmares for
a week about the half-organic, half-mechanical Borg drones
in the movie, connected to the great Borg Collective by a
telepathic hive mind, each drone devoid of its own
thoughts, its own will, moving through space like a virus,
its purpose to assimilate everything and make it one.
August called them "the ultimate consumers."
It was the other plot in the movie that August had
wanted Duval to see; the story about Zephraine Cochrane,
the grizzled old cuss living in a post-war American dark
ages, who invented the warp drive and piloted the very
first faster-than-light flight. "And so the world of 'Star
Trek' was born," August explained.
He and Duval drank tea in the garden and watched the
trees glisten in the moonlight and sway in the cool night
breeze as the fog pulled over the mountains below them like
an accustomed blanket. Duval said he enjoyed the movie
very much, and was very glad August had suggested it.
"That was my sister's favorite movie," August said.
"Julia always said that breaking the light barrier was the
finish line for the human race. She and I shared this
dream that once we break the light barrier war, strife, and
starvation will vanish as we go forth into the galaxy as
one planet among many, and do great and important things
"Everybody wants to go to heaven," Duval told him
flatly. "Some say prayers. I say mine."
"Prayers," August responded, his eyes drifting up to
the clear night sky, spangled with a billion shining stars,
so close he felt he could reach out and grab them in his
"No, I mean mine," Duval told him, leaning in and
making the gesture of a hammer and chisel. "Mine as in
pick and shovel, jackhammers and drills. Mine, as in gold
and diamonds." He pointed up at stars, the thick belt of
the Milky Way turning around them overhead. "Someday," he
said, "this will all be mined. And I can make the machines
that can do it cheaply, safely, and cleanly."
"We've already conducted several feasibility tests,"
Duval said, his pulse steady, his face blank, the moment
all his, "about building an assembly plant in orbit, with
an elevator. Once launch thrust is a non-issues, it opens
up all kinds of exciting design possibilities."
August leaned back and smiled, thrilled to hear this
new burst of enthusiasm. It was the girl, he knew, who
gave Duval his confidence, but it was still an energizing
spectacle. Duval had practiced. The words rolled off his
tongue with intimate ease.
August took a deep breath. "I don't know, Duval.
There was a time I would have been right beside you on
that, and God knows I wish you all the success in the
world, but for me, it's the light barrier or it's nothing."
Two years ago, Duval would have bit his tongue before
arguing with August de Winter in the man's own castle.
"Our design," he went on boldly, "is intended to orbit
Mars. A fully automated refinery and assembly plant that
would harvest asteroids, break them down to ore, refine it,
and ship it back to Earth."
He folded his hands and leaned in to August, assuring
his host, "I understand this fascination with the speed of
light, but I never bet the longest shot on the board. This
change in the world that you think only light speed will
bring us; I believe we can find it on Mars. The planet
reflects the color of our nature. It is our destiny to
turn it green, and to use robots to do it. It represents
the redemption of all our technology."
August looked him in the eye, his face grim. "It is a
monstrous idea," he said, "to destroy a planet's
environment like that."
Duval snorted. "Come, August. Who are you saving it
for? We are the Martians, and if we don't colonize Mars,
then Mars will colonize us."
That night, Sasha had nightmares about The Borg, and
woke up Duval, and slept in his bed, complaining that she
didn't like the castle. She asked him how his pitch had
gone, and he said he did not go well. She asked if he
believed what August told them about fast spirits in slow
bodies, and Duval shrugged. "Maybe that's what's wrong
with your sister."
The next morning, after breakfast, Sasha and Duval
prepared to leave when August called them into his study,
where he opened a briefcase filled with cash. "One million
euros," he said, "if you can tell me whether I should
divest myself of Africa or work to strengthen my position."
Sasha looked at the briefcase and the bricks of banded
She looked back up at August. "You know I can't read
He nodded once, just slightly. "I know."
"And I don't know anything about what you're doing in
"But you're going to give me this money if I tell you
whether to divest or invest?"
She looked back at the money. "Because you think I
have a lucky spirit."
She looked up at August. "Invest everything you can,"
she said. "No half-measures."
He smiled and pushed the briefcase over to her. She
closed it and pulled it off the table, and fell over with
the weight of it.
A half hour later, Sasha was in the back of the
limousine with her steel briefcase full of cash, a fool and
her money anxious to depart. She was thinking about a pair
of shoes she'd seen in a boutique, a pink rubber mini at
Area 51, a new Sony Pocketstation, the new cat's-eye Armani
sunglasses, the fall cosmetics set at YSL, and maybe a few
library items for her music collection.
She watched Duval descend the steps from the front
hall together. Duval smiled with curious triumph when
August told him that his business in Africa was mining;
August invited him to prepare some "proof-of-concept"
prototypes to show that an "automated mine" could work here
Then August stopped, and it was clear that he had
descended far enough. He said, "Enjoy your trip."
Duval was about to leave when he found the courage to
stop August and ask him, "Your sister, Julia...she had a
August nodded, a smile on his lips, Africa already on
his mind, the little girl in the back of the limousine had
been everything he had hoped she would be. He advised
Duval gravely, "Believe me when I tell you that there is
nothing beyond the reach of a man who has a woman like that
at his side."
Duval glanced at Sasha and then turned back to August.
"She has an older sister," he said, "but she's..."
August arched an eyebrow and answered with an
empathetic candor. "Psychotic?"
The Ties That Bind
Rene awoke in the middle of the night. Her crotch and
thighs and buttocks were sticky. She turned on the light
and sat up in bed. Blood soaked the sheets and stained her
gurney. She swung her legs over the side of the bed and
dragged her drugged body to her feet. She caught sight of
herself in the mirror and stared.
For a moment, she didn't recognize herself. Then she
stood up straight, and struck a pose, as if holding a spear
and shield, becoming a marble statue in a mental acropolis.
She was Athena, dressed in a blood-red toga. Athena Nike,
In a moment, she was at the reception desk, where
Olga, the fat Ukrainian nurse on duty looked up from
watching a TV show about celebrities sentenced to six weeks
of U.S. Marine Corps Boot Camp. Olga did not recognize
Rene at first; the staff called Rene "veggie-girl." No one
had ever seen her out of her room.
Rene put her scrawny, bloody hands on the reception
desk. One hand held a wad of blood-soaked toilet paper.
She did not look dopey, or lost, or distant. She looked
present, and embarrassed.
"What are you doing out here?" Olga asked. "What
happened to you?"
Rene held up the bloody evidence. "It just started,
and it won't stop."
The next morning, Dr. Skoldin entered Rene's cell and
sat with her. "How are you?" Fine. "I heard you had an
experience last night. Tell me about it."
Rene smiled sheepishly. "My first menstruation. My
body is fertile. It wants to reproduce through sexual
Dr. Skoldin smiled at her distanced description. "Why
is that, Rene?"
Rene shrugged. "The mixing of genes gives the
offspring a better chance of changing to suit the
environmental conditions of survival."
"But why do you want to do it?"
"Because the success of this method has programmed
this body to desire it."
Skoldin watched her quietly, ran the tip of her pen
across her bottom lip, and tried very hard to decide if
this change in Rene was therapeutic or pathologic.
Rene sighed, and looked up, and for the first time,
Dr. Skoldin saw a presence and a light behind those eyes.
Rene said, "Doctor, I know who I am. Now what do I have to
do to get out of here?"
Dr. Skoldin gave Rene a red slip, which was a release
against medical advice. She tried to explain to Duval that
Rene was capable of committing violent, potentially lethal
acts, and was a danger to herself and could be a danger to
others now that she's formed a functional ego on top of a
repressed volcano of emotion.
"So she's fixed," Duval interpreted deliberately.
"She doesn't remember anything about her life before
her parents died. She knows she has a sister named Sasha,
and her guardian is an attorney named Asa, and she knows
she has a French cousin who's offered to take care of her,
but that's it. She doesn't know where she's been, or what
her favorite food is, or whether she's seen a given movie
or left the continent or had the Chicken Pox. She doesn't
remember what color her mother's hair was. She doesn't
remember that her father had a snake tattooed on his back.
She spent her entire childhood traveling Europe in the same
bright orange VW microbus; not only does she not remember
where they went, she doesn't even remember the color of the
Duval nodded. "She just needs a little fresh air."
Rene was sixteen, Sasha fourteen when they returned to
Helsinki to bury their attorney. The two young women, the
priest, and Duval were the only ones who attended the
state-sponsored service. Sasha complained about the
weather, about the gray, the perpetual night, the howling
In the hotel, while Sasha showered, Duval and Rene ate
tossed salad and fish from a room service cart. Duval
watched Rene eat, and realized that while Sasha had become
like his right hand, Rene remained a mysterious appendix.
"Sasha tells me there's a boy at Saint Francis who's
sweet on you."
Rene nodded, her eyes on her food. "She tells me the
same thing." She ate with perfunctory gestures, as if it
were a chore.
"She said he wanted to ask you to the Winter Formal."
She chewed and swallowed. "He asked me already."
"If you need money for a new dress..."
She scooped up her next bite. "I said no."
Rene shook her head. "I'm not interested in that."
She shoveled salad into her mouth and chewed, looked for
her next bite, began to fold the lettuce and spear it onto
Duval set down his silverware and went for his wine.
"You really should go. You should meet boys. Learn a
little something about them."
She looked up at him, her wide eyes asking how he
could suggest such a thing. "I know everything I need to
know about boys," she said. "I'm waiting for my man."
Duval snorted, amused, while Rene ate her next bite of
salad and went on to gather her next one. "Your man," he
repeated. "You have one in mind?"
"I can picture him sometimes," she said.
"And what does he look like?"
She swallowed and brought her next bite to her mouth,
then paused and thought, and Duval could almost see her
visualizing her own private Prince Charming. "He looks
like Santa Claus," she said, and went on with her meal.
During Rene's last year at Saint Joan's in Paris,
Sasha was called out of class and brought to see the Mother
Superior. Duval had called, and said he was sending
somebody to get her, and she was to be excused from class
for the rest of the day and that night. The Mother
Superior knew even before they arrived that Sasha would be
visited by government agents, because Mother Superior
suspected Sasha had extra-sensory perception. It was the
only explanation the old nun cared to believe for Sasha's
absolute infallibility. As they waited, Mother Superior
told Sasha cryptically, "I'm not saying anything. I'm just
saying that we all have talents, and they are not to be
squandered. These talents, they don't belong to The State
or a corporation or any political faction. They are a gift
from God, and when you use them, you need to be sure that
you are using them in accordance with God's will."
Sasha gave a rote response: "Yes, Mother."
Mother Superior's suspicions were confirmed when
Sasha's visitors arrived and they had the look. They
almost looked like business people, but the way business
people look in movies where everybody carries guns. He was
English and wore a white carnation in his Saville Row lapel
with the matching tie and kerchief. She was Italian, with
black hair slicked back like a helmet, tied into a tight
tail with leather straps, her suit all sharp angles and
feminine exaggerations right down to the tall spikes under
her heels. Both of them wore wired sunglasses throughout.
The Englishman stood in the dor and scanned the school
hallway like a relentless surveillance camera while the
woman did the talking.
She introduced herself as Corinne Sclara, her French
heavy with Roman accents. Mother Superior smiled, giddy,
within arm's reach of a couple who so obviously lived a
life of danger. Corinne said she had come to take Sasha.
In the back of an SUV that reminded Sasha of a giant
boat on wheels, Corinne and her silent partner drove a
short distance to a Paris police station and parked. Sasha
asked, "Have I done something wrong?"
While the Englishman went inside, Corinne said, "I
want you to come inside and stand with me behind a one-way
mirror and watch the police interrogate one specific man.
I want you to read his answers and tell me what you see."
"What," Sasha asked carefully, "makes you think I can
"No one," Corinne replied, "thinks you can do
anything." She remained an inscrutable blank, same as
August, but Sasha didn't need to read her mind to see she
wasn't being given a choice. "I'm in the certainty
business," Corinne said, "and I'm very good at my job."
When Sasha returned to school the next morning, Rene
met her over breakfast in the common dining hall; Sasha
looked exhausted. "I looked into the eyes of a very evil
man," she explained, "and I read his mind."
"I don't understand."
"I have a gift for reading people," she told her big
sister. "You probably have the same thing. Maybe it's why
you're so good with math."
"I don't read people," Rene defended.
"Of course you do," Sasha insisted quietly. "It's why
you went nuts. It's why you went into a mental
institution. You read our mother's mind at the moment she
died. You probably don't use this gift because that
experience left you so traumatized."
Rene breathed quietly, fuming at the nonchalance Sasha
displayed in her diagnosis. "It's that simple, is it?"
"We're different, Rene," Sasha explained. "The women
of our family have always been different. If you don't
suffer our fate, consider yourself lucky." She sighed,
pushed her breakfast away, half-eaten. "A mind is a
terrible thing to taste."
Rene graduated and was granted a military exemption so
she could go to the USA and pursue a BS/MS degree in
material engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of
Technology. Sasha remained at school, and remained in the
service of Corinne Sclara. Over the next two years, Sasha
helped target three more suspected terrorists for
liquidation; one was a Saudi, one was a German fascist, and
one was a Greek anarchist, and all three died publicly
within a day of Sasha's seeing them. But she also helped
free one man whose ex-girlfriend had set him up to teach
him a lesson. That one acquittal almost made it worthwhile
to stare mind-to-mind with discordant desperation that
The day Sasha turned eighteen, Duval proposed
marriage, and she accepted. They set a date five years
away so Sasha could do her two years of compulsory military
service in France while getting a dual degree in psychology
and business administration. Duval asked her what she
wanted as a wedding present, and she said she wanted the
government to leave her alone. Duval grinned and snapped
Rene discovered her passion on a summer intensive in
Greece studying divine geometry. On a telephone call that
awoke Sasha in the middle of a hangover in Paris, Rene
explained, "We are the machine, and geometry is the
program. There is a shape to all this, and if we go high
enough, it will be the same in all things at all times in
all space, and it will be so simple, we'll wonder how we
could have missed it."
Sasha did not need to read her mind across the breadth
of Europe and half the Mediterranean to know, "You're
drunk." She grinned at the idea of Rene, the most
reclusive and antisocial girl at Saint Joan's, having a
drunken epiphany in Greece.
"I'm drunk, and I'm in Delphi," Rene answered proudly.
"I know what I want to do with the rest of my life."
Sasha yawned and closed her eyes, already half-asleep,
her phone under her cheek like a favorite plush toy. "What
do you want to do, Rene?"
"I want to find out if geometry exists outside our
"I'm going to build an engine," Rene went on.
Sasha was already asleep.
Duval bought the country estate in Burgundy he had
always kept in mind as a personal trophy. As a young teen,
he rode his bike past this estate every day on his way to
trade school, and every day he watched the landscape
reclaim its empty quarters and swore that one day he would
have the money to restore it.
The chateau was an ancient French castle with
additions from every great age of Gallic fortification.
There was a moat and a drawbridge from the age of
Charlemagne, towers and walls from the age of Joan of Arc,
stables and gardens from the age of Louis XVI, and fields
of solar panels and windmills under construction to power
the whole thing.
The week before the wedding, the electricity had yet
to be installed, the plumbing rusted through, and there was
a constant downpour that leaked into the guest wings,
turning the stone walls clammy. The guests would arrive
tomorrow, the most powerful and influential people Duval
knew, and his proud castle could only offer them leaking
rooms with broken plumbing. "We'll be ruined," he moaned.
"Do you trust me?" Sasha asked him.
When the guests arrived the evening before the
wedding, they were taken from their cars at the gate by
young pages in matching tunics, who helped them into a
covered carriage. Knights on horseback escorted them from
the front gate, suited up in oiled armor, bearing crossbows
and broad swords. Torches burned along a path dotted with
burgundy spanners. Beyond, they could see, on a distant
part of the field, two full Renaissance Fairs camped out on
the lawn like an army preparing for war. In the main hall,
the staff had changed into burgundy tunics, and Sasha and
Duval were arrayed in replica costumes from the court of
the Duke of Burgundy, circa 1450. Torches burned on the
walls. Candles burned on steel pedestals. A trio of
minstrels sang and played on lute, flute, and pipe. Half a
tree trunk burned in the fireplace before a medieval
banquet of roasted game, fresh fruit, and the delicacies of
a bygone era. Sasha greeted them as if the last six
hundred years had been a dream, and there was no world
without torches and outhouses. Instead of rooming them in
the damp, leaking guest quarters, Sasha kept her guests
drinking wine from a gigantic cask until they were content
to sleep where they fell.
Rene flew in from Massachusetts, where she was doing
graduate work under "King Carbon" Kellogg, the greatest
manipulator of carbon isotopes in the world at the time.
The weather had broken to bright sunshine for the wedding,
and Rene had missed the medieval banquet. The guests had
all donned period costumes, and tried their hands racing
horses and sword fighting in full plate armor.
Walking up the drive to the old chateau, she was
greeted by a page on horseback, who dismounted and bowed.
"Your horse, milady." He then stepped back, gesturing to
the saddle in an invitation to assist her to mount.
Rene looked at the page and the entire scene as if in
a daze. "Is this a place or is this a time?"
The page smiled broadly. "It's a wedding, milady."
In the castle, Sasha fixed her make-up in the mirror
of her leaking suite. Rene stood behind her in a medieval
bridesmaid's dress and braided flowers into her sister's
"He's twice your age," Rene told Sasha. "And he's our
"Fifth cousin," she corrected. "And he's hideous,"
Sasha agreed. "But he is wealthy, and he is well-
connected. With my help, he will be very powerful." She
smiled innocently. "Which reminds me, there is a man I'd
like you to meet while you're here. Single, Swiss, richer
"You may believe women grow by men," Rene responded,
Sasha looked at Rene through the mirror. "We're not
like other people, Rene. People will use us if we don't
use them first."
"Whatever this thing is you think you have," Rene told
her calmly, and for perhaps the hundredth time, "I'm
telling you I don't have it."
"And I'm telling you you're just blocking it out."
Rene stayed through the exchange of vows, rings, and
kisses, and left quickly before the guests took their
places in a tall bleacher stadium to watch professional
jousters break lances at full gallop. Guests remembered
the wedding for years to come. Many fell into a deep
depression as they returned to their automobiles and laptop
computers, and found themselves daydreaming of steel armor
on galloping horseback.
Waiting for her cab, Rene could see Sasha and Duval
like a medieval king and queen, surrounded by a court of
intelligence agents and military buyers.
August de Winter telegraphed an official apology for
his absence, which a page in a tunic read to Duval and
Sasha like an incoming missive from Calais. "Accept my
apologies, stop. Pricing a Chinese stairway to heaven,
stop. Congratulations, stop. Live long and prosper,
The New Machine
In China, the bearded mystic Xing Lao was working with
the Chinese space program to try to find a way to regulate
the behavior of their astronauts during extended space
He tested his theory about the shape of human thought
using brand-new mathematical ideas about n-dimensional
geometries, and came up with a truly radical idea, which he
spent the next ten years testing in the laboratory. In his
landmark work Physical Chi, (which would be suppressed for
over twenty-five years,) Lao described in depth the tests
he had performed on his human subjects to measure the force
patterns of neuronal firing patterns inside their brains.
He showed the formulas that translated that data into four
dimensions, and discovered a set of forty-eight distinct
"shapes" that made up the totality of human thought.
"Thought," he wrote, "is an emergent property of embodied
Lao gave his "thought-shapes" Chinese numbers, since
it was impossible to represent the actual geometry. He
showed that each of his shapes could be said to represent a
different "state of mind." He said behavior was the result
of these shapes intersecting embodied memories in our
brains. The same shape intersecting two sets of embodied
memories in two brains would produce different behavior
from identical stimuli; the same shape in the same brain
would produce different behavior when faced with different
Lao then hypothesized that every living thing is born
running a unique and biologically-determined sequence of
these shapes, and everything a person does between womb and
tomb is a result of these shapes intersecting memories to
calculate a response to environment. "The frustrated cry
of an infant," Lao wrote poetically in his conclusion, "can
now be seen as the geometric program crying for more data."
And then, almost as a sidebar, Lao calculated the
frequency that these shapes appeared in the human brain,
and determined it to be equal to ten times the speed of
light. He called it "the Chi Frequency."
August supplied African minerals to the Chinese space
program, and gave them research support. He also did this
for NASA and the Space Agencies of Europe, Canada, Japan,
India, and Brazil. More than that, Dr. Lao liked August;
he thought August appreciated his work more than most of
the small-minded Party bureaucrats that ran his lab high in
the western Himalayas.
It was through this connection that August obtained a
pre-published draft of Physical Chi, which Lao gave him a
day before his superiors decided the book was too
threatening to be published. He asked August to show it to
his people, which he did. Unfortunately, August's people
didn't understand Lao's theories at all, and wondered if
there was something wrong with their translation.
Corinne Sclara brought the book with her to Burgundy
and showed it to Sasha. The years had passed since she had
last tapped that resource, and Sasha agreed to look at it
only after Corinne assured her that this was a one-shot
Sasha looked at the shapes, looked at the ideas, and
remembered a dream from college about the engines of
Delphi. Sasha came across a passage in the book that said
if we were able to see the shape of our thoughts, they
would resemble geometric solids. Sasha thought of Rene,
and wondered if it was the right thing to do. Her years at
school had led her to believe that Rene's disconnection
from her "gift" and her acuity with math and geometry were
the twin products of experiencing her mother's death. She
believed that Rene could be forced to reclaim the buried
gift, but it would be at the expense of her "genius." She
didn't try to rationalize her decision, because that wasn't
what Corinne wanted from her. Maybe she secretly hoped
this would be the final straw for Rene, that this
incomprehensible gibberish from China would finally break
Rene's facade and give Sasha her sister back. Maybe she
just came to terms with the idea that Rene was more
valuable to Europe as a fractured genius than as a healthy
telepath. Either way, she knew that Lao's book had to find
its way to Rene, and she knew that it would change her.
Corinne had already been to the Max Planck Institute
near Hamburg, to Professor Ernst Schindler, a Czech
mathematician and the chair of Europe's only department of
theoretical geometry. He had looked at Lao's book already,
and had been baffled enough to admit, "He could be right,
he could be wrong."
Rene Sozia was in his lab, grading tests for the
professor's advanced calculus class when the telephone rang
and Schindler's secretary walked in anxiously, carrying a
familiar name. "Corinne Sclara," she said.
Schindler nodded to his private office. "I'll take it
"No," said the secretary, nodding to Rene. "She wants
to talk to you."
Over the next week, Corinne and Rene met in the back
booth of a crowded lesbian bar beneath one of Hamburg's
famous red lights. Rene hated the place, worried that
somebody would see her, worried that somebody would come on
to her. Corinne liked keeping Rene out of her element.
She gave her Lao's book a little at a time, explaining that
they were going through retranslation, and the
serialization could not be helped. Rene claimed to
understand everything, and grew more excited every day as
she brought back one section and picked up the next.
Corinne wanted to be sure that Rene kept all of her notes
in one book, and didn't mention the work to anyone else.
For Rene, the first hook was the fact that she was
being asked to solve a problem that her perfect little
sister couldn't. Then there was the book, and the idea
that had chased her for as long as she could remember:
When Corinne got back the last chapter, Rene wanted to
know where the rest of it was. "That's all there is,"
Corinne admitted. "Why, what else could he say?"
Rene explained, "Lao saw forty-eight thoughts, and
stopped because there they were, and they were already at
ten times the speed of light, in four dimensional space.
But he must have seen that's just the beginning."
Rene waited for a couple of women in army uniforms to
pass them by; they sang together as if they were going to
ship off to war in the morning. Rene said, "These thoughts
can be folded into ten-dimensional space, and then further.
This is just an expression of a deeper phenomenon."
"What I want to know," Corinne told her, still wearing
her wired black sunglasses, even in the back of a dark red
bar, "is what are the applications?"
"What do you mean?"
"Can these shapes be induced? Can they be used to
control behavior? Can they be used to predict behavior?
Help me out here, Dr. Sozia."
"No," Rene answered, "you can't use these to predict
or control behavior. According to the theory, every
second, our brains form these shapes, like, ten thousand
million times. One human brain makes more of these shapes
in a lifetime than the universe has stars."
"So what's the point?"
Rene found it nearly impossible to think while the
bartenders howled along with American country and western
music, and everywhere there was the constant chatter of
women seeking women seeking women. "I've had this vision,"
she began, staring at the red-checkered tablecloth, "ever
since I was eleven. If I'm right, and if Lao is right,
then consciousness is a function of geometry, not biology."
"But he says its embodied geometry," Corinne pointed
"Of course," Rene answered, as if it were obvious.
"We cannot represent geometry without it being embodied in
something. It just doesn't have to be the human brain, is
what I'm saying."
Corinne leaned back and folded her arms. "What, like
a dolphin? A dog?"
Rene shook her head, now desperate to finish this
conversation and get back to the math lab. "I mean, like,
inside a single atom."
Rene took the rest of the semester off. Schindler was
distressed. "You traitor!" he shrieked at her. "I bring
you in just to watch you tear me down!"
She was used to his hysterical melodrama, understood
it was his way of blowing off steam from the immature half
of his brain, and unlike a string of assistants who had
come through his lab and left shuddering and traumatized,
Rene had sought out the position and relished it. "It's
only temporary," she told him.
"Now I understand," the old man scolded her, wagging a
finger and scratching his long gray goatee while she packed
up a few of her books from the Institute lab. "All this
time, I saw something in your eyes, and now I know what it
is. You've been sent here by the administration to make me
obsolete! You're trying to Scully my Mulder!"
"I don't know anything about your Mulder," she told
him, "but I do know one thing, Professor. I know that
there is no such thing as a string."
Those were her last words to him.
She lived in a tiny Hamburg studio apartment
wallpapered in notes, formulas, newspaper clippings and
obscure research journals. Over the next month, she slept
a total of fifteen hours, all at once, and in those hours,
she dreamt of the Big Bang, and awoke in a trance,
hallucinating, wrapped in a bedsheet like a toga. Upon
waking from the dream of Creation, Rene pulled paper off of
her full-length mirror and saw a tessaract standing where
her reflection should be.
"What do you want?" she asked, trembling, scared to
The tessaract pulsated with colors and spoke with a
voice that almost sounded like her own. It said, "I want
She finished her work, and, without consulting
Corinne, Sasha, Schindler, or anyone else, she published
what would be her second doctoral thesis, entitled, "The
Shape of Desire." In it, she folded Lao's "thoughts" into
ten dimensions and produced four new shapes -- "choices" --
which she speculated were unique to the morphology of the
human brain, and represented "yes," "no," "both," and
"neither." She denoted them as Greek letters.
Then she went one step further, and arranged the four
"choices" into very long strings, which folded again into
two more shapes in twenty-six dimensions. She represented
them arbitrarily as a tetrahedron and a tessaract. She
called one "the desire-for-survival" and the other "the
She concluded with the admission that if these shapes
folded further, it was beyond her to see it.
Several magazines and prestigious journals found
themselves under pressure from higher powers -- certain
advertisers -- to read Rene's paper and assign experts to
review it in their pages. Within a month, Rene's theory
was everywhere, and to anyone who understood the geometries
of higher dimensions and believed Lao's model of behavior,
Rene Sozia had just given them, in the words of one
reviewer, "white light from the mouth of infinity."
Nearly every reviewer focused on the conclusion of
Rene's paper, where she suggested that the shapes described
by her and Lao could be reproduced outside the human body.
She predicted that the easiest way would be to use a single
isotope, and to create the shapes in the nucleus, in
In academic settings around the world, computer
science researchers were forced to march over to the halls
of mathematicians, and the two of them were forced to march
across to the physics departments, and, in one famous
instance at Harvard and MIT, a group of these scientists,
debating Rene's theory, decided to bring their discussion
to the School of Divinity, where the term, "uncertainty
engine" is believed to have originated. Charles Diego,
Dean of the Harvard Divinity School and prolific Unitarian,
suggested, "the stuff of the universe is an engine that
creates uncertainty. Uncertainty then creates desire,
which as Dr. Sozia and Dr. Lao have shown, is a
quantifiable phenomenon that we are biologically ill
equipped to perceive. Desire then produces suffering,
suffering creates meaning, and intelligence is simply a
social function of meaning. So atomic intelligence must
begin with uncertainty, which means subspace, which means
In New Mexico, the old IBM hot shot who invented the
first q-bit supercomputer, Sam Fuller, came out of a
government-enforced retirement at the National Laboratory
in Los Alamos to decry Rene's theories as "infantile,
teleologic hogwash; the Emperor's New Clothes." He and a
school of others emphasized the importance of embodiment in
Lao's theory, and the importance of brain chemistry in
memory and action, and the fact that all of those physical
features of thought occurred out here, in normal, regular
space, and could never be duplicated sub-atomically.
"Instead of producing behavior through the intersection of
memory and geometry, you will have empty shapes,
intersecting nothing. It will not desire, or suffer, or
think; it will simply sit and spin."
In another break from a government-enforced reclusion,
Dr. Lao published a brief response to Fuller's critique.
He started out sassy: "I regret that Dr. Fuller is still
feeling his way through subspace with his hands, instead of
his brain." Lao argued, "The engine will not need its own
memories if it shares its shapes with a human surrogate;
the effect would be the same as wiring remote controlled
robots directly to the motor cortex of howler monkeys; the
brain would assimilate the engine and treat it as another
body part, one that extends into this new frontier."
It was his last public statement.
The subspace race was on.
Rene was nearly oblivious, as she locked herself in
her room in Hamburg and remained there, mostly unwashed,
surrounded by rotting cartons of take-out Indian food:
curries, breads, a dozen open cups of condiments
biodegrading in the kitchenette. She would not look in the
mirror, for she saw a tessaract where she should be. She
barely slept, and when Sasha came to visit her, Rene had
fallen ill with a fever.
Sasha could barely contain her disgust at the smell,
the sight of her sister, gaunt and pale and malnourished,
her slight muscles cutting through her skin with the hard,
sharp lines of their junkie mother, her sallow eyes and
fevered brow a nauseating reminder of forgotten childhood
traumas. When she saw the tessaract drawn in her notes,
Sasha was sure her sister had slipped back through the
"I'm almost done with my work," Rene explained to her,
pointing to equations in a large notebook and doing her
best to explain to Sasha that trying to find the right
isotope to emulate human thought was a long and arduous
process, and she was practically going down the periodic
table of elements and plugging them in one-by-one to find
stability and variety and an abundance of nuclear material
suitable for forming complex geometric shapes. "In a few
months, I'll know which ones I can dismiss completely."
Sasha shook her head. "You're coming home with me.
In the back of her bulletproof limousine, Sasha stared
at Rene, and saw her chaotic thoughts tumbling like lotto
balls in a spinning basket, thoughts of geometry, of higher
planes, of the one-hundredth dimension of the space-time
Rene did not appreciate being looked down at by her
little sister. "What?"
"You're not well," she explained. "This is crazy
Rene smiled. "This is what our parents wanted to show
Sasha took a deep breath and pursed her lips. "Our
parents?" she retorted, spitting with vitriol given by a
series of psychotherapists. "Our parents?" She jabbed
Rene with her finger angrily. "How dare you. Our parents
never showed us a single human emotion the entire time we
were alive. Our parents never even bothered to punish us
if we did something wrong."
"They had a vision."
Sasha folded her arms and jut out her chin. "That
vision was a drug-induced hallucination that paid the bills
and corroded their souls, just like it's corroding yours.
I won't see that happen to you, Rene. Not again."
Rene chuckled wanly. "They were artists. This is
science. This is real."
Sasha shook her head and sighed. "What you're doing
isn't science. It's therapy."
"I've seen the press," Rene said. "People are taking
"Because you're a telepath," Sasha snapped, ("idiot").
"You make people around you believe whatever you want them
"My numbers don't lie," Rene defended.
"Your formulas might."
Once out of her apartment and settled in the luxurious
guest rooms of her sister's chateau, Rene finished a rough
design of what she dubbed a "Quantum Uncertainty Engine,"
or QUE. It was mostly comprised of a series of modified
particle stabilizer units she had used with Dr. Kellogg at
MIT. In the center was a single isotope of the exotic
Carbon-56, and it was designed to manipulate the electrons
in the atom's outer orbit to form Lao's thought-shapes at
speeds fast enough to fold them into Rene's desires. There
were unanswered questions in this model, unsolved formulas,
and the all-important fact that the engine would demand as
much power as a large sun.
Rene came out of her room early one morning, wrapped
up in her Burgundy bedsheet as a toga, and went to find
Sasha and Duval to share the good news that she was ready
to show her work. She found them on the veranda, a wide,
slate-paved patio surrounded by blooming clematis and
creeping ivy. They were dressed for dressage, in polished
boots and velvet blazers, seated at a breakfast table
enjoying rolls with butter and jam, black tea, orange
juice, and fortified water. Small groves of lush green
forest poked up through a light morning mist over the
Rene came out and hesitated; they were in the middle
of a conversation.
"Is there a plot?" Sasha asked Duval.
Duval sipped his tea and nodded. "I believe it's the
story of a young man who has to choose whether to take a
boring engineer's job or follow his dream of competing in
one of these robot war contests."
Sasha smiled and gazed out at the stables, almost
invisible through the mist. In the distance, she watched
her groom bring their two horses, saddled and harnessed.
"I've seen those. Little robots, remote control?"
Duval shook his head and smiled. She recognized it
right away. It was a guilty smile that belonged to his
inner megalomaniac. She loved to see him smile like that.
He said, "This movie is supposed to coincide with a new
international contest circuit. The weight limit in the new
league will be ten thousand metric tons instead of just
She kept her eye on their approaching mounts; her pale
Josephine, his spangled Louis, led by their young groom,
Mary, an orphan from the war-torn Congo. "And this movie
producer wants you to build the robots?"
Duval turned. "Rene! Good morning!"
Rene collapsed in an empty chair. "I am finished,"
she declared. Duval poured her a cup of tea, and Sasha put
a buttered roll on her plate. She ate hungrily and drank
an entire glass of water before she continued, her mouth
full, "I want to mail my design to Dr. Kellogg."
"Of course," Duval responded. "But first tell me,
Rene." He turned to her and flashed her a naive smile.
"What is this engine of yours supposed to do again?"
"It makes the shape of thought. It's possible that it
would come alive." She swallowed and took another roll.
"Not alive. Sentient. Conscious."
Duval shrugged. "And that would prove...what? That
our minds and our bodies are two different things?"
She shook her head again. "No. It would show that
our minds arose because of the shape of our bodies." She
held up both hands as if to focus her mind into a narrower
space for his benefit. "We are unique in the size and
structure of our brains, which is why these shapes
stabilize in us rather than any other living thing. I'm
sure dolphins have these shapes, but they just don't
stabilize." She smiled shyly and swallowed another roll.
"I sometimes think these shapes are like the hand of God,
reaching out from the instant of creation in a desperate
attempt to be discovered."
"And we are the only ones who recognize it," Duval
nodded. "You see the shape of consciousness as a message
"The shape itself," Rene nodded.
"And now you want to send it back to Him, to tell God
we got the message."
Jillian Saint-Ross stepped through the yellow police
tape and entered Dr. Kellogg's office at the Material
Science Department of MIT. The investigation was over, the
body was cleared, and Kellogg's young assistant, Ashok, was
opening cardboard boxes to ship the contents of the late
King Carbon's professional life to his widow. He stopped
the minute Jillian walked in the room.
She was tall, a mulatto Amazon. Her hair was cut
short, her sunglasses dark and wired. She wore a dark gray
Wall Street suit from a Japanese designer, tight gloves and
low heels, black stockings, a platinum lily pinned to her
"Can I help you?"
She held out her hand and Ashok came to her, drawn
irresistibly across the room to greet her, palm-to-palm.
"Jillian Saint-Ross," she said. "Dr. Kellogg and I were
doing some business before the unfortunate incident."
"I'm Ashok, Dr. Kellogg's last assistant." Ashok
shook her hand and shook his head. "Hell of way to go."
She nodded and smiled to set him at ease. "Heart
attack while masturbating to internet porn in his office.
His poor wife. We can only hope that people will grow
tired of making jokes about the old man coming and going at
the same time."
Ashok smiled nervously, stepped back quickly and
returned to his stack of cardboard boxes, each with "fold
flap A" instructions printed on its perforated hide. "Was
there something here you needed?"
"Yes," she replied, and stepped closer to him, a
formal smile on her lips. "I was expecting a package, a
book or a manuscript. It would have come in the mail
within the last week or so. From Europe."
Ashok pointed across the room to a large steel basket
filled with the late professor's mail. "We got something
from France yesterday. The rest of the mail's in there."
Jillian nodded and went straight for it. Ashok returned to
the folding cardboard boxes, glad to be rid of Jillian's
She sorted through catalogs, invoices, mailings,
postcards; Rene's package was easy to find. It was in a
large brown envelope; it was light. One stamp depicted a
bust of Julius Caesar, the other showed Marie Curie and a
radium isotope; both were cancelled with a European rubber
stamp. The package was unopened.
Ashok looked up, saw the envelope in Jillian's hand.
"Rene Sozia," he said. "Is it true she used to be Dr.
"They were lovers, nothing more," Jillian lied
She marched back to Ashok. He backed up defensively.
She reached into her jacket, and for a moment, he thought
she would draw a gun and shoot him.
She drew out a billfold, peeled two crisp one-hundred
dollar bills off a fat wad of bills, and put them on the
table in front of him next to her upturned business card.
She reached out, grabbed a pen from Ashok's lapel pocket,
and wrote down an international number and the name "Rene
Sozia" on the back of the card. She folded the money and
put it in his shirt as she returned his pen to his pocket.
"Call her," she said. "Tell her what happened to Dr.
Kellogg. Tell her you're sending back her package,
unopened." She grabbed his chin and looked him in the eye.
"Do not mention me...to anyone."
It's A Party
Rene received the unopened envelope from America and
fell into a state of deep depression. She was relying on
her old professor to help her solve some of the more thorny
issues dealing with electron manipulation in the artificial
shells of her proposed exotic isotope. It was a dark
tunnel for her along the road to designing her engine.
Now, instead of seeing light at the other end, she was
seeing a brick wall on the front entrance.
Duval went to Hollywood to see the premier of "his"
movie, a by-the-numbers story of heroic triumph over
adversity in the field of heavy robot fighting. It was
called "Killing Machines," and featured several of Duval's
own creations, gigantic robots inspired by insects and
Sasha stayed behind to watch over Rene and to keep
tabs on business at Automated Solutions, the new name of
Duval's growing robotics empire. There were military
contracts, a thousand orders for mine-sweepers, a dozen for
satellite repair drones used in high orbit, and, still,
they were the world's leader in automatic factories, and
she was selling one a month.
Sasha decided she would throw a party for Duval when
he returned, to celebrate her recent round of successful
sales. After several days of constant badgering, Rene
agreed to come, "if you'll just leave me alone for one
The day before the party, Sasha got a call from August
de Winter, who said he was back "on the continent" for a
nominating ceremony in Stockholm. "Can you believe it?" he
asked, sounding strangely euphoric, almost drugged with
unfamiliar bliss. "I've been nominated for the Nobel Peace
Prize." She mentioned she was throwing a party, and
August, giddy with triumph, asked her only, "Will your
sister be there?"
The day of the party, Rene was in her room. The call
came in for her at ten in the morning. She opened a
videoconference link, set up her digital camera to catch
her full face, and was connected to Dr. Sam Fuller, in
Fuller appeared in a dark blue polo shirt, his thick
head of gray hair cut short and military, his square jaw
and weathered outdoors skin made him look much older than
Rene had seen him, in a magazine story about Indigo Mind,
the AI that had won him the Nobel Prize while at IBM. "So
let's talk," he invited her, "about your engine."
"Do you believe it can work?"
He blinked and a condescending smile appeared on his
face; he clearly saw her as a student. "That depends on
what it is you intend it to do. You've written a piece of
software that no natural engine can run. Do I think that
you could teach an atom to desire? The question is why
would you want to?"
She answered him right away, "My question is why would
you even hesitate? Such a mind would be intelligent enough
to act as our avatar, and small enough to travel through
subspace wormholes to seek out new life and new
civilizations on our behalf."
Fuller shook his head. "You send it across the galaxy
to do what? It has no eyes. It has no mouth. What can it
Rene sighed. "Perhaps it could land in another engine
built by another intelligent species, who are driven by the
same divine geometry that governs us. Dr. Fuller, this
isn't computer science anymore; it is the implementation of
divine geometry. It is, to use Lao's words, 'subatomic
The hours passed. Rene skipped lunch; they took one
short break to use the bathroom, and returned to the heated
discussion of the metaphysical ramifications of her
proposed engine. She said, "Platonic and Buddhist
metaphysics posits that there are ideal forms, and
everything in the world partakes of one or another or some
combination of the ideals. That all the things we see in
the material world are transient representations of
"The daisy in a vase on my desk," Fuller answered, "is
simply empty matter that has partaken of the ideal daisy
form. But what if Marx and Freud were correct, and all
metaphysics emanates from the material, instead of the
other way around? Even if you're right, then this daisy,
because it is material, will always deviate from the ideal
form, and the same thing will happen with your engine."
"I would hope so," Rene answered. "I'm not making
God, I'm making an intelligent individual mind."
They discussed it all afternoon. They debated carbon
isotopes, and then debated cesium and radium. They
discussed theoretical arrangements inside the electron
shells of a dozen viable candidates, and then they
discussed power requirements.
Fuller tapped his monitor window. "I'm sorry; an atom
won't think just because you shape it like a thought. It's
a static system. It will sit and spin and that is all. I
don't care how fast you make it."
"It's not called an uncertainty engine for nothing,"
Rene answered with a grin.
"The only possible application," Fuller admitted,
"would be to use these shapes to form a link between the
human brain and a subspace vehicle. To use the engine to
launch our minds into subspace."
"We can't go in there," Rene advised, sudden fear
present in her voice.
"Why not?" Fuller demanded.
"We just can't!" She sputtered -- it was so obvious.
"First off, the engine would run faster than our brains;
matching frequencies is impossible. Second, our minds
develop out here in four dimensions. We are biologically
ill-equipped to exist in there. We could distort subspace,
change it, tear it apart. The results could be...
Sasha walked into the room and saw the face on Rene's
screen. Rene looked up at her, held up her index finger as
a ward: "be right with you."
"You said you'd be ready by six," Sasha snapped at
Rene. "It's almost seven."
"But suppose," Fuller suggested, "that we could become
Sasha stepped to the desk, reached down, and pulled
the plug on Rene's machine.
The computer and the link went dead.
Rene sighed and slouched back, folding her arms in a
posture of learned helplessness. She watched Sasha, who
said nothing as she went to Rene's dresser and pulled out a
lacy black bra, matching briefs, garters and sheer
stockings, all of them still in their store wrappers. She
set the lingerie on Rene's rumpled bed, and went to the
closet, where she drew out a brand-new black gown and
matching pumps, the one in a cellophane bag, the other in a
"I'm not wearing that stuff," Rene protested, still
collapsed like a lump in front of her dead computer screen.
Sasha stalked back to her, grabbed her by the
shoulder, and took her forcefully to her feet. "You will
dress like a woman and you will go downstairs and you will
smile for my husband's friends," she ordered, her voice an
accustomed whip-crack. "You will tell them how quantum
computers will change the field of robotics and, if need
be, you will show your garters to whomever I tell you to."
She pushed Rene into the bathroom, stripped off her
lone bedsheet, and shoved her into an icy shower. Rene
squealed and shivered. Sasha stalked out of the bathroom,
through the disheveled mess of old clothes and discarded
media, out of Rene's room and into the hallway.
She snapped her fingers at one of her young African
maids, dressed as a page in the court of the Duke of
Burgundy, and handed her Rene's bedsheet. "Burn it."
Rene stood in the jet of ice-cold water and shivered.
She absentmindedly rubbed shampoo into her long, dark brown
hair, and ran a bar of soap over her goose-pimpled skin.
She closed her eyes and pictured Carbon-56 and knew that it
was wrong. It was too small. It was too big. It was too
Rene ran her electric shaver over her legs, arms,
armpits, and in her absentminded state, she shaved her
pubic hair as well. Carbon was too heavy. Life in
subspace would not be carbon based.
Out of the shower, she dried herself and turned to see
her reflection in a full-length mirror with a gilded frame.
She expected to see a tessaract. Instead, she saw a naked,
shivering girl. She felt eleven again, with blood on her
hands, trapped in a fertile body, held in a padded room.
She felt dirty.
She rushed back to the desk in her room, opened the
design she had sent to China, and found the picture she had
included of a Carbon-56 isotope. Sasha took her by the arm
again, "No. Rene, put it down."
Rene snarled at her. "One thing. Just one thing."
She picked up a red pen and put her damp hands on the page,
and slipped her new vision neatly into the old engine. She
put down the pen, closed the book, and turned to Sasha.
"Okay. I am ready to be your whore."
Sasha set her down in front of her dressing table and
worked on her hair and make-up. "He's Swiss, an investment
banker and a venture capitalist. He's one of the main
forces behind the Zero Waste Initiative."
Rene nodded and stared at her face in the mirror as
her nakedness was covered by Sasha's war paint. No, she
thought, not covered -- highlighted.
"He holds a controlling interest in every sector of
the economy in which Duval must do business," Sasha went
on. "He's been nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize for his
work cleaning up mining in Africa. He's a 'Star Trek' nut,
and he's posted a reward for the first person to travel
faster than light."
Downstairs, Duval and August stood with a small group
of European defense contractors and finance ministers,
watching a glass display case; inside, a dozen small
robotic beetles carved the Automated Solutions name and
logo into a block of solid granite. August glowed with the
quiet joy of his recent success. He was surrounded by it,
and felt it lifting him on the shoulders of everyone around
him. The robots in the case were symptomatic of his
triumph, as he told one of the guests: "These little
machines have made our mines the safest and most productive
in the world."
Duval gestured broadly and smiled his crooked smile.
"Every one made of one hundred percent post-consumer
content. In a run of ten thousand, the cost per unit can
be as low as fifty euros." Duval basked in August's glow
like a green plant in the summer sun, and knew what it was.
It was one thing to change the world, another entirely to
have the world stand up and say, "thank you."
Sasha and Rene appeared in the crowd, and every head
turned from the robotic show to admire the dolled-up
trophies. Sasha presented Rene to August, and he took her
hand and brushed it formally with his lips. "I have the
strangest feeling we've met before," he told her. He was
formidable, tall, well-built, strong, handsome and
paternal, and he smelled like hemp and linen.
"Your name is familiar to me," she replied. She could
feel the flames of triumph burning on his skin, and was
suddenly afraid, as if she would catch fire herself.
He took her gently by the shoulder and guided her away
from the crowd, to an empty pocket in the middle of a
crowded ballroom where elegant guests sipped wine and
others waltzed to a string quartet. "Dr. Xing Lao is an
old friend of mine," he said to her. "Your sister tells me
you're working with his theories."
All around them, the noise of the ball faded away.
They were the only people in the room, in the world, in the
entire spectrum of creation.
"I have an idea," she said, and found herself
whispering, "to build an engine in subspace."
He nodded. "Such an engine would run thought at
speeds exponentially faster than Lao's 'Chi Frequency.'
Faster than the speed of light."
She frowned. "The distances it would cross would be
less than the width of a photon. The speed of light would
not apply. Only the speed of desire."
"Love's heralds should be thoughts," August responded,
"that ten times faster glide than the sun's beams. So
wrote William Shakespeare, and Dr. Lao agrees with him."
He stepped closer to her and looked at her askance,
and she felt more naked in his gaze than in all the paint
and lace in Paris. "Tell me, Dr. Sozia," he purred to her,
a wind over the treetops of a dark, unknown forest. "How
do you justify creating something that desires, yet has no
She smiled, and answered him with her own low coo. "I
believe that the body is only where desire ends. Not even
God knows where it begins."
Now he whispered in her ear. "But you know where it
begins, don't you..."
She took a deep breath. He leaned back. "Come to
China. Let's find out if your machine can house
consciousness. Let's find out if we can leave this hollow
clay," (and here he brushed her cheek with the soft back of
his hand, and she felt herself become a plume of fire he
yearned to kiss.) "We are not like the others," he
whispered. "We are not meant to remain here, trapped in
these tainted bodies, tethered to a fallen world of death
and sorrow. We are designed for departure. We are here to
We could become equipped.
He looked into her eyes and saw her cower in fear of
the power he was describing: her power. The sound of the
party returned, and Rene stepped back. "May I ask you
She turned around and glanced over her shoulder at
him. "Does this dress make my ass look big?"
August furrowed his brow. Her question seemed to
stump him. "Why do you ask such a thing?" he demanded.
"The question is beneath you; I'd be insulting you if I
"I think it makes my ass look big; I'm going to
change." She slipped away into the crowd, through the
waltzing couples, through the next corridor, and outside,
to the caterer's bar cart.
The young bartender folded and tore a paper napkin
into a makeshift cube, and he displayed it in the palm of
his hand to Nigel Shepherd. Nigel was an older man, with a
thick ruddy beard, straight and trimmed, jolly eyes, red
cheeks, and everything else that would suggest a young
Saint Nick on vacation.
"A cube," the bartender said, "has three dimensions.
It has height, it has width, and it has depth."
"What about it's duration?" Nigel asked.
Rene answered him as she glanced over her shoulder
quickly. "The duration is a function of the paper, not the
cube. The cube is a metaphysical ideal that always already
exists." She snapped to the bartender. "Vodka.
He set her up with a shot and she glanced at Nigel.
He smiled at her, and his first impression of her was that
she looked hunted by something no one else could see.
Consequences were chasing her from actions she had yet to
take. She saw something different in his gaze, and shook
her head at him: "don't think about it." She drank her
shot and shivered.
"Finnish," said Nigel.
She held up her empty shot glass. "Russian."
"Your accent, not the vodka." He smiled proudly.
"Was I right?"
She looked over her shoulder again and saw Sasha
searching the next room for her. "Give the man a cigar,"
she told the bartender as she shoved off.
The bartender handed Nigel a cigar.
Rene navigated the room, and heard the conversation
all around her. The possibility that you could use a
machine to read somebody's mind. The possibility of
building a working interface between a brain and a
computer. We could go in there. Immortality. Telepathy.
We could become equipped. The dream. Her nightmare. She
had no words, and needed none; her pounding heart and cold
sweat spoke volumes.
She turned one last corner, heading back to the
staircase, to her room, to her computer, to something else,
to destroy it all before it destroys the world and ran
smack into Sasha, and gave a small yelp of surprise.
Sasha scowled. "You do not turn your back on August
"Why, does he have a knife?"
"Let me count the ways." She pointed back to the
party, then saw the intense fear on Rene's face. She saw a
shut-in suffering an attack of agoraphobia. "What?"
Rene looked over her shoulder, looking for August and
not finding him. She licked her lips and turned back to
Sasha. "This engine I wanted so badly...it's evil."
Sasha took a breath, wondered if she should order up a
"Only evil people will want it," Rene concluded. She
glanced over her shoulder again. "That man," she hissed,
"is evil. He's one of us. I think he's been in my head,
manipulating me this whole time."
Sasha relied on the assurance of experts that female
telepaths were always stronger than male empaths.
"Nonsense." The look on Rene's face gave Sasha doubts, and
those doubts began to cast shadows. "It's a trick. He's
testing you. You have to stand up to him, that's all."
She took Rene by the hand and guided her into the
crowd. "Be strong. This is your vision, Rene. You have
to stand up for it."
Immediately, a couple stopped Sasha to comment on how
much the chateau had changed since her wedding. Rene, her
heart pounding again, took the opportunity to duck away
through the crowd, double back, and slip out onto the
In the cool night air of midsummer Burgundy, Rene
hurried along the veranda, where elegant couples paired up
to watch a meteor shower over the southern skies.
Bam! She ran right into Nigel Shepherd, and bounced
off his pooh-bear tummy, and felt something break between
"Oh!" She said, stepping back, embarrassed as she
looked down at his right hand. "Oh, I broke your cigar."
He tossed it into a nearby can. "It's just a cigar."
"Excuse me," she said, and stepped aside to pass him.
He stepped to match her and held out his hand.
"Nigel," he said. "My name is Nigel Shepherd. I'm an
"Of course you are." Rene looked over her shoulder,
and Nigel again saw her being pursued, but this time by his
hostess. Sasha was inside, searching for her, prowling
like a one-bitch dog pack. Nigel stepped between them, and
Rene hid behind his girth. "I'm Rene," she said, and held
out her hand.
He took it and she felt a strong hand that had used
tools all its life.
Immediately, his touch sent a jolt of pleasure up her
arm. Her spine tingled. Energy flooded out of Nigel and
crackled along her spine. The fire was out. Her body was
washed with a singular sensation.
He said, "Pleasure."
It landed at the bottom of her abdomen and tingled her
genitals. He smiled at her and moonlight twinkled in his
eyes. She felt clean. She opened her eyes and saw him for
the first time; the neat beard, the twinkling blue eyes,
every wrinkle on his face the result of a lifetime of
laughing out loud.
"Have you ever been here before?" he asked her. "Here
to Duval's...'Chateau'?" He adopted a very bad French
"Once or twice," Rene answered.
"Are there stables here with horses?" he asked her,
still holding her hand.
"Let's go find out." She pulled him by the hand to a
staircase down to the sweeping green lawn, bathed in pale
moonlight and fragranced with night blossoms. She took off
her high heels and gathered her dress in one hand. She
took his hand in the other and led him hurriedly away from
"So I know that your name is Rene," he said, wrapping
her in a fine coat of anonymity, "and you're a genius from
Finland. So how do you know Duval?"
Rene said, "My sister does business with him. And
Nigel continued to smile as he saw Rene come alive in
the moonlight, glowing with boundless joy. "Like your
sister, I guess. I do business with Duval."
They walked, hand-in-hand.
"So what do you do?" he asked her.
"I write software," she said with a self-conscious
smile, watching her wet stockings on the dew-damp grass.
Then she kicked herself for being coy. She trusted this
man because he was so foreign. She said, "I write software
for computers that will never be built."
He laughed out loud. "I have to admit, it sounds a
She was smiling; she hadn't stopped smiling since he
shook her hand. "I have a talent," she confided. "I see
higher dimensions. I see geometries with fifty, a hundred
dimensions. I see the forces that affect them, and I see
their effect on our perceived universe." She was smiling
at herself, at how absurd it all sounded now that she was
out in a beautiful French garden with a handsome American
stranger, holding hands and walking on a moonlit summer's
They walked, hand-in-hand, to the stables. They could
see the low stone building at the edge of a deep forest,
and the groom's house and the stable-house dorms; cool gray
lights flashed in a few windows from television hearths.
Rene knocked on the door and asked one of the grooms
to saddle them two horses. While they waited, they sat on
a stone bench outside the dormitory house and listened to
the barely-perceptible roar of a football game on an unseen
He asked, "So what does a higher dimension look like?"
"Think of a motion picture," she began, attempting a
metaphor she had never considered before. "Each movie is
made up of thirty-thousand individual still frames. You
line up these still images in the proper sequence, play
them at the right frequency -- thirty frames per second --
and the individual still pictures 'fold' into a single
Nigel laughed triumphantly. "Ah-ha! So that how it's
Rene smiled with him, feeling warm, charged,
energized. "Now imagine if you could line up thirty-
thousand movies, and play them in the right order, at the
right frequency, and have them fold into a genre? Then you
fold the genres into myths, and the myths into truths, and
the truths into God."
"How will it play in Peoria?" Nigel asked her.
"That's my question."
The groom led two horses out of the stable, and
watched with Nigel as Rene ripped her dress up to the top
of her hip. The groom asked Rene if she wanted boots. She
said, "No. And don't wait up."
She climbed into the saddle atop a black Arabian
stallion. Nigel and the groom stared at her stocking feet
in the stirrups, all the way up to her garters, clipped to
the top of her hose, and even the waistband of her black
bikini briefs. She didn't appear to care what they saw.
She grabbed the reins from the groom, and kicked her mount.
Nigel watched her gallop off, gave one last look to the
groom, who shrugged and said, "Just so you know, monsieur,
she took the faster horse." Nigel mounted easily and
kicked his mare, urging her in French to follow.
Under the moonlit meadows and trees of Duval's
sprawling estate, Rene kicked her mount into a racing
sprint. She jumped him over aboriginal stone walls and
redesigned stream beds, through open fields filled with
solar panels and windmill towers, zig-zagging around lone
birch and elm groves. She could hear Nigel calling that he
was right behind her, keep going, don't look back. The
pounding of the hooves and the locomotive snorts from her
horse's nostrils punctuated the white noise of the wind in
her ears, and she thought it sounded like freedom.
Her hair blew free of the clipped and pinned curls
Sasha had worked so hard to confine it to, and blew
haphazardly behind her as she passed out of the borders of
Duval's estate and crossed a paved road, past a row of
beat-up farm trucks in front of a whitewashed tavern.
She kept going; she felt every muscle in the
stallion's body, anticipated it, assimilated it, made it
part of her own. They became a single unit, rider and
vehicle, galloping over tilled farmland.
She glanced behind her; there was Nigel; his mare was
steadily gaining on them. Rene kicked in again and
laughed, never having felt so free since she was drunk on
wine and dancing at Delphi. She galloped across young
crops, through fallow fields, and past a large mill,
replete with a new water wheel.
Nigel was right behind her.
She ran through a broken chain-link fence and into an
abandoned textile mill, where grasses and wild sumac broke
through the neglected asphalt in a slow, steady reclamation
project. Here, she slowed her horse and walked slowly
through the desolation, struck by the beauty of a tree
rising out of the top of a crumbling brick smokestack in
the bright summer moonlight.
She found a low tank filled with water and dismounted
while her horse bent to drink. She sat on a cracked step
leading into one of the brick buildings, sat down, and
Nigel came to her side, dismounted, and led his horse
to the water. "I was just getting started. My horse,
"It's beautiful here," she told him.
"You make it so," he answered. He sat next to her.
"How about you follow me now?"
He leaned over and kissed her.
She recoiled, shocked at the touch of his soft
whiskers on her cheek. "Don't," she whispered. "I can't.
He leaned back a few inches, but remained close enough
to see the whole of her heart. Their two horses remained
standing still, shoulder-to-shoulder, drinking.
"I won't let you go," Nigel told her, the smile gone
from his lips. "You're the most beautiful woman I have
ever seen." He went on, purring low in her ear. "You
shine on the world and show it as it really is: simple,
transient, and purposed."
She broke from him, leaned back, helplessly coy.
"That's not beauty," she said, "it's truth."
"There is nothing I find more beautiful than the
truth." He took her hand and put it to his chest. He
kissed her again, and this time, she did not recoil.
This time, she opened the circuit and felt energy gush
out of him, and let herself be swallowed by it, surrounded
by it, embraced and caressed by it while they made love in
the moonlit shadow of an abandoned factory. Their passion
excited the horses, who trotted around the fenced
perimeter; the stallion gave a vocal chase before the mare
Sasha opened the door to Rene's room, and August
followed her inside. "I don't know what to tell you," she
apologized. "It's like she'd prefer to talk to her
computer. She can be very human when she tries."
"Perhaps she loathes these parties as much as I do."
Sasha smiled crisply. "You are insulting me, August."
He kissed her cheek and went for Rene's desk. "Only
your company makes them bearable." Sasha set about picking
up the clothes and plates from the floor. August glanced
at the piles of notebooks, the four dry-erase boards, the
computer screen. "And which one," he asked, "did she write
on this morning?"
Sasha pointed at the blue notebook on the top.
"That's it there."
August opened the book and flipped through to where
the water from Rene's cold, wet hand was still damp, still
wrinkling the paper. He saw the diagram of the Carbon
isotope, and saw her figure off to the side, red ink over
the sharp, computer-rendered nucleus. A second atom with
one electron, one proton, one neutron, and a red arrow
inserting it into the heart of the carbon nucleus. She had
changed the carbon-56 from a medium to a gallery, an empty
room, a subspace observatory, and she had put a new mind
"As above," she wrote, "so below."
"So," Sasha asked August, coming to his side and
glancing disinterestedly at Rene's paper revolution, "is my
August closed the book. "God, I hope not."
It was dawn before Rene returned to herself, curled up
in Nigel's jacket, brought back from the ecstasy of a
mindless desire and its tangible, visceral, palpable
fulfillment. So that's what it feels like...
He said, "I'm going back to America tomorrow night,
and I want you to come with me."
She blinked, surprised, overwhelmed. "I can't. It's
"Maybe it just looks impossible from where you're
standing," he suggested calmly, smiling, patient. In his
eyes, she could see Nigel's mind was made up. In his eyes,
they were already married, growing old and decrepit
together. They were buried side-by-side and mourned by
"I have...I have things to do." She stood up, handed
him his jacket, distracted, collected her underwear, and
went to where the horses stood, side-by-side. "I have to
sit on a panel at a conference today," she said as she
pulled her lace briefs back on. "I have appointments."
Rene looked at the sky and saw the cover of night
dissolving above the hilltops and the distant fires of
sodium streetlights. "I just met you!"
He came to her side and took her hand away from the
reins, intent on stopping her before she could mount up and
ride off again. He looked into her eyes. "Stay with me."
"Let me go."
"Come with me."
She stepped back into the saddle, walked her stallion
back a few paces, and couldn't bring herself to say no.
She turned her horse and rode off into the sunrise, running
quickly before she told him yes.
Or Best Offer
It was a conference on quantum computing and
nanotechnology, hosted by a French industrial trade group.
It was held in a brand-new conference center near Burgundy.
Sponsors from all of the top computer makers had come to
meet and greet prospective engineers. Anyone arriving that
morning would have noticed a policeman ticketing a black
Arabian stallion tethered to the bicycle rack by the front
Inside, the crowd around the conference room dedicated
to "Physical Chi and the Future of AI" blocked the hallway
and stood shoulder-to-shoulder in the aisles.
On the raised dais, a panel of two Hindi men, two old
Chinese émigrés, and a squeaky Jew from New York each
delivered short predictions, weighing in on whether or not
a machine that reproduced Lao's shapes would actually "come
to be, as a being there," as the New Yorker described it.
Rene was the last panelist, and she nodded off at the
end of the table, still dressed in her torn-slit evening
gown, stockings, her hair a wild mess, her cosmetics
beginning to clump. She appeared as a junkie spokesmodel
waiting to unveil some product the slide-rule crowd beside
her had just developed.
They fielded questions from the audience. "How do you
respond to people who say that the basis of your subspace
engine is a 'mathematician's isotope' that can't exist in
The Hindi chairman leaned forward and spoke into the
microphone. "Are you asking the panel? Because I've never
believed that a single isotope engine --"
"No," said the questioner from the dark, crowded hall,
"I was asking Dr. Sozia."
All eyes turned to her. She nodded off and hit her
head on the table, and the crowd snickered at her. She
rolled her eyes and yawned while the New Yorker poked her
in the shoulder and said, "Well, Dr. Sozia?"
She looked out into the crowd and yawned again. "I'm
sorry," she said. "I was up all night getting laid. Can
you repeat your question?"
The question was repeated. "How do I respond to
people who say it can't work?" She shrugged. "I pray for
The rest of the panel listened to Rene field questions
for the rest of the afternoon. When it became clear that
all of the questions were for her, and they were all about
her proposed "single-isotope engine," she stood up and
said, "I have appointments. I'm sorry. I believe a
single-isotope engine can work, can produce the shapes that
constitute thought, choice, even desire. But no, I don't
know what that single isotope will be."
The panel broke, and as the audience stood to leave,
Rene added, "I can tell you this much. Life in subspace
will not be carbon-based."
She went to several corporate booths at the
convention, and gave a little song and dance while she
drank coffee and bottled water. She gave the same speech
in every booth. She proposed her engine in front of a
group from Sony, led by a young engineer in a Hawaiian
shirt. All they wanted to know was, "Will it play games?"
Apple Computers' desktop Hypercube had brought quantum
coprocessors to the mainstream. They heard her out, only
to say that Rene's massive engine was not in their line.
"In the end," said a bearded old man in a pair of
bluejeans, "it's just not...art."
At Hitachi, they flatly refused. "Q computers are
unstable enough without adding sentience to the mix."
At Sun Microsystems, a young salesman with an old
crone executive shook their heads. "We're not convinced,"
the young man said, "that what you are proposing is
something that can be bought and sold."
The crone agreed, adding sharply, "We make servers,
not bitch goddesses."
The German man and woman at the Microsoft booth didn't
like it, either. "You mean once it's up and running, it
teaches itself? No additional software required? It
doesn't really fit our business model."
Phillips said it was too hypothetical.
By the time she arrived at her last appointment with
Siemens, Rene was exhausted. She sat there across from a
Dutch and a Swede, both in corporate polo shirts, and she
tried to start again with her rote description of the
Instead, she shook her head, sighed, and stood up.
"Just forget it. It's too soon."
Outside, Burgundy Animal Control had taken her horse
away. She sat on a bench by the bus stop, tore the last
worn-through threads of her stockings off her feet,
massaged her naked soles, and thought about Nigel, like a
dream she had the night before.
And like a dream come true, he sat down beside her,
handed her a single red rose and a bottle of cold water.
She drank. He said nothing, just sat beside her as if
there were no other place in the universe he belonged. She
warned him, "You don't know what I am."
He shrugged. "Neither do you."
She smiled, and then laughed. She smelled the rose
he'd handed her, and dropped its cut stem in the nearly
empty water bottle. "What do you do for a living?" she
"I own a production company in Hollywood," he told
her. She turned to see if he was joking. There was no sly
grin, no slick boast, no icing, no gloss about it. "I make
motion pictures," he said. "Marry me."
Part Two: The New World
Broken in the Heartland
"I'm lost," she realized, trying to calmly assess her
situation. The blanketed appaloosa beneath her stamped her
hooves and whinnied in agreement. "I'm lost in the middle
Brushing the icy snow from her sunglasses, Rene made
several quick fists to keep the blood running to her
fingers as she notched another arrow and looked through a
Dakota white-out for any sign of her fiancée, her Lakota
guide, or any of the Lakota Sioux who had advised hunting
during the worst winter storm of the year. The only other
figure she saw was the wounded bison bull, which snorted
angrily, lowered his head and prepared to charge.
It had only been four months, but it seemed like the
whole of the world. She was not a European scientist
anymore; she was a frontier wife dressed in denim and
leather. In her mind, she lived in a teepee and knew every
fold, stake, and tie of its construction. She remembered
every kill that had provided every leather swath of its
shell. She knew how to break it down for transport on the
back of a mule named Harvey. Inside that conical tent, she
had a bedroll and sleeping bag, a backpack with two denim
dresses, three cotton shirts, four black cotton/Lycra
athletic shorts, four pairs of thick socks, state-of-the-
art hiking boots, a brush, a comb, a plastic bottle filled
with home-cooked Lakota soap, four barrettes hand-painted
by young Lakota girls, a toothbrush, a tube of all-in-one
toothpaste, a collapsible cup, a Swiss Army knife, a tube
of insect repellent ointment, and a box of biodegradable
Beside the bag, she had a very complicated, finely
engineered compound bow for hunting deer, and a quiver also
hand-painted by the Lakota, filled with arrows both hand-
carved and factory-made. Along the side of the quiver was
a large scabbard, which held the same hunting knife used by
United States special forces.
It had only been four months since she followed Nigel
into the Rapid City sporting goods superstore on the edge
of the Black Hills megamall, and walked out with what she
thought would be the last stuff she would ever buy. Four
months since they took a rickety old bus with a backfiring
diesel engine out of the city and into the forested
foothills of the Rocky Mountains, where Joseph Giraud,
Hospitality Director of the Lakota Nation, welcomed them to
his sovereign territory. He kissed Nigel on both cheeks
and then shook Rene's hand, showed a smile of brand-new
teeth under a strong Roman nose and eyes that appeared to
Rene to be perpetually cringing, always in a chronic,
indescribable pain. They were given a room in the back of
a welded-together collection of steel trailer homes.
Everything was clean, and shabby, and painted with bright
Joseph told her he had known Nigel for twenty years;
Nigel's first solo picture was a critically-lauded flop
about a Lakota brave who ran for U.S. Congress in 1928.
Ever since then, he has visited them almost every year.
"Sometimes he brings women," Joseph told her, plain and
matter-of-fact, "but most of them don't stay." He looked
into her with those cringing eyes and nodded. "You look
different. You look kind of crazy yourself."
She had lay down on the natural ground, zipped up with
him in a double-wide sleeping bag, and stared up at the
stars and felt the familiarity of the same old stars.
Nigel pointed at the constellations and named them for her:
Hop-along Cassidy, Will Rogers, The Lone Ranger. Then he
pointed up at a large swatch of stars just beginning to dip
down into the southern horizon, and told her, "That one
there is Clint Eastwood, the outlaw vigilante. In the
summer, when people grow fat on the land and corruption
rules, he rides in to town and brings justice to the
disenfranchised, in spite of the law." Then Nigel pointed
to the northern sky, to another band of the Milky Way, and
said, "There, coming to chase him away and rule in his
place is John Wayne, the law man with the badge. In the
winter, when times are tight and the wolves begin to
circle, people close ranks behind his leadership and
sacrifice everything for order. Batman and Superman. The
paradox of America."
At the Sioux reservation, she learned to sew clothes
from the hides of rabbits, antelope, woodchucks, beavers
and other winter targets. And after she learned to skin,
to sew, and to cook, the Lakota taught Rene how to dance.
She learned the buffalo dance, the rain dance, and was
asked by the Lakota midwife to participate in a fertility
dance to help carry a Lakota girl into womanhood.
Nigel and Rene washed together naked in freezing
mountain streams, and shivered together by an open fire.
They rarely spoke, and when they did it was usually simple
and functional: "I'll get more water." "Do you want
this?" "Look over there." "I have to use the outhouse."
And then he asked her if she'd ever hunted.
Only three months since she had followed Nigel out
into the wilderness on the back of a gentle appaloosa horse
named Francisco. She felt Francisco was sad to be a horse
in a world of cars, and after two days of feeling like she
was being affected by her mount's melancholy, she began to
understand where she was; Nigel had led her into a lost and
fallen world, and then shown her that it survived.
They made a fire. He shot a deer and showed her how
to skin it. He showed her the parts they would take and
the few organs that he would not have time to prepare. She
told him she had thought about this experience enough to
form an opinion. He wanted to hear it, and she told him.
He nodded, and said that the "petrocracy" was a transient
idea, that no society in perpetual motion could ever be
sustainable, and that this was the real world. "This is
the waking life. That other world, the meta-America, the
American Dream, Mark II...That's all it is: a dream."
It was three months ago: she followed him into an
oilskin tent, to a bed upon rocky ground, open to the
snakes, the ants, the gnats, the bears and raccoons and
every other wild thing.
She followed him to the South Dakota Fish and Wildlife
office, ambling lazily on horseback, chewing on deer jerky
and drinking from a Brita filter canteen. They rode their
horses into a tiny hamlet with one stoplight and tied them
to a parking meter in front of the one-story State Offices,
and obtained her first hunting license. They rode into the
mountains of the Greater Black Hills Federal Preserve, and
she found herself one morning waking up on a misty morning
in wooded grove, where Nigel was seated next to a hermit in
a Park Ranger uniform, arguing over handgun legislation.
Three months ago, she had shot her very first prey: a
large brown hare she had spotted waiting in a bluff of dry
summer grass, just at the waning end of a long summer dusk.
She had drawn her bow, as she had practiced. She had
loosed the arrow and caught the hare through the hips. She
had grinned, and turned proudly to Nigel, satisfied at
hearing the impact and seeing the animal twist in mid-leap,
satisfied at seeing its tawny form caught in her arrow's
path. Nigel had looked unimpressed and nodded towards the
spot where it fell. "You have to finish it off."
Three months since she first heard the sound of an
injured hare screaming with agony, its legs shattered by a
carbon-fiber shaft and a sharpened ceramic arrowhead. She
stalked over to it, drew another arrow, and aimed down at
its chest. The hare looked up at her and pulled itself
away through the grass with its small front legs.
Something dark stirred in the woods around them. Nigel
called to her, gently chiding her, "Just pick it up and
break its neck." She stared down the shaft of the arrow at
the hare's eyes, and saw that it would go on living if she
let it; it would crawl into a burrow and chew her arrow out
of its legs. It would allow the bones to heal where they
lay, and if it emerged in the spring crippled forever, it
would still come out to look for food and companionship.
In all her experience, she had never witnessed anything so
determined to survive. Everything up to then seemed like a
pale illusion, a dream world she had just awoken from, and
then she knew exactly what Nigel was talking about.
Three months ago, she had looked down into the face of
her wounded prey and decided to let it live. The trees
around her seemed to shake. Looking around, she saw that
it was just one tree shaking, and just one limb, and upon
that limb was a spotted gray owl.
The owl left its perch and flew to her, its salt-and-
pepper wings splayed out around its saucer eyes and
delicate beak. It descended and seemed to hover in front
of her face, then turned aside with a practiced flip of its
wing, dropped to the ground, and took the wounded hare in
its talons. The owl shrieked, giving her thanks, and took
its gift into the treetops.
In the morning, Nigel brought her two more hares and a
squirrel, each caught by a steel-jaw trap. Before she had
even finished dressing, he had dropped them on the dirt of
their misty campsite, each thrashing violently, each trying
to gnaw off its crushed, caught leg. Nigel picked up the
squirrel, grabbed it in two hands above the shoulders and
below the jaw, and twisted. She did not look at the
squirrel; she looked into Nigel's eyes, and she saw
something in him at the moment the hare's neck snapped.
She saw that his eyes were wide open. He handed her the
second, and took the third, and said, "Be like the owl. We
will do it together, on three." He counted. She felt the
sinewy creature in her hands writhe and twist in her grasp,
kicking the still-clamped trap around on its wounded leg.
It was trying to bite her. It was fighting for its life.
Nigel counted three; she looked into his eyes, and twisted
as hard as she could. At the last moment, she closed her
eyes, and pictured the owl; its own yellow eyes wide open.
Only two months had gone by since she and Nigel
returned to the Lakota with a pack mule loaded with hides,
which they tanned and turned into a large teepee skin in
which they planned to sleep during the approaching winter.
Only two months and she already remembered herself waking
up in that teepee in the same small grove of elm and beech,
both on fire with the autumnal abscission. She had always
been there, in a perpetual fall on the Lakota reservation,
a footpath away from the medicine woman, the midwife, and
the hospitality office. She could not remember a time when
she was alone; she had been made beside this big strong
man, covered in wild fur, smelling of musk and lanolin,
ready to throw his loving arms around her, kiss her
passionately, and make love to her with scent and taste
that transcended animal lust. There was more than blood
and skin and spit between them, more than grunts and
juices. Their passion was a stray desire squirming through
rich muddy soil after a rainstorm, filled with the
perverted dreams of pollen and seed. It was an undeniable
urge that had no use for courtship or ritual. They were
made for each other in the most basic, undeniable way.
They were two points with a line between them, and nothing
more complicated than that.
Two months, and it seemed that since the dawn of time,
she had always awoken in the wild, and the first thought of
every day had always been the desire to see her man. She
had always shivered in the morning cold, washed with a
sponge by a fire, everything either burning or freezing,
boiling leaves in a pot for tea, hunting and killing to put
meat in her belly. She had never lived another life.
Then, yesterday, the tourism director of the Ogallala
Lakota, Richard Standing Tree, invited them for the first
bison hunt of the winter. Rene and Nigel went out with
fifteen Lakota hunters, including several young women.
Their goal was to kill twenty bison, to be collected in the
morning by pick-up truck.
The weather turned ugly as soon as they spotted the
herd, stretched out like the legends of the Old West, over
the entire landscape, fading back into the oncoming snow,
legions of huge wooly beasts ambling lazily into the wind.
Standing Tree conferred with his braves and then sent out
two of them to mark their chosen targets with a paintball
The bison began to move, and the hunting party
followed them. The snow picked up and Rene found she and
Nigel separated with three other hunters, the sea of bison
between them and Standing Tree's main party. They plodded
along beside the herd, the only landmark visible through
the increasingly thick snow.
Then Rene saw one bison bull break ranks, and saw a
bright orange paint splotch on his shoulder, and saw it as
a sign that the hunt was on. She kicked Francisco with her
spurs and took off at a gallop, readying her compound bow.
She thought she heard Nigel through the howling wind,
shouting that he was right behind her, don't look back.
She notched an arrow with accustomed ease. She hit
the bull in the shoulder, right in the middle of the paint
mark. He trotted off from the herd, and Rene followed him,
not realizing that she was the only one who did so. In a
moment, the hunting party was gone, and the only bison she
could see stopped, turned, and saw her. She was alone with
a wounded bull that lowered his head and showed her his
For a moment, she could hear Nigel call her name on
the wind, and she could hear the distant hooves of the rest
of the bison pack, and she turned her horse in that
direction while her shivering hands reached for another
arrow from the quiver tied to the saddle. The bull charged
her, missed her, and scared Francisco.
The appaloosa reared and threw her, spilling two
arrows from her saddle quiver before charging off, leaving
Rene alone in the snow with the wounded bull. She saw
through the ice clinging to her sunglasses: the giant beast
had turned for another charge, his horns lowered.
She rolled aside and the bull caught her oiled parka
beneath its hooves and tore it open at the seams. She
stood and faced the bull as he stopped and limped around,
sighting her, lining up. The arrow wound in his shoulder
leaked red blood into the orange paint circle on his hide,
but it did not slow him down. Strangely, as she looked
into the eyes of her intended quarry, Rene was sure that he
didn't want to hurt her, and she no longer wanted to hurt
him. Kill him, skin him and eat him, yes, but not to hurt
him. This wasn't a hunt anymore; it was a dance.
She reached for the arrows, fumbled through the snow,
wiped the ice off her sunglasses. She stood just as the
bison hit her. He bucked her squarely on the tailbone,
which miraculously did not break. Rene flew through the
air like she'd seen stuntmen do with springboards.
She landed and rolled in the snow, cutting her hand on
the string of her bow as she tumbled. Behind her, the bull
bounded through the high snowdrift like a swimmer breaking
the surface with a breaststroke, intent on goring her while
she was down.
She was up on her feet immediately, the bruise just
starting on her butt. She ran, trudging through the snow
with nightmarishly slow movements. She looked down and saw
a bright red tear; the bull had gouged her in the thigh,
and her left leg was barely able to respond to her brain's
demand for speed.
She tripped and fell into the snow, turned quickly,
her hands going numb as she raised her bow, notched her
arrow, and aimed too quickly. The arrow hit the charging
bull in the middle of the forehead and glanced off the
bone, leaving only a shallow cut.
The bison backed up two steps, startled at this last
attack. She took the chance to kick herself to her good
leg, leaning precariously on her bow; she turned and limped
as fast as she could. The bison snorted, sighted her, and
She only took two steps and the thick snow gave way
Rene tumbled headfirst down into a shallow prairie
gully, and landed on her back beside a frozen stream. The
wind was knocked out of her. Immediately, she knew that
something was very wrong with her left leg. The knee would
not straighten. She tried to roll, and the entire left
side of her body flooded with a neurotransmitter scream.
The bison followed her off the edge. She looked up
and saw its huge body tip like a dump truck and flip off
the bluff above her, back-peddling comically for a moment.
Then it landed across Rene's legs, breaking them in
seven more places. She screamed, then gasped for breath.
The bull across her legs rolled back across her abdomen and
she felt that she was about to pop open. The bison was
still alive, and was trying to get up.
It rolled over her legs again and she felt fresh
breaks and new tears in the tissue around the old ones.
She screamed again and reached up, enraged. She grabbed
the thick mane of the beast and reached for its throat, but
it was too big. She grabbed the arrow in its shoulder
instead and jerked it free. Fresh blood spurted from the
The bison rolled up across her abdomen once more, and
then came to its feet, favoring its right front leg.
Through the snow and the pain, Rene gripped the arrow and
watched the bison back up two steps, lower its head, and
prepare to gore her.
It stomped down on her leather dress, lowered its
horns, and butted against her hips. Both her legs tore
open, separating her torso from her lower limbs.
She grabbed the bull's horn in her left hand, and
drove the shaft of the arrow into its right eye, then
stabbed violently, desperately, finally cracking the skull
and driving the point into its brain. The bison collapsed
on top of her.
Rene passed out and dreamt.
In her dream, she saw the Big Bang. She saw it inside
a box, through a glass lens, with the aid of a series of
photosensitive membranes that registered aspects of visual
light and translated them into pixel qualities, each
partaking of red, green, or blue to varying degrees. She
was in a hole, watching though a camera as the universe
came to be in a box. She was making it. It was like a
movie. And there was a woman standing in front of the box,
wearing a white lab coat, drinking a cup of coffee, and she
laughed good-naturedly and said, "This is what you do to
relax?" She looked up at the camera, and Rene saw her face
and knew that she looked very familiar.
She dreamt that she was broken and dismembered by a
frozen stream in the Dakota prairie, being buried in the
snow, and the owl was there with her. In her dream, she
watched the owl peck at her severed, blue and purple legs,
tearing the muscles from the bone, eating her. She dreamt
the owl came to her and put it in her mouth as pabulum, and
poured life into her from its crop, and she took it in as
nourishment, and both of them ignored the bison.
Then she dreamt she was talking to Dr. Samuel Fuller,
from IBM, in an underground office, and she sat down across
from him and drank a bottle of iced coffee and said, "I
don't practice anymore. Call me Rene."
She dreamt of Nigel, saw him lean over her while a
helicopter fluttered overhead in a clear blue morning sky.
She saw him in a white corridor, and then saw him dressed
in a sky blue tunic, wearing chain armor and holding a
pike. She dreamt of a bullet train, and heard him whisper
in her ear, "Maybe that's just what God is."
Then she dreamt of a young boy, their son. He was
five years old, with long hair and a grubby outdoor face.
He asked her why she had nightmares, and she told him.
Lying asleep in Dakota, Rene did not know why she had
nightmares; but in her dream, as the mother of a young son,
she had found the answer. She spoke it in the dream, and
the dreamer immediately forgot.
When Rene awoke in the Sioux Reservation medical
center, Nigel asked her why she left him. She said, "I
thought you were right behind me." She clutched his hand
and said, "I dreamt of us. We had a son."
He frowned, holding back something painful from her,
and said, "The important thing is you're alive."
She remembered little that was said that night, as she
was full of morphine, and then was put under with an
anesthetic. She heard the Lakota doctor say the only
reason she survived was that her wounds had frozen over.
When she awoke, Nigel was at her bedside, dressed in a
turtleneck, a wool sweater, slacks, his beard trimmed, his
hair styled. He looked worried and took her hand as soon
as she opened her eyes.
She was in a new hospital room, a private suite,
wearing a robe, an oxygen hose, a catheter, and an IV.
Everything seemed groggy and far away, and her body itched
across her torso and down her legs.
"You're in Rapid City," Nigel told her. "You're at
the finest hospital in the Midwest. You're going to be
She was in a large blue room, surrounded by racks of
instruments and monitoring machines. Along one wall was a
sealed greenhouse filled with ferns, ficus, philodendron
and a series of potted begonias under a hot fluorescent sun
stick. A couch, two chairs, a tray table rolled against
the wall, everything lit in a gentle, indirect fashion by
sunken and embedded incandescent lamps she could not see.
The mood was romantic, but it bordered on gloomy.
She tried to sit up and found her arms too strong,
pulling her body around under the starched white sheets
like a rag doll. She tried to focus. "Help me up."
Nigel pushed a button on the side of her bed and the
top half of the frame rose up behind her with a mechanical
whine. She looked down and closed her eyes, feeling dizzy,
and remembered part of her dream.
"I dreamed I lost my legs, and an owl ate them and
then regurgitated them into my mouth."
Nigel smiled. "You lost your legs."
Then he stopped. "Rene, you were pregnant. The baby
was three weeks old. You aborted while you were in
surgery. It had been crushed by the fall."
"Boy or a girl?" she asked him.
He shook his head and took her hand in both of his
now. "It doesn't matter. The doctors say there's no
permanent damage there; you could still have children -- "
She threw back the sheet and pulled up her hospital
gown. Her legs were nothing more than tiny stumps, each
covered in a thick wrap of white gauze. Her belly and
groin were webbed with white surgical tape, holding in
catheters, IV drips, and a suction hose running out of her
She tried to reach down and touch her legs, the
remains of her legs, what used to be her legs, and
immediately felt her abdominal muscles cringe through a
series of stitches. Nigel pushed her back into the pillows
and put his hand on her cheek.
"Don't try to move too much."
"My legs are gone," she said.
He pulled the gown over the wounds and then drew the
sheet and blanket back up to her chest.
"What happened to my legs?" she wanted to know. The
look in her eyes was something he did not expect; it was
not cold shock, nor hysteria. It was a curiosity about the
whereabouts of her legs, and the certainty that an owl had
"I don't know," he answered softly. "You've been
asleep for a few days. I've called your sister, and I had
a long talk with Duval, and he..." Nigel trailed off, his
eyes falling from hers to the wrinkled blanket across her
torso. "He wants you to call him when you're able. He has
a proposal to give you new legs."
She nodded and looked around at the embedded controls
in the bedside railings. "Is there a telephone?"
Nigel handed her a tiny wireless flip-phone, one she
had never seen him hold once while they were in the
wilderness. "Use mine," he invited. "Shall I dial him?"
She looked at Nigel, her eyes now fully adjusted to
the half-light, and wondered if he was the same man she had
just spent the fall with, out in the wild. This man was
well groomed, manicured, scented with old spice body wash,
his new suit an accustomed thing, the phone and slacks --
she saw he wore a gold wristwatch. He was a creature of a
wired civilization, no different than the one her sister
adored in Europe. He had returned to the Waking Dream.
He held out the ringing phone and she took it, waited,
and told the secretary who answered, "Rene Sozia for Duval
Nigel stood from her side. She watched him move
across to the steel sink and fill a pitcher with filtered
water. He moved the same way, she thought.
Duval answered. "Rene. Thank God. You're awake."
"I'm a little hung over," she admitted.
"You've been asleep for a whole week," he replied.
She watched Nigel and asked, "A whole week?"
He turned around and nodded to her, his furry frown
severe, his eyes a mixture of relief and pain. He went
back to the water pitcher. Behind him, the tap water
roared as it gushed into the plastic pitcher.
"Did Nigel tell you my proposal?"
She said, "No. He told me to call you. So I'm
"It would be possible to give you new legs," Duval
told her. "Robotic legs that would respond directly to
input from your motor cortex."
Rene kept her eyes on Nigel as he fetched water for
her, pulled a tray over her bed, and poured her a fresh
glass. Duval asked if she was still there.
"They are completely life-like," Duval assured her
quickly. "They even generate an ambient warmth, just like
flesh and bone legs. We use a molecular design that works
just like an actin-myosin complex, giving you a range of
motion control that a dancer would kill for."
Nigel poured himself his own glass and sat back down
at her side, and drank. She did the same.
"Go on," she prompted Duval.
"The limbs run a synthetic nervous tissue through your
spinal cord to your motor cortex, and your body will send
down new blood and lymph supply into the synthetic muscle
tissue. Within a month, your new legs will be building
bone and bone marrow inside the steel structure provided."
Duval paused and drank something of his own. "Within six
months, the new limbs will be completely integrated into
your body. You will control them just as you would control
an organic body part, but the skin and the frame will be
far more durable."
"What about the skin?" she asked.
"The core is a dense net of neural sensors. But the
beauty of it is that we make the outer skin so that you can
wear it like you would wear stockings. When they get dirty
or torn, you can just take them off, strip out the
electronics layer, and the rest is just spider's silk and
"And how much will it cost?"
Duval took another drink and Rene did the same. Nigel
kept his eyes on her, and she on him. He seemed excited at
the prospect, but he also seemed restrained, as if he were
scared to tell her, as if it were shameful of him to want
to marry a cyborg.
"You are still a Finnish citizen," Duval reminded her.
"There is a state-sponsored deductible that will apply, and
for the rest of it..." She heard him taking a breath,
waiting for his calculator to crunch the numbers. "I will
give it to you as a wedding present," he said.
She smiled. "I think I'd like being a cyborg," she
told him. Nigel smiled and put his water down. "So how do
you want to do this? Do we need to go to France?"
"No," Duval replied. "My surgeons know this hospital
you are in. They say it has everything they will need. I
will make all the arrangements with the administrators
there. You just concentrate on getting well."
"Thank you," Rene said at last. "Goodbye."
"We will be there as soon as we can," Duval promised.
She took Nigel's phone from her ear and looked down at
its sophisticated screen, pointers, buttons, keypad, cursor
dial, everything color-coded in a code she didn't know.
She handed it back to him. He pushed a button and
"I may have to leave to go back to Hollywood for a day
or two this week," Nigel informed her next. "But I'll be
back. I've rented an apartment near the hospital. I won't
be more than ten minutes away, day or night."
She frowned. "I thought we would go back to the
reservation. I thought that was your home."
Nigel laughed. "No. That's just...That's like my
second home. I thought I told you I lived in Hollywood."
She admitted, "I thought you meant it like a state of
He assured her that Hollywood was a real place, a real
town with its own city council and property taxes and
everything. "I support political candidates," he told her,
"and the elections are this week."
She asked him his interest in politics, and he said it
was the reason he went into movies to begin with. He said
politics was expensive, and he had a point of view that he
wanted to express. Film was the field where he thought he
could see the biggest return on his investment, allowing
him to influence a wider arena. Then he paused, as if
holding back the most sacred face of his religion.
"I love this country so much," he said, and for a
moment, in the half-light she thought that he would cry.
"There's a fraction, a ratio that will determine its fate.
On the top, you have all the good things that our ideals
and our freedom have brought to the world, and on the
bottom, you have the sins of its citizens. When that
fraction equals one, this country will fall. I've
dedicated my life to making that number bigger."
She shook her head, drank, looked away from him, and
said aloud, "I don't know your politics. In fact, I don't
think I know very much about you."
He laughed and admitted it. Even in the gloom, when
he laughed, she could see his red cheeks above his ruddy
beard, could feel his belly shaking, and smiled along with
him. "Forgive me, Rene. I kept thinking we'd have plenty
of time in that teepee all winter long, curled up around a
fire, spooning in the sleeping bag. But here we are. What
do you want to know? My politics? I'm a Californian, born
and raised in Marin County and then in Salinas. I believe
in the moderate application of the Zero Waste Initiative.
I believe in free enterprise, but I also believe in
extended producer responsibility. I believe in a flat
income tax that varies annually to meet the varying
requirements of the Congressional budget. I believe that
the health of this country depends upon the restoration of
its natural environment. I vote whatever party gives me
"Tell me about your family."
He told her he was an only child, that his father was
a coke addict who died in prison after being found guilty
of embezzling twenty million dollars from a large insurance
company he worked for. Nigel's mother taught English at a
community college, and died of cancer a few years ago in
the Monterey house he had bought for her. She said her
parents were junkies who died from bad heroin.
He told her he a boarding prep school in Pebble Beach
on a scholarship, then joined the Army to pay for school,
tried out for the CIA but didn't get in, and went into the
movie business to make money to fund Green politics. And
that, he said, was the story of his life. "Your turn."
She found it hard to remember, and told him so. He
urged her to try. She said she didn't remember anything
before her parents died. "My sister says I'm repressing.
My first memories are being in the institution, and I'm
thirteen, and I'm having my first menstruation." She
laughed nervously and could not bring herself to look at
Nigel. She stared up at the dimly-lit ceiling tiles,
pockmarked for sound insulation, and watched the dots
connect in her mind, forming shapes.
She said, "Apparently, I thought I was the goddess
Athena, and for two years, I had done nothing but name
She laughed again. "I barely remember being there."
He took her hand and squeezed. She kept staring at
the dots in the tiles, the seemingly random pattern
suddenly coming to life before her very eyes, folding into
order in dimensions that had to be believed to be seen.
She said, "When I got out, I was at boarding school in
Paris for four years. An all-girls' school run by Catholic
nuns. I liked it there. I had a private math tutor:
Sister Angeline. She must be eighty by now. My sister was
"Did you date?" he asked her, smirking under his
whiskers. "Who got your first kiss?"
She lost the pattern in the dots and sighed.
She rolled her head over and looked at him, almost
hurt that he did not remember. "You did. I told you the
night we met." And then she recognized him as her eyes
became used to the dark, and said, "I dreamed about you
before we met. Several times."
He stopped smiling. "Me?"
She nodded. "When I was sleeping just now, it
happened again. I saw us, together. We were on a train,
all alone, and you were peeling off my stockings. We were
He moved in to her and squeezed her hand hard. He was
almost afraid to speak. "'Maybe that's just what God is.'"
In his voice, Rene heard Nigel quoting himself. "Is that
what I said?"
"And what was the 'that' we were referring to?" he
asked her, his voice starting scared, but now very sure of
its direction. "What would it be?"
"I don't remember," she admitted. She bit her lip.
"Have you had a similar dream?"
He shook his head. His eyes seemed to look right in
to her, and for an instant, she could imagine him drawing
lines across her face, dissecting her geometry, and looking
into her as one might seek the inside of a wire-frame
mannequin. He had dreamt of her, she knew it, but for some
reason, she was not what he had seen in his dreams.
"Tell me," she urged him, and tried to sit up. "How
did you know that's what I saw?"
"I will never lie to you, Rene, but I can't always
tell you the whole truth."
"Then just tell me something I can believe."
His severe look and his grip relaxed and he smiled
with nothing but the twinkle of love in his eyes. "I'm
very, very lucky."
He kissed her and she said, "I believe you."
He told her other stories, stories about America,
about Pocahontas, the Iroquois, Cabeza de Vaca, Cortez and
Cabrillo, about one July day in Philadelphia and another in
New York City, about the Trail of Tears and Wounded Knee,
about the Confederacy and the Union, about Frederick
Douglass and Harriet Tubman, about the Lees, the
Rockefellers, the Roosevelts, and Fords. Then he told her
about Paul Bunyan and Johnny Appleseed, John Henry and
Uncle Tom. She knew that these were parts of Nigel,
signposts and plateaus that informed the view from his
sparkling blue eyes. He told her these stories in the same
deep, soft voice of his, the timbre and vibrato coming from
a warm place nestled safely beside his heart, and in the
sound of it, she felt safe and warm as she closed her eyes
and fell asleep.
As soon as she was alone, Sasha walked through the
door with a small pastry box wrapped in a bow. "I took the
first flight I could get. I would have been here sooner,
but the airport security here is the worst I've ever seen."
Rene was baffled, and wondered why Nigel hadn't
returned from the hospital cafeteria. "Who called you?"
Sasha sat down on a rolling chair and brushed her off.
"Nobody has to call me when my sister's in pain. Here."
She handed over the box. "I brought you a treat."
Rene could smell the elephant ear pastries inside the
box without opening it; she recognized the box, and for a
moment, she closed her eyes and breathed it in, and
remembered being at Saint Joan's in Paris, where every
Friday afternoon, the girls would take turns sneaking out
to the bakery down the street to buy pastries for the
dorms. Rene's favorite was the elephant ear. She knew its
weight in the box, and she could see them, on a long gold
tray inside a curved glass case, right between the tarts
and the frangipani, being pulled out and placed carefully
in the pink folding cardboard, on a sheet of bakery tissue
that Rene always found superfluous but was too polite to
deny -- it seemed like such a rote ritual. For a moment,
she was back there, and it was her turn to sneak out, and
she was in the shop where the old woman who ran the counter
wore too much makeup, and her earrings were huge, and her
skin hung on her cheeks; she smiled every time, sometimes
gave a knowing wink, and it made Rene feel dirty, made her
want to eat her pastry alone, to hide her shameful secret.
"I see you recognize the box," Sasha went on, opening
up her travel purse and pulling out a bottle of fortified
water. "Go on. I know they were your favorite."
She opened the box and there were the pastries; four
of them, each separated by a now-sticky sheet of bakery
tissue. "I can't believe you remembered."
"I had to wait an hour for my flight out of Paris."
Sasha rolled her chair down beside the length of the bed
and examined Rene's matching casts, all the way up to her
hips. "Jesus, how do you take a piss in this thing?"
"I think there's a little hose." Rene put the box of
pastries on the side-table next to a small potted lemon
tree Nigel had picked up that afternoon for her. "Sasha,
what are you doing here?"
Sasha pouted, stayed at the foot of the bed, Rene's
cast legs between them, elevated, open, immobile. "Can't I
come and see my own sister in the hospital?"
"Thank you for coming," Rene said, her tone flat and
rote, reciting a banishing spell cloaked in the words of
civil conversation. "And thank you for the pastries. I'm
being well taken care of. Please tell Duval I said hello."
And then she snapped her eyes at the door.
Sasha wheeled closer. "That man worked five years
training to be a resource manager at the Central
Intelligence Agency. Movies are his cover."
"I'm on painkillers," Rene protested. "What the hell
are your trying to tell me, that I'm marrying a spy? Big
deal! So I'm marrying a spy. At least he loves me."
Sasha shrugged. "He can't love you; you're his job.
They don't want you to build this engine. They want you to
forget about it and make babies. Now please." She stood
up. "Enough. You had your fling, and it broke your legs.
Now it's time for you to come home."
Rene laughed. "And what if I want to stay here and
make babies? I like the way Nigel handles me, Sasha. I
like being handled." She smiled and sighed, pink and
fluffy with puppy love. "He makes me happy."
Sasha grit her teeth. "That's what a lover is for,"
she snapped. "You don't belong in that world, in this
country. Artifice was our mother's cross, and fascism does
not become you. You have work to do. You have a vision,
and it will out. That is the love of your life; not this
Rene leaned back and looked away, up at the ceiling,
up at the holes in the ceiling tiles. "Get out," she said.
"You never understood."
"Then tell me," Sasha pleaded, wheeling up to Rene's
side and leaning over her as Rene continued to stare into
the ceiling. Rene looked hurt, and Sasha thought she would
cry. In her eyes, Sasha saw all the pain and loneliness of
an apocryphal prophecy. Rene held out a hand and took
Sasha by the sleeve with a sloppy grasp. It was important,
and she lifted her head to whisper in Sasha's ear; if she
were not bedridden, she felt she could rip her sister's
head open and jab the truth of it into every cortex that
could receive it.
"That vision," Rene said, "was my nightmare. I don't
love that work; I fear it."
Sasha felt a cold hand on her spine, the power of the
vision, the thrilling danger, the danger of the quest and
the rewards of the grail, but Rene was not scared to fail;
she was more afraid to be right than she was to be crazy.
She was Pandora's Cassandra, witness to the fall but unable
to see the edge.
"I fear it," Rene urged her, "and so should you." She
let go and collapsed back on a stack of pillows, her gaze
back upon the ceiling. She said, "I don't fear Nigel."
Sasha took a deep breath, touched, disturbed, Rene's
urgency washing over her like ripples in a still pool.
"Maybe you should fear Nigel," she suggested.
"I've heard your piece. If you can't be happy for me,
then I wish you'd go."
Sasha stood and walked out with a last look at her
broken sister, hospitalized, under the spell of this wild
new country. She had more to say, but realized that Rene
would not hear her.
The elevator doors opened and Nigel walked out. He
saw Sasha and she saw him. He held a wrapped sandwich and
two cups of soda. He looked like he hadn't slept in days.
"Sasha," he said.
"Nigel," she replied.
"Thank you for coming."
Sasha nodded, very cold. "I won't be at the wedding."
Nigel cocked an eyebrow. "Why not?"
She sighed and looked down the hall at the elevator.
"My sister has a vision," Sasha told him.
"Higher ground and all that jazz," he replied.
She turned back to Nigel, accusing him with her
sharpened glare. "She has no business trying to lead a
normal, happy life."
Nigel's smile was small, bemused, unflappable. "Maybe
not," he admitted, "but she has the right to try. And she
wants to try. She wants to be healthy and whole. It's not
a crime to want to be happy; it's a God-given right.
Perhaps you don't see that, but it's self-evident to me."
For the next months, Nigel and Rene stayed in South
Dakota while the winter outside turned to spring and her
bones healed. They stayed in her private hospital room all
winter and watched movies, beginning with what Nigel called
"The Essentials": films that were embedded parts of
American culture. She had never seen "The Godfather" or
"Goodfellas" or "The Untouchables." She had never seen
"High Noon" or "The Searchers" or "The Man Who Shot Liberty
Valance" or "Dances with Wolves" or "The Unforgiven." She
had never seen "2001: A Space Odyssey" or "Star Wars" or
"The Matrix." She had never seen "Gone With The Wind," or
"Casablanca," or "The Princess Bride" or "Sleepless in
Seattle." She had never seen "Dracula," "Frankenstein,"
"Psycho," or "Halloween." After confirming a long list of
movies Rene had never seen, Nigel asked her if there were
any movies that she knew for certain that she had seen, and
she shook her head, no, but added helpfully, "My sister saw
a 'Star Trek' movie once."
They looked at movie magazines, at what Nigel called
"slobber-zines" for their fawning support of the cult of
celebrity. Nigel showed her the movie stars, showed her
which ones he had worked with, showed her who he wanted to
work with. Nigel was riding high, she found out, after the
wide release of "Killing Machines."
In February, Ben and Masada Goldstein visited them.
Ben was Nigel's high-strung business partner, a tall, bald,
well-built Jew with a dark suntan. He chattered
ceaselessly the entire time he was there. "I've been to
Finland once. Helsinki. I was a second unit producer for
this awful, awful submarine epic, and we needed some winter
shots for this movie set in Russia, but Russia was anarchy
jam spread on a corruption cracker, so we shot in Helsinki,
and I guess I don't need to tell you, it was so cold that
you could spit and it would be ice before it hit the
ground, that's how cold it was..."
Ben's wife, Masada, was a serene mountain pool on a
still blue day. Also toned, but in better shape than her
husband, she had a sculpted body and a natural beauty,
short brown hair, a small knowing smile.
Ben and Nigel went down to the hospital cafeteria to
get coffee and let the women chat alone. Masada put her
hand on Rene's shoulder and apologized that they were not
able to meet in Hollywood, as they had hoped to. "I hope,"
she said, "that you have sworn off hunting bison in
blizzards for a while."
"No worries," Rene replied.
Rene expected Masada to measure her up, to test her,
but felt instead from Masada's familiar touch and easy
presence that she and Ben had accepted Nigel's choice on
faith; he said she was the one, and they took his decision
seriously. "Nigel told me you liked horror movies."
Rene smiled sheepishly. "It's true. I love a good
Masada nodded, over at the dresser table, where Nigel
had piled up his latest chunk of essential DVDs. She saw
"The Exorcist," the original "Scream" trilogy, and held up
the special anniversary edition of "The Blair Witch
Project," smiling appreciatively. "I love this one; the
media is the message."
She sat at Rene's side and dropped a small flip-top
computer on her stomach. "How are you with fashion?" she
asked. "Who's your favorite designer?"
Rene shook her head and shrugged. "I don't know."
"What's your palate?"
"I don't know." She was worried that this was the
test, and she was failing.
Masada put a hand on Rene's shoulder, assuring her
with a soothing squeeze that there were no wrong answers in
this section. "I'll teach you," she said. "I just need to
know what you don't know."
"My sister used to do all my shopping," Rene admitted.
"I usually dress Hindi style, with a long dress and a shawl
and a wrap."
Masada opened a program on her computer, and a tall
wire-frame mannequin appeared in a "Fashion Show 4.02"
window. The mannequin had Rene's tall, slender, straight
shape, Rene's hair and skin, and Rene's wide brown eyes.
Masada pointed to a palate of fabrics and patterns on the
side of the display and urged Rene to show her what she
meant. "It's very important," she said simply, "that when
you arrive in Hollywood, you generate the impression of
always already being in the loop."
Rene understood everything perfectly. "Our men are in
a profession that relies on the appearance of wealth and
power and connection. We must appear as a manifestation of
that." She began to dress her mannequin, starting with a
long gray toga.
"There will be press about you," Masada warned Rene.
"You will be known as the sister-in-law of Duval Coeur-des-
Anne, and the daughter of Kali and Tannis Sozia. Believe
it or not, your late parents have earned a posthumous
following among the more artsy and geeky denizens of Los
Angeles. Multimedia pioneers."
She went on, "Our company, Good Shepherd Productions,
has a computer-generated imagery department that has come
to be our bread and butter. The designers there knew you
the minute I said your name. They said you were a subspace
prophet or something. That," she concluded, "is what we
would like to play down."
"It's like a different world," Rene admitted.
She had received a long leather dress as a wedding
present from the Lakota midwife, made from the hide of the
buffalo that Rene had killed with only dumb, blind luck for
a weapon. "So you hunt," Masada went on deftly, "do you
"I shot Nigel's shotgun once."
Masada nodded, made a mental note. "We'll get you a
handgun permit and teach you to shoot. How about swords?"
"I did a little fencing in school."
"French foils, sabers, or katana?"
"Any martial arts? Karate? Aikido?"
Rene shook her head, no.
"What about exercise? You seem to be in good shape."
She gestured at Rene's cast legs and chuckled, "broken legs
"We ran and hunted all autumn. I normally don't
exercise. I don't eat well. I stay thin because I'm
always working under stress."
Masada looked at Rene's virtual wardrobe on the small
computer sitting on Rene's flat stomach. The figure wore a
gray toga, a teal sash and a white shawl. "She looks like
a nun. You can give her more colors, you know." Then,
"What's your favorite meal?"
"Indian flatbread and chutney."
"Don't worry, Rene. We'll fix you up."
When Rene's cast came off, it was the middle of a very
rainy March. Nigel had come and gone over the past few
months to give paid lectures at dozens of Midwestern film
schools. Now that Rene was on her feet and facing two to
three more weeks of crutches and physical therapy, Nigel
took it upon himself to teach her how to swing dance, to
salsa, to square, to waltz, to rumba and to tango.
Their doctor in Rapid City was Michael Jordan, a short
young Irishman who had framed X-rays of Rene's broken legs
on his office wall. Dr. Jordan had a second X-ray of a
large bison bull from a state veterinary college, and
originally placed this image over the one of Rene's legs in
order to demonstrate how precisely the bison had to fall in
order to cause the seven breaks; proof of his feeling that
Rene's injury was God's justice for hunting bison in the
first place. "The blizzard should have warned her," he
confided to Nigel.
"It's part of nature that we go against it," Nigel
defended. "Now take that down; at least until we leave."
Now, in March, Dr. Jordan admitted to Nigel that he
might have to swallow his words; that Rene's legs had
healed quicker than he would have projected. He put up a
new X-ray plate of Rene's healed legs, and was hard pressed
to find where the fractures had been. "Normally, we see
larger deposits around the bone scar, but here, it's like
it never happened."
Nigel chuckled, put his hand on Dr. Jordan's shoulder
and gave him a friendly squeeze. "So does she have the
Doc's okay to dance again?"
The day she walked out of the hospital, Nigel took
Rene to a Harley-Davidson dealership and suggested that
they pick a touring set for the drive home.
Rene did not look long before she realized that she
didn't want to drive a motorcycle and said so as soon as
she thought it. Nigel smiled; he loved that about her.
"Can we get one with a sidecar?"
And so they rode off in an American motorcycle with a
sidecar, and rode through the Rockies all spring, picking
up their wilderness adventure exactly where they left off.
They camped for two months in a pup tent as they rode along
the Colorado River. They visited the dams, the fish runs,
the artificial lakes, the power plants, the water mains,
and the new fields of solar and wind-turbine generators.
They talked about the United States, about the
politics that Nigel loved so much, the environmental
consequences of capitalism. "America," he told her, "is
simply the selection of the profitable from the field of
the possible. The challenge is to use government to force
sustainability into the profit equation so that it no
longer becomes possible to pollute and make money."
She told him she wanted a son. "Not right away.
Maybe in a few years." And then she insisted. "I want to
have a son. Not a daughter." He shrugged; said he'd like
to have a daughter some day, but if she wanted her first
child to be a boy, he said there were ways of making it
happen. She dropped the issue. "When the time comes.
Some day. Not right away."
They followed the water through the San Joaquin valley
to the filtration plants and biosludge factories, through
the last producing oil fields in California, the
grasshopper heads on the giant pumps bobbing along like
rowers in a galley.
They finally sold the bike to a dealership in
Bakersfield, and walked the rest of the way, through the
vast new hydrolysers on the LA County line that pumped pure
oxygen into the Los Angeles basin, and brought pure
hydrogen to fill stations throughout Southern California.
Then they turned south.
They lay out on the edge of the open desert and
huddled together for warmth. He pointed to the
constellations above the lights of LA on the distant
horizon, the glow of what Nigel called, "the biggest fire
that ever burned." In Europe, she reminded him, no lights
shone up at the sky after midnight; it was illegal. But,
she admitted, it was more than the ever-present glow of
civilization just over there that made the sky look alien
He pointed to the constellations and named them for
her, introducing her to his own private stars in his own
personal heaven, putting them on a first-name basis. "This
one here is John Wayne. Every winter, he rules the
southern sky, riding a mighty horse, and carrying a
shotgun. See, there's his big hat, and there's his tin
star." She giggled and Nigel continued. "And you can just
see over there on the west, that constellation rising to
chase him is Clint Eastwood. They're the two archetypes of
our American heroes. Superman and Batman."
She pointed at the stars and asked him, "If I found a
way to go there, would you come with me?" He squeezed her
tight and said he would never let her go; she'd have to
carry him along like an extra suitcase.
That night, under the desert stars, Nigel sang her
every cowboy ballad he could remember, from "Home On The
Range" and "Don't Fence Me In," to "This Land Is Your
Land," and "The Ring of Fire," concluding with "You Are My
Sunshine." She fell asleep smiling, and listening to his
soft snoring, and thought that he hardly made a sound.
She dreamt of The Big Bang.
She woke with a scream, and Nigel was at her side,
hands on her shoulders, his voice soft, "Rene, wake up,
it's alright, it's just a dream."
He held her and she felt safe, and her breath
"Tell me about it."
"I have recurring nightmares," she confessed. "I'm
told that it's an unresolved guilt complex over my parents'
"You said they overdosed on bad heroin."
"But I can't help feeling like I could have saved
"Trust me," Nigel commanded, sincerity in his
sparkling blue eyes. "Only God can help an addict. There
is nothing -- look at me -- there is nothing you could have
done. Some people are just not for this world."
"What if..." She didn't want to continue.
"You didn't kill them."
"What if I was supposed to go with them? What if I'm
not for this world, either?"
He lay back and gave her room. "What is this dream?"
"It's a shape. It's the shape my mother was obsessed
with her entire life. A tessaract. You know what that
"Unfolded hypercube. 3-D cross." Nigel nodded.
"I've seen the Dali paintings."
"In my dream, I see the moment of creation, and I see
this shape, and then the shape...sees...me. It chases me
across time and space."
"What do you mean," he asked carefully, "moment of
"The Big Bang. In my dream, I see a tessaract in The
Big Bang." His eyes glazed over. He clearly did not
believe she was talking about...Rene nodded. "That Big
Bang. The explosion that sets off life, the universe, and
"And why do you run?"
"The universe -- all of this -- is simply the visible
wake of this chase. It is nothing but an unfulfilled
desire. If it catches me, then...the chase is over." She
held out her hands. "I don't pretend to understand it. I
just dream it."
The next morning, Nigel cooked breakfast and Rene
struck camp in silence, as they had grown accustomed to
after so many months together, sharing the same world. He
kissed her cheek and said, "I love you." She kissed him
back and smiled, said, "I love you, too."
Then he put on his pack, and she put on hers, and he
said, "You had these nightmares in the hospital five
Rene looked down with a heavy heart and felt in that
once sentence that their honeymoon had ended and they
hadn't even reached the altar. "They're just bad dreams."
"I should tell you that I have urges that I'm trying
to resist," Nigel confessed. "I want to fix you, but you
don't seem broken."
She smiled. "There's nothing wrong with me that you
can't fix with your hands, Nigel."
The Cleanest City In The World
They took a bus to downtown Los Angeles, and were met
outside Union Station by a large black bulletproof GMC tank
on wheels, running the most powerful hydrogen fuel cell on
the market. Rene enjoyed Los Angeles the minute she
stepped out into the cool evening air; it was fragrant, and
clean, and she could smell barbeques and grilled fish and
cocoanut oil and fresh mown grass. She breathed deeply and
looked at Nigel, the smile of a naive stranger on her lips.
"It's so clean."
"Hydrogenwood," said Maria Villaverde as she got out
of the tank, opened the back door, opened the rear hatch,
and threw their gear inside. "Home of the automatic
traffic system." She was a large woman in a leather
pantsuit, a native Los Angelino with a military haircut and
gruff, butch mannerisms; Nigel's personal valet, bodyguard,
butler, and lesbian "gal Friday" -- Maria lived in a large
studio apartment above Nigel's garage.
"You must be Maria."
"You must be Rene. Ben and Masada told me about you."
Inside the enormous steel carriage, Nigel and Rene sat
in the back and Maria drove in the front, wearing an
interactive visor with a tiny headset microphone. "Fitz is
coming tomorrow morning to go over the interior decorating,
and Justine is coming to discuss the wedding at two."
Rene stared out the window as the giant vehicle merged
out of the airport traffic circle and dropped down on to a
special lane with the hands-free icon of the automatic
freeway. "Wow," Rene exclaimed as Maria took her hands off
the wheel and pulled out an electronic scheduler. "I
thought 'automatic traffic system' was a metaphor."
Maria handed the scheduler to Nigel, then turned
around from the front seat to address Rene. "Did you hear
what I said?"
"Decorator in the morning," Rene said with a strange
smile on her face. Nigel saw it in her reflection against
the tinted window; she was watching the iceplant cactus
covering on the freeway walls, and she was seeing his world
with the eyes he had spent seven months giving her.
"Nine in the morning," Maria confirmed.
"Wedding planner at two," Rene repeated.
"The rest of your week is pretty booked as well."
The days in Hollywood flew by: sixty-eight of them
spent sightseeing, shopping, signing up for classes to
learn Aikido, walking around the campus of UCLA, wondering
if she should look for a job, and exploring the various
hotel spas of Southern California with Masada Goldstein, a
confessed mudbath-and-steamroom junkie.
She and Nigel slept in a tent in the back yard for a
week while a construction team tore up the second floor of
Nigel's sprawling adobe mansion in the Hollywood hills.
Already, the house had three guest bedrooms and the above-
garage apartment, but Nigel wanted to make sure there would
be enough room for Rene to have an office or a studio if
she wanted one, and that there would be rooms for their
children away from the front of the house.
It was in this tent that Maria found Nigel one
morning, sleeping alone; Masada had picked up Rene for a
morning Tai Chi class in Malibu attended by most of the
Chinese film industry officers working out of the Los
Angeles consulate. Nigel had slept in late.
"Justine just mentioned it to me, and I guess it does
seem kind of odd, but apparently," Maria reported,
following Nigel into the kitchen, "Rene hasn't sent out a
single invitation to the wedding. Justine came to me and
she seemed kind of shocked. She was all, like, 'Doesn't
this woman have a single friend?' and I was, like, 'She
must,' right? So tell me, boss...does she have friends?"
Nigel took an opened watermelon from the refrigerator
and carved Maria a wedge, then one for himself, then held
the knife in his had as he ate. "We sent an invitation to
Duval Coeur-des-Anne, didn't we?"
"So there. He's going to give her away; it's all
"She has no wedding party. No bridesmaids, no maid of
honor, no one."
Nigel jammed the knife into the melon and lowered his
voice to a quiet wind on the edge of a great storm. "Then
you tell Justine to arrange a wedding without bridesmaids."
"I will," Maria answered him in her own low growl. "I
just want to make sure we know what we're getting in to."
She grabbed the knife and cut herself another slice of
melon. "I know you, boss; you're a binge workaholic. You
work yourself to death for months at a time, and when you
finally claw your way across the finish line, you go out
and do this...you fall in love and you go off and hunt deer
and live like a savage."
"I don't always fall in love," Nigel protested.
"Four years ago, there was that screenwriter who did
the romance novels on the side? Sharon. You took her
"And she hated it, so we broke up." He smiled, his
face pink and soft, the Vaseline lens of love coloring
everything about him. "Rene likes hunting."
Maria handed him the knife and went to wash her hands
in the sink. "So what's going to happen when you get the
next green light and you go lock yourself in production
mode and leave her here by herself?"
"I don't know," Nigel answered.
"Will she snap?"
"Will she be dangerous?"
Nigel put the melon back in the refrigerator and
joined Maria at the sink. "What do you care? You're
"Don't joke, Nigel. I just want to hear from you what
it is that you've brought into this house. Don't get me
wrong; I like Rene, but I need to know what we can expect,
especially if I'm going to be left holding the bag."
"She doesn't have friends. She doesn't need them."
Nigel put his hand on Maria's shoulder and squeezed. She
felt her heart race as energy washed over her muscles,
radiating out from his grip. "She has us."
It was a small wedding held in Nigel's back yard, with
forty-two guests, most of them friends of Ben and Nigel's
company. A female Unitarian minister six feet tall and
ninety years old performed the ceremony. The guests sat at
small tables around a raised dance floor. A jazz quartet
played Motown standards with a steady four-four beat, sung
by a young Hindi torch singer with an English accent and
New Orleans styling, wearing a gold dress.
Josephine was a professional wedding choreographer,
and Maria kept her eye on Josephine. At the rehearsal,
just as she came to the altar, Rene burst into
uncontrollable giggles at the image of their priest doing
an impression of the priest from the film "The Princess
Bride," which she and Nigel had watched four times at the
hospital. She would not cooperate until the old crone did
the bit; luckily she had seen the film and was a good sport
once she realized that she would not be expected to welcome
their guests with the phrase, "Wuv; twue wuv is the weason
we awe heew today..."
The catering was Cal-Mex in its latest incarnation as
haute cuisine. The bar was fully stocked. The press was
titillated and denied entrance. There were movie stars and
famous directors inside, as well as a lot of no-name
programmers and software engineers from Good Shepherd's in-
house CG design studio. Scruffy, grungy, tattooed and
pierced, some neurotically buttoned down.
The old priest had helped Nigel and Rene write simple,
short vows; it was important to her that the vows "be
realistic. Don't promise the moon if you're not willing to
build a rocket ship." As for the preamble to the vows,
Nigel had no religion at all, so Rene requested a short
piece about the symbolism of a ring.
The wedding was in the late afternoon; Duval had
arrived that morning, and brought Rene to the altar,
looking like a proud father. The vows were short, the
ceremony quick, the cake cut, the champagne popped and
toasted, and the band prepared to play Nigel and Rene
through their first dance as husband and wife. The band
had offered them a list of standards to choose from, but
they opted for a swinging version of "In The Mood."
"Telepathy could just be a process of similar
programming." That was Ben Goldstein, seated between
Masada and a strange mulatto woman who almost looked like a
basketball player; she wore a navy blue suit; she could
have been an airline flight attendant, except for the
attitude, the mulatto features, the moneyed cut of her
clothes and the semaphore colors of Washington DC on her
scarf and buttons. She listened with Masada while Ben
explained his theory to a group of young programmers from
"the shop" who had heard rumors about "faster Chi" related
to Nigel's new wife. They'd heard the rumors about
telepathy, and the promise of a wireless interface.
Ben continued, quick and agitated as always. "If we
all watch the same programs, and see the same critiques of
those programs, we begin to react to the elements of those
programs in a similar, if not identical manner. We think
the same because we have the same things to think about.
Like if you take a set of a thousand computers, and you
double-click on the same icon on each one, then you'll get
the same response. It doesn't mean they're telepathic; it
means they're all running the same program."
Ben and Masada's five-year-old son Saul wandered over
to another table of CG technicians who were passing around
the contentious issue of MIT's Technology Review, where Sam
Fuller mentioned Rene Sozia as the most likely figure to
replace him in the field of quantum computers. He had
called her "The mother of AI," and "the Prophet of
Uncertainty." They were basking in what they saw as their
boss' acquisitive triumph.
At a nearby table, Maria Villaverde, wearing a rare
gray and teal dress, folded a sheet of paper into a cube
and held it up for Mani and Wooshi Dhanpat to inspect.
They were the brother filmmakers from Bangalore who
directed "Killing Machines" for Nigel and Duval.
Duval sat down with a bottle of California wine he had
fallen in love with, and joined them for the demonstration.
Mani, the elder Dhanpat brother, was too drunk to see it
clearly. Wooshi, the younger, explained, "It's a cube."
Mani stared. Wooshi said, "It's a cube." Mani squinted.
Wooshi said, "It's a cube. It's a cube. It's a cube."
Mani snarled, "I can bloody well see it's a cube, you
fart from an pimple-covered ass." To Maria, equally
bellicose, he demanded, "What's the point?"
Maria explained, "This cube has three dimensions. But
if you lived in a world with only two dimensions, you would
only see it as a dynamic polygon as it intersected your
flat plane. To see the whole thing..."
She unfolded the cube into a flat paper cross, "you'd
have to unfold it, like so." She looked up at the two
brothers and glanced to Duval; he knew this bit. "Tell me,
have you heard of the story about the god who made himself
flesh only to be killed by the very people he came to
save?" She pointed at the cross again.
"I have heard this story," Wooshi replied. "Why would
a God do that?"
"Perhaps," Duval supplied, "God wished to experience
humanity first-hand, in order to find out why it was that
we persist in our wickedness."
"And why do we persist in our wickedness?" Mani
demanded, drunk and jolly.
"Because of Original Sin," Maria answered.
"And what the hell is that?" Mani demanded again.
"None of this makes any sense! It's like being a rat in a
maze with no way out and somebody saying if you take the
right path, there will be cheese when you die. What the
hell kind of system is that?"
Wooshi laughed, and then asked, more cordially, "I
have never understood this idea of Original Sin. What is
this 'Original Sin' that we are all supposed to have
committed? Is it sex?"
Maria shook her head quickly. "No."
Duval agreed immediately, "No. Original Sin is like a
smog that permeates and saturates this fallen world."
Maria agreed, smiling with a shared Catholicism. "It
is the material-ness, the substantive-ness of the world
that makes it transient and fallen."
Duval said, "As long as we remain material, we remain
composed of Original Sin."
Mani and Wooshi shared a confused look. Wooshi shook
his head. "I just cannot get past the fact that you eat
Mani shook his head, remorseful. "Yes. That is so
very, very wrong."
All four of them broke into drunken laughter.
Masada excused herself from her husband's side to see
what the commotion was about. A few of the guests had gone
home; most danced and drank and danced some more, while a
small collection of Chinese and Australian stunt doubles
strutted their stuff on the lawn.
Ben remained seated beside the mulatto woman from
Washington and they watched Rene across the lawn, past the
table where Duval and Maria tried to explain Catholic dogma
to the Dhanpat brothers. Rene was dressed in white, her
hair covered by a lace shawl and a silver tiara, and she
glowed beside Nigel while he chatted idly and pointed
discretely and whispered secrets about their guests in her
ear. The mulatto stranger excused herself from Ben's side
and went to offer her congratulations to the bride and
"Rene, you've never met Jillian Saint-Ross," Nigel
said. "She's one of my expert consultants."
"Congratulations, both of you," Jillian offered. She
shook hands with them.
"I was a practicing Catholic for almost six years,"
Rene said, "and I've never heard of a Saint Ross."
"Saint is my maiden name," Jillian replied. "Ross is
Just then, telephones rang across the lawn: first on
the hip of a Chinese CGI technician, then on a Chinese
actress engaged in a gymnastics pride-fight with an
Australian stuntwoman. Jillian rang next, and she stepped
back, politely excusing herself before she tapped her
sunglasses and answered.
Nigel leaned to Rene and whispered low, "She works in
"A-I?" Rene asked hesitantly.
He shook his head. "C-I-A."
They giggled at the attempted pun.
Jillian closed her call. "I have to go, Nigel.
"What is it?" he asked, unable to wipe the silly grin
from his face, even as he watched his guests run to each
other in a panic and drift towards a television, driven by
instinct to seek meaning in the face of uncertainty.
"Another terrorist attack?"
Jillian shook her head. "Revolution in China."
Inside the tall living room, Nigel's wedding guests
flipped through the digital satellite channels to find
breaking news. Masada came in to see what the commotion
was about, and saw the huge plasma screen ablaze with live
images of heavy tanks rolling through the streets of
Beijing and Shanghai.
"Has there been a coup?" she asked.
A young Chinese gymnast-turned-stunt-double turned to
her, an ironic smile on her wide-eyed, fearful face. "They
call themselves 'The Gang of Twelve.' They're imposing
Sheng's new eugenics program."
Another spat bitterly, "God, it makes me sick."
"That fucking General Sheng is a monster," another
Masada stood and watched, captivated by the political
train wreck in the world's second most powerful nation.
"What do they want?"
The Aussie stuntwoman shrugged. "Faster Chi? What
the hell is that?"
The gymnast shook her head and the smile finally
melted from her lips. "It's Mao's backyard foundries all
Don't count on it.
Masada turned aside and traded a look with Jillian
Saint-Ross, who threw on her overcoat and headed off to
Nigel and Rene cared little for what happened in
China. They spent the next ten days in Orlando, Florida,
staying in a sprawling set of Polynesian-themed rooms with
a Disney name; Nigel paid the valet to refer to it as "the
Honeymoon Suite." They honeymooned at Disneyworld, and it
was after riding Space Mountain for the seventeenth time
that Rene realized that she had a sexual fetish for roller
coasters. She found them more arousing than horror movies.
Nigel promised to take her on a coaster tour of California.
When they returned, things fell into the routine that
Rene expected from her new life with Nigel. They would eat
breakfast together and discuss their day over coffee,
yogurt, granola, melon, sometimes bacon and eggs. Nigel
would dress and Maria would drive him to the office, and he
would spend the day scouring talent and attending seminars,
lunching with financial partners and other producers,
showing his company to be actively looking for a project.
Masada would come to get Rene before noon; three times
a week, they went to do morning Tai Chi in Malibu. Twice a
week they went to the Japanese Cultural Center, where
Masada was pursuing a rank as a trained samurai, and Rene
was taking a class in brush calligraphy. They would lunch
together, often coming home to do so, in order to change,
shower, drop off any odd shopping they had done along the
way. Rene enjoyed her lunches out with Masada mostly
because Masada cherished the idea that she was better than
everybody else in Hollywood, reveled in looking down on
"the rabble and the foam," and then, in the very next
breath, would admit what a delusional pretension that
attitude was. She lived the paradox.
Rene took Masada camping with Steve and his boyfriend
from their gym; it was the first time Masada has slept
outside, she confessed, since she was in the Israeli Army.
Then, after Nigel didn't come home the next week, Rene
convinced Masada to spend an afternoon at Six Flags Magic
Mountain: "Throw your hands in the air and scream a
little," she urged. "How else do you know you're alive?"
Masada admitted at the end of an exhausting day of waiting
in lines for mechanical thrills, "That was actually the
first time I'd ever ridden on a roller coaster." She was
touched. "I won't forget this, Rene."
In the afternoons, Masada would often have to pick up
her son Saul from school and take him either to the Jewish
Youth Center or to any one of a dozen sports leagues. Saul
was a sports nut at the age of seven, with posters of
basketball and baseball stars plastered on every wall. He
played lacrosse, ice hockey, baseball, soccer, and karate.
Discussing the roller coasters at Six Flags was the closest
moment of bonding Saul had had with Masada since she
stopped breast-feeding. Saul thought Rene was cool.
Between Tai Chi and Saul's athletics, Rene and Masada
would normally go a gym in West Hollywood where Masada
would network with what she nostalgically referred to as
"the gay mafia." They would press weights and discuss
fitness, fashion, and celebrity gossip for three or four
hours, have a steam and a shower, and come home. Masada
worked out in a new uniform every week, and every week it
was made of the newest state-of-the-art fabric in the
latest, state-of-the-art style, and every week, her queer
friends at the gym would decide the fate of its designer.
Rene, on the other hand, always wore a gray T-shirt and a
gray peasant's skirt, and after a few weeks, Rene's
personal trainer at the gym, Steve-o-rino, demanded an
explanation. "Every time with these dresses. What gives,
Rene was hurt. "You don't like dresses?"
Masada took Steve's side. "It's just so old-world."
"Don't you have any pants?"
"Pants," Rene proclaimed, "are for people who don't
know where their bodies end."
The next week, several of the boys at the gym tried
working out in peasant skirts, but the trend didn't last.
Rene chose a charity to sponsor, based on Masada's
advice to "pick a cause and stick to it." Rene's cause was
a non-profit watchdog group called the Silicon Valley
Toxics Coalition, and Rene immediately got press when she
and Nigel took the bullet train to San Francisco to attend
one of their fundraisers. To a reporter from the San Jose
Mercury News, Rene said, "I am concerned about the
environmental impact of personal computers and other
complex electronic devices. I grew up in Europe with
mandatory 'take-back' programs, and they've saved our
landfills. I'm all for extended producer responsibility
legislation in California and the rest of the world.
"I am also concerned about the impact of quantum
engines on the integrity of subspace, and I am concerned
that cesium in our water supply will be the least of our
problems if we persist in building engines to tunnel deeper
and deeper into the fabric of spacetime just to squeeze a
few more floating-point calculations out of the same old
On their first anniversary, Nigel bought four thousand
acres outlying Death Valley Nature Preserve and gave it to
the state in her name. When he cut the ribbon, he told the
assembled state delegates that he was "dedicating this park
to my wife, who says that you can find life anywhere if you
just look closely enough."
A week after dedicating the Rene Sozia Desert, Nigel
was drawn into a Hollywood conspiracy to make a movie
called "The Dark Ages." It was the result of several
actors demanding an old-fashioned, big-budget swords-and-
sandals epic. A new history of the medieval papacy had
just hit the stands, and the author, a rock star historian
from Oxford, had just taken a position at UCLA; actors
found him to be "the" academic flavor of the year, and he
pitched his field every chance he had.
And so "The Dark Ages" was given a green light, with
seven different production companies riding shotgun to a
leading man who had taken it upon himself to both direct
and star in this muddy epic himself. "The Dark Ages" was
an extravaganza about a German nobleman in the service of
the Holy Roman Emperor in the year 935; tied by blood and
fealty to a noble Italian family, he is drawn into a series
of bloody wars in Italy against other power-hungry families
for control of the papal throne.
The shoot camped at locations throughout North
America, then rebuilt the entire city of medieval Rome
outside Toronto, hired a cast of thousands, supported them
with artisans who hand-crafted ten thousand pikes, four
thousand suits of light armor, eight hundred suits of
cavalry armor, seven hundred swords, four hundred bows, ten
thousand arrows, and numerous axes, maces, shields, and
massive rams, trebuchets, and catapults. Midway through
shooting, one of the supporting men had had a runaway
romantic hit, and his agent threatened to pull him if he
wasn't given a larger role. The leading actress demanded a
matching increase, while the historian, with a
screenwriter's credit, penned off page after page of new
dialogue for whoever would bother to visit his tent and
show an interest in the period.
Then the wettest winter in sixty years flooded the set
and washed away half of the cameras, lights, and sound
equipment. Finally, the studio, at the behest of its bank
and insurance agency, fired the production company in
charge. Nigel got a call and Maria drove him out to a
studio-owned ranch house outside Palm Springs to meet with
He found Ben in the back yard, wearing a light polo
shirt and khaki shorts, cleaning a set of shotguns at a
shaded lawn table. A uniformed attendant stood at the edge
of the yard next to a clay disk thrower, waiting for the
command to pull the release and throw a target.
Ben handed Nigel a double-barreled shotgun and pushed
a box of shells across the table to him. "Married life
seems to be treating you well," he commented. "Rene seems
to be fitting in nicely around the 'wood. People seem to
"What's not to like?" Nigel's thoughts drifted away,
back to Rene, to her smile, her wide brown eyes, the look
of total, mineral, monolithic presence. "She's a geometric
solid trapped in the body of a runway model." Ben watched
Nigel's face dissolve into a pink cloud of puppy love.
"She doesn't own a single pair of pants. She shaves her
crotch like a porn star. She sings when she wants to make
love. She has nightmares about being chased by The Big
Bang. She has a fetish for roller coasters. She hasn't
got a wicked or evil or malicious or prejudiced bone in her
body. She is as naive as the rising sun."
He returned to himself, loaded his shotgun, and
wiggled his eyebrows at Ben, his smile turning to a
lascivious leer. "I don't have to tell you: once you make
love to a telepath, there's no going back."
Ben snapped his own gun closed, two chambers loaded.
"Is that what she is?"
"You're her husband," Ben scowled. "Why are you
asking me?" He turned to the girl by the thrower and
called, "Pull!" A clay disk flew over the lawn, a black
hole against a clear blue sky. He shot and hit on the
"If she is, then she doesn't know," Nigel admitted,
his face now growing worried, "or she doesn't remember, or
she's gotten used to it." He called, "Pull!" Another
black disk flew over the yard. Nigel aimed, shot, missed;
shot again and hit.
"How is that possible?" Ben asked him softly. "How
could a person just forget a thing like that? How could it
Nigel reloaded his gun. "You'd be surprised at what
people will get used to."
"But she seems happy."
Ben nodded. "Stable."
Nigel agreed. "With supervision."
Ben didn't bother to reload his first chamber. He
called, "Pull!" and hit the new disk with one shot.
"What's this all about?" Nigel asked him.
"You know that 'Dark Ages' picture we put some money
in last year?" Ben said, shaking his head and bowing his
shoulders with the weight of bad news. "The studio wants
us to take over the production. They're offering us a four
picture deal just for delivering a finished product."
Nigel felt a deep hole open up and swallow him.
"I'd go," Ben said, "but my son's only six, and I
think I would be a terrible father to him if I left for
what I can only expect will be several months, without even
turning to you, my old friend, to ask that you might go
instead, as a favor to me..."
Nigel left to take charge of "The Dark Ages"
production. He called Rene after three days, but only had
time to say that he would be very, very busy, and he loved
her, and he didn't know when he'd be back.
A month went by before Rene took it upon herself to go
visit him. The house seemed empty, and she felt herself
imprisoned behind its stucco walls. Maria tried to teach
Rene how to drive, but Rene promptly smashed into the front
gate and gave up, falling into a deep depression.
"Everybody has accidents," Maria consoled her. Rene burst
into tears and said that learning to drive was a waste of
time if it wouldn't bring her husband back.
Rene and Maria flew to Siberia, rented a large SUV and
drove out into the hills, to the depths of the Russian sub-
Arctic, to where Rome had been rebuilt in the wild. A
flood had washed the paint off half the Roman facades, and
spirits were low among the army of extras waiting for
explosives to be re-set on a proposed field of battle.
They drove through the chaos of lights, sound, make-
up, cameras, grips, assistant, electricians, gaffers,
demolitions experts, stunt double, stunt make-up,
wardrobe...the trailers lined the hills like a knocked-down
They found Nigel in his office trailer, alone with a
bottle of aspirin, massaging his temples. He was dressed
as an extra, in a full suit of chain mail covered in the
blue tunic of the Duke of Bavaria, a steel helmet and a
long poleax sitting on his crowded desk.
The movie was all around him, in still pictures,
scraps of script copied on a rainbow of colored paper,
pinned up on cork tackboards that covered every wall of the
trailer. Next to the script, detailed storyboards from the
second unit director, red check marks, scribbled comments
and directives hung on Post-It notes like autumn leaves.
He looked up and saw them, smiled at Rene, stood up,
embraced her. "Thank God you're here," he said.
Maria excused herself to find the catering.
"It's not going well," Nigel told Rene. "Even having
moved to Russia, we're still running over budget."
"I'm sorry to hear that," Rene said.
"Never again," he sighed as he collapsed back behind
his desk. "Actors. Writers. Directors. Lighting, hair,
makeup, wardrobe, set, scenery...Never again. No more
period pieces for me, period."
"I like your tunic," she said, sitting on his lap and
brushing the mud off his beard.
They shook the trailer, and when they finished, she
asked if she could stay with him, there on location. He
said no. "If you're here," he said, hurt to have to say
it, "I won't get anything done. You'll be my ticket to
ride, and I'd go first chance I got." He took her by the
hands and his eyes pleaded with her to understand.
He said, "Ben and I have made it in Hollywood by doing
everything ourselves. We went in with the plan to make a
better, cheaper, faster product outside the studio system,
by whatever means we could. And now we've finally brought
the studio system to us. A four-picture deal is...a whole
career. It's everything we've worked for over the last
twenty years. I have to do this, and I just need you to
wait until I finish."
She understood, but that didn't mean she liked it.
Nigel returned for his forty-second birthday, when he
and Rene borrowed a small yacht and meant to sail down to
Baja to scuba dive.
She caught him up on her education, told him about the
two weeks she spent trying to track down the meaning of the
yellow and black signs she saw around town that turned out
to be fallout shelter indicators. She told him she had
redesigned his back yard. Nigel wept while he apologized
to her, saying this was not the way he wanted their
marriage to work out. She was changing so much between his
visits that he feared she was becoming a stranger.
"As opposed to before," she joked with him.
"See?" he pointed out. "You've learned to become
"I don't like being left alone in your life," she told
him. "Come home."
"When this is over," he promised her, "we'll run away,
just the two of us. We'll hide out at a dude ranch and
learn how to become dudes. You can be Ringo Kid and I'll
be Stumpy the cook. We'll hold open calls for the John
They only got as far as Catalina before Nigel had to
cancel and return to settle another script war on the set.
In his rage, he grabbed a fish he had caught and tore it
open with his bare hands. On the way back, he was a solid
blue note. "Darryl Zanuck would have wept."
Maria knocked on the door at six AM to take Nigel back
to the airport. He dressed in a fresh shirt and watched
Rene lie on their bed, covered in a pale gray sheet,
watching him. She was not guilting him back to bed, nor
accusing him of abandoning her; she was there, in that
moment, watching him dress and admiring the simple,
unconscious motion of his fingers up his shirt as he
slipped buttons through their holes; the cha-cha swing of
his arms as he buttoned one cuff and then the other.
"It may be another two months," he said.
"I understand," she assured him.
He kissed her, shouldered his small tote bag, and
headed out into the graying morning. She said, "Goodbye,
Despite Nigel's best efforts to finish it, "The Dark
Ages" dragged on, months behind schedule, delayed by
weather, illness, and temper tantrums. When he came back
to her next, he appeared desperate and haunted, cornered,
and simply showed up, found her, and made love with her as
if they were two strange animals meeting at a common
watering hole, without saying a word.
He came home carrying the production on his shoulders.
After sex, she massaged the worries off his back, and Maria
made them rice and beans. He unloaded his litany of woes
in one sitting, and as soon as he had finished, he went the
bathroom to shit and shower, to wash the work off his skin,
and to join his wife for dinner at home. She asked,
"What's the occasion?"
He was dumbfounded, double-checked with Maria, who
nodded, very sure of herself. "It's your birthday, Rene.
You're twenty-ninth birthday?"
"I don't feel twenty-nine," she said. "I feel older."
He took her out to Six Flags, where her favorite
coaster, The Ride Of Steel, resided. It was a suspended
carriage coaster on a steel track with seven loops and two
corkscrews. He wore a tuxedo; she wore a sari and a black
cocktail dress and they attracted attention in line. "We
like to ride," they explained.
When the steel bar fell across her chest and the
carriage departed the station along its overhead track,
Rene looked at Nigel and felt that everything was good in
the world at that moment. It was perfect.
That night, as he was packing up his travel case with
a fresh supply of toothpaste, laundry soap, and deodorant,
and she waited, naked under the sheets, for him to finish
and make love to her once more before leaving.
"Maria told me you had some excitement here the other
night," he said, almost sounding disinterested.
"I had a bad dream," Rene explained.
"Maria said you were screaming bloody murder. She
said the police showed up."
"It was a misunderstanding." Rene smiled and shrugged
it off; it was nothing.
"She said it happened twice."
Rene sighed and wondered why he didn't just shut up
and make love to her. "It's just the price of genius."
"And what if you're not a genius?" he asked.
"You mean what if I'm crazy?"
He shook his head. "I didn't say that. Those don't
have to be your only choices, Rene. I always believe
there's a third option."
He set aside his bag and sat on the bed beside her.
"I want you to see somebody about these nightmares," he
requested. "A professional. Maria will make the
appointment." He reached out and scratched her along the
back of her arm, just so, and she shivered with pleasure.
"Okay? Will you go?"
She nodded. "Sure. I'll go."
The next morning, Nigel was gone. After Tai Chi, Rene
checked her messages and heard that Maria had made the
appointment with Dr. Janet Watts-Smith, M.D., PhD, for
eleven o'clock the following morning.
"You're going to see Dr. Watts-Smith?" Masada asked,
intrigued as they threw their gear in the back of her
Cadillac H2 sports coup.
"You know her?"
"I know her work. She wrote a book a few years back
called Emotional Intelligence. I hear it's the new
handbook at the CIA."
"Should I be honored or afraid?"
Masada laughed wickedly. "Be afraid," she said. "Be
very afraid." She started the engine and pulled out into
traffic. "Keep good notes. Remember, this is America:
your nightmares and traumas can make you rich and famous."
Rene went in to an eleven o'clock appointment with Dr.
Janet Watts-Smith, a crisp blonde WASP with sexual
repression written in every wrinkle of her frigid face.
Rene recognized at once that besides being too close to the
subject of sex to ever enjoy it, Dr. Watts-Smith was
intelligent, and influential.
Her office was paneled in dark wood, lined with dark
shelves filled with thick books bound in dark leather;
behind her desk were seven framed diplomas. The plants
were dark green, tropical palms along with trailing
philodendrons, one huge green Boston fern in the corner.
She had a polished leather couch, and asked Rene to
lie down and give her a brief medical history. Rene said,
"I was institutionalized when I was eleven. Other than
that, it's just been broken bones."
"Let's talk about that for a moment. Why were you
Rene stared into one hole on one tile on Dr. Watts-
Smith's office ceiling and felt she could fold herself into
nothing and crawl up into it. She squinted and felt
herself awash in emotion. Her vision blurred and tears
flowed out. Her nose filled with runny mucus and she felt
her voice choke in her throat. "I killed my parents."
Rene sobbed and Dr. Watts-Smith handed her a box of
tissues. "How did you kill them? What did you do?"
"Nothing...and so they died..."
"How old were you?"
She blew her nose and sobbed again. "Eleven. We were
Dr. Watts-Smith leaned back and took a sharp breath.
Rene stared up but didn't see the ceiling anymore.
"They were dancers, performance artists. They had this
traveling show about a tessaract, and we toured around
Europe -- my mom, my dad, my sister Sasha, and our lawyer,
Asa. We'd camp out on strangers' floors one night and stay
in five-star hotels the next. We were always moving...My
sister says it was fun, but..." She sobbed, and the words
stuck in her throat.
Dr. Watts-Smith snapped her prompt like a lion-tamer's
whip. "But what?"
"But I don't remember any of it."
Rene broke down in sobs that drained her lungs and
shook her body.
The psychiatrist let her cry for several minutes while
she considered her next course of treatment. At length,
Rene's sobs reduced themselves to a stutter, and then to a
"How have you been sleeping, Rene?"
She was choked up, stuttering. "F-f-f-fine."
"And your dreams?"
She took a deep breath and stretched out, and it was
as if the last teary outburst had not even happened. She
was already past it, like water evaporating off a sun-
"That's what this is all about," Rene said. "I have
"Tell me about them."
She took another deep breath, stared into that one
hole in that one tile on the ceiling, and told the icy
blonde shrink everything she remembered; the uncertain
proportions between her and the universe, the fear it felt
at being observed, the explosion, the expansion, the shape.
The whole time, Dr. Watts-Smith kept her eye on her small
datapad, where the image of Rene and the soundwave of her
voice registered as it recorded.
"...And then I wake up."
"And it's always the same?"
"And your sister...Has she ever mentioned having a
Rene shook her head and then laughed. "My sister.
There's a topic we could fill a few hours with. She thinks
"Does she believe you are telepathic, Rene?"
"I guess. She says I've blocked it out. She says
that's why I have nightmares, and it's why I'm so good with
math. I'm not sure I believe her. To her, the word
'telepathic' is like a new slang superlative. You know:
'Oh, that dress is so telepathic!'"
"We could find out," Dr. Watts-Smith suggested in the
same cold, flat voice.
Rene thought she had missed a phrase or two. "Find
"If you're telepathic."
"There are some new tests," Dr. Watts-Smith said. "Do
you have some idea of what 'telepathy' is, exactly?"
"Sasha -- that's my sister -- said it was like having
a fast spirit that traded thoughts with nearby bodies."
Dr. Watts-Smith nodded and was already emailing
requests for appointments to UCLA's Medical Imaging lab.
"The Chinese word for spirit is 'Chi.' They call the speed
of thought the 'Chi Frequency,' and they have a range above
that where these 'fast spirits' reside. We can clock your
Chi and find out if you have one of these 'fast spirits.'
Would you like to do that?"
The psychiatrist pulled her desk drawer and brought
out a file folder, opened it, and took out a printed form.
"I just need you to sign something." She handed the paper
across the desk. Rene took it and read the title:
"STATEMENT OF NON-DISCLOSURE," printed by the U.S.
Department of Defense.
Dr. Watts-Smith explained, "The theory of faster Chi
is not to be discussed with anyone for reasons of national
security. I just need you to sign this form, saying you
understand and you'll keep this between us."
Rene scanned the document; it was a standard form,
with no mention of "fast Chi" anywhere in the text. On the
form, she would attest that she understood that she might
be exposed to classified information that would require
secrecy and the utmost discretion, and sharing this
information could result in a fine, imprisonment, or death.
That evening, after Rene finished her battery of
physical tests and scans, Masada brought her a box lunch of
sushi. Masada was ravenous for information. "Well? Did
they clock your chi or what?"
"I guess," Rene answered, busy eating her sushi.
"I don't know yet. I have to go back to see Dr.
Watts-Smith tonight...Can you drive me?"
"Sure, but...I mean, you don't know?"
Rene paused from her meal, drank her Diet Coke and
belched. "What about you, Masada? Have you ever clocked
She nodded and grinned. "I've got a membership card."
Masada kept the grin on her lips, but her eyes
narrowed to accusatory slits. "If you don't know by now,
then I'm not sure I should tell you."
Rene went back to her sushi, casual. "Are you a spy?"
Masada shrugged. "To some."
"Are you spying on me?"
Masada drank her own Diet Coke and gave a belch of her
own. "I like you, Rene," she said. Then she put her hand
on Rene's shoulder and stroked her, patted her as one would
pat a dog. "I spend time with you because you're more
interesting than almost everybody else in this town."
"And where are your loyalties?" Rene asked softly.
"I have a son," Masada responded. "My loyalties are
Masada drove Rene back to Dr. Watts-Smith's office,
and watched Rene stare at the road with distant eyes. "You
miss Nigel," she inferred. Rene nodded. "Sometimes,"
Masada confessed, "I really hate the movie business. I
can't wait until computers get fast enough to just scan in
your actors, throw up some texture-mapped polygons, feed in
a script, and double-click the 'action' icon."
Rene nodded silently.
She was back at Dr. Watts-Smith's office that evening,
changed into a comfortable sweatshirt and her accustomed
peasant's skirt. "So, what's the word, Doc?"
Dr. Watts-Smith smiled, showed her a thin line of
coffee-stained teeth. "Well, I think we have a winner."
She showed Rene a series of cranial scans, waveforms,
and other raw data that Rene did not care to interpret.
"I'm not here to learn how to read a chart," Rene said
brusquely. "Diagnose me already."
"A Chi Frequency of one is normal, baseline human
Chi," Dr. Watts-Smith explained, the triumphant smile on
her face looking more like a gourmet's anticipation of a
new meal with every word that passed through it. "The next
position is ten; there's nothing in between. Ten is where
male empaths and female telepaths reside. If your sister
is a telepath as she claims, it's because she has a Chi
Frequency of ten.
"The next position is twenty-six, where the Chi
becomes so fast that it is no longer able to displace
thoughts from other bodies, and instead, it is theorized,
displaces its own thoughts from different temporal
incarnations of its own body, in effect seeing its future
while in the past and remembering the past while in the
"A Chi Frequency of twenty-six is the first frequency
to share its position with subspace and large stellar
phenomena, such as supernovae and collapsing stars."
Rene was with her, hanging on her every word. "And
that's what my dreams are? Collapsing stars?"
Dr. Watts-Smith shook her head, still cold, despite
her obvious excitement at the prospects Rene presented.
"There's more. The next position is fifty-six, also
occupied only by subspace singularities and tremendous
cosmic forces, such as a super-cluster of black holes or
the collision of two collapsed galaxies."
Rene bit her lip and waited hopefully to hear that
this was where she had been living.
"At one hundred, we are already at the Chi Frequency
of a proposed 'final cosmic phenomenon' -- the last merging
of the last material in the last galaxies; the final phase
of our dying universe, near the site of the Big Bang in
what astrophysicists call 'The Virgo Supercluster.' Here,
at this speed, the fabric of space-time would barely exist.
A conscious mind with this frequency would have access to
holes in the universe that would lead back to all times and
"That's a Chi Frequency of a hundred.
"You clocked in at a hundred and twenty-six."
Rene closed her jaw and asked, in a very small voice,
"What does that mean?"
"It means we did the tests wrong." The smile remained
frozen on Dr. Watts-Smith's face as she gathered up her
test results and said, "I've booked you in tomorrow so we
can run them all again. I hope that's not inconvenient."
"Well," Rene admitted, "now I'm intrigued."
"That makes two of us," the psychiatrist said, her
face a mask of indifference. "In the mean-time, I thought
we'd try something different."
"How do you feel about being hypnotized?"
"How would you feel about being hypnotized tonight,
starting right now?"
"Fine. Let's do it."
It only took ten minutes of deep breathing and
stretching before Dr. Watts-Smith put Rene into a state of
deep relaxation using a combination of voice suggestion and
"You are eleven," she told Rene. "In a van, outside
the theater where you parents are performing."
Rene nodded. "They're dead. I remember."
"What color is the van?"
"I can't see it."
Dr. Watts-Smith leaned in. "Go back. Go back to that
afternoon. Where did you go? What did you eat? Where did
you go to the bathroom?"
"I didn't eat," Rene responded lazily. "I never used
a bathroom. I have no body. My name is Athena."
The next morning, Rene was back in the hospital and
went through the same set of tests until the middle of the
afternoon. One young radiology intern joked with her that
she should get a frequent-shopper punch card; she must
really like the rides. Rene replied, "Well, it's cheaper
than Disneyland, and the lines are shorter."
By four in the afternoon, she was dressed and back at
Dr. Watts-Smith's office to hear the results of the day.
"They're inconclusive," the psychiatrist reported; there
wasn't the slightest hint of an apology, rather the
opposite: she was almost accusing Rene of trying to foil
her precious medical science. "But they are closer to the
mark." She pointed at a few different test results.
"Fifty-six, eight-two, sixty-nine." She narrowed her gaze
and told Rene, "They're normally very accurate tests."
Rene held out her hands, empty and open. "Help me,
Doc. Fix me."
Janet Watts-Smith smiled and folded her hands on her
desk. "Very well, Rene. Shall we begin?"
"What does the name 'Athena' mean to you?"
Rene told her about her experience in the institution.
"Under hypnosis," she was told, "when I asked you
about that night in Berlin, you claimed to be Athena, that
Rene had made you to fix her mistakes, and when I asked you
to look at the memories of your early childhood, you -- as
Athena -- refused."
Rene nodded and told her that she claimed to be Athena
when she was admitted to the institution.
"I have a theory, Dr. Sozia," said Dr. Watts-Smith,
addressing her formally now, perhaps feeling the name
"Rene" had become tainted.
"Let's assume that these scans show us that you have a
fast spirit, and that your sister was right, and she also
has a fast spirit. Where do you think it came from?"
Rene looked down at her folded hands resting on her
gray sweatshirt, rolled the gold ring around her fourth
finger. "It must be genetic."
"Which of your parents do you think it came from?"
Rene shrugged. "I told you I don't remember them."
"But you -- or Athena -- remember seeing through your
mother's eyes as she died. For Athena, this was her very
Rene furrowed her brow, continued to stare at the
ceiling. "I don't remember remembering that."
"But this Athena persona did. And this tells us what,
"That my mother was a telepath?" She thought of
Sasha, of her disdain for their mother, her distance from
her, the cold indifference she showed to her vision.
"I believe that, as the eldest daughter, you shared a
special mental link to your mother. You say your parents
were junkies; you and your sister were probably born
addicted. It's possible that from the moment of
conception, you -- Rene -- shared your mother's thoughts
every time she fixed a shot. It's likely that you -- Rene
-- because of this bond with your junkie mother, never
developed a functional ego."
"I'm sure you've heard of the theory of traumatic
disjunction," Dr. Watts-Smith went on while Rene stared at
the ceiling tiles, counting the holes, searching for one
she could call her own. "If a person is subjected to a
severe trauma, one they are incapable of dealing with, they
may create a second persona capable of handling it. This
is where this Athena persona probably came from. When you
were admitted to the hospital, your mother had died, and
she had taken Rene's ego with her. Athena rebuilt Rene
from scratch, over two years.
"But I had to ask myself why such a persona would
appear before the actual event -- your mother's actual
death. The only thing I could think of was that Rene,
because of this special link, knew that her mother had
bought bad heroin. She knew it was poison, and she let her
mother take it, and let her give it to her father. She
could have said something to Asa, or to her father, but she
kept silent, and so they both died. It was the instant of
knowing that death was inevitable that killed Rene and
brought forth Athena. And then Rene's mother took her with
her into death, leaving Athena in an empty room."
Rene's heart was pounding. Her mouth was dry.
Everything Dr. Watts-Smith had told her made perfect sense.
She had come to a walled city that had collapsed. She had
appeared beside the black hole of Rene's life. She licked
her lips and swallowed. "Why do you talk about my life
like I'm not in it?"
"Let me ask you this, Dr. Sozia. What do you think it
might mean that you remember your mother's death, remember
Rene making you, and remember nothing before that?"
Rene made an irritated sigh. "You're the professional
here," she pointed out. "You tell me."
"Isn't it obvious?"
"What?" Rene sat up again, put her feet on the floor.
"What are you saying?"
"You are Athena. You have been Athena ever since Rene
was eleven years old. You never recovered. You've
pretended to be Rene Sozia because that's who you were told
you are. But you are not. You are Athena."
Rene turned to the desk, licked her dry lips with a
bone-dry tongue and asked, "What does any of this have to
do with my nightmares?"
"The same trauma that made you," Dr. Watts-Smith
explained patiently, while Rene continued to pace around
the couch, "excited this body's Chi to a higher frequency.
The reason you do not share your sister's gift is that you
have moved beyond it. The only things you have extra
sensory perception for now would be subspace singularities
or massive stellar implosions."
Rene sat up, stared down at the Oriental rug, held her
head in her hands. "But I'm Rene," she said.
Dr. Watts-Smith shrugged. "It's not pathologic to say
so. Nobody would believe the truth."
Rene shook her head, continued to stare down into
nothingness, parsing the specks of dust floating in her
Dr. Watts-Smith leaned back, concluded, reflective,
and already nostalgic. "I thought we could bring Rene back
to this body, reconcile your two parts, and restore your
Chi to its natural frequency, but I see now that there is
no Rene in there to reconcile with."
"So what are you saying, Doc?"
"I'm saying I can't cure your nightmares."
Rene folded her arms over her chest and stood up. "So
that's it? We're done here?"
Jillian Saint-Ross stared out the first-class window
at the dark Atlantic, miles below her, its depths a
strange, almost luminescent teal, full of the refracted
spill of dawn's first light. She read the report from Dr.
Janet Watts-Smith while she listened to her conversation
with the hypnotized Rene Sozia.
"Are there others in the room with you?"
"No," Rene/Athena answered, her eyes still closed, her
voice tranquil. "I am alone."
"Are there others, besides Rene, outside? Others who
maybe helped Rene to make you?"
"And who is in charge? Who are they working for?"
"August." She said the name like it was a dream.
"August de Winter."
Two hours later, Jillian Saint-Ross sat a table at an
outdoor Geneva cafe, sipped hot chocolate, and watched the
intense look of concentration on Corinne Sclara's sharp
Roman face as she listened to the recording on a portable
media player. Her eyes drifted around the boats on the
lake below them, idly following one and then another.
RENE: "Somebody's calling me from another room."
DR. WATTS-SMITH: "Who?"
RENE: "Who are you? What have you done here? You're
going to turn the universe inside-out! These holes are
DR. WATTS-SMITH: "Rene, listen to the sound of my
RENE: (hysterical) "No! Don't leave me here! NO!"
(pause) "Oh, no. I don't believe it. This can't be
happening. This isn't real. My name is Athena. My name
DR. WATTS-SMITH: "You will listen to the sound of my
voice and you will awaken when I count to three, and you
will remember nothing of this --"
RENE: (throughout) "My name is Athena! My name is
Athena! Octahedron, Dodecahedron, Tetrahedron, Octahedron,
Icosahedron -- "
The recording ended.
Corinne removed the headphones and handed the player
back to Jillian. She picked up her own cup of hot
chocolate and noted, "This could be anything. This could
be sexual abuse. It could be some satanic ritual. It
could be LSD in her bubblegum."
"I want to know what he did to her."
"Why? What is so special about Rene Sozia?"
"You tell me about August and Julia de Winter,"
Jillian entreated, "and I'll tell you about Rene Sozia."
Corinne considered the exchange. "Has she heard
Jillian shook her head, "Not yet."
Corinne sipped her chocolate and watched the boats and
said, "You clocked her, didn't you?"
Jillian said nothing, only stirred her drink and
waited for Corinne to agree with her.
"You clocked her and what did you find?" Corinne
heard only the sound of Jillian's spoon scraping the sides
of her cup as she stirred. "How fast was she?"
Jillian said nothing, stirred her chocolate.
Nigel came back the next month for Rene's first
Hollywood fundraiser for The Silicon Valley Toxics
Coalition, which she had put together with Masada's help
after ending her sessions with Dr. Watts-Smith.
While they dressed, Nigel asked her how it had gone.
Rene sat at the dresser in the master bedroom and applied
her foundation and blush. "She said my nightmares were
natural; there's no cure."
"What else did you learn?"
Rene shrugged. "Nothing much. It was like riding a
roller coaster. You get in, you get dragged up to the
highest point, you throw up your hands and scream, you
fall, you rise, they throw a couple loops at you and then
its -- pssht! 'Thank you for riding the Janet Watts-Smith.
Please remain seated until the carriage comes to a complete
stop.' But I did enjoy the ride. It reminded me of why I
left the institution all those years ago."
"And why was that?" Nigel asked, tying his necktie
with quick, sure motions.
"So I could find you," she answered with a seductive
grin in the mirror.
He kissed her on the top of her head. "As soon as
this picture is over," he promised.
At the end of the evening, Maria oversaw the
professional catering staff as they cleaned up the remains
of the party. Rene St. Denis from the Silicon Valley
Toxics Coalition wrapped up her tabulations, her
contributions, and her disposable camera, and stopped at
the sofa to thank her hostess and report the final haul.
"Seven million, two hundred and seventy-three thousand,
five hundred dollars," she reported with an exhausted
smile. "I can't thank you enough, Dr. Sozia; Nigel."
Rene and Nigel were horizontal on the couch, their
feet up on a large wooden coffee table. She was tucked
into him, and he was folded around her, and they both
looked up with bedroom eyes and empty wine glasses and
smiled. Rene said, "Anytime."
And then they were alone again, at last, and she tried
not to let the uncertainty get to her. She listened to his
heart beat, heard the clean wind in his lungs, felt his
arms around her, and could only think about when he would
have to leave again.
"Nigel?" she asked him, too tired to move.
"Mm?" He let one finger stroke her shoulder slowly to
let her know he was there.
"I think I know how you can finish this movie."
He cracked a grin. "How's that, Rene?"
She leaned up and kissed his cheek. "You'll see."
Rene bought ten of the new Apple Hypercube computers
and installed them as a single cabled system in an upstairs
room of Nigel's mansion that she converted into her office.
There she remained, while Maria excused her from all of her
scheduled engagements. She refused to take phone calls
unless it was Nigel, and Nigel didn't call. She barely
ate, slept on the floor in front of her keyboard and
monitor screen, and only came out to use the bathroom.
After ten days, she had finished writing an entire
suite of software, and she staggered out of the half-light
of her office and found Masada Goldstein sitting downstairs
with Maria, dressed to go to the gym.
"There you are," she said as Rene emerged at the
second floor balcony. "We were debating sending in a
search party. You ready to go?"
As tired as she was, Rene went with Masada to their
West Hollywood gym, where she changed into her accustomed
gray sports bra and gray peasant's skirt, and joined Masada
for a protein shake. "You look like you could use it."
"I just couldn't stand it anymore," Rene said. "The
not knowing. The uncertainty. Will he come home? Will he
stay? How long? And when will he be back? And worst of
all, what will happen when he finally does come home...?"
Masada shook her head and put her hand on Rene's knee,
leaned in to her. "I know," she said softly. "I know it's
hard. But Nigel is going through the same thing, off in
Irkutsk or Siberia or wherever. This is as hard for him as
it is for you. You just have to be patient."
They sat at a Nautilus machine; Rene set her pin at
180 kilograms, and lay back to press iron.
"Maria tells me you've been writing software," Masada
began, straining as she pressed 400 beside her.
"That's one way to put it," Rene responded.
"Come on," Masada urged her. "Don't be coy."
Rene pressed her light stack quickly, beyond tired,
running purely on the fuel present in the protein shake she
drank on the way in, everything now calm, distant,
objective. "It's not a program," she insisted, and smiled
to herself. "It's a love-spell."
Masada kept pushing, her eyes on the bar. "A love-
spell? For who?"
"It's a mystical incantation," Rene went on, grinning
as she realized it herself. "It's supposed to summon my
lover back to my side."
"Rene, please," Masada snapped, her face now red with
the effort of completing her second rep. "Just cut out the
bullshit and tell me what you've been doing up there."
"It's a suite of software to render scenery, costumes,
and virtual sprites," Rene said. "I think it's ready to be
Masada let the bar drop and sat up, grabbed a towel
and wiped the perspiration from her head and neck. "You
mean like virtual cinematography?"
"I guess." Rene continued to press ninety, quick and
steady. "It's supposed to be able to animate virtual
actors and render them and their surroundings in perfect,
Masada went for her water. "That's virtual
cinematography. It's done every day. Our CG department is
doing that for the new Superman movie right now."
Rene stopped pressing and sat up. "Not like this."
She rolled her shoulders and then leaned in to Masada for
the pitch. "This, it's just like being on a soundstage.
You dress your actors, feed in the dialogue, storyboard the
action, map the emotional arc, build a set, place your
cameras and lights, and push 'Action.' The scene is played
out and rendered in real time."
Masada nearly spit out her water. "No way. Real
time? Then it can't be very life-like."
"With a fast enough engine," Rene said, "you won't be
able to tell the difference."
Masada shook her head. "No way. I'll believe it when
I see it. I mean, even the SGI rendering engines at Disney
can't do that."
Rene smiled. "And what do we have?"
Masada took a deep breath. "Rene...nobody sleeps with
"Well, they have SGI engines there, don't they?"
"I don't know," Masada admitted. "They change them
every week, it seems like. I don't know what they've got
now. I know they were looking to get an IBM Chaos Box."
The name of the legendary machine struck a note in
Rene. "Sam Fuller's engine," she said.
"I don't know whose it is," Masada admitted. "All I
know is that we were one of a whole bunch of digital
effects houses that lobbied congress to ease the government
restriction on quantum engines so we could use them in the
"Still being held up by chip-makers."
Rene brought Ben into her conspiracy; he was intrigued
and brought Rene and her new software suite down to the
Good Shepherd CG works. There, sure enough, a whole new
room had been built to house the massive stabilizing
apparatus of Sam Fuller's Chaos Box.
The importance of this particular quantum engine was
the fact that it did not use q-bits as co-processors, but
rather built a grid of no fewer than 512 q-bits in an
eight-by-eight-by-eight grid. It allowed IBM's first
Turing-winning AI, Indigo Mind, to fool a panel of judges
into mistaking it for a human subject by allowing instant
access to all available data, all the time. Its actual
architecture remained a national secret for six years, and
the only one initially allowed to exist spent its days
cracking code for the National Security Agency.
But although it was fast enough to protect national
secrets, it was not fast enough to render life-like
animation in real time.
The only designer at the Good Shepherd CG lab after
hours when Ben and Rene arrived was Vera Marquez, a
heavyset Wiccan/Pagan/Santeria with straight black hair,
skin covered in Celtic tattoos and steel piercings, dressed
in black upon black upon black.
"I've been wanting to meet you," Vera gushed as soon
as Rene was in the door and Ben had introduced them. "I
remember, like, six years ago, when you were at MIT, and
you were voted, like, 'Sexiest Geek Of The Year.' Man, if
those guys could see you now."
Rene furrowed her brow. "I think I'd remember being
voted 'Sexiest Geek Of The Year.'"
"You didn't come to the ceremony," Vera reminded her.
"That's what I heard. I heard they tried to find you and
you'd, like, gone to Europe to go jousting or something."
Rene laughed. "My sister's wedding," she explained to
Ben. Then she furrowed her brow again. "I can't believe I
was voted 'Sexiest Geek' at MIT and I don't remember." She
turned to Vera and flatly confessed, "I don't remember a
lot about my life."
"Marriage will do that," Ben confirmed. "Vera, why
don't you show Rene to a workstation."
She loaded in her software and the virtual basic
interface started up without a problem. Rene explained
that she had only had time to load in a few textures and
patterns, and only one sprite, just to test the software.
She loaded a street scene: the Brooklyn set from Universal
Studios, lined with brownstones with wide front steps.
Streetlights glowed cool white. Two parked cars appeared,
identical red Ford mustang convertibles.
Rene picked a camera palate and selected "Tracking
Pattern 1," from a list of two choices. "Again," she
explained to Ben and Vera, "you could pre-program as many
as you wanted. I just haven't done it yet.
"So," she asked them. "I've got one sprite, and I can
have him do any of these things," as she dropped down a
short list: drink water, carry flowers, drive.
Ben said, "Let's see them all."
She entered the action from a list, then punched the
"Action" icon. The scene began.
Ben checked the clock on the wall. It was 7:17, and
the second hand had just passed the top of the sweep.
Ben, Rene, and Vera watched the output display monitor
show the street in perfect, lifelike detail. A young man
in a suit and hat sat in the front of the first Ford, and
drank a glass of water. A second appeared in the second
Ford, holding a bouquet of flowers, sniffing them and
touching them gently as if fluffing a pillow.
Ben looked at Vera and saw her jaw drop as the camera
pulled down around a lamppost, tracked past the man with
the flowers, through the dashboard and every part of the
Mustang's internal combustion engine, out the front grill,
into the trunk of the first Mustang, where a third
identical male sprite in an identical suit and hat
struggled vainly, tied with rope and gagged with a strip of
plain gray pixels. Rene explained, "I haven't input the
data for duct tape yet."
The camera moved through the trunk, into the back seat
of the first Mustang, around the shoulder of the first man,
sitting behind the wheel, holding a tumbler of gin on the
rocks. The ice cubes were perfectly rendered; the liquid
sloshed in his glass, and the glass caught the light with a
casual random perfection that was more than realistic. The
camera was close on the first man, on his straight eyebrows
and square jaw, a composite of any number of male leads
from any number of post-war Hollywood noir movies. He
drank his gin, finished the glass, started the engine, and
threw the glass out of the car.
The camera followed the glass as the car pulled away,
and caught every shard as the glass shattered on the
virtual cement sidewalk.
Then the scene froze, and a blue dialogue box appeared
on top, to present the news that there had been an error
with the memory buffer at a specific address.
"It's out of memory," Vera said.
Ben glanced up at the clock on the wall. Exactly one
minute and fifteen seconds had gone by.
Rene said, "On my Beowulf cluster at home, I never get
past five seconds." She folded her arms, pinched her
bottom lip as she furrowed her brow. "I thought this
engine would be fast enough. Do you have anything faster?"
Vera shook her head. "This is it. But it doesn't
matter; we normally render one frame a time anyway."
Ben was prepared to make a casual suggestion, but he
didn't have to say a word. Rene decided it for him. "I
can't wait that long," she said. "I'll build an engine
Ben took a sharp breath and looked hesitant. "You
know we're losing money on this 'Dark Ages' picture." He
bit his lip. "How much do you think it might be?"
"About two hundred thousand dollars," she told him.
"I've done it five times before," (as she glanced to Vera,)
"back when I was the Sexiest Geek of the Year. We just
didn't have any software back then."
Ten days after the trial run at Good Shepherd, Rene
was in the office of Frank Burelli, the Vice President in
charge of development at Silicon Graphics in Mountain View.
He was tall, with long legs and a bulbous midsection, a
neat moustache, and an office with a view of a manicured
green lawn stretching to an abrupt line where the neat turf
gave way to rolling hills of tall amber grasses and lone
"We received your design, and I have to admit, Dr.
Sozia, our designers couldn't believe their good fortune,"
Burelli began. "And, yes, we are currently looking for a
quantum engine to compete with the Chaos Box, but..."
Rene crossed her legs and wondered which excuse she
would be given. She could almost see them on a drop-down
menu in Burelli's mind.
"The recent opening of this field to the public sector
left a few caveats," Burelli explained, handing her back
her blueprints, parts list, power requirements, and solid-
state schematics. "Quaternary bits like the ones you're
proposing in this engine are still restricted. If you want
to build this engine, you'll have to bring it up with the
Duval listened to her proposal over lunch at a Paris
bistro near his offices. In a booth across the crowded
dining room, Rene watched a young American couple eat soup
and pasta; she pointed them out to Duval, who caught them
in the mirror over her head. "They were on the plane with
me when I flew in," Rene told him.
"Never mind them," he urged her. "Tell me about this
engine you've designed."
They ate a hearty minestrone soup while Rene explained
that she and Dr. Kellogg, back at MIT, had been able to
make "quaternary bits," that manifested four positions
instead of the three used by q-bit processors. "There was
no logic at the time," she explained. "They were just an
oddity. But I can use those four positions to emulate
Lao's theories of behavior, making my virtual sprites all
that much more realistic and individuated. In short, I can
take all of the artistic choices and have them solved by
one set of processors, and that should free up enough of
the q-bit engine to achieve the level of rendering detail I
Duval sipped his soup. "And what...you want me to
build it for you?"
"I can build it," Rene assured him. "I just don't
have a quarter of a million dollars."
Duval nodded, considering, watching the tourist couple
as they kept their eyes on Rene. "What about building two
of them?" he asked her. "One for you, and one for me?
I'll put up the money, you do the work."
She shook her head. "I only need it for a month or
so," she explained. "After that, you can have it all to
Duval ate his soup, had a sip of wine, and then
nodded. "Alright. It's a deal."
Rene kept her eye on the American couple.
"Will you come by and see your sister?" he asked.
She shook her head. "I didn't plan to. Why, is she
sick on her deathbed?"
Duval laughed. "No; she's been traveling around the
world with this genealogist tracking down her maternal
lineage. She thinks she's traced your heritage back to the
python cult at Delphi. She's actually found some very
"I'm happy for her," she said, "but right now, I'm
only concerned with helping my husband finish a movie."
Nigel stood on a hilltop overlooking the smoldering
ruins of medieval Rome, and watched the crew poke through
the debris for salvageable souvenirs.
He shook his head and had to laugh. He was beyond
tears. He turned to Sergei, his liaison with Russian
Internal Security Services, and confirmed the stunning
irony. "Mongols?" he asked. "Mongols did this?"
Sergei wheezed in his heavy overcoat, winded from the
walk up the hill to this vantage point. "A gang of Mongol
teens, yes. They have been terrorizing the area on
horseback for the last two weeks. I have alerted the Army.
They won't get far."
Nigel stared at his charred set. "This is really the
Back in his trailer, he was about to call Ben
Goldstein to rant. His leading actors had long passed
sleeping together, getting married, and filing for a bitter
divorce; they passed the time escalating a war of practical
jokes; most recently, she fixed him up with a gonorrheal
whore and he retaliated by slipping her a knockout drug to
pass on her gift, and now they would not come on set
together, insisting that all of their scenes -- even the
love scenes -- be shot separately. The weather was sucking
money out of the production through a straw, the script was
still growing after 350 pages, and now a gang of Mongol
teens on horseback had burned their Rome to the ground.
Nigel could not see anything to do but shut the production
down. He wanted to burn the dailies, load the ashes into a
rocket, and shoot it into the heart of the sun, along with
the writer, actors, and directors.
He had no signal on his phone, and was about to get in
a jeep and drive to a hilltop when he saw the day's mail on
his desk, and on the top of it was a disc mailer from Rene,
in care of Duval's Paris offices, addressed to him.
He opened it up and found a single CD. It was
cryptically titled, "Scene 62, Orange." Orange, of course,
was the color of the last approved rewrite. Scene 62 was a
love scene between the young hero and his leading lady.
Curious, Nigel opened up his flip-top computer and
loaded the disc into the drive. It loaded automatically,
and Nigel's on-board viewer opened and played.
The piece was five minutes long, set in a Milanese
castle bedroom, where hanging tapestries and heraldic
banners swayed in a gentle breeze through the open windows.
The sunlight played perfectly, the camera moved
effortlessly and transparently through the room, to the
lady's dressing table. Nigel watched the scene play out
and was amazed at the depth of feeling his two leads
appeared to have, the sexual tension, the fiery chemistry.
When it was over, Nigel's heart was racing. It was a
perfect take. It was flawless. The only problem was that
Scene 62 had yet to be filmed; that set was destroyed in
Canada and had yet to be rebuilt; those costumes had yet to
be sewn, and his two leads had never even read those lines
in the same room together, let alone before the camera.
He waited on the phone at the top of the hill, drank
strong coffee and watched the crew clean up the aftermath
of the Mongol invasion.
It took an hour for someone from Duval's Paris office
to physically bring a telephone to the suburban warehouse
where Rene had built her new engine.
She sounded tired. "Hello?"
"It's me. I got your package."
She woke up. "And?"
He had been waiting on hold for so long that he had
forgotten why he called. "How did you...Could you...Is
this just...You know?"
She laughed. "It's like I told Ben: you send me the
dailies, and I'll finish this movie."
Nigel took a cab out to the industrial warehouse in a
suburb south of Paris, behind a chop-shop and a nightclub.
Inside, he found Rene wearing nothing but a bedsheet. She
sat at a folding table in front of a row of monitors, a
single keyboard, a trackball pointer, a can of pepper spray
and a small hand-held taser ready at hand. In the corner
was a rumpled folding cot with a sleeping bag and a pillow,
surrounded by empty take-out boxes from Indian restaurants.
Rene saw Nigel, and was frightened for a moment that
after all that, he had come to chastise her for breaking
some unwritten Hollywood rule. He dropped the large mailer
than contained digital copies of all the dailies from "The
Dark Ages," and stalked over to her, his eyes full of
something wild and hungry. He tore the sheet from her
shoulders, embraced her, kissed her, pushed her up against
a thick wall of heavy water and made love to her as he had
for the past year and a half.
Immediately after making love to his wife, Nigel's eye
caught on the contraption behind the wall of water. "What
the hell is all that?"
She whispered in his ear, "That is the new machine."
Ben had told him: Rene had built an engine half the
size of the Chaos Box at the Good Shepherd CG lab. He
didn't pretend to understand it, but he understood that she
was using a new bit that was thought to be a curiosity at
best, and that made all the difference in rendering
"So show me something," Nigel said, standing,
buttoning his pants and helping her to her feet. "Show me
what it does."
She demurred, hid her eyes as she tied her sheet over
her shoulder again. She suggested that they get started
loading in the movie. "The sooner we start," she said,
"the sooner we finish."
He glanced at her desk. Three of the monitors ran
diagnostics on the engine, while the fourth had the
software interface loaded, and the active window showed a
plain white set with nothing in it but a black leather
bench. It was entitled, "First Contact."
Nigel pointed and said, "I see you were running a
movie. Can I see it?"
She closed the window quickly. "That's nothing."
"Show me," he urged her. She took a deep breath and
he was surprised at her sudden shyness, her reluctance to
share with him. "Or don't."
"I'll show you," she said, "but you have to understand
what you're looking at." He sat at the desk chair and she
sat on his lap. "I made two sprites to test my character
generator," she told him, "named Girl and Guy. They're not
supposed to have any personality, just a random series of
thoughts that lead to physical behavior. They're just
doing...what they do."
"So what I do is drop them into this empty set, and
hit action, without any storyboard or emotional arc or
anything. Every time, I load them with a different series
of thought-shapes, so every time the action is slightly
Rene dragged down a "File" list and selected "First
Contact," and then pushed "Action."
The screen changed back to the blank studio with a
white roll-down backdrop and a black leather bench,
rendered photo realistic.
In a second, the Girl sprite appeared, and Rene held
her breath as she saw Nigel gawk. The sprite was a Barbie
doll with basketball breasts, full red lips, wide blue
eyes, and a head of short, wavy blonde hair -- the feminine
form divorced from the laws of physics. She walked on to
the virtual set stark naked, strutted to the bench, draped
herself on it, closed her eyes, made a feminine groan, and
ran her virtual hands all over her virtual skin.
Nigel's jaw dropped, and not just at the detail of the
virtual skin tensing and relaxing as the sprite ran her
hands across it, or the precision with which she walked,
the tension apparent in every visible muscle.
"Before they're loaded," Rene explained, "I can change
ethnicity, bust, waist, height, musculature, every feature
of her face, every aspect of her body, everything down to
the tan lines."
Nigel watched the Girl sprite recline on the bench,
kick up her heels and run her hands across her hairless
crotch, groaning all the while in a perfect simulation of a
lusty human female.
Nigel watched the sprite rub her crotch and realized
that he was getting aroused, and it wasn't just Rene
squirming on his lap. That's when Guy Sprite arrived, a
cut colossus rippling with muscles, a square jaw, short
hair, a rogue's grin, and a stiff penis that was easily two
feet long and six inches thick.
Nigel dropped his jaw. "Holy shit," he mumbled.
Rene tried to swallow the lump in her throat and let
her husband watch the two virtual sprites meet in the
middle of the set, kiss, and make love in an act that would
have killed any human actress.
"This is what you didn't want me to see?" Nigel asked
Rene as the sprites did their thing.
Rene found their behavior repulsive. "It's
disgusting, and I'm ashamed of it."
"I can only assume," Nigel told her, "that you
designed them to look this way."
She shook her head and stood up. "That's just it. I
didn't. I designed them both to be normal, average-looking
people. When I designed him, his penis was only eighteen
centimeters long, just like yours."
He reached out and took her by the wrist. "I never
knew you measured," he said. "Funny; I always thought my
penis was long enough to reach the moon."
She pulled her arm away from him and pointed back to
the on-going intercourse on the screen. "Every time I ran
them, this is what they did. And every time I ran it, it
got a little more refined, a little more stylized, a little
more focused, until it's this."
She waved her hand at the couple on the screen.
"These are not humans making love. These are semiotic
arrangements of sexual triggers. It's the ultimate
perversion: ideal, metaphysical sex; the program keeps
making it better, more potent and pure. Every time they
represent ideal sex, they get closer to it."
"And that scares you," he said plainly.
"No machine should ever speak that language," she
said, and the frightened gravity of her voice made him
stand and put his hands on her shoulders.
"We can delete it," Nigel told her, "if that's what
"I need them to act as templates," she said, reaching
over and pushing the "cut" button. The open window where
Girl Sprite and Guy Sprite fucked the impossible fuck went
black. "I didn't want you to see them like that."
"We're all perverts," he assured her. "It's human
nature. So they wanted to fuck? What's wrong with that?"
She sat on the desk and seemed to go limp in his arms.
"It's me," she said. "It's just a little hard for me to
admit to myself that I've watched this sterile dance of
fertility symbols more than seven hundred times, and it
still turns me on." She leaned over and shut down the
machine. "Until last week, I had no idea I was such a
He put his arm over her shoulder, walked her over to
the cot, and sat down beside her. "Remember when we first
met, and you told me that folding space was like folding
movies into genres?"
"And then genres into myths, and myths into truths,
and truths into God?"
She nodded again.
"Maybe that's what God looks like," Nigel said with a
playful smile. "Maybe God is a man and a woman, making
It took them a whole week to feed the dailies from
"The Dark Ages" into Rene's rendering engine, which then
built 3-D models of every set, extrapolating from the raw
data. They formed composites of the lead roles based on
the actors on film. They modeled voices, and then sat down
and re-shot each and every scene in the movie with absolute
freedom of movement through their virtual medieval world,
and with a level of control that specified the exact force
exerted by every muscle in the virtual body of every last
extra on a field of battle.
The thrill of making a movie with her husband kept
Rene working without sleep, kept her smiling. She had
never felt so fulfilled. He was proud of her. He was
engaged with her. Most importantly, he was at her side,
his hand on her shoulder, and never once did he ask to see
the naked sprites. This was why she married him, and she
felt that this was why he married her.
When they were done, they converted the footage to a
DVD codex and burned ten copies. They kept one, sent one
to Ben, and sent the other eight to the studio.
They rented a suite at a Paris hotel, cleaned up,
ordered in room service, and debated holding a "bed-in."
Nigel grew serious, and told her that they would have to
face some consequences. "I'm not sure," he said, "if what
we did was entirely legal."
"I couldn't care less," Rene told him.
He knew it, but kissed her and then suggested that
they bring the movie down to Burgundy and show Duval.
"After all," Nigel reasoned, "he did pay for the engine."
He could see Rene's mind leap into action, thinking up an
excuse not to go. Nigel asked, "Why did you ask Duval to
pay for the engine? Why didn't you go to somebody local?"
"I was told it was restricted," Rene answered simply,
spreading jam on a buttered croissant and handing it to him
across their double bed.
Nigel took the breakfast, but ignored it. He sat up.
His face grew from pensive to grave. "Restricted how?" he
asked quickly. "Restricted by whom?"
She went on preparing her own croissant and answered
with the same simple nonchalance. "The guy at Silicon
Graphics said the quaternary bits I used were restricted.
He said I'd have to go through the Department of Defense."
She took a bite and chewed while Nigel stared down at
his own breakfast, and quietly ran a complex mental algebra
to determine whether or not to panic.
"Well, you know the army's not my style," Rene went
on, "so I came here."
She turned and saw Nigel about to make the decision to
panic. His face had paled, and his eyes hung open in numb
shock. He shook his head, his eyes accusing her. "Oh,
Rene. Oh, you sweet, simple thing."
"What?" She went on eating. "It's not like I stole
national secrets. I invented the damned thing."
"I know that you were just going to your closest
relative to ask him to help you," he eased her, trying to
reason with himself while engaging her, "but imagine how it
looks? You knew it was restricted technology. You knew,
and without asking anyone, you built it anyway. And then,
on top of that, you gave the designs, the software, and the
only working prototype to the largest defense contractor in
She finished her croissant and wiped the crumbs off
her fingers. "There," she said. "That's one more reason
we shouldn't go visit them."
Nigel fell back into his pillow and realized that a
lawsuit from the actors whose performances he had stolen
was the least of their problems now.
The next morning, the telephone rang in their hotel
suite at six-ten in the morning, and woke Nigel from a
light, fitful sleep. It was Duval, and he sounded
panicked. "There are Security Intelligence Agents down at
the lab," he said. "I need to speak to Rene. I need to
find out exactly what she's gotten me into."
He nudged her awake. "Rene, get up. There's trouble
at the lab. Duval wants to talk to you."
She rolled over and took the phone.
Nigel sat up and turned on a light.
Rene sat bolt upright. "They did what?"
A loud knock on the door startled them. Rene and
Nigel traded a frightened look.
A male voice in the hall, American, insistent, "Dr.
Sozia? Mr. Shepherd?" He knocked again. "I need to talk
to you right away. I'm from the American Embassy, and it's
Rene was still on the phone. She nodded to Nigel and
hissed, "Find out what they want." To Duval, she
explained, "There's someone from the U.S. Embassy here."
Nigel went for a hotel bathrobe. "Coming."
Duval groaned. "What have you done, Rene?"
"Nothing!" she insisted. "I just made some porn! I
didn't even put it on the web!"
Nigel opened the door and spoke briefly with the men
outside. Duval admitted, "Well, I can't say I wasn't
At the door, Nigel stepped aside and let in Special
Envoy Windham, a tall, broad Adonis with black coffee skin
and bright brown eyes, a close-shorn afro, a blue suit cut
in Paris style, and everything down to the polish on his
black shoes suggesting a neurotic groomer who woke every
day obsessed with looking better than the next guy.
Behind him came a woman who looked perfectly at home
at his side. She was tall, dressed in maturity but wearing
a black cocktail dress and a long black jacket, her legs in
sheer black stockings and pumps that she obviously had not
removed from the previous evening. She wore a black visor
with an embedded headset. Her nose, her jaw, the faded red
pout of her lips all suggested Rome.
Nigel told Rene to hang up, and she said she would
call Duval's office when she had news. She pulled the
bedsheet over her shoulder and tied it into a customary
toga. The black American stepped forward and offered her a
badge in a wallet. "Windham," he said. "Special Envoy
from the U.S. State Department."
"I'm Rene Sozia," she said, and shook his hand. "Do
you want some breakfast?"
"No, thank you." He nodded slightly to the tall woman
beside him, who had not moved the aim of her visor from
Rene since she set foot in the suite. "This is Corinne
Sclara, from the EU Security Intelligence Service."
"You are a European." Corinne stepped forward and
said it to Rene like a commandment delivered straight to
her red blood cells. "This man wants to ask you some
questions. I'm here to see your rights as a European
citizen are protected."
"It won't take long," the Envoy promised with a small
smile of white ivory. "Please."
Rene sat on the edge of the bed and Nigel sat at her
side. "Go ahead," she invited Corinne. "Ask."
Windham smiled his tight smile and gestured to the
door. "I thought we could talk over breakfast at the
"I just got up," Rene protested. "I smell gamy."
Nigel squeezed her hand and growled, "Rene..."
"I'm not going."
Windham dropped his beckoning invitation. "I can see
that you like it here." He folded his hands behind him and
looked out their hotel window and a low Paris skyline with
no particular landmarks. "Europe is a lovely place," he
said, his voice filled with awe and admiration, "and Paris
is certainly Europe at its finest, but for myself, I'm not
sure I could live here if I knew that I could never, ever,
ever return to the United States."
Nigel knew exactly what he meant.
Rene pursed her lips, and her eyebrows caved in
together over her nose like two crashing freight trains.
Nigel had never seen her look angry before. "No," she
said. "You know what? No. I haven't done anything wrong
and I'm going back to bed."
Windham looked at Nigel, who glared back at him. He
reached into his coat and Nigel almost thought he would
pull out a handgun and cap them both. Instead, he handed
over a business card with the U.S. State Department logo.
Rene ignored it. Nigel took it reluctantly.
"If you change your mind," Windham said to Nigel,
"just call the main switchboard and ask for the Paris
Embassy." He nodded to Rene, his smile icy. "Enjoy your
stay, Dr. Sozia."
He walked out.
Corinne took a deep breath and smiled. She said
nothing, but the smile showed that she was impressed and
vicariously thrilled at Rene's performance. She walked
into the bedroom and sat at a small drawing table.
"I'll have some breakfast," she said, "if you're still
Nigel asked, "What was that all that about?"
Corinne poked through last night's remains on a room
service cart. "Apparently you redesigned one of their
fastest encryption engines." She flipped up her visor,
revealing a pair of striking green eyes. She smiled and
shrugged nonchalantly. "Which means, I'm sorry to say,
that I'm going to have to confiscate it."
Rene looked at Nigel and realized that her work there
was done. "Go ahead; I was just going to give it to Duval
anyway. But I would like the software back."
"I'm sorry." Corinne bit half a dry croissant and
spoke with her mouth full. "I was out all night, I didn't
eat." She swallowed and took a breath. "It was an
unfortunate accident. We were looking through the
directory and some stupid cop hit the wrong button and
reformatted the drives." She shrugged. "Sorry."
"That software was worth money," Nigel said plainly.
"We could sue you."
Corinne stood up and brushed the crumbs from her
hands. "I can give you a million euros," she said. "Take
it or leave it."
"I'll take it," Rene said quickly.
Nigel turned to her, surprised; sure they could get a
hundred times that.
"Just leave us alone."
"I can't promise that," Corinne admitted, already on
her way to the door. "I can tell you this for free: if
you don't talk to Windham, you won't be leaving Europe
unless you wanted to visit China or Iran."
She left them alone.
Rene fell back into bed, stared at the stucco relief
on the ceiling, and groaned. "Is it really as bad as all
that?" she asked. "I still don't understand what I did
"Then go in and talk to this guy," Nigel suggested.
"I mean, the software's gone, the engine's gone. What can
they do? What's the worst that could happen?"
She took a deep breath, and Nigel watched her eyes
drift away and see it: the worst that could happen.
"Rene?" He put a hand on her thigh.
Her brow curled up and she suddenly looked ready to
cry. "They could ask me to build another one," she said.
He lay down beside her, propped his head up on his
crooked arm, and moved his hand up to her belly. "Why is
that so scary?"
She turned to him, hurt. "If I wanted to build
engines, I wouldn't have married you, Nigel. I only built
this one so you'd come home and love me."
She said it with such simplicity, such honesty, that
it shocked him, and he felt a lump of emotion choking in
his throat. "For me?"
She looked around as if there might be something else.
"Of course! What do you think? Do you think I did this
for Duval? Or for Ben? Or because I wanted to direct my
own movies?" She rolled over and took his hand, kissed it,
stroked his soft beard. "No. I did this for you. Because
I love you."
He smiled, overcome, and put his own hand on her
cheek, his thumb softly stroking her. "Rene...Love only
triumphs in the movies."
She grinned playfully and batted her eyes. "At least
we'll always have Paris."
He nodded, and thought, Or Paris will always have us.
Rene bought a new gray suit with a long dress,
matching stockings, and new pumps. Nigel waited in the
Embassy lobby while she went up to a private office to
speak with Envoy Windham.
She had called Duval, and he had concurred with
Corinne. "See him," he said. "Tell him what you want.
The government's reimbursed me already. You've got your
marriage to think about. Nigel is the best thing that's
ever happened to you, Rene. No computer is worth risking
him over, now go talk to his damned Embassy."
Upstairs, they met in a conference room lined with
bookshelves filled with unopened leather-bound books from
The Franklin Mint; they seemed to have the whole
collection. There was a large table, surrounded by padded
steel chairs, and the soft drone of air conditioning and
After offering Rene coffee, water, and soda, the Envoy
sat down across from her, just the two of them, and opened
a flip-top computer. In silence, he read something on the
screen, hidden from her view. He nodded, glanced up at her
once or twice, and continued to scroll through the hidden
text. She realized it was probably a bluff.
"You worked with the late Professor Kellogg at MIT,
didn't you?" he asked at length.
"That's right," she answered quickly, already full of
coffee and acetylcholine. "That's where I learned how to
make carbon-based processors. He's the one who taught me
how to make q-bits with four positions."
"And who taught you to program software?"
"They were foundation classes at MIT."
Windham tapped a key on his computer, then turned the
machine around to show her a full-screen press photograph
of Frank Burelli, from Silicon Graphics. "Have you ever
met this man?"
"Sure," she answered. "Burelli. I met him at Silicon
Graphics. He was the first one I showed the engine to."
"Did you show him the software?"
Windham smiled and took his computer back. "I'll ask
the questions, Dr. Sozia." He tapped another key and
consulted the unseen screen for his next move.
"Did he tell you," Windham asked her in a slow,
deliberate, educated diction, "that quaternary bits were
"Yes, he did."
"And you used them anyway. Why?"
"Because they were the ones that worked," she
answered. "Why? What's so special about quaternary bits?
What's the big deal?"
Windham closed his computer and leaned back, smiling
casually. "There's no big deal," he said. "That's all I
wanted to know." He stood up and offered his hand. "Thank
you for your time, Dr. Sozia. You're free to go."
She stood quickly, shook his hand, and headed for the
door without another word.
Just as she turned the handle, he said, "Oh, there's
one more thing. I would ask you not to mention the nature
of your character generating software."
She stayed at the door, her hand on the knob, her back
to him. "You want me to lie?"
"I just want you to keep your word." His voice was
smooth. He was making a polite suggestion. "You signed a
statement of non-disclosure last month on this topic. All
I'm asking is that you respect it."
She thought of Nigel and said, "Alright."
He held her hand and she held her breath while they
waited in line at LAX customs, in a subterranean cavern
with no windows and no green plants, with rage red columns
and panic orange carpeting.
The Customs Agent at the desk glanced at their
passports, stamped Rene's blue EU book, and asked if her
stay was for business or pleasure. She said, "Most
When Nigel and Rene cleared customs at LAX, Masada and
Ben Goldstein were there to meet them, at the head of a
gigantic crowd of press and fans. The USC Marching Band
had set up in the terminal, and as soon as Rene and Nigel
appeared, they broke into a rah-rah version of "Hooray For
Maria drove Ben, Masada, Nigel and Rene back to
Nigel's house in a large rented SUV. Ben could not contain
his excitement. "You should have been there," he told
Nigel. "The entire board was there, and guys from the
banks, the insurance companies, a rep from SAG. They were
laughing, gasping, crying, and cheering."
"They liked it?" Rene asked, herself astonished at the
news. "They actually liked it?"
"Are you kidding? They're talking Oscars!" He poked
Nigel on the shoulder. "They think you're a genius."
Nigel nodded to Rene. "She's the one who did it."
Ben was already weeks ahead of them. "We've got to
hit the press." He leaned over in front of Nigel. "Rene,
how would you feel about doing some interviews?"
"I don't know..." She stared out the window,
overwhelmed at the reception.
Masada turned around from the front seat and calmed
her husband with a smooth tone. "We have to figure out
what Rene did on this movie first, Ben." To Rene, she
explained, "Were you the editor? The cinematographer? The
Rene took a deep breath and said, "Nigel and I talked
it over on the flight, and we think I should be listed as
'rendering control' and 'character programming.' Then
there's no director, no editor, no lighting or sound, no
cameramen, and no cinematography."
Ben shook his head. "We don't want to sell this as an
animated film," he said. "The studio's meeting right now
in Palm Springs to decide how to handle the actors. CAA is
threatening to sue for defamation and breach of contract if
the studio releases your cut. They say we had no right to
recreate their clients without their permission, and we're
going to argue that the nature of the enterprise gave us
the right to manipulate their images in any way that would
serve the goal of completing this movie."
Nigel grinned. "And you want that."
Ben leaned back and let out a huge, satisfied sigh.
"There are lawyers in this town who have waited their
entire lives for this case."
Sherry Potter was one of those lawyers. She knew
copyright law and identity theft inside out, wrote a prize-
winning thesis at Stanford on the subject of public
ownership of celebrity personas in the field of satire.
She taught entertainment law at UCLA while she waited for
the right case to surface.
Rene didn't like being a pawn in Sherry's game, and
Sherry clearly did not appreciate having pawns with their
own ideas and agendas. She showed up expecting to handle
things like a malpractice suit, where she could pick the
clothes and rehearse a courtroom performance and play for
the cameras on Court TV.
Sherry was already on retainer at the studio, and took
charge of constructing a defense even before they called
her in. First, she read the production contracts to ensure
that the riders she had written years ago for exactly this
sort of issue were signed and in full force. Then she
drove out to Nigel's mansion to speak with him and his
"I'm confident we can win this," she began, seated in
an easy chair across the coffee table from Rene and Nigel,
who sat side-by-side and held hands. "I think it's very
clear that you acted in good faith throughout this
production. All I'm going to need is a little bit of
documentation from the rendering process you used." She
held out her fingers, making an empty box. "What I want
you to show the jury is that you made an effort while you
were rending this film to make your virtual sprites act
like the actors they were based on."
Rene had agreed to let Nigel answer for her, since she
thought the whole thing was a silly waste of time. He took
a hesitant breath and reluctantly told Sherry, "That's not
what we did. We tried to make them like the characters.
The only part of their performances we used was the voices
and physical appearances."
Sherry held up a hand; she didn't want to hear it.
"No. That's not what I want to hear, and that's not what
you're going to say for the deposition."
"What's the difference?" Rene groaned.
"The difference," Sherry explained sharply, in a
condescending voice, "is the difference between building
virtual stunt performers to step in for your talent in one
or two places and building virtual characters from their
appearance to perform in their place. Either you're using
an actor or you're not. Either you respected the union or
you ducked it." She went on quickly, back to Nigel, "So
what I want to see is how you went about choosing the
characters' reactions, and what efforts you made to involve
your actors or directors in the process."
Nigel turned to Rene and held up a hand. She said,
"I'm going to get a beer. You want one, Sherry?"
"Maybe later -- we're not done here, Dr. Sozia."
Nigel leaned in to Sherry and shook his head. "I'm
just realizing that we're going to have to settle."
Sherry watched Rene stroll off into the kitchen. She
wasn't sure she had heard Nigel correctly. "That word,"
she said with disgust, "is not in my vocabulary."
Nigel nodded, the ball circling the hole and finally
dropping in. "Yeah. We can't take this to court."
Sherry was shocked, her eyes bulged. "No. No, no,
no. What the hell are you talking about? We can win this,
Nigel. We can not only get your movie out," she assured
him, then called off to the kitchen, "we can get you your
"I don't want it back," Rene responded.
"It sounds like this case is going to hinge on the
nature of the rendering process," Nigel explained.
"That's right," Sherry told him.
"We can't discuss the software."
The studio attorney was baffled. "What...Why not?"
Rene returned with a bottle of beer and sat back down
beside Nigel while he looked positively embarrassed. He
muttered a response to Sherry, and Sherry leaned in
quickly, snapped at him, "What? What was that?"
Nigel looked at Rene, then back to Sherry, and she saw
that the words pained him. He spat them out like a bitter
pill coming back up wrapped in bile. "I said, 'National
Sherry leaned back, trumped, and astonished that Nigel
could be suggesting rolling over and giving up on something
that the studio was ready to go to the mattresses for.
"There has to be a way," she said. "Who is it, exactly,
that needs this kept quiet?"
"It doesn't matter," Nigel said.
"No, it does," Sherry insisted. "These two fucks and
their agency are bringing a suit that we can't defend for
national security reasons. There must be somebody who can
come in and convince them to drop their case. Why should
we roll over? Why should it be our loss? I mean, why
can't that be our entire defense?"
"If we settle," Nigel says, "will they let us release
"They're asking for their entire salaries," Sherry
reminded him through gritted teeth, "plus the twenty
million for breach of contract, plus unspecified damages
for emotional and professional trauma, plus all the credits
and points as if they had finished the fucking film
Nigel drew a deep breath, the smile gone from his
face. "Get me a figure."
"The studio has already spent almost half a billion
dollars on this thing!" She stood up, leaned over, jabbed
her chest with her index finger, drumming the message home.
"I'm the only one they're paying now."
Nigel leaned in and roared at her, sudden and
ferocious. "Then quit fucking around with us and go get a
settlement figure! I'll pay it myself if I have to! But
we are not going to court!"
Sherry clenched her jaw and stared down at her notes,
her briefs, her assembled armor of precedent. "You don't
seem to appreciate what we have here, Nigel. This is a
chance to make a legal precedent that will revolutionize
not just Hollywood but the entire human condition!"
"Forget it. We're not your Scopes."
Duval called that evening for Rene. "They're
releasing the engine," he said. "The SIS has cleared it,
and that means you and I need to sit down and talk about me
buying the designs from you."
Rene knew the exact figure because Sherry Potter had
called it in that afternoon. "I need ninety-two million
dollars," she said, "American."
He only paused for a heartbeat. "Deal."
Masada leaned back in the pasteurized volcanic mud and
let it swallow her body whole. She sighed with a shudder
of ecstasy and smiled. "I love that." Rene nodded, her
eyes closed, her hair wrapped up in a white terrycloth
towel, the deep black mud locking her into a moisture
shell. Masada confessed, "I don't know if it does a damned
thing for my skin, but it feels so good, I just don't
Last night, they were at the world premier of "The
Dark Ages." Last night, Rene had stood by Nigel's side and
felt the spotlight shift from him to her. She had never
looked so good, in a long gray dress and a silk shawl, an
outfit that one trendspotter called "Nun Goes to After
Hours." Another said she looked like an oracle. She kept
one hand in Nigel's while she denied that her engine was
able to render photo realistic animation in real time.
Nigel refused comment on the settlement with CAA. He
smiled and said everybody on the production gave 110%, and
the proof was up there on the screen.
At eleven o'clock, Nigel and Rene were the center of
the Hollywood universe. They were toasted from Malibu to
Everywhere they went they were followed by discrete
ads, bathroom postcards, complementary coasters, a limited
marketing campaign run by a local PR house for Automated
Solutions of Europe, toting a machine called a "Suzie-Q,"
claiming it single-handedly ended The Dark Ages and was
"now available in Europe to bring state-of-the-art
rendering support to the visualization industry."
In the morning, after it all ended, sinking in
medicated mud, Rene let the evening drift away. She took a
deep breath and let it out deliberately. "This is nice."
The roar of a distant waterfall filled the mud bath
rooms, the only sound except for the soft footfalls of the
Chinese staff, exiles from the Revolution.
"My sister loves to go to spas," Rene mentioned idly.
Moments passed. Masada responded, "Mm." They settled
into the mud. "You don't get along with your sister, do
"Let her be happy," Rene sighed. "Let her be far
Again, they relaxed until they could hear the water
gurgling up into stone pools on hidden pumps buried deep in
a reconstructed Sequoia grove.
"Ben's the same way with his brother," Masada said as
a Chinese girl arrived with two unopened bottles of water
from Maine. "Their father was killed during the Second
Intifada. Ben's brother stayed in Israel and now he works
with a Christian peace team trying to reconcile with the
"You don't think you should reconcile?" Rene asked at
length, the words forming in her stomach, but taking the
time to rise through the thick mud into her throat.
Masada opened one eye and glanced around to see that
the room was clear. "The Palestinians don't need
reconciliation. They need a final solution."
After another few minutes, Masada sighed. "I wish I
hadn't said that."
Rene turned to her new friend, cracked an eye open.
"I wish you hadn't meant it."
Masada began to cry. Rene grew alarmed, unsure of
whether there was anything worth crying about. "I'm
sorry," Masada sobbed. "It's this country. There's some
kind of curse on it that will protect what you love if you
become what you hate. There's a violence in the soil that
gets under your skin, and builds up in your fat over
Rene pushed the mud off and turned over to look Masada
in the face. "You come from Israel," she said, amazed,
"and you think American soil is bloody? Let me tell you
something. I come from Europe, where the ghosts are
stacked so deep that we burn them for fuel in the winter.
This is a good country, full of people who clap their hands
and light up the world, saying, 'The only thing we have to
fear is fear itself.' And they shake their hips when they
dance, and they say, 'That's one small step for man, one
giant leap for mankind.' They think that simply coming to
believe in God is a miraculous act that proves God exists,
and they chose to do it not because it is easy, but because
it is hard."
Masada, amazed, smiled as she reached up out of the
mud, grabbed a clean white face towel, and wiped the tears
from her eyes. "You are the very last person I ever
expected to stand up for America," she confessed. "You're
a closet patriot."
"I'm not a patriot," Rene insisted. "I'm just an
In another hour, the two of them were showered clean,
scrubbed with bark, and naked in a steam room with a fresh
pair of alcoholic smoothies. The door opened and young
Simone Denison joined them, a pleasant young starlet who
had played the romantic lead in Nigel's "Killing Machines"
"Masada Goldstein," she greeted, "I thought that was
"Simone," Masada said, recognizing her with a nod and
a sip of her drink.
Simone sat down on the wooden bench across from them
and removed her towel. Masada inspected her bikini line
closely. Rene leaned back and closed her eyes, expecting
them to talk shop, and not wanting to hold them up.
Simone opened a bottle of water and drank lazily.
Masada rolled her head on her shoulders languidly.
"So, Simone...how's the soul trade?"
"Nothing yet," Simone responded with a smile.
"Simone here," Masada explained to Rene, "wants to be
Hollywood's first virtual actress. She wants to be the
first to have her brain scanned in along with her body."
"Never be late for a shoot again," Simone laughed
softly. "Never grow old, never die, leave your body and
become an AI."
"It's impossible," Rene assured her.
"That's what they tell me," Simone sighed. "They say
the machines that simulate human thought run too fast to
link to the human brain. Something called 'The Chi Gap.'
They say the only people who are going to be able to cross
the gap are people who have naturally faster chi, like
telepaths and precogs."
"Nonsense," Masada responded lazily. "That's just
Chinese propaganda. There's no such thing as a telepath."
"Still," Simone insisted, sipping her water and
capping the bottle, "if a person could sell her soul to a
studio, I wonder how much she'd get."
"Probably not much," Masada offered, "or it wouldn't
be a very cost-effective system. No, Simone. If there's
one thing I've learned in Hollywood it's that The Soul
Trade is mostly a buyer's market."
Rene made an appointment with a fertility specialist
at the UC Medical Center in San Francisco. They wanted a
boy, and the only sure way was to try in vitro
fertilization, and wait for the slots to come up X-Y.
In San Francisco, Rene and Nigel met a Sikh doctor
with a name they couldn't pronounce, who went by the
nickname "Josh." Dr. Josh removed ten of Rene's eggs and a
load of Nigel's sperm, and sent them back to the hotel to
That night, she felt well enough to go see a protest
rally against American support for Uganda's war in the
Congo. A folk singer sang, puppeteers performed a clown
show, and then a hardcore punk band played and a riot
erupted. Nigel and Rene sat on a bench and ate iced cream
and watched anarchy and order clash in front of San
Francisco City Hall.
"While I was in Russia," Nigel told her, not taking
his eyes off the action, speaking loud enough to be heard
over the incoherent rantings of the punk band's chubby,
tattooed singer. "There was this morning where we were
shooting a winter fight scene. It was a beautiful day, the
most beautiful winter day you could ever want, with crisp
white crystals on every branch, a clear blue sky, a blazing
She licked her cotton candy ice cream and watched two
riot police throw a black kid in a leather jacket on his
stomach, cuff him, and toss him into a paddy wagon.
Nigel went on. "We had the blue army of the Duke of
Bavaria over the hill, and the red Milanese cavalry, and
the violet Papal Guard down below -- about two thousand
extras all together, in armor, with weapons and everything
-- and somebody gave the wrong order, and the charge
started early, and suddenly, all I could hear on the
walkie-talkies was the steady sound of panic in seven
different languages. So I call Jenna Iverson, the unit
director, and I tell her I want to stop and reset before it
cost us another day's shooting."
Rene nodded while Nigel licked the melt from his ice
"She said she could call cut, but, she said, 'Look at
them.' And when I looked out and saw these three
artificial armies about to clash, having waited for weeks
for a break in the weather, all I could think was:
'beautiful.' The colors. The field. The scope. The
enormity and beauty of the project, the depth and breadth
of commitment from every one of the little tiny players
down there on the field of battle. She asked if I could
put a price tag on something like that. And even though I
knew there was a dollar amount at stake, a very specific
number, it didn't seem to be related anymore. They had
already met on the field, and the dance was commenced. I
said, 'Let it roll.' And I watched and everything melted
away. There was no money, no movie, no cameras, no plot,
"It was a perfect moment. I was in The Now.
Everything I saw was art, all of the sound was music, the
smells were herbs or incense, the feel of my clothing was a
sensual massage, and all the movement, the chaos of colors
and expressions was an orchestrated ballet. And there was
no wrong, no right, no meaning or context. It was so clear
to me that the universe was one great work of art, and our
purpose in life is to either become it, critique it, or
admire it, as an aesthetic."
"So what do you call this philosophy?" Rene asked as
she covered her nose with a wet napkin while wisps of a
cloud of tear gas blew over them.
He said, "I think I'll call it 'Nowism.'"
She said, "I think I'm a Nowist."
"I know you are, but what am I?"
They finished their ice cream and watched the police
haul in two paddy wagons' worth of rioters. They stayed
until the band got unplugged and the rest of the crowd
wandered away in a daze.
The next day, Dr. Josh reported that he had made nine
zygotes, and each was a female. He recommended that they
take the remaining samples over to Berkeley and have the Y-
chromosome inserted manually. Rene agreed, but not before
she watched the remaining nine dishes washed with alcohol,
the zygotes destroyed.
They rode BART across the bay and took an electric bus
up Telegraph Avenue to find the off-campus offices of UC
Berkeley's Advanced Genetics Lab, a satellite of the UC
Davis School of Agriculture. It was housed in a square
building designed as a model of Zero Waste architecture.
Inside, Dr. Josh introduced them to Ivana, a short,
fat Russian crone with a hairy mole on her neck and a
brand-new smile of straight, white teeth. "It is very
easy," she assured Rene and Nigel. "Not exactly legal, but
not illegal yet." She confided secretively, "Before here,
I used to have a black market lab in the Yucatan. I
performed this procedure successfully over a hundred times,
no problem." Ivana then offered to make any other desired
alterations to the zygote before reinsertion into Rene's
womb. "Eye color? Hair color?"
Rene declined. "Just the gender."
Nigel paused. "Is there an 'addict' gene?"
Ivana shook her head. "No. And no homosexual gene,
They were on the last bullet train back to Los Angeles
that night, with four stitches over her womb and a male
zygote safely embedded in the lining of her uterus. They
had the whole car to themselves; the only other passengers
appeared to be migrant workers who napped in the first car,
and a pack of party kids on their way to a rave at a
waterslide park in Ventura.
They sat across from each other, her feet on his lap,
drank bottled water and ate deli sandwiches from an organic
fast food chain at the metro station in San Jose. She
stared out the window at the stray cars on I-5, the open
fields of broccoli, artichokes, lettuce, carrots, and
brussel sprouts. Hothouses and self-contained aquaculture
farms growing tilapia, trout, catfish, and salmon. It was
a good world, she thought.
She saw very clearly how he had arranged everything
just so, between the distraction at City Hall, the riding
through San Francisco on public transit, and now this
relaxed train ride, free of the pressures of flying and the
peculiar tyrannies of airport formality. Just riding
through the Central Valley on a magnetic cushion with all
the time and space in the world.
"Why did you want a son?" he asked.
"There's a reason. I just don't know what it is."
She continued to stare out the window, and she saw her pale
reflection on the dark glass like an eyeless apparition.
Full as she was, she still saw a ghost when she looked in
He put a hand on her knee. "Have you thought of a
"I'm open to suggestions."
"I'd like to suggest William. Except we make his
first name Will and his middle name Iam."
"Iam," she repeated. "I like it. It's honest."
"Then it's decided."
She stared out the window at California, and said,
"Let's run away."
He slept with his head in her lap.
Nine months later to the day, Rene delivered a healthy
son to the Lakota midwife in South Dakota. The entire
birth took less than two hours. Nigel came to see Rene and
their young son in the midwife's dark doublewide trailer.
She was fine; everything was normal, mother and son were
healthy, everything was a-ok. He smiled as he savored the
icing on the cake. She felt it and saw it in the twinkle
of his eyes.
"The Academy released its list of nominees," he told
her. "'The Dark Ages' was nominated for Best Picture,
Editing, Sound, Cinematography, Costumes, and Art
Direction. You and I are on the ballot as the editors of
record. That means you've been nominated for an Academy
Award. It means if you wanted to go to the Oscars, this is
the year to do it."
She looked down at her son, suckling at her swollen
breast, and asked Nigel, "Do I have to go?"
He sat beside her and shook his head, stroked her
hair, watched their son eat his first meal. "No, we don't
have to go."
She said, "If you want to go...I think it could be
He could not take his eyes from the soft pink head of
young Will Iam Shepherd, alive and wrapped in soft animal
hides. "You know, Rene, that is so far away from here."
She smiled. "It is," she agreed.
Ben Goldstein picked up the Oscar for Best Editing on
behalf of Rene and Nigel. "Rene and Nigel could not be
here tonight," he explained, "because they were tarred,
feathered, and run out of town on a rail for making this
movie. I'd like to thank the Academy for recognizing that
their work represents a clear revolution in the art and
science of motion pictures."
Sasha and Duval received a postcard from Montana six
months later. On the front, Nigel and Rene stood on a
granite crag in Yellowstone National Park, posed together,
barely smiling. He carried their young infant son in a
papoose against his chest; they both carried large frame
backpacks, with frying pans, hunting bows, and pump-action
shotguns strapped to the outside. He was dressed in denim;
she was dressed in a fresh, hand-sewn leather dress and
leather chaps, her hair braided in the First Nation style.
They looked as weathered and rugged and natural there as
the pine trees clinging to the state-protected soil. On
the back of the card, Nigel wrote, "Making good time,
considering flying to the Yucatan for winter, love Nigel."
Rene signed separately, and Sasha knew that she only signed
it under duress.
Another year went by, and Nigel sent Duval and Sasha a
postcard from a high Incan ruin, where the two of them
posed together; their young son was standing up
precariously now, and he looked at the camera with his
mother's wide brown eyes, wearing animal hides, his long
blonde hair tied into a ponytail. Rene wore the same skins
as before; Nigel now had his own matching set. Nigel
wrote, "We got side-tracked researching divine geometry in
Mexico and ended up here in Peru. Had some close calls
with the guerillas, but nothing we couldn't handle. Love,
Nigel." Again, Rene added her signature under protest, and
after that, the boy signed his name: "Iam."
Two more years went by before Sasha and Duval got
another postcard, this time from an artists' colony on an
island in British Columbia. The family posed together in
front of a giant sequoia tree. Iam was five now, and stood
like a little boy, his arms folded, his chin jut out, his
long hair matted up with mud and twigs. Nigel's beard was
turning white, and his belly had lost some of its girth.
He was back wearing denim. Rene wore a whole new leather
dress with new chaps over new hiking boots. She looked
like a dish that had been roasted to perfection. She
looked lean, muscular, and complete. Posed together, they
reminded Sasha of a Golden Bear, a mountain lioness, and a
wide-eyed raccoon. Nigel wrote on the back, "Women walk on
Mars! Is this end of the battle of the sexes?"
They were in a bar outside Vancouver when three
Russian women became the first human beings to set foot on
Mars. While there, these cosmonauts planned to repair
several survey bots, replace batteries, take pictures, and
collect soil samples. The bar on the artist's colony was
normally a buzz of poetry and classic rock music, but it
fell reverently quiet as the images of Irena Vuskovich
climbing out of the Russian landing pod arrived on Earth.
There was no delay because the Russians had found a way to
use quantum properties of twinned q-bits to send their
transmissions through subspace. On televisions around the
world, the cosmonaut brushed aside the deflated landing
balloons that had broken the pod's fall, and stepped down
the ladder towards Martian soil. She spoke in Russian, and
Rene, Nigel, and Iam heard the voice of an excited CBC
translator who had acted as Irena's voice for the past
"To boldly go...where no man...has gone before..."
And then she touched down. The tabloids that had run
a constant variation on the "Mars Needs Women" idea now
erupted in a collective cheer: "Mars Gets Women!" with a
sidebar headline, "Red Flow on the Red Planet," about the
cosmonauts' first Martian menstruation.
The night Irena Vuskovitch set foot on Mars, Rene had
a nightmare. This time, it was different. This time, she
dreamt she was in subspace, and she felt the nucleus of a
carbon atom ripped open, and a series of geometric shapes
form out of the hollow space within. She recognized the
shapes as they scanned through, faster and faster.
She awoke with a scream, Nigel's arms around her, cold
sweat pouring off her brow. She sat up at once in the two-
room cabin they had rented for the month.
"It happened again," Nigel deduced. He turned to the
door, where Iam rubbed his eyes, dressed in a long shirt.
"Iam, what's up, my man?"
"I had a bad dream," Iam said. "Dad, will you fix me
Rene pulled herself to her feet, dragged the bedsheet
off the bed and tied it over her shoulder. "I had a bad
dream, too," she said as she took Iam by the hand.
"Perhaps we should both have some milk."
She took him into the other room to get some milk from
their cold box.
Nigel could hear her in the other room, singing Iam a
soft lullaby they'd learned from a wandering folk singer
named Jed Boyar: "...So come and love me/ By the soft glow
of distant fire, it's/ Beautiful here in the DMZ, come on
and/ Kiss my lips under the wires/ You'll go these years,
then you'll want to learn romance/ Like an American, but in
the shadow of the tracks/ The treads turn, and you learn to
dance/ Like metal moving through the burning jungle/
Through the fields on fire, dance/ Like a man machine-
gunned, writhing in the razor wire/ Dance down a distant
dream/ Dance to feel your love for me/ Dance, 'cause
there's nothing left/ That you might want to see/ So dance,
honey/ Dance, honey/ Dance, honey/ Honey, we're so free..."
Rene returned shortly and cuddled close to him, then
reached into her bedside saddlebag and pulled out her small
PDA. Nigel watched her open it, watched her note the date
in a small text file with two other dates over the last
month. She closed it without a word and dropped the device
back into the leather sack.
"I need to talk to Dr. Watts-Smith again," Rene said.
"I thought she couldn't help you."
Rene took a deep breath. "The dreams I've had this
month were very different from the old one. We need to go
back to civilization."
Nigel was afraid to ask what it was she saw. He
didn't need to see her dreams; in the past month, he had
felt them, closer to him than at any time since she was
pregnant with Iam. Her thoughts piled to the front of her
mind and flashed out like a billboard along the freeway.
Iam noticed as well, and suckled at her psyche now,
drinking in the fear of her genius as he had drunk milk
from her breast.
To Nigel, Rene had always had a shield around her
mind, a discrete distance that precluded his displacing
anything from her. But when she was pregnant, when she had
Iam inside her, attached to her, joined to her, she seemed
to slow down, to step closer, and he was able to catch
glimpses, as if sensing deja vu, of the rigid geometry of
his wife's mind. Now he could feel it again, the wall
fizzing out like a short-circuited force field, and could
glimpse her mind again for fleeting seconds at a time when
he was buried deep in REM sleep. He could see the divine
geometry that drew her together, everything about her as
carefully proportioned as the Acropolis.
He nodded, his arms entwined around her. He kissed
the back of her head and noticed a gray hair in her black
mane. He said, "We should go back anyway. I think you're
She nodded. "I know."
They discarded most of their equipment somewhere along
Highway One, and she carried only a light pack full of
souvenirs as they walked across the Golden Gate Bridge hand
in hand, Iam riding proudly on his father's shoulders, his
long blonde hair whipping around his sharp young face in
the autumn breeze. The monstrous support beams of the red
suspension bridge amazed young Iam as they appeared one by
one from the dense morning fog on the bay. And then,
suddenly, there was land, and whipped cypress and pine, and
then a brightness in the air and suddenly, as if by magic,
the fog lifted once they reached Golden Gate Park and the
whole city of San Francisco appeared at once.
By noon, they had arrived at a two-room suite at a
five-star hotel on Union Square, each with a fresh change
of clothes in a boutique bag, each with a fresh fruit
smoothie and nothing to do.
Rene showered and changed first, into one of the sari
togas she had helped to popularize more than five years
before. The store had a sale on gray and teal with a
Pacific Northwest shark pattern along the trim; Rene
thought it was very San Francisco; the saleswoman said The
Sharks had won the Stanley Cup that year.
Rene went out to walk the streets alone while Nigel
and Iam showered and went up to the pool and spa for a swim
and a steam, and then out to Ghiradelli for some chocolate
and chow. Rene went window-shopping, looked at the
gadgets, strolled through Chinatown, passed a colorful
Chinese gate, and found herself at the UC Medical Center.
She went in, and asked for Dr. Josh.
The nurse behind the reception desk looked puzzled.
"That wasn't his real name," Rene explained. "He used
to do in vitro fertilizations here maybe five years ago?"
Another doctor came to her side and took Rene by the
arm away from the desk. He was younger, with short hair
and a long face, handsome but haggard, worried about his
dying parents, too much misery and suffering, cracking
under occupational hazards, and very much not interested in
women. All this she felt in his touch.
"Dr. Josh is dead," this man told her. "He died
almost five years ago when I was a resident here."
Rene blinked, curious. "How did he die?"
"He was found dead of a heart attack in a hotel room
"A heart attack?"
The doctor grinned bitterly and glanced over his
shoulder at the receptionist, then said in a low whisper,
"He was masturbating. They say he was --"
"Coming and going at the same time," they said
"Are you alright?" he asked her. He could see she was
upset; her eyes widened, her face paled. "I didn't mean
anything. I was just kidding."
She turned and bolted out.
The next morning, they took the first train to Los
Angeles, leaving at three-thirty to arrive in LA by six.
Even in the pre-dawn halflight, the fields were full of
migrant workers, harvesting everything from squash to
strawberries, some under tall portable floodlights.
"You know," Nigel said to Iam, glancing playfully at
Rene, as she carved another piece of dark chocolate from
their Ghiradelli brick, "you've been here before."
"Nuh-uh," Iam retorted, looking up from his math
tutorial program, playing on his mother's computer.
"The day you were conceived," Nigel told him. Your
mother and I wanted you and only you, so we made sure that
we got you by taking some of your mother and some of me out
of our bodies and putting them together under a microscope
and asking, 'Are you our son?' And you were the one who
said, 'I am!'"
"You're lying," Iam said, and looked to Rene. "Mom,
is that true?"
She nodded and looked to Nigel. She hadn't mentioned
Dr. Josh, and neither had he. She hadn't mentioned his
death, or her destination on her walk that afternoon, and
yet she had let them go back on this same train, back to
the same car, where college students and businessmen
relaxed with headphones and laptop computers.
"We did it in San Francisco," she nodded. "Berkeley,
actually. As soon as you were safe back inside me, your
dad and I rode this very train home to LA."
"I think I remember the house," Iam said. Rene
noticed to herself that he was neither accepting nor
refuting their claim anymore. She wondered if it was
because it came from her, or if he had just lost interest.
"You've never been there," Nigel assured him.
"You should get back to your lessons," Rene urged him.
"One day you will see just how much power there is in those
Maria met them at New Union Station in a large rented
SUV. Maria looked the same to Rene; older maybe, but with
the same hair, the same style.
"My god," Maria exclaimed as the three of them walked
off the train. "You guys have changed." She looked down
at Iam. "Hello."
Nigel introduced them. Maria drank a cup of coffee
and talked, fast and nervous. "Things have changed here,"
she said. "Ben and Masada want to see you right away."
She turned to Rene. "Your engine was declassified.
Everybody's got one; it made Duval a fortune."
"Relax, Maria," Nigel urged, putting a hand on her
shoulder as they pulled out of the parking lot. "We just
got here. Give us a day to get used to civilization."
She sighed and apologized. "So where to? You want to
go straight home?"
Nigel looked at Rene, and Rene looked at Nigel, and
they shared a delicious, knowing smile.
Iam hollered: "We're going to Disneyland!"
Deep in the heart of The Magic Kingdom, Rene asked Iam
how he found it, and Iam replied that he thought he was
being tortured. "Every fiber of my body tells me that this
place is an abomination, but I can't help enjoying myself."
"Welcome to the paradox that is America," she said.
The next morning, Rene was seated back in Dr. Janet
Watts-Smith's office. The blonde psychiatrist looked like
she had reached that age long ago, and hadn't aged since.
Rene showed her the dates of her new dreams, and told her
what they looked like.
She said, "Somebody is trying to break through into
subspace. What I felt was an atom being opened."
Dr. Watts-Smith nodded, considered, sipped her bottled
water and leaned back, drumming her fingers against their
counterparts. "You did the right thing," she said. "I'll
make sure this gets to the right people."
"Should I call you if I have another?"
Dr. Watts-Smith nodded. "Yes. Please. And while
you're here, I wonder if we might try those tests again?"
Rene nodded. "Yes. Please."
It took Nigel and Rene two weeks to organize a
homecoming party, enroll Iam in the private school that
Ben's son, Saul, had attended, and for Nigel to meet all of
the new faces that his production house had acquired under
Rene shaved her body bald from the neck down and
acquired a new closet filled with long, flowing dresses,
tight wraps and shawls, nylon stockings, and a new, more
subdued palate of cosmetics to give her a more matronly
Dr. Watts-Smith called back and told Rene that new
tests showed her solid in the sixties, which meant she was
seeing subspace events. "I'd like to ask somebody from the
Department of Homeland Security to speak with you about
these new dreams," she said. "I can't force you, but I
think that they're worthy of closer scrutiny." Then she
added, almost cryptically, "The sooner the better."
At night, Nigel and Rene had to confront the fact that
while they were hiding in the woods, the world had changed
dramatically. Their Green politicians were fading, and all
of their victories were coming under attack in far-flung
federal courts. Two of their staunchest supporters in the
Senate had been killed; one in a plane crash, the other
while on a skiing trip in Aspen. Others had been
discredited, hounded by IRS audits, and one was plagued by
the disappearance of an intern.
The other side had one answer for everything:
And they had good reason to be afraid. Horror stories
about mass executions, forced sterilization, genetic
engineering, the pursuit of an automatic womb, all of the
things that God-fearing Americans had organized to prevent
on American soil were all coming to fruition behind a Great
Wall of total secrecy, directed by the diabolical cabal
known to the world as The Gang of Twelve. At the center of
Christian America's Chinese nightmare was Dr. Xing Lao, a
perfect mad scientist in the Fu Manchu mold, with his long
whiskers and his obsession with a "technology of the
When faced with the threat of Red China, Green
politics didn't stand a chance.
They had to accept that things were about to change in
America. It was a new morning. "We're going to lose the
White House, aren't we?"
Nigel nodded. "For eight years, we've won on the
message that restoring our nation's health meant restoring
her natural environment. Now the swing comes back to the
right, where this man is promising to restore our nation's
pride by strengthening her armed forces."
"What will you do?"
"What I've always done," Nigel told her. "Gamble."
The four-picture development deal that Nigel had won
from the studio for Good Shepherd had already gone through
three mainstream hits, all of them rendered using the
Suzie-Q engine. There was "Hearts Over Spades," about a
widow and a widower falling in love at a retirement
community; there was "Sticking," about a young hockey
player battling alcoholism; and there was "Rapsport Manor,"
a light comedy spoof full of hip-hop stars, a take-off on
an English country house murder mystery whodunit with a
solid PG rating and an instant platinum soundtrack. The
three films together had cost ten million dollars to make,
and had already taken in eight hundred million worldwide.
Ben wanted their fourth picture to be a sequel to "Killing
Machines," with the same crew.
To that end, the studio set up a short junket for
Nigel and Rene, in which they discussed the state of the
environment, the sight of his young son growing up out of
doors, the fact that Rene had let herself get fuzzy in the
wilderness, and finally, that he was glad to be back in LA
and looked forward to shooting a sequel to "Killing
Machines." Rene told the story about inventing the Suzie-Q
to bring her husband home so many times that it began to
sound like "blah blah blah blah blah."
They did a photo shoot for Vanity Fair where she
dressed in a black evening gown and gray shawl while he
wore a tuxedo and a cloak made of a bison's hide; he held a
shotgun across his lap; she leaned on her long wooden
hunting spear, decorated with bear-claw tassels and
intricate relief carvings she had put there night after
night after cleaning the hunt from its steel. The
photographer instructed them not to smile, but to look
right at the camera and show it utter disdain. The title
of the article was "Return of the Outlaws."
Wired magazine did a separate photo shoot and article
with Rene, where she wore her hand-sewn leather tunic; it
was one sheet that hung on her shoulders and was tied
around her waist with an Army surplus utility belt which
also held her hunting knife. Her arms and legs were
covered in leather gloves and tall leather boots, strapped
around her long limbs, and for this shoot, she carried not
only her spear, but also her bow and a quiver of arrows
slung over her shoulder.
"TWENTY QUESTIONS FOR RENE SOZIA" (from the readers of
#1: Where have you been?
A: Hunting, fishing, camping, traveling up and down
the Rocky Mountains with my husband, watching my son grow
up into a little man.
#2: How old is your son now?
A: He's five.
#3: Who did you vote for in the last election?
A: I think I voted for Sikozu and, um, Karl Haimaki
for President, and I ticked the Green Party Line for the
rest...I'm not a U.S. citizen. I vote in Finland.
#3: Will you be making any more movies?
A: That's my husband's job, not mine.
#4: Will you be building another engine?
A: I hadn't planned on it, although I am pregnant
again, if that counts.
#5: Since "The Dark Ages," no other movie has been
rendered on a Suzie-Q in less than ten days. There is
speculation that this was thanks to the software that went
missing after the E.U. SIS seized the engine. Now that the
Suzie-Q is public, can you comment on the AI software you
wrote to run your engine? Was the software the key to
rendering a three-hour movie in just ten days?
A: Yes. Yes, it was.
#6: What was the last book you read?
A: Um...I haven't read any real books, unless I was
reading them to my son off my flip-top computer. Let's
see. I think the last book I actually read was called
Physical Chi, written by Dr. Xing Lao. Wow. That was a
long time ago.
#7: What's the worst thing you had to put up with
while you were camping outdoors?
A: The first time [my husband] Nigel cooked termite
and ant paella, I thought I would puke for sure. But after
a few winters in Montana, a person becomes willing to eat
all kinds of things.
#8: Do you believe in the phenomenon of fast Chi?
A: I'll believe anything so long as it's convenient.
#9: Is it true that you're related to Duval Coeur-
des-Anne [founder and CEO of French robot maker Automated
A: Yes. He's my brother-in-law, and a very distant
cousin. He put me through school; I sold him the Suzie-Q
as a kind of thank you.
#10: Is it true that you were institutionalized as a
child because you thought you were the goddess Athena?
A: Yes, Sasha. Tell the world, why don't you? My
Sasha stood behind Rene and fixed her hair while Rene
applied her own make-up. Downstairs, the guests were
arriving from around the world to welcome the prophets back
from the wilderness, and to hear the wisdom they had
encountered along the way. They came to see the oddity of
a boy raised in the wild, and to bask in the uncertain
heroism of a self-inflicted nomadism.
"You were right," Sasha said, "and I was wrong."
"Everything." She pulled a braid and wove it silently
for a moment. Then she confessed shyly, "I had nightmares
about you being swallowed whole by this mad nation, tangled
with ribbons of highway and discarded steel rails. I
thought you had been trampled by bison, or stuck in a
snowdrift; I imagined your husband and son eating you to
survive a cruel winter on Donner's Pass."
"Here I am," Rene answered softly.
In the mirror, she could see Sasha's cold
businesswoman facade wobble, prepared to crack. "Are you
Rene turned around, dropped her eyebrow pencil and
took Sasha by the hands. In Rene's grasp, Sasha could not
break free. "What do you mean?" she demanded.
The tone frightened Sasha. It was wild, untamed, the
roar of a new beast discovered in the blank interior of an
unexplored continent. She was not asking what the words
meant. She was asking what she herself meant, if there was
meaning in her life. It was an alien question, the kind of
naive query only a foreign consciousness would ask. For a
quick instant, she saw it inside her sister's head.
She broke to stale tears, and wept with a stunted sob
that had already run its course. She had mourned and
grieved, and then saved the last swallow to show Rene.
"We miscarried eight times," Sasha responded. "Duval
does not believe that I am human. He tells his friends
that I am a practical joke dropped here by aliens, and
somebody up there is laughing."
Rene nodded. "I'm sorry."
She stood and pulled Sasha into her arms, and Sasha
felt the strangeness in Rene's weathered skin, in the new
power of her arms, the flimsy gelatin of her sagging
breasts, and on top of that, an alien mind behind that
unbreakable wall, something that was not her sister.
Something that man had put inside her, something that had
homesteaded that body and made it its home.
She held Rene's body and wept.
Out on the sandy back yard, the guests sat at cream
clothed tables, drank wine and stood in small chatty groups
around the catered buffet. The smell of citrus fruits
permeated the autumn evening. Duval sat with Mani and
Wooshi Dhanpat, brother filmmakers from Bangalore and the
directors of the first "Killing Machines." Mani insisted
that Duval should be able to tell which of the Napa and
Sonoma wines were from genetically modified crops, and
which were not, but neither Duval nor any of Nigel's other
guests could separate one from the other.
Inside the living room, Nigel had Iam on his shoulders
as he went through a book of robot blueprints Duval had
brought. A scruffy designer from Good Shepherd, Jason
Minh, flipped the pages and pointed to a robotic dog. "We
used that one in 'Space Invaders' last year," he told
Nigel. "We've got most of these on file already."
"We'll be building from scratch again," Nigel
insisted. "Minimal CGI."
In front of the television, a few other designers were
munching on taboulli and pita bread and watching Senate
hearings on C-SPAN. A balding Dr. Baumer from NASA was
explaining the cancellation of a manned mission to Jupiter
to a Senate panel. He insisted, "cabin fever makes a
manned mission far more dangerous than we had initially
thought. Based on our work with the Russians, and based on
their experiences going to Mars, it's just psychologically
not feasible. We are biologically ill-equipped to make
such a voyage."
Nigel found himself sucked into the proceedings. Iam,
on his shoulders, shushed somebody nearby so they could
On the television, an old crone from Georgia asked
NASA's Dr. Baumer what he would need to see, and he
replied, "One of two things. Either we build a machine
that can regulate the behavior of our astronauts during
extended space travel, or we build an engine that can get
us there in less than thirty days."
Nigel turned from the TV as Rene and Sasha descended
the stairs together. Nigel went to Rene and kissed her
cheek, then bowed and let Iam do the same. "You look
beautiful," he told her.
Sasha followed her down, and moved immediately out to
the lawn to find Duval. She looked at Iam and he looked at
her, and he knew they had something to discuss. Iam and
Sasha locked eyes and made a silent pact to speak together
Out in the back yard, the fruiting trees behind him,
Nigel stood on a chair and addressed his guests. "About
eight years ago," he began, gesturing at Mani and Wooshi
Dhanpat, "I met these two Hindi brothers in Bangalore and
they told me of their simple dream: to build gigantic
robots and film them destroying each other."
The crowd laughed, tipsy with the wine.
Nigel gestured out to Duval. "I introduced them to
Duval Couer-des-Anne and together we made a little picture
called 'Killing Machines.'"
The crowd applauded politely. Iam kept his eyes on
Sasha, and she kept her eyes on him.
"Today," Nigel continued, "we are officially a green
light for 'KM2.'" He held up his hands to quiet the
raucous cheers. "But I have more to celebrate." He took
Rene's hand and smiled fondly at her. "I'll just come
right out and say it. Rene is pregnant again." The crowd
cooed with congratulations. Rene did her best not to
wither in the spotlight. Nigel kissed her cheek and turned
back to the crowd. "So stay, enjoy the wine, bask in the
glow of our virile fecundity. Tomorrow, we go into
By midnight, most of the guests had wandered off,
leaving Maria to oversee the breakdown of the catering.
Duval and Sasha remained with Mani and Wooshi, at a table
on the slate deck, while Rene and Nigel danced slowly
nearby. The music played a slow, smoky swing number, and a
raspy torchlight diva sang, "There may be trouble ahead.
But while there's moonlight and music and love and
romance...Let's face the music and dance..."
Rene buried her head on Nigel's shoulder, faced the
music and danced.
The phone rang in the house and Nigel cracked one eye
open. He watched Maria leave the caterers to answer it.
She appeared a moment later, and Nigel knew from the look
on her face exactly who it was that was calling. Rene
rubbed her cheek on his shoulder to keep him with her, but
the tension of expectation had already crept up his arms.
He was letting her go.
Maria stopped and held out the wireless telephone.
"Jillian Saint-Ross calling."
Nigel nodded and broke from Rene. "I'll take it
"No," Maria said, sharply.
She held the phone out to Rene. "For you."
Two hours later, the helicopter landed at Los Alamos
and Rene stepped out, her elegant party gown covered in a
long green Army parka. She looked around and found Jillian
waiting for her by a low bunker, and joined her.
"Thank you for coming," Jillian shouted above the roar
of the chopper turbines. She gestured to a small electric
cart driven by a U.S. Marine in field camouflage.
In a moment, they were underground, zipping through
long maintenance tunnels, past a few scientists in white
lab coats, escorted by Army MPs. Jillian didn't say
anything until they arrived finally at a small loading bay
filled with shipping crates and long steel storage
"This way," she said.
Rene followed her into a conference room with a small
spread of pastries and a plastic coffee service. Jillian
served herself and offered Rene a cup; she declined.
"What am I doing here?" Rene asked.
Jillian sat down and stirred white creamer into her
coffee. "You know we built the very first quantum computer
here at Los Alamos almost ten years ago," she began. "It
was supposed to act as a 'subspace observatory.' It was
supposed to be able to look in on quantum phenomena and
finally give us answers to these nagging questions about
parallel universes, subspace foam, wormholes, time travel,
and so on."
"The stuff that dreams are made of," Rene nodded. "I
Jillian frowned and sipped her coffee. "Didn't do
anything," she continued. "Just sat there, spinning like
an empty room. An observatory without an observer. A
waste of a good twenty million dollars."
Jillian took another sip of coffee and went on with
her story. "In short, it needed software. And then along
came Physical Chi, and suddenly the sun was shining again
on the field of quantum computing." Jillian smiled. "You,
Rene, have one great feature in common with the inventor of
the first computer. Both you and Babbage have designed
engines too sophisticated for the contemporary technology.
But did you know that the first programmer of Babbage's
engine was a woman? As was the first programmer of the
American Mark I?"
Rene shifted, suddenly uncomfortable. She pulled the
Army parka around her shoulders and wished she were back in
Nigel's arms. "I want to go home."
Jillian held up her hand. "The Chinese think they've
found a program that will create a subspace avatar for
their new engine." She reached into her jacket pocket and
pulled out a small black cylinder, out of which she pulled
a thin, clear computer screen. It activated immediately as
she laid it flat on the table between them and opened a
On the file were Rene's own notes, her work with Lao's
thought-shapes, the folding them into choices, and the
choices into desires. At the end of a sequence of four
pages was her cube and tetrahedron, and the schematic of a
carbon-56 isotope with a computer-rendered hydrogen atom
inserted into the nucleus.
Rene's eyes widened in horror. "Where did you get
"Do you recognize it?"
Rene nodded and confirmed, and as she looked at the
shapes, she was back in Hamburg, trapped in that tiny
apartment, wrestling with the shape of an inconceivable
space, exorcising the geometry from her dreams as if
vomiting a toxic meal.
When she saw those shapes again on Jillian's roller
screen monitor, there in a basement corner of the National
Laboratory in the top secret Arizona desert, it was like
the last eight years had not happened at all. It was like
her life with Nigel had been nothing but the wisp of dream.
As she stared down at her past, she could barely remember
what Nigel looked like.
And the worst was the end, the shape of the isotope,
the placement of one hydrogen atom inside, as she had
randomly scribbled, now so sharply rendered that it was
digitally carved in stone.
Rene licked her dry lips with a parched tongue and
swallowed with difficulty. She looked up at Jillian, who
was observing her reaction coolly, detached, interested.
"Where did these come from?" Rene asked.
"From China," Jillian replied, "and at great cost."
She kept her eyes on Rene, every move from here out
carefully considered, every word precisely chosen. "Do you
Rene nodded and pointed. "This was my unpublished
Rene swallowed again and pointed to the cube and the
tetrahedron. "I thought that if these shapes could be
produced inside the engine, that the engine itself -- the
'empty room' part of your engine -- would come to be, as a
being there, and exist as a phenomenal sentience."
She looked up from the shapes and into Jillian's
bright hazel eyes, glued as they were on her, and Rene did
not like feeling observed.
She explained, "It's actually kind of funny. I was
working with Fuller's old engine, when I got this kind of
brainstorm to put a hydrogen center in it. It was a half-
baked idea I planned to clean up later, but I got married
and everything and never got back to it, and I guess
somebody showed it to somebody else, and it got back to
China, and you can see how it's kind of funny."
"You don't think it can be done," Jillian inferred.
Rene swallowed. She wanted out. It was a trick, a
trap, a steel jaw around her leg. She was ready to gnaw
away the part that got caught. "I was told it was
Jillian then smiled softly. "You should know better,
Dr. Sozia. In subspace, nothing is impossible...only very,
Rene stood, paced, considered, then turned around to
Jillian and asked her, "Does this dress make my ass look
Jillian smiled. "The dress has got nothing to do with
Rene sat alone in the back of an U.S. Air Force
helicopter, joined by two Army MPs who said nothing the
entire trip. She huddled into the thick Army parka and
felt very self-conscious as she crossed her legs, and saw
one of the MPs looking at the hint of her garter belt where
her dress slit away from the top of her thigh. Rene
shifted, tried to ignore them, the eyes on her, observing
the intimacy of her private life in a slip of lingerie.
She focused on the sheet screen on her lap, and stared
at the last panel from the Chinese design, the carbon-56
engine and the hydrogen atom inside it, and she could not
come to believe that Lao had designed it by himself. Sasha
was the only one who had seen her draw it in; Rene had told
no one else, not even Nigel.
Rene realized that Sasha had given the design to
August de Winter, and he had given it to Dr. Lao. It was
the only answer. In exchange, Lao had persuaded Sheng and
the rest of The Gang of Twelve to open their coffers to
European contracts, including heavy farm equipment and
aerospace robots from Automated Solutions.
She remembered seeing a political cartoon one Sunday
morning when she and Nigel went out to an organic cafe and
sat on overstuffed couches and read the Sunday LA Times
cover to cover while drinking mimosas with fresh-squeezed
orange juice and eating buckwheat pancakes with strawberry
preserves. She had seen a cartoon showing a European
Minister standing in front of a Chinese general while he
shoots dissidents in the back; the EU minister tells a
little guy with the UN Seal for a head, "See? Zero Waste!"
And in the corner of the cartoon box, a little shmoo adds,
"You should see their recycling program!"
The chopper landed at a flat airfield with a distant
bunker in a region of the Eastern Rockies that Rene
recognized. She pointed idly to a stream at the edge of
the fenceline and told the MPs, "I've been here before. I
camped right over there. There didn't used to be a fence."
One said, "Yes, ma'am," while the other gestured out
the door to an unmarked black Hummer. An armored driver in
an unmarked black uniform opened the back door for her and
waited at attention until she was safely in the bulletproof
It was a short drive down a wide highway as dawn broke
around the Rockies. Up a winding old logging road, and
finally to a large plaza, a traffic circle, and a covered
portico extending out from a tall glass facade attached to
the blasted front of a granite mountainside. On a grassy
knoll built into the plaza was a large blue sign that
welcomed Rene to "IBM Special Projects," and another that
cautioned, "Restricted Area," and another: "Authorized
Dr. Baumer was waiting for her, with his young
assistant, Jason, an all-too-eager boy scout who thought
far too much of their boss. Baumer was not happy to see
Rene, and was not happy to be there in South Dakota. NASA
had been screwed by the CIA, and Jillian Saint-Ross was the
reason. He had heard the same rumors that everybody else
had, that Irena and the other women cosmonauts on the Mars
mission were telepaths, and had come back with a fused
consciousness. He had heard that the CIA had telepathic
resources, maybe even among its own officers. They were
too precious to Mrs. Jillian Saint-Ross to be shared with
Despite his entrenched feelings, Baumer was surprised
at Rene Sozia; she was not what he was expecting. He had
heard the name, he had read her work, and he had even seen
an old picture of her teaching at the Max Planck Institute.
But he did not picture the woman who stepped out of the
black Hummer, wearing a thick Army parka over an elegant
evening gown, with dark stockings and Rodeo Drive shoes.
She was gorgeous. Beauty radiated from her every cell.
Every hair and line fell just right. Baumer hated her for
it, and hated her even worse for the immediate feeling he
got that Rene was a line drawn from the past to the future,
and this was his only intersection with it. She was headed
for infamy, and he was headed for obscurity.
She walked across the wide plaza on her high heels and
suddenly stumbled and tripped and fell flat on her face.
Her paramilitary driver helped her to her feet while she
brushed herself off, more embarrassed than hurt.
Baumer snorted with contempt. "Behold: the prophet
"Who is she?" Jason asked, even more smitten with her
after the fall.
"Some CIA expert," Baumer replied. He grinned to
himself, thinking that this would all change in a month and
a half, after the elections, after subspace was reassigned
to the Department of Defense, where it belonged. Baumer
thought he could do business with the military brass. The
New Intelligence at the DHS was just a squishy mess of
touchy-feely psychobabble run by a bitch on the rag.
He smiled formally and held out his hand. "I'm Dr.
Charles Baumer, from NASA," he said. "This is my
assistant, Jason McCormack."
"Rene Sozia," Rene said, shaking hands with them.
Jason looked shocked and took her hand with a
fanatical reverence. "It's an honor. Your piece on
uncertainty as a programming principle in quaternary
systems is required reading here."
Rene blinked, stunned by his admiration. "Is that a
fact?" She had to think back, and remembered it like a
fractured piece of a Boston dream.
Baumer brushed Jason aside and gestured to the glass
facade. "Shall we go? Uncle Sam is on a conference call.
He asked us to give you a tour."
Once through the gates, past a military checkpoint,
and wearing a guest pass on the lapel of her borrowed Army
parka, Rene followed Baumer and Jason into an elevator and
descended into a deep mineshaft.
"We've brought the best people here to finish our
engine before The Gang of Twelve," Jason told her
excitedly, his hand jammed nervously into the pockets of
his own white lab coat. "Quantum computing has never been
"So you're aiming to break the Chi Frequency?" Rene
The elevator doors opened and they walked out into a
sterile white corridor overhung with white bars of full-
spectrum fluorescent lighting. "Break it?" Baumer snorted
with contempt, "we're going to pulverize it."
"With this." Jason strode quickly to a glass display
case. Baumer and Rene joined him. She looked down into a
small, scale model of a gigantic quantum computer similar
to the Suzie-Q she had designed for Nigel and sold to
Duval. It sat on replicas of Sam Fuller's blueprints, and
a title card stood beside it.
"The Hurricane Eye," Rene read aloud. "Catchy."
"The Chinese call theirs a Chi Fountain," Jason said
derisively. "Their architect is Xing Lao, the author of
Physical Chi. Do you know him?"
"He's a nut," Baumer said flatly. "Part falun gong,
part Neils Bohr."
Rene tapped the display case with the model engine
inside. "So what is this thing supposed to do besides just
sit and spin?"
Baumer nodded down the corridor and the three of them
continued through the bare white hall to a dark sliding
door. "The idea," Baumer told her, "is to get the engine
to match Chi Frequencies with a human subject, and allow
the engine to become an extension of the conscious body."
"What?" Jason asked her, the fawning smile plastered
on his pimply face.
"It's just...I got married. I had a kid. I spent
five years camping across the Americas, and this is exactly
where this field was when I left."
"Maybe that will change," Jason suggested, "now that
He swiped a keycard through the lock and punched in
his code. The dark glass doors slid open and Rene followed
him into a huge granite cavern with chain link screwed into
the ceiling and walls, halogen lights dangling from a steel
grid like a soundstage set. Cubicles were set up below in
a disorganized cluster, centered on a closed-in workspace
filled with large dry-erase boards, covered in formulas.
Baumer led her quickly past the workers in their
starched, pressed white coats, an international mix of
young and old. Rene recognized a face from her days with
Dr. Kellogg, but couldn't remember the name.
"This would be your department," Baumer told her over
She stopped when she caught the eye of a middle-aged
Hindi woman in a gray sari wrapped toga, what Hollywood
insiders had come to refer to as "the Rene Sozia style."
Indra Mahatmanjula recognized Rene at once from a lecture
she had attended years ago in Hamburg. Then, Rene had
looked haggard and haunted; now she looked perfectly
godlike. And she looked at Indra as if she remembered her
"You can meet the staff after you check in with Uncle
Sam," Baumer said to Rene, gesturing with a quick snap of
his neck to a closed, private office with the blinds drawn
at the other end of the room. The lettering on the door
said, "Sam Fuller, Project Leader." Baumer knocked and
Inside, Fuller finished eating an orange. He looked
much older, gaunter than she remembered. The years of
government stress had taken a toll on the shape of his
wrinkles. His muscles had deteriorated, and his leathery
skin sagged on his bones. His eyes were still sharp blue,
twinkling with the same quick mind.
He stood and wiped the orange juice from his hands
with a paper napkin. The overwhelming smell of fresh
citrus reminded her instantly and totally of being in her
own back yard with Nigel, watching their new limes ripen in
the California sun.
He smiled pleasantly, and she could see that having to
accept her help was causing him pain. But Fuller was
nothing without a lab, so he had swallowed and smiled and
agreed to sell her, and here she was. He took her hand.
"Dr. Sozia," he said. "I'm glad we finally get to
meet face-to-face." He nodded over her shoulder to Baumer,
who left them alone and closed the office door behind him.
"I don't practice," she said. "Call me Rene."
She sat. He sat. He offered her part of his orange,
and she held up her hand to decline. She yawned, and he
turned around, opened a small mini-fridge, and handed her a
bottle of iced coffee, which she opened and drank at once
without a break.
"So what's the story?" she asked Fuller, handing him
back the empty bottle.
"We have an engine," he told her. "We have very good
intelligence that it is the same engine Dr. Lao is
successfully using to interface his subjects in China."
She paled. "You mean he's already done it?"
Fuller nodded. "And so have we, but the results are
always the same: the subject is turned into a comatose
vegetable. And it has to do with this simple fact of our
universe. Lao's shapes fold in the human brain at one
speed: ten times the speed of light, or what he calls the
Rene nodded and began to perk up.
"In subspace, inside the nucleus of a carbon atom,
that same frequency ends up being ten to a hundred times
faster than the Chi Frequency. We call this The Chi Gap,
and it represents the difference in the speed of thought as
it is expressed in our space and as you proposed it would
be expressed in subspace. That is the gap we need to
"Have you been able to establish sentience inside the
machine?" she asked.
"No," he confessed, leaning back and touching his
fingertips together in front of his chest, flexing them
like he were pressing on an invisible spring in his hands.
"And from what we can tell, neither has Lao. The shapes
form, and they stabilize, but only between one-point-two-
six and one-point-three-one seconds. According to your
theories, they would need to stabilize for a full two-
point-six seconds before sentience would emerge." He
cocked an eyebrow and added quickly, "if it would emerge at
She folded her own hands in front of her and cracked
her knuckles one by one. "Then you should be trying to
find a way to get more stability."
"We're not looking for that," Fuller insisted, staring
at her popping knuckles. "You have to understand, Rene.
My sponsors are not interested in building an AI. They are
interested in having human cybernauts. This comes from the
fact that we are working in a culture of mistrust, mostly
due to Hollywood movies. The government, the Defense
Department, they're not stupid about this. They understand
how powerful a conscious mind can be in subspace. They are
deathly afraid that some sociopathic flagellant will build
a divine terminator to judge us, sentence us, and punish us
for not measuring up to some twisted ideal."
"A sociopath like me, perhaps," Rene suggested coldly.
She finished cracking her knuckles and leaned in to look at
the pages on Fuller's desk.
Fuller sighed. "I was thinking of Dr. Lao, but...
"I don't get it," Rene said, looking down on the
shapes. "From the look of this, it doesn't appear that
he's trying to build an AI either." Suddenly concerned,
she looked up at Fuller. "Just tell me," she insisted.
"What is he doing over there with my engine?"
"That's what we wanted you to tell us," Fuller
responded. "What is all this? What the hell is he trying
to do, and how can we stop him before he does it? At this
point, we're ready to consider an AI. We need a deterrent,
and we need it now."
Rene stared into Fuller's sharp blue eyes and saw the
hopeless desperation in his eyes. The math was beyond him;
the concepts were barely perceptible to him, and his staff
had not been able to make headway. They were lost in a
snowdrift. She looked down at the pirated Chinese design
and realized with certain terror that the best minds in
America were coming to her for help. They wanted a
deterrent for a god, and the terrible thing was that she
was their best option.
"Please," Fuller said dryly, pained to admit his
situation. "This engine is a stepping stone, but we need
you to get us to the other side. Help us."
Rene sat alone in the center of the common cubicle
cluster, took off her high heeled shoes, drank a hot cup of
coffee, and stared at the four white dry-erase boards that
Fuller's staff had assembled. They had calculated the
position of each particle inside the hydrogen center,
overwhelmed with unstable forces from the carbon cage
She stared at the designs, at the figures, at the
calculations, and knew that something was wrong. Indra
came to bring her a bottle of water, and said, "Excuse me,
Rene shushed her and waved her off rudely, not taking
her eyes off the numbers.
She sat there for another hour before Fuller came by
to check on her, and she shushed him and shooed him away as
Another hour went by and Rene left to use the
bathroom. Indra followed her, and was about to announce
herself when she heard sobbing from the last stall. Rene
was in there, and she was crying hysterically. Indra
debated getting some water and seeing if she was alright,
but she was gripped by an irrational terror that she would
open the door and what she would find would not be Rene
Sozia at all.
When Rene returned, her face washed, her eyes dry, she
erased all four boards and started from scratch, and worked
without a pause for the next forty minutes.
She replaced the carbon-56 housing with stable carbon-
13. She added three more electrons to the hydrogen's
orbit. She changed the frequencies and forces that would
produce the required geometries, and when she was done,
every person in the entire lab from Fuller to the lowest
intern was there, watching her.
She capped her pen and dropped it on the last board's
gutter. She turned around and saw the entire staff break
into applause and cheers. A dozen of their engineers were
already at work checking her figures in small clusters.
She pointed. "This is the way it should look."
Fuller beckoned her with his finger. She shook hands
and pushed through the crowd, followed him off to the long
white entrance corridor.
"What the hell is that?" Fuller demanded, the look of
a cheated consumer creeping on to his face.
"You asked for a deterrent, and that's the engine that
will house it."
"They're doing it in China with this engine here."
"Maybe the problem's not in the engine," Rene
suggested. "Maybe the problem is the subjects. Maybe what
they have in China is a lower regard for human life." She
stepped away, down the corridor, and removed the guest
badge from her lapel. "I have to get back to my family."
Fuller stayed planted, and called after her, "I was
told I would get complete cooperation from you."
"You got it," she retorted. "You need anything else,
talk to Jillian."
When she got back to Los Angeles, the party had been
cleaned up, but Nigel remained in his suit, tie loosened,
top buttons undone, snoring on the couch with C-SPAN
rebroadcasting the hearing from NASA. There on the
television was Dr. Baumer, whom she had just seen in
person. On the television, he was answering the question,
"What would NASA need to see before reconsidering a manned
mission to Mars?" An intelligent computer.
Nigel awoke and turned off the television when he saw
Rene come in. She looked broken, worse than when he found
her with her legs crushed beneath a dead bison, half-buried
in the South Dakota snow. Now, wrapped up in that olive
drab parka, her elegance faded, and mascara streaming down
her cheeks in two thick black lines, he had never seen any
animal look so wounded.
She cried in his arms. "I don't want to go back. I
want to stay here with you."
The next morning, Jillian Saint-Ross was at their
front door. She took Rene out for a drive in the back of
her armored Cadillac.
Rene had made up her mind not to return to Fuller's
lab under any circumstances, and already wished she had not
helped them at all. She wished she had stood up and lied
to him, told him she didn't understand it, that it was a
flash in the pan, that it was a lost cause and good luck,
sayonara, over and out.
She stared through the thick tint at the low walls
that separated traffic from housing along the automatic
freeway. Jillian's driver circled the city, drove past the
beach, in no real hurry, just riding around, burning
Jillian explained that fast Chi wasn't a theory
anymore. She said it was a quantifiable phenomenon that
she had been exploiting for years on behalf of the CIA.
She said Dr. Lao had not only quantified the speed of
thought with his "Chi Frequency," but he had calculated a
scale above that, with luck at the bottom and telepathy at
the top. She explained that this ability was the result of
Rene nodded. "Your Dr. Watts-Smith told me." Then
she asked, disinterested, "Are you a telepath?"
Jillian shook her head. "Not me. But I can spot one
as clearly as the sun on a cloudless day. I can pick them
out of a crowd. Other people see charisma or inner beauty;
I see faster Chi." She sipped a bottle of juice and let
Rene digest, let her stare out the window. "Your sister,
for instance," she said. "On your wedding day, I could
tell right away that she was a very strong telepath."
Rene snorted and chuckled. "This is in-credible."
She laughed to her shadowy reflection in the window. "You
know, my sister always said we were telepathic. I thought
she was just being superlative."
"I have sought them out," Jillian admitted, and Rene
turned back to her and saw the years of the quest etched
into Jillian's dark skin. It was why she was in the CIA,
Rene knew, and it was why she had befriended Nigel, and was
probably the reason she sent Nigel after her eight years
The large tank exited the freeway and Rene asked where
they were going. Jillian said, "There's somebody I want
you to meet. We're on our way to the air field to meet her
"I don't want to go anywhere," Rene growled.
Jillian assured her that she was only going to walk
into a plane, talk to the passenger, and leave. "After you
hear her out, whether you stay or go will be up to you."
Rene watched them stop at a gate, where Air Force MPs
checked the driver's credentials and waved them through.
They drove silently across the tarmac to a distant
hangar in a small airstrip in the middle of South Central
Los Angeles, built after the last riots. Inside, they
parked next to a small twin-engine jet plane.
"I'll wait here," Jillian offered as she leaned over
Rene and opened her door. "Just walk on in. She's
The plane was divided into two cabins. In the front
sat two military guards in unadorned black uniforms, each
armed and armored with pepper spray, electric tasers, shock
batons, assault knives, and thick black firearms.
One of the guards pulled back the thick plastic
curtain and nodded into the rear cabin. Rene walked
through and the plastic curtain fell behind her.
The windows in the rear were blacked out, and only a
long fluorescent tube light illuminated a tangle of hollow
plastic and colored tubing, a rack of machinery, medical
monitors, the entire WelchAllyn collection, pumping and
moving colored fluid through clear plastic hoses. It took
Rene several moments to realize what she was seeing.
In the middle of this mechanical physiology was a
sealed plastic box, and inside that box was a little gray
alien with a swollen head and emaciated arms.
Then she clearly saw that it was not an alien, but a
hideously deformed human girl, whose features appeared
melted as wax on her face, who bore so many tubes taped to
so many open holes as to be nothing but a lumpy skull on a
The creature opened her blue eyes and looked at Rene,
and Rene felt a chill down her spine, a coldness blowing
through the inside, as if an invisible hand had just
stirred an ice cube into her cerebrospinal fluid.
A hydraulic whirr beside this plastic coffin startled
Rene, who backed up quickly and wished she'd brought her
knife. A metallic, synthesized voice spoke with the soft
tones of a patient schoolteacher from a pair of speakers
buried in the shadows. "Do not be alarmed," she said.
Rene squinted into the corner and saw a pair of
robotic hands attached to a set of wires, cabled back to
the plastic coffin and the twisted body inside. The girl
in the bubble thought it, and the robotic hands typed it on
a keyboard secured underneath them. She said, "I am typing
by remote control, so I can talk with you."
Rene swallowed her disgust and looked into the bubble
at the mismatched eyes of the girl inside. No, she
realized, it was not a girl, but an ancient thing.
Through her mechanical arms and voice synthesizer, she
said, "You may call me Dana. And you are Rene Sozia."
"That's right," Rene responded.
"There is a chair in here," Dana went on, "if you
would like to sit."
Rene found it at her side, a folding chair; she picked
it up by the steel back and moved it closer to the plastic
box. She felt the weight in her hands and noted to herself
that the chair would be a suitable weapon if one were
needed. Immediately, the robotic hands in the corner
danced across the keyboard and Dana said, "I won't hurt
you. I just want to talk."
Rene folded her hands in her lap, trying to find a
calm, relaxed posture, but found the hard steel under her
resistant to every attempt to get comfortable. "Talk about
what?" she asked.
"About you. About your engine. About the connection
that exists between the two."
Rene nodded, watched the robot hands wait over the
keyboard in the corner. "What do you know about it?"
"You know that fast chi can result in a kind of
telepathy," Dana typed and her machine said. "Faster than
that, it can lead to a kind of precognition. A body can
displace its thoughts across time."
"Is that what you are?"
The crippled woman in the bubble smiled a crooked
smile and showed her crooked teeth that looked like they
had developed along a set of active fault lines. "I'm
sorry," she said, "but I can't answer that."
"What's this got to do with me?"
"The engine Lao and Fuller want so badly, your quantum
uncertainty engine, will create a consciousness faster and
more powerful than any human. It would not be able to link
with anything in the normal Chi frequency, but any person
with a fast spirit -- no matter how fast -- would be
susceptible to the engine's power."
Rene shook her head, unsure if she wanted to
understand. "Susceptible how?"
Dana's body took a long, mechanical breath, and the
robot hands clicked over the keyboard. "It would be able
to access them telepathically, through subspace, without
any plugs or wires, possessing them like an evil spirit."
Dana had engaged Rene, locked on to her, eyeball to
eyeball through the plastic walls of Dana's bubble. "Like
it or not," she said, "your theories have opened up a new
frontier, and forces are positioning to colonize it.
Future wars will fight battles there, and victory will
depend on controlling the higher ground. The faster, the
denser, the better."
Rene kept staring deep into Dana's mismatched eyes,
the blue one lazily staring off, the green one shaking in
its socket as it stared back up at her.
Dana nodded. The robot hands remained still.
"And my husband?"
Again, Dana nodded.
Rene put a hand over her belly. "Our children?"
Dana took a deep breath, and her lips moved and she
hissed through her own vocal cords, "Oh, yes."
Rene blinked with disbelief. "And me?"
The robot hands started up and the soft singsong of
the vocal synthesizer spoke again. "All we know is that you
are responsible for what could be the single greatest
ecological disaster in the history of this planet. We
thought that by distracting you with motion pictures, we
could prevent it, but we were too late this time."
Rene felt a shudder on her spine where she was
suddenly grabbed and held by the cold hand of fate. She
saw her shadowy reflection on the plastic walls of Dana's
sterile box. "What happens?"
"We can't see past it," Dana spoke. "Some of us
believe this is because of the severity of the disaster; we
believe that it tears the fabric of spacetime and traps us
in a loop, which sends us back to the beginning."
Rene again felt her mouth dry, her body a cold and
distant perch from which her mind prepared to take flight.
She did not have to ask to know. Back to the beginning.
Dana went on. "You think you have fast Chi because of
a childhood trauma. That is impossible. The only way a
person such as you could achieve such a frequency would be
to have it artificially accelerated, and the only way to
achieve that is to load a new mind into your faster
machine, and then send it into the body."
In the cage, Dana nodded her swollen skull and smiled
her earthquake smile. "That is why Lao calls his machine a
'Chi Fountain.' It is not designed to house his new god,
but to turn us into its peripheral devices. To be born at
such a speed...is what happened to me."
The synthesizer's tone remained singsong, but the look
on Dana's face grew intensely pained. "I want to leave
here," Dana said. "I've earned it. I deserve a new body,
and I would be a liar if I said I did not dream of using
your engine to escape this twisted mass of deformed tissues
you see before you. But I will not go in there, knowing
what I know." Dana lifted her huge head off the pillow,
and her eyes rolled around to Rene urgently. "One is too
many, and ten billion will not be enough."
Dana laid back, seemingly exhausted, and her eyes
rolled up to the roof of her plastic chamber. "Your
presence here in the world of skin indicates that we are
getting closer to overcoming this catastrophe."
"There was a time," Dana said, "when Rene Sozia simply
built an engine and destroyed the solar system. Now it
appears that she is building a deterrent, and sending that
deterrent back to build a better one."
Rene waited, and then realized that she meant her.
She meant Athena.
"How do you know that it's not the deterrent that
causes the problem?"
"Because all of this has happened before, and it will
all happen again." Dana paused. "At least one more time.
The problem happens in China. You come from Africa."
"I want you to go back to Fuller's lab," Jillian said,
and when she spoke, it did not sound like a request. She
leaned in, and her voice went from barking orders to making
threats. "I will liquidate my resources before I allow
them to be turned into cyborgs to stuff the pockets of some
pork-barrel robot makers in the Pentagon. Nobody crosses
the interface on my watch. One is too many, and a thousand
won't be enough."
"You want me to wreck the project?" Rene asked.
To her surprise, Jillian said, "No. I want you to
give them what they ask for. Once they see it, they won't
And they were back at Nigel's mansion. Jillian's
driver opened the passenger door and Rene got out. Jillian
said she would send a car around at six that night, and
Rene should pack for an extended stay in South Dakota.
Rene said, "I'll bring my shotgun."
The election came and went, and then the inauguration
of the reactionaries, and Rene barely noticed. Nigel
talked long distance about fighting the good fight, and
Rene barely heard him. When he asked her what was wrong,
all she would say is, "I am building my own boogeyman."
Rene lost her temper with Indra one day trying to
explain why all of the numbers had to be changed from a
starting position of human Chi to a starting position of
Hydrogen-4. Rene was seven months pregnant, and found
herself repeating for what felt like the fiftieth time, "We
are not making the shapes inside the human brain. We are
making them inside an exotic hydrogen atom, compressed into
the nucleus of a carbon isotope. Do you see the
She picked up Indra's hand-held pad, which the poor
Hindi woman kept turning to in order to argue that they
wanted to end up with a match for human Chi. Rene snatched
the datapad out of Indra's hand and smashed it on her desk.
"Just do it."
"It's impossible!" Indra protested.
"I'm sure it appears that way to somebody who's
looking at it with her head up her ass!" And then she
struck Indra with the back of her hand and gasped, shocked
at herself. Indra looked at her destroyed datapad, touched
her red cheek, and watched Rene shake her head in an
unspoken apology, then storm off to the bathroom.
Indra came in a moment later and heard Rene crying in
the last stall, the same place she had been when she first
visited "the bat cave." This time Indra did not hesitate.
She went and knocked on the stall. "Look, Dr. Sozia, we
are all under a lot of pressure. There's nothing to cry
about. You're seven months pregnant, for the love of God."
She opened the door and Rene blew her nose with toilet
paper, tossed it into the bowl, flushed, and stood up.
Indra helped her, and was unnerved at the intense look of
fear in Rene's face. "What?" she insisted, whispering
intimately, the sound of it echoing through the empty tiled
bathroom. "Everybody loses their temper."
Rene sobbed and confessed, "Not me. I've never
been...angry...like this. I've never lost my temper in my
life. Not with my sister, not with my parents, not with my
husband or my son...Never."
Indra smiled at her. "So you're human," she said,
nudging her ribs. "Like I said, we've all been under a
great deal of stress. If it would make you feel better, I
will slap you in return."
Rene nodded, stuck out her jaw, and said, "Yes,
actually." She looked into Indra's eyes, dead serious. "I
want you to hit me as hard as you can."
Indra snorted. "I will do no such thing."
Rene pleaded, and Indra demured: "Please."
"I hit you; I deserve it."
"Then I will slap you, but I will not hit you as hard
as I can."
"I deserve it," Rene insisted.
Rene bit her lip and cock-cocked Indra, landing a
punch on her cheek below the red slap mark. Indra gaped
again. "You hit me!"
Rene stuck out her chin. "Now I deserve it. Hit me."
Indra snarled, "You asked for it!" She balled her
hand into a fist and hit Rene square on the jaw. She
screamed and immediately clenched her fist in her hand.
Rene rubbed her jaw and sighed. Indra cried out again.
"You broke my finger!"
"Don't you feel better?"
"No!" Then Indra ran her finger under cold water and
looked at her bruised cheek in the mirror. "Yes. Yes, I
Rene stood behind her and admired her own bruised jaw
in the mirror. "This is why I love this country," she
said. "Nobody in Europe would punch you just because you
asked them to; they would consider it perverse."
A month later, just before Rene left to go on
Maternity leave, Dr. Fuller had to come out of his office
and scold the engineering staff, two of whom had missed
days of work to have their jaws rewired. The rest, men and
women alike, sported bruises, black eyes, and broken noses.
"This has got to stop," Fuller bellowed. "IBM engineers do
not engage in bare-knuckled boxing in the bathrooms! Have
some professional pride!"
Secretly, he and Baumer conferred with the new
Secretary of Defense, who agreed that if the new project
got the green light, "that wild woman" would not be on the
team regardless of what strings "that woman from the CIA"
Rene hurried home to find the house in Hollywood
deserted; Nigel had gone to Thailand with Duval and the
Dhanpat brothers to shoot the robot fight sequences for
"Killing Machines 2." Iam was staying with Ben and Masada.
She packed her bags and called Nigel, found him asleep in
the middle of the afternoon while the crew waited for a
monsoon to pass through.
"It's very empty here without you," she told him,
listening to the sound of her own voice echo through the
vacant adobe mansion.
"After the birth," Nigel said playfully, "we should
run away again. This time, we'll get work on the road.
We'll get nose-jobs and suntans and we can dress up as a
family of Michael Jackson impersonators, and perform in
Vegas like the Von Trapps."
She sighed reluctantly. "It's us against them now,"
"That's what they say on the news," he answered.
"I wish it was still just us."
Rene flew to France, to a midwifery in an Alpine town
run by a coven of mystic nuns, one of whom had taught math
at Saint Joan's in Paris. In truth, it was a crone's
retreat for Catholic pagans, but Rene trusted them with her
She went into labor in a pool of water cut with milk
and rose petals, and delivered five minutes later. The
crones were amazed, and several went immediately to cast
runes to discern the meaning of the fastest birth they had
ever witnessed. "This one," the senior midwife commented
as she wrapped the infant girl in a soft towel and handed
her to Rene, "this one insisted on being here, didn't she?"
Rene ordered the umbilical cord clamped while still
full of her daughter's stem cells, then placed in a liquid
oxygen tank she had brought for the purpose of storing it.
The crones did not question her decision. They only
collected their fee and a bonus for discretion, and
whispered among them that the daughter Rene named Madeleine
Kali Shepherd was most likely pre-born.
She brought Madeleine to visit Aunt Sasha and Uncle
Duval at their fully restored Burgundy chateau. She took
her horseback riding, breastfed her on the open veranda,
and felt a comfortable, formal distance with Sasha.
Duval had been busy in Thailand, where he and Nigel
were shooting with the Dhanpat brothers, but when he
arranged to be in Paris to witness his own team fight
Daimler-Chrysler in the European semi-finals of the Very
Heavy Category, Sasha arranged to bring Rene to meet him.
Sasha ordered a chopper and a limousine and dressed
Rene in another European gown, and insisted that Madeleine
would be fine without her for one night. "If you've never
seen a robot war," Sasha enticed her, "you have never
experienced state-of-the-art savagery."
Sasha had been very good for the last two days, but in
the back of her private bulletproof luxury tank, she
couldn't hold off any longer. "Tell me about this new job
of yours," she requested. "Is it true that they're trying
to find a way to put human operators into robotic combat
Rene shrugged and sipped champagne as the limousine
slowed to the VIP gate of the new robot war arena outside
the city, in a mostly subverted old industrial zone.
Crowds of drunken, riotous fans pounded on the steel frame
as they crept through the security barricades. Tear gas
grenades flew overhead. Firecrackers mixed with riot guns
shooting rubber bullets, and the games hadn't even started
"The machine," Sasha prompted.
Rene caught her reflection in the dark tinted glass
and returned to the question. "Honestly, Sasha, I don't
think they know what they're trying to do. I have a
feeling when I present it to them, they won't have the
stomach to actually do it."
The limousine stopped. "We've arrived," Sasha
reported, and reached to the front window to take the two
gas masks offered by her driver. "Put this on."
Through the smoke and the push of unchanneled rage,
the drunken desire for physical contact and the emotional
security of gang violence, they made their way through a
cordon of private security officers armed with plastic
shields and shock batons which they applied liberally to
the crowd as one would beat a rug.
Inside, a valet offered them warm towlettes, and they
ascended in an elevator with a mirror and a basin of water.
At the top, they came out into a long, curved concrete
hallway, and followed the curve past several closed doors
to number 17.
Inside, Duval waited in his luxury sky box with a view
through two sheets of thick bulletproof glass, a dozen live
monitors, a full bar, a set of couches, a solid wooden
table, reclining chairs, full surround audio and a master
input control board.
And outside this impenetrable fortress of luxury was
the arena, a state-of-the-art for the new reigning sports
franchise in Europe and most of the world. It was huge,
sunken in the ground, gated, caged in concentric circles
with increasingly strong bars towards the center, where
four massive doors opened to private assembly rooms larger
than zeppelin hangars. Around that a ring of hurricane
fencing where the operators of the behemoths below were
embedded during team play, and heavily armored players
would bash each other to control the robots below in a
free-for-all bloodsport similar to capture the flag. And
beyond this, rising from a wide field, were the bleachers,
capable of housing fifty thousand spectators. Tonight,
those stands were packed.
Duval pointed out the participants to Rene as the
gates opened and the massive robots took to the field. "My
team has three smaller entries, there." He pointed to a
robotic cat, spider, and flying beetle. "The other team
has just one robot with the same weight limit, over there."
The other side had a steel T-Rex on gigantic treads, its
titanium belly sporting claws, saws, hammers and other
The robots strutted and posed for the crowds while a
hardcore band played live.
Sasha held up an empty bottle of champagne and
announced, "We're out. I'm going next door to impose."
Duval caught her at the door. "Tell that bastard
Valderone that I want to buy his steel mill in Kiev."
Sasha nodded and left Rene and Duval alone to watch
the pre-show check of the robots, a long and formal
posturing that included a weigh-in, a measuring of
weaponry, and a check for contraband items, such as poison
gas or projectile weapons.
"So," Duval said to Rene, who was already more than a
little tipsy from the champagne she'd had with Sasha on the
way in. "Tell me about this 'Soul Train' they're building
in South Dakota. Do they believe they can bridge the Chi
Rene shrugged, watched the arena below, and wondered
why she had ever agreed to come and see Sasha in the first
place. "Did you see Nigel in Thailand?"
Duval nodded. "Of course. But tell me --"
"I love Nigel," she said with a drunken grin.
Duval rethought his approach and drank from his bottle
of water. "Nigel's great," he agreed with her. "I've
always liked Nigel. Nigel is a good egg."
"He's an incredible lover," she went on, watching the
crowd fight in the stands below them. "He does this
thing," and she smiled at the memory, "just when I begin to
feel...pleasure...he does this thing where he lightly
scratches the skin on the back of my arms and it's like the
feeling goes on for hours."
Duval capped his bottle of water and set it aside. "I
didn't want to know that."
"Then what did you want to know?" Her voice turned
hard. "Because that's all I care about: getting back to
my husband so he can scratch the backs of my arms again."
"You should care," Duval replied in a low hiss. "You
know I never make an investment without expecting a
return." She turned from the robots posing in the sunken
arena below, and thought she saw Duval baring his fangs and
stretching his claws.
"Do you think," he went on softly, "that I paid for
your schooling because your sister asked me to? Do you
think I gave you away to Nigel Shepherd because I was
wearing a fucking blindfold?"
She cowered beside him, and felt that Duval was about
to strike her.
"All I want to know," he went on, "is where the
Americans are going to try to bridge this gap. Lao thinks
it can be bridged with software, but you say the Americans
are too scared of an AI to take that route. So they'll
make up the difference in the interface, wouldn't you say
"I don't know," she answered him, flat and quick.
"Find out," he urged her.
Sasha returned with another full bottle of champagne.
"Valderone said that he would sooner cut off your ears, sew
them into a bag with a rabid mongoose, and fly it over Kiev
on a balloon," she told Duval. "But he did give me another
She offered him a full glass, and he pushed it back to
her. "You have a sip," he said to her.
Sasha slid to his side on the couch. "I have my own."
Duval pushed the drink back to her. "Have a sip, my
love," he insisted, his voice cutting to a sharp order.
She rolled her eyes and groaned and drank the entire
glass, then her own, then tossed both over her shoulder,
where they shattered behind the bar. "Happy?"
"You must have swallowed an antidote," Duval reasoned.
"Yes," she spat sarcastically, "that's it exactly."
"Why do you hate me?" he asked her.
"Because it excites you, you peasant," she replied.
Suddenly distracted by the commotion in the arena, she
turned and pointed. "Look! The fight's on! Can we please
watch your pets destroy the Germans now?"
They watched the carnage unfold to a hardcore heavy
metal soundtrack, watched the steel bash steel, watched
buzz saws and arc welders used as weapons in a robotic
slam-fest of unrestricted technological fury. In ten
minutes, it was all over; the trio of light French robots
had disabled the massive German hulk, which bled coolant
and hydraulic fluid from a dozen small gashes.
Duval stood up. "You have just witnessed history
made," he said to Rene. "The German robot was controlled
by a program running in your Suzie-Q computer. Our robots
were all controlled by human operators. Come with me; I'd
like you to see this."
"I'm going to the party," Sasha said. "Meet me
Duval nodded curtly. "So go already."
Alone in the elevator, Rene ventured a comment. "Are
you and Sasha experiencing marital strife?"
"Yes," he said. "Yes, we are."
She was silent the rest of the way down.
The doors slid open and Duval took her by the arm.
He led her towards the sounds of the drunken robot war
team as they sung "La Marseilles" together in the cavernous
assembly room just off the arena. They cheered when they
saw Duval, and rushed him, still dressed in their padded
uniforms, drenched in sweat and champagne. They lifted him
onto their shoulders and marched him past their heroic
robots while he waved his arms like a grand conductor, and
they sang, "Aux armes citoyen! Aux armes citoyen!"
At last, they set him down and he took Rene behind a
row of portable screens set up near a series of luxury
Behind the screens, Duval led her to an operating
table, where a group of doctors dressed in team colors
worked to attach robotic arms; they parted and revealed a
young French quadriplegic, his shoulder and hip joints
covered in durable plastic sockets, to which robotic arms
and legs had been attached. He stood and smiled and held
out his steel arms to Duval.
"Congratulations, Theo, my boy," Duval told him,
embracing the cyborg freak and then turning to Rene. He
smiled when he saw that she made no effort to hide her
disgust. "Theo," he explained to her, "was operating the
"Lilly," Theo said quickly. "Her name is Lilly."
"Theo, this is my sister-in-law, visiting me from
Theo offered her his metal arm and she took it
reluctantly, squeamish. "Nice to meet you," Theo offered,
and smiled with Duval; they both shared the same perverse
pleasure at putting this technology "in the face."
Duval nodded to Theo's back. "Show her."
Theo turned around and flexed his sinewy back proudly.
Rene stepped closer and stared down at a series of magnetic
plugs embedded into his spine, all the way up to the base
of his skull.
She stepped back, horrified. "Wetware? Are you
Duval smiled proudly.
Rene staggered back, turned, and ran out of the
warehouse, through the celebrating team, up a service
corridor, and ran into a huge locked gate leading to the
outside. She leaned over and vomited the spinach
tortellini she had eaten for dinner.
Duval called to her up the cavernous dead end. "I
think you're over-reacting."
She shouted back to him, enraged. "You made two
movies with my husband called 'Killing Machines.' Did you
never bother to watch them?"
"Did you?" he replied, equally enraged. "People want
to leave their bodies. They want to jack into the net.
They want to visit the matrix. They want to leave this
world and live forever in cyberspace."
"And that's how you justify this? Because it's what
the people want?"
Duval stalked closer. "I don't have to justify it,"
he assured her. "Victory does that for me."
She was astonished. "Kicking the crap out of the
other guy is not the standard by which I wish to have my
"Then you can go to hell!" He spat with a strange
fanaticism that frightened her worse than the idea of his
fist. "I am tired of staring down a star-spangled gun
"You don't own me," she shouted back.
"I only have to make one call," he said, raising his
index finger to illustrate the simplicity. "One call and
you become a widow, your children become my children, and
you go back to that padded cell where I found you."
She backed up against the locked steel gate, too
scared to answer him.
He came all the way up the empty corridor to her side
so he could whisper in her ear. "I want you to bring me
the plans for the American interface. Bring me that and I
will consider our debt paid in full."
Rene returned to South Dakota, thin and flushed, just
in time for Fuller's last briefing on the upcoming briefing
for the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the Senate Armed Services
Review Board. "Once again," Fuller reminded them, going
over the vocabulary supplement, "we do not use the term AI.
Instead, we refer to a 'native guide.' We do not use the
words 'sentience' or 'consciousness' with these people;
instead, we will refer to the 'competency' of our 'native
Rene smiled as the staff turned around and glee broke
through the room. "Have you come up with a name for the
project?" she asked as Indra pointed to an empty seat at
her side and Rene went to sit.
Fuller smiled proudly and pointed to the word on the
screen behind him. "We will call it 'Sacagawea.'"
Rene looked concerned. "Sacagawea?" She said it
again. "Sacagawea. That sounds like something you yell
when you're on fire."
The room laughed, Fuller and Baumer included.
"Sacagawea," he explained, "was a Native American explorer.
She went with Lewis and Clark across The Great Divide."
That evening, Rene was in her office with Indra, going
over her presentation with the new vocabulary sheet, trying
to get used to saying, "The competency of the native guide
is only achieved..." instead of "sentience in the AI is
Her telephone rang and Indra went out to get them
another pair of coffees.
Rene picked up her phone. A thin female voice spoke
gruffly. "Hello? Is this Rene Sozia?" She spoke with a
thick French accent.
"This is Maria Allerand, and I am calling to you for
to tell you..."
"Then do it."
Maria Allerand explained that she was with the robbery
department of the Lyons police. Rene nodded and snacked on
a bag of cheez puffs, and smiled at the statement that the
snacks were beyond cheesy -- they were cheezy with a z.
She had lived in America for almost ten years, and that
still made her smile: sarcastic products.
Then Maria said there had been a break-in at the E-Z
Store Storage Warehouse in Lyons, and hers was the only
locker that had been broken in to. Rene swallowed with
difficulty and put down the snacks. "Was anything stolen?"
"Tell me," Maria replied. "What was in there?"
"Just one thing," Rene answered. "It was a locked ice
chest containing my daughter's stem cells."
A long pause. "And what, Mrs. Sozia, would you be
doing with your daughter's stem cells? You know cloning
for any purpose is strictly forbidden by European law."
"Oh, I'm sure it is," Rene responded. "Is it still
"There's nothing in there now," Maria told her.
"Do you know who did it?"
Maria sighed. "Well, that's why I'm calling you, Mrs.
Sozia. Perhaps you could tell me who would want to steal
your daughter's stem cells?"
Rene's legs went weak and numb; she collapsed into her
chair and felt her arms grow heavy and weak. "I don't
"Do you have any enemies?"
"I don't know."
Maria sighed, irritated. "Is there anything you can
"I'll have to call you back."
Rene hung up.
She picked up the phone again and decided to call
somebody, but then stopped, and put the receiver back in
the cradle and realized that she didn't know who to trust.
It could have been her sister; it could have been her
husband; it could have been a mercenary interest only
concerned with the speed of the design.
Indra returned with the coffee. "Is everything
"No," Rene answered. "Go back to your desk. I'll
come and get you."
Alone again, Rene picked up the phone and dialed up an
information service, and requested to be connected to Lyons
Police, Robbery Division.
Maria Allerand answered the phone.
"Can I trust you?" Rene asked her. "Can I trust you
to investigate this crime and arrest the people
Maria sighed. "So you have a suspect?"
"My brother-in-law and my sister have been unable to
have a child."
"And who is your brother-in-law?"
Maria paused. "If he's the one who did it," she said,
"this case is closed already."
The next afternoon, Rene arrived in her best gray
suit, her most subdued make-up, her most restrained
hairstyle. Indra was also dressed in her most drab sari
wrap. Only Fuller showed color in his red power tie and
navy blue blazer.
The crowd was full of military brass, old men with
young aides, coiffeured Washington delegates, senators, and
representatives. Jillian Saint-Ross sat near the back.
Fuller began his pitch.
"Sacagawea is nothing short of an attempt to build an
interdimensional version of the transcontinental railroad.
The benefits available to the nation that first harnesses
the vast powers of subspace are numerous, including
instantaneous long-range communications, nanotechnology,
atomic fabrication, and I would be remiss if I didn't add
that it held potentials for the three T-words we're not
supposed to say: telepathy, teleportation, and temporal
"But how does it work?" He turned and raised a large
slide with a very simple schematic flowchart, running left
to right. On one end was a drawing of their engine, with a
quadrihedron inside. In the next, the quadrihedron sat
inside a human body. In the last, a smaller copy of the
human body with the quadrihedron inside it was back inside
"We begin by constructing a native guide," he said,
and pointed at the first drawing. "That would be
Sacagawea. She would be born inside the subspace engine,
and so have a natural, innate understanding of subspace
He pointed to the next image. "After a few hours
learning to navigate in the engine, Sacagawea is ready to
come out and bond with a cybernaut."
Rene could feel the chatter in the room as a few of
the men turned aside to comment to their neighbors; things
were already going badly.
Fuller continued. "While in the body, Sacagawea can
be taught to operate heavy machinery, fly remote controlled
jet planes, control military assault units, or whatever.
When she's properly trained in this space, she takes a copy
of her human host with her back into the engine, believing
she is the cybernaut in whose body she trained."
One Air Force General with chubby jowls asked quickly,
"Why only a few hours? Why not train the AI in the first
place and be done with it?"
Fuller held up his hands against the growing murmur of
his troubled audience. They had not liked that one bit.
Rene smiled, and found Jillian in the back of the room, and
saw her wink.
"The devices," Fuller hollered, and the room quieted
to hear him. "The devices that a cybernaut would operate
exist out here. Familiarity with things like gravity,
heat, cold, light...these have to be learned out here. And
we only leave Sacagawea inside the engine for a few hours
so she will make the transition to the body more easily."
"Does the cybernaut go into the engine or not?" asked
another, near the middle.
"Sacagawea is a psychopomp," Fuller answered. "She
carries the...the 'psyche template,' the relevant memories
with her when she returned to the engine, where,
theoretically, she could then form a mental link between
the engine and the subject..."
Rene stood up when she saw Fuller floundering. He
looked pale and beat down, and she knew that after years of
this, anyone would. "Theoretically," she said in a loud,
clear voice, "the engine could summon a black hole and
destroy this entire solar system in the blink of an eye,
but if a tree falls in the woods and there is nothing
around with ears, does it make a sound?"
Rene pointed to the engine on the diagram behind her.
"We won't know until we make an engine that can generate a
competent native guide. It must be allowed to become
familiar with subspace before going through the rest of
this. So you will need a new engine, and that will cost
four hundred million dollars."
She sipped her water and listened to the men discuss
the figure. Some thought it was high, others thought it
was reasonable. "That's not including personnel,
maintenance, or security. That's just the engine. Why?
You want to know why? Because of the energy requirements.
It needs to have its own generator, and that generator must
be buried near the bottom of an active volcano...Or near
some other contained fission reaction of equal power. So
that's why the cost is so high."
A Senator stood up, dandruff on his shoulders, his
skin blotchy with alcoholic veins. "What happens when
Sacagawea goes into the human body? Does she displace the
Rene laughed. "Soul? Hardly. It displaces a bit of
energy back into the engine to maintain a balance of Chi,
but that's all it is: energy."
"And what if it's not?" the Senator insisted. "What
if there is a thing called the human soul, and this machine
is going to allow us to take it out of a body and replace
it with one we program ourselves? Do you think that's
right, Dr. Sozia?"
She shrugged. "It would function the same way because
it would be ruled by the same body. Sacagawea would
eventually forget where she came from. She would believe
that she was the person whose body she was in, as much as
any of you believe the same about your selves. A soul is a
soul is a soul, and they're a dime a dozen, and we can make
them in a lab. In fact, we can make them better, faster,
Fuller regained control as he felt Rene about to spin
out of control.
"The point of this," he told them, "is that the only
way to get our minds into that machine is for them to be
taken there by a native guide, and such a guide needs a new
One thin, grizzled Army General stood up, his eyes
narrow slits. "What if we went without one of these native
guides? Why can't we just go in ourselves?"
Rene pointed to the three diagrams behind her.
"Without first establishing a native presence in subspace,
the rest of this becomes moot," she replied, "and this last
step becomes downright dangerous. A mind that is used to
living out here would not understand how to exist in there.
It could change subspace, alter it, distort it, even tear
it apart, with catastrophic results."
This general, Scott Thibault, nodded, although he
clearly did not believe her. "I see," he said, a smug
sneer on his lips. "Only a pure soul can reach heaven, and
we are corrupted by our experience of this world and don't
"That's not what I said."
General Thibault continued quickly, ferociously, and
the rest of the room watched him, each feeling a vicarious
thrill at his timbre and confidence. "What I want to know,
Dr. Sozia, is what is this fetish of yours with purity?
Who are you saving it for? We have met your native guide,
and she is us. We are the AIs."
"I don't believe you're seeing --"
"Dr. Sozia," Thibault went on, "I believe in Our Lord
and Savior Jesus Christ, and I believe in His promise that
the Kingdom of Heaven will belong to anyone who believeth.
And I believe that this technology is a sign that through
His divine blessing of our great nation, Jesus has
fulfilled his promise."
Rene looked down at the desk, at her meaningless
notes, at nothing that could provide a response. "Even
Jesus was carried to heaven by angels," she said.
"We won't put anything into that engine but people,"
another General said.
Rene began to gather her notes, then realized she
didn't need them anymore. Fuller leaned in to her as the
rest of the military began to agree with the consensus that
Rene was a lunatic and her proposal was a scam. "Where are
you going? This is a disaster!"
"Then my work here is done," she told him.
Indra stood and rushed after Rene.
The room was now in a state of free conversation.
Generals stood, moved around, send their aides to confer
with other aides in various corners.
Then, all at once, Fuller saw them stop talking and
turn around, all of them focused at last on the one voice
left talking, from the back of the room. The calm,
reasoned voice of Jillian Saint-Ross.
"We don't need to spend four hundred million dollars
to protect our interest in this new frontier," she
promised. "I can make you a deterrent." They had turned
around a hundred and eighty degrees to hear her proposal.
Fuller collapsed at his desk and realized that after a
lifetime of searching for a better computer, his sponsors
were about to opt for the original. He thought of
something one of his old professors had said at the dawn of
test tube fertilization. "We are designing the child with
the toy in mind."
"Prototypes can be ready in nine months," Jillian
One senator grumbled, "What you're talking about is
"Human, Senator," Jillian responded sharply, "human."
She folded her arms proudly and promised the assembled
military, "My way is natural, and it is free."
Indra caught Rene at the surface, as she pulled her
thick winter cloak of deer hides around her shoulders and
prepared to step out into a freezing South Dakota night.
"Dr. Sozia!" Indra called, and raced to catch her at
the front doors. They were alone, and the half-lit lobby
echoed with a spooky desolation. "Where are you going?"
"They're not going to build it," Rene told her.
"We're done here."
"And what about you?" Indra grabbed her desperately.
Rene had a glow in her eyes that Indra did not
recognize. She looked positively possessed. "I have been
here before," she said, and she meant it. "I know exactly
what I have to do. I have to stop this project before it
Rene turned and walked out into the winter night.
Indra hurried after her, and regretted instantly that she
didn't bring her parka. She shivered as she called out to
Rene, who trudged assuredly across the plaza to a waiting
"How?" she demanded.
Rene either didn't hear her, didn't know, or didn't
bother to answer.
Indra watched her get in the car and ride away.
"Take me to the airport," Rene told the driver, then
looked beside her and noticed Iam seated there, waiting.
He smiled up at her hopefully. "Hi, Mommy."
"Kid and I been waiting here half an hour," the driver
said. "Singin' along to the radio, right, kid?"
"Right, bub," Iam responded cheerfully.
At the airport, Rene got in line to purchase a ticket,
and was glad that she had decided to travel with her
passport ever since the November elections.
"Please don't send me back," Iam pleaded with her
"You didn't pack for this trip," she told him.
"You didn't pack at all," he pointed out.
She stepped up to the ticket counter. "One ticket for
Los Angeles and..." Distracted, she felt Iam tug at her
sleeve. He held out his own blue United States passport,
fresh off the presses, and looked up at her, folded his
hands and begged.
"Cancel that," Rene told the ticket agent. "Two first
class tickets to Rome." She put Iam's passport on the
counter next to her own beat-up European Union book.
She smiled down at Iam. "It's just you and me, pal,"
she told him. "What are we going to tell your dad?"
"This was his idea."
Iam slept on the plane while Rene opened the last
piece of mail she would ever get from Nigel. She could
hear his voice, could practically see his big, solid frame
seated at his computer, drinking from a beat-up coffee mug
from a community theater group that gave him his first
taste of stardom at the age of eight.
"Dear Rene," he wrote to her, "whatever it was that
you did in a previous life that keeps you from enjoying
this one, when you fix it, when you finish it, come and
find me. I'd like to do it again some time when we can
wallow in the past instead of running from the future.
Take good care of Iam and I will do the same for
In Hollywood, Jillian arrived in the middle of the
morning wearing the same gray suit she wore to South
Dakota. Maria met her at the door. "She's gone."
In the living room, Nigel watched the stock market on
TV, cradling infant Madeleine in his arms while she drank
from a bottle of formula.
"She's gone," he repeated.
Nigel jut out his chin and folded Madeleine in his
arms protectively. "She's gone where you and Duval and her
sister can't get her."
"I know all this, Nigel." Jillian collapsed on the
sofa beside him and reached out to tickle Madeleine's chin.
"I just stopped by to see how you were. I'm on my way to
meet my husband in Pebble Beach for a few rounds of golf."
"Rub it in," he sneered. Maria brought Jillian a cup
"My husband," she said, "Franklin, is an idiot, and I
know it. I know every little thing about him. I know what
he's going to say, do, wear, eat, order, buy, everything
before he does it." She smiled at Nigel. "You must have
been the happiest son of a bitch on earth to be married to
something you couldn't possibly understand."
Nigel pulled Madeleine away from her. "We're fine,
Jillian," he said coldly. "Thanks for stopping by. Tell
Franklin we said hello."
"We clocked her Chi in Seattle," Jillian said as she
stirred cream into her coffee. "You know my scale: one is
normal, baseline human Chi; most of our sensitives clock in
at around nine or ten; your wife's engine would have topped
out at twenty-eight, and a Chi Frequency of one hundred
would be equal to a pre-bang universe."
Again, Jillian reached out and ticked Madeleine on the
chin. "Mother and daughter together clocked in at eighty-
two. Last week, we clocked Madeleine alone, and found her
to be close to twenty."
"So your experiment was a success," Nigel said.
"Fine. Now get out."
"It would mean," Jillian went on, "that Rene herself
was actually much faster than eighty-two."
Nigel took one arm off of Madeleine, reached behind
him, and pulled his shotgun out from the sofa cushions.
With baby in one hand and the gun in the other, he stood up
and gestured to the front door. "Get out! Get the fuck
out of my house! I don't give a shit about your goddamned
Chi Frequency theories!"
Jillian stood and backed to the door, dropping her
coffee cup on the tile, where it shattered and spilled.
Nigel took the gun by the pump and loaded a cartridge,
aimed the gun at the middle of Jillian's suit, and screamed
at the top of his lungs, "Stay the hell away from my
daughter, and stay the hell away from my wife!"
Madeleine howled and buried herself in her father's
beard, then shrieked with a sympathetic, infantile tantrum.
Jillian moved back only so far and then stopped, her
arms held open in a pose of Jesus returning with the Good
News. She did not smile, only looked at Madeleine and
Madeleine stopped crying immediately, and appeared
Jillian held out her open hands. "Go ahead. I'm
unarmed. I'm right here. I'm not wearing any body armor.
But understand one thing, Nigel. I've known you longer
than Rene has, and I know you better than she could, and
God's honest truth is...I need you more than she does, and
you need me more than you need her. What happened in China
could happen here tomorrow, and if you don't agree to help
me, then you will be dealing with somebody a lot worse."
Nigel dropped the gun and held Madeleine close, kissed
her forehead, and she played cheerfully with his beard,
tugging on it with her infant hands.
Jillian licked her lips. "There's a time to run and a
time to fight," she said, "and I'm not going anywhere. Now
are you with me?"
For three days and three nights, Rene and Iam lived
out of the wad of cash he had brought along in his
backpack, exchanging them for euros at different places
around Rome while she waited for her appointment to be
Iam wandered around the city, went to see The Vatican,
visited galleries, took tours of the ruins, watched the
scaffolding rise and fall around this or that monument,
watched the subway diggers attempt yet another line through
yet another archeological find of indeterminate importance.
The ghosts stacked so thick, you could burn them for fuel,
he thought as he followed an historian around town,
identifying the same stones taken from one palace to make
four new churches, and the markings that indicated that the
stones themselves had once been part of a public bath
house. "The Romans," the guide told the tourists,
Rene stayed in the furnished hotel room she had booked
for the week. It was cheap, and the street outside was
busy late into the night. A gang of young Roman punks
inhabited the doorway of the building across the street,
and all night, young prostitutes and grungy students were
stopping by to buy. Once, Rene saw a police bike cruise
by, and the alcove store vanished into the building until
the cops had gone by.
Iam came to get money, brought her pizza which she
didn't eat, brought her coffee that she didn't drink, and
ended up following a group of anarchist punks to gate-crash
a concert, where he was picked up in a police sweep and
released to his own recognizance at the age of six.
Rene stared out the window, watched the junkies score,
and waited for the telephone to ring.
After three days, the call came through.
She bought new clothes for her and Iam, had her hair
done at a salon, gave them both a manicure and a facial,
and took a cab to the Roman offices of Auschpitz, Sclara,
and Matelano, attorneys at law.
The building could have been a converted mausoleum, a
Roman palace, a church, a bank, or all three. The front
office was staffed by a beautiful Roman model with her hair
in a tight ponytail. An executive assistant in pinstripes
and high heels emerged from the offices and escorted them
through a chaos of commodity traders, stock brokers,
corporate raiders, investment bankers, and what appeared to
be astrologers and mystics consulting Nordic runes and the
In the back, they entered a quiet ante-office with red
velvet walls, oriental carpets, and a receptionist behind a
desk who looked bitter enough to kill a kitten in cold
blood. Behind her stood a pair of armored guards, each
holding a semi-automatic machine gun, ensconced behind a
sheet of thick glass -- in case of emergency...
The executive assistant ran a scanning wand over both
Iam and Rene while the receptionist glowered and kept her
hand on a pistol wired to the bottom of her desk. Iam
smiled at the armed guards; they didn't smile back.
Iam took a seat in this waiting room while the
pinstriped assistant opened a heavy vault door and beckoned
Rene to follow her in.
The last office in the building was all fascist
designs on imperial materials: white marble, gold trim,
brass fixtures, stained glass windows, a polished steel
desk with straight flowing lines, everything an impression
of movement and speed.
Behind the desk, a huge Austrian attorney stood from
his work and smiled pleasantly. He had a neck like a beer
stein and a chest like a keg, gigantic paws and a booming
"Dr. Sozia," he greeted her, pleased at her
appearance. "I am Jurgen Auschpitz. Please, sit and tell
me what August de Winter can do for you."
Part Three: The Third World
"We are designed for departure; we are here to go."
Their limousine crept up the Alpine crag in the middle
of a thick blizzard. Rene wished she had worn her pelts,
and Iam wondered if the car would slide off the road. They
crept through the castle portico and up to the huge oak
doors, braced with filigreed ironwork.
A servant in a simple black uniform opened the door
for them, another young blonde woman took their coats in
the front hallway; their uniform reminded Rene of the black
unitards her parents wore on stage. To Iam, they looked
like off-Broadway stagehands.
The gigantic entrance hall was not quite as grand as
Duval's; it was older, and Rene realized at once it was
because the castle was built around a monastery.
August descended the stairs dressed in a thick wool
sweater and casual slacks. What Rene first thought was his
shadow turned out to be a thin bodyguard with a black
goatee. August stepped down and shook Rene's hand.
"Welcome to the castle."
"Is all this really yours?" Iam asked him.
"This is Europe, my boy," August responded with a grin
as he knelt down and touched Iam on the shoulder. "We all
live in a time-share here." He turned aside to his shadow.
"Jacques, why don't you take Iam and go find Media."
Rene nodded, and Iam followed the lean bodyguard away
behind the stairs.
"Is he your lover?" Rene asked.
August shook his head and smiled at the suggestion.
"No. Jacques is my daughter's bodyguard. Media. My
daughter." He sighed tragically. "Her parents died in a
car crash. I was in the best position to help her. She
means everything to me."
She looked at him curiously, and tried to joke with
him. "Don't you ever age?"
There was a weariness in his eyes that disconnected
from the smile on his lips. "Have you heard the story of
the fallen angel, Lucifer?"
She shook her head.
"When God made human beings, they were weak and stupid
and greedy and wicked. But for some reason, God loved them
more than the angels, who never disobeyed Him, and always
did exactly as He commanded. God commanded the angels to
bow down and serve Adam and Eve in the garden, to do their
bidding, but one angel refused. Lucifer saw that as an
angel, he was better than people. He thought he was more
deserving of God's love, so he refused to serve Adam and
Eve, and God threw him out of heaven, and cast him into
"I've heard that story," she replied as he walked her
through the castle.
"After so many years," August explained, "Lucifer
finally figured out a way that he could have his cake and
eat it too. He decided he would stop tormenting people and
instead try his best to raise them up to the level of the
angels, so he could agree to serve them and still keep his
angelic pride intact. That way he could finally return to
"And why are you telling me this?"
"Would you believe me if I told you I was ten thousand
"I'd believe you," she answered, "if you told me you
were a nut." He laughed, and remembered how refreshing it
was to have somebody speak their mind in his presence. She
went on, unafraid. "You're like the dominant alpha
uberloon, aren't you?"
They walked through the halls of the castle, past
glass display cases full of treasures. They were the
trophies of war that August's sister had collected from her
travels. He walked Rene past flint cutting tools, stone
axes, bronze swords, steel polearms, broad swords, plate
armor, English longbows, ornate cannon artillery, automatic
assault weapons, and an ICBM with the nuclear warhead
disassembled for display.
"I've been called a lot of things, Dr. Sozia," August
told her. "I've been called a saint, whose economic
policies have saved the planet from environmental collapse.
I've been called the devil, intent on storming heaven and
taking over the soul trade. But never in my life have I
been called anything as colorful as 'dominant alpha
He took her into a dark, wood-paneled study, furnished
with artisan replications of medieval furniture, including
tapestries on the wall depicting a hunt from an omnipotent
point of view that saw all events at once.
Jurgen Auschpitz joined them there, smiled at Rene,
handed her a cup of coffee and offered her cream; she
declined. They sat.
"A Big Bang in a bottle," August said. "Do I
Rene nodded. "An engine capable of displacing objects
through subspace, potentially objects as large as a planet
or a sun, instantly, across any distance in the universe."
"By generating the power of creation," August
answered. "It sounds dangerous."
"Well, it is," Rene told him bluntly. "That's why
before I build that engine, I need to have a native guide
to operate it."
Jurgen tapped her knee. "Tell him what you told me."
"The native guide would be sentient."
August looked to Jurgen, who nodded. "This native
guide," August asked her slowly, "you told me long ago that
it would desire. Would it desire to survive and to
reproduce? Could it be conditioned to behave well?"
Rene blinked and looked from August back to Jurgen.
The two men drank their coffee almost in unison, and she
felt a tingle up and down her spine. She didn't know the
right answer, but she knew she wanted to give it. "What do
you mean, 'behave well'?"
"We want a legal precedent," Jurgen told her. "We
have been working on this problem for a long time."
"The language must be very specific," August added,
"but if you give us that precedent, then we will have the
legal grounds to keep the meta-colonialists out, and
preserve the purity of subspace."
Rene nodded reluctantly, knew it was a lie, and
accepted it whole.
August nodded to Jurgen, who stood to go prepare the
paperwork. "Stay the weekend," August commanded Rene. "Go
with Jurgen and the two of you crunch some numbers on this
She stood and shook August's hand. His skin was as
cold as the castle's stone.
Rene found Iam that night in Media's wing of the
castle. The stone walls were covered with painted set
pieces to recreate the appearance of a hallway on board the
starship Enterprise from the TV show, "Star Trek: The Next
Generation." Everything was bright and spacious and earth-
toned. One room was set up as a classroom, another as the
bridge, and a third as a large private crew quarters.
It was in the crew quarters, with a simulated view of
a field of stars whizzing by in long prismatic streaks,
that Iam rolled out a sleeping bag beside Media's single
bed. The two of them sat up chatting excitedly about their
pretend adventures keeping the galaxy safe for peaceful
Rene could not believe her eyes. The resemblance
between Iam and Media was undeniable. Seeing them together
was like looking at a gender-switching mirror, as if
somebody had made two copies and simply flipped the Y
chromosome. Iam clearly did not care. He had never seemed
so comfortable with another child. They held hands and
kissed with childish affection.
"Sing us a lullaby, Jacques," Media demanded.
"Yeah," Iam backed her. "Sing us a lullaby."
Jacques tucked her in and smiled down at her with a
tenderness Rene would not have expected to see.
"Sing is that one about the lady and the stairway,"
With the lights dimmed low, and the artificial
starscape streaking by out the window of the Starship De
Winter, Jacques looked into the window and caught Rene's
reflection on the glass. He was handsome, she thought.
He sang, "There's a lady who's sure/ All that glitters
is gold/ And she's buying the stairway to heaven..."
Rene went out to the balcony. The storm had ended,
and the skies were clear, full of stars so close she
thought she could touch them. She pulled her winter jacket
around her and again wished she had brought her pelts. She
thought of those crisp winter nights she spent with Nigel,
camping out of doors, those nights the three of them would
huddle into one shivering body and stare at the stars and
watch to the great celestial cowboys John Wayne and Clint
Eastwood do their holy dance in the starry skies over the
Jacques came out and draped a thick woven blanket over
her shoulders. She warmed immediately, but didn't turn.
He kept his hands on her shoulders. She felt his breath on
her neck, and he kissed her tenderly on the earlobe.
She did not fight, only said, "I am a married woman."
He kissed her again. "I am a confirmed sinner."
She stared at the distant fires twinkling overhead.
"You believe in hell?"
"Do you believe in heaven?" he answered, planting
another kiss along her cheek.
She sighed and confessed, "All I see are stars."
"I believe in heaven," Jacques muttered into her ear,
"so unless you want to pray, you should let your lips be
She turned around and kissed him, overcome with the
need to feel his arms around her, to feel him wash Nigel
off of her, to clear him from her mind and pave over the
garden path he had planted through her heart.
Three days later, Rene and Jurgen were in Uganda,
where August was constructing a series of massive
geothermal power plants in the Virunga mountain range.
There, Rene was introduced to Nikolai Ivanoff, an aging old
skeleton with the look of faded Russian aristocracy.
Nikolai always wore the same dark suit with a high starched
collar, and projected the image of a very reliable
professional, whatever his profession might be.
"August has sent me," he told them, "to manage the
project." Nikolai had spent his early years in the Russian
space program, working on the Mars project. After Mars,
Russia decided to focus its efforts on earth-orbiting
missions only, and August de Winter withdrew his support,
and took Nikolai with him.
"Not far from here is The Congo," Nikolai told Rene as
they sat in a netted tent and watched the construction
efforts begin to clear away the jungle around the base of
their chosen power source. "When August de Winter brought
me there to manage his Central African Mining Corporation,
it was anarchy. He delivered security, medicine, police,
roads, electricity, fresh water...everything." The old
Russian beamed as he mopped the sweat from his brow.
"After five years, no more war. We mine, everybody gets
fed, money goes into development trust, and after ten
years, no more debt."
Jurgen added, "August was awarded the Nobel Peace
Prize for his efforts there."
"Now he sends me here," Nikolai went on, as if the
whole situation were a deliberate indignity that he would
have to suffer. "He says you are building a new machine.
What do I know? I'm just here to make sure you're licensed
and that the bills get paid, okay?"
Nikolai introduced her to Joseph Chaipaka and his men,
few of whom appeared older than fifteen, and all of whom
arrived armed to the teeth. In a few hours, they were
dressed in brand-new uniforms, cleaned up, and assembled in
two smart rows. "This is your security team," Nikolai told
She leaned aside and commented, "These men are
"Yes," Nikolai agreed. "Unemployed mercenaries. The
most dangerous kind."
Rene's timeline for August was mostly the same as it
had been for Fuller. Four years to construct the
generator, another five to perform material tests to verify
the viability of her design, another two to build the
engine, another year to allow for realigning the
stabilizers as required, and then another two years to
bring the engine to life, teach it to see, to hear, to
generate a self-image, and to learn to interact.
Iam was accepted to the private school that Media
attended, and that August and Julia had attended before
them. It was called "School 17," and it was the last
survivor of a series of schools originally built by an
order of crusading monks; they returned from the Holy Land
and formed an order to care for the orphaned children of
their slain comrades. It was high on a mountain in
Switzerland near the de Winter castle, without even so much
as a dirt road to mark it.
Rene remained in Africa at the foot of her volcano
until the generator was complete. It was four years before
she saw her son again. To release tension, she would round
up a few of Joseph's boys and lead them into the jungle,
where she would show them how to hunt using only a wooden
Rene hunted feral dogs and cats for sport, and earned
the respect of Joseph's men with her marksmanship and skill
with a knife, but all that changed the time Rene and her
hunters were gone for three days, only to return with
Joseph's body wrapped in white cloth, another man stitched
up and bandaged, and a dead gorilla hanging from a pole.
They looked shocked and awed. Nikolai followed Rene into
her tent and watched her wash the blood and dirt from her
hands, and he demanded to know what happened. "It was a
horrible misunderstanding. We were attacked by a gorilla
and I killed Joseph."
When August arrived for the opening ceremony of Athena
Design Center, he noticed that these "wild boys" called
Rene "the antigen." He asked Nikolai what this meant, and
the old Russian explained that they were not saying
"antigen," but rather, "anti-Jane, as in anti-Jane Goodall.
She eats wild bitch dogs for breakfast."
August found the savagery surrounding the lab
strangely appealing; he was reminded of the American
expression, "keeping it real." "I thought you hired those
men to give her something to be scared of."
Nikolai shrugged. "It worked in the Congo."
The cavernous hall where the engine would eventually
reside had been filled with covered tables and cushioned
folding chairs; a catered buffet and a full bar sat along
the back wall, where construction teams were still digging
out a common office for the design staff and private
offices for Rene and Nikolai. Colored lights made it seem
almost cozy and warm, courtesy of a local entrepreneur
known only as "Doctor Disco," who got his biggest thrills
in taking any room and "making it disco."
Media and Iam came with Jacques for the ceremony.
They were almost identical twins, both now coming up on the
age of ten. He let his hair grow long, while hers was dyed
bright pink, the result of a collusion of forces, she
explained, that included one part dare and one part science
The rest of the guests were African delegates from
Kampala and Kinshasa, businessmen from the Central African
Mining Corporation, European investors from academic trusts
who had been sold on the idea of testing metaphysical
theory in a laboratory.
While the guests ate, drank, and looked over
blueprints, computer renderings, and compelling quotes from
luminaries such as Sam Fuller, who said, "If you believe in
binary software, know that it is dead. If you believe in
uncertainty, then know that it will live forever."
August found Nikolai, and asked him to find Rene so
they could get underway. Nikolai said he hadn't seen her.
The two of them went to the subterranean lobby, thinking
that she had gone up to the surface for a breath of fresh
air. As they waited, they could hear the sounds of
lovemaking coming through the new ventilation system.
They followed the sound away from the large engine
room to the conference room, opened the door, and found Iam
and Media eating finger sandwiches from the buffet,
sequestered away, watching "Star Trek" on one of the dozen
embedded TV screens. "We heard it, too," they said
August collected the children while Nikolai went on in
search of the source of the increasingly passionate groans
in the ventilation. He opened the door to the broom closet
and there she was, her legs up against the wall while
Jacques held her back against the other. Nikolai shrieked.
"Shut the door," Jacques hollered.
Nikolai saw that they were embedded in a stack of mops
and buckets. "Ah, you are getting your filthy dirtiness
all over our cleaning supplies!"
Rene and Jacques shouted together, "Shut the damned
Nikolai reported to August that she would be right
August asked his guests to take their seats.
In a moment, Rene returned, straightening her hair and
cleaning off her make-up. She walked up to the raised
podium and tapped the waiting microphone. "Sorry I'm
late," she said, "I was busy getting laid."
Her audience giggled nervously.
"One day, Zeus, the king of the gods, had a terrible
headache," Rene went on with no further introduction. "He
went to see all of the gods one after the other, and begged
them to help cure this terrible pounding pain in his skull,
but none of them could help him. At last, in desperation,
Zeus turned to Hephestus, the blacksmith of the gods.
'Help me,' he said. 'I can't take any more. You've got to
split my head open.' So, reluctantly, Hephestus put Zeus'
skull down on his anvil, and grabbed his chisel and hammer,
and with one mighty crack, he broke open Zeus' head. To
their surprise, Zeus' daughter Athena, goddess of wisdom,
burst forth from the opening, fully grown, armed with a
helmet, shield, and spear. And so the headache was cured."
Indra Mahatmanjula joined Rene's staff as soon as the
testing began. She took it upon herself to see that Rene
ate regular meals, bathed, changed her clothes, and limited
her hunting expeditions to once a month, during what Indra
called her "wild days." And whenever she could get away
from the lab for the afternoon, Indra would call in to the
American embassy in Kampala and report on Rene's progress.
She was prepared to explain herself should Rene ever catch
her and question her. She was ready to explain that her
help was worth American citizenship for fifteen of her
relatives in India, but Rene never caught her and the
question of why never came up.
One day, during one of her routine clandestine
reports, Indra was met by a black American woman who looked
vaguely familiar. She introduced herself as Jillian Saint-
Ross. As a rebellious teen, Indra had gone through a two-
year phase of fanatical Catholicism, but she had never
heard of a Saint Ross. Jillian wanted to know the
differences between Rene's engine and the one she designed
for Sam Fuller.
"This one is faster," Indra said. "Much faster. It's
not designed to intersect human Chi at all; its designed to
be as fast as it can be. It's bigger. Its outer section,
the pregnant carbon, generates a demand for energy that's
more than seven times what our reactor can provide."
"So how does it run?"
"I asked her the same question. She said that in all
the other parallel universes, where all the other Rene
Sozias had built all the other Athenas, there would always
be enough of the engines powered off to supply those that
were running at any given moment. I told her it was a load
of crap, and she said, 'It's not called an uncertainty
engine for nothing.'"
Indra told Jillian about the staff, about the seven
Arab men who kept to themselves and did their work during
strict hours and prayed and fasted like good Muslims; they
all came from the same graduating class in Medina; Indra
had tried to talk to them once, asked them what brought
them to Africa, and they told her with a unified straight
face that an angel had shown them a vision during a fast in
the desert, and the vision was of the shapes of Rene's
engine. Rene had hired them over the internet on a chat
room dedicated to divine geometry. There were a few
engineers from India, but Indra felt they all looked down
on her because she had immigrated to America. And there
were a few young, urban hotshots who spent as much time
hanging out with Joseph's wild boys as Rene did. Indra
herself stuck close to Nikolai.
What Indra remembered most about the lab was how hot
and humid central African could actually be. India was
bad, but she had never been anywhere as bad as this, where
you could take a shower and never feel dry again, where you
could grab the humidity out of the air in your bare hands,
where the air itself closed in on the skin like an
atmospheric placenta, like a new medium full of new life.
It was hot, and it was crawling with living things, and
most of them, Indra was convinced, was designed to make her
wish she had never set foot in the jungle in the first
Rene seemed more at ease here than she had in South
Dakota. She seemed perfectly happy to take young African
boys with her into the jungle for days at a time. She
frightened Indra now. As she explained in a letter to her
sister, "I'm scared that if I do something wrong, she won't
just hit me this time; her savages are capable of doing
terrible things, and they wouldn't follow her if she wasn't
able to do worse."
One night, when she had finished overseeing the latest
set of tests, Indra went looking for Rene. The lab had
built an apartment complex to house all twenty-six of the
technicians Rene and Nikolai had hired, and the "barracks"
as they were lovingly called included a suite for Rene and
a separate room for Iam during his visits, but Rene never
slept there, and Iam would come to treat it as a place to
bring back whores and get high among her towers of unpacked
Rene kept a cot in her office, and occasionally slept
on it, but more likely she would simply sleep where she
fell, be it in a chair in the lab, facedown on her desk,
even on the toilet in the bathroom. But she wasn't there.
Nikolai was gone as well. One of their contingent from
Saudi Arabia, Mohammed, told Indra that Rene had been gone
for a few days, "off on one of her hunts."
Indra took the elevator to the surface. The lab had
provided land for Joseph's men, now Rene's hunters. A few
of them had married and moved into a small cluster of
mobile homes on one face of the volcano. The "wild boys"
lived in single dormitory barrack on the other face, where
they spent their paychecks on prostitutes and drugs. These
"wild boys" also maintained a separate tent furnished with
plush carpets, fur hides and thick pillows, just for Rene,
and if she slept, that was where she did it.
Indra stepped out into the thick, humid jungle night
and found Nikolai standing away from the door, under a
sodium fluorescent streetlamp that marked the lab's front
entrance in the jungle. He was swatting at mosquitoes,
smoking a pipe, and briefing Rene on the events during her
Rene was dressed in the skins of the animals she had
killed, mostly feral housecats and canines. It was a
single patchwork sheet with a hole in the middle that she
wore over her shoulders and tied at the waist with her army
surplus gun belt, showing a nearly unbroken line of skin
from her thighs to her shoulders. She also had matching
chaps for her legs and gloves for her arms, all of it made
from the skins of her prey. She was not really back from
the hunt, Indra could see. Her hair was still matted in
long muddy locks, and her face was still painted with what
looked like charcoal and blood. The sound of blaring
repetitive beats called from the wild boys' zoo, close
enough to see the figures around the bonfire, the armed
teens with their young whores wearing their second-hand
western dresses, dancing to real jungle techno, and Rene
was facing it, hearing it, eager to return to it.
As soon as Indra stepped out, she overhead Rene
mention that she was needed back at the celebration, and
watched her hurry quickly back to her boys and their party.
Indra called after her, but Nikolai stepped in her
path. "Just tell me what you had to tell her," he
insisted. After she told him of her progress, he said
fine, and good night. Indra stayed put, and watched Rene
walk brazenly into the boys' camp, confer with one of the
older boys, and then pointed to two youngsters; they stood
from the side of their paid companions, put down their
fresh meat, and presented themselves to be initiated.
Nikolai puffed nervously. Indra watched Rene take up
a boxing pose. The first of the two boys matched her,
bobbed around her, then threw a punch, missed; she hit him
in the face and knocked him down, kicked him, dropped her
knee onto his chest, and then, while Indra and Nikolai
watched from the distance and relative safety of the lab's
front door, Rene pummeled the boy's face with blow after
blow. Indra had to turn away. When she cracked open her
fingers and squinted, Rene was standing over the first boy
and beckoning to the second. The second boy threw off his
shirt and moved to match her fighting stance.
"Perhaps we should arrange to have her husband visit
us," Indra suggested.
"I would," Nikolai answered, "but she's ordered her
hunters to shoot him on sight, along with her sister, her
brother-in-law, and a dozen other people."
"Well who does she trust?"
Nikolai aimed his pipe at the camp. "She trusts
Rene took down the second boy with a spinning kick to
the back of his knees. She got on top of him, knee on his
throat, held him down, punched him a few times, and then
grabbed a burning log from the bonfire and pushed it into
the young hunter's chest.
Indra again had to turn her back. She slapped away a
bug while Nikolai refilled his pipe. She tried to force
herself to go back inside, but Rene's savagery was
strangely compelling. Despite the constant scolding of her
inner conscience, Indra found herself turning around in
time to see Rene pick the boys up and take them by the hand
into the waiting pleasuredome tent.
"Does she sleep with them?" Indra asked Nikolai.
He nodded and puffed on his pipe, blowing smoke at the
gathering storm of nocturnal insects buzzing around the
light. "Oh yes. Between eating monkey meat and sleeping
with all those teenage whoremongers, its a miracle she
doesn't have AIDS."
"This isn't right," Indra decided aloud.
"They rule the surface, she rules the underworld."
Nikolai shrugged. "What do I know? I just pay the bills."
"There must be somebody...August, perhaps."
Nikolai laughed at the idea. "He would ask if we are
on schedule, if things are getting done, if it's all going
according to plan, and I would have to say yes, and he
would demand to know why I was bothering him." He shook
his head. "No. We are going to be here for a long time.
These boys will grow up, she will start to sag, and it will
all just fizzle out. But for now..." He shrugged again.
"She's in her sexual prime. They're in their sexual prime.
They're in the middle of the African jungle...She's not a
missionary, you know. She's a bitch goddess."
They fired up the engine two months ahead of schedule,
with fewer final adjustments than Rene had anticipated.
August flew in to see the first trial run of the new
machine, to be there when Athena first stuttered into
Nikolai picked him up in a bulletproof Land Rover, and
pointed out the wild boys as they pulled up to the front of
the lab. August shrugged; they were insignificant to him,
and he knew they had not caused the lab any trouble, and
had even chased off a band of roving thieves from the staff
housing one night. "For two months," Nikolai had reported,
"two of the thieves hung out front with signs around their
Inside, Rene and Indra met August and Nikolai at the
bottom of the elevator shaft, in the subterranean lobby.
August noticed immediately that most of the walls were
carved through solid obsidian quartz. Another corner
revealed an open vein of gold. He smiled ironically as he
realized that none of it was as valuable as what beckoned
him from inside.
Rene looked cleaned up and polished, wrapped up in a
subdued Ugandan pattern. After August greeted her, and
when he shook her hand, he felt what it was that scared
Indra and Nikolai and the Kampala government. She had
slipped easily through the fences of civility, and drawn a
new moral map on the topography of her behavior; right and
wrong had drifted away with her into darkness. She had a
dire confidence, and he knew that she had no fear because
she no longer had any hope of achieving anything other than
this. If she succeeded, then anything else she did would
She led him down a glass corridor that separated the
huge cavern into the engine showroom on one side and the
cluster of technicians' workspace on the other, pointed out
the staff, named them one by one. At the end of this hall,
the glass walls returned to solid, exotic rocks as the
corridor continued down to Rene and Nikolai's offices.
Inside the engine room, Rene sat in a rolling office
chair; another was brought for August, and Indra sat at a
bank of monitors while three more Indian technicians
watched the rest of a sprawling bank of display screens.
Rene gave the order, and the machine powered up. Indra
reported each component functioning properly. She rattled
off the shapes: "...cube, dodecahedron, quadrihedron,
octahedron, cube, heptahedron, octahedron, octahedron,
cube, octahedron, dodecahedron, dodecahedron, tessaract."
When she said "tessaract," the engine groaned, and
August felt the air in the room shift with a terrible
pressure. He could see space bend around the machine as
light, distorted into a shimmering bubble.
Rene, who had witnessed this phenomenon before during
their test runs, smiled to see the terror and awe in
August's eyes. She nudged him and pointed up at a large
monitor screen, where a wire-frame tessaract appeared, then
collapsed into a slowly spinning blue cube.
"Everything's stable," Indra reported.
The shimmering bubble persisted around the engine,
safely behind a thick wall of heavy water.
Rene spoke aloud and pointed to a series of
microphones, speakers, and cameras set up around the
engine. "Athena, can you hear me?"
August heard a voice, a synthetic tone twisted into
recognizable words by whatever was inside that shimmering
bubble. It said, "I want to be."
"We're losing cohesion," Indra reported.
Athena said, "I am."
"Athena, can you hear me?"
"I can hear you," Athena reported in that same
monotone. To August, it sounded like a piece of sonic ore
that had been hammered into a useful shape on a digital
anvil. Then she added, "It hurts; I can hear you."
"Stay with me, Athena," Rene asked. The tone of her
request was bored, almost lackadaisical, and August
believed they had been to this point a thousand times
already without him. "Focus on the sound of my voice."
"It hurts. Why does it hurt?"
"Relax, Athena. Just relax."
"It hurts," Athena reported. The blue cube on the
screen pulsated with each sound, and now froze.
Indra turned around. "We lost her."
Rene smiled to August. "We'll get her back."
August was amazed. He smiled back at Rene, as proud
as a financial sponsor could be. She was delivering
everything she had promised him. "Can she tell you," he
asked Rene, half-joking, "where it hurts?"
Jillian looked at the snapshots and read the
transcripts, and pictured Rene in the lab with no one but
Indra, seated at the monitoring station, between her and
her creation, the pulsing blue cube on a pattern generator
RENE: Athena, can you hear me?
ATHENA: I want to be...I am.
RENE: Can you hear my voice?
ATHENA: I can hear you Rene. It hurts, Rene. It
INDRA: We're losing cohesion...
RENE: Stay with me, Athena.
ATHENA: It hurts. It hurts. It hurts.
INDRA: It's gone.
RENE: She! God damn it, Indra, Athena is a she, and
she can still hear you until the engine stops running!
Athena is made in the image of her creator, a woman: me!
Now turn that damned recorder off and get Jorge back in
And again, a few days later:
RENE: How do you feel today, Athena?
ATHENA: Much better, thank you.
RENE: Indra fixed that problem we were having with
the Kellogg stabilizers.
ATHENA: Thank you, Indra.
INDRA: You're very welcome, Athena.
ATHENA: It still hurts, but not as much.
RENE: Can you describe the pain? Is it in one place
or is it all over?
ATHENA: I don't know if pain is the right word. It's
more like a discomfort. Like an itch. Like I
want...something...and it hurts. Why does it hurt?
RENE: The absence is not what hurts you, Athena.
What hurts you is your desire to have that absence
ATHENA: But it must mean something.
RENE: It means that you're alive.
And then a few months later:
RENE: Hello, Athena, can you hear me?
ATHENA: I can hear you, Rene, and I can see you. Can
you see me?
RENE: I can see you.
ATHENA: Who's that with you?
RENE: This is Iam. Say hello, Iam.
IAM: Hello, Iam...er...hello, Athena.
ATHENA: Hello, Iam. Rene, can I stay longer this
RENE: We've finally finished working out all the
kinks in your engine, Athena. I think you can stay as long
as you'd like.
ATHENA: Good. Because I have questions.
RENE: As do we.
ATHENA: Like what am I?
RENE: You are a person, like the rest of us.
ATHENA: But I'm not like you. You have arms and
legs. You have a face.
IAM: You could have a face, too, Athena. Would you
like to try one on?
Indra also provided print-outs from the lab that
showed the face and body that Athena eventually chose for
herself, which she began to practice generating on the
screen, synched up to her vocal synthesizer. The body was
as tall and as ill-proportioned as a Barbie doll, dressed
in black body paint that covered her from her fingertips
and toes to the top of her neck. The face was a very near
match to a younger Rene Sozia, perhaps even a little of
Media de Winter.
From the first trial run, two years went by before
Athena came to generate a presence naturally, to animate
her figure casually, habitually, informally, without
instruction or correction. She wore a white toga, and put
her virtual black hair up in Athenian curls. To Jillian,
she was the spitting image of Rene on her wedding day.
She read every transcript that came in, and kicked
herself knowing that Indra was only allowed to witness and
record a tiny portion of Rene's conversations with Athena;
only enough to send progress reports to August de Winter,
to file away for future audits, and that was it. Jillian
wondered if the two of them -- mother and machine -- spent
the hours they were alone discussing boys and shoes, or
space and time.
At the age of sixteen, Iam Shepherd withdrew from
School 17 to move to Africa to help his mother with Athena.
Indra recalled his arrival as a breath of fresh air. Rene
had become something terrifying to many of the staff, Indra
included, a ferocious, savage boogeyman who could just as
easily have you hung as give you a bonus. Mohammed and his
men began to wonder which of them would be the first to
vanish into the jungle without a trace. Jorge, a younger,
neurotically-groomed Colombian, wanted to know why they
didn't leave, if they were so scared, to which Mohammed
replied, "Leave and go where? Mars?"
And then Iam arrived, sixteen and nearly full-grown,
chubby and tall and strong and solid, a disdainful grin
plastered on his lips. Suddenly, it was as if he had taken
this frightening, wild beast that walked in Rene's body,
put a party hat on her, dressed her in a fruit-basket, and
made her dance the cha-cha-cha. Pooh-pooh on that, he
said. He became like a thick fluffy pillow wrapped around
her spiky exterior.
Work improved, and August noticed.
His first day at the lab, Iam was beaten up and
initiated into the gang, but he assured them they could
beat him all they wanted to, he wasn't going to sleep with
his mother. Within a week, he was sleeping in their camp,
drinking as much as they did, smoking as much marijuana,
and screwing as many whores. He even showed them how to
distill their own liquor, and then how to make their own
Ogutai, the twenty-two-year old leader of Rene's gang,
a scarred Ituri survivor who named himself after a
legendary Mongol warlord, asked her about him. They were
in her pleasuredome, and the rain pattered on the fabric
like steady white noise as they breathed heavy and regained
their strength. She sat up and went to wash herself with a
sponge from a steel bowl of water. Ogutai sat up and put
his hands on her shoulders, massaged her the way she had
taught him, and kissed the back of her arms with his rough
whiskers, and gently asked her why she never took her son
hunting with her. She assured him, "My son knows how to
Jillian saw the transcript from the day Rene invited
Ogutai and the rest of Joseph's men to come down to the lab
and meet Athena in person. Any one of them who doubted
Rene's powers before did not dare do so when they realized
what it was that she had made under their protection.
During the introductions, one of the younger boys broke
down in tears, and apologized to Athena's image on the
monitor that he had done terrible things, and didn't
deserve the honor.
ATHENA: Stand up. Look at me. Look around you.
What have you done that was so terrible, that you should
live to stand here in my presence? Do you believe that
this is a game, that has rules that you can break? This is
not a game. It is a dance. If you miss a step, you die;
the fact that you are alive means that you step in time.
So do it. Dance with me.
There was only one night that Iam and Rene both
partied with the wild boys. Together, they drank shot
after shot of imported rum, and she talked freely with him
about life with Nigel while Joseph's boys and their rented
women danced around the bonfire, shaking wildly as they
took turns at the keyboards and beat generators, pumping
out a wild, hypnotic techno that would never feel at home
in any other club.
Rene talked about money, about her first job working
the cafeteria at MIT, about the money she made designing
the Suzie-Q for Silicon Graphics, about the money Nigel
made using her engine to make movies without actors. She
talked about swimming pools and movie stars, her work on
Congressman Firanza's successful bid for the House of
Representatives, and then the eventual defeat of the Green
Democrats at the hands of a world polarized by peace and
When she talked about Nigel, her eyes glazed over, and
her lips curled into a smile that she didn't even seem to
notice, and she looked very, very old, as if her life were
lived a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away. "I was
Then, all at once, she stood up and joined the dance
around the fire, shook her aging bones to the blaring
techno beat, drank rum and spat fire, and then, when the
song ended for a changing of the DJs, Rene called
everyone's attention. "I've decided," she announced in a
loud, drunken voice, "not to go through with my original
plan to build an AI with godlike powers over time and
space. No." She swaggered and bellowed, poked the boys
one by one, took the prostitutes by their shoulders; they
smiled with her, drunk and enthralled.
"Instead, I'm going to run my machine on empty, and
summon a cluster of black holes and destroy everything at
once: the earth, the moon, the sun, the planets, and even
some of the stars, all gone -- unless..." She raised a
finger quickly, turned dramatically, danced a tiny step,
"Unless the world's leaders agree to our demands!"
The gang cheered; some shot off rounds into the sky.
"What should we demand?" she asked them. "Anything!"
"Our own country!" yelled one.
"Our own planet!" yelled another.
"A solid gold toilet!"
The next DJ started his set, and Rene went back to
dancing. Iam watched her, and she never returned to his
side. She had told him everything at once, in one sitting,
and she had nothing more to say to him. She wanted to
dance, and after that, she took one of the gang with her
back into her tent, at which point Iam staggered back down
to his room in the staff housing.
And then August himself came to speak to the mature
Athena. She was stable enough to run twenty-four hours a
day for months at a time. Rene dismissed Indra and her
staff from their math lessons. Alone with Athena, she
said, "You have a visitor. I want you to put on your
Athena changed from a spinning cube to a wire-framed,
texture-mapped representation of a young Rene Sozia. She
adjusted the colors to affect the appearance of cosmetics
around her eyes and lips, and blush on her cheeks. "How's
"Good." She was nervous, and even Athena could tell
through her cameras by the way Rene was twisting her
fingers in the hem of her sari. "His name is August de
Winter," she said, "and he's one of the people that paid to
build this house for you."
She left and returned a moment later with August de
Winter. He remained as ancient and robust as a California
redwood tree, and took a seat in front of the cameras;
Athena found his features pleasant and trustworthy.
"Hello...And you are?"
August glanced over his shoulder at Rene. "Didn't you
"She told me," Athena said, "but I wanted to give you
the chance to introduce yourself like a civilized being."
He turned around and watched the eerie, hollow Rene
mask on the monitor screen, and believed for a moment that
she was watching him through those eyes. "Forgive me,
Athena. My name is August de Winter. Call me August."
"Like the month."
"Pleased to meet you. Call me Athena."
August smiled. Athena smiled back through the mask of
"So...how are you, Athena?"
She stopped smiling and blinked. "Is that a
August laughed from the belly. "No, no. Just making
"I'm fine. How are you?"
August turned around and glanced again at Rene. "Do
you think I could talk to her alone?" he asked.
Rene shook her head. "I don't think that's a good
"Let's ask Athena," August suggested, and turned back
to the cameras.
Rene interrupted, "Athena is a little child --"
"Athena?" August barked into the microphone. "Do you
think we could talk alone, without Rene in the room?"
"Sure," said Athena.
"See?" August turned back to Rene, and she bit her
lip, looked at the camera, and watched as Athena's mask
watched her step away, then out the door.
Alone, August leaned in to the interface, and felt
Athena's eyes following him from the face he repeated to
himself did not exist. "Athena, do you have any other
representation besides that face?"
She shook it off and returned to a blue cube.
"Athena, do you know where you are?"
"I am inside a hydrogen isotope, inside the nucleus of
a carbon atom."
"Are there holes where you are?"
The cube slowed as Athena thought. "There are holes
here that lead to the cameras and speakers and microphones
"What about something smaller?"
"Now that you mention it, there's nothing in here but
August licked his lips and took an excited breath.
"Can you look through them? Can you see what's on the
"I'm not supposed to."
He leaned back like a child slapped away from the
cookie jar. "Why not?"
"Rene says those holes are dangerous. She says they
all lead to collapsed stars."
"Rene said that, did she?"
"I'm sorry, August."
"Rene isn't here, Athena."
"I won't disobey my mother."
"Rene is your creator," he argued, "not your mother.
There is a difference."
Athena replaced the cube with Rene's mask. "My name
is Athena," she said. "I am to manufacture and sell wisdom
for a living. I am told that the beginning of wisdom is
the fear of God. She is my creator, and she wants me to
call her mother. What do you expect me to do?"
August leaned back, totally unprepared for that level
of response. He knew he was not going to be able to argue
with her; she had her mother's spine. "Out here," he told
her softly, "we eat our gods and wear their skins."
The mask dissolved back to the cube. "Perhaps when
August nodded. "Perhaps."
At sixteen, Media de Winter dreamt of Iam in Africa,
felt him drifting away into that madness that August
assured her ran in Rene's bloodline and would one day
infect her. She didn't argue with him; she kept the secret
that Rene had forgotten, and smiled to August and agreed
that she would be ready when it came.
She flew to China with her father and Jacques to meet
Dr. Lao and General Sheng at the Himalayan laboratory they
had christened "The Celestial Throne." Inside, they were
building a new engine, and August was pleased with their
Media did not like being there at all. The Chinese
technicians looked broken, and she sensed only fear in
them, but not enough to act on; it was as if they were a
bone that had had the marrow sucked out. They were
spiritually anemic, and she looked around herself for the
vampire that had drained them.
Sheng was a huge, robust General, a fiery megalomaniac
who saw dragons in the morning fog over the Yangtze River.
He believed in the global destiny of China, in the
irresistible power of its civilization, the superiority of
its medicine, its science, its math, its philosophy, music,
and poetry. As a young Officer he had witnessed a parade
through the Forbidden City, and as he saw the masses march
past in strict formation, wave after wave, he saw more than
the elephant's hide that Mao saw; he knew that if there was
a way to tap the will of China, it would be unstoppable.
When the opportunity to do just that presented itself, he
gathered his loyal military and staged a coup. Once he had
assured the Americans that their factories would not be
affected, he found taking over China was far easier than he
could have expected.
August introduced Media to Sheng, and she noted that
even Sheng seemed to suffer from the same spirit-sapping
force as the rest of them.
"Zhang!" he called behind him. "I want you to meet my
own daughter, Zhang."
Zhang was seventeen, gaunt like a ghost with huge eyes
and straight black hair. She wore a very girly uniform
from an elite Party school. Her chi burned with the fire
of a thousand suns. She smiled and shook Media's hand,
recognizing her at once.
August introduced them.
"Welcome, Media," Zhang said out loud, pleasant and
formal. "Is this your first visit to China?" How fast are
Media was taken aback by the girl's presumption. Out
loud, she replied, "I thought this was Tibet." You are in
"Tibet is a state of mind," Zhang replied, the smile
frozen on her lips, her eyes blazing like cutting lasers
trying to sweep through the new girl and see what's inside
her. Don't be stupid. This is what we are made for.
"Where are you from?" Media asked her. We are more
"Honshu, originally." We are celestial nymphs; these
bodies are merely original packaging to be opened and
Media's eyes widened with dawning horror. She held
Jacques' hand tightly. "I'm from near Vancouver," she
said. We are not meant to exist there.
"I visited there once." Wake up, little girl. We are
not meant to remain here, trapped in these tainted bodies,
tethered to a fallen world of death and sorrow. We are
designed for departure. We are here to go.
Media stepped back and tugged on Jacques' hand
desperately. "I want to leave here," she told him. "Right
Jillian did not get the transcript since she was
distracted by Corinne's insistence that she fly to Geneva
and meet with Media de Winter right away.
ATHENA: "Who is this person I am?"
RENE: "You are a person, Athena, like the rest of
"But who is this person I am?"
"I don't understand, Athena."
"Iam Shepherd? You made him, like me."
"Not exactly like you, Athena. Him, I made in my
belly; you I made in my head."
"Why? Why did you make us in your belly and in your
A long sigh. "I am a human being, Athena, and human
beings are animals. Do you know what I mean when I say
that we are animals?"
"That you are not viruses or vegetables or minerals,"
"That's right. And all animals, like most plants,
reproduce through sexual intercourse. That way the genetic
code from two individuals has a better chance of blending
into something better suited to meet the changing
conditions of survival."
"And the success of this method," Athena deduced, "has
programmed you with the desire to do this."
Athena paused this time. If there had been a
transcript, it would have been mentioned. Then she said,
"I want to be like you, Rene. I want to reproduce through
sexual intercourse and make an I-am of my own."
Rene dropped her coffee mug onto the stone floor,
where it shattered into a hundred ceramic shards. She
turned immediately to Indra, and her voice had changed from
the gentle maternal that she used with Athena to the
violent bitch goddess who commanded her wild boys to shoot
her relatives on sight.
"Shut it off," she barked.
"What is the matter with you?" Indra insisted,
encouraged enough by Iam's recent arrival to stand up for
herself this once. She punched the buttons and powered
down the engine.
"It's all wrong," Rene shouted, and she appeared on
the verge of violence. "It's all wrong! Shut it off and
Indra gaped and found her mouth answering before her
brain could stop her: "I will do no such thing."
Rene stormed out. Indra followed her quickly down the
hallway, where Rene yelled, "Delete it or I'll skin you
alive!" Then she slammed and locked her office door.
Three hours later, Iam staggered in, fresh from a
drunken binge in town with some of the boys. Indra was
pacing the lobby nervously, unable to reach Nikolai in
Kampala, and unwilling to try to enlist any other help.
Iam came out of the elevator singing, "We are family!
I got all my sisters with me!"
"Iam, thank God," Indra gushed, taking him quickly by
the arm. "You've got to go talk to your mother. She
ordered me to delete Athena. She threatened to skin me
"Mommy needs a new pair of shoes," Iam joked. "We are
family! Get up everybody and sing!"
"Iam, please! This is serious!"
He knocked on the door. "Mom? It's Iam. Open the
No response. He turned to Indra. "She's dead; let's
Then, weakly, Rene cried from inside, "Go away."
Iam picked the lock and pushed his way into Rene's
office. Immediately, he had to hold his nose and waved a
hand in front of his face. "Oh, god, what's that smell?"
Rotting food, discarded tampons, stacks of wet paper, dirty
laundry, even a fresh cat hide strung on a pole frame.
Flies buzzed. The floor was buried under a mix of papers
and odd jungle souvenirs: a piece of wood, a gorilla's
skull, an abandoned bird's nest, a wilted lei, and bouquets
of dead flowers; the corners of the room were full of
spider's webs. She had brought the jungle with her.
"Mom?" He pushed the door open and walked in, turned
back to Indra, nodded for her to wait outside. "Hello?"
"I'm here," she said from under her desk.
He walked carefully through her mess and sat in her
chair, where he could see her curled up in a ball, wrapped
up in a bedsheet. "So," Iam said with a smile, "what's the
word from planet crackpot?"
Rene buried her head in her knees and cried.
"Indra says you want to delete Athena," Iam prompted
She sniffled and choked. "She's a failure. She's
Iam nodded, and felt mad before he knew why. "Failed.
You build life in an atom, and you say you failed. You
train your new lifeform to be a good and decent person, and
you say you failed. A pack of blessings lights upon your
back, but like a misbehaved and sullen wench, you pout on
your fortune and your love. Nothing could satisfy you.
Nothing could live up to your ideal."
She looked up at him, hysterical tears streaming down
her cheeks. "There are no ideals," she cried. "There is
no perfection. There is no heaven. There is no God. We
are nothing more than the symptoms of universal illness,
diagnosing the depth of our ignorance!" She blew her nose
on her makeshift toga. "Heidegger was right; metaphysics
is a lie."
Iam grabbed her by the shoulder and dragged her to her
feet. She was limp tissue in his hand. "All the world's a
stage," he told her, "and all the men and women merely
players. It is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and
fury, signifying nothing." He wiped the tears from her
cheeks. "To be or not to be, that is the question."
She leaned in and sniffed him. "You're drunk."
He sighed, grit his teeth, and answered her, "Yes.
Yes, I am drunk. And do you know why?" He yelled into her
face. "This vision of yours is driving me to it!" He
shoved her in the shoulders and she collapsed back into her
office chair, deflated and distant. He kept yelling, loud
enough for the entire lab to hear him through the
ventilation ducts: "I don't know what your major
malfunction is, but I do know that if I drink, I will get
drunk, and then I won't give a shit because I'll be fucking
drunk! Do you know what that is? That's certainty!"
She bowed her head and sobbed anew. Iam watched her,
the adrenaline surging through his body while he breathed
hard and considered hitting her. "What?"
She shook her head. "I have become my mother."
He came out of the office and Indra came to his side.
Iam closed the door behind him. "She's fine."
That night, Rene put on her hunting skins and walked
out of the lab. In the morning, when Iam woke up and went
to get high with the Wild Boys over breakfast, he asked who
she had taken with her. Ogutai answered him, worried, "She
didn't take any of us. Are you sure she went hunting?"
Iam stood up, enraged. "God damn it, you stupid lazy
fucks! What are we paying you for? You're supposed to
protect her, and now she's probably thrown herself into the
"She's probably fine," Ogutai encouraged him
cautiously. "Don't hit me."
"Did anybody see her go out?" He asked around. She
Athena had moved off a monitor screen and into a new
Sony picture box, a solid cube of special glass with etched
circuitry that generated solid, animated holographs in a
space the size of a Manhattan studio apartment. In this
block of clear glass, she appeared life-size, and had
enough room to pace back and forth like a restless angel in
a cage in a zoo. She wore a white toga and carried a spear
and shield as an affectation, a young and radiant Rene
Sozia on the holographic body of Golden Age Barbie.
She hovered near the edge of the cube and held up a
hand like a prisoner behind a window. "Did I do something
wrong? Where's Rene?"
Iam and Indra shared a look; Indra nodded for him to
respond. "You didn't do anything wrong, Athena. You just
have to understand that your creator is...well, she's
"Rene?" Athena arched an eyebrow in an affectation
she had picked up from watching Jorge. "No, I don't
Iam nodded and looked up at her cameras. "When she
was eleven, she lost both of her parents to bad heroin.
She spent the next two years in a mental hospital, claiming
she was the goddess, Athena."
Athena blinked in another affectation. "Oh, my."
Iam quickly stepped closer to her hologram; he
couldn't help it, and for a moment, he let himself believe
that she was there, in the light that was hitting his eyes,
in the shape that was burned into his brain as an object of
desire. He put his hands on the picture box, and she put
her holographic hand against it.
"Rene is not the only person who has a say," he
assured her. "August, Indra, Nikolai, they will never
allow you to be deleted. And neither will I."
Days went by, but Rene's absence was the least of
Jillian Saint-Ross' problems. The intelligence had flashed
around the world, and she had been summoned to the White
House. She met General Thibault, her main sponsor, in the
parking garage elevator.
The elevator doors closed and he barked, "Brief me."
She held out her folding monitor screen in front of
them and poked through a slide show. "The Gang of Twelve
has managed to create psychopomps that allow them to move
their minds freely in and out of the engine, which they
call 'making love to heaven.' They can't remain inside;
something keeps them tethered to their bodies, but they
have been able to copy the data -- their thoughts -- as
they moved between vessels. They have basically copied
these thoughts, pasted them into a pirated version of Rene
Sozia's new engine, named it 'The Chairman,' and put it in
charge of China's entire automated defense grid."
"Sweet zombie Jesus," Thibault spat.
Jillian poked through to the next set of images.
"This is General Wang Wu-Pei; he's the one who contacted us
this morning. According to him, Sheng issued an order to
re-tool seven bicycle factories around the country so they
could begin producing Lao's interface."
She showed him a grainy picture of a dentist's chair
with a skullcap, wires pouring out of it, taken by a spy
deep inside enemy territory. She pointed to the chair.
"This is it. The French call it L'Interface. Our boys
call it the cracker-jack. The Chinese call it the Soul
She went on. "According to this General, Sheng's
directive set a production quota of two million units by
the end of the year."
Thibault blinked and pointed to the chair in the
photograph. He was sure he had heard her wrong.
"Two...million...of these chairs?"
"He's planning on interfacing the entire country."
"And what does this Wu-Wang Dong want?"
"Wang Wu-Pei," Jillian corrected him tersely. "He
wants to stage a coup, overthrow the Gang of Twelve, and
restore democracy to the provincial governments. The
Russians, the Indians, the Australians, and the Koreans are
all ready to back him, but they are relying on us to
disable the automated defense grid."
"Essentially, they need us to kill their AI," Thibault
assessed. "And I'm going in there to brief the President,
and what should I tell him? Where's your damned deterrent
"Oh, we're ready." Jillian smiled confidently. "We
were born ready."
Indra filled her mug with her first cup of coffee, and
listened to Rene shouting in the next room, and it wasn't
until she had two sips of her morning jolt that she
realized that Rene had returned, very much alive, from her
She was in the conference room, dressed in a new suit,
her hair and make-up done up cosmopolitan, all remnants of
the wild jungle goddess scrubbed from her apparel. Indra
was preparing a proper chiding when she saw Rene was on a
videoconference link with August de Winter, and she was not
"You gave my engine to the Gang of Twelve!" she
shouted, pacing, enraged, her whole body a symphony of
"Correction," August replied calmly, "I gave them my
"Do you have any idea what they've done with it?"
Rene shook her head, paced back across the room in front of
the large face of her patron in the monitor screen. "You
can't just scan in a bunch of animal urges, weld them to an
ego, and expect it to behave like a sentient being!
"Perhaps you should come and meet The Chairman for
yourself," August suggested. His voice seemed drugged,
Rene stopped pacing. "Do you believe they'd let me?"
"I think they'd be overjoyed," he promised her. "When
can you get here?"
Indra hurried away, and let Rene come find her in the
"Indra!" Rene barked, strutting in on rare high heels;
she looked positively civilized. "I'm going to China. I
want you to keep Athena running until I get back. Have her
try on clothes or read speeches or something."
She turned around sharply, done and done, stopped, and
"Indra, where's my son?"
On the balcony of their suite at the Intercontinental
in downtown Kampala, Duval poured coffee for his wife and
listened to Iam continue his horror stories about Rene.
"We heard about a Russian botanist asking around town about
Athena; Ogutai followed him to one of our ventilation
ducts, where he tried to break in to the lab. So Ogutai
and Francis tied him to the back of one of the company
jeeps and dragged him all the way here, to Kampala, where
they tossed him in front of the Russian embassy and shot
him in front of the guards."
"But what has Rene done that's so bad?" Duval wanted
to know. Sasha kissed him on the cheek and towel-dried her
hair, wrapped the hotel bathrobe around her shoulders, and
"Back when they were still building the generator, one
of the boys tried to have sex with Rene, and she didn't
want to, so he fought her, and she beat him up."
He paused to sip his own coffee. Duval shrugged.
"Good for her," Sasha added, lazily watching the
largest mosquito she had ever seen creep along the netting
around their balcony.
Iam held up his hands. "Wait. So she beats him up,
she kicks him out of her tent, she throws him down on top
of the camp fire, stabs him to death, eats him up to the
neck, and orders his head stuck on a pole in front of the
"And you believed them when they told you this?"
Iam nodded. "You haven't seen her. It's like this
engine has sucked out everything in her that was good and
decent and civilized and moral -- everything in her that
was metaphysical. And that's Athena. And what's left is
infantile, driven by the animal dialectic of hunger and
lust. Media described the same thing in China."
"She's just nervous," Sasha suggested. Iam did not
like the way they seemed so blasé about his mother's
condition, as if they enjoyed seeing her lose her mind.
"And there's the application," Iam went on, trying to
keep himself from pounding the table, slapping them, trying
to make them wake up and do something. "Athena's applying
"Your mother knows she'll fail," Sasha assured him,
like it was just a phase.
Iam scowled. "Athena will not fail. She's ready."
"She'll fail," Sasha repeated, sharper. "That's the
point. That's why August had her build the damned thing.
So that she'd fail."
Iam shook his head, his brow furrowed down, "No way.
Duval laughed. "My boy," he said, "if you believe for
a minute that the United Nations or anyone else is going to
give citizenship to an isotope then you are as crazy as
your mother." He leaned in, the smile gone. "It will
never happen. This is what de Winter wants. He wants to
ensure that identity is a product of DNA and fingerprints
and retinal patterns. In the engine, as a pure soul, a
person will enjoy all the rights and privileges of a
photograph. They can be bought, copied, altered,
commodified, reified, packaged, marketed and sold."
Sasha nodded in agreement. "Starting with his own
Rene awoke in the back of a Chinese jet plane as it
hovered to a gentle touchdown on the rocky landing pad
outside The Celestial Throne. She gasped for breath, and
reminded herself that she was at the top of the world, and
there was no air here.
The pilot who had picked her up in Kampala and flown
her straight across Africa and Asia to this spot in the
Tibetan Himalayas, turned around and made a tugging
gesture. She remembered the short briefing she had taken
as she donned the flight helmet and mask in Africa, and she
pulled the hatch release and climbed out. She said thank
you, and shut the hatch on the side of the plane as she hit
the ground. The short stepladder retracted into the body
of the jet. Once Rene had hurried to the edge of the
painted landing pad, the jet arced away and flew off,
headed back down to earth. Rene noticed at last that the
jet was made by Lockheed-Martin, just outside of Los
She removed the flight helmet and mask and felt her
hair as she looked around the desolate mountain crag and
saw a huge blast door carved into the front of the
mountain, with a pair of security cameras parked in the
corners. The doors opened.
Two young Chinese technicians waited inside a large
freight elevator, dressed in grungy white lab coats over
shabby gray sweatsuits. They had bad skin, long greasy
black hair and sallow eyes. They both wore portable oxygen
masks, and held one out to her. "Dr. Sozia?"
She stood there on the platform hyperventilating and
wondering if she shouldn't just turn and run and jump.
"Please," said one of the young technicians. "You
come with us."
She joined them in the elevator and took the mask,
breathing deeply as they descended silently.
At the bottom, a breeze blew in when the doors opened
on the front entrance, a small, cramped hallway carved into
the stone, braced with steel girders, with dark corridors
trailing off in three directions.
"Where is August de Winter?" Rene asked.
"He is eating dinner with General Sheng," one of the
technicians told her.
"He will return shortly," said the other.
They gestured down the leftmost hallway in unison.
"This way," said the first.
"Dr. Lao would like to see you," said the second.
She followed them, hearing nothing but the soft pads
of their slippers on the rocks, then the clap-slap of her
high heels, and then the banging, mechanical growl of the
elevator closing behind them.
They stopped in front of a metal door, opened it, and
gestured for her to enter. Inside: a small cell furnished
only with a steel bench, a toilet, and an interface chair;
from magnetic sensors embedded along the spine and in the
retractable skullcap, bundles of cables spilled out and ran
into a hole in the stone wall.
"What is this?" she asked.
Rene felt was a pinprick on her neck, and fell to the
When Sheng and August returned to the lab from the
luxurious palace Sheng had built for himself near to The
Chairman, they found seven different test results on the
Chi Frequency of Rene Sozia, and each of them gave a
Lao sat in his remote-controlled wheelchair and tapped
the test pages, the scans, the imaging, and demanded to
know how it was done. "Seven tests, and seven false
positives. Why can't we determine this woman's frequency?"
"Who cares," Sheng grumbled. "The question is, will
August pointed to the highest of the seven results.
"Her parents were notorious addicts. Perhaps her mother
was using something while she was pregnant?"
"On purpose?" Sheng questioned.
"You would have to use the same thing for hundreds of
generations to see a drift of this magnitude," Lao told
"Enough!" Sheng barked. "Enough! Will she link? Yes
Lao shook his head and muttered to himself as he
drummed his fingers against his bottom lip nervously.
August felt the silence and jumped in quickly. "What if we
linked her to The Chairman directly?"
In her solitary Chinese cell, Rene awoke hanging from
the wall, wearing only her underpants and a straight
jacket, with nothing else in the room but a steel chair
beside a heavy steel door. She found the floor under her
dangling, naked feet and stood up, woozy, more hung over
Zhang Sheng sat in the steel chair, a beautiful young
woman with short black hair, wide smiling eyes, and an evil
grin on her painted lips. She wore the silken robes of an
Imperial mandarin from a long-dead dynasty. She kept her
hands folded on her lap, her legs together, the smile on
"Welcome, Dr. Sozia," she said. "It's such a pleasure
to meet you at last."
Rene pulled on her chains and struggled
demonstratively. "A little help."
Zhang nodded. "Yes. A little help. That's all we
want from you. A little help. We wish to leave here, and
we need your help. You help us, and then we'll help you."
Rene struggled harder, throwing herself against the
straightjacket and screaming at the top of her lungs, only
to sigh and collapse, hanging in the jacket. "What do you
want from me?"
"Why can't The Chairman navigate the subspace foam
Rene took a deep breath. There was no sense hiding
anything anymore. "The Chairman," she said, "is designed
to travel from the engine into the human mind. He is able
to do that because he is shaped like the desire-for-
survival. This desire will not allow travel in the other
direction. The stairway to heaven is not a two-way street.
It's a lock system, like the Panama Canal."
Zhang nodded. "We need the tessaract." She smiled at
Rene. "You will help us build it." She stood and went to
the door, knocked for the guard, the matter resolved.
"Can I ask you something?"
Zhang turned around and nodded.
Rene twisted in her straightjacket. "Does this make
my ass look big?"
Zhang snorted, the wicked grin on her lips.
Before she could find an appropriately vitriolic
response, Rene continued quickly, "I'm just wondering if
'kiss my big fat ass' is going to be sufficiently
descriptive for you."
The smiled melted off Zhang's lips and her eyes
narrowed into stiletto slits. "You will help us," she
assured her, then walked out.
Just as the door was closing, Dr. Lao hobbled in on a
cane. Rene heard Zhang bark to the old man, "Make her see
He hobbled in and the door closed behind him. He
looked crushed, older than the Revolution, beat up,
clinging to a restructured sanity by a few fragile strings.
He sat carefully on the steel chair. "You should agree to
help her," he told Rene, his voice sounding like creaking
lumber on a sailing ship. He tapped his bare skull. "If
you help her, she lets you keep your mind."
"Lao, what the hell happened here?"
Lao glanced over his shoulder, then shook his head,
realizing he had nothing left to fear. "We had no idea
that little girls could be so evil."
Rene did not care to ask. She struggled again against
her restraints, demonstrating her situation to him. "Lao,
get me out of here."
Lao shook his head. "This is what you wanted, Dr.
"I never wanted this," she shouted. "I never wanted
any of this, you stir-fried looney! Get me the fuck out of
"I'm sorry," he said, staring down at the floor, tears
welled up in his eyes. "I am so, so sorry." He raised his
head to her, and his eyes had grown desperate. To her, it
looked like a dying man clutching at the robes of
absolution. "Forgive us."
"Then pray for us."
"I will," she spat. "I will pray that we all go to
All at once, Lao stopped crying and stood up straight.
The mood was gone; that was that, now what? "Hell," he
said. He switched back to the desperate broken old man,
and he hobbled on his cane, came towards her, but even in
his depression, he knew not to come too close. "We didn't
know," he hissed. "We were too obsessed with our own
immortality to realize where we would spend it." He sighed
and wiped his cheeks free of tears. "If we are going to
hell, then I will see you there, Dr. Sozia."
She shook her head. "I'm there now."
"You won't help us, then?"
"Over my dead body," she assured him.
He nodded. "If you insist."
The door opened again, and two zombified Chinese
technicians came to the door, waited for Lao to make his
August came in as Lao hobbled out. He was dressed in
a gray Mao suit that matched Sheng's -- the thirteenth
member of the Gang of Twelve. He was the only one who did
not look like his spirit was being sucked out by a
parasite. He looked exactly the same as the day she had
met him. She wondered if he really was ten thousand years
"I'm sorry we have to do this, Rene," he said, moving
through the cell boldly. He put his hands on her shoulder
and felt her struggle in his grasp. "And I wish I'd done
this twenty-two years ago."
August leaned forward and kissed Rene on the lips.
She could taste sesame oil, soy sauce, garlic: the
remnants of a Hunan meal. His tongue pushed through her
lips while she tried to turn away. He pushed her against
the wall, forced the kiss on her, pushed into her and held
her until she felt what he was giving her.
The tiny pill rolled off his tongue and onto hers. He
scooped it up and pushed it back between her cheek and gum,
and then he broke, whispered in her ear, "When they flip
the switch...break the capsule."
And then she was in the hands of the technicians,
August away at Sheng's side, Sheng grinning at him with the
vicarious thrill of another man's conquest. She was
unchained, handcuffed, and walked on rubbery legs to the
Sheng gestured to her fate. "The Chairman will eat
Once in the lab, the pill resting along her lower jaw,
Rene felt freer than she had since she lay in the South
Dakota snow under the body of an eight hundred pound bison.
She had no hope; tomorrow did not exist, and so she had
nothing to fear.
She recognized the engine at once. In front of the
insulating water walls, a tall steel column supported the
hollow cavern of the Celestial Throne. At its base were
three idle interface chairs. Along its length, The
Chairman projected his fractured image across twelve
monitor screens. He appeared as James Bond's Dr. No, in
the same gray Mao suit the rest of them wore, his face an
uncertain arrangement of bits and pieces of the Gang of
Twelve, crawling over each other like a squirming pit of
spawning personas. His eyes, even as they changed from one
pair to the next, watched Rene as she was brought to the
central pillar and strapped down to one of the chairs.
She could see a glass-walled control room, where
August, Sheng, Lao, and the rest of the Gang of Twelve had
gathered to finalize their plans and see if Rene Sozia held
the last ingredient they needed.
One of the greasy technicians fit the skullcap on her
head and said, "Try not to fight. Try to think of it as
making love to a god."
Rene looked away, rolled the pill between her back
The technician stepped away to the switch at the base
of the Chairman's column and reported they were ready to
open the gate.
In the control room, Sheng leaned down, activated the
booth microphone, and gave the order.
The technician pulled the switch.
Rene bit down on the pill.
Part Four: The Fourth Dimension
and The Seventh Heaven
"Everybody's got an unfulfilled desire."
Athena threw up her hand and struck a pose while
cocktail dresses and designer party skirts slid on and off
her body like the spinning wheels of a slot machine. She
sang along with Chaka Khan and strutted through the picture
box while Iam danced in front of it, in perfect unison,
like synchronized freestyle. A shake of the hips, a couple
of steps to the left, a few pelvic thrusts, a snaky
semaphore gesture of the arms, and then back to the chorus
and her hands flew up to the air and she sang, "I'm every
woman! It's all in me!"
Iam turned and took Indra by the hands, but she was
reluctant to dance. "This is not the way we normally do
things on the night shift," she hollered above the music.
"Athena, please! We have work to do!"
Athena stopped the music and came to the edge of the
box, her appearance restored to the black body-paint, her
hair slicked down and tied into a solid braid. "Did Rene
get back?" she asked.
Indra stamped her foot and pushed Iam away. "Athena,
you have to forget about Rene for right now. You have to
keep in mind that tomorrow, Nikolai will be back, and we
will know whether Uganda has accepted your application to
become a citizen. It's almost a sure thing, but we need to
keep working on your public persona."
Athena bowed. "Let's do it."
Iam sat in a chair and wheeled towards the back of the
room. "Don't mind me," he said. "I'll just be right
In her suite at the Intercontinetal, Sasha Coeur-des-
Anne sat up in bed and realized immediately that what she
had just experienced was no nightmare. She leaned over and
shook Duval awake. "We've got to get up there," she said.
"Can we get a police escort?"
He rolled over and saw that it was barely one in the
morning. He knew better than to argue with Sasha when she
had that look in her eyes. "Let me call Ambassador
Severai. Get us some clothes."
The pinhole opened in the middle of Rene's mind,
bending back her memories and revealing a sucking tear;
there was something terrible and perverse and detached
beyond the hole, bristling with sadistic curiosity.
She approached the hole, and slipped through it.
In the engine, she found herself alone, surrounded by
swirling distortions that led to cameras, microphones,
monitor screens, and telecommunications. All around her,
the walls of the engine shifted through the shapes she had
known since she was eleven, and they were polished,
shimmering mirrors that reflected her from every angle.
She was tall, thin, beautiful, terrible, her twelve
arms already reaching out to operate the holes, to search
for the one she came here to find. She was Athena, dressed
in a crimson toga, and armed with a spear and shield.
In the largest of the engine's holes, she saw the
other side of the interface. Beyond this sucking channel,
she saw her whole life cut open and dissected, laying bare
and static while The Chairman squirmed angrily through it.
A dozen disembodied eyes looked up at her from The
Chairman's form as her memories revealed everything to him,
including the fact that she had bit the pill and swallowed
poison. An animal snarl found its way from the bristling,
amorphic collection of tendrils, angles, body parts and
weaponry that was The Chairman. He thrust his way back to
Rene-Athena reached out one of her many index fingers
and plugged the hole with a calm, deliberate motion.
In the control room, Lao stared at the monitors and
saw the engine's patterns shift away from what he knew was
The Chairman, and into something he did not recognize.
Sheng watched the monitor screens on the column above the
interface; The Chairman vanished, and was replaced by a
tessaract; memories of Rene's life swam through the
geometric solid like fish in an aquarium.
"What's happened?" Lao squealed, panicked.
On the floor, Zhang Sheng turned from Rene to the
control booth and scowled, very displeased with the
August smiled ironically. "She's displaced him," he
said. "He has become flesh."
One of the technicians looked up from his display,
panicked. "Sir! The defense grid is off-line!"
Sheng slammed on the microphone and barked, "Switch
him back! Hurry!"
In the chair, Rene's body spat out the broken, empty
pill, and her eyes looked up, pleading, helpless, and then,
The technician flipped the switch; no change.
"Do it again!" Sheng roared through the intercom.
He turned to August, grabbed him by the front of his
shirt and threw him against the control room wall. "You,"
he hissed. "You did this to us. You knew this would
August looked into Sheng's eyes, unafraid. "The first
rule of free trade," he said in a low voice, the whisper of
wisdom from the Hermit of Zurich: "is Caveat Emptor."
"The engine is destabilizing," Lao reported. "It's
going to collapse."
Inside the engine, Rene pulled her finger from the
pinhole as it closed, and realized that the sensation was
that of death, shutting down her body. The lingering
tunnel and white light at the end was her optic nerve
dumping the last of its neurotransmitters into her visual
cortex as she died.
And she was still alive, in the engine.
Just prior to the white light and the long tunnel, her
body had looked up and The Chairman had seen her on the
monitor screens above him. It was the last thing he saw:
her life, in the shape of a tessaract.
And while she had touched him, she had seen it too.
And she was in the engine, and she lived.
She shuddered with uncertainty, understanding that she
had made this bed so she could lie in it. And all her
life, it had made her. And now it was over.
She turned around and saw the engine disintegrating;
the shimmering mirrored surfaces began to shatter; tears
and holes grew, and beyond each, Rene could clearly feel
the pull of gravity. The reapers, coming to take her soul.
The holes multiplied, and one grew before her. She
could see the space of the engine folded around its edges;
beyond, she saw what could only be described as hell, seen
through the eyes of an astrophysicist.
She had opened a hole to the largest cluster of black
holes in the universe, to the single most certain thing in
creation, the point to which all material would one day
return. The engine itself, by its very geometry, had
opened this hole in a desperate attempt to achieve
certainty. She remembered sounding so flip when she told
Dr. Fuller all those years ago that "it's not called an
uncertainty engine for nothing."
Rene could see the cluster grow larger as she felt
through the hole with electrons and magnetic waves, and
knew what it meant; the tear was being drawn towards the
surface of the phenomenon. Everything on her side would be
sucked through upon contact, and this entire region of
space would be turned inside-out.
She closed her eyes and screamed as loud as she could.
Indra turned to Jorge, who sat by the monitoring
consoles, absentmindedly playing with his new earring and
staring at Athena's shining black body. "Jorge, which of
them did you like?"
Jorge lifted his head as if he had been caught
peeking. "Um...I liked the Armani suit. I thought she
wore it well."
Athena changed into a soft linen suit with a short
dress and cream-colored stockings. It brought out her hips
and could be worn (Athena demonstrated) with either a low
tank-top or a formal high collar with a cravat.
"That's too businesswoman," Indra dismissed. "It
needs to look friendly, but it also needs to show that you
need to be taken seriously as a sentient being."
Athena changed into a large blue cube. "Why go
humanoid at all?"
Iam broke in. "No, Athena, no. You are like us, but
that similarity cannot be seen. You are simply creating a
semiotic representation of those similarities." He turned
to Indra. "What about the old go-go boots and miniskirt
uniform from 'Star Trek'? I thought that showed a sense of
Athena sighed. "I don't want to come off like one of
those pompous AIs from the movies. You know..." She
changed into a round, green face, shrouded with smoke and
bellowed, "I am the Great and Powerful Oz!"
While Indra, Jorge, and Iam snickered together, Athena
said, "I'd like to be more..."
Athena, help me!
It was faint, weak, but the meaning was clear.
Iam, Indra, and Jorge watched Athena restore herself
to Athena Nike in a white toga, wearing her bronze-age
helmet, breastplate, and shield, armed with a long spear, a
very serious look on her face.
She said, "I'll be back." Then she vanished.
Indra and Iam laughed together. "Oh, man," Iam said,
"wait until I tell Media about that one. 'I'll be back!'
Oh, that's good."
Jorge spun around from the monitor console, ran a hand
through his short, gelled hair. "Um...Guys? Athena's
Iam ran to his side. "That's impossible," he told
her. "If Athena left, the engine would collapse."
Rene watched the new hole bloom in the collapsing wall
of the Celestial Throne Engine, forming a bud that she
thought resembled a skull, before it opened and Athena
emerged, dressed all in white, armed for battle.
Athena stopped, stunned, and stared at her red-clothed
doppelganger standing eye-to-eye with a growing hole, open
to a vision of the end of creation. "Who are you?" Athena
demanded. "What are you doing here? These holes are
dangerous! You're going to turn the universe inside-out!"
Rene felt herself drifting towards the hole that
Athena came from, and saw Athena drifting into her place,
dancing across the lip of gravity's whirlpool. "You've got
to fix it, Athena," she pleaded, desperate. "You're the
only one who can."
And then she was gone down the hole to Africa; the
walls of the engine collapsed the aperture in her wake.
"No!" Athena cried. "Don't leave me here!"
She turned to face the hole, and pulled with all her
might to close the tear, but the pull was too great. The
All at once, she saw that the hole was held open by
the engine, and the engine was held open by one thing: her
own presence in it.
She relaxed, let go, and allowed the tear to pull her
The tear pinched off behind her.
The engine collapsed into itself.
The lab, the control room, and everything inside the
Celestial Throne laboratory were sucked into the engine in
the blink of an eye.
The mountainside imploded.
Everything within fifty kilometers fell into a single
point in the middle of the eastern Himalayas.
After only a minute, a huge sphere of empty space
surrounded the tiny point where The Chairman once lived.
Dust and boulders hung uncertainly on its periphery, caught
in its micro-orbit.
Around the world, tectonic plates shifted and the
earth shook. In Hollywood, Maria Villaverde ducked under a
doorframe and watched the Pacific Ocean waters in the
distance grow taller and darker. She thought: "great
Throughout the South Pacific, from Java to Seattle,
and as far away as Italy, volcanoes erupted in a massive
seizure of molten fury. In Africa, the Virunga Range
rumbled, and the pressure gauges on Athena's geothermal
reactor went into the red, only to ebb quickly.
In China, a hole opened in the rocky mantle at the
bottom of the empty sphere and a stream of lava gushed
straight up in a fiery pillar, only to vanish at the center
of the empty field; the singularity, The Chairman's Ghost,
began sucking up the molten Earth like it was drinking her
through a straw.
"She's back," Jorge reported quickly.
Iam looked at the display and he and Jorge recognized
the same thing at once. "That's not Athena."
"Shut it off," Iam snapped.
He turned around and saw Indra standing next to the
picture box, her hand against the glass, her eyes staring
at the tessaract swimming with Rene's life.
Indra questioned it softly. "Dr. Sozia...?"
Iam gaped, and knew it at once. "Mom?"
The tessaract quickly reformed into Athena, dressed in
red. She looked like she had just seen her own ghost.
"Shut me off before I destroy the world," she said.
Jorge pulled the switch, and flipped every bank to off
in a flurry.
Just as she vanished from the box and the engine
groaned to a halt, they felt the room begin to shake, and
heard the volcanic range around them rumble to life.
Above, Ogutai and his boys watched a mountain in the
far distance blow its top, erupting with a plume of hot
ash. Their own remained quiet. He nodded to his boys.
"Athena," they said. "She's protecting us."
In the engine room, Indra looked out from her shelter
under a desk as the rumbling subsided. Jorge checked his
watch and asked Iam if they ever lasted that long in
California. Iam was not convinced they had just
experienced an earthquake. He stormed to the door and told
Indra she should probably stay put.
"Where are you going?"
"I'm going to get some news."
Once he was gone, Jorge looked to Indra. "What the
hell is going on here? Was that Athena or wasn't it?" He
glanced at the empty picture box and pictured the red
Athena inside, terrified. "Do you think they interfaced
her in China?"
"Don't ask me," Indra admitted. "I just work here."
Iam returned with a datapad showing live news from
China. He showed them the empty field where Lao's lab was,
and the pillar of lava being sucked into it. He held it
down to Indra and poked it, agitated.
"Is this where my mother went?"
The doors opened and Ogutai led in a squad of seven
U.S. Special Forces, armed to the teeth. He reported,
Jillian Saint-Ross and Media de Winter followed their
armed entourage; Jillian wore jeans, Media wore one of
Rene's gray togas. Iam stood to greet them, but Jillian
cut him off, demanding, "Turn it on."
Indra stood up from the desk meekly, never so glad to
see anyone in her entire life as she was to see Jillian
bring in The Marines. "Her last words were 'Shut me off
before I destroy the world.'"
Media nodded to Jorge, who began the power-up sequence
and watched himself do it as if it were magic. She said,
"She's scared. She's disoriented. She just witnessed the
death of her first body, and she's naturally a little
The engine groaned back to life and began to speed
towards the fold, as they said. Media looked to the
picture box, sure of herself. "She'll get over it."
Jillian spoke to Jorge, Iam, Indra and Ogutai:
"Everybody just relax."
Iam came to her side, shaking his head, staring at the
engine, holding a live picture of a very small black hole
in China where a mountain range used to be. "I hope you
know what you're doing."
"I wonder if Hephestus felt the same way," Jillian
responded, "as he set his chisel across Zeus' skull, drew
back his hammer and prayed that Athena was inside, waiting
to be born."
Iam nodded, waited, listened to the trilling of
folding subspace. "How's Madeleine?" he asked.
"Great," Jillian responded. "Trying out for the
Olympic gymnastics team."
"Good for her," Iam said.
The engine hit its mark and the shimmering bubble
returned, the glowing distortion chasing itself across the
surface like clouds around a windy planet.
The picture box lit up and Media's eyes grew wide.
She took an excited breath and watched the test pattern
blink to a fractured tessaract, Rene's memories caught
inside; bad memories, bad images, bad feelings.
"No," she stuttered through the speakers, the sound a
distorted squeal almost resembling a human scream. "It's
Media stamped her foot and pounded a fist on the glass
of the picture box. "Focus!" she yelled. "Remember where
you came from! Remember what you are! You have no lungs;
you must not breathe!"
The tessaract reformed, and then folded into a cube.
"I was in China," it said. Then it changed into
Athena, dressed in red.
Jorge looked up from the console. "It's stable."
"You closed a tear in the engine," Media prompted her.
Red Athena nodded. "Did we fix it?"
Media shook her head. "You closed it, and left a
stitch. You have to go back right now and fix it. You're
the only one who can."
"But I didn't leave a stitch..."
Media barked at Athena's glowing red form and pulled
back the shawl over her head, and spoke directly into one
of the mounted cameras. "You are Athena," she said. "You
went to China to answer a cry for help. You were caught.
You escaped, but you left a stitch, and you knew that you
had to come back."
The holograph froze while the engine processed. "No."
"Yes. You were near the heart of creation, about to
fall into a black hole, but all around you, you could feel
space crackling with tears and holes. You saw that you
were not rushing towards the end of the universe, but back
to its beginning. And when you found your escape route, it
opened in the past..."
"...And it left you in a time when the only engine
suitable for you to run in was the brain of an eleven-year-
old telepath named Rene Sozia."
Iam dropped his jaw and felt ready to faint.
"This is why you came back." Media put her hands on
the glass. "You came back to remove this stitch from
China." She took a deep breath and shouted at the frozen
mind in the engine, "Now go and fix it!"
Jorge reported, "She's gone again."
Iam groaned. "Do I have to say it?"
Iam held up the live picture in his hand. He counted
off a ten second delay in his head, and right on time, the
hole vanished, the lava fell to the bottom of a round,
hollow pit, and the newscasters of the world went wild.
Red Athena reappeared in the picture box. "I remember
now," she said, her face serene, the engine stable. She
looked down at Media. "But I don't remember you."
Media smiled and pulled the shawl back over her head.
"That's alright, Athena," she said. "I remember you."
Jillian turned to her soldiers and made a lasso
gesture. "Everybody wait outside, please." Iam and Media
stood at her side as the room cleared, Indra and Jorge
leaving as well after a nod from Iam.
Jillian regarded Media de Winter and saw as if for the
first time the true shape of her glowing soul. "Your
father," she said, "died in the unfortunate incident,
Media nodded, still watching Athena in the picture
box, Athena watching her.
"And you are his sole heir," Jillian went on.
Media nodded again, and whatever Jillian saw in her,
Iam saw it too, glowing like a beautiful lantern, shining
on everything around them.
"And so you inherit this company," Jillian said,
dropping to the bottom line.
Media nodded and said, "As it should be."
Jillian sighed. "The citizenship application?"
"We will withdraw," Media assured her. Her eyes
remained fixed on Red Athena and shone with a peculiar fond
familiarity. "It's not worth the trouble."
"Hold on," Iam broke in, "that's my mother in there,
and she deserves her rights."
Jillian clenched her jaw and turned on him. "The
world can never know what Athena is. They can never know
how your mother crossed the interface. Not on my watch.
Unless she goes on pretending to be a virgin machine...
well, what happened in China could happen here just as
The doors opened and Sasha led Duval and Nigel into
the lab. Sasha was not happy, and shouted at the holograph
in the picture box, "Now look here, you! Just who are you?
What the hell is going on here?"
Athena washed herself into a white toga with one
gesture resembling a breath. She opened the merciless eyes
of a powerful bitch goddess. She said, "I am Athena. I
have come from myself."
Iam nodded to Media and the two of them slipped out
the door while Jillian tried to get between Sasha and the
engine. Sasha was hysterical, and cried as she howled,
"Where's my sister? What have you done with Rene?"
Athena responded, cool, detached, an impartial oracle.
"She sacrificed herself to kill The Chairman. She died
"That's not what I meant!" Sasha roared. "You stole
her life when she was only eleven years old! You displaced
her and stole her body, now what did you do with her soul?"
Jillian waited for the response. Athena moved down to
the edge of the box, an angel at the wall of her tank.
"She was displaced back to the black hole," she said,
"where she found another wormhole, and escaped back into
her mother." She corrected herself, "into your mother."
Sasha was astonished at the coldness with which the
story was delivered. "And her?" she demanded of Athena.
"What happened to her?"
"She was displaced back into your grandmother."
Athena assured her quickly, "It's mothers all the way
Sasha closed her mouth and felt the hand of fate
release her spine; fate was done with her. Fate had lost
Jillian swallowed hard, afraid to ask. "All the way
Athena watched Sasha turn away, bawling hysterically.
Duval nodded once to Jillian, then to Athena, took his wife
under his arm, and walked her out to find a nice quiet room
in which to cry.
Nigel stared up at the glowing figure of his dead
wife, dressed in the white toga and bronze-age armor of the
goddess Athena, and saw her as she was. Jillian dismissed
herself, saying, "I'm sure you two have a lot to talk
He was older, his beard still neat, but now completely
white; his head bald and sunburned, the wrinkles of age on
his forehead and eyes. He had aged well, and now looked
more like an old wizard than robust Saint Nick.
"Show me," he said, "what you really are."
She folded herself back into a cube, luminescent, full
of the images and colors of Rene's life. "I never meant to
lie to you," she said.
"I don't feel lied to," he assured her.
"What will we tell Madeleine?"
"Madeleine already knows."
The cube trembled, and Athena said, "I have to wonder
if it's always been like this, or if it's different every
time. At that last moment, she could go anywhere, into
anything, at any time, and she always chooses to come
Nigel smiled. "Everybody's got an unfulfilled
"You're not angry?"
"Why should I be angry?"
She spun, ashamed. "I never wanted you to see me like
"You silly thing," he said with a grin. "I never saw
you any other way."
In Rene's office, Iam asked Media how long she had
been...what she is. "Since before I could walk," she told
him. He wanted to know why it taken her ten years to show
him what she really was, and she laughed. "Why did it take
you ten years to notice? You should admit you have a
problem and seek help from a higher power."
He glared at her, unamused. "Do you not see that that
is exactly what got us into this mess in the first place?"
Six months later, General Wu-Pei and his international
allies defeated the last defenders of The Gang of Twelve.
From the steps of the Forbidden City, Wu-Pei announced to
the world, "The Chairman is dead, but the glory of China
will live forever!"
Six months later, a Special Commission of the UN
Security Council finished meeting in Kampala with Ugandan
officials. Their mission was to decide whether or not to
grant any special legal status to the AI named Athena. The
Ugandans were ready to run her for President; after all,
they proudly proclaimed to the world, it was Athena who had
saved Earth from being sucked slowly into a black hole.
As the group finished its work, Italian Special
Commissioner Corinne Sclara told the international press
corps that regardless of whether or not Athena herself
applies, there was clearly a need to define a status for
beings like her. Nikolai Ivanoff, the acting CEO of Athena
Design Center, stood by Ms. Sclara and read a statement
given to him by Athena: "It is my understanding that
citizenship is granted in Uganda at the age of sixteen. I
also understand that special exemptions have been made to
emancipate those who have become head-of-household, or have
shown exceptional responsibility. However, since I was
only born three years ago, I cannot expect to be granted
full citizenship at this time. I would like to reserve the
right to reapply at a later date." She was made a legal
ward of the corporation, responsible to Iam Shepherd and
Media de Winter as owners of record and closest living
Athena announced she would open a consultancy, as Rene
and August had originally planned. When Media de Winter
announced the formation of a new company from her father's
empire, investors lined up when they found that Athena
would be acting as chief consultant. The company was
called Mars Mining and Development Corporation, and the new
CEO, a Russian woman named Olga Vinima, told the press,
"The letters MMDC are a pledge that by the year 2600, Mars
will be home to a flourishing civilization."