Book: In Time For Revenge



In Time For Revenge

In Time For Revenge

(A Sci-Fi Murder Mystery)

(1st Edition)

by Jasper T. Scott

JasperTscott.com

@JasperTscott

Copyright © 2019

THE AUTHOR RETAINS ALL RIGHTS

FOR THIS BOOK

Cover Art by Tom Edwards

TomEdwardsDesign.com


Author’s Content Rating: PG-13

Language: Infrequent, but contains a few instances of strong language

Sexual Content: Mild to moderate with some adult references

Violence: Mild, non-graphic


Acknowledgments

Finishing this book in just two and a half months was a monumental undertaking, especially considering its length! In the end, I had just a few weeks to edit, and I couldn’t have done that without the expert work of my editor, Aaron Sikes and my proofreader, Ian Jedlica. I’d also like to thank Dara McLain whose innocent comment about the ending of the early draft led to the addition of two more scenes which made everything just that much more satisfying. Finally, many thanks also go out to each and every one of my early readers, who somehow managed to read and edit this book with me in just over a week. Credit and many thanks to: Allan Murota, Bob Carciofini, Bruce Thobois, CR Chalenor, Dara McLain, Dave Topan, Davis Shellabarger, Gary Matthews, Gaylon Overton, George P. Dixon, Gordon Sears, Harry Huyler, Howard Cohen, Ian Seccombe, Jackie Gartside, Jeff Belshaw, Jim Meinen, Jon Nash, Jonathan Hagee, Kenny Harvey, Lisa Garber, Mary Kastle, Mary Whitehead, Michael Madsen, Paul Burch, Raymond Burt, Rod Gotty, Rose Getch, Shane Haylock, Tom Spille, Wade Whitaker, William Dellaway, and William Schmidt.

Many thanks also to my wife and family whose tireless support and understanding goes above and beyond in those weeks where I have to work through my weekends, and on the days where I’m working from sun up till sun down.

And finally, a big thank you to the Muse.


To those who dare,

And to those who dream.

To everyone who’s stronger than they seem.

—Jasper Scott

“Believe in me / I know you’ve waited for so long / Believe in me / Sometimes the weak become the strong.”

—STAIND, Believe


Part 1: Love to Hatred Turned

“Heav'n has no Rage, like Love to Hatred turn'd.”

―William Congreve


Chapter 1

—July 29th, 2020—

Rain pelts the tin roof of the converted barn on my family’s estate outside Denver. I watch through the slanting skylights in the vaulted ceiling as a blue fork of lightning slices the night in half. A primordial boom makes the panes of glass shiver. The storm is directly overhead.

I drag my eyes down from the ceiling and look around the big open space. A dozen desks are arrayed around an egg-shaped capsule on a raised platform in the center of the room. The computer screens on those desks are all off, the hard drive lights strobing red and yellow in darkened corners of the room. I really should install more lights in here. Everyone went home hours ago, everyone except for me and my lead engineer, Grant Coleman.

He’s busy staring at one of the three computer screens on his desk, occasionally typing something before clicking something on another screen. He’s running diagnostics on the “STCD Mark I” before we fire it up for the first time. The acronym stands for Space-Time Compression Device, but only Grant and I know that. The technology we’re working on is far too valuable (and dangerous) to tell just anyone. Another jagged flash of lightning draws my gaze up to the skylights, followed by a boom of thunder.

“Byron, it sounds bad out there,” Grant says. He looks up from his work to catch my eye. His pale face and blue eyes are highlighted by his computer screens. “You should tell Alison not to come,” he adds.

“And have her miss this?” I shake my head. “Not a chance.”

Grant smiles. “You’re assuming we’ll succeed.”

“The first rule of success is believing in it.”

“So, we’re waiting for Alison to get here?”

I nod and glance at the cell phone sitting on my desk. My wife hasn’t called or texted to say that she isn’t coming, so she probably still is. Besides, it’s not that far from the manor to the lab, and she can have Alex drive her, or just take the Tesla on auto.

While we wait I stare at the screen saver on my computer. It’s looping through pictures of me and Alison from our world tour last year. I see us sitting on the back of my yacht in the Caribbean, then toasting with wine at a five star restaurant along the Seine in Paris. A picture of us at the Colosseum. A gondola ride at sunset in Venice. Learning to Salsa in Barcelona, and touring the royal palace in Madrid. I move my mouse to wake the computer just as a picture of us touring Mount Fuji appears.

I type in the password for my computer. Twelve digits, numbers and letters. I click over to the software I wrote for the STCD and begin checking Grant’s values for the test run. This isn’t our first test, but it is the first one that’s likely to succeed. There’s a lot riding on tonight: I’ve poured seven years of work into this project, not to mention about ten million dollars. But that’s just a tiny fraction of the Gaines’ family fortune. I’m an only child, so I inherited all seventy-seven billion of that fortune when my parents’ plane crashed into the Rocky Mountains. If this works, though, I’m going to need every penny that they left me to scale this technology up to commercial viability.

Grant is drumming his fingers on his desk. Thunder rumbles on, more distantly now. A faint squeal draws both of our attention to the barn door—a reinforced steel security door that looks like it belongs in a bank. Locks clunk as they slide away and the heavy door groans open. The sound of rain roars into the lab. My wife, Alison, appears standing in the entrance wearing a red designer trench coat. Her long blond hair is pulled into a ponytail, and looks dry. Her makeup is still in good shape, too—not that she needs any with a face like hers. She’s holding two brown paper bags, lightly freckled with rain, while Alex, our driver and personal assistant, stands beside her sopping wet, holding her umbrella. Despite the late hour, he’s still in his working uniform, a black suit and red tie. Alex is a tall, fit African-American man with a shaved head and a thick black mustache. He’s still strong and vital-looking at forty-three, but I still remember him in his twenties, when he first started working for my parents.

Alison half turns to him with a bright smile. “Thank you, Alex.”

He inclines his head to her. “Any time, ma’am.” He retreats just as a flash of lightning illuminates the falling sheets of rain. The door groans shut, sealing out the storm. Alison strides toward me, her Louis Vuitton heels clicking on the polished concrete floors. I stand up and greet her with a kiss.

She smiles radiantly. “I brought you both some dinner. Theodore insisted.”

Theodore Wilson, our major-domo. If it weren’t for him reminding me to eat and sending down meals with other members of the staff I’d probably have starved to death by now.

Alison glances at Grant and holds out one of the two bags. He pulls himself away from his desk and walks over to take it from her.

“Thank you, Mrs. Gaines,” he says.

“You’re welcome, Grant.”

He returns to his desk and pokes his nose inside the bag. “It smells like heaven.”

I take the other bag from her, but put it on the desk behind me. I don’t have time to eat right now. It can wait until we’ve successfully tested the Mark I.

“So, what is so exciting that you had to call me down here in the middle of the next great flood?” Alison asks.

I grin and point to my creation, the egg-shaped silver capsule sitting on the dais in the center of the lab. Seven years to get to this. I can feel my eyes burning with the threat of tears. Happy tears. I’m getting ahead of myself, but somehow I know that this time it’s going to work.

“It looks the same as it did the last time I saw it,” Alison said.

“That’s because all of the changes are inside.” I take my wife’s hand and lead her up to the platform. “Grant increased the power supply by adding twenty additional power walls around the perimeter of the building.” I point to a thick black braid of several dozen cables leading to the egg-shaped capsule. “He also fixed the overheating problem and increased the number of field conductors in the outer shell.”

“So what did you do?” Alison arches an eyebrow at me.

“I supervised.”

Grant snorts. “He thinks he’s the Brain. I guess that makes me Pinky.”

I laugh at that. It’s a running joke between us.

“Pinky?” Alison asks.

I remember the 10-year age gap between us. Alison wasn’t even born when that cartoon went off the air. I’m thirty-five and she’s twenty-five. Sometimes I wonder if she was ready for marriage, but it’s too late for us to go back and wait now. I try to give her space, which helps. She still models from time to time, and she’s working on a few projects of her own.

“What happens if it doesn’t work?” she asks. “Back to the drawing board?”

I shake my head. “It will work.”

Alison’s brow furrows. “I admire your confidence.”

I flash a lopsided grin at her and grab her hand again to lead her behind the circle of work stations around the testing platform. Grant comes over with three welding masks, one for each of us.

“What’s this for?” Alison asks, her nose scrunching up as he hands her a mask.

“Safety,” Grant explains as he slips his own mask on. He’s a big man. With the mask and his disheveled black hair he looks worse than a mad scientist. He looks like someone you don’t want to meet in a dark alley.

Alison is still staring at the mask in her hands. “We didn’t use these the last time.”

“Last time we weren’t using enough power to run a whole city block,” I say. “If this works, the Mark I is going to light up like the sun.”

“Okay.” Alison slips the mask on with an unhappy frown. I put mine on, and then pull Alison back to the far wall of the lab. I haven’t mentioned that there’s about a one percent chance that the STCD could explode. I nod to Grant. “Let’s fire it up. Start with ten percent power.”

“Aye aye, Captain,” he quips. His fingers fly across his keyboard for a few seconds; he grabs the mouse, his index finger poised to click. “The compression field is charging. And in three... two... one.”

Nothing happens. Grant leans forward, staring at his screens through his mask. I can hear a discernible buzzing sound fill the air from all the electricity suddenly flooding through the room. My heart is pounding. The hair on the back of my neck stands up, but that could just be my nerves. Outside, the storm has moved on, but we have our own electrical storm brewing in here.

“Well?” I ask. Grant slowly shakes his head. “The clocks are still running in sync.” I leave Alison’s side and stalk up behind Grant to see what he’s looking at. His screen is full of numbers and various graphical gauges. One of them is the Mark I’s internal temperature; it’s creeping up to 50 degrees Celsius. I look up at the egg-shaped device. If the temperature keeps rising, that egg is going to be poached.

“It’s not glowing,” Alison says from the side of the lab. “Can I take off my—”

“NO. Keep it on.” To Grant I say, “Increase the power to twenty percent.”

“Increasing power...”

The persistent buzzing in the room grows louder. It’s like a swarm of cicadas now. I stare hard at the STCD, my breathing shallow, my whole body tense. This has to work. I can’t have wasted my time. The math checks out, and I’ve checked the schematics and the code a dozen times. I’ve given everything I had to this project. I’ve—

My thoughts cut off in midstream as I realize something is different. The hair on the back of my neck is rising again. I lift my mask cautiously. The capsule is glowing faintly.

“Byron,” Grant whispers. “You’re not going to believe this.”

“Try me.”

“The lab clock is running a full second ahead of the Mark I’s.”

I lower my mask. I’m feeling lighter than air. If I flapped my arms I swear I’d go soaring straight into the ceiling. “You’re certain?”

“We’re up to one point five seconds’ difference now!” he crows. “We have a confirmed compression factor of one point one zero five two.” He looks up, his expression inscrutable behind the mask. “We did it.”

I take a quick step back, look to the prototype, then back to him, and slowly shake my head. I can barely breathe. Is this a dream? It can’t be real.

“What does that mean?” Alison asks. I hear her heels clicking across the floor.

“Increase the power,” I say, ignoring my wife’s question. “Fifty percent.”

“Ramping up to fifty...”

“What is—” Alison cuts herself off and her heels stop clicking. The buzzing sound is a roar now, and the inside of the lab is blindingly bright. Even with the welding mask on, staring at the capsule is like staring into a hundred watt bulb.

“The clock is running ten seconds behind...” Grant says. “Fifteen... twenty! Compression is up to five point six!”

I stumble back another step, half-blinded by the capsule. It’s getting hot in here, and the buzzing sound is ominously loud, but to me it’s the drum roll of things to come.

We did it. It worked.

“The temperature is up to one hundred and fifty degrees C.”

I do the conversion in my head. Over three hundred Fahrenheit. Hot as an oven. “Ramp up to seventy-five percent,” I say.

“Increasing power,” Grants says.

“Are you sure about this?” Alison asks.

“Pretty sure,” but I can barely hear myself. The air is practically crackling with electricity. My skin feels hot. The light pouring from the prototype grows so intense that I have to look away.

“Climbing to seventy percent!” Grant calls out. “Compression factor is up to twenty times. It’s scaling exponentially with the power!”

I peer over his shoulder. The temperature is climbing past two hundred degrees. I can feel the heat radiating in waves from the testing platform. We still have a cooling problem to solve.

“Seventy-four percent!” Grant says. “The clocks are six minutes apart!”

I can barely see, and the buzzing feels like it’s inside of my head. Then something goes pop! and the lab plunges into darkness. Alison screams. I’m adrift in a sea of black. I put my hands out, feeling for something solid to anchor me. Finding Grant’s desk, I hold onto it with one hand and rip my welding mask off with the other.

“What happened?” My ears are ringing from the sudden silence. A ghostly blue tendril of electricity crackles through the lab, arcing off the Mark I.

“I think we blew a fuse,” Grant says. His phone’s screen snaps on, spilling pale light around us. He finds the flashlight app a second later, and shines the beam toward Alison. She’s standing with her arms out like a scarecrow, her mask still on. She reaches up to pull it off. “I thought it was going to explode,” she says shakily.

I decide not to mention that it actually could have. Instead, I look to Grant. The significance of what we just accomplished is only now dawning on us. Grant’s beam shines my way, blinding me, then dips to the floor. It’s enough to see the giant grin on Grant’s face. “We did it! Can you imagine what will happen when we scale up further?”

I match that grin and throw my head back and whoop like an animal.

Alison creeps over to us, her blue eyes wide and long blond hair sticking up with static. Maybe the hair standing up on the back of my neck wasn’t just nerves. “What will happen?” she asks, looking between Grant and me.

I stare at her, surprised that she hasn’t grasped the significance of this yet. I don’t even know where to start with answering her question. The applications for this technology are too vast.

“Well?” Alison prompts, getting impatient with my silence.

“I’ll explain later, honey.” Turning to Grant, I say, “Right now, it’s time to celebrate.”


Chapter 2

We’re sitting in the parlor of the manor drinking hundred-year-old rum, laughing and talking about how we are going to rule the world. A dazzling flash of lightning catches my eye through the towering window beside us. The clouds glow purple for a second, and a jagged line of skyscrapers are silhouetted by the light. My family’s manor sits atop a hill at the foot of the Rockies, peering down on Denver like a lord over his realm.

“What if we could expand space-time, too?” Grant asks.

I drag my eyes away from the windows and take another sip of rum. “What do you mean?”

“We could use the same concepts to create opposing compression and expansion fields and propel a vehicle with them.”

I’m nodding along with that. “You mean like an Alcubierre warp drive?”

“Exactly!”

“It’s possible,” I concede. “But first things first. We need to perfect compression fields. For now, that’s where the real money is.”

Most of our discussion is likely flying over Alison’s head, but she’s all smiles as she saunters over from the bar to sit in my lap with a fresh appletini.

“Is that your fifth?” I ask, nodding to the drink. Her eyes are so glassy that they could be marbles rolling around in her head.

Alison makes a show of counting on one hand until all five fingers are up. “Oops,” she says, giggling. “I guess it is.”

“How much would we charge?” Grant asks, getting my attention back on our project.

“A million dollars per year might be a good starting point,” I say. “I mean we have to power the thing that whole time. It’s not like we get to condense space-time on our side of the compression field, too.”

“So, a hundred million per century? Maybe tack on a fee for each additional year to factor in inflation.”

I swirl rum in my glass. “Sounds reasonable.”

“We’d get it all up front of course,” Grant adds.

“Of course.”

Alison is looking at me with big eyes, one hand on my shoulder, the other sliding discreetly up my thigh in an effort to get my attention. “A million per year doesn’t sound like much,” she says.

“Not if you only have one client at a time,” I reply. “The idea is to have thousands. We could make a cool ten billion a year without breaking a sweat, but why stop there? This is something that you could easily see millions of people paying for, and then we’re talking about trillions of dollars.”

Alison’s jaw drops open and I grin back. “But what if they won’t pay that much?”

“Oh they’ll pay it. They’ll probably pay even more. Especially if there’s more demand than we can meet, which there will be for quite some time. How much do you think a dying man or woman would pay to travel a hundred years into the future where they could cure their disease, or maybe even become immortal?”

“That’s what this is for?” Alison presses. “It’s a time machine?”

“Kind of, but it only works in one direction—into the future.”

Her eyes drift out of focus. I’m pretty sure she’s seeing dollar signs. That’s okay, because I am, too. “You can actually do that?” she asks. “You can send people to the future?”

Grant sits up in the chair across from us. “Well... we’re still a long way off from testing with live subjects,” Grant says. “And we have to increase the power a lot more. We need the compression field strong enough that a hundred years passing for us will only be like a day to them. After all, they’re going to be trapped inside one of those capsules the whole time, and there’s only so long you can keep someone asleep without feeding them. We can mitigate some of that with a life support system if we have to, but again, there are limits.”

I wave my hand to dismiss those concerns. “What Grant is trying to say is that we still have work to do, but sending people to the future is the goal, and it doesn’t stop with medical applications. There’s tourism to consider as well. Granted, we can’t bring people back when they’re done touring around, but that hardly matters. There are enough rich, adventurous people out there to keep us in business selling one-way tickets. Hell, I might even buy one myself.”

Grant takes a sip of his rum, then says, “Well, as I see it, we still have two problems to solve.”

I swirl the dregs in my glass, nodding slowly. “Power is the first problem. We need to increase it, get that compression factor as high as we can.”

“Easy enough if we scale up to a bigger prototype. We just have to add more power walls and a bigger generator and more solar panels to feed them.”

“Heating is the other issue. If we stick a live test subject inside the device it’ll be roasted alive if we can’t get the temperature down and keep it down.”

“Again, that should be easy to fix with a bigger prototype. I can isolate a chamber inside the device and circulate a super-cooled fluid through it.”

I shake my head. “Forget the prototype. How long do you need to build a full-scale model that could take human passengers?”

“That depends on my budget. The more money you give me to play with the faster it will go.”

“Let’s say I want it done in two months.”

Grant chokes on his rum.

“Give me a number.”

“The Mark One cost us five million to build, but we had a whole year to build it. It’s also a tenth of the size that you’re talking about.”

“But now we know how to build it. Building a bigger wheel is easier than inventing one.”

“Granted.”

I smile at him. “No pun intended.”

He ignores my attempt at humor, lost in his thoughts. “To scale up to a full-size STCD in just two months... maybe fifty million? That’s assuming we put a rush on all of the components and hire more people to help me at the lab.”

“STCD?” Alison asks. “That’s an awful name.”

I flash a smile at her. “We know. That was half the fun of it.” I look back to Grant, giving his budget some thought. “It’s a lot of money, but not unreasonable considering the task at hand. Consider it done. We start the build tomorrow.”

Grant’s brow lifts at that. “Tomorrow?”

“Is there a problem with that?” Tomorrow is Sunday, but that doesn’t matter. You can’t change the world on a nine to five schedule, and Grant knows that. Besides, he doesn’t have kids or a family to worry about.

“No problem.” Grant sets his glass on the end table beside his chair and rises to his feet like an old man. I can almost hear his bones creaking. We haven’t slept much over the past week. “But I’d better get home and get some sleep if we’re going to work again tomorrow.”

“It’s late,” I say. “You can stay here. We have plenty of empty rooms.”

Grant looks to Alison, as if asking her for permission. I frown at that. It’s my house. She doesn’t have a say in it, but I wait for her response anyway.

“Yes, please stay,” she says and jumps out off my lap. She walks unsteadily over to him, sloshing her appletini all over the marble floor. She loops an arm through Grant’s. “Come with me, I’ll show you to the guest wing.”

Grant glances over his shoulder as she leads him away, as if he’s worried how it looks that my wife is leading him off to bed. I smile indulgently and wave my hand for them to go on. Grant appears to relax. He’s a handsome man, but no better looking than me, and certainly not richer or smarter. I’ve noticed that there’s chemistry between them, but even as drunk as Alison is, she’s far too smart to do anything about it. Her prenup is clear. She has too much to lose.

I take another sip of rum, and my thoughts drift back to the project. Absently, I look out the window beside me. Denver is sparkling like a jewel in the distance. I wonder what the city will look like in the future. What will my first passengers see? I almost wish I were going to be one of them. I’d take Alison with me, of course. But no, I can’t leave yet. I need to consolidate my resources and build an empire that will stand the test of time. Otherwise, I’ll travel to the future just to become a pauper.

I tap my finger restlessly against the tumbler in my hand, counting out the seconds. The nail draws ringing clinks from the glass. I smirk to myself, feeling almost mythically powerful as I peer down on the city in the distance.

I have mastered time. I may not be ready for the future yet, but the future can wait for me.

*     *     *

Alison and I lie in bed together, her naked body wrapped around mine. I’m drifting off on a cloud of rum and post-coital bliss, but Alison is wide awake and running her hands through my chest hair. Her nails lightly trace raised red welts that she clawed out a few moments ago.

“What about us?” she asks.

“Hmmm?” I’m too tired for words.

“Say it all works out and you become richer than ever. You accomplish everything you ever set out to do. What’s next?”

That question takes me by surprise, and my mind wakes up to deal with it. “I don’t know,” I admit. “I’ve never thought that far ahead.”

“Well, what about kids?”

“Kids?” I regard her steadily, blinking the sleep from my eyes. “Are you sure you’re ready for that?”

Alison sits up, and I experience a flash of disappointment as she pulls the blankets up with her to keep herself covered. “I think I am.” Her eyes drift out of focus, and a smile twitches to her lips as if she’s already imagining our kids.

We’ve talked about it. She knows that I’ve been ready for a while now, but I’m also acutely aware that my wife is still in her twenties. And still modeling.

“What about your career?”

She shrugs. “That’s just to keep me busy. If we have kids, I’ll be more than busy enough with them. And I have my other projects.”

“True.” She’s been trying to start a few businesses of her own. Something to do with fashion and travel. Trying to become an Instagram Influencer, I think. It’s not a career if you ask me, but it keeps her busy. “So... when should we start trying?”

A sly smile crosses Alison’s face. She turns to me and begins tracing circles on my chest again. “We could start now....”

I laugh lightly. “I may have to explain the concept of entropy to you.”

Her smile broadens, turning mischievous. “I wore you out?”

“You and seventy-hour work weeks.”

“That’s okay. Tomorrow.”

“Sounds like a plan.” My eyelids droop and begin sliding shut once more.

“But there is something I wanted to talk to you about first.”

I crack one eye half open and wait for her to go on.

She’s wringing her hands and biting her lip. “Don’t get mad.”

“Mad?” That wakes me up again, and I wonder what she’s on about. Both my eyes are open now. “Mad about what?”

“Just promise me that you’ll think about it. Try to see it from my point of view.”

“Okay...”

She spreads her hands to take in the room. “All of this is yours—the estate, your family fortune, your amazing discovery and everything that’s about to happen as a result... but what do I have?”

“You have me.” I have a bad feeling about where this is going.

“Until I get fat and pregnant. And what if I never look this good again?”

“You won’t.”

She scowls.

I laugh and squeeze her hand. “You’re going to get older. We both will. That’s not something we can avoid whether we have kids or not.”

“Well, fine, but having kids accelerates that, and it will end my career, making me even more dependent on you.”

“And that’s a bad thing because...”

“Because as long as we have a prenup that says I get nothing if you leave me, I know that you still don’t trust me. And that makes me wonder if I can trust you. How can I have kids like that? I’ll never be able to relax.”

I was right. That’s what this is about. I sit up next to her, my brow furrowing. A stabbing headache lights up the space behind my left eye. “You wouldn’t get nothing in a divorce. You’d get a million dollars per year of marriage regardless of why or how the marriage ends. And if I’m unfaithful, then you get half of everything. There’s plenty of security in that agreement for both of us. It should make it easier to trust each other, not harder, because it means we both have a lot to lose.”

She’s shaking her head, her eyes sliding away from mine. “You don’t understand because you’re the one holding all of the cards. You have all of the power in our relationship, and that means every time we fight or even disagree I feel like I’d better watch my step or else.”

“So you’re saying that you won’t have kids with me unless I void the prenup?”

Alison offers a shaky smile and turns to me, her eyes searching mine. She starts running her hands across my chest again. “Would that be so bad? Having to trust each other like a normal couple?”

I bristle at that, but bite my tongue. I’m too tired and drunk for this shit. I can’t believe what I’m hearing. Doesn’t Alison know how this sounds? And the timing is more than a little suspicious.

“Let’s say I void the agreement. What if you decide to divorce me after that?” I stare hard at her. “I just hand you half of everything on a silver platter?” My mouth twists sardonically.

Alison is blinking fast. She leans away from me, as if offended that I would even suggest that. “After all this time, you still think I’m after your money?”

“I never said you were, but right now you’re making me wonder.”

Alison lets out a breath and unleashes her most sarcastic smile. “No, you didn’t have to say it. The prenup said it for you. What do you think that’s for? It’s for people who don’t trust their spouses.”

“Funny, you didn’t seem to object when you were signing it.”

“Because I didn’t have a choice! Besides, it was reasonable back then. We hadn’t been together long enough for you to trust me. But now we’ve been together for three years! Three happy years, and you’re telling me that after that you still don’t trust me.”



I don’t like how she keeps turning this around on me. I climb out of bed and stand there stark naked in front of her. My chest is heaving. I’m seeing red, but holding myself back, trying to calm down. I have to work on my temper. I promised her that I would. “I’ve just made a huge scientific breakthrough—maybe the biggest breakthrough in history—and right after I tell you that it could be worth trillions of dollars, suddenly you’re suggesting that I void our prenup. How do you think that sounds?”

Alison’s eyes flash with hurt, a tear slides down her cheek. She flings it away. “Get out.”

“Excuse me?”

“You heard me. If you don’t leave, I will. I’m not sleeping in the same bed with you tonight.”

“You’re joking.”

“Get out!” she screams. A pillow flies at my head. Whup. It muffles my incredulous laughter. I stare at Alison for a handful of seconds, working on my breathing exercises. Deep breaths. In and out. “Fine,” I say. My voice could freeze a lake in hell. I’ve learned to turn the heat into ice, but ice can burn, too, and I can tell that I’m scalding Alison right now. “We’ll talk about this in the morning.”

She shrugs and looks away. I grab the pillow she threw at me and use it to protect my modesty as I leave the bedroom. I walk down the hall to one of the guest rooms. Halfway there Grant emerges from one of those rooms. He looks startled to see me, even more startled to see that I’m not wearing any clothes. He holds up a hand to ward off my nakedness and averts his gaze. I smile, wondering if that’s for my sake or his. What do I care if he sees me naked? “I thought you were in the guest wing,” I say.

“So did I,” Grant replies. “I can move to another bedroom if you want.”

“Why? We have ten bedrooms. I don’t care which one you stay in.”

He nods, still not looking at me.

“Relax, I’m covering myself with a pillow. You’re not going to go blind if you look at me.”

Grant drops his hand and regards me with a frown. The hall is dimly lit. The manor is in night-mode, and the wall sconces are dimmed down to a soft golden hue. Shadows crouch in the recessed doorways that line both sides of the hall. Four of the ten bedrooms are up here. Along with a game room, an office, and a nursery that was once used by yours truly.

“Is everything okay?” Grant asks. “I heard shouting.”

“Alison and I had a fight. She’ll get over it when she realizes that she’s wrong.”

A slow smile creeps onto Grant’s face. “If she’s wrong, then how come you’re the one in the hall?”

A laugh bubbles from my lips. “Said like a man who’s never been married.” I clap a hand on Grant’s shoulder. It was the hand holding the pillow. Oops.

Grant grimaces and looks away again.

I’m amused by his reaction. I don’t bother to pick up the pillow on my way down the hall to the room next to his. “See you in the morning, Coleman,” I say as I turn the knob and open the door.

“Good night, Byron,” he replies.


Chapter 3

Six Months Later...

—February 4th, 2021—

A warm beam of sunlight streams through the master bedroom window, doing nothing to melt the ice in my soul. This room feels strange to me now. Foreign. I’ve barely been in here for the past six months now that Alison and I no longer share a bed. She thinks that if she freezes me out in the bedroom I’ll cave and void our prenup. She doesn’t realize just how wrong she is. I’m already talking with my lawyers.

I grab a stack of pants and socks and stuff them in my suitcase. Pushing the personal matters from my mind, I consider the task at hand. I’m taking a business trip to a remote island in the Pacific, looking for a safe place to build my new empire. A technology like mine could be seized by a government in the name of national security far too easily, so I’m going to buy an island in the Pacific and build everything surrounded by international waters. The Mark II is working and Grant and I have had successful tests with mice, rats, and chimpanzees with no ill effects. We’ve got the power consumption levels down, the heat problem is solved, and now we have the compression factor up to more than a million at the highest power levels. There are thirty-one and a half million seconds in a year. So, at a compression factor of one million, that means I can send a given passenger a hundred years into the future in what seems like just fifty-two minutes to them. Functionally, the technology is identical to the concept of stasis or cryo-freezing. Everyone outside of the STCD experiences the passage of time as usual, whereas anyone (or anything) inside of the STCD will experience time passing at a much-reduced rate. At a compression factor of a million times, light bounces off the shell of the vehicle so slowly that it appears to shine like the sun. We were lucky we didn’t blind ourselves the first time we fired up the Mark II. I smile at the memory and shake my head.

“Nice to see you in such a good mood,” my wife says as she storms by me on her way to the master bathroom. Her heels click across the marble floor at a furious pace.

I stare at her back as she adjusts her make-up in the mirror. She’s dressed up. On her way to a modeling job, perhaps? Who knows. I zip up my suitcase and hesitate before hauling it off the bed. “You’re not going to say goodbye to your husband?” I ask. I’m not sure what I’m hoping for. Maybe that the ice between us will melt and that she’ll relent before there’s no turning back.

“Bye.” She doesn’t even turn from the mirror to look at me as she says it.

A sharp pang stabs through my heart. The sting of her dagger. A dark haze clouds my vision. I can hear blood roaring in my ears. My therapist’s words come back to me: when you feel yourself losing control, take yourself out of the situation. Don’t suppress your reaction, just delay it. Walk away if you have to.

And so I do. I yank the suitcase and my briefcase off the bed and walk out without another word to my wife. It’s been a while since I’ve had a real outburst. I guess all those years of therapy paid off. Alison can be thankful that she never got to see Mr. Hyde. There are still scars on the walls of the manor where I threw things that narrowly missed members of the staff. Theodore and Alex are the only ones who actually stuck around, but Alex almost didn’t. Theodore was like a second father to me, though, so I suppose his affection for me runs deeper.

I wonder what will happen after the divorce is finalized. Will I go into another dark spiral? The last one lasted from age ten to twenty-five. Fifteen years of rage.

A scowl sears my lips. Leaden feet carry me down one side of the double staircase to the foyer. My driver, Alex, is waiting for me by the double doors. He’s wearing the same black suit and a red tie as he always does. A white-gloved hand that contrasts sharply with his dark skin snaps out to grab my suitcase.

It’s a carry-on, and the only piece of luggage that I’m taking besides my briefcase. Traveling light makes flying easier. Not that it’s ever really easy. I deal with my nerves by sticking to commercial flights. Statistically, they’re much safer than private flights like the one that killed my parents when I was ten.

“Ready sir?” Alex asks, reaching for the golden handle of the nearest door.

Before I can reply, clipped footsteps draw my attention to the great room on the other side of the foyer. I see Theodore striding toward us. “May I have a word before you go, sir?” he calls out as he approaches. He’s a tall, pale-faced British man. His head is shaved like Alex’s but that’s probably because he doesn’t have any hair left. My fault. He’s pushing sixty, and has the wrinkles to prove it.

Also my fault.

Theodore stops in front of me. Pale, ice blue eyes bore into mine, waiting for me to respond.

“What’s on your mind?” I ask.

His eyes flick to Alex. “I was hoping we could speak privately. The matter is somewhat delicate.”

“Well, I’m kind of in a hurry here, Theo, so whatever it is, you can tell me here.”

“Very well. Will Mr. Coleman continue to stay on the property while you are away?”

I frown at that. “Yes, why?”

“It’s just that I’m not sure it would be wise to continue that arrangement in your absence. You are doubtless aware that Mr. Coleman is an attractive man.”

He left me to fill in the blanks. “Are you suggesting that my wife might try something with him, or vice versa?” I shake my head at that, even as I begin to seriously consider the possibility. It’s been six months for her, too.

“I realize that Grant is your friend as well as your employee, sir, but that does not preclude the possibility that he could be seduced or otherwise beguiled by your wife.”

The implication is that Grant might not betray me very easily, but Alison would, and I know all too well just how beguiling she can be. I give it a few seconds of serious thought before a sly smile spreads across my lips and I shake my head. “Let her. I can’t lose what I’ve already lost. All she’ll do is throw away what she might have gotten in the settlement.” This is the first time I’ve mentioned the divorce proceedings aloud.

Theodore is taken aback. He straightens and nods. “I see. Very well, sir. Have a good trip.”

“Thanks, Theo. See you in a week.”

*     *     *

The sound of a passing airplane rumbles through the walls of the Admirals Club where I sit waiting for my flight at Denver International. I like to be early when I fly so that I can calm my nerves with a few drinks before take-off. That’s how I met Alison. In a lounge not unlike this one. I grimace around a sip of rum. Maybe coming here wasn’t such a good idea. I should have just gone straight to the gate. I pull out my Kindle, bringing up the latest edition of New Scientist magazine to pass the time. Before long I’m skipping through articles, scanning the highlights to distract myself.

“Is this seat taken?”

I glance up to see a stunning woman with sleek brown hair and piercing green eyes. She’s wearing a form-fitting white dress that accentuates every curve. It’s been six months since I slept with my wife, and my gaze lingers. I lose my train of thought for a second. Several seconds later, I answer, “No, go ahead.” It’s an effort to drag my eyes away. As I do so, I notice that there are plenty of empty seats besides the one next to me.

“Thank you.” The woman sits down.

I nod, but force myself to keep my eyes rooted to the article I’m reading. It’s a theoretical piece about dark matter and the extra dimensions in string theory. The writer is explaining the theory that the gravitational effects of dark matter may actually be coming from another dimension, which may explain why we have been unable to detect dark matter.

My thoughts wander to my wife as I sip my rum. I find myself re-reading the same line over and over again. It’s hard to believe that our marriage is over, but I can’t figure out a way to save it, and at this point I don’t have the time or the inclination to try. There’s a giant void between us filled with distrust and bitterness.

I notice out of the corner of my eye that the woman beside me is watching me over the rim of her cocktail. I glance her way, telling myself that it’s not because I want to steal another look. “Is something wrong?” I ask. My gaze begins to wander down to her cleavage, but I drag it back up. There are green bits floating in her drink. Maybe mint leaves. A mojito.

“I was about to ask you the same thing,” she says. “You’ve been reading the same page for five minutes. Either you’re a very slow reader or you’re thinking about something else.”

“That’s very perceptive of you.”

She smiles, and a flash of warmth courses through my veins, melting the ice. It’s like I’m a diver coming up for air. I feel lighter and freer than I have in a long time.

The woman sticks out her hand. “Victoria.”

I’m feeling pleasantly numb from the alcohol, and my brain is running slower than usual, but I don’t see the harm in shaking her hand. I’m something of a recluse, so she won’t recognize my name. “Byron.”

“It’s a pleasure to meet you, Byron.” There’s no sign of recognition in her eyes. That puts me at ease, but only just. She’s probably trying to hook a big fish. That’s why she sat beside me. She must have seen my Rolex or my designer luggage and tailored suit. But she has no idea how big of a fish I really am. I don’t want to jump from one gold-digger to another, but maybe I can indulge in some innocent fun. A frown creases my brow as I realize that I’m already entertaining the thought of reciprocating Victoria’s interest.

“Where are you headed?” she asks.

“Fiji,” I say.

“Wow!” Victoria’s green eyes sparkle as she sips her cocktail. “Sounds nice. Where is that?”

“In the South Pacific. North of New Zealand, east of Australia.”

“That’s a long way from Denver.”

I nod. “A whole day of flying with two connections.”

Victoria winces around a sip of her mojito. “Are you going all by yourself?”

I swirl rum in my glass. “Yes.”

“What about your wife?”

I arch an eyebrow at her. “I never said that I was married...”

She smiles and points to a shiny silver band on my left hand. I’m still wearing my wedding ring. “Ah. Well, she and I are...” I shake my head and throw back the last of my drink. I raise the empty glass to a passing waiter and hold up my index finger to signal for a refill. He nods and takes the empty glass. Looking back to Victoria, I say, “We’re circling the drain.” I make a swirling motion with my index finger.

“Oh. I’m sorry to hear that.”

“Yeah, but divorce happens, right? Just like shit.”

Victoria nods slowly, but there’s a sadness in her eyes that I appreciate. Maybe there’s more to her than it seems.

“What about you?” I ask. “Also traveling alone?”

She nods and flutters the fingers of her left hand at me. No rings.

“For work?”

“Pleasure. I suppose it’s pathetic to go on a vacation alone.”

“A little. Sorry,” I add.

“Don’t be. The only thing worse than being alone is being in bad company.”

“Wise words.”

My drink arrives and Victoria raises her glass for a toast. “To being alone.”

I clink my glass with hers and we each take a sip. She’s staring at me again, and I feel pretty sure I can read the intention in her eyes.

“We could be alone together,” she says quietly.

Those words cut straight through me. My brain is buzzing with a dangerous mix of alcohol and desire.

“How long do you have before your flight?” I ask, setting my drink down between us. She reaches over and touches my hand. Electricity sparks through me.

“Several hours,” she says. “We could go somewhere... if you want.”

I nod and rise from my chair. Slipping the Kindle back into my luggage, I extend the handle and stack my briefcase on top. There’s a strap on the back of the briefcase for just that purpose. I hold out my other hand to Victoria. She takes it with a smile and grabs a white Chanel purse that appears to be her only luggage. As I lead her out of the Admirals Club, my heart is pounding. Adrenaline and desire buoy my steps. Guilt, is there, too—or maybe that’s suspicion—screaming for me to stop now before it’s too late. I silence that voice with the truth: my marriage is broken and my wife is probably already cheating on me with Grant. She won’t be able to prove my infidelity, but I’ll be able to prove hers. There are too many eyes watching in the mansion. Too many witnesses. Here there are none. At least, none that Alison knows.

I stride through Concourse A with Victoria’s fingers laced through mine and electricity sparking between us. I’m still suspicious of Victoria’s intentions, but she has no guarantees, so there’s a question of who is using who. If she’s a gold digger, I’ll ditch her, just like I’m ditching my wife. But if she’s not just after my money, then perhaps, the end of my marriage will lead to a new beginning.

I smile to myself as we draw near to my destination. It’s a place called Minute Suites that’s been taking airports around the country by storm. They rent rooms beyond security for people to sleep while they wait for connecting flights. I breeze through the doors into a cramped lobby.

The middle-aged clerk looks up from her desk with a smile. “Hello, welcome to Minute Suites! Would you like a room?” The woman’s eyes skip from me to Victoria and back. There’s a knowing look in her eyes, but she’s discreet enough not to say anything. I’m betting she sees a lot of this kind of thing.

“Yes, for two hours, please,” I say.

“All right. I’ll need to see some identification and a credit card.”

I hand over my passport and my Centurion Card. I doubt Victoria knows how exclusive that credit card is, but I’m watching her for a reaction all the same.

The clerk looks up from her screen. “I’ll need her ID, too.”

Victoria obliges by pulling a passport out of her Chanel bag.

“Perfect...” She spends a few minutes tapping away at her desk. “Welcome, Mr. Gaines and Miss Collins. I hope you enjoy your stay.” The clerk hands me a room key in a paper sleeve with a room number on it. Number 27. “It’s right down the hall, at the end,” the clerk says, leaning over her desk to point the way.

“Thank you,” I say, and lead Victoria away, down a corridor past the front desk. The wheels on my luggage click rhythmically as it skips over the grout lines between the tiles.

“You’ve done this before,” Victoria whispers.

“Only on my own.”

“Oh, I see...” She drawls.

I flash a smirk. “Not like that.”

“I’m not judging.”

We reach the door and I pass the card through the scanner. The door beeps and swings open to reveal a cramped room. We practically have to walk in sideways. I slide my carry-on under a desk that looks like it was made for a child, and shut the door behind us.

Victoria sets her bag on top of the desk, and then she’s all over me. Her scent fills my nostrils, something like vanilla and roses. Every kiss leaves me more intoxicated than the last. Her tongue is in my mouth, and then she’s unbuttoning my shirt and sliding down to my waist. My belt whips off and then my eyes are rolling back in my head. After a minute, I pull her up and off her feet. Her legs wrap around my waist and we’re kissing again. I kick off my pants and walk with her to the bed. We fall into it together and my hand slides up her thigh, slipping past a soft cotton thong. We’re devouring each other’s lips. I unzip her dress at the back and pull it over her head. Her bra is next, followed by the thong. I take a second to admire her. She bites her lip, eyes scalding me as she waits. She’s even more beautiful without her clothes on. There’s no going back from this. I know that. But between the two glasses of rum and my wife’s frigid behavior, I feel more than justified.

Time seems to slow down and speed up all at once. Everything melts away except for the sweet floral scent of Victoria and her silken skin on mine.

When it’s over, we lie spent in each other’s arms. She was too loud for these paper-thin walls, but I don’t care. Gasping for air, I check my smart watch and a bright blue glow fills the hazy darkness. 16:06. My flight is leaving soon. Somehow an entire hour has passed since we left the Admirals Club, and yet it only felt like fifteen minutes. Struggling to catch my breath as I stare at the hazy ceiling of the box I rented, I realize that I’m not actually the first to invent something that can manipulate the fabric of the universe.

I catch Victoria smiling at me in the gloomy blue light of my watch. “You were fantastic,” she purrs. “Married men usually are. It’s like keeping a racehorse in the stable; you’ll never know what it can do until you let it out for a run.”

I arch an eyebrow and lean away to regard her. “That’s an interesting theory. Now I’m wondering if you’ve done this before.” I suppose I shouldn’t be surprised. She sat beside me, but I’m beginning to feel very sober as I contemplate that.

“Don’t over-think it,” Victoria says, laughing lightly and patting my chest.

She rises naked from the bed and begins hunting for her clothes. When she can’t find them, she flicks on the lights by the door. I enjoy the view as she gets dressed: first the thong, then her bra, and the dress. She fluffs her hands through her hair to straighten it, then sits on the foot of the bed to put on her heels. I find myself staring at her Chanel purse on the desk. My wife has enough of them that I recognize the overlapping gold C’s on the clasp. That clasp is worn and the gold is faded to black in places. It’s obviously an old bag. Maybe even second-hand, or a fake. The eye-shaped space where the two back-to-back C’s meet is completely faded from gold to black. I wonder why those details catch my eye. Either this woman used to be wealthy, or else she’s just pretending to be. Either way, gold-digger comes to mind, but then why is she in such a hurry to leave? She should at least be trying to get my number first.

“What’s your hurry?” I ask.

“I don’t want to miss my flight,” she replies.

Not a gold digger. Maybe she likes the thrill of sleeping with random men, but that doesn’t ring true to me. I decide to test her.

“What if I say that I want to see you again?”

Victoria smiles, and her green eyes soften. She walks over to my side of the bed and leans over for a kiss. She leaves me breathless. Pushing me back down, she says, “Then I’d say that I don’t date married men.”

Before I can remind her about my looming divorce, she’s out the door, her heels clicking down the hall. The sound reminds me of my wife storming into the bedroom just a few hours earlier, while I was packing for this trip.

I’m trying to sort through my feelings as I stare at the door. Guilt makes its first real appearance, and suddenly I feel hollow and dirty. This was a mistake. Too much of a risk. If Alison were to find out...

But she won’t. I get dressed in a hurry and flee the scene of the crime. A few minutes later, I’m sitting at my departure gate, wishing my time machine worked in both directions. I never saw myself as the cheating type. Exhaling slowly I run my hands through my hair and check my watch. 16:41. I glance at the gate. Boarding should start any minute.

A muffled ding sounds from my carry-on, and then I hear my phone vibrating. I unzip the pocket and pull the phone out of my bag to check who’s messaging me. It’s Alison. My jaw drops as I see and read her message.

It’s a video. The thumbnail is of a double bed in the miniature suite that I just shared with Victoria a few minutes ago. And we’re both clearly visible in the frame. The message below reads: Was she worth it, Byron? See you in court ;).

“How...” I mutter under my breath.

An image flashes through my head: Victoria’s Chanel bag with the worn clasp and the black eye-shaped space between the C’s. It was sitting on that desk, filming us the entire time.

Victoria. Victory. Blinding rage boils inside of me. I can’t think straight. My head feels hot. I’m dizzy. She’s going to pay for this! This is entrapment. My lawyers will tear her apart. She won’t get a penny.

I stop that train before it can derail me. Deep breaths. In and out. Now is not the time to lose control. I need a cool head for what’s to come.

The angry wash of heat fades and a familiar coldness creeps in. I underestimated Alison, but I won’t make that mistake again. I’ll see her in hell before I let her take half of my fortune.


Chapter 4

Two Days Later...

—February 6th, 2021—

“Well? What d’ya think, mate?” Lachlan’s thick Australian accent buzzes through the headset I’m wearing.

Even with a headset, the helicopter is ridiculously noisy. It’s taken us ninety minutes to get here from the main island of Viti Levu. My knees are bouncing and I’m gripping the side door of the helicopter as I peer out the window. I do my best to stay away from small aircraft, but this was the fastest way to get here.

From the air I get to see what I’ve already seen online. The photos didn’t do it justice. Kanacea is a mountainous, jungle-covered island surrounded by white sandy beaches, light green water, and extensive coral reefs. I can see a few buildings, but no major development. I’ll tear the old structures down if I decide to build my complex here.

“Very nice,” I say.

“She’s a beauty, right? The island is over four thousand acres,” Lachlan adds. “You won’t get a more private oasis than this. Those buildings you see belong to the coconut plantation, but you can tear them down if you want.”

I nod noncommittally. For twenty-six million dollars, there are plenty of other islands I could buy, but this one is far enough from the first world that I should be able to keep it hidden. It’s also mountainous, gets plenty of rain, and lots of sun. Perfect for a self-sufficient, solar-powered underground complex. One that won’t be threatened by rising sea levels in the future. I’ll have to build with tropical storms, earthquakes, and tsunamis in mind, however.

“Let’s get a squiz from the ground, shall we?” Lachlan leans forward and pats the pilot on the shoulder. “Take us down, mate!”

I absently wonder what kind of commission he stands to make on this sale. Lachlan works for a US-based company dedicated to the sale of private islands, but he strikes me as a local contact.

The helicopter lands on a gravel road just behind the main beach, in front of what might have been a dock at some point. Now all that’s left is a double line of rotten wooden posts sticking out of the water.

The rotors slow from a deafening roar to a more discernible thup-thup-thup. My agent, if that’s what he is, opens his door and jumps out amidst a miniature cyclone. He turns to me, squinting and shielding his eyes as sand blasts him. He gestures hurriedly for me to follow him. I rip off my headset and wait a few more seconds at the threshold until the whirling cyclone dies down. My shoes touch the ground with a crunch of gravel. We walk down to the beach. Lachlan is still talking up what he imagines are the island’s best selling points. Tropical weather, snorkeling, natural beauty, isolation. Only that last one really resonates with me. Waves are swishing on the shore, and I can actually see fish jumping in the water.

“It’s rare to find this much freehold land in Fiji,” Lachlan adds.

He’s right about that. Most of the land here can’t be bought or sold; only leased.

“How far to the nearest island?” I ask.

“Fifteen kilometers to Vanua Balavu. About forty minutes by boat. Depending how fast your boat is.” Lachlan turns and points to a small white house on stilts that we landed beside. There’s a pair of old quads and a dune buggy parked in front of it. I also notice a clothesline strung between two trees with garments drying in the sun. A rooster crows somewhere nearby, and I see chickens go running through the yard.

“You said there’s a plantation here?” I ask. “With people running it, I assume...”

Just as I say that, three half-naked children dart into view. They stand there pointing at us and smiling.

“Yeah, it’s a coconut plantation,” Lachlan confirms. “It’s still operational, but you can get rid of it if you have other plans. It’s really up to you.”

“If I do, what happens to the people living here?”

Lachlan shrugs. “That’s also up to you. They don’t own the land or any of the buildings on it. As I said, it’s freehold, and the whole island is for sale. The current owner is doing them a favor by letting them stay here.”

I nod absently as I study the mountains in the center of the island. “I’ll give each of the families a nice severance package. They can go start their own coconut plantations if they want.”

“Sounds like a fair deal to me.” Lachlan notices my interest in the mountains. “Like that?”

“Yes.”

“Should have a bloody good view up there. Wanna take a look?” He points to the dune buggy.

I nod again. “Please.”

The buggy ride is bumpy and dusty as hell. I see a few men harvesting coconuts along the way. The younger ones shimmy right up like monkeys. I flinch as a falling coconut thumps off the roof right above my head.

Lachlan glances at me with a grin. “Crikey! Good thing we didn’t take the quads!” he yells.

When we finally reach the top of the highest mountain on Kanacea, I’m already sold. I can see clear down both sides of the island, blue-green water fades to dark blue. “What is the elevation here?”

“Just over six hundred feet.”

“Good. It’s perfect.”

“Yeah?” Lachlan grins like a hungry shark. “Fantastic, mate! You want to see more, or should we head back to blow the froth off a few tinnies and celebrate?”

“I’m sorry?”

Lachlan’s grin flickers. “Alcohol, mate. Beers.”

I smile blandly and shake my head. “I’m on a tight schedule, but thanks for the offer.”

“Sure, no worries.”

“My lawyers will be in touch with an offer soon.”

*     *     *

I sit on the balcony of my suite at the Radisson Blu eating a room service meal of cocktail shrimp, steak, and beer. My meal lies mostly untouched beside me as I sip my beer and stare out over the pale blue lagoon of Denarau Island. Waves crest and roll in to the beach, tourists catch them on surf boards and wave boards. Palm trees sway in a warm breeze, their fronds rustling. I hear children squealing as they splash around in the pool below.

If Alison wasn’t such a stupid bitch, she could have been here with me to witness the birth of my empire. Despite her assumptions to the contrary, she would have been an equal partner in all of it, and who knows, maybe I would have eventually voided the prenup on my own initiative.



But no, instead, she ruined everything and showed me exactly what she’s really about. It’s a hard lesson, and I know I’ll be more careful in the future. I doubt her little trap will pay off, though. Victoria was obviously a hooker that Alison paid to sleep with me. If I can track Victoria down and prove that, then Alison will be on the hook (pun intended) for a felony. And it’s all for nothing, because the video she sent me points to a plot to leverage the fidelity clause of our prenup. If she were actually as smart as she seems to think she is, she wouldn’t have bothered sending me that video to gloat over her victory; she would have launched her attack silently, using Victoria as a witness. She would have been better off gathering photographs of me with Victoria taken by a third party that she could claim was a PI. But as it is, that video she sent me could have only been taken with Victoria’s help, and any competent lawyer will contest the claim to my fortune because of it.

I smile and take another sip of my beer. Something buzzes against my leg, startling me. I choke on the beer and set it aside with a grimace. The muffled ring tone reaches my ear a second later. Coughing and muttering under my breath, I pull my cell phone out to see who it is.

It’s Theodore. What could he be calling me about? I wonder as I answer the call.

“Hello?”

“Sir, there’s been a development at the mansion that you should know about.”

“And that is?”

“Yesterday your wife gave the entire staff, including myself, the weekend off. Since then, the mansion has been locked and the shades have been drawn. This morning I endeavored on my morning walk to see what might be going on inside, but with the blinds drawn I could not see anything.”

“Does Grant still have access to the mansion?”

“Of course, sir. As per your wishes, I made no attempt to remove him from the premises. Would you like me to use my key to go inside?”

A bitter smile twists my lips, and a sharp pain lances through my chest. Suddenly I find it hard to breathe and my heart is pounding.

“Sir?”

“Yes—no, don’t go in. Give them their privacy.”

“Very well, sir...”

Grant’s betrayal cuts the deepest, but it surprises me how much it hurts to know about Alison’s part in things. This might just be revenge for my infidelity, but since she was partly responsible for my dalliance with Victoria, I suspect that she and Grant have probably been having an affair for some time already. Maybe Alison feels invincible now that she had proof of my infidelity. As per the terms of our prenup, the first count of infidelity is the only one that matters.

“I’m coming home,” I say, surprising even myself with that statement. “I’ll be in touch soon with my flight details. Don’t let them think you’re onto them.”

“As you wish, sir.”

“See you soon.” I hang up and sit stewing over this surprising development. What am I hoping to accomplish by returning home now? Maybe I’ll catch them in the act, or maybe it’s better that I don’t. It doesn’t matter. I’m kicking them both out of the mansion as soon as I arrive.


Chapter 5

One Day Later...

—February 7th, 2021—

Alex met me at Denver International Airport with my Cadillac Escalade. Now as I sit in the back, I’m leaning against the door, watching snow-covered fields roll by in a monochromatic blur. I’m exhausted but wide awake at the same time. I’m jet-lagged as hell from another twenty-four hours of traveling, not to mention the eighteen hours of time difference between Denver and Fiji. Even flying first class, that isn’t easy. Making matters worse, I doubt I’ve had more than a few hours of sleep since Theodore called me about what’s going on behind my back. I’ve been too busy thinking about how I’m going to get revenge on Grant and Alison.

I stare out the windows. Now we’re rolling through the foothills at the base of the Rocky Mountains.

They’re going to pay for this. Obviously Grant’s involvement in my project is at an end, but he also knows too much about the technology for me to just cut him loose. I don’t want to create a competitor for myself. Would he be able to re-build the STCD without me? I’m the brains behind it all, but he’s been by my side from the very first prototype, so he understands everything perfectly, and he’s the one who actually built the device. It would probably take him a while to get the necessary capital to start an operation of his own, and even then... I wonder if my pending patents will be enough to protect me if it comes down to a war.

“Mr. Gaines, we’re about twenty minutes away.”

I nod absently.

“You might want to have a drink before you arrive. If this is what you think it is, you’re probably going to need it.”

Alex is right. I could use a drink. “Good idea,” I say.

I reach into the mini fridge that sits on the floor between the two middle row seats and pull out a perfectly chilled beer. Just as I’m about to twist off the cap, Alex reaches back and hands me a bottle of aged Jamaican rum. My spirit of choice. “You were thinking ahead,” I say.

“Always, sir.” He hands me a glass next, both the bottle and glass are room temperature, which they should be to properly enjoy the flavor of the rum.

I smile wanly as a memory drifts back to me. I’m ten years old, quietly blinking tears as I sit staring into the massive fireplace in the great room. Theodore is sitting beside me. He’s just broken the news about my parent’s plane crash. “Perhaps you’d like a drink?” he says.

I don’t respond.

He comes back with something he calls a hot toddy. “This will make you feel better.”

There’s a cinnamon stick and a lemon slice in the glass. I warm my hands around it for a moment before taking a sniff. Whatever it is the smell of it burns my nose.

I take an experimental sip and spit it back into the glass. “It’s alcohol.”

“Yes. Rum and honey with lemon rind and cinnamon,” Theodore says. “It will help you sleep tonight.”

“It’s hot.”

“It’s meant to be.”

I arch an eyebrow at him and take another sip. This time I swallow. It burns on the way down, but it also warms the aching cold inside of me and numbs the searing pain from the knot in my throat.

“Never drink spirits cold unless it’s vodka,” Theodore says. “And a hot toddy is always hot.” He sits beside me on the couch once more and wraps his arm around me. “You’re going to be okay, sir. I promise.”

I nod and lean back, warming my hands around my first real grown-up drink, periodically taking small sips as he spends the next hour telling me that my parents’ will named him as their executor and also as my guardian, and he promises to raise me as if I were his own son. “I’ll always keep you safe,” he says.

The rum has turned me into a blubbering mess. I wipe my nose and peer up at him through a haze of tears. “You promise?”

“I promise,” he says, and tightens his grip around my shoulders.

That brings me back to the moment with a fond smile as I sip my Jamaican rum. Theodore kept that promise. He’s been looking out for me and watching over me ever since that day.

I feel myself growing sleepy with the rum as the Escalade winds along the scenic country road to my family’s estate. I’m only dimly aware of passing through the security gates at the entrance of the property. The golden G in the center of the doors parts down the middle and then we’re through. Snow-covered grounds and stately trees flash by on either side. My father’s private golf course. The converted stable that serves as my lab comes next. I see the parking lot is empty. It’s a Sunday, so of course no one is working there today. I’m glad to see that Grant’s Land Rover isn’t there. It means he’s probably in the mansion with Alison. That improves the odds that I’ll catch them. A hot flash of rage courses through me at the thought. Whatever else comes of this, there will be some satisfaction in that at least. The mansion appears, a massive stone edifice that looks just like a castle. And I’m the king, I think sleepily. A pity we’re not in the middle ages. I could have Grant executed if we were. Instead, I’m left with a giant mess to clean up.

Alex parks the Escalade in the circular drive at the foot of the sweeping stone steps that lead up to the entrance of the mansion.

“We’re here, sir,” he says.

My head lolls and my forehead thunks against the window. I shake my head and draw on a fading reserve of adrenaline to rouse myself. The rum and lack of sleep is taking its toll. Maybe that drink wasn’t such a good idea. I can barely keep my eyes open.

“Sir?” Alex asks.

I look at him, my mind fading.

“You don’t look too good,” he says. “Do you need help getting inside?”

He doesn’t wait for me to reply. Instead, he swings his door open and jumps out. My door is next and I almost fall out of the vehicle as my headrest disappears.

I shake my head again, harder this time, and the world spins. “Here.” Alex reaches over and undoes my seatbelt. He helps me down, and I mumble something that not even I understand.

“You’re just tired. Maybe you should sleep it off in the guest wing before you speak with Mrs. Gaines.”

“No,” I manage, and push away from Alex. I draw myself up and stumble up the stairs by myself. “I need to do this now.” My heart is racing feebly in my chest, the world a fading background around me.

Alex opens the door for me, and then I’m standing at the top of the stairs, leaning hard on the banister, unable to remember how I got there. I turn to look behind me, wondering where Alex is, but the front doors are shut, and he’s nowhere to be seen. Did I dismiss him? Maybe he dismissed himself.

I hear giggling, and low, whispering voices. I stand there, blinking stupidly. Then I hear the knocking of a headboard. I stumble on toward the sound. The door to the master bedroom is cracked open. I push it the rest of the way, and see exactly what I expected to, but somehow I’m still shocked.  A dark rage floods through me.

“You bastard,” I say, slurring my words.

Grant rolls off my wife and there’s a moment where I can see both their faces, their eyes widening in shock. I wasn’t due back until Wednesday. They lie there, frozen, speechless, and naked. The sight of that washes away what little is left of my awareness, and an unintelligible roar tears from my lips.


Chapter 6

I wake up in a dark room, feeling like I’m adrift on a sea of cotton. But the sea is in my head. My thoughts are dull and fuzzy. It’s hard to put together a coherent thought. Where am I? I prop myself up on my elbows, trying to figure out which bedroom I’m in. There’s a crystal tumbler with half a finger of what might be rum on the nightstand beside me. Beside that an orange pill bottle lies on its side with the cap off. All of the pills are spilled out on the floor. I shake my head. Whose pills are those? Did I take one?

I’m looking around again. The shades are drawn, so it’s hard to tell where I am for a second. Despite that, I recognize the configuration of the furniture, and the adjoining hall that leads to the walk-in closets and the master bathroom.

I frown and shake my head. I haven’t slept in here since my wife kicked me out six months ago. And where the hell is she, anyway? Maybe she and Grant fled the mansion after I caught them in the act.

How did I get here? What happened last night? It’s not clear in my head, but as I focus on the last twenty-four hours, memories trickle back in flashes and fragments. The flight from Fiji to LAX, then from there to Denver. Alex meeting me at the airport. The ride home with me sipping rum in the back of the Escalade. Did I take the glass with me? Or is the one beside the bed evidence of a bender? That would explain why I can’t remember...

But I do. I remember walking up the stairs, hearing voices and suspicious noises, then pushing the bedroom door open and seeing my wife in bed with Grant. But after that, there’s this big blank where something else should be. Did I pass out? Who carried me to bed?

“Hello?” I croak.

No answer.

I sit up and swing my legs over the side of the bed. The floor is ice cold. Despite the gas fireplace flickering valiantly at the foot of the bed. I shiver and rub my bare arms. I’m only wearing underwear. That’s strange. I normally sleep in my pajamas.

An image flashes through my head of me sitting on the bedroom floor, staring at my hands. They’re covered in blood. Grant and Alison are lying face down and naked in front of me, both of them lying in a thick, sticky red pool that is smeared with my handprints.

I recoil from that thought as if it were a physical thing, and draw my knees up to my chest, suddenly terrified to touch the floor.

“Lights!” I say, and the room snaps into sharp relief. The floor is clean, no bodies, no blood. Maybe the scene I just witnessed in my head was part of some twisted nightmare.

I scan the room with my heart hammering against my sternum. I’m feeling sick and dizzy. My gorge rises and suddenly I can’t contain myself. I lean over the side of the bed and vomit my life out on the floor.

When it’s over, I’m shaking and heaving foul lungfuls of the steaming filth on the floor. I scuttle down to the foot of the bed and climb out on wobbly legs, wiping my mouth on the back of my hand. I study the hardwood floor carefully as I walk around the bed and pad over to the bathroom. No signs of blood, and no crusty residue of it under my bare feet.

It wasn’t real. Just a nightmare.

I get to the bathroom and flush the vomit taste out of my mouth with several caps full of mouthwash. I stare at my face in the mirror. I look like hell. There’s a two-day shadow cloaking my cheeks and jaw. My eyes are red and bloodshot with dark bags under them. My hair is in disarray, sticking up at all angles, and a bright red pimple mars one cheek just above my beard. I touch it, but it moves higher on my cheek as the skin depresses beneath my finger. Then I realize that red speck is on the mirror, not my face. I lean toward it, my eyes widening as I do so. It’s a speck of blood.

I run back to the bedroom and fall on my hands and knees, running my hands over the floor, scratching my fingernails through the seams between the floorboards. My nails come away crusted with blood.

I stare at my hands for what must be at least a minute, my eyes blurring with tears of horror and regret. “Theodore!” I scream.

But of course he can’t hear me. What time is it? I run to the nearest window and yank the blackout curtains open. Blinding light pours in, reflecting off the snow-covered ground like a mirror. It’s overcast, but probably the middle of the day. What day is it? I check my watch. Monday 9:06AM. I came back Sunday evening. The staff should all be back at work by now.

I turn away from the window, to the door. I can’t remember what I did with the bodies. Or my clothes. Or...

Gut-twisting guilt and remorse are joined by unbridled terror. If one of the staff finds something, I’m done. It will all be over. All of my plans, the empire I’m planning to build... everything goes up in smoke while I serve several consecutive life sentences in prison. I have to find out if I left any kind of trail before someone else does. And I need to find Theodore. He’ll know what to do. I jump to my feet, and run back to the bathroom. I scrub my nails and hands vigorously with soap and then swipe a hand towel off the rack beside the double sinks and wipe the speck of blood from the mirror. Then I think about how DNA evidence could be preserved by the fabric and I run the towel under the faucet and scrub it with soap. I leave it beside the sink. I’ll throw it away later. Moving quickly, my eyes darting, I check every inch of the bathroom: the floor, the sink, the shower... the tub. There’s a faint pink scum line around the tub. Blood and dirt mixed with soap. Shit. I grab the hand towel and pour soap on it to scrub the line away. When I’m done I wash it in the sink again, ringing it out several times before tossing it in the garbage bin beneath the sink.

Fleeing the bathroom, I run back into the bedroom to check for more evidence. There’s nothing visible on the floor, but the shag rug that should be at the foot of the bed is missing. Shit. I’m shaking violently. My head and chest hurt like hell, and I can’t breathe, but now isn’t the time for me to fall apart. Getting down on my hands and knees, I check under the bed. Can’t see anything. I run my hands over the floor. Nothing but dust.

I’m about to get back up when I see it: the dull golden gleam of a familiar object. I run around to the other side of the bed and reach for it. It rolls under my hand with a soft clinking sound. Withdrawing the item, I stare at it in my palm. It’s a shell casing from a nine millimeter round.

I’m shaking my head in denial even as I stare at the proof. Running to my walk-in closet, I push my clothes aside to check the wall safe where the gun should be. The door is already ajar. I yank it open and the light comes on. The gun and bullets are gone, but so are the gold bars and the case of diamonds that my father left in here. Ten million dollars’ worth of valuables missing.

Why... I shake my head, struggling to understand. Did Grant and Alison steal them? A dark flash of rage courses through me, and for a split second I’m glad that they’re dead. Then I remember that I’m the one who killed them, and a dark, suffocating void opens up inside of me. Despair grips me. Despite my obvious efforts to cover this up, I’m filled by the utter certainty that my life is now over. Shutting and locking the safe, I shuffle around my closet and get dressed. On my way out I think to check the pills beside the bed. All but a few of them spilled out on the floor and are now lying in a pool of my vomit, but I pick up the bottle and check the label. Lunesta. My wife’s prescription sleeping pills. My gaze falls on the tumbler with a few millimeters of rum in the bottom. Mixing alcohol and sleeping pills. Now I know why I don’t remember everything that happened last night. But amnesia isn’t an effective defense against murder.

I have to find Theodore. I’ve never needed his advice more than I do now.


Chapter 7

I race downstairs and find Theodore sipping a cup of black coffee as he micro-manages the kitchen staff to make a three-course breakfast.

“Welcome back, Mr. Gaines,” he says, smiling tightly at me. “I must apologize for not coming to see you last night when you arrived. My age seems to have gotten the better of me, and I fell asleep early.”

I nod quickly and wave his explanations aside. “Don’t worry about it.” But actually, if he had come over, he might have been in time to stop me. He really couldn’t have picked a worse time to turn in early.

Theodore seems to notice my distress and the skin around his eyes scrunches up tightly. “Is everything all right, sir?”

I have to bite my tongue. There are four other people in the kitchen with us. I grab his arm and begin yanking him along. “Let’s talk in my study.”

“Of course.” We cross the great room in silence, and I open one of two massive doors to my office. He goes in first and I shut and lock the doors behind us.

Walking across the spacious room to the farthest corner possible, I collapse in one of two leather armchairs by the windows. My chair diagonally faces a vast two-story bookshelf complete with a wooden ladder on wheels. Theodore takes a seat in the chair beside mine and watches me over the rim of his coffee mug. He waits for me to speak, but I don’t know where to start.

A convincingly real gas fireplace flickers on the opposite wall, beside my father’s old cherry wood desk. My elbows are on my knees and my hands form a bridge under my chin as I stare into the fire. I swear that I can feel the heat of it all the way over here.

“Shall I take it that this has something to do with your wife and Mr. Coleman?” Theodore asks quietly.

I flinch and turn to him. He knows. “What makes you say that?” I ask, and suddenly I’m wondering at the wisdom of making Theodore an accomplice to my crimes. Will he seek to protect me or turn me in? I suspect the former, but can I really afford the risk?

Theodore nods to the windows beside us. “I noticed on my morning walk that Mr. Coleman’s Land Rover is not parked in front of the garage as it usually is, nor is it parked in the lot by the laboratory.”

I blow out a shaky breath, wondering if moving his car last night was yet another thing I couldn’t remember. But where was it now? Yet another loose end that needed tying.

“Theo...” I shake my head. As if that will clear it. “I think I did something terrible last night.”

Theodore’s eyebrows form a bushy gray arch above his eyes. I swallow thickly and go on. “I think I might have killed them.”

Theodore slowly lowers his coffee cup and stares unblinkingly at me. We go for a painfully long time without speaking.

“Say something,” I whisper.

“You said you might have. What makes you uncertain?” he asks.

“I mixed some of Alison’s sleeping pills and rum, so I can’t remember everything. That, and I was drinking in the car and on the flight on the way here, and I had barely any sleep on the plane.”

Theodore grimaces. “Drinking before a confrontation with your wife was not the wisest decision you could have made, sir.”

“You don’t think I know that?” I snap.

“What do you remember?”

“Just fragments. I walked in on them last night. They were in our bed. I was expecting it, but when I saw them like that... I just got so furious. And then...” I shake my head. “The rest is a blank.”

“That doesn’t sound very incriminating.”

“I’m not finished.”

Theodore frowns. “Go on.”

“I woke up this morning in our bed. The one where they... where I found them. And I was wearing nothing but my underwear.”

“Unusual for you.”

“Yes. I remember sitting on the floor in a pool of blood, their naked bodies face down in front of me. My hands were covered in...” I stare at my palms until my eyes burn, and tears slide down my cheeks. I wipe them angrily on my sleeve.

Theodore’s shoulders round, and he sinks deeper into his chair. His expression is heartbreaking: a terrible mixture of disappointment and fear. He looks paler than usual, his blue eyes dull, and for the first time I can clearly see his sixty years.

“What did you do next?” Theodore asks.

“I can’t remember, but I guess I must have cleaned up, because I couldn’t find anything this morning.”

Theodore straightens. “Then how can you be sure that it really happened? You may have dreamed the entire thing or hallucinated it because of those pills.”

I regard him with a shaky smile. “I found a speck of blood on the bathroom mirror.”

“Perhaps Mrs. Gaines was flossing last night.”

“There’s also a residue of dried blood between the floorboards. You can’t see it, but it’s there. And...”

Theodore’s cheeks turn gray. He nods for me to go on.

I reach into my pocket and withdraw the most damning evidence of all. I hold it up for Theodore to see. “I found this under the bed.”

Theodore’s jaw drops at the sight of the shell casing.

“Only one?”

I nod.

“But one bullet wouldn’t kill two people.”

He’s right.

“We’ll have to look again,” Theodore adds. “Did you find the gun?”

“No. But I found my safe open. The gun was missing. So were the gold and diamonds.”

Theodore’s brow furrows. “And what do you make of that?”

“Maybe they were planning to run away together. It’s worth more than what Alison could have got from me in the divorce.”

“Yes...” Theodore strokes his chin thoughtfully. “Do you remember what you did with the gun?”

I shake my head. “No.”

“What about the clothes you were wearing?”

Another shake.

Theodore sighs and my composure cracks. “I need your help, Theo,” I whisper in a shaky voice.

He just looks at me, his eyes hard, and for a moment I’m afraid that he’s going to suggest that I turn myself in.

Then he offers a shallow nod and his lips press into a thin, bloodless white line. “Of course, sir. I will do everything in my power to protect you, just as I always have.”

A pinprick of light shines in the darkness that has spread like a cancer through my soul. I’m shaking again, but a small hope is flickering inside of me. Maybe this doesn’t have to be the end.

I rise on trembling legs and stumble over to the bar in front of my father’s desk. I pour myself half a glass of rum, but just as I’m about to knock it back, Theodore’s hand stops mine.

“I believe you’ve had enough of that, sir. We’re going to need a clear head for what’s to come.”

I nod stiffly and put the glass back down with a thunk. My eyes wander to the crackling fireplace beside me. My eyes drift out of focus and the flames seem to swell to fill the whole room.

Hell is real, and I’m busy burning in it.


Chapter 8

One Month Later...

—March 12th, 2021—

I sit cuffed to a table in a bright room that’s reserved for semi-private visitations between inmates and their families or lawyers. It’s a far cry from what I had pictured for this—a dark room with a two-way mirror and a naked light bulb swinging overhead.

My lawyer, Dan Collins, sits to one side of me, his briefcase open on the table, reading a sheaf of papers while he waits. On the other side is Theodore Wilson, my real advocate here. He gives me a tight smile and pats my leg.

“We’re just here to listen,” he says, and I nod.

“We’d better do more than that,” Dan Collins adds. He catches my eye and holds it. “This is the best we’re going to get.”

I frown and look away just as the door swings open. A man in a trim blue suit and patterned red tie walks in. He has a military bearing with wavy dark hair. His broad jaw, bright green eyes, and aging movie star good looks make him even less likable than he already is. I realize that’s because he reminds me of Grant. This is the face the city wears for its worst criminals—Brent Larson’s face. He’s the district attorney, and my lawyer tells me he only handles the city’s most important cases. I wonder if I should be flattered that he thinks mine is one of those.

The DA’s demeanor is cold, tough, and business-like, but there are enough laugh lines around his eyes to make me think he might be a human at home.

“I hear you like rum,” he says, and magically produces a bottle and a glass in one hand. His other hand holds his briefcase, which he sets on top of the table while he pours the rum.

“My client will not be drinking for this,” Dan Collins says.

“No? More for me I guess,” the prosecutor says with a shrug.

“Two fingers,” I say, holding them up. The chain between my cuffs jerks taut, and I drop my hands back into my lap.

The DA grins like a shark as he pours my drink. All teeth. Dan flings a scowl my way that I studiously ignore. He’s the reason I’m here, getting ready to accept a plea bargain instead of pleading my innocence in court. He says that even without the bodies, they have enough evidence to convict me. Theodore and I both feel otherwise, despite our nagging fears that everything really is just as bad as it seems.

The prosecutor slides the glass across the table and then opens his briefcase and removes an old-fashioned tape recorder. I stare at it, wondering why he would use such antiquated piece of technology. Maybe because a tape is harder to alter than a digital file.

The prosecutor takes a breath and glances back at the door, checking his Rolex. It’s a cheaper version of the one I used to wear.

The door bursts open about a minute later, and the police detective assigned to my case walks in. Matt Pullman. He and I have been in a room like this one a few times before, back when I was arrested a week ago, and then again later at this jail. He hasn’t gotten jack out of me, but things have changed with the plea deal.

“Ready?” the prosecutor asks.

Matt nods and plants his palms on the table, staring hard at me as if he’s trying to read my mind. Or maybe this is just how he softens up the inmates before they confess. The prosecutor presses a button on the tape recorder. “For the record it is 11:06 AM, March 1st, 2021. In attendance are myself, District Attorney Brent Larson, and Detective Matthew Pullman—” He pauses and looks at us. “For the record, would you all please state your names?” He nods to us.

“Also in attendance, the defendant—”

“Byron Gaines,” I say.

“The defendant’s counsel—”

“Dan Collins,” my lawyer adds.

“And his butler—”

“Theodore Wilson.”

The detective sucks in a deep breath. “Byron Gaines, I’m going to read you your rights now.”

“Again?” I ask through a crooked smile. This is the third time I’ve been read my rights, but I refused to speak the other times, so maybe that’s why they’re reading them to me again. For the record.

“You have the right to remain silent,” Matt goes on. “Anything you say can and will be used against you in a court of law. You have the right to an attorney. If you cannot afford an attorney, one will be provided for you. Do you understand the rights I have just read to you? With these rights in mind, do you wish to speak to me?”

I shrug.

“I’m going to need to hear you say it,” Matt says.

“Yes. I understand.” I reach for the rum, but the cuffs yank my hand back down.

“Get those off him, detective,” the prosecutor says.

Keys jangle as the detective hunts for the right one. He steps over to me and unlocks the cuffs. My wrists snap free. But free is a relative term when you’re already in jail. I’ve only been here for a week but it already feels like years, and there’s no end in sight. The judge refused to set bail at my arraignment because he thinks I’m a flight risk. He’s right. With what I’m facing, I’d crawl under a rock and they’d never find me again.

“Could you please also confirm for me, Mr. Gaines, that the confession we are about to hear has not been coerced or in any way rehearsed?”

I sip my rum and nod. “My words will be my own.”

“Good.” The DA reaches into his briefcase and spends a moment digging through the contents.

Jail isn’t as bad as I’d imagined it would be. It’s worse. I’m on the lowest of the Denver City Jail’s nine levels, and I share this floor with all of the city’s most dangerous criminals: murderers, rapists, and armed robbers alike. Some of them are repeat offenders or facing multiple counts of something like me. I have my own cell, which is great, but that’s only because it’s too dangerous to make these guys share a room. All of the criminals in here look and act the part, but I don’t, and the sneering, dead-eyed looks I get in the corridors, in the dining hall, and in the showers make me fear for my life. They know who I am, and that makes this so much worse. None of them seem to have noticed that jail is the great equalizer. I won’t be able to avail myself of my fortune for a very long time. Security is tight, at least, but the guards here like to remind me that big-boy prison isn’t as safe, and that that’s where I’m headed. There will be plenty of opportunity for someone to stick a shiv in me, or something worse, and no one will care if they do.

That’s the other reason I’m here—besides my lawyer’s insistence—I’m here to get nicer accommodations when the time comes.

I watch as Detective Pullman goes to stand by the door with his arms crossed over his chest. The prosecutor slides a blue folder across the table to me.

“Mr. Gaines, this is what we’re prepared to offer you.”

I don’t reach for it. Instead I sit sipping my rum while my lawyer grabs the folder and reads the terms.

“It’s a good deal,” he says after a minute.

“Give me the highlights,” I say.

“If you plead guilty to both counts of second-degree murder, then they’ll set you up with a private cell in Golden Valley Correctional. It’s a medium security facility,” Dan says.

“And if I don’t plead guilty?” I ask.

The prosecutor replies, “Then we go to trial, and you could get charged with two counts of first-degree murder. You'll go to Colorado State, a level five, maximum security prison and do a double life sentence. You could even get the death penalty. In the former case, you will still have your own cell, but you’ll be in with all of the most dangerous criminals in the state, and you’ll have a lot less freedom. Fewer creature comforts, too.”

I look to my lawyer to confirm what he's saying. “You said they won’t be able to get a first-degree murder charge to stick.”

Dan looks like he wants to slide out of his chair. His eyes slink away from mine. “Well... technically I said they probably won’t get it to stick. But there's always a chance.” “On what grounds?” I ask, my eyes narrowing on the prosecutor. “Motive. The cell phone chats with your wife. That speaks to pre-meditated murder.”

“I walked in on them in the middle of the act. That’s a crime of passion. A second-degree, third-class felony.” “And you are the only witness who can prove it. Convenient, don't you think? Also convenient that you seem to know so much about the law. Seems like you'd know exactly what story to spin in order to avoid harsher sentencing.” “You mentioned creature comforts. What will I get with Golden Valley besides the private room?”

“We’re prepared to offer you a TV in your room. And a Kindle with weekly, supervised access to the Internet and the prison library so that you can load it with whatever books you might like.”

“What about the laptop and Internet access for my room that I requested?” I ask.

The prosecutor shakes his head. “Those requests were not approved.”

I frown. A Kindle is better than nothing, but I won’t be able to do any work on it.

“So you want me to confess to a double murder that I can’t even remember committing, and all you’re going to give me in exchange is better neighbors and a library card?”

The prosecutor straightens in his chair. “You’re free to take your chances in court, but I can tell you from experience that it’s not going to go well, and these concessions will be off the table if we have to get you in front of a jury.”

I look to my lawyer. Dan regards me quietly. “He’s right.”

I turn to the DA. “But the bodies were never found. All you have is my gun and Coleman’s car.”

“Both of which were found at the bottom of a lake on your property,” the prosecutor says. “And there’s the blood on your bedroom floor. Two different types, both perfectly matched to the victims. We don’t need the bodies with all of that. We also have your history of anger problems, which is corroborated by members of your staff and by your therapist.”

“Members of?” I scoff. “You mean one member.” Alex is the only one besides Theodore who ever really witnessed my temper. I still can’t believe that he’s willing to testify against me. Then again, he was more Alison’s driver than mine. I usually just take the Tesla.

“All the same. It’s more than enough to get you convicted.”

“I passed the polygraph,” I say. “You want me to lie now and say that I did it?”

“No, I want you to examine the evidence with me and recognize what it means. You don’t have to remember what you did to accept the blame for it. The evidence is more than clear enough for you to fill in the blanks.”

“We have a motive: your wife’s phone, which shows the video she sent to you several days prior.”

“Of a hooker she hired to seduce me!” I thunder.

“Nevertheless, it would have been enough for any competent lawyer to lay claim to your fortune in a divorce.”

“Debatable,” I say.

“Which means there was a chance it could go either way. People have killed for much less than thirty-seven billion dollars. But to add to all of that, by your own admission, you came home and found your wife and your friend in bed together. That was the last straw. You were already going to kill them, but that just added fuel to the fire. You shot them both, just as you had planned, and then you then hid the bodies and the gun, and cleaned up as best you could. At some point, you took your wife’s sleeping pills because you knew they would blank your memory of the night in question and help you pass a lie detector test.”

“Risky,” I say. “Without being able to remember what I did to hide the evidence, I’d be unable to keep it from being discovered.”

“You’re a smart man. There’s a reason we haven’t found the bodies,” the prosecutor replies.

Dan Collins interrupts us. “Look, either we accept the plea deal or we don’t.” He looks at me. “What’s it going to be?”

I ignore him. Tears spring to my eyes. I swipe them away angrily. “You’re wrong,” I say, shaking a finger at the DA. “That’s not what happened.”

“But you just said you can’t remember what happened.”

“I can’t, but—”

“But? How do you think your story is going to sound to a jury? They’ll convict you in a heartbeat.”

“So why are you here trying to make a deal with me?”

The prosecutor favors me with a thin smile and spreads his hands. “Maybe I’m getting soft. I’ve been cheated on, and I’ve been through a divorce. I know what that’s like, and I know just how crazy betrayal can make a man.”

“That doesn’t mean I did it,” I say.

“Okay, so what do you think happened?” the prosecutor asks.

“You already know what I think.”

“Let’s say I don’t. For the record.”

“I think they ran away together and framed me for their murders. And they took the gold and diamonds in my safe.”

“Worth ten million, correct?”

I nod slowly.

“But that’s nothing compared with the billions your wife could have gotten in a divorce.”

“There’s also my research, which is missing, and the prototype in my lab, also missing. Those are worth far more than thirty-seven billion.”

“And yet we have no way to verify your extraordinary claims about your research. None of your employees can corroborate that the device was actually working, only what it was supposed to do.”

“It worked, damn it! Grant and Alison both knew that. I kept everyone else in the dark on purpose. Fewer people to betray me.”

“Which is why your claims cannot be proven now. Your word is not enough at this point, Mr. Gaines. Back to the divorce, your prenup states that—”

I cut him off: “I know what it says, but she cheated, too. And the only reason I cheated is because she set me up.”

“But you didn’t know that she was setting you up, so the intention was the same. A judge won’t care. You both cheated, which makes it a level playing field. Fifty-fifty split. So like I said, Alison Gaines stood to gain thirty-seven billion dollars. That’s substantially more than ten million in valuables. So why would she run away from that? It doesn’t make sense. You killing her and her lover, on the other hand, makes perfect sense.”

I shake my head. “Look, I don’t remember taking those sleeping pills. And I don’t remember a lot of things that must have happened before I took them. I have a doctor and a pharma rep, both of whom are ready to testify that Lunesta doesn’t mess with memory formation before you take it. I should be able to remember everything leading up to the moment I took those pills.”

“Sleep deprivation and alcohol also interfere with memory formation, Mr. Gaines. And you’re on record as saying that you had been drinking that night and that you had barely slept in the twenty-four hours prior to the crime.”

I throw back the dregs of rum in my glass and slam it on the table hard enough to crack the glass. “Then who took the gold and diamonds out of my safe? And where the hell are their passports?” My voice thunders around us in the tiny room, echoing back to me.

A stunned silence follows, but the prosecutor recovers smoothly and speaks in a calm, quiet voice: “You took them, Mr. Gaines, when you were trying to come up with a good reason for why both your wife and Grant Coleman had gone missing.”

Dan interrupts us again. “Mr. Gaines, if you’re not going to take the deal, we need to end this before you incriminate yourself any further.”

Again, I ignore him. “If I plotted all of that, then why would I leave her cell phone in her car?” Alex found it the morning after I woke up to discover what I’d done. He saw the video she’d sent me and began to develop his own theory for why Alison and Grant were missing. The bastard turned the phone in to the police the same day, and fled the property.

The DA just looks at me with a faint smile on his face. I see red and fantasize about clawing that smile off his face.

“No matter how smart the criminal,” he says, “there is always something they didn’t think of. Now, are you going to take the plea deal or not?”

My chest puffs up with a defiant retort. I’m not giving this asshole what he wants.

But then Theodore looks at me, his eyes red with unshed tears. He’s been quiet all this time. “You should take it, sir.”

And like that, my resolve crumbles, and the DA’s arguments play back through my head. He’s convinced my only friend, the man who raised me, that I’ve committed this crime. And if I’m being honest, he’s convinced me, too. Even if I can’t remember it, I know what I must have done, and no amount of wishful thinking can change that. “I’ll take the plea,” I say quietly.

Dan Collins lets out a slow breath and gives me a tight smile. He’s happy. He was about to lose his first case in three years.

The DA’s shark grin is back. He hands me a pen. “You’ve made a wise choice, Mr. Gaines.”


Part 2: Crime and Punishment

“In theory, the punishment should fit the crime, but that’s just a theory.”

—Anonymous


Chapter 9

5 Years and 4 Days Later...

—March 16th, 2026—

Months in prison: 60

I keep my head down as I sit eating my dinner of cold mashed potatoes and beef stew in the echoing dining hall of Golden Valley Correctional. The noise is thunderous, pressing in on me from all sides, making me feel exposed and vulnerable. I glance around as I eat another spoonful of mash. A few guys I recognize sneer and wink at me. One in particular, Victor “Viking” Karlsen, is just what he sounds like. A vicious, terrifying man with long blond hair and beard, who is so barely removed from his Norwegian heritage that he still has the accent to prove it. He’s in here on—surprise!—sexual assault charges. I look away before Victor thinks I’m challenging him. He and I both know that I’m about to become fair game again.

My friends in here are few, and only one of them dares to actually sit with me. I glance at him—Carl “The Brick” Johnson. Bald, Latino, and covered in tattoos from the neck down to his ankles. He’s a heavy-set mountain of a man with tiny, black eyes that hint of horrors he’s both made and witnessed. With fists like hammers, no one here dares to cross The Brick. His name is suspiciously similar to another mountain of a man and former wrestler, but Carl got his nickname for a much darker reason than the WWE. A gang jumped him in an alley one night and tried to rob him. He claims they were actually trying to kill him, but as it turns out, none of them were actually armed. In the process of fighting them off, Carl threw a brick at one of them and knocked him dead. With that, he landed in here on manslaughter charges. Apparently, you can’t kill a man in America and get away with it unless they’ve pulled a loaded gun on you. Who knew. I would have let Carl off the hook, but I guess that’s why I’m not a judge. After all, someone’s got to keep the country’s prison staff employed.

Brick notices me looking at him. “¿Qué?” he asks.

He’s taught me some Spanish, so I know that he means what? I smile tightly at him. “Two months left.”

Sí,” he nods.

“Looking forward to it?”

Sí.

The Brick doesn’t say much, but he doesn’t have to. Somehow we understand each other, even though he comes from one of the roughest neighborhoods in Denver, and I was born in a golden cradle.

Carl has only been in here for ten months. Involuntary manslaughter isn’t much of a crime compared to mine. I’m in for thirty years. Just another twenty-five to go. That’s pretty light considering, but it’s only because I pled guilty and I get to serve both counts of second-degree murder consecutively. I’m also lucky that my crimes were considered crimes of passion, which reduced the charges from first-degree murder (with a death penalty) to second-degree. That means if everything goes according to plan and I don’t get murdered in here before I’m released, I should be a free man again when I’m sixty-six. I will have spent more of my life behind bars than free, but who’s counting?

Me, of course. I am. It might be cliche, but I’ve scratched every month into the frame of my bed. I can’t do days, because I’ll never have enough room for that.

I put my spoon down and push my plate away, having lost my appetite.

Carl glances at me, his spoon hovering halfway to his lips. “You gonna eat that?”

“No.”

“Can I?”

“Go ahead.” He drags my tray over and leaves it beside his. I watch him eat with a wistful smile, thinking, A mountain’s got to eat.

I don’t know what I’m going to do when he’s gone. Until Carl came along, I wasn’t under anyone’s protection. The quid pro quo involved is not an appealing exchange. I’m not willing to smuggle contraband through my visits with Theodore, and I’m even less interested in easing anyone’s loneliness, so when Carl is gone, I’ll probably go back to getting beat within an inch of my life, getting picked on, verbally abused, and spat on—in addition to other less savory forms of violence.

I’ve done my best to bulk up and look tough, even adding a few tats to my arms, but so far none of it has really worked. In fact, some of the guys here just see it as a challenge. All I want is to be left alone with my books, but apparently that’s a lot to ask from the one thousand two hundred and six inmates of Golden Valley.

When Carl finishes eating and lunchtime is over, we line up with the others, scrape off our trays in the garbage, and then leave them in the collection area on the way out. Then we’re shuffling off in different directions. It’s leisure time for Carl and me as well as about a hundred others. We file out into the yard together for some fresh air. It’s July, and the days are longer and warmer now. I throw my head back to stare straight up at the clear blue sky. It’s a daily ritual for me. Up is the only direction that I can look where my eyes don’t hit a wall. Sucking in a deep breath of the fresh, pine-scented mountain air, I shut my eyes and savor the memories that trickle back.

Suddenly, I’m back at the mansion, eight years old and running around, playing on the grounds with my golden retriever, Sunny, while my parents and Theodore watch us from the back deck. My parents are distracted by their own conversation, but Theodore never looks away.

I run into the stand of trees that grow along the cliffs on the east side of the property, and Theodore’s voice follows me. “Stay where we can see you, please, Master Byron!”

“Okay!” I yell back, and turn back the other way.

Something slams into me and knocks me over. I land hard in the dirt, putting out my hands just in time to keep from knocking my front teeth out. My chin hits the ground anyway, and I feel the sharp stab of a rock slicing through the skin.

Apologetic laughter bubbles to my ears as I spring back up—as if laughter could ever be apologetic. My fists are clenched and I’m ready for a fight.

It’s Victor. He stands a few feet away from me, his hands raised as if to say it wasn’t me! “Sorry, Banks!” he says, using my nickname. I’m Banks, because I’m rich like one. “I didn’t see you there,” Victor adds. A pair of his favorite buddies flank him. Plenty of people whisper behind his back that they’re his bitches, but try saying that to his face. Maybe I will one of these days if the urge to just end it all gets the better of me.

Carl is by my side a second later. “What happen here?” he asks, checking me over. His eyes narrow to sharp black specks as they slide away to Victor. “We gonna have problem here?”

I touch my chin, and my hand comes away red with blood. That brings to mind a fuzzy memory of my hands covered in my wife’s and Grant’s blood. I wince and push back a dark tide of despair, shaking my head to clear it. The gash on my chin probably needs stitches, but it can wait. I’m not cutting my yard time short. “Nothing happened,” I say to Carl. “I tripped on a rock.”

He frowns, and I shrug. He can’t protect me forever, and I’m only going to make things worse for myself if I try to leverage these last two months of relative safety.

“Yeah, you gotta watch the rocks in here,” Viking says while toeing a pebble that couldn’t trip a mouse.

“Yes. You watch the rocks,” Carl says, and Viking’s eyes narrow at the implication. Everyone knows that The Brick has good aim with kinetic weapons. We walk away, and Carl sighs.

“Sometime I wish I here on real murder charge,” he says. His Dominican accent helps to explain his questionable grammar. He’s only been in the states for eight years, and just two of those were in school. His English is getting better thanks to me, though.

“So you’d have nothing to lose and you could kill Victor?” I suggest.

Carl just looks at me. “No, so that I could make sure he doesn’t kill you.”

“Maybe I deserve to die.” I’m ambivalent about that outcome. Death might be a relief. Depends on what’s waiting for me on the other side.

“What if you no guilty? You no can remember your crimes. Es sospechoso.”

“Suspicious?” I ask, stumbling over the unfamiliar word.

He nods. “Sí. Muy sospechoso.”

I shake my head. “No, Carl. I’m not innocent.”

“Then explain me why I no can see death in your eyes when I look at you. I see it with Viking. I even see it with me, but I no can see it with you. You eyes have light. Hay una luz.

I smirk. “Appearances can be deceiving, buddy. And having blue eyes doesn’t make me a good person. If that were so, the Holocaust never would have happened.”

“No.” Carl stops walking suddenly. His expression is intense, almost angry. “You no guilty. You is innocent.”

“Are,” I say.

“Are?”

“You are innocent.”

Carl nods agreeably. “You no are guilty.”

Close enough, I decide. “Yeah, well, even if you were right, what good does that do me? Plenty of innocent men have died in prison, and even if I don’t, I’m going to be an old man when I get out.”

“Maybe.” He shrugs. “Pero Dios es bueno.

“God is good?” I translate that and snort, shaking my head.

“He protect me,” Carl says, and pulls out the crucifix that dangles from a gold chain around his neck. “I almost die many many time on the way to school, my way to work, my way to buy grocery. They try kill me, but God make me strong. He make me strong to protect little guys like you.”

“Gee, thanks,” I say. “And I hate to burst your bubble, but you’re in prison because God made you strong. A little less juice in those trees you call arms and you’d be walking around a free man right now.”

Carl smiles. “Maybe God protect me by putting me in jail. Nothing happen by accident, Byron.”

“Yeah. So, I guess my parents’ plane crash was a part of some divine plan.”

“You need have faith.”

I kick a pebble through the chain-link fence running around the inner courtyard. It clinks off the metal and the fence shivers noisily. “No offense, Carl, but I’m fresh out of faith.”

“That okay. I have suficiente for both of us. I pray you get out. God listen to me.”

“Yeah? Must be nice. Tell him Byron sends his regards.”

“You joke, but he send regard back. Ya verás.

You’ll see, I translate. Will I? I wonder. Doubtful.

*     *     *

The nights are the worst. They’re cold, and despite the sheer number of inmates in Golden Valley, it’s far too quiet in here.

I stare at the ceiling, feeling small and insignificant. The walls really do seem to close in on you after a while. You can feel the sheer weight of all that concrete, crushing you, collapsing your chest and making it hard to breathe.

Carl’s words play back through my head over and over again, but they have the opposite effect. His insistence that I’m innocent chips away at a hard and bitter knot inside of me, and before I know it, the tears are sliding quietly down my cheeks. I’m ashamed that someone still thinks the best of me, still sees the man I once thought I was. But now, looking back, all I see is a man drunk on power and money, so arrogant that he even thought he could alter time. Now, in one of the universe’s great ironies, instead of finding a way to speed up a tiny pocket of space-time, I’ve found a way to slow it down. Prison is the exact opposite of my space-time compression device. It stretches time into a mindless infinity of routine, guilt, soul-sucking despair, and loneliness. That last one might be the worst. The loneliness is so deep and so profound that I fear it will soon define me. The simple longing to be with a woman goes far beyond physical need or desire. It’s the longing of a son for his mother’s embrace, or the unrequited longing of a young man for his unattainable crush. Prison makes every woman in the world an unattainable crush.

I realize that I never fully appreciated Alison. She was my wife, but I had all the power in the relationship, just like she said, and I made sure to wield it in subtle ways so that she stayed on her best behavior, always keeping me happy, always afraid to cross a line. No wonder she wanted to get rid of the prenup. I can’t blame her for that. To be honest, I’m not even sure I blame her for cheating with Grant. I drove her to it with six months of my own frigid behavior and stubborn unwillingness to see her point of view. If I’d just stopped for a minute to put myself in her shoes, we’d still be together, building our empire together, and raising one or maybe even two children. We’d be the quintessential picture of happiness. Instead, my greed and fear of betrayal became self-fulfilling.

Soon my pillow is soaked and my chest and throat hurt like someone has slit my throat. Better to get it out now, I tell myself. You can’t let them see you cry in here.

*     *     *

The next morning as I’m shaving at the little mirror and sink in front of my bed, I see the crusted, swollen gash that I forgot to get stitched at the infirmary. Add it to the inventory. I must have a dozen scars from the last five years in here. Do the math and that means I’ll have almost a hundred by the time I leave.

Soon it’s time for showers and guards are escorting us there. Carl smiles and says, “Good morning.”

I nod, but don’t quite manage to smile back.

Victor the Viking swaggers in with his posse. Sends me his customary smirk. One of his boys winks at me and makes a rude gesture, grabbing himself as he does so. I wonder what it is about prison that turns men into animals.

We finish showering, and I’m pleasantly surprised not to cross words with anyone during my time here. Then it’s time for breakfast, and after that I’m sent off on my work detail. I’m assigned to laundry duty today. I notice that Carl isn’t there, but Victor is.

“Hello, Banks!” he says. “You should see a doctor for your chin. Wouldn’t want to ruin your pretty face with a scar.”

“Yeah.” I choose not to point out that he’s already given me one above my right eye, and one of his buddies gave me another on my lip.

“How long do you have left in here?” Victor says as we fold sheets and place them in big clear plastic bins.

He knows the answer, so I don’t say anything.

“You have cotton in your ears?” He looms close, breathing on me with a sour dose of morning breath. His green eyes are wild, and I can see specks of food that he didn’t manage to get out of his beard.

“Twenty-five years,” I say.

He grabs me roughly around the shoulders in a jostling hug that’s too rough to be friendly; then he reaches up and grinds his knuckles against my head, giving me a noogie. “I’ve got another five years,” he says as he releases me. “Something tells me we’re going to get real close.”

“For rape, right?” I say, looking him square in the eye to make sure he knows I’m not one of his bitches.

“Assault,” he replies, waving the accusation aside. “And besides, she liked it.” He grins with crooked yellow teeth, and licks his lips in a way that makes me want to start a fight with him right then and there. “You would, too,” he adds in a barely audible whisper.

That’s too much for me. “You want to try something?” I demand, dropping a bundle of unfolded sheets in my bin.

He feigns innocence and raises his hands as if to fend off my blows. “I’m not a homosexual,” he says. “But maybe you are? That’s okay, you know. I won’t judge.”

I snort and shake my head. “Just leave me the fuck alone.”

“Or what?” he whispers darkly. “What are you going to do, you little pussy? You’re gonna have to give up sooner or later. Two more months and Brick won’t be here to protect you. Then what?”

I refuse to reply to that. He’s just looking for a reaction. He wants to intimidate me. But I have to admit, he’s partly getting it right.

Sometime after lunch, during another work shift—dish duty, this time—I’m in the bathroom at the stalls, and I notice that suddenly it gets real quiet. I hear footsteps, and then a familiar voice. “Hello, Banksy,” Viking says. I hear snickering from his buddies and turn around just in time to have my head slammed into the wall hard enough to daze me. I’m strong, not an easy mark, but this is an ambush, three against one. I never stood a chance.

I don’t report it—partly because I know that Viking must have bribed a guard to get that chance. Some of the guards in here really don’t like me, so that might not be as hard as it sounds. I have no intention of telling Carl, either, but that night as we’re walking around the yard. He can tell just by looking at me. To be fair, I’m pretty sure half of the yard can tell.

“Something happen?” Carl asks.

I shake my head and make an effort to walk better. “No,” I say, but the wince ruins it.

“Viking?” he asks.

“No,” I say.

He scowls at me and stalks across the yard, heading straight for Viking and his buddies. “Qué les dijé?” he says, too angry for English.

“Carl!” I call after him, running to catch up, but I’m too slow, and a part of me really doesn’t want to stop him.

He reaches Viking, grabs him by the collar and swings him around until he falls in the dirt. His buddies jump in, but Carl punches the first one in the throat, and kicks the other one in the groin. Both of them crumple to the ground. Guards are running toward us, and Viking stumbles to his feet with his trademark smirk. I’m close enough to reach Carl, so I grab one of his shoulders to pull him back. “They’re not worth it!” I scream. But he doesn’t hear me; he shrugs me off and rushes Viking. The smug Norwegian is ready for it, takes a massive blow to his jaw, and rolls with it. Then he sticks a sharpened wedge of metal in Carl’s gut, three times fast.

He screams, blood spurting everywhere, splashing Viking and spraying his face. I launch myself at him, heedless of the shiv, as my only friend in the world crumples to the dirt.

But the guards get to us before I can avenge either myself or Carl. A baton slams into my leg. It goes instantly numb, and I collapse in the dust beside Carl. Viking smiles down on me, blood speckling his yellow teeth as one of the guards cuffs him and confiscates his weapon. “Looks like I’m going to be keeping you company for a few extra years, Banks.”


Chapter 10

Three Days Later...

—March 19th, 2026—

“Hey,” I say, as I stand in cuffs beside the stretcher that’s taking Carl to a real hospital. The warden let me accompany him out to the ambulance. In chains, of course. I can tell from the wincing look on the big guy’s face that he’s in a lot of pain. He’s got a bad infection from Viking’s disgusting shiv. Or maybe it’s from the filthy conditions of the prison infirmary.

Carl grips my hand weakly while his other hand reaches up to his neck and pulls out the crucifix. “I want you to have it.”

“What?” I shake my head.

He unclasps the necklace and passes it to me. “This will protect you while I no here,” he says.

Like it protected you from Viking’s shiv? I think the words, but don’t say them.

“It’s all I got,” he says. “Dios te guarda, hermano.

God keep you, brother, I translate in my head.

He closes my hand into a fist around the necklace. I’m walking alongside his gurney, but Carl is forced to let go of me as the EMTs load him up into the back of the ambulance.

“I’ll keep it safe for you,” I promise.

He nods, his eyes glazing over as they slide away from mine.

I watch the ambulance drive away in a spray of dust and gravel, lights flashing and sirens screaming. “Time to go back inside,” one of the guards says, yanking me roughly toward the prison gates. I don’t resist. My thoughts are with Carl in the back of that ambulance.

*     *     *

Carl died of complications from the stab wounds that night. That was the lowest, darkest day I’ve had in this place so far. I wear his crucifix around my neck now as I cry my guts out in my bed.

Viking got a month in The Hole for what he did, but he’ll be transferred to a maximum security facility long before that time is up. His sentence will be altered, too, just like he predicted. Instead of five years, he’s facing at least another twenty, or maybe even the death penalty, but because Carl didn’t die from the actual stab wounds, and rather from poor conditions in the prison infirmary, there’s some shifting of blame going on that could see Victor’s charges reduced.

I fall asleep in a puddle of tears, swearing to myself if Victor and I ever cross paths on the outside, I’ll make him wish he was never born.

*     *     *

We held a kind of memorial service at the prison the next day because none of us are allowed to attend Carl’s real funeral. The warden used it as an excuse to lecture us about violence. As if that was going to change a damn thing in here.

I eat a heart-breaking lunch, sitting alone at one end of a table shared by prisoners that I know nothing about. The past few days have all been like this, but at least before Carl died I could hope that he’d be coming back.

On the way out of the dining hall, I head to the phones to make an important call. I try not to bother Theodore more than I have to, but today I really need to talk to someone. Even in my absence I’ve kept him and all of the staff on with their usual salaries—except for Alex, who was going to testify against me—just because I committed murder and went to prison doesn’t mean that others should suffer for it. Theodore agreed to that arrangement with the condition that he be allowed to continue his investigations into my innocence. I’m touched that after all these years he’s still conducting those inquiries, but even if I were innocent the trail is cold as ice by now.

I reach the telephones and take a seat in one of the available booths, dialing with a prepaid card to call the mansion. He answers after just two rings—no small feat at his age in a twenty-thousand square foot home.

“Hey, Theo.” I try to sound upbeat, but there’s no hiding the tremor in my voice.

“Sir!” The ice in my soul recedes slightly at the sound of his voice. He sounds out of breath. Must have run to reach the phone. “I’ve been waiting for you to call,” he says.

“You have?” My brow furrows at that.

“There’s been a development that I believe you should know about. My investigations have turned up multiple leads.”

Multiple leads?” I wonder how that’s even possible after five years, but my heart is pounding and soaring at the same time. Hope is sparking inside of me, making me feel terrified. Hope is a dangerous thing in here. Those sparks can turn to flames that burn like the fires of hell. “Talk to me,” I say. “What did you find?”

“I would prefer to discuss it in person,” Theo says.

“I can’t wait that long,” I say.

“Who said anything about waiting? I’m already on my way.”

“Then how are you—”

“Call transfer to my cell. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.”

“Okay, great, well you know where to find me.”

“See you soon, sir.” Theo hangs up, and I’m left blinking in shock at the receiver in my hand, wondering what could be so great and urgent that he’s in that much of a hurry to tell me about it. I fan the flames of hope, dancing around them in my brain. Maybe I won’t get burned this time.


Chapter 11

I take a seat in front of the Plexiglas barrier across from Theodore. We each pick up the phones. Theodore looks like he’s aged a decade in the past five years. Loose bags hang under his eyes, and his cheeks are sucked in and wrinkled like aged and cracking leather. Despite that, there’s a fire in his blue eyes where I’ve only seen wistful sadness before.

“So what’s the news?” I ask.

Theodore smiles and his eyes grow moist, sparkling with warmth. “The news, sir, is that you are innocent.”

“What?” I shake my head. I’ve been courting the hope that he found something ever since I called him, but this sounds more decisive than I’m expecting. “How... you have proof?”

Theodore nods, still smiling. “Multiple witnesses. A trail. Names, places, and dates.”

“How?”

“One of the investigators in our employ traced the serial numbers of your father’s diamonds to a jeweler in Rome. He was able to confirm that a woman matching Alison’s description sold over a million dollars’ worth of diamonds and gold to him five years ago. He also had a name. Giselle Devereaux. That name led us to five other jewelers across Europe, and we found even more of your father’s diamonds. We also managed to cross-reference the name to records in the U.S. Customs database. Giselle Devereaux left the United States five years ago and never returned. The video surveillance data reveals that Giselle looks like Alison, but with short, dark hair, and brown eyes. Contacts, most likely. She was traveling with an equally recognizable man by the name of Arthur Devereaux. His head is shaved, but he looks like Grant. Computer analysis confirms their identities to within seventy-three percent.”

“Only seventy-three?” I ask.

“The match would be better, but the quality of the surveillance footage is poor, and they've taken pains to alter their appearances. Having seen the footage myself, I am convinced that it is them.”

My heart is hammering in my chest. A dark and twisted thing uncoils inside of me. I’m left gasping and leaning on the table on my side of the glass. Hot tears course down my cheeks, and relief explodes with nuclear force, blasting away the thousands of pounds of guilt that I’ve been carrying around these past five years. I’m left shaking and spent.

Theodore smiles tightly and blinks a few tears of his own. “You are innocent, sir,” he says. “I always knew you were.”

“But...” My senses come back to me slowly, and my exultant relief evaporates in a puff of smoke. That fire of hope is raging out of control again, and it’s burning me alive. I can taste the ashes of defeat, of my wrongful conviction and my impotence to overturn it, and a terrible, righteous fury roars to life inside of me. It leaves me shaking so violently that it feels like world is what’s shaking and not me. “It’s been five years, Theo,” I say quietly. “I pled guilty, and there’s a time limit on appeals. One month.”

Theodore’s triumphant grin fades to a troubled frown. “But surely in the light of new evidence...”

I’m shaking my head. “You can’t just withdraw a guilty plea because of new evidence.”

I’ve studied enough criminal law in these past five years to pass the bar. It turns out that even a mountain of guilt and remorse doesn’t make accepting the punishment for your crime any easier. In those first few years I must have read a thousand books, searching for any legal loophole that could set me free.

“That is absurd,” Theodore says. His eyes flash darkly. “We need to consult with a lawyer about this.”

“Go ahead, but I already know what they’ll say. Believe me, I’ve researched the topic enough.” A terrible coldness and darkness overcomes me. “So help me, Alison and Grant will pay for this. I swear it!”

“Sir, we are being recorded.”

“Let them record me. I wouldn’t do anything illegal. And anyway, death is too good for them.”

“Agreed, but you have twenty-five years left to serve. I can’t accept that there’s no other option but for you to serve them. I’ve heard of criminal cases being overturned when the evidence changed. For example, children who testify that one of their parents molested them, only to later admit that they made it all up.”

I narrow my eyes at him. “Those reversals are rare.” I can recall reading about exactly those types of cases in which appeal was repeatedly denied.

“But they happen,” Theodore insisted. “There’s a Conviction Review Bureau at the Colorado Attorney General’s Office. We need to get a lawyer and start the appeals process. There has to be a way to address this injustice. And if there isn’t... we’ll make one.” Theodore’s lips tremble as he sets his jaw, and his eyes blaze with a fire that’s colder and more controlled than the fast-burning one that just raged through me.

I shrug. “See what you can do.”

“Count on it, sir. I’ll be back soon. With proper counsel.”

I nod, and we both hang up. I watch as he leaves, contemplating the sad state of our justice system. I’ve been down this road before in my mind. Back then it was just a fantasy. But even now that real evidence has surfaced, that hasn’t changed. Overturning my conviction is still a fantasy. Most criminal cases don’t go to court because the courts are ‘over-burdened’ and God forbid that lawyers and judges should have to miss any rounds on the golf course. So prosecution convinces people to plead guilty by offering a reduction of sentence. If that sounds like coercion, that’s because it is; but it’s perfectly legal, and it works nine times out of ten.

The real kicker is that those convicted felons can’t change their minds later, even if something new comes to light that might have proved their innocence. There is a very short list of circumstances in which it is acceptable to withdraw a guilty plea (and only within the thirty-day time limit after a conviction). Stupidly enough, new evidence is not one of those acceptable circumstances.


Chapter 12

497 Days Later...

—July 29, 2027—

Months in prison: 77

“Will the defendant and his counsel please rise,” the judge says.

My heart is leaping out of my chest. I feel dizzy, and my legs are shaking as I stand. I’m afraid that I’m going to have a heart attack. Or faint. Or go mad. I feel like I’m standing on a bridge, peering down at a distant blue canvas that will make fishfood of my brains if only someone will say: we the people find the defendant guilty.

“Members of the jury, have you reached a verdict?” the judge asks.

One of the jurors stands with a sheaf of papers in his hands. “Yes, your honor, we have,” he says.

It’s a miracle that I’ve even made it this far, that my new lawyer got the appellate court to withdraw my guilty plea and overturn my conviction on a fourth amendment violation. Apparently Alex’s theft and delivery of my wife’s phone to police custody constituted an illegal seizure because that phone was attached to a monthly plan that was in my name. In other words, the phone was legally mine, someone stole it, and that stolen evidence was what established my motive. I can’t believe that Dan Collins missed that. He charged me over a million dollars and the best he could do was advise me to accept the plea deal. Idiot.

“Members of the jury on the case of The People versus Byron Edison Gaines, what is your verdict?”

“Your honor, the members of this jury find the defendant not guilty.”

The judge says something else, but I don’t hear it. Theodore is pulling me into a backslapping embrace that I’m too numb to feel. I’m having an out of body experience, and my senses are no longer my own. For a second I’m afraid that I’m actually asleep in my cell, or that one of Viking’s goons finally found a way to send me up to visit Carl, and Heaven is where I finally get a fair trial. I glance about, half expecting to see Carl there in the stands, proof positive that I really am dead and this is heaven.

But he’s not there. Not in corporeal form, anyway. Theodore is saying something, but I still can’t hear. People are getting up and leaving the court room. My lawyer, Karl Masters is smiling radiantly. Through a hot haze of tears I could swear that he’s glowing like the angel that I’m sure that he must be. Carl was short for Carlos, but Karl is still close enough to make me wonder. I pull out my friend’s crucifix and give it a kiss, my agnosticism momentarily swept away in the heat of the moment. Then I toss my head back and stare straight up at the ceiling like I use to do out in the yard, and I whisper something that may or may not fall on actual ears: thank you. Maybe Carl is up there smiling as he watches from a front row seat in heaven. Or maybe he’s long gone and this crucifix is all I have left. Either way, I have to admit that beating the odds like this feels like divine intervention.

“Shall we go home, sir?” Theodore asks.

I’m still speechless, unable to properly react, but then the bailiff comes and un-cuffs my hands and feet. I stare at him like an idiot, then down at my hands, and slowly rub my wrists.

“You are free, Mr. Gaines,” he says.

I nod and wipe away the tears blurring my eyes, finally able to reach them with my hands. Never have three simple words sounded so sweet: you are free.


Part 3: Preparations

“Beware the fury of a patient man.”

―John Dryden


Chapter 13

—July 29th, 2027—

After I sign for my things and get officially released from Golden Valley Correctional, Theodore and I head back to the mansion in my Tesla Model X. We sit in the back with the autopilot running the show. That’s one thing that’s changed since I was imprisoned: self-driving cars went from barely legal, controversial driving assistants that required you to keep your hands on the wheel, to fully automated vehicles that now exceed human drivers in every way. It is now possible, Theodore tells me, to get cheaper insurance for your vehicle if it doesn’t have a steering wheel.

Theodore cracks open an expensive bottle of my favorite 100-year-old rum and begins pouring. “To your release,” he says, handing me a glass.

I stare pointedly at the glass, not touching it. He frowns at me. “Is something wrong, sir?”

“Just that this all began seventy-seven months ago with a glass of rum in the back of a car on my way to the mansion.”

Theodore winces and nods to me. “Point taken. My apologies, sir.”

I shake my head. “Not your fault.”

Theodore peers suspiciously into the glass he poured for me. “No...” he trails off. “But I believe you are wise not to accept any drinks that you haven’t poured yourself.”

“That’s a curious comment.” I feel like there’s more, so I wait for it.

“I’ve been thinking a lot about the events of that night. Including my own part in things, falling asleep early.”

I shake my head, still not getting it. I’m beginning to feel an inkling, however. There’s something obvious that I’m missing.

Theodore looks up. “Alex brought you home that night. He advised you to have a drink before confronting your wife, and he had a bottle of rum waiting for you in the car.”

“Yes.” I nod along with that. “But...” The penny drops and my jaw along with it.

“I believe he may have drugged you, and possibly even myself, with your wife’s sleeping pills. In fact, I suspect you might not have actually taken those pills at all. There was likely one or more of them dissolved in that glass of rum you drank on the way over. It explains why you can’t remember taking the pills, or much of anything that happened after you arrived at the mansion. It might also explain how your wife and Mr. Coleman were able to frame you to the extent that even you thought you were guilty. If you passed out, they would have been free to arrange an incriminating scene around you, and you would have been too drugged to pick up on any details to the contrary. Moreover, you’d have been sleeping soundly while they subsequently cleaned up their own mess, both to erase any details of their involvement, and to make it look as though you had covered up your own crime.”

White hot rage boils inside of me as I contemplate those details. Theodore is right. It all makes perfect sense now. Alex’s involvement is the final piece of the puzzle. They would have needed a third party to help them frame me. It’s not as though they could have done it all by themselves while they lay naked and pretending to be corpses in a pool of their own blood—blood that was likely drawn over the course of several days and stored in the refrigerator until just before I came home.

There’s a reason I don’t remember anything after seeing them in bed together. It was likely only a minute or two later that I passed out.

I’m shivering with righteous hate, and there’s a painful ringing in my ears that makes me feel both light-headed and terrifyingly strong at the same time. I feel as though I could rip them both apart with my bare hands if we were to meet again. I spent almost six and a half years in prison because of this plot, and the intention was obviously to let me rot in there, but what’s even worse is the weight they’ve hung around my neck. It’s not just the depth of their betrayal that is so abhorrent—it’s also the extent of the damage. Carl died in prison just before he could be released. I blamed myself for that until now, but if I hadn’t been there to protect, Carl wouldn’t have died. That means that Alison, Grant, and Alex are to blame for his death as well as my wrongful imprisonment. And Carl deserves justice even more than I do. Reaching up, I touch the talisman that he left me, feeling the shape of the crucifix under my shirt.

“They killed him,” I say quietly.

“Who?” Theodore asks.

I just look at him. Then I realize that he doesn’t know about Carl and the Viking. How could he? I never told him. And I’m not ready to now. I just shake my head and smirk. “They killed Byron Gaines,” I say, and only as I say those words do I realize the truth of them.

“They still have to be brought to justice,” Theodore agrees. “The question is why did they do this. Just for ten million worth of gold and diamonds? Alison could have gotten at least half of your fortune in the divorce, and she wouldn’t have had to change her name and disappear to do it.”

“No.” I shake my head. “That’s not why they did this. They did this to steal my invention. Both Grant and Alison knew that it was working. They knew what I was planning to do with it, and just how rich and powerful I was about to become.”

“Yes...” Theodore trails off uncertainly, as if he’s not sure he should believe me. “I recall you mentioned that to the prosecution before you signed the plea deal. Perhaps you’d better tell me more about this device.”

And so I do. I tell him everything, starting with how few people actually knew that it was working—which turned out to be a big problem when I later tried to claim that stealing the device was a motive for framing me.

Theodore is frowning at me as I finish my explanations. “Are you very certain that it worked? It sounds like such a thing should be impossible. Bending time is God’s business, not man’s.”

“Maybe so, but that just raises the stakes and explains how they could do what they did. All they did was imprison an innocent man, how many men would do worse in order to become a god?”

“Too many,” Theodore replies.

I blow out a breath. “Until you found evidence that they’re still alive, I thought maybe the DA was right, that I stole my own gold and diamonds, and hid the prototype as part of some elaborate plan to cover my ass.”

“In hindsight, we all should have paid more attention to the details surrounding the missing prototype. Mr. Coleman must have arranged to have it removed from the laboratory well in advance of your arrival. It would be too difficult to arrange transport for such a large object in the middle of the same night that they framed you for their murder and fled the premises.”

“Yeah, well now the question isn’t why or how they did it, but where the hell they are now.”

“If what you’re saying is true, sir, I’m afraid it might not be that simple.”

“What do you mean?” I ask.

“What would be the point in stealing such a technology if not to commercialize it?”

I shake my head, still lost.

“It’s been more than six years. Where are the breaking news reports that this technology exists? Where is the standing invitation for the aging and infirm to buy tickets to the future where their ailments might be cured?”

“They might not be ready for that yet. Ten million isn’t a lot of seed capital to make such an expensive technology available to the public.”

“Perhaps. Or maybe the question isn’t where the hell they are, as you so eloquently put it, but when.”

“When?”

“They may have decided to use your technology on themselves.”

“Why...”

“To free themselves of the fear that what they did might catch up with them. You would have been released before your sixtieth birthday, with plenty of years left that they might have had to worry about reprisals. By commercializing your technology they would have painted targets on their backs and made it easy for you to track them down, but if instead they were to take that technology and travel say sixty years into the future, then you would be dead, and they would be so far removed from their crime that no one would even remember the details of it anymore. Ten million dollars would be enough to create a self-sufficient facility that could house the prototype with them inside, would it not?”

I’m blinking stupidly at Theodore. Horror and rage coursing through me in equal measures. If they have done what Theodore is suggesting, then it might very well be impossible to track them down.

“That might also explain why the only trail that our investigators could find leading back to Alison and Mr. Coleman goes cold soon after you were imprisoned.”

All this time that I’ve been in jail, the people who put me there have been serving a sentence of their own. And they almost certainly still are—a sentence of at least sixty years, exactly double my own sentence. There’s a delicious irony in that, but it’s tempered by the knowledge that they’re serving their time gladly and perfectly oblivious of its passing.

“I think I’ll have that drink now, Theo,” I say.


Chapter 14

—March 5th, 2028—

Months since release from prison: 7

The door to the lab opens, followed by approaching footsteps. I slide out from under the belly of the Mark III to see Theodore approaching.

“Your lunch, sir,” he says, hefting a tray piled with several covered silver platters of food.

“Set it on my desk,” I say.

“Of course, sir...”

I can hear the rebuke in the way his words linger in the air. He thinks I need to take more breaks. To get more sleep. I’d be losing weight if it weren’t for him bringing my meals down to the lab three and four times a day.

He doesn’t understand. I have just one purpose in life now, and it isn’t empire-building—it’s justice. Theodore is working his own angles through the investigators who have been following the trail of gold and diamonds. He’s hoping to learn of Grant and Alison’s whereabouts, or Alex’s, for that matter. My former driver is also missing. Apparently he disappeared soon after my conviction, but funnily enough, no one cared to investigate his disappearance, or to connect it to a possible plot against me.

I suspect Alex was promised riches beyond his wildest dreams only to find out that there wasn’t enough room for three inside the STCD Mark II that Grant stole from me. That, or the three of them are stuffed in there like sardines and they’re all on their way to the future together. I like the first possibility better. It means that my reincarnation of Judas got what he deserved, and it means there’s one less person for me to hunt down. My hand is absently toying with the crucifix around my neck as I consider Alex’s fate.

“Have you made any progress, sir?” Theodore asks. I jump at the sound of his voice, startled from my reverie. I forgot that he was still here. Turning to the sound of his voice, I see him stepping up to the egg-shaped capsule I’ve been working on. The Mark III is even bigger than the Mark II was, with plenty of room inside for both me and Theo. I haven’t told him that I plan to take him with me to the future, but in the end it will be up to him if he wants to join me.

I reach for a dirty rag on a stainless steel cart beside me and wipe my even dirtier hands on it. “It’s done,” I say.

Theodore’s eyes widen fractionally. “It works?”

“Theoretically.”

“Then you haven’t tested it yet.”

“I was just about to. Would you like to witness the maiden voyage?”

“Of course. It would be an honor, sir.”

I smile and retreat behind my desk to the computer screens. It takes a few minutes to feed in the parameters and check to make sure that the clocks running inside the device and the lab are properly synchronized. I also check to make sure that the rats inside the probe are doing fine. I see that they’re busy eating. Good. With all of my checks complete, I hand a welding mask to Theodore.

“What is this for?” he asks.

“To save your eyes.”

“I see.” He stares at the mask for a moment, his expression wary. He slips it over his head, and I do the same. My finger hovering over the mouse button, I take a deep breath to steady my nerves, and then hit execute. The room immediately fills with a loud hum of electricity and a dazzling blaze of light. This initial test is running at just 5% power. I watch both clocks on my screen. They’re rapidly drifting apart. The one inside the probe is ticking down one second for every ten on the lab clock. I check the compression factor for a more precise measurement: 11.6.

I grin maniacally and gesture to the screen. “It’s working!” I shout to be heard over the buzzing in the lab. When compared with the Mark II, the Mark III has more than twice as much power for the compression field. I’m using all of the latest battery and conduction tech, making this model far superior to the prototype that Grant and Alison stole six years ago. I’m a better engineer than Grant ever was.

“What should I be looking at?” Theodore asks.

“The clocks!” I point at the screens again. “The one inside the probe is running more than eleven times slower than the one in the lab!”

“Eleven times slower,” Theodore repeats slowly, as if he can’t quite believe it. “That is incredible, but not enough of a difference to send anyone to the future.”

“It scales exponentially with the power levels,” I explain. By way of demonstration, I ramp up to 25% power. The room becomes so bright that my eyes are aching even through the welder’s mask. The loud buzzing of electricity has risen to an almost deafening register. I wonder how much of that noise is a feedback effect from the time differential between the probe and the rest of the lab. It might make sense to immerse the device in water or better yet, a vacuum chamber, in order to eliminate the noise issue. But what of the sound inside of the STCD? I make a mental note to put a recording device inside for the next test and measure the sound levels. I wouldn’t want to go deaf when I take the first trip.

The clock inside the Mark III is no longer moving. I watch it for over a minute before remembering to check the compression factor. I have to read the number there several times before I can believe my eyes. The factor has jumped to an astounding 2216.8. That means that for every day someone spends inside of the Mark III at this power level... it takes my brain a moment to crunch the numbers, and when I do, the answer leaves me feeling hollow.

After just one day inside of the device, six years will have passed for the rest of the world. Six years. All that time I spent in jail condensed down into twenty-four hours. My eyes blur with tears of rage as haunting memories begin to flash through my head. All those lonely, hopeless nights and guilt-laden days, the abuse and the violence, and for what? Punishment for a crime that I didn’t commit. That is the worst part: they actually had me convinced that I was guilty. And then there’s Carl. They’re responsible for his death, right along with Viking. They’re going to pay for what they did. To me. To Carl.

I realize that Theodore is shaking me by my shoulders. I snap out of it and slowly shake my head, as if waking from a dream. “You need to turn it off!” he screams. “Look at the temperature!”

The outer hull is climbing past three hundred degrees Fahrenheit, and now that he mentions it, I can feel the heat radiating off the device like an oven. But the inside is still reading a chilly sixty degrees thanks to Grant’s cooling solutions and a few more of my own design.

Instead of killing the power as Theodore suggested, I ramp it up to 50%. The compression factor jumps to an impossible number that I can’t even wrap my head around: 1,564,290.7. The ground is shaking and the entire building along with it. My face is starting to burn from the heat pouring off the device, and the brightness in the room is increasing with every passing second. The outer hull temperature is up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, and I can see waves of heat shimmering off of it like sand in a desert. Inside the probe, it’s 100.2 degrees and inching up fast. The rats are frantically trying to escape their cages.

Theodore has me in a headlock and he’s screaming in my ear, but I can’t hear or even see him. The world has gone white, and the only way I know he’s screaming in my ear is because I can feel his breath piling into it. I’m fumbling blindly for the controls to shut the Mark III down, but that’s hopeless now that I can’t see. Fear stabs through me. Either the device is going to explode and turn us into human spaghetti, or it’s going to roast us alive as it melts down.

I’m fumbling blindly with the mouse, clicking around at random. I really should have built a physical kill switch. My skin is itching and prickling from the heat. I ignore the sensation, struggling just to keep breathing the stifling air. My tongue feels like sandpaper in my mouth. Giving up on the digital controls, I reach for the computer behind them. My fingers graze what feels like the power button, but I’m not even sure that resetting the computer will work. I hesitate. What if killing the program destabilizes the probe further?

Before I can stab the power button and find out, a scalding blast of heat slams into me and throws me off my feet.

I land hard on the polished concrete floor and sit blinking in shock, desperately trying to suck in my next breath. The wind has been knocked out of me. That, or my lungs have collapsed. I hope for the former. Realizing how dire the situation is, I cut my reflections short and start crawling on hands and knees to reach my desk.

That’s when I notice the bright spots dancing in front of my eyes and the darkness swelling behind my mask. The world is fading back into focus and it’s not shaking anymore. I tear off the mask and find the lab has returned to its normal brightness. I’m a few feet from my desk. The monitors have been knocked over, and one of them is dangling by its cables a foot above the floor. The lab is a mess. Papers are scattered all over the floor amidst my lunch. My coffee cup and a glass of juice lie shattered in shrinking puddles of their contents. Anything not tied down was blasted away from the device. I glance behind me to see Theodore sitting up. My ears begin ringing painfully.

“What happened?” I ask, but it feels and sounds as though my ears are stuffed with cotton.

Theodore takes off his mask. His cheeks are as gray as death, and his expression is fraught with terror.

I crack a shaky smile and climb to my feet. Bruises in my glutes and legs start throbbing to life as I do so. “A successful first test,” I say as I hold out a hand to help Theodore up. “We must have blown a fuse or overheated something,” I say as he takes my hand and regains his footing. “I’ll fix that for the next one. I’ll make sure to put in a remote kill switch, too. And better masks. Maybe a shielded booth for us to monitor things from. Yes, that should do it.”

But Theodore doesn’t appear to be listening to me. He’s staring at the Mark III.

“What?”

He points to it, and I turn to look. That’s when I see what has him speechless. The Mark III is gone. All that’s left of it is a black scorch mark on the floor.


Chapter 15

That night Theodore and I are sitting in my study in the armchairs by the windows and staring into the crackling fireplace on the opposite wall. I’m sipping a glass of aged rum, while Theodore is enjoying a glass of Scotch, neat. We’re both quiet, each of us considering the possible consequences and implications of what we witnessed today.

Whatever happened, it happened after just a few seconds at the first truly useful power and compression levels that we tested. The Mark III was up over one and a half million for the compression factor, which is fantastic, but the temperature was climbing out of control at that power level, and the probe only lasted a few seconds like that before vaporizing itself. And that’s a few seconds from our perspective, out in the lab. From the reference frame of the Mark III, we’re talking about a few microseconds. The compression field is not sustainable at those power levels, and it’s not going to send anyone to the future like that.

But we had the Mark II stable at a million times compression, one hour inside for every year outside. Either my device is actually inferior to the one Grant built, or else I need to back off the power and aim for the same compression factor that we tested successfully before. There might be some kind of a compression threshold where scrunching up space-time any more causes a catastrophic meltdown.

“We have to try it with lower power levels next time. I need to duplicate the results we had with the Mark II.”

Theodore nods to me. “Perhaps you should simply rebuild that version of the prototype.”

“I can’t. Grant didn’t just steal the device, he stole all of our research and schematics along with it. I’m working from memory and my own designs.”

“I see. And I suppose hiring another engineer for the project is out of the question?”

I just look at him.

“That’s what I thought. It may simply be a matter of time before you resolve the issues. This was, after all, only your first test.”

“Yes, but now I have to rebuild the prototype again. That’s going to take months.”

“But you can make improvements along the way. Now that you know you need to pay more attention to cooling. You’ll be building the Mark IV.”

“Yeah. I guess.”

“You’ll get there, sir.”

The dregs of rum in my glass slide down my throat like fire. “Oh, I know I will.”

“Have you given any thought to how you’re going to find them by traveling to the future? You’re looking for a needle in a haystack of time. If the Mark II was stable and they have adequate life support inside, or take multiple trips with breaks in between, they could conceivably travel many hundreds of years into the future.”

“Except that they won’t,” I say, shaking my head. “They’re trying to get to a safe point in time to commercialize this technology. Sometime after I’m no longer a threat to that. But they have two problems. One, they can’t go too far, or someone else will come along and develop the technology before they can bring theirs to market. That’s just a matter of time, and maybe less than they think. Two, they likely waited to hear how long I was sentenced to prison for. That means that they have reason to worry I’ll develop the technology myself once I get out of prison.”

“What can they possibly do to prevent that?”

I shake my head. “They might not have been counting on that. Colorado has the death penalty for murder. If I’d gone to trial, I either would have received two consecutive sentences of thirty years, which means I would have died in prison, or else I’d have gone straight to death row.” My lips twitch into a nasty smirk as I reach for the bottle of rum beside me and pour another glass.

“And what do you think they’ll do if they learn that you are free?”

I take a sip of my second drink. “They might try to kill me.”

“If that’s the case we should increase the security on the Gaines Estate.”

I nod. “Do that.”

“I’ll see to it first thing in the morning, sir.”

Silence stretches between us once more. I’m absently playing with Carl’s crucifix again. I notice Theodore watching me. “May I ask you a personal question, sir?”

“Go ahead.”

“Did you find God in prison?”

I snort at that. “If there’s a God, I’m sure he can afford better accommodations than Golden Valley Correctional.” I hold the cross up for Theodore to see. “I got this from a friend.”

“I see.”

I drop the topic there, but Theodore isn’t finished.

“Is he still doing time?”

“He got the death sentence.”

“Ah. He committed a murder, then?”

“No, he was murdered for defending me.”

Theodore’s face grows long, and his eyes are wincing. “There is justice, sir. I understand that you are ambivalent, but I do believe people get what is coming to them. If not in this life, then the next.”

I look at him. “And if there is no next life?”

“There is.”

“But if there isn’t,” I insist. “Then righting the wrongs is up to us. Justice is our responsibility.”

“You’re talking about revenge.”

“The only difference between justice and revenge is the person delivering it.” I gulp down a mouthful of rum to cool the fire burning inside of me. But that just adds fuel. My head is buzzing as I stare into the fireplace across from us, and imagine miniature versions of Alison and Grant writhing inside of it.

“That is a significant difference, sir. Objectivity is required for any real justice.”

“Objectivity is just another form of ignorance. Only the victim knows the true measure of the pain inflicted, and therefore, only the victim can inflict it back.”

“Perhaps that is true in human terms, but God knows, sir. That is why He says vengeance is mine.”

A small smile twists my lips in wry amusement as I stare at Theodore. “Not if I beat him to it.”


Chapter 16

—June 2nd, 2028—

Months since release from prison: 10

The Mark IV is finally ready. I’ve immersed it in a circulating coolant bath that gets piped through massive, super-cooled radiators in order to deal with the heating issues. There’s an access hatch at the top, along with a metal catwalk to reach it and a ladder leading down into the probe itself.

By this point I’ve already run multiple low-power tests and crunched the numbers a hundred times over to make sure that ramping up the power won’t disintegrate the probe again. Besides that, I have installed a blast-shielded test booth that’s sturdy enough to survive a bomb going off inside the lab. Theodore and I are sitting there, behind half a foot of sloping, reinforced steel, staring at virtual screens which are linked to heat-shielded auto-polarizing cameras.

It takes a few minutes to enter the parameters for the test. Just in case, I have a remote kill switch in the pocket of my lab coat that will cut the power to the probe at the touch of a button. I look over my screens one last time and go through a verbal checklist.

“The clocks are synchronized, the recorder is recording, the rats are skittering in their cages... and the monkey is eating a banana. We’re locked and loaded,” I say, turning to Theodore with a smile.

“Ready?” I ask, absently rubbing my crucifix for good luck.

“Ready, sir,” he says.

My hand leaves the mouse and hovers over a physical button on the console that will activate the compression field inside the probe. My other hand finds the throttle-like slider that controls the power. “STCD Mark IV, test number twenty-seven,” I say aloud for the benefit of the log.

But just before I can initiate the test, a flash of light washes out the video feeds, and a thunderous boom tears through the lab, shuddering through the reinforced walls of the booth and setting my teeth on edge. The external cameras are dark and hazy, but slowly brightening and coming back into focus. Whatever just happened, it triggered their polarizing lenses. A quick look at the temperature sensors reveals that an accompanying wave of heat washed through the lab.

“What the hell was that?” I mutter angrily even as I lean forward to peer at the video feeds, looking for some sign of what happened. I really hope the Mark IV didn’t somehow activate itself and disintegrate in the process.

It takes me a minute to realize what I’m looking at, and when I do, it leaves me speechless.

“Sir, is that the Mark III?” Theodore asks quietly.

The old probe is back from the dead, sitting exactly where it left three months ago. That puts the two-man egg-shaped capsule inside of the much larger Mark IV, but I can see from the internal cameras that parts of the capsule have fused with the Mark IV and its contents. The ladder from the top hatch, for example, is running straight through the Mark III. And the rats in their cages... may they rest in peace. It missed the chimp by a narrow margin, but he’s busy screaming about it and shaking the bars of his cage in a desperate attempt to escape.

“This is impossible,” I say.

“And yet, it isn’t.”

“Where the hell did it go?” I ask.

“The probe had on-board cameras, did it not?”

Theodore is right. I jump up from my chair and it flies out behind me, smacking into the reinforced door of the test booth behind us.

Within seconds, I’m tearing open that door and running into the lab.

*     *     *

It’s hard to squeeze down into the Mark IV. The ladder is useless, so I end up sliding down the sides of the egg-shaped Mark III. The outer skin is still warm to the touch, but thankfully not scalding. I probably should have checked that before climbing in here.

I land with a boom on the metal grating that serves as the floor of the Mark IV. The chimp hears that and starts screaming and rattling his cage again. I ignore him and walk around the Mark III in stunned silence. Finding the hatch, I turn the lever and open it up. The rats are sniffing around inside their cages, looking none the worse for their impossible journey through time and space.

My jaw drops and I curse under my breath.

“Is everything all right, sir?” Theodore calls down to me. “Sir?”

“I’m fine,” I manage in a voice that’s ragged with awe. I step inside the Mark III. A quick visual examination of the rats, their food pellets and water, and the number of feces in each of their cages, is all it takes to convince me that very little time has passed from their perspective. That makes perfect sense considering the compression factor of one and half million before the Mark III vanished. Running a quick mental estimate, I’m able to determine that if the compression factor stayed constant, it only would have taken about five seconds from the rats’ perspective in order for three months to have passed from an outside observer’s frame of reference. Five seconds. Is that possible? But the probe was here in the lab for about five seconds before it vanished and set off a shockwave inside the lab. Those five seconds from my external frame of reference somehow fused across time and space with the five seconds from the internal frame of reference inside the probe. And that resulted in... what exactly? Teleportation to the future? That much is evident, I suppose, but via what mechanism? What pathway?

It’s as if the compression field was so strong that it tore a hole in space-time, creating a wormhole whose exit only exists in the future.

My discovery is far more wide-reaching than even I had realized. I’ve just stumbled onto some unfathomable new layer of the universe, something that connects time and space in intrinsic ways. Could that pathway somehow be used to travel back in time and violate causality? Or does it only ever go forward?

I am terrified by the possible implications of this technology. The macroscopic consequences are vast, and even on the comparatively trivial level of my personal vendetta, there are some new possibilities to consider. Even if this phenomena of space-time tunneling only allows forward travel through time, it means that there’s probably a good reason why Alison, Grant, and Alex have been missing for five years. For all I know, they hopped aboard the prototype in this very lab and they’re busy tunneling through time and space at this very moment.

I glance about the inside of the Mark III and notice the gleaming ladder from the Mark IV’s hatch crossing vertically through the edge of the probe’s internal space. No, I shake my head. If Grant discovered this on his own while I was in Fiji, or even at some other point during the six months it took for us to develop and test the Mark II, then he surely also noticed the fusing and displacement that occurs when two objects try to occupy the exact same physical location. He would need to move the prototype to a place that he could control the environment, where he could be sure that it would never intersect with any other objects upon its return. Otherwise, he and Alison might end up with a ladder crossing through their internal space. They’re hiding out there somewhere, but I won’t actually be able to find them, just their bunker. At least, not until I find the future that they traveled to.

Walking over to the other side of the Mark III, I yank open an access panel and withdraw the shielded Black Box that stores all of the probe’s data. It’s actually a white box, with the words Black Box ironically stamped on it. The climb back up to Theodore isn’t easy, but fortunately I can just barely reach one of the rungs of the ladder protruding from the top of the Mark III. I use that grip to pull myself up mostly one-handed. Before my time in prison I’d never have been strong enough to manage that. Since being released I’ve kept up with my exercise plan in my father’s old gym. Rage and exercise go surprisingly well together.

“Is this it?” Theodore asks, taking the Black Box from me as I emerge from the hatch.

“Yes.” I’m grinning like a fool.

“Shall I take it that you discovered something already?”

“The rats are alive, Theo. Somehow we teleported them three months into the future, and they’re alive.

Theodore appears taken aback. “Well, that is good news for your safety, sir, but we should continue to monitor them, just in case.”

And we will,” I say. But I’m convinced that I already know what we’ll find. “Grant wouldn’t have risked his life with untested tech,” I add. “You can bet that he vetted the safety of it, and that means I’m closer than ever to following him and Alison. It won’t be long now, Theo.”

“You think they teleported, too.”

“Of course. It explains how they thought they could get away with framing me. They’re untouchable until they arrive in the future.”

“Yes, I suppose that could be the case,” Theodore said. “But have you considered an alternative to pursuing them, sir?”

I frown at him. “Such as?”

“Such as commercializing this technology yourself, now, long before they can. Beating them to the punch as it were. You would have your revenge in an unexpectedly subtle way, undoing their plans and leaving them stranded in a future where they have few resources and no knowledge of how to survive. You could leave them as homeless beggars on the street if you take back your technology and make it ubiquitous before they can use it.”

I shake my head. “They’ll have taken at least half of the gold and diamonds they stole with them as assets to be converted into seed capital for their future venture. Whatever happens, they won’t end up on the street. Gold and diamonds have kept their value against inflation for centuries already, and there’s no reason to think that they won’t continue to do so.”

“No, perhaps, you are right, but you could still build your empire here and now before they arrive.”

I give that a real thought before throwing it out. “I could, but it’s not enough. There’s nothing worse than to gain everything you ever wanted only to lose it all. That is what I will do to them.”

“It may be difficult to do so if your invention has already made them wealthy and powerful.”

I smile wickedly at that. “No, that won’t make it difficult. It will only make it easier. The bigger they are...” I grab the Black Box from Theodore and stride by him, the catwalk bouncing as I go. When I don’t hear Theodore’s footsteps join mine, I glance back at him from the top of the ladder running down the side of the Mark IV. Theodore is frowning at me, disapproval etching his face with deep lines. He’s only beginning to understand the depth of my plan, but he doesn’t know the half of it yet.

“I have a question for you, Theodore.”

“Sir?”

“When all of the tests are finally finished and everything is ready, would you join me?”

“That is not a question, sir. I made you a promise a long time ago, and I have no intention of breaking it now.”

A strange feeling overcomes me, and the anger that fuels my every waking moment retreats a step. Suddenly I’m ten years old again, and Theodore is my only anchor in the storm that looms dark and terrible on the horizon. Back then, orphaned by my parents’ deaths, the future only existed to terrify and confuse. There was no clarity, no clear picture of what would happen next. The only certainty was the sadness and loss that I knew I would never escape.

“Thank you,” I say as a dry, scratchy heat rises in my eyes. But the tears don’t come. They never do. Not since Carl died. But I still remember crying myself to sleep most nights in prison. I sneer at the memory of how weak and pathetic I used to be, and the heat disappears, the emotion safely buried.


Chapter 17

2 Years and 8 Months Later...

—February 7, 2031—

Months since release from prison: 42

Today, exactly ten years ago, I was framed for the murders of my wife and her lover. Now, sitting strapped into the STCD Mark V with Theodore, I am about to follow them through time itself to avenge that crime and all of its collateral consequences. I did consider starting with Viking, but I found out that he’s upstate serving a life sentence without parole in a maximum security facility. There’s no misery I could possibly add to his existence that prison life hasn’t already added for me, and death is too good for him, so I’ve let it go and consigned him to the slow march of time. I’ll soon be speeding by him, waving to his decaying corpse in my rear-view mirror.

“Last chance to change your mind,” I say, glancing at Theodore as I strap myself into the probe. It won’t be moving, but the violent shaking we’ve witnessed inside the lab appears to occur inside of the probes as well.

Theodore just looks at me with a sad smile. “It is also the last chance for you to change yours,” he replies.

I shake my head and busy myself by running through a pre-launch checklist on the touchscreen that’s attached to a movable mechanical arm beside my chair.

Theodore should know better. I’ve come too far to turn back now. It’s taken me almost three years since the discovery of what happened to the Mark III to get to this point.

With Theodore’s help I managed to fake my own death off the coast of Fiji. Ironically, I did that by buying a Learjet and staging a plane crash. We paid the pilot a handsome sum to fake his death along with mine, and then bailed out over one of the islands.

Theodore was waiting with a yacht to pick us up, and we took the pilot to his new life in New Zealand along with a suitcase full of cash. He is the only witness to the fact that I am still alive, but he has every reason to keep his mouth shut. His heirs will be awarded an additional fifty million at the time of his death if the news of my survival has not mysteriously leaked to the public by then.

Besides those preparations, I’ve also had to convert all of my family’s fortune to hard assets that can be reclaimed anonymously in the future under any alias I choose. That’s a lot harder than I would have thought, but with Theodore’s help I’ve used anonymous corporations to buy up large tracts of real estate around the world. We placed them in trust funds and then left them in the care of multiple wealth fund management companies. Apart from that, I have more than a billion dollars’ worth of gold and platinum bars stacked inside the Mark V and in the bunker, and I’ve invested roughly ten billion in various stocks and bonds. Time will tell which of my bets pays off, but I know at least one of them will.

Then there’s the final element of my preparations: I have staged the lab to look abandoned, with some failed prototypes to litter the space. It will look to any investigators that Grant and Alison might hire as if I drove myself mad before I died, failing repeatedly to rebuild the Mark II that they stole.

Meanwhile, the working Mark V is safely ensconced in a bunker under my father’s old golf course. This facility is self-contained and designed to withstand the test of time. There are plenty of supplies, as well as links to the solar panels on the roof of the mansion and the lab which will slowly recharge the power walls that supply both the Mark V and the facility itself.

The curious part about this technology that I’ve created, however, is that it doesn’t require the probe to be powered after it disappears. A fact which means the power requirements are far lower than what Grant and I ever imagined.

From our perspective inside the probe, we’ll never actually disappear. We’ll be there and gone in an instant. There’s no physical dimension or void to observe in between the probe’s disappearance and its reappearance. That seems to imply that all times past, present, and future, may actually physically exist in parallel within some kind of infinitely layered space-time manifold.

Which makes me wonder again about the possibility of traveling backward in time with this technology. I’ve toyed with the idea of expanding space-time instead of compressing it, but I haven’t had the time to pursue the idea.

“Sir, I hate to be a nag, but my legs are beginning to cramp. Is there a problem with the probe? Perhaps I should come back when you are ready.”

I shake myself out of my thoughts. “No. Everything is ready. I was just lost in thought for a minute.”

Theodore’s wrinkles scrunch together in a thoughtful frown. “Then may I suggest that we be on our way?”

I nod and double-check the target date as I absently rub Carl’s crucifix for luck: February 7, 2061. Our first trip will only take us thirty years into the future. It’s already been ten, and we don’t know how far Grant and Alison might have traveled. We can’t afford to surpass them by too many years or else they might already be dead by the time we arrive.

Sucking in a deep breath to steady my nerves, I say, “Activating compression field in three... two... one...”

A loud humming sound bleeds through the insulated hull of the probe, but none of the blinding light from outside reaches us. The probe shivers and shakes around us. “Power ramping up to 65%. The probe begins shivering violently, then shaking and rumbling ominously as if we are riding inside of a thundercloud. I watch the input energy on the tablet scrolling up rapidly to 65%. Keeping half an eye on the external camera views on that tablet, I notice that the inside of the launch bay has become blindingly bright. Theodore is gritting his teeth and squinting his eyes shut. A klaxon blares twice, and the lights flash red inside the probe. “Target power level reached!” I say.

And then there comes a terrible moment of suspended time. I feel myself lost and drifting in an infinite void that is at once terrifying and exhilarating. Time seems to go on forever in all directions around me. I feel as though I can physically see time passing around me in bright, shimmering bands of light. I frown at that, touching those bands and strumming them like guitar strings. They’re cold to the touch and the cold spreads through me. An overwhelming sense of foreboding consumes me. It feels as though something unimaginably evil is breathing down my neck, and for a second, I could swear that I can hear it whispering in my ear.

I try to say something, to scream! But my mouth is no longer my own. No part of my body is. I can’t move, but my mind rages on, a prisoner in this endless, frozen moment of time. Theodore’s eyes have flown wide, but he is equally frozen in the chair opposite mine. The shifting bands of light ripple around us like the waves on a pond.

And then I’m back, gasping for air, and feeling a sweaty surge of panic. What was that? Where did we go? How... I sag limply against my restraints, still breathing hard. Fat beads of perspiration splat to the metal floor grating at my feet.

Theodore is sucking in quick, ragged breaths. I look at him in alarm, but he doesn’t appear to be hurt. Not physically, at least. His cheeks are pale and streaked with tears.

“What happened?” I ask.

“What did you see?” he asks sharply.

I shake my head. “Nothing. Just some bands of light, and... feelings.”

“Well, I saw your parents. They spoke to me.”

I frown at that and slowly shake my head. “Just a hallucination.”

“Perhaps, but they asked me for a favor. They asked me to stop you before it’s too late.”

That foreboding sense is back, but it’s just an echo from before. I shake it off. “And what did you say?”

“I told them I would do my best.”

A scowl mingles with a smirk on my lips. “My parents are dead, Theodore. What you experienced was just a reflection of your own inner feelings. And if you want to stop me from getting revenge, you’re going to have to kill me.”

Theodore shakes his head sadly. “I believe that would defeat the purpose, sir.”


Earth 2061

“Time is the longest distance between two places.”

―Tennessee Williams


Chapter 18

Thirty Years Later...

—February 7, 2061—

We emerge from the Mark V like explorers discovering a strange new land. The thrill of it is intense, a palpable force flooding my veins with the first emotion that I’ve really felt, besides varying degrees of rage, since my release from prison.

The launch bay in the bunker is mostly the same as I remember leaving it. Bare concrete walls and floor—nothing to liquefy or blast into oblivion when the probe performed its vanishing act. But there’s a musty smell that I don’t recall, and I can see dust and some shriveled black raisins on the floor—along with the barbecued remains of the creature that left them. I scowl at that, hoping there aren’t more of them down here and that they didn’t find a way into the bunker’s food supply. Unlikely, though. All of it is locked up tight. Chances are whatever vermin managed to sneak into the facility later died of starvation or exposure.

Theodore and I stand at the bottom of the short flight of stairs leading to the Mark V.

He looks to me with a furrowed brow. “Did it work?”

I gesture vaguely to the rat droppings and the thin film of shock-blasted dust on the floor, but rather than take that evidence as proof, I say, “Let’s go check the logs.”

Striding over to the heat-shielded door of the launch bay, I turn the heavy metal handle that locks the door from the inside, and yank it open. The handle is warm to the touch from the shock wave that the Mark V triggered upon its return.

As Theodore and I step out into the corridor, LED light bulbs snap on automatically for us. But not all of them turn on. Even though they haven’t been used in thirty years, some have malfunctioned with the simple passage of time, leaving the bare concrete corridor only partially illuminated in alternating bands of light and shadow. That imagery reminds me of the bands of light I saw shimmering inside the probe, and a shiver courses down my spine. Beyond the launch bay, the bunker is freezing cold, so I attribute it to the environment and not my recollection of the disturbing hallucinations inside the probe.

“We should get our jackets from the storeroom,” Theodore says.

“In a minute,” I say, shaking my head at that oversight as I lead Theodore down the corridor to the control room. Over a hundred items on my pre-launch checklist, and somehow that one had escaped my notice. I probably should have chosen to travel to a future summer and not a future winter. We’d left a perfectly heated bunker, but the facility is designed to detect our presence and go into a dormant, power-saving mode while we’re gone.

“The heat should kick on soon, anyway,” I say as we reach the control room. I yank the heavy door open, but this time the handle is ice-cold and it burns my hand. “Shit!” I recoil and pull the sleeve of my sweater down to wrap around my stinging hand. The door begins swinging shut the minute I release it, powered by a simple vacuum-powered arm. I catch it with my foot to keep from having to grab the handle again.

“Are you all right, sir?” Theodore asks.

“Fine.” I shoulder the door open and we walk through together. We stop in front of a wall of darkened screens in front of a thick self-polarizing window to the launch bay. I can see the Mark V sitting there, my life’s work perfected. A small smile graces my lips as I boot up the systems with the flick of a switch.

But nothing happens.

“Damn it...”

I try another switch, the first of multiple redundant layers of control systems. This time the screens flicker to life. I notice a handful of dead pixels in each of those screens, but at least they’re still working. This is probably all ancient tech by now.

The first thing I do is check the system clock for the date and time. It’s 10:08 AM, February 7th, 2061. I point to that, grinning triumphantly. “That’s how we know that it worked,” I say.

Theodore doesn’t look impressed. “We should check the manor’s surveillance data,” he says.

“Right.” Most of the control systems were powered down for the past thirty years, but the surveillance system around and inside of the estate and the bunker has been running the entire time we’ve been gone.

There’s a chance that my ex-wife and my back-stabbing research partner may have come back here or sent someone back here to check on me. They won’t just assume that sending me to prison for their supposed murders will be enough to keep them safe. They’ll want proof. By now, if they’ve already arrived in the future they chose, they must know that I was acquitted and released early.

That was why we had to fake my death. But even so, there’s still a chance that they might have come back here to investigate.

Pulling up the logs, I scan the highlighted segments. There are thousands of recorded incidents. The software is designed to only store video clips that pertain to human movements, but even so, the flash drives have run out of space. There’s more than a petabyte of recordings to look through. I frown at that and slowly shake my head.

“It appears we’ve had some company over the years,” Theodore says.

“Yeah,” I growl. All of the staff were let go with attractive severance packages after my plane crash and alleged death, and the estate was sealed up tight, so the only people that should have been detected by the system are intruders. Pulling up the first clip, I see a pair of teenagers breaking one of the windows outside the kitchen. They knock out the shards of glass, and then climb inside. The next camera tracks them, through the house to the fire place in the great room where they lay down blankets and start a fire. The rest is x-rated. I fast-forward through it, muttering to myself about horny vandals.

The recording ends a couple hours later as they’re seen fleeing the scene on the electric motorbike that they rode in on. The time stamp marks that recording at just a year and a half after we left.

I check the next one. It’s the same kids, back again a year later. The next one is four years on, them again. More of the same shenanigans. They’re not teenagers anymore, and the woman’s belly is protruding just enough to suggest she’s about four months pregnant. I smile at that, but then a more cynical part of me takes over, and I realize that they’re probably long-since divorced by now.

The next group of recordings show teenage taggers coming and going, defacing the walls of the mansion inside and out. There’s more x-rated shenanigans, underage drinking and drug-using, followed by a steady stream of older vagrants who appear to be strung out on drugs or alcohol.

Thinking it could take me forever to review all of this, I skip ahead all the way to 2050.

I can see a crowd of people standing in the great room, all of them dirty and clothed in scraps of tattered clothing. They have gaunt, skeletal faces that suggest they’ve been slowly starving to death. There must be at least a hundred of them, all different ages. The weapons they brandish suggest that they belong to some type of gang, but I can see children among them, and even a few babies and toddlers. What kind of gang includes young children?

They’re listening to their leader speak from an improvised dais that is my old dining room table. His speech is muffled, either because the microphones in the cameras are failing by this point, or because he’s too far from the nearest one.

The crowd periodically raises their voices, shouting angrily as one: “Death to Keepers and Heavies!” They repeat it like a mantra as they shake their weapons above their heads—everything from rifles and handguns to lengths of pipe and aluminum baseball bats.

“What the hell are Heavies? And Keepers?” I ask, looking to Theodore as if he somehow knows more than me.

He just shakes his head, his brow tense and eyes narrowed. “I do not know, but those people have the look of revolutionaries.”

“You think there was another civil war?”

“Perhaps if you check a more recent recording you’ll find out.”

I skip ahead another five years, but the crowds are all gone. The intruders are teenagers again, and they look both well-dressed and well-fed. Their clothes are far more elaborate than I’m used to, with garish embellishments and colors.

“Whoever the Heavies and the Keepers were, they either won or lost the fight,” I say.

“Based on the bedraggled, desperate look of their opponents, I suspect they won,” Theodore says, “but perhaps we should go out and see for ourselves.”

“Yeah... maybe we should.” There’s a lot more surveillance data here, but we’ll learn more and faster about the future we’ve arrived in by exploring it on our own. “Let me just check something first.” I’m nervous about going out with so little information about this new world, so before I leave, I want to check the Internet if I can. I have a management company that’s supposed to have been paying the utilities for the estate, but who knows how things have changed over the last thirty years? Maybe they’ve just been pocketing my money, or maybe that company is long gone. After all, I didn’t see anyone turning on the lights in the mansion.

My browser spits out an error when I try to access Google.

No Internet.

I scowl at that. It could also be a hardware malfunction, or the simple fact that my technology is now thirty years out of date.

Theodore is right. We have to leave the bunker if we want to find out more.

In particular, I’m anxious to know if space-time compression technology has become commercially available yet. If it has, then I want to learn who brought it to market, and where they are now.

I can just imagine the look on Alison’s and Grant’s faces when they see me again after all these years. But of course, them actually seeing my face will have to wait.

“Should we arm ourselves, sir?” Theodore asks.

“Arm ourselves?” I echo, even as I consider the matter.

“In case this day and age is not as safe as we might hope for it to be.”

“Good idea. We’ll hit the armory first,” I say.


Chapter 19

It takes us a few hours to get ready to leave the bunker. Mostly because that’s how long it takes for my Tesla Model X to charge, and for the snow-shoveling drones to shovel out the driveway and the entrance of the bunker’s garage. The entrance itself is an elevator, perfectly concealed beneath a massive stone pedestal with a statue of yours truly on it, shown breaking my chains. It’s an ego piece that I designed like a scarecrow to ward off further investigation. Cameras watching the statue from lampposts standing around it show that it’s still mostly intact, but one of my arms has been snapped off.

Theodore and I grab our travel bags, each of them has a Smith and Wesson handgun concealed inside, along with a few bars of gold. We pack the bags into the back of the Tesla, but take ours gun out first. Just in case. We’re not taking any IDs with us, and the car has no plates. We can’t just pop up in the middle of Denver with thirty-year-old plates and ID. We’ll have to risk it until we can convert some of my gold into cash and use that to buy new identities for ourselves. It’s not the best plan in the world, but it’s the only one that will keep our real identities a secret. Hopefully we don’t run into any trouble with the authorities until we can resolve the situation.

I place a bag with a few extra bars of gold wrapped in clothing in the frunk, and then we climb into the back seats.

Our breath turns to steam in the frigid air inside the car, but we’re both wearing jackets and gloves now, so that helps. The heat has been on in the bunker for a while already, but it’s a big facility, and power reserves are dangerously low. The solar panels on the roof of the mansion and on top of the old lab are only functioning at 16% efficiency. After all this time, they’re badly in need of cleaning, repair, and general maintenance. If nothing else, we have to clear the snow off them. The roof tiles are supposed to be able to melt it off with heating elements, but I guess that’s just one other thing that needs repairing.

“Moment of truth,” I say, absently feeling for the crucifix through my jacket as I triple press the T button on the Model X’s sleek, car-shaped fob. The engine purrs to life with a barely perceptible whirr, and the giant touch panel in the front console snaps on. There are no dead pixels on it. I let out a sigh. At least something is still working.

Using my ancient phone, I connect to the car through an app so that I can remote-control the vehicle from the back seat. A quick check reveals that the car’s internal systems are all working properly, but it can’t connect to the Internet, and that means it won’t be able to update its maps or autopilot software. That’s not good. The streets will have changed a lot in thirty years. I explain the problem to Theodore, and add, “I’m going to have to drive manually.”

“Without a valid license,” Theodore says.

“We don’t have any other choice.” In hindsight, traveling to the future is a risky business. If it comes down to it, I may have to level with the world about who I am and how I’ve somehow returned from the dead looking fresh as a daisy after thirty years. Time will tell.

We get out of the back seats and climb into the front. I stow my sidearm in the door, while Theodore keeps his in his lap. I take a moment to caress the leather steering wheel, flexing my gloves around it. “I’ve missed this,” I say. The last time I physically drove a car was before I went to prison. After my release, manual driving already had a stigma attached to it that was equivalent to drinking and driving, and I was doing my best to avoid trouble with the law.

Using my phone, I switch to the control app for the bunker itself and activate the garage elevator. It takes a few seconds for the statue and its pedestal to slide away. I can hear it rumbling along old rails as the aging machinery opens the garage. Sunlight slants down, and a dusting of snow falls into the garage, thumping on the roof and shiny black hood of my Model X. I shield my eyes and peer up at the sunny blue sky as the garage elevator slowly rises into daylight.

There’s a foot of pristine, sparkling white snow covering the grounds, and fresh-plowed banks of it are piled high on both sides of the driveway. Gliding off the elevator platform, I turn right up toward the mansion. As we draw near, I remember to use my phone to shut the garage in our wake.

The mansion looms before us like an ancient castle, scarred and crumbling from one too many sieges. I go slow at the end of the circular driveway, crawling past the front steps. Graffiti is everywhere. Most of the windows are broken, and there’s a crumbling, charred-black hole where the front doors used to be. Multiple matching holes have been punched in the glass doors and windows along the side of the great room.

“The manor has seen better days,” Theodore says. “It looks as though those revolutionaries fought a war here.”

I drive away with a scowl, heading for the front gates of the estate. I pass my phone to Theodore. “Open the gates, would you?”

“That won’t be necessary, sir,” he says, pointing to where my snow-shoveling drones have struggled to properly clear the entrance because the iron gates are lying in a twisted mess on the ground. Something like a tank drove through them a while ago. Maybe that explained the charred holes I’d seen.

I drive slowly over the gates and the barely-plowed snow that covers them. Snow crunches loudly under the wheels. It’s a good thing this car has all-wheel drive.

Beyond the estate, the country road that leads here is already plowed, and busy with traffic. I wait in the entrance of the driveway, blinking in shock. Fully half of the cars are sporting Tesla’s stylized T logo. The other half are divided among other familiar brands, as well as a few that are unfamiliar. I don’t recognize any of the models, and I definitely don’t recognize my street. That old country road is now four lanes wide and divided by a row of trees rising from a snow-covered island.

Waiting for a gap, I merge with traffic, heading for Denver. It’s hard not to gawk at my surroundings as I go. Where before my estate was the only structure for miles, now I find myself driving through a fancy suburb with big, sleek-looking homes set far back from the street on big acreages. If my dilapidated mansion were visible from the street, it would stick out like a homeless man on the runway of a fashion show.

Theodore appears to notice my astonishment, and he nods out the window. “The world’s population will have increased significantly since we’ve been gone.”

“Yeah,” is all I can say.

We transition from country estates to more densely-packed houses in gated communities, and from there to low-rise apartments, plazas, and finally the high rises of downtown Denver. They’re taller and more numerous than I remember, but that’s definitely not the only difference. I can see stylized humanoid robots walking along the sidewalks among scattered groups of people. The robots are usually holding children’s hands or carrying toddlers as parents walk on ahead. Robotic servants? That’s definitely new.

The streets are uncluttered by parked cars, but I see vehicles pulling off the road into what used to be parking spaces. Their hazard lights blink as they let people and robots out before driving on by themselves to pick up more people and robots further down the street.

Extra-wide bridges between the opposing walls of skyscrapers cast intermittent shadows. I peer up at one of them just in time to see a small helicopter with four rotors swoop down for a landing. I slow to a crawl, then pull off to the side of the street so I can watch. Theodore puts on the hazards for me, and we both peer up through the windshield as the hovering vehicle lets out a group of four people and their bot before picking up three others. A scattered blast of snow rains down on us as the air car lifts off and flies away.

Transportation appears to have become a carefully choreographed dance of automated pick-ups and drop-offs, with everyone simply summoning vehicles at a whim. I wonder if anyone even bothers to own cars anymore, or if that’s a thing of the past. It’s a much better system. But it leaves me wondering what to do with my vehicle. “Where are we supposed to park?”

“I don’t think we are,” Theodore says.

This is bad. My vehicle is going to attract a lot of attention when we leave it parked on the side of the road. “We’d better hurry and find somewhere to turn our gold into whatever passes for currency these days.”

I pull back out into the street and cruise through the city, scanning windows for signs that might indicate a jeweler, or even a bank—not that I suspect a bank will actually take gold on deposit.

I’d happily accept even ten percent of the actual value of the four bars of gold we have with us, if only I could find someone to make that trade.

That’s something else that has changed. There aren’t any signs of any kind. No road signs, no open signs in windows, no glowing neon names of establishments above their doors. Nothing. I slowly shake my head, not getting it, but then I begin to notice that almost everyone on the sidewalks is wearing glasses, even the kids. Their glasses are illuminated with tiny imagery, and some of them are swiping the air or talking to themselves as they go.

Augmented Reality glasses. Apparently that’s another fledgling technology that’s become ubiquitous in 2061.

“We’re not going to find anything like this,” I say, and pull over again. “I need to ask someone for directions. Wait here with the hazards on. We don’t want people to think we’re parked here.”

I exit the vehicle and run up behind the nearest group of people I can find. It’s a family of four with a gleaming robotic servant hanging back and holding the two kids’ hands. The robot freezes and spins around, sprinting toward me before I can get within even a dozen feet of the family.

“Warning! Undoc detected!” it says in a loud female voice as it collides with me and flattens me to the snow and ice-crusted sidewalk.

I hear people screaming and glimpse them fleeing for cover to all sides.

“The authorities have been notified,” the robot says to me. “Do not attempt to resist.”

I stare into its glowing golden eyes, and it glares back at me. It has a humanoid face, but rubbery and white as death.

“Threat level zero. Do not be alarmed,” the bot announces, and then it hauls me up to my feet with my arms twisted up behind my back and both wrists grinding together in one of its padded hands. It holds me there, waiting for the authorities to arrive.

I see people creeping out of street-level shops and the lobbies of what might be apartments or hotels.

A man approaches us from the entrance of the nearest building.

“Good job, Daedra,” he says, and stops a few feet away from me. I can see images flickering over his glasses, but they’re all reversed and too small for me to make sense of.

“Police drones are three minutes out,” the robot says.

“Yes... facial recognition isn’t working. He’s unlisted.”

“Probably a terrorist,” the robot says.

“With a threat level of zero? He doesn’t look like a terrorist.”

His eyes fix on the center of my chest and narrow swiftly. I angle my gaze down and notice that the crucifix around my neck has jumped out.

“He’s wearing a cross,” the man says. “Must be a Fundy from one of the Blocks who lost his pass card.”

“A what?” I ask.

“You don’t know what a Fundy is?” the man asks.

I shake my head.

“A fundamentalist...?”

I frown, still not getting it. “Look, I’m not a terrorist. Or a Fundy. I’m a...” I trail off, realizing that I can’t tell him the truth without sounding crazy. Unless Alison and Grant have already arrived, but if that’s the case, I still can’t say anything. The truth will make me an instant news headline.

“Well?” the man prompts.

“Police drones are one minute away,” Daedra announces.

“I’m a reclusive billionaire. I never leave home. That car behind me is over thirty years old.” I jerk a thumb to indicate it and glance back just in time to see Theodore leaving the vehicle and approaching us at a brisk pace. I try to wave him off, but it’s too late.

Another robot sprints into view and knocks him down. “Undoc detected. Threat level zero,” that robot announces in a deep male voice.

“You were saying?” the man in front of me asks as Theodore is marched over to stand beside me. “Who’s he?”

“My butler.”

“And somehow neither of you has a passmark or a pass card? Maybe you ditched them because you’re fleeing the scene of a crime. That car looks like a classic. It’s in hella good condition. Did you fob it?”

“Fob it?” I ask, shaking my head. “What’s a passmark?”

The man frowns at me and glances at his right hand. I notice a faintly glowing shape on the back of it, a triangle. It looks like the symbol of a pyramid with the eye at the top that I remember from the backs of one-dollar bills.

Before either of us can say anything, a pair of hovering drones buzz into view with strobing blue and red lights.

“Step away from the suspects,” one of the drones says.

The bots holding us do as they’re told and the people watching us from the sidewalks shuffle back a step.

I begin massaging my wrists to get the feeling back, wondering if now would be a good time to make a run for it. But then I see weapon barrels tracking us on swivel mounts beneath each of the drones. I wonder if those are lethal or nonlethal weapons. Either way it makes running away futile.

The man who confronted me smirks as a flickering fan of blue light passes over Theodore and I from one of the drones. “No weapons detected. Threat level zeros confirmed. Identities unknown. State your names for the record.”

“Ahhh...” I trail off, trying to come up with another way. If we use our real names, we’ll be busted and my technology is going to see its debut whether Alison and Grant have already commercialized it or not. They’ll also find out that I’m still alive, and all of the trouble I took to remain anonymous will have been for nothing.

A black and white vehicle with a familiar-sounding siren and flashing blue and red lights comes racing down the street before I can think of a solution. It glides to a stop and the front doors slide open to let a pair of humanoid robots out. They have skinny, matte gray arms and legs, and inscrutable, shiny black faces rather than the humanoid ones of the bots that I’ve seen so far. They also appear to have gun barrels flanking both of their arms. They each raise one arm and its set of weapons, keeping us covered as they approach.

Real human faces flicker to life where shiny black ones were before, and I realize that the officers are remote-controlling these bots. I guess that must reduce police casualties.

One bot takes each of us into custody, cuffing our hands behind our backs. They’re reading us our rights as they escort us back to their vehicle. At least that spiel hasn’t changed in the last thirty years.

“What are we being charged with?” I ask.

“Undocumented transit of a public area,” the bot holding me says in a gruff human voice. “As per section two, article twenty-seven of the Citizen Safety Act of 2047, all citizens of the Northern Union must be documented at all times by way of either a passmark or a pass card, and you two have neither.”

“I can’t even get a hit on their faces,” the other bot says.

“I noticed that, Briggs. Which either means you two are terrorists, or you’re paranoid Fundies who paid someone to erase your records from the net. Either way, you’re in big trouble. Shoulda stayed in the Blocks.”

I shake my head. “We didn’t erase anything.”

“Save it for the detective,” my cop says as he pushes my head down and shoves me into the back seat of the patrol car. The door slams behind me and I watch as Theodore is forced into the seat on the other side of the car.

We stare at each other in shock as the car glides away. Both of the police bots are sitting in the front, facing us across a glass wall that divides the inside of the car. There’s no steering wheel or controls of any kind.

My mind flashes back to the gold bars in my ‘classic’ Model X, and I wonder if someone from the police department will steal them when the car gets impounded.

But losing a few million dollars’ worth of gold is the least of my problems right now. I’m about to be charged for yet another crime that I’m innocent of, and this time I’ve dragged Theodore into it along with me.

“What happened in 2047?” I ask the cop with the square jaw and bright green eyes. The other one has a round face, tanned skin, and brown eyes.

Square jaw snorts and shakes his robotic avatar’s head. “You’re joking right?”

“He has a condition,” Theodore says. “He can’t retain any new memories since the accident. That is why we left the Blocks without our pass cards. I didn’t have time to gather mine before I ran after him.”

Nice job, Theo, I think to myself.

A bemused look crosses both cops faces, and they look to one another before turning back to us. A second later, a smirk lights up square jaw’s face. “Nice try. Vocal scans show a ninety-nine percent likelihood that you are lying. You want to try that again with truth or wait to speak with a lawyer first?”

Neither of us says anything this time. They’ve read us our rights, so I know that we still have the right not to incriminate ourselves. If they can tell whether we’re lying just by scanning our voices, then the less we say the better. The flip side of that is that they’ll also know when we’re telling the truth, and the truth might be our only hope to get out of this. I can just imagine the headlines now:

Billionaire Fakes Own Death and Travels Thirty Years Into the Future

That should get Alison’s and Grant’s attention. But what will they do about it, and how will I ever get my revenge if they know to expect it?

There has to be another way.


Chapter 20

The police station and booking process are at least somewhat familiar, but there’s a body scan and a retinal scan added to it. When it’s over we’re reminded about what we’ve been charged with. Undocumented transit of a public area. I’m surprised that unlawful possession of a firearm hasn’t been added to that. What happened to the guns we had with us in the car? They were unregistered. By now the cops must have found them.

A pair of bots escort us to our holding cell, and I wonder if my fingerprints will be matched to the ones taken at my previous booking. Maybe not. Forty years is a long time to keep records for someone who is supposed to be long dead already.

The police bots slide the cell shut with a rattling boom and then go clanking off. I watch them go, suddenly struck by the fact that I haven’t seen a human policeman yet. Are they commuting from their homes? Maybe they’re sitting in a control center upstairs.

I turn around. The holding cell hasn’t changed much—except for the fact that it’s almost empty. Only two other people share it with us, and both of them look like they’re strung out on something.

I go sit on a metal bench beside Theodore in the opposite corner from those two.

“What did you do with the...” I trail off and glance around, suddenly worried that someone could be watching us in here. I make a gun-firing gesture to Theodore to indicate what I’m talking about.

“I threw them in a trash bin when I saw you being apprehended.”

“Good call,” I whisper.

About an hour later, a police bot with an unfamiliar face strolls over and hands me a pair of glasses through the bars. This bot is being controlled by a woman. She’s pretty with black hair and tanned skin. Probably of Hispanic descent.

“Here. Call your lawyer. Or your pastor. Whatever you prefer, Fundy,” she says.

I accept the glasses with a frown. They still think I’m a fundamentalist, whatever that is, but that means my prints haven’t been matched. I spend a moment studying the glasses in my hands. The frames have a padded component at either end that I recognize as bone conduction speakers. I unfold the glasses and put them on. The padded speakers press into my jaw bones, and a voice begins speaking to me at the same time as a translucent woman with shoulder-length blond hair and a friendly face appears ghostlike before me.

“Hello, I am Hazel, Denver PD’s virtual assistant. These are your courtesy glasses. You may use them to look up whomever you would like to call, but before you do, I must remind you that these glasses are the property of the Northern Union, and any damage to them will be charged to your passmark or pass card before your release. Now, is there anything that I might help you with?”

I am speechless as I stare at this hologram. I turn my head, but Hazel doesn’t move with the glasses. It’s as if she’s actually standing there.

“What is it?” Theodore asks.

I scan the icons clustered around the edges of my field of view. Focusing on a particular icon highlights it. I highlight the one that looks like an outline of a human head.

“Would you like to find someone to call now?” Hazel asks.

“Yes,” I reply.

That head-shaped icon expands to fill a partially transparent window that seems to float about ten inches away from my left eye. I try closing my left eye and find that my right can still see the floating window. I try waving my hand through the hologram, and my fingers appear, poking through it. But when I lift the glasses slightly and try to peer under them, I can’t see any actual holograms being projected in front of the glasses. Whatever this tech is, it’s extremely sophisticated.

“It seems that you are unfamiliar with this technology,” Hazel says, apparently having read my mind to figure that out. “Would you like a tutorial now?”

“Yes, please,” I say.

In a nutshell, the tutorial tells me that the glasses can read my thoughts as well as respond to voice commands and gestures. All I have to do is think about or say what I want the glasses to do, and they will respond accordingly.

“It can read my thoughts,” I say to Theodore in an awed whisper. Brain-computer interfaces were available back in 2031, but the peripherals were still relatively clunky and the technology was highly inaccurate compared to this.

I notice that the window I opened from the head-shaped icon is a search engine of some kind—one that I’ve never seen before, called Face Finder. I highlight the search box mentally, and try looking up Alison and Grant by thinking about their fake names.

Giselle Devereaux Arthur Devereaux appears in the search box. I wonder how I can edit that to put the word and between their names. Even as I’m thinking it, the word magically appears there.

A brief focus on the magnifying-glass icon executes the search, and a score of results appear, with faces beside each. Focusing on the faces produces enlarged views. I wonder how to make them even bigger, and then an animated 3D projection of one of them appears standing beside Hazel. It’s a black man with a giant grin. He moves around a bit as I stare at him, swaying on his feet and rolling his shoulders. Unnerved by that, I think about getting rid of him, and he vanishes.

Scrolling down the list of results, I scan the faces for one I recognize. There are more than fifty people in this list. As I mentally dismiss the faces that don’t belong to either of the people I’m searching for, the results disappear and the list grows shorter.

Before I’m even halfway down, the list vanishes entirely and just two faces remain, with the words Mind’s Eye Matches above them. This mind-reading technology is obviously more invasive than I thought. It plucked these results directly from my memories of the people I’m searching for.

I’m too shocked and excited by the results to care much about the violation of privacy involved. Blood rages loudly in my ears, and a number inside of a heart-shaped icon begins flashing in my peripheral view. My pulse has just hit 135.

It’s them. Alison and Grant are both here, in this time, and both registered under their last-known fake names from the 2020’s. That was careless of them, but it means that I’ve arrived in the right decade, and I’m closer than ever to my goal. A grin spreads slowly across my lips, and my heart-rate drops back down below 100 as my blood cools. I wonder what happened to Alex and think about searching for him, adding his full name to the search box beside Giselle’s and Arthur’s names: Alexander Fields.

More than a hundred results appear below the two Mind’s Eye Matches at the top. I picture Alex’s face in my head, and the Mind’s Eye Matches expands to include a third. It’s him all right. I focus on his name, hoping to learn more, and an article expands from Wikibios. Scanning it, I learn that Alex has been missing since 2021. The same year that I was framed and convicted. Grant and Alison must have killed him.

I think about returning to the search results and the article disappears. This time I focus on Grant’s face, hoping to learn more about him, and another article expands to fill the window. Scanning past the details of his birth and parentage I find a story about him and his wife, Giselle, inventing space-time compression fields and using the technology on themselves to travel fifteen years into the future. They arrived in Nevada in 2038. That means that they’ve been here for more than twenty years already. I’m surprised that they chose to travel such a short span of time. Maybe they would have gone further into the future, but when they emerged from their first trip, they learned that I was dead and decided not to bother. Besides, the longer they waited to commercialize time-compression technology, the greater the chance that someone else would beat them to it.

Reading on, I learn that since their arrival they’ve built a trillion-coin company called Future Travels. My brain briefly stumbles over the unfamiliar term. Coin is apparently what people are calling the replacement for the dollar.

I read on: Future Travels is working with the government on experimental applications for time-compression technology in faster-than-light propulsion. It’s an old, theoretical idea called an Alcubierre warp drive. It involves expanding space-time behind a spaceship and contracting it in front in order to create a warp bubble. Currently the technology is considered to be impossible. I smirk and shake my head at that. I could have told them that thirty years ago.

Regardless, the ubiquitousness of my forward time-traveling technology changes Theodore’s and my current situation. We won’t be as famous as I thought if I tell the truth about who we are and where we came from, because Grant and Alison already stole the limelight for that magic trick more than twenty years ago.

I turn to Theodore with a smile and say, “It’s time to see if the truth will set us free.”


Chapter 21

“It won’t work,” Theodore says quietly. “We’ll still make headlines, and that will make you a target for Grant and Alison when they learn that you’re still alive.”

I’m pacing the cell as he tells me that, watching my heart-rate inch back up. “So what do you suggest?” I ask, stopping to stare at him.

“I suggest we call a lawyer. A good one. There may be loopholes in whatever laws we’ve been charged with breaking that will allow us to get out of here more easily than you think.”

He’s right. If nothing else, we need more information, and attorney client privilege should give me the perfect opportunity to level with someone and find out what has happened to the world while we’ve been gone. “All right.” I focus on the head-shaped icon again and use face finder to look for the best defense attorneys in Denver.

I find one and focus on the call icon. It takes only a few seconds for him to appear standing before me as a 3D hologram.

“Jim Hunter, how may I help you?” the man asks, shifting from one foot to another and tilting his head to one side. He’s tall and fit with broad shoulders and a thick chest. He has short brown hair and a well-trimmed beard to match. I notice that he’s wearing glasses like me, along with a trim black suit and a green tie. I suspect this image isn’t being relayed to me as actual footage, but as a simulated version of what he looks like. What are the chances that I’ve caught him standing up for this call? Besides that, I can’t see any of his surroundings, and what possible mechanism could be recording him for me to see? The footage would have to be relayed by a hovering camera drone of some kind.

I explain the charges against us, saying that we forgot our pass cards at home.

Jim’s brow furrows, and he scratches a hand through his beard. “I’m not sure I understand. How did you get a ride if you didn’t have your pass cards? The car would have needed to charge something.”

“The car is mine,” I say.

“Oh? That’s interesting. I’m surprised you bothered to take a manual out of the Blocks. The insurance fees are more than most people like to pay. Speaking of which, how did you manage to leave the Blocks without your pass cards? They would have asked you for them at the checkpoint.”

I hesitate, struggling to come up with a clear picture of what he’s talking about. I’m going to have to level with the lawyer, but I can’t do that here. “I’d rather we discuss this privately.”

“Sure. Just tell the guards that you need to meet with me and they’ll take care of it.”

“Okay... so you’ll come meet with us? When can you be here?”

Jim’s eyebrows shoot up and pinch together. “I’m already meeting with you. We just need a private room to continue the discussion. I’m guessing you don’t spend a lot of time outside the Blocks...”

“Something like that. Should I call you back when we’re in the room?”

Jim shakes his head. “No need. Just call the guards over and get us a room. If they give you any trouble, I’ll talk to them for you.”

“You can do that?”

“Of course.” Jim nods and smiles uncertainly, as if he’s suddenly wondering whether he should take this case.

I turn to peer through the bars and call out. “I need to speak with my lawyer in private!”

A police bot strolls over. It’s the Hispanic woman again, but this time I notice that there’s a name hovering above her head: Lt. Layla Cortez.

“In private, huh?” she says. “Got something to confess that you don’t want us to hear?”

“It’s my right to private consultation with legal counsel,” I insist, hoping that’s still true. I turn and nod to Theodore. “It’s his right, too.”

“All right, ice off, I was just twiggin’ you.”

My brow furrows at the unfamiliar slang.

“You’re both going to speak with the same lawyer?”

“We were picked up together and accused of the same crime,” I say.

“All right come on then,” Layla says. The cell rattles open. “Follow me.” We exit the cell, and she shuts it behind us. Layla walks ahead, letting us out of her sight. I’m perplexed by that, but maybe she has eyes in the back of her head. Or guns. I suspect it would be worse than stupid to try to overpower one of these machines. Especially since it doesn’t look like they have any weapons that can be stolen. They’re all integrated into the chassis. I glance over my shoulder and notice Jim, my prospective lawyer, walking behind us. He nods to me, as if he’s actually there and can see that I’ve turned around. This augmented reality world is beginning to unsettle me. How does anyone separate actual reality from the altered versions?

Layla stops halfway down a bare-bones gray corridor and turns to a solid metal door. She opens it for us.

“Your confessional awaits, Fundies.” She’s holding out another pair of courtesy glasses. “For you, old man.” Theo accepts them and walks through the door.

There’s nothing but a folding table and four chairs inside. It’s a windowless cinder block room, with a small square light clinging to the ceiling. Dark shadows pool in the corners and on the walls.

I follow Theodore inside, and hear the door slam behind us. It locks with a loud thunk, and I turn to see that our lawyer isn’t in the room with us. I can hear his muffled voice as he speaks to the police woman outside, and suddenly I’m afraid that Jim is working for the cops and this future is more dystopian than I thought.

But then he walks briskly through the door, beaming brightly at us. “Tell your friend to put on his glasses,” Jim says.

I nod to Theodore. “He says you have to put them on.” He unfolds them and puts them on. I can see bright images spring to life and begin roving over the lenses. In particular, I can see a miniature version of Jim’s hologram.

Theodore’s jaw drops slightly. “Hello?” he tries.

“Sit, sit,” Jim says, gesturing to the table.

We all sit around the table, and Jim leans forward, his hands clasped and virtual elbows propped on the table.

“Let’s start with the obvious. The charges against you are fairly serious, but because neither of you were carrying any weapons, and your car does not appear to have been reported stolen, we shouldn’t have any trouble getting the charges dismissed. But before that happens, we need to get you two out on bail. It’s been set at one thousand coin. Since you both seem to have left your pass cards at home, do either of you know someone who can pay that?”

“Bail has been set already?”

Jim looks confused. “Yes...”

“But we’ve only been here for a couple of hours.”

“Right. Well, I guess things are slower in the Blocks. Speaking of which, maybe you’d like to start explaining what it is you needed privacy to discuss? Now would be a good time to confess if you really did fob that car. It’s better for you if I don’t get surprised by that kind of thing.”

“Fob?” Theodore asks.

“Yeah, hack, steal. You know...” He appears to notice Theodore’s blank expression. “You don’t know,” he decides. “It doesn’t matter.” Jim looks to me. “Well? What’s your story?”

“It’s a long one.”

Jim’s lips quirk wryly. “Those are the best kind.” A holographic sandwich passes into view and he takes a big bite. Maybe I am looking at a live recording? I suck in a deep breath and start with who we are and where we’re from.

Jim’s breezy attitude turns leery and he leans away, as if he suspects we might be insane.

“You can verify the facts on the net,” I say. “Look up Byron Gaines, and you’ll see that he and I share the same face.”

Jim is silent, but I can see his eyes suddenly widen as he studies imagery on his glasses. Then his eyes are moving left to right and back, over and over as he reads.

“So the Devereuxes weren’t the first.”

“You know them?” I ask.

“I know of them. Everyone does.”

I nod.

Jim goes on, his eyes slitted with suspicion. “You’re supposed to have died in a plane crash.”

“I faked my death.”

“Why? Why not just disappear?”

“My reasons are my own, but I would like our identities to remain a secret.”

“That’s going to make this harder. You don’t have anyone who knows you in the Blocks to vouch for you, and you don’t have pass cards or passmarks. You’re true undocs, and that means you won’t be getting out of here. You’re going to have to tell the truth.”

“You can’t think of any other way? What if you get us pass cards?”

“Fake ID?” Jim shakes his head. “I’d be committing a crime myself.”

“I could pay you very well for your trouble. And no one needs to find out.”

Jim looks torn. “Give me a number.”

“I don’t know what coins are worth,” I say. “And I haven’t been able to connect to the net or visit a bank yet to find out how much my assets have appreciated, but I do have a considerable amount of wealth stored in gold and platinum. I suspect that has kept its value nicely over the years. One four hundred ounce gold bar was worth three quarters of a million dollars when I left. How about I give you four of them?”

Jim’s eyes widen appreciably, and he begins nodding. “Make it six and you have a deal.”

“Six. But only if you can guarantee our release, and a high-quality pass card for each of us that will allow us to travel anywhere without getting arrested again.”

“I can do that, but it’ll cost a lot of coin. You’re going to have to pay me half up front so that I can get things started.”

“How? We’re in jail. I can pay you after.”

“You could tell me where the gold is.”

“Nice try.”

Jim doesn’t look happy. “You want me to work pro bono?”

“If possible.”

“Then my price just went up. Ten bars.”

“Ten it is.”

“How do I know you’ll pay?”

“Because if we don’t, you can reveal my identity to the world and make this all pointless.”

“And you could reveal that I paid someone to create fake pass cards for you two.”

“Which would implicate me as well as you,” I say. “We’d both end up charged with the same crime.”

“Hmmm.”

“No risk, no reward,” Theodore pointed out.

“Fine. I’ll be in touch.”

“Wait!” I raise a hand to stop him.

“Yes?”

“What happened while we were gone?”

Jim snorts. “I would have been five years old when you left. I’m not even sure I can identify all of what’s changed to be able to explain it to you.”

“Let’s start with why everyone has ID chips implanted in their hands, and why it’s illegal for us to be caught walking around without ID on us.”

“And who the Fundies are,” Theodore adds.

“And the Heavies and the Keepers,” I put in, remembering the surveillance footage from the mansion.

“After New York was destroyed, the passmarks and pass cards were—”

“New York was destroyed?” I interrupt.

“Yeah. In 2047.”

“How?” Theodore asks in a whisper.

“A nuclear device smuggled in on a ship.”

I can feel the blood drain from my face. “Did anyone survive?”

“Plenty of people did. It only really wiped out Manhattan, but anyone who didn’t die in the blast ended up burned or sick with radiation poisoning. Anyway, the passmarks were designed after that to prevent terrorism. We use them to track people all over the world and also as a means of charging credit accounts. Fundamentalist Christians objected to having any kind of mark implanted in their hands, so the government had to provide the cards as an alternative, but that wasn’t good enough. They began isolating themselves from society, creating self-sufficient communities and barter systems for goods and services that didn’t require pass cards. They also began demanding that their whereabouts not be tracked. The protests got so bad that the government had to come up with a solution, so they made the Blocks. Independent communities in and around every city that allowed Fundies to have more freedom within designated zones.”

“And the Heavies and the Keepers?” I ask.

“Heavies are robots. Keepers are the people who own them, although that refers to almost everyone these days. There was a brief revolution in 2050 after the labor laws were changed to allow more Heavies to enter the work force. They replaced 90% of all jobs practically overnight.”

Theodore nods along with that. “A new industrial revolution.”

“Exactly. The universal basic income that was supplied to compensate people for the loss of their jobs wasn’t enough for everyone to maintain their previous quality of life. It made everyone just as rich and just as poor as their neighbors and that put a lot of people out on the street when they couldn’t afford to pay their rent or mortgages anymore. Thousands died in the riots that followed, but reform came quickly after that. The government promised to provide every citizen with a certain number of Heavies which they could send out to work for them in order to maintain their previous quality of life. There’s been a long transitionary period, but the status quo has more or less been restored.”

“So people don’t work anymore?” I ask. “What about you? A bot couldn’t do your job?”

“Not allowed. The justice system is still run by humans. Police and military, too.”

“What other jobs are left?” I ask.

“Creative ones mostly. Artists and entertainers, programmers, scientists, architects, engineers, surgeons... that kind of thing.”

“So they’re not intelligent?”

“I think you’d be surprised. Heavies can do a lot more than we actually let them, but people are scared to lose what little utility we have left. That said, plenty of people are content to just sit back and let their Heavies work for them while they enjoy a life of ease and luxury.”

“I suppose there aren’t any more human butlers,” Theodore says.

Jim shakes his head. “No. Plenty of Heavy ones, though.”

I contemplate the implications of those changes in silence, wondering if this world is now better or worse than the one I left.

“Well, I’d better get working on your pass cards,” Jim says. “You’re going to have to stay in jail until they’re ready, but I’ll try to speed things along as much as I can.”

Jim stands up from the table and nods to each of us. “Give me a call if you want, but be careful how much you discuss where others can hear you.”

I nod slowly. “I understand.”

“Good.”

Jim vanishes into thin air, and I look to Theodore. “What do you think of the future?”

“I think it’s done me out of a job.”

Smiling wryly at that, I pat him on the shoulder. “You can work for me as long as you like, but I can also buy you a few Heavies. Then maybe you can have your own butler for a change.”

“Yes...” Theodore matches my smile. “I might take you up on that.”


Chapter 22

Two Days Later...

—February 9, 2061—

“One more time. For the record,” Detective Allan Bronson says. He has flinty gray eyes, a bony, angular face, and bristly black hair with streaks of gray running through it. It’s the look of someone who’s been around the block a few times. No pun intended.

The secretary sitting beside him clicks on a recording device in the form of a silver pen and aims the glowing red end of it at us.

Both of them are here in person for this confession. We were wise not to give them much of a story before, because it’s about to change drastically now.

I read the name floating above the secretary’s head—Alicia Morales. With augmented reality tech no one needs to introduce themselves anymore.

I take a breath and glance at our lawyer, Jim Hunter. He leans back in his chair and clasps his hands in his lap, waiting for me to tell the story that he gave us. He’s also here in person. Maybe that’s a legal requirement for these types of proceedings. Theodore looks calm and collected sitting on the other side of Jim, but he’s a shade paler than usual and his left hand is shaking with a resting tremor. He grabs it with his right to hold it still.

We’re in a brightly-lit room, four walls and a door, but there’s a two-way mirror, and the black sphere of a security camera hanging from the ceiling above the table where we sit.

“We’re waiting, Mr. Morgan.”

That’s my new name. Richard Morgan. Theodore is Anthony Davis.

“We left Block 12 four days ago, just after midday. From there we drove up to Hot Sulphur Springs Resort and made use of the pools for the day. We accidentally left our pass cards by the pools when we left, and that’s when you picked us up in Denver.”

The detective’s gray eyes pinched into even thinner slits. “Anyone in Hot Sulphur Springs who can corroborate that story?”

I shrug. “Probably.”

“There should be a record of your stay there.”

“We just used the pools, but you can check the charge history to our accounts.”

“Charge histories can be hacked.”

“From prison?” I ask. He doesn’t reply. “I’m guessing you’ve already checked the charge histories.”

Detective Bronson nodded. “Go on.”

“That’s it.”

“What about the gold bars in your car? Or the fact that it’s unregistered and the plates are missing.”

Traveling to the future leaves more loose ends than you’d think. I guess I should have left the mansion on foot.

“The plates were expired. We were planning to register it the day we were picked up.”

“I think you stole it,” the detective says.

“But you just said it’s unregistered. Doesn’t that mean it has no owner?”

“None that we can trace,” the detective says.

I shrug. “We shouldn’t have used it. It belonged to my grandfather.”

“And he was...”

“Alexander Morgan.”

“Yes... we’ll have to check on that. And what about the gold bars we found inside of the vehicle?”

“It’s a crime to have valuables in your car? They also belonged to my grandfather. We were going to sell them.”

“They’re worth over four million coin.”

“Then it’s a crime to be rich?” I demand.

“That depends how you became rich. At least it should be easy for you to pay the fines and make bail.”

“So this is still going to trial?” I ask, my eyes widening in shock.

“Yes, unless you want to tell me the truth.”

“I just did.”

“And yet your vocal patterns are registering a 52% probability of deception.”

Jim butts in at that point, “Which means that there’s a 48% chance that he’s already told you the truth. Flip a coin and you’ll have a better chance of figuring it out.”

The detective’s brow lifts and his mouth curves in a sarcastic smile, but he says nothing to that.

Jim leans forward. “You and I both know that my clients are facing minor charges, and neither of them has a previous record. The judge will dismiss the case, and they’ll pay the fine.”

“Perhaps.” The detective’s eyes slide to mine. “But I’ll be checking out your story in the meantime.”

“In the meantime they’ll be out on bail,” Jim says. “It’s already been paid. We didn’t even have to speak with you, but I thought it would be the right thing to do, to set the story straight. That way you can avoid wasting your time on this and get back to chasing real criminals.”

Detective Allan snorts at that. “How charitable of you Mr. Hunter.” He holds my gaze as he says that.

Our lawyer is already standing up from the table. The secretary ends the recording and the detective sees us out. We’re taken back to our cell, and Jim says he’ll see us on the other side.

A few hours later we’re crunching across the ice-crusted pavement from the transfer exit, walking toward a sleek black Tesla limousine parked on the curb. The rear doors slide open in opposing directions, revealing two bench seats facing each other. Jim Hunter is sitting on the front-facing one, waving his hand to swipe through holograms on his glasses. Theodore and I shimmy down the bench seat opposite his, and the doors slide shut behind us. The car whirrs off down the street, joining a light stream of traffic. The glowing holograms on Jim’s glasses minimize, and his eyes focus on mine. He folds his hands in his lap. “You have your pass cards this time?”

I pat my coat pocket, feeling the rectangular card there. It’s no larger than a credit card, but it stores reams of data about me, most of which is fake.

“Good,” Jim says. “Now we can talk about my fee.”

*     *     *

I’m appalled by the state of my family’s home as I pick through the rubble. The crystal chandelier from the entrance hall is a shattered heap on the floor. All of the furniture is gone: the grand piano, couches, chairs, tables, lamps... only shattered scraps remain. Bits of cloth, splinters of wood with bent nails and screws sticking out. I have to watch my step, because the floors are sagging in places. In other places they’re still solid, but black with dirt and rot. Snow has piled inside wherever the windows and doors are broken. It’s there that the floor is at its weakest, rotted all the way through from decades of spring thaws.

Despite the fact that it’s below freezing in here, the smell is awful. I suspect the unwashed hordes of vagrants have used more than one corner as a latrine. There are suspicious piles in places, too, frozen, but still identifiable as human waste.

Theodore and I make our way to the old study. The chairs by the window are missing, nothing left but a few suspicious scraps of wood with stuffing clinging to them. A wood stove sits where my father’s desk used to be, the flue sticking out a broken window pane. Inside the stove I can see piles of ash. I poke through it with a stick. Nails and screws jingle through the charred remains. The furniture was used for firewood. The old books are all missing from my father’s double-story bookcase. Probably used as kindling. The ladder was chopped into firewood. The desk, too. Even the standing brass lamp is gone. Maybe someone fashioned a club from it. There’s nothing identifiable left in here except for the wire frame that once formed a lampshade.

“It’s all gone,” I say, turning in a slow circle to take in the room.

“I’m sorry, sir.” But there’s a detectable hint of reproach in his voice that makes me wonder if he blames me for this. We traveled to the future at my insistence, so in a way it is my fault.

“How old would I be now if we had stayed?” I wonder aloud. I was forty-one when we left. My mind blanks

“You would be two years my senior, sir.”

“Seventy-one,” I say, nodding. “And you would be long dead.”

“Yes,” he says.

I wait for him to say something else, but his lips clamp into a firm line and we stare at each other across the ruins of my family home. A wind whistles in through the broken windows and makes me shiver.

“You could rebuild, sir. I assume your investments will have appreciated handsomely while you’ve been gone.”

“Hopefully,” I say.

I still have to check on the state of my fortune. Several of the wealth fund management companies that I left in change of my trusts were based in Manhattan, and that’s apparently a radioactive wasteland now.

At least I still have the gold and platinum down in the bunker. I’m a few bars short after paying Jim Hunter eight out of the ten bars that I promised—he’ll get the last two after our charges are dismissed. There’s also the gold sitting in Denver County’s impound lot with my car, but I should be able to recover that.

“Rebuilding is a given,” I say. “But we’ll do it somewhere else. These ruins should help to cover our tracks. And we’re going to have to get with the times. AR Glasses to replace our phones, passmarks instead of these stigmatized pass cards...” I pull the forged ID out of my jacket and study it. It has a picture of me on it and my new name below that: Richard Morgan. There’s a fake birth date to go along with the fake name, but it makes me a year older than I actually am. The holographic seal at the top says Colorado Pass Card NWU.

Turning the card over, I see a bar code and a magnetic strip on the back. It may as well be an old driver’s license from my time, and there’s no sign of the pyramid or the Eye of Providence that I’ve seen on everyone’s implanted passmarks. Something tells me that Fundies don’t want to use anything that looks even remotely similar, but getting tackled and arrested every time you forget your pass card at home hardly seems like the better option.

“We’ll need to buy a few Heavies as well, sir,” Theodore says, pulling me out of my thoughts. “If we want to blend in, that is.”

“A few?” I shake my head. “I’m going to buy a whole army of them.”


Chapter 23

One Day Later...

—February 10, 2061—

I’m in San Francisco, at the headquarters for Heavy Robotics—I guess that explains the bots’ nicknames. I’ve just come from Wells Fargo where I managed to reclaim almost half of my fortune. It turns out that Wells Fargo bought up several of the other companies that were managing my assets after the bomb went off in Manhattan. New York’s financial data was all backed up to the cloud, so we didn’t lose anything other than physical assets and the last day of trading—oh, and the six million people that died in the attack. I’m pleased to note that my fortune has more than doubled in value in the time that I’ve been gone, but inflation cut that value in half, putting me back down to the same level I was at when I left. Still a lofty perch, though.

“I’d like to buy some Heavies,” I say, nodding to the sales agent in the showroom as I walk through the orderly rows of bots with Theodore. The robots are all standing perfectly still and erect, arranged neatly in columns and rows. There are hundreds of them in here, each one slightly different from the last.

The show room is enormous. There must be at least fifty other people browsing with us, each individual or group guided by their own sales agent.

“What are your needs?” our sales lady asks. I read the name floating above her head on my glasses. Marai Kersan. She’s unusually pretty. Bright blue eyes stare at me. Her prominent cheek bones and jawline make for a refined, aristocratic face. Ruby red lips and long dark hair catch my eyes and make them linger even as I try to look away.

“I need construction bots,” I say.

I walk past a Heavy with padded white surfaces and a matching humanoid face that’s smiling as it croons over a lifelike human baby in its arms. The next one is the complete opposite, all hard edges with a skinny metal neck and ball-shaped black head that can probably see in all directions at once. Up ahead I can see the remote-controlled models, like the police bots Theodore and I met soon after arriving in this time.

“Are your needs general purpose?”

“What other kinds are there?”

“Marine construction, subterranean, and high rise.”

“General purpose and subterranean,” I say. “I’ll need engineers and architects, too.”

“Perfect. How many units were you thinking of purchasing?”

“About a thousand,” I say.

Theodore glances at me with eyebrows raised. “That many?”

“A thousand...” Marai trails off, and I stop walking to look at her.

“Will that be a problem?”

She cocks her head at me. “That depends. A thousand base model construction Heavies will cost about fifty million coin. Can you afford it?”

“Not a problem.” I raise my right hand vaguely to indicate the glowing triangle of my passmark. The skin above it is still red, a thin scab forming where the paper-thin, penny-sized chip was inserted. The Eye of Providence catches mine from the center of a pyramid. It’s an ironic choice of symbolism, considering that passmarks are used to track people’s every move. For a moment I’m distracted, studying the chip. Each of the three sides of the triangle has a glowing II next to it. Passmark version II.

“I see.”

“But I’ll need more than just builders. I need bodyguards, domestic models, and remote-controlled units as well. And I was actually hoping you might have some of the more lifelike ones for sale...” I trail off, looking around the showroom and shaking my head. “But I don’t see any of them here.”

“You mean Skins?” A knowing smile curves Marai’s lips.

“Yes. I’ve read about them on the net. They’re supposed to be indistinguishable from humans. Is that true?”

“You tell me.” Marai spins in a slow circle and spreads her arms like a ballerina doing a pirouette.

“You are a...”

“Top of the line Skin. Would you like to see my base model? You can customize them any way you like of course, depending on your preferences.”

I read about that, too. It seems that sex workers were put out of work by Heavies, too. It’s even possible to marry them, but I’m inquiring about Skins for a completely different reason than Marai thinks.

“What about remote-controlled Skins?”

“Oh yes, you can add an avatar package to any model you like.”

“And what are the legalities of that? Can I remain anonymous?”

Theodore looks at me with narrowed eyes. He knows what I’m thinking.

“Well, no... no more so than you can remain anonymous in your own skin,” Marai says. “You can hide any personal data that you wish from civilian scans, but people will know that you’re hiding it, and security and police scanners will still be able to see right through those privacy filters. The contents of your passmark or card will be copied to your unit for the duration of your remote session, and of course, your name tag will clearly mark you as an avatar.”

“So anyone I meet will know that I’m using a Skin?”

“Yes, I’m afraid so.”

I’m willing to bet that there’s an illegal way to cheat that system. “But I couldn’t tell that you’re a Skin,” I say.

“That’s because I’m not being remote-piloted by anyone, but if you read my dossier, you’ll find out that it says what I am. Some people also set their glasses to identify Skins by their name tags. I’m told that’s a common practice these days.”

“A discriminatory one,” I say.

“It is, but humans still value contact with their own kind, and many of them prefer it over the artificial alternatives.”

I assume she’s being literal when she says contact. Whatever the case, I’ve heard enough. I’ll figure out how to cheat the system later. “Show me your Skin models.”

“Of course. Right this way.” Marai gestures to a pair of double doors at the far end of the showroom and leads us to them with long strides, her heels clunking on the brushed steel floors. I watch her go, deliberately checking her out. Very lifelike indeed.

The doors open before we reach them, and we step through into an equally vast chamber, brightly-lit, but with no windows. It’s little wonder why.

All of these models are naked, and they are more lifelike than even I had imagined. I stop and gawk in the entrance for a moment. Theodore doesn’t seem to know where to put his eyes. His cheeks flush and he looks away. “Perhaps I should wait for you in the previous showroom.”

“Sure.”

He leaves us and the doors slam shut behind him. There are plenty of people strolling through this showroom, too, and I’m shocked to see couples walking arm-in-arm through this nude exhibit. Changing the settings on my glasses reveals the reason for that. These couples are almost all mismatched. Men and women with robot partners. And they’re here together shopping for the latest model for their respective harems.

Marai is looking at me curiously, but there’s no judgment in her eyes. “What’s your type?” she asks me.

“My type?” I ask, working some moisture into my mouth.

“Gender would be a good place to start.”

“It’s an avatar,” I say, feeling the need to distinguish myself from the other customers in here. “For me. So obviously male.”

“That’s not actually obvious. You’d be surprised how many men come in here looking for female models to use as avatars.”

I scowl at her.

“I apologize. I meant no offense,” Marai says quickly.

I blow out a breath and shake my head. “No, it’s okay. Let’s see what you’ve got.”


Chapter 24

One Week Later...

—February 18, 2061—

“You’re sure about this, sir?” Theodore asks me from the back of my newly purchased Tesla air car. I bought two of them—one long-ranged, another short-ranged, which I’m using now. Apparently vehicle ownership is still a thing, but only for rich Keepers like me. “You could end up back in prison for modifying a robot like this.”

I smile wryly at Theodore as the car hovers down to the dirty alley below. “Only if I get caught.” Peering out the tinted windows, I get my first look at the infamous Blocks where Fundies live. The streets are covered in garbage, and there are homeless people warming their hands over oil drum garbage fires. The buildings here are covered in graffiti and look abandoned. I wonder why these people would choose to live here. Why not just get a passmark and go live on the utopian side of the wall?

“So these are the Blocks,” Theodore mutters.

“Of San Francisco,” I add. I’ve learned that there are places just like this one in every major city throughout the developed world. It looks like the kind of place where you wouldn’t want to walk around without some serious muscle to watch your back. For whatever reason, my ID Crafter lives here—probably because everyone outside the Blocks is tracked and watched 24/7. My lawyer, Jim Hunter, gave me this address. The crafter who lives here is the same one he used to get the fake pass cards for Theodore and me to get us out of jail.

I find myself wondering how and why these people are living on the streets if everyone in the NWU was given a free robot slave for life to go out and make money for them. On top of that, there’s even a universal basic income.

These people probably sold their Heavies for a fix and use their UBI deposits for the same. I guess they prefer to pay for drugs than housing. Maybe things haven’t changed as much as it seems.

Looking away from the windows, I take a moment to study the Skin I bought from Heavy Robotics. I haven’t named him yet, so he still goes by his default model name: Victor. The irony of that name isn’t lost on me.

Victor is a big man who looks to be about forty, with medium-long blond hair (actual human hair) swept back from his forehead. He has a broad face and jaw, and kind green eyes that scrunch up when he smiles. He’s got some weight on him, no six pack abs, or otherwise exaggerated good looks to give him away.

“Ready, Victor?”

“Whenever you are, Mr. Morgan.”

It takes me a second to remember that’s my name now. Richard Morgan. And I’m just about to add another layer to my fake identity to confuse things further.

I open the car doors with a thought via my glasses, and the doors on the left slide away to either side, letting in a powerful stench of garbage and human waste. The air car’s rotors are still winding down with a high-pitched whistling.

“Keep an eye on him, Victor,” Theodore says as we slide off the bench seats and into the alley. Theodore’s eyes are darting around nervously.

“Do not worry,” Victor says. “Nothing will happen to Mr. Morgan while he is in my care.”

A few dirty, rag-covered people peer at us from the sidewalk with an edgy, feverish gleam in their eyes, as if to contradict what my Skin just said.

Victor stares back at them. “Do not approach,” he says in an authoritative voice.

I meet Theodore’s gaze with a nod. “You may as well fly back to Fresno. Send the car back for us after you arrive.”

“Are you certain of that, sir?”

“Yes. Someone needs to oversee construction of the new estate.”

“Very well...”

I shut the doors, and Victor and I cross the street to a heavy metal door, painted rust red and set into the base of a windowless concrete building. There’s a spherical black camera hanging nearby from an old, rusty fire escape about twelve feet up from the sidewalk.

I step up to the door and bang on it with a fist. “It’s Mr. Morgan,” I say. “We spoke via holo-call earlier.”

A homeless man lets out an unintelligible shriek and charges us with a rusty shopping cart. There’s a wild look in his eyes, and he’s babbling to himself as he rushes toward us. “Demon!” he screams as he draws near.

Victor sets his feet in a wide stance and grabs the cart before it can hit him, deflecting its momentum and catching the bedraggled vagrant in the throat with an outstretched arm. The man stumbles away, eyes bulging, choking and frothing at the mouth.

A buzzer sounds from inside the building, and the metal door pops open. I yank it open and hurry through into a narrow, high-ceilinged corridor. But there’s a matching door waiting for us on the other side. Just as I notice that, the outer door slams shut behind us, powered by a pneumatic arm.

A distorted male voice echoes down from the ceiling. “How do I know you’re not cops?”

“This is a potentially dangerous situation,” Victor warns in a quiet voice. “We’re trapped in here. We should alert the authorities.”

“Do that, and you’ll both be dead before they arrive. I’ll let the Leeches in so they can have at you.”

Just then the homeless hordes begin hammering mindlessly on the outer door, emphasizing that point.

“Look me up,” I say. “My real name is Byron Gaines, and I’m supposed to have died more than thirty years ago.”

“One moment.”

I stand listening to the homeless hordes battering on the door. I should have sent Victor in here alone, or remote-controlled him from the safety of my air car. The Crafter insisted I come in person, but there could be ulterior reasons for that.

“Your story checks out,” the voice says. “But it doesn’t explain how you haven’t aged in all that time.”

“It does if you consider that I’m the real inventor behind Future Travels.”

More silence. “Yes... it says here in your old police report that you mentioned something about your time-compression technology being stolen. You used that as a defense to suggest you were being framed for murder. You’re an interesting character, Mr. Gaines.”

The inner door buzzes and pops open. I grab it and swing it wide to reveal a long, narrow metal staircase that looks like it was built between the adjacent walls of two separate buildings. I look up and see a patchwork of corrugated metal roofing with flickering lights strung along it. This used to be an alley.

“Are you coming in, or not?” the voice asks.

“We are.”

“Seventh door on the left.”

I start up the stairs, but Victor grabs my shoulder and holds me back. “I should go first,” he says.

I nod, and gesture for him to lead the way. Soon we’re at the top of the stairs, walking down a floor of metal grating that I can see through to the rubble and garbage-strewn remains of the old alley below. Doors line both sides of the corridor, but I can tell that they used to be windows. They’ve been replaced with miniature versions of the steel door outside.

Victor stops in front of the seventh door on the left, and I knock on it. This door buzzes and pops open, but there’s no voice to give us instructions this time.

“I don’t like this,” Victor says.

“You go in first,” I tell him.

“I have no reason to harm you,” the voice from before says.

I glance up, searching for the source of the sound, but can’t see any speakers or cameras.

Victor opens the door and ducks through. “One person inside,” he says a moment later. “It’s a Skin, like me.”

“You expected me to show up for this in person? I’m not stupid,” the voice says laughingly. “Come on in.”

I wonder if that’s a not-so-subtle jab at me. I duck through the old window and stand in a bare room that’s been stripped down to the concrete floors and walls. More lights have been strung up in here, the bare bulbs glaring. A beautiful woman with purple hair and faintly glowing violet eyes stands facing us. She spreads her hands to indicate the sparsely furnished space. “Welcome to my humble abode. What is it you need, Mr. Morgan? Is there something wrong with the pass card I crafted for you? I see you’ve already traded it for a passmark.” The woman gestures to the faintly glowing chip embedded under the skin on the back of my right hand.

We didn’t discuss my reason for coming here in our holo-call, because apparently the government tracks everything people write or say over the net. Before my lawyer, Jim Hunter, gave me this reference to the crafter he used for me and Theodore, he warned me about that. He also explained that attorneys are among the only civilians who can escape such scrutiny, and only when they’re meeting with clients.

“I’m here to craft a fake ID for my Skin. Like the one you made for me,” I say.

“You want to make your Skin into an Anon.”

“A what?”

“Short for Anonymous. Like me.” The crafter gestures to their Skin, the woman with the purple hair and glowing violet eyes.

“What’s your name?” I ask, even as I use my glasses to scan for it. Her name tag is blank, nothing but an ID code in it’s place.

“You can call me Violet. Let’s get to work, shall we?”

Violet leads us to a cluttered desk. There are several motionless Skins propped against the wall, lying in various states of disrepair with hidden panels open and wiring exposed. Violet makes my Skin stand in front of her and then strip naked. Then she opens a compartment in his inner thigh. It swings open to reveal multiple physical switches.

Victor grabs Violet’s hands before she can touch any of them. “Mr. Morgan, I won’t be able to protect you if she turns me off,” Victor says.

“And I won’t be able to give him a fake ID if he stays on,” Violet says, shrugging. “Up to you.”

“It’s okay, Victor.” He releases Violet’s wrists, and she promptly flicks off the switches in his thigh. Victor’s body freezes, and his eyes stop moving.

“Now, we can discuss my fee,” Violet says. “Forty million coin.”

“Forty million!”

“You were a billionaire and apparently also a genius, which means your fortune only grew in the time that you were gone. Forty million is nothing to you.” Violet’s eyes dip to the glowing passmark on my wrist.

“Fine,” I say. “But you only get twenty now. Twenty more after I’ve verified that the ID works.”

“Where’s my guarantee of payment?”

“You know my real identity, and you’ll know both of my fake ones. All you have to do is turn me in to the authorities or threaten to do so.”

A wry smile curves Violet’s lips. “Are you giving me permission to blackmail you?”

“Only if I try to cheat you. Try to cheat me, and we’ll see how long you can remain anonymous after I put my fortune to work chasing you.”

“Relax. My business is built on references and I have clients far more dangerous than you. I know which lines not to cross.”

“Good.”

“Your Anon will pass any scanner, civilian or security, but you can’t take it through a body scanner or a retinal scanner without revealing that it isn’t really human. That means you don’t get arrested, and you don’t try to fly out of the country.”

I nod. “Wasn’t planning on it.”

“No one ever does, but they still do it. Oh, and don’t think about dragging me into whatever trouble you get into in order to lessen your sentence. I’ll be long gone, and this is a burner skin, so a description won’t turn up anything.”

“Fine.”

“We can’t use him.” She nods to Victor.

“Why not?”

“You want an Anon that anyone can see through or the best that money can buy?”

“The best obviously.”

Violet turns to a metal door in the living area. It pops ajar as she looks at it, and then she walks over to open it the rest of the way. A light flickers on and reveals a naked male Skin standing in a dusty, windowless room.

“This is Gavin Anchors,” she says.  “He will bleed and cry if he gets hurt. He can eat, sneeze, cough, and even relieve himself... among many other seemingly human functions.”

“So can mine,” I say. Victor is Heavy Robotics’ top of the line model and it provides all of the same social and biological functions that Violet just mentioned.

“But can yours come back from the dead?” Violet asks me.

I shake my head at that, not following.

“The best way to craft an Anon is to use a Skin that is an exact replica of someone who died, or better yet, disappeared. The real Gavin Anchors sold his life to me in exchange for a new one with more money and a warmer zip code.”

“That’s what I’m paying for? A stolen life? What if the real Gavin finds out who I am and threatens to reveal me?”

Violet shakes her head. “For one thing, he won’t know who bought his life, only that someone did, but in order to reveal that, he’ll have to incriminate himself, too. It’s just as illegal to sell your identity as it is to buy one. Besides, my sources know what I’ll do to them if any of them try to cross me.”

I nod slowly. I’m beginning to question the wisdom of this, but there really isn’t any other way to get close to Grant and Alison without them realizing who I am. My gaze flicks up and down Gavin’s lookalike Skin, studying it. He’s in good shape, tall, muscular, and good-looking, but not suspiciously so. He has short brown hair, hazel eyes, and a tanned white skin that suggests he has plenty of outdoor hobbies. His jaw is stubbled, and he has more than his share of freckles, lines and wrinkles, and some old scars on his knees that he probably got when he was a kid. Even his body hair has been copied.

Violet spends the next two hours getting my Anon ready and dressed while I use my glasses to study up on Gavin’s life. His details all match up with real human ones. His date of birth makes him forty-one. Both of his parents are dead, and he has no siblings. He was never married and has no kids. That should make things easier. I check out his social media pages, and see them populated with hundreds of friends and followers. There are pictures of him at parties, restaurants, theme parks, and beaches... even a few of him on vacation with his parents back when they were still alive.

It takes me a while to skim through all of his social media accounts. Some of them I recognize from my time, but others, like Lifestory, are new. Lifestory is a live daily recording of everything that’s seen and heard from your glasses. Other people can tune in to watch it on theirs. Live a life that’s interesting enough and you’ll get lots of followers and make money from the ads. I spend a few minutes skipping through footage from Gavin’s life. There’s tens of thousands of hours recorded, starting all the way from his thirteenth birthday when he apparently got his first pair of AR glasses. I check the latest footage and see him eating at a restaurant overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Hey, how are we going to do this?” I ask.

“Do what?”

“He’s here, in San Francisco. Won’t the authorities notice two GPS signals from two identical passmarks?”

“No, because when we meet up to make the switch, we’ll deactivate his and activate your Anon’s passmark.”

“But then he’ll be an undoc.”

“He’s getting out of the NWU. He has a new life waiting for him in Thailand. They don’t use tracking IDs there.”

“I see. So where do we meet afterward?”

“You don’t.” Violet leaves the closet where my Anon stands, now dressed in white shorts, brown sandals, and a loose white cotton shirt. She shuts the door behind her and walks over to me with a tiny silver data wafer. “Plug this into your glasses at midnight,” she says. “It has the remote access codes you’ll need to take control of your Anon over the net. If he’s not powered on, it means something went wrong with the switch. But if he is, we’re all good, and you transfer the other twenty million to my account within twenty-four hours. Understood?”

I stare at the tiny silver rectangle in my hand. “What about bank accounts, passwords, social media...”

“All on there,” Violet says. She goes back to her desk and grabs a big box from under it. She hands it to me. It weighs about ten pounds.

“What is this?”

“Your control helmet. To simulate sensations and convert your thoughts into actions for the Anon. This helmet comes preloaded with the best VPN that money can buy, but you’ll have to pay for it yourself after the trial is up.”

I open the box and look inside to see a glossy black helmet that looks the same as the one Victor came with.

“Speaking of money,” Violet says, “be careful how you put money into Gavin’s bank accounts, and how much. He’s not rich, so if you want him to be, you’re going to have to make that happen in a believable way. And make sure you pay his taxes, too. Money is the easiest way to connect a person to their Anon—besides the obvious no-no’s, like letting him run around on his own with his AI brain in control, or getting your remote signal traced because you forgot to use a VPN. That’s why a modified helmet is a good idea.”

“Won’t someone be able to tell that I’m remote-piloting a Skin?”

“Not with a good VPN. It’s just data. We’re transmitting and receiving streams of it all the time thanks to AR glasses. Make sure your Anon is always wearing a pair and no one will be the wiser.”

I nod along with that as Violet walks over to the Skin I brought. His pants are still around his ankles. She gets down on her haunches and is about to flick the switches in his thigh to turn him back on when she turns to me.

“When I boot him up, tell him you changed your mind about getting an Anon.”

“Why?”

“Because the fewer people and Heavies who know the secret of your new identity the better. If I were you, I wouldn’t even whisper Gavin’s name to myself in the mirror.”

“I understand.”

“Good.” Violet powers Victor back on and shuts the compartment in his inner thigh.

Victor blinks his eyes a few times slowly. “You can get dressed now,” Violet says to him.

He looks to me as he pulls up his pants and re-buttons his shirt. “Are you okay, Mr. Morgan?”

“I’m fine. We’re ready to go.”

“I do not feel any different. Was she not successful in making me into an Anon?”

“I’ve changed my mind about that. I didn’t like the terms of the arrangement. For one thing, did you know that getting an Anon is illegal?”

“Yes. So did you, sir.”

“I thought it was just a misdemeanor,” I say.

Violet smiles at me, then scowls for Victor’s benefit when he looks to her. “Get out of here and stop wasting my time,” she says.

And so we do. Violet buzzes us back out onto the street to reveal my air car and Theodore waiting for us, fending off the hordes of homeless with blasts from the car’s rotors.

Victor and I run to the car between blasts.

“You were supposed to leave us here,” I say to Theodore as we climb inside and shut the doors. A wave of people crashes into the side of the car and starts battering on the windows with fists and makeshift clubs. The car takes off almost immediately, blasting them away.

I notice that Theodore is wearing his glasses for a change, using them to control the car.

“What one is supposed to do and what one should do are not always one and the same,” Theodore replies. The images blocking his gaze from mine minimize to glowing icons around the edges of his glasses. “Were you successful?”

“No. I’ve changed my mind.”

“I’m glad to hear that, sir,” there’s an uncertain note in Theodore’s voice, and I can feel him staring at me. He always could tell when I was lying. “What is in the box?” He nods to where it sits on the bench seat beside me.

“A modified helmet for Victor. It has a VPN built-in so I’ll be untraceable while I control him.”

“Ah. I see. But people will still know that he’s a Skin.”

“Yes.”

“And who is controlling him.”

“I don’t have to reveal my name to other people’s glasses if I don’t want to. I can stay anonymous without doing it illegally.”

“Yes, I suppose that’s true,” Theodore says.

I look away from him to peer out the windows, watching as we skim low over the rooftops of rundown buildings, heading for the security wall that divides this slum that is the Blocks from the gleaming skyscrapers in the rest of San Francisco. I remember this city from my time. They always had a problem with homelessness, but oddly enough, I haven’t seen any homeless people outside of the Blocks. They can’t all be here for religious reasons. What is the government of the NWU doing that forces undesirables to congregate here? Is it because the Blocks are the only place that’s still deregulated enough for addicts to get their fix?

Maybe. I nod to myself, thinking I’ve solved the mystery.

We fly over a circle of bedraggled men converging on three huddled figures. One of them is small, just a child, the other even smaller—a dog. I don’t like the look of the mob that surrounds them. They look wildly out of place. For one thing, they’re wearing relatively new clothes.

I use my glasses to tell the car to stop and hover down to the street beside the mob.

Theodore looks alarmed. “Sir, what are you doing?”

As we hover down for a landing, I catch a glimpse of the two people and their dog. It’s a woman and her daughter. The mob surrounding them is armed with chunks of rubble and makeshift clubs. As we land beside them, they’re forced to desist by the violent winds gushing from my air car. I wave the doors open, and nod to Victor. “I’m going to need your help for this.”

“Sir, there must be at least twenty of them,” Theodore says. “They could kill you.”

“He is right. I advise strongly against this, Mr. Morgan.”

“Your objections are noted,” I say. “Theo, use the rotors like you did before to keep those thugs away from the car.”

“Yes, sir...”

“Let’s go, Victor,” I say as I jump out of the car.

“Right behind you Mr. Morgan,” Victor says.

All eyes turn to us and the mob begins to shift in our direction. I get my first real look at these people. Dirty, angry faces. Tattoos everywhere. Most of them are just kids, but a few of the older ones have the same dead-eyed stare that I remember seeing every day when I was in prison. They’re career criminals, empty husks who’ve burned away every last vestige of their consciences.

This is a gang. The leader steps forward, holding a gun and a bat. His beige jacket is patched with dark stains, and I wonder if that’s blood.

“Go back to your penthouse, Keeper! This doesn’t concern you.”

“It does now. Leave them alone. My car is recording everything that happens here.” I tap my glasses. “And so am I. You’re live on my Lifestory. You want problems with the law? You’re just about to get them.”


Chapter 25

Victor steps in front of me. “Stay back, Mr. Morgan.”

But we’re still standing closer to the air car than we are to the gang, so I ignore him and take another step forward. “I’m just going to talk,” I say to Victor as he tries to pull me back. His hands fall away reluctantly. “Well?” I prompt the gang leader. “You haven’t committed any crimes yet. Not that I’ve witnessed. You can still walk away from this.”

The gang leader looks uncertain, and I can almost see the wheels turning behind his dead black eyes. He’s a big man, bald and white, with black swastika neck tats creeping above the collar of his blood-stained jacket. I wonder if he even knows the history behind those symbols, or if he just liked the pretty shapes.

I’m scanning him and the others in his gang with my glasses, but their name tags are all flashing red with the words: Undoc Detected! above their heads. These people don’t even have pass cards on them.

“Give me your glasses and I’ll let you live,” the leader says to me.

“The cops will find you if you rob me.”

He shrugs and grins. “They haven’t yet. They don’t care about the Blocks. The Fishermen are the only law in here, and they won’t stick their necks out for a faithless Keeper like you.”

“Is that why you’re picking on that woman and her daughter? Because they’re Keepers?” I jerk my chin to indicate them. They’re still stranded in the middle of the gang, but at least I’ve stopped whatever these undocs were about to do to them.

“They’re not Keepers. They’re Fundies.”

“Then the Fishermen will come after you,” I say, poking a hole in his logic.

A nasty grin lights Swastika’s lips. “Not if all the witnesses are dead.”

I shake my head, feeling suddenly cold all over. “What do you want from them?”

“You mean besides the robopet?” the leader asks. A few of the others chuckle at that.

“Buddy is mine!” a small voice says.

The mother is staring at me through the ring of criminals surrounding her. “They don’t just want him,” she says.

“Shut up or you’re going to regret it!” the leader snaps, glancing back at her.

“They want our IDs! They’re going to kill us and then sell our identities on the black market!”

The look on the leader’s face becomes murderous, and he turns away from me, his gun swinging out of line with my chest and into line with hers. “I warned you!”

I can tell that we’re out of time, but I don’t know what I can do at this point. “Theodore!” I scream, using the last trick I have up my sleeve.

The blast of wind that hits us from the air car sends everyone flying and tumbling. Everyone except for Victor. They don’t call them Heavies for nothing. He seizes his moment and runs into the fray amidst a continuous, deafening roar of wind. I’m plastered to the asphalt, getting pelted by pebbles and dust, but I watch through squinting eyes as Victor sweeps both the mother and the child off the street and carries them back to me, one draped over each arm. The shaggy brown-furred robodog is yapping on his heels.

“Mr. Morgan!” Victor says, and somehow he manages to lean down and yank me off the street as he reaches me. The girl is clinging to his neck, shielded by his body from the wind of the car’s rotors.

A muffled shout reaches my ears and then a bullet whizzes past us and plinks off the side of my car just as we careen inside, landing in a tangled heap on the floor of the car. The doors slide shut behind us and it takes off immediately.

“Are you okay, sir?” Theodore asks.

“Just fine,” I mumble against the dirty floor of the car. Victor is on top of me, crushing the wind out of me, but he gets up and pulls me up with him a few seconds later. I come face to snout with a brown-furred creature with comically large, floppy ears. “I owe you,” he says, startling me with a deep voice.

“He talks?”

“Yes.” The girl sitting beside him says, and pats him on the head. I doubt she’s more than seven years old.

“I do lots of stuff,” Buddy adds. “If you ever want me to pee on someone’s leg you just say the word.”

“That’s okay...” My brow furrows and I stand up, swaying and almost falling over as the car banks to one side. I fall onto the bench seat beside Theodore and sit studying the two strangers before me.

The woman looks relieved, but still scared. She’s pretty, with long brown hair and brown eyes. From her tanned skin and features I’m guessing she’s probably Latina, and somewhere around thirty years old. I’m surprised to see that I recognize the brand and styling of the trench coat jacket she’s wearing. Coach. Not a lot of fashion brands have survived over the past forty years. I notice this woman’s daughter is also wearing a familiar brand. The black leather backpack she’s balancing in her lap says it’s from Calvin Klein.

“Who are you people?” I ask, shaking my head. My glasses tell me that the woman’s name is Adriana Rivera Vargas and her daughter is Olivia Rivera Vargas.

“We’re Fundies, apparently,” Adriana says.

“That means that they’re a lot of fun,” Buddy adds in a dry voice.

Victor glances at him with a frown.

“What, you never met a dog who could talk?” Buddy says to him. “No, wait, I know. You’re a cat person.”

Victor looks away without a word or a reaction of any kind, but I can feel a smile coming on.

“Where did you find him?” I ask.

“In the garbage,” the woman says. “Someone threw him away, can you believe that?”

“I can,” Victor says.

Buddy’s eyebrows squish together and his eyes narrow as he glares at my Skin. “I was looking for food,” he says.

“You don’t eat,” Victor replies.

“Sure I do.”

“Correction. You don’t need to eat.”

Adriana cracks a smile at their exchange, and I find myself laughing quietly.

“Where are we going?” Adriana asks suddenly, twisting around to look out the front canopy of the car.

“Fresno,” Theodore says. “Why?”

“Because we can’t leave the Blocks!”

I use my glasses to send a command for the car to stop and hover. I can see the wall that encircles these slums just a few hundred meters away. “Why not?”

“I told you, we’re Fundies!”

“So was I until I traded my pass card for this.” I show her the glowing passmark under the skin on the back of my right hand. “But when I was using a pass card that didn’t stop me from staying outside the Blocks.”

“How long were you outside?”

“Not long, I guess. Why?”

“Where are you from?” Adriana asks me, shaking her head incredulously. “Or maybe I should ask when? Are you a traveler, too?”

Theodore grabs my arm and squeezes it before I can say anything else. “Why don’t you tell us what happened to you.”

Adriana blows out a breath and appears to collect herself. “We’re from 2041. We joined a program at the hospital and decided to travel twenty years into the future to wait for a cure to Olivia’s cancer.”

My eyes widen, and a nod along with that.

“When we left, there were no passmarks or cards. It was all normal. But when we returned... they told us we would have to get one or the other, and if we didn’t get the mark, then we’d have to live in the Blocks. We’ve been traveling back and forth constantly ever since, staying in our old home, but after a month our visas expire and we have to go back in. This time I ran out of money and we couldn’t pay rent anymore. We’ve only been on the street for a day and already we almost got killed.” I can see that Adriana’s hands are shaking and her lips are trembling. She shakes her head and tears well up in her eyes.

“Your eyes are sweating,” Buddy says helpfully.

“Shut up,” Victor adds, and this time I glare at the dog, too. His oversized ears flatten, and he lies down between mother and daughter, looking sorry for himself.

“Why not just get passmarks?” I ask.

“You mean the mark of the beast? No thanks.”

“The mark of the...”

“What do you think that is?” She points to my hand, and I look at the glowing sub-dermal chip as if for the first time. I know what she’s talking about, but I can’t say that I’ve ever paid much attention to biblical prophecy.

“If this is the mark of the beast, then where is the beast?” I ask, my eyes skipping back up to her face. “And who? The president?” The NWU’s current president is a woman named Darrel Parker. She’s not particularly pretty, but I wouldn’t call her a beast either.

“I don’t know. Maybe it’s a metaphor for something and not an actual person,” Adriana says.

“Maybe,” I say. “But the world doesn’t seem like it’s about to end. If anything, things are better than ever. No one has to work anymore. Everyone makes a good living. Most people have Heavies cleaning up after them and watching their kids.

“Not in the Blocks.”

“But even Fundies were given Heavies, right?”

“No, just UBI, and it’s not enough to pay for rent and food. There’s a housing shortage, and the Keepers who own the buildings keep upping the rent.”

“What? That’s...”

“Unfair?” Adriana nods.

“Well, what I said stands. You should leave. This isn’t the apocalypse. It’s just a messy transition to utopia.”

“And what if you’re wrong? What if it is all about to end, and I go to Hell because I took the mark?”

“I don’t believe in Hell, so I’m afraid I can’t help you there.”

“Then why do you wear that?” Adriana asks me.

She’s pointing to the faint outline of Carl’s cross. My jacket is open, the cotton shirt underneath thin enough to reveal my necklace. I pull it out for her to see. “It’s just jewelry. From an old friend of mine. He said it would protect me.” I shrug. “I wear it in his memory, I guess.”

“He died?”

I nod. “Saving my life.”

“I’m sorry,” Adriana says. “Look, I’m not saying I’m right. I don’t know. But what if it’s all true?”

“So that’s why people choose to live in the Blocks,” I say. “Because they think if they get passmarks they’ll go to Hell?”

“Not all of them. The undocs live here to avoid going to jail, and the Leeches, too, but also so they can keep being Leeches. For them it’s about drugs, mostly. Either to sell or buy them. There’s also hook—” Adriana breaks off and glances at her daughter before going on. “Women and men of the night. That profession is illegal outside of the Blocks. Only Skins can do that.”

Olivia bristles at her mother’s censorship. “I’m eight, not four. I know what night people do. Buddy told me why those women we saw were wearing skirts even though it’s winter.”

“Exnay,” Buddy says.

Adriana glares at him, and he goes back to looking at the floor.

“What can I do to help you?” I ask.

Adriana looks cautiously hopeful. “You’d do that for us?”

I nod. “If I can.”

“I just need a little money. To stay off the streets.”

“How much?”

“A thousand coin.” Adriana winces as she says it, and she averts her eyes.

“Done,” I say. “You have your pass card?”

Her eyes are wide and she just stares at me for several seconds before snapping out of it and reaching into her jacket. She’s in a hurry, and fumbles the card out of her pocket. Buddy catches it in his teeth before it can hit the floor.

“Here,” he says through clenched teeth. I reach for it and he spits it into my hand along with a puddle of synthetic drool.

“Thanks...” I say as I initiate the funds transfer.

“You’re welcome,” Buddy replies.

“Thank you so much!” Adriana says. She launches herself across the aisle between us and crushes me into a hug. I’m surprised to find that she smells as nice as she looks. I wonder how she managed that after a day of living on the street.

“You’re welcome,” I say slowly as she pulls away.

“Maybe you won’t go to Hell, after all.”

That comment takes me aback and unnerves me slightly. She doesn’t know what I’m going to do to Alison and Grant when I catch up with them. “What makes you say that?” I ask.

“Because you’re not like the other Keepers. They only care about themselves.”

“I’m sure you’ll still find plenty of good people outside the Blocks. In fact, so far it seems like most of the bad ones are hanging out inside of them.”

“Maybe, but the ones outside are marked.”

“And that means they’re going to Hell? Even if they’re good people?”

Adriana’s brow furrows. “Yes.”

I snort and shake my head. “Now you know why I don’t believe in Hell.”


Chapter 26

Three Weeks Later...

—March 15, 2061—

I can hear hammering and circular saws and Heavy footsteps clodding on the roof. There’s a pair of Heavies busy laying down marble slabs on the floor, and another two bolting bullet-proof windows into steel frames.

“I’m going to take a nap in the basement, Theodore. Make sure I’m not disturbed.”

“Of course, sir.”

I turn to Victor and nod to him. “Come with me.”

“Yes, Mr. Morgan.”

Heading through the great room, we arrive at the circular stairwell that runs through all four levels of my new mansion. Taking the stairs down, I use my glasses to open the decorative security door at the bottom. Bolts slide away with ringing thunks, and I pull the door open. I make sure to shut and lock it behind me, and then we walk through the fully finished and furnished basement. Theodore and I are living here while we wait for work on the above-ground portion of the mansion to be completed. The basement living area is open and bright with artificial windows that line the walls. They’re all set to foster the illusion of a sunlit forest. Tree-shaped shadows pool on the wooden floors and wave in a simulated breeze. There’s even an ‘outdoor’ space that simulates an enclosed garden with a heated rock pool and an artificial sky.

I walk through the living area, past the wet bar and the kitchen and down a window-lined hall running to the basement’s three bedrooms. The largest one at the end of the hall is mine.

“Guard the door,” I tell Victor.

“Yes, sir,” he says, turning to face back the way we came as I open the door to my room. He has a gun, but it’s just a stunner. Civilian bots and skins can’t use lethal weapons, but Victor has other advantages—such as the fact that he’s a lot stronger and harder to kill than a real person. Using a top-of-the-line Skin for a bodyguard is a fine waste of the half a million coin he cost me, but I have to justify his existence somehow.

I shut and lock the bedroom door behind me, it’s also a security door. They all are in this place. After what happened to my last mansion, I’m building this one like a true fortress.

My eyes track over the king-sized bed to the walk-in closet and bathroom. There’s an electric fireplace at the foot of the bed that conceals a secret entrance to the bunker beneath the basement. I consider going down there for this, but think better of it. If Theodore comes down here looking for me I still need to be reachable.

Walking to the bed, I bend down and pull out a box underneath it. It’s the box Violet gave me with the control helmet inside. Taking it out, I lie down on my bed, remove my AR glasses and fold them on the nightstand beside me. Then I put on the helmet and the world disappears in a swirl of bright control screens. I double check the VPN, and then make the connection to Gavin.

And suddenly I’m flying over the Sierra Nevada mountains in my Anon’s private air car. My skin comes alive with a brief tingling that feels like ants crawling all over me. I flex my hands on the leather armrests of my chair, and then suck in a deep breath and let it out again slowly.

Satisfied that everything is working the way it should, I get up and pour myself a glass of rum from the wet bar in the car before walking back to my seat and taking a sip. I can actually taste it, just as I can hear the roar of the engines and feel their vibrations coursing through the floor and chair. The air freshener inside the car is fresh and citrusy. I can even feel my feet swelling up inside my shoes from sitting for too long on this flight down from San Francisco.

This is all too realistic, and more than a little unnerving, even though I’ve had to use Gavin plenty over the past few weeks in order to get his fortune set up. Once he got his money, I used some of it to buy a home for him, along with a fleet of private vehicles. He lives in the Bay Area of San Francisco. I figure that makes sense, since it’s where the real Gavin grew up.

A subtitle appears at the bottom of my Anon’s AR glasses.

You just heard a loud noise.

I switch back to my real senses, and come gradually back to myself, blinking my eyes open inside the helmet. I sit up and pull the helmet off. Grabbing my glasses from the nightstand, I put them on and call my bodyguard. “Victor. What was that sound?”

“It sounded like a Heavy dropping something right above us. Do you want me to find out for you?”

“No, just tell them to keep it down. I’m trying to get some sleep.”

“Yes, sir.”

I’m back inside the air car a few seconds later, watching as the rugged snow-capped Sierra mountains fall away beneath me. A shimmering green lake appears below. Mono Lake. The landscape around it is barren and colorless, all desert browns and beiges. I can see the city of Mono glittering with whites and grays in the distance. Nearer by, along the east shore of the lake, is a vast complex. The roofs of all the buildings are gleaming in the sun and lined with solar collecting tiles.

This is Future Travels’ primary launch center in the Northwestern Union. Alison and Grant likely chose it because of the dry climate and high number of sunny days for solar energy. It’s also far from rising sea levels and other possible natural disasters. Plus, it’s in the middle of nowhere, so it will be insulated from any looming human problems. It’s the perfect location to reassure clients that this facility will stand the test of time.

More important to me, however, is the fact that this facility is run by the only Devereaux that I’ve been able to locate so far: Alison and Grant’s daughter, Claire. And she’s agreed to meet me (Gavin) here personally as a prospective client of Future Travels.

I look out the window and watch as the air car lands vertically beside the Future Travels launch center. The car’s engines kick up swirling clouds of sand before powering down.

Moments later, I’m strolling across the landing pad to the entrance of the facility. There’s a familiar woman standing outside the doors waiting for me. We’ve already met via holo-calls, but even so I’m shocked to see her in person. She’s the spitting image of her mother. She’s also about the same age that Alison was when we first met.

“Mr. Anchors,” Claire says, holding out a hand to shake as I stop in front of her.

I hesitate a moment too long, an inexplicable rage boiling inside of me.

Claire’s expression flickers and her hand begins falling back to her side. “Is everything all right?” She glances behind her, to the pair of security bots flanking the entrance of the welcome center. Their postures shift subtly, and I see their arms twitch as weapon barrels slide out of hidden compartments.

I force a smile onto my face and reach for Claire’s hand before I can make her any more suspicious than I already have. “It’s a pleasure to finally meet you in the flesh.”

An uncertain smile curves her pink lips, and I’m fighting back waves of deja vu: those blue eyes, that hourglass figure, the perfect skin and hair... She was born to be a model, just like her mother, but Claire has found alternate employment in the family business instead. My business. Just one more thing that her parents stole from me.

“Should we go inside and discuss your travel plans in more detail?” Claire asks.

“That would be great,” I say. “Thank you for agreeing to meet with me.”

Her smile becomes more genuine as we stride through the reinforced metal doors of the facility. “Well, it’s not everyday that we get a client who’d like to travel three centuries into the future,” she says.

The welcome center is designed like a bunker. All concrete and steel. I guess that must inspire additional confidence in prospective clients.

I stop to look up at a realistic sculpture of Alison and Grant standing around a golden hourglass in the lobby. The sands of time are busy running through the hourglass, and the inscription at the base of the sculpture reads:

Time is the longest distance between two places.

―Tennessee Williams

Followed by:

Future Travels, Inc.

Traveling far, far away since 2036.

“My parents,” Claire says, nodding to the statue. “They’re the real brains behind it all.”

I turn to her with a tight smile. “So I’ve heard.” A procession of heavy footsteps draws my eye to a group of Heavies walking around the statue toward the entrance of the facility. There’s a human at the head of the group, though with Skins that look just like people, it’s hard to say. I find myself staring at him because of his striking appearance. He’s good looking, tall, but that’s not what catches my attention. I can’t put my finger on it until he glances my way. Our eyes meet, and a slight smile creases his lips. His stride slows, and then he angles toward us, and his eyes slide away from mine.

“Mr. Kane,” Claire says. “You’re awake. I trust that everything was to your satisfaction?” Half a dozen Heavies stop behind him in unison, their faces blank black screens like the police models I’ve seen, but without any sign of who might be piloting them. I also notice the weapon barrels flanking each of their arms. Who is this man that he needs an armed guard wherever he goes?

“Yes, everything was just fine, thank you,” he says. His voice is deep and commanding like an old movie narrator’s. He has bright blue eyes, shadowed by a heavy brow and framed by a face that looks like it could have been chiseled from stone. Maybe he is a Skin.

“Who is this?” he asks.

“This is Gavin Anchors. He’s looking to travel three centuries with us.”

“That long?” Kane asks.

I check his name tag with my Anon’s glasses. His first name is Adam. His head tilts curiously.

“May I ask why?” he says.

I clear my throat and shuffle my feet, feeling suddenly nervous. For some reason I’m certain that this man can see straight through my disguise. “Because the future just keeps getting better,” I say, going for aplomb, but somehow it comes out sounding like a question.

“Does it?” Adam asks.

“I think so?” Am I asking him? What the hell is wrong with me? I try to draw myself up and exude the same kind of confidence that’s pouring off of Adam.

“You’re going to miss all the best parts,” Adam says.

Claire steps between us. “He’s going to take it fifty years at a time, so he can stop traveling any time he likes.”

“Oh? I prefer to take things one year at a time.”

“You’re a traveler?” I ask.

“Mr. Kane is one of our best customers. He travels a year forward every year.”

“Really?” That catches my interest. It sounds like he’s looking for something. Or someone. Like me. “How many years have you traveled so far?”

“Thirty,” Adam says. “I stay just long enough to catch up with events and update my knowledge, then I go back in. It’s an amazing way to live your life. You get to see so much more than you otherwise would. In fact, I’ll probably still be around in three centuries when you finish traveling.”

I nod along with that. “It will be nice to see a friendly face,” I say, even though I definitely don’t want to bump into Adam again.

“Won’t it?” he says, his eyes dancing with a mischievous light that I don’t understand. I get the feeling there’s a punch line I’ve missed. “Safe travels, Mr. Anchors. Until we meet again.”

I nod, but say nothing this time, watching in silence as Adam and his Heavies stalk away. When he breezes out through the front doors, I let out a breath that I didn’t realize I was holding and shake my head.

“Intense, isn’t he?” Claire asks. “He seems to have taken a liking to you.”

“Who was that?” I ask.

Claire just looks at me with her eyes narrowing and slowly blinking, as if she’s trying to decide if I’m serious.

“I’m joking!” I bark a laugh and shake my head. “Everybody knows who Adam Kane is.”

Claire’s expression fades into a strained smile, and dull amusement enters her eyes. “You had me for a second.”

“That was the idea,” I say. “Let’s get on with the tour.”

“Of course. Follow me, please.”

*     *     *

I’m standing with Claire and two security bots inside of a bunker with a familiar egg-shaped capsule siting in the middle of the polished concrete floor.

“That’s the Time Capsule,” Claire says, nodding to it.

Time Capsule. So Grant did manage to come up with a better name for it than STCD.

“It looks like an egg,” I say.

“That’s a fair analogy,” Claire replies. She turns and makes a sweeping gesture to take in the rest of the bunker. “Private launch chambers like this one are more expensive, but they’re recommended for longer trips like yours. This bunker comes with both a hangar and a garage for any vehicles you’d like to take with you, and there’s a vault for any tangible assets.” Claire points to a bank-style reinforced door to one side of the launch chamber. “There’s also a fully-equipped living facility through there.” She gestures to another reinforced metal door.

It’s a miniature version of the bunker that I created.

It’s impressive, but I can’t say that. I need to cast some doubt so that I can stall my travel plans. “Why a bunker?” I ask, as if I haven’t considered the possibility of a future where everything falls apart.

“Well... it’s just a precaution.”

I turn to her with eyebrows raised. “Against?”

She studies me for a moment, as if she’s trying to decide what I’m really asking. Or maybe she’s deciding how honest to be.

“Well, for example, there could be a war while you’re gone.” She gestures to the ceiling. “We’re forty feet underground, so this bunker will even survive a direct hit from a bomb.”

“Wow...” I’m nodding as I look around at the reinforced concrete walls. “That’s definitely reassuring.”

“Would you like to see the living area?”

“Please.”

Claire takes us through one of the two reinforced vault-style doors, and her bodyguards shadow us with heavy, thunking footsteps. The living area is small, but well-appointed. There are recessed screens on the walls with picturesque views that make me believe we’re actually above ground in a beautiful meadow on the shore of a lake.

“There are UV lamps behind the windows, so you’ll get all the vitamin D you need without ever seeing the sun.”

“Assuming I have to stay down here for some reason after I arrive in the future.”

“It’s not necessarily because you’d have to, but it may take some time for you to get established in the 24th century.”

“Right. That’s true,” I say. “What about water and power?”

“Water is fully recycled from a ten thousand-gallon tank that’s gravity-driven and fed by the lake. Even if the lake is somehow dried up or contaminated in the future, you won’t need to replenish your stores for many years. Power is supplied from the facility’s solar farms and the local power grid, but there are also fully portable, deployable solar generators in the storehouse in case neither of those systems are working when you emerge.”

“Seems like you’ve thought of everything.”

“I can assure you, we have.”

“But how do I know it works? What if I die in transit? Where do I go when the capsule disappears?”

“There are theories, and we can get into that, but the most compelling argument I have is from the many living examples of people who have already traveled to the future.”

“Five or ten years into the future to see the fruits of their investments,” I object. “This technology has only been around for twenty years. No one has taken a trip longer than that and lived to tell about it. So how do I know that traveling three centuries will be safe?”

“Because the math says so, and our simulations bear it out. But there is one other reason you shouldn’t worry.”

“Oh?”

“My parents, the founders of Future Travels, are busy traveling fifty years into the future in a bunker not unlike this one.”

“They’re here? At Mono Lake?” I ask. Genuine shock ripples through me. This is what I’m here to find out. My investigations have already told me that Grant and Alison sent themselves to the next century, but I don’t know where to expect them when they return.

Claire nods, smiling. “So you see, Mr. Anchors, you’re in the right place to be betting on the future, and you’re also in good company.”

“Yes... that is comforting,” I say. “Although three hundred years and fifty aren’t exactly the same.”

“Well, no one’s forcing you to pick the 24th century. You could travel less or even more if you like.”

“I’ll have to give that some thought.”

“You could also travel in stages, but...” Claire appears to hesitate. “The costs are expected to rise in the future, so it may be more expensive like that. Some types of assets will track up with inflation, however, so you may find that is a good way to buffer any risks. With the right preparations you should be able to make as many stops as you like along the way.”

“Good. Then my first stop will be in fifty years.” I look at Claire. “The same date that your parents chose. I think I’d like to meet them. And as you say, I’ll be in good company traveling to that time.”

Claire smiles broadly, none the wiser. “We can certainly arrange that. When would you like to leave?”

“Soon. I have some business to conduct in San Francisco first. Loose ends to tie up, assets to—”

The bunker rocks with a muffled boom, cutting me off. Dust rains down from the concrete ceiling.

Claire’s eyes fly wide and her mouth drops open in shock.

“What was that?” I ask, glancing around. I look back to Claire for the answer, but she’s frozen in exactly the same position that she was a second ago. “Claire?”

Nothing. Several seconds pass and she doesn’t even blink.

“Claire?” I ask again.

She snaps out of it with a smile. “Sorry. I just... I was so scared, I just froze up. I don’t know what happened. I really do apologize.”

“That’s okay,” I say, but I’m left with the unsettling impression that she just traded places back and forth with an identical mannequin... or a Skin. That thought hits me with enough force to make me physically take a step back, but I mask my reaction by nodding to the ceiling. “What happened?”

“I’m afraid we’ve just had an incident. Someone crashed an air car into the launch center.”

“Deliberately?”

“I’m afraid so.”

“Why?”

“It was a Fundy. They were aiming for Adam Kane. For obvious reasons, I suppose.”

I can tell I’m going to have to spend some time researching whoever the hell Adam Kane is. “Did they get him?”

“No, his Heavies spotted the car coming and shot it down before it could get too close. I’m told that it missed him and hit the facility instead.”

“Ah, well, that’s good... damn Fundies,” I add for good measure.

Claire nods. “They should just chip them all and be done with it.”

“Is it safe to go outside? Or should we wait?”

“Radar indicates there aren’t any more air cars in the area and damage to the facility was minimal. We should be safe.”

“Good. I should get going, then. The sooner I can finish my preparations in San Francisco the sooner I can start my journey to the future.”

“Of course,” Claire replies. “We look forward to your return.”


Chapter 27

While my Anon flies back to San Francisco to his own mansion, I take a break from controlling him and remove my helmet.

It takes a second for me to adjust to being suddenly back in my bedroom, lying on my bed in the basement of the mansion.

Finding the glasses I left on the bedside table, I put them on, and check my notifications. No missed messages or calls. Hopefully that means Theodore hasn’t come looking for me or somehow guessed what I’ve been up to for the past couple of hours. I suppose it doesn’t matter if he does find out, but I’d rather not make him an accomplice to the crime of using an Anon if I can help it.

Putting the matter aside, I look up Adam Kane. WikiBios has a long article about him. I skim through it, reading the highlights. He was born on December 25th of 2018. Christmas day. I smile wryly at that. The poor kid probably got combined presents his whole life.

Reading on, I learn that he’s a billionaire entrepreneur, scientist and inventor with a military background. Apart from that, he’s also a celebrated author with multiple books and papers published in several different fields. He holds degrees in Philosophy, Religion, Physics, Biology, Computer Science, and Law.

A grin tugs at my lips. I guess he couldn’t decide what he wanted to be when he grew up. All kidding aside, he must be some kind of genius. Competition for me, perhaps, but I doubt he ever invented anything as ground-breaking as time-compression technology.

I read that his most recent endeavors have been political. He’s personally spear-heading several task forces with the World Union.

I trip over that and have to re-read it a few times. What’s the World Union? I focus on it and learn that it’s the re-branded organization that replaced the United Nations after Manhattan got nuked.

Going back to Adam Kane’s article, I learn about his true claim to fame and his only real invention. Now I understand why the Fundies are trying to kill him.

He engineered the hardware and software behind the passmarks and pass cards after New York got hit. His company, Global Tracking Solutions, still manages all of the tracking centers for the World Union.

He’s also involved with the Alcubierre Star Drive Initiative. One of his companies, aptly-named Hyperspace, has partnered with Future Travels to develop the technology for the World Union. I pull up a video clip where he’s talking about the technology alongside none other than Claire Devereaux.

The two of them appear sitting on a stage in arm chairs, being interviewed by a third person, an old man with a craggy face and white hair.

Adam is talking. “Our primary goal as a species should be to move past Earth and colonize other worlds, but of course the distances involved in reaching other planets are so prohibitive that we haven’t even been able to send unmanned probes, let alone colonists.”

The interviewer nods, “And that’s where this star drive comes in?”

“Absolutely,” Claire puts in. “We’ll be able to hit meaningful fractions of light speed, all the while creating thrust without even the need for a propellant. That means lighter payloads and much longer range before we run out of fuel—in this case, fissile or fusionable materials.”

The interviewer asks, “So you think it would be possible to actually reach the nearest stars?”

Adam smiles. “Easily, in a matter of decades rather than centuries. And the best part is, continuous thrust means real gravity on board, so all of the problems caused by living in zero-G disappear. Our only real challenge will lie in shielding the spacecraft from micro-meteors and radiation.”

“Is that even possible at those speeds? And what happens if you manage to go faster than light? Doesn’t that mean backwards time travel?”

Claire shakes her head. “Impossible. The energy requirements of using an Alcubierre drive to go faster than light are infinite. All we can hope for are fractions of light speed, but that’s enough. It’s enough to get us where we need to go.”

I stop the clip there. My arms are prickled with goosebumps. If I follow Grant and Alison fifty years into the future, I might actually get to see all of that. Colonizing planets beyond our solar system. It seems too good to be true, and yet, it makes sense. I wonder why I never thought about using my technology to generate thrust for a spaceship. Maybe because I was too busy trying to survive prison, and after that, plotting my revenge.

My pulse quickens and my head feels light. I’m struggling to think clearly through the rage. They stole so much more than my freedom. They stole my entire life, every ambition and goal I ever had, consuming it all with just one purpose. I need to send my Anon back to Future Travels soon and finish what I began.

But there is one other thing that I need to investigate first. I need to see Violet again. She’s the only one who might be able to tell me how I can find out what Claire is, and who is controlling her. I’m convinced that she’s a Skin. An Anon actually, because my glasses can’t tell the difference between her and a real person. Heavies and Skins are clearly marked as such by their name tags, and when someone is controlling one, that’s conveyed as well. But Claire’s name tag was broadcasting a human ID code, just like my Anon.

It could be nothing more than a security measure to keep the real Claire Devereaux safe. That, or the real Claire might be secretly traveling fifty years to the future with her parents.

But if that’s the case, then who the hell is controlling the Anon that looks like her?


Chapter 28

I go to see Violet with my Anon this time. She knows him, so that shouldn’t be a problem. After all, she gave him to me. I also have three bodyguard model Heavies following me as we leave the air car. It’s getting dark now. Homeless undocs are warming their hands over oil drum garbage fires that cast long shadows in the alley. Dirty faces turn to watch as I cross the street.

My air car blasts off behind us with a sudden wind, sending bits of trash skittering past my ankles, but the car doesn’t fly away. I set it to hover, trading charge levels for the peace of mind of knowing that no vagrants are going to mess with my car while I’m away.

This time no one tries to attack me as I approach the red steel door. The camera is still there, clinging to the bottom of an old fire escape, watching me. I look up at it rather than bang on the door.

“I need to see you,” I say.

The door buzzes open without a word, and I walk through into the airlock-style entrance. My bodyguards follow me in, and the front door slams behind them. The next door buzzes open before I can say anything, and I lead the way up the metal stairs, down to the seventh door on the left. It’s already standing ajar by the time I arrive. Feeling suddenly nervous, I ease the door open and call into the darkened apartment. “Hello?”

“Hurry up and get in here,” a familiar voice whispers.

I duck through the entrance and my bodyguards follow with a muted thunder of clanking metal feet. The door clicks shut behind them, and then locks with a heavy deadbolt.

Violet appears, swirling out of the shadows. Her eyes are glowing a faint purple just as I remember, but this time she’s holding a gun on me. It doesn’t look like a regular weapon, but maybe I wouldn’t know, since I’m not from this time. My bodyguards react in unison, their joints rattling as their arms snap up to aim their weapons at her.

“Tell them to stand down,” Violet orders.

I convey that command mentally, and the Heavies drop their arms back to their sides.

“What are you doing here?” Violet demands. “You could blow your cover coming back here. Not to mention mine.”

“I have a problem.”

“Don’t we all?”

“I need to know how to tell if someone is an Anon.”

Violet snorts. “If it were that easy, I’d be out of business. You can’t tell. Not without a body scan or retinal scan. I guess you could also try cutting them open, but that’ll get messy if you’re wrong.”

“There has to be another way.”

“Sure. Spy on the person and wait until the controller takes a break. If that happens, you’ll see their Anon freeze up like a statue. Proof positive.”

“I think I saw that already.”

“Yeah? So what are you doing here?”

“I want to be sure... and I want to find the controller. Assuming they’re nearby. Do you have any ideas about how I could do that?”

Violet shrugs. “That depends. How much are you willing to pay?”

“Whatever it takes.”

A slow smile curves her lips. “In that case, check this out.” Violet turns away from me and walks over to her desk. She pulls a key out of her pocket and opens a metal drawer. It bangs as it hits the end of its rails. She rifles around inside for a moment, and then withdraws something and holds it out in her palm. It’s tiny and black. I cross the room to see what it is, but in the low lighting I can’t make out any details.

“It’s too dark,” I say.

“Right. I forget not everyone has night vision.” She taps the side of her head, as if to indicate her glowing eyes. “I like to save the juice wherever I can,” she adds. “Lights!”

Harsh white lights snap on overhead, and I can see the item in Violet’s hand for what it really is.

“A dead fly?”

“Technically it was never alive.” As she says that, it hovers off her palm. “It’s a recording device. You get this close to an Anon and release it. It’ll ride in their hair or on their clothes, recording everything that goes on around them.”

“It’s amazing...”

“Comes with an amazing price, too,” Violet says.

“How much?”

“How much do you have?”

“Are you extorting me?”

“Just charging what the market can bear. These little babies are illegal. You want one, you’ll pay.” The fly lands in her hand, and she closes it into a fist. “If not... stop wasting my time.”

“One million coin,” I try.

“That’s a good start. Double it and add a tip. Come to think of it, I’d better charge sales tax, too.”

“Fine.”

Violet holds out her right hand to reveal that she has a passmark. I stare at the glowing blue triangle with an image of an eye at the top of a pyramid inside of it. I wonder how I never noticed that before. “You’re marked?” I ask.

“Yes and no. It helps in my business to be able to blend in when I want to.” As I stare at it, the mark fades and disappears. “And hide when I want to,” Violet adds.

“But you’re an Anon.”

“So?”

I hold my Anon’s right hand out. As the two chips come into proximity with each other, I initiate the transaction, and mine turns red, while hers starts glowing green.

“That’s two point eight million coin,” I say, even though she can already see the amount flashing before her eyes.

“Pleasure doing business with you,” she says. “If you need to find me again I won’t be here.”

“Then where do I find you?”

“You don’t. I’ll find you.”

“How?”

“Just ask around the net for Violet. Assuming you’re not working for the cops, I’ll find you.”

I frown at that. “Okay.”

Violet hands me the spy drone.

“Show me how to use it.”

“It’s easy. It works through remote access.” A data transfer prompt flashes on my glasses. I accept, and the access codes are sent to my cloud. “If you want, you can control it directly with this.” Violet turns around and reaches back into the drawer to remove a small joystick and throttle control.

“Perfect,” I say.

It’s time to find out who Claire really is.


Chapter 29

As I leave the apartment complex with my overpriced spy drone, I’m gratified to see that my car is still hovering above the alley. There’s a dog barking at it from the sidewalk. I walk up behind the mongrel with my trio of bodyguards clanking along behind me, their weapons raised and torsos swiveling to ward off the street people. As I draw near to the dog, it turns to look at me with one eye and a crumpled face.

“Sweet ride,” it says in a garbled voice.

I stop and study the robot with a pitying frown.

“What? Cat got your tongue?” The mongrel laughs at its own joke with a burst of static. I can see that it didn’t always look so ratty. Its gray fur might have once been white, and it’s matted and stained. Apart from that, the bot’s head was obviously bashed in by something. A metal pipe or a bat. I’m surprised it’s still functioning at all.

“Do you have a home?” I ask.

“Why?” The dog’s one eye squints at me and it cocks its head. “I don’t take in strays, if that’s what you’re wondering.”

“I meant that you could come with me.”

“Oh.” The dog glances away, over to one of the oil drum fires. There’s a man with a scraggly gray beard approaching us with his hands raised, and I can see that his gloves are full of holes. “I don’t want any trouble,” he says as my Heavies track his approach with their weapons.

“Is he yours?” I reply.

“Yes.”

The robodog looks back to me and shrugs with a grinding sound. “Sorry. I already have a human, but if you like me that much, look up Irony Dog. Or Irony Cat.” The creature shudders and growls out of the good side of his snout.

“Maybe I will,” I say, nodding and moving on. I order my air car to land and then climb in with my bodyguards. As we take off, I find myself looking up something else entirely: Adriana Rivera Vargas and Olivia Rivera Vargas. Seeing that robotic dog reminded me of Buddy, and the little girl who owned him. I want to know what happened to her and her mother after I helped them get off the streets.

By now they should be out of the Blocks again.

My rudimentary search doesn’t turn up an address, but it does give me a number to contact Adriana. I place a holo-call with my glasses and wait for her to pick up.

“Hello?” she says. There’s no virtual image of her to accompany the voice, but that could be because she’s trying to keep some modicum of privacy.

“Is this Adriana Rivera Vargas?” I ask.

“Who wants to know?” she replies.

“I’m a friend of Mr. Morgan,” I say, remembering to use my alias. The man who was Byron Gaines is becoming a more and more distant memory. I go on, “He asked me to check up on you. Is there a way that we could meet?”

“Oh. Yes... I suppose we could meet in the lobby of my hotel...”

“Perfect. When?”

“I’m at the hotel now, but I have to leave soon.”

“I can be there in ten minutes, just send me the address.”

There’s a long pause on the other end.

“Adriana?”

“Yes. It’s The Adrian on Eddy Street.”

A wry smile touches my lips. “The Adrian. Named after you, I suppose?”

“Ten minutes. If you take more than twenty, I’ll be gone.”

I nod slowly. “I’ll be there.” She ends the call, leaving me with a dial tone. I end my call as well, and sit for a moment wrestling with my confusion. What is she still doing in the Blocks? Three weeks ago she only needed to stay a few more days before she could get another one-month visa to leave. She should still have more than a week left on that visa. Now I’m wondering if it was all a hustle. Maybe the gangsters who were threatening her and her daughter are in on it and they got the lion’s share of the money I gave her.

My eyes narrow with a cynical scowl. Adriana had better have a good explanation for this.

*     *     *

I walk through the doors of The Adrian with just one Heavy bodyguard, leaving the other two with my air car. I sent the car to land itself in a nearby hangar. Glancing back through the glass doors, I can see my car streaking toward that hangar now—a tree-shaped high rise with landing pads radiating from the “branches” instead of leaves.

Turning back around, I see the small lobby of the hotel crowded with old, dusty furniture. The front desk is cluttered, and the clerk is sitting behind it, leaning back, her glasses bright with moving images that look suspiciously like an action movie.

There’s no one in sight. No sign of Adriana. Has she left already? I check the time on my glasses. It’s only been eight minutes since we spoke.

I move to take a seat on an age-creased black leather couch that sits facing the front desk. This vantage gives me a good view of both the front doors and the rest of the lobby.

Moments later an elevator dings open, and a woman glides up to the front desk in stiletto heels and a short black cocktail dress that sparkles indigo in the light. It takes a moment for me to recognize the woman as Adriana, and once again I’m struck by how beautiful she is, except this time she’s done herself up, and she looks like she’s going on a date. Her hair has a nice wave to it, and she’s wearing plenty of makeup. Maybe too much. “The elevator is out again,” Adriana says.

“We’ll look into it,” the clerk replies without taking a break from her movie.

“Sure you will,” Adriana mutters as she turns away.

I rise from the couch. “Miss Vargas?”

A fleeting wince flickers across her face as our eyes meet. “You must be Mr. Morgan’s friend,” she says, striding quickly across the lobby to greet me.

“I am,” I say, reaching for her hand.

She shakes my hand limply and withdraws almost immediately. Her eyes size me up, flicking up and down quickly. There’s a wariness to her posture, and she crosses her arms over her chest to cover her plunging cleavage. That, plus the shortness of her dress, strikes me as an odd look for a Fundy.

“What do you want?” she demands.

I’m taken aback by the steel in her voice. “Mr. Morgan wanted to see how you and your daughter were doing.”

“We’re fine, thank you.” She glances to the door. I see a man peering in. He taps the frame of his glasses, as if to indicate that he’s watching her. She jerks her chin at him, as if to tell him to get lost. I notice that she’s not wearing her glasses, but maybe she has a pair tucked into the sparkly evening bag I see dangling from her shoulder.

“Who is that?” I ask. “Your date?” He looks like bad news. Worse than bad. He’d fit right in with the gang that tried to jump her and Olivia three weeks ago. My suspicions are back and twice as strong.

“None of your business, that’s who. What are you really doing here, Mr. Anchors?”

“I told you...”

“And I don’t buy it. The fact that you’re here at all suggests you think I owe you something. If Mr. Morgan thought that by giving me that money he could palm me off to every friend and colleague with a fetish—”

I stop her there with an upraised hand and take a quick step back, shaking my head. Suddenly I understand why she’s dressed the way she is, and the revelation both shocks and saddens me. “You’re a hooker,” I say. “A Fundy hooker?”

“You can save your judgment and your pity. I’m a mother. I do what I have to to look after my daughter.”

“There has to be something else you can do.”

“I traveled to a future where there are no more jobs, and on top of that, I’m a Fundy who is constantly traveling in and out of the Blocks. The only jobs I can get are the ones that no one wants, and among those, none of them pay enough to put food on the table and a roof over our heads.”

“What about that clerk.” I jerk my chin to the woman behind the front desk. “She has a job.”

“She’s the owner.”

“Oh. I see.”

“Yeah. Look, I should be working already, so...”

“Wait. That man outside, he’s your...” I can’t bring myself to say it.

Adriana bristles. “Do you need something from me, Mr. Anchors?”

I suck in a breath, taking a moment to choose my words.

“No? I’ll be on my way then.” She begins turning away.

“Maybe I can help you,” I say, stopping her.

She turns with a wry smile. A bitter, knowing look is gleaming in her eyes. “One hour will cost you two hund—”

“No, not that.”

She cocks her head. “I’m on the clock, Mr. Anchors. If you’re not here for business, then I have to go.”

“Don’t go. Come with me.”

“With you? Where? I don’t even know you. You could be a psycho killer.”

“Not with me,” I say, backtracking, thinking fast. What am I doing? “Mr. Morgan has more than enough room for you and your daughter, even Buddy.”

Adriana’s eyebrows drift up, but she says nothing.

I go on, “All three of you can go live with Mr. Morgan in his mansion outside Fresno.”

“And what happens when our visas expire?”

“He’ll pay for your hotel and all of your other expenses. Just don’t do this anymore. Don’t degrade yourself for the money. It’s not worth it.”

The wary look is back, but this time it’s mingled with something else. “You speak for Mr. Morgan?”

I nod.

“Why would he take us in?”

I shrug. “He has more money than he needs. Maybe he wants to give something back.”

“He’s a Keeper. He’s marked. Sooner or later, he’ll be forced to turn me in.”

I shake my head slowly. “Turn you in for what? Are the police looking for you?”

A frown creases Adriana’s face. “No. Not yet.”

I shake my head, waiting for her to go on.

“Never mind. It’s a Fundy thing. You wouldn’t get it.”

“So?”

Adriana shakes her head. “I don’t know you, and I don’t trust you. If Mr. Morgan wants to make such a generous offer, he’s going to have to come and get us himself.”

“You don’t know your clients either,” I say. “And you trust them.”

A laugh bubbles from Adriana’s lips. “Why do you think I have Axel waiting for me outside? I don’t trust the clients. I’m not that stupid.”

“Fine. Mr. Morgan will come for you. But only if you tell Axel to go away now.”

“If I do that, my life will be in danger. And my daughter’s life.”

I nod to my Heavy bodyguard. “Fine. PD2?”

“Sir,” a deep voice answers, and the robot turns to look at me with its featureless, glossy black face. “Tell the man outside that Adriana won’t be able to join him tonight.”

“Copy that,” it replies, and goes clanking toward the doors.

“Wait—” Adriana objects.

I raise my eyebrows, studying her. “I can’t force you to accept this offer. But for your daughter’s sake, and for yours, you should.”

“I was just going to add that your Heavy can tell Axel to go to hell.”

“PB2—”

“He will be told, sir.”


Chapter 30

—March 16, 2061—

Coordinating the switch between myself and my Anon took some finesse. Gavin had to excuse himself and go back to his air car with his Heavy just as I arrived to pick up Adriana and her daughter.

But it worked.

It was a quiet ride from San Francisco to my place in Fresno, and I could sense that Adriana was trying to avoid more questions and comments about her choice of profession. I gave her and Olivia their space, retiring to another set of seats a row back from theirs in my air car.

Now, just an hour later, we’ve arrived. I can see the trees shining silver in the moonlight and waving in the wind of the car’s rotors as we set down on one of the landing pads outside my mansion.

We all leave the air car together.

This is your home?” Adriana says, her eyes wide.

“Yes.”

The face of the mansion is illuminated with spotlights. Three rows of bullet-proof windows gleaming with interior lights, all framed with solid concrete that’s decoratively etched and textured to suggest massive blocks of stone stacked like bricks.

We walk up eight feet of front steps to find Theodore waiting for us in front of one of two twelve-foot reinforced steel doors. They’re painted a coppery color to combine with the color of the window frames.

Adriana and Olivia go ahead of me, each carrying a bulging backpack that contains all of their belongings. They’ve been living out of those backpacks for over a year now.

Two Personal Defender Heavies glance our way, their characteristic glossy black faces inscrutable.

“Welcome to your new home,” I say as we reach the top of the stairs. Clouds of bugs are dancing in the lights shining high above the covered front porch where we now stand. One of the larger ones lands on my nose, and I almost slap myself trying to shoo it away. It goes back to join the others buzzing around the lights. I look to Adriana and notice out of the corner of my eye that Buddy is lifting his leg against one of the two polished concrete columns that support the roof. An actual stream of liquid spurts out and puddles at his feet, trickling down the stairs. “Hey!”

“What?” Buddy asks. “You said it’s my new home. I was just marking it as mine.”

“He hasn’t had a walk in a while,” Olivia explains.

“Well, there are ample grounds here to walk him,” Theodore says, as if he’s oblivious to the fact that Buddy isn’t a real dog. “It’s good to see you again Miss Vargas, and you too, young Miss Olivia. I don’t believe I introduced myself the last time we met. I’m Anthony Davis. Mr. Morgan’s estate manager.” My brow furrows with confusion, and it takes me a second to recognize Theodore’s alias—Anthony Davis. Theodore spends most of his time here, so I’ve almost never heard him use it.

“It’s nice to meet you,” Adriana says. “But please call me Ana.”

“Of course, Miss Ana. Please come in.” Theodore swings the door open wider so that we can enter, and I see Victor, my Skin bodyguard, standing just behind him.

I can hear a riding lawn-mower moaning in the distance, one of the grounds keeper Heavies hard at work, even though it’s the middle of the night.

We walk in together.

“Wow...” Olivia says, her eyes everywhere at once.

Adriana’s jaw actually drops as she turns in a circle and peers up at the domed ceiling above the entrance. The second and third floors overlook the entrance hall from balconies in front of us, and marble stairs sweep up to the second floor from either side of the entrance. Triangular skylights radiate from a central point overhead from which a sparkling chandelier hangs, the lights dimmed to a rosy glow. Moonlight beams through the skylights, brighter than the chandelier, casting fan-shaped shadows on the floor.

“The work on the main floor is mostly done now,” Theodore says.

I nod along with that, as if it’s news to me as well. The floors are laid, the windows all in place, and the paint is dry, but it still smells fresh. A hammering sound starts up somewhere in the distant recesses of the mansion.

“What was that?” Buddy asks. His floppy ears have perked into comically large triangles above his head. “That’s gonna keep me up. I get nippy when I don’t get enough sleep.”

Victor looks at him, his eyes narrowing. “What is this thing doing here?”

“Thing?” Buddy shuffles back a step. “I’m a dog. Woof. See?”

“If you’re a dog, then I’m a human.”

Buddy’s eyes widen dramatically. “You’re not a human?”

“He’s a Skin?” Adriana asks.

“Top of the line,” I say.

Theodore clears his throat. “Your quarters will be in the basement with ours for now. The basement is thoroughly insulated, so you won’t hear any of the construction.”

“I’m sure it will be fine. We’re not picky,” Adriana says.

“Don’t listen to her,” Buddy says, looking at me. He bares his teeth and opens and shuts his snout a few times, chomping air. “Remember. Nippy.”

Victor scowls, but I can’t help smiling.

“Come, let me show you to your rooms. You must be tired. This way.” Theodore starts toward the great room and the stairwell.

Adriana glances back at me, as if to check that I’m coming as well. “Go on. I have some business to conduct before bed. I’ll see you at breakfast tomorrow.”

She nods uncertainly and turns back around.

My business is to plan my next steps. Giving Adriana a hand up is a distraction. It might be the right thing to do, but I can’t allow charity cases like hers to derail my plans. I need to send my Anon back to meet with Claire soon so that he can release my bug and find out what’s really going on over there. Until then, I can’t commit to traveling another fifty years into the future.

That thought triggers another: what about Adriana and Olivia? If I do decide to travel to the future again, what will I do with them?

I could leave them to watch over the mansion, but what if they turn it into a haven for more Fundies? I can just imagine it now: my second mansion in as many decades, overrun by vagrants. Or worse, connected with Fundy terrorists and subsequently raided by the authorities.

I don’t need that kind of attention. No, if I go, then they’ll have to leave. But the idea of forcing Adriana back onto the streets doesn’t sit well with me.

Maybe there’s a third option. I could ask them to come with me. But that just seems like taking a lot of needless baggage to the future. And I have enough baggage as it is.

*     *     *

About three hours later I’m finally going to bed. I leave Victor outside my room as usual, on guard duty, and lock the door behind me.

After a quick shower and a change into my pajamas, I pull Gavin’s control helmet out from the box under my bed and take a moment to check in on him. I left him locked in the bedroom of his own mansion, but with an AI set to alert me if anything should happen that requires my attention. No alerts flashed up on my glasses, so I’m not worried, but I find myself getting anxious if I leave my Anon by himself for too long.

I take a quick look around Gavin’s bedroom. His room is also in a basement—but that’s because I don’t want anyone to peer through a window and see him frozen like a statue. Dark hardwood floors gleam in the bedroom lights. The half-length windows near the ceiling are all blocked with blackout rollers. Gavin’s mansion is more modest than mine. The room is a boxy white-walled space with a regular closet and a simple three piece en suite bathroom. There are no furnishings besides the bed, two bedside tables with lamps, and a small white shag carpet at the foot of the bed. Minimalist is Gavin’s style. No sense wasting too much money on a fake life. I walk to the door and check in with his PD-model bodyguards.

“Anything suspicious I should know about?” I ask.

A faceless black head turns to me. “No, sir. The compound is secure.”

A shrill scream slices through the air, as if to contradict the machine. My eyes dart down the corridor leading to my room, then to the ceiling and the rest of the mansion above. “What was that?”

“What was what, sir?”

Another scream. This time I notice the subtitle at the bottom of my field of view.

A woman is screaming in terror.

I forgot to mute my real body’s senses when I put the helmet on. I’m going to have to make that a default setting.

“I have to go,” I tell the security bots, as if they need any explanation. I hurriedly shut and lock the door behind me, and then rip off my control helmet. I sit up on my bed, back at my primary estate outside Fresno, and sit listening to the silence and my pounding heart. I hear a knock on a door outside in the hallway, followed by Victor’s voice. “Is everything all right, ma’am?”

A muffled voice replies. I run to the door and yank it open to see what’s going on.

The door to Adriana’s room is ajar. Just down from that, Olivia has her door cracked open and she and Buddy are peeking through it. When they see me, both their faces disappear, and the door clicks shut. I pad down the hall to Adriana’s room just as Victor is withdrawing.

“Just a bad dream, sir. You can go back to bed.”

I don’t. Instead I push open her door and walk inside. Adriana is sitting on the edge of her bed, taking deep breaths. The lamp is on beside her, and I can see that she’s shaking.

“Is everything okay, Adriana?”

She looks to me, shades paler than usual, her cheeks stained with tears. I sit beside her and wrap an arm around her shoulders. She collapses into me and sobs, taking me by surprise. I’m suddenly acutely aware of how little clothing she’s wearing. She’s wearing a lacy black night gown, but it looks more like lingerie than pajamas. I hold her awkwardly until the moment passes and she withdraws.

“Sorry,” she says, wiping her eyes. Her lips quirk into a bitter smile. “I didn’t mean to wake you.”

“You didn’t. I wasn’t asleep yet. Do you want to talk about it?”

She shrugs and stares at the floor between her feet. “Did I wake Olivia?”

“Maybe. She went back to bed, though.”

Adriana nods. “She’s braver than her mother. I have to sleep with the light on, and all she needs to feel safe is a robotic dog.”

I smile at that. “That’s good. It means that in spite of whatever hardships you’ve had to endure, you managed to shield her from it so far. My parents did the same for me until they died.”

Adriana looks to me. “How old were you?”

“Ten.”

Her hand finds my knee. “I’m so sorry. Who raised you?”

“Theodore.”

“Who?”

I grimace, remembering Theodore’s alias a second too late. “Sorry, I meant Anthony. Theodore is his second name. He’s been like a Father to me ever since my parents passed.”

“Oh... he seems nice.”

“Better than nice.”

Adriana’s eyes are boring into mine. “Listen, I don’t know how to repay you for this... letting us stay with you, helping us.”

I shake my head. “Don’t worry about it.”

Her hand slides up my leg and my eyes widen.

“You’re obviously alone,” she says. “But you don’t have to be.”

I edge away from her, removing her hand. “You don’t owe me anything.”

Her eyes flash with hurt and she looks away. I realize that by turning down her offer I’ve somehow offended her.

“Not that it’s not tempting,” I quickly add. “But you don’t want to get mixed up with me.”

“No?” she sidles closer, and suddenly her lips are far too close for comfort. I swear I can feel the air between us crackling. “Why not?” she whispers.

“Because I’m not a good person.” I stand up from the bed, to get more distance. I don’t need this. Hatred is ice and passion is fire. Mixing the two in my heart is just going to water down my resolve. If I let this go any further Grant and Alison are going to get away with their crime, and I can’t have that. I’ve come too far. I feel for the cross under my shirt, reminding myself that it’s not just about what they did to me. Carl also deserves justice.

Adriana smirks bitterly. “Is that to ward me off?” Her eyes slide away and she’s staring at the floor again. “Ironic. I’m the Fundy, and you’re a Keeper, but you’re the one wearing a cross.”

“I don’t understand the difference,” I say.

“Between us? I guess that’s fair. I’ve fallen a long way.”

“No, between Keepers and Fundies. Is it just the passmarks?”

“No.” Adriana shakes her head. “We call them Keepers because they keep the land, the money, the jobs—everything. It’s not just because they’re the ones with all the Heavies. It’s because they’re the ones with everything, and all we have is our faith. We’re not just second-class citizens who didn’t get a free Heavy to go out and make money for them. You’ve seen the Blocks. There isn’t enough of anything to go around. That’s why there’s so many people on the streets, and almost all of us are just as desperate and just as poor. With the exception of the few Keepers who prefer to live there even though they’re marked.”

“So those were your clients? The Keepers who live in the Blocks?”

“No. Plenty of them come to the Blocks to meet with working girls. Or buy drugs. All the same vices still exist, but the illegal ones are focused in the Blocks. For now. One day we’ll all be dead or marked like them.”

I shake my head. “How would that happen?”

“They’re going to force us. The Blocks are temporary. All it’s going to take is for something else like New York to happen, and they’ll round us up. We won’t be allowed to choose anymore. Either we get the implants or we die.”

“No government would ever sanction that.”

“It was predicted, so it will happen. Sooner or later. Hopefully later.”

“Maybe the predictions are wrong. I don’t see any triple sixes on the passmarks.” I hold mine out for her to see.

She stares at it for a moment, as if mesmerized. Then she shrugs. “Maybe it’s not visible. It could be in the code.”

“Or just not there.” I go back to sit with Adriana. A suspicion forms in my head. “What were you screaming about in your sleep?”

She bites her lip and tears well up in her eyes again. “They were going to kill Olivia.”

“Who was?”

“The police. Because she wouldn’t take the mark.”

“Ah.” I wrap my arm around her shoulders again. “That won’t happen.”

She pulls away from me. “How do you know? It was only a little more than a century ago that we had the holocaust. How would this be any different?”

I shake my head. “People aren’t like that.”

“Why? What’s changed?”

“We’re more educated. More civilized. More tolerant.”

“You’re wrong. There’s trouble brewing. I hear whispers of it every day, and I see it on the news. There’s a sect of Fundies that’s committed to fighting back.”

I frown at that. “How?”

“How else? With guns and bombs.”

“So they’re terrorists. Fundy terrorists. Why would they do that? They can’t possibly hope to change anything by blowing things up.”

“Someone is funding them. They get to eat and have a roof over their heads. And when they die for the cause, they think they’re going to heaven. Their numbers are growing every day, Richard. Soon Fundy will become synonymous with terrorist. And then what?”

I don’t know what to say to that. I just stare into her eyes for a long, silent moment. At last I look away and stand up from the bed once more. “You should get some sleep.”

“Because it’s that easy,” she says. “When I’m awake, I’m haunted by all the things I’ve done to survive, and when I’m asleep my nightmares remind me that it was all for nothing and I’m running out of time.”

I know what it’s like to be haunted, but I don’t have any advice for her. I deal with my torment by plotting revenge, but she can’t get revenge on herself.

“Goodnight, Adriana,” I say from the doorway.

“Call me Ana,” she says.

“Okay.”

“Goodnight, Richard.”

I click the door shut and walk back down the hall to my room to find Theodore sitting on my bed with my Anon’s control helmet in his lap. I forgot to put it away.

“When were you going to tell me about this?” Theodore asks.


Chapter 31

I shut the door behind me.

“About what?” I reply, feigning innocence. “That’s for Victor.”

“You never control him. Not that I’ve seen. And anyway, I’ve just finished putting it on myself. Who is Gavin Anchors, and what have you been doing with him?”

“Nothing yet.”

“But you will. Tell me what’s going on right now or so help me, Byron Edison Gaines, I will report you to the authorities myself.”

I move to take a seat in an armchair opposite the bed. “It’s a long story. Why don’t we talk about it in the morning?”

“I’m not tired,” Theodore replies.

“Fine.”

It takes half an hour to explain everything, and when I’m done, Theodore looks troubled.

“When are you going back to plant the bug?” he asks.

“Tomorrow.”

“What do you expect to find?”

“I don’t know.”

“I see.”

“What?”

“Have you considered that there’s more to life than revenge? I really thought you’d turned a corner when you told me about Miss Vargas and her daughter coming to stay with us.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“If you don’t know then you’re blind. And deaf. I heard you two talking. I was listening from the hall. She’s interested in you. You could have a life here, Byron.”

“Don’t use that name.”

“Fine, Richard. My point stands. You could make a life here. There’s still time. But if you kill someone, and it gets traced back to you—”

“Who said anything about killing anyone?” I ask.

“Don’t try to fool me. Fool yourself if you wish, but I know you. I raised you. And I know that you won’t stop until they are dead. So ask yourself, how many years will you get for the crime the second time around? This time you won’t be able to claim it was a crime of passion. It will be premeditated.”

I’m too tired to deal with this now. “Go to sleep, Theodore.”

His expression darkens, his wrinkles crinkling into angry patterns as he rises from the bed. “Very well. Goodnight, sir.”

*     *     *

—March 17, 2061—

Despite my late night, I’m up at seven the next morning, sitting at the breakfast table in a hexagonal nook surrounded by windows. I’m onto my third cup of coffee as I watch a virtual TV on my glasses. I’ve pinned that virtual screen to the wall in front of me. Aesthetically, it looks wrong, off center, covering half of one of the windows and a third of another, but it’s only a virtual TV.

I’m watching a news report about a bomb going off in DC just outside the city’s World Union Tracking Center. The authorities suspect Fundies, but there’s no real evidence of religious conviction behind the attack, because the terrorists were undocs. They had neither passmarks nor pass cards on them at the time they delivered the bomb. And it seems that they died with the blast, so there’s not a lot of other evidence to go on.

Despite that, the news anchor is passing more than a few sideways comments about the stupidity of people believing in higher powers in this day and age.

“Good morning,” a familiar voice says. I jump at the sound. Maybe I should back off the coffee.

Turning in my chair, I see Adriana, Olivia, and Buddy walking into the nook. “Hello.”

Everyone takes their seats. Adriana pulls out a chair next to me, and Buddy hops up next to Olivia, directly opposite me.

Adriana is wearing her glasses, so she can see the virtual TV that I pegged to the wall.

“What happened?”

“Nothing important,” I reply, and pause the newscast before Adriana can see what the story is about. “You know, the same old doom and gloom.” The paused scene winds up displaying a gruesome shot of blood-spattered debris, so I switch the channel entirely and turn down the volume. “Sleep well?”

“Terrorists attacked Washington?” Adriana asks, shaking her head.

“Yes, but...”

“I told you. Things are escalating out of control.”

I frown and shake my head, not knowing how to deny it at this point. First the failed attack on Adam Kane, and now a bomb goes off in DC. It seems like the Fundies have drawn the battle lines. At this point their fears could become self-fulfilling.

I find myself staring at Adriana. Even first thing in the morning she looks stunning.

Her eyes slink demurely under mine, and her cheeks flush pink. “What?”

“Nothing,” I say. Gesturing to one of the Heavies in the kitchen I snap my fingers and it comes clanking over. This model has a rubbery humanoid face and eyes that move. No hair, though. “May I get you something, sir?” it asks in a matronly voice.

I’m never hungry first thing in the morning, so I shake my head and gesture vaguely to Adriana and Olivia. “For them.” Directing my attention to Adriana, I ask, “What would you like?”

She hesitates. “What do you have?”

The Heavy straightens and begins rattling off a long list of breakfast favorites. Adriana’s eyes widen and she shakes her head. “You have all of that?”

“Of course,” I say.

“But it’s just you and Theodore living here.”

I nod, smiling wanly at her even as I wonder why she’s using his real name. Maybe she saw through my slip-up last night, or maybe she talked to him and he told her that he prefers to go by his ‘second’ name.

“I’ll have bacon and eggs and two waffles with blueberry syrup!” Olivia chimes in.

Buddy is next: “A T-bone steak. Rare.”

I look to him. “You don’t need to eat.”

He glares at me. “Neither do you.” Then he mutters under his breath: “Fatty.” Olivia stifles a giggle and Buddy bares his teeth in a snicker.

“Excuse me?” I draw myself up, half rising out of my chair. I’m in the best shape of my life, hardly fat.

Adriana puts a hand on my arm to calm me. “He’s a robot, remember?” she soothes. “That’s his programming. Make people laugh.”

“Right.” I sit back down. That shouldn’t have got to me. Maybe it’s the lack of sleep, and the fact that I spent all night thinking about Grant and Alison and how I’m going to expose their daughter as a fraud. Maybe it’s one of them controlling Claire. At this point anything is possible.

“Anything for you, ma’am?” the Heavy cook asks.

“I’ll have the yogurt and fruit, please.”

“And to drink?”

“Orange juice for both of us,” Adriana says and Olivia nods eagerly along with that.

“Right away.” The Heavy clanks away, back to the kitchen. Adriana’s eyes slide away from mine, landing on the virtual TV once more. The color drains from her face, prompting me to look, too.

“Is that Adam Kane?” she asks.

“I should turn it off.”

“No. Turn up the volume please.”

“Okay...”

Adam Kane’s voice bubbles to my ears through the bone conduction speakers in my glasses. It’s another interview. Adam is talking with a reporter about the incident in DC and several more that I didn’t know about up in Chicago and Toronto. Olivia isn’t wearing her glasses. She and Buddy are chatting in low tones on the other side of the table, glancing periodically at us. Whatever they’re talking about, I’m glad for their distraction. It means Olivia is safely oblivious to what Mr. Kane is saying.

Reporter: “So just implant them all. Force them to join the system.”

Kane: “No, that won’t work. They’ll just cut the implants out and we’ll be back where we started.”

Reporter: “Then educate them, explain why it’s necessary.”

Kane: “We’re not dealing with a reasoning group. We’re dealing with two groups: hardened criminals who like to live in the shadows, and the real Fundies, the ones who think they’ll go to Hell if they get implanted. How do you argue with that? You can’t. But there is one promising line of research. One of my companies, Adlucem, has discovered that we can turn a Fundy into an agnostic or even an atheist with a simple, non-invasive procedure.”

Reporter: “How is that possible?”

Kane: “A smart pill. The nanites in the pill travel to the brain and snip a few connections to a primitive corner of the frontal lobe. So far there have been no negative side effects in any of our volunteers, and no changes in personality or cognitive function. The only thing that’s different is that suddenly they lose their faith in higher powers and belief in superstitions. Immediately after taking the pill they all go through this sort of awakening and they feel ashamed of themselves. Then they want to know how they can trade their pass cards for implants. It’s really quite amusing to watch.”

Reporter: “That sounds like a dramatic reversal. And it works for all religions? Does degree of conviction play a role?”

Kane: “No. In fact, the more religious a person is the better the treatment works.”

Reporter: “You call it a treatment, as if belief in a higher power is a disease.”

Kane: “Well it certainly has symptoms like one. Think about it. Under any other circumstances if people claimed to believe in and have a relationship with an invisible entity that somehow speaks to them, we would classify them as schizophrenics. Of course the difference is, they don’t actually hallucinate, but they still act as though their imaginary friends are real. And that’s really what we’re seeing. It’s that primitive nerve cluster that suppresses reason and defies logic. In most people that area of the brain shrinks with age and education, but if you’ve been raised in a religious home, your nerve cluster is more active and tends to be larger than it is for people who haven’t been raised in religious families. We call it the North Pole of the frontal lobe, because Santa Claus lives there.”

The reporter laughs lightly at that. “Fascinating. So you’re saying instead of forcing people to get implants, we should just force them to take your pills and then let them choose to take the implants?”

Kane: “Yes.”

Reporter: “But isn’t that a breach of their fundamental rights?”

Kane: “That depends. Forcing people to do anything seems hard to stomach at first, but when you really think about it, we do it all the time. We force children to go to school, even though nowadays there aren’t really any jobs for them to get when they’re older. We force people to adhere to laws and societal norms for the benefit of the group, and yet we don’t force them to wake up from a dangerous delusion that is leading to mass terrorism? Losing Manhattan should have been good enough to convince us of the nature of this threat, and implementing the passmarks was a good start, but we stopped halfway by letting people opt out. I just hope we don’t have to lose any other cities before we realize what needs to be done.”

Reporter: “How do you think Fundies will react to this? Do you think they’d be open to taking this pill and curing themselves?”

Kane smirks and shakes his head. “Some of them. The ones on the fence whose convictions are wavering, but the ones who are calling me the anti-christ would sooner die.”

Reporter: “Then forcing them to take your pill could cause a civil war.”

Kane: “Maybe, but we have all the guns.”

The reporter goes silent for a long moment.

Kane breezes through the lull, adding, “We shouldn’t just be thinking about how this will make the world a safer place for our children. We should be thinking about how we’ll actually be doing Fundies a favor. Right now they have to live in constant danger and poverty, and for what? For a lie. For a child-like part of their brains that should have shriveled away as they grew up. It’s that same part that allows kids to believe in Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny. But if we had people out there blowing up government buildings because Santa Claus told them to, no one would hesitate to give them a pill to stop the madness at its source.”

This time Adriana pauses the recording. She turns to me with wide, terrified eyes and shakes her head. “It’s already starting.”


Chapter 32

Just six hours later I’m landing outside Future Travels’ Nevada Launch Center in Gavin Anchors’ air car.

Claire Devereaux is waiting for me at the entrance again.

“It’s good to see you back so soon, Mr. Anchors,” she says as I approach.

“It’s good to be back,” I reply as we breeze through the steel doors and into the lobby.

“You mentioned in our call that you’d like to see some of our larger bunkers.”

“Yes,” I say, smiling brightly. “I think I might be in love. I broke the news of my travel plans to my girlfriend last night. And on a whim, I decided to invite her. I wasn’t expecting her to react so positively to the idea.”

“So you’ll be looking to travel as a couple?”

“Yes. I’m feeling a lot better about it knowing I won’t be alone. I mean, if the future isn’t all it’s cracked up to be and all that’s left are ruins, at least we’ll be able to repopulate the Earth, right? Adam and Eve two point oh.” I laugh lightly at my own joke.

Claire nods along as we leave the lobby and walk down a long, windowless concrete corridor to the elevators at the end. She gets a few steps ahead of me, and I feel for the bug in my pocket. My heart is pounding out of my chest. Some stimuli from my real body can’t be suppressed while I’m controlling my Anon. Just as I’m about to pull the device out and release it, we reach the elevators and Claire glances back at me. My hand freezes in my pocket.

“Are you still planning to go fifty years into the future?”

“Yes, definitely. I still want to meet the founders. We’ll continue on from there if we don’t like what we see.”

“Of course. May I ask your travel partner’s name?”

That question catches me off guard, and my mind blanks. I chide myself for leaving such a gaping hole in my story. “Adriana.” I say with a smile. It’s the only name that comes to mind.

Claire smiles thinly at that, and her head tilts to one side. “A pretty name. Will she want a tour of our facilities as well?”

I reach up with the hand that isn’t in my pocket and tap the side of my glasses. “I’ll just show her my Lifestory.”

A scowl darkens Claire features. “You’re recording this?”

“Not yet... but I was hoping to at least record the bunker where we’ll be staying. Will that be a problem?”

“Yes, I’m afraid it will. It’s a violation of our NDA.”

“But I haven’t signed anything yet.”

“Then maybe you should.”

“Uhh, sure. If you need me to, of course.”

Claire nods. “That would be appreciated. Thank you.”

We walk into the elevator and I deliberately move to stand behind Claire, thinking this might be my moment. But then I notice the camera in the elevator, and I hold myself back. I’ll wait until we reach the bunker.

The elevator zips down a dozen floors and then opens into a windowless concrete corridor. We walk past several reinforced steel doors until Claire stops at a particular one. It slides away, and I’m greeted to a bright, airy space with polished concrete floors, high ceilings and windows everywhere. The windows look out on a not-so-distant beach with big waves rolling in to shore from a sparkling blue horizon. If I listen carefully I can hear those waves thundering on the shore.

“What do you think?” Claire asks. I have to admit I’m impressed. She turns to gesture to the view. “One hundred and eighty degrees of ocean front property. You’re on the tip of a virtual peninsula.”

I pull the bug out of my pocket and release it as I walk by her to admire the view. Out of the corner of my eye, I see the mechanical fly land in Claire’s long blond hair, a black speck that quickly burrows down to hide in the flaxen strands. I hope she doesn’t feel an itch on her scalp and scratch it away before I can see who’s behind this Anon.

Turning to Claire with a grin, I say, “Adriana is going to love this.”

“I’m glad you approve,” Claire replies.

*     *     *

After seeing the bunker, Claire takes me into a dingy room with no windows to sign the NDA agreement, and then I’m allowed to leave, but this time Claire seems determined to get more out of me.

“Are you ready to sign a travel contract and make a deposit?”

I hesitate, searching for an excuse. “Would it be all right if I take some time to show Adriana the place first?”

Claire’s eyes pinch into slits, and I get the impression she’s getting tired of giving me all these personal tours with no end in sight.

“I don’t have to leave. I can just go back to my car and talk to her from there. I’ll be back with my answer in an hour or two at most. After lunch, let’s say?”

“That would be fine. I’ll need your girlfriend’s full name and ID number for the contracts. We can send them to her for a digital signature.”

That catches me off guard once more. This lie is getting me into trouble. I smile and nod. “After lunch. Once she gives me the green light, I’ll get you all of those details.”

Claire sucks in a breath and holds it. “All right. See you soon, then, Mr. Anchors.”

“See you.” I hurry back through the lobby, my whole body shaking with adrenaline. I can’t tell if it’s my real body that’s shaking or my Anon’s. Maybe both. I’m hoping that whoever is controlling Claire will take a break for lunch while I’m away. If not, I may have to come up with another excuse to delay things. One thing’s for sure, I can’t give Claire Adriana’s full name and ID. I’ll just have to tell her that my girlfriend had a change of heart.

I leave the launch center and walk briskly down a sand-dusted road to reach the landing field. There are dozens of air cars parked there beside mine, all bright and gleaming in the sun. The sky is big and blue like an ocean, not a cloud in sight.

Opening the door to my car before I reach it, I hurry up the short flight of stairs and flop down into a plush reclining chair. Using my glasses, I remote connect to the bug to see what it’s seeing. It’s sitting on top of Claire’s head, the view bobbing with her steps.

She’s gliding down another windowless concrete corridor. I find that I recognize it. She’s below ground, passing the reinforced steel doors of several different bunkers. There’s glowing numbers on each of those doors and physical keypads beside them. I’m amazed that the signal from the bug can reach me from down there. Whatever tech Violet sold me, it was obviously worth the millions I paid. Claire reaches a door at the end of the corridor and stops briefly while a camera scans her. She turns to look behind her, but there’s no one there. Then the door slides open with a loud bang that tells me it’s just as thick and heavy as it looks. On the other side is a bright, high-ceilinged living space much like the one she showed me barely half an hour ago. I frown at that, wondering if I’ve somehow made a mistake. What would an Anon need with actual living quarters?

I watch as Claire walks up to the picture windows, currently displaying a mountainous, tree-lined valley and a pristine lake from a high vantage point. The door booms as it shuts behind her. In the center of the room is a familiar egg-shaped capsule, glossy and black.

As she stands staring at the view, I find myself growing increasingly anxious, wondering if I’m risking everything for nothing.

As the moment drags on, I notice something: Claire isn’t moving. She isn’t admiring the view. She’s frozen on the spot, not swaying or fidgeting, or even breathing. Nothing.

My heart hammers in my chest and electricity shoots through my fingertips. I was right. A lot of good it does me. I’m stuck in a bunker with an Anon. There’s no way to get my bug out and find the person behind it.

Or is there?

There has to be a ventilation system pumping fresh air into the bunkers. Reaching under my seat, I feel around under the webbing that holds the inflatable life vest under my seat and pull out the control joystick that Violet gave me.

Switching to manual control, I fly the bug around, searching the walls and ceiling of the bunker. It doesn’t take me long to find a vent in the ceiling. Zipping up through the grating, my bug emerges inside of a dark, silvery duct. The cameras take a moment to adjust, and then the darkness recedes and I’m able to see again. I send the bug through the ducts, zipping around, banging into walls and more vents that connect with other bunkers.

It’s like a maze in the ventilation system. The ducts leading up to the rest of the facility all run into fans that are spinning too fast to get through without chopping my delicate spy bot into pieces.

This is getting me nowhere. I’m going to have to go back and land on Claire’s head and wait for her controller to take her back upstairs.

I head back down to the vent leading to her bunker and fly out, heading for the picture windows. It takes me a moment to notice that this isn’t the same bunker. It’s larger and the decor is more personalized. The view is also different, showing a familiar scene of the Colorado Rockies. It looks like the view from my old home. Three people are sitting at a glossy black dining table, being waited on by a pair of Heavies. Two gorgeous women are sitting to either side of a black man, watching as he eats. Neither of them are eating, nor are they wearing much in the way of clothing, but I barely spare them a glance. It’s the black man with the shaved head sitting between them who has my full attention. I almost don’t recognize him without the mustache. He looks up as I fly in closer and swipes the air to swat me away from his food.

He turns and nods to a glossy black shadow standing behind him. “Chronos!”

“Sir?”

“Kill it.”

The sound of heavy footsteps precedes a deadly-looking Heavy out of the shadows. One of its arms snaps up and a flash of green light blinds my spy bot’s cameras. A laser. The feed is gone, and I’m left gaping in shock at the error screen that follows.

I’ve just found my old Chauffeur, Alexander Fields.


Chapter 33

“Claire,” I say brightly. She appears virtually before me, standing in my air car.

“Have you and your partner made a decision?” she asks.

“We have. We’re going to go for it! Would it be possible to meet me at the lobby in about ten minutes? I’d like you to join a holo-call with Adriana to answer a few questions that she has before we sign the contracts.”

“Yes, of course. I’ll be there,” Claire says.

“Great. See you soon.” I end the call there and sit stewing in the cabin of my air car, a blinding rage boiling my blood. I wait exactly ten minutes with my knees bouncing and hands clenched into fists. Let her—him—wait for me. Of course, I don’t know that Alex is the one controlling Claire. But either way, what I’m about to do is going to land Future Travels Inc. into some serious legal problems.

Triggering the door open, I leave the car at a brisk pace. The 3D-printed plastic gun tucked behind my back is hidden under a bulky windbreaker and a long sweater. The desert is warm, but this is March, so I feel like I can get away with wearing a coat. If Claire asks about my change of attire, I’ll say I’m coming down with something. Or maybe I’ll just cut the shit and pull the gun out. Either way.

Rage buoys my steps as I approach the entrance of the launch center. I see Claire emerge from the reinforced steel doors and wave to me through a blowing wave of sand. Looking to my right, I pretend to be distracted by the view of Mono Lake. Strange pillars of limestone stand on the shore like a city of ancient ruins, obscuring my view of the lake.

“Mr. Anchors,” Claire says as I draw near.

I look to her with a bright smile. The PD-model Heavies turn their heads slightly to look at me as I approach. Not yet, I tell myself, biding my time for the right opportunity.

“Where would you like to call your partner from?” Claire asks. “We have a conference room on the second floor.”

“We could use my air car,” I say, and jerk a thumb over my shoulder to indicate the vehicle. “It’s closer, and I have a fantastic bottle of single malt on board that we can use to celebrate.”

Claire frowns and squints across the desert to the landing field. For a moment I’m afraid she’s going to say no and make my plan a lot more complicated. But then she turns and gestures to the open door and the Heavies ease it shut.

“Lead the way,” she says.

I turn and head back the way I came, all the while hoping that she won’t somehow see the gun tucked into the waistband of my pants. Just to be sure, I slow my pace and allow Claire to come up alongside me.

Adrenaline is surging through my real body making even my Anon tense up. We reach my car in what seems like seconds, and I open the door in advance via my glasses. It slides open, and I gesture to the short flight of stairs. “Ladies first.”

Claire smiles tightly, but gives in with a shallow nod. Once inside the car, I gesture to the reclining chairs where I was seated a few minutes ago. There’s another two on the other side of the aisle, both sets facing each other.

Claire eases down into one, and I take a seat facing her. Using my glasses, I shut and lock the door behind us. Claire sits watching me expectantly with her hands folded in her lap.

“Well?” she prompts. “Are you going to call her or not?”

“Of course. One moment.” Now. This is it. I lean forward. Under the guise of scratching my back, my hand closes around the grip of the pistol, and I pull it out.

A real smile blossoms on Claire’s face, but her blue eyes glitter darkly. “What are you doing, Gavin?”

“Getting some answers. Who are you?”

“I am Claire Dev—”

“The truth.”

“That is the truth.”

“No, you’re an Anon.”

She tilts her head, and her smile grows just a bit broader. “What makes you think that?”

“Because I’ve been spying on you...” I trail off uncertainly. Something is wrong here. Claire is acting like she’s the one in control of this situation.

“I’ve been spying on you, too,” she says. “You’re also an Anon, and I know who you really are.”

“Who...” I decide to go for flat out denial. “What are you talking about?”

“It’s good to see you again, Byron.”

I freeze. “What did you say?”

“You can quit pretending. I’ve been watching you. That bug that landed on your nose when you got back from San Francisco? That was me.”

“How... why would you?”

“I bug all of my clients, Byron. It’s the best kind of background check. That fly came from here and flew back with your Anon yesterday. I watched you send him on that pitiful quest to rescue a damsel in distress from her life of prostitution in the Blocks. And I was there to see you arrive and switch places with your Anon so you could take her home with you. And of course, I watched as Theodore opened the door and let you all in.”

“Who are you?” I demand, shaking my pistol at Claire.

She arches an eyebrow at me. “I thought you had already figured it out? You buzzed around me while I was eating lunch.”

“So it is you. Alex.” A sneer twists my lips and I shake my head. I use my glasses to have my car lift off and fly back to Fresno. Specifically, to the Fresno Police Department. The car’s rotors start up with a whistling roar, and then we’re airborne and the car is tilting toward the mountains.

“Where are we going?” Claire-Alex asks.

“To speak with the authorities. Anons are illegal.”

“An illegal copy of a human delivering another illegal copy of a human to the authorities. That should be interesting. Surely that’s not your plan.”

I shrug, my mind racing to come up with a better one. “Why not? I’ll take you down with me.”

“And no one wins. You went to all the trouble of getting out of prison and following me to the future just to go back to prison, but this time so you could share a cell with me?”

“I came to get revenge on Grant and Alison. I thought they’d killed you, but apparently they left that job for me.”

Claire-Alex smiles. “So you haven’t figured it out.”

“Figured what out?”

“They’re gone, Byron. What did you think happened that night? That they somehow played dead in a puddle of their own blood, waiting for you to come to and notice them lying there?”

Realization dawns and shock takes some of the heat out of my system. “It was you?”

“Of course it was me. They’re dead. I killed them and framed you for it, and then I took the bodies with me to the future. Why did you think no one ever found them?” “But they did, we did! Theodore found Giselle and Arthur. He tracked them leaving the states and selling gold and diamonds all over Europe.”

Claire-Alex's eyes glitter with amusement. “Actors hired to play a part. I knew you would never let it go, so I had to make sure there was some kind of a trail for you to follow. The real Grant and Alison are both standing in plain sight now, encased in stone and immortalized for all Future Travels customers to see as they tour our facilities.”

The statue in the lobby. The one with the hourglass. I start shaking my head. “But I've seen them all over the net! They're public figures, the owners of Future Travels. You're telling me those actors are still playing the part?”

“Of course not. I got rid of them a long time ago. It’s surprisingly easy to create fake people these days. I had to pretend they were recluses for a number of years, but then Heavies and Skins and Anons came along, and it was easy to resurrect them to share the limelight with me. Now they’re in storage while their daughter runs things.”

“Why?” is all I can manage.

Claire-Alex’s brow furrows. “Because it’s easier to control one Anon than two.”

“No, why kill them? Why frame me? Why do any of this?! You ruined my life!”

“Because it was supposed to be my life.”

“It was! You had everything. The run of the mansion, a six figure income, an easy job—anything you needed!”

“No, the Gaines family had everything. I was just your employee! Your parents designated me as your guardian. I was supposed to be the executor of the estate when they died, not Theodore.”

“What?”

“They told me that I would be the one running everything if anything ever happened to them. What they neglected to mention was that I was second in line for the job. They made me kill them for nothing, Byron. How do you think that makes me feel?” A bitter smile twists Claire’s lips as the world spins around me. “Yes, that was the look on my face when I found out.”


Chapter 34

“I’m going to kill you!” I scream, choking Alex’s Anon as hard as I can. Claire’s eyes bulge as if she can’t breathe, and then she laughs.

“I’m a machine, Byron,” she says, her voice not the least bit altered by the lack of air flowing through her windpipe. Some things still give Anons away.

I think about the gun I left on the seat behind me and quickly step back to grab it.

Claire-Alex doesn’t even try to stop me. I hold it in a shaking hand, aiming for her head. Being an Anon, she’ll probably survive a bullet to the head, but I can’t think of any other way to satisfy the toxic flood of emotions coursing through me.

“I’m evidence,” Claire-Alex says. “You don’t want to kill me.”

I force myself to calm down, to think clearly. “How did you steal my technology if you didn’t help me to invent it? You don’t know the first thing about quantum physics, let alone engineering.”

“I stole ten million dollars in hard assets along with detailed schematics, blueprints, 3D models of components... It’s easy to hire engineers to build something, whether they understand it or not. And on top of that, I had a working prototype. I even had the patents you were going to file, but never did, because you gave them to me to pass to your lawyers, and I modified a few lines in each one first.”

I slowly shake my head, still unable to believe it. “But Grant and Alison dismissed the staff that night.”

Claire-Alex nods. “Because they were having an affair. But I’m the one who saw the opportunity presented by an empty house.”

“Theodore was the one who called me to come home, not you.” In my current state, I’m suddenly wondering if Theodore was in on it.

“I’m the one who suggested that he should call you. He was going to handle the matter himself, use his key to go inside and then tell you whatever he found, but I convinced him that it wasn’t his place to get in the middle. And then I drugged him that night to make sure that he wouldn’t try to interfere.”

The rage is back, boiling over. “I never did anything to you!” I scream, shaking the gun at her.

Claire-Alex gives me a pitying look. “I’m sorry if it hurt your ego, but this isn’t about you. It was never personal. I framed you because it was a convenient way to make sure you never caught up with me. And you would have, once you learned that I was the one who stole your life’s work. What I didn’t count on was you finding a way to get out of prison. Whoever that lawyer was, he’s a genius.”

“It was Theodore,” I reply coldly.

“Really? Well, the old man always was underpaid.”

I’m shaking all over and I still can’t think straight. I force myself to sit down. “It was all for nothing. You’re going to jail for this. You confessed and I heard it all. It’s in the memory of my Anon.” I tap the side of my head. “The police will extract the data and watch this exchange all the way through. I’ll be charged for using an Anon, but so will you, and you’ll be charged for a double murder on top of that. There’s no statute of limitations on murder. You’ll spend the rest of your life in prison. And I can tell you from experience, murderers don’t have a good time in there.”

Claire-Alex is still smiling—no, smirking—and there isn’t even a hint of the fear that should be registering on her face. Seeing that goads me to the point that all I want to do is riddle her with bullet holes, but somehow I hold myself back. I want this piece of evidence to be intact when we arrive at the police station in Fresno.

“What are you so smug about? It’s over.”

“It’s far from over, Byron. Look out your window.”

Suspecting a trick, I glance away quickly—

But my gaze lingers as I notice the small swarm of drones flanking my car.

“You’re surrounded,” Claire-Alex says.

I glance out the windows on the opposite side and see another swarm of drones.

“How are you going to turn me in without any evidence?”

I realize Alex’s intentions. We’re flying over the Sierra Nevada mountains, in the middle of nowhere. No one will find the wreckage, and even if they do, there won’t be any evidence left to recover. I glare at his Anon and say, “I’m going to kill you for this. It doesn’t matter what year you travel to, I’ll find you.”

Claire-Alex smiles thinly at me. “Not if I find you first.”

A roar of bullets come screaming through the car from both sides, filling the air with clouds of pulverized insulation and debris. The engines shudder and choke, and then all that’s left is the sound of air whistling by and freckles of sunlight glinting through the ruined fuselage. Impotent of any other release I fire my gun, over and over again, shooting Claire-Alex in the head a dozen times before the magazine is empty. She’s still smiling, but her face is lop-sided and covered with artificial blood. I can see her metal chassis gleaming through the dark hole of a ruined eye socket. The air is roaring past the car as it plummets from the sky, falling like a stone without the rotors to keep it aloft.

“May the best man win,” Claire-Alex says in a distorted voice.

And then the car hits with a sickening jolt and the screen inside my helmet goes blank.

Error!

Connection Lost.

I rip the helmet off and throw it across the room with a ragged, bestial scream that sucks all of the air from my lungs and leaves me with a pounding headache.

An urgent knock sounds on my door.

“Sir, is everything okay?” It’s Victor.

Another voice joins his; female, softer, hesitating: “Richard...? What happened?” Adriana asks.


Chapter 35

I open the door to see Victor and Adriana standing there. Olivia and Buddy are hanging back, down the hall, peering at me.

“Are you okay?” Adriana asks.

I nod, but words fail me.

“Your eyes are red.”

They feel scratchy and swollen, but no tears will come. “I’m okay,” I manage.

Adriana leans to one side to look past and see into my bedroom, but there’s nothing to see except the wrinkled bedsheets from where I was lying as I navigated my Anon through a waking nightmare.

“Are you sure?” she asks.

Approaching footsteps interrupt us, and Adriana turns to see who it is.

“Excuse me,” Theodore says as he arrives. “What happened?” His brow is deeply furrowed and tense with worry.

“Nothing happened! I need a drink.” I push past all of them and stride quickly down the window-lined hallway in the basement of my mansion. Those windows show colorful birds flitting between pine trees that are waving in a virtual breeze.

Five minutes later I’m sitting alone in one of the armchairs by the windows in my office. It’s a deliberate copy of my father’s study in the old family estate outside Denver. I have too many good memories there to let it go. Taking a gulp from a generous glass of rum, I let it warm my frozen blood. The burnt caramel flavor lingers on my tongue with a second gulp, and a pleasant numbness creeps over me.

I lay my head back against the chair and close my eyes, letting the memories swirl in: me playing with my LEGO in my father’s office while he works. Him reading to me while I sit on his lap in the big executive chair behind his desk. I’m staring into the crackling fireplace beside the desk, his voice and the mesmerizing quality of the fire lulling me to sleep while a cold wind howls through the grounds outside... My mother and father sitting next to each other in a mirror image of these chairs, her sipping a glass of white wine, him balancing a glass of rum on his knee. I’m on the white shag carpet by the fireplace. My action figures are fighting a deadly battle for control of Batman’s lair and staining the white carpet crimson with their imaginary blood.

The door clicks open, then shut. “Sir, we need to talk.”

My eyes crack open to see Theodore standing in the study. He has my Anon’s control helmet in his hands. “I found this.” He turns it so that I can see the shattered visor. “And the dent it left in the wall after you threw it. If something happened, you need to tell me so that I can take the necessary steps to protect you.”

My cheeks are itching. I reach up to scratch one of them, and my fingers come away wet. I stare at them stupidly for several long seconds. Theodore sits in the chair beside mine. He has a second tumbler for himself. “May I?” he asks.

I nod, but say nothing, still staring at my glistening fingers. A perfect teardrop clings like dew to my index finger, and a tiny reflection of my haggard face stares back. Theodore pours a few fingers of rum, takes a sip, and sets the glass down on the table between us.

“Byron,” he says, his voice taking on that gentle paternal tone he used to use with me when I got lost in one of these trances in the past. “You need to tell me what happened.”

I look at him. Swallow past the burning, aching lump in my throat, and give a shallow nod. “It was Alex.”

Theodore’s brow furrows. “Alex?”

“Alexander Fields. He killed them. All of them. My wife and Grant, and my—” My voice cracks, and I take a break to drain what’s left of the rum in my glass. “He killed my parents.”

Theodore’s face pales. “How do you know?”

And so I tell him. I explain about Claire being an Anon, and about how I found out who was controlling her, and about how he also spied on us. I end with Alex’s confession in my air car as we flew across the mountains and our subsequent crash into those mountains after his security drones shot us down.

Theodore’s eyes flash and darken with a familiar look. I see it in the mirror every morning when I shave, and every night when I brush my teeth.

“If he was after control of the estate, why didn’t he try to kill me?” Theodore asks.

I shrug, shaking my head as I pour myself another drink. “Who knows. Maybe he knew that it would look too suspicious if everyone standing between him and billions of dollars somehow died under suspicious circumstances.”

A muscle twitches in Theodore’s cheek. “Yes. Perhaps.”

“He drugged you, too,” I say, stoking the flames. “That’s why you slept through the night in question instead of being there to welcome me home.”

“We always knew he had to be involved,” Theodore says.

“But we didn’t know to what extent.”

“Yes.” Theodore stares vacantly into the dormant fireplace across from us, sipping his rum. “The question is,” he says slowly. “What are you going to do about it?”

“I don’t know. I’ve got no proof. I was going to deliver his Anon to the authorities, and get him charged with using an illegal identity, but then I had his confession, and that was even better. He knew I could get him arrested for all of that, so he had his security drones shoot us down over the mountains. If my Anon’s data core survived the wreckage, we can still use it as evidence.”

Before Theodore can answer, a familiar ball of shaggy brown fur belly-crawls out from under my chair.

“That sounds like a great idea,” Buddy says. He sits down facing us, and takes a moment to scratch an imaginary flee from behind his left ear. When he’s done, he stares at us with one eyebrow comically raised. “Using the data core of an illegal copy of a human to report another illegal copy of a human to the authorities. What could possibly go wrong with that?”

*     *     *

“How long have you been under my chair?” I ask, scowling at Buddy.

“Long enough to hear all the juicy stuff, Byron. Or should I call you Mr. Gaines?”

“You need to keep your mouth shut. Do you understand?”

Buddy cocks his head. “I don’t have a mouth.”

“Your snout then.”

“I can do that.”

“Good.”

“For a price.”

It’s my turn to raise an eyebrow. “Are you blackmailing me?”

“No, I’d never blackmail you, but some people say I talk too much. It would be helpful if I had something to remind me to be more discreet.”

I glower at him. “Such as?”

Buddy jumps up on my lap, almost knocking the glass of rum out of my hand. “Now that you ask, it would be nice to have some company. Robopets has a female model of Irony Dog. I like brunettes.”

I blink incredulously at him. “Another one of you? Absolutely not.”

“Okay, compromise: we’ll get Irony Cat.”

“Don’t dogs hate cats?” Theodore asks.

Buddy glances at him. “It’s more of a love hate situation. A dog’s gotta have a hobby.”

I’ve had enough of this. I just want to get rid of Buddy. To that end I shove him off my lap, but somehow he lands on his feet, looking unperturbed. “So, what do you say, Mr. Gaines?”

“Deal, but if you ever tell anyone about any of what you heard, I’ll drop you back in the garbage where Olivia found you.”

“Agreed.” Buddy flashes a grin at us and then turns and slinks away, heading for the doors. Finding them shut, he sits in front of them and barks.

Olivia comes in a minute later. “There you are!” She picks him up and carries him out.

Theodore shakes his head, smiling tightly. “Clever programming.”

I arch an eyebrow at him. “How so?”

“Buddy’s developers just got you to buy another one of their products.”

“I didn’t buy the first one,” I reply.

“Nevertheless.” Theodore’s smile slowly fades, and he turns back to me. “What are you going to do? He knows who you are.”

“I guess I could run him over and tell Olivia he went to live on a farm.”

“I meant about Alex. He knows where you live. He’s going to be coming for you now.”

“Ah.” I take another sip of rum. Paradoxically, it has the effect of clearing my head and settling my racing thoughts. I do still have one thing up my sleeve. “I think it’s time that I showed you something,” I say, rising from my chair. Theodore rises with me, and I lead the way out of the study, heading back down into the basement. We pass both Adriana and Olivia in the great room, but I lock the door at the bottom of the stairs to make sure we’re alone this time.

Leading the way through the living area with its simulated views of a forest, I hurry down the window-lined hallway, past the bedrooms. Victor is still at his post, guarding the door to my room.

“Are you feeling better now, sir?” he asks.

“Just fine,” I say, stopping in front of the solid concrete wall at the end of the hall. I use my glasses to access a digital switch and the wall pivots from its center, revealing a stairwell and an elevator on the other side. I lead the way to the elevator and shut the hidden door behind us.

It’s a short ride down—just twenty feet before the elevator opens into my bunker. It’s a bare concrete room with several doors and a glossy, black egg-shaped capsule in the center. The STCD Mark V. It’s the same one that Theodore and I used back in Denver to come to the future, transplanted from one bunker to another.

“Where are we going, sir? Or perhaps I should ask when.” Theodore already knows about this place; he helped me build it.

“You’ll see,” I say.

I head for the steel doors at the far end of the room and open them with my glasses before we arrive. They rumble open to reveal a vast, echoing hangar with over twenty different air cars and ground cars parked inside. Walking past several gleaming sports cars, I lead Theodore to a massive structure in the center of the hangar. The vehicle elevator. The platform used to be open on all sides, with nothing but four pillars for walls.

“This is new,” Theodore says.

I nod and use my glasses to open the massive steel doors on one side. They thunder open. A long-range air car is sitting on the platform inside.

Theodore shakes his head. “I don’t get it.”

“When we came to 2061, I learned that Future Travels was working on a warp drive for spaceships. That got me thinking. It might be possible to navigate the dimension that the probes go to when they disappear.”

“So this is... a spaceship?” Theodore asks.

“No. It’s just an air car. But it’s also the STCD Mark VI. It travels simultaneously through space and time. When it disappears, it can fly somewhere else and re-appear in another location. I’m still working on the navigation system, but I’ve already proven that it works. I jumped a day into the future with it and flew halfway from Fresno to San Jose.”

“I see. What are you going to use it for?” Theodore asks.

“To go after Alex.”

Before either of us can say anything else, a security alert pops up on my glasses. The perimeter has been breached. Scowling at that, I focus on the blinking icon of a shield at the top of my glasses and scan the report. My PD-model Heavies guarding the walls were overridden and forced to open the gates. I pull up security footage from the walls and see the flashing red and blue lights of police cars screaming down my tree-lined driveway.

Cursing under my breath, I shoot Theodore an urgent look and say, “The police are here. Alex must have sent them.”


Chapter 36

“Let me deal with it, sir,” Theodore says, already striding back the way we came. I follow him through the launch chamber, but he turns to me at the elevator and shakes his head. “You should stay here. Even if they search the house, they won’t find you in the bunker.”

“Did you bring your glasses?” I ask. “You can’t open the door without them.”

He nods and withdraws a pair from his trousers pocket. He slips them on just as the elevator opens.

“We have to get Adriana and Olivia down here. I don’t want them getting tied up in any of this.”

Theodore hesitates. “There might not be time...”

“Just do it! Give them your glasses to open the passage.”

Theodore frowns. “Very well. I’ll try to stall the police at the door.”

I nod, stepping back as the elevator doors slide shut with Theodore inside.

I wait there in the launch chamber, pacing circles around the glossy black egg of the Mark V.

A few minutes later, the doors to the elevator part, and Adriana, Olivia, and Buddy pile out. I stop my pacing and watch as they approach.

“What’s going on?” Adriana asks, looking around the bare concrete chamber. “Where are we?”

“Did you shut the door behind you on the way down?” I ask.

“The one that looks like a wall?” Buddy asks.

Adriana nods. “Yes.”

I blow out a shaky sigh. “Good. Then we’re safe.”

“Safe from what?” Adriana asks.

“Yeah, safe from what?” Buddy echoes as he lifts one eyebrow.

I glare at him, and he says, “Meow.”

A not so subtle reminder of our deal. It doesn’t matter. I’m going to level with Adriana. She deserves to know what she’s gotten herself into. She could become an accessory to a crime by staying here.

I give them a brief summary of everything that’s happened so far, starting with who I really am, and why I came to the future.

Adriana’s expression goes from confused to wary and back again. Olivia is scratching her head. “Your name isn’t Richard?” she asks.

“No. It’s Byron Gaines.”

“And you came here for revenge on your driver, Alex,” Adriana says.

I nod slowly. My whole body is shaking after retelling everything.

“He really did all of that?”

I nod once more.

“Your parents, your wife, your friend Carlos... you... all those years in jail.” A tear slides down her cheek and she wipes it away. Rushing forward she pulls me into a hug. “I’m so sorry,” she whispers into my shoulder.

I’m caught off guard by her reaction. My arms frozen halfway toward hugging her back. I was expecting anger, indignation over being lied to, but not pity. I don’t know what to say. I wrap my arms tentatively around her. She sniffles and withdraws, wiping her eyes.

“But even if you kill Alex, it won’t fix anything. You’ll just go back to jail.” Horror clouds Adriana’s face and her cheeks turn pale. “Is that why the police are here?”

“No. I don’t know why they’re here. I assume it’s something to do with the fact that my Anon abducted Alex’s from Future Travels.” Something clicks in my brain, and my eyes widen as realization dawns. “He mentioned that he was spying on me. He probably has evidence connecting my Anon and me.”

Adriana looks unconvinced. “Even if he does, that’s not proof that Gavin Anchors was an Anon, or that he was your Anon. They need more.”

“Maybe something survived the crash,” I say. “We’ll have to wait for Theodore to tell us after the police are gone. Come on.” I wave for them to follow me and then turn to lead the way to the doors on the left side of the launch chamber. “If we’re going to wait down here, we should at least be comfortable,” I say.

The doors part, revealing a duplicate of the living area in the basement above us, complete with another artificial view and simulated outdoor space. This time the view is of a tropical paradise, with palm trees and a giant arch covered with purple blossoms framing a white sandy beach and Caribbean-blue ocean. Giant waves are crashing on the shore, adding a rhythmic drumbeat to the one already pounding in my chest.

I don’t know what kind of trouble Alex has gotten me into, but it won’t stop me. Nothing will. Not until he’s dead and rotting in the ground.


Chapter 37

After waiting for over an hour in the bunker, Theodore calls me, asking me to come open the door. He gave his glasses to Adriana, so he can’t get back down here.

In the secret passage at the top of the elevator, I activate the concrete wall and it pivots open to reveal Theodore standing there.

“What were the police looking for?” I ask.

“You,” Theodore replies as he steps through.

“On what charges?” I ask as I shut the door behind him.

“Identity theft, illegal use of a Skin, and abduction and murder.”

“Murder?” I echo incredulously. “Claire was an Anon!”

“Can you prove that?” Theodore asks.

I think back to the footage from my bug. “Yes...”

“How?” Theodore asks.

I was controlling the bug with my Anon, but the bug itself was destroyed when it got shot by Alex’s bodyguard, and the video recordings went into my Anon’s memory banks, which were destroyed in the crash. I also have the memory of what the bug saw, but organic memories aren’t so easy to extract and analyze. Not yet, anyway. “I guess I can’t.”

“Then as far as the authorities are concerned, Claire was a real person, and you used an Anon to abduct and ultimately kill her. They had a warrant for your arrest. They searched the entire estate for you.”

“They got a warrant that fast?”

“Yes.”

The judicial process is obviously a lot more streamlined than it used to be. As we walk back to the elevator together I’m busy weighing my options. “Do they have any proof linking me to my Anon?”

Theodore’s expression is grim. “If they managed to get a warrant, then they must have proof, sir.”

“Right.”

Back down in the living room of the bunker, Theodore and I sit on the couch facing Adriana and Olivia. I spend the next five minutes relaying the news to them.

Adriana looks to Theodore. “He’s wanted for murder? It’s that serious?”

“I’m afraid so, ma’am.”

She shoots an accusing look at me. “You’ll go back to prison!”

Theodore nods. “And this time he won’t get out.”

I grimace and shake my head. “No. Alex won’t get away with framing me twice. I’ll be long gone by the time the police come back here looking for me again.” I stare pointedly at Adriana. “You should also leave before then.”

She nods but says nothing.

“Leave?” Olivia’s eyes fly wide and she shakes her head vigorously, sending long, dark hair fanning over her shoulders. “But we just got here! I don’t wanna go.”

“Shhh, it will be okay,” Adriana says.

“I’ll give you as much money as I can before I go,” I say.

“Actually, that would not be wise, sir,” Theodore says. “You’ll only incriminate them further.”

I stare at Theodore with narrowing eyes. “Further?”

“The police were also looking for Miss Ana. She’s wanted for questioning.”

“But we haven’t done anything!”

“Nevertheless,” Theodore says.

I’m shaking my head now. “They won’t last long without money in the Blocks. There must be another way.”

Adriana’s expression turns to stone, and she draws herself up. “I can take care of us. I was doing fine before you came along.”

“I’m sure you can,” I say. Looking to Theodore, I say, “We can send her money anonymously. Or simply give her hard assets that she can convert into money.”

He nods. “Yes, that might work.”

“What about you?” Adriana adds. “The police didn’t suspect your involvement?”

“They did, but they have no proof that I was involved with or aware of anything illegal, and I have already answered all of their questions. I suspect it helps that I am a duly registered citizen.” He turns the back of his hand to indicate the glowing blue triangle of his passmark. “My understanding is that citizens bearing pass cards are treated with far more suspicion.”

Adriana scowls. “That’s an understatement.” She looks to me now. “Where will you go? You’re marked. They’ll find you.” Her eyes narrow suddenly as something occurs to her. “Why didn’t they find you?”

I glance up to indicate the ceiling. “We’re 20 feet under the basement, with several feet of reinforced concrete above our heads. No GPS signal is getting through all of that. They might see that my last registered location was here, but as far as they know, I cut out my passmark and flew away in one of my air cars.”

“Oh.”

“As for where I’m going to go...” I debate telling Ana the truth. Theodore sends me a sharp look and gives his head a slight shake, as if he can tell what I am thinking. An idea occurs to me. It’s a gamble, but it might be worth it. “What if you come with me?”

“Sir...”

“Hang on.” I hold up a hand to stall his objections.

Adriana looks confused. “Go with you where?”

“To the future.”

She leans away from me. I’ve already told her where I came from, and why. So she’s not surprised by the suggestion. She’s wary.

“I already did that once.” Adriana glances at Olivia. “I don’t regret saving my daughter’s life, but... I’m not sure why I would go to the future again. What if things get worse? How many years are you planning to travel?”

“Fifty.”

Theodore’s brow furrows. “Have you given up on getting revenge?”

I shake my head.

“Alexander Fields was already middle-aged in 2031, and he must have been here for several decades already. He will not live for another fifty years.”

“Something tells me he’ll find a way,” I say. “It’s public knowledge that Alison and Grant, A.K.A. Arthur and Giselle Devereaux, are traveling to the year 2111, but I know from what Alex told me that they are Anons, just like Claire. He’ll have to be there to parade them out for the public.”

“Not if he passes down his legacy to someone else. An heir, perhaps.”

“I don’t think so. When I saw him, he was alone in one of his bunkers, surrounded by Skins and Heavies. He didn’t have a wife or any children. Besides, he’s always been a loner. In all the years that we knew him, he never once had a stable relationship with anyone. You know that as well as I do.”

“I suppose it’s possible.”

“I’m betting on it. Especially now that he’s going to be running scared again, always looking over his shoulder. If he wasn’t planning to go to the future before, he will be now.”

“How will traveling to the year 2111 help you?” Adriana asks.

“I haven’t been officially charged with anything yet. In fifty years the authorities will have forgotten about me, and even if they haven’t, it will take the heat off enough that I can go get myself another fake ID. They won’t find me after that.”

“What about all of this?” she gestures to our surroundings. “Won’t they seize your assets?”

I shake my head. “Everything is in Theodore’s name.”

Adriana looks to him. “But he won’t be around when you get there.”

“She’s right, sir.”

“That depends. You could use the Mark V. Send yourself a year into the future every year, or skip a few months at a time at the end of every week. If you only spend a total of one month out of every year at the estate and the rest of the time in the probe, you’ll age twelve times slower than everyone else. In fifty years you’ll only have aged a little more than four. Of course, I can’t expect you to do that for me. But if you did—”

“I wouldn’t miss it for the world,” Theodore says. “Just show me how to operate the Mark V, and I’ll be there to greet you when you arrive.”

I smile and nod my thanks. Looking to Adriana. “What about you? Will you come with me?”

“What if things are worse by the time we get there?”

“What if they’re better?” I counter. “You believe this is the end of the world, right? If you’re right, you’ll get to skip over all of the chaos that’s coming.”

“Or arrive in the middle of it.”

“If that happens, I’d be happy to send you to the future again, as far as you’d like.”

Adriana spends a minute chewing her lower lip. She looks to Olivia. “What do you think?”

“We should go,” Olivia replies, bobbing her head.

Buddy perks up. “I agree.” He glances at me, his eyes narrowing. “He owes me a cat. Didn’t think you were going to get off that easy, did you?”

I don’t dignify that with a reply, instead favoring Adriana with a grin. “We should start packing.”

Theodore rises from the couch. “I’ll handle that. You three should stay down here to avoid detection.”

“Good point,” I say.

“I do have one concern, however,” Theodore adds.

“And that is?” I ask.

“If I’ll be using the Mark V, what will you be using?”

A sly smile touches my lips. “The Mark VI.”

*     *     *

It takes me almost six hours to get everything ready to my satisfaction. By the time we’re done, Theodore knows how to use the Mark V, and we’ve packed all the supplies I can think of into the Mark VI. I have my clothes and personal effects, a cache of weapons old and new, two PD-model Heavies, Victor, and almost fifty million coin worth of gold and diamonds.

Now I sit in one of the reclining chairs in the back of the car, using my glasses to triple check the course I’ve laid into the autopilot.

Once I open the hangar and send the vehicle elevator up, the car will activate the time compression field, fly straight up to fourteen thousand feet and fly east to Denver. The Mark VI uses two opposing field generators to generate thrust. It’s an Alcubierre drive of my own design that I cobbled together. It won’t move us very fast, and the overlapping fields have the effect of reducing the time compression for us, so we’ll be in here for several hours before we reappear in Colorado fifty years from now.

But all of that suits my purposes perfectly. Nothing will be able to detect us while we’re traveling inside of our warp bubble.

Taking a deep breath, I minimize the autopilot screens and look to Adriana. She’s sitting across the aisle from me, talking to Olivia in a low voice.

“We’re ready,” I say.

She looks to me with a shaky smile. “That’s good.”

I call Theodore, and a few minutes later hear him coming aboard at the rear entrance of the car.

I rise to greet him, walking past Victor and my two bodyguard Heavies in the rearmost seats of the car.

“Are you certain about this?” Theodore asks as we stop in front of each other.

“I am. Just make sure no one builds an apartment complex over my old estate while we’re gone.”

“I will be sure to resist any offers to sell the property,” Theodore replies. “Have you worked out the bugs in your navigation software?”

“Mostly. We’ll arrive anywhere between five and thirty miles away from the property. I can’t get us closer than that without more time, but it should be good enough.”

“I hope you are right. An air car appearing out of nowhere over Denver could draw a swift response from the authorities. Especially if they discover that it’s carrying three undocs.”

“Yeah, about that,” I say. “Try to have new identities waiting for us when we arrive.”

“Of course. One passmark and two pass cards?”

I nod. “Yes.”

“I will do everything I can to have them waiting when you arrive. When should I expect you?”

I check the date and time on my glasses. It’s just after midnight on March 18th. I add our estimated flight time to that. “May 10th 2111 AD, just before three AM Pacific time.” I’ve added a few months to the fifty years we’re traveling to avoid reaching Colorado in the middle of winter.

Theodore’s brow furrows. “Is that a precise estimate? Or should I pack a tent and a picnic?”

I smile. “It’s accurate.”

“Very well. Have you considered that Alex might be expecting you in the future?”

“Maybe, but even if he guesses the year I’m heading for, he won’t know the month or the day, and he won’t know my future alias, so I’ll still have the element of surprise.”

Theodore inclines his head to that. “Then I will see you in Denver fifty years from now.”

“Yes.”

We stand awkwardly for a moment, neither of us knowing what to say. I shatter that silence by lurching forward to pull him into a back-slapping hug. “Take care of yourself, Theo.”

“You too, sir,” he replies.

We withdraw, and he regards me with a tight smile as he turns to leave. I watch him go for a second before walking back to my seat. With a sigh, I collapse into it and listen to the rear door of the car sliding shut. It’s time to go.

Pulling up the launch controls on one side of my glasses, I open the hangar and activate the vehicle lift. The car jolts into upward motion. Adriana stifles a cry and reaches across the aisle for my hand.

I give her a reassuring smile. “Ready?”

She shakes her head.

“Don’t worry,” I say. “This is perfectly safe.”

Olivia is clutching her mother’s other arm.

“You promise?” Adriana says.

I frown at the childlike innocence and vulnerability in that question. Considering everything she’s been through, it’s astounding that Adriana still has those qualities. I find it remarkably endearing.

“I promise,” I say, just as the shadows in the elevator shaft part and we emerge in the silvering light of a full moon. I stare at my and Adriana’s hands, our fingers laced together. The bandage where my passmark used to be stares back at me. I had to cut it out, but I still have it with me. It’s locked in a shielded metal box with Adriana’s and Olivia’s pass cards. The box should block GPS and Internet signals, so if the authorities are watching for us, they won’t see anything even now that we’ve emerged from the bunker.

“Give me some warning,” Adriana says between deep breaths.

“Okay.” I bring the launch controls back up on my glasses and nod to her. “In three, two... one—”


Chapter 38

I activate the compression fields and the autopilot at the same time. The moonlight spilling in from outside vanishes abruptly, as if someone just pulled blackout shades over all the windows in the same instant. The car shivers and shakes around us.

Adriana’s hand tightens, squeezing mine until I can’t feel my fingers. Time seems to freeze, and then the inside of the car is filled with bright, shimmering bands of light that feel somehow cold as they flow around me. I’m filled with a terrible sense of foreboding and wrongness, like the entire universe is watching me in this moment, and judging me for twisting its very fabric to suit my needs. Olivia screams, and Adriana joins her. Buddy howls.

Through the shifting bands of light, I see an image, a glimpse of a familiar face: it’s Theodore. He’s screaming something at me, but I can barely hear him over the sound of everyone else’s screaming.

“What did you say?” I call to him, but my voice echoes strangely back to me, and Theodore’s words remain indistinct. His face is turning red from the force of his screaming, and the feeling of wrongness increases until I feel certain that something terrible is about to happen. I grit my teeth and wait for it to pass.

After a seemingly endless moment, Theodore’s face vanishes along with the shifting bands of light, and the sense of foreboding lifts.

Adriana gasps and looks to me with hollowed-out eyes. “What was that?”

I slowly shake my head. “You’ve traveled before...”

“They put us under at the hospital!” she snaps.

“Oh, well, now I guess you know why.”

Adriana jerks her hand out of mine. “This is wrong. Something is wrong. We have to go back!”

“We can’t.”

“We have to!”

“Why? What did you see?”

“I...” Tears spring to her eyes and she breaks down sobbing. Olivia is staring at me in shock, her eyes dry. Buddy’s ears are flattened to his head, but I doubt he saw anything.

I get out of my chair and cross the aisle to crouch down beside Adriana. “Ana. Talk to me. What did you see?”

Her shoulders shake with sobs, and she doesn’t reply for several minutes. Olivia is hugging her and crying now, too. I begin to feel increasingly uncomfortable, like I just stumbled in on a stranger’s funeral.

“Ana?” I try again.

She sits up and wipes her eyes. They’re red and puffy. She looks a mess, but somehow no less beautiful for it.

“I saw the Blocks burning, police Heavies marching, and people dying everywhere. And I saw a church... it looked like the Grace Cathedral in San Francisco. Olivia and I were hiding beneath it...” Adriana trails off, swallowing hard past a knot that I can almost see in her throat.

“You’re talking about things that haven’t happened yet,” I say. “The future isn’t set. No one can predict it.”

Adriana looks unconvinced. “I saw something else. A black man, bald... maybe sixty. You were standing in front of him. He was aiming a gun at you. He shot you, and... I think you died.”

Now she has my full attention. I never told her what Alex looks like. “Did you see anything else?”

Adriana shakes her head. “That was it.”

I withdraw from her with a frown and go back to my seat. I’m still skeptical. It could just be a coincidence. It’s not like Alex is the only African American man in the world.

I reassure myself with that line of thinking and settle in to wait for our arrival in Colorado. I watch the ETA clock ticking down on my glasses. Two hours and thirty-six minutes to go...


Earth 2111: Apokalypsis

“Our awareness of time is what separates us from the animals. The ability to transcend time is what separates us from God.”

―Anonymous


Chapter 39

Fifty Years Later...

—May 10, 2111 AD—

The air car arrives with a bright flash of light that suffuses the vehicle from within and leaves me blinking bright spots from my eyes. Despite a stabbing headache, I force my eyes to focus on my glasses and see where we are. The map indicates we’re only thirty miles away from downtown Denver, within walking distance of my old estate. If you don’t count the fact that we’re still hovering a thousand feet above the ground.

Peering out the window, I can see that it’s the middle of the night, but it hardly looks like it. Denver has expanded dramatically since I last saw it. There are massive skyscrapers everywhere, elevated highways and train tracks snaking high above the ground, and the sky is cluttered with grid lines of air traffic.

“Wow...” Olivia says.

“Bow-wow,” Buddy adds.

I don’t have time to force a laugh. I’m hurriedly checking the view from the car’s external cameras, looking for a safe place to land. I can see air cars streaming in and out of several high rises that look like parking complexes, but my car won’t be able to give the right responses to enter any of those landing patterns. Even in 2061 you needed to use a passmark to park in a public hangar and mine is fifty years old and sitting in an improvised Faraday cage.

I pan the camera around zooming in at random on the dark gaps in the glittering sea of lights below. Most of them look like rooftops, and one or two others might be parks.

Then I just happen to find myself zooming in on a dark splotch in the middle of what might be my old neighborhood. If it is, it’s built up beyond recognition, but that dark splotch is almost certainly my old family estate. I can only hope I’m right and that Theodore has managed to resist the offers to buy it over the years.

Taking a chance, I set that as our landing site. The car immediately begins banking and descending. Our flight path takes us through a narrow gap between a gleaming pair of what must be at least fifty-story skyscrapers. I see people pointing urgently to us from balconies as the car races by them.

“You think they saw us?” Adriana asks.

“No. We’re invisible,” Buddy deadpans.

I just hope they won’t report us to the authorities. The blank black patch that I hope is my old family estate swells to fill my entire field of view on the car’s belly camera. The jagged black shadows of by-now hundred year-old trees rise up around us, their leaves shining darkly under the car’s landing lights. Then I see a narrowing circle of overgrown grass race up beneath us, bowing in the wind of the car’s rotors.

We touchdown with a mild jolt, and I sit for a moment listening to the dying whistling of the rotors. Remembering how I was mistaken for a Fundy the last time I time-traveled like this, I reach up and remove the gold necklace with Carl’s crucifix on it and slide it into my jacket pocket. I feel bad about that; it’s the only piece of Carl I have left, but I can’t afford to go drawing any negative attention to myself in this new world.

Unbuckling my seatbelt, I say, “Everybody out.”

The sound of buckles releasing echoes through the cabin. I jump to my feet, adrenaline sparking in my fingertips and toes. If anyone did report us to the authorities on the way down, the police won’t be far away.

I use my glasses to open the nearest door and we hurry out into the night. Despite the fact that we’re now in the middle of the city, somehow the air smells fresh and clean, honeyed with apple blossoms, just as I remember it. I made sure to travel to a future date at the end of spring in order to avoid the deadly cold of Colorado winters.

Casting about wildly, I’m searching for any sign of Theodore. Another car. A flashlight. Something! But I can’t see anything in the dark besides the shadowy specter of my old family home, silhouetted against the orange glow of the horizon. The skyscrapers we flew past on the way down are too close, peering down on us along with dozens of more distant buildings. Bright grid lines of air traffic are flowing steadily overhead—tail lights red, headlights white. I feel surrounded. This isn’t the private estate it once was.

Bringing my gaze back down, I glance behind me to see Adriana and Olivia. The girl has Buddy in her arms. He’s squirming to jump free just as a real dog might. Behind them stand Victor and the two Heavies we brought with us. “We’re going to have to run for it,” I say.

“Let’s go!” Ana replies.

I turn back to the fore and set my sights on the hulking shadow at the end of the driveway. Then I run toward it like my life depends on it. And for all I know it does. We’re Undocs in the year 2111. Being an Undoc in 2061 was bad enough. I can only hope that in this century people have grown out of the phase of trading freedoms for security and obsessively tracking everyone on the planet.

*     *     *

By the time we reach the mansion, I’m out of breath, but I can see that there’s another air car here. It’s landed on top of the pedestal that covers the entrance to my old bunker’s underground garage. The statue of me is missing, broken into giant gray chunks that are barely visible in the long grass. I hope the car belongs to Theodore. Other possibilities swirl through my head as I vault up the crumbling steps to the entrance of my family’s mansion. Theodore might have decided to live out the rest of his days in peace, and sent someone else ahead to meet us, a designated heir to my fortune that I may or may not be able to trust. Or, that car could belong to Alex, assuming he found some way to force the details of this rendezvous out of Theodore.

“Level Five threat detected,” Victor says just as my eyes pick out a pair of shadows turning to us from either side of the entrance. He pushes in front of me and draws his pistol.

“Identify yourselves,” one of the shadows says in a robotic voice. I suspect from that voice that they’re both Heavies, but they’re unlike any models I’ve seen before. They seem to blend almost perfectly with their surroundings, flowing like liquid as they move. Both are aiming integrated weapons at us.

I hesitate, wondering whether to use my real name or the one associated with my passmark from 2061.

“Byron Gaines,” I say.

Both machines drop their arms and step aside from the shattered entrance of my old home. “Proceed.”

Only four people know my real name, and two of them are standing behind me.

“Maybe we should wait here,” Adriana suggests.

I turn to see her holding Olivia back. The two Heavies that I brought with us are standing in front of them, their weapons still aimed at the newer versions of themselves guarding the entrance.

“I would advise against that,” a familiar voice says.

I whirl around to see Theodore appear in the darkened entrance. “Out here in the open, patrol drones will spot your heat signatures a mile away and identify you as undocs.”

Gratitude and relief burst inside of me at the sight of Theodore. I leap up the remaining steps and pull him into an embrace. “You made it,” I whisper.

“I said that I would.”

“Yes, you did,” I reply through a smile.

“We need to get inside.” Theodore pulls me through the doorway, and quickly does the same with the others. “Leave the Heavies here. The floor is collapsing. It might not hold their weight.”

I nod and pass on the command to Victor and my two bodyguard units. They take up positions outside the entrance.

“Keep away from the windows and watch for soft spots in the floor. Follow my steps precisely,” Theodore says as he leads us into the darkened recesses of the mansion.

We follow Theodore through the old great room to the kitchen and then to a sheltered corner of the mansion that is shielded by two of the home’s exterior walls. It looks like the old pantry. The cabinets and the interior wall that once separated it from the kitchen are long gone.

“Now we can talk,” Theodore says.

I can’t see a thing. The pale yellow-white glow of city lights reflected off clouds and spilling in from the kitchen windows is not enough to pierce these shadows. But before long my eyes begin to adjust, and I see that there’s someone else standing here with us. A female silhouette with faintly glowing purple eyes.

“Who is that?” I ask.

“You don’t remember me, Richard?” The woman asks, taking a step closer to the light. Purple hair shimmers in the gloom.

“Violet? You must be at least seventy years old by now!”

“I’m timeless, baby,” she says with a white flash of teeth.

“Me, too,” Buddy adds.

She glances at him. “Irony Dog! I never thought I’d see one again. You’re a collector’s item.”

“The name’s Buddy,” he growls.

“Let’s stay on topic,” I say. “Theodore, what’s happened while we’ve been gone? Do we still need passmarks?”

“Yes. I’ve secured three new identities for you. Violet was kind enough to come here and implant them herself.”

Violet opens a hand to reveal three glowing blue triangles.

Adriana takes a quick step back. “Passmarks?” She’s shaking her head. “We won’t take those.”

“You don’t have a choice,” Violet says.

“You know how I feel about this,” Adriana replies. She looks to Theodore. “Why didn’t you get pass cards for us instead?”

“Because he can’t,” Violet replies.

“I am sorry, Miss Ana,” Theodore says. “I did try.”

“No one is issuing new pass cards right now, and there’s no way to get your hands on the old ones without first smuggling you into the Blocks and someone else out in order to make the switch. That’s nearly impossible with all of the security at the checkpoints, and it doesn’t matter, anyway. Kane’s bill for universal equality was passed in the house. At the end of the week, H.R.616 goes to a vote in the Union Senate.”

“Adam Kane is still alive?” Adriana asks.

Violet’s hair shimmers as she nods. “Alive and well. He’s the president of the Union now.”

Adriana’s eyes fly wide.

“What is his proposal for?” I ask.

“Mandatory inoculations of Fundies and disbanding of the Blocks and pass cards,” Violet replies. “Brand new Heavies for everyone who trades their pass cards for implants.”

Adriana sends me a terrified look. “It’s happening! They’re forcing everyone to get the mark! We can’t stay here. You promised if we didn’t like this future you’d send us to another one.”

I concede that with a reluctant nod. “And I will.” To Theodore I say, “What about Alex and Future Travels?”

“Who?” Violet asks.

Theodore replies, “I don’t know anything about Alex, but the founders of Future Travels have already made several public appearances since their arrival a few months ago. One of those appearances was a funeral for their daughter, Claire Devereaux.”

“The daughter they never had,” I say dryly. “How does he control two Anons at once?”

“Maybe he doesn’t,” Theodore says. “One of them could be controlled by its AI while he directs the other. He could even be jumping between them or feeding lines to the other one behind the scenes.”

“Hold the sauce,” Violet says. “Arthur and Giselle Devereaux are Anons?”

Theodore goes on, ignoring her, “In about two weeks, they’re making another public appearance at Ad Astra’s launch site in Nevada. Arthur is making a speech to send the colonists on their way.”

“Ad Astra? Colonists?” I ask, looking from Theodore to Violet and back again.

Violet replies this time: “It’s a company that Future Travels owns. They use space-time compression fields for propulsion and space exploration. They’ve already sent unmanned probes to the Alpha Centauri system, and beamed the footage back to us from the planets they found. They also landed probes on two of those worlds. One of them has a breathable atmosphere and alien life—plants, animals, but nothing intelligent as far as we can tell. Now the Union is using Ad Astra’s technology to send colonists there.”

“That’s incredible,” I murmur. Whatever else I can say about him, Alexander certainly doesn’t lack vision.

“It’s the biggest discovery of the century,” Violet agrees. “Anyway, something tells me that getting you caught up on recent events could take a while. Do you want the passmarks, or not?”

“Not,” Adriana says.

“I’ll take one,” I say.

“It’s a family of three. I can’t split them up without authorities getting suspicious.”

A cold, sinking feeling spreads through my gut. I glance back at Adriana, already coming up with an argument to convince her to take the implants.

“Fortunately for you,” Violet continues, “Your friend here seemed to anticipate that you might need another option.”

Violet pulls a fourth passmark out of her pocket. “This one belongs to a rich bachelor from LA. He’s about your age.”

“What about social media?” I ask. “Aren’t there photos and videos of him that will prove we’re not the same person?”

Violet shakes her head. “He unplugged years ago in preparation for selling his ID and going off the grid, but I’ve already airbrushed the remnants. No one will be able to tell it isn’t you.”

I take a step toward Violet, reaching for the chip.

She withdraws her hand. “Easy. This is a delicate piece of tech. You don’t want to go setting off the anti-tampering alarms.”

I hold out my right hand and peel off the bandage. “Then put it in.”

“Someone’s eager. Hang on.” Violet takes a spider-like device out of her pocket and holds it above the glowing chip in her palm. It grabs the passmark between two skinny forelimbs, and then she holds it out over my hand and says, “Hold still.”

Adriana steps forward and grabs my arm as if to pull me back. “Are you sure about this?” she whispers. “You could come with us to a better time.”

I glance at her. “Maybe I will, but not yet. I have unfinished business in this time.”

Violet places the spider over the back of my hand. It crouches there and immediately goes to work. The machine is relatively light, so I don’t have any trouble holding my arm still. A small flashlight beams down on the back of my hand. I see a needle extend from the machine’s belly and feel a sharp prick, followed by a creeping numbness. Another pair of limbs hidden under its body dexterously slice through the scabbed, swollen flesh where I cut out my old implant. It inserts the new one and then sprays the wound with a fine mist of something that smells sweet and tastes bitter in the back of my mouth. The aerosol fizzes and bubbles for a moment, then clears, leaving bright pink flesh where the scab used to be.

Violet removes the machine, and I’m left staring at the glowing blue triangle of a brand new passmark. A name and id number pop up on my glasses:

John White

ID-E942-A041-B216-M557

“John White,” I say. “At least it’s easy to remember.” It’s getting hard to keep track of all my different aliases.

The eye of providence in the center of my implant seems to be staring back at me. It looks sharper and more detailed than I remember. Somehow this technology projects better through my skin, or maybe it lies closer to the surface than it did in the previous version.

Adriana gasps when she sees the ID chip. She pulls my hand up to her face for a better look.

“What?” I ask.

“No, never mind.” She lets my hand fall back down to my side.

“Is something wrong?” I insist.

Violet regards us with a knowing smile. “She saw the VI version notations on the sides of the chip and thought there were three of them.”

I stare at the chip once more and this time I notice the tiny notations around the three sides of the triangle. VI, 1, VI. “Six one six?” I ask. “What does that mean? Version six hundred and sixteen?”

“The VI notations on the sides refer to the fact that this is passmark version six. And the number one at the bottom is an index number. There’s one for each planet the Union has colonized. Earth is one. Mars is two. Alpha Centauri Ac, or New Earth, will be three, and so on. There used to be three version numbers around the passmarks, but the Union wanted to avoid trouble with Fundies for the version six rollout, so they added the index numbers. Of course, there are still some Fundies trying to claim that 616 is the real number of the beast, and they’re finding obscure ways to link that to Adam Kane’s ID number, but I guess that just goes to show that we’re never going to make them happy.”

“Maybe because they’re right,” Adriana says.

“Or maybe it’s because they’re just that paranoid and crazy,” Violet says. “They’ve been calling it the mark of the beast since version one. Now suddenly version six is the bad one and all the others were benign? What are you going to do when version seven comes out?”

“We’re getting sidetracked,” I say.

“He’s right,” Theodore adds. “The longer we stay here, the higher the chances that the authorities will find us.”

“Let’s go,” Adriana says quietly as she grabs Olivia’s hand.

“I’ll say my goodbyes here,” Violet says. And with that, she appears to shrivel into herself and then fold up into a compact package on the floor. It hovers up and flies away, out a broken window in the kitchen.

My stomach flutters, and I feel like I’m about to be sick. “What the hell was that?”

“An MVP drone,” Theodore explains.

I shake my head. “Most valuable player?”

“It stands for Mobile Virtual Presence. They unfold and inflate to human proportions, allowing people to physically interact with each other from a distance without having to send bulky Skins or Heavies. You can project anyone’s features over them, so they’re interchangeable. They’re also cheaper and more discreet than actual Heavies.”

None of us seem to know what to say to that, so we follow Theodore quietly back through the mansion and down the front steps outside. Theodore’s cloaking Heavies shadow us along with Victor and my two older PD models.

“Where did you land?” Theodore whispers.

“Over there,” I say, pointing down the tree-lined driveway to a point some three hundred meters away. The cracks in the driveway are thick with weeds and tall grass.

We move quickly over the broken asphalt. Jagged chunks of it are gleaming orange in the pale light of the unending metropolis that Denver has become. The twin fifty-story apartment buildings that we flew between peer down on us from a distance of maybe only half a mile. Overhead, the sky is choked with glowing grid lines of air traffic. Glancing back over my shoulder, I see downtown Denver, a dazzling jewel that rises higher than any city I’ve ever seen. The tops of the tallest buildings reach so high that they’re cloaked in wisps of cloud and seem to tower over the escarpment where my old home sits.

Looking back to the fore, I’m just in time to see Theodore freeze. The softly clanking footsteps of the Heavies cease, and Adriana pulls Olivia back. Buddy growls.

My car is barely visible through the trees, the fuselage gleaming faintly. “What is it?” I whisper.

“We’re too late,” Theodore says. He turns to me, and I see his eyes glowing brightly with projected images. He’s wearing augmented reality contacts. That’s new.

I activate a night-vision overlay on my glasses, and the night turns to day. As soon as the shadows clear, I see what he’s talking about. There are dozens of drones hovering around my air car. Even as I notice them, my ears pick up on the subtle buzzing of their rotors, a detail that my brain has been filtering out until now.

“Come on,” I whisper, grabbing Adriana’s arm to pull her back the way we came.

We make it exactly five steps before the buzzing sound abruptly intensifies and flashing blue and red lights blind us. The sirens scream to life at the same time as a human voice booms around us:

“Halt! You are under arrest. Do not attempt to flee, or we will be forced to open fire.”


Chapter 40

Theodore steps forward and nods to someone that apparently only he can see. I look for prompts to display someone’s virtual presence on my glasses, but the signal icon is flashing red. No signal. I guess not paying your network provider for fifty years will do that. I leave my glasses on anyway. The night vision overlay is still worth something.

“Excuse me, officer,” Theodore begins. “What are we being charged with?” Theodore is addressing the air between two of the drones hovering in front of us.

The drones kill their sirens, and the same voice from before echoes out. “You and John White are being charged with aiding and abetting these two undocs. Those charges could be added to, depending on what else we uncover here.” As if on cue, two of the drones zip by us, heading for the mansion.

“They won’t find anything,” Theodore says. A distant wail of police sirens reaches my ears, growing swiftly louder, and I wonder if that’s a patrol car coming to pick us up. “I’m afraid there’s been a misunderstanding,” Theodore says. “Mr. White was looking to buy this property from me. We were going to wait until morning for the tour, but on the way over to a hotel here in Denver, I noticed that the security system had been tripped and saw these undocs coming out of the bunker beneath the property. Fifty years ago a time capsule was stolen from the bunker. I believe these two are the ones who stole it, and that they used it to travel to the future.”

“What bunker?” the policeman asks. “You have proof of any of this?”

“Of course. I’m sending you the surveillance footage now,” Theodore says.

Adriana is looking at him in shock, tears of betrayal gleaming in her eyes. Her gaze finds me next, but all I can do is shake my head. I don’t know where Theodore is going with this, but know him well enough to trust that he has a plan that doesn’t end badly for Adriana and her daughter.

“I see,” the policeman says, clearing his throat. The sirens are close now. Just seconds away. “And why didn’t you call the authorities?”

“I did,” Theodore replies, nodding to the sound of the approaching sirens.

I’m starting to wonder if my faith in Theodore has been misplaced. Is it possible that he would throw Adriana and Olivia under the bus just to save me?

“None of that’s true!” Adriana screams.

The drones turn to her. “Then what’s your story?”

Theodore sighs theatrically. “You won’t make this any easier for yourself by telling lies, ma’am. Mind probes are painful and dangerous. You may as well just admit what you did and save yourself the trouble. The outcome will be the same either way. Besides, I have the surveillance footage on my side.”

Adriana stares open-mouthed at Theodore, but I can see the wheels turning in her head. Everything Theodore just said is true. Even if she can get the police to believe the real story, all she could possibly hope to gain is to take me down with her. And I’ll be more valuable to her outside of jail than in.

Adriana hangs her head.

“Well?” the policeman asks.

“It’s true,” she whispers.

“What is?”

“Everything the old man said.”

“We’ll see about that. We still have to find this bunker.”

“I could show you to it if you like.”

“Very well. Lead the way, Mr. Davis.”

Theodore stalks away with two more of the drones following him.

The sirens are upon us now. A pair of air cars with flashing blue and red lights hover down to either side of us, and matte black Heavies like the two Theodore brought with him climb out. These bots have gleaming gold badges clipped to the right sides of their chests. More flashing blue and red lights strobe from the sides of their torsos as they approach.

They stop in a loose circle around us, arms raised and weapons deployed. None of them speak. Adriana alternately glares at them and me, but she’s not saying anything either. I want to apologize to her and tell her that I’m going to make this right, but now isn’t the time for that. We need to stick to Theodore’s script.

After a few minutes, one of the Heavies steps forward, and a human face swirls to life above its shoulders. The same voice that we’ve been hearing up until now addresses us. The man looks like he’s in his twenties, with a full head of wavy brown hair flowing down into a matching beard. He has movie star good looks, and I’m surprised to see his hair flickering above the head of the drone. It’s an actual holographic projection that makes it look as if he’s really here and simply wearing a black suit of armor like some futuristic knight.

“I’m Officer Evans. Mr. Davis has just shown me to the launch chamber and the time capsule. John White, you’re free to go.” He turns to Adriana. “As for you two—who are you and where are you from?”

“From the past,” Adriana says.

“Why don’t you have your pass cards and what were you doing outside the Blocks?”

“We had valid visas,” she says. “But we left our pass cards behind because we didn’t think they’d be any use here.”

That’s true enough, I think.

“I see,” the officer says. “Names? Address?”

“Adriana Rivera Vargas. And this is Olivia Vargas.”

“And that’s Buddy,” Olivia adds in a nasal voice.

I realize that she’s been crying. That cuts me deeper than I expect it to, and I’m tempted to throw my lot in with them just to ease the soul-crushing guilt that I’m now feeling. But going to jail with them won’t help.

“One moment please...”

I see the officer’s eyes moving left to right repeatedly. He’s reading something that we can’t see. “It says here that you’re both registered to Block 19 in San Francisco. How did you get so far from home?”

Adriana looks equal parts outraged and confused. “Like I said, we had legitimate visas.”

“Not anymore. They expired over fifty years ago, and besides, none of the Blocks are issuing visas anymore. You’re going to have to come with me. I trust you’ll cooperate... for the sake of your daughter?”

Adriana nods and starts toward the officer.

I take a step toward them. “Wait.” Officer Evans looks to me. “Are you taking them to jail?”

“No, I’m taking them home. Besides, the Blocks are jails.”

Adriana snorts at that. “At least you’re being honest about it.”

I go on, “You can’t just dump them fifty years into the future with no money and nowhere to go.”

“Seems to me that’s what they signed up for when they entered that time capsule. Besides, what do you care?”

I hesitate. “They might be undocs, but they don’t look like criminals to me.”

“Well, I’m not dumping them in the Blocks. We’re going to the Denver tracking center first. Once they get new pass cards, they’ll get their UBI, so they’ll have enough money to find a place to stay.”

For now, I think but don’t say. I nod along with that and watch as the officer leads them toward one of the patrol cars.

Buddy belly crawls through the grass, going unnoticed. I frown at that, and watch as he leaps out and bites the back of the police bot’s leg.

Officer Evans throws him off and aims one of his weapons at the dog.

“No!” Olivia screams and lunges in front of the gun.

“Olivia!” Adriana says.

Two of the other police Heavies step forward to restrain them. “You could have been killed!” Evans snaps.

“I won’t let you hurt Buddy,” Olivia sobs.

“Then get him under control,” Evans mutters.

I watched all of that play out, rooted stupidly to the ground, not even trying to intervene. I tell myself it all happened too fast.

Or maybe you’re just too much of a coward to risk your life for someone else’s. That thought sticks and makes me feel even more miserable with guilt. I watch as the patrol car doors slide shut with Adriana and Olivia inside. The car hovers up and flies away.

Theodore returns and the police drones that initially confronted us are gathered around once more.

“They’re gone?” he asks.

“Yes.”

“They’ll be fine.” I feel his hand on my shoulder, squeezing in that reassuring paternal way of his, but it’s little comfort.

Someone clears their throat, and then another policeman interjects. “There is still one matter to address. We were called in to investigate a report of reckless driving. We found the vehicle on your property.”

Theodore nods. “Yes. It’s an MX4. A classic. It comes with the property. I was showing Mr. White that despite its age, it is still fully autonomous and upgraded for the twenty second century.”

“The vehicle was unmanned at the time. Evidently it needs another upgrade before I take it to the skies again.”

The officer sighs. “Well, no one was hurt, but you’ll still be ticketed for that.”

“I understand.”

“I should be impounding it...”

Somethings tells me the officer speaking with us doesn’t want to wait around for a tow truck. “Look, just don’t use it again until it’s been duly registered and certified by the FCC. If we catch it in the air again before that, you’ll lose your owner’s license.”

“I understand,” Theodore says. “Good night officer.”

“Yeah, sure.” A click sounds, and I’m left with the impression that that was the remote-piloting policeman signing off. Does he respond to calls from home? Did we wake him up for this, or was he already on duty? Maybe he was asleep at his desk when the call came in.

The drones buzz away with a sound like a hive full of bees, and I’m left staring after them with a lump in my throat. I let out a shaky sigh and turn to Theodore.

“How did you do that?” I say, shaking my head. “Surveillance footage?”

Theodore smiles wanly at me. “I had a feeling we might need to explain ourselves to the authorities.”

“Violet’s work?”

He inclines his head in a nod.

“What if they’d decided to take the passmarks?”

“Miss Ana and Olivia?”

I nod.

“That would have been considerably easier to explain, and I wouldn’t have been forced to call the police.”

“Why did you? We had time. We could have reached the car and sent them on their way.”

“I only called them once I saw the drones hovering around your vehicle. I knew they would ask what we were doing with two undocs and why we hadn’t called the authorities.”

“That was quick thinking,” I say. I’m supposed to be the genius here, and somehow Theodore is the one always getting me out of trouble. “Where would I be without you?”

A wry smile curves Theodore’s lips. “In prison, sir.”

“Yeah.” His attempt at humor has the effect of dampening my spirits rather than raising them. I look up at the gridlocked sky and suck in a deep breath of the cool spring air.

“We should go, sir.”

“We have to help Ana,” I say.

“And we will. In the morning you can fly to Block 19 and transfer whatever sum of coin you’d like to her account.”

I drag my eyes down. “I promised to send her to another future if she didn’t like this one.”

“That could be harder to accomplish.”

“But not impossible,” I insist.


Chapter 41

The broken asphalt gleams in the rusty light of the city. Tall hedges of reeds whisper by my legs. I feel numb and strange as I follow Theodore back up the driveway. My thoughts are leaping in two directions at once. I’m here to make Alex pay for everything he’s done, but now I have another goal—helping the charity case that I probably should have left alone. Going to the Blocks to help Adriana and Olivia could derail my plans and get me into trouble with the authorities. Again.

Theodore opens the back door of his air car as we approach, probably using his contacts to do so. I climb in after him and take a seat opposite his just in front of the door. Victor and the other Heavies climb in behind us, taking five out of eight remaining seats. This car is the size of a small Learjet from my time.

The door slides shut behind me. The muted whine of rotors starts up all around us, and then the car floats into the sky almost soundlessly. I’m amazed by how quiet it is inside the cabin. Yet another of what are probably thousands of advances since I’ve been gone.

“Sir, you might like to trade your glasses for these.”

Theodore is holding out a small black case. I take it with a slight frown and pop the lid. Inside are a pair of contacts, and a syringe filled with a sparkling fluid.

“I don’t understand.”

“The contacts replace the glasses, and the syringe contains the building blocks for a Brain-Computer Interface. BCI for short. There are billions of nano machines in that fluid.”

I stare dubiously at the syringe. “Where do I stick the needle?”

“The back of your neck. I can administer the injection for you if you’d like.”

I shut the case. “I think I prefer glasses. They still exist, right?”

“Yes... though nowadays mostly only Fundies use them. There is a stigma attached.”

“That’s fine. I’ll wait to get a new pair.” I pass the case back to Theodore.

“It’s perfectly safe,” he insists.

“You got one?”

“Almost everyone has.”

“What does the interface do?”

“It reads your thoughts, just like the glasses, but it can also induce sensory data, and allow for rapid transfer of information in and out of our biological memory.”

“Speed-learning.”

“Yes, sir. It has entirely replaced school for both children and adults. Now education is focused on practicing new skills and applying recently acquired knowledge.”

“What’s the point? Don’t Heavies still do all the work for us?”

“When they can. But we still need to program them for tasks, and true creativity still eludes even the best AI’s. Real human jobs have made a significant comeback now that learning new skills and subjects has become as fast and easy as downloading a new holo-vid to watch on your contacts.”

I find myself staring at Theodore’s face. He hasn’t aged noticeably over the past fifty years. I wonder how much time he lived and how much he skipped. “You’re looking good,” I say.

“Thank you, sir.”

“You must have made good use of the Mark V.”

“Less than you might think. There are now gene therapies that allow people to extend their lives almost indefinitely. I admit that I’ve indulged in said therapies myself.”

“No kidding?” I say.

“It’s a booming industry.”

“I’ll bet. But you did use the Mark V?”

Theodore nods. “A few dozen times, yes. In the initial years leading up to the advances in human longevity.”

“Did you see anything when you used it?”

“You mean the hallucinations?” Theodore nods. “I experienced several, yes.”

“Anything interesting?”

“No, why?”

“Because I did see something when we left Fresno. I saw you. I think you were trying to warn me about something. Adriana saw something, too. She saw Alex kill me.”

Theodore arches a grizzled eyebrow. “Indeed? And you think these visions are... actual glimpses of the future?”

“I don’t know.”

“Current research suggests that they’re just a trick played by your mind as it adapts to the altered geometry of time. DMT is released in the brain during the transition to compressed spacetime. It is a potent hallucinogen, said to be the reason that people have near death experiences.”

“So you’re saying whatever we saw, it’s not significant.”

“No more so than a dream, sir.”

I nod absently and look out the window of the car just in time to see us merge with one of the streams of air traffic flowing through the sky.

I’m surprised there are so many air cars in the future, and they’re all following invisible highways. Back in 2061 there were still few enough of them that there was no need to organize them into designated lanes.

“What are you going to do about Miss Ana and young Miss Olivia?” Theodore asks, interrupting my thoughts.

Dragging my eyes away from the glowing crimson river of tail lights in front of us, I say, “I’m going to smuggle them out of the Blocks.”

“And then?”

“Use the Mark V to send them to the future.”

“And what about Alex? Have you given any thought to how you’re going to get back at him?”

“Why so curious?”

“Perhaps I can help.”

“I thought you wanted me to give up on my quest for revenge.”

“I did, but that was before you told me that Alex killed your parents. Now I want to be a part of his demise.”

A muscle jerks in my cheek, and I nod stiffly at that. “I’ll try to see how I can include you, then.”

“Thank you, sir.”


Chapter 42

By the time we reach Fresno, it’s already morning and the sun is inching steadily higher along the horizon. From the air, I can see that my mansion is much the same as it was when we left, but the surrounding area is considerably more developed. Just like my estate in Denver, this one used to be out in the country, but now it’s in the middle of a sprawling suburb, surrounded by gated communities.

The city of Fresno has also changed. Downtown is a forest of high rises wrapped in hazy black lines of air traffic.

“The world’s population must have exploded while I was gone,” I say as the car hovers down to land in the parking lot around the back of the mansion. I see at least ten other cars landed there, and dangerous-looking black Heavies patrolling the perimeter under the watchful eyes of security cameras and dormant spotlights mounted on poles.

“Indeed it has,” Theodore replies. “With Heavies to grow our food, do our jobs, and even help raise our children, suddenly people had nothing better to do than to breed like rabbits. Unfortunately, with fifteen billion people, Earth has now reached the point where population controls must be strictly enforced or we will run completely out of resources in just a few decades.”

“It’s that bad?”

“Yes. That is why Ad Astra’s initiative to colonize other worlds is so important. We need to depopulate the Earth and provide a secondary supply of resources before it’s too late.”

“You think that will work? Isn’t it too expensive to send people en masse to another star system? Or, for that matter, to send resources back here?”

“For now it is, but there are new technologies being developed that will make the journey faster and cheaper. Faster-than-light travel may even become a reality soon.”

“Faster than light...” I trail off, shaking my head. “The impossible becoming possible.”

Theodore looks to me. “Thanks to your technology. As it happens, generating fields to compress and expand spacetime are the key to space exploration.”

“Well, at least Alex has done something good with the legacy he stole from me.”

“Indeed, sir.”

I feel the subtle jolt as the car lands, and the doors slide open to either side of us. “Shall we?” Theodore asks.

Releasing my safety harness, I rise from the chair and take a moment to stretch out my cramping muscles. It was almost a three hour flight from Denver.

As Theodore and I cross the parking lot together, he points to several improvements that he made while I was gone. The perimeter walls are higher. There are spotlights and cameras around them, and catwalks running around the tops of the walls with shadowy black Heavies patrolling endlessly back and forth.

“Why all the security?” I ask. “Don’t the passmarks effectively prevent crime?”

“It’s not for criminals. It’s for the spy drones. They are an anonymous and insidious threat. With an enemy as powerful as the richest man in the world, you never can be too careful. There are eyes everywhere.”

“The richest man? So Alex has come out of hiding and declared himself the real owner of Future Travels?”

“No, he is still hiding behind the Devereauxes, but both together and individually they are the richest people in the world.”

“Has Alex tried anything while I was gone?”

“Nothing that I can prove, but I could fill the swimming pool with all of the spy drones that we have intercepted since you’ve been gone.”

I frown unhappily at that and study the concrete facade of my mansion. It looks to have weathered the years nicely. We walk up the sweeping stone staircase at the back. The rear entrance is almost grander than the one at the front. A pair of black Heavies guard the two twelve-foot copper-colored doors. Walls of floor-to-ceiling bullet-proof windows flank the entrance, looking out on the grounds and the Olympic-sized swimming pool behind us. One of the Heavies moves to open a door. “Welcome back, Mr. Davis,” it says as the door swings wide.

“Thank you, SD12,” Theodore says.

We walk through into the great room. There’s a roaring electric fireplace to one side, surrounded by living room furniture. A state-of-the-art kitchen faces us at the back of the great room, and a second floor balcony peers down from above at the same level as a constellation of orb-shaped crystal light fixtures that appear to hover from the invisible mono-filament lines that support them. They’re designed to look like stars at night.

“I see that you’ve kept the decor the same,” I say.

“I didn’t feel that it was my place to alter anything,” Theodore replies.

“I guess the work on the top floors is done now?”

“Of course, sir. Would you like me to show you to your room?”

“Please.”

*     *     *

It’s past midday by the time I finally drag myself out of bed. The room senses my movement as I shuffle to the bathroom and begin getting dressed. The windows gradually de-polarize until daylight is streaming in.

Leaving the bedroom I head downstairs and meet Theodore in the formal dining room. He’s there, staring off into space with images flickering brightly over his contacts. He reacts belatedly to my presence and favors me with a smile.

“Did you sleep well, sir?”

I nod and rub bleary eyes. “Coffee. Breakfast.” I’m too tired to manage full sentences.

“Of course.”

A domestic model Heavy comes sweeping in from the servants quarters and takes my order for breakfast. The bot is covered in a rubbery white skin, has no hair, and a marginally expressive face. I eat quietly, deflecting Theodore’s attempts at conversation by replying with grunts and nods.

After my second cup of coffee, I’m feeling halfway human again. “I need a new pair of glasses,” I say.

“I anticipated that request and took the liberty of purchasing these for you. They arrived by courier drone an hour ago.”

Theodore reaches over to an adjacent chair and produces a stylish black box which he slides across the table to me.

I open it and find a slimmer, lighter version of the AR glasses I used to use in 2061. I unfold them and slide them over my ears. Icons immediately swirl to life around the edges of the lenses, some familiar, others new. The bone conduction speakers pressing into my jaw are smaller and the sound quality is better, but otherwise everything is basically the same as it used to be.

“Thank you,” I say, nodding as I take a sip of fresh-squeezed orange juice.

“You are welcome, sir.”

I spend the next twenty minutes eating breakfast and familiarizing myself with the functions of the glasses, reading up about Future Travels, Ad Astra, and the Devereauxes. I search hard for Alexander Fields, picturing his face over and over again and sorting through partial matches to those “mind’s eye” searches, but I can’t find Alex anywhere. Either he has no online presence, or he’s actually an undoc.

When I’m done eating, I stand up and push out from the table. “If you need me, I’ll be in the bunker,” I say.

When Theodore doesn’t reply, I notice that I’m alone in the dining room. At some point he left me alone at the table and I was too absorbed in my work to notice.

A pang of guilt ripples through me. Theodore hasn’t seen me in fifty years and I haven’t even thought to ask how he’s been.

I push those concerns aside with a shake of my head. There’ll be time for small talk when this is all over. For now, I have a lot of work to do, and a limited amount of time in which to get it all done. That’s ironic considering I invented a machine to slow time down. Now if only I could invent a bubble of space-time compression that follows me wherever I go. I’d be moving normally while the rest of the world stands frozen. The Flash in all but name. A wry smile curves my lips with the thought.

I shake my head to dismiss that fantasy and focus on the matter at hand. I have an idea about how I’m going to help Ana and Olivia. And also the beginnings of a plan to deal with Alex. He made a mistake by hiding behind his Anons, using them to rule the world by proxy. No one even knows who he is, which means the world won’t know or even care if he were to go missing.

A cold smile blossoms on my face. The man who made his fortune by selling time is about to run out of it himself.


Chapter 43

I open the hidden door that is the concrete wall at the end of the hallway in the basement. Lights flicker on as I walk through and shut the door behind me. From there I ride down the elevator and step into the launch chamber of the bunker.

Everything is covered in a fine layer of dust. Several of the heat-shielded LED pot lights in the ceiling are dark and burned out. In the center of the bare concrete room stands the Mark V. I walk around the black egg-shaped capsule to a copper-colored door on the right.

The heavy door slides open to reveal my old workshop. It’s a cavernous space attached to the hangar and divided by a wall of heavy doors big enough to let vehicles in and out. The room is littered with heavy machinery, 3D printers, computer consoles, tools and tool benches. This is where I developed the Mark VI. This time I need to develop something much less ambitious, but I also have a lot less time to do it.

My eyes settle on a group of six construction-model Heavies standing frozen along one wall, still plugged in where I left them. After standing dormant for fifty years I doubt they work anymore. I walk over and try powering one of them on via my glasses just to be sure.

Nothing. Not even a twitch of its gleaming limbs or a flicker of light in the bot’s black eyes.

I place a call to Theodore.

A 3D model of him appears to be standing right in front of me. “Do you need something, sir?”

“Yes. I need you to get me a dozen construction Heavies. I’m in the workshop down in the bunker.”

“When do you need them?”

“Now.”

“We only have four on the premises, and they’re currently employed as part of the perimeter security force.”

“Then re-purpose them and send them down here.”

“Of course, sir.”

“And place an order for two more. Have them flown up here ASAP. Also... get me a few of the biggest Heavies you can find.”

Theodore shakes his head. “The biggest, sir?”

“Let me rephrase that. I need a civilian model of a Heavy that could fit a person inside of it.”

“You want an exosuit?”

“No, I want a Heavy that could be turned into an exosuit.”

“Ahh. You’ll want the XASU model. Extra Armored Security Unit.”

I nod. “That sounds perfect. Get me three.”

“I’ll place your order immediately and make sure that they are delivered here as promptly as possible.”

“Thank you, Theo.”

Ending the call, I head over to the nearest 3D printer and begin using my glasses to pull up whatever I can find on the net for XASU model Heavies. I’m lucky enough to find a partial schematic, and I begin feeding in pieces of the unit’s armor to the 3D printer.

Almost as soon as the printer powers on and lasers flicker to life inside of it, it belches a cloud of acrid black smoke and I’m left stumbling away and coughing into my sleeve.

It looks like I’m going to need more than just new Heavies. I place another call to Theodore and he materializes in front of me again, an illusion projected over my glasses.

“Was there something else, sir?” he asks.

I nod and begin rattling off a list of all the new equipment that I’m going to need. It’s a long list, but Theodore doesn’t even flinch.

“I’m on it, sir.”

*     *     *

By the time the Heavies and the new equipment arrive, it’s already after six in the evening. I’ve spent most of the time that I’ve been waiting drawing up schematics for the exo-Heavies that I’m going to build. They need to look and act just like actual XASU models, while actually being hollow with enough room inside to carry human occupants. That is how I’m going to get Ana and Olivia out of the Blocks. It’s also part of my plan to infiltrate Future Travels and get at Alexander Fields.

I spend the rest of the night feeding my schematics into a brand-new set of six heavy-duty 3D printers that Theodore got for me. As fast as they can churn out the individual components, I get the construction Heavies to put them together. By early morning there are six fully-assembled, hollow XASU model Heavies standing in the workshop, each with its own ID chip that I custom-crafted myself to make sure it can never be traced back to me. IDs for bots are a lot easier to fake than human ones. I spend several minutes inspecting each of the hollow units carefully and comparing them to the two actual XASU models that Theodore purchased from a local factory.

Gleaming black armor. Thick limbs. Blank black faces for remote pilots to project their features. Each one stands exactly six foot ten inches tall. They have some of the same integrated weapons in their arms. Dual stun guns with twenty-four electric rounds each. And dual .223 caliber rattler cannons, as well as four deployable stun drones docked in each Heavy’s back. The main differences between the hollowed out versions that I’ve made and the real ones are a shorter battery life, weaker motors for lower top speeds, and thinner armor. They’re vastly inferior to the real thing, but they’ll do just fine as wearable exoskeletons for short-term use, and they’ll get us through body scanners and general scrutiny, if not a more thorough inspection.

Perfect for my purposes. All they have to do is get Ana and Olivia past the checkpoints at the Blocks, and after that, get me and Theodore past Alex’s security.

I check the time on my glasses. It’s just after six AM. Somehow learning that leaves me feeling more exhausted than I did a moment ago. I notice how scratchy my eyes are, how heavy my body feels. I need to sleep, but there’s still a lot left to do.

Just then, I hear the door slide open behind me and turn to see Theodore coming in with a tray. On it is another extra-large cappuccino—what will be my fifth in twenty-four hours—and a plate piled high with food: bacon, sausages, eggs, and toast.

“Your breakfast, sir,” he says as he walks toward me.

I shake my head as he approaches. “I’m not hungry.”

“Cappuccino, then?”

“No. It’s time for me to get some sleep.”

“You’ve finally decided to take a break?” Theodore asks as he sets the tray down on a nearby tool bench. He walks over to join me in front of the six Heavies I custom-built.

“No. I’m done.”

“That fast?” he asks.

I nod slowly and knead my aching eyes with my fists.

“Show me,” Theodore says.

I use my glasses to open one of the hollow units. A whirring and clicking sound starts up and the unit’s arms, legs, and torso peel open to reveal a padded interior.

“Incredible,” Theodore murmurs. “Can they still function autonomously?”

I nod. “And under direction by their pilots.”

“So they’re Heavy exosuits.”

“Exactly. Think they’ll pass inspection?”

Theodore steps over to the next one in line and begins running his hands along the smooth black metal armor, probably looking for any signs of the seams that allow them to open up. He won’t find them. Not without a microscope. The components were all printed and assembled on a micron scale.

“They’re magnificent,” Theodore replies in an awed whisper. “But why build six? Are you planning to smuggle more people out of the Blocks besides Miss Ana and Olivia?”

“No, but I can’t storm Future Travels with just two people.”

Theodore looks to me with eyebrows raised. “Then this is your plan for that as well?”

I incline my head to him. “Part of it.”

“Who are you going to get to pilot the other ones?”

“I haven’t figured that out yet. I might just decide to leave them empty as decoys, but one of them is yours if you’re interested.”

“Mine, sir?”

“You wanted to help me get revenge. This is how you can do that. You can be there when I pull the trigger and blow Alex’s brains out.”

Theodore frowns. “I’m not sure I’m the right man for the job. I have no combat training.”

“Neither do I, but the weapons targeting package I installed is aim-assisted. You just target and shoot. You could get a headshot from a hundred meters with your eyes closed.”

“Which means that Alex will be able to shoot our heads with the same ease.”

I reach up and knock my knuckles against the helmet of the unit I’m standing next to. “Bullet-proof. Besides, we’ll be undercover as Heavies. All we have to do is get one of his employees to order six new XASU models to add to his security team and then substitute ours. After that, we just wait for the right moment to strike.”

“And then get apprehended and sent to prison.”

“Only if we get caught. Anyways, you don’t have to come. It’s going to be dangerous, and you’re right, there is a good chance we could get caught, so I’ll understand if you’d rather sit this one out.”

“I didn’t say that,” Theodore replies. “But I’d be remiss not to point out the flaws in this plan. The possible consequences notwithstanding, I’d be honored to join you, sir.”

I smile and nod. “Good. We can start training tomorrow. As for the consequences, we’ll come up with a few scenarios and minimize the risks as much as possible. I didn’t come all this way just to go back to prison. Which is why we’ll have the Mark VI standing by for a getaway vehicle.”

“So we get in, kill Alex, and then vanish before we can be apprehended.”

“If need be, but I have an even better idea—if we can manage to pull it off.”

Theodore cocks his head curiously. “And that is?”

“I haven’t worked out all the details yet. For now, we have a more obvious problem to deal with. We can’t have the authorities tracking our every move while we’re busting Fundies out of the Blocks and assaulting Future Travels’ launch center. We need a way to deactivate our passmarks and spoof the signals, which means we need a Crafter. Where did you find Violet?”

“In San Francisco,” Theodore replies.

“The same place?” I ask.

“The same city, a new address.”

“Can you take me to her?”

Theodore frowns. “I suppose so, yes.”

“Good. Let’s go.” I start striding for the exit.

“I thought you said you were going to get some sleep!” Theodore calls after me.

“I am. I’ll sleep in the car on the way there.”


Chapter 44

—May 11, 2111—

Theodore shakes me awake just as we land outside Violet’s new place in San Francisco.

“This is it?” I ask, my eyes widening as I peer out the window at a massive bayside mansion. Three floors are visible from where we landed just down the hill from the home. Sheer walls of tinted privacy glass face us and a wraparound view of the bay. The grounds are shielded from the street and neighbors with high walls of trees. This is nothing like the hole in the wall apartment I remember visiting in the Blocks. “It looks like Violet’s done pretty well for herself since we last met.”

“She still does business out of the Blocks,” Theodore replies. “But she shares her real address with a few of her trusted clients.”

I frown and slowly shake my head. “Assuming that this is her real address and not another decoy.” I doubt that it’s actually possible to pin down someone who sells Anons and fake IDs for a living. The real Violet is probably sitting in an underground bunker somewhere above the arctic circle, living through her Anons at various locations around the world. And for all I know, she might even be a he.

“Shall we, sir?” Theodore prompts.

I nod absently and tear my gaze away from the window. The door behind me slides open, and we climb out. To get to the mansion above us, we walk up a long, winding staircase. Mosquitoes swarm us as we climb. I’m swatting them as fast as I can, but I can still feel the prick of their suckers, and I catch more than one of them with a belly full of my blood.

“Great,” I mutter, wiping blood and bug guts on my pants.

Theodore is suffering as badly as me, but he’s more dignified about it and paying the mosquitoes less attention than I am.

Letting out a sigh, I toss a glance over my shoulder to the bay, sparkling and blue in the morning sun. The towering spires of downtown stand gleaming across from that. To one side of them is the Golden Gate bridge and the dark crumbling low-rise apartments and row homes of the Blocks that surround it.

We reach the top of the stairs and emerge on the tiled surround of a massive infinity pool that gleams like a mirror beneath, reflecting baby-blue sky and scattered wisps of cloud. The lowermost of the mansion’s three levels joins seamlessly with the pool, mirror-clean tinted blue windows rising directly above the edge of the pool.

A pair of matte black security Heavies come clanking over to intercept us.

“We’re expected,” Theodore says as they stop in front of us.

“Yes, you are,” one of them says in a familiar female voice. It stares directly at me with a blank, featureless black face. “Although I wasn’t expecting to see you both again so soon. This way, please.” The bots turn and lead the way, heading along the edge of the pool. Loungers and umbrellas are wrapped around this corner of the pool, joining seamlessly with a covered porch and barbecue area that faces the view of the bay. A pair of what I thought were picture windows glide open for us as we approach, and we enter a minimalistic living room and open kitchen that look out over the pool and bay area.

“Please be seated.” The Heavy who spoke a moment ago gestures to the couches facing the view. “I’ll be right with you.” The two Heavies don’t go anywhere, but I have the impression that the one talking to us has just been given over to its autonomous programming once more.

Theodore and I sit next to each other on a pristine white couch facing the pool and the bay.

A few minutes later I hear heels clicking, and turn to see a familiar woman gliding down a glass staircase from the upper levels.

“Mr. White,” Violet says as she reaches the bottom of the stairs.

I rise from the couch as she approaches and we shake hands. From the firmness of that handshake I doubt she’s an MVP bot like the one that met with us in the ruins of my old mansion outside Denver.

I notice that her purple eyes aren’t glowing, and I wonder if that means that this is the real Violet. But no, using her real appearance for Anons wouldn’t make any sense, so this can’t be the real Violet. Just another decoy operating out of a nicer part of town.

“What can I do for you, Mr. White?” she asks.

“Is this a good place to talk?” I reply.

“I wouldn’t have let you get this far if it weren’t.”

I sit back down beside Theodore and Violet takes a seat in a matching armchair to our left.

I lean forward, planting elbows on my knees and then hold up the back of my right hand for her to see.

“You have a problem with the new passmark?” she asks.

“No. I need a way to disable it and make it look like I’m somewhere else.”

“You mean you need an Anon?”

I hesitate, giving the matter some thought. “Do they use body scanners at the checkpoints to get in and out of the Blocks?”

“They never used to, but they do now.”

“Then an Anon won’t work. I need to get in and smuggle a few people out.”

“Then you need more than the ability to ghost the system. You need a way to smuggle people past the checkpoint.”

“I have that taken care of. All I need is to be able to deactivate my passmark for a while and have the tracking signal show up somewhere else while I’m gone.” I nod to Theodore. “Same for him.”

“Well, that’s easy enough. I’ll have to hack your existing passmarks and create two shadow versions that you can use for the decoy signals while you’re running around as undocs. Of course, if anyone sees you and scans you with their lenses you’ll be identified as undocs immediately.”

I shake my head. “I’ve got that covered.”

Violet cocks her head and gives me a curious look. “There’s more to you than meets the eye, isn’t there Mr. White? Or should I say, Mr. Gaines.”

My guts clench up at the mention of my real name, but I let it slide. Violet could sell out any one of her clients at any time, but she wouldn’t still be in business after fifty years if she were in the habit of doing that.

“There’s one other thing. I need another fake ID with the same setup. A shadow ID. The fake ID needs to match this face.” I bring to mind an image of Alex Field’s and then use my glasses to transfer the mind’s eye data to Violet’s AR lenses.

She spends a minute silently contemplating the image that pops up on her lenses. “Interesting... he’s unlisted. An undoc?”

“Maybe,” I say. “How soon can you get it done?”

“Just a few hours for the hack job and the shadow IDs. Another hour to get the Fake done.”

I rise from the couch. “Good. Let’s get started.”

“Hold on. We haven’t discussed payment yet.”

“How much?” I ask, holding her gaze without blinking.

“Fifty million coin. Each. And another twenty for the fake ID.”

“What? For a few hours’ work? That’s insane.”

“You know another Crafter who’ll do it for less?” Violet gestures to the doors we came in by. “No one’s forcing you to accept my services.” A sly smile spreads slowly across her lips. “But something tells me you don’t have time to shop around.”

I scowl at her. “Fine. Let’s get it done.”

“Half up front,” she adds.

Grinding my teeth, I hold out my passmark toward hers and use my glasses to initiate the funds transfer. She accepts after just a moment and then joins me in standing.

“A pleasure doing business with you, as always. Follow me, gentlemen.”

*     *     *

Violet gets up from her computer station. The screens take up an entire nine-foot wall in the back room of her basement. There must be at least twenty different panels. I wonder why she bothers with viewscreens if she has contacts, but if she’s really as old as I suspect, then she’s probably also slightly old-school when it comes to tech.

She turns from her screens and nods to us as she rises from her chair. I see her sweep four wafer-thin triangles off the desk and into her waiting palm. “For the signal spoofing, all you have to do is run the switcher program from your glasses. It will disable your passmark and enable the shadow ID at the same time. Just make sure you’re in close proximity to the shadow ID when you do that, or else there’ll be a noticeable teleporting effect on the tracker signal that could give you away.”

Violet comes over and dumps the four passmarks into my hand. I stare at the transparent triangles, each of them has the pyramid and the all-seeing eye etched into them, as well as the miniature VI version notations and planet ID numbers.

“Which ones correspond to the new fake ID?”

“Scan them with your glasses and you’ll find out.”

I do that, and pick out the two that have a dossier file with Alex Fields’ face on it. His fake name is Paul Nielson.

“I guess it’s time for the other half of your payment,” I say.

Violet nods and smiles. I hold out my passmark to hers once more and transfer the remainder of her hefty fee—sixty million.

On our way back to the car, Violet walks alongside me while Theodore leads the way. She’s pointing to the view and making comments about the fact that the air is so much clearer and cleaner than it was fifty years ago. I’m barely paying attention, but I do notice the chat prompt from her that pops up on my glasses. I accept and a line of text appears at the bottom:

You do know that your friend is an Anon, right?

I stop walking suddenly and stare hard at Theodore’s back. My eyes are burning. My heart pounding and my head is buzzing.

Guess not. Be cool, Mr. White.

The chat ends just as Theodore turns to see why we’ve stopped.

I blink, my eyes burning with the threat of hot angry tears, and turn my head to admire the view over the bay to downtown San Francisco. “Amazing,” I say in an awed whisper.

I notice Theodore frowning at us from where he stands, just a few steps down from the infinity pool.

Violet flashes a grin at me. “Yeah the view is a real shocker.”

I nod absently at that, feeling suddenly weak and hollowed out by the private knowledge of what the real shocker is.

*     *     *

Theodore seems to notice that something is wrong by the time we get back into the car.

“Are you feeling all right, sir?” he asks me once the doors are shut.

I nod and let out a world weary sigh. “Just tired that’s all. There’s still a lot left to do and we don’t have much time.”

Theodore smiles sympathetically. “Adam Kane’s proposal to disband the Blocks and pass cards doesn’t go to a vote until the end of the week. Assuming the vote passes, you still have four days to rescue Miss Ana and her daughter.”

“Yeah, I know.” I flash half a smile at him, and hope it’s convincing. “I guess I just need to catch up on my sleep.”

“You should, sir.”

I curl up against my door and pretend to go to sleep. But I can’t sleep. My heart is hammering in my chest, my throat is aching, and my mouth is dry. I’m going out of my mind wondering where the real Theodore is and who is controlling this anonymous android copy of him. Of course there’s only one logical answer to that. In the five decades that I’ve been gone, Alex hasn’t just been trying and failing to infiltrate my estate with bugs. He successfully infiltrated it by replacing Theodore with a life-like copy that he now controls.

And I have a bad feeling that means the real Theodore is dead. Hot tears burn behind my eyelids, but I hold them in, hyper-aware of the snake sitting beside me, watching my every move.

Alex has destroyed my life over and over again, stealing my life’s work and killing everyone that I ever cared about. Death is too good for him. I’m going to find a way to make him suffer.


Chapter 45

After we get back to the mansion, I excuse myself to go down to the bunker and get ready for breaking Ana and Olivia out of the Blocks tonight.

Thankfully, Theodore, leaves me to it. Now I’m pacing the floor of my workshop, trying to figure out what to do. Not about Ana and Olivia—busting them out should still be easy, assuming that Alex doesn’t have plans to intervene. I doubt he will bother. He’ll get more satisfaction out of waiting until I attack Future Travels to try to kill him only for him to thwart my every move and ultimately reveal that he’s been one step ahead of me the whole time.

But that’s not going to happen. Now that I know that he’s watching me, I can use that to my advantage. I’m going to pretend to go ahead with the plan that Alex already knows about, meanwhile secretly executing an entirely new plan that will take him by surprise.

Accomplishing that without somehow accidentally tipping him off in the process is not going to be easy. What I need is a two-pronged assault. The one that he already knows about with the hollow human-piloted exo-Heavies. And a second prong that he won’t be expecting at all.

In a way, this could actually make things easier for me. I’ve been wondering how to get Future Travels to requisition additional security bots and then substitute my custom models, but if I’m right and Alex is already aware of my plans, then he’ll make it easy for me to get the exo-Heavies into position. Of course, he’ll also be expecting an attack to come from them.

Which means I can’t be with that prong of the attack. I’ll need to pretend to join the exo-Heavy attack only to duck out at the last second and let those hollow bots serve as the distraction. What I really need is a way to be in two places at once.

A thought occurs to me: the shadow ID. I already have two identical passmarks for John White. If that’s enough to fool the authorities, then it should be enough to fool Alex, too. Now all I need is someone who looks just like me. An Anon copy of myself that I can use to pilot one of the exo-Heavies.

A sly smile curves my lips with that thought, and a familiar coldness begins seeping through me. Alex will never know what hit him.

But first, I need to keep my promise to Adriana.

I try placing a call to her with my glasses, but it just rings and rings with no reply. Frowning unhappily, I try again. How am I supposed to find her if she won’t even answer?

Maybe that’s for the best. I don’t know who could be monitoring my calls, and I don’t want call logs connecting me to her after she disappears. I end the call and erase the log on my end. It’s probably not enough to erase the digital trail that I’ve already created by attempting to reach her, but it’s better than nothing.

I’m going to have to search the Blocks for her some other way.

*     *     *

I take my hollow exo-Heavies through the sliding doors along the shared wall with the hangar and lead them over to a people-mover air car. It has room for ten—me plus the six Heavies and Victor, who I’ve already called to join us. That leaves two empty seats.

I direct the Heavies to get in via a mental command, and then take a seat beside the front set of sliding doors. Victor arrives a few seconds later from where I left him guarding the elevator down to the bunker.

“Hello, sir,” he says.

“Take a seat,” I reply.

Using my glasses to open the vehicle elevator, I wait while the air car taxis itself out and into the elevator. As the platform is rising and the ceiling is opening up, I place a call to Theodore. I’m tempted not to say anything at all, but it would be strange of me to leave without telling him, and I don’t want to tip him off to the fact that I know what he is.

Theodore answers almost immediately, and I see a virtual image of him sitting in the empty seat in front of me. “Do you need something, sir?”

I shake my head. “No, just letting you know that I’m on my way to the Blocks now.”

“I see. Would you like me to join you?”

“No.” I hesitate, trying to come up with a good reason for that. “I need you to stay and keep an eye on things. The last thing we need right now is for Alex to sneak a spy drone past our security and find out what we’re planning.”

“I will ensure that does not happen.”

“Thank you.”

“Do you have a plan not to get caught?”

“What do you think the fake IDs were for? Don’t worry. No one will be able to pin me anywhere close to Ana at the time they disappear.”

“But they are also being tracked.”

“I’ll make sure we ditch their pass cards before we go anywhere.”

“Be careful, sir.”

“I will. See you later.”

The elevator reaches the top of the shaft and moonlight is streaming in on all sides of the car. I program the nav system with the destination and the car promptly hovers up into the night. Air traffic in the skies above my estate is light, but we’re soon flying North with a steady stream of other cars, a highway in the sky.

I sit watching the stars out my window, puzzling over the task at hand. I need to find Adriana and Olivia, but I have no idea where to look besides that they were taken back to the Block where I first found them. Block 19 of San Francisco. That’s right next to downtown, at the Northern tip of the peninsula, not far from the Golden Gate bridge. Pulling up a map I can see the borders that define Block 19. It encompasses about twenty city blocks, around Nob Hill, and beside old Chinatown. Somehow I have to find two people in twenty blocks of a dirty, run-down, and dangerous slum. That might be possible just by asking around. But a bot asking questions will draw far too much attention. My gaze settles on Victor.

He stares steadily back at me. “Is there something you need from me, sir?”

For a moment, I don’t reply. He’s an android model Heavy, a Skin. He doesn’t have a fake ID, but maybe he doesn’t need one. I’ll just disable his passmark. An undoc running around the Blocks asking questions will make people think he’s a mobster, which might actually help me get the answers I need.

“Give me your hand,” I say.

“Of course.”

I spend a moment studying his passmark. It’s one of the old ones. The version numbers along the sides of it read I, I, I. He came with me from 2061, and Theodore didn’t get Violet to implant him a new ID when he met with us at the old estate in Denver. Somehow the authorities that intercepted us either missed that fact or didn’t care that I had a fifty-year-old Skin with me. I wonder if his passmark even works anymore. They’ve probably updated the tracking software a dozen times since then.

Casting about the inside of the car for something sharp I can use to cut the chip out, I come up empty-handed and nod to Victor. “Can you remove your passmark?”

“I cannot tamper with myself. Moreover, I cannot remove my passmark without triggering an alarm.”

“Great,” I mutter.

“However, I can tell you that wearing gloves with a metallic lining would be enough to block the tracking signal.”

“A metallic lining? You mean like tin foil?”

“That would work, yes.”

I frown at him, wondering why I didn’t think of that sooner. It might have saved me the hundred million coin I just spent with Violet.

Thinking back, I wonder how and when she realized that Theodore was an Anon. If the Theodore who met me in Denver was the real one and the Anon was the one who flew with me to San Francisco this morning, then the real Theodore is probably still alive.

It’s a slim hope, but the only one who can tell me one way or another is Violet herself. I pull up the car’s navigation panel on my glasses and set a new course. Back to Violet’s house. While I’m there, I can ask her about getting an Anon that looks like me.


Chapter 46

Walking back up the stairs to Violet’s house without an invitation, at nine o’clock at night leaves me feeling like a cat burglar. Theodore’s the one with Violet’s contact info, so I couldn’t call her on the way over, and I couldn’t ask him for her number without alerting him to the changes in my plans.

Now I’m slinking up the stairs to Violet’s pool, trying to be quiet, and simultaneously wondering if it wouldn’t actually be smarter to make as much noise as possible. Violet has security bots. We saw them this morning. They’ve probably detected me already, tracking me with their integrated weapons.

The only thing I have going in my favor is that neither I nor Victor are actually armed. I’m hoping Violet’s security bots realize that before one of them decides to put a bullet between my eyes. Can they do that? I wonder. I’m not sure what the law says about autonomous security units applying lethal force against trespassers. Then again, this is the home of an infamous Crafter. She’s the queen of her own criminal empire, and that means she plays by her own rules. If she wants to shoot intruders, she’ll shoot intruders.

She probably sells their identities afterward. Extra business. That thought has me hesitating at the top of the stairs. Mosquitoes are swarming me, sipping my blood with itchy pricks of their suckers. The infinity pool is bubbling quietly over its edge, the surface mirror-smooth, reflecting a scattered sheet of stars and a gleaming swath of moonlight.

“Hello!” I call out. “It’s me, Mr. White! I need to speak with you!”

That triggers a burst of clanking footsteps, approaching fast. I guess the security bots hadn’t detected me. Well, now they have.

Beside me, Victor stiffens. “Sir, we have incoming—”

“I know.”

I straighten and raise my hands above my head. “I’m unarmed,” I say.

The two security bots I saw this morning shuffle to a stop in front of us, peering down, weapon barrels gleaming.

“This is private property. You are intruding,” one of them says. “Leave immediately.”

“I need to talk with your owner.”

A few seconds of silence follow, and I assume that the gabby one is asking Violet if she wants to speak to me.

Her voice ripples out of its chest speakers a second later, confirming that theory. “Mr. White. Back again so soon? Is there something wrong with the IDs I sold you?”

I shake my head. “No. I need to know more about what you said. About Theodore being an Anon.”

“Ah, of course. Come inside. We should talk.”

The bots turn and lead the way to Violet’s living room. Once again the picture windows slide open for us as we approach. The lights are off as we cross the threshold, and Victor goes to stand just inside the doors. Violet’s voice slithers out of the darkness: “Sit with me.”

I follow the sound to see that she’s sitting on the living room couch, drinking some kind of beverage as she stares out over the pool. Ice cubes are rattling in her glass as she takes a sip.

“Would you like a drink?” she asks as I take a seat in the armchair kitty-corner to the couch. She’s wearing nothing but lacy black underwear. I’m distracted by her nakedness for a moment, but then I remind myself that she’s an Anon, and for all I know, not even a she.

“No, thanks,” I manage.

She smiles and nods out the windows. “The view’s that way.”

I tear my eyes away to see downtown San Francisco towering up to eye level with us. The golden gate bridge is illuminated and sprawling to one side. Air traffic is painting glowing grid lines above it all, wiping out the stars for miles in all directions, but out here, there’s still a handful of them bright enough to sparkle above the pool.

“When did you find out he was an Anon?” I ask quietly.

“You mean did I know before you came to see me this morning?” I look back to see Violet shaking her head. “I didn’t. He came to me remotely to place the order for the new identities. The next time I saw him was in Denver with you, and you already know that I wasn’t there personally for that meeting.

“Are you here personally now?” I challenge.

A sly smile curves Violet’s lips again and she takes another sip of her drink. “Careful. Some questions aren’t worth the price of asking. This is about your butler’s identity, not mine.”

“Fine. So you only knew what he was this morning. How?”

“You mean do I have any proof?”

“Yes.”

“My surveillance system is state of the art. Most Anons are, too. But I know just where to look to see the seam between what is and what isn’t.”

“Can you show me?”

“It’s a lot of little things that my surveillance system is programmed to pick up on. I’ve found that it’s in my best interests to know if people are telling the truth about who they really are before they ask me to do illegal things for them. Nowadays you won’t find any undercover cops doing their dirty work in person. They use their own Anons for that.”

I wave her explanations away. “What did your surveillance system find?”

“He blinks too regularly. Real people blink more or less rapidly according to their heart-rate, the air quality, wind, etcetera. But even when there was a wind blowing he didn’t blink more often.”

“That’s it?” I find myself hoping that Violet was mistaken and Theodore isn’t an Anon after all.

“There’s also the fact that for a seventy-something year old man, his stride is too long, and his muscles are too steady. His vocal patterns are also anomalous for his age.”

I’m left shaking my head at all of that. “That doesn’t sound very precise. What if you’re wrong?”

Violet shrugs.

“I need to be sure.”

“Then you need to spy on him. Wait for whoever is controlling him to disconnect.”

“Isn’t there some other way?”

Violet hesitates. “There is one other thing that gave him away, and it’s a lot more reliable.”

I nod for her to go on. “And that is?”

“It’s going to cost you.”

I narrow my eyes at her. “Why?”

“Because if this secret gets out, the authorities will have a much easier time shutting me down, and because a girl’s gotta eat,” she finishes with a smile.

“How much?”

“Five million.”

“Why is everything in the millions with you?”

“You want answers, or not?”

“Fine.” I hold out my wrist and make the transfer.

“A pleasure doing—”

“Just get to the point,” I snap.

“You may have noticed I have a problem with mosquitoes. Oddly enough, it’s a problem the neighbors don’t share.”

I start shaking my head, not getting it. A split second later I do, and my eyes fly wide. “They’re not real?”

“That depends on how you define real. But no, they’re not organic, if that’s what you mean. I sampled Theodore’s blood, and yours, as you came walking up my steps this morning. His is synthetic.”

With that revelation my hope evaporates. “So he’s really dead.”

Violet cocks her head in question. “Who?”

“Theodore. The man the Anon was modeled after.”

“Most likely, yes.”

A flash of heat courses through me with that realization. I clench my teeth and nod stiffly to Violet. “I need something else.”

“And that is?”

“An Anon. Modeled after me, for the shadow ID you made this morning.”

“That’s going to cost you a lot of coin.”

“Money’s not a problem, but I need it ready by tomorrow.”

“That will cost you even more.”

“Just tell me how much.”

Violet favors me with a rapacious smile. “I knew I liked you for a reason, Byron.”


Chapter 47

I stare out the window of my air car as it flies me from Violet’s mansion to the Blocks. Below and stretching out to both sides, San Francisco Bay lies gleaming in the moonlight. Dead ahead, through the front windshield of the car, I can see the soaring spires of the city gleaming like jewels beside the lump of coal that is Block 19. Very few lights are on in the Block, either because people are trying to save what little money they have, or because of all the abandoned and run-down buildings no longer have power.

Suddenly I can see the appeal of Adam Kane’s proposal. Eradicate the Blocks and suddenly there’ll be plenty of room for urban renewal and new development in those rundown areas. Not to mention all the people who are currently languishing in poverty in the Blocks will be elevated to the same level as their wealthier neighbors. On the surface, it seems like a no-brainer, but in order to pull it off, people need to be inoculated against their own beliefs, to have a piece of their identities taken away against their will.

It will be interesting to see how the vote goes in the Senate. Regardless, I have a promise to keep. Ana and Olivia won’t be here to find out what happens next. They’ll be sitting in the future, hopefully looking back on this brief transitional period and seeing all of the peace and prosperity that came from it.

As the car draws near to Block 19, I see the darkened rooftops of low-rise buildings that haven’t been illuminated and re-purposed as landing pads for air cars. The only light anywhere is from the patchy orange grid of streetlights illuminating littered streets, and from the occasional window, curtained and lit from within. One building stands out like a beacon of warmth in this dismal place. A soaring castle-like edifice with towers and a steeple. The entire face of the building is illuminated by spotlights. A rundown tower of apartments stands behind it, casting a sickly yellow glow from the few dozen windows that are actually lit.

My car drops out of traffic and hovers down to the nearest checkpoint along the perimeter of Block 19. As it does so, I find myself staring at the cathedral. That might be how I can locate Adriana. She’s here because of her faith. That church is the most obvious symbol of it for a mile in any direction. Where else would she go for refuge after the police dumped her here with little or no money and no place to go? It’s as good a place to start as any.

The car lands in front of a chain-link fence with razor wire. Gleaming black security bots stand in towers overlooking the perimeter, and spotlights beam down on both sides of the fence. It looks like a prison.

Several Heavies come clanking out from a street-level guard post that stands in front of the fence. One of them leans down beside my window and raps on the glass with metal knuckles. I lower the window, expecting to see a human face flicker to life on the blank black screen above the bot’s shoulders.

“Passmark,” it says in a flat robotic voice. I hold out my right hand. “ID verified,” it says a second later. “Purpose of your visit to Block 19?”

“Visiting a friend.”

“What is your friend’s name?”

“Well, I don’t know exactly. We met so briefly that I forgot her name. But I know where she’s staying. The Adrian.”

“I see. Any other business here?”

“Thought I might walk around. See how the other half lives.”

“The streets are dangerous at night.”

I shrug. “I might wait until morning.”

“Based on this conversation, it appears the purpose of your visit is recreational. Would you say that’s correct?”

“Yes.”

“Are you bringing any weapons into the Block?”

“Only the integrated ones in my Heavies.”

The bot looks past me and peers into the other rows of seats behind mine. I see a flicker of the red lights that pass for its eyes behind the black screen that is its face. “Six XASU-model Heavies.” The bot glances at Victor. “And one Skin.”

“Correct.”

“I detect no other humans on board. You are clear to go.”

“Thank you, officer.”

The bot gives no reply as it goes clanking back to its post, but the car is released from its security hold. It hovers up on its way to find parking somewhere in the Block. I tell the autopilot to park me as close to The Adrian Hotel as possible.

As coincidence would have it, my car begins self-directing itself to land in a parking space at the top of the tower behind Grace Cathedral.

As soon as we land, I use my glasses to tell my hollow bodyguards to follow me, and then I exit the air car with Victor, heading for an elevator running along the outside of the building that will take us down from the roof to the street level. I still have to check into The Adrian before I can go looking for Adriana. The name of the hotel strikes me as coincidental, but my mind is too busy to wonder about it for long. I still have a lot to do before the night is done, and the illegal nature of my plan to rescue Adriana leaves a shred of doubt worming in my mind: if I get caught now, or if Alex uses Theodore to report me, my plans to get revenge will be cut off at the knees. I’ll be languishing in a jail cell for the second time in my life.

That thought has me hesitating as I enter the elevator with my thundering entourage of Heavies. But I can’t leave Adriana to whatever fate is coming for her with the Senate’s vote. I have to trust that Alex won’t want to get me arrested yet. Right now he still thinks he’s one step ahead of me, and I have to believe that means he’ll wait for the perfect moment to show his hand. After all, if he uses Theodore to report me now, I won’t be guilty of anything that he or the police can actually prove. He needs to wait if he wants to incriminate me.

Or maybe that’s not his plan. Maybe this time he’s planning to kill me. If that’s the case, he’ll wait for me to attack Future Travels, and then he can say that he or his security bots were forced to shoot me after I broke in.

Somehow that rings true to me. A memory trickles back with that thought: Adriana’s vision in the Mark VI when we left 2061. She said she saw a man matching Alex’s description shoot and kill me.

The elevator opens and we pile out into a littered street. A flickering streetlight illuminates shadowy lumps on the other side of the street. Homeless people sleeping beside their belongings.

A frown creases my lips as I turn and head up the street toward the hotel that I said was my destination. I wonder idly about Adriana’s vision. What causes the hallucinations that people experience when exposed to compressed space-time? Is it possible that they really are visions of the future? And if so, then does that mean the future is already set and inevitable, or are the visions merely possible outcomes that may or may not come to pass? It all seems implausible to me, and yet, there was a time when compressing space-time would have seemed implausible.

Rather than dismiss the possibility that Adriana saw an actual glimpse of the future, I file it away in the back of my mind as a warning, an extra impetus to make sure that my plans to assault Future Travels are foolproof.

*     *     *

After checking into The Adrian, I tuck my shadow ID under the pillows on the bed, then activate it and simultaneously deactivate my own. If the authorities are watching or happen to go back over the tracking logs later, they’ll see that I stayed in my room all night.

The bot that I’ve chosen for myself peels open before me with a whirring and clicking of mechanical parts. I stand inside of the shell that remains and use my glasses to seal myself back up inside of the machine.

Now perfectly disguised as a Heavy, I turn and nod to Victor, and he leads the way to the door of the hotel suite. He checks to make sure no one is coming, then signals for me to follow. Two more Heavies follow us from the room, empty vessels for Adriana and Olivia to use once I find them.

We cross the lobby under the watchful eyes of the desk clerk, but he doesn’t say anything about a Skin leaving in the company of three Heavies. Our business is none of his. There’s probably plenty of shady goings-on at the hotel, so he’s used to not asking questions.

Back on the streets, Victor reverses our previous course. We pass a few bleak and desperate-looking pedestrians along the way, but they all look away just as soon as they see us coming. They’d have to be suicidal to pick a fight with us. Rusted ground cars with flat tires are parked along the sidewalks with old clothes hanging in their broken windows like curtains. Those cars probably haven’t been moved in decades. Now they’re homes for the homeless.

We walk two blocks to the right, then take a left up Taylor Street. Walking inside the exo-Heavy is easy enough, but I let it do the walking for me to avoid getting out of step with the others clanking along beside me. The machine moves my arms and legs passively as we go, and I begin to feel like I’m the one that’s hollow—a meat suit possessed by a robot spirit.

It’s eight blocks straight ahead to the cathedral. I can see it shining in the distance, a beacon of hope in a desolate place. As we draw near, I can see something that I didn’t notice before. We descended from the landing pad in the shadow of the apartment building that stands behind the cathedral. Out front, in what looks to be a park, there’s a crowd gathered to protest something. I see a cordon, and the strobing blue and red lights of police Heavies and their patrol cars.

They’re probably gathered to protest something to do with the vote on Kane’s proposal.

We walk past another illuminated building with a sign that reads, The Masonic, and then we reach the cathedral itself. Victor pays no attention to the chanting crowd behind the police cordon. He turns and marches straight up the sweeping stairs in front of the cathedral. As we go, someone throws a glass bottle at us that flies an impressive distance to shatter on the stairs near our feet. I wonder why Fundies would throw things at people heading into their own cathedral, but then I remember that I’m inside a security Heavy, and they probably think we’re with the police.

When we reach the doors of the Cathedral, we find a priest standing out front with a deeply furrowed brow and a grave expression on his face.

He looks to Victor and shakes his head. “You can’t come in here. Humans only.”

Victor stops. “I just need information. I’m looking for a friend on behalf of my owner. Her name is Adriana Rivera Vargas. And her daughter, Olivia Vargas.”

I notice a flash of recognition flicker through the priest’s gaze, but he shakes his head. “I don’t know her.”

“She’s a resident of this Block,” Victor goes on. “She would have arrived yesterday.”

“And what makes you think she came here?”

“A hunch.”

“A mistaken one. I’m sorry. You need to leave now.”

I take a quick step forward. This priest knows more than he’s saying. “Wait,” my voice emerges from the Heavy’s chest speakers sounding appropriately robotic. The priest looks to me with eyebrows patiently raised, but I can see the fear in his eyes. His hands are shuffling inside of his robes, reaching for something. A gun? I wonder. I try scanning for his name with my glasses, and the word Undocumented flashes in red above his head. That’s odd, I think. “Maybe the father knows her. If you’d let us in, we could ask him.”

The priest shakes his head. “As I said, humans only, and the bishop is not available at the moment. Please leave. I won’t ask again.”

Frustrated, I decide to take a much bigger risk. I trigger my Heavy to open up, revealing me standing inside of it.

The priest takes a quick step back, alarm flashing across his face, but that expression quickly turns to interest. “What is this? Who are you?”

“Who I am isn’t important,” I whisper. “I’m here to get Adriana and her daughter out before the Blocks are raided. These Heavies are hollow. It’s the only way past the checkpoints. If you know where they are—”

“Follow me. Quickly.” The priest turns and opens one of the giant embossed gold doors of the cathedral.

I seal myself up once more and hurry inside with Victor and the other two Heavies. I can’t help but notice the intricate biblical scenes sculpted into the golden panels of the doors as we pass through. On the other side, the priest shuts the door behind us with a muffled boom that echoes through the cavernous cathedral. A lock thunks into place, and then the priest turns and leads us through the entry hall, his green and white robes swishing as he goes.

We come to a brown sculpture of some kind and veer around it to an intricate circular pattern on the floor. From there we hurry down the aisle flanked by wooden pews. Massive stone columns soar up to intricately vaulted ceilings on either side. A trio of illuminated stained glass windows stand at the back of the cathedral behind the pulpit, with identical ones between the columns. All of them are casting colorful rainbow patterns on the pews and floor. As we reach the end of the aisle, the priest heads right and leads us through a set of simple wooden doors that lead behind the pulpit. Here the ceiling comes down to a more natural height, and the stone hallways are less ostentatious. Before long we come to another wooden door that reads: Rt. Rev. Gareth Paul Walker.

The priest knocks on the door and says, “Behold, I stand at the door and knock.”

“And who is he that knocks?” comes the muffled reply.

“One of the faithful,” the priest says.

The door swings open, and the man standing on the other side flinches at the sight of us and almost slams the door in the priest’s face.

“Wait.” The priest sticks his foot in the door. “They’re friends. They can help us.” He turns and nods to me.

I reveal myself once more with a clicking and whirring of mechanical parts. The man behind the door stares at me, his jaw slowly dropping.

“Quickly, Mark!” the priest urges. “Let us in.”

The door swings wide and we hurry in. I find myself standing in what looks to be a relatively ordinary office. A wooden bookshelf lines one wall. A matching wooden desk stands empty to the right. An oversized painting and a sitting area to the left. The priest shuts the door behind us. The other one, a young man with short dark hair who looks to be drowning in his robes, stands to one side of us with his hands fiddling inside his robes. Like the priest I can’t see a name when I try to scan for his pass card. Undocumented flashes in red letters above his head. I recall that the priest called him Mark. A moment later I see why he’s fiddling inside his robes. A gun emerges from one billowing sleeve. The priest sees it and pushes it away. “Put that away!” he snaps.

“Who are they?” Mark asks.

“I don’t know. The one in the suit is an undoc. He’s here for Adriana.”

“So you do know her,” I say.

The priest nods as he crosses the room to the bookshelf and begins scanning the rows of books arranged there. “I believe there’s a greater purpose to his arrival,” the priest goes on, speaking to Mark rather than me. “This man might be the answer to our prayers.”

“How?” Mark asks.

“You will see. But first, we need to speak with Bishop Walker.”

“Where is she?” I ask, trying to ignore the fact that these two are talking about me and alluding to some kind of agenda for helping me find Adriana. The priest nods as he crosses the room to the bookshelf and pulls out one of the books.

For a moment I think that the bookshelf is going to slide open to reveal a secret passage. Instead, nothing happens. The priest opens the book to a certain page and removes a key. He replaces the book on the shelf and takes the key to the wall opposite the desk. That giant painting hangs there, depicting some classical scene of angels and clouds that looks vaguely familiar. The priest picks the painting up and shuffles away with it before leaning it against the bookshelves. An ornately-carved wooden door stands along the wall where the painting was. Panting from the exertion of moving it, he uses the key to open the door, revealing an inscrutable darkness on the other side. He waves to us. “Through here.”

A musty smell wafts through my armor as I walk through the open door. Victor and the other two Heavies follow. We emerge in an echoing stone corridor.

The priest shuts the door and brushes by us, moving quickly. Lights swell from hidden recesses above abbreviated stone columns to either side. “Follow me.” He leads the way between two of the columns and down what turns out to be a spiraling stone staircase. We follow him down the stairs into what I can only assume is a basement beneath the cathedral. We arrive at another wooden door. The priest knocks again.

“Seek and ye shall find,” says someone on the other side.

“Knock, and it shall be opened unto you,” the priest replies, and the door swings wide to reveal an old cellar. In the center of the bare concrete floor between old wooden barrels and empty wine racks is a large dining table with what must be a dozen people seated around it. All of them rise to their feet in alarm as we stride in. Several of them whip out over-sized pistols that fill the air with a rising whine of charging capacitors.

The priest holds up his hands in a placating gesture. “Wait! I can explain!”

I recognize two of the people at the table who didn’t immediately jump to their feet. Adriana and Olivia. Buddy perks up from Olivia’s lap and says, “Hey! I know that guy!” He’s looking at Victor.

I step forward. “You know me as well,” I say in a robotic voice.

“Nope. Sorry,” Buddy replies.

The ones aiming guns at us shift their aim to me.

“Put your guns away,” the priest says. “And watch this...” The priest turns and nods to me.

And then I trigger my Heavy open to the sound of multiple gasps.

“Byron!” Adriana says, now jumping to her feet, relief flashing across her face.

“It’s a suit,” a man wearing ornate purple robes at the head of the table says.

“It’s how we’re going to get out of here,” the priest who escorted me down here replies.


Chapter 48

“Hang on!” I say as I step out of my suit. “I didn’t agree to smuggling a bunch of people out. I only came here for two people.” I point to Adriana and her daughter, still amazed that my hunch about finding them was so dead-on.

The man I assume to be the bishop scowls, but Adriana smiles and walks around the table to reach me. She wraps her arms around my neck and whispers. “Thank you.”

But as she withdraws, I can see the objection before it even reaches her lips. She’s shaking her head. “I can’t go. Not anymore.” She turns and gestures to the man in purple robes. “Not now that I’ve found my son.”

“Your what?” I actually take a step back with that. I’m shaking my head now, confused and shocked. “You have a son? You never mentioned that.”

“We haven’t known each other very long,” she replies. “There was never a reason to mention him. And when you met me, the wound was still fresh, too hard to talk about. It’s still fresh.” Tears are glistening in Adriana’s eyes. She wipes them away with trembling hands.

“I don’t understand...” I reply slowly.

The bishop rounds the table to stand beside Adriana. Beside his mother, I realize. But by looking at them, it seems impossible to frame that relation in my mind. The bishop must be at least fifty, whereas Adriana is only thirty-one. His head is shaved, his blue eyes surrounded by deep crow’s feet, his cheeks gaunt, age-spotted, and wrinkled. The stubble on his jaw is white with age, his mouth creased with worry lines.

She goes on, “One of my clients, a wealthy man from outside the Blocks... he got me pregnant. When the baby was born, I thought I could get his father to help us with money, but I was a fool. When he found out about the baby, he sued for full custody and took Gareth away from me.”

“Until now,” the bishop says, squeezing his mother’s shoulders.

Adriana reaches up and grabs one of his hands. “Yes.”

I blink in shock. “The courts took a baby away from his mother?”

“Considering my profession, are you surprised? Not to mention the fact that I’m a Fundy and live in the Blocks.”

I look to the Bishop. “You grew up in a secular home and decided to join the church?”

“Is there a problem with that?”

I frown and shrug. “No, it’s just odd. Especially these days.”

The bishop smiles tightly at me, his sallow cheeks wrinkling up in a way that reminds me of Theodore. My heart hurts with the reminder of him. Gareth’s head is shaved. Fiery blue eyes burn into mine as he holds my gaze.

“You mentioned you came here to help my mother and sister to escape.”

I nod absently at that. “Yes.” My eyes flick between Gareth and Adriana and back again. I’m still reeling with this encounter. “Hell of a coincidence you two finding each other here after all these years,” I say.

Gareth shakes his head. “I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“All the same,” I reply.

“We need your help,” he says. “Will you help us?”

“No. This isn’t why I came here.”

The priest who led me down here moves into view. “You don’t have a choice.”

Gareth fixes him with a hard look.

Adriana reaches for my hands. “Please. Just hear him out.”

“Okay. Explain. You want to escape? Then what?”

Gareth hesitates a few beats. “We’re going to blow up the ID tracking center in downtown San Francisco.”

“What? You’re insane. That won’t help anyone, it’ll just get you killed! I definitely won’t help you with that.”

“Maybe we’ll die, or maybe we won’t, but if we succeed, we’ll help hundreds or even thousands of people to escape the Blocks. We have snorkels and diving equipment standing by, and diving scooters. They’ll use them to swim across the bay and disappear.”

“You’re insane. That’s a hell of a long swim.”

“Hence the diving scooters,” Gareth says.

“Even if they make it, they won’t last five minutes running around undocumented.”

Everyone will be undocumented after the tracking center goes offline. They won’t be able to tell the difference between us and regular citizens.”

“You mean until they notice that you don’t have implants in your hands.”

“We do.” The bishop holds up his right hand to reveal a familiar glowing blue triangle.

“Then...”

“It’s a fake. Just for appearances.”

“Isn’t that against your beliefs?” I ask.

“No, this one isn’t the mark of the beast. It doesn’t bear the number of Adam Kane’s name.”

“You mean 616?” I ask, smirking. “Last I checked it was supposed to be triple six.”

“Or was it? The oldest manuscripts recorded 616 as the number of the beast. Later ones changed it to 666.”

I frown dubiously at that.

“It’s true,” Adriana says. “He showed me.”

“Okay...” I’m literally scratching my head now. “Even if it is true, how do you tie 616 to Adam Kane?”

“Do you know what his ID code is?” Gareth asks.

“Why would I know that?”

“Look it up on your glasses. See for yourself. It’s public knowledge.”

Humoring the man, I do so and stare uncomprehending at the string of letters and numbers in the result.

“Read it,” Gareth says.

“ID-C284-V121-X100-L111.”

“Add the numbers together.”

It takes me a few seconds. “Six hundred and sixteeen...” I mutter, surprise registering in my voice despite my skepticism. “That could be a coincidence.”

“I told you, I don’t believe in coincidences. And if that’s not enough for you, how’s this: the letters in his ID code have roman numeral values that add up to six hundred and sixty-six. I-D-C-V-X-L.”

“I’m going to have to take your word for that,” I say, but if I’m being honest, Gareth’s conspiracy theories are beginning to unnerve me. “So if you’re right, and Adam Kane is the beast, then the mark I have in my right hand condemns me to hell?”

Gareth appears to hesitate, then says, “Only God can condemn you to hell. Perhaps you’ll find a way to redeem yourself before then.”

“Or maybe it’s all bullshit.”

“Watch your language in here!” the priest who led me down here snaps.

Gareth places a calming hand on his arm. “It’s okay, Tobias.”

“Say I agree to help you, a bunch of you escape before whatever ruling the Senate is going to give—you’re just going to prove to people and the Senate that they need to vote Kane’s proposal into action. More Fundy terrorism.”

Gareth shakes his head. “No. We’ll wait for the verdict before we execute the attack.”

“It’s too dangerous,” I say.

“We have to try,” Gareth replies. “Either way we’re dead if Kane’s proposal passes.”

“Because of the injections? What if it’s true? Your brains are different. It’s what makes you religious. Would fixing that be so bad?”

“It’s a lie,” Gareth says. “You can’t fix it, or cure us like we have some kind of disease. Those injections are something else, something to do with the neural interfaces everyone else has. It’s mind control. Active suppression of our faith.”

I give Gareth a sideways look. I’m starting to wonder what I’ve stumbled into and whether I should make a run for it while I still can. I glance back at the door behind me. Victor and the other two bots I brought are standing in a line behind my empty exo-Heavy.

“Believe me or don’t; it doesn’t change the facts,” Gareth says. “We’ve seen it. People don’t just lose their religion. They turn on their family and their friends. One of our biggest cells in the Block was exposed when just one of them got the injection. He got chipped and sold them all out to the cops. His kids. His wife. His best friend.”

“Maybe he didn’t like his family.”

“They’re being interrogated at a black site as we speak. And I knew the man.”

I see the priest that Gareth called Tobias nodding his head. “Hunter loved his family. He never would have turned them in. Not even if he decided that he wanted out.”

“He got the injection, and what you call the mark of the beast,” I feel the need to point out. “He obviously had a crisis of faith.”

“Maybe,” Gareth says. “Or the Guard picked him up and forced it on him. Made him one of their guinea pigs.”

I look to Adriana. “Last chance. Are you coming with me, or not?”

“Not without Gareth,” she replies. “I’m not leaving him again.”

I grimace and give in with a sigh. “It’s your funeral.” I turn away, heading back to my waiting exo-Heavy.

The priest who escorted us down here runs to block the door behind us. Spread-eagling his arms and legs from one side to the other. “You can’t let them leave,” he says. “They know where we’re hiding. They heard the code phrases.”

I feel my neck prickle with goosebumps. There’s a shuffle of movement behind me, and I feel something cold press against the back of my head.

“I’m afraid he’s right,” Gareth says quietly.

I freeze and raise my hands. The other two Heavies I brought with me belatedly snap their arms up and deploy their weapons to answer the threat.

I grit my teeth and slowly turn to face Gareth. The barrel of a sidearm swings between my eyes. “Even if you get it all right and escape the Blocks while the tracking center is down, there’s nowhere for you to run. You won’t even make it out of San Francisco.”

“We have people on the outside who will help us get away.”

“We’re going to Future Travels,” Adriana blurts, and receives several sharp, angry looks from the others down here, including her son. “We’re going to storm the launch center and take their time capsules to the future. They won’t even know what year we went to, so they won’t be able to follow us.”

My mouth drops open in shock. “What?” I’m planning an assault on Future Travels, and now somehow these bedraggled terrorists are, too? That’s either too good to be true or a genuine disaster.

Adriana smiles apologetically at me. “You gave me the idea. The future is the only place that we’ll be safe.”


Chapter 49

I press a hand to my forehead in an attempt to ward off an encroaching headache. “It seems like we both want some of the same things.”

The bishop furrows his brow in question, and his gun slowly sinks back to his side. “Such as?” My exo-Heavies relax their aim as well, de-escalating the situation.

“We’re both planning an attack on Future Travels.”

“We are?” Gareth asks.

“Yes. For different reasons, but it doesn’t matter. If you help me get in, I’ll make sure that you and your people get to whatever future you like.”

I can see that the Bishop is considering it. He glances at Adriana. “Can we trust him?”

She nods quickly. “Yes.”

Gareth looks back to me. “All right. Explain to us what you’re planning.”

“It’s a long story. We should sit,” I say.

Gareth turns to indicate the table behind him, and we sit around it together while I tell my long, terrible story. Gareth and his brethren listen patiently until the end.

“So it’s about revenge,” Tobias, the priest who brought me down here says.

“At this point, it would be fair to say it’s about justice,” I reply. “No one else is going to make Alex pay for everything he’s done. The world doesn’t even know he exists.”

“We can’t be a part of this,” Tobias says, looking to Gareth. “It’s against our beliefs. Vengeance is mine says the Lord.”

“Killing one psychopath is against your beliefs, but somehow blowing up an entire tracking center is just fine? How many people do you think you’ll kill in the blast?”

Tobias stiffens and lifts his chin until he’s looking down on me. “They’re already dead anyway.”

“How so?”

“He means spiritually dead,” Gareth supplies for me.

I frown at that. “Okay... then why do you care if I kill Alex?”

“Because killing him does nothing to advance the cause,” Tobias replies. “It’s a murder in cold blood.”

One or two of the other clergymen are nodding along with his line of reasoning, but there are at least four others that haven’t indicated their opinion one way or the other. A few are murmuring amongst themselves. My eyes skip around the table, taking in their faces. We haven’t been introduced, but maybe that’s better. If we don’t know each other’s names, we can’t sell each other out. Olivia isn’t sitting with us for this. She’s in a corner throwing a ball for Buddy who is playing along, but making sarcastic comments about the game of fetch as he complies with the ritual.

I notice that everyone down here with the exception of Adriana and her daughter is wearing white robes with green overcoats or scarves. I’m not sure what those raiments are called, but I think I know why none of them have traded those clothes for more comfortable attire: it’s easy to hide their guns in those voluminous robes. These are Fundy extremists, the terrorists of the 22nd-Century, and I’m conspiring to work with them. If this backfires, there’ll be no saving me from prison this time.

“Let’s put it to a vote,” Gareth says. “All in favor of joining Byron’s assault on Future Travels?” He raises his hand and four other hands shoot up with his. Adriana’s hand makes it six in favor.

Tobias and three others keep their hands in their laps.

“Majority rules,” Gareth says. “We join him.”

“He’ll have to get us out of the Blocks first,” Tobias says. “And what about the tracking center? We still have to take it out.”

I grimace at that.

“He’s right,” Gareth says. “Our plans are more complicated than yours. The tracking center must go down first.”

I’m shaking my head. “It’s over an hour’s flight from here to Nevada. How does taking down the tracking center help your people get to the future if they won’t even make it to the launch center?”

“We have people on the outside who have agreed to leave their vehicles unattended in strategic locations. They’ll find their way.”

“As soon as you leave the radius of San Francisco’s tracking center, drones and police will pick up on the fact that there are undocs in those cars,” I point out.

Gareth smiles and shakes his head. “The San Francisco tracking center covers everything from Reno to Monterrey, California. That includes Mono City and Mono Lake, around which Future Travels has built its primary launch center.”

“How do you know that?” I ask.

“We’ve done our homework, Byron.”

“I see. So by the time they get tracking systems back online...”

“The assault will already be underway.”

“What about all the innocent people working in the tracking center?” I ask again.

“Most people who work there work from home or commute virtually. We’ll be sure to attack in the middle of the night, so there shouldn’t be anyone there.”

“And all of this will only happen if the Senate votes to pass Kane’s proposal for Universal Equality?”

Gareth nods. “We’ll abort our plans if they don’t.”

Tobias looks like he wants to say something to that. “We could execute anyway.”

Gareth shoots him a look. “We’ve discussed this. I’ve only agreed to such extreme measures because our backs are to the wall. If they back down, then so do we.”

I look from Tobias to Gareth and back again. “That doesn’t really suit my agenda.”

“Those are the terms,” Gareth insists.

I take a slow breath, and give in with a nod. “Fine. I’ll wait to see what the Senate decides. But timing will be critical after that. If they pass the proposal, we might not have a lot of time to act before security doubles or even triples inside the Blocks. They’ll be expecting riots. Police will be everywhere, and getting you out could easily become impossible.”

“Isn’t that the point of those hollow machines you brought?” Tobias asks.

“Yes, but how am I supposed to get them in with the whole area locked down for riot control?”

“They’re built for security,” Gareth says. “You could say someone ordered them.”

“There’s no guarantee that will work,” I reply.

“It will if you’re here before the Senate delivers their verdict,” Gareth says. “Getting out should be easy enough for a duly registered citizen like yourself.”

I’m grinding my teeth and hesitating. It’s starting to feel like my plans are getting hijacked. I look to Adriana. Her eyes are pleading. There’s a lot of good reasons not to do this. But one good reason for: I need a distraction and a second prong of attack if I’m going to get the upper hand over Alex. A horde of religious zealots will do very nicely for that.

“Okay. I’m in. I’ll get you out and get you to the tracking center. I assume you already have a plan to take it out? Keep in mind, I can’t smuggle explosives out of the Blocks. We’ll never get past the checkpoint.”

“We won’t need to. The attack has already been organized by people on the outside.”

“You must have a lot of friends among the damned,” I say.

Gareth inclines his head to that. “A lot of people were lulled into thinking that the passmarks were benign. The connection to the number and name of the beast only emerged with the latest version. Version VI.”

“So now those people are looking for redemption?”

“Aren’t we all?” Gareth replies with an enigmatic smile.

“No. I want justice.”

“You mean revenge,” Tobias replies. “Vengeance is mine saith the Lord.”

I flash a scowl in his direction. “Then He’d better hurry up and take it before I beat him to it.” Planting my hands on the table, I rise and say, “I should go.”

Adriana stands with me. “When will you be back?”

“The vote is on Friday. Three day’s time,” Gareth reminds me.

“Then I’ll be here Thursday night at the latest. Make sure you’re ready to leave at a moment’s notice.”

“We’ll need more than three of those machines.”

“I have six,” I say, even as I do a mental head count of everyone in the cellar. There are twelve people here, counting Olivia, Adriana, and myself. The biblical significance of that number strikes me as ironic, and leaves me wondering who the Judas is. Tobias seems like a good fit. He’s at odds with Gareth, pushing for chaos and mayhem no matter what.

“That won’t be enough,” Tobias says.

“I can get more before then. There’s twelve of us. My car only has ten seats, but I suppose two of you can stand in the aisle.”

Gareth nods. “That will be fine. Thank you. You’re doing the right thing, Byron.”

“Am I?” I challenge, but I go on before he can reply: “I’ll be here early on Friday, or late Thursday. I assume that there’s a way to get in and out of the cathedral that’s less conspicuous than the front entrance?”

“There’s a street level exit to this cellar,” Gareth replies, and points vaguely over his shoulder. “Around back.”

“Then that’s where I’ll see you next. Do I need a code phrase to get in?”

“The same one you already heard,” Tobias replies. “Knock, and it shall be opened unto you.”

“Right. I’ll try to remember that. Make sure you’re all here and all ready to go when I get here.”

“We will be,” Gareth says.

I turn and stalk back to my waiting exo-Heavy. Footsteps sound hurriedly after mine, and I turn to come face to face with Adriana. “Thank you,” she whispers as I line myself up inside of the machine. She goes up on her tiptoes and kisses me on the lips. “For coming back for us, and for keeping your promise.”

I smile at her, my head swimming slightly from that brief, electric brush of her lips. “This is a little more than I bargained for, but you’re welcome.” With that, I toggle the sequence to seal the Heavy up with me inside, and then turn to Victor. “Time to go.”

“Yes, sir.” He moves to open the door that he’s standing beside, but Tobias hurries over to stop him.

“Not that way,” he says, shaking his head, then turns and leads us through the shadowy recesses of the cellar to the street-level exit that Gareth mentioned. We walk up an old, crumbling stone staircase, pass through a creaky wooden door at the top, and then come face to face with a miniature version of a medieval portcullis.

I stand on the stairs peering up through the square metal bars of the gate to the darkened alley beyond. Tobias starts rolling an aging winch to raise the gate. He only gets it up halfway before gesturing hurriedly for us to crawl out underneath. It’s difficult to bend that low while wearing a seven-foot suit of mechanized armor, but I manage to do it with only a minimal loss of paint. The portcullis drops behind us with a rattling of the chain that holds it and a muted boom as it slams to the ground. The wooden door behind that bangs shut, and Tobias is gone, leaving Victor and me alone in a dark, abandoned alley between the cathedral and the apartment building whose roof I parked on just a few hours ago.

The walk back to The Adrian is longer than I remember and leaves me feeling curiously exposed, even inside my suit. But it’s not because of all the shadowy vagrants peering at us from their shanties on the sidewalks. It’s because of what I’ve been roped into.

I find myself half-hoping that Adam Kane’s proposal gets rejected by the Senate. Then I’ll have a good excuse to get out of this.

Twenty minutes later, I’m back in my hotel suite, lying on the bed and staring at the peeling, water-stained ceiling. The air is suffocatingly hot. The air conditioner doesn’t work, but I’ve opened all the windows, and they’re billowing with tattered yellow curtains that might have once been white. To avoid raising any eyebrows, I need to wait until morning to leave.

I lie on top of the bed sheets, still fully-clothed. Definitely better that way.

Sweat beads my forehead and prickles my back. My thoughts drift to Theodore, the Anon. What am I going to tell him when I come home without Adriana and Olivia? He’s expecting me to bust them out. I guess I could say she changed her mind about leaving.

On the bright side, this will give me a good opportunity to see if he was planning to sell me out to the authorities already. If the police are waiting for me when I get back to Fresno, that could seriously mess with my plans. I haven’t done anything illegal yet, but Alex will have exposed Theodore to me as his Anon. The real Theodore would never turn me in. And if he no longer has a spy tagging along, Alex won’t be lulled into a false sense of security that will ultimately prove to be his undoing.

I roll over with an aggravated sigh, and try to push those thoughts from my head, but between the heat and everything going on, sleep eludes me until just before dawn, and just a few hours after that, the sun is up and glaring in my eyes.

I sit up with a groan and knead my scratchy eyes with my fists. It’s time to go see what surprises Theodore has waiting for me back in Fresno.


Chapter 50

Two days before the attack...

—Wednesday May 12, 2111—

On my way out of The Adrian, I stop to speak with the owner, who happens to be doing double-duty as the desk clerk. Just the way it was fifty years ago. New owner, same skimping on costs.

“Listen,” I say. “How would you like to have some extra security around here on Friday?”

The owner stands up from his chair with a puzzled look. The images flickering over his contacts die suddenly, and his eyes appear to focus on me. “Extra security?” he asks.

I jerk a thumb to the three Heavies standing behind me. “I’m coming back with a dozen of them on Friday and I need somewhere to stay until I leave again later that night. I’m field-testing a new AI package. You wouldn’t have to pay anything for it.”

The owner is scratching his head. My glasses reveal his name is Seth Lancaster. “I don’t know...” he trails off. “What if they shoot someone? Or cause property damage?”

I wave those concerns aside. “They’re only packing non-lethals.” A small lie. “Besides, if the Senate votes through Kane’s proposal to dissolve the Blocks, your hotel could burn to the ground in the riots that follow. You could use a detail of Heavies around here on Friday to keep that from happening.”

“I guess. You sure I don’t have to pay?”

“Not a cent. I’ll send the work order for you to sign later today.”

“Fine. Thanks,” Seth says.

“You’re welcome.”

I leave the hotel with a smile. Now at least I have a good excuse to come back here.

*     *     *

Before I head home, I pick up my Anon at Violet’s place, giving her the shadow ID to put in the back of his right hand. That done, I thank her for the rush job and head back down the steps to my car.

Now, my Anon sits facing me from the front row of seats in my air car. His chair is swiveled to face mine, as is Victor’s as we fly from San Francisco back to Fresno. Looking at my Anon is like staring at a mirror, only much creepier.

“Are you okay, Mr. White?” the Anon asks me in what I assume is a perfect replica of my voice. It’s the off-key version that I hear whenever I play back a video or holo recording of myself.

“Do we sound the same to you?” I ask Victor, just to be sure.

“Perfectly identical, sir. Within point zero one percent of tonal variance.”

I incline my head to that. “Good.”

To avoid dealing with the unsettling fact that I’ve been cloned, I turn away and stare out the window beside me. The sun is cresting over a wall of cumulus clouds in the distance, winking at me with dazzling golden rays. My car and all of the ones around it cruising down our invisible highway in the sky are flying well below the level of those clouds to make room for hypersonic jets and sub-orbital flights. Air cars, being essentially light aircraft with rotors like helicopters, tend to do better at lower altitudes where the air is thicker.

Staring out that window, I’m soon lost in my thoughts, wondering what to expect when I arrive. Will Alex have the police waiting for me, expecting that I broke Adriana and Olivia out of the Blocks like I was planning? And if so, how will I react? Is there any way to salvage that situation and pretend that I somehow believe Theodore is still the man who raised me?

No matter how hard I try, I can’t see a way out of that. The only thing I can try is to react as I actually would if the real Theodore were to betray me like that.

And yet, Alex and I both know that the real Theodore would have buried a body for me. A sigh whistles softly from my lips.

An hour later, I can see Fresno on the horizon, and soon after that, we head East toward the mountains and hover down into the suburbs where my mansion sits.

I can see no extra cars parked in the lot out back, or for that matter any flashing blue and red lights to indicate police drones or Heavies lying in wait for me. The estate is just as lonely and peaceful as I left it—if you don’t count the high walls with armed Heavies patrolling endlessly.

My eyes land on the robotic copy of me. “You need to stay out of sight,” I say. “Go to the back of the car and climb into the trunk. It’s open to the cabin behind the last row of seats.”

“Of course,” the Anon replies reasonably, getting up and walking down the aisle of seats, past the six exo-Heavies sitting in the back. I peer out the window, looking for any sign of Theodore, but he hasn’t come out to greet me yet. Good, I think. That means there’s no chance that he’ll spot two of me in here. The android copy is a critical part of my plan to outsmart Alex. He’s not the only one who can replace people with androids.

Glancing back down the aisle, I wait until I see my Anon twin climb over the back row of seats into the trunk. There comes a muffled thump, and then silence.

I look to Victor. “Not a word of this to Theodore,” I say to him.

“Of what, sir?” he asks.

“Any of it. The meeting we had in the cathedral, our stowaway in the trunk...”  I jerk a thumb over my shoulder to indicate where the Anon went. “If he asks about our trip, you say we found Adriana and her daughter, but they no longer wanted to leave the Blocks, because Adriana found her long lost son, who is a Bishop in Block 19.”

“A half-truth.”

“The best kind of lie,” I say, and then turn to open the doors of the car with my glasses. “Let’s go.”

*     *     *

I meet Theodore in the great room. He’s sitting on the couch with a coffee in his hand, and colorful images flickering over his contacts. The images vanish as we come in, and he stands up.

“You’re back, sir.”

“Yes,” I say with a tired sigh and half a smile.

Theodore’s eyes flick over the group of us as I stride through to the kitchen for a drink. “Where is Miss Ana and Young Miss Olivia?”

Between gulps of water, I give him the story I just rehearsed with Victor and add an irritated sigh to punctuate the end. “She’s crazy to stay there, but I kept my promise to get her out. She just didn’t want to leave.”

“Yes, a lot of trouble for nothing. At least you had a chance to test your fake ID and the Heavies you built. Did they work?”

I nod. “The police didn’t hunt me down and arrest me, so I’m guessing it worked.”

“And that’s how we’re going to infiltrate Future Travels?”

“Yes. I’ll have to build more of them for that, though.”

“How many?”

I take a moment to think about it. Theodore can’t know exactly how many of them I’m building. Because I have to leave a group of them here with my Anon to form the decoy attack. On top of that I’ll be sneaking out another dozen to Block 19 tomorrow night. That’s going to require a lot of last-minute deliveries of components and supplies to my workshop, so he’s going to know I’m building more of them. He just can’t know how many more. This is going to be interesting.

“Another six?” I lie. That means I actually have to make another eighteen. A dozen to stay behind and a dozen to leave. “Find the supply orders we put in for the last batch of Heavies, and quadruple them.”

Theodore seems taken aback by that. “You’re planning to build that many of them? Who’s going to pilot them all?”

“Nobody. They’re going to be decoys. And I don’t know how many I’m going to build yet, but I don’t want to run out of materials if I decide to build more. Have the materials sent down to my workshop as soon as they arrive.”

“Of course, sir.”

I turn and head back through the great room to the rear entrance. Seeing Victor standing idly by the doors with the exo-Heavies, I nod to him and say, “Follow me.”

“Where are you going?” Theodore asks.

“To run an errand,” I say.

I can’t think of a good reason to be leaving again so soon after I’ve arrived, so I don’t elaborate. Besides, it’s not like I always gave Theodore detailed explanations of all my comings and goings.

I’m going to fetch the Mark VI from Denver before it gets vandalized or stolen. It’s the final piece of my plan, and arguably one of the most important: I can’t fly it around without the authorities picking up on the fact that it’s not a licensed vehicle, but fortunately, I don’t have to actually fly it anywhere. I’m going to teleport it into the very near future for a landing somewhere in the mountains close to Future Travels and then leave it there for later.


Chapter 51

One day before the attack...

—Thursday May 13, 2111—

I’m sitting in my office, drinking a glass of hundred-year-old rum, which is actually younger than me—depending how you measure it. I take a sip and let the rum burn a fiery trail down my throat. It helps to clear my buzzing thoughts, bringing me down slightly from the state of near-panic that I’ve been in all day. It’s not really panic, though. It’s anticipation. It’s finally time to make Alex pay. Everything is in place.

After leaving the Mark VI in the mountains and flying back here with Victor, I’ve been working around the clock to produce eighteen new exo-Heavies. I could have simply purchased the XASU models that I based them on, but I need these to have my custom programming and ID chips. Commercial civilian models of Heavies won’t attack anything without excessive provocation, and even then, their combat protocols are underwhelming at best. These custom versions will mow down a crowd of pedestrians if I tell them to (using non-lethal rounds of course). But more importantly, they can’t be traced back to me, whereas any Heavies purchased through a licensed factory or dealer are tracked and traced in a thousand different ways. Mine have no hidden serial numbers, and their ID chips are custom-crafted toggle-able IDs that I’ll turn off right before the attack.

And just in case the authorities investigate after the attack, looking for any bulk orders of robotic components and manufacturing equipment, I’ve taken pains to order identical quantities through a shell corporation, and have them delivered to my old Anon’s place outside San Francisco. He’s the one I used to spy on Alex, the one who abducted Claire and crashed into the desert some fifty years ago. His place has been abandoned ever since, stuck in limbo by the fact that it was deeded to a shell corporation rather than him or me.

Victor has been over there for the past day and a half with orders to set up a workshop and get rid of the materials I ordered by dumping them all in the bay. I also sent over two of the exo-Heavies to help him. They’ll be left behind as evidence that the others were built there, too. I have to cover my tracks now while I still can, in case I actually pull this off.

A knock sounds on the door to my office, and then the door slides open. Theodore pokes his head in. “Could I have a word with you, sir?”

I nod and wave him in. “Come join me for a drink,” I say, forcing myself to disregard who and what he is.

Theodore walks over as I rise from my armchair and pour him a glass of rum from the wet bar in the office. I hand the glass to him, and he takes a generous sip.

Anons, like all androids who are built for social interactions with real people, have a kind of stomach where food and drink goes. People controlling them can taste whatever they ingest, but of course it doesn’t get digested or turned into any kind of fuel. It’s an utter waste, especially for a planet that’s already struggling to produce enough food and clean water for all seventeen billion of its inhabitants. And yet, somehow such egregious wastes are not illegal, it’s just a hyper-extension of consumerism.

I re-take my seat and watch as Theodore sits beside me. It takes a significant effort not to react in ways that might tip him off that I know what he is.

“You wanted to speak with me?” I prompt him.

He nods. “Yes. I wanted to ask you about your plan. Surely we’re not going to just fly out to Future Travels and make a direct assault on the complex.”

“Actually, I was thinking of doing just that. Why?”

Theodore fixes me with a reproving stare. “Because you’ll get us killed like that.”

“That’s what the decoys are for. To draw fire.”

“Even so.”

I concede that with a nod. I won’t actually be accompanying this prong of the assault, so it doesn’t matter to me if it fails. “You have a better idea?” I ask.

“Yes, I’ve taken the liberty of applying for several independent security contracts with a few of the companies that handle the security for Future Travels.”

“In a way that can’t be traced back to me, I hope?”

“Of course.”

I nod for him to go on.

“I outbid one of the current providers on a contract for eight XASU Heavies. I threw in the other four as a signing bonus.”

“So you’ve already committed to this?”

“Not yet. The deal is awaiting your approval, sir.”

I pretend to consider it. Alex is the one controlling Theodore, so it makes sense that he’s come up with a plausible way to lure me into his trap. A direct assault would probably get us killed like he said, but he doesn’t want that. He wants me to get in deep enough that there’ll be no escape once he reveals Theodore for what he really is and betrays me for the last time. “It could be a trap,” I point out. “If Alex has somehow bugged the mansion and seen what we’re planning...”

“If that’s the case, sir, then we need to abort. But I doubt it’s possible for him to have slipped anything past our security cordon. There’s a reason the walls are patrolled so heavily. Not even actual bugs cross that wall without getting zapped. I would know if something had gotten through.”

I blow out a shaky breath. “You’re right. I’m just getting cold feet now that we’re so close. I’ll need to see that security contract and make sure there’s no way to trace it back to us.”

“Of course, sir. I’ll send it to your glasses right away.” Theodore takes another sip of rum and then rises from his chair. He appears to hesitate before turning to leave. “There is one more thing. The contract starts tomorrow night,” he says.

My brow furrows at that. “That soon?”

“Did you need more time? I thought everything was already ready as of this afternoon?”

Someone is eager, I think as I pretend to be lost in thought, sipping my rum. The timing is actually rather perfect. It coincides with the plans I made to bust Adriana and Gareth and the rest of my Fundy cohorts out of Block 19. Up to this moment, I was planning to hide them all in the mountains with the Mark VI until I could coordinate a simultaneous assault from here in Fresno. Now that won’t be necessary.

But the timing of this security contract is almost coincidental enough to make me wonder if Theodore has somehow learned about my terrorist friends.

But no, that’s not possible... is it? I’ve been so careful. Unless there’s a traitor in our midsts. Or a bug in my car. Or he hacked Victor. Or one of my exo-Heavies.

Shit. My heart is hammering.

“Sir?” Theodore prompts. “Is everything all right?”

No, he can’t have bugged me. I went to Violet first. Her security system would have picked up on a bug shadowing my every move. Unless it stayed with the car and only followed me once I reached the Blocks. But surely the Fundies would have detected it. Their terrorist cell can’t be that easy to infiltrate or it would have been discovered already. I hope.

“Everything’s just fine,” I say, masking my concerns with a grim smile. “Send me the contract. If it all checks out, we’ll go ahead with our plans tomorrow night.”

“Yes, sir,” Theodore replies, and his contacts flicker briefly with screens that only he can see. “Sent.”

“I’ll look them over now,” I say, accepting the file transfer and pulling up the contract on one side of my glasses.

“I may be asleep by the time you’ve read them. If there’s a problem, you can let me know in the morning.”

I nod my agreement, and he turns to leave. Rather than read over the work orders, I watch Theodore’s back as he leaves, trying to decide who is actually one step ahead of whom.


Chapter 52

I stay up late in my office, checking the security contract over and over again, trying to figure out whatever plot Alex has hatched. I can’t see any catch to this, other than the obvious one that Alex is controlling Theodore the Anon, which means that this security contract is his way of luring us in for an attack that he knows is coming.

I’m still hoping he doesn’t know about the Fundies who are going to join the attack with me tomorrow night. I sigh and rub tired eyes. Maybe I’m just getting paranoid. Alex isn’t God. He doesn’t have eyes everywhere. I need to stop jumping at shadows.

But there is a real problem with my plan: if the Senate votes against Kane’s proposal, then my Fundy friends will abort their plans, and I’ll be left to execute the second prong of the attack myself.

There’s nothing I can do about that, though. I need to be ready either way, which means it’s time for me to head to Block 19 and get myself into position. But before I can do that, there is something else I need to do.

Getting up from my chair, I walk back through the mansion and creep up the sweeping staircase. It spirals up three floors, but I stop on the second floor landing. Theodore’s room is just a few doors down from mine on the second floor, while the third floor is devoted to guest suites, game rooms, and the sun deck.

Inching down the hall, I see a black Heavy at the end, standing sentinel in front of the doors to the second floor balcony.

Teardrop-shaped crystal wall sconces glow dimly on their night setting, highlighting the doors and the gold and gray damask patterned wallpaper. The cherry wood floors are dark as an oil slick. I walk past two doors to spare bedrooms, then come to the door to Theodore’s room. It’s shut. Mine is two doors down.

Stopping at his door, I try the door handle. Locked.

Using my glasses and my admin security code, I open the door anyway. The room is cloaked in darkness, Theodore’s bedsheets raised around him like a tent as he lies sleeping on his side. I walk soundlessly up to the edge of the bed to make sure that he’s asleep. His eyes are shut. His breathing slow and steady.

He definitely looks like he’s asleep, but since Anons don’t actually sleep, all this means is that his AI has taken over and he’s been told to pretend to be sleeping. If I try to wake him, Alex will get an alert on his contacts, and he’ll reconnect immediately.

But I didn’t come here to catch him. I came here to make sure that he won’t be awake to see what I’m going to do next.

Theodore stirs and mumbles something in his sleep. I frown at that, hesitating as I turn to leave. Ever since I learned that Theodore is an Anon I’ve been on the lookout for subtle signs that might give him away, but I have yet to discover anything amiss. His AI must be state-of-the-art.

Leaving Theodore’s side, I ease the door shut behind me and creep back down the stairs, heading all the way down to the basement.

Walking past the simulated basement garden, I go all the way to the end of the hallway and open the secret door to my bunker. It pivots aside and I ride the elevator down to the bare concrete room with the STCD Mark V. Then through the door at the end to the underground hangar. The heavy metal door thunders aside to reveal a bevy of gleaming air cars. I head for the largest and least aerodynamic of the bunch, sitting in a forgotten corner of the hangar. It’s already loaded up with a dozen exo-Heavies and ready to go. Like my other car, there are only ten seats. I climb in and see three Heavies standing hunched over in the aisle at the back. Taking the only empty seat available, I sit down and use my glasses to direct the car to leave the hangar by way of the vehicle elevator.

It auto-taxis out and we ride up the elevator to the top. When not in use, the top of the elevator is disguised as a simple landing pad.

Rather than tell the car to lift off and head for San Francisco, I have it wait, and open the doors to send half of the Heavies in my car out, telling them to head for the other ten-seater that I left around back. Once they’re out and the doors are shut again, I use my glasses to remote-connect to my Anon. Without a helmet to induce sensory inputs, all I can do is see and hear what my Anon does. A sense of touch, taste, and smell eludes me. I see that the Anon is still lying in the trunk of the car where I left it.

Using my thoughts to direct the Anon just as I would my real body, I climb out of the trunk, over the back seats, to sit in one of the front ones. As I hear the clanking of the Heavies I sent over approaching, I trigger the doors open and climb out. Opening one of the exo-Heavies, I position the Anon inside of it and seal it up again. Climbing back into the car and directing the other Heavies to follow, we all sit down and buckle up.

Now I have two identical air cars, each with six exo-Heavies inside.

I disconnect from my Anon and tell both cars to lift off and head for San Francisco, Block 19.


Chapter 53

Eighteen hours before the attack...

—Friday May 14, 2111—

By the time we reach the checkpoint for Block 19, it’s just past three AM, and the security Heavies standing guard give me a much closer inspection. I give them the excuse I pre-arranged—that I’ve agreed to provide additional security to The Adrian on Friday. It makes sense that a local business owner would want to protect their investment during what could be a very tumultuous time, but the security guards are on high alert, and this time they have me and all of my Heavies get out of our cars. They send me and all twelve of my Heavies through a body scanner that’s big enough to house a tank.

My mouth is dry as I emerge from the other side.

“Halt,” one of the bots says, holding up a hand. It hesitates, probably waiting for a human in some remote facility to double-check the results of the scan.

I built these bots with enough shielding to hide the fact that they’re hollow inside, but if they have scales in the scanner to weigh us, they’ll notice that these Heavies are much lighter than they should be.

I pretend to be bored by the procedure and take a look around, seeing for the second time the high chain-link fences topped with coils of razor wire, the guard Heavies at their posts, and the spotlights glaring down. I take a deep breath of the warm night air, catching a tang of sea salt and a fishy smell from the bay. Somewhere in the distance, a barge blows its horn, and I flinch at the sound.

Finally, the bot in charge of scanning me and my entourage nods to us with its blank black face. “You’re clear to go.”

I try not to hurry as I climb back into my car behind six of my Heavies. The other six, one of which contains my Anon with my shadow ID, climb into the other car, and then we’re hovering up and over the fence, into the shadowy grid of Block 19.

As before, we land on the roof of the apartments behind the cathedral, and ride the elevator down to the street level. I barely fit into that elevator with all twelve of my Heavies.

The elevator lets us out, and I lead them as fast as I can down Taylor Street to The Adrian. The owner isn’t awake when I arrive, but the night clerk who has replaced him is expecting us. It’s a teenage girl with braided blond hair and dark circles under her blue eyes that tell me she probably never sleeps. A quick scan with my glasses confirms her identity. Catherine Lancaster.

“Have them fan out around the perimeter,” she says.

I nod and relay the command along with the fact that they should add her to their list of authorized controllers. “They’ll do whatever you or your father ask them to.”

The girl smirks at that. “Just what I always wanted. My very own army of clankers.”

“I’ll be back to pick them up tomorrow night,” I add.

“Uh-huh,” she says, her eyes flashing with the light of screens projected on her contacts as she turns away.

I exit the lobby with my Heavies and order the one with my Anon inside to follow me back to the apartment building where my air cars are landed and waiting. As we go, I keep a wary eye on the homeless people camping out on the sidewalks. Dark eyes track us from both sides of the street, but none of them are stupid enough to jump me with a Heavy bodyguard.

Back at the apartment building, we ride the external elevator up to the roof. I get my Anon to climb into one of the two air cars, then access the car’s nav system and plot the destination to the decoy workshop that Victor set up across the bay. My Anon is going to go pick him up and then head back to Fresno. If Theodore notices that I’ve been gone, I’ll have the perfect excuse: I had to go check out the workshop and pick up Victor.

I smile and nod to myself, watching as the car hovers up and away with my Anon inside. When it reaches the checkpoint I connect briefly with my Anon via my glasses to make sure that everything goes according to plan. It’s a lot easier to get past security with just one Heavy. They don’t even bother to ask it any questions besides where it’s going and why. It’s not unusual to see Heavies coming and going on their own, running errands for their masters.

As soon as my Anon is flying across the bay, I disconnect and head back down to the street. It’s a short walk around the apartments to the back of the cathedral, but this time the people who call the streets their home are less shy with their scrutiny. A pair of shadowy figures start crossing the street toward me just as I reach the miniature portcullis in the back of the cathedral. I can’t see any intercom, and I can’t reach the wooden door on the other side to knock.

Glancing back at the approaching vagrants, I say. “Stay back, I have a gun.” It’s a lie, but they don’t know that.

“So do I,” one of them says, and I see something gleaming in the flickering orange streetlights as it emerges from the man’s rags.

There’s a glaring hole in my plan. I don’t have a Heavy bodyguard now; they’re all up at The Adrian pretending to watch the perimeter. I realize I should have taken an extra one with me. Turning back to the portcullis I grab the bars and try to rattle them. “Hello!” I call.

But there’s no answer.

The men who are approaching both start laughing. I whirl around to face them even as I use my glasses to tell three of the Heavies that I left at The Adrian to come here as fast as they can.

“What do you want?” I ask, trying to buy time.


Chapter 54

“Your glasses for a start,” One of the two men facing me says. Their faces are cowled in shadows, but the one with the gun is tall, the other short, smacking his palm with what might be a length of metal pipe.

I reach up and slowly remove my glasses, folding the frame and holding them out.

“Set them on the ground at your feet,” Tall says.

“Okay...” I bend down to do just that.

“Hands up!” Short snaps as soon as I’ve set the glasses down.

I raise my hands above my head. The blue glow of my passmark flashes into view.

“Hey, he’s marked!” Short says in sudden alarm. “He prob’ly called the cops. We better blip before they get here.”

I didn’t actually call the cops, but I’m glad they’re worrying about that now.

“Shut up,” Tall says. “We got time.” He reaches into his pocket and retrieves a glowing blue rectangle. A pass card. “First, you transfer all the coin you got to me.”

If he had any idea just how much coin that is, he’d probably weep for joy. “Even if I were to do that, the cops will track the transfer to your card and pick you up within minutes,” I say. “You haven’t thought this through.”

“You think I’m stupid?” Tall replies. “This is a burner card. Now hurry up.”

I’m not sure what a burner card is, but now I know that Tall is stupid. I jerk my chin to the glasses they made me take off. “I’ll need those to initiate the funds transfer.”

Tall lets out a frustrated sigh. “Pick em up!”

Short is pulling on his arm as he glances around furtively. “I think I heard something...” he whispers.

“Relax! It’s just your mind playing tricks on—”

One of my Heavies collides into him from behind and the air leaves his lungs in a loud whoof. Short turns to flee and runs straight into another Heavy’s outstretched arm.

“My nose!” Short gurgles as he rolls around on the street.

Two muted cracks split the air and a crackle of electric blue fire plays over both of the would-be thieves.

Silence rings sharply in my ears. I pick up my glasses and put them on, ordering the Heavies to follow me as I walk quickly with them around the Cathedral to the front entrance.

Vaulting up the steps I rap loudly on the embossed gold doors and wait.

Nothing happens.

I try the door handle, but it’s locked.

Then I notice the prompt on my glasses to connect to the cathedral’s intercom, and I spot the black eye of a security camera overhead. There’s also a speaker grille beside the doors.

I connect to the intercom and request entry to the cathedral. A moment later a voice shivers through the bone conduction speakers in my glasses.

“Seek and ye shall find.”

“Knock and the door shall be opened,” I reply.

“Wait,” the voice replies.

A few minutes later the front door cracks open. I see a familiar man in white robes standing on the other side. It’s Tobias. “Get in,” he says, waving me through.

I hurry through the doors with my three bodyguards. He shuts and locks the door behind us.

“You’re late,” Tobias says. “You said you’d be here on Thursday.”

“Or early on Friday,” I remind him. “This is early.”

“It’s the middle of the night,” he says.

“Is everyone else ready?” I ask, ignoring his objections.

“No, they’re asleep, as they should be.”

“Is there somewhere I can spend the night?”

Tobias squints bleary eyes at me, scowling. He gives in with a nod. “Follow me.”

*     *     *

The rectory attached to the cathedral is big enough to be a hotel. I follow Tobias down the stone corridors to a room on the first floor, facing a shadowy courtyard. It looks like someone’s office, but there’s a couch.

“There’s a bathroom just down the corridor,” Tobias says.

“Thank you,” I say as I walk inside. “We’ll finalize our plans in the morning.”

The priest glances at the three Heavies standing behind me. “I trust you brought more than just those three.”

“Yes,” I reply. “Eleven. I won’t be using one. See you in the morning, Toby.”

“Tobias,” he replies. “Good night.” He shuts the door, and I go lie down on the couch to check in with my Anon. I find him sitting in the car, facing Victor as they fly back to Fresno. A quick check with the car’s autopilot reveals that it’s just half an hour out. It’s time to get him out of his disguise. I trigger the exo-Heavy to open up, and crawl out.

Victor doesn’t react to that. Maybe he already knows what’s going on, or maybe, because he’s an AI, he just doesn’t care one way or the other.

I sit by the window, and watch the glittering lights of endless urban and suburban developments scroll by. Time passes slowly, with my real body getting progressively sleepier. I force myself to stay awake and wait while my Anon flies back to Fresno.

As soon as the car lands, I head out with Victor and the Heavy that I used to smuggle my Anon back out of the Blocks. The pool is glowing invitingly to one side. Landing pads with my other cars on them flash by on both sides. Glancing around, I can see the perimeter walls, spotlights glaring down from high poles, illuminating both sides in a harsh silver light. Black Heavies are clanking along at the tops of those walls, ever-vigilant, locked in their perpetual patrol patterns.

Reaching the back steps, I climb them swiftly to the doors and nod to the pair of Heavies standing guard there. I open the doors via the Anon’s glasses and breeze inside, through the great room to the winding stairwell and up to the second floor.

I hurry down the hallway, heading for my room. My real heart is pounding, blood roaring in my ears. The door to Theodore’s room is coming up. Come on, just a few seconds more... I think.

And then, as if he can hear my thoughts, I see Theodore’s door beginning to swing open, a slice of golden light arcing across the floor.

This is the moment of truth.

Theodore comes stumbling out in his pajamas. He sees me standing there, and appears to hesitate. “Oh, hello, sir.” You’re still up?” His eyes slide away to Victor. “How did he get here?”

I paste a smile on my face. “You must be a deep sleeper,” I say. “I flew up to SF to get Victor. We can’t have him hanging around up there at the decoy workshop when I’m his registered owner.”

“I see. That was risky, going to get him yourself. Now there’s a record of you going there.”

I shake my head. “I disabled my passmark.”

In reality, the one in the Anon’s hand is my shadow ID and I simply never enabled it.

“Aha.”

“Did I wake you when we landed?” I ask.

Theodore starts toward me, shaking his head. “No, my stomach did. I’m up for a midnight snack. A bad habit I acquired in the years that you were gone, I’m afraid.”

“Can’t sleep?” I ask.

“Not soundly. Knowing what lies ahead tomorrow is making me anxious.” He flashes a wavering smile. “I’ve never even fired a gun. Did you review the security contract?”

“I did,” I say. “We’re going ahead with the attack tomorrow night.”

Theodore inclines his head at that. “You still haven’t shown me how to operate the Heavies you built.”

I grimace. He’s right. “We have all day for that. Tomorrow. Get some sleep, and we’ll start training first thing after breakfast.”

“Yes, sir, and you should too. You’ve hardly slept at all the past week.”

“I will now.”

“Good.”

I turn to watch with a lump in my throat as he walks away and starts down the stairs. This exchange is a painful reminder of the real Theodore, who was always checking up on me and nagging me to look after myself.

As soon as his feet hit the stairs, I turn, and send my Anon down the hall to my room, leaving Victor and the exo-Heavy who accompanied me up here to stand guard outside the door.

“Don’t let anyone in,” I say to Victor. “Not even Theodore.”

He nods. “Understood.”

Then I walk in, lock the door behind me, and change into pajamas. I’m stunned by my Anon’s level of anatomical accuracy as I get undressed, but my real body is too tired to give the fake one more than a cursory glance.

I climb into bed, kill the lights, and pull the covers over my head. Then I end the remote connection, and the images of my room clear from my glasses, leaving me to stare at the ceiling of the office that Father Tobias brought me to. It’s time to actually get some sleep, but before I do, I configure my glasses to alert me if my Anon detects any external stimuli that would wake an ordinary person. It’s going to take careful work from this point on to avoid giving myself away to Theodore, A.K.A. Alex.

Rolling over, I take a moment to fluff a couch cushion for a pillow, then remove my glasses and slip them into my pocket—they’ll vibrate if something happens that requires my attention.

“Lights off,” I say to the room, and the lights wink out, leaving me in darkness with three hollow robots to guard me while I sleep. But after half an hour of tossing and turning, I realize that sleep is never going to come, and slip out to use the bathroom.

Outside the office in the stone corridor, I realize that Tobias didn’t actually tell me which was the door to the bathroom.

I end up trying several different doors, finding more offices behind them. The last one I try has two familiar people on the floor lying under a blanket on a bed made of couch cushions. Buddy growls, his eyes glinting in the dark from where he sits up at the foot of the bed, and then I see one of the figures under the blanket stir. Adriana sits up.

“Byron?” she asks.

I nod quickly. “Yes.”

“You made it.” She’s climbs out of bed in a shimmering night gown and meets me at the door.

“I didn’t mean to wake you,” I say. “I’m just looking for the bathroom.”

“Here,” she grabs my hand and leads me down the corridor past four more wooden doors to one with a familiar men’s room symbol on it.

“Thanks,” I whisper.

She nods and rubs her arms, cold from having just woken up, even though it’s mid May, and if anything the inside of the cathedral is hot and stuffy.

“You should go back to bed,” I say as I go in.

She nods, but gives no other reply.

On my way back out, I find her still waiting at the door. She turns to me and presses me back into the wall, her hands on my chest and lips devouring mine. She wakes me up in an instant, and soon I’m responding and kissing her back.

“Where’s your room?” she breathes against me, intoxicating me with her scent.

“This way,” I say, and now I’m the one leading her down the hall by the hand. We crash through my door as I open it, and stumble past the watchful eyes of my three Heavies, her hands undressing me, mine roving up under her nightgown. She pushes me down onto the couch and gets on top of me.

“Are you sure about this?” I ask as she finishes undressing me. She nods quickly, and I pull her nightgown over her head.

We spend the rest of the night losing sleep together and keeping each other warm. It feels like a century since I’ve been with a woman, and in some ways it almost has. But it’s about more than that. We both know that this could be the last night of our lives. If things go badly at Future Travels, or on our way out of the Blocks, we won’t live to see tomorrow.

Sometime later, a knock sounds at the door, waking us from a brief but delicious sleep. I crack my eyes open to see the first blush of a rosy dawn spilling in through the office windows and pooling on the carpeted floor. Adriana is draped over me, both of us naked.

The door creaks open, and I twist around to see Tobias walking in. “Breakfast is—” He grimaces at the sight of us and throws up an arm to shield his eyes. “I’m sorry. I didn’t realize... I’ll go,” he says, and stumbles backwards out the door, still covering his eyes.

Adriana and I look at each other, and then she bursts out laughing, and I can’t help but join her.


Chapter 55

Six hours before the attack...

—Friday May 14, 2111—

After lunch, I sit with Adriana and Olivia in the front row of a room full of desks and chairs. This might have been a Sunday School in better times. The shades are drawn across the windows, and we’re gathered with a group of nine others in their white robes. These are the same people I saw around the table in the cellar when I first came to Grace Cathedral. Bishop Gareth Walker, Father Tobias, and seven other priests sit around us. All of our eyes are rooted to the holoscreen at the front of the room. Adriana and I have pushed our desks together and we’re holding hands, watching as WUNN reports on the status of HR616, otherwise known as the Universal Equality Bill.

A pretty female reporter is on the screen, reading the result of this morning’s session of the Union Senate in Brussels. This is the moment of truth, the outcome that decides what we all do next, and whether or not I’ll be alone in my assault on Future Travels’ launch center.

“The fate of over one billion people residing in Blocks around the world has been decided in Brussels just this afternoon as the Senate convened to vote on bill HR616. At one sixteen PM local time, the Universal Equality act was passed unanimously by the Senate and signed into law by the President of the Union.”

Gasps echo from the men and women seated in the room with us. The priests are trading horrified looks with one another as the reporter goes on:

“Following the bill’s signing into law, the president had this to say to allay people’s misgivings—”

The screen switches to a view of Adam Kane himself, wearing an immaculate black suit and smiling for a thousand different hovering drone cameras. Flashes are illuminating his face almost constantly as he stands between the flag of the president and the flag of the Union—an olive wreath in green on a blue backdrop wrapped around the earth with its continents all shaded white. A symbol of world unity and peace.

Adam Kane waits while one of the reporters in front of him asks a question: “Isn’t this a human rights violation?”

He shakes his head. “What about the rights of the victims of terrorism around the world? What about the rights of all the people who died in New York when the bomb went off? We fix serial killers and schizophrenics with nanite injections as soon as they’re identified, so why not terrorists? Just because not all of them will act on their beliefs doesn’t mean that we should sit on our hands and wait for them to do so. How many people have died in the name of religion since the dawn of time? More than have died in all the other wars in history combined.

“Thankfully, we now live in a day and age where we have the solution to this problem. No adverse effects have been observed following nanite injections to correct the brain structure abnormalities that lead to irrational beliefs. It would be a rights violation not to inoculate them now that we have this cure. These people are slaves to their disease, forced into poverty and isolation because we can’t risk introducing them into the rest of society. They’re walking through life blind and suffering, and it’s our job to open their eyes so that they can finally see. We’ve learned to manipulate the very fabric of the universe to speed up and slow down time; we’ve created life in the form of the AIs that serve us; we’ve even stopped human aging and defeated death. We’ve become the gods we so desperately sought in our fractured past. Now it’s time to come together as one and put aside the childish beliefs that divide us. It’s time to stop looking up to Heaven and start looking around here on Earth. We are the only gods this universe has.”

The screen switches back to the reporter, but Bishop Walker jumps to his feet and waves it off. Lights swell as he turns to face us from the front of the classroom, his expression drawn, his blue eyes wide with horror.

“It has begun,” he says. “You all know what this means, and what we must do now. We’ve prepared for this. The final days are at hand.”

“How long do we have?” a woman asks. One of three female priests in the room. She has long blond hair and green eyes. Her face bears the lines of a woman who’s lived through her share of hard times.

“We have no way of knowing,” the Bishop replies, shaking his head. “They could be coming for us as we speak, so we move now. Everything is in place, and our allies on the outside are standing ready.” Gareth looks to me and nods. “Byron’s Heavies are waiting less than a dozen Blocks from here, guarding a local hotel. The three he brought with him are waiting to take three of us up there. We’ll trade places with three empty ones, and send them back down here for the next group. Adriana?” He looks to his mother. “Are you ready for your part?”

“I am.”

I regard her curiously, and she flashes an apologetic smile and whispers to me, “Olivia and I are staying.”

“What?” My heart is pounding and I’m left reeling with that. “But they’ll find you and inoculate you!”

“The entrance to the cellar is hidden,” Gareth says, shaking his head. “And someone has to stay behind to warn us when the inoculations start. As soon as that happens, we have to stop evacuating people across the bay, because if we accidentally evacuate someone who’s been inoculated, they’ll learn what we’re planning, and expose us before we can do anything.”

“Why her?” I demand.

“Because I volunteered, and I have Olivia to think about,” Adriana explains. “The attack will be dangerous. Olivia has no business being a part of that. If you succeed, Byron, come back for us. We’ll be here waiting for you.”

I look to Gareth incredulously. “Say we do succeed. How do your mother and your sister catch up with you after you’ve already traveled to the future without them?”

“Once the raids are over, Ana and Olivia will slip out with fake IDs and blend in. We went to considerable trouble to get them new IDs, and they have enough money on them to buy legal trips to the future.”

I glance at Adriana’s right hand, but there’s no mark there yet.

“Tobias? Leona?” Gareth says. “Would you bring the implants here, please?” The female priest with the blond hair rises from her chair, along with Tobias. Each of them produces a triangular implant from their robes, and Gareth walks over with a spider-like implanter like the one that Violet used on me a week ago. “Their new names are Jessa and Tess,” Gareth says.

Adriana accepts the implanter and the passmarks from Tobias and Leona, but she slides the ID chips into her pocket and sets the implanter on her desk.

“Isn’t that against your beliefs?” I ask.

Adriana looks to me with a small, sad smile and shakes her head. “They’re older versions. Version fives. Legally, they’re still valid for another six months.”

“And that’s okay?”

“Five one five isn’t the number of the beast,” Gareth replies with a shrug.

That’s convenient, I think. “Okay, but they’re tracking those IDs.” I nod to her pocket.

“What’s your point?” Gareth asks. “They’ve been tracking those IDs since we bought them from the Crafter.”

“So doesn’t that expose them as collaborators?” I ask.

“It’s not illegal to come to the Blocks, or to visit a cathedral and associate with priests.”

“It will be after you all end up wanted in connection with a terrorist attack.”

“Perhaps, but they’re tracking you, too,” Gareth points out.

He nods to my hand and I glance at my own ID chip. He’s right. I sent my Anon away with my shadow ID, but this one is still being tracked. That means I’ve been linked to these people. But if these Fundies succeed in knocking out the tracking center, at least I’ll be able to stay off the authorities’ radar in the hours leading up to, and hopefully during, the attack on Future Travels. I might have to dig the passmark out of my hand at some point before the tracking system comes back online to link me to the attack.

“Assuming we don’t leave any witnesses, there’ll be nothing to incriminate her or you when all of this is over,” Gareth says. “We’ll simply have disappeared in all of the chaos.”

“Listen to you,” I say, “plotting to kill everyone so that you don’t get in trouble.”

“These are dark times, but your Heavies have non-lethal weapons, correct?”

“They do.”

“And our faces will be hidden by the machines. There’s no reason we have to actually kill anyone in order to avoid leaving witnesses.”

“They could still kill one of you and ID you later.”

“Relax, Byron. If we could be convicted solely by association, we’d all be in prison right now.”

Adriana grabs my hand and squeezes it to get my attention.

“Excuse me,” Gareth says, and he moves off to one side to join the others as they remove their robes, revealing sleek black jumpsuits underneath.

“Don’t be mad,” Adriana says.

I shake my head. “I’m not. I’m just surprised. I came back here for you, to send you to the future, not these other people, and now you’re the only one who won’t be leaving. I can’t promise I’ll be able to make it back here again. I don’t know what’s going to happen out there, and I might have to jump to the future myself to avoid getting picked up by the police.”

Adriana smiles and nods and then leans in for a kiss. “I understand,” she says as she withdraws. “Go get your justice. It’s what you’ve been waiting all this time for.”

I grimace at that. She’s right, but now my heart is pulling me in two different directions. I could stay here with her, let the Fundies execute the attack by themselves, and maybe Alex will even get killed in the process. I won’t have the satisfaction of pulling the trigger myself, but I’ll get the girl, and we can have a life together. The best revenge is living well.

But will we? I wonder. When Ana’s passmark expires, she won’t want to accept an updated version, and she won’t be able to walk around freely without it. At best, I’ll have to keep her and Olivia hidden on my estate for the rest of their natural lives—which could be a very long time if they opt for age-stalling gene therapies.

The dubious lure of that bittersweet future isn’t enough to make me abandon everything that I’ve worked toward for so long. Alex has hurt too many people, the latest of whom, Theodore, is almost certainly dead. That’s the second father of mine that he’s killed.

A hot flood of rage fills my veins, and my wavering resolve hardens once more.

“I’ll come back for you if I can,” I say.

Adriana nods, and gives me a shaky smile. “I know.”

Gareth walks back over to us, no longer wearing his white and purple Bishop’s robes, but looking like a cat burglar in black cargo pants and a matching, form-fitting black shirt.

I frown at that, wishing they’d picked less conspicuous attire, but I suppose it doesn’t matter. They’ll be inside the exo-Heavies, hidden from view.

“Here,” Gareth says, nodding to Adriana. He reaches into one of his pockets and produces a pair of augmented reality glasses. “You’ll need these to let us know once the raids start,” he says. She takes them and puts them on.

“I’ll need your number, too,” I say. “In case I do make it back for you.”

“Okay,” Adriana replies.

A contact request prompt appears on my glasses a moment later, and I accept, saving her number to my favorites.

Just then another prompt appears, but this one is from my Anon back in Fresno:

Someone is using the bunker’s elevator.

Theodore. Ever since getting up this morning, I’ve had my Anon down in the workshop pretending to make final preparations while Theodore practices using his exo-Heavy by running power-assisted laps around the compound, and shooting reusable soda bottles with the suit’s integrated weapons. But now, apparently, Theodore is done with all of that, and he’s come to see what progress I’ve made.

“Excuse me,” I say, turning away from Ana and Gareth and striding down an aisle between desks to drop into a seat in the back of the room. I take control of my Anon just in time to hear the door to the workshop opening behind me.

*     *     *

“Hello, sir.” Theodore’s voice ripples through the bone conduction speakers in my glasses. He sounds winded. I turn to see him walking in, still wearing his suit. The helmet is open, the blank black face of the machine raised like the visor of a helmet to reveal his actual face. Sweat is dripping from his brow.

“How did it go?” I ask.

“Very well, sir. The controls are all highly intuitive, just as you said.”

I nod along with that.

Theodore’s gaze slides away from mine to examine the double row of nine exo-Heavies that I left behind. This is the army we’re going to use to covertly descend on Future Travels, the attack that Alex knows is coming.

Theodore’s eyes are on the back of my hand now. It isn’t glowing blue, which means the ID is not connected. “I see that you’ve already deactivated your ID,” Theodore says. “Where did you put the shadow copy?”

“Victor has it. I deactivated his ID, so it looks like he’s powered down. Meanwhile, he’s walking around pretending to be me for anyone who’s watching my tracking signal. What about yours?”

“That’s why I’m here,” Theodore says. “Our security contract begins in three hours. We need to switch my ID and head out before we are late.”

“Let’s do it,” I say, heading for the door. “We’ll plant your shadow ID on one of the domestic Heavies.”

It occurs to me that I’m actually telling Alex this, which means he has more than enough information to incriminate me to the authorities if our attack fails.

Out of the corner of my eye, I notice Adriana standing beside me.

“What are you doing?” she asks.

There aren’t any microphones in the glasses to relay that sound and give me away. The sounds on my Anon’s end come through the bone conduction speakers. Whatever I say is voiced silently in my head and relayed wirelessly to the android’s equivalent of a voice box. I do have to mentally pause that connection in order to reply to Adriana, however.

“I’m setting up a diversion,” I explain.

Gareth appears on the other side of me. “We need to start leaving the cathedral,” he says.

“What’s the plan once we arrive?” Theodore asks on my Anon’s end as we arrive at the elevator leading up to the mansion’s basement.

This is going to take some serious multi-tasking, I realize as I reconnect to the Anon to answer Theodore. I can’t afford to make him suspicious by delaying my replies.

“We wait,” I say through the Anon.

Theodore regards me with his bushy gray eyebrows raised. “For how long?”

I can’t tell him that we’re waiting for the Fundies to start their attack, so I give him a vague response: “As long as it takes to find a weakness in Alex’s perimeter.”

Disconnecting from my Anon once more and leaving the AI in control, I say to Gareth, “I’m going to need a few minutes.”

“Make it quick,” he mutters.


Chapter 56

Three hours before the attack...

After planting Theodore’s shadow ID on one of the domestic bots and switching off his real one, we head back down to the bunker and start loading all twelve of the exo-Heavies in the workshop into two separate air cars. I get my Anon to climb into one of them and seal it up except for the helmet.

“You go with the others in the second car,” I say, nodding to the vehicle in question.

The head of Theodore’s bot is still open, so I can see him frowning at that. “I would prefer it if we rode together.”

I shake my head. “We can’t afford to leave this operation in the hands of AIs and autopilots. You take half of the Heavies and I’ll take the other half.”

“Very well, sir.”

“We’re going to fly both cars to the decoy workshop in San Francisco, and then we’ll call a ride service to pick us up and take us the rest of the way. That should help to ensure that this attack can’t be traced back to us later.”

Theodore nods. “Makes sense to me.”

“Good. I’ll see you there.”

He starts across the polished concrete floor of the underground hangar to his car. I watch him go for a moment, then seal my Heavy’s head. The internal viewscreen glows to life, icons popping up around the edges of my field of view. It gives me a slightly expanded field of view and serves the same function as a pair of AR glasses, so there’s no need for my Anon to wear any, which might be awkward inside the cramped confines of the helmet.

Turning away from Theodore, I guide my Anon into its car and shut the door. Then I program the autopilot with the destination, and sit back and disconnect from the Anon. I’ll get an alert on my glasses if Theodore tries to contact it.

My glasses clear and the inside of the car disappears. I blink a few times, disoriented by the sudden transition from one place to another. I’m back inside the classroom in the cathedral where I just watched the WUNN report on the fate of the Fundies and the Blocks.

Everyone is gone except for Bishop Walker. He nods to me from where he stands leaning against the doors. “You’re done?”

“For now.” I rise from the desk and start toward him.

“Good. I’ll gather the others. We don’t have long before our people on the outside take down the tracking center.”

I check the time on my glasses as we leave the classroom together. It’s already five PM. I estimate three hours before Theodore the Anon and my Anon arrive at Future Travels. I need to coordinate this second prong of the attack to coincide with their arrival. It’s only about an hour and a half flight from here to Future Travels, but we need to land and transfer to the Mark VI along the way. That means we need to leave within an hour.

This is going to be tight.

*     *     *

Two hours before the attack...

I watch with Gareth, Tobias, and Adriana from the front doors of the cathedral as the last three exo-Heavies come clanking up the front steps. It’s six PM now, and the sun is sinking below the walls of hundred-story skyscrapers that stand around Block 19. The streets are bathed in lengthening shadows from those towers, and streetlights are flickering to life—the ones that still work.

We usher the Heavies inside and shut the doors. I trigger them open and give Tobias and Gareth a few last pointers as they climb inside.

“They’ll read your thoughts and assist your movements. The displays inside work like AR glasses and have icons for quick access to weapons, closed-circuit comms, and the net. But for now, let them do all the moving, and don’t use the net or the comms. You’re just along for the ride until we get past the security checkpoint. Any suspicious behavior between now and then will reveal what these Heavies really are.”

“I understand,” Gareth says as he positions himself inside of the half-open shell of the machine. I look to see that Tobias is also in position, and then seal them both up inside.

Turning to Adriana, I say, “We’d better get you down into the cellar.”

“We’ll wait for you here,” Gareth says, his voice robotized by the suit.

Adriana nods and grabs my hand. Together we run down the aisle between the rows of wooden pews. Olivia and Buddy are running around in front of the pulpit, playing with a ball, perfectly oblivious to the deadly plot afoot.

The high stained glass windows between the columns to either side of us are aglow with the fading light outside and casting colorful rainbows across the backs of the wooden pews and polished floors.

“Let’s go, Olivia!” Adriana says as we reach them.

She falls in beside us with Buddy, the smile fading from her face with the urgent tone in her mother’s voice.

Within minutes we’re standing back inside the office, in front of the painting of angels that hangs over the entrance to the cellar. I remove the painting and carefully lean it against the bookshelves. Adriana already has the key. She uses it to open the door, and then faces me. I can see the words stuck in her throat. The goodbye that we both know this really is.

Before she can manage to say anything, I pull her against me and kiss her long and hard.

“Ewww, Mom!” Olivia says.

We both ignore her. When Adriana withdraws, there are tears shining in her eyes. “You’d better go. Don’t get yourself killed.”

“I’m not planning to,” I reply with a grim smile.

“No one ever does,” she counters.

My hand finds hers and gives a reassuring squeeze. She ushers Olivia and Buddy ahead of her, and then she follows them, and I flash a parting smile as our hands slip through each other’s fingers. She eases the door shut with a muffled bang.

There’s a grim finality to this goodbye which leaves me feeling undone and longing for one last kiss or word of reassurance. I should have told her that I’ll be back for her, but I don’t know that.

In the end, even if the authorities do find her here and inoculate her with the others, she won’t be killed, just changed. She’ll just lose a part of her identity that she sees as fundamental to who she is, but she won’t be dead. I can’t help but feel relieved by that. She’s actually going to be physically safer here than she will be with me.

The part that tears me up inside is that I’ll probably have to jump to the future to escape after the attack on Future Travels, and that means I’ll never see her again.

I put the painting back on the hook above the door, concealing the entrance to the cellar, and then I’m turning and running back down the stone corridors, into the main hall of the cathedral and down the aisle between pews to the dark, shadowy entrance where three gleaming Heavies stand statuesque, waiting for me.

“Is she safe?” Gareth asks.

This time his voice comes to me through the bone conduction speakers in my glasses. He must have found the closed-circuit comms.

“Yes,” I say, and then brush by him and Tobias to push out through the elaborate doors of the cathedral. As I start down the front steps I use my glasses to order the Heavies to follow me. The empty spare that I’ll be using later comes clanking down the steps beside me, its arms up and non-lethal stun guns deployed as a deterrent.

Both sides of the street are crowded with homeless people, watching us from tents and ramshackle shanties made of cardboard, plastic, and even old clothes. We walk down the center of Taylor Street to avoid getting too close to anyone. Every now and then, the suffocating stench of raw sewage smacks into me from an alley that’s being used as a bathroom. I’m used to the sights and smells of the Blocks by now, but it’s still enough to make me question my rebel allies’ point of view. They should be desperate to get out of here and join the age of prosperity that everyone else is enjoying thanks to AI and our ubiquitous robotic slaves. The government deliberately denied these people the free Heavies that everyone else received when half of all the jobs in the world disappeared over night. It was supposed to be an incentive to adopt passmarks instead of the antiquated system of cards that allowed New York to get nuked. But it turned out that people’s convictions were stronger than the drive to attain basic necessities like food and shelter.

A flash of orange light flickers between the towers at the edge of Block 19, followed by a distant rumble of thunder. I look up and stare into the fading glow, uncomprehending.

Gareth’s voice shivers through the bone conduction speakers pressing into my jaw: “That was the tracking center.”

I glance at my passmark. I don’t even have to scan it to confirm what Gareth said. The implant isn’t glowing blue anymore, which means tracking is offline.

“We should pick up the pace,” I say quietly, even as I break into a jog. All three Heavies step up their pace to stay with me, the clanking cadence of their footfalls becoming a steady thunder in my ears.

We reach The Adrian within minutes, and I run inside to speak with the owner. I find Seth Lancaster behind the front desk, a fire ball playing over his glasses and an open-mouthed expression on his face. He must have just found out about the tracking center.

“It’s time for me to go,” I say between gulps of air.

He stands up, and minimizes the screens on his glasses. “What? No, that wasn’t the deal. You’re supposed to provide me with security!”

“Until tonight. Check your contract. It expired five minutes ago.”

“Can’t you stay the night? Please. I’ll give you any room you want. Free of charge!”

“I can’t. I’m sorry.” I’m turning to go, the trio of Heavies behind me turning with me. It’s time to collect the other nine that are busy patrolling the perimeter of the hotel.

Seth follows me out the front doors. “You obviously haven’t heard! Fundies just blew up the tracking center! The Guard is marching in here as we speak. The whole Block is about to go up in smoke as they try to find whoever is responsible.”

“I know,” I say, using my glasses to order the rest of the bots to rally to my position.

They come clanking in from both sides of the street. Seth is licking his lips, wheels turning frantically in his head.

“I’ll sue. I’ll go to the press and give you so much bad publicity you’ll never get these models to market.”

“Go ahead,” I say, already hurrying back down the Taylor Street toward the rooftop where my air car is waiting.

“I’ll report you to the Guard! I’ll tell them you were involved with terrorists!”

I round on him with a scowl. He doesn’t have any proof. He’s just desperate to protect his business. “If that were true, then I’m the last person you’d want to be threatening right now. Your hotel could be the next thing that blows up.”

“Is that a threat?” Seth calls out to me.

“No, it’s just good advice.” A cacophony of police sirens, fire trucks, and ambulances echoes in the distance, followed by a semi-automatic rattle of gunshots firing nearby, and then the more muted sound of people screaming. “I’d get back inside if I were you. And lock your doors.”

Seth glances quickly down both sides of the street and then darts back into his hotel to take my advice.

As soon as he’s gone, I turn around and start sprinting down the street.

“Was that wise? Threatening him?” Gareth’s voice whispers to me as we run.

“Maybe. Maybe not. Hopefully he’s scared enough to keep his mouth shut. If not, he’s got no proof of anything.”

Just then an alert flashes up on my glasses from my Anon. He’s arrived at the decoy workshop. I need to hail transports for the other half of my assault team before Theodore wonders what’s taking me so long.

Connecting to my Anon on one side of my glasses, I’m just in time to see the car land and Theodore’s team come running. I open the car door and jump out with my Anon’s group of Heavies.

“Sir,” Theodore says to me.

“One second,” I reply, and use the Anon to send both air cars back to Fresno. They hover up and away, blasting us with leaves, pebbles, and bits of dust from the driveway of the old mansion where Victor set up the decoy workshop. I hail two separate air cars to pick us up. ETA five minutes. That means I’m going to have to stay connected for at least that long.

Keeping one eye on my real surroundings as I run down Taylor Street and another on the view from my Anon’s perspective is giving me a headache.

At least Gareth isn’t trying to talk to me right now.

“How long before our transport arrives?” Theodore asks me.

“Five minutes,” I say. “Less now.”

“Do I have time to relieve myself?” Theodore asks.

I nod to him, frowning inside my armored suit as he peels out of his and goes to an overgrown hedge to one side of the driveway where we’re standing. A moment later I hear a stream of liquid pattering the bushes.

That gives me pause. Not because Anon’s can’t relieve themselves—they have to do something with the liquids they drink—but because of the lengths that Alex is going to sell this lie. Anons can wait all day or all week to go to the bathroom. It doesn’t make a bit of difference to them.

I scowl as I look away. Alex is nothing if not a good actor. He had to be in order to fool me and my family for so long.


Chapter 57

One and a half hours before the attack...

The cars arrive and pick up my Anon and Theodore. Again, I insist that we take separate vehicles, which gives me the opportunity to disconnect from my Anon again. Up ahead, I see the apartment building behind the cathedral with the rooftop landing pads where my air car is waiting. In just a few more minutes we reach the elevator running down the side of the building, but it’s up at the roof, and we have to wait for it to come down. I’m tapping my feet impatiently as I watch it dropping down, picking up speed.

A call comes in while I’m waiting. It’s Adriana. I answer. It’s audio only.

“Byron?” she’s whispering. She sounds scared.

“Is everything okay?” I ask.

“No. They’re here.”

“Where?”

“Upstairs. Ransacking the cathedral.”

I can actually hear the muffled thuds of footsteps above her head.

“Just stay hidden,” I say.

“That’s not all,” she says. “Look...”

A request to see through her glasses pops up on mine. I accept, keeping it on the right side of my glasses so that I have my left eye free to watch my actual surroundings. I see Adriana getting up on top of an old wine barrel. Then she’s standing on tip toes, peering through a small, dirty pane of glass framed with security bars. She’s peering into the alley behind the cathedral. I see the strobing blue and red lights of police Heavies, and hear them clanking around. Someone screams; an echo of those screams reaches my ears from where I stand waiting for the elevator. A police heavy comes clanking into view. I can just see its feet and legs. It’s holding someone up, their feet dangling above the street. A deep angry voice says something, waits for an answer, then tosses the person aside and says, “Inoculate that one, too!”

“Hey sarge, I think I saw something over there.”

Blue and red lights strobe brightly through Adriana’s window and she jumps down to hide behind the wine barrel. Olivia and Buddy are cowering under the table in the center of the cellar.

The beams of flashlights play brightly through the cellar, flashing over cob-webbed wine barrels and empty wine racks.

“Never mind. Looks abandoned.”

“Nothing on infrared?”

“Nope.”

“Then let’s keep moving! There’s already a team inside the cathedral. If Fundies are hiding in there, we’ll get ‘em.”

“Yes, sir.”

The flashlights vanish, and someone is shaking me. The elevator has arrived. I pile in with my Heavies, and send it back up.

“That was close,” Adriana breathes. The shared video feed cuts off, but I can still hear the audio on her end. Olivia is sobbing and Adriana is trying to reassure her. Buddy is threatening to take a bite out of anyone who finds them hiding down there.

“Keep your heads down,” I say. “Gareth is right. The entrance to the cellar is well hidden. You should be safe.”

“I hope so,” Adriana replies.

The elevator reaches the roof, and we crowd out onto the rooftop. The sun has all but fully sunk below the horizon now.

“I have to go, Ana,” I say.

“Good luck,” she says.

“You too.”

Gareth is looking at me. I’ve tagged his and Tobias’s Heavies with my glasses so that I know who is who.

“It’s begun, hasn’t it?” he asks. He heard my end of the call, so the question is more rhetorical than anything.

“Yeah,” I say.

“I’ll have to tell my people to stop evacuating.” He sighs. “We didn’t have more than half an hour between the tracking center going down and the raids starting.”

“How many people got out?” I ask.

Gareth hesitates, and I get the impression that he’s speaking to someone else. While I wait, I walk up to the edge of the roof and study the streets below. There are squads of police Heavies marching everywhere I look, sirens and flashing blue and red lights heralding their approach. There’s nothing subtle about this raid. The homeless are screaming as they flee. The sound of breaking glass shatters the night. Bottles or windows breaking. Maybe both.

The pop pop pop of handguns going off sounds sporadically against the steady thunder of metal feet marching. Flickers of electric blue light from non-lethal weapons light up the shadows in alleys and darkened stretches of streets. At least the police aren’t responding with lethal force. Hopefully that means there’ll only be a minimal loss of life in this raid.

“Only forty-six made it out,” Gareth finally says.

“That many?” I ask, turning away from the scene below.

“We were hoping to evacuate several hundred tonight.”

“What about the ones you had to leave behind? Won’t they give you up once they get inoculated?”

Gareth sounds amused as he replies: “This was not a public event. The priests selected people at random. And only they know what we are planning. They’re swimming across the bay with the others as we speak.”

“What if someone captures one of them?”

“The sun has almost set. They won’t find us easily under the cover of darkness, but you can relax. We’ve had years to plan for this. Even if one of the priests gets picked up, they know what to do.”

“What do you mean?”

“Better to die a martyr than a traitor to the cause.”

I frown at that, shaking my head as I lead my comrades in arms across the roof to my car. A thunder of clanking feet follows. I feel exposed with so many extremists at my back, all of them armed and armored. Not for the first time, I find myself wondering if I’m on the right side of this conflict. The police are sparing as many lives as they can. I wonder if my allies will do the same when their turn comes.

*     *     *

It’s chaos by the time our car lands at the security checkpoint. I’m crowded into the ten-seater car with a dozen Heavies, the three empty ones standing hunched in the aisle because there aren’t enough seats.

The fence is crawling with guards. The one that comes up to my window has a human face projected over it.

“Where do you think you’re going?” the policeman demands. “This Block is under quarantine.”

“I’m a registered citizen.” I hold up my passmark. It’s not being tracked, but it can still be scanned.

“John White,” the policeman says, nodding as he reads my ID. “You came here to deliver a team of security units to The Adrian Hotel.” The police Heavy peers into the car and sees the dozen Heavies riding with me. “I guess that’s these guys?”

“Yeah. Our contract expired just in time for us to get out.”

The man snorts and shakes his head. “Bad timing for the owner. Show me the work orders.”

I use my glasses to send them over and watch the man’s eyes flicking left to right repeatedly as he reads them.

“You need me to get out and go through the scanner?” I ask, hoping the fact that I’m suggesting it will put him at ease. I don’t know if the body scanners will pick up on anything this time around, but I’d rather not find out.

A loud explosion and a bright orange flash of fire leaps up behind the fence, and the patrolman’s head jerks toward the sound. A flurry of activity erupts behind him as Guard units open fire with non-lethal electric rounds. Real guns are firing back.

“Shit,” he mutters, and bangs on the side of my car. “Go! Get out of here!”

I nod quickly, putting the window back up even as I order the car to lift off and head straight for the nondescript patch of desert where I left the Mark VI.

“You’re welcome,” Gareth says from the seat next to mine.

I turn to look at him. “That was your doing?”

“My people’s,” he replies.

“They’re causing a lot of chaos out there,” I say. “What’s the point? They’re all machines. It’s not like you can kill them.”

“No, but we can distract them,” Gareth says.

“What about collateral damage?”

“We’re being careful.”

I stare into the blank black face of Gareth’s Heavy for several seconds, trying to decide whether or not I believe him. In the end, I suppose, it doesn’t matter. It’s too late for me to back out of this now, and I’m going to need all the help I can get.

“Will any of the others make it?”

Gareth heaves metal shoulders in a shrug. “Only time can tell. We must have faith.”

“Right, faith. That’s what got you into this mess,” I mutter, turning to look out the window as the shadowy grid of Block 19 slides by below.

Gareth doesn’t bother to reply. He knows by now that I don’t share their ideology.

Fires are blazing in the streets; flashing blue and red lights punctuate the shadows. A civil war has just erupted: flesh against steel, faith against reason, and I can’t for the life of me decide who I think should win. Religion isn’t evil, but lots of evil is done in its name, and not all religions are created equal. Here we are, about to stamp them all out at the root, the good with the bad.

Only time will tell if the outcome of this purge is as beneficial as everyone hopes it will be.


Chapter 58

Forty minutes before the attack...

We’re flying over the mountains above Yosemite National Park on the way to Mono Lake. Everything below and around us is dark. Stars sparkle above, competing with a half moon dead ahead. I’ve checked in with my Anon. We’re running about twenty minutes behind, and we still have to transfer to the Mark VI for the final leg of the journey. That’s not good, but there’s nothing I can do about that now. I turn my attention to the chip in my hand. There’s no telling when the tracking center will come back online. I cast about, looking for something I can use to get it out.

“What’s wrong?” Gareth asks.

“I need to disable my passmark,” I say as I rifle through the storage compartments in the car for something sharp that I can use to cut it out, but there’s nothing. I’m starting to feel like I didn’t plan this well enough. The little details are creeping up on me. All the things that I didn’t think of.

“You have time,” Gareth says. “It will be a while before they can get things running again.”

I pinch the skin on the back of my hand, trying to force the chip out, but the implant is wafer thin and flexible. It bends with my skin. I give up with a sigh.

“Relax. Have—”

“Faith. Yeah. I’m not one of you, you know.”

“Aren’t you?” Gareth asks. “You’re helping us escape.”

“For my own reasons. I need you just as much as you need me.”

“Perhaps,” Gareth says. “Or perhaps you’re not as different as you’ve led yourself to believe.”

My thoughts jump to the exo-Heavies. I built layers of signal blocking mesh into their armor in order to keep body scanners from revealing the people inside. Those same properties should keep my passmark from broadcasting its tracking signal once everything comes back online. I glance at the three empty Heavies standing hunched over in the aisle at the back of the car. There isn’t enough room in here to get inside one of them yet, but we’ve almost reached the Mark VI. I’ll suit up as soon as we’ve landed.

A few seconds later, I notice the sky sliding up past the windows and check the nav system to find that we’re already beginning our descent.

Ten minutes after that, I’m stepping out onto a sandy, moonlit plateau with Gareth and the other rebels. Mono lake is a gleaming dime in the distance, and two red pinpricks that might be the taillights of air cars are sinking steadily toward it. My Anon is almost there.

The Mark VI lies dead ahead, partly hidden behind a jutting spear of rock.

“Is that it?” Gareth asks.

I nod absently as I turn to one of the empty Heavies and trigger it open. Glancing at my hand as I step inside, I’m relieved to see that my passmark is still dark and offline. I remove my glasses and slide them into the outer pocket of my jacket and then hurriedly seal myself inside the machine. A viewscreen glows to life before my eyes, relaying my surroundings through the blank black face of the robot. Familiar icons pop in at the edges of my field of view.

“Let’s go,” I say, and start a power-assisted sprint toward the Mark VI. As I go, I open a window to my Anon’s video feed and then check its ETA. His car is just twenty minutes from arrival.

This is going to be close.

*     *     *

Everyone piles into the Mark VI together, feet clanking and limbs clattering. I’m booting it up before anyone’s had a chance to strap in. This car is smaller than the one we took to get here, and it’s standing room only inside. Doesn’t matter. We aren’t going far.

I make the time compression field inside the car as weak as possible while still allowing us to warp through whatever other-dimensional space the car navigates when it disappears. Even at 1.5 times compression there isn’t enough time for us to reach Future Travels at the same time that my Anon does, but that might not be the best approach, anyway. We need to wait until the perfect moment to attack, and that can only be after my Anon’s team gets into position on the inside.

“What are we waiting for?” Gareth asks.

I ignore him and program the autopilot with a destination at the base of a hill that lies just outside the perimeter of Future Travels’ compound. I push the altitude for our flight path down as low as I dare, hoping to stay under Alex’s radar once the car re-appears and makes its landing. The flight plan is set: ten minutes and seven seconds flight time. That means just over fifteen minutes will pass outside the car, even with the time compression field as weak as I can make it. I check in with my Anon. ETA twelve minutes. Good enough. Hopefully Theodore won’t notice if I take three extra minutes to respond like a real human. Besides, we’re supposed to be looking and acting like robots, not like people inside of robot suits. He can’t fault me for playing the part.

“Byron,” Gareth prompts. “The others are catching up with us. We need to go now.”

I look to him. “What others?”

“The ones who crossed the bay... they’re right behind us.”

I glance over my shoulder, but of course I can’t see anything out the back of the car. Connecting to the Mark VI’s rear external camera, I see what he’s talking about: there are six sets of headlights and flashing running lights from the tips of the cars’ wings and rotors.

“Are they armed?” I ask.

“Heavily.”

“Nice to know we’ll have backup. All right, everyone brace yourselves! Things get weird in the transition to compressed space-time.” I use my glasses to trigger the nav sequence and the time compression field. A timer appears before my eyes. “Jumping in three, two, one—”

A flash of light tears through the car, and then the view from all the windows plunges into darkness. Shimmering bands of light run like a river through the cabin, flowing around us like an actual liquid. Scraps of more colorful scenes flicker before my eyes, disorienting me. I stumble into the nearest seat, displacing one of the rebels who jumps out of the way just as a full-blown vision starts to play out before my eyes—

Suddenly, I’m standing behind a massive boulder, breathing hard as I peer around the edge of it at a moonlit desert. Gunshots are rattling through the night. Gleaming Heavies are sprinting across the sand toward Future Travels’ launch center.

Muzzle flashes pepper the darkness. A line of spotlights and a flimsy wall of chain-link fence marks the perimeter of the compound. Smaller, slower figures are running in behind the line of Heavies. Unarmored humans. Screaming like barbarians and firing sporadically as they descend on the compound.

Future Travels’ security forces are cutting them down at extreme range, shooting them with a precision that only machines can enjoy.

“They’re all dying!” Gareth’s voice shouts. I turn to see him duck back against the rocks where we’re hiding. There are two others here with us.

Tobias’s voice issues from one of them. “What happened to your diversion?”

I’m wondering the same thing. Maybe Alex assigned my Anon’s team to positions where they couldn’t possibly interfere. Or maybe those units have all already been taken out.

“It’s over,” Gareth says. “We may as well go down fighting.”

“Wait,” I say. “What’s that?”

I can see something bright and blue gleaming on the rocks behind his left shoulder. I point to it and move for a closer look. Numbers.

“Looks like a holographic keypad,” Tobias says.

“What do you think it’s for?”

“Maybe a secret entrance or an exit,” I suggest, noting that this boulder is more than big enough to conceal such a thing. I start searching for seams in the sloping, slate-like face of the rocks. There are fissures, one of them big enough that it could be a well-disguised seam.

“Pity we don’t know the code,” Gareth says.

The scene fades back to the shifting bands of light, and I see a familiar face appear. Theodore. He’s screaming at me. Deja vu rocks me to my core. I remember this vision from the last time I was exposed to a time compression field. I couldn’t hear what he was trying to say back then, but this time his words perfectly audible.

It’s a string of nine numbers: 567089323. He’s repeating it over and over again. The code. It has to be. I commit it to memory as Theodore screams it at me for a third time. And then the bands of light disappear, fading to squiggly green after images. I slump in my seat, drenched with sweat inside my armor. My head feels foggy and thick. Gareth and the other rebels are staggering into each other from the belated reactions to whatever each of them just saw.

“What was that?” Gareth asks.

“I don’t know,” I say, wondering if the boulder with the keypad, and the security code are out there somewhere, or if it was all just a wish-fulfillment fantasy conjured by my sub-conscious.

A quick check of the Mark VI’s nav system reveals that we’re just about to arrive. That vision took more time than I thought. I count down the seconds to our arrival quietly in my head.

The windows flash with a burst of light as the compression field disengages and we emerge into regular space-time once more. I hope any Heavies looking out this way from Future Travels will think that was a flash of lightning.

The view out the car’s windows is back. Moonlit desert races up underneath us as we come in for a fast landing. The floor of the car slams into us hard, and everyone cries out in alarm, their voices muffled by their suits.

I look outside to see a swirling cloud of dust kicked up by that landing that anyone with eyes could see, but we’ve landed behind a hill, so none of Alex’s security should have seen this.

“Let’s go!” I shout, and mentally open the doors in both sides of the car. “Stay low and stay close.”


Chapter 59

Fifteen minutes before the attack...

I’m lying flat at the top of the hill beside Gareth and two others I don’t know. We’ve army-crawled into position, and now we’re using the enhanced optics afforded by our mechanical suits to spy on Future Travels’ compound. Gareth is waiting for the rest of his evacuees from Block 19 to arrive. He’s already given them the coordinates, and I’ve warned them to land farther back and fly low or else Alex will see them coming and shoot them down with his drones. They’ll have to reach us on foot.

I’m watching a zoomed-in view of the compound with one eye, Heavies patrolling a chain-link fence illuminated with spotlights. It reminds me of the security measures for the checkpoints at Block 19. The other half of my field of view is dominated by a picture-in-picture window from my Anon’s point of view. He and Theodore landed ten minutes ago. Now they’re standing on the landing pad with ten other Heavies, waiting for their orders while a pair of Alex’s own security Heavies approach from the welcome center of the compound. The sounds of clanking metal feet overlay the closed-circuit comms of Gareth talking to his fellow rebels. They’re discussing potential weak points in the perimeter of the compound and lines of approach that will keep us hidden. Gareth seems to have a good grasp of the tactical situation, so I let him figure this part out while my attention is consumed by what’s going on around my Anon.

One of the two Heavies approaching us takes on human features as soon it arrives. Familiar features. It’s Grant’s face. Broad jaw. Thick, wavy dark hair.

What’s going on here? I wonder.

He’s just another of Alex’s Anons. Why use an Anon to remote-operate another Heavy? Wheels within wheels. I guess he can’t show his own undocumented face.

“The new arrivals,” Grant says. “Good. You four come with me.” He points vaguely to myself, Theodore, and two others. “The rest of you, fan out around the perimeter and double-up with the other patrols.”

Without so much as a word of reply, my bots go clanking off. Grant turns and heads toward the welcome center, and the four of us he chose for internal security stay close on his metal heels.

Theodore sends my Anon a text-only message.

Why did he choose us?

I reply in kind.

Just a coincidence.

What if he knows we’re in here?

How could he? I reply. These units passed body scanners without a hitch. He can’t tell us apart just by looking at us.

He could if he scanned our IDs.

They’re deactivated, I reply. Relax.

Of course I know that this is a trap, but the lengths to which Theodore-the-Anon is going to argue exactly that makes me wonder what kind of game Alex is playing. Why use Theodore to alert me to the fact that this is a trap? Just so he can keep me convinced that Theodore isn’t an Anon? At this point he’s over-acting.

We walk in through the reinforced doors of the welcome center, past two other matte black security units. The sculpture of Grant and Alison comes into view in the middle of the echoing space.

Gareth is shaking me by my shoulder as he starts army-crawling backward down the hill.

“Time to go meet the others,” he says.

I crawl with him, and then rise to my feet once we’re down far enough. Scattered clumps of grass swish past my Heavy’s legs. On my Anon’s end, I see that we’re entering an elevator with Grant. He’s taking us down into the bowels of the facility. I suspect this is where Alex comes out to crow about using Theodore-the-Anon to spy on me this entire time.

Too bad I’m not actually the one he’s springing this trap on. This time, I’m one step ahead of him.

We reach the Mark VI to find dozens of men and women in plain clothes, all bearing various types of pistols and rifles. Some of them are newer models with tracking systems and guided rounds. Others are the old-fashioned point and shoot variety. But none of these people are armored, and I know from my own experience that security bots will see them coming a mile away and cut them down at extreme range. We need to choose a line of approach that doesn’t leave us exposed.

Gareth steps up onto a small rise and raises his Heavy’s hands for attention. He uses the units external speakers to convey his voice loud enough for everyone to hear. I listen as he begins describing the best line of approach. Thanks to my Anon, I wasn’t paying attention when we were up on the hill, but Gareth says there’s a circuitous route that goes behind this hill and several others. We can stay out of sight and under cover until we’re just a couple hundred meters from the perimeter of the compound.

“Let’s move out!” Gareth finishes, and there’s an accompanying roar of enthusiasm from his band of rebels. I set my Heavy to auto-follow Gareth so that I can focus on my Anon’s end of things. We’ve left the elevator, and now we’re walking down a familiar corridor, passing reinforced steel doors with keypads beside them and glowing numbers on the doors. Winding through the windowless concrete corridor, we come to a door with the number 1 glowing on it, the door opens for us without Grant needing to use the keypad.

We follow his Heavy into a wide open living space. Picture windows run along one wall, showing a scene of the snow-capped Rockies illuminated by the moon and a bright, glittering dome of stars overhead. The lights in the bunker are all off. I can see simulated moonlight from the windows gleaming off a glossy black dining table.

The door slides shut behind us with an echoing boom, but I make sure not to react to that. A real bot wouldn’t.

Theodore sends me another text message.

I hope you have a plan, sir.

But I don’t reply. Enough of this charade.

Grant turns to us, smiling broadly, and then his Heavy’s face turns black and blank, and six gleaming weapon barrels deploy from its arms with furious clicking sounds. My Heavies react in kind, all four of them deploying their own weapons. Even the one that my Anon is sitting passively inside of takes aim with its guns, but Theodore’s unit is casting about wildly, breaking formation to track the shadows, searching for the puppet master rather than the puppets.

I’m staring at the security bot that was wearing Grant’s face a second ago. It looks like a custom model. I have a feeling its weapons could tear us apart in seconds, but it doesn’t matter. Alex needs to think he has me cornered. Hopefully that will keep him distracted while Gareth and I sneak up behind his facility with the real attack.

Footsteps reach my Anon’s ears from somewhere on the far side of the living space. I turn toward the sound for a better look.

“Lights!” Grant’s voice says.

Overhead lights swell to a dim glow, revealing him rounding the glossy black dining table. He walks past a gleaming kitchen and bar counter, then past the sitting area arrayed along the picture windows with their simulated views of the Rockies. Grant is grinning broadly at us as he comes to a stop beside his security bot.

“I see you’ve met Chronos,” he says.

I don’t reply to that. The jig might be up, but I’m stalling for time.

“Still pretending to be a simple machine?” Grant asks. “You can come out now, Byron,” he says. “I know you’re in there.”

“I’ll come out when you do,” I say through my Anon and its suit’s external speakers.

Grant makes a show of looking down at himself. He plucks at his shirt and regards me with eyebrows raised. “I’m here.”

“No, you’re still hiding behind your Anons,” I reply.

“And so are you,” Grant replies, smiling slyly at us.

Theodore’s aim snaps up to Grant’s chest. “Where are you, Alex? Come out and face us, you coward! You need to answer for what you’ve done!”

Shock washes over me in waves. First, because Alex somehow knows that he’s dealing with my Anon and not me. And second, because he’s somehow controlling two Anons at once. Does he have a partner in crime that I didn’t know about? Alison maybe? Maybe Alex lied in his confession about killing both her and Grant and then framing me for it. Maybe Alison was really having an affair with him.

Possibilities whirl through my mind, forking off like lightning in multiple directions at once.

“You have three seconds before I turn your Anon into metal filings!” Theodore says.

Grant cocks his head at me, ignoring Theodore’s threats. “What’s wrong, Byron? Wondering how I’m doing this? Let me show you.”

He freezes up like a statue, and I hear heels clicking across the floors. Someone else is approaching from the darkened recesses of the corridor from which Grant emerged a second ago. A woman, by the sound of those heels and the way her silhouette is swaying through the shadows.


Chapter 60

As that woman emerges into the light, I’m left reeling for the third time in as many minutes.

It’s not Alison.

Long purple hair shimmers in the dim golden light of Alex’s bunker. Bright violet eyes glitter with amusement as she smiles.

“What’s wrong?”

My real jaw drops open, and I’m shaking my Anon’s head. The armored helmet moves with me. “You’re Violet?”

“Very good, Byron. You’re finally catching up.”

The implications of that tear through me in an instant. Theodore. Violet was the one who told me that he’s an Anon. I round on him in horror, realizing that he wasn’t just acting like his real human self when he had to take a leak back at the decoy workshop, or a moment ago when he voiced his concerns about this trap that we’ve walked into.

Theodore’s aim has shifted to Violet, but he’s still not firing. He’s probably busy processing this new development just like me. This is how Alex knew which Heavies were being piloted by us. Violet had access to our IDs when we got her to make the shadow copies. Alex is Violet. He’s probably secretly been tracking both sets of IDs ever since he modified them, so he knows exactly which Heavies we climbed into before our tracking signals cut off inside our armor.

“Chronos, eliminate all active threats,” Violet says.

Bright green laser beams snap out from the custom Heavy’s weapons. Six different laser beams buzz and crackle through the room in a blinding light show. My units open fire an instant later, their rattler cannons returning fire with a deafening roar. Bullets whiz past my Anon to crunch into Alex’s security unit, staggering it, but its more heavily armored than my hollow ones. My Heavies collapse in a noisy clattering of metal limbs. Theodore’s rifles are blazing, raking both Grant and Violet with bullets. Synthetic blood streams from multiple wounds, but both Anons remain standing, while he sinks to his knees. Theodore’s armor is pocked full of molten holes from the lasers, smoke curling from them like serpentine ghosts. Thin black lines of blood trickle down. He turns to me, his bot’s black face staring expressionlessly at me. A gurgling sound reaches my Anon’s ears as Theodore tries, but fails to say something. The text pops up on my screen.

I’m sorry, Byron. I’ll see you on the other side.

I lurch into motion, screaming, “Theodore!”

It all happened in just a few seconds. Too fast for me to finish processing my shock. I trigger Theodore’s unit to open up, and his armor flays open to reveal him lying in a pool of his own blood, coughing up giant clots of it as he struggles to rise.

I fall on my knees beside him, shaking my head. Tears are slicing down my real cheeks like fire.

“I’m so sorry, Theo!” My metal hand grabs one of his, and he holds on tight, even as his eyes begin rolling like marbles in his head. Tired of this charade, I open my own armor and fall out of it to grab both his hands with my Anon’s. At least he thinks they’re my real hands. “Hang on!” I tell him. I can’t feel that touch without engaging full immersion with my Anon, but I can’t do that. I need to stay aware of what’s going on around my real body. My Heavy is still running after Gareth and the other rebels, kicking up sparkling waves of sand as we race toward the Future Travels compound from behind the hills.

“Touching,” Violet says. “But your eyes are suspiciously dry. Could that be because the real Byron is busy sneaking up on my perimeter with a small army of terrorists as we speak?”

Theodore’s hands slip out of mine, and a gurgling sigh leaves his lips. An agonized scream tears out of my Anon, and I snap its head up to glare at Violet. Her face is frozen in a smug smile, and I can hear footsteps approaching again. Peering into the shadowy corridor beyond the dining table, I watch as the real Alex walks out into the light, looking just as smug, and hobbling on a bad leg. He comes to stand beside his Anons, looking winded and frail, hunched with age. Hatred and grief are raging inside of me, warring for my attention.

“Here I am in the flesh,” Alex wheezes between gasps for air. “Unfortunately, gene therapies came too late to preserve me in my prime,” he explains. “But that’s what Anons are for.” He nods sideways to Violet, then to Grant, both standing like mannequins beside him. “Now you know all of my identities. Well...” A sly look crosses his face. “Almost all of them.” Images flicker across Alex’s contacts. I think about taking advantage of his distraction, but the Heavy that shot Theodore is standing ready to cut me down as well. Before I can decide whether or not to try something anyway, more footsteps come echoing down the corridor at the far end of the bunker. I watch incredulously as Adam Kane comes walking out, followed by Alison.

They stop and stand statuesque beside the others. Alex spreads his hands to indicate them. “Here they all are.”

You are the anti-christ?” I blurt out. My grief retreating a step as shock rocks me to my core for the umpteenth time.

This is it. He’s overplayed his hand. When the world finds out that the inventor of passmarks is really an undoc who’s flagrantly abusing his own system, Alex’s entire empire is going to fall apart. I initiate a transfer to dump the video logs from my Anon to the storage in the AR glasses in my jacket pocket. From there I’ll transfer them to the cloud or Wikileaks, or straight to an editor at WUNN.

Alex is laughing at me as I have my Anon rise to its feet from Theodore’s side. I’m clenching blood-covered fists, trying to calculate if my Anon will survive a volley from Chronos’s lasers long enough to reach Alex and snap his neck.

“You never understood,” Alex says. “Real power doesn’t come from traveling to the future. It comes from writing history.”

“You’re insane,” I grit out in a gravelly whisper.

“I think you mean brilliant,” Alex replies.

“Why?” I ask. I can’t think of anything else to say. My brain is buzzing as I keep half an eye on the data transfer from the Anon’s logs. Five minutes left. I have to stall for time again. Gareth and the rest of the rebels are still running, my unit on auto following them blindly into yet another trap.

“Everyone was expecting him to come,” Alex explains. “And after New York, they all secretly wanted him to come. People wanted revenge. Of course, it helps that I’ve been fanning the flames by secretly financing the Fundies to execute all those bombings and shootings.”

That revelation lances through me, leaving me even more shocked than I already am.

“Seeing all of that endless destruction, who wouldn’t want to put a stop to the holy wars and the jihads? How better to do that than to undermine those conflicts at their root? Religion.

“I gave people a way out, an excuse to sideline all of the zealots, and now finally, a way to get rid of them once and for all. I will go down in history as the man who brought peace to the entire world. The last remnants of these divisive ideologies will soon be stamped out forever.”

I’m shaking my head. “Religion isn’t the problem, it’s just an excuse, a scapegoat that people use to do evil things. Like your Anons. All pretending to be one thing, while actually being a steaming pile of shit underneath. You’re not religious and look at you. You’re a psychopath. I rest my case.”

Alex shrugs. “Do a little evil to do a lot of good. Kill the one to save the many. That’s a necessary part of the decision-making process once you become as powerful as I have. And as for religion, it’s a childish holdover from a time when people thought thunder happened because the gods were angry. It’s time we grew up as a species.”

The log transfer is done. Now it’s my turn to be smug. “When the world finds out about this, you’re done. That law you signed into action will be overturned in an instant once people learn that the man who proposed it, the very president of the Union, is himself an Anon controlled by an undoc, abusing and evading his own system of tracking IDs.”

“You mean if they find out,” Alex says. “You think I don’t know what you just did? Go ahead, try to transfer the data.”

I look away from my Anon’s picture-in-picture window to check the icon that represents my connection to the net. It’s blinking. I focus on it and try to access a browser.

Routing error. Access denied.

“That’s impossible,” I mutter.

Alex explains, “We’re in the middle of the desert! My compound is the only thing for miles! That means all net traffic gets routed through my servers before it hits the satellites, and I’ve just blocked your access to those servers.

“Face it, Byron, you’ve finally met your match. I’m the real genius here. I always was. You were just a step on the path to my greatness. You underestimated me over and over again, and now you’ve finally lost everything because of it.

“How does it feel to be brought to your knees by an uneducated driver who clawed his way out of poverty to become the wealthiest and most powerful man on Earth?”

An unintelligible scream tears from my lips, and I hurl my Anon at Alex. He produces a handgun and shoots my Anon in the chest. The round buries itself with a crunch and then explodes with a muffled bang and a flash of light.

I see the Anon’s view of the world twisting as it falls, and then the window blanks out with Error Connection Lost flashing before my real eyes. I minimize the window and take a moment to ground myself in my real surroundings. We’ve stopped running. Gareth is just a few steps ahead of me, peering around a giant boulder that looks somehow familiar.

“First wave ready?” he asks over closed-circuit comms. A flurry of replies comes back, all voices I recognize vaguely from the priests I met in the cathedral. He’s sending out the armored units first with their tracking weapons systems.

“Wait!” I reply before I even fully realize why I’m saying it. The way my Anon was cut down in Alex’s bunker is the same way Adriana described my death to me, the one she saw in a vision when we left 2061.  She saw Alex shoot and ‘kill’ me. But what she saw was him killing my Anon, not me.

“What is it?” Gareth asks.

The boulder we’re all hiding behind is the same one I saw in my vision when we jumped here with the Mark VI.

This is it, the back entrance. I begin feeling along the sheer, sloping face of it, trying to find the glowing blue holographic keypad I saw.

“It’s not here!” I say, desperation racing my pulse until its pounding in my ears. “Where is it?”

“Where is what?” Gareth asks.


Chapter 61

I’m passing metal hands back and forth over the sheer gray surface of the rocks, like a mime trying to get out of a box.

“Byron?” Gareth asks. “What are you—”

A jagged chunk of rock sinks several centimeters under my right hand. It’s a panel cleverly disguised as rock. It clicks into place and a glowing blue keypad appears projected over my hand. I flutter my fingers above it, trying to figure out where the projection is coming from, but the keypad disappears behind my hand as I withdraw it from the surface of the rocks.

“What is that?” Gareth whispers as he steps up beside me.

“Looks like a holographic keypad,” Tobias says, coming up on my other side.

“What do you think it’s for?” Gareth replies.

“I think it’s a hidden entrance,” I say.

This is all very surreal, but it’s not exactly what I saw in that vision inside the Mark VI. In that version of events the assault was failing, and everyone was dying as they charged the compound’s perimeter. Gareth was suggesting we join them and go down fighting. But here and now we have yet to spring out of cover and launch the attack. We were just about to when I remembered this boulder and the keypad projected over it.

“Pity we don’t know the code,” Gareth says.

But I do.

I struggle to recall the security code I heard Theodore repeating to me over and over inside the Mark VI. I committed it to memory in the moment, but a lot has happened since then, and at the time, I thought it was all just a dream.

Come on, think! I tell myself, casting my mind back into that moment inside the Mark VI with Theodore shouting numbers at me. 567...089...32...6? I try it, tapping the numbers on the pad. Each one highlights as my finger touches it, giving me the equivalent of haptic feedback. As soon as I’m finished entering that sequence, the pad turns red and words appear beneath it: Incorrect code. Two tries left.

The keypad turns blue again, ready for a second attempt.

“Nice try,” Tobias mutters. He turns to Gareth and nods. “We need to go now.”

“Wait!” I say, holding up a hand. “I know this.”

“How?” Gareth asks.

“Just trust me, okay?”

I’m sure I have the right code. It’s the last digit I’m not sure about. I try it again 567089324.

The pad turns red again.

Incorrect code. One try left.

“That’s enough,” Tobias growls.

“I’ve got this,” I reply. “One more.”

“One more and you’re going to set off some kind of security alert. What do you think happens when you run out of tries?”

“He’s right,” Gareth says, grabbing my shoulder to pull me away.

But I’m already entering the next code.

I hear Tobias cursing under his breath. Not very priestly of him.

567089323.

The pad flashes green.

Access Granted.

A rumbling sound starts up behind us, and I turn to see the sand shivering and the ground behind us sliding away, under the rocks. Several rebels jump back as the ground they’re standing on slides out from underneath them to reveal a shadowy stairwell.

I’m too surprised to say anything.

“How did you know the code?” Gareth whispers to me. “This was your plan all along?”

I wish I could take credit, but it wasn’t me. It was Theodore, somehow reaching out across time, space, and even the grave to save me.

Tears spring to my eyes as I walk around the opening in the ground and start down the long metal staircase. Lights come on for us as we go. “Deploy your weapons!” I say over the comms even as I do just that. Twin rattler cannons fold out of hidden compartments in my forearms. Forget the non-lethals. I haven’t seen a single living soul in this facility besides Alex, and I have no intention of sparing him.


Chapter 62

The stairs are shuddering with the thunder of more than sixty sets of boots and armored feet. Unlike what I saw in my vision, we haven’t lost a single man yet, and something tells me that Alex’s security forces are all in the wrong place to deal with us.

After descending what must be at least thirty feet below the desert, we hit a landing and a straight concrete corridor. There’s a reinforced metal door at the end with a physical keypad glowing blue beside it.

I hope it uses the same security code. Breaking into a run, I punch in the code just as soon as I get there. If Alex has noticed that we’ve broken in, he could change that code to lock us out.

I tap the keys as fast as I dare: 567089323.

The pad glows green and the door rumbles aside. Beyond it is a much longer corridor, lined with more reinforced metal doors. But I recognize this. We’re in the labyrinth of underground bunkers beneath the facility. The same level that Alex’s bunker is on. I run down the corridor checking the glowing numbers on the doors as they flash by. Alex’s bunker is number one. These doors are all numbered in the hundreds. The corridor twists and bends along until we reach another door blocking the way. The key pad is already glowing red, and I have a bad feeling that means Alex is finally onto us. I slow to a stop. The doors here are numbered in the fifties. We’re not that far from Alex, but it doesn’t matter. That door won’t open with the code I know.

“What’s wrong?” Gareth asks as he notices me hesitating in front of the door.

Shaking my head, I don’t waste breath on a reply, I just try the code. The panel beeps at me, and nothing happens. “We’re stuck.”

“Great!” Tobias says.

“What do we do now?” someone else asks.

“Do you hear that?” another says.

I freeze and stop to listen, straining my ears to hear through the restless shuffling and muttering of these rebels. It sounds like Heavies marching, their feet ringing on a metal staircase.

I glance back the way we came over the swaying heads of more than sixty people. The stuttering roar of gunfire starts up a split second later, followed by screams as Alex’s security starts mowing us down from behind.

“There has to be a way to get it open!” Gareth says.

I turn back to the fore, my mind racing for an answer. “Manual controls,” I say.

“What?”

“In case the facility loses power. Alex would have built in a way to open the doors manually.” I drop to my haunches, scanning the seams between metal panels around the door. There’s something. A raised lip near the floor. Barely enough to get the tip of a finger into, let alone the extra thick digits of my mechanical hands. I try repeatedly, failing each time. The screams are getting closer. The gunfire louder and more continuous.

I trigger my suit open and jam my fingernails under the panel to pry it open. It comes away in my hands, revealing a recessed compartment with a folding winch inside. I fold it out and start winding. The door begins grinding open, first a crack then enough to slip an arm through.

“It’s working!” Gareth says, as he jams his hands into the gap and starts hauling the door open with the enhanced strength of his exoskeleton.

A pair of other exo-Heavies jump in to help, and we get the door open wide enough to slide through sideways. I’m climbing back into my suit and sealing it up just as Gareth starts waving people through. I’m the fourth one through. On the other side, Gareth catches Tobias by the arm and says, “Stay here and hold the door.”

“Good luck,” Tobias replies, and then takes Gareth’s place waving people through.

“Come on,” I say, taking the lead once more. I’m flashing past more bunkers, the numbers on the doors scrolling down into the twenties. We turn a corner, and I hear a ding. An elevator is opening up ahead of us, and Heavies are boiling out. Bullets start spraying toward us, deafening as the sound booms off the walls of this confined space. I drop to one knee and raise my arms to fire back. Recoil goes jack-hammering up my arms and ripples through my skeleton, making my teeth ache. My first two targets collapse in a heap across the entrance of the elevator. Gareth’s fire joins mine, and two other exo-Heavies go running ahead of us, firing as they go. They’re relying on aim-assist to compensate for their movements, but the remaining bots in the elevator shift their aim to the nearest targets first, and those two rebels collapse under a metallic thunder of repeated impacts. Clouds of pink mist sparkle in the air, and silence rings loud in my ears. The elevator is empty, the doors jammed open by a mangled heap of metal. That’s a lucky break. The rest of them will have to take the stairs.

I jump back to my feet. “Let’s go!” I’m checking myself over while I run, but it doesn’t look like I’ve been hit.

Gareth appears, limping beside me, and I see the slick smear of blood running down his thigh.

“Shit. You’re hit.”

“I’ll be fine,” he replies. “Keep moving. We’re outgunned. We need to find the control center of this place and shut down those Heavies, or we’re all going to die.”

“We find Alex, and threaten to kill him if he doesn’t shut them down,” I say. “Failing that, we find his control center and shut them down ourselves.”

“You can do that?” Gareth asks.

“Maybe.” I know from my own security systems back in Fresno that bots get their orders from centralized nerve centers with easy access to sensors and other data. It makes them harder to hack, and easier to coordinate.

The corridor branches up ahead, several doors before the elevator, and I hook right down a familiar branch. The door numbers here scroll all the way down to one, and I stop there.

“This is it,” I say.

“You sure?” Gareth asks.

“Positive.”

I notice that this keypad is glowing blue. On a lark, I try my code, and this time it works. The door slides open.

That’s when I see why Alex didn’t bother to change the code. Adam Kane is standing behind the door with that armor-piercing pistol that Alex used to take out my Anon.

“Look out!” I scream, and throw myself to one side. A flash of heat tears through my left hip, and an explosion booms in my ears.


Chapter 63

Dust and bits of concrete are pitter-pattering over my armor. I sit up, surprised that I can. The side of my armor is torn open, and I can see my blood running out, but the flow is trickling and I’m still alive, which means that was a glancing hit.

I don’t feel any pain yet. My heart is racing, adrenaline surging in my veins. Taking advantage of that, I jump to my feet. Gareth is leaning around the door, firing a steady stream of bullets into the bunker on the other side.

Green lasers are flickering back, stabbing his arm and burning black holes in his armor. Somehow Gareth is ignoring the pain and returning fire anyway, even as his arm boils away inside his armor. Flames start leaping off it, and I can hear Gareth’s muffled screams even through his suit. Despite the dull weakness in my left side, I manage to lean around the other side of the door to join forces with him, aiming at Alex’s custom Heavy, Chronos. Bullets are sparking off his armor in a steady stream, the bot’s entire body shivering with the impacts, but somehow he’s taking it all. I notice out of the corner of my eye that Grant is lying in a puddle of synthetic blood a few feet away from the remains of my Anon and Theodore. Then lasers start licking my armor, and I’m forced back into cover.

Hurried footfalls come thundering to my ears. I look toward the sound and see just one exo-Heavy come running down the corridor to our aid. He skids to a stop behind Gareth as he collapses beside the door.

Tobias jumps out holding a gun that he might have stolen off one of the other rebel’s corpses. A giant of a weapon with glowing coils at the end of the barrel.

He steps into the open door and fires with a deafening crack, followed by the boom of an impact. I hear a heavy thud, and lean around the corner to see Chronos collapsed in a heap.

“Got it. Let’s go!” Tobias says. I’m the first one through, eyes darting and arms sweeping around for targets. Not seeing any immediate threats, I turn to wave Tobias through and see him hobbling through with Gareth.

The door to Alex’s bunker starts rumbling shut, too late to keep us out.

“The others?” Gareth asks in a ragged voice.

“Holding the line. For now,” Tobias says.

“We need to find Alex before they’re all dead,” I say. I can’t see him anywhere, but I don’t think he’s escaped. My injured hip is coming to life, the pain blinding, and making me feel nauseated, but I push through it as I lead the way through the living room, past the dining table to the darkened corridor where I remember watching as Alex paraded his Anons out one after another.

I enter the hallway and find it lined with ordinary wooden doors. I try the first one and see Violet standing statuesque in a small closet-sized room. There’s a charging cable snaking out from under her clothes to the wall.

I shut the door and try the next one. This one is empty. Another door. Empty again.

This isn’t getting me anywhere. I run down the hallway to the end. The last door on the left is like the one outside. Reinforced metal, a glowing blue keypad beside it. I try my code, but it doesn’t work.

“Step back,” Tobias says. The coils at the end of his rifle are glowing to life. I hurriedly backpedal away from the door as he hefts the rifle up to his hips and opens fire. It punches a fist-sized hole in the door. He fires twice more until the hole is big enough to fit several hands through.

“Try to pull it open,” Tobias says.

“Where did you get that?” I ask, wondering why we didn’t use it the first time we ran into a door we couldn’t get through.

“Our people stole it off one of the Heavies that came down after us. There’s another one holding the line behind us.”

I reach both hands into the hole and brace my feet, wrenching the door aside with everything I’ve got. My injured hip is shaking, the leg below it giving in at the knee.

“Let me help,” Tobias says, setting the gun aside.

I notice Gareth leaning against the wall, his wounded arm black and hanging limply from the shoulder.

Between Tobias and me, we get the door open a crack with the first heave. With the second, it’s wide enough for us to slip through sideways.

Just as we’re about to do so, I hear a familiar rumbling sound and freeze up. “Wait?”

“What?” Tobias asks.

I stare back down the corridor to see the bunker door opening up again, dim light flickering off the armor of Heavies standing outside.

“We’ve got company!” I say.

“I’ll hold them,” Gareth says. Reaching for Tobias’s gun and hefting it off the floor.

“They’ll kill you!” Tobias says.

“Just go!” Gareth replies.

Coils glow to life at the end of the barrel once more, and the first shot booms down the hall to the doors, and one of the Heavies explodes in a rain of metal parts. I slip into the room sideways and emerge in what looks like a control center. An entire wall is lined with physical viewscreens, each of them showing views from around the compound. The head cams of various security units, I realize.

Tobias slips in after me. “What is this place? Where’s Alex?”

I cast about quickly, but there’s no sign of him. “Shut the door!” I snap at Tobias.

“How?”

“I don’t know! Figure it out. I need a minute.”

Tobias braces his legs, sticking his hands into the hole we blasted and starts dragging the door shut the hard way.

I turn around and scan a wide console lined with switches and buttons below the screens. Antiquated control systems for such an advanced facility. Then again, Alex is pretty antiquated himself. Maybe he feels more at home with physical keyboards that hearken back to his time. Or else it’s for added security against cyber threats. Hands-on control systems beat remote-access for security.

I hunch over the nearest keyboard and struggle with fat fingers to hit the keys, trying to figure out how the system works. An error sound bleeps at me as my index finger hits five keys at once. This is never going to work.

Triggering my suit open, I stagger out and nearly fall on my face. Without the exosuit to hold me up, my injured hip isn’t enough to do it for me. Leaning heavily on the control console, breathing hard, I try the keyboard again. I try hitting control alt delete. That brings up a familiar-looking task manager. An electric thrill of adrenaline courses through my fingertips as I scroll through the list of programs running, looking for something to kill. I see something called sec.exe and I end the task. Nothing seems to happen. Scrolling through the list again, I start ending likely looking programs as fast as I can, hoping that one of them is governing the security teams. I see another one: satnet.exe, and kill it, too, just in case the commands are somehow coming down from space.

Another booming report thunders to my ears from the corridor outside. Whatever systems I’ve killed haven’t stopped the Heavies from coming.

I’m about to give up when I see another sub-routine near the end of the list. HvyCMD.exe

“Here they come!” Tobias screams just as I hear clanking footsteps hammering down the hallway outside. I can’t hear Gareth firing anymore. That’s not a good sign.

I kill the task, and a whole layer of background noise peels away into silence. No more metal feet hammering outside.

“I think you did it!” Tobias says.

“Check!” I snap at him.

He peers out through the hole in the door. “They’re offline!”

“Good.” I step back into my armor and seal it up. Raising both arms, I open up on the control console with both rattler cannons. The console explodes in a cloud of shrapnel as I rake my automatic .223 cal rifles back and forth over the controls.

“What was that for?” Tobias asks into the ringing silence that follows. Bits of plastic and metal are raining down around us.

“To make sure no one can re-activate them. Get that door open. We need to figure out where Alex went.”

“You go ahead,” Tobias says, his voice strained as he struggles to drag the door open once more. “That’s not why we’re here. We’re going to get these bunkers open and head to the future.”

“Why?” I ask.

“What do you mean why?”

“You don’t have to go anymore! Alex is behind everything!”

“What are you talking about?” Tobias asks.

That’s when I realize that I never told them what I saw. That Adam Kane is one of Alex’s Anons.

The sound of a chair rolling on wheels has me turning back to the control console that I just shot to pieces. A man is crawling out of the shadows.

Adam Kane. A handgun just like the one Grant and Alex were using flashes into view, and I realize I’m about to die. The smile on Adam’s face tells me he knows it too.

Tobias crashes into him just as he pulls the trigger. The round goes wide, splashing off the wall behind me with a booming spray of shrapnel. Tobias grabs Adam’s head in both of his metal hands and twists. There’s a shriek of metal shearing, and then a shower of sparks and synthetic blood as Kane’s head comes right off in his hands. Tobias is staring at it in shock, the metal spinal column still sparking as Kane’s body crumples to the floor and falls over with a thud. Artificial blood is splat-splat-splatting at his feet.

“You knew he was an Anon?” I ask, nodding to Tobias’s trophy.

His Heavy looks to me, slowly shaking its head. “No. I just wanted his head.”

“Now you know why you don’t have to go anywhere,” I say. “When the world finds out about this, they’re going to owe you an apology.”

“Yeah, I don’t think that’s how they’ll see it after they find out we blew the tracking center.”

“Fair enough,” I say.

“Find Alex. He’s the only witness here.”

“All the dead bodies are another,” I point out.

“I’ll make sure we clean it up. We can’t be painted as the bad guys in all of this. Not again.”

I nod quickly to him and help Tobias drag the door open wide enough that we can slip back out into the hall.

On the other side Alex’s security bots are all standing around like statues. Gareth is lying in a bloody heap, his armor pocked full of dark bullet holes. I drop down beside him and trigger his suit open. His chest is still shuddering with shallow breaths.

Tobias drops down beside me. “He’s still alive!”

Gareth’s eyes flick to him, then to me, and I can see death in them. His lips are blue and his chest is caved in on one side with a dark pool of blood shivering in the concavity. “Say goodbye for me,” he rasps softly as his eyes slide away from us.

All I can do is nod as he grows still.

My hip is on fire as I try to stand.

“Make him pay for this,” Tobias says, giving me a hand up.

“This and everything else,” I reply, and then I’m off and limping down the hall. On my way out I check the remaining doors that I didn’t look behind before. One of them is a bedroom. I stalk through it, using my Heavy’s infrared sensors to look for him, checking the closet, the bathroom. But he’s not here.

I double check the other doors out in the hall, and find more Anons plugged in and charging, some of them I don’t even recognize.

Setting off at a limping run, I’m scouring Alex’s bunker as fast as I can. Another corridor leads to his personal launch chamber and the glossy black egg of a time capsule. I look inside of it, just to be sure, but it’s empty.

I don’t know where Alex went, but I have a bad feeling that I was wrong about him not having left the bunker. He made a run for it before we even got here. That’s why he didn’t change the code to open the door. He wasn’t in here anymore by the time we arrived. I don’t know where else he could be, but with his security forces all offline, I doubt he’s planning to stick around and play hide and seek. He’s on the run, probably flying to one of his other facilities as we speak.

I leave Alex’s bunker and head for the elevator, still jammed open with broken Heavies. Racing past it, I take the stairs instead. It’s murder on my injured side, but the exo-skeletal armor I’m wearing makes it possible.

My heart is pounding by the time I burst through the door at the top of the stairwell, and within seconds I’m flying through the welcome center and out the front doors through which Alex led my Anon and Theodore a mere hour ago, like lambs to the slaughter. A lump rises in my throat as I lope down a sandy, moonlit path to the landing field in front of the complex. There are several sleek black air cars there. I can hear rotors whistling as one of them powers up for takeoff.

That has to be him.

I order my armor into a sprint, letting it do the running for me, but I’m too late. The car is already hovering off the landing pad as I arrive. Steeling myself for the pain, I target the leading edge of the nearest rotor and jump for it with everything I’ve got. My left leg buckles, but the Heavy takes up the slack for a power-assisted leap that sends me flying up several inches past the top of the car. My hands seize the circular frame around the rotor and hold on tight, gasping and blinking spots from the agony lighting up the entire left side of my body. The car sinks back down with my weight, listing toward me, and for a second it seems like it might crash.

But then the rotors throttle up with a screaming roar, and I’m lifted clear, my feet dangling as the car soars to greet moon-silvered clouds and winking stars.


Chapter 64

Air is whipping past me, roaring in the audio pickups that pass for my suit’s ears. I’m struggling to hold on despite the power-assisted grip. Alex is waggling the car violently, banking suddenly left, right, and back again to shake me off.

Between those sudden jerking maneuvers designed to send me cart wheeling to the ground, I’m moving hand over hand, inching steadily closer to the doors on my side of the car. I’m going to pry them open and hurl Alex out. I have to mind my grip. Keep my fingers away from the rotor inside the frame I’m clinging to. One false move and I’ll lose more than a finger. The pain will make me lose my grip.

Alex banks left again, going almost perpendicular to the ground, and my legs swing up toward the rotors. Fortunately the violent cyclone of air jetting out from underneath them is enough to push me away before I can get dismembered. But that cyclone also wrenches at my grip, threatening to tear me free. Alex banks back the other way, going right, and I’m flung the other way, my armored body waving like a flag. I’m gasping from the effort of holding on, and I realize that I’m starting to feel faint from the exertion.

No, not the exertion. The blood loss. I can feel it sloshing around my left foot.

Not now. I grit my teeth and force back an encroaching haze of darkness. Hand over hand. I’m almost there.

As I get within reach of the nearest door. The car stops its zigzagging course, and the door slides open.

Alex is staring out at me. He has a gun in his hand. By now I recognize the model. Exploding armor piercing rounds. The same gun that tore a jagged furrow in my armor and ripped open my side. I think about letting go to shoot him with one of my guns, taking a bullet to give him one, but his will definitely kill me this time, and mine might not do the same. I can’t risk that.

“I have to admit, I’m impressed!” Alex yells to me. “You’re more tenacious than I expected. Theodore would be proud. Say hello to him for me.”

The mention of Theodore’s name gives me the strength to do the only other thing I can think of. I launch myself toward the open door. Something zips by over my head. It plinks into the rotor I was holding onto and explodes just as I’m about to miss the open door and plummet to the ground below.

The explosion tosses me inside, and I’m left grappling with Alex on the floor. We’re sliding toward the open door as the car lists toward the ground.

“You fool! We’re going to crash!” Alex cries. I brace my legs in the open door, and he struggles to aim his gun at my chest. I slam his hand against the floor of the car as hard as I can, and feel bones crunching even through my armor.

Alex screams, and so does everything else: engines whining, air whistling past the open door. I twist around to see the shining surface of Mono Lake racing up fast.

It swallows us whole, with a gut-punch of force that slams us into the opposite door. Cold, black water floods in through the tear in my suit. I trigger it open before it can malfunction, and I’m kicking and clawing out the open door and around the sinking car, aiming for a pale glimmer that I hope is the moon.

*     *     *

I burst free, gasping and spluttering, and swim one legged and two handed for the shore. I hope Alex died in the crash, or drowns in the minutes to follow, but then I see his head break the surface ahead of me and I have a whole new reason to swim.

I’m chasing him out of the lake, barely conscious, but driven by hate and a raging flood of adrenaline. I can die just as soon as he does.

Alex reaches the shore first and lurches into a staggering run. But I’m not far behind. Putting weight on my left leg is like twisting screws into my own flesh, but I push through it.

Alex is hurt, too, limping, and he’s old and decrepit. Despite the fiery lances of pain that erupt with each step, setting off flashes of light behind my eyeballs, I’m gaining on him.

I catch his shoulder and spin him around. He falls down and lets out an animal scream of terror as he starts scuttling away from me. I stalk on, looming over him with both fists raised.

“Wait!” he throws up his hands in anticipation of my blows. “If you kill me, I’ll kill her!”

That makes me hesitate. “Kill who?”

“I’m Violet, remember? I got those old IDs for Ana and Olivia. I’m calling the Guard now!” I can see Alex’s eyes flickering in the light of screens flashing over his contacts, so I know that he’s up to something.

“Half of them are in my pocket anyway!” Alex goes on. “All I have to do is say that Ana and Olivia are connected to the attack on the tracking center, and then tell the Guard where they’re hiding, and they’ll be dead!”

My guts clench up and the strength leaves me in a whoosh as I blow out a shaky breath. “How do I know you won’t just kill them, anyway?”

Alex is laughing, cackling as he pushes up onto his elbows, struggling to rise. “You don’t have a choice! Let me go or they’re dead. It’s that simple.”

And for a moment, I almost do. But then I remember something. One of the sub-routines I killed was called satnet. I feel around inside my jacket pocket. My glasses are still there. I pull them out and slip them on.

“What are you doing? Take them off now!”

Icons swirl to life. The network icon is flashing.

No signal.

A cold smile settled on my lips and a frown creases Alex’s brow. “What?” He’s scuttling away again.

I fall on top of him and pin his arms to either side of his head. He’s too old and weak to do anything.

“She’s dead! I’m going to kill her!” he spits at me, his whole body shaking under mine, struggling to wriggle free.

“No, Alex. She’s not dead. You are,” I say. “It’s time for you to go meet the real anti-christ.” And then I release the hand that I broke while we were still in the car, and take a swing at him with my right fist.

His nose gives way with a meaty crunch, and he screams a nasal scream. His broken hand starts slapping me, reaching for my eye socket with twisted, broken fingers. I bat it aside and hit him again.

“That’s for my parents!” I say. And again, my fist sinking into his eye. “For Carlos!” His jaw zags away and his teeth clamp down with a satisfying crack. “For Theodore!” And then I hit him three times more, until I can’t feel my hand, and the knuckles are shredded skin and blood. Alex isn’t struggling anymore. His face is a gory mess, nose and jaw broken. A quiet wind whistles through the night, and a cold shiver courses through me. I release Alex’s good hand that I’ve been holding pinned to the ground and check his pulse. I don’t feel the skin skipping beside his throat, weakly or otherwise.

It’s done. I get up on shaking legs, and start stumbling toward Future Travels’ compound, the rooftops agleam with moonlight.

Darkness gathers, swelling in at the edges of my vision. My eyelids are heavy as I trudge across the desert, kicking up waves of sand. Each time I blink, my eyes stick shut for several seconds, and I stumble on in darkness. My mind is finally giving in. There’s nothing left to fight for. Even if I survive, the cops are going to arrest me for murdering Alex. Undoc or not, murder is still murder.

Not to mention all the other things I’ve done. Conspiring with Fundy terrorists probably tops that list.

I stop and sink to my knees, then fall to my side and curl into a fetal ball as spent adrenaline leaves me shivering and cold. Sweet oblivion comes for me, and I let it sweep me away, content with the knowledge that Theodore must be out there somewhere on the other side. How else could he tell me that access code?

I take that thought down with me happily, knowing that death is not the end, and hoping that my all-consuming quest for revenge isn’t enough to send me to Hell with Alex.


Epilogue

Nine Hours Later...

My eyes crack open to a bright, blurry scene. I peer into the light, wondering if this is the proverbial one at the end of the tunnel.

But it soon resolves into a window. I’m lying in bed, covered in a heavy, blissfully warm blanket. Something is beeping steadily beside me. There’s a physical viewscreen at the foot of the bed, set to WUNN, the volume is muted, but I can see familiar scenes playing out. The destruction and riots in the Blocks. Future Travels from the air. Heavies standing around like statues. No sign of the rebels.

And then Adam Kane’s head. Lying in the control room, a metal spine coiled with wires sticking out of his neck, proof of what he really was.

I lift my arms from under the covers, searching for some way to put the volume up. I’m half expecting handcuffs to stop me, but my hands slide free. The broken one still swollen and purple, but my knuckles are all straight again.

The door clicks open and I see a nurse come in. Followed by two familiar faces that I almost can’t believe I’m seeing.

“Ana!” I croak.

She frowns and shakes her head, looking confused. The back of her right hand flashes into view, and I see the glowing passmark there. The version five.

“Who’s Ana? I’m Jessa,” she says. Her new ID. “And this is Tess,” she says, nodding to Olivia. “Remember?”

I look to her. She’s holding Buddy in her arms. He barks at me. “You’re looking good, Mr. White,” he says.

“He’s still a long way from recovery,” the nurse says, as they stop beside my bed. She’s frowning intermittently at us between checking the equipment I’m plugged into.

“Can we have a minute?” Ana asks.

The nurse fixes her with an unhappy frown. “Ten minutes, that’s it,” she says, and then breezes out of the room.

Ana pulls up a rolling stool and sits beside me. She grabs my hand, and squeezes it. “How are you feeling?”

“What...” My head rocks on my pillow. I’m so confused that I don’t know where to start. “How is this... what happened? How did I get here?”

Ana glances back over her shoulder, as if to make sure that the nurse is really gone. Then she leans in closer and whispers. “Tobias. He saw the crash and went to pick you up.”

“But didn’t they find the body? I’m going to be charged with...”

Ana is shaking her head, a grim smile on her lips. “No. He flew you, Theodore, and Alex all home along with the gun that shot both you and Theodore. It already had Alex’s prints on it. All he had to do was dump the three of you outside Block 19 and call for an ambulance. Two wealthy, registered citizens accosted by an undoc. One dead, the other wounded. Despite your wounds, you killed the undoc before he could kill you, but then you passed out from loss of blood.”

It’s a hell of a story. “But... Future Travels.”

“An attack launched by unidentified terrorists. You were never there.”

“But I was at the cathedral.”

“So was I,” Ana says. “Guilty by association isn’t enough to charge us.”

It all seems too good to be true. “And Tobias?”

She shakes her head. “I don’t know. He came to see me briefly and then went on his way. The others all left, jumped away to an unknown future just like they were planning. Maybe he did, too. Or maybe he decided to stay.”

“If he did, I owe him a big thank you.” And he’s not the only one, I think. I remember Gareth’s last words, and feel the blood start draining from my face. “Ana,” I whisper. “Your son...”

She swallows thickly, and I can see the tears shimmering in her eyes, but they don’t fall. “He died for the greater good. None of us knew what you were going to learn about Kane out there. But now that you have, it’s all over.”

“The raids?”

“The law has been overturned. The Blocks are still being dissolved, but no one is being forced to get passmarks. The incentive is still there, but the Union is rolling out a new version. Version seven.”

I smile wryly at that. “I guess no one can call that version the mark of the beast.”

Ana smiles faintly back and her eyes slide away from mine to the window. “No. We can’t.” There’s a sad, distant look in her eyes, the fire that I’m used to seeing there is gone, and I think I know why.

“Just because this wasn’t the real biblical apocalypse doesn’t mean your faith is a lie,” I say.

She looks to me, eyebrows raised. “Doesn’t it?”

I shake my head, rocking it back and forth on my pillow once more, and then I tell her about the vision I had of Theodore, and how that was how we ultimately defeated Alex. Re-telling that softens the bitter edge of my grief over losing Theodore, and I’m left with a curious hope instead.

Ana is frowning at me. “But what does that mean?”

“Isn’t it obvious?” I say. “It means there is something more, something hiding behind the curtain that no one has seen yet. An afterlife? A God? Who knows. Maybe you guys got some of the details wrong, but you’re not wrong about everything.”

Ana is nodding slowly, smiling faintly at me. “Or maybe we were right about everything.”

“Well...”

“We can agree to disagree,” she says. “Thank you for sharing that.”

“You’re welcome. So now what?” I ask, my eyes slipping away from hers to find Olivia and Buddy sitting in an armchair by the window.

Ana brings me back with a squeeze of my hand. Some of the uncertainty I saw in her eyes a moment ago is back. “Now we live. Together... if you want.”

“If I want?” I echo incredulously. “Get over here.” I pull her down for a long, lingering kiss. I could sink into that kiss forever. Ana’s fragrance intoxicates me and makes my brain light up, filling me with a warmth and lightness of being that I’d almost forgotten existed. I’ve felt like this only briefly once before in my life, when I first met Alison, but something tells me that this time it’s going to last.

*     *     *

Seven Months Later...

—December 24, 2111—

The window beside me is glazed with frost, gilded with the early morning light. The grounds of the estate are draped with a blanket of snow that weighs down the boughs of trees along the ridge line. Beyond that, the spires of downtown Denver are sparkling, colored glass agleam in the rising sun. Those towers are so high they look like pillars holding up the blue dome of sky above. Creeping black lines of air traffic mar that skyline like old power lines. How far we’ve come, and yet still so many things are just shades of difference from what they’ve always been.

A muffled thump sounds, drawing my eyes from the view to the simulated fire roaring in my office. I watch a convincing explosion of embers as the simulated logs are devoured by electric flames. I take a sip of my cappuccino. It’s the morning of the day before Christmas, the first of what I hope will be many Christmases and other holidays spent with Ana and Olivia in our new home—a gentrified copy of the old family manor, one that my army of Heavies spent the last six months building day and night. There’s just one problem with that domestic dream. It’s haunted and tainted by grief.

My gaze slides away from the fire to see the empty armchair beside me. I find myself staring at it, remembering all the late nights and early mornings I shared here with Theodore, and even my father and mother, in an office just like this one.

A wash of heat makes my eyes burn and my throat ache. I tear my eyes away and suck in a shaky breath before the tears fall. If I let them loose now, I’m afraid they won’t stop, and I don’t want to ruin Christmas for Ana and Olivia. No, not Ana and Olivia. Jessa and Tess. Those are their names now. I’m still getting used to their fake IDs. Of course, ruining Christmas for them with my grief might be preferable to what I’m about to do.

I stare into the fire again, sipping the dregs of my cappuccino. This was what Theodore wanted for me: a real life. But I can’t bring myself to enjoy it. He should be here to see it. To enjoy a well-deserved retirement. I still can’t believe that he’s gone. Even though I saw him die, I saw it from a distance, through the eyes of a remote-controlled machine, and his death played out like a movie. Later, I saw his body with my own eyes, but I didn’t have time to stop and come to terms with that loss. He could have been anyone lying there. Not my Theo. Not the man who raised me. Maybe that’s why I keep hearing his voice at night and seeing him in my dreams.

It doesn’t help that I had a vision of him near the end, of him telling me Alex’s security code. That’s something he couldn’t possibly have known while he was alive, but maybe, just maybe, it was something he could have learned after he passed on. And if so, then that means two things: one, when he died, he went somewhere, and two, wherever he went, he gained access to something that all of my research and all of my calculations say is impossible: backwards time travel.

I’ve been working the problem, playing with expanded bubbles of space-time, but time doesn’t actually go backward inside of them. Space-time expansion fields make time move faster for anyone (or anything) inside of them. The applications of that are actually extremely interesting with respect to space propulsion systems such as the Alcubierre warp drives created by my newest business acquisitions—Ad Astra and its parent company Future Travels. There’s also the potential to use space-time expansion fields to speed up processes which might otherwise take a very long time, such as evolution.

But expansion fields are a bust when it comes to time-travel for live subjects. Time seems to pass normally for people inside of the fields, but relative to what’s happening outside, it’s moving at a lightning pace. Essentially, that looks like this: a month ago I took a hundred pounds of supplies into a Space-Time Expansion Device, or STED for short, and spent an extremely boring week going crazy inside of it. All I had to show for that ordeal was an empty pack, a lot of dirty laundry, an urgent need for a shower, and a very full septic system inside of the probe. Meanwhile, Ana was standing outside, looking fresh as a daisy and having scarcely blinked in the time she spent waiting for me to come back out.

A useless experiment. In order to make time run backwards, it turns out you actually need space-time compression fields, but the compression field would need to have a negative density, which means it would require exotic energy to power it.

So, Theodore reaching out to me across time and space is impossible. Not just because he’s dead, but because backwards time travel is impossible. Unless...

Unless the rules are different for him wherever he is. That theory led me to my latest project: the STCD Mark VII dash four. The other three identical probes are all missing, but this one has already made a dozen successful test flights, and it’s ready and waiting for me in the bunker below the mansion.

That’s why I’m up at dawn, because I’m just about to take the first manned test flight to see if I’m right about what happened to the other three probes. Ana forbid me from using the Mark VII after the previous iteration of the Mark VII disappeared with a monkey inside and never came back. But I can’t just stop here and pretend like I don’t know what’s really going on. I have to know where the probes are going, to see it and prove it for my sake and everyone else’s.

*     *     *

Down in the bunker, I use my glasses to fire up the probe on a countdown. Five minutes to launch. The timer starts ticking down steadily at the bottom of my glasses. Yanking my survival pack off the floor, I hurry up the ramp to the entrance of the probe, crack the door open, then shut and lock it behind me.

The inside of the probe is small. There’s only one seat, a blast-shielded window in front of it, and barely enough leg room for me to sit or stand comfortably inside that egg-shaped capsule. I drop my pack into a webbed compartment beside my seat, then sit down and strap in with a three point safety harness. The countdown hits twenty seconds.

I sit patiently watching the numbers scroll backward on my glasses. I have to work to control my racing pulse with a breathing exercise. Maybe I’m crazy for doing this. The only probes using this technology that have ever returned are the ones that I sent unmanned, without any cameras running, or live subjects inside.

So how do I know this is safe? I don’t, but it shouldn’t matter whether there’s an observer inside the probe or not. The result should be the same regardless of the contents of the probe. And yet, there’s the double-slit experiment. The observer effect. Schrödinger's cat.

My cat was a monkey, and the only way to find out where that damn monkey went is to hop in one of these probes and see for myself.

I have a theory, of course, but it’s both exciting and profoundly disturbing. And if I’m right, I might not be coming back either. In which case, my will is clear: Ana and Olivia get everything, even if they can’t prove that I’m dead. In the event that I should disappear mysteriously, they’ll get everything just six months after said disappearance.

I feel torn about leaving them, but I’ve written a letter to explain, telling them where I’m about to end up. It’s not that I don’t love them, it’s that I can’t live with these suspicions or my grief any longer. I think I know where Theodore is, and my parents, and Carl... even Alex. I’m about to see what’s on the other side, to find everyone who has ever died since the beginning of time.

And knowing that, I can’t just shelve this project and go play house with the love of my life, no matter how much I might love her and her daughter.

I don’t think that’s something I’ll ever be able to adequately explain to Ana, but I did try with that letter I left behind. I hope it will give her closure, and a sense of peace, knowing that I’m not actually gone or dead as she might fear.

The countdown hits ten seconds and I count backward with it, waiting for the transition. I’m not sure what to expect. The monkey didn’t come back, so I don’t know if it survived.

The countdown hits one second. Then zero. A loud pop sounds inside of the probe and flash of light blinds me through the window in front of my seat. And then...

My vision clears, and I’m looking out that window into utter darkness. The inside of the probe is cloaked in the same darkness. The lights inside of it having failed. My breathing is rapid and shallow, echoing back to my ears as if I’m in a much smaller space than I was a moment ago. I try to move, but I’m paralyzed.

A voice comes booming and echoing to my ears.

“You need to go back, Byron,” a familiar voice says.

I recognize it a split second later. “Theo is that you?” I ask. It sounds like I’m speaking into a tin can.

“Yes.”

“Go back where?”

“To where you came from.”

“But...” I’m struggling to see out of the window in front of me. I still can’t move. “Why can’t I move!” I scream, struggling against invisible bonds.

“Byron, listen to me. It took a lot of convincing to get them to send you back. Promise me you will never try this again. It’s not your time yet.”

I’m mentally shaking my head. My actual head is frozen in place. “Theo... you’re scaring me. Who are they?

“The only way you’ll get any answers is if you stay, and if you do that, you’ll regret it. Ana and Olivia need you, and you deserve to have a real life. Don’t worry about me. I’m happy here, and I wouldn’t go back even if I could. Now, do you promise not to try this again?”

“I...”

“Byron, either you agree to this, or you’ll have to stay.”

That doesn’t sound good to me. Stay here, paralyzed in this yawning darkness? “Okay, okay I promise!”

“Good. Are you ready?”

“Wait! Just one more question! Am I right?”

“I can’t tell you that.”

“That sounds like a yes to me.” My mind is racing, my heart pounding. At least I can feel that much. “Then answer me this. Are my parents here with you?”

“Yes.” I can hear Theodore smiling, even if I can’t see it.

Swallowing thickly, I let that knowledge comfort me for a second, but it doesn’t last. There’s something else that I need to know. “Theodore. Did I die? Is this hell?”

“You did die, but death is not the end, and no, this isn’t hell. It’s not all dark and empty, either. It’s like nothing you could ever imagine and everything you could ever want, but you’ll have to take my word for it. Now, I’m afraid you have to leave. I’ve said too much already.”

Something is happening. My mind is slipping away, drifting free in this dark abyss.

Then there’s a dazzling flash of light, and suddenly I’m back, sitting inside the probe, slumped against my harness. I come to with a gasp and lift my head.

There’s someone banging on the door of the probe. Muffled voices outside. Then the banging turns to a crackling hiss, and I see a molten orange line racing around the seam between the door of the probe and its frame. The door is ripped away a few seconds later, and I hear it booming on the concrete floor outside.

“Byron!” Ana screams. She races in just as I’m un-clipping my harness and rising unsteadily to my feet.

She stops short when she sees me, anger and concern warring for control of her features.

“You idiot! I told you not to use the probe!”

I have no words. I just stumble into her arms, grateful that I can finally move my body again, but my muscles are too weak to hold me up. Ana staggers backward with my weight.

“I’m sorry,” I whisper in her ear. “I had to know.” I manage to stand on my own, my legs weak and shaking. I withdraw to look her in the eyes.

Her gaze is hard and angry. She crosses her arms over her chest. “And? What did you see?”

I shake my head. “Nothing. I didn’t see anything. But... I heard Theodore. He...” I don’t know where to start with explaining what he said to me, or what I experienced inside the probe, so I just shake my head.

Ana doesn’t look impressed.

I crack a shaky smile. “Did I wake you?”

Confusion furrows her brow. “Byron, it’s five PM. We spent the whole day looking for you!”

“That’s... are you sure?” I’m already checking the time on my glasses. She’s right.

“Yes, I’m sure!”

“Strange. The unmanned tests didn’t reveal any time dilation effects. It felt like I was only gone for a few seconds.”

“Well, you weren’t. What happened in here? What did Theodore say?”

“He told me that I died.”

Ana’s eyes fly wide and she spends a few seconds looking me over, checking for any obvious signs of injury. “Maybe you did. Remember the monkey?”

I shake my head. “That probe vanished and never came back. This one did. Theodore said he had to convince them to send me back.”

Ana’s expression grows wary. “Them? Who’s them?”

“I don’t know. I asked the same thing, but he said he couldn’t tell me anything unless I stayed, and that it isn’t my time yet.”

Ana glares at me. I don’t know what else to say, or how to apologize for this. “I’m never going to do it again. Theodore made me promise.”

Her expression softens with that, and she blows out a breath, the anger leaving her in a rush. She falls into me and encircles my chest in a squeezing hug.

“I thought I’d lost you,” she breathes against my shirt. I can hear the catch in her throat, feel the tears soaking through.

“Hey, hey. It’s okay. I’m okay.” I lift her chin to look her in the eye. Hers are full of tears, wet streaks staining her cheeks.

She shakes her head and cracks a broken smile. “I need you. We need you.”

I nod at that. “I know. Olivia deserves to have a father. I’m going to be that for her. I promise.”

“Not just Olivia.” Ana withdraws a step and places both hands over her belly and smiles. “Merry Christmas.”

It takes me a second to get it, but then my jaw drops, and I’m blinking in shock. I mentally kick myself for taking such a big risk with my life, for running the risk that I might leave Ana and Olivia and this unborn baby alone. My baby.

“When did you find out?”

“Nine weeks ago. It’s a girl.”

I’m grinning like an idiot. “And you kept that from me all this time?”

Ana cracks a smile. “It wasn’t easy.”

“Mom?” Hurried footfalls sound, drawing our eyes to the entrance of the probe. Olivia pops her head in, looking scared. Then she sees me and she darts inside and crushes me in a hug. “You’re okay!”

“Yeah. I’m okay, kiddo.”

“I thought you left us,” Olivia says, her voice muffled against my stomach.”

I rest a reassuring hand on her head. My eyes feel hot and swollen. This time I don’t fight it. Blinking sends fiery rivulets down my cheeks, but they’re happy tears.

“Does she know?” I whisper to Ana.

She shakes her head. “I wanted you to be the first.”

“Know what?” Olivia asks, looking up at me. She turns to defer that question to her mother.

“That you’re going to have a sister,” Ana says.

“No way!”

“Yes way,” Ana replies.

Olivia is grinning now, too. I pull the two of them into a group hug, enjoying this moment of bliss. Then, almost as an afterthought, I glance up at the ceiling of the probe and whisper my thanks to Theodore.

Now I know why he had them send me back. He knew that Ana was pregnant, and he knew what I would miss if I had stayed. And what my family would miss. My daughters deserve to have a father, and Ana deserves a husband. I guess it’s finally time to pop that question.

And so I do. Bringing my gaze back down, I find her already staring at me. “Adriana Rivera Vargas, would you marry me and make me the happiest man in the world?”

Her eyes well up with tears, and I kiss her before she can say anything.

“Yes!” she says against my lips, laughing and crying at the same time as she showers me with kisses.

“Eww!” Olivia complains, pushing away from us. “Guys!”

And then all three of us are laughing as we turn and exit the probe together. It’s time to go live that life Theodore was talking about.


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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Jasper Scott is the USA Today best-selling author of more than 20 sci-fi novels with 16,000+ total reviews on Amazon and an average rating of 4.4/5.0 stars.

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Jasper writes fast-paced stories with unexpected twists and flawed characters. His latest project is a series of unrelated standalone sci-fi novels; no sequels and no cliffhangers. Previous works include four other best-selling series, among others, his breakout success--Dark Space, a 9-book-long, USA Today bestselling epic with more than 12,000 reviews on Amazon.

Jasper was born and raised in Canada by South African parents, with a British cultural heritage on his mother's side and German on his father's, to which he has added Latin culture with his wonderful wife. He now lives in an exotic locale with his wife, their two kids, and two Chihuahuas.



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