It could end at any time.
Chris Carmody rolled into a zone of warmth in an unfamiliar bed: a depression in the cotton sheets where someone had lately been. Someone: her name was elusive, still lost in layers of sleep. But he craved the warmth of her recent presence, the author of this lingering heat. He pictured a face, benevolent and smiling and a little bit walleyed. He wondered where she had gone.
It had been a while since he had shared anyone’s bed. Strange how what he relished, as much as anything, was the heat she left behind. This space he entered in her absence.
It could end at any time. Had he dreamed the words? No. He had written them in his notebook three weeks ago, transcribing a comment from a grad student he had met in the cafeteria at Crossbank half a continent away. We’re doing amazing work, and there’s a kind of rush, knowing it could end at any time…
Reluctantly, he opened his eyes. Across this small bedroom, the woman with whom he had slept was wrangling herself into a pair of pantyhose. She caught his glance and smiled cautiously. “Hey, baby,” she said. “Not to rush you, but didn’t you say you had an appointment somewhere?”
Memory caught up with him. Her name was Lacy. No surname offered. She was a waitress at the local Denny’s. Her hair was red and long in the current style and she was at least ten years younger than Chris. She had read his book. Or claimed to have read it. Or at least to have heard of it. She suffered from a lazy eye, which gave her a look of constant abstraction. While he blinked away sleep, she shrugged a sleeveless dress over freckled shoulders.
Lacy wasn’t much of a housekeeper. He noted a scattering of dead flies on the sunny windowsill. The makeup mirror on the side table, where, the night before, she had razored out skinny, precise lines of cocaine. A fifty-dollar bill lay on the carpet beside the bed, rolled so tightly it resembled a budding palm leaf or some bizarre stick-insect, a rust spot of dried blood on one end.
It was early fall, still warm in Constance, Minnesota. Balmy air turned gauzy curtains. Chris relished the sense of being in a place he had never been and to which he would in all likelihood never return.
“You’re actually going to the Lake today, huh?”
He reclaimed his watch from a stack of the print edition of People on the nightstand. He had an hour to make his connection. “Actually going there.” He wondered how much he had said to this woman last night.
“You want breakfast?”
“I don’t think I have time.”
She seemed relieved. “That’s okay. It was really exciting meeting you. I know lots of people who work at the Lake but they’re mostly support staff or retail. I never met anybody who was in on the big stuff.”
“I’m not in on the big stuff. I’m just a journalist.”
“Don’t undersell yourself.”
“I had a good time too.”
“You’re sweet,” she said. “You want to shower? I’m done in the bathroom.”
The water pressure was feeble and he spotted a dead cockroach in the soap dish, but the shower gave him time to adjust his expectations. To ramp up whatever was left of his professional pride. He borrowed one of her pink disposable leg razors and shaved the ghostly image of himself in the bathroom mirror. He was dressed and at the door by the time she was settling down to her own breakfast, eggs and juice in the apartment’s tiny kitchenette. She worked evenings; mornings and afternoons were her downtime. A tiny video panel on the kitchen table played an interminable daytime drama at half-volume. Lacy stood and hugged him. Her head came up as far as his breastbone. In the gentle embrace there was an acknowledgment that they meant essentially nothing to each other, nothing more than an evening’s whim recklessly indulged.
“Let me know how it goes,” she said. “If you’re back this way.”
He promised politely. But he wouldn’t be back this way.
* * *
He reclaimed his luggage from the Marriott, where Visions East had thoughtfully but needlessly booked him a room, and caught up to Elaine Coster and Sebastian Vogel in the lobby.
“You’re late,” Elaine told him.
He checked his watch. “Not by much.”
“Would it kill you to be punctual once in a while?”
“Punctuality is the thief of time, Elaine.”
“Who said that?”
“Oh, there’s a great role model for you.”
Elaine was forty-nine years old and immaculate in her safari clothes, a digital imager clipped to her breast pocket and a notebook microphone dangling from the left arm of her zirconium-encrusted sunglasses like a stray hair. Her expression was stern. Elaine was a working science journalist almost twenty years Chris’s elder, highly respected in a field where he himself was lately regarded with a certain disdain. He liked Elaine, and her work was top-notch, and so he forgave her tendency to address him the way a grade-school teacher might address the kid who planted the whoopee cushion.
Sebastian Vogel, the third member of the Visions East expeditionary force, stood silently a few feet away. Sebastian wasn’t really a journalist at all; he was a retired professor of theology from Wesleyan University who had written one of those books that becomes an inexplicable bestseller—God & the Quantum Vacuum, it was called, and it was that ampersand in place of the conventional “and,” Chris suspected, that had made it acceptably fashionable, fashionably elliptical. The magazine had wanted a spiritual take on the New Astronomy, to complement Elaine’s rigorous science and Chris’s so-called “human angle.” But Sebastian, who might be brilliant, was also terminally soft-spoken. He wore a beard that obscured his mouth, which Chris took as emblematic: the words that found their way out were sparse and generally difficult to interpret.
“The van,” Elaine said, “has been waiting ten minutes.”
The van from Blind Lake, she meant, with a young DoE functionary at the wheel, one elbow out the open window and a restless expression on his face. Chris nodded and tossed his luggage in back and took a seat behind Elaine and Sebastian.
It was past one in the afternoon, but he felt a wave of exhaustion sweep over him. Something to do with the September sunlight. Or last night’s excesses. (The coke, although he had paid for it, had been Lacy’s idea, not his. He had shared a couple of lines for the sake of companionability—more than enough to keep him buzzed nearly until dawn.) He closed his eyes briefly but refused himself the indulgence of sleep. He wanted a glimpse of Constance by daylight. They had come in late yesterday and all he had seen of the town was the Denny’s, and later a bar where the local band played requests, and then the inside of Lacy’s apartment.
The town had done its best to reinvent itself as a tourist attraction. As famous as the Blind Lake campus had become, it was closed to casual visitors. The curious had to make do with this old grain-silo and rail-yard hamlet, Constance, which served as a staging base for Blind Lake’s civilian day employees, and where the new Marriott and the newer Hilton occasionally hosted scientific congresses or press conferences.
The main street had played up to the Blind Lake theme with more gusto than taste. The two-story brick commercial buildings appeared to date from the middle of the last century, yellow brick pressed from local river-bottom clay, and they might have been attractive if not for the wave of hucksterism that had overtaken them. The “lobster” theme was everywhere, inevitably. Lobster plush toys, holographic lobster window displays, lobster posters, lobster cocktail napkins, ceramic garden labsters…
Elaine followed his gaze and guessed his thought. “You should have had dinner at the Mariott,” she said. “Lobster fucking bisque.”
He shrugged. “It’s only people trying to make a buck, support their families.”
“Cashing in on ignorance. I really don’t get this whole lobster thing. They don’t look anything at all like lobsters. They don’t have an exoskeleton and God knows they don’t have an ocean to swim around in.”
“People have to call them something.”
“People may have to call them something, but do they have to paint them onto neckties?”
The Blind Lake work had been massively vulgarized, undeniably so. But what bothered Elaine, Chris believed, was the suspicion that somewhere among the nearer stars some reciprocal act might be taking place. Plastic caricatures of human beings lolling behind glazed windows under an alien sun. Her own face, perhaps, imprinted on a souvenir mug from which unimaginable creatures sipped mysterious liquids.
The van was a dusty blue electric vehicle that had been sent from Blind Lake. The driver didn’t seem to want to talk but might be listening, Chris thought, trying to feel out their “positions”—the public relations office doing a little undercover work. Conversation was awkward, therefore. They rolled out of town along the interstate and turned off onto a two-lane road in silence. Already, despite the lack of obvious markers beyond the PRIVATE ROAD—U.S. GOVERNMENT PROPERTY and DEPARTMENT OF ENERGY signs, they were in privileged territory. Any unregistered vehicle would have been stopped at the first (hidden) quarter-mile checkpoint. The road was under constant surveillance, visual and electronic. He recalled something Lacy had said: at the Lake, even the prairie dogs carry passes.
Chris turned his head to the window and watched the landscape scroll past. Dormant farmland gave way to open grassland and rolling meadows sprinkled with wildflowers. Dry country, but not desert. Last night a storm had rumbled through town while Chris sheltered with Lacy in her apartment. Rain had swept the streets clean of oil, filled the storm drains with soggy newsprint and rotting weeds, provoked a late blush of color from the prairie.
A couple of years ago lightning had ignited a brush fire that came within a quarter mile of Blind Lake. Firefighters had been shipped in from Montana, Idaho, Alberta. It had all looked very photogenic on the news feeds—and it emphasized the fragility of the fledgling New Astronomy—but the risk to the facility had never been great. It was just another case, the scientists at Crossbank had grumbled, of Blind Lake grabbing the headlines. Blind Lake was Crossbank’s glamorous younger sister, prone to fits of vanity, hypnotized by the paparazzi…
But any evidence of the fire had been erased by two summers and two winters. By wild grass and wild nettles and those little blue flowers Chris couldn’t name. By nature’s enviable talent for forgetting.
* * *
They had started at Crossbank because Crossbank should have been easier.
The Crossbank installation was focused on a biologically active world circling HR8832—second planet from that sun, depending on how you tallied up the ring of planetesimals circling half an AU inward toward the star. The planet was an iron-cored, rocky body with 1.4 times the mass of the Earth and an atmosphere relatively rich in oxygen and nitrogen. Both poles were frigid agglutinations of water ice at temperatures occasionally cold enough to freeze out CO2, but the equatorial regions were warm, shallow seas over continental plates and rich with life.
That life was simply not glamorous. It was multicellular but purely photosynthetic; evolution on HR8832/B seemed to have neglected to invent the mitochondria necessary for animal life. Which is not to say that the landscape was not often spectacular, particularly the huge stromatolite-like colonies of photosynthetic bacteria that rose, often two or three stories tall, from the green sea-surface mats; or the fivefold symmetry of the so-called coral stars, anchored to the sea-beds and floating half-immersed in open water.
It was an exquisitely beautiful world and it had captured a great deal of public attention back when Crossbank was the only installation of its kind. The equatorial seas yielded stunning sunsets every 47.4 terrestrial hours on average, often with stratocumulus clouds billowing far higher than any on Earth, cloud-castles extracted from a Victorian bicycle ad. Time-adjusted twenty-four-hour video loops of the equatorial sea-scape had been popular as faux windows for a few years.
A beautiful world, and it had yielded a host of insights into planetary and biological evolution. It continued to produce extraordinarily useful data. But it was static. Nothing much moved on the second world of HR8832. Only the wind, the water, and the rain.
Eventually it had been labeled “the planet where nothing happens,” a phrase coined by a Chicago Tribune columnist who considered the whole New Astronomy just one more federally funded font of gaudy but useless knowledge. Crossbank had learned to be wary of journalists. Visions East had negotiated at length to get Chris, Elaine, and Sebastian inside for a week. There had been no guarantee of cooperation, and it was probably only Elaine’s rep as a solid science journalist that had finally sold the public relations staff. (Or Chris’s reputation, perhaps, that had made them so difficult to convince.)
But the Crossbank visit had been generally successful. Both Elaine and Sebastian claimed to have done good work there.
For Chris it had been a little more problematic. The head of the Observation and Interpretation Department had flatly refused to speak to him. His best quote had come from the kid in the cafeteria. It could end at any time. And even the kid in the cafeteria had finally leaned forward to eyeball Chris’s name badge and said, “You’re the guy who wrote that book?”
Chris had confessed that he was, yes, the guy who wrote that book.
And the kid had nodded once and stood up and carried his half-eaten lunch to the recycling rack without saying another word.
* * *
Two surveillance aircraft passed overhead during the next ten minutes, and the van’s dashboard all-pass transponder began to blinking spastically. They had crossed any number of checkpoints already, well before they reached the steel and accordion-wire fence that snaked into the prairie in both directions, the steel and cinderblock guardhouse from which a uniformed officer stepped to wave them to a stop.
The guard examined the driver’s ID and then Elaine’s and Sebastian Vogel’s, finally Chris’s. He spoke into his personal microphone briefly, then supplied the three journalists with clip-on badges. At last he waved them through.
And they were inside. As simple as that, barring the weeks of negotiation between the magazine and the Department of Energy.
So far it was just one stretch of rolling wild grass separated from another by chain-link fence and barbed wire. But the entry was more than figurative; it carried, at least for Chris, a genuine sense of ceremony. This was Blind Lake.
This was practically another planet.
He looked back as the van gathered speed and saw the gate glide shut with what he would remember, much later, as a terrible finality.
Copyright © 2003 by Robert Charles Wilson