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New York City—East Forty-second Street and Park Avenue
Nimi Olsen made the mistake of trying to cross Forty-second half a block before the intersection and missed the light. She was now stranded on the spine of frozen slush that snaked down the middle of the street, freezing her ass off. Cars snapped by with homicidal vigor, and every few seconds a mirror brushed her hip.
Traffic was unusually aggressive—everyone was fed up, miserable, and ready to light shit on fire just to get a little heat going. It had been below zero for two weeks now, the biggest freeze in more than a century. Half the news stations were reporting this as climate change in real time and a warning that humankind was headed for an extinction event; the other half were claiming the deep freeze proof positive that global warming was a Chicken Little conspiracy dreamed up by Tesla-driving kale munchers who wanted to burn the Constitution. The only thing everyone actually agreed upon was that it was cold.
Balancing in the middle of the road, playing matador with angry cars, was a position every New Yorker experienced at one time or another. It was also a possible path to the obituary section. Nimi had grown up here, always thinking that other people got killed by cars; each year, more than fifteen thousand pedestrians on the island got a taste of hood ornament followed by a ride in an ambulance. And even though only a couple of hundred succumbed to their wounds, it was not an exercise she wanted to take from the theoretical to the practical.
Nimi scouted both directions, looking for a break in the herd of cars stampeding by. She was five minutes into her balancing act and needed to put a little sidewalk under her boots.
Then, almost magically, the choreography of traffic changed and a black sedan coming down Forty-second slowed just as it cleared the Park viaduct. The driver waved her across. She lifted a foot and stepped into the void.
Nimi smiled as she stepped in front of his grille. Gave him a wave and mouthed, Thank you.
She made eye contact, and everything was fine. And then, somehow, it wasn’t.
The car window disintegrated, and the driver’s head disappeared—it was there, and then it was gone. And for a brief pinch of time, the clock stopped doing what it was supposed to, and everything ceased moving.
Then the sound of the shot thundered in.
Nimi began a scream.
The car—now driverless—surged forward.
In what could be written off as fast thinking but in clinical terms would be called instinct, Nimi began to run.
If it hadn’t been so slippery, she might have had better traction.
If she’d had longer legs, she might have made it to the sidewalk.
If she had been a bigger girl, her bones and flesh might have protected her internal organs.
If it had been another day, she might have lived.
“So”—Dr. Lucas Page looked up a final time at the computer-generated cosmos blinking down from the ceiling—“if human reality is, in fact, nothing more than a highly specialized simulation, is it truly possible to decode our universe? And if it is, what would be the point?” With that, the time-lapse special effect generated by a million dollars’ worth of optics faded and the recessed lighting of the auditorium cycled back up.
Page stepped away from the podium, gave a final nod to the class, and wished the students a prosperous Christmas break unfettered by contemplation or purpose. The hillside of undergrads rose in unison, clapping and cheering.
It was during the awkward post-lecture phase where the students were either still clapping or stuffing laptops into backpacks that Page slipped down the stairs and through the curtains. The adulation of his students was not a reciprocal relationship, and he avoided mingling with them, sometimes to comic lengths. He had absolutely no idea how to respond to I really enjoyed your course, Dr. Page, and I hope you have a really nice Christmas vacation. And it wasn’t a skill he was interested in acquiring.
The incurious herds they fed through his auditorium were beginning to border on depressing. They all came preloaded with the belief that they were special, but very few had developed even basic critical-thinking skills. More and more, they asked questions that weren’t really questions at all.
Out in the hall, he headed for the stairs. He wanted to get out early; there was a Christmas tree somewhere out there with his name on it.
Page climbed the stairs with the specialized mechanical gait it had taken years of rebuilds and adjustments to his prosthetic to get just right. He was now able to take the steps two at a time going up, no small feat for a man the surgeons said would need a walker for the rest of his life, and he completed the three flights almost as quickly as the old days.
With every step, the auditorium slipped further from his focus, a process he was consciously aware of. It wasn’t that he didn’t enjoy teaching this particular course—he detested it. Not that there weren’t some bright kids on the roster—there were a few. But it was tedious weeding out the brains from the shitheads, and there were way too many of one and not nearly enough of the other.
His course, Simulation Theory and the Cosmos, had become the largest draw in the department, which was some kind of magic considering that Page had thought it up one night after too many drinks and not enough self-control in a sarcastic nod to the endless academic jack-offery that were the bearing walls of the other departments. It was a spoof—you had to be an idiot to miss it—but he left the single-paragraph outline on his desk, and the dean had picked it up during one of her rare visits. When she started yammering on about its merits, he didn’t have the heart to tell her it had been a joke. So he now taught a course he thought was complete and absolute horseshit to a bunch of kids who wouldn’t know the difference between a scientific theory and a conspiracy theory under an administration that couldn’t differentiate sarcasm from earnestness. Things were swell.
The third floor was the academic equivalent of the 1914 Christmas truce: undergraduates, TAs, and faculty were doing their best to act like friends, if only for the night. Bottles of imported beer and cheap champagne were being consumed as they tried to look involved in their conversations while waiting for more interesting messages to light up their smartphones.
He slipped by a handful of hellos, three offers of beer, two of wine, one of champagne (Perrier-Jouët Grand Brut, no less), and one slap on the back. He opened the door, expecting to find Debbie grading papers to CNN.
She wiped out the question mark hanging in his thoughts by jabbing an arm at him, a stack of phone messages folded into her fingers. She didn’t look up, but she acknowledged him with, “You had sixty-one calls.” Then she nodded at her computer. “And a shitload of email.”
The console beside her desk was stacked with wrapped Christmas gifts that experience taught him would be alcohol in various permutations—the university equivalent of apples for the teacher.
“Any drop-ins?” he asked.
Screening visitors—mostly of the whiny student variety—was the main reason Debbie was here. She was working on a Ph.D. in deep-space astronomy, a distinction she offset with very clear—and proudly worn—Asperger’s. And it was her uncertainty with nonverbal cognitive cues that made her the ideal assistant; she was not susceptible to any of the weaponized histrionics the students liked to use. “Twenty-six. The only one you’ll want to call back would be the Haagstrom kid. His father died.”
Page stopped flipping through the pile of messages. “Email him and give him a two-week extension. Tell him to call me if he needs anything. Give him my cell number.”
Debbie looked up, her face etched with surprise.
“It’s his father, for Chrissake,” he said. “And it’s Christmas.”
“I understand. I’m just surprised you do.”
Lucas nodded over at the Tetris-stacked console of Christmas cheer. “Can you take care of thank-you cards for those?”
Debbie waved it away. “Already done except for two—your publisher and your literary agent. Your agent sent a decent scotch and your publisher went big with a magnum of champagne.”
“Send the champagne to the dean with a note to have a merry Christmas.”
“It’s a thousand-dollar bottle of Bollinger.”
“So add the word very to the note.” He tried out a smile. “And take the rest home.”
The video in the corner of Debbie’s computer screen switched stories, and Page automatically shifted focus for an instant. As the chyron started its sales pitch, Page’s chest lit up with a bolt of adrenaline. “Turn up the volume.” He was pretty certain that he had sounded calm.
She hit the SPEAKER button on her keyboard.
The sallow face of the ersatz journalist looked into the camera as emergency lights flashed in the background. The text on the chyron ticking across the bottom of the screen was laced together with the clumsy, noncommittal vagaries of modern American journalism, but the yammering heads seemed to be certain of one fact: a sniper had shot someone.
Page might have let it go if a figure surrounded by FBI parkas hadn’t caught his attention. There was no mistaking the walk. Or the tailored overcoat.
“Aren’t those the people you used to work for?” Debbie asked without looking up from the monitor.
“No,” he lied.
Copyright © 2019 by Robert Pobi