Aubrey sits on a steel folding chair two-hundred seventy five feet below the ground floor of the headquarters of the National Reconnaissance Office in Langley, Virginia. He knows exactly where he is in space and time.
The cobalt-beryllium door to the room is locked with twelve, five-inch thick chrome-molybdenum bolts that radiate symmetrically from a central wheel actuating on torque generated by three C-130 prop pitch control motors. The walls are steel reinforced concrete impregnated with kevlar fibers. The room is illuminated via sixteen two-foot thick quartz glass light pipes fed by a xenon source as bright as the surface of the sun. One could detonate a two-thousand pound pave-paw laser guided weapon inside the room and someone walking past in the hallway would barely notice.
"Someone thinks piling matter around me will keep me here," Aubrey says to his interrogator.
"Won't it?" says the man who looks to Aubrey like the guy who sold him his pickup truck.
"A baby's sneeze wind is the same as depleted uranium. It's just stuff. When you can move in four dimensions, what you need to hold you is not thicker walls--you need to put something interesting on television for a change. Don't you know how boring reality shows are?"
The man wears a pair of ivory dockers Aubrey knows he bought at Wal Mart two weeks ago. The wool in his black cable-knit sweater was woven on a loom built by a worker in a factory in Montevideo who had come down with leukemia and would die within a year.
The man in the dockers had spent three years in a divinity school studying to become a minister. He lost his faith when his wife and children were killed in an accident on the beltway. He had been named after his father, as his son had. He's never told Aubrey his name, but Aubrey knows it because when he realized the man wasn't going to introduce himself, he had gone to his parents the moment they made the decision.
"Paul, isn't there something you want to ask me?" Aubrey says.
"How do you go through walls? The things we could do with that technology... Of all the world powers--"
Aubrey sighs and folds his arms. He knows that at that moment, a psychologist watching the proceedings is informing a high ranking official of the CIA named Stanley that Aubrey is displaying signs of annoyance driven by insecurity.
Aubrey says, "Paul, I've told you. I don't go through walls. I'm made of the same stuff as all of this around us. I'm made of the same stuff as you. I can't get through this stuff." He stamps his feet on the floor to make a point and winds up looking like a preschooler throwing a tantrum.
"If I could go through physical matter, I wouldn't be able to sit on this chair. I'd fall through to the center of the earth."
"Then how do you do it?"
"I don't do it. She does it for me. She's outside our light cone--" Aubrey says.
Paul interrupts, "You're outside of her light cone. I know I know. Please. We need something more definite. " He rubs his hand on the back of his neck. He's tired.
"How come your machine doesn't work for anyone else?"
"I don't know," Aubrey says, trying to look ominous. Deep inside he knows he's only been a pool man in this world, which is not so impressive to someone with a PhD in both in theoretical physics and international politics. " Why don't you ask me what you really want to ask me?"
"You can read my mind. Why don't you tell me?" Paul says, sharp, pointed, angry.
"Nobody can read anyone else's mind."
"You read the woman's. She reads yours."
"Because we're the same mind. How is Olivia?"
"We don't know where she is. Where is she?"
Aubrey shrugs. Raises his palms. "Why would I ask you if--"
Paul cuts him off. Grabs his arm. Pulls Aubrey to his feet.
"A lot of us are very, very upset right now," Paul says, practically hissing. "You'd better start giving me some answers."
"Or?" Aubrey shakes his arm free. "Look at this place, Paul. Look at this room. Look at me. Look at you. Just look at what you're doing."
Aubrey sits in his chair, and Paul sits in one opposite him. He wants to make Paul understand what he sees, but he can't.
"It's like trying to explain space flight to a fish," Aubrey says. "I can see certain things because part of me, part of what's connected to me is in a different place and time. Just like you know your foot's cold even though it's on the ground a couple of feet below your head. Somewhere she's sitting in a room like this--well, sort of like this only they have different metal in the walls than we have here. And all I have to do is think to move her and she goes because their world is like imagination to me. Like moving your arm. She's threatening people in power. They want to know what you want to know and they don't believe in me. I'm a fiction. I can't exist, they're telling her that right now or a million years ago--I don't know which. She's been there all my life, but I never knew it. And somewhere, there's part of you. All you have to do is feel it once, and you'll never forget."
Paul stares at Aubrey, eyes glazed.
Aubrey says, "So ask me. I know there's a question in you. It's not because I'm a mind reader. It's because I'm a human being and if I was you talking to me, I'd want to know, too. First thing."
Paul swallows. The massive lock on the door rotates and the bolts detatch and echo with the sound of heavy steel dropping onto a basement floor.
Paul says, "Does he know how much I pray?" and a tear falls from the corner of his eye.
The door swings open and two armed men enter. They station themselves at the opening. A man in a suit motions for Paul to come out.
As Paul gets up, Aubrey tells him, "That's between you and him. Even for me, it's a matter of faith. I'm no closer than I ever was."
Paul turns and moves toward the door, resigned. He says, "He's all yours," to the man in the suit.
Aubrey shouts and gets Paul's attention. Aubrey says, "I won't be here when you come back. I won't be here two minutes from now. She'll save me."
"How?" Paul says, but Aubrey has already explained that.
He says, "And when she does, for a little while or maybe forever I'll be in a place where all this dissolves and everything becomes light. It's a place where all the warmth and thoughts and motion in the universe are one. It's like the beginning of everything. When I'm in that place Paul, when she's taking me from one spot in time to another, I become part of her and everything that ever was and would be. You know what that feels like?"
Paul can't answer.
"It feels like love."
While Aubrey replenishes the chlorine supply in the boss's pool, Olivia cleans the beetles and dead leaves out of the skimmer. It's a sunny, cloudless morning in Livermore. Warm dry air flows over the mountains turning windmills, bathing everything in springtime.
The boss looks up from his Hungarian newspaper. "You have a helper," he says to Aubrey when Olivia is out of earshot.
"We get done a lot faster. I can expand my route this way. I've got customers in Pleasanton now," says Aubrey.
"Come and sit with me for a minute," says the boss, and Aubrey settles onto a wrought iron deck chair.
The boss says, "They told me you stole a machine from the lab, is that true?"
Aubrey shakes his head. "Someone sent it to me. A long time ago. Before there was e-mail. It didn't get to me until a couple of weeks ago."
"Do you know what that machine does?"
"I know what happens when you turn it on..."
"No--we know what happens when YOU turn it on. Anybody else turning it on gets nothing."
Aubrey says what he knows because his soul knows it, not because he understands the words or the world that put them there. "Other people would have to make modifications. Small ones. Like the way different people differ in DNA by fractions of a percent. Then it would work for them."
"It worked for Olivia."
"If you had been there when I linked, you would have been sucked in, too. It's sort of a vortex."
Edward Teller looks over his swimming pool's rippling liquid surface as Olivia finishes her cleaning. She joins them.
The boss says, "So, what are you kids going to do now? What happens to the rest of us?"
Olivia says, "We're just two people, Dr. Teller. The only difference between us and other people is that we know there are parts of our souls that live in other dimensions and times. It's true for everyone. You just don't believe it."
"So you are both content to clean pools? Shouldn't you be working to rid the world of hunger? World peace?"
Aubrey and Olivia look at each other, and then laugh. Aubrey says, "We didn't think of that."
Information pours into Cheyenne mountain from satellites and ground-based radar installations hidden in forests and tundra. The data is eaten by supercomputers, processed, and turned into symbols and patterns humans can understand. Those patterns are displayed on the bank of flat-panel screens in front of Colonel Vernon Sanders.
Vernon has become habituated to Aubrey popping in beside him. Aubrey knows because the officer has stopped flinching when he swivels his seat to the right and sees Aubrey staring at the screens. And Vernon swivels to the right every time the computers put up triangles.
Aubrey points to a cluster of equalateral triangles superimposed on a satellite image of west Africa. He touches the screen and the image zooms onto Western Sahara. He touches it again and he sees where he has to go.
Aubrey closes his eyes and asks. When he opens them he's being sandblasted by a sirocco, his feet sinking into one of the sea of dunes around him.
A squad of heavily armed insurgents is dragging an olive drab crate into a concrete bunker hidden under the sand. He tries to memorize the markings on the crate before one of the mercenaries levels his kalashnikov and pulls the trigger.
He's back at CommOps in Cheyenne mountain in microseconds. Vernon, reaching for another raised doughnut, has no idea he'd left.
"It's a soviet warhead. From the decommissioned ICBM site at Kuransk."
"They're going to blow up the Moroccans?" Vernon asks. Then, "Can you defuse it?"
Aubrey tells him he can't. In the history of the device, it has never been left unguarded long enough for someone to get to it without authorization. Worse, when he looks at most probable futures, there are more outcomes where the desert is turned to glass than not.
"Can't you just blink it, or whatever it is you do?"
"I am not an episode of 'Bewitched'," says Aubrey.
Vernon mutters, "Coulda fooled me," but Aubrey ignores him.
Aubrey says, "I can go there. I can see it. And I can avoid their bullets. But when I'm there I'm just a person. Just like you. If I screw up and they shoot me or blow the thing up, I'm as gone as you are."
"Yeah, but then there's another universe where you're alive and it never happened, so..."
"But not this one," Aubrey says, grabbing a doughnut. "Have you ever seen children die of exposure because seven layers of skin have been burned away by a neutron flash? They can't help you when you have no skin and you know it. You die slow. One of these days I gotta bring you to Nagasaki, 1945. That would cure you of a whole lot of indifference."
"I presume the fact you're here right now, and not some other time is because we can fix this from here," Vernon says, casually sipping on a cup of perked Starbuck's coffee. His nonchalance bugs Aubrey. Sooner or later, someone else would have to do this job, if only because the world was beginning to piss him off so much he might just let it destroy itself.
"So how do we get outta this one, chief?" Vernon says when his doughnut is gone. He wipes his hands on a napkin emblazoned with the emblem of the NSA and tosses it into a red wastecan marked "BURN".
Aubrey finds another NSA napkin and writes some numbers on the back. He says, "There's no way out of this one that doesn't cause more problems down the road. Maybe if we're lucky, some of that free will will kick in out there and change the path they're on. In the meantime, you need to do a quick insert-extract. The Seals have a man named Wilczyinski. Send him and his team to these GPS coordinates. They're to leave a penguin egg and a spent .50 caliber machine gun casing there. Have them fire the shot toward the east. They have to be there by sundown tomorrow."
Vernon scribbles Aubrey's instructions on a secure notepad. He says, "Anything else?"
Aubrey writes an address below the GPS coordinates on the napkin. "By zero six-hundred zulu time you need to get a box containing a clean, working carburetor to a 1980 Jeep CJ7 and a video tape of the movie 'The Right Stuff' dubbed in Farsi to this address. Have whoever delivers the goods knock on the front door and say NASA sent them."
Vernon scribbles. "They should say it in Farsi?"
When Vernon's done scribbling: "Anything else?"
"Give me another one of those doughnuts."
Kamhir Fadul peers out an opening in the bunker, his rifle close, and barks an order to one of his expendible followers.
The young man grabs his rifle and heads off over the dunes toward the source of the shot. Someone is closing in.
Mohammed Salek is into the warhead up to his elbows, a manual at his side. Another young soldier holds a lamp on a cord over his head, illuminating the guts of the nuclear weapon.
Salek says, "It can't be true. Don't believe it," and yanks on a thick platinum cable he knows is worth more than the explosion this weapon can produce.
"My own son," says Fadul, shaking his head. "Can't you work any faster?"
"I told you I don't read Russian very well," Salek says, and Fadul reminds him the rest of them don't read it at all.
"Have patience. It's not going to do us any good if it explodes here," Salek reminds his captain.
"Patience?" says Fadul. "That was an American weapon. They've sent a CIA team to find us. If we don't move this thing soon, we're going to have to make our stand here, in the middle of nowhere."
The runner returns and tells Fadul there are no signs of the insertion team. When he shows him the penguin egg, Fadul screams.
"Get that thing out of here."
"What is it?"
"I don't know what it is--why are you bringing it in here? Take it back where you found it, fast."
Now the young man is nervous and Salek looks up from his work.
"Carefully," says Fadul. "Go. Now," and he starts gathering his supply belts. "This position is compromised. We must move now."
"But--I can't," Salek complains, and as he stands he bumps the young soldier, who drops the penguin egg into the russian warhead. The egg breaks, slathering the electronics in albumin and yolk.
There's a spark as the bomb's power supply shorts and a tiny explosion as the polonium trigger blows prematurely.
Fadul can't believe what he's seeing. He looks for a good word from Salek. Can it be fixed?
"I think the fail safe has been triggered. The initiator is gone."
"We can get another one," says Fadul. "Everyone ready. We're moving. You two, take the weapon," he says, pointing to two soldiers who try to lift the warhead and put it back into the crate.
Salek watches them, dumbfounded.
"Salek. Mohammed. What is it?" Fadul says.
"Leave it," Salek says. "The bomb safed itself against accidental detonation. It's useless without the initiator."
"We'll get another one."
"Get another warhead," says Salek. "The initiators are as difficult to obtain as the nuclear core."
Fadul is furious. If he didn't need the men to defend against the delta force's attack, he'd shoot a few of them to make his point.
Instead, they abandon the warhead and he leads them into the empty desert.
A young man stops his aging Jeep and hops out in a cloud of amber dust. He finds a seat between two Americans at a bistro in Tunis. He speaks in halting English. He prays to his god that nobody had fooled him--that the words he's speaking have the meaning he desires.
"I am here to become astronaut," he says, and watches their faces, ready to run. "Please take me Houston."
Aubrey wishes he'd gotten a hat with a wider brim like Carla has. His neck is getting sunburned.
Carla speaks French, but talks to the young Iranian in his native language. He relaxes. She hands him an envelope with a passport and a plane ticket.
The young man's face is bright, a smile nearly tears his face in half, his eyes tiny slits as he presses his palms together, thanks them, and runs off.
Carla says to Aubrey, "So Ferdowsi Fadul wants to be an astronaut more than a soldier. I bet his father isn't too happy with that."
"Dad was losing his will to fight, and with his bad back and his son circling overhead once every ninety minutes, we'll see him reitiring to a nice beach in Libya," Aubrey says, getting up. The sun is too much for him. He needs to find a place in the shade or go home to Livermore.
"Nobody needs a smart kid like that designing weapons delivery systems for the opium cartels. In four years he becomes the first Iranian astronaut in the international space station and we have a couple of good years of peace between people who fundamentally do not understand each other and have very little desire to do so."
Carla finishes her Tunisian coffee and gets up.
"You're good," she says to Aubrey. "I like working with you but you're very strange. Everything is so low-key around you. Nobody gets excited. Very calm. I like that. Where did they find you?"
"California," Aubrey says. "I have a small pool maintenance business in the bay area."
Carla tries to figure out if Aubrey is serious, and then laughs.
She looks into her bag to find a card with the address to her hotel, and when she looks up Aubrey is gone.
Part One: I didn't always have this cool job