Miguel came downhill through the ruins after midnight. Slow going; in the years since the fire, raspberry bushes, poplars and bushes had filled the lawns. Coydogs howling, not too near. He felt forward with his walking stick to keep from falling into cellar holes or the cracked remains of in-ground pools.
Before dawn, the GPS said he’d found his old backyard — he wouldn’t have recognized it. Across the valley, the milky borealis of city sky-glow behind the dark of the hill and, nearer, the unburnt side of town with lighted houses warm yellow like paper lanterns.
Growing up, this had never felt like home. Coming back had always been awkward as wrong-fitting clothes.
He risked a light, found the trunk of the tire-swing tree, cinderwood glinting like beetles. Below, the old patio’s charred pavers. He counted squares in a chess knight’s move, and levered the stone up with his walking stick. Pill-bugs scurried; ants evacuated their exposed gallery. A few inches under the dirt, the metal box still there, heavier than expected.
He unzipped the lid: pressure hiss and a smell like stale cooking oil and burnt circuits. 30 petabytes neural storage, a project the summer of his first college year, a big wobbly cube of shadow-colored jello full of archived teenaged e-mail, backups of favorite games, the complete Louvre in ultra-high resolution, all the Wikipedia entries in eight languages — two decades out of date now — everything he could think of to test the capacity.
He had a couple of wires in his pocket. He could sink them in the gel, sync them to the leads in his fingertips, load it complete to the Q-memory in the phone that ticked at his throat in time to his pulse. The summer was in there, whole days, weeks, of everything he’d heard and seen.
He dumped it onto the patio with a shlupp. The ants would take care of whatever the coydogs left.
On the bottom of the box, sealed in a baggie, a photo. Steve, Oscar, Lili, and — what was his name? — Des, all holding up his sister Ana, a pixie in oversize sunglasses and a rainbow-striped swimsuit. Ana before the war, the crash, the medals; a completely different Ana, with a completely different smile.
Miguel peeled the photo up, put it in his pocket, continued downhill.
Dana Yamamoto was the worst martial artist in school. When she first stepped on the mat, Mirabelle Hayes jeered, “Are you dead?”
Dana didn’t challenge her to a duel. She just blushed and hunched.
“She means you’ve got your gi on backwards,” Samantha MacKinnon said. “Left side over right. You put the right side over the left on a dead person.”
Nobody told her that at least one girl a year stepped on the mat dressed as a dead person.
She drove her sparring partners wild, the way her hands shook like the Mars lander.
The day she tore her gi pants for the sixth time, Hepplewater Sensei followed her into the dressing room. She settled across from Dana, who sat mending the gusset with Mars lander hands.
“Must be hard, being the daughter of a general,” said Sensei.
“She expects a great deal of you, I imagine.”
“And what do you want?”
Dana looked up.
“I w-want to be the best student in the school,” she blurted out. “And,” she added, shocking herself further, “I want to th-throw Mirabelle Hayes all the way across the mat.”
“Hurt her, you mean?” Sensei Hepplewater asked.
“No. Just throw her.”
Sensei nodded. Dana thought to herself, this is where Sensei decides to train me in secret, or gives me a magic black belt. Or sends me on a quest to a distant mountain, so I come back able to fight off six attackers and fly over the roofs. She waited.
“You can be the best student in the school, though what that means may change for you. And you can throw Hayes all the way across without hurting her. But you must do one thing.”
“What?” Dana’s hands shook even more than usual.
Hepplewater Sensei left the dressing room. Dana stitched and cried, and left an hour later. She lay awake all night thinking and crying, so that the next day she arrived so tired that she broke her wrist taking falls, and had to sit on the bench for three months.
“Do I have to watch class every day, Sensei?” she pleaded.
“Yes,” replied Hepplewater Sensei.
She sat and watched, every day. When she returned to the mat, she threw Samantha MacKinnon halfway across it.
“Your hands don’t shake anymore,” accused Mirabelle Hayes as she came in for the attack.
“Th-they don’t,” agreed Dana.
The way to the land leviathan half-submerged in sand was dry and empty. At dawn I dug a shallow trench and draped a cloth over the top to bury myself under. At dusk I cut succulents for their amassed water, gathered my gear, and marched on. Ahead the glowing eyes of the leviathan winked sleepily beneath the lamplight of the moon.
My heart panged slightly as the memory of a breeze rustled distant poppies, of the glorious waxing-moon colloquies on the probability of existence, the purpose of purpose, and the electability of those electing to use nonexistent words. Yet I could no longer lay with my hands pillowing my head and chew the stems of bittersweet clover, much as I longed to sense the heat of a companion’s elbow seeping into mine. The world swelled with too much.
As the hours waned into morning, details of the leviathan’s general features spread apart. It was no longer a lounging leviathan but a ramble of crumbling buildings left in ruin. When light pooled at the horizon, what had been eyebrows was an archway of tiny wedding bells weakly, brokenly tinkling their march. The leviathan’s eyes became nothing more than mundane dimension portals. The images portals drew me closer.
The scenes were vaguely familiar, changing each time as the eyelid of one screen slid into another: me as a child rolling all the way to the bottom of the screw, there the giant man I’d assembled crossed deserts and mountains in a few strides, another a bridge spanning the screws. One corner of my mouth drew up. I touched the portal screen to visit these alternate realities, but a tough if thin film separated me from penetrating the eye. It hardened further under my palm while I pondered the dwarf’s warning, the silliness of such dreams, and the water leaking from my eyes.
My eyes closed, and I dreamed of piecing together a giant to help me build bridges. The screen softened, and my hand slid through.
I miss hearing my name, but not Dr. Helfinger’s elbow in my ribs. “Astrid! Get up!” he hisses in my ear. I stand and smile and shuffle across the stage to the podium. Without looking I pull my index cards from my lab coat pocket and launch into the speech. One of Turner’s, some rousing claptrap about our eternal quest to push back the frontiers of science. Even as I give it, I hear not a word. I am too busy waiting for him.
They say every great thinker does his best work when he’s young and unrestricted by experience. And then in the next breath they say I am the exception that proves the rule. Sixty-five years of steady work has brought me much: twenty-odd doctoral degrees00 in as many disciplines and five noble prizes, as well as enough research funding to buy me a medium-sized country (say, France). Not to mention an army of graduate students eager to run it for me. They all look up to me. Well, all but one.
As I finish, a sonic boom overwhelms the applause and a sudden whiff of ozone fills my nose. I turn my head. There he is, striding towards me, the applause changing to thunderous cheers. A smile automatically comes to my face and our arms reach for each other. Professor Astrid and Captain Formidable. As of last year, Eugene Eng, my former student. My greatest gift to the world, my greatest failure.
We hug, and every hair on my body stands up.
He was one of a hundred faceless students I had on the Project. We had calculated the way to break into the Sidereal Plane, the proper procedure to infuse its energies into a human body, and the experiment eighteen years in the making to test it. And then Eugene, distracted by a text, had stepped where he should not have when he shouldn’t have. The universe changed and he was remade.
The Dean awards him his honorary degree, the Ph.D. he had left incomplete. He shakes my hand and thanks me, as he has every time he sees me, and then he is gone with a flash, into the sky. And I am left like the rest.