The blaze started in a wastebasket—a humble beginning for a fire that would soon burn on the other side of the world.
There was nothing special about the portable office trailer. On a humid summer night, the one-room building sat on a slope in an unlit corner lot of a Louisiana fuel refinery. The trickle of smoke escaping from its open window into the polluted sky was the first sign of trouble.
A battered white pickup waited beside the trailer with its nose pointed downhill. When the burning wall collapsed into the truck’s cargo bed, it landed on a pile of items carefully chosen to increase the fire’s heat. The blaze would not die easily.
The driverless truck lurched down the gravel slope and rolled into an open-ended Quonset hut, where the flames illuminated a maze of pipes. An insulated supply line jutted from the ground, feeding aviation fuel into a network of smaller pipes, which ran through clusters of gauges, then into high-pressure manifolds. And from there …
Two Weeks to Newton
Jack Scatter dangled his feet over the edge of a rocky cliff, one-hundred and eighty-six million miles from the inferno in Louisiana. He considered hurling himself off the ledge—again—just to see what would happen.
Instead, he flicked a pebble into the nearby creek and leaned forward to watch the water carry it away. The stone tumbled down the steep face, following a familiar path. Far below, the stream twisted through a grassy field saddled between two mountain peaks.
Jack knew he was dreaming.
But this time I’ll do something about it.
For as long as he could remember, he’d been having the same dream. Every detail repeated exactly, except for the dream’s ending. From the bare rock he sat on, to the thin clouds in the sky above, to the song of a bird in a nearby bush, he always knew what to expect from one moment to the next.
“It’s time to go, Jack,” the man standing beside him said.
Jack didn’t turn to face the speaker; it was pointless. “What would you do if I just sat here?”
The man replied. But as always, his words became jumbled and muted, as if the answers he’d given in hundreds of dreams had melded into overlapping syllables. It didn’t matter though. Jack already knew; he’d simply walk away and the dream would end.
“We’re somewhere in the Spine,” Jack said. A narrow line of four-mile-tall, snow-capped mountains faded into the distance ahead. “But I can’t find that on any map.”
Round, crater lakes were common on Earth, but the one he pointed to in the nearly featureless plain on his left shouldn’t exist at all on Cirrus. He’d never traveled to Earth—and never would—but the dream was so vivid, so detailed, it had to have grown from a memory. He’d searched maps of both worlds but never found matching terrain. Dark green lines meandered from opposite sides of the lake, suggesting a river course, and the lake itself held a perfectly round island, exactly in its center.
The anonymous man spoke again with a hundred voices that mingled to obscure all meaning.
Jack flung another stone into the abyss. “Why can’t you just once answer a question without sounding like you’re underwater?”
The man walked away. This was the moment Jack was waiting for.
Through the years, repetition had taught him to hold his conscious mind at a level just below waking. That practice now enabled him to dream lucidly—to know when he was asleep and to have partial control over his dreams. Most of them. He’d tried so many things to alter the flow, but this dream always ended in the same spot.
Not this time.
He turned and focused not on the man walking away, but on the forest ahead.
Concentrate. Instead of following the man, he’d try for the forest. He needed to run, but not think about running. If he moved his real limbs, he’d startle himself awake. He fixated on the path bordering the stream, recalling the egg-shaped boulder hidden among the thousands of saplings beyond the meadow. He imagined himself leaping over the knee-high stone.
And then he was there—jogging through the short, evenly spaced trees.
I did it. I skipped ahead.
He’d bypassed half the uphill journey and was nearing the end of the hanging valley where steep walls converged to a point. He swerved through a cleft in a bus-sized boulder and—
The stranger stood below a natural dam, a moraine-like pile of fallen stone, exactly where he’d be if Jack had followed. He pointed to the top of the heap. “… answer.”
“Answer to what?” Jack shouted. What’s the question?
The man climbed, leaving Jack and the familiar disappointment at the base of the wall.
“That’s not fair. I beat you. Something should have changed.”
The climber didn’t respond. Jack delayed until he was almost at the summit, wondering if it was worth the effort. But he’d changed part of the dream, maybe he could maintain control until the end this time. He decided to try.
Damp lichen coated the rocks and water seeped from a dozen fissures, but he remembered where the best footholds were. The man was waiting by the mouth of a cave formed by enormous blocks of fallen stone. He spoke again as Jack approached. “… inside.”
Beyond, the valley ended with a small lake surrounded by steep walls on three sides, but it was the sheltered opening that drew Jack’s attention.
Last chance to walk away.
He crouched beneath an overhanging lintel formed by a massive slab of gray rock, knowing he had to surrender control to move beyond this point. If he took the next step, he wouldn’t be able to turn away, no matter what the dream showed.
At least that’s how it usually goes.
His stomach knotted as he moved closer, struggling with the balance between dreaming and waking. He felt cool air at the cave’s threshold, smelled damp moss. It was all so real.
And then he was a spectator once again.
Usually, as he entered, voices swarmed from the darkness—indistinct murmurs of hundreds, possibly thousands of people at a great distance. That alone was enough to make him hesitate, but this time was different. This time there was—
He pulled his hand back instinctively from the roar and the heat, even though he couldn’t see a flame. His heart raced. It’s just a dream. A shrill alarm pulsed nearby—not a fire alarm, a warning tone. Ignore it. He focused on the cave and smelled gas and oily smoke. It’s so close. Just inside. The enfolding voices grew louder as he leaned farther, reached into the darkness and—
Every. Single. Time.
He’d never been able to stay asleep, to continue dreaming and discover what waited in the cave or learn who the man was. He was certain that these were important, things he once knew but had forgotten. Always, the answers hid from him like a word on the tip of his tongue.
His heart was pounding. He took several deep breaths to calm himself. The dream had seemed more real than ever. The sensation of fire was almost painful. In the darkness, he rubbed his fingertips, checking for burns. His fingers were fine, but he was shaken by the sense of urgency the dream conveyed; something he’d never felt before. Equally troubling, it was occurring more often. It had gone from being an occasional event to almost monthly. This was the second time in just the past week.
Now that his breathing and pounding heart were under control, he lay quietly in his bed and listened. No sound came from within the house, but a drone passed in the distance, overwhelming the song of a nocturnal bird in the hedge below his window.
It’s huge, Jack thought. I haven’t heard a drone like that in … I’ve never heard one like that. The machine thwupped more like a helicopter than a smaller, unmanned aircraft.
The large drone sounded as if it was heading for the family workshop in the industrial park. But the familiar rhythm of spinning blades carried an added vibrato. It’s got a chipped rotor. I guess I’ll be replacing that first thing in the morning.
His tiny second-floor bedroom overlooked the fields, not the street. It was small enough for him to roll over and flip the curtain aside to look for the aircraft without getting out of bed. No lights. Instead, he groaned when he spotted the dim numbers on the clock; dawn was still hours away. He wouldn’t get back to sleep, he never did after one of these dreams. Fortunately, school break had already started; he didn’t need to be alert in the morning.
He got up, dressed, and crept down the stairs, even though his mother was a light-sleeper and probably heard him. But she knew he sometimes went to the shop in the small hours, so his stealth was mostly for his father’s benefit.
Instead of using the street, he left the house through the back door and descended to the unlit dirt path that bordered the fields. He turned up his collar and tucked his hands into his jacket pockets. The temperature never dropped to freezing in Fairview, but he could see his breath as he hiked the empty mile to the workshop. When he reached the cluster of drab, concrete-walled structures, he found that all their lights were off except for one.
“Morning, Jack,” a familiar voice said. “You’re up early.”
Jack veered off the path and climbed the short rise to the neighboring shop. “That big drone woke me. I thought I’d get started on it before whoever owns it calls.” He spotted a cluster of spilled washers next to the open garage door and stooped to gather them.
“Heard it coming in myself.” The older man eased himself down from the engine compartment of a huge green combine harvester. “From the west.”
“West? Are you sure?” More than a hundred miles of the most productive farmland in the sector lay between Fairview and the sea; a drone as large as the one they’d heard had no purpose out there.
The man swung his arm to show the flight path. “Passed overhead and turned around over the field.”
“That’s really strange.” Jack returned the box of washers to its proper spot; he knew this workshop almost as well as his own. “I know one of its rotors is damaged. Maybe that’s throwing off its airspeed sensor and it overshot.”
“You’ll figure it out. You always do.” He wiped his grease-marked hands on a rag, then pulled an envelope from his pocket and offered it to Jack.
“For the actuator you fixed last week and the distributor the week before. I told you, I’m paying you from now on.” He jabbed the envelope at Jack.
“You don’t have to do that, sir.”
“And you don’t have to always call me Sir. Call me Stan.”
“Yes, sir. I will.” Jack accepted the money.
“’Bout time the others started paying you for your work around here too.” He cast a glance over his shoulder. “You know Hank over there is taking advantage of you. The sensor array you done for him last week would’ve cost him four hundred for a rebuild in Port Isaac.”
Jack shrugged. “I’m learning a lot. The practical experience is worth more than that. I plan to open my own shop someday, in Caerton.”
“You need to be saving up for college.”
“I’m …” He looked down and nudged another carton into place with his foot. “I’m not sure I’m going.”
“Hmm. Your parents think you are.”
“I’m already doing what I want. I don’t need more school to learn what I already know.”
“Education makes the most of opportunity. Got a master’s degree in engineering.” Stan slapped the giant machine beside him. “You think I need that to repair this beast?”
“But if I didn’t, I’d be stuck on Earth, doing the same job in a crowded and polluted city for half the wage. The fresh air alone is worth the degree. You don’t know what choices you’ll be facing. Keep your options open.”
“Your parents have told you the same thing, haven’t they?”
He lowered his gray-stubbled chin to look over the rim of his glasses. “It’s Stan.”
“Yes … sir.” Jack failed to suppress a grin.
Stan returned the smile. “Well, I won’t push the matter. You’ll make the right decision when the time comes.” He reached down and picked up an oil-stained cardboard box. “You call Hank Sir?”
“He’s not … I mean, you’re …”
“Got a few more gray hairs than he does. Is that it?”
“That’s ‘bout all they’re good for, then.” He passed the box to Jack. “Look at this steering servo for me. If you can fix it, tell me how much time you put in. I’ll pay you proper.”
“Yes, sir. Thank you.”
- - - - -
Jack carried the steering controller the short distance to the back door of his family’s own shop and switched on the lights. Unlike Stan’s garage, built to house two harvesters side-by-side, their building was long and narrow. An office occupied the front third below a second-floor mezzanine, but Jack spent most of his time in the back, which was divided into storage and a workshop. Steel racks housing hundreds of drones and spare parts filled the warehouse half of the room to the twenty-foot ceiling. He skirted these on his way to his workbench, where he emptied the box and spun the servo’s motor shaft, sensing the telltale noise and vibration.
The encoder has broken loose. But I’m more interested in that drone.
He’d take the mechanism apart to confirm the problem before ordering parts, but felt confident with his diagnosis; he was always correct about these things. Pushing the servo aside, he climbed the steel ladder at the back of the room and popped the roof hatch.
The landing pad was empty.
He hurried to the far edge of the flat roof and checked the space between the buildings. The alley was empty, so he ran to the side overlooking the street. That was clear too.
I definitely heard a drone. So did Stan.
The neighboring rooftops were the same height as his, and the drone was on none of them. There was no movement and no sound. But a faint glow reflected off the fields behind a warehouse across the street, the largest on the block: Hank’s place.
He scurried back to the alley side of the building, leaned over the short raised wall next to the scupper drain, then vaulted off the roof. Hanging from the edge of the wall by one hand, he reached over to grab the downspout below the drain, then shifted his weight to the pipe.
Mom would totally freak if she caught me. So would his father. But Jack could tell exactly how strong the connections were and how much weight the pipe could bear by the way it flexed. The bolts securing the plastic drainpipe to the wall may as well have been extensions of his own fingers.
After sliding down the first section of pipe, he paused at the bracket to make sure it was sound, then swapped his hands below the support to continue his descent. He landed lightly on the hard-packed gravel, stepped out of the alley, and crossed the street.
There was definitely a light ahead. Voices too. It sounded as if the back door to Hank’s warehouse was open. Jack crept through the alley, hoping to find the drone without bothering anyone. Then a motion sensor turned on the overhead light, casting a long shadow past the building’s edge.
Hank stepped into the light, surprisingly swift for a man who fooled no one with his claim of weighing only two hundred fifty pounds. “What are you doing sneaking around at this hour?”
“I’m not sneaking.” Jack leaned to look past, but Hank’s ample waistline blocked much of the view without him even trying. “I was looking for a drone. I think it crashed near here.”
Hank sidestepped to block Jack. “I haven’t seen anything. It’s not here.”
Jack said nothing. He’s lying.
A faint voice sounded from Hank’s phone. He raised it to his ear and nodded several times, then said, “You should head home, Jack. You don’t want people to think you’re up to no good. I’ll let you know if your missing drone turns up.”
Another lie. He wanted to take two more steps, to see the drone he suspected was there, but said, “Sure. Thanks.” There was little to be gained by proving Hank was lying. He turned and walked away without looking back, confident that Hank was still watching.
What’s he hiding? Jack wondered as he climbed the ladder to the workshop’s roof.
Everyone in town knew Hank considered himself a powerful man. Jack, fifteen years old and only half of Hank’s probable true weight of three hundred pounds, would get no respect and no answers from the self-important businessman.
Hank saw that drone. Jack was certain. It might even be just across the street in his warehouse. But what it was doing there and why Hank lied were things he could only guess at.
As he watched, the light behind Hank’s building faded away.
There was something unsettling in the way Danny Kou observed people, seeming to react to their movements before they happened. When Pieter Reynard, CEO of Armenau Industries, entered his top-floor Seattle office, his chief engineer was already suffering under that gaze.
As Pieter passed without offering a greeting, Simon lowered his eyes and shuffled his feet. It wasn’t just the scrutiny of the head of security making him nervous; he’d brought bad news. But he’d have to endure his misery a while longer—Pieter would not be rushed in his own office. He hung his bespoke suit jacket neatly on the coat stand, brushed a fleck of dust from the sleeve, then poured himself a coffee. Finally, he sat at his desk and motioned for the engineer to speak.
Simon glanced at Danny before handing a tablet to Pieter with the results from the morning’s test. “Thirty-seven aircraft were actively refueling on the ground, and one in-flight. It had to make an emergency landing near Lord Howe Island, but no one was hurt.” He wiped his sweaty palms against the seams of his trousers.
Pieter had been scrolling through Simon’s data. A tiny furrow appeared on his brow when he read the comment about the Australian floatplane but he just said, “Continue.”
“The equipment we chose for—” Simon faltered under Pieter’s glare. “That, I chose, for this test, had to be operational. It met all our criteria, but I hadn’t anticipated that the owners might not be using it properly.”
Pieter said nothing. Simon would get to the point faster that way.
“The aircraft was over forty years old and not certified for in-flight refueling.” Simon fidgeted with his buttons. “If they make a public complaint, they’ll lose their permits. They’re upset, but there’s no reason for them to check the portal crystals before they ship the old units back to us.”
Pieter’s family had been in the transportation business for generations. He understood why the tour company had risked fines: profit. A full tank at take-off reduces cargo weight and therefore the number of paying passengers. In theory, an aircraft with a wormhole-based refueling system could fly indefinitely, but was legally required to carry enough reserve fuel to reach the nearest airport.
Simon continued. “The pumping station in Louisiana was destroyed as … as planned. No injuries there.” He subconsciously shuffled a half step back from the desk. “The roof collapsed and tore the fuel manifold apart before the final phase. That was unexpected, and it briefly exposed the wormholes, which led to small fires in several other cities but only minor smoke damage.”
Pieter had been reading as Simon talked and had already finished the section covering the secondary fires. He considered the news for only a moment. “It’s unlikely anyone will link the events. Our official position is unchanged—the fire forced us to cut the fuel supply as a precaution. Pass requests for information directly to me and prepare for the next round of tests.” He said this casually, but an underlying tone made it clear he would tolerate no more delays.
Simon hesitated. He glanced at Danny, standing silently behind Pieter, and retreated another half step. Danny, like Simon himself, was of average height, but muscled like an Olympic gymnast. That and his unrelenting glare made him more intimidating than Pieter, who was broad-shouldered and stood six inches taller.
“There was a second problem,” he finally said. “Our instruments recorded every crystal shattering as expected, only not until the pressure rose slightly higher than projected.”
Pieter had skipped the actual measurements. He understood the principles but left the details to the engineers. “What caused that?”
“It may just be an instrumentation error, except … well … except that the extra pressure works out to be precisely what it would be if there were two more crystals.”
“Another active pair? Where?”
“Now that they’ve been destroyed, there’s … there’s no way to tell.” This time it was a full step back. “I’ll keep working on it and let you know as soon as I have an answer.”
Pieter dismissed the engineer but called him back before he reached the door. “Wait. The floatplane. It says here they’re stuck on Lord Howe until they get the new fuel module.”
“That’s right. The courier has already delivered the upgrade package to their hangar. They’re just waiting for one of their other aircraft to become available.”
“We have a helicopter in Sydney. As a courtesy, pick up their mechanic and fly him out to the island. Have our pilot collect the old modules while they’re finishing the repair.”
Simon smiled, unable to hide his surprise. “That … that’s very generous. I’m certain that’ll go a long way to smoothing things over.” He was still smiling when he left the room.
Pieter waited for the door to close. “Make sure that airplane never makes it to the mainland.”
Danny nodded and began typing on his phone. A whiff of oily smoke drifted from his clothes.
Pieter picked up a gleaming sphere of white quartz from a wooden pedestal on his desk, then spun his chair to face the window. Despite the persistent haze, he had a fine view of Lake Washington from the ninety-sixth floor—few buildings in the city were equal to or taller than his own. Except for the conference room, his office and other private spaces took up the entire floor, but the view from this corner was his favorite. Even his overbearing father would have been impressed.
He raised the sphere to examine it more closely. “The extra crystals. Can you track them?”
Danny lowered his phone. “If there are records, I’ll find them. Do I have your approval?”
Approval. The meaning between them was clear. For Danny, making an aircraft and its crew disappear was trivial—the waters were deep enough off the coast. But when he asked for approval, it meant he expected to hire external contractors through multiple layers of secrecy in order to hide the connection to Armenau. The operation would be expensive.
“Just clean up loose ends,” Pieter said. “We can’t afford delays.”
Danny nodded again and left the office without a word, moving silently over the polished hardwood floor. Only the soft click of the door latch marked his passage.
Pieter shifted the tennis ball-sized stone between hands, weighing both it and his options. He’d already come so far on a difficult journey, liquidated many of his assets, and trimmed thousands of jobs. He hadn’t made that decision lightly—it had taken a decade to replace those assets.
“Call Simon,” Pieter instructed the office AI.
As he waited for the connection, he rolled the stone, feeling the carved dimples that mapped locations of mine shafts and pumping stations. Such a simple thing. The stone wasn’t just any rock, but a scale model of the icy planetoid in the Oort Cloud that was the source of his wealth. Enough fresh water to last a thousand years.
Simon, still in the elevator, answered his phone seconds later.
“Move the resonance test up to the thirteenth,” Pieter said.
“That’s not … that’s only two weeks.”
Pieter tossed the stone and spread his fingers as it fell. With only a thought, he made it stop and hover a few inches above his hand. “Is that a problem?”
“We can’t … I had planned for a lot more time to prepare.”
Pieter was used to gambling. He’d risked his billion-dollar inheritance on an unproven concept and parlayed that success into a business empire that controlled vast resources on Cirrus—the world-sized space station that produced a quarter of Earth’s food. And he’d done it despite the contempt of the thousands of Cirrus-investors who claimed to have built their own fortunes from the ground up.
“Will it work?” He twirled his fingers. The hovering stone began to spin.
“Yes, but …”
“But what?” The stone spun faster.
“It’s a big step.”
Bigger than you can possibly guess. Armenau Industries’ earnings were still firmly grounded in portal-based water delivery. Giving up that stability was a huge risk, but it was too late to stop. “I’m ready.”
Pieter clenched his fist.
The stone shattered.