The house was odd, he thought. Odd, and tiny. And the walls seemed to be made of mud.
How had Claire made the adjustment? From that house in Philadelphia – to this?
The entire house – all three bedrooms of it – was quite literally smaller than the library. The walls were bare; not a single picture adorned the walls. There was no paneling on the walls, no library, and one bathroom little larger than a telephone booth.
And while Claire had returned to her own bedroom, and put Amanda in a large bedroom near her own, she had put him in a tiny space off the kitchen he assumed had been provided for some sort of domestic help.
And here he had thought she was developing real feelings for him…
He lay in his bed that night thinking about this sudden uncomfortable turn of events, wondering if he should simply abort the mission and return to the ship, try to reconcile events that had already been altered with potentially more agreeable outcomes. Still, he knew what they’d say…
‘It’s a good plan…stick with it a little longer…’
Planting dreams…molding the shape of her intellect to help create the best possible outcome…and then she’d stumbled upon the Shift – the worst possible outcome imaginable. All it would take to sunder the current order was one simple ripple in the fabric of time caused by the shift – and then they would come. The people living on earth now thought they knew what true evil was, but no one here had ever met one of them. The silent ones, the mind readers. Keepers…that’s what they called themselves. No one knew what they kept, unless it was a certain order to the universe.
He thought about that for a moment…
What if someone went back to the very beginning of time, to the moment when the universe came into being? To the moment of inception? What if someone went back and took that cosmic thimble full of matter and put it in a suitcase, then made the suitcase disappear? What if all the matter of the universe simply vanished? What then?
The theory said if the Shift began it would send the universe back to the zero point. Was that what the Keepers sought to prevent? What if the Shift was unstoppable once it started, if the arrow of time was to become corrupted?
The shift was fundamentally different than the time-shadows. The spheres could be controlled, and easily, and travel could take place without distorting the flow of time. Not so the Shift. The Shift was a one-way ticket back to the very beginning, and conceivably whatever lurked before the beginning.
Before the beginning?
Is that what the Keepers were guarding?
He sat up in bed and walked out the door to the kitchen, then he stumbled to another door and walked out onto the stone patio. He took a deep breath of the crisp air, then looked up at the stars. Was there something beyond, he wondered? Something on the other side of all that blackness? Was that the secret?
He heard someone coming out of the house, walking up behind him – and he stood perfectly still, looking at the pole star, imagining the earth spinning round and round.
Silence enveloped him. Only the sound of someone’s breathing disturbed the perfect silence.
He turned, saw Amanda standing there, a large knife in her hand, a slash-wound across her belly.
His eyes went wide, he began to feel panic for the first time in his life. “What have you done!” he cried…then she lunged at him, the knife aiming right at his heart.
Claire heard Amanda walk from her room, heard the door that led to the backyard open. She shook her head and slipped on her jeans and hiking boots, walked through the living room until she saw Amanda in the yard, the knife drawing back. She saw Benjamin standing there with his back to them both, looking, as he seemed to do often, at the stars – and she knew what was going to happen. She started running and was through the door when Ben started to turn around. She came up from behind Amanda, her eyes fixed on the knife, and as she lunged she hooked her arm around Amanda’s neck and knocked her to the ground; she then saw the belly wound and thought it must have happened in the fall.
Ben was kneeling now, applying pressure to the wound, but the flow of blood was simply catastrophic. Without thinking he pressed his left temple and waited…
The scientist’s compound at Los Alamos was, in early 1944, one of the most heavily guarded facilities in the United States. Guards in Jeeps patrolled constantly – both the paved streets and the rugged arroyos that surrounded the compound. Several guards saw the blue sphere that settled over the small house on Sycamore Street, and they raced to investigate.
When they arrived they found blood in the backyard, the back door to the house standing open – and no one inside the house.
And no blue sphere.
Thirty four minutes later Harry Hopkins walked into the president’s bedroom and gently shook him.
The room was impossibly small, the walls bright red – and Claire shook her head as the dream…but no, this wasn’t a dream, was it? Amanda was on an operating table and two machines hovered over her body. Retractors had pulled open and revealed an enormous cavity; the robots were moving so fast she could neither see nor understand what they were doing. Screens flashed as readouts changed, one of the machines moved to what looked like a storage device and opened it, then plugged a bag of red fluid – was it blood? – into the IV that coursed into Amanda’s arm.
She saw that Ben was beside her, and that they were in a small clean room off the operating room, and that Been was talking on an intercom of some sort.
“She’s lost too much blood,” she heard him say, and she began to fear the worst. Then she heard him say: “Are you sure?”
He listened for a moment, then keyed codes on some kind of electronic typewriter. One of the machines stopped what it was doing and went back to the storage unit, pulled out another bag and added that to the IV.
Ben turned to her. “She’ll be alright now,” he said.
“She was, yes.”
“What do you mean, she was?”
“She is not dying now. She will be better in about five hours. We can return to the house then.”
“Are you kidding? Look at her!”
But when Claire turned and looked at her sister the fourteen-inch long gash was gone, and her color was improving – right before her eyes.
“What have you done to her?”
“She’ll be better now. In every way.”
“In every way? What do you mean?”
“You will see.”
“Where are we?”
“You won’t tell me?”
“No. I cannot.”
She turned and looked at Amanda. “Why did she do this?”
“I do not know.”
“What’s wrong with you, Ben? You don’t…you’re not speaking right.”
“I am tired. I must rest.”
And with that he turned and walked from the little room, but the door slid shut behind him as he left, leaving her locked in the cabin. She looked at Amanda, at the machines working on her, then she too felt tired. A small bed slid out of the wall and she just made it before she passed out.
She woke and looked around, rubbed her eyes and sat up in bed. Her bed, in her bedroom. In Los Alamos. The hard sunshine pouring in through the window left sharp shadows on the walls, and the sky over the spine of the Sangre de Cristo was the deepest blue she had ever seen…then she remembered the blood.
Then, knocking on the door. Frantic knocking, then men at the window, looking in. One saw her and tapped on the glass…
“Yes, just a minute. Let me get dressed, please.”
The man seemed to visibly relax, then he disappeared around the side of the house. She slipped into her jeans and put on a flannel shirt, then walked to Amanda’s room. Her sister was sleeping fitfully so she let her be, then walked to the kitchen, and into Ben’s room.
Gone. The room was empty, and there was no trace of him at all.
She walked to the front door and opened it, saw a half-dozen uniformed and plain-clothes policemen standing there, all looking very agitated.
“We’ve been searching for you for hours now!” one of them, apparently an FBI agent, said. “We found blood all over the backyard…”
“I’m so sorry,” Claire began. “My sister fell and cut herself last night. I ran her down to Santa Fe.”
“Officers saw some sort of sphere descend on the house. Do you know anything about that? Some sort of experiment, perhaps?”
She looked at the agent and shrugged. “I wasn’t conducting any experiments.”
“So…everything’s okay here?”
“Yes, and thank you for your concern.”
“Is your sister here, or at the hospital?”
“Here. Back in her bedroom now, sound asleep.”
“There was a lot of blood…what happened to her?”
Claire looked down. “I’m sorry, but she has emotional issues. Hallucinations.”
“Oh, I’m sorry,” the agent said. “I didn’t mean to intrude.”
“It’s no intrusion, officer. Would you like to check on her, see for yourself?”
“That’s alright, Ma’am. Doctor Oppenheimer would like you to check in with his office as soon as you can.”
She nodded. “Thanks, I will.”
“Well, good day, doctor.”
“And you,” she said, closing the door, then she retreated to the kitchen, to Ben’s room. There was no sign he’d ever been there and she felt gut-punched, almost bereft – because she knew he wouldn’t be back. She walked, head down, into the kitchen – wondering if, after last night, life would ever be the same.
Those machines! Performing surgery! And the red walls…? It had to be that ship…
She put her hands out and steadied herself on the counter, took a few deep breaths, then she saw another agent in the backyard, just standing there, looking up at the sun.
Then she saw the shape of the man’s head, and she just knew.
She went back out to the patio. “Ben?” she asked, and the man turned around.
“No,” the man said.
“Do you know where he is?”
“He failed. He will not be returning.”
“Failed? What did he fail to do?”
“To protect you, and your family.”
“He didn’t fail…”
“That was not your decision to make.”
“Was? May I see him?”
“No. That is no longer possible.”
“I see. And, what happens next?”
“My name is Andrew. I am to be your husband.”
“Well, Andrew, nothing personal, but Ben was going to be my husband. I’d rather like it if that came to pass.”
“Would you mind going back to wherever you just came from and see if you can make that happen?”
“That may no longer be possible.”
She watched the man, if that was indeed what it was, walk off into the arroyo, then she returned to the kitchen and made coffee, then scrambled some eggs. When she had cleaned up after, she showered and put on fresh clothes, then went to Amanda’s bedroom again and sat on the edge of the bed.
There was something different about her this morning. She couldn’t put a finger on it, but Amanda definitely looked different. She pulled back the sheets and looked at the wound – and found nothing but smooth, white skin – and no trace of any sort of wound.
“The robots,” she sighed.
“The what?” Amanda groaned.
Claire looked at Amanda, saw the illness in her eyes was gone, replaced by a less malignant confusion. “My, you’re awake. How are you feeling?”
“I don’t know.”
“Any pain anywhere?”
“Pain? No…not really,” but Amanda seemed to look at Claire for a long time, then: “Claire? Is that you?”
“Yes, of course it’s me. Who did you think…”
“Where am I?”
“What?” Claire sighed, now confused too. “Where do you think you are?”
“I have no idea…” Amanda quailed, soon on the verge of tears.
“You’re at my house, Amanda, in New Mexico…”
“New Mexico? Since when did you have a house out there?”
“For two years now. I work here.”
Amanda sat upright in bed, her eyes searching for something recognizable – but after a moment she gave up, hugged her knees to her chest and started crying. Claire came close and enfolded her sister in her arms.
“Sh-h-h,” Claire whispered in a soothing, maternal way, “it’s alright. I’m here. It’s alright now.”
But Amanda was shaking her head…her confusion abnormally oppressive.
“What’s the last thing you remember,” Claire asked.
“I’m not sure.” Then: “Father, running to a fire. At the Navy Yard.”
And Claire gasped. “Amanda, that was almost twenty years ago. Do you remember nothing since?”
“What? Twenty…?” she said, trying to stand just now – her knees almost buckling.
“Here, let me help you?” Claire steadied her sister and helped her to the bathroom, but when Amanda saw her reflection in the mirror over the sink she screamed, terrified.
“That’s not me!” she cried. “Oh, please God! Tell me that’s not me! Oh, please…who is that?”
“You should shower now,” Claire said. “Then we’ll get you dressed.” She turned on the water and adjusted the temperature, yet Amanda stood – transfixed – looking into the mirror at the stranger staring back…
Claire led her into the shower and let the spray beat on the back of her sister’s neck, and soon the water brought her back to the present. “Oh my, that feels so good.”
“Just stand there. Relax. I’ve got a new toothbrush for you, too.”
“Could I have it, please. My teeth feel like they’re coated in saw-dust.”
“Sure. I’ll be right back.” She went out to the hall closet and found the brush, then she saw a man standing on the patio. “Benjamin?” she whispered.
He nodded his head and she ran to the door, let him in then flew into his arms.
Yet he seemed almost inert, spent, and she stepped back, looked into his eyes. “Ben?”
“I’m very tired.”
“Why don’t you take a rest. Amanda’s just now up, and I’ve got her in the shower.”
He nodded. “That should help, but Claire? She’s very fragile now.”
She nodded her head too. “Go rest. I’ll join you in a few minutes.”
“Show you? You don’t remember?”
“I told you, I’m very tired.”
She helped him to his room off the kitchen, then thought better of it and took him to her room. “Just lay down and rest your eyes. I’ll be right back…”
When she took a new toothbrush to the shower, she found Amanda staring into the steam-covered mirror, wiping rivulets of moisture from the silvered glass. “I recognize my eyes,” she said, “but nothing else makes sense. When did this happen to me?”
“What, my dear?”
“How did this happen to me?”
Claire saw the confusion in her sister’s eye, but the source wasn’t quite clear, yet. “Amanda, tell me…what do you remember? How old are you?”
“Twenty-three, I think – I’m twenty-three, and I’m going to finish college next year, because after spending the year in Sweden…” Amanda began, then her voice trailed off into the dissolution that had held her in it’s grip all these years.
“What happened in Sweden, Amanda?”
Claire watched as her sister looked inside the glass, and wondered what she saw in those silvery echoes. But, apparently – nothing, as Amanda turned to her and shook her head. “Isn’t that odd? I can’t recall a thing about the trip. Where’s father?”
“He’s not here just now,” Claire whispered, afraid now.
“And Charles? Where is her?”
“Charles is in Washington just now, Amanda, but he’ll be out to see you soon enough.”
“And mother? Where is she?”
“She’s with father now, dearest.”
“At home. At home in Philadelphia.”
“I want to go to Bookbinder’s, for soup. Will you take me – but, oh, you say we’re in New Mexico? How silly of me!”
“How about I fix some eggs and coffee? Would that do?”
“Oh, yes please. I do feel hungry.”
“How many eggs?”
“Oh, you know me…just one, over easy.”
Claire nodded – as she did indeed remember, then, not quite sure what had happened to Amanda over the course of the night, she walked back to the kitchen and lit the stove. A while later Amanda walked out, and Claire was astonished to see that the dress she’d worn the day before hung loosely on her sister’s suddenly diminished frame.
“One egg, over easy,” Claire said, putting the plate with the egg on a little table in the kitchen. Amanda ate half, then declared she was full before she had her coffee, black.
“I’ll need to go into work for a little bit,” Claire said, looking at her sister. “You’re looking tired…would you like to take a nap?”
“Ooh, yes please. I’ve never felt so tired.”
When she returned a few hours later Amanda was on the patio out back, laughing gayly as a harried looking Ben Levy tried to keep up with her fractured conversation.
There was a small kiva in the corner of Claire’s bedroom, and a few pieces of piñon burned and popped away there, lending the room a smokey hue that was pleasant in the extreme – or so Ben remembered. He had never expected to feel the way he did just now, laying on Claire’s bed with her head resting on his lap. He had never known love, not even a mother’s love, but as he ran his fingers through her hair he knew, sitting in the amber light, that the feelings coursing through his veins could only be one thing.
He wondered about miracles for a moment, and if this is what people meant when they spoke of such things. And the oddest thing of all? They hadn’t said a word in what felt like hours.
Because, he understood, there seemed to be no need.
“We’ll need more wood for the fire,” she said. “I’ll go get some.”
“Show me how?” Ben asked.
“How to make the fire work?”
“You’ve never made a fire?”
“No. There has not been much need where I live.”
“And where is that? The ship?”
“Connecticut? Really? I always thought winters there were somewhat brutal.”
“Not where I lived.”
“And where was that?”
“And when did you move to London?”
“We were older then.”
“You went to school there?”
“What did you study?”
“Science. Chemistry and physics.”
“Boeing is working on your titanium process; they should have results in a few weeks.”
“If necessary, I can go to Seattle with you.”
Claire looked away then, lost in a sudden thought. “Can you tell me about Amanda? What you treated her with?”
“Treated? You misunderstand. She treated herself.”
“What do you mean?”
“There were errors in replication…”
“And that is?”
Ben blinked, shook his head. “The bacteria in her gut were out of balance. This caused a cascading series of failures in other relevant areas of her internal biome. This sequence has been reversed. She will feel better soon.”
“I see,” Claire lied, not having the slightest idea about what he was talking about. “What about these errors in replication?”
“I’m sorry. I misspoke.”
“Ah. So, the emotional problems she’s experienced?”
“There will be consequences, but with counseling they should be manageable.”
“Will she loose weight?”
“Yes. She has lost four kilos already, and her basal metabolic rate…”
“Her – what?”
“The rate at which she burns energy?”
“How did you determine that, Ben?”
“It is not important.”
“Tell me, what is important, Ben?”
“These feelings. The feelings we are experiencing.”
“Oh? Tell me how you feel?”
“How? I think I understand what, not how.”
“What do you feel now.”
“I think it is love.”
“Ah. Have you ever been in love before?”
“I have read about love, I have seen love, but no, I have never personally felt love.”
“How is that possible?”
“That was quite normal where I grew up?”
“Do you think you could love a child, Ben?”
“You said we would have two children. Don’t you know that children need love most of all?”
“Children need love?”
“Affection. Feelings of trust and understanding.”
“Children need to develop in an atmosphere of trust and understanding, tempered with affection. Without these things, children grow to become emotionally distrustful, even mean.”
The words washed over Ben Levy and he struggled to understand the meaning behind her words. Had she just told him he was mean, and not trustworthy? Surely that was not love?
She watched his reactions, the reactions of a child, of someone who had not the slightest idea of what it meant to be human, and that only made her more curious. It was no longer a question of who he was; it was more now that she didn’t know what he was?
Human? Yes, of course, but he hadn’t been born in the 1800s –
That just couldn’t be. Could it?
“Come with me,” she said. “Let’s get some more wood.”
The only thing she knew just then was that she had to keep him talking. The more tired he became, the more he talked… The more he talked, the less she understood, but that wasn’t important now.
She remembered everything, every word he said. When he went to sleep she would go to the lab, because there was much to do now.