THE ANSWER TO EVERYTHING
Told to dress casual, the family sat in neat rows to the side of the stage set up outside city hall, a mass of subdued shades of gray and blue slacks with white dress shirts unbuttoned at the collars. Aubrey sat with all the dignity of a Queen waiting to proudly hear her King’s speech, wearing a white and red sleeveless dress, and Aisha sat next to Aubrey’s right in baby blue. To Aubrey’s left was Hyrum, who took the notion of casual seriously; he dressed in neon pink jeans, a neon orange t-shirt, neon green high-top sneakers, and an outrageously purple belt.
No one blinked. He’d carefully trimmed his beard and combed his newly dyed hair neatly, proud that there were no bright blue spots shining on his forehead near his hairline, “on account of last time, I got spots, and they stayed for days and days.” Aubrey sighed “Good lord” under her breath as he entered the elevator, but he was happy and that was all that mattered.
I perched on Rhys’s lap and looked past Marco, who sat, elbows digging into his knees and his chin resting on fists, in a chair at the end of the row, and scanned the growing audience, waiting for fingers to point in Hyrum’s direction, waiting for the snickering and laughter of disapproval, but it never came. Hyrum was well known in San Francisco; his penchant for blindingly bright colors was known. No one here cared, which was a relief because I didn’t feel like biting anyone.
Next to Marco was a powered-down, human-shaped drone. Rhys and Hyrum had dressed it in jeans and a t-shirt, reasoning that its data ports and seals needed protection from the sun. It was an older model that Drew often allowed Rhys to experiment with, and seemed perfect for the day’s events.
It had humanoid shape, all familiar parts in familiar places—no fingers extruding from shoulders, no feet where ears should be—but it was clearly mechanical and would not invite fear and pity should something go wrong.
Will stood in front of the family with Drew nearby, his focus on the younger members. There was already a healthy amount of bored squirming occurring, and he intended to squash anything overt before it happened. “Best behavior,” he reminded them, speaking over the music pounding around us. “No poking or prodding of siblings or cousins, no whining, no crying. No display of gifts, all right? What do we do if we feel one bubbling?”
“Tuck our hands under our legs,” they answered in rote, a quiet rumble of young voices.
“Fingers will suffice,” he said. “This won’t last long. Jax will give a short speech, then he’ll bring Finn over. After that, there will be a demonstration of the transporter, and this will be over.”
“Other than the mingling,” Drew said. “People will have a lot of questions, and we need to answer them.”
Will pointed to a tent that had been erected to the far right of the stage, where a uniformed guard waited at the entry. “Head in there after we’re done. There are drinks and snacks, and as soon as Zed and Sophia are free, they’ll come in to take you home.”
“Where do I go?” Hyrum’s hands went to the front of his shirt, but he didn’t twist the fabric with his fingers. “Do I have to answer questions or do I go get snacks?”
Will understood what he truly wanted to know: for this, am I a grownup or one of the kids?
“I would appreciate it if you and Rhys remained outside to mingle with guests. It is your choice, however. If you’re uncomfortable, head into the tent.”
He sat up a bit straighter. “I can talk to people. And I won’t do any sparky things.”
Hyrum had considerable control over his gifts. If he felt threatened, he had the ability to shoot fists full of electricity at his aggressor; if necessary, he could whip a rope of hot light around someone’s neck. Conversely, he could soak up electricity or he could funnel it in any direction. At sixteen, he’d set his own father’s hair on fire with a quick air-punch of his fist, though he was also quick to remind anyone who knew that he’d put it out quickly, and there was little physical damage to Levi Munson.
His promise to avoid any sparky demonstrations was for Oz and Drew’s children, who had not yet mastered full control of their gifts, and for Zed’s son Jonathan, whose gift came and went, and he never knew when it would poke its head.
Alex leaned forward, looking from side to side. “Where are you sitting, Dad?”
He wasn’t. Will’s role in the day’s events was reminiscent of his days as Jax’s right hand. His job was to watch and to guard; his place was to Jax’s right and a few steps behind, scanning the crowd for anyone focusing on the family and not whomever was speaking. He didn’t need to guard the King; there were dozens of royal guards doing that. Some were in the crowd, dressed in street wear, several were in uniform and obvious to onlookers, and more were positioned on rooftops surrounding the venue, weapons trained and ready.
As the music faded, Will took his place near the podium. There was a modicum of expected fanfare, with an introduction given by Kyler Burrow, a representative to the King’s council and a minor member of Ozoo’s board. He offered all of the political bullet points: today’s demonstration was a boon for Pacifica, leader of the free world. It represented a vibrant change in free trade, leaps forward in the dynamics of transportation, and he stopped just short of delivering the King’s speech for him.
This was a crowd filled with scientists, entrepreneurs, stock traders, and politicians. They had a bare notion of what to expect: a major leap forward in mass transit, in the deliverance of goods, without specifics regarding the exact nature of those promises. They’d stared at the massive metal gates erected on the stage and at the far end of the crowd seating, kept from too-close examination by armed guards. There was a buzz of speculation that quieted as Jax made his way across the stage, and several people leaned forward, as if listening harder to the things he was about to impart.
Jax took a beat before speaking. His hands went to the top of the podium and he scanned the crowd in much the same way as Will had. There were no nerves; he’d spoken to larger crowds hundreds of times, and for this he was merely introducing Finnegan Blackshear, who was not as practiced at public speaking and who looked like he might pass out on stage.
“Thank you, Mr. Burrow,” he began. “This is, as you’ve pointed out, an important day for Pacifica, and for the world. What we’re about to unveil has been sought after for centuries, and with particular intensity over the last decade. Owed largely to the work of Finnegan Blackshear and Richard Van Hoff, they would be the first to agree that today, we stand on the shoulders of giants.”
Abruptly, Hyrum stood, his hands going to his chest as he blurted, “You can’t do that, Jax!”
Rhys tugged at Hyrum’s shirt, to get him to sit down, but he wasn’t having any of it.
“That’s just not nice.” Hyrum stomped over to his brother-in-law, tilting his head back to get a better look at Jax. “It doesn’t matter if they’re giants, Jax. You can’t stand on people. It’s mean and if you do it, I’ll have words to say.”
If they laugh, I’m growling at them.
An amused murmur rolled through the audience, but there was no overt laughter.
“Promise,” Hyrum said.
Jax placed his hands on either side of Hyrum’s head and bent to kiss his forehead. “You’re absolutely right. We won’t stand on anyone, I promise. I didn’t mean it like that. I only meant that there have been people who worked really hard on this, and we benefitted from that.”
With a heavy sigh, Hyrum asked, “Well, why didn’t you say that, then?”
“I thought I was being clever.”
“Oh. Okay. But just so you know, standing on people isn’t clever.”
“I get that now.” He gave Hyrum a gentle nudge, sending him back to his seat before resuming his speech. “Hyrum is absolutely correct. Standing on others is unkind, both literally and figuratively. While we would not usurp their hard work and data, we have most definitely been the beneficiaries of it, especially the collective works of Blackshear and Van Hoff.”
I jumped from Rhys’s lap to Hyrum’s and stood on my back legs to touch my tongue to his chin.
“He’s not mad, is he?” Hyrum whispered. “My tummy hurts now.”
He’s not mad. You made him think about what he was saying. It’s all right.
Rhys reached over and took Hyrum’s hand. We both knew what he was doing—exactly what he’d been told not to, using one of his gifts—but Hyrum didn’t mind that his nephew and best friend was trying to calm him before he became too distressed. I didn’t think Will minded, either, since it only looked like he was holding Hyrum’s hand and not using his innate empathic abilities.
Look. Alex is sitting on her fingers. Is she cold, or—?
Alex had ready control of her gift, yet the edges of her seat were tinged with frost. Charlie noticed and then set his hand on the back of her seat to warm her; within seconds it faded and Alex relaxed.
Everyone is a little nervous today. It’s okay.
While Finn spoke, Marcus slipped his fingers between his legs and the chair. The younger children were unfazed; it was the teenagers, those who understood what this meant and the costs if anything went wrong, that were worried. They knew how often Finn used the transporter; they knew Will had used a portable version for over a decade. It was tried and tested, but this was the inaugural reveal to the public, and they wanted everything to go right.
When Finn gestured for Rhys to get the drone ready, I stepped across a line of laps to get to it. Rhys flipped the switch on the remote control several times, to no avail.
“Battery,” he groaned softly. “Fuck.”
Hyrum asked where it was, and when Rhys whispered that it was just below his neck on the spine, he reached under the drone’s shirt and felt for it. There was a tiny whine that ended in a tinier pop, and its eyes fluttered open.
“Don’t tell Will I did a sparky thing,” Hyrum whispered to Rhys. “I’ll tell him later when he can yell at me without kids around.”
He won’t yell at you.
“But I promised.”
“Dad won’t mind. It’s fine.” Rhys maneuvered the drone the few steps needed to the gate, and then turned him around. He looked to Finn and said, “He’s ready.”
“Transponder tag in place?”
“All right, then.” Finn’s fingers danced across the keyboard he’d placed on the podium. A sharp tone cut through the air as the drone was washed in bright light, and before one could blink twice, he was gone.
Over the chorus of confused voices, Finn told everyone to turn around, and standing in the rear gate was the drone, happily in one piece.
The crowd lost their fricking minds.
All right, they didn’t exactly lose their minds. But it got loud and people jumped to their feet, with questions fired at Finn in volumes that made it impossible to understand what they asked of him. He repeated the taps on his keyboard and the drone moved back to the stage, no worse for the wear.
When the murmuring and shouting abated, one question surfaced: “Trapdoor? How do we know it’s real? Magicians have illusions, we all know that.”
Finn lifted one shoulder. “Give it a whirl? Take a trip and see for yourself.”
“Oh, hell no.”
Hyrum stepped forward, bouncing on his toes. “I’ll do it! Oh! Rhys and me and Wick can all go together!”
Hyrum scooped me up and bounded for the gate, leaving any potential protests behind him. I felt a bit squished against Hyrum’s chest, but not as uncomfortable as Rhys when he brushed against the side of the gate and was rewarded with a static shock that almost sizzled.
They’re still going to say it’s a trick, that we planned this.
“Maybe, but—” Rhys started, interrupted by the whine “—we can fix that.” When we appeared in the rear gate, before anyone could gather a coherent thought, he bent down and asked a woman in the last row for her purse, then gestured for Finn to bring us back.
The murmuring ratcheted upwards. Rhys ran to the edge of the stage and yelled for Isaac to toss him his jacket, and then carefully—in full view—wrapped it around the purse. He set it on the gate platform carefully, it vanished, and he grinned when the purse’s owner held up the transported jacket like a prize.
Hyrum leaned toward Rhys. “We’re gonna have to answer a lot of questions now. I hope you don’t have to pee.”
“As far as I know,” Rhys explained to an overeager young reporter, ignoring the camera drone that hovered uncomfortably close to his face, “there aren’t plans to use this as a wide scale human transportation system. Initially it’ll be used to move materials and goods, anything that can’t, you know, go boom.”
“So it’s dangerous.”
“I wouldn’t have demonstrated if it were dangerous. But people deserve to see it in action for a while before trusting it, I think.”
“Has the King tried it?”
“Not as far as I know. And you gotta know, Hyrum and I are probably going to get chewed out later for jumping up and doing it. Grandpa has volunteers who have tested it, and I know I wasn’t supposed to today.”
“Then why did you?”
“Because I’ve watched my grandfather work on it my entire life. It’s been decades in the making, and I trust both the transporter and my grandpa. If he had any doubts, he would have yelled at me to stop, and I would have.”
“Your own parents didn’t try to stop you.”
“They trust him, too.”
“Yet you’re going to be in trouble.”
“Eh. Maybe not trouble, exactly, but they’re definitely going to have something to say about not clearing it with them first.”
From a few feet away, where he was speaking to another reporter, Hyrum agreed. “Aubrey is going to have words to say.”
“How many words, Hy?” Rhys asked.
“All of them. But maybe not any on the bad word list.”
Worst case, they sigh and remind you that you should have asked first. No one is upset.
“That’s right, Wick. You’ll get spoken to, as well.”
“Well, that’s the key, then, isn’t it?” junior reporter asked. “If it was problematic, Wick never would have been allowed near it. We can’t have anything happening to him.”
“Are you suggesting we’re a bit protective of Wick?” Rhys fired back, amused.
“I’m not suggesting anything. How old is he, anyway? He’s been around as long as I can remember.”
“All my life,” Rhys said.
There was a cat before me named Major. He looked a lot like me.
Rhys tagged onto that. “I mean, he’s probably older than twenty. Maybe even thirty. But before that my dad had a cat named Major who was damn near Wick’s twin. People seem to think they’re the same cat.”
“People have noted the same cat, supposedly, since the King was a little boy.”
Hint that there’s another one. Seven.
“Cats have lineage,” Rhys said. “I mean, I don’t know for sure they’ve all been related but I wouldn’t doubt it.”
Just don’t ask to see my nuts. They’re gone.
That made Hyrum giggle. “Jax isn’t gonna be happy that we’re talking about Wick and not the transporter.”
I’m far more interesting.
“Everyone else is asking about the transporter,” the reporter said. “Right now, I’m the only one who gets to see Wick. He didn’t seem to be afraid of anything going on. Is he always like that?”
“He’s pretty chill,” Rhys said. “Heck, when I got my dog, Thor, I think everyone expected him to be afraid, but he rubbed against Thor and jumped on him right from the start.”
“I’ve seen Wick riding on Thor. Just kind of sauntering across Union Square.”
“Thor respects Wick. Wick plays with him and sneaks treats to him. A ride seems like a fair trade. I’m not even sure he can feel Wick on his back.”
“How old is Thor?”
“Eleven,” Rhys answered. “And yeah, he’s getting up there. I really wish dogs his size lived as long as cats, but right now he’s super healthy and has a ton of energy.”
“That’s why we didn’t bring him,” Hyrum offered. “Lots and lots of energy. Most of it is in his tongue. He licks a lot. He would want to lick your hand if he was here.”
I’m going to pant in a minute. Don’t be alarmed. I just want to give you an out before this kid asks more personal questions.
“You’re very talkative, Wick,” reporter kid said. “Is he always this talkative?”
“Sir Meows-a-lot,” Rhys said. “Opinions about everything.” He had more to add but I did as I said, and started panting.
Hyrum heard my warning, but still gasped. “Rhys! He needs water! We gotta take him into the tent. He might be too hot!”
“If he needs water, so do we,” Rhys agreed. “Sorry to cut this short, but like you said, Wick first.”
Oz and Drew were asked only cursory questions about the transporter before reporters settled in on curiosities regarding the royal grandchildren and how well they behaved during Jax’s speech and the subsequent demonstrations. Jax and Aubrey experienced much the same, though they were questioned about Hyrum and how confidently he confronted the King. Will and Aisha fielded questions from non-news audience members, who were mostly curious about whether or not being transported hurt, but Finn was bombarded with questions specific to the transporter and how it worked.
He and Richard related the tales of the earliest days, when they tested the equipment with bowling balls, which inevitably inverted at the destination.
Only one reporter locked onto the obvious: “Is this the device used during the last war with Florida? Is it how we blanketed the country with EMF explosives? They inverted on landing. Neatly, uniformly, but still, they inverted.”
Will wandered over from the small mob he had been addressing. “Indeed. My father graciously allowed us to experiment with his early devices.”
“We sought non-lethal methods to stop Florida, and its use seemed obvious. Without the early Blackshear Van Hoff transporter, so many more people would have died for no reason other than we would have found ourselves resorting to more traditional burn runs and plasma bombs.”
“People did die,” the reporter pointed out.
“Sixty-two,” Will confirmed. “That is opposed to the estimated five hundred thousand had we engaged in typical warfare.”
“Note,” Richard Van Hoff said, “that Pacifica has not been confronted since then. Political blustering, yes, but there have been no further attacks against its people.”
Later, at dinner, Richard wondered if he should have kept his mouth shut. “I’m not one to extend new ideas in how to kill people. And I may have done just that.”
Jax didn’t think so. “Clearly, they were already aware we’d done something unusual to deploy those bombs. And you’re not wrong. Russia, especially, is acutely wary of how we did that and hasn’t risked being the target again.”
“But now they know, and they might.”
“They might think they can try. They might even get their hands on a transporter and attempt to reverse engineer it. But we all know that will fail spectacularly.”
“Someone will replicate our work, eventually,” Finn said.
“But will they be able to figure out the little details?” Jax wondered. “You built this on the foundation of your development of the portal tunnel, something none of them will ever know about.”
“The quantum accelerator we used won’t exist for over a hundred years,” Richard reminded him. “It will take them at least that long.”
“Don’t forget about the cookie ingredients,” Hyrum offered. “They’re not gonna know for a long time that if you want your cookies to trade places, you gotta use enough flour in both pans.”
“Matter exchange,” Will explained. A decade earlier, that was Hyrum’s example for understanding that Finn was attempting to exchange an equal amount of matter on both ends of transporting. You can’t have cookies on both sides if you don’t use enough flour in both. I’m not sure anyone else would have understood that, but Finn and Richard both nodded.
Rhys sat on the living room floor, where Oz’s youngest son was on his knees, clipping tiny flowers into Rhys’s hair. “I’d still like to study the programming for that. I just want to see how it came together.”
He’d watched its progress his entire life, but that wasn’t enough. Rhys had his father’s and his grandfather’s intelligence, hopped up on sugar and steroids, and could look beyond all the coding and math to see the result of those years of work. Finn had kept the actual code from him because it wasn’t final and he didn’t want to put into Rhys’s nearly eidetic memory something incomplete.
It worked, though, and had functioned well for half a decade at least. Tweaks were inevitable, but he now considered it complete, and finally gave Rhys permission to study the notes, the code, the math, and the construction plans.
“You share with no one,” Will reminded him. “You can discuss this with your grandfather, Richard, Andrew, your mother, and myself, but—”
“I know. Nothing specific to anyone who doesn’t already know more than ‘push button, make go.’”
“You may use my office and the closed computer system there,” Will said. “However.”
“Yeah, I know, don’t try to build one of my own. Can I look at the jump bracelet code, too? It’s kind of the same thing.”
Aisha stuck her pointy finger in Rhys’s direction. “School comes first. Don’t get so lost in it that you forget you still have classes and homework.”
Every adult turned to look at Finn.
“Hey. Not nice.”
“You spend fucktons of time on Mars, Grandpa,” Rhys said. “Sooner or later, you’re going to miss the pretty red planet and skip right to Venus or something, and probably crash-land.”
“You get lost mentally,” Will said. “And that’s fine. It’s how you work. But Rhys has other things to get done, and whether he admits it or not, he tends to hyper-fixate almost as much as you do.”
Before they could pile on further, Richard spoke up. “What’s the plan, Rhys? Following in your grandfather’s footsteps or have you set out on your own path?”
He wasn’t sure. “Right now, I’m mostly interested in cybernetics, but there’s a lot of what Grandpa does that I want to learn more about. And then there’s a bunch of stuff Drew’s doing with nanotech that I’d like to play with. So who knows, really.”
“The answer was, ‘engineering, Richard, so I can take over your work when you retire.’ God, I’m ready to retire.”
“Alex,” Rhys said. “Or Charlie. Or both. I’d place bets that they’ll both wander in that direction. Only Charlie will take apart everything you love just to see what makes it tick, and there’s only a fifty-fifty chance he can get it back together.”
“Says the kid who took apart Dad’s computer,” Charlie said. “And a giant monitor. And a vacuum cleaner. And—”
“I get it, cripes, but most of that was you.”
“Maybe Eli will want to go into engineering,” Alex offered. “And he’s your grandson, so…”
In other Whens, Eli—Oz and Drew’s firstborn, not the old king—did not become an engineer. He became a physician, hoping to save the life of Will’s mother, Jo. All the other kids had open futures, but Eli would be nudged, however gently, onto the same path his other-when predecessors had traveled; if he didn’t, Will might never be born.
In all the previous Whens we knew about, Will died at 42. Eli became close to his mother, Jo, and when her relationship with Finn fell apart, she left for an era in which she was certain she could live out her natural lifespan without overlapping her birth When by too many years. She needed an anchor, though, and Eli was the only one she was close enough to; he was a newly minted adult and decided to reside in multiple Whens, staying long enough with her to assure her health, then coming home long enough to assure his own.
The future had plans for him. It was there he met Harper, who would become his wife and then mother to Finn. They lived their lives with one foot here, one foot there, though they kept Finn in his birth When with little knowledge of the portals. Oz and Drew visited their grandson in his future When, but he was largely clueless about how they arrived. The royal house remained within the family, and it was there they visited their son and grandson; Finn was clueless until well into adulthood.
Finn was the one who decided to tackle the enormous task of addressing the meteor that had been discovered before his birth, one predicted to impact Earth in his seventies. His life became research and development; he discovered a way to move through time, and created not only a ship to traverse the years, but the portal tunnel that ran underneath San Francisco. While searching for a way to push the meteor away from the planet, he enlisted the aid of a team to help, and volunteers to escort others from a When that might end to others where they could live out their lives.
Out of the multiple-billion people on the planet, they were able to move fewer than 25,000. There was time to help more, but until the meteor was too close to deny, the masses did not believe he could deliver on his promises. As far as they knew, time travel was still the stuff of science fiction; few trusted him. Even when it was made known that he sent his own teenaged son two hundred years into the past, they didn’t believe.
In an unknown number of timelines, as the meteor was so close its proximity invited danger, those people died wishing they’d listened. Finn and Jo waited until the last minute to leave, after everyone on their teams had left, and were willing to drag more people with them, but no one came.
The world ended over and over, When after When, until this one.
Will, the Emperor, did not die at 42.
The misery of losing him did not break his parents apart.
Without that, there was the possibility that Eli, Finn’s father, would never leave.
They wanted a way to push him toward the When where Harper was born, to facilitate that relationship, without expressly telling him why.
Finn saved the world, and the cost might be that he would not exist in the future.
Rhys pondered that while sitting on the living room floor with his family surrounding him, and realized it meant he would also never be born. There would be no Finn, no Will, no siblings, and none of the rest would ever know who was missing.
“Have you ever considered what happens if you’re not born the next time around?” Rhys was stretched out on the sofa in Will’s office workspace, computer balanced on his chest, while Finn sat in the chair with his own laptop. Will was on the other side of the room, watching data scroll by on the giant monitor. “Without you, the world ends.”
“Everything they need to know is contained in the Old Mint,” Finn reminded him.
“But you won’t be there to point that out. And you won’t be there to open it.”
Drew would. His future-self created the time lock that made using the Old Mint as a multi-When data storage facility possible, and he would live long enough to assure its creation.
“Yeah, but without you, there’s no Dad, and he’s the one who made sure Drew was interested in all of this in the first place.”
“The next timeline is protected,” Will said. “Our Andrew has all the required knowledge to pass along. And I should, unless something happens, still be here to help.”
“But you might not be born next time around.”
Will gave a light shrug. “I’m here now. I will do whatever I can. That’s enough.”
“Then the world ends in a couple of future timelines.”
“No telling,” Finn said without looking up. “Someone else might pick up the work.”
“But you won’t exist.”
“I won’t know that. It won’t matter to me.”
“You were unaware before you were born, Rhys,” Will said. “It will be no different.”
He knew that but it didn’t make him feel any better about the possibility of non-existence. This was a discussion that could have gone on for an hour with no progress made, but something on his screen caught his eye and diverted his attention.
“What’s this? ‘Tiny bits, flexstrip, r-two-condensed, electroconduct to transponder.’ It’s embedded in the transporter code.”
“Ah.” Finn stretched to see Rhys’s screen. “I left a trail of notes in there. That’s a new one to remind myself to cross reference to your dad’s jump bracelet.”
“Tiny bits?” Will asked.
“Its components are micro-sized,” Finn said, as if of course it made sense. “It’s not a full-sized system.”
“And you want to use flexstrips instead of a heavier metal.”
“They’re metal,” Finn said. “Just thinner and easier to work with. You’d be able to encase all the working parts and just attach a band to it.”
“So it would look more like a watch?” Rhys asked.
“Less like a chunky medical bracelet.” Finn pointed at Will’s wrist. “His looks like jewelry, yes, but it’s noticeable. If it looked more like a watch, it’d be less conspicuous.”
“Yeah, but no one wears a watch, Grandpa. That’s noticeable, too.”
Make it look like one of those athletic monitors. Those look like a hybrid between a watch and jewelry, and I see people with them all the time.
“The few who have inquired have assumed that’s what I have, Wick,” Will said. “I have not denied that.”
Rhys snorted. “Because you coded it to show your health stats. No one cares if you run ten miles a day.”
“Your mother does,” Will said, chuckling.
“Your mother,” Finn said, “doesn’t care if I sloth off and eat like an eight-year-old. It’s wonderful. I get to be flabby, and she’s still a happy woman.”
“I’m leaving if you don’t stop.” Rhys sat up, setting the computer aside. “All right, Dad. How did you turn into such a fitness fiend when you grew up with him?”
“My mother. She turned a blind eye to his habits because she had to. For me? She treated food as fuel, and allowed me to enter the martial arts and encouraged me to work hard at it.”
“She allowed it because he needed to be able to defend himself,” Finn said. “He was an odd little duck with a target on his back. I had no idea he would excel at it, but she seemed to.”
She knew who he would become.
Like, from the moment she knew she was pregnant.
“How?” Rhys asked.
“I am uncertain.”
Jo is brilliant and knows history inside out. She’d seen photos of the Emperor and she knew that Finn was Eli the younger’s son. She saw the resemblances… Her brain made all the connections.
“Or perhaps simply mother’s intuition,” Will said.
“I bet she snooped in the Old Mint.” The notion amused Rhys. “Why didn’t you? You’d have had more information when you were young. Maybe you could have figured out the whole mind-reading thing and hooked up with mom when you were still a teenager.”
“What about Jay?” Will countered.
“But you didn’t know about him.”
“This version of me didn’t. The next does. However…as much as I wish our roles had been played out a bit differently, I wouldn’t choose to do anything that prevents Jay’s birth. I believe that, overall, things happened as they should have.”
“So maybe leave yourself some notes in the Old Mint and get the girl sooner,” Finn said.
Will smiled, softly. “I’ve taken care of that. I hope.”
If he had more to say, it was stopped by the intercom announcing a visitor with an appointment. He excused himself; he and Drew were scheduled to meet with a potential new engineer for Ozoo and it could not be delayed.
“Nice way of saying ‘last minute job interview,’” Rhys said.
Finn gestured to the computer. “You’re missing school to memorize code, son. Don’t skip the embedded notes. Some of them are important, some are for my own amusement, but they’re all important.”
Lunch codes stuck in there somewhere?
“Lunch codes?” Rhys asked.
He has a file on all the places Will was willing to eat when he was little. Mister food-is-fuel was picky as hell and Finn kept a list of things he could order that Will wouldn’t turn his nose up at if given.
“That file is stuck in the portal data, I think,” Finn said. “If I recall correctly, he was particularly fond of chicken fingers and garlic bread.”
Mac and cheese, too.
“Needless to say, your grandmother didn’t leave lunch and dinner up to me very often. But I kept the file for those days I had him on my own.”
With a timed alarm so you wouldn’t forget to feed him.
Frequently lost in his work, Finn sometimes needed the alarm. Rhys understood that and didn’t question why; I always thought that Will would have reminded him, because a hungry kid is a loud kid. Still, he’d seen his grandfather so lost in thought that he could easily see how he might forget there was a kid in the room to begin with, and if that kid was also lost in what he was doing, there would be no stopping for lunch.
I made a mental note as Rhys went back to reading the transporter code: if no one moves in an hour, jump on someone to remind them that their stomachs are growling, and the cat wants to eat.
It was necessary.
Five hours later, with one too-short lunch break, Rhys acquiesced to his father’s insistence that he stop for the day. He needed to go home, find something to do with his brother and sister, or get Isaac to go out and wander around Union Square, but he needed fresh air and movement.
There was no argument.
Mostly because he’d already memorized it.
Flakes of glaze dropped from the donut to the table as Rhys held it between his fingers, showing it to Isaac, Hyrum, and Charlie. He’d taken a bite and had bits of sugar on his lips, which he licked off without any thought to it. I waited at the edge of the table, because the rule was that if the kitty behaves, the kitty gets a bite when everyone else is done eating.
Hyrum had already set a bite aside for me, but I still needed to sit still and not walk between them, lest I cover their food with my fur.
“To the transporter, this isn’t any different than we are,” he mused. “It’s all molecules, arranged in a particular order.”
“Your point?” Charlie asked.
“The transporter can move you, me, or the donut from point A to point B. But what if there was nothing to move? What if there were just a collection of molecules stored in a tank, and instead of moving them from A to B, it just, you know, created a donut?”
“Food replicator,” Isaac said. “You’ve been watching that old sci-fi stuff again, haven’t you?”
“Maybe. Well, yeah. We watched something with Drew last night. But so far, no one has been able to do it.”
“Bioprinting,” Charlie offered. “They make organic material all the time.”
“But they need the blueprint plus a DNA sample from the person needing the biomaterial. But a true replicator would just take neutral material and create whatever food you wanted.”
“Fine,” Isaac said. “So where do you get the neutral material from? You need some kind of base, right?”
“There’s the rub.” He lowered the donut and set it on a napkin. “We can bioprint and we can three-D print. We have the know-how, basically, but it’s the starting point we lack.”
“And you think the transporter is the answer?” Isaac asked.
“I think it’s a piece of the puzzle. Instead of printing food and limiting the scope of what we can create—maybe move molecules around until we have…this.”
“Same difference,” Charlie said.
“But it’s not. If you print a toy car, you have to use powdered metal bits, basically. It’s the same thing you started with, just reshaped. But if you have neutral molecular matter that you can manipulate, you can create anything edible, in whatever form you want. Donuts. Pizza. Tequila.”
“Tequila burns,” Hyrum said. “Can we make cinnamon whiskey instead? I like that.”
“Anything you want, that’s the point.”
“All right.” Charlie picked a piece of off his donut and set it in front of me. “The question now is, do you tell Grandpa or Drew your ideas? Or do you sit on it until you can create the thing yourself?”
“It would take years,” Rhys said. “The longer I wait to start, the longer it would be before we could do it. Think of the potential of this. How many people could be fed in remote places where it’s hard to get supplies on a regular basis. Or during drought and the like. Can’t grow crops? Well, you can replicate them. No one would ever have to be hungry again.”
People don’t have to go hungry in Pacifica. There’s enough for everyone who wants it.
“In Pacifica, sure,” Rhys agreed. “But Pacifica isn’t the world and it sucks but people go hungry in other places.”
“Places that have zero love for us,” Charlie said. “Feed the enemy?”
“Have compassion. Feed humanity.”
Clothe them, house them…if you can replicate food, you can replicate anything. Without printers.
Rhys debated who he wanted to talk to first. Normally, he would go to his parents. Absent them, his grandfather. Charlie urged him to bring his ideas to Drew, who had all of Ozoo at his fingertips—he had the means, the scientists, the engineers, and the money to pour into research. Alex thought he should start with their father, who could then help him, either practically or with advice.
Instead, he asked for an appointment with the King, his uncle.
“It’s just a start of an idea,” Rhys said, standing in front of Jax’s office desk. “But it’s doable, I know it is. But I don’t know exactly how, and I don’t think it’s the kind of thing that should wait until I figure it out. I mean, like, follow the breadcrumbs. If no one ever has to worry about food again? Or shelter? World peace. Seriously.”
Without explanation, Jax rose from his chair and gestured for Rhys to follow him. They moved to the center of the room; Jax placed his hand on Rhys’s shoulder and with a tap to his bracelet, we jumped.
The level of quiet in the room we jumped to was startling. There was one overhead light on; Jax kept a firm hand on Rhys, and said loudly, “Lights,” then let go as the tiny, embedded bulbs in the ceiling popped on in sections. He didn’t say anything after that, letting Rhys soak in the enormity of the space where we stood smack in the center.
I think he expected Rhys to immediately bombard him with questions about where we were, and what we were looking at. Initially, it seemed to be just an empty room, but on a second glance, each wall had translucent panels with wide, deep nooks that were difficult to discern without backlighting. There was a subtle but distinct electronic sound emanating from behind the panels, so soft I might have been the only one who could hear it. I sniffed, taking in the scent of grilled steak, pineapple, and cake.
Instead of gawking, Rhys simply asked, “Where is everyone?”
“Other than security guards, there are very few people working here. We’ve suspended work on it. For now.” He nudged Rhys toward the closest wall, and pressed a flat button on the panel. It lit up, a soft, glowing blue, and the nook lights popped on as well. At the base of the nook was another panel, oblong and dark, with a round disk in its center. Jax pressed another spot on the panel, and then told Rhys to ask it for anything edible.
“Ask it, not me. Here.” He took his finger off the panel, and nodded for Rhys to mimic him.
Rhys set a finger on it, gently, and then said, “Chocolate cake.”
A bright light emanated from the top of the nook. There was a hum, a second, less bright light, and a few seconds later a plated slice of cake, complete with fork, appeared.
“Go ahead,” Jax said. “Try it. I promise, it’s edible.”
Rhys stabbed at the cake with the fork and broke off a piece, then tentatively put it in his mouth. “Not bad,” he said after he swallowed. “Better than mom’s, but not as good as Aunt Aubrey’s.”
“And that’s the correct answer,” Jax said, amused. “You can ask this for anything, and it will create what you want from carefully selected recipes. All of it will taste good, and will fill you up.”
“But?” Rhys ventured.
“But.” Jax took the fork and cut a bit off for himself. “It’s nutritionally null. It’s filler. You can eat until you’re so full you want to throw up, but if this is your only source of food, you’ll starve.”
Rhys pressed the button again. “Ice water,” he said, not surprised when it delivered a small glass filled with ice and water, condensation forming on the glass. He took a sip and said, “Yeah. Has a little metallic taste to it. Will it function like water in the body?”
Jax shook his head. “It won’t be readily absorbed. But this is what you’re talking about. Food replication and delivery. We’ve been battling this thing for longer than you’ve been alive, but we were never able to reach that magic point of it being worth the effort.”
“What about the—” he stopped at the sound of a door creaking open. The security guard entering also stopped, squinted, and reached for his sidearm before Jax could speak.
“Stand down,” he said when the laser pistol was out of its holster. “I’m just showing my nephew a few things.”
The guard’s eyes went wide. “Your Majesty.” The gun went back into the holster far quicker than it came out. “I wasn’t told you would be here today.”
“Last minute visit. I apologize.”
The corners of Jax’s mouth twitched up and I could hear “good boy” in his head. “Robin’s egg blue,” Jax said. “You are allowed to approach. See for yourself, I am who you think I am.”
Nervously, the guard crossed the expanse of the room. “I didn’t doubt you, sir, but…”
“Rules are rules. Rhys is interested in the technology behind the replicating system, and I hoped to give him a short tour of the facility. Are any of the engineers on hand today?”
“No food engineers,” he replied. “But Doctor Van Hoff is in the main office today. When I did my check-in a few minutes ago, he was swearing at something on the head unit.”
“Richard?” Rhys asked.
“Infrastructure design,” Jax said. “And if anyone can answer your questions, it’s him.”
The office was almost as big as Will’s workspace, with one wall consumed by display monitors. Richard Van Hoff—Drew’s father—stood in front of a middle display, arms crossed, and his scowl suggested he was either unhappy or confused. Or both. He also seemed unsurprised that Jax had arrived with a teenager in tow.
“Don’t bitch about me being here,” he said before Jax had a chance to say hello. “The transporter is basically done and I need something else to focus on. So I’m looking at old notes, and damn. This is a clusterfuck, Jax.”
“A functional clusterfuck. They’ll smooth it out if we ever get close to the end of the race.”
“Race.” Richard snorted. “With this, you’re mostly hopping on one leg while trying to maneuver your way down a pot-holed track. Look at this.” He pointed at Rhys and then the monitor. “You tell me. This is the formula for baked salmon. Why doesn’t it work?”
Head cocked slightly to the right, Rhys studied the data in front of him. He scrolled back and forth a few times, double checking, his scowl matching Richard’s before he was finished.
“There’s the structure of the fish,” he said, “and an approximation of the protein. Everything is there for the plate it’s served on and the utensils it comes with. But all the little bits are missing. Where’s the molecular structure of the skin? The proteins beyond how they’re formed? What about the minerals leeched from the bones?”
Richard nodded. “Computer, display data for cherries.”
Rhys’ mouth dropped open. “You can talk to it?”
“You can talk to your home system,” Richard said. “Just set the parameters and—”
“That function is disabled,” Jax said. “It’s a security risk. We have a closed system, for the most part, and highly monitored Internet.”
“It’s monitored?” Rhys asked.
Ask Oz and Drew about that. See how well it goes over when you search for videos on licking ice cream cones.
“Melting ice cream cones,” Jax said with a bit of a sigh. “In any case, yes, you are monitored. Personal texts are only seen if certain keywords are used. Videos are viewed.”
Richard pointed at the monitor. “Stop watching porn. And look at this. What’s missing?”
“The complete molecular structures of fructose. It’s got stuff that mimics sugar, but it’s not, not really.” He turned to Jax. “The replicator works, it’s just missing part of the data. Like, whoever was doing the input stopped before they finished.”
“You can tell that with just a glance.” It was less a question and more Jax musing over it.
“You were aware,” Richard said.
“I was aware it was unfinished. I was aware the food it produced is edible but not complete. I was also aware when the team head dropped dead from an aneurysm and the rest of them could not finish what they started. I am also aware that we’ve been unable to vet someone properly before hiring a new team. This is highly classified and as yet, we haven’t found the right people to withstand the scrutiny before they even know what they might work on.”
“Outsource it,” Rhys said. “Make Drew do the hiring. Ozoo has government contracts, right? They’ve got the clearance.”
“And Rhys does not,” Richard said to Jax.
Half an hour ago, Jax explained, all of this was a germinating idea in Rhys’s head. Bringing him to the facility was an impulse, a wish to show him he was on the right track. “And I don’t think he’s wrong about dropping all of this on Ozoo. It’s worth considering.”
“Will and Drew know about this,” Richard said. “Have they ever asked to be involved?”
“Not in so many words. But you know your son, Richard. Tell me he would reject the offer.”
“He won’t sacrifice his work in nanotechnology for this. But if he can expand? Sell him the facility, and he’ll bite.”
“Hell of an investment. I can’t just give it to him, it’s not mine to give.”
“Ozoo has an operating budget of over four trillion dollars, as of last year. They can invest a few billion of it on this.”
“Nepotism,” Jax said.
“So offer it out to bids,” Rhys said. “Undeclared government research, with the provision that Pacifica gets the goods when complete. Make it fair and it won’t matter.”
“It’s a little more complicated than that,” Jax said. “But I understand your intention.”
Richard turned the monitor off. “All right, kid, tell me what your long-term intention was with your replication idea.”
“Feed everyone,” he answered, sounding as if it were obvious. “And if food works, it can be tooled to replicate anything. Anywhere. It’s basically the answer to everything. Eventually miniaturize it, and put it on Elysium. And deep space vessels.”
I don’t think he noticed when Richard and Jax locked eyes.
“Tell me what else you’ve got brewing in there,” Richard eventually said, tapping the back of Rhys’s head with his pointy finger. “What other big ideas?”
He took a beat. “Well, you know the transporter? What if it could send something besides matter? What about data?”
“Yeah, like…voice data. We’ve got like a hundred deep-space ships out there and we can’t talk to them in real time, or even at all for the ones that left fifty years ago…but if we used transporters to send voice data, maybe bouncing off communication arrays that we place throughout the galaxy? We could figure out a way to send small ships, maybe wrapped in quantum bubbles so we don’t have to deal with time dilation, bounce them from point to point using transporter tech, and they can drop buoys along the way, until they reach the ships at the furthest points. And then beyond. And if the buoys have miniature trans tech, they can send voice data back. We’d be able to talk to those ships in real time.”
“Time dilation,” Richard reminded him.
“Yeah, well, the quantum bubble is one of the things we send data for. Newer ships have it, it’s just the older ones and they left here with enough stuff to make the modifications. They’re space cities, basically. We can even beef up the drives so that they can increase distances at hyper speeds. They could theoretically come home.”
“Even if that was not possible,” Richard mused, “we could still communicate and send goods.”
Quietly, Jax added, “We could transport replicators to them.”
“I mean, I know you’re probably already working on stuff like that, but it has kinda popped around in my head.”
If the government was working on it—and Jax didn’t deny that—they hadn’t figured out the little details yet. His quiet musing over it said what he didn’t: Rhys had given them an idea, and they both wanted to run with it.
“You needed a project, Richard?” he finally said. “We’ll hand this one over to Ozoo. You and Finn, if you’re willing, can take that one.”
“We still need to test transporting material goods to Elysium. But yes, if that works as well as I think, the next step would be testing the transporters in space at wider margins. A communications array is ideal.”
“Grandpa did it already, in the future,” Rhys said. “Sending and transporting stuff into space, I mean. He created the gates that transported the meteor between them.”
Those gates required use of an embedded digital transponder. The transporter did not, and no one yet trusted it with the ranges required in space, especially with biological materials.
Before leaving for home, Rhys wandered off to find the restroom, leaving Jax and Richard to talk.
“He reframed the questions we’ve asked a hundred times, Jax. But he sees the bigger picture, even if he hasn’t yet formed an idea of how to accomplish those things.”
“And we thought Will and Drew were smart.”
“Protect that boy,” Richard said. “At all costs. His mind…”
“He’s right, you know. But not necessarily in the way he thinks. The answer to everything isn’t the replicators. It’s a fifteen-year-old who undoubtedly has not washed his hands after using the facilities.”
They probably should have told him that. Because with that brain…things happen.