Chapter Three: World’s End
Only birds or airborne humans could enjoy a prospect such as I had of the meeting of the Hudson and East Rivers, the Verrazano Bridge and the Statue of Liberty from one hundred and seven floors above street level, the southern tip of Manhattan far below embracing the greatest harbor in the history of this world. It was a helluva view. And, never late for breakfast, I was over by a full-length window admiring it since I had shown up early. Flight on my mind, memories of the French biplane in which I’d first taken to the air a century ago returned unbidden as I beheld summer’s high, wide clear lens of blue washed in the light flowing from the bright morning sun.
The cars and people moved with a curiously unremarkable rhythm on what I have always regarded as the least remarkable day of the week — Tuesday — under a sky out of a grammar school “Dick and Jane” reading book. Manhattan was just a machine almost placidly turning its gears, and the vibe was kind of boring. The feeling of predictability, of routine, really shouldn’t have struck me as out-of-place. For something as big as New York to run smoothly year after year would only be possible if it ran as it was supposed to, if regularity were a watchword. Still, there was a quality of unreality to the whole scene.
Like me, the city seemed as if it were waiting for something.
“‘I once was lost, but never found,’” I recited under my breath, recalling the song that, for some strange reason, it seemed only I had heard on the ride over, “‘I think I’m losing what’s left of my mind to the Twentieth Century deadline.’”
The words could have been written for me. Or by me. Another century had come and gone. Actually, a box-set of ten centuries, a Millenium Special, had gone on sale. And I’d missed it, lost in a haze of forgetting. Again.
The next stanza was the one I couldn’t shake. Obscure meaning, references I neither recognized nor understood, and yet it had me. It brought Avalon back to me — not the Avalon of some years ago. The Avalon of centuries ago, when the peace was broken by betrayal, when love had shattered my heart and the silver towers both, when I had destroyed something I loved in the name of saving it, when I had taken for my emblem the silver rose.
A powerful memory, buried in the wild and remote terrain of a youthful heart since overgrown with a forest of misdeeds and cynicism. And buried deep. But for some things there is no place far enough, or deep enough. Some ghosts are restless. They found Troy, they found Babylon, they found the Terracotta Army, and, sooner or later, if anyone bothered to really look, they’d find Jimmy Hoffa. Just as I eventually found Amber. The world is a roomy old mansion, whose past clings to it like ivy and rust, shuffles through its corridors like spiderwebs walking on its drafty breath, rummages through it like the unseen shifting of objects by poltergeists. And we are no different from the world.
Upon the previous day’s departure from the police station, something electronic had beeped. We had been out on the sidewalk, making our way toward Bleeker.
Merlin had seemed as surprised as I had been as I’d fished the black handheld device out of a side pocket of his pack. I hadn’t been able to avoid thinking of a Star Trek
communicator as I’d opened his Motorola cellphone.
“Carl?” the familiar voice coming through the phone had asked. Not just a familiar voice, a friend’s voice, one I had recognized right away.
“Bill? Bill, gods, but it’s been a long time. Too long. Good to hear your voice again. How are you? And how are Alice and the kids?”
There had been a short laugh.
“Carl. Carl Corey. You still go by that?”
“When circumstances dictate. Today, though, and for the foreseeable future, I’m stuck being Corwin. Just don’t tell the front desk at my hotel.”
“Hotels aren’t sticklers for getting names right where I come from. Especially if you pay with cash.”
“Which,” I’d cheerfully rejoined, “by a strange coincidence, I do.”
“Just the word I would use for a Napoleon expert who drives cars into lakes, leaves priceless jewelry in compost heaps, gets hospitalized with nearly fatal stab wounds, is featured on a pack of ice-cold Tarot cards, vanishes into thin air before startled nurses, reappears over twenty years later asking how my family’s doing. Just like there’s nothing out of the ordinary about such things. That’s the word for it: strange.”
That had set me back a little.
“Over twenty years? It’s been that long?”
“Who was President last time we saw each other?”
I had cast my mind back, to what events had been transpiring in America and the world then. A troubled time, to be sure, and my recollection of that era might be off here and there, limited as it was to newspapers, television and gossip picked up while in a hospital bed and on subsequent occasions. The OPEC oil embargo, coming on the heels of Nixon taking the dollar off the gold standard, had contributed to inflation and a persistent recession. The Vietnam War had only worsened the financial picture and had been over for a couple of years, a political and military disaster, leaving the Cold War in high gear. There is always another military conflict, of course, and there had been new ones in Cambodia and Angola, along with the war between Egypt and Israel. Nuclear arms control was a major issue; the Strategic Arms Limitation Treaty between the U.S. and Soviet Union had been signed a few years back. The SALT agreement was the last big thing I could recall from that period of upheaval. Sonny and Cher had split up, the Eagles had made Winslow, Arizona, famous, Pink Floyd had been looking at the dark side of the moon, Stephen King had been making horror interesting again, and Spielberg had afflicted folk everywhere with a fear of swimming at the beach.
Journeys through Shadow have taught me a proper respect for libraries, and I always spend at least a little time in one if I can. When I had returned for a souvenir of my time in this Shadow, however, I had been disinclined to tarry for long. But I had gotten the impression much had transpired since.
So I had answered, “Ford. No, wait, there was a new guy from Dixie, right? Farmer?”
“Carter. There have been four presidents since then, Corwin. And a couple hung on for two terms. Remember those twin grandsons I showed you last time? One’s in trucking school and the other is doing grad work at RIT designing videogames.”
Regret had hit me in the gut, followed by the usual accompanying kidney-punch delivered by the other fist, guilt. My throat had become a little dry; I’d swallowed.
“Have a life?”
“No,” I had said, the truth blindsiding me, smarting as it always does, “I don’t. And am having trouble remembering the last time it was when I did. That’s the sad part.”
“You know what’s better than being sad?”
“Meeting me tomorrow for breakfast. There’s a place I know down in the City. You game?”
“Bill, this whole not having a life thing—”
“It’s not really working for you? So you’ll be there?”
It was crazy. The entire universe, or multiverse, whatever you want to call it, was under threat from the Courts of Chaos, from witches, from long-lost — though probably not too sorely missed — relatives. My son had just escaped and returned to me. Amber’s foreign minister, the most well-informed link between the two ends of existence, was a prisoner in the heart of Chaos, or worse. And my nephew, heir to Amber’s throne, was missing, possibly deceased. If there had been a right time for renewing old friendships, this surely wasn’t it.
So I had said, “What time?”
He’d laughed and said, “Great. Bring that boy of yours along, too. Very smart kid. A little strange at times, but the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, does it? Okay, let me tell you how to get there.”
Once I had the directions, and we had settled on a time, I had said, “Before we sign off, you were calling for Merlin. Do you wish to speak to him?”
“Does he want to talk to me?” had come the reply. “I’m calling because of the message.”
“‘Call Carl Corey.’ Does he want to talk now, or wait till we’re together tomorrow?”
Merlin had shaken his head when I had asked him if he had wanted to talk, so Bill and I had said our good-byes and I had replaced the cellphone in the maroon backpack.
Well, tomorrow had arrived, doubtless bringing with it new things to learn. Not that anything new was really required, as yesterday had provided plenty.
When I had departed Earth what seemed like ages ago — the ‘70s — to make good my claim on Amber’s throne, there had been computers. Big, clunky machines that filled air-conditioned rooms, using for memory in their giant drives disks nearly the size of spare tires, critical files backed up on spools of tape, information often fed into them on punch-cards. A network originally put in place for the DoD — the ARPANET, sometimes called DARPANET — had allowed computers to communicate over large distances at slow speeds, using phone-lines.
Those days lay far in the past.
In my Manhattan hotel room there was a connection to the ARPANET’s much faster successor, which I had learned was now known as the Internet. For any guest’s personal portable computer. There was also a business center, where I could use a computer provided by the hotel to access the Web of computers that stretched across the entire world, linked together by the Internet. For Earth’s inhabitants, this had all become unremarkable, a normal part of life as the Millennium came and went. For me, however, it still blew my mind that the world’s libraries, newspapers, magazines, art, music and more could be browsed with ease from a hotel, a home, or an Internet café. A carry-around computer packed away like a small briefcase was all that one needed.
Merlin, though, had hardly seemed overawed by such advances as he had retrieved the triple-size card case I had first seen in the police station. Withdrawing a card, he had stared at it a moment and pulled a laptop out of thin air before turning the card away.
A laptop Trump!
My eyes had widened a bit at the sight of the designs worked into the laptop’s outer casing — Celtic spirals, runes, a sequence of numbers, equations — as I had taken in this latest item in the mystery surrounding my son. But I chose not to be distracted from the question I had waited to ask till after our cab ride and the journey up the hotel elevator.
“So,” I had wondered aloud, “Morey Lennon or Marv Dunne left Bill Roth a message?”
“Someone did,” Merlin had answered.
Merlin had shaken his head as he had set the laptop on a table in my room and opened it up.
“No, they did.”
“The Men in Black.”
I had heard the capital letters as he had signed the computer onto the hotel’s Internet connection.
“The agents? They called Bill? I wonder why.”
“To learn more about what we know, of course.”
Not entirely sure I knew who his ‘we’ included, I had asked instead, “And what would that be, exactly?”
“This,” he had answered, indicating the computer screen.
“The...Global Consciousness Project?” I had asked, no doubt sounding somewhat skeptical as I had read the web-page over his shoulder. “What in the world is that? More to the point, what has it got to do with anything, and why would the agents care?”
“It is thirty-seven Random Event Generators in distant places, linked together by this world’s Internet. What it does is constantly flip electronic coins in those thirty-seven places. The Men in Black care because the flipping of the coins is affected by the model of reality found in the minds of billions, and that model is not separate from the reality it mirrors, but is also a part of it. Do you understand?”
“I believe that I do,” I had decided after a moment. “All humans, according to this project, possess to some degree the same power that you and I share. The power to affect probability, and therefore reality, through the inner workings of the mind itself?”
Merlin had smiled at that.
“You have always had what may be the most flexible intellect of Oberon’s children. And you have it right. There is also a secret project using Extrasensory Global Gauges, which are hardly any different from the Random Event Generators, that does almost exactly the same thing. The secret project may nevertheless be more advanced than the one at the university, and the Men in Black may have been warned by the noosphere of a major world event.”
Merlin had nodded as he had touched the keys, bringing up a new screen, and had explained further.
“The philosophers of this Shadow understand more than most. Life woven over a world is understood by them to be a biosphere. And the complex of awareness arising from such life they understand as a noosphere. And they are close to the greater understanding.”
“And what would that be?”
“An understanding of time. The observer and the observed modify each other. This they have known. And this is so for the mind and the world where it functions. This they are only coming to know now. But do they know that events modify events?”
“Not sure I’m following you.”
“The past ordains the future, but the future has no sway over the past? Or the present?” Then he had announced, “There they are, the cumulative deviations.”
The data graphed on the screen had, to my eye, resembled nothing so much as the readings on an EEG monitor. It could have been someone’s brainwaves and had made no more sense to me than that would have.
Merlin, seeing my expression, had continued.
“The X-axis is local time, second-to-second. The vertical axis measures the cumulative deviation of variance of scores among all thirty-seven Random Event Generators. When the states of the minds of this Earth’s inhabitants are changed in large numbers by major events, there should be an increasingly positive deviation as the REGs produce results that are less and less random. If large numbers of minds begin ordering the results before powerful or world-changing events, then those minds are changing before those events happen.”
“Electronic Tarot,” I had said aloud, voicing the thought that had struck me as his words had begun making a kind of sense. “But there are two sets of data plotted here,” I had observed, taking notice of the two jagged lines, one red, one blue, traveling from left to right across the graph.
Merlin had seemed pleased.
“Tarot by machine. Why not? The book of the universe is written in mathematics. We must learn the language to read its pages. A computer program mimicking the output of thirty-seven REGs giving the greatest variance that could happen by chance grinds out the data for the blue line. The red line shows the variance in the data from the actual REGs scattered across this world.”
“The blue is consistently above zero, showing regular spikes up around the two on your cumulative deviation,” I had observed. “The red spikes around one and negative one, wandering around the horizontal axis of zero. Though I am not an expert on statistics, I would say that looks normal.”
“It is,” Merlin had agreed, pushing back his chair and getting up, leaving beside the keyboard the Trump he had used earlier, “but let us leave this screen up while I go on a Shadow-walk. If something is coming, the red will sober up and climb above the blue, and I will be able to see it with one of my Trumps for this machine.”
“You will be there in the morning, I hope,” watching as he had stopped by the door, after taking a small item out of his pack, which I had presumed to be one of the Trumps he had just mentioned. “Bill is expecting you. And I would like to hear about where you’re going...and where you’ve been. And also...”
Merlin had turned and paused with his hand on the doorknob to hear my final comment.
“What the hell you mean by a line getting sober.”
He had flashed me a grin and departed without another word. And now here I was, wearing a freshly purchased gray golf shirt under a black suit jacket, along with a pair of new black wool slacks, and realizing I had barely dressed formally enough.
The place was small and intimate, almost entirely of wood, a real thing of beauty. I paused to admire the beams running across the strips of wood that made up the ceiling. As I did, my gaze fell on a gentleman standing very close by, apparently also taking in the incredible view. He sported shoes that reflected good taste and a willingness to pay for it, and was better dressed than I was; in fact, his attire reminded me of two gentleman I had been introduced to just the day before.
He inclined his head, acknowledging me and seeming to take note of my reaction.
“You know who I am?” he asked.
“Don’t believe I have ever had the pleasure. Should I?”
He extended his hand and I shook it.
“I’m Miller. I probably look familiar to you because you met two of my colleagues yesterday.”
“Well, Agent Miller, I can assure you there has been no unlicensed fortune-telling since then. And, as you can see, I haven’t left the Island.”
Chuckling easily, he released my hand and gestured toward my table.
“Shall we sit? I only have a couple of minutes.”
We each took one of the four captain’s chairs, sitting across from one another. I chose to take the one that left me with the inspiring prospect beyond the floor-to-ceiling windows.
Miller was smiling.
“Fantastic location, isn’t it?”
“Yes and no,” I equivocated, “On the one hand, I am reminded of nothing so much as the cozy and exclusive seating to be found in the dining section of a zeppelin. On the other hand, the most famous zeppelin today is known to us as the Hindenburg
. Yet on the third hand — in the case where I hail from the Mars of H. G. Wells — files on Morey Lennon’s computer indicate the disaster befalling that most famous of zeppelins not only failed to deter the military from pursuing lighter-than-air vehicles, but may even have been engineered to move that technology out of the private sector.”
“Conspiracy and speculation, worthy of any of the more deranged residents of an asylum — or sanitarium,” Miller cheerfully rejoined. Then, leaning forward, and grinning at me as he did, “And did I mention we’ve hacked into your son’s computer and deleted files he illegally stole from the government?”
“Interesting,” I allowed. “Maybe I forgot to mention he owns more than one laptop, and that those files are safely stored on several?”
“I called him your son,” Miller reminded me, now leaning back, regarding me with cool confidence, as if he had just played the Queen of Spades or some other trump card.
“So you did,” I conceded, intrigued but untroubled, “but I still see a military-industrial complex so freaked by what we know that I keep running into agents trying and failing to scare me.”
Miller laughed, and impatiently drummed the fingertips of his right hand on the table.
“I don’t have time for these games. If either the military or intelligence community were worried about what you know, you would not be sitting with me right now worrying them about what you know.”
“True,” I agreed, “but I’m not their real problem, am I? Those files are, and the cat’s half out of the bag as it is. So why am
I sitting with you right now?”
Miller became still for a moment, regarding me steadily, thoughtfully.
“You really are that guy who was at Wright-Patterson in 1949,” he said at last. “Aren’t you? That’s really something, and most of the guys I work with don’t believe it. Wow.” He said nothing for a heartbeat, just staring at me, and then resumed: “What do you know about the end of the world, Carl?”
He shook his head, at once baffled and amused.
“The year 2000. Some people thought it might be the end. Now they say it’s gonna be 2012. UFOs? Stolen files? No one cares. Disinformation is a good enough smokescreen. The end of the world is different. We care about that.”
“And I say again,” I said, feeling a little out of my depth: “Pardon?”
“The Russians were out of money,” Miller explained, “We had to launch RELIKT-2 for them. Secretly. Mark Dillon or Morey Lennon or whatever his real name is, your son, knew about it and saw the data. He is our expert on astrophysics. So now you know why you and he are still alive. See, he found evidence of another universe.”
“What?” I said, genuinely floored.
“Cosmic Microwave Background Radiation,” Miller went on. “Mark or Morey or Marv? Your son? He is...a genius.” There was respect in his voice. “In the map of the radiation left by the Big Bang he found things. There are holes, very large holes, in the map, where something outside the universe has pulled energy out of it. Clusters of galaxies are being swept toward one part of the sky, like stuff caught in a river current—”
“—or leaves in the wind?” I guessed.
Miller said nothing, just looked at me, waiting.
But I was looking at something else, a memory of a cyclone whirling luminous leaves about me, each leaf a universe. And, within one of those leaves there stood, I knew, the tree of the leaf, a Pattern spread below it, but not the Pattern that ruled the worlds I walked when I went among Shadows. A different Pattern.
“The Big Rip.”
“What?” I said again, woken from my reverie.
“The Big Rip,” Miller repeated, getting up to go, adjusting his jacket. “The end of the world, the end of everything. That’s why I came by. That’s why you keep breathing air. Ask your son about it.”
Momentarily speechless, I just looked at him. I was thinking. Whatever “men in black” were, I wasn’t so sure Miller was the same kind of animal.
“They serve a pretty good breakfast,” the agent said, handing me a menu, “Try the smoked salmon with cream cheese and bagels. Delicious, but if the cream cheese doesn’t kill you, modern life will. Be careful crossing the street.”
Not tall, which is perhaps just a more polite way of saying “short,” but maybe I can be polite on certain occasions. And the reunion with a friend, in my book, is one of those. That I had not seen this particular friend in a quarter of a century registered in more ways than one: in some additional weight on his heavy-set frame, in the gray head of hair which had also gotten thinner, in the speed with which he moved, in the look on his face and — I assumed — in the look on mine. His showed something akin to wonder, amazement at seeing me after such a long, long time. Mine showed...I was reluctant to imagine what mine showed, but I managed to meet his grin with one of my own as I stood and leaned across the table for his hand.
It was not just my hand that he shook; he was shaking his head slowly as the waiter came forward to pull his chair out from the table for him. He stopped the head-shaking to sit, turn to the waiter, thank him and accept a menu. Then he looked at me again, rubbed his chin and shook his head once more.
“I don’t even know what to call you,” he said finally.
“How about,” I suggested, “‘Hey, aren’t you that lousy son of a bitch who’s forgotten how to pick up a telephone to call an old friend’?”
“I thought I called you that yesterday. Must have slipped my mind while I was having my heart-attack.”
“Not the medical kind. The heart-attack you get when you win the lottery, or when you find out your wife’s pregnant with twins.”
That got me to relax again, which is how I learned I had tensed when I had thought for a moment he had really suffered a coronary.
“You had me there a second. I’m glad the waiter won’t have to bring the paddles along when he serves your sausage and eggs.”
He sat there, smiling at me, silent a moment, and then said, “I’m going to call you Corwin, if that’s all right.”
“I don’t see why it shouldn’t be. Agents I have met recently are aware of a few of my aliases already, and the name Corwin won’t mean anything to them or to anyone else.”
“You’ve met the Men in Black?”
“Yesterday,” I affirmed. “And possibly again a very short time ago. You might’ve gone past one on your way into the restaurant. Only he didn’t fit the same mold as my friends from yesterday. No shades, more direct, came here alone. And had a different agenda. The Men in Black seemed very interested in determining whether Merlin and I were extraterrestrials or not. Agent Miller was after something else.”
“There were three men getting onto the elevator as I got off,” Bill said, adjusting the position of his bifocals on the bridge of his nose. “Two were on their way to the conference downstairs complaining only a quarter of the invitees had shown up. The other man was not with them, and said nothing.”
“Describe him for me.”
Bill complied, offering details he was able to recall concerning the third man, including in his account that the man “had on a really nice pair of shoes.”
“That’s him,” I confirmed, with a small snort. “Not so much in uniform, as a man dressed for another day at the office. There is a difference, and that would be the one setting him apart from the alien-chasing agents. Though he was more open with me, the Men in Black nevertheless handed me back something from the time of my accident.”
Bill chuckled and produced some papers that had been tucked in his jacket.
“That reminds me, I brought these for you,” he said, placing the papers on the table, smoothing them flat, then turning them around in order to pick them up and toss them onto my side. “The last of my investigation. Leftovers Ed Wellen found and gave to me when he was getting your house ready for sale. Oh, there is more, in some boxes in my attic. You can have them any time you want to come out and visit.”
As I began flipping through the paperwork — course descriptions, syllabi, class assignments and tests with the name ‘Carl Corey’ on them — I listened for anything more Bill might have to say.
“There was a meeting of the Carls,” Bill continued, “Carl Corey...”
And then I saw it, of course, but I said nothing so Bill could complete the sentence.
“...and Carl Sagan,” he finished.
I nodded, but remained quiet. A lover of the mystery genre, the man across from me had a problem-solving mind in that head of his, and I was curious if he had anything more to tell me.
“Sagan and two other scientists appeared as skeptics at a symposium on UFOs sponsored by the American Association for the Advancement of Science. In 1969. The year of your accident. Sagan had come to Cornell, you see—”
“—the year before,” I chimed in. “He had been denied tenure at Harvard. So he moved to Cornell to take an endowed chair. And almost the first thing he does is debunk UFOs as evidence of extraterrestrial visitations. I was searching for my past, wondering if I might myself be an extraterrestrial...it all fits.”
“Mr. Holmes, thanks.”
“Alice and I agreed years ago that I must be Watson,” Bill corrected me, indicating his belly with an affectionate pat before turning to the waiter, who had just then returned to stand by our table.
As I watched this man I had known since before the births of his grandchildren, I contemplated the events and choices that had brought us together again.
Bill Roth was my closest remaining friend from the old days, when I dwelt in this shadow. Realizing that truth had made me keen not to lose him and that had been my initial reason for deciding to see him. He was also an attorney, had taken care of selling off my house for me. A pretty big favor for which I owed him. And he had helped me track down the whereabouts of the Jewel of Judgment when it had briefly resided here, before Brand had absconded with it. Also good reasons for seeing my old friend again.
There was another reason, though. He obviously had been in some way party to Merlin’s and Martin’s activities here. He was therefore important as a potential source of information. So, on this occasion at least, sentiment and expediency would together season our breakfast. As for the latest tidbit of my own history which he had just provided, I was considering that the special of the day, something I had not expected to find on the menu.
The waiter turned to me as I was musing, and I realized I had not given any real thought to what I wanted.
“Are you ready to order, sir?”
“I am. I’d like to start off with your smoked salmon, cream cheese and bagels — recommended to me by one of your regulars — along with a serving of your granola, a glass of orange juice and some of your coffee.”
“‘Start off’? Will you be ordering anything else?”
“Your prime breakfast sirloin with eggs is tempting me. Let me think about it, and I’ll let you know when the bagels and granola arrive.”
The waiter nodded, said, “We will have your orders out to you shortly,” took our menus and departed.
Bill was shaking his head again, and grinning.
“Your appetite hasn’t changed. Nothing about you has.”
“Look closer,” I advised. “War, death, taxes. Murder, mayhem, madness. See the tiredness around the eyes? This is no longer the quality craftsmanship of yesteryear. This is the ‘new and improved’ Corwin. Meaning you pay more, and you get less. Don’t let the first impression today deceive you. But I will go this far. I missed the hotel’s continental this morning, and I’m ready for some food.”
“At my age,” Bill said, sipping his water, “I won’t argue with your assessment of ‘new and improved.’ The preponderance of evidence supports it. Your friend Sagan was a classic. After him, there have only been your ‘pay more, get less’ models. NASA these days calls it ‘faster, better, cheaper.’ It is a different world out there.”
“Sagan was not so much a friend, as an acquaintance,” I elaborated, wanting the record to be clear. “As an open-minded skeptic interested in other worlds, he was a man I wanted to talk to — and did, on a few occasions after class. And one time when I drove out to his office at Cornell to put forward a notion for inter-world travel. But I heard ‘was’ and ‘after’ just now; the man’s still around isn’t he? He was younger than yourself.”
Bill just shook his head.
Sitting there, reminded as always that the fate of us all, ordinary or extraordinary, is to rejoin the dust beneath our feet, I said, “That is sad news. Did they ever find life on Mars? That was one of his hopes, I believe.”
“No, but they’re still looking,” Bill said, glancing past me toward the morning sky beyond the windows (I had taken Miller’s seat after he had left, wanting my guest to have the view), “I follow science more, being retired. I have the time, and the big questions interest me. Is life out there? Why is there anything at all instead of nothing? How long will the universe last?”
“I’m surprised you didn’t ask Merlin some of those.”
“I did ask him,” Bill admitted, putting his hand again around his glass, but not lifting it, just staring into it for a moment before looking at me again. “He didn’t know why there was something rather than nothing. He stated that the universe is full of life and even went further than that.”
“How do you go further than that?” I wondered.
“He indicated the universe is a living entity.”
“Quite a claim,” I concurred, not sure how such an assertion should be interpreted. “What did you make of it?”
“I don’t know. I know the law, and comprehend some of the science I read. But religion is too big a puzzler for me.”
A thought struck me then, concerning what Merlin might have been thinking of when he had given his answer. But it could wait till later, so I set it aside for the time being.
“Perhaps it’s more a philosophy thing, not so much a religion thing,” I offered. “Did he ever get around to that other question of yours about the lifetime of the universe?”
“Oh, yes. He said the universe might not last as long as everyone thought, but we would have to wait until the Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe—”
“—The what what?”
“Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe,” Bill repeated. “They call it WMAP. Merlin said it would take years for WMAP to build a good picture. He did hold out hope, though, for a clandestine military program and a mysterious Russian satellite to give quicker results.”
“Was this the RELIKT-2 satellite?”
“Right! The Russians had run out of funds due to the Cold War—”
“—so the Pentagon quietly launched it for them,” I jumped in, catching on. “And this satellite was mapping Big Bang radiation?”
“Yes,” Bill agreed. “The Cosmic Microwave Background.”
I was beginning to see the light. The very, very, very old light from the Big Bang.
“Bill,” I asked, “Did Merlin ever have anything to say about something called the Big Rip?”
“Well, he is very well-informed and knows many experts. But I have never heard him say very much about it.”
Some of my disappointment must have been visible in my expression, as Bill hastened to add, “But I know what it is.”
“What is it?”
Bill cupped his hands together before him.
“If my hands are the universe,” Bill said, beginning to draw his hands apart, “then the Big Rip happens when the universe expands too fast, pulling everything within it apart till it bursts” — he moved his palms abruptly away from each other — “like a balloon inflated too quickly. That is how it has been explained to laymen like me, anyway.”
The waiter at that moment appeared with our breakfasts, which he placed before us on the table. Addressing me, he then said, “Have you decided about the prime sirloin and eggs?”
“I have, and have decided a sirloin, medium rare, and eggs over easy are an excellent idea. Could you have that brought out as soon as it’s ready?”
The waiter nodded, said, “Of course,” then gestured toward the entrance to the restaurant. “A Mr. Maio and his daughter have asked to join you. Shall I send them over?”
Having called Maio from my hotel the previous evening to let him know what had happened to me and where I would be today, I was not caught entirely off guard.
“Please do, but can you give us about three minutes first? We are about to wrap up our discussion.”
“It will take a few minutes for them to come up,” the waiter informed me. “They are waiting in the lobby on the floor below. Will that be enough time?”
“That should be fine. Thank-you.”
The waiter went his way, and when I looked at Bill again I could see he was a little confused.
“A few things, very quickly,” I explained, moving my napkin farther to the side. “Merlin asked me to bring this along, since he would not be able to join us right away.” There was a Trump lying face up where the napkin had been, which I picked up and began to stare at, concentrating. “Exactly how much has Merlin told you concerning the Tarots, the Pattern, Amber and Shadow?”
Bill blinked, glanced upward for a second before peering back at me through his bifocals.
“Your son has said that physicist Max Tegmark is correct that there is an infinite multiverse, which your people call Shadow. Amber is at the center of one loop of the lazy eight and Chaos at the center of the other loop. A Trump can open a wormhole from any place in the multiverse to any other place. The Pattern is the source of the negative energy the Trumps use to open passages through space and time.”
Merlin had apparently done as I had, and found on this Shadow Earth terms and concepts corresponding to our own understanding of reality. Recognizing this, I continued to stare at the card, and the connection was made. I was staring at the laptop back at the hotel, through the very same Trump which Merlin had used to summon the computer in the first place. Before leaving the hotel, a quick check of the latest data had revealed that, shortly before six o’clock, the red graph had topped the blue and reached two on the cumulative deviation scale. I focused on the screen.
It was now zigzagging around four.
“I can see my hotel room through the passage created by this card,” I let Bill know. “And I imagine what I am looking at is what Merlin meant when he told you the universe is alive. The noosphere, he calls it. The interface between subjective and objective reality. Monitored by the Global Consciousness Project at Princeton. I am looking at a computer in my room tracking its live data as I speak. And it’s telling me something.”
“What is it telling you?”
“That a major world event is happening. Right now.”
Even as I spoke, my mind broke into pieces, fractured along the fault-lines of time. Perhaps it was because I was viewing another place through a Trump, and somehow violating the sanctity of space and time, as Bill had just described. Whatever the cause, memories overtook me. The memory of slowly and deliberately inscribing a new Pattern on a nameless plateau overlooking a great wasteland under the sky of Chaos, the Pattern within the Jewel of Judgment and myself merged in the inexorability of the process, the feeling that I had become one with fate. Memories of dreams of the green-bearded Old Man of the Sea which had driven me from Rebma to seek answers in Tir-na Nog'th. The memory of Grayswandir falling toward me as I endured the Ordeal of the Wheel in the Arena of Doom, as I had already seen it do in a vision. The memory of myself in Valtuya, my underwater Alcatraz in the Courts of Chaos, scratching six black-and-white murals out of the black paste laid on the walls of my prison...towers. Always towers...
Maio and a blonde woman entered my field of vision, breaking the spell. Shifting my gaze back to Bill, I saw his look of concern.
The Trump connection was gone. I stared at it, focused on the card again, willing it to be real, hoping against hope, desperate. The image on the card swam before my eyes, changed, became three-dimensional. Be there, I said in my mind, be there!
And he was.
Merlin was on the other side of the room, maroon backpack in hand, though, and not right by the laptop as I had wanted him to be.
There was a pressure, moments being shoved into each other like a toppling row of dominos. Time collapsing.
There was no way to keep the growing sense of panic out of my voice.
He heard me and looked up. Maybe he even saw me on the other end of the corridor of space-time opened by the Trump, weird light like a broken sunbeam dancing over by the table where his laptop computer was busily processing the data from Princeton, charting it across the screen.
And he didn’t hesitate.
Merlin threw the backpack.
It came flying over the top of his computer, right at me. Reflexively, I stood and caught it. Unfortunately, I lost the Trump connection at the same time.
Everything happened at once.
Maio and the girl were approaching the table. Bill was getting to his feet.
And then I saw it.
It was as if Bill wasn’t standing across from me, as if the restaurant behind him and the entire one hundred and seventh floor — the entire tower, in fact — had faded away, as if I were floating above Manhattan on a magic carpet. In this vision I was not floating there alone. Something shared the sky with me.
The song that had come to me out of nowhere on the ride over from where I was staying in Murray Hill to the Wild Blue Restaurant earlier this morning returned, rang in my head. I remembered sitting in the cab, singing it softly to myself: “‘I was made of poison and blood. Condemnation is what I understood.’”
Guided not by thought, but by what people like to call instinct — I know not what to call it other than the imperative need to act — I dug into Merlin’s pack and my hand immediately closed upon his oversized card case. Maybe that hand, shocked with the sudden dose of adrenaline racing through my bloodstream, shook a little as it slipped the case open.
Moving to stand with Maio, the girl, and Bill, I overrode their questions and yelled, “Stay close and hold on!” even as I drew the first Trump that came to hand.
The patrons and staff stared at us, perplexed, irritated. I believe a few voiced their objections to my behavior.
My mind seized on the subject of the Trump immediately. A small quay where a rowboat and a sailboat bobbed in the waves, the stony place sprinkled with minor vegetation, surrounded by the moonlit sea, the gray lighthouse rising up above everything else. Against a backdrop of stars and shadows, the vision came nearer and a mild breeze touched my garments.
From their reactions, I knew the others now saw what I saw.
“If you see it, go to it! Now!”
Maio, veteran of many a vision quest, seemed the least surprised by what was happening, and moved in front of me and into the other place, taking the hand of the girl and bringing her through with him. Bill stepped before me, turned to look at me, then moved ahead also.
Then there was an explosion, and the tower shuddered.
The next line of the song seemed to echo around me as I steadied myself and almost stumbled into the place that waited.
“Video games to the tower’s fall.”
There was smoke behind me, there was disaster behind me, and in my wake, I knew, there was death.
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