Bill stripped off his clothes, down to his underwear. Grace looked at his pale, shivering body as he walked out on the ice.
Her hands played at his collar, undoing the tiny white buttons.
by Jason Stoddard
|Grace Murray sat alone by the dining-room windows of the Antarctic Diamond, waiting for the end of the evening. The servers had just poured the little crystal glasses of Dr. Pinkman's Universal Panacea, and brilliant reflections from the ice-fields outside made the bright red liquid glow like neon. One last toast, and she could go back to her cabin and think about binary logic and compilers and new code.
At the captain's table, Thomas Edison stood and raised his glass. In the week since they'd left Ushuaia, he'd turned it into his own little ritual. He knew grandstanding. Loved it, actually. Grace wondered again why he hadn't challenged Roosevelt in the 1984 elections.
Around the room, the beautiful people raised their glasses in silent salute. Grace sighed and picked up her own.
To the end of the evening, she thought.
"To the foundation of our age," Edison said.
The room chanted Edison's incantation back to him in solemn and serious tones. They raised glasses to lips and drank.
"Foundations are buried," a man said, just loud enough to be heard over the deep thrum of the engines.
Grace craned her neck to see who had spoken. She saw a tall, thin, and somewhat gawky man sitting at one of the big circular tables near the center of the room. He brushed his sandy hair back from his brow with shaking fingers.
"Do you have some great wisdom to share, sir?" Edison said.
"Things buried, they rot," the man said, blushing. But he didn't look away from Edison's bright eyes. Grace sat up straighter, wondering who the man was.
"Are you trying to draw some analogy to the current state of our world?" Edison said.
"I'm just saying, things get old."
Edison raised his brows. "You doubt the proof of your own eyes? I am one hundred thirty-eight this day, with all the vitality of my youth, thanks to Dr. Pinkman's elixir," Edison said. He brushed back fine brown hair from his smooth, unlined brow.
"Really? All the vitality?"
Edison gave a thin-lipped smile. "You're a young man, are you not?"
Knowing murmurs from the audience.
"And your name, sir?"
Edison turned to address all the diners. "Mr. Henry thinks there is some vital spark that diminishes with age. I've heard this argument many times before. As, I am sure, have you."
Turning back to Mr. Henry, Edison said: "But I ask you, Mr. Henry, would you trust our Antarctic circumnavigation to any captain save our distinguished Mr. Frederick, who has over eighty years at sea?"
"I wouldn't trust the voyage myself, without one of your computing-engines guiding our vessel," Captain Frederick said, causing some mild laughter.
"A younger captain might find faster routes," Mr. Henry said. "Or get us deeper into the ice."
"By taking more chances, and endangering all our lives."
"Without chance, there's no discovery."
"Then I suppose you would also trust your surgery to a doctor with only a few scant years of practice, or your life to an airship pilot who had just received his license. I am sorry, young man, for I see you soon discovering a fate that no amount of Dr. Pinkman's can cure."
Edison smiled one last time at Mr. Henry, then turned to murmur quiet words to his new wife, Ann.
Grace blew out her breath in a big rush. She hadn't realized she was holding it. She'd never seen anyone talk back to Edison.
Except yourself, she thought.
"You know I'm right," Mr. Henry said.
Edison looked up, now openly frowning.
"The Harvard Report documents the slowing of thought and the mental fugues. You can't fight the decades."
Gasps from the audience. Grace raised a hand to cover a smile.
Edison turned to face Mr. Henry again. His brows were drawn down, but bright eyes sparkled beneath them. Grace had seen that look before when Edison was deep in a problem, turning it on the lathe of his mind. He was enjoying this.
Edison came down from the captain's table to look closely at Mr. Henry, as if he was a curious specimen dredged up from the unfathomable deeps. "So you want to discuss the Harvard Report on Aging, Mr. Henry?"
"It proves my point."
"Where did you obtain it?"
Mr. Henry's blush returned, brighter this time. He looked away.
"Let me guess," Edison said, addressing the room. "Wastrel son of some stockbroker, sent to Harvard on his family's good name, discovered fraternity life, much to their dismay?"
Mr. Henry's hands clenched and his jaw set, but he said nothing.
"Your profession, Mr. Henry?"
"I've done work in data processing."
Edison's gaze flickered towards Grace. "That is an old field."
"I have new ideas."
"Then perhaps Edison Computing Corporation should employ your unique talents and insights."
Nervous laughter from the room.
Mr. Henry looked away.
"Ah. You have nothing more to say?"
Mr. Henry shook his head.
"Then I believe it's time to pack up this sad carnival. Good evening, Mr. Henry."
Edison turned his back on the young man and went back to talk with Captain Frederick and Ann.
Mr. Henry stood and walked away. When he reached the dining room's double doors, he paused and said, "How old is your wife, Mr. Edison?"
Edison's wife, Ann, looked up sharply at the comment. Her bright blue eyes were wide, reflecting the Antarctic sun. Grace had heard rumors that Edison met her in a youth enclave.
"I don't see how that is relevant," Edison said.
As soon as she dared, Grace followed Mr. Henry out.
· · · · ·
In the bar, the bartender was busy closing heavy mahogany shutters against the glare of the perpetual sun. Mr. Henry was his only customer. He sat slumped on a stool, peering down into an amber glass of scotch.
The bartender glanced once at Grace and closed the last shutter. She blinked in the sudden dimness and sat next to Mr. Henry.
"You shouldn't chase the Panacea with alcohol," she said before she could stop herself.
"Who are you, my mother?" Not looking at her.
Grace felt herself blush. She was seventy-eight. She could be his grandmother.
"Why did you do it?" Grace said.
Mr. Henry sighed and turned to face her. He gave her that strange blank look that men sometimes used when they were too distracted to be interested in her as a woman. When they were thinking.
"Sometimes I think they'll listen," he said. "Sometimes I think I might make a difference."
Grace let the silence draw out, but Mr. Henry said nothing more. The bartender drifted over and asked Mr. Henry what she wanted. He shrugged and looked at her.
"Same as you."
Mr. Henry's eyebrows raised. "Glengloyne?"
"You don't know me, Mr. Henry," Grace said.
"It's Bill. Just Bill."
"Grace Murray," Grace said.
Bill sighed. "I know, Miss Murray."
"You're the only woman working for Edison, Miss Murray."
Grace frowned. "Grace," she said. "Just Grace."
The bartender brought Grace's drink. She sipped it. It was watered. Of course.
Bill smiled. "Why are you here, Grace?
" Grace stopped. Because I fought and kicked and demanded to come. Because if you change this man, you change the world. But she couldn't say that.
Bill smiled. "You're working on something."
"I can't talk about it."
"Of course not. Can't jeopardize one of Edison's future patents, can you? Got to keep that old computing empire locked up tight."
Grace shook her head. "I suppose you have better ideas."
Bill smiled. "Sure. Local computing."
Grace's heart pounded. She picked up her drink. Gulped it.
Bill nodded, his lips twitching into a thin smile. "Get rid of your 300-bps leased lines. Put the processing on the desk. Engineers at Packard or Ford could store detailed design specs and documentation, to be worked on at a moment's notice. No comm-lag, no waiting for results. We could even build faster local comm, for images and blueprints."
Grace just looked at him, mouth open. That was why she was here! That was why she'd forced Edison to bring the prototype. And herself.
"I knew you wouldn't understand," Bill said.
Grace couldn't say anything. It was impossible. Edison would fire her. Or worse. And the world would go on, unknowing, blinded by the hidden power of the League.
"Tell me more," she said.
They talked. Bill even took out a little pad and sketched something that could have been from the depths of her own imagination. Something like a large phone handset with a miniaturized display-tube and fold-out keyboard.
Eventually, couples filtered into the bar to sit and gossip among themselves. The room filled with a happy buzz of conversation. Grace downed drinks that kept getting stronger, watching the door for Edison and Ann. She imagined Edison seeing her there with Bill and making a note that might be entered in her employee records.
"Edison," Bill said, his eyes alcohol-bright.
"Tricky old guy. Didn't expect him to be so
diversionary. Like he was a politician or something."
"He was a senator for a while, back in the 1930s," Grace said. "And there was a petition to get him to run against Roosevelt a couple years ago."
"I never heard about that," Bill said. "That might have been okay. At least he's a rational, scientific man. Instead, we got the big-game hunter again."
Grace forced a smile. The president was only the public face that smiled and muttered at the unfairness that still clung to the world. It would have changed nothing.
"How'd you get into data processing?" Grace said.
Bill told her about his childhood in Chicago, early electronic calculators and computers he'd made, some with mag-core memory, some with vacuum tubes, some with solid-state logic. Grace told him about growing up on a farm and working on the first rotating-drum binary computation devices.
They talked until the bar was empty and the bartender told them he had to shut down.
"Want to go out on deck?" Bill said.
Grace nodded. Anything to talk to someone who understood.
"I need to change. Meet you at the forward door?"
"Sure," Grace said. She went back to her own cabin to change into heavy furs. Her blinds were drawn against the endless Antarctic sun, but the red numerals of her clock read 2:31 AM. It didn't matter.
When she met Bill at the forward door, he carried a large duffel bag.
"What's that?" Grace said.
"You'll see," Bill said.
"You're not going to tell me?"
Outside, the chill cut through Grace's furs. They were on the Bellingshausen Sea, heading through light ice and bergs for the pack ice of the Amundsen. Far off, the ice merged into a field of dazzling white. The wind howled through the deserted walkways and balconies of the Antarctic Diamond, playing an eerie melody.
Other than the cries of the wind and the thrum of the engine, everything was still. Grace supposed that somewhere up in the bridge, people still kept watch. But down on the decks, they were the only things moving.
"What are we doing?" she asked.
Bill led her down to the pool area, where gaily-colored plastic tablecloths had frozen to tables, trailing long, sharp icicles. The pool held only a couple feet of water, its edges thickly crusted with ice. There was about a six-foot hole in its center, where dark water lapped gently with the ship's movement.
"Perfect," Bill said. He climbed down into the pool, dragging the duffel bag with him.
"What are you doing?" Grace asked.
"Just a quick death-tease."
Oh no. Grace shook her head. Death-tease. It was like something out of a dime novel. Something young people did. Supposedly to have visions.
"You won't help me?"
"I've never done it."
"All you have to do is watch the thermometer and turn on the heat. And give me the Panacea, of course."
"No," Grace said, softly. She'd seen so much death. People who never really had a choice, people who died to maintain the mechanism of their world. The stick-thin bodies piled high. The sun-fire blooming in lands already worked to dust.
"Please," Bill said.
"I'll do it anyway," Bill said.
Bill stripped off his clothes, down to his underwear. Grace looked at his pale, shivering body as he walked out on the ice. An icy gust of wind knifed her face.
"You're insane," Grace said. She turned to leave. But what if he does it anyway? What if they find a body, and everyone recalls him being with me?
"What do I do?" Grace said, turning back to face him.
Bill smiled. "It's easy," he said, pulling things out of his duffel bag. A big gray blanket with yellow stripes. A stopwatch. A large squeeze-bulb. A small box with shiny silver paddles and a big red button.
"I'm going to dunk. Three minutes. Then drag me out. Wrap me in the thermal blanket and pull the cord. Use the squeeze-bulb to force the Panacea down my throat. All of it. If I'm not back in three minutes, use the shocker. Stick the paddles to my chest. Like this. Hit the button. That's it."
"How many times have you done this?" Grace asked.
"A dozen. A hundred."
Bill slowly walked out onto the ice. It creaked and groaned as he got near the edge. He sat and slid along the ice until his legs dangled in the water. Grimacing, he continued until his entire body was submerged. Only his face showed.
," Bill said through chattering teeth. "That's
Bill smiled at her. It was like the rictus of a man being burned alive. Grace listened to the howl of the wind and the groan of the engines and waited for Captain Frederick to come and tell them don't be stupid, get out of there.
You're an idiot, she thought as she watched Bill die. When the stopwatch buzzed, Bill was blue and unbreathing.
Grace dragged him out of the water. He felt amazingly light. She heard the rapid-fire cadence of her breathing and realized it was just the adrenaline. Like in Africa, so long ago.
She rolled Bill clumsily in the blanket and pulled the cord. The blanket hissed and emitted white smoke. She could feel heat, radiant, on her face.
She forced the bulb between Bill's lips, making sure it was seated well, and pressed. A small trickle of Dr. Pinkman's ran down his cheek, but most of it went into him. Hopefully into his belly rather than lungs.
Grace watched the stopwatch. At a minute in, nothing but the wind.
At two, she slapped his face.
At three, she tried to blow breath into him, hating the scotch taste of his cold lips.
At four minutes, Bill convulsed and sat bolt upright, throwing up the remains of his dinner and bright red Dr. Pinkman's in a liquid rush.
Bill coughed and hacked. Pushed himself up. Wiped his mouth on his hand. His eyes tracked jittery and faraway, as if he were seeing something almost familiar, almost recognizable.
"Are you all right?" Grace asked.
A nod. More coughing.
"What did you see?"
Pause. A head shake. "Nothing," Bill said. His voice was like an ancient recording, harsh and ragged.
"But I thought you had visions."
"Not"coughing"all the time." Bill wouldn't meet her eyes.
"Why? Why do it, then?"
Bill twitched an uncertain smile. "To prove you're really alive," Bill said.
Grace looked at him for a long time. The howl of the wind sounded like laughter.
"You're an idiot," she said, and walked away.
· · · · ·
A sharp rap on the door woke Grace. She rolled over and looked at the clock, groaning. 9:44 AM, according to its infallible red numerals. She wondered if she'd slept at all.
Grace threw on clothes and opened the door. A porter stood outside, standing straight and purposeful in his quasi-military uniform, his face carefully expressionless.
"What is it?" Grace said.
"Mr. Edison needs help. With his device."
"Tell him I'll be right there."
Grace changed to more appropriate clothes and hurried down the ornate hallways of the Antarctic Diamond, nodding at the well-dressed ladies and gentlemen with as much good cheer as she could fake. Grace imagined them turning to watch her run down the corridor, tracking her with raised eyebrows and unspoken thoughts: Yes, she was the one. The one with that awful lad last night.
Grace made herself pause outside Edison's suite. She smoothed back her sleep-bedraggled hair and made sure the collar of her shirt was tucked neatly into her business suit and that her slip wasn't showing. She knocked.
"Come in!" Edison bellowed.
Grace pushed the door open. She found Edison in the sitting room, banging on the stainless-steel keyboard of the Portable Computer. He shook his head at the meaningless scramble of characters on the video display. Ann was visible through the bedroom's double doors. She sat in front of the mirror in her bathrobe, slowly brushing her hair.
"Mr. Edison?" Grace said.
"It's not working again! Remind me how you convinced me to bring this infernal device?"
Because you need to see what it can do, Grace thought. You need to become addicted. Which he was well on the way to, if he was throwing a tantrum like this.
"Well?" Edison said. "Are you going to stare at me like a cow, or are you going to fix the damnable thing?"
"Did you reset it?"
"Yes! Yes! A dozen times!"
Edison stood up, sending the mahogany chair tumbling. "Please."
Grace set the chair upright and sat in front of the big wood-and-stainless machine. The punch-card logo of the Edison Computing Corporation stared back at her from the polished front panel.
Grace reached around to the back and hit the reset button. The screen flickered. Different gibberish text came up on it.
"You see?" Edison said.
Grace pulled the plug out of the wall, counted to ten, plugged it back in.
The screen flickered again, then displayed regular text:
· · · · ·
EDISON COMPUTING CORPORATION
PORTABLE STAND-ALONE COMPUTER SYSTEM
PROTOTYPE, REVISION C5
ENTER COMMAND ->
· · · · ·
"All better now," she said.
"Why does it do that?" Edison said.
Grace shrugged. "I've worked out what I can on the code. Maybe the reset pulse is too short. Or it could be internal defects in Dr. Moore's integrated processor. We're really pushing it with six micron traces and forty-four thousand transistors."
"I expect you to continue working on it," Edison said.
"No. I know Mr. Shottky has something for me to examine. If this device can remain stable long enough to raster an image, I may have a productive morning."
"I'll come back later."
Edison nodded. Waited until she'd turned to leave. Then: "I heard you talked to Mr. Henry."
Grace turned around. In the bedroom, Ann stopped brushing her hair. She sat and watched them openly.
"Yes," Grace said.
"He has some interesting ideas."
"I trust there was no discussion of your work."
Edison shook his head. "I worry about the future of our race when I meet someone like Mr. Henry."
"He's rude," Ann said.
Edison sighed. "Dear, please go to the spa. I'm discussing something with an employee."
"You're rude, too."
"There will be a time to discuss this, after business is complete."
Ann rolled her eyes and disappeared into the bedroom. There was the sound of clattering hangers.
"Are his ideas worth my hearing?" Edison asked.
"I don't know."
Edison looked down at the ground for a minute, stroking his broad forehead with two fingers.
"Invite him down to the Captain's Chambers this evening," Edison said. "Let's all have a talk with him."
Grace froze. "Am I allowed in the Captain's Chambers?"
"We'll make you an honorary man for the evening," Edison said, chuckling.
"What an honor," Ann said, appearing at the doorway again. She wore a loose-fitting dress that looked nothing like the heavy pleated garb of the rest of the beautiful people. Edison's brows drew down a fraction.
"Ann has odd ideas," Edison said, to Grace.
"And you have old ideas," Ann said.
"Perhaps you need to find a younger perspective," Edison said.
"Maybe I do."
"Perhaps you should look up Mr. Henry."
"Maybe I will!" Ann stamped out of the suite, slamming the door behind her.
Edison smiled at Grace. "I'm sorry."
"I'll work on the computer later," Grace said, standing.
"Don't forget to invite Mr. Henry to our little talk. Nine o'clock, say."
· · · · ·
The Captain's Chambers was a man's place, dark and brooding and powerful. Floor-to-ceiling oak bookcases bulged with linen-bound volumes. Two diamond-pleated chairs covered in red leather faced an L-shaped matching sofa. The leather was worn smooth and shiny from use, and stains gathered in every crease. The room even smelled of men. The smoky residue of cigars long expired, the musk of leather, the tang of the salt air.
Grace ran a hand along the bookcases, tilting her head to look at the titles within. Volumes old and new sat next to each other, in no particular order. Sun Tzu's The Art of War. Wells' Martians. Even Patton and Hitler's Malthusian Hordes.
Grace frowned and picked up Hordes. It fell open in her hand, and Patton's familiar words leapt out at her. "
and if there is no great glory leading to life anew, the glory is in simple duty to our gift of eternity, in meeting the subhuman hordes that do not comply with the agenda of the League with all force."
Grace squeezed her eyes shut, remembering the smell of burning flesh.
"That is hardly a book for a lady," Captain Frederick said. He stood by the humidor with Bill and Edison. Captain Frederick held a match in midair, like a tiny missile waiting to descend upon the end of the cigar he held in his mouth.
"Are you not aware of Grace's unique past?" Edison said.
Frederick looked politely stumped.
"She served in the African Corps."
"Is this true, madam?" Captain Frederick said, then waved his hand and cursed as the flame found his fingers.
Grace nodded. And let's keep it at that, she thought.
"Volunteered," Edison said.
"My word," Frederick said. "What an unusual lady. I'm tempted to ask"
"Please don't," Grace said.
Captain Frederick nodded and looked down. "I understand."
Edison and Frederick lit cigars for themselves and poured cognac for everyone. They took the two chairs, leaving Bill and Grace on the couch. They sat on either sides of the L like two strangers.
"I am curious, Mr. Henry," Edison said, "why a man as young as yourself would venture on such a long and exotic trip. Is it possible you have already seen every other corner of the world?"
"I could ask the same thing of you," Bill said.
"How so, Mr. Henry?"
"You live for work. Or so you say."
"Every man lives for work, until they find delight in the arms of a beautiful woman. There is nothing mysterious about a long honeymoon in one of the most breathtaking places on earth."
Bill nodded. The silence stretched out, punctuated only by the ever-present engines and the loud ticking of the captain's desk-clock.
"I notice you have dodged my question," Edison said.
Bill sighed. "Not dodging. Just thinking."
Silence for a time. Grace shifted in her seat, bringing a sharp creak from the ancient leather. Captain Frederick smiled back at her mildly.
"I don't know why I'm here," Bill said.
"You don't know?" Edison said.
"Just a whim?"
"Or a moment of madness."
Edison sat back deeper in his chair and shared a glance with Captain Frederick. "For such a self-professed font of unique ideas, your lack of insight into your own motivation is less than heartening."
"Why? Were you actually going to offer me a job?"
Edison smiled, but said nothing.
"You have the wrong model for computing," Bill said, leaning forward, his hands pressed together, white-knuckled.
"I fail to see how this can be, given we control the world computing market."
"Exactly!" Bill said. "You treat it like electricity. Everything centralized, metered, and billed."
"It's a model that works well."
Bill outlined his vision. Computing not centralized, but localized. Higher productivity, better work, all the arguments that Grace herself used. Edison threw a glance at Grace, as if wondering what she had told Bill. She shook her head.
"What use would the common man have for a computer?" Edison said.
"Names. Addresses. Business contacts. Schedules. Writing. Double-entry bookkeeping. Simple math. What use wouldn't the common man have for a computer?"
"Midsize businesses can now easily afford a terminal and a leased comm line. Standalone systems are now inexpensive enough to be used for local control, such as in the Antarctic Diamond. I believe our economic model works well."
"It could be so much more!"
"Where's the business case?" Edison said.
"You're holding us all back!" Bill said, clenching his hands into fists.
"I don't like your tone," Captain Frederick said, making as if to stand.
"Relax," Edison told the captain. He leaned forward and addressed Bill directly. "Mr. Henry, do you have any doubt you'll live as long as I have?"
"Nobody knows how long Dr. Pinkman's will work."
"Nor is there any evidence that it will suddenly stop being effective."
"I could die tomorrow."
Edison frowned. "You are impossible to reason with."
"And I am realistic. The human animal is now amortal. Every step we make into the future should be weighed, measured, and considered."
Bill picked up his cognac and swirled it. It caught the warm electric light of the cabin and gave back soft amber glows.
"A toast, then," Bill said, raising the glass. "To the world, as it is."
"I believe I can drink to that," Captain Frederick said.
"To the world, as it is," Edison said.
They touched glasses and drank. The smooth, sweet, smoky liquid coated Grace's tongue and slowly made its way down her throat. It tasted of leather and raisins and wood.
"This is very good," Bill said.
"De Salle," Captain Frederick said, smiling mellowly.
"I suppose most of the good ports are still too tainted by radiation blowing up from Africa," Bill said.
Grace's heart leapt in her chest, like an animal surprised in its sleep.
Silence, total and complete. Everyone seemed frozen in place.
Edison was the first to move. He put his cognac down on the end table and stood.
"I believe that ends our evening, Mr. Henry," he said.
Grace stood up, unsteadily, as if she were walking on stilts. She followed Bill out of the room.
As the door closed behind them, Edison said, "Atomic weapons are impossible. Everybody knows that."
· · · · ·
Edison called Grace back the next morning. This time, there was nothing wrong with the Portable Computer.
"You didn't spend the night with him, did you?" Edison said.
Grace felt her face go hot. "I hardly think this is appropriate conversation"
"No!" He's an idiot.
"He knows too much," Edison said.
"I don't know who he is!" Edison said, banging his hand on the table. His eyes were dark and savage. Grace took a step back. She had never seen him like this.
"Knowing about the Harvard Report is one thing. Knowing about the Malthusian Solution is another. He should be a name. He should be cleared. But I sent a message to Edison Security last night, and they don't know who he is!" Edison pounded the table again, harder. The Portable Computer jumped and clattered.
Grace realized she was alone in the room with the great man. No wife this morning. She took hurried steps back.
Edison stopped. "Sorry. It is just
something you cannot understand."
So there are other mysteries, hidden from even me? Grace wondered.
Edison paced. "No Bill Henry in any of the top schools. Nobody that matches his description. His phone is disconnected. His address is that of a post office."
how did he get on this ship?" Grace said.
"That is precisely what I want to know!" Edison said, and went to sit again. When he looked up at Grace, he looked much, much older than Dr. Pinkman's let anyone be. Grace shivered.
"Help me," Edison said.
"Help you with what?"
"Talk to him. Find out who he is. Anyone who is so loose with his tongue should be quick to wag it when it's greased with alcohol."
"I don't know," Grace said.
"Invite him back for another night in the Captain's Chambers. We'll find out if he's another rich troublemaker like that Marx fellow, or if he's something else."
Grace shook her head. "No."
Edison looked at her. Really looked at her. His eyes narrowed fractionally, as if he'd seen a factory-man idling on the line.
"The Portable Computer," Edison said. "In production. You have my personal guarantee."
Grace's heart hammered. This was the first time that Edison had said anything concrete. This is what she wanted. This was the key to changing everything.
"I'll help," Grace said.
"That's my Grace," Edison said. He held out a hand.
Grace took it. Edison's grip was strong. His hand was warm. Their handshake seemed to last an eternity.
· · · · ·
"You were in Africa?" Bill said. They were standing out on deck with the beautiful people, watching the ice fracture and buckle as the Antarctic Diamond pushed her way through the Amundsen Sea. Fields of white ice reached for an almost impossibly deep-blue sky on the horizon.
Grace gripped the handrail tighter, her fingers creaking within her thick, fur-lined gloves.
Tell him, she imagined Edison saying. Your secrets for his.
"I volunteered," Grace said. She looked away from the ice, away from Bill. Edison and his wife were holding hands and laughing, far down the deck.
Bill said nothing.
"I went in with the Army Corps of Engineers and the League of Nations," Grace said. Before the League offered Hitler half of Africa to divert him from Poland.
"I was in Reeducation. In the occupied lands. It was terrible. Bands of tens of thousands, roving across a stripped landscape. Starving and dying. But still breeding. Breeding and breeding. The towns were worse. People living literally stacked on top of each other." And in every town, the one untouched hut, the one where they cooked the Dr. Pinkman's. Of course, they didn't call it that, but it was the same recipe, the same seventeen herbs. And the same effect. But it couldn't replace food, and it couldn't revive their stick-limbed, swollen-bellied children.
Grace remembered the moment she realized the real horror of Dr. Pinkman's. The stunning young mother, thin but still beautiful, trying to force more of the Panacea down the throat of her dead son. The red liquid dribbled down the child's cheeks, mixing with his mother's tears. His limbs flopped stiffly in the rigor of death.
She remembered thinking, Making Dr. Pinkman's is too easy. It should be controlled, metered.
And she remembered realizing that was exactly what they were doing. They were controlling it, in the only way they knew how. She talked to the officers and made them tell more than they should. She knew the real agenda of the League, how it grew out of the Discussions of the Malthusian Problem in the 1890s and the Sacred Life Protests that ended WWI.
"They wouldn't stop having children?" Bill said, softly.
"No. They wouldn't. Not enough of them. And their governments wouldn't accept the Agreement and join the League. Especially after they found out about what Hitler was doing. It was almost a relief when Patton started giving them weapons so they could kill each other."
Grace drew in a shuddering breath. "I was on Reeducation for three years. I tried to convince them. This is the only way. Progress or regress. But they didn't think that way. Eventually, they stopped listening. That's when the League started pulling us out."
"What did you do?"
I did what I had to do, Grace thought. Because even if I couldn't save them, maybe somehow I could make it easier.
"I stayed for Rectification," Grace said.
"But nuclear weapons aren't possible," Bill said. "Everybody knows that."
"It was the best way to get things done, once we'd started." It was the one thing that Patton and Hitler both agreed on. They pleaded for it, like boys with new toys. And eventually, President Grant and Chamberlain and the rest of the League of Nations agreed.
"What was it like?"
How do you describe a sun, blooming suddenly in the middle of a forest? How do you describe the fireball growing before your eyes, the shock wave flattening trees hundreds of yards ahead of the fire? How did you describe the towering column of flame that reached up into the stratosphere, as the random clicking of the Curie-counters became a dull buzz? Grace tried to, but the words fell flat and dead.
"Have you ever seen any pictures?" Grace asked.
"No," Bill said.
"Silhouettes. In reverse."
"That's the one thing I'll always remember. Silhouettes of people on the mud walls. On the cliff faces. Everything else around them charred. But where they stood, where they blocked the radiation from the blast, the walls were untouched."
"My God," Bill said.
"Some of them were running. Some of them you could see holding up their hands to cover their faces. Some just sitting with their backs to the wall."
"Is there anything there now?" Bill said.
Grace shook her head. "The bombs we used weren't very clean. I don't think it would be healthy to live there even now. Maybe not for hundreds of years." And the same for most of the Eastern world. India might have some population again. China had quickly joined the League after bombing started there, but it hadn't been left unscathed.
"But we have all the time in the world," Bill said, softly.
That's the party line, Grace thought. "Why are you here?"
Bill shook his head. "It's stupid."
"I wanted to change the world."
Bill looked out over the horizon, but said nothing.
"By eliminating roadblocks." Not looking at her.
"What does that mean?"
Bill turned and looked at her. "I wanted to kill Edison."
Grace looked around quickly. But the nearest couple was at least a dozen feet away, and over the crunch of the ice and keening of the wind, she doubted if they heard.
"It's one thing to think about it," Bill said. "It's another thing to actually look at him, and know everything he's done, and think, can I actually do this?"
don't want to do it anymore?" Grace said.
"I still want to. But I don't think I can." Bill slumped down and sat on the deck, letting his feet dangle over the edge of the ship. He put his arms through the middle rail to steady himself and looked out at the endless ice.
"I stole money out of my dad's accounts to pay for this. Got fake documents. If I go back to the United States, I'll go to jail."
Fake documents? "Then you're not Bill Henry?"
"That's not the whole truth."
"What does that mean?"
"Does Edison have you spying on me?" Bill's tone was playful, but his eyes were serious.
Grace didn't dare look away. She looked right at him, remembering the words of one of her commanding officers in the Africa Corps, shared late at night. When confronted with your own crimes, admit to a lesser offense.
"He's asked me to," Grace said.
"He couldn't pay me enough to do it."
Bill was silent for a time. Probably playing back her words. Deciding if she could really be trusted.
The guilty wait to see if they're caught, that same CO said. The innocent talk on.
"I can't believe your father would prosecute you," Grace said.
"You don't know my father."
"You could pay him back."
Bill sighed and said nothing. He looked down at the narrow black slice of sea that the Antarctic Diamond pushed open. "I can't go back," Bill said. "And I can't stay here. You saw Ushuaia. If they don't join the League soon, it'll be time to pull a Malthusian Solution on South America."
Bill leaned back, as if to stand. Then he held his arms straight up and slid off the edge of the ship. Grace had one glimpse of him shrugging down into a ball before he hit the dark water and shards of ice.
The idiot, Grace thought. "Man overboard!" she yelled.
Above her, a shrill whistle sounded. Grace felt the engines throttle down. She looked down and saw nothing but black water. Thudding footsteps echoed on the deck, coming toward her.
Three men scrambled down onto the passenger deck. They clipped a rope ladder to the guardrail and climbed toward the water. Passengers clumped at the rail, trying to see what had happened.
One of the men leapt off the ladder into the water. Another used a pole to poke at the ice.
Was it three minutes yet? Grace wondered.
The man in the water reached for the ladder and gave a mighty heave. Bill's thin white face broke air. It looked like just another chunk of ice. Hands reached down and stripped him of his heavier clothes, and two of the men began hauling him up the ladder.
Bill moved, weakly. They pulled him over the railing and dragged him into the warmth of the passenger area. Grace tried to follow but was brought up short by Captain Frederick and Edison.
"What happened?" Frederick said.
"He slipped," Grace said, looking the captain in the eye.
"What was he doing?"
"I saw him," Ann said, behind Edison. "Hanging his legs over the side."
"Careless sod," Frederick said. He shared an eyebrows-raised glance with Edison that seemed to say, 'Twas too bad we couldn't leave him in.
"Go see him," Edison said.
Go see him. Find out about him. Do what I say.
Grace stifled a frown and went to the infirmary. They had Bill in a sterile white bed. His face was flushed and red, in stark contrast to before. He shivered violently, wrapping the thin covers tight around him.
"Nothing," he said. "Not even a vision."
· · · · ·
At dinner, Edison called Grace out of the infirmary to work on the Portable Computer again. This time the problem was real. The heat sink had fallen off Dr. Moore's Integrated Processor and the circuit had failed.
Probably from Edison banging it around, Grace thought as she installed her only spare. She eased the big ceramic package carefully down into the socket as Edison paced and fumed.
She powered up the computer, but the command screen didn't appear.
"What's wrong?" Edison said.
"I don't know," Grace said. She reset it, unplugged it, wiggled the program memory circuits in their sockets. Nothing.
"I need the goddamn thing to work!"
"I need it working now!"
"Let me get my tools," Grace said, rising to leave.
"Damn! Damn!" Edison said.
Grace hurried to her room, hoping the replacement processor wasn't bad. There were no other spares. She saw her chances of getting the Portable Computer in production shattered in a single tantrum.
When she returned with her logic probe and multimeter and scope, Edison was still pacing. "How long will this take?"
"I don't know," Grace said. She ran through some preliminary checks. Voltages, clocks, rest states. Edison grumbled and stomped.
Minutes gathered, passed, became a half-hour, an hour. Beads of sweat crawled down Grace's forehead. She wiped them away before they could drop onto the logic board.
"Have you found the problem?" Edison said.
"I'm going to dinner. I hope the infernal thing is working when I return."
So do I, Grace thought.
Minutes after Edison was out the door, she found it. The program memory had also been destroyed. She installed the spare and began the laborious process of entering the program back in by hand, since the spare was uncoded.
Edison brought her back a plate from the dining room and squinted at the glowing screen. "How much longer?"
"Hours," Grace said. She'd made some changes to the code, little improvements. She had to tweak it for a while.
Edison looked at his watch. "I missed the factory window, in any case. Will it be functional in the morning?"
A nod. "I will be going out for a time. Work as long as you like."
Grace nodded, not really hearing. It was good to be working on the machine again. She finished reentering the code and went into debugging. She had it raster an image and check connection speed.
The screen displayed a file from Dr. Phillips in the Edison Data Communications lab, outlining a way to monitor packets on their comm in the same way Bell phones were the League's open ear on the world.
Grace's hands knotted into fists. No, no, no, she thought. Edison would want that to be part of every Portable Computer. And that would end the dream.
She sat still for a long time. Far off, she could hear the brittle music of the band and the groan of the ice.
Grace reached out for the keyboard.
DELETE, she typed. The file disappeared.
It could work. Edison ignored things he wasn't interested in. And she could claim it was lost in the malfunction.
But if Philips sent another file, and Edison saw it
Grace bent down over the Portable keyboard again. A simple program to delete files from Philips was easy to bury in the code. And Philips was young. Not really a name. It would work. It had to work.
An hour later, she restarted the Portable again.
REVISION C6, the screen now read.
Grace smiled. The weight of the day seemed to collapse on her. She put her head down on her notes. Just for a moment.
· · · · ·
Grace started awake. The Portable Computer's display glowed in front of her. She was still in Edison's room.
Grace cursed and grabbed at her notes. She stood just as the door started to open.
Bill stepped into the room. "It was open
," he said. And froze, staring at the Portable Computer.
"What are you doing here?"
Bill shuffled forward, eyes on the computer. "I
I went to your cabin first. Edison left the ship, so I came here." He leaned over the screen. "Is this what I think it is?"
"It's something you shouldn't know about."
"Can I?" Bill said, his hands suspended over the keyboard.
"No," Grace said. "You have to get out of here. Now."
Bill looked up at her. His eyes were wide and bloodshot. He looked small and sad and pathetic. She remembered that first night in the bar. That first connection.
He may want this as much as you, Grace thought.
"You didn't see this," she said. "You won't tell Edison. Promise me."
"And don't enter any commands unless I tell you. We have satellite comm back to the Edison Computing office."
"Von Braun. Piggybacking PCM on an analog video channel. Edison outfitted the ship with a dish for transmitting, too, but it's pretty spotty."
The white phosphor glow lit Bill's face. "What language does it use?" he said.
"Mine," Grace said. "SPL. Simple Programming Language. It has 32K of onboard memory and 5K of MIOS."
"Murray Input Output System. Lets you do simple commands without having to get down to register level."
"Like showing contents of memory. Type MEMORY."
Bill did so and watched as the screen lit with a summary of what was in the memory.
"What about static storage?"
"Mini-mag tape, for now," Grace said.
"What are some other commands?" Bill asked.
Grace showed him. Bill understood immediately, as if he had been using the Portable Computer for years. She showed him how to write a simple program and fill the screen with random circles.
There was a scratch of a key in the door.
Before either of them could move, the door swung open and Ann Edison stumbled in, laughing, held tight by an unfamiliar dark-haired man. Her hands played at his collar, undoing the tiny white buttons.
The man saw them first and stiffened. Ann pushed him away, her eyes widening in surprise.
Grace saw her employment at an end. A grave-faced Thomas Edison handing her the little yellow letter. Their Portable Computer hidden in the back of Edison Computing, dusty and forgotten.
She saw Edison's new young wife with another man.
Ann's expression slowly changed from surprise to amusement. Her lips turned up in a wide, ironic smile.
"Don't worry about them," she told the dark-haired man. "They were just leaving."
Bill bolted toward the door. Grace hesitated long enough to turn off the Portable Computer. When she turned back to Ann, the young, elegant woman raised her perfect eyebrows and shrugged, as if to say, We all have our secrets.
Grace let a broad smile spread on her face and shrugged. Yes, we do.
Ann Edison laughed, softly, as they passed.
· · · · ·
When Grace woke, the red digits read 1:22 PM. She sat up in bed, shivering and awake. Edison hadn't called on her that morning. Maybe he'd found out about her illicit program. Maybe he'd have soft, deadly words for her after dinner.
Or maybe he had other things on his mind, she told herself. Like Ann.
Grace made herself take a long shower, then headed up to the dining room, hoping to catch the remnants of lunch. But the view made her shrug on a heavy coat and step outside first.
A wall of ice rose in the distance, like the frozen cliffs of some exotic Hades. The Ross Ice Shelf. Words from orientation came back to her: three hundred feet high and the size of France. Huge tabular icebergs surrounded the Antarctic Diamond, moving almost imperceptibly on the black water.
"There's room for one more," a voice called from above her. Grace looked up and saw Bill hanging over the upper rail.
"What?" she called.
"They're landing people on the Ross. With the helicopter. There's room for us, if you want to go."
"You look chipper."
Bill smiled. "I've felt better. Do you want to go or not?"
"Of course." Grace hurried up and joined Bill. Inside the helicopter were two other couples who glanced at Bill and smirked, leaning close to whisper.
"Edison took the helicopter out alone last night," Bill said, low and soft.
"He and Captain Frederick went on their own private expedition."
"How do you know?"
"The infirmary's right below the pad. It woke me up. I went outside and saw them. Then I went to find you." Bill blushed, perhaps remembering his quick exit.
"So Edison's already been to the Ross."
"He flew off east, not south."
"Why?" Grace said.
Bill shook his head. "I think he's here for more than a vacation."
"I don't know. But I'm going to find out."
They soared over a field of brilliant white, cut with deep blue channels that pierced the heart of the ice. One of the channels suddenly widened, and a huge piece of ice fell into the sea, in almost theatrical slow motion. White sea-spray cascaded, making momentary rainbows.
The pilot skimmed low over the ice. Grace shivered. She'd never seen anything so desolate and alien. Except for the clouds, nothing moved.
They landed softly on ice patterned with wind-carved runnels. Little bursts of ice-crystals blew frantically around the helicopter, throwing back rainbow shards of sun.
"Don't walk far," the pilot said as the beautiful people piled out onto the ice. "You don't want to fall into a fissure and kill yourself."
He looked pointedly at Bill, and there were some titters from the others.
Far off, there was a figure standing on the ice. Grace started. He hadn't come with their group. "Who's that?" Grace said, pointing.
Bill squinted. "Let's find out." He set off at a brisk pace.
"Be careful," Grace said.
It was Captain Frederick. He stood with his hands in his pockets, his hood thrown back, looking out over the vista of the seamless field of ice. Chunks of ice clung to his mustache.
Captain Frederick glanced at them, then looked out over the ice. He was turned pointedly away from the sightseers and the ship. There was nothing man-made in his field of view. Not even a footprint.
He's doing this to feel small, Grace thought. She wondered, just for a moment, if Frederick had been in Africa.
"Did Edison leave you here last night?" Bill asked.
Frederick turned to look at Bill. His eyes were ancient, heavy, and dead. "Do not trifle with me, boy. I will not play the games that Edison does."
"We're sorry," Grace said. "We'll leave you alone."
Frederick snorted. "You God-be-damned young people. All the answers are easy to you. The world is a clockwork. Wind it and watch it run."
"I know Edison is here for a reason" Bill said.
"You know nothing," Frederick said. "You're like that young Kennedy. Like he could really challenge the wisdom of a MacArthur or a Cleveland. I don't know why we let him keep trying."
"I'm not that political."
Frederick laughed. "Everyone is political. Even if you do not wish it so."
"You can't keep blocking progress!" Bill said.
Frederick stopped laughing. A cool, reptilian smile spread on his face. "Do you know what happened to Hitler?"
"Yes," Bill said.
Grace shivered, remembering. When the officers started whispering. He's doing in Europe what he's doing here. The newsreel, showing one of Patton's lieutenants with his head hung low. A hunting accident, nothing more.
Frederick nodded. "He wanted progress, too."
· · · · ·
Grace refused to let Bill sit next to her at dinner. Duty only goes so far, she thought.
Her food tasted like cardboard and dust. There were too many unanswered questions. She tried to catch Edison's eye, but he seemed deep in thought. She wondered what problem he was wrestling with. She hoped it wasn't her.
At the end of dinner, eyes turned towards Edison. But Edison didn't stand. He picked up his crystal glass of Dr. Pinkman's Universal Panacea and threw it back in one quick motion.
For a moment, nobody moved. The little glasses full of bright red liquid sat untouched on the bright white linen. Couples glanced at each other, eyebrows raised, but nobody said a word. The moment stretched on long enough that Grace wondered if anyone would drink the Panacea.
Grace picked up her own glass, held it out to the room, and drank it down.
Slowly, the beautiful people followed her lead. Low murmurs came: What does it mean? Why didn't he? I don't understand.
What does it mean? Grace wondered.
In the hall, Edison caught up with Grace and took her arm in a firm grip. Her heart thudded, sharply, once.
"What have you found out about our Mr. Henry?" Edison asked.
"Not enough." She shrugged out of his grasp.
"Nothing," Grace said.
"All the excitement of this day past, and nothing?"
"I haven't had a real chance to gain his confidence."
"There must be something!" Edison said.
"He claims his name is Bill Henry, though that isn't the whole truth."
"That is hardly nothing!"
he said he took the money to go on this trip from his father's accounts."
Look him in the eye. "He's always wanted to come here."
"That's all he told me."
Edison gave her a faint smile. "So he's probably a real boy after all. No matter. Bring him to the Captain's Chambers again tonight. Nine o'clock."
Grace sighed. At least it's not me.
· · · · ·
This time, there was no offer of cigars, no idle pleasantries. Grace had hardly sat down when Edison said:
"Who are you, Mr. Henry?"
"What do you mean?" Bill said.
"It is a simple question. You are clearly not Mr. Henry. Who are you?"
Bill looked at Grace, his eyes wide.
"Grace did not expose you," Edison said. "I have done my own investigation."
Bill looked down at his hands.
Captain Frederick took a small automatic pistol from his desk, cocked it, and pointed it at Bill's head. "Answer the man."
Grace wanted to laugh. It was like all the nightmares of Africa, all over again. She wanted to leap up and yell, Stop being so stupid! Stop being such
Bill licked his lips. His red-rimmed eyes jittered up at Grace, then back to Edison.
"I have no qualms about throwing you overboard," Captain Frederick said.
"I'm William Henry Gates," Bill said.
Edison nodded. "If I send queries out on that name, what will I find?"
"Warrants for my arrest."
"Tell me how a common criminal knows about the Harvard Report and the Malthusian Solution?"
"You haven't asked what the warrants are for."
Edison put his face close to Bill's. "Damn it, boy, I'm not playing a game. Tell me all, or you'll find yourself swimming home."
"My crimes were at MIT," Bill said. "The warrants are for data theft and illegal connectivity."
"So you are a wastrel after all!"
"No. I was there on scholarship. The National Computation Prize of 1979."
Edison paced. "Wait a minute. Vector-Based User Interfaces? That Gates?"
"Username Gates8? That Gates?"
Edison shook his head. "You could have had an excellent career at Edison Computing."
"They tried to keep me away from the truth!" Bill said. "The Harvard Report on Aging, the Malthusian Solution, what really happened to Hitler, how the Performance Exams determine whether or not you're permitted to have children. Just because I wasn't from the right family. As soon as I found out one thing, I had to know the rest."
Frederick shook his head. "Today's schools obviously failed at teaching you any tact."
"There are things that are not discussed," Edison said.
"Why? Are you ashamed of what you did?"
"I myself did nothing."
"But you're part of this system! You support it!"
"The League does what needs to be done," Edison said.
"Then why do you hide it?"
"Why? Why? The child asks why." Edison said. He collapsed in a chair. "Would you tell everyone that their god of progress is nothing but a façade, built with the common timber of fallible men?"
Edison shook his head. "The common man has been told for over a century that we're moving toward a bright future, thanks to the exceptional men of the age. And they've seen the results. We've gone from horses to automobiles, from mail to telephones, from the starving poor to, well
there are certainly none starving, at least in the League of Nations."
"As they head happily into their bright, childless future," Bill said.
Edison shook his head. "It may be a tragedy for the individual, but it is a boon for society. Only the smartest, most fit individuals have children. We are improving the race! And thanks to Von Braun, some day this better race will take the Moon and Mars. And maybe then they can have the broods they desire."
"So you would dupe everyone," Bill said.
"Can you imagine what might happen if the common man thought his heroes were nothing more extraordinary than himself?"
"I am a common man," Bill said.
"Your scholarship argues otherwise," Edison said. "You don't understand how the common man really is. His moral compass is defined by his heroes. The Edisons, the Von Brauns, the Rockefellers. Dirty the heroes and the world crumbles. 'Edison is no better than me,' he will say. 'Why work a ten-hour day? Better to lay around or dissipate myself in silver-screen fantasies.' He might not even be able to see the difference between those fantasies and great accomplishments like the Mona Lisa or the moon-rocket or the computer. We must keep the lines of value clear-cut."
"It is our Noblesse Oblige," Captain Frederick said.
"Intelligens Oblige," Edison said.
Bill was silent for a long time. "Which is why you'll never let local computing become a reality. Look at what I found in the university tape-storage archives. What would the common man find, if they were able to?"
"No," Grace gasped. You complete idiot! Edison had never seen computation as more than number crunching. She'd carefully steered him away from her vision. Because if local computing became a reality, she knew what would happen. Data would be shared. And not all of it business. Personal accounts of the Malthusian Solution in India. A guilt-ridden doctor, spilling all about the testing and sterilization programs in the public schools. Maybe even a strong voice denouncing the League from mysterious, quiet China. Maybe even her own story. It would spread and mushroom.
My way of rectifying the entire world.
Edison looked at Grace, his eyes full of sudden knowledge. That was it. The Phillips filter program meant nothing now. She saw the end of her career.
"There may be ways to manage the free flow of information, if Mr. Moore's law of circuit integration continues to hold," Edison said finally.
"Anything to preserve the foundation of our age," Bill said.
"And yet I noticed you didn't toast the foundation tonight," Bill said.
For a time, there was no sound except for the ticking of Captain Frederick's clock.
Edison sighed. "You are like a rocket explosive targeted at the heart of the matter. What do you know?"
"About what?" Bill said.
Bill frowned and shook his head. "What do you mean?"
"Don't play with me!" Edison said. "In your waltz through the hidden data of the world, did you dig up the Crick Report on the Universal Panacea?"
Edison sighed and sat back in the chair. "Perhaps you are just unusually perceptive."
"What does it say?" Bill said.
Edison allowed himself a thin smile. "If Dr. Pinkman's is the foundation of our age, we do not know what we build upon."
· · · · ·
Three days later, the Antarctic Diamond took port near Scott Base, the New Zealand outpost in Antarctica. The beautiful people crowded the pool deck for a rare bout of warm weather, as the temperatures rose above freezing. Grace saw Bill looking down at the now-filled and bright blue pool with sad eyes.
He smiled at her, but she just looked away. She was in limbo. They were sixteen days from the end of the cruise. Sixteen days until she knew if she had been let go, or if Edison wanted her to work further on shackling the world.
Edison hadn't called her in to work on the Portable Computer again. She hoped he hadn't thrown the device overboard. She imagined a passing Adelie penguin discovering the shattered remains of the computer in some future year, ice-crusted but otherwise perfectly preserved. She imagined the improbable bird cocking its head, then slipping into the chill water, propelled by its own instincts and concerns.
After dinner, Grace went to the bar for a glass of watered Glengloyne. She supposed she should be happy that the bartender served her at all. She saw Ann in the ballroom, wearing a bright teal dress and whirling with a new admirer.
Maybe that was what she needed to do. Go to a youth enclave and pretend to be young. Maybe they would happily serve her scotch, even without an escort. Maybe she could be more than an "honorary man." Maybe she could be equal.
"Miss Murray," a voice said behind her. Edison.
Grace sighed and turned. Bill was with Edison, standing stiffly by his side like a young child caught sniping cookies.
"Mr. Gates is going to demonstrate his insight tonight," Edison said. "We'll be taking another helicopter ride into the Antarctic. He requested you come with us. I told him you might find the prospect less than appealing."
This is your out, she thought.
"I'll go," Grace said.
Edison nodded. "As I expected. Please meet us at 11:30 PM on the upper deck."
When the time came, she went up to the helicopter pad. Edison, Bill, and Captain Frederick were waiting. The chill had come back into the air, and everyone wore heavy furs and dark goggles.
While they flew over the endless fields of ice, Edison looked toward hidden Mount Erebus. His eyes could have been made of polished lead. Bill tried to smile at Grace whenever he caught her eye. Grace tried not to look at him. It was too terrible.
He must know what is coming, Grace thought.
Bill finally broke the silence. "This trip is about Dr. Pinkman's, isn't it?"
Edison sighed. "You are as perceptive as usual. What do you know about the Panacea, Mr. Gates?"
"It cures disease and prolongs life."
"Have you ever wondered how it works?"
"I believed that it was, well
Edison chuckled. "The amortal youth. You have never heard the rumors? The ones that say Dr. Pinkman's should not work? That there is no known mechanism for its actions?"
"Is that true?"
Edison nodded. "Very true."
Grace remembered hearing the whispers from the Army medics. Nobody knows why it works, they said. But it does.
"Here's what we know," Edison said. "We know that every effective batch of Dr. Pinkman's is made from the same seventeen medicinal herbs, distilled in the same manner. And we know that the herbs themselves have little to do with the elixir's medicinal properties."
"What?" Bill said.
Edison nodded. "Every batch is also a breeding ground for unique bacteria, which are not seen outside of Dr. Pinkman's. Most medical researchers think this is the real mechanism. And some talented microscopists have claimed to see things even smaller than bacteria."
Bill looked stunned. Grace didn't know what to say. This was more than she had ever heard about Dr. Pinkman's.
"It may have something to do with the heredity mechanism that Mendelev and Crick are researching," Edison said. "But we do not yet fully understand the mechanism."
"It sounds like Dr. Pinkman got incredibly lucky," Bill said.
"I cannot believe that," Edison said. "Ever since the Crick Report, I have made it my goal to rationalize this phenomenon. I will not accept that Dr. Pinkman, by some perfect chance, happened on the only growth medium for bacterial spores found on one single herb."
"He killed himself," Grace said. "Dr. Pinkman."
"After sending letters to all the newspapers of the world detailing his formula," Edison said, frowning.
"Like it was planned," Bill said.
"Exactly!" Edison said. "I have come to suspect Dr. Pinkman's was done to us for a reason. Wells' time-travelers, coming back to prevent some unnamed catastrophe, or Verne's Venusians, here to take over the world, or a power hiding behind the League, unready to reveal its true agenda."
"Fantasies," Bill said.
"Find me a better explanation!" Edison bellowed.
Bill was silent.
"Why are we here? In Antarctica?" Grace asked.
Edison smiled. "Subglacial lakes. Sealed off for tens of millions of years. They have found still-living ancient bacteria in the lakes. I'm hoping that one of the species is the same as the one in Dr. Pinkman's."
"You've already flown out to one of the lakes, haven't you?" Bill said.
"And the bacteria didn't match."
"No. This, however, is a different site. The descriptions they have been sending are most intriguing."
"But how could something sealed under the ice make its way into modern-day plants?" Bill asked.
Edison shrugged. "The mere fact that there is something like Dr. Pinkman's organisms on the face of this world would be enough to comfort me."
Comfort, but not explain, Grace thought. What is the foundation of our world?
After a time, the chop of the rotors changed pitch. Far out ahead of them on the endless white was a group of tiny cabins.
"We are here," Edison said.
· · · · ·
On the ground, Edison picked up a heavy steel case, fresh-painted in utilitarian gray. He handed Grace another one, slightly smaller than his.
"Be careful," he said. "It contains my slides."
Grace looked pointedly at Captain Frederick, but Edison pretended not to see. Which meant Edison wanted his hands free for something else.
Edison let Bill walk ahead. Grace and Frederick brought up the rear. Grace noticed that Captain Frederick wore a sidearm.
A chill wind cut across Grace's face, and she wished she could pull the drawstring tighter. The temperature had fallen even lower. A fog of ice-crystals whipped at her, making the huddled huts hazy and indistinct.
A man wearing a bright orange parka met them outside the first hut. "It's an honor to have you here, Mr. Edison," he said, hopping from one foot to another in excitement. His face was bright red with exposure. Runnels of snot had frozen beneath his nose. "I'm Dr. Zimmerman."
"Good to meet you, Doctor," Edison said.
"I have water from the lake, and also core samples," Dr. Zimmerman said.
"Good," Edison said.
"They're sealed, just like you asked."
"Excellent work, Doctor. Do you think it would be possible to step into your unquestionably more comfortable abode?"
Zimmerman's eyes went wide. "Oh. Yes. Sorry." He opened the door and ducked through.
Bill paused outside to look back at Grace and Captain Frederick. For a moment, his face screwed down into an expression that might have been worry. Then he turned, quickly, and followed Edison inside.
Maybe he can stay here, Grace thought. Maybe it doesn't have to be so final.
Inside the hut there were ill-smelling bunks filled with excited scientists who craned to get a look at the famous Thomas Edison, and a cold, white-painted lab, where carefully labeled sealed glass tubes of water stood in a rack.
Edison put his case carefully down on the bright-polished aluminum table and opened it. Inside, a new Zeiss microscope gleamed in polished stainless steel. It looked quite a bit different than the microscopes Grace remembered from her school days, with a much larger stage and powerful illumination system providing the base for a wide, squatty tube.
Dr. Zimmerman stopped his busywork and stared at the microscope with undisguised envy. "What is that?"
Edison smiled. "It's a prototype of Dr. Zeiss' nearfield microscope. It increases resolution beyond what is possible with even oil-drop techniques."
Zimmerman licked his lips, his eyes fixed on the device. "How much so?"
"It's about a two-micron field of vision."
Zimmerman started. "When will we be able to get one?"
"This would help a lot in our research."
"I'm sure it would."
Captain Frederick found a comfortable spot along the back wall and leaned up against it. Grace saw that his gaze never completely left Bill.
Edison opened Grace's case. It was racked with hundreds of glass slides, each carefully scribed. He picked one out and slid it into the microscope. Dazzling light gleamed forth from its stage. He bent over the instrument and made adjustments, working in complete silence.
Edison prepared a slide from one of the samples in the glass tubes and slid it under the objective lens. After a few adjustments, he leaned back, but he didn't look up.
"May I?" Bill asked.
"Go ahead," Edison said.
Bill bent over the microscope and blinked. Bright light splashed his eyes.
"This is the reference," Edison said, swapping the slide out for another.
"For the Dr."
"Dr. Zimmerman, I'm afraid I will have to ask you to leave us for a short period of time," Edison said. "I'm sure you understand."
"I have cleared the highest rounds"
"Dr. Zimmerman, please don't make me ask again."
Zimmerman swallowed, nodded, and left.
"He doesn't know?" Bill asked.
"Not many do."
"If they did, you might have an answer by now."
"If the world did not fly apart beforehand," Edison said.
Bill bent over the microscope and squinted. "I don't know what I'm seeing."
"Look at this," Edison said, swapping slides for the one of the subglacial lake water.
"Now look at this," Edison said, swapping for his previous slide.
"They're nothing alike," Bill said.
"But there may be other types of bacteria," Bill said. "There are other samples."
"Would you like to try them?"
"Yes!" Bill said.
The two men spent the next hours making slides from the various samples of lake water. Bill even went so far as to take a sample from the ice-core that Dr. Zimmerman had been so proud of. Each time, the slide went under the scope and received negative head-shakes.
Grace snuck a look. The slide of the Dr. Pinkman's showed regular capsule shapes, tapered on each edge, like bullets. She almost imagined she could see structure within, tiny interlocking hexagons that danced on a complex pattern, as if alive. The lake water showed more common pill-shaped bacteria, duller in color, undifferentiated inside.
"You see?" Edison said after she'd looked.
"Yes," Grace said.
"That's not the most damning," Edison said. "Compare these two."
He handed her two slides, each labeled in a tiny, precise hand with a diamond-scribe. One read, Star Anise, sample c. 1952. The other read, Star Anise, sample c. 1830. She looked at each of them under the microscope in turn, sharing the view with Bill.
In the 1952 sample, tiny hexagonal dots swam next to huge green cells. The little hexagons looked like the structures in Dr. Pinkman's bacteria. In the 1830 sample, there were only the green cells.
"My God," Bill said when he looked at the 1830 sample.
"Perhaps." Edison wore a faint smile.
"What are the black dots?" Grace said.
"Dr. Pinkman's bacteria spores," Edison said. "From the samples I've been able to find, it seems they appeared sometime shortly before he brewed his first batch of the Universal Panacea."
"Like they were put there," Bill said.
"That is one interpretation," Edison said. "Though personally I am unsure if I would like to meet a God that would force us into such terrible choices."
"We made those choices!" Bill said.
Edison sighed. "Yes, we did."
"You can't blame Dr. Pinkman's for the state of the world."
"I can blame the agency, be it God or devil. We have only made the choices that needed to be made."
"As you see them," Bill said.
Edison crossed his arms. "I am still awaiting the wisdom of youth."
Bill frowned. "Darwin's theory of evolution states that forms change over time. Perhaps this is one of those changes."
"With such fortuitous timing?" Edison said. "I doubt it. It is unfortunate that we know so little about what governs these changes of Darwin's theory. It is almost as if Dr. Pinkman's was designed to prevent us from advancing our knowledge of heredity and medicine. Sometimes I wonder what might have happened if we had to listen to bedlamites like Lister. Instead, we have Dr. Pinkman's. It is all we need."
Edison slipped the slide out of the microscope and put it back in his case. "Can you put this through your data processor, Mr. Gates? Can you compute how I feel?"
Bill looked down, saying nothing.
Edison bent over the bench. "I do not know why we have Dr. Pinkman's. The mere fact of it will have to be enough." One bright tear splashed on the bench. Edison wiped it off the polished aluminum, then wiped his eyes.
"Mr. Edison," Captain Frederick said, stepping forward.
Edison waved him away. "I'm all right," Edison said. "I have not yet found a puzzle I cannot solve. It is simply not solved at this moment in time."
Edison closed the slide case. The metallic snick of the lock was very loud. He handed it back to Grace.
"Let's leave the nearfield microscope for Dr. Zimmerman," Edison said. "Perhaps he will find more use for it."
"What about Bill?" Grace said. She didn't realize she was going to say it before the words were out. She felt calm, detached, as if she was watching the annihilation of the last African nation.
Why do you care? she wondered.
For a moment there was silence. Captain Frederick mouthed something under his breath and drew his weapon. He stepped forward and pressed it against Bill's forehead. He was close enough that Grace could smell him, like old leather and smoke.
"Now is not the time, Captain," Edison said.
Captain Frederick's finger tightened on the trigger.
The voice of Grace's CO came back to her again. Hit them as if your life depended on it.
Grace swung the heavy slide case up over her head. She felt her heart throb strongly as the adrenaline flowed. One, two, three strong beats. She saw Captain Frederick's eyes flicker toward her. He began to turn.
She brought the case down as hard as she could on Captain Frederick's head. There was a glassy crunch as the slides shattered. Captain Frederick's eyes rolled up in their sockets as he crumpled. The gun tumbled out of his hand and struck the floor, clattering away.
Grace heard keening rhythmic moans, as if from far away. After a moment, she realized it was herself.
But you've killed so many more, Grace thought.
Edison bent over Captain Frederick and felt for a pulse at his neck. Grace stumbled up against the lab-bench, felt its solidity, clunked the slide case down on it. Broken glass tinkled.
"Get Dr. Zimmerman," Edison said.
"Is he dead?" Bill said.
"Get Dr. Zimmerman now!"
Bill ran out, yelling for Zimmerman.
Edison looked at her and shook his head. Grace just returned his gaze. She couldn't nod. She couldn't shake her head. She couldn't do anything.
· · · · ·
Eventually, Dr. Zimmerman left them alone in the mess hall. It smelled of burnt coffee and ghosts of meals past.
"What happens now?" Grace asked.
"We wait for Captain Frederick to wake," Edison said.
"What if he doesn't?"
Edison shrugged, as if to say, That is a much more complicated scenario.
Grace closed her eyes, wishing she could turn back time. If she had stayed aboard Antarctic Diamond
But she couldn't.
If she could have positioned herself between Captain Frederick and Bill
If she could start everything over again, convince Edison that Bill wasn't worth talking to
And no again.
"I saw this," Bill said, softly.
For a while, nobody spoke. Then, Edison said, not looking at them: "You claim the gift of prophecy, Mr. Gates?"
"I saw us, sitting together in this room," Bill said. "In the pool. On the ship."
Grace gasped. "You said you didn't see anything."
"It was easier to say that. I didn't know what this meant."
"What is this madman talking about?" Edison asked Grace.
"He did a death-tease," Grace said. "That first night we met."
"So you're one of those," Edison said. His eyes fixed on Bill, expressionless.
Edison shook his head.
"Have you ever death-teased?" Bill asked.
"It is an affectation of the young."
"You didn't answer my question."
"It might help us understand Dr. Pinkman's," Bill said.
"Has it ever provided you with any great insights?"
"I saw your Portable Computer."
Grace started. On that night you died, or on the night you wandered into his room?
Edison grunted in surprise. He sat completely still, studying Bill, not saying anything. "Grace told you about it."
Edison looked at Bill a long time. Finally, he shook his head. "I cannot believe you are serious, Mr. Gates."
"How would we do it?"
"Immersion is safest. But there's enough loose snow out there that we could probably pack and get away without serious frostbite."
Edison laughed. "You sound like an expert at this. A doctor of death."
"I've had a lot of experience."
Edison said nothing.
"You've had that moment where everything comes together, haven't you?" Bill asked. "That one instant where everything fits. Where you say, 'How did I miss this? It's so simple!' You must have. I know you have."
Edison nodded. "The eureka moment."
"The death-tease is like that, times ten. Times ten thousand."
Edison said nothing.
"Is it worth this gamble, to understand Dr. Pinkman's?"
Edison nodded. "Perhaps it is."
I am not hearing this, Grace thought.
"You'll do it?" Bill said.
I am not hearing this!
"Grace," Bill said.
"I won't do it!" Grace said. They couldn't make her. She couldn't stand by and watch anyone die. Not anymore.
Bill stood. "Then I'll spot Edison, and he'll spot me."
Grace saw what would happen. She saw Bill returning, hours later, when people had started to stir for their morning rituals. She saw him, haggard and pale. She saw him saying, Oh my God, the tragedy. Edison didn't come back. The great man is dead.
Bill's words came back: I dreamed of killing him.
"Wait," Grace said.
The two men turned toward her, their faces oddly empty and cold. As if they were already dead. Grace shivered. "I'll help. Just show me what to do."
· · · · ·
Zimmerman knew exactly what they were doing. He gave them two self-heating bags and a heavy, battered chrome machine with paddles and a big red button. He told them where the staff of the research lab went, down in a hollow where the snow gathered.
Grace and the two men trudged away from the camp. The wind gusted harder, and the thin snow chased their feet. The huts quickly disappeared in the haze.
"What if we can't get back?" Grace asked.
"We will," Bill said.
Grace turned to Edison. "What if one of you doesn't come back?"
"We will," Edison said.
Grace stared at him, but he wouldn't look at her.
In the hollow, the two men stripped out of their heavy garments. Bill did it quickly and efficiently, not looking at Edison. Edison folded his neatly and placed them on the ground. Soon they were clad only in thin long-sleeved shirts and underpants.
They scooped snow out of the hollow. Even there, it was only a couple of feet deep. Grace saw them shivering violently. She wanted to yell at them to stop.
She helped them pack snow over themselves. Bill's teeth chattered, loud, like something out of a stage comedy. Edison gave a small groan.
"How long?" Grace said.
"An hour," Bill said. "Maybe more."
"What do I do?"
"Wait until we stop breathing. You know the rest."
"And for goodness sake, don't fall asleep," Edison said.
"I won't," Grace said.
Grace walked a little ways away from the men and paced, looking up at the sky. There was no sound except the keening of the wind. It stung her face. She pulled the opening of her parka even smaller.
Why am I doing this? Grace wondered. She should have asked Zimmerman for help. She should never have agreed to it.
Grace went back to Bill and Edison. Both men had their eyes shut tight. Both shivered uncontrollably. Grace almost slipped on the slick ice. She imagined herself slipping and knocking herself senseless. Then there would be three dead bodies for the scientists to retrieve in the morning.
I could walk away, Grace thought. I could leave them both to die.
Without Edison, she might be able to continue her work on the Portable Computer. But who would helm Edison Computing if the great man died? Probably one of his children. Grace shuddered.
It might be worth it. Hit the reset button. Use a long pulse. Or just pull the cord.
Grace shook her head.
After a time, Bill stopped shivering. He opened his eyes and looked at her. "Almost over," he whispered.
Grace looked away from him, up into the bright white sky. It was like an empty room. A blank sheet of paper. Huge and empty and uncaring.
Insight, pure and brilliant. The eureka moment. Grace's mouth fell open. She stifled a laugh.
Computers don't have to be computers, she thought. And data doesn't have to be transparent.
She waited until Bill and Edison's glassy eyes looked up, unseeing, at the same sky, then went about the work of reviving them.
She had to use the paddles three times on Edison. His body jerked and spasmed. His empty eyes looked up from his chill blue face. Each time Grace used the paddles, she wondered if he was not supposed to wake up.
When Edison was breathing, she went to work on Bill.
· · · · ·
"I saw great machines, walking across the land. Silhouetted in the setting sun," Edison said. "Leading us into it. Leading us into the bright future."
"I saw myself sitting alone in a room, surrounded by video displays," Bill said. "Each one of them showed a different child's face."
"I think it means that we will continue to move forward," Edison said.
"I don't know what it means," Bill said.
Grace walked away from them. Their voices quickly faded in the rush of the wind.
"Where are you going, Miss Murray?" Edison said.
Grace kept walking. She heard the sound of shuffling feet behind her, but she paid them no mind.
Because she'd had her own vision, looking up at the blank sky. Computers didn't have to be computers. Data didn't have to be transparent. There was no reason an integrated processor couldn't be put in a phone. Or a television. And there was no reason they had to send the data as a simple stream of bits, easily decodable. There could be locks and keys.
She saw herself handing Edison a letter of resignation. She saw herself recruiting Dr. Moore. She saw them developing things that acted like computers but skirted all of Edison's patents. Things that whispered untraceable data over the phone lines and through the satellites. She saw people using them, telling their stories, revealing the truth of the world. The real Rectification.
What I owe them all, Grace thought.
It wasn't any mystical vision; it was no different than the daydreams of a million happy children, unaware that the world conspired to crush their dreams.
"Where are you going?" Edison yelled.
Grace smiled. Wherever I want, she thought.