UMDNJ, New Jersey, 2009
Gasoline rainbows streaked the rain-slicked pavement. Gris glanced at his watch, and set it five hours back. The cab pulled over by the cement-and-glass leviathan of the University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, and let Gris out onto the cold, wet sidewalk. So far, he was not impressed—a long drive from the airport, through a wasteland of concrete and contorted metal, had depressed him, and the urban neglect of New Brunswick did little to lift his spirits. Perhaps this city was a heart of technological advancement, but it suffered from the lack of humanity. Gris paid the driver and went inside.
He found himself in the vestibule of what appeared to be a hospital, with nurses flocking, patients squeaking by in sad little wheel chairs, and an occasional doctor moving past him with a quick, purposeful stride. Gris felt alone and somewhat ill, perhaps due to the jet lag. The rainwater dripping from his long coat and his suitcase made him feel self-conscious.
"May I help you?" The receptionist, hidden behind the gleaming wall of glass, was looking at him, with a rubbery smile.
"Yes," he said, and walked up to the window. "I'm looking for Dr. Seker."
The girl behind the window blushed, and her smile turned more genuine. "You're British? I love the accent."
Gris shrugged, noncommittal.
"I'll page her right now," the receptionist said, in a voice that indicated Gris had been granted a great privilege. "Have a seat."
He did, and looked down the long corridor, at the closed doors with shining chrome handles, at the bright tiles of the floor. Although not a smoker, Gris held a matchbox between thumb and forefinger, and tapped it nervously on his knee. His eyes hurt, and he wanted nothing more than to lie down and sleep. It was only 8 pm here, but his body screamed that it was long past his bedtime.
"Gris," a voice said right next to him.
He started, and his eyes met Tiffany's, as blue and warm as always.
She had changed little in the intervening years—perhaps put on a few pounds and wrinkles, but who hasn't? Gris stood up and opened his arms for a hug.
Tiffany pecked him on the cheek and moved away a step, to give him a thorough looking over. "You look the same as ever," she said. "Glad you could make it."
Several banalities flashed through Gris' mind, and he rejected them all. "I wanted to see you," he said instead. "I missed you."
She frowned a bit, and uncertainty crept into her eyes. "Well, here I am. Want to go get something to eat?"
He shook his head. "I could do with a drink though."
They stayed quiet during the five-minute car ride. Tiffany parked in the street, by a low brick building. A neon sign flashed in the window—McCormick's.
"A proper pub?" Gris asked.
Tiffany shook her head. "Just a dive with a decent beer selection. The students avoid it, so it's usually quiet."
The place had everything Gris hoped for in a pub—a series of taps, a large dog napping by the bar, and the billiard table. The customers were a few older men, with faces contorted by decades of drinking scotch. They talked in deliberate voices about the baseball playoffs.
Tiffany ordered a pitcher and settled at the high table by the window. "Well, what've you been up to?"
Gris settled across the table from her, his face reflecting in the dark, rain-stained windowpane. "The usual," he said. "I've stopped working for BiotechWare Europe though. My research with Southampton Uni has really taken off. I've been doing a lot of work with the Spanish too. They're the reason I'm attending the conference."
Tiffany nodded. "I wondered why you were here. Kind of funny, don't you think? I hear there's a bunch of biophysicists and engineers attending."
Gris smirked. "Since the doctors don't seem to be cutting it on their own."
Tiffany huffed, then laughed. "I know, I know. Quite a mess we've made, huh? Pesticide-resistant mosquitoes, drug-resistant parasites. . . . Isn't science wonderful?"
Gris felt disinclined to joke. "I guess if we don't laugh these things off, it'd send us crazy thinking how if it wasn't for interferers like us, malaria wouldn't be as lethal as it is."
"Oh, you're a nature boy now? You think we should scrap our research and open up our own quinine farm in Peru? If you're so against technological solutions, why are you making your gizmos?"
Gris sighed. He wanted to see Tiffany, he really did. But the old camaraderie he was expecting had not reappeared, and he felt disappointed; the discussion was pointless. Still, he put up a resistance. "My nanotech is based on a natural mechanism. Sickle red blood cells destroy the Plasmodium, right? Same with thalassemia. They just collapse and squash them. That's what the gizmos do." He drew a deep breath. "And what are you presenting? Another wonderdrug to make the parasite more resistant?"
Tiffany shrugged and tipped the beer glass, hiding her one-sided smile. "You'll just have to see the talk. Care for a game?"
He nodded, and took her glass. Tiffany perched on the edge of the pool table, squinting. She took up a cue, drew it through her hand, muscles tensing like an archer's, and took aim. She paused at the height of the tension and let go with a thunderous impact. The balls collided and scattered, and two of the striped ones sought the opposite pockets. Her cell phone rang.
Gris waited, looking at the old men at the bar, who in turn watched Tiffany. Gris listened to her conversation covertly.
"Hi, honey," Tiffany said. "I'm sorry, I meant to call you. An old friend's in town. No, don't wait up. I'll see you soon."
She snapped the phone shut, its black gleam alien and hostile against the bar's dark wood paneling. "My daughter," she explained, though Gris hadn't asked. "Victory."
"How old is she?"
Tiffany gave an odd little shrug, as if she was not sure. Gris wouldn't be surprised if she was too involved in her work to remember her daughter's age. In any case, he was taken aback that she had any children. "Didn't realize you were a mum," he said. The ease he was starting to feel just minutes ago dissipated. He had come here to see Tiffany. He had not intended to make nice with her family.
As if reading his mind, she said, "You'll meet her tomorrow."
"I'm not very good with kids," he said weakly.
"You'll like this one." Tiffany picked up the cue and circled the table, hunching like a cat. "She plays pool."
Rain did not agree with Victory, not at all. The raindrops slithered down the windowpane like mercury, heavy, poisonous and dull. She tapped on the glass to make them slide faster and brought her half-open mouth closer to the window, breathing hard, trying to fog up the glass. Her breath, barely above room temperature, left no trace on the glass, and looking at her reflection made her feel like crying. The teardrop-shaped mole on her cheek made it look as if she already were. Victory felt like a small ghost, powerless to make even a raindrop disappear.
When she was younger, she asked many questions. "Tiffany, why is my skin so cold?"
"Because," Tiffany would say, a look of quiet patience on her face, "your atoms are different from other people's. If we warm you to 37 degrees, your molecules will get excited, and shatter."
Victory used to be full of questions. Of how she came to be, and why her molecules were different from everyone else's, and how was she engineered, atom-by-atom, and why an engineered atom was different from a regular one.
Tiffany used to draw her pictures—small, round balls of atoms tracing wide arcs as they pivoted on straight rods of covalent bonds, high-energy electrons bouncing up and down like caffeine-laden bunnies; low-energy ones barely moved, lethargic. Victory's atoms were hyperactive, Tiffany said. This is why her body temperature was regulated to twenty-two degrees. Otherwise, her crazy atoms would explode in a shower of particles and splinters of gamma rays.
"I'm not human," Victory remembered saying. At the time, it was a puzzling discovery.
Tiffany agreed cheerfully. "Not only that, but you're not even organic. We tried to mimic carbon-based life, but it didn't quite work."
"If I'm not organic," Victory said, "am I even alive?"
Tiffany shrugged. "Not if you define life as carbon-based."
Victory defined life as such. The atoms and molecules crowded her dreams and her waking reality. She would look at people and wonder what their DNA looked like. Four letters, an impoverished, garbled language of proteins, prone to mistakes, and yet somehow warm. She felt like a voyeur.
Playing pool had shown her what the atoms are like-hard, wooden, colored balls that rattled and scattered on impact, that bounced off the table walls and rolled around like crazy. She learned to direct them with a single precise blow.
Victory tapped on the window again, and through the fisheye lenses of the raindrops she spotted a blue car pulling into the driveway.
Tiffany had brought along a man Victory had not met before, presumably the old friend with the name that hissed and growled, sibilant and roaring at once.
"This is Gris," Tiffany said. "Gris, meet Victory."
The man, hollow-cheeked, sad-eyed, a greying bristle of short hair studded with rain, took her hand. His hand was even colder than hers. "Hello, Victory," he said. He seemed confused for a moment. "You're rather older than I expected. What are you, fifteen?"
Tiffany laughed, enjoying the man's confusion.
"I'm not a person," she said. "I'm a machine. With a cellular structure, and all that. My atoms are just different."
Tiffany nodded. "We had a physicist help with the early design. Hence Victory, my quantum girl."
"That's nonsensical," Gris said.
Victory looked at Tiffany. "Aren't you supposed to be at the conference?"
"Taking Gris out for lunch," Tiffany said. "Want to come along? You can come to my presentation afterwards."
"Okay." Victory went to put her shoes and jacket on, under the disbelieving stare of Tiffany's friend.
Autumn snow settled lightly in the Gibraltarine city of Nuevo Londres, grayed by the fumes from the engines of lunar freighters and their escorts of cuttleships. The light from the single window of the pool hall on Banco del Mar Square was a vivid red. It made the dirty snow falling on the sliver of ground the light claimed appear crimson. Whenever a ball was downed during one of the damage frames being played inside, the red light flickered.
The hall had only recently earned legality. In this way it was like the brothels—now able to advertise its wares with glittering neon signs and tarted-up girls on the door, without fear of reprisal.
Stazel was at the bar, the only Malarian in the club, waiting to watch, to start his shift for don Caliente. The place was filled with the sound of '20s electric blues and the cracking of balls and the crackling of debilitating electricity from the pool tables. Stazel was focusing on the Englander, although Caliente had bid him keep an eye on the girl too. Everyone knew Caliente didn't trust women. In the cigarillo-smoked gloom of the blood-lit basement, Stazel reflected on this. His own attitude toward women was that you could trust them as much as you could trust a man: not one iota.
The barmaid, Mariah, spotted him. "Oiga, Stazel. ¿Qué pasa, guapo?" she said in the local Yanito, above the squawking guitars and the crack of chalked steel cue-tip against ceramic ball.
Not many women would be brave enough to call Stazel good-looking, but Mariah treated all the hall's clientele with equal measures of flattery and reprimand. "Hola, Mariah."
She had already poured him a drink, placing tapas bowls before him, her mechanical legs creaking as she moved. She went to busy herself with another customer—the Englander—and Stazel turned to see who was in for a couple of trad frames with friends and who was in for the night.
Because of the loud music it was impossible to eavesdrop on the conversations of any of the players. Stazel watched the Englander take his drink from Mariah and return to his table.
The Englander was playing trad frames alone tonight. The girl was in as well. She had taken up arms against a workman come straight to the club from the building site across the road. They were in the midst of a game on one of the dangerously buzzing damage tables, gamespecs hastily smeared with sweat from the backs of their shaking hands between shots.
There was nobody else of note playing in the squalid club, so Stazel sipped his lager and tried not to look too much like he was studying the Englander's form. He was on his second San Miguel and the Englander his second frame, when a heavy palm clapped itself across Stazel's shoulder.
"¿Stazel, como esta? Still picking Caliente's marks for him, hey? I thought you might've spotted a caballo muerte by now, hombre."
Stazel turned to a pair of dark eyes staring back at him, set above a wide, flat nose.
"Keep your voice down."
His confronter let go of his shoulder. "What's the matter, you scared I'm going to spook the Inglés?"
"No. I think Caliente might take offence at being compared to a dead horse. How are you, you old seadog?"
"I'm doing okay. Got myself a sailing school off Punta Negra."
"Is that what they're calling them nowadays?"
The two men laughed.
"¿Y tu? I've heard talk that you've been grounded."
"Funnily enough, since supplies are struggling to get to the island, there's not much call for cuttleship pilots."
"So, you make your dinero here instead?"
"Everyone's got to eat. What are you doing here?"
Pepe Farhiq was a short and stocky Moor with a clear Hassaniya accent. He had darting eyes, and had been a notorious pickpocket in his youth, before getting involved in drug dealing and the biotech black market. Stazel was used to him not giving anything away, so when he said, "Nada importante," it was obvious nothing more was to be added. "He looks pretty bueno, the Inglés."
Stazel shrugged. "I've seen better, but I think he's holding back. I reckon that's why he's playing alone. He knows I'm watching and is trying to sucker us."
There was a shout of "mierda" from the workman who'd been playing the girl. The girl had sunk the black, resulting in a massive electric shock delivered to the workman though the handle of his cue, which sent him to the floor. He was writhing in pain and cursing over the music. It was this point Caliente chose to emerge primped and preened from his office. The music died, and his voice rang out around the club.
The prostrate man looked up at Caliente. "This puta cheated. I want my money back," the workman said in Yanito, the language common to Gibraltar: a crude mix of English and Spanish words.
Caliente, with slicked-back hair and a heavy gold chain at his neck, cuffed the man hard around the head, his short temper frayed. "Fuck off before I throw you out myself, you whining scrounger."
The chastised and electrocuted man got to his feet and scurried up the steps and onto the midnight streets of the port.
Caliente, tall and muscular, turned to the girl. "My apologies, señorita. I'm sure we can find you another opponent."
The girl looked up at him, neither threatened nor charmed by his display of power.
"Great," she said, "He wasn't much good anyhow." She removed her gamespecs and collapsed her cue.
Caliente looked over at Stazel, who nodded.
"Perhaps the gentleman at table four. He has been playing alone this evening."
"Sure, if he's game, I am," the girl said.
Do you reckon Caliente would mind if I interrupted, hombre?"
"Best to leave it, Pepe, until the match is over."
A crowd had gathered around table four. The Englander and the girl had been sussing one another out with a trad frame before kitting up. To the onlookers, the Englander was the better player, but only barely. The girl was seeing to a power-cell problem with her gamespecs, and the Englander took the opportunity to catch Stazel's attention. He stood a couple of inches shorter than the Malarian, and at least twenty pounds lighter; they looked roughly the same age.
Stazel had to concentrate to get past the shorter man's thick accent.
"I want a cut," the Englander said.
Stazel blinked and rubbed his jaw. "A cut of what? I'm only a spectator."
The Englander was unfazed by Stazel's feigned ignorance. "You're going to run a book on the next match. Most people will bet for me, I'm the favorite. Give me a cut and I'll throw the game."
Stazel thought there was anxiety beneath the man's cocksure demeanor.
"That was a close match. Who's to say the girl won't beat you off her own back? We're not going to pay you for losing. It's a ridiculous concept."
The Englander wiped a paper napkin across the lens of his gamespecs. "You know as well as I do I could whitewash her if I wanted to. Stop pissing about and just run the book."
"Play the game. I'll talk to the manager."
"There's a condition."
Stazel said nothing; waited for the demand.
"I want a shot at the baño."
He understood the man a bit more then. "Like I said, I'll speak to the manager."
Stazel wondered what it was the Englander had lost to make him desperate enough to want to play in the baño, the suicide game.
Caliente was watching the match from a distance. Pepe was at his side with a roll-up hanging between his fat lips and a chaser glass in hand.
"He wants to play the game," Stazel informed them.
"Excelente," Caliente said.
Pepe downed his spirit and made his goodbyes. He now carried a briefcase that Stazel assumed contained a lot of cash.
"Your friend Farhiq doesn't think I should involve you in this, but I disagree," Caliente said as the Moor was walking away.
"Involve me in what?"
Caliente placed a duffeel bag on the bar and loosened the drawstring. "Take a look," he said.
Stazel couldn't see in the bag clearly. "What is it?"
"Take it out. It's quite safe, para ahora."
Stazel pulled out a smooth, flat stone, much like any rock from the beach at Punta Negra. But he knew his employer would not have paid a briefcase full of money to an infamous pirate for a lump of beachrock. He ran a thumb along the edge of the stone, looking for imperfections.
Instead of explaining about the stone, Caliente turned his attention to the Englander. "There are rumors about the Inglés," he said, "which su amigo Pepe went to every effort to corroborate."
The Englander and the girl were level pegging, but the girl had advantage of first blood and was also a turn in hand.
"The Inglés is staying at the Hotel Santurom, a Malarian establishment, I believe."
Stazel was on good terms with the proprietor. "Go search his room."
"Now?" Stazel put the stone back in the duffeel bag. "Now. Mañana I'll need you aqui."
Stazel drained the last of his San Miguel. "What am I looking for?"
Caliente took back the bag and eyed the Englander, who was now losing by a wide margin. "You're looking for anything out of the ordinary."
Gris shifted on his feet, wondering if Tiffany was trying to keep him in a perpetually awkward state. Through the washroom doorway, he could see her reflection in a large mirror above the sink. Tiffany's voice was coming through the open door, slightly blurred by her efforts to speak without moving her lips.
"This is controversial." She traced the outside curve of her upper lip with a tube of lipstick. "Gene therapy is risky at best. NIH treats us like kamikazes."
"They still give you money." Gris looked away from Tiffany's reflection and realized that Victory was staring at him, point-blank.
She smiled and rolled her eyes.
Gris smiled back, wondering if his smile looked fake. A machine, he repeated to himself. A part of him still believed that he was the target of a hoax; another part wanted to see the blueprints. It seemed too far-flung, even for Tiffany. And yet, he considered the possibilities. If this girl was not exactly made of matter as Gris understood it, then . . .
"Gris," Tiffany said into his ear. "Are you coming?"
He nodded and followed her to the conference room.
She walked apace with Victory, the two of them conferring in hushed voices. Tiffany laughed and turned. "Victory says that you're too tanned to be English."
"I spent the summer in Spain," he said. "I have a time share there."
Victory's eyes widened, and she smiled wistfully. "I've never been to Spain. We went to California last summer and visited the old Spanish missions."
Tiffany trotted toward the front of the auditorium, to prepare her slides, and Gris and Victory went to find seats.
Gris realized that his eyes were not as sharp as they used to be—from across the auditorium, Tiffany's face was just a pallid blur surrounded by the flame of her hair, and her mouth seemed a vivid gash of burgundy and white.
Gris glanced at Victory, who nestled deep into the padded chair.
"So," he said. "What's so special about your atoms?"
She shrugged. "High energy. Her friends stumbled across this stuff when they first started experimenting with teleportation."
"You know, I'm a physicist."
"Oh yeah? What are you doing here?"
"Biomedical nanotech. Bored?"
Victory shook her head. The lights dimmed, and the beam of the projector lit her downy hair like a halo. "No. You understand then? The teleportation stuff?" She gave a small nervous laugh. "When I was little, I used to think that one day I'll just . . . y'know. Unravel like a ball of string. I didn't know what string theory was then."
"How does it feel?" Gris wondered aloud.
"Y'know." She shrugged. "I don't know. I feel like this all the time, so I don't even know if it's how everyone feels."
Tiffany cleared her throat, and the hum in the auditorium ceased. Gris listened with half an ear, too distracted by Victory—or rather, by her apparent normalcy. She seemed like an average teenager, small and slight, a bit pale, a bit skittish, but normal.
Tiffany's voice broke through his musings. "The main challenge that faces us today is the plasticity of the Plasmodium's surface proteins, which prevents the immune system from effectively recognizing the infection."
Gris tried not to snort. Of course, he thought, now the only problem is to catch those parasites and alter their genes. However, once you caught a parasite, why not just squash it? High-tech waste of time.
Tiffany echoed his thoughts. "The infection is basically an interaction between a parasite and its host. While altering the parasite appears to be the main focus of the current research, we can change the host as well. Here, we have a slide of modified macrophage cells that are capable of recognizing different protein combinations; moreover, they are able to quickly adapt to the shifting protein profile of the invader."
Gris stared at the purple blobs on the slide. Maybe it could work. But these globs were so ugly . . . nothing like his steely and spare machines. And the nanos did not bother with the proteins; like tiny rockets, they found their target and destroyed it. There was the beauty of simplicity in their ruthlessness. He looked to Victory, who sank deeper into her chair next to him.
Tiffany was used to being in control, and she tried to breathe evenly. She resisted the temptation to fling the telephone across the room, although she longed to see its bright red plastic explode in a cathartic shower. She wanted to call someone in Bethesda, to tell them that they cannot do this to her—it was unprecedented, cutting off research funding in the middle of a study. The contracts were signed; promises had been made. She had lived up to her end of the bargain. It wasn't her fault that NIH didn't like her results.
She paced across the office, circumventing book stacks and slide projector carousels, and stopped by the window. Outside the traffic thronged and honked, and the heartbroken wail of an Amtrak train answered from the direction of the railway station.
The phone rang, and she lunged for the receiver, convinced that it was a call of apology.
"Hello," Gris said. "Busy?"
"Not anymore." She held her breath, counted to ten. "Want to get a beer?"
"It's still morning."
"It's lunchtime in England."
Gris chuckled. "All right. I'll meet you at the bar."
Tiffany put on her coat and fumed all the way to McCormick's. Only when she was finally sitting across from Gris, a mug of beer in front of her gathering silvery spider webs of condensation, was she able to cry.
She smudged the tears with the heel of her hand, and told him in blurred sobs what had happened. Gris was perhaps the only person on the planet who did not make her feel ashamed of her tears. She missed it about him.
". . . so they cut my funding," she concluded. "Assholes."
Gris nodded and took a sip of his beer. "Talk about shooting the messenger. All because they didn't like your results."
Tiffany inhaled and cringed at the rattle of phlegm deep in her throat. "And get this. They're starting human experimentation. They even suggested I work on that."
Gris almost choked on his drink. "What? I thought your stuff was in the developmental stages."
"Yes, but they are not using my stuff. A colleague on another project has been manipulating Plasmodium genes. They told me that I could work on that project—trying the GMO Plasmodium on Negev Bedouin detainees. Many of them are carriers of thalassemia, so they figured that they would be ideal—if the treatment doesn't work, they're at least partially immune."
Gris was playing with his matchbox. "Why Bedouins?"
"Our Israeli collaborators suggested it. With the recent relocation and uprisings, there are enough detainees prepared to volunteer for research to get out of prison. The added bonus is, because of consanguineous marriages, it's a very genetically uniform population."
"I see." Gris drummed the fingers of his free hand on the table, gave a small, embarrassed cough, and then looked straight at her. "But you're not going to do it, right?"
Tiffany shook her head, and drank her beer. She was grateful that Gris was in town at this difficult time. With all his nervous habits, he was a paradoxically relaxing influence. There was something comforting about having him nearby, perhaps because they had known each other for so long. He had seen her screw up many times before, yet remained a friend. She felt reassured that no matter how bad things got, he was not going to cut her off. A sort of confidence one can never have with a new relationship.
"So what are you going to do?" Gris asked his pint of lager.
"I shouldn't think about it right now. I'm pissed off enough to just quit."
"It might not be a bad idea." Gris smiled. "Maybe you could move to England and work with me."
The offer took Tiffany by surprise, and she searched Gris' face for hints that it was a joke. None were apparent. "Are you serious?" she said. "England?"
"Or Spain," he said. "I can always take a sabbatical from Southampton. I do a lot of work with people at Universidad de Valencia. There's something I've been itching to work on with one of the doctors there. And Victory might like it."
The disappointment almost made her cry again. She bit her lip. "You're just interested in Victory."
"Not at all." He flustered and fidgeted. "I mean, I'm interested in Victory, sure. But that's not why I'm asking."
She had no reason to disbelieve him—at least, not a good one. Still, she put up token resistance. "It's too warm in Spain."
He grinned. "I have air-conditioning."
Tiffany did not really believe that she was going to quit. In her mind, it was a pleasant revenge fantasy, nothing more. She persisted in this conviction as she cleaned out her office, booked the flight, waited at the Spanish Consulate in New York to submit visa applications for herself and Victory. She expected that the people from NIH would call her, and she would be able to cancel the trip and her life would go back to normal. The phone call never came, and she and Victory boarded the plane in December. Gris had left weeks before, but was expected to meet them at the airport.
The Malarian district—which ran round the island like an iris, splitting the outer Coastilian-controlled border from the Gibraltarine-governed inner circle—was much better lit than the windy dockside. The streets were illumined not with quartzlight or neon in piercing primary colors, but with oil lanterns, suspended across narrow alleys from washing lines between the locals' caravans and cottages. The lamps cast hazy spots of light on the crust of snow that had settled as Stazel walked the two miles from the club to the Santurom.
The district was known as Martiya's Hold. Aside from its reputation as a giant fire hazard, it was so named due to most of its residents being chronically infected with a genetically altered malaria.This had led to a compromised longevity that meant, while most of the island slept or skulked at this hour, Martiya's Hold was as vibrant with life as the rest of the city would be at rush hour. The few shops in the tiny district were open every hour of the day; there was a musician or juggler on each corner; children played hopscotch or skipped rope throughout the night, swathed in gauze-net clothes that half-protected them from the swarms of mosquitoes sharing the streets with them, nourished by the warmth of this fevered district.
Stazel was welcomed at the reception-cum-bar of the Santurom with a wide smile and a generous shot of vodka from Ustov, the owner. The place smelt of insect repellant. The air buzzed with the sound of electric bug-zappers and was decorated from floor to ceiling with flypaper.
"My boy, where have you been hiding? We haven't seen you since the winter." Ustov called everyone his boy or his girl. No one knew how he would address someone older than him, for he was the oldest person anyone knew. He even asserted that he had memories of visiting the city Nuevo Londres had been named for, as a boy, but Stazel couldn't quite bring himself to believe the man was that old, old enough to remember a city long since submerged beneath the Atlantic.
Stazel placed a folded paper bag on the bar and pushed it towards the hotelier. "I've been working," he said.
"Ah, good. Good. A fellow has to work."
Stazel knocked back the vodka and gritted his teeth as the liquid warmed his gullet and chest.
Ustov placed the bag in his breast pocket without examining its contents. "To what do we owe the pleasure of your company?"
The Santurom played host mainly to immigrating Malarians, as well as less well-to-do tourists. A group of these was seated at a table by the window, watching the nightlife. Outside a gang of children had gathered around a guitar player and her girlfriend, who was now playing up to the kids, stamping a Flamenco out on a discarded wooden pallet cleared of snow. She was singing too, and Stazel listened to her orgasmic scatting as the vodka settled in his stomach.
"You've an Englander staying here."
Ustov handed Stazel the appropriate room key.
The Englander's passport was of a type unfamiliar to Stazel. It gave the man's name as John Gris, a Gibraltarine name if any, but hardly a name at all. Likely the document was a fake, the name the Englander's attempt at irony.
There was a pair of work-boots at the foot of the single bed, and a couple of shirts folded neatly on a chair beside the portico to the balcony, which was hung with mosquito netting. That was all. Stazel even checked under the bed. He only found an empty matchbox out of which a mosquito buzzed and he felt the familiar prick of the creature's bite. The only other thing he found was an imported British newspaper. He folded the tabloid into a cylinder and otherwise left the room.
Though most could speak English, by way of the local Yanito, Stazel and the majority of Malarians on the island spoke the blend of Castellano, Romany, and Arabic known as Coastilian as their first language, and Stazel had never bothered to learn to read. Downstairs, Ustov translated what little he could of the cover story from the stolen newspaper. He suggested Stazel seek out a Gibraltarine salvage mechanic he knew for a full translation. Like all in the aeronautics industry on the island, it was likely she would jump at the chance of making some quick cash.
The baño was made up of two separate rooms, the games room, with its white-tiled walls, concrete floor, overhead sprinkler system, and ceramic furniture from which its name was derived, and Caliente's sub-tropical office, heated to an exotic 22°C.
In the center of the games room was a pool table not much different from the traditional type, except that green baize had been substituted with gleaming steel. Stazel had salvaged the frame of it for Caliente from the back of a lunar-bound waste-freight he had been chaperoning in his cuttleship. The recycled table stood on a cork mat.
Even though the baño's walls were purposefully easy-wipe, some stains had proved too stubborn, or had simply been left as dares or taunts to would-be-contenders.
After the previous night's performance, when she had beaten the Englander two live frames to none, Stazel noticed the girl was struggling to find opponents. She was standing by the bar now, talking to Pepe.
Give her a week, Stazel thought, at the door to the baño, and she'll be gone from here, looking for the next mark until one day she pushes her luck that step too far.
He was only half-expecting Gris to show, but the Englander was back, wearing one of the pressed shirts from the chair beside his bed. Stazel moved aside to let the smaller man into Caliente's office, following him in and closing the door behind them.
Caliente was at his desk, with the familiar duffel bag in front of him.
"Buenos noches, señor Gris. You brought your entry fee?"
Gris pulled a computer chipboard from his pocket, the size and shape of a navdisc. He handed it to Caliente.
"We've some time to kill before your opponent's ready. Care to show us how it works?"
Gris shrugged. Caliente passed him the stone from the bag. The Englander didn't seem surprised the club's manager had it. The hunger in Gris's eyes craved only one thing. Stazel wondered idly at the man's despondency.
Gris demonstrated how to unlock the stone a couple of times. Stazel figured it was some kind of hard-drive. When the Englander gripped it a certain way, a rod ejected from the stone, from which a flower of spokes bloomed. To this, the disc Gris had used to pay for the forthcoming game could be fixed, and then, presumably, the mechanism would retract into the stone.
"You'll need a catalyst to activate it," Gris said.
Caliente gave an ugly smile and patted the English-language newspaper on his desk. "But of course," he said nastily, "A programmer, right?" He reached under his desk and retrieved one of the specially adapted cues used in the Baño.
"There's an off switch at the end of the handle," Caliente explained. "You can use that to short-circuit the game during any of the damage frames. After that, the hardwiring will kick in and it's into sudden death. Your opposition's pretty good. She's played in here a few times before." As if rehearsed, Mariah stepped into the office, flanked by two of the club's bouncers. "I believe you've already met."
Stazel didn't agree with Mariah's position at the club, but few others shared his displeasure at her enslavement. She had been a prosthetitute when, along with her pimp, she had attempted to con Caliente, one of her regulars, out of a substantial amount of money. Caliente had a cybernetics engineer rewire Mariah's synthetic legs. He now kept a remote control for them attached to the gold chain that hung around his neck. Most days Mariah was restricted to walking back and forth behind the bar, but on quiet nights, her owner might allow her to play an occasional game of pool. She was undefeated in the baño, but for most who played there, losing was a foregone conclusion; they were halfway to death already.
There was no warm-up frame. The stalls that bordered the table filled up with the club's most trusted regulars, and Stazel was soon busy running the book. By the time Mariah broke, Stazel had already taken more money than they usually saw in a month. The use of the baño was a rarity, but it always generated excitement. He was surprised to see the girl there, up on the third tier of seats where she had a clear view of the table. Perhaps he had misjudged her.
By the time the damage frames were done, Gris was playing better than Stazel and most of the gamblers had expected. As in a bullfight, the bets were placed less on who was likely to win than on when the loser, sportingly referred to here as the 'Challenger,' was likely to fall. Most of the gamblers had already lost their money, having predicted Gris would fold during the third frame. They were nonetheless hooked by the action.
During sudden death, the table itself began to play against the challenger. Added to this handicap was the fact that the champion's cue was de-activated, meaning that as the challenger gradually weakened from successive electric shocks, the champion could recover from whatever pounding they had received during the damage frames.
Damage frames in the baño were played with the table voltage at three times the legal limit. For sudden death matches, the power was increased still further. It was unheard of for any challenger to survive sudden death, and Gris proved no exception. He managed to sink two balls straight from the break before the electricity finished him off. There were cries and gasps from the audience at the end, as Gris appeared to spontaneously combust before them and several in the front row were spattered with gobbets of cindered gore. All that was left of the Englander was half an arm.
Mariah went back behind the bar. Staff members were left with the sorry task of cleaning up. As the crowd dispersed, Stazel found Pepe.
"I know what you need," the Moor said in his ear. "She's over there."
He was talking about the girl. She was already racking up a practice frame. There was a charm to her. Stazel believed she was constantly on edge, but she hid it well. He could respect that.
"She's young enough to be my daughter," he protested.
Pepe slapped him on the arm. "I'm not saying you should bed her, idiota. Although you're so uptight that might not be such a bad idea. Don't you get it? Caliente's looking for a programmer, si?" How the Moor knew so much Stazel did not even try to guess. "Your jefe told me you're looking for a ship north. He's offering me big money too. I'm not a stupid man, Stazel. You know that. And I know what it is he's got. I just don't understand what he wants to do with it."
Stazel was beginning to feel out of his depth.
"He doesn't know about the girl," Pepe said. "She came ashore with me. I picked her up in Calp. She had been working as a fortune-teller for the soft-market traders." The Moor grabbed his arm. "I'll pick you up tomorrow morning."
Pepe could have told Caliente about the girl and cut Stazel out of the entire business. But Pepe was a pirate through-and-through, and was not willing to pass up the opportunity of ripping off someone few people had little sympathy for. For it to work though, he needed the trust that Caliente had invested in Stazel. The whole thing was dependent on Caliente not knowing a programmer outside of Valencia, the Soft City. It all made the Malarian's head ache.
Tiffany had been looking forward to Spain, to the exotic sites, the smells of citrus, to the vibrant colors of gardens and red earth. Still, she was not disappointed to be stuck indoors all day, outside of the blinding sunshine and warmth. She was too preoccupied with being under the same roof as Gris.
If he were just a friend, it would have been different. However, one cannot live in the same house as an ex-lover and not to think of the past. Every pause was filled with an unspoken meaning, and Tiffany wondered if Gris was remembering the same things she did. He spent most of the time away, at the University, and Tiffany contented herself with organizing her papers and re-analyzing her data. She also read some of the reprints Gris kept stacked in the corner of the spacious, cool dining room. Victory helped her to shuffle through the papers occasionally, but spent most of her time exploring.
One day as they were sitting down to dinner, Gris said, "I've been thinking."
Tiffany looked up from her plate. "Yes?"
"Delivery system for your gene therapy. Nanos would be perfect for it."
Tiffany thought. "Maybe. But apparently this is considered a dead end."
"By one agency," Gris said. "I spoke to a few people, and there's interest. I can't promise you any official funding, but I know someone who runs a decently equipped lab. I'm sure he'll let you work there. He's got much better equipment than what we have here."
"It's kind of you, but . . ."
Gris gave her an irritated look. "Listen, give it a chance. With human experimentation in the works, there may be a need for an alternative treatment, and fast. It would be nice of you to put your injured pride aside for this one."
After dinner, Victory left to take a walk by the river. Tiffany and Gris settled for a glass of wine on the terrace. On the table, in between their wineglasses, was what she had come to think of as Gris's lucky matchbox. He always carried it in his pocket, and took it out to fiddle with when he was unsettled, or wanted to think. Inside the box was the prototype nanotech. It was an annoying habit he had, playing with it, and she was glad the box was out of his hands, on the table.
Tiffany enjoyed the view of the city lights scattered below and around them. "This is pretty," she said. She let her hand fall onto the armrest, and instead of the sinewy entanglement of wicker furniture she felt the cool, smooth skin of Gris's palm.
It was surprising to her how well her body remembered, how habitually her fingers interlaced with his, how neatly they fitted together. They both stood, hand-in-hand, and were about to kiss when Victory returned.
"Tiffany!" she called from the dining room, where dinner plates still littered the table. "Help!"
Tiffany moved quickly, forgetting about Gris and the humid, warm night air entwined in the twisting necklaces of the city lights. She rushed back into the house, her stomach in a knot. "What's the matter?"
"I think I overheated," Victory said in a small guilty voice.
Tiffany looked at her and froze to the spot. A haze surrounded Victory like a halo; the air shimmered around her and twisted in rivulets, gnawing at Victory from the edges. Her hair and arms seemed to dissolve in the haze, and her eyes went round with fear.
"What's going on?" Gris's hand gripped her shoulder.
"Get some ice," Tiffany said, twisting from under his touch.
She wanted to reach out to Victory who was melting before her eyes. She held back. "It's okay," she said. There was not even a hint of reassurance in her voice—it came out trembling. "Just hang in there."
Victory's eyes swiveled to her left. "Why is there snow here?" she whispered.
Malfunction, Tiffany thought. Not a disease. She's not ill, she's malfunctioning.
Gris came running from the kitchen, an ice bin from the freezer in his hand. He took Victory by the elbow and sat her down, gently, on one of the dining room chairs. He was less afraid than Tiffany, and poured the ice over the shimmering, dissolving girl. The air around her popped and crackled, and the ice melted on contact, soaking her downy hair and red t-shirt, turning both a darker hue.
Victory shivered, and Tiffany touched her arm.
"That was strange," Gris said.
Victory nodded. "Do you know what happened?"
"Overheating, apparently," Gris said. "You almost fell apart there. We'd better do something about that."
"Like what?" Victory looked at Gris, her mouth a pleading O.
"Something to keep these atoms of yours under control. A gadget to keep them all synchronized and together."
Tiffany fought back her irrational exasperation. After all, Gris was the one who helped Victory, not her. No wonder she looked to him for answers. "Can you do that?"
"I can try," Gris said. "I've been thinking. All that publicity about teleporting atoms a few years back—that's what led to your design, correct?"
"Well, a doctor at the university reckons he's found a way of transmitting quantum states from one atom to another." Gris smiled. "I'm thinking that with your unique characteristics we could manage teleportation of more than a single atom. As long as they're all synchronized."
Tiffany held Victory, protectively. "She's a girl, John, not a toy. I won't have you flinging her to Australia."
"Mmmm," Gris said. "All right. Still, we do need a device to keep her from unraveling like that."
Tiffany was not expecting a time machine. But once Gris got his teeth into the idea, there was no stopping him. He was interested in time travel in a scary, non-theoretical way. Tiffany didn't mind bullshitting about grandfather paradox after a few beers, but Gris's new fascination was off the scale.
It started with him fashioning a new accessory for Victory—it looked like a flat stone that fitted neatly under her scapula. Tiffany tried to understand his explanation, but only grasped that the stone emitted some sort of an electromagnetic field that bound Victory's structure in addition to the chemical bonds of her molecules.
"So she's ready to be hurled into a space-time continuum." Tiffany did not disguise her sarcasm.
Gris only smiled, and adjusted the smooth grey stone. "How does it feel?" he asked Victory.
"Okay." She turned to meet his eyes. "I'd like to go."
"Go where?" Tiffany and Gris said in one voice.
Victory waved her hand in the air. "The future," she said. "I think this is what I saw. But why would there be snow in Spain? In the summer?"
"Maybe it was Antarctica," Tiffany said.
Victory shook her head with unusual conviction. "No. I could feel it. It was here, but far away. Can you send me there?"
"I don't know," Gris said. "But if I do, you'll have to do something for me."
"What?" Tiffany hated herself for the curiosity she felt. Victory was a child, she reminded herself. Not a toy, and yet they were treating her like a lab rat.
"Once you're there," Gris said, "I want you to build a receiver. You don't need it to travel, but the rest of us do."
"How do I build it?"
"I'll show you."
Tiffany was bored as Gris and Victory went over the schematics Gris drew and labeled in his tidy, minuscule handwriting. From what Tiffany could understand, the contraption was similar to a 3D printer. Her stomach churned as she thought of what it would be like, to be re-created atom-by-atom, out of thin air, in some strange and alien place. Despite the complexity of intent, the contraption would be easy to make, or so Gris said. All you needed were some metal frames. But it needed a key to operate—another flat grey stone, similar to the one inserted into Victory's synthetic flesh.
"Mind if I join you?" Stazel didn't wait for an answer, just selected a cue and followed up on the girl's break. They played a few shots in silence before she asked him to buy her a drink. Up close, he noticed the cuttleship-shaped beauty spot on her left cheek. He was on the black by the time she started to open up.
"My name's Victory," she said.
"Stazel," Stazel said.
They played a second frame in silence. The girl won. The Malarian was racking up for a best-of-three when Pepe arrived. Stazel was impressed by Victory's discretion. She was making out as if she didn't know the Moor.
"The boat's ready, pero no tenemos mucho tiempo. Harbor Patrol is paid off until eleven. You know what those vultures are like. They'll be on us as soon as the hour's up. Have you spoken to Caliente?"
Stazel rolled the cue ball across the table and waited for it to rebound back into his hand before answering. "He briefed me this morning. You probably know more about it than I do. Valencia, right?"
Stazel's travel bag was packed and sitting on the bar. Weak streaks of sunlight banded down the stairwell leading into the club. As he stepped into the light to collect his bag, Stazel could feel Victory's eyes on him, taking in the tattoos on his bare upper arms. He wasn't sure if it was the spaceforce insignia or the inverted brown triangle that marked him out as a registered Malarian that intrigued her. "Caliente told me to give you this," he said, taking a sealed medical pack from the bag and throwing it to Pepe. He knew it was Q—knew too that Ustov could have put it to better, more altruistic use than Pepe ever would.
The girl imposed herself on the conversation. "If you're heading for the mainland, I can pay my passage," she said.
Pepe gave the slightest nod of acknowledgement. "Be at dockside for half ten. Any later and we'll have to wait another day."
Stazel and Victory played their third frame before leaving. On the way to the dock she said, "Pepe told me about you on our way over."
"All good I trust."
"He said you've a lot of potential. I take it he told you what I'm supposed to be?"
Stazel shrugged. "A fortune-teller from Calp." He was finding Victory more talkative than he liked. The two of them turned down a narrow alley leading to Pepe's favorite berth. As they turned again, into the harbor, the Moor was gesturing for them to hurry. Stazel had spotted a couple of Harbor Patrol officers emerging from a dockside taverna.
"Vamos," Pepe called.
As she stepped onto the gangplank, Victory said, "He reckons you're trapped in your past."
The Jack Tar eased its way out of dock among the thin floes of winterice that dotted the bay. Pepe stood in the wheel-room. Max, his Barbary Macaque, was perched on his shoulder.
"Supposed to be fair-weather este tardes, a light nor'wester blowing. We should make Valencia by Midday mañana, give or take the 'bergs. The sea will clear once we pass Alicante, though I'll have to stop hugging la costa there, because of the Guardia Español."
The horizon was close, sea mist slowing their progress, but Pepe had made this trip a hundred times. "Why don't you go and grab some food. I'm guessing neither of you has had breakfast." In the galley Stazel made coffee, fried eggs, toast, and tomatoes, all of which Victory refused.
"I had something already," she said.
As he ate and she watched, she asked him to tell her about space. "Pepe told me you were a pilot."
Stazel shrugged his shoulders in the manner Victory was becoming familiar with. "What's to tell? It's big and boring."
"But it's so far, and you're on your own every time. Didn't you ever get lonely?"
Stazel met her gaze then, finished his toast and said, "No lonelier than usual."
Victory swayed with the rhythm of the boat.
The grey day came and went, and as promised, Pepe kicked out from the coast as they rounded Cap de la Nau. Here the rocket-smog of Nuevo Londres did not reach the sky, and looking up, there was a spread of stars and a full moon, the familiar artificial shadow on the face of it—like wounds scabbed over but not yet turned to scar tissue—was interspersed amongst the acne of the natural craters.
Pepe had gone to bed, leaving Stazel at the wheel. Victory had a length of rope and was playing a comical bout of tug-of-war with Max the Macaque.
"Tell me about the moon then," she said.
Stazel held his tongue as they broke through a low barrier of slush-ice. The water was mostly still, but for the first time in his life, he was feeling queasy at sea. "The moon is worst of all," he eventually admitted. "Here, we have life; in space, we exist; but on the moon we are cannibals, scavengers among the dead. The moon—at least what I have seen of it—is an ugly place. The most it offers is other people's memories."
"What do you mean?"
Stazel leaned back from the wheel, looked skyward. "Its culture is an anomaly. It's independent of life, of here. It subsists on things that should have remained in the past—things that are dead." Stazel bit back a smirk appreciative of irony. He was as much a ghoul of the past as the lunar colonies were.
As Max chattered with glee at winning the cord, and Victory digested what he had told her, Stazel came to a realization. "It's a waste," he said, looking away from the moon.
"Your past is not a waste," Victory said, gently. Stazel stood there, legs locked in place. He was surprisingly lenient towards her insinuation, simply whispering softly: "I wasn't talking about my past."
Victory almost told him about Gris then, about her hopes for the doctor, but it was fear that weighed on her more, a fear of being alone.
Stazel watched her walk away, with Max at her heels. She went to the stern to curl up for sleep.
Stazel felt out of place in Valencia's new town. He had covered up his tattoos for fear of reprisal from the recently reinstated Guardia Civil and kept his mouth closed as much as possible. Not so Victory—her modesty was abandoned as she flitted through the snow from one landmark to the next, pointing and beaming like a sensation-battered tourist. "Wow, look at that! It's even more impressive than the pictures."
She was standing at the foot of a timeworn monument to Doctor Tiffany Tower.
"Let's go and check in to a hotel. We need to talk," Stazel said.
Victory took a final look up at the chipped and graffiti-covered statue before following him.
None of the boarding houses in the new part of town would take them without travel visas, so they found themselves among the winding cobbled streets of the old town, come midday. Here the streets were silent, as it was siesta-time, and the closeness of the buildings was a comfort to Stazel, more familiar to him than the gleaming office blocks in Soft Square and the surrounding city center, or the multi-storey apartment-crafts in the harbor.
He checked them into a bedsit in a near-derelict hostel. Their room was manky and chill, with no light other than what entered the narrow window above the bed.
"Ew," Victory remarked, picking up a pillowcase by a corner and schlucking it from the stained bedding it was stuck to. "Nice to see they change the sheets regularly."
Stazel seated himself on an uneven-legged plastic chair. "Be straight with me, Victory. What do you know about why I'm here?" He had Gris's stone in his pocket and could not help turning it around in his hand.
Victory stood on the bed and looked out the barred window, or at least faced toward it, her chin raised toward the slim light. "I know Pepe told you I'm some kind of Soft-genius. He was lying."
"Are you a con artist? Is it that simple?" Stazel took out the stone.
"I don't want to con you. I can help you. More than that, I want to help you. Caliente took advantage of Dr. Gris. I want payback. That's not all though."
The sudden bitterness in Victory's voice seemed to age her immeasurably to Stazel's ear. He was feeling in some ways that he might have misjudged her.
"That stone, do you know what it does?" she asked.
"Some kind of hard-drive. Gris had a disk for it."
"The disk was a type of software. Look." Still standing on the bed, Victory turned her back to Stazel and lifted her shirt over her head. Behind the clip of her bra and embedded into her flesh—part of it—was a stone similar to the one Stazel held in his hand.
"What do you mean, was a type of software?"
"It got fried when he got here."
"He said a catalyst was needed as well as the disk."
"You would need a catalyst if there was no software on the disk. What can I say? He had a weird sense of humor. But what do you think the stone's for?"
Stazel rubbed a shaking hand across his forehead. Despite the cold, he was soaked in sweat, and there were rings at the armpits of his pullover.
"It stinks in here. I need a drink."
Victory jumped off the bed. "Don't run away. Like you said, we need to talk."
Stazel managed to get halfway to the bar before collapsing. Victory got a bearded sailor-cum-porter to help carry him back to their room, their breath fogging up the air around them as they struggled with the Malarian's superior weight. At the door she tipped the man from Stazel's pocket.
By the time his fever broke, two days later, Stazel was back aboard the Jack Tar though the ship was still in port. Victory was perched on the end of his bed with a jug of water and an empty tumbler. Next to her was a folded up copy of Panorama.
"How are you feeling?" she asked, pouring water into the glass.
Stazel tried to speak, but his throat was too dry, unlike his bed-sheets, which were damp with sweat.
Victory rounded the bed to show him the front page of the newspaper. There was a magnified picture of a mosquito on it. Stazel sipped at the water, eventually managing to whisper, "I can't read."
"It's about Malaria," Victory explained.
"What happened to me? The fever?" Stazel refilled his glass with hands shaking now from weakness and not fever. He noticed a powdery residue at the bottom of the jug: Q.
"You were bitten," Victory said, wiping his brow with a kerchief.
"There's something you're not telling me."
"You can't find what Caliente wants, Stazel."
"You're not making any sense."
"When you broke into the doctor's room, it was a trap. You were set up. Not by Caliente—"
Pepe entered the quarters he had given up for his sick guest. "Buenos tardes, hombre. Feeling okay now? Lucky I hadn't managed to flog all that Q, eh?"
Victory ignored him and continued her explanation. "We set you up. You were bitten by one of the doctor's nanotequitoes. Pepe convinced Caliente there was something valuable in the doctor's room, but Caliente thought it was something to do with Gris's time travel device. Pepe knew Caliente would send you to find it. You did find it, Stazel, only you didn't realize it. You found it and you set it free."
Stazel coughed dryly and took more of the drugged water. Pepe sat at the end of the bed next to Victory, unsure if his friend was taking all this in, but excited nonetheless to hear it told.
"I'm lost. What was it? What did I find?"
Victory traced a finger across the picture on the cover of the newspaper. "The cure for Malaria."
Stazel realized for the first time that it was not an insect depicted on the cover of the paper, but a robot built in the likeness of one.
"Why hasn't she come back?" Tiffany paced across the dining room, biting her nails. "She said she would come straight back. Where is she? If you've turned her into a TARDIS, why should there even be a gap between her leaving and returning? Surely she can come back whenever she wants."
When she looked at Gris, she saw his frustration simmering under the surface. Just like before, it caught her off-guard. He was so docile most of the time that his fits of rage were always a surprise. Tiffany backed off.
Gris threw the stack of papers he had been working on across the room, almost catching Tiffany's face with it. "I don't know! I'm certain it's my fault, though." He grabbed his keys and headed for the door.
Victory had been gone for three days, and now Gris was walking out on her. All the old accusations rose in Tiffany's chest, and her throat constricted with emotion. "Where are you going, you bastard? Don't you dare walk out on me again!"
But he did, and slammed the door behind him.
Tiffany finished her wine and held back her tears. She resisted the urge to throw Gris's matchbox from the terrace and instead drank his wine too. Then she picked up the box and went to work in the makeshift laboratory where he had set up his cursed machine.
By the time she went to sleep at 2am, Gris was still not back, and when Tiffany woke the next morning, the matchbox was gone, along the catalyst disk for the time travel device he had built. He had left a note, pinned to the fridge with a magnet Victory had found in a cereal box:
Sorry I'm such an arsehole. Gone to get Victory. If she's not back within the week, call the doctor I mentioned at the university. He's a Moroccan and his name is Pepe Farhiq. He'll tell you what to do.
Tiffany had no choice but to wait.
Epilogue: Southampton in Winter
Victory looked up at the one-armed statue. She liked the feel of Stazel's arm draped around her neck, liked the way his stubbly chin rested on her head. She turned to look at him, her boots crunching in the snow. He was wrapped up in skiwear, his eyes hidden behind sunglasses that reminded her of the pool club's gamespecs.
She bent forward, one stockinged knee touching the snow, and ran her hand across an engraved plaque. There was still a slight pain from the self-inflicted wound between her shoulder blades.
The sun was high up in the sky, an orange-gold coin placed against a pale gray wall.
The statue was of John Gris, whose research, along with that of his wife, Tiffany Seker and their associate, Pepe Farhiq, had led to a breakthrough in the treatment of malaria during the early twenty-first century. Victory turned from it to face her lover. Behind him was an impressive view of Southampton University. The building gleamed with ice, seeming, by a trick of perspective, to float on the Atlantic beyond it.
"How do you feel?" Stazel asked her. "Has it been worth coming all this way?"
"I think it's been well worth it," she said, her bare fingers slipping something into Stazel's gloved palm before closing his hand into a fist around it. "Come on, when was the last time you skipped a stone out to sea?"
Neil lives close to a big airport with his wife, daughter and dog. Other stories have appeared all over the shop. Another co-written story has just been published in Subtle Edens, the Elastic Book of Slipstream (Elastic Press), this one written with his blogmate Aliya Whiteley. You can catch him over at the Veggiebox, or check out his editing handiwork at Serendipity.
Ekaterina Sedia resides in the Pinelands of New Jersey. Her critically acclaimed novels, The Secret History of Moscow and The Alchemy of Stone were published by Prime Books. Her next one, The House of Discarded Dreams, is coming out in July 2009. Her short stories have sold to Analog, Baen's Universe, Dark Wisdom and Clarkesworld, as well as Japanese Dreams and Magic in the Mirrorstone anthologies. Visit her at www.ekaterinasedia.com.