Nebula Award Nominee
A new Alex Benedict novel from "a master of describing otherworldly grandeur." (Denver Post)
Forty-one years ago the renowned physicist Chris Robin vanished. Before his disappearance, his fringe science theories about the existence of endless alternate universes had earned him both admirers and enemies.
Alex Benedict and Chase Kolpath discover that Robin had several interstellar yachts flown far outside the planetary system where they too vanished. And following Robin's trail into the unknown puts Benedict and Kolpath in danger...
Lt. Jeremy Dalton frowned at the screen. “Nothing yet, Steve?”
Steve Yaniwicz activated the expanded scan, pressed the earpods to signal that the AI was telling him something, checked a second display, and shook his head. “No, sir. No sign of her yet.”
Dalton was wearing his formal whites, in preparation for the upcoming change-of-command ceremony. “Okay,” he said. “They have to be close. Let me know.”
He called the Command Duty Officer. “Still negative, Mr. Brolley,” he said.
“Check with the rest of the squadron, Jerry?”
“Yes, sir. They are not in the area.” It had been almost two hours since the Abonai’s scheduled arrival time. The Dellacondan star drive, like the Armstrong system that had preceded it, wasn’t too accurate. You might come out of it thirty or forty million kilometers from your intended destination. But they were providing extensive coverage. Somebody should have picked up the cruiser by now.
“All right,” Brolley said. He made no effort to hide his concern. “Let Fleet know.”
Admiral Thadeus O’Conner was aboard the incoming ship, scheduled to take command of the 314th Attack Squadron. Dalton had never seen O’Conner, didn’t know anything about him, but he had to be an improvement over their current commander, Mary D’Angelo. The woman who never smiled. Who was impossible to work with. She thought nothing of chewing out subordinate commanders in front of anyone who happened to be present when she got annoyed. She insisted on telling everyone, in microscopic detail, how to do their jobs. And she had no respect for the chain of command. If she disapproved of the way a junior officer was handling an assignment, she didn’t arrange to work through his boss; she went after the offender herself. It was clear she enjoyed raising hell, and there was no one in the squadron, and especially on the Celestine, who would regret her departure. As inevitably happened in such cases, she had been promoted.
He turned back to the comm operator. “Steve—”
“Yes, Mr. Dalton.”
“Get a message to comm ops at Point Edward. Tell them we’re still waiting. Ask them to provide an updated ETA.” Point Edward was, effectively, just down the street. A forty-minute flight. In and out of hyperspace. It was hard to imagine what could be holding things up.
He watched Yaniwicz send the message. That, he suspected, would be the signal for the cruiser to arrive. But it didn’t happen.
The transmission would require about twenty minutes to reach the Point. He looked out through the port at the Veiled Lady, which, to him, bore no resemblance whatever to a woman but appeared simply as what it was: a nebula filled with a million stars drifting through the night. Janet McReady, who did indeed look very female, thought he lacked imagination and pretended to feel sorry for him.
Janet would be assuming the watch in three hours. She was an intellectual type, beautiful but pretentious. Read philosophy and pretended to be able to see the child peering out of Barnable’s impenetrable art. How, she’d say, could you miss it? Well, she looked good, and for a woman, that was enough.
He was still thinking about Janet when Yaniwicz raised a hand to signal he had something. It was too soon for Point Edward to have answered. Too soon for them even to have received his message. He started toward the comm desk, but Yaniwicz pointed at an auxiliary screen:
From: CDR, Third Fleet
Movement Report Abonai not received as of 1720Z. Confirm Abonai your area.
Movement reports were routinely sent at departure and arrival. Dalton squinted at the message, then forwarded it to the CDO. Moments later, Mr. Brolley appeared in the comm center. He did not look happy.
“Still nothing?” he asked. The CDO was easygoing, a guy who never got excited. Dalton had been impressed with his behavior under fire. He was exactly the man you wanted to be with if you were having a serious problem.
“No, sir. No sign of her.”
“Very well. Tell everybody in the squadron to take another look. We want a report, positive or negative, from every ship.”
“While we’re at it, let’s inform Point Edward that we haven’t seen them yet. Confirm whether they left on schedule.”
“We’ve already done that, sir. A few minutes ago.”
Brolley sighed and walked out. He’d be keeping Admiral D’Angelo informed, of course, which meant dealing with another of her annoying habits. When something went wrong, she had a tendency to sound as if it was the fault of the reporting officer. He had no doubt that Brolley was already feeling the heat.
Well, at least she hadn’t come down to the comm center yet. Instead, she’d be descending on Operations, taking control of the scanners and sensors and giving obvious instructions. Dalton had seen her described in the Fleet newsletter as a can-do hands-on officer.
The request went out, and, within minutes, the destroyers began to check back in. McMurtrie first: Negative on the Abonai. Then Karasani. Then Hopewell.
It was, of course, an exercise in futility. The three cruisers and six destroyers that comprised the Flag Squadron were already doing what they could, watching their screens, and standing ready to report at first sighting. Had they seen anything, they’d have said something.
Wilson reported negative.
Eventually, Yaniwicz got a reply from Point Edward: The Abonai ETA has not changed. They left on schedule.
More than two hours ago for a flight that should have taken twenty minutes.
“The drive’s erratic, Mr. Dalton,” said Yaniwicz. “It could be on the other side of the sun.”
“I know, Steve. It wouldn’t be the first time. But it’s going to screw up the ceremony.”
“I hope nothing’s happened.”
“So do I. They’ve probably just missed their target. I hope.”
Yaniwicz grinned uneasily. “Safer going to Rigel,” he said, “than going to the grocery.” It was the standard platitude of the interstellar transport lines.
But then there’d been the Capella. Nine years earlier, on a flight from Rimway to Saraglia Station, it had made its TDI jump and never been seen again. Twenty-six hundred people had gone with it.
And there’d been the Warburton, lost eighteen months ago. Wreckage had been found, leading investigators to believe that its mass detectors had failed, and the ship had tried to materialize inside an asteroid. Of course, had that happened with the Abonai, there’d have been an explosion of considerable magnitude. No way they could have missed it.
They waited. Messages from Point Edward became increasingly frantic. Patrol craft and destroyers began to arrive to assist in the search.
Janet relieved the watch. Dalton returned to his quarters, showered and changed, went to the officers’ mess for dinner, where, of course, the conversation focused exclusively on the lost ship. Tag MacAllen had a sister aboard the Abonai, and Boros Razkuli, a son. Everybody knew someone in the crew.
At midnight, when Dalton returned to his watch station, there was still no word.
Six months later, the Abonai was formally declared lost. An extensive search by a sizable portion of the fleet had revealed nothing.
A memorial service was held at Point Edward, and another at Toxicon, the Abonai’s home port. To the dismay of the Celestine’s crew, Admiral D’Angelo was extended. Investigations continued for a year and a half. All reached the same nonresult: The Abonai, its crew, and Admiral O’Conner, were missing due to cause or causes unknown.
However useless your product, package it properly, and people will buy it. People will buy anything if the approach is correct. It is this happy truth that keeps the wheels of commerce rolling.
1434, Rimway calendar. Six years later.
I was sitting in my office at the country house, watching the snow come down, when Karen Howard arrived. The storm had reached epic proportions, at least by local standards, and I’d expected her to postpone. But she appeared at the front door exactly on time.
The only things I remember about her were that she wore a big hat, and that she talked in a loud voice. And, yes, that she was short. When she’d called for an appointment, she’d dodged explaining why she wanted to see us. “I have something to sell,” she had said. “I know you’ll be able to get a good price for me. It’s all quite valuable.”
But no details. That kind of approach is usually a guarantee that the prospective client is trying to get away with something. The antiquities business attracts a lot of con artists. Particularly our specialty, which is handling objects that have specific historical significance. The original notebook, say, that Despar Kolladner had used when he was writing Talking with God, or a set of drums that had belonged to Pepper Aspin. People are usually quite good at creating and producing supporting documents, but Alex is hard to fool. It’s only happened once, and it cost us. But that’s a tale for another time.
Karen came into my office, shook off the snow, and removed the hat but held it close to her blouse as if it would one day be a collector’s item. “I’m Elizabeth Robin’s sister,” she said, in a tone suggesting that explained everything.
I invited her to sit, but she remained standing. So I got up and came around in front of the desk. “I’m Chase Kolpath, Ms. Howard. How may I help you?”
“You’re the person I talked to?”
“Is Mr. Benedict available?”
“I’m his associate.”
“You didn’t answer my question.”
“At the moment, Ms. Howard, he’s busy. I’m his associate. What can I do for you?”
She frowned. Took a long look at me. Apparently decided she could make do. “You may know that Elizabeth died last year.” I had no idea who Elizabeth Robin was, but I nodded and managed to look sympathetic. “I’ve inherited the estate,” she continued. “And I have some items connected to Christopher that I’m going to make available. I’d like your help getting a good price.”
An old Ray Cammon song, “Love Is All There Is,” was playing quietly in the background. “Who,” I asked, “is Christopher?”
She just barely avoided rolling her eyes. “Chris Robin,” she said. “Of course.” Then, seeing that I needed further explanation: “Elizabeth was his wife.”
“Oh,” I said. “Chris Robin the physicist?”
“Yes. Who did you think?” Now she sat down.
“He’s been dead a long time,” I said.
She smiled sadly. “Forty-one years.”
“Maybe I should be speaking with Mr. Benedict?”
“You should understand, Ms. Howard,” I said, “that artifacts connected with physicists—Well, there’s just not much of a market for them.”
“Christopher wasn’t just any physicist.”
“Did he accomplish something special?”
She sighed, reached into a handbag, and pulled out a book, an old-fashioned collector’s edition, with his name on it. Multiverse. “Here’s part of what he did,” she said.
“Well—” I wasn’t sure where to go from there. “It looks interesting.”
“He accomplished quite a lot, Ms. Kolpath. I’m surprised you don’t know more about him. I suggest you read this.” She laid the book on my desk. Then she reached back into the bag and brought out a small box. She opened it and handed it to me. It contained a wedding ring with engravings of Liz and Chris, with the inscription “together forever.” There was also a diamond-studded comm link. “This is the one he always wore,” she said, “on special occasions. Whenever he received an award. Or spoke at an event.”
“Okay,” I said.
She produced a chip. “I wanted you to see some of the other items. Do you mind?”
“No. Of course not.”
The chip activated our projector, and a pair of lamps appeared. “They were custom-made to his order.” The lamps were ordinary flexible reading lamps, one black, one silver. Documentation consisted of two photos of Robin, one at his desk writing by the light of the black lamp, and one in which he was relaxing on a sofa, reading, with the silver lamp behind him.
“I have a large number of his bound books. He was a collector.” She showed some of the individual volumes to me. Mostly they were physics texts. There was some philosophy. Some cultural commentary. Danforth’s History of Villanueva. “One problem is that he was always writing in them. Elizabeth said he couldn’t sit down with a book without writing in it.” She shrugged. “Otherwise, they’re in excellent condition.”
For significant people, of course, writing in a book inevitably increases its value. I wasn’t altogether sure whether Robin qualified for that classification.
“There are other items as well. Some of his lab equipment. Some wineglasses.”
She showed me those, too. None of them would be worth anything. There were several other photos, some taken outside, usually of the happy couple, posed in starlight or beneath a tree or coming up the walkway to the front door of what appeared to be a small villa. “It’s their home,” she said. “On Virginia Island.” A few were limited to Robin himself. Robin lost in thought by a window, Robin biting down on a piece of fruit, Robin throwing a log on the fire.
One photo consisted of two lines of print. “It’s the closing sentences,” she said, “from Multiverse.”
We cannot help then but draw the conclusion that each of us has an endless number of copies. Consequently, we are never really dead, but simply gone from one plane of existence.
“I never really understood it,” she said. “Oh, and I almost forgot.” A photo of a superluminal appeared. The ship’s name, or maybe a designation, was partially visible on the hull, but the symbols were nonstandard.
Since all vessels use the same character set, the vehicle seemed to be a photographic fiction.
“I also have three autographed copies of Multiverse, and also—” A battered, broad-brimmed hat appeared. She looked at me expectantly. Then sighed. “It’s the Carpathian hat he made famous.” She put more framed photos on display. Robin and Elizabeth in the bright sunlight on the front deck of their home, Robin at a lectern with one hand raised dramatically, and Elizabeth with another, younger, woman. (“That’s me,” said Howard.) And there was Robin receiving an award, shaking hands with students, conferring with various people. And at his desk with his eyes fixed on a notebook. And one I especially liked: Robin at a restaurant table pouring tomato sauce onto a salad while Elizabeth watched with a tolerant smile.
“He loved tomato sauce,” Howard said. “He put it on everything. Potatoes, sandwiches, beans, meat. He used it for a dip.”
“Okay,” I said. “I’ve got it.” That was my moment to cut it off, to explain that we only deal with artifacts that are connected in some way with famous places or events, or with historical figures. That I was probably not the only person in Andiquar who’d barely heard of Chris Robin. But I ducked.
And she roared ahead. “Look at this,” she said, activating another visual. It was a painting of Robin and his wife. Elizabeth was dark-haired, attractive. The kind of woman who always draws attention from guys. She wore a pleasant smile, but there was a formality in the way she stood and in the way she looked at her husband.
“She died last year,” Howard said.
“Yes, I’m sorry.”
Her eyes clouded. “I am, too. She was irreplaceable.”
Robin could have been a perfect typecast for the mad scientist in an over-the-top horror show. His eyes peered out at me with unrelieved intensity. His hair had retreated from the top of his skull though it was thick and piled up over his ears. Unlike Elizabeth, he made no effort to look gracious. His expression reminded me of Dr. Inato in Death by the Numbers whenever he was about to unleash a killer typhoon on a crowded resort.
Another oil painting displayed a few musical notes and a date. “Those are the opening bars from ‘Starlight and You,’” she said.
I’d heard the song, of course. It had been popular off and on for years. “What’s the connection?”
She looked surprised. “He wrote it.”
“Do I sound as if I’m kidding?” A note of annoyance had crept into her voice.
“Not at all,” I said. “Music or lyrics?”
“Both. Chris was a man of many talents.”
Well, I thought, maybe we had something after all. I was reminded once again of the perils in dismissing a prospective client too quickly.
Another painting depicted him and Elizabeth standing atop a bluff overlooking a moonlit ocean. “They lived on Virginia Island,” she said. “Did I mention that?”
“It’s a gorgeous place. Have you ever been there?”
Virginia Island was halfway around the planet. “No, Ms. Howard, I’m afraid I’ve missed it.”
She smiled tolerantly. “You need to get out more. Get away from the office and see the world.”
Robin was wearing the Carpathian hat, slanted off to one side. He and his wife stood with their backs to the imager. They were leaning against each other, looking out to sea. Though they were not clasped in each other’s arms, it was a remarkably romantic picture.
A photo depicted him walking through a terminal, carrying a small piece of luggage, with a notebook slung over one shoulder. “This one’s of special interest,” she said.
“He was leaving for that last flight.”
“Did something happen on the flight?”
Another show of disdain. “At the end of it,” she said. But she seemed disinclined to go further on the subject, so I let it slide.
To keep up-to-date, input your email address, and we will contact you on publication
Please alert me via email when: