Did he smile his work to see?
David was dead at last.
I will carry all my days the vision of Nick frozen against the sunlight while the wind blew the preacher's words across green fresh-cut grass.
The boy had never drawn a breath that was free of pain. He'd slipped away, almost unexpectedly, on the eve of his fifteenth birthday. "In God's hands," they murmured over the sound of the trees. "He's better off."
Afterward, Nick refused my offer to stay with us a few days. I was uncomfortable at the prospect of my brother buried in his apartment. But he assured me he'd be all right, that there was enough going on at work to keep him engaged. "It's been coming a long time," he said, voice tight. And: "What I'm grateful for is, he never gave up. I don't think he ever believed it would actually happen."
I tried to stay in touch, but it was a busy time for me, and Nick wasn't very good at returning phone calls anyway. On the occasional evenings when my duties took me to the branch bank on Somerset, I made it a point to drive a few blocks out of my way, past his condo. It was on the rooftop of a squat five-story stone building. I stopped to talk to him only once, and he seemed so uncomfortable that I did not do so again. But from the street I could see him moving around in there, backlit, staring out over the city.
If you're concluding that I neglected him during this period, you're probably correct. In my defense, I should mention that Virginia delivered our second child two days after the funeral, and immediately fell ill. In addition, the markets went south, and I was working well into the night on a regular basis trying to protect the bank's investments. So I forgot about Nick until Edward Cord called.
Cord was the director of the particle accelerator lab at the University of Washington, where Nick was a researcher. "Have you seen him recently?" he asked. "He's changed."
"He's still upset."
"He's changed. Talk to him. He needs you."
# # #
I couldn't get past his telephone answering system. Finally, disgusted, I got in my car early on a Friday evening, and drove over.
Lights were on in the penthouse condo, one on the deck, one in back. I parked across the street, went into the lobby, and punched his button. Punched it again.
"Who's there?" The voice rasped. He sounded annoyed.
A long pause. The lock on the security system clicked.
The elevator opened off the terrace, and he met me with drinks in his hand. The usual rum and Coke. "Michael," he said. "Good to see you." He managed a smile, but his eyes were bleak and wintry.
"How've you been, Nick?"
"Okay." It was an unseasonably warm evening in October. A quarter moon swam among wisps of cloud. There was a taste of salt air off the Sound. "I take it you've been worried about me."
"You have reason." We crossed the terrace and went into the apartment. A desk lamp dropped a pool of light across a pile of notebooks and printouts. There was no other illumination in the room. "I'm sorry. I know I've been out of touch lately." He tried again for a smile. It wasn't there. "I've been busy."
He nodded. "I'm not surprised."
Bookshelves lined the room. Beyond the pale cast of the lamp, the walls grew insubstantial, gave way to void. An X-ray photo of the Milky Way hung by the door, and several of Nick's awards were mounted near the fireplace. A couple of landscapes broke up the academic character of the place.
Framed photographs stood on the desk: Terri alive and happy against a clutch of blue sky, windblown hair sparkling in sunlight. And David: on his bike at about eight, and again two years later locked in the embrace of a Mariners outfielder who had heard about the case, and a third picture depicting him in a baseball cap standing between Nick and me. In all the pictures the child, like the mother, looked happy. In love with life.
"Nick, you can't mourn forever."
He waved me onto the sofa and sat down in the big leather wingback. "I know," he said.
"You understand what I'm saying." I tried to keep the edge out of my voice.
He shrugged. Sipped his drink. It looked like wine. Chablis, probably. "It doesn't matter."
"Nick, we'd like to have you over for dinner. Maybe Sunday? Virginia would love to see you again."
He shook his head. "Thanks, Michael. But no. Not at the moment." He took a deep breath. Straightened his sweater. "Maybe another time."
"Please, Michael. We know each other too well, so I'll not lie to you. I have no interest just now in dinners and evenings out."
I waited until he could not misunderstand my dissatisfaction. "Is there anything we can do for you?"
"No." He rose, expecting me to go.
"Nick," I said, composing myself more comfortably, "it's been six months. You need to get your life together."
"Just soldier on," he said.
What the hell do you say in a situation like that? Everything sounds dumb. "I know it's hard. But these things happen. You have to be able--."
"They do not," he snarled, "happen. Nothing simply happens." He shook his head and his eyes slid shut. His lip trembled, and he fell silent.
The place was empty without David. Quiet. Not lifeless, because Nick possessed a relentless energy and vitality of his own. But it seemed as though direction had been lost. Point. The reason for it all.
"I'm sorry," I said.
I had drunk very little of the rum and Coke, certainly not enough to account for the subtle sense of disquiet that had settled about me. I don't know whether there was a modulation in his tone, or some curious juxtaposition of hand and shoulder, or a glint of terror reflected in glass. "No," he said quietly, "nothing happens save by design."
Curious remark: he had always been aggressively secular. Dad had provided a religious education for both of us, but in Nick's case it had not taken.
His face twisted briefly. Grief. Rage. I couldn't tell. But in the end it settled into a hard smile. "Michael," he said, "what do you think lies behind the stars?"
I tried to penetrate his expression. To determine what he was really asking. "God," I said at last. "Or nothing."
His eyes locked with mine. "I quite agree. And I believe we've found His footprints." He smiled at my confusion. He leaned forward, and his voice gained intensity. "Michael, the universe is wired. The fix is in. David never had a chance. Nor do you. Nor I. From the very beginning--." He got up and strode toward one of the windows. Seattle glittered in the distance, a crosspatch of illuminated highways and skyscrapers and bridges.
"We've begun to understand how it was done. Michael, there's a complete set of instructions written into the post-quantum world, a concordance of particle harmonies, a manipulation of the more exotic dimensions. Directions, establishing the rules, setting the value of gravity, tuning the electroweak charge, establishing the Mannheim Complexity Principle. Ultimately writing the nature of Man. It's all there, Michael. There's a lot we don't know yet. But someone had to write the program. The theologians were right all along--."
"This is old stuff, Nick. Railing at God when things go wrong."
"It comes with a twist now. We know how to make a universe. Were you aware of that?"
"No." It was hard to know whether he was mocking me, or delirious. In the uncertain light, I could not get a good look at his eyes. "I wasn't aware." And after a moment: "The idea is absurd."
"Nevertheless, it is quite true."
I sighed. "And how would we go about doing that? Making a universe?"
"It's easy. We pack a relatively modest quantity of matter, a few kilograms, into a cramped space." He looked past me, toward the shadowy area where his bookshelves met the ceiling. "The space would have to be seriously cramped, of course. It would be considerably smaller than an atomic nucleus. But after we've done it, we have a cosmic seed." His lips parted in a distorted smile. "Then all you have to do is let go and stand back."
"And you get a new big bang?"
I snorted. "Come on, Nick. A few kilograms wouldn't give you a good-sized rock."
He set his glass down and immediately picked it up again. His fingers curled around it, gripped it. "The seed is only a seed. It contains the trigger, and the plan. Once it explodes, the process takes on a life of its own. It creates what it needs. The forces come into existence, and the physical constants lock in. The clock begins to run."
"That doesn't make sense."
Nick looked amused. "Nevertheless, it happens. It has already happened. If it hadn't, you and I wouldn't be standing here."
"You're saying we could do this?"
"No, Michael. We don't have the technology. Yet. I'm saying it could be done. Almost certainly has been done."
Nick had brightened numerous evenings in the old days with quantum stories. We were primarily a family of stockbrokers and financial experts. He used to come home and go on about objects that exist simultaneously in two places, or move backward in time, or wink in and out of existence. Father had occasionally described Nick's mind in much the same terms.
"All right," I said. "If you went out into your kitchen tonight, and cooked one of these things up, what would happen to us when it let go?"
"Probably nothing. The blast would create a new space-time continuum. The lights might dim a little. Maybe the room would even shake. But that would be about all."
I let him refill my glass. "Well," I said, "whatever." Even for Nick, that one was off the wall. "What has any of this got to do with--?" I hesitated.
"Yes. No. I don't know. What connection has it with your hiding out up here?"
His eyes were very round, and very hard. "Let me take you a step further, Michael. We've gone beyond the quantum world now. Anyone with the technology to manufacture a new cosmos would also be able to set the parameters for the universe that would result. In fact, they would almost certainly have to, or they'd get nothing more than cosmic sludge."
He leaped to his feet, knocked over a stack of books on an end table, and threw open the glass doors. The city lights blazed beneath a crescent moon and cold, distant stars. "Unless you were very lucky, Michael --incredibly lucky-- unless a world of constants balanced very precisely, and a multitude of physical laws came out just right, there would be no moon floating overhead, no distant suns to brighten the night. And certainly no eyes to see the difference." He strode out onto the terrace, and advanced toward the edge of the roof. Uncertain what he might do in his agitated state, I hurried after him. "But," he continued, "with a little ingenuity, we can create whatever we wish. Flowers. Galaxies. An immortal race."
"The Creator did not see fit to do that," I said firmly.
He swung round. "No, He did not." He raised his face to the stars. "Indeed, He did not. Certainly, He did not lack the imagination. Everything around us demonstrates that. But He chose to show us the possibilities of existence, to let us taste love, and to snatch it away. To create transients in this marvelous place. What are our lives, finally, but a long march toward a dusty end? Michael--." His eyes widened, and his voice sank, "the stars were created not in love, but in malice. If you could create angels, why would you make men?"
"That's not my call," I said.
"Isn't it? You and I are victims, Michael. If not us, then who?"
The wind blew across the rooftop.
"Think, Michael: what kind of being would give us death when He held life in His hands, to distribute as He wishes?"
The temperature was dropping. Lights moved against the stars, headed in the general direction of Seattle-Tacoma International. "If you're correct, Nick,--and I say if-- the kind of Deity you're describing might take offense." It was really an effort to lighten the mood. It didn't.
"Thunderbolt out of a clear sky? No: we are safely beyond His reach."
"What makes you think that?"
"Once He released the cosmic seed, we expanded into a universe other than His. He can't touch us. That's the way it works. We're alone, Michael. No need to worry." He began to giggle. The laughter bubbled out of his throat but stopped when he rammed a fist into the waist-high brick wall at the edge of the roof.
He did not cry out, but only stood with blood pouring between clenched fingers. His hysteria broke off, and I took him back inside, sat him down, and got the Mercurochrome. "I'm sorry," he said. "I really shouldn't have loaded all that on you."
"That's true." Our eyes met. "And not on yourself."
A storm blew out of the Pacific that night. It carried no rain, but there was electricity, and it dumped a lot of hail into the area. I lay awake through much of it, watching the light in the bedroom curtains alternately brighten and fade, listening to the rhythmic breathing of my wife. At one point I got up and wandered through the house, checking the kids.
And, for the first time in many years, I prayed. But the familiar words sounded empty.
I could not take Nick's ideas seriously. But I kept thinking: surely, a Technician who could wire gravity into the universe could manage a mechanism to dispose of malcontents. In spite of common sense, I was worried.
I called Nick in the morning, got no answer, waited an hour, and tried the lab. Cord picked up the phone. "Yes," he said. "He's here. Did you want to talk to him?"
"No," I said. "Is he okay?"
"Far as I can tell. Why? Did something happen?"
"No," I said. "It's okay."
He remains in that gloomy tower. Occasionally, I can see him up there, framed in the light of a single lamp. Staring across the city. Across the world.
And it's occurred to me that there are subtler ways than lightning bolts.
Originally published in Isaac Asimov's Science Fiction Magazine, May 1991. Copyright, Cryptic, Inc., 1991.