The Secret Knowledge

Chapter One

Cary took a deep breath. "Well, here goes." The safe deposit box clicked open.

Deric and Madrigal crowded up against his back to look over his shoulders, which was mostly futile since he was six inches taller than either of them. One was a lot more pleasant than the other, though.

The only thing in the box was a leather cylinder about as thick as Cary's thumb and as long as his hand, expensively soft over something hard and oddly shaped. He untucked the end and let a tube of purple metal slide out. The ends were roundedly irregular, and the sides pierced with oval holes with strangely thinned or thickened edges, as though it had been frozen just after beginning to melt.

"What the hell is that?" Deric reached past Cary to grab the tube, but yanked his hand back the moment he touched it. "Fuck!"

Cary pulled his hand back too. "What? Is it hot?"

"No, freaky! You try."

While he hesitated, Maddie elbowed him aside and took the tube. Her dark eyes widened even further. "That's bizarre! How does it do that?"

With a gulp, he wrapped his hand around Maddie's and the tube both. The sound of chanting filled his ears. The words sounded distant, but the rhythm was clear and he could feel it in the bones of his hand. Startled, he let go, and the chanting vanished instantly. "That's freaky, all right." Nothing strange happened when he took Maddie's hand again -- his heart pounded like that every time he came within six inches of any part of her body -- but when he slid a finger onto the tube, the chanting returned. "How does it do that?"

Maddie pulled her hand from Cary's to hold the tube up to the fluorescent lights and peer through it. "Nothing inside, or on the inside." She lowered it and turned to Deric. "Do you have a kn-- Hey! It got louder!" She held the tube out and twirled it slowly in her fingers. "Now it's not changing."

"You turned your whole body," Deric said. "Try that."

Maddie spun on her heel. "Ha! It's loudest... this way." She looked at the blank white wall. "Whatever way that is."

Deric grinned. "We have a quest!"

"Don't you have to get the car back?" Cary asked.

"Nah, my parents are probably out getting drunk with the aunts and uncles anyway. Sign the papers or whatever you have to do and let's get out of here!"

Madrigal shook her head. "Is he always like this?"

"Every time I've seen him, anyway. I don't know what they put in the water in San Diego, but he drinks a lot of it."

"Bite me, nerd-boy."

"Bite yourself, pretty-boy."

* * *

Cary watched the two of them emerge into the golden sunlight, heads together and hands waving. It was easy to tell they were related, even though Deric's hair was bleached spikes and Madrigal's was flowing darkness: almost the same height; almost the same slender build; same dark eyes, long lashes, and pointy chins. Deric's tight black T-shirt, black jeans, and big stompy boots even somehow went with Maddie's long black skirt and black jacket over fitted white blouse. He was about to feel sorry for himself as a third wheel when Maddie looked up and blinded him with a smile.

"Don't look so goopy," Deric hissed as he passed. "You'll scare her!" Cary stuck his tongue out.

Madrigal ignored them both and scowled at the blue Suburban. "I always feel dirty riding in one of these."

"Yah, completely uncool," Deric said as he swung into the driver's seat. "But it's seven years, eight months, and three days until I can rent, so we're stuck with what Dad wanted. Which way?"

"Um.. towards that building with the arch, or a little to the left."

Cary dug a map out of the glovebox. "Okay, we're at Bower, between Cane and Jager, and that building looks like three blocks down and over, so the bearing is about this. Get on Bower and head north. And Maddie, put your seatbelt on." Oh yah, that was the way to impress a girl. He slowly leaned forward until his forehead thumped on the dashboard.

"Cary? Are you all right?" She actually sounded worried.

"Don't mind him, he just feels like a dumbass. It's chronic."

"Oh, you mean he's a boy!"

"You hadn't noticed? Well, he is kind of a wimp."

"Pblt. He was just being so sensible!"

Cary crossed his eyes so the faux leather texture of the dashboard merged into a three-dimensional web. Was it good or bad that she thought he was too smart to be a guy? Maybe it would be easier on his nerves to just stay like this.

"Hey, slinking beauty, we're about a mile down the road. Time to take another fix?"

"Uh, sure. Maddie?"

"Almost along the cross-street, maybe five degrees right."

"Okay... Even with ten degrees error, our target is somewhere in the scenic suburb of Greenwood. Or on the other side of the planet, of course."

Madrigal said mildly, "I hope what you mean is that the map might be out of scale by that much."

"Of course, of course! Deric, get on the freeway up here, heading east."

"Duh, east."

"Hey, you're not the one who's smarter than the average ape."

"But I'm hot. Right, Maddie?"

"Like you care what I think. HEY!"

Deric wrestled the SUV back into its lane. "Fuck, is it really that obvious?"

"Yes, but if I tell you how I figured it out, you'll drive off the road again."

"I'll drive off the road if you don't tell me!" The safety railing at the edge of the road drifted closer.

Cary clutched at the Jesus handle. "Don't kill us until we find out what the hell is going on!"

"Yah, yah, but you better tell me when we stop. And take another bearing, wench!"

Madrigal waved the purple tube around again. "One, maybe one-thirty."

* * *

"Up ahead on the right. Further... further... That one, with the big tree!"

"1986," Cary read off. "On Qualtrough Road. Never heard of it."

Deric reversed the Suburban and pulled backwards into the driveway of the chosen house. "Right, we're stopped, now you have to tell me or I will strangle you!"

Madrigal giggled. "Okay, you asked for it. When Cary was trying to see if my blouse turns see-through in sunlight (because he doesn't know what a chemise is), you weren't. You were checking out his butt."

"Ew, he's my cousin!"

"I'm his cousin, but that doesn't stop guys."

Cary slunk out of the truck, ears burning. "You're only my second cousin, so genetically speaking, Deric is four times as much of a perv."

"Uh huh."

Deric sauntered up to the front door of the house, but Cary could see that his ears were bright red. "How do we get into this place? There wasn't a key in the box."

Madrigal elbowed him out of the way. "Let me see. Is there anything about this size?" She stooped to peer at the doorknob, but her skirt didn't show much. "Ah hah!" The end of the tube fitted into a ring-shaped groove around the keyhole, and the lock clicked. "Ta da!"

"I could have figured that out!"

"But you didn't, because you're a boy."

Cary looked up and down the street, where occasional cars were appearing. "Let's fight inside, before someone calls the cops."

"You first," they said together and pushed him through the doorway.

"HEY!" He threw out his arms to fend off-- giant purple robots, insane chanting monks, whatever, but it was just an ordinary, empty, front room. The windows were covered with Venetian blinds, but otherwise there was no furniture, no carpet, nothing. The kitchen and hallway he could see were equally barren.

Deric and Madrigal crowded in behind and looked around. "Not much in the way of interior decoration. Which way now?"

She held the tube out and spun around, then frowned and turned another circle. "It's the same everywhere, so I guess we're here?"

The boys said together, "Basement!"

"I should have thought of that! You don't even have basements in California!" She bent over with one hand on the floor for balance and waved the tube up and down. "Definitely down."

Cary worried that the way down might be hidden, but it was only cleverly disguised as a broom closet at the back of the hall. The narrow staircase went down a story and then turned, hiding whatever was at the bottom.

Red arcs glowed on the walls and stairs, describing a distorted, vaguely horizontal ring that anyone going into the basement would have to pass through. The three of them stared at it for a while. "Okay, we agree that looks bad?" Cary asked.

Deric shook his head. "Hell if I know. This house looks pretty normal, so red probably means danger. But maybe red means the good shit is here, and fluffy bunnies mean run for your sanity. Mad, what are you doing?"

Madrigal straightened up. "Those lines look like the outline of a section of a sphere, and if they are, I think this thing is pointing at the center."

"So I should throw you through instead of Cary. Got it."

"Hey!" She skipped back up a few steps. "I thought we agreed Cary was the PMD!"

"I never agreed to that!"

She grinned. "That's because we didn't ask you."

Of course it was a joke, but it still sucked that she was conspiring with Deric against him instead of vice versa. "Fuck you both!"

"No way! My mom would be way too happy to catch me in bed with a chick."

Maddie rolled her eyes. "Boys." She pushed past them and went down to the red light on the stairs, prodding it with her foot. The toe of her shoe glowed red, but nothing worse happened to it.

Cary managed to stop after only two steps toward her. Pulling her back would be even worse than telling her to put her seatbelt on, although he didn't know if he still had any points left to lose.

The red ring moved up her body as she descended one step at a time, until she reached the landing and it was chest-high. "There's another flight of stairs down to a room," she reported before vanishing around the corner. "There's a glowy red crystal in a purple cage hovering in the air, with a chain to hold it down. It looks like the same purple metal and there's a slot like on the front door..." The red glow disappeared. "Did that do anything up there? The lights in the crystal changed."

Cary and Deric raced for the basement, but Deric won by vaulting over the bannister as soon as it was far enough below the ceiling.

* * *

Deric wouldn't have described the crystal as glowy; it was more like it had fireflies or glowworms inside it that crawled around just under the surface, vanished into the depths, and came back up somewhere else. It was about the size of both his fists, and melted-looking strips of purple metal outlined each of the edges. The chanting tube stuck out of the top, through a hole in the wire mesh bag that attached the crystal to a thin chain that ran straight down to the floor. When he tapped it, it oscillated back and forth like an inverted pendulum, and it seem to push up with about the same force that gravity should have pulled it down. He had no idea how it floated, how it projected a red sphere, what the sphere did-- nothing. "This is great!"

"Listen to this," Mad said. She was standing in front of a formica-topped table on the far side of the room, looking at the folders on it. "WARNING! If you cannot resolve all seven stars in the figure below, DO NOT continue reading this document! Failure to heed this warning will result in SEVERE MENTAL DAMAGE or DEATH!"

Cary ambled over with feigned casualness. "Severe mental damage? Like Deric?" Mad wasn't paying attention, though; she was staring at the folder in her hands. Suddenly her knees buckled and she collapsed, but Cary made the save, gathering her into his arms and landing on the bottom so her head bounced off his sternum instead of the concrete floor. "MADDIE!"

She was conscious again before Deric got there, struggling out of Cary's grasp. He yanked his hand away from her chest like it was scalding, although she didn't seem to notice. Deric went down on his knees, trying to remember anything about first aid. "Mad, what happened?"

"I don't know! I was trying to see the stars, and then I was on top of Cary! I almost had it, too. Give me that." Deric grabbed the folder out of her reach first, though. "Hey!"

Cary held on to her, so she ended up sitting on his legs. "What, you want to keep trying until you have a seizure?"

The "figure" below the typewritten warning was a jumble of kinked lines at all angles. Some just bent at the end, but most had a zig somewhere in the middle. At first it just looked like a mess, but when Deric looked away, it seemed to turn inside out, like that line drawing of a cube. It was still a mess, but a different mess. With a little bit of practice, he could flip it back and forth like the cube, but there weren't any stars either way. "I don't get it."

"There are three--" she began, but then he saw it. Three possible interpretations to flip between, and when he did it fast enough he could almost see the stars. The trick had to be seeing all three at once, but when he tried for a second, he lost the first. All at once, then. He defocused his sight, mind more than eyes, and let all the interpretations blur together.

It all came together like a random-dot stereogram, or like the times he'd managed to visualize a tesseract, engulfing him in a skeletal cage in a white void. Each of the right-angled corners he could see exploded into a many-pointed star on the outside, but there were only six of them. The vision wavered, but before he lost it entirely he realized that the whole thing was another star, seen from the inside.

After a moment of dizziness, he realized that his head was on something warm and slightly yielding and scratchy against his cheek. The rest of him was on cold concrete, which was much less pleasant, but he forgot about that as soon as scent clued him in. If he just turned his head, and if those jeans weren't in the way...

Cary poked him in the ribs. "I can tell you're awake; your face is turning red. Perv."

Deric sat up straight, even redder. "That's news? But I got it! You have to see all three views at once, and they aren't flat. It's 4-D, or something." He handed over the folder, but kept the staple-bound booklet it contained. "Let me know when you qualify to hear this stuff."

"Bastard!" Mad settled herself into a stable position against the desk and Cary's shoulder, though, and held up the folder so they could both see it. Before Deric could start reading the booklet, Cary looked up.

"Seven. Okay, start reading. OW!" He glared at Mad and scooted out of punching range, rubbing his leg. She ignored him to concentrate on the folder, but it took only a few moments before she slumped and caught herself.

"Hah, the seventh one is around the outside. Now you can start reading." She patted Cary's leg magnanimously, which reduced him to a scarlet imbecile again.

Easier said than done: the pages of the booklet were covered with zillions of tiny black dots, like star maps of the entire galaxy. When he didn't focus on the dots, though, the ratio of black to white looked about the same as for text, and then it was obvious.

He read out the plain typed text that floated in the same white void as the cage of stars. "What you have seen along the path to this document has no doubt inspired visions of Nobel prizes and luxury yachts. Before anything else, then, you must understand why such things are not to be."

"Bummer," observed Cary. "Well, why not?"

Deric read on:

First, the very presence of devices constructed using the principles you are about to learn is corrosive to unaltered human minds. The level of understanding necessary to maintain such devices would be utterly toxic. There are methods to overcome this limitation, but historically they have been both expensive and dangerous. I have made some progress toward alternatives that are cheaper and carry more palatable risks, but much work remains to be done.

Second, and more importantly, overuse of what you are about to learn may attract the attention of greater powers. The exact parameters have not been determined, but a region of probable safety has been determined. I have emplaced certain safeguards to keep you from leaving that region; by the time you are able to disengage them, you will most likely have seen for yourself the results of excess.

Mad frowned. "That's all very florid and ominous and unhelpful." She glared at the floating crystal. "If this is all just special effects to put us in the right frame of mind to read Great-Uncle Payter's unpublishable fantasy novel, heads are going to roll."

Deric jumped back up to where he had left off and continued reading aloud.

That said, there are unquestionably rewards to be had, if you are sufficiently unconcerned with the regard of your fellow humans. "Golden cities far," as it were, and an unparalleled view of the underpinnings of reality. More concretely, safety from your enemies, should you have any; freedom from material want; immunity to the ravages of age.

"That's more like it!" Cary said. "But what the hell is it we're going to learn?"

"Shut up and listen, nerd-boy."

Perhaps this sounds like magic. Certainly others have called it that, and called themselves wizards, but to paraphrase, "Any sufficiently advanced magic is indistinguishable from technology." I have always approached these matters as previously unknown phenomena of nature, potentially useful in engineering, and it has served me well enough that at the time I write this, no one else on Earth is using this knowledge.

Deric tried to blink away the eyestrain and ended up losing the image. His eyes felt like they were too large for their sockets, or maybe the wrong shape. "This is fucked up."

"I'm still betting on bad fantasy," Mad said. "Even if I can't figure out how this thing stays up." She batted the red crystal so it swung in circles.

"We can take it apart and take the pieces outside," Cary suggested. "But if this is a hoax, why? Uncle Payter might not really be dead, but his stuff is being handed out to people, so I don't see how this can be for profit. If all this went to someone specific, there might be some sort of scam he could pull, but the will is fifteen years old, so it really could have been anybody on the list. It would have been cousin Jack if he hadn't had that extra martini, and I can't see him doing anything useful with this. It just doesn't make any sense. And Maddie, your purse is beeping."

"Time to do some drugs." She fished a pill bottle out of her purse and tapped out two blue-and-orange capsules, but paused with them raised to her mouth. "What?"

Deric popped open the little plastic box from his pocket to show half a dozen identical pills. Cary held his up in a twist of saran wrap.

Mad's expression went dark. "You guys are both only children, right?"

Cary nodded slowly. "I had a sister, but she only lived a couple of hours. I was too young to have even seen her."

Deric thought of his mom's face the fifth time she'd come home from the hospital, blotched with weeping and glassy-eyed with sedatives. "Not for lack of trying."

The bottle cracked in Mad's fist. "That BASTARD! 'Palatable risks' my ass!"

"He only said more palatable," Cary pointed out, because he was an idiot.

"Try telling that to your sister!"

Cary flinched, but had the brains to shut the hell up while Mad stomped around the basement.

Genetically engineering people for bizarre brain functions was almost plausible, at least for some sort of government black project. Having it work even occasionally outside a lab, not so much. Doing all that twenty years -- no, twenty-five, it had to be before Jack was born -- ago, no fucking way. The list could be guesswork; you didn't need the human genome project to notice problems that ran in a family. But... He pushed the security crystal down and watched it bob back up. It felt about the same negative weight all the way down to the floor, and a magnetic field that big and still that strong should have pulled all those loose-leaf binders off the shelves even if it didn't pull the metal shelves out of the wall. "No wonder this stuff drives people nuts."

"She's taking this pretty personally," muttered Cary. "Is just because she's a girl?"

Mad whirled. "No, it's because he made me a FREAK!"

Cary flinched again, holding his hands up to ward her off. That had to be some sort of record for whippedness. "Huh?"

She slapped her chest. "These tits you've been trying to get an eyeful of? Gel. I'm seventeen fucking years old and I haven't reached puberty yet!"

Cary's jaw dropped. So did Deric's, but he recovered sooner. On the other hand, there wasn't much to say to that. Uncle Payter had fucked up big, all right.

Cary flicked the folder with a finger. "If this is real, and Uncle Payter did mess you up, then this stuff can probably fix you. If it's not real, then Uncle Payter probably isn't responsible. Uh, sorry for using logic!"

Mad sighed. "No, you're right. Bastard. Well, maybe if we're going to learn magic, we can call up his ghost and kick his ass. Deric, keep reading." She plopped down on the floor against the desk.

It was easier to bring the hidden text into focus this time, but it still made his eyes hurt.

Instruction in these matters has traditionally been via the apprenticeship system, but that is obviously not possible in the current circumstances. To the best of my knowledge, nothing like this self-study program has been attempted by humans before, so I hope you will forgive me when you find flaws.

The red binders on the shelves in this room contain mental exercises to strengthen those faculties useful in wizardry: mental calculations, visualization of four and five dimensions, visual memory. I strongly recommend that you work through all of the exercises before moving on.

In the green binders you will find the basic theories of astral fields, pattern resonance, telluric and etheric flows, and quantitative rotation, including the mathematics necessary for a formal understanding. Under field conditions, however, you will often wish you had paid more attention to your mental exercises.

Finally, the blue binders contain blueprints for some simple devices and diagrams of some basic patterns. I say "finally" because these plans will not be meaningful until you understand the theories behind them, and you will not be able to work with those theories in a practical fashion without the skills learned from those mental exercises.

Once you have fully assimilated these lessons, further information will become available.

"The rest is encrypted, I guess. Strings of numbers and letters."

"Huh." Cary wandered over to the bookcases and ran his finger along the binders. "I hope one of the blueprints is for a decoder ring."

Chapter Two

Madrigal pressed the phone to her shoulder and yelled, "More chocolate!" Her father's answer echoed up from the ground floor. "You're going to weigh four hundred pounds!"

Deric chuckled. "Does that actually help?"

Mad winced and clutched her belly as another stupid cramp hit. "A little. It makes me happier, anyway. If I'd really known what I was letting myself in for, I think I'd have stayed a kid, though."

"But Cary would be so disappointed!"

"Like he could tell the difference."

"He says some of the stuff in chapter fourteen could be used to make x-ray specs."

She surpressed a flare of anger. "It's a good sign that he's still a perv, right?"

"As long as he's a Euclidian perv. I'll let you know if he starts growing new body parts."

"Tell him not to bother. It's not worth it. What's the next iteration of a rho-field with components one, two, four, two, one?"

"Uh, seven, seven, three and a half, minus one, minus one half."

"Good. Now implode it."

"Shit. Uh, zero, zero, four, zero, one."

"Good." She flipped to the next page of her notes. "What are the vertices if you want to set up a stable containment on that field?"

"Hell if I know! Let me get the book--"

She counted down silently from thirty to zero. "Too late, the anakers have eaten your bone marrow."

"Bitch."

"It's for your own good. One more and we'll switch. If you have three matched telluric hemi-cycles, what do you need to link them?"

"Let me check my notes..."

* * *

Madrigal grabbed up the phone and snapped, "What?"

"Glad to hear you're still doing well," Cary said.

She knew it was just the stupid hormones, but that didn't make her any less angry at the sarcasm. "Fuck you too!"

He laughed. "You just got off the phone with Deric, didn't you?"

"Pblt. I'm an adolescent now, I can cuss on my own."

"So I hear, although I haven't seen any actual evidence."

"You really are a perv. But unless you're also a pedophile, you'll have to wait a couple of years for there to be anything worth seeing."

"I can wait. I'm just glad that stuff worked."

"Me too. Much as I hate my ovaries right now, I'd hate long green tentacles more. But enough about that. How are you doing?"

"Not too bad. I think my parents are okay with the big meeting plan, and I have some stuff to try out on you-- I mean, show off. Don't worry, it won't hurt. Much. You'll get used to it. Eventually."

She laughed so hard Coke almost came out of her nose. "Deric can go first!"

"Sure, he's sort of rat-like. Anyway, are you ready to grill me on something?"

"What, is there something you aren't perfect at yet?" Stupid hormones again, but a little bitterness didn't seem out of place. She still didn't entirely understand what Cary had whipped up to fix her endocrine system, and he wanted her to drill him on basic theory?

"I'm not perfect at anything. I'm not even imperfect. I just follow the instructions and stuff happens. Sometimes it's even the right stuff, but hell if I know why." He paused. "Maybe I shouldn't have admitted that to the person I shot up with magic potions."

"Now you're just trying to make me feel better. If you were that bad at this stuff, I wouldn't have taken your glop."

"Okay, so it usually does the right stuff. I still don't really understand how it works. At this point, it might as well be real magic."

Madrigal sighed. "I know, I know. But you got me these hormones, so you can put up with the mood swings."

"I'll know better next time! Anyway, are we still on for the end of the month? I know Deric has some stuff to show off."

"I have some stuff too, actually." She looked at the circuit diagrams pinned up over her desk. "You'll want to see it."

Chapter Three

Cary looked around the basement. It was exactly the same as they'd left it, but Maddie was probably tired of him gawking. On the other hand, it was thanks to him that she had anything to gawk at, and he doubted anyone had forced her to wear that tank top and miniskirt.

He patted his laptop case. There was still a chance he could impress her with his huge throbbing brain.

"Okay, what do you guys have?" Deric flipped a card the size of a bus pass between his fingers.

"Ladies first?" Nothing would impress a girl like being put on the spot. Idiot.

She reached into her purse and brought out a metal box, about the size of two packs of cigarettes, and fiddled with a couple of knobs. Suddenly it popped up into the air above her hand and hovered there, in the middle of a transparent sphere the size of a soccer ball.

"Rock on!" Deric poked the sphere with a finger, which made it wobble but not deform. "How big can it get?"

Maddie beamed. "Eight-foot radius. And did I mention it doesn't need batteries?"

"No more putting yourself down," Cary said sternly. "I couldn't make heads or tails of those rotation tap diagrams!"

"Well... I couldn't either, but the ges-field tap was a no-brainer. And it only rarely causes earthquakes!" she added brightly.

Cary eyed the plain concrete basement nervously. "We aren't near a plate boundary, so it should be okay. I think."

"Worrywort. Anyway, this first step of my master plan to take over the galaxy is complete!"

Deric smirked. "I, for one, welcome our new pubescent overlord!"

"Off with his head!"

That was as plain a cue as he'd ever heard. Cary grabbed Deric in a headlock and started tugging.

"Hey! Cut it out, shithead! I mean, mercy, mercy, oh great empress!"

She waved a hand magnanimously. "Oh, very well, We shall pardon you this once."

Deric shrugged his jacked back into place. "Then I shall have the opportunity to display my humble offering! But we have to go back upstairs."

In the master bedroom, he threw open the walk-in closet. "After you, great empress!"

Cary peered over Maddie's shoulder. The closet looked completely empty. "Not very impressive so far."

"Get in the closet, nerd-boy, and that joke you're about to make isn't new. Okay, now take my hands."

He seized the opportunity to close the circle by holding Maddie's other hand. It was a little damp, but he would have put up with much worse, especially when she smiled at him.

Deric raised his hand, and by necessity Cary's, to hold the broken-looking pattern on the card in front of his eyes. His face went blank in concentration, and then a five-dimensional tensor hit Cary right in the mind.

When the positionless colors and disjointed shapes resolved themselves into coherent vision again, it was of a completely different place: a cramped, wood-panelled, somehow European-looking living room lit by an overhead fixture and the trickle of light from around the heavy blinds on the window. The only furniture was a couch and a coffee table piled with familiar-looking papers.

Maddie was clutching his hand so hard it hurt, but his own knuckles were white too. They carefully disengaged without looking.

"Sorry, I forgot how freaky it is the first time." Deric didn't look at all apologetic, but no surprise there. "Welcome to Paris!"

Maddie squeaked. "You figured out the reticulum!"

Deric buffed his nails on his jacket. "Wasn't that hard, for a brain like mine."

"Bite me, pretty-boy," Cary said automatically, but he was already looking through the papers, many of which were maps of the telluric current network. Sure enough, there was a singleton node about ten miles from Deric's place in Santa Barbara, which connected to the cluster between New Orleans and Florida and then to the loose cluster running from London down to Madrid. Six jumps, which would suck if they were all like that, but apparently it got easier.

There were several nodes in San Diego and the desert inland, but nothing within a hundred miles of Minneapolis. "Damn."

Deric smirked over his shoulder. "You lose, nerd-boy."

"Hey, at least he can get other places. I can't get anywhere!"

"But you're safe from the perv!"

"He's not that bad. Anyway, I have a forcefield!"

Cary had no idea whether to count that as positive or negative. Time to change the subject. "Is this apartment like the house, paid up for the next hundred years with property taxes and everything?"

"Yah. I found a private eye who speaks English and gave her a hundred bucks to look it up for me. You would have liked her, perv: stacked blonde in a tight red top and leather miniskirt."

"Bite me."

"Hey, enough testosterone. Deric, do you have anything else in our new secret headquarters?"

"I found a couple other places like this, but I can show them to you later."

"Okay. I want to try something with that. Cary?"

This was it. "Watch this." He pulled out his Swiss army knife and opened the largest blade. "Would anyone like to inspect this to verify that it is an ordinary pocketknife? No? Very well, prepare to be amazed!" With a theatrical flourish, he swiped the blade across his forearm. Maddie squeaked.

It didn't hurt much; he was beginning to think that most pain was felt because people were told as kids that injuries hurt. The cooler part was that the three-inch gash didn't bleed much, just a dribble along the lower edge. Both the others leaned forward with interest, Maddie still wide-eyed with concern. Her tank top fell open a little, but not quite enough.

Then, the really cool part. The blood flowed back into the cut, which closed up into a pink line and faded over the course of about a minute. Maddie and Deric stared at his unmarked arm.

"That fucking rocks."

"What he said! How does it work?"

"It's probably best if you think of them as nanobots that live in blood and lymph and fix any damage they find. Wounds, poison, disease, radiation burns. They can't fix aging itself, but cancer, heart disease, all that, isn't a problem. I figure a hundred, hundred and fifty years." He opened his laptop case and took out the vial and syringe. "Deric, give me your arm."

"This is what you used that tissue sample for, isn't it? Ow."

"Sorry. Yah, they have to be tailored to the host. Give them a couple of days to build up a population before you walk into any reactor cores. And don't let anyone test your blood."

"I knew that, nerd-boy."

Maddie held out her arm. "Where's mine?"

This was the not even slightly cool part. "Maybe in a couple of months."

"WHAT?!"

He winced. "If you give you this while the previous batch is still in your system, it might work right. It might freeze you as you are now. Or, it might make you finish going through puberty in the next ten minutes."

"...oh. I'll wait, then." But she looked awfully disappointed.

"Don't you think it's fucked up that we want alien bugs crawling through our veins?"

"Now that you mention it, yes. But I already trusted Cary to fix what Uncle Payter screwed up, so I might as well be unkillable too. Anyway, I didn't see you thinking twice."

"I'm not saying I'm not insane too. But we should keep it in mind before jumping off any cliffs."

Cary cleared his throat. "Any more cliffs, you mean? But there's no question we're deep into mad scientist territory; the problem is that it all works, so we haven't seen the error of our ways. If it turns out that Uncle Payter has led us astray, we might not realize it until our component molecules explode outward at the speed of light. Which is why we're keeping careful notes, right?"

Maddie grinned. "Our Motto: Insane, But Meticulous!" She sobered. "You're right, but... how can we not investigate this stuff? No one else on Earth knows it!"

"Right, same decision as the last five times we talked about this shit. You got anything else, Cary?"

"Nothing to inject, but I can show you my pretty multicolored interactive diagrams of metabolic circuitry. It's taken me two months to set up and they're only half done, but that's nothing compared to what it would have taken me to figure out the synergistic effects by hand. I have no idea how anyone managed to do bio wizardry before computers."

"Mad?"

"Just some more stuff with no batteries. There's something I want to try with your reticulum trick, though, when we go back." She peered into the dingy white kitchen and the dark bedroom. "Nothing interesting here, except that it's in Paris? Let's go, then!"

Deric leaned over. "She just wants to go shop- Fuck! Great, she's getting muscles now. This is all your fault, nerd-boy." He followed Maddie to the door, rubbing his arm.

"Yes. Yes, it is."

* * *

Deric let the boxes tumble onto the coffee table and collapsed onto the couch. "I'm never going shopping with you again, bitch. I think I have a hernia."

"You have mutant healing factor now, remember? You'll never be free! Muahahahaha! Oh, just hold onto those, Cary. Once Deric gets his lazy ass up and picks up those boxes, I want to try something going back."

Deric groaned. "Fuck you all. A lot." After a minute he stumbled to his feet and picked up the boxes. "Someone else has to hold these while I do the thing."

"We'll see. Come over here and put your hands on the generator. Good, like that." The transparent sphere popped into existance around the three of them, lifting them a little off the floor and sending the two guys stumbling off-balance on the sloping surface. "Yeek!" All three of them collapsed into a heap of limbs and boxes.

By grabbing Deric's sleeve at just the right moment, Cary ended up squashed between the other two. Maddie was even softer than he had expected (although maybe some of that was gel) and her hair smelled like oranges.

"Smooth," Deric whispered.

"Bite me, pretty-boy," Cary muttered back.

"Could at least one person move, so I can breathe? Thank you, Cary. Deric, do your thing?"

"I see! Hold on to your asses..."

This time it wasn't nearly as disorienting. In fact, Cary could feel the false space around him, and the openings to other nodes. The node he was in seemed oddly enlongated, though, much larger than the spherical mass he was embedded in. Most of it was filled in, but there were a few open spaces near his end, and as he "watched", he was shifted into a different one and the false space dissolved.

"Yawn when the bubble goes down," Deric warned. Cary obeyed before consciously working out that they'd changed altitude, and was glad he had when his ears popped painfully. It didn't help when he dropped onto a hard bumpy surface.

"Ow! What the hell did you do-- oh." Greenish-white light shone from one end of a small stick Maddie held, illuminating the three of them, a pile of boxes (somehow mostly unsquished), and a domed cave of pale, water-gleaming rock.

"No odometer, but I think we're about three miles down," Deric said. "Somewhere there must be equipment to chill this water, or we'd be baking, but I haven't found it yet. I haven't found shit, really, except some drill holes and planed surfaces to show someone was here before."

Maddie hopped to her feet and turned in a slow circle with the light, showing the dripping walls and empty mouths of the cave. "With a little interior decorating, this would be a great secret base!


This file was last modified at 2305 on 17Jan07 by trip@idiom.com.