Version ControlDexter Palmer
ALSO BY DEXTER PALMER
The Dream of Perpetual Motion
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or locales is entirely coincidental.
Copyright © 2016 by Dexter Palmer
All rights reserved. Published in the United States by Pantheon Books, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York, and distributed in Canada by Random House of Canada, a division of Penguin Random House Canada Ltd., Toronto.
Pantheon Books and colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.
Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data
Palmer, Dexter Clarence, [date]
Version control / Dexter Palmer.
pages ; cm
ISBN 978-0-307-90759-2 (hardcover)
ISBN 978-0-307-90760-8 (eBook)
1. Married women—Fiction. 2. Physicists—Fiction. 3. Quantum theory—Fiction. I. Title.
PS3616.A33885V47 2016 813'.6—dc23 2015018879
eBook ISBN 9780307907608
Cover art from the series “Failed Memories” by David Szauder
Cover design by Janet Hansen
Also by Dexter Palmer
Part I: The Point of Failure
Chapter 1: Third Eye
Chapter 2: Good Catch
Chapter 3: Crackpot Theories
Chapter 4: Proximity Medallion
Chapter 5: Blackout Season
Chapter 6: Perfect Information
Chapter 7: Silent World
Chapter 8: Laboratory Tour
Chapter 9: Very Interesting
Chapter 10: Serious Question
Chapter 11: Atmospheric Noise
Chapter 12: Modernist Cuisine
Chapter 13: Point Zero
Chapter 14: Knob Creek
Chapter 15: True Enough
Chapter 16: Spivey’s Lament
Chapter 17: Safety Foam
Chapter 18: No Diggity
Part II: The Shadow Brought Backward
Chapter 19: Late Return
Chapter 20: Morning Routine
Chapter 21: Therapy Butterfly
Chapter 22: Gaia Williams
Chapter 23: File Management
Chapter 24: Leviticus Tattoo
Chapter 25: Brictor’s Party
Chapter 26: Grand Protectorate
Chapter 27: Weakness Leaving
Chapter 28: Unexpected Callout
Chapter 29: Pathological Science
Chapter 30: Lost Time
Chapter 31: Version Control
Chapter 32: Categorical Imperative
Chapter 33: Presidential Audience
Chapter 34: Quail Trouble
Chapter 35: Autonomous Gridlock
Chapter 36: First Date
Chapter 37: Midnight Monologues
Chapter 38: Grand Design
Coda: Extraordinary Evidence
About the Author
We are children of time, not its masters; we can act upon time only by acting within it.
—ERNST TROELTSCH, “The Essence of the Modern Spirit” (translated by James Luther Adams and Walter F. Bense)
How sad that this generation imagines that the form, colour, name and sound are enough to capture the essence of something!
—The Book of Chuang Tzu (translated by Martin Palmer with Elizabeth Breuilly)
Knowledge is a big subject. Ignorance is bigger. And it is more interesting.
—STUART FIRESTEIN, Ignorance
THE POINT OF FAILURE
Nothing is as it should be; everything is upside down. That is what Rebecca Wright thought.
For months now, Rebecca had felt what she could only describe as a certain subtle wrongness—not within herself, but in the world. She found it impossible to place its source, for the fault in the nature of things seemed to reside both everywhere and nowhere. Countless things just felt a little off to her. Sometimes she would fork a thick eggy chunk of French toast into her mouth during a Sunday brunch to find that a faint taste of soap lay beneath the flavor of maple syrup; sometimes when she kissed her husband his breath smelled of loam, as if he’d been surreptitiously snacking on top-grade soil. Sometimes the setting sun seemed to her to be hanging in a slightly incorrect place in the sky, to be a slightly inaccurate shade of red.
And take the President, for example. Sometimes, when Rebecca would see him on television, giving a speech on the pleasures of austerity or making a cameo appearance in the reality show that detailed the lives of his two teenage sons, she’d think: Something’s a little wrong. He seems like the wrong person. Not because he didn’t deserve to run the country, or because he was some sort of impostor, but because when he stood behind a podium with the golden presidential seal framing his head like a halo, he seemed to be the wrong person in the wrong place, a misunderstood character in a misremembered history.
When Rebecca had finally confessed her weird, persistent unease to her husband a week ago, it had done little good. Philip Steiner was not a man who readily comprehended the irrationalities of humans—they puzzled him to distraction on those rare occasions when they manifested in his own behavior, and when he observed them in others he usually figured they could be exorcised easily enough with judiciously chosen language. “You’re not making any sense to me,” he said to Rebecca when she woke up just after he’d come home from the lab at six a.m., after she’d told him she just felt like something was, well, wrong, with everything.
“Just listen,” Rebecca said as she sat up in bed, the old, oversized Stratton University T-shirt that served as her sleeping wear hanging loosely off one shoulder. “It’s like—you know, that feeling you have when you walk into a room intending to do something, except when you get there you forget what it is you came in there to do. I feel like that all the time now. I just woke up from a dream where I had that feeling. But that’s all I can remember about it.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Philip said, removing his left shoe by pushing at its heel with his other foot, then doing the reverse. “I don’t ever have that feeling.”
“Or like when you put your keys down when you come in the house, and fifteen minutes later you reach for them where you thought you put them and they’re not there. Then you spend two hours turning the whole place upside down, even though you don’t have anywhere to go right then, because until you find them you’ll feel like there’s a fishhook stuck in your brain. Tugging.”
“I’ve never felt like that, either,” Philip said. “My keycards move from the nightstand to the right front pocket of my slacks when I leave for work. They only leave my pocket when I need to open doors. When I’m done they go back to my pocket. At the end of the day they return to the nightstand.” He tossed the little bundle of rubber-banded RFID cards there, by example. “It never fails.”
“Oh Philip you’re worthless.” Rebecca slipped beneath the bedcovers and yanked them up to her chin.
Philip stripped down to his undershirt and boxers and sat down on his side of the bed. “It doesn’t make sense,” he said, half to himself. But it was at moments like these when, for all that he and Rebecca had been through, he still felt conscious of the satisfaction of being half of what most people these days called an “old married couple.” After ten years together, Rebecca’s behavior still occasionally took him by surprise, but with each p
assing month, the methods of modeling her mind became clearer, the proper procedures for response more plainly evident. Philip found that if the cause of her distress wasn’t something obvious, like a sliver of a mirror’s glass lodged in the palm of her hand, or a printer in the kitchen that was turning out misshapen forks and spoons, then asking her if she was upset often yielded positive results.
“Are you upset?” he asked.
“I’m not upset,” Rebecca said, turning over and burying her face in the pillows. “Christ, Philip. You always ask me that.” Her voice was muffled.
Philip frowned at her as she lay prone beneath the bedsheets. All he could see of her was a tousled mass of chestnut-colored hair, a month-old dye job betrayed by its scattered gray roots.
He quietly slid in next to her, kissed her tentatively on her ear, rolled over, and fell asleep within seconds, snoring lightly.
Rebecca soon drowsed again as well. She dreamed of tomatoes that hung heavy on thorn-laden vines, juicy, ice blue, and ready for harvest. She dreamed of sprawling mansions that rested on skewed foundations.
That was last week, and though that feeling of a fishhook lodged in her brain still lingered, Rebecca had decided to stop thinking about it. She was hosting a party of sorts this Saturday night—Philip had invited his colleagues and a few of the post-docs and grad students in his lab over to watch a show on television—and the preparations for it would distract her. The program was going to be on the Pscience! network, one of those half-dozen cable channels that broadcast sensationalist science and nature programs twenty-four hours a day, an endless procession of flashy animated renderings of Jovian orbiters, and experts on supernatural phenomena, and lions tearing out the throats of their prey.
One of the shows on Pscience! this evening was due to have a segment about the project that Philip had been working on for eight years. Philip would have preferred to receive his applause from his colleagues in the field, rather than from some television announcer who just read whatever she saw on a teleprompter—he had little interest in the opinions of laymen, and considered speaking to them about his work to be a waste of his valuable time. But the fact was, after nearly a decade of constant labor, on the rare occasions when his work was mentioned by other physicists, it was usually over one too many drinks at a hotel bar on the night before a conference, as an object lesson in how to avoid a research path that was likely to lead to a career-ruining dead end, or as a criticism of the habit of certain organizations of handing out grant money to anyone who could fool a panel of bureaucrats into thinking he was a legitimate scientist.
So when the television show had come calling, the rest of his lab subtly, gently convinced him that some attention, no matter its provenance, would be better than none. He’d suffered the intrusion of a film crew into the sacred space of his laboratory, the cameramen galumphing about while the custodians of boom mikes chased behind; he’d submitted to an interview by the show’s hostess who clearly didn’t know a thing about science, and managed to rein in his usual impulse to bark at everyone besides his wife who asked him to explain himself. It was hard to know how the result would turn out—given the tenor of the other shows on Pscience!, it was probably wise to expect something that was mostly truth-like rather than strictly true, perhaps with footage of an explosion spliced in somewhere—but Rebecca thought that it would be good nonetheless to gather the gang together so they could cheer, and pat each other on the backs, and watch the proceedings with an appropriate degree of ironic distance. A little party would be just the thing.
Though few of the physicists who would be coming by this evening were exactly conversationalists, she was looking forward to seeing them all together, and to taking vicarious pride in their work. There would not be many other women there—the only female post-doc in Philip’s lab, Alicia Merrill, was a person Rebecca found it difficult to get along with—but Rebecca’s best friend Kate from back in the day would be showing up early to help out, full of her usual mischief and sass. (“Will Carson be there?” Kate had texted that morning. “Has he said hes coming?” Carson Tyler was one of Kate’s exes, and though they were still on good terms, as Kate usually was with her exes, she still wanted to be prepared. “Dont know,” Rebecca had texted back. “He doesnt reply to invites. Just shows up.”)
Kate arrived ninety minutes before the shindig was set to start, a small, ginger-haired thing in a slinky black dress that seemed to be woven from vapor. She steadied herself on shoes with three-inch heels and open toes, and she wore an odd style of makeup that had briefly been in fashion fifteen years before: her eye shadow was faintly dusted with a few specks of silver glitter, just enough to catch the light when she blinked, just enough to draw a drifting gaze back to her face; her cherry-red toenail polish matched lipstick that Rebecca foresaw leaving imprints on the rims of her glasses, and requiring soaking and scouring by hand once it set. (But Rebecca was determined for this to be a real party, and a real party needed real glasses made from glass, not flimsy plastic cups extruded from a printer.)
Kate gripped a bottle of booze in each fist. “This is for now,” she said, handing Rebecca a bottle of Australian Shiraz, “and this is for later,” doing the same with a two-thirds-full handle of coconut rum whose label featured the visage of a grinning pirate.
Rebecca hadn’t had a drink in two years, and even when she had been drinking she’d never had much of a discerning palate. But the unadorned, pale blue label pasted on the bottle of Shiraz seemed tasteful enough—not too baroque; not too silly—so she figured she could serve it without causing offense to those who cared about such things. However, the rum was best spirited out of sight. The taste of that was something she remembered clearly enough, and with it the rhythm and comfort of ritual—in late afternoon, when she was in the house alone, before the school bus disgorged her strange and charming charge, when shadows settled in the living room’s corners, and women known only by their first names appeared on television to interview up-and-coming starlets and the anguished authors of memoirs. The pull of the hand to the bottle, the clink of the ice in the glass, the burn at the back of the throat, the repetition, the repetition. This is how it is done. You drop four pieces of ice in the pint glass; then you pour in the rum until it climbs just short of halfway up the side. Then you fill the glass to the top with Diet Coke. Then you knock it back and you do it again. Then you refill the ice tray just as the boy comes home, gaily hollering his greeting in the hall—
“So,” said Kate. “First. Do you need help with anything. Second. Boys. Besides Carson, I mean. Who.” There wasn’t much to do besides spot cleaning, since these guests would be easy to please—salty snacks and hoppy beers would do. Rebecca was also cooking scallops wrapped in strips of bacon, but more because she liked them herself than because anyone else would, and the only time she seemed to come across them was at weddings. There was something supremely decadent about the marriage of pork and mollusk that implied the dish should only be served at events of moment and gravity. But Rebecca figured that this night was probably at least half as important to Philip as a wedding would be to someone else (though he was making a big production of pretending he didn’t care), so it was a fine enough excuse.
Kate sashayed into the kitchen, her bottom swaying like a pendulum’s bob, and for a moment Rebecca saw a younger, brace-faced version of the woman in her bedroom, practicing that same walk in front of a mirror, perhaps with a social-studies textbook balanced on her head. Women usually only walked like that in movies, when cameras were pointed at their behinds—again, Rebecca felt that certain subtle wrongness, as if all the substance of the world were shot through with error. Even though she had known Kate since her twenties, she couldn’t shake the feeling that her gait was not supposed to be theatric vamping, that her mutton-dressed-as-lamb makeup and her flirty demeanor were not supposed to be quite like that.
She followed Kate into the kitchen, wishing her friend hadn’t brought the rum. The gesture was tone deaf: the wine would have be
en fine enough. But the occasional inconsiderate act was the price one paid for having someone like Kate as a friend—if she was not always as empathetic as one might like, she was faithful and dependable, and she’d answer her phone on the second ring. For all her flaws, she was good, or tried to be. You could say a lot worse about a lot of people.
As they washed and dried wine glasses that had accumulated a thin, sticky film after years spent in the back of a cupboard, Rebecca wondered if there was anyone coming tonight that she had a chance of setting Kate up with. Signs pointed to no: those scientists she knew whose behavior was closest to normal were either taken, or married to their work (on her bleaker days, Rebecca counted her own husband among this number), or had long-term, long-distance relationships with other academics in other states or countries. And poor Carson—it was a shame that didn’t work out, but when Kate lost interest in a man she was never left wanting for a pretext to kick him to the curb. He was slow to respond to texts and IMs; he never carried a phone; and (okay, this was fair) he rarely talked about anything except his work. (Once Rebecca had said to him, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder after he’d gone on for ten minutes about some new device he was building for the lab whose name ended in -ometer, “Hey. I want to talk about something else now.” He wasn’t offended in the least—he was nice like that, and sarcasm probably would have been wasted on him anyway.)