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Dexter Palmer

  As Kate and Rebecca chatted and caught each other up, the party’s preparations came together—the still sizzling scallops were pulled from the oven and placed on plates; the wine glasses were set on a table in two neat rows; the plastic coverings were removed from sushi platters that Rebecca had picked up from a supermarket that afternoon; bags of tortilla chips were emptied into large bowls, with smaller bowls of salsa placed nearby. (Rebecca could already see herself on hands and knees, cleaning red flecks and spatters off the carpet. But if chips and salsa weren’t here, Philip would leave the party and drive to the nearest convenience store to get them himself.) Rebecca turned on the living room’s television, which displayed a program about the supposedly real science that lay behind a big-budget space-opera flick appearing in theaters that weekend. The show’s host, a square-jawed male-model type in jeans and a leather jacket, walked toward a slowly retreating camera while delivering a monologue on the basics of spacecraft propulsion, investing his words with a phony, jittery urgency. For a moment Rebecca could see his face as it really was, its pockmarks and beard stubble mercilessly depicted in ultra-high definition; then his voice hitched as the TV’s real-time graphics editing algorithms kicked in, smudging away his wrinkles and facial blemishes, outlining his head in a faint bloom of light.

  Philip arrived with his compatriots Dennis and Carson in tow just as Rebecca and Kate were finishing up, the three physicists deep in the midst of a gossipy conversation about someone else’s project, their inscrutable tales of laboratory politics punctuated with occasional bursts of laughter. The women greeted Philip’s colleagues: portly Dennis, who grasped Rebecca’s small hand in his huge one and bellowed her name with a joyous basso profundo, and Carson, who hung back behind. You could look at him and see that as an adolescent he’d never quite grown into his skin, but was one of those men who only start to find their looks once they slip past thirty. Time had sculpted his cheeks and hewn a pair of matched divots between his brows, and favored his face with lines that told a history of frequent unself-conscious smiles. He was, as always, sharply dressed, unlike his colleagues, who tended toward the proudly rumpled and threadbare: a forest-green sweater vest and a tie to match; charcoal slacks with creases you could cut yourself on. Philip could stand to take some fashion advice from him, Rebecca thought.

  “Carson,” Kate said softly, lifting up on her toes and kissing him on the cheek as he shyly cut his gaze away from her. She made a little kissing noise: “M-wah.”

  “Hey, sweetie,” Rebecca said to Philip sotto voce, sidling over to him. “Nervous?”

  “What do I have to be nervous about?”

  “Oh yes you are,” she said, patting him on the shoulder. “Look at you.”

  “But I don’t have to do anything. It would make more sense for me to worry if I had to do something, and I hadn’t prepared enough. When I gave that talk at Frascati, and I’d only just finished the second draft on the plane over—then, I was nervous. When I was standing at the lectern I felt stark naked. But all I have to do tonight is sit, and listen, and watch myself on television.”

  “You’re famous.” Rebecca smiled.

  “Rebecca. Don’t be ridiculous.” But he tried, and failed, to stifle a grin.

  Meanwhile, Dennis had plopped himself down in front of the television, seating himself tailor-style on the floor with a large bowl of tortilla chips nestled in his lap and the salsa beside him. Rebecca glanced at Kate, who raised an eyebrow, but that was the kind of thing you expected Dennis to do, and he was so guileless and good-natured that it was hard for him to cause true offense. He was careful to tap each chip with his index finger as he held it over the salsa bowl, fastidiously dislodging any potentially wayward drips.

  On the screen, the show’s host was now seated in a leather-upholstered armchair, leaning eagerly into the face of the woman opposite him. According to the words dancing across the bottom of the screen, she was the film’s “scientific consultant.” “So what you mean,” the host said, “is that faster-than-light travel could become a reality. That we could soon open up trade routes to the stars, with all the mystery and the danger and the wonder that might entail.”

  The woman squirmed in her chair. “Well, there are certainly some major barriers that would have to be overcome, but—I mean, I guess you can’t prove a negative—”

  The image cut quickly to the host staring directly into the camera, once again alone. “You can’t prove a negative,” he said sagely. “Humanity is not in the business of proving negatives. And we will soon leap over those barriers, just as if they had never even been there. The first step in that epic journey begins exclusively in theaters, this weekend.”

  More people started to show up now, and a few of the men had brought their wives and girlfriends along. Female physicists were a relative rarity, in Rebecca’s experience. On the occasions when she’d come across them during her relationship with Philip, she’d found them to be cold and impenetrable—she felt a flinty edge to their personalities that made her uncomfortable, with challenges in their greetings and dismissals in their goodbyes. Their sentences seemed to spring from their mouths fully composed, with no slips of the tongue or midstream shifts in thought. Kate wasn’t like that, which was why, despite the occasional instance of obliviousness, she and Rebecca could be best friends—she was comforting and small, and she talked about things that normal people talked about, and you could be around her without being constantly reminded that there were things you didn’t know, and things you couldn’t do.

  Alicia Merrill arrived alone, and it was once again time for Rebecca to play the hostess: Kate was busy talking to Carson, over in the doorway between the living room and the kitchen.

  “Have we met before? A couple of times, I think,” Alicia said, even though Rebecca was quite sure they’d met more than just a couple of times. “I saw you at a Christmas party once.” A handshake from her, not a hug. A firm squeeze of the hand. Swallowed up in a baggy knit sweater, Alicia couldn’t have weighed a hundred and five soaking wet. She wore a pair of beaten-up Nike running shoes, and in her heels Rebecca had a full six inches on her. But Rebecca still found the woman slightly disconcerting, with her whippet-thin build and pinpoint gaze.

  Alicia shifted her grip. She probably keeps one of those springy hand exercisers in a desk drawer, Rebecca thought, preparing for moments like this. “You’re well?” Alicia said.

  “I’m doing okay. A little nervous. It’s Philip’s big night, you know.”

  One side of Alicia’s mouth twitched upward. She still clasped Rebecca’s hand.

  “So can I get you a drink?” Rebecca said, the last word of her question blurred by a skittish half laugh. “What are you having?”

  Slowly, Alicia pulled her hand away.

  “I rarely drink,” Alicia said. “And I’m running tomorrow: training for a mini-triathlon. So. Seltzer water. If you have it.”

  “So are you gonna give me a hug or what?” said Kate. “Like I’d let you get away with hiding in a corner. Come here.” But Carson’s embrace ended before it began, his hasty withdrawal somehow managing to precede the tentative touch of his fingertips on her bare shoulder blades.

  “You look good,” Carson said.

  “So do you,” Kate said, though she didn’t really think he did—the same features that meant maturity to Rebecca signaled simple age to Kate. His eyes had a flat, distant gaze, and his brow seemed clenched in a constant frown; his ensemble struck Kate as natty rather than stylish, better suited to someone fifteen years his senior. And he needed to eat something, so his face wouldn’t look so pinched. “How are you these days?”

  “Good. It’s been crazy at the lab lately. A lot of stuff going on.”

  “Sounds like it.”

  They sipped their wine, saying nothing.

  “So what about you?” Carson said quietly.

  “No, I don’t have a boyfriend,” Kate replied, wondering why her mouth was making those odd shapes and noises. “But I’m okay
with that.” Kate to self—stop talking. “I mean, online it’s always the same ten guys, and, yeah.” Kate! Zip it!

  “Me too,” said Carson. “Okay. With not having a girlfriend.” There was no hint of bitterness or falsehood in his tone; he was perfectly nice, like he always was.

  They simultaneously downed half their glasses.

  Then Carson sighed. “Well, okay. Except that—I’ve got that thing going where I feel like my life is a total waste sometimes. This work is my life, and right now my work is awful, so…Q.E.D.”

  “Everyone thinks their job is awful sometimes. That’s why it’s a job.”

  “No—not like that! Not like, But what I really feel I’d be best at is traveling and seeing the world. Not exactly. Take other people, right? A lot of them have regular hours they’re at work, and they sell their time for the money that lets them make the most of the time they have left over. But most people don’t want to—don’t laugh—most people don’t want to change the world, right? They might, you know, go out and vote or something, but for the most part they’re happy to live in the world like it is. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But stupid me—I have ideals.”


  “And I’m not even bragging about it!” Carson interrupted. “Because ideals aren’t good for me. They aren’t healthy. Ideals are for suckers. All they do is let guys like that”—and he motioned toward Philip in the living room with a nod of his head—“get over on me.”

  “But that’s good about you, that you’ve got principles,” Kate finished. “Really. I like that about you. Liked it.” Christ, Kate.

  “But see—okay, look. Every once in a while, actually a lot lately, it gets to be around six o’clock, and not only am I still in the lab, but I probably have about three or four more hours of being in the lab to look forward to, working on a project that hasn’t gotten me more than third-author credit on a few papers in some journals that aren’t that spectacular to start with. That’s it. And there’s probably zero real-world application for this stuff, and maybe it’s never going to work. So I’m still in the lab when sane people are knocking off for the day, and I think—like if I were a normal person? A normal single guy? I’d come home and pop dinner in the microwave, and maybe play some video games, and then go out to a bar. But instead I’m going to be in the lab, parsing code and taking another set of measurements on machines that aren’t working the way they should. And I start to think about maybe hanging it up.

  “But it’s like, even when he’s in his office with the door shut, he can tell when someone in his lab is having second thoughts. It’s like he’s a telepath. Because that’s when he shows up. He’ll just start talking to you, kind of idly, in the kind of voice he never uses except then, this kind of voice you’d use to read a bedtime story to a kid, not necessarily even talking about the project, and you can look in his eyes and just tell how much he believes in capital-S Science. And after about ten minutes of this, I go from thinking ‘Man, I could go for a drink right now’ to ‘You know, he’s going to be here later on tonight trying to figure out whether our Planck-Wheeler clock needs recalibrating, and it’d be a shame to leave him here by himself. And if we can confirm that there’s nothing going wrong with the clock, maybe then we’ll start to be able to figure out why we’re not seeing the results our models say we ought to see. So I just need to stick with it a little longer. In fact, I should just run down to the sporting-goods store the next time I get a chance, and pick up a cot. It’d be nice to have a cot in the office, for quick little naps.’ Because I have ideals, see. Same as he does—he’s got the same disease. And he knows it. And he exploits it.

  “Yeah, sure, he’s brilliant,” Carson said, nodding toward Philip again. “And you could say he hasn’t gotten his due. But sometimes I can’t stand the son of a—”

  “Kate? Carson?” Rebecca said from directly behind them. Carson’s mouth clamped shut.

  “Hey, girl,” Kate said.

  “They’re getting ready to start, I think. It’s time.”

  In the living room, Alicia and Philip stood apart from the rest of the crowd, who were now seated around Dennis, gazing up at the television. Alicia spoke low and fast, repeatedly cutting her eyes back to the rest of the physicists, dispensing for a moment with the slightly deferential tone she and the other post-docs normally used with Philip when they were in the lab. (At work she called him Philip instead of using his title, of course, but post-docs had a way of speaking their adviser’s first name with the subtle intonation of an honorific.) “I’m going to be honest,” she said. “I don’t like this. Everyone else might, but I don’t. It’s not as bad as announcing results before you’ve verified them, not as bad as the stuff that NASA’s dragged people into by teasing a press conference like it’s some kind of movie premiere, but it isn’t good. We’re going to be embarrassed.”

  “But we’re really close,” Philip said. “Maybe another year. Eighteen months on the outside.”

  “We’ve been a year away from sorting this out for years now,” Alicia said.

  Philip winced. “I think you’re making too much of a big deal about a cable show that no one watches.”

  “Well, someone has to. I can’t believe you let them talk you into this. I mean, sure, everyone in the field thinks we’re a joke, but fortunately we were able to find people to fund us who get a kick out of comedy. Granted, I’d rather not be on that particular payroll if I could help it—”

  “Excuse me?” Rebecca said, standing behind Alicia.

  “What,” Alicia said flatly, turning toward her.

  Rebecca looked at Philip quizzically. His expression was a whiteboard wiped clean.

  “Would you like to join the rest of us in front of the TV?” Rebecca asked hesitantly. “It’s time.”

  If you had never watched that much television, then you might wonder how it was that the President of the United States had found the time to record a video introduction to every program that appeared on every one of the hundreds of available channels—not just a generic twenty-second speech that gave his imprimatur to the program about to commence, but a short monologue that always seemed to be tailored to the program’s subject matter, linking it to some larger political or spiritual meaning. But keen-eyed viewers knew that the President repeated himself: he almost always delivered one of a finite number of canned speeches, perhaps tweaking a word or two in a halfhearted effort at personalization, and anyone who viewed a variety of programs for long enough was bound to see a prologue for a telecast of an English soccer match repurposed a few months later for a stream of a StarCraft III tournament final.

  This repetition was easiest to notice for fans of science documentaries. For programs like the broadcasts of mega-church Sunday-morning services, it wasn’t uncommon for the presidential preamble to mention the same book of the Bible that would be the subject of the minister’s sermon. But for science documentaries, the relationship of the monologue to the program that would follow was usually tenuous at best: in fact, as the presidential seal appeared on the screen at nine o’clock sharp, Dennis and Carson began to try to guess which address they were about to hear.

  “It’s going to be the one about Mendel,” Dennis said. “Where he talks about Mendel and his peas, except he calls them beans.”

  “Nope,” said Carson. “We’re going to get the talk about science and empire. You know the one. The one that’s supposed to make you feel good about doing science when you hear it.”

  “Wanna bet?” said Dennis. “Twenty says it’s Mendel and beans.”

  “And twenty on science and empire,” Carson said. “But no payout if it’s something else.”

  “Get your Gipper ready, then,” Dennis said, and then the image of the presidential seal dissolved to reveal the man himself, sitting in an armchair whose frame seemed to have been carved from a single hunk of redwood. Rows of vintage leather-bound hardcover books with matching spines lined the shelves behind him; the flickering lighting discreetly
implied a fireplace just offscreen.

  “Good evening!” he said. “I’m glad I have this chance to talk with you. Now, before we start, I want to tell you something: I want to give you something to think about while you watch. You know, I remember—and this is back when I was a kid, growing up in Newark—I remember that in my parents’ house, the word empire used to be a dirty word.”

  “Damn it,” said Dennis, and got out his wallet.

  “And my mother—you wouldn’t believe, looking at me now, that I was her son—she was always going on about how we’d been making all these mistakes as a country, how the government just couldn’t do anything to satisfy her, and she’d wind up these little rants by saying, ‘You know what this is? This is what happens when a nation turns into an empire.’ And the way she said it, it sounded like the foulest swear word.”

  “Look!” said Dennis, pointing at the TV. “There’s something wrong with the President.”

  “Because that word, empire—that word was loaded with all the histories of all the empires that came before us, right? Rome, and the Turks, and the British—all of them, declining and falling.”

  “I don’t see what you’re talking about,” said Kate, sitting down on the opposite side of the group from Carson, and that was when the President leaned forward in his chair, closer to the camera. “But let me tell you this,” he said. His right eye was its usual brown, but his left, for a moment, sported an iris of shimmering indigo. Then he blinked, and the purple disappeared.

  “Huh,” Carson said. “Interesting.”

  “Look at American history,” the President said, both his eyes brown again. “Think about the way that Americans rose up and just shrugged off the chains of the British. But they weren’t just strong—they were smart, too! Because after that, the Founding Fathers immediately sat down and proceeded to invent a new kind of nation. Our wisest men came together, and studied all the histories of all the nations that had come before us, and saw what mistakes they’d made, and invented a new nation that would not repeat those mistakes.”