Letter From The Editor - Issue 69 - June 2019

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Issue 12
Stories
Over There
by Tim Pratt
The Multiplicity Has Arrived
by Matthew S. Rotundo
Somewhere My Love
by Stephen Mark Rainey
The End-of-the-World Pool
by Scott M. Roberts
Hologram Bride: Part One
by Jackie Gamber
Folk of the Fringe Serialization
WEST
by Orson Scott Card
Orson Scott Card Audio
Tales for the Young and Unafraid
The Crack
by David Lubar
InterGalactic Medicine Show Interviews
Essay
American Idol
by Kathleen Dalton-Woodbury

The Multiplicity Has Arrived
    by Matthew S. Rotundo
The Multiplicity Has Arrived
Artwork by Jin Han

Critical mass has been attained, brothers and sisters. The tipping point has been reached. They tell us that we know not the day nor the hour, but I say to you the time is now. The Multiplicity has arrived, brothers and sisters. Can I get an amen?

Spencer Reese started to go into his standard pitch, but she cut him off with a wave of her hand. "Mr. Reese," she said, "I've done my research. I know what you can and can't do. Reese Research and Strategies is a very lean political consulting operation; the staff consists of you and some occasional temps. You're ambitious, but you don't have the resources to run a high-profile campaign from start to finish. You're hired to do specialized work, usually involving the opposition. You are, in other words, a professional character assassin. Your weapon of choice is the Internet."

Spencer, seated across the table from her, met her gaze calmly. She would definitely need some polishing. But at least naïveté was not among her faults.

In that moment, vague recognition flashed in his mind and then faded, gone so quickly he dismissed it.

She wore a tweed jacket and matching skirt over a wiry frame. Weathered, angular features, strong cheekbones, cropped dark hair, frosted at the tips. He guessed she was just into her thirties. Her handshake grip had been firm and reassuringly strong, her smile spare, showing no teeth.

Her name was Diana Gilbertson. The handshake had been good; the wardrobe and the smile needed work. Professional, but a little too hard-edged. She would need softening.

"Am I too blunt for you?" she said.

"I have no problem with directness."

"You were a pioneer of Web-based fundraising. You have developed an extensive network of bloggers, through which you influence political commentators, and ultimately, the news itself. You are among the best at generating publicity and shaping perceptions. Yet you keep a low profile."

"I'm more effective that way."

"Indeed you are. It would not do for people to learn how they've been manipulated, would it?"

Spencer looked around hopefully for their waiter. "That might be putting it a little strongly."

They were in a Mexican restaurant in the old shopping district downtown, a place with hardwood floors and tall windows that let in a lot of the early March sunlight. Spencer had never eaten there; she had suggested it when they spoke over the phone.

It was just after two o'clock. They sat at a booth near the windows, and had most of the place to themselves. Diana Gilbertson had ordered only a salad, drank only ice water. Spencer, though ravenous, had followed her lead, ordering only a small entrée.

She leaned forward in her seat. "I'm not really interested in your ability to destroy reputations. What I need are your Internet skills. Your contacts. Your ability to shape perception. In short, Mr. Reese, I need a person who can work the Multiplicity."

He swung his gaze back to her, all thoughts of lunch forgotten. "What did you say?"

"I think you heard me."

Internal warnings sounded; Spencer struggled to put away his shock and raise his guard.

"I've been to your website," she said. "It's interesting. You barely mention that George Lyons was a client of yours. Why is that?"

Spencer swallowed. "The work I did for Senator Lyons was comparatively minor. I keep --"

"-- a low profile. You're more effective that way."

Spencer held his tongue.

"I don't have time for pretense, Mr. Reese. I'm a serious woman with a serious proposition. If you're not interested in hearing it, I can always go to one of your competitors. Roger Bonham, for instance."

Spencer's lip curled. He supposed fat old Roger Bonham, founder of Bonham and Associates Public Affairs Consulting, would indeed be interested -- but not necessarily for the business she could bring. Bonham was smart enough to be as wary as Spencer, probably more so. Bonham would want to know exactly what she knew, and how she knew it.

Had she just said the word Multiplicity? Had she really?

She sat composed and still, awaiting his response.

"Call me Spencer," he said.

The waiter arrived with their orders a few minutes later.

A reading from the Book of the New Order, chapter one:

In the beginning, brothers and sisters, the Mainstream Media collapsed under the weight of its own corruption and incompetence. In its wake, a war raged between the donkeys and elephants for supremacy of the new battleground they called the blogosphere. They attacked and counterattacked, accused and counteraccused.  They distorted and conflated and quoted out of context and cited fictitious sources.  They marginalized and insulted and libeled, and savaged each other in ways heretofore unimagined. And lo, their ambition and hatred blinded them, brothers and sisters, and they did not perceive the deeper truth: the war they fought could never be won.

But it could be lost.

They knew it not, for they knew not the word of the Prophet Kinsman.

Yea, children of the New Order, it came to pass that Dr. Russell Kinsman, sociology professor at Berkeley, published a paper in an obscure academic journal, and the abstract read thus:

Given current trends, one may conceive of a moment in the near future when the Internet completely supplants memory, and by extension, history. From that moment on, that which is not on the Internet is not remembered, and may as well have never existed. Thus the Internet may begin to literally change the past as well as influence the present. Such a phenomenon would make the distinction between historical revisionism and actual events meaningless. What we call reality may be more malleable than we ever suspected.

One may argue that our global society is already advancing inexorably toward this point, which may be called the Multiplicity.

These words he wrote, and they were greeted with apathy and ridicule from his peers, who whispered among themselves that the great Prophet Kinsman, well into his seventies by that time, had gone around the bend. In the manner of all true prophets, he died without being heeded, only two years later.

And lo, brothers and sisters, the Word of the Prophet came to the crackers, the phreakers, and the other underground web denizens. And some, like Spencer Reese, heard the Word, and were intrigued.

Some, however, believed. They claimed that it was too late, that the world had already been changed.

She gave him a dossier on herself. He pored over it at his office suite, scribbling notes in the margins, until well past dark.

Reese Research and Strategies occupied a second-floor suite in a downtown professional building. The space consisted of a glass-fronted reception area -- a WiFi hotspot furnished with padded chairs and coffee tables, adorned with framed campaign posters he had designed -- and an office proper.

The décor in the office consisted of classic political memorabilia, including a framed Jimmy Carter T-shirt, a collage of early twentieth century postcards from the Taft and Bryan campaigns, and some original pamphlets trumpeting the 1840 Harrison-Tyler ticket. In one corner was a conference table, where Spencer conducted staff meetings on those occasions when he had a staff. His desk stood in front of the windows, which afforded a view of the skyline, looking east.

Though dark had fallen, Spencer was too wrapped up in Diana's dossier to bother pulling the blinds.

Over lunch, she had told him the tale:

Diana Gilbertson wanted to run for the Tenth District House seat -- a seat currently held by an aging congressman, popular but term-limited. She had never been much of a player in party politics, but sometimes a candidate with a clean slate could be very appealing to voters. Trouble was, her slate wasn't entirely clean.

She had made a significant investment in Milton Technologies, just before the Synergy Supersystems merger. Three weeks before, to be exact. After the merger announcement, after Milton's stock skyrocketed, Diana wound up making nearly two hundred thousand dollars. Fortunate for her, decidedly unfortunate for her political aspirations.

And it got even better: Diana's roommate from college was the vice president of Milton's R & D division. Though no proof existed that the two of them had corresponded prior to stock Diana's purchase, none of that would matter in the court of public opinion -- and Diana was smart enough to know it.

But there was another option.

Spencer had stopped her at that point. "Listen," he had said, "the Multiplicity isn't something to be trifled with. It's a complex phenomenon. The potential for unintended consequences is huge."

She had responded simply: "I have confidence in your abilities."

Their waiter reappeared. Spencer asked him to box up the remains of his meal; he was no longer hungry. Smiling, the waiter obligingly removed his and Diana's plates.

Spencer waited until the waiter was out of earshot before speaking again. "So how do you know about the Multiplicity, Diana?" He watched her very carefully for any reaction.

She remained bland. "No great mystery there. We've read the same theses. Russell Kinsman's paper is available online, for God's sake."

"Yes, but it's obscure. How did you know where to look?"

"I'm interested in Internet phenomena. Viral videos, meme transmission, that sort of thing. I chanced upon a mention of the Kinsman paper in an online discussion group years ago. Tracking it down didn't take long."

Plausible enough, he supposed. But that was the easy part. Still watching her carefully, he said, "And what makes you think the Multiplicity has anything to do with my work on the Lyons campaign?"

She glanced at her water, took another sip. "That, I'll admit, was a little tougher. But I suspected the Multiplicity was involved from the beginning."

"Really."

"I had been following GennerCorp closely, even before the scandal broke. I had considered investing in them. The stories about George Lyons and Nathan Hazelton contradicted what I knew . . . or what I thought I knew. And those stories originated in the blogosphere."

"They always do."

"From there, it was easy. Your blog contacts made you the obvious . . . how shall we put it?"

"Culprit?"

"I was going to say source. It was brilliant, Spencer. Masterful. That kind of daring and skill is exactly what I need."

The waiter returned with the bill and a square styrofoam container heavy with Spencer's leftovers. Diana offered to pick up the check, but Spencer insisted on paying. He didn't want to be in her debt. He handed his credit card to the waiter, who retreated with it toward the cash register up front.

Spencer rubbed absently at his forehead, considering. "As I said, it's complicated. It could even be dangerous, should things go wrong."

"I have confidence --"

"In my abilities, I know. I'm flattered."

"Spencer, you can do this, and I think you know it. So what's holding you back?"

He could think of no tactful way to tell her that he trusted her as far as he could throw her. Instead, he told as much of the truth as he dared. "I've never had a client who actually knew about the Multiplicity. Not one. It bothers me a little that you're willing to speak so openly about it."

"I've hardly been careless with this information. So far, you're the only person who knows I'm thinking about running."

"All right, fine." In his peripheral vision, he spied their waiter returning to their table. "I can tell you that it won't be cheap, and it won't be easy."

"Then we should get started as soon as possible." She had extended a hand across the table. "Don't you agree?"

He had hesitated before shaking the proffered hand. "As soon as possible."

Then the waiter had arrived, bringing a receipt for Spencer to sign.

Spencer closed the dossier and rubbed tired eyes. He glanced around the office, at the memorabilia hanging on the walls, at the ways the spin doctors of past ages had attempted to work the electorate. It fascinated him that in over two centuries of American politics, very little had changed.

Until now.

Diana Gilberton's tale was perfectly plausible, perfectly reasonable. But it just didn't sit right with him. He was missing the angle.

She had mentioned Roger Bonham. Once again, Spencer caught himself wondering how Bonham would handle a case like this. Sighing, he pulled his cell phone from its belt clip and made the call he didn't want to make.

So it was that half an hour later, he arrived at Mickey Pete's, a local watering hole and favorite haunt. It was a weekday, and well past happy hour. A cluster of regulars sat at the bar, but the rest of the place was empty. Various sports programs, muted, played on ceiling-mounted monitors. A soundtrack of classic rock emanated from the PA system. Spencer took a seat at the bar, away from the knot of regulars, and ordered a scotch and soda.

Within minutes, booming laughter, deep and rich, rang out from the direction of the door. It was a familiar laugh, one Spencer knew well.

He turned in time to see Roger Bonham and his usual cronies enter, four or five in all, laughing among themselves. They wore rumpled suits with ties loosened and skewed. They headed straight for the bar. Bonham made eye contact with Spencer and nodded. Spencer waved in acknowledgment, manufacturing a polite half-smile.

Roger Bonham, the head of Bonham and Associates Public Affairs Consulting, was a fat man with a round, boyish face and a disarmingly jolly demeanor. His aftershave arrived at the bar three seconds before he did.

His operation was bigger than Spencer's; Reese Research and Strategies was usually not serious competition. The two men were rivals, but colleagues when off the clock -- or had been, until Spencer landed the Lyons job. Bonham had been a little cool toward him since then. Nonetheless, after Bonham secured his drink -- whiskey sour, as always -- he broke away from his compatriots, heading toward Spencer.

"Hey, Spence," Bonham said.

"Good to see you, Rog." They shook hands.

"What can I do for you?"

Spencer sipped his drink. "How's business?"

"Not bad. A new client or two, getting an early start on the next election. You?"

"About the same. I was wondering if the name Diana Gilbertson meant anything to you."

A small frown wrinkled Roger's brow. "No. Should it?"

Spencer traced along the rim of his glass with one finger. "You're sure?"

"Never heard of her. Who is she?"

Spencer stared him down. Bonham looked away, staring into the depths of his drink.

A piece clicked into place. "Just a name I heard," Spencer said. "Thought she might be a player. I guess not."

"So it seems." Bonham slowly swirled his whiskey sour. "Is that what you called about?"

"I wanted to get your take on something. How many people know about the Multiplicity, do you think? I mean really know about it."

Bonham looked around, as if verifying they could not be overheard. "That's why you called?"

"It's been on my mind."

"Huh." Bonham scratched at one chubby cheek. "Well, it's hard to say. You would probably know better than me."

"Your agency's a lot bigger than mine. And you're no stranger to the Multiplicity."

"I stay mostly in the shallow end. I let you troll the deeper waters."

"Yeah, so you'll know where the sharks are."

"Well, it's a mean old world, isn't it?" Bonham downed the rest of his drink, set the glass on the bar. "You really want to know what I think? I think the secret can't hold forever. The circle gets a little wider every day. Eventually, it's gonna break, and everyone will have to get out of the pool. The government steps in with regulations and investigations. The FEC, just for example, would be very interested in the ways the Multiplicity can be manipulated."

"The FEC? Would they even have jurisdiction?"

Bonham chuckled. "Right now, no one has jurisdiction. That means anyone who wants it can claim it."

Spencer nodded. The other piece clicked into place. He saw the angle -- and immediately hoped he was wrong.

"Thanks for your time, Rog." Spencer finished his drink and offered his hand. "Tell Joann and the girls hello for me."

Bonham took his hand, shook. "When are you going to settle down, Spence?"

Spencer waved him off. "Take care."

"You, too. And watch out for those sharks."

Spencer drew in a deep breath. "Sure." His thoughts were of Diana Gilbertson.

Desperation, brothers and sisters -- that's what drove Spencer Reese to step on the path of the Multiplicity.

His skills with Web-based fundraising had gotten him the job on a campaign for an obscure state legislature candidate. But by the time Spencer had been hired, the candidate's coffers were already dangerously drained, and the voting public smelled a loser. The opposition's exceedingly well-financed war chest, meanwhile, appeared bottomless.

And Spencer Reese looked upon the numbers, and figured what the hell, he had nothing to lose. He opened the campaign finance reports and moved a few decimals. And he leaked copies of the reports to the bloggers who had begun hinting that his candidate was tapped.

That would show them, he thought.

And the story spread. The blogosphere hummed and buzzed about this heretofore minor local race. The pundits said that it was going to be closer than anyone thought, that it might tip the balance of the legislature, that it deserved closer attention. And they spoke of the fundraising prowess of Spencer Reese, of his ability to turn around a moribund campaign.

And the weight of the new perception took hold, for who would trust to memory in the Internet age? It gathered its own inertia, growing and growing, until something . . . happened.

Changed.

The perception leaped from the digital world to the real world. It became. It actualized. Like the miracle of the loaves and the fishes, the depleted bank account were flush again. And thus was the Word of the Prophet fulfilled.

Magic, you say? Magic, or just some new but poorly understood phenomenon?

You must answer that one in your hearts, brothers and sisters.

The candidate, puzzled but pleasantly surprised by the suddenly positive financial news, campaigned hard and won a narrow victory.

And Spencer Reese, deeply disturbed even in his moment of triumph, recalled the Kinsman paper. The scales fell from his eyes, and he believed.

Spencer went to the office the next morning with a throbbing head and bleary eyes. He had gotten to bed late. He'd spent hours perusing online political forums. Sure enough, rumors had been posted here and there, from sources Spencer considered credible -- even some of his favorite front-line blog sites like Truthzilla and Spin Control Central:

Government officials have been looking into allegations of strange Internet campaign tactics . . .

. . . investigations into manipulation of the blogosphere . . .

. . . possible sting operations . . .

. . . closer scrutiny of political blog sites . . .

He hadn't slept well.

When he got to the office, he went straight to his desk and pulled Diana's dossier from a locked drawer. It included a complete breakdown of her Milton Technologies transaction.

After a few minutes' search through the dossier, he found what he was looking for -- the name of the VP at Milton, one Meredith Ash. She'd landed a consultant position after the Synergy merger, a largely honorary post, given that she had made enough money on the deal to retire in style.

Spencer powered up his laptop and got online. A quick check of Synergy's website showed Meredith Ash still maintained an office there. Clicking on a link provided him with her business email, phone number, and even a brief bio. He picked up his phone and jabbed at the buttons.

He got her voice mail. He opened his mouth to leave a message --

-- then stopped, staring at his monitor.

Slowly, he pulled the handset away from his ear, returned it to its cradle.

Her biography had caught his eye, particularly the first line: Meredith Ash graduated summa cum laude from Georgia Tech with a Master's Degree in Information Management.

He flipped back to the first page of Diana's dossier. According to the fact sheet, she'd gone to Stanford. And the two of them were supposed to be old college roommates.

"Son of a bitch," he said.

He spent the next two hours checking out the rest of the dossier. He found not one verifiable fact. Stanford had no record of Diana Gilbertson's enrollment there. She had claimed to chair several community projects; no search engine could find any of them. And rather conveniently, she had no living relatives. No evidence, in fact, that the woman named Diana Gilbertson existed.

Investigations . . . sting operations . . . allegations of strange Internet campaign tactics. Right. And who was making those allegations? A certain fat man looking to rid himself of a rival, perhaps?

Deeper waters. Sharks.

Spencer closed the folder and shoved it away from him as if it were toxic. He stared at it, heart racing.

A trap, then. She might be FEC, NSA, maybe even CIA. It didn't matter. He had to drop her as a client. Immediately. But --

If she were investigating him, how much evidence had she gathered? What she already knew about him might be enough to land him in prison -- although what the charges would be, he could not say.

A spark of an idea came, and his breathing slowed. "Evidence . . . "

She might have a mountain of it. But so what? What was evidence, in the days of the Multiplicity?

Part of him balked at the thought. It was crazy. And even if it worked, it would mean the end of his career in politics. Then again, if Diana Gilbertson exposed the Multiplicity and nailed him up for it, he was finished, anyway.

But before he went --

"So clever, aren't you Rog?" he said in a low voice. "Want to try the deeper waters? That's just fine. Come on in."

He bent to his laptop and called up his client list.

Spencer Reese, brothers and sisters, was a quick learner when motivated. The more he learned, the bolder he became.

And lo, Senator George Lyons hired Spencer to do the hatchet job on Nathan Hazelton.

Hazelton had gotten into politics late in life, but had risen quickly through the Senate ranks, eventually ending up on the Armed Services Committee. He had a reputation for being an idealist, a crusader. He had won his share of respect . . . and enmity. He smelled the stench of corruption on fellow committee member George Lyons, and clashed publicly with him.

Then the GennerCorp scandal hit.

A huge multinational, nicknamed "Big G," GennerCorp had many friends among the powerful. Allegations of price fixing had led to an anti-trust suit filed by the Justice Department -- just as the Armed Services Committee had begun discussion of an appropriations bill that would greenlight a very lucrative contract between GennerCorp and the Defense Department.

GennerCorp had been a huge contributor to George Lyons.

Lyons was already busy running a re-election campaign, facing a stiff challenge in his district. To make matters worse, crusading Senator Hazelton had grown interested in Lyons's cozy relationship with Big G.

So Lyons brought in Spencer Reese, and said unto him, "This story has legs. It just won't go away. I need more than sound bites here. The story has to be killed, wiped out. Like it never existed."

It was all the direction Spencer needed. He formulated a daring plan, contacted his networked minions, and launched his largest assault on the Multiplicity. He was not at all certain it could work on such a large scale, but he was determined to find out.

By that time, he had deduced at least some of the rules: the weight of perception had to reach a certain critical mass, a tipping point, before the Multiplicity began to work. The inopportune presentation of conflicting evidence, anything that might upset the chain reaction before the tipping point was attained, would dissipate the reality alteration like smoke.

But Hazelton unwittingly made Spencer's task easy. He paid scant attention to the blogosphere, which he disdained, and had little family to speak of. He was divorced, with only two children -- a daughter serving overseas in the Army, effectively out of the picture, and a teenage son living with his mother.

So it came to pass that Spencer planted a story with his blogger contacts, and it intimated that George Lyons had nobly renounced the vile clutches of GennerCorp and voted against the appropriations bill, but that crusading Nathan Hazelton, of all people, had voted for it.

And the story caught on, spreading from the grassroots blogs to the mini-majors to the front-line sites, snowballing into the topic of choice on forums nationwide.

Lyons was baffled at first. He placed an angry call to Spencer: "What the hell are you doing? Are you insane?"

"No. But soon, Hazelton might think he is. Go with it, Senator. Trust me."

Lyons, wary but a savvy survivor of many election wars, fell into the rhythm. Of course he had voted against the bill. He was, after all, accountable to his constituency, not to multinationals. After a few repetitions, he came to believe it himself.

Nathan Hazelton denied that he had supported the GennerCorp bill. He insisted that Lyons had voted for it, not him. He claimed it loudly. Vehemently. Repeatedly.

But lo, a quick check of the records of the online committee proceedings showed otherwise.

Spencer had not tampered with those records. In truth, they were beyond his reach.

Critical mass, the tipping point, had already been attained. Reality had realigned itself to conform to the new perception. Even Spencer found himself amazed -- but not surprised.

To his credit, Hazelton did not quit. Instead, he became more strident, making wild allegations of conspiracies, for which he of course had no proof. One man's unbelief could not deflect the power of the Multiplicity.

Yea, verily, the poor bastard never knew what hit him.

George Lyons won re-election in a walk. Hazelton suffered a breakdown and resigned in confused disgrace. He later checked himself into a private hospital. Word was that he emerged some months later with at least a tenuous grasp of his new world. Retirement from the pressures of public life had done wonders for his mental health.

This is the word of the New Order.

Can I get an amen?

It took Spencer three weeks to send out all the seeds of the new reality -- some of the fastest work he'd ever done, all while ostensibly working on Diana Gilbertson's case. He sent her periodic emails with totally fictitious updates, just to keep her from getting curious.

The seeds required a certain incubation period, varying with each case. Spencer used the time to close down his office: buying out his lease, personally shredding his paper files, packing up the campaign memorabilia.

Periodically, he monitored the various threads he had started, and posted nudges to those that were lagging behind the others. They all had to hit at just the right time in order to have the desired effect. Working the Multiplicity was not unlike conducting a major symphony orchestra -- bringing up the woodwinds a little here, holding back the brass a bit there, guiding the strings through some tricky modulations, driving the entire assembly to a roaring crescendo.

So things progressed. He spotted one of his seeds in an offhand mention on Truthzilla, in service of another point. Spencer smiled. Another day or two, he figured. At most.

By the time Roger Bonham called, the file drawers were empty and the office walls were bare. Spencer, dressed in a sweatshirt and jeans -- he no longer had need of a suit -- was boxing up supplies when his cell phone rang.

He flipped it open.

"Hey, there, Spence."

"Hi, Rog." Spencer took a deep breath. The time had come. Actually, it had taken Bonham a little longer than he'd expected.

"You've been a busy boy, haven't you?"

"Always."

"We need to talk."

"I'm listening."

"Not over the phone. Meet me in Mahoney Park. One hour."

Spencer hesitated -- but it was a park, a public place. The worst Bonham could do was maybe take a swing at him. He might even deserve as much. He checked his watch. It was just after three. "All right. One hour."

Bonham disconnected without another word.

Mahoney Park was a short walk from Spencer's building, and the day was unseasonably warm for late March, so he donned a windbreaker and set out on foot.

Shadows lengthened as he arrived at the park, a pleasant oasis in the heart of downtown, where budding trees ringed a winding footpath around a duck pond. Spencer took a seat facing the pond, on a bench near a wide arbor that marked the park entrance. Passersby tossed popcorn and breadcrumbs to the ducks. As he waited, he mentally composed what he would say to Bonham.

At 4:15, Bonham hadn't arrived. Spencer thought little of it.

At 4:30, Bonham still hadn't arrived. Not a problem. Probably got hung up at the office.

By 4:45, as traffic noise swelled with the beginnings of rush hour and the park emptied, Spencer tried calling, to make sure he hadn't gotten the time or the place wrong. But he couldn't get service for some reason. Odd. He'd never had trouble calling from downtown before.

By 5:00, the spring air cooled as the sun westered. Spencer zipped up his jacket and paced. A few minutes longer, and he would head back to the office, Bonham be damned.

Bonham showed up at 5:10, waddling unhurriedly down the sidewalk. He caught sight of Spencer and waved.

Spencer met him at the arbor. "Where the hell have you been?"

Bonham ducked his gaze. "Sorry. Running late. And traffic was a bitch. Let's sit, Spence."

They went to the bench where Spencer had waited. Bonham settled himself and stared at the lake, out of breath. "Pretty out here."

"Yeah." Spencer sat on the other end of the bench.

"Gonna be a nice spring."

"We didn't come here to talk about the weather."

Bonham nodded slowly, regaining his wind. "I suppose not."

"So . . ." Spencer let the word hang.

"I see what you're doing, Spence." Bonham kept his gaze focused on the pond. "You're very good; I'll give you that. And bold. To hell with brass balls; yours must be cast iron, buddy."

"Thanks."

"You attributed the George Lyons campaign to me. You made him a client of mine. And Bruce Gianelli. And Clarence Menendez. What did you do? Give me every client you ever had?"

"Not all. The Helen Burstein job involved unpaid back taxes. I gave that one to the IRS."

"What about your temps?"

"Parted ways with them."

"And the company bank accounts?"

"Closed. Transferred the funds to personal savings. I shut down the web site, too."

"You always did keep a low profile. Made it that much easier to cover all your tracks." Bonham shook his head. "Even better, actually -- you made them all lead to me. Clever." He looked at Spencer, one corner of his mouth turned up in a half-smile. "The two of us -- we're no damned good, are we?"

Spencer shifted on the bench. "I'm sure a lot of people think so."

"You have no idea." The half-smile flickered. "So maybe it's better this way."

"What way?"

"You remember what I said at the bar? About everyone getting out of the pool?"

"Yeah. I've been seeing rumors about an FEC investigation, too."

Roger shook his head. The jowls hanging from his boyish face swung. "She's not FEC."

"She's --" Spencer stopped, cocked his head. "Who's not FEC?"

"You know who. Your client. Ms. Gilbertson, or whatever her name is. She's too damned smart for a government agent. And a hell of a lot meaner, to boot."

"I guess you would know, right? You approached her. You sicced her on me."

Again, the jowls swung. "Not at all. She came to me. Hinting about the FEC was her idea. And that cover story she fed you? Deliberately tissue-thin. She expected you to see through it. She counted on it, actually."

"What?" Unease crept into him. "What the hell's going on here?"

"Listen, Spence, I didn't intend it to play out like this. She didn't tell me what she had in mind. I wouldn't have gone along with it if she had." He considered. "Then again, maybe I would have. Hard to say. Mean old world, you know."

Spencer's stomach went cold. He stood. "Roger, what did you do?"

"Not much. You did most of the work yourself. All I did was plant those FEC rumors you read about. And just now, I got you out of your office for a bit."

Spencer looked back the way he had come, then back to Bonham. "That's why you were so late? You . . . you . . ."

Something huge and dark stirred in his mind. He couldn't discern its shape, but its sheer size terrified him. "My God."

"Sorry. I guess I should say good-bye. Maybe you could --"

Spencer took off at top speed toward the office.

Bonham called after him: "It's too late, Spence! You can't stop it now! She --"

Traffic noise swallowed the rest of his words. Spencer ran on, shoving aside pedestrians along the way.

He got back in under five minutes, falling twice, narrowly avoiding being run down by a bus at an intersection, and drawing a scream from some old woman who caught the expression on his face.

Along the way, that monstrous form in his mind took on some definition. As it did, he ran even faster.

He reached his building and headed for the stairwell, ignoring the elevators. Office workers leaving for the day turned startled glances to him. His footfalls thumped on the carpeted stairs.

He reached the glass door to his office suite, panting hard, lungs burning. His tennis shoes squeaked on the tile floor as he halted his headlong charge.

The suite's glass front looked in on the darkened reception area. Only some large cardboard boxes, taped shut, stood where the padded chairs and coffee tables had once been. Beyond the reception area was the wooden door to his office proper. All was just as he had left it, some ninety-odd minutes ago.

Except that his office door was cracked slightly open, and a light was on inside.

With numb fingers, he pulled on the glass door. It opened. He noted some scratches on the face of the lock; someone had picked it.

He entered, crossed the reception area, and went into the office. On his desk lay the smashed remains of his laptop.

She spoke from behind him: "You made good time."

He whirled. She sat in one of the chairs near the conference table. She wore red. One hand absently stroked the handle of a ball peen hammer lying on the table. "I just got off the phone with Roger."

Spencer was still too out of breath to speak. A stitch had formed in his side, biting him. He bent over, hands on thighs.

"Sit," she said. "Before you fall over."

He could only shake his head. He was thinking of his broken laptop.

"Suit yourself." She crossed her legs. "It's like a wave, isn't it? The Multiplicity. Like a huge tsunami headed to shore. It sweeps away everything that isn't anchored down. And this time, you set it up to roll right over you."

Between breaths, he said, "I'm . . . still . . . anchored."

"Not as well as you think. You've been busy, Spencer, but so have I. The waiter at the restaurant collected your credit card number for me. Turns out you keep your savings account at the same bank. It's gone now." She flapped a hand at the shattered remains of his laptop. "And the records you had on your hard drive, too." She grimaced, as if she'd tasted something bitter. "I'm sorry about destroying it. That was a bit crude. But I needed to cut off your Internet access." She nodded toward the hammer.

"I . . . can get . . . another laptop."

She glanced at her watch. "Not in time. I haven't been able to get at everything, but I have enough. You did most of the work, more thoroughly than I could have."

He thought of his cell phone, but she had obviously gotten to that account, too -- just after Bonham had called him.

She's too damned smart to be working for the government. And a hell of a lot meaner, to boot. Spencer slowly straightened. Staring into her lean, angular face, he again noted that flash of recognition he had felt at the restaurant.

He forgot about the pain in his side. "You're his daughter, aren't you? Nathan Hazelton's daughter."

Her thin smile appeared. "My name's Rebecca. Call me Becky."

"You have your father's eyes. You were . . . overseas when it happened, weren't you? In the army."

"Know what I did in the army, Spencer? Electronic Intelligence. Learned some nice tricks about identity theft. I knew about the Multiplicity, too. Everyone in my unit did. Not many took it seriously. Neither did I -- until you showed me the error of my ways."

Spencer looked over at his laptop, shaking his head. "All this to avenge your father? Wouldn't it have been simpler to shoot me? The army showed you how to use a gun, I assume."

"Simpler?" Diana -- no, Becky; her name was Becky -- said. "Maybe. But I'm after more than vengeance, Spencer. To tell you the truth, my father's happier now than he was as a senator."

"Then . . . why?"

"You said it yourself. The Multiplicity is a complex phenomenon. Even dangerous. It's no good to have such a force in the hands of people like you."

"Couldn't you have just had me arrested, then? This seems pretty elaborate for someone who's not interested in vengeance. Spiteful, even." He tried to sound sarcastic, but his voice wavered. And his hands were shaking.

"So I should blow the whistle. Bring in the law. Regulation. Oversight." She sneered. "You think that's going to solve everything? Instead of having the power of the Multiplicity in the hands of free agents like you, we should trust it to the government?" She laughed deeply. "No, thank you. I've worked for the government. There's a better way: we should make an example out of someone. And I couldn't think of a better candidate."

She stood. "After tonight, those who are tempted to manipulate the Multiplicity will think twice. They'll know what a two-edged sword it really is. Look at your fat friend Roger Bonham. He's scared, and he should be. After tonight, they'll all be scared. That suits me just fine."

"Everybody out of the pool," Spencer whispered. He closed his eyes. None of this seemed real.

"That's right."

"You . . . I could . . . I should . . ."

"Do what? Attack me? Kill me?"

"Why not?" he said dully, eyes still closed. "Didn't you just do the same to me?"

"Look at me, Spencer."

He did. She stood with her hands at her side, calm, waiting. Her thin smile was gone, leaving nothing but that hard edge he'd noticed when they had first met. He dropped his gaze.

"That's what I thought," she said. "Not your style."

"Get the hell out of here."

"Fine." Leaving the hammer on the table, she walked past him, paused at the door. "If it's any consolation, I don't think you'll feel any pain. It'll be quick." She glanced again at her watch. "And soon. Goodbye, Spencer."

She closed the door behind her.

Spencer sat at his desk, gazing out his window at the skyline. Full dark had fallen. He had turned out the lights in his office to afford a better view.

Like a tsunami, she had said. Yes, indeed. He fancied he could feel it building, rushing toward him, cresting.

How would it feel to be obliterated? She had said it wouldn't hurt, but how in the hell would she know?

He looked at his hands. Were they fading, becoming transparent? Would he slowly turn into a ghost? Or would he just blink out of existence?

The wave, hurtling toward shore. He could feel its power now, and no mistake. It was huge, bigger than Kinsman had ever imagined, bigger than even Spencer had thought possible. Probably not even the woman who had called herself Diana Gilbertson suspected its fullest extent.

He doubted that anyone who could sense such power would be able to stay away from it. And he knew, in that moment, that Becky Hazelton had been wrong about one thing: scared they though may be for a little while, they would come back. People like him and Roger Bonham, they wouldn't be able to resist the temptation. They would try again. And again. And again.

"No damned good," he said. "No damned good."

Thus I give you the tale of the man who never existed, brothers and sisters. Some of you will hear and take heed; others will not believe. It matters not to me.

What's that you say? Who am I? How is it that I know of Spencer Reese?

Well, the Multiplicity is a still a great mystery, children. Maybe Spencer Reese wasn't entirely obliterated. Maybe part of him survived, somehow, somewhere. Maybe he's not the same person anymore.

But maybe he still senses the power of the Multiplicity. Maybe it still calls to him. The tale is all that wards off that siren song. It's a mean old world.

The Multiplicity has arrived, brothers and sisters.

Can I get an amen?


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