Porsche and Cornell fell in love as they infiltrated an alien world for the sake of humanity. But Porsche it turns out, is not human . . .
Now the two return to Earth only to discover a conspiracy so deep that it casts doubt on those to whom they’ve entrusted their lives, in this follow-up to the New York Times Notable Book Beyond the Veil of Stars—about which Publishers Weekly stated, “This may be one of the best science-fiction novels of the year.”
“A visionary writer.” —David Brin, New York Times–bestselling author of Insistence of Vision
About the Author
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After so many years, the house had grown exceedingly frail. Eroded white paint clung to its four faces. The wide front porch sagged with a treacherous dignity. Certain windows had survived since the nineteenth century, gradually and very gently deformed by the earth's pull. Roof tiles of amorphous silicon, forged in a twenty-first-century furnace and degraded by the relentless seasons, delivered just a trickle of their original current. And whenever the wind blew — a perpetual occurrence in that open country — the house would shudder and twist, and a creaking voice would rise up through its bones.
When she couldn't sleep, which was often, Porsche Neal would listen to the house, trying to understand its voice.
Eight generations of the same family had occupied the house. Every surface had its mementos, every corner and dusty cubbyhole its telling scars. Oak stairs slumped where boots and bare feet had struck them countless times. A rickety banister had been polished smooth by boys' butts and the gnarled hands of grandparents. Fearless handymen of uneven skill had left behind plaster patches, tangled wiring, and several plumbing nightmares. But most of the ghosts lived on the pantry wall: Hundreds of faded flat lines, each line dated and initialed, showed where dozens of children had stood at attention, another year's growth recorded with precision and a familial pride.
It was exactly the sort of house that Porsche could appreciate, what with its tangible history, and in its dark places, secrets.
On the first day, Porsche turned a Few-made sensor on the entire structure. In her bedroom closet, behind the back wall, she discovered a locked steel box. Cornell and his father were somewhere else, and the fourth member of their little family hadn't arrived yet. Sitting cross-legged on the floor, alone, she teased open the box, discovering that it was half-filled with, of all things, pornography. Relics of the twentieth century, the magazines were printed on cheap, acid-rich paper that had gone stiff and sickly yellow. She turned the pages carefully, lingering over certain photographs. Whose magazines were these, she kept wondering, and why would that long-dead soul have stockpiled all these delicious young men?
A lonely farm wife, maybe?
Or the farm wife's extremely frustrated, secretly gay husband.
Either way, the delicious men held their silence; and out of respect, Porsche set the magazines back into their box, and the box back into its hiding place.
She never mentioned her discovery, even to Cornell.
Houses are like people, she believed: Each one is entitled to her important secrets.
Porsche and Cornell shared the largest bedroom. Its furnishings had come with the house — a lumpy queen-sized bed; two shabby, mismatched chests of drawers, and a Net terminal nearly twenty years old. Her first priority was to rip down the bedroom's grimy wallpaper, then flood every likely surface with paint. Then she covered the scuffed wooden floor with a secondhand carpet. Of course Cornell teased her about building a nest. "We won't be here for more than a couple months," he argued, wrong by a long ways. She ignored him easily enough. Throw pillows and a bright gold bedspread gave the room a palpable newness. She fastened a star chart to their ceiling, Orion and the Dippers wheeling above them in the night. A framed picture of Cornell was given a prominent home on her chest of drawers. And beside it was the newest portrait of her parents and two brothers, their smiling wives and six adorable children.
Once she felt at home, Porsche sat on her bed and made calls.
She called her brothers first, then her parents, using the old terminal and public lines. Panning the terminal's eye, she showed off her new abode, then repeated their cover story three times.
They were going to be investors, she claimed. Wealth was the goal. One of their team, Timothy Kleck, was a genius in electronic surveillance. He would search the Net for opportunities such as corporate buyouts and amazing new products, and the others would invest their savings, then sit back and wait for their winnings.
It was a lie, of course, and to anyone with resources and a skeptical nature, it wouldn't seem like much of a lie.
But with luck, it might buy them a week or two of indifference.
Chatting with her family, Porsche never mentioned her former employer — the Cosmic Event Agency. And she certainly never alluded to her work, the strange worlds in easy reach, or anything else in the least bit incriminating.
Those topics were forbidden.
Other means were waiting when she needed a secure com line: Few-designed tricks proven on countless worlds, no amount of human cleverness or human luck able to puncture them.
Today's calls were meant to reassure both her family and any eavesdroppers.
She was chatting with her father when an associate happened past. A tall man, even taller than Porsche, knocked on the door and peered into the bedroom, his brown face watching her with an unnerving intensity, his big eyes perpetually amazed. "Hello?" he interrupted. "Am I interrupting?"
"Not at all," Porsche assured.
"Have you seen Cornell?"
"He went to town. For groceries." Porsche was sitting back on her elbows, dressed in shorts and a favorite baggy shirt, letting the late-day sun pour over her. "But while you're here ... Timothy Kleck, this is my father, Leonard Neal."
Timothy squinted at the image.
Father was a large man, his plain face rounded with fat, his scalp as bald as granite, an easy smile showing an instant before he said, "It's good to meet you, Timothy." He had a distinct Texan twang. "My girl here says good things about you."
Timothy opened his mouth, then closed it. Then he opened it again, and a little too quietly, he said, "Oh?" He managed to swallow, then blubbered, "Hello, Mr. Neal. It's good to meet you, too."
Her father had raised poise to an art form. "Do me a huge favor, son. Call me Leonard, if you would, please."
"Leonard," the tall man repeated slowly, carefully.
Cornell had found Timothy through an advertisement on the Net. Timothy billed himself as a magician who could tease secrets out of anywhere. Cornell had hired him for two projects. The second project was a thorough background check on an intriguing woman whom he'd met while working for the CEA. Porsche, as it happened. And eventually, through persistence as much as skill, Timothy stumbled over a few oddities. Nothing was incriminating, exactly. But there were discontinuities, in her background and in her family's, too.
At the time, Timothy assumed that the Neal clan belonged to someone's elaborate witness relocation program.
No other explanation seemed reasonable.
Later, after Porsche and Cornell had quit the CEA, they approached the magician with an outrageous story. They didn't tell him everything, naturally. There was no reason for total disclosure. Yet they were honest about their lack of total candor. And Timothy was clever-smart, taking what he knew and filling in the blanks for himself.
Timothy came to the farm two days ago, and ever since he had watched Porsche with curiosity and a kind of suspicious awe.
Now he had a second Neal in his sights. Staring at the image on the flat, sun-washed screen, he said, "So," with an air of importance. "A West Virginia native, I understand you are ... What was the name of your hometown?"
"Mason Bottoms," Father replied, in an instant.
"I once knew someone from there. At least I think he was." Timothy smiled brightly, proud of his cleverness. "The town's gone now, isn't it?"
Father had poise, which meant he had patience, too.
And a liquid gracefulness.
Sitting in Texas, comfortable in his favorite waterchair, he smiled for a long gentle moment, then without a trace of haste, said, "Gosh, I'd love to shoot the shit, son. But I really need to be going now." Then with the purest Texan lilt, "Ya' understand?"
Daughter and father exchanged a few more words, rigorously pleasant and thoroughly bland. Then the terminal went black, and Timothy pulled an elaborate device out of a baggy pocket, using it to examine the terminal and its optical cable.
"If anyone was listening to you," he assured, "it wasn't from this end."
Porsche knew as much, but she didn't explain how she knew it. She sat up straight, angered by his rudeness and worried by his attitude. Was Timothy the sort of person you wanted at your side when you went toe-to-toe with the malignant, rapacious CEA?
The tall man was gathering himself, staring at a point just above Porsche's head.
He was avoiding her eyes.
"I have a question," he finally confessed. "Or two."
"Ask away," was her advice.
"I know about your ... well, the fictions in your life story." He paused to breathe, one soft hand grasping the bedpost. "And Cornell's told me about the universe's real shape, what with all the alien worlds right next door —"
"What's your question?"
Like anyone with a razor-sharp, razor-narrow skill, Timothy was uneasy whenever he left his element.
Two deep breaths gave him the strength to say, "Can you tell me? About yourself, I mean."
"No," she replied, her tone flat and plain.
The man leaned against the post, disappointed and a little angry.
"But I'll make you a promise," she continued. "If things go right for us, I'll tell you everything."
He gave a hopeful nod.
"That's how it has to be," she warned.
Again, he nodded. But with a strong, almost incandescent pride, he said, "I know how to keep secrets."
She said, "Look at me, Timothy."
His eyes found hers.
"When I was a girl," she whispered, "one of my uncles liked to say, 'Secrets are living things. They have their own clear purpose, their own cloudy blood. And like any living thing, a secret deserves respect. Always, always.'"
Timothy laughed self-consciously. "Your uncle in Mason Bottoms?"
She stared at him for a long moment, then laughed in turn.
Timothy was strolling toward the door, saying, "I hope everything works out for us, if that's what it takes to know ..."
"I hope it works out, too," she replied.
He paused, then brightened. "Hey," he said, "maybe you'll introduce me to your uncle, too."
She didn't say one word.
But she was thinking: If you need to meet Uncle Jack, then everything has turned to shit.
Behind the old farmhouse, past a windbreak of junipers and rugged oaks and assorted mechanical junk, was a field of cultivated sunflowers.
Out in the sunflowers was a disk of hard black glass.
The disk measured thirty-three feet, one-half inch across. Years ago, when it had first appeared, its surface was slick and fresh — a slab of obsidian shining brightly on any clear day. But more than twenty winters had passed, the glass slumping in places, layers of dust dulling its surface, and along its edge, countless tiny fissures reached deeper with every freeze, then widened as each spring's crops sent roots into the brittle glass.
The sunflowers belonged to their landlord — a good-natured if somewhat laconic farmer who had grown up inside the old house. While Porsche was remodeling the bedroom, the landlord was harvesting, stripping off the seeds while leaving the ragged stalks and shredded brown leaves strewn everywhere. After that, walking in the field was tough, sloppy work. It took many trips out to carry the various equipment that Porsche needed: Tools and an old toolbox, plus a collapsible pole and the rest of the equipment that she'd purchased at the local Wal-Mart. Cornell and his father were off helping Timothy unload a truckful of electronic gear. Starting tomorrow, everyone would be busy with assembling and testing the equipment. That gave her work an urgency, which she enjoyed, and she couldn't have asked for a sweeter afternoon than the one she found waiting for her.
With bare hands, Porsche cleared the ground on the north edge of the disk, then used an old posthole digger to sink a hole. The topsoil was black and damp, thinned by farming and bolstered by every chemical trick. She poured in road gravel to make a base, then paused, kneeling over the pole as she wondered what was the least difficult way to proceed.
Behind her, the dried stubble began to rustle and crack as someone approached.
Quietly, in an unrecognizable language, Porsche asked, "Who?"
A private voice tied to her inner ear whispered, "Nathan."
She rose, turned. A slender, white-haired man was fighting his way through the sunflowers' stubble.
"Hello?" he called out.
She said, "Hello yourself."
"I thought you might need help." He smiled shyly, glancing at his own hands. "May I?"
"Perfect timing," she replied, smiling.
Nathan stepped out onto the glass, then paused and shook his head. "Actually, I sort of got on Timothy's nerves." The confession betrayed a genuine pain. "He's a very particular man. Have you noticed?"
"Particular is a good word."
"Inflexible, too. I think."
Poor Nathan. He wanted this project to go well, and he was desperate to help. Yet in his own way, he was as rigid as Timothy, but without Timothy's potent skills.
"In a minute," she offered, "you can help me with this pole."
"I'd love that."
She mixed the concrete and resin in an old bucket, and while she worked, Nathan opened the toolbox, removing a certain hammer that he held in his right hand, then his left, regarding it with an almost religious awe. Then she said, "Now, please." He put down the hammer and hurried to help. The pole gave off a solid tone when it was perfectly vertical, repeating the tone every few seconds, and Nathan held it in place while Porsche poured in the wet gray goo. Then he kept holding tight while she mixed a second batch, trying to do his job flawlessly, trying to prove Timothy wrong.
She poured the second batch, then checked the pole's orientation. Then she mixed a final batch and poured it, almost filling the hole; and only then did Nathan say, "I know you know what's best."
"Don't be so sure," she replied.
He could be a doggedly serious man. Standing on the disk, looking down at his own dusty reflection, he sighed in a large way, then said, "This just seems ... I don't know ... wrong somehow ..."
"What are you standing on?" she inquired.
"I know. It's just glass."
"And not particularly good glass," she added.
He walked to the center of the disk. It was marked by a tiny hole. Years ago, Nathan had made Cornell chip off a piece of glass from that spot. Nathan was a self-taught researcher of odd phenomena. In those years, flying saucers were his passion. The mysterious black glass disks were cousins to the saucers, he had believed. They would appear at random locations worldwide, without warning or witnesses. For a little while, they generated curiosity and public debate. Then something much larger and fabulously strange happened, and the disks were nearly forgotten.
With genuine reverence, Nathan fingered the hole in the glass.
Porsche took the posthole digger and bucket back to the house. When she returned, Nathan hadn't moved, but now he was watching the wide blue sky. Their concrete and resin had stiffened enough to be trusted, a wet warm heat rising out of it. She pulled the plastic off the new backboard, then wrestled it into position. Nathan was caught in a spell; he didn't offer to help until her hand slipped, and she muttered, "Shit."
"What can I do?"
Porsche dropped the backboard, sucking on a bloody finger and understanding how Timothy must have felt.
Nathan apologized profusely. "I guess I was thinking too much ... sorry ...!"
She held the backboard while Nathan bolted it to the pole, and together they fastened the new hoop to the board, then the shiny net to the hoop. Porsche had owned the net for years. Each link was a chime, and every motion caused a rambling melody to play. When the net was in place, they finally extended the pole until it bleated out another happy sound, claiming that the hoop was level and ten feet tall, exactly.
Porsche had her own proven means of checking the height.
Starting at the far side of the disk, she began to run, an easy strong gait carrying her to the perfect point where she leaped high, her right arm lifted overhead, her long hand curling deftly around the hoop for a golden instant, then releasing.
She dropped onto the black earth, giggling.
"Good enough," was her verdict.
With a laser tape, glass cleaner, and cheap white paint, they began to lay out the free-throw and three-point lines.
It was almost evening when they had finished.
Clouds were blowing in from the northwest, covering the sun and bringing colder air. Through gaps in the clouds, Porsche caught a glimpse of the Asian coast, then the brown mass of Australia. In the east, night was a wave of darkness spreading across Indiana and Kentucky. Was there time enough for a quick game?(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Beneath the Gated Sky"
Copyright © 1997 Robert Reed.
Excerpted by permission of Diversion Publishing Corp..
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
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