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At The End of All Things

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Crosswinds from the north and from the east had pressed the storm clouds into place and trapped them there: an evening thunderstorm overstaying its leave. It had rained all night. It was now past sunrise and still raining.

She had the brightness on her screen up so high that bluish afterimages flashed in front of her eyes when she closed them. It didn't help. She was still falling asleep.

This was the dullest part of the job - weeks of babysitting equipment. If it didn't take four years to learn how to read the machines, and if they weren't worth several million dollars each, a teenager could do her job. Ninety five percent of it was watching the inane 'in progress' graphics that some interface designer had tacked on. "Work," someone had told them in her engineering college, "is exactly like college except they pay you."

It had sounded pretty good, back then. 

The dirt road had turned to mud and her replacement was late in arriving. 

The anomaly made its appearance two minutes before the end of her shift. One bizarre reading in the eight machines whose tasks she monitored - not a concern, and barely even interesting. She flagged it for the day crew, answered one last email, and was pulling on her jacket when the abnormality popped up on three more metrics.

It was 8:02. Technically that made this – whatever it was – Ricardo’s problem, whenever he showed up. And if it hadn’t been raining outside she would probably have left it to him. 

Instead she sat back down and took a look.

 

Density: error-impermissible-parameter 

A glitch. Ever since a few earthquakes had been linked to fracking operations like this one (spurious correlation, she figured, but try telling that to the press) Dakota Petroleum had spared no expense on surveying. Last thing they needed was a lawsuit. And that meant her equipment was state-of-the-art, capable of fine-grained readings of every mineral that could conceivably reside beneath this muddy pasture or the hills beyond.

So what the hell had thrown it off?

 

Hardness: error-divide-by-zero

Radioactivity? POSITIVE

            U-235? NEGATIVE

            Sm-146? NEGATIVE

            Pu-244? NEGATIVE

 She scrolled down through the isotopes with a sinking feeling in her stomach. Radioactive, but not containing any of the radioactive isotopes that occurred naturally on Earth. Either this was Ricardo’s idea of a prank, or the equipment had really jumped the shark. 

 

hard reboot? y/n

     y

     administrator password?

     r3cursive1y-enumerab1e

The door crashed open behind her; Ricardo knocked some mud free of his boots by kicking the wall three times, sharply. He noticed at once, of course, that several million dollars in equipment had been turned off.

“The hell are you doing?”  

She was filling out a maintenance report, low priority, the sort no one would ever read and yet which her job was on the line for. “Readings went haywire at Beta-35. Threw half the sensors off. Unless there’s a stable radioactive isotope that scientists have never heard of, the CG-115b isn’t working properly either. Are you messing around?” 

He grunted.

“Because I do not have time for-” 

“I want to get this done and get home just as much as you, Lals.” 

She gritted her teeth. “Please don’t call me that.”

“If we’re here for three months waiting for equipment repairs and then resurveying, you’re not the only one whose girlfriend’s gonna leave you.” 

“I never said-” 

He smirked triumphantly. “You didn’t have to. The eternally cheerful conscience of Dakota Petroleum has been sulking for weeks, you think no one has noticed? I haven’t heard you laugh since-” 

“That says more about you than it says about me,” she snapped.

He raised his hands defensively. “If it’s a sore point I’ll shut up, all right? You’re careful, you’re meticulous, you do great work, I’m happy to have you on the night shift whether you’re laughing or glaring at the screen like you’re – who’s the X-Man with laser eyes?” 

 “Scott Summers.” 

“That’s the one. You have his haircut, too.”

It was a peace offering, if a roundabout one. She took it. “Amirah and I are doing great. Thanks."

He stripped his wet jacket off and sat down. "There is something, though."

"Coworker who won't mind his own business -"

"Okay," he said, "okay, point taken. Hmm. How about that weather, huh?"

They looked out the window. "The weather forecaster is giving us a 30% chance of rain this morning," she said, and they both laughed.

"Can I log into this terminal, or is it part of your reboot?"

"No, you're good."

"Bet you a hundred dollars the problem is the CG."

"You're on," she said, "that's a brand new machine."

"That's why I'm so sure. Always goddamn bugs in the new releases. Even when there are lives on the line, goddamn bugs - I used to work in medical devices, did you know that? For Baxter. I got out because here, the only things I can kill with faulty software are my bonuses."

"I didn't know that."

"You really haven't been chatty lately."

This time she felt like telling him. "My little sister’s in the hospital, and it’s two weeks to her birthday, and-”

“We nearly lost you when you were three, remember?” her brother had said on the phone. “That’s the only time I’ve seen Mum and Dad this scared.” 

Her throat closed up and it was a little difficult to finish the sentence. “…and I just don’t need anything to go wrong, okay?” 

Bless him, Ricardo shut up for once. 

The machines chose that moment to noisily return to life. 

“Checking the whole Beta-35 quadrant again,” she said, “since I’m not sure where exactly they started acting up. If we can’t figure out where the data went bad, we may need to resurvey back through forty-one…”

“I can do that,” he said readily. “Get some sleep. If there are any issues I’ll get in a manufacturer’s order in before noon. I’ll even call Kristina for you and beg her to push it through, get the replacements parts out here before we've spent a month sitting on our thumbs. With any luck, though, it’ll never show up again.”

Despite herself she smiled .“Engineers are supposed to hate bugs they can’t reproduce.”

"Do you have any idea how long it takes to recalibrate the CG series?"

"Yeah," she said, "I do."

He sat down heavily in the chair next to hers. “Sometimes a fluke is just a fluke.”

"Yeah." She put her jacket back on while he recalibrated the machines. “See you.”

“Later, Lals.”

“I have repeatedly asked you-”

“Sorry, sorry. You have. Good night, Lalaith. Best of luck to your sister.”

As if on cue, her phone buzzed in her pocket. She wavered for a second between having this conversation in the rain or having it within Ricardo’s earshot, and then stepped outside. 

“Hello?”

“The caller is a patient in Westlake Psychiatric Hospital. Calls may be monitored for the safety of our patients. All calls are collect. Would you like to-” 

She was already pressing the sequence of buttons that would cut through the automated red tape and let the call through.

“Nienor.” 

“You’re all right,” her sister said.

 “Yes, I’m fine.”

“I dreamed you were dead.”

“I’ll be home as soon as I possibly can, all right? I would cancel the contract early if there was any way at all-”

“No,” Nienor said, “no, it’s fine. In the dream you’d died a long time ago. I don’t think you’re in danger in the next few weeks.”

Psychosis was (Lalaith had done a lot of reading and then repeated the words again and again until she actually believed them) stigmatized out of all proportion to how scary it actually was. And culturally mediated too – so the fact Nienor’s premonitions were of blood and death was probably – she’d had to repeat this a lot to herself - environmental factors, not a verdict on Lalaith as a sister.

 “Nonetheless,” she said, “I want to be home for your birthday.”

“I’m getting out of here on the first Ormenal i Nórui,” Nienor said, “and Mum said we’d celebrate then. So don’t rush home.”

 “The what?” 

There was a moment’s silence.

“Sorry?” The uncertainty in her sister’s voice was heartbreaking. 

“I just didn’t catch what you said. About when you were getting out.”

“Second Tuesday of June,” Nienor said.

“Oh. Okay.” 

“Is that not what I said?” 

“It might have been,” Lalaith said, “it’s raining here. Hard to hear.”

No answer. 

In happier times Lalaith had subscribed to the philosophy that sisters ought to be able to share a pleasant silence. But this was not a pleasant silence.

“How’s the weather?”

“Good,” Nienor said.

“It’s ridiculous, all the rain here,” Lalaith babbled. “If I’d known about it I’d have never signed up for this operation. The northern Rockies are supposed to be beautiful, but it’s a rare day I can even see them. I feel boxed in.” 

“It’s because you died too young,” said Nienor, “you never got used to it. It always rains like this in spring, and it’s good for the harvest. The mountains are all right. Your enemies fear them more than you, they won’t follow you there.”

“Nienor?”

 “If they come for you, run for the mountains, all right? You will see us again someday. I promise. You’ll find us.”

“Right,” she said. “I’ll remember that, thank you. Maybe I should go, get home, out of the rain-” She should at least get into the truck, keep the phone dry. She fumbled numbly in her pocket for her keys.

“Don’t be condescending. I know you don’t believe me-”

“I do believe you!”

“I said it always rained in spring when I was growing up!”

“Yes, I heard you! I believe you!” 

“We grew up in Dallas,” Nienor said. 

“I know,” Lalaith said. “I know. They’ll help you, okay? They’ll make you better.” She couldn’t find the keys.

“I didn’t say Tuesday earlier, did I?” 

“No.”

“The new psychiatrist was really calm and nice and helpful about it all, he talked me through all the ways I could tell if something  was real or not, and he didn’t act exasperated when I said the meds weren’t working, not at all. I wanted to make him happy. I said I could always tell the difference – and I usually can – and I said I didn’t believe the crazy things. But I do. How can I not? I can see them. I can feel them. They’re more real than you and Túrin and Mom and Dad – louder, clearer, I can smell them – being crazy can’t make you speak another language, Lalaith, just think about it. That sort of information can’t come out of nowhere.”

She had backed up into the side of the building; the tiles were digging into her back. “Speaking in tongues is a common phenomenon-” 

“He said that too.”

“You should trust him. I love you, and I am really sorry to say this, but you can’t trust yourself right now.” 

“Ormenal doesn’t mean Tuesday. It’s just – the specific date I happen to be getting out is also Ormenal. I have a different calendar system in my head.”

Lalaith forced a giggle. “When this is all over you can write a hell of a fantasy novel.”

“I want to get out. I think when I see you all, you’ll be more real than the memories, I’ll be able to keep things straight. You in particular, since you’re dead in my memories.” 

"I’m alive."

"I know."

"Nienor, you’ve got to take the drugs-“

"Everyone keeps saying that. That and ‘this is for you’ and ‘we care about you’ and ‘we just want what’s best for you’ and at this point I sort of freeze up when someone says one of those words, you know? It means they’re going to talk to me until I have even less to hold onto.”

"I’m not trying to do that."

"I don’t like it here. It’s a fancy place but it’s not a good place."

“I’ll be home as soon as I can, okay?” 

“I’ll see you then,” said Nienor. “Goodbye.”

“Goodbye. I love you!”

 At that second the door flew open. Her hands instinctively flew up to scrape the tears off her face before she realized she could blame them on the rain.

Ricardo handed her a hundred dollar bill.

"What?"

"You win our bet," he said.

"Our bet?"

“I don’t think the machines are broken.” 

                                                         ****

“Extract it, go around it, falsify the records because no one will believe us anyway?” 

“I won’t lie,” Lalaith said automatically.

Ricardo grunted and banished three windows from the monitor with a tap of his fingers. “The hell is someone like you doing in petroleum engineering?”

“I’m good at it,” she said. “It pays well. We – we weren’t pressed for money, growing up, but somehow it always feels as if we mightbe, and I wanted the security that comes with a hefty savings account, you know? And half the reason industries get unethical is because the ethical people don’t go into them. When a bright-eyed math major asks ‘how do I help as many people as possible with my life’, we should tell them to go into investment banking, because that’s precisely the sort of person we’d want as an investment banker. Tell everyone that good people don’t become bankers, and the only people who become bankers will be the ones who don’t care for being good.”

One of his best traits was that he did not visibly signal his inattention when she went off on tangents. She wrapped up and he was still listening intently. “You think the rest of us aren’t good people?”

“That’s not it at all,” she said. “I think there’s a certain sort of good person who is told they can’t cut it in this industry, and they can.” She uncrossed her legs and leaned forward. “I am desperate to get this survey closed, but I’m not signing a false report.” 

“Well,” he said, “I know better than to try to persuade you. You have a reputation, you know-”

“People in the business of moving mountains have yet to make me budge an inch,” she said, and laughed, and brought up the screen to take another look at the numbers.

Impossible.

Not a glitch, a temporary suspension of the laws of physics. 

A week of work had driven them to a conclusion so ridiculous she was only accepting it provisionally. There was a superhard superlight new radioactive isotope buried in the hardened rock beneath quadrant Beta-35. They’d checked the data eight times, rushed equipment up from Fargo to test against their own.

They’d bombarded the quadrant with radiation, with radio waves, remeasured with seismological equipment. They’d collected the radiation the anomaly was itself emitting and analyzed it with the most sophisticated spectroscopy equipment this side of the Pacific.

(She’d borrowed the equipment from an old classmate who was now an adjunct at M.I.T.. She had not explained why. 

“I don’t think the company’s classified procedures rule extends to this, since you’re doing it off hours,” Ricardo had said.

“That’s not the reason for the secrecy,” she said. “I just don’t want anyone taking my Nobel Prize.”

She’d been joking. Mostly.)

The pieces of the puzzle were not even close to falling together. The radioactive patch was small enough to fit in the palm of her hand, and embedded deep into the bedrock, as if it’d been swallowed by the Earth itself – except this wasn’t a region with significant geologic activity. She estimated it had been there for thirty thousand years. And where most radioactive elements were powders in solid form, its hardness was utterly unchartable. Diamonds wouldn’t scratch it.

They couldn’t do any more research without a particle accelerator on site.

“I know what you’ll say,” he said. 

“I want to dig it out.”

“Do you know how much overtime I’ve been working?”

“Twenty nine hours extra in the last three days,” she said instantly. “You can’t submit the log with that many, though, we’ll get fined for violating federal labor law. Charge them gradually over the next two weeks.” 

“I thought you didn’t lie.”

“I work with inflexible systems.” 

“There’s a difference?”

“Yes,” she said. “How soon can we start extraction? We can’t really proceed with anything else while we’re pulling a chunk of radioactive metal out of the bedrock, so I’d rather move faster-”

 “Yes, yes, I’m getting the idea. Take a break. How much overtime have you-” 

Her phone buzzed against her thigh. She glanced at the name and was halfway out the door before he finished the sentence. 

“Hello?”

“Lalaith?” It was Túrin. A chill crawled up her arm. He hated phones. They hadn’t spoken since he’d told her Nienor had been hospitalized.

“Yes?” 

“She tried to kill herself,” her brother said.

“No,” she said instantly, stupidly.

“Doctors said she’ll be okay. Probably. She hasn’t woken up yet.” 

Probably? Túrin, what precisely did they say? What – what precisely did she do? What – hasn’t woken up yet, how long has it been, when did this happen-”

“Lals.”

From him it was somehow all right. 

“I – I’ll tell you as much as I know, okay?” he said.  “But they haven’t told us much. Dad’s torn through everyone in sight, Mom looks terrifying, but that doesn’t mean we’ve gotten the truth out of anyone. Or even a goddamn consistent story, I’d take a lie at this point.” His words were rushed and indistinct. “This sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen, you know? They put her in that place so they could keep an eye on her. They’re scared we might sue. They-” 

“We should sue.”

“She got her hands on a set of nursing scrubs, stole a keycard, and walked right out the front door. Guy at the desk said she wished him a nice weekend. Then she climbed up to the roof and leapt off.”

Fuck.”

“I know,” he said. “Come home.”

“Of – of course. Why would she do it?

A silence that was long even for Túrin, who took after their mother and thrived in them.

“Did she leave a note?” Lalaith said, “Did she say anything at all, to anyone? She was fine last time we spoke, there must have been a reason…”

Túrin was a shallow breather. When he was sleeping he could be mistaken for dead. When he was awake, it meant his words came out rushed and flat and all in the same intonation. And on the phone, it meant that you could not hear him at all. 

She had begun to wonder if she was talking to a dead line when he answered. “Just come home, okay?”