Some Years Ago
The two brothers are in the forest near their house, sitting opposite each other. They are both quite young, although the big brother has felt very old for a long time—because he is the older brother, and as such has many important responsibilities. The most vital of these, as far as he is concerned, is to make sure that his kid brother remembers who’s boss.
It is the younger brother’s greatest failing that he never seems to remember that.
The older brother is sitting on a log, allowing him to look down upon his brother. This is, as far as he is concerned, what should be the natural state of things, the proper order of the universe. The younger brother is seated across from him, cross-legged on the ground, getting his pants filthy from sitting in the dirt and not caring about it. It is a crisp day and they’re both wearing light hoodies: the older brother’s is white, the younger’s is red.
They both have pads of lined paper on their laps, playing a game their father taught them called “Broadsides.” They’ve used pencils to draw vertical lines intersecting with the horizontal ones and thus created grids, which they’ve then numbered. They’re using the pads to have a simulated naval battle. It’s natural that their father, a Navy man himself, would teach them how to play it, and claims to have played it when he himself was young.
It is the older brother who has just said “Miss,” and the younger brother’s eyebrows both leap up on his forehead as if they’ve come loose and are endeavoring to make a run for it.
“Whattaya mean, ‘miss,’ ” says the younger brother in irritation.
“It’s like a hit, but the opposite,” the older brother says.
“It can’t be a miss!”
“Well, it was. D-7 . . .”
“No, wait, shut up.” The younger brother stares at his smaller grid where he’s keeping track of his hits. “I said G-1.”
“And I said miss.”
“It can’t be! That was the fifth hit on your aircraft carrier! Game over!”
“It wasn’t and it isn’t. D-7 . . .”
The back of the older brother’s neck starts to get red. “I am not. You just can’t stand that I’m going to win a game—”
“No,” says the younger brother, getting into the elder’s face in that way that he has. “You just can’t stand that I’m going to win AGAIN. You can’t stand that I always win and that you always lose. Loser. Looooooser. Looooser loooooser looooser!” He forms an L-shape from his thumb and forefinger and puts it against his head.
“Shut up!” The older brother’s fury is rising. “G-1 wasn’t a hit. Live with it.”
“I don’t believe you. Lemme see.” He is up on his knees and he grabs for the older brother’s pad of paper.
The older brother yanks it away. “Forget it! If you look at it, the game’s over!”
“The game’s already over, loser.”
The worst thing of all is that the older brother knows that this is true. He looks at G-1, where the prow of his theoretical aircraft carrier is sitting. He looks at the smug expression on his stupid little brother.
And suddenly long-simmering resentment boils up and over, and before his younger brother can get to him, the older brother tears apart the lined notepad in a paroxysm of fury. “This game is stupid and you’re stupid!”
“You’re stupid, loser!”
The older brother doesn’t want to run back to the house because he feels hot tears of mortification streaming down his face. And the last thing he needs is his father standing over him and demanding to know what’s wrong. So instead he swings his legs over the log, gets to his feet, and starts running, shouting, “Leave me alone!”
“Will not!” says the younger brother—the little idiot, the brainless turd.
The older brother is running through the woods now, and the younger is right after him, shouting at him, taunting him. He keeps moving, but the little brat is pacing him easily. How the hell does he do that when his legs are shorter? It should be impossible.
There is a river running through the forest just up ahead. It’s too wide to ford, the boundary of their property. He cuts right, moving quickly along it. His younger brother is in pursuit, still taunting, still calling him names, and at that moment he has never hated anyone in his life more than he does his younger brother.
Suddenly he hears an alarmed shriek, and a skidding of feet on dirt. He spins just in time to see his younger brother tumble down an embankment, a section of dirt apparently having given way beneath his feet. His younger brother’s head strikes a rock that’s projecting sideways from the embankment, and the sound it makes when it hits is nauseating. The older brother sees, in horror, that there is fresh blood on the rock, and then his younger brother splashes into the river. It’s not especially deep, but the current is quite strong lately thanks to the heavy rain. All the older brother can see now is a brief image of the back of his kid brother’s sweat jacket—a flash of red in the speeding waters—and then his tormentor is washed away.
With a shriek of pure horror, he calls out his younger brother’s name, “Alex!” and practically vaults down the embankment to the edge of the river. He sprints along it frantically, trying to catch up, hoping that on foot he’s faster than the speed of the water. He closes the gap a little and then a massive fallen tree is blocking his path along the shoreline.
He has no choice.
He throws himself into the water and starts swimming for both his brother’s life and his own.
The Himalayas? Are you serious? Are you kidding me?
That had been Doctor Abraham Nogrady’s original thought when he had first been approached about the Beacon International Project.
Nogrady was middle-aged, lean, with a perpetual stoop that had come from a lifetime of leaning over equipment and studying it with an almost demented intensity. He had a prominent nose and a head of curly black hair, with a bald spot developing like an island of flesh in the back of his head.
From Nogrady’s personal situation, the offer could not have come at a better time. His work at SETI had been defunded, thanks to the shortsighted fools in Congress who couldn’t see the fundamental necessity of searching for extraterrestrial life. Bad enough that they had gutted NASA, woefully sighing that there was simply no point in focusing on building moon stations and such when we had so many problems right here. But they had literally laughed his SETI work right out of existence, with many snide comments and even a few reactionaries stating that the only way they’d fund searches for extraterrestrials was if Will Smith was put in charge so he would be able to fend off any resulting alien attacks.
Nogrady had wanted to get right into the faces of those smug bastards during the congressional budget hearing. Were they at all aware of the amount of modern technology, which they took for granted, that was a direct result of the space program? Did they ever consider that watching the skies would enable scientists to pick up on objects in space heading toward Earth on a collision course, enabling them to sound the alarm and—with any luck—see that countermeasures were taken? Did it occur to them that, on the off chance humanity managed to beat the odds and actually make contact with extraterrestrial life, it would be the single most important development for mankind since the discovery of fire and the invention of the wheel? How could you be so blind? That was what he had wanted to jump up and shout. But he had held his tongue, and the result had been his job flushed away by idiots and buffoons.
When Beacon had been offered him two months later, it had been a godsend. However the prospect of relocating to the Himalayas, of all places, had been less than attractive.
And the Greater Himalayas, just to make it worse. At least there were some sections of the Himalayas that were livable. The Shilawik Hills, for instance, were supposed to be quite nice. The Midlands were said to have over sixty species of rhododendrons alone in the subalpine conifer forests.
But the Greater Himalayas were . . . well, they were exactly what one pictured when one heard the name “Himalayas.” Mountain ranges nearly three miles high, cloaked in an endless blanket of ice and snow. The facility itself was buried—almost literally—in Tibet, and the howling of the wind never stopped so much as it sometimes grew and sometimes diminished. On occasion the sunlight filtered through, but routinely they would go for days shrouded in darkness, like an entire facility of people who were slowly going blind.
And yes, Nogrady understood the need to operate under the radar. He understood the desire for secrecy. The funding for this endeavor was coming through governments working with private sources, and that was always a touchy subject because nosy politicians would then start demanding investigations and wanting to know what were the sources’ motivations.
When Nogrady had finally made the trek up to the site, what he saw on the outside didn’t seem especially promising. In fact, it looked downright unprepossessing. Short and squat, two stories tall, fashioned of white brick, with antennae arrays and satellite dishes on the roof and massive generators next to it. There was already a layer of permafrost on the building and Nogrady was concerned that within two weeks he’d go stir-crazy.
That hadn’t been the case, as it turned out. Instead he had found a dedicated group of scientists who were familiar with Nogrady’s work and were thrilled to have him on board as the project director. What he hadn’t accounted for in his initial trepidation was that this sort of environment tended to cause people to bond in a way that wasn’t possible under less claustrophobic circumstances. The team had quickly formed a smooth, cohesive unit as they had worked together to develop and fine-tune the equipment necessary to accomplishing their collective goal.
Most intriguingly, they had been doing so in tandem with several other locations. Nogrady had never been to them, but he had seen pictures of the cinder-block building in Morocco, isolated in the Sahara—hidden in plain sight, as it were—and a third on a mountaintop in Hawaii. The respective staffs had shared information, engaged in lengthy intercontinental brainstorming sessions, and ultimately come up with designs and equipment together that no individual group could have developed fully.
And when they hadn’t been working, there had been plenty of late-night parties to blow off steam. Curiously, some of the best ideas had resulted from those gatherings, as idle talk and occasionally drunken inspiration had sent the group sprinting back to the lab to try implementing them.
Now, finally, all of that had come to a head. Approaching the moment with what seemed appropriate pomp and circumstance, Nogrady had arranged a full-blown ribbon-cutting ceremony. His colleagues had suspended a long, red ribbon across the middle of their now state-of-the-art facility and Nogrady had sliced through it with a replica samurai sword he’d borrowed from Doctor Okuda. This had been met with a burst of cheers, followed by the scientists settling down to work. There was growing excitement in the air for this moment toward which they had been building for two years.
“Synch with Morocco and Oahu,” Nogrady said briskly. He was trying to keep his voice flat and even. He needed to remain professional, and chortling with unconcealed delight would certainly not be in keeping with his desired demeanor.
“Synched,” said Carlson, a young technician who was so fresh out of grad school that sometimes he was jokingly referred to as still having that “new scientist smell.”
There had been a constant buzz of motion and activity, but all that somehow quieted to a hush when Carlson said that. Everyone stopped in anticipation of Nogrady’s next words.
He tried to think of something that wouldn’t sound too pretentious and he failed utterly. “People . . . get ready to make history.”