(Fiction) Rules

Ralph Goings painting

The technician at her feet looked up. “How does that feel?”

Nio lifted her left foot to examine the wide bracelet around her ankle. Tungsten slivers had been woven into the Kevlar to prevent tampering. They glinted as she turned her leg. A slim, flexible bulge on the bracelet’s outer side held the electronics, accessible via wi-fi or by a single recessed infrared lens.

“Feels tight.”

The tech ratcheted the pair of specially-shaped sprockets one click tighter and stood up. “Done,” he told the officers behind him.

The man in charge was Special Agent Roger Erving, who had flown in from New York after several days of negotiations. His office handled the Bureau’s high profile cases and had originally investigated Sol’s death. He wore a crisp suit over a light violet shirt that complemented his dark skin. He was a few inches shorter than average, but his piercing eyes and confident grip more than compensated. He wore a wedding band and a ruby-tipped class ring to a school Nio didn’t recognize. He spoke in a rich baritone, like a sports announcer or radio DJ.

“I’m not sure what Dr. Chang told you,” he said as the tech stepped away, “but your purview will be limited to assisting the Bureau in its investigation into the death of Albumin Sol Einstein. You are authorized to conduct no other business or activities while under remand, is that understood?”

Nio nodded.

Taboo by Les Baxter.

“Under the US Constitution and the laws of South Dakota, you are not obliged to admit guilt, and this agreement doesn’t infringe that right. However, it is an ‘at-will’ arrangement. It can be terminated by either party at any time. If we’re not satisfied with your progress, or if you’re not satisfied with how you’re being treated, just say the word and you’ll be taken into custody and returned to the Brown County Sheriff at the first available opportunity. Do you understand all of that as I’ve explained it to you?”

“What about Amok?”

“Any alleged crimes peripheral to this case are not your concern.” He glanced down to her socks as if he had just noticed she had no shoes. “You should’ve reported him to us.”

“Check your records, chief.” Nio crossed her arms. “I tried.”

Erving’s mouth turned down slightly. Before he could respond, the front door opened, and Del walked in wearing a tailored suit, crisp white dress sneakers, and a fancy fuchsia tie.

Nio shut her eyes.

Should’ve known.

Erving raised a hand to him. “I believe you already met Agent Orlando Quinn from the Bureau’s Minneapolis office.”

“Agent . . .” She nodded once.

His Italian silk tie looked expensive.

“Agent Quinn has been undercover here for the last six weeks. Wittingly or otherwise, you assisted the department with a very important case, which is the only reason I’m even contemplating this farce.”

“Since when does the FBI care about some random strip club in the middle of nowhere?”

“Since the president declared the deep core program vital to the nation’s strategic interests. For reasons of history, countries with mineral deposits in Africa and South America prefer dealing with the Chinese.”

“Gee, I wonder why.”

“That limits our options. There have been overblown reports in the media that organized crime have been profiting—however indirectly—from the program, which is already an environmental hot potato.”

“So you needed a law enforcement win to take the pressure off.”

“Having handed everything over to the U.S. Attorney, Agent Quinn has some time on his hands. He’s going to be looking after you, reporting to me, for the duration.”

“A babysitter,” Nio said, sizing him up.

“What did you expect?” Erving asked.

Agent Quinn’s dark hair was trimmed. His narrow eyes were still smiling. He was noticeably tall and his facial features unusually symmetrical. He was recently shaven, judging from the razor burn on his neck, and looked very handsome in his suit—in a conventional sort of way.

“Do you have any questions for me?” Special Agent Erving asked.

“When do we talk about my side of this bargain?”

“After you demonstrate your willingness to cooperate—and you produce results. I respect Dr. Chang’s position on this and understand where he’s coming from. Your brother was an international figure. But we’re the ones taking the risk here. You’ve been granted a tremendous opportunity. Make the most of it.”

“When do I get my personal effects?”

“That’s up to the sheriff. Anything else?”

Nio shook her head.

“Then my advice is to take the evening. Relax. Get used to being out of your cell. Agent Quinn will buy you dinner. Nothing too fancy,” he added as an aside. “You start first thing in the morning. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I have a plane to catch.”

With that, he nodded to the others in the room, who broke to go about their duties, and walked out the front.

“You have some ID?” Nio asked amid the shuffle.

The man she knew as Del looked incredulous but complied. He reached into his breast pocket and removed a wallet.

Nio studied the card. “Orlando Augustus Quinn.” She looked up. “Orlando?”

“After my grandfather,” he said flatly.

Standing next to him, Nio thought he seemed even bigger than before. If he’d been married, she would’ve expected kids. If so, there was nothing to indicate it. No ring, either. Divorced, maybe.

She looked down at his bright dress sneakers. They were flawless.

He took the wallet back.

“How you gonna play it?” she asked.

“How’m I gonna play what?”

“Dirty Harry or Columbo?”

“Who’s Columbo?”

“Are those the case files?”

A cardboard file holder stood like an altar on a bare desk.

Quinn nodded. “Most of them.”

“Most?” Nio removed the lid and started rifling.

“Everything that could be transferred electronically from New York and printed. The physical evidence is in a locker somewhere.”

“Do me a favor?” she asked.

“What’s that?”

“Get some coffee?”

He snorted once. “Pot’s over there.” He nodded toward the corner. “I’ll see about your personal effects. Don’t get comfortable.” He pointed at her with a long arm. “We’re not staying.”

Nio scowled but didn’t look up from the files. Sol’s face peeked from a manila folder. She slid the photograph out. He looked different than she remembered. Like an adult. Heavier. Mature. Respectable. He was a spitting image of his alter—not all of them were—but had elected to forgo the iconic brush mustache and wild hair. He kept his neat. He had the same oval eyes she remembered, at once curious and maudlin. She sat down and laid out the pages as if in a trance.

More than any of them, Sol had followed in his alter’s footsteps. He became a physicist studying the deep nature of reality. After completing his education at the Max Planck Institute for Physics in Munich, he became a fellow at the Institute for Advanced Study, located at 1 Einstein Drive, Princeton, New Jersey. It was, as the Institute’s president said at his welcoming speech, a homecoming. Freed from the necessity of earning a salary, Sol taught only when he wanted to, which was rarely. His publications were rarer still and covered everything from virtual particles to spatial topography. He was unmarried and had no children. Since he was ethnically Jewish, he’d made a few token attempts to get involved with the local synagogue, but nothing seemed to come of it. He had friends at work, where he was quite popular, but none of them were close.

The FBI had collected every call, email, or text sent or received from any of his devices in the weeks leading up to his death. Unlike Nio, Sol had kept in touch with the others. One name immediately stood out. There was a reference code next to it, indicating the FBI had followed up. It took Nio several minutes to find the agent’s notes in the files. It had been a single, short call, so there was no reason for anyone to disbelieve the woman on the other end, who said that she and Sol had had a brief, pleasant conversation during which they made plans to see each other in the coming weeks. An entry in his calender confirmed that. Nio turned to a nearby PC and searched for Chancery.

“Chaz,” as the others had called her, had dreams since adolescence of running the world’s largest company. She was then settling for the 256th, a quantum computing upstart headquartered near Fermilab, just outside Chicago, where she was CEO. If Nio called and requested a meeting as herself, she knew Chaz would say she was busy. Instead, Nio called the company switchboard and asked for the CEO’s secretary, who explained that his boss was unavailable. Nio pretended to be disappointed and said she was a reporter with Teen Vogue. She said she was going to be in town in a day or two and wondered if she could have a few minutes of the boss’s time for an article she was running on women in power. The secretary did his job and neither confirmed nor denied availability, but in so doing, did let it be known that the meeting was at least possible, which meant Chancery would be present.

“Thank you so much,” Nio said and hung up.

“Where’d you learn to do that?”

Nio turned. Agent Quinn was leaning against the neighboring desk, sipping coffee from a paper cup. The other held a bundle of sealed plastic evidence bags. One of them was large and contained her puffy coat.

“For the record,” he said, “you’re not supposed to do that.”

“Lie? I promise I’ll never do it again.”

“Use the phone. Or access the internet. Not without permission. It was in the terms and conditions you signed.”

He tossed the bags on the desk. The smallest fell to the floor.

Nio picked it up. Inside was her opened letter, folded in half, and the local paper the sheriff had given her.

“Pack all this up,” Agent Quinn said. “If we hurry, we can get back before midnight.”

“Where we going?”

“Minneapolis, to start. We can’t stay in the sheriff’s hair. He’s got real police work to do. My office will be home base for now.”

“What about shoes?” She lifted her a foot.

Quinn scowled. “They didn’t give you anything?”

“Just those little blue booties you guys wear at crime scenes.”

“I think I saw a Wal-mart near the freeway.”

Wal-mart?

He dropped his coffee in a trash can and dug out his keys. “Come on, it’ll be fun,” he said sarcastically.

The car was a rental, a squat hybrid sedan with minimal features that was much older then the models one would typically find in the city. Nio tossed her coat and the box in the back and Agent Quinn started the car. The store was depressingly quiet. At least a quarter of the shelves were empty. Most people ordered online. The outlet clung to life mostly by offering perishables like deli food and bulky or high-dollar items that were risky to deliver by robot. There was a very limited selection of shoes. Fancier stores in higher-population areas had economies of scale and were custom-assembling footwear. Digital molds of the buyer’s feet, which were often asymmetrical, were taken in the store and used to press soles that promised a better fit. It helped that the machines offered thousands of design options, each with infinitely customizable colors and accessories. Nio, on the other hand, settled on a small pair of men’s hiking boots. They weren’t comfortable but she could get her feet into them.

Quinn waited in the aisle and made a few calls, never taking his eyes from her for more than a few seconds. He tested the ankle bracelet while they waited. He made it beep in warning from the app on his phone, and smiled at Nio’s alarmed face.

She walked out with a giant bag of cheese puffs, which she ate in the back of the sedan as she went page-by-page through the case files, licking her fingers impolitely before touching each paper.

“Wonderful hygiene,” Quinn noted sarcastically from the driver’s seat.

Seemingly every detail of Sol’s life had been captured, mostly by machine—not just emails and phone records but browser history, cell phone location data, social media posts, comments and replies, chat transcripts, credit card transactions, frequent shopper accounts, dating site logs, tickets and travel, medical and dental records, even his gym attendance. It had all been scraped and compiled automatically. There was even a psychological profile assembled by algorithm that made obvious statements like “The subject was very organized” and “The subject did not appear to abuse drugs or alcohol.” Nio’s favorite was “The subject was biologically male, heterosexual, dating infrequently: No current romantic partner.” The machine had inferred it not just from his dating site records, which listed him as single, but also his calendar and cell phone location history, wherein there appeared only rare meetings with heterosexual females, none recurrent.

Still, it wasn’t clear how much of the source data a human being had actually seen. Nio guessed very little, but then she also understood the necessity. There was just too much. Going through every bit was not only time consuming, the odds that a human would miss a relevant fact amid the volume of incidentals was extremely high. So law enforcement did the next best thing. They trained machines not just to gather the data but to interpret it, to plot the subject’s daily routine—when he slept, when he got up, where he ate, where he worked, the regular places he visited—and then to cross-reference that with known suspects. Where did they intersect? The machines also flagged exceptions to the normal routine as well as known triggers of “outlier behavior,” such as the death of a loved one, termination of employment, large changes in bank balance, and so on. The summary report on Sol stretched to ten dense pages.

But for Nio, it was the details rather than the summary that were fascinating. She loved having a window into her brother’s life—his hobbies, his hangups, his favorite foods. Sol apparently enjoyed swimming, even though he exercised rarely, and he was a sushi nut. But as she poured over it all, she felt an increasing hollowness grow inside her. Her name didn’t appear. Not even once. It was as if they were complete strangers. She knew that wasn’t his fault.

After two hours of silent driving, Quinn had had enough.

“Say it,” he said.

“Say what?”

“You’re mad at me.”

“No, I’m not,” she replied without taking her eyes from the files.

“Good, then tell me what you found.”

She snorted. “Nice bait and switch, Del. What makes you think I found something?”

“Because I’m a detective and you’ve had the same look of constipation on your face since Ortley.” He could see her in the rear view mirror.

“What’s oatley?”

“Town we passed about ten minutes back. So what is it?”

“Pictures,” she said absentmindedly.

“I can see that. Of?”

She turned one around. It was a photo of a handheld electronic device, black with yellow trim. An FBI numerical label card was next to it.

“You know what this is?” she asked.

“Looks like an infrared thermometer. I used to work HVAC—summers in high school.”

“You fixed air conditioners in Minneapolis?”

“I grew up in LA.”

“That explains a lot.”

“Like what?”

“The shoes.”

“Ah. I get it. You want me to be good ol’ country Del again, is that it?”

“I liked him better. Sue me.” Nio turned another photo. “What about this? Recognize it?”

It was another black handheld electronic device, rectangular this time. A V-shaped antenna poked from the top. A string of colored lights stretched across the rim.

“Radon detector?” Quinn guessed.

“Why would a radon detector have an antenna?”

“I don’t know.”

“EMF,” she explained.

“Huh. Well, the guy was a scientist right?”

“Last one.” She turned another. “Call it a tie-breaker.”

“That’s a receiver for a wide-band radio. Long distance around-the-world kind of thing.”

“There’s a digital voice recorder also,” she said. “Here’s today’s pop quiz, Orlando. What do all of these things have in common?”

“They were found in our vic’s garage.”

“I’m serious.”

“I dunno. You can buy them at a home improvement store.”

“It’s ghost hunting equipment.”

He scowled. “What do you mean ghost hunting? Like on TV?”

“Yes. This is a bog-standard paranormal research kit.”

“What do they use the infrared thermometer for?”

“Test for cold spots. What about this?” Nio turned another photo.

“That’s easy. That’s a motion sensor. I have the same model on my house.”

“Are you sensing a trend?”

“Har, har.”

“Your people photographed everything, right?”

“I doubt they got the lint in his dryer, but yeah. I expect so.”

The interior of the car was quiet.

“Weekend hobby?” Quinn suggested. “Blow off steam. Impress the pretty undergrads.”

“He wasn’t like that.”

“When was the last time you saw the guy?”

“He wasn’t like that. Read the damn case notes if you don’t believe me.”

Quinn grit his teeth. “You’re not a big people person, are you?”

“People make my head hurt,” she whispered.

“Wasn’t this guy supposed to be one of the smartest in the world?”

Nio didn’t answer. She simply scowled at the glossy pictures in her hand.

“You hungry?” Quinn asked after several minutes. “If we grab something quick, we can make it back tonight.”

“You got a hot date or something?”

“Some of us like our own beds.”

“No offense, Orlando, but I’ve been in a cage for a couple weeks eating the deputies’ potluck leftovers. I’d like some real food and a good night’s sleep. We can be A students tomorrow.”

“Well . . .” Quinn examined a road sign as it passed. A grid of logos announced the meal options at the next town. “I hate to say it, but it looks like our options are fast food or pizza.”

“No.” Nio pointed to the yellow sign at the horizon.

“We are not going to Denny’s.” He gave her a look.

“Looks like you finally get to take me to dinner.”

A sign on the door announced that the restaurant proudly served Allys™. Next to it was a group of logos inside a red circle with a line through it. Nio saw the TruBoi flag and the Truth-Seekers and FARK and a bunch of other tribes she didn’t recognize. An overweight waitress with short hair, iridescent eyelashes, and a motion tattoo of a small child, a son perhaps, greeted them and showed them to a booth by the front window. The tall Agent Quinn stepped around the table and groaned in anticipation of stretching out, but Nio stopped him.

“No, not there.”

He looked blankly at the bulging red cushions of the booth.

She motioned to a nearby table. “We’ll sit here,” she told the waitress.

The woman shrugged and moved the laminated menus.

Quinn was incredulous.

“Never sit at a table with two salt shakers,” Nio explained.

He examined the cluster of condiments at the back of the booth. The sweeteners were arranged by color and guarded jealously by a bottle of ketchup. The pepper shaker hid behind a triangular desert menu. Standing in front of the lot were a pair of salt shakers—identical except for a dent in one cap.

“Did something happen to him?” Nio asked the waitress. She stepped close to examine the motion tattoo on the woman’s arm.

A small child sat awkwardly on the floor near some presents—a birthday or Christmas. As the woman’s arm moved, the boy’s face brightened into a smile.

“How did you know?” she asked, suddenly quite emotional.

“Not recently, I hope.”

“Two years ago.”

The waitress frowned at the picture, which was changeable. Wearers could edit photos and videos or make their own art to display. The pigment particles, injected by electric needle, were altered by placing a magnetic pad over the skin. The pad received the update wirelessly from an app on the wearer’s mobile and used magnetic fields of varying strengths to orient tiny cyan, magenta, yellow, white, and black beads. The waitress’s photo was slightly crisper than the tattoos of old, but it was considerably less defined than the photograph from which it had surely been taken, which suggested she had not bought one of the high-quality Asian devices but a lower-cost knockoff from Africa or South America.

Nio took the woman’s hand. “I’m so sorry.”

“Thank you.” The woman tried to smile before returning to the kitchen.

Nio pulled out a chair and took a seat, but Agent Quinn hadn’t moved. He turned back to Nio, who was reading her menu. He pulled out a chair and looked at the half-inch of speckled padding. He took a seat. It creaked.

“That some kind of superstition?” he asked.

“It’s not superstition. It’s science.”

“Is that right? Does it apply to pepper too?”

“Have you ever seen a table with two pepper shakers?”

Quinn opened his mouth to answer but didn’t. Although he could imagine the scenario easily, strangely enough, he couldn’t recall ever actually seeing it. He studied the table in front of him the way an audience studies a magician after a trick. Then he turned to examine the rest of the room.

“What do you think has the most meat?” Nio asked, staring at the menu.

“What can I get you both to drink?” the waitress asked. She seemed out of breath.

“Coffee,” they said at the same time.

“Jinx,” she mumbled before walking off.

Quinn picked up his menu and glanced back to the pair of salts in the booth.

“I don’t suppose you’re a certified Ally.” Nio pointed to the logo at the bottom of the menu. “We can get 10% off.”

“I downloaded that app once,” he said. “Sounded like a great idea, but I could never keep up.”

“What do you mean?”

“You keep your certification by answering questions that pop up randomly on your phone. I kept getting them wrong.”

“Questions?”

“Like, controversies. What some public figure said about some group and why it was bad. Seemed like the only point was to make sure we knew who we were supposed to be mad at that week. Maybe not. I dunno.”

“Psychological reinforcement.”

“Excuse me?”

“You kept getting them wrong, but they didn’t kick you out. The point wasn’t to test in-group knowledge, it was to reinforce it through periodic repetition.” She slapped the tri-fold down and started pulling napkins from the container. “Get me the Denver omelette. I gotta pee.”

Quinn looked down at the ankle bracelet and turned back to the table. “Don’t take too long.”

The waitress returned after a short gap and he ordered for the both of them. After a few minutes, he turned to the back, but saw nothing. He studied the floor tiles and wondered if he’d already screwed up. He gripped the table and was about to push himself up when Nio appeared in the hall, rubbing her hands together. She sat down and poured four creams into her coffee. The pair drank in silence.

The food came, and Quinn watched Nio shove the stuffed omelette into her mouth like a hyena.

“What’s in that?” he asked, staring.

“Meat,” she mumbled with a full mouth. She took another bite before she had fully swallowed the first.

“I can see that. What kinds?”

“Zau-zage,” she said, chewing. “Ham. I dunno.” She swallowed and took another bite. “Meat.”

He stabbed his fork into his salad.

“I didn’t eat meat for fourteen years,” she explained between bites.

“So now you’re making up for lost time?”

By the time Nio’s plate was completely bare, Quinn still had half his salad left. He forced one more bite.

“So what’s your story?” he asked.

“What do you mean?”

“You know, the usual stuff . . . Where do you live? What do you do? Why were you in Leavenworth for two years?”

Nio held her coffee close to her mouth. It was cold. “I got involved in something.” She took a sip. “Then some people died and I got out.”

“I didn’t see anything like that in your file.”

“I have a file?”

“Everyone has a file.”

“Even Searan?”

“Who’s Sharon?”

“Searan. Our waitress. You didn’t see the name tag?”

Quinn stabbed his salad with his fork but did nothing with it. “No,” he answered her. “Searan probably doesn’t have a file. But you do. And I didn’t see anything about people dying. Just the prior. Two years inside but nothing about the case. Why would the records be sealed?”

“Why are court records usually sealed?”

“Protect minors. Or if a case is ongoing. Or national security.”

Nio set her coffee down. “Are you done?”

He looked at his salad. He pushed himself up from the table with a grunt and wobbled to the cashier the way big men do after eating.

“Nobody calls me Orlando,” he said on the way to the car. “Except my grandma. Everybody else calls me Quinn. Have since high school.”

“I’ll keep that in mind.”

Quinn leaned on the roof of the sedan and looked across to Nio. “What is your problem? You’ve been givin’ me—” He stopped. He looked back at the restaurant as if he just realized he’d left his wallet.

“Stay here.” Quinn shut his door and walked into the diner. He found the restrooms at the back and knocked on the women’s. When no one answered, he pushed open the door.

“Hello?”

Inside, he found a very thin cell phone resting obliquely on top of the hand dryer, as if someone had left it there by accident. He took it and found the waitress, Searan, who was amazed. She’d been running around the restaurant looking for it. She was confused by Quinn’s request to see if any calls had been made, but she complied.

There was one, but it hadn’t been answered. Quinn took a photo of the screen with his own phone.

“Thank you so much,” he said with a smile.

He walked outside, where Nio was leaning against the sedan. They both got in and Quinn started the car. He sat in silence for a moment with the engine running.

“So the salt thing was a con?”

“No,” she objected. “It was a distraction.”

Quinn wanted to argue, to challenge, but he couldn’t escape that it had worked.

Nio saw the look on his face. “It’s a biohack. Sort of. We all think of ourselves as passive observers, but our brains actively scan the environment and focus on what they think is important. Give someone a conundrum and they get momentarily overloaded. It actually only works on smart people. Dumb ones don’t realize the conundrum.”

“Are you suggesting I should be grateful that you gave me an opportunity to demonstrate how smart I am?”

“I didn’t say you were smart.”

“You wanna tell me who you called?”

She didn’t answer.

“Suit yourself.”

They drove down the street to a block, two-story motel. Doors opened onto the pocked parking lot.

“Wow, the FBI goes all out,” Nio said sarcastically.

“Budgets. Wait here.”

After checking in at the automated kiosk, Agent Quinn led Nio to the second floor. He opened a door and walked in as if it was his.

“This is you,” he said, looking under the bed.

“Are you checking for monsters, Dad?”

Quinn turned on the bathroom light on and peered inside. Then he walked to the phone and unplugged it.

“You’re seriously taking the phone?”

“It’s not complicated. You act like a child, I treat you like one.”

“What if there’s an emergency?”

“I’ll be right next door. And just to remind you, if you get more than a hundred yards from me”—he held up his phone—“an alarm sounds on the bracelet and on here, which also has a map linked to a positioning system that tells me exactly where you are. I call local PD, they pick you up, and we take you back to jail, game over.”

“I’m here voluntarily.”

“Don’t act like I’m overreacting. You’ve already tried to trick me. Twice.”

“What was the first time?”

“Good night.” Quinn walked out and closed the door, taking her room key with him.

Nio kicked off her boots and sat cross-legged on the bed, which creaked under her. The TV was at least 15 years old—only 16k and limited apps. It had a browser, but it wouldn’t work with VPN. She could connect to a server just fine but it timed out repeatedly. Nio signed up for a new encrypted email account instead. If anyone checked, they could see what she was doing but not the contents of the message or to whom it was sent. She wrote to Samizdat first and explained the situation as best she could in a few sentences. Typing meant tabbing through the on-screen keyboard with the arrows on the remote, which was excruciatingly slow. Nio tried to find Mutiny’s contact info but could only get her manager in Las Vegas, to whom she also sent an email, asking that she get in touch with Agent Quinn of the FBI’s Minneapolis office. She thought briefly about checking the forums to see if Amok had posted but decided against it. If he had, there was nothing she could do about it anyway.

A minute later, she changed her mind and started scrolling through recent posts to BloatedStack, a popular darknet mod board. As usual, it was full of the usual requests—guys wanting to know how to get jacked without exercising or updates on the latest fat-burning protocols, all of which were toxic. The few sequence files that were shared were pounced on and immediately pulled apart. Every so often, a scammer would post a file that, if sequenced and injected into the groin and armpits, was supposed to alter the glandular tissue and cause it to release pheromones that would “drive women crazy.” Few fell for it anymore, but in the early days, it seemed like some teenager was hospitalized almost every day, part of a spate of self-inflicted illnesses that resulted in various bans and restrictions on modding worldwide.

Nio turned off the TV and laid back on the bed.

“Video . . .” she breathed.

She sat up. Dr. Chang said Sol was giving a public lecture when he died. Surely someone posted footage of the death online. Nio grabbed the remote and found numerous videos of him, although those at the top, the most popular, were really videos of Manda that he simply happened to be in. Nio instantly felt jealous. And left out.

She clicked the first.

“And what are you working on these days?” the perky journalist asked as music droned in the background.

Sol was trying to walk with Manda into a party or social gala of some kind. Miniature spotlights arced back and forth. He was in a tuxedo and doing his best to move around the reporters without seeming rude. It wasn’t going well.

“A new theory,” he said playfully.

He was looking patiently down rather than at the camera, hoping it would be removed from his face.

“Can you tell us about that?”

“I’ve been looking at the universe as information rather than geometry.” He sounded older.

Manda skillfully wove her slender arm under his and freed him.

Nio stopped the video and searched for his final talk. It was the sixth on the list of results.

“Sick bastards,” she said. “And yet . . .”

She hit play.

The snippet started in the middle. No one cared about what he had to say. They just wanted to see him die. He was explaining the Bekenstein bound, a principle of physics that described the limits of information and entropy. Nio paused it. She got up from the bed and washed her face in the sink. She blew her nose and wiped her eyes. She stared at the drain and remembered another just like it, in the floor of the maintenance closet. She was 13 and had run from one of the boys at school. He had tried to kiss her, and when she rejected him, he began calling her names in front of the others. Freak. Copy. Psycho. Sol found her. It wasn’t hard. Anyone could’ve found her. The point was that he noticed she was gone. The point was that he bothered to look. He sat with her in the dark while she cried.

“We’ll always be different,” he said.

Now she was about to watch him die.

Nio leaned on the edge of the bed and started the video again. Sol stood at a narrow podium flanked by tables on both sides. Various academics sat facing the audience. None were less than two meters from him. The hall itself was fairly small. Chairs were arranged in rows in the center. They were at most half full. She heard a sneeze as the audio began again. Sol explained how the total information a system could contain was determined by its surface area, not its volume. No one approached him in the moments before he fell. He didn’t touch the bottle of water that had been left for him on the podium, which was full and sealed. There was no gun shot, no knife strike, no laser burn, no spasm of poison. He paused as if searching for a word. There was some shuffling in the room, and then he began speaking again. His head wobbled, his words turned to gibberish, and he fell, knocking over the podium on his way to the floor. There were shouts and exclamations. The camera moved away, as if whoever held it had jumped to their feet. Then it stopped.

Nio immediately watched it again.

Dr. Chang was right. She couldn’t place it. But something was terribly wrong.


Selection from THE ZERO SIGNAL, a mystery about life in the post-factual future.