Where is the Hub of the Universe?


11:22 PM, Saturday, 12.31.11 – QUEST INC., Technology Square, Cambridge, Massachusetts

Nine floors up, three sheets to the wind, and one shot at a game changer, Quinn Stevens lay belly down on the icy rooftop of the high-rise that housed his undersized physics lab. In his sights: his personal scracker—taped to a paper target hung on the back of the door. Under his arm: his long-range pulse laser rifle—a prototype for Uncle Sam.

Inside the bulky cold weather gear lay six feet of corporate genius. Built like an athlete and meticulously clean cut, Quinn was the kind of handsome that demanded attention. But not for his perfect sandy hair, deep hazel eyes, and tight six pack. He burned with confidence. Smooth, professional, and convincing, he had a British accent to match. To his friends he was the pillar—authority and leader. At 41 he’d done more with one lifetime than most did with ten. And every life was the same. Perpetually serious, driven, and stubborn, he wasn’t quick with a smile or compliment. From Quinn, you earned it. Half physicist, half engineer, his two doctorates put him at the top of the brain chain. The only downfall to being the smartest guy in the room was there weren’t many who could keep up. Those in the know considered Quinn a visionary, but not for his IQ alone. On top of his intellect he had 20/8 vision—a human best—and a stunning photographic memory. His secret double life—and boredom with most anything outside a laboratory—made him understandably reserved. But as only Foster knew, he most guarded his memory. Everything Quinn focused on got catalogued without fail. And when your brain has no filter—no ability to trash things you don’t want or need to remember—you pick your experiences carefully. He and Foster were quite a pair. One couldn’t remember and one couldn’t forget—at least until he moved to the next life. To Quinn, death was always a welcome release. As much as he wanted a shot at the longevity Foster had, he wondered what it would do to him. The invincibility, he hoped, would cure him of memory overload. With the exception of Foster and a few college pals, Quinn was alone in the world. Parents: long dead. Relatives: long lost. Women: random—at best. His stalker girlfriend, Rachel, was the only woman Foster had known him to have any sort of relationship with in all their time together. She hunted him down life after life. And when Foster started tracking data patterns representing Quinn’s circle of friends with the Template, the relationship between Quinn and Rachel always proved to be the most consistent. While other friends sometimes had age gaps or showed up at unpredictable times in Quinn’s life, Rachel always made it before his twentieth birthday. But this time, she—like many in his recurring entourage—was suspiciously late to the party. Without Rachel proof that the Template worked as some sort of identity guidance system was lost. No Rachel, no value. And no bargaining chip up their sleeve, should they ever need it. Their most recent breakthrough—downloading a copy of the program from Foster’s brain into a computer—was a huge step forward. Quinn could finally get a deeper look without relying on cognitive hookups. Foster, Quinn, Warren, Aaron, and the entire Science Team were all convinced anyone on Earth would kill for it—maybe other worlds too. Romantic intentions aside, everyone was looking for someone. Quinn eyed the burning practice shots around his scracker as he replayed the last twenty-one years—starting with the Science Team’s disappearance. For all his efforts, Foster hadn’t been able to pull any decent intel on Camp Hero since 1990. Part of it was Warren’s silent treatment. Most of it was the influx of modern-day radio waves hindering his abilities. All they knew was that the team had vanished. And since Warren still wasn’t talking, Foster wondered if Camp Hero had killed them quietly, scaring Warren into keeping his mouth shut for good. Warren, Aaron, and the Science Team always warned them Camp Hero wouldn’t play fair. They’d make damn sure anyone on—or competing with—the Warren Project would disappear once they got what they wanted. Anyone who knew anything was in danger—their families and friends too. Though they knew Camp Hero had been on to them since the Well sabotage in ‘70, they hadn’t chanced a serious attempt at learning more about Quinn’s work until a month back. Quinn and Foster often wondered who’d given them up—or slipped up—at the time. Aaron and his son James, the Science Team, Warren and Hattie, would all die before ratting. To the best of their intel, no one else knew Foster and Quinn had been working on their own Well. Explosion aside, Camp Hero had connected the dots somehow. Vica, Z, or Miss Terious may have found out, but Foster still couldn’t locate any of them. Who gave them up didn’t matter as much as why. But when Foster presented Quinn with a gray hair that morning they had their answer. Time was finally running out. If Foster was failing, so was Vica, Z—maybe even Miss Terious. And if all the aliens died, the chances of cracking the cellular preservation technique used for Well Sequence One was slim at best—at least in this lifetime. Quinn was still testing Foster’s regeneration ability with lackluster results. Without Sequence One there was no ride home—no shot at a longer life. Foster ran the risk of dying on Earth without even knowing why he was there. Even if Camp Hero wasn’t working with an alien, they’d still want a working Well. Who knew how many self-preservation licenses they’d promised to keep the Warren Project running? Someone on their payroll was either out of ideas, out of time, or both. Whoever it was had to be desperate—resorting to stealing whatever Quinn would come up with. Good luck. He knew they’d never find it. So far no one was poking around secret underground tunnels in New Delhi, and when it came to creating wild goose chases Foster was king. While Quinn was sure the militant morons running Camp Hero wouldn’t try to kill him off until the Warren Project was complete, he knew the more desperate people got in the race to a working Well, the more dangerous it would become. Given Camp Hero’s persistence, Foster and Quinn’s logical deduction was that the Science Team had made it off-world—or died trying—making sure no one from Camp Hero could operate their Well in their absence. Most likely, they’d been sitting on another destroyed or disabled Well since 1990. But if the team really did get off-world using the Camp Hero Well, Quinn wondered why Dr. Blank—their top physicist—hadn’t left plans behind for him. They’d collaborated up until just days before the team’s disappearance. More troubling than the Camp Hero spies was the late start they were getting. In past lives, key players in Quinn’s entourage would have been working for a good ten to fifteen years already. So far the only ones who’d shown were Dane, Adrian, Tripp, and Sanjay—former MIT and Harvard buddies. But they weren’t the ones he really needed. It was the ‘kids’ who were late to the party—five young eager minds who’d unwittingly but undoubtedly helped moved his Well plans along in past lives. Where are you guys? Quinn was convinced his scracker upgrades along with the influx in radio waves weren’t just helping him block the competition. They were blocking everyone. Whatever natural vibe he gave off that brought his circle of friends together was losing the fight against the disturbance. And with the race to a working Well between Quinn and Camp Hero being kicked into overdrive, Quinn needed all the help he could get. They couldn’t afford another lifetime chipping away at the technology. He was convinced they’d come far enough anyway. It was resources he was after now, which meant a lot of funding. Hard-to-find Black Market gear didn’t come cheap and unlike Camp Hero, he wasn’t relying on backdoor cash from the Pentagon. He also knew once it was deal time, Z or somebody in the know, would come for a ticket—forced to give up their off-world coordinates. He recalibrated his scope, wondering how long it would take for someone to pick up his signal. It was risky—leaving himself exposed to mental invasions—but according to Foster, the remote viewers Camp Hero had been using since Vica left were amateurs. They were more worried about the possibility of Z or Miss Terious tapping in—whose motives were still unclear. As for the rest of Quinn’s entourage, all he could do was hope they’d answer his call—soon. Time to take a chance. For all he was caught up in, Quinn had one burning question: Why me? For as many times as they’d gone over it, the only thing Foster could come up with was that their cognitive connection was some sort of fluke. Something must have happened on that icy beach in Dorset when they’d first met 664 years ago, pulling Foster into Quinn’s circle of friends. All humans had them to some extent. Icy beach. He pulled his hat tighter, wondering how cold it had been. He couldn’t remember Cambridge being so cold. Liquid nitrogen’s warmer. Icy fronds were growing all over the roof, covering it in bitter frost. He glanced at his watch. “Come on Tripp.” Tripp was his kinetics man—an MIT drop out who ran security details for the mafia to pay off his student loans. His specialty was tracking and relocating people. If you wanted someone lost—or found—Tripp was your guy. He was also a good guy—a connected guy—and right now, the guy who’d be making sure his contact over at the power plant was getting ready for a nice big blackout. Two minutes. Tripp wouldn’t let him down. They couldn’t have asked for a better forecast. The polar blast was a perfect cover story. If Foster’s historical data was right, Quinn figured the blackout, along with his dead scracker, would allow him to give off a strong natural signal. If all went to plan, they’d deflect any mental attacks and soon have the gang back together. If not, his damn gun needed testing anyway. Foster wasn’t in on the plan—yet. Quinn didn’t need the security lecture. Sure, he could have just stomped on the scracker instead of burning a hole through it, but the rifle had a second purpose. If some alien asshole or Camp Hero wannabe showed up with designs on tapping his brain, he’d use their head for target practice. Giving Foster’s new decline, Quinn figured the playing field between the humans and aliens was leveling. He still wasn’t sure he could kill one, but he’d slow them down long enough for a getaway. And he was a damn good shot. 20/8 eyesight was awesome. The more tiny holes he burned in the paper target, the more dissatisfied he got. He drove the butt of the gun into his shoulder. Too light—so light it wanted to slip. “Shit.” It was bulky too. He frowned at his slick, stealthy marvel. No reassuring shot rang through his ears … no satisfying recoil vibrated through his shoulder. The damn thing looked like it belonged in a science fiction museum. He’d sucked the Ooh-Rah right out of it. Victims wouldn’t know what hit them but the Marines would have a good laugh at his ‘pussy gun’. Precise enough to split hair two miles out and powerful enough to take out an LA Class sub; he was still convinced it would go down in history as the most dissatisfying weapon of all time. He took a break from the target to have a swig from his flask as he looked the gun over. It needed a name. “Ah, let’s see … Surefire … Stinger … Beamer … Toaster …” The Toaster. He smiled. “The Toastah.” One more swig. “Fuck it. I’m not going to be the one firing it.” He grabbed the gun and pointed the scope upward, surveying the city skyline. Boston fucking Massachusetts … Hub of the Universe. Who knows? Maybe it is. “Time to settle down.” He checked his watch one last time, speed-dialing Foster from his smartphone—on speaker. “What? I’m busy.” Quinn frowned, turning down the volume. “With what—messing with our neighbor’s head?” “He thinks you’re hot.” Quinn peered into his scope. “Good for him. You’re welcome by the way.” “What now?” Quinn focused. “Blackout.” “Aha. I knew you’d get me a Christmas present sooner or later.” Quinn kept his eye on the target. “Thank Tripp.” “You tell him?” Quinn smirked. “He’s Tripp—doesn’t ask questions. And, no.” “Hold on while I put in my telepathic pizza order. I’ll convince the delivery boy I won it.” Quinn widened the gun’s burn radius. “Don’t be such a cheap bastard.” “Budget-conscious. You’ll thank me when you need some more of those nano-thingies.” Quinn rested his finger on the trigger. “Get ready.” “Ready? For what?” Quinn focused deeper. “Time to get the band back together.” “Are you crazy?” Quinn held his gaze. “Thirty minutes.” “Stop! I can’t guarantee …” On cue, the call to Foster got dropped. And building by building, the Hub of the Universe went black. They had thirty minutes. Quinn took the shot. “Thanks Tripp.” One scracker: annihilated. He watched it burn a moment, shaking his head in disgust. Boo-Rah. He took another look through the scope, frowning when a pigeon landed on the end of the barrel, leaning over to look inside. The red and white target turned red and black. A pigeon eye? What the fuck? Quinn looked up at the bird. It really was a pigeon—black and gray and … still staring through the barrel. “Is this thing for real?” He waved it off. “Go take a shit somewhere else.” It fluttered off to rest on the nearby ledge. He frowned at the bird. “You one of those spy pigeons?” The wide-eyed bird froze like it was pleading the fifth. Is it sick? It didn’t look sick—odd maybe. But no more than a drunk guy up on the roof with a pulse laser rifle trying to lure reincarnated friends into his teleportation project while he chatted up a pigeon. Quinn closed his eyes and let his head fall forward. Fuck me. He took another swig, glancing at the weird bird. “Jesus, maybe there’s some Tesla in me after all.” He got to his feet. “Try not to fall in love.” The pigeon edged closer, side-stepping and fluttering along the ledge as he took more of an interest in Quinn. Quinn frowned. “What’d you do—escape from the circus?” The curious pigeon cocked its head like it was listening. He waved his gun at it. “This is supposed to scare you. Shoo.” The pigeon turned to stare into the dark skyline. Quinn glanced at his watch. Twenty-nine minutes. He let his rifle hang at his side as he stepped up to the ledge to survey the city. The entire Hub was out—maybe farther. Next door, there was action in what Quinn called the Pharm Farm—a bio tech company infamous for its animal testing. From the looks of it, backup security had failed—but not the lighting. Quinn shook his head. A true blackout would take a lot more work—and money. He studied the scene unfolding inside the building. Staffers were chasing down cats and rats and god knows what. Quinn frowned. With any luck a few would escape into the walls but it was so cold the bigger ones wouldn’t make it if they did get out. Those assholes know better. He turned away. Watching animals get chased down to be re-tortured wasn’t a memory he wanted in his catalog. He took another swig. Dane. His MIT bud—a biochem major with an affinity for cryo—made the best moonshine around. Quinn smiled. Now, there were some memories. Dane had made a killing selling hooch at school—until he got caught. But while his underground sales were far behind him, he kept his still running for his closest friends. Quinn took another long swig and rested his flask on the ledge. “Ahhhhh.” He paced and watched and tried to ward off the cold—and after a while, got used to the bird. It was nice to hang with someone quiet. Compared to Foster, anyone was. He glanced at his watch. Two minutes. He shook his head. “Looks like no one’s coming.” He turned down the beam radius on his gun to its lowest setting and switched on the safety. Out of nowhere it started to snow. Huh. Wasn’t in the forecast. Giant snowflakes were blanketing the roof. He caught a few in his hand. They’ve gotta be two inches. He turned on his heel to take in their beauty, so moved by the scene he forgot himself. Then he slipped. Shit. Feet shooting out in front of him, the rifle swung away from his hand. A sharp blow to the rooftop released the safety, sending a beam slicing through the dark like a glistening red needle. All he could do was watch as the gun bounced and fell at his side and his back slammed into the ice. He grabbed it quickly, turning it off and re-securing the safety as fast as his numb fingers could manage. Finally, he rested it on his chest as he caught his breath. “That’s … why we run … tests.” He let his head fall back, turning to study the black ice beneath him. “It’s official. Figures I’d be here to see it …” He pulled up his knees. “One thing’s for sure—my ass is frozen over. Awww … fuck.” He propped the rifle on his chest, turning to study the extent of the damage through the scope. Following the line of sight through the first hole in the ledge, he verified every building in the beam’s path had a new hole. And though the trajectory was high, it had pierced its way through at least a mile and a half, with damage extending over the Charles and through the Pru. “Fuck. I shot the Pru.” He took another look. “Damn.” His back and head ached. He tucked his gun under his right arm, grateful no one had gotten a stinger out of it. Just a pinhole. He rested his left hand on the ice and closed his eyes a moment. And then, things got weird. In his mind’s eye he saw a sinking bird’s eye view of his building below—like he was descending level by level incredibly fast. He saw flashes of his neighbor’s labs, the floors below, then what looked like flesh … bones … veins … cells … molecules … protons … electrons … atoms … right down to the quarks. Even weirder—the electromagnetic spectrum lit up with ultraviolet … infrared … and it just kept going and going until his brain felt like it was on fire. The visuals were so overwhelming he grabbed the sides of head. And then they were gone. His first thought was the booze—his second, the aliens. Are they in my head? He spun his head to see where the pigeon was. Pigeons could see ultraviolet. “Did you see that?” Incredibly—with its head cocked in Quinn’s direction—it looked like the bird did see something. He put his head back down. “Christ. I’m talking to a pigeon.” He winced at a pain growing in his left palm. Doesn’t frostbite start in your fingertips? He studied his hand. It looked a little frozen—like some sort of pattern was growing from the center. To him it looked like a gear—a dynamo. What the …? When the city flickered back to life the pattern in his palm died. Then the cold burn started to fade, leaving his hand stiff and chafed. Foster hadn’t ever mentioned anything like this happening to him. Am I seeing straight? He stared up into the snowflakes illuminated by the light polluted sky. So thick. Incredible. He looked at his hand again. Just a hand. The pigeon flew in for a closer look, landing on his chest to strut around. Quinn frowned at the bird. “You’re kidding me?” Foster loathed the cold—and the roof. Quinn could see him stomping toward him, wincing at the snow and pulling his jacket around him. Here it comes. Quinn glanced up at him begrudgingly. Foster always looked the same: round blue eyes rolling in exasperation … the ‘I could give a fuck’ five o’clock shadow and matching short brown hair … his permanently middle-aged mug defaulting to sheer annoyance. And the stingy wardrobe: sneakers, well-worn jeans, button up shirt—sleeves rolled—black leather jacket, easily 100 years old. Vintage, he called it. The rest of him was pretty average for a near indestructible, mind-manipulating alien pushing 700 or more. Quinn was his only close friend left—by choice. While Foster liked to brag that his hard bod scared people off, the truth was he had a mouth with no off button. And no one was spared from its merciless and sometimes baffling arrogance. For a guy who didn’t have a clue which portal he’d rode in on or why, Foster carried a chip on his shoulder the size of the Hedron collider—and he wasn’t afraid to use it. He frowned at Quinn, who was staring at the pigeon on his chest. “You dead?” Quinn groaned. “Not this time.” Foster frowned. “You’re having a staring contest with a pigeon?” The pigeon flew back to the ledge. Quinn rolled over. “I think there’s something wrong with him.” Foster frowned at the bird. “Maybe that’s what he’s thinking.” Quinn made a face. “Did I wing him?” Foster shook his head. “You’re using pigeons for target practice? Animal control will love that.” Quinn glanced at the bird. “He’s fine. What are you doing up here?” Foster sniffed. “Besides the chance to witness an avian terrorist get hauled off to jail?” Quinn sighed as he got to his feet. Here we go. Foster tossed Quinn a new scracker. “Here. That stunt took a lot out of me. You could have checked with me first.” Quinn pocketed his scracker. “You would have pushed it off.” Foster nodded. “Yah, well … the waves are a little low tonight.” Quinn frowned. “Why’s that?” Foster smirked. “Tree huggers—set up a worldwide voluntary blackout. I’d say about … oh … point o-two percent were in on it. Still, every little bit helps.” He smiled and took a deep breath, extending his arms dramatically. “If only we could hug the planet.” Quinn shook his head. Foster dropped his arms. “I did pick up something. Somebody out there let their guard down.” Quinn frowned. “Who?” Foster shrugged. “Some Camp Hero wannabe. Their remote viewers can’t hold it for long.” He shook his head. “Humans. I’d say they’re on us 24/7 at this point. Thirty minutes is pushing it.” He glanced at the gun. “You got a permit for that thing?” Quinn picked up the Toastah. “You’re my permit.” Foster scoffed. “A guy with a rifle on a rooftop in a crowded city? Yah, it could work. I say the cops are here in oh … ten minutes?” Quinn frowned. “If anything’s attracting attention it’s your mouth.” Foster rolled his eyes. “I carry you for 664 years and this is the thanks I get?” Quinn pushed his cold palm against his aching forehead. Foster lifted his chin in the Toastah’s direction. “How’s the gun?” Quinn nodded. “Works—one and a half miles out—maybe two.” Foster frowned. “Two miles? How do you know?” Quinn frowned. “Because I burned a hole … between us and the Pru—maybe further.” Foster turned south. “You burned a hole in the Prudential Center?” Quinn slipped his rifle over his shoulder. “I slipped.” Foster glared. “I’m not the engineer, remember? I don’t do physical.” Quinn nodded. “No—you’re PR. Just blame it on the military.” He smirked. “Aliens.” Foster sighed. “What about the Template download? Any further along?” Quinn shook his head. “We need a bigger computer—and Rachel.” Foster shuddered. “Nice blackout. Did you order up the cold too? Will I be getting inquiries from Salem as to exactly which witch’s tit you had your hands on?” Quinn smirked. “I stay out of your territory.” Foster stomped toward the door, shoving his fists in his pockets. The cops would be there soon. He’d rather mess with their heads out of sight. “For god’s sake, don’t get arrested. It’s too cold to be hauling your ass out of jail tonight.” He slammed the door behind him. Quinn walked over to the ledge to retrieve his flask and shoved it in his pocket. The bird had strutted farther down. “Don’t worry. He’s all talk.” He sighed. “I don’t think he’s been laid since he landed on Earth. Whoever sent him messed him up good. I say its woman trouble.” He thought of Rachel. “Who knows? Can’t say I’m any better.” Quinn leaned on the ledge, replaying the weird visuals in his head—trying to slow them down. Cold and sore or not, he was in no rush to catch up with Foster. Foster might have been the master of mind games, but Quinn’s eyesight gave him the ability to read lips and body language like no other. He was so good he’d recently—secretly—been contracted to develop interrogation software for MI6. Rumor had it no one was getting past their new lie detector. It saw everything. The bird came back, resting next to Quinn’s arm. They looked down at a couple talking on the sidewalk. “See that guy down there? He’s lying—something about a long weekend. And her … she knows. For whatever reason, she’s relieved—good at hiding it. He hasn’t got a clue. She’s bitter.” He tugged on his hat as he felt the cold exhaustion winning him over. “Sometimes I think all women are.” Quinn turned just in time to see Lenny, a local cop walking onto the roof. Lenny was a big Irish man with a gravelly voice—Southie native. Lenny raised his arm, trying to get Quinn’s attention. “Stevens! Hey! Stevens!” Quinn turned. “Len. My favorite beat cop. What brings you by on this refreshing winter evening?” Lenny pointed. “Is that a gun?” Quinn nodded, frowning at his gun. “Toaster.” Lenny nodded. “You got a permit?” Quinn nodded. “Oh yah—filed away somewhere—downstairs. You want to see it?” Lenny waved him off. “No. Just give it a rest for tonight. The phones are ringin’ off the friggin’ hook.” Quinn smirked. “Just tell them there’s a gifted scientist working on an important discovery—one that’ll create hundreds of jobs someday. Keep the mayor happy.” Lenny shook his head. “Not tonight Stevens. You’re givin’ the little old ladies heart attacks.” Quinn made a face. “Come on.” Lenny shook his head. “Look, its New Years. Nobody wants any trouble. For Christ’s sake, gimme a break, will ya? It’s bad enough with all this goddamn snow.” “New Years?” Quinn frowned at his watch. “Shit Len. You’re right. Happy New Year.” He sighed. “Little old ladies, huh?” Lenny nodded. Quinn frowned. “How about I switch over to green? Less threatening.” Lenny lit up. “Then they’ll be callin’ in goddamn alien sightin’s. Naw, wrap it up. C’mon. I’m freezin’ my tail off.” Quinn started gathering his stuff. “OK Len.” Lenny frowned. “Don’t you ever take a day off?” Quinn shook his head. “I’m a man of discovery Len—married to my work.” Lenny headed out. “Yah, well, I’m married to my wife and she’s already gonna be wicked pissed I got roped into workin’ OT.” Quinn stepped up to the door to take down his target. “Take it easy on the champagne Len.” Lenny grinned, slipping behind the door. “Pffft. Real Irishmen drink whiskey.” Quinn took one last look at the curious pigeon perched on the rail. In another odd move the bird stretched its neck to look straight up into the sky, spreading its wings like it was welcoming the snow bath. Quinn reluctantly followed its gaze upward as he started back to his lab. The flakes were thickening. “Crazy bird.” The pigeon flew off. Whether his life was being shaped by luck or Luck, Quinn still wasn’t sure. And, now he had a new mystery to solve. Glancing at his aching hand, he recalled an old mantra Foster had recorded from their early days in Dorset: Non enim humeris. Est in manibus nostris. Latin translation: The world is not on our shoulders. It’s in our hands. Does that mean anything? He decided not to tell Foster about his hand until he had something more to go on. He wasn’t sure he could recreate whatever happened and he didn’t need the drunk jokes. It wasn’t aliens. Foster would have known. And he’d been drinking Dane’s moonshine for twenty-three years. He disappeared behind the door, snow swirling in a g<style=’font-size:16px;’>⊎st behind him like it was covering his tracks. He didn’t know it at the time, but forecasters were already touting the storm that came out of nowhere as the worst ever.