Jim Baen's Universe 1 Vol 1 Num 1: June 2006



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Brieanna's Constant


Written by Eric Witchey
Illustrated by Barb Jernigan


 

He redlined his black Camry into the parking lot of the Leeman building, a four-story redbrick full of software engineers and psychologists. Dr. Alan Dickson considered parking directly in front of the main entrance in Brieanna's space—the target space. Of course, that would skew his experiment results. He swung wide.



Only Brieanna Wolfe had a one hundred percent success rate. She had parked her ugly, red coffee vendor's truck in the same slot in front of the Leeman building at exactly 7:30 every weekday morning for two years. He planned to put an end to Ms. Wolfe's impossible luck and finish his study of the influence of personal expectations on chaotic systems.

He parked on the far side of the lot and reached to the passenger seat for his briefcase.

The seat was empty.

Marg's mascara-streaked face came back to him. She'd wanted some romantic time with him before work. He couldn't be late. She'd seemed so confused. It wasn't her fault she didn't understand. Aching guilt filled his chest. He reached for the gray cell phone mounted on his dash.

His hand hovered.

Calling wouldn't help. Only success and tickets to Kauai would make her smile. The tickets were in his briefcase. He needed to create the success. He got out of the car and headed across the lot.

* * *

Brieanna gathered her waist-long, honey-and-ash hair behind her head and bound it into a ponytail with a blue scrunchie. Blue because she saw a crack of clear sky in the orange-bottomed, dawn clouds over the sleeping city. She and Valdez, her tiger tomcat, had just finished loading Big Red's refrigerators.



Big Red, a two-ton, step van painted like a red dog, waited loyally at the curb outside her one bedroom bungalow in the wooded hills west of the city.

Red had been very near his trip to the scrap yard when Brieanna found him stalled and dying at a county fair. He'd been primer gray then, owned by a greasy, toothless perv selling carnivore carcinogen tubes wrapped in white bread buns. It made Brieanna shiver to think about what those things did to people's chi.

She rescued Red. She brush-painted him to look like a huge dog from a kid's book she had read in her aroma therapist's waiting room. His painted ears surrounded the tall doors on both sides of the cab. She put a big black spot on his side to make the sales window look right. The square windshield panels on the front weren't exactly good eyes, but the black basketball hanging on the grill was a great nose. She loved him, and that kept him running. After all, that's what kept everything running.

She checked the paws on her Mr. Peabody watch. "Six-twenty," she said. Valdez meowed acknowledgment and pressed his broad head against her ankles. "We're early today." She lifted Valdez and draped him over her shoulders like a fat, striped stole. Together, they mounted the two steps into Big Red.

Valdez leaped down onto his fleece-lined bed beside the long stick shift. The van smelled of fresh-roast and eucalyptus incense. Golden tassels surrounded the windshield. The cargo area overflowed with humming propane reefers and engine-driven steamers personally decorated by Brie. Her milk cooler was black-and-white and named Bessie. Her bran muffin box had little heart stickers on the glass. Her latte machine was fire engine red, except for the hand-painted, yellow smiles and the chrome tubing. She called it "Morning Smiles," after the poem she'd written the morning after a prophetic dream told her to sell coffee.

She settled into her duct-taped, bucket seat and stretched her legs until her feet met the wooden blocks taped to the pedals on the floor.

"Come on, Big Red!" she cheered as she turned the key. Big Red coughed, shuddered, lurched, and died. In her side mirror, Brie watched a cloud of blue smoke explode from the exhaust and roll across her yard, engulfing her newly emerged sweet peas and the scarlet blooms of her rhododendrons.

 

 

"Oh, Red. Why'd you do that? They didn't do anything to you. Wake up, love. The world depends on us. It's a beautiful day to give people smiles!"



Brie turned the key. Red shuddered, and woke. While the engine warmed and settled into its gravelly purr, Brie threw switches to bring power to the equipment in the rear. Finally, she tuned in her favorite FM station. Dulcimer, drum, and pipe tunes filled the truck. She swayed to the tunes and let out the clutch.

* * *


For the seventeenth time in a week, Marg decided to leave her workaholic husband. She stripped off her spike heels. She'd thought she could excite him with a little leather and lace fantasy over breakfast.

She'd been stupid. Only work held his attention. She pulled some slack into her fishnet stockings and knelt to wipe splattered egg from the floor. A brassy flash under the kitchen table caught her eye. She peered into the shadow of Alan's chair. The shield-shaped lock of his briefcase reflected the kitchen lights.

She hoisted the bulging case to the table. The worn and ragged cowhide body strained. Its dry-leather stench made her nose wrinkle.

The case held the numbers and graphs that were more important than his wife. She tugged at the leather strap holding the case closed. It was locked.

She poked the three combo wheels until her birthday lined up. The lock held. She rolled her eyes. Of course it wouldn't be her birthday.

Damn him and his briefcase. He kept secrets from her. She was sick of his secrets, of supporting his obsessions, his delusions of Nobel prizes.

She sat down at the table and lined up his birthday on the tiny wheels.

Nothing.


His work had seemed important to her ten years ago—more important than her happiness.

His mother's birthday?

No. Damn him.

More important than children.

His father's?

* * *


Alan closed the lab's fireproof door and threw the dead bolt to secure the experiment space. When he had leased the unfinished office space, the manager had tried to sell him carpeting for the concrete floor, a suspended ceiling for the aluminum grid overhead, and wire and drywall for the room's metal stud skeleton. Alan preferred to use his funding on more important things.

Morgan, his white, overeducated, grunge lab assistant stared out the full wall window opposite the door. Morgan was not an important thing. After two hundred grant proposals, only one flaky R&D firm, LURC, was willing to risk money on Alan's ideas. Unfortunately, Morgan was part of LURC's deal.

The window was important. It was directly over Brieanna's parking slot.

Morgan turned and flipped a dust-blond dreadlock away from his eyes. "You look like hell, Doctor Al," he said.

"You haven't washed your hair in years," Alan said, venting his morning's frustration. "You show up in a purple tee and baggy shorts, and you insult me?"

"Take a pill, Doctor Al!" Morgan held up his hands in mock defense. "Your clothes are always retro-spiff. I meant the bags under your eyes."

Alan glanced at the coffee machine on top of a small refrigerator in the corner. The carafe was empty. "It's five-fifty. Where's my coffee?"

"Sorry, Doc. I forgot." Morgan laughed. "When Brie gets here, I'll buy you a double vanilla latte."

The morning was bad and getting worse. First Marg had dressed up in leather and spikes and thrown herself over his eggs and toast in some tabloid romance makeover stunt. Then he'd left his briefcase home. Now Morgan, with his woo-woo credentials in nonliner phenomenology, was too damn happy and assuming Brieanna would arrive as usual—and the dry-land surf bum hadn't bothered to make the coffee. "To hell with Brieanna Wolfe," Alan snapped. "I want coffee now."

"I'll make it," Morgan said. "It'll be ready in a minute, but Brie's is a lot better."

"No air-headed, coffee-selling, 'As if,' earth muffin is going to screw up the most important study of my life! I'm going to finish this today, Morgan. Today!"

Morgan stared, mouth open, from behind his dreads.

Alan took a deep breath. To hide his embarrassment, he crossed the lab to a long folding table supporting two computer workstations separated by his dispatcher's radio set. He dropped his keys in his jacket pocket and hung the coat over the back of his chair.

Alan took a breath. Stay objective. Don't let him get to you, he told himself. To Morgan, he said, "She won't make it."

Morgan went to the coffee machine and stripped the top off a foil packet. "Anticipating results, Doc? Won't your expectations influence the outcome?"

Ignoring Morgan, Alan settled into his chair and turned on his workstation. Cables climbed from the back of both workstations like red and green vines strangling the galvanized wall studs. The wires stretched in bellied arcs across the ceiling grid and down the opposite wall. There, another table supported LURC's quantum computer, "Q." At a glance, the million-dollar machine looked like a child's pretend computer, a bright orange shoebox anchoring the descending cables.

Q could track a nearly infinite number of seemingly unrelated details from Alan's city–wide sensor grid. Using Alan's equations, Q could calculate the effect of each detail on all other details then provide a prediction of probable outcome for a predefined event. The predefined event was whether a certain airhead could put her truck in a certain parking slot at 7:30. Q could suggest adjustments to the interrelated minutiae of the causal matrix. Using the dispatch radio, Alan could order those adjustments made by teams of disciplined, stone-faced field agents.

When he heard the pop and hiss of the coffee machine, Alan turned away from his workstation. "Is Q ready?"

Morgan slipped a stained, green mug under the steaming stream in the carafe bay. "All quantum pairs have undefined, linked, super-symmetrical spin. Q's copasetic. The sensor grid's up and recording." Morgan grinned and peered through tangled dreads. "Sorry I kinda' pissed you off, Doc."

Alan glared. "It isn't you, personally," he lied. "I just don't like taking money from a shady R&D firm that recruits nut cases for research in irrational sciences."

"LURC studies luck. So do you. And the correct term for the mental status of us LURC researchers is 'paradigm free.'"

"I lied. It is you," he said. "You and that coffee seller are wrecking my experiment and wrecking my marriage."

"We are both pretty cute," Morgan said.

Alan gripped the arms of his chair and took a deep breath. "No more practice." He forced himself to speak with academic authority. "Today, we execute Brieanna's special experiment, end her influence. I'm going to pay off LURC at one hundred to one and get rid of you."

"Ouch." The coffee machine dry-sputtered. "Please don't throw me in the briar patch." Morgan laughed.

"Morgan, if you can't be ser—"

"Don't jump me! You're the one obsessing on Brie. You're all caught up in how tomorrows should be. I live where I am and see what I see."

Alan wanted to bash a clipboard into Morgan's I'm a Zen kinda' guy smile. "And your superior, paradigm free sight shows you what?"

"That we're part of the system you want to measure."

"Experimental controls exclude us." Alan turned to his workstation. "Run diagnostics. I want to be ready by six-fifteen."

"Your show, Doc." Morgan handed Alan the green mug, then settled into the chair at his workstation.

The Buddha-boy got that right, Alan thought. My show. After years refining his equations, he had used hundreds of thousands of minutia sensors, seven supercomputers, and a random sample of two thousand commuters to build his model of the effects of human expectations on causal minutia.

Every day for twenty-four months, he used covert observation profiles to identify each subject's optimum daily parking place. His extensive sensor network recorded minute environmental changes as the day's commute unfolded. He plugged the sensor data and the subject's failure rate into his equations.

After weeks crunching numbers, the computers plotted the subjects' belief influence on their success or failure.

Of course, Brieanna never failed.

Her impossible, perfect record destroyed his hypothesis. She had to fail if he were going to measure the influence of her expectations on her outcomes. To force her failure, he needed to manipulate her environment and project outcomes in real-time.

He needed Q's speed and his highly trained, environmental adjustment teams.

He smiled. He'd look great at the podium in Stockholm. He straightened his tie and turned on his radio. "Let's do it," he said.

"I got zeros, Doc," Morgan said. "Q's happy. Are your spooks ready to haunt?"

"They're called adjustment teams."

"Whatever."

Adjustments had to perfectly mimic natural influences. If Brieanna suspected manipulation, her expectations would change, and her influence couldn't be measured. Alan had personally trained the adjustment teams to act without creating suspicion.

Alan put on the dispatcher's headset. "Check one?"

A deep voice answered from the headphones. "Power utilities covered."

"Two?"


"Water and sewer, confirmed."

"Three?" He continued until all teams confirmed readiness.

"For once, Morgan, your coffee is going to be late."

Morgan laughed. "We got no number yet. She's way off the right end of your graph. I'm thinking she's like gravity. Her influence is simultaneous. It's everywhere."

Alan launched his interface software for Q. "You know better, Morgan. Gravity's a spin two, vector gauge bozon. Everything's quantifiable, Doctor Rat Hair."

"Okay, not like gravity, but she's a statistically stable point. Maybe the universe defines variations relative to her. It needs some reference point. Why not her?"

"That statement assumes consciousness on the part of the universe."

"The universe is conscious."

"You can't prove that."

"Are you conscious?"

"That's a pointless, ridiculous question."

"If you're conscious and you're part of the universe, the universe is, by definition, conscious."

"Idiot."

"That's an ad hominem ethical, rhetorical fallacy. Do you have an actual counter argument?"

Alan shook his head. "By the numbers: we block her, do the analysis, and plot her influence. You disappear back into whatever grungy R&D cave spit you out, and I accept the Nobel." Alan poked his finger in the air at Morgan. "You got that, Mr. Paradigm Free?"

Morgan smiled and nodded. "Relax, Doc." Studying his workstation, he said, "I'm on your program. Data feeds are go, and I got numbers for you."

Alan's monitor blossomed with calculations of probabilities for Brieanna's successful arrival.

In his headphones a voice said, "Team three to base."

Alan checked the digital clock on his screen and initialized his log file at 06:22:57:04. "Go ahead, team three."

"Subject passing our checkpoint."

"Status, Morgan?"

"Clocks are synched, sensors go," Morgan said. "She's early. Maybe she knows we're trying to stop her."

Alan ignored him. "Copy, team three. Computing probabilities."

"Like Brie cares," Morgan mumbled. Then, in mock horror, he said, "The big red truck is alive. It's coming for us."

"Shut up, Morgan."

"I hope the men in black can stop it! Oh god!" Morgan's cackle filled the lab.

Alan muted his microphone. "She's moving, Morgan. You don't get paid for color commentary. Monitor Q."

"Q'll answer your questions." Morgan grinned mischievously. "You're sure you're asking the right questions?"

"Just give me simulations and predictions."

"Simulations coming up now," Morgan said.

On Alan's screen, numbers flashed in two columns. Q did its magic. Minute details from all over the city poured into the box: barometric pressure at the airport; pavement temperatures on Burnside and Third; the disposition of the pregnant Dalmatian at the fire station on Northwest 23rd. Three hundred thousand sensors pumped data at light speed, and Q turned it into a mass of possibilities colliding, canceling, and occasionally amplifying one another into statistically significant probabilities. In pico-time, all the canceling and comparing resulted in a single number.

Brieanna Wolfe had an impossible 99.999 percent chance of parking success.

Alan frowned.

"There you go, Herr Doktor. Same as every day for two years," Morgan chided. "Me and Q did our jobs according to spec and protocol. The parking goddess cometh."

Alan examined the column of suggested adjustments for Brie's currently predicted path. He selected a solution and sent a message. "Team seven, release your mice on my mark."

"Affirmative, base. All seven?"

"All seven."

"On your mark."

"Three, two, one, mark."

"Mice away."

* * *

From the dashboard, Valdez played with the swaying gold tassels hanging from the sun visor. A brown mouse ran into the road. Valdez batted at the window. Brie slowed to let the mouse cross. Checking her side mirror as she continued on, she saw the mouse scurry into the azalea bushes of a garden. "That was close, little guy. Look both ways next time."



* * *

On Alan's screen, new numbers appeared. The mice had changed her timing and ruined her probability of success. He turned to Morgan and grinned in triumph. "We did it! She's got less than a one percent chance of hitting her slot on time."

"A little early to call, don't you think?" Morgan said. "I mean, Brie's not even at the end of her street. A lot of stuff can shift the causal matrix—"

"Be as negative as you want. I have my number."

"A number."

"The number. And Morgan?" Alan spun to face his assistant.

"Doc?"

"You did a good job."



"Don't be too nice. You still might need to blame someone."

Alan felt magnanimous. He laughed.

"Really, Doc. I know you don't like it, but I think you should reconsider. We're part of the system. So is Q."

"Q says a forest green Ford Explorer full of kids will arrive for family counseling just before Brieanna."

"Look again, Doc."

Alan turned. The number that had been less than one was rising rapidly.

"Damn!" He tapped his screen like it was an analog gauge and vibration would free its sticky pointer. "Her success probability's rising." Frantic, Alan wheeled on Morgan. "What'd you do?"

Morgan pushed a dreadlock out of his eyes. "Told you you'd need me."

"Check the feeds!"

"Won't help." Morgan let lose a mad scientist's maniacal laugh. "She's the parking goddess of urban legend." He lowered his voice dramatically, lifted his arm, and pointed at Alan. "She's coming for you!"

Alan turned on his assistant, "If you can't be professional, get out!"

Morgan frowned. "Sorry, Doc. Checking feeds." Morgan hovered over Q, touching each cable with ritual precision.

Confused, Alan watched the number continue to rise. He swiveled his chair. "Morgan?"

"Q's happy with the universe." He crossed from Q to his workstation. "So am I, by the way."

"Don't give me attitude, just give me a new simulation."

Alan swiveled back to his screen. He didn't understand what had happened. Q had given them the answer. He released the adjustment. The mice shifted the causal matrix and changed her arrival time. It all worked, but it only worked for a moment.

For the probability of success to rise so fast and so far, her influence would have had to be . . .

No.


Impossible.

That was many orders of magnitude beyond the influence of any other subject.

Brieanna's number passed 80 percent and continued to rise.

* * *


Marguerite, still in lingerie, finished her coffee. She couldn't keep her eyes off the briefcase full of secrets on her kitchen table, nor could she get it open.

God! Even when he was gone, his work made her miserable. Hadn't she had friends at Livermore too? Hadn't she warned him about how he sounded? Did he care? No! He argued funding policy in public and got them exiled. He only cared about being right. She couldn't believe she'd supported him while he wrote those stupid grant proposals. She had thought the obsession would pass, that he'd settle into a teaching job at some community college. How could she have known LURC would be stupid enough to give him money?

He thought she didn't understand his work. She understood. She understood that the probability of getting spontaneity out of Alan Dickson was zero.

Staring at his bag only fueled her anger. It was so damned important, and he'd left it under the table. He'd blame her. He'd say, "You put on that getup and attacked me." Well, screw him. She'd put the case back in the closet. She'd bury it under sweaters and let him think he missed it.

She grabbed the case. Under her assault, the aged handle broke. The case fell to the tile floor. A seam split. Photographs and plane tickets spilled onto the floor.

She stared. The photographs were of a very young, very blond woman. Long, silky hair cascaded over her broad back and teased the curve of her young rear. Her tube top barely covered breasts gravity hadn't touched. The girl couldn't have been more than twenty.

In one picture, she was beside a red truck in a sunny spring yard full of budding rhododendrons. She was bent over picking up a yellow cat. Short shorts rode up her too-smooth backside. In another shot, she was pushing her long hair up over her head and smiling like some vixen from a shampoo commercial.

The ticket jackets showed tanned women in grass skirts undulating under palm trees.

Marg picked up a photo that had landed face down. The blond was sunbathing. Topless!

"Alan Dickson, you son of a bitch!"

Marguerite scooped up the pictures and tickets, dug her trench coat from the closet, wrapped it over her lingerie, and stormed through cool morning air to the curb and her little white Honda hatchback.

* * *


Searching for solutions, Alan organized his thoughts out loud. "I have eighty-seven adjustment teams. The sensors are fine. I designed the experiment myself." He tugged on his starched cuffs. "We're getting good, real-time data."

"That's the problem, Doc," Morgan said. "Q measures here and now. He's doing what you told him, but you think the causal matrix exists in unidirectional, linear time."

"Your point?"

"The time vector goes forward and backward. Your adjustments create a causal ripple, but the universe has already set its own adjustment canceling adjustments in motion; so, the number rises immediately. Your adjustments are readjusted before Q thinks of them."

"The universe can't anticipate complex future potentials."

"Why not? You think you can."

"That's different."

Morgan laughed. "Oh," he said. "That explains everything."

"We have work to do."

"Q, you, Brie, me; we're all inside this universe, not outside watching. Everywhere, every when, and everyone are part of the system."

"I'm going to make several adjustments at once."

"Let it go, Doc. You can't predict the ripples. Don't make things worse."

Alan reached for the microphone toggle.

* * *


A teat-worn beagle and three pups bolted into the street. "Whoa, Big Red!" Brie stomped the brakes to keep from flattening them. A man in a dark trench coat and silvered glasses slipped into the bushes where the dogs had appeared. "Figures," she said to Valdez. "There's a perv in their bushes. I won't run in this park on weekends."

When the last pup was clear, she pulled forward. At the next intersection, the traffic light was out. In fact, as far as she could see down the street, all the traffic lights were out. She checked both ways and ventured across.



A white hatchback zipped in front of her, narrowly missing her bumper.

Big Red lurched. Valdez said, "Mrower."

"I guess some people have very important things to do this morning," she said.

* * *

"Not enough!" Alan pressed loose hair over his bald spot. He tore at his sleeves. The number headed up again. "Get my briefcase! I need my secondary causal relationship tables."



"Where is it, Doc?"

Alan scanned the lab. Cool sweat broke out on his forehead. He remembered breakfast, setting the case beside his chair, Marg throwing herself spread-eagle over the table and saying filthy things. "No," he whispered.

"Where?" Morgan asked.

"I left it home." Alan closed his eyes, tried to visualize the numbers and corresponding actions on the secondary tables.

"We can't just make random adjustments, Doc. The results are unpredictable. Someone might get hurt."

"Most adjustment ripples are self-canceling."

"Most. Not all. Your own protocols say we shut down if something like this happens."

Morgan was right. An adjustment might ripple through the matrix and amplify into a catastrophe. He couldn't risk the damage random manipulations might cause.

Or could he?

He called his teams. "Seven?"

"Monitoring, base. What do you need?"

"Status on the mice."

"She almost hit one. One's in the sewers. Bookstore cat has one. Two disappeared. One went back in the cage. He's eating a leftover pellet. One's under a bush by the curb."

"Kill one."

"Doc!" Morgan protested. "That's just mean. It's not in the protocols. Don't mess with—"

Alan waved Morgan to silence.

"Mouse in the cage is dead," Seven said.

"Bad karma," Morgan said. "Very bad. Wouldn't want to be you when the universe sends out that bill."

Alan muted his microphone and studied the numbers on his screen. Brieanna's probability of success dipped then rose to nearly 100.

"It doesn't make sense," Alan said. "She was past team seven, and the mouse death caused a dip. The ripple of an event that should have been behind her had affected her potential—even if only for a moment."

"Doctor Dickson." The good humor was gone from Morgan's voice. "This whole thing is cruising left of center."

"Whole thing," Alan echoed. In his mind, the universe twisted, dissolved, then rebuilt itself with new clarity. He jumped up and looked out the window. Below, a small group waited for Brieanna's coffee. "Morgan, have you had your coffee?"

"You know I buy from Brie. I can't stomach the camel—"

"Get out!" Righteous, white fire filled Alan's mind. He grabbed Morgan's chair and rolled him toward the door. "Get everyone in this building a cup of coffee."

"Killing mice not enough?" Morgan jumped up and faced Alan. "You want to steal Brie's business?"

"Morgan, you're right. I was inside the box. I missed a control! She isn't isolated."

Morgan squinted from behind his dreads.

"Customers account for the strength of her effect. They expect her to be in that slot at seven-thirty. They amplify her influence. Eliminate them, and she's alone." Alan opened the lab door and pushed him. "Go! Do!"

"The protocols! There's no coffee in the protocols! You can't predict—"

"Giving people free coffee is good karma! Q will record everything. We'll do the analysis after we stop her!" Alan thought he was going to explode. He screamed at Morgan. "Go!"

Morgan headed out.

Alan called teams 85 through 87. "Get coffee! A lot of coffee. Report to the Leeman building. Keep bringing coffee until every person in the building has a cup. Move it!"

All three teams acknowledged with a crisp "Yes, sir!"

* * *


At 7:10, Morgan entered the lab, breathless. He poured a paper cup full of black coffee into Alan's mug. "Last cup," he said. "Everyone has some, and you owe Java-Roast four hundred twenty-two dollars."

Alan stared at his numbers. "Beat that, Brieanna!"

"What?"

"We have a stable outcome. There's an EMT vehicle in her slot. It'll stay for two hours."



"Wanna bet?"

Alan spun in his chair, spilling coffee on Morgan's purple shirt. "Q gives her almost zero chance. Those EMTs are teaching CPR to the web geeks down the hall."

"Fifty bucks and two almond-vanilla lattes."

Alan laughed. "You're on!"

Morgan flipped dreadlocks over his shoulder and smiled.

The smile made Alan nervous. He checked his screen. The number that had been steady at practically 0 was rising. The right side of the decimal was a blur. "How the hell?"

"She's a force of nature, Doc. Measuring her influence is like trying to trap the position of an electron. The harder you try, the crazier things get."

"This isn't a quantum effect. She's an air-headed coffee vendor."

"Not everything makes sense within our limited perspectives." Morgan patted Alan on the back. "Before I learned to surf reality waves, I was like you. I thought I could figure it all out, nail it all down."

"Don't patronize me." Alan spoke in low tones. "Get back on your machine. We need this data point, and by God, I'll have it."

"You won't get what you want. Brie's a spooky constant."

Alan's pulse pounded against his tight tie. What if Morgan was right? He pulled at the knot then checked out the window. The EMT truck was still there. He sighed and sat down. He had a moment before the rising probability would require the EMTs to leave.

He had to get Brie's number. If he didn't, he'd be labeled a failure by every legitimate research facility in the world, he'd spend his life working with idiots like Morgan, and he'd lose Marg.

A chill shook him. He had no choice. He toggled the microphone. "Forty-seven, break the water mains! All teams—"

Morgan leapt from his chair, dove across Alan's workstation, and muted the microphone. "The ripples could screw the whole city. Hell, the whole country! Maybe the world!"

"Get off my desk!"

Morgan planted himself between Alan and the console. "If she's a constant, the ripples won't touch her, but they have to go somewhere. You don't know what'll happen."

"Get out of my way!" Alan tried to push Morgan aside, but the younger man was too strong. "Chill, Doc. She's unstoppable. She's a statistical superhero."

"You're insane!" Alan pushed hard, but Morgan held fast. Alan collapsed back into his chair, suddenly regretting years of letting Marg go to the gym alone.

Morgan swiveled Alan away from his workstation. "Hear me out, Doc."

"You're fired."

"You proved she's a negative result. She's an anomaly. Log it and let it go."

"My contract says I complete the model or pay back the funding."

"You think I'd work for a company that allowed indentured servitude? That service clause only makes sure you believe completely in what you're doing. You fulfilled the contract. LURC has more useful data than they dreamed possible."

Alan considered. Morgan might believe what he was saying. He seemed sincere. But he was a LURC employee.

Alan relaxed his shoulders and dropped his hands to his lap. "Of course," he said quietly. "You're right." He looked up. "I'm okay. Let me up."

Morgan stepped back. Alan stood, put a hand on Morgan's shoulder, and said, "Fifty and two lattes."

Confused, Morgan stared.

"The bet," Alan said, taking Morgan's elbow and leading him to the door. "One outlier doesn't invalidate the study." Alan unbolted and opened the door. He smiled as they passed into the hallway. "I suppose," he said. The door closed behind them. "We'll have to accept the Nobel together."

Morgan laughed. "No way, Doc. I hate flying."

Alan chuckled and patted his pants pockets. "My wallet," he said. "I'll get my coat."

Alan opened the door, stepped into the lab, slammed the door, and threw the bolt.

"Doc!" Morgan screamed from the hallway. "No!"

Alan called back. "I'm not risking my future on a LURC employee's word that their lawyers are ethical."

Morgan's muffled words came through the door. "She's a stable statistical anomaly in chaos. You can get the Nobel for just discovering her, but you can't stop her. Don't screw yourself. Don't hurt her!" Morgan pounded on the door. "Doc! Please! Don't hurt her!"

Alan went to his workstation and called his teams. "Eleven, light the matches. Twelve, open the hoses. Thirteen, hit . . ." He went through his list like a machine. Each adjustment forced the probability closer to zero.

Then, after each drop, no matter how deep, the number rose.

At 7:25, he realized he had to drive the probability so low it couldn't rise above one before 7:30. Frantically, he called out adjustments.

Morgan pounded on the door.

* * *


Brie swerved, just missing a shuffling old woman in a pink running suit. In the back of the truck, Bessie spit out a plastic jug of milk. It split. Brie twisted in her seat to look. Valdez headed for the treat. Brie turned back to the street. A fireman pulled a hose across the road toward a burning boat and trailer. She stomped both feet down on the brake pedal.

Valdez meowed with pleasure from the rear of the truck.

Brie looked away from the flaming boat in time to see a landslide sweep across the road in the block ahead. Someone's split-level ranch rode the moving earth like a drunken cowboy on a demon bronco.

From Big Red to the slide, brake lights flashed. Before blocked traffic locked her in, she backed up and headed down a side street. A block later, a huge sinkhole stopped her. A broken main gushed water from the hole. Brie could just make out the wrecked shape of a little white hatchback under the umbrella of spray. A man with a cell phone to his ear stood near the hole.

Brie pulled completely off the road onto a dirt lane. Valdez jumped into her lap and licked milk from his paws. "I hope everyone's okay," she said. As though he heard her, the man pointed at his phone and waved her off with a thumbs up.

"Sweet goddess, Valdez," she said. "The whole city's having troubles. We need to get our smiles out there." Brie looked around. The dirt lane disappeared into the shadows of a blooming cherry orchard. She inhaled fragrant air and smiled. "I know this place. This is Ida Chapman's orchard. I helped her pick during high school." She laughed, put Big Red in gear, and headed for the equipment exit at the far side of the familiar maze of pink trees and dirt lanes. "Valdez," she said, "Ida's helping us deliver smiles. Tonight, we burn a candle for her."

With a little bouncing and jostling and a few quick swerves, she and Valdez managed to reach the Leeman building. There, a crew of hard-faced street workers cordoned off her normal approach. She headed around the block to enter the lot from the other side.

* * *

Alan yelled, "More, dammit!"



Only static responded. He'd used all his adjustments. Brie's number was rising fast. He checked the window.

To his horror, two uniformed EMTs ran from the building and jumped in their truck. Lights flashed. The siren wailed, and the truck was gone.

Alan checked his screen. When Brie's number hit 99, he screamed, grabbed his keys, and sprinted for the door. He threw the bolt, ripped open the door and rammed into Morgan. "Look out!"

"Stop!" Morgan grabbed for him. "Doc, let her go! We're part of this."

Alan twisted away and ran down the stairs. Side cramped and short of breath, Alan hit the lot running. In spite of four hundred dollars worth of coffee, a small crowd waited for Brie's truck. He shoved past them, glancing in the direction of their glassy stares. The red truck was heading for the lot entrance.

Alan ran to his car, jumped in, fired it up, and raced toward Brie's spot. The crowd scattered. Alan skidded into the parking space.

Morgan stood at his front bumper, shaking his head, dreadlocks dusting back and forth across his shoulders.

In his rearview mirror, Alan saw the ridiculous red truck with a black nose slowing to enter the lot. He could see the ditzy smile on Brieanna's oblivious face.

Morgan came around to the driver's window. Alan rolled it down.

Morgan shook his head. "You better move, Doc."

"I did it!" Alan said triumphantly. He held up his wrist to show Morgan his watch. "7:29! Q has enough data. It's not precise, but an approximation is better than nothing."

"I don't know what—"

"Give it up, Rasta-boy! I win!"

"Win what?"

"I'm going back to Livermore!" Alan's laugh was shrill and giddy. "I'm calling Marg, taking her to dinner, and flying to Kauai." He reached for the phone on his dash.

It rang.


"Don't answer it," Morgan said.

Alan's hand shook. He lifted the receiver.

A woman's voice said, "Alan?"

"Marg?" He smiled and winked at Morgan. "I was about to call you."

"I've been in an accident."

His grip tightened on the phone. "Where are you? Are you all right?"

"I'm at the airport. I wanted to say goodbye."

"I don't understand."

"A water main broke. I drove into a huge hole. I had the pictures of your lover. I didn't have time to change. I was soaked. I was coming—"

"My what?"

"I didn't understand until I met Brandon."

"Who?"


"Brandon Wolfe, my EMT. He pulled me out of the car. He gave me his fire coat and a cup of coffee. His little sister makes the best coffee."

"There was a fire?"

"I can't help it. I love him. I suppose it's like you and your bimbo. Anyway, fair is fair. We're using your tickets. Got an earlier flight. We leave in a half hour."

"You what?"

"It's so romantic! He quit his job to go. He's so spontaneous, so passionate. He just seems to move with the flow of things." She paused. Wet sounds came from the phone. Then, breathless, she said, "It didn't seem right to not say goodbye. No hard feelings, Alan. I really do hope you and your . . . your whatever, are happy."

Alan's vision darkened at the edges. The phone was cold in his hand. "Marg," he whispered. "You don't understand."

"We tried, Alan. This is for the best. We're both free. Aloha." The line went dead.

Thirty minutes. He could make it. He dropped the phone, burned rubber in reverse, then floored it for the street. At 7:29 and thirty seconds, he passed a lumbering, red blur and raced away toward the airport.

* * *


At Big Red's window, Morgan stroked Valdez's neck while Brie steamed milk, her smiling, blue eyes twinkling with natural magic.

The steamer fell silent and she handed him his latte.

"Thanks," he said.

She slipped her hair back over her shoulder then held up a chocolate-covered coffee bean. "Free for my favorite regular, Morgan. You always smile, and you never miss a day."

"You're a constant in my life too, Brie." Suddenly shy, he asked, "Brie?"

"No bean?"

Morgan took a deep breath. The mingling scents of eucalyptus incense, coffee, and cherry blossoms braced him. "A friend's playing banjo at a club downtown. I wondered—"

"Of course," she said. "But I have to be home by ten. A lot depends on me getting up early."

"Yeah, I know." Morgan opened his mouth. Brie laughed and put the bean gently on his tongue.

* * *

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