In a residential neighborhood west of Syracuse, New York, a fifteen-year-old Kia pulled into a driveway. It had no self-driving capacity, wasn’t a hybrid, was missing two hubcaps and had one side mirror held on with duct tape. Still, it had managed the five-and-a-half-hour drive from Boston, which was all its owner had asked of it.
A small, skinny young woman in jeans and a knobbly sweater stepped out of the car. Her face was pale and girlish, with thick glasses and no makeup. Her hair was a shade somewhere between ash-blond and mouse-brown, and was held in a glossy ponytail that flowed down to just past the small of her back.
She pulled two suitcases from the front passenger seat and gritted her teeth as she hauled them to the door, the loose heel on her right sneaker slapping against the bottom of her foot with every step. Between them, the suitcases weighed about half what she did.
Her name was Sandra Symcox. Nine years ago, she'd been accepted to college at the age of fourteen with great fanfare and a good deal of sponsorship. Her IQ test results, the tutoring she’d received, her calculus scores and her “intuitive grasp of chemistry” had been the stuff of local news posts. So off she had gone, visions of technological breakthroughs and Nobel Prizes dancing in her head.
She had just turned 23. Her bank account was a four-digit number, and two of those digits were on the wrong side of the decimal point. She was here because she had nowhere else to go. (To be fair, she did have a few possible breakthroughs rattling around in her skull, but any one of them would have needed about a hundred million dollars’ worth of research to even find out if they were practical. And, after her experience with Verdissimus, she was a little reluctant to take on another business partner.)
A tall, black-haired woman of about thirty answered the door. (Marty had said he’d be home by now, but it looked like he was as reliable as ever.)
“Hi,” said Sandy.
“You must be Sandy,” said Nora with a smile that didn’t quite reach her eyes. Or her cheeks. Or her lips. Actually it wasn’t so much a smile as an expression of undisguised loathing and hostility.
“Mm-hm,” said Sandy with a smile that was as authentic as she could force it to look. “You’re Nora, right?” She was tempted to say You’re Kendra, right? or You’re Michelle, right?, those being the names of two of her father’s ex-wives. But she decided that this time she’d try the diplomatic approach before she got unpleasant.
“Marty said I should expect you.”
“He did say I could stay.” Sandy spent two and a half seconds on the doorstep waiting for Nora to suddenly sprout a hospitality, then gave up and pushed past her into the living room. She dropped the suitcases on the floor and collapsed on the couch. She took off her sweater and mopped her forehead with it.
Sandy took a moment to look at the sweater. She’d knitted it herself a few years ago, after completing a course in advanced topological mathematics. She’d done it more as an intellectual exercise than anything else, but it did keep her warm. It consisted of two layers — a charcoal-gray layer on top and a mauve layer underneath — the strands of which were intertwined together in hundreds of complex little knots. Like the one-hoss shay in the old poem, it might suddenly collapse into a cloud of dust one day a hundred years from now, but it would never, ever unravel. It was a good sweater, and she was proud to have made it… but Sandy doubted she could make a living off knitting.
She looked around the room. It was plain her father was getting by financially. The furniture might not match, but everything was clean and in good shape… unlike the apartment she’d had to vacate, which had been furnished in Early Modern Curbside. There was a nice big screen, currently turned to a news channel. The anchor was talking about the 9/11 anniversary and various commemorations of the attacks. A message scrolling across the bottom said that according to scientists, there was no more sea ice in the Arctic Ocean. Yet another thing wrong with the world.
“How long do you plan on staying?” said Nora in what she probably thought was a diplomatic tone.
“I don’t really have plans right now.”
“I’m having a baby.”
“I heard. Congratulations.”
“It’s due in six months.”
“We’ll be turning the guest bedroom into the baby’s room.”
“Not a problem. I can sleep on the couch.”
Nora put her hands on her hips. “To be perfectly frank,” she said, sounding more and more irritated, “I would expect you to have found other living arrangements by then.”
To be equally frank, you’re Martin’s fifth wife. So far. I wouldn’t bet on YOU being here six months from now. “I hope so. We’ll just have to see.”
Nora glowered at her, then strode into the kitchen.
Several minutes later, Sandy heard a car pulling into the driveway. She considered greeting her father at the door and throwing her arms around him, then decided that would be too obviously fake.
The last time she’d seen Martin Clearwater had been at Mom’s funeral, six years ago. He hadn’t changed much since then — he was in his late forties and still looked about thirty-five. If there was more gray in his blond hair, it was hard to see. He was a short man, not quite as tall as Nora.
“Sandy,” he said.
For a long moment, they just stood there and looked at each other. Then Martin smiled and spread his arms. Sandy hugged him, slipping her arms under his sport coat. The corner of her glasses pressed against the edge of his jaw.
“You look just the same,” he said. To Sandy, this felt less like a compliment than a reminder that her body had gotten about a quarter of the way through puberty and then given up, but it was a compliment she could return honestly.
“Sandy, this is my wife, Nora,” he said.
“We’ve met,” said Sandy, smiling at Nora like they'd hit it off at first sight. She’d discovered over the past few years that even social skills could be learned by rote if you worked at it. Right now she calculated that if she acted like she and Nora were getting along famously, Nora would lose a lot of points if she showed any sign of hostility.
A few minutes later, she was sitting on the couch again. Martin was next to her. The conversation had turned, inevitably, to Verdissimus.
“I’m sure it wasn’t anything you did,” he said.
“You’re right — it wasn’t. One or two of my friends who shall remain nameless tried to get around the patent laws for some of the tools we were using. I told them that was gonna bite us in the ass.”
Martin nodded, then put a hand on her arm.
“Let me ask you something,” he said. “When was the last time you really, completely failed at something? Until this year, I mean?”
Sandy had to think for a few moments. It wasn’t so much that she hadn’t had failures, it was that most of them had been in the area of romance or interpersonal relations. Come to think of it, the failure at Verdissimus could be thought of that way. If you knew your friends and co-workers in a startup were making a bad move, didn’t you owe it to whatever you were trying to accomplish to try harder to talk them out of it?
“That long silence kind of says it all,” he said. “Everybody does it sometimes. God knows I’ve done it often enough.”
Sandy nodded. She’d known she wasn’t going to succeed at everything, but… this was not supposed to have been the failure. We were going to do great things. We were going to change the world.
“You are so incredibly young,” he said. “You’ve already accomplished more than most people, and you’ve still got practically your whole life ahead of you.”
Sandy nodded again.
“Don’t give up.”
“Dad, I’m not contemplating suicide, if that’s what you mean. I’m just… tired and I need a little break. That’s all.”
“I understand.” He paused. “How are things between you and — what’s his name — Trevor?”
Sandy winced. Another subject she didn’t want to discuss.
“We broke up,” she said.
“Sorry to hear that. What happened?”
“Stop and think, Dad. How much do you actually want to know about my sex life?”
“Not much,” he said. “I guess it’s enough to know you have one.”
Yes, it is something of a minor miracle, isn’t it? I have the body of an anorexic thirteen-year-old. I keep hearing how this is what our culture thinks is beautiful, but every guy I meet treats me like his little sister.
Wait, not every guy. There is a certain kind of guy who thinks I’m one smokin’ hot piece of ass. Can you guess what kind? Want to know how much fun they are to date?
Martin rested a hand on her shoulders. “You know, you really are an extraordinary human being,” he said. “I hate myself for not having been there for you as a child. I really missed out on a lot. I just…” He shook his head. “Twenty years ago I was a different person. A complete manchild. I wasn’t ready to be a dad. I couldn’t handle the responsibility.”
I, I, I, I, I, thought Sandy.
“Anyway, I’m ready now,” he said. “If you need a father, I’m here.”
Dad, that ship has sailed. It is far beyond the horizon. But he was the only parent she had left now. He wants a second chance. You need a place to crash. This will work if you let it. Don’t let your drama get in the way. She smiled at him.
“Do you have a basement?” she said.
“We can keep you in the spare room.”
“That’s not what I meant. There’s a machine in the trunk of my car and I’d like to set it up somewhere it won’t get in anybody’s way.”
“What is it?”
“Just a little something I slapped together while I was working for Verdissimus. Don’t worry — my contract let me keep the patent myself.”
“What’s it do?”
“It turns raw carbon into some basic diamondoid materials. It’s kind of limited in what it can do, but it’s more energy-efficient than other machines that do the same thing.”
“Are you going to sell it?”
“I don’t even know if there’s a market for it. I want to try and make some money with it myself before I do anything else.”
“A startup in my garage,” said Marty. “I like the idea.”
“We can’t afford to support this,” said Nora.
“I’m not asking you to,” said Sandy. “I know a good crowdfunding site.” She took off her shoes and spent a moment fingering the loose sole.
“Where do you keep the epoxy?” she said.