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Annabel Schemeand theAdventure of the New Golden Gate

Robin Sloan

Note to Readers

This story was ini­tially pub­lished as a daily ser­ial in two Bay Area news­pa­pers, the Mercury News and East Bay Times, in 2020. It ran from June 7 to June 21. The whole thing was writ­ten in the two weeks prior: a stressful, excit­ing rush. All in all, it was one of the great sur­prises and delights of my writ­ing career so far.

I wrote the story, but its true insti­ga­tor was Jackie Bur­rell at the Bay Area News Group. Daily ser­ialization was her idea, and her thought­ful edits are evi­dent in every chapter. I’m grate­ful for her inge­nu­ity and skill.

This story wears its ori­gin on its sleeve. Initially, I had edited out each chapter’s lit­tle intro­duc­tory line, intended to reori­ent the daily news­pa­per reader to the action. Read­ing it straight through, they’re repet­i­tive and a bit “duh.” But, after they were gone, I discovered that I missed them! Their dorky energy; the breathless, retro sense of “last week on Annabel Scheme!”

Part of the assign­ment I set for myself was to pro­duce a work of ridicu­lously regional fiction. Jackie’s invi­ta­tion arrived in the early days of the pandemic, and there was some­thing pow­er­fully appeal­ing about writ­ing a story not only about but for this very spe­cific place that is my home. To be honest, I do worry that this fea­ture makes the story less acces­si­ble and/or inter­est­ing to read­ers with no knowl­edge of the Bay Area … but, there’s only one way to find out! It goes with­out say­ing that I have stood in every spot and driven every road men­tioned in these pages.

This adven­ture is nei­ther sequel nor pre­quel to the ori­ginal Annabel Scheme novella pub­lished in 2009. It is instead … another possibility. Scheme fans will under­stand.

Robin Sloan
Rotten City
July 2020

Week 1

The Woman Who Vanished

The bur­rito can­nons blared at noon, and into the sky above the city a fusil­lade of foil tubes went sail­ing: carnitas, carne asada, veg­gie supreme. They traced high glint­ing parabolas, hang­ing per­fectly still at the apex, then accel­er­at­ing earth­ward until their napkin-parachutes deployed. Pedes­tri­ans turned, arms outstretched. Cyclists pulled over; the mov­ing catch, though tempting, was nearly impos­si­ble.

In the old days, you’d use the phone, call in your order like an artillery scout, shout­ing your cross streets and hop­ing for the best. But now the order­ing and tar­get­ing is all done with soft­ware, the bur­ritos guided by minis­cule GPS chips. If you return one to the taque­ria they give you a free agua fresca.

Every day, Stella Pajunas caught her lunch on the sidewalk in front of Alta Bay City Devel­op­ment head­quar­ters. As the chief exec­u­tive of the ABCD, she didn’t have to catch it her­self; she could have sent an under­ling scur­ry­ing to the side­walk. But Stella Paju­nas was smart. Her daily appear­ance marked her as a woman of the peo­ple.

On a sunny Tues­day in June, Stella Paju­nas missed her bur­rito. This wouldn’t have been a prob­lem except that mul­ti­ple pedes­trian onlook­ers watched her step onto the side­walk, reach upward, and van­ish. Bur­rito, splat.

Dramatic enough way for a mys­tery to begin.

My name is Will Portacio. I have been an archivist, a librarian, and a Lyft driver. Until recently, I was the assis­tant to the Bay Area’s great­est detective. I’m pub­lish­ing this now because of what hap­pened to Stella Paju­nas, and the detec­tive, and all of us.

Annabel Scheme kept an office in Rotten City. The locals love to call it that, insisting endlessly on their neighborhood’s sinister character; in fact, it’s utterly sweet, a mix of old houses and new condos, espresso bars and metalworking shops, all of it softened by trees: plum and palm and ginkgo. Scheme’s office occupied the top floor of a narrow brick building that also housed a rare book dealer, a biotech consultancy, and a website that reviewed electric bicycles. On the ground floor, there was a jam factory. I couldn’t quite see the railroad tracks from my desk, but when the high-speed to Fresno shot past, it made a little sonic boom that rattled the windows.

Scheme had con­ducted inves­ti­ga­tions for the City of San Fran­cisco and the Port of Oak­land; for Google and Drago­man; for Chevron and Chez Panisse. Her spe­cialty was the anomalous, the irrational. When some­thing seemed like it must be a ghost, but surely it wasn’t, you called Annabel Scheme.

It was only ever some­times a ghost.

The ABCD was a steady client, thanks to its secu­rity chief, whose name was Arbusto Slab. It was Slab who stood now in Scheme’s office, wide shoul­dered and wide hipped, impres­sively quadrilateral. It was Slab who had just described to us his boss’s strange fate.

He squinted at me, jabbed a fin­ger. “Who’s the nerd?”

“I am the nerd,” Scheme replied coolly. “My very hip part­ner is a respected ana­lyst of the dig­i­tal and the occult.”

No one truly hip has ever been called hip, but I appreciated the ges­ture.

Arbusto Slab gazed at me and, what­ever eval­u­a­tion he made, he men­tally crum­pled it up and threw it in a waste­bas­ket. He looked back at Scheme and, I suspect, never thought of me again.

“Well, anyway, she’s been gone a whole day now, or near enough, and the board of direc­tors … they are not calm peo­ple, Scheme. Not calm at all. It’s a big operation, the ABCD. I really think — 

“I’ll take the case,” Scheme said. “We’ll meet you on the bay.”

Scheme’s elec­tric pickup was parked across the street. Today, the jam fac­tory was sim­mer­ing 300 pounds of seascape strawberries; the air was thick with them. One of the website’s edi­tors was ped­al­ing a cargo bike up and down the block. Rot­ten City.

Scheme took us blast­ing south on Inter­state 1080, win­dows down, her red curls whip­ping in the wind. The big cities of the bay flashed by on either side: busy Moletown, glit­ter­ing San Leandro, Aspara­gus Flats with its high-rise greenhouses.

I won­dered if Scheme had worked up any the­o­ries.

“Sure. Most likely expla­na­tion is, Stella Paju­nas was never real to start with. Ecto­plas­mic projection. Mass hallucination, maybe.”

Scheme was the­o­riz­ing that the ABCD — really, the whole Bay Area — had been man­aged for ten years by a mass hallucination?

“It would explain some things, wouldn’t it?”

We crossed into the sprawl of Per­alta City. On the other side of 1080 was the Island of the Cats, which was nei­ther an island nor home to any spe­cial con­cen­tra­tion of cats.

Scheme was still the­o­riz­ing. “It mat­ters how she dis­ap­peared. If there was a flash of light, that’s one thing. Smell of brimstone, totally dif­fer­ent thing. I hope she didn’t just van­ish between frames.”

Between frames?

“Here one mil­lisec­ond, gone the next. The best expla­na­tion for that kind of phe­nom­enon is that we’re living in a computer simulation, and I am going to be pissed if we’re liv­ing in a com­puter simulation.”

Scheme’s phone rang, war­bling the theme to Vertigo.

“Slab,” she said into the air. “We’re on our way.”

The secu­rity chief’s voice rum­bled in the pickup’s speakers. “Yeah, well. She’s back.”

“Paju­nas? How?”

“No idea, but she’s scream­ing a lot.” In the background, we heard a shriek. “Stuff about the bay. How they didn’t fill it. I don’t know. What did she just say, Lucy?” A voice replied. “Okay, yeah. She just said, it was all a mis­take and now — yeah, she’s crying. Anyway. I still think you should come.”

Dramatic enough way for a mys­tery to begin.

Scheme pushed the pickup even faster, the whole boil­ing megac­ity of the bay a blur on either side of us, and I won­dered where Stella Paju­nas had been for the last twenty-four hours. What she’d seen.

“Call in some bur­ritos, will you?” Scheme said. “We’ll catch them when we get there.”

As Easy As ABCD

I rode in an ele­va­tor with the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive to meet the woman who had van­ished.

The ele­va­tor whis­pered up through the gleam­ing head­quar­ters of Alta Bay City Devel­op­ment, built at the mid­point of the South Bar­rier that stretched between Hay­ward and San Mateo.

In the ele­va­tor, the ABCD’s secu­rity chief Arbusto Slab pre­pared us: “She popped back in the same spot where she dis­ap­peared. Freak­ing out. We hus­tled her upstairs, and after that, she got it together fast. Too fast, maybe. Anyway. Some mem­bers of the board of direc­tors have, uh, com­mu­ni­cated to me, in a manner of speaking, that they are, in a man­ner of speaking, curious to know about the chief exec­u­tive’s whereabouts … dur­ing … you get it.”

Annabel Scheme got it. It was an anomaly. It was her spe­cialty.

Stella Paju­nas, de facto mayor of the whole Bay Area, had recov­ered com­pletely from her lapse in exis­tence. She received us in her office on the build­ing’s top floor, where cur­tains of glass offered the full panorama. To the south, I saw the reser­voir sparkling all the way to Salt Town and San Jose. To the north was the ABCD’s creation: all the bright, bustling cities that rose where a bay had been.

“Thank you, Mx. Scheme, but your ser­vices are not required,” she said with cool gravity. “I had a strange day.”

“Seems more like you missed a strange day,” said Scheme.

Her bur­rito, after all, had gone splat.

“Maybe so. As such, I am now, as you can imagine, inex­press­ibly behind. So, I must get to it! We’ll reim­burse you for your mileage. Now — 

“When you came back,” Scheme inter­rupted. “You were shout­ing. Do you remem­ber what you said? Some­thing about how they didn’t fill the bay. Some kind of mis­take?”

“I fell, Mx. Scheme. Bur­rito to the head. Gave me a lit­tle knock.”

“Mx. Paju­nas, you van­ished.”

“I was embarrassed. I scut­tled away. Ha, ha!” She pro­nounced the “ha”s individually, and with zero mirth. She was done with us.

Arbusto Slab walked us out of the build­ing. On the side­walk, the secu­rity chief’s voice was low when he said, “I guess we’re going free­lance with this one, Scheme.”

“Not the first time,” she replied.

“You know the deal. You’ll get paid, but it’ll take a year, and the check will come from the Cal­i­for­nia Fish Patrol.”

“I love the Fish Patrol.”

Slab’s voice dropped into a con­spir­a­to­r­ial whisper. “What do you think? Alien imposter?”

“She’s prob­a­bly not an alien.”

“Some kinda ghost thing?”

“A ghost thing,” Scheme said, “is always a possibility.”

In the pickup, I expected her to take us back up Inter­state 1080, back to the office in Rot­ten City where she would sit and brood. That was usu­ally the next step in a case like this. Instead, she cut east, and soon we were speed­ing through Fremont, mak­ing for Niles Canyon Road.

I had no idea where we were going.

The win­dows were down and Scheme’s hair was whip­ping around, a tan­gled red banner. She raised her voice above the roar of the road. “Here’s the thing. Paju­nas van­ishes, she reap­pears. Maybe that hap­pens just this once, just to her. Fine. But maybe it’s hap­pened before, to other people. Maybe those other peo­ple weren’t so impor­tant.” She paused. “Not every­body gets missed the mil­lisec­ond they disappear.”

That was an inter­est­ing and very Scheme-like theory. But how could we pos­si­bly deter­mine who else in the world might have blinked out of exis­tence and come back? Would we send an email survey?

“Who else in the world? No idea. But who else in the bay … oh, Mx. Portacio. Didn’t you know? The bay has eyes.”

The pickup careened through the dips and folds of the road, cross­ing back and forth across the creek that had cut the canyon. Scheme took this road often, even though it was absolutely never the fastest way to get anywhere.

“Will, I forget some­times you haven’t been with me from the begin­ning. You don’t know every­one I know.”

In fact, I’d only been with Scheme a year. It had been a tur­bu­lent one. We’d solved the puz­zle of the encrypted orchard in Gilroy, chased away the ghost in Google’s data cen­ter. Scheme had only been mor­tally wounded once.

“It’s the 21st century,” Scheme said. “If some­thing hap­pens in the Bay Area, it gets recorded. Will, I’m tak­ing you to meet the man who sees it all.”

The Painter’s Algorithm

Under a clear blue sky, the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive and I raced to meet the man who saw every­thing.

Why? Stella Paju­nas, the all-pow­er­ful exec­u­tive of Alta Bay City Devel­op­ment, had van­ished on the side­walk, then reap­peared a day later, and now claimed noth­ing had hap­pened. Her secu­rity chief had secretly directed Annabel Scheme to inves­ti­gate.

Rhinesville, Cal­i­for­nia was a cow­boy town buck­led into the shadow of Mount Diablo. It had a cen­tral square and a cus­tom type­face. It was nau­se­at­ingly cute, and I immediately wanted to live there.

Scheme brought the pickup to a clat­ter­ing halt just out­side of town in front of a broad-faced barn. Usually, our des­ti­na­tions were creepy ware­houses or creepy sci­ence labs or creepy boats anchored in creepy har­bors on the Men­do­cino coast. This was just a barn. In Rhinesville.

Scheme jabbed a finger and I followed it to see the orange-topped plastic pole poking out of the dirt near the road. “You want the real map of the world, Will, look down. Ask yourself, why does an old barn need gigabit internet?” We didn’t even have gigabit internet in Rotten City yet.

The mas­ter of the barn was a man named Lazar Lobo. Scheme intro­duced him as a painter, but that wasn’t necessary, because he was osten­ta­tiously A Painter, his jeans flecked with color and his cre­ations arrayed in the cav­ernous space behind him.

“Annabel,” he said smoothly. “What a nice surprise.” His voice was rich and resonant. He wore an art­ful stubble. He prob­a­bly owned a winery.

“Lazar, this is my partner, Will Portacio.” Scheme always said part­ner when she could have said assis­tant; it was one of my favorite things about her. “We’re here about a case.”

The barn was stuffed with can­vases so enor­mous they brushed the rafters. The paint­ings depicted ghostly fig­ures caught mid-ges­ture. Here, a man look­ing over his shoul­der, inde­ci­sion palpable; there, a woman leap­ing neatly over a puddle. Small moments made mean­ing­ful by the work’s mon­u­men­tal scale.

Lobo took a step towards the near­est canvas. “Do you want to see my newest — 

“No,” Scheme said flatly. “I need your cam­eras.”

“You know my rules, Annabel. I don’t do surveillance.”

Scheme turned to me. “Lazar mon­i­tors secu­rity cam­eras all over the bay. Continuously. Hun­dreds of them.”

“Thousands,” the painter clarified.

“He has the skills of a hacker, but the soul of an artist.”

“I just sold a paint­ing to the deYoung,” he said. “And I don’t do surveillance.”

“Here’s a loop­hole for you, Lazar. I’m not looking for a person; I’m look­ing for the absence of a per­son. You don’t have a prob­lem show­ing me an empty side­walk, do you?”

Lobo took a moment to decrypt that question. Reasonable.

“Besides,” Scheme said, “you owe me a favor.”

I fol­lowed the detec­tive and the painter to the back of the barn, where a rack of com­puters sat whirring beneath the hay loft, and a bank of mon­i­tors flut­tered through an end­less flip-book of images snatched from street cor­ners and park­ing lots, bank lob­bies and dispensary lines.

I looked back at the can­vases. Suddenly, the grain of secu­rity cam­era footage — the blotch, the gloom — was unmistakable. The cam­eras were Lazar Lobo’s muses.

“Lazar doesn’t review all the footage himself,” Scheme explained. “Impos­si­ble. Instead, he pro­grams his assis­tants here”—she pat­ted one of the com­puters — “to iden­tify inter­est­ing compositions, which he then copies.”

“The Cartier-Bresson algo­rithm,” Lobo sniffed, “is only the begin­ning of my process.”

Explaining the case to him, Scheme sketched out an algo­rithm of her own. She wanted to know where in the Bay Area, in the last six months, a fig­ure had dis­ap­peared sud­denly — there one frame, gone the next — and then reap­peared in the same spot approx­i­mately one day later.

“That does hap­pen some­times,” Lobo said. “Usually it’s a glitch in the cam­era.”

“I’m look­ing for a glitch in real­ity. Come on, Lazar. Find it for me.”

He sat down in front of the mon­i­tors, Scheme lean­ing in beside him. I wandered back to the enor­mous can­vases. One of Lobo’s paint­ings cap­tured two men embracing on a street corner — no, not just embrac­ing: cling­ing together, like they would never see each other again. Another showed a woman at an ATM, her face crum­pled in utter defeat.

And then I saw Scheme. Even through the haze of the secu­rity camera, which Lazar Lobo’s brush repro­duced so faithfully, it was unques­tion­ably her. And, unlike the painter’s other subjects, caught unsus­pect­ing in his voyeur’s gaze, in this paint­ing, Annabel Scheme stared straight back at the cam­era.

Had this been their introduction?

“GOT YOU!” Scheme shouted from the computers. “Will! Come look at this.” One of Lobo’s monitors showed an empty sidewalk. A young woman appeared; gone one frame, there the next. A moment later, the sound followed: a quiet pop. The woman stood absolutely still. She carried a boxy, fashionable bag. When she took her first step, she did so with the matter-of-factness of someone exiting an elevator.

“I want to paint her,” Lazar murmured.

“So, that’s the reappear­ance. Let’s find out when she dis­ap­peared,” Scheme said. Lobo scrubbed the video back and back and back, pedes­trians zip­ping up the side­walk like slot cars. An hour became a day became a week. There was no sign of her.

“Oh,” Scheme said.

How long had the woman with the bag been miss­ing?

“Wrong question,” Scheme said. “We didn’t see someone return. We saw some­one arrive. Lazar, when did this hap­pen?”

Lobo scru­ti­nized the image. “Yesterday. About … 20 hours ago. This cam­era is in Berke­ley.”

Scheme’s nos­trils flared.

Beware, world, the flar­ing nos­trils of Annabel Scheme.

She was in motion, hurtling through the barn, framed for a moment by the giant paint­ing of her­self, bound for her pickup parked out­side, and she was call­ing back, “Come on, Will! Thank you, Lazar! Come on, Will!”

Three Coffees

The Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive staked out the side­walk in front of the butcher shop in Berke­ley. Twenty-four hours earlier, a woman had appeared on this spot — just appeared, with a quiet pop — then strode away con­fi­dently. Now, Annabel Scheme was bent on track­ing her down.

In fact, it was me stak­ing out the side­walk, while Scheme got lunch from the worker-owned bak­ery fur­ther up the street. She returned, red curls shin­ing in the sunlight, car­ry­ing a plate of pizza (two slices, two slivers) and a card­board car­rier stocked with three cof­fees.

“Mushroom with lemon oil for me,” she announced. “And for you, Mx. Portacio … mush­room with lemon oil. They only make the one kind.”

I ate my slice. The mush­room was savory; the lemon oil was tangy; the worker equity was delicious. I won­dered how Scheme and I were going to find our quarry.

“Stella Paju­nas dis­ap­peared and reap­peared in the same spot exactly,” Scheme said. “So let’s assume this woman will do the same thing. Every­thing has rules. Physics has rules. Even magic has rules.”

Scheme had already searched the side­walk for cir­cles of salt or chalk and found noth­ing. Sci­ence, then.

We fin­ished our pizza slices and waited. Scheme had warned me about this, when I applied to be her assis­tant. The work, she said, was either rock­et­ing at 90 m.p.h. or stand­ing in place. “In my experience,” she had reported, “a suc­cess­ful inves­ti­ga­tion is five percent being smart, five percent cool gad­gets, and 90 per­cent cor­rect butt placement.”

I sent my gaze rov­ing for the secu­rity cam­era through which we’d first seen this spot. When I found it, perched on the roof of the Whole Foods, I waved. Maybe Lazar Lobo would paint my portrait.

My cor­rectly-placed butt was start­ing to hurt when Scheme elbowed me. “Here she comes.”

Striding up the side­walk with the same cool pre­ci­sion we’d seen on the secu­rity cam­era was the woman who had appeared out of nowhere. She car­ried a boxy, fash­ion­able bag, and I saw the glint of a watch on one wrist. To my brain, she looked like a nor­mal Berke­ley pedes­trian, but to my armpits, she must have looked terrifying, because they were sud­denly soaked. There was a small but nonzero chance this fig­ure was a ghost, or a demon, or a robot sent back in time to kill some­one.

The woman noticed us, and Scheme noticed her noticing us, and I noticed Scheme noticing her notic­ing us. I’m not sure what I expected to hap­pen next, but it wasn’t Scheme call­ing out, “Hi!”

The woman stopped.

“Are you wait­ing to beam up, too?” Scheme said cheerily. “You can sit with us, if you want.”

The woman’s eyes narrowed. She stood totally still, eval­u­at­ing us, hand clutched tight around the han­dle of her bag. Finally, she spoke. “I know for a fact you’re not from the same place I am. But I’m impressed you know about it.”

“I can’t be the only one,” Scheme said.

“No.” The woman walked closer, her expres­sion still curious, eval­u­at­ing. “A cosmologist at Cal has it fig­ured out, sort of. No one believes him.” She snorted. Maybe she was here to kill the cosmologist. Maybe she had just killed the cos­mol­o­gist.

“Well, I know you’re due to return soon.” Scheme plucked a cup from the car­rier. “Maybe we can chat while you wait. Coffee?”

The woman looked wary. “Who are you?”

Scheme intro­duced her­self, then me. A smile crept across the woman’s face. She took the cof­fee. “I know your name. In my time­line, you’re famous. You’re also dead.”

Scheme accepted this rev­e­la­tion with sur­pris­ing grace. “And you are?”

“My name’s Lois. Plea­sure to meet you.”

“Well, Lois, how does your world com­pare to this one? Besides the dead me, which is obvi­ously a downgrade.”

Lois’s eyes flared, as if she’d been wait­ing for some­one to ask this question. Talk to me about time­lines … 

“Okay,” she started, “First of all, we didn’t fill in the bay.”

Oh, right. What — where she came from, San Fran­cisco Bay was just a giant, untouched body of water?

“Uh, yes. That’s the point. Do you not have any envi­ron­men­tal­ists here? I’ve been to a lot of dif­fer­ent Bay Areas, and, I have to tell you, this one is grim.” Lois sipped her cof­fee. “Sorry.” She wasn’t sorry.

“So,” Scheme said, “is this just a hobby of yours? Real­ity tourism?”

“I wouldn’t come here if I didn’t have to. And”—Lois looked down at her watch — “lucky for all of us, my char­iot has arrived!”

She squared up and her face took on the expec­tant look of a Star Trek char­ac­ter about to be transported. That was appar­ently the cue; Scheme leapt, tried for a tackle, but only suc­ceeded in get­ting a hand on Lois’s boxy bag before the woman from another world neatly knocked her aside, using some kind of move — aikido? robot? — that sent Scheme tum­bling across the pave­ment.

“Seriously?” Lois scoffed. She cinched her bag higher up on her shoul­der and dis­ap­peared with a quiet, suck­ing pop.

Scheme leapt to her feet. “Well, that was a success.”

I had remained sit­ting, hold­ing my cof­fee, while my boss attempted a tackle and a woman dis­ap­pa­rated on the side­walk in front of me.

“If so, we’ll find out soon.” Scheme grinned, catlike. “I dropped a trans­mit­ter in her bag.”

I thought the tackle looked a lit­tle clumsy. Annabel Scheme had mar­tial arts training.

She must have planted it dur­ing the scuffle. But surely, a trav­eler between worlds would, upon return­ing home, check her bag and discover, a bundle of electronics. Anyway, how could a bun­dle of elec­tron­ics beam a sig­nal between worlds?

“It’s not that kind of trans­mit­ter, Mx. Portacio.” Scheme reached up and unclasped one of her ear­rings. I noticed then that the other one was miss­ing. She dan­gled the remain­ing ear­ring, half of the pair she always wore: fat shards of pale green crys­tal.

“They’re made from one stone, split in two. They sat in the earth together for, I don’t know, a bil­lion years. They’re pow­er­fully linked.”

So could we just … dial the other one, like a cell phone?

“Unfortunately, no. In fact, I have no idea how to con­tact the other ear­ring. But I know some­one who does.”

Scheme started up the side­walk, paus­ing to stuff the cof­fee car­rier into a waste­bas­ket in front of the butcher shop. “Come on, Will,” she said. “We’re going to see a witch.”

The Sea Witch

The Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive had deposited one half of a pair of magic ear­rings into the boxy and fash­ion­able bag of a vis­i­tor from another world, the unflap­pable Lois. The ear­rings were, by long association, linked — even between branches of real­ity.

Could Annabel Scheme recon­nect them?

“I never fig­ured that part out,” she admitted. Scheme main­tained a stock­pile of strat­agems half-fig­ured-out. So far, it seemed to have served her well. “That’s why we need Car­lotta. She’s my witch friend.”

We tore across the Rich­mond Bridge in Scheme’s elec­tric pickup. I saw San Quentin Col­lege jut­ting out into the bay. Was there a San Quentin in Lois’ world? Or was it some­thing else on that litte point of land? Was there a Golden Gate Bridge? Surely, there had to be a Golden Gate Bridge.

Scheme took us zoom­ing across Sir Fran­cis Drake to Nica­sio Val­ley Road. Before us, the jagged reser­voir seemed to float, clouds nearly kiss­ing their reflec­tions in the water. We curled back down to Point Reyes Station, then con­tin­ued up the shore. A colony of gulls swirled above Tomales Bay.

At a bleak curve in the road, Scheme brought the pickup to a bump­ing halt. There, on a for­lorn cliff, a small house stood fac­ing the ocean. Maybe it was a house; maybe it was a col­lec­tion of drift­wood that had been blown together randomly, to be dis­as­sem­bled by another gust.

“She’s a sea-witch,” Scheme clarified. “Very into transience. Awful infinitude. That sort of thing.”

There was a note tacked to the door, announc­ing LOW TIDE! in neat capitals.

“Oh, good,” Scheme said. “This will be fun.”

I fol­lowed her down a rick­ety stair­case that clung uncon­vinc­ingly to the cliff­side and brought us to a thin, rocky beach, where a fig­ure was leap­ing mer­rily in the surf.

“Ahoy, Car­lotta,” Scheme called.

“Look at this haul!” the fig­ure cried back. “Seaweed for days!”

This was Car­lotta, and she looked, to my untrained eye, less like a sea-witch and more like the cap­tain of a fish­ing boat. She sported tall galoshes below sturdy work pants and a T-shirt embla­zoned with the logo of Point Reyes Books. I couldn’t have guessed how old she was; she had the age­less­ness of West Marin.

Scheme explained our predica­ment while Car­lotta, wield­ing a pair of prun­ing snips, accu­mu­lated black-green sea­weed in a mesh net.

When Scheme was fin­ished, Car­lotta stood, regarded us both flatly, and tossed her prun­ing snips to me. I caught them, barely, while the witch pro­duced another pair from her pants and passed them over to Scheme. “My aid has a price, and that price is five pounds of kombu. It’s more than you think. See you up above.”

Scheme and I har­vested sea­weed, col­lect­ing it in the net Car­lotta had left behind, while the sun cruised down toward the edge of the world. First, my feet were soaking. Then, my ankles. Then, my calves. The tide was surging in.

“We’ll call that done,” Scheme said, heft­ing the net. We scram­bled up the steps. The ocean seemed to sigh with disappointment.

Carlotta awaited us inside her drift­wood cabin, which felt much stur­dier inside than out. Scheme exchanged our prob­a­bly-not-five-pounds of sea­weed for two mugs of tea, which smelled slightly psychoactive.

“I’ve been think­ing about your crys­tal ear­rings,” Car­lotta said, “and the other world. Kelp crisp?”

She offered a plate of snack crackers. Scheme took one, so I did, too.

“You can’t fol­low that woman,” Car­lotta said. “Maybe with sci­ence, but not with magic. But you can use the crys­tals to … peek. It will have to be through a dream.”

I took another cracker.

“You’ll never know for sure if it was real,” Car­lotta said. “You cer­tainly won’t be able to con­vince any­one. But, believe me when I tell you: It will be real.”

“Understood,” said Scheme. “We’ll do it.”


“It’s safer if two go together,” Car­lotta said. “A thread of con­nec­tion in the dream. I’ll keep watch on this side.”

“Besides, Will,” Scheme said, “aren’t you curious?”

I was. Of course I was.

Carlotta made the preparations. She lit a bun­dle of pine nee­dles that released a pale pun­gent smoke; poured a line of salt across the cabin’s threshold; fished pil­lows and pal­lets from a heavy trunk and pre­pared a rough bed for each of us. Finally, she fash­ioned a lit­tle boat from the sea­weed we’d just har­vested, creas­ing a few of the leaves down the mid­dle, and into the boat she placed Scheme’s remain­ing ear­ring.

“Your ves­sel,” she declared, posi­tion­ing it on the floor between us. “I’ll wake you up in an hour, but you should know that the sub­jec­tive time could be longer. That’s how it is with dreams. It could feel like a whole day. Even a week. But not a year.” She fussed with the smok­ing pine nee­dles. “Probably.”

Scheme laid her­self down on the floor, cross­ing her hands over her chest. She closed her eyes. “Car­lotta,” she said qui­etly. “The woman, Lois … she said that in her world, they didn’t fill the bay.”

“How wise,” the sea witch murmured. “I’m sure they made other mis­takes, though.”

“Mmm. Big ones. Peo­ple always do.”

Outside, the sun had sunk below the horizon, and the only light came from the lit­tle lantern set up in Car­lotta’s kitchen nook. The sounds of the waves was sud­denly very loud; a formless, envelop­ing wash. Yes: I could fall asleep to this.

As Car­lotta had instructed, I fixed my mind on the crys­tal ear­ring. Or, I tried. I couldn’t keep my thoughts from the feel­ing of the tide rising around my feet, my ankles, my calves. Transience. Awful infinitude. The wind picked up, a whis­tle ris­ing into a howl, but the cabin did not shake, not at all, and drowsily I real­ized it was built more solidly than my apart­ment in Oak­land, more solidly than Scheme’s office in Rot­ten City, more solidly than the Golden Gate Bridge. This lit­tle cabin would never fall.

And then, I was asleep and vividly dream­ing. From a great height, I looked out across a bay unpaved, a dark oval ringed by light, pro­tected as surely as a witch’s circle. And then I saw what they were build­ing. And in my dream, I screamed.

The Machine

I lay dream­ing in a drift­wood cabin on the Pacific Coast, the great­est detec­tive in the Bay Area snor­ing next to me. This was no ordi­nary sleep: we had been guided by the sea-witch Car­lotta along a path between realities. Another world had been send­ing agents into our own, and we wanted to find out why.

I often fly in my dreams, but never swoop­ing like a bird, or zoom­ing con­fi­dently like Superman. Instead, I tend to float around like a beachball. It’s still thrilling to be up in the air, but I can only go where the wind takes me.

In this dream, the witch’s dream, I am lifted from my perch atop Mount Tamal­pais and lofted down toward the bulk of the bay — but it is not my bay. Noth­ing’s been dammed, noth­ing paved. There are no sky­scrap­ers shad­ow­ing Trea­sure Island. All the cities of the bay — West Alameda, Moletown, the Island of the Cats (nei­ther an island, nor home to cats)—are absent. Per­alta City, where I grew up, is open water.

And then I am tum­bling down into San Fran­cisco, which is not the heir­loom bauble that I know, but a half-gleam­ing metropo­lis with a skinny pyra­mid and a fat thumb vying for dom­i­nance in its sky­line.

I hit the ground, skid­ding like a frisbee. My heels scrape pave­ment at Colum­bus and Kearny, and there, thank goodness, I find City Lights. Some things don’t change.

I call Annabel Scheme’s name, but hear no reply. There are peo­ple on the street, and they’re all wearing masks … like sur­gi­cal masks, except some are almost cheery, printed with col­or­ful pat­terns. Why are they all wear­ing masks? What’s going on?

I try to drag my heels, slow my flight, because I want to look around, ask ques­tions, maybe see what books they’re sell­ing in this world’s City Lights. And that’s when I real­ize I’m not fly­ing but instead being drawn upward, inexorably, as if by a magnet.

It is irresistible, and I am ris­ing again, sucked south through the city. On my left, the bay glit­ters, a void that seems to me malevolent. How can it just be empty? A con­tainer ship floats ridicu­lously in the cen­ter.

Ahead of me, on the hip of Twin Peaks, I see Fritz Leiber Tower, except it’s not Fritz Leiber Tower. This is some­thing else, a webbed mon­stros­ity with a crown like a ship.

Hurtling towards the strange tower, I am sud­denly sure I will be skew­ered on its dark trident. A glimpse of a strange San Fran­cisco; a swift impalement. Hardly worth the trouble.

But then I see, at the base of the tower, an enor­mous facil­ity, peo­ple in lab coats mov­ing from building to building. They’re wear­ing masks, too. I am pulled toward one of the build­ings, sucked through one of its narrow, fortress-like win­dows — I shouldn’t fit, but I do — and inside, I under­stand why I’ve been drawn here. Here is the boxy, fash­ion­able bag into which the detec­tive Annabel Scheme deposited her crys­tal ear­ring. Here is the bag’s owner, the cool and con­fi­dent Lois, sip­ping a smoothie. And here, beside Lois, is a man I don’t recognize.

”—pieces in place,” the man is say­ing. “What about Dr. Gatua?”

“He’s in,” Lois says. “He’s ecstatic. It proves his theory. We don’t even have to boop him over and back to show him it’s real. He wants to believe.”

‘Boop’? They call it booping?

“After he and Paju­nas com­plete the facil­ity in Bay 17,” the man says, “we’ll have enough to merge all the time­lines.” He is gaunt, hollow-cheeked, his head raggedly shaven. I can see, from my van­tage point, that he has missed a spot. “We’re so close, Lois. SO close. I’m nervous.”

“Don’t be,” Lois says. “Chan­der, you built the machine that builds the machine. Dr. Gatua will fol­low your instruc­tions like it’s a set of Ikea shelves.”

The man, Chan­der, makes a tired laugh­ing/sighing sound and looks out the win­dow, which means he looks directly at me. I suck in a breath, but, in fact, he’s look­ing through me. I am a ghost. I feel the pres­ence of Annabel Scheme’s crys­tal ear­ring in that boxy, fash­ion­able bag as pal­pa­bly as one of my own toes.

“When you were in Bay 17,” Chan­der says to Lois, “did you hear any­thing about … any other … ver­sion of me?”

“Bay 17’s Vacal Chan­der? No. I didn’t ask.”

“It doesn’t make you pause? Know­ing all those other ver­sions of you are going to evaporate?”

Lois fin­ishes her smoothie with an empty, rat­tling slurp. “Nope.”

A deep rum­ble from the world out­side draws my attention. From this perch, high up on this hill, I can see all the way to the Marin Headlands, where the gray curve of Mount Tamal­pais is crumbling. Trees lean over and slough off. The moun­tain is waking, and so am — 

In the sea-witch Car­lotta’s drift­wood cabin, Annabel Scheme was sit­ting upright, watch­ing me. Waiting.

“That was quite a snooze, Will,” she said. “What did you see?”

I told her about the empty bay, the strange tower, and the enor­mous facil­ity.

Scheme’s face was stony. “So, you flew over a city and over­heard a con­ver­sa­tion. How nice for you.”

Hadn’t Scheme seen the same world? The peo­ple in masks?

“Ah. Yes, I did see it. But more … impressionistically. I was inside the gears of a giant machine — which I understood, dream-wise, to be the great­est and most dan­ger­ous to ever exist on this planet. Those gears ground me into dust, which was painful, but worthwhile, because it meant I was dis­trib­uted through­out the machine’s work­ings and able to deter­mine its func­tion. Did I mention it was painful?”

“I did brew your tea a lit­tle stronger, Annabel,” Car­lotta interjected.

I told Scheme how they had referred to our world as Bay 17.

“Right. I’m sure theirs is Bay Num­ber One. Typical. But it doesn’t mat­ter. They want to pro­duce some­thing new, some … concatenation of all these dif­fer­ent time­lines. Bay Zero. Bay Prime.”

Perhaps they would do it by com­bin­ing different parts from dif­fer­ent ver­sions.

Scheme’s eyes widened. “Of course. Stella Paju­nas. She’s terrible, but she’s brilliant — the most capable admin­is­tra­tor the Bay Area has ever had. Maybe the most capa­ble ANY Bay Area has ever had. Will, they didn’t abduct her. They recruited her.”

From the kitchen nook, Car­lotta held up her phone. “This came through while you two were sleeping.” She showed us the screen (the sea-witch had a late-model iPhone; unexpected) which dis­played a news alert. Stella Paju­nas had called a press con­fer­ence which would also fea­ture the physi­cist Dr. Sven Gatua. Its subject: the con­struc­tion of a new machine.

The Presser

I stood with the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive beneath a blaz­ing sun in the mid­dle of the dam that held the fresh­wa­ter reser­voir north of San Jose. The Reber Building, mon­u­men­tal head­quar­ters of Alta Bay City Devel­op­ment, rose above us. In its shadow, a scrum of reporters had gath­ered to hear the ABCD’s chief exec­u­tive Stella Paju­nas make a rare announcement.

This was the same woman who, two days prior, had van­ished in a blink on the side­walk where we stood, then reap­peared, a day later, in the same spot. Who stren­u­ously denied that any­thing had hap­pened. Who was pow­er­ful enough, polit­i­cal enough, that real­ity had bent to match her opinion.

Arbusto Slab, the ABCD’s secu­rity chief, stood along­side the detec­tive Annabel Scheme at the back of the scrum.

“She’s been act­ing fishy,” Slab said. “This whole thing”—he ges­tured to the reporters — “got put together in two days. She talked the board into it. I don’t have any traction, Scheme. Sorry to say it, but this case is closed.”

Stella Paju­nas stepped up to the podium.

“In the his­tory of any community, there are turn­ing points. I think of the found­ing of Google, not far from here, and Apple before it. I think of the vision­ary Reber Plan, all the vibrant new cities it cre­ated on the bay. I think of the earth­quake and fire of 1906. I think of the Span­ish ship San Carlos, sail­ing for the first time through the Golden Gate.”

The reporters were all dozing. Scheme’s gaze was fixed on Paju­nas like a laser. One of those lasers that marks a tar­get so a plane can drop a bomb on it.

“Today, we arrive at another turn­ing point. Sci­ence is crit­i­cally impor­tant to the Bay Area, and gov­ern­ment has often accel­er­ated its progress at crit­i­cal moments. Today, the ABCD is investing — 

I didn’t hear the num­ber she said next, because I temporarily blacked out. It earned a wave of gasps and even a few choked sobs from the scrum of reporters. It was a very large amount of money.

”—dol­lars into the rapid devel­op­ment of the world’s first quantum alignment station,” Stella Paju­nas con­tin­ued. “Just as that Span­ish ship encoun­tered a new world on the other side of the Golden Gate, quan­tum align­ment is going to reveal new worlds hid­ing in plain sight.”

A wiz­ened old man tot­tered onto the stage, and Paju­nas intro­duced him as the world’s lead­ing the­o­rist of quan­tum align­ment, Cal’s own Dr. Sven Gatua.

When I’d over­heard Lois and Chan­der in my dream, in that other world, they had said that name. They said they’d recruited Dr. Gatua along­side Stella Paju­nas.

“Don’t you see, Will?” Scheme hissed. “They’re just doing it. Noth­ing in secret. They’re build­ing the machine, or part of it. Maybe they need one in every world.”

On stage, Dr. Gatua’s face shone with 60 years’ worth of vindication. He was explain­ing how many sci­en­tists and engi­neers they would gather — thousands — and how fast they would work — very — but the reporters were still buzzing about the num­ber of dol­lars, which was on the scale of the Man­hat­tan Project. It was nation-state money.

“Thank you, Dr. Gatua,” Stella Paju­nas said. “The Bay Area is a special place with a spe­cial history. Together, we will make his­tory again. We’re call­ing this project the New Golden Gate. I’ll take your ques­tions now.”

The scrum exploded, the reporters scram­bling to clar­ify if the num­ber of dol­lars had 10 or 12 zeroes, and Scheme turned away.

We drove back to Rot­ten City, Scheme’s elec­tric pickup trav­el­ing just below the speed limit, which meant she was very depressed. I’d been think­ing about it, and I wasn’t sure why this “best of all pos­si­ble Bay Areas” was so bad. Maybe it would be great. Maybe it would be beau­ti­ful and pros­per­ous and fair … 

“No, Will,” Scheme said. I looked over, and her eyes were glistening. “They’ve got it all wrong.”

Peralta City flashed by on the right, its pachinko par­lors ablaze with neon.

“They’re going to kill it,” Scheme said. “This amazing, awful place of ours, and every other amazing, awful place it might have been … they’re going to flat­ten them into noth­ing.” Now her voice was hard. “But I know how to stop them.”

Had Scheme sud­denly become an expert in quan­tum align­ment and/or industrial sabotage?

“No. But if they want to turn it all into one thing, then we can fight them with … ” She searched for the right word. “With spe­cificity. We paved the bay. Maybe that’s gross. Maybe it was a mis­take. I don’t know. But we paved it, Will, and three mil­lion peo­ple live here now.”

We cruised through Moletown. On the right, Scheme’s pickup was reflected in the long, mir­rored head­quar­ters of Dragoman, the com­pany that had per­fected uni­ver­sal lan­guage translation. There was a Dragoman chip in every phone on the planet. Did Lois’ world have a Drago­man?

“So, we fight them out here,” Scheme said. “Not from Berke­ley, not from San Jose. We fight them on the bay.”

She pushed the pickup faster now, tick­ing up above the speed limit. Directly ahead was the tow­er­ing bulk of the Yerba Buena Zone, the buzzing cen­ter of the bay we’d paved.

“What was his name? The man. The inventor.”

The gaunt genius of Bay One? Vacal Chan­der.

“Right. We’re going to find our own Chan­der. Some­one who can build … I don’t know what. A shield. A mon­key wrench. Some­thing! If our city didn’t pro­duce any­one as smart as him, maybe we don’t deserve to exist. But it did, Will. You know it did!”

This case was closed, accord­ing to our client Arbusto Slab. We were on our own now.

Scheme accel­er­ated.

Week 2

Entra La Lengua

I was on a hunt with the Bay Area’s greatest detective to find a genius who was also the world’s most famous missing person. We had discovered a plot hatched in a different timeline to collapse all possible Bay Areas into just one: the best of all possible worlds.

But this “best” wouldn’t include any of the cities we’d built here after we filled the bay. It would have no West Alameda, no Moletown, no Salt City. And it would have no Yerba Buena Zone, which was like say­ing it would be New York City without Man­hat­tan, Tokyo with­out Shibuya.

Didn’t they real­ize what they’d be losing?

There was never any park­ing in the city on the bay, so we took the Key System. The street­car deposited us on a busy block of Bar­bara Lee Boule­vard, smack in the mid­dle of the board­walk. Ahead lay the dark water, and beyond it the ghostly surge of the headlands, and between them, the stamp of the Golden Gate Bridge, like a notary’s seal: yep, this is the place.

The Yerba Buena Zone had taken root out here atop the bar­rier that ran from San Fran­cisco to Oak­land. In the begin­ning, the new city had perched on a bed of fill only half a mile wide, but through expan­sion both sanc­tioned and not, it had drawn itself like a cur­tain down the length of the bay. The end of one show; the start of another.

It was the Bay Area stirred and simmered, reduced to a thick sauce. There were taque­rias, izakayas, falafel carts, dim sum palaces. City Lights had an out­post here, as did Google. Archi­tec­ture stu­dents from Cal stum­bled around, drunk on possibility. The YBZ’s old­est build­ings dated to the 1980s, but most were of more recent vintage: tow­er­ing gem­stone shapes built from mass tim­ber and milky polycarbonate. Step­ping onto the board­walk was like trav­el­ing ten years into the future.

Scheme saw me gawking. “You haven’t spent much time here, have you, Mx. Portacio?”

In fact, I’d only driven through the Yerba Buena Zone, never stopped. The den­sity intim­i­dated me. I liked the bucolic side­walks of Oak­land bet­ter.

“First lesson, then. Where are we?”

Was this a trick question? We were in the Yerba Buena Zone.

“Incor­rect! This is the YBZ, Yerb City, the Y-B. Never the Yerba … Buena … Zone. Don’t say Buena. Noth­ing here is Buena. Now, what do you call a denizen of the YBZ?”

I had to plead ignorance.

“They are yerbs, all of them. Some yer­bier than oth­ers.”

What was the marker of yerbitude?

“You’re catch­ing on. A yerb is ingenious, ambitious, and fearless. She wears a thick coat of fatalism … but give it a scratch and, just underneath, you’ll find utopian dreams.”

Directly ahead was one of the ori­ginal build­ings from the 1980s, a squat cube, its win­dows all tinted pink so they reflected a warm glow.

This was the unim­peach­ably cool head­quar­ters of Rose Quartz Records, the leg­endary label of Scheme’s quarry, the pop star tech genius Quin­tes­san­dra.

Quintessandra: part of the first gen­er­a­tion born in the YBZ, so improb­a­bly gifted that she could have been Steve Jobs or Beyoncé.

Quintessandra: who had chosen, instead, to be both.

Her first album, which she pro­duced, with its accom­panying video game, which she programmed, had been the foun­da­tion stone of the genre now called yer­ba­core.

In the decade that fol­lowed, her music and her soft­ware alike had been cru­cial strands in the weave of global culture. But this year, there had been no new album; no new game. Six months ago, Quin­tes­san­dra’s social media accounts had gone dark. She’d dis­ap­peared.

The board­walk was fill­ing with peo­ple. They emerged from their offices and looked to the sky, shad­ing their eyes. Like a call to prayer. Like a grand civic ritual. Like lunch.

From the south came the boom of the bur­rito can­nons, and in another moment the flight of foil tubes appeared, first ris­ing, glit­ter­ing above the YBZ, then falling, napkin-chutes deployed, vec­tored with per­fect pre­ci­sion towards their tar­gets.

Scheme had mar­tial arts training, and she used it now: a viper­ous strike to snatch a falling bur­rito away from its intended recipient: Rumer Lee, pres­i­dent of Rose Quartz records, and, until recently, Quin­tes­san­dra’s super-cool consigliere.

Rumer Lee gog­gled at Scheme. One did not sim­ply snatch a yerb’s bur­rito out of the sky.

Scheme made introductions. She did not release the bur­rito.

“So you’re look­ing for Quin,” Rumer Lee said. “Join the club. There’s you, me, the music blogs, the paparazzi, and, oh, let’s see, about sixty mil­lion fans … ” She ticked them off on her fin­gers, then reached for her bur­rito.

Scheme, who had mar­tial arts training, hopped away. “This isn’t a pub­lic­ity stunt? Tuck your star away, let the demand grow, then, sud­denly, she’s back, reap­pears with a dif­fer­ent haircut?”

Rumer Lee sighed. “I’m so hungry. Please.”

“You must know some­thing,” Scheme said.

“You want a clue? Here’s a yerbin’ clue. Last week, some yerb tagged the front of my build­ing.”

On her phone, she showed us a snap­shot of the tag, writ­ten in neat capitals, neon green — truly grue­some against the pink — that read: ENTRA LA LENGUA.

Was that some kind of slang? Was it lascivious? Was it … yerby?

“Quin’s first album was titled La Lengua,” Rumer Lee said. “But I have no idea what this is sup­posed to mean. Now the blogs all think I’ve got some secret album and this is the title. If there’s a secret album … it’s a secret from me, too. Can I have my bur­rito now?”

Back on Bar­bara Lee Boule­vard, I told Scheme it seemed like we were no fur­ther than where we’d started.

She scoffed. “Will, how can you say that? We have a clue. ENTRA LA LENGUA.”

But we didn’t know if it was a taunt, or a riddle, or … just some yerb writ­ing a cool phrase on a build­ing.

“It’s a clue, Will. Trust me. I know what a clue tastes like.”

She whirled and strode down the boulevard, incan­des­cent with con­fi­dence, head­ing deeper into the YBZ. If any­one was yerby, it was Annabel Scheme.

Shark Teeth

I was stalk­ing the board­walk laid across the bay between San Fran­cisco and Oak­land with the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive, hunt­ing for a miss­ing genius with just one clue: the phrase ENTRA LA LENGUA. Enter the lan­guage? Get in the tongue? Not much of a clue.

Scheme had shaken down her best and nerdi­est sources; none of them could make sense of it. So, we were headed back to Rose Quartz Records, Scheme mut­ter­ing to her­self, when we heard a scrap of con­ver­sa­tion from a phone kiosk:

“ … new teeth? For LENGUA, yeah.” A teenager — excruciatingly cool-look­ing, her hair shim­mer­ing iridescent — was mak­ing a purchase. “Thank you, yerb,” she said, accept­ing her merchandise. “I’ve been dying out here.”

Scheme sidled up to the kiosk, which sold burner phones, vape pens, and other elec­tron­ics dis­pos­able and nefarious. After a medium-long negotiation — I heard her say, “I am not any­one’s grandmother”—she returned, dan­gling two plas­tic clamshells.

“Mx. Portacio, meet your new teeth.”

I cracked open the packaging. Inside, I found what looked like the cen­terpiece of a low-quality vam­pire costume, except these teeth were bright orange, and they had over­sized tusks like a warthog’s. Did I really have to wear plas­tic warthog jaws?

“She didn’t have many to choose from,” Scheme said. “Apparently, all any­body wants is these teeth, because they con­nect to some­thing called LENGUA.”

That was promising.

“Very. The girl in the kiosk said she can’t even give away vape pens anymore, because you can’t vape and … do … what­ever this is … at the same time.” She ripped her teeth out of their plas­tic and showed them to me. They were shiny-gold, as sharp and close-packed as a shark’s.

Scheme traced her fin­ger along the molars to find a hid­den button. A line of pin­prick lights on the front of the teeth lit up, one-two-three-four, then drooped and wavered: two dots, then three, then two again. Just like the bars on my phone.

“Here goes noth­ing,” Scheme said. “ENTRA LA LENGUA.”

She pulled her face into a gri­mace to get her lips around the teeth; I pressed my warthog tusks into place. When they were secure, I reached a fin­ger into my mouth like I was dig­ging for a shred of spinach, found the hid­den button, and felt a cold pulse that was almost, but not quite, taste.

Then, another pulse. It tasted like some­thing between a Szechuan pep­per­corn and a 9-volt battery. I gasped. My teeth vibrated.

I looked at Scheme, who was star­ing straight ahead, eyes narrow, nose flar­ing slightly. She looked like an expert avi­a­tor attempt­ing to fly a refrigerator. Lights swam across her shark teeth.

We were con­nected to some­thing. But what?

I closed my eyes and tried to nav­i­gate this new space. Out of nowhere, I tasted a penny. I touched my tongue to the edge of a tusk. I tasted a pickle! I could dis­cern no pat­tern here; no content. How did peo­ple com­mu­ni­cate using this thing? I tasted a foamy wash of strawberry, and then, sud­denly, felt a sensation, undeniable: the tip of another tongue tap­ping ever-so-gently against mine.

I spat out the mass of plas­tic. Scheme was look­ing back at me. Had she … ? Her eyes were merry.

She folded her hands in her lap and shifted her gaze to look out across the bay. Her face took on the cal­cu­lat­ing focus of a safe-cracker.

This was Scheme at work.

A band of tech work­ers all wearing the same brand of jodh­purs passed us on the board­walk, gos­sip­ing loudly. Then, two teenagers, strangely self-contained; were they wear­ing inter­net teeth? They were fol­lowed by a falafel ven­dor push­ing his cart, which bore on its side the words Falafel King painted in an appeal­ing swoosh. He stopped and stretched, looked out across the water, checked the mes­sages on his phone, then con­tin­ued on his way.

I watched passersby for another hour while Scheme sat star­ing into space, puz­zling out the para­me­ters of this strange new net­work. Finally, she leapt to her feet and yanked the shark teeth out from between her lips.

“Phwah! Itsh horrible.” Her voice sounded thick. She stretched her lips, made a grimace, then a pucker, and another gri­mace. “It’s also ingenious. Quin­tes­san­dra designed this; there’s no question.” She wag­gled her tongue, stretched her cheeks with her fin­gers. “I need a boba,” she said. “Badly.”

So what was the LENGUA’s secret? Was there a code, or … ?

Scheme shook her head. “No, no. I wasted too much time hunt­ing for symbols. It’s totally sensory. Taste and touch. There are signposts, breadcrumbs … literally, they taste like breadcrumbs. I’ve got it now. And, Will, I’ve fig­ured out why the kids like it so much.”

Because they had finally become a dif­fer­ent species, totally alien from us?

“No … because it’s not use­ful!” she hooted. “You can’t buy or sell anything. Don’t you under­stand? You can’t even say any­thing.”

The gen­er­a­tion born in the yoke of the dig­i­tal had made their exo­dus to the promised land: an inter­net with­out arguments.

Somehow, Quin­tes­san­dra had led them.

Basilisk House

I was spelunking deep in the Yerba Buena Zone, fol­low­ing the lead of the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive. It felt like I was fol­lowing an ant across the kitchen floor, watch­ing it trace with per­fect con­fi­dence a path invis­i­ble to me.

Annabel Scheme was track­ing teenagers using inter­net teeth.

She led me through the roast­ing district, redo­lent with the smell of cof­fee beans. I almost fainted. We cut through an alley, neon-colored socks and bras dry­ing on a line overhead, to arrive before a broad, plain build­ing made from dark brick. I counted four rows of win­dows, all of them papered over, some glow­ing faintly from within.

The traf­fic through the building’s front door was all teenagers, all wear­ing weird teeth. Above the entryway, sten­ciled let­ters named the build­ing Basilisk House.

Scheme lev­ered her shark teeth halfway out of her mouth. “They’re pro­tect­ing her, Will,” she whis­pered. “Like she’s their queen. I can taste Quin­tes­san­dra’s sig­na­ture in there. I think she’s … ume­boshi … sand­pa­per.”

I had learned to trust Annabel Scheme when she said things like ume­boshi sand­pa­per.”

She looked back and showed me a smile that was, I think, sup­posed to be wry. Instead, with those close-packed teeth, it felt like I was fol­lowing a preda­tor into its den.

We stalked the build­ing’s first level, where most of the doors were all open, reveal­ing tiny spaces of ambigu­ous func­tion and privacy. There was one room packed with bunk beds; another where two teenagers sat curl­ing dumbbells, breath­ing out through their noses. One of them caught my gaze and smiled, but it was a purely mus­cu­lar offer­ing with no par­tic­i­pa­tion from the eyes. Between his lips, I saw a cres­cent of cornflower blue.

The only sound was the rustling of bod­ies and, from some­where above, the muf­fled boom of a yer­ba­core beat. As Scheme pressed fur­ther in, the teens swiveled to track our passage. Their youth cas­caded across their mouths in per­fect sync.

We found the kitchen, and beyond the kitchen — sur­pris­ingly tidy — we found a long room filled with the the detri­tus of the build­ing’s for­mer inhabitants. Old ergonomic chairs. Fil­ing cabinets. Dead mon­i­tors. The floor was thick with cables; they ran in loops and tan­gles toward a door at the room’s far end. We stepped lightly.

The door was half-open, as casual as the rest of Basilisk House, and it revealed a large stor­age closet where the cables found their destination, a rack of whirring, blink­ing servers. Beside the rack was a mini fridge and beside the mini fridge was a small desk, where a fig­ure slouched in an ergonomic chair.

The net­work’s admin­is­tra­tor was play­ing a 3D video game. On an enor­mous monitor, his avatar tossed light­ning bolts from both hands.

Scheme rapped on the door, and he spun in his chair, startled. He was very young; his face had an unlined open­ness off­set only mildly by the hot glit­ter of his chrome teeth.

He looked at Scheme and the lights in his teeth swam. Scheme looked back and her teeth blinked a reply.

It went on like this for almost a minute. I began to won­der if I should leave.

Scheme lev­ered her shark teeth out of her mouth. “Sorry about that,” she said. “This is ume­boshi sand­pa­per. It wasn’t Quin­tes­san­dra after all.” She mas­saged her jaw.

The cheru­bic admin popped his teeth out, too. “You’re pretty good,” he said, leav­ing the “for a wiz­ened husk of a human, obvi­ously near death” silent. He pro­duced a dark chamois, wiped his mirror-like teeth, and placed them neatly on his desk. “Sorry if I’m not who you’re look­ing for. My name is tech­ni­cally Demon­dre, by the way.”

Scheme smiled sweetly. “Technically Demon­dre, do you run this net­work?”

He perked up. “You know it, yerb! This right here is the heart of the LENGUA. L-E-N-G-U-A. That stands for Local Empa­thetic Net­work Grant­ing Under­ground Access.” He sounded like he had been wait­ing a long time to tell some­one that. “I came up with the words after I chose the — 

“We can tell,” Scheme said. She stepped closer, looking directly at him. You rarely wanted Scheme look­ing directly at you. “We need to find some­one on the LENGUA.”

Demondre shrugged helplessly. “There’s no search. That’s the whole point. No search, no track­ing, no ads. What­ever hap­pens, hap­pens. Then it’s gone.”

“That’s great. I love it. But you run the net­work, and all of these teeth are con­nected to that”—she stabbed a fin­ger at the server rack — “and we are try­ing to save the world.”

Scheme dropped into an ergonomic chair and told Demon­dre the whole story, start­ing with the disappear­ance of Stella Paju­nas. She told him about our encounter with the woman named Lois from another time­line, the one where they hadn’t filled the bay.

“Whoa,” Demon­dre breathed. “What did the witch put in that tea?”

“We need Quin­tes­san­dra’s mind, Demon­dre. I truly believe she’s our only hope. I thought she was the ume­boshi sand­pa­per but … that’s you. Can you tell us where to find her?”

The mas­ter of the LENGUA spun in his chair, mak­ing two full revolutions, look­ing straight up, then kicked around to face the monitor. He tapped a key and the video game dis­ap­peared, replaced by a dense sta­tus display. His fin­gers purred on the keyboard. He looked at the dis­play. Another purr. Then, he flipped his glit­ter­ing teeth back into his mouth and turned slowly to face us. I think he was try­ing to be cool, but he still just looked sweet. Lights raced across the chrome.

Scheme put in her shark teeth and winked a mes­sage back.

Later, as we fol­lowed the net­work admin­is­tra­tor’s direc­tions deeper into the belly of the city, she told me: “Demon­dre said he always wanted to help some­body on a quest.”

The Sunken Ship

I fol­lowed the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive deeper and deeper into the guts of the Yerba Buena Zone, on the hunt for a miss­ing genius.

The quiet press of Basilisk House was behind us now. We fol­lowed a light­less corridor, air heavy and stale, as it inter­sected oth­ers, form­ing bleak junctions. We were beneath the sur­face of the YBZ, and it felt like we had walked a long, long way. My feet ached. The walls dripped.

At each turn, Scheme paused, considered, and chose decisively, fol­lowing an invis­i­ble trail through the darkness, using direc­tions given to us by the mas­ter of this strange net­work.

Finally, she brought us out of the maze into a cav­ernous hall.

We stepped through a wobbly oval that showed, around its edge, the pucker of a plasma cutter. The rough, rusted wall sloped smoothly into the floor, like an enor­mous bathtub. Above, it was dark and depthless, except for a sin­gle great blotch of light from another wob­bly oval cut into the ceiling. Enor­mous fan blades inter­rupted the light at lazy intervals, suck­ing up damp air.

“Will, do you see what this is?” Scheme hissed. Her voice was vibrat­ing with excitement. “It’s a ship’s hold. She’s been hid­ing out in one of the old ships!”

I saw it clearly now. We stood in the belly of one of the many con­tainer ships that had been scuttled to expand the Yerba Buena Zone. Dig 10 feet down in any city that rings the bay and you’ll find these skele­tons in the basement. In San Fran­cisco, the ships are from the 1800s, schooners whose crews aban­doned them for the gold fields. This ves­sel was a newer vintage. What had it car­ried to the Port of Oak­land on its final voyage? Cars? Shoes? CD players? It must have been judged too small to sat­isfy the hunger of global trade. So, it was sold for scrap, tugged a few miles, and, with a few well-placed sticks of dynamite, scut­tled.

They said the boom, boom bass of yer­ba­core was inspired by the det­o­na­tions that sunk these ships.

Down in the cen­ter of the hold, I saw signs of habitation. A tent had been erected, a nice one, with an origami look to its con­struc­tion. Soft light glowed green­ish through the fabric.

In front of the tent, a cozy fire tossed up a rib­bon of smoke. It was ringed with camp chairs, and in one of them, a woman sat, reach­ing for­ward to stoke the fire. She had a gui­tar propped next to her.

“Demon­dre told me to expect you,” the woman said. Her voice car­ried in the cav­ernous space.

She didn’t look like the pop star tech genius I remem­bered from social media. This was just a woman wrapped in a rain­bow pon­cho, pok­ing a fire with a stick. But then she spoke again, and I recognized her voice. Not its timbre, really, but its authority. Scheme was right.

“You’re not the first to find me,” Quin­tes­san­dra said. “What now? Will you tell the world where I’m hid­ing? Will you spoil my haven?”

“No,” Scheme said. “Of course not. We need your help.”

We took places around the fire, and Scheme began to unspool the saga. “This will sound strange, but there are other worlds like ours — and other Bay Areas. One of them has become our enemy. They call them­selves Bay One, and — 

“Yes,” Quin­tes­san­dra inter­rupted. “I know.”

Scheme’s mouth hung open.

“In their world, they didn’t pave the bay,” Quin­tes­san­dra said. “They didn’t build”—she made an airy ges­ture that encom­passed the ship, the city, every­thing — “any of this. I know. I’ve seen it. They tried to recruit me.”

“Of course,” Scheme muttered. “You must have been the first per­son they wanted.”

“Some­one named Lois took me to their world. She was one cold yerb. When she brought me back, I came here. To hide. To build some­thing.”

Something that could save us.

“So you invented the LENGUA,” Scheme said. “What does it do?”

The way Scheme said it, it was clear she expected the answer to be “transform into a giant robot and smash Bay One,” but Quin­tes­san­dra let out a bleak sigh. “Noth­ing. It’s a failure. The teeth were sup­posed to help us under­stand each other, so we could work together to beat Bay One. No words to get in the way, no arguments — just a feel­ing.”

“It didn’t work?”

Quintessandra smiled, tight and rueful. “Oh, it worked. You know what the two big, uni­ver­sal feel­ings in the Bay Area turn out to be? One is teenagers being teenagers. That, I like. The other is every­body feel­ing like the whole place is ruined.”

Scheme nodded. “Of course. All of us ignor­ing the fact that what­ever ver­sion we love best … it ruined some­one else’s.”

The whole place is built on wreckage. Scut­tled ships, real and metaphorical.

Scheme leaned in closer. The fire’s flicker cast strange shad­ows across her face. “What now?”

Quintessandra lifted a note­book from her lap. “I’m writ­ing songs. They’re about grow­ing up here. What it was like. The things I miss.”

So there was a secret album!

“I don’t think we can beat Bay One, and I want … ” Quin­tes­san­dra’s voice wavered. “I want to write this down. Before it all goes away.”

Here was the city’s muse, hid­ing in its low­est catacomb, com­pos­ing its funeral rites.

When Scheme spoke, her voice was quiet. “But Quin­tes­san­dra, don’t you see?” The fire glit­tered in her eyes. “You found it.”

The pop star tech genius pulled her pon­cho tighter.

“I thought our weapon would be some kind of technology,” Scheme said. “You did, too. But we were wrong. The weapon we need is more pow­er­ful than any tech­nol­ogy.”

Quintessandra looked skeptical. “I don’t under­stand.”

Scheme stood, offer­ing her hand. “It’s the most pow­er­ful weapon of all.” She wag­gled her fin­gers and, reluctantly, Quin­tes­san­dra allowed her­self to be hoisted up.

“It’s a story.”

The New Golden Gate

I emerged from the belly of a sunken con­tainer ship with the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive and the pop star tech genius who was going to save the world.

“Of course we don’t have to build a machine,” Annabel Scheme muttered, mostly to her­self. “How could I have been so stupid? Too many of those already. Instead, we have to tell a story.”

Given the power of the tech­nol­ogy we were up against, I thought I might pre­fer a machine.

“That’s what I thought, too, Will … but what is the Bay Area? A story we tell each other. A lie.”

We sprinted back to the sur­face of the Yerba Buena Zone, Scheme lead­ing the way, me bring­ing up the rear, Quin­tes­san­dra between us. Emerg­ing onto the street, she shielded her eyes, blinked in the glare. She’d been hid­ing under­ground for months.

What kind of lie was Scheme talking about?

“You know per­fectly well, Mx. Portacio. The lie that says it was bet­ter before. The lie that pre­tends there was ever a perfect balance, a per­fect moment. We’re all so pro­tec­tive of that the Bay Area we arrived into … that’s the lie, but some­how it’s also what makes it work.”

Quintessandra fished in her pon­cho and drew out a pair of sunglasses. The lenses were mir­rored, each approx­i­mately the size of a dinner plate.

“You’re right, it is a lie,” she said, look­ing sud­denly very much like a pop star tech genius. “And I’m the best liar you’ve ever met.”

Scheme led us hus­tling up Bar­bara Lee Boule­vard to the board­walk, where the urban sprawl of the YBZ faced the salty rem­nant of the bay. We looked out toward the Golden Gate Bridge.

“Those peo­ple in that other world, just because they have a big, empty bay … they’re still us,” Scheme said. “Versions of us, anyway. That means the lie will work there as well as it works here. They need to hear it from you, Quin­tes­san­dra.”

The pop star tech genius made a loud tsk and shook her head. “We don’t have access to that world. They can send peo­ple here, but we don’t have the tech­nol­ogy to go the other way.”

Scheme waved a hand. “Stella Paju­nas is get­ting blue­prints for her giant sci­ence project from, what’s his name? Their genius. Chan­der. She must be com­mu­ni­cat­ing with Bay One some­how. “

“I remem­ber him,” Quin­tes­san­dra said. “Total creep.”

Scheme smacked a fist into her palm. “So we’ll com­man­deer their trans­mit­ter. Easy.”

That sounded incred­i­bly not easy.

Soon, we were speed­ing south in Scheme’s pickup, Quintessandra in the pas­sen­ger seat, me in the mid­dle. Quin­tes­san­dra leaned out the win­dow.

“This is nice,” she said over the roar of the wind. “I forgot how nice it was.”

Alta Bay City Devel­op­ment’s vast New Golden Gate facil­ity rose on the horizon. The whole wealth of the Bay Area was being poured into this project, and not only its wealth: Google had been enlisted, its quan­tum com­put­ing divi­sion stripped for parts, and Intel, too. Their chip design­ers were sali­vat­ing over the rad­i­cal new designs pro­vided, with­out expla­na­tion, by the ABCD.

At the South Bar­rier, we turned east and bar­reled through Salt City, headed for — 

“Where … is … FREMONT?” Scheme howled.

The city had been selected as the site of Alta Bay City Devel­op­ment’s grand sci­ence project, an event the city’s lead­er­ship had greeted with jubilation. But now, mere weeks later, the BART station, the mall, the Bol­ly­wood theater — all of them were gone, replaced by a sprawl­ing facil­ity sprout­ing a skele­tal tower, the new high­est point in the Bay Area.

That?” Quin­tes­san­dra squeaked. “That’s what you want to beat with a song?”

“I’ll admit,” Scheme said, “I’m slightly less sure of this now. But we have to try.”

Scheme brought the pickup to a rat­tling halt in front of No Boba No Life, a café in the shadow of the New Golden Gate. Quin­tes­san­dra and I stationed our­selves around a ta­ble fac­ing the front win­dow while Scheme recon­noi­tered the facil­ity. An hour later, she returned, said noth­ing, pur­chased a boba, and left again.

Listening to scraps of con­ver­sa­tion in the cafe, I quickly deter­mined that the cafe’s other cus­tomers were all sci­en­tists and engi­neers who had been con­scripted to work on the ABCD’s new project. Their talk was all quan­tum resonance, high-dimensional space, frac­tal foam. They were young and they were smart and they frothed with excitement.

Two young sci­en­tists failed to dis­guise their inter­est in the woman sit­ting across from me, scrib­bling lyrics in her note­book.

They rose, car­ry­ing their bobas, and shyly approached. “Excuse me,” one of the sci­en­tists said. Her name badge said MONICA. “Are you … ? You’re not … ?”

Quintessandra looked up, her expres­sion absolutely flat. “Yes. It’s me.”

The sci­en­tist gig­gled awkwardly. “Ha, right,” she said. “I’m sorry. You look like her. You must get sick of that. Sorry!”

After they left, Quin­tes­san­dra smiled a far­away kind of smile. “Nobody can quite believe it’s me with­out the headdress.”

An hour later, Scheme returned. Her expres­sion had changed. She took a final, rat­tling slurp from her plas­tic cup and slammed it tri­umphantly into the recy­cling bin. “Two things,” she declared. “First, I’m going to need another boba. Second … I found the way in.”

One of the Good Ones

Sneaking into a top-secret facil­ity in Fremont with the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive and the pop star tech genius Quin­tes­san­dra, our goal was simple: beam a mes­sage to another world.

If there is one eter­nal human truth … one thing that will never change, no mat­ter how much we achieve, how far we travel … it is that an employee in search of a smoke break will always prop the door open.

The propped door led to a loading dock and the load­ing dock led to a long hall­way. Inside, the chilled air smelled faintly, but definitively, of … bananas?

“Bananas,” Scheme confirmed.

Now, all we had to do was find the facil­ity’s trans­mit­ter.

Instead, we found Arbusto Slab.

Alta Bay City Devel­op­ment’s secu­rity chief had hired us to inves­ti­gate when his boss went miss­ing. But that case was closed; his boss had been recruited by the other world.

“Caught you on cam­era, sniff­ing around,” he rum­bled. “Thought I told you the case was closed.”

Scheme was unruffled. “I’m glad we found you, Slab.”

A look of con­ster­na­tion crossed his face. “It was me that found y — 

She ignored him. “This is Quin­tes­san­dra. I don’t think she has a last name.” The pop star tech genius waved. “We need to get her to the trans­mit­ter. I know Paju­nas must have a one some­where, so — 

“Scheme. I’m here to stop you.”

“Slab, we found out what they’re doing. It’s not just a sci­ence project. This facil­ity is designed to — 

“Merge every­thing into Bay One. Yeah. I know.”

Scheme stared at him.

“Annabel … I’m sorry.” I’d never heard the secu­rity chief call her Annabel before. “I’m older than you. I used to go sail­ing with my dad. We’d tool around in a lit­tle Rhodes 19, make a loop from Alameda to Tiburon. I miss that. I want to do it with my kid, too.”

Scheme glared at Slab with an inten­sity that made me worry he might combust. “We … still … have … water,” she said through grit­ted teeth. “Slab, this place made you. It made me!”

He shook his head. “Sorry, Scheme. You should come with me now.”

“Absolutely not.”

“Ease up, will you? Paju­nas will explain. It’s not as bad as it sounds. Now, don’t — 

Scheme popped him in the jaw. I knew she had mar­tial arts training, but I had never seen her strike any­one, and: she popped him good. Arbusto Slab, six feet tall, approx­i­mately four feet wide, went down like a sack of potatoes. I’ve never actu­ally seen a sack of potatoes; I just assume they go down like that.

Scheme cursed qui­etly. “I always thought he was one of the good ones.”

We fled down a hall­way lined with glass doors: one showed a server room, the next a row of low cubicles, the next a lab illu­mi­nated by a web of laser beams.

Where were we going?

“I don’t know, Will,” Scheme said. “We just need to … find … I don’t know.” She whirled around, and I had never seen her face so twisted up. “I thought he was one of the really good ones!”

We sprinted past a break room. Inside, I glimpsed a crew of work­ers lean­ing over a box of donuts. One of them must have just said some­thing funny, because the rest were laugh­ing, and in one worker’s mirth, I saw the glint of inter­net teeth.

I called out for Scheme and Quin­tes­san­dra to stop.

LENGUA … ?” Scheme said. “Of course. There’s at least one cool per­son in this place. Maybe more. Quin­tes­san­dra — listen.”

She con­ferred qui­etly with the pop star tech genius.

Quintessandra fished her own teeth out of her pon­cho. They were matte black, and their sur­face did not resem­ble any animal’s jaws at all; rather, it repro­duced the crackly fis­sures of tree bark. When she slipped them into her mouth, she looked … quite scary, in fact. She closed her eyes, and a wave of red light swam across the black bark.

A moment later, the worker I’d seen laugh­ing skid­ded into the hall­way. His eyes were wide, and from behind pointy vam­pire teeth, he muttered, “Oh my god.” I got the sense he meant it literally.

Quintessandra stood straight and severe, avatar of genius with a rain­bow pon­cho and a yak­isugi smile. Instruc­tions flowed from her teeth to his. The worker’s face trembled. He looked like he wanted to prostrate himself.

“We have to keep going, Will,” Scheme said, beck­on­ing me far­ther down the hall­way.

Were we leav­ing Quin­tes­san­dra behind?

“She has her job. We have ours.”

Scheme charged down the hall­way, fol­lowing signs first for Plasma Recycling, then Gravity Consignment. It seemed like we might be run­ning in cir­cles, but her pace didn’t flag. Ahead, a door burst open, and through it strode Arbusto Slab, sup­ported this time by a not-small squad of secu­rity offi­cers in ABCD grays. His nose was bleeding.

“Scheme!” he roared. “Enough.”

I expected her to turn and run. I expected her to pro­duce some use­ful gad­get from a hid­den pocket. I expected her to pop him again, pop all of them — but instead, she offered her hands.

“You’re right, Slab. We give up.”

I’d seen Scheme crack a case and I’d seen her fail to crack one. I’d seen her tri­umphant and, more than a few times, morose. I’d seen her ablaze with insight and tan­gled up in the­o­ries that went nowhere. The one thing I had never imag­ined I would see was Annabel Scheme surrender.


I waited with the Bay Area’s great­est detec­tive to wit­ness the end of the world. Arbusto Slab and his squad of secu­rity offi­cers had brought Annabel Scheme and me, both shack­led in zip-cuffs, to the con­trol room at the cen­ter of the facil­ity. Stella Paju­nas was there, along with the wiz­ened Dr. Gatua, lean­ing into an enor­mous dis­play that tracked the New Golden Gate’s progress.

Pajunas acknowl­edged us icily. “Mx. Scheme, welcome. I seem to remem­ber telling you that your ser­vices were not required.”

Scheme had clearly pre­pared a come­back, but before she could deliver it, there was a pop of dis­placed air, and Lois appeared: the piti­less woman from the other world who had recruited Paju­nas, Dr. Gatua, and now even Arbusto Slab. Currently, Lois looked very annoyed.

Scheme vis­i­bly reconfig­ured her come­back mid-flight, but before she could deliver that one, there was another pop, and Lois was joined by Vacal Chan­der, the genius of Bay One who had devised all of this tech­nol­ogy: the way of trav­el­ing between worlds, the way of com­bin­ing them into one. He blinked unsteadily.

“You’re wast­ing your time,” Lois said to Scheme, who had aban­doned her come­back. “You can’t stop this process. And even if you blew up this facility … wait, did you check her for explosives? Good. Even if you blew up this facil­ity, there are 23 oth­ers just like it in 23 other Bay Areas. You think we’re stupid? We built a buffer. So, relax. This will all be over in”—she checked her watch — “two hours.”

Vacal Chan­der spoke, and his tone was gen­uinely conciliatory. “I’m sorry this has to happen, but I’ve seen what the Bay Area can become. Quan­tum align­ment doesn’t only allow us to move side­ways between time­lines. It also offers us glimpses ahead. I’ve seen the colony ships ris­ing from their launch pads on Alameda. I’ve seen first con­tact. A treaty signed in the Presidio. We need that to hap­pen. This is the only way.”

Scheme growled at him. She actu­ally growled. She went: grr.

Chander looked down at his feet. His accom­plice Lois stepped into the breach. “Many of the peo­ple in this world will be merged with other ver­sions.” Her voice grew cold. “Not you, Annabel Scheme. In my Bay Area, you’re dead. But! Plenty of — 

“Excuse me,” Dr. Gatua quavered. He was peer­ing up at the sta­tus dis­play. “It appears that … er. Why is Bay Three offline? Is that part of the align­ment pro­to­col, Dr. Chan­der?”

Chander rushed to his side. “What do you mean, offline?”

“Bay Seven, now,” Stella Paju­nas said, watch­ing a dif­fer­ent part of the dis­play. Lights were going dark all across its breadth. Big, impor­tant lights. “And Bay 12 is also offline. How many do we need?”

“S-seventeen … ” Dr. Gatua whined.

“Don’t say that,” Lois snapped.

Chander was stand­ing slack before the dis­play. His mouth moved, but no words came out. Another light winked out. And another. He croaked, “Open the gate.”

“But the pro­to­col isn’t com­plete,” Dr. Gatua said. “The time­lines … they’re hardly aligned at all.”

Lois joined them all at the dis­play. “What is hap­pening?”

At last: it was time for Scheme’s come­back. Her voice rang out: “Quin­tes­san­dra has been broad­cast­ing this whole time. One of her fans took her to your trans­mit­ter. She’s patched in to all the other time­lines, singing her songs. The new ones.”

“She’s singing?” Stella Paju­nas sputtered.

Scheme, zip-cuffed, spoke qui­etly. “Yes. She’s singing about what it’s like to grow up in the Bay Area. This Bay Area. How it breaks your heart to see it change. How it becomes some­one else’s childhood.” She turned to Vacal Chan­der. “You’re clearly very smart, but you can’t tell a story.” She smiled a wolfish smile. “My genius can.”

Chander looked wob­bly, and his gaze was far-off. “I’ve seen the ships,” he whis­pered. “We need to launch those ships.”

On every con­trol panel, there is one switch, not always the largest, but the most secure. Often, it has a cover; some­times there’s even a key. This is the most impor­tant switch: the one that, once flipped, can­not be unflipped.

Chander did not flip that switch. He slammed it.

At first, the sound was very quiet, like a far-off train, but in another moment, it was thunderous. The con­trol room vibrated; it felt like we were stand­ing at the base of a giant tun­ing fork. Maybe we were.

Chander was scream­ing some­thing, but I couldn’t hear him anymore. Annabel Scheme stood motionless. Her gaze found mine, and she looked sad.

And then I was everywhere.

Best of All Possible

The New Golden Gate had been acti­vated ahead of schedule. Designed to merge all pos­si­ble Bay Areas into one, it had instead … well, I had no idea what it had done.

I had come unstuck between worlds.

I saw Chan­der and Lois’s bay, which they called Bay One, where San Fran­cisco’s sky­line rip­pled with wealth and tent cities bloomed beneath the highways.

I saw a bay where the big city had sprouted on the north side of the Golden Gate, a dark smok­ing metropo­lis called Novaya Ross.

I saw a bay that flew the flag of the Cal­i­for­nia Repub­lic, a rich city-state, great lever of power in the Pacific Rim, seething with the spies of a dozen nations, all scram­bling for some advan­tage.

I saw a bay where the Ohlone still inhab­ited the east­ern shore, feast­ing on salmon and acorns and oysters, liv­ing some of the all-time great human lives. Their shell­mounds grew and grew and grew.

I saw a bay where San Fran­cisco lay in ruins, irradiated, the head­quar­ters of the United Nations a blackened shell.

I saw a bay where BART ran all the way to Santa Rosa; I saw a bay where sky-taque­rias floated serenely above; I saw a bay where every­one had a home.

I saw a bay from which a mon­ster rose, dark as the water, inchoate as fog. It was no invader; it had been there from the begin­ning. It was spite­ful and jealous, a dragon guard­ing its hoard against thieves, against life, against change, but a fig­ure opposed it, a warrior, her head cir­cled in flame — 

I saw a bay — I was the bay — I was lost — 

Then, I felt myself being reeled in, a fish on a line, dragged back through the worlds I’d traversed, a kalei­do­scope of pos­si­bil­i­ties, until I landed with a wet slap on the floor of the sea-witch Car­lotta’s cabin on the coast.

My clothes clung to my skin, com­pletely soaked. I took my bearings. I was laid out prone inside a strange outline, a com­pli­cated knot, its bor­der drawn with strips of sea­weed. What had hap­pened?

“Don’t ask me,” Car­lotta said. “I just har­vest sea­weed and fight the occa­sional demon. But, I felt your peril, you and Annabel both, so I made these”—she indi­cated the shapes on the floor — “as quickly as I could.”

Shapes, plural. There was a knot for Annabel Scheme, but it was empty.

The New Golden Gate hadn’t worked. Car­lotta’s cabin was still here. My whole world was still here. Crowded cities still rose on the bay we’d filled.

Where, though, was Scheme?

It took me weeks, work­ing on my own, to piece together what had hap­pened. When Vacal Chan­der slammed the switch to acti­vate his New Golden Gate, it did not col­lapse all pos­si­ble Bay Areas into one. It did, however, fling every­one unlucky enough to be inside out into the cos­mos of pos­si­bil­i­ties between them. I would have landed in an alien time­line if not for Car­lotta’s silver thread.

After repair­ing the facil­ity’s dam­aged con­trol room, we learned that not all of its peers had gone offline; not all of the other Bay Areas had found Quin­tes­san­dra’s songs so compelling. There are 16 still operational. If that num­ber rises to 17, then Chan­der and Lois, wher­ever they are, will be able to com­plete their grand design.

So it comes down to one world, and we don’t know which one. We have no way of trav­el­ing between them, but the trans­mit­ter works. Quin­tes­san­dra hosts nightly broadcasts, sometimes singing, some­times just chatting: the first pop star with fans in mul­ti­ple realities.

I’m wor­ried it’s not enough. That’s why I’m writ­ing this down, and why I will soon send it through the trans­mit­ter. Maybe you’ll find it on your world’s inter­net. Maybe you’ll read it in a newspaper. (Does your world still have news­pa­pers?)

I think that Quin­tes­san­dra, for all her genius, is not actu­ally the best per­son my Bay Area ever pro­duced. I think that dis­tinc­tion belongs to some­one else.

Here’s why I’ve told you all this.

Now you’ll know Scheme if you meet her. She might look a lit­tle dif­fer­ent. She might be act­ing strange. But then again, she might be exactly the same, with bright red hair and a taste for pickup trucks. If you meet her, say:

“Annabel Scheme”? What the yerb kind of name is that?

This will be the sig­nal that you know who she is, what world she’s from. Say it — but then, before she can answer, interrupt, and tell her that Will and Quin­tes­san­dra and Car­lotta all miss her.

Tell her we’re going to bring her home.



Editions of this e-book for plat­forms that sup­port cus­tom type­faces use Vollkorn, the “free and healthy typeface for bread and but­ter use” designed by Friedrich Althausen and pro­vided as a sig­nif­i­cant pub­lic good. In my opinion, it is the world’s best freely-available type­face for body text.

This e-book’s cover uses Bild Compressed, designed by David Jonathan Ross and offered as part of his Font of the Month Club.

The cover also fea­tures two pub­lic domain photographs. One is an image of the Bay Bridge being built in 1936. The other is Arnold Genthe’s photograph of the San Fran­cisco earth­quake and fire in 1906. The ori­ginal is pre­sented on the next page.