Subway in the Sky

Three visionaries have created a company that can establish stable wormholes, and have set up portals throughout the inner solar system as well as the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. But now an alien species has seized the portal on Titan and is using it to invade the solar system.

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Scotty and Bobby, genius electrical and computer engineers, have developed a system that sets up a stable wormhole between two points. Together with Kaley, the best technical field rep in the solar system, they and their company are establishing travel portals all over Earth, and also on the moon, Mars, Mercury, plus several of the moons of Jupiter and Saturn. Their company, Subway Solar Systems, is growing like crazy, and the future looks bright. What could go wrong?

Lots of things, it turns out. An alien race from the far reaches of space has taken control of a portal on Titan and started an invasion. They are rapidly taking over the outer solar system, and Earth’s military forces may not be able to stop the attack.

Just to make things perfect, the personal lives of the three people who created Subway Solar Systems are a mess as well. Scotty’ wife wants a divorce, Bobby’s boyfriend is causing him constant trouble, and maybe Scotty’s relationship with Kaley isn’t just based on their jobs.

Chapter 1

Sorry, You Have Reached a Wrong Number

In just five minutes, if all went well, we would be able to walk from Richardson, Texas, to the moon in seventeen steps.

If all went well.

“Cross-field generator power steady,” Bobby called out, his voice as taut as the E-string on a bass fiddle. And about the same frequency, as well.

After a three-second delay, the Delta base military commander, Captain Timmer, answered. Over my earphones, the voice from Moonbase Delta sounded higher-pitched but just as tight. “We’re good here, Commander. Power holding.”

I muttered a rude word under my breath. I’d been in the early space forces for six years, making lieutenant commander, strictly an R and D appointment, but I’d been out for two years. I was just plain Scott Charles Hays now. Or, really, “Scotty.” And no, I don’t remember when I got the nickname exactly, but it was when I was young. Nobody has called me Scott since I was about eight.

Aloud, I replied, “Read you five by five, Captain. Bring cross-field generator up on our signal.”

Six seconds. Then, “Roger, Commander.” Arrgh.

“Bobby, you synced in?”

Bobby’s reply came across the com, as he was tied into the same audio network, but I could hear him anyway, as his station lay about four meters off. Which was good, because he often forgot to switch his com on. “Gotcha, Scotty. Like our distinguished friend said, loud and clear.” Bobby got his Ph. D along with me at The University of Texas at Dallas. Except, he was a civilian, where the US Space Force had cheerfully paid for my degree after I had enlisted at age 20 with my Bachelor’s in Electrical Engineering.

I switched off wide com. “Just wish to hell he’d let our Delta tech specialist do her thing and quit hogging the spotlight. After all, this is a first shot—we’ll probably have half a dozen problems. I don’t know why he even bothered to observe.”

“Yeah. We’ll be lucky if we’re successful in three months,” he added. “I know the drill, Scotty. By the time our baby works, which I am confident it will, the Moon Delta commander will understand a lot more about prototypes and first attempts.” Bobby’s full name is Robert Taylor, like that old movie actor about ninety years ago, but he’s just Bobby to most everyone.

As though he had read my mind, the Captain transmitted, “Turning control and com over to technical lead, Commander.”

Turning on wide com and suppressing the urge to scream, “Chrissake, will you cut out the ‘commander’ crap!” I waited a few seconds, then said, “Kaley, you there?”

Delay. “Hey Scotty, hi from Moon Delta. How fast is your heart beating?”

Just like her. She was by far the youngest 50-year-old I knew, and if she hadn’t been a widow, having lost her husband in a transport accident about two years ago, I’d probably have proposed by now. Carol Sellers, Kaley to friends and colleagues, had been tech lead on Moon Delta SSS1 for its entire two years. She was a whiz in math and an electrical/computer engineer for good measure, as well as one of the most natural system debuggers I had ever met. She was also a single-minded, dedicated employee of Solar Subway Systems, and one of only two on the Moon, the rest of us being in the lab in Texas.

“Keeping my heartbeat down,” I said in as jocular a voice as I could manage. “Probably no more than two hundred or so beats per minute.”

Delay. “That’s good. Wouldn’t want you to get too excited. Awaiting your signal to activate cross-field generators.”

“Hang in there. We are within two minutes.”

The good thing about our synchronization was that it only had to be approximate—none of this milli- (or micro-, nano-, or pico-) second timing. When we brought up the generator, I could relay a verbal cue, which gave Kaley plenty of time to follow suit on her end before we started the final steps.

I glanced at Bobby, who was frantically checking things on his console, a meter-wide cabinet like mine holding racks of instruments, a small projecting desk in the middle, and a compact display that listed status of the important subsystems. Beyond our cabinets at about two o’clock, a good ten meters away, sat the portal generator, a man-high circle of aluminum connected to a weave of gold-plated mesh that made a tube extending from the circle to a second aluminum hoop about three meters beyond the first.

About a thousand control wires and cables, from five racks of equipment that sat to our left were connected to the hoops. A very large DC power supply fed current to the massive superconducting coils in the hoops by separate, heavy-duty power conduits. Due to the noisy cooling fans it required, the DC power unit sat by itself in another room down the hall.

Three more of our employees huddled in another lab room, while two hovered by those racks along the wall, holding portable sensors connected to oscilloscopes suspended from their necks by straps. One of the two ’scope holders, Thuan Nguyen, still fuddled with his sensor adjustment panel, but didn’t seem at all flustered, so I assumed he was just being thorough.

Bobby checked one more time and said, “Ready. Bringing up the generators.”

I echoed to Kaley, “Bring up cross-field power.”

Despite my efforts to be laid back, I felt the old pulse ratchet up. After what seemed like several millennia, but was probably about a minute, Bobby sang out, “Fields stabilizing. All reading within normal parameters.”

Over my mic, I said, “Fields stabilized, looking good.”

After the delay, Kaley echoed my status. Bobby was tied in as well, so he chimed in, “Readying FlucGen system.” FlucGen was our term for the vacuum fluctuation generator, which induced a particular type of electromagnetic signal that stabilized the wormhole that the high electrostatic and magnetic fields induced.

After the usual three seconds, Kaley replied, “Generator fields stabilized at Moon Delta. We are looking good.”

The cross-field generators took a bit to stabilize—they produced extremely large electrostatic and magnetic fields. The power source down the hall produced thousands of DC amperes, the electrostatic field generator supplied a pretty hefty voltage. There was not an item in our lab, including the racks of equipment, that held a single iron, steel, or nickel piece. Absolutely nothing magnetic existed in the whole, thirty-meter-square room. When the hoops powered up, anything magnetic within range of the supercoils would fly toward the two hoops at the speed of a bullet. The fields were large enough that Thuan, reading the ’scopes, stood in the corner of the room, even farther back than my position from the hoops.

Bobby is a big—really big—guy, nearly six centimeters more than two meters tall, and he had to stretch his extra-long, chocolate brown arm to its full length to toggle the FlucGen switch. And yes, the switch was positioned there on purpose, to avoid activating the FlucGen by accident. If I’d wanted to turn it on, I’d have had to stand on a stool, and I’m a solid six feet. I like to say six feet, as one point eight three meters somehow doesn’t sound all that tall. Bobby’s height in feet was absurd, as he stood right at six-nine.

He glanced at me “Ready.”

I gave him a nod. “Activate system in three, two, one, go.”

That would relay to Kaley, of course.

He stretched and hit the switch. In a little over four seconds this time, Kaley’s voice came back. “FlucGen on. Earth-moon parameters set. Awaiting connect.”

All of us—me, Bobby, Thuan, and Rajesh on the other instruments, plus our other employees watching on a remote link down the hall, focused in unison on the near hoop. The crossed fields were set to create a wormhole as the Kolker-Dougal-Lansing experiment had first produced over twenty years ago. Those hadn’t been stable, of course. Adding the vacuum fluctuations was the key, as suggested in the late twentieth century by various scientists, but nobody had yet been able to get full stability between two points any farther away than about seven thousand miles.

Abruptly, the inner space of the prime ring filled with what appeared to be a tan-colored sandstorm, with a bit of fog-like swirl added just for emphasis. Thuan cried out, “Look!” He needn’t have bothered, as we were all doing just that.

Swirl, swirl, fade to brown. Then, gradually, resolution to a landscape, or what appeared to be one. An ecru-tan vista, sky above dark blue. At first, the scene simply appeared to be a desert under a deep blue sky, period. Then, in the distance to the left, a spire, or what appeared to be one became visible very vaguely, seeming to float before my eyes. There was no sign of Moon Delta lab, the familiar gray wall, which I had seen many times on visits, showing through the portal. Odd. The scene flickered once, twice, then faded to a swirl of tan fog.

I spoke up. “Kaley, we got something. Whatcha showing?”

Silence.

Silence.

I felt pretty damn antsy, fingers clenching and unclenching, my skin itching, for God sake. “C’mon, Kaley, what’s up?”

After another ten seconds or so, her voice came across. “Uh, Earth control, we got nothin’. Repeat, no activity. Cross-field generators go, FlucGen on. Nothin’.”

Well, crap, I thought. Aloud, I said, “FlucGen off.”

Bobby mumbled under his breath and stretched. “FlucGen off.”

The tan fog in our hoop disappeared, to be replaced with a view of the far wall of our lab through the tunnel and second hoop. What the hell had we dialed into?

“What was that in the tunnel?” Bobby wondered aloud.

“Decrease cross-field power gradually to off,” I directed.

Bobby started the automatic computer sequence, and the cross-field power slowly dropped to zero. I looked at him. He stared back at me.

“The tunnel seemed to go somewhere, for a second or two,” he said angrily. “Could we have accidentally connected to some random spot on the moon?”

I shook my head. “Don’t see how it could work. I mean, we gotta have a receiver, right?”

He nodded, “Yeah, you’d think.” The rest of our crew appeared equally mystified.

I considered a moment. It could have been a partial hit—a near miss connection that somehow managed to stay stable for a short time. “Moon Delta, are you still up and running?”

Another moment and Kaley’s query caught up. “What gives?”

“I want to start up one more time. Let’s face it, we didn’t have high hopes for success this first try, but what the heck. On our end it seemed as though we started to connect, then lost it. This time, keep everything on your end fully operational. Let us re-initiate. Got it?”

“We’ve never activated the initiate end last.”

She was in her “doubting Thomas” mode, which wasn’t bad, as she had good instincts. In this case, however, I wasn’t looking for a vote. I stayed silent.

“You’re the boss,” she said a bit reluctantly after the delay.

“But we all know you’re the power behind the throne. Just keep all systems go.” I turned to Bobby. “Let’s do it again.”

His brow clinched, he thought it over. “Gotcha. Keep receiver solid, then bring up transmission. Worth a try. Cross-field power coming up.”

He hovered over the controls, set the power levels, let the computer bring power on-line smoothly. After a moment, he said, “Cross-field power stabilizing.”

Kaley could hear Bobby, so I didn’t bother to repeat. In a few seconds he gave me a nod, and I said, “Okay, Kaley, watch your instruments.” To Bobby, “FlucGen on.”

Again he made the tall reach, toggled the switch. Once activated, our master computer completely controlled the vacuum fluctuation generator, no human interaction required. Producing a stable vacuum fluctuation pattern was as tricky as threading a needle with a robot arm on the moon, via remote control from Earth, delay and all.

“Generator stabilizing,” he relayed, just as the hoop turned dark, swirled…

And there, not thirty steps away, a safe distance on the other side of the far hoop, stood Kaley. Slender and just a bit shorter than me, her face pixie-ish and showing nothing near her full fifty years, she stood a few meters beyond her far hoop, probably closer than she ought to be.

“Hey,” she yelled, and I heard it, albeit diminished by the intervening distance, a full two seconds before the same word came over my earphones.

If she could do it, I could. I tore off my headphones and moved closer, so that I stood about as far from my first hoop as she did from hers. “Wowsers,” was all I could comment.

“Hey there, Doctor Hays, you old sweetie pie. You’re looking good.”

“So you’re not a mirage?”

She grinned. “Nope. It’s plain old me. I can’t believe it. We did it on our first try. That never happens. I was hoping we’d be successful in about four months.”

“Actually, on our second try, technically. But what’s one attempt among friends, and who’s counting, anyway? Kaley, you have never been more beautiful.”

“Aw, you’re just saying that ’cause it’s true.” She replied just as tall, cadaver-thin Captain Timmer stepped into view, considerably farther back. “You’re pretty close to some very high magnetic fields, Ms. Sellers. We have a lot of unknowns to nail down here.”

She didn’t turn, gave me a scornful face aimed at the captain, and pulled a tennis ball out of her jumpsuit side pocket. “Hey, Scotty, catch this!”

She drew back and made a perfect throw, right down the middle of the tunnel. The ball, one of those Day-Glo orange models, sailed the approximately four hundred thousand kilometers, given the moon’s current orbital position, and right into my outstretched hands. Only, it had been the shortcut of a few meters through the wormhole. A baseball player in college, Kaley still had her form.

Kaley and I grinned at each other just as the captain let out an outraged, “Ms. Sellers!”

Knowing her, I wondered if she might want to sprint through, or at least flip off the stuffy base commander. She had better judgment than that. Turning to the base commander, she said, “Oh, Captain, don’t be such a party pooper. Gotta have a little fun, right? This is a big deal!”

Which it was. Mankind had just established the first stable, semi-permanent wormhole between two planetary bodies. Oh, we’d done some small experimental holes point-to-point here on Earth, even one between our lab and Australia.

We were already planning to set up hoops in several cities around the globe. Soon rapid travel around our planet would be as easy as driving to the corner store. We had turned over Earth port development to a subsidiary of All-World Airlines, of which our original team of eight owned a nice one-third share, Bobby and I the biggest chunks. The real prize was getting working hoops up and running in the planetary colonies, so that had been our focus over the last two years. Putting those hoops farther apart didn’t alter the probability parameters more than a hair—say at about the fifth decimal place, but we were still learning the ins-and-outs, literally, of portal creation. Thus, a hard year of experimentation locally, with the first actual Earth-to-Luna connection attempted today.

We weren’t about to chance a transit identical to the tennis ball by a human being until we did a lot more experimenting, but even that afternoon, we did some solid work. With the hole stabilized, we reduced the titanic cross-field forces by more than ninety percent, and the hole stayed solid, so long as vacuum fluctuations kept at design levels. We could reduce the fluctuations a bit, but not much—that was the key.

Over several days, we got three small auto trucks to traverse the hole, successfully carrying various items such as a coil of wire or a sack lunch between Earth and satellite. We transported a pair of mice, two gophers, and finally three dogs any number of times. Over a week later, the first human, Petty Officer 3rd Class Alberto Gonzalez walked through the tunnel, and into not only our lab but the history books. Yeah, I know, it sounds weird for a naval petty officer to make the first Earth-moon transit, but after all, any number of the various military services were assigned at present to the US Space Command, and it just happened to be a navy guy who drew the winning number.

Kaley had wanted to, but I told her I would strangle her when she got to our end. Captain Timmer threatened to physically restrain her, and for once, I agreed with him. She grumbled and waited for another day.

Eventually, the latest wormhole having been stable for more than a week, Kaley and I walked through, met in the middle, and returned to Earth. There she grabbed me and gave me a hug and kiss on the cheek, and after a moment, I kissed her briefly on the lips, a very pleasant interval.

Before you go jumping on me about sexual harassment and abuse of women’s rights and so forth, let me make plain that I have never made an advance on any woman in my employ—or man for that matter. Kaley had hugged me (and kissed me on the cheek) for just about the entire two years that I had known her, just as she had everyone else at SSS, females as well as males.

If Kaley came in from a trip—and she had been pogoing back and forth to Luna for the entire two years—she greeted everybody the same way, invariably. Yes, I had added the lip kiss today, but she had responded enthusiastically, feeling no doubt, as I did, that this was a special day. Kaley loved everybody and treated all of us just alike. I would never have done the same to, for example, Margie, our admin, as she was sort of a private person, and very reserved—nor to Faye, one of our top technicians. But Kaley was Kaley—a natural hugger and kisser.

Bobby and the rest of our team went through shortly afterward, and before we knew it, we were configuring a permanent hoop configuration on Moon Delta and setting up transits between it and Intersolar Command Headquarters base in Fort Worth.

Before long, we were planning the Earth-Mars tunnel, which would require that several of us take a more-than-a-month trip to the red planet. The UN planning team loved us, and the future of Solar Subway Systems, our interplanetary arm, definitely began to look up. We only thought we’d been busy before.

As we swung into high gear, Bobby and I were far too busy to think about anything but the next portal. However, in our very limited spare time, we began to discuss exactly what we had seen on that first, supposedly bad, connection. In a few weeks, we brought Thuan Nguyen, our best lab tech into the circle, as he had seen the phenomenon as well. Naturally, we included Kaley, as she was the best expert on portal technology in the universe, Bobby and me excluded. Our discussions revolved around the question of what we had experienced. Wherever that first connection had landed, it had been real. We began to work on two simultaneous puzzles. First, where had that connection gone? And second, why had it not gone to the right destination?

Frankly, I didn’t think our little off-the-books study was (a) very important, or (b) very likely to bear any fruit. But what the heck, it was an interesting question, and it gave some of the less-experienced staff an interesting hobby to pursue when their primary assignments lagged a bit.

That background activity was to continue, though we had no idea at the time, for the next five years. And it would prepare us, all those years later, to save mankind.

In the meantime, we were swamped with the business of building a portal network across the solar system. All we were doing for most of that five years, or so it felt, was trying to survive. At the end of that period, we would learn starkly what “trying to survive” really meant.

Chapter 2

Five Years Later: Bad Communications

My personal, buzzing loudly, brought me semi-conscious. Mumbling a series of expletives, sotto voce, I searched for it on my bedside table. Glynnis was no doubt already up and probably at breakfast. She didn’t like me to swear, and lately, I did way too much.

Finally locating it, knocking it off the table, swearing more loudly, retrieving it, fumbling with the controls, and ultimately answering the call, I said rudely, “Yeah?”

“Oh, I can tell you’re in a great mood,” Bobby said.

“What gave you your first clue?”

“Hold on. You’re going to be in a worse mood in a second.”

Great. I counted to ten. “What is it?”

“Com interruption to Titan. Could be some sort of storm, although there ain’t a lot of those on Titan. Or maybe one of those whatcha call it ‘ice volcanoes’.”

I corrected. “Cryovolcanoes.” Thought various obscene comments to myself.

“Whatever. Got a partial message—some damage to the portal building and so forth. No reason given for the damage. Something interrupted the transmission several times, and the small amount that Rhea managed to capture amounted to fragments. Given the corrosive atmosphere, if a leak occurred, we may have screwed-up electronic equipment. No word if their power generation had been compromised.”

I lay back in bed. I huffed. I felt irritation and umbrage and the desire to whack something.

The atmosphere on Titan, denser than that on Earth, mainly consisted of nitrogen. Trace gases included methane, poisonous to humans, and ammonia, the corrosive component. In addition, the ambient temperature on the surface made winter at Earth’s north pole seem like a balmy summer day. After an extended twenty seconds of figuratively gnashing my teeth, I said, “Any other info?”

“Rhea base is trying to establish communications again, but no luck so far. They’ll let us know when they can get more info.”

I forced my sleep-clogged brain to think. If the Titan portal were damaged, that was a big problem. Rhea was the only base in the Saturn system with a portal other than the new one on Titan. We’d given thought to another base on maybe Iapetus or Tethys, but Fed funding was precious at present. We were building one of the new “jumbo” portals on Rhea, but other than the smaller one now in operation, the only way to get large shipments out to Saturn was via high-power ion-drive rockets, that accelerated and decelerated at six Gs, traveling the enormous interplanetary distances in days at millions of kilometers per hour.

Problem was, no human and many shipment items couldn’t survive the required acceleration, so ships were helmed by AI systems and they mainly shipped machinery and some materials that could stand the G-forces. But even at the huge speeds and efficient trajectories of those rockets, the planetary distances were enormous if the planets weren’t fairly close in the solar plane. That meant that sending new portal parts to Titan would take a while.

I glanced at the bedside clock. It had big numbers, so even with sleep-clouded eyes, I could read it. Not even seven AM. “You already at the lab?”

“Yeah, pulled in about ten minutes ago. Kaley took pity on you and called me. She knows what a night owl you are.”

“And she likes me better, too.” Which probably was not true, as Kaley doted on Bobby, and in fact he often worked all night. I struggled to focus on the problem. “Okay, hold the fort. I’ll be in when I am fortified with a proper amount of caffeine.”

“That could take hours.”

“I’ll drink fast.” I hung up, struggled erect in bed, stood bravely, and headed for the bathroom. I held a serious debate with myself about deactivating all forms of communication into my home before ten AM in the future but lost my train of thought while showering.

On the way to the garage, I found a note from wife Glynnis on the breakfast table. She would be late, had a dinner thing with friends, get myself something to eat, as there was nothing in the fridge. Which there never was, as neither of us cooked.

Glynnis worked harder than I did. I loved my job, thought it was one of the best in history. G, on the other hand, worshipped her job, bowed to it daily at the altar of advertising. Her day consisted of unending thoughts about markets and consumer access. In a way, I understood. It made sense to enjoy, even be proud of, the ability to vacuum the average Joe’s, or Jill’s, pockets for dollars with clever media constructs that created outsized desire for the latest Ford rec vehicle, or classy new Italian restaurant, or tri-vid at the nearest megaplex.

She returned that understanding roughly zero percent. I had overheard her at her agency party one New Year’s Eve, telling a fellow ad drone that I built “those worm-tunnels, you know the government ports that go to the moon.” Most neophytes, told what I did, were wowed that my company built the trans-solar-system portals. Not G. It had never made sense to me that a new variety of toothpaste could practically drive her to orgasm, but a portal system that allowed you to walk a few dozen steps between Earth and Mars left her cold.

Ah, no, my inner self told me as I opened the garage door, activated my Toyota SUV, and set auto drive, giving my destination as “work,” that’s not it at all. S-Cubed is your baby, while the damn toothpaste has nothing to do with you, which makes it preferable.

I could have used the fifteen-minute drive from our home in the small town of DeSoto, just south of the Dallas city limits, to our new corporate headquarters to call Bobby back and get completely briefed. No. Just too pissed in general at the universe, and at G in particular. I knew exactly where our marriage was headed, and I didn’t want to think about it. So I sat back and thought about nothing to the sounds of the Beatles, circa 1966. “Eleanor Rigby” is a really great song.

Solar Subway Systems (we usually refer to it as “Triple-S” or “S-Cubed”) has a proud new home in an older and poorer section of Dallas, formerly known as Oak Cliff. Now, with the substantial shot of government bucks and heavy investment by everyone from Alphabet to Lockheed Martin, it had officially changed its name a few years back to Space City North (as Houston had been Space City South for decades). Rockets were still launched, when necessary, from Florida or elsewhere, but portal transit central was the southern part of Dallas, period. I pulled into the shiny new complex just off Hampton Road and Ledbetter, parked in my reserved space, and meandered into our offices, which took up a good deal of the top floors of the largest of the four buildings in the complex. Only eight stories high, but with a nice view north to downtown Dallas, about eight miles away.

Bobby was pacing as I entered the management complex. “Jesus, it took you long enough.”

“And what was the hurry? We need more data before we can even have a clue what we need to do. Right?”

“Yeah, yeah. But if you’d hurried, I’da had somebody to worry with.”

True. Bobby was a champion worrier. You’d think a guy that stood six-nine-plus, looked like a gladiator, had an IQ of roughly one million—it had never been measured—and attracted females in any room he entered like a pile of horse dung entices flies wouldn’t have anything at all to worry about. Bzzzt. Wrong, and thank you for playing. Bobby was gay, extremely sensitive, and had suffered on and off from depression until he and I got together on the subway project. Some new meds and our work, which we both loved, had kept him on a more even keel. Except, he had never, ever, had a satisfying romance.

Every gay man who met him was just as attracted as the females, but for some reason, whenever he chose a romantic partner, Bobby punted it. We had now been partners in Triple-S for seven years, and every single romance evolved from “It’s perfect!” to an unmitigated disaster. Inevitably.

I had started out thinking that for such a handsome, capable superstar, his romantic debacles were ironically funny. But anymore, they were just sad.

I deduced immediately that his home front had become a battle zone. Sort of like mine, actually. So, I sat in the comfortable and expensive chair I had hand-picked years ago at the cluttered, disreputable desk I had owned since just after military service and said, “Let’s have it.”

It came out in a rush, as he paced around our office, going in and out of the adjoining door and looking more like a world-famous vid star than the chief technical officer of SSS. Joey was nice, but careless, always wanting money, never just satisfied to hang out. He didn’t understand, that is, really get good music, and read only comic books, or as Joey referred to them, “graphic novels.”

I immediately diagnosed the problem. Joey was ten years younger than Bobby, hated the idea of any sort of monogamous relationship, and while he was smart enough to be enrolled at a nearby university, he generally possessed the common sense of a gecko. Of course, he was as pretty as all the other guys Bobby fell for. What Bobby couldn’t figure out was that his real desire was for a good-looking guy his age with relatively high intelligence, a little artistic bent, and the ability to focus on anything for more than ten nanoseconds.

No convincing Bobby of that, so I simply sat and listened, which I knew helped. I have learned little from Glynnis in our extended, increasingly painful marriage, but maybe one thing is that when friends or relatives seek your solace, they don’t want a solution to their problem. They simply want a friendly ear, and maybe validation.

He finally asked—also inevitable—“What should I do?” I was ready with my normal reply. “Gee, Bobby, I have no idea. You could kick him out, of course. But other than that, I guess you have to just figure it out for yourself.”

“I can’t kick him out.” Completely reflexive. Despite his genius IQ, bushels of money, and movie-star looks, Bobby was at heart sweet, naive, and trusting. “He has no place to go.”

Except to one of his other lovers’ places—where he goes when you can’t track him down, I thought but didn’t say. What I did say was, “He’ll find another place, or he’ll come back begging for forgiveness.” I knew, of course, that if Bobby kicked him out, he was probably gone. Period.

He thought about what I’d said, and then the intra-subway com line started to jingle. Actually, it was more of a siren sound, irritating as hell. Kaley, I figured, from Mars Alpha, where she currently resided, working on some focus problems the portal had experienced the last few weeks. I grabbed the phone connection.

“Kaley?”

“Hey, boss, you’re really awake.”

“And no thanks to you. What have you heard?”

“Rhea Alpha called back, but they’re not well placed right now. Titan is more than ninety degrees away on the Saturnian plane from Rhea, and they got just a bit of info before com died.”

She stopped, so I prodded, “What is this, twenty questions? Do I have to guess the answers?”

“Sorry, nothing new. Anyway, I questioned that initial info from Rhea. Thing is, there is just about no bad weather on Titan. ’Course, it’s cold enough to freeze anything exposed solid, but a hurricane-sized wind on Titan is about twenty miles per hour. No bad storms, although they do get hydrocarbon rain from time to time. Nobody on station here can figure out what might have caused the damage.”

“Bobby and I thought it might be a cryovolcano,” I said. “After all, you get close to one of those things, and maybe the damage could be a lot worse than from rain.”

“What I thought. The problem, so they tell me, is that locations of most of the cryovolcanoes are well known, and new ones don’t just pop up, helter-skelter. So we’re left wondering just what caused the problem.”

“Is everybody on site okay?”

“No idea. As of now, that’s all we got. Like I told Bobby, the transmission from Titan was spotty, and got cut off very quickly.”

Okay, so we had a report of damage on Titan, bringing our ongoing portal tests to an abrupt halt. No word on status, other than problems at the on-site base and damage to at least one of the buildings and some of our equipment. I fought the temptation to say, “Thanks for nothin’.” It was definitely “nothin’,” but it wouldn’t be fair to Kaley, simply the messenger in this case.

“Okay, I’ll keep various appendages crossed, hoping that the next transmission from Titan Alpha has some useful info.”

“Me too.” She hung up, and I felt at least grateful that due to our portals, communication with the outer stations could still be kept virtually instantaneous.

Bobby was looking questions at me, so I replied, “Nothing new. A garbled message about damage at Titan Alpha, no detail as to source of the damage, but probably not due to a storm, as they are virtually nonexistent. Possibly a cryovolcano, which was our guess. Nothing definitive.”

He scratched his well-shaved head, looking less sad and introspective, at least for the moment. “Could it have been an accident? Maybe the crash of a shuttle or some such?”

“Kaley didn’t speculate. You know her. She’s a facts and data person.”

He nodded, silent. I pondered his sober exterior, wishing I could somehow cheer him up. Triple-S is five years and two hundred million dollars a year away from that first moon portal, with more than three hundred employees. And we’d have a lot more employees if we hadn’t turned over Earth-based portal construction and installation to our airline partner.

Both Bobby and I are worth over a billion in “paper wealth” apiece, mainly the value of our shares of stock in both our original company and our domestic airline partner. You would think, that being the case, that he would at least display a cheerful exterior part of the time. Not so. Bobby has a high-level angst generator that operates 24/7, and he never, ever puts on a happy face. Even on those rare occasions when he is happy, he tries to hide it.

As he wasn’t talking at present, I pondered what our approach would be if there were serious problems with the Titan portal. The first item would be to transport repair and/or replacement parts to Titan Alpha. I tried to plot a transit map in my mind. We had established portals on Mercury, Mars, Ganymede, Io, Europa, and Rhea. Actually, we had more than just a portal per planetoid. We had three on Mars, at Mars Alpha, Beta, and Delta bases; two on the moon (Alpha and Delta), two on Ganymede, and a second coming up soon on Io. And that didn’t count the portals now up and operational on Earth. We had also installed huge, “jumbo” portals on Ganymede Beta, Mars Alpha, and Luna Delta, as well as the jumbo in Fort Worth at the Space Command base.

It probably made the most sense to send any repair parts or subsystems via Mars Alpha to Rhea, then shuttle them to Titan the next time Rhea and Titan had a close pass. We wouldn’t even need the hyper-speed shuttles for that. Both Titan and Rhea were effectively in the equatorial plane of Saturn, with Rhea moving much the faster, as it lay far closer to its parent planet. Probably within a day or two after arrival on Rhea, the parts could be shuttled out to big brother Titan.

I finally focused on Bobby, still morose. “Sorry, I was plotting a route for repair parts, if needed. Hey, it’ll get better. It always does, even if you feel crappy right now.”

He managed an almost-grin. “That’s my pal, Scotty. Always sees the bright side.”

I grunted. Ha. “Not always. Want to hear the latest soap opera drama with Glynnis?”

“Hell, no. I feel bad enough now. Besides, you guys always seem to make up. I mean, what is it now… You been together like, uh, three years?”

“More than that. We’ve been married three years. But I think that’s about over.”

“How come?”

“Various things.” No use trying to explain the unexplainable. Or maybe it was explainable. Glynnis was a high-maintenance person. She liked lots of attention, lots of compliments, and regular presents that validated her self-worth. I’d put up with her attention requirements because she was (a) beautiful, (b) an imaginative and artful lover, and (c) on occasion, she could be warm, loving, and solicitous. Or at least, on occasion, she could act warm, loving, and solicitous.

Unfortunately, if she considered herself ignored for more than a few hours, she became snippy, abrasive, and spiteful. In that case, which was becoming by far the most common, she quit talking to me and went shopping or out with girlfriends. Or, I had begun to suspect, perhaps visiting one or more boyfriends. Being VP and chief engineer of Triple-S—formerly CEO until we brought in a seasoned pro—took up the majority of my time. That being the case, snippiness, abrasiveness, and spitefulness had become pretty much her preferred behavior, when I saw her at all. We hadn’t slept in the same bedroom for weeks.

Matter of fact, I couldn’t remember the last time I had actually seen her in the flesh. And as for “in the flesh” sans clothing, for what had once been rather pleasant interludes, it had been even longer. Glynnis readily agreed to frequent sex, although I had come to understand that it was probably to validate her opinion of herself as a sex goddess. As I no longer participated in such exercises with her, my conclusion could only be that such activity most probably continued to occur away from her domicile of residence.

The com system buzzed again, and I reached for it, Bobby still moping.

“Scotty, Kaley here.”

“Anything?”

“Yeah. We got something, just not sure what. Titan colony needs help, apparently. We got another short message burst, and it makes next to no sense.”

“What came through?”

“Just listen.”

She connected what must be a recording of the message. “Titan Alpha, req…” a short break, then “…age to main systems. A danger—” A string of static punctuated with garbled words that were indecipherable. “…too badly to preserve structural—” Another burst of static. “… lives lost. Send help. Repeat, we need hel—” More static, then the carrier faded.

“One more thing,” Kaley added. “That was the first message from Titan—came through during the evening when Rhea’s system is on auto. They don’t keep a com operator on third shift. The first shift op didn’t pick it up right away, as it contains so much static that it didn’t flag right off as a message. I described the second message as it was given to me, but no recording has been made available.”

I looked at Bobby, and for the first time, he was paying attention rather than moping. “No wonder they didn’t pick it up—it’s a mess,” he said. “What the hell is going on? Are there any solar storms? Where’s all the static coming from?”

“No idea. A quiet solar cycle. The more recent message was not any clearer, but we at least had an operator on duty and he picked it up, then began to scan the overnight data. Anyway, they got big problems, and nobody knows why. And communications just failed totally. We can’t raise them at all, on even the emergency frequencies. Titan com is dead.”

“Sounds like they need to get a shuttle over to Titan ASAP. What are the relative positions?”

“Rhea is coming up on a good launch position, maybe a quarter revolution behind Titan, within an Earth day or two. Rhea Alpha command is scrambling a shuttle right now.”

“Any way we can help?”

“Honestly, Scotty, until we have some real info, there’s not much we can do.”

I agreed. Bobby and I both hate to wait on anything, but in this case, nothing else made sense. “Call me.”

“Of course.” She disconnected.

I told Bobby the gist of our to-and-fro. He nodded and moped. Trying to prop up his mood, I said, “That investment group from New York called again yesterday.”

“Oh?” He didn’t show a lot of interest. Financial things were beside the point to Bobby.

“Yeah. They still want to do it, the sooner the better.”

Bobby finally looked up. His face said it before he did. “I forget the details.” Absolutely true. He could sketch every last wire and connection of the first vacuum fluctuation generator he had helped to design, probably draw a schematic on a napkin. But the details of an IPO? Forget it.

“Same as before. We go public, sell off twenty percent of the company, make the dealmakers a solid hundred mil, and us and the key employees about twice that. They argue that we need the rest of the money as cash to support operations. You know our cash flow has always been a bit thin. Super-Tech gets the biggest investor share.”

Super-Tech was our original angel, and though they had made a few bucks when another investor came in, they now wanted the glorious “major cash-out” that most startup investors covet. Since most startups don’t even get to that point, they were pushing. Time for reaping the profits of their capital investment. They’d divest eighty percent, we’d let go ten percent, and everybody would be rich and happy. At least that was their story, and they were sticking to it.

“You don’t like it,” he said softly.

“I don’t dislike it,” I countered. “I’m just not sure. Look, we don’t have to decide today, and you need time off. Let’s take a break, maybe fly out to my cabin in the Rockies and just hang out a day or two. We can come back if we have to, and if necessary, hop to Mars or wherever we’re needed, depending on what the Titan problem turns out to require. How about it?”

He hesitated; I could tell he liked the idea. One of the best cures for his depression was hanging around with me. I am neither as handsome, strong, capable, or smart as Bobby, but on the other hand, I don’t let anything bother me for very long, even my supremely irritating spouse.

Before he could answer, the local phone rang. Technically, our business line, our official connection to the outside world. I picked up the receiver and answered.

“Hays.”

“Scotty. Wow, on the first ring. I thought you executives were hard to get.”

Guy Smith, counsel for SSS. Also, my personal attorney, and a good friend. Automatically, I assumed that the IPO guys were upping the pressure. “Look, we haven’t made any decision about the deal yet. When we do—”

He cut me off. “Not that. I just had a communication from Glynnis’ lawyer. You probably ought to come over.”

Glynnis’ lawyer?

“What in the hell are you talking about?”

“Just come on over, okay? Now if possible.”

I hung up, looking over at Bobby. “I gotta go.”

“What’s up?”

“Not sure. But I suspect, as the old saying goes, with respect to my relationship with my dear, devoted wife, the fit has just hit the shan.”

Chapter 3

Worse Communications

Guy had been my personal attorney since I started accumulating a few bucks. There being no objection from our Triple-S president, Virgil Oliva, his partnership also became the official legal representatives for the firm.

Guy still served as my personal legal rep. When Glynnis and I had tied the knot, soon after Mars Alpha became established, he had insisted that, due to my considerable assets by that time, Glynnis sign a pre-nup. Of course, that applied only to my assets accumulated up to that point, and the bucks had continued to roll in since. However, as I let my SUV carry me on autopilot up to his offices in the older part of the city of Richardson, I found myself relieved that at least some of my belongings were protected. I suspected that dear, sweet G had decided to petition for divorce and intended to rape and pillage any joint assets that she could lay her greedy hands on.

The offices of Smith, Conner, Williamson, and Evans sat on the tenth floor of the high-rise (well, high for a mid-sized ’burb in the Dallas area) in one of the older parts of downtown Richardson, but still high enough for a good view west. Central Expressway, still fairly clogged with commuters straggling to work either in or near the center of downtown Dallas, lay just a few block’s walk away. Sitting at his desk and staring out onto the traffic jam, Guy said as I entered his office, “Best decision we ever made, moving out here from the middle of Big D.”

“You also made it a lot longer drive from our headquarter offices,” I reminded him, which I did every time we met. “And it’s still a fairly clogged drive from that mansion that used to belong to the former president of the US.”

I took a seat in one of two very comfortable client’s chairs before his desk. Extremely comfortable, in fact, posh and sleek, as one would expect when lounging in it cost the sitter something north of a thousand bucks per sixty minutes. This despite the fact that his office was relatively small and ordinary.

“Naw, not bad at all. It’s only about seven miles, but I take the backstreets and I know a lot of short cuts. Barely takes me fifteen minutes.”

“So what’s up?”

“You familiar with Houton and Evangel?”

“What, some rock group?”

“You’re such a kidder. They have about forty attorneys, including seven partners and a couple junior partners, specialize in divorce law. Apparently Glynnis has retained them to pursue a divorce action, with you named as the respondent. In addition to the petition for divorce, I believe her intent, as the old saying goes, is to take you to the cleaners.”

“I figured that was the deal. Our marriage, if you can call it that, has been going south for a couple years.” I considered. “You bullied me into setting up that pre-nup. Won’t that help?”

“Technically, it won’t preserve joint assets accumulated since the marriage, and those assets are a lot larger than three years ago. But I think it’s worse than that. In addition to half of everything you’ve gotten in the last seven years, H and E is going after the pre-nup, with her alleging about a thousand wrongdoings on your part. Your affairs, your abuse, so forth.

“Plus, she has had the locks changed on your home today, and moved your ‘essential living materials’ to a luxury suite in the new Ritz-Carlton Hotel on Central. You are locked out of your home and they have secured a cease-and-desist order, so that you cannot come within five hundred feet of your house.”

So angry that I could not control myself, I stood at attention, not even realizing at first that I had gotten erect. “Will you tell me how that is fucking possible? That is my house! I owned it for at least a year before we even started going together, and it is in the pre-nup!”

He simply stared at me until I sat. “Wow, Scotty. Geez, you’re so even-keeled I’m surprised at your reaction.”

I gradually settled back into the chair. “We’ve been headed this way for more than a year, Guy. But I mean, Jesus, why couldn’t she just come to me and say, ‘Hey, you know this isn’t working. Let’s just get a divorce.’ She knew she’d get a nice chunk of money.”

He shook his head. Guy is tall, bulky like most ex-football players only not very fat, married to a gorgeous blonde about ten years his junior, and nothing, I mean nothing, ever seems to surprise him. “Because she doesn’t just want a nice chunk. She wants a big fucking chunk.”

“She can’t take the house, for God’s sake. The pre-nup, which you put together, clearly states that was my previously-owned property.”

“You ever heard of that old saw, ‘Possession is nine-tenths of the law?’ Actually, it’s a misquote, but it illustrates a strong principle of law. In a property dispute, either real or personal, unless there is clear and compelling testimony or documentation to the contrary, the person in actual, custodial possession of the property is presumed to be the rightful owner.

“Technically, you can prove ownership. You also have the pre-nup, but in locking you out of the house without ready access, plus getting the court decree, she has basically taken the high ground. Even with our resources, it will take time to establish your ownership.”

“What about her assets? She’s a heavy hitter in her company, with plenty of assets on her own. I’d have claim to half of those as well, at least anything accumulated during our marriage.”

“True, and most of her assets were built up during the marriage. But given her charges in the divorce document, she’s going to try punishing you and retaining all her goodies, plus getting a bunch of yours. Besides, there’s the issue of relative wealth.”

Relative wealth?”

Guy raised his hands in an apologetic shrug. “I mean, on her own, she’s rich. But you’re one of the top Richie Rich’s in the area. She has more to gain than she does to lose.”

There was nothing to say to Guy’s summary, so I said it. I stared at him, my ego cracking, and any remaining affection for my spousal partner draining away to zero.

After an extending staring session, Guy’s face sympathetic and mine, I’m sure, vacillating between heartbroken and vengeful, I managed, “What do I do?”

“You don’t do anything. This is where I take over.”

I stood. All I wanted was to go home and go to bed—and now I couldn’t even do that. “What’s this going to cost me?”

He grinned. “Of course, there’ll be a fee. But I’ll tell you, Scotty, it won’t cost you a penny. Two can play this game. H and E is an okay firm, but they are not nearly as tricky and nasty as we can be. We retain a solid investigative firm that is as good as it gets. You know, the few times I met your wife, I didn’t like her. She thinks she’s pretty clever, but she’s about to learn what very clever is like. One of our partners could have put Machiavelli out of business in a week.”

My face must have been a mess. He frowned, saying, “Relax, Scotty. We’ll get through this.”

“You need to understand. She and her lawyers can hunt all they want, but I have never, ever been unfaithful to her. Who do they suggest I’ve been sleeping around with?”

The frown deepened. “Actually, they only mention one person. Carroll Sellers.”

“Kaley? Kaley! What a crock! We have never come close to an affair. She lost her husband in an accident years ago, and I think she’s still in mourning.”

“Really? I thought you and Kaley were pretty close.”

“We are. And I’m close to Bobby too, but we don’t have sex—I don’t play on that team anyway. Matter of fact, I’m closer to Bobby and Kaley than probably anybody in the world except for you and Connie. Do they have any proof?”

“Long trips off-world with Kaley, rendezvous in various Earth locations with same.”

“I’m not talking about what they claim. Do they have any proof?”

“If you mean pictures, receipts of a hotel stay with only one room, then I don’t think so, but they will still claim it, anyway.”

“If we can get to a trial, put Kaley on the stand. She will turn their lawyers into mincemeat.”

“It won’t get there. Like I said, we have some big guns on our side too. I would not be surprised to find that G has been stepping out a bit as well.

“Look, I checked with the hotel. I’ll send keys to your office. Go there when the time comes, have a couple of Jack Daniels and get some sleep. When we need you, we’ll call.

“When this is cleared up, you need to come over for grilled burgers and all the fixin’s. You know I still cook out a good bit.”

I managed a weak, probably very weak, smile. “That sounds good.”

“It will be good, the cook swears it. In the meantime, just hang loose and when you get too frustrated, remember that the enormous retainer we nick you for every year does have benefits.”

So I left his small, nondescript office—he had always hated to spend an extra dollar on fancy office décor, although a couple of his partners lavished their shares on theirs—and headed back across town to our headquarters. On the return, it’s a good thing I selected auto drive, as I had no idea what I was doing. Or thinking.

Bobby still sat in my office, exactly where I had left him two and a half hours ago. Not in one of the chairs in front of the desk, but on the sofa to the left side of my desk, against the outer building wall, by the broad window.

“Any word?”

He didn’t even stir, though he opened his eyes. Clearly, not sleeping. “No. Kaley called us on the intercom. The shuttle that Rhea is scrambling will take a day and a half to launch, until the relative position of Titan and Rhea sets the shuttle up for a quick trip. All we can do is wait.”

The “intercom” he referred to was the direct com link from Mars that vectored through an active portal. Earth and Mars had enough portals that an active wormhole was open nearly 100% of the time, keeping a com link live virtually all the time. Thus a com delay between Earth and Mars was seconds at most, rather than the tens of minutes it would take a radio message between the two planets. Plus, the power was a few watts rather than the kilowatts it would take to send a radio signal hundreds of millions of klicks, depending on the relative position of Earth to Mars.

Our president, Virgil Oliva, had dropped by for a status update, so I didn’t even bother to call him back, as Bobby had given him all we knew so far. I plopped into the super-chair behind my desk. It would even recline to about sixty-five degrees, a worthwhile napping declination.

“I guess we wait,” I said. I didn’t tell him about Glynnis. If I did, I’d get mad as hell, start yelling, and that would only make Bobby more depressed. And he was bad enough at present.

Bobby nodded and said nothing, still in his funk.

✽✽✽

We waited two days.

Bobby continued to fret and brood.

I lived in the hotel. Glynnis had the run of our house—my house—and the premises. She refused any communication. Guy texted me a reminder to stay away from our home and to stay cool. I brooded as much as Bobby, daydreaming about taking an old-style Smith and Wesson .357 revolver and putting a hole between wifey’s pretty blue eyes. Problem: the pistol collection also sat in my house. Let me stress: I am not generally a violent person—but I can daydream.

Then Kaley called.

Bobby and I had been meeting with our “What the hell did we connect with on that first lunar attempt five years ago?” team. Yes, we had kept it going, and so far, we had not managed to solve the main question. However, as is true of nearly every scientific effort in the research community, we had uncovered a bunch of new, salient facts about portal connection, which had made the operation of our Earth network far more efficient. Hurray for serendipity.

For example, we had learned that when you wanted to connect one portal to another specific portal, you had better assure that only the desired receiving portal (as we referred to the portal awaiting a connection) had better be active.

Any number of wormholes could be active at one time, that is sending portals connected to receiving portals. However, if more than one portal was active, but not connected, that is, awaiting a dial-in, there was no predicting which portal would grab the connection to a portal attempting a dial-in. And we were still learning new facts as we continued to experiment.

Just after noon on Thursday, the intercom line rang, and I picked it up, having returned to my office from grabbing a burger after the meeting. Bobby lurked in the lab, running some control cycles on new software we planned to install on all portal controllers in a few weeks.

“Kaley?”

“Oh, how sweet, you’ve been waiting to talk to me.”

“So I can receive a report on Titan. What’s the deal?”

“The deal is that we are now in position to launch the shuttle to Titan. It’s leaving in about thirty minutes. With the current Rhea-Titan juxtaposition, the shuttle can make the trip in about fourteen hours at full acceleration.”

I grumbled to myself. “I was hoping—”

She cut me off. “Hoping what? That Titan would slow down, or Rhea would speed up? It took time for Rhea to come around so that we could launch.”

“You said a day and a half.”

“Sue me. It took two friggin’ days, and what’s another twelve hours?”

“Women are so sensitive.”

“I would send you hate email except I know you’re just trying to get my goat.”

“So I am. Sorry, I’m in my hate-all-women mode.”

“What’d the big G do this time? Get mad over the fact that you’re working too hard and you can’t focus on her twenty-four-seven?”

Automatically, I leapt to Glynnis’ defense. “It’s not that she…” My voice trailed off. What the hell was I doing defending the woman who had just locked me out of the home that our pre-nup declared as my sole property? “Actually, I am taking out my frustration on you. Sorry.”

“What now?”

“She filed for divorce, changed the locks and won’t let me in my own home.”

“That witch with a ‘b.’ I never liked her.”

So, apparently more than just one of my associates hadn’t been particularly fond of my spousal counterpart. I wondered idly how many more of them disliked, couldn’t stand, or actively hated the big G.

“Thanks for your sympathy. Anything else, or did you just call to catch up on gossip?”

“Feeling sorry for ourselves, are we? Come over and I’ll buy you a Jack Black and water.”

“Mars is a bit far to come for a drink.”

“Are you kidding? It’s only fifty steps from your office with our private portal.”

“Yeah, but NASA, All-World Airlines, and the feds all pout when we schedule our private door for personal uses.”

“Not personal at all. If you haven’t got a notification already, the Navy wants you here on-site when we get the report from Rhea. As the shuttle is leaving in minutes, you need to be here about ten AM tomorrow, GMT. If I were you, given the hour, I’d pack an overnight bag and get on up here ASAP, so that you can grab a few hours’ sleep.”

“Do they want Bobby too?”

“The technical genius as well as the engineering manager genius? What do you think?”

“I don’t know what Bobby and I could do, that you can’t do. Why the devil do they want me there? Or Bobby, for that matter? It’s true he’s a genius, but this sounds like an issue that isn’t related to the portal.”

“Honest opinion? Just so you can guarantee that whatever the problem is, the company will get it fixed quick.”

I sighed. To tell the truth, Kaley was every bit as fast a mover as I was. But that “Executive VP of Engineering” thing always seems so important to VIP’s. “Okay, I’ll tell Bobby to pack up as well. See you in two hours. I am holding you to those drinks tonight.”

“Then you better hurry the hell up. You’re one of my favorite people, but I disturb my sleep for no one, and I am hitting the sack in exactly three hours, as it’s eight PM here.” Mars Alpha, as were all off-world bases, standardized its time to GMT.

“I’ll grab Bobby and see you soon.”

I hung up, my mind whirring. I’d have to get some of the lab staff to hang around and fire up the portal, plus get Bobby up to speed. No problem. It beat spending another night in that fancy, lonely hotel room.

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