JASON CALLAHAN is a physics major with a bright future who discovers a complex multiverse, becoming lost in dimensional webs far removed from his original self. His one desire in life is to go home, and he would if he knew where it was. For years, his world has changed around him again and again without warning, leaving him with new jobs, new friends, and new enemies. One of only a few travelers, Jason is able to slip between the many universes that make up his life, moving sideways from one reality to the next. He just can’t control it. Even worse, another traveler is trying to kill him, and his only assets are his wits, an uncle the family thinks is crazy, and a cryptic, alternate version of himself.
As if all that weren’t bad enough, someone out there is manipulating events to their own ends, and everyone is dancing to their tune. While many might lose their grip on reality, and others would simply give up, Jason hopes the next jump will take him home to the life and love he left behind.
When the universe calls, sometimes you just have to make a stand.
“Observe constantly that all things take place by change, and accustom thyself to consider that the nature of the Universe loves nothing so much as to change the things which are, and to make new things like them.” —Marcus Aurelius
“Tell me, Miles… just between you and me,” Flint said, leaning closer from the cot across the cell, “why did you kill him?” One of the fluorescent lights buried in the ceiling flickered and buzzed, turning the small room into a 3D version of a kinetoscope.
Miles turned his head in slow motion, tilting it—a praying mantis considering his next meal, then shrugged his shoulders. “I don’t know who you’re talkin’ about.” He returned to staring at the gray cell door.
“The Fed, man.” Flint sat on the edge of his cot, his right leg bouncing like a sewing machine.
Miles smiled. He remembered everything about that day, but he sure as hell wasn’t going to tell Flint about it. He was pretty sure the guy was an informant, anyway. The bulls brought the twitchy little man in last night and threw him in the holding cell with Miles. The room was small, but large enough to hold more than two, and Miles was sure a normal Saturday night would see at least ten stuffed in the cramped space. But more than anything else, what pricked Miles’ radar was the way the man sat—spring-tight nervous energy restrained through sheer force of will. It bubbled up like an old percolator, at once rhythmic and random. Like a junkie in dire need of a fix, but without the sunken and sallow appearance, the man’s eyes darted from Miles to the door beyond and back before each sentence he spoke.
Flint tried again. “What are you in for, then?”
Miles snorted and sneered. “Denver cops dragged me in a couple of days ago on a ‘drunk and disorderly’.” Tell the idiot only what he already knows, he thought. It was a trick he learned dealing with his daddy. Never, ever, answer more than the question required.
The other man raised an eyebrow, “Then why ya still in here?”
Miles chuckled and shook his head. “I was pretty fuckin’ disorderly,” he said.
Flint snickered. “Yeah, I bet you were. The cops said you sent one of ‘em to the hospital.” He said it weird… hosPital, like a kid would say it. Miles hated kids—hated worse the way they talked. Hated most of all the adults who spoke like children.
Miles pursed his lips and narrowed his eyes at Flint. “What did they get you for?”
“Ah, you know,” he waggled a hand, “a little o’ this, a little o’ that.”
“I hear ya.” Definitely an informant, Miles thought. It never ceased to amaze him how stupid cops were. He shook his head. As long as they don’t find the gun, they don’t have nothin’.
“You’ve come a long way, man. I heard you was a congressman or somethin’.”
Miles peered at him, eyes boring a hole through to the back of Flint’s head, his face a mask of pure bland.
Flint took a breath and let it out in a slow stream. The bouncing of his right leg was joined by his left. “Yeah, I heard whoever got that guy up in the mountains plugged him in the chest with a 45,” he said, his voice cracking.
“Do tell…” A picture flashed through Miles’ mind—his hands around this fool’s throat, carotid pulsing under calloused fingers, eyes bulging as the idiot’s smile became a rictus of pain. He tempered the grin threatening to split his face.
His outward calm masked the constant anger that seethed within, buzzing in the background like a swarm of cicadas. A well-practiced skill, it wasn’t born of hate, not even for his daddy. The anger was a part of him, applied to everyone equally. That changed the day the bastard from the FBI took his life away, frog-marching him in handcuffs down the Capitol steps in front of every camera the media could muster. Sure, he could sidestep this reality for something more to his liking, but that wasn’t enough. It would never be enough. If he were patient, the time for enough would come.
And Miles knew how to be patient. Forged by boot and lash, and honed by years of observation. “Miles,” his daddy would whisper as they watched the game trail from their deer stand, “be still. Listen.” Sometimes this was followed by a sharp slap to the back of his head. “You make one damn sound, you’ll scare ‘em off.” Slap. “Do that, an’ I’ll mount your head on the wall.” Miles never made a sound—never even moved. Not after that first time. His feet dangling over open space, the ground an infinite distance below to an eight year old, his father holding him by the throat.
Miles knew how to be patient.
It took years, but the opportunity arrived, and he followed his prey to the cabin in the woods, boots crunching against the gravel driveway. The man was vacationing alone in the mountains, and when he opened the door, recognition and surprise fought for control of his face. His eyes grew large and round as Miles shot him in the chest, his mouth forming the word “oh” with no breath to voice it.
It took him a while to die, too. Miles watched the whole time, memorizing every second as life ebbed. When it was over, Miles smiled.
I should go back and do that again, he thought. But why? Why not go back in the dance and get the fool earlier? Make something new. He could sidestep to a similar reality, and then go back to set things right. I don’t have to live this life. I can get it right on the next try! He grew hard at the idea, and reached down to rub the throbbing distraction. Flint recoiled, and Miles rubbed faster, bringing himself to the edge of climax while he grinned at the little man. He stopped, denying himself, breathing heavy and lustful, the muscles at the base of his stiff member clenching and relaxing in a rhythm guaranteed to hold back the flood.
The look on Flint’s face was priceless—a mixture of shock, disgust, and maybe a little desire, and Miles snapped his fingers in front of the man’s face to draw his attention up and away from Miles’ crotch. He slapped the other man on the leg, and said, “Thanks, officer. You’ve been a lot of help.” Miles tipped an imaginary cap, and said through a tight smile, “Gotta go now.”
His eyes lost focus, and he slumped back on his cot. Flint leaned forward to check on him, and then Miles sat up in a shot and drew a rasping breath. He looked around the room, then at Flint, and said, “Who the fuck are you?”
If ever there was a day for skipping class, this was it. The sky was blue without a cloud in sight, a faint chill in the air, and the pretty girls were out in force. Jason Callahan wasn’t much for skipping, but that didn’t mean he couldn’t enjoy the walk across campus. April on the campus of the University of Texas meant the women’s shorts were high, the t-shirts tight, and the blond pony tails swayed in rhythm when they walked. From his first day on campus, it seemed every girl was a perfect ten, and even now he still marveled at the sight. Jason smiled, shoved his hands in the front pockets of his faded jeans, and began the long walk across campus from Jester East to Moore Hall. He had at least an hour before his Quantum Three lecture, so he took his time, strolling with his usual lanky gate.
A tall and pretty redhead passed him going the other way, dipped her chin and smiled as she reached up to brush a spray of hair over her ear. He smiled back, almost turning, when his cell buzzed once in his back pocket.
Kat always knew. Jason might not stray, but he was an unredeemable flirt.
He stifled a laugh, then pulled the phone from his pocket to check the text message.
Lunch after class?
He poked large fingers at the screen, correcting several times, Only if I don’t have questions for the prof after, then hit send.
Less than a minute later the phone buzzed again with the message, As if.
This time he did laugh.
Kat knew him better than he knew himself. She was always a step ahead of him in life, and he was grateful for it. There were times he grew complacent his first year, but when she joined him on campus in his second things shaped right up. He shaped up. It was the same throughout middle and high school. From the day they first met she was his personal drill sergeant, urging him to “get his shit together.” Nothing she said or did ever felt as if she were nagging, though his friends laughed every time she pulled him into line.
Which is often.
The air was dry that morning, the early fog shooed away by a demanding sun, so he parked under a tree and watched other students hurry to their classes. Urgent and earnest freshmen were easy to spot, as were the sophomores convinced they knew everything. Seniors seldom made their presence known outside of class, grinding to finish what they started. Juniors were a different breed altogether. Members of the student body long enough to know the ropes, but still just students rather than soon-to-be-graduates.
Kat was only a sophomore, but she knew the best places to eat (Conan’s), where the best music was on sixth street (a running debate), and when to avoid that area altogether (ROT Rally). An Army brat, she soon adjusted to each new environment, and was already an Austin native while he still felt like an outsider. Coming to Austin was, for him, like stepping on a new planet; every social gathering a First Contact situation fraught with diplomatic danger.
Keep Austin Weird! The shirt, worn by a shambling dreadlocked sophomore, yelled at him in all-caps as the boy passed. The cannabis is strong with this one, Jason thought with a smile. He had one of the t-shirts stuffed in a drawer in his dorm, too self-conscious to wear it. The damn thing felt like a statement on his own personality, rather than the odd-ball parts of the city.
“How long you gonna stand there watchin’ the girls like a creeper?” Jason’s roommate, Dan, slipped in beside him and leaned against the tree.
“Damn, dude. Never saw you comin’.”
“Too busy scopin’ trim,” Dan said, smiling. “If I’d a been a snake, I’d a bit ya.” He waggled his eyebrows as his mouth snapped.
Jason laughed. Dan wasn’t as dense as the Central Texas twang led most people to believe. Jason was sure it was a deliberate act on Dan’s part—like Jason learning Spanish without ever telling anyone. It made for a major advantage at times. Although with no one to practice on, he was forced to watch telenovelas on the Spanish language channels when no one was around.
“And I’m not girl watching,” Jason protested.
“Hey, I won’t tell Kat if you don’t.” Dan grinned again, “I don’t want to have to clean the blood off the floor when she cuts yer nuts off.”
“True that,” Jason said, and lifted a fist to bump knuckles with his roommate.
“You comin’ out to play some pool tonight?”
“Nah. Gotta work in the lab until nine.” Other than his grants and scholarships, it was his only source of income. He worked hard to avoid the student loan trap that snared so many of his friends, but those programs only went so far. Work-study was a joke in many departments, but Physics seemed to get it. They worked him hard, but with enough pay and hours to make ends meet.
“Too bad,” Dan said with mock sympathy. He raised an eyebrow and grinned. “Guess I’ll have to entertain Kat for ya.”
Jason laughed. “Yeah,” he said, smirking. “You let me know how that works out for you.”
Dan smiled, then checked the time on his cell. “Shit! I’m late for class. Again.” He looked around at the bevy of young ladies, then to the sky like he was beseeching a deity. “Fuck it,” he said. “Just Geology anyway.” Everyone on campus called it Rocks for Jocks, and was famous as the only lab science you could pass without ever setting foot in a lecture. Dan set his backpack on the ground, fished around inside, then pulled out a beat up Frisbee. “Wanna toss it around a while?”
“Damn, Dan, that’s some serious old-school shit, there,” Jason said, shaking his head. He pulled his cell out of his pocket, checked the time. “I’ve got exactly twenty minutes.”
“If you’re that interested, Jason, you know Feynman’s lectures are available on the internet.” The lecture today didn’t answer all his questions, and as usual, he spent the time on the way out drilling the professor for more.
“But what about situations arising from having two independent single spin waves? The energies you calculated on the board seemed a bit off. Here...” Jason took out a pen and looked for something to write on, but Kat stepped away from the wall by the door and took his arm.
“Dr. Harrell probably wants to go to lunch, Jason,” she said, steering him with a gentle nudge away from the harried man. “Just like I do,” she finished with a smile. From the first day Jason met her, it was the smile that bridled him.
“Next week, then,” he said to Dr. Harrell, allowing Kat to pull him away. She hooked an arm into his, handing over her book bag for him to carry.
She frowned, looking him over. “Don’t you ever carry any books or paper to your classes?”
“Nah. I like to travel light.”
“How do you take notes?”
He tapped the side of his head with a forefinger, “It’s all up here, babe.”
“You always took notes in high school,” she said, squinting at him. “And don’t call me babe.”
“That was mostly for you. That and I hated all the other subjects in high school. It was all I could do just to stay awake in class.” He smiled. “Here—especially this year—everything I’m taking is something I’m interested in.” He leaned over and kissed her on the cheek. “You’ll notice I have never taken notes about you, either.”
She rested her head on his shoulder as they walked. “What day was our first kiss?”
“Maybe you should take notes,” she said, laughing.
Part of him wanted to complain that no one kept track of such things, but the rational part knew better than to voice it. That path only led to a full-blown argument rather than playful teasing. Most of his friends had been through several girlfriends in the time he had been with Kat, and they often asked him how—some meaning why—he stayed in one relationship so long. It’s all in knowing when to keep your mouth shut, he thought. Knowing when to pick your battles, and when to surrender. Neither of which had anything to do with being right.
“So, where are you taking me for lunch?”
He looked down and smiled. “We could walk back to Jester,” he said. “I’ve got plenty on my meal card. My treat.”
“I’ve got a biology lab in an hour.”
“Kismet Cafe, then?” he shrugged.
“Sure. I’ll buy, though.”
“Hey, I got this,” he said, sniffing.
“You got any cash or a credit card on you?”
“Like I said, Mr. Callahan. I’ll buy today.”
And that, apparently, was that. There was no arguing with her once she last-named him. Jason still bristled at the idea of her paying for so much—his upbringing so steeped in the male mystique—but it wasn’t as if she didn’t have the funds. She rode in her freshman year flush with scholarships and lots of cash from her parents. And even though she didn’t need to work, she still put in a few hours every week tutoring local students for extra money. Money he knew would help him with his expenses.
Money was fungible, as the economics majors were fond of saying, so he couldn’t get shake the idea the engagement ring with the tiny diamond he had hidden in his dresser was paid for with her money. Ah, well, he thought with an inward sigh, at least if she says no, she gets her money back.
“So serious,” she said, snuggling close. “What are you thinking about?”
“I’m thinking if we don’t hurry, you’ll miss your lab and my stomach will eat itself.”
She laughed as he picked up the pace, matching him stride for stride.
The Computational Physics lab was as quiet as a library. Most students wouldn’t begin serious study for another couple of weeks. Tonight it was just the regulars. Those guys—and a few gals—who never got enough time on the mainframe.
Jason sat at the desk, overseeing the students working at their stations, occasionally helping them with a problem, but mostly reading. That was the study part of work-study that most departments got wrong. They worked their students ragged, leaving little time to read or do homework. In Physics, the job was monotonous, but also secondary. The exact opposite of the athletic department.
More than once, Jason thanked the stars he never took that bait in middle school. The coaches saw his size and athletic ability, first courting, and then haranguing him to join their programs. Too many of his friends in school fell victim to the pitch, and he rarely saw them after the beast swallowed them up. Most were now working in menial jobs, without a decent education, ground up by the football machinery of the state. A few got athletic scholarships to small universities. There they would again be sacrificed to the football gods for four or five years and still not have a marketable education to show for their troubles.
Jason closed his book in disgust after reading the same passage for the third time. It was Hugh Everett’s The Theory of the Universal Wavefunction, and needed all his attention to understand it. Everett was an early pioneer in cosmology, though he left the field soon after publishing the thesis in Jason’s hands. He tossed the book to the desk, and reached for another, more recent book from the stack. This one, Roger Penrose’s Shadows of the Mind, was one he read in high school. It was only in the last year he had gained enough grounding in quantum theory to understand everything in it.
He was on the right track, he thought, but Everett’s right... I think the wave function doesn’t collapse to a single state.
Jason agreed with Penrose on one topic, though—artificial intelligence was a dead end. Most of his friends in computer science thought otherwise, and would debate him on this until late in the night. Dan thinks we will all one day bow to our robot overlords, Jason thought with a smile. Of course, Dan also thinks Hogwarts is a real place.
He checked the clock on the wall. “’Bout time to call it a night, guys. Start saving your work and shutting things down.” There were a few groans from the far end of the room where a group gathered around a single monitor, but most packed their books and papers. He tossed the second book on the desk near the first and stood to stretch his legs.
As he stepped away from the desk, he glanced to where the two books lay and stopped. He reached down and turned them, lining them up side by side and shifting his gaze from one to the other. Back and forth, over and over, while his mind raced.
“Ha!” he almost yelled. “That’s it!”
The students looked up to see what the commotion was about, but Jason was already sitting again and grabbing for a pencil and paper. After almost an entire semester of hand-wringing, he now had the subject for his senior honors thesis. Jason had almost given up hope he would find a suitable subject, several of his lesser ideas already rejected by his adviser.
Everyone smiled at him, shook their heads, and walked quietly out of the room. This wasn’t the first time they witnessed such a reaction from an upper-level undergrad, and Jason knew each one prayed it wouldn’t take them this long to figure it out.
“I’m telling you, Dan... this is it!” Back in his dorm room, surrounded by piles of notes and books, Jason sat on the edge of his chair. Dan had just walked into the room from a night of playing pool when Jason forced him to sit and listen.
“Can it at least wait until I’m sober?” Dan whined, sitting on the edge of his bed and struggling to pull off his shoes and socks. After a few tugs the second shoe came off, nearly hitting him in the head, and he dropped everything to the floor. They joined the growing mound of discarded clothes in the to-be-washed pile. He stared at the collection like he expected them to dance.
“Nah. You’re in the exact state of mind to hear this,” Jason said, grinning. “It’s pretty out there.”
“Dude... it’s almost one, and I’ve got an early class tomorrow.”
“Then you shouldn’t have stayed out late and gotten liquored up.”
Dan eyed Jason for a long time, eyelids straining under some unseen weight, and then scrubbed his face with both hands. “Okay, roomie,” he said, waving his hand in a gimme gesture, “shoot.”
“It has to do with why there will probably never be true self-aware artificial intelligence,” he began.
“Ah hell, Jay, are we gonna have that argument again? ‘Cuz let me tell ya, I think I’d rather sleep.”
“Notice I said probably this time. I’ll lay out the conditions for it in a bit, but first...” he picked up the two books he had been reading in the lab and held them out to Dan. After a few seconds Dan snorted and snatched them from Jason’s hand. “Penrose says there can’t be true artificial intelligence because what’s happening in the human brain is quantum-related and can’t be replicated in silicon.”
“I’ve heard this shit before, buddy. What else ya got?”
“It also means even a quantum computer couldn’t pull it off because we are still dealing with algorithms that mimic intelligence, and since real consciousness is rising from a purely non-algorithmic collapse to a single state, it won’t work.”
“And I still say Penrose is full o’ shit.”
Jason held his hands in front, waving them like a carnival barker as he spoke. “Here’s the cool part,” he pointed at the second book. “Everett there says the quantum wavefunction never collapses to a single state.”
“Yeah, I know,” Dan said, sobering. “That’s the multiple worlds interpretation guy, right?” He sneered and shook his head. “What’s one thing got to do with the other?”
“What if they’re both right?”
Dan tilted his head and raised an eyebrow, almost falling over in the process. “I’m not sure I follow. How can two mutually exclusive ideas be both right?”
“Here’s where my genius shines! Because the wavefunction only collapses locally.” Jason stood, his body quaking with a barely restrained energy. Dan looked up at him, his eyes unfocused and uncomprehending. Jason paced as he spoke. “It’s like this... all the quantum realities exist like branches on a tree, each decision marking a new path. The decision that marks the branch is the outward expression of a wavefunction collapsing to a single state, but the branching itself represents the universal wavefunction which never collapses!”
“What else looks like branches on a tree?”
“Jesus, Dan. You, of all people should—”
“Got it in one,” Jason said, grinning. “Or infinity. Depends on your point of view, I guess,” he said, rubbing the two-day stubble on his chin. “Penrose believes there’s a quantum effect in the rise of intelligence and consciousness, and he’s correct, but wrong in the process. I think maybe it’s all about the network. From the day you are born—earlier, really—you make choices, branching off new universes with a version of yourself in each one. A you for every possible decision you could have made. But the branches constitute a network in a massively parallel quantum computer that is the source of sentience.” He took a deep breath, “That’s where the you comes from. Our consciousness arises naturally from the growth of the network.”
“Are you sure?”
Jason laughed and sat on his chair again. “Oh, hell no. I’m pulling most of this straight out of my ass.” He swiveled in the chair to pull some papers off the desk behind him. “Some of these concepts have already been explored in other papers I’ve found.” He held up a sheaf, waving it behind him a Dan, “Albert and Loewer”, then another, “H. Dieter Zeh. All pointing to what they call the many minds interpretation.” He bent to the desk and snagged a pencil. “I'll have to change my whole schedule for next year, and take a couple of extra classes this summer. The math alone...”
Soon he was muttering to himself as he worked out an outline for his approach, Dan snoring like a chainsaw behind him.
“What did you mean last night about the conditions for AI?” Dan was pulling clothes from the “clean” pile beside his bed, taking a sniff, then laying them out for inspection. Occasionally he rejected one after the initial sniff and tossed it to the “to be washed” pile on the other side. Not a single piece had ever seen the inside of the dresser, as far as Jason knew, and the system—while odd and disorganized—worked for Dan.
“So you weren’t completely out of it,” Jason said with a grin. He had showered and dressed before Dan woke, and was already working on his outline again. The fact he hadn’t slept never crossed his mind.
“Not completely, no,” he said, rubbing his head. For Dan, this was known as “combing his hair.” Little more than stubble most of the time, the jet black matte refused to do much more than just lay there. Dan scrounged in the nightstand next to his bed, pulled out a bottle of ibuprofen, and popped two in his mouth. “I clearly remember,” he said around the pills, “you saying something about certain conditions allowing for an AI to be conscious.”
Jason set the pencil down on the stack of papers and swiveled his chair to face his friend. “If that AI, even algorithm-based, is running in a quantum computer and allowed to make its own decisions, then it’s a possibility.” He tapped Penrose’s book beside him for emphasis. “There are physical structures—microtubules—in the human brain that, in theory, operate on a quantum level. It’s my hypothesis they could be responsible for the network connections throughout the multiverse that give rise to consciousness. If those structures can be mimicked in hardware...” he raised his hands and shrugged his shoulders.
“Can they be mimicked?”
“Haven’t a clue. It’s out of my field.”
“Probably out of mine, too,” Dan said, shaking his head. “I’m just a computer science geek, and I have a feeling this is gonna be way more complicated than your typical IT troubleshooting.”
Jason chuckled. Dan was always selling himself short. Like he actually believes the image he projects of himself. “Not every computer science geek has read Penrose or Everett,” Jason said.
“I blame you, roomie,” Dan said with a short laugh, then grabbed a pillow and threw it like a frisbee at Jason’s head. Instead it bounced off his chest and fell to the floor near the “to be washed” pile.
“You’re gonna know even more before I’m through,” he said with a wink. “I’ve gotta bounce my ideas off someone.”
“What about Kat?”
“I try not to talk about this stuff around her. Puts her right to sleep.”
“I don’t know, Jay,” Dan said, rubbing his head again, “Maybe a biology major would be of some use to you, donchathink?”
He hadn’t considered that. Physics bored Kat to tears, and was a lousy topic of conversation on a date. After the first few times he tried to talk about his classes, watching her eyes glaze over, he avoided the topic like health-food. Now there was a possibility of overlap. He needed a lot of information in the field of biology—specifically the human brain—and that just happened to be Kat’s focus. If nothing else, she could at least guide him to the right sources. Internet searches only went so far.
“I’ll take the silence and the stupid look on your face as a yes,” Dan said, watching him. “Personally, I think yer full ‘o shit, but what do I know?” he said with a shrug. He dressed in slow motion, careful not to move around too much, then sat on the edge of the bed and bent to retrieve a shoe. “Ah, hell,” he said, then ran out of the room and down the hall to the communal bathroom. The sounds of retching reached Jason’s ears, but none of the odor made it through the door. After several minutes and two or three flushes, Dan staggered back inside. The color had leached from his face, but he stood a little straighter.
Jason gave him an evil grin. “Ready for breakfast?”
Dan’s face twisted, turned a dull green, spun on his heels, and ran back the way he came.
“I would feel sorry for you,” Jason yelled at his back, “but I seem to remember you serving me runny eggs the last time I was in your shoes.”
The retching was louder this time.
Miles Henderson scraped the last of the eggs from the plastic plate and shoved the fork into his mouth. The other students at the table had just begun their meal, but Miles learned early in the Navy to shovel it in fast. He finished his one and only hitch three years ago, but those lessons suffered a slow death.
Something they have in common with my dad, he thought as he chewed. That was long behind him, and if the cops hadn’t connected the dots by now, they never would. The fact he joined the Navy two weeks after his father disappeared hung a big red arrest me sign around his neck, but small-town Texas constabulary being what it was, they were still trying to figure out how to spell his name.
Keeping his temper in check during his time in the Navy was a simple task after living with his daddy. He mastered early the required attitude of obsequious deference to his so-called “superiors.” Mastered it well enough to reach the rank of Petty Officer, 3rd Class—his CO even offering him 2nd Class just for re-upping—but the first four were more than enough for Miles. Enough to sock away as much cash as he could, and earn his GI Bill benefits.
Three years at Lamar University, in that dank armpit of a city known as Beaumont, he had enough left over from the GI Bill stipend and his savings to pay for a Masters. A year from now he would join the class of 2014 and graduate with a degree in Poly-Sci, then slide into a graduate program in Public Administration. For the first time in his life, things were looking up. Volunteering at his local congressman’s campaign headquarters earned him the connections he desired most, and there was already a position waiting for him when he graduated.
“Hey Miles, what’s got you smilin’ today?” Bill Oaks poked at Miles at every opportunity, always on the lookout for the man’s temper, and for some unfathomable reason disappointed every time the bait was ignored.
“Nothing you would understand, Billy.” Miles’ grin broadened as the other man stiffened. Bill Oaks hated being called Billy. “Just contemplating world domination.”
The others laughed, some at Miles—but a couple at Bill—and Miles gathered his trash and stood. “Sorry boys, I’ve got a fact-finding tour today at the Exxon plant,” he winked. “Can’t keep the congressman waiting, you know.”
“You still volunteering for that asshole?” another boy asked.
“Yep, and for as long as it takes,” Miles said. He walked a couple of steps, then turned and said, “I’ve got your US History paper ready for you, Billy, if you’ve got the cash.” He smiled down at him, and the boy’s face reddened. “Catch ya later.”
He wouldn’t. The fire at the refinery later that morning would see to that.