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"Anyone who is not shocked by quantum theory does not understand it."
NEILS BOHR, 1927
"Nobody understands quantum theory."
RICHARD FEYNMAN, 1967
He should never have taken that shortcut.
Dan Baker winced as his new Mercedes S500 sedan bounced down the dirt road, heading deeper into the Navajo reservation in northern Arizona. Around them, the landscape was increasingly desolate: distant red mesas to the east, flat desert stretching away in the west. They had passed a village half an hour earlier - dusty houses, a church and a small school, huddled against a cliff - but since then, they'd seen nothing at all, not even a fence. Just empty red desert. They hadn't seen another car for an hour. Now it was noon, the sun glaring down at them. Baker, a forty-year-old building contractor in Phoenix, was beginning to feel uneasy. Especially since his wife, an architect, was one of those artistic people who wasn't practical about things like gas and water. His tank was half-empty. And the car was starting to run hot.
"Liz," he said, "are you sure this is the way?"
Sitting beside him, his wife was bent over the map, tracing the route with her finger. "It has to be," she said. "The guidebook said four miles beyond the Corazn Canyon turnoff."
"But we passed Corazn Canyon twenty minutes ago. We must have missed it."
"How could we miss a trading post?" she said.
"I don't know." Baker stared at the road ahead. "But there's nothing out here. Are you sure you want to do this? I mean, we can get great Navajo rugs in Sedona. They sell all kinds of rugs in Sedona."
"Sedona," she sniffed, "is not authentic."
"Of course it's authentic, honey. A rug is a rug."
"Okay." He sighed. "A weaving."
"And no, it's not the same," she said. "Those Sedona stores carry tourist junk - they're acrylic, not wool. I want the weavings that they sell on the reservation. And supposedly the trading post has an old Sandpainting weaving from the twenties, by Hosteen Klah. And I want it."
"Okay, Liz." Personally, Baker didn't see why they needed another Navajo rug - weaving - anyway. They already had two dozen. She had them all over the house. And packed away in closets, too.
They drove on in silence. The road ahead shimmered in the heat, so it looked like a silver lake. And there were mirages, houses or people rising up on the road, but always when you came closer, there was nothing there.
Dan Baker sighed again. "We must've passed it."
"Let's give it a few more miles," his wife said.
"How many more?"
"I don't know. A few more."
"How many, Liz? Let's decide how far we'll go with this thing."
"Ten more minutes," she said.
"Okay," he said, "ten minutes."
He was looking at his gas gauge when Liz threw her hand to her mouth and said, "Dan!" Baker turned back to the road just in time to see a shape flash by - a man, in brown, at the side of the road - and hear a loud thump from the side of the car.
"Oh my God!" she said. "We hit him!"
"We hit that guy."
"No, we didn't. We hit a pothole."
In the rearview mirror, Baker could see the man still standing at the side of the road. A figure in brown, rapidly disappearing in the dust cloud behind the car as they drove away.
"We couldn't have hit him," Baker said. "He's still standing."
"Dan. We hit him. I saw it."
"I don't think so, honey."
Baker looked again in the rearview mirror. But now he saw nothing except the cloud of dust behind the car.
"We better go back," she said.
Baker was pretty sure that his wife was wrong and that they hadn't hit the man on the road. But if they had hit him, and if he was even slightly injured - just a head cut, a scratch - then it was going to mean a very long delay in their trip. They'd never get to Phoenix by nightfall. Anybody out here was undoubtedly a Navajo; they'd have to take him to a hospital, or at least to the nearest big town, which was Gallup, and that was out of their way -
"I thought you wanted to go back," she said.
"Then let's go back."
"I just don't want any problems, Liz."
"Dan. I don't believe this."
He sighed, and slowed the car. "Okay, I'm turning. I'm turning."
And he turned around, being careful not to get stuck in the red sand at the side of the road, and headed back the way they had come.
Baker pulled over, and jumped out into the dust cloud of his own car. He gasped as he felt the blast of heat on his face and body. It must be 120 degrees out here, he thought.
As the dust cleared, he saw the man lying at the side of the road, trying to raise himself up on his elbow. The guy was shaky, about seventy, balding and bearded. His skin was pale; he didn't look Navajo. His brown clothes were fashioned into long robes. Maybe he's a priest, Baker thought.
"Are you all right?" Baker said as he helped the man to sit up on the dirt road.
The old man coughed. "Yeah. I'm all right."
"Do you want to stand up?" he said. He was relieved not to see any blood.
"In a minute."
Baker looked around. "Where's your car?" he said.
The man coughed again. Head hanging limply, he stared at the dirt road.
"Dan, I think he's hurt," his wife said.
"Yeah," Baker said. The old guy certainly seemed to be confused. Baker looked around again: there was nothing but flat desert in all directions, stretching away into shimmering haze.
No car. Nothing.
"How'd he get out here?" Baker said.
"Come on," Liz said, "we have to take him to a hospital."
Baker put his hands under the man's armpits and helped the old guy to his feet. The man's clothes were heavy, made of a material like felt, but he wasn't sweating in the heat. In fact, his body felt cool, almost cold.
The old guy leaned heavily on Baker as they crossed the road. Liz opened the back door. The old man said, "I can walk. I can talk."
"Okay. Fine." Baker eased him into the back seat.
The man lay down on the leather, curling into a fetal position. Underneath his robes, he was wearing ordinary clothes: jeans, a checked shirt, Nikes. He closed the door, and Liz got back in the front seat. Baker hesitated, remaining outside in the heat. How was it possible the old guy was out here all alone? Wearing all those clothes and not sweating?
It was as if he had just stepped out of a car.
So maybe he'd been driving, Baker thought. Maybe he'd fallen asleep. Maybe his car had gone off the road and he'd had an accident. Maybe there was someone else still trapped in the car.
He heard the old guy muttering, "Left it, heft it. Go back now, get it now, and how."
Baker crossed the road to have a look. He stepped over a very large pothole, considered showing it to his wife, then decided not to.
Off the road, he didn't see any tire tracks, but he saw clearly the old man's footprints in the sand. The footprints ran back from the road into the desert. Thirty yards away, Baker saw the rim of an arroyo, a ravine cut into the landscape. The footprints seemed to come from there.
So he followed the footsteps back to the arroyo, stood at the edge, and looked down into it. There was no car. He saw nothing but a snake, slithering away from him among the rocks. He shivered.
Something white caught his eye, glinting in the sunlight a few feet down the slope. Baker scrambled down for a better look. It was a piece of white ceramic about an inch square. It looked like an electrical insulator. Baker picked it up, and was surprised to find it was cool to the touch. Maybe it was one of those new materials that didn't absorb heat.
Looking closely at the ceramic, he saw the letters ITC stamped on one edge. And there was a kind of button, recessed in the side. He wondered what would happen if he pushed the button. Standing in the heat, with big boulders all around him, he pushed it.
He pushed it again. Again nothing.
Baker climbed out of the ravine and went back to the car. The old guy was sleeping, snoring loudly. Liz was looking at the maps. "Nearest big town is Gallup."
Baker started the engine. "Gallup it is."
Back on the main highway, they made better time, heading south to Gallup. The old guy was still sleeping. Liz looked at him and said, "Dan . . ."
"You see his hands?"
"What about them?"
Baker looked away from the road, glanced quickly into the back seat. The old guy's fingertips were red to the second knuckle. "So? He's sunburned."
"Just on the tips? Why not the whole hand?"
"His fingers weren't like that before," she said. "They weren't red when we picked him up."
"Honey, you probably just didn't notice them."
"I did notice, because he had a manicure. And I thought it was interesting that some old guy in the desert would have a manicure."
"Uh-huh." Baker glanced at his watch. He wondered how long they would have to stay at the hospital in Gallup. Hours, probably.
The road continued straight ahead.
Halfway to Gallup, the old guy woke up. He coughed and said, "Are we there? Are we where?"
"How are you feeling?" Liz said.
"Feeling? I'm reeling. Fine, just fine."
"What's your name?" Liz said.
The man blinked at her. "The quondam phone made me roam."
"But what's your name?"
The man said, "Name same, blame game."
Baker said, "He's rhyming everything."
She said, "I noticed, Dan."
"I saw a TV show on this," Baker said. "Rhyming means he's schizophrenic."
"Rhyming is timing," the old man said. And then he began to sing loudly, almost shouting to the tune of the old John Denver song:
"Quondam phone, makes me roam,
to the place I belong,
old Black Rocky, country byway,
quondam phone, it's on roam."
"Oh boy," Baker said.
"Sir," Liz said again, "can you tell me your name?"
"Niobium may cause opprobrium. Hairy singularities don't permit parities."
Baker sighed. "Honey, this guy is nuts."
"A nut by any other name would smell like feet."
But his wife wouldn't give up. "Sir? Do you know your name?"
"Call Gordon," the man said, shouting now. "Call Gordon, call Stanley. Keep in the family."
"But, sir - "
"Liz," Baker said, "leave him alone. Let him settle down, okay? We still have a long drive."
Bellowing, the old man sang: "To the place I belong, old black magic, it's so tragic, country foam, makes me groan." And immediately, he started to sing it again.
"How much farther?" Liz said.
He telephoned ahead, so when he pulled the Mercedes under the red-and-cream-colored portico of the McKinley Hospital Trauma Unit, the orderlies were waiting there with a gurney. The old man remained passive as they eased him onto the gurney, but as soon as they began to strap him down, he became agitated, shouting, "Unhand me, unband me!"
"It's for your own safety, sir," one orderly said.
"So you say, out of my way! Safety is the last refuge of the scoundrel!"
Baker was impressed by the way the orderlies handled the guy, gently but still firmly, strapping him down. He was equally impressed by the petite dark-haired woman in a white coat who fell into step with them. "I'm Beverly Tsosie," she said, shaking hands with them. "I'm the physician on call." She was very calm, even though the man on the gurney continued to yell as they wheeled him into the trauma center. "Quondam phone, makes me roam. . . ."
Everybody in the waiting room was looking at him. Baker saw a young kid of ten or eleven, his arm in a sling, sitting in a chair with his mother, watching the old man curiously. The kid whispered something to his mother.
The old guy sang, "To the plaaaaace I belongggg. . . ."
Dr. Tsosie said, "How long has he been this way?"
"From the beginning. Ever since we picked him up."
"Except when he was sleeping," Liz said.
"Was he ever unconscious?"
"Any nausea, vomiting?"
"And you found him where? Out past Corazn Canyon?"
"About five, ten miles beyond."
"Not much out there," she said.
"You know it?" Baker said.
"I grew up around there." She smiled slightly. "Chinle."
They wheeled the old man, still shouting, through a swinging door. Dr. Tsosie said, "If you'll wait here, I'll get back to you as soon as I know something. It'll probably be a while. You might want to go get lunch."
Beverly Tsosie had a staff position at University Hospital in Albuquerque, but lately she'd been coming to Gallup two days a week to be with her elderly grandmother, and on those days she worked a shift in the McKinley Trauma Unit to make extra money. She liked McKinley, with its modern exterior painted in bold red and cream stripes. The hospital was really dedicated to the community. And she liked Gallup, a smaller town than Albuquerque, and a place where she felt more comfortable with a tribal background.
Most days, the Trauma Unit was pretty quiet. So the arrival of this old man, agitated and shouting, was causing a lot of commotion. She pushed through the curtains into the cubicle, where the orderlies had already stripped off the brown felt robes and removed his Nikes. But the old man was still struggling, fighting them, so they had to leave him strapped down. They were cutting his jeans and the plaid shirt away.
Nancy Hood, the senior unit nurse, said it didn't matter because his shirt had a big defect anyway; across the pocket there ran a jagged line where the pattern didn't match. "He already tore it and sewed it back together. You ask me, pretty lousy job, too."
"No," said one of the orderlies, holding up the shirt. "It's never been sewn together, it's all one piece of cloth. Weird, the pattern doesn't line up because one side is bigger than the other. . . ."
"Whatever, he won't miss it," Nancy Hood said, and tossed it on the floor. She turned to Tsosie. "You want to try and examine him?"
The man was far too wild. "Not yet. Let's get an IV in each arm. And go through his pockets. See if he's got any identification at all. If he doesn't, take his fingerprints and fax them to D.C.; maybe he'll show up on a database there."
Twenty minutes later, Beverly Tsosie was examining a kid who had broken his arm sliding into third. He was a bespectacled, nerdy-looking kid, and he seemed almost proud of his sports injury.
Nancy Hood came over and said, "We searched the John Doe."
"Nothing helpful. No wallet, no credit cards, no keys. The only thing he had on him was this." She gave Beverly a folded piece of paper. It looked like a computer printout, and showed an odd pattern of dots in a gridlike pattern. At the bottom was written "mon. ste. mere."
" 'Monstemere?' Does that mean anything to you?"
Hood shook her head. "You ask me, he's psychotic."
Beverly Tsosie said, "Well, I can't sedate him until we know what's going on in his head. Better get skull films to rule out trauma and hematoma."
"Radiology's being remodeled, remember, Bev? X rays'll take forever. Why don't you do an MRI? Scan total body, you have it all."
"Order it," Tsosie said.
Nancy Hood turned to leave. "Oh, and surprise, surprise. Jimmy is here, from the police."
Dan Baker was restless. Just as he predicted, they'd had to spend hours sitting around the waiting room of McKinley Hospital. After they got lunch - burritos in red chile sauce - they had come back to see a policeman in the parking lot, looking over their car, running his hand along the side door panel. Just seeing him gave Baker a chill. He thought of going over to the cop but decided not to. Instead, they returned to the waiting room. He called his daughter and said they'd be late; in fact, they might not even get to Phoenix until tomorrow.
And they waited. Finally, around four o'clock, when Baker went to the desk to inquire about the old man, the woman said, "Are you a relative?"
"No, but - "
"Then please wait over there. Doctor will be with you shortly."
He went back and sat down, sighing. He got up again, walked over to the window, and looked at his car. The cop had gone, but now there was a fluttering tag under the windshield wiper. Baker drummed his fingers on the windowsill. These little towns, you get in trouble, anything could happen. And the longer he waited, the more his mind spun scenarios. The old guy was in a coma; they couldn't leave town until he woke up. The old guy died; they were charged with manslaughter. They weren't charged, but they had to appear at the inquest, in four days.
When somebody finally came to talk to them, it wasn't the petite doctor, it was the cop. He was a young policeman in his twenties, in a neatly pressed uniform. He had long hair, and his nametag said JAMES WAUNEKA. Baker wondered what kind of a name that was. Hopi or Navajo, probably.
"Mr. and Mrs. Baker?" Wauneka was very polite, introduced himself. "I've just been with the doctor. She's finished her examination, and the MRI results are back. There's absolutely no evidence he was struck by a car. And I looked at your car myself. No sign of any impact. I think you may have hit a pothole and just thought you hit him. Road's pretty bad out there."
Baker glared at his wife, who refused to meet his eye. Liz said, "Is he going to be all right?"
"Looks like it, yes."
"Then we can go?" Baker said.
"Honey," Liz said, "don't you want to give him that thing you found?"
"Oh, yes." Baker brought out the little ceramic square. "I found this, near where he was."
The cop turned the ceramic over in his hands. "ITC," he said, reading the stamp on the side. "Where exactly did you find this?"
"About thirty yards from the road. I thought he might have been in a car that went off the road, so I checked. But there was no car."
"No. That's all."
"Well, thanks," Wauneka said, slipping the ceramic in his pocket. And then he paused. "Oh, I almost forgot." He took a piece of paper out of his pocket and unfolded it carefully. "We found this in his clothing. I wondered if you had ever seen it."
Baker glanced at the paper: a bunch of dots arranged in grids. "No," he said. "I've never seen it before."
"You didn't give it to him?"
"Any idea what it might be?"
"No," Baker said. "No idea at all."
"Well, I think I do," his wife said.
"You do?" the cop said.
"Yes," she said. "Do you mind if I, uh . . ." And she took the paper from the policeman.
Baker sighed. Now Liz was being the architect, squinting at the paper judiciously, turning it this way and that, looking at the dots upside down and sideways. Baker knew why. She was trying to distract attention from the fact that she had been wrong, that his car had hit a pothole, after all, and that they had wasted a whole day here. She was trying to justify a waste of time, to somehow give it importance.
"Yes," she said finally, "I know what it is. It's a church."
Baker looked at the dots on the paper. He said, "That's a church?"
"Well, the floor plan for one," she said. "See? Here's the long axis of the cross, the nave. . . . See? It's definitely a church, Dan. And the rest of this image, the squares within squares, all rectilinear, it looks like . . . you know, this might be a monastery."
The cop said, "A monastery?"
"I think so," she said. "And what about the label at the bottom: 'mon.ste.mere.' Isn't 'mon' an abbreviation for monastery? I bet it is. I'm telling you, I think this is a monastery." She handed the picture back to the cop.
Pointedly, Baker looked at his watch. "We really should be going."
"Of course," Wauneka said, taking the hint. He shook hands with them. "Thanks for all your help. Sorry for the delay. Have a pleasant trip."
Baker put his arm firmly around his wife's waist and led her out into the afternoon sunlight. It was cooler now; hot-air balloons were rising to the east. Gallup was a center for hot-air ballooning. He went to the car. The fluttering tag on the windshield was for a sale of turquoise jewelry at a local store. He pulled it from behind the wiper, crumpled it, and got behind the wheel. His wife was sitting with her arms crossed over her chest, staring forward. He started the engine.
She said, "Okay. I'm sorry." Her tone was grumpy, but Baker knew it was all he would get.
He leaned over and kissed her cheek. "No," he said. "You did the right thing. We saved the old guy's life."
His wife smiled.
He drove out of the parking lot, and headed for the highway.
In the hospital, the old man slept, his face partly covered by an oxygen mask. He was calm now; she'd given him a light sedative, and he was relaxed, his breathing easy. Beverly Tsosie stood at the foot of the bed, reviewing the case with Joe Nieto, a Mescalero Apache who was a skilled internist, and a very good diagnostician. "White male, ballpark seventy years old. Comes in confused, obtunded, disoriented times three. Mild congestive heart failure, slightly elevated liver enzymes, otherwise nothing."
"And they didn't hit him with the car?"
"Apparently not. But it's funny. They say they found him wandering around north of Corazn Canyon. There's nothing there for ten miles in any direction."
"This guy's got no signs of exposure, Joe. No dehydration, no ketosis. He isn't even sunburned."
"You think somebody dumped him? Got tired of grandpa grabbing the remote?"
"Yeah. That's my guess."
"And what about his fingers?"
"I don't know," she said. "He has some kind of circulatory problem. His fingertips are cold, turning purple, they could even go gangrenous. Whatever it is, it's gotten worse since he's been in the hospital."
Nieto went over to the bedside, looked at the fingers. "Only the tips are involved. All the damage is distal."
"Right," she said. "If he wasn't found in the desert, I'd call that frostbite."
"You check him for heavy metals, Bev? Because this could be toxic exposure to heavy metals. Cadmium, or arsenic. That would explain the fingers, and also his dementia."
"I drew the samples. But heavy metals go to UNH in Albuquerque. I won't have the report back for seventy-two hours."
"You have any ID, medical history, anything?"
"Nothing. We put a missing persons out on him, and we transmitted his fingerprints to Washington for a database check, but that could take a week."
Nieto nodded. "And when he was agitated, babbling? What'd he say?"
"It was all rhymes, the same things over. Something about Gordon and Stanley. And then he would say, " 'Quondam phone makes me roam.' "
"Quondam? Isn't that Latin?"
She shrugged. "It's a long time since I was in church."
"I think quondam is a word in Latin," Nieto said.
And then they heard a voice say, "Excuse me?" It was the bespectacled kid in the bed across the hall, sitting with his mother.
"We're still waiting for the surgeon to come in, Kevin," Beverly said to him. "Then we can set your arm."
"He wasn't saying 'quondam phone,' " the kid said. "He was saying 'quantum foam.' "
"Quantum foam. He was saying 'quantum foam.' "
They went over to him. Nieto seemed amused. "And what, exactly, is quantum foam?"
The kid looked at them earnestly, blinking behind his glasses. "At very small, subatomic dimensions, the structure of space-time is irregular. It's not smooth, it's sort of bubbly and foamy. And because it's way down at the quantum level, it's called quantum foam."
"How old are you?" Nieto said.
His mother said, "He reads a lot. His father's at Los Alamos."
Nieto nodded. "And what's the point of this quantum foam, Kevin?"
"There isn't any point," the kid said. "It's just how the universe is, at the subatomic level."
"Why would this old guy be talking about it?"
"Because he's a well-known physicist," Wauneka said, coming toward them. He glanced at a sheet of paper in his hand. "It just came in on the M.P.D. Joseph A. Traub, seventy-one years old, materials physicist. Specialist in superconducting metals. Reported missing by his employer, ITC Research in Black Rock, around noon today."
"Black Rock? That's way over near Sandia." It was several hours away, in central New Mexico. "How the hell did this guy get to Corazn Canyon in Arizona?"
"I don't know," Beverly said. "But he's - "
The alarms began to sound.
It happened with a swiftness that stunned Jimmy Wauneka. The old man raised his head from the bed, stared at them, eyes wild, and then he vomited blood. His oxygen mask turned bright red; blood spurted past the mask, running in streaks across his cheeks and chin, spattering the pillow, the wall. He made a gurgling sound: he was drowning in his own blood.
Beverly was already running across the room. Wauneka ran after her. "Turn the head!" Nieto was saying, coming up to the bed. "Turn it!" Beverly had pulled off the oxygen mask and was trying to turn the old man's head, but he struggled, fighting her, still gurgling, eyes wide with panic. Wauneka pushed past her, grabbed the old man's head with both hands and wrenched hard, twisting him bodily to the side. The man vomited again; blood sprayed all over the monitors, and over Wauneka. "Suction!" Beverly shouted, pointing to a tube on the wall.
Wauneka tried to hold the old man and grab for the tube, but the floor was slick with blood. He slipped, grabbed at the bed for support.
"Come on, people!" Tsosie shouted. "I need you! Suction!" She was on her knees, shoving her fingers in the man's mouth, pulling out his tongue. Wauneka scrambled to his feet, saw Nieto holding out a suction line. He grabbed it with blood-slippery fingers, and saw Nieto twist the wall valve. Beverly took the neoprene probe, started sucking out the guy's mouth and nose. Red blood ran up the tubes. The man gasped, coughed, but he was growing weaker.
"I don't like this," Beverly said, "we better - " The monitor alarms changed tone, high-pitched, steady. Cardiac arrest.
"Damn," she said. There was blood all over her jacket, her blouse. "Paddles! Get the paddles!"
Nieto was standing over the bed, holding the paddles in outstretched arms. Wauneka scrambled back from the bed as Nancy Hood pushed her way through; there were people clustered all around the man now. Wauneka smelled a sharp odor and knew the man's bowels had released. He suddenly realized the old man was going to die.
"Clear," Nieto said as he pushed down on the paddles. The body jolted on the table. The bottles on the wall clattered. The monitor alarms continued.
Beverly said, "Close the curtain, Jimmy."
He looked back, and saw the bespectacled kid across the room, staring, his mouth open. Wauneka yanked the drapes shut.
An hour later, an exhausted Beverly Tsosie dropped down at a desk in the corner to write up the case summary. It would have to be unusually complete, because the patient had died. As she thumbed through the chart, Jimmy Wauneka came by with a cup of coffee for her. "Thanks," she said. "By the way, do you have the phone number for that ITC company? I have to call them."
"I'll do that for you," Wauneka said, resting his hand briefly on her shoulder. "You've had a tough day."
Before she could say anything, Wauneka had gone to the next desk, flipped open his notepad, and started dialing. He smiled at her as he waited for the call to go through.
He identified himself, then said, "I'm calling about your missing employee, Joseph Traub."
"One moment please, I'll connect you to our director of human resources."
He then waited on hold for several minutes. Muzak played. He cupped his hand over the phone, and as casually as he could, said to Beverly, "Are you free for dinner, or are you seeing your granny?"
She continued to write, not looking up from the chart. "I'm seeing Granny."
He gave a little shrug. "Just thought I'd ask," he said.
"But she goes to bed early. About eight o'clock."
"Is that right?"
She smiled, still looking down at her notes. "Yes."
Wauneka grinned. "Well, okay."
The phone clicked again and he heard a woman say, "Hold please, I am putting you through to our senior vice president, Dr. Gordon."
"Thank you." He thought, Senior vice president.
Another click, then a gravelly voice: "This is John Gordon speaking."
"Dr. Gordon, this is James Wauneka of the Gallup Police Department. I'm calling you from McKinley Hospital, in Gallup," he said. "I'm afraid I have some bad news."
Seen through the picture windows of the ITC conference room, the yellow afternoon sun gleamed off the five glass and steel laboratory buildings of the Black Rock research complex. In the distance, afternoon thunderclouds were forming over the far desert. But inside the room, the twelve ITC board members were turned away from the view. They were having coffee at a side table, talking to one another while they waited for the meeting to begin. Board meetings always ran into the night, because the ITC president, Robert Doniger, was a notorious insomniac and he scheduled them that way. It was a tribute to Doniger's brilliance that the board members, all CEOs and major venture capitalists, came anyway.
Right now, Doniger had yet to make an appearance. John Gordon, Doniger's burly vice president, thought he knew why. Still talking on a cell phone, Gordon began to make his way toward the door. At one time Gordon had been an Air Force project manager, and he still had a military bearing. His blue business suit was freshly pressed, and his black shoes shone. Holding his cell phone to his ear, he said, "I understand, Officer," and he slipped out the door.
Just as he had thought, Doniger was in the hallway, pacing up and down like a hyperactive kid, while Diane Kramer, ITC's head attorney, stood to one side and listened to him. Gordon saw Doniger jabbing his finger in the air at her angrily. Clearly, he was giving her hell.
Robert Doniger was thirty-eight years old, a brilliant physicist, and a billionaire. Despite a potbelly and gray hair, his manner remained youthful - or juvenile, depending on whom you talked to. Certainly age had not mellowed him. ITC was his third startup company; he had grown rich from the others, but his management style was as caustic and nasty as ever. Nearly everybody in the company feared him.
In deference to the board meeting, Doniger had put on a blue suit, forgoing his usual khakis and sweats. But he looked uncomfortable in the suit, like a boy whose parents had made him dress up.
"Well, thank you very much, Officer Wauneka," Gordon said into the cell phone. "We'll make all the arrangements. Yes. We'll do that immediately. Thank you again." Gordon flipped the phone shut, and turned to Doniger. "Traub's dead, and they've identified his body."
"Gallup. That was a cop calling from the ER."
"What do they think he died of?"
"They don't know. They think massive cardiac arrest. But there was a problem with his fingers. A circulatory problem. They're going to do an autopsy. It's required by law."
Doniger waved his hand, a gesture of irritable dismissal. "Big fucking deal. The autopsy won't show anything. Traub had transcription errors. They'll never figure it out. Why are you wasting my time with this shit?"
"One of your employees just died, Bob," Gordon said.
"That's true," Doniger said coldly. "And you know what? There's fuck all I can do about it. I feel sorry. Oh me oh my. Send some flowers. Just handle it, okay?"
At moments like this, Gordon would take a deep breath, and remind himself that Doniger was no different from most other aggressive young entrepreneurs. He would remind himself that behind the sarcasm, Doniger was nearly always right. And he would remind himself that in any case, Doniger had behaved this way all his life.
Robert Doniger had shown early signs of genius, taking up engineering textbooks while still in grade school. By the time he was nine, he could fix any electronic appliance - a radio, or a TV - fiddling with the vacuum tubes and wires until he got it working. When his mother expressed concern that he would electrocute himself, he told her, "Don't be an idiot." And when his favorite grandmother died, a dry-eyed Doniger informed his mother that the old lady still owed him twenty-seven dollars, and he expected her to make good on it.
After graduating summa cum laude in physics from Stanford at the age of eighteen, Doniger had gone to Fermilab, near Chicago. He quit after six months, telling the director of the lab that "particle physics is for jerkoffs." He returned to Stanford, where he worked in what he regarded as a more promising area: superconducting magnetism.
This was a time when scientists of all sorts were leaving the university to start companies to exploit their discoveries. Doniger left after a year to found TechGate, a company that made the components for precision chip etching that Doniger had invented in passing. When Stanford protested that he'd made these discoveries while working at the lab, Doniger said, "If you've got a problem, sue me. Otherwise shut up."
It was at TechGate that Doniger's harsh management style became famous. During meetings with his scientists, he'd sit in the corner, tipped precariously back in his chair, firing off questions. "What about this?" "Why aren't you doing that?" "What's the reason for this?" If the answer satisfied him, he'd say, "Maybe. . . ." That was the highest praise anyone ever got from Doniger. But if he didn't like the answer - and he usually didn't - he'd snarl, "Are you brain-dead?" "Do you aspire to be an idiot?" "Do you want to die stupid?" "You're not even a half-wit." When really annoyed, he threw pencils and notebooks, and screamed, "Assholes! You're all fucking assholes!"
TechGate employees put up with the tantrums of "Death March Doniger" because he was a brilliant physicist, better than they were; because he knew the problems his teams were facing; and because his criticisms were invariably on point. Unpleasant as it was, this stinging style worked; TechGate made remarkable advances in two years.
In 1984, he sold his company for a hundred million dollars. That same year, Time magazine listed him as one of fifty people under the age of twenty-five "who will shape the rest of the century." The list also included Bill Gates and Steve Jobs.
"Goddamn it," Doniger said, turning to Gordon. "Do I have to do everything myself? Jesus. Where did they find Traub?"
"In the desert. On the Navajo reservation."
"All I know is, ten miles north of Corazn. Apparently there's not much out there."
"All right," Doniger said. "Then get Baretto from security to drive Traub's car out to Corazn, and leave it in the desert. Puncture a tire and walk away."
Diane Kramer cleared her throat. She was dark-haired, in her early thirties, dressed in a black suit. "I don't know about that, Bob," she said, in her best lawyerly tone. "You're tampering with evidence - "
"Of course I'm tampering with evidence! That's the whole point! Somebody's going to ask how Traub got out there. So leave his car for them to find."
"But we don't know exactly where - "
"It doesn't matter exactly where. Just do it."
"That means Baretto plus somebody else knows about this. . . ."
"And who gives a damn? Nobody. Just do it, Diane."
There was a short silence. Kramer stared at the floor, frowning, clearly still unhappy.
"Look," Doniger said, turning to Gordon. "You remember when Garman was going to get the contract and my old company wasn't? You remember the press leak?"
"I remember," Gordon said.
"You were so worried about it," Doniger said, smirking. He explained to Kramer: "Garman was a fat pig. Then he lost a lot of weight because his wife put him on a diet. We leaked that Garman had inoperable cancer and his company was going to fold. He denied it, but nobody believed him, because of the way he looked. We got the contract. I sent a big basket of fruit to his wife." He laughed. "But the point is, nobody ever traced the leak to us. All's fair, Diane. Business is business. Get the goddamn car out in the desert."
She nodded, but she was still looking at the floor.
"And then," Doniger said, "I want to know how the hell Traub got into the transit room in the first place. Because he'd already made too many trips, and he had accumulated too many transcription defects. He was past his limit. He wasn't supposed to make any more trips. He wasn't cleared for transit. We have a lot of security around that room. So how'd he get in?"
"We think he had a maintenance clearance, to work on the machines," Kramer said. "He waited until evening, between shifts, and took a machine. But we're checking all that now."
"I don't want you to check it," Doniger said sarcastically. "I want you to fix it, Diane."
"We'll fix it, Bob."
"You better, goddamn it," Doniger said. "Because this company now faces three significant problems. And Traub is the least of them. The other two are major. Ultra, ultra, major."
Doniger had always had a gift for the long view. Back in 1984, he had sold TechGate because he foresaw that computer chips were going to "hit the wall." At the time, this seemed nonsensical. Computer chips were doubling in power every eighteen months, while the cost was halved. But Doniger recognized that these advances were made by cramming components closer and closer together on the chip. It couldn't go on forever. Eventually, circuits would be so densely packed that the chips would melt from the heat. This implied an upper limit on computer power. Doniger knew that society would demand ever more raw computational power, but he didn't see any way to accomplish it.
Frustrated, he returned to an earlier interest, superconducting magnetism. He started a second company, Advanced Magnetics, which owned several patents essential for the new Magnetic Resonance Imaging machines that were starting to revolutionize medicine. Advanced Magnetics was paid a quarter of a million dollars in royalties for every MRI machine made. It was "a cash cow," Doniger once said, "and about as interesting as milking a cow." Bored and seeking new challenges, he sold out in 1988. He was then twenty-eight years old, and worth a billion dollars. But in his view, he had yet to make his mark.
The following year, 1989, he started ITC.
One of Doniger's heroes was the physicist Richard Feynman. In the early eighties, Feynman had speculated that it might be possible to build a computer using the quantum attributes of atoms. Theoretically, such a "quantum computer" would be billions and billions of times more powerful than any computer ever made. But Feynman's idea implied a genuinely new technology - a technology that had to be built from scratch, a technology that changed all the rules. Because nobody could see a practical way to build a quantum computer, Feynman's idea was soon forgotten.
But not by Doniger.
In 1989, Doniger set out to build the first quantum computer. The idea was so radical - and so risky - that he never publicly announced his intention. He blandly named his new company ITC, for International Technology Corporation. He set up his main offices in Geneva, drawing from the pool of physicists working at CERN.
For several years afterward, nothing was heard from Doniger, or his company. People assumed he had retired, if they thought of him at all. It was, after all, common for prominent high-tech entrepreneurs to drop from view, after they had made their fortunes.
In 1994, Time magazine made a list of twenty-five people under the age of forty who were shaping our world. Robert Doniger was not among them. No one cared; no one remembered.
That same year he moved ITC back to the United States, establishing a laboratory facility in Black Rock, New Mexico, one hour north of Albuquerque. A thoughtful observer might have noticed that he had again moved to a location with a pool of available physicists. But there were no observers, thoughtful or otherwise.
So no one noticed when during the 1990s, ITC grew steadily in size. More labs were built on the New Mexico site; more physicists were hired. Doniger's board of directors grew from six to twelve. All were CEOs of companies that had invested in ITC, or venture capitalists. All had signed draconian nondisclosure agreements requiring them to post a significant personal bond in escrow, to submit to a polygraph test on request, and to allow ITC to tap their phones without notice. In addition, Doniger demanded a minimum investment of $300 million. That was, he explained arrogantly, the cost of a seat on the board. "You want to know what I'm up to, you want to be a part of what we're doing here, it's a third of a billion dollars. Take it or leave it. I don't give a damn either way."
But of course he did. ITC had a fearsome burn rate: they had gone through more than $3 billion in the last nine years. And Doniger knew he was going to need more.
"Problem number one," Doniger said. "Our capitalization. We'll need another billion before we see daylight." He nodded toward the boardroom. "They won't come up with it. I have to get them to approve three new board members."
Gordon said, "That's a tough sell, in that room."
"I know it is," Doniger said. "They see the burn rate, and they want to know when it ends. They want to see concrete results. And that's what I am going to give them today."
"What concrete results?"
"A victory," Doniger said. "These dipshits are going to need a victory. Some exciting news about one of the projects."
Kramer sucked in her breath. Gordon said, "Bob, the projects are all long-term."
"One of them must be nearing completion. Say, the Dordogne?"
"It's not. I don't advise this approach."
"And I need a victory," Doniger said. "Professor Johnston has been out there in France with his Yalies for three years on our nickel. We ought to have something to show for it."
"Not yet, Bob. Anyway, we don't have all the land."
"We have enough of the land."
"Bob . . ."
"Diane will go. She can pressure them nicely."
"Professor Johnston won't like it."
"I'm sure Diane can handle Johnston."
One of the assistants opened the door to the conference room and looked into the hall. Doniger said, "In a goddamn minute!" But he immediately began walking toward the door.
He looked back at them over his shoulder and said, "Just do it!" And then he went into the room and closed the door.
Gordon walked with Kramer down the corridor. Her high heels clicked on the floor. Gordon glanced down and saw that beneath the very correct and corporate black Jil Sander suit, she was wearing black slingback heels. It was the classic Kramer look: seductive and unattainable at the same time.
Gordon said, "Did you know about this before?"
She nodded. "But not for long. He told me an hour ago."
Gordon said nothing. He suppressed his irritation. Gordon had been with Doniger for twelve years now, since Advanced Magnetics days. At ITC, he had run a major industrial research operation on two continents, employing dozens of physicists, chemists, computer scientists. He'd had to teach himself about superconducting metals, fractal compression, quantum qubits, and high-flow ion exchange. He'd been up to his neck in theoretical physicists - the very worst kind - and yet milestones were reached; development was on schedule; cost overruns were manageable. But despite his success, Doniger still never really confided in him.