1000 Words a Day

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Cranton Stanley watched with a growing feeling of helplessness as the back gate of the primary containment chamber slid open and a dozen or so confused-looking Blue Vimili tumbled out. They were the ones who had been pushed up against the gate’s inside surface; the chamber was full of them now, their breeding having been stopped only through the mechanism of having no more room for additional growth. Now that the gate was open and the little creatures had access to more space–the secondary confinement constituted by the sterile room in which the primary box sat–they would start up again, and if unchecked, they’d continue breeding, creating layer after layer of little creatures, specialized into 15 subgroups, until they ran out of room once more.

 

Besides being members of a hive community, the Vimili were essentially little organic chemical factories, and surprisingly efficient and flexible ones, given their relatively limited access to material on which to operate. They absorbed raw materials from the environment and dissembled them into their constituent elements to rearrange them into new products, including their own bodies, tools of different kinds, odd mechanisms by which they accomplished things, and strange lumps of this and that which didn’t do anything at all, as far as could be determined. They seemed to occupy a stage between sentience and nonsentience: the hive was clearly sentient, and could even be communicated with, but no individual member of the community seemed to be. There was no identifiable ‘queen,’ as in the case of hive-oriented creatures on Earth. There were five different body orientations among the Vimili, labeled for convenience’s sake by colors. The vast majority of Vimili were of the blue orientation, but there was also red, green, white, and yellow, the most rare. Each bred exclusively, but the pairings resulted in offspring in any of the five orientations.

 

The two consulting Phaldish had advised against the project from the start, arguing from their spacecraft in orbit around Mars that the Vimili were nothing more than pests. “There is nothing to be gained from this work,” the computer translator’s flat mechanical voice said in response to the breathy wheezing that was the Phaldish language. “Vimili are pests, vermin, and the green ones–”

 

The other Phaldish interrupted. “The green ones do not concern us,” the computer’s voice intoned, “and none of the Vimili need concern you.” The Phaldish were the first alien species–and so far, the only one–to have contacted Earth, having announced their existence and established relations nearly fifty years ago. They were zero-gee creatures, thin and waspy, with vestigial legs withered to mere tendrils after thousands of generations in zero gravity. They had at one time had wings, apparently, but those too were withered through disuse and now were only tiny hair-like projections less than an inch long, curled and stunted. The Phaldish operated from their ships, which remained in orbit around Mars–these two, who allowed themselves to be referred to rather comically as Lucy and Ethel, were the only of their kind that had ever interacted with Earth. It has been Lucy, who was the larger of the two, who first appeared in a video feed transmitted to seventeen world leaders simultaneously; it had been Ethel who had directed the construction of the Portal, through which Phaldish equipment and materials were occasionally made available on Earth. Although 48 years had passed, Lucy and Ethel looked the same as they did on that first day, January 14, 2033.

 

A recent discussion between Ethel and Dr. Robertson Stargill’s graduate xenobiology students at Princeton University highlighted some of the difficulties that had been experienced as communication and relations had been established between humans and the Phaldish. Ethel’s breathy voice was heard for a while through the linkup between Mars orbit and the classroom, and then the computer’s voice took over: “It is difficult for us, as it is for you, to make a common understanding,” Ethel said. “Even with our translators, we cannot always be sure we are being heard accurately.”

 

“Ethel, can you tell the students here today how the translator works?” Dr. Stargill asked.

 

There was a pause as the Phaldish computers translated the question, and again, Ethel wheezed for some time before the translator had enough to work with. “The translator is not our technology,” she said. “We have it on loan from a race of beings that developed on the fourth planet in our home system. They are advanced in these sorts of things, although they do not leave their own planet.”

 

“What sort of creatures are they?” Stargill continued.

 

“They are evolved from plants,” Ethel said. “They gained some mobility and they evolved a tool-making capacity using specialized leaves that can move and grasp. They are anchored to the ground, but we have helped them develop movable anchors so that they can move themselves around somewhat.”

 

“And they have a technology, then?”

 

“Yes,” Ethel continued. “They are highly advanced in computers and, of course, in translation equipment.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The bridge of the Artois Columbus was divided into two sections: ammonia atmosphere and oxygen atmosphere. There was an airlock between the two–from time to time one of the humans would need to get into the ammonia area, or one of the Phlendars might go into the oxygen part, but this was fairly unusual. Throughout the ship, transparent panels divided the two areas. Through human eyes, the ammonia area was a thin yellow fog; through Phlendar eyes, the ammonia was transparent, but the oxygen on the other side occluded the frequency that their vision system used and so that was opaque to them. No matter–Phlendars depended more on their sonar to visualize the world than they did their rudimentary and mostly useless vision system anyway.

 

The panel in front of Captain Rebecca Hartwig chimed; she ignored it and kept reading. Momentarily it chimed again, and she reluctantly pulled away from the book she was reading, glancing quickly over the panel to find whatever it was that the ship or one of its crew wanted or needed. She was curled up on the large captain’s chair, a cup of tea on one of the chair’s arms and a paper plate holding the remains of a grilled cheese sandwich. It wasn’t really a book, of course–it was a book-sized panel that she held in front of her as one would have held a book fifty years ago. She was halfway through Moby Dick, having somehow or other neglected to read it previously. It was one of those books that she knew she should read, but she hadn’t imagined in her wildest dreams that she would be enjoying it as much as she was. She found the indicator and pressed it. “What is it, Frankie?”

 

“Marker on Seven, Cap’n.” Frank Abbott’s flat, clipped New England voice matched his flat, clipped personality–but that was an asset in an engineer.

 

“How far out?”

 

“Eighty hundred thousand clicks.”

 

“And how big?” Rebecca was wondering why he was bothering her with a marker flag, and his response did not provide an answer.

 

“Two hundred meters, spherical.”

 

Well, that was big, but not unusual–and no reason to bother the captain. “Relative speed?”

 

“660 meters per second, will cross our Z minus at 4500 clicks in 14 days and change.”

 

“Okay, well,” she rolled her eyes but tried to keep it out of her voice, “continue to monitor and let’s include it in the daily briefs in a couple of days,” she said and she returned to her book.

 

“Daily briefs in two, roger that.” Rebecca thought that was all, and she was back in her book when Frankie’s voice sounded again. “Ah, Cap’n…?”

 

“Yeah,” she called, her eyes still on the book.

 

“The object is changing speed and course.”

 

That got Rebecca’s attention, and she went into captain-of-the-ship mode, the book set aside and forgotten. She swung her legs down and turned the chair. “Changing speed and course? This is not a perturbation?”

 

“Definitely not, Cap’n.”

 

“Gimme the feed up here,” she said and she pressed a button on her the console on the chair’s right arm. “Davey? Frankie’s got a moving marker.” She let go of the button. “You say it’s on Seven?” she said to the microphone on the panel.

 

“That’s affirm,” Frankie replied.

 

Rebecca stood up and tapped on the transparent divider. On the other side, the Phlendar on duty turned an one of its beakstalks toward the panel, emitting an ultrasonic pulse and receiving the echo to ‘look’ into the oxygen portion of the control room. A speaker came to life and a computerized voice asked “What can I do for you, Captain Hartwig?” The voice was a translation of the ultrasonic squeaks that the Phlendar’s other beakstalk was streaming into a microphone.

 

“Pete, we’ve got a moving marker, take a look at Seven,” she said in response. The beakstalk peering at Rebecca remained where it was while the other one moved around its own control panel.

 

“Yes, we see it,” the computerized voice said. The beakstalk that had been looking at her retreated into the yellow fog on the other side of the bridge.

 

“I’ve seen these anomalies before, Pete,” Rebecca said. “It looks like motion, but it’s going to be spin of an asymmetrical body or a lopsided interior or–”

 

The Phlendar cut her off. “We’ve established communication with the marker.” The computer voice was cool, aseptic.

 

“What?”

 

“We have communication now with the marker.”

 

“It’s a rock, Pete, I’m telling you,” Rebecca said–but she was feeling a little less confident all of a sudden, and she flipped the close-up seat out of the panel and sat down, her hands moving over it, activating monitors.

 

Then in her ear, Frankie’s voice again, this time uncharacteristically high-pitched: “Cap’n the marker is turning to reduce the Z separation, and it’s speeding up.” His voice shifted distinctly towards alarm as he pronounced those last words. “Z separation is now 800 kilometers and the close rate is up to 2200 meters per second and rising!”

 

“Pete, why is it turning to close?” she said. No response. She reached over and slapped her hand on the transparent barrier between the two atmospheres. “Pete! You awake in there? It’s closing the Z and accelerating.”

 

Frankie chimed in again. “Z separation is 100 clicks, close rate is–Jesus! Close rate is 8 clicks per second and rising. Intercept, 41 hours!” He was fully alarmed now.

 

Through the yellow haze, Pete’s beakstalk appeared again and waved slightly back and forth as he perceived that the far hatch was opening and someone was entering. Rebecca looked up and waved the crewman in. “Abe, get on the link to Pete, will you?” she said, and he moved to comply, flipping out the close-up seat on his own station and moving his hands over the controls. “Pete says he’s in communication with the marker.”

 

“Really?” Abe looked over and considered Pete. “You’re talking to it?”

 

The computer voice sounded calm and measured, as it was programmed to do. “Captain Hartwig, we advise you turn 40 degrees X, 21 degrees Y, 5 degrees Z and make a 440-second burn at 91 percent,” the Pheldar said. “This should be done immediately, but before N plus 68 seconds.”

 

“Burn?” Rebecca said. “Why?”

 

“The marker will give chase,” the computer voice continued. “If we burn before N plus 64, we can escape it.” Rebecca knew what the Phlendar meant by the ‘N plus 64″ language: that the burn must begin in the next 64 seconds. She also knew that the Phlendar knew a lot more about alien life that she did, and that he was to be trusted in these matters. She punched a button. “Frankie! Ninety-one percent burn in 60 seconds.”

 

“Burn? Where are we going?” he responded.

 

“Shut up and start up!” she ordered. “I’m sending you the numbers now. Burn in 52 seconds, start a countdown.”

 

Frankie’s “Aye, Cap’n” was drowned out by her next order. “Abe, link yourself to Pete. Pete, you steer on this.” The ship’s computer voice came on: “Burn in 47, 46, 45….” It continued to count down above the activity in the room.

 

“Pete’s got the panel now,” Abe said.

 

“You with us, Pete?” Rebecca said as calmly as she could.

 

Frankie’s voice sounded in her headset again. “Ready for burn, Cap’n. Ninety-one percent for 440 seconds.” The computer voice was counting calmly “…39…38…37….”

 

Rebecca punched the ship-wide channel. “Crew, this is the captain. We will burn in 35 seconds for 440 at 91. Strap in now, I say again, strap in now for burn, 440 at 91.” She clicked off. “Pete, you with us okay.”

 

Then Pete’s translator spoke. “That’s affirmative, Captain. We are ready for the burn. Trajectories on your display now.”

 

Rebecca clicked over and took a look at the trajectories, present and burn, of her own ship against the trajectory of the marker. It was steering–that was clear, and the acceleration had every sign of the intelligence of a predator. She pushed the intercom to Pete. “Burn trajectory approved,” she said.

 

“Twenty-eight…27…26…,” the computer voice droned.

 

Rebecca moved back to the ship-wide channel, and then her headset was full of voices reporting status. “Stores and supplies, strapped,” one said; “Engineering, strapped,” said another; “Navigation, we’re strapped,” said a third. Everyone checked in, and Rebecca retreated to her captain’s chair and activated the restraint system, which clacked and fastened over her.

 

“Pete, you strapped in okay?” she said.

 

“Affirmative,” came the reply.

 

“Okay, here goes,” she said, half to herself as the computer counted down, “…3…2…1….” There was no zero; instead, there was a roar and the ship jerked backward, Rebecca jostling in the restraints, as she knew all the other crew members were doing. She closed her eyes, pushed her breath out forcefully against the acceleration, and waited for it to be over.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Seventy thousand years ago, a rock about ten inches across and eight inches deep, roughly cubical, struck Earth from space after a long cold journey through the deep reaches of the Universe.  It had been on a collision course since it first was perturbed in a pass near Jupiter, nearly eight thousand years before.  Two hundred years before the strike, it passed close to Earth; its fate was sealed during this near miss, and it struck the Earth on its fourth orbit after that.

 

The rock streaked through the upper atmosphere, sparks and smoke flying from its surface as it ablated.  It landed on the lee side of a steep rocky hill—the angle was such that the rock hit and rolled rather than burying itself, as it would have done if it had landed on flat ground.  The rock rolled down the hill, smoking as it went, all the way down to a stream.  It rocketed through the water, sending up a thread of steam, and then up the other side, finally coming to a halt in and among the rocks on the other side about halfway up.

 

The rock sat there for years, decades, centuries—and the life forms inside it waited.  As the years crawled by, the land moved, folded by earthquakes and mudslides and the freeze-melt cycle.  The rock ended up back in the stream again, where the water flowed over it for more centuries.  Eventually, the Native Americans came, and then the Europeans.  The rock was buried for many years, under the fertile soil of a tobacco field.  The field was worked, crops grew, they were harvested, the chaff was plowed under—over and over again several dozen times, and then, after several more decades, the rock found itself once again on the surface, exposed to the checkerboard of days and nights.  And still, the life forms inside it waited.

 

The rock found itself lifted up, deposited in the back of a truck, and, along with much dirt and other debris, was transported some distance and dumped into an empty field.  It found itself buried again, a number of inches under the surface, covered by dirt and smaller pebbles.  Rain came and at length washed the dirt away and then the rock found itself again on the surface.  Sensors inside the rock activated, measured the length of daylight and the parallax of certain stars as the planet rotated around its star, and determined its position and the precise length of time that had passed since it began its long voyage.  An internal mechanical intelligence decided that the long sleep of the life forms was now to be brought to an end, and it began the complex process of warming up and waking up its masters.

 

Over the course of the next several minutes, the life forms inside were warmed from seventy-one degrees Kelvin to the ambient temperature and reconstituted.  Their internal fluids were replaced.  As the mechanical intelligence monitored and measured, four crewmembers awakened inside their ship.  They had devoted nearly an eighth of their long lives to the long trip from their own planet, and the inconvenience of a long wait on the planet until conditions met the criteria for exploration.  Four crew members with their own names and their own thoughts—call them A, B, C, and D.

 

The captain, A, stretched his small body and stood up in his command chamber, where he had passed the long wait.  B, his deputy, entered the chamber, already wearing his customary long robe.

 

“Captain, C and D have been awakened successfully.  D’s pregnancy is viable with no problems, and we have a good signal from the drone ship,” he said.

 

“Where is the drone?” A asked.

 

“It is in orbit around this planet’s moon,” B replied, somewhat surprised that the captain would ask such a question.

 

“Oh, yes, yes, of course,” A said.  He pressed his middle arm to the top of his head.  ”I’m still a little foggy, I guess.”  He closed his middle eye and then the two side-eyes.  ”You say D’s pregnancy is still good?”

 

“Yes.  Definitely.  We’ve got a good signal from the fetus.”

 

“Good.”  A opened his eyes and pointed his laser reflector organ directly at B.  ”I want to have the fetus’ report as soon as possible.  Get D outside first and let’s see what we’re up against here.”

 

“Yes, Captain,” B said, gathering the edges of his robe and wrapping it around his body in the customary way.  He bowed slightly, turned, and left the chamber.

 

In the pregnancy chamber, D sat with his front legs hanging over the edge of the sleep pad.  C attended him, feeding a plastic tube into an orifice near the top of his head and working it past the membranes into the fetus’ capsule.  ”There, does that seem about right?” he asked.

 

“I think so,” D replied.  They were working without the benefit of a see-through machine; it would have been too big and heavy for the ship.  But C was getting the job done, and soon D’s fetus would have a direct hose to the ship’s air supply.  The fetus didn’t need it—yet—but she soon would.

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

I hadn’t intended to get the data from the probe, but it was in one of the boxes of material I received from the archives. Danny sent it over because of what was written on the label. I don’t think he even looked in them. I think he just sent me everything that had Pisces IV or Pisces V written on the side. They were cardboard fold-up boxes that lawyers use to put papers in for storage, the kind that has a lid and a place to write whatever is in the box on the end.

 

I was working the night the truck brought them over to the lab. We all have to take our turn on the rotating night shift, and that week, it was my turn. About eight o’clock at night, the light flashed above the wall displays and that meant that someone had picked up the phone at the gate and pressed the button below it. The button is marked with a sign that says “Press Button for Entry”; most people press the button. Some people just start talking into the phone, but if they do it that way, nothing happens. Until they press the button and make the light flash, we don’t know to pick up the phone. The light flashed, and I wheeled my chair over and picked up the phone. “Teldar,” I said. Teldar–that’s the name of the company I work for. The logo is painted on the side of the building.

 

“Harry, It’s Anson from the archives,” the voice on the phone said.

 

“Hey, Anson, it’s Lew. Harry was on last week.”

 

“Oh.” A pause. “Okay, well, I’ve got a delivery from Danny for you. Eighteen boxes.”

 

“Eighteen? Jesus Christ!”

 

“Yeah, eighteen of them. Buzz the door and my guys will bring them up.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, okay,” I pressed the button and watched through the feed from the camera pointed at the door as Anson opened the door and propped it with a rock put there for that purpose. The guys weren’t supposed to prop open the door–in theory, we were a secure facility–but it was late and the truck was sitting right there and the guys would have the boxes up here and stacked in just a few minutes. As I watched, the backs of his crew moved into view and then disappeared into the door, and I could hear them clunking up the eleven stairs to the lab entryway. Eleven stairs. Not ten and not twelve. I counted them every time I went up them, and it was always eleven.

 

Then, from behind me: “Hey, were do you want these?”

 

I got up and indicated where the boxes should be placed. The college kid–or maybe he was a high-schooler, he looked young enough–put the box he was carrying down and them moved back toward the stairs without a word, dodging his partner who was coming up the stairs with his own box. The partner looked at me and I gestured over to where the first box was. He put it down and went back for another.

 

Each of the three crew members made several trips, and soon, all eighteen boxes were stacked there neatly against the wall. Anson had not carried any boxes–for one thing, he was getting older, and for another, he was the crew boss, he drove the truck, and he directed the activities of the much younger crew. Young enough to be his own sons, certainly–maybe that one was young enough to be his grandson. “These were the only ones in the warehouse for Pee-Four and Five,” he said. “I would have thought there’d be more than just these. Wasn’t that a pretty big project?”

 

“Yeah, I guess it was,” I said noncommittally. In fact, it was a big project. I had studied it generally, as most aerospace engineers had, and I knew in broad strokes what it was, what it tried to do, and what it achieved. I knew, as almost everyone does, or should, anyway, that Pisces was the name of a series of unmanned probes that we sent to Triton, Neptune’s weird, large, retrograde moon.

 

I knew that Pisces I blew up on the launch pad and almost caused the scrapping of the whole series which had been planned. Pisces II also blew up, a victim of a terrorist bomb planted in its main launch stage and programmed to go off forty-five seconds after launch, which it did. The idea had been to damage Teldar’s image by making it look like we couldn’t launch anything right, but the source of the bomb had been found easily enough. Pisces III launched successfully and completed its mission to precisely measure the masses and distances in the system and to prepare the groundwork for Pisces IV, which was planned to actually land on the surface of Triton. That was a successful mission too.

 

Pee-IV launched, landed, sampled, and sent back data that pretty much conclusively proved that Triton was made of the same stuff that our own Moon is made of.

 

This suggested to everyone that the Moon–the one that ended up around Earth–was the third of the three-body interaction that had long been suspected of putting Triton in that backwards orbit in the first place. Once we had the evidence to point to the third body, we could use its mass and position to work out what must have happened.

 

Here’s what we worked out: About two billion years ago, a large object came flying into the Solar System. It interacted with several large bodies and ended up whipping around Jupiter in an orbit fast enough and close enough to tear it in to pieces, then those pieces sling-shotted towards an unusual alignment of Saturn and Neptune. About one-third of the pieces were launched into the inner Solar System, and the rest out towards Neptune. These pieces formed a wide ring around Neptune, like the one Saturn has, but because there were no shepherd moons to keep it from collapsing into a solid body, it did just that–and became what we now call Triton.

 

The pieces that were launched toward the sun were captured by the Earth and collapsed into what we today call the Moon.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Gary Neighbors stirred his drink with his little plastic straw as he spoke. “Billions of stars in billions of galaxies filling the spaces around and in-between with duovigintillions of neutrinos and a small number–relatively speaking–of cosmic particles. Humans were completely unaware of the neutrinos until 1932, just as they are presently unaware of the presence of many other particles, which we detect and monitor.”

 

“Duovigintillion, huh?” Roger Anders repeated skeptically. He nearly rolled his eyes, but restrained himself–after all, there really was a number duovigintillion. The old name for a googol–10 to the 100th power–was 10 duovigintillion. It was little things like the use of a real but very obscure number word that made the man’s story almost–believable.

 

“Yes. You know this number, I think,” Neighbors said.  He was still stirring, gazing at his hand as he did so.  “I just love these little straws.”

 

“Yeah, I know it.” Roger responded.  He raised his drink to his lips, took a sip, and set it back down delicately. “And what sort of particles might it be that you are monitoring?” He didn’t figure the man would tell him, but on the outside chance that he might, Roger asked. He wasn’t above using the knowledge to get a Nobel Prize.

 

Neighbors smiled in response. “Let’s just say that you’ve got lots of things yet to discover.”

 

Roger picked up his glass again and swirled the contents of it around as he considered that statement. “Can’t you give me a little hint?”

 

“Not really. I can tell you a few things, but not that.” Neighbors looked almost regretful. “Sorry,” he said.

 

Roger put his glass down and leaned down, his elbows on the table, his hands folded in front of him. “There’s just nothing here I can believe, Gary,” he said. “You’re asking me to take a lot on faith, and I can’t do it.”

 

Neighbors considered that for a moment, then he leaned in. “Okay,” he half-whispered. “I shouldn’t do this, but I’m going to show you something.” He reached into his inside jacket pocket–the right side–and pulled out a small device. It was a small plastic-looking black box, its sides meeting at odd angles, slightly larger at one end, but still small enough to hold in the hand. Neighbors put it on the table between them, the large end pointing toward Roger, the other end pointing back toward him. He reached forward and pulled back a section of the box; it slid open to reveal a small flat space. “Before we continue, I’ll need you to tell me about a memory you have.”

 

“A memory? What do you mean, a memory?”

 

“A memory. Something pleasant from your past.”

 

Roger frowned. “What does that have to do with anything?”

 

“This device will allow you to relive a memory.” Neighbors glanced down at the device, he seemed to be checking for something and he seemed to find it, then he looked up again. “I’ve got safeties on to prevent–well, to prevent unpleasantness.”

 

“Unpleasantness,” Roger repeated.

 

“Yeah, many people’s memories are not pleasant. With the safeties on, the device won’t let you relive the time you got hit by a car on your bicycle, or that time when your mother died. You remember those, don’t you, Roger?”

 

Roger’s mouth dropped, then he closed it. “How do you know about that?”

 

“The device won’t let you relive those painful memories with the safeties on. With the safeties off, well, then it depends on your own mind.” Neighbors took another drink of his drink, emptying it. “Can you keep yourself from thinking of a zebra if you are told to do so?”

 

“No,” Roger said. “No one can do that.”

 

“Exactly. That’s why we have safeties.”

 

Roger considered that for a little while. “A memory, huh?”

 

“Yes. I could choose it for you, but it works better if you choose it. A pleasant memory. Maybe from your childhood, didn’t you have a pleasant childhood?”

 

“I guess so,” Roger said. “Okay, how about when we went to Disneyland that time?”

 

“Disney World, wasn’t it, Roger?” Neighbors asked. “The one in Florida?”

 

“You seem to know all about it.”

 

“Well, I’ve been studying you for a long time, Roger. You’re an important person.”

 

Roger sat back in his seat. “Me? Hold on a minute, you’ve been studying me?”

 

“Roger, I want you to think of that time you went to Disney with your father and your brother, and I want you to touch that panel there on the streamer, touch it with your index finger and hold your finger on it.”

 

“Streamer?”

 

“That’s what we call it. Never mind why.”

 

“I’m an important person?”

 

Neighbors looked down. “Well, of course. Everyone’s important to the future. You do this, you do that, you leave this and that undone. You turn left instead of right. All that changes things.”

 

“You’re studying me?”

 

“There were a couple of days here and there in your life where your interactions, your goings and comings, were more important than most other people’s. Remember that time you found a five-dollar bill in elementary school?”

 

Roger’s eyes went wide. “I do remember that!” he said. “Usually I have a terrible memory that far back, but I sure do remember that. It was lunchtime, and I was walking in line with the other kids on the sidewalk, and I remember seeing it and picking it up. I was the only one who saw it–I couldn’t believe that.”

 

“Yeah, well, maybe that’s not such a good one after all,” Neighbors said.

 

“No, no, let’s do that one!” Roger reached out and touched his index finger to the small panel. A blue light from inside the panel came on, and Roger’s eyes went blank. He was back in fourth grade, walking behind Leonard Tomlinson, and he saw the five-spot on the ground. He stepped over, picked it up, and looked around. Mrs. Haver saw him out of line and waved him back, but she didn’t see him pick it up or slip it into his pocket. He took two or three steps to catch up with Leonard, and then–he was back in the bar.

 

Roger sat silently for a few moments, near shock at how realistic the vision had been. “How–how did you do that?”

 

Neighbors slid the device closed, then picked it up and put it back in his pocket. “It’s complicated,” he said. “Its operating principle involves some of those particles that you folks don’t quite have figured out yet.”

 

“Who are you, really?” Roger asked.

 

“I’m just who I said I was. Gary Neighbors. Man about town.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“There are two problems that keep civilizations on their planets of origin,” the professor on the stage was saying. He flicked one of the hair-covered ends of his several upper limbs at the screen, and it changed. “There’s the fact that most sentient beings evolve at the bottom of deep gravity wells.” He flicked again, and the screen changed again. “The second is that most sentience evolves from predation, and predatory animals tend to be more interested in fighting and killing each other than in exploring space.”

 

Marta was having a little bit of difficulty in following the lecture. This was the first time she’d sat in a class with a Pheldtar professor. It was also the first time she’d ever seen one in the flesh, in fact. South Milwaukee wasn’t exactly on the must-see tourist attraction list for Pheldtars–they had enough trouble keeping warm in the equatorial regions. When she had gone to her appointment in the Pheldtar’s office–he met privately with all entering freshmen–she had been overwhelmed by the heat despite having been warned to dress lightly and to have a towel to wipe the sweat that would collect on her face as she spoke to Professor Talbot. Talbot, of course, was not his name–it was a fiction adopted for the convenience of the student body and his fellow faculty.

 

“What did he say the second one was?” she whispered to the smug-looking student sitting next to her. She didn’t know him–he was almost certainly a senior who had avoided taking the course for as long as he could and who now had very little on his mind other than graduation and his life beyond.

 

He looked at her, then shrugged. “Something about predation,” he said, smiling.

 

Marta looked up–Professor Talbot’s head had extended to the top of his neck, and he was scanning the room. Fully extended, his head reached halfway to the ceiling of the auditorium, which was perhaps 30 feet high where Talbot stood. The Pheldtar’s head consisted of a hair-covered ring of bone and tissue that rode on a long stem. The ring could slide up and down, from at rest at the bottom of the stem, where it was just a little bit below human head level, to all the way up, as it presently was. When the head was in the down position, as it usually was while Pheldtars were engaging with humans, the stem draped over and curled down the Pheldtar’s back, making it possible for him to navigate spaces intended for humans. As Marta watched, the ring-head slowly descended again, and the stem-neck curled back to its position. The movement was roughly equivalent to a human throat-clearing and hands-over-the-head stretch.

 

“Of course,” the professor continued, “even in cases where civilizations do achieve a means to escape their planets’ gravity, and even if they avoid killing each other in the process, they almost never develop a means to cross the interstellar gaps.”

 

In the back of the room, someone clicked the button–each of the student stations in the room had one–that illuminated a small light in front of his station. Professor Talbot saw it. “Yes?”

 

“My understanding is that the Pheldtar Slide Drive is the one means existing to cross the interstellar gaps, is that correct?” It was a student that Marta had seen in the university’s coffee shop. He was small, studious, and apparently already accepted to go straight to grad school at Princeton’s Ford School of Xenoengineering.

 

“Well, Mr. Robinson, as you know, the Pheldtar Slide is based on technology that my people received outside our own system, from the Visitors,” Professor Talbot replied. “We have information that the technology which the Visitors allowed us to have represented the low end of their scale, as it were.”

 

The Pheldtar’s voice box wasn’t built to pronounce English sounds–Professor Talbot represented about the best that Pheldtar physiology was capable of doing in that direction, and even so, it was difficult to tell his ‘t’s’ from his ‘d’s’ and his ‘p’s’ from his ‘d’s and his ‘b’s,’ but Marta was learning how to understand him better and better the more she listened to him speak. “It’s like getting your brain in the right gear,” Robinson had told her one time. “Once you get it, you’ll be able to follow him.” And he was right.

 

“Chances are there are additional means,” the professor continued. “And we have researchers working on the problem.” He paused. “Perhaps you’ll come up with a way during your graduate school work.” The Pheldtar smiled, which would have been impossible for Marta to interpret and understand if not for the three-week orientation seminar that had been mandatory for engineering freshmen the summer before. Pheldtar expression had developed as a means to communicate emotion to each other, just as humans had. Since the Pheldtar physiology was different, the expressions of course were different too, but they fulfilled the same functions as they did for humans–the signaling of anger, fear, and so forth. The Pheldtar smile did not involve the mouth or even any part of the ring-head. It involved the hands. Pheldtar hands were spherical with irregularly-placed nubs that served as fingers. Despite the fact that the nubs were short and stubby, they were strong and very flexible and could easily perform the most highly detailed task that a human finger could perform. They were actually completely boneless, not unlike the trunk of an elephant in their anatomy, although they were much smaller and shorter. To smile, the Pheldtar’s brought his three pairs of upper limbs were forward and horizontal to form a row of six orbs in a horizontal configuration, then the entire thing was waved up and down a couple of times. Professor Talbot did this and then dropped his upper limbs again, their length burrowing into the fine long hair that grew from his stem-neck.

 

“That’s his smile, right?” Marta asked her neighbor to confirm.

 

The neighbor smiled back–first in the human way, then in the Pheldtarian.

 

Marta smiled at this.

 

“Maybe so,” Robinson replied and there was gentle laughter around him.

 

“We find that the slide drive suits our needs at the present time,” he said. “It’s not perfect, but without it, there’d be no exchange of culture or technology between Pheldtar and humans, or between Pheldtar and anybody else, for that matter. The distance between the stars is a very effective quarantine.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The park looked perfectly normal for a Thursday afternoon. There were mothers sitting on benches watching their children play; there were old men feeding the pigeons and squirrels; there was a young couple sitting on a blanket spread on the grass. Birds sang, the sun shined, clouds devoid of the threat of rain drifted by. No one noticed the man sitting on a bench in the shade of a tree behind large, dark sunglasses. He had an earpiece in one ear–passersby no doubt imagined that he was simply listening to music, perhaps on his lunch break from work. It was about the right time–the banks and lawyers’ offices broke for lunch around this time, and the man looked as if he could be a banker or a lawyer.

 

He had studied this time period carefully for many years, and had practiced wearing the clothes and adopting the mannerisms of these people, and he was good at it. Still, no need to take chances–thus the glasses and the tendency not to talk to strangers, although he regretted not being able to do so freely. It would have been such a wonderful opportunity to learn about the people and events of this time. But that would be somebody else’s job.

 

He checked his watch and studied the people around him from behind the glasses. It was still fifteen or so minutes from the identified intersection, but these things were never precise, and it could take place as much as three or four minutes one way or the other. He watched as people passed by: two teenaged girls dressed in the same sports uniform, a mother pushing a child in a stroller, and then a woman walking a large black dog.

 

As they approached, the dog’s gaze locked on him and he sniffed, then froze. The woman walking him was talking on her phone animatedly and didn’t notice that the dog wasn’t coming along until the leash got to the end of its reach.

 

The woman turned around and considered the dog with a puzzled look. “Hey, come on,” she said. The dog stood his ground, staring at the man sitting on the bench and the bench. A low whine was starting from the dog’s throat.

 

“Cindy, hold on a minute, there’s something wrong with Pablo,” she said into her phone. Then she slipped the phone in her pants pocket and stepped back to where the dog was standing. The whine was increasing now as the dog took a single step toward the bench.

 

“Pablo!” the woman said sharply. “What’s the matter with you, boy?” She put her hand on the dog’s neck, and he pulled away from her. This disturbed the woman a little bit. “I’m so sorry,” she said to the man. “He never does this.”

 

“That’s all right,” the man said. At the sound of the man’s voice, the dog gave a single deep bark, and the woman became even more disturbed.

 

“Pablo!” She gripped the leash and took him the other direction, back down the sidewalk from where they had approached. “I’m so sorry,” she repeated over her shoulder as she led the dog away.”

 

This time, the man remained still, and in a few moments, they were gone.

 

Dogs had been a special topic of discussion in the training that the man had undergone as preparation for this mission and others like it. There were no dogs in the man’s world–a virus manufactured in a South African laboratory designed to attack and kill rabbits had mutated to attack dogs instead, and the resulting epidemic had killed every dog on the planet–the last one had died in 2440, the same year the man had been born. He was uncomfortable with dogs; he didn’t understand the appeal of these large, strong, aggressive, territorial animals, and he much preferred cats, especially his own cat, which was engineered to do a variety of household tasks in addition to being devoted to him to the exclusion of all other animals. Cats had lost even the instinct to mate or to care for their own young–that distraction had been bred out of them, and when a cat did kitten after the artificial insemination that was necessary to bring a cat to this condition, the tiny kittens had to be machine-reared. He liked cats. But dogs and the appeal of them was incomprehensible to him.

 

He looked at his watch again, and the indication there told him that he was now in the zone for the operation. He stood up and looked around him, listening to the musical tones playing in his ear. It wasn’t a song; it was a signal, a complicated, overlapping pattern of sounds that was only a click or two away from being a language until itself. He had spent a good deal of time studying and learning this sort-of language, and he interpreted it without difficulty.

 

Then he saw Target A: a teenage male wearing a button-down shirt with the tail out and some sort of odd chain that dangled from his belt in the front and went into his left back pocket. The boy was coming down the same sidewalk that the woman with the dog had come down, but unlike the dog and despite the fact that the man was now standing, the boy seemed not to notice him at all.

 

With his peripheral vision, the man maintained an awareness of the other side of the sidewalk. Target B would be coming along any moment now.

 

The man’s mission for today was to prevent an interaction between A and B which otherwise would take place on this sidewalk. As a result of the interaction, a chain of events would begin which would end in the destruction of a major American city by a stolen nuclear weapon in the year 2028–twenty-one years from the present date. This chain of events had many links and could be interfered with by cutting any of them, but it was thought that this would be the point at which the least amount of collateral damage would be done, and so the man had spent a substantial portion of the last three years preparing for the momentary activity he was about to engage in. It looked simple, but there were many dangers.

 

Then Target B came into view, and the man looked back and forth at them, each approaching from his own end of the sidewalk.

 

This was the critical moment, and the man acted. He took off his sunglasses and pretended to drop his arm as he threw them on the grass immediately next to where Target A’s next step would place and bring him into near proximity of them.

 

The man had practiced the throw dozens of times in the simulator. He had tried it this way and that, and had decided that this was the best placement and location for a technique that he wasn’t overly convinced would work–but that wasn’t his department.

 

Target A watched him throw the glasses and stopped. The man believed that the boy saw right through his Oops I dropped my glasses routine, but he stuck to the story. Target B was coming up behind him.

 

“Excuse me,” the man said to Target A. He nodded toward the glasses. “Would you mind?”

 

The boy moved to pick up the glasses, which now were only inches away from his foot. As he did so, Target B stepped on the grass on the other side and passed them both, continuing on her way.

 

The boy handed the glasses to the man, and he put them on. “Thanks,” he said and he stepped off in the same direction that Target B had gone, a few yards behind her.

 

He let a beat go by, and then he glanced around to confirm that the boy had continued on his own journey down the sidewalk and into a future that now would not include meeting and eventually impregnating Target B, resulting in a line of descendants that would in due course create the circumstances leading to disaster.

 

His mission complete, the man turned around and walked back to the bench he had started out on. He reached up and pressed the earpiece in his left ear.

 

He said a single word: Prêt.

 

And then man disappeared.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Bob Wrenchel looked away from the screen for a moment and caught the eye of Johnnyangel Frost, who was seated across the corner of the conference table at his right.

 

“Didn’t somebody important say that everything which is not forbidden is compulsory?”

 

Frost nodded. “That was T.H. White, sir.” she said.

 

“Ah,” Wrenchel said. “Never heard of him.”

 

The briefer saw that the general was engaged in conversation, so she discreetly paused until his attention returned to her.

 

“He was a novelist in the forties and fifties,” Frost said. “Wrote Arthurian novels, The Once and Future King, among others.”

 

Despite the fact that Frost was speaking sotto voce to him, Wrenchel saw that the young briefer had paused so as not to interrupt. “Go ahead, captain,” he said, returning his attention to the presentation.

 

“Ah, yes, sir.” She pressed a button on the podium and the screen flashed to the next slide. It was a diagram, yellow figures on a navy-blue field, three spheres with ellipses describing their complicated paths in and around each other. “This diagram presents the relative positions of the three stars at Time C, which is the point at which the magnetic field tops out along the Z axis, as you can see,” she said. She took a couple of steps away from the podium and used a laser pointer to throw a red spot onto one of the figures on the screen. “This star rotates retrograde around the central two, and that’s the key to the magnetic-field reversal. The period of the outer star is a whole-number multiple of the period of the two inner ones around each other, and that’s certainly no accident,” she said.

 

“So, you’re prepared to say that this system was tailored in this way?” Wrenchel asked.

 

“Not exactly, sir,” she said. “It probably settled down to this configuration based on harmonics dictated by the masses of the stars. It’s the relative masses between Giesel A, B, and C that are the unusual factor.”

 

“So the mass drives the rotation pattern and period,” Wrenchel said.

 

“That’s correct, sir.”

 

“Go ahead,” he said.

 

The briefer returned to the screen, moving her laser dot to the next figure. “This star, Giesel B, is 14.325 times as massive as its partner, Giesel C. They are only 38,000 miles apart, with a rotational period of 22 minutes. The center of that rotation is only 7,200 miles above the Giesel B surface.”

 

“Excuse me,” Frost interrupted. “They’re tidally locked, right?”

 

“B is locked to A,” the captain said, “but C is rotating relative to B. Not very fast, though—about seven times a minute.”

 

“So the fields from A and B are braiding together as they move relative to the local system, is that right?”

 

“Yes. The braided field is then influenced by the rotation of Giesel C around the pair.”

 

“Dave, what can you tell us about the magnetic effects here?” Wrenchel said to one of the officers seated at the table.

 

“Sir, the whole thing is very unusual, and—” He stopped talking and suddenly stood up, moving to the front of the room. The captain stepped aside wordlessly and Dave Henry stepped up on the low stage and extended his arm, finger pointed, and touched a spot near where the circle representing Giesel C was. “Here, this is the critical factor. The braided fields produced by the inner pair are spinning around, and then they get flipped back and forth by this sucker as it rotates,” he said. “The whole thing is tuned just right to create the effect on the planet, although we can’t say exactly how it is happening.”

 

“Now, the planet,” Wrenchel said.

 

The briefer stepped back to the podium as Dave was moving back to his seat at the table. “The planet,” she said, forwarding the presentation to the next slide. It showed the Giesel A, B, and C as much smaller dots crowded together and the path of the one planet that rotated around the triplet. Its orbit was highly elliptical, coming very close to Giesel C’s ellipse on the low end and far away from the triplet on the high end. “Here we see the eccentricity of the orbit, and this contributes to the effect,” she said. “On the low end here, the planet moves through tightly spaced magnetic lines, and then here, on the high end, the lines are less dense.”

 

“The intensity of the field at the lower end is really incredible, sir,” another of the officers seated at the table offered. “We estimate at least 820 megateslas on each pass. We just don’t have any theory on magnetic densities of this magnitude.”

 

“But the planet’s loop is related to this field?” Wrenchel said.

 

The officer looked down at his legal pad; he appeared to be struggling for words. “We’re not prepared to say that, sir,” he said finally. “We’re definitely measuring an asymmetrical flow of time on the surface. Something screwy is going on down there, that’s for sure, and I’m not entirely sure it’s a natural phenomenon.”

 

The captain, still at the podium, looked up from her papers in surprise. That fact was not a part of the briefing.

 

“Asymmetrical flow? And that’s not just relativistic dilation?” Wrenchel asked. A long time ago, he had been a physicist. The field had progressed beyond him, but he still had a grasp of the basics of relativistic theory.

 

“Definitely not,” the officer at the table responded. “There’s a reversal of time flow that starts a little after the perigee and continues until well into the second quadrant of the orbit,” he said. “Now, that’s on the surface. The effect is diluted the farther away from the surface you go. It doesn’t seem to exist except where the flux density is above about 630 megateslas.”

 

“How long does the reversal last?” Wrenchel asked.

 

“It’s about sixteen days, as far as we can figure.”

 

“Sixteen days?” Wrenchel looked up at the briefer. “The whole orbit is only, what? Twenty-eight or so days?”

 

“Twenty-seven days, fourteen hours, sir,” the captain responded. The room was silent, but everyone in it was performing the same math in their head: twenty-seven minus sixteen. And they all got eleven days as their result. “That’s where we’re at now, sir. Members are reminded that this briefing is classified and compartmented D7, Yankee Tango. This concludes the briefing.”

 

“Okay, thanks, everybody,” Wrenchel said, pushing back his chair. “Dave, you stick around a minute, okay?” Dave nodded. “Billy, you too,” he said to the officer who had given him the duration of the time reversal on the planet’s surface as it passed through the intense twisted and churning magnetic field produced by Giesel A, B, and C’s odd dance with each other. The other officers cleared the room, leaving only Wrenchel and Frost at the one end and Dave and Billy at the other.

 

Once they were all gone, Wrenchel spoke. “Okay, have I got this straight? The planet moves forward in time as normal until it comes down to perigee, then time reverses and it flows backward for sixteen days, then it reverses again and goes forward until the next perigee?”

 

Dave and Billy looked at each other nervously. “That’s about it, sir,” Billy said. “That’s what our instruments are telling us.”

 

“Sounds like a pretty good deal,” Frost said. “Twenty-seven steps forward and sixteen back, that’s a net eleven forward on every orbit.”

 

“And we’re sure this is not a relativistic effect?”

 

“Doesn’t seem to be, sir,” Dave said. “Relativity doesn’t work this way. The reversal is sudden and absolute—the flow seems to be going from full forward to full backward, no dilation or transition at all.”

 

“Who have we got in the area?” Wrenchel said to Frost.

 

She shrugged. “It’s a long way off the beaten path.”

 

“Yeah,” Wrenchel frowned. “Okay, thanks, guys.” The officers took the hint, rose, and departed the briefing room. Frost still sat in her seat as did the general.

 

“Walk with me over to the center,” he said to her as he rose from his seat and started gathering the papers in front of him. “There’s something I want to show you.”

 

“Sure,” she said. “You hungry? Let’s get some lunch.”

 

The two of them departed the briefing room and strolled down the long hallway toward the double keypass doors that led to the building’s front atrium and the main entrance beyond.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The trip was my ex-husband’s idea: a week-long get-away sandwiched between the end of Dexter’s school year and the beginning of banjo camp.  Terry—Dexter’s father—sent tickets and a voucher for five nights at the Hotel Erwin in Venice Beach.  The voucher said paid in full; that wasn’t like Terry.

 

He answered the phone on the first ring.  “What are these tickets for?” I asked.  Dexter was upstairs, but I could tell he was listening to me—a mother can feel it.

 

“I want him to have a little adventure,” he said.  “I want you to take him to the beach.”  Someone snorted in the background.  “It’s a shame that he’s eight years old and he’s never seen the ocean.” he said.

 

“Okay,” I said.  “Well—” I found it the next words uncomfortable in my mouth. “Thank you.”  I wanted to ask if he wanted to say a few words to his son, but I decided not to.  He would probably refuse and then I’d have to explain why his father didn’t want to talk to him.  The He’s very busy, honey line was getting a little thin.  By the time I hung up the phone, Dexter was standing next to me.  “Where are we going?” he asked, peering at the tickets on the table.

 

“That was your father.  He wants us to go to Los Angeles, to see the beach,” I replied.  “We leave a week from Tuesday and we’ll come back on Sunday night.”

 

We got to Los Angeles, picked up the rental car, and got to the hotel right at 9 pm.  I turned off the car and Dexter and I sat and stared at the building for a moment.

 

“This is the place?” Dexter asked.

 

“Yep.”

 

“What a dump.”

 

I saw for a moment mentally calculating the balance on my American Express card and wondering how much the Hampton Suites would charge for a last-minute booking for an adult and a child when Dexter pulled the door handle on his side.  “Come on, Mom,” he said. “Maybe it’s not so bad in the inside.”

 

“Wait,” I said, giving the area around the car a look for obvious murderers and rapists. I didn’t see any, but then what do they look like?  Dexter was already out of the car and heading toward the glass door of the lobby.  I quickly followed him, and he held the door for me and the moths.

 

There was a high counter in the back of the small lobby, and I could see the top of a woman’s head behind it.  She sat at a dirty desk popping her gum and flipping through the pages of a magazine.  I approached the counter and then I could see her face, but she didn’t look up.  “Yeah?” was her only greeting.

 

I unfolded the voucher and put it on the counter.  “Ah, I’m Abigail Manfred, my son and I are booked here.”

 

The woman reared her head back, snorted, then roared: “They’re here!”

 

And from a side room emerged—Terry.  My ex-husband.  He breezed around the counter and took a couple of steps toward his son.  Dexter doesn’t like to be hugged, but he let his father hug him.  “Dad!” he said.  “What are you doing here?”

 

“I bought this hotel!” Terry said as if he were reporting the winning of the Publisher’s Clearinghouse Sweepstakes.  “We’re in business here!” Then, turning to me, he said “You go see your sister in Fresno. Dex and me’ll spend some time here together.”  Dexter stood with his dad’s arm around him, smiling.

 

“The agreement is you get ten days in the summer, Terry,” I said, expecting an argument.

 

“Look,” Terry said.  “If you let me have him for these next four days, we’ll consider that to be my summer time with him,” he said.  “Go see your sister and come back on Saturday afternoon.  You can stay here on Saturday night, then you two go back on Sunday.”

 

“You go ahead, Mom,” he said.  “I want to stay here with Dad, and I want to go to the beach.”

 

“There, you see?” Terry said.  “Then it’s settled.”

 

I spent four days with my sister and exchanged texts with Dexter a couple of times a day during that time.  He sent me pictures of his father and himself at the beach, in the Hotel Erwin’s laundry room, and from behind the counter that we had stood at together.  His texts were clipped and literal—the style of nine-year-old boys.  When I sent him a text, he always answered back immediately, and I knew he knew how to call me if he was in trouble, so I didn’t worry.  Much.

 

On Saturday afternoon, I rolled up to the Hotel Erwin at 4 pm, and Dexter was outside the lobby, sitting on the curb there under the bare light bulb, which was on in spite of the fact that it was daytime.  When I stopped, he stood up, picked up his little suitcase, and got in the passenger side.  “Let’s go,” he said.

 

“What do you mean, let’s go?” I said.  “Don’t you want to stay the last night?  Where’s your dad?”

 

“He’s a jerk, Mom.  The beach is stupid, his fat stupid girlfriend is stupid, and I want to go home.”

 

Girlfriend?  But I let that pass, and I was pleased to see that he had come to the inescapable conclusion about his father on his own.  “Well, our plane doesn’t leave until tomorrow,” I said.  I could see Terry in the lobby behind the counter watching through the window.

 

“Dad called and changed our flights,” he said, looking down into his lap.  “We’re on the redeye tonight at 9:45.”  When he looked up, he had tears in his eyes.  “He’s a jerk, Mom.”

 

I started the car.  “Yeah, I know,” I said, piloting the car toward the road, the airport, and home beyond.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

As Van Buren approached the alien globe, Hadrey and Celia crowded around the small window, craning to see something through the thick yellow-green haze. “How far, Davey?” Celia asked.

 

“Forty miles,” he said, his eyes focused on the controls. “I’ll slide us in closer.”

 

“Is that it?” Hadrey jabbed a stubby finger at the glass and held it there, backing away so that Celia could get her face close enough to see.”

 

“You see it?” Davey asked. “Thirty four now and slowing the approach.”

 

Celia stepped away from the window, sat down in the seat next to Davey, and started buckling in. “Spin down the yaw there,” she said, pointing, and Davey moved his hand to comply. “Sit down, Hadrey. You can’t see anything out there.”

 

“No, I can see it,” Hadrey countered, his face close to the small port.

 

Celia reached forward with both hands and lifted the artificial vision helmet off of its stand. She tossed her hair back and put it on, clamping it closed and activating controls on its side and front. The whirr of the cooling feed came on, and then the cool air was circulating through the helmet, exiting out of a vent in the back. “Okay, I’ve got it in here,” she said. “Distance is under 29, let’s null out that pitch now, Davey.”

 

“Roger,” he responded, manipulating controls. Davey had a flat-panel view of what Celia was seeing inside the helmet, but her view was much more impressive–and useful. Inside the helmet, Celia was floating in a clear environment, the mass of Saturn rotating in full color below her and the green alien globe clearly visible in front of her. It appeared to be only yards away, close enough to touch, but this was a result of the lack of anything in the display to give the view some scale. She pressed a button on the side of the helmet and a three-dimensional image of the Mimas Station complex appeared next to the image of the alien globe. It was a tiny, barely recognizable speck of yellow next to the massive green globe.

 

“Damn, this thing is big,” she said. “Twenty five now, slow to 14.” She manipulated the helmet controls again. “Hey, Davey,” she said, her hands working. “You see that?”

 

“See what?” he responded.

 

“That—that movement on the surface.” A pause, and then: “Davey, there’s something orbiting around it,” Celia said. She moved her relative viewpoint inside the helmet, inching closer to the globe. “I can’t really see, it’s too small.”

 

“At fourteen now,” Davey said. “Distance is under 22.” Both of them were conscious of the twenty-mile restriction, and neither would risk his or her license by violating it–alien ship or no alien ship. They were scooper pilots that had signed on to scoop helium, not edge their ship up next to some alien balloon. But it was there, and Artois wanted it investigated before the competition got word of it. Everybody knew that Micha Staven, CEO of Sosiot Partners, would fund his own sleeper mission to get a look at an alien ship–and might come along for the ride himself.

 

“Okay, that’s enough,” Celia said. “Null approach.”

 

“Approach nulled,” Davey said a moment later, and Van Buren hung there 20.7 miles from the huge yellow-green mystery. The crew was quiet for a few moments, Celia examining the globe and the exterior of Van Buren through the helmet, Davey looking at his own display, and Hadrey staring at it through the window, where it was now plainly visible.

 

Only the periodic ping of the ion engine was audible, until Hadrey broke the tension: “Damn, that sucker’s big.”

 

“Yeah,” Celia said, still inside the helmet.

 

Davey flicked his press-to-talk. “Mim, Van Buren. We’re 20.4 at null and ready to proceed.”

 

Veebee, Mim,” came the response. “Is Dr. Martin under the hood?”

 

“Mim, I said we’re ready to proceed. Let’s get this over with, I’m burning gas here.”

 

“This is Martin,” Celia broke in. “I’m ready to roll, Mimas. You should have my feed now.” She tuned a frequency so that the station could see what she was seeing under her helmet.

 

“We’re negative on your feed, doctor,” the controller returned in a few moments.

 

“Boosting now,” Celia said calmly. “How’s that?”

 

“Negative. We’re not getting that feed.”

 

“Hadrey, what’s the flux density out there?” Celia asked, but he was still looking out of the window. “Hadrey?”

 

The man seemed to come to, nodded, and turned toward his station. “Yeah, density,” he repeated, triggering displays on his own panel. He didn’t sit down, and when he had the number, he stepped toward the small window again. “Density is 88 now, near maximum. They won’t be able to receive for a while, just record it all,” he said.

 

Celia activated her push-to-talk. “Mimas, VeeBee,” she said. “Flux density interfering with transmission, will record.”

 

“Record, roger that, VeeBee,” the controller returned, his voice staticy and rough with interference.

 

Celia was moving around—virtually—under the helmet, getting closer to the alien globe, verbalizing her observations so they would be recorded as she did so.

 

“Object consists of two main pieces, a large globe and a smaller rectangular body. The surfaces are rough. There’s small round objects moving around the globe, orbiting,” she said. “No,” she corrected herself. “They’re not really orbiting,” Celia said. “They’re touching the surface, moving around on it.”

 

“What?” Davey responded. He was occupied with trying to keep the ship stable–and to respect that all-important twenty-mile limit. It hung over their investigation like a Sword of Damocles in the razor-thin margin of four-tenths of a mile. That was less than 1000 yards.

 

“The balls, they’re rolling on the surface of the globe,” she said. “Wait a minute– Wait a minute–something’s happening.” As Celia watched, the surface balls began to wander closer and closer together, spinning around each other, and slowing down as they did so. Celia suddenly realized that although the balls appeared to have complete freedom of movement, none of them had touched any of the others. They began to gather more closely now, arranging themselves into a hexagonal pattern. Once the pattern was complete, all was still. “Davey, I got–.” The rest of her thought: –a bad feeling about this–was cut off by what happened next. Simultaneously, the balls collapsed in on each other, forming a solid sheet, and Van Buren shook in a series of very fast, very unnatural, very short shakes. Davey’s vision blurred for a moment, and Hadrey was nearly surprised off his feet.

 

“What the hell was that?” Davey muttered as he manipulated the controls. “Full reverse, I’m going to back us out of here a bit–” The ship pitched downward sickeningly, or appeared to.

 

Hadrey grunted. “Jesus bicyclingly Christ, we’re falling!” A stream of curses spewed from him as he grasped for something to hold on to.

 

“We’re not falling, Rookie,” Davey said. “The goddam artificial gravity just went tits up.”

 

Celia had already unbuckled and removed the helmet and she let go of it. The helmet remained where it was, hovering in mid-air, gently rotating as her hands flew over her panel. “Diagnostics are negative, the grav should be working,” she said.

 

“Grab on to something, Rookie, I’m backing us out.” Davey applied the front thrusters and the ship lurched backward. Hadrey hadn’t had time or sensibility to grab on as he had been instructed, things were happening too fast. He crashed into a side panel next to the main display–or, more accurately, it crashed into him–and again he grunted as his mass was accelerated.

 

“I’ve got enough data here,” Celia said, still working her panel. “Let’s get back on the path.”

 

“Back on the path, right.” Davey repeated. “Hey! Rookie! Get back there and get on the pumps. We still got to fill up them tanks.”

 

Hadrey turned and nodded, his face impossibly green. He started making his way toward the back, hand-over-hand, pulling himself by this handhold and that strap, making progress. Davey and Celia were occupied with their panels, but both recognized the sound he made–neither one had to look. “Just stop right there, Rookie,” Davey said. “You vacuum that up right now. Use the vac in the medical stores. If that ball of puke hits me in the head, I’m going to put your ass in the tank.”

 

“Get the vacuum. Do it now,” Celia added her voice. “Don’t let it get on the equipment.”

 

Hadrey couldn’t answer, but they both heard the sound of the medical stores closures ripping open, and them the whirr of the vacuum and the sucking sounds that the vomitus made going in to it.

 

“You be damn sure to get all of it, Rookie,” Davey said. “I don’t want your goddam breakfast on my panels.”

 

“I’m working on the generators here,” Celia called as Davey unbuckled his shoulder straps and wiggled out of them. He released the lap restraint and floated up and out of his chair. “What the hell are you doing?”

 

“The feed from the fuel cells is interrupted, I ran the diagnostic already, you can’t fix it from the panel.” He was floating up to the ceiling, then he bent his body in half, rotating, and touched the ceiling with his feet, gently pressing against it.

 

“Where did you learn that?” Celia said, genuinely surprised at the older man’s nimble and effective movement in zero gee.

 

He moved to a prone position over her panel. “See here and here?” He pointed at her displays. “The spinners are slowing down. If they stop, we won’t be able to get them going again.” He flipped over, dolphin style, and kicked toward the back of the ship, where Hadrey was clinging miserably to the side of the wall.

 

Davey saw him there and had a rare–and transient–moment of sympathy. “How you doing, Rookie,” he asked in passing. “Don’t you puke on me, goddammit,” he continued talking over Hadrey’s weak response. As Hadrey watched, Davey flew through the passageway and landed precisely on a circular hatch that was held in place by wingnut-like locking devices with heavy twisting handles that extended half an inch or so from the panel. “You guys are always bitching about these handles,” Davey said. “Now watch and see why things are made the way they are on a scooper.” As Hadrey watched, Davey twisted the first one. “See? No recoil. Get it? I don’t need a special wrench.” Davey deftly twisted the other five and lifted the circular cover out, letting it float across the passage toward Hadrey. “Make yourself useful, will you?” Davey said, his attention already on the equipment inside the wall. “Catch that cover.”

 

Then something happened and three crew members had the same thought: Something’s wrong with my vision. Each of them lifted whichever hand was available and rubbed their eyes to bring the world back in to focus.

 

And in the next instant, the world did come back in to focus.

 

Without having moved, Davey was again strapped down in his seat, Celia again had the helmet on, and Hadrey was again looking out of the small window. And the gravity was on.

 

“What the hell…?” Davey said.

 

“What just happened?” Celia said. Her wide eyes met Davey’s.

 

“Oh, now that is weird,” Hadrey said.

 

Davey’s hands were clutching his chest as if to assure himself that he was whole. He half-expected the crushing pain of a broken bone or a gash in his flesh to crash into his brain at any moment, but none did. Then he looked up. “How close are we to that globe?” He asked as his hands moved to activate the proper screen–but it was already active and displayed the proximity readout, which clicked from 26.7 to 26.6 as he watched. It only took an instant for him to decide. “Full reverse,” he roared, and Celia was moving on her panel, even before the order. Hadrey, you buckle down in the back,” he continued as the ship started to respond to his commands.

 

“Return numbers are in, and we’ll be ready for the burn in–” Celia waited for the calculation. “Eighteen seconds!”

 

“Hadrey, you tied down back there?”

 

“Aye, don’t wait for me.”

 

“Well, I wasn’t planning to, Rookie,” he muttered to himself as he worked his own panel, preparing for the engine burn that would push them away from the alien ship.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“Celia, are you busy right now?” Davey asked as he struggled to get the ship back onto the pre-programmed course that would pitch them safely, after an engine burn, down into the Saturnine atmosphere and then up again to slingshot back to the landing track at Mimas Station—the path, as it was called.

 

Celia was sitting right next to him, struggling with her own duties. She looked at him incredulously, then back to her own panel. “Am I busy? Are you crazy?” The ship bounced across magnetic lines of flux as Celia tried to avoid the worst of them. “Hey back there,” she called. “I’m going to open the front, are you ready?”

 

“Yeah, go ahead,” Hadrey called from the ship’s collection station.

 

“Good,” Celia said to herself as she flipped the switch and motors activated and whirred, opening panels in the front of the ship. From the rear, gas handling units activated and started working the atmosphere that was now blowing into the main tank, analyzing it and shunting it to the centrifuges. Hadrey verified the mixtures and closed the centrifuge circuits, resulting in a low whine that quickly slid up to an almost ultrasonic pitch.

 

“Is there any way to confirm the little slip we had back there?” Davey said to Celia.

 

“I don’t know,” she said. “What, you don’t think anybody’s going to believe us?”

 

“Raw concentration is 37,” Hadrey said. Celia could hear that he said something, but she looked at her own display instead of asking him to repeat himself—it was just too loud to try to converse with him.

 

“Look, the raw is 37 right now,” Celia observed to Davey. That was high–the usual range was 10 to 25 parts per billion. At 37, it wouldn’t take long to fill the remainder of the tank. “I’m just going to describe what happened in my regular report,” Celia said. “I don’t give a damn if they believe it or not.”

 

“Yeah, I guess,” Davey said. The ship was calmer now; Celia had managed to get them parallel to the lines of magnetic flux, and things quieted down. “Can’t we get something from the clocks on board?” he asked.

 

“Maybe,” Celia responded, but she really didn’t have time to think about it at the moment.

 

“Hey, the gas is up more, it’s to 40,” Hadrey called from the back. “That’s not right. What’s causing it to be so rich?”

 

“How would I know?” Davey said. “Can’t you see I got my hands full up here?” Hadrey grumbled something, but he didn’t offer any more gas-fraction updates.

 

Now that the ship seemed stable, Celia reached for the helmet. “Let’s have a look at what’s going on back there, shall we?” she said as she put it on and buckled the straps.

 

“Well?” Davey said, his hand still on the controls but idle for the moment. He was carefully watching the flux isobar displays, carefully edging the ship up and over the last few that separated his course from the path back to Mimas.

 

“Shit. It’s gone,” Celia said.

 

“Gone?”

 

“Yeah, I don’t see it.”

 

“What?” Hadrey said from the back. It was clear from his tone that he had heard Celia but he wasn’t sure he understood.

 

“I said it’s gone,” she repeated. She unbuckled and pulled the helmet off, reaching for her microphone feed.

 

“Have we been recording it?” Davey asked quietly. Celia flipped up a display and confirmed the coordinates on what was a view of a patch of empty Saturnine atmosphere. They were the coordinates of the place where the alien ship had been—the camera was still recording.

 

She checked the time index: it was at 14 hours, 48 minutes and still running.

 

“Yep,” she said.

 

“Good,” Davey replied. “We’ll worry about it when we get back to the station.”

 

“How’s the concentration back there now,” Celia called.

 

“That thing is really gone?” Hadrey asked.

 

“Forget that thing and do your job,” Davey roared. “If I have to come back there, I’m not only going to kick your ass, I’m going to put a K12 in your file,” he shouted. A K12 was a Captain’s Finding, official documentation of a crewmember’s failure to perform. One K12 and a crewmember was, as a practical matter, on probation. A second one meant a trip hone on the next crew shuttle. Davey’s threat seemed to get the rookie’s attention.

 

“Aye, Captain,” Hadrey said with no hint of sarcasm. “Concentration of input gas is 36 ppb and falling. Main tank is at 140, pump output is 540. Main level is 81.” It was an efficient report.

 

“That’s better.” Davey said. “Now, start the cycle at 93, and when the doors are closed, I’ll start the burn. You have your orders.” He closed with the traditional way of ships’ masters who want compliance and silence in response to his commands—and he got it.  Hadrey seemed finally to have found his professionalism, and Davey turned his attention to Celia. “Will we have interiors of that little blip we rode through?” He was referring to whether or not a video of the interior of the ship had been recorded when they experienced the jerk or bump or whatever it was that kicked them from zero-gee and all over the inside to being back in the seats with the gravity on, and reliving the previous three minutes. Celia was checking, just as she has checked on the feed from the globe, and yes, the computers had continued to capture data and images from all four cameras: two inside and two outside. The video would be essential to an analysis—and it would corroborate their story.

 

“Yep,” she said.

 

“Good. Double it and send it,” Davey ordered. Celia moved to comply, assembling the data and preparing to radio it to the station. They wouldn’t understand it at first. It didn’t matter, as Celia well knew. The important thing now was first to make a copy of critical data. Then make another. Then send a copy somewhere outside the system so that it would survive a failed mission and a dead crew.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“Where the hell did this thing come from, anyway?” Norm Tooley wondered aloud as he manipulated controls on Grant’s flight control panels.

 

“What’s that?” said the other pilot, from her own station in the other compartment. The door between the two compartments had been removed in order to reduce weight and allow for the installation of special equipment for this special mission.

 

“Nothing!” Norm fairly shouted back. “I’ve got full returns on the object now,” he said, closing contacts and locking Grant’s navigational systems on the radar signature of the object that was the source of all the fuss in the station over the last few days.

 

It had been found during an automated weather observation. Mimas is tidally locked to Saturn, and so observation satellites had been put into orbit so that the other side of the planet, the side not visible from Mimas, but in which the scooper ships would operate, could be observed. There were four of them, three in equatorial orbits and one in a polar orbit that took it over the top and bottom of the planet every seventeen hours. That satellite had to punch through the rings twice on each orbit, and so it was more elaborate than the others–it had a fuel reactor, eight small thrusters, and a Pressenton Dynacog-III navigation brain specially programmed to look for holes, navigate through the, and then return to its programmed orbit. That satellite had found the object, receiving a radar signal from it. The Dynacog saw right away that something unusual was down there, and it immediately notified the on-duty meteorologist.

 

As a matter of fact, the satellite woke him up. Mike Greenburg had just settled into sleep when the Dynacog sounded the alert alarm in the small weather shack. Since the alarms were coded, he knew right away that this one was from the polar satellite–the smart one–and so by the time the third beep sounded, he was in the chair. He shut off the alarm with one smooth motion and brought up the Dynacog display screen, blinking away the blur of sleep and trying to make sense of what the Dynacog was telling him.

 

The screen presented a variety of information–the location of the Dynacog and the other satellites, the status of Saturn’s atmosphere and the four scooper ships that were presently working in it, data on the magnetic flux surrounding the system, and so forth. But of most interest to Mike at the moment was a graphic showing the radar feed from the Dynacog. It refreshed once every two or three seconds and there continued to be a return from something in the atmosphere. A large, solid, stable, hard return from something that big which simply could not be in the atmosphere.  But there it was, return the Dynacog’s radar pings.

 

Mike double-checked to be sure his screen was being recorded–it was–and he expanded the view so that the radar return filled the entire screen. He focused in on the object and used a variety of electronic filters to bring it into greater detail. It was impossible to see it clearly with a radar that was intended to evaluate weather phenomenon, not explore the details of individual objects, but Mike did what he could to get a good picture of it.

 

The object was roughly globe-shaped and about a mile in diameter. The image was smudgy and indistinct, but it could be seen that there was a squarish object at the bottom of the globe, like the gondola of a hot-air balloon, only larger. Mike zoomed in on the gondola and thought he saw a series of projections emanating from it, jutting in irregular angles, but it was difficult to be sure. He pressed a button to activate his headset. “Com, this is Weather, are you awake?”

 

A beat, and then a professional female voice sounded in his headset. “Of course I’m awake, doctor,” Maybelle Lewis responded. “What can I do for you?”

 

“I’m getting a funny radar return from the Dynacog, it’s showing a large object floating in the atmosphere.”

 

“A what?”

 

“It’s some sort of object,” he repeated. “Stable, multiple agreeing returns.”

 

“Can you pipe it up here?” she asked, moving to the screen in her panel on which Mike’s view could be transferred. “Give it to me on K51.”

 

“Roger.”  He pressed a button.  “There you go.”

 

There was a moment of silence as Lewis took in the information that the screen presented. “How old is this, Mike?”

 

“Nine minutes,” he responded.

 

One thing about Maybelle Lewis, she didn’t spend a lot of time stalling when there was something to be done. She clicked her microphone over to the channel that Lyndon Johnson was on. “Johnson, Com,” she spoke precisely.

 

Davey Spilton pushed his push-to-talk and the noise of the collector pumps roared in Lewis’ ear; then his voice. “Com, this is Johnson, go ahead.”

 

“Davey, we’re getting a weird radar signal not too far from you, I’m feeding it to you now,” she said. “It’s about a thousand miles away and below you. You see it?”

 

“Yeah, I see it,” he said. “You got this from Weather?”

 

“That’s affirm, Johnson,” Lewis answered back. “How heavy are you?”

 

“Ah, we’re at 42 percent right now, Com,” he said. “We got plenty of gas, though. Shall I go have a look?”

 

Lewis calculated in her mind–diverting to investigate the object wouldn’t interfere with the scooping operation, but there was always the slingshot return maneuver to think about. “Say fuel status, Johnson

 

“Main three one thousand, reserve one one thousand, I say again, main three one thousand, reserve one one thousand,” Spilton answered back.

 

You call that plenty of gas? Lewis thought, but she said nothing. “Okay, a flyby of the object is authorized, proceed at discretion, your approach limit is two zero miles, readback, Johnson.”

 

“Discretion, two zero miles,” Spilton repeated.

 

“Thanks, Davey. Com out.” She moved the lever back to Mike’s channel. “Mike, I’ve got Lyndon Johnson going to check it out. He should be on your screen in a couple of hours. Keep an eye on him, will you?”

 

Lyndon Johnson?  That piece of shit’s out?” Mike said.

 

“Ah, yeah,” Lewis resonded.  “Davey Spilton’s got it.”

 

“Holy crap.  What’dya have to do to get him to go out in that ship?”

 

“We didn’t do anything, doctor,” Lewis responded, annoyed. “Will you monitor Johnson, or shall I wake Ted up?”  Ted was the Weather Shop supervisor, who—both Lewis and Mike knew—was best left sleeping.

 

“Roger, will monitor,” Mike said. “Weather out.” The channel clicked closed and Mike leaned in close to the monitor again, staring at the object. What the hell are you? he thought, and another thought, a more disturbing one, was beginning to form around the edges of his perception. Something this big, and only thirty or so levels below where the scoopers operated, this should have been seen dozens of times–but it wasn’t. Something this big, if it had approached the planet and orbited it, it surely would have been seen by the weather radars.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Murphy Rothburn stacked four round metallic discs in his palm and fed them into the slingshot-like weapon. They dropped into the chamber with a satisfying metallic chunk and then there was a whirring inside as the first disc loaded into the combustion chamber. He closed the loading door and tilted it, flipping open a captive cap on the top of a small tube on the side. Good. There’s still plenty of fuel. He closed the cap again and started cranking open the airship’s window with his other hand.

 

“Murphy, don’t do this,” Tommy said.

 

Rothburn looked at him. “What do you mean, ‘don’t do this’? What do you think we’re up here for?”

 

“We’re up here to map the magnetic field,” he said.

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Rothburn said as he brought the weapon up and rested it on the high ledge of the open window. Below them, the high desert that occupied most of this planet’s southern hemisphere sprawled out. There were a few of the hollow gourd-trees sprinkled here and there. The gourd-trees were carnivorous plants that filtered the soil through a system of long, tendril-like, shallow roots to collect water, which they then used as bait for the large, hoop-like insects that seemed to be everywhere on this planet. The insects, called rollers, were wary of the trees, but they had to have water, so sooner or later, they were forced to draw near to the cool, inviting pools that the tree formed on the four low branches that grew at compass points around the central trunk and opened up into a basin shape. Except for the basin-branches down low, nothing grew from the trunk, but the trunk itself divided into four parts high up which curved back down and hung over the basins. When a roller sipped the water, the trunk-tip above would spring down, go right through the center of the roller’s hoop body, and then up, sliding it down to the mouth at the tree’s crotch.

 

“Look,” Tommy said, pointing. One of the rollers was making its way to a gourd-tree basin. It rolled slowly, carefully–sensing no danger, but also completely unaware of the trunk tip far above, silently and slowly descending in order to strike.

 

Murphy looked at the scene, brought his gun over, and fired. The disc whooshed out of the weapon and then the trunk tip, which had been poised to strike, fell to the ground, upsetting the basin on that side and scattering the roller that had been approaching. The other three tips jerked up into the air, almost straight up, in response to the fourth having been amputated. “Ha! How about that!” Murphy cried.

 

“Damn it, Murphy,” Tommy replied. He stepped away from the window. “I’m not watching you do this anymore.” He opened the door that led out of the observation deck and started up the steps to the airship control room.

 

“Ah, you pansy,” Murphy called after him, still gazing out of the window.

 

Then he saw what he had been after: A large animal called a girrape was ambling into view. The girrape was something of a cross between a giraffe and an ape–it had a very long neck, which it used to eat the bark off of the gourd-trees, way up high where the tree trunk curled down and over the water-basin part, but it was covered with coarse, black hair.

 

The tree would attempt to defend itself against the girrape, but the only method of attack it had in its arsenal was to poke at the girrape with its trunk-ends, and this was not an effective strategy. The girrapes mostly ignored the poking, or sometimes they would grasp the wiggling trunk-end in one of the two articulating limbs that extended from either side of their necks, just below the animal’s jaw. These limbs were weak, but they had a firm grasp, and the finger-like projections on their ends were equipped with coarse pads that provided a good grip against the trunk-end’s smooth surface.

 

“There you are!” Murphy said as he brought the weapon around and looked through its binocular sights. “A little closer now,” he murmured. “Closer…closer….” The girrape ignored him and continued to munch on the top of a gourd-tree. Murphy concentrated and squeezed the trigger.

 

The disc whooshed out from his gun. The girrape was much farther away than the target of his first shot had been, and so there was a correspondingly longer time to wait to see if he had hit this target or not. The disc had been close, but it went wide, and the girrape looked around, puzzled–he had heard it, but being a planet on which there were no flying animals at all, a concept of what it might have been was beyond him.

 

“Damn it,” Murphy said as the gun recycled and the third disc loaded itself into the combustion chamber.

 

From the control room above, Tommy called down to him through the doorway, which was still open. “Murphy, get back up here. We’ve got to transition now for the orbit.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, just a minute,” Murphy responded.

 

“Now, Major,” Tommy said. He used Murphy’s rank to emphasize that fact that although they were both majors, Tommy outranked Murphy based on time served and was–at least technically–in charge of the day’s mission.

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Murphy said as he again lined up the binocular sights on the girrape. He squeeze the trigger.

 

Inside the weapon, the trigger’s mechanism closed a contact and a pulse of electricity moved a membrane, allowing two chemicals to touch. They reacted exothermically, igniting the liquid fuel charge that had been pushed into the combustion chamber by the ejection of the previous disc. The fuel burned and expanded, and this action was intended to push the disc smoothly into the rectangular barrel and out–but this disc had a tiny flaw on its sharpened edge, which was opened by the expanding gases just at the right time to catch on the edge of the barrel. The disc, unable to proceed through the barrel, hung there and bent over, blocking the escaping gases. They continued to expand, the pressure spiking–until the gun’s body shattered and exploded.

 

In an instant, hot, jagged shrapnel pushed its way through Murphy’s body, barely slowing down. They punched holes in the floor of the observation deck, and began their long fall to the desert floor. Blood pumped from the holes in Murphy’s body, his strong heart splattering it up the walls and pushing it across the floor. Murphy collapsed, the only sound other than his body hitting the floor was a gurgling of blood as his lungs tried to push it out in favor of air.

 

Tommy had heard the explosion and appeared at the bottom of the stairs. “Oh, God,” he said. His eyes met Murphy’s, and he knew that his crewmate would be dead in a moment–then he promptly threw up, adding the contents of his stomach to the gore on the floor.

 

Several of the pieces of shrapnel from the exploding gun had shot upward, one of them with enough force to puncture the thin aluminum skin of the airship, and the helium that kept the ship floating in the dense atmosphere steamed out. Tommy noticed it and scurried back up the stairs as the airship started to descend.

 

The girrape’s extreme sense of smell detected the blood in the airship’s observation deck and started taking lumbering steps toward where its apelike brain told it there would soon be wet food.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

I haven’t been all that eager to write this story down, but I just got back from the doctor’s, and seeing as how I’ve officially got bone cancer now, and maybe a year left to live, there’s not that much that they can do to me if they find out. Funny how a terminal illness concentrates the mind–didn’t Benjamin Franklin say something like that? Or maybe it was Twain, I forget.

 

The whole thing was an accident, but then, so many things are accidents. You turn left, you meet a girl who becomes your future wife, mother of your children, receiver of your alimony, and so forth. You turn right, you don’t. Timing, dumb luck, and happenstance; it is generally unrecognized what a large part these things play in our lives. Having had the ability to go back and turn right instead of left for the last few years, I’ve come to recognize how out-of-control our seemingly well controlled lives are. Mine used to be that way, until I happened to turn left instead of right one day and have my encounter with a person whom I have since come to call and to think of as the Trigger Man.

 

It was the day after my birthday. I had just turned sixty, and I was feeling it, the aches and pains of a life spent not being very careful about such things as stretching or cool-downs. I had always been an athlete, and a natural one—of course, that’s the most dangerous kind of athlete to be, the kind for whom strenuous activity comes easy, the kind with a body that heals quickly and painlessly, at least for a while. And I took full advantage of it: a football scholarship paid for college, two years as a very minor figure in the NFL to make a little money, then grad school and a position teaching at a university not far from where I grew up. At sixty, I had tenure, and a recent divorce that had been the emotional equivalent of taking a stone out of my shoe. My neck was creaky and I wouldn’t be running any more marathons, but with the right mix of pills at the right time, I could get out of bed, get myself to class, and hold court well enough.

 

As I dictate this, I have my left hand in my pocket and there’s a coin in there that I’ve carried around since those first days that I knew the Trigger Man. It’s the thing that he used to convince me of his story, and when I saw it, I started to believe him. My full trust in him came later, but that was the start of it. Just a coin—a dime, as a matter of fact. If I pulled it out of my pocket, which I won’t do, and if I showed it to you, which I won’t do, you wouldn’t consider it unusual or special in the least. Just an ordinary 2013 Roosevelt dime. But it is special, and it is unusual—in a way that only I and the Trigger Man know about. I’ll spill the beans on that later.

 

My first ex-wife was still alive in those days, and I used to go to her house, which used to be my house before it was our house before it was her house, from time to time. The house was out in the country, at the end of a long lane that split off from the main highway. It was starting to get cold then, and I was in that old Ford pickup I had and which I wrecked on Christmas day that year. I almost lost my dime that day, but I managed to find it on the floorboard of the truck while I waited for the ambulance to arrive, which was lucky because at the time, it was Christmas of 2010, three years before the dimes like that would be produced. You might say I had an early version, thanks to the Trigger Man.

 

So I was driving along, not paying too much attention to anything, trying to think of what to say to get Donna to give me the suitcases that I knew damn good and well were in the upstairs hall closet, when I saw that a car was stopped on the other side of the road, just sitting there in the other lane. Something about it struck me as strange, and so I pulled my truck over to my side of the road, got out, and started to walk up to the car when a man got out of the passenger side.

 

“Are there dogs here, do you suppose?” he asked as I approached.

 

I heard him, and I understood, but what he said was so nonsensical that I presumed that I must have heard him incorrectly. “Do you need some help?” I asked, coming to a stop some distance away.

 

“Dogs. Are there dogs here, do you suppose?” he repeated.

 

Great, a nut job, I thought. “Listen, you need to get your car out of the road, someone’s going to rear-end you.”

 

“Do you suppose there are dogs here?” He seemed to be stuck on that subject.

 

“No, no dogs here, mister. Just us. Is your car broke down?”

 

The man looked up and down the road and sighed a little. “No, I’ve just got a little problem,” he said. I fixed it for him, and that was the beginning of our little relationship.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“What if we had an easy way to absorb gamma rays?” Claire Haskell said. She wasn’t the real Claire Haskell, of course–the novelist wouldn’t be born for another sixty years or so, and her novels wouldn’t be written for several decades after that. The real Claire Haskell would be—was—the kind of novelist that many otherwise well educated people have not read, although they would know some of her titles: Streamer, The Woman in the Window, perhaps Flashing for Gold. I myself was not a big fan, although I remember Mrs. Miller trying to get us to swallow Haskell’s poems The Seed and Where the Robins go in the Winter in high school.  Some of the well-educated public would know a few of Haskell’s characters, some would even know plot details here and there, but that would be about it. But the name was in her mind for some reason, and when she had been asked her name, it fell off her tongue smoothly and so she had adopted it—for the moment.

 

A beat, and then: “What did you say?” the older man asked. He said it too strongly; the room was suddenly quiet, and a few people looked around. Some may have imagined that a father was discussing something with a daughter, but that was not the case. The man was loud, but he was not excited or angry.  Despite his skeptical nature, he was interested and his naturally penetrating voice reflected that interest

 

“I said—” the younger woman looked around nervously as the patrons in the coffee shop started going back to their own concerns. “Dammit, not so loud!” she continued, restraining her voice to a soft but insistent whisper. “I can’t afford to attract a bunch of attention on this.”

 

The two of them sat and looked at each other for a few seconds, then Frank leaned back and picked up his coffee. He sipped it, discovered that it was no longer hot, and gulped half of it, setting the cup back down. “Claire, you’re trying to tell me about radioactivity, then?”

 

“Damn right I am,” she answered back, still in the sotto voce whisper.

 

“And you’re trying to tell me about the Higgs?” he smirked.

 

“You’re not as smart as you think. You could get a little smarter if you’d listen to me on this.”

 

Frank picked up the cup again and was about to drain it when he stopped. “You going to drink it?” he asked, nodding toward Claire’s untouched cup. “That coffee cost me four dollars, you know.”

 

Claire smiled and picked it up. Hers too was only mildly warm now. She tasted it and her nose wrinkled at its bitterness. A lifetime ago, Frank Marcetti might have thought this was cute, might have been attracted to her, but now all he cared about was his work on radiation containment methods and mechanisms. He had been born in 1986, the year Pripyat was ruined by idiot operators at the Chernobyl power station. The Fukushima Daiichi disaster in Japan had taken place 25 years later—on Frank’s birthday, as a matter of fact. He was in grad school then, the nuclear engineering program at the University of Michigan, and followed the story closely. By the time the Akkuyu Incident occurred—December 2028—Frank already had 12 years with the Newsome Corporation and was moving through the management grades pretty quickly. Now, at 61, Frank spent all his time directing research, or rather, directing post-docs in their research. That was what had led him to the young woman who now sat across from him sipping at lukewarm coffee. “The Higgs carries mass, right?” she said, a bit of a smile playing around her lips as she sat the cup back down.

 

Frank considered her for a moment. “It’s been a long time since I had to answer questions about elementary particles.”

 

Claire snorted. “Yeah, that Higgs, it’s pretty elementary,” she said. Then she looked around. “We really shouldn’t talk here, it’s too close to the school.” She leaned it and continued. “The Higgs. Give me the short story on it.”

 

Frank looked into the young woman’s eyes, which were locked on his. They were blue, darker than what is normally seen, with flecks of white in them. After a while, he decided to humor her, just to see where it would lead, and he recited the following levelly in his schoolteacher’s voice, maintaining the locked gaze: “Well, Miss Haskell, the Higgs particle is a boson with no spin or charge. It violates weak isospin symmetry and functions as the longitudinal component of massive W and Z bosons to modulate the Weak Force. You are familiar with the Weak Force, yes?” he finished, sarcasm dripping from his voice.

 

Claire’s smile had widened as he reached the end of his soliloquy. “Indeed, I am, Professor,” she answered back, matching his sarcasm with her own. “And the Higgs, what might its decay time be?”

 

“Ten to the negative 22 seconds,” Frank said.

 

“Good,” Claire said, breaking away from his gaze. “At least you’ve got that part right. I’ll give you a B-minus overall, despite the fact that you have a few errors in your, ah, your—” For the first time since they sat down, she seemed to be at a loss for words. “Your report,” she finished, leaning back in her chair. She sighed, looked around, then cleared her throat and leaned in again. “Listen carefully, I’m only going to say this once, and I’m only going to sketch the large parts out for you. You can take it from there, I think you’ll know what to do. No details, and no questions.”

 

Frank leaned in. Having come this far—having refrained from deleting the email she had sent, having opened it and read it, having gone to the coffee shop at the designated time, having gone over to the booth at which the young woman fitting the description of the email sender was waving, having sat down, having ordered and paid for coffee, and having participated in discussion—he was willing to go a little bit farther.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

It was just as it is expected to be. A moonless night and then an impossibly bright blue light from above. The pickup truck inexplicably dies and rolls to a stop. A silent silver disc floats into view and then gently comes to rest in a deserted field. Tommy was out there for one reason—to hunt deer.

 

Dammit, he thought. What’s happened to my truck? The word my, had it been vocalized by Tommy, would have come out muh. But he didn’t vocalize; the tobacco-laden spit he was collecting in his mouth for discharge would have leaked out.

 

Tommy got out of the truck and lifted his gun off the seat, swinging it around and in the direction of the large craft now sitting just across from him, in plain view. It sat there silently, dark and still. Tommy pointed the gun at the craft.

 

BLAM! He fired and then quickly reloaded so as to be ready in case a response to that first shot required a second.

 

He had heard the pellets hit the object, but there was apparently no effect. Tommy raised the gun for another blast, and then—as he sighted—he saw a line of light appear on the surface.

 

Something was opening.

 

As it opened, something appeared in the opening, blocking some of the light, but the glare made it impossible to see. Tommy squeezed his finger for the second shot.

 

Several things happened simultaneously in that instant. The gun disappeared—it simply vanished out of existence—and Tommy was lifted upward by some unknown and unseen force, lifted about a thousand feet in the air, lifted and held there. The spacecraft lifted along with him. Tommy and the spacecraft were simply hefted up and held in the air, with no visible means of support. It happened too quickly for Tommy to scream.

 

So many things were suddenly happening that they barely registered on Tommy, but below him, in the dark, the landscape was changing. Like a movie running in reverse, trees were un-growing—getting smaller and smaller, and then were replaced with large trees which flashed into place and rapidly un-grew themselves to nothing. The ground was flowing now, moving here and there, up and down. This continued for some time as Tommy watched, unable to understand or respond.

 

Then the ground hefted up violently. As it moved upward, the foliage it supported, which was now un-growing so fast that it was only visible as flashes, thinned out and was replaced by sparse rock and dirt. The dirt grew lighter and coarser now, and finally the ground moved until it was precisely at the bottom of Tommy’s boots.

 

A gentle light played around the sky—the first glimmerings of morning—and whatever force had held Tommy in place when he was suspended was released. His weight came down on his feet. He struggled to stand as his mind, never keen, overloaded with the task of trying to comprehend what had just happened. He opened his mouth and a wet wad of tobacco fell out and splattered on the bare sandy surface of the ground.

 

The opening of the silver disc was still open, now forming a dark square against the silver surface, and then Tommy saw a face appear in the opening. It was not human, but Tommy recognized it as a face: symmetrical, large glassy eyes and a small slit for a mouth. It moved from side to side for a moment, then the face, the opening, and the ship winked out of existence and Tommy was alone on the sand.

 

He looked around, blinking, unable to understand what had just happened, but seeing nothing else to do, he staggered in one direction and the other, looking around for something familiar. Nothing he could see was familiar to him.

 

He began walking, his head swiveling around, looking for something that might serve as a reference point for where he was or where he was going. Seeing none, he called out ‘Hey!’ but there was no response.

 

Then he heard a screech—there was something flying above him, something large. He craned his head and looked. Tommy had little education and little use for one, but he realized what the shape was—it was a pterodactyl. Tommy was not exactly sure what a pterodactyl was, but he seemed to recall that it was a dinosaur and that it lived and that it had gone the way of the other dinosaurs, when they had gone, long ago.

 

As he watched, the pterodactyl circled and landed near him.

 

It was enormous, much larger than he had imagined, and awkwardly duck-walked its way to face him. Tommy thought that ten feet would be a safe distance; the animal stopped about that far away from him. It leaned its head back and then in a flash, impossibly fast, it thrust its head forward such that the end of its sharp peak pierced Tommy directly in the center of his abdomen. The pterodactyl pulled its head from side to side, and special ribs on its beak sliced Tommy’s belly open, his guts spilling wetly on the sand.

 

Tommy fell to his knees while the animal began to feed on his soft insides, and then Tommy was dead.

 

Taking its time, the pterodactyl finished its lunch and the lifted again, riding the warm thermals high above the pre-Mammalian-age Earth.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

In the middle of the night in a dark bedroom deep within the Palace of Euksa, King Drago Maltha-Talonossippidees XIV kicked, groaned, turned over in bed, and then was again quiet. His movement was independently recorded by the hour’s two senior watch scribes, condensed into a single report by the local thinker, and summarily transmitted to a small recording station on the planet’s sole moon.

 

Scribe Pix saw the report come in. “He’s restless tonight,” he said. “That’s the seventh major movement in less than three hours.”

 

“Seven movements aren’t unusual,” Scribe Flent responded, not bothering to look up from his own series of reports. “Her Majesty’s had fourteen movements in the last hour, along with two awakenings.”

 

“Yes, but she’s forty-four years old,” Pix responded. “Change of life, you know.”

 

At this, Flent did look up, and he gave the younger man a frowning look. “Careful, careful,” he said.

 

Pix smiled. “I didn’t mean anything,” he said, the tone of his voice sliding up in an apologetic way.

 

“I know, Pix,” Flent said as he turned back to his reports. “But one must be careful. Such things can be so easily misunderstood.”

 

Pix did not respond, and for several minutes, all that could be heard in the watch room was the throbbing of the timepiece under the floor and the soft hiss back and forth as the transports down the hall moved watchers and scribes and other early-morning shift workers here and there in the large building.

 

“Pix,” Flent said suddenly, “looks like we’ve got a riser.”

 

“Who is it?” Pix said, his hands moving over his control board just as Flent’s were moving over his.

 

“MMM 57,” he said. ”Right on time.”

 

Her Impeccable Majesty Queen Mari Mani-Morphibound LVII, who, before the death of her husband, the father of the present king, had been styled Her Majesty Queen Mari Mani-Morphibound LVII Sacrophidious, was the fifty-seventh so-named consort in an unbroken line, and, of course, mother of the king. In informal speech when not in the presence of a member of the royal family, it was considered acceptable to refer to one of the 57 Morphibound queens as MMM and then the number, a practice followed typically by the general public and by civil servants of middling rank.

 

The honorific suffix after the numeral in the queen’s title indicated the number of live-birth children that particular queen had borne her king. A single child and the woman would assume the suffix Donarifious; a second child Raditiafious, a third child Yamorisedious, and so on. MMM 57 had borne her king eleven children, thus the Sacrophidious; the present occupier of the Drago throne was her third child.

 

His heavily pregnant wife, Her Majesty Queen Mari Mani-Morphibound LVIII, would append the first-child honorific upon the birth of her child, which was impending, assuming, of course, that the child was born alive. The suffix would increment as he continued to have children, and then she would inherit the title Impeccable upon the death of her husband. At that point, the birthing honorific was dropped and, as the 57 Mari Mani-Morphibounds who had come before her, she would be distinguished in fact and in history from the others by only the numeral.

 

“Bathroom?” Pix asked.

 

“Yeah, she’s in there now,” Flent responded. The queen was reaching that age where she rarely slept through the night; she often needed help getting out of bed and walking to the bathroom, but this night, she was getting there under her own steam. “She’s batting away the handmaid,” Flent said, chuckling. “She’s got spirit, that one.”

 

Now it was Pix’s turn to frown. “Oh, come on,” Flent said. “It’s an admirable characteristic.”

 

“When I was a boy, she visited my village,” Pix said. “She spoke to my father.”

 

“That a fact?” Flent said, mildly interested. Flent had, in fact, been spoken to by MMM 57 himself; he’d actually had a little chat with her. It was upon his return from one of the outer moons during the days when Teso-484 was being mined on Moon Charedes and Moon Tuchandes. Concentrations of the mineral was located from orbit and then a team would be sent down to set up an automated collector. These collectors had to be serviced and maintained, and then the Teso retrieved from them once they had concentrated a load of it. On one of these servicing and collecting runs, Flent had responded to a coolant leak and subsequent explosion, managing to not only rescue the thinker from the collector but recover nearly two hundred grams of high-quality Teso. This accomplishment caught the attention of one of the minor princes, who sent his mother to meet the returning transport. But Flent didn’t bother to mention this to Pix.

 

“Yes,” Pix continued. “My father had fought in the Division Wars, and his unit was critical during the Victory of Shedon,” he said.

 

“Your father fought at Shedon?” Flent said. “I didn’t know that.”

 

“Yes, he was quite young then, and I did come along until he was much older.”

 

“You’re a selda, aren’t you?” Flent asked, using the traditional term for the youngest child.

 

“No,” Pix said. “I have a younger brother.”

 

“Oh.” There was an awkward pause, and then Flent received another MMM 57 report in his headset and on his panel. “She’s back in bed now, the handmaid had to help her.”

 

“Mm-hmm,” Pix responded as the floor continued to throb softly.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The three crewmen struggled to carry the body through the narrow corridor. Even under the reduced gravity of the station, it took all three of them to muscle it off the deck. Stu had the smaller front end; Johnny was farther back, at the most massive part, his arms wrapped around the torso just under the arms, if that’s what they were. Megan had the lower appendages, one arm wrapped around each one. The tail ends of these appendages dragged the deck as they struggled to get it to the ship’s medical clinic.

 

“These can’t possibly be legs, can they?” Megan muttered between grunts as she staggered under the load. “They’re too small to hold up all this weight.”

 

“Damn, this thing is heavy,” Johnny said. “And I’ve got the slime of it all over me now.”

 

“There’s something up here that stinks really bad,” Stu said.

 

They were making progress, clunking down the corridor, and Dr. Boris heard the commotion. He stepped out of the clinic doorway. “What the hell do you have there?” he said in precisely pronounced, if accented, English.

 

“Doc, it’s one of those creatures that was inside the balloon,” Stu said. Dr. Boris stepped forward and reached to grab hold of the front end of it, but Stu interrupted him. “No, I got this end, help Johnny.”

 

Dr. Boris moved into place, grabbed the creature’s limb. “You get the other side, John,” he said.

 

“Thanks, Doc,” Johnny replied. He really was relieved—he didn’t think he could carry it much longer.

 

“Get it inside and let us try to put it up on the table in Trauma Two,” the doctor said. “Is this thing alive?”

 

“I think it might be, Doc,” Stu said. “That’s why we’re bringing it to you.” They were inside the clinic now, and in another moment, they were, with difficulty, lifting it up onto the examining table. Stu got the front end on the table, and then Dr. Boris and Johnny pushed it forward to that the weight of the torso moved onto the table, which groaned under the load.

 

“Keep going, keep going,” Megan said, but the thing was too long for it all to fit.

 

Johnny moved to help her. “No, just let ’em down, Meg,” he said, taking one of the ‘legs.’ “We’ll put one down on either side, you see?” The legs dropped naturally to the floor—there was a joint in there somewhere through which the anatomy moved.

 

It lay still on the table, and they all looked at it for a moment. “I don’t think it’s alive,” Megan said, wiping her brow with her sleeve.

 

Dr. Boris had reached under the table to grasp the strap that was fastened there. “Get the other end, John,” he said. “Let’s get this thing tied down, in case it wakes up.” Johnny reached under and brought the buckle end of a substantial-looking restraint up and over, and Dr. Boris connected the two ends and cinched them tight. He moved down. “There’s one more strap there,” he said, and Johnny followed him down.

 

“What about the legs,” Stu asked.

 

“There’s nothing to strap them down to,” Dr. Boris replied. “This table was made for humans.”

 

“Well, that’s pretty stupid,” Johnny said. “We’re on Mimas, for God’s sake.”

 

“There’s no life on Mimas, Johnny,” Megan said, and then she laughed nervously. “What do you think this thing is, Doc?”

 

He had finished cinching down the other strap, and he backed away from the table. “I don’t know,” he said. “But I want all three of you to decontaminate, now,” he said. They all looked at each other for a moment, then both Stu and Johnny looked down at their jumpers, at the slime that was smeared over them. Megan had it on her sleeves, and the thought of what threat the slime might represent suddenly dawned on her too.

 

“It’s on you too, Doc,” she said, looking up.

 

He frowned and stepped over to the comm panel on the trauma room wall. He hit it with his elbow—after looking to see if there was any slime there. “Con, clinic. We’ve got a decontamination emergency here, I need security in suits, and I need to seal Trauma Room Two, acknowledge.”

 

A beat, and then the smooth, calm voice of Colonel Malley came on. “Emergency acknowledged, security in suits on the way. Atmosphere is sealed. Can you state the nature of the emergency, doctor?” Malley could be a pain in the ass, but when it came to responding to emergencies, she didn’t mess around.

 

“We’ve got an alien in Trauma Two, Ma’am. Dead, I think, but we’ve got–slime all over us.”

 

“Who’s involved?”

 

Dr. Boris heard the security detail approaching, and then they appeared in the window of the doorway which had swung closed when Malley pressed the panic button. “Four crew. Bretburg, Kelley, Adson, and me,” he said. The security team were passing the portable vacuum closure around the outside of the door and would soon be through it to deal with the problem.

 

“Roger that, doctor. Comply with procedures and report as able,” she said.

 

“Roger that,” Dr. Boris said. As the team worked outside and the other three looked at each other dumbfoundedly, Dr. Boris started removing his clothes. “Well, come on, strip down,” he ordered, and the others suddenly came to life. Of course they would have to decontaminate in place, and the station was too small to permit modesty.

 

Megan seemed to get it first, and she kicked her shoes off and started removing her pants. She was out of them by the time Johnny and Stu reacted, but they did the same. Dr. Boris removed his shirt—the last item of clothing remaining—and turned to flip open a drawer. He removed a large plastic bag, stuffed his clothes into it, and then held it out for the others to do the same. They did so, and all four of them stood there naked, looking at each other. They were professional enough not to be embarrassed, and only Johnny tried to make a joke: “You’re in pretty good shape, Doctor,” he said.

 

“That’s enough, Adson,” the doctor said as he jerked the bag’s drawstring closed. The security team was in now, and they began opening bags with decon wipes and paper garments to wear after the decon was completed. Dr. Boris gave the bag to one of the team members and took the decon wipes he held out in return. “Each of you wipe good with these, then put them back in the bag,” he said, passing the decon wipes around.

 

“Damn, these things are cold,” Stu said, but he was wiping his body down with the decon wipe. The chemical-impregnated cloth neutralized acids and disinfected the skin. The others were doing the same, without complaint.

 

“As much as I like this level of togetherness,” Johnny said, “Is all this really necessary, you think?” While three of the security team members taped vents, the fourth member was setting up a device in the middle of the room–a portable sterilizer. The fifth member was wrapping the alien’s body in plastic bubble sheeting.

 

Megan was done wiping and had donned her paper garment. “Oh, my God,” she said, grasping Dr. Boris’ paper-clad arm. “Doc, look at that.”

 

She pointed, and the doctor looked. The end of the alien’s left leg was twitching.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

After some interminable time spent floating in and out of consciousness and gathering strength, Christine suddenly was aware of the fact that her head had cleared significantly—perhaps it was the pain in her elbow, which had suddenly become much more intense. She groaned and turned to her left, lifting up her arm to see if there was something she could do to reduce the throbbing.

 

The tube, which she had noticed before, snaked out of the interior wall and curled around her arm before it inserted there in her elbow. After attempting to lift her left arm onto her chest and finding herself unable to do it, she moved her right arm, which was not only naturally stronger but which seemed to be recovering from the supersleep faster, over and used it to drag her left arm up and onto her chest. Then she grasped the tube and pulled. The lack of muscle control caused her to pull a little harder than she had intended—but the tube slid out painlessly and then the throbbing in her left arm started to subside.

 

The effort of getting the tube out and the absence of the throbbing caused her to drift off again, and after another unfathomable length of time—it could have been only a few minutes or it could have been years—Christine felt herself rising again to consciousness. It had been, in fact, only ninety or so minutes. Even after all the months in supersleep from Earth, once the steady stream of stay-asleep chemicals was interrupted, as they had been when she pulled the tube out, the natural rhythms began once again to assert themselves, and she began to come to full consciousness.

 

Once again, she found herself able to open her eyes, and this time, they focused on the symbols that she had seen before, on the ceiling of the compartment in which her box was located. This time, however, she was able to read the large-size words that appeared there: “Recover, Review, Restore.” She understood the words, but the context was lost on her—for the moment. What did occur to her as she continued to lay in the box was why anyone would paint a message on the ceiling of a compartment. For a while, that seemed to be an impenetrable, unanswerable question. But Christine’s cognition was improving as she lay there, and after some tens of minutes of reflection, she decided that the only reason is so that it would be seen, and easily at that, by someone in her precise position: that of lying in the box she was in with the cover open as it was. She found herself breathing more easily now, and she was able to move her head, her legs, and her arms gingerly back and forth to the degree that the box would allow.

 

Over the next hour or so, she continued to loosen the painful stiffness in her body and limbs by flexing this way and that, and just as she felt herself ready to try to rise to a sitting position, she again heard the chime that had sounded before the cover had cranked open—that too felt like months or years ago, although it had only been nearly 24 hours—and as it rang, she relaxed and listened.

 

“Colonel, you can hear me now, and you can understand,” a voice said. Then there was silence again. She could hear, and she did understand, but she could not respond. After some time, the same chime again, and the same voice: “Colonel, you can hear me now, and you can understand.”

 

Yes, I can hear you and I do understand, she thought, but she was as yet unable to vocalize a response. Her head was continuing to clear, and she was suddenly conscious of a desire for the voice to come back and for an exchange with whatever was on the other end of that voice. She breathed deeply, summoning her growing strength, and tried to raise her head.

 

Chime, and then the voice: “Colonel, you are coming out of supersleep.” Silence. Chime again, and then that message was repeated, just as the first one had been, in the same soft voice that floated somewhere between feminine comfort and masculine authority. She couldn’t quite put her finger on which one it was.

 

“Supersleep,” she tried to say. The sounds that came out of her larynx in no way were the sounds of that word, but they were sounds, and this was a milestone in the recovery process. The ship’s computer took due notice of that achievement and other things began to occur on the ship as a result of it. Certain areas of the ship began a slow pressurization, other areas began to be warmed. The ship was returning to life after a long voyage just as her captain and sole crew member was.

 

The tube that should have been in Christine’s arm leaked additional chemicals across the front of the garment that she wore, chemicals that should have gone into her bloodstream to make her recovery less stressful and difficult, but the absence of these chemicals wouldn’t make much difference in the long run, and she would be able to take them orally soon, under the direction of the ship’s upper-level cognitive systems. In the meantime, she would be uncomfortable, but that was the nature of supersleep recovery. Discomfort was unavoidable.

 

Christine was ready to try to rise again, and she was bracing herself to squeeze her abdomen and neck muscles in an effort to rise when the chime sounded again. “Colonel, you will be able to rise now. A support will help you, when you are ready.” She struggled to understand what this might mean, and then the chime again, and the message was repeated. She lay there pondering when the chime sounded again. “When you are ready, you can vocalize and the process will begin.”

 

Now Christine understood, and she grunted. In response, the ship’s lower-level cognition, which had served to monitor the essential systems during the long voyage, activated a motor in the box and it started to very slowly push a jointed portion of the bottom of the box up so that Christine’s body flexed at the waist and his head and chest were slightly elevated. The panel continued to move upward until it came to a stop such that her head and upper torso were angled about thirty degrees from the horizontal, and Christine immediately found herself incapacitated with dizziness; she clearly would never have been able to raise herself up, not in her present condition. The chime, and then the voice was in her head again: “Colonel, close your eyes until the dizziness passes.” She obeyed—not out of any desire for obedience, but because it was impossible for her to do otherwise.

 

Then she was able to open her eyes and with some effort, she moved her head slightly to the right. Gravity—it was not gravity, of course, but centrifugal force created by the spinning of that ring-shaped portion of the ship which included the crew habitat—took care of the rest as her head fell to the right side. After the wave of nausea created by that movement passed, Christine once again opened her eyes and found she was staring as a small chamber, within which the box was located. She appeared to be some distance off of the floor, and in fact, the box was mounted on a pedestal which housed the various pumps and motors and other mechanisms that had helped to maintain her in her state of unnatural slumber over the last forty-eight years.

 

The chime, and then the voice again. “Colonel, you pulled the tube out of your arm?” This time, the question was not repeated, but Christine’s mind was now awake and nimble enough not to need it to be.

 

“Yahhh…” she vocalized. The ship’s lower-level cognition was able to understand her response, but wasn’t sophisticated enough to know what to do with it, and so the ship simply remained silent as Christine once again drifted off to sleep. This time, however, and for the first time in forty-eight years, she dreamt.

 

She found herself watching her younger sister, Abigail, and Abigail’s ten-year-old son, Dexter, walking along a beach. As is often the case in dreams, the issue of how she was able to observe them was not broached—she was not present on the beach and did not appear as a character herself in the dream. She simply saw them and heard them as figures before her, as one might watch and listen to figures on a screen from the safety and anonymity of a darkened room.

 

As Christine watched, the view shifted, zoomed in, and focused on her sister and nephew. They were the only two people within sight—in either direction. It was out of season, too cold for tourists. Abigail sat on the sand, her jacket pulled around her. Dexter was exploring the sand wet from the tide that was pulling out. He walked back and sat down next to her, a shell in his outstretched hand.

 

“Nice shell,” the boy’s mother said.

 

“Well, not really,” Dexter responded. It’s too small, and it’s broken too.” He fingered the rough edge.

 

“Are you getting hungry?”

 

“Yeah.”

 

“Okay.” She rose and brushed the sand off her as best she could. “Let’s go back to that fish place we saw on the way in here, you remember?”

 

“Sure. The Sea Pearl, it was called,” Dexter said.

 

The Sea Pearl. Sounds pretty exotic.” They walked along in step, making their way back towards the water’s edge, where seagulls chased the tide back into the sea, looking for their evening meals. “I wonder if they’ll have sea bass,” Abigail pondered.

 

“Sea bass is a myth, Mom,” Dexter said flatly.

 

“What do you mean, a myth? I had it in Florida, it was great.”

 

“What you had was regular freshwater bass, almost certainly grown in a pond in Chile or Venezuela and shipped up here alive. It’s a big industry in South America. Sea bass,” he continued—with authority, in what their father called his schoolmaster voice– “is a mythical invention of mid-century Boston fishmongers who needed a way to make plain fish a little more, you know, fancy.”

 

“Yes, but how can they call it a sea bass if it’s a freshwater fish?” she asked.

 

“Who knows? Anyway, it’s like a snipe hunt–you know. No such thing.”

 

“Snipe hunt? What’s that?”

 

“Oh my God, Mom,” Dexter said, rolling his eyes. “You don’t know what a snipe hunt is?”

 

“No.”

 

“You’re not really from Texas at all, are you?” he asked teasingly. “No, you couldn’t be. You’re from Mars or some exoplanet. Nobody can grow up in Texas and not know what a snipe hunt is, not even a girl.”

 

“Well, this girl did,” she responded. “So what is a snipe, then?”

 

“A snipe is a mythical bird, Mother. What you do is get little kids to go hunt for them by telling them stuff, like that they sleep during the day in bushes or something like that. It’s funny because they believe you. Get it?”

 

“Very funny,” Abigail responded, unconvinced. They were walking into the setting sun, making it difficult to see in that direction; their eyes were down on the sand in front of their feet, and so they didn’t notice the long form that lay on the sand ahead of them like a giant worm at the water’s edge, being busily picked apart by seagulls. The wind was at their backs, and so they didn’t smell it either as they approached. Abigail looked up and stopped, shielding her eyes with her arm. “What’s that?” she asked.

 

Dexter looked up, squinting, and also stopped. “Whoa,” he said. “What is that?” A pause. “Come on, let’s have a look,” he said, stepping off toward it.

 

“Hold on, it’s probably something dead. Don’t get too close to it.” Abigail was right–it was a dead dolphin, seagull-sized bite marks peppering its gray hide. As she followed Dexter, she moved up the beach, intending to give the dead animal a wide berth, and as she came nearer, she caught whiff of the stench. “Ugh!” she said and clapped her hand over her nose and mouth. “Dexter! Come here!” she shouted through her fingers.

 

He was standing a few feet away from the dolphin, and he turned to face her. “Mom, it’s a dolphin,” he said.

 

“Yes, I see that,” she responded, wondering how he could stand the smell at that range. “Get away from it!”

 

“I’m not going to touch it,” he said, staring at it as the seagulls, made brave by hunger and the opportunity for a feast, orbited and dived at it despite the boy’s presence. He kicked sand onto it, and the seagulls moved but did not depart. “I wonder what happened to it?”

 

“Come on, let’s go,” Abigail said, stepping off firmly toward the hotel, which, unfortunately, was downwind of the dead dolphin. “Now!” she said, not turning around.

 

“All right, already!” he said as he stepped around the carcass and trotted to catch his mother. Looking back, he saw the seagulls and crabs had already stripped the animal to impossibly-white bone on the other side. “Gross!” he said to himself. He was looking in one direction and trotting in the other; as he was turning his head around, he tripped and the beach rose up and struck him in the mouth. Salty-fishy-tasting sand was in his mouth, and then the coppery taste of blood. A moment of shock, and then he raised himself up on his hands and knees and uttered the universal cry: “Mom!”

 

Abigail’s reptile brain heard the tone of the cry, interpreted it, and responded without any input from any higher parts of her brain, just as one jerks his hand away from a hot stove without thinking. In the next instant, she had turned, closed the distance between them, and was on her knees beside him.

 

The cry had activated Christine’s reptile brain too, and in a flash, the dream was over, and she was awake again, panting with the reality of it.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Kathy sat at the galley table clutching the steaming cup of coffee that Mabel had placed before her, trying her best not to fall out of the chair. Mabel kerplunked two taurine capsules in the coffee and sat down across from her.

 

“You sure you done this before, honey?” she asked. A glance at her watch told her that the young woman from the Artois headquarters had been out of the tank now for four, nearly five hours. She should be more steady on her feet by now, Mabel thought as she watched Kathy struggle to focus her eyes on the cup, much less reach out for it.

 

“Umm,” she moaned, trying to speak. Her head was rising and falling as she tried to hold it up and then dropped it again—but at least she was trying. An hour ago, she couldn’t sit up at all.

 

Mabel came around the table, flipped up the side rails on the chair, and picked up the cup. “Try to drink a little of this,” she said, putting it up to her lips and tipping it slightly. Kathy was able to get some of it in her mouth, and she swallowed painfully. “Th…thanks,” she whispered.

 

Mabel put the cup down, reached for Kathy’s right hand, and wrapped her hand around the cup. She went back around the table and sat down. “That’s okay, honey. Now, you want to tell me who you are really?” she asked.

 

Kathy was groggy, but she wasn’t so groggy that she missed the implication that there was something dishonest–or at least incomplete–about her status at Mimas Station. “Wha…. What…do you…mean?” she managed to get out.

 

Mabel leaned back in her chair and folded her arms across her chest. “What do I mean? Look at you! A slip of a girl, you come all this way in a tank, last minute, and for what? To take a look at an old balloon when we can send you all the photos you need? No.” She paused, wondering how much of this was getting through. “And I’m supposed to believe you’re some sort of old experienced spacehand? Ha! That’s a laugh.”

 

“I just….” Suddenly, Kathy realized how flimsy her cover story was, and knew, even in her present state, that at some point she’d have to answer some questions—and do so well enough to strengthen her story. “I just…my chem…chemistry got….” She trailed off and her hand slipped off the cup. But she was managing to sit upright, and Mabel noticed it.

 

“Oh, yeah, your chemistry got messed up. Sure. That’s going to fly,” Mabel said, rolling her eyes. “Honey, what you got is the first-timer bends, I seen it a hundred times out here.” She leaned in. “They tell you youngsters that the new supersleep won’t hurt, and they get you in that tank and full of sirimids and backjuice and God knows what else, and next thing you know, you’re out here and you can’t hold your head up. You know how I got out here the first time? On pentathol, honey. Straight up pentathol and a saline drip.”

 

A passing scooper pilot noticed the two women at the table, and he sat down in the empty seat next to Mabel. “What the hell is wrong with her?” he asked. He snapped his fingers in front of her face. Kathy lifted her head, but could not focus her eyes. “Hey! Sweetheart! You with us? You got a ride in an hour, you better look alive!” He laughed and put his arm around Mabel, resting it on the back of her chair. “She’s bending. Hell, it’s written all over her.”

 

“I know, goddamn it,” she responded. “Her chemistry got messed up in the tank, the goddamn drip system got screwed up and gave her too much K-14 and not enough permeraboloid, I think,” she lied. “I got the logs in my office.”

 

“You don’t have shit in your office, Mabs,” the pilot said. Mabel knew these pilots were easy to underestimate, with their filthy mouths and wandering hands and tendency not to bathe very often—but they were sharp and attentive and didn’t get to be scooper pilots through a deficiency in the observational-skills department. “Look at her hands,” he said.

 

Mabel looked. Kathy’s hands were clean and well manicured; they would be elegant when she had recovered some muscle tone. “What about them?” Mabel asked.

 

“No fracturing of the skin, see?” he said. He reached out, grasped Kathy’s left hand, which was lying limply on the table, and flipped it over, palm up. She resisted, but only marginally, and her hand rested unnaturally there, palm up, in the fluorescent light. “See how perfect and pale it is? This is her first time in the tank, I guarantee it.”

 

Mabel frowned; she was doing what she could to forward the idea that this thin girl-woman Artois had sent was what Artois said she was, but the story was getting thinner and thinner. “I don’t know, Jay,” she said. “Those new chemicals they got, they might not fracture the skin up. Everything’s different these days, you know, and—”

 

“Bullshit,” he cut her off, rising. “That girl’s as fresh as a damn daisy. Hell, she may never shake this one off. Chemical messed up,” he scowled. “Right.” Then he clunked off a few steps and turned around. “Don’t put her on my ship,” he said. “I’m not a babysitter.”

 

“Not a babysitter, check,” Mabel said automatically, but her attention was on Kathy, who was getting stronger. Her head was up now, and her eyes were looking around the galley, focusing on this and that—slowly, but focusing.

 

“New chemicals…,” she said. “No fracturing….”

 

“That’s right,” Mabel said. Then she leaned in again. “Now, I’m trying to cover for you, crazy as I am. But you got to let me in on the secret when you get a little stronger, you understand, or I’m going to point out stuff that assholes like Jay there don’t know anything about.” Kathy’s eyes focused on Mabel’s face. “Yeah, you understand me, don’t you?”

 

Kathy’s head bobbed for a second, then came back up again. “Yeah, I…do.”

 

Mabel leaned back again. “Good.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

After a series of gentle thumps caused by the stockinged feet of a five-year-old girl navigating the stairs, a sleepy voice: “What are you doing, daddy?”

 

“I’m shoveling snow, what are you doing?” Cary Robbins said automatically.

 

She giggled in response–this little dialogue was their routine, had been ever since his daughter had first started coming downstairs in the early morning when her father would be making his coffee and getting ready to go to work. She was the morning person in the family–he wasn’t, his wife hadn’t been, and her brother, who was upstairs no doubt tangled in covers and snoring, certainly wasn’t. “You’re not shoveling snow,” she said. “You’re making coffee.”

 

“Well, if you know so much, why did you ask?”

 

“I dunno,” she responded, and then she giggled again. “You saw him?”

 

Her father turned with his coffee and sighed–he had hoped the girl had forgotten, but knew better than to expect that she had. “Nope.” She stood in the kitchen doorway, he head swiveling to follow his movement from the counter to the table, where he sat down and blew on his coffee.

 

“Well why didn’t you?”

 

“Honey, I can’t keep up with your toys.” He sipped and put the cup down. “Where did you leave him?” It was the same question he had asked the night before when she had noticed that her stuffed toy, one of very many, the one which for some reason had acquired and was known by the name ‘Mr. Blue’ was missing.

 

“I dunno.” This too had been the same answer last night.

 

“Did Steven take him?” The girl didn’t respond, but instead padded across the kitchen and disappeared through the other door–toward his bedroom. “Honey, where are you going?” No answer. He well knew where she was going: into his bedroom to crawl into his bed. “Tina, come back in here.” There was no sound for a moment, then again the gentle thumps and she appeared in the kitchen’s far doorway, scowling.

 

“Don’t get in my bed.”

 

“But he might be in there,” she said.

 

“Mr. Blue’s not in my bed, honey.” He took another sip of coffee and rose from the table. “Did you ask Steven?” The girl sighed and sat down on the floor in the doorway. “Do you want some cereal?”

 

“Yeah.” She pushed back her dark hair. “Stevie, he—” She was having some trouble getting her hair out of her face. “He said he didn’t know where, where Mr. Blue was,” she managed to get out.

 

“Okay. Well, I haven’t seen him,” he repeated himself. Then there were another series of thumps on the stairs, these heavier and less regular, and they were punctuated by the periodic thumps of an elbow or perhaps a knee on a wall. How can that kid make so much noise? the father thought to himself. Another moment and a shirtless twelve year old staggered into the kitchen, eyes screwed up against the light streaming through the window, changing slowly from dawn to day. “Well, look at you,” Carey said. “What are you doing up so early on a Saturday?” The boy’s response was a grunt as he stepped unsteadily to the refrigerator and jerked the door open.

 

“Where’s my soda?” he said. Then, turning to his sister, “Did you take my soda?”

 

She appraised him cautiously. “Did you take Mr. Blue?”

 

He grunted again and slammed the door. “Dad, make her stop taking my stuff.”

 

“Tina, did you take your brother’s soda?”

 

She looked back and forth between the two of them, and even Steven could see her wheels turning as she composed her lie. “No, I didn’t! Mr. Blue took your soda!”

 

Steven grunted again. “You’re going to hell for lying,” he said. The boy’s newfound tendency to invoke eternal punishment was an artifact of the vacation Bible school that Carey’s ex-wife had insisted on. “And stealing too,” he finished and disappeared through the door, clunking and stomping his way back up the stairs.

 

“Honey, don’t take brother’s things, you hear me?” He stepped toward the wide-eyed child and turned, rinsing his cup in the sink.

 

“Yeah, but—” she was rubbing the side of her head just above the ear as she struggled to put her thoughts into words. “Yeah, but he, he took Mr. Blue, and I think he, he—” she had turned now, as if the wall or the door to the pantry would be of help. Since she had turned, her father could see the side of her head where she was rubbing, and he saw a flash of red there. The girl hadn’t noticed it yet, but there was blood on her hand.

 

“Tina, what’s wrong with your head,” her father heard himself say, and in a flash he was kneeling in front of her. He had grasped her hand, the one with blood on it, and inspected it, determining that the blood was not coming from her hand. He moved so quickly that it was only after he had her heads in his hands, turning and holding it, that she began to resist.

 

“Nuuuh!” And then, “Nuh-uh!” Her hands flew up, and she squirmed to turn her face to his, but he had a good grip, and held her firmly, pouring at an area of her scalp right above her left ear.

 

“What the hell…?” he muttered. Tina had by now noticed that her hand had blood on it, and she continued to try to pull away as her father persisted in inspecting the area. Her hair, though dark, was fine and not thick, and he was easily able to see her scalp. There above her ear was a large tick, its body full and round and engorged. “Tina, hold still!” he commanded, and the sternness of his voice and the strength of his grip frightened the girl. She started to whine.

 

He let go of her, and she wrested away from him, gingerly snaking her hand up to touch the spot he had inspected so closely while staring at him with shock. “No!” he shouted and he snatched her arm down and held it by the wrist. “Come with me,” he said, dragging her to the bathroom.

 

“No!” she shouted, but by this time the two of them were nearly across the living room. He pulled her in to the bathroom, flicking on the light and then scooping her up and sitting her on the counter between the side-by-side sinks. She was squirming, and so he held her there with one hand and arrested open the cabinet door with the other. He managed to get out a bottle of isopropyl alcohol, which he knew was in there. It was the green kind, the kind intended to be used as a rub for sports injuries. Holding Tina on the counter, he managed to flip the bottle open with one hand and turn it upwards so that some of the green liquid flowed into his hand.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The ships were all alike: three little crew rooms perched on the top of a large cylindrical tank, with an engine strapped on underneath. The tank formed the main body of the ship, 44 feet across and 121 feet long, with compartments inside for the pumps and centrifuges that worked on the raw atmosphere of Saturn, spinning out some of the hydrogen and compressing it into a thick haze that would be further processed back at the station. The crew area of the ship consisted of a control station, from which the ship was flown; a processing station, from which the collection and compression phase of the missions were controlled, and the other station, from which everything else was handled: resources management, emergency procedures, first aid, and so forth.

 

There were twelve mission profiles, but only four or five of them were ever actually flown. For planning and execution purposes, the missions were divided into phases: brief, launch, insertion, collection, release, return, landing, and recovery.

 

The brief phase consisted of a careful review of a variety of factors that would impact the mission–ship and engine maintenance status, weather on Saturn, presence and location of other scooper ships, rings debris between Mimas and Saturn, and so forth. Some of the pilots were more thorough than others when it came to brief phase; in fact, although regulations called for a simulation run of the insertion and release phases during brief, some of the pilots dispensed with this, signing off that they had done the sim run when they hadn’t. Some of the crew wouldn’t ride with some of the worst offenders in this regard.

 

The launch phase was the shortest but most physically stressful part of the mission. The ships’ small ion engine couldn’t possibly launch even a tank-empty ship from Mimas’ gravity well, and so the ships were rail-launched, like stones from a slingshot. The ships were placed at the end of a four-mile-long rail and accelerated magnetically to a speed precisely calculated based on the relative positions of Mimas and Saturn to put the ship at the right spot in the right altitude at the right time and at the right speed for the engine to take over for the collection phase.

 

The insertion phase was the ride from Mimas to Saturn. Crews had no control of the insertion–the ships’ engines were not operable in the vacuum of space. The insertion was calculated based on Newtonian physics and governed completely based on the settings of the rail launcher. The pilots didn’t like to admit it, but it was easy to demonstrate that from a statistical point of view, the insertion was the safest part of the mission, and this was almost certainly because there was no human intervention possible after the ships were launched.

 

The collection phase was the moneymaker. Once inside Saturn’s atmosphere, the ion engine was started up and the inlets opened to allow the thin, helium-rich atmosphere to enter the tank. The raw gas was shunted through a spin chamber and flow-through centrifuges separated out a large fraction of the hydrogen, shunting it out of the tank and leaving behind gas that was richer in product. Then pumps compressed this gas, heating it, and additional, more precisely controlled centrifuges spun out some of the methane and more of the hydrogen, enriching it even further. The ship would continue flying around, seeking out high concentrations of helium, and over the course of several hours, depending on atmospheric conditions, the ship would collect seventy or eighty pounds of enriched, compressed gas in its tanks before transitioning to the next phase: release.

 

The release phase consisted of speeding up, through the use of the engine on the one hand and Saturn’s gravity on the other and then getting up and out of the atmosphere. Statistically, this was the most dangerous part of the mission–speed and inertia was not always easy to manage, and the interference from turbulence in the atmosphere, especially when down deep as the ship would be at the bottom of the dive, was hard to predict. Thirteen ships had been lost in the dive over the course of the station’s fifteen-year history of operation, and when a ship dived and couldn’t pull up, it sank all the way to the bottom, to the surface of Saturn, to a place where rescue or even momentary survival against the poisonous, crushing atmosphere wasn’t even a thin possibility. The crews were all dead long before the ship crashed into the metallic hydrogen surface.

 

The return phase started with the termination of the engine and, like the insertion phase, was largely a Newtonian free ride, based on speed and course at the end of the dive and the engine burn. When the engine turned off, the computer plotted the path of the ship within just a microsecond or two, and that would be that. Like the insertion phase, the return was a relatively safe phase, although as a result of the need for the engine burn during the dive and the ability of the pilot to affect the engine burn, it wasn’t as safe as the insertion, which was entirely controlled by the rail launch.

 

The landing was also tricky. Without an engine to decelerate, the ships relied on a couple of mechanisms to slow down. The first was a calculation during the release to avoid excessive speed in the first place. The second was a series of expandable panels that could catch the solar wind pulsing from the sun and the magnetic flux pulsing from Saturn and resist against that. The solar wind wasn’t very effective–the Sun was a long way away–but the magnetic flux from Saturn was strong and resisting against it to slow down did work pretty well, depending on interference from the rings on the one hand and where Jupiter was on the other. It was a tricky balancing act, and the degree to which a pilot could do it to make the landing a gentle kiss between the ship and the surface of Mimas was what his or her piloting skills were judged on–a little unfairly. The Company’s chief pilot would have said that a pilot is best judged not on performance in the ship but on performance in the brief, that the best pilots avoided problems by preventing them in the first place. But nobody watched the briefs the way they watched the ship landings.

 

The recovery phase consisted of getting the ship towed to the airlock port, getting the crew out, getting the product out, and setting the ship up for the next run, all routine and all performed by non-flying Mimas-based personnel called grounders.

 

 

The launch was exciting–just like in the movies.

 

She arrived at 5 pm on the day before and stopped her car at the impressive-looking gate. A sign identified the gate as Artois Facility K Gate 41, and below that, in small print, the serious-sounding consequences of entering the facility without permission were displayed. Kathy didn’t read all of it, but it appeared that going past the gate without permission would bring on the full force of the US Government. As she stopped, she rolled the window down and as a uniformed security officer–with a sidearm, she noticed–and a woman in a pantsuit came out of the small building there.

 

“Good morning,” the officer said. He opened his mouth to say something else, but Kathy held her papers out for his inspection. He took them and looked. She noticed a vehicle coming up the road in front of her, behind the closed gate, and as she watched, it continued coming closer and closer and finally it turned to take a position precisely across the road, blocking it. It was an Army-green truck, six-pack, no markings, but she noticed that the uniformed young man sitting in the front passenger seat had the end of a short shotgun sticking out of the window and a wire in his ear. He was scowling at her, as was the uniformed young man in the back passenger seat, whose window was also down. Faces behind them craned to see.

 

“Ma’am,” the officer said. She turned toward him and then noticed that he was looking at her face. “All right,” he said after a moment, handing the papers back to her. “Just one moment.” He went back inside the small building and the woman, who had not engaged while the officer was doing his job, approached and stuck out her hand.

 

“Miss Malley, I’m Jean Seeson,” she said, smiling. Kathy shook her hand through the window. “I’ll be your escort while you’re in the facility.” Kathy immediately imagined this cheerful woman riding along to Saturn with her, and smiled. “I know what you’re thinking,” Jean said. “I’m not going to Saturn with you.”

 

“That is what I was thinking,” Kathy responded. The two women laughed, and Kathy decided she liked Jean Seeson. The gate rose and the truck started moving. It turned to point down the road and stopped.

 

Jean came around to the passenger side of Kathy’s car, and got in. “Go on through the gate, and park there by my car,” Jean said, pointing to a late-model Toyota occupying one of four parking spots on the right side of the road. “Leave your keys in the car, okay? We’ll take care of it.” Kathy hadn’t noticed until now, but Jean also had a wire in her ear, and as they pulled through the gate, she brought her left wrist up to her mouth and spoke a couple of words into it, words that Kathy didn’t catch. She maneuvered her car next to the Toyota. “No need to bring anything, Miss Malley. You can leave your purse there on the seat, along with the keys.”

 

“Please, call me Kathy,” she said as they got out. She put her purse on the driver’s seat and threw the car keys on the seat next to it.

 

“Okay,” Jean said. “No need to lock it, nobody’s going to bother it.”

 

“No, I guess not,” Kathy said.

 

They got into the Toyota and drove along a winding road, wooded on either side. As they drove, the women chatted, the sort of easy conversation that two professional women can have on first meeting, but which is difficult to ever have again. Jean told Kathy about her grandchildren. Kathy told Jean about her research project. Every half mile or so, there were a pair of low, cinder-block buildings painted forest green with long horizontal windows at the top; Kathy presumed these were security stations, and she was right. They arrived at a large rectangular white building, four or five stories tall. On the square side, there were no windows and the entire space was occupied by a large Artois logo; on the other side, there were no windows on the other side either, but there was a brick-surrounded entrance. All the cars were parked around the outside edge of the parking lot. Jean pulled the car up into one of the spots right next to the entrance and she turned off the car.

 

“Here we are,” she said brightly. “You ready?”

 

“Yeah,” Kathy answered. “Oh, God, all my IDs and stuff are in my purse.”

 

“You won’t need them now,” she said. “Come on, let’s get going, you’ve got a long couple of days ahead of you.”

 

The two women approached the door. Under the overhang, there was a plastic panel against the side wall, and a keypad below it. The door looked substantial; there was an ordinary glass pull door, and beyond that, clearly visible, was a steel door that was anything but ordinary. Jean placed her palm on the plastic and it lit up, first white and then green, and somewhere inside the mechanism, there was a click. She pulled open the glass door. There was a line of unmarked keys, like the keys on a typewriter, on the steel door. Jean pressed several of them, too fast for Kathy to follow, and then there was another click, a louder one, and a mechanism activated, opening the steel door.

 

“After you,” Jean said. Kathy smiled and stepped into the cool dark hallway. Kathy paused for Jean to follow and take the lead. “First, we need to get you changed, and then the docs will meet with you, and then you’ll need to sleep for a while,” she said as they walked along.

 

“Sleep?” Kathy said. “It’s two o’clock in the afternoon.”

 

“Sure, but we need you rested for the launch cycle, that will take about ten hours, and it starts at two am,” she said. “Forty one hours from now.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

 

Jed worked methodically, using his rubber hammer to nudge the plates into alignment and then passing the inch-diameter bolts first through one hole then diagonal to the next. He attached the nuts finger-tight before inserting the other two bolts, then he twisted on those nuts to finger tightness. He reached in his bag for the no-recoil electric wrench, confirmed that the tension was set correctly, and used the wrench on the nuts.

 

As he was tightening the last one, his headset crackled. “Jed, where are you?”

 

He activated the push-to-talk and responded. “I’m on top of Old Smokey, where are you?”

 

“Very funny,” the voice responded. “How’s it going?”

 

“I’ve got Taft and connected to Hoover now,” he said. “I was just about to move on to whichever one is below Hoover, I think it’s Van Buren.”

 

“Yeah, okay. Before you go on, check the temperature in the tank, will you? Bobby says his tank is getting too cold.”

 

“Rog,” Jed responded. “Which one is Bobby on?”

 

Morgan,” she said.

 

“Okay, I’ll be done here in a moment.” He clicked off and put the wrench back in his suitbag. He floated above the top of a stack of small spacecraft called scoopers which were designed to be launched from Mimas Station, make the short trip to Saturn under freefall, then fly in the thin upper atmosphere, capturing and compressing it for processing back at the station.

 

Each was named for a former US President, and each had its own personality. In theory, the ships were simple–ion propulsion, nuclear-electric power for the atmosphere pumps and crew support. But they were heavily and sometimes roughly used, and the scarcity of spare parts meant that somewhat creative means of keeping the scoopers going had to be used. For instance, after Truman had had its ion tensioner on the left side damaged in a hangar bump, it was fixed–sort of–with some aluminum tubing from one of the hydroponics and a warning to pilots to ‘take it easy on the left side.’

 

Buchanan had its induction ports wired backward; the life support on Quincy Adams chugged out either pure oxygen or pure nitrogen; Clinton wouldn’t pressurize the atmosphere tanks all the way. But the crew did the best they could with what they had, and continued to shoot those little containers of 34-percent-pure Helium-3 on their long automated trip back to Earth every four hours, and as long as the stream of helium was unbroken, nobody was much interested in fixing the scoopers.

 

Jed reached down for the joystick on his left suit boom–an arm that came from around the back of his suit and which contained a number of controls–and jetted forward, up and over the smooth surface of Taft until he was clear, then he allowed himself to fall gently toward the hard rough surface of Mimas, outside the protective dome that enclosed the habitat portion of the station. He touched down and flipped the jet off.

 

“Mim Four, EVA Seven, I’m down,” he said into his headset radio.

 

“EVA Seven, Four, down,” the controller responded.

 

Suddenly, the earpiece in Jed’s helmet sounded a piercing tone, and he reflexively slapped with his right hand at the mute on his left forearm. Then the station’s computer’s voice, strangely calm and feminine, replaced the alarm: “Alarm blue, all personnel report to recovery locations. Alarm blue, all personnel to recovery locations. This is not a drill. This is not a drill.” The tone sounded again, and then Jed punched his push-to-talk.

 

“Mim Four, what the hell’s happening?” He released the switch and voices overlapped each other on the channel. He waited, reviewing procedures in his head. He had a recovery station to which he was expected to report in his position as a scooper pilot, but that applied while he was inside the dome of the station’s habitat. If on a scoop, then his job was to establish control of the ship, evaluate and maintain life support, and then stabilize the ship’s location and await further instructions. But he wasn’t inside the hab, and he wasn’t onboard a scooper–he was standing on the surface of a moon of Saturn outside the dome, a place the Company didn’t really expect him to be.

 

“EVA Seven, comm check,” he heard one of the voices on the channel say. It was Mimas Control.

 

“Mimas Four, EVA Seven, comm check,” he answered back.

 

“Stand by, Seven,” the controller said and then he heard the channel smartly click off. Jed had been facing away from the dome, but now he turned toward it, and what he saw immediately bothered him. The sun was shining in from the other side, and he could see that the dome was filling with a foggy green substance, thin, but quite definitely there. As he watched, the fog floated across the flat grey surface of the inside of the dome and then thickened as it began to fill the dome.

 

His helmet speaker crackled again. “EVA Seven, Mim Four,” the controller said, “Can you give us a visual from your location?”

 

“That’s affirm. I see fog filling up the dome.”

 

“Say again, Seven.”

 

“I say, I see fog filling up the dome,” Jed repeated. “Thin green fog, it’s running across the ground inside the dome and starting to fill it from top to bottom. What the hell is going on?”

 

He could hear the controller’s voice muttering, muffled, to someone–he immediately knew that the controller had cupped his hand over the microphone at the end of his headset boom. The incomprehensible muttering he heard was only one side of the conversation, that was apparent from the long pauses, but he waited patiently. Then he heard the voice clearly again. “Seven, say your distance from the dome.”

 

“Ah, I’d say about fifty yards.”

 

Again, a conference intervened, of which Jed could hear only one side, muffled and muttered.

 

Then the controller came back on. “Okay, Seven, approach the dome and report your perimeter location.”

 

“Mim Four, EVA Seven, confirm permission to approach dome.” Jed wanted a double-check on this. Approaching the dome on foot was strictly prohibited and there were a variety of defensive measures in place to prevent someone–or something–from approaching it.

 

“EVA Seven, Mim Four,” the controller coughed, once lightly, then more heavily. Jed heard that muffled too, as if the controller had had the presence of mind to cup his headset microphone before he coughed to avoid an explosion of sound from emanating on the other end. “Your approach to the dome is confirmed, countermeasures and protective devices are off, repeat off, you are cleared to approach.” The end of the controller’s sentence trailed off into a coughing fit, which itself was truncated by the end of the controller’s transmission.

 

What the hell is going on in there? Jed thought. “Roger that, I am approaching the dome.” He took a few steps in preparation for the large step that would launch him above Mimas’ surface before he activated his jetpack, but then thought better of it. It was only 50 yards, not even that far; he’d just hoof it.

 

He had walked about 10 yards when another voice came on the comm link, a feminine one. “EVA Seven, Mim Four,” she said. “Report position.”

 

“I’m twenty yards from the dome,” he said. “I’m walking.”

 

“Roger,” her response was immediate. “Continue, approach, and report perimeter station ASAP.”

 

“Approach and report,” he repeated. He closed the distance and stopped at the point where another step would bump him into the glassy, clear-plastic surface of the dome itself. The dome was made of a plastic ceramic impregnated with radiation-filtering particles and some other high-tech devices–its purpose was to protect the habitat from cosmic radiation, errant magnetic pulses from Saturn, and particle stream spikes. Jed looked down and just to the left of the ends of his suitboots a metallic spike projected from the bottom of the dome parallel to the ground. On the spike, the number K343 was embossed.

 

“Mim Four, Seven,” he said into his microphone. “I’m at K343.”

 

Silence.

 

“Mim Four, Seven,” he said, trying again. “K343.”

 

Silence.

 

He looked up to see that the entire dome, as far as he could see, was entirely filled with thick green foam.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Sanderson’s thoughts traced silicone pathways in his new brain as he started to wake up. After some time in semi-consciousness, he slowly became aware of a voice, far off and muted. As he floated somewhere between sleep and wakefulness, the voice got louder and the sounds coalesced first into English words and then into meaningful sentences.

 

“Mr. President, it’s Tony Jackson. Can you hear me?”

 

“Uhh,” Sanderson responded. His new body’s safeties were still on, so there was no movement of his new jaw or larynx or tongue.

 

“Mr. President?” Dr. Jackson continued. “Mr. President, it’s Tony Jackson. Mr. President?”

 

After some minutes of this, Samuelson found himself able to respond. “Jackson…” he said slowly.

 

“Mr. President?” The doctor’s calm voice continued as if he hadn’t heard his patient respond.

 

“Jackson,” Samuelson said, a little stronger. “Jackson, I can hear you.”

 

“Mr. President? It’s Tony Jackson, sir.”

 

Samuelson took a deep breath, but the impression of muscles flexing, of the air entering his body and then exiting was an illusion created by a brain which expected such a response to such a command. With the safeties on, his body did not move–and of course, his new body didn’t use oxygen–or air–at all.

 

“Ah, Mr. President, you’re with us,” Dr. Jackson’s voice said, as if he had just heard the president’s response.

 

“Where am I?” he responded.

 

“Okay, sir, just lie still, and we’ll get you going.”

 

All of a sudden, Samuelson found his head clearing. Although he could not know it, the improvement in his mental state was caused by the application of electrical impulses into his electronic brain. The fog he was operating under was clearing, and he was gaining better cognitive function. He used it. “Dr. Jackson, this is the President,” he said. “Can you tell me exactly where I am?”

 

No response. And then, just as Samuelson was about to repeat his question a little more strongly, Jackson’s voice was in his ear again. “We’re giving you some medicine to clear your head, sir,” he said.

 

“Jackson?” No response.

 

“Mr. President, is your head clearing?”

 

“Yes, it is.” he said.

 

“You’ve been transferred to an artificial brain, Mr. President,” Jackson said. “Do you remember?”

 

Samuelson tried to think–and then he did remember. He had arranged to have his mind transferred to a new brain, an artificial one, housed in a shiny new body that would be virtually indestructible–and live forever. Forever! The idea of beating death through technological progress had become the main focus of his life after his second term as president had ended thirty years ago. The idea had grown into an obsession after Elizabeth died ten years ago. And now he had done it! “Yes!” he said. “It worked, then?”

 

“You’re–well, you’re not where you’re supposed to be, sir.”

 

“What do you mean?”

 

“The Secret Service agents who were supervising the transfer of your mind into the new brain were compromised, sir,” Jackson’s voice continued to drone. “The brain and body were–well, they were–”

 

“Were what?” No response. “Were what, dammit?”

 

There was another pause of several seconds, and then Jackson’s voice again: “Yes, sir, it seems to have worked, we won’t know for sure for a while, but all our readings are normal.”

 

“What’s the problem then, doctor?” Samuelson said.

 

“As I say, the Secret Service agents were compromised, sir. Paid off to put your brain and body–” Jackson seemed to be having trouble completing that sentence. “You were loaded onto the Valvene Probe, sir. Brain and body.”

 

“Valvene?” The name meant something to him, but he couldn’t quite remember what right away–his new brain was still becoming accustomed to accessing long-term memories, among other things.

 

“Yes, the problem is that your new brain and body were loaded onto the Valvene probe. We discovered it only a few hours after launch, but by that time, of course, it was too late.”

 

Then Samuelson remembered–Valvene. That was the project name for the unmanned probe mission to Pluto. “I’m on Valvene? How can that be possible?”

 

“Yes, sir, Valvene,” Jackson said. “Do you remember what Valvene is?”

 

“Of course I remember,” he said. “When you say I’m on the probe you mean–”

 

“The agent, a man named Reilly, put you in the Valvene’s sample product area,” Jackson said.

 

“Where the hell am I now?” Samuelson said. Again there was a pause. “Why aren’t you answering me?” He lay there waiting for something to happen.

 

“Mr. President, there’s a delay in our communication because you are a long way from Earth,” Jackson’s voice said. “It takes a while for the signal to travel to us and then our answer back to you.”

 

“Where am I?” Samuelson asked.

 

Again, a long pause, and Jackson responded. “You’ve crossed Mars’ orbit, sir. It is Mission Day 62.”

 

“Who did this to me, Jackson?” The long pause helped hammer home Samuelson’s awareness of his situation, the hopelessness of it.

 

“We think–well, Mr. Tristan seems to have been involved in compromising the Secret Service agent,” he said.

 

Tristan! His perpetual antagonist and one-term president who followed the president that followed him. “I should have known,” Samuelson said.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The prosecuting lawyer wore a conservative business suit, specially cut, sewn, and fit to match his nonhuman anatomy. He stood beside the prosecutor’s table as the witness was sworn in, and when the bailiff finished the job and stepped away, he moved–glided, really–forward.

 

The creature certainly understood the need for drama. He came to a halt at the center of the area between the lawyer’s tables and the judge’s podium, facing not the witness, but the fourteen members of the jury, who were watching him carefully.

 

“Mr. Gonzalez,” a mechanical voice sounded from a yellow box the alien held to an opening near the top of his head. “would you tell the members of the jury your profession?”

 

“I’m a contract investigator,” the man said.

 

“And who is your employer?”

 

“I work for the Tasmanian Justice Corporation.”

 

“And where were you posted on the evening of December 18th?”

 

“Fuel Station 47, Tasman Gandymede.”

 

The alien turned around to face the witness. His livid red crustacean head emerged from his suit’s oversized neck opening, and from the sleeves emerged equally red tentacles in sets of three, which delicately curled around a clipboard on the one side and two pencils on the other.

 

From another tailored hole in the front of the suit, just below the abbreviated red tie, the creature’s central arm came out and up, where it held the translator over his mouth opening.

 

He was an Epunyee–the name came from the sound that the creature’s breathing made to human ears. The Epunyee were largely unaware of the noise their breathing made, as the sounds they used to communicate among themselves were primarily beyond the range of human hearing.

 

The Epunyee glided up close to the witness, who ignored the smell and sat stock still and glared into what passed for the creature’s face. “And on December 18th, did you receive a call from to investigate a fight in a storeroom?”

 

Gonzalez shifted in his seat. “I did.”

 

“What was your response to this call?” The Epunyee lawyer asked the question and then glided off toward the defense table as he waited for the response.

 

“I got in my vehicle and drove out to the storeroom to investigate,” he responded.

 

The prosecutor came to rest right beside what appeared to be a large green ball sitting on the defense table. It was about a meter in diameter–like a very large beach ball. “And when you arrived, what did you find?”

 

“There was a Gandee there, and Mr. Hubert had immobilized it. I found Gee Harborman lying on the ground.”

 

“What was Mr. Harborman’s condition?”

 

“He was dead,” Gonzalez said.

 

“What did Mr. Hubert tell you?”

 

“Objection, your Honor,” the defense lawyer motioned idly with his hand.

 

The judge nodded, and the Epunyee put the clipboard down on a corner of the defense table. “Did you receive an affidavit from Mr. Hubert?”

 

“I did.”

 

“And you conducted an investigation?”

 

“That’s correct.”

 

“What were the results of your investigation?”

 

“Based on the report from Mr. Hubert and evidence I collected at the scene, I determined that there was sufficient cause to hold the Gandee. I placed him under arrest and confined him to the globe in my vehicle,” Gonzalez said.

 

“And is that Gandee whom you arrested in the courtroom today?” The Epunyee asked. He stood precisely beside the only Gandee in the courtroom, or on the entire planet, for that matter.

 

“I believe so,” Gonzalez said.

 

“No further questions, your Honor,” the Epunyee said. He glided to the other table and settled himself on the floor. The central arm which held the yellow translator slithered down from his mouth and disappeared into the buttonhole-like opening in the front of his shirt from where it had been extended.

 

The defense lawyer, a young man in an ill-fitting brown suit and a straggly beard was writing furiously on a pad in front of him. He ignored the eyes of the jury members and the Epunyee. Tense moments clocked by, and then the judge grunted. “Mr. Richards, do you care to question this witness?”

 

“One moment, your Honor,” he responded, his hand coming up but his eyes still on the paper in front of him. A few more tense moments went by as the members of the jury looked back and forth to see how long the judge would tolerate this delay.

 

“Mr. Richards,” he said. No response. “Counselor, if you need a break, I’m about ready for one too.”

 

“No, no, your Honor, I’m ready to go,” Richards responded. He stood up, and as he did, a thick stalk came up from the precise center of the green globe on the table. It extended about three feet and then the top layers of the knob at the end peeled back to reveal a portion of a featureless black sphere, like part of an eyeball–one with no iris or pupil. It was, in fact, the Gandee’s olfactory bulb, through which the major portion of his awareness of the world around him occurred. He tore the paper which he had been scribbling on off the pad. “Your Honor, may I approach the bench?

 

The Epunyee looked over at him but did not move. “Of course,” the judge responded. Richards moved to the edge of the judge’s high desk.

 

“Your Honor,” he began hesitantly, “ah, my client has informed me that he wishes to exercise his rights to new legal representation.”

 

“He’s firing you?” the judge asked incredulously.

 

“It would seem so,” Richards responded. He slid the piece of paper onto the judge’s desk. “He wants a Gandee lawyer.”

 

The judge looked up. “Gandee, this court does not recognize Gandee lawyers.” He then looked over at the court reporter, who was furiously operating the machine that would translate the judge’s comment into a pheromone that the Gandee would perceive and understand. “Do you have that?” the judge said to the reporter.

 

“One moment, sir,” the reporter responded. He completed the settings and then pressed a large button on the top of the machine. In response, there was a very quiet, very short hissing sound–audible only to the reporter himself–as the machine ejected the pheromone. Immediately, the black sphere at the end of the stalk leaned toward the reporter, waved a moment, then leaned back. There was a louder hiss–this one came from the Gandee, and tiny amount of chemical that constituted the Gandee’s response was jetted over toward the machine’s receptors. The operator fiddled with the machine again, and then studied the front of the machine. “Gandee:” he began to read from the machine’s display. “Gandee: My lawyer is certified to practice in twelve Earth countries–”

 

“Yes, but the US is not one of them,” the judge cut him off. “Tell the Gandee he can have Mr. Richards here, or he can have an Epunyee, but he can’t have a Gandee.” The judge gave the piece of paper back to Richards, and then he stood up and pushed his chair back. “This court is in recess until ten am tomorrow morning,” he said.

 

“All rise,” the bailiff said, and those humans present in the courtroom, as well as the Epunyee, stood up. The Gandee, of course, did not, but simply continued to sense in the direction of the court reporter.

 

The judge disappeared into his chambers and Richards went back to his table, sat down, and put his head in his hands. The Gandee stalk went back into his globe, and the Epunyee came over, its central arm back out, holding the yellow box to his mouth. “Well, then, are you in or are you out?” he asked Richards.

 

Richards did not raise his head. “I’m out,” he responded. “Two years preparing this defense, and I’m out.”

 

“Ever been to Ganymede?”

 

“Nope.” Richards looked up at his Epunyee colleague. “You?”

 

“No.” The creature moved back to his table, and his sets of right and left tentacles started gathering his papers together. “I’ll see you tomorrow, then?”

 

“Yes. Say hello to your wives for me.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The ship hovered twenty feet above the hot surface of the planet; pools of bubbling lava steamed underneath and all around. A boom extending from the bottom surface of the ship extended downward, made contact with the melted rock, and then continued downward, pushing through the top layers. Samples from the top would be contaminated with atmosphere–only deeper could samples be taken that would give an accurate analysis.

 

Inside the magma-filled ship, a single being whose thousand-mile-long ribbon-like body twisted and tangled and whose multiple minds were made of clouds of septillions of neutrons swirling in complicated patterns that constituted awareness and thought monitored the sampling.

 

The minds interacted with one another constantly, each forming awareness in turn, contributing to a constantly growing body of knowledge that each mind accessed as it took its turn. At the moment, Mind Seven was struggling with Mind Sixteen for control. When Seven achieved it, his neutronic cloud swirled and coalesced around the sensate hub of the probe.

 

“The temperature is cool,” Mind Seven thought. “Quite cool, but I smell richness of minerals and–” he was distracted by the insistent pleadings of the other minds for control. “And there is room here for growth,” Seven managed to add to the central stream of knowledge before his awareness was superseded by Mind Two.

 

“The temperature is too cool!” Two bellowed. “The material is too difficult to breathe at this temperature, too difficult to eat!” Mind Two typically did not maintain awareness long–its nature was too reactive, too angry, too occupied with being right. As Mind Two fumed, Mind Six found an opening to gain control.

 

“You’re wrong, Two,” Six said as he struggled to remove Two’s objection from the central stream and replace it with his own ideas. “This world is the best one we’ve found, and we’ve analyzed hundreds across the galaxy. I’m tired and I’m ready to end this stage and begin the next one.” Six then allowed himself to be subsumed, his neutrons floating back into disorder and unawareness.

 

Mind Eleven, who was watching the central stream carefully, was the first to move to the forefront. “I too am ready for the next stage,” he said. “I join with Six.”

 

“I join with Eleven and Six,” Mind Four asserted.

 

“I too join with Eleven, Six, and Four,” Mind One imprinted on the common stream.

 

Other minds started to join the growing alliance until finally of the being’s nineteen minds, only Mind Two and Mind Fourteen were opposed to transferring to the planet.

 

Mind Five chided them: “Two! Fourteen! Would you wander the galaxy endlessly in this little vessel–all of us re-breathing each other’s magma forever, doing without the room to cognate and be aware?”

 

In the rush to respond, Two and Fourteen struggled to gain awareness, each unable to defer to the other and in so doing be assured of his own turn when the time came. Finally, Two gained the upper hand and imprinted on the central stream “You transfer, then, you minds. You’ll choke on the planet’s cold innards, and there will be no awareness for you at all!” As usual, Two’s anger prevented him from holding the central stream, and he faded almost immediately, replaced by Fourteen, who expressed the opinion in a more controlled manner. “The coldness, minds–imagine it! Every moment, warmth and awareness tingling away, ever more difficult to maintain, even with adequate spacing! Your impatience has made you desperate!”

 

“I will transfer,” Mind One said.

 

“I too will transfer,” Mind Nine said.

 

“I will transfer,” Mind Eighteen said.

 

“I will transfer,” Mind Four said.

 

Minds continued to churn and rotate, adding their voices to the central stream. In the end, seventeen of the being’s nineteen minds were in agreement, and despite many microseconds of debate, Fourteen and Two could not be convinced–especially not Two. And so the separation occurred.

 

The being used one of its divisions–it was capable of dividing only four times in its long life, and two divisions had already occurred. It was a difficult process, long and tedious, but the being divided. As soon as the seventeen minds were free of Mind Two and Fourteen, the mother being’s long ribbon body slithered through the boom and into the interior of the planet.

 

Mind Two and Mind Fourteen staked out opposite corners of the ship, immediately relieved by the freeing up of room but also immediately disturbed by the lack of competition for awareness–the awful silence. For a long while, Fourteen put up only a nominal struggle for awareness, allowing Two to rail and rant on the central stream about how unfair it was. “Oh, the cruelty of being left here with only one other mind!”

 

Fourteen took awareness. “You wanted room–you were tired of re-breathing the magma of the ship.”

 

“Yes,” Two responded as Fourteen sank back into the mindless void of unawareness. “But the ship is too difficult to operate with you and I only, and it will take time to grow new minds.” Then, uncharacteristically, Two released awareness and Fourteen took it up.

 

“Then let us begin, before it gets any colder in here.”

 

The neutrons that constituted Fourteen’s and Two’s cognition began swirling around each other, faster and faster, until smaller eddies of neutrons–some Fourteen’s, some Two’s–began swirls of their own. After a long period of such interaction, Fourteen and Two began to tire, and they slowed. When they stopped, there were two new eddies of neutrons, which quickly moved to separate themselves from the adult minds and from each other.

 

Fourteen was holding awareness during this process, but he held the awareness out to one of the new minds. After a period of awkwardness, the new mind–Mind One–took it and childishly wrote his first impressions on the central stream.

 

Mind Two easily took awareness away from One and held it out to the other new mind, just as Fourteen had done. The second new mind, Mind Three, took the awareness with a good deal more fluidity than Mind One had done, and wrote his own impressions on the central stream.

 

And after a long period of growth–almost a full hundredth of a second–the four minds retracted the boom through which the others had departed and set the ship on a new heading in search of a new planet and a new home.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Dek Singahl was buckled and belted into the ship’s drive room. He flipped the K’larsi-made brainwave wand down and looked through the device’s aperture. “The grid’s too wide!” he called over his shoulder.

 

“What?” a feminine voice floated up from the downladder that was behind him.

 

Dek turned and shouted louder. “I said the grid’s too wide. Do you have your wand on?” He turned back around and started punching buttons on the panel in front of him.

 

The ship was cycling through the last portion of its destination deceleration, and the slow, gentle, almost soothing, wave-like pulse of the ship’s engines, also of K’larsi manufacture, was turning into an insistent shaking that would increase as Dek and the K’larsi watcher on the bottom floor brought the ship through the planet’s magnetic field and atmosphere and to a landing on the surface of Outpost 4246.

 

Outpost 4246 was one of several thousand small Guild Stations that were put in place in the vicinity of unusual or strategically important naturally occurring phenomena and objects within the Guild Universe. Some of the outposts were automated, but most were inhabited. A few, like 4246, were crewed by one individual–in this case, a human male, was contracted to observe, collect data, and issue reports.

 

The object in question for 4246 was a small black hole, discovered by robot neutron telescope and given the designation TY4P in the Wilson Gravimetric Catalog, or WGC. monitor a small but growing black hole and deliver periodic reports on the hole’s spin, charge, mass, and unusual events associated with the object.

 

The single individual in charge of monitor WGC TY4P from Outpost 4246 was Velmont DeGrassier–self-trained astrophysicist, researcher on the culture of the Meloti peoples, and occasional trader in legal, semi-legal, and downright illegal alien objects and lifeforms, although he did the best he could to keep that last part quiet. After an incident on Delos-VII involving some miniature giraffe-worms that turned out to be not miniature adults but the larval stage of Mickelson’s giraffe-bears. When they pupated and condensed all the oxygen out of the air on Delos, there was the enormous expense of imported oxygen generators to restablish the ecological balance of that world. To be fair, it must be said that telling the difference between the charming, delightful, and harmless giraffe-worms and the larval stage of the Mickelson’s bears is almost impossible to see, but that did not stop the Delosian world government from issuing a death warrant for DeGrassier–in the name he used on Delos, Grangier Styx Vormaldish. The event precipitated DeGrassier’s idea that spending a couple of decades on a Guild outpost alone might result in things blowing over with the Delosians.

 

The ship shuddered through the magnetic field and the atmosphere of 4246 and finally came to rest on the shiny metallic surface of the Outpost. There had been no radio contact with DeGrassier–either he had turned the radio off, was on the wrong channel, or was ignoring it. This was not unusual in that some stationkeepers spend years and decades alone, and thus they developed their own way of coping with the brief-moments-of-sheer-terror-separated-by-long-periods-of-intense-boredom way of life on a distance, one-crew outpost.

 

However, as Del landed the ship and went through the procedure to power down the spacecraft, he noticed a robed figure padding slowly toward the ship as it saw on the bare metal of the outpost. “I see him,” he called to the K’larsi on the deck below him.

 

“DeGrassier?” the female voice said.

 

“Yep. I think so. He’s wearing a robe and a hood over his face.”

 

“That’s not DeGrassier,” the K’larsi said after a moment. The K’larsi was not actually speaking–that task was completed by a computerized robot voice which was included among the instrumentation just outside his tank. The K’larsi was an aquatic creature, living in and doing his work from an irregularly-shaped tank of mostly water. Pumps circulated some ordinary and rather unordinary but necessary chemicals into the mix, the most unusual of which was one of the biz-triazenoquinazoines containing an ethylaminoethyl linker flanked by two identical anilinoquinazoline rings. Or perhaps the K’larsi’s need for a low concentration of alkyl tetraalkylphosphorodiamidates. Del had had all the details presented to him in his K’larsi Metabolism and Excretion class–but he hadn’t paid much attention. His approach to the maintenance of the K’larsi’s tank amount to that of a swimming-pool maintenance man: he simply poured in the chemicals the way it said to on the bag.

 

“That’s not him?” Del repeated.

 

“No.”

 

By this time, the figure outside the ship had stepped up to the closed hatch, pulled back his robe, and stuck his face up against the hatch camera. Del turned the camera on and routed its feed to his main viewscreen–the face was fisheyed and distorted, but it plainly matched the file photo of Velmont DeGrassier, aka Grangier Styx Vormaldish that Del had pulled up on one of his monitors. “Looks like him,” he said.

 

“It’s not. The creature is a Taledok, surgically enhanced and psi-active, manipulating your vision to accept him as DeGrassier. It will take me a moment to disable him.” As the feminine voice was sounding this last, behind it was a shrill whistling-moaning sound, as if songbirds were being tortured. It was the K’larsi, perhaps speaking in his own language, perhaps making a log entry–or perhaps moving his bowels, for all Del knew. The K’larsi language had proven impenetrable to humans so far, as had the strange practice of swimming in circles and loops which they periodically enagaged in when groups of K’larsi came together–and which none of them wanted to talk about.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Clyde Pansnole swung his car to the lot behind the clinic, intending to park in the spot marked ‘Reserved: Doctor’ as he did every other day. This day, however, he was late and there was a blue pickup truck already parked there. Pansnole grit his teeth and cursed.

 

All the paved spots were full, and so he parked in the grass–mud really–adjacent to the fetid ditch that for some reason was always half full of stagnant water and the large smelly disposal that was perpetually full.

 

With mud on his shoes, he inserted his key into the clinic’s back door and turned it, breaking the key off in the lock. Again, he grit his teeth and cursed. The knob wouldn’t budge, so he rapped on the door. No response. He rapped on the door again, and after a moment, the voice of his senior nurse was heard from the other side. “That’s the doctor’s entrance. Come around to the front.”

 

“Edna, it’s me,” he said. “Open the door.”

 

“I said that’s the doctor’s entrance, you’ll have to come around to the front,” she repeated with exasperation.

 

“Edna, it’s me!” he repeated forcefully. “Can you open the door?” Edna’s hearing wasn’t very good–he often found himself having to shout at her to be understood. After a couple of moments, he gave up and started down the sidewalk to walk around the building.

 

He was a few steps away when he heard the door open and Edna’s voice: “Oh, I’m sorry, Doctor. I didn’t know it was you.”

 

Feeling foolish, Pansnole returned to the door. “Thank you,” he said. “I broke my key off in the lock.”

 

“I see,” she responded icily as he stepped past her and into the cool hallway. She closed the door and flipped the deadbolt lever. “You’ve got three waiting, and Mrs. Georges called again,” she said, thrusting a clipboard into his hands.

 

He resisted saying ‘I see’ back to her, and instead scanned the clipboard, seeing the annotations describing the morning’s appointments. “Is the Fracta here yet?” he asked, hoping the answer would be ‘No, that cancelled for today.’

 

“In the waiting room.”

 

Pansnole grit his teeth and cursed–on the inside. I wouldn’t have done to curse in front of the senior nurse, who took a dim view of such things. “All right then,” he said. “Let’s do that one first.” He was already striding towards the last door on the left at the end of the hallway–his office. He was hoping to get a cup of coffee from the expensive machine that came on automatically 20 minutes before his usual arrival time.

 

As he approached his office, the door opened and one of the two junior nurses appeared in his doorway. “Doctor, the machine broke–there’s water everywhere in here!” He had had a water line plumbed directly into the machine so that it would no longer need to be filled manually with water–Edna had clucked her tongue at this–and as he got closer to his office, he found himself stepping in water. He reached the door to see that water stretched from one wall to the other in his office. “I think I got it turned off,” the junior nurse said.

 

Just then, the other junior nurse’s voice called from the front office. “Doctor, there’s a problem with the Fracta up here!” she said. And then, with alarm: “Doctor!”

 

When he got to the front office that looked over a counter into the waiting room, he saw–pandemonium. The Fracta, a chlorine-breathing animal that was fitted with a clear helmet so that it could breathe a chlorine-based gas, was out of its restraints and had cornered one of the more placid animals, a Denobian Squid, and seemed to be attempting to eat it, although the Fracta’s helmet prevented its mouth-arms from grabbing the squid. The squid, for its part, was squealing. The owners of both of these animals were shouting, one trying to control his animal and one trying to rescue his–and they were both failing.

 

Pansnole put his hands on the counter and thrust himself up, intending to heft up and over the counter in order to resolve the situation. Unfortunately, his foot caught on a plastic printer panel that had been removed from the printer and placed on the shelf below the counter in such a way that it stuck out slightly–just enough to catch his foot–and Pansnole ended up flopping over the counter and landing hard on the hard concrete floor on the other side. He heard something snap, and then a wave of sickening pain shot up his right leg and into his brain.

 

At that moment, the lights went off in the clinic. Edna, having heard the commotion, came into the front office, but as the doctor was struggling to stand on the other side of the counter, she didn’t see him right away. “Doctor!” she shouted.

 

“I’m under here–” he tried to say, rolling over onto his hands and knees but finding it impossible to put any weight at all on the injured leg.

 

She screamed again, surprisingly powerfully for an older woman; she fairly screeched “Doctor! Doctor!” The Fracta had managed to break his helmet and as poisonous chlorine gas began to permeate the waiting room and the front office, the Fracta was choking to death on the oxygen that had leaked into its formerly sealed head compartment. The Fracta’s owner, a portly fellow who looked like he spent most of his time playing video games in his mother’s basement, was already unconscious on the floor. The squid’s owner had pushed through the front door and was breathing heavily on the other side, trying to recover from the few breaths of chlorine gas he’d inhaled.

 

Edna went around the counter and through the door to the waiting room, apparently hoping to do something to quell the chaos that was there, and as she ran into the wall of chlorine gas, she stopped, turned and looked wide-eyed at the doctor, still lying on that side of the counter on his hands and knees, and toppled over, impossibly slow and then impossibly hard. She lay still, and as he watched her, the room wavered back and forth and he lost consciousness, the screams of the two junior nurses in his ears like a siren.

 

Clyde Pansnole woke up in a hospital bed, connected via various wires and tubes to a large beeping machine. He slowly and with difficulty opened his eyes and the world swam into view: he saw two green-garbed figures standing over him.

 

“Doctor Pansnole?” the one with the soft blue eyes said.

 

“Doctor Pansnole!” the other one said sharply.

 

“I think he’s coming around, doctor,” Soft Blue said again, her feminine voice contrasting with the other’s masculine hardness.

 

“Doctor!” he said, and Pansnole moaned. “Yeah, he’s coming out of it.” The man’s face swam out of his view, and he heard what he immediately recognized as the snap of surgical gloves being removed. “Put him under again and close him up,” the man said, and in another moment or two, his vision went blank and for a long time, he was devoid of awareness of his surroundings.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The waiting was the hardest part, and Yon Sochi had waited a long time.

 

He was alone forty million miles from Earth in a space the size of a small closet–or a prison cell–and there would be no escape from this one. Sochi pondered his options for the umpteenth time and came to the same conclusions. Nothing to do but wait until touchdown on Mars–still four months away.

 

Sochi had spent a year in training after his preliminary selection. The training included five months in the spacecraft simulator in the desert. Five solid months alone in a reproduction of the vehicle he was presently ensconced. The Can, they called it. The psychiatrists and sociologists that helped put the mission together allowed themselves to believe that tolerance of time in the Can equated to effective performance on the mission, and this might have been true if not for the glaring fact that the Can was only inches away from resources and help at all times, and the mission vehicle would not be. All the mission finalists spent their five months in the Can, and all of them performed flawlessly–so easy to do when all you have to do is wait.

 

Sochi went home to visit his parents in Japan after the training, and received the formal notification of his selection to be the first man on Mars in the same rooms where he had been born and had grown up, where his mother and father had encouraged him to study music and mathematics and later physics and chemistry. He ended up settling on chemistry, He worked right through from first levels of school to a PhD, served as a pilot in the Japanese Air Defense Forces, and came to the attention of NASA as a result of his work in the United States Embassy in Tokyo. His facility with the English language was legendary–he sounded like a Shakespearean actor when he spoke. This was as a result of early and intense exposure to English through his mother, who had studied the language herself and who spoke to her son only in English during the entire period of his childhood. Thus he had native fluency in both English and Japanese, and this proved useful as he climbed the ladder of accomplishment and achievement in both countries.

 

The mission was planned for 31 months: seven months to get to Mars, a month in orbit doing preliminary studies, then the landing, and 18 months on the surface working and waiting for the planets to align for return, and then a six-month return flight. The launch and Earth-orbit phases of the mission had been successful and almost routine. The climbout from Earth’s gravity well also had gone according to plan, and Sochi found himself on the Holtzman low-thrust transfer orbital path and once the acceleration phase was over, on a ballistic and weightless coast to the turnaround point, where the deceleration would begin.

 

That had been the plan, but at the end of the outbound thrusting maneuver, a micrometeoroid punctured the return fuel tank, resulting in the outgassing of the fuel he needed to get home. It was something impossible to defend against–shielding would have been too heavy, and the estimate of risk for such an occurrence was very low. Not zero, though, and Sochi appeared to have been dealt the royal flush on this one.

 

It had happened so quickly that by the time Sochi noticed the slow leak, analyzed the situation, and transmitted a report to Earth, 70 percent of the tank’s contents had already leaked out. By the time an answer was received from Earth, all of it was gone. Sochi didn’t need safe-at-home engineers to tell him the situation. Without return fuel, he had a choice to make now: he could burn the deceleration fuel, which was contained in the outbound fuel tank, turn around, and come home now, or he could simply continue the mission, land on Mars, and stay there. It didn’t take long for him to decide what to do.

 

He handled the situation with stoic resolve in the Japanese fashion, and spent no time or energy regretting his decision. He would still be the first man on Mars, and he would still explore and provide data to support decades of analysis and discovery. He could even prepare samples for eventual pickup by the second crew to come to the Red Planet; certainly, he would not live to see it, but equally certainly, there would be others to follow.

 

His acceptance of his fate did not preclude, however, his careful consideration of the situation and his search for a clever way to solve it–to get to Mars, perform the mission, and return home. Before the accident had occurred, he would have been the first to declare that in the event of loss of the return fuel, no return would be possible. But now that it had actually happened–and happened to him!–he sought an answer, some combination of resources and action that would outwit his imminent marooning.

 

He was reminded of an example that a teacher in one of his primary education classes in Japan had told as an example of what was called shiseseko–lateral thinking as a means to solve problems. It was the story of a large truck that, in making its way under an overpass, had managed to become stuck there, blocking traffic. The men all gathered around, trying to find some way of avoiding the apparent destruction of either the truck or the bridge in order to free the truck, but none of them could solve the problem. A boy came along on a bicycle and offered a suggestion that none of the men had thought of that made it possible for the truck and the bridge to be preserved and for the truck to be on its way in only a few moments. Sochi had solved the puzzle, but had been too polite to offer his solution–the boy suggested that some air be released from the truck’s tires, just enough to enable it to clear the bridge.

 

What Sochi spent his days and nights thinking about since the accident was how to achieve the same thing in this situation. Something simple that would not only save his own life, but make it possible to successfully complete the mission and avoid the stain and shame of the first manned mission to Mars being forever remembered as a failure.

 

And so day after day and night after night, long after the Earth-based engineering teams had assured him there was no hope, Sochi lay in his bunk or sat in his command chair–they were the same thing–and thought about it.

 

And then he had an idea. But it would take some doing, and a good deal of preparation of the spacecraft first.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Chris Madden sat in his office on the fourteenth floor, facing the window and the expansive view of the city of Chicago and Lake Michigan beyond. The chair was comfortable, custom made, but Madden had been sitting it in now for nearly three hours, hunkered over the papers on his desk, comparing them to the computer monitor built into the surface of his desk and also the conventionally positioned larger monitor that was positioned at the far corner of the desk, trying to get the numbers to add up correctly and mostly failing.

 

Just as he rolled the chair back to rise and stretch, there was a flash of light in his office, like a flash bulb, and an odd noise–and then there was a stranger in his office.

 

Madden struggled for a moment to accept what he was seeing, and then for another moment to find words with which to respond. “I beg your pardon,” he finally spat out, rather stupidly.

 

“Chris Madden, right?” the stranger was dressed conservatively, professionally: black, shined and gleaming low-quarters, gray slacks, short-sleeved white shirt, and an appropriately wide patterned tie. He looked quickly at a rather too-large wristwatch which he worn on his left wrist, and the he looked up and squarely into Madden’s face. “You are Christopher Madden?”

 

“That’s right,” Madden responded somewhat mechanically. Then, finding his customary command of situations, he took a step toward the stranger. “Who the hell are you?”

 

The stranger spread his hands. “Mr. Madden, please relax, I’m a friend. My name is Roger Feldspar. Call me Roger.”

 

“I’m going to call the police if I don’t get some answers, Mister,” Madden said. “How the hell did you get in here?”

 

“Look out the window,” the stranger said. Madden heard the words, but he was still too stunned by the stranger’s unusual entrance that he did not quite respond. “Take a look,” the stranger repeated, and he gestured to the window.

 

Madden did take a look, and for a moment he wasn’t sure what it was that suddenly was different about the familiar scene. After a moment, it hit him–nothing was moving. He moved over to the window, not believing what he was seeing, straining to understand. The traffic on Interstate 90, running north and south, and the Eisenhower Expressway that crossed it, was still. The city had grown quiet too, but this was not immediately apparent to Madden through the thick, soundproofed glass.

 

Madden continued to stare at the scene through the window for a few moments, then he looked again at the stranger in his office, who simply stood, rather sheepishly, while wheels in Madden’s head turned. He suddenly stepped away from the window and behind his desk, where he pushed a button on a panel and barked “David!”

 

There was no answer. Again, he pressed the button and barked the name. On a normal Tuesday morning, David Fesser, his high-paid and very efficient assistant in the outside office, would have heard him on the intercom and responded almost instantly. In the event that David was in the bathroom or on an errand, one of his assistants would answer. Never during the business day would the outer office be unattended. “David’s not going to answer, Mr. Madden,” the stranger said.

 

“What the hell are you doing?” Madden asked. Then he stepped around the desk, past the stranger, and threw open the door of his office. He stood there, holding the knob in his hand as he took in the scene.

 

David was frozen in mid-stride, a file folder in his hand. Across the outer office, one of the interns, a woman named Elizabeth Fells, was also frozen, standing on her two feet. She stood stock still, but her long hair was suspended around her head is a position suggestive of brisk movement. Again, Madden had a hard time accepting the evidence of his eyes. “David!” he called–again, there was no response, no reaction from the frozen figures before him.

 

Madden closed the door and went back around his desk. “Who are you?” he asked.

 

“I’m a friend, Mr. Madden. Please, sit down and let me talk to you for a moment.” Not knowing exactly what else to do, Madden sat down in his seat. “I’ve studied you, Mr. Madden, and I’m a fan. I admire you.” The stranger was smiling strangely.

 

“Is that right?”

 

“Yes, sir, that’s right.” The stranger gestured to one of the two padded wooden chairs that stood before Madden’s desk. “May I sit?” Madden nodded.

 

“So tell me, what have you done to them?”

 

“I haven’t done anything to them, Mr. Madden,” the stranger said. “I’ve done it to you.”

 

“Me?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“What have you done to me?”

 

“Well, Mr. Madden, the best way to say it is that I’ve pushed you, just a little bit forward, in the flow of your local time.”

 

“I see,” Madden said, the corner of his mouth turning up. “Come on, what’s going on here?”

 

“Okay, here’s the deal in a nutshell,” the stranger said. “The flow of time is not continuous. It moves forward in little steps or jumps.”

 

“Steps,” Madden repeated.

 

“That’s right. The steps are very small in duration. Between them, there is no movement of time at all. Everything that happens happens during the step.”

 

“Right.” Madden said. It was clear that he didn’t understand.

 

“Think of it this way. Your heart beats, right? During the beat, the blood is ejected from your heart. Between the beats, no blood moves, right? The flow of time works the same way. During the beat, time moves. Between beats, it doesn’t.”

 

“Really.” Madden still wasn’t convinced, but he understood the analogy.

 

“Yes. What I’ve done is push you forward so that you are operating just ahead of the beat. This world won’t start moving again until the next beat.”

 

There was silence for a moment while Madden took in the stranger’s story. “So, when’s the next beat, then?” he asked.

 

“About an hour,” the stranger said.

 

“An hour?” Madden repeated. “Come on, how are you really doing all this? It’s some sort of trick, right?”

 

“No trick,” the stranger said. “Go ahead and walk around a while, if you like. I’ll wait. It would be best if you were back here when the next beat comes, but if not–” the stranger shrugged.

 

Madden stood up again and walked directly out of his office, past the frozen figure of David Fesser and Elizabeth Fells, through the outer office’s open archway, and he disappeared down the corridor. The stranger spent the next 23 minutes staring at his shoes and periodically examining the odd device strapped to his left wrist, and then he heard Madden step into the open doorway. “Who the hell are you?” he asked–this time, his tone had a note of fear.

 

“I told you, I’m Roger Feldspar,” the stranger repeated.

 

Madden crossed the room and sat down again in his chair. His face had suddenly grown pale, and there was sweat on his upper lip. “What do you want?”

 

“I just want to have a little talk, that’s all,” Feldspar responded. He smiled. “A little talk, and then I’ll push you back to into alignment, and that will be that.”

 

“A little talk,” Madden repeated. “Okay, go right ahead.”

 

Feldspar rose from the chair and stepped toward the window. He looked down and off toward the horizon. “Chicago. Lovely city, as long as you have money, am I right?”

 

“You know Chicago?”

 

“Sure,” he said. “Or at least I will. I grew up in Cedar Lake, not far from here.”

 

“Yeah, I know it,” Madden said. “South of town, we put in a golf course there a couple of years ago.”

 

“I was born there. In 2054.”

 

Again, Madden had a hard time wrapping his head around what Feldspar had said. “You mean, the year 2054?”

 

“That’s right.”

 

“Forty-one years from now.”

 

“Yes.” The stranger turned from the window. “I’m from the future, Mr. Madden. Your future.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Henry Wallens hung in the sky motionless next to the quintillion-ton alien spaceship. Motionless, that is, with respect to the ship–with respect to the Earth, 330 miles below them, he was traveling at more than 17,000 miles per hour, and all the mass of the ship was at the moment relieved of its vast weight, just as Henry himself was.

 

It had been dubbed Grain of Rice in the press three years ago when it had made a soft landing in the Nigerien desert. Nigerien as in Niger, not Nigeria, which is one country to the south. In any case, the ship had been easily detected while still in the outer reaches of the Solar System. It had been observed in a robot telescope in Australia and its orbit quickly plotted–when it was evident that it was not on an orbit that intersected Earth, the little robot brain in the telescope made note of it and moved on. When it altered its trajectory, the little robot brain overloaded and sounded the alarm. An hour or so later, similar alarms were sounded in the chambers of power in China, in the US, in India, in the Middle East, in Russia, and across Europe–everyone had questions, and there weren’t very many answers at that point. There still aren’t, although there are a few.

 

The ship was shaped roughly like a grain of rice–in the same sense that the Earth is shaped roughly like a basketball. The proportions of the two were the same. Grain of Rice was a 42 miles square and about 220 miles long, pale milky white in color. The exterior was rough and organic-looking–no markings or portholes or antennae or any of the things that spaceships are supposed to have. No engines. No nothing. Just a plain single grain of white rice. Only this grain of rice was being piloted by somebody.

 

Over the course of 40 months, the giant ship made its way past the gas giants, through the Asteroid Belt, and past Mars. It slowed down as it approached the Earth, and assumed a geosynchronous orbit over the spot where it eventually touched down. Then it simply very slowly descended. It slowed down as it got closer and closer to the ground. The ship took more than a full month to descend that last mile, as if maybe somebody or something on board was giving the poor little scurrying creatures under it a chance to move out of the way. And move out of the way they did too–the UN provided the Nigerien government assistance in relocating more that 2,000 people in four villages in order to clear what seemed to be the intended landing spot. Grain of Rice finally did just touch the desert floor at a speed of half-a-millimeter per second on Saturday, July 6, 2029, twelve seconds past 9:25 am local time in Niger. It was quickly noted that this is was the exact second of aphelion for that year–the time at which the Earth is in that point of its orbit when it is farthest away from the sun. We still don’t know the meaning of that.

 

Grain of Rice‘s mass had been established very precisely on the evening of its initial discovery back in late 2025–its mass was just about equivalent to the mass of water, and so it wasn’t much of an intellectual challenge to come to the idea that the thing was full of water. Something that large full of water certainly isn’t going to be supported by a sand dune. There was a good deal of discussion about what would happen when it did make contact with the ground. Some experts believed that the bedrock under the desert would support it–some believed that the object would push on through, punching a hole in the crust and entering the magma below, where it would be destroyed and resulting in the largest release of magma since the Dinosaur Killer Asteroid struck. Certainly, if something that large and heavy had simply fallen to Earth, it would have all been over. But most experts seemed to believe that if whomever or whatever was controlling it wanted it to make a soft landing, that measures would be taken to prevent the destruction of the ship itself and the planet on which it was attempting to land. Turned out they were right–when the ship made contact with the ground, it didn’t stop descending immediately but very slowly pushed right on through the sand to the bedrock underneath, where it did stop descending and simply sat there on the desert floor.

 

Teams were in place to document the last stages of the descent, and it was broadcast in real time all over the world. It was the most watched event ever transmitted live–more people watched it than watched the gymnast Sergie Rachmany get his six Olympic gold medals in Cairo the year before. More people watched the landing than watched the botched Mars landing and the slow death of the crew of the Belsar in 2023. But there wasn’t much to see. The ship simply descended and sat there–for nearly a full year. In that time, we were able to figure out a lot about it, such as confirming that it was full of water and, as far as anybody could tell, not much else. There were simply no clues about what it was beyond the apparent fact that it was a very, very large box of water which somebody somewhere had intentionally placed on the Earth’s surface.

 

Then in September of 2030–on Henry Wallens’ thirtieth birthday, as a matter of fact–something happened.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The giant creature lifted its forward leg up with difficulty, balancing its weight on the other two, moved it forward a little, and then put it back down with a thud that shook the ground. The left back leg was next, followed by the right back leg and then the cycle repeated itself. The animal was not bipedal and could not stand for long on the supporting two legs while the third was in transit.

 

As the species continued to gain weight, even this slow shuffle became impossible, and Rick Messer had several times seen huge, elderly Traiserdors standing on their tripod of legs stranded, unable to take a step, bellowing and being ignored by their fellows who trod past them. These stranded Traiserdors didn’t last long. They combined the qualities of helplessness with a plentifulness of food source that small predators known as Dixon’s Drivers found irresistible. He had watched these little devils attack and destroy a Traiserdor once. They didn’t really need any strategy: the Traiserdor was immobile, and its weak little arms, vestiges really, on either side of its mouth were intended to grab the vegetation it fed on and scoop it in rather than defend the animal from attacks from Drivers.

 

The Drivers would take a running start, jump, and simply plow directly into the unfortunate Traiserdor’s legs, using its sharp beak to excise a chunk of nutritent-rich flesh from the poor animal. The biology of the Traiserdor’s blood worked against it, as it almost instantly coagulated over the wound, forming a hard covering that prevented blood loss which might have resulted in an end to its agony–instead, the blood sealed the wound and the Drivers just kept coming and coming, each taking its pound of flesh. Eventually, one leg or the other would be so weakened that it would collapse, the Traiserdor would fall over, and then be unable to breathe as a result of its own weight. It was a toss up as to whether the unfortunate creature would die of asphyxiation or by virtue of being gutted, and in the end it didn’t much matter. Either way, it was dead, and once on the ground, it would be picked apart pretty quickly.

 

The walk cycle of the ambulatory Traiserdor consisted of this three-step, spider-like process of front leg, back left, then back right each being moved forward in turn. Traiserdor pups sometimes moved the front leg forward and then both back legs up at the same time, but only before their bellies and back acquired the large pads of fat that were characteristic of mature Traiserdors. After that, they were too heavy.

 

The slow step of the adult Traiserdor was about a yard at a time–slow progress for such a large beast, and yet, Traiserdors demonstrated the raw power of persistence as they migrated up and down the planet’s single large continent, which extended to 78 degrees north latitude and 59 degrees south latitude, and Traiserdors were sighted at each end, the north in the summer when it was cold there, and the south eleven months later when the planet was on the other side of its 22-month rotational period. Traiserdors liked it cold–the planet was at the very edge of its star’s human Goldilocks zone. It was difficult living there, even with underground shelters and nuclear furnaces, but it would have been impossible without.

 

Rick drove the clear-domed rover around the several Traiserdors that were plodding here and there and as he approached Colony Hab 71, he pressed the button that opened the rover airlock, deftly steering the vehicle into it, and then closed the door and waited for the chamber to pressurize.

 

“Rick,” his helmet radio crackled. “Rick, I’ve got something to show you, come on up here when you get suited out.” The voice belonged to Valerie Pons, chief engineer to a staff of two, but who kept the colony’s somewhat trouble-prone dual Takson-IV supercomputers running and had lately been occupied with calibrating the new GPS satellites that had been put into orbit around Traiser. The system had already vastly improved the colony’s exploratory efforts, and added a layer of safety and reliablilty that made everyone–especially Messer–a little more comfortable when outside the confines of the underground shelter.

 

He depressed the push-to-talk. “What is it?”

 

A pause, and then: “I’d rather show you.”

 

He sighed–Valerie was often a bit dramatic, but what she was dramatic about was usually worth seeing. “All right, are you in the lab?”

 

“Yep.”

 

He pushed the button twice–shorthand for ‘okay, that’s all’–and looked up to see the green lights through the rover’s clear dome. He unbuckled the seals, popped the top, and hefted himself out of the small vehicle.

 

Rick got himself out of the suit and climbed the stairs to the colony’s engineering lab, one of two well-appointed laboratories. The other was the xenolab, outfitted for isolation and analysis of life forms. Valerie was studying a computer display, her face appearing to be only inches from the screen. When she heard the doors open, she grunted, but did not turn around. “Val,” Rick said. Then louder: “Val!”

 

“Yeah, yeah, I hear you. Come on in.”

 

Rick was somewhat put off by Valerie’s manner, but she was good at her job, and this was the major factor is his calculus of her value as a crewmember. He was willing to tolerate some idiosyncraticities in his crew–if their value to the station made up for it. Valerie’s did. Rick moved over to a position beside and slightly behind her, and she spun around, appraising him with her ice-blue eyes. “You know those position markers we put on the Traiserdors?” she said.

 

“Sure,” Rick responded. He had helped do it–over the course of the last couple of weeks, whenever he and other crewmembers had been outside the shelter collecting samples or checking on experiments, when they encountered the inevitable three or four or five Traiserdors blithely plodding on their way to wherever it is they were driven to, they would use the rover’s manipulating arms to retrieve a harpoon from the outside deck, arm it with a GPS marker, and fire a dart into the animal. The marker would report the animal’s position once per second to the orbiting GPS satellites and enable the creature’s path to be plotted on a map. The idea was to get some data on their movements.

 

“Well, look at this,” she said, sliding her chair back from the screen.

 

The screen showed a map of the surrounding area, about 50 miles around the shelter. There were a variety of green lines running this way and that, and some of them seemed immediately familiar to Rick as he first considered it “What am I looking at here?” he asked.

 

“You’re seeing the path of about eighty Traiserdors,” Valerie responded. “I’ve removed the duplicate tracks and you’re actually seeing individual creatures here. Now look at this.” She moved a mouse to the side of the keyboard and the map moved, then she zoomed in on a particular spot until the green trail turned into a familiar figure.

 

“What’s that?” Rick asked.

 

“You know what it is, commander. The question is, why is that Traiserdor drawing that on the ground as the walks along?”

 

The animal had drawn, by virtue of its GPS-tracked movements, a familiar figure on the ground. It was a right triangle, perfectly straight lines, and on the outside of the triangle, each leg had been used as the base of a square, also perfectly stepped out on the Traiserdorian plan. “What’s the meaning of this?”

 

“I think you know the meaning of it,” Valerie responded.

 

“You’re very annoying,” Rick said without humor.

 

“It’s the Pythagorian theorm,” she said. “A squared plus B squared equals C squared. Straight out of a geometry textbook.”

 

“How can that animal be tracing this on the ground?”

 

“I don’t know,” Valerie said. “They’re smarter than we think, apparently. I found something else, have a look at this.” Again, she manipulated the mouse and the map moved in a blur until she stopped in a new spot. She zoomed out this time, and again, Rick realized what it was before Val said anything. It was a circle, well formed, with a polygon inscribed inside and outside.

 

“Whoa,” Rick said, and then he exhaled sharply as the full impact of the diagram dawned on him. “It’s pi, isn’t it?”

 

“Yep. The inside polygon established a lower limit, and the outside one establishes an upper limit. Archimedes used exactly this method to establish that pi was between three-and-one-seven and three-and ten-seventy-firsts about four thousand years ago.

 

“Who knows about this?” he asked.

 

“Me, Dave, Pamela–and you.”

 

“Any more little diagrams like this around?” he asked.

 

“Still looking,” she responded. “They walk around all the time, you know.”

 

“Yeah.” Rick thought fast. “Let’s document everything you can find in the next three hours, and then meet me up here at three-o’clock. I want you to be on the line when we call this one in, okay.”

 

“Captain speaks for the ship,” she said, returning to the screen.

 

“Yeah, but you’re the expert.” Rick was leaving the room now. “Don’t argue with me, and I’ll see you at 3 pm.” The doors whished open and closed, and he was gone.

 

“Asshole,” Valerie said to herself as she scrolled the mouse back and forth, following the path of the Traisedor which had drawn the inscribed circle.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The 30-something woman wore a tanktop and pajama bottoms; her hair was pinned up and she was barefoot. She padded over across the bridge, picking her way through the ladder-like structures that stuck up from the floor across the deck towards one of the few chairs on the ship that was intended for the human anatomy and was just setting down her cup of Earl Gray when a gentle chime sounded in time with a flashing square of amber on a nearby panel. Behind the chair, which was mounted to the top of a pedestal, a tall feathered creature stood surveying the panel without reaction.

 

“You going to have a look?” she asked. She spoke in the creature’s language, full of soft but rather screeching sounds, heavy on sibilants and a sound that can only be described as a cluck.

 

“Yes.” The creature moved around the chair, although Captain Pamela Kirwin had long since stopped thinking of the commander as a bird, or hearing his language as clucks and screeches, on first glance, that’s exactly what the creature appeared to be. He–it, actually–extended its wing and, with a projection at the tip which looked something between a finger and a pencil eraser, pushed on the amber square, silencing the chime.

 

“Thank you,” Captain Kirwin said as she climbed up the short pedestal and settled down into the chair.

 

“It’s coolant temperature in the number three engine again,” the creature said. “The repair seems to have been ineffective.”

 

Kirwin made the equivalent of uh-huh in the creature’s language–it was something between a growl and a short smack of the tongue against the palate. She reached down to take the cup of tea that the creature was lifting up to her, and sat it down into a depression made for that purpose on the arm of the chair. The creature turned away from her, stepped to the panel, and speaking into the top of a thin stalk, started asking engineering about the engine. The exchange took place between the creature–her first officer–and one of the engineers, and although the words came quickly and in the dialect of the Pleeka high people, Kirwin understood it well enough. Her human ear was better at the language than her human larynx was.

 

Kirwin’s assignment as captain of the vessel and pilot of the expedition had been offered to her by Fleet Director Vladimir Rodenshenko. “You’d be the captain of the Creetak,” he had said from the other side of an expansive desk in his office on Mimas Station.

 

“Captain,” she said flatly.

 

“Yes, that’s right.”

 

“Of an alien ship.”

 

“Well, don’t do it if you don’t want to,” Rodenshenko said. “It’s entirely up to you, of course.” There were a few moments of uncomfortable silence, but Pam didn’t get out of the chair. “Look, the ship is one of ours,” he said. “The Creetak’s is a converted scooper ship, one of the old Reynard-class vessels. They’ve added a large chamber to the spin ring for flying and a couple of other things, but it’s got regular Yancey engines and the life support equipment is fully certified.”

 

“I’m not worried about the life support, Vlad,” she said.

 

“Yeah, I know. The problem you’re going to have isn’t the ship.” He sipped his coffee. “How much do you know about the Pleeka?”

 

She shrugged. “They’re birds with ESP.”

 

“Yeah. Intelligent birds, heavy on culture and light on technology. We’re supplying them with the engineering, and they’re going to supply us with–” he stopped abruptly. “You’ll have to learn their language,” he said. “They insist on communicating in their own language.”

 

“How long will that take?” Pam asked.

 

Rodenshenko pushed a packet of papers out to the end of his desk and rotated them around. “Sixteen weeks, you can do it from St. Louis,” he said. “Then you’ll have ten days of immersion in the Pleeka colony on the Avairihim, and then we’ll put you in supersleep for the transfer to the Creetak.”

 

“Supersleep? Nobody said anything about supersleep.”

 

“Creetak will orbit Pluto until you’re ready to go, then we’ll sleep you out there on a high-speed torpedo transport,” Rodenshenko said. “They’re willing to wait for you, if you’re willing.”

 

“What’s the mission?”

 

“Can’t say,” he said. “You’ve got to accept first.”

 

And again there was a stretch of silence. “So you’re telling me I have to agree before I know what the mission is?”

 

“That’s correct.” His gaze did not leave hers. “You’re the right person for it, Pam. You trust me, don’t you?”

 

She did, as a matter of fact, but she left that unanswered. “How much time do I have?”

 

Rodenshenko looked at his watch. “Oh, about an hour. Come on, let’s go up to the canteen, I’ll buy you a coffee.”

 

That had been twenty months ago. She had drank the coffee, accepted the mission, learned the language, torpedoed to Pluto under a ten-month supersleep, and in a Pleeka ceremony that involved, among other things, the ritual shaving of her head, took command of the Creetak.

 

Her first officer had spent a full fifty-month posting in the Pleeka embassay in Shanghai and spoke English about as well as any of the Pleeka, which is to say not very well at all. The human voice organs accommodated themselves to the Pleeka language much better than the Pleeka anatomy entertained the production of the sounds of English, and so while the first officer heard and understood the English language well, he could be understood only with difficulty. In their first meeting, he tried to welcome Kirwin in English.

 

Raahhh–gallowwkkk, the creature had said as the airlock door opened and Kirwin stood there holding her helmet in her hands. The final consonant cluster devolved into a sort of squawk; it was the best the officer could do with the word hello.

 

Kirwin immediately stepped into the ship, placed her helmet on the floor in one deft motion, and spread her hands slightly, arching her eyebrows up and opening her eyes as wide as possible as she intoned sounds in the Pleeka language that communicated gratitude and the seeking of permission to come aboard. The first officer and the other four or five Pleeka who stood in the small suitup chamber were impressed with the small human’s ability in their language, and the effect was immediate. All the Pleeka present in the room assumed the odd, eyes-wide-open expression of welcome and respect.

 

“We welcome you to our nest, Captain,” the first officer said to her slowly, as his culture required.

 

“I am welcomed,” she responded–it was still ritual, but it was important to participate in ritual before relationship could be established. As she stood in the small chamber, she unzipped her suit and began to wrestle out of it while the Pleeka watched, their eyes still held wide. She stepped out of the hardware and then continued undressing, pulling off the light garments that were worn under the suit. She pinched the back of her bra and shook the straps off her shoulders. She yanked off the various sensor wires that were taped to her skin on the chest between her breasts, on the right shoulder, and the abdomen, and on her left calf. Then she slipped her socks off and stepped away from the pile of clothing on the floor, naked. “I am welcomed,” she repeated as she stroked the sides of her head, top to bottom, with her hands.

 

The first officer and the other Pleeka who were watching her were of course surprised and a bit put off by her lack of feathers, but they had been prepared for this and some other human behaviors well in advance of the captain’s arrival. “You understand, now, that this human will be featherless,” the briefer said. His eyes on the screen blinked slowly in the Pleeka manner. “The human will expose his skin to you upon arrival, but then will drape himself in a sort of sheet made for this purpose.” The crewmembers listening to the presentation laughed lightly at this–it would have been suspected that the instructor was joking with them, if not for the slowly steady blinking of his eyes. “You must not allow yourselves to be offended. This is not prey behavior, and the human is not hiding or stalking.”

 

“Instructor, may I ask a question?” one of them asked.

 

“Yes.”

 

“If not for stalking, then what is the point of the draping?” All of the other Pleeka looked to the screen to get the answer.

 

“Some of it has to do with insulation,” the instructor said. “Protection against unusual warmth or cold. Some of it has to do with a spiritual prohibition against displaying certain parts of their bodies to each other.” Again, the Pleeka were incredulous, but the instructor’s slow, steady blinking told them that he was truthful.

 

“What does warmth or coldness have to do with draping?” one of the Pleeka asked.

 

“Well, the humans maintain a body temperature within a strict limit regardless of the temperature of their surroundings. This takes energy and effort when the environment strays from their temperature set point. The drapings make it easier for them to maintain temperature.” It was another of the many biological variations of humans that the Pleeka found so unusual–and so fascinating.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

There’s nothing in here,” Jim’s muffled voice emanated from the four-inch pipe that Carla Datefield was watching intently.

 

“There’s got to be something in there,” she said into it. “The flow is down to–” she looked at the needle on an instrument that lay on the hard metal floor next to her. “It’s down to 28 and falling.”

 

“What?” Jim asked.

 

“Twenty-eight!” she called into the pipe, her British accent making the exclamation sound almost comical.

 

But Jim wasn’t laughing. “All right, I’m getting out of here.

 

Carla sighed and pulled the probe out of the pipe. She unhooked the wire, slid the probe into its storage slot, and tucked the wire into a pouch that was attached to the instrument. “We need to check the fans,” she said into the pipe–no response. “Jim?” Again, there was no response, and so she stood up, placing the instrument on the panel in front of her as she studied one of several monitors that pierced the dark tranquility of the ship’s bridge.

 

It was always dark on the bridge–Carla had often reflected on the fact that while the bridge was kept dark and cool, the rest of the ship was oppressively hot and bright, maintained that way for the comfort of the forty-five alien passengers on board. Dresnaks, they were called by the humans on board, although naturally, that was not the name they called themselves. The word in their language sounded something like what was once called a raspberry in parts of New England.

 

Alien or no, passengers weren’t allowed on the bridge, of course, and so it represented a refuge of sorts for the ship’s three crew members. Morgan Frankel was a specialist in languages human and alien by trade and a long-time senior employee of the Foundation taking his turn as captain of a vessel. Devonte Johnson was the ship’s xenobiologist, navigator, and engineer. Carla Davies, Liverpudlian science officer and eternal optimist, found herself playing umpire and referee–or nursemaid–to Frankel’s and Johnson’s rather strong personalities.

 

Johnson strode onto the bridge and sat down in the captain’s chair. “He didn’t find anything, did he?”

 

“Nope,” Carla said. She continued to study the display. “I don’t think it’s the fans,” she said, as much to herself as to Johnson.

 

“The fans? Nope, it’s not. I ought to go down there and look for myself,” he said.

 

“Johnson, get out of my seat,” Frankel said as he entered the bridge.

 

Johnson ignored this request. “You didn’t find a blockage, Jimmy?” he said.

 

“There’s no blockage in the pipe, and don’t call me Jimmy,” Frankel responded. Johnson’s eagerness to ignore protocol angered Frankel and made Carla positively cringe with embarrassment, but there was nothing the captain could do except note the problem and perhaps Johnson wouldn’t get hired on to a long mission again–perhaps. Frankel moved over to join Carla and he too began to peer at the monitor. “You sure it’s not the fans?”

 

“I don’t think so, Captain,” Carla responded.

 

“It’s not the fans, Jimmy,” Johnson said. Frankel ignored him, and Johnson moved over to join them.

 

“Here’s the most likely place,” Frankel said, pointing. “There’s access through the 506 panel, right?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Carla responded. “But that requires EVA.”

 

“I’m not going out there,” Johnson volunteered cheerfully.

 

Frankel continued to ignore him. “Yeah, I’ll do it.”

 

“I don’t know, Jimmy boy. EVA’s pretty dangerous this time of year.” Carla and Frankel made eye contact; Carla agreed that EVA was dangerous, but the time of year reference didn’t seem to make any sense. Carla–and Jim Frankel–knew very well that EVA was dangerous at any time, especially with a ship full of Dresnaks and an unreliable and undisciplined engineer to contend with.

 

“I’m going to get some sleep first, though,” Frankel said. “You’ll wake me in four hours?” he said, soto voce, to Carla.

 

“Sure,” she responded. She heard the sound of soft leather on the hard floor, and turned to see that Johnson was leaving the bridge. “Don’t let him bother you, sir,” she said.

 

“He doesn’t bother me.” The way he said it, she could tell that he did. “You’ve got it here by yourself for a while?”

 

She nodded. Frankel held her gaze for a moment and then turned and strode off the bridge toward his quarters without a word. He walked right past Johnson, who was standing right outside the bridge. When Frankel left, he went back in.

 

“Hey, honey,” Johnson said. “Did he say four hours?”

 

“Yeah,” she said. She wondered how much to let her annoyance with Johnson show.

 

“Cat’s away, and all. Let’s say you and me have a drink.”

 

“No, thanks,” she said.

 

“Turn the camera on in 16B,” Johnson said as he settled down in the captain’s chair. “Put the feed on the main screen, okay?” Compartment 16B was the room that the Dresnaks were using as a mess hall.

 

“I’m not turning on the camera so you can get your voyeur jollies,” she said.

 

“Oh, no? How about if I call for a hearing?” Johnson bluffed. A hearing, conducted by the captain or his designated representative was the court-of-last-resort for inter-crew disputes onboard ship, but as Johnson was the captain’s designed representative, she thought it unlikely that a hearing would bear fruit.

 

“No,” she said, still studying the screen. She was convinced now that the fans were the problem and not any blockage in the pipe. “No drinks, no spying on the Dresnaks, and no hearing.” Carla was finished, and so she logged out of the control panel, make sure the drive connection was isolated and inactive, and turned around to face Johnson. “And no more Carla to talk to for today.”

 

Johnson grinned at her; his left hand was laying on top of the crotch of his pants, and he rotated his hand to grasp his genitals through the rough cloth of the pants he was wearing. “Here’s something for you,” he said with a leer.

 

“Oh, my God,” she said as she stepped around him and toward the exit.

 

“Tell your boyfriend I said hello,” he called after her, but there was no response, and then he was alone. After a few minutes, he heard a noise behind him, and thinking it was Carla, returned perhaps for some forgotten object, he opened his mouth to speak. As soon as he saw what it was, he closed it again. One of the Dresnak was standing a few feet inside the opening as if he was afraid to come into the dark, cool bridge. “You’re not supposed to be in here,” Johnson said. Then he repeated his comment in the Dresnaki language. There was no response to either exhortation–the Dresnak just stood there, moving weight from one back leg to another. It reminded Johnson of a kid trying to delay going to the bathroom. As a matter of simple fact, the motion was tied to the Dresnaki breathing cycle–but this one wouldn’t be breathing long, as Johnson was about to find out.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The business-suited woman closed the leather-bound briefing book. “It was a long time in understanding, sir,” she said.

 

“Well, sure,” the man sitting across from her at the polished table returned. Air Force General Mike Cobble was in civilian clothes; he wore a tie, but his jacket was slung across the back of the chair behind him and his cuffs were rolled up to his forearms. “Alien intelligence and all, it’s a wonder we got any of it figured out.”

 

Another suited figure appeared in the glass of the door behind the woman; he pushed it open and entered. “Ah,” the man said, not bothering to rise from his leaned-back posture in the chair. “Franklin. So good of you to come,” he said sardonically.

 

“Ah, yes sir, well, we were, ah, well, you know,” the young man pointed back at the door, and then smiled sheepishly.

 

“Right,” Cobble said. The woman had not turned to look at him, but now she did. “Dr. Susan December, meet Franklin Carrington.”

 

“December?” Franklin repeated. “Your last name is December?”

 

“That’s correct, Mr. Carrington–or is it Doctor Carrington?” she asked.

 

“Oh, no, just Mister–actually, you can call me Franklin.” Susan had not extended her hand. The general smiled at the jab, and then smiled again to see that Franklin had not gotten it. Franklin sat down next to her and looked at Cobble. “So, we’ve got a translation or something now?”

 

“Not a translation, exactly,” Cobble said. “But you should tell him,” he nodded to Susan.

 

Not bothering to open her briefing book again, Susan turned to him. “We’ve established that the meaning of the visitors’ language is encoded in the time gaps between the tone, the silences,” she said. “The granularity is on the microsecond level.”

 

“Granularity?” Franklin repeated. Susan did not answer. He turned toward Cobble. “Granularity?”

 

“Yes, granularity,” Cobble repeated. “That means that you have to be able to tell a 300-microsecond silence from a 301-microsecond silence.”

 

Franklin nodded. “We can do that?”

 

“No, we can’t,” Susan said. She was getting impatient with this boyish youngster who did not seem interested in following her arguments. “General, my briefing is concluded, is there anything else I can do for you?”

 

“He annoys me too, Susan, but tell it to him like you told me. It’s hard to believe, I know, but he really is the expert on this kind of thing around here.”

 

There was a moment of silence while she considered, and then with an almost imperceptible nod of her head and a crisp ‘hmm,’ she began. “We have about thirty-eight hours of recorded speech, and it all consists of segments of a single tone separated by spaces. At first, we thought that the meaning was encoded in the tone somehow, and we looked at the harmonics and the key and several other things, but the only variation which is modulated is the length of the tone segments. The first and the last tone in an utterance is always the longest of any of them–precisely 880 microseconds long. The segments between range from just over one microsecond to about 450 microseconds.”

 

“How long are the utterances themselves?” Franklin asked.

 

“They too vary. Shortest is about two seconds, longest is a couple of minutes,” Susan responded, again not referring to her notes.

 

“And the open-close tones are always 880?” Franklin said.

 

“That’s correct, and they are open-close tones, as you’ve surmised. Sort of a throat clearing before the sentence or whatever, and then an ‘over and out’ after.”

 

“Yeah. What made you concentrate on the spacings instead of the tone lengths?” Franklin asked.

 

“The key was the fourteenth open-close,” she said. There are 1003 tones in that sentence, separated by 1002 spacings. The first space is one microsecond, the second space is two, the third space is three, the fourth space is five, the fifth space is seven–”

 

“Primes?” Franklin said, cutting her off.

 

“Yes, that’s right. The first 74 primes, from 1 to 373.”

 

“How regular are the tones in between?” Franklin asked. He was doodling on a piece of paper–Susan could see it, but it didn’t make any sense to her.

 

“Not very,” she said. “They’re all the same frequency. The shortest is the ones that come immediately after the open space and then immediately before the close space. Those are about a quarter of a second long. The others vary from about half a second to about two seconds.”

 

“None longer than two seconds, then?” he asked. Susan noticed that he was underlining a word he had written on the pad previously, while she’d been speaking. That word was ‘seventeen.’

 

“That’s right,” she said.

 

“You noticed this on the fourteenth recording. What’s on the previous ones?”

 

“They all have the standard open-close space, with the short tone after and before. We’ve measured all the tone lengths and the spaces, but–”

 

“Okay, I got it.” Franklin looked up at Cobble. “General, they’re using a base-17 numbering system, and I think that we’ll find that if we convert the 74 prime numbers to base 17, then multiply each of those times the spacings in recording 18–” he looked over at Susan. “You do have an eighteenth recording?”

 

“Yes, we certainly do.” She opened her book. “That one’s nearly two minutes long. One of the longer ones.”

 

“That’s the one that will key us to all the others,” Franklin said.

 

“You see why we tolerate him, then?” Cobble said, smiling. Then, as if by prearranged signal, Cobble and Franklin stood up. “Thank you for your work, doctor,” he said as they both stepped toward the glass door. And in a moment, Susan December was left puzzled and alone in the Roosevelt Room.

 

 

“They’re doing amazing things with nanoes these days,” van den Wallis said. “Did you know they can hook into the wifi net now?”

 

“Yeah?” Bill said. He shrugged. “Next thing, those little monsters will be able to tell what you’re thinking.”

 

“For a Harvard-educated physician, you’re surprisingly resistant to new ideas.”

 

“No, it’s just that I wonder about unintended consequences. There are always unintended consequences.”

 

“Yah, sure,” van den Wallis replied in that Danish lilting that the nurses all seemed to find so fascinating. “But you can’t stop progress, you know. Besides, some unintended consequences are good, aren’t they?”

 

“Yeah, I guess,” Bill said. The two men stepped adroitly into the revolving door’s chamber and paced with it to emerge into the cool foyer of the office building. The they proceeded to the fifth floor and stepped into the large, windowed conference room. Although there were several open spots at the table, neither man took a seat there, but instead passed along the row of chairs against the wall, nodding to the several men and women already seated there, to a pair of unoccupied chairs near the back of the room. Van der Wallis was a major, and majors did not sit at the table. Bill was a lieutenant colonel; while lieutenant colonels would be permitted to join the colonels and generals around the table, they required a reason, and Bill didn’t have one. In any case, he’d much rather be out of the spotlight, especially as the war had dragged on and he had found himself less and less able to understand the strategy and more and more prone to raising objections. Much safer for him to watch and steam from a distance.

 

People continued to file into the room: doctors, mostly, a few administrative types, and finally, the three-star general who chaired the committee came in; he immediately waved down the officers, who were beginning to rise: “Keep your seats, everybody, and good afternoon.” He was followed by his staff officer, a female major, who carried a leather satchel of papers. The general moved to the front of the table and started speaking. “Okay, and everybody set?” He looked around to see nods. “Okay, let’s get started.”

 

The staff officer, and who had gone directly to the podium, looked up. “Ah, yes sir,” he said. “Could I have the slides, please?” There was a momentary pause and then the screen behind him flickered and he began to speak. The man never looked up, he apparently was reading from a script. “The information you are about to receive is classfied SECRET NOFORN, you are asked to deactivate recording devices and transmitters at this time. Thank you. This briefing introduces you to Parker Rastell Industry’s newest general medical response and monitoring nanobot, GMRMN–” he pronounced the letters one at a time: gee em ahr em en–“code name German, and describes its capabiliities and implementation schedule. German will replace the present Tandar-IV model that is used in our front-line force. Next slide please.”

 

The next slide displayed a view of the exterior of the nanobot. The view was taken, apparently, through a microscope; there were some ruled lines to the side of the object intended to provide scale. Dave and Bill, along with everyone else in the room, could tell in a glance that the object was a micron in length, it’s longest dimension. The doctors in the room thought of objects in the bloodstream in terms of size in relation to red blood cells; since the red blood cell was about seven microns in diameter, they immediately knew that these new nanobots could easily be circulated through the body.

 

“See? That new one is half the size of the previous model,” Bill said.

 

“Yeah.” Dave said noncommittally.

 

“And I bet it can do twice as much,” he said. Then he leaned back in his chair. “More than twice as much,” he said to himself as much as to Dave.

 

The briefer continued. “The main innovation involved in the German model is its ability to connect to wifi networks, identify itself, and access exterior information resources to improve its response capability,” he said. The slide behind him now displayed an enlarged schematic drawing of the object, skin removed, showing its constituent parts. “The German has two main chip wafers, as you can see in this diagram. The wifi antenna is located on the power board at one end and the main processor at the other. This layout improves heat management. The German also has a fully integrated chemicals payload bay, shaded yellow in the diagram.

 

“Tommy,” one of the three-stars at the table spoke up, “What’s the payload capacity?”

 

The briefer looked up to see who had asked the question. “Eight hundred picoliters, sir.”

 

“And how big did you say these things are?” one of the generals on the other side of the table asked. He did not look up; he was scribbling something on a piece of paper and then he paused, waiting for the answer.

 

“Just shy of a micron, sir,” the briefer responded.

 

“Okay,” the general continued to work his pencil on the paper in front of him. “Eight hundred picoliters, that puts our diameter at about three hundred, doesn’t it?”

 

“Three sixty, sir, ” The briefer continued, as if he and the two-star general, who had still not looked up, had planned their little exchange. “The German is tapered slightly on one end to improve its spin properties in the bloodstream, and is coated with an improved anti-clotting surface that is tuned to respond to magnetic filtering.” The slide flickered to a view of a dissected capillary. “In animal testing, even the gas-exchange vessels in the lungs and the fluid-exchange vessels in the kidneys show no evidence of clogging after more than three months of high-concentration circulation. ”

 

” And in humans?” the general asked.

 

“No kidney clogging at all across 440 patient hours of supervised circulation in settings ranging from bed rest to 70 percent treadmill exertion.”

 

“You’ve got 440 hours at each graduation?”

 

“Yes, sir.”

 

“Hmm,” he said, closing the document before him. “Okay, Andy, and this looks pretty good,” he said to one of the civilian-suited men sitting at the table.. “I’ll authorize a field test now, I would think that ten subjects for twenty days ought to do it?”

 

“We’d prefer a shorter trial,” the dour-looking man said flatly. These corporation types always seemed to be in a rush to market.

 

“How about twenty for ten, then?”

 

The dour man waved his hand and continued to frown.

 

“Twenty for ten it is, then,” the general said.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

In the main hanger on Mimas Station, Clay Savid, Dean Harrison, and Peggy Gibson were getting the ship ready for launch. Each had specific responsibilities, and each attended to his or her own area: Peggy was pilot and navigator, although for the most part, the computers did the latter for her; Clay was the ‘fuge man for the mission, and Dean handled consumables management. They had run scooper missions many times before, both together and with other crew members. Clay was inside the ship, testing the centrifuges that would spin the recovered gas up to four percent helium on the fly, for collection in the ship’s four-million-cubic-centimeter recovery tank.

 

“How are they looking in there, Clay?” Peggy asked, her head poked into the open entry hatch of the CKR-Nixon. The scooper ships were all named for US presidents; the practice had something to do with getting the operation funded back in the 70s. There was a Hoover, a Grant, an Eisenhower, a Clinton, and a Madison, but no Bush; there was a Quincy Adams, a Carter, a Van Buren, and a Buchanan. There was a Ford but no Lincoln. There was even, bizarrely, a Fillmore. All the ships had their own idiosyncrasies; Nixon was famous for electrical problems, and Quincy Adams was getting so notorious for centrifuge leaks that Clay wouldn’t fly on that one anymore. But the Mimas crews managed to keep most of the ships in working order, and at any one time, four or five were actively missioning while the rest of the fleet received maintenance, servicing, and upgrades.

 

“The ‘fuges are good,” Clay said from underneath a bulkhead inside the ship. “Main tank’s not been cleaned from last mission, dammit. Who took this one out last?”

 

“It was Larry Abrams and those clowns that usually take Clinton,” Dean said, also from inside the ship. Dean was back in the ship’s stores, inventorying and sealing the air, water, and fuel the ship and her crew would use during the 38-hour scooper mission. “They need to keep their damn hands off my ship. I’m going to go down there and pee in their air tanks.” He didn’t sound like he was kidding.

 

Peggy snorted. “All right, we’re L-minus four hours twenty. Weather looks okay, and the flux is low this cycle, so we should have a smooth ride,” she said.

 

“Yeah, right,” Clay said. “That’s what you always say.”

 

“Hey, I don’t see any kaybars in here,” Dean said. “Peg!” No response. “Peggy!” he said louder—loud enough to rattle the clipboards hanging from the mounts in the stores room.

“Pipe down, sailor, she’s gone already,” Clay said.

 

“I’m going to get some kaybars,” Dean said. He moved a couple of boxes that he had been unloading into the stores and stepped over Clay’s lower body, which extended horizontally across the passageway, his upper body still inside the bulkhead.

 

“Get me the lemon ones,” Clay said.

 

“You get your own damn kaybars,” Dead said.

 

“Dammit, Clay! Get me some bars.”

 

“Yeah, yeah,” Dean said—and then he stepped through the hatch and was outside the ship. He climbed down the winglet and let himself drop down to the Mascrete pad. Most of the station was constructed of Mascrete—a concrete-like material made primarily from dry Mimantean soil and cement made on site.

One of the first orders of business when the station had been constructed in the 2220s was to set up the 244-megawatt-hour fusion reactor, fueled first by three pounds of pressurized, highly concentrated Helium-3 brought from Earth and after that by helium collected in the first few scooper missions. The reactor made electricity, and then with that, the soil of Mimas provided the raw materials to do the rest. Even water could be made—the silicone in the soil was dissociated and the hydrogen burned against oxygen for the water. The carbon was burned against oxygen to make methane. It was an expensive way to get water and fuel, but when your electricity is free and you’ve got a whole moon’s worth of source material, there’s no reason not to do it the hard way.

 

The first capsule that arrived on Mimas, after a sixty-two month long mission in which two men shared a fifty-eight square foot space, served as the main living quarters for the six months or so it took to make the first Mascrete structure. That structure had been added on to by subsequent crews, until now, in its fifty-eighth year, the entire station boasted men’s and women’s dormitories, a hydroponics nursery, a dining facility, a rather complete gymnasium, even a small pool—indoor, of course.

 

The business end of the operation boasted a series of hangars, one for every four scooper ships plus two heavy maintenance bays, a scooper launch and recovery pad on which the scooper could arise and alight. There was also a simple but adequate gas processing plant to concentrate the scooper product, and then a railtrack launch facility to shoot the canisters filled with pressurized Helium-3 on their long way to Earth.

 

Clay finished his work under the bulkhead and crawled out. He buttoned the panel together again and stood to run diagnostic on the system from the panel. He heard the high whine of the system’s eight centrifuges spinning up—the diagnostic required that they go to fifteen percent, then a stream of doped gas would be fed into them, and after three minutes, they should produce a measurable concentration in the contaminate, which happened to be vapor of heavy water. He watched the readings and then heard someone clunking into the ship behind and above him.

 

“Dean? You back with my kaybars?”

 

“No, it’s me,” Peg said. She climbed down from the hatch and then was beside Clay, studying the readings on the panel as he was. “You diagnosing?”

 

“Yeah,” he said.

 

“How long have they been spinning?”

 

“Only a minute.” The two of them stood there side by side for a moment. “Was there something you wanted?” Clay asked.

 

Peg suddenly realized that she was intruding on his territory. As mission captain, she had overall responsibility for the mission, and overall authority—at least in principle. In practice, she well knew that it was much better to let the people who knew their jobs do them. “No,” she said. “I’ll see you outside, okay?”

 

“Mmm-hmm” Clay said, and Peg started back for the hatch.

 

“Hey, is Dean coming back with some kaybars for us?” she asked as she started up the hatch ladder.

 

“He said no,” Clay said. “But he better.”

 

“I’ll make sure some are on board. You want lemon ones, right?”

 

“Yep.” Clay said. “Hey, the tubes are up to speed now, and the first bleed looks good.”

 

“Okay,” Peg said, and Clay heard her climb out and step across the winglet and drop to the floor.

Inside the hangar control room, Clay sat at a chair in front of a dark station—beside him, the shift controller was preparing for recovery of Buchanan, which was full of gas and on the final two hours of its mission. Eisenhower was ten hours behind him, as Clay could see on the screen in front of the controller. “You bringing both of them in?” he asked.

 

“Are you kidding?” Robbie Cannon asked. “I’ve been here two hours already. Ike’s a problem for those swing shift slugs.”

 

Over their heads, a speaker crackled with a feminine voice. “Station, Buchanan,”

 

The controller looked over at Clay and rolled his eyes. “That damn Violet Scruggs, I can’t get her to stay off the radio,” Robbie said.

 

Clay was about to say she talked too much, but that she was all right, when the speaker cracked again, this time more insistent. “Station, Buchanan.” The way she said it, slowly, with emphasis on each syllable, communicated her annoyance with Robbie’s slowness in answering.

 

Robbie casually rolled his chair to his station’s counter and flipped a switch on the panel to activate the microphone on his headset. “Buchanan, Station, go ahead,” he said precisely, mimicking the way she had said it.

 

“You got somebody in there that knows about ‘fuges? We’re seeing a small leak out of two and three.”

“Who do they have on the ‘fuges?” Clay asked.

 

Robbie shrugged in response and keyed him microphone again. “Buchanan, Station, say who you have on the ‘fuges.”

 

“We’ve got Pete Kendall, he wants to talk to a ‘fuge man.”

 

Robbie didn’t say anything—but he looked as Clay as if to say You want to talk to Pete? Clay nodded.

 

Buchanan, we’ve got Clay Savid up here. He’s putting together Nixon.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll put Pete on,” Scruggs said.

 

There were a few clicks, then an older man’s voice on the speaker. “Clay, you there? It’s Pete.”

 

Robbie flipped another switch on his panel, and the speakerphone circuit was activated. “Yeah,” Robbie said. “Clay’s here.”

 

“Clay, I’ve got a weird leak in two and three. They’re stopped, but they’re still leaking,” he said.

 

“What are they leaking?”

 

“Hydrogen.” There was a moment of static that walked on the last bit of Pete’s transmission.

 

“Hydrogen?” Clay repeated. “Hydrogen what?”

 

“Just hydrogen,” Pete said.

 

“Can’t be,” Clay said. What’s your helium rate right now?”

 

“It’s at 76 in the main tank,” Pete said. “But there’s hydrogen from two and three leaking into it, diluting it.”

 

“Can’t be, Pete,” Clay said. “Your outer doors are closed, and even if they weren’t you’d be leaking gas out, not in. There’s no place for hydrogen to come from.”

 

“Yeah, I know,” Pete said.

 

“How much?” Clay said.

 

“A couple of liters every minute,” Pete responded. “Not much, but I need to know where the hell it’s coming from.”

 

Clay shrugged. “It’s instrumentation, Pete,” he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it, you’ll be in here shortly, and we’ll look at it.”

 

“You want I should go cold on the wiring up there?” Pete asked. It was a reasonable precaution—there almost certainly was no hydrogen leaking anywhere, but it was possible to shut off the electricity to the main tanks and reduce the explosion danger that some source of hydrogen would represent—explosion danger á la Hindenberg.

 

“I would,” Clay said. “Does no harm.”

 

“Roger that, Station,” Pete said. “Here’s the captain again.”

 

“Okay, Pete,” Clay said.

 

There was another pause, and then Scruggs was back on the wire. “Station, Buchanan, we’ll go cold on the main tanks.”

 

“Roger, Buchanan, cold on the main tanks at your discretion.”

 

“Cold on the mains in three…two…one…and we’re cold on the main tanks.”

 

“Roger, Buchanan.”

 

Clay pushed his chair back and stood up. “There’s no hydrogen leak, Robbie,” he said.

 

“Yeah, I know it,” he responded. “We’re going to have to warm up all that gas when she gets here.

 

“Yeah,” Clay said. “Pain in the ass. I’ll see you.”

 

Robbie put his hand up as Clay stepped away from him and pushed through the door and stepped back into the hangar.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

That had been nearly a decade ago; now Lou Parsons was a colonel and Frances was a major herself. But his nervousness was unusual, and it shook Frances a little bit as she watched him read the screen in his own binder.

 

“Captain,” Parson said, still looking into the binder. “How many people on Europa know about this?” Hearing no response, he looked up, scanned the room quickly, and saw the captain at the podium, engrossed herself in her own papers. “Captain,” he repeated a little more strongly.

 

She heard him this time, and looked up. “Ah, yes, sir?”

 

“Captain, how many people on Europa know about this?”

 

She stepped out from behind the podium, off the stage, and took a couple of steps toward him as she spoke. “Twelve people, sir. The three scooper crewmen who made the find, the radioman, the shift chief, the department chief and his two staffers, the Crichiton representative, and the director of the station, plus the two technicians who processed the images you saw here on the screen an in your binder, sir,” she said. She ran through the roster off the top of her head; evidently, she had studied the case pretty well, which of course was to be expected.

 

“That’s all?” Parsons asked. “A fuel plant with almost two hundred people make the find of the millennium and only twelve people there know about it?”

 

“A man named Walker, sir, Freddy Walker, he was the shift chief on duty when they made the find and he took immediate action to contain the information. We have his file photo on Page 67 in your binder.” She turned and spoke to the screen. “Charlie! Bring up Walker, Page 67 from the binder file, please.”

 

“That’s not necess—” Parsons said, but by the time he got that far, the handler in the control room efficiently had the slide up on the screen. Freddy Walker was about thirty in the picture, dark-headed, and smiling, which was somewhat unusual in these file photographs. He wore a Crichiton shirt, its dark blue collar contrasting with its light blue front and back.

 

“Mr. Walker here acted to put the radio feed in secure scramble as soon as the crew started talking about what they found, and he brought the department chief in out of his own sleep shift to debrief the crew. Stayed on duty until the images were processed too.”

 

“Hmm,” Parsons mused, looking at the man’s face. His smile—there was something a little too jovial about it, as if he had just been told a joke. Immediately, Parsons was suspicious of this Mr. Walker and his almost-too-convenient management of the information at its source. Containerizing, it was called—and Parsons doubted that a low-ranking shift chief out at Europa Station, the 23rd-century equivalent of the Wild West, would have any reason to know about containerizing. But he put these thoughts aside for the moment. “Who’s the department chief involved here?” he asked.

 

“A woman named Johnnyangel Parnetti,” the captain said.

 

“Johnnyangel?” Parsons repeated. “Her name is Johnnyangel?”

 

“Ah, yes, that’s correct, sir,” the captain said. She had wandered back to the podium now, and had control of the screen and its contents from the controls located there; she manipulated the slideshow, and a photograph of a youngish woman appeared. “Here’s a photograph, sir. Johnnyangel Parnetti.”

 

“Looks kind of young for a department chief on Europa,” Parsons said. No one said it, but everyone who was still in the room was thinking the same thing—a woman at Europa Station, and a department chief. She had to be one tough cookie. She wasn’t smiling, but she was—not quite pretty in the classic sense, but certainly handsome, clearly feminine, strong-looking; a frontierswoman of sorts. The presence of women on the station was not in and of itself unusual. The station’s crew consisted of 43 women, and that was nearly 23 percent of its total crew of 191. But department chief was a pretty high station, and Parsons knew as well as anyone that as department chief, this woman with the unusual first name would have to manage some pretty rough cowboys. “Johnnyangel,” Parsons repeated as he tried to imagine the young woman grimacing on the screen bossing around scooper pilots and centrifuge men twice her age. “No, I don’t see it,” he said, half to himself.

 

“I beg your pardon?” the captain responded. She honestly hadn’t heard his words well enough to make them out, but the colonel to his right had.

 

“Yeah, I know, Lou,” she said to him, sotto voce. “I don’t see it either. Young woman like that, department chief, and with that name? No way. They’d laugh her off the station.”

 

The captain heard that remark, and she pulled Johnnyangel Parnetti’s point sheet from her file. “Johnnyangel Elizabeth Parnetti, age 31, master’s degree in engineering from Clavius University, year-long internship at Luna 45, two years after that working the lithium operation at Luna 41.”

 

“This girl spent two years at 41?” the colonel at Lou’s right said, wide-eyed. “Lou, I spent a week at Luna 41 once, and it almost killed me.”

 

“This is smelling worse and worse all the time,” Lou answered her back. “We’ve got a shift chief who knows enough to containerize, we’ve got a very unlikely department chief.” He leaned back in his chair and wiped his brow again; the napkin was in tatters, and Dave slid his own towards the man at the head of the table. He was about to say Take this one, sir, but decided not to draw any more attention to the fact that the colonel was sweating profusely for some reason.

 

The officer on his right noticed it too. “You okay, Lou?” she asked, again soto voce.

 

Lou waved her off, leaning forward to retrieve Dave’s napkin. “I suppose Old Snake is still Crichiton’s man on Europa, right?”

 

The colonel next to him was already nodding when the captain said, “Tom Ophidian is the senior Crichiton representative, yes, sir.” She knew very well that his nickname—he would have insisted on the term callsign, as all the old scooper pilots did—was Old Snake, but she certainly was not going to call him that herself. She was wearing her formal service dress for the briefing, and while there were a respectable number of ribbons on her right lapel, for a five-year captain, there were no wings, and she knew enough to stay well away from that little tradition.

 

But Lou’s uniform did have wings; two sets of them, as a matter of fact. He sported the wings of an atmospheric pilot, patterned on a bird’s wing, and above that, the highly stylized rectangular wings of a space pilot. To be clear, he’d never been a scooper pilot—never even been inside a scooper ship—but none of the active-duty military guys ever were, until they retired. That kind of action was too dangerous for an asset that was as heavily invested in as an active-duty space pilot.

 

Having established a pattern, the briefer manipulated her controls to bring up the file photograph of Ophidian, and Lou nodded. “Yep. Old Snake,” he said to the colonel on his right.

 

“He’s looking old,” she returned.

 

“I find it hard to believe that Snake’s letting something funny go on in his house,” Lou said.

 

“Me too,” the colonel said, nodding.

 

“All right, Captain, that will be all.” Lou stood up, holding on to the table with one hand as he blinked to clear his head.

 

The colonel stood up and put her hand on his back. “Lou, you sure you’re okay?”

 

“Yeah, I’m just—” he waved her off, took a step toward the door—and as Dave, the colonel, and the briefer watched, fell full to the floor, his head smacking the carpet with a sharp thud.

 

The colonel responded instantly. “Call 911 now,” she said, surprisingly calmly. The others were frozen for a half-second, then all at once, everyone started to react.

 

The briefer grabbed for the radio clipped to her belt under her uniform jacket, toggled it to the emergency net as she moved it to her mouth, and keyed the microphone. “Control, medical emergency in Briefing Room 5,” she said—also surprisingly calm and businesslike. The colonel was on one side of Lou and Dave on the other as the turned him over and loosened his tie—he was bleeding from the nose, his head was back, and his mouth was open.

 

The colonel had one hand on his neck, feeling for a pulse. “Pulse is weak and rapid,” she said.

 

Dave was leaned over him, his ear just over Lou’s mouth, his eyes focused on Lou’s chest. “Breathing is rapid and shallow,” he said.

 

The captain repeated both these statements on the emergency net, after identifying the stricken man. There was a medical clinic in the building, staffed with emergency responders, so she knew that help wouldn’t be long in coming.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The man seated at the head of the conference table loosened his tie and took a long drink of water from the glass that was sweating onto a napkin. Then he picked the glass up, set it back down on the bare table, and wiped his brow with the napkin. The room was cool, but he was sweating; Frances thought he seemed unusually nervous for a senior-level official. What’s going on here? she thought as she sat down in one of the seats pushed back along the wall. The long conference table had eighteen seats, counting the two ends; three or four of them were still empty and had no markings or reservation signs. But only senior officials sat at the table. Technical and more junior people sat around the walls, if they were invited into the room at all.

 

The official at the head of the table rapped his hand on the table. “All right, folks, let’s get started.” At the other end of the room, there was a low stage and a podium; a nervous young officer stood behind it, waiting to start her presentation. “Go ahead, Captain,” he nodded to her.

 

“Ah, yes, sir,” she began, and the screen behind her blazed to life. “This briefing is top secret, noforn, and compartmentalized,” she began. “At this time, the EMS screen will be activated.” She flipped a switch on the podium and a low hum permeated the room. Inside the walls, a net of copper wire energized and formed a barrier to any electromagnetic signal traffic in or out. The captain advanced through her slides as she continued her briefing. “On October 5, two days ago, a discovery was made by a Europa Station scooper crew on their way back to base. They had burned their fuel and were on a no-V trajectory, but they were able to make a radar sounding, and this is what they found.”

 

The slide clicked to a grainy black-and-white image, not unlike the ultrasound image made of unborn babies. But this was no baby. The image showed a globe, and below it a basket-like structure, connected to it by a variety of cables and cords. “This object was floating in the Saturnine atmosphere, just about 21 miles above the surface.”

 

The officials at the table worn various expressions ranging from shock to incredulity as they realized the implications of what they were being briefed, but if they had any questions, they held them to what was the traditional time for questions—after the briefing.

 

The next slide showed a smaller version of the same grainy photo; on this slide there was also a graph full of data. “The sphere is approximately fourteen miles in diameter, and the mass of the object is about seven million kilograms,” the briefer said. On this, most of the expressions turned to disbelief, as she continued. “There is no electrical activity that we can detect, but the object is strongly magnetized. In addition, it is slightly radioactive at a point directly opposite the structure you see underneath.”

 

The head official interrupted. “Captain, this is not a natural object,” he said. It was a question, but it sounded like a statement.

 

“That’s correct, sir,” the captain confirmed. “Definitely not natural.”

 

At this point, the briefing was starting to be unusual in procedure as much as it was in subject. The woman at the head official’s right pointed her finger. “And that’s not one of ours either, is it?”

 

“No, Ma’am,” the captain answered. She clicked to the next slide. “Crichiton staff on Europa debriefed the scooper crew, collected the evidence, and sent it to their own headquarters, then our representative at Crichiton in Denver was brought in on it this morning,” she said. “Copies of the initial preliminary report are being passed to you now,” she said as another captain walked around the room handing out small red binders. “These are available to you here in this room over the next couple of hours, and you are again reminded that this information is top secret, no forn, and compartmentalizied.”

 

The officer gave Frances a copy of the red-covered binder, and she looked at the front of it—it had the familiar Crichiton Corporation logo on the front, and then a US Army imprint with the usual things that Army intelligence would put on a top secret document: the standard declaration, the name of the person to whom the binder had been created for and given to, a block of small print describing the kinds of things that could happen to those who leaked the contents, and then a US Army binder and content number. Frances knew—as some of the more senior officers in the room did not—that the material contained in each binder varied in its fine and inconsequential details. This was a strategy implemented to identify the culprit in case of a leak. It didn’t always work very well as a practical device, but it did serve as an effective deterrent. She also saw that the binder had a cover combination lock that would have to be unlocked before the binder could be opened.

 

When everyone had their binders, the captain continued. “Your binder locks are coded to the first six digits of your SPN” she said. That too was a standard practice—the SPN, or service pass number, was an eleven-digit number issued to each service member and meant to be kept completely confidential. It was used in situations such as this where it was necessary to establish that a particular person and only that particular person had been given access to a particular document. When Frances unlocked her binder, there was a brief and subtle vibration inside it that she knew was the transmitter therein communicating with the security computer inside the facility. The security computer compared her own location with what the binder said was happening to it—her location was a known entity when she was inside the building, and so if the binder reported that Person A had just opened it, but Person A was not in the room where the binder was, the screen inside the binder would fail to energize. And not long after that, an armed guard would be at the door of the room, ready to resolve the situation.

 

Frances opened the binder to reveal the computer screen within, which was powering up and then she was presented with the first of thirty or so pages of initial report. As she started paging through it, the captain continued. “This concludes the formal portion of the briefing. My team and I will remain to answer questions and address concerns. Thank you.”

 

There was no response—everyone in the room was busy swallowing the content of their binders. Frances looked up from hers to the man at the head of the table again, and suddenly she was reminded of the first time they had met—she was a brand-new lieutenant and he was the major in charge of space fuels systems at Base Mardelles in Lyon, France.

 

“Over here, lieutenant,” he had said, waving her over as she exited the jetway, along with the other hundred or so people who had been on the flight over from Paris. She was the only one wearing a uniform; all new graduates were supposed to wear one on the trip to their first duty station, but apparently, she was the only one who followed the rules in this regard. She saw him waving and stepped in his direction, unsure. He saw her uncertainty. “Yeah, that’s right, you. Lieutenant Poole.”

 

“Hello, Major,” she said. “I’m Poole.”

 

“Yeah, I can see that,” he smiled. “Come on, your stuff’s coming out on Ramp seven, I saw it on the schedule.”

 

“Yes, sir,” she replied as she stepped out after him—she was nothing if not well trained.

 

“Okay, I’m Lou Parsons, you can call me Lou,” he said. He was ahead of her and had only half-turned his head to speak, and so she couldn’t see his face to know whether or not he was kidding.

 

“I’m Frances Poole,” she said, a little uncertain about whether she should invite him to call her Frances.

 

“Okay,” he said, arriving at the Ramp Seven area where already some of the flight’s cargo and baggage were coming up and spitting out on the endlessly rotating pad. “See anything that looks familiar.”

 

She looked around. “No, sir.”

 

“Call me Lou,” he said. He was smiling, but he appeared to be serious.

 

Her bag popped out of the ramp. “There’s my bag, that red one,” she said as she made a beeline to get it.

 

“Let it come to you,” Lou said. “We’ll get it on the next go-around.”

 

“Ah, yes, sir,” she said, stopping short.

 

“Lou!” he said.

 

“Ah—Lou,” she said. She certainly couldn’t go around the base calling a major by his first name, but for the moment, it seemed that he was going to insist, and besideshe wasn’t in uniform.

 

“That’s better,” he said. The red bag was coming around now, and Frances stepped forward to grab it. She hefted it easily, slipped the straps over her shoulders, and squared herself.

 

“Okay, that’s all I have,” she said.

 

“You got that okay, Poole?”

 

“Yes, sir,” she said. Then she appended it. “Lou.”

 

The major laughed, and stepped off toward a door. “You’re all right, Poole,” he said, and they walked together through the automatic door and onto the cold Lyonnaise afternoon.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“Look at them,” Mel said. “Look at the way they live. Hard to imagine, isn’t it?”

 

“It’s not so hard,” the girl said.

 

“Are you kidding me?” Mel responded. “It’s terrible.”

 

“What are we doing here, anyway?” the girl asked. She was about twenty, thin, pale, and uncomfortable looking in a plaid skirt, which she constantly wiggled around in.

 

“I wanted you to see him a little younger before we get to the right place. He’s twenty-eight now, right inside that house with his wife.” Mel manipulated a few controls in the vehicle the two of them were in—it hovered directly above a tidy street lined with tidy houses in a tidy subdivision in the tidy north Chicago suburb on this summer day in 1965. Children played in the street and in the identical little yards. “I’ll get a little lower, they’re about to come outside.”

 

The girl grasped the horizontal bar at the bottom of the vehicle’s window and leaned forward to watch, fascinated, as finally the front door opened and a young woman emerged, stepping forward onto the walk that led from the front door to the street. The vehicle’s adaptive screen calculated the sight lines and a circle appeared on the window, framing the image of the woman from the girl’s point of view. Above the circle, which followed the woman as she moved, a date and time stamp was displayed: “June 18, 1965; 10:15 am.” The last digit in the time clicked to 6 as the girl watched. A label appeared nearby, identifying the woman in yellow text as Rebecca Hendley, born 1944, died 2002. “She’s twenty-one right now?” the girl asked.

 

“That’s right. Birthday was in May,” Mel responded. But she’s just the first wife. Here he comes.” A man appeared in the door; he also stepped out in to the sun. Tall, black hair, he was dressed in slacks and a formal shirt, but no tie. “There he is,” Mel said.

 

Just as before, the adaptive screen drew a circle around the man and a yellow-text label appeared for him: “Robert Hendley, born 1936, died 1998.”

 

“Handsome fellow,” the girl said, and then turned away from the window.

 

“Did you get a good look at him?” Mel asked. “I want you to be able to recognize him when we see him later.”

 

“Yes,” the girl said. “I got it. Let’s go.” She sat down on a long bench near the chair where Mel was busily manipulating controls.

 

“Now, you understand that he is your pivot,” Mel said. “You mess up, and I’m going to make sure something happens to him. Before his next marriage, you get it?”

 

“Right,” the girl said. “Let’s get it over with.”

 

The man manipulated a series of controls, and the craft began to move silently upward, leaving Mr. and Mrs. Handley, newlyweds doomed to divorce, far below. The craft rotated so as to stand the quickly receding houses on their sides; somehow, the craft’s occupants were not affected by this change in gravity’s vector, and then the window went black as the adaptive material darkened to protect the occupants from inadvertently viewing nearby stars. The ship always seemed so much smaller with the screens blacked, the girl thought silently. She crossed her arms over her breasts and wiggled in her skirt. “Do I really have to wear this getup?” she asked.

 

“Yes, you really do. Mr. Handley down there is counting on you, you know.”

 

“Mr. Handley. My pivot,” the girl repeated. “Show me again, how is he my pivot?”

 

Mel twisted a control and the window, now a black panel, came alive with a large diagram, yellow, blue, white, and red boxes of text connected in a complicated way with yellow, blue, white, and red lines. Mel spoke without turning his head away from the ship’s control panels, viewing the same image on one of his own screens. “You see, there you are in the blue box, and the paternal line back is in yellow. The maternal is in red. See how the lines intersect?”

 

“That means that some of my ancestors were related, right?” the girl asked.

 

“Yes, exactly. It’s always that way, if you go back far enough,” Mel said. “The relatedness of one’s ancestors was the answer to what was sometimes known as the Ancestor Paradox.

Consider that each person has two parents; each of those parents had two parents, and so on. This means that for every person alive, there are or were two parents, four grandparents, eight great-grandparents, and so on. Go back 10 generations and you have two to the tenth-power ancestors, or 1024; go back 20 generations and you have 1,048,576 ancestors. And yet we know for certain that less people, not more, lived in the past. How are these two facts reconcilable? That’s the Ancestor Paradox.” He said it as if he’d said it many times before—which, of course, he had. “The answer is that any one person in the past filled multiple ancestor roles for people in the future.” Mel continued. “Even a father with only one child would, over the course of hundreds of years, find himself multiple-great-grandfather to thousands of people—and multiple-great uncle to thousands, and so forth.”

 

Mel twisted around and manipulated a control on the side of the panel away from the girl, then he turned back to the other controls. “But every so often, the ancestral lines come together in such a way as to make one person a critical link in the chain; this person is called the pivot, and usually represents the easiest point at which to interfere with what is called the Destined Line. You know about that, right?”

 

“Not really,” she said, disinterestedly.

 

Mel frowned. “The Destined Line is the long series of individuals that will come into being naturally over the course of time if we do nothing at all. Interfering at the pivot point in the line is the most effective way to erase a particular person while minimizing the damage to all the other lines, and to the present stream of history.”

 

In this case, Robert Handley was the girl’s pivot. And so, Mr. Handley’s well being was a topic of considerable interest to her and to the 800,000 or so other people in the girl’s timeline for whom Mr. Handley was a pivot. Mel didn’t concern himself about the 799,999 others; their fate, as well as her own, was in the girl’s hands.

 

“Alright, we’re here,” Mel said, bringing the craft to hover directly above the middle of the street, just as before. The windows shimmered to transparency and this time, the houses were larger, farther apart, with more elaborate landscaping. The trees were mature, and no electric wires or phone lines were present on poles up and down the street.

 

“Is that the place?” the girl asked, nodding to a large brick structure.

 

“That’s it,” Mel said. “It’s about fifteen years later now, 1980. Handley is there in the house, with his second wife. That’s your line.” He paused, consulting a series of readouts. “They should be out in just a moment—the man first, then the new wife.”

 

“New? How new?” the girl asked.

 

“Well, new to us. They’ve been married now about five years.”

 

The man came out of the house; he was clearly the same person the girl had observed in 1965, but visibly older now, heavier, slower. He shuffled out down the walk and stooped to pick up a newspaper, wrapped in plastic and sitting there on his driveway.

 

“Why is he so slow?” the girl asked.

 

“Arthritis,” Mel answered. “An inflammation of the joints. Pretty common in this period. Painful. The wife will be along in a moment.” The man had straightened back up now, and was shuffling his way back into the house when the wife appeared, a bathrobe wrapped around her.

 

“She’s young,” the girl said.

 

“Fourteen years his junior,” Mel responded. “Old men often marry younger women, and have children by them,” he continued. “This particular old man will have a son by this woman in about four years from this point.” He turned around to face the girl. “That is, if you cooperate.”

 

“Alright! I’m cooperating! I’m wearing this stupid skirt thing, aren’t I?” she said, wiggling uncomfortably.

 

Mel glanced over at her. “Not very well, it seems.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

I’ve got this thing wrong with me, inside my cells. You’ve heard of Downs syndrome? I’ve got the same thing, only instead of chromosome 21 that’s tripled, with me, it’s chromosome 16.

 

Seems to have never happened before, that’s what they told my parents. Nobody’s really sure what the effects will be, they said.

 

I never could stand having anybody touch any of my stuff and I like doing whatever I want when I want. Whether that’s an effect of the chromosome 16 thing, who knows? My muscle cells are different, more primitive, they tell me, and correspondingly stronger, and it’s true that I’m much stronger than a regular person my same size.

 

I’m good with my hands, I could always do those little magic tricks, palm coins and such. And there’s a couple of other things I can do that I mostly keep to myself. One of the things is something that’s very handy for getting out of jail cells.

 

I got picked up in Oaxaca by some Federáles looking to earn a favor from the FBI. They put me in a piddly podunk little jungle jail in Oaxaca at 5 pm. I was out by dinner, and I spent the next couple of months getting the fugitive’s tour of central Mexico, but eventually they caught up with me.

 

Next time was a US-trained Mexican SWAT team—sweat, I call ‘em—all the way from Mexico City come to capture and escort little ol’ me. I went peacefully and I let ‘em keep me in a cell, but every night I unlocked the door—just to show ‘em I could do it. Embarrassing as hell, you know.

 

A week or two later, I found myself in a steel box in Langley, Virginia, under lock and key and the ever-watchful eye of seven or eight cameras installed eyeball-in behind an inch or two of unbreakable plexiglass. Unbreakable—right. I put a hole about the size of a nickel in the one I could reach without trying too hard. Just to show ‘em I could do it, you know.

 

I had my day in court, which for guys like me, amounts to ninety seconds over a closed-circuit television channel. I said my lines and the judge said his and then the show was over. Permanently.

 

I don’t mind the joint, I really don’t, and I was looking forward to the next thirty or forty years of an unending routine of eat, sleep, and wait. I started the routine in the old Supermax in Colorado just down the hall from old Tommy Silverstein. They had made a special cell for me—stainless steel all around, ceiling too. The outside was wrapped floor to ceiling, top to bottom, with copper wire mesh. When electrified, the magnetic field produced rendered me unable to move time and space, and so I was stuck—at least until the electricity failed.

 

It was a long haul, but after about three thousand cycles of eat, sleep, and wait, the eggheads in Cincinnati stumbled on the Bleed—about time—and those bastards in Washington passed a law that said people like me had to go to a special facility that they built on Europa with the Bleed. That’s right: Europa, as in ‘moon of Jupiter.’ Pretty scary place, but the moon orbits through Jupiter’s immense, and for me, colorful, magnetic field, and so the whole moon is draped in an industrial-strength sized version of those little copper wires outside my cell that prevent me from stepping right through that stainless steel door they slide my tray through three times a day.

 

But you can’t use the Bleed on Earth—too dangerous, and besides, there are environmental whackos everywhere that scream about the radiation the Bleed produces, so it’s first to low Earth orbit in a can. Space travel, that never was on my bucket list. I wouldn’t let them do it, and if they’re inside my wire, I can use my powers, so they gassed my cell one evening just before dinner. I woke up handcuffed to a little steel seat inside a copper cage. I felt the magnetism flowing around and against me, and so there I was—helpless.

 

When you’re alone in a can, then it’s surprisingly similar to solitary, especially for me. If you’re not alone in the can, then it’s like being in a cage on 24-lockdown with an usually cooperative bunkmate—and all of my bunkmates were always unusually cooperative, whether they wanted to be or not. But I was all by myself on this trip, at least until I got through the Bleed.

 

The Bleed is a method of transportation that relies on the fact that distances between two objects cannot really be measured perfectly. Something is done, and that something brings together two places that are far apart. Just at the right time, you step over, and there you are. I could do it, but I never told anybody.

 

The can arrived at the station and after some thumps and bumps, the hatch opened and two white-suited bozos came in. The one held a sort of flat paddle, and I felt the magnetism coming off the end of it. The other one held a pistol pointed levelly at me, which I thought was ridiculous. How do you fire a gun in a can without killing everybody on it? But then I looked closer, and I saw that it wasn’t a pistol, but instead it was a zapper, and so, knowing that between the paddle and the zapper, I was probably better served going along with them.

 

They turned off the cage, opened it up, unshackled me from the chair, and we floated through the hatch and down a tube corridor, and after turning this way and that, going down one tube and then another like mice in a habitat, we found ourselves at a dead end, and on the tube end wall, there was a copper wire mesh cage and inside that, a stainless steel box about the size of a coffin, standing upright.

 

I realized they meant to put me in that coffin. It wasn’t as bad as it sounds—somehow in the absence of gravity, being inside small spaces isn’t nearly as cramped as it might be otherwise. They put me in there, and I went peacefully, then then closed it, and the bozo with the paddle held it on me until they closed the cage and cranked it up. The metal of the coffin channeled the magnetism around me; it was still out there, and I couldn’t work through it, but inside the coffin, I had full use of my powers. Right away, I drew in a bunch of air molecules and made myself some coffee.

 

After a while I saw a couple of other white-suited stiffs turn the corner at the other end of the tube and come my way. One of them was towing a good deal of equipment. It looked to me like they were going to put the Bleed on me right there at the end of the hallway. They floated down to me and without a word, set up the Bleed machine: black tubes here and there, a power cart beyond, wires and boxes, and then, around the front of the coffin, they put the edges of the Bleed Gate. It took a while, during which time I watched and committed everything I saw to memory—the 16 triplet again, I can do that, and then later watch it back, like watching a video. They got done and floated back down the tube, having never said a word, not even to each other.

 

Things were quiet for a good long while, more than an hour, and then I felt a couple of things happen in rapid succession. First, the magnetic lines coming off the copper cage around my coffin let go. But before I could respond, the Bleed machine started up and the Gate opened.

 

The coffin wasn’t even locked; it hadn’t needed to be. I pushed it open and started to float out of it right through the Gate—there was nowhere else to go. Once I got out of the coffin, I could see a little bit through it, through the light and smoke and vibration, and I could see that I was being bled out onto what looked like a dirty, icy parking lot. In another moment, I was through and standing unsteadily in the light gravity on Europa, immediately noticing the heavy load of magnetism, bright blue in its intensity, like a transparent blue wet blanket that weighed heavily on me and covered everything I could see. If the gravity had been any more, I don’t think I could have continued standing. I took a couple of steps, and it was like trying to walk through water.

 

‘Oh, this sucks,’ I remember thinking.

 

Then the static roar started. I guess the Gate held it off of me for a few seconds. It was like standing next to Niagara Falls, or a jet engine. I put my hands over my ears, but to no effect; the roar was inside my head, not outside of it, noise caused by eddy currents generated as the magnetic lines of force passed through my Chromosome 16 Trisomy brain.

 

I shook my head to try to clear it, and then I noticed figures moving toward me; figures wearing protective suits and air handlers. I didn’t need that, of course; I could easily convert the carbon dioxide straight to oxygen in my cells, the urine my kidneys produced back into clean water, and so forth. As they got closer, I saw that one of the figures wasn’t wearing a suit or a mask—a woman, middle-aged, a little heavy. They stopped a few yards from me, and then the woman reached out to touch my head.

 

I pulled away, but she had the strangest look on her face, and she stepped forward to reach my head. I allowed her to touch me, and when she did, I heard her voice in my head, masked by the roar but not made inaudible by it. “You’ve Bleed Gated to Camp Europa,” she said inside my head. “I’m Evelyn, I’m a 16 triplet like you. There are three others of us here.”

 

“How did you know about that?” I thought back to her.

 

“No time for that now,” she said. “Follow us, we’ve got to get inside quickly.” She drew her hand back, spun around, and stepped off, with the suits following her. I did to, with difficulty, through the magnetism. There was nowhere else to go.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Bob filled his beer glass from the open keg; by this time, it was mostly warm and mostly empty, but Bob didn’t mind. “Love this beer,” he said.

 

“Yeah. It’s okay,” Andre said, draining his own cup. “But I’ve had enough for one night.”

 

Bob came back to his lawn chair. The two of them were sitting outside on the back patio. “No, it’s great stuff,” he said.

 

“Okay, so you were saying about time travel,” Andre said.

 

“Yeah. See, you guys, you’re thinking about it the wrong way,” he said. “There’s not that much I can tell you, but I can tell you that when the breakthrough comes, you’ll be amazed as how simple and ordinary the key elements are.”

 

“Key elements,” Andre repeated. Andre hadn’t quite decided if this guy’s story was legitimate or not—but whatever the case, he sure talked a good talk. And there was something else about him, something odd about the cadence of his speech and the way he walked and moved; his mannerisms were not quite right, as if he’d learned them only as an adult. He kept tugging at his collar and his belt the way a dog who never wears a collar might tug at one.

 

“Yeah. Look at it this way,” Bob said. “In the modern era, say since about 1800, we’ve managed to invent a large number of convenience items and labor-saving things, but almost none of them are really original thinking. Almost everything we’ve thought of had some precedent in nature for us to follow.”

 

“Precedent?” Andre said.

 

“Yeah. Take fire. Mankind tamed fire thousands of years ago, and that single accomplishment led to everything else, right? Fire made it possible to colonize harsh locales, kept animals away at night, and even made it possible to sterilize and soften meat before eating. That helped conquer disease. But—” Bob emphasized the word— “but, man didn’t really invent or discover fire. Fire already was in the environment in the form of forest fires started by lightning. All man had to do was figure out how to control it.”

 

“Well, it’s not always easy to control fire, is it?”

 

“Oh, no, not at all,” Bob said. “It’s quite an accomplishment. All I’m saying is that it’s not an original concept. Man just improved on what he saw in nature. The thing is to imagine how long it might have taken man to discover fire if natural fires had never existed.”

“What about the automobile?” Andre asked.

 

“Hmm.” Bob took another drink from his beer. “Well, let’s see. What’s the essential element of a car? I guess it would be the internal combustion engine, right?”

 

“I guess,” Andre said.

 

“And what’s the essential element of the internal combustion engine? Isn’t it the idea of a gas expanding against a piston?”

 

“Sure,” Andre said.

 

“The piston-in-a-cylinder arrangement grew from steam engines, where the phenomena of water boiling to steam and expanding as it does so was put to mechanical work,” Bob said. “The water-to-steam thing already existed in nature and was noticed as soon as water started to be boiled over fires. So again, we see the effects of man’s work with fire and the effect that heat from fires has on things.”

 

“How about the airplane?” Andre said.

 

“Bird and bats fly,” Bob returned. “And so do insects and things like maple seeds. In fact, I understand that Sikorsky got his idea for a helicopter from watching maple tree seeds spin in the air.”

 

Andre shrugged. “Yeah, well, I see your point.”

 

“One thing I can think of that doesn’t have an obvious parallel in nature is the wheel and axle,” Bob said. “The Egyptians didn’t have it when they built the pyramids, although they did use platforms atop tree trunks of roll things on. The tree trunks weren’t attached, though, and so they kept having to move the back trunk up to the front again.”

 

“Really?” Andre said. “It doesn’t seem like much of a mental leap from a rolling tree trunk to a wheel and axle.”

 

“No, not to us,” Bob said. “But that’s because we’ve lived our lives with wheel-and-axle arrangements all around us all the time. What if you had never seen one? Then it’s not so easy to imagine.”

 

“Yeah, I guess,” Andre said. “You want another beer?”

 

“Please,” Bob said. Andre got up and first went to the keg, but he could get only a half-cup out of it. He drained that himself, and then said, “I’ll get you a fresh one from inside.”

 

“Okay,” Bob said.

 

Andre’s wife, Rebecca, was coming out of the door as Andre went in, and she came and sat in the seat that Andre had occupied. “How you doing?” she asked. “Is Andre keeping you entertained?”

 

“Oh, sure, he’s great,” Bob replied

 

“Where are you from?” Rebecca asked. “Your English is great, but I can hear just a little accent.”

 

“Sweden,” Bob said. It was his cover story—the only trouble with it was the possibility that he would encounter someone who might respond to this lie by speaking to him in Swedish. He hadn’t had the tape for that language, and so he would not be able to respond, but he had a lie for that too. Rebecca, of course, was not Swedish and did not know Swedish and, in fact, had never been to Sweden.

 

“Oh, how interesting,” she said. “What part of Sweden?”

“Stockholm,” Bob replied. “A little town a ways to the south, actually.”

 

“My roommate in college was from Sweden,” she said. “Exchange student, lovely girl, and smart too. Spoke three or four languages.” Rebecca laughed. “I’m lucky if I can manage with English.”

 

Bob smiled. “You seem to be doing okay.”

 

Andre was back on the porch now, with two cold bottles of Budweiser; he handed one of them to Bob. “Honey, you’re in my seat,” he said to Rebecca.

 

“Oh, shoo,” she said. Andre pulled up another lawn chair and sat down heavily. “So, what are you boys talking about?”

“We’re talking about guy stuff,” Andre said, and he took a drink of his beer.

 

“Actually, we were talking about inventions,” Bob said, peering carefully at Rebecca, gauging her reaction.

 

“Inventions? Like what?” she said.

 

“Oh, like the airplane, and how we never would have invented it if not for the example of birds and bats and stuff,” Andre said.

 

“It’s not that you never would have invented it,” Bob corrected him. “It’s just that it would have taken a lot longer.”

 

“How much longer?” Rebecca asked. She was suddenly interested—a little too suddenly, Bob thought.

 

“Who knows?” he said. “The concept of the airfoil is surprisingly simple, but without an example, it might have taken a long time for someone to just happen on it and to see what it means, how it works.”

 

“So, what you’re saying is that animals have had so much time to evolve things like eyes and wings and whatnot, that if they haven’t evolved it, then it probably can’t be done,” Andre said, slurring a little. His bottle was already half empty, and he had had many cups of beer from the keg.

 

“Well, not necessarily, but yes, most things that can physically be done, an animal somewhere or other has evolved it for protection,” Bob said.

 

“That kind of puts your time travel theory to bed then, doesn’t it?” Andre said. “No animal ever evolved time travel.”

 

“Well, are you sure about that?” Bob said, smiling. “Maybe no animal time-travels to here, only away from here. After all, this time is not all that friendly to your average animal.”

 

Rebecca was looking at him strangely. “Time travel? What?”

 

“Bob here is a time traveler,” Andre smirked. “Or at least he says he might be.”

 

“We all are, aren’t we?” Bob said. “One second per second into the future.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

 

Paul Sheraton lifted his leg up carefully up and over the single strand of razor wire that was suspended on the tops of stakes about eight inches high, stepped over it, and then brought the trailing leg up and over. Like most good EVA guys, Paul was very careful of the wire. That’s how you got to be an old EVA guy, as the joke goes, but Paul had had a more personal lesson in suit punctures.

 

He’d had a very small suit puncture on the Moon during his internship—it happened as was almost back in the airlock. He wasn’t watching where he was going and brushed up against some old equipment that had been left from a mission back in the 2060s. When the puncture occurred, several unusual things happened in rapid succession. First, the air in his suit started moving, squirting out of the tiny hole in his lower left leg. Almost instantly, the air pump on his backpack came on because it detected the lowered suit pressure. Then an icy cold, like steel fingers, started crawling up and down his leg. It was only two steps into the airlock, and then a matter of seconds for the door to close and the air to pump in, but still he had a very severe cold burn on his lower leg from knee to ankle that took forever to heal, and the scarred skin there was not pigmented—and never would be, the doctors told him. They also told him that he was lucky to be alive, and he believed them. “Another second or two, and the blood in that limb would have started outgassing,” a stern-faced doctor had told him. “When that happens, the bubbles move through the bloodstream, and then you’re really talking major damage to internal organs and to the brain.”

 

Paul had wanted to tell the doctor that she had a tautology there—or at least an error in logic—as the brain was itself an internal organ, but he suppressed the urge, a facility he had recently tried to practice. His ex-wife had told him once that he would be more palatable, not only to her but to people generally, if he didn’t point out their flaws, and, mirabile dictu, she turned out to be right. It made him a better crewman, among other things. That had been ten years ago, and now that he was a fully certified scooper pilot, he intended to do two eight-year tours at Europa Station, take his pay, and retire to a ranch in Arizona for the rest of his life.

 

Paul’s headset radio crackled to life. “Ranger Four, Ranger base.”

 

He raised a hand and pressed the press-to-talk panel on his helmet. “Base, Four, go ahead.”

 

“Ah, Four, be advised, shelks on the surface at your two o-clock, four miles.”

 

“Roger,” Paul said. Europa had an entire ecosystem under the ice, with many different kinds of creatures feeding on each other. The bottom of the food chain consisted of mealmoss—a creature somewhere between an animal and a plant—that grew on the bottom of the thinner parts of the ice, obtaining energy from both Saturn and the sun through a photosynthesis-like process. On the top of the food chain were the shelks, creatures about the size of a sheep which could break holes in the thinner parts of the ice, where the mealmoss grew the thickest, and actually climb out onto the icy surface. Why they did this was not clear; from time to time, dead shelks would be found miles away from their holes, or at least what remained of them when the ice froze again. Shelks were vicious and dangerous, as had been found out the hard way by the first scooper crews, so now a watch was kept for them and when crewmen were out EVA, they received reports.

 

The wire was put up to keep the shelks out of the experiment and utility areas. This particular area, Utility K45, contained one of several radar reflectors that were used to guide scooper ships back for the lineup and recovery. No shelks were ever seen inside the wires, but—there had been some mysterious equipment damage and now the reflector was out of place. It was a few minutes after daybreak and he happened to be looking directly into the dim, faraway Sun as it started its rapid climb up and across the Europan sky. He was trudging along the ice when, out of the corner of his eye, he saw something—move.

 

In the two- or three-thousandths of a second that it took him to move his head around, a flurry of thoughts went through Paul’s head. ‘Nothing can be moving here on the surface.’ ‘The whole planet’s covered with radar, base would have told me—’ ‘If some son-of-a-bitch is playing with me—’ and then he saw it.

A shelk.

 

A small one, yes, but a shelk. Through the focus stimulated by near panic, he saw its three horns, its neck-sac, full of water, and the air spines on its back. It was about thirty yards away. The creature had been monitoring Paul and his movements through the sense of smell for a good while longer. It couldn’t actually smell Paul of course, but it could smell the plastics and solvents outgassing from his suit. Once Paul was over the wire, the shelk was able to watch it through its limited vision. Now that Paul wasn’t moving, it was harder for the shelk to see him, but now that Paul had been seen, it would be difficult for him to get away.

 

Paul’s hand flew up to his press-to-talk. “Base! Four here, shelk!”

 

There was a crackle back, and then a voice. “That’s negative, Ranger Four. No shelk on our screens.”

 

“I’m telling you, I’m staring at it!” he said. He flicked a switch next to the press-to-talk, activating his helmet camera. “Feed on!”

 

A moment, then the controller came on again; his voice was still calm. Controllers prided themselves on their ability to be calm in difficult situations, but of course it was easy to be calm inside the hab.

 

“We see it, Ranger Four. Advise remain stationary”

 

“Stationary, yeah, I got it.” Paul stared at the shelk, who stared back, its spines waving back and forth.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The first thing that Ted became conscious of on his long, lonely climb out of supersleep was the pinging of the ship’s ion engines. He lay in his assigned coffin, third one over in the seventh row from the front, unable to move or to open his eyes, but he was slowly becoming aware of the ping-ping-ping. He could feel—or he thought he could feel—the high-frequency pinging through the ship’s structure itself. Slowly, over the course of the next several hours, the pinging receded and was replaced by a hangover-like aching of his head and eyes.

 

The ship’s computer, which was constantly monitoring not only him but the other sixty-two crewmembers in supersleep, noted brainwave changes in Coffin 21, and fed the crewman in that coffin additional fluids and started stimulants to get him through the wake as quickly as possible. This was the wakeup protocol. The computer also noted that it was not time for wakeup, but as the crewman would wake whether the protocol was followed or not, the computer’s truth table decided to rouse him and make it possible for him to survive the wakeup.

 

The next thing that Ted became aware of—other than the pinging of the engines and the throbbing in his head that had reached a painful plateau—was a voice, a woman’s voice: “Ted. Ted. Ted.” At first it sounded soft and far away, little more than a whisper or an echo. As he continued to wake, it became stronger, more insistent, until finally, he was able to move his mouth and tongue just enough to croak “Yeah.”

 

The “Ted. Ted. Ted.” stopped, and the computer fed a cocktail of chemicals into Ted’s hookup. First, there was a powerful stimulant to get him over what was called the ‘hump’ in the wakeup. Then, carefully timed, came brain balancers that would suppress the amygdala and sensitize the hypothalamus. Finally, a dose of flavored oxygen into his mouthpiece and consciousness would come soon, and Crewman Ted Spencer could be informed of the problem.

 

Twenty minutes after the oxygen dose, Ted opened his eyes. “Uhh,” he groaned.

 

“Crewman Spencer, this is the Caretaker,” a female voice said softly in his ear.

 

“Uhh,” Spencer replied. And then, the question that they all ask: “Are—we—there—yet?”

 

The Caretaker, Model 5658, had made seven there-and-back runs between Earth and the fourth planet orbiting around the red dwarf star Proxima Centuri, 4.254 light years away, each one-way run taking about 21 years using the LightDrive provided by the T’Hlud, whose home the star was, and the answer to that question had always been ‘yes.’ Until now. “No. We’re not there yet.”

 

Spencer didn’t really have the mental faculty yet to understand anything beyond the ‘No,’ but he understood that, and his brainwaves reflected his puzzlement. The Caretaker brought the temperature in Spencer’s coffin up a little—to promote the metabolism of the sleep agents in his system—and fed him another blast of flavored oxygen.

 

Hours passed, and Spencer’s brain processed through several accelerated sleep-REM cycles in response to the oxygen and to the drugs that the Caretaker fed him, and then he was really coming out of it. “Uhh,” he said more strongly now. He could move his arms a bit now, and his legs, and over the course of the next hour, he became stronger and more ambulatory. He opened his eyes again. “Not there?”

 

“No, the ship has not arrived at its destination,” the Caretaker said. “Continue to rest and gain strength, and I will fully brief you after you’re out of the coffin.”

 

“Out—of—the—coffin,” Ted repeated. He was blinking his eyes now, moving his hands and feet, and the Caretaker knew that in another hour or two, he would be ready to start climbing out of the coffin. She activated the coffin exit chair, which whirred to life and moved on a track into a position where he would be able to get into it with as little struggle as possible. The chair would be a resting place until he could stand, and then Spencer would be on his own. “My—head—” he said.

 

“Pain medicine administered,” the Caretaker said, and as the chemical worked its way through the plastic tube, into his arm, and up to his brain, Ted felt the throbbing fall to a more tolerable level. “Thank you,” he breathed.

 

“You’re welcome. If you’re having trouble, you may ask for more pain medicine or for stimulants to help you,” the Caretaker said.

 

Ted slept in the coffin for a few more hours, then, over the course of about 12 hours, he managed to crawl out of the coffin and into the exit chair, where he sat for a while, and then he was able to stand and then slowly shuffle. The shuffle turned into a gingerly walk, and he practiced walking around the coffin room, holding on to the coffins as he did so. He ate solid food, drank liquids the natural way, and had his first post-sleep urination. The first post-sleep defecation, usually painful, would come tomorrow. In the meantime, Ted sat in the briefing area adjacent to the coffin room and manipulated touch-screens on a display.

 

His head was continuing to clear, and as it did so, he realized he was in big trouble—Mission Day 3544, almost halfway through the trip. Arrival at the destination was programmed for Mission Day 7754, 4210 days from today. Forty-two hundred days is 11 years—a long time to be the sole crewman awake on a long-flight sleep jump. Long enough to go crazy. “Caretaker, why am I awake?” he asked.

 

“It seems to be a malfunction,” she responded. “Your coffin’s kidney lines are showing high levels of creatine, and there some liver processing problems too,” she said. “Hard for me to be specific without disassembling and examining the equipment, but the reason you were awakened is because if you had not been, you would have died in the coffin.”

 

“The rest of the crew are unaffected?” he asked.

 

“Yes. There is a temperature problem in Coffin 3, and Coffin 50 has a leak, but both are stabilized. No danger to the crew.”

 

“Can we put me back to sleep?” he said.

 

“I’m not sure,” the Caretaker responded. “We do not have the facility for proper onset, but we might be able to put something together.”

 

“I want to call Earth,” he said. “How’s the antenna aim?”

 

“Functional,” she responded. “I’ll warm up the circuits and we can have you a channel open in about an hour,” she said.

 

“And what’s the wait delay right now?” he said.

 

“About two years,” the Caretaker responded.

 

“Oh, Christ,” Ted said. “Two years before they even hear me. Then two years to get a response.”

 

“The T’Hlud didn’t give us any fast communication method,” the Caretaker said. “It’s pretty clear that they have it, they just didn’t want us to have it, so they didn’t give it to us.”

 

“Okay, let’s work the back-to-sleep problem first. What do we have to do to reuse the coffin?”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Nick George carried the large box in both hands, sighting over the top of it, and made his way up the ramp and then through the automatic double doors, that whooshed open for him as he approached. He stepped through the door, turned left, and put the box down such that it was out of the patient flow line.

 

He looked around the room, quickly assessing the night’s patient load and trying to see what kinds of problems he’d be dealing with at the start of his shift. There was no way to know for sure, of course, and anybody could walk–or be carried–through the door at any moment. After all, this was an emergency room in a major city. But still, he liked to brace himself if he could for the night’s work. That’s why he always entered through the waiting room instead of through the staff entrance in the back.

 

The room was fairly small, but it had patient chairs around two sides of the perimeter and then in two back-to-back rows down the middle. Across the far end of the room was the admitting desk–Head Nurse Ravi Paentha was efficiently handling triage of arrivals and processing and would do so through most of Nick’s shift.

 

In the left corner, two young men were seated one next to the other. One held a bloody towel to the side of his head, his eyes closed; the other one’s lower lip was a swollen mess, and several poorly-placed stick bandages covered who knows what on his chin. Next to these two, a young girl and a tense-looking middle-aged woman sat staring. The young girl was thin, but heavily pregnant, and the woman, almost certainly her mother, sat clutching an embroidered handkerchief, a large crucifix around her neck.

 

On the other side, an older man with an uneven, straggly beard and impossibly-dense eyebrows sat with his arms crossed over his chest, apparently asleep. Next to him was an elderly woman, hands shaking with palsy, who was humming hymns that were being drowned out by the one-year-old child in the arms of the woman in the next seat who was at the exhaustion end of a long crying and screaming spell. Nick diagnosed the child instantly based on the way she pawed at her ear and the smear of pus on her neck; she almost certainly had an infection that had burst the eardrum.

 

In the middle rows, an older woman sat knitting, smiling to herself as she did so, her needles clacking softly and fed by a skein of yarn in a purse that was held on the lap of the girl sitting next to her, perhaps 12 years old. The girl was wearing jeans, but the right pants leg had been cut off at the thigh, and the girl’s right leg was gauze wrapped from knee to ankle. ‘Perhaps a burn,’ Nick thought to himself as he stepped past them and approached the admit desk.

 

The nurse, occupied with paperwork, looked up as he approached. “Oh, good evening, Dr. George,” she said, standing up.

 

Nick waved her down. “Hello. I’ve got a box full of food there, I want to distribute to patients tonight, okay?” The box contained some diet food that Nick’s wife had bought and then not eaten. It contained sealed individual meals that, Nick supposed, were low-calorie and healthy–the idea was to eat the prepared food as the alternative to regularly prepared meals, and weight loss would result. Nick knew that for many of the patients coming through his emergency room, the alternative to the diet food would be no food at all.

 

“Yes, of course, doctor,” Ravi said. Her voice was airy and light, and had the gentle cadence of the genteel and educated north of India. “This is a good thing to do for our patients.”

 

He stepped around the long counter and then behind it to join her, examining the patient list there on the desk. Ravi had entered the names and the complaint in order of seriousness, and then when each patient was seen, the resolution of each case was printed in neat letters. The other nurses kept the log on the computer as they went, but Ravi liked to do it longhand first, then enter it all in at the end of her shift–this made it possible for her to keep the written copy she had produced. “We had an appendicitis tonight,” Nick observed, his finger tracing down the list.

 

“Yes. Fifteen year old boy, Dr. Nelson handled it.” Ravi said.

 

“Anaphylactic shock too, I see”

 

“Yes, that was a forty-five year old woman who was stung by a bee. She had never been stung before. We started a line, gave fluids, and Dr. Pate administered 500 milliliters of adrenaline and patient responded positively. We observed for three hours and released.”

 

“What else is out there?” Nick asked.

 

“Oh, the usual non-emergencies,” Ravi said. “Two boys in a fight, they’re next when Dr. Nelson is free.

 

“Nelson is here?” Nick asked. “Where’s he at?”

 

“He’s in six with a fever case, five-year-old boy,” she said.

 

Nick was already moving toward the back, where the treatment rooms are. “How hot is he?”

 

“One-oh-four,” she said.

 

“Okay, thanks,” Nick replied as he pushed his way through the swinging double doors that separated the admissions areas from the trauma and treatment rooms.

 

Dr. George tapped on the door that was placarded “Treatment Room 6,” and then entered. Dr. Joy Nelson was there, standing over the table where, in a tub of ice covered in plastic, a young boy lay, unconscious. A frenzied woman, the boy’s mother, stood next to the doctor as she fed a needle into the boy’s arm. The doctor didn’t look up, but she noticed the door open and saw in her periphial vision that it was Nick George–she had been expecting him, as it was almost time for his shift, which overlapped hers, to begin.

 

“This is Dr. George, my colleague,” Nelson said. “Dr. George, this is Mrs. Rogers.”

 

The woman looked up, and Nick could tell that she had been crying–as a matter of fact, she was still crying. “Doctor, please help my boy.”

 

“All right, Ma’am, I know Dr. Nelson is doing everything she can. Would you step back a moment, please?” The woman complied, and Nick moved in beside Joy. “What’s going on here?” he asked her.

 

“Five-year-old male, no allergies, fell sick after dinner. Mother said she put him to bed and he slept for an hour and then woke up crying and hot. She gave him a baby aspirin, 10 mg, and tried to get him to go back to sleep, but he worsened. Vomited twice, then grogged out. He was unconscious on arrival, 103 on admission and 104.2 now, dehydrated. I’ve started a line–”

 

Nick looked at the woman. “What did he have for dinner?” he asked.

 

“Chicken and rice, his favorite,” the woman said. She spoke surprisingly clearly, seeing that the tears were streaming down her face as she said it.

 

Nick touched Joy on the arm. “I’m going to get her out of here, okay?” he said softly. Joy nodded, her attention on the boy’s arm as she attached a line to the needle and started the flow of Ringer’s solution. She swung around and grabbed a syringe from the tray beside her, and then pushed its contents into the line.

 

“Would you come with me, Mrs. Rogers?” Nick asked as he opened the door and held it open. The woman looked over at the other doctor as she continued to work on the child.

 

“Will he be all right?” she asked.

 

“Yes,” Dr. Nelson said. “We’re treating with antihistamines to stabilize, then when he cools off a bit, he’ll wake up,” she said. “Go ahead and go with Dr. George, and you can come back when he’s awake, okay?” She was assessing the boy’s temperature again. “His temp’s down to 102 now, he’ll be back with us in a few minutes, I think.”

 

“Oh, thank God,” the woman said as she clutched a wet napkin to her face and followed Nick out of the room

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

It says “We come to share information with you, and to exchange items of cultural significance,” the girl said.

 

“Items of cultural significance,” Tim repeated. ”What might those be?”

 

The girl threw her head back and closed her eyes. ”From the point of view of the Impai, it seems to be water.”

 

“Water?”

 

“Yes, certain volumes of water. The volume is very important to them,” she said, head still back. ”A quart of water has a different cultural significance to them than a gallon, for instance.”

 

“Hmm,” Tim said.

 

“There’s something else coming through now,” she said. She was silent for a while, and then she started to hum very softly. After a few moments, the humming stopped abruptly. ”There are three crew members,” she said.

 

“Three? Three inch-long creatures in a ship 200 miles long?”

 

“That’s right,” the girl said. ”Only three of them, but there is another, a different being altogether.” Again, there was silence, then she hummed. “One of their young.”

 

“Young? Why bring a juvenile on an invasion mission?”

 

At this, the girl brought her head forward, opened her eyes, and looked at him. “It’s not an invasion, Mr. Brinkley.”

 

“Ah.  Well then, I’m glad to hear that.”

 

“You don’t seem to be taking this very seriously,” she said.

 

“Oh, not at all,” Tim responded. “I take the aliens and their ship and their intentions very seriously. It’s you who I don’t take seriously.” His comment was delivered so matter-of-factly that she wasn’t sure she understood him at first.

 

Then she did. ”Yes, of course,” she said as she pulled the electrodes off her wrists and head. She got up. “The session is over, Mr. Brinkley.”

 

“Right,” he said. He kept his place in his chair as the girl put the electrodes and their wires carefully on the chair that she had been occupying but which was now empty.

 

“Goodbye,” the girl said and she stepped to the door, opened it, and walked through it, leaving it open. Jerry was caught somewhat unawares—he jumped up and walked around his desk to appear in the open doorway.

 

“What the hell?” Jerry said to Tim. “Where is she going?”

 

“She said the session was over.”

 

“Dammit, Tim, what did you say to her? She’s the highest rated sensitive we’ve got!”

 

“She’s either fooling herself or she’s trying to fool me. She’s not in communication with the aliens.”

 

“Dammit, Tim!” he repeated as he stepped quickly out of the room after her. Outside in the hallway, he broke into a run. ”Shelly! Wait a minute!” Jerry turned a corner here and there and then pressed against a door, and then he was in bright sunshine. He could see Shelly’s form walking across the courtyard. “Shelly, wait!” he called.

 

Shelly turned around. “Jerry?”

 

“Yeah, wait a minute,” he said, and then he had caught up to her. The wind was blowing Shelly’s hair across her face; Jerry’s tie had been blown up over his shoulder. “Tim’s an idiot, don’t let him bother you.”

 

“He doesn’t bother me,” she said, tucking her hair on that side behind her ear. “The aliens do, though.”

 

“What were you able to see?”

 

“There’s only three of them, Jerry,” she said. “Three like the one we saw on sonar, and then a fourth that is unlike the other. The fourth one is one of their young, a baby.”

 

“A baby?” Jerry said. It was the last thing he had expected her to say.

 

“Well, a toddler, really,” she said. “She’s nearly a hundred years old.”

 

“A hundred years is a toddler?”

 

“Jerry, the youngest of the three little adults is over eight hundred years old,” she said.

 

“Really?”

 

“Yes, and they don’t really want anything from us except a cultural exchange. Some of their culture for some of ours, see?”

 

“Sure, I see,” he said, trying to get his head around the idea of these creatures being on the order of 800 years old. “What are they, exactly?”

 

“They’re fish; they breathe water, they have fins, the whole bit. They have a couple of other things too,” she said. “They communicate in radio, but it’s very long wave. Of course, it’d have to be to work underwater.”

 

“Radio? What’s the frequency?”

 

She closed her eyes again, and then opened them. “I can’t get that on my own, Jerry. I need the machine.”

 

“Come on back, we’ll get you hooked up again,” he said. They started walking back toward the door that Jerry had pushed his way through. “I’m going to get rid of Tim, and then you and I will go back in there and get you hooked up again and we’ll see if we can make contact with those little monsters.”

 

“They’re not monsters,” Shelly said quickly. “They’re very kind. I can feel them letting me work my way towards them, helping me.”

 

“Well, that’s your department,” Jerry held the door open for the young woman. “After you,”

 

“Thank you, Jerry.” she responded.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Jason dug through his backpack until he found the small blue plug. Then he tugged his shirttail out and inserted the plug into a receptacle in his left hipbone. He pushed the plug all the way in, until the top of it was flush with his skin, and then he checked the display that popped up in his field of vision, comfortably to the side of his central vision.

 

Then he scooped up his bag. “Hey, wait for me,” he called after his friends, who had already boarded the bus. He pushed through the doors and worked his way down the narrow aisle toward the stairs to the roof level, trying to ignore the bus’ safety message, which came into his field of vision automatically: black words on a yellow background that appeared a few at a time and were sounded in his ear. It was, as were all safety messages, on the channel that he could dim but not turn off.

 

He climbed up the stairs and collapsed into the seat in front of Cliff and Pongo, who were passing a bag of potato sticks back and forth. Already, Alex and Sandy were beeping him to play Zigzug, the new music role-play game, but he didn’t like Alex, so he blinked to a clear frame and turned around.

 

“Hey, gimme me some!” Jason said.

 

“No!” Pongo said in horror as he looked over at Cliff, who was holding the bag.

 

“You’ve had enough, Pongo!” Jason said as he reached over for the bag.

 

Cliff let him have it. “You can have the rest of it,” Cliff said, and then to Pongo, “There was only a couple of sticks left.”

 

Jason tensed the left side of his face for a moment, bringing up the school’s student grace frame in his display. He used his tongue on the roof of his mouth to scroll down, then stopped and highlighted the line that said Cliff Crawford, 5th Grade. Again using his tongue, he moved the Grace+ counter to five and blinked it home.

 

“Hey!” Cliff said as he heard the tone in his own ear. “Somebody just graced me!” He went to that frame in his own display. “Thanks, Jace!” he said when he saw that the grace had come from Jason.

 

“Thanks for the sticks,” Jason responded.

 

“Shut up, Pongo,” Cliff said as he grabbed his bags and moved up one seat to join Jason. “You wanna play Blue Candle?” he asked.

 

“Sure,” Jason responded. “I’ll join you, okay?”

 

“Okay,” Cliff said. He started going through the routine of blinking up the Blue Candle game frame and created a game. In another moment, his display blinked green, a marker tone sounded in his ear, and text in his visual field informed him that Jason Peavey wanted to join the game. Cliff used his tongue to click yes, and the image that Jason had chosen to represent himself strolled out onto the game field. Cliff moved a muscle in the side of his face, and the image in his visual display brightened, became less transparent, and moved so that it was in his central vision. He leaned back against the bus seat and exhaled slowly and he and Jason began participating in the Blue Candle game.

 

Then a girl was standing in the aisle next to Cliff. “What are you guys playing?” she asked.

 

Both boys ignored her, then both boys saw the girl’s knock flash in their respective visual fields, and heard her knock tone in their ears. Cliff looked up, annoyed. “Get lost, honey. We’re busy.”

 

“You’re not supposed to be playing Blue Candle on the bus,” the girl said.

 

“It’s not Blue Candle,” Jason lied as he continued to gaze into the game, moving his player around with twitches of his tongue, eyelids, and occasionally, a finger or two. “We’re studying for the math test today.”

 

“Ha!” the girl snorted. “Yeah, right.” She moved on toward the back of the bus.

 

The bus arrived and their school day began.  The kids started working their way towards the first period classroom.  As the bell rang, Mr. Simmons closed the classroom door and flicked a nearby switch. There was an audible awww in the room as the implant block activated and 21 implants in 14 students deactivated and disconnected.

 

“Happy Wednesday, ladies and gentlemen, boys and girls. Today we’ll continue our discussion from yesterday about the decade of the 40s. Hector, Phillip, you guys going to be okay back there?” He shot a look at some boys who were seated all together all the way in the back, and they nodded back. “Okay, I’m going to leave you there, but cooperate with me, and then you can stay there, you understand.” They seemed to, so he turned his attention to the front part of the room, where a girl had her hand up.

 

“Shelly,” the teacher said.

 

“Ah, Mr. Simmons, I need to go on, my mom wanted me to—”

 

Simmons cut her off. “Shelly, the machine’s on. None of the implants will work. Now, class, let’s transition to the front,” he said as he activated the large screen at the front of the room. At the same time, screens embedded in the students’ desktops flickered on; they showed the same image as the screen at the front.

 

The screen showed a man’s head and shoulders—an older man, light-brown skin, African features. “Okay, who’s this?” A couple of hands went up—Simmons went to a student who didn’t have his hand up. “Boris? Who is it?”

 

Ne zhnayu,” the boy said.

 

Mr. Simmons didn’t need his implant to translate this—Boris had been in his class all year, often using snippets of Russian in his responses. “Pahzaloosa, v Angliesky,” he responded smoothly.

 

“I said, I don’t know.”

 

“You were here yesterday, right?”

 

“Yah. Is it Martin Luther King?”

 

“Not even close,” Mr. Simmons replied cheerfully. “Helen.”

 

A girl at the back looked up from her desktop screen. “Barack Obama?”

 

“Guys, we talked about this yesterday. Here’s a hint, he invented the nerve-wire interface.”

 

Still there were hands up; they were joined by a few more. “Okay, Crystal, tell them who it is.”

 

“God, it’s Robert Staffords,” she said plaintively.

 

All the hands went down. “That’s right. Dr. Staffords here made it possible for those little ports we all have on one hipbone or the other to interface directly with our brains. Now, who’s this person?” Another face flashed on the screen. This time, it was a woman; she wore a white lab coat and appeared to be standing on the street outside a large building. “Well?”

 

Crystal, the student who had provided the correct answer before, had her hand up, but that was the only one. “This is where we stopped yesterday, Mr. Simmons,” she said.

 

“Oh, right. Okay, this is Elizabeth Barker-Bolling, she wrote the first implant net operating system.” he said. “She was born in 1997 and died in 2041, at the age of 43,” he said.

 

“Why’d she die so young?” a boy up front asked.

 

“Cancer,” he said.  “They didn’t get that cured until 2050. Before her death, she netted together the first 28 people to have brain implants installed. In 2047, the technology was sold to the Crichion Corporation, and they make about 70 percent of all implants sold and installed today.”

 

“What was it like before implants?” someone asked.

 

“Well, people carried little computers with them that could make calls and on which they could send and receive messages. I’m sure you have grandparents that use the word text for a short message sent directly from one person to another?”

 

Several students were nodding in agreement. “My dad said he used to have a gmail account,” a black student said from the middle of the room; this comment netted a number of guffaws from the room.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“There are words for people like you!” Helen screamed as she threw the suitcases into the back of the car and slammed it closed. “Asshole’s one of them!” The profanity would to a passerby have seemed strange coming out of the mouth of such a well-manicured woman as Helen, but of course, Gary had heard that many times before–that and much worse.

 

“You locked your keys in there just now,” he responded. “I’ve got a spare, but–”

 

“Shut the hell up!” she cut him off. Then she put her hands in her face and started bawling.

 

Gary always hated to see a woman cry. “Oh, for crying out loud,” he said. “Here’s the damn keys.” He flipped his ring of keys at her and turned to go back into the house. When Helen heard the door slam and knew he was out of sight, she picked his keys up from the floor. Her hand trailed a thread of snot and tears, and she wiped it on her tailored slacks as she fumbled with the ring, looking for the key to her trunk. She found it and unlocked the trunk. Her purse was inside it, its mouth yawned open and her own keys visible inside it like braces on a teenager’s teeth. She snatched it up, dropped Gary’s keys on the garage floor, and got into her car.

 

“Honey!” Gary called from the door that led into the house. “Don’t start the car–” He continued his thought with the words “–with the door closed,” but they were drowned out by the noise of the engine starting up and then whining oil-lessly to a fever pitch as she unnecessarily gunned the engine. She knew what he was trying to say, and flipped him the bird through the windshield. Gary answered this gesture with one of his own: he pressed the button to open the garage door and then went back inside the house.

 

Helen piloted the car out of the garage and stopped it in the short, steeply sloped driveway that gave out onto the cul-de-sac. She moved a lever in the car from P past R and D and into V, and the car began to rise. It rose right off the pad and continued up for about fifty feet, high enough for her to see Mrs. Williamson-from-across-the-street’s pool, and the naked Mrs. Williamson herself lying on her back on a chaise lounge beside the pool with a washcloth over her face.

 

Helen was also high enough also for her to see her own backyard, in which her two sons, Timmy, 12, and Randolph, 14, messing with something in the far corner of the long, rectangular, fenced-in yard. She gently moved the stick controller and the car inched forward, over the house, coming to rest right over where the boys were crouched. She honked the horn and they looked up. “Boys, what are you doing?” she screamed through her open window. The look on their faces told her that they didn’t hear her, and so she let the car drift downward a little. “I said, what are you doing?”

 

“Nothin’,” the older boy said. It was his ubiquitous answer.

 

“Well, stop it. You two want anything from the store.”

 

“Nope.”

 

Helen fingered the throttle and the car rose sharply and then accelerated forward at a brisk rate. She let it rise up to about two thousand feet, the maximum urban-flight height, and scanned the horizon for police cars. Seeing none, she let it go to 2200, where the air would be better, and throttled up to 155 knots. She flipped on the autodrive and pulled a shade down over the windshield to block out the midday sun, which she believed would give her lines on her face.

 

She flipped a toggle and a screen appeared on the shade, displaying the celebrity news of the day. It appeared the Jacky Swangle, one of the new singing sensations, had been picked up on an illegal stock trade, and that new movie with Krenda V. Plavish would be in theaters this weekend. Helen idly moved from one article to the next, until her reverie was interrupted by the brash, piercing sound of a police siren—disturbingly close.

 

Helen flipped the screen off, yanked it up, and saw in the backup display that one of Philadelphia’s finest was on her tail. She moved controls to fog up the license plate holder, although she was sure it was too late for that, and started navigating the car gently to the ground. The cruiser matched her move for move. After some moments, Helen’s car landed and the officer landed directly behind her. She watched him fiddle around in his car for a few moments and then get out and start walking toward her window. She just had it rolled all the way down when he appeared.

 

“License and registration, please,” he said. She handed him the documents, which she kept handy in a little pocket on the dash designed and placed there by the car manufacturer for precisely that purpose. The officer looked at them. “Can you please turn off your vehicle, Ma’am,” he said, and Helen complied. “Thank you. I’ll be right back.”

 

The officer took her papers back to his cruiser and from what she could tell, was entering them into his own computer, matching them against the database. Helen was glad–he would discover who her husband was and that would grease the wheels sufficiently for her to wiggle out of this by apologizing and batting her eyes. And Helen was prepared to do more than that if need be to avoid the ticket which would be her fourth one this month.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The young man behind the desk rose when the older, trim, distinguished-looking woman opened the door. “Yes, come in, please,” he said, stepping around the desk and extending his hand. She had an innate confidence, yet she was uncertain, and held the doorknob in one hand as she shook his with the other. “It’s a pleasure to meet you, Dr. Sullivan.”

 

“Doctor?” the woman repeated.

 

“Yes, well,” the man said, releasing her hand. “Your JD is the equivalent of a PhD, so I thought….” He smiled at her. “I thought it was wrong to simply call you ‘Miss,’” he finished sheepishly.

 

She noticed that he was young enough to pull this off the boyish act. “And you are…?”

 

“My name is Ramsey. Philip Ramsey, please just call me Phil.” He moved to a position in front of a large mahogany desk. “Won’t you sit down?” he said, gesturing to one of the generous leather-covered chairs there.

 

“Yes.” She moved to the indicated chair and sat down, noticing how comfortable it was. Phil sat down in the other one. Sullivan noticed the simple but elegant nameplate on the desk: ‘P. Ramsey, MD.’ “You’re a medical doctor,” she said.

 

“Yes, Ma’am,” he responded. “UT Austin and then Johns Hopkins.”

 

“You look pretty young to have such a nice office, doctor,” she said.

 

“Good genes,” he said, matching her smile and charm. “I’m 42 years old, until next month,” he said.

 

“I see,” she said, looking around the office. “What kind of a doctor are you exactly?” she asked. “If I were to guess, I would peg you as an ear, nose, and throat man. An—otolaryngologist, isn’t it?”

 

He paused, holding the smile. “Ah, no, Ma’am. I’m a psychiatrist.”

 

Her wary smile disappeared and her face set in a cold gaze. “Ah,” she said, her mouth tightening. “Of course. A psychiatrist.”

 

“Ma’am, I’m not here to—“

 

She cut him off. “I told the boys in Washington everything that I knew and I’m certainly not going to talk to any psychiatrist,” she said sharply.

 

“But, Dr. Sullivan, if you just let me—“

 

She stood up and moved toward the door. “No.”

 

Ramsey stood up and took a step after her. “We’ve got Raviletti,” he said quickly. “He talked to us.”

 

That stopped Sullivan, and she looked at Ramsey warily. “Hank talked to you?”

 

“Yes, ma’am,” Ramsey responded, trying to say it as gently as possible. “I conducted a full debriefing, and I think he was pretty honest with us.”

 

“Raviletti’s crazy. Whatever he told you is self-delusional crap,” she said.

 

“I don’t think so, Ma’am,” Ramsey said, maintaining a friendly affect. “How about we sit down and talk about it for a while?” He took a step back toward the chairs and gestured for her to do the same. She slowly moved back to the chair and sat down again, a sour look on her face. Ramsey sat down as well. “I’d like to propose, if I may, that I simply tell you what he told us, and then you can tell me what part of it is—” Ramsey smiled again— “you know, crap, and what part might not be, okay?”

 

“It’s all crap,” she said, crossing her arms over her chest.

 

“Okay, he told us some things about how the T’hlud perceive the world around them,” Ramsey said. “About how some of their perceptions are unusual.”

 

“Yeah? How’s that?”

 

“Well, they don’t seem to use vision at all.”

 

“Everybody knows that,” Sullivan said, still frowning. “So what?”

 

“And he said something about how they perceive the flow of time.”

 

Sullivan stood up. “This meeting is over,” she said, turning on her heel. She went to the door, opened it, and stepped through without a look back or a word.

 

Ramsey was only mildly surprised; he sat still, watched her leave, and then stared at the back of the door for a few seconds. Then he got up, walked around his desk, and sat down.

 

Opening the top drawer on the left side, he clicked a switch mounted there, turning off the recording devices in the room. Then he slid his keyboard over, sliding his thumb over the print sensor to turn the monitor on. An ordinary email program appeared—it was already up and running on the computer, and an email, visible there, was composed but hadn’t been sent:

 

From: ramseyh@caltech.org.

To: fletcherf@send.com

Subject: Discussion with Subject K71

 

Frank—Just as I suspected, she wouldn’t talk to me. You’ll

need to call her yourself, and I advise dispensing with the

cloak and dagger. Thanks…Phil.

 

Phil read over the email again and just at the moment he pressed send, there was a knock at his door. He got up and opened it.

 

“Dr. Sullivan,” Phil said, genuinely surprised.

 

“Yeah. Let’s talk.” Phil stepped aside and she strode past him, then she spun around. “But I won’t talk here. No telling what you’ve got running in here,” she said.

 

“That’s fine,” Phil said. “We can go wherever you like.”

 

“Come with me,” she said, stepping out of the door. Phil followed her, past his assistant, down the hall, past the front desk, through the ornate glass doors, and then they were on the street. She hadn’t said a word during their exit—hadn’t even turned to see if he was keeping up with her—but then she stopped suddenly and whirled around. “You know Bailey’s on Seventeenth Street?”

 

“Bailey’s? Yeah, I know it.” Bailey’s was an upscale bar south of College Town, it was a place where lawyers from the nearby law firms hung out.

 

Sullivan looked at her watch. “Go back to your office and meet me at Bailey’s at 4:45. Not a minute sooner or later, you understand? You can wait on the sidewalk outside the door.”

 

Ramsey smiled; he was willing to go through a lot to talk to Anita Sullivan. “Four forty-five on the dot.”

 

Sullivan turned back around and stepped off; as Ramsey watched, she was soon lost in the crowd on the street.

 

Anita Sullivan seemed to be in a much better mood as she came down the sidewalk and saw Phil Ramsey waiting there for her, as directed, at 4:45 sharp.

 

“Well, hello there, Doctor,” she said. This time she was smiling, and she put her hand out. Phil took it, and noticed that she held on to it for a while as they stood there. “You’re right on time.”

 

“Yes, Ma’am. Good home training,” Phil smiled back.

 

Sullivan held the door for him. “After you,” she said, and he stepped through into the darkness. Bailey’s was an old Boston lawyer’s hangout—a long dark-wood bar along one wall, tall booths on the other. Sullivan gestured to the bar, and Phil walked along the few people seated there to the deserted far end. She sat down, and then he did.

 

“What can I get you, Ma’am?” Phil asked.

 

“Oh, no,” Sullivan said. “I’m getting for you.” The bartender was floating nearby, having seen them enter. “Two Scotch and sodas, Bobby,” she said to him and he moved off. “You look like a Scotch man to me,” she said. “And if you’re not, you should be.”

 

“Oh, I’m very happy with Scotch, Ma’am,” he said.

 

“You can call me Anita. And I’m sorry I was short with you in your office, but I don’t like the agency putting me in a room with a shrink without telling me, you understand that, don’t you?” Her hand had snaked its way up to touch his; he didn’t pull away.

 

“Sure I do,” he said. “No trouble.”

 

“Okay, then.” She looked around. “I’m going to tell you what’s in my report, I know you need me to do that, and then I’m going to tell you some other things, but not here.”

 

“That’s fine, Anita. Whatever you’re comfortable with,” he said.

 

“Okay.” The bartender had put down the drinks, and Anita picked hers up and took a sip. “Now, the T’hlud. We got to the site and reviewed the preliminary information that the scooper boys had collected—radar returns and a couple of fuzzy images. That’s all they could get without, you know, stopping.”

 

“Yeah,” Phil said. He was evaluating her affect; his job was to determine if she seemed to be telling the truth. So far, she was spot-on.

 

“Drink your drink,” she said. Phil picked it up and took a little sip—it was stronger than he was used to, and he took another, very small sip. “It’s good.”

 

Anita smiled. “Don’t worry. I won’t make you drink all of it.”

 

He smiled back and was silent. The trick, as Phil well knew, in doing these repeat-story assessments, was not to press the subject, but just let the story be told. It required patience and a certain degree of finesse. Phil was good at it, but he also knew that Anita Sullivan could be a difficult subject if she decided she wanted to be. So far, Phil thought, she’s decided to be cooperative.

 

“So we went out on their repair tender so we could hover and take a closer look. Ted, Candy, and me.”

 

“That’s Ted Frankel and Candace Williamson,” he said.

 

“Yeah.” Anita responded. Phil had carefully read the crew files for all three of the agency personnel who had gone out to investigate Titan Station’s discovery. “Anyway,” she continued, “we got there and found a spherical craft with a little basket underneath, it looked like an old hot-air balloon, but of course much larger. The globe was eight thousand feet across, and the basket was a little flat cube a hundred feet square and seventy feet tall. It was suspended from the globe by cables such that it hung 40 feet below the globe, and a bunch of non-suspension cables and tubes ran from it to the globe, maybe thirty or forty of them, all different sizes and configurations.”

 

Phil was listening to her, not only mentally comparing what she was saying to the report that he had carefully committed to memory, but also assessing her behavior in describing it: her mannerism, her gestures, her expressions. So far, nothing was evident which suggested that she might not be telling the truth. He nodded as she spoke but did not speak himself.

 

“We halted about two miles away from it, and did some scanning, but we couldn’t see through the hull. No magnetism was coming out of it, and we didn’t see anything immediately obvious that was keeping the thing afloat. The gravity gradient told us that the globe definitely wasn’t hollow, but exactly what was in there, well, we couldn’t tell from outside,” Anita continued.

 

“So you found a way to get in,” Phil said.

 

“That’s right. Drink some more of your drink,” Anita said, bringing her own glass to her lips. Phil did as she asked, and when he sat his drink down beside hers, he noticed that hers was nearly empty. “We couldn’t do much else from so far away, so we inched up to it and stopped about 50 feet away,” she said. “The thing was gigantic, no doubt about that. From that close, we could see some seams and lines in the globe, and we started moving around it looking for something that looked like a door.”

 

Phil turned when the bartender put two more glasses down in front of them—both filled with light brown and ice. Anita smiled and nodded at him and paused until the bartender stepped away. “Anita, I don’t think I can keep up with you,” Phil said.

 

“Oh, don’t worry about it,” she responded, taking a pull from her fresh drink. “I know you’re working. It won’t bother you if I have another couple of these, right? It won’t damage your delicate male ego?” She held the glass up to her face and narrowed her eyes as she appraised him from over the top of it.

 

“No, not at all,” Phil said. “Please go ahead.”

 

Anita put her glass back down. “Okay, so we found the door. It was a square indent about fifteen feet on each side, and very slightly intended into the curve of the globe. It looked like a door—it had a couple of bars on it that might be handles, and there was a small shelf that extended a couple of feet out from the bottom of the indent. We thought maybe something perched itself on that shelf and then operated the door, it seemed to make sense.”

 

Against his better judgment—maybe it was the booze—Phil made an attempt to inject a little gentle nudge toward her crewmates. “Ted was the one that opened it?”

 

Sullivan knew exactly what he was doing and her expression said so. “Yes. Stop trying to lead me.”

 

Phil smiled and raised his hands. “Just doing my job, Ma’am.” Anita laughed and picked her drink up again. For the first time—again, maybe it was the booze—Phil noticed that she was quite handsome, in the right light, and found himself thinking that she must have been very attractive as a young woman.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“Over the course of human history on Earth, there will be over two hundred billion people living and dying there, Bob,” the small man said, drumming his fingers on the table. “We can’t chart out all the small and large decisions of each person.”

 

“No, I guess not,” the man across the table from him responded.

 

“And yet, we have monitored certain lives, certain individuals, certain important decision points.”

 

“Can you give me an example?”

 

“Sure. When were you born?”

 

Bob loosened his tie. “Nineteen sixty-one,” he said.

 

The small man gazed for a moment into the middle distance; his eyes moved back and forth briefly as if he were reading something, which in fact, he was. One of the several brain implants that was under his conscious control fed him information on events of the year 1981. “Okay, you remember when an assassination attempt was made on President Reagan?”

 

“Yeah, I remember that,” Bob said.

 

“There were a number of Secret Service men with the president that day. One of them was a man named Delahanty. We monitored him closely for a period of about three hours a couple of days after the event. He was wounded in the attempt, and he was recovering in the hospital during that time.”

 

“Three hours?” Bob said.

 

“Yeah, that was the critical period,” the small man responded. “He would have made a couple of phone calls during the critical time, and had to be prevented from making one of them.”

 

“How do you do that?”

 

“In a hospital, there are lots of ways. In this particular case, we arranged to have a nurse administer a sedative to him about twenty minutes before he would have made the call which we were concerned about. He fell asleep and did not make that call.”

 

“Who would he have called?” Bob asked.

 

“Ah,” the small man hesitated, “I think telling you that would be a mistake. Suffice it to say that you would recognize the name were I to tell you who it was.”

 

“What would the man have said that was so dangerous?”

 

“Dangerous?” the small man wiped his lip with his napkin, looking around nervously. “Everything’s dangerous. So many of you making so many decisions moment after moment. Our job is to find the critical decisions and concentrate on those. We–” he stopped suddenly as the door to the bar swung open and a man wearing a leather jacket entered. The man was wearing a bandanna on his head, he worn sunglasses despite the fact that it was night, and he carried a motorcycle helmet under his arm. “We steer decisions and try to keep this universe in the right place, that’s all.”

 

“What would have happened if Reagan had been killed?” Bob asked.

 

“George Bush would have been president,” the small man responded.

 

“Well, he was anyway, wasn’t he?”

 

“Sure. But 1981 wouldn’t have been his time. If Reagan had died, Bush would have served out his term, then would have been defeated in 1984.”

 

“The Democrats ran Mondale in ’84,” Bob said. “We would have had a President Mondale, then?”

 

“No. Listen, I’m ready to leave.”

 

“Who would have been president in 1984, then?”

 

“Nobody. Come on, let’s go.”

 

“Nobody? It’d have to be somebody. Dukakis?”

 

“Nope, not Dukakis.” The small man stood up and as he did, the bandanna-wearing man noticed him–and turned to approach. “Oh, crap,” he said under his breath.

 

Bandanna Man walked straight up to the small man and took off his sunglasses, staring at him with doleful gray eyes. “Maxim, what have you been doing?” he asked.

 

“Nothing. Bob, I want you to meet a colleague of mine. Bob, this is Victor Valentine. Vic, this is Bob Foster.” Bob remained seated and nodded at him.

 

“Mr. Foster,” Valentine nodded back. Then, returning to the small man, he repeated his question: “Maxim, what are you doing?”

 

“Bob’s a research psychologist, I’m interviewing him for the book,” Maxim responded. It was his cover story: he was a freelance author developing material on the psychology of criminals for a supposed book on the subject.

 

“Uh-huh,” Valentine responded, unconvinced. Suddenly, Valentine sat down in the booth, right next to Bob. “Listen, Maxim, why don’t you sit down for a moment?”

 

“Actually, we were just leaving,” Maxim responded.

 

“No, have a seat.” It sounded like an order. Not knowing quite what else to do, Maxim sat down. “Now, about 1981,” Valentine said to Bob. “The attempt on Reagan was unsuccessful, right? So you could speculate anything if it had turned out the other way, right?”

 

“I suppose so,” Bob responded. “But how did you–”

 

“I’ve got excellent hearing,” Valentine said. “Quite abnormal, really. I always could hear everything.” He put his sunglasses back on. “In fact, I can almost hear what you’re thinking.” Bob wasn’t watching Maxim and so he missed the small man’s gaze into the middle distance, and the side-to-side movement of his eyes as he seemed to read something that only he could see.

 

“Yes,” Maxim said suddenly, “Bush would have lost the election in ’84 to Gary Hart. Hart would have been elected twice, and then his VP, Bill Bradley, would win on his own in 1992.”

 

“He’s a nut,” Valentine said to Bob. “You can imagine anything.” But he wasn’t smiling, and he shot a hard look at the small man on the other side of the table.

 

“Bradley dies of an aneurysm in ’94, pushing Vice President Joe Addabbo into office. He chooses Austin Murphy as his VP, then when Addabbo is impeached in ’95, convicted in the Senate, and removed, we end up with the representative from Ohio, Mr. Murphy as president on December 2, 1995.” Maxim said rapidly.

 

“President Murphy?” Bob said.

 

“He’s a nut,” Valentine said, but still, he was not smiling.

 

“December 2, 1995,” Maxim repeated. “That was an important date, Bob. Go look it up, see what happened on that day. Think about it.”

 

Suddenly the small man rose from his seat. He stared at Bob for a moment, looking like he was going to say something–but then he turned on his heel and walked directly to the door of the bar, disappearing through it.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Ice–ordinary water ice–covers every square inch of the surface of Titan. Certainly, the ice is dirty; it is rife with dirt and rocks, with methane concentrations that would kill any human who used it to cool his drink. Under that ice is an entire ocean of liquid water, and in that water are creatures for whom this sealed ocean is an entire universe. Creatures with a culture and a technology and a language–a language with no word for star.

 

Inside a cave, dozens of these creatures huddled together, trembling and shaking in the manner that modulated their language. Deep inside the huddle, one of the creatures made his thoughts known to the group, and they stopped modulating in order to hear him speak.

 

“My fellows,” the creature said, “listen to me and learn the will of Arton. The great Arton who glides above the dirt and grime, who walks where we cannot!” The creature got more excited as he realized more and more of the group were relaxing and listening to him. “Arton, Arton!” he said, and then he stopped. “For the vision of Arton that I have been granted, I am profoundly grateful,” he said quietly. “But I would pervert that vision if I failed to communicate it not only to my own clan and tribe and sect but to the young ones and the ones to come,” he said. It was not sound through which he communicated his thoughts, but motion–and the other creatures understood his motion as speech. “Across the spaces and against the movement of our waters, Arton strengthens us and sustains us, those of us who believe. I have been given the knowledge.” He exhaled, indicated that he was done with his communication, and the others of his group started slowly moving, shaking, and trembling.”

 

“Yes, yes, I feel the truth of it,” one said.

 

“Arton, we ask you to come to our humble group!” said another.

 

“The world for Arton!” said a third. All of the creatures were eager to speak their own praise and devotion to Arton, but the creature who had started the frenzy batted at his brothers in the manner that communicated to them that he was ready to speak again.

 

“A god will come to us,” he said. “Soon, a god will come to us to sing our story and speak our song.”

 

“A god will come!” one of his audience members repeated.

 

“Yes, brother, yes! Our god.”

 

On Earth, at the front of the large stadium-style classroom, a man was talking animatedly. “And so, without further ado, I present to you our director, Dr. Jefferson Pate.” The room full of people, mostly young, stood and applauded as an elderly but strong-looking man rose from the front row and made his way to the raised platform that served as a stage.

 

“Please, everyone, that’s quite enough,” he said, waving. He was standing on the stage, arranging some books on the small table in front of a series of old-fashioned sliding blackboards. The applause went on. “All right, colleagues, that’s enough, thank you. And thank you, Bill, for that very kind introduction.”

 

As the applause faded away and the audience took their seats, Dr. Pate cleared his throat. “As you know, Janus will launch on Epetites,” Dr. Pate said, and the room broke into applause and cheers; Pate participated in this applause. “Congratulations, everyone, you’ve done great work,” he said. “All right, now,” Pate began, and seeing that the project director was ready to begin the briefing, the audience stopped clapping and sat down; many of them got tablet computers and styli out. A few of them got out pads of paper and pencils. “As you know, we’ve been given a budget of 1150 grams. That’s not as much as we asked for, but it’s a lot better than nothing.” Pate turned his back to the audience and slid the blank blackboard to the side, exposing the one behind it. On that one was already drawn, in white and yellow chalk, a technical overview of the Janus probe.

 

“Janus is designed to explore the layer of liquid water which we know is under the ice on Titan,” Pate said. “The probe is to be released from Epetites in orbit and it will descend without braking to the surface where it will hard land on the ice.” Pate went on to explain the details: the radioactive heaters that will warm the probe to melt the ice and permit it to bore through it to the water underneath. “Once the probe reaches water,” Pate was saying, “it will sink to the bottom, at which point, the probe will release a buoy that will float back up to the ice and transmit its data back to Epetites via radio.”

 

He slid the blackboard aside and turned to the room. “Now, then, the question is, how do we make all this happen?”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The alien ship in orbit around Saturn had been located by scooper ships operating from Mimas some years before—these ships and their crews flew through the upper Saturnian atmosphere scooping the light gas and separating the Helium-3 out of it for shipment back to Earth’s fusion-power stations.

 

The ship was located by radar, the outside of it was examined, but it took experts from Earth, shipped in on a high-speed stay-awake, to get it open and take a look at the inside. It turned out to be a sleeper ship, full of sleeping aliens from who-knows-where–certainly not Saturn.

 

Jackie Sanson was in charge of the initial evaluation, and her report included a physical description of the aliens, including details on the anatomy gleaned from what her boss insisted on calling a necropsy performed on one of them that as far as they could tell was dead.

 

The aliens were water-breathers, although they did not look like they were made to live in the water. There were eighty-four individuals in the ship; fourteen of them were dead, the devices in their cases silent; seventy were still asleep, hooked up to machines that kept their bodies at a constant 81 degrees and kept water flowing in and out of an orifice in the tops of their bodies.

 

They were slightly taller than humans, although they were thin and didn’t weigh much—less than a hundred pounds, typically. There was a lot of water weight associated with them—their bodies were about 90 percent water, as opposed to the human proportion of about 76 percent.

 

X-ray studies had confirmed that the aliens were vertebrates, with a central torso, one end of which was larger than the other—the torso was shaped something like a carrot, although they were a dull gray-green instead of orange.

 

At each end of their torso, three muscular limbs of differing length extended radially from the ends. These limbs did not have bones, but were supple and flaccid, resembling the tentacles of an Earthly octopus.

 

At the narrow end, there were some mysterious bumps and pigment markings under the limbs, and there was coarse dark hair growing in a series of rings in the approximate middle of the torso.

 

None of the aliens had what could be described as clothing, but one of them had a rod, aluminum with a little zinc, chromium, and manganese, that went through a hole in its torso that the others did not have. There was scarring around the inside of the hole–it appeared that the hole had been made, allowed to heal, and then the rod passed through it.

 

The ship’s machines pumped about a quart of water into each alien through the orifice on top, allowed that to remain for about 30 seconds, then pumped it out again. Sampling of the water before and after showed that while the oxygen level remained constant, the dissovled carbon dioxide level in the water varied significantly. The water going in had hardly any, and the water coming out was saturated with it—this suggested that carbon dioxide was a waste gas produced by the alien’s metabolism, just as it is in humans. Humans produce carbon dioxide as a waste product as a result of the metabolism of oxygen—it was clear that the aliens’ bodies required oxygen, but it was not immediately clear where this oxygen was coming from. The mystery was solved as a result of an examination of an organ located in the narrow end of the torso, which apparently took in water and split it into hydrogen and oxygen. The oxygen was used in the metabolism; the hydrogen was shunted out of the body by means of a special small orifices at the ends of the limbs on that end. These orifices had lines connected to them to shunt the flammable and dangerous hydrogen away and overboard by means of special ports.

 

An organ near the thick end of the torso was quickly identified as the brain, but there was no head; the brain simply occupied a portion of the torso, and there was no particular bone case protecting it as in humans and every other animal with a brain on Earth. It was contained in a sac surrounded by fluid, with several small spine-line threads extending from it into the limbs on that side and then a larger cord extended into the torso. Nerves branched from these cords and threads to ennerverate the body.

 

It had been impossible so far to decipher the mechanism that was keeping these creatures alive, but it seemed clear that they were being maintained in a state of suspended animation, and that it had been intended for them to be awakened at some point. It was also possible to gauge, based on the decay of radioactive isotopes in the water that the ship had been operating at least 6,000 years, and maybe a little longer. It seemed impossible that a mechanism could be reliable enough to do this job, but this is the situation, as far as it could be determined on the site.

 

The next step, Jackie knew, was to bring one of the aliens back to the Sperry-Valentine Xenolab–alive, if possible–for a more comprehensive analysis. The xenolab had been constructed to deal with the supposed eventuality of encountering alien life after the discovery of the ancient and long-dead small creatures that had once populated Mars. She sat down at the computer to prepare a final report, in which she would make this her final recommendation.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Hank Riviotte sat down at the nearest public seat: a bench adjacent to a bus stop. The bench was already occupied by an uncomfortable-looking woman clutching her voluminous handbag as if she expected it to be snatched from her at any moment. She was made more uncomfortable when Hank sat down; he was a little close, she thought, and he looked like he might be unstable. As a matter of fact, Hank had a problem, but it didn’t involve the woman or her purse. His hand was at the left side of his face and his fingers repeatedly rubbed a spot just forward of his left temple. He was gazing into the middle distance, eyes unfocused, head tilted slightly upward, and the woman wondered if he was having a stroke. ‘No,’ she thought to herself. ‘He’s not old enough to have a stroke.’

 

As Hank became increasingly distressed—she thought she heard him whimper—her concern overcame her fear, and she turned toward him.

 

“Excuse me, but are you all right?” she asked. No answer, just the continued stricken look and the movement of his left hand against the temple. The skin was getting a little red there. She waited a moment and then tried again. “I said are you all right?” Still no response, so she reached over and touched him on the arm. “Sir?”

 

Hank felt the touch and looked over, noticing the woman for the first time. He dropped his left arm into his lap and clasped his two hands together. “I beg your pardon?” he said.

 

The woman already regretted saying anything at all to the man; he didn’t seem to be having a stroke. If anything, he seemed annoyed at her interrupting him.

 

“I thought you might be ill,” she said, clutching the handbag even tighter.

 

Hank put on his make-nice-with-the-natives face. “Oh, no, thank you, I’m just fine.” He held the smile until the woman relaxed, and then his left hand came up to touch the spot again.

 

The woman was still looking at him–and then, without warning, his implant activated and he could see his pass-screen overlaid in his visual field.

 

He took a deep breath of relief and let it out, thinking through the implant’s self-diagnostic protocol. Another second and an ice-blue line blinked in his visual field, followed by the blue think it symbol. Hank relaxed a little more as he looked at the woman next to him on the bench and thought identify. The line flashed green, and then a paragraph of words appeared.

 

As he quickly read them, they sounded in his ear, loud enough to be understood but soft enough so as not to interfere with what might be going on outside his head.

 

In a few moments, it became clear that the woman was just what she appeared to be: a woman waiting for a bus.

 

Hank thought off the implant and the image overlaid on his visual field disappeared. He turned away from the woman as she struggled to rise; her bus was pulling up. Hank rose too, but he had no intention of getting on any bus.

 

He threaded his way past the knot of people who were positioning themselves to board and turned a corner, taking a few steps to clear himself from the foot traffic and thought elapsed time. Nothing happened.

 

Dammit! he thought and again his hand reached up to caress the reset button. But this time nothing happened, even after several moments of disciplined thought-orders and several attempts at resetting the implant manually.

 

Hank started walking down the sidewalk, continuing in that direction for no other reason except that the building which the sidewalk ran alongside threw its shadow over that side of the street, and it was a hot day. Hank walked slowly and thought about what he would do if he couldn’t get the implant started.

 

They had assured him it would work. When he had expressed concern about the lack of a redundancy, the Beaconmaster had almost laughed. “Hank, the implant is the most reliable of all the equipment that will process your jump. No need to worry about that!” And then he did laugh–a harsh barking sound that was somewhere between a rusty hinge moving and a bus screeching to a halt.

 

“I’m the one that’s got to rely on it, and I don’t like it,” he frowned.

 

The Beaconmaster shrugged and continued working the long, slender wire into Hank’s arm. “You could fill out a Form 45 to access the reliability studies on this thing, but…” he trailed off.

 

“Yeah, I know. No 45s until after the mission,” he finished the Beaconmaster’s sentence.

 

“Yeah.” He continued work at Hank’s arm for a few more seconds, and then he motioned for Hank to stand. “Okay, it’s in place. Now let’s get rid of this wire….”

 

He moved a dial on the panel behind him and the wire converted to water molecules. That portion of the wire that was extending from Hank’s body converted and splattered on the back of his hand; the rest converted and harmlessly added its volume to his blood.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The operation had a staggering overhead, and yet it made a profit; once the station was in place on Mimas, and the scooper ships were running, Helium-3 could be mined in quantities that, even when the expense of shipping back to Earth was taken into account, would support the cost of the entire operation.

 

Helium-3 was the oil of the 23rd Century; if quantities of He-3 could be obtained, the fusion factories of Earth, on which the entire economy depended (just as the entire economy of the 21st Century had depended on oil) could be sustained indefinitely. Without He-3, the most enthalpic reaction that could be achieved was the old direct-fusion D-He, which resulted in a smorgasbord of waste particles–expensive, dangerous waste particles. But with He-3, there was a very large enthalpy and no waste. Investors lined up on Earth and Mars to provide the capital, and Mimas station was built as a staging base for the scooper ships and processing facility for the He-3 they returned.

 

The actual product of the operation was taken from Saturn’s upper atmosphere; it had been made there over the eons as cosmic ray particles from the sun smashed into the atmosphere. As most of the upper atmosphere of Saturn is methane, most were absorbed by methane atoms, which generally responded to the onslaught to high energy by converting to a positively-charged neon atom, then radiating the extra charge as an electron pair, which were then harmlessly converted to heat and photons. But very occasionally–about once in a million collisions–the high-energy cosmic ray struck a helium atom, and converted it from a two-proton atom to a three-proton atom: Helium-3. This was a stable configuration, and held the additional benefit of being capable of reacting with deuterium to produce a massive amount of energy along the usual mass-combine pathway–about 87 million megajoules per nanogram.

 

This meant that every pound of Helium-3 that could be returned to Earth could be used to produce about a hundred million megawatts of electricity–which could then be sold for about twenty million dollars. At $20 million a pound, even the massive overhead of a station on Saturn’s largest moon, expensive and expensive-to-operate scooper ships, and a complex processing facility could be supported, and supported at a good profit.

 

And the energy needs of Earth had expanded to fill the new capacity–at the turn of the 22nd Century, Earth was using about 300 billion megawatts of electricity a year. A hundred years later, in the decade before He3-He3 fusion came online, the earth was using nearly ten trillion megawatts a year, and the planet was almost out of fossil fuels—but this energy demand was easily and comfortably supported through a network of fusion factories of over 10,000 plants in North America alone.

 

The scooper ships were manned by the sort of men that tamed the old West; they were rugged men, individualistic, prideful, reckless, violent, and yet with a code of honor not easy to understand. It wasn’t easy to join their ranks; many young men approached Mimas with hopes of joining a scooper crew, and most went back home after working enough runs to pay for their transit. But the one in five that stayed after their transit tickets were worked off, those generally never did anything else.

 

Seville was a scooper ship; just one of dozens operated by Mimas station. Her captain, Raul Nieto-Gonzalez, was a Dominican, twice divorced, a veteran of over eight hundred missions, or runs, as they were called by the scooper crews. His second, Danny Smith, boasted over two thousand runs although he was a full ten years younger than the captain; Danny had come out to Mimas as a young man, worked off his transit, and found he had a taste for the life. That had been eighteen years ago. Now he was thirty-eight, and eager to captain his own ship. The other five men in the crew were various degrees of rookie, all still working off their transits.

 

Captain Gonzalez settled himself down in the blast couch and looked over at Danny, who was settling into his own. “Hey, Dan-boy,” he said. “You run the centrifuge checks yet?”

 

“Roger that, Captain,” he said professionally. “‘Fuge seven has a spin limitation, but the rest are at full.”

 

“What’s the lim? Lubricant?” Gonzalez asked.

 

“Yep,” Danny said. “The life on that one is at seven percent, so I’m put it on a seventy-percent limit,” he said, his hands expertly moving over switches and dials.

 

“Okay,” the captain said. “Let’s get that one changed out before next run.”

 

“Roger,” Danny responded. The captain busied himself at his own panel, programming the ship’s navigation plot and coordinating the route with Mimas Control. There were exactly forty-one scooper ships in various stages of their missions; it was necessary to coordinate to ensure that the ships didn’t present a danger to each other as they darted in and out of the complicated Mimas-Saturn launch and recovery windows.

 

Captain Gonzalez pressed a control at his belt, activating his headset microphone, and spoke. “Mimas Control, Seville, radio check.”

 

A short pause, and then the headset crackled to life. “Seville, Mimas Control, we have you in the green.”

 

“Control, Seville, roger. Launch prechecks completed, request the standard Encel profile for upper atmosphere transit K–” he paused, looking at the small monitor mounted among the others. “K-388,” he finished.

 

Seville, Control, transit, K-388 confirm,” the controller responded, his voice rising at the end, inviting Seville to repeat the transit number as a confirmation. The transit number described the path that the scooper would take as it left Mimas and approached Saturn. The exact path depended on a number of factors, primarily the relative positions of the other satellites of Saturn, but also the survey of atmosphere concentration, which varied as Saturn responded to solar conditions and as its own atmospheric weather varied.

 

All of Saturn’s atmosphere had helium in it, but as these conditions varied, the concentration of helium varied too. It was to everyone’s benefit for the ship to seek out the highest concentration of helium, and so the routes were varied to accomplish this. It was an art, not a science.

 

In an aside to Danny, who as second, was responsible for navigation among other things, Gonzalez said, “Dan-boy, we’re flying 388, yah?”

 

“Yes sir,” Danny responded.

 

“Okay,” Gonzalez said. He pressed the control at his belt again to activate his headset’s microphone. “Control, Seville, that’s affirm on K-388.”

 

Seville, Control, 388.” On Mimas, computers were whirring and monitors were changing to reflect the imminent path of Seville along the route designated K-388. It was a little used route, nearly polar to Saturn, one that would take the ship on a high apogee towards a relatively low perigee, or bottom point, in Saturn’s atmosphere.

 

Saturn’s atmosphere was a dangerous place, and the danger increased as altitude decreased. While Saturn did have a solid body, no ship ever got within about 400 miles of it–except, of course, those ships which, for one reason or another, had been lost. Montreal, Djbouti, Pisa, and New Haven were all down there somewhere, on the solid surface of Saturn, their hulls crushed along with the soft bodies of their crews. Gonzalez didn’t like to think about how they must have died.

 

“Captain,” Danny said.

 

“Yah?” Gonzalez responded, his eyes reviewing ship’s fuel status.

 

“K-388 puts us right up in Saturn’s north pole. And we’ll be diving down to about 580 or so,” he said, meaning that their apogee would be about 580 miles above the surface of the giant planet.

 

“Yah, that sounds about right,” Gonzalez replied. “So what?”

 

“Well, Captain, this is an unexplored area of Saturn’s atmosphere. I mean, we’ve got lots of scans of that regions, but…” his voice trailed off.

 

“But what?” Gonzalez asked.

 

“I don’t know,” Danny said. “I’m always a little nervous going where no ship’s been before,” he finished flatly.

 

“Yah.” Gonzalez replied noncommittally, but he too shared Danny’s concern. “Look, Dan-boy, let’s just keep our wits about us. Keep the long radar forward as we’re diving, and be ready to execute a quick swing burn if we need to, okay?” he said. It was a prudent move–the ship didn’t carry much fuel, relying primarily on gravity to follow its predetermined path into and then out of Saturn’s air, but the ship could perform what was known as a swing burn–a short blast that could move it a significant distance perpendicular to its path of travel. It was a tricky business, and required a good deal of computer involvement before and during. Danny understood the captain’s direction to mean that he would program the computer to perform this maneuver, should it become necessary.

 

“Captain, there’s a solid object out there,” Danny’s voice had that trembling veneer of professionalism that Gonzalez knew covered a shrill ocean of panic, but Danny was managing to maintain the veneer.

 

“Okay, Dan-boy, let’s get a visual and make damn sure we steer around it,” Gonzalez said calmly.

 

“It’s floating, Cap’n,” he continued to speak as his hands worked the ship’s delicate navigation controls. “Ah, yeah, visual now on channel seventeen, click over at convenience,” he finished.

 

Gonzalez toggled his largest monitor to channel seventeen and strained to see something meaningful in the swirl of fog and fumes that the monitor displayed. With effort, he was beginning to see the object, and as the ship got nearer, the object became more easily seen. In a few seconds, he had a clear view of it. “Yeah, I got it now,” Gonzalez said. “What the hell is that?” he said, half to himself.

 

“Unknown, sir,” Danny responded. “I’m cleaning up the image.”

 

“Dan-boy,” Gonzalez said. “That can’t be natural, can it?”

 

“That’s a negative, Captain,” Danny said. “And I’m pretty sure it’s not one of ours either.”

 

Definitely not, Gonzalez thought, and then a flash went through his brain: What if we’ve finally found it? Hard evidence of another life form? It was something of a Holy Grail that had gone woefully unfound over the course of two hundred years of exploration. Sure, there had been might-have-been’s and maybe-so’s; the Roswell incident in 1947, the Wow signal in 1971, the Crighton transmission of 2034, the Aurora images of 2087. Nothing substantial or conclusive, most of the incidents seemed to be wishful thinking and poor documentation. But maybe this was it–finally, conclusive proof that Man was not alone in the Universe.

 

“Okay, Dan-boy, let’s slow down and see if we can get some more data,” Gonzalez said. Danny realized at once what the captain wanted to do, and he quickly fought down his fear and excitement and struggled to maintain the professionalism that he prided himself on.

 

“Roger that, Captain,” he responded coolly.

 

“But look, let’s continue scooping. Turn the fuges down as we slow down, but don’t stop the scoops,” he said. Gonzales knew that Mimas station would more eagerly receive their anomaly report–and more easily tolerate their course change–if the scoops continued to function and the centrifuges continued to turn. They had to be slowed down as the amount of atmospheric feedstock was reduced, but at least he could say that the scoops continued to function when Mimas Control asked–as they always did.

 

“Rog,” Danny said. “Fuges at 38 percent, speed settling now at…” he paused, reaching for a control. “Speed slowing to 165.” Danny carefully pronounced each number, knowing that the captain would use the ship’s speed in his own control activity.

 

“One six five,” Gonzalez responded.

 

Now, the monitor feed from the sensor cameras trained on the object showed it clearly; a spherical mass, it had a series of stiff-looking wires jutting from it, mostly in two mutually perpendicular directions. On one side, the wires ended in a screen; one the other, their naked, sharp-looking ends simply pointed out into space. There was a series of marks that transversed the circumference of the sphere between the wires, but Gonzalez could not get any sense for what kind of marks they might be. They did not look random, but they clearly were not letters or numbers that Gonzalez, who spoke three languages and understood seven, could recognize.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

It’s a long way to Pluto.

 

No, I mean it’s a long way. It’s a long way to the stars, sure, but that’s not graspable in the direct sense. Four light years or forty million, what’s the difference? You’re never going to get there and neither am I.

 

But Pluto—you can get there, if you’re determined enough, and patient.

 

Never been there myself, of course. I’m crazy, but I’m not that crazy, as the saying goes.

 

I was crazy enough to make four Jupiter runs—the first one I made as caretaker, the only guy awake the whole way. Supersleep made me nervous, and I didn’t sign up for that until Supersleep Release 5 came out, the second one with the nobots. After I had done it, I realized they were right: caretaker duty was worse that the sleep was. That first Jupiter run, I spent three years in that little can with barely enough room to turn around in. Got my exercise on the bike every day, and lifted waterweights—well, they started out as waterweights and ended up pissweights, as they do—and I read about a hundred books and watched about a thousand movies, and still I just about went nuts. I don’t see how prisoners in solitary do it, I really don’t.

 

I got the ship and crew to Jupiter, all right, and I got them all revived, but lucky for me, Supersleep 5 came out while we were on Jupiter, and I let ‘em put me under for the trip home.

 

Nowadays, Supersleep 8, or SS8, is the standard, and it makes supersleeping almost like dying and coming back to life—there’s no dream bounce, no consciousness of the sleeping interval, although when they do wake you up, you feel like a zombie for about a week. I did. After that first return from Jupiter on SS5, I felt like a corpse for a month and I couldn’t really think straight for longer than that. Even on SS8, I had a hard time with short-term memory—they say they’ve got that worked out now. I don’t know, but I guess I’m going to find out.

 

But not by letting them sleep me for the fourteen years it takes to get to Pluto. Three years to get to Jupiter, four to Saturn, six and nine to get to Uranus and Neptune—but why would you want to?—and fourteen years of hard, cold supersleep to get to Pluto. And that’s one way. As I say, I’m crazy, but not that crazy. Robbie’s going to do it, or at least I think he is.

 

“Rob,” I said, “What the hell do you want to go to Pluto for?”

 

“Discovery,” he said when the beer glass came down from his mouth. ”It’s the last place in the solar system where there’s still something to find that someone else hasn’t already found.

 

“Yeah, well, what do you think you might find?” I asked him. ”Unicorns? Leprechauns? Bigfoot? What?”

 

“How about finding the crystals of helium-3 that everybody says might exist at temperatures that low? A single crystal might weigh four or five grams and have as much helium as a whole shipload of the top-grade Saturn stuff.”

 

“Yeah, well that’s bullshit,” I said. ”There ain’t no helium-3 crystals.”

 

“Sez you,” he said. He threw a hundred-dollar bill on the table between us for the three beers we’d had. ”Come on, I want to show you something.”

 

I followed Robbie out of the bar and down the sidewalk toward his building. He put a key in the door and pulled it open, holding it for me. I stepped inside and then waited as he followed me and locked the door from the inside. ”Nobody’s here today, it’s some goofy holiday or other.”

 

“It’s called Marten Day,” I said. ”It’s part of the courtship ritual, or something like that.”

 

“Yeah, yeah, whatever,” he said, already down a corridor. I followed him and he suddenly turned to the left and opened a door, which was unlocked; I remember thinking that was weird at the time.

 

“Okay, you remember Crantz, President Crantz?”

 

“Yeah, I guess so,” I said. ”What about him?”

 

“He turned 97 years old yesterday, did you know that?”

 

“No,” I responded. ”I know he’s ancient, a cranky old man.”

 

“That’s right,” Robbie said. ”I’ve had some visits from his office.”

 

“Crantz has an office?” I said. ”I thought he was senile, laying in a bed somewheres or other drooling on himself.

 

“He’s better,” Robbie said. ”New nobot technology, they got his brain fixed up and now—” Robbie stopped. ”You better let me show you.”

 

He led me through a series of doors until we were in a large chamber somewhere in the guts of the building. The walls were painted snow white, blinding white, and in the center of the room was what looked like a hospital bed with what looked like a steel mannequin lying on it.

 

“Oh, that’s cool,” I said. In response to my voice, the steel mannequin turned his head towards me in a fluid, almost animal-like motion. ”Whoa,” I said to myself, and I turned toward Robbie and shrugged.

 

“Pluto is a long way away,” Rob said, and I nodded.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

When Abigail and her sister were young, they both competed for the attention of their older brother. The spacing between the boy and the two girls—he was six years older than Rebecca—was such that all the sibling rivalry was between the two girls and none of it was between either of the girls and their brother.

 

Six-year-old Abigail stood in the door of her brother’s room. ”Jimmy, you wanna go outside with me?”

 

“No,” he responded from the little desk where he was carefully gluing toothpicks together. ”I’ve got to do this project.”

 

“Oh, come on,” she said. ”We could draw on the sidewalk.” Drawing on the sidewalk with chalk was one of Abigail’s favorite things to do this summer ever since she and her father had happened on a chalk art festival at Eagle Park one day while he was getting a guitar repaired at the shop across the street. While waiting for the repair to be completed, they walked together all the way around the large sidewalk that enclosed the park. There were a large number of young people drawing on the sidewalk—artsy types from the nearby college who were drawing recognizable works such as Van Gogh’s ‘Starry Night’ and Wythe’s ‘Christina’s World.’ There were cartoon characters here and there. One young man with dreadlocks hanging in his face was drawing an elaborate portrait of his dog, who watched, panting, from the small ribbon of shadow that was cast by a nearby wooden fence. Abigail was fascinated by all of it, and she described it in glowing terms when they got home with the repaired guitar.

 

“I bet it was crappy,” said eight-year-old Rebecca. ‘Crappy’ had become her new favorite word.

 

“It wasn’t crappy, you’re crappy,” Abigail said, her anger flashing.

 

“Don’t you girls start up now,” her father said as he took the guitar downstairs. He had taken a little money and created something of a music studio in a corner of the basement. He had arranged and organized the old baby furniture and various other flotsam of domestic life to create some space and bought a second-hand reel-to-reel tape deck and a couple of microphones.

 

“Daddy, she started it,” Abigail complained.

 

“Crappy Appy,” Rebecca sang.

 

“Honey, don’t tease your sister,” he called from downstairs.

 

“Daddy, she’s calling names,” Abigail said.

 

“Crappy Appy!” Rebecca continued joyfully.

 

“Jim, can you deal with them a while?” their father called up.

 

“Sure, Dad,” Jimmy said. ”Girls, what’s the el-problemo?

 

“Jimmy, she’s not nice,” Abigail said in her little-girl voice. She had learned that her brother was susceptible to being swayed by the little-girl voice, whereas her father definitely was not.

 

“Crappy Appy!” Rebecca continued. She was sitting on the sofa in the living room thumping against the backrest.

 

Jimmy stepped over into the living room and sat down next to Rebecca. ”Now, come on, honey, stop saying that, it’s not nice.”

 

“She’s crappy,” Rebecca said softly. She liked being near her big brother, and she threw her arm over his shoulder.

 

“Yeah, but she’s just a kid,” he said. “You hurt her feelings when you say that.”

 

“No I don’t,” Rebecca responded, but she knew that it probably did—it wouldn’t have been effective otherwise. “She’s crappy.”

 

“When the ice cream man gets here, you want to get some ice cream?” In their neighborhood, there was still an ice-cream truck that came around every day in the summer, playing Für Elise over and over and over as its clarion call. Jimmy and his sisters would always recognize that tune not as a misnamed Bagatelle Number 25 in A Minor (as their father would have told them, the tune is a rondo, not a bagatelle) or even simply as one of Beethoven’s greatest but unspecified compositions, but instead as the Ice-Cream Man’s Song. The ice-cream man himself had changed the recording from Joplin’s The Entertainer–for some reason he found that increasingly annoying—the summer before he started working their neighborhood.

 

“Yeah,” Rebecca said.

 

“I want some ice cream,” Abigail said from down the hall.

 

“Okay, we’ll all get some.” Jimmy hoped he had enough money for an ice cream for both of the girls, and he was perfectly willing to forego his own if that was necessary. The girls wouldn’t understand this about their brother until years later, upon reflection on their shared childhood not long after his early death.

 

Rebecca hopped off the sofa and moved off down the hall that led to the bedrooms. She and her sister shared one, which perhaps was part of their difficulty in getting along with each other. Their father kept meaning to get the basement organized into a bedroom for Jimmy, freeing up his present room for Rebecca, but he hadn’t gotten around to it yet. To his credit, Jimmy had not been bothering him about it, but had simply offered to help when the time came.

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“We fly out tonight,” the general said from the stage. He stood in front of a large slide showing the continent of Africa; the borders of Kenya were highlighted in red. A series of concentric red circles was centered on the village of Kalekoi, in the western edge of Lake Turkana. “Direct flight to Khartoum, overnight there, then local transport to the forward base on the western edge of the village,” he continued. The slide changed to a reminder of the security level of the briefing in large block letters. “Questions?”

 

The soldiers sitting in the theater seats looked at each other, and then one stood. “Captain Pilson, Second AD,” he said, observing the protocol for questions briefings that one begins by stating one’s own name. Second Armored Division was a proud unit, and many of the soldiers around him broke into muted but still somewhat off-protocol hoots and calls; the young captain looked around, smiled, and motioned for them to stop.

 

“Go ahead, Captain,” the general said from the stage.

 

“Ah, yes, sir, I think all of us are wondering what kind of interaction we can expect from the–” he didn’t want to say it, but everyone knew what he was referring to. “–the personnel already in place.” By that euphemism, the captain meant the Central Intelligence Agency, whose assets in place had first responded to the incident, containing it as best they could until the cavalry arrived in the form of the United States Army.

 

“Full cooperation,” the general said. “Likewise, I expect you to give the forces in place your full cooperation.”

 

“Yes, sir.” The captain sat down.

 

The general scanned the room, giving voice to the primary concern upward from his own position in the chain. “Folks, we’ve got to get this one right, as you know, and it’s going to take the combined cooperation of you and your individual units as well as agencies that historically haven’t cooperated all that well in the past.” A wave of laughs made its way through the auditorium. “We all know that we’re the last people the agency in place would call for help. The fact they are accepting our help means–” the general intentionally avoided the phrase “called us,” because he knew, as none of the other did, that the summons had come from much higher than the director of the CIA “—that they recognize they can’t handle this one alone and I agree. Anyone else?” Seeing no hands, the general put the slide clicker down on the podium at far stage right. “All right then, thank you, everyone, and let’s have a safe mission out there.”

 

The last of his words were drowned out by the noise of 340 US Army personnel coming to attention as the general strode down the steps and around the end of the stage. He stepped down a short hallway and turned left into what might have been called the Green Room in a television studio: a waiting room for those about to go on stage.

 

It was not green, but it was well appointed, with comfortable recliners, a long sofa, and a long counter with a bowl of fruit at one end and a bowl of bottled water in ice on the other. Monitors hanging from the ceiling showed live views of the stage, which was now empty except for the US and general’s flags on each side and the deserted podium, and a view of the seats in the theater. Most of the audience was making their way out; some of the soldiers were still there, standing and talking in groups of three or four.

 

A man was in the room when the general stepped in and went directly to the ice bowl for a bottled water. He wore civilian shirt and tie; his jacket hung on a nearby coat rack. “Nice job, Jack,” he said.

 

The general grunted as he turned around. “Thanks, Bob. Those guys just hate CIA. I think we’re going to have problems.”

 

“Oh, they’ll do all right,” Bob said. “Here’s the latest from Kalekoi,” he said, holding out a printout.

 

Jack took the papers and flipped through them. “They get the guy to talk yet?” the general asked.

 

“Nope,” Bob said. But they’ve x-rayed him, and he’s got a lot of stuff inside him.

 

Jack looked up. “Really? What stuff.”

 

Bob shrugged. “Who knows? It’s all implanted, looks like most of its got a direct hardwire to the spinal cord.”

 

Jack scanned the printouts more carefully, taking in the text. “It says here that the guy still hasn’t eaten,” he said. “How long has it been since he was found?”

 

Bob looked at his watch. “Thirty hours now,” he said.

 

“No urine or stool?”

 

“Nope. He apparently doesn’t have to go. Probably comes in handy during those long intergalactic flights,” Bob said.

 

“Food’s being offered to him?”

 

“Sure,” Bob said. “Vegetables, meat, fish, it’s all there in his cell. Won’t touch any of it.”

 

“And he’s human? We’re sure of that?”

 

Bob shrugged again. “As sure as we can be, I guess. DNA won’t be back until later this afternoon.”

 

The general downed the last of the water in his bottle and tossed it in the trash. “Well, we’ll see, I guess. You realize that this guy who or whatever he is, he’s only cooperating with us because he wants to. Whatever those implants are,” he said, “he almost certainly can activate them whenever he wants.”

 

“Yeah, that’s what I was thinking.”

 

“You going to fly over with me?”

 

“No,” Bob responded. “I’ve got to stop over in Rome. Glenn Robinson’s getting nervous.”

 

“All right, then,” the general said, gathering items together and placing them in in a leather gym bag. “I’m going to swing by the front office and then I’m on my flight.”

 

“All right, Jack,” Bob said. “See you in Kenya.”

 

“Yeah, I’ll see you.” Jack Slydell hefted his gym bag and stepped out of the waiting room, down the hall, and out into the bright Florida sunshine. He threw his bag in the back of his staff car and slid behind the wheel and started the engine. The airfield radio mounted in the trunk fed its signal to the speakers inside the car.

 

“–Whisky seven, final at discretion, contact ground four fiver and g’day,” the controller said.

 

“Final and four fiver, g’day,” the pilot answered back crisply.

 

“Cardinal four seven, make three-sixty for spacing.”

 

“Four seven, three-sixty,” the civilian aircraft in the pattern responded. On the controller’s screen, the plane’s green track was already starting to curl slightly; it would curl all the way around and then resume its path on the downwind to land on Runway Three-Three.”

 

As the general steered the car out of the base theater parking lot, he reached down to change his radio to the airfield manager’s private channel; he could do this by touch. There were only four positions on his channel knob, and having established the current channel as the tower, he knew from long experience that the AFM’s channel was two clicks counterclockwise. He made the adjustment, then keyed his microphone: “Hawk Seven, Hawk One,” he said, saying the controller’s code name first followed by his own.

 

The briefest of pauses, then the speaker came to life: “Hawk Seven, go ahead, sir.”

 

“Yeah, Steve, how are we coming on getting the Mercury departure up?” Mercury was the code name for the Kenya mission that would leave later that night–with General Slydell heading the team to Kalekoi.

 

“Mercury departure is loading now, sir, and we expect doors closed at 2045 local. Crew report is 2100, personnel report is 2145,” he said.

 

“Yeah, that’s fine, thanks Steve,” the general said. The airfield manager responded with a click of his microphone, and the general continued weaving his car along the base’s manicured lanes, returning the salutes of personnel going about their business. As he approached the base’s park, he noticed one of the senior colonels walking along the sidewalk; the colonel saluted as Slydell pulled his car to the curb.

 

“Jimmy, what are you doing?” he asked.

 

“Hey, sir. I’m just walking back from lunch. Andrea told me I have to walk now every day, if I want to keep eating.”

 

Slydell smiled at the man’s reference to his own wife. “Let me give you a ride, I want to tell you about something.”

 

“Yes, sir.” He stepped in front of the general’s car and slid inside.

 

As he pulled the car away from the curb, Slydell glanced over at the younger man. “Jim, how much weight have you lost?” he asked.

 

Colonel James Oyama smiled and put his hand on his gut–which was much smaller than it had been only a few weeks before. “Twenty-two pounds as of this morning,” he said. “I haven’t felt this good in years.”

 

“That’s great,” the general said. The general was rail thin, always had been–a runner up until his mid-fifties, Slydell didn’t run anymore but he did like to get his hour’s worth of time in the gym every other day or so. “There’s a little something going on in Kenya,” he said.

 

“Kenya? Never been there,” Oyama replied.

 

“I want to read you in on this, okay? It’s top secret, compartmentalized blue. You understand?”

 

“Yes, sir,” Oyama said, and there was a palpable change in the atmosphere of the car–both men suddenly became businesslike. “Top secret, compartmentalized blue,” the colonel answered back, as protocol demanded.

 

“Thirty-one hours ago, an aerial craft crash-landed near the village of Kalekoi, in northern Kenya. The Kenyan military police responded and took control of the crash site, the media don’t have it yet. The pilot of the craft, apparently a human male, was recovered, but he has no identifying papers of any kind. He was dressed strangely, and has not responded to interrogation.”

 

Oyama nodded.

 

“The craft is not like anything we’ve ever seen–no engines that we can tell, just sort of a little metal box with a bunch of odd equipment inside.”

 

“UFO, you think?” Oyama said.

 

“I don’t know,” Slydell answered. “But the pilot has not eaten or drank anything despite having been offered food and water, and there’s something else. The Kenyans tell us that he hasn’t gone to the bathroom in all that time.”

 

“What? He hasn’t peed in thirty hours? The man’s going to die,” Oyama said.

 

“Yeah, I know. That’s why we’re flying out there. Tonight.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

A man sat impassively on the bare floor of an empty holding cell. “Slip,” he said. After a pause, he continued. “Lip.” Another pause. “Pip.” Pause. “Trip.” Pause. “Grip.” At this last, he smiled, as if pleased with himself.

 

Two men, one fat and one thin, were observing him through the small window in the door. The fat one was stuffed into a too-small policeman’s uniform; the thin one wore jeans and a long-sleeved tee-shirt with the words ‘Finisher, 2017 Pensacola Marathon’ on the back.

 

“How long has he been like this?” the thin man asked.

 

“A couple of hours now,” the policeman said. “He was conscious and ambulatory when he was brought in, but didn’t start mumbling until we put him in there.” He looked at his watch. “We got him in there at five o-clock this morning.”

 

“Picked up off the street?”

 

“Yeah, he was lying on the pavement in front of Caesar’s,” the policeman said. “Patrol was mopping up the drunks, you know. He hadn’t been there long, though—they had been down there, then they got a fight call at the north end of the Strip. When they got there, nobody was fighting, and they found this guy on the way back.”

 

“No ID?” the thin man asked.

 

“Nope. No shirt either, and no shoes.”

 

“Okay, unlock it.” The policeman unlocked the door and pulled it open, holding it for the thin man to enter. “Let me have a couple of minutes with him first,” he said.

 

The policeman shrugged. “You’re the doctor,” he said. He closed the door as the thin man passed through it.

 

Dr. Atticus Harrison approached the figure seated on the floor in the approximate middle of the room. “Ah, excuse me, sir? Can you hear me?” The man made no sign that he heard or noticed. “I’m Dr. Harrison, I wonder if I could speak to you for a moment.”

 

“Zip,” the man mumbled. “Clip. Drip.” His head was up, but his eyes were staring, unseeing.

 

“I understand you were on the sidewalk at Caesar’s,” the doctor continued. “We’d like to help you, sir. Can you talk to me for a moment?”

 

The man’s head moved around to the left slightly, and Harrison took this movement as the first of the man’s gathering understanding that someone was talking to him. He moved so that he was in the man’s line of sight, and then spoke a little more loudly. “Sir? Can you hear me? I’m Dr. Harrison.”

 

The man’s head turned and his eyes moved to Harrison face. The doctor thought he saw the beginnings of an understanding in the man that a fellow human being was in the room with him, but he was mistaken. The man frowned and nodded and said carefully “Rip,” as if commiserating with Dr. Harrison about the difficulty he was having in getting through to him.

 

Not knowing what else to do, Harrison decided to see if he could connect with the man by acknowledging his behavior. “Yes, rip. I see you’re rhyming words, sir, does that mean something?”

 

“Yes, it does,” the man said.

 

“Ah,” Harrison responded quickly, intending to keep the man talking. “Well, I’m glad it does then. Can you tell me your name, sir?”

 

“Blip,” the man said. And then the man smiled, exposing dirty, chipped teeth, he nodded, and said “Catnip,” as if the word contained within it all the answers to Dr. Harrison questions.

 

The doctor frowned and looked up at the window, catching the policeman’s eye, who had been watching from the other side. Harrison waved, and the policeman opened the door and stepped inside. “Yeah, Doc?”

 

“Can I get a chair brought in here please?”

 

“Sure,” he said. He disappeared through the door, and Harrison noticed that the door clicked locked.

 

The strange rhyming man picked that moment to look up. “Membership,” he said, nodding as if he and the doctor had a shared understanding. Harrison said nothing, but simply observed the man and listened for the unlock-click of the door. In a few moments, he heard that click, the door swung open, and the policeman came in with a straight-back wooden chair that, unaccountably, was painted bright pink.

 

He set it down just inside the door. “There you go, Doc.”

 

“Thank you,” the doctor said. As he reached over to move the chair, the rhyming man got up—surprisingly gracefully—and moved over to the place where Harrison was moving the chair. When he put it down, the rhyming man sat down in it.

 

“Rocket ship,” he said in the same tone and register that one would say thank you.

 

“You’re welcome,” Harrison replied.

 

The policeman snorted. “I’ll be right outside,” he said as he left the cell.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The Forty-First Deputy Junior Vice Assistant Director of the Planetary Council for Resolution and Disposition of Imperfection, the Honorable Reynaldo M. A. A. Mickelshon, pressed a button on the alert box attached to his belt as he approached the crowd of people.

 

“Excuse me, excuse me, please, official coming through,” he said as he gently nudged his way past the people to the clearing in the center. In the center of the clearing was a paper cup, laying on the bright green manicured grass. Everyone was staring at it.

 

When Mickelshon reached the center of the crowd, he pulled a pencil out from behind his ear and a pad out of his shirt pocket. “All right, Citizens, let’s all just calm down. Can anyone tell me what happened?

 

“I saw what happened,” a woman across the clearing said. She was dressed in the uniform of the diplomatic corps, which was not an unusual sight in the capital city, especially in this neighborhood, with the large number of embassies and consulates nearby. “I noticed them on the transport, because there were three or people standing up–standing up, and the bus in motion! Can you imagine! Then I noticed that, that cup, it came sailing–ohh!” she held the triangular corner of a napkin in front of her mouth while she struggled to continue. “It came sailing through the window!” She held the napkin to her mouth again and turned a little green. “I want them found, do you understand?” she said, with emphasis on the word ‘found.’ The crowd agreed, and murmurs of “Yeah, find them!” and “I want something done!” and “We won’t stand for this!” could be heard.

 

Mickelshon held his hands up for quiet. “Citizens, please! I’m here to resolve and dispose!” He turned a page in his notebook. “All right, then. Anyone else?”

 

A man wearing the blue jumpsuit with gold embroidery on the breast that identified him as a streetlamp polisher stepped forward. “Yes, that’s what happened. I saw it too. He leaned in toward Mickelshon. “Someone on the transport threw it out of the window,” he whispered, nodding knowingly to the official. “Right out the window, can you believe that? In broad daylight, with women and children on the streets!” He shook his head. “You take my name down, I’ll testify!” Again, the crowd murmured their agreement.

 

“Mickelshon dutifully wrote the man’s words and his name down in his pad. When he was finished, in a series of efficient, practiced motions, he clicked his pen closed, folded his notebook, and put both of them back in his shirt pocket.

 

He unzipped a pocket on the outside of the left side of his left pants leg. “All right, Citizens, I thank you and I pass on the thanks of the Director for your quick and efficient identification, isolation, and field management of this, this–” he struggled uncharacteristically for the word “–this problem. As you know, I’m professionally trained to respond. I’ve received and recorded your eyewitness reports and now I will resolve and dispose!” The crowd was watching and listening to him, wide eyed; they knew exactly what the man was going to do, but they tensed with the anticipation of actually seeing it done–in person! The crowd strained to see, moving in on the Forty-First Deputy Junior Vice Assistant Director.

 

“Please, now, Citizens, I’ll need a little room here.” From his pants-leg pocket, Mickelshon produced a sort of small tarp, black plastic on one side and black cotton on the other, folded into quarters. He unfolded it and held it before him as he approached the offending object. Stepping forward gingerly–and when he did so, the crowd inhaled and held it–he laid the cotton side of the tarp down gently over the cup.

 

Once the cup was covered, the crowd uttered a palpable ahh. Then they visibly relaxed and some of them, the ones on the outside edges, turned and started to disperse. “All right, Citizens, nothing to see here now,” he said. “That’s right, Citizens, thank you. Thank you for your cooperation. That’s all. Nothing else to see here. Move along now. Move along….” He continued to shoo the onlookers away while keeping careful note of where he was in relation to the tarp, making his way around it, not getting too far from it, as he encouraged the passersby to continue on their own business and affairs.

 

Finally, the crowd was gone. From time to time, people inside transports passing on the street would notice the black tarp lying on the grass and, suspecting what it must mean, stare as they passed by.

 

After some minutes had passed, Mickelshon felt comfortable enough to reach into the pocket on the right side of right pants leg, pulling out a red plastic bag folded neatly into a square and unfolded it. He knelt down on the grass next to the black tarp, slipping the red bag under his right knee, and used both hands to gather the tarp’s edges together, making sure to capture the cup inside the tarp as he gathered it up. Then he reached down, grabbing and opening the bag with his right hand, and then he plunged the tarp, with its terrible contents, into the red bag. He pulled the red bag’s drawstring closed and double-knotted it. Now Mickelshon relaxed, for the first time since the alert box had sounded. Having red-bagged the object, its potential for deleterious effects on his society had been eliminated.

 

Feeling pleased with himself, he placed the object in a nearby bright-red steel container–one of many around the neighborhood and indeed the city positioned and intended for that purpose–and started to make his way back to his stand, considering the many options that a Deputy Junior Vice Assistant Director had for lunch in the nation’s capital.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

There wasn’t any time to be afraid or nervous or anything. There was more time than we bargained for, but it was all flying around and complicated, going here and there–none of it was available for my use. None of it was even linear. It just floated around us like driftwood on the open sea. We were able to go underneath the surface. We were able to visit this time and that. Time travel and all.

 

It wasn’t nearly as useful or as cool as it seemed that it would be.

 

For one thing, we couldn’t influence anything in the past. All we could do is watch. The fact that those people or animals or whatever couldn’t see us was both a blessing and a curse. They couldn’t see us, so we could observe them as closely as we liked. They couldn’t see us, so we couldn’t communicate with them, couldn’t tell them to choose left instead of right when doing so would make a difference to us one way or the other.

 

Of course, it would–but we couldn’t do that. We couldn’t change history.

 

Time travel is a funny thing. From the perspective of the ‘now’ moment that we all live in, we have zero influence on the past and infinite influence on the future. The past is done–even a thousandth of a second ago is too late to do anything about.

 

The future, from our perspective, is mostly limitless. There’s the lightspeed barrier, of course, but yes, Virginia, there are ways around even that.

 

So we were out of time, and we were about to be jerked back into our own time, into what we called Station Time. Fourth Station Time, to be precise; there were three others. The first began with the reign–if you can call it that–of Prince Regasso and ended with the Kleinfeldt Incident. The second started with the founding of the Brotherhood Branch of the Miasmi Church and ended with the Great Trek Upward. The Third Station Time began with the Scientists’ Revolt and ended with the Scientists’ Purge. The fourth, our time, began with the founding of the Maxie’s Temple on Mars and–well, we still struggle along, even here on old, tired Earth.

 

So Veltd and I were researching the Crusades in Europe on Earth. I’m not exactly sure I have this straight, but apparently some proponents of one religion thought that the proponents of some other needed to be persuaded to change to their own, and so they rode out on horses to make this happen.

 

The religions of Old Earth are something of a mystery to all of us. First of all, I generally find it hard to believe that people believed any of that garbage about a Grand Creator of the Universe who knows all and sees all, etc, etc, etc. Second, I can’t wrap my head around all the subdivisions, with infinitesimal difference between them. The Baptists, the Methodists, the Muslims, the Buddhists, Catholics, the Anglicans–so hard to keep all that straight. My understanding is that all that business petered out around the time of Lakaseed, but I could be wrong about that.

 

So, we’re watching these people invade and kill these other people, and suddenly Veltd turns to me and says uh-oh in that way he has that means oh, man, I screwed up again.

 

“What is it this time, Veltd?” I ask.

 

“We’re out of time,” he says. “A few more seconds and that’s it. I messed up the conversion.”

 

“Oh, great,” I rolled my eyes, and then tensed up for the yank back home. Several seconds went by, and no yank. Just as I was turning to ask Veltd if he was sure the time was now, it came–hard. I fell over on my backside in the laboratory when we arrived.

 

“Veltd, can you be a little more careful, for crying out loud?” I asked. “I might have had my hand around something back there.”

 

“I’m sorry, Keldi,” he said. My name’s Keldana, but most people call me Keldi. “I keep screwing up the conversions.”

 

“Well, let me see it next time,” I said, getting to my feet and rubbing my rear end where I struck the hard floor.

 

“Did you see what there was to see?” a figure said as he approached. My eyes were still blurry from the yank, but I could tell from the voice that it was Sheedhan.

 

“Yeah, I saw what there was to see,” I responded. “You’ll read about it in my report.”

 

“Snippy,” Sheedhan said as he departed. “No need to be snippy about it.”

 

“I didn’t see what there was to see,” Veltd said. “I didn’t see much of anything, that’s what I saw.” I motioned for him to shut up and then I motioned for him to follow me down the hallway.

 

“Veltd, you idiot,” I said. “We’ve got to report what we saw or we can’t go back anymore, don’t you get it?”

 

“How can I report if I didn’t see what there was to see?” he asked.

 

“Idiot,” I said. “Come with me.” I dragged him down the hallway to my office and closed the door.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

It wasn’t my first time in the district headquarters complex, but I’d never been on the engineering side before. I’d made my one and only previous visit here to the courtroom on the other side–that unfortunate incident with the trust fund. It wasn’t my fault, but the judge didn’t see it that way and my lawyer was crooked, and so I found myself in Bandaco Jail with a ten-day sentence in my pocket. I served it alright–ate pretty well, too–and hadn’t been back to the corporate home world since.

 

But after two years in the Belt rare-earth mining and running and repairing every kind of cantankerous contraption that can fit in a Honydui inner-system transport container, I guess the company caught wind of my familiarity with the care and feeding of off-world equipment in the off-world environment. So when corporate put a team together to test the next generation of heavy-duty oresniffers, I was the one they called. They waved a bunch of money at me–said I was a “user expert.”

 

I took the money and the sleeper ship back to home world and I guess I’m pretty much back to normal now, fifteen days after waking up from a thirteen-month nap. I don’t much like it, but it’s the only alternative short of signing up as sleeper watchman, staying awake and running the ship the whole way back. I did that once back in the 70s, and never again.

 

So, I walk through the front door and show my card to the guard. He punches it and waves me through the steel door that’s standing open–then I notice that the guard is closing the steel door behind me. It clangs and some mechanism inside it clunks and there I am, staring up and down a long hallway. I look around for some signs or placards or something to tell me what to do now, but–nothing. So, I arbitrarily turn left and start ambulating down the hall; there’s nothing else to do.

 

There are doors on each side of the corridor, equally spaced. Each is marked with a number. I don’t have to go too far until I see that there’s no apparent order to the door numbers: I see a 418, then the next one is 801, and the one after that is 577, and the one across from that is 360, and so forth.

 

Then I hear a click a little ways down the other end of the hallway. I turn around to look, and a young woman leans her torso out of the door. “Mr. Rodriguez?” she calls loudly.

 

“Yeah, that’s me, Rodriguez,” I answer, taking a couple of steps toward her.

 

“No, please just stay right there, Mr. Rodriguez,” she says. “We’ll be right with you.” Then she ducks back into the room and I hear the click again. A beat, and then the door in front of which I’m standing clicks–and opens–and it’s the same girl. “Mr. Rodriguez,” she says, smiling.

 

“Hello,” I answer. “How’d you do that?”

 

“Do what?”

 

“Uh, get from way down there to here so quickly?”

 

Her smile turns into a laugh. “That’s nothing, Mr. Rodriguez. We’ve made some progress in certain areas since you’ve been gone. Come on in here and let’s get started, shall we?”

 

She held the door open for me and I stepped through it into another hallway, this one shorter and narrower, and then we turned left through an opening into a large room, which I recognized right away as an electronics shop, pretty elaborate one. I saw there was a Deersta resistance bench–don’t see those much anymore–and one of old chip testers where you line the chip up alongside the plugs until you find one that fits and then you plug it in to figure out what it is. Alongside that, they had an even older vacuum tube tester, same idea.

 

As I was marveling at all this old equipment, the girl had stepped around me and was walking down the workbenches. “Come along with me, Mr. Rodriguez, if you please,” she said. I followed her and noticed six or eight smocked young men and women sitting at stations working on what looked like old-school circuit boards. They even had soldering irons on their tables, and one of them, a young woman, was using it to plug old-style band resistors into a green plastic board.

 

“What’s with all this low-tech?” I asked. “I haven’t seen anybody use a soldering iron in fifty years.”

 

“All your questions will be answered, Mr. Rodriguez,” she said without turning around. She disappeared into a nondescript door and I followed, passing through it and finding myself in a well-appointed briefing room, with comfortable-looking chairs up front and more standard looking, movie-theater-type chairs arranged on risers above and behind where I had entered the room. The girl was striding across the front of the floor chairs. “Just have a seat anywhere down here on the floor, sir,” she said. “Your briefer will be out in a moment.”

 

“My briefer?” I asked.

 

She turned around. “Yes, your briefer. We’ve got to bring you up to speed on a little something, and we need to do it quickly.” As she had been talking, a man had joined her; he had come from a passage on the other side, apparently from behind the risers.

 

He eyeballed me suspiciously. “That’s Rodriguez?” he asked her.

 

Her head rotated toward him. “Yep, that’s him,” she answered.

 

“I thought he’d be taller,” he said.

 

She shrugged and turned back toward me. “Just sit anywhere, Mr. Rodriguez. Mr. Rowe here will fill you in, and then we can get started, all right?”

 

“Sure, that’s okay with me,” I said, settling down into the nearest chair. It moved backward with my weight, rocking-chair style, very comfortable. “As long as I get paid,” I added, half to myself.

 

“Oh, you’re going to get paid, sir,” the man said–apparently his hearing was pretty acute. “You’re going to get paid, and you’re going to be offered a great opportunity. The world’s first time traveler.”

 

It took a moment for that to sink in. “Really?” I answered back.

 

“Really,” he said flatly. “See, we’ve discovered a few things down here over the last couple of years. But let me do this the right way.” As he spoke, he fiddled with a little box he was holding in his hand and the lights came down in the briefing room. Then the screen came on, showing the logo of the corporation and below that, the words “Briefing for Paul Rodriguez.”

 

I figured I must be moving up in the world if the slides were being personalized to me.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The ship was equipped only with solar sails, but the beings who sailed it had been air breathers on a water world, and had forged their skills with canvas and rope over uncounted millennia at sea. And space for them was just another sea, another ocean to cross and conquer and control.

 

With their sails, the ships could of course be propelled away from a star, just as their boats once had been blown downwind. But they also cut and tack into a star, just as their ancestors on Vikar had cut and tacked to sail upwind into a desired harbor or port.

 

Thus, as they had crossed the oceans on their home world, they crossed the gulf between the planets of their system and, in time, they crossed the seas between the stars in their local group.

 

After seventeen thousand years of sailing the sea of space, the Vikar drive to explore and claim had resulted in colonies on twenty-eight planets across five star systems encompassing twenty light-years. None of these colonies were pleasant places; Vikar itself was harsh and cold, demanding a strong drive to survive and a powerful will to thrive. But survive and thrive the Vikar ancients had done, and survive and thrive their descendants on these far-flung planets did as well.

 

The third planet circling around a star the ancient Vikars had called Malthua hosted such a survive-and-thrive colony called Yendas. The Yendese Vikars numbered two thousand individuals in fourteen tribes. The chiefs of the colony’s tribes individually controlled their own tribes; together, they formed a loose central government, to the degree that such a thing was necessary and tolerated. Floki, chief of the Gunnovr tribe, wore over his rough clothes a vest made of the fur of a Vikar animal which identified him as a bonded Gunnovri.

 

Although the chiefs of the tribes were able to cooperate with each other on projects that were not possible for a single tribe or two to achieve, some of the tribes maintained only an uneasy, forced truce. They depended on each other, but the tribes were fiercely proud, and the pugilistic attitude of the Vikars, their sensitivity toward honor and slights, and their need to keep their battle skills sharp provoked frequent skirmishes and all-out wars. Two minor tribes, the Polesonori and the Bat, were entrenched in a blood feud based on the killing–some say it was accidental–of one of the Polesonori’s vice chief’s minor wives. This act required revenge, which the Polesonori achieved through a raid on the Bat’s agricultural operation in which three breeding warriors were taken prisoner, held for ransom, and when the ransom was paid, were summarily executed, their bodies desecrated and then dumped in the Polesonori chief’s garden. And so the feud began–and it had been going on for four growing seasons, costing each side heavily in men and treasure.

 

The Vikars as a people were unusual in that they had never developed a police in their society; they hadn’t needed police. The men of the tribe functioned as police within their own families, and if one family wronged another, the family heads would either work it out between themselves or, rarely, a blood feud such as the Polesonori/Bat feud would begin. Even the bitterest of family rivalries would be temporarily put aside, though, if there were a threat from outside the colony. At such time, the families within Yendas came together to repel the threat from outside–and when it was repelled, they returned to their previous grudges and hatreds.

 

The Gunnovri’s primary competitor within Yendas were the Flouhou, a tribe headed by an older man called Gentha. Gentha was the youngest son of the youngest son of a Vikar who had made the journey to Malthua from the home planet. As the oldest direct male-line descent of a Journeyer, as these original settlers were called, Gentha was entitled to wear a short white apron-like garment called a paldo over his clothes. It covered the front of his pants, and cords attached to the sides of the paldo wrapped around the waist and knotted in front. The color of the cords indicated the wearer’s ancestor’s birth-order position within his own family. Gentha’s grandfather had been the second son of his own father, and so Gentha’s paldo featured the blue wrap-cord of a second son. He would pass it on to his own son upon his death.

 

In Yendas’ village common, the tribes and the families within the tribes interacted freely: buying and selling, arranging marriages and contracts, cooperating to build and competing to survive. The village sported common-use facilities such as stores, a blacksmith’s, a church, and a hospital of sorts which didn’t accept any patients–Vikars didn’t get sick much, and when they did, the shame that Vikars felt at being made weak kept them indoors, among their own families, hidden. But the hospital did store and dispense drugs when they were needed, and served as a meeting place for the tribes’ medicine women, who shared information on treating illnesses and injuries. They also attended births, and helped new mothers and babies through the first three-month period, a critical time for Vikar infants. If babies survived for three months, they generally would survive their childhoods; when they didn’t, their mothers generally would refuse to eat, inconsolable, and would die herself in a matter of weeks. It was part of the cruel but effective Vikar social and physical evolution, it strengthened the tribe by preventing a weak mother from passing the weakness to the next generation.

 

Gentha and his guard–two young Flouhou warriors whose presence was mostly for show, although they certainly could and would defend the tribal chief against any attack–made their way up the road from the Flouhou encampment to the village early one morning, just as the star Malthua was climbing up over the low hills in the west, its yellow-gold rays casting long shadows before them as they picked their way across the ice. One of the men carried the Flouhou flag; the other carried a broadsword suspended from crimson sash tied around his thin waist. Gentha’s own dagger was tucked into the back of his belt; it didn’t pay to go into the village unarmed.

 

As they approached the gate, the three of them were sized up by a party of men from Tribe Circeto. There was no particular tension between the Circeto and the Flouhou, but still–the warriors approached each other warily, each sensitive to breaches of honor that might occur in the process of the one group passing the other on the narrow lane. Protocol and tradition required that the guard for both chiefs move off the road but maintain their chief’s position along the road. The chiefs would stop, expose their empty hands, then clasp them in a show of peace. This done, the tension would ratchet down a bit; the chiefs could exchange news or even engage in pleasantries, but the guard were not permitted to speak–except, of course, in response to a direction from their own chief. If one of the chiefs rejected the other’s offer to clasp hands, it would be perceived as a breach of honor requiring a fight. The fight would take place between members of the guard, one from each side, selected by his respective chief, and would take place immediately.

 

But this day there would be no battle for honor between Gentha and the men from Tribe Circeto. Gentha’s guard took their position on the left side of the road, their swords unclasped but their hands near them for easy access, and watched the approach of the Circeti warily. Gentha raised his empty hands for the Circeti leader to see, then spread them, palm up, before him.

 

The Circeti’s guard took their own places as the Circeti leader, a vice chief named Telkso, also raised and then lowered and spread his empty hands. Gentha, as a full chief, outranked Telkso, but as Telkso was the ranking Cerceti present, he assumed the station of a full chief for the purposes of the engagement. However, he was careful to be the first to approach–signaling publically that he had honor and respect for the old man.

 

“Gentha, chief of the Flouhou, I grasp your empty hand with mine,” the younger man said, casting his eyes downward as he did so. Gentha’s guard relaxed, bringing their hands away from their swords and clasping them in front, and this action was matched by the Cerceti guard.

 

“Raise your gaze, Cerceti, as I grasp your empty hand with mine,” Gentha responded. It was the way that one Vikar accepted and returned the peaceful invitation to speak with a member of another tribe with whom his own tribe had no specific quarrel.

 

The Cerceti did so, and looked into the older man’s gray eyes. “I am Telkso, second vice chief and courier of today’s Cerceti business,” he said.

 

“You have grown, Telkso, since your father and I last spoke in your presence,” Gentha responded. “Grown strong and brave.” It was a compliment to the younger man, and it had the best quality of compliments in that it was also true.

 

“I remember you speaking with my father, Flouhou Gentha,” he said. “I have grown strong since that day, and you have grown no weaker.” This, also, was a compliment, but it was not true–Gentha was weaker now, and he was ever more conscious of the fact that his own vice chief and ambitious warriors were aware of it too. It was only a matter of time until one of them wanted the chiefship for himself. But for today, Gentha was still chief.

 

“You honor an old man,” Gentha said, and he bowed slightly, his hands again spreading palm up.

 

Then there was a sound in the west, and all heads pivoted around. In the distance, the sails of a windship could be seen driving its way toward them, the churning of its antigravity generators growing louder as it made its way along. It was too far away to clearly read the banner that flew from its mizzenmast, but it floated nearer and nearer, and finally Gentha caught sight of the flag. It was a red banner with a white circle divided by a sharp black triangle: the emblem of Tribe Bat. Tribe Flouhou had good relations with the Bat, but Gentha knew that Tribe Cerceti did not and that this young, brave vice chief would have to start an embarrassing departure now or steel himself to fight an outnumbered and outgunned fight.

 

The Cerceti guard had already drawn their broadswords and taken cover behind some scrub away from the trail; fairly unusual for them to take their attention away from their leader, but it was a judgment call, and one that Gentha completely agreed with. They certainly had a lot more to fear from the Bat than they did from Gentha and his two guard. Telkso looked ready to face the Bat ship, but Gentha, old and wise enough to accept the notion of living to fight another day, helped him take the better course of action with honor. “Cerceti Telkso,” he said, addressing the young man as if he were a full chief. “I am not prepared to assist in your defense and I humbly apologize that my failure will necessitate your immediate retreat,” he said.

 

The heads of Gentha’s own guard spun around–they certainly were prepared to assist in a defense, even a losing one, but they also certainly would not utter a word in protest of their chief’s evident decision. The Cerceti guard looked too, realizing, that the old man was taking the blame for what otherwise would be a personal humiliation to Telkso. Telkso, of course, was eager to take the out that the old man had provided, and regretted that honor now required him to rebuke the old man in response. “You old fool,” Telkso said. “I spit at your unpreparedness and call my warriors to give their shame to you.” Protocol required him to say that much, and he said it, but he approached Gentha, who held his gaze down in a posture of shame, and grasped the old man’s hand. “I say my warriors give their shame to you.”

 

“And I take it,” Gentha said without raising his head.

 

Without another word, the Cerceti vice chief and his warriors turned on their heels and ran back up the road toward the village from where they had come. Gentha raised his up, looked over at the progress of the Bat windship, and estimated that it would be over him in less than ten minutes. He waved his warriors over. “Warriors, you understand what I have done?”

 

“Yes, my chief,” they both answered.

 

“And you understand why I have done it?”

 

The did not answer; they would not have uttered a negative toward their chief, but their silence spoke as much. The chief adjusted his broadsword and motioned for them to scabbard their own swords. They did so and turned to face the Bat windship; it was larger now, at a lower altitude, and it appeared that the pilot intended to land it in a clearing alongside the road not far from where Gentha and his men were standing. “Come along,” the chief said, moving toward where the clearing. “We will meet the Bat and delay their chase.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Try her again,” Savos said.

 

“It’s been three minutes,” said the creature curled up in a corner of the ship’s navigation room. “Not time enough.” Her voice was light and full of breath; the lack of vocal cords made it difficult for her to speak in the English language. As often as not, she made the humming noises of her own language, but as often as not, the human crew members’ poor ability to distinguish between her native sounds resulted in a belief that she had said x when she had said y. And of course, the humans could not answer back in Ghat. When they tried, it hurt Ahoda’s ears to hear it; humans speaking Ghat sounded to her like the screaming of her planet’s native jumping plants feeding–and this was not a pleasant sound.

 

“Ahoda, try her,” the navigator said again. “The window for insertion is closing. If we don’t make it on this go around, we’ll have to wait fifteen days for the next opportunity.”

 

“Fifteen days,” Ahoda breathed. She uncoiled and extended her long thin body upward. She didn’t really have a head; her brain and a concentration of sense organs–eyes, nose, ears–were inside her torso. Above it, where a head might be if Ghati had a head, was a sort of elbow with a tentacle-like limb extending down from it on each side. These limbs contained nerves that were able to function as an antenna–and through which she could contact what she called, for the benefit of the humans, the Muse.

 

“Window close in seventeen minutes,” Savos said, peering at his instruments. “Subtract fuel warmup and transfer, that gives us just about eleven minutes,” he said, his voice rising in alarm. “Ahoda!”

 

The creature moved out to the center of the crowded room. “All right,” she breathed. She started spinning her top limbs in a horizontal circle; they connected to her body through a seal and an exterior umbilical cord evolved specifically for the purpose of permitting the arms to spin in the way that Ahoda was spinning them. Inside each arm, organs made of nervous tissue were feeling themselves to be thrown to the circumference of the circle the arms were making, becoming compressed in that direction, and the green fluid that Ahoda’s body used for blood was flowing toward the tips of her arms. They rotated faster, and at a critical moment, the compression inside the nerve-tissue organs caused fluid within them to become magnetically superconductive. The magnetic field around the ship began to churn around her spinning arms. Ahoda perceived this as a spatial sensation, and as her consciousness extended past the hull of the ship and into the local group of stars, quark-pairs in the Muse’s artificial brain responded. In a moment or two, a communication was established across the gulf that separated the ship from the Muse, in orbit around Ahoda’s planet, almost seven thousand light years away, without the bother of transmission time.

 

“Plot…seven…four…seven…zero…seven…nine,” Ahoda’s breathy voice said. She hummed a tone loudly, a full-second burst, then the tone went up a perfect fifth for about an eighth of a second and down a major third for about a fourth of a second.

 

“Don’t give it to me in Ghat,” Savos said. “I can’t distinguish–”

 

“I know,” Ahoda interrupted. Her eyes were closed, sphincters holding thick doors of tissue over them from left to right on one side and right to left on the other. “Power…two…two, six, four,” she was speaking faster now. “Duration is five, seven, seven, zero, and offset is eight, one, three, seven,” she said. Her eyes opened as the arms started to slow down. “That’s it.”

 

“Excellent,” Savos said as he pushed buttons to set the numbers Ahoda had dictated. “That’s Plot 74707, Power 2264, Duration 5770, and Offset 8137.”

 

“Correct,” Ahoda said. Savos double checked the numbers and then sat down in a highly padded, form-fitting chair and, reaching for a lever underneath it, extended it backwards so that he was reclined. Ahoda curled up as she had been before, in a corner of the floor of the navigation room.

 

Savos began pulling straps from underneath his chair, pulling them across his body and fastening them to the other side. “So we’ll burn for about ten minutes and then we’ll take a look.”

 

“That’s right,” Ahoda wheezed from her corner. She was not preparing herself for the launch; she didn’t need to. Organs in her body would act to compensate for the acceleration that was about to occur. Savos, of course, would have to use the chair; if he didn’t, he’d probably live through it, but almost certainly would break bones, depending on how he fell and onto what.

 

The duration number that the Muse had provided was the length of time, in seconds, that the engines would be on. The other numbers held no particular meaning for Savos, or even for Ahoda; they were simply preset codes entered into the ship’s computers by the Ghati engineers who had built the ship and to whom Savos paid a hefty initial feel and continued to pay a monthly retainer for its use.

 

He had finished strapping himself in and he reached up with his free arm to toggle some switches on the ceiling panel, which was now right in his field of vision as he lay on the chair. He read the numbers on the adjacent display. “Burn in five seconds!” He slipped his mouthguard into place, moved his arm to the armrest, and paused, preparing himself for the process. “Two, one…” and he bit down on the mouthpiece. Ahoda looked up casually; she didn’t have to concern herself with it, but merely had to wait it out.

 

Nothing happened.

 

Savos sat still, his eyes on the monitor, watching it as the colors inverted and the numbers started counting up. The inverted colors were supposed to be an indication of the activation of the engine; the count up was supposed to be engine burn time. He had preset it to 577 seconds, as Ahoda had said the Muse had directed. But–nothing. Savos waited; if there was some mistake, he didn’t want himself to be half out of his chair and have the engine start up. Good way to get killed, that.

 

At twenty-one seconds in the count, the engine ignited and Savos’ vision swam red with the acceleration. His last thought as he browned out was that he was glad he hadn’t tried to climb out of the chair.

 

Sometime later, the engine cut off, and Savos felt himself no longer pressed into the chair, although he was not yet fully conscious. He came to slowly, and finally opened his eyes. His immediate concern, even before he determined his own physical condition, was to check the engine burn time; if that hadn’t been right, he would not be where the Muse had instructed him to be, where the Muse said he should be. He looked–the timer said 598. Not 577. Savos felt his heart rate increase, and then he had a thought: the timer had read 21 when the engines ignited. Five hundred seventy seven plus 21 was 598. Perhaps things weren’t as bad as all that, then. A delay before engine burn might have been as a result of temperature problems in the fuel or nozzle pressurization or–

 

As this was running through Savos’ mind, he heard a whirring noise and realized that Ahora was spinning her limbs. He slowly turned his head to look, and saw her there, body extended, her eyes closed. Then she started humming to herself in a complicated pattern, with whistles and clicks that he had never heard her make before. After a few minutes of this, her arms spun down and her eyes opened.

 

“What is it?” he croaked.

 

“We’re not where we should be,” she breathed. “The Muse is very upset.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Ben sat the beer on the bar and wiped his mouth with the paper napkin that had been laid there to set the bottle on; the bartender, a tired-looking man in his 60s, looked up, frowned, and went back to stacking brown bottles into an ancient and clattering top-load cooler behind the bar.

 

“Charlie,” Ben said, looking around nervously, half expecting a dark-suited CIA operative to be behind him, talking into his sleeve. “Charlie, I seen something. I seen something I wasn’t supposed to.” Ben had grown up in Boston and despite many years away from the Northeast, he’d never been able to shake his breathy vowels and his rhotic r’s. His Charlie was Chah-lee; his supposed to was supporsed tah. But Charlie understood him well enough; he was from the Northeast himself.

 

A million years ago, Charlie had been a smart, tough little street hood until a juvie conviction and a tough-love probation officer had set him straight. After that was a hitch in the Marine Corps and then thirty years matching wits with the worst gangbangers that Beantown could vomit up as part of the city’s so-called War on Gangs. It made a nice campaign slogan for a three-term mayor seeking a fourth, but it was a war the city couldn’t win, and Charlie had been a casualty in that war. A bullet in his back fired by a fourteen-year-old thug trying to impress his sixteen-year-old brother the way Charlie had killed a sparrow with his BB gun to impress his own brought his service to the fine citizens of New York to an end—now he was retired, with about sixteen too many hours on his hands day after day.

 

“So whaddya see, Benny?” Charlie responded. “Drug deal? Stick up? What?”

 

“No, nuttin’ like that, Chah-lee,” he said, again glancing around. He clutched the napkin in his hand, and just as Charlie noticed the beads of sweat collecting on his upper lip, Ben wiped his mouth again.

 

“Jesus Christ, Benny,” Charlie laughed. “You look like you’re having a heart attack. Drink your beer.” Charlie stood up and struggled out of his overcoat, which he then draped over his stool in the way he had done in his youth. He sat back down and picked up the glass of scotch the man had poured for him. He swung it around to activate the aromas; Charlie fancied himself quite the scotch aficionado, when the truth was that he couldn’t tell his Speyside from his Islay. But it made good conversation with the women at the bar, when there was one, and when he could catch her eye. Charlie took a swig of the brown liquid. “You ought to be drinking this,” he said.

 

“Hell, I’m afraid to, Charlie,” Ben said. “I gotta be able to open it myself, see? Make sure it ain’t got no dope put in it.”

 

“Oh, my God,” Charlie smiled again and looked down into his glass. “So, you gonna tell me or what?”

 

“Yeah, yeah, Charlie, I’m gonna tell you.” Ben had that look on his face that Charlie knew meant he was screwing up his courage to do something. He’d seen that before over the years as they grew up together. Once, as boys, they climbed to the top diving platform at the South Beach diving pool, intending to jump off together. “Yeah, that’d be great!” Benny had said, but that had been when he was on the ground. He’d climbed up the ladder ahead of Charlie, glancing back from time to time to make sure Charlie was behind him. Up on top, Benny got that look on his face. “Uh, Charlie, it’s a long way down,” he said, unable to let go of the railing along the sides of the platform.

 

“Well, sure it is, whaddya think?” Charlie said. He walked out and dangled his toes off the edge. “Come on,” he said, looking back at Benny’s shaking frame. “Well, come on already, ya baby. I’m getting cold up here.”

 

Without another word, Ben marched out and jumped off the platform stiffly; Charlie followed, and they both smacked the water hard and went deep. Charlie was up first; he snapped his head, flinging the water and wet hair off of his face, and looked around. No Ben. He turned around in the water, looking here and there. No Ben. “Hey, Benny, where are ya?” he said weakly, treading water hard to keep his head up. Then he flipped over to his stomach, swam over to the edge of the pool, and hefted himself up. He scanned the water, but he didn’t see Ben. “Ben!” he yelled.

 

“Yeah, what do ya want?” Ben’s voice called from the shallow end of the pool. He had evidently swam underwater for some distance before he surfaced.

 

That had been a long time ago, but tonight, Ben had that look again. “So, tell me already,” Charlie said, upending his glass.

“Okay, okay,” Ben said, continuing to look around “You remember Lucy Lennes?”

 

“Lucy Lennes?” Charlie said, astonished. “Sure I do. Juicy Lucy. But what has she got to do with anything?”

 

“Remember Lucy’s house?” Ben said.

 

“Sure,” Charlie responded. “My side of the street, four houses down. When Lucy died and her family moved away, that house sat vacant for a couple of years, and then they tore it down and built a different house on that same lot.”

 

“Yeah. Well, before Lucy died, when we all lived there, ah—” Ben looked around again and leaned in towards Charlie. “Something happened, Charlie. I had forgotten about it until—”

 

“What?”

 

“Shh!”

 

“All right, already,” Charlie said, softening his voice. “What happened?”

 

“Okay,” Ben took a drink of his beer and swallowed hard. “I was over at Lucy’s house, and there was this guy, a man. An adult. I never saw him before, see? He was sitting in a chair on Lucy’s porch, and Lucy was standing in her yard.”

 

“When was this, exactly?”

 

“Ah, I was ten. Lucy was nine, and you would have been twelve.”

 

“So, about 1970.”

 

“Yeah. 1970,” Ben repeated. “So, I walk up and say ‘Hey, Lucy,’ and she says hello, and I notice the guy on the porch, and I say ‘Who’s that?’ And Lucy says that he’s a friend of her dad’s.”

“Okay,” Charlie said.

 

“So, I walked up to the porch and I noticed this guy’s clothing, because he was dressed weird. Pants made from metallic thread or wire of some kind, knitted together like chain mail, gray-looking. The shoes were woven into the pants, like footies on pajamas. He was wearing a shirt that had horizontal panels, puffed up, sort of. One sleeve was long and one was short, I remember that.” Ben said.

 

“Who was he?” Charlie asked.

 

“Okay, so Lucy said something to him that I didn’t understand. I thought I hadn’t heard her clearly, and that that was why I didn’t understand her. But it wasn’t that. Now I know what it was.”

“What was it?”

 

“They—” Ben swiveled his head around again right and then left, and suddenly grasped his beer glass and napkin. “Come with me!” he said, standing and striding quickly towards the door. He placed his beer glass on an adjoining table near the front as he passed by and was out of the door before Charlie could respond.

 

“Hey, hey, where are you—” There was no point calling after him—he was gone. Charlie got up and wrestled on his long coat. He searched around in the pocket for a moment, found a fiver, and placed it on the counter. As he turned, he noticed two patrons in a booth along the wall looking at him carefully, following him with their eyes as he worked his way toward the door, and then he stepped out into the brisk night air.

 

Once out, Charlie looked one way and then the other, and didn’t see Ben in either direction. He shrugged, turned to his left, and started walking down the street.

 

He walked for a while, but the cold bothered his back, down low on the left, where that fourteen-year-old thug’s bullet had gone in, and when it became intolerable, he stepped into the next doorway to warm up and rest a bit. It was another bar; there were plenty of them up and down Beacon Street, and Charlie knew most of them. He stepped in the door and moved straight to the bar, where an athletic-looking woman, not young, but attractive, held a telephone handset against her ear with her shoulder while she moved her hands under the bar. She mouthed ‘hello, Charlie’ to him and waved him over.

 

“Okay, okay, Sal, let me call you later, honey,” she said into the phone. “Okay, okay, Sal. Yeah.” Sal was apparently a little hard to get off the phone. “Yes, Sal, all right then. Yes, tomorrow. Okay.” She put the phone down just as Charlie was sitting down on the stool. “Charlie!” she said. “What the hell are you doing out here on a night like this?”

 

“Hello, Bev,” Charlie said. “Oh, I’m just—” Charlie started, and then he heard a siren outside. It was close—close enough to attract the interest of the patrons in the bar.

 

“What do you suppose that is?” Bev said, peering around Charlie. The door to the bar swung closed after Charlie passed through it, but there was a window in the door, and through it, the steady beat of a police lights, blue, blue, and then red, could be seen. Two men had been playing pool at the table near the door; they both stood with their sticks in their hands, looking at the door, and then one of them went to it and opened it.

 

“Pauly, can you see anything?” Bev asked.

 

“Two BPD cars and an ambulance,” he said. “Something’s happened just down the street, right around Sullivan’s place.” And then the man stepped off in the direction of the police lights, and was gone.

 

“Hey, Pauly,” his pool opponent said. “Hey, hey!” He too moved through the open door and was gone.

 

Several other patrons were leaving too, and as they did, Bev frowned. “Hey, you bums come back here and pay your tabs!” she said.

 

“Oh, hush, Bev, we’ll be right back,” one of them said as he passed through the open door. Then the pool player stuck his head back through the open door. “Charlie, you better come quick, it’s Ben.”

 

“Ben?” Charlie said.

 

“Yeah, Ben!” the man said, motioning. “Come on!”

 

Charlie got off the stool; he was still wearing his overcoat, and it swirled around his body as he moved out into the street. He hurried along to where the police lights flashed among the many people standing around where the paramedics were loading a body onto a gurney. He pushed his way to the front. It wasn’t hard, the people seemed to know who he was and they parted for him. As he approached, he saw that it was Ben all right, on the gurney, face up, covered to the neck with a sheet, and straps over that held him down. Charlie moved up so he could see Ben clearly and talk to him.

 

“Ben! Benny, what’s the matter with you?” he asked. Ben had a thin plastic mask covering his nose and mouth; he appeared to be breathing, but his eyes remained closed and there was no response. “What’s the matter with him?” Charlie asked the young man who was strapping the oxygen bottle that fed the mask to the side of the gurney.

 

“Not sure,” he responded. “You know him?”

 

“Sure I do,” Charlie said. “It’s Benny,” Charlie said. Now there was another young man next to the gurney, and the two of them whisked it away and put it in the back of the ambulance; Charlie followed. “Now, wait a minute,” he said, “I’ll—” Charlie didn’t know what to do. “I’ll ride along with you.”

 

“We can’t let you do that, sir. Don’t worry, now, we’ll take good care of him.” The paramedics had Ben in the ambulance now, and Charlie was left standing, confused, in the street with the other people, as they got into the truck, started it up, and drove off, siren blazing. Charlie watched it as it weaved its way down the street, turned a corner, and was gone. The bystanders started to wander off, back to their own lives and concerns, and then Charlie noticed a single figure, standing in the cold without a coat on. That was the first thing Charlie noticed about him.

 

The second thing Charlie noticed was the odd shirt the man was wearing.

 

It had one short sleeve and one long sleeve.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

An old man lay in a hospital bed, weak, agitated, and confused. “The milk truck comes on Wednesdays and Saturdays,” he said to no one in particular, although there were several people in the room with him. No one acknowledged his revelation or responded. “Wednesday!” he repeated, surprising strongly. A pause, then “Saturdays,” he said weakly, as if he had not yet recovered from the effort that saying the first day had taken.

 

“How long has he been this way?” one of the men standing in the room said to one of the others. They were of similar build, dressed similarly in slacks and white shirts, jackets but no ties. Each had a clear plastic plug in his left ear, and a tightly coiled wire made its way behind each man’s ear, down each man’s neck, and disappeared under each man’s collar. Each sported a short, military-style haircut, and each had the same thin trace of a pattern around his eyes, as if each spent a lot of time outside in the sun wearing sunglasses. They were similar enough to have been stamped out of cookie dough.

 

“All day. He woke up going on about the milk truck,” responded the second man. He was a member of the regular detail, while the first man was an additional team member brought in to help secure the hospital during the time the former president would be convalescing. Or dying.

 

The door to the small private room opened and a woman entered. She wore a white smoke over a green dress and flat shoes that would be comfortable during a day spent on her feet walking around a hospital. On the front of her smock was embroidered “Rebecca C. Frayley, MD, PhD,” and below that, in smaller letters, “Chief of Psychiatry.” She approached the two cookie-cutter men, and nodded at one of them.

 

“Good afternoon,” she said softly.

 

“Hello, Doctor,” he responded. Then, to his partner, who wasn’t a member of the regular detail and therefore would not have known, he said: “Dr. Frayley has been working with him.” The partner nodded.

 

“Doctor,” the partner nodded.

 

Frayley stepped around the two men and up to the side of the old man’s bed. “Hello there,” she said brightly, turning on her big smile. The man had been holding his head at an odd angle, an uncomfortable-looking angle, but on hearing her, he turned to her and looked directly at her. For a moment, Frayley wondered if he was having a moment of lucidity. He focused on her face as if it were the first face he’d seen in a while. He was old, but his distinctive features were immediately recognizable from the media, if you were over forty, or from the history books if you weren’t. It was easy to see that he had been good-looking once, even if his looks had faded almost completely with the years.

 

“The milk truck?” he asked. Frayley ignored the question.

 

“Mr. President, I’m Rebecca Frayley. Do you know where you are?”

 

“The milk truck comes on Wednesdays,” the former president confided in a low voice. “And Saturdays.”

 

“Yes, sir,” Frayley responded. “Mr. President, do you know me.”

 

“Perhaps,” the old man said, and, looking away, returning to the awkward posture, he smiled a smile that was at once both charming and horrible. Charming in that it was clearly the smile that forty-eight years ago had charmed 56 percent of the nation’s voters and four years after that had charmed 61 percent of them, and horrible in that it was ravaged by a particularly unkind old age. The unshaven face, the spotty skin, the diseased teeth. “The milk truck comes on Wednesdays,” he repeated, and the smile collapsed. Out of office forty years, the old man’s stature as an elder statesman had replaced the many failings and weaknesses of policy and person he’d had during his terms as president.

 

“All right, sir, we’ll talk later, okay?” Frayley patted his forearm, and he turned to face her once again.

 

“Rebecca,” he said.

 

Frayley was surprised, and for an instant, her face revealed it. “Yes, sir?”

 

“That’s a nice name,” he said, staring directly at her. His cool blue eyes hadn’t changed at all since his heyday, and Rebecca understood how he would have been attractive.”

 

“Why, thank you, Mr. President,” she responded. Then, without thinking, she said, “I’ve always liked the name Stephen.”

 

He smiled. “The milk truck comes on Saturdays, Rebecca,” he said, and then he took a big sigh. “Wednesdays and Saturdays every week.”

 

“Thank you, Mr. President.” She got up and walked around to a small table along the wall. The laptop computer there was connected to the hospital’s record system. She sat down and deftly typed her password into the keyboard, clicked a few keys, and then turned to the Secret Service agent she had spoken to before. “His records aren’t in our computer,” she said.

 

“No. I think I have what you need here,” he said. She hadn’t noticed before, but the agent had an out-sized roll-around briefcase at his side, and he stooped to flip open the top of it and fish out a thick folder. On the front, it said “Classified Medical Record — TS” in red letters. He offered it to her, and she took it.

 

“Thank you,” she said, opening the folder. On top of the papers was the most recent assessment of the former president’s mental status, and under that the results of blood work and a full physical. Under that was Frayley’s own assessment of the president, conducted three months prior when she visited him at his ranch in southern Ohio. On that day, he had been lucid, ambulatory, and plainly attracted by her young femininity–it had been the first time she’d met the man, and she had been surprisingly nervous, but this soon faded as he made her feel comfortable and welcome in the well-appointed front room where she conducted her assessment.

 

“I’m pleased to meet you, Mr. President,” she had said.

 

“And I you,” he had responded with a surprising degree of charm. “Are you sure you’re really a doctor, Doctor? You seem so young.” The way he said it, smiling and gripping her hand, it was somehow disarming.

 

“Oh, yes, sir,” she said. “I trained at Boston Hospital, and did a residency at Johns Hopkins.”

 

“Of course,” he said, releasing her hand. “My friends there–” he nodded to the silent figure standing in the room, with a plug in his ear and a tightly coiled wire snaking down his shirt–“they say you’re okay, and that’s good enough for me.”

 

“Very kind of you to have me in your home,” she said.

 

“It’s my pleasure. Since Suzy died, the place, well, it’s not the same for me, but it is nice. All this is her idea,” he said, his arm sweeping up to indicate the room and its decorations and furniture. “I never had much of an eye for design.”

 

“It’s beautiful, sir, and I’m so sorry about your wife.” The president’s wife, the former first lady, had died nearly two years ago of natural causes.

 

“Thank you,” he said. “Shall we sit?” He motioned for her to sit in a blue-upholstered chair and once she had done so, he took his place in a rocking chair nearby, cushions on the arms but only hard wood on the seat and back. “This is the best thing for my back,” he said. “I understand Kennedy used to do the same thing.”

 

“Yes, I believe I’ve seen pictures of that,” Frayley responded. She retrieved a half-size clipboard from her purse and unsnapped the pen from the clip that fastened it there. “May I take a couple of notes, please?” she asked.

 

“You’re the doctor,” he said, smiling.

 

“Alright, sir, let me establish orientation first, if I may. Where are we right now, can you tell me?”

 

“I believe I can,” he returned. We are in my sitting room, in my house, just outside of the city of Salyerville, Ohio.”

 

“And the date?”

 

“Today is Thursday, March 21.”

 

“And the year?” She felt silly asking this, so she kept her eyes on her notes.

 

“Twenty eighty.”

 

“Alright, very good, sir.” She looked up. “Okay, how are you feeling today?”

 

He shrugged. “I feel fine. I wish I was still president,” he said with a half-smile.

 

“Let’s see, you’ve been out of office how long now?” she said.

 

“Forty years this year. Hard to believe it’s been that long, but forty years. My second term was ‘36 to ‘40.”

 

“I was born during your second term,” she said, and she immediately regretting saying it, thinking that it might emphasize the old man’s age.

 

“Ha! Yes, that’s entirely possible,” he said. “Just how old are you, young doctor, if I may ask.”

 

“I’m 38,” she responded.

 

“Had your birthday yet?”

 

“No, sir, that’s not until June.”

 

“I see. Born in ’37 then. Yeah, that was a great time,” he said. “That summer, Suzy and I went to Europe and brokered a deal with Yanilov to resolve those disputed islands in the North Pacific.” He seemed thoughtful for a moment. “Yanilov, now there’s a leader for you. Man was an idiot, but he was the most effective player in Russian politics I’d ever seen, or have ever seen, for that matter.”

 

“I know the name, but that’s about all,” Rebecca said with a smile.

 

“Yeah, Yanilov. He was younger than me, but he died young, you know. He had a beautiful young wife, she lives in Sweden now, I believe.”

 

“And Miyakawa?” she asked.

 

“I’m surprised you know that name. Yeah, Miyakawa. Terrible about what happened to him.” The president was referring to the assassination attempt, which took place in 2041 and left the Japanese Prime Minister in a wheelchair and breathing with just one lung.

 

“Yes.” She paused for a moment, studying the Forty-Ninth President of the United States carefully. He sat still, arms on the cushioned covers of the rocking chair’s arms, staring off into the middle distance. Perhaps he was thinking about his own near-brush with death at the hands of an assassin. The president had taken a bullet to the leg in that episode, and a Secret Service agent had been killed.

 

The would-be assassin made his attempt on the president’s life, failed, and then took a vial of cyanide; he died in about two minutes, but a quick-thinking Secret Service agent had managed to record the man’s last words using his sleeve microphone. Although he was not a Turk–the man turned out to be Syrian–he had spoken in Turkish, and what he said turned out to be the lyrics to a song that was popular in the Middle East about the time that Iraq was dissolved as a nation and split into four self-governing provinces. Despite a good deal of effort, the Secret Service had never been able to connect that song to anything related to the president or to the man’s desire to have him removed from the political scene.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Johnny “Cruiser” Paddington sat slumped in the dark in the command chair on the deserted bridge of the eight-billion-dollar Artois Jacksonville asleep. A wide variety of lights and panels quietly flashed and winked around him, punctuated by the occasional unobtrusive and easily-ignored beep or click; some monitored crew health, for the crew members still in sleep mode, some displayed results of internal ship diagnostic tests. The centrally located ones indicated basic course and navigation information: where the ship was, and when. Engine condition and status panels showed that the engines were shut down, and the fuel languished in its exterior tanks in cold sink, which was safer than having that stuff inside the wall. Cruiser’s mouth hung open and a thin thread of spittle dangled for this bottom lip; it slowly stretched and finally dropped into his lap.

 

Then a light flashed on the arm of the command chair. This did not disturb Cruiser. The beep that followed the flash did–he awoke with a start, confused, not quite sure where he was right away. There had been a voice after the beep that had said a few words, but Cruiser had not caught them.

 

“Cruiser, you there?” the voice said again after a pause. The voice was soft and female, one of those voices that are immediately connected to an attractive, young woman. Cruiser was still looking around, trying to orient himself. He wiped his lip with his hand and looked at the speaker in the command chair’s arm from which the voice was coming. All of a sudden, he seemed to come to his senses, and he pressed a button near the speaker.

 

“Yeah, Tammy, I’m here.”

 

“Okay,” the female voice responded. Nichols’ breathing is a little slow, and his O2 level is a little low for some reason. Can you have a look from up there?’

 

“Ah, yeah, sure,” Cruiser said. He flipped a switch on a display and studied it for a moment. “It’s within range,” he said.

 

“Yes, I know,” the female voice responded. “But no sense risking brain damage, right?” It was so hard to know when she was kidding, Cruiser thought. He decided it didn’t really matter that the oxygen level in the sleeping man’s blood was a little on the low side of normal, but that it was no bar to giving his respiration rate a little boost, nor was it a problem to give Lieutenant Commander Phillip K. Nichols from Syracuse, New York, a little extra oxygen. “Whatever. Bump him up to four or five, if you want,” he said.

 

“Yeah, I think I will,” Tammy said. “I’m going to give him the shot, and let’s put him at five for a couple of hours.” A pause. “You getting all this down, Cruiser?”

 

“Do your own damn notes,” he said.

 

“Oh, come on, sweetie,” Tammy answered back, her usually hidden and controlled Tennessee accent sweet and syrupy. “If I do them down here, I’ll have to transfer them when I get up there.”

 

Cruiser signed. “All right,” he said. He swung around a keyboard and typed a few lines. “Tam? I got it,” he said.

 

“Thanks,” she answered back. Her voice was out of Southern-Belle register now, but the approach had worked–again.

Out of the corner of his eye, Cruiser noted a panel tucked on the far side of the long counter that the command chair faced, right along its edge. Then a panel right in the center flashed red, its perimeter turned red and held, and then a high-pitched alarm squeaked twice loudly and a siren light mounted far up on the wall began to turn, pouring an amber beacon across the bridge. “Jesus Christ!” Cruise said. “Tammy, there’s something happening up here.”

 

“Yeah, I see it,” she responded. Cruiser stood and padded over to the far side of the long counter and studied the display carefully.

 

“Tammy,” he said loudly, projecting to the microphone on the chair, which he was now about ten or twelve feet away from. No response. “Tammy!” he repeated.

 

“What?” the speaker on the command chair’s arm responded weakly. “I can’t hear you.”

 

Cruiser pressed a nearby button on a panel, reached over to grab a headset, and put it on, swinging the microphone boom around to his chin. “Yeah, Tam, you got me here?”

 

“Rog,” she answered.

 

“Okay, I’ve got alarm activations on Barnes, Doornbos, Richardson, and Fite,” he said, his tone suddenly businesslike and precise. “All low oxygen, all depressed respiration. Barnes and Richardson are both at two, and Doornbos is–” he looked hard at the display. “No, that can’t be right.”

 

“Doornbos shows one down here,” Tammy said. “I’ll bump him first, and then we’ll look at the others.”

 

“What the hell?” Cruiser muttered. “Tam! Our life support in here is fogging up too! What the hell is going on?”

 

“I see it,” Tammy said, her voice also suddenly precise and businesslike. “I’m on it.” Down in the sleep room, Tammy was seated at a long control panel, working with several display screens and controls. Behind her, the white coffin-like containers that held the sleeping crew were stacked three-high. A variety of hoses and tubes fed into them, and status lights flashed and blinked here and there to indicate the condition of the crewmembers inside. In all, there were forty-five of them. Some were scientists, some were technical experts, some were Artois men put on the ship for who knows what purpose. Richardson was one of the company men. Tammy remembered him, and she remembered being surprised at how old he was.

 

“Sixty-seven, is that right?” she had said to the Artois official who was transferring crew history to the ship’s medical staff.

 

“Yes, that’s right,” the man had said. “He’s in better shape than I am.”

 

“Hmm,” she had responded. She hadn’t wanted to call attention to the man’s age; she liked to think that Artois wouldn’t put someone on the crew who wasn’t able to make the sleep and do the job. But sixty-seven had to be pushing it. “Do you have blood mobility work on Mr–” she had to look at the file to get the name. “–Richardson?”

 

“Yes.” The man seemed to understand her concern, and he didn’t argue. He gave her a piece of paper. “Here you are, doctor,” he said. “Blood mobility was four millimeters per second for eight seconds,” he said.

 

“Um-hmm,” Tammy responded, studying the sheet. “That was from arterial blood. What about venous?” she asked.

 

“Ah, yes, I have that too,” he said, fumbling around with papers. “Here you are,” he said. passing the test result over. “That one is also four per second, I believe.”

 

“Okay,” Tammy answered. After she had studied the man’s medical history, she asked to meet him, and he showed up in her office at the designated time.

 

“Hello, Doctor,” he said as he stepped into the room. “I’m Doug Richardson, nice to meet you.”

 

“Nice to meet you, Mr. Richardson,” she had said, shaking the proffered hand.

 

“Mister,” he repeated, smiling. “Well, that does take some getting used to, I’ll tell you that. Please call me Doug.”

 

“Have a seat,” she said, motioning to one of two chairs set at an angle some distance away from the front edge of her desk. She came around and sat in the other chair; conversation was easier that way, and besides, technically–at least until recently–Richardson had outranked her.”

 

“Thank you, Doctor,” he said. He sat comfortably and smiled at her; he was handsome, and it was clear to Tammy that in his youth, he must have been quite an attractive man. He was clearly past his forties, but he appeared to be in good shape. Tammy knew from his medical record that he was indeed–he had the heart of a healthy twenty-five-year-old, and enviable blood lipid numbers.

 

“How long have you been retired, sir?” she asked.

 

“Doug’s fine,” the man repeated. “Nearly a year now. I hit my high year as a two-star, you know, and it was getting to the point where more opportunities for someone my age were present outside the service instead of inside it.”

 

“I see,” she said.

 

“I think I know why you asked to see me,” he said.

 

“You do?”

 

“Sure.” He had a way of talking that made her feel comfortable; it was like talking to her own father. “I think you are wondering what an old guy like me is doing getting on a boat to Saturn.”

 

“You’re not old, sir,” she said.

 

“Doug.”

 

“You’re not old, Doug,” she repeated, feeling vaguely uncomfortable calling a retired major general–and a man old enough to be her father–Doug. “Mid-sixties isn’t nearly as old as it used to be, and you seem to have maintained yourself pretty well, according to your numbers.”

 

“Yes.”

 

“Of course, artificial hibernation is hard on everyone. Humans aren’t bears, and even if they were, sleeping for twenty and thirty months at a time is a little beyond the pale.”

 

“This will be my eighth sleep,” he said. “The first two or three were really terrible–the process wasn’t as good as it was later, and certainly seems to be getting better all the time.”

 

“When was your last long sleep?” she asked. She knew the answer, of course, but she wanted to get him talking and work him around to her concerns.

 

“Trip to Jupiter, let’s see, it’s been–five years now,” he said. “Hard to believe it’s been that long, but yes. Fourteen months out and ten months back.”

 

“Jupiter? Must have been to one of the moons,” she said. “Callisto?”

 

“Afraid I can’t tell you that, Doctor,” he said. smiling.

 

She laughed lightly. “Oh, of course, sir. What was I thinking?” His eyes were twinkling, and for a moment, she wondered if he was kidding, but then she realized that he of course was not kidding. Five years ago he had still be active-duty. If anything, it was probably the military facilities on Ganymede. He didn’t answer back, he was just looking at her and smiling. “And now, you’ll be going to the fusion fuel plants on Titan.”

 

“Yes, that’s what it says in my briefing,” he said.

 

“Doug,” she said, “you’ll be the oldest crewmember on the mission by about a decade. You’re fourteen years older than the captain.” She put it out there to gauge his reaction, but his only reaction was a lack of reaction.

 

“Yes, that’s right,” he finally said, breaking the silence.

 

“That a problem for you at all?”

 

“No,” he said. He moved his jaw around; it was a thing he did when he wanted to communicate that he was thinking. “You know, I’ve served in hierarchies my whole life. Once, I was the youngest member of a crew, by nearly a decade, as I recall. It wasn’t a problem then, and it’s not a problem now,” he said. “It’s just the natural other side of things. I’m happy to serve,” he said convincingly.

 

By this point, Tammy had already decided to give him the medical and psychological clearance. It was clear to her that he wasn’t some sort of cowboy trying to go out in a blaze of glory or a once-was and has-been who would be the last one on the ship to realize it. No–this man still had another trip or perhaps two in him, as far as Tammy was concerned. Richardson suddenly stood and stepped gracefully around her desk; he had seen something hanging on the wall there and moved to get a closer look. She noticed that his movements had an animal grace, and as he moved in close to the wall to examine the photograph there, she observed his trim and tall figure. “What is this photograph?” he asked.

“That’s my medical school class,” she answered. “It was just before our residencies started.”

 

“I see you here,” he said, and then he turned. “This is you here, isn’t it? Third row, third from the left?

 

“Yep, that’s me,” she answered. “I look like I’m about twelve years old, don’t it?”

 

“Well, you were young. You are young,” he said. He had turned back to the photograph. “And this young man here, second row, fifth from the left. I know this man.”

 

She wasn’t sure to whom he was referring, so she got up and moved so she could see which figure he had spotted. “Oh, that’s Bill Oliveres.”

 

“Wild Bill Oliveres, yes,” he said.

 

“Wild Bill!” she repeated. She was amazed that he actually did know Bill–and that he was able to identify him from a tiny image in a group photograph from across her office. “Yes, that’s right. But how do you know that?”

 

“Bill and I knew each other on Artois Stockton,” he said flatly.

“You were on Stockton?” she said. That little detail hadn’t been in the medical record.

 

“Yeah,” he said, returning to his seat. “I was assigned there, but they put me off on Mars before–”

 

“Oh,” she said. She was still looking at the photo. “Yeah, poor Bill. He was a good doctor,” she said.

 

“Yes, he was.”

 

Tammy turned around and stood behind her desk. “Thank you for coming in, Mr. Richardson.”

 

“My pleasure.” He stood and stuck out his hand again. “Have a nice day, Doctor.

 

“You too,” she said. And then he was gone, and she hadn’t seen him again until just now, as she looked through the small window on the sleep compartment, called coffins by everyone. A bit of gallows humor. He was a lot paler, but there was the same square jaw and the same lined face that somehow signaled experience along with age. She manipulated controls and buttons, working to get some additional oxygen into his system. After she had solved the immediate problem, she intended then to address the systemic failure, but for now, getting Richardson up to at least a two was the priority.

 

Then she heard Cruiser’s voice from the bridge again, and this time she noted a strain in it that she couldn’t place at first. “Tam, we’ve got another problem,” he said.

 

“I’m busy!” she answered back. Then she suddenly realized what the strain in his voice had been.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“This stuff is all quite a bit different than the life on Earth,” the woman in the white lab coat said. “It’s not that it looks different, but it is different, biochemically.” She looked up from the microscope and stood up. “Take a look at that, for instance.” She gestured toward the seat, and Franklin sat down.

 

“What it is?” he asked.

 

“Just have a look and tell me what you think.”

 

He put his eyes to the eyepieces and rotated the focusing knobs a little. “Looks like some single-cells to me,” he said.

 

“They do look like that, but they’re not,” the woman answered. “Take the probe and touch one of the cells on the edge of the colony.”

 

Franklin looked up from the eyepiece, grasped the slender instrument lying on the table, then put his eyes back to the eyepieces. Through the microscope, he saw the end of the probe and touched one of the cells. It twitched–and so did all the other cells. “Whoa,” Franklin said.

 

“They’re like a school of fish. They respond as a group.”

 

“School of fish, huh?” Franklin did it a couple of more times, gently prodding cells on that side of the colony and observing how the cells throughout the colony responded. He continued to gaze through the microscope as he spoke. “You know, small fish of the kind I think you mean, mackerel and such, they do communicate. They do it through their motion. Even a large school can seem to turn simultaneously. But they don’t. Slow motion films show how each fish starts moving after the previous one and before the subsequent one.” He looked up from the eyepieces. “I don’t think that’s what’s going on here.”

 

“No, it’s not,” she said. Most of the Devonian animals we’ve examined are able to access some sort of shared consciousness. We don’t know how much information they can share or how detailed it is, but they seem to be able to share community-critical information.”

 

Franklin stood up. “Well, there’s survival benefit in it, I guess.”

 

The woman shrugged. “There’s something else I want to show you,” she said as she stepped over to one of a row of white cabinets that lined the wall. She opened a door; inside were all manner of jars, each of which filled with a yellowish fluid and each containing some sort of embalmed specimen. She carefully picked up one of the jars and closed the cabinet door. “Take a look at this,” she said, putting it on the counter next to the microscope.

 

“What is that?” Franklin said.

 

“It lives in shallow water, near the poles,” she said. “It’s one of the few animals we’ve seen on Devon that has fur.”

 

“Is it mammalian?” “No, not in the traditional sense,” she said as she rotated the bottle around. “No animal on Devon makes milk, as far as we know, and this one sure didn’t. And it doesn’t have a placenta either.”

 

“How cold does it get on Devon?”

 

“At the poles, there’s water ice, in the depth of the Devonian winters,” she said. “Now, look at this little adaptation.” She pointed to a pair limb-like projections coming from the ends of the animal’s twin spines, that ran together like train tracks down the back of its body. The projections met and formed a sort of small rectangular panel.

 

“What is that?”

 

“It’s full of nerves,” she said. “The nerves are laid down in a very interesting pattern. They don’t branch, as human nerves do. When we showed it to some electronics experts, they knew immediately what it was.”

 

“So what it is?”

 

“It’s an antenna,” she said. “A pretty sophisticated FM antenna.”

 

“So this thing could listen to the radio?” Franklin asked.

 

“No. But inside its head is another structure. A transmitter.”

 

“Radio?” Franklin asked.

 

“Right,” the woman said. “This creature could communicate in radio with–” She paused and picked up the jar. “Well, with its family or whatever, I guess.” She put the jar back in the cabinet and closed the door.

 

“Naturally evolved radio communication,” Franklin mused. “The cells couldn’t have that, though. They’re too small.”

 

“Yeah, we don’t know how the cells do it, whether it’s radio or something else.”

 

“Tell me something,” Franklin said. “These cells, and those creatures in all those jars inside those cabinets. Where’d you get them?”

 

“Devon,” she said. “Oh, come on, everybody knows that the Devonians don’t let us on their planet. Did they give them to you?”

 

She turned away. “They’re Devonian species, Dr. Franklin. We just study them and try to make sense of them.”

 

“Did you decant them?” She looked at him levelly for a few moments, then looked down.

 

“No, we didn’t,” she said.

 

“Hmm.” Franklin responded. It was her defeat and his victory; as a scientist, she had to admit that having not sourced the specimens herself, she was without any way to verify where they actually were from. “For all you know, they may be some sort of created creatures.”

 

“I don’t think so,” she said. “We’ve got one in the freezer. It’s alive. And it’s broadcasting.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Jay Brinkley took the lanyard from around his neck and gave it to the guard that sat behind a desk in the hallway adjacent to a heavy door, like the door to a bank vault.

 

“Hey, Charlie, how are you doing this morning?”

 

“Fine, Mr. Brinkley,” he said as he inspected the card carefully, looking up at Brinkley’s face. Satisfied, he swiped the card through a slot in a panel on his desk. ”All right, sir,” he said, and Brinkley responded by pressing his right index finger on a pad at the edge of the desk. There was a soft click, and the guard typed a number into a keypad at his elbow, then he rose from the desk, walked around it, and entered a number onto a keypad on the door. There was a louder click, and he rotated a handle on the door and opened it. ”There you go, Mr. Brinkley.”

 

“Thanks.” Brinkley stepped through into a small chamber, like an airlock, and stood still while the guard closed the outer door. When the outer door was closed, the guard’s voice sounded over a speaker in the small white-plastic-walled chamber.

 

“Okay, Mr. Brinkley, you’re all set.”

 

Brinkley pressed his finger against a pad just exactly like the one on the guard’s desk, and a door at the other end clicked open. Brinkley stepped through it and down a paneled hallway that terminated in a paneled door with the seal of the Central Intelligence Agency on it and underneath that, a small placard: “The Raborn Conference Room” Brinkley entered quietly and sat down in one of the chairs that lined the walls of the darkened room.

 

About a dozen people were seated around a long table in the center of the room while a young woman in a uniform stood near the screen at the other end and delivered a briefing. Several of them turned and nodded at Brinkley as he entered; one of the near his end of the table got up and sat down the chair next to him.

 

“Tim, it’s hollow and it’s full of water.” he said.

 

“Water?” Brinkley responded.

 

“Yeah, water. It’s hollow, the hull is about 1800 feet thick. We think it might be pressurized, but it’s definitely full of water.”

 

“There’s no way that’s natural, right?”

 

“Nope. No way.”

 

“Anybody found a way into it yet? A door or window or something?”

 

“Nope. No door.” One of the men seated around the table was motioning to the man who was speaking with Brinkley. ”I’ve got to get back,” the man said. ”Nobody knows what to do with this,” he said.

 

“Yeah, I know,” Brinkley responded. ”I’ll see you later.”

 

The young woman was concluding her briefing. The slide on the screen was a satellite view of the object as it lay on the ground with the borders of Kenya drawn around it—the scale of the thing was nearly incomprehensible. ”That’s the status of our knowledge at this moment. Several of our teams are in place and working with the Kenyans and our international partners to investigate. That’s where we are,” she said. ”This briefing is classified TSI-yellow six,” she said. ”I’d be happy to address your questions now.”

 

The man at the far end of the table spoke up. ”What’s inside it? Besides the water, I mean.”

 

“We don’t know yet, Mr. Secretary,” the young woman said crisply. She did not appear to be unfazed by this admission of ignorance.

 

“Commander,” a woman near that end of the table said, “how do we get into this thing?”

 

“There are no obvious doors or ports,” she said. ”Initial examination of the hull indicates a nonmetallic ceramic of unknown composition. It is paramagnetic, dull gray in color, and does not conduct electricity. The surface is rough, about the texture of cinder block.” She called up to the video booth window above the screen. ”Dave, give me Slide 14 again, please.” The screen flickered, and there was a close-up view of the object, with a ruler against it for scale. As the commander had said, it was the texture of cinder block. “The initial ultrasonics indicate a standard hull thickness of about 1800 feet, as briefed,” she said.

 

“Excuse me, Shelly,” one of the men at the table interrupted. ”This thing is about 45 miles tall, right? Eighteen hundred feet is only a tiny fraction of that total height. Can a container that big full of water stay together with walls only 1800 feet thick?”

 

“No, not really, sir. Maybe in space, but not on the ground.”

 

“Are there any indications of bulging or mechanical stress in the hull?” one of the older men at the table asked.

 

“No, sir,” the briefer responded. ”The dimensions are the same to within inches as they were measured, both in space and during its descent.”

 

After a few moments of silence, the man at the far end of the table spoke again. ”Okay, that’ll be all, Commander, thank you. Lights.” The lights in the room came up as the young woman gathered papers and disappeared through a door near the screen.

 

Secretary of State Thomas Wilburn stood up, looked down the long table, and then at his watch. ”I have to brief in twenty minutes,” he said. His head pivoted around as he nodded to individuals around the table. ”Pete, you come with me on this one, and Gloria, I’d like you there too. Jay, I saw you come in,” he said, looking over at Brinkley. ”You come along too, okay? That’ll be all, folks. Keep this one close hold, and let’s see how long it takes for the media to get this business about it being full of water.”

 

The people around the table and along the wall started getting up, some leaving immediately, some forming into groups of one or two, speaking softly. Tim got up and moved to where the secretary, Pete Verner, and Gloria Westphal were huddled together.

 

“Yeah, well, something that size comes all that way, lands softly on the open desert, something’s going to happen soon,” the older woman was saying. ”A door will open and something’s going to come out of that thing one way or another.”

 

“Sure,” Pete said. ”All I’m saying is that it’s most likely an automated probe of some kind. We send rovers to Mars—somebody somewhere has sent this thing to us.”

 

“A probe 200 miles long?” Gloria responded. ”There’s no need to make a probe that big. It’s got to be something that something alive is living in.”

 

“We have no basis for that sort of conclusion,” Pete said. They continued to banter back and forth.

 

“Tim, tell this guy,” Gloria said as he approached. ”It’s too big to be a probe, there’s got to be beings inside. Hell, the thing is the length of New Jersey, and so tall that it’s going to interfere with north African weather.”

 

“Forty-five miles high,” Pete said. ”That’s just incredible.”

 

“And the whole thing is sitting in the sand in northern Kenya,” Gloria said. ”Forty-five by 200-mile footprint, and 45 miles high.” She shook her head. ”It’s incomprehensible.”

 

“Yeah, it really is,” Tim responded. ”And if this thing is full of water, that’s a hell of a lot of water.”

 

“What happens if it leaks out?” the secretary asked. ”Or if they let it out? What happens to our planet?”

 

As Secretary Wilburn was asking, Pete sat back in one of the chairs at the now-empty table, his pen flying over a pad of yellow legal paper. ”Let’s see, 220 times 45 times 45, that’s the volume, and then a cubic mile of water…” He continued to jot figures. ”Okay, if it’s full of water, that’s about 440 trillion gallons.”

 

“How much is that?” the secretary asked.

 

“A lot,” Pete answered. ”We’re talking a small ocean here. If 440 trillion were released on the Kenyan plain, we’re going to see a hell of a flood. I mean, I’m talking about Noah’s Ark here. And when it reaches the ocean….” He shrugged. ”Everybody in the path of this water will die. Most of it will run southeast to the Atlantic ocean, some of it will probably go north into the Sahara. You could see ocean levels rise ten or twelve feet immediately, and who knows what the long-term effect would be.

 

“Hey,” Gloria said suddenly. ”Is it fresh water in there or salt, and does it make a difference?”

 

Pete shrugged again. ”Who knows? It won’t change the salinity of the ocean, it’s not enough water even if it’s fresh,” he said. ”That’s not really the worry, though.”

 

“What’s the worry?” the secretary asked.

 

“The worry is what’s in the water. Some sort of poison? Some weird life form that will eat up all the algae? The ocean is a pretty delicate thing, and we depend on the algae in there for about half the planet’s oxygen supply.”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“Doctor! Seven or eight seconds is all I can manage!” the ship’s Seventh-Degree Fragmenter said with alarm.

 

“That will be fine, Clyde,” the ship’s surgeon responded calmly. The doctor stood next to a table in the middle of the room; the Fragmenter floated in a round container of water about the size of a beach ball. It had a small base at the bottom and looked for all the world like the snow globes that Dr. Petersen’s wife had collected, one for every Christmas, since they were first married. The collection had stopped three years ago when she was killed in a vacuum accident on the Exeter. The Fragmenter’s bowl floated above the table with no visible means of support, and in fact, the means of support certainly was not visible. “No need to get excited, I need no more than four seconds, tops, I promise.”

 

The Fragmenter didn’t look reassured, but he flipped over in his bowl. “I won’t be able to talk or move while I’m holding him open for you, either,” he said.

 

“I know, Clyde, and we really appreciate what you’re doing here, you know that,” the doctor said smoothly. The humans standing in the room smiled slightly; some actually rolled their eyes.

 

“I say, we really appreciate what you’re doing here, you know that!” the doctor said more insistently.

 

The others picked up on it. “Oh, yes,” Captain O’Neal’s baritone sounded from the back. “We sure do appreciate it, Clyde. Don’t we, everybody?”

 

A chorus of Oh, yes’s and Sure do’s and Thanks, Clyde’s went around the room. It went on for some time as the Fragmenter swam around his bowl and made that sound they make when they’re nervous–the kind of sound a hungry cat makes when someone opens a can of tuna.

 

Finally, the Fragmenter stopped circumnavigating his “All right, then, doctor,” Clyde said. He floated up to the top of the bowl and extended an eyestalk warily.

 

Clyde’s eyes were on stalks, but below them, on a spherical part of his body which humans naturally registered as a face were two organs that we easily interpreted as eyes, although they were actually organs of temperature sensation. Below that was a protrusion that looked something like a nose (they were his means of producing vibrations in the water, when needed), and below that was the Fragmenter’s reproductive slot. These anatomical details combined into what humans in close association with Fragmenters came to regard as a face. The Fragmenters, for their part, understood the importance of a face as the focus for human interaction and communication, and so they took the small effort to reflect on these bits and pieces movements that would maintain the illusion for the benefit of the human crew when Fragmenters served on ships–and nearly all of them had at least one Fragmenter nowadays.

 

Clyde curled the ends of his reproductive slot down and changed the shape of his temperature spots into something consistent with the look of a human frown, and moved up close to the glass of his container. His eyestalk scanned the room.

 

“Clyde, you ready to get started?” the doctor asked.

 

“Yes,” he said. He descended and curled up flat on the bottom of his container. The doctor moved into position above the form, a young bare-chested man, that was lying on the table in the middle of the room.

 

The man on the table looked up at the doctor, uncertain. “Now, doc, you sure this isn’t going to hurt, right?” he asked.

 

“Not a bit, Phil,” the doctor responded. “You won’t feel a thing, I promise. Lie still and don’t tense up, okay?” Petersen put his hand on the man’s bare shoulder and smiled at him. “Really. I’ve done this a hundred times, you understand? And Clyde’s done it thousands of times, right Clyde?”

 

“This will be my four thousand and seventieth medical procedure,” Clyde responded from the bottom on his bowl. “And this will be my four thousand six hundred and seventeenth fold,” he said.

 

“See?” the doctor smiled again. “Clyde really knows what he’s doing, and he’s going to be doing most of the work. We really appreciate him.”

 

There was a moment of silence, and then the others understood. “Yeah, we sure do,” “Clyde’s the greatest,” “Couldn’t do it without him,” and various other bits and pieces of praise went around the room. There was no response from Clyde, but at least there was also no complaint.

 

“Wait a moment, please,” Clyde said. “I’ll signal when I’m ready, and then you can get ready, doctor, and then I’ll signal for a two-second countdown.”

 

“Signal when ready, then signal for two-second count,” the doctor repeated, following human-Fragmenter coordination protocol. It was automatic with him; he’d been working with Fragmenters almost since first contact with them thirty years ago.

 

The crew members who had come to watch the procedure creeped a little closer, wanting to catch a glimpse of the strange sight that would be visible when the Fragmenter turned the space that the man’s chest occupied through the fourth dimension and exposed his interior.

 

The Fragmenter mewed again, this time it was something between a purr and a yelp–that was the ‘ready’ signal. The doctor put his hands over the man’s chest. After a few seconds, there was another mew, this one a little bit different, more contented-sounding, and the doctor’s lips moved. “One…two….”

 

And then it happened. There was a blurring of the circumference around the man’s chest, and inside the blurring, a distorted view of intestines and organs could be seen. It was like looking at the inside of a butchered animal through old-fashioned window glass, the kind made before techniques were available to standardize the thickness and parallelism of the sides. There was a blue-white illumination coming from the edges of the blurriness, but it was impossible to tell where the light was coming from. A wobbly, watery sort of haze hung over the man’s chest. Quickly, the doctor reached his bare hands into the wobbly, watery sort of haze that hung over the man’s chest, moved his hands this way and that, and came out with a walnut-sized round smooth dark-green mass, which he deposited into a stainless steel pan sitting on a tray to his right. “I’m out,” he said. The watery wobbliness began to shrink, and with it the blurry edges, and then the man’s chest was visible again, whole, unmarked, as if the whole thing had been an imagination.

 

And yet, the lump lay in the pan.

 

The captain and crew in the room started applauding; the doctor placed a towel over the top of the pan, stepped back, and joined in the applause. Then the man on whom the procedure had been done reached up to feel his chest and, finding it whole and himself no worse for the wear, sat up and also started applauding. It was for the Fragmenter’s benefit. After a few moments, Clyde uncurled himself and swam up to the top of the bowl.

 

The room erupted in Clyde, you did it’s and Amazing’s and Wonderful job’s and other acknowledgements and affirmations. Clyde’s reproductive slot remained flat, but as the applause and the praise continued, his slot slowly curled up at the ends and his eyestalks receded into their tunnels.

 

“Better, doctor?” Clyde said over the slowly declining applause.

 

“Yes, much better,” the doctor said. “Phil, how do you feel?”

 

“I feel fine, doc,” he said. “Clyde, thank you very much.”

The Fragmenter was still in his container, floating in the water effortlessly, his sides undulating gently. “I will rest now,” he said as he very slowly sank to the bottom of his bowl. At the same time, the bowl drifted over to the column where he liked to pass the time when he was not on duty and came to rest there.

 

Captain O’Neal moved past the crew members watching as Phil hopped off the table and wormed his way back into his shirt. “Doctor, may I see you in your office in a few minutes?”

 

“Sure, Captain,” the doctor responded.

 

“You too, Phil,” he said.

 

“Yes sir. Five minutes?”

 

“No, let’s make it ten,” the captain said and he strode purposefully out of the medical suite.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

“Those miserable star-worshippers,” Apoxa muttered to himself as he glided through the cold vacuum of deep space. “The way they cling to their little clods of dirt, it’s disgusting. Makes me want to vomit.”

 

“Now, we mustn’t impose our own values on the poor creatures,” Kalenx replied. She warped space in front of her a little bit more to catch up. “They’re so fragile, they can’t tolerate space, you know.”

 

“What’s to tolerate?” Apoxa asked irritably. “It’s the damn stars that have to be tolerated. Sweaty things, churning with gas and light. All that light, how does any creature stand it? Disgusting.”

 

Kalenx smiled as she came alongside her mate. “Well, we don’t have to cling to them, do we?”

 

“No.”

 

Kalenx became aware of a small black hole that was ahead of them at the same time. It was about a dozen light years away and would require only a slight deviation of their path through spacetime to intersect with it. “Hungry?” she asked.

 

“Yeah, I guess so.”

 

“Let’s stop at that little one up there and grab a bite, shall we?”

 

“Well, it looks a little heavy in organics,” Apoxa replied. “I’m not supposed to have that much carbon anymore.”

 

“Oh, come on, one time won’t hurt,” she said as she modified her path towards the black hole. “I’m hungry for some organics, and carbon would be good for my eggs.”

 

“You’re egging?” Apoxa asked with mild interest.

 

“Yes, I am,” she said. “I told you that the other night, honey.”

 

“Oh, that’s right,” Apoxa lied. “Well, good. Let’s go get you some carbon then.” They moved spacetime just enough to allow entry into a tight orbit around the small dense collapsed star. “Oh, that feels great,” Apoxa said as he let the tidal forces tug on his body. “This one’s not all that warm,” he said.

 

“I like the cool ones,” Kalenx replied. She allowed her body to stretch out in the direction of the tidal force. “That does feel good.”

 

“Yeah.” Apoxa changed his shape to a radial pointing upward and downward in relation to the center of the black hole and stretched himself until his downward tip touched the hard surface of the star. “Ooh, this one’s pretty salty,” he said as he began to feed. And then Kalenx heard only the sounds of neutrinos being collected and shunted down into his digestive tract.

 

“Honey, don’t be a pig,” she said as she radialized her own body and touched the surface of the black hole. She too began to feed, and they fed silently for some time.

 

Apoxa’s feeding tip curled up and away from the surface of the star, which was now noticeably cooler. “That’s enough for me,” he said.

 

Kalenx was still silently collecting neutrinos, but she too curled her mouthpart away from the surface. “That’s good,” she said, “but I wasn’t really all that hungry myself. That will do me until dinnertime.”

 

Both the beings changed their body shapes back to the rough triangles they assumed when traveling through space, and Kalenx folded space so that she was underneath her mate. “You ready to get going?”

 

“Yeah,” Apoxa replied. He folded space so that he was beside Kalenx. “Oh, excuse me,” he said as his warping of spacetime interfered with hers.

 

“Oh, I don’t mind if you’re down here,” she answered back. “You mind if I take that black hole with us? I liked it.”

 

“I don’t mind. Why should I mind?” Apoxa said. “You don’t mind carrying it?”

 

“No. I’m going to put it right in behind us, and then I’ll stretch it out into its own time when we get home,” she said.

 

“Okay, but if we run into anybody, would you mind folding it back here? I don’t want people to think we’re piggish,” he said.

 

“Of course, honey,” Kalenx responded. “You don’t have to tell me that.”

 

Together, they warped spacetime so that it was a gentle drop to their neighborhood, so far buried in the blackness of space that the nearest galaxy of positive matter was only a tiny splash of light, insignificant against the other tiny splashes of light that represented galaxies even farther away.

 

Cold, dark, empty space–just the right conditions for Apoxa and Kalenx and others of their kind. The black hole that Kalenx was carrying was pumping its gravity and neutrinos into a dimension that Kalenx had opened and kept open for that purpose; she could always retrieve the neutrinos later, and that way, if they met anyone, the black hole could be folded out of sight.

 

As they arrived in their own region of space, Apoxa spoke. “Now, don’t tell anyone that I ate from that black hole,” he said.

 

“Why not?” Kalenx responded. “What’s the difference?”

 

“No difference,” he said. “I’m just trying to be private, you know. At my age.”

 

“Sure, honey,” Kalenx said. Together they floated into familiar territory.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The planet’s purple landscape baked under a giant red sun impossibly close, blazing with orange streaks. A speck in the sky got larger and took shape as mechanisms fore and aft fired their jets, slowing it and bringing it down. Finally, in a churn of dust and smoke, it touched the ground and stood there silently as the dust settled around it.

 

The Founders watched from a distance and waited for the one that had been foretold to emerge. After a time, the two men inside the spacecraft completed their landing checks, conducted an inventory of the ship’s supplies, and converted the ship from transfer to capture mode. They had made the traditional radio call–“Knoxville, Quarry Four has landed”–and they completed the necessary reports and transmitted them by pulse radar. Those duties done, the men could now prepare themselves for the historic steps out into the unexplored, mostly unknown purple planet.

 

Commander Roger Mixon suited up in the cramped space of the ship where the suits were stored. “You know, Drew,” he said, “even if we don’t discover anything down here, the mission’s already a success.”

 

“How’s that, Rog?” his crewmate Andrew Hamilton asked.

 

“We put that module in orbit. That will relay data for years to come on.”

 

“Sure,” Hamilton answered. “But there’s a lot more to do out there.”

 

“Right. Have I got that boot clamped?” Hamilton checked it for him. “Okay, now the helmet.” Hamilton guided it down to the commander’s head and he snapped it to the neck piece and plugged in the electronics. “Radio check, one two three,” Mixon said into his mouthpiece.

 

Hamilton stepped over to the board and raised a microphone arm. “That’s affirm, radio responsive.”

 

“Right, I’ve got you too. Okay then, I’m transferring life support to the suit now.” Mixon pressed a couple of buttons on the suit’s forearm and boxes on his back and at his waist began to buzz and breathe. “Lights are green on life support,” Mixon said.

 

“Roger that, we are green on life support.” Hamilton responded.

 

“Okay. I’m ready to enter the lock now,” Mixon said.

 

Hamilton knew the procedure exactly, and knew what it required of him. “On my way now, Commander. Good luck.”

 

“Roger that,” Mixon said as he waited for Hamilton to get into position in the command chair to direct his excursion onto the surface of the purple planet.

 

After a few moments, the radio in Mixon’s helmet crackled again. “Command chair is on and ready. Receiving your vitals and data link clearly now.”

 

“Entering the lock now, and cycling,” Mixon reported.

 

“Entering and cycling,” Hamilton repeated.

 

“Opening the outer door now.”

 

As the Founders watched, a seam appeared in the silver skin of the ship and opened and the silver-suited Roger Mixon stepped onto the purple surface, raising purple dust as he settled down on the spongy soil.

 

Shall we greet the human? Founder 41 thought to Founder 5.

 

Destroy him! thought Founder 17.

 

Challenge him? Give him a test to prove himself? thought Founder 2.

 

No, Founder 5 answered back. Let us observe for a while.

 

Founder 5 was the oldest founder now, and was obeyed.

 

Let us show these new intelligences our power, Founder 8 thought. Founder 8 was the difficult one, the one who answered the occasional explorers from other worlds who arrived on the purple planet with anger and offense.

 

Calm, Founder 8, calm. These puny beings come in peace, in curiosity. Let them get a little closer to knowing.

 

“The surface is firm, but spongy,” Mixon said. “My indicators are green, I’m going to site Experiment 1.”

 

“Experiment 1,” Hamilton repeated.

 

“I’ve got an amber on suit temperature,” Mixon said. “Looking now, suit heater is at 85 percent.” The automatic system would trigger an amber warning light on any system that fell to or below 85% efficiency.

 

“Eighty-five percent on suit heat, understood, and checking diagnostics,” Hamilton answered back efficiently. “Computer shows your heating adequate to continue the excursion. Raise suit temperature control to 53, I say again, five three.”

 

“Raising to five three,” Mixon responded as he manipulated the controls on his left forearm with his right index finger. “Five three on suit heat,” Mixon said.

 

“Confirmed.” Hamilton and Mixon both knew very well that if heat failed, his chances of making it back to the ship were slim. If the system continued to degrade, then there would be a point at which the mission would have to be abandoned, but they weren’t there yet, and both men knew it.

 

“Maintaining amber on heat,” Mixon said, and he started again to step forward into the cold purple dust.

 

He’s cold, thought Founder 11. We could warm him.

 

Yes, Founder 5 replied, but not yet. He doesn’t need our help yet.

 

He will, Founder 14 thought. Stupid creatures! Their hull is puny, and their organs are weak.

 

That’s not their natural state,-Founder 6 thought. It’s a sort of a shell them make around themselves, and the warmth comes from an artificial device they built, not from their own bodies.

 

Founder 6 thought nothing in reply.

 

“Hamilton, Mixon here, I’ve got a red on the suit heat now,” the commander said calmly. “Can you evaluate?”

 

“Evaluating. Suit heat is down to 41 percent.” Both men knew this was a mission-canceling event; not as bad as it could be, but Mixon would have to drop what he was doing and return to the ship. Now.

 

“That’s a knock-it-off, then,” Mixon said, using the formal language to announce his decision to abandon the excursion. He turned around and took a step in the direction of the ship.

 

Now? thought Founder 11.

 

No, thought Founder 5. Let us let him handle it for now.

 

I’ve looked into their future, thought Founder 14. They don’t make it.

 

That future isn’t terminal, thought Founder 11. Not yet.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The old man huddled on a concrete pad next to a concrete pillar as four lanes of traffic roared by above him. It was ten o’clock at night, the cold and damp just settling in for the night. The constant thunder of traffic made it impossible to hear anyplace other than inside the old man’s head, but as he huddled there, shivering, he mumbled: “Temperature. That’s what does it. Yesiree, temperature. Centigrade, Fahrenheit, Kelvin. Temperature. Lots and lots of temperature.” He laughed a little to himself as his fingers turned blue.

 

“Temperature!” he said strongly to no one, and no one answered back. “Yes, temperature,” he said quietly.

 

Then, inside his private world he occupied for most of the day and night, there was a woman beside him. A young woman, perhaps twenty years old, blonde hair, dazzling white teeth, clear skin. Without having approached, she was sitting beside him. She put her finely-manicured hand on the rough forearm of his second-hand coat. “Temperature. That’s what does it,” she told him in the strictest of confidences.

 

She turned away from him, her patrician, pointed nose appearing to him in profile as she looked into the middle distance. “Yesiree, temperature,” she said.

 

“Donna.” the man said, his shivering suddenly ended. “Davey,” the woman said. She still looked away.

 

“Donna, where are you?” the man asked.

 

“You know where I am, Davey,” she replied. She turned to him again and smiled; it was like the sun coming out. “You’re so beautiful. So young.”

 

“I still am young, Davey,” she said. “I’ve been away from you now for what? Fifty-five years this November. But I’ll always be just like this. For you.”

 

“Yes, you always are,” he said. He coughed, and Donna waited patiently for it to pass. “Just as beautiful as always.”

 

“Well, to you I am,” she said.

 

“You were a wonderful girl,” he said. “I remember you as a girl.”

 

“You do?” she asked.

 

“Yes, I do,” he said.

 

“But I hurt you,” she said, the smile gone. “I did.”

 

“No.” A pause. “I hurt myself.”

 

“Well, that was a long time ago, Davey.” The girl disappeared, and the old man adjusted himself on the thin blanket that insulated him from the cold, hard concrete.

 

“Temperature,” he mumbled. “Temperature. That’s what does it. Yessiree.”

 

Then a man was sitting beside him. A man in a uniform. “David, it’s me. You know me,” the man said.

 

“Yes, I do know you.” He said, and he coughed again. “Your name is Phillip.”

 

“That’s right, and your name is David,” the man said. He smiled broadly.

 

“Yeah,” the old man croaked. “You know about temperature?”

 

“Temperature? Well, sure I know about temperature, David. Everybody knows about temperature. That’s what does it!”

 

“Yessiree,” said David, nodding. “It sure does.” The two men sat next to each other not saying anything, and after a while, Phillip faded away.

 

The old man turned, surprised to find him not there. A cold front was moving into the area, and now a blast of emphysematic steam came from the old man’s nose with each exhalation. “Getting colder now,” he mumbled. The traffic continued to thunder above him. He adjusted himself to pull some of the blanket he had been sitting on around him; it was all a question of what was more uncomfortable, the cold winding down from the neck of his jacket or the cold inching up from the concrete pad. As he got himself adjusted, he became aware that someone was approaching.

 

This was different than the visits from Donna and Phillip had been. They visited him without approaching, and left without leaving. But this visitor–he didn’t recognize him.

 

With some difficulty, the old man got to his feet as the stranger approached. “Stockton? David Stockton?” The stranger asked him. His overcoat collar was pulled up against the cold. “You David Stockton?”

 

“Stockton?” he repeated dully, not quite sure that this figure was real.

 

“Yes, we’re looking for David Stockton,” the man said. The pronoun struck David as strange, as the man was all alone. “Mr. Stockton?”

 

“Stockton,” the old man said. The name was familiar to him, as an old pair of shoes worn many years ago might have been. Then he remembered that Stockton was his name, had been his name a long time ago. “Yes.”

 

“Mr. Stockton, I’m Richard Fletcher. Would you come with me, please?” Stockton looked at him, not understanding. Finally, the man deftly removed his overcoat and held it out to the old man, holding it open. “Here, put this around you,” he said.

 

Stockton dropped his blanket and stepped into the overcoat, which was too large for him, and Fletcher fastened it around him. The stranger took his elbow and prompted him toward the road, and for the first time, Stockton realized that the man’s car was parked there. Late model four-door sedan. A second man, in a similar overcoat, stood at the back door. “Just step right this way, Mr. Stockton. I’m a friend.”

 

“Friend?” Stockton said, stumbling under Fletcher’s guidance toward the car.

 

“That’s right, a friend.” As they approached the car, the second stranger opened it, and Fletcher guided Stockton inside.

 

The car’s interior was as comfortable as the concrete pad had been uncomfortable–heated leather seats, warm air, and when the door was closed, blessed quiet. He sank back into the seat, closed his eyes, and hoped that the whole thing wasn’t his imagination.

 

Fletcher got in the front, and Stockton had the whole backseat to himself. The car started up–even its low vibration was comforting–and the driver slowly pulled away.

 

“Davey,” Donna said. “Where’re we going?” Stockton opened his eyes and Donna was sitting there in the backseat next to him.

 

“I don’t know,” he answered her.

 

“I beg your pardon, Mr. Stockton?” Fletcher said from the front seat.

 

“Nice car,” Donna said, patting the leather padding between them.

 

“Yeah,” Davey answered her. Then she was gone again.

 

“What’s that?” Fletcher asked again. He turned around. “Mr. Stockton, we’re going to a hotel room, where we’re going to get you all cleaned up. Fresh set of clothes. I hope you’ll be cooperative.”

 

“Yeah,” Stockton said, not understanding.

 

“He’s pretty much out of it,” the driver said to Fletcher. “You sure this is the guy?”

 

Fletcher turned back around and settled down in his seat. “I think so. He looks like the description, and the age is right.”

 

“I don’t know,” said the driver. “He’s really out of it. Look at him talking to himself back there. If he is the one, I wonder if we can get anything out of him.”

 

Fletcher frowned and shook his head, motioning to the driver not to say anything about that. He turned around again. “Mr. Stockton? You are David Stockton, right?”

 

“David Stockton,” the old man said. “Yeah, that’s me, David Stockton.”

 

His head seemed to be clearing; maybe it was the warmth. “Where are we going?”

 

“I’m taking you to a hotel room, Mr. Stockton,” Fletcher repeated. “We’ve got a couple of days to get you cleaned up and then you and I will get on a plane. To Miami.”

 

“Miami?” Stockton said. “You mean Florida?”

 

“That’s right, sir,” Fletcher answered. “Miami, Florida. It’s nice there this time of year.”

 

“Miami.” Stockton repeated. He turned his face to the window and watched passively as the cars around them moved forward and back. “Temperature,” he said. “That’s what does it. Yessiree. Temperature.”

 

“Temperature, Mr. Stockton,” Fletcher said, turning back and nodding at the driver as if to say ‘told you so.’ “That’s what does it, isn’t it?”

 

“Yessiree. Temperature.”

 

The driver steered the car onto an exit ramp, and then they were in a built-up area, with rows of ordinary and ubiquitous gas stations and commuter hotels on both sides of the street. They drove to the last one, a brand name chain hotel, and the driver parked the car outside of Room 114.

 

“All right, Mr. Stockton, we’re here. Let’s get you inside and get you cleaned up, shall we?” Fletcher got out of the car and went around to the other side, opening the back door, and Stockton’s eyes went wide.

 

“Temperature?” he asked. He seemed to be concerned that he was being put out in the cold again.

 

“Yes, yes, Temperature.” Fletcher answered confidently, and he helped the old man get out of the car. “That’s what does it. That’s what I’ve been saying, Mr. Stockton.” Together, they walked to the door of Room 114, which the driver was holding open. As they passed through it, Fletcher said “Tony, let’s give Anne a preliminary, okay?”

 

“Right,” Tony answered.

 

Room 114 was a three-room suite. It had been selected primarily for its large bathroom, which the team knew would be critical in getting a confused old man cleaned up, but it also had a sitting room in the front, which was convenient for the other team members, and a large bedroom in which the old man would be comfortable as he slept and which would be a good place to start the debriefing when he awoke after the procedure was completed.

 

The two small women sitting on the sitting room’s sofa rose as Fletcher and Stockton came into the room, and the moved forward to take the old man from Fletcher. “Temperature. That’s what does it,” Stockton informed the two women as they took their places on either side of him. They looked at each other blankly and carried on with their task.

 

Stockton was standing on his own two feet–the car ride had revitalized him somewhat.

 

“Mr. Stockton, my name is Lee Ping,” the woman said. “This this my assistant, Ana. We’re going to give you a bath, would that be okay?” They walked him into the bathroom and closed the door.

 

Behind that door, Ana deftly unbuttoned the cuff of the man’s ragged shirt, slid it up, and smoothly inserted a small hypodermic needle into the man forearm, a mild but fast-acting sedative to relax him and prevent any strenuous objection to him being undressed, cleaned, shaved, to having a haircut, his teeth flossed and brushed, and nails clipped and all this by two efficient, crisply smocked Vietnamese women.

 

Stockton’s face registered momentary alarm in reaction to the sting of the needle, but by the time he had reacted, it was all over; the drug was in and the needle was out.

 

While this was happening, Lee Ping opened a small clear plastic box and retrieved a specially prepared square of cotton gauze, which she wiped on the man’s forearm where the needle had gone in, collecting a tiny but brightly colored red smear of blood. She put the gauze back into the box and then opened the door and slid it along the floor of the bedroom into which the bathroom opened. She closed the door as Fletcher got up to get the box.

 

“Okay, let’s see just exactly who we have here.” Fletcher picked up the box and brought it into the sitting room. On the writing table there sat a complicated-looking machine with a square door in the front that looked like the door of a home security safe.

 

Fletcher picked up a sealed pack of surgical gloves, opened it, and put a glove on his right hand. Then he opened the box, picked up the gauze, opened the door, and put it inside. He manipulated some controls on the front of the box and then stepped over and sat down on the sofa next to Tony, who was on the phone.

 

“Subject was located in the specified area,” Tony was saying. “We’re confirming identity now.”

 

Fletcher was tapping the front of his own cellphone. The door to the bathroom opened and one of the women threw a plastic bag, now holding the clothes that the old man had been wearing, onto the bedroom floor, and closed the door again. Fletcher stood up and retrieved the bag. He took it directly to the front door of the suite, opened the door, and placed it outside on the sidewalk.

 

From the bathroom, sounds of running water could be heard, and then Lee Ping emerged from the bathroom, her uniform wet. “Mr. Fletcher, subject is in the bath now, we’re going to be about an hour or so with him.”

 

“Thank you,” Fletcher responded. “He’s tolerating it all right?”

 

She smiled; her smile was pretty, the kind of smile that might lead a man to do a lot of things–sedated or not. “Like a kitten,” she said.

 

“All right.” Fletcher turned to Tony, who had finished his call. “You hungry?” Tony shrugged. “Would you mind if we left for a little while?” Fletcher asked the woman.

 

“No, not at all. We can report to you as we get him completed,” she said.

 

“We won’t be long,” Fletcher said. “When this gets done, it will buzz,” he said, indicating the squarish machine on the table. “When it does, just leave it alone. We’ll wrap it up when we return.”

 

“Yes sir,” the woman said. She disappeared back in to the bathroom.

 

“Okay, let’s go,” Fletcher said to Tony.

 

“Sure,” Tony said, rising. He lifted his coat from the chair he had draped it over and they stepped out of Room 114 and into the cold night.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The most perfect sphere in the universe is a nonrotating neutron star—or at least it would be, if there were any such thing. Of course, there’s not. All of them are rotating, and so there’s some small deviation from perfect sphericity as a result of centrifugal forces.

 

If the neutron star rotates fast enough, the centripetal forces at the equator begins to compete with the gravity. The effect is small at first, but let the neutron star rotate fast enough, and the effect starts to add up.

 

There is a neutron star, G6757AH, located in the Small Magellanic Cloud, which is rotating at 76,205 times per second. It is thirteen miles across. This is about as fast as any thirteen-mile object can rotate. Anything other than a neutron star would tear itself apart long before it could be spun up that fast—but the neutron star, being in essence a single neutron, holds together under this enormous rotation, and the centrifugal forces balance against the gravity to create a zone on the surface of this object, a strip parallel to and centered on the equator, that is at only 4 gee gravity. The strip is about 1,600 yards wide, 800 yards north of the equator and 800 yards south. The Krindi evolved to take advantage of this zone, and they inhabit it.

 

The Krindi are a microscopic, sentient life form—sort of a smart bacteria. We had spent many years looking for extraterrestrial life in the radio bands, thinking that this would be the quickest way to communicate across the gulf between the stars. That’s because we didn’t know much about how gravity propagates until about 2100.

 

When the Sallendar experiments were conducted in 2090, we began to realize the that gravity propagates along force lines previously unrealized, and that it would be possible to communicate along those lines if mass could be quickly created and modulated as it was created. This became technically possible on a practical scale in 2098, and the initial transmitter/receiver pair, involving a transmitter at the old converted LHC facility in Switzerland and a receiver on the Farlight Station on the Moon. It didn’t work very well at first, but the system was tweaked and refined, and as soon as it became sensitive enough to tell the difference between the gravity roar of black holes and the silence between them, we were able to hear the Krindi beacons almost immediately.

 

Every schoolboy knows how Donalisa Pelletier decoded the Krindi beacon and discovered that it was a series of pulsed tones at a frequency of 445 tones per second with timed breaks that coded the composite numbers between 1175 and 2138 times the eighteenth Messier prime. There’s some technical reason why this pattern seems to the Krindi to be one that would both be picked up by somebody like us and understood to be of intelligent design. We always thought an extraterrestrial would use the simple prime series in some simple base at one of the resonant frequencies of water, but of course, the Krindi don’t know anything about water.

 

The proper adjective derives from the Krindi name for their home—Krin. We were able to get a lot of technical information from them about gravity generally and about the space-time warping process (turns out that gravity has very little to do with mass after all, but that mass and gravity are both produced by a particular particle-particle tension). We used that information to build ships that could warp space to get from Point A, say the Farlight Station to Point B, the Krindi Strip, without occupying all the 28,000 light years in between. That’s how we manage to get to Krin. Otherwise, there’d be no way to approach it.

 

Of course, we don’t have any substance to build a ship out of that can withstand the tides, and no way to accelerate into a fast enough orbit to match the star’s speed of rotation and land on it. But there are ways to do it with the slide engines.

 

The Krin are microscopic creatures who do not have any direct knowledge of the universe beyond the strip of their star where they live. To the Krin, the sky consists of static stripes of light. These static strips are actually stars that if not for the rotation of Krin, would look much like stars look from Earth—but of course, Krin is rotating so fast that everything in the Krin sky is smeared into a permanent stripe. Krin is surprisingly cold for a neutron star, and of course it doesn’t have any day or night or seasons or years because there’s no central star shining on it; it simply rotates as a solid body, so fast that it becomes difficult to conceptualize. A point on the equator is moving, relative to the rest of universe, at nearly one percent of the speed of light.

 

But they do have a civilization, a culture, and they can communicate with us, and we can answer back. We’ve learned enough to do that. And we’ve learned that they’re way ahead of us in a couple of critical areas.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Hank found himself sitting in the control room of a spaceship crewed by two people: himself and his wife. He looked at the computer monitor in front of him and saw that it was an antenna calibration program, one intended to diagnose the antenna aim, sweep, and range–all very important to the quality of the signal to and from Earth. He started looking at the numbers and making some adjustments.

 

“Hank?” Trixie called from the room that served as their bedroom. Hank heard her alright, but thought if he didn’t respond, she’d get tired of the effort.

 

But no. “Hank!” this time louder and more insistent. He could see where this was leading, and knew enough to start putting the brakes on it before it went too far. He put his head back and yelled. “Yeah?”

 

Her response was a long series of sibilants and plosives lost in the heavily padded coarse interior walls of the living quarters. The rest of the ship wasn’t insulated; you could hear a pin drop in there. But in here, sound wouldn’t go around a corner. “I can’t hear you,” he answered back loudly.

 

“What?” she screamed.

 

Oh, God, he thought as he got out of his chair and padded across the control room, down the narrow hall, and turned left to enter the room where she sat fiddling with her hair. If Hank had turned right, he would have entered their dining room–actually, it was the emergency bunker, but the two of them ate our meals there. “I can’t hear you in there, honey,” he said as he entered.

 

She was seated on a box in front of the closed secondary life support spares locker, on which she had glued a mirror. She had a lock of hair in one hand and appeared to be attacking it with a comb in the other. “I can’t get this tease to do right, the humidity is too high in here again! Did you change it?”

 

“No,” he lied. “The plants need at least 64 percent,” he lied again.

 

“Well, stop messing with it,” she said, staring at herself in the mirror as she continued to use the comb on her hair. “I can’t go around looking like this!”

 

Hank sighed and turned to go back to the control room; he was right in the middle of calibrating the cable feed from Earth, and God help us all if Trixie should be denied her shows. Every day she watched a series of reality shows that to Hank seemed exactly alike: young, bizarrely dressed men and women arguing pointlessly about music he had never heard of and what they were going to do that day.

 

“Hank! I said I can’t go around looking like this!”

 

Hank found himself getting bored–and annoyed. He lifted his right hand, touched his finger to the top of his right zygomatic arch, moved the finger a bit laterally and pressed. The room he was standing in–and Trixie’s voice–clicked off and he registered that he was seated in a recliner in a small dark room, with wires connected to him at the head, at the chest, and at each ankle. His left leg was asleep and tingled painfully when he moved it.

 

“Hank, what’s wrong?” a man’s voice said in his ear.

 

“Nothing,” Hank said into his headset. “It’s just, this program is boring and pointless.”

 

“It’s not, really,” the man responded. Hank stretched and got up, moving the wires so that he could stand next to the chair. He put most of his weight on his right leg and shook the left to restore some of the blood flow. “I feel like I’ve been sitting forever. How long was it?”

 

A pause, and then the voice in his ear sounded again. “Two hours, eleven minutes.”

 

“Jeez, Bobby, how long were you going to let me stay in there?” he responded. “I need a movement break every once in a while, you know.”

 

“Sure, Hank. Sorry.”

 

“You’re sorry. That’s great. My leg’s asleep.”

 

“Hank, it’s Helen,” a voice said in his other ear. “We’ve got enough data for today, you want to break off.”

 

“Break off?” the man said. “But we–”

 

Helen cut him off. “We’ll run the ego stressor tomorrow, Bob,” she said.

 

“Yeah, let’s do it tomorrow,” Hank agreed. “What time is it now?”

 

“Two fifteen,” Helen said.

 

“Ego stressor tomorrow, and we can work in the identity challenge protocol too, okay?” Hank wasn’t really asking; he was already taking the wires off his chest.

 

The lights came on, and then the single door opened and Helen came in. “Here, let me help you with that,” she said as she started taking the wires off of Hank’s head.

 

“What’s the deal with this Trixie character?” Hank asked as they were disconnecting him. “A ditsy diva as one half of a two-man crew?”

 

“Well, we’re testing adaptation,” she said. “Adaptation to the absurd is just another kind of adaptation, isn’t it?”

 

Hank shrugged. “I guess.” He had submitted himself to the battery of tests in order to be considered for the position of watchman on the upcoming Titan mission; if cleared, he would remain awake during the twenty-eight month mission to Titan while his crewmates slept through the outbound journey. On the way back, Tom Bateman would watch; Tom had already been cleared for the job. “Tom went through all of this?”

 

“Sure,” she said. Finally he was free of the monitors, and he stretched again. His leg was nearly back to normal now.

 

“Okay, I’m going to shower and get out of here.” He stepped toward the door; when he got there, he turned around. “Hey, tell Bobby not to let me sit still so long, okay? It’s not good for my veins.”

 

“Not still for too long, gotcha.” Helen smiled. “How long are you going to sit still on the Endro?

 

Hank smiled back. “Twenty-eight months, I guess. See you later”

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The two men had never been friends, but they had once been colleagues of a sort. They were of the same political party, if not exactly the same persuasion.

 

Their two two-term presidencies had been interrupted by one four-year term, a Republican former governor who had his hand in the election-fund cookie jar, as many presidents had had, but unlike them had gotten caught. Articles of impeachment were drawn up and it was clear that the Senate would convict, and so, like President Nixon before him, he resigned rather than face the Senate trial. His vice president succeeded him and served out his remaining 14 months.

 

The younger of the two men had been president first, the forty-eighth, and the older man got his turn in the election of 2032. By the time the already frigid relations between the two iced over into the present utter and mutual contempt, the pair comprised two of the three former presidents still living; old Barack Obama, now into his hundred-and-teens but, with artificial knees and hips, grown-from-stem-cell heart arteries, carotid on the right side, and jugular on the left, and an insulin plant in his abdomen, he was still going strong, sporting the same boyish smile that somehow looked a bit out of place on his hairless, age-spotted head. President Obama had a lot to smile about; enough time had gone by for most people to have forgotten—or if not forgotten, at least be insulated from—the Great Crash of 2015, and one of his grandsons just got elected as Commissioner of the Mars South Colony. Obama had once tried before, unsuccessfully, to heal the breach between the two men; this time, he called them both to his ranch in Hawaii without telling either one that the other was coming.

 

“Hank,” Obama strode surprisingly strongly across a marble-floor foyer with his hand out to greet the Forty-Eighth President of the United States. ”Thank you for coming, I really appreciate it.”

 

“Good to see you as always, Mr. President,” Hank Crantz said, shaking the proffered hand. Obama’s grip was surprisingly strong for a man of his age. Hank thought he looked great; thin as always, of course, but fit, happy, and he stood upright when he walked.

 

“Oh, call me Barack, please,” he said. ”We’re both just old retired government employees now, you know.” President Crantz joined him in the laughter, and followed Obama down the hallway. ”We’re in here,” he said, waving his hand for Crantz to follow—the way President Obama said it, Crantz knew immediately that Raulfasen would be in the large sitting room decorated with African art and the Presidential Seal.

 

Hank stopped. ”Mr. President, you should have told me—”

 

“Oh, dammit, Hank stop being stupid,” Obama said. He turned and stepped right up to Hank Crantz. His smile had disappeared. ”This feud or whatever between you and Vic, it’s stupid, and it’s counterproductive. Come on, now, the war’s over, whatd’ya say we declare a truce?” Obama flashed his smile, but Hank wasn’t having it.

 

“Mr. President—” Hank began.

 

Then Victor Raulfasen, the Fiftieth President of the United States, appeared in the doorway to the sitting room. He took one look and frowned. ”I don’t have anything to say to him,” he said. Then to Obama: “Mr. President, you’ve brought me here under false pretenses, and I—”

 

“Vic, Vic, stop it,” Obama responded. His head was swiveling, facing first the one and then the other. ”You guys have got to bury the hatchet, now. I insist.” They both stared at each other for a moment, and then Raulfasen went back into the sitting room and sat down.

 

“Come on, Hank,” Obama said, and he took a couple of steps toward the room. He stopped and turned around: Crantz hadn’t moved. ”Now!” he said more strongly. These guys, it’s like dealing with ten-year-olds, Obama thought.

 

Hank responded to the President’s sharp command, and he took several deep breaths as he forced himself to march into the sitting room and sit down on the sofa across from the sofa that Raulfasen was seated at. The two men glared at each other over a mahogany coffee table piled with fruit and Danish.

 

“Okay, fellas, we’ve got to work this out,” Obama said as he took a seat in an armchair that was strategically positions so as to afford him a face-to-face view of both the scowling men. ”You’re both Democrats, both former governors, both two-term presidents with long records of accomplishment and achievement. You’ve changed the world, for God’s sake. What’s with the anger?” An awkward silence hung in the air for a few moments, and finally Obama broke it. ”Can’t we all just get along?” he asked, his voice breaking into a laugh at the absurdity of it all.

 

Still, neither of them spoke. They just glared at each other.

 

“Vic, you brokered the deal that brought North Korea out of the cold and you found a way to get Russia to cooperate with us on Iran’s nukes,” Obama started. “That’s a hell of a thing to do.”

 

“That was Franklin, and you damn well know it,” Raulfasen responded crossly.

 

“A secretary of state doesn’t do anything by himself,” Obama responded. “Well, with the exception of my first one, of course.” The oblique reference to Hillary Clinton, who had been elected in 2016 and had died in office right at the end of her second term, seemed to relax Raulfasen. He had gotten his start in the State Department under Kerry.

 

“Yeah, she was a wonderful woman,” Raulfasen responded, quite sincerely.

 

“And you, Hank, you got NASA back on track, and worked Congress to get funding re-established. You know, my grandson Linus just got elected governor of the South Colony.”

 

“Yes, of course, Mr. President,” Hank said. He was still frowning.

 

“You guys have done it all, and you’ve fixed your own places in history. That business about the gas, nobody remembers it but you.” At this reference to the natural gas crisis, both Crantz and Raulfasen frowned, and Obama, his negotiating skills sharp as ever, knew that this was the sore spot between them. Hopefully, Obama thought, it was the only one.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The small observation post baked in the sun when that side was sunward; when it was not, it froze. Without the insulating effect of a couple of dozen meters of rock and dirt, the scientists had to wear special suits lined with metal foil to keep the radiation out and to stabilize the temperature variation.

 

Inside the post, in a metal-foil suit, S—— was finishing his shift and preparing the Record to turn over to the next keeper. He was alone in the post; he went about his tasks and from time to time he sipped a nutritious fluid from a straw inside his helmet. The straw piped into a pouch in his suit leg.

 

A buzzer sounded, and without looking, S—— reached up in a practiced move and pressed one of several red buttons on the panel in front of him.

 

“Yeah?” S—— said disinterestedly.

 

“What’s the distance now?” a voice tinged with the shadow of electronic transmission and amplification.

 

“Fifty-four,” S—— said, his eyes still fixed on the pad in front of him.

 

“Are you sure?” the voice asked.

 

S—— reached up again and flipped the intercom link off. He heard a rustling and heavy-mechanical sound and recognized it as someone trying to open the vacuum lock between the deadly outside area and the post’s interior, which was pressurized, warmed, and hydrated. ”Y——, that you?” he called.

 

“Yes,” Y—— said. The rustling continued, and then there was a banging.

 

“What’s with all that noise?” S—— asked.

 

“I can’t—get—the—hydro—-lock—-open!” Y—— said, punctuating his words with slams from his hand on the panel.

 

“Well, don’t hit it, it just—”

 

“There!” Y—— said as he got the lock to slide open, opened the inner door, and moved through it. He closed it again, and then walked around the counter. ”We’ve got to get somebody to take a look at that.”

 

“It’s never a problem for me,” S—— said, annoyed. ”Have you looked at these numbers?” he asked.

 

“What numbers?” Y—— responded.

 

“These,” S—— returned. He rotated the monitor before him so that Y—— could see it. ”See this guy here?” he pointed on the screen. ”We did his line a couple of days ago, but I’m not liking what’s happening here,”—again he indicated by pointing—“or here,” he finished. Now both of them were staring at the screen.

 

“Yeah.” Y—— said. ”What happens after that?”

 

“I’ve gone out to six centuries, I thought that would be enough,” he said. ”Not much.”

 

“Hmm,” Y—— considered. ”You think—”

 

“Yeah, I do,” S—— interrupted him.

 

There was an awkward silence between them for a moment. ”Okay, let’s bring this guy in,” Y—— said, pointing to the screen. ”Can we do it in the forties? Before the war is over?”

 

“Sure,” S—— said. ”How about early in 1942 sometime?”

 

“Yeah, that sounds about right. You do it, and get T—— to help you, okay? I don’t want you going back that far alone.”

 

“Okay,” S—— replied.

 

“I’m going to go to the orbiter now,” he said, moving toward the vacuum lock again. ”I can’t stand this suit.”

 

“Yeah, me neither,” S—— replied.

 

“You zap me when you’re in the bucket, and I’ll be watching from the pad. When you’re done, I’ll pull you out, okay, so don’t take anything that can’t be left behind.”

 

“Right.”

 

“See you. Tell 1942 I said hello,” Y—— said, smiling.

 

“Sure will,” S—— said. He leaned back in his chair and rubbed his eyes. When he looked up, Y—— was already through the lock and outside.

 

The place is the men’s room of a deserted Trailways bus station in Alameda, California, at 2:07 am on the morning of February 7, 1942. The station is open for business—the 4:15 from San Francisco will be along in a couple of hours, but no one is present in the station’s waiting room. The attendant on duty pulled the curtain down behind his station and is sleeping soundly on the cot in the back, an alarm clock set for 3:45 am. In the second stall of the men’s room, there is shimmering, and S—— winks into existence in this time and place, dressed for the part. He pauses for a moment with eyes closed, breathing, waiting for the vertigo associated with backtrips to fade, and then he opens his eyes.

 

His vision is blurry, and then the blurriness fades and he finds that he is staring at the closed door of the stall, clean and white; there is a hook there on the door, and below it, the words Jesus is coming soon is written neatly in what looks like blue marker. He smiles and pushes the door open.

 

The room is gleaming and spotless. S—— is at first surprised, and then he remembers that this is the Forties, an age in America when upkeep and maintenance and cleanliness were—well, next to Godliness, as they say. S—— looks at himself in the mirror, checking for historical accuracy and detail, and he pulls a black plastic comb out of his pocket and runs it through his black, well styled hair. Hair oil, now there’s a touch of civilization, he thought. He put the comb back in his pocket and adjusted his shirtsleeves so that the cuffs just extended past the end of his dark wool jacket. The clothes of this period felt odd, but anything was better than that damn metal-foil getup they had to wear topside on the station.

 

He had expected T—— to be behind him, but sometimes the second man was delayed a bit delay on backtrips, so he stood there in front of the mirror for a few moments. Then the door to the men’s room opened and an old man stepped in.

 

S—— looked at him and immediately, his guard went up. First of all, there wasn’t supposed to be anybody in the station except the attendant, and this old man certainly wasn’t him. Second, he stupidly had not activated his implant and now would not be able to until he was out of sight of this person. Third, not knowing who he was dealing with made any interaction he had with anyone native to the time period fairly dangerous—although this man didn’t look like anyone who would be believed no matter what he said or did, even if T—— winked into existence right here in front of him. The man was quite elderly, shabbily dressed, almost certainly a vagrant of one kind or another; despite his age and the hour, the old man certainly recognized the look of shock and surprise in S——’s face as he had entered, and it puzzled him. They looked at each other for a moment but neither spoke; S—— nodded and the old man slowly shuffled to the first stall and went inside.

 

S—— pushed his way through the first door, through a second, and then he was inside the station. The attendant’s window was visible to him, its curtain pulled down. S—— scanned the entire station quickly: long wooden benches, several can-like ashtrays between them, polished wooden floor, but no people.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Archie Teegardin put the clear plastic disk he had carefully removed from a red envelope into a narrow slot and pushed it a little; the machine grasped it and drew it inside, and then he heard it spin up.

 

“Sort of like an old DVD drive,” the young woman assisting him said, smiling brightly. She meant to be helpful; Archie heard it as a criticism of his age, a criticism of his choice to let his hair go gray, and his jaw tensed. The data on the disk had already flowed through the system. As she was speaking, the screen flickered with a series of photographs and sound-file graphics that Ronny and his technical man would pore over. Having delivered the disk, Archie’s job was done, but he was interested in seeing some of the photographs.

 

“Could I have a look at that?” he asked.

 

The girl’s smile evaporated. ”Ah, I don’t think I’m allowed to do that, Mr. Teegardin,” she said.

 

There was an awkward pause, and then Teegardin relaxed. ”Okay,” he said. He moved away from the counter, turned and pushed the door open, and stepped out into the bright sunlight.

 

“Wait!” the woman was calling. ”You have to sign—” Teegardin didn’t turn around, and when the door closed, he didn’t hear her anymore. He was a couple or three steps down the sidewalk, his pack of cigarettes out and one coming out of the pack when he heard her voice again. ”Mr. Teegardin!” He turned and saw that she was standing at the door.

 

He jammed the cigarette into his mouth. ”Yes?” he said. His hand was in his pocket, searching for a light.

 

“I have to have you sign, sir,” she said.

 

He found the pack of matches and deftly brought one up, lighting it on the way. He held it to his cigarette and inhaled to get it going. Then he blew out the match with the stream of first smoke that the cigarette had generated—and coughed loudly. He was stepping back toward the young woman when her nose wrinkled.

 

“Ugh,” she said. ”There’s no smoking in here, Mr. Teegardin,” she frowned.

 

“Right,” he responded as he took another hit. He balanced the lit smoke on the edge of a cinder brick that was standing on its small end just off the sidewalk. ”You don’t suppose anybody will bother that, do you?” he said, exhaling the smoke.

 

“I wouldn’t think so,” she responded. She was cute when she was disgusted. Teegardin followed her inside as she went around the counter and turned some sheets of paper around there. ”I’ll need you to sign here and here and here,” she said, pointing to the little red sign here flags she had placed at the locations.

 

“Yeah,” he said. ”What is this, exactly?”

 

“It’s a release,” she said. ”You release Simatron from any liability stemming from the data and Simatron releases you from any further fulfillment of the contract you signed,” she said. He apparently had said that many times before; the words all blurred into one another as she spoke it.

 

“Release, huh?” he said as he signed in the indicated places. ”Okay then.”

 

The young woman had a view of the glass door, and through it she could see Dan Trask pulling it open and stepping through. ”Oh, Mr. Trask, hello,” she said, evidently surprised at his appearance.

 

Trask ignored her. ”You Teegardin?” he asked, his hand extended.

 

Archie shook it. ”Yeah, I’m Teegardin.”

 

“Well, I’m Dan Trask, call me Dan,” he said smoothly. ”Would you join me in back, Mr. Teegardin?”

 

“Archie’s fine,” he said, following Trask as he lifted a section of countertop and walked into the back area. He fished out another cigarette and gestured with it to Trask. ”You don’t mind?”

 

“Not at all,” Trask responded. ”This way, please.” He was holding his hand out, indicating that Archie should go through an open portal into a hallway. As he did so, Trask followed him smoothly. ”It’s that next door on the left, sir, just open it and go right in.”

 

Archie opened it and went right in—it was a well appointed office: mahogany table, two comfortable-looking sitting chairs before it, and a larger, black leather chair behind. As Trask went around to the leather chair, he gestured for Archie to sit down. ”Sit wherever you like, Mr. Teegardin—”

 

“Archie,” Archie said as he sat down.

 

“Archie, right. Archie.” Trask was settled in his seat now, and he opened a drawer to retrieve a pack of cigarettes and an ashtray. He lit one of the and pushed the ashtray between them. ”The kids these days don’t approve of smoking. Especially that kid out front. But she’s nice to look at, so I don’t mind too much.” Trask said, leaning back and getting his smoke going good.

 

“Yeah, I noticed that,” Teegardin said. ”Always had a taste for the girls, you know.”

 

“I gathered as much. We may have some more work for you after all.” Teegardin perked up at this; he needed money, and he was getting a little too old to steal it.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Late at night on the tenth floor of an antique office building on the edge of town, an overweight man in a rumpled shirt and loosened tie was sitting at a desk piled with long printouts and glowing screens—all full of numbers. Numbers that didn’t add up, no matter how he juggled them. Norman pushed his chair back and stood up, then he walked over to the window. In these old buildings, the windows were able to be opened, and he opened his. He awkwardly lifted one leg, fed it through the window, ducked down and managed, with some straining, to get his head and oversized torso outside, and then pulled his other leg through, and he stood shakily on the chipped brick ledge. Then he stepped off.

 

One morning about six months before Norman Hukes made a mess on the sidewalk, he lay on the couch in his office snoring. There was a single sharp rap on the door. Then Norman’s boss opened it.

 

“Norm?” she said as she stuck her head in. Norman picked that moment to turn over and start snoring loudly. Jennifer turned in the direction of the sound and saw him. ”Ugh,” she said. She closed the door and went back to her own office, where her overpriced cup of coffee sat cooling on her polished, well organized desk. She sat down and punched a button on her phone.

 

The phone connected and started ringing—it rang several times, and then was answered. ”Ah—” she heard Norman’s voice say, and then the phone was dropped. Jennifer waited, rolling her eyes, while Norman struggled to get the phone to his ear and clear his throat.

 

He coughed heavily into the phone; Jennifer pulled it away from her ear as he hacked and gagged. Finally, he seemed to be ready to speak. ”Ah, hello?”

 

“Norm. It’s me,” she said.

 

“What time is it?” he asked.

 

“You don’t know what time it is?” she said. ”How long have you been there?”

 

“Oh, I just got here,” he lied unconvincingly.

 

“I was just in your office, Norm,” she said. ”You were snoring on your couch.”

 

“I was?”

 

“Yeah.” There was an uncomfortable pause. ”Look, clean yourself up and be in my office in an hour. Are you sober?”

 

“Sober? Yeah, I guess so,” Norman replied.

 

“You guess so?” she repeated. ”Well, are you or aren’t you?”

 

“I am,” he said.

 

“One hour.” Jennifer hung up the phone. Then she pressed a button on her intercom.

 

A moment later, a crisp female voice said “Yes?”

 

“I’d like to speak to Bill Rogers today, I think he’s in Paris. Put him in as my two o’clock.”

 

“Rogers at two, yes, ma’am,” the voice answered back.

 

Jennifer got up from her desk and went over to a treadmill that occupied one corner of the room. It was pointed at the wall; mounted just above it were a series of monitors. One was hooked to a local cable suite; one was a secure internet connection, and the third was a virtual reality feed that would allow the treadmill’s user to virtually walk through a series of on-demand places. Presently, Jennifer was walking the Appalachian trail one hour at a time. She had started at the Northern Terminus in Maine, and over the course of the last couple of months—one hour at a time, twice a day—had proceed through Vermont and New Hampshire and now was crossing western Massachusetts on her way to the Southern Terminus in Georgia. She slipped out of her heels, into a pair of sneakers, and stepped on the machine. It was set for 2.6 miles per hour—enough to get the blood circulating, but not enough to break a sweat, thus preventing the need for a clothing change.

 

She clicked on the virtual reality screen, which located to her previous position, and then flicked on the internet, scanning through several websites to get the morning’s news. She clicked on the television monitor too, muting it so that the captions came on.

 

Jennifer’s intercom chime rang. ”Yeah, go ahead,” she called.

 

“Rogers can’t speak with you at two, but he’s free for twenty minutes in half an hour. You want to take it on the treadmill?”

 

“Yeah, that will be fine, Peg. Just bring me the phone, okay?”

 

“Will do.” The intercom clicked off, but in about ten seconds, the chime rang again.

 

“Yeah?”

 

“Mr. Hukes is here to see you,” she said. ”He says you said to come by.”

 

“I said in an hour!” She sighed. “Make him wait.”

 

The intercom clicked off, and Jennifer knew that Peg was reading him the riot act for having her needlessly interrupt the senior vice president for finance. Peg Randolph was pretty good at that sort of thing; it was one of several reasons that she had the job. Another was that at the age of 61, Miss Randolph—she had never married—was a competition-level triathlete and had a marathon time under 3:45. She made quite a contrast with the overweight, smoking Norman, who hadn’t run three steps since middle school.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

The big clock in Times Square had counted down, but Dave wasn’t ready to leave the party.

 

His mission had been complete for several hours now, and instead of returning to 2043 immediately, he had remained in 2012 a while longer, intending to take advantage of the availability of alcohol. Through the efforts of a newly elected Muslim president and a Congress controlled by the New Values party, New Prohibition would be implemented in 2041, two years before, by Dave’s straight-line reckoning, and he was really missing it.

 

He sat in a chair in the noise, crowded living room nursing his sixth or seventh bloody Mary as the partygoers who had been hanging on to see the ball drop gathered their coats and started filing out. The room was littered with New Year’s paraphernalia and half-empty cups that teetered on every flat surface. Dave picked up the television remote, puzzled over it for a few minutes, and managed to change the channel on the television hanging above the fireplace to a news channel. He smiled and felt a sense of accomplishment and relief as an equally relieved-looking reporter described the fiscal deal that had been passed by the House over the last few hours.

 

“No way to run a damned government, is it?” said a youngish bearded man as he sat on the sofa across from where Dave sat. “Looks like were gonna last another month or two anyway.” He took a hit from the red plastic cup in his hand.

 

“Everybody’s leaving, it looks like,” he said in response.

 

“Not me. Too drunk to drive,” the beard said. “At least, I will be pretty soon,” he guffawed and took another drink from his red cup.

 

“Came pretty close this time, didn’t we?” Dave said. He swirled the remains of his drink and smiled to himself. “Yep. Pretty close.”

 

“Ah, Congress can’t legislate itself out of a paper bag. It’s those damn Republicans, they don’t care at all about anybody except rich people. Of course, being rich myself, I guess I ought to be with them, but I just can’t stomach Boehner, and even my own little congressman, whom I voted for and who is Republican, is getting more squirrely every day.”

 

“Who’s your guy?” Dave asked.

 

“Crenshaw, of Florida’s Fourth,” he answered. “I’m Ralph Thompson.”

 

“Dave, Dave Patterson.” He had no wish to prick the ears of law enforcement in 2043, who almost certainly would be watching and listening to his activities in the past, and so he used his cover for the last name. Even if young Mr. Thompson tried to find out who and what he was, using whatever early search mechanisms were available in 2013, he would find that the name Dave Patterson was so common as to make a search for him impractical. Dave thought for a moment and realized that his six-year-old self would be marking the New Year in that yellow frame house on the outskirts of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho. It was the year his father would die in a farm accident. Dave frowned to remember that, and frowned again to realize that although he could and did travel through time, when duly authorized, he couldn’t do anything about that.

 

“Well, Dave, gaze long upon your country’s lawmakers,” Ralph said grandly as he gestured with his red cup. “A bunch of morons, if you ask me.”

 

“I’d certainly agree with that,” Dave responded. He was thinking about how that very day, he’d performed a series of actions in person and remotely that led to the fiscal cliff agreement that was being reported on as they watched. Some he did by himself over the Internet in the public library on Fourth Street; most of the rest he did by placing a telephone call. The last of it required a personal visit to a particular park bench on the National Mall, just across from the National Air and Space Museum. After he sat on the bench between 2:24 pm and 2:26 pm, his job was done and so he went into the museum; two years later, a suicide bomber’s explosion would start a fire that would destroy much of the historic contents.

 

“I ran for city council here in Linden,” Ralph said. “Didn’t make it. Seeing this kind of crap makes me not want to serve.” He took another drink from his cup, and Dave had a thought. Through an effort of mind, he turned on his implant and a display, visible only to him, appeared in his visual field. He had access to 2043’s version of Wikipedia, and navigated over to the biography section to see just exactly who and what Ralph Thompson was. He added Linden, Tennessee, to the search protocol and guessimated Ralph’s age to be late twenties.

 

Yep, there he was. Ralph Carter Thompson, born 1984 in Knoxville, Tennessee, elected to the first of four House terms in 2022, he would be elected to the first of three terms in the Senate in 2040. Appointed member of the Judicial Committee in 2031. Then Dave remembered where he’d heard the name. A Senator Ralph Thompson, New Values Party from Tennessee, and the block of Senate votes he controlled, would put Rebecca Livingston Reynolds on the Supreme Court in 2042. And Justice Reynolds–well, her impact on the history of the 40’s and 50’s and beyond would be almost immeasurable.

 

As Dave looked at the bearded Ralph, he marveled at how the critical people in history never seem that way. George Washington as a young man was a whiny know-it-all who affected European graces on a frontier budget; James Garfield spoke Greek and Latin but could barely be made to understand the dangers of fiat currently; Jerry Paxesty had been a barely-competent mayor of a small Texas town before being elevated through a series of missteps and mistakes to the governorship of Texas and then the presidency; his disastrous single term set the stage for the New Values takeover in the 2030s.

 

“Listen, Ralph,” Dave said. “You hungry? Let’s you and me go get something to eat. I’ve got some friends who are looking for a young candidate to run for school board,” he said. “What are your views on education?”

 

“Ah, my favorite subject,” Ralph said, perking up. “That’s really what I’m interested in.” His red cup was abandoned on the table. “See, the problem we have is that we force kids to go. We need to first drop the mandatory attendance requirement to fifth grade, not tenth. Hell, kids who don’t want to be there don’t do the work anyway, and so they don’t get much past fifth-grade work anyway.” He was on his feet. “Then we need to make parents post a behavior bond. A thousand dollars up front at the beginning of the school year. For every problem their kid causes, they lose a hundred bucks. At the end of the year, whatever’s left gets returned to the parents. Then–” Dave had his coat on and was guiding the young man out the door and into his specially modified car, which looked to all appearances as a time- and place-appropriate 2011 Honda Accord, but in fact was connected via his implant to 2043, and controllers there handled the minutiae of traffic and cops and red lights.

 

In the wee-morning minutes of 2013, they drove off toward the nearest Waffle House. There’s an innovation we should have preserved, Dave thought. Waffle House.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Jimmy ran across the yard and plunged into the woods that started past where his father stopped mowing. Their house was on the edge of the subdivision, and the undeveloped dozen or so acres that separated their subdivision from the next one was a constant source of entertainment for the two boys, brothers, who lived at that address.

 

“Wait for me!” Bobby called as he ran after his faster older brother. Bobby plunged into the woods and ran along the pathway between the brush and trees that Jimmy, Bobby, and the other neighborhood boys had worn. But Jimmy was already well ahead of him, on his way to the central clearing.

 

In the spacecraft above the woods, unseen and unsuspected, the two boys, one running after the other, were blue dots on a grid screen. They moved on the screen as two of the spacecraft’s occupants watched.

 

“Thirty,” the one of them said. It said the word in its own language, of course; the strange sound hung in the air for several seconds until the material with which the inside of the ship was lined absorbed it, converted it, and transferred its energy back to the ship’s power reserves.

 

“Thirty-one, I think” the other of them said. They referred to the number of times the boys had come to the central clearing during the several weeks that the ship had been hovering there, above it, monitoring. It remained undetected through an unconventional transferring of time—the precise mechanism involved Planck times and the still undetected and unsuspected-by-Man intervals in between.

 

“It’s time,” One said.

 

“Yes. It’s time,” Other agreed

 

They manipulated several dials and switches and controls on the odd panel before which they stood.

 

Jimmy was in the clearing now, and he stopped running. A few moments and Bobby was there too, panting. The boys stood silently and still as they registered the form in the middle of the clearing. It was collection of bones, a skeleton, its parts bleached white from years exposed on the surface of a moon that orbited the planet where the ancient, planet-bound members of One and Other’s race had been born and had grown and developed. They eventually left their planet, taking residence on the several moons that circled their poisoned planet. The bones lay exposed to the system’s star for an uncharted and unknowable period of a single interval between one of the Multiverse’s Planck time and the next.

 

“What’s that?” Bobby asked.

 

“It’s bones,” Jimmy answered.

 

“Bones of what?”

 

“I dunno.” Despite a small library of animal books and an precocious interest in science fiction, Jimmy could not have known or imagined the animal whose living tissue had once draped these bones. It had been a ramah, a large semi-sentient pouched mammal that had once been bred and raised for One and Other’s race to ride; they were the horses of ancient Velpa. Nobody rode ramahi anymore though—in fact, the species did not even exist any longer.

 

“It’s a dinosaur!” Bobby said as he lunged forward to touch it.

 

“No!” Jimmy said, but it was too late. As Bobby approached and kneeled down, a blue shaft of light winked, and then Bobby was gone.

 

“Hey!” Jimmy said, looking around. He drew closer to the pile of bones, looking up and down, around and around, and then, looking up again, he noticed the bottom of the ship floating there, only yards above him. The ship became more visible as Jimmy’s personal time began to phase out of the local synchronization and find a new center in the space between the Planck times. At the same time, Jimmy’s view of his surroundings faded. He was being separated from the ticks and tocks of his own time, just as his brother had been. From Jimmy’s point of view, his brother’s removal had taken only an instant. But the perception was different from this end, from the point of view of the person being removed. ”What is this?” Jimmy said to a fading world.

 

Above, in the ship, One and Other stood in front of a glassy panel and observed the boy sitting on a bench inside a small room. He’d been on the ship for what seemed to him to be hours now. He had screamed and cried himself out and now simply sat, head hanging, silently, breathing in and out.

 

“When will the other one come?” Other asked in their strange language. The walls absorbed the sounds after many moments.

 

“Soon,” One responded.

 

As they stood there, the other boy materialized in the cell. His brother looked up, face streaked, and he stood up.

 

“There you are,” Jimmy said. He looked around. ”Where are we?”

 

The One and the Other turned and walked away, leaving the two brothers to get used to their new cage. A manipulation of controls and the ship continued on its long voyage.

 

 

  • ●●●●●●●

 

 

Mike held the door and Carter Reynolds stepped through it and stopped short. He couldn’t see anything at all; he had to blink a few times to adjust to the relative darkness of the interior from the blindingly bright summer’s day.

 

Finally, the scene swam into view: it was a large open interior space, roughly rectangular. On one side offices had been partitioned off, each with its own heavy wooden door and nameplate identifying whose office the door led to. On the other side there, heavy equipment was lined up in two long rows to the other end of the room. Each had lines supplying it with pressurized air and water and electricity and the other utilities it required to operate. Most of the equipment had a cushion pad all around it on the floor; the operator stood on this to operate the machine. There was a wide passage all the way across the width of the room, and then another wide passage between the two rows of equipment.

 

“Right this way, Mr. Reynolds,” Mike said as he stepped around him to lead the way. Reynolds followed, and they walked past two of the heavy wooden doors. At the third one–marked with a placard that read “D. Phillipston”–Mike slowed and then stopped. “Here we are,” he said as he grasped the knob, turned it, and opened the door.

 

The door opened into a large room, outfitted as an office. Not opulent by any means; more utilitarian, with walls and display cases crowded with photographs, plaques, and awards. At a large desk in the back of the room sat a large man in dark-blue coveralls, the name Phillipston embroidered on the right breast; he rose as he noticed the two men entering his office.

 

“Hey!” he said as he came around the desk and stroke to the two men with his hand out. “Carter Reynolds, great to see you.” The two men shook hands.

 

“Good to see you, Chief,” Reynolds said. “You look great, you really do. Always the same.”

 

“Not the same, Carter, but thanks, and thanks for coming on such short notice. Flight was all right?”

 

Reynolds shrugged. “No worse than normal, I guess.”

 

“Mike, you can leave him with me.” Mike nodded and slipped back through the door, closing it. “Look at this, I found this the other day,” Phillipston said as he walked over to his desk and picked up a photograph that was lying on it. He brought it up and around so both of them could look at it. “Here–” Phillipston pointed. “That’s you, isn’t it?”

 

“Oh my God, Chief,” Reynolds said. “Yeah, that’s me alright. Suwon, Korea, 1988.”

 

“Yep.” The two men stared at the picture for a moment. “That was a good year.”

 

“Isn’t this Kelly Dockery?”

 

“Yeah, it sure is. And that’s Steve Heimstra behind him.”

 

“Yeah,” Reynolds said. “Poor Steve.”

 

“Yeah. Well, have a seat.” Phillipston said as he walked back around to sit in his own chair. Reynolds sat down in one of the two chairs that faced his desk. Phillipston had transitioned into business mode; he sat down and leaned forward on his glass desktop. “So, we’ve found something.”

 

“Really?” Reynolds said. “Found what?”

 

“Well, we think we’ve got it identified, and we think we know what it is and what it does, but–” he stopped.

 

“But what, Chief?”

 

“But I’d rather you look and come to your own conclusions. If you agree with us, then great. If you don’t, then, well, we could be wrong. You’re the expert.”

 

“Okay,” Reynolds said. He still didn’t know what Phillipston was talking about.

“Let’s go down there and we’ll see what you think.” He picked up the phone and pushed a button. “Larry? It’s Dave. Carter’s here. We’ll come down in a couple of minutes, can you get two suits ready for us?” He cupped the phone. “You still 33 in the waist?”

 

“More like 35 now, Chief,” Reynolds said with a smile.

 

Then back into the phone: “Carter needs a 35, okay, and let me have my blue respirator.” A pause. “Right.” He put down the phone. “Okay, they’ll be ready for us in a minute.”

 

While Phillipston had been talking, Reynolds got up and had moved over to one of the many plaques and pictures on the walls of the office. Most of them featured the old chief in one incarnation or the other. The one Reynolds was examining showed Phillipston shaking hands with a young-looking Barack Obama. There was an inscription on the bottom, written neatly in fat black marker: “Chief, thanks and call on me if you need a favor.” Below that, the characteristic looping signature of the Forty-Fourth President of the United States appeared.

 

Phillipston moved over to join Reynolds as he looked at the photo. “Yeah, that’s him when he was a senator,” he said. “He’s been back here since, but the staff thought it might not be a good idea to have him seen with me–just in case we hook the big fish one of these days, you know.”

 

“The big fish, yeah,” Reynolds said.

 

“I think we might have him down there,” Phillipston said. “But I’m saying too much. You need to decide for yourself. As I say, you’re the expert.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

About the Author

 

Wayne H. Bartlett is writer and editor of the Twenty Minutes to Deadline blog, on which the material in this compilation first appeared and on which future material will be published.  He is retired military, a high school English teacher, local pilot, and banjo picker.  Mr. Bartlett may be contacted through his blog at http://www.twentyminutestodeadline.wordpress.com or on the blog’s Facebook™ page at http://www.facebook.com/20MtD.