Story Excerpt

Hybrid, Blue, by Firelight

by Bill Johnson

 

42,967 bce

What do you get when a Neanderthal, a Denisovan, and a Red Deer Cave sit down around a table together? Artie asked.

Shut up, Martin replied impatiently, in private, ignoring the joke. Are my eyes right?

White sclera, blue eyes. Their blood pressure and pulse goes up every time they look at you. Even Turlli’s numbers are up. You’re too damned alien looking. You’re freaking them out.

Good, Martin said, satisfied. That’s part of the plan.

This better work, Artie warned. We don’t get a second chance.

Martin concentrated on the two men on either side of him and the woman at the head of the table. This era, the Stone Eagle interior design was ski-lodge style, with aged oak logs, browned and golden and varnished, for the walls. The ceiling arched above them, supported by more weathered and stained wood beams while the floor was unblemished hardwood.

They sat in a privacy alcove off the main dining room. The tables and troughs and feeding towers and sluiceways around them were impeccably set, depending on the preferences and requirements of the various guests. Their own table was white cotton tablecloths and napkins, silver dinnerware and chopsticks. The lighting was unobtrusive and seemed to come from nowhere and everywhere.

All the other booths and alcoves were filled with different groups, each intent on private and last minute negotiations. Sound bafflers kept the volume down.

Waiters, both locals and uptimer lostlings from various timelines, tended tables. The locals were a mixture of Neanderthal, Denisovan, and Red Deer Cave people, with a light dusting of archaic Africans. The lostling staff ranged from bodymidders to dwarf-like steamers to tall, thin, albino Drifters, and whatever had shown up in between.

The customers were even more varied.

Most of them were out-system, everything from aquatics in travel tanks to null-g mechanicals, from tripeds to gas sizzlers in protective suits. There were only a few Terrans, descended from mammal-like reptiles or feathered dinosaurs, either from the far past or the far future.

There were no Homo sapiens sapiens, except for Martin.

“I bid dogs,” Kisad, to Martin’s right, said. He touched the tabletop and data appeared in front of all of them. The Neanderthal was calm, his heavy eyebrows relaxed. He wore white silk pants, heavy boots, and something vaguely like a Nehru jacket. Martin tried to read his expression, but Kisad’s brown eyes and brown sclera made it too hard. Martin couldn’t even be sure exactly what he was looking at.

“You already have the two dozen sterile males I loaned you, for testing and training. I’ll throw in two dozen bitches, all certified pure, with no crossbreeding. And I’ll remove the sterility locks on the males.”

Turlli, at the head of the table, was Denisovan. Her features were a softened version of Kisad’s, with more chin and less heavy eye ridges. She wore a tailor-made beige pantsuit. Her hair was long and straight, brown with natural blonde and red streaks, tied back with a strip of blue satin. She checked the data and nodded.

“Bid accepted,” she said. Her voice was a low, smooth soprano. “Dineen?”

“I bid a cure for northern hemorrhagic fever,” Dineen said. He was Red Deer Cave, smaller than all of them, with a flat face, broad nose, jutting jaw, and no chin. His clothes tended more toward fur and leather. His eyes were brown, no white sclera, his eyebrows large and prominent, his hair straight and black, cropped short. He touched the table, and his data displayed next to Kisad’s.

A total, screwed-up mess, Artie continued, smugly. That’s what you get when all the relatives come to dinner. A total, screwed-up mess.

He sounded pleased with himself. Martin resisted the urge to reach into his code and rewrite him. . . .

“He doesn’t belong here,” Kisad snapped. He shook his head dismissively at Dineen and frowned at Turlli. “My deal was with you. He shouldn’t even be here.”

“A bid is a bid.” Turlli’s voice was indifferent. Her job was to get Martin the best possible bids. His job was to make the final decision. She checked Dineen’s data, looked up at Martin, and nodded.

“Bid is acceptable.”

“Thank you,” Dineen said. He focused on Turlli with only a side-glance at Kisad. He tipped his head toward the Neanderthal. “He’s just upset because he knows my offer is better than his. He’s afraid he’ll go home empty-handed.”

Turlli stayed expressionless. Kisad began to push away from the table. Dineen started to stand.

“Sit down,” Martin ordered. Artie chuckled over the speaker system—

And they all felt the Stone Eagle flicker. The lights stayed on, heating and ventilation worked smoothly . . . but the timelines quaked, just for a moment. Probabilities had changed, for some reason, at the quantum level.

Turlli glanced at Martin. He rubbed his forehead.

Don’t even ask, Artie warned Martin, still in private. No idea what caused it. Kisad’s bid? Dineen’s? Something at another table? No idea. But I suggest we wrap this up as fast as we can.

Kisad hesitated, then sat back in his chair. Dineen waited a moment longer—

Some kind of dominance game, Artie guessed.

—and sat down.

“Time is running out, gentlemen,” Turlli continued smoothly. “We’re coming up on a decision facet. A big one. Something is going to happen, and this future is going to change. None of us know if our timelines will still be in contact after this. If we’re still here when we reach the facet, we might not be able to go home. There may be no home to go back to. So we need to get this deal done, and done now, before whatever is going to happen, happens. Unless you want to stay behind as a lostling. Is everyone clear on this?”

Both Kisad and Dineen frowned and opened their mouths. Turlli shook her head, leaned back in her chair, and picked up her wine glass. Martin watched her and sipped his own drink. It tasted very much like a single malt scotch. It was part of a case brought down by an astronomer from some race near the galactic core to pay for her room and board.

“Final offers,” Turlli said firmly. “You have ten minutes.”

No one said anything.

Kisad and Dineen glared at each other, then snapped up privacy screens. Their shapes were vaguely visible as they concentrated on their datapads. Turlli discreetly looked away and gestured. A waiter hurried over and refilled her glass. Martin waved at him to leave the bottle. Turlli turned toward Martin.

“I love what you’ve done with the place.”

Turlli’s voice was dry and sarcastic. Martin smiled.

We’re going to have to tell her things, to draw her in, Martin warned. Artie made his shoulder shrug noise.

Take the risk. If things go right, it won’t matter. If they go wrong . . . it still won’t matter.

You are such an optimist.

Start leaking hints and secrets, Artie ordered. We’re in this too deep to stop now. You set her up, and I’ll go first.

“You always were a city girl, weren’t you?” Martin teased. “Stainless steel, granite counter tops, force fields and glass. That sort of thing.”

“That sort of thing,” Turlli agreed, vaguely. “You’ve been up to my future?”

“Lovely place,” Martin said smoothly.

You are such a lying sack of—

Martin smiled and cut Artie off. He glanced around the Eagle. Two of the alcoves were empty now and one of the booths along the wall. While he watched, the privacy screens around another booth flickered off, and the people inside hurried away. Martin absently checked the occupied room count. It was going down.

The rats are leaving the sinking ship.

Martin sipped his whiskey. Artie activated their own privacy screen.

“So, are those two done with the alpha male posturing?” Artie asked Turlli. “They’re not good at it.”

“‘Alpha male posturing’? What a delightful phrase,” Turlli said, amused. “And what does that mean, Artie?”

“Dominance display between rivals. Assertion of leadership. Who’s the top boss.”

“And they’re not good at it?” she asked and shook her head. For just a moment, her expression seemed to slip. She suddenly looked very tired and stressed.

“Artie, they’re probably the very best negotiators their timelines have to offer.”

“You have got to be kidding,” Artie said, disbelieving.

“Our peoples are all family oriented,” she said, indicating herself and Dineen and Kisad. Martin noticed she was careful not to include him. “We’re used to working together, but only inside individual families. We never evolved to work together in larger groups. We don’t even have this alpha male concept you mention. The closest we’ve got is when someone challenges the head of the family for leadership. Doesn’t happen very often.”

“What about when you get a big project, when families have to work together?”

“Contracts,” Turlli said promptly. “Leadership rotation. And we don’t do it very often.” She looked at Martin. “But you, here at the Eagle, do work together. In large groups. And not always as families.”

“It’s called socialization,” Martin said. Turlli nodded.

“Socialization,” she repeated to Martin, broadly, as if she was rolling around the word in her mouth. “Strange how that concept was left out of the public databases you carry here. All they talk about is family.”

“Everyone here, all the staff, is my family,” Artie protested. “And Martin’s had wives and kids. We have families.”

Turlli glanced at Martin and smiled. He waited a moment, then chuckled and shook his head.

“We’ve been hacked,” Martin said to Artie.

“Not a chance,” Artie said flatly. He sounded insulted. “My security is perfect.”

“Actually, Artie, you’re right,” Turlli said.

“We did try to hack your software.”

“And you failed,” Artie insisted.

“And we failed,” Turlli shook her head. “Sort of.”

“I don’t understand.”

“Data check, Artie,” Martin said. “Draw if-then conclusions. Search all current timelines, forward and back, for anything that looks even remotely like you and me.”

Artie paused for a moment.

“You tried to hack us because we aren’t in anyone’s past or present or future,” Artie said, subdued. “We’re not just extinct. We never existed.”

“Yes,” Turlli said.

“You hacked both of us, Artie and me, as a system, the slow way,” Martin said, impressed. “You and other Denisovans have been following our beacon and coming to the Eagle for, what, ten thousand years? Twenty?”

Turlli sipped her drink.

“Our first Denisovan guest showed up thirty two thousand years ago,” Artie said. “Just after Blombos Cave.”

“How many of your people did you place in the Eagle as waiters, as house cleaners, as buyers?” Martin asked Turlli. “You’ve been putting together a picture of us and our timeline.”

“They weren’t all Denisovan. We hired off-planet help as well. Prostitutes were actually the most effective,” Turlli admitted. “Your staff—human and nonhuman—do love to talk in bed. And their favorite topic to talk about is you and Artie.”

“None of the guests or staff here are from our timeline,” Artie said. “No one is allowed here. Except us.”

“Really? For over thirty thousand years?” Turlli asked skeptically.

“Shut up, Artie,” Martin said calmly. “She doesn’t believe a word you’re saying.”

He studied Turlli. She smiled and nodded.

“Don’t be harsh on him,” Turlli said. “From what we can tell, you’re mainly based on archaic Africans, with a lot of cross breeding. Neanderthal, Denisovan, Red Deer Cave. Even a few other sapiens we’ve never identified. Which makes you, Martin, a bit of a puzzle. As far as we can tell, no archaics survive the next genetic bottleneck.”

Martin waited.

“You live together in your little families, just like all the other sapiens,” Turlli said. “The glaciers come south and the climate changes. You’re ambush hunters and the cold wipes out the forests. All that’s left to hunt are the tundra animals, like the mammoths. They’re difficult prey, even for Neanderthals and Denisovans and Red Deer Cave people. And you’re not as physically strong as we are. We out-hunt you. You starve and interbreed in your little families and then die out. End of story.”

“Not a pretty picture,” Martin said.

“Unfortunately, no,” Turlli said. She sipped her drink. “That’s what happens to your people in every timeline we’ve found.

“So I’m here and alive and that’s a puzzle. And the family which sent you doesn’t like puzzles,” Martin said. Turlli smiled.

“Nothing is that simple. Puzzles can be dangerous,” Turlli said. She paused and looked carefully at Martin. “They can also be opportunities.”

“Go on,” Artie said.

Turlli finished her wine and set down the glass.

“Our best guess is that you and Artie are lostlings,” Turlli said. “You came back from some archaic timeline and were trapped here by a decision facet. Now, you and Artie live every day, one day at a time. You’re not traveling in time. You have no forward to go to. Instead, you’re making it up as you go along.”

“Plausible,” Martin said, nodding. “It does make sense.”

Keep lying, Artie said. They took the bait. Finally.

“Three Homo sapiens timelines with time travel: Denisovans, Neanderthals, Red Deer Cave,” Turlli said. She ticked them off on her fingers. “Each society only has people living together in small groups, in families.”

“And in the here and now, they’re all ambush hunter-gatherer’s who mostly live by themselves,” Artie said, thoughtfully. “No socialization. Not much interaction between families. Very, very, little mixing between the different breeds. Must be hell getting a date.”

Turlli shrugged.

“My ancestors did what they needed to stay alive. Still, our birthrate was low, even from the beginning and into our future. Genetic diversity was and is a problem. We almost died out a number of times.”

“Incest?”

“Yes, incest,” Turlli nodded curtly. “We’re still dealing with inbreeding diseases, uptime, in my line. We think Dineen and Kisad have the same problems, only worse.”

“And?” Martin asked, encouragingly.

“You and Artie aren’t like that,” Turlli said flatly.

Turlli tipped her chin at both Kisad and Dineen, still in privacy mode, then focused back on Martin.

“Something about your people, Martin, was different. Is different. For you, this posturing, this struggling for position, is normal. You’re socialized. You actually have this kind of competitive drive in your genes. You’re comfortable with larger groups, much bigger than just your family. The Stone Eagle proves this. You accept hierarchy and social structure and constant maneuvering for social position. It’s part of how you attract mates, how you decide to divide resources, how you enforce your rules. How you do everything,” Turlli said.

“We don’t have that. We live for the family and that’s it. It’s one reason there are so few of our timelines, why we’re so unlikely,” Turlli said. She glanced over at Kisad and Dineen, then spoke to Artie. “So, how long will they keep posturing? It depends on how desperate they are for the crossbreed genes you’re offering, how bad the inbreeding plagues are back in their own uptimes. It matters if the genes you’re offering are a want or a need.”

Slowly, Artie said. Carefully. The fish is on the hook. Now set it and roll her in.

“So, why are you and I talking now? What do you want?” Martin countered. “Nothing has changed. I only have enough crossbreed genes for two of you. Your fee is the same as what I’m offering them. If I pay you, one of them has to go home empty handed.”

“My family lives up to our deals,” Turlli said. “I still want the female genes for my family. But I also want a bonus.”

“And why should I do that?” Martin asked.

“Because I’ll earn it,” Turlli said flatly. She nodded at the other two. “You’re going to make a decision and someone is going to be unhappy. When that happens, and whatever happens after that, you’ll need me to get the deal done.”

“And you’ll want an extra fee?” Martin asked. “For your family?”

“I’ll get what I want,” Turlli agreed. “But it will be for me, not just my family.”

“If something does happen, I always pay my debts,” Martin said.

Landed in the boat, Artie said, satisfied. Part one completed. Now on to part two.

A timer tone sounded. Artie took down their own privacy screen. Kisad and Dineen were ready to talk.

“I’ll up our offer,” Kisad said. “Nobody uptime likes dogs anyway. We’re more comfortable with cats. So you get everything. Two dozen more pair, the bitches all in heat.”

“And they’re all dogs, right?” Martin interrupted. “Not some kind of wolf with floppy ears?”

Kisad hesitated, then pushed the final data over to Artie. Martin let Artie do his work while he studied the frozen image of what sure as hell looked like a dog. Big and strong, grey and white and brown, like a combination hunting dog and sled dog.

Think of them as dog lite, Artie agreed. Bone structure is dog, clearly different from wolf or coyote. Genetically, still a little more Taimyr wolf than I’d like, but close enough. Each tests from a different litter, with different parents and grandparents and so on, back for at least four generations. Their genome is clean of in-breeding.

“Temperament?” Martin asked out loud.

“You’re going to get some bites,” Kisad admitted. “These are working dogs, not runts who sit in grandma’s lap.”

How good are they? Martin asked Artie.

They’re a lot closer to dogs than what we’ve got, Artie added in private. And they’ve got enough wolf in them to match what is supposed to be in the here and now. Call them wolf-dogs if that makes you happy.

Damn it! Martin grumbled. We’ve been breeding wolves into dogs for a thousand years. And he’s still better at it than we are.

Life isn’t fair. Artie sounded like he shrugged. Get used to it and deal with it.

What do the cousins say? Maybe we don’t need his dogs.

Artie made his smile noise and his shaking-his-head noise.

You ordered the camp on communications lockdown yesterday, to make sure they didn’t get traced back by either Kisad or Dineen. You want them to break silence?

No! Not until tomorrow.

Then I’ll tell you the answer myself. Our animals are good hunters, but they’re tamed wolves, not domesticated dogs. Someone has to re-tame them as puppies every generation. It takes too long, and we’re running out of time. The damned glaciers are growing. There’s drought down south and the herds are moving north. There are archaic hunting families back in the Middle East already, and they’ll be here in Europe in a few generations. We need Kisad’s wolf-dogs now. Take the damned deal!

“Sclera?” Martin asked. Screw Artie. He wasn’t giving in easy to Kisad.

“White.” Kisad sounded gruff. “More white than wolves or coyotes. When you domesticate anything, it always seems to come out that way.” He finished his drink and gestured for more. He locked eyes with Martin. “Maybe it’s the same with people.”

Martin ignored the insult.

“Dineen? Your offer?”

“Mine is simpler,” Dineen said. “I’ll add in plasmodium resistance.”

“Privacy,” Martin ordered. The screens around him went up. Turlli looked at him expectantly.

“Solo privacy,” Martin said.

Turlli was cut out.

“Malaria,” Artie said to Martin. “He’s giving us the cure for malaria. You know how many people malaria killed? And we can’t make the cure ourselves. I had to leave it out of my database when we came here.”

“You left out a lot of things.”

“Bite me,” Artie said, tiredly. “That ship sailed a long time ago. And you left things behind too.”

Martin sighed and nodded.

“A cure for northern fever,” Martin said. “Still don’t know what that disease was. Just that it slowed the archaics from migrating into Europe. We could get all that time back.”

“Yeah,” Artie said. He spoke slowly, carefully. “We’d get all that time back. Things would change. This timeline would be ahead of schedule.”

They both went silent for a moment.

“We could make things better, damn it!” Martin said suddenly, almost pleadingly. “We could save people.”

“Saving people is good,” Artie agreed quietly. “But that’s not why we’re here.”

“Screw the future!” Martin said.

“Yeah,” Artie said. He sounded wistful. “I understand. And, at the same time . . . No.”

Martin leaned back in his chair and looked up at the ceiling. He folded his hands across his chest.

“I’ve watched people die from both hemorrhagic and malaria,” Martin said. “Neither one is pretty.”

“I know.”

“We could do a lot of good.”

“I know.”

“It’s my choice,” Martin said, defiantly. “I’m the one here, right now, on the ground. I make the decisions. It’s not your time yet.”

“You’re right,” Artie agreed softly.

Martin tipped his chair forward until all four feet were back on the ground.

“Privacy down,” he ordered.

Kisad and Dineen and Turlli looked at him. He looked only at Turlli.

“We’ll take the dogs.”

*   *   *

Dineen stood, tight-lipped, tossed his napkin on his plate, and left. Kisad smiled. Turlli frowned and nodded.

“The contract is approved,” Turlli said.

Kisad shrugged and looked down at his half-eaten food. He ignored them both and concentrated on his steak. He seemed to attack it as if he had never seen cooked meat before. His only utensil was a two-bladed combination spoon, fork, knife that operated like a scissors and a scoop. It was very . . . efficient.

“When do I get the live samples of the crossbreeds?” Kisad asked.

“The women are on their way here now,” Turlli assured him. “Two days.”

“We want genes from living women only,” Kisad insisted. “No men. I’m not going to take a chance with mules. We want the full X chromosome.”

“You’ll get it.”

“We want healthy, strong, young women.”

“As long as they aren’t hurt,” Martin warned.

Kisad shrugged and turned back to his meal.

“A little blood, a hundred or so eggs from each woman, some tissue. Nothing terribly invasive.”

“They’ll still be able to have children, afterward?”

“Yes, yes, yes,” Kisad assured her. “They’ll still be able to have children.”

“And the dogs?” Turlli asked.

“The rest of the dogs will come here overnight,” Kisad said. “My people will pen them outside. We’ll guard them until the trade is complete.”

“My people will watch your people,” Martin warned.

Kisad grunted and finished his last bit of meat. The vegetables were pushed to the side of his plate. He pulled off his napkin, tossed it negligently on the table, and belched loudly.

Smile, Artie said. That’s a compliment on his timeline.

You’re sure?

Just smile.

Martin smiled.

“You enjoyed it?”

“Very good,” Kisad said. “Grass fed mammoth is always the best.”

He finished his wine and stood. The Stone Eagle trembled again, slightly.

“Let’s get this done and get the hell out of here.”

*   *   *

The wine was gone, the dining room closed, Kisad in his suite. Martin and Turlli took a back corridor and then stepped through a security screen and into the private, residential, section of the Stone Eagle. Another walk, through a wall, and they were in Martin’s home.

“Privacy, Artie. Go watch someone else.”

There was an audible sigh over the nearest speakers and then silence.

“Is he really gone?” Turlli asked. Martin smiled.

“Probably not,” he said. “But at least now he’ll be discrete.”

Martin stepped closer to Turlli, touched her shoulder, turned her around, and began to rub her neck and shoulders. He used his fingers, then the side of his hand.

“Lay down on the bed so I can do this properly.”

Turlli hesitated. Martin dug his fingers in a little harder, found a tense muscle, rolled and stroked and stretched it. Turlli groaned and lay down on the bed, face first. Martin knelt on the bed, straddling her. He started to work on her back with his palms and the base of his hands, up and down, with a slight outward roll.

“This is so not fair,” Turlli protested weakly. She was shorter than him, stockier and stronger, her body subtly different, but he seemed to know exactly which muscles ached and which needed just a little bit of attention.

“You’re right,” Martin said. He scratched her back through her blouse, right where the straps dug into her skin. Then he took off her shoes and started on her feet.

“Martin, are you trying to seduce me?”

“Artie!” Martin called out, exasperated. He kept up the foot rub, first pushing back each individual toe, stretching it, then rubbing her soles before moving up to her calf muscles.

“Yes?”

“Have you been showing her The Graduate?”

Turlli laughed and then groaned as Martin moved his hands.

“I can neither confirm nor deny that action,” Artie said primly.

In private: Do you want privacy mode now? With birth control for you?

Yes, Martin said. Turlli rolled over and reached up for him. That might be a good idea. At least for the next few hours . . .

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Copyright © 2017. Hybrid, Blue, by Firelight by Bill Johnson

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