Story Excerpt

Go Random, My Love

by Bill Johnson

 

“Walk, Walk, Tan—Go—Close!”

Roy Greenberg tripped over his own damned feet and stumbled again. This time he lay on the floor of the small gym and looked up at the ceiling. The practice ’bot stepped back and out of the way.

“You have a serious problem with the tango.”

“If I remember correctly, when the walking tango became popular I was in Vietnam, in Recondo school, on Hon Tre island.”

“Fighting to save democracy from the Red Menace.”

Cele sounded bored.

“I’ve heard the story before.”

“I was going to say, trying to figure out how to get off the damned island and find a bar.” Greenberg tried to sound dignified. “I was not learning ballroom dancing.”

“Technically, the tango is not ballroom dancing. It’s more of the street, of the man and the woman, both fully aware of their desires, of their aggressive pursuit of each other and of something more—”

“It’s dancing.”

“So why are you learning dancing, now, after all these years?”

“Someday, I’m going to need it.” Greenberg tried to sound dignified but it just came out as stubborn, even to himself. “Someday, I’m going to need anything I ever learn. Besides, what the hell else is there to do out here—”

“Code Green,” the carefully neutral voice said pleasantly from the room speakers. “We have a code green . . .”

*   *   *

Greenberg pushed himself to his feet.

“Turn that damned thing off.”

“I didn’t turn it on,” Cele protested, defensively.

“It’s your voice.”

“Dispatch is automatic. The signal bypassed me. You’ve got me programmed with so many priority options I can’t concentrate on everything at the same time.”

The voice cut off in mid-sentence.

“There.”

“Who’s calling this time?”

“Stop nagging me. It’s encrypted. Give me a minute.”

Cele went silent. This was not a good sign. A minute for Cele was a few decades for Greenberg or any other bio.

“Shit.”

Cele did not sound happy. Greenberg wondered if that was self-written code or something he’d put in. Probably him. So far as he knew, everything in Cele that involved swearing was something he’d written. Usually after a few beers or glasses of bourbon. And if he didn’t remember it, probably a few too many years ago.

“The outer envelope is from Version and Sudha.”

“Ignore it. I’m done with them, I’m done with Earth and the colonies and everything back there—”

“Shut up and listen. For once. Version is just forwarding something. There’s another envelope inside, with a message inside that. He can’t read the message. It’s a one-time cipher, and we’re the only ones with the key.”

“So how did your automatics know to call a green?”

“The inside envelope includes your Aljidat distress code in clear.”

“Not many people know jaddi.”

“And the envelope is signed with a jida pseudonym.”

“A woman.”

“The format is valid, but it’s not in the database.”

“All right. Now I’m curious.” Greenberg looked at the dancing ’bot with distaste. “And I’m bored. What’s the message?”

“Hold one.”

An augment appeared. A woman, taller than average, dark blonde hair, in a skinsuit. Her forehead was cut and bleeding. One arm hung limp and crooked, her legs were twisted, and her eyes showed the glazed look of someone on painkillers. Behind her Greenberg recognized the scattered remains of the autodoc in an old-style dropship.

The walls were scored with shatter marks, as if someone had taken a sledgehammer to them and not quite broken through. Her breath came out in cold, white puffs.

“Roy. Roy?” The woman looked off-stage, over her shoulder. “Damn it, Zikri, is this thing working?”

“Yes. But talk fast. You’re running out of air. I’ve got to lock you down. Then I’ll send the message.”

“Roy, you can probably guess.” She smiled and glanced around her, then back into the camera. She blinked, as if she needed a moment to make the world stop spinning. “I need help. I found something, Roy. Something old. Something new.” She laughed and started to sing, her voice slurred. “Something borrowed, something blue . . .”

Her eyes glazed, her head tilted to the side. Her eyes shut.

“Wake up!” Zikri shouted frantically. His voice was male, almost familiar.

“He just gave her a cocktail of what’s left in her skinsuit,” Cele said. “Her numbers look bad. Internal injuries, broken bones, freeze burns.”

“She’s dying.”

“Yes.”

Her eyes fluttered open.

“It’s about our kids, Roy. The parents . . .”

She struggled, as if her lips didn’t want to move. She jerked herself awake and upright, her eyes wide open.

“I can pay you, Roy. I’ve got fresh neg. You can have it all. Can’t he, Zikri? Can’t he have it all?”

“Yes, ma’am.” The voice was softer this time, almost gentle. “He can have anything he wants.”

“That’s right.” Her voice slurred again and her eyes closed and her shoulders slumped forward.

“Like the old days, Roy. One more time.”

A smooth metal finish, the color of old-style stainless steel appliances, grew out of her skinsuit, formfitting, up and over her neck and face and ears and down her body. She went rigid, locked in shape.

“I’m almost out of power, Mr. Greenberg. Attached to this message are our location and the keywords for our accounts with Tinker. Everything is now yours. And before we went on camera she was very specific that no one else get this message. Particularly none of the aljidat.

“By my estimate, I can keep her alive for three days. We’re on the surface of here, wherever here is. Most of my carryaround memory is crisped and erased. I don’t even remember what I don’t remember. I know my ground defense weapons are gone. That’s bad, for some reason. I think something came in here and attacked us and I killed it, but not before it hurt us. And my overhead defenses are on automatic, so that’s good, but I’m cut off from them, so that’s bad. I don’t remember why. You’ll have to come in on foot, from the other side of the horizon. Or I’ll shoot you myself. By accident. Sorry about that.”

The camera image began to tilt toward the corner and zoom in and out, in and out.

“You can try ’bots, but I’m pretty sure they won’t work. Ours fell apart when our shields failed. Here doesn’t seem to hurt bios and arties,” Zikri slurred, “but I don’t feel so good either. I don’t remember much . . .”

The image froze, began to repeat. Greenberg gestured impatiently. Cele blanked it out.

“Who is she?”

“Someone I hadn’t thought about in a long time,” Greenberg said. “Is it genuine?”

“The encryption was legitimate.”

“Maybe it’s something Version pried out of her.”

“No. Trick you or convince you? Sure. Torture? No. You die first. The children put that in when they fixed you and woke you. I’ve never been sure if that was a good idea or not—”

“It was a good idea,” Greenberg interrupted. “But it means this is a real message. Still, it could be a trap.”

“Yes,” Cele agreed, slowly. “If she’s working with Version. But why would they work together? What have you got that they need? Nothing. No, my if-then says this is genuine. It’s not a trap.”

“Still . . .”

“Fine.” Cele sounded impatient. “If it is a trap, we deal with it. But if it’s not a trap and you don’t do anything? How would that make you feel?”

“Stop playing therapist.”

“Sorry. Old code. Still comes out sometimes.”

Greenberg picked up his towel and wiped his face.

“How old is her keyword? Who wrote the code?”

“Old,” Cele admitted. “Hundreds of years old. Over a thousand? Hand written, with comments. In COBOL, for God’s sake. Periods and all.”

“Before the Treaty?”

“Yes. Definitely from the bad old days. The children might still have been children when this was written.”

“Who wrote it?”

“You did. Before you met Version.”

“Shit,” Greenberg said, very carefully, very precisely. “Shit. Shit. Shit.”

It didn’t help.

“Zikri’s voice,” Greenberg said, hesitantly. “It sounded familiar.”

“Yeah?” Cele said drily. “You noticed that?”

“Who . . . ?”

“Listen to the mirror, sometime, Roy . . .”

*   *   *

Cele augmented. She looked like Greenberg’s childless party aunt, a very attractive, prim and proper woman with a tidy sense of decorum and a lot of male friends. None of whom ever quite measured up to her standards, at least for more than a few nights. Which was why she never had children. Instead, she helped raise him after his mother put flowers in her hair and disappeared into The Haight, early, back when Eisenhower was still president.

“So what do we do now?”

Greenberg knew that tone of voice. It always ended with an “Or else.” Growing up, it reminded him to finish everything on his plate, to run faster before the school bus left or that the sergeant wanted everyone out of the bar—now!—because some asshole had called the MP’s.

“She called a code green.”

“Evacuation. Get me the hell out of here. Save my ass. It’s old hospital talk. You probably heard it in ’Nam. Or afterward.”

Greenberg shook his head.

“I don’t remember as much as I should. . . .”

“Highlights and nightmares?” Cele asked.

Greenberg nodded sharply.

“Mostly. Even the parents and the children couldn’t fix everything. My brain was so overgrown with amyloids that, well . . .”

“You remember her?”

“Alice? Yeah. She came later, after they woke me up and cured my Lewy’s. She was in the success ward with Dai-Lin and me and Azzeh and Rev and the others.”

“She’s not in any of the histories.”

Greenberg laughed softly.

“Cele, I’m going to tell you a big secret. Put it in your carryaround.”

“Yes?”

“Not everything makes it into the history books. Especially the official history books.”

“Included.”

“Now open up and go to your locked files. You’re going to learn about Alice. And me. Security phrase is—” Greenberg winced “—‘special friend.’”

“Done. I have the data,” Cele confirmed.

“Good.”

“Oh.”

“Yeah.” Greenberg began to pace, back and forth, to cool down from the dancing. “So she sent this message only to me. Only me.”

“According to Zikri.”

“Can I trust him?”

“Of course not.”

Greenberg smiled. “You’re learning.”

“My if-then goes automatically into learning mode when things start getting interesting. And anything with Version and Sudha and mysterious messages and an unknown mystery woman who’s not in any of the databases seems to qualify.”

Greenberg smiled again. He wiped it away.

“Alice wants to guilt me into saving her.”

“That seems reasonable.”

“I could ignore her. Just leave her there—wherever there is—and keep on doing what we’re already doing. If it’s a private message, no one will ever know, except you and me. And I can always erase your memory.”

“True. No problem. You could also erase your own memory if that would help.”

“No,” Greenberg snapped. “Never again.”

“So, you’ve got three choices: walk—maybe—into a trap; walk into something that isn’t a trap but looks damned dangerous; or walk away.”

“And spend forever wondering.”

“Yes.”

“You make the whole thing sound like so much fun,” Greenberg grumbled. He paused. “I hate guilt.”

“I know. Did Alice?”

“Shit.” Greenberg tossed the towel onto a chair. He could almost hear Cele grumble. She’d have some ’bot come along later and pick it up and clean it, but she hated the way he left a mess behind. Greenberg suspected he’d put that code into her, too, because he didn’t like to live in a mess. He just didn’t want to clean it up himself.

But there were messes and there were messes.

“The coordinates in the message. You know the place?”

“No.” Cele said. “No records of anyone ever going there. I do know it’s a long way out in the middle of no where.”

“How different are the laws of physics over there?”

“Maybe a little? Maybe a lot? All I know is she’s still breathing and Zikri is still working, so things can’t be that far off. But I can tell from the numbers we’ll have to go through the Hub.”

Greenberg winced and shook his head.

“Tinker and Larry still run the Hub?”

“Yes.”

“Larry’s a stickler for the rules. Treaty says we have the right of free passage. We pay, he’ll let us through.”

“Tinker won’t be happy.”

“Tinker owes me a favor,” Greenberg said, dismissively. “And he just wants to keep things calm and peaceful so he can work on his toys. If Larry approves, Tinker will look the other way.”

“Which leaves one last problem,” Cele said. “Zikri predicted a lot of walking.”

Greenberg looked at his body and winced. Maybe he should not have skipped his update sessions and his daily calisthenics. He knew he wasn’t quite ready for the Downward Dog right now. . . .

“Fine,” Greenberg said. “Just don’t nag.”

He opened the door. He ignored the left turn to the bridge and turned right.

“Get us to the Hub and get lopcheckers ready to send to those coordinates. And make it hard for anyone to follow us. Smear the trail.”

“You want a detailed report from the other side? If you do, the checkers will have to stay there a while before they come back. But Zikri said to hurry,” Cele warned.

Greenberg shook his head. He owed Alice. Or she owed him. Hell, live as long as they did and it got all mixed up anyway.

“If Alice and Zikri can live there, you and I can live there. Tell the checkers to confirm the basic laws of physics, just to make sure, then jump us through.”

Cele sighed. Greenberg felt the ship start to move.

“I’m just an ambulance, you know,” Cele complained. “You could upgrade me. You could do all sorts of things with me. But, no, you keep me as an ambulance.”

Greenberg felt the ship move, faster. He braced himself against the bulkhead.

“At least life with you keeps my carryaround fresh and my if-then busy . . .”

Greenberg ignored her, opened the door to sick bay, and climbed into the auto-doc for a tuneup.

*   *   *

Cele slipped out of the tramway and got the big friendly welcome Greenberg expected.

“What the hell are you doing here?”

“Larry! Always so good to talk to you. How’s business?”

“Roy, shut up,” Cele said, impatiently. “Larry, please confirm our transit fee. Here is the account number. We don’t intend to stay long, and we don’t want any trouble.”

The Hub looked like any other piece of empty space. Sol was a little brighter than the other stars, but the Hub was far enough out that Earth and the rest of the planets were lost in the black. Still, Greenberg knew the constellations. He tried to avoid looking. He didn’t want to remember anything, but he couldn’t help it.

Ursa Minor. Ursa Major. Orion. Gemini . . .

A memory surged up . . .

(Cold wind from the northeast, sprinkled with tiny snowflakes and crystals of water spray which melted on his cheeks. Gray waves, three or four feet high, white-tipped, that marched down Lake Michigan and exploded up and against the crumbled cement and re-bar of what used to be the Loop. The smell of fish and wet sand and dune grass and a warm arm around his waist . . .)

“Your money is good,” Larry conceded, reluctantly. “Transit coordinates?”

“No,” Greenberg said firmly. “Cele, find the tramway. Larry, take our money and lose any memory we were here.”

“Greenberg? You’re not Cele playing some kind of trick? What the—”

“Larry, I’ll take over from here.”

“We’ve got video,” Cele said.

Augment flipped on, and now Tinker sat in front of him, behind a desk, very white and very blonde and very correct. He wore a banker’s gray suit, late twentieth-century-style, with a starched blue shirt and a red, patterned tie.

“Roy?” Tinker asked in Hochdeutsch. Habit won and he leaned forward to look more closely. “Is that really you?”

“It’s me, Heinrich,” Greenberg answered. He used his old, rusty, Viennese. The translator program flickered to green in the corner. Greenberg pinched it silent. He wanted to hear Tinker’s voice.

Greenberg tried to think of something clever to say. He came up with nothing.

“How are you doing?”

That’s the best you’ve got after almost three hundred years? Cele chided him, in silent. “How are you doing?” We’ve been in the Outback too long, Roy. We need to get you back home for a while, just so you can be around people.

“It has been quite a while,” Tinker said. He spoke slowly, like he knew he was walking through an emotional minefield. Greenberg heard a lot more behind each word.

“We thought you might be dead. Or hurt. That you might need our help. And you would not answer. Nothing would answer. Not your machines, not Cele, not anything.” Tinker paused. “All we wanted was to talk, Roy.”

“Yeah,” Greenberg said. He felt the thrum! as Cele ejected lopchecker after lopchecker. Stealthed and tiny, they each went down a different tramway, to confuse and lose the trail, so Version couldn’t follow them after he found out they’d been to the Hub.

“I had a few things to work out,” Greenberg admitted.

“You were angry with us after the Treaty.”

And Greenberg suddenly was angry. Again.

“You remember that old musical, Heinrich? Hamilton? Remember the second act song? ‘The Room Where It Happens’?”

“I remember.”

“That’s what we did to them, Heinrich. We did it behind their backs and without giving them any choice. We did it to everyone here. We did it to the bios and the arties, the healthy ones and the broken ones and the ones who are just pieces,” Greenberg said. He shook his head and kept his voice low. “We went into a room, by ourselves, and made all the decisions. Then we came out and told them how things were going to be. No choice, no input, no nothing. I got outvoted, every single damned time, by the rest of you. So I could either stay—and open up that can of hell again—or I could leave.”

“Roy, we could not let things contin—”

“And then we justified it to ourselves,” Greenberg said. His voice sounded tired, now, as if the anger had burned itself down to disappointment, at himself and the rest of the aljidat. “We were their grandparents, for God’s sake, and we convinced ourselves we were the good guys, that we were right and we did the right thing. That we didn’t have any choice. How the hell was that any different than what the parents and the children did to us when we were old, Heinrich? How the hell did we turn into them?”

“We were on the edge, Roy,” Tinker said. He sounded as if he was pleading, as if he needed approval. “So close to disaster. And it only ended when everyone became cold and cynical and heartless and ruthless. Do you think Azzeh and I and Rev wanted that? All right, maybe Dai-Lin and Version did, but not the rest of us. We didn’t have any choice! We did what we had to do. Then the fighting finally ended and everyone stepped away from the brink. We had to do it.”

“We had to do something, but we did too much and not enough,” Greenberg argued. He moved his hands to include the outside world. “Is this better? Or did we just kick the can down the road? I was in that room along with the rest of you. Yes, we had to do something. But what we did was wrong. It can’t last this way. We put a lid on a pressure cooker and turned up the heat. That pressure is building and building, and one day it’s going to burst. And it’s going to be worse than ever. Because we forgot one thing.”

“What did we forget?”

“Your parents ever read you stories at bedtime when you were a child, Heinrich?”

“Yes?”

“Remember Pandora and her box, about how she opened it and let all the bad stuff out and then panicked and slammed it shut, just in time to keep the last monster inside?”

“Yes,” Heinrich said slowly.

“I’ve been looking for that last monster ever since we forced that Treaty on everyone,” Greenberg said. “And I’m going to find Pandora’s last son of a bitch and I’m going to let it out.”

“So this little trip of yours . . . ?”

“Maybe. I’m not certain,” Greenberg admitted. “But maybe.”

Tinker sat for a moment and rubbed his forehead. Finally, he sat up straight and opened his eyes.

“I was born and grew up in Europe, Roy,” Tinker tried. “The heart of the Cold War. We were trapped between the Americans to the west and the Russians to the east. We were young. We did not think there was any hope. The old people made all the decisions—”

Greenberg interrupted him.

“I remember Europe. I remember ‘99 Luftballons,’ and the protesters with their signs: ‘NATO—Soldaten sagen “NO!” Zu Cruise Missiles und Pershing zwo!!!’” Greenberg turned quiet. “I was there, on the other side. Maybe I even saw you, holding up a banner or offering me a flower. And now you’re here and this is what you do.”

Tinker sat still for a moment.

“Things are not going well out there,” he admitted. He looked down at his desk. “I am the Hub. I feel it. It’s building. And I don’t know what to do, Roy. No one knows what to do.”

(Greenberg remembered his first civilian job, in marketing, after he retired from the military. The VP of sales took him aside, right before their first big sale.

-When it’s time to close the contract and get the signatures, your job is to sit there and look pretty and keep your mouth shut.-

-That’s it?-

-That’s it. The customer will look for any reason not to sign. You talk, they delay. So sit there and shut up.-)

Greenberg said nothing. He pinched down on Cele to make sure she stayed silent. She flickered and shut up. Finally, Tinker nodded.

“What do you need, Roy?”

“Passage,” Cele said, promptly. “There is a place we need to go, and we can only get there from here.”

“And silence,” Greenberg added. “Don’t tell anyone you’ve seen us. Keep it quiet.”

“They’ll know you were here,” Tinker said. “Word always gets out.”

“I know,” Greenberg said. “I’m not asking for forever. All we want is a head start.”

“They’ll learn where you’ve gone,” Tinker warned.

Cele gave Tinker a little smile and a shrug.

“They’ll know our first tramway stop. After that . . . well, let’s just say we’re very good at covering our tracks. I would be extremely surprised if anyone could follow us after our first few jumps.”

The wall behind Tinker dilated and Larry walked inside. Today he wore a physical body. He came up behind Tinker and put both hands on his shoulders. Tinker looked up at Larry, pleadingly.

“I’m sorry, but it’s your choice, Heinrich,” Larry said, apologetically. He used his bio voice, not his artie tones. “This is aljidat-level politics. Your decision. There’s nothing in my if-then to cover this.”

Tinker smiled, regretfully, and patted Larry’s hand. His face hardened, and he looked straight at Greenberg.

“Override artie Larry. Erase and delete all Larry memory since equal to five seconds before Greenberg/Cele ship detection. Fill deleted memory time with random and consistent ordinary Hub traffic tasks and activities. Begin real-time memory acquisition again five seconds after final detection departure of Greenberg/Cele ship.”

Larry stiffened. His face blanked with a frozen half smile. Tinker slipped Larry’s hand aside and stood. A wall dissolved and re-formed into a pair of comfortable chairs and a small table. Two beer steins rested on the table. The faint, distant sounds of an oompa-oompa band sounded in the background. Tinker looked over at Greenberg.

“That much hurry? No. One beer. A little catching up.”

“I’m sorry, Heinrich, but I am in a hurry,” Greenberg said regretfully. “It sounds like a damned cliché, but it really is a matter of life or death.”

Tinker shrugged regretfully and nodded. A screen augmented in front of him. He touched it.

“I’ll give you as long as I can, Roy,” Tinker said. The table, band, and beer faded away. He looked up.

“Tramways are now cleared for something as big as Cele, not just those clever little lopcheckers you’ve been sneaking around. Here’s your release code.”

Cele’s face brightened. She turned to Greenberg, nodded, and flickered out.

“And keep your money. It would be a discrepancy, a payment for a transit I will claim never occurred, a little neg too much in the wrong storage vault. Just the sort of thing Version and Sudha would find. They’re damned accountants at heart, and I don’t need the trouble,” Tinker said. He smiled. “At least, not right away.”

“Thank you.”

Tinker nodded and leaned forward.

“But when this is over, Roy—whatever this is—we’re going to drink beer and listen to bad, schmaltzy music and talk. About this and about the old days, one grandparent to another,” Tinker said. He smiled, wistfully. “Maybe even talk about ‘99 Luftballons.’”

“I’d like that, Heinrich,” Greenberg said.

“You know, I was never against you, back in the Treaty days,” Heinrich said, in a rush. “I really thought I was on your side. You remember the song? I think I still have one here, somewhere, in the middle of everything that happened. One little red balloon. Like at the end of the song.”

Greenberg tilted his head to the side. He needed to go, but this was important, too.

“I’d like that, Heinrich. The beer. And the talking. Maybe you can even bring out the balloon, and we can talk about it. But later. Over a good beer. Schwarzbier. None of that Pilsner crap.”

“Please!” Tinker sat back in his chair and finally smiled. “What else does a good German have to do out here except spend his time brewing beer? None of that weakling Czech stuff. Now get the hell out of here before Version or someone else finds you. . . .”

*   *   *

Greenberg felt the floor tremble. His crashcouch stretched and flowed. Acceleration built, and his eyesight narrowed. The G indicator crossed 4 and kept marching up. Cheerful, happy music perked in the background.

“I have got to re-program you.”

“You want different music? How about rap?”

“Hell, no! It wasn’t all bad, but the nurses’ aides played it too much. Reminds me of that damned skilled nursing facility. And IVs and crappy food and Foley’s.”

Five G. Six G. Seven G.

“EDM?”

“You are sick and twisted.” He tightened his muscles and pushed air out of his lungs against his closed glottis. Little “hic” sounds came out of his mouth.

“Stop whining,” Cele scolded. “You’re getting soft. The autodoc improved you. A little. You’re good for more than this. And maybe next time you’ll stay on your update schedule. And do your exercises.”

“How about, instead, you invent a reactionless drive, Cele?” Greenberg gasped. He swore he could hear his ribs creak. “Like they had in all those science fiction books I used to read after duty hours?”

“Fantasy,” Cele sniffed. “Propellantless I can give you. Reactionless? No. The laws of physics must be obeyed. Even if they change from place to place. Now shut up and let me thread this needle.”

The music switched to a mixture of clash metal and digit grime. The ship rumbled and jolted, up and down and sideways, like water skiing barefoot in a thunderstorm. The screens flashed white, black, green, rainbow as Cele flickered down and through the tramways. . . .

*   *   *

“Status?” Greenberg asked, wearily. He couldn’t remember, exactly, how many gates they had jumped. He knew he had to pee, every bone in his body hurt, and he was thirsty as hell.

All the screen showed outside was black. No sun, no stars, no nothing. Just black.

(. . . old memory. The Gaza tunnels, a hundred meters underground. They blew it shut too early. The lights snapped off, and he was caught sideways, in the absolute black, tilted, one arm trapped, sand and gravel up to his mouth and more poured down.

He heard the ventilation fans crackle and stop. The soft breeze withered away, and he wondered what it would taste like to smother in his own breath . . .)

“I just picked up the last of our lopcheckers,” Cele said. “And where are we? In engine distance, we’ve only traveled a light hour or so. In inflation universes? Not sure. Some gates were standard in/out. Others weren’t. And in some of those universes, the laws of physics were . . . different. I hammered us to skip through those.”

“I hurt.”

“Exercise more. Lose weight. Stick to your ’doc schedule. Eat your Brussels sprouts. Quit complaining.”

“Yeah.” Greenberg ignored her and waved at the black screen. “That does not look right.”

“Not enough data,” Cele said. “Space is very, very empty around us. I’ve detected one lousy neutrino going through us since we started this conversation.”

“Guess.”

“We’re either in the middle of the biggest damned supervoid I’ve ever heard of, or in the middle of a very, very different universe.” Cele stated. “All I really know is I’m starting to get an increasing number of negative mass particles coming in from every possible direction, faster and faster. We’re baryonic matter so we attract them.”

“You’re telling me we’re getting smothered by money.”

“Yes. Sort of.”

“‘Sort of.’ I don’t like ‘sort of.’ You’ve got the magnetic fields up, right? You’re funneling all this neg into the tanks so we can open tramway gates to get home, right? So what’s the problem?”

“Fields are up, and I’m refilling the tanks,” Cele confirmed. “That’s not the problem.”

The ship lurched. Greenberg grabbed the edge of his crashcouch. Screens and displays augmented around him. He studied one, swiped it, checked another, pushed two screens together, and compared.

“We just lost a scanner. It’s . . . gone. Dissolved. Its support strut is still getting shorter.”

Greenberg touched a virtual control, tightened a video feed. He watched, fascinated, as a strut, neatly strengthened by a regular crosshatch of bolts, began to disappear, bolt by bolt, as nothing marched down its length.

Another alarm sounded. A new screen flickered open.

“We’re getting pitting on the outer hull. Cele, what the hell is going on?”

“The magnetics are keeping most of the neg away, but some is leaking through.”

“So what? Neg slips right through baryonic. Yeah, we might get a little pressure and gravity but nothing to worry about.”

“That’s back home. In this universe, the laws of physics seem to be different. We’re getting nullification.”

“Nullification?” Greenberg asked.

“Here, negative mass doesn’t phase through baryonic matter. Here, if negative mass and baryonic mass touch, they cancel out and both particles are gone. No explosion, not like antimatter. Just . . . gone.”

“You’re telling me we’re evaporating? That leak-through neg is doing a suicide run on any particle of baryonic matter it can find?”

“Yes.”

“We’re made of baryonic matter!”

“You see the problem.”

“Any way to stop this?”

“No.”

Greenberg climbed back into his crashcouch. “Get us out of here. Now.”

“I need more neg. We’re refilling but we need more to get home, to open up the tramway gates.”

“How long do you need to re-fill our tanks?”

“Five minutes.”

“How long until we dissolve?”

Hesitation.

“Five minutes. More or less,” Cele said.

“So we jump and we live—but we can’t go home—or we hang around here for five minutes, but we might die. Which means Alice and Zikri die also.”

“Yes.”

“Probabilities?”

“I have no if-then for this situation. I have two main variables: The rate my hull is dissolving and the rate my tanks are refilling. Both of these are fluctuating in a random and independent manner. I can not tell you which will happen first.”

Greenberg swept away the screens.

“We’ll fix this later. Get us the hell out of here.”

“Accelerating.”

*   *   *

The sky was full of stars. . . .

Greenberg held up his hands, spread his fingers, looked at them. He expected to see tremors, like in the old days back in the nursing home.

But his fingers were solid and calm and steady.

“I have definitely done this shit too long.”

He wanted a drink. Something raw and painful, with a horrible after-taste. He remembered high school, out on a country dirt road, listening to “Surfin’ Bird” while he mixed fruit juice from a foil pack with 190-proof corn liquor. His friends called it a D&C: diabetes and cirrhosis. That’s what he wanted. Something like that.

“Cele? Where are we and how are we doing?”

“Everything is wonderful,” Cele said, sarcastically. “My hull is a pitted wreck, we don’t have enough neg to get home, and I have no idea where we are. Other than that, everything’s beautiful.”

“Repair what you can. Let me know if you need my help. Find out where we are.”

“What are you going to do?”

“My dad always said if you can’t think of anything else to do, take a piss or eat. Good advice.”

“We have really been alone together too long. . . .”

Greenberg climbed out of the crashcouch and across the tiny bridge. A washroom grew out of the wall.

“Shut the door!”

Greenberg made a generalized obscene gesture and stepped inside. He shut the door, relieved himself, then walked to the other side of the bridge. A small galley grew out. He made a handmeal and climbed back into the couch. Finished, he took a painkiller, nothing strong.

“So? Can we get to Alice and Zikri?”

“We have more jumps to get there,” Cele warned.

“Can we make it?”

Cele paused. Greenberg wondered if it was for effect or if she really needed to calculate that many variables.

“Yes. Maybe. If nothing else goes wrong. I think so.”

“You fill me with confidence.”

“I detect sarcasm,” Cele said. “Good. I want you to be scared. You think better when you’re scared.”

“So?”

“Yes, we can make it. It’s not going to be a fun trip.”

“Don’t stop. For anything,” Greenberg ordered.

“You need to rest,” Cele said. “If Zikri is right, you’re going to have to go outside when we get there.”

“Suggestions?”

“I wasn’t kidding when I said you were out of shape. Climb in the autodoc. Let it do what it can while I take us through the tramway. I promise not to stop.”

“I hate jumping while I’m in the ’doc,” Greenberg grumbled. “It hurts, and I can’t see anything, and I’ll have flashback nightmares.”

“Like the one where you signed up for a class and forgot to go until the day of the final?”

Greenberg started to answer but stayed silent. He remembered a flood in the nursing home, and the water rising around his bed and he couldn’t move or call anyone and then the lights went out. . . .

“Something like that.”

“Get in the ’doc.”

“Fine,” Greenberg grumbled. He stood and walked to sickbay. He let the machines position him and felt the needles slide into place.

“Don’t worry about me,” he told Cele. “I’ll be fine. . . .”

His voice faded away.

Cele waited until he was asleep. She watched his face, absently, while she skipped into, through, and out of Albucierre tramways, from one universe to another, again and again. She followed the path the lopcheckers had blazed and marked as safe, to avoid the Big Bangs and the Big Crunches and the Big Rips, the insides of black holes, and the outsides of naked singularities.

I’ll worry if I want to.

*   *   *

He half-woke a few times and felt the firm, smooth surface of the ’doc around him. He rocked with small changes in acceleration and direction and heard the rumble as Cele slipped into, through, and out of tramways.

He went back to sleep.

*   *   *

“We’re here.”

The planet below them was a nameless chunk of rock, frozen and airless, the size and gravity of Earth. A debris ring cut the sky into two. Above the ring, just visible, was the planet’s anchor star, a stark bright point flanked by lacy angel wings of white and blue hydrogen, like an out-of-focus picture of some kind of gigantic, mutant butterfly.

“Can we live here?”

“The lopcheckers did their best. You didn’t give them much time. They couldn’t check everything.”

“I know. I’m not blaming anyone. Look up Napoleon.”

“Ask me for anything but time.”

“Correct. You’re getting better. Now, this universe?”

“It’s not home,” Cele admitted, “but the laws of physics are close. The six quick numbers are in the livability range. Electric conductivity is a little bit stronger. Cosmic microwave background temperature at home is 2.7 degrees kelvin. It’s colder here.”

“Older universe?”

“Likely.”

“What else?”

“Josephson junction jumps are able to go a little further. Standard insulators don’t seem to work quite as well.”

“The rest?”

“I’m working on them. It takes time.”

“We don’t have time. Best guess. Can we live here?”

“At least for a little while,” Cele admitted, grudgingly.

“Have you found Alice?”

“I’m in a geo-synch orbit. I’ve got mappers lower, going over every square meter—”

Have you found anything?”

“Two mappers were destroyed by weapons fire from the surface as they passed over one area.”

“Zikri said his weapons were on overhead automatic.”

“The weapons fire was consistent with what I’d expect from an old-style dropship.”

Greenberg nodded. He touched a virtual button. There was the sucking/popping sound of needles and catheters sliding and pulling and pushing out of his body. He winced, felt momentarily dizzy as the anesthetic block dropped away, then stepped up and out of the autodoc.

Lander one?”

“It’s ready for you.”

“Good.”

“This is still a stupid idea,” Cele complained. “Let me send down a squad of ’bots. You stay up here and supervise.”

Zikri said their ’bots stopped working when their shields failed.”

“Our shields won’t fail,” Cele said, confidently.

“‘Don’t let yourself be surprised,’” Greenberg warned. “Something George Washington emphasized to St. Clair. I learned about it at The Point.”

“He didn’t listen. General St. Clair’s army was slaughtered at the Battle of the Wabash.”

“Yeah,” Greenberg said. He stepped into the lander.

“So, send down a squad of ’bots with me. I’m just not going to depend on them.”

“Understood.”

*   *   *

The drop started smooth and effortless. Greenberg felt pressure as the lander tilted and maneuvered. Weight gently, then not so gently, sat on his chest.

Everything seemed normal.

Suddenly, he felt a kick in his side, and then harder, sharper, on his back.

“Cele?”

“Hold on,” Cele said. “Adjusting. The hydrogen blowing off that damned sun is like a windchill. I’m getting temperatures below 1 degree absolute.”

“I—”

“Don’t talk,” Cele ordered. “I need to concentrate.”

Greenberg smiled.

The screen blurred and tilted and suddenly showed sharp-toothed rock walls, craters, and plains dusted with scattered white patches. The ground came up much too fast.

He felt the pressure again. Heavier and sharper. Some of the peaks seemed to be at eye level to him now. Almost close enough to touch.

He closed his eyes and wished he had a beer. . . .

 

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Copyright © 2018. Go Random, My Love by Bill Johnson