Wednesday, April 25, 2012
INTO ANOTHER UNIVERSE: PART TWO
*****"Want to hear God laugh? Tell Him your plans." - Woody Allan
Alva Sector, A.D. 2193
it was a place like the other.
but not familiar.
i don’t like it.
i don’t know.
is it colder?
but i’m… cold.
is it darker?
no. but i can’t… see.
what’s wrong, then?
A juddering into normalcy. They all looked at each other, dazed. Ruth’s hand crept toward Kea’s. Fazlur saw it An odd light came to his eye. Then the screen caught his attention. “We’re on the other side,” he said quietly.
Kea looked up. The remotes were panning along the rear of the ship. The curtain of fire was behind them.
Destiny I was through.
“Reckoning by the discontinuity,” Murph said. Voice crisp and professional. “On time-tick…”
Vasoovan’s twitter was modulated: “Check. Coordinates… x350… Proceeding…”
“Half power…” Kea broke in. “Drive steady. All functions normal.”
“Readings… positive on the port sensors, Doctor,” Ruth said. Calm.
“Course starboard nine now… Thank you, Ruth. A little less on the data stream, please… There you go.”
Fazlur’s fingers flew across his key unit, monitoring the incoming data. He nodded. Yes. Yes. And yes. Then he keyed out. “I think we can go home now, Captain,” he said. Formal.
Murph nodded to him. Stiff. “Thank you, Doctor.” Then; “Vasoovan. Set the course for XO… We’re going home.”
It came as a spot on the screen that blazed the colors/no colors of this strange universe.
An infinitesimal spot.
“Murph! Eleven o’clock!”
“What the crap is it?”
“Dunno. Pint-sized moon, maybe.”
“Don’t look too close.”
“Naw. Not real close. But maybe we oughta—”
Two bodies approached in space. Composed of mass. Potential of that mass. And gravitational displacement.
But one was the stuff of one reality.
What do double opposites do?
The explosion took Destiny I midships, cutting it like a shark ripping into fat-bellied tuna.
The gods of this place were kind to the fifteen.
Kea came awake.
It was dark and bloody.
There was no pain.
He heard voices.
“There’s us, Murph! There’s us. We’re alive.”
Me too, Kea wanted to say. I’m alive, too.
Not even a groan escaped.
“What’ll we do? Oh, God, what’ll we do?”
“I’d kill you, Murph. I’d kill you if it wouldn’t leave me all alone.”
“Gotta think. Gotta think.”
“It’s your fault, Murph. We never shoulda come, damn you!”
Check the damage, Kea wanted to say. The urge was desperate… Check the damage.
He felt his lips tighten to speak.
A wave washed in and took him away.
He was thirsty.
God he was thirsty.
“Hell, I don’t know. He’s broken up, or something. Inside. I’m no physician.”
“What about Fazlur?” Murph’s voice.
“Who cares?” came the twitter—Vasoovan. “He got us into this.”
“Castro’s worse,” he heard Ruth say. “I followed the directions in the medkit best I could. The stump stopped bleeding, if that’s any consolation.”
Her voice was cold.
“Still out. Thank God. Those screams were awful.”
Water, Kea thought. I’m so thirsty.
“We’ve got practically no rations,” Vasoovan shrilled. “And very little water.”
“I say we put them both out of their misery. And we can live a little longer.”
“That wouldn’t be right,” Ruth said.
“Naw,” Murph said. “Guess it wouldn’t… Besides, long as they’re out, they ain’t costin’ us anything.
“Except air. And we’ve plenty of that.”
The tide lifted Kea up again and carried him off.
Waves and jabs of it.
But it was bearable pain.
And there was no numbness. There was still no light. Eyes… felt… crusted shut.
Dried… What?… Blood? Yes, blood.
“Jeez, this suit stinks,” he heard Murph say.
There were sounds of fastenings being opened. The clank of equipment falling.”Did you get back as far as the drive unit this time?” Ruth asked.
“Yeah. Wasn’t hit too hard, either. And the input to the controls checks out.”
“Can we run it?” Came the twitter.
Kea heard Murph sigh. “I said it wasn’t hit too hard. Meaning… it’s fixable. But not by me. And not by anyone else here.”
Kea struggled the word out “Water.”
“Hey, it’s Richards.” Murph said.
”What’s he want?” Vasoovan twittered.”Water.
“Water,” Ruth said. “He asked for water. I’ll get it for him.”
“Hey, Murph,” Vasoovan said. “We didn’t talk about this, Murph. Last we talked, you said they ain’t costin’ us anything. Remember?”
Kea was suddenly frightened that a decision was being reached. And even more frightened how it would come out.
Where was Ruth?
Why wasn’t she speaking up for him?
Don’t wait for Ruth!
“I can fix it,” Kea croaked.”
He really is awake,” Ruth said. Meaning: he heard us talking.”
What’s that you say, partner?” It was Murph.
Kea felt him move close. Imagined him peering down.
“You say you can fix it? Fix the drive?”
Kea wanted to say more. A lot more. But he hadn’t the strength. So there was only one response. “Water,” he croaked. Then he fell back. It was his first and final offer.
A rustling. Then cool water touched his lips. He lapped it until he’d had enough. Perfume floated down to him, along with a voice. “Oh, darling,” Ruth said. “I’m so very happy you’re alive.”
A kiss brushed his cheek. He wondered if Judas had a sister.
Kea hoisted himself on his good arm to get a better view. The other was strapped tight to his body. “That’s a good seal,” he said. “That’s a keeper. Now… lift it up and you’ll see a Y-shaped impression.”
On the screen he saw Murph’s suited hands do his bidding. He was crammed into a space between the drive unit and a bulkhead. “Got it,” Murph said.
“Good. You’ll find a tool that matches in your beltpack. But before you open the cover… make sure you set up the shield.”
“Damn straight,” Murph said as he went to work.
“No sense worrying about cancer,” Vasoovan twittered. “None of us are going to live that long.”
“Humorous,” Ruth said. “How jolly you keep us all.”
Kea ignored the start-up of another bickering match. He fell back into the cot. “Get me some soup,” he said. Ruth turned a deadly look on him.
“You had your ration,” Vasoovan said.
“Soup.” Kea said. He was sick. He needed more. End discussion. Kea looked up at Murph working in the drive room. When the cover was off, the next step should go pretty easy. Hunger knotted under his ribs again. As sharp as if they were broken clean. Instead of cracked.
He lifted himself up to look for Ruth, his back barely supporting him. She was still sitting in the chair. Vasoovan was watching, enjoying herself.
“Who are you to give people orders?” Ruth snarled. “Who are you to break rules and eat and drink more than the rest of us?”
“Doesn’t matter,” Kea said. “Do it—or they’ll make you.”
Hysterical twitter. “No eat. No work. Guy drives a hard bargain.”
All four of Vasoovan’s eyestalks turned on Ruth. “Get him what he wants,” she said. “Or we’ll put you in the soup with Fazlur.”
Ruth did as she was told.
Kea settled in to wait. Murph should be ready for the next little step in about four hours. Then Kea would trade yet another bit of knowledge for nourishment. And another. Until it was done. Two more weeks, he thought. And then we shall see what we shall see.
Fazlur had died three days earlier. He’d tossed and groaned for an eternity, never quite conscious, nor quite out enough to not feel pain. No one had moved to help him, much less feed him or bring him drink. Kea hadn’t spoken up for Fazlur. Why bother? They would have refused him help. Kea’s bargain would not be stretched to include Fazlur. Murph, Vasoovan, and Ruth were the strong here. Kea was helpless until his injuries healed.
Besides, in Vasoovan’s predator logic of survival, Fazlur was the most expendable. “We get lucky and make it,” Vasoovan had said, “we don’t need him. Not alive. We got his proof. His absolute proof. All in his data file.”
“I just wish he would get it over with,” Ruth had said. “I can’t stand his infernal groaning. He used to sound like that sometimes when we made love. A pig.”
Kea had turned away from them. To his own thoughts. And sleep.
Sometime later, Kea had come to semiconsciousness. Fazlur was groaning. The others made the noises of sleep. Then he heard movement. A softer patter of feet. The smell of sweet perfume. The groaning stopped. Abrupt. Then the soft pad of feet.
They found Fazlur dead the next day.
“Run him through the reclaimer,” Vasoovan had twittered. “Add him to the soup.” He was referring to the sort of nutrition stew produced by their own waste and the dwindling supply of plant protein being produced in the damaged hydroponic room.
“Why not?” Ruth had said. “Make some use out of him. It seems so fitting, somehow.”
Kea had watched them lug the corpse out of the room. Hunger gnawed at him again. He heard light footsteps. Ruth’s perfume. He took the mug from her without looking up. He drank. There was no taste at all.
The curtain between universes hung before them, beckoning. If things had worked out differently, Kea supposed it would have been called Fazlur’s Discontinuity. He looked about the room. Vasoovan. Murph. Ruth. No one here would give Fazlur a drop of the credit. As for himself… well, he had ideas of his own. Just formulating.
“We’re ready,” Vasoovan said.
Kea struggled up. Some life was returning to his bound-up arm. He was getting stronger. Barely. “One thing more,” Kea announced, “before we go through.”
They turned to him, alarmed.
“Don’t worry. The drive unit’s fine,” he said. “But what I want you all to remember when we get to the other side is that it’s five months home.”
“Yeah? So?” From Murph.
“So now that everything’s working okay, some of you might get the idea you don’t need me anymore. That the chief engineer is expendable—like the chief scientist.” No protests. No offended denials. Only silence. “I took out insurance to keep us friends,” Kea continued. “I fixed the drive unit, okay. But I slipped Murph a little extra task to do. An extra step.”
“Like what?” Murph demanded angrily.
“Like I rigged the unit to go down in a couple of months. And when it goes busto, my dear companions in adversity… you’re going to need me again. I guarantee it”
Kea fell back into the cot. “Now, go, dammit!”
They found the air leak a week later.
“It’s not my fault, Murph!” Came the twitter.
“You were supposed to check, dammit!”
“I checked. Not my fault, if I missed something. I’m no engineer.” Two of her eyestalks turned to peer at Kea’s figure, prone on the cot. His duties had been shared out among them. Kea stayed silent.
“Let’s not get into this bickering again,” Ruth said. “The leak’s plugged. Fine. Now, the question is, Do we have enough?”
“Not a chance,” Murph said. “Not with most of the five months to go. And—”
He broke off. A long silence.
Then Vasoovan finished it: “And four of us breathing.”
There it was.
Kea had been waiting.
“Yeah,” Murph said.
“Yes… I can see that,” Ruth said.
They all turned to look at Kea. Eight eyes upon three living forms peering at his own, air-consuming self.
“It’d be close,” Murph said. “Still be maybe a month short.”
“By then,” Ruth said, “we might find other means…”
“What about the drive unit?” Murph said. “The little trick he played on me?”
“I think he lied,” Ruth said.
Kea smiled at them. A big, broad smile. A smile right up from the warrens of Maui.
“Yeah, and maybe he didn’t,” Vasoovan said.
The eight eyes turned away. But Kea remained watchful.
“What’ll we do?” Murph asked.
“Simple,” Vasoovan said. “We gotta have Kea. We gotta have you. And we gotta have me. I’m the nav—”
Kea didn’t know where the hatchet came from. It was painted the slick red of emergency tool gear. The handle was short. The blade blunt. Ruth brought it down between the four eyestalks. She was a small woman, barely coming to Kea’s chin. But she swung with the force of survival. The hatchet buried itself in the Osiran’s brain globe. The haft protruded back—giving Vasoovan a protuberance that looked like a long human nose. Pink goo blobbed out and dripped to the floor. The tentacles shuddered, then were still.
Ruth stepped back. She looked Murph full-on. “Well?’ she said
“She kinda got on my nerves, anyway,” Murph said. “All that twittering.”
“The rations are getting low,” Ruth said. “I noticed. Let’s make some soup.”
He dreamed of kings. Of empires.
Menes was the first. A crafty old devil who welded upper and lower Egypt into the first empire. He ruled for sixty years. And was killed by a hippopotamus.
The Persians bowed before Alexander’s sword. He died in a swamp. Kublai Khan got it right. He quelled the mighty Chinese. And died of old age.
The Romans pushed the bounds of the known world and beyond. They fell to thieves on horseback.
Elizabeth was fine. The best of them all. She was the dazzling acrobat of the monarchs. Kea sometimes wondered why she hadn’t killed her rival sooner. Instead she bore the threat of deadly plot after deadly plot The romantics said it was deep, sisterly feeling. Kea believed it was simply because Elizabeth hadn’t thought it was time.
He had learned much from these people during those long hours of offwatch reading. His interest was not casual. The nature of the powerful had confounded him. He had been smacked on his ignorant blind side. Kea was determined to understand. So he had gone at it like an engineer. Taking each monarch and his kingdom apart. Putting it back together again. Piece by piece. Sometimes rearranging those pieces to see how it might have turned out. An empire, he had discovered, could take several forms. It could be crown and throne. Altar and blood sacrifice. An army standard with its accompanying secret police. A presidential seal resting on stolen votes. A company logo above a penthouse suite. But they all had one thing in common: an idea. An idea of a perfect life. Real, or promised. And for the idea to work, it had to satisfy from top to bottom. Starving masses do not praise their monarch’s name on Feast Day.
In one of the folktales he had read, one of the ancient kings went among his subjects in disguise so he could learn firsthand how to sweeten their disposition. The king’s name was Raschid. In the real world, the ward bosses, commissars, and priests fetched food and comfort up tenement stairs to sell for votes. The Robin Hoods—Huey Long, Jess Unruh, Boris Yeltsin— stole from weakened kings to create their own power bases.
Dictators preferred triage. Kea thought of it as rule by the three G’s: genocide, gulags, and gendarmes.
Still… No matter the form of the empire, or the means to maintain its rule, all of it circled back to the idea that was in the heart of the king who founded the empire.
And Kea had AM2.
His arm hurt. This was good. Like the pain before. He would be able to use the arm soon—though he had kept this from Murph and Ruth. He had a fever. An infection. A boil on his belly the size of a saucer. He’d have to hide that, too.
Kea heard whispers in the darkened room:
“C’mon, honey. I’m hurtin’.”
“Get away from me.”
“We done it before. What’s another hunk?”
“Yoü reneged on your bargain. You lied.”
“I couldn’t help it, honey. I was hungry. Real bad hungry. I’ll give you halvsies in the morning. Swear it.”
“Get it now,” Ruth said. “Give it to me, now.”
Ruth laughed. “What’s the matter… Daddy doesn’t want to play slap-belly anymore. What’s this. Tsktsk. It’s hungry. But Daddy’s going to be selfish, isn’t he?”
Murph made no response.
Then Kea heard Ruth gasp. And for one… two… three heartbeats, a violent, muffled struggle. Then a distinctive crack.
Kea felt a knot in his gut untighten. A sudden release of pressure. A terrible odor rose up from the burst boil. Then sudden chills. And sweat. Good.
The fever had broken…
He awoke with Murph standing over him. “You’re lookin’ better,” he said.
Kea didn’t answer. And he didn’t look around the room for Ruth.
Murph stretched. “I’m hungry,” he said. “Want some soup?”
“Yeah,” Kea said. “I’m hungry, too.”
“It’s gonna take longer than we thought,” Murph said.
“I can see that,” Kea answered. He was looking at the latest computations on the screen.
“Damned Vasoovan,” Murph said. “Lousy nav officer. Good thing you spotted her screwup and set us right.”
“Real lucky,” Kea said. He hobbled back to his cot and eased himself down.
“Maybe it won’t be so bad,” Murph said. “Maybe we’ll get picked up when we first get inta range and they hear our SOS.”
“That could happen,” Kea said.
“Only one bug in that chowpak,” Murph said. “And that’s if we lose a buncha time puttin’ that little trick of yours straight. When it blows.” He grinned. “How long did you say it would take to fix again?”
“I didn’t,” Kea said.
Murph looked at him. “Naw. You didn’t… did you?”
Kea clamped his bound arm tighter and felt the edge of the filed-down plas spoon. An old, familiar boyhood friend. Murph came closer to him peering down with bloodshot eyes. Flesh hung loosely from his big jock’s frame. His cheeks were hollow, face pale as death.
“You don’t look too worried,” he said. “About the delay and all. ‘Specially with your delay on top.”
“We’ll make it,” Kea said.
“I’m not what you call clever,” Murph said. “I know that about myself. And it don’t bother me. I leave clever to guys like you. More power to ya, I say.”
He moved to the edge of the cot. Kea could see roped muscles play through the sagging flesh of his neck. He scratched his bound arm. Slipped the knots free.
“ ‘Course I woulda thought of lyin’,” Murph said. “I’m clever enough for that. Don’t make captain in this man’s company if you ain’t quick on your feet.”
“I guess you don’t,” Kea said. He scratched again. The spoon slipped upward.
“Naw. You don’t,” Murph repeated. Kea saw Murph make the decision. Saw the click in those cunning eyes.
Kea came off the cot, right hand striking up to the chin, left hand—the bound arm—free, the spoon thrusting. It took Murph in the windpipe. Kea saw the eyes widen. Felt the flesh give. The sharp rush of air. He collapsed back as Murph flopped to the floor. A hand beat against his leg. He heard the whistling horror of Murph expelling his life.
Kea moved his foot. It thumped against Murph’s body. There was no reaction. Kea let the weakness take him. All tension drained away. He would rest now. Later, he could get up and re-check the course. Let his eyes run over the readings of happy machinery at work.
Then he would make some soup.
There was plenty to eat and drink, now. Plenty of air to breathe. It would have been a lot closer, though, if Murph hadn’t figured out that he had lied.
NEXT: PLAYING THE HERO GAME
EMPIRE DAY 2012 - A COMMEMORATIVE EDITION
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THE COMPLETE MISADVENTURES: IT'S A BOOK!
THE VITAL LINKS:The MisAdventures began humbly enough - with about 2,000 readers. When it rose to over 50,000 (we're now knocking at the door of 115,000) I started listening to those of you who urged me to collect the stories into a book. Starting at the beginning, I went back and rewrote the essays, adding new detail and events as they came to mind. This book is the result of that effort. However, I'm mindful of the fact, Gentle Reader, that you also enjoy having these little offerings posted every Friday to put a smile on your face for the weekend. So I'll continue running them until it reaches the final Fade Out. Meanwhile, it would please the heart of this ink-stained wretch - as well as tickle whatever that hard black thing is in my banker's chest - if you bought the book. It will make a great gift, don't you think? And if you'd like a personally autographed copy you can get it directly through my (ahem) Merchant's Link at Amazon.com. Click here. Buy the book and I will sign it and ship it to you. Break a leg!
Posted by Allan Cole at 4:15 AM